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Welcome to the Actual New Year

Today is the actual first day of the new year, no matter what the calendar says. Anyone who can takes the official if fake first of day January off from the time and space continuum, for darned good reason, and procrastinates at least until today what sooner or later needs to be done. Everyone’s back on the job of getting through another year starting today, unless you’re one of those federal employees temporarily furloughed by the latest partial government shutdown.
That’s just one of the dreary stories that civic-minded citizens will be obliged to read about in the coming days and weeks and months, although it will probably at least the next several 24-hour news cycles. President Donald Trump has vowed he won’t sign anything keeping the government fully funded that doesn’t pay billions for the big and beautiful wall running across the Mexican-American border that he promised his voters, the Democratic majority that’s to be installed in the House of Representatives tomorrow morning won’t be inclined to pass anything that includes any funding for even a small and ugly border barrier, and we expect a bad start to the new year for all those federal employees.
The stock markets reopen today, too, and we’ll not venture any guess about that how turns out. There are stock markets all over the crazy planet, each reacting to their own internal craziness as well as the craziness elsewhere, but on the other hand the American economy is still on a sluggish but upward trajectory and the unemployment rate is still low and the resulting interest rate increases are well within historic norms, but on yet another hand there are trade wars and all sorts of other populist uncertainties afoot. In any case, we’ll hope for the best and expect the worst.
Meanwhile, on the domestic political news front we civic-minded citizens are obliged to follow, there’s already enough pent-up news to fill a year. The special counsel’s investigation into the “Russia thing” surely will shortly start announcing more subpoenas and indictments and guilty pleas, the newly-installed Democratic majorities on all those House investigative committees will no doubt begin making their own trouble, and all the “fake news” will make hay of it. Along with the ongoing scandals about alleged trysts porn stars and Playboy playmates and all the resulting alleged campaign law violations, as well as the other scandals and hubbub-causing “tweets” that can be counted on, we expect this to be a busy year for for Trump’s apologists.
The rest of the world doesn’t offer much hope, either, with the Russian-Iranian-Syrian axis poised to take control of a big chunk of the Middle East, Trump-ian populist and protectionist and unabashedly nationalist movements gaining power around the globe, and the weenie sort of semi-socialistic parties resembling America’s current Democratic are faltering elsewhere. For now Trump is relying on an acting Secretary of Defense with no military experience, following the resignation of the four-star general who told the public that his four decades of immersion in foreign policy led him disagree with Trump’s gut instincts about America’s international alliances, and for now we’re inclined to worry that the four-general is right.
Even so, we’ll hope for the best and know for sure that things could be worse.
The temperatures didn’t top the low-30s today here in Kansas, by the time we dropped by Kirby’s Beer Store after sunset for a procrastinating swig before another damned year the wind chill was down in the teens, and oh how we hate this time of year. Except for a bearded and burly and very friendly bartender and a charmingly crabby old homosexual there was no one else to enjoy the cranked-up if ratchety old furnace, but we were soon joined by three rather short and squat and heavily-adorned but somehow attractive in a young hipster sort of way women and a young hipster man, who introduced themselves as the evening’s band, whose name we already forget. Hoping to show them the gracious hospitality one can expect at Kirby’s Beer Store and Wichita and Kanas in general, we asked where they were from, and they replied that they lived in North Dakota. In that case we didn’t feel obliged to apologize for the bad weather, as the wind chills are  in the minus-20s up there, and they all remarked about how balmy they found it down here.
Better to begin our new year here rather than in North Dakota, we suppose, and we certainly wouldn’t trade places with Trump.

— Bud Norman

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A Good Day For Trump, For Now

A steady rain was falling on the just and unjust alike all across the prairie states throughout Wednesday, and it was a cold rain from a gloomy dark gray sky that to seemed to emphasize how all the Christmas cheer was over for another long year, but elsewhere President Donald Trump wound up having one of his better days.
The recently swooning stock markets had an unprecedented rally, and all the cable news networks were obliged to air some flattering footage of Trump being welcomed by the troops at an air base in Iraq, and pretty much everyone in Congress was back home with family and constituent and not making any news trouble for him. Although Trump might have preferred to be golfing at his ritzy Mar-a-Lago resort in sunny south Florida, as previously planned, he surely enjoyed a 24-hour news cycle for the first time in quite a while.
Today brings yet another 24-hour news cycle, however, so we’d advise Trump not to get too cocky.
Our best explanation for that inexplicable surge in the stock markets is that after the past few months of steep declines the investors woke up on the day after Christmas went bargain hunting and wound up in a bidding war, so there’s no telling how long that might last. The unemployment rate is still low by historical norms and the global and domestic economies are clearly slowing they’re also still expanding at their typically slow paces, but that’s all the more reason for the Federal Reserve Board to nudge interest rates slightly closer to historical norms, and a global trade war is still being waged, and there’s more than the usual amount of certainty in the politics almost everywhere, so we’ll wait and how the smart money sorts all of that out. If you’re at all familiar with the most fundamental laws of high finance you by now know that when the stock market goes up it is because of Trump, and when it goes down it’s somebody else’s fault, so no matter how it turns out at least we’d be willing to wager some serious dough on how Trump will spin the next few news cycles.
Even the “enemies of the people” in the “fake news” media had to acknowledge that Trump had paid a potentially risky visit to the brave and selfless men and women who had been working through Christmas in a war zone, so such old-fashioned Never-Trump Republican types as ourselves are also obliged to give credit where credit is due. The traditional presidential visit that all of the past several Democratic and Republicans presidents made came after nearly two years of criticism from most quarters for failing to do so, which was heightened last November when Trump skipped a visit to an American World War I cemetery in France during a commemoration of the centennial of Armistice Day, which was attended by all of the heads of states of the winning allies but skipped by Trump due to a light rain, and then again when played golf rather than the lay the traditional presidential wreath on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Veteran’s Day, but there’s still no denying Trump did eventually make the trip.
The trip also raised questions about Trump’s overall foreign policy performance, though, which have been raised on both sides of the political aisle, and they’re likely to linger through the coming year of 24-hour news cycles and probably won’t provide such favorable photo opportunities. Trump felt obliged to explain his recent decision to withdraw troops from Syria and draw down troops in Afghanistan, which led to the resignation of the wise and wizened and widely respected four-star general who had been his Secretary of Defense, and although he’d earlier said that it because the mission of defeating the Islamic State had been won he wound up telling the troops that he expected our newfound friends in the Russian and Iranian dictatorships to help the Syrian dictatorship finish the job. Most of those brave men and women wearing boots on the ground have the poetic idea that theirs is not to make reply, their is not to question why, but theirs is but to do and die, and they seemed genuinely grateful for a visit from their commander in chief. Much of the higher brass watching over them seems to have its doubts, as do many of America’s erstwhile allies in Europe and the Middle East and elsewhere, and under a gloomy and rainy Kansas sky far away from the front lines we indulge in the luxury of our own worries.
All of those Senators and Representatives will be soon back in Washington and supplying critical sound bits to the cable news networks and damning quotes to the mainstream press, and early next year a sizable majority of the Representatives will be damned Democrats and lately even some of the slight majority of Republicans in the Senate have been restive on a number of issues. The special counsel investigation into the “Russia thing” will be back from its Christmas holiday, too, and it seems a sure bet that Trump will have some less happy 24-hour news cycles in the coming year.
He should get in a few more golf rounds, though, and we’ll generously wish him and the rest of the world nothing but fairways and greens.

— Bud Norman

Sayonara, Syria

President Donald Trump on Wednesday announced his intention to withdraw all American forces from Syria, which probably surprised the vast number of Americans who were previously unaware that America had had any forces fighting in Syria. The news apparently also surprised all of our allies in the conflict, as well as Trump’s usually reliable Republican congressional allies and his own administration’s top officials and everyone at the Pentagon, most of whom seemed none too pleased.
Trump has long maintained he was only in Syria to fight the Islamic State, a particularly nasty bunch of Islamist terrorists known for beheadings and crucifixions and other nasty methods of imposing a particularly severe theocratic vision on the people they’ve subjugated, and on Wednesday he declared victory and said that some 2,000 or American troops could thus come home for Christmas. The Islamic State has indeed been driven from almost all of the territory it had conquered during Syria’s horrifically bloody civil war, in some cases by our Kurdish and more or less democratic allies and those outstanding 2,000 or so Americans backing them up, in most cases by the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad and his equally unsavory Russian and Iran allies, but there are still an estimated 30,000 Islamic State fighters hanging around, according to what top Trump administration officials were saying just before Wednesday, and the situation in Syria remains quite complicated.
Trump’s decision went against the advice of his defense secretary, James Mattis, a four-star Marine general whose advice Trump routinely rejects, as well as the Republican senate foreign relations committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, who was left waiting outside the Oval Office after a scheduled meeting, and even such a sycophantic sort of Republican as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina went so far as to call it a “huge Obama-like mistake,” which is about as harsh an insult as a Republican can muster. We’re by no means experts on these complicated geopolitical matters, but so far as we can tell neither is Trump, and for now Trump’s Republican and Democratic critics both seem to have the better arguments.
Those 30,00 or so Islamic State fighters will surely boast of how they expelled the American crusaders, and thus recruit a few thousand more, unless the Syrian and Russian and Iranian dictatorships kill them all, but even that’s not an ideal outcome. There is no ideal outcome in such a convoluted portion of our complicated world, of course, but it’s hard to imagine a best-case scenario that involves American ceding its longstanding global leadership role in the most troublesome part of the world to those awful Syrian and Russian and Iranian dictatorships. The abandonment of our erstwhile more or less democratic allies, while Trump also feuds with pretty much all of our most longstanding and undeniably democratic allies, also offends our traditionally Republican sensibilities. The Democrats who apologized for President Barack Obama’s premature abandonment of our allies in Iraq’s more or less democratic government, which arguably led to the Syrian civil war, can at least note Obama was persuaded by his wiser advisors to main the presence in the region that began the defeat of the Islamic State and that he was never the isolationist that Trump wants to be.
Back during the campaign Trump bragged that he knew more about the Islamic State than any of the military’s generals did, and that his main foreign policy advisor would be himself because “I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things,” and he’s claimed to know more about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that the four-star Marine general he appointed as defense secretary, and he’s more recently bragged that his gut tells him more than any man’s brain can, so Secretary Mattis and Senators Corker and Graham can’t say they weren’t warned about how he makes decisions. There’s some cynical speculation by some of the more snide commentators that Trump made the announcement about the boys and girls coming home for Christmas to detract attention from the stock markets’ bad year and the latest developments in the “Russia thing” and other bad domestic news, which we heartily agree with, but he seems to have lost at least another news cycle.

— Bud Norman

On the Importance of Using one’s INDOOR VOICE!

President Donald Trump sent forth a rather bellicose “tweet” to the nutcase Iranian theocracy late Sunday night, threatening “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before” if it ever repeats its own usual bellicose rhetoric, and all through Monday all the more seasoned foreign policy hands from both the right and left were tsk-tsking about that. Although we share their consternation about Trump’s foreign policy by temper tantrum and “tweet,” and also fear how foolish America will look when the next inevitable intemperate outburst by the nutcase Iranian theocracy inevitably is not answered by nuclear annihilation, our literary sensibilities were even more offended that Trump blasted his threat entirely in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS WITH EXCESSIVE EXCLAMATION MARKS!!!
As old-fashioned conservatives we have always believed that conservatism is charged with conserving the best of western civilization, and there’s little in our rich cultural heritage that we cherish more than the English language, but we see that slipping away. The English language has facilitated great novels and poetry and philosophy, and been used to communicate scientific and technological revolutions that have greatly benefited the world, and we can remember a time in our lives when it even provided profound and persuasive political rhetoric. These days the novels seem ponderously self-indulgent, and the only poetry anyone hears are on those cacophonous rap records, and by now the scientific and technological whiz kids are coining a whole new lexicon of neologisms we are forced to keep up with. As for our political rhetoric, it seems to have been reduced to the illiterate level of the “comments” section of a fever swamp blog or a caller to talk radio show.
This isn’t entirely Trump’s fault, of course, and as far as we’re concerned many of his most vituperative critics on the left bear plenty of the blame. Back in the days of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama we stayed on the good side of our Republican friends by noting how overwrought and hyperbolic were the left’s criticisms of the former and apologia for the latter, and how Obama spoke of “getting in their faces” and “bringing a gun to a knife fight,” and how although his wife later urged “that when they go low we go high” it rang awfully hollow, but both sides by now seem to have decided to sling it out in the mud. We also always took note of the left’s inappropriate capitalizations and excessive exclamation marks and other abuses of our beloved English language, and tsk-tsked about the vulgarity and appalling grammar they confused with authenticity, but from our current hopefully mud-free perspective here on the political sidelines both sides seem equally muddy.
Both sides are by now chanting “lock em” up” about the other side, and they both have persuasive cases to make as far as we’re concerned, so we’ll observe how it all plays out from our hopefully un-muddied perceptive on the political sidelines. In the meantime, though, we”ll hope that everyone restrains from those fingernails -on-a-chalkboard CAPITAL LETTERS!  and EXTRANEOUS EXCLAMATION MARKS!!! and start using their indoor voices with the same sort of stodgy English language that has somehow successfully negotiated all of America’s squabbling interest groups to their currently enviable position in the world. We don’t claim to be experts in geo-politics, but we also think that lower-case but more compelling arguments that can’t be fitted into a “tweet” will be needed to avoid a threatened nuclear war with Iran. No matter what, we fear for our beloved English language.

— Bud Norman

A Two-Front, or More, War for Trump

President Donald Trump spent some of the past weekend lobbing actual missiles at Syrian chemical weapons sites, and the rest lobbing rhetorical missiles at former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey. In both cases, it remains to be seen how effective those attacks will prove.
The actual missiles lobbed into Syria were a justifiable response to a vicious dictatorship’s use of chemical weapons in its brutal prosecution of a civil war that America has reluctantly wound up in, as far as our old-fashioned Republican selves are concerned, and we were pleasantly surprised to note the strikes were carried out in coordination with the militaries of France and England the diplomatic approval of several other important allies. The last time Trump lobbed missiles at Syrian targets he got some rare bipartisan praise and a bump in the polls, but it didn’t deter the latest chemical attack by the Syrian dictatorship, and this time around some of his most vocal supporters are grousing about another one of those neo-con military-industrial complex establishment entanglements, so there’s no telling how it plays out now.
Trump had earlier “tweeted” the complete withdrawal of American forces from the entire Syrian civil war mess, claiming undue credit for the recent near-annihilation of the head-chopping and crucifying Islamist terrorist gang that had declared itself the Islamic State in much of Syria and Iraq, and he didn’t seem to mind that meant leaving the vicious Syrian dictatorship in permanent power to do what illegal atrocities it might. Nor did he he seem to mind that he was also allowing Syria’s equally odious dictator partnerships in Iran and Russia an extraordinary influence in the volatile and still strategically important region.
After the tear-jerking footage of the aftermath of the last chemical attacks were broadcast on all the networks, and the wise old foreign policy hands in London and Paris and Berlin and in Trump’s own administration and the bipartisan press argued that such a cruel violation international law must be met with a forceful response, Trump was “tweeting” a warning to Russia to get ready for a strike by his “shiny, new and smart” missiles. This apparently took the wise old foreign policy hands in London and Paris and the military brass in the Pentagon by surprise, so the next day Trump was “tweeting that the missiles might take a while, and the day after that we hit those Syrian chemical weapons sites. For now Trump has taken the position that America will sustain its diplomatic and economic as well as military influence in the region, but all reports suggest he’s been talked into that by by all those “deep state” and “New World” types, so those erstwhile non-interventionist talk radio hosts might prove more persuasive..
In any case the Syrian dictator is broadcasting images on the state-controlled Syrian media of himself walking calmly into work, visibly unworried by the paper tiger of the west’s ineffectual pinprick missile strikes, and on their state-controlled media neither Russia nor Iran seem at all unfazed, and despite the best efforts of Fox News and his most loyal talk radio allies Trump was unable to do the same.
Instead Trump spent much of the rest of the weekend “tweeting” insults about the FBI director he fired, calling him a liar and a “leaker” and “slime ball,” and otherwise undermine the credibility of Comey’s soon-to-published and already best-selling book. The advance publicity has already revived talk of Russian prostitutes urinating on one another in a Moscow hotel room at Trump’s request, the size of his hands and unusual hue of his skin, possibly impeachable attempts to obstruct justice, and counter charges by Comey that Trump reminded him of the organized crime figures he’d prosecuted earlier in his career, and it wound up hogging up much of the front pages and news hours from the missile strikes in Syria.
Our guess is that neither Trump nor Comey comes out of this battle metaphorically unbloodied. Comey did do some undeniably dumb things during his otherwise distinguished career, especially when he found himself directing the FBI at a time when both major party presidential campaigns were under investigation for some pretty appalling reasons, so the advance copies of the book are already getting some very mixed reviews from bipartisan media. On the other hand, many Americans will probably regard Comey as less a “slime ball” than the failed casino-and-strip bar magnate who’s also currently fending off legal problems with pornographic video performers and Playboy playmates and various women who allege he groped them, not to mention all the creepy recordings from Trump’s appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show and “Access Hollywood” and soft-core Playboy videos and his boasts in his best-selling self-help books.
Even if Trump succeeds in convincing his die-hard fans that Comey’s a a “leaker” and a liar and a “slime ball,” the increasingly scary investigation into the “Russia thing” by special counsel Robert Mueller that resulted from Comey’s firing continue. Despite attempts by Trump and his supporters to impugn the character of the Eagle Scout war hero with a distinguished and blessed by both parties career of public service leading that investigation, Trump’s “tweets” indicate he regards that investigation as a bigger deal than any old Syrian civil war.

— Bud Norman

Of Parades, Nicknames, and Other Political Spats

The stock markets were down again on Wednesday, but not to a panic-inducing extent, and the more reasonable sorts of Democrats and Republicans in Congress neared a compromise that would avert another government shutdown before tonight’s latest looming deadline, albeit a budget-busting one that neither side can celebrate. All in all it was a pretty slow news day, but as usual President Donald Trump provided plenty of what the newspaper people call filler.
Trump’s critics were able to fill countless column inches and big chunks of the 24-hour cable news cycle criticizing the Commander in Chief’s order for a grand military parade showcasing America’s might down Pennsylvania Avenue past the fancy Trump Hotel, and his most die-hard defenders couldn’t muster much of a defense for the idea. The District of Columbia’s city hall is worried about the damage that tanks and nuclear missiles might do to their expensively paved streets, and pretty much all the newspapers and all but one of the cable news networks had no shortage of retired generals and admirals saying on the record that it seemed a damned stupid deployment of tanks and nuclear missiles. Several of the more old-fashioned Republicans left in the party also opined that America has such an impressively big military stick that everyone already knows it, so it’s best to speak softly about it, unlike those envious regimes in North Korea and Iran and France and other godforsaken nations that routinely parade their relatively puny military hardware.
Even our Pop, a proud former Air Force officer and longstanding member of the military-industrial complex who’s an at-least-he’s-not-Hillary Trump supporter, admitted over lunch that the whole parade idea “sounds a little third-worldly.” The more die-hard sorts of Trump supporters will insist that the Commander in Chief merely wants to pay tribute to America’s fighting forces, and anyone who has objections to that is objectively un-American and arguably treasonous, but by now no one else doubts that like everything else the parade is more about Trump and his big stick than it is about anything or anyone else.
Meanwhile, on a slow news day we notice that Trump seems to be losing the nickname wars he’s long waged. He’s lately “tweeted” that New York Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on that pesky House committee looking into the “Russia thing,” is “Little” Adam Schiff, a diminutive description he’s previously bestowed on fellow Republican and Florida Sen. “Little” Marco Rubio, and although he creatively spelled  the Republican Tenessee Sen. Bob Corker as “Liddle Bob,” it’s starting to get stale. Around the same time Illinois’ Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth more damningly nicknamed Trump “Cadet Bonespur,” an apparently jocular reference to the military school Trump’s Pop sentenced him to and the spurious — if you’ll forgive the pun — medical condition that spared Trump from service in the Vietnam War but didn’t seem to interrupt his tennis and golf games and the constant womanizing he jokingly described as his own “personal Vietnam.”
That might seem a cheap shot at a sitting president, but in Duckworth’s case it’s undeniably been hard-earned. She made the remark in response to Trump’s jocular remark about treasonous Democrats failing to sufficiently applaud his State of the Union address, and although we disagree with most of her Democratic politics we can well understand why she resents “Cadet Bonespur” even jokingly impugning her patriotism for insufficient applause, She lost both legs in the Iraq War she willingly signed up for. Even Trump won’t dare “tweet” back that he likes a soldier who didn’t lose her legs for her country, even though he got away with similar disrespect for the heroic wartime sacrifices of Arizona[‘s Republican Sen. John McCain. Worse yet, Trump’s former die-hard defenders at Breitbart.com and on some of the right-wing talk radio shows are now calling him “Amnesty Don” because of his most recent stands on illegal immigration, and it’s going to take some pretty clever nicknaming to counter-punch that.
At this point we hold out hope Trump seems so ridiculous that the stock market will absorb a much-needed correction without panic and the rest of the economy will chug along without him, that the more reasonable sorts of Democrats and Republicans will come up with some desultory but veto-proof agreement to at least keep the government limping along, and that the filler will prove just as entertaining.

— Bud Norman

The Ongoing Campaign’s National Insecurity Statement

Ever since the Reagan administration — and oh how we miss those days, by the way — the congress has required that presidents provide a general statement of their foreign policy objectives and plans to achieve them. Every president has complied, always with a low-key and little-noticed publication carefully written to avoid antagonizing any adversaries or alarming any allies, but of course President Donald Trump seized the opportunity to deliver yet another campaign speech on Monday.
There was some good stuff in the official written statement, we must admit it, despite that “America First” slogan that always reminds us of the pre-World War II era.. Trump vowed that America’s foreign policy would be back up by an ever-more muscular military, and warmed our old-fashioned Republican hearts by quoting President Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of “peace through strength,” although without attribution. He spoke of “rallying the world” to confront North Korea’s nuclear provocations, which holds out some hope of a diplomatic solution, and of reaching a better deal than the current deal to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, although he didn’t get very specific about what it would be or how he might get it. One sentence promised “gradual reform, not radical change, should be our guiding objective” in the Middle East, and there were other allusions to international alliances and American leadership that had a similarly reassuring steady-at-the-helm sound about them. He mentioned Russia as one of America’s more troublesome countries, but was vague about their interference in the past presidential election.
There was also a lot of nonsense from past national security statements that was left out, we must admit. Climate change wasn’t among the national security threats mentioned, no apologies were offered for pursing American interests, and didn’t describe the obvious threat of radical Islamist terrorism as “religious extremism.” On the whole, the brief written statement wasn’t half-bad by Trump standards.
The much longer campaign speech Trump delivered was far worse, though, for all the usual reasons. It began with his characteristic boasts about the tens of thousands of miles he’s travelled and the hundreds of world leaders he’s met as president, which reminded of us vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s similar campaign boasts about her tenure as Secretary of State, and it was quickly followed by some flattery about how the American people have been “among the greatest forces for peace and justice in the world.” That was followed by the characteristic boast that “just one year ago, you spoke out loud and clear. On Nov. 8, 2016, you voted to make America great again.”
Notwithstanding his three-million-or-so-vote loss in the popular vote, Trump then took the opportunity to criticize at least five of his most recent predecessors, although without mentioning any names. He criticized pretty much all of America’s current trade deals, which date as far back as Reagan, and he blasted “nation-building abroad while they failed to replenish our nation at home,” which clearly means President George W. Bush and the rest of the Bushes and the rest of the Republican establishment. He also spoke of how “they put American energy under lock and key” and “imposed punishing regulations and crippling taxes,” which can only mean Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and lamented how “they” had neglected to solve the North Korea problem, with the “them” presumably stretching back to the administration of President Harry Truman.
All of those darned “them” also negotiated all of the worst-ever trade deals that have done so much damage to the American economy, which Trump frequently brags is humming along better than ever, but Trump made his usual vague promises to set that right. Trump also blamed them for letting a lot of illegal aliens into the country, which is a fair enough point, but followed it up with the usual crazy talk about building a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border, even if he didn’t add the long lost crazy talk about making the Mexicans pay for it. Much of the speech was devoted to boasting about America is stronger than ever and standing up for itself like never before, but overall it struck as strikingly whiny.
Trump is quite right that pretty much of the entirety of American history, the past several presidential administrations included, have left him in a rather tough spot. Every president could say the same, though, as could any other world leader about his country and its past several governments. The best of them have never disparaged the past leadership of their countries or the people who put them in power and instead moved forward with steady-at-the-helm leadership, and the worst them have always made vague promises to set things right.
Back in the campaign Trump promised he would never apologize for America, despite a few missteps it has undeniably made, and he would do well to acknowledge that the entirety of its history has also left him a position most of history’s world leaders would have envied. America’s military does need a boost, but it had been the world’s mightiest for more than 75 years before Trump office, despite all those Democrats. The past decades of free trade have driven innovations and increased prosperity not only in America but around a relatively placid globe, and the past 11 months of Trump haven’t much changed that trajectory.
Trump’s campaign speech probably got about as much attention as those low-key and little-read previous national security statements did, but it probably got the usual scrutiny from our anxious allies and recently emboldened adversaries. If they glean the same impression we gleaned of a megalomaniacal yet desperate politician pandering to his base rather than conducting a steady at the helm of American foreign policy in the country’s interests, all the good stuff will be for naught.

— Bud Norman

Two Tales of One Speech

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

— Bud Norman

A Fairly Smooth Start to Trump’s Trip

President Donald Trump’s first overseas trip is going well enough, so far. There have been none of the glaringly undiplomatic moments that some feared, some begrudging praise for his speech in Saudi Arabia from the erstwhile Republican foreign policy establishment, and it managed to push all those stories about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia off the front pages and top-of-the-hour reports for a weekend.
No president goes to the Middle East and without provoking some controversy, of course, and Trump was never going to be an exception to that rule. There was some relatively minor quibbling about his swaying along with an all-male sword dance that the Saudis like to do, as well as the usual nitpicking about protocol. Although the left was obliged to praise the First Lady and First Daughter for refusing to cover their hair according to local custom, they also came up with the inevitable past “tweets” by Trump criticizing Democratic visitors for doing the same. The right was mightily pleased that Trump didn’t bow to the Saudi king, as President Barack Obama was accused of doing when he stooped a bit too low to shake hands with the much shorter monarch, but the left delighted in pictures of Trump also leaning a bit to accept a golden medallion from his relatively diminutive host.
There are also the more substantive controversies about more substantive matters, of course. A much-ballyhooed speech to an audience that included several heads of Islamic states managed to avoid the “Islam hates us” and “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on” rhetoric, which was a relief to to his critics on the left but a disappoint to some of his supporters on the right. The speech was quite clear in its opposition to Iran’s regional and global ambitions, which played well on the right and especially well with his Sunni audience, but naturally upset those on the left that had grown accustomed to Obama’s Shiite tilt, and was worrisome to the centrist types who thinks it’s best that America not take either side in the bloody millennia-and-a-half-year-old schism. There was no mention of human rights in the speech, and instead a clear disclaimer that Trump had no intention of telling anyone how to deal with their internal affairs, which these days wins both praise and criticism from certain sections of both sides of the aisle.
The visit also saw the signing of a $110 billion defense deal with the Saudis for some very high-tech weaponry, but that was pretty much the same deal that the Obama administration had negotiated, so no one in either party seemed to have much to say about that. There was also some high-brow discussion about how Trump’s apparent support for authoritarian regimes so long as they suppress terrorism will address the root causes of terrorism, which are thought to include U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes suppressing all sorts of needed reform movements, but in all fairness no one on either the right or left or anywhere in between seems to have figured out what the hell is going on.
Trump’s trip moves on to Israel and the Vatican and Belgium and a G-7 meeting full of wary world leaders before he gets home, so there’s still plenty of potential for something glaringly undiplomatic to happen, but he’s got figure it’s going pretty well so far. If he can keep his thumbs away from a “twitter” machine he might even be able to keep that Russia thing with Trump and Russia on the inside pages and bottom-of-the-hour updates for a whole week, with the inevitable controversies being more easily ignored.

— Bud Norman

A Quick Response to a Quick Response

Just as we were sitting down to write about the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, the news came across the internet that President Donald Trump had ordered a launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base. The wisdom of America fighting in World War I is still a matter of heated debate a century later, so of course it’s far too soon to say how that missile strike will play out.
The potential consequences of such military actions are as numerous as the trillions of possible moves in a chess game, and finding the most promising line among them requires far more serious contemplation, but the decision was apparently made with some haste. On Tuesday the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on a village caught up in the country’s seven-year-old civil war and killed scores of innocent men, women, and children, and the Trump administration immediately condemned the atrocity and blamed in the past inaction of the administration of President Barack Obama. On Wednesday Trump told the press that he was personally affected by the footage of the gassed children, and that “It is now my responsibility.” On Thursday afternoon, the 59 or so missiles were launched against the same air base where the chemical attack originated. There are time pressures in both chess and geopolitics that sometimes force players to act quickly and intuitively, but at this point there’s no apparent reason those missiles had to be launched on Thursday.
That horrific Syrian civil war has been dragging on for more than seven years, after all, and Tuesday’s atrocity was by no means the first time that Assad has used chemical weapons. The Syrian air base and all those Tomahawk missiles would have still been there on Monday morning after a weekend of careful thought, which the situation seems to require. Trump was quite right that Obama’s failure to enforce the “red line” he had carelessly drawn over a previous chemical attack on innocents had emboldened Assad to do it again, even if Trump was “tweeting” advice not to do anything at the time, but that’s as much an argument for not drawing red lines as it for enforcing them. Trump is also quite right to regard the chemical attack as a humanitarian outrage and clear violation of international law, but so were the previous chemical attacks that Trump didn’t want to respond to and a Republican Congress eventually declined to authorize the use of military force to punish. There’s also an argument to made, and naturally some people are making it, that Trump’s announcement that the United States no longer sought regime change in Syria also emboldened Assad to undertake his latest atrocity.
This time around the situation is even more complicated. The Syrian regime is hanging on because of support from Iran, who Obama was eager to reach a friendly deal with and Trump has promised to strike a far harsher deal with, as well as the dictatorship in Russia, which both Obama and Trump have seemed all too eager to get along with for probably very different reasons. One of the Syrian regime’s most formidable enemies is the equally abhorrent and potentially more troublesome Islamic State, which Obama infamously dismissed as the “jay-vee team” of terrorism and Trump has promised to destroy, so there’s a tricky problem of trying to harm one without helping the other. Much of Syria is now controlled by Kurdish forces, who about the closest thing to good guys that you’ll find in the Middle East, and have been of much help in America’s complicated dealings with Iraq, but the Kurds are a problem for Turkey, which is also a problem but nonetheless a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and an occasional ally, and Trump once infamously confused them with Iran’s Quds Forces. At this point any rebels remotely resembling modern and democratic types have been pretty much wiped out, thanks to years of inaction, but a few hundred American servicemen are currently in Syria and probably on heightened security at the moment.
There’s certainly a case to be made that Tuesday’s chemical attack was so horrific it demanded an immediate muscular response, and some people are naturally making that case, but events will surely muddy the argument. The initial reports say that the Russians were given a heads-up on the attack and that care was taken not to bomb the Russian parts of that air base, so some care has been taken not to widen the conflict, but given the extremely complicated state of Russo-American relations at the moment it’s hard to say how that will pan out. By now most Americans don’t care much what that awful government in Iran thinks of all this, but for the past 38 years they haven’t seemed to care what Americans think. Americans have never cared much what the rest of the world thinks, either, but that usually winds up making some difference.
Meanwhile, back in the States, there will be political consequences that no one can possibly predict. Trump ran on promises to beef up America’s military might and criticisms of Obama’s weak-kneed foreign policy, but he also explicitly promised an “America First” foreign policy that would avoid the interventionism of the war-mongering neocon establishment that had fallen out of favor with many Republican primary voters and the Rust Belt Democrats who didn’t like Hillary Clinton. He stressed his eagerness to get along with Russia, accused President George W. Bush of lying the country into a Middle East war, lied blatantly about his past support for intervention in Iraq and his more full-throated support for the ill-fated Libyan war, and promised to spend all that war money on re-building America. The comments section at all the Trump-friendly news sources are full of griping by Trump supporters who don’t much care about anyone in Syria and feel betrayed by the missile strike, and we expect that all those Trump-friendly talk radio show hosts wish he’d at least given them a weekend to come up with a justification. It’s hard to see any Democrats siding with Trump on the issue, although they’ll have to add the usual tsk-tsking about Assad gassing those innocents, and unless this missile strike yields unexpectedly quick positive results we don’t see the usual rally-round-the-president sentiment happening.
Fifty or so Tomahawk missiles will hinder Assad’s military capabilities for a while, and might just force him to use conventional bombs rather than chemical weapons in his ongoing war, but unless the missiles keep coming for a while that probably won’t last long. Perhaps Chinese President Xi Jiping will be a bit more wary of Trump during the negotiations at the Mar-a-Lago resort today, but we don’t expect he’s worried that Trump will be lobbing any missiles at his country in the near future, and the nutcase running his client state in North Korea might feel all the more threatened. The strike might also prove to a masterstroke of geo-political 3-D chess playing, as Trump’s more smitten supporters always claim, even when talking about such obvious failures as the recent demise of his health care reform bill, but we’d be mighty impressed if he calculated all those possible combinations in such a short time.
Even after a hundred years people are still sorting out that whole World War I thing. Although we’re no fans of President Woodrow Wilson, and hate the way he used the war to suppress free speech and expand the administrative state and threw away a victory for utopian dreams of a global government, we were planning to write to that he didn’t have much choice but to enter the horrible fray. The alternative was a Europe and world dominated by German militarism and Ottoman theocracy, and the Germans were sinking American ships and waging a war of sabotage and trying to lure Mexico in a revanchist war on our border, and our alliances with Great Britain and France and the emerging democracies were on the line, and our involvement did hasten the end of what was then history’s bloodiest conflict. It’s also true that the war didn’t all wars, as Wilson had promised, and the resulting peace carved the Middle East into all the currently warring states, and Ireland was emboldened to start a bloody war with England that would last for decades, and sub-Saharan Africa wound up with decades of wars, and a not-fully-conquered Germany and an emboldened Japan and a Italy suddenly on the other side would start a far bloodier conflict just two decades later.
These things always take time to sort out, so we’ll reserve a final judgment on Trump’s missile strike. We do hope, though, that some time will be taken before the next military action.

— Bud Norman