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“Three Questions For Ukraine Hawks”: There Are Real And Specific Questions We’d Better Ask Ourselves Before We Jump In

Watch an hour of cable—and I’m talking MSNBC; forget Fox—and you might well come away from the hyper-ventilations thinking that we will or should go to war over Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Crimea. Listen: Nobody’s going to war over Crimea. This isn’t 1853. Yes, it matters to us how Crimea may once again become a part of Russia, and we don’t like it a bit, but let’s face it, it doesn’t really matter to us in cold, hard, realpolitik terms, whether Crimea is a part of Russia. It’s used as a naval base, and Russia’s had that all along.

Now Ukraine, that’s different. Or so everyone on TV says. But when everyone starts saying something, I start doubting. After all, a decade ago, nearly “everyone”—every “grown up,” that is, every person who took a “properly expansive” view of American security in the post 9/11 age—said we needed to topple a dictator who had nothing to do with 9/11. So: Is Ukraine different? We may decide that yes, it is, but there are some real and specific questions we’d better ask ourselves before we just automatically make that declaration.

One way we decide these things is by looking at the historical record, and the historical record practically screams no, Ukraine is not different, is not a vital American or Western interest. Soviet Russia annexed Ukraine in 1922, after a war that had commenced in 1917, when the Bolsheviks took Moscow. The borders of Ukraine changed many times over the years. Even its capital was moved from Kharkiv in the east to Kiev in the west. At the end of World War II, the USSR expanded Ukraine again, as Stalin unilaterally redrew the Curzon Line to take in Eastern Galicia and Lvov, Poland, which became and still is Lviv, Ukraine.

There were further alterations after the war. In 1954, as we all now know, Crimea became part of Ukraine (staying within the USSR). If the Western countries objected to any of these moves, they objected lightly and only formally. Roosevelt and Churchill pestered Stalin about the Lvov/Lviv situation at Yalta, but Uncle Joe wasn’t having it, and they left it alone.

So historically, Ukraine hasn’t been something the West regarded as worth fussing over very much. In more recent years, after the USSR’s collapse, Russia asserted that Ukraine and, for that matter, all 14 former satellite SSR’s were within the Russian sphere of influence. They even coined a term for it: the “near abroad.” Not all Americans have accepted the idea that the near abroad falls strictly within the Russian sphere of influence, by any means. When John McCain and Joe Biden and others thunder about bringing Georgia into NATO, they’re rejecting the idea explicitly. But like it or not, three presidents have basically accepted the idea—none more so than George W. Bush, who confronted Putin about his 2008 Georgia incursion (both happened to be in Beijing for the Olympics) and whose administration took a few steps but who never imposed sanctions, as Barack Obama has now. Bush’s green light to Putin shone far brighter than Obama’s has.

Of course, history changes. The fact that we never cared about Ukraine before doesn’t by definition mean that we shouldn’t care about it today. First, there is the matter of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which the United States, Britain and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s existing borders in exchange for it giving up its nukes. The Obama administration declared Russia in violation of that concord on March 1. More broadly, Putin is a despicable tyrant who wants glory for Mother Russia. If “glory” means swallowing back up those 14 former SSRs, then he does have to be countered. The Obama administration and the European Union should certainly impose tougher sanctions, and in the American case, on more than seven people. Maybe NATO troops should train Ukrainians, too—maybe not on Ukrainian soil, but somewhere in Europe. There are other similar steps that can be taken short of sending in a slew of “advisors” (special ops people) and military materiel just yet, like helping Ukraine get this new National Guard up and running.

But let’s just think hard about this. There’s nothing easier for pundits or commentators on cable to stomp the table about how Putin is playing us and running rings around Obama and he’s a madman who must be stopped. Our former ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, said yesterday after Putin’s duma speech that the post-Cold War era was over. McFaul has been a reliable guide through these rapids, but that’s nonsense. We aren’t in a new Cold War. Spend five minutes ruminating on what happened during the Cold War and what sparked it, and you should be able to clear your head of such combustible notions. We’re a long way from that yet.

I’d like to hear everyone tossing around those kind of rhetorical lightning bolts answer, in a calm voice, three questions: One, why should Ukraine, which never before was a realpolitik first-order concern of the United States, be one now? Two, what exact sacrifices are we willing to make to preserve Ukraine’s territorial integrity? And three, what broader risks might those acceptable sacrifices entail, and are they worth it?

There might be very good answers to all three questions. But our political culture has a very bad habit of not wanting to discuss them much. That’s a habit we need to change.


By: Michael Tomasky, The Daily Beast, March 19, 2014

March 20, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Ukraine | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Ryan’s Rhetoric Has Consequences”: First, One Must Understand His Own Culture And History

Reflections upon the recent holiday: The first time my wife saw tears in my eyes was in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, at the tomb of Jonathan Swift. The brilliant 18th-century Irish satirist was my first and most enduring literary hero, a towering figure who Yeats thought “slept under the greatest epitaph in history” — composed by Swift himself.

I knew the Latin by heart, but seeing it engraved in stone moved me, although Swift had been dead since 1745. “It is almost finer in English,” Yeats wrote, “than in Latin: ‘He has gone where fierce indignation can lacerate his heart no more.’”

Reading Swift taught me more about Ireland and my Irish-Catholic ancestors than I ever learned at my alcoholic grandfather’s knee, I can tell you that. An Anglo-Irish churchman who considered himself exiled from London to the city of his birth, Swift condemned British misrule of Ireland in the most memorable satires written in English or any other language.

His 1729 pamphlet “A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland from Being a Burden to Their Parents” retains the capacity to shock after almost 300 years. Impersonating the ever-so-reasonable voice of a public-spirited reformer of the sort who might today issue proposals from the Heritage Foundation, the narrator advocated genteel cannibalism.

“I rather recommend buying the children alive and dressing them hot from the knife,” he suggested, “as we do roasting pigs.”

It’s the laconic “rather” that chills to the marrow, precisely revealing the pamphleteer’s inhumanity.

Swift was certainly no Irish nationalist. A Tory by temperament and conviction, he’d have been appalled by the idea that the island’s Roman Catholic majority could govern itself. Even so, Professor Leo Damrosch’s terrific new biography makes a compelling case that both his voice and his personal example were instrumental to an evolving Irish national consciousness.

I thought of Swift’s “Modest Proposal” the other day, listening to the ever-so-reasonable Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) explain that America’s poor have only themselves to blame. “We have this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular,” Ryan explained, “of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work.”

Any question who he was talking about? As several commentators have noted, this business about “inner city” men not working isn’t so much Republican “dogwhistle” as GOP air-raid siren.

Ryan has since alibied that he’d been “inarticulate” and wasn’t trying to implicate “the culture of one community.” This came soon after a speech in which he’d told a heartfelt tale of a small boy who didn’t want a “free lunch from a government program,” but a Mommy-made lunch in a brown paper bag that showed somebody cared about him.

Coming from a guy busily trying to cut funding for school lunch programs and food stamps, this was pretty rich. Also apparently, apocryphal. The witness who’d told Ryan the tale in a congressional hearing had not only swiped it from a book called The Invisible Thread, but reversed its meaning. Which wasn’t so much that government assistance, as Ryan warned, threatens to leave children with “a full stomach and an empty soul,” as that sermons mean very little to hungry children.

Delivered just before St. Patrick’s Day, Ryan’s disquisition upon the undeserving poor earned him the scorn of the New York Times’ Timothy Egan. Taking note of Ryan’s great-great grandfather, who emigrated to the United States during the catastrophic Irish famine of the 1840s, Egan pointed out that Ryan’s words echoed the rhetoric of Victorian Englishmen content to let his ancestors die lest they become dependent upon charity.

It’s not always understood in this country that the mass starvation of Irish peasants — more than a million died, and another million emigrated — resulted not from the failure of the potato crop but English government policy. Ireland remained a net exporter of food throughout, with British soldiers guarding shipments of foodstuffs as they were loaded.

Rhetoric, see, has consequences. From Swift’s time onward, the native Irish had been depicted in terms justifying their subjugation. Virtually every negative stereotype applied to our “inner city” brethren today was first applied to Paul Ryan’s (and my own) ancestors. Irish peasants were called shiftless, drunken, sexually promiscuous, donkey strong but mentally deficient. They smelled bad.

Understanding that history is exactly what makes Irish-Americans like Timothy Egan, Charles P. Pierce and me — if I may include myself in their company — so impatient with a tinhorn like Ryan. If he wanted to understand his own ancestry, it’s authors like Swift, Yeats and James Joyce that Ryan ought to be reading, instead of that dismal ideologue Ayn Rand.

Nobody should let ethnic groupthink determine his politics. But if a politician like Paul Ryan hopes to be respected, it would help if he showed some sign of understanding the past.

By: Gene Lyons, The National Memo, March 19, 2014

March 20, 2014 Posted by | Paul Ryan, Poor and Low Income | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Oh Please!”: Mitt Romney Pretends To Know Foreign Policy

Last May, Mitt Romney was reportedly “restless” and decided he would “re-emerge in ways that will “help shape national priorities.’” And the failed presidential candidate hasn’t stopped talking since.

One can only speculate as to why Romney refuses to quietly, graciously step aside, but it appears he takes a certain satisfaction from bashing the president who defeated him, as often as possible, on as many topics as possible.

Today, the former one-term governor with no foreign policy experience decided to try his hand at condemning President Obama’s policy towards Ukraine and Russia, writing a Wall Street Journal op-ed, complaining about “failed leadership.”

When protests in Ukraine grew and violence ensued, it was surely evident to people in the intelligence community – and to the White House – that President Putin might try to take advantage of the situation to capture Crimea, or more.

Wrong. U.S. intelligence officials didn’t think Putin would try to take Crimea. For that matter, Russian officials didn’t think so, either. It wasn’t a smart strategic move, which made it that much less predictable.

That was the time to talk with our global allies about punishments and sanctions, to secure their solidarity, and to communicate these to the Russian president. These steps, plus assurances that we would not exclude Russia from its base in Sevastopol or threaten its influence in Kiev, might have dissuaded him from invasion.

That’s wrong, too. Daniel Larison’s take rings true: “The U.S. was in no position to reassure Moscow that it would not lose influence in Kiev, since the Kremlin assumed that the U.S. and EU were actively seeking to reduce its influence by encouraging Yanukovych’s overthrow. Romney thinks that the U.S. could have headed off the crisis by threatening Russia with punishment for things it had not yet done, but that ignores [the fact] that Russia has behaved the way that it has because it already thought that Western interference in Ukraine was too great.”

The time for securing the status-of-forces signatures from leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan was before we announced in 2011 our troop-withdrawal timeline, not after it. In negotiations, you get something when the person across the table wants something from you, not after you have already given it away.

That’s wrong, too. Romney fails to acknowledge that neither Iraq nor Afghanistan were prepared to negotiate over a long-term U.S. troop presence beyond 2014 back in 2011. (He also fails to acknowledge that he personally endorsed a troop-withdrawal timeline in 2008 – three years before 2011.)

It is hard to name even a single country that has more respect and admiration for America today than when President Obama took office.

That’s wrong, too. The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project documents countries that have a more favorable opinion of the United States now than when President Obama was first inaugurated, and more importantly, the same study shows an even larger list of countries that respect the U.S. more than when Bush/Cheney brought our international reputation down to alarming depths.

Taken together, Romney’s op-ed doesn’t amount to much. But what’s especially odd is that the failed candidate is even trying.

Foreign policy has never been a signature issue for the Massachusetts Republican, and when he tried to broach the subject, Romney generally failed. Indeed, looking back at 2012, let’s not forget that Romney’s own advisers said “they have engaged with him so little on issues of national security that they are uncertain what camp he would fall into, and are uncertain themselves about how he would govern.”

On the Middle East peace process, Romney said he intended to ”kick the ball down the field and hope” that someone else figures something out. His handling of the crisis in Libya “revealed him as completely craven.” On Iran, Romney and his aides couldn’t even agree on one policy position. On Afghanistan, Romney occasionally forgot about the war.

Remember the time Romney “fled down a hallway and escaped up an escalator” to avoid a reporter asking his position on the NATO mission in Libya? Or how about the time he said there are “insurgents” in Iran? Or when he flip-flopped on Iraq? Or when he looked ridiculous during the incident involving Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng?

Perhaps my personal favorite was when Romney tried to trash the New START nuclear treaty in an op-ed, but flubbed every relevant detail, prompting Fred Kaplan to respond, “In 35 years of following debates over nuclear arms control, I have never seen anything quite as shabby, misleading and – let’s not mince words – thoroughly ignorant as Mitt Romney’s attack on the New START treaty.”

Thomas Friedman noted shortly before the election, “For the first time in a long, long time, a Democrat is running for president and has the clear advantage on national security policy.” Part of this, the columnist argued, is that Mitt Romney acts “as if he learned his foreign policy at the International House of Pancakes.”

So why is this guy writing WSJ op-eds as if he’s a credible voice on international affairs?


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, March 19, 2014

March 20, 2014 Posted by | Foreign Policy, Mitt Romney | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Mistakes And Subterfuge?”: Rick Scott’s Campaign May Have Violated Campaign Finance Law

On Monday, Florida Democratic Party chairwoman Allison Tant filed a complaint with the Florida Elections Committee, accusing Governor Rick Scott’s (R) campaign  of committing campaign finance violations.

According to Tant’s complaint, Scott’s current campaign illegally transferred nearly $27.4 million from the governor’s former 2010 electioneering communication organization, “Let’s Get to Work,” to a new political committee with the same name.

Due in part to lax laws that allow for broad uses of campaign funds, a political committee, such as Let’s Get to Work, can legally give money directly to other political committees. However, an electioneering communications organization — which funds and engages in election-related activities through communication means, such as radio commercials and TV ads — cannot directly contribute to a political committee.

In other words: If the allegation that Scott’s campaign transferred money from a former electioneering communication organization to a political committee is true, it’s a violation of campaign finance law.

Tant now argues the campaign “violated the law,” and that “the governor is supposed to uphold the law.” If she’s right, Scott’s re-election campaign could be fined up to $82 million.

John French, the chairman of Let’s Get to Work, criticized the accusations, saying that the first incarnation of Let’s Get to Work was dismantled before a check for $24.7 million was given to the new committee, which was formed the same day the original organization was discontinued. Hence, according to French, the check received by the political committee could not have come directly from the electioneering communication organization, because it no longer existed at the time the check was written or received.

Still, Democrats maintain that the transfer of money was illegal, even if the check was written after the official close of the first version of Let’s Get to Work.

According to The Huffington Post, two Democratic state elections experts say the same.

“It’s the subterfuge that they went through to transfer the money illegally. It’s allowing them to do indirectly which they can’t do directly,” says Mark Herron, an elections lawyer.

Another expert on state campaign finance laws, Ron Meyer, agreed: “If it’s not blatantly illegal, it certainly violates the spirit of the law.”

This is not the first campaign controversy for Scott’s Let’s Get to Work: His campaign recently addressed a “mistake” that resulted in the committee failing to list a $500,000 donation it received from a private business.


By: Elissa Gomez, The National Memo, March 19, 2014

March 20, 2014 Posted by | Campaign Financing, Rick Scott | , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Chris Christie Scandal Just Got Worse”: Amid New Gale Force Winds, Will Christie Be ‘Stronger Than The Storm’?

When there is still snow on the ground past St. Patrick’s Day, thoughts turn longingly to the beach. Say, the Jersey Shore. Which in turn brings to mind the extreme yet comically ham-handed efforts of Governor Chris Christie’s administration to keep secret the process that led to the controversial selection exactly one year ago of a firm to run a $25 million ad campaign for last summer’s tourist season touting the Shore’s comeback from Superstorm Sandy.

As you may recall, Christie came under criticism during his reelection campaign last summer for having inserted himself and his family into the rousing “Stronger than the Storm” ads encouraging tourists to come back to the Jersey Shore. The ads had been funded by federal Sandy recovery aid, and it seemed eyebrow-raising, at the least, for them to feature beaming pictures of a governor in the middle of a reelection campaign, rather than just your average smiling New Jerseyans. The eyebrows shot up quite a bit further when it emerged that the firm that had gotten the job after proposing to feature Christie in its ads, public relations giant MWW, had bid at a much higher price—$4.7 million versus $2.5 million—than a well-regarded New Jersey ad firm that had proposed ads that did not feature the governor. Making matters even more interesting was that the award had been made by a selection committee led by Christie’s very close longtime aide, Michele Brown, whom Christie appointed to run the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, a $225,000 post. Also noteworthy was that MWW had hired just a few months earlier the former executive director of the influential Burlington County Republican Party. (It was also hard not to notice that MWW’s founder and CEO, Michael Kempner, who is normally a loyal Democratic donor, was not writing any big checks to Barbara Buono, Christie’s opponent, last year.) New Jersey congressman Frank Pallone, a Democrat, in January asked the inspector general of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to audit the awarding of the job to make sure federal contracting rules were followed.

Further raising the intrigue around the “Stronger than the Storm” ads has been the lengths to which the Christie administration has gone to keep secret the relevant documentation. When Shannon Morris, the president of the New Jersey company, Sigma Group, that came in second to MWW, last summer requested the state’s evaluations of the proposals to better understand why her firm had lost, she received almost nothing in response. “Typically when you have a state-run bid like that you have…it fully transparent, it’s all posted online,” Morris told me. “There was nothing like that in this case.” When Asbury Park Press reporter Bob Jordan made an open-records request for the scoresheets that the selection committee members filled out to rank the ad proposals, the state returned to him in January the scoresheets—with the names of the committee members redacted.

Knowing this, I was heartened to find that my own request for the scoresheets was returned to me later in January with the names of the committee members fully disclosed. I planned to include details from the scoresheets in a cover story on Christie that I was in the process of writing, but the piece’s main thrust veered away from the Sandy ads, and I decided to revisit that issue later. This week, when I went to do just that, I discovered that the Internet link the Economic Development Authority had given me for the reams of documents I had requested was no longer operable. I asked that the documents be resent. They were, and lo, this time the names of the committee members were redacted from the scoresheets. When I asked the authority’s legal officer, Shane McDougall, about the discrepancy, he replied that “if the original documents had been disseminated without these redactions, it was done inadvertently.” He added that the redaction of names was done “on the basis of the advisory, consultative, and deliberative privilege, the expectation of privacy and the protection of the competitive bidding process.”

This retroactive redaction might have been maddening were it not so ineffective: I had seen enough between what had been sent before and what was in the newly redacted documents to piece together the story behind the evaluation process. Put simply, there was no contest whatsoever between MWW on the one hand and Sigma Group and the two other finalists on the other hand. In fact, reading the scoresheets is a bit like looking at the scores of the East Bloc figure skating judges at the Olympics during the height of the Cold War.

The average score the six committee members gave MWW’s proposal, out of 1000 possible points, was 953. The average score for Sigma Group’s proposal was 718.

And as I had taken note of when I had first seen the unredacted scoresheets, the differential was the largest of all in the evaluation by Michele Brown, who has a very long history with Christie: she is a longtime close neighbor of his in Mendham Township, she traveled extensively with him when she worked alongside him in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, she received a $46,000 loan from him in 2007 that he failed to report on his income taxes, and she took the lead in screening open-records requests for his tenure as U.S. Attorney while he was campaigning for governor in 2009. In her new role as head of the Economic Development Authority, she was in charge of the selection committee for the Sandy ad. And she, more than anyone else on the committee, made sure to put MWW far ahead of the competition—she gave MWW a score of 970, above even the high average score it received overall, and she gave Sigma Group only 590, by far its lowest score. (A spokesman at the Economic Development Authority did not respond to a request for comment from Brown.)

Matching the other scoresheets to the committee members was not exactly a forensic challenge. One of the sheets had an evaluator’s name accidentally left unredacted—Jackie Kemery, a procurement analyst in the state’s Department of the Treasury, who gave MWW a score of 940 and Sigma a score of 750—and it required only rudimentary handwriting analysis to match with a high degree of confidence the other scoresheets with the handwriting on other, unredacted paperwork filled out by the committee members that had been included in records I received. (The other committee members included Maureen Hassett, senior vice president for finance and development at the Economic Development Authority; Sara Maffey-Duncan, deputy director of the authority’s Office of Recovery; Melissa Orsen, chief of staff in the Department of State within the Lieutenant Governor’s office; and Gabrielle Gallagher, director of legal and regulatory affairs at the Department of Community Affairs, which oversees state aid to towns and cities.)

Which raises the question: why in the world was the Christie administration going to such lengths to obscure such basic facts about the selection process as which committee members awarded which sky-high scores to MWW? Morris, the head of Sigma Group, has a pretty good hunch: that the administration is doing anything it can to cover up the fact that the selection process had been essentially rigged from the get-go, which is the thought that came to her when she got to see the proposal from MWW. MWW and the ad firm it was partnering with, Brushfire, had less experience in this realm than did Sigma and the big national ad firm it partnered with, Weber Shandwick; whereas Weber Shandwick had produced comeback ads for New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, MWW’s application cited Brushfire’s experience making ads for Minwax, Thompson’s Water Seal and DeLonghi cappuccino machines. Given that contrast, Morris thought “we had a slam dunk here” to get the job.

But then she saw MWW’s proposal, and it was far, far beyond what her firm had managed to put together in the four days they’d been given to submit a proposal. Whereas Sigma had basic storyboards for the ads it was proposing, MWW had “fully conceptualized” apps, video games, and other digital components on top of its conventional ad proposal. “It was like looking at a 10-day term paper versus a 150-page book,” she said. “I don’t know how you do that unless someone had a head start.” (MWW did not respond to a request for comment.)

As it happens, Morris did get one communication back from Michele Brown after her repeated attempts to get an explanation for being passed over: Brown sent Morris a form letter congratulating her for being named one of New Jersey’s “Best 50 Women in Business.” The letter urged Morris to reach out to Brown if she ever needed any assistance, so Morris wrote her asking again for an explanation of the contract award.

She never heard back.


By: Alec MacGinnis, The New Republic, March 18, 2014

March 20, 2014 Posted by | Chris Christie | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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