Downfalls at Home and Abroad

From Albany to Afghanistan, how the mighty are fallen. And the lessons we need to learn, as we try to hold the powerful to account for their ways.

“You can’t talk a nail into going into a board. You can’t charm the nail into a board. It has to be hit with a hammer.” That’s outgoing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo trying to put lipstick on his piggishness, as reported by Andrew Rice and Laura Nahmias in a must-read piece for New York magazine on the collapse of his regime. Well, when you think you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Good riddance.

Cuomo’s downfall was swifter than expected. Attorney General Tish James’ report on his illegal and toxic behavior came out August 3rd; he announced his resignation a week later. His swift departure was a parting gift to Albany’s incumbent class. Now state legislators can turn the page instead of having to shed more light on how so many people could have enabled Cuomo’s behavior for so long. That’s assuming New Yorkers let them. But we might not.

Do not forget: In 2019, when the state legislature voted to tighten workplace harassment rules by amending its human rights law, it kept a loophole exempting elected or appointed officials and their personal staff. A bill to fix that passed the state Senate in 2020 but died in the Assembly. Women legislators and staffers say Albany hasn’t changed. “All this stuff [New York politicians say] about ‘we believe women’ and ‘we have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment’ … it’s lies,” Chloe Rivera, a policy analyst who worked for the late Assemblyman and Brooklyn Democratic boss Vito Lopez, told Katelyn Fossett of Politico.

Also do not forget: When the Cuomo harassment scandal broke wide open earlier this year, longtime Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie tried to resist calls for an impeachment inquiry by his chamber, arguing on a conference call with his fellow Assembly Democrats that “These days any one of us in this place could be accused.”

Now, three days after Cuomo’s resignation, Heastie chose to abruptly shut down his Judiciary Committee’s $5 million impeachment investigation, claiming that the state Constitution doesn’t “authorize the legislature to impeach and remove an elected official who is no longer in office.” As Albert Fox Cahn, the founder of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, wrote for the Gotham Gazette, Heastie’s claim was based on an extremely flimsy legal analysis that falls apart under just the slightest scrutiny.

[Above: Cuomo and Heastie in happier days.]

Heastie’s hasty action prompted powerful statements from Cuomo’s victims, like Charlotte Bennett and Lindsey Boylan. Bennett said that Heastie was sending a message, that “there are two sets of rules, one for us, and one for him and his friends.” Even normally quiet members of the Judiciary Committee spoke out to say they hadn’t been consulted by him.

As of this morning, Heastie has retreated, announcing that the Judiciary Committee “will continue to review evidence and issue a final report on its investigation of Governor Cuomo.” This is a baby step towards real accountability. In addition to “reviewing” evidence, the committee should hold public hearings and make a formal recommendation that Cuomo be impeached and then prevented from running for office. Nothing less will represent anything like a real housecleaning. Here’s a list of its members; let them know what you think.

Why does this matter? New York is nominally a Democratic state, with twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans. But Albany has long operated according to its own rules, which have little to do with listening to the public. As a result, we are also one of the most unequal states in the country, where public education, housing and health care goes underfunded and major efforts to address climate change remain stymied. The state’s dominant business interests, notably the real estate industry, Wall Street, and the medical sector, liked that Cuomo was willing to stand in the way of progress.

“He was an extremely effective governor for the first eight years, and he kept things balanced,” Kathryn Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, the business lobbying group, told New York magazine. “The governor is a world-class asshole,” one New York real-estate developer speaking anonymously told the magazine, but, he added, “the guy was an incredibly centrist hedge against what I perceive to be a runaway legislature. He was very good at manipulating the power of his office, and I think from a policy standpoint the business community has to be afraid of the State Legislature becoming fairly unhinged and flying too far to the left.” So we have unfinished business in New York.

Kabul-shit

Speaking of faster than expected downfalls, the Serious People who got us into Afghanistan for twenty years are now all wringing their hands about the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government to the Taliban. Kristen Rouse, a decorated Afghanistan Army veteran who started the NYC Veterans Alliance at Civic Hall, said it best: “It’s like watching the Titanic sink and only the crew survives.”

It’s also like watching the Titanic sink after successive captains and crew have told the passengers again and again that the ship was impregnable, that the money spent on it had bought only the best furnishings, and that it was on course on a safe journey. Are any of the people working on combating disinformation spending any time on fighting one of the biggest sources of fake news in America, the Pentagon? If so, I haven’t noticed.

A little less than two years ago, The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock published “The Afghanistan Papers,” a highly revealing trove of government documents that showed how “senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

“Every data point was altered to present the best picture possible,” Bob Crowley, an Army colonel who served as a senior counterinsurgency adviser to U.S. military commanders in 2013 and 2014, told government interviewers. “Surveys, for instance, were totally unreliable but reinforced that everything we were doing was right and we became a self-licking ice cream cone.”

As early as 2002, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of the primary engineers of the war, was begging his subordinates for “help!” devising a strategy that would allow the US to leave Afghanistan with some semblance of stability. By 2003, he admitted that the military had “no visibility into who the bad guys are.” Bereft of any clear strategy, hawks on both sides of the aisle pushed more than $133 billion into the country, fueling massive corruption. By 2006, one top Army adviser had concluded that Hamid Karzai’s government had “self-organized into a kleptocracy.” (That means rule by theives.) Chester Crocker, a top U.S. diplomat in Kabul, said “Our biggest single project, sadly and inadvertently, of course, may have been the development of mass corruption.”

And the corruption wasn’t just local Afghan warlords siphoning pallets of American dollars down their gullets. American warlords did very well thanks to Afghanistan, as Andrew Cockburn points out in The Spectator. “For them, the whole adventure has been a thumping success, as measured in the trillions of taxpayer dollars that have flowed through their budgets and profits over the two decades in which they successfully maintained the operation.” He points to the announcement in July that the Pentagon would be giving the Afghan air force 37 UH-60 helicopters, worth $450 million. Few of these helicopters fly for very long in Afghanistan because the local engineers are “entirely incapable of maintaining the complex machines,” he notes. But Lockheed-Martin, their maker, surely appreciated the appropriation.

A half billion worth of Italian transport planes, also paid for by US taxpayers, were abandoned as soon as they arrived in country because they were the wrong planes for the altitude and weather. They now sit at the edge of Kabul airport, “rusting, with trees growing through them.” No one was fired or disciplined for this screw-up, Cockburn notes. John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, told him “I doubt that anyone missed a promotion, or even a bonus. Welcome to my world.”

Sixty years ago, outgoing President Dwight Eisenhower (a Republican!) warned us in his last speech as president. “Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry. American makers of plowshares could, with time and as required, make swords as well. But now we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense; we have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions…This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

As Michael Tomasky points out in a great column in The New Republic examining how his own thinking about America’s recent wars of choice has evolved, the $6 trillion that we’ve spent on failed adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq is the equivalent, in inflation adjusted numbers, of 35 Marshall Plans. We could have rebuilt Western Europe dozens of times over. Instead we enriched American arms-makers and watched as between 2008 and 2018 at least 380 high-ranking department officials and military officers became lobbyists, board members, executives, or consultants for defense contractors within two years of taking off their uniforms.

As Cockburn writes, “James Mattis, to take one prominent example, retired as a four-star Marine general, ascended to the board of leading defense contractor General Dynamics where he served for three years, taking home $900,000 in compensation, then spent two years as Trump’s defense secretary, after which he returned to the General Dynamics board. Lloyd Austin, the current secretary of defense, garnered as much as $1.7 million worth of stock as a director of Raytheon, the nation’s second-largest defense contractor, in the four years between retiring from the army and assuming his current august post, along with other lucrative positions in the defense business.”

Two years ago, when the Afghanistan Papers came out, my then-Congressman Eliot Engel, who was the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, promised that he would hold hearings on their import, “to seek answers about what went wrong in Afghanistan and how to bring the war to an end.” He held one hearing and did nothing more.

When government leaders from both parties lie about the most important thing it can call Americans to do--fight and die in a war of choice--why should we think Americans will trust the government on other matters?

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Odds and Ends

-Google, Facebook and Amazon fund hundreds of think tanks, advocacy groups and even local chambers of commerce, subtly tilting the public arena towards their interest. Now thanks to a new database from the Tech Transparency Project, you can see at a glance who has received funding from these Big Tech companies since 2015.

-Maia Szalavitz reports for Wired on how a drug addiction risk algorithm called NarxCare has become central to denying many people with chronic pain access to vital medications.

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