Thursday
May252017

Heads Up – A Correction

 

"Making predictions is difficult – especially about the future." Danish Proverb

"Past performance does not guarantee future returns." Wall Street Boilerplate

"Enough drops make a bucket." Minor Heretic

Sometimes I get things wrong, and it is my duty to correct them. In my last post I referred to the work of a few citizen journalists and their predictions of imminent law enforcement actions against members and associates of the Trump administration. I got caught up in some social media hype and allowed myself to be conned. The sources in question had a few scoops that beat the mainstream news outlets by a few weeks, but then they went off the rails. Sorry about that.

It looks like it is going to be a long slog towards impeachment. Given that the majority of Republicans in Congress have unequivocally chosen party over country, nothing is likely to happen with a GOP majority. I believe that Trump could stab a little girl in a pink dress on Pennsylvania Avenue and the GOP would complain that the media sensationalized the incident.

The only shortcut to Trump’s departure that I can see at this point is the prosecution of people around him to the point that he feels isolated enough to resign. What with all the money laundering and perjury in his vicinity this is a possibility. I do think that having Robert Mueller as Special Counsel almost guarantees that the dirt will be dug up and a number of present and former key players in the Trump Administration eventually will be prosecuted. Flynn, Manafort, Page, and Sessions are at the top of my list. Probably Mueller’s as well. No guarantee as to the schedule, though.

In the meantime, we should focus on flipping the House and Senate to Democratic control. There are a number of organizations nationwide dedicated to this. In particular, there are several organizations focusing on so-called purple districts, where either a Republican or a Democrat won the last election by a narrow margin. You should look at the following organizations and join one.

Indivisible Guide at https://www.indivisibleguide.com/ This was started by a group of Democratic congressional staffers who were, post election, discussing the methods of influencing members of congress that actually worked. They wrote the Indivisible Guide as a brief instruction manual for progressive activists. It became a national movement with local chapters. Whether or not you join the organization I strongly recommend that you read the guide on their website.

Sister District at https://www.sisterdistrict.com/ This is a group for people who live in states and/or congressional districts that are already Democratic, but still want to work on flipping congress. A blue district adopts a purple district and assists groups and candidates.

Swing Left at https://swingleft.org/ is another organization, much like Sister District, that matches people with nearby swing districts. They define a swing district as one that was won by less than 15% in the last election.

Flippable at https://www.flippable.org/ focuses more on state legislative races. The Republican Party has spent a lot of effort in the past decade on state races. As a result there are 25 “trifecta” states, where both houses and the governor are Republican. This allows them to lock their states with gerrymandering and voter suppression. Flippable is working on bringing these states back and reversing the electoral crimes of the GOP.

Many of my readers may not be completely pleased with the Democratic Party, and neither am I. A party that claims to be for the common people and also has $10,000 a plate fundraising dinners is lying. It is lying to itself and it is lying to voters. The Republicans are worse in this regard, but the Democrats need reform. However, these grassroots movements are part of that reform. They rely on small donations and a lot of volunteer labor. The more that the Democratic Party finds this useful, the less it has to rely on large donors.

Pick a group, any group, and try something. I’m signed up with Sister District and a local Vermont group associated with Indivisible called Lean Left.

Again, sorry for passing on the hyped fantasy. We all would like to believe in a quick duex ex machina ending to all this, but life is not a superhero movie. No one person will save the world; we all have to save our tiny piece of it.

Tuesday
May162017

Heads Up

The Trump Administration has been flailing its way through its first hundred days like a chimp driving a liquid manure spreader. It has been alternately amusing, enraging, and frightening to sane people all over the world. The man-child at the center of it all is a not-very-bright narcissist with the attention span and self-mastery of the aforementioned primate. Citizens of this country greet each morning with the question, “What next?”

(I blew it on the prediction of arrests. I'm leaving the text in as a warning to myself, but please read this: http://www.minorheresies.com/posts/2017/5/25/heads-up-a-correction.html)

As far as I can tell from the sources I have been following, what’s next is the end of the Trump administration. Indictments, warrants, and arrests.

First, a bit of background. This is a summary of a summary – the whole thing is incredibly convoluted, with more rabbit holes than Watership Down. There are three main areas of criminal behavior in play, all intertwined: Money laundering, collusion with Russia, and computer hacking.

The money laundering has been going on for decades. After his string of bankruptcies, Trump became toxic to American banks. As his son acknowledged back in 2008, a lot of money flowed into the Trump organization from Russia. Why would the Russians risk their money on a man who couldn’t make money with a casino? To understand this you need to understand that the lines of demarcation between Russian president Vladimir Putin and his cronies, Russian billionaire oligarchs, and Russian organized crime aren’t really lines. One group melds into another. What does a Putin ally/oligarch/mobster do when he has a few hundred million dollars gained in a quasi-criminal to criminal business deal? He finds a willing bank such as the seriously corrupted Bank of Cyprus, deposits the money, and then shifts it around the world through a series of shell companies. These are generally holding companies that do no real business themselves, but own shares of other companies. Some of those other companies are also empty shells. Some are companies that purport to do business, like the battery development company Alevo, but they are basically an office and a website and not much else.

But the money has to end up somewhere, and that somewhere tends to be high end real estate – office buildings, hotels, condos, casinos. Someone like Trump becomes useful to the oligarchs; a not so successful businessman with high end properties who regularly needs a bailout and isn’t too picky about where it comes from.

One relatively benign example is the Palm Beach mansion that Trump bought in 2006 for $40 million and sold two years later to the Russian “Fertilizer King” Dmitry Rybolovlev for $95 million. Rybolovlev was in the process of divorcing his wife and reportedly needed a place to stash some funds away from the legal process. Perhaps coincidentally, at that time Trump needed about $45 million to make a loan payment to Deutsche Bank. The CEO of Deutsche Bank at that time was Josef Ackermann. Deutsche Bank was later fined $630 million for laundering $10 billion in Russian money. Ackermann left Deutsche Bank under a cloud and was later approved as CEO of the Russian-controlled Bank of Cyprus by major shareholder Wilbur Ross. Trump appointed Wilbur Ross as Secretary of Commerce. If you are feeling slightly dizzy after reading this, find a comfy chair. Just about everything in this world of criminal finance goes around in a circle.

One big reason for the focus on Trump’s unreleased tax returns is that they would reveal the web of debt and investment he has with companies that eventually trace back to Russia.

The collusion was a quid pro quo between the Trump campaign and Vladimir Putin; election assistance for an end to sanctions over Crimea and acceptance of the division of Ukraine. The list of Trump associates who met with Russian Ambassador Kislyak includes Trump’s son-in law Jared Kushner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, foreign policy advisor Carter Page, advisor J. D. Gordon, and Trump himself, briefly, in April of 2016. Campaign manager Paul Manafort and (temporary) National Security Advisor and longtime ally Michael Flynn also had extensive contacts with the Russians. Manafort and Flynn both were on the Russian payroll at one time or another, with Manafort allegedly receiving $12 million for his work for pro-Russian President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovich. Sessions perjured himself in front of a Senate committee, telling them he had never met with Kislyak. Flynn lied on his SF-86 security clearance application about his contacts with and payments from Russia, also a felony.

The tell was the Trump campaign’s absolute indifference to the Republican Party platform at the GOP convention, except for the issue of Russia. Trump associates intervened forcefully to excise a section advocating military support for Ukraine in its fight against Russian backed rebels. Sessions met Kislyak on July 18th, Page and Gordon two days later, and then came the Wikileaks dump of hacked Democratic Party emails on July 22nd. Just before the data dump Wikileaks started using two servers based in Russia, those servers owned by Pyotr Chayanov, a Kremlin associated hacker and general nogoodnick. (Who, by the way, corresponded with GOP hatchet man and Trump advisor Roger Stone, who in turn worked in a consulting firm with Paul Manafort.

Which brings me to hacking, in two flavors. One flavor was the straightforward phishing attack that collected the Democratic National Committee emails. The sausage making behind the scenes at the DNC was exposed, at cost to Hillary Clinton. The other flavor was more complex.

There is a company in the UK called Cambridge Analytica. It specializes in analyzing potential voters according to their psychological profile. Here’s an explainer on the methodology, but the short version is that individual voters can be targeted with tailored messages, either in person by canvassers or through Facebook. The point is to discourage unenthusiastic opposition voters and swing wavering voters. The ownership of the company is a bit murky, but a libertarian billionaire named Mercer was a shareholder, as well as Alfa Bank. Remember that name.

The hacking involved was state level voter rolls Here are a couple of background articles, here, and here. This was to augment the data that Cambridge Analytica had mined from Facebook.

People with far more computer savvy than I can dream of have noted and analyzed computer traffic between a server run by the Trump organization, a server at Spectrum Health (a company run by Dick Devos, husband of Betsy DeVos Trump’s Secretary of Education), and a server at Russia-based Alfa Bank. The analyses that I have read point to database transfer and updating between the three servers. The Trump server only communicated with Spectrum and Alfa, and in a way designed to exclude communication with any other entity. It turns out that Alfa Bank owns a big stake in Cambridge Analytica. Russian oligarchs own Alfa Bank.

It certainly looks like hacking by the Russians in order to disrupt and influence the 2016 election. The US intelligence community is sure of it and has said so publicly.

So what is going to happen now? Hold on to your jockstraps, dear readers, for your Minor Heretic is going to throw some lightning. I have been following a handful of citizen/journalists for the past few months, namely Claude Taylor (former Clinton era White House aide), Louise Mensch (former UK Member of Parliament), John Schindler (former NSA, now national security correspondent at the Observer), and a few other pseudonymous types on Twitter. They, as a group, have been a few weeks ahead of the mainstream media, breaking stories on the whole Trump/Russia deal. I share my appreciation of them with a trusted friend who is former NSA and still works under a Top Secret clearance. This person is my reality check on security/intelligence matters.

The summary of recent postings is this: Law enforcement (Department of Justice, FBI, U.S. Attorney) sources say that there are grand juries convened in the Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of Virginia (Hereafter EDVA). It’s general knowledge that NY State Attorney Eric Schneiderman has an investigation going into financial misdeeds by Trump and his associates, with a possible RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act) angle. He has hired Preet Bhahara, the U.S. Attorney who was fired by Trump while investigating Russian issues. The EDVA is significant in that it includes Washington DC, it has a secure facility for handling top secret evidence, and that it is nicknamed the “rocket docket” for the relative speed with which it processes cases.

There are sealed indictments, perhaps against as many as 70 individuals. According to DOJ sources the FBI and Federal Marshals have arrest plans drawn up and approved. A big move is imminent. It will probably be lower level people first. That’s how it works – bring in the bit players and get them talking. The problem for the FBI is that a lot of the evidence that got them going on this is highly classified and can’t be used in court. They need cooperating witnesses.

Here’s the most telling bit of public evidence. The EDVA is one of the busiest federal courts in the U.S., averaging 11 cases a day. As of right now the docket is suddenly empty. There are judges with nothing on their schedules for the next week. This is weird. This is unprecedented. It is unsustainable. The EDVA can’t go from 44 cases a week to zero and sit empty for long. Something is up.

Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is going to brief the entire Senate in a closed session on Thursday, ostensibly about the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. This is also weird and unprecedented. Usually the AG would brief just a relevant committee.

One of the Twitter cadre of Taylor/Mensch, et al, who goes by Broadsword Six just posted that “A mouse told me tomorrow has potential to be an interesting day. Stay tuned....” Others are quoting sources as saying that arrests are imminent.

I’m thinking that the guys in the Kevlar vests are going to hop in the black SUVs and roll sometime in the next couple of days. I could easily be wrong, but the empty docket in the EDVA says this is happening.

By the time you read this it may be yesterday’s news. Here’s hoping.

Thursday
Oct202016

The Least We Can Do 

From the War Diary of the Canadian Cyclists Battalion: Thursday, August 8th, 1918 (near Gentelles, France) “…After resting in the Quarry for about 20 minutes, a verbal order was passed along that everybody was to go over the top and rush the enemy machine guns.”

 Every so often I read a news story that just sticks in my craw. It keeps rising up in my mind for days and sitting there in front of me. It might not be the most earth shattering event, but generally it stinks of bullying and injustice.

 This was a story in the New Yorker by the writer Mary Karr. It has a simple plot. She was walking down the street in New York City on a sunny day, minding her own business, as the cliché goes. Two thirtyish men came walking the other way, chatting. Suddenly one lunged at her, grabbed her crotch with a large hand, called her a cunt, and then casually walked into a nearby sandwich shop as if nothing had happened. She pulled herself together, called the cops, and with them managed to chase him down and have him arrested. He was booked, but never tried.

The story is appalling and mundane at the same time. That’s why it stuck with me, I guess. Now, knowing of the tape of Donald Trump boasting about doing exactly this, it has even more immediacy.

Every woman I have ever known well enough to talk about such things has told me stories like this. The offenses ranged from insults and filthy come-ons, through fondling and unwanted physical contact, to penetrative rape. Sexual assault, to one degree or another, and being treated like a thing, is a universal experience for women. I have known this for years.

The thing about the New Yorker story that gets me is the casual, public nature of the assault. He wasn’t furtive, worried about being seen. There were people walking by when he did it. He hadn’t planned it or thought about what might happen after he did it. Apparently it was like scratching an itch. From Karr’s description he was surprised that she had any reaction at all.

This leads me to Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals he proposed a concept he called the categorical imperative. I’ll spare you the philosophical verbiage and deliver it in common speech: Live by rules that could be universal, without contradiction. Even more simply: What if everyone did what you did?

I’d like to introduce a categorical imperative of sorts for dealing with the widespread sexual harassment of women. What if everyone said “No”? Look back at the story of Mary Karr. There were people walking by. Some of them must have seen what happened. I have heard plenty of stories from women who were molested in public places. Sadly, people have a habit of thinking “Not my job” and looking the other way.

But what if, what if, when a woman gets grabbed on the subway or the street, everyone nearby turned on the perpetrator and just said “No!”? I’m not suggesting that anyone get into a fight, or even call the cops. I’m suggesting that people pull their faces out of their phones for five seconds, stare hard at the perv in question, and firmly say no. Riff on it if you like. “Not okay!” “Stop that!” and “Get away from her!” will also do.

I’m also suggesting that when we, meaning men, hear the kind of degrading talk that Trump engaged in, we should do more than just go quiet and look away. It’s easy to think to yourself, “I don’t have the time for this”, or “I just need this guy to do X about Y so I can get out of here.” I have been guilty of this myself. The guy doing the trash talking then gets the idea that the concepts he is proposing are acceptable.

A friend of mine earned my eternal respect in this category. He worked with a bunch of certified rednecks, on the road doing industrial work. One night, in some far away city, a group of them invited him to go out to a strip club with them. Most of us, me included, would have begged off with some vague excuse. My friend said, “No, I think that strip clubs are demeaning to women.” That is social courage. As history has shown, men would rather charge machine guns than look bad in front of their friends.

I’m not asking anybody to charge machine guns. I’m asking people to do the very least they can do. Say one word, or a few, in the right place and time. If a habitual molester found himself always faced down by a crowd, he’d get out of the habit. A habitual trash talker would rethink things in the face of constant disapproval. Human beings are utterly susceptible to social pressure. If even one in ten of us resolved to do this we could make it happen.

Saturday
Oct082016

Two Inflection Points 

It’s perplexing.

The Republican Party candidate for president was just exposed as having boasted about his habit of sexual assault.

As a nation, we just witnessed a televised debate between, on the one hand, a former Senator and Secretary of State, and on the other, a former reality television star and four time bankrupted businessman. The Secretary delivered a reasonably standard political debate performance. The businessman blustered out a series of word salads, showing no understanding of foreign policy, economics, or even basic ethics. The fact checkers totted up 34 outright lies from his lips in 45 minutes of speech. This particular embarrassment followed endless months of his racist, sexist, bigoted, ill-informed blathering over the public airwaves.

The latest in a series of revelations is that he violated the U.S. embargo on Cuba while touting that same embargo in front of prospective Cuban-American voters in Florida. He also has a charity named after him that he hasn’t donated to, but that he has used to pay off lawsuits and buy a portrait of himself.

And yet, and yet, a significant portion of the electorate still intends to vote for him. What few policies he has outlined would strip them of their rights, endanger their lives, and probably bankrupt them, but there they are.

To understand the prominence and success of the short-fingered vulgarian, the talking yam, He, Trump, we have to understand that we are at an inflection point in our development as a society. It’s a shallow, rounded place in the arc of history, more of a plateau than a pinpoint, even in hindsight. It’s a change, nevertheless.

Nothing really bad ever happens for just one reason, so I’ll have to assemble a few different things, not necessarily in order of importance, because my omniscience is at the mechanic’s (for my entire life). It will be, for reasons of brevity, a 30,000 foot overhead view.

There is the civil rights movement, to start with. It was a very good thing that went against the worldview and self-image of a large number of people in this country. You know the story. Desegregation (mostly on paper) and the Voting Rights Act (somewhat on paper and somewhat on the ground) changed a significant percentage of our population from second class to full citizens (at least on paper). This gave American politics a new voting block and a shift in party alliances. It also fueled a thermonuclear resentment among white people for whom their own supremacy was as assumed as the air. From this came Nixon’s Southern Strategy and the cultivation of the racist mob by Republicans ever since.

Add in the women’s movement. During the 1970s and onward women entered the workforce in greater numbers, entered higher education in greater numbers, and demanded first class citizenship as well. (Cue sound of heads exploding, stage right.) Women exceeded men in the number of bachelor’s degrees in 1996 and in higher degrees in 2011. Male behavior that was once unremarkable in the workplace and the world in general is now frowned upon and in some cases grounds for prosecution. As with civil rights we are far from utopia, but the social landscape would be bizarre to a time traveler from sixty years ago. Of course, many people today are essentially time travelers from sixty years ago.

There was what I call the psychological revolution of the 1970s. Examining one’s psychohistory with the help of a therapist became less and less stigmatized. Mindlessly following the emotional patterns of the previous generation became just one option. This followed the challenges of the 1960s, when many young people stopped taking the authority of political, social, and religious leaders for granted.

There has been a spiritual change as well. Mainline religions are losing ground to non-believers. “No religion” has become the fastest growing religious demographic in the U.S. At around 22% it exceeds even Catholicism.

In short, white, male, Christians with conservative social views are losing their dominant status that has been an unexamined assumption for centuries. They are angry. At least part of each subset of that white, male, socially conservative, and Christian demographic is feeling threatened on its own individual terms as well.

Enter the disgruntled Cheeto. He makes no logical sense, but he doesn’t have to. He is the blustering id of people who once had unchallenged social status and now are trying and failing to justify themselves. Trump’s pushback against “political correctness” is a reflection of the anger of those who now have to treat non-white/male/Christians like equal human beings. Donald Trump’s campaign is the death throes of an obsolete worldview.

I mentioned two inflection points. The latest revelation about Trump is the “hot mic” tapes of him bragging about sexually molesting women with impunity because of his wealth and fame. The question arises, why this? Why this, and not his previous statements about Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, tactical use of nuclear weapons, punishing women who obtain abortions, or any of the other absurdities, stupidities, and examples of his staggering ignorance?

This incident reminds me of the phone hacking scandals in the U.K. For a long time it was an open secret that Rupert Murdoch’s News International publishing conglomerate was engaged in phone hacking and bribery of the police. The victims of this hacking had been celebrities and politicians. Then, in 2011, it came out that News International employees had hacked the phone of a recently murdered schoolgirl, as well as those of deceased soldiers and bombing victims. A government inquiry followed, along with criminal prosecution. Nobody really gave a damn about pop stars and politicians, but a dead child is sacred, as are soldiers and victims of terrorism.

Trump bragged about groping white women. Sad to say, this is our cultural inflection point, and not all the preceding racism, bigotry or reckless talk about starting a nuclear apocalypse. I’ll wager that if he had talked specifically about groping Muslim women or Mexican women the incident wouldn’t be so politically toxic for him.

It’s partly about the perceived purity of the victim, white women being a symbol of purity among social conservatives. It’s partly about the universality of the experience. Almost every woman I have ever known well enough to talk about these things has told me about being sexually mistreated at some point in her life, and often many times in her life. There’s a thread on Twitter that is exploding right now, where author Kelly Oxford asked her followers to post necessarily brief accounts of their first experience of sexual predation. She averaged 50 responses per minute for the first 14 hours. Over 9 million people have responded. Read it until you weep.

Trump has hacked the phone of the dead schoolgirl. It’s all over for him but the blustering.

But that’s not really the end. We are in a socially and politically volatile time. There has been an inflection in racial justice that started with the Rodney King videotape. In a long ago discussion a Hispanic man from Los Angeles said to me, “The only difference between Rodney King and anybody else is that he happened to have a camera aimed at him.” The universal minority experience of police abuse has been made real for the rest of America by the advent of cell phone cameras. The tug of war between entrenched racism and reform is in its most intense back and forth since the 1960s. The casual abuse of women in our society is having its Rodney King moment as well. The moral hollowness and corruption of conservative religions is eroding their legitimacy. The reactionary forces in this country are fighting for power and losing, but they are still fighting.

Addendum: I was thinking that some things don’t need to be said, but I have reconsidered. Trump most recently came to prominence on a wave of birtherism, the proposition that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, and therefore was ineligible for the presidency. The prospect of a black man in the highest position of social prestige and power in the nation was too much for some. Their only recourse was to delegitimize him. His presence in the Oval Office rebutted the basis of their self-image and worldview.

Likewise, the prospect of a woman taking the reins of power, and a successful and authoritative woman at that, is unacceptable to this same demographic group. If the Democratic candidate today was a white man, almost any white man, Trump wouldn’t have half the support he has now. Double that notion if we had just had a white man as president for the last eight years.

Friday
Apr292016

The Barrel of a Gun 

“Every Communist must grasp the truth, "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." Our principle is that the Party commands the gun, and the gun must never be allowed to command the Party. Yet, having guns, we can create Party organizations, as witness the powerful Party organizations which the Eighth Route Army has created in northern China. We can also create cadres, create schools, create culture, create mass movements. Everything in Yenan has been created by having guns. All things grow out of the barrel of a gun. According to the Marxist theory of the state, the army is the chief component of state power. Whoever wants to seize and retain state power must have a strong army.” MaoTse-tung, 1938

Mao was wrong. Political power does not grow out of the barrel of a gun. More specifically, he was reasoning backwards, even as he offered up the real answer in his speech. Guns don’t shoot all by themselves. They need to be picked up by people willing to use them. These people also must be willing to face other people who also have guns. Just as important, these people must be motivated to keep those guns pointed in the “correct” direction. That is, away from those who wish to be in power.

Mao notes that his party created schools, culture, and mass movements. There is the key to his rise to power.

Power comes from the strength of a story. Mao and his followers spread an extremely compelling story about reversing a social order. The massive peasant underclass of China, trodden upon for centuries by a small elite, was ripe for a story that put them above the landlords and aristocrats. Mao put them at the moral apex of his story, virtuous by their humble birth, virtuous by their struggle, and virtuous by their fight against the elite. He offered them a vision of a world where they would have self-determination, equality, prosperity, and justice. As we know in hindsight, it didn’t quite work out that way. After a string of social and economic disasters China embraced oligarchic capitalism, creating political and financial elites to replace the old aristocratic one. And yet the Chinese government persists, albeit with modified economic policies. The story has been modified to be more western, the bait has been dangled again, and so far the combination of carrot and stick has kept the masses in line.

 To repeat, for emphasis, political power comes from telling people a compelling story, a story that orders the world in a way that makes people want to do your bidding. The story has to take into account the existing mindset of the people in question. The Taliban and IS (ISIS, ISIL Daesh) have compelling stories, whether we like them or not. They are straightforward stories about belonging, good, evil, rules of conduct, action, and reward. They key into the existing religious and social beliefs of the population. The governments of Iraq and Afghanistan have muddled, nuanced, essentially false stories based on a mode of thinking alien to the inhabitants of those areas. Of course Iraqi troops folded in the face of inferior ISIS forces. They had no compelling reason to risk their lives.

One of the (many) reasons the American Civil War was so bloody is that both sides had stories that were convincing to their participants. Men walked upright into hailstorms of lead because they were convinced of the righteousness of their respective causes.

Today, members of the Taliban and IS take suicidal risks, and sometimes commit deliberate suicide, in pursuit of victory. They treat opponents and their fellow travelers with unflinching brutality. They tolerate harsh conditions. This implacability is both militarily effective and demoralizing to their opponents. They have the group cohesion vital to winning a political and military victory.

Any attempt to “win” in the Middle East should have started with the question of the beliefs and motivation of the people who live there. But of course, this approach doesn’t set up the hog trough for military contractors or resource extraction companies. A strategically half-assed, decade-plus military slog doesn’t do anything for American, Afghan, or Iraqi security, but it increases the profitability of a set of military and “security” firms.

To be absolutely pragmatic about it, we should look at the self-image of the countries we deal with in the Middle East and ally with those that have at least some potential for long term cohesion. This requires us to acknowledge that the Sykes-Picot Agreement is reaching the end of its lifespan.

Sykes-Picot was the initial agreement between the winning powers in the First World War on how to carve up the then prostrate Ottoman Empire. Sykes-Picot and the other agreements that followed it allowed the U.S., the U.K., and France to carve up the Ottoman Empire into convenient sections for the extraction of oil. Of course, most of these boundaries had no connection with how the people who lived there understood their world. Iraq is a mishmash of religions and ethnicities, as is Syria. Under stress, the citizens of these countries tend to revert to loyalties other than the nation state.

Iran is one example of a nation state with good cohesion. Iranians are Persians, not Arabs, which is more than a pedantic distinction to Iranians themselves. The Persian culture has a long and continuous history and the present boundaries of Iran are roughly in line with long historical precedent. The Iranians are overwhelmingly Shiite, and governed by Shiites. This is no small thing. One of the major political flaws in both Syria and Iraq has been the governance of a religious majority by a religious minority. From what I have observed, Iranians identify as Iranians, even when they have internal conflicts.

I would contend that Iran is no more politically and culturally estranged from us than Saudi Arabia, and probably somewhat less. I mean, at least Iranian women can drive and walk around in public without a male family member. Their elections differ from ours in that mullahs rather than millionaires decide who can run for office. They and the Saudis support different groups of terrorists.

When I look at trends, I see Saudi Arabia becoming less stable and less careful of our interests over time. Iran seems to be inching towards civil reform and détente with the west. I’d like to see a slow, careful pivot towards Iran. Even if we didn’t follow all the way through, it would give our Sunni sometime-allies a signal that we are looking for fewer empty declarations of friendship and more real on the ground action.

Which are the cohesive states in the Central Asia and the Middle East? I’d put my money on Iran, but also the nascent de-facto state of Kurdistan. For all their recent turmoil, Egyptians still identify as Egyptians. Hey, they’ve been around for a little while. The Turks identify as Turks. And then there’s our problem child, Israel. Perhaps Israelis identify as Israelis a little too much. The semi-state of Palestine has the cohesion of shared misery, despite the PLO/Hamas split in leadership.

What about the petro-states such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates? Their histories vary, with Oman self-governing since the mid-18th century and Qatar only gaining independence from the U.K. in 1971. The real problem with the smaller states, tribalism and monarchy aside, is that large percentages of the populations are non-citizen foreign workers. Out of a population of 1.8 million, Qatar has only 278,000 citizens. The UAE has 1.4 million citizens and 7.8 million foreign workers. Oman does better with 2.2 million citizens and 1.76 million expats. Kuwait has 1.2 million citizens out of 4.1 million people. That’s working for the moment (at least for the citizens), but I don’t see these nations as stable in tough times.

This is magic wand waving, given our present government, but I’d like to see a “team of rivals” approach. Doris Kearns Goodwin explored Abraham Lincoln’s canny political strategy in a book of that name. Faced with political forces that threatened to confound his intentions Lincoln appointed a cabinet of politicos who distrusted and competed with each other. That allowed him to play them off against each other.

Under this admittedly improbable plan, the U.S. would have a sit-down with each of the cohesive states (Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kurdistan, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine and Israel) and announce two things. First, that our support was now conditional (and possible, in the case of Iran). Second, that we now had a fixed budget of military, financial, and political support for this region, and that they would all be competing for their share. We’d be giving bonus points for human rights, non-intervention, not financing armed groups, and generally behaving well. We’d take away points for treating women like cattle and treating minority ethnic groups like insect pests. Fighting corruption and promoting transparency would be a big plus.

For example, Kurdistan and Turkey are at each other’s throats. We would tell Kurdistan to cut the crap with supporting PKK attacks on Turkey and to be satisfied with their present territory in northern Iraq. We would tell Turkey to start treating Kurds within their country with some consideration and to stop their double game – publicly opposing and privately enabling ISIS. Their internal policies are theirs to set, but don’t expect smiles, cash, and cooperation from us without some significant movement on these issues.

Likewise with the Saudis and Iran, Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Iran, Egypt and its own people, and so on. The main thing is to let each one know that it isn’t indispensable and that we are willing to favor its rival. Then watch the fun begin. It would probably take some experimental misbehavior and consequences before things settled down. I imagine that the Kurds and Palestinians, being in the most tenuous positions, would show the fastest learning curve.

I don’t see Iraq or Syria ever returning to the status quo ante. They were political fictions held together by despotism. The minor oil states are political fictions held together by despotism and government subsidy. We should concentrate on working with the nations that have a strong story.