Killer Politicians

What rulers crave most is deniability. But with the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by his own government, the poisoning of former Russian spies living in the United Kingdom, and whispers that the head of Interpol, Meng Hongwei, may have been executed in China, the curtain has been slipping more than usual of late. In Riyadh, Moscow, and even Beijing, the political class is scrambling to cover up its lethal ways.

Andrew Jackson, was a cold-blooded murderer, slaveowner, and ethnic cleanser of native Americans. For Harry Truman, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima spared him the likely high cost of invading Japan. But the second atomic bombing, of Nagasaki, was utterly indefensible and took place through sheer bureaucratic momentum: the bombing apparently occurred without Truman’s explicit order.

.. Since 1947, the deniability of presidential murder has been facilitated by the CIA, which has served as a secret army (and sometime death squad) for American presidents. The CIA has been a party to murders and mayhem in all parts of the world, with almost no oversight or accountability for its countless assassinations. It is possible, though not definitively proved, that the CIA even assassinated UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld.

.. Many mass killings by presidents have involved the conventional military. Lyndon Johnson escalated US military intervention in Vietnam on the pretext of a North Vietnamese attack in the Gulf of Tonkin that never happened. Richard Nixon went further: by carpet-bombing Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, he sought to instill in the Soviet Union the fear that he was an irrational leader capable of anything. (Nixon’s willingness to implement his “madman theory” is perhaps the self-fulfilling proof of his madness.) In the end, the Johnson-Nixon American war in Indochina cost millions of innocent lives. There was never a true accounting, and perhaps the opposite: plenty of precedents for later mass killings by US forces.

.. The mass killings in Iraq under George W. Bush are of course better known, because the US-led war there was made for TV. A supposedly civilized country engaged in “shock and awe” to overthrow another country’s government on utterly false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died as a result.

Barack Obama was widely attacked by the right for being too soft, yet he, too, notched up quite a death toll. His administration repeatedly approved drone attacks that killed not only terrorists, but also innocents and US citizens who opposed America’s bloody wars in Muslim countries. He signed the presidential finding authorizing the CIA to cooperate with Saudi Arabia in overthrowing the Syrian government. That “covert” operation (hardly discussed in the polite pages of the New York Times) led to an ongoing civil war that has resulted in hundreds of thousands of civilian deaths and millions displaced from their homes. He used NATO airstrikes to overthrow Libya’s Muammar el-Qaddafi, resulting in a failed state and ongoing violence.

.. Under Trump, the US has abetted Saudi Arabia’s mass murder (including of children) in Yemen by selling it bombs and advanced weapons with almost no awareness, oversight, or accountability by the Congress or the public. Murder committed out of view of the media is almost no longer murder at all.

When the curtain slips, as with the Khashoggi killing, we briefly see the world as it is. A Washington Post columnist is lured to a brutal death and dismembered by America’s close “ally.” The American-Israeli-Saudi big lie that Iran is at the center of global terrorism, a claim refuted by the data, is briefly threatened by the embarrassing disclosure of Khashoggi’s grisly end. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ostensibly ordered the operation, is put in charge of the “investigation” of the case; the Saudis duly cashier a few senior officials; and Trump, a master of non-stop lies, parrots official Saudi tall tales about a rogue operation.

A few government and business leaders have postponed visits to Saudi Arabia. The list of announced withdrawals from a glitzy investment conference is a who’s who of America’s military-industrial complex: top Wall Street bankers, CEOs of major media companies, and senior officials of military contractors, such as Airbus’s defense chief.

.. Political scientists should test the following hypothesis: countries led by presidents (as in the US) and non-constitutional monarchs (as in Saudi Arabia), rather than by parliaments and prime ministers, are especially vulnerable to murderous politics. Parliaments provide no guarantees of restraint, but one-man rule in foreign policy, as in the US and Saudi Arabia, almost guarantees massive bloodletting.

China is Losing the New Cold War

In contrast to the Soviet Union, China’s leaders recognize that strong economic performance is essential to political legitimacy. Like the Soviet Union, however, they are paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race with the US.

When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, the Communist Party of China (CPC) became obsessed with understanding why. The government think tanks entrusted with this task heaped plenty of blame on Mikhail Gorbachev, the reformist leader who was simply not ruthless enough to hold the Soviet Union together. But Chinese leaders also highlighted other important factors, not all of which China’s leaders seem to be heeding today.
.. But overseeing a faltering economy was hardly the only mistake Soviet leaders made. They were also drawn into a costly and unwinnable arms race with the United States, and fell victim to imperial overreach, throwing money and resources at regimes with little strategic value and long track records of chronic economic mismanagement. As China enters a new “cold war” with the US, the CPC seems to be at risk of repeating the same catastrophic blunders.
.. China spent some $228 billion on its military last year, roughly 150% of the official figure of $151 billion.
.. the issue is not the amount of money China spends on guns per se, but rather the consistent rise in military expenditure, which implies that the country is prepared to engage in a long-term war of attrition with the US. Yet China’s economy is not equipped to generate sufficient resources to support the level of spending that victory on this front would require.
If China had a sustainable growth model underpinning a highly efficient economy, it might be able to afford a moderate arms race with the US. But it has neither.
.. China’s growth is likely to continue to decelerate, owing to rapid population aging, high debt levels, maturity mismatches, and the escalating trade war that the US has initiated. All of this will drain the CPC’s limited resources. For example, as the old-age dependency ratio rises, so will health-care and pension costs.
.. while the Chinese economy may be far more efficient than the Soviet economy was, it is nowhere near as efficient as that of the US. The main reason for this is the enduring clout of China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which consume half of the country’s total bank credit, but contribute only 20% of value-added and employment.
.. the CPC is that SOEs play a vital role in sustaining one-party rule, as they are used both to reward loyalists and to facilitate government intervention on behalf of official macroeconomic targets.
.. Dismantling these bloated and inefficient firms would thus amount to political suicide. Yet protecting them may merely delay the inevitable, because the longer they are allowed to suck scarce resources out of the economy, the more unaffordable an arms race with the US will become – and the greater the challenge to the CPC’s authority will become.
.. The second lesson that China’s leaders have failed to appreciate adequately is the need to avoid imperial overreach. About a decade ago, with massive trade surpluses bringing in a surfeit of hard currency, the Chinese government began to take on costly overseas commitments and subsidize deadbeat “allies.”
.. Exhibit A is the much-touted Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a $1 trillion program focused on the debt-financed construction of infrastructure in developing countries.
.. An even more egregious example of imperial overreach is China’s generous aid to countries – from Cambodia to Venezuela to Russia – that offer little in return.
.. from 2000 to 2014, Cambodia, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Cuba, Ethiopia, and Zimbabwe together received $24.4 billion in Chinese grants or heavily subsidized loans. Over the same period, Angola, Laos, Pakistan, Russia, Turkmenistan, and Venezuela received $98.2 billion.
.. Like the Soviet Union, China is paying through the nose for a few friends, gaining only limited benefits while becoming increasingly entrenched in an unsustainable arms race. The Sino-American Cold War has barely started, yet China is already on track to lose.

An Ocasio-Cortez for the GOP?

Elizabeth Heng, 33 and Cambodian-American, is not your father’s Republican.

Far from the slash-and-burn attacks of so many candidates, Ms. Heng’s pitch to voters is measured and low-key. But it’s no less devastating. A campaign video has Ms. Heng walking past abandoned houses, homeless people and empty storefronts. She says that for 14 years the district has been represented by “a nice man, Jim Costa”—who has done almost nothing to bring a better life to his constituents.

Dictators Love Trump, and He Loves Them

If you’re a murderous dictator, this is a joyous time to be alive.

No one will make much of a fuss if your opposition leader is jailed, if an annoying journalist goes missing or if, as happened in Congo, a judge who displeases the dictatorial president suffers a home invasion in which goons rape his wife and daughter.

.. The U.S. has abandoned a bipartisan consensus on human rights that goes back decades.

.. I’m back from Myanmar, where leaders are finding that this is also the optimal time to commit genocide.

The army conducted a scorched-earth campaign against the Rohingya ethnic minority, with soldiers throwing babies onto bonfires as they raped the mothers.

.. In the past, human rights was at least one thread of our foreign policy.

.. Trump defended Vladimir Putin for killing critics (“What? You think our country’s so innocent?”), and praised Egypt’s brutal president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, for “a fantastic job.” Trump hailed the Philippines’s president, Rodrigo Duterte, whose dirty war on drugs has claimed 12,000 lives, for an “unbelievable job on the drug problem.”

.. when Trump visited Manila, he laughed as Duterte called reporters “spies” — in a country where aggressive journalism has landed people in the morgue.

.. A record number of journalists are in prison worldwide

.. Trump has met with the leaders of each of the three top jailers of journalists — China, Russia and Turkey — and as far as we know, has never raised the issue of press freedom with them.

.. “What’s completely gone is the bipartisan consensus that was a cornerstone of our foreign policy, that if you imprison journalists and restrict the media, there will be consequences,”

.. In Cambodia, Prime Minister Hun Sen approvingly cited Trump’s attacks on fake news as a precedent for closing down radio stations and the much admired newspaper Cambodia Daily. After the crackdown, in November, Trump posed for a photograph with Hun Sen, flashing a thumbs-up — and Hun Sen praised the American president for his lack of interest in human rights.

.. “Your policy is being changed,” Hun Sen declared gratefully, and he lauded Trump for being “most respectful.”

.. Trump told the king of repressive Bahrain, “there won’t be strain with this administration.”

.. the government responded a few days later by killing five protesters

..  sentencing Rajab himself to five years in prison for his tweets.

.. Trump’s soft spot for authoritarianism goes way back. He has spoken sympathetically of the Chinese government’s massacres of pro-democracy protesters in 1989, and of Saddam Hussein’s approach to counterterrorism.

.. Periodically, Trump does raise human rights issues, but only to bludgeon enemies like North Korea or Venezuela. This is so ham-handed and hypocritical that it simply diminishes American standing further.

.. approval of the United States has collapsed to a record low of 30 percent. Indeed, more people now approve of China than of the United States. Russia is just behind us.

.. “Trump has been a disaster for U.S. soft power,”

.. “He’s so hated around the world that he’s radioactive. So on those rare occasions when he does something about human rights, it only tarnishes the cause.”

..  In Myanmar, a young Rohingya man pleaded with me: “Please don’t let us be treated as animals.