Complications at Christmastime

On Monday an asylum seeker from the Islamic world who had been welcomed into Germany drove a large truck into a crowded Christmas celebration in Berlin, killing at least 12 and injuring dozens more, and a suit-and-tie-wearing Turkish police officer shot a Russian diplomat at an art opening in Ankara, leaving the envoy dead on the floor as he shouted as he shouted about the bloody war being waged in the town of Aleppo and the rest of Syria. Donald Trump was chosen by the Electoral College to be the next President of the United States, too, and the pre-Christmas news is as complicated as ever.
All the details are still unclear from latest the news reports, but the broader facts that have already been established of the matter in Berlin seem clear enough. An all-too-familiar case of a radicalized Islamist waging war against a country that had offered him refuge from war, which no matter how the news puts it in German or English will only harden Germany’s growing opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming policies and bolster American support for president-elect Trump’s campaign promises of “extreme vetting.” Every country’s politics and press will somehow complicate it, but it really is as simple as that.
All the gory details of the videotaped murder in Ankara are by now well established, but the broader implications of the act are still muddled. A North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally failed to provide adequate security for a diplomat from Russia, which has lately been very pesky for the alliance, and it was a radicalized member of the country’s police forces that did the deed, so it makes for a thorny situation even without all those videotaped shouts about Aleppo and Syria before the assassin was gunned down. The bloody war in Syria involves the mass-murderous Assad regime striving to retain power against a diverse array of rebel forces, the terror-sponsoring and soon to-be-nuclear-armed apocalyptic suicide cult in Iran, the Iranians’ good friends the Russians, who have supplied much of the firepower that has been brought down on Aleppo and the rest of Syria, of course neighboring Turkey, which has seen a destabilizing swarm of refugees pouring across its border and has shot down a Russian plan as part of its extremely complicated-by-the-Kurds-and-all-that response, along with some American efforts on behalf of some rebels we are assured are not radicalized.
All of which makes it unclear to us just what that suit-and-tie-wearing assassin was shouting about as he gunned down that Russian diplomat. He clearly didn’t like how Russia has been meddling in the Syrian conflict, as we don’t, although not so ardently, but with so many sides to choose from there’s no telling which he picked, and we’re having some difficulty with that choice ourselves, and we note that even our NATO ally and former “special friend” Turkey has lately been flirting with the Russians. That suit-and-tie-wearing assassin probably won’t wind up like that scraggly anarchist who shot Archduke Ferdinand down and wound up starting World War I, but it certainly is a mess that Trump finds himself with.
Trump is undeniably unsullied by any of this, as he was busy firing some b-lister or another on “Celebrity Apprentice” while President Barack Obama was drawing obviously bluffed red lines in the sands of Syria, and offering misspelled “reset buttons” to the Russians, and dismissing the Islamic State that figures so prominently not only in that Syrian conflict but many of those attacks in western countries, and “leading from behind” a pointless war against a pacified Libyan dictator that wound up with an American diplomat and three other brave American souls dead and his party out of White House, but Trump still complicates things still further. He’s the impulsive sort who urged on that Libyan war, and then lied that he was against it all along, and he seems to prefer InfoWars and The National Enquirer as a source of information about what’s going on in the world, and until we see his tax returns we’ll be somewhat suspicious about his own flirtation with the Russians.
All through his remarkably successful campaign Trump had very nice things to say about Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and boasted about the very nice things Putin had said about him, and he promised that Putin would never invade Ukraine and later said it was not necessarily a big deal that he actually had, and talked openly about how NATO wasn’t such a great deal, which always concerned former Russian puppet states and not the increasingly radicalized Turkish state. Since he won on this Russophile platform he has scoffed at the CIA’s conclusion that the Russians interfered in the election, made several high-level appointments with economic ties to Russia, and still hasn’t released those tax returns or any other financial disclosures that would surely prove he doesn’t already have some ongoing deal with the Russians.
Perhaps Trump’s friendly relationship with Putin will fulfill his promise to eliminate the Islamic State, but so far Putin seems more interested in bombing whichever less assuredly less-radicalized American-backed faction poses the greatest threat to the Assad regime, which is so closely aligned with the same Iranians that Trump has promised to negotiate a better nuclear deal with, and there’s always a chance that even an apocalyptic suicide cult will bend to the well to two of world’s three great nuclear powers, but so far Putin seems confident that any Iranian nuclear missiles won’t be landing in Moscow and indifferent to any that might fall on New York, so it’s going to take a difficult negotiation to work all that out. Tough talk of mutually assured destruction worked well during the Cold War, or at least it has so far, but back then there always tax returns and blind trusts involved. In the Christmas season of this crazy election year, after eight years of Obama, it all seems very complicated.
This is the Christmas season, though, and this will be the eighth of the Obama years, and we’ll trust that despite the best efforts of that refugee in Germany the holiday will still be celebrated and that despite that assassin in Turkey another world war won’t interrupt it.

— Bud Norman

Doing the Continental

Everyone who has ventured on a European trip has some embarrassing story to tell about it, but President Barack Obama’s recent continental tour could top them all. The president’s recent trip to Ireland and Germany featured enough gaffes, big and small, to fill two or three sequels to “National Lampoon’s European Vacation.”
One of Obama’s smaller gaffes was repeatedly mistaking United Kingdom Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne for rhythm and blues singer Jeffrey Osborne. The confusion prompted much hilarity among the British press, which seems to believe that the old school rhythm and bluesman would do a better job of managing England’s red-ink-soaked finances than the Oxford-educated bureaucrat, but George Osborne politely laughed it off. Obama’s mistake was also laughed off by the American press, which would likely have been more appalled had a Republican president made the same error, and eventually it will be offered as proof of the president’s up-to-date tastes in music. Had he been more of a heavy metal enthusiast Obama might have called the Chancellor “Ozzy,” arguably a more insulting error, but at least he would have been getting the nationality right.
A more significant and deliberate error occurred when Obama lectured an Irish audience that Catholic schools are “divisive.” The remark offended many Catholics throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom as well as in the United States, and was widely viewed as further proof of Obama’s animus toward religion. Although we are quite Protestant by temperament as well as theological conviction, we also found the claim offensive as well as bizarre. The Catholic church has been in the education business for many centuries and has become quite good at it, judging by the Catholic-educated people we know, and we’ve not noticed any divisive effects. Unless Obama was speaking for the benefit of pubic school teachers’ union members back home, or is still miffed by the church’s obstinate rejection of his views on contraception, or somehow prefers the Islamic madrassas of his own youth, we can not imagine why he should insult Catholic schools while in a majority-Catholic country.
A couple thousand die-hard fans still showed up to cheer Obama while he was in Belfast, Northern Ireland, but like a fading rock star whose biggest hits are in the past he found that at every stop the crowds were conspicuously smaller than on past tours. When he returned to Berlin, where a Woodstock-sized throng of adorers were enrapt by his oratory back in the heady days of ’08, Obama found himself speaking behind a bullet-proof glass wall to a modest 4,500 or so polite listeners. He pulled out all the tried-and-true crowd-pleasers from his repertoire, reaching all the way back to the ‘80s for some nuclear disarmament rhetoric, but the speech was universally panned by a suddenly disgruntled European press and back home the media cheerleader Chris Matthews was reduced to blaming the poor reaction on the sun glaring too harshly on the presidential teleprompter.
All of which is embarrassing, but largely inconsequential. The more significant problem was that the European political leadership seemed just as unimpressed, and as a result Obama failed to achieve much of anything but another round of golf. Germany’s Angela Merkel publicly scolded the president about his National Security Agency’s intelligence-gathering techniques, an issue of personal interest to a woman who grew up in East Germany under Stasi’s constant surveillance, and we expect that in private she also had a few things to say about his economic policies. Russia Vladimir Putin offered no concessions regarding the Syrian civil war, icily explaining to the press that “Our views do not coincide,” and his public encounters with the president demonstrated that Russo-American relations have not been reset to any positive effect.
The trip was bad enough that Obama should be glad to get back to the United States, where the stock market is crashing, scandals are mounting, the Obamacare train is wrecking, but a restful week of vacation in Martha’s Vineyard awaits. All the fading rock stars vacation there, and they could have a good time swapping stories about their European tours.

— Bud Norman