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.

Epitaph for Syria

This came out of me in April 2014 in response to a prompt at a writer’s meetup. The “bear and falcon” in the third line are Russia and Iran. ISIS exists and is sustained in large part due to Putin’s intervention, early in the rebellion, to preserve Assad’s rule. The deployment of Russian forces to sustain Assad, though coupled with a call to arms against ISIS, is another manifestation of Putin’s pathetic reliance upon military force to command respect from the world. My sense is that, as in the eastern districts of Ukraine (where Russia has its own refugee crisis, largely hidden from Western media), Russian intervention will serve only to extend suffering.

I pray that President Obama will deliver him a fitting rebuke when they meet at the UN next week.

Land of sands and cypress, olives and figs,
Gnawed by neighbors from heights to river.
Convenient playmates of bear and falcon,
Proud kings feared their sons and daughters:
Your people breathed freely and fell silent.
Oh, Syria, your beauty has become dust.
Your streets are still, where voices called for prayer.
May Allah and God meet in the marketplace,
And grant your wanderers peace.

The Abuses of Tyranny

As I considered in The Uses of Tyranny, communities lacking experience in self-management often call forth people with over-sized egos to lead. Even when they are reviled, as was King Juan Carlos in Spain, the psychological bond is deep. Many Spaniards wept upon learning of his death, for fear of what the future might bring.

In the case of monarchy, at least there is some institutional structure passed on from generation to generation, which means that the monarch is bound, at the very least, by dependency on people who actually know how to get things done. This is something seen in growing up, and helps to check the ego of the ruler.

For nations undergoing dramatic social change, such as occurred after the retreat of the colonial powers, no such institutional checks exist. Leadership is established through visceral struggle, and held largely through intimidation and fear. Once the opposition has been beaten down, there is no brake upon the ego of the ruler, who may even imagine himself to be a divine favorite. Witness, for example, Idi Amin of Uganda.

Of course, it is rare for such nations to be able to project much power on the international scene. This can make them dupes for more sophisticated partners, such as negotiators from multi-national corporations. The convenience of the dictator as single point-of-contact are tempting to those negotiators. It is little known that militant Islam actually was born in Northern Africa, where the people used the ethics of the Qu’ran to structure their criticism of exploitative resource extraction. When Western governments and multi-nationals propped up the abusive regimes, jihad was declared against the West as a whole – and deservedly so, under the circumstances.

So perhaps the grossest abuse of tyranny is the tendency of tyrants to form privileged clubs that prop each other up. The ultimate downfall of such clubs is that they devolve into echo chambers, with the tyrants agreeing upon self-serving policies that cannot actually be implemented by the communities they control. This occurs in two parts: first, the tyrants become divorced from reality, and then they destroy social cohesion and resilience in their attempts to coerce their impossible outcomes. Such was the downfall of the planned economies in China and Russia.

It was this realization – that institutional structure was the ultimate victim of tyranny – that prompted Western philosophers to concern themselves with the creation of institutional forms that mitigated against tyranny. This has manifested not only in the constitutions of governments, but in the legal framework of corporate governance. Separation of powers is visible in the three branches of US government, but also in the allocation of responsibilities between corporate boards and executives. One of the primary benefits of these arrangements is survival of institutional memory, which means that situations that seem new and exciting to the surging tyrant are just old hat to the grey-beards in the institutions.

It is amusing to watch this psychology unfold in Putin’s relationship with the West. Putin paints Obama as his primary adversary, and broadcasts propaganda that projects the image that tensions will dissolve when he leaves office. As a tyrant, Putin does not understand that the West has a huge number of historians and policy analysts in corporate, academic and governmental circles that have studied Russian history, and recognize this view as the view of Stalin and Kruschev and Brezhnev and Andropov. Attack Obama all you want, and circulate as much propaganda among the European public as you want: our institutions have played this game before, and will win it again.

Understand, Putin: you are who you are because Western nations agreed to trade with Russia, providing you with the opportunity to siphon hundreds of billions of dollars into your personal accounts. Do you really think that they don’t have the means to discipline your international adventurism?

And what our institutions also remember is that, following Juan Carlos and Stalin, their nations adapted to the experience to establish systems that regulated tyrannical behavior. When that occurs, the tyrant’s legacy is erased. Yes, Vladimir, you are a big noise now in the world. You’re able to force a lot of people to think about you. But you’re on the wrong side of history. Your destruction and perversion of the institutions of the Russian state ensure that you will leave no lasting mark.

And hear as much, Koch brothers! How much money are you spending to force people to do what makes you money? And how much more could you make if you invested, as did Henry Ford, in their capacity to participate in new markets and opportunities?

What’s Foreign about Success?

When President Clinton’s team left office, they warned the incoming Bush Administration that some military response had to be mounted against Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the Cole bombing. The Bush security team, dominated by Cold War hawks, dismissed the warning as a Clinton albatross, and set off to renegotiate the arms treaties with Russia to allow construction of a nuclear missile shield.

The rest, of course, is history. Osama bin Laden, encouraged by U.S. flaccidity to believe that one last strike in the heart of America would cause us to curl up in a fetal position, set about planning the 9/11 attacks.

In the Middle East, we face a similar situation with Israel, still living in the memory of the Holocaust, and even after 60 years unable to build a lasting peace with its neighbors. They turn to America again and again for financial and military aid, but do not heed our requests to negotiate a lasting peace. Instead, as recent perusal of the Jerusalem Times reveals, they rewrite the history of Israel to present themselves as victims rather than armed aggressors.

I agree that the state of Israel should survive, but the conditions of that survival have to reflect the realities of the politics of the Middle East. That means, if we are going to pursue conflict against those that seek to destroy it, we must establish impeccable moral credentials. That means talking to the leaders of Israel’s enemies, and giving them the opportunity to participate in the success that comes with liberal economics. It means eroding the “American + Israel = Axis of Evil” rationale for suppressing Iranian dissent. Simply beating Iran down because Netenyahu says so is going to inflame the entire region against American involvement, bring terror back to us at home, and – given the asymmetrical practical realities in the region – ultimately result in Israel’s destruction.

So, people of Israel, you need to elect a different leader. And Republicans in Congress – you need to stop playing politics with Israeli lives.

The situation in Russia has similar characteristics. Arguably, Vladimir Putin is criminally psychotic, having recently awarded medals of honor to two members of the personal hit squad that has assassinated those attempting to document the costs to Soviet society of Putin’s psychosis (Metsov being the most recent). But the very fact that Putin caters to these men is a revelation of weakness. Where once he was heralded as the guarantor of economic stability in Russia, recent military adventurism (in Georgia as well as the Ukraine) has caused the West to unite in economic sanctions against Russia, and stimulated weaker neighbors to seek NATO membership. The oligarchy recognizes this, and so Putin is left with only one tool for managing opposition: murder.

The Soviet Union experienced such a reign of terror under Stalin, and one of the causes of Russia’s declining global influence in the ’70’s and ’80’s was the creation of a Politburo that ensured no one man would ever again wield that kind of power. Russians have experience with this kind of tyranny, and while it may take time, the oligarchy will not allow Putin to purge them as Stalin purged his foes. Putin’s adventurism is the death knell for his regime.

That President Obama defers to Germany’s Chancellor Merkel in this matter should be considered a blessing to us at home. It allows us to focus on the worsening situation in Syria and Iraq that is fanning sectarian tension and generating powerful sympathy for Iran among Iraqi Shias. That Merkel counsels against providing advanced lethal assistance to Ukraine reflects her nation’s experience in winning the Cold War. It was economic power that brought Germany back together, and it is economic power that will eventually hold sway in the Ukraine.

So, again, Senate Republicans, try to be good neighbors. Stop playing politics with the lives of our allies.