US situation: Conflict with China and Russia plus turmoil domestically

Conflict is the watchword for what I’m seeing in the US now. Though the US is settling trade disputes with allies, the tension internally and with geopolitical rivals Russia and China has increased.

In the case of China, I would look at this as the beginning of a new cold war. And it happening against a backdrop of the US riven by disharmony domestically. In the case of Russia, despite US President Trump’s own positive views on Putin and Russia, evidence is mounting that the US sees Russia as a rogue force bent to be countered almost as forcefully as China.

My thoughts are below, using recent news headlines as jumping off points.

1 – Kavanaugh

Brett Kavanaugh just passed a cloture vote by the full Senate, with all Democrats voting no except West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, who is in a tough re-election fight, and all Republicans voting yes except Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. So the procedural vote tally came out at 51-49 in favor of putting Kavanaugh forward for a full vote to become the next associate justice of the US Supreme Court.

Personally, I don’t think it matters how loutish Brett Kavanaugh was in high school or college. This was over 30 years ago. And while I believe the FBI background check was deficient, I don’t believe any conclusive evidence proving Kavanaugh was guilty of sexual assault has been presented.

Having said that, I believe that Kavanaugh has conducted himself in a partisan and untruthful manner that disqualifies him. Many people agree with that assessment. So, if Kavanaugh gets through, the US Supreme Court will effectively be delegitimized as an impartial arbiter of law, setting the stage for an all out (non-military) civil war.

I think the Democrats will try and stack the court or impeach Kavanaugh if they take over Congress. The US has rarely been so divided. It’s farcical, banana-republic stuff, folks.

2 – The Argument against Kavanaugh

On its merits, I think the New York Times put it best in their editorial board opinion piece today. Here are the parts I would highlight that make sense. This is long, but do read it. It’s important:

The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court, as much as any development in the challenging era of Donald Trump, is testing America’s politicians and its civic institutions…

In this crucible of power politics, of bullying and posturing and rage, no one has been more severely tested than Judge Kavanaugh. If he believes himself innocent of sexual assault — if he is innocent of sexual assault — the test, to him, can only appear monstrous.

Yet unfair as the test might seem to the judge and his supporters… Judge Kavanaugh failed, decisively.

How? First, he gave misleading answers under oath. Judges — particularly Supreme Court justices — must have, and be seen as having, unimpeachable integrity. The knuckleheaded mistakes of a young person — drinking too much, writing offensive things in a high school yearbook — should not in themselves be bars to high office. But deliberately misleading senators about them during a confirmation process has to be. If Judge Kavanaugh will lie about small things, won’t he lie about big ones as well?

Indeed he already has: During the course of his confirmation hearings, he claimed, implausibly, that he was not aware that files he received from a Senate staff member, some labeled “highly confidential” or “intel,” had been stolen from Democratic computers

Second, confronted with the accusations against him, Judge Kavanaugh made recourse not to reason and methodical process, but to fury and the rawest partisanship. Judges — particularly Supreme Court justices — must strive to be, and be seen as, above politics. As Judge Kavanaugh said in a 2015 speech, “to be a good judge and a good umpire, it’s important to have the proper demeanor.” He added: “To keep our emotions in check. To be calm amidst the storm. On the bench, to put it in the vernacular, don’t be a jerk.”

Wise words. He wasn’t able to live by them when it mattered. At last week’s hearing, Judge Kavanaugh was a jerk. He spun dark visions of a Democratic conspiracy of vengeance against him. He yelled at Democratic senators, interrupted them frequently, refused to answer questions directly and, at one point, confronted Senator Amy Klobuchar, who had asked him whether he had ever blacked out from drinking.

“I don’t know,” Judge Kavanaugh sneered. “Have you?” This contempt came only moments after Ms. Klobuchar told Judge Kavanaugh about her father’s struggles with alcoholism.

Was Judge Kavanaugh truly out of control, in rage and pain, as he appeared, or had he calculated that a partisan attack would rally President Trump and Republican senators to his side, as it did? (We all know he was capable of a more temperate response to the accusations: He’d demonstrated that just a couple of nights earlier, in his interview with Fox News.) For purposes of Senate confirmation, it shouldn’t matter. Such a lack of self-control, or such open and radical partisanship, ought to be unacceptable in a judge.

And indeed, on Thursday, the retired Justice John Paul Stevens, who was appointed by a Republican president, took the astonishing step of saying that Judge Kavanaugh’s performance before the Judiciary Committee should disqualify him from the court. “Senators should really pay attention to it,” he said.

I think that’s the case against Kavanaugh. First, he is a liar. Second, he is a partisan. Third, he doesn’t have judicial temperament.

Now, Trump, seeing this, could pull the nomination and back another conservative jurist who is less divisive. But, Trump is not about uniting the country. And his party wants this to happen before the election. So we are likely to get Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh. And that’s going to put us figuratively at war.

3 – China is hacking the US

Meanwhile, Bloomberg has a story out about Chinese espionage using the technology supply chain.

The attack by Chinese spies reached almost 30 U.S. companies, including Amazon and Apple, by compromising America’s technology supply chain, according to extensive interviews with government and corporate sources…

In 2015, Inc. began quietly evaluating a startup called Elemental Technologies, a potential acquisition to help with a major expansion of its streaming video service, known today as Amazon Prime Video. Based in Portland, Ore., Elemental made software for compressing massive video files and formatting them for different devices. Its technology had helped stream the Olympic Games online, communicate with the International Space Station, and funnel drone footage to the Central Intelligence Agency. Elemental’s national security contracts weren’t the main reason for the proposed acquisition, but they fit nicely with Amazon’s government businesses, such as the highly secure cloud that Amazon Web Services (AWS) was building for the CIA.

Nested on the servers’ motherboards, the testers found a tiny microchip, not much bigger than a grain of rice, that wasn’t part of the boards’ original design. Amazon reported the discovery to U.S. authorities, sending a shudder through the intelligence community. Elemental’s servers could be found in Department of Defense data centers, the CIA’s drone operations, and the onboard networks of Navy warships…

The chips had been inserted during the manufacturing process, two officials say, by operatives from a unit of the People’s Liberation Army. In Supermicro, China’s spies appear to have found a perfect conduit for what U.S. officials now describe as the most significant supply chain attack known to have been carried out against American companies.

What will the fallout of this affair be? Certainly it means the tariff fight will escalate. That’s a given. But I think it spells the end of ‘openness’ on technology and the Internet. And this isn’t just about the US and China but Europe, Russia and every other country and region that is an important actor on the world’s economic stage.

How do you know that Cisco Systems isn’t a trojan horse for US government interests? How do you know Kaspersky Labs isn’t giving all of its data to the Russian government through some backdoor? You don’t. And you can’t ever. Now that we know definitively that one major government has used one of its companies’ position in the technology supply chain to spy, we should expect that supply chain to re-nationalize.

This, of course, makes Taiwan an important issue to the degree the Chinese ever want to re-assert control over the Island because doing so would solidify Cina’s indispensability in the technology supply chain. There are a lot of potential outcomes here – and most of them are bad.

4 – Russia’s espionage and hacking in the UK, Netherlands and US

Here’s the Wall Street Journal:

The Dutch government said early Thursday its intelligence services had disrupted a Russian plot to hack into the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague in April. Authorities said Russian officers tried to compromise the Wi-Fi network of the global watchdog, which had confirmed that chemical weapons were used as part of the attempted murder of the former Russian officer.

U.S. authorities then unsealed an indictment of seven Russian intelligence officers, including those who allegedly participated in The Hague effort, charging them with that and other malicious cyber efforts.

The officers worked from 2014 through this year, the indictment alleged, to hack into the networks of international antidoping organizations and officials’ email accounts. Russia’s widespread doping scheme resulted in the country’s being banned from using its flag or anthem during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games.

Moscow strongly rejected the claims on Thursday.

This is bad. All of this cases are very different. So the fact that these three governments are coming together and packaging them as one underscores the sense that this is war. Basically, the UK, the US and the Netherlands are saying that the West is in a cyberwar with Russia and that Russia must be defeated.

So what happens next? I don’t see Russia backing down and admitting it has done anything. More likely, they will continue to probe the West’s cyber defenses, waiting for a response. Eventually that response will be draconian sanctions by the West on Russia, with Russia’s natural gas exports to Europe as the key mitigating point of leverage.

Would Europe sanction Russia to the point that Russia uses natural gas as an economic weapon? Maybe. But despite Trump’s preference for detente, we are likely to see escalation with Russia, just as we have seen with China.

My thoughts

It’s remarkable that this is happening against the backdrop of the lowest unemployment rate in half a century. The GDPNow tracker updated today at 4.1% for the US in Q3. That’s huge. Yet, within the US, divisions have seldom been greater. And outside the US, tensions with the two greatest rivals are rising.

If this is the situation in the best of times, what happens in the worst of times?

Am I too alarmist?

P.S. – Hitler claimed to have achieved full employment in Germany by 1939. Meanwhile, in the US, there were five million people unemployed even at the end of 1941 when the US entered the war.

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