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The Un-Calm Before the Storm

So far as we can tell from his “tweets” and other public pronouncements, President Donald Trump is intent on some sort of military action against North Korea. The public pronouncements from the nutcase dictatorship of North Korea make clear that they consider Trump’s words a declaration of war, and the idea isn’t so nutty.
Trump has “tweeted” that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” seeking a peaceful resolution to North Korea’s nuclear provocations, adding “Save your energy, Rex, we will do what has to be done.” At a photo-op with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Trump chided the generals for being slow in delivering him “military options,” later saying, as they all smiled for the pictures, “This is the calm before the storm.” Numerous questions about what that meant were answered with “you’ll see,” but Trump’s latest “tweets” said the past 25 years of diplomacy with North Korea have been “making fools of U.S. negotiators,” and “Sorry, but only one thing will work!”
That one thing clearly isn’t a negotiated resolution, and Trump is clearly impatient with the economic pressure that has lately been exerted on North Korea, by now even Trump doesn’t hold out much hope the Chinese can resolve the matter, so that doesn’t leave many non-military options. Trump and his most die-hard supporters appear quite confident that they’ll prevail in this game of nuclear brinksmanship, but it’s making the rest of us in pretty much the entire world rather nervous, and we can only guess at what that nutcase dictatorship makes of it.
If it does come down to a war America will win it, and Trump is right to emphasize that persuasive argument, but that’s no reason to start a war that could possibly be avoided. Any bar brawler can show you the scars and still-nagging injuries he got in the fights he won, cemeteries around the world are filled with the graves of soldiers from wars America won, and the best case scenarios for a quick win against North Korea include millions of enemy and allied deaths. We don’t advocate appeasement, as North Korea’s newly-upgraded nuclear capabilities are indeed intolerable, but we’d feel calmer if Trump heeded President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to speak more softly as he wields a big stick, and didn’t render his Secretary of State’s efforts at a peaceful resolution a waste of time.
We’d be calmer yet if we thought that America had an effective Secretary of State on the job, or a cohesive foreign policy and an effective foreign service to go with it. Some of those southeast Asian allies Trump is making very nervous don’t have American ambassadors or fully staff embassies, key State Department positions have gone unfilled, and it’s not clear who’s advising Trump that calling the nutcase North Korean dictator “Little Rocket Man” and ruling out talks is sound diplomacy. Trump has some solid foreign hands around with his Defense Secretary and Chief of Staff and national security advisor, all multi-starred generals with hard-earned first-hand knowledge of how horrible even won wars are, all far more knowledgable about military realities in general and on the densely populated Korean peninsula in particular, but we notice they’re all striking a less bellicose tone in the very rare public pronouncements.
Trump’s grousing about the all the generals who have been slow in providing him military options suggests to us that the entire military is less enthusiastic about war with North Korean than is Trump, and we assume there are some relatively sane functionaries in the nutcase dictatorship that have reached the same conclusion. They’ve probably also noticed Trump’s dysfunctional relationship America’s foreign policy establishment, with the nutcase dictator amused that Trump’s own Secretary of State called him a “moron” and didn’t get summarily executed, and they’re probably less impressed with Trump’s bluster than his die-hard supporters.
The nutcase dictator probably pays even less attention to his sanest advisors than Trump does, though, and he might decide that so long as Trump has already declared war he might as well get it started with a strike on South Korea or Japan or the American territory of Guam or, if the most alarming claims are true, the west coast of America. At this point even the most sane advisors won’t advise him that Trump hasn’t already more or less declared war, and even if the nutcase dictator realizes somewhere in his deranged brain that he’ll lose the war he’ll figure that if he’s already lost he might as well get a few licks in along the way. So far as we can tell from the news reports he’d get a lot of licks in, and the generals and the military in general seem to agree, and with anything short of outright appeasement we’d rather put that scenario off to very last possible moment.
Perhaps this is the grand strategy that Trump and his die-hard supporters believe, and we have to hope so, although we wonder with  how Trump came to know more than generals or any previous head of state in history during his real estate and reality show career. If it comes to war, we hope it’s only because it was waged to avert an immediate threat to American lives, could not have been avoided otherwise, and that the Commander in Chief who ordered it could convincingly explain that to his countrymen and our allies and the rest of the nervous world.

— Bud Norman

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Hoping for the Best, Contemplating the Worst

President Donald Trump and top officials from his administration are warning that time is running out for a peaceful solution to North Korea’s recent provocations, which might very well be the best thing to be saying, but there’s no denying that every other sort of solution will be very bad. Accepting the fact of the nutcase North Korean dictatorship as a nuclear power with intercontinental ballistic capabilities is also an intolerable outcome, though, and there’s no denying that past efforts at a more conciliatory diplomacy have failed to prevent the North Koreans from recent tests of a nuclear bomb capable of destroying a major city and missiles lobbed over Japanese air space that could reach American territory.
Tough talk hasn’t proved any more effective over the past many decades of dealings with the nutcase North Korean dictatorships, and has failed spectacularly in recent weeks, with their latest and most worrisome round of tests coming after Trump threatened “fire and fury like no one has ever seen” in case of any further provocations, but it might best to keep it up. One fact that the nutcase North Korean dictatorship has to accept is the fact that if it does come down to a nuclear war there won’t be much of North Korea left, as a devastating response to a nuclear attack against the United States has been American policy through every president since Truman, and one this administration might actually relish implementing, and that’s a strong hand to play with even the most nutcase dictators.
As United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who has proved quite adept at the job, put it in an interview with the Cable News Networks’ “State of the Union” program on Sunday, “If North Korea keeps on with this reckless behavior, if the United States has to defend itself or its allies, North Korea will be destroyed.” She was quick to add that “None of us want that. None of us want war. But we also have to look at the fact that we are dealing with someone who is being reckless, irresponsible and is continuing to give threats not only to the United States but to all of its allies.” Which strikes us as some very savvy diplomatic speech. It warns of the dire consequences of making America defend itself or its allies, leaves carefully unsaid what level of provocation would provoke that result, signals a willingness to continue negotiations on reasonable terms, and allows room for peaceful and tolerable solution.
National security advisor H.R. McMaster, a lieutenant Army general who served admirably in three wars and holds a doctorate in American history and is regarded by even the mainstream press as one of the wise hands of the Trump administration, took a similarly strong but precisely worded stand on the American Broadcasting Company’s “This Week” program, saying of the nutcase North Korean dictator that “He’s going to have to give up his nuclear weapons,” noting the president has been very clear about that, but quickly adding “all options are on the table.” Softly spoken but carrying the aforementioned big stick, with a metaphorical also dangled, and a resume to back up both the tough talk and the clear yearning for a peaceful solution, it also seemed as right a diplomatic statement as we could think of.
Trump himself spent the morning “tweeting,” including an apparently newsworthy video of of the president hitting a golf ball and former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton being knocked down by it, which Trump’s fans reportedly found hilarious, but he also “tweeted” a couple of taunts against the nutcase North Korean dictator. One boasted that the United Nations sanctions on North Korea had led to “gas lines,” and another nicknamed the nutcase dictator “Rocket Man.” We don’t doubt that the recent sanctions have hindered North Korea’s economy, but at this point it’s a rare North Korean who owns an automobile and the rest are pretty much accustomed to abject poverty, and it’s clear that nutcase dictator doesn’t care much about any of that. As for that “Rocket Man” zinger, we’re also doubtful that the nutcase dictator can be brought by down by a nickname the same way “Low Energy” Jeb Bush and “Little” Marco Rubio and “Crooked” Clinton were. It’s not at all the polished diplomatic speech we’re accustomed to, but we’ll hold out faint hope it’s so crazy it just might work.
If it doesn’t, and things comes to worst, we’ll trust that America still stands with or without Guam or San Diego and the nutcase North Korean dictatorship doesn’t exist at all, and hope that the damage to everyone is as limited as possible. The best case scenarios involve civilian casualties not seen since the darkest days of the World War II in Seoul, South Korea’s capital and most populous city, and the death toll in North Korea’s capital and most populous city of Pyongyan even worse, and maybe even the nutcase North Korean dictator getting a missile launched against Japan’s capital and most populous city, and perhaps China or the Russians or various other far more formidable nuclear powers getting involved.
Those worst-case scenarios seem unlikely, given that most of the parties involved aren’t nutcase dictatorships, and China has already stated that it won’t stop us from nuking North Korea if North Korea nukes us first, and Haley got both China and Russia on board with those UN sanctions, but there’s no denying it remains a worrisome situation. Should the United States’ intelligence community reach a consensus solution with high a degree of confidence that the nutcase North Korean dictator was about to launch a nuclear attack on America or one of it’s allies the right thing to do might very well be a pre-emptive attack, and there would be some very sound diplomatic explanations for that that, but we can’t shake a nervous feeling about Trump and his “tweets.” He’s told the world that the United States’ intelligence community is probably wrong about Russia’s meddling in the past election and was surely wrong about the imminent threat posed by the nutcase Iraqi dictator’s weapons of mass destruction, and that an American president had lied about it to justify a pre-emptive war, and there’s no telling what either China or Russia might make of that.
We hold out hope and fervent prayers that it all comes to some peaceful and tolerable solution, and aren’t worried by the more measured tough talk from those top administration officials, and feel reassured by those wise old hands who show up on the Sunday morning news talk shows. That dictator in North Korea strikes us as a real nutcase, though, and no matter what wise counsel America finds he’s going to have to some say in how it turns out.

— Bud Norman

We Won’t Always Have Paris

Although we’ve always been skeptical about the more alarmist claims of the anthropogenic global warming theory, and were opposed to President Barack Obama’s signing of the Paris Climate Accords, we’re nonetheless also skeptical about President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement.
There are strong arguments to be made on both sides of the matter, and we expect they’ll take up much of the next several days of news. That will push aside all the talk about Kathy Griffin and covfefe, at least, and barring any bigger-than-usual bombshell about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia it might even overshadow that. The arguments will be about science and economics and diplomacy and domestic politics, too, with plenty of good points being made on both sides of each of them, and for now we’ll not bother to listen to anyone who claims to have all the answers.
Those opposed to Trump’s decision will reflexively insist that the science is settled, but that’s not quite persuasive to us. They’re right that most scientists accept the anthropogenic global warming theory, and although it’s almost certainly not the 96 percent they always claim it might well be enough to comprise the consensus of scientific opinion they always claim, but science is not settled by majority rule and the consensus of scientific opinion has often proved objectively wrong over the past many millennia.
There does seem to be a relatively recent-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things warming trend on the planet, and there’s also evidence that it seems to have stalled for the last few relatively-blink-of-an-eye decades, and it’s awful tricky figuring out how the latest trends compare to all those millennia before Daniel Fahrenheit started measuring temperatures not so long ago so in the 1700s, and nobody denies that temperatures have gone up and down over the long history of the universe. We’ll not deny that all the carbons humankind has undeniably been emitting into the atmosphere over the past couple of brief centuries are bound to have some effect, but anyone arguing in good faith will admit that the almighty sun and it’s changing cycles are also influential, and all the computer models that underly the theory that it’s all man’s fault did fail to predict the recent pause, so at this point we’re skeptical of anybody’s projections for the next few hundred years or so.
There’s also a dauntingly complex argument about what humankind should do about it. All those carbon emissions come courtesy of an expanding post-Industrial Revolution global economy that has not only averted a Malthusian catastrophe for the planet’s seven billion or so inhabits but has also dramatically raised their collective quality of life, so those quantifiable advantages have to be weighed against the still-theoretical disadvantages of all that carbon-emitting. At this moment almost all the people in the world who are aghast by Trump’s decision are still going to drive in automobiles and fly in jets and log in to electric-powered entertainments and otherwise enjoy the extravagant-by-historical standards luxuries of the modern carbon-emitting age, and for now they don’t have a persuasive argument that they can have their environmental cake and eat it’s industrialist deliciousness too. They’d be hard-pressed to make the case that cockamamie Paris agreement somehow squares that circle, but that doesn’t mean the world wouldn’t be better off with a little less carbon-emitting.
Except for Syria and Nicaragua and now the United States everyone is in agreement with that Paris accord, and although the consensus of global political opinion has also often proved objectively wrong over the many millennia that also seems well worth taking into account. Whatever the hard-to-calculate environmental and economic effects of Trump’s decision, the immediate diplomatic consequences are not likely to be helpful. We’d probably be more supportive of any other Republican president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris boondoggle, but any other other Republican president probably wouldn’t have spent the preceding weeks antagonizing the rest of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the seven most industrialized and post-industrial nations of the west, and made the credible case to the international community that the Paris accords were flawed for all of the world’s seven billion or so inhabitants.
Trump only made his campaign-style “America First” case for the decision, and it remains to be seen how that plays out in our domestic politics. He made a convincing case that any restriction on carbon-emitting would hamper an economy that thrives on them, even if he characteristically overstated it and invited all the plausible arguments about how an alliterative energy economy might thrive, and we don’t doubt that it will be welcomed by those folks who already support him. Annoying all those euro-trash and other global elites is another added benefit, as far as Trump’s most ardent supporters are concerned, but the president will probably have to make case to the rest of the country to nudge his poll numbers past their 40 percent or so, and so far he hasn’t shown much of a knack for that.
Any other Republican president and most of the plausible Democratic possibilities probably would have stayed signed on and did what the rest of the countries do, which is mouth the required platitudes and then let their economies expand to whatever carbon-emitting levels it might reach, and although that’s pretty damned cynical it seems a smart move. America is asserting its sovereignty by withdrawing from the accord, as Trump rightly notes, but sovereign nations often enter into international agreements, as Obama and every other president did, including all the presidents who were on board with that NATO deal and all the other agreements Trump has lately been undermining, and how that plays out in domestic politics is anybody’s guess.
In any case we expect both the planet and our domestic politics will somehow survive Trump’s decision, and that the Russia thing with Trump and Russia will soon be back in the news again, and that some D-list celebrity or incomprehensible presidential “tweet” will once again intrude on  the conversation.

— Bud Norman

Diplomacy in the Post E-Mail Age

Although we pride ourselves on a stubborn resistance to the latest technology and the rest of the modern world, and endure merciless kidding about it even from our octogenarian folks, the next President of the United States seems somehow even more Luddite than ourselves. You’ll find no high-definition televisions or global positioning systems in our possession, nor any smart phones or sultry-voiced Siri or any other gizmo smarter than ourselves, but at least we’ve learned enough computer code to indent these paragraphs the way God intended and post on them on the internet, and for crying out loud we’ve been sending and receiving e-mails since the paleolithic dial-up days.
President-elect Donald Trump testified in one of his 2007 lawsuits that “I don’t do the e-mail thing,” and he seems to not have budged from that stand. At a February rally he assured the raucous crowd “I go to court and they say, ‘Produce your e-mails,’ I say ‘I don’t have any,'” which his supporters seemed to find reassuring. When the Democratic Party’s hacked e-mails were leaked across the internet in July, and Trump publicly invited the Russians or whoever else might have done it to hack and leak Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s e-mails as Secretary of State as well, he once again assured his supporters that “I’m not an e-mail person myself. I don’t believe in it because I think it can be hacked, for one thing.” Now there’s a controversy regarding the intelligence community’s seeming conclusion that the Russians did the hacking and leaking to influence the election that Trump won, and Trump remains stubbornly insistent that some hypothetical 400-pound fellow in a New Jersey basement is as likely a suspect, and through it all he’s still assuring his supporters that whatever shenanigans he might be up to at least they won’t be revealed in an electronically purloined e-mail.
Which might work well enough for Trump, as every other of his crazy ideas seemingly has, but we can’t help wondering how well it will work for the rest of the federal government. Trump has now suggested that “If you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old-fashioned way, because I’ll tell you what, no computer is safe.” He cited the authority of his 10-year-old son, who reportedly “can do anything with a computer,” but if the kid can tell us how to get our bills paid by government-paid postal couriers just ahead of the utility cut-offs and pass along diplomatic communiques by such old-fashioned means just ahead of a nuclear conflagration we are eager to hear it. At our age we’ve read enough romantic novels and watched enough black-and-white movies about the French and American revolution days to know that those old-fashioned couriers encountered plenty of intrigue, too, and we’re eagerly awaiting what Trump’s 10-year-old kid has to say about that.
A federal government-wide return to ink and paper and actual file cabinets and dashing couriers on horseback will no doubt help bring the country to full employment, and might even undo some of the damage that Trump’s illiterate “tweets” have done to the English language, but even to our Luddite eyes it seems inefficient. Perhaps Trump and his 10-year-old computer wiz of a son have it all figured, though, and we’ll hear about over social media.

— Bud Norman

Taking In-Coming From the Out-Going

In the long stretch between Election Day and Inauguration Day the Obama years have overlapped with the Trump years, and of course that is not going well. Two such oversized egos as President Barack Obama and president-elect Donald Trump, both with such undersized regard for the longstanding norms of the American republic, were never going to amicably share such a drawn-out moment in our recently rancorous history.
The pair had a somewhat promising photo-opportunity together when they met in the White House just after the election, although most of the shots showed them both looking a clearly stunned and unsettled by the results, and they both described the long conversation as cordial and said all the reassuring things that outgoing and incoming presidents always say. Since then, however, things have predictably deteriorated. Obama gave a widely publicized interview with an old friend in which he speculated that he could have a won a third if only the Constitution had allowed, which is the kind of thing that two-term presidents have traditionally said only in chats with old friends that aren’t so widely publicized, and Trump responded with a petulant “tweet” saying “I SAY NO WAY!,” which is entirely unprecedented in presidential history.
Obama was then at Pearl Harbor for a somber World War II memorial ceremony with the Japanese Prime Minister, where his speech included that “It is here we remember that even when hatred burns the hottest, even when the tug of tribalism is the most primal, we must resist the urge to turn inward; we must we much resist the urge to demonize others,” which can arguably be interpreted as a criticism of the incoming president, which is indeed a departure from tradition for out-going presidents. Trump certainly seemed to take those arguably anodyne phrases personally, as he quickly “tweeted” in response that “Doing my best to disregard the many inflammatory President O statements and roadblocks. Thought it was going to be a smooth transition — NOT!,” which is also well outside the usual norms of presidential rhetoric.
So far both sides are claiming all the re-hiring and re-painting and re-assignments of parking spaces that go with any old presidential transition are nonetheless proceeding smoothly, along with the gold-plating of the toilets and the skimpier uniforms for the household staff and whatever else is required for this particular presidential transition, but the rift has already had consequences more significant than hurt feelings. Obama has unleashed such a last-month torrent of regulations that Trump will be hard-pressed and much-hassled to un-do them all, and Trump is already talking deals with the long line of companies that have threatened to move jobs out of the United States. One can only imagine what sorts of presidential pardons will be issued between now and the still-distant Inauguration Day by the out-going president, and what the president-elect will have to “tweet” about it, but one of the in-coming president’s most trusted advisors is already advising an entirely unprecedented and vastly more pervasive use of the president’s pardon powers. Obama has ordered retaliation for Russia’s internet hackings and other meddling in the election, which the Central Intelligence Agency and other officials confirm, but Trump continues to deny it ever happens and told the press that “I think we should get on with our lives” in any case.
The two are also clashing over the very serious matters of Israel’s security and the rest of that thorny Middle Eastern situation. After nearly eight years of diplomatic and rhetorical slights against Israel, and a long effort to negotiate a very accommodating deal with with the Iranian apocalyptic suicide cult that has vowed to build nuclear missiles to wipe out the Jewish state, Obama has concluded his time in office by allowing the United Nations to pass a resolution condemning the building of housing for Jewish Israelis in some disputed territories. The disputes regarding those territories are complicated, and to be fair Obama has also added $34 billion worth of state-of-the-art American weaponry to Israel’s arsenal during his administration, but there’s a lengthy case to be made that Obama’s legacy is a disgraceful backstabbing of our only modern and democratic and mostly sane friend in one of the world’s worst but most unavoidable neighborhoods.
Trump tried to fit his argument against the move into a “tweet,” and came up with “The United Nations has such great potential but right now it is just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time. So sad!” Although poorly punctuated and otherwise quite unprecedented in the history of presidential rhetoric, we’ll concede it does contain a certain kernel of truth. There is a lengthy case to be against the United Nations in general and its treatment of Israel in particular, and we’ve made it at length here over the years, but when you try to boil it compress it into 140 characters concluding with “So sad!” you wind up calling into question every international agreement that the United States has ever negotiated through the United Nations, which is not something an in-coming president should be doing. The past many millennia of human history show that successful diplomacy requires a certain precision of language, and that punctuation is also important, and the sooner the president-elect realizes this the better.
Neither man has proved himself worthy of the high office they momentarily seem to share, and their clash of oversized egos has been a tawdry spectacle. We’re supposed to take sides, so we’ll stick with the old norms of the American republic.

— Bud Norman

Funerals, Fences, Popes and Presidents

The President of the United States cannot be bothered to attend the funeral of the most distinguished Supreme Court Justice of the past half-century, the billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-television-show mogul who is currently leading the Republicans’ race to become the next president is having a “twitter” fight with the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church over who’s the better Christian, and we are reminded yet again that we live in strange and contentious times.
President Barack Obama reportedly paid his respects to Justice Antonin Scalia while the late jurist lie in state, and that will have to do while Obama plots to seat a replacement who will undo all of Scalia’s good works. He’s insisting that the inevitable knock-down-dragpout barroom brawl to follow will be conducted in the most civil and mutually respectful way possible, and his spokesman has expressed his regret about his past attempt as a Senator to thwart another president’s Supreme Court appointment, which he now realizes is an awful thing for any senator to ever do to a president, and his friends in the media are earnestly hoping that the crazy right-wingers in the Republican party will be reasonable about a loony left-wing appointment despite their deep-seated racism, but it doesn’t seem off to a good start.
We expect the Republican response won’t include any of those racist slurs or subtle insinuations that the Democratic press is always so eagerly awaiting, but neither do we expect that it be at all polite, and certainly not so capitulatory as what the Democrats would consider reasonable. A few Republicans up for re-election in the most uncertain election year in anybody’s living memory might go wobbly, but those with safe red state seats, which aren’t even safe in these days of widespread burn-it-all-down sentiment, will feel the same pressure of public opinion not to budge an inch. They have the long history of resistance to lame duck appointments and the Democrats’ role in it on their side, as well, if anybody cares about that sort of thing anymore, so Obama can’t reasonably hope for any more respect than he’s shown.
As the late and great Yogi Berra famously noted, “You should always go to other people’s funerals or they won’t go to yours,” and once upon a more civil and mutually respectful era of political knock-down-drag-out barroom brawls a president would have least put on a necktie to announce the death of even an ideologically opposed Supreme Court justice.
Once up on that more civil and mutually respectful era, however, you didn’t get “twitter” fights between Republicans and Pontiffs. The whole mess started when Pope Francis paid an extended visit to Mexico that included a brief prayer near the host country’s border with the United States. The Pope is an Argentinian and adherent of the socialistic “social gospel” and pretty much typical of international liberalism on all matters except sex and certain age-old doctrines that only Catholic need concern themselves with, so the prayer was widely interpreted as a political message, so one might conclude he started it all. Still, it would have gone largely ignored by the press north of the border, however, and would have been entirely ignored by the staid old Republican candidates of the good old funeral-going and necktie-wearing days, but these days the party’s front-runner is a billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-and-professional-wrestling-and-reality-television mogul who couldn’t resist “tweeting” that the spiritual leader of the world’s many hundreds of millions of Catholics is “a pawn of the Mexican government.” Such is the diplomatic savvy of the man who promises to make America great again, and these days we shouldn’t be surprised that it prompted such a clumsy response from the socialist Pope that a boastful, foul-mouthed, handicapped-mocking, proudly cuckolding, thrice-married, four-times-bankrupt gambling mogul, who has explained he is a forgiveness-seeking Christian only to the extent that “I eat my little cracker, drink my little wine,” somehow comes off looking better.
Pope Francis, who surely deserves some respect as the spiritual leader of the world’s many hundreds of millions of Catholics, and can surely be forgiven for not fully understanding the complexities of the most uncertain American election year of anybody’s memory, was of course asked about Trump’s “tweets,” which he might have understood of are the utmost importance in these strange and contentious times, and through interpreters that we can’t vouch for he wound up saying that there was something un-Christian about Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Although we really do have great respect for the Catholic faith, and are rooting hard for the Little Sisters of the Poor to prevail in their court case and not have to pay that damnable Obamacare contraception mandate, something in our Protest and Republican souls must politely disagree. Our objections to unfettered illegal immigration are based the severe economic and cultural and political damage it has done in this country, but is also based on a belief that siphoning off the most industrious and resourceful citizens of the Third World who can thrive in America does no favor to their countries of origin, and that allowing those poorer countries to use the west as a dumping ground for their more unskilled and even criminal element allow them forestall the necessary reforms to make their own countries livable, and that the “social gospel” does provide the blueprint. Calling one’s faith into question over such matters is wrong, even by the degraded standards of American politics, and it puts us in the uncomfortable position of defending Donald J. Trump.
Which is not to say that we believe the Pope is a “pawn of the Mexican government,” any more than we believe that “Bush lied, people died” or all the “birther” claims or any of Trump’s crazed conspiracy theories, or that Donald J. Trump is a more exemplary Christian that the Pope or even the lowliest sinner who will confess that he falls short of the glory of God, but rather to say that we’re living in such strange and contentious times that Trump gets the best of it. He “tweets” his indignation that anyone would question anyone’s Christianity, even though Trump has lately been saying that pesky rival-for-frontrunner-status Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is not a Christian because he lies by showing old videos of Trump saying things he says he doesn’t believe anymore, and has mocked onetime-rival Dr. Ben Carson’s claims of finding a spiritual path from his childhood rage, which Trump said was “pathological” and therefore incurable and that Carson was akin to a child molester, and he’ll likely prevail. The socialist Pope isn’t popular, not even with us, no matter how respectful we strive to be, and Trump’s a hot item in the press, despite his negatives in all the polls, at least until he wins the nomination, when all the horror stories start to show up in the media he’s supposedly been so skillfully playing.
These are strange and contentious times, and we doubt any of these guys from the Vatican to the White House to top of Trump Tower to the cheap-rent headquarters of those pesky rivals have any idea how it will play out. The Democratic race offers no hope, and is in fact at least as big a mess even without any papal intervention, so we’ll wait and see. All we know with any certainty is that it won’t be civil, and neckties won’t be required.

— Bud Norman

The Grand Tour

Way back in our younger days it was a widely accepted truism that only Nixon could go to China, but these days anyone with the airfare and cost of a decent hotel can do it. Even First Lady Michelle Obama, who can simply put the trip on the taxpayers’ ever-swelling tab, is currently on tour on in China.
First Ladies usually get the kid-glove treatment from the press, especially the First Ladies’ of Democrat presidents, and most especially the First Ladies’ of Democrat presidents who can claim some historic ethnic first or another, but this trip has garnered some unusually critical coverage. That’s partly because of Obama’s inexplicable decision to not bring along her usually adoring media groupies, partly because of the explanation that it’s a “non-political” trip makes the undisclosed but easily guessed-at price-tag seem all the more extravagant, and to no small extent because she has come across as what in our younger days was known as an ugly American.
Granted, the sneering coverage has come from British press that is always snarkier and less politically-correct than its American counterpart. The reliably conservative Telegraph headlined that because of the refined behavior of Chinese President Xi Jingping’s wife “China Claims Victory in Battle of First Ladies.” The even snarkier but less reliably conservative Daily Mail reported that the Obama entourage was racking up an $8,350-per-night lodging bill for their 3,400-square-foot suit, and that despite such amenities as a 24-hour butler the First Lady’s mother was driving the hotel staff to distraction with her constant demands and criticisms. The temptation to crack the inevitable mother-in-law jokes must have been difficult for the American press, but they resisted admirably and contented themselves with straight-forward coverage of Obama’s public pronouncements.
Even the most straightforward accounts could not help embarrassing to the First Lady, however. At one point Obama was lecturing the Chinese on the need to tolerate dissent and political criticism, noting with pride the unending tolerance she and her husband have for such lese majeste, but the reports’ failure to mention the Internal Revenue Service’s harassment of conservative groups or its vilification of prominent opponents was conspicuous. Other reports proudly quoted Obama urging the Chinese to undertake educational reforms, with USA Today adding that “she has won praise for her approachability and admiration for her comments supporting freedom of speech,” but surely only the most star-struck readers weren’t reminded of her husband’s obeisance to the teachers’ unions and opposition to charter schools or vouchers or any other serious educational reform. One hopes that the first kids are enjoying the pricey visit, and not proving too much a pain in the neck to the hotel staff, but otherwise it’s hard to see what the taxpayer is getting for his money in this visit.

— Bud Norman

On Board with Ukraine

Here’s hoping the Ukrainian people succeed in their heroic struggle for freedom and democracy, and that the western civilization they hope to join isn’t yet too enervated to offer meaningful help.
At the moment it seems possible that the Ukrainian people might prevail, as the mass protest movement for independence has forced pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych from Kiev and established a tenuous interim government controlling most of the country, while the western nations have belatedly offered incompetent but nonetheless crucial support. There is still reason to worry they might fail, though, as Yanukovych retains control of much of the eastern and largely ethnic Russian portion of country, the Winter Olympics are now over and Russian President Vladimir Putin thus has a freer hand to intervene with his usual cunning and ruthlessness, and the west’s recent record of resisting tyranny is not encouraging.
After weeks of characteristic dithering he European Union is offering monetary as well as rhetorical support for the new government, and the White House is issuing stern warnings against Russian meddling. These are positive developments, but they likely won’t inspire much confidence in the Ukrainians or much fear in Putin. America’s “reset” diplomacy with Russia has re-set the country to its traditional role of anti-western antagonist and encouraged its meddling not only in the old Soviet Union’s sphere of influence but also the Middle East and even the western hemisphere, the American president’s stern warnings of “red lines” in Syria and “grave consequences” for the terrorists who murdered for Americans in Libya have proved toothless, longtime allies from Poland the Czech Republic to Israel to South America and Asia have seen longstanding American promises betrayed, and the Ukrainians have no reason to believe that their fledgling democracy can expect resolute American support.
Any Ukrainian with access to the internet can find further reason for worry on YouTube, where an anonymous has post video of Victoria Nuland, the State Department’s top official for Europe, discussing a plan that would allow Yanukovych to retain a measure of power and ban opposition leader and national hero Vitali Klitschko from power. The proposal was too weak even for European tastes, and Nuland can be heard responding to their understandable objections by uttering an obscene suggestion for the EU. Aside from the worrisome fact that such foul language is now so ubiquitous it intrudes even into high-level diplomatic discussions, the conversation confirms a natural suspicion that the Obama administration’s first instinct was to mollify the Russians even at the expense of a proud nation’s long-sought independence.
President Barack Obama tried to allay these fears during a news conference last week in Mexico, saying “Our goal is to make sure the people of Ukraine are able to make decisions for themselves about there future,” but judging by Nuland’s remarks he doesn’t fully trust them to choose their own leaders. He preceded that statement by saying “Our approach as the United States is not see these as some Cold War chessboard in which we’re in competition with Russia,” which also does not bode well. Obama and the rest of the left got the Cold War wrong, they apparently have not yet realized that we are still very much in competition with Russia, and they are clumsily playing checkers while Putin plays chess with typical Russian skill.
The Ukrainians might yet pull it off. Klitschko, the Ukrainian national hero that Nuland wanted to bar from power, is not only a recent world heavyweight boxing championship who well understands the masterful deployment of brute force, he’s also said to be a pretty fair chess player.

— Bud Norman

Giving Peace Yet Another Chance

The theocratic nutcases who run Iran are boasting that the world powers have surrendered to their will with the newly announced agreement regarding their nuclear weapons program, and it seems they have a point.
A “Joint Plan of Action” announced by the Obama administration and its European negotiating partners allows Iran to keep its centrifuges running, leaves it with enough enriched uranium to build several bombs, entrusts enforcement of the few restrictions that are included to the watchful eyes of the same Nobel Prize-winning nitwits at the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency who have been enabling Iranian nuclear ambitions for the past decade or so, and ends the economic sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiating table in the first place. The Iranians claim there is a further secret agreement that is even more to their liking, and the country’s president has been gloating about it on Twitter — “tweeting” apparently being permissible within fundamentalist Islam — while one of its generals has bragged to the press that it’s all due to the world’s fear of Iran’s military might.
Although the White House has denied any secret agreement it has also been suspiciously secretive about the details of what has been agreed to, and what the president has publicly said about the matter sounds considerably less cocky. In remarks to the press the president noted the agreement provides “time and space” to reach yet another agreement, that he can still decide not to agree to it and go back to the sanctions that led to the agreement, that congress shouldn’t re-impose sanctions, and that “What we want to do is give diplomacy a chance, and give peace a chance.”
It is never a good omen when a president of the United States is chanting old hippie slogans, but it is especially worrisome in response to the martial chest-thumping of theocratic nutcases intent on acquiring nuclear weapons. There is still a chance that Congress might scuttle the deal by continuing sanctions, as even some Democrats are unimpressed with the plan, and we hope they will do so despite the White House warnings that it would provoke a war. Allowing an apocalyptic suicide cult to set off a nuclear arms race in a traditionally bellicose region gripped by ancient and irrational hatreds cannot end well, and doing so for the sake of giving peace a chance makes no sense.

— Bud Norman

Nutcases and Nukes

No good can come from insane people gaining possession of nuclear weapons, as the current tensions with North Korea demonstrate.
The nutcase dictatorship that runs the country has been prone to occasional bouts of inconsequential belligerence for decades, and its latest threats might once again prove so much bluster, but this time around has an unsettlingly different feel to it. This time around has been preceded by nuclear tests and missile launches and other provocative acts, a state of war with South Korea has been formally declared if not acted upon, and the nuclear threats against the United States have extended as far inland as the heart of Texas. That last bit of bravado is rather far-fetched, given the supposed limitations of North Korea’s hilariously named Dong missiles, but the rest of it is clearly being taken seriously at the highest levels of the United States government. Missile defense systems and other military might are being quickly added to the region, officials of the State and Defense departments have been issuing statements more strongly worded than usual, and the president has also added some tough talk.
All of which seems prudent, given that the North Koreans are crazy and possess nuclear weapons, but at this point the situation offers no good options. Although North Korea is a tiny and impoverished country it enjoys the backing of big and rich China, with nobody knowing how far their friendship might extend, and an accident of geography has placed the densely populated city of Seoul well within reach of even the most rudimentary rockets and artillery that the North Koreans have arrayed along the so-called de-militarized zone. America and its allies would quickly prevail in a war that the Chinese stayed out of, but not quickly enough to avert much death and destruction.
With America’s still-formidable military might backing up the talk there is a possibility of a diplomatic end to crisis, but only temporarily. The past five decades of American diplomacy have tried almost every approach, from offering aid and flattery to sanctions and scorn, but all failed to prevent the North Koreans from developing nuclear weapons. Once they had the bomb in hand, the North Koreans have naturally become even harder to deal with.
The most credible experts on the region are the ones willing to admit they have no idea what the North Koreans or the Chinese are going to do, and their only advice is to be prepared for any contingency, but a few broader conclusions about foreign should be obvious to even the rank amateur. One is that America is going to continue to require a powerful military capable of quick action anywhere in the world to provide some least-bad options for such situations. Another is that America cannot isolate itself from the world, and even if the nation’s conscience were not troubled by allowing a nuclear holocaust to be visited upon an ally the consequences would surely be felt here. The most important lesson, perhaps, is that insane people should never be allowed to gain possession of nuclear weapons.
The point should be kept in mind when the news inevitably shifts back to Iran.

— Bud Norman