Russian Hacking and Divisive News Cycles

In 2014, the death of Michael Brown became the focal point of first the Ferguson protests and then the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement. Just a couple months earlier, Eric Garner had been strangled to death on Staten Island by police on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes, while everything was caught on film. Michael Brown’s death had not been caught on film, but there had been video evidence of him robbing a convenience store and assaulting the store clerk moments before his altercation with a police officer. A later Justice Department investigation also found no wrongdoing on the part of the police officer who killed Michael Brown.

So the question is, why did the Michael Brown case get so much more attention than the Eric Garner case? Even Bill O’Reilly thought what happened to Eric Garner was unfair. Scott Alexander suggests the most successful stories are those that are controversial. A story that only induces frustration in one side doesn’t foment much of a debate. But on a controversial or murky topic, one can signal their loyalty to their tribe much more strongly; you really care about police brutality if you criticize the police when there’s no video evidence in Ferguson. Criticizing the police when there’s clear evidence of an illegal chokehold on Eric Garner doesn’t get you points.

Of course, even if the Michael Brown case was a bad example, the general topic of police abuse is important. I can’t say the same for the continued interest in this Russian Hacking story. For those who don’t know, the Clinton campaign accused the Russian government of hacking into the DNC’s email server, during the campaign. Trump denied that we knew for sure it was Russian state-sponsored hacking. More recently, US intelligence agencies have claimed they have evidence of Russia being involved, including high level Russian officials. They have also claimed they cannot show this evidence to the public as it would compromise their intelligence.

From top to bottom, the entire story is just so boring to me. This “hack” was apparently just a spear-phishing attack, something that is fairly easily avoided by not clicking on the wrong links in your email. Or using two-factor authentication. People are hacked this way every day, but it’s reasonable to have slightly higher expectations for political officials. But again, these weren’t political officials in office, it was the DNC in an election year. What was hacked was also not particularly valuable; we saw a bunch of emails of DNC officials being politicians. Yes, it put the DNC in a bad light, looking like they were colluding with the Clinton campaign to have her win the primaries…but what exactly is the point of a political party if not to try and win political office? The DNC obviously thought Hillary had a better shot than Bernie. That’s not a crazy idea. Moreover, most of these emails came long after Bernie had fallen behind in the delegate count anyway.

The only people these emails could have surprised are those unfamiliar with politics or those not skeptical enough (and not this blog). It seems quite possible that Russia was indeed behind these attacks; they have the capabilities and the motivation as the Clinton State Department was quite annoying to Russian foreign interests. Trump has signaled a much more dovish approach to Russia, as well as an admiration for Putin’s strong man policies. There’s some uncertainty, but the Clinton campaign, Obama administration, and now US intelligence all insist Russia was involved and trying to “influence” the US election…by releasing accurate exact transcripts of emails of DNC officials. Ok.

What if these accusations are true? Suppose Russia did sponsor very simplistic attacks on the DNC email server and then released those emails to the public in order to make Clinton less popular. Who cares? Russia doing this doesn’t change the content of the emails; what if a whistleblower at the DNC had leaked them? It changes nothing.

And while we’re talking about changing nothing, I’m under the impression that these emails changed very little. Trump voters weren’t exactly huge DNC and Clinton fans before they read these emails; neither were Bernie supporters. I doubt this had much impact on the election.

Many on the left have been shocked Trump won’t admit Russia was behind this hack, but it’s such a low stakes thing, I can’t imagine it would much change his position towards Russia. Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly said much more heinous and horrific things, likely in the week prior to you reading this blog post.

To continue the absurdity, recently US intelligence agencies released a report detailing why they think Russia was behind the hack. The report is embarassing. It has no details or evidence, and it spends the majority of its pages talking about the Russian state-sponsored news station RT and how it criticizes the US government. I’m still fairly confident that Russia is indeed behind this hack, but the report makes American intelligence look completely incompetent, and its evidence of the hack purely circumstantial.

Ok, I’m going to stop talking about this non-story. The problem is that this non-story has continued for weeks without my help. I bring it up only to show the truly insidious nature of a divided outrage news cycle. This debate being had on Russian hacking is based on little and has essentially no relevance to the very real challenges we face. The president-elect has continuously vowed to challenge free trade ideas which will seriously harm the global and domestic economy. He’s planned to use executive authority in insane ways to violate civil liberties, including torturing people, committing war crimes, and depriving people of due process. We ought to be talking about those issues and what Congress will be doing to thwart him, but instead we are caught up arguing about email phishing scams.


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Against Hillary: Foreign Policy and Trade

This is the second post in my series opposing Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. See the introduction in Part 1 here. Read my opposition to Trump here. Read why you should mathematically vote for a third party here.

Foreign Policy

Media coverage might make you think that Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson’s weakest point in comparison to Hillary Clinton is foreign policy. On the contrary, foreign policy is by far the the most important policy reason voters should reject Hillary Clinton, especially in favor of Johnson. News stories might seem to indicate that Johnson knows nothing about foreign policy, but in fact he has an excellent nuanced approach to foreign affairs. Libertarians have a reputation for isolationism, and indeed an important part of Johnson’s policy is a reduction in American military involvement in the middle east. But he is still a proponent of American diplomacy and defending American obligations in NATO. He’s also the only proponent of free trade in this election, a policy which has systematically broken down geopolitical opponents by integrating their economies into global markets and intertwining their economic success with ours. Let’s contrast this with Hillary Clinton’s policies.

The American consensus on the 2003 Iraq War is certainly negative, and I’d go as far as to say that most agree it was a mistake, especially on the left. Hillary Clinton voted to support that war, but so did many politicians on both sides of the aisle (including 2004 Democratic nominee John Kerry). Of course, even some blame for a war that had several hundred thousand deaths of civilians and combatants is pretty awful. 4,507 Americans died in the Iraq war. This is significantly higher than the amount of people who died in the September 11th attacks. These are real people that likely would be alive today if not for the actions of American politicians. Yes, Hillary Clinton was not the only person who voted for this war, so perhaps she is only responsible for a fraction of this mistake. But is it that great to be responsible for the deaths of only 100 Americans who died for a mistake? What about the thousands of Iraqi Security Forces who died in the insurgency? What about the estimated five million Iraqi orphans caused by the war, or the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians who died?

In 2004, Hillary said she had no regrets her Iraq War vote. In 2008, she didn’t want to be flip-flopping and so did not apologize, but she nonetheless lost the nomination to Obama, with the Iraq War support being one of several factors. In her 2014 book, she finally admitted that she regrets her vote backing the Iraq War. Yet, as The Atlantic points out, she was quite sincere in her vote in 2002; this was not simply a political ploy to look strong on national security. And if indeed she has had a change of heart, one would think she would treat future policy decisions differently.

In 2011 as Secretary of State, she faced another policy decision in Libya…and again decided to push for intervention. During a Democratic primary debate a year ago when asked about the intervention, Hillary Clinton began her defense of American involvement in Libya by labeling it as “smart power at its best”. Connor Friedersdorf of The Atlantic harshly criticized Clinton’s full answer stating that her upbeat portrayal of Libya was:

…about as misleading as summarizing the Iraq War by saying that the Iraqis had a terrible leader; they had a free election after the war; and they voted for moderates. It elides massive suffering and security threats that have occurred in postwar Libya.

Also worth noting, as Friedersdorf points out, this war was not declared, and not only violated the War Powers Resolution, but went against the expressed opposition of a Libya intervention Congressional vote. Moreover, the New York Times discusses in-depth how Obama was hesitant to get involved in Libya until Clinton convinced him it was a worthwhile endeavor. This is her war, and it left Libya a failed state.

Clinton’s support of military interventions in the middle east should be very concerning to everyone. Essentially all military interventions she has supported in the middle east have been failures: Libya is most prominently hers; she voted to go to war in Iraq which was a foreign policy disaster; she also supported the Afghanistan surge in 2009 and drone bombing in Pakistan during the first Obama term. Seven years after the surge in Afghanistan, there are still thousands of American soldiers and several times that many contractors in Afghanistan today. The Pakistan drone strikes have been severely criticized, with estimates of civilian casualties varying between 250 to over 900 civilians killed.

Of course, the US hasn’t really had a successful military intervention in the middle east since the Gulf War. Yet Hillary Clinton has continued to favor aggressive hawkish interventions. Her widely touted “experience” during her husband’s administration, as a Senator, and as a member of the Obama administration seems to have created systemic bias towards intervention in her approach to foreign affairs. In the Times piece, Clinton adviser Anne-Marie Slaughter states:

“Mrs. Clinton repeatedly speaks of wanting to be ‘caught trying.’ In other words, she would rather be criticized for what she has done than for having done nothing at all.”

This may sound noble, but it should disturb anyone considering voting for Clinton. The implication that “trying” is always better than “not trying” ignores the possibility that American policy could ever accidentally cause bad outcomes. This isn’t just possible, it’s quite likely, as demonstrated specifically by Iraq and Libya. Now Clinton is proposing additional intervention in Syria, beyond what the Obama administration has pursued. This includes no-fly zones and troops on the ground to create safe zones for refugees.

You might say that Syria is different from Iraq in that the situation literally couldn’t be worse, so perhaps intervention only risks improving one of the bloodiest wars in the last decade. Yet no-fly zones would demand a confrontation with Russia (they are the ones flying the planes) and would require the US to shoot down Russian military aircraft. This is escalation, and thus it’s quite easy for imprecise or incorrect policy to actually make Syria become even worse under Clinton’s policy. A Johnson/libertarian hands-off approach has inherently less risk because there would be no soldiers involved and little to no risk of escalation with Russia. Johnson has specifically advocated working with Russia, which is also basically the policy the Obama administration is taking. Nonetheless, we should acknowledge this approach has done little to end the war in Syria.

But if anything, that’s another point to Johnson: if Clinton’s ideas are so great, it seems that the Obama administration would have already implemented them and succeeded. The implication then is that Clinton differs significantly from Obama in Syria policy. Specifically, she is willing to commit more than pure air support. This sounds suspiciously like a traditional middle eastern military intervention championed by neoconservatives/right-wing hawks. Johnson’s Syria policy is suspiciously similar to Obama’s. So the question is why would Democrats and progressives side with Clinton when the Clinton vs Johnson policies are really right-wing vs Obama Syria policies. It seems siding with Clinton over Johnson in this area means abandoning the left’s positions, including that of the sitting Democratic president.

Moreover, for Clinton’s policies to succeed, she would need to win a middle eastern conflict by building a coalition among international actors who are geopolitically opposed. This war would need to be won against both a strong dictator and a large insurgency, the latter being something the United States has failed at essentially every time in the middle east. These plans are unreasonable, unprecedented, and unlikely to work.

Voting to approve of Clinton’s continual push for war and intervention is to agree not to hold her responsible for her repeated foreign policy mistakes which have lost countless lives. It’s to agree that we can afford to spend another several hundred billion dollars on another middle east intervention. It’s to put faith in a person who has learned nothing, who is hoping her intentions in solving the Syrian conflict will overcome the reality of the middle eastern politics.

Free Trade

Trade is next due to its role in the dynamics of geopolitical relationships. Again, despite the consensus that foreign relations is Hillary’s strong point, this is the second foreign policy area where she is on the wrong side. When it comes to trade, economists are in astounding agreement that free trade is a good thing. The benefits of freer international markets are clear and the results are all around us; today we have global supply chains that reduce the cost and increase the availability of goods of all types. Integration of developing economies has raised the productivity of the global poor and allowed for sustainable, incentivized growth to pull literally billions out of poverty, a feat which government and charities have never come close. The burden is on free trade opponents to explain their position, and in this election, those opponents are Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Gary Johnson is the only candidate running this year who is on the right side of perhaps the most important issue when it comes to the degree and number of people helped.

Hillary Clinton may say in private that she supports free trade, but at best then we are hoping she is lying publicly. Unfortunately, whatever political calculations she is making may not necessarily change after election day. At the very least, it seems reasonable to suggest free trade will not be a top priority of the Clinton administration given she is running as far as possible from the TPP. As an aside, the TPP itself has many non-free trade components, including extensive increases in intellectual property protections. But our president should be someone who makes the case to the American people and the to the world of the benefits of trade, cooperation, and commercial interaction (I can’t believe I’m defending Obama). The current presidential administration has created many bad policies, but in foreign affairs, both in war and trade, Clinton is somehow huge steps backwards from where we are today.


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Picture Credit: Gage Skidmore, licensed under CC BY-SA-2.0