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Meanwhile, Far Away in the Far East

President Donald Trump picked as good a time as any to embark on an extended multi-nation tour of Asia, given all the bad political news for the Republicans over the past week, but as usual he managed to grab his share of the attention.
During the campaign Trump frequently claimed that America had been “raped” by China in their trade relationship, but while in China he basically said that America was asking for it. “Who can blame a country for being able taking advantage of another country for their benefit of their own citizens?,” he said to an audience of Chinese political and business and leaders quite a few American businessmen, who responded with a slight and nervous-sounding laughter. He placed the blame for America’s trade deficit with China squarely on “past administrations,” apparently beginning with the Nixon administration, a charge he later reiterated via “tweet,” and the die hard-supporters back home were all more robustly cheering the implication that things are going to be different from now own.
Trump wasn’t talking the campaign talk labelling China a currency manipulator or slapping 45 percent tariffs on Chinese imports or holding the negotiations over a Big Mac and fries rather than a state dinner, though, and he didn’t give any details about what he wanted to change. We don’t claim to be the masterful negotiator that Trump claims to be, but we note he also didn’t give any details about how he’s going to persuade the Chinese to go along with his announced plan to take advantage of them for the benefit of his citizens, and most of the business leaders in the audience seemed to be hoping for a different tactic.
China is going to have to reconfigure its entire economy to get its citizens buying enough Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Gibson electric guitars to make much of a dent in the trade imbalance, and although it probably would make the country a whole lot cooler they’re unlikely to do so for Trump’s sake. America’s economy will also require a lot of reconfiguring before Americans stop snatching up low-priced Chinese-made products at Wal-Mart, although doing without some of that junk might also make America cooler, and there’s also the matter of the high-end airplanes and delicious wheat that folks here in Kansas make and the Chinese spend a lot of money on, so the Chinese will have some some threats of their own to make when any treaty is being debated in the Senate. Something better than the status quo is possible, and we wish Trump well in achieving that, but for the foreseeable future a balance of trade isn’t possible, and neither is it necessary desirable, so we hope Trump will be more understated and realistic in the future.
The trip also took Trump to Vietnam, which gave his critics an opportunity to chortle about the bone spurs that prevented him from serving in a war there, and brought him into direct contact with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which also gave his critics plenty to work with. Trump told reporters that Putin had assured him that Russia didn’t do the tiniest bit of meddling in the past American presidential, and Trump said that he believed him, although after the predictable outrage he quickly revised that to mean that he believed that Putin actually believed that, and that in fact he believes the contrary conclusion of America’s intelligence agencies, at least now that they’re headed by his appointees and saying the same things they said under Obama’s appointees.
Continuing his penchant for disparaging past American governments in front of foreign audiences, Trump dismissed Obama’s past intelligence chiefs as “political hacks,” although both began their careers in Republican administrations and were decorated combat veterans of the war in Vietnam, and said the same things about Russian meddling that the Trump appointees are saying. In any case, Trump made clear that he didn’t see any reason why Russian attempts to sabotage an American should stand in the way of friendly relations.
There was also a stop in the Philippines, where the current President is Rodrigo Dueterte, who has cursed the Pope as the “son of a whore” and called an American president a “black bastard” and routinely forces kisses on women at his campaign rallies and unleashed gangs of vigilantes who have killed thousands of suspected drug users. Trump has previously praised Dueterte’s approach to the country’s problem, and always seemed quite comfortable with the rest of it, and Dueterte seems to like Trump’s style, too, so their meeting was fairly cordial. There’s a huge “Trump Tower” being built in downtown Manila, too, and Trump hasn’t divested himself of the branding agreement that’s expected to earn him millions of dollars, and the real owner of the property also happens to be Dueterte’s trade minister, so we expect it to remain cordial no matter how many suspected drug users are shot down without so much as a warrant.
The Philippines has lately benefited from America’s military support in quashing one of its occasional outbreaks of terrorism from it’s long-troublesome Muslim minority in the southern islands, too, and Dueterte has tamped down his anti-American rhetoric. He remains resistant to restoring America’s past military presence in the country and continues to make concessions to the Chinese in an apparent belief that they’re a more reliable diplomatic and economic partner.
During a stop in South Korea Trump managed to avoid making many big headlines, at least not to big enough to nudge the electoral losses or a Southern Gothic sex scandal out of the way, as he carefully avoided to referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jon-Ung as “Little Rocket Man.” The talk was tough, but within the usual diplomatic bounds, so the critics couldn’t muster of a case that he was taunting the North Korean nutcase into a nuclear confrontation by lowering himself to the dictator’s level of personal insult. After Kim once again called Trump a dotard, meaning an old and demented person, though, Trump “tweeted” back that “Why should Kim Jong-Un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat.’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe that will someday happen!” Around the same time he offered to arbitrate some of China’s disputes with its neighbors over islands in the South China Sea, citing his great negotiation skills, but was politely declined by all parties.
At every stop along the way the leaders went out of their way to provide the most lavish welcomes and flattering praise, however, and Trump seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. Our guess is he and his fans will take it was proof that they’re making America great again, but that’s about all they’ll get out of it.

— Bud Norman

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Two Tales of One Speech

President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the entire world from the podium at the United Nations on Tuesday, but as always he seemed to be speaking mostly to his fans. As always the fans loved it, even if the UN-bashing was watered down somewhat from the campaign speeches, and the rest of the world was less enthusiastic.
After opening the speech with some self-congratulatory talk about the American stock market and unemployment rates, both of which have indeed lately improved at a slightly better pace than before he took he office, Trump welcomed the UN’s general assembly to his home town of New York City as if they had recently arrived solely to hear him speak. After that he got to more substantive matters, including a threat to completely annihilate North Korea, a warning that America will no longer share its traditional burdens in enforcing world order elsewhere, a promise that America would no longer attempt to impose its values of freedom and democracy on an unwitting world, some harsh criticisms of certain countries that are unfree and undemocratic, some more subtle criticisms of certain other countries that are also unfree and undemocratic but more formidable foes, and a full-throated announcement of the “America First” policy he successfully ran on.
The fans surely loved almost all of it, and the rest of the world will have a hard time arguing with much of the speech.
A threat by an American president to utterly annihilate another nation is unusual in a UN speech, but that has long been the unavoidable American policy in response to a nuclear attack, which North Korea has lately been threatening in clear terms, so Trump might as well have said so. Using the taunting “Rocket Man” nickname for the nutcase North Korean dictator that Trump had previously “tweeted” was unnecessary and probably not helpful, and we along with most of the rest of the world would have preferred some added lines about our hopes for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but Trump is still on the same solid ground as any other American president would be in vowing a devastating response to a nuclear attack against America. He also seemed to leave room for a preemptive nuclear attack based on intelligence reports of an imminent threat, though, and given Trump’s past remarks to the world press about the unreliability of America’s intelligence community and his harsh criticisms of its previous preemptive military actions that’s a more complicated matter.
Trump is also on solid ground with his complaints that America has borne an unfair share of the burden of enforcing the world order, along with the implicit argument that the UN is charging us too much for its small role, but right now is probably not the best time to be making that argument. Trump’s savvy UN ambassador Nikki Haley has recently convinced both the Chinese and Russian members of the Security Council to sign on to harsh sanctions against North Korea, which might prove helpful if either country is as good as their word, and there’s still a chance that a peaceful resolution worked out in the UN will make our outsized bills to the usually worthless organization well worth the cost. Trump did tamp down his past criticisms of the UN and didn’t threaten a complete withdrawal, though, so the disappointment of his fans should be well compensated by the relief of the rest of the world.
By now both the American left and right and all those Trump fans who fit somewhere in that spectrum agree the country shouldn’t be imposing all of its values on the rest of the world, and the rest of the world surely won’t argue with that, but Trump’s oration leaves plenty of room for other arguments. He spoke of each nation’s sovereign right to settle its own domestic squabbles, but singled out North Korea and Iran and Venezuela for scorn about they’re handling it, and didn’t make clear what standards he expected from the rest of the world. North Korea and Iran and Venezuela well deserve America’s scorn, and whatever pressure America can apply, but so do China and Russia and other more formidable foes that Trump left largely unmentioned, and at this point a Trump Doctrine seems vague.
Trump made it clear that his guiding principle is “America First,” and he rightly noted that every American president has had the same priority and that every other world leader has also put his nation’s interest first, so the rest of the world has only self-interested arguments about that. Still, those Americans who aren’t fans of Trump, along with the rest of the world, can argue Trump doesn’t espouse an enlightened view of America’s self-interest. That “America First” slogan always bothered us, given its historic association with the pre-World War II isolationists who were sure America would fare just fine in a world dominated by the Axis powers, and it doesn’t sound any better coming from Trump.
It could have been a lot worse, though, and we’ll take some solace in our longtime and old-fashioned Republican conviction that the United Nations isn’t really that big a deal. Our reading of the English language ¬†editions of the foreign press suggests that the rest of the world mostly regards Trump as a boastful and boisterous buffoon, so we’re left wondering how they’re taking the speech, and worrying if Trump cares about that so long as the fans are pleased.

— Bud Norman

The Fourth of the July on the Korean Peninsula

While America was firing off fireworks to celebrate its independence, the nutcase regime running North Korea was testing yet another intercontinental ballistic missile. According to the United States Pacific Command this one went 1,700 miles into space and landed 580 miles away from its launch off the South Korean coast line, so if you flatten that trajectory it could have landed in Alaska, which complicates what had already been a darned complicated situation for more than 50 years.
President Donald Trump defiantly responded with a “tweet” taunting North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un by asking “Does this guy have anything better to do with his life?” It’s a valid question, of course, but we doubt Trump’s “tweets” will deter Kim from his nuclear ambitions any more effectively than they’ve deterred Mika Brzezenski from criticizing Trump on her early morning cable news show, and Trump’s “tweeted” promise as president-elect that the North Koreans wouldn’t dare an ICBM test when he got into office obviously hasn’t come to pass. Trump hasn’t yet declared any red lines or stated any demands or ruled out any possible options, which suggests that the more seasoned heads and steadier hands of his well-regarded defense secretary and and his widely-respected national security advisor are exercising some control over the presidential “twitter” feed, and for now we hold out hope for an old friend of ours who lives in Anchorage.
America’s options were always limited to a narrow range of bad to worse, though, and Tuesday’s test seems to have narrowed them further. A pre-emptive first strike on the nutcase North Korean regime’s missile launching sites always carried the risk of devastating retaliatory strikes on nearby American allies South Korea and Japan, the South Korean capital of Seoul could be easily shelled from the the demilitarized zone with World War I-era artillery, and geography has given always the North Koreans an unearned that advantage that made any miscalculation catastrophic. Even if you’re so ruthlessly American First that you’d ignore the humanitarian consequences of bombs landing on such densely populated places as Seoul and Tokyo, you’d have to admit the economic consequences would eventually be felt deep in the heartland. With the North Koreans seemingly in missile range of Alaska and maybe even such densely populated places as Los Angeles and San Francisco, even such a seasoned head and steady hand and instinctive first-strike hawk as well-respected former defense secretary William Perry is saying “it changes every calculation.”
There are still plenty of potential diplomatic solutions, of course, but all of those have always been darned complicated and are lately more complicated yet. China’s President Xi Jiping and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin issued a joint statement proposing that North Korea refrain from further missile tests in exchange for the United States canceling a planned joint military exercise, which sounds reasonable but is pretty darned complicated. Trump ran on a China-bashing platform but has been remarkably friendly to China ever since Xi visited Mar-a-Lago and granted some long-sought patents to Trump’s daughter’s business, and by now everyone knows that his relationship with Putin is endlessly complicated, and even his relationship with South Korea has been complicated by his protectionist rhetoric and insistence that the country pay more for a missile defense system that might shoot down something pointed at Alaska. That joint Sino-Russian proposal was a hard enough call in any case, aside from the embarrassing fact it had two leaders Trump has sucked up to colluding against him. Accepting would be a sign of weakness, and undermine a longstanding American-South Korean alliance, and refusing might now prove that that catastrophic miscalculation that the the past 50 years of American presidents have sought to avoid.
Given the situation we’re now in there’s argument to be made that all of those presidents of the past 50 years made some miscalculations. President Harry Truman was the first president who waded into the Korean Peninsula, although that was largely a result of his predecessor’s actions and those of presidents going back to Theodore Roosevelts first adventures in Asia, and for all the historical debate at least it ended up with a capitalist and mostly democratic South Korea and all those great K-Pop videos.
Those communist and totalitarian China and North Korea regimes lingered through the Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and then the cold warrior Republican President Richard Nixon famously went to China. After Vietnam and Watergate the Republican Ford and Democratic Carter administrations maintained the stalemate on the troublesome peninsula, and although the Republican administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush brought down the Soviet Union they didn’t much change the situation with the commies on the Korean peninsula. The Democratic President Bill Clinton struck a bargain with the North Koreans that looks dreadful and will perhaps look worse in the history books, Republican President George W. Bush didn’t rectify that, and the latest headlines in even Te New York Times and The Washington Post admit that Democratic President Barack Obama also failed to definitively solve the problem.
Now we find ourselves with President Donald Trump facing these complications, and hoping those more seasoned heads and steadier hands of his will somehow prevail at least enough to kick this can further down the road.

— Bud Norman

The Son-in-Law Also Rises

Most of the chatter on Monday seemed to be about president-elect Donald Trump’s latest “twitter” tantrum, this one provoked by actress Meryl Streep’s obligatory liberal rant at yet another one of those show biz awards shows, but it was the stories about Trump’s appointment of Jared Kushner as a “senior advisor” that caught our eye.
If you’re still unfamiliar with his far less famous name, Kushner is a 35-year-old real estate mogul, having run his family’s sizable business ever since his father went to jail about decade ago for tax evasion, illegal campaign contributions and witness intimidation, and he’s also Trump’s son-in-law. Unless the mainstream media and Trump’s “Tweets” have left anything out, that’s about the extent of his resume for a senior advisory position with a presidential administration. We don’t find any aspect of it reassuring, and are troubled for reasons.
Kushner reportedly played a senior role in his father-in-law’s presidential campaign, which thus far seems to have worked out well for the entire family, so we’ll give him that. He’s also played a reportedly big role in the post-election transition, and so far that seems a mixed bag for all involved. Kushner was quite plausibly reported to have been behind the ouster from the transition team of the oh-so-obsequious New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who had put Kushner’s dad in jail back in his heroic days as a tough and incorruptible prosecutor, and although that firing might have been a good call by this point in Christie’s decline it does continue a pattern of petty score-settling that doesn’t befit a presidential administration.
Our eyes were also caught by the stories just a couple of column inches below about Kushner’s family business’ ongoing negotiations with one of the biggest banks in China, a country that Kushner’s father-in-law has famously threatened 45 percent tariffs against, and it will be interesting to see how that plays out. A couple of column inches the mainstream press acknowledges that Kushner has offered to relinquish his executive role in his family’s business, but so far we as we can tell and without any reassuring information via Trump’s “tweets” it will still be his family’s business, so that doesn’t allay any concerns. The president-elect has enough ongoing international deals raising conflict-of-interest questions without adding all the scandals of another family of real estate moguls to the daily budget of the last of the newspapers. Trump has been delighted to “tweet” the pretty much inarguable fact that he’s exempt from the conflict of interest laws that apply to almost all federal employees, except for that pesky “emoluments clause” in the Constitution, which we’ll deal with later, and his son-in-law’s “senior advisor” post won’t be subject to congressional approval and will apparently go unpaid and thus also fall into some legal category that Trump’s suddenly huge payroll of lawyers will find, so we expect that for at least a while it go as well as everything else that has been lately happening for the family.
That whole in-law nepotism thing bothers us, too. We’re from old-fashioned Republican stock that once groused about President John Kennedy appointing his brother Bobby to be Attorney General, and in all fairness we have to admit that at least the young punk had once served on Sen. Joe McCarthy’s commie-hunting crusade, and that this Kushner fellow seems to have no record of public service at all on his resume except for chasing Christie away, and even that seems to motivated by petty score-settling. Our experience of fathers-in-law is that sons-in-law are reluctant to offer them any criticism, and ours was a much nicer and less thin-skinned guy than Kushner’s, so we’d much prefer a “senior advisor” to Trump who would likely be more willing to advise some restraint. Something on the resume that indicates Kushner has any familiarity with geo-politics and macro-economics and all those crazy social issues would be reassuring, but these days that’s too much to expect.

— Bud Norman

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

Barack Obama’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure

More than eight exceedingly long years have passed since those “Hope and Change” days when Sen. Barack Obama was running his first successful presidential campaign, but we still well remember the giddy optimism of his die-hard supporters. One of the promises they all seemed to believe was that after eight exceedingly long years of George W. Bush’s crazy cowboy foreign policy had tarnished America’s reputation, the rest of the world would once again admire and respect America under the apologetically cosmopolitan leadership of a former community organizer and not-yet-one-term Senator. Judging by President Obama’s recent foreign travels, in the lame duck days of his not at all optimistic second term, we’d say that hasn’t quite panned out.
Obama’s trip east turned into the latest installment of the old “National Lampoon’s Vacation” franchise, with the ironic twist of the President of the United States playing the Chevy Chase role, along with some of the late Rodney Dangerfield’s “I get no respect” shtick. It began with Air Force One touching ground at the Beijing airport before the Group of 20 summit, with no red carpet or high-ranking handshakes or reassuring photo opportunities to greet the president, and without even the courtesy of one of those high-rise airplane ladders he wound up exiting from the belly the beast as he would in such hostile territory as Afghanistan, and a Chinese official wound up in a shoving match with the American press and shouting “This is our country, this is our airport” at National Security Adviser Susan Rice. There were further diplomatic statements from both sides regarding the matter, and none of them left any doubt it was an intentional insult to a President of the United States.
The president was there mainly to finalize his insane “Paris climate accord,” which is not a treaty because it would never be ratified by even a Democratic senate but is nonetheless binding enough to impose all sorts of onerous regulations on the American economy to make a meaningless gesture about a problem that might or might not exist, and apparently that was enough reason to endure the snub. The Chinese government’s only obligation under the “Paris climate accord” is to maybe think about doing something so absolutely stupid in another 14 years or so, and apparently that was enough to inspire such an official show of contempt.
During the big economic summit Obama also managed to outrage the Fleet Street press and its avid British readership, which has been an annoying habit of his since he first took office in those “Hope and Change” days and sent back a bust of Winston Churchill, by once again threatening Great Britain with trade recriminations for its exit from the European Union, which is by now a fact despite his earlier toothless threats. Moving on to Laos, the tour featured the President of the Philippines vowing that if the President of the United States brought up the subject of the Filipino death squads currently battling the country’s suspected drug dealers in a planned meeting he would say “son of a bitch, I swear at you.” With the Philippines’ effect on the global climate being rather minimal this was enough for Obama to briefly cancel the meeting, but after the usual the exchange of diplomatic statements the meeting went on and apparently no curse words were exchanged and nothing much of any other interest happened. Obama also took the occasion of being in Laos to pledge help with all those unexploded bombs that America dropped there some decades back, and to lecture some young Laotian students about how lazy Americans aren’t doing enough to help with climate change as such industrious and pre-industrial peoples such as themselves.
Meanwhile, Russian planes were making “unsafe close intercepts” on American planes over the Black Sea, the Iranian navy was harassing American warships in the Persian Gulf, and no ally nor rival anywhere in the world seemed to admire or respect the apologetic cosmopolitan leadership of the apologetically cosmopolitan American president. This comes at the end of eight long years of riling the allies everywhere from Poland and the Czech Republican to the more capitalist portions of Honduras, and appeasing the rivals in the insane Shiite theocracy of Iran and the troublemaking Sunnis of the Muslim Brotherhood, and “resetting” relations with Russia back to Cold War lines on the map of Ukraine, and confront China’s brazen territorial expansion with such timidity that even China’s targets are threatening to curse Obama’s mother.
There’s not so much talk of “Hope and Change” in this election year, and we certainly can’t find any. The Democratic nominee was Obama’s Secretary of State during the first four of the past eight disastrous years, and offered that emboldening “reset button” to the Russians, and although she is credibly credited with advising sterner policies at times one of those times was the disastrous deposing of a defanged Libyan dictator and the ensuing chaos that spread from that country. The Republican nominee talks much sterner stuff, to the point of proposing random torture on prisoners of war and killing their relatives and turning all their oil rights over to the Exxon Corporation, but he seems even friendlier to the Russians and until he releases tax returns there will be reasonable suspicions about just how friendly, and he was also outspokenly in favor of deposing that defanged Libyan dictator, although he now routinely lies and says he wasn’t, and he’s also openly speculated about not honoring America’s treaty obligations if he didn’t like the deal and starting trade wars with China, and he blames that crazy cowboy Bush and his lies for all the dysfunctions of the Middle East, and he’s spouted much other similar nonsense that doesn’t inspire much hope for positive change.
We’ll just have to get used it, we guess, and the rest of the post-American world will have to as well. Still, we can’t help thinking that all of us will wind up fondly recalling those good old crazy cowboy days.

— Bud Norman

Hope and Change and Motor Homes

Oh, how well we still remember that heady late spring of ’08, when all of our liberal friends were somehow entranced by the media-amplified celebrity of a youthful and fashionably swarthy young Senator who was standing in front of faux-Greek columns promising hope and change and a fundamental transformation and a lowering of the sea levels. A mere eight years or so later the grayer and more pallid President Barack Obama was in Elkhart, Indiana, “The Recreational Vehicle Capital of the World,” bragging to the locals about the modest comeback of the motor home industry during his administration, and clearly annoyed that he’s already been eclipsed from the spotlight and is now in danger of being replaced by the media-amplified celebrity of an aging and orange-skinned reality show star who’s promising to make America great again and somehow has most of our conservative friends warily going along with it.
The speech was little noted and will soon be long forgotten, to borrow a line from a better day of political oratory, but we think it worth some brief ridicule. Obama attempted to defend his economic record, refute the arguments of his would-be Republican successor, and imply some further annoyance that his would-be Democratic successors aren’t exactly running on his record, and we found it embarrassingly unconvincing in every attempt.
We concede the unemployment rate and the stock market indices and other usually reliable economic indicators are better than when Obama took office at the tail end of a steep recession, and that there’s always an argument to be made that we could have done worse, yet we remain quite unimpressed. We’re a bit older than the president, and started paying attention to these things long before he did, and by now we’ve been through enough recessions to have noticed that whatever’s left of the free market system always pulls out of those slumps no matter what cockamamie solutions the government of the moment might provide. We judge just how harmful those policies are by how quick and broad and persistent the ensuing recovery is, and how much debt was racked up to keep it going, and by those standards the Obama record has been abysmal. The decline in the unemployment rate is largely explained by the unusually high number of potential workers who have dropped out of the labor force, the stock markets are high mainly because capital has nowhere else to go in a time of zero and even negative interest rates, and whatever good news you find in the rest of those leading economic indicators is probably a result of all that fracking and the resulting lower energy costs that the heady campaign of ’08 promised to prevent, and of course we also have all those trillions of debt that will eventually have to be dealt with.
This is also the first time in American history that a two-term president didn’t preside over a full year of at least 3 percent of national economic growth, but he can claim that it has averaged around 2 percent, which inarguably could be worse, and is a full percentage point within 3 percent, and his still-loyal and his mostly economically illiterate and innumerate supporters won’t notice that it’s actually a full 50 percent off the previous historic low benchmark. All in in all Obama needs a better case than that rebound in the motor home market, which was probably already doomed to low-growth no matter how much fracking occurs with the demise of road-loving bohunk seniors who used to show up at the annual local Polkatennial across town at the Cotillion Ballroom on their tours of the polka festivals, and he didn’t seem to have it.
His refutation of the would-be Republican successor’s policies was even more unconvincing, as he seems to have been paying no attention to what his orange-skinned fellow reality star has been saying. Without mentioning the presumptive Republican nominee by name, which we appreciated, the President ascribed to him all sorts of stereotypical Republican positions. He noted that “economic anxiety” had caused an “unusual election year,” which is truthful enough, and argued that “provocative ‘Tweets'” are not enough to support a candidate, which would be truthful enough coming from anyone but Obama, but he went on to add that the Republican would “lower wages, eliminate worker protections, cut investments in things like education, weaken the safety net, kick people off health insurance, and let China write the rules for the global economy.” He further ridiculed the notion that the many billions of dollars of regulatory compliance costs have somehow hampered the economy, and fondly recalled all those Nixon-era regulations that have kept us from doom. The president must have had such old-fashioned and cruel-hearted Republicans as ourselves in mind, because the party’s current presumptive presidential nominee is open to giving a yuuge raise even to the most inept minimum wage workers, promises no changes whatsoever to those debt-driving entitlement programs, likes the single payer system of Canada and the outright nationalized British style of health care and promises “we’ll take care of everybody,” seems intent on a disastrous trade war with China, and promises that he’ll regulate the entire economy right for a change.
No wonder the president seemed to annoyed that neither of his would-be Democratic successors aren’t enthusiastically running on his record. One is a self-described socialist who talks down the Obama economy more derisively than the Republican, and we don’t doubt that Obama would be annoyed to be succeeded by the first president who was at least blunt enough to be a self-described socialist, and the other is a former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State who was so awful in every capacity that she makes the presumptive Republican nominee look respectable. It’s not the hope and change and fundamental transformation that was promised back in those heady days of ’08, and the sea levels continue their centuries-old rise, but here we all are in the “Recreational Vehicle Capital of the World.”

— Bud Norman

A Rip-Roarin’ Fight, and No Result

Thursday night’s episode in the Republican presidential mini-series was the most entertaining yet, and for those interested in issues it was also the most informative, but it did little to advance the plot. Everyone did well, everyone took a few blows, and no one scored a clear victory.
Even the bit players did well, although not well enough to matter. Former computer executive Carly Fiorina managed get some attention on the undercard debate with jabs at Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s marital problems and rival Republican Donald Trump’s crony style of capitalism, but at this point it seems unlikely to get her back on the main stage. Ohio Gov. John Kasich wasn’t an annoying scold, representing a vast improvement over past debate performances, but that won’t make any difference for a candidate who is far too centrist for the party’s pugnacious mood. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was briefly a front-runner in the race, was as always affable and admirable but couldn’t quite overcome the concerns about his policy chops that have caused his drop in the polls. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose calm and presidential demeanor only emphasizes that he is also too centrist for the moment, did well enough to hurt some of the other candidates but not enough to help himself.
There’s still an outside chance of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie contending for the nomination, what with the first primary being held in friendly New Hampshire, and that chance was probably improved by another strong performance. Being governor of a northeastern blue state has left Christie with some dangerously centrist positions of his own, but he defended his record on guns with vigor and even had a few achievements to cite, and at least his famously pugnacious style suits the fighting mood. Christie also tried to make up for his past literal embrace of President Barack Obama by calling him a “petulant child” for trying to impose gun regulations by executive action, and for the most part he was spared attacks by the others.
That’s probably because at this point the main players are Trump, a real estate mogul and reality television star, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who were mostly saving their jabs for one another.
The first clash came when Trump was asked about his recent insinuations that Cruz’ birth in Canada makes him constitutionally ineligible to become president, a lame reprisal of Trump’s unsuccessful “birther” arguments about Obama, and in his half-hearted stab at the issue Trump carelessly quoted the notoriously left-wing Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe. Cruz, who had already done a fine job of jabbing back at a New York Times hit piece over a long-ago loan that he reported on one form but not another, seemed to relish the fight. He shrewdly quoted Trump’s September assurances about his lawyers being satisfied that Cruz is indeed eligible, getting a good laugh by noting that the constitution hadn’t changed since then but the poll numbers have — a point Trump later laughingly conceded — and of course by noting that his former professor Tribe is a notorious leftist. When the former United States Attorney and Texas State Solicitor with a solid winning record in court cases waved off Trump’s suggestion that he take the matter to court, saying “That I won’t be taking legal advice from Donald Trump,” which got another big laugh, only the most died-hard Trump supporter or eastern bloc Olympic judge wouldn’t have scored the round for Cruz.
Trump got some points back when Cruz was asked about his statement that Trump represents “New York values.” Cruz initially got the applause by telling the noisily Republican South Carolina audience that people understand the term, which got a knowing a laugh, and he recalled a past interview when Trump admitted that his positions on a host of social issues are in line with the New York City rather than the Republican consensus, but he didn’t make much the needed clarification that he wasn’t talking about the hard hat worker riding the subway home to the Bronx, but rather the hipsters and university faculties and media grandees and ward-heeling socialists and blow-dried crony capitalists and creepy celebrities and everything else about the city that even those hard hat workers riding the subway home to the Bronx hate. This allowed Trump to speak with an uncharacteristic quietness about the city’s many undeniable virtues, and warm even our hearts by noting that the great William F. Buckley was a New Yorker, and eloquently recall its resilient response to the country’s most deadly terror attack, so even the eastern bloc Olympic judges will give him that round. He also effectively blunted what could have been a pretty good line, because people really do know what Cruz was talking about, so we give him a few extra points as well.
Cruz and Rubio also clashed, with both taking a few blows. At one point Rubio packed an 11-or-12-point litany of attacks at Cruz in a few brief bursts of sound, and even a former national collegiate debate champion such as Cruz couldn’t speed-talk fast enough to answer them all. Cruz later responded with Rubio’s past defection on the all-important issue of illegal immigration, which is pretty much the sole reason Rubio is stuck in third place rather than running away with this race, and once again Rubio had no defense other than mostly ineffective counter-attacks. On the whole, we’d say that Cruz got the better of it but that Rubio showed the aggressive style that Republicans seem to favor.
We note that Rubio used everything from Planned Parenthood to Common Core against Christie, who is widely perceived as his remaining competition as “the establishment candidate,” as if any sane candidate in either party would want that title in this particular election year, and also against Cruz, whose Senate insurgencies have made him as unpopular with the hated establishment as any of the candidates and thus endeared him to the party’s base, but he didn’t seem to have anything to say about Trump. That’s likely because Trump has lately been more concerned with Cruz and thus has had little to say about Rubio, so we credit both with tactical shrewdness, but we would have like to have seen two figuratively if not literally mess one another’s hair a bit.
Trump mostly did well, too. Aside from from the nice rendition of “New York, New York” he scored well with a question about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s response to the president’s State of the Union address, in which her comments about not heeding the siren call of the angriest voices was widely understood as a criticism of Trump. Haley had already gotten a huge round of applause from her home state audience at the beginning of the debate, and he deftly praised her but admitted that he is indeed angry. An angry nation will surely understand, even if it can’t quite understand what Trump plans to do about it other than hire the best people and make America great again, and by the end of the evening Trump didn’t even seem the angriest man on stage. We think Trump got roughed up pretty well by all the candidates and even the otherwise disinterested and generally very good Fox Business News moderators on his proposal for punitive tariffs on Chinese goods, and trade matters in general, which is supposed to be the master negotiator’s strong point, but we suspect that went unnoticed by the large portion of the audience that was more interested in who got off the best insult.
Happily, though, we notice these debate audiences, if not the audiences at Trump’s rallies, seem to be tiring of his shock jock shtick, and that even he seems to be noticing. We counted three occasions when Trump was roundly booed for either boasting about his popularity or insulting the character of another candidate. After he called Bush a “weak man,” the boos were louder than Bush’s dwindling number of supporters could have possibly generated. On each occasion Trump appeared genuinely chastened, and we think he much preferred the warm applause from his more generous remarks about his hometown and South Carolina’s governor.
All in all, we still have no idea who’s going to win this thing.

–Bud Norman

North to Alaska, the Rush is On

The great state of Alaska had two notable visitors this week, with both President Barack Obama and a convoy of Chinese warships dropping by. The former was there to whip up support for his initiatives to end “global warming,” and the latter presumably had other reasons.
Whatever motives the Chinese might have for their provocative journey into the Bering Sea just off the Alaskan coast, they were probably more successful than the president. Global warming alarmism is unlikely to play well in Alaska, where the people are more troubled by the lack of infrastructure that has resulted from environmental regulations than they are by the fact that winter nights will soon -23 below Fahrenheit rather than -30 below Fahrenheit, even if the president’s dire predictions of a seven point rise in temperatures prove true, and they’ll be disinclined to worry that the difference will result in any rise of the sea levels. Obama is probably willing to write off Alaska’s reliably Republican and rather insignificant number of electoral votes to use its recently more acclimate climate as means of scaring the lower 49 states into panicked submission to earth-saving regime of brand new regulations, but all the polls confirm our belief that this is unlikely to sway a public that is already paying higher electric bills as a result of all other earlier regulations.
Perhaps Obama’s target audience was the rest of the world, which has always provided the approval he seems to most desire, but that also doesn’t seem to be working out. The big visit to Alaska and one of its recently retreating glaciers, but not one of its recently increasing glaciers, came in advance of the president’s meeting with several northern hemispheric countries on Global Leadership in the Arctic: Cooperation, Innovation, Engagement and Resilience, so clumsily named so that the acronym spells out GLACIER, where he hopes to reach an agreement on limits of carbon emissions and other environmentalist bugaboos. Despite all those photographs of Obama standing near a glacier that has reportedly receded a few meters or so in recent years, the governments of China, Russia, and India have already declared they’ll have nothing to do with it. Given the combined carbon emissions of these economies it’s hard to see how Obama will will keep his campaign promise to halt the rise of the seas, even if you do believe his dubious theories of “global warming,” so the time spent on the Alaska trip might have been better spent attending to other matters of more pressing importance.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to say what that provocative convoy of Chinese warships is doing in the Bering Sea just off the coast of Alaska, one of the fully-fledged and great states of the United States of America. Our guess is that they’re testing the extent of America’s weakness, but the country’s government seems to have other priorities.

— Bud Norman

The Chinese Model and Its Flaws

Not so long ago, before the shakiness of the Chinese economy started shaking the rest of the world’s stock markets, some reputedly smart people were insisting that China was a model to be emulated. The New York Times’ star columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman, for instance, once wrote “Forgive me, Heavenly Father, for I have cast an envious eye on the authoritarian Chinese political system, where leaders can, and do, just order that problems be solved.”

div style=”text-indent:20px;”>It was a damned fool thing to say even at the time, even by the standards of The New York Times’ editorial page, and has since been revealed as such by the full percentage points or more that the Chinese catastrophe seems to be yanking away from the the the DJIA and S&P and the STOXX and Footsie and the NIKKEI and the rest of the acronyms and nicknames of all those panic markets in every nook and cranny of the world. Still, it’s easy to understand the appeal that a system where the reputedly smart people “can, and do, just order than problems be solved” would have to those who think they possess such wisdom and information and elite status that they could and would do exactly that if only the great unwashed masses of the body politic would allow them the power. China was reporting extraordinary growth in its gross national product, which according to some accountings had already overtaken America’s as the world’s largest, and the country was blissfully unbothered by anything resembling the fiscally sober and free-market-loving elements of America’s Republican Party, so a cause-and-effect relationship of course seemed obvious to a certain sort of so-called liberal, and the example of authoritarian rule that momentarily seemed to be working was simply too much for the more authoritarian-inclined yet so-called liberals to resist.

Now that it has become so quantifiably apparent on the stock market boards that the people running the Chinese economy can’t and haven’t solved all its very serious problems, the argument for letting a few reputedly smart people run a country is harder to sustain. The Chinese invested borrowed billions in a variety of bridges and infrastructure projects and entire new gigantic cities, just as the reputedly smart people on the American left would do, but the bridges mostly led to nowhere and the infrastructure projects were largely pointless and the cities remain uninhabited, and there’s nothing resembling the fiscally sober and free market-loving portion of the Republican Party around to be blamed for the obvious mess.
The worst possible outcome for America’s economy might yet be blamed on that same portion of the Republican Party, and some self-described or barely-disguised socialist might persuasively make the argument for letting a few reputedly smart people run the whole economy and the rest of your life, but at least the fiscally sober and free market-loving portion of the Republican Party will be able to make a plausible argument. We’re as alarmed as anyone else about this stock market dive, and well understand where it might lead, but we’re clinging to a faint hope that at least it won’t lead to a Chinese-style authoritarianism.

— Bud Norman