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Fareed Zakaria GPS

Israel Rocked by Protest Against Judicial Reform; How Much Power Should High Courts Have; Interview with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired July 30, 2023 - 10:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria coming to you from New York.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Today on the program, the Knesset votes to take away a key power of Israel's Supreme Court. And as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urges calm, the nation's political center and left erupt in anger.

I'll talk to the "New York Times'" Tom Friedman about the politics involved and with his colleague Emily Bazelon about the legal issues.

Then, the secretary of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, on the good news and the bad news from America's southern border.

Finally, did President Putin use or gain power after Prigozhin's failed mutiny? I'll ask Russian journalist in exile Mikhail Zygar.


ZAKARIA: But first, here's "My Take." The mysterious disappearance of China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang is a timely reminder that the future of U.S.-China relations will be determined not just by American policy, and what's happening domestically in the United States, such as the presidential election campaign, it will also be shaped by developments in China, which at this point are opaque but troubling.

From what outsiders can tell, China is reverting to a Mao era style of politics that we have not seen for decades. More significant than Qin Gang's mysterious removal from power after the authorities attributed his absence to health reasons is the doctoring of Web sites and press releases to expunge his participation and achievements from the past.

Who controls the past controls the future, George Orwell in his novel "1984," and that ominous dictum seems to be the guide to China's elite politics these days. This is a far cry from the technocratic government that Deng Xiaoping ushered in as he reformed China in the 1980s. In those days the Chinese political system seemed a contradiction in terms, a dictatorship that had age gaps or term limits for high offices.

Where else did one see this kind of limitation of authoritarian rule? Today once again there are no limits to the power of China's ruler. What the scholar Elizabeth Economy has called China's third revolution, the first personified by Mao, the second by Deng, and now by Xi is still going strong. That third revolution is not just about domestic politics. Xi has consolidated his own power and put the Chinese Communist Party back at the center of society.

But he has also sought to present a much stronger and more assertive China to the world. And those decisions have had ripple effects across the globe, especially in Asia where China's neighbors have been rattled about Xi's more aggressive posture and policies.

The U.S. has not handled relations with China perfectly. The Biden administration was needlessly confrontational from the outset, publicly abrading Beijing at their first meeting of senior officials. The U.S. has also maintained Donald Trump's tariffs on China despite the fact that they've been expensive failures. Remember it is American consumers who pay for those tariffs, not the Chinese.

Trump provided tens of billion dollars in additional subsidies to farmers just to make up for the losses they suffered because of these policies. And for a while it seemed that American policies towards Beijing were being announced with no effort to maintain a working relationship with China despite its status as the world's second largest economy, a nuclear weapons power with a U.N. veto.

But Biden had as corrected course. Several of his senior officials including the secretaries of State, Commerce and Treasury have met with their Chinese counterparts and tried to stop the decline of relations between the two countries.

Antony Blinken said to me in an interview that world leaders have been telling him that they expected the U.S. and China to build a decent working relationship. The administration is taking seriously the idea that it will restrict only a limited number of high-end technologies from being shared with China using the metaphor of a small yard with a high fence.


Even some American policies that would provoke Chinese opposition such as looming new regulations around U.S. investment into China are now being signal to Chinese in advance in that particular case by Janet Yellen. There are still areas where the U.S. could make a more serious effort.

If the Biden administration wants to have productive military to military dialogue, maintaining Trump-era sanctions on China's Defense minister would seem an odd way to signal that desire. Far better to waive the sanctions so that the two sides can talk and avoid misunderstandings on issues like Taiwan.

But the ball is really in China's court. Unfortunately Chinese policy has been marked been an assertiveness and even bellicosity that has broken sharply with the past three decades. Xi has staked out expansive claims for China in the South China Sea. Increased military activity around Taiwan. Clashed with India in the Himalayas. Demanded that Australia cease any criticism of his country. Pledged his country's unqualified support for Moscow even as Russia's aggression in Ukraine escalates. And he has ramped up criticism of the United States.

None of these policies seem to be working. Countries around China have become far more active in countering Beijing's influence and searching for assistance elsewhere, especially with America. From Japan to the Philippines to India, nations are pushing back.

Will Beijing recognize this and change? Is an increasingly autocratic and close decision-making system capable of learning and adapting, or Qin Gang's mysterious removal does not suggest a positive answer?

Go to for a link to my "Washington Post" column this week. And let's get started.

Israel finds itself embroiled in deep political crisis days after its parliament passed the first major step in Prime Minister Netanyahu's judicial overhaul. This part of the legislation eliminated the Israeli Supreme Court's power to block government actions that the court deems unreasonable. The controversial move drove crowds of Israelis back on to the streets in protest. The White House weighed in as well saying the move was unfortunate.

To understand the complexities of Israel and the Middle East, who better to ask than "The New York Times" columnist Tom Friedman who won his first two Pulitzer Prizes reporting from that region.

Welcome, Tom. Explain to us first what is this about? You know, because it feels like a small step but it is part of a series of moves planned to curtail the Supreme Court's power. And why are they trying to do that? Why is this narrow majority trying to do that?

TOM FRIEDMAN, COLUMNIST, NEW YORK TIMES: So, Fareed, you have to start out with Bibi Netanyahu's political situation. He tried to make a political comeback. He had become so unpopular within his own party. He lost so many allies that he had to reach over the fence of Israeli politics and bring into Israeli politics people who have never been there before. Tamir Pardo, the former head of the Mossad, basically equated them to the American Ku Klux Klan. So imagine if a president brought members of the Ku Klux Klan into the Cabinet.

Now the only way he could hold these people together in a coalition with his other only allies left, the ultraorthodox in Israel, he basically had to accede to their demands. What are their big demands? This Israeli version of the Ku Klux Klan or the American Proud Boys basically wants one thing. Their Jewish supremacists, they want annexation of the West Bank. More settlements, more absorption of the West Bank, ultimately annexation.

What do the ultraorthodox want? They want their sons not to have to serve in the military and they want their schools to be free to teach only religious subjects and no math, science, reading or democratic civics.

Who stands in the way of that? One body left in Israel with independence, the judiciary, the Supreme Court. So the religious want the Supreme Court out of the way basically so it won't interfere with their efforts basically to teach purely religious subjects and not have to serve in the military, and the right-wing Jewish supremacists want the court out of the way so it won't be interfering with their attempts to seize more Palestinian land and build more Palestinian settlements, and to legalize more wildcat illegal Israeli settlements. That's what this is about.

ZAKARIA: And it's fair to say that these people are on the streets because there are very few limits on an elected government in Israel.


There is no written constitution, there is no upper house, no Senate, there are no state governments. This is what you have. And that is why people are out on the streets because in a sense the street is where you can be heard?

FRIEDMAN: Well, you know, you really can't make this up in some ways, Fareed. The Supreme Court's ability to basically curtail government excess is this reasonableness cause. It comes out of British law. Why would a government want to get rid of a reasonableness cause that the court enjoyed unless they want to do things that were unreasonable? Of course that's what the Israeli public understood. Then Netanyahu has been saying this is a small thing, this is a little thing. Nonsense.

This was a power grab. It had nothing to do with legal reform. None of that is on the level. If you want to do legal reform, if you want to do the Israeli equivalent of a constitutional amendment in the United States, oh, my goodness, you would have done it over a long period of time, brought in legal experts, worked for a consensus. They did none of this. They had a majority, they rammed it through, end of story.

ZAKARIA: Now, when you think going forward what is a little worrying and I've talked to Israeli friends of mine who talk about this, is that the parts of the coalition that you're describing that are backing Netanyahu, particularly in some of this more extreme stuff, they are all the people in Israel who have eight children and the people who are opposing, the old secular leads and such, the tech guys, they're all, you know, having two children if that.

Is this portentous for Israeli's future demographically?

FRIEDMAN: You know, definitely, Fareed. You know, this is both a legal fight and a social revolution basically. You know, the ultraorthodox represent about 20 percent of the population. Their numbers double, you know, every 20, 25 years. They'll be 40 percent of Israel, you know, in 20, 25 years. 40 percent of Israel that means will not study science, math, English or democratic civics.

The secular, you know, tech, educated, western part of Israel basically pays -- is 20 percent of the population. They pay about 90 percent of the taxes and they fight 105 percent of the wars. So behind this sort of legal issue is a feeling that, hey, you know, I was ready to do that, as long as it was live and let live.

You know, Fareed, I've lived in two countries in the Middle East intensively, Lebanon and Israel. They have one big thing in common. They're tiny countries with incredibly diverse populations. Very small but incredibly diverse. The only way countries like that can work is on the principle of live and let live, no victory, no vanquish. That is what Lebanon blew up unfortunately over the last 20 years, that's what Israel is blowing up now.

Live and let live. It was the only way and Netanyahu is ready to burn it up just in order to pursue political power and keep himself out of jail.

ZAKARIA: And one more thing, Tom. In your reporting, you've talked to the presidents a bunch of times about all of this. You say that there is a kind of Hail Mary here that might save the situation which is that Israel and Bibi Netanyahu want normalization with Saudi Arabia. But the Saudis might impose terms that make it very hard to do some of the more radical stuff that Bibi wants to do.

How likely is that given that the Saudis have not seemed particularly interested in the fate of the Palestinian people.

FRIEDMAN: Yes. The problem for the Saudis is they can't get this deal through except under a Joe Biden presidency because Democrats wouldn't support it at all under a Republican presidency, and that means Joe Biden has to be attentive to his base and his base of the party, you know, cares a lot that this be a fair deal, fair for the Palestinians.

So the Saudis may not be interested in this. But the U.S. Senate is quite interested. And the base of the Democratic Party is interested in this. You know, it's an ironic situation, Fareed. The crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, holds a lot of the future in his hands. He may not be interested in Jewish history, but Jewish history is interested in him.

ZAKARIA: Tom Friedman, always a pleasure to talk to you.

FRIEDMAN: Thanks, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: When we come back, we'll dig further into Israel's judicial overhaul. Is Netanyahu right that its judges have become too powerful? Should the U.S. pursue similar reforms? We'll talk to Emily Bazelon after the break.



ZAKARIA: We are back on GPS talking about Israel's judicial overhaul. The Israeli right says that the country's Supreme Court has become too strong. an impediment to democratic rule. Many on the learn left say the same thing about the U.S. Supreme Court.

So what is the proper role of high courts? Joining me now is Emily Bazelon, a staff writer at "The New York

Times" magazine. She's a fellow at Yale Law School and a co-host of "Slates Political Gab Fest Podcast."

Emily, first, let's talk about Israel. Why is it that so many people feel that this is kind of overreach on the part of the -- of the democratic or legislative branch of the Israeli government in terms of curtailing the court's power?

EMILY BAZELON, STAFF WRITER, NEW YORK TIMES MAGAZINE: Israel has an unusual constitutional system of checks and balances and separation of powers. And the Israeli Supreme Court plays a kind of singular very important role as a primary check on the government's power.


You know, in the United States, we have several checks and balances. We have two Houses of government, both the House in Congress and the Senate. We have a separation between the executive and the legislative branches, and we have a written constitution that's really hard to change.

None of those things exist in Israel. There is one House of Parliament, the Knesset. It's very much connected to the executive branch because the prime minister leads the party that rules the Knesset. And there isn't a written constitution. A kind of ordinary majority of parliament can change what are called basic laws that have a kind of constitutional status in Israel.

And so for all of those reasons, the Israeli Supreme Court as a protector of minority rights and a check on the majoritarian rule, is crucial and that's why these reforms from this right-wing government of Netanyahu have such dramatic impact and have generated such a swell of protests.

ZAKARIA: People say that the Supreme Court in Israel has sort of arrogated to itself powers. But in a sense the American Supreme Court did that. There was never in the Constitution this power of judicial review where the court can essentially decide whether something is constitutional or not. That happens later when Chief Justice Marshall just took that and decided that that was one of the court's missions.

BAZELON: Right. In the United States, our Constitution is written in the 1780s and then in this famous case you're talking about, Marberry versus Madison, that's 1803. That's when the Supreme Court says we have the power to say what the law is, to say what the Constitution means.

For a long time, the United States was kind of an outlier. Lots of countries did not have judicial review. But then, you know, starting in the '60s and '70s, partly relating to the fall of communism, for lots of different reasons around the world, countries start to write constitutions in which judicial review, the power of courts, becomes very important.

And so Israel kind of joins with that transformation and constitutional revolution in the 1990s when the Israeli Supreme Court declared that the basic laws were like a constitution and that it, the Supreme Court, had the power to interpret those laws.

ZAKARIA: And what Netanyahu's government is trying to do by curbing the power of the judiciary seems to me quite similar to what some of these populist governments in Eastern Europe are doing, Hungary, Orban, the Polish. In every case it seems like the efforts is to say brute majority rule should be more important than what judges do.

BAZELON: Right. So if you're an elected party, you've been chosen to rule the country and the court is obstructing you, getting in your way, you get frustrated. And this idea that minority rights should continue to matter, that there is this larger framework of the constitution, you want to get that out of your way.

And so you're absolutely right, that in Hungary and Poland, and in other countries, Turkey, an attack on the power of the courts to try to sort of sweep the judges out of the way is a sign of trouble for democracy and in some other countries it has been the first step toward a slide from democracy to autocracy.

ZAKARIA: And how should we think about America? You know, because there is this fear on the American left largely that you have this very conservative Supreme Court that is upending a lot of settled law in America.

BAZELON: Right. So we've been talking about what happens when the courts become too weak. It is also possible for courts to become too strong. So in the United States, we have a feature that no other country has. We have life tenure for judges. That means the Supreme Court justices could sit for 30 or 40 years. You are having a huge amount of power amassed in the hands of a very small group of people, and it's random when they leave the bench.

And so you have a kind of disconnect between political influence over the court, the ability of Republicans or Democrats to appoint the justices they want, and the composition of the court. The court can kind of lurch pretty far away from American public opinion, and it also is very hard to amend the Constitution in the United States. We haven't really done that at all in 50 years. And so that means that the court's declaration about what the Constitution means holds sway over all of us.

For those reasons, liberals in the U.S. are arguing right now that the Supreme Court has too much power, and that there are reasons to try to pull back and give more power to the Congress, more power to the executive branch.


How good an idea that is whether it could really happen, that all remains to be determined.

ZAKARIA: Emily Bazelon, we always get smarter listening to you. Thank you so much.

BAZELON: Thank you so much for having me, Fareed.

ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, I talk to man in charge of tackling America's border crisis, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas. We will be back after the break.


ZAKARIA: On Capitol Hill, on Wednesday there was a very heated House Judiciary Committee on oversight of the Department of Homeland Security. Many of the Republicans on the committee berated Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas for what Chairman Jim Jordan called a Biden border crisis.


On the other side of the aisle, the committee's top Democrat warned at the start that the hearings would be nothing more than political theater.

Far away from Capitol Hill, I sat down with Secretary Mayorkas in Aspen, the prior week, to try to understand what is really going on at America's southern border and most specifically what has happened since the expiration of Title 42 in May. That was the COVID era policy that allowed law enforcement to send migrants swiftly away from the American border.


ZAKARIA: Mr. Secretary, pleasure to have you on.

ALEJANDRO MAYORKAS, SECRETARY OF HOMELAND SECURITY: Great to see you, Fareed. Thank you for having me.

ZAKARIA: Tell us what the situation is on the border now because in May there were fears that we were going to be overwhelmed. What is happening?

MAYORKAS: So, we have dispelled those fears through a very thoughtful, comprehensive approach to irregular migration to our southern border. It has two main components to it.

One is to build lawful pathways for people to come to the United States, those who qualify, in a safe and orderly way. A humanitarian way of enabling people to seek asylum in the United States as our laws provide. And the second part of it is to disincentivize those who do not avail themselves of the lawful pathways. We have seen an approximately 70 percent drop in the number of individuals encountered at our southern border as a result.

ZAKARIA: So, all that sounds like you're handling the kind of crisis of the moment but -- I mean, you had 2.4 million apprehensions at the border. You're getting all these people trying to come in. They're all essentially claiming to be asylum seekers. They seem to me at least ordinary migrants, economic migrants, maybe fleeing poverty, disease, some gang warfare as people have traditionally. Isn't the asylum system broken, if everybody can claim -- if there is no real distinction between a migrant and an asylum seeker?

MAYORKAS: The asylum system is broken. The time from initial encounter of an individual who makes a claim for relief and the final adjudication of that claim is all too often many years. And the difficulty is people settle. They have children here in the United States and then it gets -- it becomes very difficult to remove them should they not succeed in their ultimately asylum claim. We are dealing with -- fundamentally, we are dealing with a broken immigration system and that is includes the asylum process.

ZAKARIA: So why don't we fix the laws? Why don't we do a real overhaul of this whole system? I mean, it seems like Europeans are beginning to think about the same thing.

MAYORKAS: We're gridlocked in Congress.

ZAKARIA: It is as simple as that?

MAYORKAS: I think there is unanimity, about the fact, the fundamental fact that we're dealing with a broken immigration system and yet the solution is proving tremendously illusive for decades now.

ZAKARIA: And that relates --

MAYORKAS: The 90s is the last time our immigration system was legislated.

ZAKARIA: And another part that strikes me as clearly broken, so we have -- we have lost the ability to really take in skilled migrants. Canada is taking in 250,000. Whereas, we're taking in 85,000 skilled migrants, H1 visas. We have eight times the population of Canada and they are taking four times as many skilled migrants.

And we now do something which strikes me as almost like the symbol of how broken the system is. We do a lottery. I mean, you know, a lottery suggests capriciousness, whimsy, not rules or, you know, qualifications, any kind of functioning system. It is literally saying you're taking a gamble.

MAYORKAS: Number one, we have a lottery. Number two, we have a numerical cap, a numerical limit that is not in any way tied to market needs. It is a historic legislated numerical limit.

Canada needs laborers, skilled, unskilled and the like. And they can calibrate their openness to migration, to bringing workers in according to market needs. We are divorced. And with that --

ZAKARIA: And no prospect of any legislative fix?

MAYORKAS: I remain hopeful, but it does not look promising right now.


And it has alluded us year in and year out, for decades.

(END VIDEOTAPE) ZAKARIA: After we taped that interview, a judge struck down the new Biden asylum policy but then temporarily stayed his own ruling. So, the Biden policy currently remains in effect. We will be watching to see what happens next.

Coming up next on GPS, a Russian journalist on whether Putin's grip on power was shaken at all by the recent would-be mutiny.


ZAKARIA: It's been more than a month since the failed mutiny in Russia by the Wagner group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin. And questions still swirl about Putin's grip on power. Did the failed mutiny weakened Putin or make him even stronger?

To answer that key question and more, I'm joined by the exiled Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar. He was the founding editor-in-chief of the Russian news channel TV Rain.


He also has a new book out, "War and Punishment: Putin, Zelensky, and the Path to Russia's Invasion of Ukraine." Mikhail, pleasure to have you on.


ZAKARIA: First, this question we're all trying to understand. Has this mutiny weakened Putin? And the reason, I think, many of us wonder and think maybe it did is he isn't punishing Prigozhin. He hasn't punished much of the Wagner group. He needs them in some way or he feels he can't act. It seems for a guy who likes revenge, this seems odd.

ZYGAR: Yes. But even more he used to be considered a person who is in control, who controls all the elite, all his inner circle and who is the guarantor of peace, the only guarantor of peace and stability. Now, for many people, inside his own bureaucracy it is clear that the emperor is naked. He cannot guarantee anything. He cannot control even his puppets because everyone knows that Prigozhin used to be his puppet for so many years.

And yes, he's not punishing Prigozhin. He's still in Saint Petersburg. He spent most of that month in Saint Petersburg. He was even allowed to come to Moscow to meet with Putin personally.

ZAKARIA: As far as we know, he's still in Saint Petersburg?

ZYGAR: Yes, it was revealed just -- it has just been confirmed that he was attending the summit -- the Russia-Africa summit in Saint Petersburg.

ZAKARIA: The subtitle of your book gets at an interesting question that a lot of people have. I mean, everybody from Henry Kissinger to Europeans say they thought Putin was rational, he was calculating, he was incremental, and they did not as a result predict or think that he would declare war in February when he did. Why did he make that decision?

ZYGAR: You know, Putin is not as rational as some people in the west believe. He is very irrational and most of his decisions are deeply rooted in his psychology, in his youth, in how -- in the people that he used to talk to many years ago. It is -- I describe it in my book that most of his prejudice against Ukrainian nationalists is just because of his favorite novel he was reading when he was a young student. That was a detective story about a Soviet spy Stierlitz who was fighting against Ukrainian nationalists.

So, it's -- it's really -- it's really very weird how Putin perceived Russian history. But at the same time, he is part of his generation and he is the part of Russian traditional historical narrative. Imperialist historical narrative existed in Russia. That is unfortunately the only -- the only version of history we have always had.

And with this book I'm trying to debunk the Russian historical mythology because it is -- it is probably the most dangerous part of Russian propaganda's narrative. Because Putin will go but for many people all of those myths would remain the same.

ZAKARIA: One of things that people say is that Putin has always had, as you say, this kind of ultra-Russian nationalist narrative then COVID happens. He stops meeting with anybody, foreigners. He gets more and more isolated. He restricts himself to a circle of real kind of acolytes and courtiers.

You have to -- you had to quarantine for two weeks before you could even see him. And so, maybe that also explains that he really got into a kind of hot house of just these highly nationalist Russians.

ZYGAR: Yes. Absolutely. And it is weird that during the COVID months he has become even more obsessed with history than before. Because after that he start his writing articles about the history of Poland, history of Ukraine and he is always lecturing Russians about history. But it is all false. It is all falsified version of Russian history.

He has created some kind of imaginary empire and he is trying to impose that point of view. And actually, it works for so many people who are not -- not majority -- I don't think that it works for majority of Russians but many people buy it.

ZAKARIA: There was an anecdote in the F.T., that Sergey Lavrov, the longtime foreign minister, who apparently was told about the invasion only two hours before, was asked who is advising Vladimir Putin? And he said, oh, I can tell you, he has three main advisors, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great and Ivan the Terrible.



ZYGAR: Stalin. Stalin. The fourth one -- an important one is Stalin.

ZAKARIA: Is Stalin. ZYGAR: Yes, definitely.

ZAKARIA: Interesting. At the end of the day, do you think his days are numbered in any meaningful sense?

ZYGAR: You know, actually, the sources in Moscow, I believe, right after Prigozhin's mutiny started telling me that they used to be sure that his situation is very stable and he is there -- he might be there for years to come but now they think that probably one year at least because the situation is -- the system is shaking.

Many people from his elite understand that he is -- he's not there and they have to prepare for Russia after Putin. And at same time, you know --- and he thinks that he underestimates all of the difficulties of his situation. And he thinks that the time is on his side because he is waiting for American elections.

He's waiting for Donald Trump to be back and he is sure that once Donald Trump is back in the White House, he's going to be fine, there is going to be no war, no resistance from Ukrainian side, no support for Ukraine.

ZAKARIA: He'll cut a deal with Trump.

ZYGAR: Yes. And that is the ideal happy end for President Putin.

ZAKARIA: Mikhail, pleasure to have you on.

ZYGAR: Thank you.

ZAKARIA: And best of luck. Your reporting has been fantastic. Thank you.

Next on GPS, two prominent public officials, two powerful nations, two disappearances. What can we learn from these troubling events, one in Russia, one in China? That story when we come back.



ZAKARIA: Now for the last look. In recent weeks, two high-profile figures in two notoriously shadowy political capitals have gone missing. And their disappearances speak volumes about their respective countries. I'll start with the case of the missing Chinese foreign minister Qin Gang, whose case I mentioned at the top of the show. He was last seen publicly in a slate of meetings on June 25th. This week it was announced that Qin was removed from his post as foreign minister.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Web sites were then scrubbed of any mention of him. Beijing is thick with rumors about him. Qin's disappearance and removal is all the more astounding considering that he was the protege of Xi Jinping, handpicked as the U.S. ambassador two years ago. He then catapulted over more experienced leaders to become the youngest foreign minister of China in 70 years. Whatever happened to him, this episode highlights the opacity of the Chinese political system. Senior officials often disappear from view with little if any public explanation. Presumably some of the secrecy in this case is due to the fact that Qin was close to Xi Jinping and any investigation into him would reflect poorly on President Xi's judgment.

But if Qin had become the victim of his political rivals, then it is a shame. As the "Economist" notes, Qin was clever and surprisingly candid with diplomats. He spent years studying the United States. He was capable of charming foreign dignitaries, diffusing tensions and holding firm to the communist party line. These are skills Xi Jinping ought to value and certainly not once that all of Qin's rivals possess.

Now, that brings me to case of the other missing person in another country known for the murkiness of its domestic politics. I'm speaking of General Sergey Surovikin of Russia who was last seen in a hostage style video last month as the Wagner group's Yevgeny Prigozhin and his troops marched on Moscow.

In the video, Surovikin wearing fatigues but stripped of all insignia pled awkwardly with Prigozhin to abandon the coup. The awkwardness perhaps indicates coercion. Surovikin was close to Yevgeny Prigozhin who has called him a man who is not afraid of responsibility.

U.S. intelligence officials told "The New York Times" that Surovikin had advanced knowledge of the attempted coup. The "Times" also reported that Surovikin was believed to be detained under questioning late last month. Though it is easy to see why General Surovikin could make President Putin uneasy, this is actually a disappearance that is bad for Putin and his immediate objective, winning the war in Ukraine.

Surovikin earned the nickname General Armageddon from his time in command of Russian forces in Syria. His tactics are brutal and abhorrent but considering Putin's aims they are effective. He is known as a dangerously competent military leader.

In October, Putin appointed Surovikin head of the Russian forces in Ukraine. He promptly withdrew from Kherson, built up Russia's defensive positions and stepped-up attacks on Ukraine's power plants. Now to be very clear, I'm not praising the man or the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But these were clear eyed tough decisions given the Kremlin wanted an aggressive offensive.

And for these efforts, he was demoted in favor of General Valery Gerasimov who spearheaded an ineffective winter offensive that cost Russian forces dearly. Now, Surovikin is missing and Gerasimov continues to run the Ukraine effort. As Dara Massicot writes in the "New York Times," the current defense minister and Gerasimov both of whom are willing to tell Putin only what he wants to hear will continue to conduct the war in an inept fashion. For the sake of familiarity, the Kremlin has chosen to reinforce failure. It is the nature of a closed political system that yes-men and political operators win out over competence every time.


These twin events in China and Russia remind us of the virtues of an open and democratic political system despite all its messiness. You know, we often despair at the tumult of democracies. Look at British politics over the last few years with this revolving door of prime ministers and constant leaks, resignations and recriminations. We cringe at the volatility of Trump's cabinet, his abrupt much publicized dismissals of his generals and other staff, their attacks on him.

It all seems undignified like a soap opera unraveling before our eyes. But on the whole, it is a good thing. It is open politics, openly engaged in. There is no mystery as to why Boris Johnson had to resign. No one claims that Rex Tillerson left the State Department because he got ill. In democracies we wash our dirty laundry in public. And the events in China and Russia in recent weeks show us that perhaps that laundry system is a key ingredient of democracy's resilience.

Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.