Non-sequitor in the theme of Martin Gurri

It’s sort of obvious, but I think a lot of the establishment’s hand-wringing about the “threat” of Trump is simply wilt under the hot lights of scrutiny. The establishment regards themselves as society’s scientist, analyst, administrator, and judge. They (like most people) do not like to be studied, analyzed, administered or judged. Indeed, much of their authority turns on the notion that they are the ones who ought to scrutinize, and not be scrutinized. The political and legal system that they prefer similarly rests on the assumption that they will be at the helm–regulation is great, so long as you’re doing the regulating.

Like other “structural” claims, the establishment-beneficiaries have a hard time seeing it that way. They don’t notice the gravitational pull of capital “I” institutions–institutions they grew up with–slowly drawing them towards positions of authority (media, civil service, academia). They similarly don’t notice the way these institutions encourage them not to notice by reinforcing their stature as the analysts, and not the analyzed. It’s not surprising therefore that when Trump turned the camera around, establishment types genuinely perceived a real threat to (their notions of) order.

Thiel’s Gawker lawsuit is particularly striking in that regard. To be clear, I think liability for speech ought to be very carefully circumscribed. Still, it remains the case that journalists wield an enormous amount of influence–just ask any journalist about the importance of journalism–and yet bear few of the costs that flow from their words. Journalists can create self-fulfilling narratives simply by purporting to speak for the consensus, given the way perceived consensus effects human cognition. That is, we are inclined to believe something if we think that others believe it–which is an impression journalists can easily create. Athletes, for example, have learned to turn the other cheek (for the most part) because getting into a war of words with a full time professional scribe is a losing battle. Taking on the media is like starting a lawsuit where only one side gets to write briefs.

The media is not the only institution afforded special treatment–government officials and non-government officials (academics, etc.) similarly can prognosticate, condemn and recommend as they see fit (like bloggers!). By contrast, when it comes to advertising or the sale of securities, for example, people face liability for fraud and “consumer protection” law. So what’s the difference? Only the living, breathing soul of DEMOCRACY, dummy.

Journalists, by happy coincidence, enjoy the broad protections of the First Amendment that give them more or less carte blanche (relative to the rest of us folks) to say what they want, however they want. Academics too, make their own claims to unfettered academic freedom. Government officials (and other “public servants”) have variations of immunity because if they were held accountable for their actions . . . government would cease to function (!).

Again, I’m largely supportive of this framework (but I would apply it more liberally to commercial speech as well). It’s still remarkable, however, to witness the collective freakout when *gasp* Thiel suggested there should be some limits to journalistic discretion, by forbidding the publication of private sex tapes. For people who regularly turn the bright lights of “truth to power” scrutiny on others–calling for more oversight of that, and more limitations on this–you’d think they would empathize just a little bit with Thiel’s efforts.

It’s not like Thiel suggested something so onerous as regulation, for example. Can you imagine if journos had their own version of 12(b)(6)? Every newspaper article would read like a securities filing and journos would (rightfully) mourn the demise of journalism. Thiel simply sought liability for a highly specific form of public embarrassment that serves no other purpose than to embarrass and that’s considered a broadside to press freedom? C’mon, now. [Note: sometimes I think more regulation for the media would be a good thing solely to give the media firsthand experience of regulation, which I’m confident would significantly dim their faith in the efficacy and fairness of regulation.]

That the MSM continues to fret about Trump’s war on the media, fake news–this was downright precious–and connections to Bannon just speaks to the enduring power of their own mythology (over themselves). Instead of internalizing their own failure to see (in them) what Trump and millions others saw, the MSM continues to double down: “Goddammit! Can’t you tell how important we are?! We’re the DEMOCRACY! How will you know what to think, do and say without us?!” For all their sober analysis, the one hypothesis the MSM refuse to consider is that they’re not the gatekeepers they thought they were. If they were to entertain that thought a little longer, they might consider that *heaven forbid* it is they that ought to be patronized to, rather than they doing the patronizing.

It’s no wonder the establishment considers Trump to be a waking nightmare.

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What’s in it for Obama?

In the aftermath of Res. 2334, I continue to struggle to understand what Obama intends to accomplish through (in)action.

One possibility is that he hopes to impose a cost on Israel for supposedly jeopardizing the 2SS. If that were the case, though, why not take action months or years ago? How can Obama possibly hope to meaningfully intervene in the conflict when he will be in no position to effectuate his policies in less than a month?

Obama’s status as a lame duck is accentuated by the fact that his successor is manifestly opposed to much of Obama’s vision for the region, or his desire to isolate Israel as a means of achieving that vision. If anything, by sending a strong signal, Obama has motivated Trump to send a strong counter signal, which makes the decision even more counterproductive, if Obama is genuinely interested in effecting change.

Another possibility is that I am overestimating Obama’s coherence and strategy and underestimating his vanity. In other words, Obama may have (in)acted simply because the opportunity presented itself and after years of trying to bend Bibi to his view of the world (which Obama no longer needs to do), Obama decided to let his true feelings show. Obama did not in fact “orchestrate” the resolution (although I find that unlikely), and did not in fact consider its consequences–other than to his own legacy. Regardless of how the resolution would effect the actual conflict, either by motivating Trump or by diminishing the PA’s incentives to negotiate, Obama wanted to make sure the world knew how he really felt. That goal is important to him either to appeal to certain constituencies in anticipation of his ex-presidential career, or simply to show the world the depth of his intelligence, fairness and pragmatism. Under that analysis, Res. 2334 functions effectively an op-ed, based on the delicious conceit that Obama’s observations and wisdom are so clearheaded that the world is better place simply for having them spoken out loud. Obama is, as others have suggested, Jimmy Carter redux.

As I wrote previously, the most charitable interpretation of Obama’s decision is that he wants the inevitable Trump counterpunch. That like Clinton and W. before him, Obama has realized that the PA will not agree to a state for as long as statelessness remains such a profitable enterprise. By waiting for the last minute, he rather brilliantly opens the door for the next administration to make meaningful changes, while preserving his own legacy as a true man of the left. That would make Obama a true political mastermind.

If not that, I’m forced to conclude either that (a) Obama is a moron, i.e. he sincerely prefers the policy set forth by the resolution, but he is incapable of thinking more than one or two steps ahead; or (b) Obama is strategic and vain, first and foremost, who would use the teetering remains of both an institution and policy he actually believes in as a global platform to bask in his own righteousness. Given what Obama has accomplished, I find those two theories difficult to accept, but no easier to accept than the Carrow-esque Great Man of History theory above.

Or maybe he just said “fuck it, I’m tired of being strategic, and this is how I feel and I’m president, so deal with it.”

Game Theory and the UNSC Resolution Re. Settlements

1. As with most things UN/International Law, there is more sound than fury. The practical implications may extend no further than the next news cycle.

2. If one is genuinely interested in a peaceful resolution, taking the question of settlements off the table is a tactical error, albeit one that Obama made many years ago. Settlement expansion is the primary incentive the PA has to negotiate a final agreement, as opposed to simply holdout and enjoy international aid and sympathy. By freezing the settlements, Obama/UN essentially puts the future Palestinian state in escrow, which is ideal for Palestinian leadership because they can enjoy the fruits of perpetual conflict without suffering any costs. It is not a coincidence that the three Palestinian preconditions for negotiation are non-starters for the Israelis: Right of Return; Divided Jerusalem (including the Temple Mount) and ’48 Armistice Lines. That position tailor-made for perpetual conflict. So-called “anti-normalization” efforts, also known as “anti-peace” efforts, fall into the same bucket.

3. The resolution may backfire for the Palestinians (and the UN), insofar as it provokes a response from Trump/US. Sympathy for the Palestinians (correctly) tends to ebb and flow with sympathy for Arab/Muslims generally, and that sympathy is currently quite low. The victims of car-ramming attacks in Berlin are more likely to sympathize with the victims of car-ramming attacks in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem than their perpetrators. The UN’s stature will be harder to erode, but as with the EU, progressive technocracy and its adherents aren’t winning any popularity contests. At the very least, the resolution is a stick Israel no longer has to fear.

4. In general, reference to “international illegality” is specious. Law is made, and not found. When it comes to public international law, there are few (if any) prior rules with sufficient specificity and precedential value that can be reliably applied in any particular case, or shape the reasonable expectations of the parties. There simply isn’t enough case law, and each new case is simply too complex and distinct to be determined by prior cases. Every issue is more or less sui generis. In other words, if there is any “law” to speak of, it is no better than guesswork and there is very little reason it ought to be followed as good or useful law. When international technocrats declare the settlements “illegal” they are simply expressing their preference for their own technocratic authority: “we told you to stay on that side of the line, and you’re not listening to us!” Whether technocratic say-so is or ought to be authoritative, however, is a different question (that I suspect most people answer in the negative, at least when it applies to them). Likewise, when people cite the “international consensus” on the “illegality” of the settlements, it says nothing about whether the “law” ought to be followed. It’s effectively the same as observing the consensus among international technocrats that international technoracts ought to be listened to. That’s what the kids call “Breaking News.”

5. The most charitable interpretation for Obama is that a reaction from Trump is precisely the thing he is counting on. Obama may well understand that perpetual conflict favors the Palestinian leadership, and while he lacks the political capital or courage to change that equilibrium by turning off the international aid spigot, that does not apply to Trump. Properly motivated, Trump may well end the conflict by giving the Palestinians a take-it-or-leave-it state, while supporting partial annexation and incentivizing normalization. At the same time, he (and Putin) can provide cover for Gulf countries, Egypt and Jordan to say “sorry, our hands are tied and we’ve got bigger fish (Iran and ISIS) to fry.” The strongest push back will come from the humanitarian industrial complex in Europe and (to a lesser extent) the US, but again, their cause celebre faces a healthy dose of skepticism from ordinary Westerners who now have firsthand experience with Israel’s neighbors.