How US foreign policy elites spread lawlessness around the world

Plus: Basketball and China, baseball and Native Americans, Buddhism and militarism, etc.

Welcome to issue #4 of the Nonzero Newsletter. This week’s newsletter features: (1) my argument that “the Blob” (the US foreign policy establishment) is largely to blame for the still-unfolding disaster in Syria; (2) video of highly infectious laughter emanating—counter to stereotype—from a Buddhist monk; (3) a special sports-and-politics section, in which I appraise (a) San Francisco Warriors coach Steve Kerr’s alleged defense of Chinese repression; and (b) the Atlanta Braves’ alleged insensitivity to Native American sensibilities; (4) background readings on things ranging from the psychology of narcissists (I won’t name names) to the changing nature of terrorism in America to why you so rarely see your friends to why Jeff Bezos is so weird.

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How the Blob’s lawlessness brought mayhem to the Middle East

This week’s abrupt withdrawal of US troops from a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria inspired a variety of criticisms, as politicians and commentators of all major ideological stripes condemned Trump for ordering it. 

The main criticisms have a lot of validity, in so far as they go. In greenlighting Turkey’s military incursion into Syria, Trump indeed, as charged: (1) abandoned the Kurds, who at America’s behest had spent the last few years fighting ISIS; (2) probably helped ISIS, at least in the short run, by diverting Kurdish attention and resources toward fighting Turkey; (3) ensured the death or displacement (a.k.a ethnic cleansing) of lots of Kurds.  

But there’s one criticism I haven’t heard, and I think this silence is an indictment of the entire Washington foreign policy establishment—and more evidence that it deserves its evocatively pejorative nickname, the “Blob.” 

The criticism that went unvoiced is simple: The Turkish incursion that Trump greenlighted is illegal. It violates international law, which prohibits transborder aggression.  

If you join the foreign policy establishment in not considering this worth much discussion, I understand. After all, precisely because of the Blob’s longstanding silence on international law, “violates international law” sounds like something abstract and technical, with less emotional force than, say, “committed a felony.” 

My own view is that if this doesn’t change—if international law doesn’t come to command the kind of respect that domestic law does—the wellbeing and maybe even the survival of our species will be at risk. The full version of my argument to this effect takes a while to unfold (I spent hundreds of pages on it in my book Nonzero). But you can get at least some sense for why I’m an international law aficionado by reflecting on this question: Why is it that pretty much no one in the entire foreign policy establishment—not liberal internationalists, not neoconservatives, not unilateralist Boltonesque warmongers—complains about Trump’s having just abetted an egregious violation of international law?

Here’s one plausible answer: Because pretty much all of them have themselves advocated egregious violations of international law, and many of them have done so prolifically. Indeed (sorry about the continued italics, but I’m pretty worked up at this point) the Blob’s persistent disregard for international law is one reason Syria is such a mess in the first place. 

For example: The US invasion of Iraq—an invasion that wound up spawning the precursor of ISIS, whose subsequent metastasis in Syria helped tear the country apart—was plainly, flatly illegal. Iraq hadn’t attacked us, which means the only way that war would have been legal is if the UN Security Council had authorized it, which it wisely didn’t. And it’s maybe a three-percent exaggeration—max— to say that the entire US foreign policy establishment supported this violation of international law.

International law, at this early stage in its evolution, is in some places amorphous, and often lacking in adjudicatory process, so it’s not always clear whether a blunder embraced by the Blob is, in addition to being a blunder, illegal. Consider regime change in Libya, which in 2011 led to the spewing of weapons into black markets across the region, including in Syria, where these weapons amped up the carnage. 

The Security Council resolution authorizing that intervention was about protecting civilian populations (initially in just one city) by establishing a no-fly zone—not about bombing the regime into collapse. But some scholars say the resolution’s wording was broad enough to make bombing the regime into collapse legal. Other scholars disagree, and I’m on their side. But one thing that’s clear is that virtually no one in the Blob even paused to consider the question. That’s not the Blob’s way. 

So too with the regime change effort in Syria—an effort supported by President Obama along with European and Arab allies. A few scholars might argue that the effort fully complied with international law (even though the US, in addition to flooding a supposedly sovereign nation with weapons intended to help overthrow its government, actually bombed parts of the country). Most scholars wouldn’t, but in any event, if you spent the Syrian civil war waiting for Blobsters to weigh in on the question one way or the other you were wasting your time. They were too busy intensifying that war by championing the funneling of weapons into dubious Syrian hands. 

Indeed, one of the louder Blobist complaints about that exercise is that it wasn’t intrusive enough—that we didn’t do more bombing, perhaps enough to induce the regime’s collapse. (Why we should have expected such an exercise to lead to a happier outcome than it had led to in Libya is one of many Blob-related intellectual mysteries.)

Historical what-ifs are famously tricky. But if international law had been scrupulously respected in the three cases I’ve cited—if, when in doubt about the legality of something, we had erred on the side of caution (as most of us probably do with domestic laws)—I think the world would now be in a better place. There would be way fewer innocent people dead or maimed in the Middle East, way fewer refugees, and therefore less in the way of extreme political reactions to refugees in Europe.  

And in Turkey. Though Turkey’s violation of international law has multiple motivations, one of them is to send millions of Syrian refugees currently in Turkey back to Syria. If it weren’t for the American foreign policy establishment, many of those refugees might not be there in the first place.

[Obscure footnote for international relations nerds: People sometimes ask me what the difference is between what I call progressive realism (which I’ve championed, for example, here) and traditional realism. I’ll probably get into this more systematically in future issues of the newsletter, but for now I’ll just mention one difference. Most traditional realists would join me in condemning the series of military interventions—in Iraq, in Libya, in Syria—that helped make the Middle East the mess it is today. But most of them wouldn’t care much about the question of international law. I mean, they’re happy to use international law when it’s handy, but there’s no big emphasis among traditional realists on respecting and nurturing its evolution as a critical part of long-term strategy. I would add, though, that there is a new anti-Blob think tank in Washington—the Quincy Institute—whose mission is broad enough to accommodate both traditional realists and progressive realists, and it will be interesting to see what kind of dialogue between them emerges under its auspices.]

Buddhism and anti-war activism

I recently had a conversation (just posted on meaningoflife.tv and also available in The Wright Show podcast feed) with one of my favorite people: Bhikkhu Bodhi, a Buddhist monk who is also a renowned scholar of Buddhism and a prolific translator of ancient Buddhist texts.

One reason I like him so much is that when he laughs—and he laughs at more offbeat things than your average monk, I’d guess—it lights up the room. Consider, for example, this exchange, which started with him telling me what the Buddha said about eating meat:

Another reason I’m such a fan of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s is that he has such vast knowledge of Buddhist texts that you can interrogate him in depth about, say, Buddhist ethics and learn a lot—which is what I spent most of the conversation doing. We discussed, for example, Buddhism’s emphasis on the welfare not just of all people but of all sentient beings; the stringency of the Buddhist ideal of “right speech” (which I violate, oh, several times a minute); and the anti-militarist drift of Buddhist ethics (as expressed, for example, in the ideal of “right livelihood,” which rules out working in the armaments industry). 

This last point leads to a lamentation that Bhikkhu Bodhi and I briefly shared: the fact that American Buddhists who engage in political activism rarely engage in anti-militarist activism. They do environmental activism and social justice activism (both worthwhile things), but they don’t spend much time protesting, for example, the carnage and chaos wrought by America’s highly interventionist foreign policy.

In this respect they’re remarkably like non-Buddhists. American progressives in general don’t spend much time trying to alter American foreign policy. You can’t throw a rock in Brooklyn without hitting a millennial who works at an NGO that deals with the climate change or domestic policy issues, but good luck finding one who’s agitating against America’s forever wars. (I’m actually against throwing rocks in urban settings—that would presumably violate some Buddhist ideal—but you take my point…)

If you know of exceptions—hidden recesses of Buddhist, or even non-Buddhist, anti-war activism—or for that matter if you’d like to hear about any exceptions that we learn about, drop us a line at nonzero@substack.com or click “reply” on this email.

The NBA’s China Syndrome

This was a tough week for San Francisco Warriors coach Steve Kerr. It all started when the General Manager of the Houston Rockets tweeted in support of the Hong Kong protestors. The Chinese government—and lots of Chinese people—didn’t like that one bit, and China is a huge market for the NBA, so various NBA officials and players set about saying conciliatory things. Kerr, when asked about the controversy, did what you might expect: He declined to comment.  

At this point Donald Trump somehow found the time—even while getting impeached and getting Kurds slaughtered—to tear into Kerr (a longtime Trump critic) for not being manly enough to stand up to China. Which in turn kept the whole issue alive long enough for Kerr to be asked by a reporter whether, in the course of his many visits to China, there had been discussion of how the NBA’s financial interests relate to “a country whose human rights record is not in step with the United States.”

And the rest is social media history. Kerr replied: 

It has not come up in terms of people asking about it, people discussing it. Nor has our record of human rights abuses come up, either. Things that our country needs to look at and resolve. That hasn't come up either. None of us are perfect. We all have different issues we have to get to. Saying that is my right as an American. It doesn't mean that I hate my country. It means I want to address the issue. But people in China didn't ask me about, you know, people owning AR-15s and mowing each other down in a mall. I wasn't asked that question.

The good news for Kerr is that his views got wide dissemination. The bad news is that the dissemination was accompanied by commentary. For example, the assertion that Kerr “just compared China’s Concentration Camps to Americans owning AR-15s” got 2.1K retweets and 4K likes. Of course, Kerr hadn’t actually mentioned China’s persecution of Uighurs (via what are euphemistically called “re-education centers”), but it was predictable that this issue would spring to the minds of his critics. And predictable that they’d sense an asymmetry between this persecution (which the Chinese government pursues systematically) and mass shootings in America (which the US government doesn’t pursue, and would in principle like to stop).

Of course, even if Kerr had come up with a more nearly analogous example of a dubious American policy—say, the massively disproportionate incarceration of African Americans—he’d still be accused, as he was, of “whataboutism.”

Personally, I’m fan of whataboutism. I think it’s a healthy exercise, when you’re decrying something done by someone else or some other nation, to ask whether you, or your nation, has done comparable things—even if all you come up with is remotely comparable things. 

One virtue of this exercise is that it strengthens one of my favorite mental muscles, cognitive empathy—the ability to see the other side’s point of view. Because, however minor your problems or your country’s problems may seem to you, there’s probably someone out there who doesn’t consider them so minor. And, however you prioritize values—freedom of speech as compared to personal safety, say—other people may prioritize them differently, which is a useful thing to keep in mind. 

Leaving aside Kerr’s whataboutism, I think there’s a defense to be made of his earlier “no comment.” It isn’t everyone’s job to opine on the Hong Kong protests. And I can see why Kerr might think it’s his job not to opine on them. Maybe I’m naïve, but I think sports can help build bridges across nations and cultures. It doesn’t always do that, but it can. And, it will have a better chance of doing it if coaches and athletes don’t routinely share an unfiltered version of their view of the nation they’re trying to build a bridge to. 

Now, I’m not so naïve that I think the main motivation behind the NBA’s studious silence on China’s human rights record is to build intercultural bridges. The main motivation is money. But sometimes commercial incentives do happen to align with constructive things. 

In any event, the suggestion that Kerr is motivated by greed is dubious at best. He’s an unusually thoughtful guy who has reason to care about intercultural understanding. His father, a scholar of Arab culture, was president of the American University of Beirut when he was murdered in 1984, apparently by Islamist terrorists. 

And I suspect Kerr’s interactions with China have given him a more nuanced view of that country than many Americans possess. He probably realizes, for example, that many Chinese citizens, and not just the Chinese government, bridle at American criticism, which can therefore intensify the nationalism that adds to an authoritarian government’s power.

Obviously, the virtue of tactical silence has its limits. You wouldn’t encourage American companies to build bridges to Nazi Germany, and its fair to ask whether China’s persecution of the Uighurs, in particular, has moved China beyond the pale. 

That said, the denunciation of everyone who isn’t denouncing everything you think needs denouncing is a contemporary tendency I find unhelpful. And a variant of it I find especially annoying is the indignant allegation that someone has failed to stand up and make some kind of career sacrifice in the name of right. 

Because, for one thing, almost no one ever has the courage to do that, however nice it would be if they did. And, for another thing, some of the people who habitually demand that others make career sacrifices in the name of good are themselves doing roughly the opposite of that. They’re racking up Twitter followers, and thus boosting their career prospects, by conveniently failing to reflect with any depth or nuance on the complex question of how to actually make the world a better place.

America’s Pastime

This week baseball’s postseason playoffs were proceeding uneventfully when St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Ryan Helsley threw the Atlanta Braves a curve ball. In between games one and two of the Cardinals–Braves series, Helsley, a member of the Cherokee Nation, criticized a controversial Braves fan ritual: rhythmically simulating a tomahawk chop while humming something that is either a Native American war song or Atlanta’s idea of one.    

Braves officials took the complaint seriously. When the decisive game five rolled around, Atlanta fans didn’t find in their seats the complimentary foam tomahawks that had always been there for playoff games. And the loudspeaker didn’t, shortly before the first pitch, prompt the tomahawk ritual by playing the war song. 

If you were a superstitious Braves fan, you might have worried that this desecration of ritual would anger the gods. And sure enough: St. Louis scored ten runs in the top of the first inning—which, for those of you aren’t baseball fans, meant that the game was over before the other 8.5 innings were played. (Final score: 13-1. The Cardinals moved on to the National League Championship series, and the Braves went home.)

Before I say more about the tomahawk ritual per se, I’d like to say one thing about the recurring controversy over Native American sports names (which typically focuses on the Braves, the Cleveland Indians, the Washington Redskins, and the Kansas City Chiefs). Namely: these four names fall into two groups, and one group seems more offensive than the other. 

“Redskins” and “Indians” are labels for an ethnic group—which, let’s face it, is pretty weird. I mean, you wouldn’t name a team the Cleveland Latinos or the Washington African-Americans (much less something as unambiguously pejorative as “Redskins”). 

The only analogue I can think of is the Boston Celtics—and history affords Irish Americans much less grounds for taking offense than it affords Native Americans. Sure, Irish Americans were once victims of real discrimination, but they weren’t subjected to more than a century’s worth of ethnic cleansing and wanton slaughter and then confined to tracts of land specifically chosen for their barrenness. So if I owned the Cleveland Indians—and especially if I owned the Washington Redskins (whose name is less comparable to “Boston Celtics” than to “Boston Micks”)—I’d be looking for a way to gracefully change the name. 

After all, there’s precedent for changing a professional team’s name in response to changing times. In 1997, NBA owner Abe Pollin, worried about urban gun violence, rechristened the Washington Bullets as the Washington Wizards. And there were no ill effects; his team had been mediocre as the Bullets and it was mediocre as the Wizards.

In contrast to “Indians” and “Redskins,” both “Braves” and “Chiefs” refer not to an ethnic group but to a particular occupational status within an ethnic group—warriors and military/political leaders, respectively. And here analogues are abundant: the many professional sports teams (New York, New Jersey, Washington) that have been named “Generals,” not to mention the Kentucky Colonels. And the Washington Senators. Most of these teams aren’t still around, but if they were, nobody would bat an eye.

I’m not Native American, so it’s not my call to make. But it seems to me that terms like “Braves” and “Chiefs” could be taken as not offensive, perhaps even ennobling—at least, if they’re not accompanied by, say, a gratuitous tomahawk ritual.  

All of this may seem a bit more Jesuitical than is warranted by the context. After all, they’re just a bunch of sports teams—what’s so hard about changing all their names and being done with it? And I’m not against that. At the same time, I recognize that these days lots of Americans get really upset by the abandonment of tradition in the face of what they see as political correctness. And since some of these Americans vent their anger by doing things like vote for Donald Trump, I’m eager to find compromises that leave them, say, half as outraged as they otherwise would be.

And, for the same reason, I’m a fan of incremental progress. You know, like: Lose the tomahawks now, drop the war chant in a couple of years, and eventually get around to changing the name. (Only last year the Cleveland Indians removed the cartoonish image of “Chief Wahoo” from their uniforms and stadium signs but not from all merchandise; I expect the merchandise to follow suit before long.) And I guess one thing I’m saying is that, if you want to take an incremental approach to changing names, I’d go in this order: Redskins, then Indians, with Braves and Chiefs tied for third.  

So that’s my two cents. If you want to denounce me for looking at this as a typical white male, or for anything else, please email us at nonzero@substack.com (or just click “reply” on this email).

Atlantic staff writer Olga Khazan delves into the literature on self-confidence and finds that the difference between self-esteem and narcissism isn’t just one of degree. “People who have high self-esteem think of their social relationships as collaborative, while those with narcissism see the world as a zero-sum game. Only one person can be the best, they think, and it must be them.” In a remarkable act of discipline, Khazan goes the whole piece without mentioning any recent presidents.

Also in the Atlantic, Franklin Foer goes deep on the ever-fascinating, and sometimes disturbing, Jeff Bezos

After 9/11, an enduring upsurge in terrorist attacks against America was widely anticipated. And sure enough, the University of Maryland’s annual terrorism report, released this week, shows that the number of terrorist attacks in America last year was the highest since 1982. But here’s what wasn’t anticipated after 9/11: the big problem isn’t radical Islamism. All six lethal terrorists attacks in the US, featured “far-right ideological elements including primarily white supremacy and in at least two cases, male supremacy,” the report notes. The good news: terrorist attacks worldwide are down, and in the US the number of lethal attacks dropped in 2018 (from 18 to 6) as did the total number of deaths due to terrorism (43 in 2018, about half as many as in 2017). Upshot: the chances that you’ll die in a terrorist attack remain roughly zero.

In the Intercept, Jon Schwarz briskly reviews the many times the US has betrayed the Kurds. In Lobelog, Paul Pillar argues that Trump’s impulse to withdraw troops from the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria isn’t bad in itself, but that his execution of the withdrawal has been irresponsible; Trump has characteristically failed to pursue the kind of diplomacy that could have permitted an exit without the killing and ethnic cleansing now going on. 

In the Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz laments the demise of “the old 9-to-5, five-day-a-week grind.” Sure, it was a grind, but at least you and your friends were grinding at the same time—which meant you were free at the same times and so could hang out together. Now, with more people working “nonstandard or variable hours,” and affluent people, especially, putting in longer work weeks, “the hours in which we work, rest, and socialize are becoming ever more desynchronized.” Not surprisingly, Shulevitz is also the author of a book singing the praises of the Sabbath, a day for repose and interhuman connection. (On the other hand, the Sabbath isn’t all that conducive to intertribal connection. For Muslims it’s Friday, for Jews it’s Saturday, and for Christians it’s Sunday.)

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