Kleptocrats, Unite!

Rachel Maddow is building the case that Rex Tillerson’s actions at the State Department – and principally the firing of the top career civil servants – are consistent with the goals of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

To those that understand Putin’s Russia, the goals are simple: transfer as much wealth as possible from the Russian state to private ownership. This is called “kleptocracy” – government serving the financial interests of the leadership. Putin has made an art of this game, becoming arguably the richest man in the world.

As CEO of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson was awarded Putin’s “Friend of Russia” designation for his stand against U.S. sanctions that impeded Exxon’s ability to exploit oil and gas resources in Russia. The methods used to enforce those sanctions were situated in the U.S. State Department. Those methods were also used to bring pressure against Exxon for its actions elsewhere in the world.

So Tillerson’s business history supports the conclusion that the State Department, with its focus on human rights and equity, is a nuisance to those trying to get business done in the world. My guess is that this is consistent with Trump’s goals, particularly as it has become clear that our President is almost certainly in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, for which the sentencing mandates jail time. Cleaning out the top of the State Department will allow the administration to identify and elevate career diplomats that share their priorities, and perhaps protect themselves from prosecution.

So Rachel, don’t push the Russian connection too hard. Trump and Tillerson share with Putin the attitude that government should be turned to the purpose of making money. Their kleptomania may be sufficient explanation for their policies. Regardless of whether Putin is using blackmail to coerce their actions, the Trump administration is composed of people that appear to be inspired by Putin’s success.

The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming!

RussianCodeWe are engaged in World War III. Vladimir Putin go the drop on us, organizing a disinformation campaign that has allowed nationalists throughout the Western World to rise to prominence, undermining Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign by releasing hacked documents to support the Republican contention that she was unable to secure secrets.

Russia’s leading opposition figure released a video that both documents the luxurious lifestyle and the ownership structure that allows Putin’s inner circle to protect the wealth they have embezzled from the Russian people. The production include footage from drones flying over huge compounds owned by Putin’s second-in-command, Dmitry Medvedev, a man whose government salary is less than the U.S. President’s.

I don’t think that I need to make any claims regarding the source of this information. It’s almost certainly a tit-for-tat by our intelligence services.

In the last year of his term, the Obama Administration leveled a $700 million fine against DeutscheBank for facilitating embezzlement by Russian officials. Donald Trump netted nearly $60 million through the sale of an estate in Florida to a Russian kleptocrat. The key question in this war is whether American’s intelligence services have the means to hack the hidden accounts to drain away the funds, or means through financial accountability laws to freeze the assets.

If Vladimir Putin had a significant portion of his personal wealth seized by foreign governments, would he respond with a nuclear counter-strike?

It’s hard to judge. The similarities between Putin and Russia’s last strongman, Josef Stalin, are eerie. Stalin, too, sent state security agents around the world to assassinate actual and supposed enemies.

Stalin set the terms of the Russian campaign to build nuclear weapons. The program was driven by terrifying threats against failure, leading to short-cuts that left massive environmental degradation around many of the facilities. Russia eventually created a hydrogen bomb capable of vaporizing everything within a ten-mile radius of the explosion, with a 100-mile-wide fireball.

Stalin was motivated by threats against the Soviet system on his own territory, and may have seen nuclear weapons simply as a protection against invasion. Putin, however, feels free to cross international borders to achieve his domestic and foreign policy aims. Would he honor the constraints recognized by Stalin?

If he does, this war will proceed much as did WW II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Better, it will progress at internet speed. Putin has already seized two of Russian’s most senior information security officers, presumably believing that they were responsible for some of the information that appeared in the US intelligence briefing on Russian intervention in the presidential election. Given that Putin has engaged in a war with an invisible enemy pushing photons down optical cables, this kind of paranoid response is going to run out of control. While Putin is decimating the ranks of his information security office, the US side will tighten control over technical secrets at its facilities, preventing any future WikiLeaks releases, and focus narrowly on the weaknesses of Russian cybersystems.

Putin may rely on couriers to run the country, but you can’t move money and conduct cyber warfare by those means. His international web of criminal terror will be strangled.

God’s Plan: A Love Story

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Translation: Combining science and the Bible, we know that it took a billion years before any living creature was capable of loving the entire world (the Garden of Eden). Unfortunately, animal behaviors are strong. The most powerful animals dominate through fear and anger, which cause the brain to degrade, so today the world is ruled by angry vegetables. When they’ve finished making a mess, the rest of humanity will join with the angels and other living creatures to cover the world with love.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

All About Us

I’ve decided to attend services at the Unitarian Society of Santa Barbara. The first service convenes at 9:15, which dovetails nicely with the Dance Tribe celebration at 11.

In the context of Trump’s immigration ban, last week’s service was serendipitous. A local couple shared pictures taken last year on the island of Lesbos, the point of access to the EU for those fleeing conflict throughout the Middle East and Central Asia. The refugees were drawn by Angela Merkel’s pledge of sanctuary to cross from Turkey over the five-mile channel on rubber rafts. Rafts made unstable by choppy seas and shoulder-to-shoulder passengers. As water was taken on, personal goods were often tossed overboard.

The refugees arrived on rocky shores against a steep cliff. Happy but exhausted, they were forced to climb up to a receiving zone, because laws prohibit private transport of illegal immigrants. The presenters ignored this risk, ferrying young and elderly alike in their car. Seeing the stress on the faces of parents, they also brought in paper and markers, inviting the children onto blankets where many of them documented the crossing – not excluding, in one little boy’s picture, those lost in the waters.

Reverend Julia Hamilton favors the spiritual image of the “cloud of witnesses,” and in this case, the cloud was hung around the sanctuary: photographs of children with their pictures. I struggled to maintain my composure, feeling their exhaustion and confusion beating through time, and echoed in places around the world. We rode through it, and in the receiving line afterwards, I simply asked “May I?”, before joining the hands of the husband and wife in mine, bending forward to allow my cloud to affirm theirs. When I offered “Thank-you for your compassion,” the woman echoed “Thank you!”

Today’s service was more typical: a reflection on personal spiritual growth. After inveighing against identification of our selves with our struggles, Rev. Hamilton continued with a parable on the traps of dogma and creed. Visiting with another master, the Zen poet Basho quoted sage after sage, until his host interrupted to ask: “Basho, you are clearly a master of Zen teachings. But could you offer me one thought of your own – one authentic expression of self?” Basho’s embarrassment deepened minute by minute as nothing came to mind. Finally, he looked outside and felt welling up in him:

The old pond.
A frog jumps in.
Splash!

His host clapped in delight.

Rev. Hamilton explained the parable as signifying the importance of being where we were – we are not our struggles, but nor our we are achievements. We are who we are in the moment.

As she illustrated the point, I found myself wondering when she was going to remark on the emptiness of a journey made alone. But it never came. That is the challenge of Unitarian Universalism, full of iconoclasts synthesizing the views of many traditions, each achieving a unique spiritual practice. In the best case, the seeker stands on the shoulders of avatars from every culture; in the saddest case, the seeker ends up like Basho – empty of personal understanding. It was this contrast that Rev. Hamilton developed: the spiritual journey is a journey to self-knowledge.

I really didn’t catch the last ten minutes of the service, my mind spinning as I grasped at methods for expressing the flowering of my own journey from sterile self-knowledge. For some reason, they crystallized in haiku form, bringing surprise and delight to her eyes when I intoned:

Through loving,
God finds meaning:
Us.

Russia and the United Nations

The cease-fire in Syria was shattered today when Russia mounted a massive bombing assault on the city of Aleppo. Included in the targeting were two supply centers for Syria’s non-partisan White Helmets, the rescuers that rush in to neighborhoods after an assault to attempt to save civilians trapped in the rubble.

This turn of events is being interpreted as a failure of foresight by John Kerry, US Secretary of State, but it was forecast as early as last week when the alliance led by the Russians bombed a UN relief convoy attempting to reach Aleppo, where nearly a quarter of a million people are attempting to survive a government siege.

The Syrian rebellion was triggered by a drought that forced rural settlers to the cities. The government of Bashar al-Assad ignored their plight, leading to protests that were met with government violence. Seeing parallels with recent events in Georgia and the Ukraine, the UN attempted to issue a proclamation rebuking al-Assad and demanding a negotiated end to hostilities, but the resolution was vetoed by Russia and China in the Security Council.

Despite this, the Syrian war was almost over last year with rebel forces ready to mount an assault on the capital, Damascus. Russia joined a government alliance including Iranian forces and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. The three foreign governments are all united by a common purpose: erode US, Israeli and Saudi influence in the region.

But Putin’s Russia is not just thumbing its nose at the US, it’s also challenging the legitimacy and authority of the United Nations. Throughout, it has used its position on the Security Council to advance its own aims in the world, against the consensus of the body as a whole. So I think that our next step is obvious: the Security Council was recently expanded by adding additional states on a temporary basis. I think that now the US needs to work to establish procedures to remove members from the Security Council. Russia would be first on my list, and the recent assault on the relief convoy is sufficiently egregious that if established as a criterion for ejection, no other state should ever qualify.

As for Syria, al-Assad is obviously nothing more now than a Russian toadie. With the exception of Damascus, the nation is in a ruin. Even if, as he claims, the government manages to reclaim control of the land shown on the map as ‘Syria,’ the people of the nation will burn with hatred of him. He will never again be able to claim legitimately that he serves as their “president.”

Peace Requires Interfaith Solidarity

A powerful reminder of the necessity that Jews, Christians and Muslims recognize and shoulder together the sacred work of bringing peace to the world.

Millennial


On September 20th, Pope Francis joined thousands of pilgrims in Assisi for the World Day of Prayer for Peace.  This event commemorated the 30th anniversary of the gathering that brought together pilgrims from all over the globe and invited the world’s religions to join their hearts, minds, and hands in becoming peacemakers.  At that gathering in 1986, Pope John Paul II highlighted the “common nature, a common origin and a common destiny” of all people and called for collaboration between individuals and nations to forge common ground in a shared aspiration for peace.  John Paul II urged that this work be undertaken through prayer, humility, and “a commitment to serve all.”  He also acknowledged that Christians are required to complete acts of penance for the sins of omission and commission that have kept them from answering the call to be peacemakers in the world.

Pope Francis echoed…

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More Chemical Attacks in Syria Highlight Costs of Inaction

While I recognize that the situation in Syria is terrible, my response to a Hungarian critic of the Obama Administration’s policy was to point out that fifty years ago, a conflict in such a critical part of the world, with foreign provocateurs such as Putin stirring the pot, would have led to a world war.

The Obama Administration has not done nothing. It has pursued a disciplined policy of containment that has limited the spread of the disease to Turkey, Israel, Iran, Europe and Africa. That is nothing to sneer at. Has it prevented the destruction of Syria? No, but you see similar consequences in Venezuela, for example. A government predisposed to destroy a country can’t be prevented from doing so, at least so long as leaders choose to settle every disagreement by pointing a gun at the opposition.

Millennial

The use of chemical weapons continues in Syria, as the international norm against their use crumbles through a lack of enforcement:

For the third time in just two weeks, chemical weapons were reportedly used against civilians in northern Syria. The United Nations is investigating the most recent case, which came Wednesday when barrel bombs thought to contain chlorine gas dropped on the rebel-controlled neighborhood of Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo, killing at least four people, including a mother and her two children, and wounding around 60 more.

Both the Assad regime and opposition forces have denied responsibility, but several witnesses and monitoring groups have said that helicopters dropped explosive barrel bombs on the affected neighborhood. Opposition forces, it bears noting, do not have helicopters….

Chlorine gas is classified as a choking agent, and when inhaled, fills the lungs with liquid and can lead to asphyxiation. Using it in a weapon is banned…

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