Streetwise Professor

July 9, 2010

Trading Places*

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Sports — The Professor @ 1:40 pm

Two major trades took place yesterday: the Russian-US spy exchange, and Lebron James’s trading Cleveland for Miami.

The haste with which the Russian spy episode ended is unsettling.  The rapidity with which the swap was arranged was a clear exception to historical practice.

Merely from an intelligence angle, it would be desirable to squeeze as much information from the ten individuals as possible.  That can’t happen overnight.  Reports are that the FBI is confident that they know all there is to know about this group and its connections.  But you don’t know what you don’t know; prudence would recommend a more thorough probing.  You have to ask questions.  Do the spadework to see if the answers add up.  If not, keep at it.  But it takes time to ask enough questions and investigate enough answers to determine whether you’ve squeezed out all the information you can.  And it may take a while in incarceration to convince people that their best interests are to cooperate completely.

Moreover, just keeping these people awhile would make some folks in Moscow nervous.   That could lead them to back off on other heretofore undiscovered operations out of fear that they have been compromised, or make a move that could lead to the disclosure of such an operation.  Not likely, but a possibility.

Moreover, the trade ratio–10 for 4, where the 4 includes one guy who is arguably innocent of espionage, and is certainly completely different from the illegals captured in the US–looks imbalanced.  The haste, the imbalance, and the palpable embarrassment of the administration (especially the State Department) that has been evident since the story broke, make the release look all too much like an apology.  This validates the Russian whines that they are the injured party.  I’ll bet dimes to donuts that that’s the way it is portrayed in Russia as soon as the 10 hit the Motherland.

You can bet that Putin in particular is snickering.  You know what he would do if he had been in our position.  He would have squeezed it for all it was worth.  He certainly wouldn’t be taking actions to let us save face, as we are clearly doing with the Russians.  He wouldn’t trying to get this “behind us” quickly: he’d be milking it.  This will only enhance the disdain he has for Obama.

It is evident that the “Reset” trumps all.  But if this is supposed to be a two way street, there should be some reciprocity in behavior.  The continued operation of an aggressive group of illegals hardly screams a changed Russian attitude.  And the “no harm, no foul” attitude taken by the US, and the clear anxiousness in the US to brush aside the episode will no doubt convince some Russian decision makers to conclude “if they let us get away with this in order to preserve the reset, what else can we get away with?”  The US approach communicates a certain neediness, a certain desperation to improve relations.  That’s how chumps negotiate.  And the Russians are nothing if not ruthless in exploiting chumps.

I’m not suggesting that a hysterical public campaign (a la Russia after the British spy rock in the park episode) is necessary; an extended period of public silence on the issue while the individuals remain in custody would communicate that although improved relations are desired, not everything will be tolerated to achieve that end.  That would make a true improvement of relations more likely than indulging the bad behavior of your desired interlocutor.

Moving to the other (more trivial) trade of places, I should say at the outset that my once intense interest in pro basketball waned, and dramatically, after Jordan’s retirement.  As a result, I really couldn’t care less about Lebron James.  Indeed, at the risk of sounding like a sports curmudgeon, the whole James phenomenon is emblematic of the reasons why I can’t take most pro sports that seriously anymore.

The one thing that did catch my interest (while watching Sports Center on the elliptical this morning) was Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert’s outraged reaction to the James departure.  His response screams cognitive dissonance.   He considers James’s bolting for Miami a betrayal, and he clearly was willing to pay James as much as allowed under the rules to keep him.  But at the same time, he blasted James for his narcissism.  (A narcissistic NBA player?  What IS the world coming to?)  He also made the rather inflammatory charge that James was a cancer (my word but a fair summary of how Gilbert described him) who quit in all but one game of the Conference Finals against the Celtics.  So, if he’s a cancer, and a quitter who fails during the critical games (something that could never be said of Jordan, or Kobe Bryant, for that matter), why would you want him on your team? Why would you offer him huge money?  Why would you consider it a betrayal for him to go elsewhere?  Why not celebrate the selfish decision of someone you consider a jerk to take his “curse” somewhere else, and say “good riddance”?

In a way, Gilbert’s reaction is symptomatic of why the NBA has devolved in the way it has.  Marquee players are necessary to win, but not sufficient.  Marquee players are, for the most part, insufferable jerks.  Understandably so, but insufferable jerks nonetheless.  So, no doubt Gilbert is not alone in having a love-hate attitude towards superstars.  It’s just rather interesting to see the show-the-love-show-the-hate sides of this attitude in such close proximity–and in public.

* H/T Renee for her idea to pair these stories in a single post under this title.

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  1. Chris Bosh appears to be the difference maker in LeBron James’ decision. The former declined going to Cleveland, while saying that he was interested in playing with the latter elsewhere.

    The mentioned 10 (going to Russia) to 4 (going West) ratio and punditry on the subject suggests that the folks sent to Russia were of no great intelligence gathering value. They were supposedly tailed for a prolonged period. Hence, the reasonable thought that their greatest value was as trade bait.

    We see how “ruthless” the Russians are in letting folks who bash Russia leave and reenter that country. This includes Yulia Latynina who (as I understand) recently suggested that Edward Lozansky and Dmitry Simes are somewhere along the lines of the group just sent to Russia.

    Of related note:

    Fortunately, this issue seeems like it will not hijack other matters. Countries considered as allies spy on each other.

    Comment by Siegfried — July 9, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

  2. The whole affair can be looked at from a different angle: instead of providing the spies with rightfully deserved stays in comfy American prisons, the administration has inhumanely kicked them out into the wilderness where one can hardly take a suburban train without facing the choice among simple suffocation, death by crushing and electrocution:

    Comment by Ivan — July 9, 2010 @ 5:51 pm

  3. I don’t understand. How is trading four real spies for ten ‘may have eventually paid off’ nothings a bad deal? Those Russia is passing back have actually accomplished something – those the US is passing haven’t. Why would Russia ever agree to trade ten real spies for ten fakes like this?

    Comment by Andrew — July 9, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

  4. It has been suggested to prevent any further embarrassment of how inept that lot was as spies.

    This view also relates to Russian government involved efforts in PR and media. Two factors might very well concern why that issue isn’t so critically assessed

    – Some influential people in Russia personally benefit from the existing status quo

    – Still yet, some influential others elsewhere as well as in Russia aren’t particularly interested in seeing a better presentation of mainstream Russian views.

    Comment by Siegfried — July 9, 2010 @ 11:23 pm

  5. three

    Comment by peter — July 10, 2010 @ 4:49 am

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