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Putin and Geopolitical Poker

Republicans are beating up on President Obama, telling him to do something to stop Putin from interfering in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin

Vladimir Putin

Senator Bob Corker, Ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is good example of Republican thinking on the subject of Russia and Ukraine. “The Russian government has felt free to intervene militarily in Ukraine because the United States,” Corker said, “along with Europe, has failed to make clear there would be serious, potentially irreparable consequences to such action.”

Exactly what “serious, potentially irreparable consequences” does Senator Corker have in mind?  “The United States and our European allies should immediately bring to bear all elements of our collective economic strength to stop Russian advances in Ukraine,” he said.  Oh, our economic strength — maybe that means boycotts or trade sanctions or limiting the G8  to G7, something like that. Or, better yet,  maybe we can withdraw our ambassador from Moscow before they withdraw theirs from Washington, that’s been suggested, too.

The unpleasant fact is that in this game of geopolitical poker, Putin is holding the strong cards.

The US is currently trying to disentangle itself from its longest war; our voters are broke, the Republicans want to shrink government and cut taxes, the Democrats want to raise the minimum wage and the middle class, and everybody is tired of wonderful foreign adventures to bring democracy wherever. Furthermore, the US wants cooperation from Putin in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear facilities, and in Syria and in regard to North Korea.

Ukraine had been part of Russia for about 300 years. Russia gave Crimea to Ukraine in 1954 when Russia and Ukraine were part of the Soviet Union – or Evil Empire, as President Regan correctly called it. And Crimea is sufficiently distinct from the rest of Ukraine that it’s a semi-autonomous republic with its own parliament. Ukraine has been an independent nation since 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart – that’s 23 years, during which time it’s  had a largely corrupt pro-Russian government, the underlying reason  it lost the support of its people.

What’s going on in Ukraine is terribly important for the Ukrainians. As for Russia and the West,  in terms of strategic geopolitics, it’s far more important to Putin and the future of Russia than it is to the United States or the nations of Western Europe.  We can jawbone the Russians and we can put together NATO meetings, committees and envoys and negotiators. But the principal actor in this dangerous game isn’t a politician in the United States or Europe, he’s an autocrat in the Kremlin.

Presidential Debate # 2

Stag at Sharkey's by George BellowsObama came out fighting this time and the debate was a slug fest. The media  folk who for the past week had been telling us that undecided voters were dismayed by Obama’s lackluster performance in the first debate, now tell us those same voters are worried about the nasty alpha-male behavior of the candidates. Frankly, we’re getting tired of being told what voters are thinking. About half favor Obama and about half favor Romney. We think we’ve got that right. And then there are the undecided voters. We think those famous undecided voters must be stupid or willfully ignorant. Can’t they tell the difference between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama?  Maybe the undecided can tell the difference but can’t make a choice. In either case, we suggest they stay home and not to go the polls on election day. And, yes, we’re feeling grumpy.

As for the consequences of this second debate — Yes,  Barack Obama showed there’s still fight in him, that he wants the job, that he’s still “presidential.” Mitt Romney had done a remarkable job of establishing himself as a plausible president in the first debate, and he wasn’t  knocked down in this one. But you knew all that already. Other democracies have electoral campaigns  that last a few months. You’re probably getting tired of this everlasting presidential contest and scandalized by the billions being spent on advertising. So are we. Let’s talk about the painting above this post.

♦♦♦♦♦

The painting above is Stag at Sharkey’s by George Bellows. Bellows was a member of the “Ashcan School,”  a group of eight painters who painted realistic scenes of urban life,  focusing especially on the poor.  Stag at Sharkey’s was painted in 1909 when boxing in New York was tolerated but not quite legal – nicely suggested by the black background  and the darkness surrounding the starkly illuminated fighters. Bellows also made a lithograph of this same scene, and in that work  musculature of the boxers is clear and correct, whereas in this painting the bodies are represented  by raw slabs of paint with only a minimal attempt at anatomical accuracy. But that rawness, our visual recognition that the paint has been slapped and smeared violently onto the canvas, gives the painting the stunning immediacy and violence of the fight itself. Of course, George Bellows didn’t violently  smear the canvas with paint — he merely made it look that way. You’ll also notice the dynamic imbalance of the boxers stance is made visually stable by the depiction of the referee, the three figures combining to make a solid pyramidal structure. Boxing in New York gained legal status and a firm set of rules in 1920 with the Walker Law which established an athletic commission to oversee the sport and to regulate the boxing matches.

Presidential Debate #1

Dempsey and Firpo by George Bellows 1924The first debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney is now history. For liberals – or, for that matter, lovers of common sense – it wasn’t a pretty sight. The governor was at ease and vigorous, he spoke fluently and insisted on delivering his message; the president appeared withdrawn and at times even passive, he often spoke hesitantly, and when he answered an attack from Romney – and it was Romney who had the air of a man moving swiftly forward – his answers were often fragmentary and allusive. In a strange way, he even looked smaller, thinner, a man of less weight.

Romney was the man asserting his view of things and his smartly delivered assertions carried the day. Consider their disagreement on taxes. Romney announced that he wasn’t going to raise takes on anybody (on the contrary: he would cut individual income tax rates by 20 percent) and that his tax plan wouldn’t add to the deficit. Obama wants to raise taxes on the wealthy so they would be paying about as much as they did during the Clinton years. Obama said that Romney’s tax plan was a 5 trillion dollar tax cut which would either enlarge the national debt or, on the other hand, require an increase in taxes on the middle class. (more…)

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.