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Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Russian Connection - Success Beyond Expectations

From the day, or at least almost so, that Donald Trump became president of these United States, his liberal critics - and I do count myself firmly in that camp - have clung to the belief and hope that such a ridiculous turn of events could not happen without the intervention of some external agent. In part, we've been unwilling to belief that a majority in a majority of electoral college seats would back a man so evidently unqualified for office, especially over an opponent who for all her flaws was eminently suited to lead the nation in temperament, training and desire. It was hard for Americans of a liberal bent of mind to understand how so many of our neighbors could not only discount all of Ms. Clinton's experience, but also see her long public service as a liability and be willing to believe every and any calumny against her. Odder yet was the fact that this distrust for Ms. Clinton went hand in hand with a child-like trust in the character and motives of Donald Trump. A sizeable minority, if not an outright majority among us is convinced that only the most nefarious interference of outside actors and skull-drudgery can fully explain this collective madness that has enveloped us. Those same hopefuls see the recent spate of indictments from the on-going investigation into Russian interference in the election as their long awaited validation and have begun to anticipate deliverance from this nightmare - they are likely to be as disappointed as they were on the morning after the election.

The most important item that could be gleaned from the indictments was that the Russian interference was not built around a specific candidate and was truly bi-partisan. They were interested in disrupting the US electoral process and attacking democracy itself, and while they may have seen undermining Ms. Clinton as a desirable outcome, they would likely have been quite satisfied with simply hamstringing her presumptive presidency and depriving her of legitimacy and mandate to rule. Hence the support for the burn-it-down outsider candidate Bernie Sanders and the nihilistic candidacy of Trump. It should be remembered that through much of the early and middle portion of the election, it was never doubted that Ms. Clinton would win the Democratic nomination and likely go on to victory in the general election. Keeping that in mind, recall too that the Bermiacs were willing to hate Hillary more than they opposed the right-wing of the Republican party, that many of them had moved from simply supporting Sanders to a fervent hatred of Hillary, and swore that they would never vote for her. Unity at the party's national convention had to be bought through mollifying gestures to Sanders, who several times rejected the truth that both frontrunners for the party's standard had more in common than they had differences (some of my admiration for Ms. Clinton stems from the the very different and gracious approach she took in defeat in 2008, throwing all her support wholly behind Barack Obama, but I also recognize that Sanders had some reason to feel like he had been treated less like a full member of the party he refused to join). The Russians, watching the youthful Sanders supporters refusing to fall in behind Clinton, must have been as bemused as delighted that these self-professed socialists would refuse Clinton, who shared most of their aims, and instead threatened to sit out the election and raise the hopes of a populist, fraudulent candidate like Trump.

Looking back at the Trump candidacy, what stands out most is that never was there a less prepared candidate - not just in terms of staff and planning, but also in terms of what he stood for and offered the nation. And yet, a huge swath of Republicans embraced his platform - whatever it was. They rallied behind his promises to bring back jobs and prosperity, despite the lack of realism in those ideas. They cheered empty rhetoric, like a border wall, ban on Muslim immigration and often contradictory promises - the reasons behind their fanaticism are as complex as varied and explain why the "Trump supporter" so defies clear definition. But most importantly, they hated the elites who seemed to control the main US parties and reposed a blind trust in Trump's cynical and shallow adoption of their deepest aspirations. Once Trump found that attacks on the elite won him easy applause, he tapped fully into that vein and moved ever more into the role of populist - whether is was the establishment of his own party, the billionaires who funded the party, the independent press or Hillary Clinton, he made them all part of a broad target and attacked them relentlessly for cheap adulation. For the Russians, this was the best of all worlds, for even then they probably never thought he would win - but Trump was happily attacking the very foundational pillars of US democracy - not just his vitriol for the press, but critically, his repeated threats to not accept the results of the election. Accepting defeat in an open election is one of the cornerstones of a successful democracy, and Trump's oft reiterated claims that he was being robbed of victory by a shadowy establishment and that he would not concede a victory to his opponent - probably intended only as cover to his own ego in the event of the defeat even he likely anticipated, claims to the contrary notwithstanding - was the perfect foil for Russian interference. President Trump has seized on the timeline of Russian activity to question why his predecessor took no action, but anyone who recalls those months leading up to the election will also remember that Candidate Trump was busy threatening everything just barely short of civil war and that his deluded supporters, fed on a long and heavy diet of anti-government conspiracies, were primed and ready for violence. Ultimately, when the Republican Congressional  leadership declined to treat the intelligence with the importance it needed and refused to join President Obama in a united front that would remove the taint of partisan politics from his action, they all but tied his hands and gave the Russians carte blanche to act with impunity to further undermine the US elections. To be absolutely fair, perhaps Republican leaders were as certain as everyone else that they would be working with President Clinton and were not loath to see her robbed of her mandate to some extent - we are still living with the consequences of that venal political calculus.

In the end, I strongly doubt that opponents of President Trump will see any closure except what they effect  themselves through a resounding message in the upcoming midterm elections. I would be very surprised if there was any criminal collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, beyond what we've seen in the indictments. Perhaps Paul Manafort hoped to actually serve Russian interests when he approached Trump for a role, but the Russians never could have foreseen a clear Trump victory and had little reason to do more to work with Trump or his cohorts. And given that they could so easily manipulate the man, and his supporters without ever getting directly involved, they had no reason to do more. They had already set the scene for a weakened US democracy and their revenge on Hillary Clinton - on November 5, they were likely as surprised as everyone else. In the end, given the lack of coherent thought behind President Trump's actions, they may be almost regretting just how successful they were in their efforts - after all, we are now seriously talking about nuclear was in Korea and the end of the world, and the Russians may be as nostalgic for a return to an adult presidency as anyone else in the world.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Flagged for Notice

It's been some weeks past, as Hurricane Maria (aptly sharing the same name as my sister and just as destructive) pummeled Puerto Rico, and one would have imagined that the government of these United States would be wholly focused on succoring that island. But these are not normal times and this government is not led by a normal man, to say the least. So instead, the President of the US chose to attack a group of professional athletes for protesting police brutality. As in any issue involving this president, there is a lot to unpack, and that section of the populace that supports him unreservedly has turned near instantaneously against their favorite sport and teams. The level to which the president's supporters have truly turned their back on football remains to be seen - and early indications are that the promised boycotts are more noise than action - but if nothing else the protests embraced across the league and still ongoing - albeit more muted - have made it near impossible for anyone to ignore that there is major rift in American society and that at least one person would rather expand than heal this division.

The issues that animate the protesting players first exploded on the national stage more than three years ago and I addressed the underlying tensions back around then; since Ferguson, the spotlight has only illuminated a depressing parade of cases, some similarly ambiguous, others seemingly clear cut. But whether shaded in grey or sharply di-chomatic, they have all one thing in common - they involve police and a (usually unarmed) black man and end with a dead civilian and no consequences for the men in blue. The seemingly unending repetition, with minor variations have animated protesters seeking justice and a conversation on racial inequality and police brutality; some, like Black Lives Matter and their acolytes, demand they be heard but are less interested in a dialogue, while others, like the players of the National Football League have chosen to silently but visibly make their plea for attention to this wrenching and painful issue. From the moment that former Forty Niners quarterback Colin Kapernick started the movement by protesting during the national anthem, he and those who followed suit have faced an intense backlash, especially among their fans.

The protesting players have faced criticism, which largely falls into four categories: the player is terrible at football, he's a nobody/rookie, why are they ruining football with politics and finally, their job is to play football, not talk politics. It's truly difficult to determine which of these arguments is most disingenuous or irrelevant. The footballer's skill at catching a ball or hitting other players trying to catch the ball (to put it simply) has nothing to do with his understanding of social issues, just as the length of his tenure in the league hardly affects his connection to issues that he has usually grown up experiencing first hand (sadly, the fear and disconnect that young African Americans experience with police on a daily basis is so uniquely their own that no one else in America can begin to truly understand it, and it's something that is tied deeply to the color of their skin not the length of their purse). When someone objects to the protests "ruining" their enjoyment of football they are objecting to being forced to confront uncomfortable realities that they would much rather pretend didn't exist; these same believers in the purity of the sport never minded when the NFL made a deal with the Defense Department to line up the players on the field for the national anthem as a prop in a propaganda effort. Perhaps the most insulting though is the suggestion that the players should "stick to football" - this mind you, in a country that just elected a reality TV star with no political experience and routinely disparages politicians - as though political and social issues are somehow divorced from one's everyday life.

Using a public and widely viewed forum to draw attention to a perceived problem is a long and time-honored tradition. Equally, it is hated by those who feel most challenged by the protest, and their outrage is directly proportional to the success of the protest. The raised fists by black Olympians on the medal podium provoked anger, Mohammad Ali's political views were excoriated. And now a peaceful gesture by football players is portrayed as an insult beyond compare against the country, the anthem, the flag and most mystifyingly, the active and retired military. Let's start with the protest gesture itself - back in the land of my birth, I grew up with the idea that the only acceptable stance during the national anthem was standing rigidly at attention. But the world at large accepts many other attitudes of respect. I've watched soccer teams stand with arms over each other's shoulders as their nation's anthem plays, in the US standing with one's hand over one's heart is a popular stance. Kneeling is probably the most respectful stance and its sole objectionable aspect is that it is intended to draw attention. Colin Kapernick started the current round of protests last season, and was joined by a handful of other players; when he first protested he sat on the sidelines, but changed to a kneeling stance after talking to a teammate who had served in the military. The protests, stretching over a year, never overshadowed the national anthem, nor the game - the protesting players knelt silently while the anthem was sung and then put everything else aside to focus on the job for which they were signed and paid, playing all out to win their football game.

Over the off-season the protests receded from public memory and with the new year of football and Kapernick no longer on a roster, it seemed that the world was ready to move on. Until the president, in the middle of what was supposedly a stump speech for a Senate candidate and seemed more like a paean of self praise, decided to resurrect the issue and escalate it into a full blooded attack on all football players. He called for players who knelt during the anthem to be fired. Some have accused him of violating the players' First Amendment rights, but this is a gray area at most. The NFL owners have every right to fire the players (within the bounds of their contracts and league rules, of course) and the players have no First Amendment protections from a corporate employer; but things get a lot murkier when the president uses the prestige and position, if not the power, of his office to call for their dismissal and claims credit for Kapernick's continued lack of employment in the NFL.

The biggest claim in the president's complaint was that protesting during the anthem insults the country and military - a relatively new line of attack on the protesters, inspired perhaps by the lack of traction gained with other criticism. I have long loved Dr. Johnson's famed line that patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels, and there is a strong hint that Samuel Pepys' friend would have immediately identified the president and all his men as deserving of the epithet. There are no shortage of self-described patriots and retired military soldiers and officers who agree with the president. But peaceful protest is the soul of a democratic society. A lot of critics of the protests say that the protests should be done at some other time or venue; what they actually mean is that the protests should be done at a time when it will be easy to ignore. Kneeling is not an insult  - Quakers knelt outside prisons to protest conditions, democratic protesters have faced down armies by kneeling quietly in front of tanks - and is the most humble and powerful use of non-violent protest and most critics object mainly because it draws the attention of thousands of fans to the protester and forces them to face uncomfortable facts.

There was a chance for the president to rise above partisan divisions, had he so chosen. He could, at the least have ignored the issue. He could have offered a reasoned argument against the protests, though I'm not sure what that might look like. He could, had he desired to go on the offensive for his own reasons, highlighted the many problems with the protest's posterboy and initial instigator - Kapernick has shared deplorable social media posts against police, as reprehensible in their broad attacks as any criticism of the Black community as a monolith, he has worn clothing likening police officers to pigs, which is unhelpful at best and undermines his calls for dialogue, and he declined to vote in the presidential election, on the spurious argument that there was no difference in the candidates (irrespective of one's preferences, it's hard to see the two as indistinguishable, except by buying into the idea that no white politician can ever bring about change for the better on justice for minorities - as insulting as any racist belief and furthermore ignorant of history). The president could have done many things, but chose to pour gas on the fires of racial tension, and history will eventually judge him harshly, his own glowing self reports notwithstanding. Today, with no real end in sight to the NFL protests, or the larger racial divides and social inequalities, this country needs a dialogue - a respectful conversation in which all reasonable voices are heard, in which the concerns of both minority rights and police concerns are addressed, even if only to weigh the relative importance of each. This is a conversation in which neither Black Lives Matter nor the president have any positive contribution - they represent two sides of the same coin, and their shill and divisive rhetoric serve only to exacerbate the already deep divisions that rive the body politic. But assuredly we must find a way to bridge our differences and come together or prepare ourselves for far worse problems. We face enough challenges already and, as Ben Franklin noted, presciently one might say, we must hang together or assuredly we will hang separately. We may not agree with them on all points, but that's never the point. Rather it is to engage and listen to opposing viewpoints when presented thoughtfully, and through dialogue and exchange of ideas, reach an understanding and gradually narrow our differences, heal the wounds and eventually rise to new and greater heights as a unified society.

(I've said several times that we need a conversation and part of the reason that I never lose hope in the idea of the United States, even when they elect a president like Donald Trump is that we have arch-conservative publications like the Weekly Standard that reacted to the president's petty squabble with the NFL players with a thoughtful discussion piece - I may not agree with them on all points, but I love that they addressed the issue in a sober and reasonable tone)

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Art of (Botched) Deal - Small Stick, Big Voice

In the eyes of his supporters, President Trump has taken a long-overdue position against North Korea, finally jettisoning years of weak responses to that nation's misbehavior and provocations, and has drawn a bright line with his forceful warnings about the consequences of any further bellicosity from Pyongyang. To his legion of detractors, however, statements by the US president this past week have pushed the world closer to war, a war that could start by mistake or through miscalculation, and in their view, achieved nothing positive while tearing down years of carefully crafted work. The truth, as it often does, lies somewhere between these partisan extremes, but closer to one than the other.

There is a generally universal opinion amongst  defense analysts in the US and allied nations that North Korea has been testing the limits of American patience. In the view of the president, and to a lesser degree among his fellow Republicans, it was the forbearance and (in their view) timidity of the preceding Obama administration that has emboldened Kim Jong Un in his brazen behavior. However, it is worth noting that while never particularly tractable in the past, Pyongyang went to a whole new level of provocation after the Trump administration took office. If anything, Kim's government decided that they could get away with more and establish new boundaries with the new government than they had tried before the change of guard in Washington.

It seems certain that Kim has misread the US government to an extent, and some of the error can be attributed to the lack of communication with and understanding of the US government. Kim Jong Un, handed absolute control of his country like some princeling from a bygone era and accustomed to ruling by decree, appears to imagine that other world leaders enjoy that same unfettered power and sometimes seems unable to comprehend the concept of checks and balances that under-gird a democratic government. Absent direct contacts between the two nations and very limited contact indeed with any outside nation, North Korea must rely on their embassies in the West to explain the world to Pyongyang; wary diplomats, unwilling to tell their masters unwelcome news, have almost certainly provided a slant that suited the prevailing views of the North Korean leadership.

But while the self-imposed isolation may well contributed to the confusion, no small part of the blame must lie at the feet of President Trump. He has spent the six months since his inauguration sending out conflicting and confused signals. He has openly backed away from positions of the preceding government simply because they had been embraced by Obama, from trade and climate change treaties to alliances and strategy. Worse, he has praised despots and undemocratic governments, mused offhandedly about the advantages of nuclear proliferation (suggesting that Japan and South Korea should develop their own nuclear weapons) and casually contradicted his administration officials and even himself from week to week. He demanded Chinese assistance in reigning in Pyongyang, but never offered them a clear deal or a reason to follow America's lead - in this, he followed (and possibly outdid) a long standing US mistake of expecting foreign governments to act in the best interests of USA rather than themselves. Whatever diplomatic push was underway with China may then have been undermined when Trump's government suggested that they had bombed Syria as a gesture and warning to China - a statement and action seemingly designed to block rather than enhance cooperation between the governments over North Korean intransigence.

The Syrian strikes may even have had a reverse effect on North Korea. The impunity with which the US and Israel (and France and other allied nations) launch attacks upon Syrian targets may well convince nations who fear becoming future targets that their best, maybe only hope of survival is to acquire weapons that can deter US action permanently; for North Korea that holy grail is a force of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking the US homeland with nuclear warheads and thus buying them the same immunity of the erstwhile Soviet Union or Red China. Bellicose statements early in the Trump administration, provoked in part by North Korean missile tests, possibly reinforced the fear in Pyongyang that Washington sought to overthrow their kleptocracy (a fear that also animates China who wants neither the deluge of refugees that would flee a collapse in North Korea nor the expansion of South Korean and US influence, unchecked, across the entire peninsula). For a regime determined to remain in power the lesson was simplicity itself - obtain the very weapons that USA was so determined to deny them for only by threatening Armageddon (and credibly threatening millions of US lives) could their tiny nation survive American aims upon their future. Vice President Pence when reassuring US allies in South Korea of American resolve in their defense may well have calmed fears in Seoul and Tokyo but likely set off a massive alarm in Pyongyang.

The worst part of American action in the last six months has been the bombast, in the truest sense of the word. The threats are bad enough, when conveyed indirectly to a paranoid government, and unlikely to achieve overmuch success. But threats, when demonstrably lacking in seriousness and backing are worse than no threats at all. When the President famously claimed to have sent a naval armada to confront North Korea, his words rang hollow when the Navy was forced to admit that the ships in question were headed in the opposite direction and that the immediate show of force promised by the president was in fact a week or two from fulfillment. It wasn't that the world expected the ships to be teleported to the Sea of Japan overnight, but when it's shown that plans at the operational level bear no resemblance to their forceful characterization by the commander in chief, the dissonance and emptiness of those threats is what the observers remember. Imagine if you will the effect of Caesar crossing the Rubicon not with the Tenth Legion but just a couple of buddies and a company of infantry, with the bulk of his army to follow the next year.

Time and again, Donald Trump has demonstrated that he does not understand the weight and import of his words as president of the world's greatest power. When he remarks that he would be, in his words, honored to meet Kim Jong Un, it sends a message to all his listeners. The dictator in Pyongyang sees it as acceptance of his actions, his despotic rule and the wisdom of his own bullying and risky strategy. When President Trump makes a threat about vast naval assets arrayed off the Korean coast but the ships are nowhere in sight it robs his words of all meaning and encourages Pyongyang to push ahead with tests as soon as possible, if anything before the US Navy actually arrives in force. Worst of all, by matching North Korea's penchant for bombast and overheated rhetoric, the president has actually lent credibility to Kim's government and awakened fear in the hearts and minds of his own people. The previous US administration followed a policy of studied and calibrated response to North Korea, declining to be drawn into needless confrontation and steadfastly refusing to reward Kim's actions with the recognition he craved. It was rather like the method one might employ with a spoiled child's tantrums, and in my opinion, the best approach (of a set of less than optimum choices) to dealing with North Korea. I have seen at least one report that  Pyongyang, hurt by sanctions and realizing that they would not gain through further provocation, had approached the US to restart talks last last year, an offer that the US rejected over North Korean preconditions but nevertheless a strong indicator that the strategy of patience was paying off. Unfortunately the change of guard at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue led to an abandonment of "strategic patience" and suddenly Kim Jong Un found himself dealing with a US president whose instincts and temperament largely matched his own.

The bulk of the blame for the current crisis lies squarely with Kim Jong Un and his paranoiac coterie, but the US president shares a large enough responsibility for stoking rather than defusing the situation and for making a bad situation worse. At a time when there are still legitimate doubts that North Korea can strike any US territory, leave alone the homeland with a nuclear ICBM, President Trump has legitimized those fears and given Pyongyang the very stature it craves by treating it as an actual threat to the US. Trump's bombastic tone, so good on the campaign trail when bullying political opponents constrained by rules he ignored, is far less effective against North Korea, a nation that wrote the manual on breaking rules. The message from the US government is a far far cry from FDR's exhortation to eschew fear; instead he has raised tiny, impoverished North Korea into a legitimate threat, on par with the USSR and give Kim Jong Un the recognition and importance he craved. To that extent, Kim has already won no matter how this plays out in the weeks ahead. Equally certain is it that the rest of us have lost.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

A Hundred Days and Counting

The first artificial and arbitrary deadline for judging new governments was upon us this weekend, and it seemed like a good time for me to reflect on the good, the bad and the all too plentiful ugly that has characterized this period. To be honest, President Trump was absolutely right when he said that the hundred day period is meaningless, though he had set that benchmark for himself repeatedly, and then promptly claimed that he'd had one of the most successful opening acts of all time. That claim, like so many others, is all hyperbole, of a pattern readily recognizable in his utterances. But what is the reality?

As a liberal, I'm not really in a position to render impartial judgment; my own biases ensure that I will judge harshly. And given the chaos that undeniably swirls around this administration, it is easy for a critic to find fault with almost everything that President Trump has done. I will start with the low-hanging fruit - the lack of government appointees (or rather, lack of nominations for numerous positions), the constant overheated rhetoric, the inability to leave campaign mode and settle down to actual governing, the increasingly shrill attacks on the press, the seeming lack of understanding on any and every topic that affects the country, and perhaps most scary of all, the careless and offhand use of military force with no thought of the consequences of any US action. There is plenty to choose from, and be scared by in that list but for me, the greatest failure is that refusal to acknowledge even the slightest need for course correction, or personal accountability, be it in ordering a bloody military raid on Yemen or firing his National Security Advisor for numerous lapses in judgment and behavior, or in making wild and unsubstantiated (and probably totally false) charges against the former president. That President Trump is unprepared for the role he has sought and won is beyond doubt, and his own words admit as such. He has admitted, seemingly with absolutely no self-awareness, that healthcare policy is difficult and then absolutely and casually reversed his position on China as a currency manipulator when he was schooled in monetary policy by the visiting Chinese president - he again quite offhandedly admitted that he'd known nothing about Chinese government policy on a topic that had formed a huge part of his campaign promise. Then just this past week he said in an interview that he'd never expected the job to be so difficult; it is a toss up on whether to be more scared that he is casually admitting this with one breath and claiming undeserved mantles of greatness and accomplishment in the next, blithely ignoring the yawning contradictions in his own statements, or that he truly believed his own campaign rhetoric that the job of president was so easy that an accomplished businessman could walk in and do a better job without even exerting himself.

And yet, I am forced to admit that the apocalyptic terms employed by my fellow liberals are widely off the mark - this president's track record is a lot less terrible than it might have been. Much of what he's done, and most of his cabinet appointees are in line with his campaign promises and general GOP policy line. He has tried to rescind the Affordable Care Act, a promise and priority of both his campaign and the whole Republican Party; and yet, with the whole government controlled by one party, they've failed to even get legislation to a vote in the House, never mind passing it or getting it to a Senate vote. Tax breaks have been a GOP staple for more than three decades. Appointing a climate denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency, a private school advocate and anti-regulation partisan to the Department of Education and other similarly Orwellian appointments are well in line with prior promises. Liberals need to admit that none of this is surprising and that any GOP president would have done the same; they also need to admit that the US electorate, in their wisdom or lack thereof, has endorsed President Trump's policies. One might claim that Trump did not win the popular vote, or that only 27% of eligible voters (46% of 58% turnout) supported him, but the bottom line is that he won, and over 40% of the electorate did not object to his stated policies enough to even vote. Voters, though endorsement or apathy, also delivered the House and Senate to the GOP, giving President Trump full control of the government. In 2009, President Obama won a similar mandate to enact a liberal policy and did so. It is only fair, that no matter how dangerous we think this president's ideas and actions, we still respect the will of the people. That does not mean standing down and giving the GOP a free hand, but simply acknowledging that much of what is being now enacted is the choice of the American people, through their acts of commission or omission.

It is also important to note that President Trump has not done all that much in overturning the previous administration's policies. There have been some highly publicized executive orders, signed with much fanfare, but in the end, President Trump has not enacted but a fraction of the conservative and populist agenda he promised and most of the acts that liberals most fear have remained in abeyance. This is not a mark of approbation for his restraint however, but a censure of the strongest degree - things are not so bad, because this president is terrible at his job, and not really interested in the business of governing. The GOP sponsored alternative to Obamacare has sputtered in part because Trump is not invested in actually replacing it with a real alternative; unlike Speaker Ryan or the Freedom Caucus, Trump has no strong conviction on the matter and his lack of a core belief impacts his ability and willingness to force new legislation through Congress. For all his talk about making deals, he has shown absolute disinterest in actual negotiations, with holdouts in his party and much more so with the opposition, and is quite happy to see the matter die in Congress so long as he can deflect the blame to someone else. For most part, his impact will be through acts of omission rather than overt commission, a lack of action that certainly shapes public life as much as active intervention, and his largely invisible Cabinet is in keeping with that path. He has appointed people with less government experience to some positions, actually reducing the impact they might have on changing government policy; in many cases, most policy will remain in the hands of career bureaucrats for a while, and things will continue unchanged till his appointees gain full understanding and control of their departments, and that situation is delayed further by the lack of supporting cast for many of those Cabinet members.

The other, and significantly overlooked aspect of President Trump's government is how closely is reflects his own personality and business model. While President Obama won plaudits for creating a Cabinet of Rivals by keeping Defense Secretary Gates, and appointing his party opponent Hilary Clinton to Secretary of State, his cabinet reflected his broad policy vision and was guided by him. By contrast, it is not clear what the corresponding vision is for President Trump, and his closest advisors appear to share very different worldviews on many different topics. His own overriding interest is not public policy or political promises so much as TV ratings and public adulation, and he seems content to pass off photo opportunities and bombastic claims as perfectly acceptable alternatives to actual achievement. At some point he may have to deliver or risk losing the support of his most fervent supporters, but that day is not now and it will be long past a hundred days before the bill is due. Till then, I am simply grateful that his lack of experience and even greater lack of interest ensure that he will do much less real harm than a true believer with skills to match may have achieved.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Wisdom of Balaam

When choosing to get involved in war in the Middle East, consulting a man who has just been chastised by his donkey is as wise a course as any, and President Trump may well have followed just such a course before unleashing a barrage of missiles against the Syrian government last week. To be sure, he couldn't have received worse advice than the counsel that led him to issue an ultimatum within just hours of a reported chemical weapon's attack in Syria. Confounding all conventional wisdom, within a day of his warning, he followed it up with an attack that had plenty of shock and awe but not a great deal of anything else, including if not especially effectiveness.

Not only did the US warn the Russians ahead of the strike, with details of the intended target - a warning that had to be given to avoid unwanted Russian casualties, but which the Russians promptly passed on to their Syrian hosts apparently - but within hours of the strike, the Syrian air force made a point of conducting operations from the attacked air base. And for good measure, they chose to attack the same town that was at the center of the controversy, a studied middle finger to the US military and one that raised questions about the efficacy of the strike. The Pentagon's initial briefing indicated that there was significant damage to planes at the base, but one cannot help but wonder if the Syrians hadn't moved their planes and suffered only cosmetic damage. In the world of smoke and mirrors that is war in the Middle East, we may never know the facts.

But what we do know is that the US president declared that the use of chemical weapons crossed all sorts of lines (a phrase that's sadly reminiscent of Friends' Joey) and then followed up that statement by declaring that US vital interests were at stake in Syria. This is interesting - a charitable view might be that President Trump saw the attack as violation of the agreement made with his predecessor and an unacceptable affront to the honor of the nation. One may also argue that President Trump saw the use of chemical weapons as something that could not be left unchallenged and unpunished for the lesson it may send to other nations. However, both the previous and present Administrations have turned a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons that do not meet the definition of chemical weapons - Assad has used chlorine gas, as well as other equally barbaric methods of war. He has fought his people and his enemies with every weapon and tactic at his disposal and till days before this apparent red line, the Trump Administration had looked benignly upon his actions and even changed the tone of the US policy toward his continued rule.

Even a week after the strike, we have not had any further explanation about how US interests were endangered in Syria, or how the situation had changed from one week before - I would be amazed if we ever got that explanation from this government. Perhaps, more scarily, the government has articulated several different paths going forward, and they do not offer clarity for either friend or foe. The president has argued that it's foolish to elaborate on one's plans ahead of action, likening it to providing the enemy with one's plans, but there is a huge difference between maintaining tactical secrecy and strategic clarity, Today, our allies don't know exactly how the US plans to proceed, whether we will be wading into the Syrian quagmire or standing on the sidelines, or playing a limited role with surgical strikes. The players in Syria are as much in the dark and the danger is that heightened expectations of US intervention on one side, or a feeling by the Syrian government and its allies that the US is just posturing and will not actually act forcefully, or a volatile mixture of both, based on conjecture and false readings could push the Syrian civil war to a bloodier level of carnage. It could also suck other regional players directly into the war, raising the risk of a wider war or destabilizing delicately balanced nations like Lebanon, Jordan or Iraq. It's hard to see that this is in the vital interests of the United States, and this is why the previous Administration chose to remain only marginally involved and was so careful about managing the risks. At this point, no one knows the US policy towards Syria, and that is more dangerous than even the unbridled interventionism of President Bush. At this point, rightly or wrongly, there is going to be a perception that events in Syria are a consequence of this singular US action and we will own the fallout. The one, and only, saving grace in President Trump's unconventional approach to government is that he will likely reject any responsibility for the consequences of his action and simply refuse to own the mess that is Syria.

One of the hallmarks of the last president was deliberation; critics on both sides of the partisan divide were in agreement that President Obama sometimes deliberated too much and too long. One cannot level the same criticism at this president. Decisiveness is often a virtue in a leader, but swift decision should be based on principles. So far, every action of the president this week has been absolutely opposite from his stated position before - the US is engaged with NATO again, involved in the Syrian war, is working with China and has suddenly realized that dealing with North Korea is extremely complicated (kind of like health care policy). And the danger of such sudden changes in direction is that no one can make long term plans - not governments, not businesses and not individual - when one doesn't know if today's ally will be tomorrow's enemy. Winston knew that feeling in 1984, now we all get to learn it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Myth of Altruistic American Foreign Policy

It is a measure of the extremely unusual nature of the 2016 US Presidential election that national security  received very little serious attention with much of the discussion by the winner focused on the security of the southern border, the need for "extreme vetting" of immigrants and a proposed ban on certain religious groups. There was also a pledge to start using the term "radical Islam" which would apparently defeat the terrorists in some undefined way. A more charitable view might be that calling the beast by its true name is a prerequisite to actually confronting and defeating it, but the month since the official transfer of power has not left me feeling overly charitable or optimistic that there is any real plan to confront the ideology if extremism. It is a measure of the oddness of this past election that the losing candidate had far more developed ideas on nearly every policy question, including, or especially, foreign relations and national security. Liberals and conservatives alike had issues with Mrs. Clinton and were less than devastated at her defeat;  many progressives especially hated her approach to foreign policy. But one thing both critics and supporters did agree on was that had she won, it may be safely assumed that policy would be debated before US forces are committed to war.

Perhaps the greatest fear under the current leadership is a seeming naivete at the top when it comes to using American military power and an impossible-to-dismiss worry that US forces may be drawn into a shooting war without much debate or reasoned discussion.  While the US government has many checks and balances and it is safe to assume that any decision to unleash the military machine would require some level of discussion within the government, Donald Trump seems to have no discernible philosophy that would shape such a debate and hence any decision that rests with him could be swayed by a lightest of breezes. From repudiating our long-time allies in Europe and East Asia, to picking battles with China and Mexico, to warmly praising Russia and supporting dictators like Egypt's al-Sisi, Trump's policy has no unifying thread, or if it does, that common strand is well hidden. Or scarier yet, the policy towards a country seems to be directly linked to how their leaders praise him and stroke his ego. But for all my criticism of  the Trump Doctrine, the fact is that the US has not seriously debated policy for decades, perhaps not since the Vietnam war, and most Americans have extremely strange ideas about geopolitics and the role their country plays on the world stage. We had debates in the past, to be sure, but no one really stops to think exactly what current policy is, or what an alternate policy would actually look like. We have minor changes in direction, be the overt aggressiveness of Ronald Reagan or the initially less interventionist turned preemptive aggressionist instincts of George W. Bush. Barack Obama for all his vows of change really followed the same line of thinking as his predecessors. We've seen varying levels of isolationism and reaching out, but only in a narrow range about the historic position. Now for the first time since the World Wars, US policy is been stood upside down, with a distinctly isolationist "America First" pledge though I'm hard-pressed to know exactly how this plays out in actual policy.

To examine the concept of "America First", one must first drill down into the thinking behind such a slogan, The Trump administration, which is to say basically only Mr. Trump, appears to believe that our policy of the last fifty years or so has been to generously help the rest of the world while asking nothing in return. This is, however, a surprisingly widespread view across America, especially on the right side of the aisle, but not exclusively so; Americans of all political stripes hew to the idea that America is that "shining city on the hill" and that US interventions abroad have been almost always altruistic; a smaller, non-intersecting group, almost exclusively leftwing,  believes that all US policy is imperial and criminal, while a small group hopes that the US will be more outward looking without the military excursions. It is the idea that the world has been living off American generosity that underpins the Trump doctrine, and it is the same thinking that calls the US the "global cop", whether in despair, pride, disdain or exasperation. Interestingly, this school of thought - the US as the sworn upholder of world order with no personal stake - is widely held in many corners of the world, with the same mix of emotions surrounding it, and whether welcomed or hated, it is however treated as a truism.

It would undoubtedly surprise most Americans, as well as their detractors and supporters, around the world if they knew that I declare this most sacred and widely accepted tenet to be false. Undoubtedly, my lack of standing on geopolitical matters would lead to instant dismissal of this unwelcome opinion, but I may offer some arguments in favor of my unlikely theory. I would postulate that US policy since the Second World War has been singularly self-serving. This is not a criticism of that policy, nor does it imply that US interests have always been served; it simply recognizes that each US Administration has acted, wisely or otherwise, successfully or not, to further American interests to the best of their ability and based on the best information available and their best interpretation thereof. To examine this hypothesis, consider some of the most important and far-reaching decisions of US foreign policy since the World War: the Marshall Plan, creating the UNO, the Vietnam war (and in truth, its ideological predecessor, the Korean War), policing the maritime trade routes, the China policy (all the way from Chiang Kai-Shek to Nixon's visit to Tiannemen Square to present), Afghanistan policy (from 1980 to present) and the Gulf Wars.

There is no better place to start than with the Marshall Plan. In the minds of most Americans familiar with their post-World War history, this ranks as one of the most generous and altruistic actions, an infusion of American wealth into a battered and exhausted Europe that helped the nations of Western Europe endure and prosper. To be sure, the American aid did rescue Europe, there is little to dispute there. But in reality, it was the most rational and self-serving action by the US government, when you consider the alternatives facing President Truman. The US had just emerged victorious from the war, and undisputed superpower, but across from them sat Soviet Russia, bloody but equally triumphant and determined to expand its own power into Europe. The Americans knew that to let Western Europe slip into chaos would be to open all of Europe to a Russian embrace and America would find itself thrust back to its own shores. It was in America's greatest interest that Europe recover and provide strong allies in the coming battle against communism, and fortunately the US government also realized that this was a war that had to be fought and won on the ideological level. And when the European economies stabilized and thrived again, they provided a group of energetic trade partners to repay the prior largesse of their benefactor.

The Vietnam War and the Korean War were fought with one blunt idea. It is important to recall that it is not the wisdom of the idea that is in question here, and the conventional wisdom of the day predicted a domino effect should America permit any of their allies to fall to communist insurgents, again with the effect of driving the US back across the Pacific. In retrospect the fears that the fall of the South Vietnam republic would lead to an invasion of the US homeland were wildly overblown, but they were very real in the minds of US leaders as crises bloomed in Vietnam, and before that in Korea. It is why the US was willing to pour millions of dollars and thousands of lives into an effort to hold back the communist insurgents. As in succoring Europe, the benefits to the populace were a bonus, a stroke of fortune that the US did not grudge them, but also not the primary aim in crushing the Vietcong or North Koreans. The cynical nature of this policy is quite clear in the allies the US chose to aid them in their battles - the spreading of democracy, freedom and the American way was never going to take priority over the realpolitik of defeating the communists - and when policy suggested that America wage war on Nature itself to deny the Vietcong cover of their jungles, the US government had few qualms in deploying Agent Orange. It's worth recalling too that the need to crush "the Commies" was not significantly challenged in America, until the middle class realized that success in the jungles of Southeast Asia would require the blood and sacrifice of their own children. The draft defeated America, and it was only after the students rebelled against the meaningless carnage in which they were asked to participate that a wider questioning of the aims tore American society apart and finally ended the war. It's also noteworthy that earlier, in Korea, America was willing to fight to defend their South Korean allies to safeguard their own position in Korea, Japan and Formosa (now Taiwan) but when the excessively aggressive tactics favored by MacArthur threatened to widen the war theater and bring the costs of war home to America, President Truman was perfectly willing to settle for a stalemate and draw than push to liberate the entire Peninsula. Fast forward a few decades, and in much the same way, the US chose to look conveniently away when China deployed tanks and armored columns to crush a pro-democracy protest that electrified Tienanmen Square for a few weeks in 1989. Democratic ideals are fine, but when the US had to choose between unarmed students and a desperate but ruthless government re-asserting its power in a bloody massacre, the benefits accruing from an understanding with the cynical Deng Xiaoping was more than enough to decide the issue.

Globalists and isolationists alike love to consider the United Nations Organization the ultimate gift of the US to a mostly ungrateful world. To rightwingers and isolationists, it is the ultimate symbol of US unselfishness that the organization created by US efforts is so often aligned at cross purposes to American policy. Yet, both they and the globalists miss the wider point, that America created the UNO and continues to pay a huge majority of its costs, not out of selfless benevolence but from calculated and far-sighted self-interest. A student of history would remember that after the First World War, the League of Nations was formed to prevent future global conflict, and failed spectacularly. The causes of failure were built into the League from its inception, from the aloof disdainful non-engagement of the US (ironically, after pushing to found it) to the exclusion of the newly communist Soviet Union to the forced exclusion of the defeated Axis nations to the utter lack of compliance mechanisms. Following the failure of the League and the subsequent Second World War (or part of the World War, as many modern historians now say), the US and her allies formed a new forum for world diplomacy and drew on the lessons of the earlier failure. The UNO may often oppose American aims, but it also often aligns with her, and  against American foes. Decision in the UNO, especially the Security Council may require plenty of diplomacy and deal-cutting, but that is precisely its aim - to foster a diplomatic solution above all other options and encourage nations to work out their differences peacefully. There are notable failures, from the Israel-Palestine issue, to the India-Pakistan conflicts to North Korea, yet in all cases, the UN has still provided that crucial forum to debate and discuss and for most part has succeeded in tamping down violent confrontations. The US, for all its setbacks in the General Assembly, gains enormously when peace reigns around the world and that, and that alone, is why the UN remains the best tool of American policy. Harkening back to Korea, it's worth remembering that the coalition opposing the invasion across the 38th Parallel was sanctioned by the UN while the USSR boycotted the UNO; both sides learned an important lesson then, as the USSR and later Russia never again relinquished their chance to mold world policy and action, as mirrored by the US. Tthe US has rarely committed its forces to open war without first ensuring that any and all opposing Great Powers will not enter the field against them, from Iraq, Afghanistan and even Serbia, the US has never risked an accidental and potentially escalating shooting war with nations like Russia or China, and that has protected US lives over the years.

The benefits of peace are plentiful to America, and should be easily discernible. In the years following the world wars, America was the greatest industrial power, and large as domestic consumption was, she needed to sell her products abroad as well to fully realize the benefits. Keeping the trade routes open was key to American prosperity and while there is no US policy that screams "global cop" than the ubiquitous presence of the US Navy in all the seven seas, it is a policy totally unlike that of a policeman, who is supposed to uphold the law and maintain peace with no personal benefit. The US ensures the freedom of passage around the world not from wholly or even mainly, altruistic motives but from a simple understanding that a nation whose prosperity depends on trade and (for a long time) an unhindered supply of oil sourced from perennial flashpoints needs to maintain peace around the world.

I should emphasize that it is not my thesis that American policy benefits no one but herself. Far from it, indeed, for many nations have prospered in the safety of the American shield or grown off American treasure, and America has usually rejoiced in their success. Rather, I wish to emphasize that the arc of US policy since the world wars has been singularly grounded in realpolitik and has consistently been designed (however mistakenly) and executed with the aim of promoting American power and interests and that this reality runs contrary to popular belief across the US political spectrum. Those who demand an "America First" policy would be well advised to educate themselves on this reality before they demand a whole-scale reversal of policy. That many aspects of policy need revisiting is beyond question, as is the fact that American governments in the past have quite cynically differentiated between what is good of the nation as opposed to what is good for the American people, and that is, ultimately, the matter that should be addressed in any re-evaluation of global policy. But such a re-evaluation must be performed with a clear-eyed acceptance of reality rather than with the popular prejudice that dresses America in the role of all-generous and long-suffering selflessness, for such delusion cannot result in any positive changes.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Zero Zero X: License to Choose

One of the most divisive topics in America today is abortion (along with politics, football and the relative worth of life based on skin pigmentation) and yet I find that somehow I have taken the time to throw my mite of fuel upon that cheerful blaze that so consumes political discourse across this land. To no small part, my tardiness may be blamed on incoherence which is after all a very good excuse, having propelled one gentleman past all his fellow contenders for the standard of their party in the presidential race. But with the potentially devastating consequences of Zika virus infection looming over us, this seems a good reason to think about the most basic ideas surrounding the idea of abortion. I'd long since veered around to repudiating the position of the faith I was born in, and even before I flung off the shackles of religion, I'd already embraced the idea that women had every right to abortion services and that attempts to deny them was no less than an attack on all their rights and freedoms. I've long felt that while the wishes of the father should be at least considered, that discussion should be between the woman and man, and in the end the decision rests solely with the woman; when only one half of the pair has to deal with the huge physical changes, it's only fair that she get a proportional say in the decision to keep or abort the fetus.

But this was at best a conviction, a vaguely held idea about rights and equality that I had not fully thought through. Last night, a chance statement in a conversation with three gentleman who I shall call Ears, Baldy and Graybeard, regarding the exclusivity of atheist and pro-choice individuals led me to remark that in fact there was nothing in the Bible that literally prevented abortion. My point was that there was no clause that named abortion as a sin or prohibited act since the procedure as we understand it today was not known in era when that celebrated book was composed (as I found out later, I was wrong - aborting fetuses has been known and done for over two millennia). However, one of my fellow conversationalists, Graybeard, took a different point of view and cited the no killing commandment as all the authority needed to preclude abortion to all women. Now I would argue that in fact the sixth commandment is much too vague to be such a blanket authority since it would prevent one from ever defending one's country, or even oneself, against an attack. But that would be a cheap escape from the main question: since I am opposed to murder (in the general sense of the word) how then would I be able to justify abortion?

As far as I understand it, opposition to abortion is a moral argument and as such based on a subjective understanding of morality. But while I cannot objectively discuss a subjective theory, anti-choice views rest on some underlying concepts that can be addressed rationally. It all seems to rest on the singular idea that a fetus is the same as a human life and hence terminating a pregnancy is the same as murder, with all the moral issues contingent in that concept. To me, this central argument fails (and renders all subsequent moral arguments moot) since quite simply a fetus is not a human life. It's living, that is beyond doubt, but I find it a stretch that we would call it a human life, simply because as one debater stated, the word is Latin for baby (incidentally he was wrong, as the Latin roots refer to the bearing of offspring and is not even particular to humans). Even were he right, Latin and Greek words are often used to misname things, like planet from the word for wanderer to differentiate it from "stationary" stars or malaria from "bad air" that causes the illness. The other part of this argument was that fetuses when allowed to develop fully do become babies. However, no one would argue that tadpoles are the same as frogs or that the chrysalis is a butterfly (or moth or any other insect).  To cite an even more specific example, the silkworm pupa is very distinct from the moth and the moth is next to no use to us, except to mate and lay more eggs. At an even more extreme level, would anyone say that an egg is the same as the bird that laid it? I think I'm on reasonably safe ground when I argue that a human fetus is quite distinct from a human baby. Whether it deserves to be carried to full term may still be debated, but to equate aborting a fetus with killing a human being is a flawed argument meant to only evoke an emotional response, and deserves to be ignored.

Moving on to the idea that it is right or wrong to abort a fetus, I would argue that it's acceptable to abort a fetus, for the simple reason is that it cannot survive outside the womb under natural circumstances. A counter argument was offered that a baby is dependent on its mother as well, but I think that's not even a close comparison. Most offspring, especially further along the evolutionary ladder do require some assistance to survive but the level is not even close to that required by a fetus that is not even ready to live in air as yet. In fact, as my uncle (a biologist, fervent Catholic and staunch opponent of all abortion) once explained, a fetus is a parasite. Not in the layman's understanding of the term, but in the definition of a biologist, a human fetus meets all points of the definition as an organism that is absolutely dependent on its host, draws all its nutrition and energy from the host and forces changes upon its host to create a more hospitable environment for itself. Once the fetus is ensconced, the host is unable to destroy it even when the host's own health is adversely affected. It's obvious too that the human womb is not a universally welcoming place for the embryo or it would be incredibly easy for any and every woman to get pregnant; just like any smart parasitic invader the embryo actually forces the host to suppress its immune system to allow a successful pregnancy and this can take anything from one to dozens or hundreds of attempts. Absent any outside agency, a human fetus has a less than 2 in 5 chance of surviving from conception to full term. If it is acceptable for the human body to "naturally" terminate over sixty percent of conceived fetuses, why then is a less natural form of the same so terrible? The Catholic church (and undoubtedly other religions) has long advocated for only natural methods in case of managing pregnancy, but they pick and choose when to apply this standard, or they would all be walking around naked as apes.

I'm well aware that my discussion above describes fetuses in a not very appealing way and may seem insulting to the idea of pregnancy itself but it's sometimes necessary to lay out the facts in the baldest terms to debunk claims to the contrary (and after all, I'm well positioned to talk to the parasitic nature of the human fetus, having been one myself). When it comes to the question of pregnancy and carrying the fetus to term, I'm all in favor of it, just not a supporter of forcing it upon someone who doesn't want it. And that is in fact the exact reason that I believe the best world would be one in which we make contraceptives widely available and spread education thereon universally so that we do not force women into a position where they have to make this choice. Unlike the most fervent anti-choice folk, I think (and most studies back this up) that most, if not all but  a minuscule minority of, women think deeply over this decision and it is a difficult and heart wrenching choice for them. Of course, this is even more reason to enable a world in which women have total control over their own lives and bodies and are not forced into a painful choice. The biggest point that the anti-choice brigade misses is that having access to contraception or abortion services never coerces a woman onto an unwanted path while denying them these choices most certainly does.

There is so much more to add on this topic - fetal pain and the obtuse attempts to first ban late term abortions and then delay women from getting early abortions so that they run out of time and choices. I could ramble on for a long way on these and other ideas. But rather I want to address one last point by Graybeard. He stated, almost proudly, that he opposed his own daughter's choice to abort her pregnancy, because in his words "when she spread her legs, she ceded her right to further decisions respecting the fetus". This is interesting to me, since it basically awards greater rights now to a clump of cells (at the start of development) than to the woman who must make more sacrifices than any man could really comprehend to enable that same set of cells to become a baby. To offer a (purposefully simplistic) analogy, if one offered a starving (and maybe homeless) man a single meal, would the benefactor now be permanently responsible for feeding and housing the other? Or would he have the right to walk on and leave that unfortunate to fend as best he can? Would be have a choice to help the starving man or is he bound by that first choice to help the other for as it takes? In Graybeard's world,  woman had one choice - to have sex or not have sex. Now quite apart from the fact that in some parts of the world, and within some groups in the US, this is not really a choice made by the woman but her spouse, history has also shown that it is an unreasonable concept. Abstinence sounds simple and easy, but ignores all the messy reality of life. To insist that only the woman loses her freedom due to an act that involved at least two people is at the very least unfair.

It is amazing, and more than a little sad, that men, who never have to face the same wrenching choices, the same sacrifices and same experiences are the ones trying to decide the issue for women; in reality this decision should not be made by even another woman no matter how similar her own experiences may be. It is the choice, first and always, of the woman, who it solely concerns. We would justifiably disdain and reject any coercion in our own lives; refusing to force our choices and opinions on women in something that concerns us only peripherally is the very least we owe them.