Advertisements

Another Muddled Situation in the Middle East

The Iranian military shot down an American drone aircraft on Thursday, and neither side disputes that. Pretty much everything else about the incident is unclear, however, as is the rest of the increasingly tense relationship between the two countries.
Iran claims the drone was within its sovereign airspace, making the craft fair game to be shot down under international rules, but President Donald Trump claims to have conclusive proof from his intelligence sources that the aircraft was in neutral airspace, which makes the downing an arguable act of war. This further muddles an already muddled situation between the two countries, which is further complicated by the fact that both countries currently have very unpredictable leadership.
The problem started long before Trump way back in the administration of Jimmy Carter when a harsh theocratic dictatorship seized power in Iran, as far as we’re concerned, although they do have a plausible argument it started with America’s backing of the harsh but secular and America-friendly dictatorship of the Shahs way back in the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower. In any case, the first thing the theocratic dictatorship did when it took power was to take fifty-two American diplomats hostage, and hold them in inhumane conditions for 444 days until President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, and things between the two countries have been complicated ever since.
We concluded at the time, and to this day believe, that the hostages were released because the nutcase Iranian theocracy had concluded Reagan was going to be far tougher on them than Carter had been, and all of our Democratic friends were equally convinced that Reagan was just as willing to start a global conflagration with even the Soviet Union, so we still figure there’s something to be said for tough diplomacy. Reagan’s administration wound up trading arms with the Iranian theocracy for some hostages it and its terrorist gang proxies still held and using the extra profits to fund anti-communist forces in Nicaragua, on the other hand, and neither the sticks nor the carrots of the subsequent Democratic and Republican administrations have adequately solved the Middle Eastern problem.
With help from six of our most longstanding and militarily formidable European allies and the mighty combined weight of their economic sanctions President Barack Obama persuaded Iran to agree to a temporary shutdown or at least a shutdown of its nuclear weapons program. Critics such as ourselves argued at the time it was only temporary shutdown and arguably just a slowdown of Iran’s nuclear bomb program, and did nothing to curtail its intercontinental missile program or funding of terrorist gang proxies throughout the Middle East, or the nefarious meddling in every Middle Eastern crisis that popped up, and that given the western leverage a better deal could have been reached. All that still rings true, but Trump unilaterally pulled out of the deal and and despite his much-bragged about negotiating skill hasn’t yet delivered the promised better one, and things remain unsettled.
Trump has reimposed severe economic sanctions on Iran’s already struggling economy, but none of those six longstanding and militarily formidable European allies have followed suit, and without their combined economic weight and assured military alliance the Iranians are less likely to blink. Trump has been squabbling with all of our longstanding allies around the world ever since he took office, and nutcases though they are the Iranian theocrats have surely noticed, and they might also sense other signs of weakness.
Trump ran for office as a a tough guy who wouldn’t let America be pushed around, but he also ran as Vietnam War draft dodger who alleged President George W. Bush lied America into a Middle Eastern quagmire, even as he criticized Obama for his premature withdrawal from the Iraqi conflict that Bush had allegedly lied us into, and while in office his foreign policy has been similarly schizophrenic. Currently he’s got some old school Cold War Republican internationalists  as Secretary of State and national security advisor, and for embarrassing reasons has no Secretary of Defense at all at the moment, yet he retains his cocksure and surprisingly risk-averse and isolationist instincts, and so far it’s led to a muddled message in the current crisis.
Trump “tweeted” that Iran had made a “very big mistake” by shooting down the drone, adding the usual exclamation mark at the end, but he later clarified that. Trump’s most ardent apologists always tell us we should take his rhetoric seriously but not literally, but in this case Trump explained that he was being literal rather serious. Trump explained he meant to say that Iran had made an actual mistake, with some trigger happy lower-ranking military officer launching the shoot down the $100 million yet unmanned drone without orders from the nutcase theocratic dictatorship, which is just one of those those things that happen in such a complicated world and no reason for nations to go to war.
Trump has also given credence to Iran’s explanations of a couple of attacks on oil tankers on the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran’s terrorist proxies have claimed credit for and which Iran has plausibly claimed it had nothing to do with. Trump’s old school Secretary of State and national advisor have blamed have blamed Iran for threatening a shipping lane crucial to the economies of our longstanding European allies and the rest of the world, but Trump himself has dismissed both incidents as “very minor,” and the self-described tough guy seems in no mood for a fight.
Which is probably for the best, given the current circumstances. We doubt that the nutcase theocratic regime in Iran is any more eager for a fight with the far more formidable United States military, as nutty as the theocratic regime might be, so there’s hope the desultory status quo will last until at least the next American presidential election.
In a more perfect world America wouldn’t have a president who has repeatedly cast international doubt on the conclusions of America’s intelligence, and one who has continued to negotiate with the puny likes of Iran as the leader of a unified coalition of the democratic and militarily and economically formidable western world, but here we are. We can’t say that any of these damned Democratic contenders for the presidency would fare  any better, on the other hand, so for now we’ll hold out hope for even the most desultory sort of  peace.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

Kim, Cohen, Trump, and the Other Questionable Characters Currently on the World Stage

The three most prominent names in the news Wednesday were North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, American President Donald Trump, and Trump’s longtime lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen.
Cohen took time before starting a three year federal prison to testify to a congressional committee that Trump is “a racist, he is a con man, and he is a cheat,” along with more specific claims about Trump’s hush money payments to a pornographic video performer and various other unseemly businesses and potentially illegal business practices, including some suspicious thing that have occurred during Trump’s presidency. Trump took time out from a high-stakes summit with Kim in Vietnam to “tweet” that Cohen is a lying liar who is represented by “Crooked” Hillary Clinton’s lawyer, while his allies back in Washington cast similar aspersions on Cohen’s character. Kim is a brutal dictator who has murdered close family members and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of his people and subjected most of the rest to severe poverty and starvation, but Trump has declared him an “honorable man” and gushed that “We fell in love,” so Kim somehow got the best press of the day.
The public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans had already concluded that Trump is a racist and a con man and a cheat, and there was already ample evidence for the conclusion. Trump found “very fine people” on both sides of a deadly neo-Nazi hate rally, has paid millions of dollars in settlements to victims of Trump University and various other scams, and boasted to tabloids and radio shock jocks about his extra-marital affairs, and once told a presidential debate audience that even if he doesn’t pay any income taxes “that makes me smart.” By now there’s really no reason for denying any of it, as the die-hard fans don’t seem to mind a bit, but Trump can credibly point to the human failings of his many critics, and he always enjoys doing so.
This Cohen fellow that Trump long hired to do his legal work certainly seems as flawed a human being as the next guy in the news. He’s pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations and filing false financial statements, as well as lying to Congress about it all, not to mention that he was long hired by Trump for legal services. The Republicans at the committee hearings made much of that, with one having a large sign saying “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” behind his seat, and another parking a black woman who works for Trump behind his seat to rebut the charges of racism, and while the die-hard fans probably loved it we don’t expect that anyone else was convinced. The lawyer that Trump long hired to handle his hush money payments to porno performers and possible campaign finance violations and alleged false financial statements does seem to have been rather sleazy in going about it, but that doesn’t logically refute his charges that longtime client Trump is a racist and a con man and a cheat.
As unsavory as both Cohen and Trump seem to us, we still think that Kim, the “honorable man” that Trump “fell in love with,” is probably the worst of the three men who dominated Wednesday’s news. The heads of all of America’s intelligence agencies have testified to Congress on live television and provided a written report that Kim continues to pursue a nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missile program, but Trump then denied that they said any such thing, and in any case is always more inclined to believe the assurances of Kim. Trump clearly doesn’t mind a bit about the imprisonment and poverty and starvation and suffering that Kim inflicts on his people, as he doesn’t consider it any skin of his or America’s ass, and when asked once about Kim’s murder of relatives with anti-aircraft guns and other tactics Trump expressed admiration that “If you can do that at 27-years-old, I mean, that’s one in 10,000 who can do that. So he’s a very smart guy. He’s a great negotiator. But I think we understand each other.”
Trump has called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “weak and dishonest,” accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of being a deadbeat debtor, engaged in “twitter feuds” with the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and hung up on the Prime Minister of Australia, and imposed punitive tariffs on pretty much every other democratic ally, and is generally more inclined to take the word of more authoritarian and dictatorial advertises over his putative allies and duly appointed intelligence chiefs. He’s praised Filipino dictator Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese dictator Xi Jiping for their extrajudicial executions of suspected drug dealers, refused to believe the intelligence agency’s conclusions about Saudi Arabian dictator Mohammed Bin Salman’s dismemberment of a American resident and Washington Post journalist, assured his rally crowds that Russia dictator Vladimir Putin is “terrific,” and has had only good things to say about the rise of authoritarian populism in Poland and Hungary and Italy and Brazil and other formerly liberal-in-the-best-sense-of-the-term allies.
Trump’s apparent antipathy for ethical and legal norms and affinity for ruthless types such as himself haven’t always worked out for him, as his longtime lawyer’s convincingly damning testimony to Congress on Wednesday demonstrates, but we worry it might work out even worse for the rest of the world. There’s always a chance that Trump will persuade Kim to give up his nuclear ambitions in exchange for a business deal to build Trump-branded resorts and golf courses on its beautiful beaches conveniently located between the prosperous economies of communist China and capitalist South Korea and and Japan, which indeed would be a good deal for North Korea and the world, but the intelligence agencies aren’t betting on it, and neither are we.
We’ll hold out hope that Trump comes up with something in Vietnam to knock his domestic problems out of the headlines, but it will have to be pretty darned good. Our Republican conservatism goes back even farther than the great President Ronald Reagan, whose ultimately successful negotiations with the even scarier Soviet Russkies were informed by a philosophy of “trust, but verify,” and we’ll hold out hope that any agreement that Trump and Kim reach will meet that same standard. Reagan negotiated a peaceful end to the Cold War with the support of the international military and economic alliances that America had long carefully cultivated, which still seems best, but we’ll keep our fingers crossed that Trump’s more counterintuitive approach is just as successful.
Back on the domestic front, though, Trump’s affinity for similarly sleazy characters doesn’t seem to be working out.

— Bud Norman

Charles Krauthammer, RIP

Charles Krauthammer died Thursday after a long struggle against cancer at the age of 68, and his death comes far too soon and at a very bad time for the conservative cause he long championed.
The longtime Washington Post columnist and widely published essayist was an honest-to-God conservative intellectual, as even his most ardent critics had to admit. He was first in his class at Montreal’s elite McGill University, spent a year studying political at Oxford University, earned a doctorate in psychiatry from Harvard Medical School, won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1987, and wrote with such clarity and convincing logic and acerbic wit that even those intellectual who were outraged by his opinions respectfully responded with their best efforts at a rebuttal. He never had to resort to schoolyard taunts or ad hominem attacks, was rarely subjected to such juvenile tactics in return.
The son of German Jews who had escaped the Holocaust, Krauthammer was born in New York City but mostly grew up in Montreal with an innate intellectual curiosity and an inherited sense of the tragic nature of the human condition. At the age of 22 the strikingly handsome and well-built skier and sailor and swimmer was mostly paralyzed from the neck down as the result of a swimming pool accident, but he wasn’t one to let tragedy keep him from living his life to the fullest.
He pursued his psychiatry doctorate partly because he’d become disillusioned with the radical politics of the ’70s, and further explained that the discipline “promised not only moral certainty, but intellectual certainty, a hardness to truth, something not to be found in the political universe.” His longtime friend and fellow Washington Post columnist George Will, another Pulitzer Prize winner and honest-to-God conservative intellectual, recalls Krauthammer saying, “with characteristic felicity, it combined the practicality of medicine and the elegance of philosophy.”
He became a chief resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, an official at the Department of Health and Services, but somehow wound up diving headfirst into the murky and shallow pool of politics. He considered himself a liberal cold warrior, and wrote speeches for the campaign of Democratic presidential Walter Mondale in 1980 and then the joined the staff of the left-of-center New Republic, but found himself increasingly estranged from liberalism. He had a clear-eyed view of the tragic nature of communism, was appalled by the Democratic party’s growing squishiness about confronting it in the post-Vietnam and post-George McGovern era of the party, and began to question other fashionably left-of-center ideas.
Krauthammer was especially offended by the left’s naive insistence on de-institutionalizing the seriously mentally ill patients he had once treated, and he also noticed the left’s eagerness to institutionalize the behavior of almost everyone else. By the time he arrived at The Washington Post he was one of the paper’s two token conservative editorial writers, and quickly became controversial for his full-throated defense of President Ronald Reagan’s aggressive Cold War foreign policy. He was one of several former New Deal liberals who once believed in the Truman and Kennedy administrations’ anti-communism but had drifted from the Democratic party, a largely but not entirely Jewish group of intellectuals who came to be known as “neoconservatives,” and they were all vindicated by the demise of the undeniably horrific Soviet Union and the liberation of its former vassal states.
The neoconservatives continued to advocate an American foreign aggressively devoted to promoting liberty and democracy in totalitarian lands, and thus were steadfast advocates for Israel, and argued for a forceful response to Islamist totalitarianism after the historic terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In the aftermath of President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, neoconservative has become term of opprobrium on both the left and right, and Krauthammer’s unapologetic-to-his-dying-day defense of the war meant he died a respected but very controversial man.
The left always hated the war, and by now we have a Republican president who also thinks it was a bigly mistake and even goes so far as to parrot the far-left’s slur that Bush lied us into it, and by now the far fringes of both the Old Left and the newfangled Trumpian right use “neoconservaitve” as a term of opprobrium for a bunch of smarty-pants intellectual Jews. They all forget the neoconservatives won the Cold War without any mushroom clouds, and don’t seem to understand that history’s verdict on the Iraq War has yet to be written, and that Krauthammer might yet be posthumously vindicated.
There’s an argument to be made that the still-controversial and unarguably tragic Korean and Vietnam Wars demonstrated American and western resolve against communism, and thus helped America and the West eventually win the Cold War without any mushroom clouds, and that the hated-on-both-the-Old-Left-and-Trumpian-right Iraq War demonstrated a similar resolve against Islamist totalitarianism, and that it might be a reason it hasn’t pulled of any terror attacks anywhere in the West approaching the scale of Sept. 11, 2001. We wish that Krauthammer were still around to make that argument better than we can.
These days the arguments for conservatism are being made by proudly uneducated talk radio show hosts, and even “intellectual” seems a term of opprobrium in the newfangled Trumpian right. The well-educated and well-spoken and well-mannered and scientific and philosophical Krauthammer was of course appealed by almost everything about Trump, even though he would occasionally admit that Trump had gotten some old-fashioned and pro-Israel policy right, but his battle against cancer largely kept him off the op-ed pages and airwaves through most of Trump’s presidency, so his passing might get the begrudging respect from the right that he’ll get from the left.
We’re old enough to remember a time when the arguments for conservatism were being made by such honest-to-God intellectuals as Russell Kirk and William Buckley and Milton Friedman, whose intellectual lineage went back to Edmund Burke and John Locke and Adam Smith, but that era seems to be passing. This annus horibilis has already seen the passing of the Harvard Russian studies professor Richard Pipes, whose expertise and clear-eyed views helped win the Cold War, Princeton’s Middle East Studies professor Bernard Lewis, whose expertise and clear-eyed views are still needed to win the ongoing war against Islamist totalitarianism, and the great journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe, who was apparently a New Deal Democrat to his dying day but a formidable force on our side in the post-Vietnam and post-McGovern culture wars.
We and Krauthammer’s old pal Will are still arguing for pre-Trump conservatism, along with some other other formidable Never Trump conservative intellectuals, but we sure could use Krauthammer’s help, These days conservatism is defined by whatever Trump and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity and their callers are saying on any given news cycle, and the loss of such  a well-educated and well-spoken and well-mannered and honest-to-God conservative intellectual as Krauthammer seems all the more tragic.

— Bud Norman

An Unduly Hard Month of May in the Current Age of Reason

This month of May has already taken a deadly toll on the intellectual life of America, in ways both figurative and literal. Aside from all the daily dumbing-down of the United States that you’ll note in the headlines and talk radio chatter, we’ve also lost some of the very best minds from the previous better era of high culture and academia.
Earlier this month we penned a heartfelt farewell to Tom Wolfe, who was the greatest American writer of the past half-century in our opinion, and now we find ourselves respectfully noting the past week’s deaths of both Richard Pipes and Bernard Lewis, who in our opinion were the two most formidable thinkers of their time in their essential academic fields
Neither Pipes nor Lewis were ever nearly as household-name famous as any of the Kardashians or the latest rap star or that lawyer for a porno performer who’s lately been on the cable channels causing all sorts of problems for the President of the United States, but in the long run we expect they’ll prove far more consequential.
Pipes, who died on May 17 at the age of 94, was a Harvard professor of Russian and Soviet history. That sounds pretty boring by current pop culture standards, and that Harvard professorship will immediately raise suspicions among the current version of conservative talk radio chatter, but his scholarly analysis of the Cold War, which was a hot topic at the time, played a key role in bringing that conflict to a for-now successful conclusion for what’s left of Western Civilization and classically liberal democracy.
Despite his Harvard professorship and the academic fashions of his moment, which politely agreed that international communism was an historical inevitability, Pipes daringly predicted that the Soviet model’s fundamental flaws doomed it to failure that a robust challenge from a more culturally and economically vibrant and militarily stronger West could more quickly bring about. President Ronald Reagan had already reached the same conclusion, but he still drew on the depth of Pipes’ analysis as he pursued that agenda, and he was quite effective in noting to the press and public opinion that his policies had the imprimatur of a some fancy-assed Harvard professor who scholarship was unchallenged even by his critics. Both Pipes and Reagan suffered the derision of the left, which was probably harder on the academic Pipes, but for now they seem vindicated by history.
Lewis, who died Saturday at the ripe old age of 101, was a longtime professor of Middle Eastern studies at the equally fancy-pants Princeton University. That sounds pretty boring to the popular culture and suspicious to the talk radio chatter, too, but he also did Western Civilization a huge favor by defying academic fashions about the great global civilizational clash that was unleashed at the end the Cold War.
Lewis was born into a middle-class Jewish American family around the same time T.E. Lawrence, who had majored in was was then called “Orientalism” at an elite British University, was leading an Arab revolt to help Britain’s efforts in World War I. By the time Lewis was pursuing his higher education in the same discipline it was called Middle Eastern studies, but he went at it with the same diligence and cultural confidence as “Lawrence of Arabia.” He mastered Hebrew far beyond what his Bar Mitzvah reading required, became equally fluent in Farsi and Arabic, modestly joked that he could “make the noises” of another 11 languages, and dug deeply into all of the cultures those languages represented and reported his finding in pristine English prose.
Although he inevitably found plenty of good and bad in all the cultures he surveyed, as well as the intrusive and all-too-human culture he came from, Lewis never shied from the necessary judgments needed to make sense of it all. He frequently defied the academic fashions of his time by opining that fundamental differences between the Islamic and more or less Judeo-Christian cultures made a “conflict of civilizations” inevitably in an increasingly small world, and that in the long run the world would be better off the more culturally and economically and military stronger West prevailed.
Despite his undisputed scholarship and Ivy League credentials, in the 1990’s Lewis was challenged as the premier Middle Eastern scholar by Columbia professor Edward Said, whose surprisingly best-selling book “Orientalism” charged that the academic field was still tainted by a Occidental bias against the poor victims of the West’s rapacious colonialism. The debate was still raging when some suicidal Islamist terrorists crashed hijacked airplanes into the Wold Trade Center and the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania farm field way back in ’01, and for a while there the debate between Lewis and Said was a hot topic. Both sides have since had considerable influence on subsequent events, for better and worth, but for now Lewis has been more influential, and we expect that in the long he will be vindicated.
For now, though, one month’s loss of the likes of the clear-eyed likes of Wolfe and Pipes and Lewis gives some worry,  especially when the rest of the news and talk radio chatter is so alarmingly divorced from the sort of fact-based and dispassionately objective analysis these men once provided.

— Bud Norman

J’Accuse, Recuse, Repeat

Any old spy novel or ongoing news story that involves Russia inevitably becomes complicated, but the latest sequel in that long-running series became altogether labyrinthine after Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself on Thursday from the rest of the inevitable unfolding plot.
As per usual in these sordid tales, pretty much even everyone is somewhat compromised. Session’s critics are making a flimsy case for perjury charges and calling for his resignation after he denied during his confirmation hearings that he’d had any contact with any Russian officials on behalf of the campaign of now-President Donald Trump and calling for his resignation, even though his only proved contacts with Russian officials during the time in question were arguably in his capacity at the time of a ranking member of Senate foreign relations committee and not on behalf of the Trump campaign. His defenders had a good old time laughing at Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill for “tweeting” that her fellow Senators on the committee never met with Russian fellows after making some dug-up “tweets” boasting of her own personal contacts with Russian officials, and of course recounting the countless episodes of equally questionable behavior during the past administration of President Barack Obama that some never raised any Democrat or many media eyebrows.
Despite all the gloating there was no denying by any of Session’s defenders that his answer to that under-oath question about his contacts with Russian officials, which had been poorly framed by a former Saturday Night Live comedian, did seem to imply he’d had no contacts at all with any Russian officials at all, and although the government’s top lawyer found plenty of wiggle room between himself and a perjury charge it looked bad enough even to some congressional Republicans that Sessions was forced to bow out of any ongoing investigations to the other alleged contacts between Trump’s campaign and various officials of the Russian government or its broader oligarchy. For an administration that prides itself on denying everything and apologizing for nothing that’s a rather loudly tacit admission that things do indeed look back, and after Trump’s firing of a campaign manager and campaign foreign policy adviser because of their financial ties to Russia, and his accepting the resignation of duly confirmed National Security Advisor because of similar contacts with Russian officials, and the ongoing leaks about Russian attempts to influence the past election, that looks even worse.
Trump’s and Sessions’ defenders have plenty to say, and much of it is well worth hearing. All those leaks are obviously coming from disgruntled Democrats left over from the gone but not forgotten Obama administration, there are legal and national security implications to that, and it’s quite fair to say to say there wasn’t such a fuss about it when Obama’s people were offering the Russians plastic reset buttons and promises of greater flexibility after the next election and having countless questionable foreign relationships, and by now no one bothers to deny that the Democrats are out to get Trump any way they can. The spectacle of Democrats regaining a Cold Warrior attitude they’d hadn’t used since the late and lamented Sen. “Scoop” Jackson and had ridiculed as recently as Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign in ’12 is pretty ridiculous, too, as is their suddenly re-found enthusiasm for that old “question authority” bumper sticker slogan.
Starting with the Bolshevik Revolution the Republican Party stood steadfast against Russian expansionism, and except for a brief lull after Pearl Harbor that ended at the Yalta Conference they kept it up right through the ’12 presidential campaign when nominee Mitt Romney was ridiculed by all the Democrats for his old fogey Cold War foreign policy, so it’s also odd to hear a Republican president talking about the Russkies with all the flattery and morally relativistic friendliness of some university-addled lefty. There’s something ridiculous, too, about the spectacle of Republicans pretending their heads wouldn’t have exploded if Obama had ever sloughed off a question about the ex-KGB dictator of Russia’s political crimes by saying “Do you think we’re so innocent?”
Trump’s defenders still have plenty to say, but at the moment they also have plenty to defend, and as of now his Attorney General has recused himself from the thankless role. It’s been leaked and not denied that the intelligence agencies are generally agreed that the Russkies meddled in the past election, there have already been two high-ranking campaign officials and a high-ranking administration official defenestrated over this Russia stuff, the tax returns and other financial disclosures that would surely prove Trump himself has no financial entanglements with any Russian oligarchs remain undisclosed, and just because the accusers are politically motivated doesn’t mean they’re wrong. We could go at length about the dubious dealings of the Obama administration, but we did so for eight long years, so we won’t be hypocrites and pretend that there’s nothing at all dubious going on here. Even the most crazed conspiracy theories people are concocting about it on the internet are at least as plausible as Trump’s claims about President George W. Bush lying the country into the Iraq War or Obama being born in Kenya or Sen. Ted Cruz’s dad being in on the Kennedy assassination, or the stories in The National Inquirer that Trump has nominated for a Pulitzer Prize or the InfoWars outfit whose respected reputation Trump has praised, and there’s enough that the more reasonable liberals can make a reasonable case for further investigation. It’s damned dubious enough to us a few other remaining old school and consistent-on-the-Russkies Republicans to warrant an independent investigation by the duly authorized authorities, but not an independent prosecutor, and the continued scrutiny of the press, but not the partisan and prosecutorial sort so many of them are inclined to in the case of Republicans.
Sessions’ decision to recuse himself from the whole mess was principled, which should help him retain his widely respected reputation in conservative circles, even if doesn’t change the liberals’ opinion that he’s a unrepentant old racist reactionary with a souther accent, and we expect he’ll at keep his job and generally do well at it. Not having to answer all the questions that are about to be asked about the Russians should free up a lot of his valuable time.

— Bud Norman

Winning Friends and Influencing People, Trump Style

Some people voted for President Donald Trump because of his speak-first-and-think-later style, on the theory that all those carefully worded opinions that politicians tend to offer had led only to American carnage so surely some crazed off-the-cuff bluster would set things right, but we suspect that most of the people who voted for him did so in spite of it lest Hillary Clinton win. The prospect of a Clinton presidency remains horrifying, but Thursday offered reminders of how very bad the choices were in the last election.
The National Prayer Breakfast was awful enough, with Trump using the solemn occasion to get a couple of childish digs in against former action movie star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s low-ratings on the “Apprentice” reality show that made the future president a national celebrity after years of New York tabloid fame. Except for making the President of the United States look petty and vain it didn’t do much harm, and the ongoing feud might help goose the ratings for a show he retains an executive producer credit on, but his reportedly testy telephone conversation with the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is more worrisome.
Those reports suggest that Trump spent much of the call boasting in exaggerated terms about his election victory, then went sour when the talk turned to a deal that President Barack Obama had negotiated for America to take in 1,250 middle eastern refugees being held in Australian detention centers, and ended with Trump angrily telling Turnbull that it was the worst conversation he’d had with a foreign leader all day and then abruptly ending it less than halfway through the time that had been scheduled. Spokespeople for both leaders insisted it had all been very cordial and productive, but the reports from multiple media had multiple sources at both ends, the part about Trump’s exaggerated boasting seems altogether believable given his recent on-the-record and on-video speeches, numerous Republican officials did feel obliged to go on the record about their support for Australia, and the “tweet” Trump issued right afterward about the “dumb deal” lend further credence to the reporting, as does pretty much the entirety of Trump’s career.
The deal that Obama negotiated regarding the refugees is arguably dumb, as so many of Obama’s deals were, but given that it only involved 1,250 people, not the 2,000 that Trump claims, and that the agreement also allowed for American officials to screen out the riskier sorts, we can’t see how it’s dumber than giving offense to an Australian Prime Minister and all the people Australians who elected him. America’s friendship with Australia has included their stalwart support through two world wars and a cold war and the hotter wars in Korea and Vietnam and the more recent battles against radical Islam in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria, and it makes an American president look vain and petty to cut short a conversation about such a relatively trivial matter. Despite the name Turnbull’s Liberal Party is the Australian counterpart of America’s Republican party, too, and undermining him helps the more anti-American opposition in the same way that Trump’s gruff approach to the Mexican President Pena Nieto helps the far-left Marxist who is lately rising in the polls. It might make Trump look tough to those who voted for him because of his talk-first-and-think-later style, but at this point the rest of the world’s opinion also matters.
No matter how dumb the refugee deal might have been it was an agreement that a longtime friend made with a duly-elected American government, too, and Trump’s penchant for suggesting that such agreements won’t survive our quadrennial elections can’t give his future negotiating partners much long-term faith in what he might come up with. The allies we’ve had in Europe through two world wars and a cold war and the more recent conflicts are already worried about his talk about not honoring the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations that have been so essential to the world’s relative peace and prosperity over the past 70 years, and an unnecessary spat with such a reliable ally as Australia over such a small matter as 1,250 refugees we’re allowed to vet will not be reassuring.

— Bud Norman

From the Sideline View

The state of America and the rest of the world remains a preoccupying fascination for us, but these days we watch the news unfold with from a somewhat disinterred perspective. The team of old-fashioned Republican cold warriors and red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalists and stodgy traditionalists on the social issues we’ve always rooted for didn’t even the make the political playoffs in this crazy election year, so there’s the desultory feel of a World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers about all of it, and our newfound objectivity makes the worst of both remaining teams so much more glaring.
All through the long years of President Barack Obama we groused about his groveling appeasement of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and all through a crazy election year we indignantly noted that his would-be successor and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State started it off with that stupid “reset” button, and like all good Republicans we excoriated them durned Democrats for their Russkie-friendly ways. Now the putatively Republican president-elect has a mutual admiration society going with Putin and is appointing all sorts of Russophile wheelers and dealers who have also already wheeled and dealt some some officially friendly arrangements with the Russkies, suddenly those formerly apologetic Democrats who once laughed at Obama’s line about how “the ’80s are calling and they want their foreign policy” back are now demanding a more Reaganesque response towards that bear in the woods, and we note that pretty much everyone is accusing pretty much everyone else of being a partisan hypocrite who suddenly switched sides. Pretty much of all of them are right about all of that, of course, even if we do stand unsullied on stands, but from this viewpoint they all seem wrong about the rest of it.
There does look to be a whole lot of de-regulatin’ coming, perhaps even on a bigger-than-Reagan scale, and our old-fashioned Republican souls will begrudgingly enjoy that, along with the inevitable squealing from those durned Democrats, but we also anticipate a lot more of the kooky economic interventions that president-elect Donald Trump has already imposed on free markets. Trump’s admittedly different version of command controlled and outright protectionist economic policies have already aroused the indignation of the very same Democrats who spent the Obama years praising the same industrial policies we were continually grousing about, and we suppose we should welcome their company, but we don’t quite trust them. Much of the putatively Republican press we used to have some trust in are now suddenly enthused about about the government picking winners and losers and marketplace of ideas and products, such stalwart holdouts of of Burkean skepticism as The National Review and The Weekly Standard and The Central Standard Times are awaiting vindication before getting back in the game, and for now everyone looks faintly ridiculous.
We’ll continue to place our faith in God, but for now even His role in all this might be seem marginalized. The Republican party of family values finally vanquished that awful wife of that libertine ex-president, but it did so with a thrice-married-to-a-nudie-model casino-and-strip-club mogul who has bragged in print about all the married babes he’s bagged, and many of the Democrats who once defended Clinton’s behavior are now aghast Trump’s, and many of the Republicans who were once aghast by Clinton’s behavior are reaching into the Old Testament to exalt Trump. We count it a loss for the religious right, even though many of its putative leaders enthusiastically backed Trump, and despite their sudden prudishness we can’t see the secular left restoring any righteousness to the world.
All that bother about sex and abortion and the guy wanting to get into the women’s locker room and safe spaces from offending opinions and all the rest of those modern world things that keep popping up will surely continue for the next four years, no matter what the Illuminati have cooked up, and we expect that all sorts of people will wind up on all different sides of it, but for now we’ll try to keep warm and maintain a fair perspective from the sidelines.

— Bud Norman

From Russia, With Love

President-elect Donald Trump has peddled conspiracy theories about President George W. Bush lying America into a war, President Barack Obama being born in Kenya, and the father of would-be president and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz being in on the Kennedy assassination, and many of his more fervent supporters are currently convinced that despite her deathly illness former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and would-be first woman president Hillary Clinton somehow finds the energy to run a satanic child sex ring in the back room of a pizzeria, so we’ll come right out and admit to a sneaking suspicion that there’s something fishy going on between Trump and the Russkies.
Our first sniff of a certain malodor came way back when Trump was still considered a long shot in the Republican primary, and he exchanged such fulsome praise with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin that it bordered on the homo-erotic. He later fired his first campaign manager and replaced him with a fellow who had substantial business dealings with Russia, and added a foreign policy advisor with similar ties, and then there were the resurrected quotes from Trump’s son about how the family business was heavily invested in Russia, and Trump’s own claims on national television that Russia would never invade Ukraine, and that you could write it down, and that it wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal even if they did, which of course they already had done. He also publicly urged Russia to release whatever e-mails they had hacked from Clinton’s scandalously unsecured server, although he later claimed it was meant facetiously, and when the e-mails from her party’s and her campaign manager’s accounts surfaced and started a bad a news cycle that culminated in all those rumors of a satanic child sex ring in the back of a pizzeria he scoffed at the very idea that the Russians might have had anything to do with it, even though it did seem plausible.
Trump wound up firing that campaign manager with the Russian business ties after they were widely reported, but since his election he’s chosen a national security advisor who has travelled to Moscow to dine with Putin and appear on the regime’s propaganda television network and otherwise seems to have a certain affinity for Russia, and his reported but as-yet-unannounced choice for Secretary of State is a former Exxon chief executive officer who negotiated a $500 billion deal with Putin’s kleptocracy in 2011 and was awarded Russia’s “Order of Friendship” a year later. Now the Obama administration and The New York Times and The Washington Post are all reporting that Russians were indeed responsible for the hacked and leaked e-mails, and that Republican e-mails were also hacked but not leaked, and Trump is once again scoffing at the very idea the idea the Russians might have had anything to do with, even though it now seems all the more plausible.
There might be some innocent explanation for all of this, and the more pro-Trump sorts of publications have already concocted several.
One theory holds that the late-breaking bad news cycle engendered by those leaked e-mails didn’t sway any voters anyway, which is also plausible, but they surely didn’t do the Democratic ticket any good and given how very close the race was in three states that swung the electoral college victory it’s plausible as well that they did make a difference. There’s an adjunct theory that even if the Russians did hack the Republican party they didn’t find anything worth leaking, but that doesn’t seem at all plausible. In any case, it’s hard to build a convincing case that Americans and their president-elect shouldn’t be concerned about even ineffectual interference in an American election.
Another theory, offered by Trump himself, is that you just can’t believe anything you hear from America’s so-called “intelligence community.” In a characteristically defiant television interview, Trump noted these were “the same people” who told Bush that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction during the lead-up to the America’s invasion of that country, which Trump had previously insisted Bush somehow knew was not true, and that he regards it all as a Democrat-controlled attempt to undermine him. He’s already announced that he doesn’t want to be bothered with daily intelligence briefings, making us nostalgic for all the talk radio outrage about reports that Obama was skipping them way back when, and leading us to wonder where he does get his information about the world. Trump has praised “InfoWars” for its “awesome reputation,” and he recommended The National Enquirer for a Pulitzer Prize, and their track records are even worse than that of America’s “intelligence community.” Perhaps Trump has his own high-tech global counter-intelligence operation like all the jet-setting international playboy billionaire villains in the James Bonds movies, which we admit would be pretty cool, but we also can’t shake a certain suspicion that he’s just going with his gut and the latest “tweet” he saw and his own naked self-interest.
Sooner or later will come the theory, already percolating in the comments sections of countless news reports and bubbling just between the lines of the official statements, that an alliance with Russia is best for America and who better to negotiate it than the savvy businessmen who have already swung such profitable deals with our former adversary. All through the campaign Trump was talking about aligning with Russia to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, even though Russia was already aligned with the odious dictatorship in Syria and mostly devoted to defeating the more secular rebels rather than the Islamic State. Syria is more or less a puppet state of Iran, whose nuclear ambitions Trump promised to thwart by scuttling Obama’s loophole-ridden deal that country’s terror-sponsoring theocracy, and Russia is currently aligned with Iran, but we’re sure the theorists will eventually explain how that works out.
From our admittedly old-fashioned Republican perspective, it doesn’t seem plausible. After a Cold War childhood we remain instinctively suspicious of the Russkies, and remain appalled by how they deny their citizens basic rights, and we stand steadfastly against their recent revanchism in Ukraine and the bullying of their bullying of other neighbors and their meddling in the Middle East on behalf of its most dangerous regimes, and we can’t see how the economic benefits of a partnership with a moribund economy and dwindling population and a strongman dictatorship will outweigh such considerations as the survival of free societies in Europe and the Middle East and elsewhere.
We’d like to think that Trump’s oft-stated affinity for strongman dictatorships explains his rapprochement with Russia, and not some economic benefit he might accrue from the partnership, and we surely look forward to his tax returns and other financial disclosures and plenty of congressional investigations that would clearly disprove any such notion, but in age when Ted Cruz’s dad was probably in on the Kennedy assassination and Hillary Clinton is still getting around well enough to run a satanic child sex ring in the back of a pizzeria there will always be a nagging suspicion. Enough of the old Cold War-era Republicans are still around still around in the Senate and even the House to perhaps allow for a congressional investigation, and we wish them well, even if it does wind up with only more conspiracy theories

— Bud Norman

The Death of a Dictator, and Perhaps His Dictatorship

Cuban dictator Fidel Castro at long last died on Friday, and this time it seems to be for good. His death had been rumored and even reported numerous times over the years, but the Cuban government has now acknowledged the fact, and it’s now safe to raise a toast with a Cuba Libre.
Castro seized power in Cuba on New Year’s Day in the year of our birth, then almost immediately started the mass executions and police state tactics that turned his lovely island nation into a hellish gulag, and has been a persistent problem to us and the rest of the world ever since. Our first inkling of how very scary the world can be came when he nearly provoked a cataclysmic global war by inviting the Soviet Union to plant nuclear missiles in his country, and he helped continue that constant threat through a long Cold War by sending soldiers and saboteurs to foment communist revolutions throughout South America and Africa. Even after the demise of the Soviet Union he continued to impose a dictatorship on his country, and to exert an insidious influence on politics everywhere.
Of course he had his apologists and admirers on the left here, who long agitated for normalizing diplomatic and economics relations with Cuba and eventually elected a president who would pursue that course. They touted the high literacy rates and universal access to excellent health care supposedly found in Cuba, cheered the same anti-democratic “peoples movements” that Castro supported around the world, and made the usual excuses for the murderous brutality and totalitarian suppression of fundamental human rights that came along with it. We’ve long been skeptical about those literacy rates and pristine hospitals, and been convinced by better proof about the nastiness of Castro’s regime. Over the years we kept reading about Cubans tying inner tubes together or turning bicycles and styrofoam boxes into paddle-driven boats to try to get the 90 miles or so from Cuba to the United States, although we can’t ever reading about anyone taking such extreme measures to get Cuba, and we’ve known enough of the fine people who somehow escaped to productive lives in America to believe their corroborating stories.
Over our years of newspaper reading presidents and prime ministers and popes and pop stars have come and gone, but the Castro name has kept popping up. Fidel’s brother Raul still clings to dictatorial power in Cuba, so we suppose we’ll keep seeing it for a while, but there’s always a chance that cult of personality that has largely propped up the dictatorship will pass along with the personality. There’s a new president in the United States, too, and he’s talking admirably tough about how very bad Castro had been, but he was also talking deals back in the campaign days, so perhaps that’s just a negotiating tactic to get himself and Michael Corleone and Hyman Roth a good casino deal.
We’ll hope for the best. Cuba has a glorious musical and culinary and literary and religious tradition that speaks to something profoundly joyful at the heart of its culture, but it also has an almost unbroken history of bad government. At the moment America hardly seems in any condition to instruct them on the matter of good government, and the Cuban people are going to have to assert the best of themselves if their condition is to improve, but at least the task should be easier without Fidel Castro around.

— Bud Norman

Sports, Politics, and the Global Chessboard

The quadrennial Olympic competitions always arrive on the same leap years as the American presidential elections, and usually provide some pleasant if nonetheless metaphorical distraction from politics, but in this crazy election year it hasn’t proved sufficient. Even after more than seven years of those awful Obama administrations America is still great enough to be well ahead in the medal count, and there have been the usual plentitude of inspiring tales of individual American effort along the way, but as usual it’s all being re-told according to the same dreary collectivist storylines of race and class and gender and of course how that Muslim-American woman will be competing in the fencing competition in a hijab. By this point, we’re more interested in the upcoming world chess championship.
Most of the rest of the world will pay no attention to the event, and we really can’t blame it, but we have our own idiosyncratic reasons for being enrapt. We first took up chess way back when we were so young we required baby-sitting and our amorous parents hired the local high school champ to watch over us during their occasional and much-needed nights on the town, and he taught us not only the moves but also the tactical and strategic fundamentals of the game in the hope that it would keep us more or less quiet and still until our parents arrived home with an evening’s wages. The ploy had little effect on our more athletic and fidgety older brother, but it led to a years-long and mostly successful rivalry with a more mathematically-talented younger brother and our own life-long fascination with the game. A few years later the ruggedly individualist and undeniably brilliant American champion Bobby Fischer faced off against the collectivist and daunting Soviet Union’s reigning World Champion Boris Spassky in a compelling single combat contest of the ongoing Cold War, and it got more press attention than any of those heroes of a terrorism-stained Olympics or even that classic National Basketball Association finals between The New York Knicks and The Los Angeles Lakers, and when Fischer easily prevailed against Spassky’s brilliance and the commie’s conspiratorial advantages despite his temper-tantrum-induced disqualification in an early game we became lifelong followers of the World Chess Championship.
That Fischer guy could play a game of chess as beautifully as Mozart could write a symphony or Michelangelo could paint a ceiling, but the son of a Jewish mother’s virulent anti-semitism and the American hero’s outspoken anti-Americanism and the champ’s all-around nuttiness eventually undermined his heroic status. The only other American considered a world champion was Paul Morphy of New Orleans, who earned the unofficial title by convincingly beating the world’s best back in the antebellum and pre-official-championship days, and he also wound up going crazy, but in his days at least it had more to do with his unfashionably pro-Union views. Spassky was eventually recognized as a half-hearted dissenter against Soviet communism and an all-around-sportsman and undeniably brilliant chess-player in his own right, but the brilliant but more doctrinaire Soviet Anatoly Karpov wound up winning the next title by default when Fischer insisted on the most insane terms for a title defense.
Karpov successfully defended the title against two Soviet commie challengers, then retained his championship in a phony-baloney draw against the proudly half-Jewish and defiantly anti-Soviet challenger Garry Kasparov in ’84. Kasparov won fair and square against Karpov in ’86, then dominated the chess world into the 1990s.
Some of the corrupt organizational squabbling you find going on all the time in boxing then followed, with a charming enough English fellow named Nigel Short holding one of the disputed more-or-less world titles for a while, but Kasparov generally remained on top before retiring to take up a full-time career in politics, which he admirably continues here and abroad to this day, and a most worthy but altogether boring and draw-prone champion from India named Viswanathan Andad wound up as the little-recognized champion. He nobly defended the title the against yet another Russkie, then wound up losing his title in ’13 to a handsome and buff and combative 20-something Norwegian named Magnus Carlsen, who everyone in the chess world considered a more telegenic and exploitable champion.
This time around the big chess event will take place in November and December in the South Street Seaport district of lower Manhattan in New York City, and although the brilliant if oddly-named yet all-American grandmasters Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana were upset in the preliminary matches by one of those inevitable Russkie challengers there’s still an intriguing Cold War feel to the championship. Carlsen’s challenger is the outspokenly pro-Putin and pro-Crimean invasion Russkie Sergey Karajkin, and given the champ’s unabashed identification with the free west and under-the-gun Scandinavia the battle lines are quite clearly drawn. Unlike the Cold War days of ’72 we’re in an American election year when the Democrat nominee offered a “reset button” to the Russkies and pulled back on a nuclear-defense deal with the Czechs and Poles and seemed to invite the recent Russian revanchism, and the Republican nominee and his in-bed-with-Russia campaign team were apparently unaware of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine and seem quite content with Russia’s revanchism in any case, so our pro-western and pro-western-Ukrainian-type sympathies will be with some pretty-boy Norwegian rather than some nutcase half-Jewish and anti-semitic if undeniably brilliant and ruggedly individualist American this around.
Sports and politics are full of such ambivalent rooting, and even such an elegant game as chess isn’t immune to these complications.

— Bud Norman