As the World Turns

Shortly before the health care bill he backed went down in the flames of 17 percent approval and strident opposition from both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, President Donald Trump infamously shrugged and admitted to the members of the National Governors Association that “Who knew health care was so complicated?” Throughout his winning campaign Trump had always been similarly cocksure that foreign relations is similarly simpler than all the eggheads make it out to be, but by now he’s surely realizing that it’s also pretty damned complicated.
There’s a meeting scheduled today at Trump’s still-wholly owned Mar-a-Lago resort with the well experienced Chinese President Xi Jiping, which will inevitably entail even more complex negotiations than a deal with a New Jersey gambling commission, and it’s coming on the heels of some pretty complicated developments in the already vexing enough countries of Syria and South Korea. There’s also that ongoing hubbub about Trump’s possible ties to the Russian regime that he’s often made excuses for and his criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that has long stood against Russian expansionism, and all that business about accusing Great Britain of spying on him and Australia of exporting Islamic terrorism and the continued insistence that Mexico pay for a wall along its northern border. All in all, who knew that it could be so complicated?
The Syrian situation got thornier this week when that unfortunate country’s grotesque government once again used chemical weapons in an attack that killed dozens of non-combitatant women and children during a civil war that has already killed hundreds of thousands of innocents, and although that crosses a clear line of what should be 21st Century lines it’s not simple as that. This isn’t the first or even the second or third time that that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its own people, and after one occasion the administration of President Barack Obama boldly declared a “red line” of American intervention if they ever did it again, but when they provably did it again nothing happened. Obama’s apologists will rightly note that Republicans thwarted an attempt to get congressional authorization to retaliate, but we were among the Republican dissenters because Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry were describing a “pinprick” response that didn’t satisfy our war-mongering neocon sensibilities at all, and suffice to say it was all pretty damned complicated.
In the immediate aftermath of the horrific Syrian chemical attack Trump did the requisite tsk-tsking on Tuesday while asserting “These heinous actions of the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” which seems about right to our old-fashioned Republicans selves, but the immediate response of the mostly Democratic media was to dig up all the past “tweets” when reality-show star and recently registered Republican Trump advised Obama to stay out of Syria altogether. By Wednesday Trump was telling the press that the photographs of gassed women and children had “made an impact” and that it was now his responsibility to deal with it, and we’re heartened he seemed to realize how damned complicated it was. It’s complicated further by the fact that the Russian dictatorship that Trump is always making excuses for is backing the Iranian regime that Trump has promised to deal with severely which is backing the grotesque Syrian government that Trump has to admit is pretty awful but has withdrawn the previous bi-partisan policy of calling for its eventual overthrow, and given that nobody in Syria at the moment seems to deserve the United States’ backing the plausible arguments for that policy only complicate matters further.
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the globe in the Korean peninsula, the megalomaniacal rich kid running the North Korean regime is holding nuclear bombs he got his hands on despite the the best efforts of the past several Democratic and Republican administrations and launching missiles east ward into the ocean. Sooner or later even the buffoon running North Korea will find someone who can get those missiles all the way to Los Angeles or San Francisco, and they’ve already got plenty of relatively old-fashioned weapons that can wrak all sorts of havoc on nearby Seoul, South Korea, or Tokyo, Japan, which would make for one hell of a global economic crisis even if you don’t care about any Korean or Japanese people, and for pretty much all of our lives that’s been a sticky wicket.
All that Korean peninsula stuff is bound to come up in those Mar-a-Lago talks with the Chinese, which were already pretty damned complicated. Back during the campaign when Trump made it all sound simple he explained that he’d threaten the Chinese with a 45 percent tariff if they didn’t agree to stop manipulating their currency and running up a multi-billion dollar trade imbalance and otherwise game the international economy. By today’s meeting at the Mar-a-Lago the currency manipulation charges are outdated and Trump is threatening a fight with the Federal Reserve Board if they don’t keep up something close to the Obama-era quantitative easing that you have to admit is a currency manipulation, the ridiculous 45 percent tariff threat is by now long discarded the Trump administration and even Trump himself seems to understand how much of that trade deficit comes back in much-need foreign investment, and when it comes to the fact the Xi represents a a grotesque communist government that committed atrocities you have to remember that Trump has applauded their strength i nputting down protests.

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The past few days have seen former self-described “alt-right platform” editor and Trump “senior advisor” Steve Bannon expelled from from his inexplicable seat the National Security Council, and some old Republican foreign policy hands brought on board despite their publicly stated reservations about Trump, and there’s some hope that things will turn out the way the way even our fatalistic Republican souls dare hope for. We’ve got the president’s son-in-law is charged dealing with Iraq and that complicated Israel-Palestinian thing while re-invent the entire federal government along free-market lines, and the situation with Russia is still very much in the air, and that spoiled rich kid in North Korea truly is crazy, and once again there are all sorts of complicated historical forces that can’t be warded off with the slogan of “America First.”
At the moment the only alternative is that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, and pretty much continued the foreign policy of Obama, and we can’t lament that never never came to pass. Obama’s inaction in Syria did wind up one way or another with Tuesday’s atrocities, Clinton’s full-throated insistence on action in Libya did prove a disaster she felt obliged to be lie about, and the general weakness of Democratic foreign policy in general make it think it could have turned out worse yet. This is is all pretty damned complicated stuff, though, and we’re not all sure the guy with the R next to his name will necessarily get it at all right.

— Bud Norman

Nagging Doubts

The president’s efforts to whip up some enthusiasm for war in Syria are not going well. Members of Congress from both parties are reluctant to authorize military action, international opinion is almost entirely against it, and the latest revelations in the news aren’t likely to bolster the president’s case.
A story appeared Thursday in The New York Times, formerly a reliable friend of the president, which portrayed the Syrian rebels who are likely to benefit from American intervention as a bloodthirsty bunch of Islamist fanatics who have summarily executed prisoners of war and committed various other atrocities. The unsavoriness of our Syrian allies is also being widely reported in the European press, and Britain’s The Telegraph tells of the rebel’s brutal treatment of Christians in a captured town. Even the State Department is citing the rebels’ suicide bombings and frequent attacks on civilians in its warning against travel in Syria, despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s assurances to Congress that only 15 to 20 percent of the rebels are “bad guys.”
Such unfavorable coverage of our potential allies makes it hard to win support for their cause, and it also adds to the nagging doubts about who was responsible for the chemical weapons attack that is the president’s sole justification for taking action against the Syrian government. The administration is adamant that Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad ordered the attack, and has lately elevated its language from “a high level of confidence” to “beyond the shadow of a doubt,” but the few pages of evidence it has offered for the claim are being widely disputed. Russian leader Vladimir Putin has provided the United Nations with 100 pages of argument that the rebels launched the attack to lure America into the country’s civil war, Florida’s ultra-Democratic Rep. Al Grayson is telling anyone who will listen that evidence of Assad’s guilt has been “manipulated,” and after the failure to find stockpiles of chemical weapons in Iraq after they were offered as one reason for a war there many people in between are bound to be suspicious.
We have no fondness for Putin or Grayson, or those who insist that the intelligence reports preceding the Iraq war were deliberately deceptive, but there is a troubling plausibility to their suspicions. The Syrian rebels seem quite capable of murdering a thousand of their countrymen in a false flag operation designed to dupe an American president, the president does seem quite capable of falling for it, and it is hard to explain why Assad would cross a presidentially-declared “red line” and possibly provoke American intervention and international scorn by using chemical weapons at a time when he seemed to be winning without them. The evidence against Assad might justify a high level of confidence, but at this point it does not seem beyond the shadow of a doubt, and it would be highly embarrassing to America if proof emerges that it has punished an innocent party and brought about the victory of the guilty.
Making a case that will overcome these doubts would be hard for any president, but this one is especially ill-positioned to make it. As a candidate he had happily exploited the public’s doubt about the intelligence that led to Iraq war, insisted that presidents don’t have the constitutional authority to order military action without congressional approval, argued that favorable international opinion was also required to fight and promised that he would be the one who would win it, and has president he now has to repudiate all of it. We’re told that some sort of action is needed to restore the president’s credibility, but his credibility is already a casualty of a war that hasn’t yet begun.

— Bud Norman