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Worldwide Threats and Other Worries

For those of us clear-eyed realists who are gloom and doom worrywarts, the annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment” by America’s collective intelligence agencies is always a must-read. This year’s edition is especially worrisome, especially when you notice how starkly different it is from President Donald Trump’s foreign policy priorities.
The 42-page document continues to stress the danger of the Islamic State, although Trump has declared complete victory over the terror gang and announced a withdrawal of all troops from the fight against it in Syria. Trump has proudly “tweeted” that he eliminated any threat from North Korea, but the intelligence agencies agree that the nutcase dictatorship is continuing to pursue a nuclear arsenal. The intelligence agencies also concluded that Iran is keeping to a deal to cease its nuclear weapons development, although the country continues to support all sorts of non-nuclear terrorism, while Trump continues to withdraw America from the deal and hasn’t yet negotiated a better one. Trump has yet to address the problem of Russian’s cyber-meddling in American democracy, and continues to countenance Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s instance he’d never do that, but the intelligence agencies are still alarmed.
The “Worldwide Threat Assessment” also concludes that the past two years of American trade policy and diplomacy have weakened ties with longstanding allies and prompted traditional friends to seek new relationships, and makes only brief mention of the southern border where Trump wants to build a big beautiful wall. As frightening as the 42 pages are, it’s more worrisome yet that Trump seems to disregard them.
Trump and his die-hard fans can assure themselves that these are the same intelligence agencies that have blundered America into endless wars useless alliances, and that they’re a bunch of fancy-pants Ivy League elitists who think they know everything, and that the “Worldwide Threat Assessment” is another example of the nefarious “deep state” conspiring to thwart Trump at every turn. We’ve been assured by Trump that he knows more about the Islamic State than the generals, and more about America’s military alliances than the four-star general who was forced to resign as Secretary of Defense, and that Putin sure seemed sincere when he said that the Russians weren’t meddling in our democracy, and that “my gut sometimes tells me more than anybody else’s brain can tell me.
Go ahead and call us gloom and doom worrywarts, but we are not reassured. Trump’s own appointees have signed off on the “World Threat Assessment” and testified to Congress about it, and they seem far more knowledgeable about world affairs than Trump’s unaccountably educated gut, and we think they’re more interested in a clear-eyed assessment of reality than advancing Trump’s populist political rhetoric. Even Trump’s own appointees agree with the carefully considered bipartisan consensus of expert opinion that has guided American foreign policy since the end of World War II, and although the results have admittedly been imperfect America and the rest of world have generally become more prosperous and free, and there hasn’t yet been a World War III, so we trust the brains of those fancy pants know-it-alls more than we do Trump’s gut.
There’s a lot to worry about in the world these days, but we feel slightly better knowing that at least some of Trump’s appointees and few brave congressional Republicans are worrying about it.

— Bud Norman

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Would He or Wouldn’t He? That Is the Question

The fallout from President Donald Trump’s private meeting and public news conference with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin in Finland on Monday was so bad it spilled over into Tuesday, with even the sycophants at “Fox and Friends” finding fault with his abysmal performance, and before the day was over Trump had beat a rare retreat. It looked less like the heroic rescue at Dunkirk than Bonaparte’s famously disastrous retreat, though, and guaranteed at least another another day’s bad news cycle.
In case you’ve been wisely averting your eyes, all the fuss started with Trump having a two-hour meeting with only Putin and himself and a sole Russian translator involved, which somehow raised only a minor and for-now-forgotten fuss but will probably yield many future bad news cycles. The bigger story on both Monday and Tuesday was the international news conference, where Trump told the whole world’s media that the sorry state of Russo-American relations was mainly the fault of past American presidential administrations and the ongoing efforts of America’s justice system and the pesky reporting of its press, making no mention of Russia’s numerous offenses against international law and human decency. He was clearly more concerned about the alleged dastardly deeds of his vanquished Democratic opponents than Russia’s than Russia’s three-pronged cyber attack on the last election, and often seemed to give equal credibility to Putin’s denials that it happened than he did the American intelligence agencies’ and congressional committees’ and his own administration’s top officials that it most certainly did.
At one point Trump was asked by one those pesky reporters who he believed, and offered the President of the United States a chance to warn the Russian dictator that had surely attacked American democracy not to do it again, and Trump replied that he’d spoken with his intelligence officials and “They said they think it’s Russia. I have President Putin — he just said it’s not Russia … I will say this, I don’t see any reason would it be … I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” Which was too much for even “Fox and Friends” to defend, and had poor Sean Hannity sputtering some incoherent apologia, which soon led to Trump making a rare admission that he had gotten one single word wrong.
Seeming to acknowledge the bad news cycle, Trump said “Now, I have to say, I came back, and I said, ‘What is going on? What’s the big deal?’ So I got a transcript. I reviewed it. I actually went back and reviewed a clip of an answer I gave, and I realized there is need for some clarification. It should have been obvious — I thought it would be obvious — but I would like to clarify, just it case it wasn’t. In a key sentence in my remarks, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.” The sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t — or why it shouldn’t be be Russia. So just to repeat, I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t.’ And the sentence should have been — and I thought it would be a little unclear on the transcript or unclear on the actual video — the sentence should have been: I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be Russia. Sort of a double negative. So you can put that in, and I think that probably clarifies things pretty good by itself.”
As with most of Trump’s fourth-grade ┬áverbal gobbledegook this requires further clarification for us, but so far as we can tell he’s making a very rare admission that he misspoke at least one contracted word, which we appreciate. He also seems to be blaming us and of all the rest of the world’s media and most of his country for not immediately understanding that of course he meant “wouldn’t” when he said “would,” though, and we don’t at all appreciate that.
Even if you do add that contraction of “not” to “would” the rest of the rest of the summit with the Russian dictator is still seemed damned obsequious, and even as Trump affirmed in his faith the conclusions of America’s intelligence community that Russia had cyber-attacked America’s democracy he ad-libbed that “Could be other people also, a lot of people out there,” which is not the conclusion of America’s intelligence agencies.
By the end of Tuesday’s bad news cycle Trump had not done much to reassure us or America’s most important allies that there’s not something awfully fishy about what he once called “This Rusher thing with Trump and Russia,” and regularly denounces as a “witch hunt” that’s the main impediment to friendly Russo-American relations, and he should expect another bad news cycle today.

— 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

When the Scapegoats Bite Back

Having grown up on cloak-and-dagger movies, a favorite genre of our father, we know better than to provoke the wrath of an espionage agency. Those guys are always portrayed as ruthlessly efficient sorts, and they’ve put more athletic and handsome men than ourselves in perilous situations we do not wish to endure, so we make it a point not to say anything unflattering about them. President Barack Obama has apparently been watching too many “chick flicks” and arty independent releases, however, as he’s foolhardily started a public relations fight with the entire intelligence community.
It’s all a result of that Islamic State terror gang that’s lately been conquering huge swaths of Syria and Iraq and spreading the most gruesome sort of mayhem along the way, including the widely publicized beheadings of two Americans and other westerners. The situation is all the more embarrassing for the president because he had run for re-election on the boasts that American troops had been withdrawn from a stable and secure Iraq, that Islamist terrorism was “on the run” and “the tide of war is receding,” and that as recently as last winter he was telling a fawning interviewer that the Islamic State terror gang was the “jayvee team” of Islamist terrorism and nothing to worry about. Now that the “jayvees” are within a mile or so of Baghdad that the president is insisting he never called them that, a claim so preposterous that even the friendliest press won’t pretend otherwise, so he’s been casting about for another explanation that confirms his infallibility. What he came up with during a recent interview with “60 Minutes,” which is where Democratic presidents go to get some much-needed sympathy, is that his Director of National Intelligence has already volunteered that the intelligence community got it wrong.
The Director of National Intelligence might have professional reasons to throw himself under the proverbial bus, but his underlings in the various agencies are apparently less willing to take the blame. They’ve responded not with wristwatch-laser beams fountain pen explosives or the other high-tech gadgetry that always figures in the movies, but rather by reaching into their old fashioned Rolodexes for the phone numbers of well-placed reporters who owe them favors. No less a fancy-schmantzy newspaper than The New York Times, which has previously been willing to re-write the history of the Iraq war and the rules of English grammar to accommodate the president, was indebted enough to its deep-cover sources to produce a damning rebuttal to the administration line. According to the inevitably unnamed but assuredly senior intelligence and military sources, the president had been warned in alarmed language as early as late last year about the rising threat of the Islamic State but failed to pay heed.
One wonders that those unnamed sources were owed, because a close reading of the article buttresses conservatives articles that The New York Times is usually inclined to ridicule. Even the token right-winger at The Washington Post was allowed to note that it shows that Obama’s decision to withdraw all troops from Iraq rather than negotiate a new status of forces agreement has proved unwise, that the resulting sectarian violence was foreseeable, and that the president ignored the intelligence community’s warnings for political and ideological reasons. All of these revelations feed a growing public perception that the president is too busy with golf and fund-raising to be a serious steward of America’s foreign policy, and it doesn’t help to have new revelations about how often he skips his national security briefings altogether. The last time this was in the news was right after the tragic fiasco at the American consulate in Benghazi, when the administration laughed it off with claims that the president didn’t need to question is advisers because unlike his illiterate predecessor he could read reports and was “among the most sophisticated consumers of intelligence on the planet.” That explanation was sufficient to win the president re-election, but with the Islamic State at the gates of Baghdad and the cloak-and-dagger guys now in full revolt it might not prove as effective in the upcoming mid-terms.

— Bud Norman