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Worldwide Threats and Other Worries

For those of us clear-eyed realists who are gloom and doom worrywarts, the annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” by America’s collective intelligence agencies is always a must-read. This year’s edition is especially worrisome, especially when you notice how starkly different it is from President Donald Trump’s foreign policy priorities.
The 42-page document continues to stress the danger of the Islamic State, although Trump has declared complete victory over the terror gang and announced a withdrawal of all troops from the fight against it in Syria. Trump has proudly “tweeted” that he eliminated any threat from North Korea, but the intelligence agencies agree that the nutcase dictatorship is continuing to pursue a nuclear arsenal. The intelligence agencies also concluded that Iran is keeping to a deal to cease its nuclear weapons development, although the country continues to support all sorts of non-nuclear terrorism, while Trump continues to withdraw America from the deal and hasn’t yet negotiated a better one. Trump has yet to address the problem of Russian’s cyber-meddling in American democracy, and continues to countenance Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s instance he’d never do that, but the intelligence agencies are still alarmed.
The “Worldwide Threat Assessment” also concludes that the past two years of American trade policy and diplomacy have weakened ties with longstanding allies and prompted traditional friends to seek new relationships, and makes only brief mention of the southern border where Trump wants to build a big beautiful wall. As frightening as the 42 pages are, it’s more worrisome yet that Trump seems to disregard them.
Trump and his die-hard fans can assure themselves that these are the same intelligence agencies that have blundered America into endless wars useless alliances, and that they’re a bunch of fancy-pants Ivy League elitists who think they know everything, and that the “Worldwide Threat Assessment” is another example of the nefarious “deep state” conspiring to thwart Trump at every turn. We’ve been assured by Trump that he knows more about the Islamic State than the generals, and more about America’s military alliances than the four-star general who was forced to resign as Secretary of Defense, and that Putin sure seemed sincere when he said that the Russians weren’t meddling in our democracy, and that “my gut sometimes tells me more than anybody else’s brain can tell me.
Go ahead and call us gloom and doom worrywarts, but we are not reassured. Trump’s own appointees have signed off on the “World Threat Assessment” and testified to Congress about it, and they seem far more knowledgeable about world affairs than Trump’s unaccountably educated gut, and we think they’re more interested in a clear-eyed assessment of reality than advancing Trump’s populist political rhetoric. Even Trump’s own appointees agree with the carefully considered bipartisan consensus of expert opinion that has guided American foreign policy since the end of World War II, and although the results have admittedly been imperfect America and the rest of world have generally become more prosperous and free, and there hasn’t yet been a World War III, so we trust the brains of those fancy pants know-it-alls more than we do Trump’s gut.
There’s a lot to worry about in the world these days, but we feel slightly better knowing that at least some of Trump’s appointees and few brave congressional Republicans are worrying about it.

— Bud Norman

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On the Strange Confluence of the Philippines and the American Presidential Race

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is making an issue of America’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with the Philippines, as any old Republican nominee would, but at this point in such a crazy election year as this it is unlikely to do him any good.
At first glance the issue seems tailor-made for any old Republican’s faltering campaign. The president of a longtime and still-essential Asian ally travels to China to renounce all military and economic ties with the United States, declares an ominous alliance with China and Russia “against the world,” while an incumbent Democratic administration that has spent nearly eight years alienating allies and appeasing enemies is once again clearly caught off-guard, so the Republican rhetoric should pretty much write itself. That defecting president’s pull-out quote about how “America has lost” plays right in with the Republican nominee’s campaign theme that America never wins anymore, too, so it should have been at least enough to push those pesky groping allegations off the front page for a day or two. In such a crazy election year as this, though, it’s a more complicated matter.
For one thing, it’s not quite clear that the Philippines has actually renounced its relationship with the United States or embarked on a new one with China and Russia. President Rodrigo Duterte apparently has, despite some recent backtracking, but he’s only the president of the Philippines and has constitutionally limited authority, and the rest of the government and most of the country have a markedly different opinion that might yet prevail. There’s been an anti-American strain in Filipino politics ever since the United States reluctantly found itself an occupying power in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, which of course involved some unpleasantness, but that ended centuries of Spanish colonial rule that were far more heavy-handed, and America was eager to quickly hand over power to a sovereign democracy, which was soon conquered by Japanese invaders who were the worst yet, with the Americans coming to the rescue, albeit for somewhat self-interested reasons, and since then the big threat has been the Chinese who had also ruthlessly ruled the country before the Spanish kicked them out, so for the most part Filipinos are kindly inclined toward Americans and the $24 billion dollars of business they with them each year. Indeed, even after nearly eight years of the Obama administration America’s approval rating in the Philippines is higher than anywhere in Europe, Asia, South America, or even the United States itself.
As much as we’d love to blame the estrangement on the Obama administration and both of its godawful Secretaries of State, whose brusque treatment of such longtime allies as the Czechs and Poles and British and Canadians and Australians and Israelis and anti-communist Hondurans and obsequious gestures toward Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood has given the whole world reason to question whether American friendship is worth much or American animosity risks anything, we have to admit that this Duterte character is more at fault. He was elected by the Filipino people in a fit of anti-establishment pique last May, after a populist “Philippines First” campaign that featured him bragging about his penis size, and has since been making all sorts of inexplicable trouble for the country. He instituted “law and order” policy that has killed hundreds of suspected but unproved dealers, called the American president a “son of a whore” for threatening to ask about it at an Asian summit, used the same term to describe Pope Francis over some dispute or another, repeatedly praised the strong leadership of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, threatened his many media critics with official retribution, and publicly regretted that he wasn’t “first in line” for the 1989 gang rape of an Australian missionary.
If this reminds you of anybody be assured that even such anti-Trump publications as Time Magazine and The Guardian have told their readers that the Republican nominee is no Duterte, both noting that the Filipino actually has a long record of political service, and even such anti-Trump sorts as ourselves will admit that Trump hasn’t proposed death squads to deal with the drug problem and that even his most outrageous shtick on the Howard Stern show doesn’t rise to the level of that gang-rape gag. Still, there are sufficient similarities, right down to the boasts about penis size and the feuds with the Pope and the bromance with Putin, to give any voters in a fit of anti-establishment pique some pause. Duterte and his renunciation of longstanding treaty obligations would provide a good talking to almost any old Republican presidential nominee, but in this crazy election year Trump also has other problems exploiting the issue.
Almost any old Republican nominee could hammer the Obama administration and that godawful first Secretary of State who is somehow the Democratic nominee over their reckless policy of alienating allies and appeasing foes, which surely has something to do with Duterte’s latest craziness, but Trump is in poor position to do so. He has declared the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete” and threatened to leave it for a younger, hotter alliance unless they agree to his financial conditions, suggested that Japan and North Korea might need to acquire nuclear weapons rather than rely on the under-paid American umbrella, given the same suggestion to Saudi Arabia, and generally made clear that the entire Pax Americana is going to be re-negotiated or altogether abandoned no matter the outcome of the upcoming election, so at this point we can hardly blame any ally or foe who plans accordingly.
Besides, most Americans have only the vaguest idea that there is a Philippines, and no idea who Rodrigo Duterte is, and they’re rightfully suspicious about why the Philippines is spelled with a “Ph” but Filipinos use an “F,” and there are more pressing concerns about the populist Republican nominee’s hand size and you-know-what-means and his own foul language and verbal feud with the Pope and how very awful that Democratic nominee is. This latest news from the Philippines is bad for everyone, both major party nominees for the presidency included, and we’ll just have to see how badly it plays out.

— Bud Norman

Are You Serious? The Bad Guys Are

The pull-out quote of the day belongs to one Jassem Mohammed al-Bayati, a member of the Iraq parliament’s ruling coalition. Explaining to The Washington Post why his government has recently joined “a substantial and serious coalition” with Russia, Iran, and Syria in the fight against the Islamic State, he said: “Iraq has had enough of the unserious support and procedures of the international coalition.”
That unserious international coalition that al-Bayati refers to is the Obama administration and whatever partners it still has on board, so it’s hard to dispute his characterization of their efforts in the region. The administration’s apologists will note that the administration has spent a congressionally authorized $500 million to train and equip 5,400 Syrian good guys to get in on the fight against the Islamic State yet not on the side of Russia, Iran, and Syria, but after days of denial the Pentagon finally apologized last week for the fact that only 54 of them actually took the field, and that at the moment only four of five of them are still in the fight, and that one of them and his 70 or so ragged troops had recently surrendered all their equipment to a group backed by al-Qaeda, which has now reportedly put aside any theological quibbles and allied itself with the Islamic State in the ongoing troubles. Meanwhile, the once formidable fighting forces of the more or less moderates Kurds are getting pounded, largely due to a lack of support from their former American friends, erstwhile allies ranging from Israel to Saudi Arabia are also making plans for a post-American era in the Middle East, and everywhere from Ukraine to Japan people are figuring out that America’s amity has no benefits and America’s enmity brings no consequences. This is bound to strike any Middle Eastern observer as unserious, even in the unlikely event they share Obama’s assessment of the ascendant Islamic State as the “jayvee team” of terrorism.
Russia, Iran, and Syria, on the other hand, must appear quite serious to anyone with an existential stake in the situation. Russia is consolidating its recent gains in Eastern Europe as it assumes a new role as the power broker in the Middle East, Iran is gloating over a deal that gives them an easy path to a nuclear bomb along with a $150 billion signing bonus it can spend on terrorism against the country it continues to call “the Great Satan,” and Syria continues to feel free to cross any red lines that the administration might threaten. The Sunni monarchies that are threatened by both the Shiite Iranian-Syrian axis and the more radical Sunni Islamic State-al-Qaeda axis might yet team up with the Jewish state of Israel, which faces the same threats and suddenly finds itself with some very strange bedfellows, but any alliances that might occur will be made with the clear understanding that the Americans they once counted on are no long serious.
How this might improve America’s standing in the world remains to be seen, but we’re sure the administration’s apologists are already working on some explanation. If the combined might of Russia, Iran, and Syria were to defeat the Islamic State, or at least hold them in the current stalemate through the next election, it will surely indicate the Islamic State really was a “jayvee team” after all. That three of the world’s worst governments would hold sway in a key part of the world, where once valued allies and essential national interests are at stake, well, that can be blamed on George W. Bush or some other manifestation of America’s racist and Islamophobic and imperialist hubris. The vice president once boasted Iraq was a “stable government” and “one of the administration’s greatest achievements” when American troops were pulled out, in keeping with a campaign promise made long before the resultant catastrophe, but that shouldn’t stop him from stating the argument in a presidential campaign.
These are serious times, but we can’t argue with any Iraqi parliament member who thinks we have an unserious administration. We worry that he and a lot of other influential people around the world share our suspicion that the administration was elected and re-elected by an unserious country.

— Bud Norman