Archive for the ‘foreign affairs’ category

White Knuckles

July 31, 2017

There appears to be a collective “oh sh*t” coming from US intelligentsia. It has taken a full six months for think tank members along with other thoughtful Americans to grasp how far out on the branch of sound governance the US has crawled. What do you think of our President now?

Conservative and right of center thinkers have cut President Trump all sorts of breaks. “He’s new at this”. “His staff is not helping”. And who can forget the wounds inflicted by “fake news”. No wonder the world seems muddled when the US ship of State has no rudder.

The think tank world makes its living from keeping an eye on the four corners of the globe.

  • Russia has concluded good times are not coming from the Trump Administration despite what his campaign rhetoric and it is time to get back to business intimidating Easter Europe and opposing US goals in North Korea and Syria.
  • China similarly has concluded President Trump is a paper threat towards their US trade. China reasons their long term interest in being the supreme power in Southeast Asia is theirs for the taking.
  • The Muslim world (lead by the twin dysfunctionals, Iran and Saudi Arabia) has concluded the US is over stretched and therefore they are content to ply the suicidal path of nuclear armaments. (Allah would have wanted that.)
  • And the motley collection of third world countries, such as North Korea, Pakistan, most of Africa, and Venezuela, plod along with little recognition how close they are to a failed nation.

The conservative intellectuals also know how leaderless the US current is. Republicans have practiced governance tactics which have lead at best to gridlock and when not gridlocked, to destructive, wrong side of history policies.

Time for a tax cut anyone? Or how about more denial of global warming or the need for 21st century trade practices with both Asia and Europe? And where in the world of international disorder should Mexico stand? Does Mexico rank up there with North Korea, Iran, Russia or China?

President Trump has selected a new chief of staff, a new “silver bullet” so to speak. The conservative intelligentsia know that while General Kelly is a good man and competent choice, there is no reason to expect General Kelly can fix the lack of direction or find the soul of domestic policy. On both scores, there simply is none.

Former President Obama was frequently criticized for “leading from behind”. But few honest brokers could allege President Obama did not understand the world and various global forces at play. President Obama also understood that he would be out on the limb alone because the Republican side in Congress was out to undercut him at every step.

Real thinkers in American think tanks are becoming “white knuckled” as they begin to realize the Commander in Chief has no comprehensive understanding of foreign policy issues and has little interest in listening to anyone who might know.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems a very capable executive but has no background in foreign policy. His professed loyalty to President Trump is very worrisome since the President has no idea of what to do.

Secretary of Defense, Jim Maddis is by far the sharpest knife in the draw and that in and of itself is a long term danger. The US democracy has long been the domain of civilians with military actions executed by military professionals. Where are the foreign policy civilian experts?

General Kelly has a narrow set of options. Hopefully he will find clear thinking experts whose advice he can preferential route to President Trump. General Kelly must at the same time thwart the access of the one dimensional thinkers and former campaign aides who seek to curry President Trump’s favors.

It’s white knuckle time.

A Big Fat Nothing Sandwich

July 4, 2017

On this “Independence Day” holiday, Americans are taking stock of their blessings. Through the years, other Americans have sacrificed much, often their lives, in order to defend the liberties we too often take for granted. This year, Americans do not have to rely upon memories of past valor to appreciate the deeds of past generations. Instead, we can open our eyes and witness a President Trump and Republican Party’s attack on what has made America Great.

The President ran on the campaign promise to Make America Great Again, and most Republicans ran on the idea of “taking back their freedom”. President Trump’s slogan pre-supposes Americans agree that America has slipped or that Donald Trump’s vision is greater than our past.   The Republican Party’s charge of taking back their freedoms similarly supposes that whatever constitutes a “freedom” was theirs to take back. It might be more appropriate to say “take the average person’s freedom and give it to the wealthy”.

The Trump White House’s first six months have marked a bazaar chapter in American history. President Trump’s advisors seem set upon the appearance of keeping campaign promises regardless of whether any of them are in the best interest of the average American.

  • Lower healthcare insurance costs sounds attractive but some 20+ million fellow Americans must lose their coverage while the top earners pocket a huge tax reduction.
  • The world is currently awash in oil. Yet, the President has moved to “drill, baby drill”, no matter what the cost. Could this policy be for the benefit of the average American, or maybe just for the fossil fuel industry barons who stand shoulder, wallets open, for Trump in 2020?
  • President Trump has not restricted himself to just domestic issues. His “bull in the china shop” approach to trade and international relations is poised to sell out most all Americans. Either his naivety or his incompetent has the US ready to begin trade wars on many fronts. In trade wars there are no winners, especially the average American consumer.
  • America is a land of immigrants as most Americans can realize if they research their family tree. Making immigrants the enemy is completely out of touch with our history, not to mention our current economic needs. Without a growing population (immigrants plus birthrate), GDP growth must be low or potentially even negative.
  • But by far the greatest danger facing Americans on this 4th of July is President Trump’s child-like assault upon free speech and the freedom of the press. The President’s endless streak of demonstrably false statements will have the effect of trivializing all public officials speech.  Meanwhile, President Trump’s invocation of “fake news”, while patently unprovable, never the less poisons his supporters thinking and increases the odds that real data and facts won’t interfere with their prejudges and false beliefs. History has shown that free speech and freedom of the press are the first casualties of a budding authoritarian regime.

President Trump demonstrates each day that our Country’s best days are behind us.

So, as Americans celebrate July 4th, and gather around the barbecue grill, the President is sending you “a big fat nothing sandwich”.

 

First Trip Images

May 28, 2017

President Trump is home, back in the US of A. The President’s first overseas trip as President, lasting nine days, was a difficult one and would have been so for any other President. President Trump, however, painted each stop with his own paint brush in a style like no other recent past President. In summary, it could have been worse, much worse, but regrettably it could have just as easily been much better.

  • Trump’s Narcissism. The President does not suffer from a low self image. Each of his hosts (Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, NATO, and the G-7) all played to his vanity. While there is no doubt that Donald Trump was successful in NYC or the East Coast in general, dealing with cut throat bankers, developers, and suppliers. The world stage is different. Trump fed his narcissistic self with romps after hours with beautiful ladies, television appearances and talk radio interviews. Business was business, narcissism was narcissism. The dark side of narcissism on the world stage is that foreign leaders, for the most part, are sophisticated creatures quite adept at using charm to get their ways. Thinking of these leaders as country bumpkins is a recipe for upcoming disappointment.
  • Foreign Policy Based Upon Terrorism. President passed on the opportunity to outline a world leader foreign policy.  In the past, foreign policy was built around the “east-west” divide.  Capitalism versus communism. Democracy versus authoritarianism. Individual liberties versus national ideology. Expansionism versus territorial integrity.  Not with President Trump. By choosing terrorism, President Trump has chosen a concept absent a clear opposition and has shut down a basis for dealing with other real threats to America’s interests, such as Russian aggression, Chinese expansion, North Korean export of nuclear know-how, and failed or failing States from Pakistan to Libya. Al Qaeda, ISIS, or any other faith based radical group represent nuisances rather than existential threats to America. Doesn’t the President know this?
  • Rejections of world themes. President Trump proudly told the Saudis (and assembled leaders of other Muslim countries) that he was not there to lecture them on how they should rule their countries. In other words, subjugating individual freedoms in favor of religious ideology was ok with President Trump. Women, religious minorities, and homosexuals could be subjected to what ever rules the Muslim country wished. There is not a thin line between lecturing and giving a nod of approval. Diplomatic speak provides broad room for the President to speak to strengthening relations without endorsing any particular country’s treatment of women and minorities.
  • In Israel, the President avoided mention of a two State solution or a call for a cease in building new settlements in the occupied territories. This could be seen as diplomatic since we do not know what was said behind the scenes. Any acquiescence of Israel’s expansion into Arab territory, however, seems a path doomed for failure.
  • In Rome, the President lost a unique opportunity to restate his Mexican Wall policy in the name of humanity. The President could have emphasized every country’s need for border security and could have pledged to speed up discussions over a comprehensive solution to the 11 million decent undocumented aliens living in America.
  • At NATO, President Trump hit his narcissistic stride. Rather than seeing the combined strength of the EU to foster shared interest with the US (against those of Russia or China, not to mention the Islamic world), President Trump looked towards each country as small and of much less consequence than the US. No real sense of history could be seen.
  • Finally at the G-7 Meeting, the President chose to withhold endorsement of the Paris Climate Agreement. Good news, he didn’t publicly reject the agreement, but endorse it, he did not. Nothing could be more against the tides of history nor averse to America’s best interests. As with George W Bush’s veto of the Kyoto Agreement, Trumps opposition to the Paris Agreement is a huge sop to conservative groups who wish to make more money than to find ways to slow global warming. The standard conservative anti-climate position is that remedies proposed will be costly and do almost nothing to lower CO2 levels given the output of China, India, and other developing countries. “Nothing” seems incorrect but insufficient may be correct. More must be done to move the new great emitters such as India and China to reduce emission to be sure. But if the US continues to emit at unrestrained levels, the world can only be worse off. If the US joins other countries (including China) there is at least a chance of finding world consensus on emissions. Not clear to a narcissist?

As pundits often say, there is only one President at a time. President Trump is ours. The President’s advisors seem packed with conservative self interested ideologues focused on how to increase the current wealth of the 1 tenth of 1 percent. With a President who appears only interested in himself and flattering recognition, America (and the world) is getting what US voters selected.

Another wake up call from this trip is that we are used to having the US President referred to as the leader of the free world. President Trump’s first overseas trip has provided plenty of reasons to think the free world has no leader.

Self Righteous Indignation

April 26, 2017

The public’s role  is becoming harder every day. The everyday citizens’ task must overcome disenchantment, distrust, or outright contempt for public officials. This weighs heavily upon Americans and makes recognizing the truth nearly impossible. For most Americans, it’s “tune out” time. Despite historically low approval ratings the same people seem to get reelected to Congress and nothing changes. Where has “Camelot” or “It’s Morning in America”gone?

Politics and especially our Congress members have gone high tech. There are researchers, writers, strategists, communication specialists, make-up professionals, booking agents, and lest we forget, “chief of staffs” supporting most members of Congress. Consequently most everything we hear or read from these public officials has been sanitized and reflects a carefully nuanced position statement. Can’t be too careful these days, ones words might come back in the next election.

Let’s consider the Senate and House investigations over whether or how or with whom the Russians interfered with the 2016 Presidential election. Forgetting for a moment the Republican political speak which seeks to avoid questioning the validity of President Trump’s victory, and instead listening to the righteous indignation, typically, “this is a serious matter, if true, and Congress must get to the bottom of these charges”

To be sure if the Russians and members of the Trump campaign team did collude this would and should be front page news. But, the fact that Russian operatives hacked into emails and electronic files, or distributed “fake” news should rank in the “so what else is new”, or the “been there, done that” categories. History of CIA involvement in foreign elections is well documented and decorated US foreign policy’s covert component. So, let’s hold back the crocodile tears.

Today’s news brings a similar but different revelation. When asked by a reporter whether the Russians were supplying the Afghan Taliban weapons, US General John Nickolson responded that “he could not refute” such a claim. Hmmm.

For the press and Congress, this represents just one more piece of evidence that the Russians are up to no good. This is another chance to express righteous indignation. Hmmm.

I wonder how many remember the book “Charlie Wilson’s War” which recounts the cover CIA operation, funded by Congress (largely through Representative Wilson’s efforts), against the Russian attempt to occupy Afghanistan during the 1980s. Been there, done that.

It is of course not in our military’s best interest to have anyone arming the Taliban or financing their activities. There are other covert methods to make the Russians realize this interference is costly for them too.  But righteous indignation is a poor choice.

Whether it’s the Russian interference in US elections or supporting surrogates in world conflicts, the facts are that the world is a tit for tat place. Bombastic statements and doing the “unexpected” have questionable value.  These strategies rank poorly in effectiveness and well behind righteous indignation.  Covert “payback” is more difficult but is more easily understood by adversaries.

Righteous indignation, on the other hand, should be reserved diplomatic exchanges and not used to brain wash the American public.

The North Korean Test

April 15, 2017

Is it Deja Vu all over again? The Trump Administration appears to be facing a similar “going nuclear” threat former President George W Bush saw before invading and occupying Iraq. There are some key differences, however. North Korea is already nuclear so there is no need to doctor the intelligence reports. Hmmm.

North Korea appears to be its own worst enemy. North Korea runs a bizarre isolated State where there is the Kim family and a close group of associates and everyone else. Starvation and deprivation are common conditions while the elite eat well and the country spends billions upon armaments and nuclear research. But what separates North Korea from other two bit authoritarian States is its willingness to tell the world of its plans. Irrational maybe but secretive, not.

If one plays along with the North Korean narrative, one should expect to see North Korea soon with tactical nuclear bombs and delivery devices (submarines and intercontinental rockets) capable of reaching any country who threatens North Korea (read US). What then one might ask?

Does anyone think North Korea could survive and exchange of nuclear bombs? Does anyone think the US would sue for peace if attacked by North Korea? Don’t think so.

So, if that is North Korea’s stated strategic intent (nuclear weapons and delivery systems), to what end would this capability be put? Does North Korea still seek to unite the Korean peninsula under their leadership? And would that be the end or would there be further territorial targets, like pay back goals such as attacking Japan or Russia?

Who knows what evil lurks in men’s minds?

One can see even better now what a poor example the Iraq Invasion and Occupation serves. To be sure a nuclear capable Iraq would have been a highly destabilizing factor in the Middle East. But the Iraq War was never really about potential nuclear weapons, there were none. The Iraq War was about enormously misguided neoconservative views about establishing a democracy in the heart of Arab fiefdoms, a shining light so to speak in a dark part of the world. The Iraq War would also show the rest of the world how powerful the US was and consequently make it much easier for the US to exert its will in other trouble spots. Oh, if that had been true?

North Korea is much different, or is it? What might happen if the US (even with China’s tacit approval) launched a pre-emptive attack. What if, as a result of this attack, there was regime change. What might follow? Would there emerge a lawless State bent on disrupting everyday life in South Korea or even China, sort a pirate like Asian Somalia.
Or would the US (and South Korea and Russia) accept Chinese occupation of the North in order to provide law and order. Or if one is really dreaming, would China (and South Korea and Russia) accept US occupation?

Hmmm.

This is the mess facing President Trump. Clearly North Korea is a failed State and if magic could rule, North Korea should be transformed into a peaceful nation. But there is no plan or expectation of this positive outcome at this time.

So, does the Trump Administration just watch and hope for the best? Does the Trump team work on China in hopes of forming a combined effort to change North Korea’s behavior? And what role, if any, does Russia play?

Logic would demand that the three great powers work together and resolve the North Korean threat. North Korea’s nuclear weapons could be aimed at anyone. But working together requires trust and tell me how much trust exist betweens Russia, China, and the US at present?

Arguably the North Korea Test is one the Trump Administration is least able to handle. President Trump has a career of “bullying” tactics, followed by a deal, followed by selective reneging. Is that the type of person Russia and China might want to make a deal?

Consequently, the Trump Administration is left with a “wait and hope” that China can/will apply more pressure on North Korea so that North Korea voluntarily muzzles its provocative statements and puts into moth balls its current efforts to weaponize its nuclear capability. The North Korean Test, far more than the Syrian civil war, teaches the basics of, like it or not, the US cannot be an isolationists (America first), and being a globalist is an extremely difficult act.

Brexit Implications

March 30, 2017

Yesterday British Prime Minister Theresa May signed the official document triggering the European Union’s exit provision, Article 50. With that move Britain has begun its retreat from Europe opening the doors to an uncertain future.

From the British perspective, Brexit is about sovereignty and the ability to more effectively deal with non-British labor, (read to exclude those Britain decides it does not want). The measure passed narrowly but in a Democracy, an inch is as good as a mile.

From the EU perspective, Britain’s departure is unwelcome but not for a want for Briton in particular. The EU worries that Brexit is just the first shoe to drop and more are around the corner. Question, if the EU is so good why would countries want to get out?

In forming the EU, member countries traded some sovereignty for a large common market where trading rules were fixed and not subject to populous tariffs or other whims. Regrettably, the EU also formed a parliament and a wide range of bureaucratic branches fully committed to establishing regulation on all facets of commerce and life in general. Critics see the EU and its Directorates as needless expense supporting a gigantic jobs program.

One of the more troublesome outcomes has been how the EU deals with immigrants. Any immigrant who gains access to a EU member State, for example refugees fleeing war in central Africa, once these immigrants set foot in a member State, they are free to travel to any other State seeking work. And of course, while seeking work, the immigrants are qualified to receive welfare support. IMO, the EU’s inability to deal with this one issue, more than any other, tipped the British vote to leave the EU.

Reports indicate that France may want to follow Briton. France’s reasons center on right wing politics. Life will be better if France calls the shots, the right claims.

The danger embedded in Brexit requires one to check history and see what happened when there was less dependance among European Countries. World War I and II, and all the other wars leading up to world wars should be a sobering reflection. Remember, European Countries have both a long history and a sharp memory.

In addition, these countries are, in comparison to the US, relatively ethnically pure (not much diversity).  Germany tend to be german, France tends to be french, etc. (Ironically, this homogeneity is want makes Italy or Spain or France etc so nice to visit.)

Following World War II the western world was fortunate to have leaders who knew the old world order had to be changed. Within Europe, a series of government agreements, for example the EU (European Government and flag), the Euro (European wide common currency), and NATO (European wide military alliance which include the US). These agreements provided enough grit that the nationalistic urges to settle differences between members would give way to more rational solutions.

The EU common market represent one of the top three markets in the world. Within world currencies, the Euro is often viewed as second only to the US dollar. And visiting Europe with its advanced transportation network (and trouble free border crossing) is a preferred vacation destination. Brexit is a short sighted and most likely unwise move by Britain.

With the rise of China (wealth and military strength), the implosion of the Middle East, the economic stagnation of Japan, and nuclear uncertainty of Pakistan, India, and North Korea, world order is under pressure. Britain by itself provides no reassurance that the British can wield diplomatic or economic strength useful in hammering out a functioning world order better than Britain being an EU member in good standing. The odds are that Briton is on a slide to obscurity (nice place to visit, but….).

Brexit could not have come at a worse time given the naivety of the incoming Trump Administration. Can a “one off deal making” mentality summon up the strategic vision necessary to guide other countries towards a peaceful world order?

The Jacksonian Revolt, Is That What’s Really Happening In Washington-Land

March 21, 2017

There are some bizarre events taking place in the nation’s capital. The President is tweeting (bizarre enough on its own) outrageous charges about President Obama which impugn the office and are completely baseless, and the President refuses to admit his mistake. The Senate is itching to confirm a new conservative Supreme Court Justice as if it were a long overdue (thanks to obstructionist Democrats) even though the Republican majority refused 12 months ago to consider Merritt Garland. And in Senate hearings, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the FBI had open investigations focused on possible collusion between Russian operatives and members of President Trump’s campaign staff. Most Republicans dismissed the implications and instead wanted to talk about who might have leaked this information earlier.

How can grown intelligent people act this way?

“Foreign Policy” is carrying an article by Walter Russel Mead titled The Jacksonian Revolt. Mead lays out various US foreign policies (Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, and Jacksonian) and their points of emphasis. Broadly, Hamiltonian and Wilsonian have dominated foreign policy thinking since World War II while Jeffersonian and Jacksonian have taken a back seat. Now the prospect that President Trump might be a 21st century Jacksonian is getting people’s attention.

What’s so wrong with Jacksonian foreign policy?

Both Jefferson and Jackson sought a low profile for the US. They believed this posture would be the least costly and the least likely to entangle the US in foreign wars. America first, so to speak.

Hamilton thought the US needed a sturdy presence around the world in order to fend off other countries who might interfere with foreign commerce. Neither school of thought sought conflict and both thought their strategy was superior.

Since the Second World War, US (Hamiltonian) foreign policy sought to build alliances globally and through economic development stabilize foreign actors who might be prone to war otherwise. Wilsonian believers tended to emphasize human rights and rule of law as key components of US foreign policy. With one off exception of Korea and Vietnam, the world has been relatively free of war (regional ones but no world wars) until the Gulf War I.
Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and a coalition of western countries combined to over turn the invasion and expelled Iraqi forces.

In 2003, for reason still unclear, George W Bush’s Administration felt compelled to once again invade Iraq and in doing so, opened Pandora’s box. There are no mitigating explanations for what will be recorded in history as a tragic foreign policy failure but happen it did. Seventy years of broad based foreign policy support began to erode and 19 century world views once again seemed credible.

Mead speculates that Jacksonian Americans saw nothing good about US foreign policy but were more concerned (and felt personally threatened) by a changing US population demographic. Immigration was a direct threat, one cleverly encouraged by Democrats, thought the typical Jacksonian American. Donald Trump was their Andrew Jackson, and had come at not a moment too soon.

Mead’s concerns are strictly foreign policy and domestic policy and its attendant politics are secondary it seems. Mead does not support isolationism, but warns that future efforts on world order must consider to a greater degree the needs of other nations to feel their identities are respected (I think he is saying a little less Wilsonian flavor).

What Mead does not say is also important. Jacksonian Americans are still a minority. The coalition which elected President Trump and who have precipitated the US foreign policy rethink are far from a single mind on future steps. Libertarians and Neoconservatives feel free to plot new courses for the US.

America is not living in the age of sailing ships or horse drawn artillery as Jackson knew it. America is living whether we like it or not in the age of nuclear weapons, missile technology, and cyber warfare. Jeffersonian or Jacksonian foreign policies are incompatible with America’s best interests.

A rethink of Hamiltonian and Wilsonian foreign policy principles is probably necessary but with a President who seems unable (or unwilling) to value truthfulness, the prospects of more neoconservative policies (like invading Iraq) present a greater threat to our way of life.