Rachel Maddow reviews the checkered history of former Attorney General Ed Meese, whose anti-obscenity crusade made receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump that much more ironic.
Military assistance deserves more scrutiny in many cases. Ukraine is nowhere near the most important.
If you take Donald Trump at face value about his now-infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which occurred shortly after he mysteriously stopped military aid meant for Ukraine, he was only concerned about sending millions to a country known for corruption. It was just a coincidence that he named his political rival’s son, Hunter Biden.
He raised an important issue, albeit for ends that congressional Democrats consider impeachable. Military and other security-assistance aid eats up about a third of the U.S. foreign-aid budget, which itself has been a target of Trump’s ire. And it has a spotty record—both in achieving stated American goals when it’s offered, and in forcing better behavior when it’s withheld.
This is partly because of the conditions that can lead to U.S. military aid in the first place. The notoriously corrupt governments of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have received tens of billions of dollars to build up their security forces over more than a decade, are just the most expensive examples. After all, as the military analyst Stephen Biddle and co-authors put it in a recent paper: “The U.S. rarely gives [security assistance] to Switzerland or Canada because they don’t need it; the states that need it are rarely governed as effectively as Switzerland or Canada.”
Ukraine does suffer from corruption, but it’s by no means the worst offender among the recipients of American largesse. The research group Security Assistance Monitor noted in a report last fall that some two-thirds of the countries receiving U.S. counterterrorism aid, or 24 of 36 countries examined, “posed serious corruption risks.” In Ukraine’s case, the Obama White House hesitated to provide military aid—and avoided providing lethal aid altogether—for other reasons, fearing that doing so would provoke Russia and worsen the conflict.
After Barack Obama left, Trump announced, and Congress approved, a plan to provide anti-tank missiles as well, something both military and diplomatic officials had recommended. Joseph Dunford, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in congressional testimony in the fall of 2017 that “Ukraine needed additional capabilities to protect their sovereignty” from Russia, which was supporting an insurgency in the eastern half of the country and had already seized the Crimean Peninsula. To the extent corruption was a concern at the time, it did not take precedence over the determination to try to stop Russian tanks.
The Pentagon specifically said Ukraine was making progress tackling corruption in a letter to Congress this spring, two months before Trump suspended aid and then raised the corruption issue in the phone call with Ukraine’s president, during which he asked for an investigation into Joe Biden’s son. The letter from the Defense Department, which NPR first reported, certified that “the government of Ukraine has taken substantial actions to make defense institutional reforms for the purposes of decreasing corruption,” among other things.
But other countries’ experiences have demonstrated how aid itself can fuel corruption, even indirectly by freeing up more of the host government’s resources to distribute bribes. Or it can create perverse incentives. A weak government in a country getting massive amounts of military aid has reason to fear the development of a strong and professional military; see: Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi.
And security assistance can simply fail entirely—especially when corruption is endemic. This was the case in Iraq in 2014, which Transparency International has called “one of the most spectacular defeats of the 21st century [in which] 25,000 Iraqi soldiers and police were dispersed by just 1,300 ISIS fighters in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul.” One key factor: Then–Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki prized loyalty over competence in the promotion of senior officers, some of whom preferred stealing public funds to training a competent fighting force.
So it stands to reason that the U.S. should be able to withhold military aid—either to try to force better behavior, or simply to stop wasting taxpayer money on something that’s not working. It’s not especially rare—historically, presidents and lawmakers have done this for all kinds of reasons. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan did it to Israel, stopping the sale of cluster bombs to the country for six years after Congress found Israel had used them against civilians in Lebanon. The George W. Bush administration once suspended military aid to 35 countries simultaneously when they refused to guarantee U.S. immunity in potential cases at the recently formed International Criminal Court. (Much of this money has since been reinstated, particularly for NATO and major non-NATO allies.) There’s a law that bans assistance to human-rights abusers, though it applies to military units, not to entire countries. It was this law, for instance, that Trump’s State Department invoked in 2017 when declaring Burmese units involved in abuses against Rohingya Muslims to be ineligible for military aid.
But presidents have also historically gone to absurd lengths to avoid suspending military aid to entire countries when the aid is seen as advancing a key national-security interest. The U.S. continued to provide security assistance to Pakistan during the Obama administration despite the country’s failure to meet American demands to stop supporting terrorist groups and combat the Taliban. (The Trump administration suspended military aid to Pakistan this year, however.) In Egypt, following the overthrow of the elected President Morsi, the Obama administration temporarily suspended delivery to Egypt of some weapons systems, but famously declined to describe what had happened as a “coup,” for fear of triggering the aid restrictions such a designation might entail.
Elias Yousif, a program and research associate at Security Assistance Monitor, says such suspensions may happen far more than the public realizes, as Congress and the executive branch tussle over aid packages and approvals. When the disputes are severe, they can spill out into the open. For instance, the White House and Congress have argued repeatedly this year over military support to the Saudi campaign in Yemen; Congress supported cutting off aid on the grounds that the U.S. was becoming complicit in a humanitarian catastrophe, but the White House kept providing the aid anyway.
U.S. foreign policy relies a great deal on giving military aid, in the form of arms sales and training foreign forces, in an effort to advance security interests without committing large forces overseas. The public should be scrutinizing where it’s going and what ends it’s achieving—and at what cost. But in the Ukraine instance, the bigger question now is whether, in the course of a phone call, the president dangled $400 million not in the American interest, but in his own.
It’s not accidental or because they are stupid. Its often confusing and vague on purpose. Some of the greatest corruption scandals in history have happened thanks to jargon.
A crisis of legitimacy swept across American politics in the second decade of the 21st century. Many people had the general conviction that the old order was corrupt and incompetent. There was an inchoate desire for some radical transformation. This mood swept the Republican Party in 2016 as Donald Trump eviscerated the G.O.P. establishment and it swept through the Democratic Party in 2020.
In the 2020 primary race Joe Biden stood as the candidate for linear change and Elizabeth Warren stood as the sharp break from the past. Biden was the front-runner, but fragile. Many of the strongest debate performers — Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bennet — couldn’t get any traction because Biden occupied the moderate lane. By the time he faded, it was too late.
Warren triumphed over the other progressive populist, Bernie Sanders, because she had what he lacked — self-awareness. She could run a campaign that mitigated her weaknesses. He could not.
Biden was holding on until Warren took Iowa and New Hampshire. He or some other moderate could have recovered, but the California primary had been moved up to March 3, Super Tuesday. When Warren dominated most of the states that day, it was over. The calendar ensured that the most progressive candidate would win.
Many pundits predicted that Warren was too much the progressive regulator in chief to win a general election. Indeed, her personal favorability remained low. But the election was about Trump — his personal disgraces but also the fact that he told a white ethnic national narrative that appealed only to a shrinking segment of the country.
Warren won convincingly. The Democrats built a bigger majority in the House, and to general surprise, won a slim Senate majority of 52 to 48.
After that election, the Republicans suffered a long, steady decline. Trump was instantly reviled by everyone — he had no loyal defenders. Only 8 percent of young people called themselves conservatives. Republican voters, mostly older, were dying out, and they weren’t making new ones. For the ensuing two decades the party didn’t resonate beyond its white rural base.
The American educated class celebrated the Warren victory with dance-in-the-street euphoria. In staffing her administration, she rejected the experienced Clinton-Obama holdovers and brought in a new cadre from the progressive left.
The euphoria ended when Warren tried to pass her legislative agenda. One by one, her proposals failed in the Senate: Medicare for all, free college, decriminalizing undocumented border crossing, even the wealth tax. Democratic senators from red states, she learned, were still from red states; embracing her agenda would have been suicidal. Warren and her aides didn’t help. Fired by their sense of moral superiority, they were good at condemnation, not coalition-building.
When the recession of 2021 hit, things got ugly. The failure of two consecutive presidencies had a devastating effect on American morale. It became evident that the nation had three political tendencies —
- conservative populism,
- progressive populism and
- moderate liberalism.
None of them could put together a governing majority to get things done.
Before Warren, people thought of liberals and progressives as practically synonymous. After Warren, it was clear they were different, with different agendas and different national narratives.
Moderate liberals had a basic faith in American institutions and thought they just needed reform. They had basic faith in capitalism and the Constitution and revered the classical liberal philosophy embedded in America’s founding. They inherited Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass’s millennial nationalism, a sense that America has a special destiny as the last best hope of earth.
Progressives had much less faith in American institutions — in capitalism, the Constitution, the founding. They called for more structural change to things like the Supreme Court, the Electoral College and the basic structures of the market. Trump’s victory in 2016 had served for them as proof that racism is the dominant note in American history, that the founding was 1619, not 1776. They were willing to step on procedural liberalism in order to get radical change.
With the Republicans powerless and irrelevant, the war within the Democratic Party grew vicious. Progressives detested moderate liberals even more than they did conservatives. The struggle came to a head with another set of Democratic primaries in 2024.
The moderate liberals triumphed easily. It turns out that the immigrant groups, by then a large and organized force in American politics, had not lost faith in the American dream, they had not lost faith in capitalism. They simply wanted more help so they could compete within it.
By 2030, progressive populism burned out as right-wing populism had. The Democrats became the nation’s majority party. This party ran on a one-word platform: unity. After decades of culture, class and demographic warfare, moderate liberals defined America as a universal nation, a pluralistic nation, embracing all and seeking opportunity for all.
In a wildly diverse nation, voters handed power to leaders who were coalition-builders not fighters. The whole tenor of American politics changed.