Posted tagged ‘Russia’

Leading From Behind, II

September 5, 2017

America’s two major political parties have spent the last decade identifying issues which their supporters held sacred and then blaming their political opponents for supposed transgressions, regardless of what was best for our Country. One of the best examples might be Republican’s claims that President Obama was weak on foreign policy and specialized in “leading from behind”. Evidence abounded, Republicans claimed. Look at the Middle East, North Korea, and Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Hmmm.

Hypocrisy overflowed with each criticism of President Obama. It was on Republican President George W Bush watch that Iraq was invaded and occupied and when Afghanistan’s police mission morphed into nation building. And, it was a Republican controlled Congress which refused to vote any authorization for Middle East military action while the world watched Syria melt down.

So, today we have a Republican President and a Republican controlled Congress. What type of global leadership does America present now?

The first statement that can be made is that when foreign affairs is measured in “tweets”, American is in a leading position.

The second statement might be President Trump believes in “strategy-free” foreign affairs. This second statement enables the President to speak sharply about a subject and then undercut his emphasis with a completely unrelated comment whose consequence is to negate any positive effect his first statement might produce. Witness the call for China to help reign in North Korea one moment and then threatening to punish China with trade restrictions.

The President, of course, is trying to have it both ways (delight his supporters with tough talk towards both North Korea and China while blindly thinking tough talk is enough or that China could care the least about North Korean threats towards the US).

The third statement might be the “proof is in the pudding”. Has President Trump succeeded at anything domestically or in foreign policy? Has President Trump or Congress lined up global leaders behind any Trump policies, especially any aimed at making the global community economically stronger and more secure?

Do world leaders think better of President Trump than his predecessor former President Obama?

The world is a very complicated place and the days of US overwhelming economic and military superiority versus the rest of the world is over. Nuclear weapons lie in many different countries’ hands. Developed Countries are wealthy by historic standards. Further, the national interests of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Russia and Europe are not aligned other than to think the US already has too much and they have too little. Hmmm.

President Obama left a legacy which President Trump has worked to negate. President Obama comprehended global events as complicated and complex, and requiring thoughtful, integrated US response.  The Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership were two worthwhile and potentially useful initiatives which worked on real issues while building trust and partnership.

So President Trump’s attacking or walking away from policies which could help bind nations together (or at least keep them from drifting further apart), seems a bit short sighted.

I wonder if President Trump’s “tweet driven” style could be seen as “Leading From Behind, II”.  Do you think it is as thoughtful as former President Obama’s foreign policies?

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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.

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.

Russian Voodoo

March 4, 2017

For the past few days the news media has been gaga over Attorney General Jeff Sessions apparent mis-information about his contacts with the Russian US Ambassador. To the extent that Sessions may in the future have intervened in any Justice Department investigations over Russian State sponsored interference with the recent Presidential election, his recusal from participating in these investigations is a positive step forward.

Whether recusal is enough is unclear but anyone who thinks a Session’s resignation is a do or die issue is most likely naive about who might be nominated to replace him.
Answering remaining questions about the extent of Russian activity ought be pursued by Congress and the FBI, and optimally by an independent prosecutor. With what is know today, the independent prosecutor is not going to happen.

Progressives need not waste much time worry about this issue. Of course the Russians interfered and almost assuredly Russian intermediates were in touch with the Trump campaign (and likely in contact with the Clinton campaign, in both cases gathering information). While this is undesirable intervention in the US political process, don’t be so naive to think that the CIA and NSA have not done the same type of things with both Russia and China.

The hacking of the DNC server and transfer of the DNC emails to Wikileaks (for further distribution) was preventable (shame on DNC), but we must recognize that this leak could have happened just as easily by a disgruntled DNC employee if it had not been the Russians. So, let it go and let the professional spies “get even” in ways the Russians would understand.

Does this mean the Russian interference was not important and out of bounds?

No, Russia’s actions, particularly the distribution via Wikileaks, took advantage of a US strength… freedom of speech (the press). Who thinks it is a good idea to suppress free speech?

It is times such as these where Americans ought to be focused less on what is not being blasted in the headlines and more what is cooking in the back rooms of Congress and the White House. While the press is hyperventilating over Russia, the Republican Congressional leaders and the Trump Administration are busily working on changes to healthcare and the tax code. Both issue could have far more dramatic impact upon Americans than the Russian interference.

Progressives should be alert for two issues. (1) The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) has aspects which are not acceptable to all parties. Some (but not all) individuals have ended up with healthcare insurance which come with large deductibles and co-pays. Some employers (but not all) have incurred added expense because they were mandated to provide healthcare insurance to their employees. And some (but not all) individuals were forced to buy healthcare insurance coverage when they did not want to spend their money that way.  To claim ACA is perfect and no modifications are needed is short sighted.

The more fundamental issue which needs to be discussed is what type of healthcare Americans should expect. Obamacare increased the number of Americans receiving coverage by 20 million. Should a replacement insure less?

(A rich discussion over the obscene cost of US healthcare is long overdue but there is virtually no chance that the GOP has the stomach for such a discussion.)

(2) Tax code reform, the second important issue, has been built as a way to “jump start” the economy. President Trump has hailed the cuts as huge, massive. What is almost for sure is that large corporations and wealthy individuals will receive massive windfall gains from lower marginal tax rates. Whether there will be meaningful crumbs for the rest of Americans is an open question.

There is undoubtably a fairness component of tax reform. Progressive tax rates have long been viewed as “fairer” than a straight flat tax. Eliminating the top marginal rate doesn’t take much thinking to realize someone very rich is getting a big break. But even more sinister is the budget pressure a tax cut will create. The Trump/GOP crowd will cry, “we can’t afford” this or that (of course the opposite will be true of planes, ships, and tanks).

So, once again a wise person must keep one eye and ear on the future and not on the brouhaha of the day.

The Trump Administration tactics are about control through deception and confusion. Regrettably, this Administration’s goals are heavily influenced by policies which enrich the already wealthy while singing a populous tune to unemployed, disillusioned, or outrightly hate mongering.

Hmmm.

Call Me Cynical

March 2, 2017

President Trump has announced his intentions to increase Defense spending by $50 billion, an increase “badly needed” according to the President. Hmmm.

The President’s story gets a little cloudy when he says he can pay for this budget increase by shifting money from the State Department and the EPA. This proposed slight of hand is necessary because (1) President Trump and most Republicans want to cut taxes, (2) the President wants to launch a $1 trillion dollar infrastructure plan, and (3) there is the inconvenient law restricting what increases in spending are possible (sequestration). Do we hear the deficit increasing on the GOP’s watch?

President Trump has proclaimed that part of making America Great Again is “rebuilding” the military, woefully underfunded, the President says. Hmmm. The Defense budget weighs in at slightly under $600 billion, more than all other countries combined. An increase of $50 billion or 8% could procure some more airplanes and ships, or could be used to outfit more sailors or troops. But for what purpose?

The Presidents suggestion of taking money from the State Department is laughable unless there were to be across the board reductions in Federal Government spending. But even the act of decreasing Defense and State Department budgets begs the central question, what is to be the over arching US foreign policy?

Many observers have had their fill of the notion that the US is world’s policeman. And to be sure, the US policies in Afghanistan and Iraq have been poorly thought through and to date, failures. But policeman and deterrent can be two different situations. A deterrent if effective can keep other nations from aspiring to enforce their wills on other nations, for example Russia, China, or Iran. Does the President or his advisors really think that buying more planes, ships, and tanks will be sufficient for him to “bluff” other countries into following America’s wishes?  And what will happen if the President’s bluff doesn’t work?

Beefing up the military is a nice sop for his nationalistic followers, especially those who have never worn a military uniform (like the President). More Defense spending will also please a lot of Defense Contractor CEOs. Hmmm.

Taking the money from State Department and the EPA, however, may reflect other motives. Weakening the State Department could (and most likely would) make implementing US foreign policy dependent upon military action. A self fulfilling prophecy so to speak.  Will President Trump be a war President?  Neoconservative rhetoric can be infectious until implemented, then if becomes deadly for the sons and daughters of other Americans.

It is the EPA donation may shine more light on an underlying and even more sinister motive. Which sounds more responsible to you, (1) cutting the EPA budget purposely so the EPA will become resource starved and cannot continue key programs like enforcement of clean air and water regulations or those related to global warming, or (2) cutting the EPA to fund serious national security concerns, and oh yes, unfortunately with a restricted budget the EPA simply cannot do as much as before?

Hmmm.

Danger Ahead?

February 11, 2015

It is relatively quiet on the domestic political scene. Alabama’s Supreme Court Justice, Rory Moore has fiendishly interrupted the gay marriage issue in Alabama, and in the process, struck a blow for State’s rights. In Congress, funding of the Homeland Security Department raises the prospect of a potential “shutdown” if agreement between Democrats and Republicans cannot be reached. Other than that, the Washington grid lock seems mostly in recess. Is this a time President Obama can relax?

Probably not. Look around the world and tell me what his next steps should be.

Syria is a political (and humanitarian) mess. Attempting to remove Basher Assad predictably has lead to an Iraq repeat, Arab killing Arab (and anyone else who gets in the way). Iraq is still highly suspect and shows no signs of uniting Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis into one functioning State. Egypt appears to be tilting further towards absolute authoritarian rule, albeit a secular dictatorship. Jordan, while currently flexing its muscles in its revenge battle with ISIS forces, is only inches away from chaos should the Monarchy be usurped.

And then there is Iran and Israel.

Iran’s government seems quite stable, but its foreign policies extend (and meddle) well into the Middle East.  Experts claim Iran is pursuing centuries old Persian and Shiite aspirations. Iran’s fingers are in Hezbollah, Hamas, Yemen, and Iraqi’s Shiites goals. Iran is also engaged in negotiating a nuclear development agreement with the West. This agreement may come to pass or may continue to be drawn out while Iran continues its nuclear programs in secret.

Israel suffers from a different type of instability. Israel is a full blown democracy where religious interests continue to hamper a secular view of the world. As a result, Israel sees advantages is Egypt’s authoritarian government, is ambivalent over the turmoil in Syria and Iraq because it sees these situations as enablers for its ambition in the West Bank. But Israel’s largest concern is Iran and in particular Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiations with Iran is out of the question because Israel fundamentally does not trust Iran to keep any promise, as well as Israel is not keen on making any concessions itself.

Hmmm. Is that all on the foreign stage?

Don’t overlook China and its aspirations to regain the leadership role China played in South East Asia thousand of years ago. (India, Vietnam, the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea may take exception to this goal.) And who can forget about Russia and their aggression in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. On one level, Russia can be said to be reliving its Eastern Europe role dating to back long before the Czars.

While the pundits may look for an over arching foreign policy, it is hard to see one. Prioritizing these situations might be more helpful and in the long term present a better chance for lasting solutions.

First, the Middle East is not the most important hotspot in the world regardless of the chaos taking place.

Second, Russia is significantly more important than the Middle East. Russia has a second rate economy but a first rate military with both nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. Confronting Russian military aggression, which may become necessary, must be a last resort.

Third, China represents the most important place where American diplomacy needs to be placed. With 1+ billion people and the first or second strongest economy, China is going to become more powerful whether we like it or not. If you want fo think about doomsday, consider India has also 1+ billion people and nukes, Japan has a highly advanced technical and manufacturing infrastructure and is said could convert to a nuclear power over a weekend, and places like Vietnam, the Philippines, and South Korea are proud people who want to access minerals lying off their shores, these countries might be ready to fight for what they see as their rights.

But China represents something more. China has a lot to lose. China is now a very rich country after centuries of poverty. Under the motivation of not regressing, China could choose to exercise positive leadership including economic development and defense against rogue states in its region.

Similarly, Russia has both much to lose and much to gain by behaving responsibly on the world stage. Russia could also provide economic leadership through export of oil and gas, and security with targeted action against rogue regimes from India to Turkey.

I hope that President Obama sees the path forward as going through China (first), Russia (second), and then and only then through the Middle East. Of course both Russia and China may choose to pursue their own future vision.  And then what?

The alternative that peace is achieved in the Middle East (in some presently unknown manner) but relations with Russia and China sour. Are we better off?

Hmmm.  Better focus on those policies with the greatest potential payoff.

Pass The Bullets

November 16, 2014

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Martin Dempsey, candidly testified before Congress that he would look favorably upon a request to send ground (read combat) troops into Iraq. Their purpose, to take back ground already taken by ISIS. So is General Dempsey just being honest or is he trying to goad his superiors or subordinates to make the request?

It would appear that General Dempsey knows his role. The military is suppose to carry out civilian orders.  The military’s role includes recommending the most appropriate strategy and executing it to accomplish these civilian goals. Anyone who has been in the business as long as General Dempsey also knows that in a political world, he can influence sometimes both the goal and the strategy. Maybe that what’s behind the General’s comments.

Whether the US should pursue ISIS is not a trivial decision. Pursuit requires resources and attention that could have been placed elsewhere. Were there to be more important uses for the military, for example confronting other situations which actually represent threats to vital national interests, America’s response might not be as good as necessary.

The current “pro-fight ISIS” cohort sound similar to those who argued for invading Iraq or doubling down with the “surge”. Behind every tree could be a terrorist and if we want to prevent that, the US must take the fight to them. Hmmm.

This argument raises skepticism. There seems to be no end of these groups who hate the West (especially the US) and love Allah (their way). Today the concentration of these Muslim extremists lies from Afghanistan to Libya. Less publicized groups, however, lie scattered across Africa and South East Asia including the Philippines. Are we to look forward to decades of “crusades” to strike down each of these religious zealots once they figure out how to hold others hostage for ransom?

America has traditional been an isolationist country. WWI and WWII shook the nation out of this way and since then, America has accepted the role of world policeman.

The fundamental business model being used by the likes of ISIS, the Taliban, al Qaeda, and Boko Harum do not need religion to thrive. In the past we have label similar groups as insurgents, pirates, or renegades. There seems to always be one of these groups active someplace in the world. Should the US prepare to fight them all?

With the inevitable rise of China and the apparent resurgence of Russia, America needs to lead with diplomacy rather than the military in order to secure its commercial ambitions. To that end, there is also no better time than now to focus on North America and South America to foster civil relationships. In this way, America can focus upon how to deal with opposing economic philosophies so that the American economy can continue to grow.

Recognition that dealing with the ISIS crowd is irrelevant in the pursuit of American economic growth might be a good place to start.