Edited by Sam Thielman
BEFORE WE FULFILL the promise of the headline, I need to address something that isn't in this edition.
The disclosure on Friday that the FBI scoured the National Security Agency's warrantless mass surveillance troves in 2020 to spy on Black Lives Matter demonstrators (and, soon after, January 6ers) is the subject of my next column for The Nation. It wasn't supposed to be—I've been working on a China-Cold-War piece that I guess will now be Column Number 5—but I think the column should be the place to address it, as The Nation's imprimatur is likely to carry more weight than this newsletter's. Also, when the column comes out in early June, journalistic attention will have moved on, so the column stands a better chance of making whatever difference it'll make in two-ish weeks rather than riding a news wave that already seems to have crested and crashed. Finally, I could use a separate payday, as May and June have taken shape as light months here at the newsletter.
If this reads to you like me justifying to myself why the FBI BLM surveillance isn't a FOREVER WARS piece this week, you're right. But if you're a paid subscriber to FOREVER WARS, the column will come to your inbox directly the day The Nation publishes it, just like every one of my Nation columns. Why not upgrade to a paid subscription today and keep this newsletter going strong?
YOU MIGHT REMEMBER FIONA HILL from her testimony in Donald Trump's first impeachment, the one about his efforts to condition military aid to Ukraine on Volodomyr Zelensky doing him "a favor" by announcing a corruption investigation targeting Joe Biden. Hill was National Security Council senior director for Russia when H.R. McMaster, and then John Bolton, ran Trump's NSC, and was an obstacle to Trump pursuing a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin. Perhaps surprisingly for a committed Atlanticist, Hill recently gave a speech that placed the U.S.' difficulty rallying the world beyond Europe against the Russian invasion of Ukraine within the context of an "appetite for a world without a hegemon"—American, Russian or Chinese.
Since February 2022, the antipathy of much of the non-European world to the American response to Russia's invasion has struck U.S. foreign-policy practitioners and commentators as something like a moral failing, or a petulant act of defiance. I'm thinking, for instance, of outgoing Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl scolding last year's Manama Conference that "this region needs to do more" for Ukraine.
Thoughtful people have tried to explain how unpersuasive this sounds to people who aren't NATO enthusiasts—Comfort Ero, president and CEO of the International Crisis Group, gave it a shot in March—but in an address to an Estonian think tank last week, Hill cut to the bone. I'll be honest: I was prepared to wince through a speech titled "Ukraine in The New World Disorder: The Rest's Rebellion Against The United States" and braced myself for yet another foreign policy mandarin expressing disappointment or contempt at foreigners' lack of faith in America’s new Cold War. And backgrounded in Hill's address is a desire I don't share for a restoration of American hegemony. But she makes considerable space to recognize why that's gonna be a no from so much of the world, and slyly subverts her title in the process:
Countries in the Global South’s resistance to U.S. and European appeals for solidarity on Ukraine are an open rebellion. This is a mutiny against what they see as the collective West dominating the international discourse and foisting its problems on everyone else, while brushing aside their priorities on climate change compensation, economic development, and debt relief. The Rest feel constantly marginalized in world affairs. Why in fact are they labeled (as I am reflecting here in this speech) the “Global South,” having previously been called the Third World or the Developing World? Why are they even the “Rest” of the world? They are the world, representing 6.5 billion people. Our terminology reeks of colonialism.
The Cold War era non-aligned movement has reemerged if it ever went away. At present, this is less a cohesive movement than a desire for distance, to be left out of the European mess around Ukraine. But it is also a very clear negative reaction to the American propensity for defining the global order and forcing countries to take sides. As one Indian interlocutor recently exclaimed about Ukraine: “this is your conflict! … We have other pressing matters, our own issues … We are in our own lands on our own sides … Where are you when things go wrong for us?”
Those invested in U.S. hegemony—those who've grown up taking it for granted, those for whom it seems as natural and inevitable as the weather—tend to talk about such concerns in terms of foreigners falling for Russian propaganda. Undergirding such an understanding is an expectation that, as Hill archly frames it, the U.S. still thinks in terms of George W. Bush's infamous post-9/11 demand that the world is either with us or against us. Instead, Hill patiently discusses why that propaganda resonates. "Non-western elites… point out that no-one pushed to sanction the United States when it invaded Afghanistan and then Iraq, even though they were opposed to U.S. intervention, so why should they step up now?," Hill says, and it's not a refutable point.
Surveying the geopolitical horizon, Hill often frames other countries' approaches to the Ukraine invasion in terms of seeking counterweights to America (Brazil), China (India) or the U.N. Security Council (much of the "Global South"). That's key to her point about the appetite for "a world without a hegemon." Hill thinks that ought to guide the U.S. to take "a piecemeal and more transactional approach to identify areas where we can make common cause with other states as well as international and private sector actors" when it comes to Ukraine (and I presume future issues).
Can that tack guide American foreign policy away from the bloc-forming tendencies inherent in our country’s declared grand strategy of "Great Power Competition"? I personally doubt it. Hill has a keen feel for various countries' experience with hegemonic powers, but she doesn't have an economic critique to inform her speech, which leaves her to discuss great-power politics in the non-material terms of "perception," something I tend to think of as question-begging. (What material factors prompt foreign perceptions of the U.S., Russia, China, etc.? What do such perceptions tell us about economic relationships Country X has, doesn't have or seeks to have with Great Power Y?)
Hill wants a transatlantic bulwark against Russian ambitions that have the "maneuverability of an Inuit kayak, not the laborious turns of a supertanker … or an encumbered superpower." It strikes me that we've seen such yearnings before—yearnings to move the U.S. beyond its malignant and extractive relationships with much of the "developing world," as a strategy to outmaneuver its great-power rival. It was the foreign policy of the Kennedy administration, and it could never resolve the fundamental contradiction between the interests of the Cold War and the interests of a world that wanted none of it.
Criticisms aside, Hill's speech avoids the exceptionalism that's fueling American umbrage over much of the world's reluctance to follow where Washington leads. You don't have to agree with her politics to find salience in it.
IN ONE OF THE MOST DYSTOPIAN press releases I've ever read, easily up there with anything I used to cover at WIRED, the U.S. intelligence blue-sky research entity IARPA last week unveiled HAYSTAC, or "Hidden Activity Signal and Trajectory Anomaly Characterization." This endeavor is going to make current surveillance panopticons look quaint. IARPA envisions HAYSTAC as "capable of modeling population movement patterns around the globe and providing alerts when concerning anomalies emerge." It's always more ominous when the euphemisms are understated, especially about the massive human migration that climate change has in store.
As its program manager puts it in the press release, "With HAYSTAC, we have the opportunity to leverage machine learning and advances in artificial intelligence to understand mobility patterns with exceptional clarity. The more robustly we can model normal movements, the more sharply we can identify what is out of the ordinary and foresee a possible emergency.” What assumptions are embedded within these AI models' understandings of "ordinary" and "emergency"? I don't know, but get ready to become a needle in the data-driven eye of HAYSTAC.
SO ELON MUSK tweeted that George Soros, who "hates humanity," reminds him of Magneto and I pinched the bridge of my nose for a couple of seconds.
For those who may not be familiar, in 2018 I wrote an (award-winning) essay for The Daily Beast contextualizing the contemporary right-wing preoccupation with George Soros within the history of antisemitism. There's no need to recap that here. But antisemitism is inextricable from the project of regime legitimation, both political and economic. Antisemitism predates capitalism, but capitalism needs antisemitism as an alibi for itself, since someone's hoarding the wealth of the world. It's better for, say, someone parlaying generational wealth from an apartheid-era emerald fortune into cornering South American lithium and manipulating global public discourse to make people think that a different financial and currency speculator is a life-sucking parasite feeding on humanity. No capitalist is in a position to criticize Soros, for Soros has succeeded at the destructive enterprise that they, too, have undertaken. But capitalists have an interest in presenting the destabilization and exploitation inherent in capitalism as the result not of capitalism, but deviations from capitalism—deviations pursued by a deviant people.
Soros, like Musk, uses his unfathomable, ill-gotten wealth to bring about the world he wants, only Soros is a liberal, and Musk is a reactionary. Not only is Musk demonstrating how capitalism and antisemitism interact when he attacks Soros, he's doing what he did when SpaceX sued the Air Force over the Pentagon-supported Boeing-Lockheed lock on national-security space launches: He's not presenting an alternative to the cartel, he's demanding his place within it. And for any anticapitalist to view Soros as similarly exceptional within the capitalist world—well, that's why they call it the socialism of fools.
To Feilong, Magneto can only ever be a villain. Such disdain is a virtue. The children of Krakoa showed in X-Men #11 (by Hickman and Yu) that they know who offers them liberation and who will only ever ensure their subjugation. But you already knew I'd say that.
SPEAKING OF VILLAINS, Noelle Dunphy's lawsuit against Rudy Giuliani is worth reading in full. Dunphy is highly credible in her accusations of rape and sexual/financial exploitation, as you can tell from all the references to how often recordings exist of Giuliani being monstrous. Rudy Giuliani is exactly who Black, brown and struggling New Yorkers told you he was all through the 1990s, all while local and locally-resident national media dismissed them, explained "Rudy" away, and presented him as a conquering hero of the urban jungle. The story of Rudy Giuliani is a story of media failure on a grand scale. It ironically affirms a broken-windows approach to crimes of the elites. If the press had not helped Giuliani get away with his smaller-scale predations, neither New York, nor the U.S., nor Noelle Dunphy would have had to endure the far larger damage he did when he gained power.
THREE PIECES WORTH READING from pals of mine: Lyle Jeremy Rubin on the military dimensions of the Jordan Neely slaying; Jack Crosby on armed left-wing community-defense cadres; and Ed Pilkington on Abu Zubaydah's torture drawings.
WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #2 is out on June 13! The very next day, June 14, I'll be signing at JHU Comic Books in Manhattan, on 481 3rd Ave., from 3pm to 7pm. JHU did a great event for the debut issue on Staten Island—shouts to Craig and Gore for making my very first signing happen—and I'm honored to be asked back for the second issue, and at the Manhattan location, no less. Come say hi and get your books signed!
This piece has been updated to correctly identify the gems produced at the mine owned in part by Errol Musk—emeralds, not diamonds.