Those Burly, Cheating Russians

In an ever-changing world, it’s nice to know that some things never change — like the Russians cheating at sports events.

The World Anti-Doping Agency has released a scathing, 323-page report that concludes that, in Russia, “acceptance of cheating at all levels is widespread.”  The report cites incidents in which a testing lab director ordered more than 1,000 samples destroyed in order to thwart the investigation and evidence that the Russian Federal Security Service interfered with testing, intimidated lab workers and even posed as lab engineers during the Sochi Olympics, which Russia hosted, to infiltrate and impede testing efforts.  The upshot is that Russia’s efforts allowed athletes who were suspected of cheating to continue to compete in international contests, including the Olympics.  The chair of the body that issued the report said:  “It’s worse than we thought.”

The chair also said that Russia’s state-sponsored cheating “may be the residue of the old Soviet Union system.”  If so, that’s some pretty long-lasting residue!  The Soviet Union ended more than 20 years ago.

Still, the reference to the Soviet Union brought back fond memories of the Olympics of the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, when it was the United States versus the Soviet bloc and Russian and East German athletes were widely suspected to be doping.  The East German women, in particular, were famous for their burly, broad-shouldered, extraordinarily mannish physiques.  Everybody figured they were cheating, but they never seemed to get caught, and the extent of the doping wasn’t exposed until later.

Now the Russians have been exposed as cheaters, and international sports entities are saying that Russian athletes may be banned from the Olympics unless there is reform, immediately.  The Russians respond that this is all a politically motivated witch hunt linked to Russia’s incursions into Ukraine.  (Seriously!)  It’s the classic Russian blame somebody else response.

This is all just sports, of course, but it does make you think:  how can we ever trust these guys?  If the Russians are flagrantly and systematically cheating at sports events, and Russian agents are interfering with testing to allow the cheating to continue, how can we ever credit their agreement to any kind of treaty or peace accord?

 

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The Ruble’s Ruin

Does anyone remember learning in history class about the economy of the Weimar Republic — the ill-fated government of Germany between World War I and the ascendance of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party?  It experienced hyperinflation and financial calamity, and we read about Germans needing wheelbarrows of cash to buy even a loaf of bread.

We think that couldn’t happen anymore in the modern world — but it can.  In fact, it is happening right now in Russia, as a Fortune article reports.  Some people think that Russia’s currency, the ruble, is in a state of irretrievable collapse; its value against other currencies, like the dollar, is plummeting and even draconian increases in Russian interest rates might not stem the tide.

The reason is oil.  It’s Russia’s one big marketable commodity and the bedrock of their  economy.  The price of oil has been falling for months, which has made investors nervous about how Russian companies are going to pay off their debts given the lack of incoming cash.  So, the ruble trades lower, and the ability of Russian companies to pay off debts calculated in foreign currencies becomes harder and harder — which makes defaults even more likely.  By one calculation, the amount of rubles Russian companies need to pay off foreign debt obligations has increased by 90% just since the start of November.

How is Vladimir Putin going to deal with this crisis?  You might be tempted to say this disaster couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy, but let’s resist the impulse to enjoy some schadenfreude.  Putin is adventurous as it is, and you have to wonder whether a destabilizing currency failure is going to make him even more likely to wave his big stick to try to distract from his other problems.  And if Russian companies start defaulting on the more than $670 billion they owe, what is that going to do for the world economy?

Keep an eye out for the wheelbarrows.

The Education of Barack Obama

Last week President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly, which he has done five times before.  He spoke of a “network of death” and the “cancer of violent extremism” in the Middle East and said that “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force” while promising to lead a coalition to find a military solution to the challenge of ISIS.  The President also had sharp words for Russia, describing it as a “bully” and rejecting its “vision of the world in which might makes right.”

Observers have noted that the UN speech represents a dramatic change in the President’s tone and focus.  A National Journal article compares the six UN speeches and shows a President who has been transformed from a believer in “hope” and “change” and a world in which everyone shares a common interest in peace to a man who realizes that there are bad people in the world, that they want to do evil things, and that the only way they can be thwarted is by deeds, not words.  Optimism — about relations with Russia, about common values and shared dreams, about an inexorable arc of progress toward a rosy future — has been replaced by a recognition that the world right now may be teetering on the brink.

Only two years ago, President Obama mocked Mitt Romney’s realpolitick view of the world and America’s role — I thought an unseemly low point for the President in this regard came during a debate discussion about Russia in which he sarcastically stated that the 1980s had called and wanted its foreign policy back — but now the President has come around to largely adopt Romney’s position, and to use language that is reminiscent of President George W. Bush.  He probably won’t acknowledge that fact, but at least he now recognizes the threats we face and is resolved to do something about them.

Conservatives may criticize the President for being late to the game and for failing to more quickly recognize and respond to the threats posed by ISIS, Russia, and other bad actors on the world stage.  That’s fair, I suppose, but I think most of us learn from experience and modify our views of the world as we go through life.  President Obama also is learning the lessons taught by the School of Hard Knocks.  As we all know, such lessons can painful, but we can hope in this instance that they are lessons that are well-learned.

Time To Skip A Few Fundraisers

Yesterday Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein of California was asked about whether President Obama should alter his current schedule, which includes attending a number of fundraising events, so that he can focus more on some of the crises in the world, such as the downing of the passenger jet over the Ukraine by pro-Russian forces, the surge by ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the escalated Israeli-Palestinian fighting in Gaza.  Senator Feinstein’s response was delicately phrased.  She said that the world would very much respect his “increased attention” to these matters, because the Leader of the Free World needs to lead in such times.

President Obama has attended a lot of fundraisers during his tenure in office.  The Washington Post recently calculated that he has held 393 fundraisers while in office, which is more than George W. Bush’s total during his full two terms but not quite as many as Bill Clinton’s record.  It’s not hard to understand why Presidents like fundraisers.  By definition, it’s a friendly gathering — after all, everyone else in attendance is ponying up thousands of dollars to be there, and obviously they’re not paying that much for the food — and at the end of the event the President can see tangible results and tote up the money he’s raised to support candidates who will support his agenda.

The Obama Administration no doubt would contend that the President is fully in touch with his national security team and capable of dealing with these crises whether he’s in the Oval Office or wearing a tux at some glittering event.  Maybe . . . although the combination of world events and the mess at our border raise legitimate questions about whether the President is fully in control of events.  In any case, I think Senator Feinstein has put her finger on something significant.

Appearances and messaging are important in today’s world.  It’s hard to successfully characterize something as a crisis if you can’t be bothered to change your schedule and skip non-essential events in order to work the phones with international leaders and build working coalitions to deal with the problem.  When the President goes to fundraisers in the midst of these events, he’s implicitly communicating that he is more concerned about Republicans than he is about the Middle East, or the Ukrainian separatist activities, or the influx of unaccompanied minor illegal immigrants.

Senator Feinstein recognizes that — and, I suspect, so do the perpetrators of the events that have given rise to these crises in the first place.  I think it’s time for the President to skip a few fundraisers.

Shooting Down A Commercial Jet Is Unforgivable

I’m not going to leap to conclusions about the terrible downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet, and I’m not going to rush to judgment about what caused the disaster.  Nor am I going to heap criticism on President Obama, as some have, for not saying more about the incident after he learned of it.  With an incident was awful as this, we can and should take the time to determine the true facts before assigning blame and taking action.

I will say this, however — if it is determined that pro-Russian Ukrainian separatists did shoot down the plane with a missile, it is one of the worst, most unforgivable crimes imaginable.  Hundreds of people from a number of different nations boarded this particular jet in Amsterdam, headed to Kuala Lumpur.  They didn’t know that boarding an international flight that was just like countless others would be their doom.  The jet flew through peaceful airspace, where there had been no warning of any danger.  The people on the plane were absolutely defenseless against an attack.  Anyone who would shoot down a plane under those circumstances — even if it was a case of mistaken identity — simply does not deserve to live in the modern, civilized world.

If a missile attack in fact occurred, whoever was responsible for this outrage must be punished, and the punishment should come from every nation that had citizens aboard that jet.  If Ukrainian separatists were the culprits, then the United States should side with the Ukrainian government and do whatever it can to defeat the separatists, learn who perpetrated this act, bring them to justice, and see that they are appropriately punished.  If Russia wants to be accepted as a responsible figure on the international scene, it should do likewise — and so should every other country that has an international airport.

I’m tired of mealy-mouthed responses to criminal, terrorist acts that demand swift and sure action.  If commercial jets can be shot from the skies without fear of prompt and painful retribution, then the world has become a grimmer, darker place.  We simply cannot permit such acts to go unpunished.  Let’s get the facts, get them quickly, and then take meaningful steps against whoever perpetrated this awful crime.

Romantic Russians

We all have our views on what constitutes romance. On Seinfeld, Kramer once expounded on the “timeless art of seduction” — only to find that his awkward efforts were misunderstood by just about everyone who saw them.

So, who’s to say what constitutes romance in Russia? A volatile mix of vodka, poor dental hygiene, and absolute, frenzied desperation would explain why someone yearning for companionship might pose in a cheap, poorly made mermaid’s costume, in the trunk of a car, in a rain puddle in the middle of street, or on a heap of trash, and post the picture on a Russian dating website. And what else but high-octane alcohol and hopelessness might cause a person to think that a fox head cap might be the key to unlocking the hearts of the opposite sex?

So, judge not. If you were trapped in a soulless, mind-numbing existence on the outskirts of Moscow, you might be tempted to post an evocative pose with a banana or a see through spider web hat, or a photo that makes it look like you are ready to disembowel the next poor, lonely wretch who is willing to be alone in a room with you.

The Perils Of Foreign Policy Hubris

Things aren’t going real well on the foreign policy front for the U.S. of A. these days.

Among other areas of concern, mass killings are continuing in Syria. Iran is moving closer to nuclear capability. North Korea is rattling its sabers. And Russia appears poised to annex the Crimea, and has accused the United States — of all things — of conducting foreign policy under the “rule of the gun.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

No American, regardless of their political affiliation, should be happy with this state of affairs in this dangerous world. I’m not sure, either, how much influence American foreign policy has had on any of these developments. I’m not saying that the U.S. is powerless, but I also believe that we cannot fully control everything that happens in the world.

That’s why I’d encourage every American administration, regardless of party, to avoid displaying tremendous hubris about foreign policy. When President Obama took office, he famously promised to practice “smart” foreign policy and had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly present a “reset” button for U.S. relations with Russia to the Russian Minister — an odd attempt to marry foreign policy with a campaign-style photo opportunity. Odd, isn’t it, that the new American government would so publicly attempt to distance itself from the preceding administration’s policy? It shows how far we’ve come from the approach that prevailed for most of the 20th century, when Republicans and Democrats alike contended that partisanship ended at our borders and pursued uniform policies, like “containment,” that were followed for decades by administrations of both parties.

No doubt the Obama Administration, from the President on down, legitimately believed that it would be able to produce better relations with Russia — but obviously that didn’t happen. Their supreme confidence in their own ability to control world affairs was sorely misplaced. Now, with Russia moving aggressively to annex territory and intimidate its neighbors, the Obama Administration and its grand promises and “reset” button photo ops look foolish. The embarrassing contrast of the empty “reset” button with the reality of Russian military and geopolitical maneuvering makes the current situation all the more injurious to American credibility in world affairs.

Hubris is never an attractive quality. We’re now seeing that, in foreign affairs, it can have disastrous consequences. Let’s hope that the next presidential administration recognizes that fact.