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June is a significant month in African American history. And it has to do with more than Juneteenth.

Wednesday, June 19th, 2024

Today is Juneteenth, which became a federal holiday on 17 June 2021 when President Joe Biden signed into law Juneteenth National Independence Day, making it the 12th federal holiday. Juneteenth commemorates 19 June 1865, the date Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and delivered General Order No. 3 announcing the end of legalized slavery in Texas.

Although the war was over with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House two months earlier, Lee’s surrender was ignored in  Texas where many plantation owners refused to acknowledge it and vowed never to “release” their enslaved workers from bondage.

A week before Granger’s arrival, a brigade of the 25th Army Corps, comprised of more than 1,000 African-descendant soldiers, arrived in Galveston and captured the city. They chased the rebel government and the remaining Confederate soldiers into Mexico. The Black soldiers of the 25th Army Corps also spread the word about freedom to the enslaved Texas population.

When General Granger arrived with General Order No. 3, plantation owners were forced to read it to their enslaved men, women and children. Thus was born Juneteenth, which was first celebrated exactly one year after the final freeing of the last slaves in America. Fittingly, in 1980, Texas became the first state to promulgate Juneteenth as a state holiday. Eventually another forty-six followed, ultimately leading to Biden’s 2021 federal holiday promulgation.

I was reminded of this history this morning when I remembered that Donald Trump had, in an instance of impeccable timing, scheduled one of his wild and crazy rallies back in 2020 on Juneteenth. According to the Associated Press, Trump was unaware of Juneteenth, let alone the significance of it to the Black community, when he announced his rally’s date. Consequently, he did not anticipate the blowback he would get. But get it he did. Even from his own supporters.  In a rare instance of backing down, he moved the rally to the next day, the 20th, at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Having insulted the Black community with the date, Trump added further insult with the place — Tulsa.

For in African American history, Tulsa has a special place. On another day in June, the 1st June day of 1921, Tulsa was the site of the worst race massacre in American history.

The day before, police had arrested a young black man by the name of Dick Rowland for allegedly attacking a white woman in a Tulsa elevator. Soon after Rowland’s arrest, rumors began to spread about a group of whites planning a lynching party. To protect Rowland, African American World War 1 veterans surrounded the jail holding him. There was a standoff with a mob of whites. Somebody fired a shot, and a firefight ensued. The much larger white mob pushed the black vets all the way to Greenwood, Tulsa’s Black section.

Greenwood was the wealthiest Black neighborhood in the country. Oil had made it rich. Racism was about to destroy it. Over the course of the day, 6,000 homes and businesses and 36 square city blocks were turned to ash. Pilots of two airplanes dropped turpentine bombs on buildings, instantly igniting them. Three hundred African Americans were slaughtered, most thrown into mass graves. Not a soul was ever prosecuted for anything. Then Tulsa, population 100,000, swept it all under the rug. Two generations later nobody knew a thing about it. It was never taught in schools, no books were written, no oral history passed down. It was as if it never happened.

Tulsa’s current mayor, G. T. Bynum, wants to take the rug up to see what’s hiding under it. He’s committed to investigating what happened and determining accountability. He thinks he’s found a couple of the mass graves and is having them excavated. The goal is to at least identify as many victims as possible through DNA analysis.

Bynum also formed the City of Tulsa 1921 Graves Investigation Office, convened experts to help locate, identify and connect people today with those who were lost more than 100 years ago, and established the 1921 Graves Press Room to report on the effort.

In 2021, on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, President Biden, in an emotional speech in that city, said  he had “come to fill the silence” about one of the nation’s darkest — and long suppressed — moments of racial violence.

“Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they cannot be buried, no matter how hard people try,” Biden said. “Only with truth can come healing.”

As far as I have been able to document, Donald Trump has yet to say one word in public about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. And what has he said about Juneteenth? Four years ago he denigrated it, saying, ‘nobody had ever heard of it’ before, despite it being celebrated by African Americans for 158 years. This year he has said nothing, although Janiyah Thomas, the Trump campaign’s director of Black media, did issue a statement commemorating the day, saying, “Today, we reflect on how far we [have] come as a nation and remember that light will always triumph over darkness. With President Trump’s leadership, our party will continue to advance the American dream for all people.”

If you believe that, I have some prime, Grade A land in Florida I would like to sell you — just as soon as the tide goes out.

 

Is the friendship between Harlan Crow and Clarence Thomas a grave error in judgement, or abject corruption?

Monday, June 10th, 2024

From 2017 through 2020, I chaired the Board of what became a $2 billion Massachusetts non-profit health care company (I retired at the end of 2020). I had been a founding Director in 2003. All the company’s revenue came from Medicare and Medicaid.

The Directors were not paid. We did it for the love of the work, which was helping poor, sick people become more healthy, thereby lowering their health care costs. The company did well by doing good.

At one of our meetings, I think it was the one where our CFO reported annual revenue of perhaps $1.6 billion, I suggested to the group that it might be time to begin paying Directors a modest stipend.

There was instant silence. Then our General Counsel said, “Tom, the optics. We can’t take that risk.”

She was right. Upon further discussion and thought, we all agreed that the last thing we needed was to see the name of  the wonderful organization we loved on the front page of the Boston Globe above the fold — in a bad light. Optics.

This stipend discussion came to mind as I thought about the relationship between Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and real estate billionaire Harlan Crow.

ProPublica, an investigative journalism enterprise, like a dog with a great big, juicy bone, has, over the last year, uncovered at least 38 instances over nearly three decades of Mr. Crow hosting luxury vacations and events for Justice Thomas and his wife, Ginni, who has distinguished herself as a far-right, extremist backer of Donald Trump’s “Stop the Steal” insurrectional movement.¹ Crow’s generosity includes trips aboard his Bombardier Global 5000 private jet and his 162-foot super-yacht, as well as stays at resorts most Americans could never afford. Consulting with travel experts, ProPublica estimated if the Thomas couple had to pay for all this themselves, it would cost into the millions. Justice Thomas’s Supreme Court salary is $285,400.

The problem the ProPublica journalists pointed out is that Justice Thomas never reported any of this on his yearly financial disclosure forms he and the other Justices are required to file.

And that is when the fecal matter hit the whirring instrument full on.

Thomas defended himself by saying he followed the Court’s rules in everything he reported. He sought guidance from the Court’s ethics officials. He did nothing wrong.

But last week things got worse when Justice Thomas revealed he had “inadvertently” neglected to report two other extravagant vacations with Mr. Crow.

The reactions to this continuing story have been what you’d expect. Thomas haters had more grist for their mills, and his allies cried foul. And, while I confess to deploring the Justice’s ideological bent, as well as his wife’s extremist leanings, and while to this day I continue to believe Anita Hill, I thought the story could not possibly be as binary as was being portrayed; there must be more there.

And the “there” I was looking for was all about Harlan Crow, the Dallas billionaire who was being made out to be a corrupting influence eating away at Supreme Court decisions. I began to read everything I could about him, and have now come to believe that, although the optics are terrible and two smart people made grave errors in judgement, Harlan Crow is anything but a corrupting influence. I write this because of who Harlan Crow is and has been for his seventy-plus years.

In a May, 2023, interview with The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood shortly after the ProPublica story broke, Crow kept insisting, “that he has little power over the American political scene.” Even with his fantastic wealth, he said he was incapable of preventing the rise of the politicians he most abhors, in particular Donald Trump and his sycophantic MAGA followers in Congress. Harlan Crow, although a decided conservative — old school, through and through — is a committed “Never Trumper,” who has proudly self-diagnosed himself with “Trump derangement syndrome.” He is also a backer of the “No Labels” movement, a quixotic, even foolhardy, attempt to find someone, anyone politically center-right, who could run against both Biden and Trump and who could garner support across party lines. He also supports legal access to abortion.

In an email to Wood, Crow wrote, “Trump is a man without any principles at all. Bernie Sanders has principles; I just think they’re wrong. Trump doesn’t have any.”

And Crow is a strong supporter of U.S. and NATO aid to Ukraine. “The Ukrainians’ courage is unique in recent history,” he wrote to Wood. “I believe they’ve earned the right to their own independence.”

Harlan Crow naively believes that a rich man and a Supreme Court justice can just be friends — with, he admits, some benefits only the super wealthy can offer. He sees nothing wrong with that.

Still, he admits his friendship with Thomas is indeed “ironic.” Crow grew up amid a family full of silver spoons. Crow’s father, Trammell, who died in 2009, was at one point described in the press as the largest private landowner in the United States. Clarence Thomas did not see an indoor toilet until late in childhood. Crow believes Thomas’s rise from poverty highly admirable and considers him “a person of the highest character.”

The two most important words in Harlan Crow’s personal lexicon are character and integrity. He staunchly maintains, “I have never, nor would I ever, think about talking about matters that relate to the judiciary with Justice Clarence Thomas. It would be wrong. From my point of view, that is off limits. He and I don’t go there.”

In an interview with Rose Hasham of the Harvard Business School’s Club of Dallas, Rasham asked him a series of rapid-fire questions she had prepared. Here are some of them with Crow’s instant answers.

RH: What do you hope your kids learn from you?
HC: Integrity

RH: What’s something your kids have taught you?
HC: Patience

RH: What would your wife say are your top three strengths?
HC: Creativity, patience, and candor

RH: What is the best real-estate advice that you have received?
HC: Share your success.

RH: What is the secret to making good deals in business?
HC: Make sure the other guy wins.

I come away from this affair thinking two things. First, Harlan Crow, who calls himself “a regular guy,” is a decent, patriotic man of good character who was just looking for a friend, albeit with all the delusional naivete a supremely wealthy person can hold. Second, there is fault here, great fault, and it rests with Clarence Thomas, who, as a Supreme Court Justice, should have realized long ago how this would eventually unfold. Perhaps their relationship, begun more than twenty years ago, began innocently, and perhaps it still is, but, as our General Counsel reminded me when I was about to stray from the path of light, “It’s the optics, Tom. The optics.”

____________________

¹ On March 24th, the Washington Post and CBS News revealed they had obtained copies of twenty-nine text messages between Ginni Thomas and Mark Meadows, the Trump White House chief of staff, in which she militated relentlessly for invalidating the results of the Presidential election, which she described as an “obvious fraud.”

Roy Cohn and Donald Trump: A match made in hell.

Friday, June 7th, 2024

James Madison and America’s other Founding Fathers were educated elites who were deeply schooled in the ancient Greek and Roman concept of virtue.

Today, virtue embodies  the idea of personal morality. For the Founders this was not the case. To them, virtue was a critical concept that meant serving the public good. They derived this from their study of the Romans and Greeks as sifted through the lens of the eighteenth century’s Scottish Enlightenment, with a healthy dose of Baron de Montesquieu folded in. At Harvard, William & Mary, and Princeton, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Madison studied Tacitus, Cicero and even Xenophon for guidance as they developed into the leaders they became. Each of them understood that virtue was a desired end to everything they did publicly. It was the greatest good for the greatest number. It became their North Star.

The same held true for George Washington, who never had the education the others had, but through experience and the thoughtful analysis of his own character, became the leader Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, for all their education, could never be. It was Washington who, at the age of 14, copied out a small tract of rules to live by, signed his name to it, and called it Rules of Civility. Washington embodied virtue without having had it drilled into him at a college he never attended.

But the Founders recognized that the democratic republic they were creating was susceptible to corrupt ideas and people. That realization is the basis for their fervent belief that for government to function as they had envisioned, they must create a series of checks and balances.

In Federalist 51, James Madison, looking through a glass darkly into the future, emphasized how checks and balances were crucial to offset the self-interest of factions. “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition,” he wrote. He concluded that thought with one of his wiser observations, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

Which brings us to 2024, Donald Trump’s felony conviction in New York, his nonetheless adoring MAGA cult, Washington’s sycophantic Republican politicians, and the nation’s greatest factional split since the Civil War.

Yet, the Donald Trump the world sees today, the Donald Trump schooled by his profiteering New York City real estate mogul father, the Donald Trump who became the megalomaniacal, narcissistic serial liar, would never have happened were it not for Roy Cohn.

Cohn, Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy’s brilliant hatchet man, was supposed to have been washed up in 1954, after he and the witch-hunting McCarthy imploded in the televised Army-McCarthy hearings. McCarthy drank himself to death in the following two years, and Cohn fled Washington a pariah, his brief career in government service in ruins.

But over the next three decades Cohn reinvented himself as a power broker after returning to his hometown of New York, and he would remain so right up until disbarment and AIDS finally leveled him in 1986.

How did that resurrection happen? It’s true that the right-wing resurgence of the 1980s gave him a late-in-life boost, and his influence with Ronald and Nancy Reagan gained him access to the experimental medication AZT, which was denied most everyone else. As Frank Rich suggested in 2017, Cohn “may have been the only AIDS patient the Reagan White House lifted a finger to help.” But the question of how he both survived and flourished as a Manhattan eminence in the quarter-century between McCarthy and Reagan is curious, indeed.

And Donald Trump was his prime, A#1 protégée.

Cohn thrived throughout a New York second act rife with indictments and scandals that included accusations of multiple bank and securities-law violations, perennial tax evasion, bribery, extortion, and theft. Donald Trump also flourished for decades despite being a shameless lawbreaker, tax evader, liar, racist, bankruptcy aficionado, and hypocrite notorious for his mob connections, transactional sexual promiscuity, and utter disregard for rules, scruples, and morals. Indeed, Trump triumphed despite having all of Cohn’s debits, wartime draft dodging included, but none of his assets — legal cunning, erudition, a sense of humor, brainpower, and loyalty.

What Cohn taught Trump (who didn’t need much teaching) was that raw personal power could be leveraged for his own enrichment, privilege, and celebrity. At Cohn’s urging, Trump sought and won favors from some of the older, more powerful New York Democrats and Republicans who were essential to rising in a “New York City developers world.” With Cohn’s imprimatur, Trump gained easy access to the ostensibly nonpartisan press Establishment as well. Decades later, these same eminences would enjoy Trump’s hospitality at Mar-a-Lago.

And Cohn it was who got Barbara Walters, the journalistic celebrity other journalists called Cohn’s “platonic fiancé,” to put together in 1979 a promotional profile of his shiny young protégé for ABC’s 60 Minutes rival 20/20. Titled “The Man Who Has Everything,” it was, in the Trump biographer Michael D’Antonio’s description, “wealth pornography.” Among other superlatives, it floated the dubious claim (for the 1970s) that “the Trumps are treated like American royalty.”

The truly sad thing to contemplate is that back then none of New York’s elites ever intervened to block or seriously challenge Trump’s path to power. They had plenty of provocation and opportunities to do so. Trump practiced bigotry on a grand scale, was a world-class liar, and ripped off customers, investors, and the city itself. Yet for many among New York’s upper register, there was no horror he could commit that would merit his excommunication. As with Cohn before him, the more outrageously and reprehensibly Trump behaved, the more the top rungs of society were titillated by him. Sound familiar?

So, here we are today. After decades of otherwise decent people doing nothing to stop the Donald Trump runaway train, the nation faces the prospect of Roy Cohn’s mentee, his unguided political missile, blowing to smithereens James Madison’s concept of ambition counteracting ambition. For all his brilliance, Madison, whose entire life was guided by the “virtue” of serving the public good, never saw this coming.

The sad fact is that the cancer now consuming Washington and the nation was incubated not in that city’s notorious “swamp” but in the loftiest Zip Codes of New York City.

 

No one in Israel’s government has a decent vision for “the day after”

Thursday, May 23rd, 2024

During the first few days after the Hamas 10/7 massacre with its raping, pillaging, plundering, and hostage taking, the world (for the most part) rallied to Israel’s cause, just as it did to ours in the immediate aftermath of 9/11.

No one knew what to do. No one knew what the Israelis would do. But everyone knew Israel had to do something in response to the worst day for the Jews of the world since the Holocaust when Auschwitz had patented industrialized murder.

The far right Netanyahu government, deciding its mission was to destroy Hamas down to the last soldier, attempted to do just that. Now, Gaza has been reduced to a rubble reminiscent of the apocalyptic bombing of Dresden and more than 35,000 innocent civilians have been killed; parts of the Gazan Strip are in deep famine, with about 1.1 million people starving, according to the IPC classification; much of the world has turned on Israel; Karim Khan, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor has asked ICC judges for arrest warrants for Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gallant and high ranking Hamas leaders for crimes against humanity (which the Biden administration decried as “false equivalence”); and Hamas still lives and continues to hold Israeli hostages — a condition that has cracked wide the once unified Israeli public opinion¹. And I won’t even mention the college campus protests that rocked the U.S. over the last few months.

The entire world wants to know when and how this will end — and what will happen on what the world now calls “the day after?”

Clearly, since the massacre of 7 October, the vast majority of Gazans, who had nothing to do with the barbaric slaughter, have been walking through fields of blood. Israelis, initially united in their quest to destroy Hamas, are now not so sure. Seven months following the slaughter, Israel’s IDF says it has eradicated 75% of Hamas’s military capability, but that four battalions remain in Rafah. In traditional warfare, this would constitute victory. But not here. According to David Ignatius, writing this week in the Washington Post, “Hamas appears to have decided not to stand and fight but instead to melt into the population as a guerrilla force. This will be a continuing headache for Israel…”

And then, there are those hostages.

During the attack of 7 October, Hamas took 252 hostages who hailed from more than 40 countries including Israel, America, Thailand, the Philippines, and Uruguay. The following month, the two sides struck a temporary ceasefire agreement that saw 105 civilian hostages released from Hamas captivity, including 81 Israelis, 23 Thai nationals, and one Filipino. Now, six months later, 125 are still unaccounted for, mostly Israelis,  and 37 are presumed dead, but Israeli and American officials estimate privately that the number of dead hostages could be much higher.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his coalition treat the hostages as unavoidable collateral damage, much like the tens of thousands of Gazan dead.

It is obvious that this is a situation in dire need of a solution, but is there one?

Writing in the Washington Post on 15 May, Loveday Morris, Shira Rubin and Hazem Balousha described a major flaw in Israel’s battle plans:

It was last December when the Israeli military declared victory in the Jabalya refugee camp, saying it had broken Hamas’s grip on its traditional stronghold in the northern Gaza Strip.

“Jabalya is not the Jabalya it used to be,” Brig. Gen. Itzik Cohen, commander of Division 162, said at the time, adding that “hundreds of terrorists” had been killed and 500 suspects arrested.

Five months later, Israeli forces are back in Jabalya. Ground troops are pushing into the densely packed camp, backed by artillery and airstrikes — one in a string of recent “re-clearing” operations launched by the Israel Defense Forces against Hamas, whose fighters have rapidly regrouped in areas vacated by the IDF.

As one U.S. official told the Post’s Max Boot, “The Israelis are showing how not to do counterinsurgency.”

Someone who does know how to do counterinsurgency is General David Petraeus (now retired), who implemented “the surge” in Iraq in 2007 and 2008.

The surge was highly successful. It worked, because Petaeus and his team changed strategy, which had centered on fighting insurgents and then retiring to a base camp. This was not working. Max Boot reached out to Petraeus about Israel’s strategy, which has pretty much paralleled that of the U.S.’s unsuccessful efforts prior to the surge. Petaeus replied via email, which Boot quoted in his column of 13 May. According to Petraeus, Gaza is:

“vastly more challenging than Fallujah, Ramadi, Baqubah and Mosul combined, but the correct approach is a comprehensive civil-military counterinsurgency campaign that features the traditional tasks of Clear (areas of Hamas terrorists), Hold (keep the civilians secure from Hamas reinfiltration), and Build (provide ample humanitarian assistance, restore the basic services to the people, and then rebuild the many damaged and destroyed areas so that the population can return).”

Petraeus believes Israel’s IDF is fine at “clearing,” but absent when it comes to “holding” and “building.”

Israel seems to have no plans at all for rebuilding bombed out Gaza, which is now unlivable. Without such plans, its seven month war may have killed a few thousand Hamas militants and destroyed many miles of Hamas’s tunnels, but it has left a bruised and battered Gazan population out of which will grow new and improved terrorists even more dangerous than the ones they’ll replace. Israel’s current government is totally unequipped to prevent this from happening.

Last week, according to reporter Bar Peleg of Haaretz, right wing Israeli settlers in the West Bank wounded a Palestinian truck driver by hitting him in the head with a stone, believing that his truck, along with another, was carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. Footage from the scene indicates that the activists stopped the two trucks on Wednesday near the Givat Asaf settlement, unloaded their cargo, deflated their tires, and set them on fire. They left the stoned driver lying in the middle of the road. Police arrived and arrested nobody. IDF soldiers, who have no policing authority in the West Bank and must defer to settler police, tried to give aid to the drivers, but were later attacked by the settlers. The settlers are backed by far right ministers in the government, who are settlers themselves.

These are the people Benjamin Netanyahu has hitched his wagon to.

Right now, the only thing we know for sure about the plan for the day after is that there isn’t one.

____________________

From The Guardian, 13 May: In an Israeli opinion poll published on Channel 11, a public broadcaster, a week before the invasion of Rafah, 47% of those asked supported an end to the war in Gaza in return for the release of the Israeli hostages, while only 32% were against. Even after the Israeli war cabinet unanimously rejected Hamas’s offer – the mainstream media described Hamas’s acceptance of the deal as fraudulent – 41% of those surveyed wanted Israel to accept it, while 44% were against it.

What do college students really think of the war in Gaza and the campus protests?

Wednesday, May 8th, 2024

They’re ambivalent.

College protests against Israel’s war in Gaza are dominating headlines. But only a sliver of students are participating or view it as a top issue, according to a new Generation Lab representative survey of 1,250 college students.

Generation Lab is a data intelligence company studying and measuring attitudes and views of American youth on current issues and policies, such as key social, political, economic, and health trends. The firm works with NBC News, the New York Times, and other leading media organizations.

In the survey released this week, the firm found that college students, on the whole, rank the war in Gaza low on a list of serious issues they care about, with only 13% saying the issue is important to them.

Digging deeper, the survey reveals only a small minority (8%) of them have participated in either side of the protests.

Moreover, three times as many college students blame Hamas for the current situation in Gaza than they do President Biden. Specifically, 34% blame Hamas, while 19% blame Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 12% blame the Israeli people, and 12% blame Biden.

The survey also found an overwhelming majority (81%) of students support holding protesters accountable, agreeing with the notion that those who destroyed property or vandalized or illegally occupied buildings should be held responsible by their university.

A majority (67%) of the surveyed students also say occupying campus buildings is unacceptable and 58% agree it’s unacceptable to refuse a university’s order to disperse.

The student demonstrations—which have included on-campus encampments and building takeovers—have been met with suspensions, expulsions, arrests, police force and canceled commencement ceremonies.

So far, Columbia University and the University of Southern California have cancelled graduation commencement exercises. A protester disrupted graduation ceremonies at Northeastern University, but the event went on, anyway.

This senior class is the same class that lost its high school graduation ceremonies due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, many will once again get their college diploma by mail, although Columbia plans on holding small ceremonies at each of its four undergraduate schools and 16 graduate schools.

CNN interviewed one of the protesters, a senior, at USC. She was asked about the commencement cancellation, and replied, “A cancelled commencement is a small price to pay for Palestinian freedom.” Given that the Generation Lab survey found the war in Gaza ranked 9th on a list of important issues to college students, this comment seems remarkably hubristic.

The Generation Lab survey has a margin of error is +/- 2.7 percentage points.

Presented without (much) comment

On NBC’s Meet The Press this past Sunday, host Kristen Welker tried seven times to get Senator Tim Scott (R-SC) to say if he would accept the results of the upcoming election if Donald Trump lost. Scott, who is believed to be doing all in his power to become Trump’s running mate and Chief Sycophant, refused to do so. I give Welker points for a good try.

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators nearly ended the war three months after it began. This is the story of their failure.

Friday, May 3rd, 2024

On 16 April, writing in Foreign Affairs, Samuel Charap and Sergey Radchenko detailed a series of talks between Ukrainian and Russian representatives that took place between early March and late May, 2022, aimed at creating an agreement to end the fighting that had begun with Russia’s unprecedented invasion of Ukraine on 24 February. The talks involved concessions on both sides.

The world watched what it thought were pro forma talks that were never going to go anywhere. What the world did not know was how close the negotiators came to a deal that would have ended the fighting.

Charap is Distinguished Chair in Russia and Eurasia Policy and a Senior Political Scientist at the RAND Corporation. Radchenko is Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Europe. These are not lightweights.

Charap and Radchenko argue that a war Putin expected to be a cakewalk was in its first two months proving anything but, especially when its troops were routed on their way to Kyiv and were forced to beat a hasty withdrawal, a withdrawal that did not allow them time to cover up the atrocities they had committed in Bucha and Irpin. Nevertheless, even before that, in mid-March, Putin suddenly became open to talking. He appeared to have abandoned his initial idea of outright regime change in favor of taking whatever he could get through diplomatic negotiation.

At the beginning of the talks, Russia’s two major demands were, first, Ukraine must agree never to join NATO, and, second, it must significantly reduce the size and capability of its armed forces. According to the Ukrainian negotiators, in addition to not being able to defend itself, agreeing to the Russian demands amounted to nothing more than Ukrainian capitulation. For their part, the Ukrainian negotiators insisted on a Russian withdrawal to pre-invasion lines, but showed openness on many other key issues, such as, through negotiations over the next fifteen years resolving the problem of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

But things changed on 31 March when Ukrainian troops arrived in Bucha and found the  mutilated, tortured, raped, and executed bodies of about 450 civilians lying in streets and mass graves. President Zelenskyy went to see the carnage himself, the first time he had left Kyiv since the invasion. His revulsion and anger were palpable, and his position hardened.

But the two sides continued talking.

The authors write:

By the end of March 2022, a series of in-person meetings in Belarus and Turkey and virtual engagements over video conference had produced the so-called Istanbul Communiqué, which described a framework for a settlement. Ukrainian and Russian negotiators then began working on the text of a treaty, making substantial progress toward an agreement. But in May, the talks broke off. The war raged on and has since cost tens of thousands of lives on both sides.

The Istanbul Communiqué of 29 March 2022 included ten proposals that Charap and Radchenko write, “would have ended the war and provided Ukraine with multilateral security guarantees, paving the way to its permanent neutrality and, down the road, its membership in the EU.”

Why did the talks fail and, if they had not, what would have been the result?

Given the Ukrainian army’s success in forcing the Russian army’s retreat from around Kyiv and the horrid discoveries in Bucha and Irpin, it would be easy to lay the failure of negotiations there, and they certainly had a great deal to do with it. But it’s more complicated than that, as proven by the two sides continuing to talk for nearly another two months.

Charap and Radchenko list a number of reasons, all logical, for the collapse of the talks:

  1. Ukraine’s early battlefield victories in defeating the Russian Army’s attempt to capture Kyiv, which gave Ukraine’s President Zelenskyy hope for actually winning the war;
  2. The 31 March discovery of Russian atrocities, war crimes really, in Bucha and Irpin that further hardened Ukrainian resolve;
  3. A provision of the agreement requiring Russia to agree to Ukraine’s entrance into the European Union in exchange for Ukraine’s agreement to remain neutral and never join NATO, a provision which Ukraine’s western allies refused to agree to;
  4. The western allies commitment at the time to do all in their power to bring Russia down, both militarily on the battlefield and economically through increasingly onerous sanctions, a position they pressed on President Zelenskyy (who did not need a lot of pressing); and,
  5. The requirement that Ukraine’s western allies guarantee Ukraine’s permanent neutrality, which would have created new commitments for the U.S. and its allies to ensure Ukraine’s security in the event of another Russian attack sometime in the future.

It is that last point, the one about guaranteeing Ukraine’s permanent neutrality, that concerns me. This happened once before, and the guarantee led to and precipitated World War I.

Let me explain by taking you back to the Netherlands, to Belgium, to the 1831 Conference of London, to the 1839 Treaty of London, and, 75 years later, to August 1914.

The Netherlands controlled Belgium from 1815 to 1830. In July of 1830, the Belgians revolted and proclaimed their country an independent kingdom. Fighting, of course, ensued. In 1831 at the Conference of London the major Europeans countries recognized Belgium’s de facto independence. For the rest of the 1830s, the Netherlands and Belgium were sporadically at war.

In 1939, in the Treaty of London, the Five Great Powers — Austria, France, Prussia, Russia, and the United Kingdom — officially recognized the independent Kingdom of Belgium and also pledged to guarantee Belgium’s permanent neutrality. This meant that if any country, including the five Treaty signers, violated Belgium neutrality, the other co-signatories would come to Belgium’s aid.

Despite the Treaty of London, Germany declared war on France and, taking the shortest route, invaded Belgium on 4 August 1914 on its way to Paris (which its armies never reached, just as Putin’s Blitzkrieg never reached Kyiv). That evening, Britain declared war on Germany, because it had pledged to do so 75 years earlier by signing the Treaty of London. Informed by the British ambassador that Britain would go to war with Germany over the latter’s violation of Belgian neutrality as guaranteed by the Treaty of London, German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg said he could not believe Britain would do this over a mere “scrap of paper.” But that scrap of paper is what turned a German rematch of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, into World War I, a war which killed an estimated 70–85 million people, about 40 million of whom were civilians.

The pledge of “guaranteed neutrality” is a wickedly heavy responsibility. In this case it would elevate Ukraine to the same standing as NATO countries all governed by NATO’s Article 5, which states that an armed attack on one member state is considered an attack on all member states. Essentially, Ukraine, without being a member of NATO, would have the same protection as every NATO member, the same protection Belgium had in 1914.

Would that be in the best interests of the wider international community? I think it would, but would such a deal deter Putin from further aggression?

Western leaders didn’t seem to think it would. Yaroslav Trofimov, writing for the Wall Street Journal, reported that on 9 April 2022, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson turned up in Kyiv —the first foreign leader to visit after the Russian withdrawal from the capital. He reportedly told President Zelensky that he thought “any deal with Putin was going to be pretty sordid.” Any deal, he recalled saying, “would be some victory for him: if you give him anything, he’ll just keep it, bank it, and then prepare for his next assault.”

I also have a hard time imagining what would happen if, at some distant time, a future Russian leader even more rapacious and power hungry than Vladimir Putin — if that’s possible — were to come to power craving to wrestle Ukraine back into the bosom of mother Russia. In that case, the world might find itself thrown right back to 1914 all over again.

Meanwhile, President Zelensky’s position, which hasn’t changed since he walked through what he called the “genocide” in Bucha and Irpin, is to demand a full withdrawal of Russian troops from all Ukrainian lands conquered since 2014, including Crimea, and the prosecution of Russian officials suspected of war crimes.

Considering all of this complexity, when this war ends, and some day it will, if there is to be any negotiated settlement, the signatories would do well to remember the 1839 Treaty of London and its, at the time, unforeseen and tragic, consequences.

 

 

 

Twenty-three million Americans will lose internet access tomorrow unless the House acts today

Monday, April 29th, 2024

Do you doubt that reliable high-speed broadband is crucial for economic growth and improving productivity? Probably not.

A broadband connection gives firms access to a larger pool of resources, suppliers, and customers, enhancing business growth in both urban and rural regions. But building a nation of broadband connectivity requires having a wired system in place through which information travels, as well as convincing people that buying into the system enhances their economic prosperity to a point that makes the cost worth it.

And there’s the rub. Even now, millions of people, 23 million to be precise, can not afford the full monthly cost of a broadband connection. As a result, these people are disproportionately disadvantaged and, consequently, do not have an equal opportunity to succeed and thrive in America. Consider that less than 4% of citizens earning more than $70,000 annually do not have broadband, compared to 26% of those earning below $20,000 annually.

On November 21, 2021, President Biden signed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, one part of which attacked this problem.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law consists of three key approaches to expanding broadband coverage and adoption, including the Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) program, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), and the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program (TBCP). Currently, the FCC defines broadband as a connection with a download speed of more than 25 Mbps and an upload speed of more than 3 Mbps. However, the FCC recently recommended that the standard be increased to 100 Mbps download and 20 Mbps for upload.

The BEAD program has so far resulted in thousands of miles of wired connectivity being laid throughout rural America. The Congressional Research Service concludes $42.45 billion in BEAD funding has gone to expanding broadband infrastructure.  But if people can’t afford to access it, what good is it? That’s where the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) comes in.

The ACP provides a subsidy for households to purchase broadband connections; eligible families can receive a discount of up to $30 per month, while those on tribal lands can receive up to $75 per month. The program allocates $14.2 billion for broadband investment and provides up to a $100 discount for a computer or tablet.

A February 2024 economics working paper by Matthew Sprintson and Edward Oughton examined the GDP effect of the the three cited programs within the Bipartisan Infrastructure Act and concluded the total direct contribution to US GDP by those programs could be as high as $84.8 billion, $55.2 billion, and $5.99 billion for the BEAD program, ACP, and TBCP, respectively. Thus, overall, the broadband allocations could expand US GDP by $146 billion (0.13% of annual US GDP over the next five years). Consequently, for every dollar spent on the ACP, the nation’s GDP increases by $3.89.

Sound good? It’s a real win/win, isn’t it. Poor people get a chance to be part of the broadband revolution in America allowing them to have a better chance of pulling themselves out of poverty, and America gets a significant bump in GDP.

If only it were that simple. At this moment, it appears the BEAD, ACP, and TBCP have just hours to live.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Act set the BEAD, ACP, and TBCP programs to run through April, 2024. The Biden Administration assumed (perhaps wrongly) Congress would reauthorize the programs once they proved themselves, which they have done. However, Speaker Mike Johnson, for some reason (he won’t say what it is), has thus far refused to bring a bipartisan reauthorization bill up for a vote. It is the Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act, which would extend the program with $7 billion in funding. Failure to extend the funding runs the risk of consigning 23 million people to a broadband desert.

Although, as Judd Legum reported this morning in Popular Information, “The Affordable Connectivity Program Extension Act has 225 co-sponsors which means that, if Johnson held a vote, it would pass,” there has been no movement advancing the issue as of this writing.

Although a majority in the House supports reauthorization, one reason Johnson has thus far not allowed the issue to advance may lie at the door of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a 179-member group Johnson chaired prior to becoming Speaker. This is a conservative group that has advanced its own budget proposal, which calls the ACP a “government handout that disincentivizes prosperity.” Given the Sprintson and Oughton paper, this kind of logic would have us believe rain falls up and not down.

Extending the ACP should not be controversial in Congress. As Legum reports, “The RSC’s position is not popular. A December 2023 poll found that 79% of voters support ‘continuing the ACP, including 62% of Republicans, 78% of Independents, and 96% of Democrats.'”

Regardless, if Congress does not act, and soon, many millions of Americans, our neighbors, will find themselves tomorrow in a dark wasteland of even greater economic inequality.

That should disturb all of us.

A correction, with apologies

Saturday, April 27th, 2024

Ever had a brain cramp? You know, a time when you mean to say or write one word, but a wildly different one comes out, and you never notice until it’s way too late? And embarrassing?

That’s me, today.

Yesterday, I not only renamed the always-a-Pulitzer-contender National Enquirer, I moved it from New York City to Philadelphia, calling it the Philadelphia Enquirer.

For the record, The Philadelphia Inquirer is a daily newspaper that serves the Philadelphia metro area, parts of New Jersey, Southern Pennsylvania and Delaware. It is the largest newspaper in the United States that operates as a public-benefit corporation and is owned by the non-profit Lenfest Institute. Founded on June 1, 1829, The Philadelphia Inquirer is the third-longest continuously operating daily newspaper in the country. And, unlike the predaceous National Enquirer, The Philadelphia Inquirer has won 20 Pulitzer Prizes. It never has and never would pay hush money to anyone.

I apologize for this grievous error, and extend thanks to the legion of readers who caught it and were kind enough to tell me.

For your weekend: Another busy day in the life of Donald Trump

Friday, April 26th, 2024

“President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office. He didn’t get away with anything, yet. We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being held accountable by either one.” —  Mitch McConnell, 13 February 2021, minutes after the Senate acquitted Donald Trump at his second impeachment trial.

Yesterday, when pressed by Kristen Welker, of NBC News, Senator McConnell (R-KY) said he stands by those words, but added, “I don’t make the rules. I don’t sit on the Supreme Court.”

Welker interviewed Senator McConnell as the Supreme Court was hearing oral arguments into whether former president Trump should be immune from prosecution for acts committed while he was President.

Trump’s lawyer, D. John Sauer, said the only time a President could be held criminally liable for those acts was following impeachment in the House and conviction in the Senate for high crimes and misdemeanors. Donald Trump was impeached, but not convicted. Therefore, he should have absolute immunity.

The three-hour Hearing was packed with “hypotheticals.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor borrowed a hypothetical from D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Florence Y. Pan and asked Sauer,  “Could a president order SEAL Team 6 to assassinate a political rival?” Sauer’s response? It would depend on whether the ordered assassination was deemed to be an “official act,” which led to a deep dive into the difference between official and personal acts.

The Supreme Court has never ruled on the broad question of whether presidents have criminal immunity for their official actions, but it has held that presidents are absolutely immune from civil lawsuits related to their official acts (Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731 (1982)), in part to protect them against constant harassment and judicial scrutiny of their day-to-day decisions. The court has also held that presidents can be sued over their personal actions (Clinton v. Jones, 520 U.S. 681 (1997)).

Throughout the Hearing, covered by C-Span (audio, but no video), it became apparent the four Justices appointed by Democratic Presidents and the five appointed by Republicans were looking at this case through very different lenses. The Democratic appointees were interested in examining Trump’s claim for immunity. Presumably, that’s why they were all there. Republican appointees were interested in anything but that; they wanted to discuss what their decision would mean for history. Justice Neil Gorsuch called this a “decision for the ages,” and repeatedly said he did not want “to talk about this particular case,” because he was interested in what it would mean for imaginary presidents in the future. You know, the slippery slope argument.

But when they rule, the Justices will have to talk about this particular case.

Meanwhile, at the same moment the Justices were doing their best to count all the angels dancing on the head of a tiny pin, the man who had made the immunity claim was 231 miles to the north in a New York city courtroom listening to a former friend tell a jury about paying hush money to women with whom the immunity man had had sexual encounters.

David Pecker, the former friend and Philadelphia Enquirer publisher, testified at Trump’s trial in downtown Manhattan that the ex-president seemed unconcerned about how a story of his affair years earlier with Playboy model Karen McDougal would impact his family. Rather, it was all about how it would affect his campaign for president, which was why Pecker, instead of publishing a story about her time with Trump, agreed to pay the former girlfriend $150,000 to keep silent. And she did.

Then along came Stormy Daniels who wanted to sell a story about her very own Trump tryst to Pecker’s Philadelphia Enquirer. This time, Pecker balked at paying yet another woman for a bedroom story starring Donald Trump, so he told Trump’s “fixer,” Michael Cohen, Trump would have to make the payment himself, after which Pecker would kill the story. And that’s what happened. Cohen paid Daniels $130,000, and Trump reimbursed him. Then Trump and Cohen had to cover up the transaction with a pack of lies, which is what they did (nothing new there), and which is why candidate Donald Trump is currently off the campaign trail and forced to listen to people like David Pecker drag the one-time reality TV star’s disgusting baggage all over America.

The man who in the heat of the 2016 campaign boasted, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” is now betting that eight years later, nothing’s changed.

Personally, I would not take that bet.

Thanks to Mike Johnson and House Democrats, Ukraine gets the aid it desperately needs

Saturday, April 20th, 2024

 

“In life’s unforgiving arithmetic, we are the sum of our choices.” — George Will

And so, it has happened. Speaker Mike Johnson, transforming what had been a spine of jello into one of firmer stuff, aligned himself with willing Democrats waving Ukrainian flags, and today cajoled the House of Representatives into passing a $95 billion Supplemental package of aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, with $61 billion going to Ukraine. Eighty percent of the money for Ukraine will be spent in the U.S. with American workers in American manufacturing plants building the weapons and providing the ammunition Ukraine so dearly needs.

The Senate is expected to pass the legislation on Tuesday. President Biden has said he’ll sign it when it gets to his desk.

Ukraine has been in dire straights lately, principally because of its diminishing ammunition and weaponry. It has had to withdraw from positions it had retaken from the Russians, and it is now rationing ammunition. This is a recipe for disaster.

To get Ukraine what it needs immediately, the Pentagon will ship older weapons and ammo already in storage; the new armaments will replace those that will be heading to Ukraine next week. It’s a classic win/win. Ukraine, on its heels, gets what it needs immediately; the U.S. replenishes its aging armaments, an action that had been resisted mightily by many House Republicans.

The vote in the House was 311 to 112 in favor of the aid to Ukraine. The 112 who voted against the aid were all Republicans. One Republican, Dan Meuser of Pennsylvania, voted “present.”

Johnson, to his credit, is taking a huge political risk. Polling by the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs shows 53% of Republicans continue to oppose further aid to Ukraine. But, overall, six in ten Americans favor providing both economic assistance to Ukraine and sending additional arms and military supplies to the Ukrainian government (58% each).

And Johnson’s recent trip to Mar-a-Lago to get Donald Trump’s blessing for his push for the Ukrainian aid was key to his moving forward. At the end of their meeting, Trump said, “I’m with Speaker Johnson.” That still didn’t sway the 112 who voted against the aid today, but 101 did press the “Yea” button. All 210 democrats present today voted for the aid.

Mike Johnson’s troubles are not over. In fact, they may be just beginning. The lunatic fringe, led by Rome Georgia’s Marjory Taylor Greene, a clever firebrand with a mind as deep as my late grandmother’s sewing thimble, may activate the Motion to Vacate she’s already filed. She now has two Kentuckian co-conspirators, Thomas Massey and James Comer. It’s not exactly a movement yet, but who knows what tomorrow may bring.

Personally, I don’t think they will actually call for a vote to oust Johnson. Why? Because it’s likely to fail, and that would bring embarrassment they don’t want. Most Republicans do not seem eager for another Speaker battle of the ilk that got Johnson his job. They seem to be tired of all the shenanigans.

Plus, it is entirely conceivable that House Democrats would help Johnson keep his hanging-by-a-thread job. They now know they can work with him.

Today’s bottom line is this: Ukraine will now get the means to defend itself and even send the Russians, who seem to be hanging their hopes on a war of attrition, back from whence they came.

This would not have happened had not Mike Johnson recognized the status quo was unsustainable and decided he could no longer support it.

Morally and politically, that was the right thing to do.