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Choosing Between Scylla and Charybdis

There’s a very complicated situation in the Middle East, as always, and President Donald Trump is of course “tweeting” about it.
A drone attack destroyed much of a major Saudi Arabian oil field, and although a Yemeni rebel group that has been fighting a bloody defensive war with Saudi Arabia and is allied with Iran has claimed responsibility the State Department and America’s intelligence are blaming the Iranian government. Trump’s first “tweet” on the matter said “There is reason to believe we know the culprit, but are locked and loaded depending upon verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed.”
Trump’s “tweet” was characteristically hard to parse, but there was no mistaking a certain belligerence in its tone, as well as certain deference to the Saudis, who have concluded the Iranians are to blame, and Trump and his spokespeople have spent the past two days dialing that back. The Pentagon would reportedly prefer not to fight a war on Saudi Arabia’s behalf, even if the Saudis pay for it, as Trump has suggested, and Trump has repeatedly assured the news media that he does not want another war, although he continues to boast of how ready the military is to wage one.
Our best guess is that Trump genuinely wants to avoid any new Middle East wars. Trump ran as a peacenik, even going so far as to accuse President George W. Bush of lying America into a war with Iraq, a claim previously made only by the far left, and although he fancies himself a tough guy he takes even more pride in his dealmaking prowess, and a new war in the Middle East would be embarrassing. So far Trump hasn’t been able to keep his campaign promises to extract American forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, and critics will plausiblyblame his unilateral withdrawal from a nuclear treaty with Iran for provoking any conflict that might follow, and there will also be troublesome questions about why Trump seems so eager to do the bidding of Saudi Arabia’s awful government.
As Trump’s favorite Rolling Stones song says, though, you can’t always get what you want. The Iranian government is even more awful than Saudi Arabia’s, and Trump will not want to negotiate a new nuclear deal from a position of weakness. He also “tweeted” a grip that the “fake news” media had peddled the lie that he was willing to meet the Iranian dictatorship without any preconditions, which prompted all the networks except Fox News to gleefully replay all the videotape of Trump and his spokespeople repeatedly and explicitly saying he was willing to meet without any preconditions, so he clearly doesn’t want to be seen as an accommodationist.
The Iranians have become increasingly provocative since America reimposed economic sanctions, seizing commercial oil tankers and threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and shooting down an America drone in international air space, and if they continue to escalate their misbehavior even the most pacifist president will eventually have to do something about it. America can’t apply any more economic sanctions, as we’ve already cut off all trade with the regime, which so far hasn’t had the effect that was hoped for, and given Trump’s tenuous relations with the rest of the world he’s unlikely to recruit other countries to join the boycott.
Thanks to fracking and other new technologies America has produced enough energy to sustain its economy since the final years of President Barack Obama’s administration, with no thanks to either Obama or Trump, but oil is an internationally traded commodity and a blow to a major supplier such as Saudi Arabia will result in high prices at your local pump. The global economy was already slowing before the latest Middle East flare-up, in large part because of the global trade war Trump started, so a war would be very bad for everyone’s business, including Trump’s reelection campaign.
If the Iranians continue to impede the flow of oil and thereby cause a global crash that would also look bad. For now Trump finds himself in a damned-if-you and damned-if-you-don’t situation, he has no national security advisor and only an acting Secretary of Defense, he seems beholden for some reason or another to the Saudis, and so far his much bragged about gut instincts and dealmaking prowess haven’t proved impressive.
Here’s hoping it all works out somehow.

— Bud Norman

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Those Damned Democrats and Their Interminable Debates

Our brother and sister-in-law have been in town this week, and we’ve been spending time with them and our parents, but we’ve nonetheless been keeping up with the news. Our family is as weirdly obsessed with politics as we are, so we wound up spending much of Wednesday night together eating Schlotzsky’s sandwiches and watching the second episode of the second round of the Democrats’ presidential debates.
None of us were the debaters’ intended audience, so it was hard to assess who won. Our brother is willing to defend almost anything President Donald Trump does or says or “tweets,” our parents more reluctantly go along with most of it, although he did admit he didn’t like Trump trying to interfere with the Federal Reserves’ fiscal policies, and our sister-in-law is more reticent and circumspect and therefore seems our sort of old-fashioned Kansas Republican. as much as we dislike Trump we have to agree with all of them that these damned Democrats are arguably even worse. Every time we all found ourselves in agreement with any of the candidates we figured he or she was losing points with the more important audience of dumb-assed Democratic voters.
So far as we can tell the from the many press reports Tuesday night’s first episode of the second round of the debates had the same flavor of the little-known relatively center-left candidates warning about the far-left front-runners dragging the country into bankruptcy and even worse a loss to Trump. We’re holding out hope that one of those relatively center-left candidates will prevail, but given even our brother’s reluctant enthusiasm for a couple of them they probably stand no chance of a Democratic nomination.
Some Republicans out there are hoping the Democrats will go whole hog with the free this and free that and open borders and handcuffed law enforcement talk, figuring that even Trump could beat that, and they might just be right. It’s plausible enough that we’re warning all Democrat friends about it, but they don’t seem to be listening. Those Republicans who also desire the most far-left Democratic nominee should be careful what they wish for, though, as it’s not out of the question that he or she could beat Trump.
Trump’s got a very low unemployment rate and the usual low inflation rate and an economy that seems to be churning along at just below the 3 percent gross domestic product growth rate he’d promised, and while his best friend in North Korea is testing new nuclear missiles and his sworn enemies in Iran are doing the same no new wars have yet been started, so any Republican president who didn’t make a point of pissing many people off every day should be riding high in the polls. Trump is a different type of Republican president, though, and even the most recent Fox News poll shows that 47 percent of the public already wants to impeach him, with only 45 percent objecting to the idea. He’s not yet topped a 50 percent approval rating in any public opinion poll, including the infamously skewed Rasmussen Report, and he strikes us vulnerable to anyone the damned Democrats might come up with.
There are only two or three contenders in the Democratic field that we’d consider voting for, but that means they have no chance of getting the nomination, and yet there’s still no one so awful in field that we’d cast an affirmative vote for Trump. For the second presidential election in a row we’ll probably wind up throwing away our vote on some futile independent nominee running on what used to be the Republican platform, and we’ll let the rest of the country decide how badly things turn out.

— Bud Norman

“BoJo,” “Brexit,” and Trump

Over the past many decades there have often been intriguing similarities between America’s presidents and the United Kingdom’s prime ministers.
Prime Minister Winston Churchill was a conservative Tory and President Franklin Roosevelt a liberal Democrat, but both men came from aristocratic backgrounds and excellent educations and they shared an instinctive abhorrence of Nazism, and Churchill came to share the Cold War stage with President Dwight Eisenhower. Prime Minister Margaret “Iron Lady” Thatcher was an iconoclastic conservative Tory whose election paved the way for President Ronald Reagan’s equally iron-willed and controversial conservative Republicanism. Reagan was succeeded by the more cautiously conservative President George H.W. Bush at about the same time that was followed by Prime Minister John Major, a cautiously conservative tory with the same sort of establishment pedigree as his American counterpart. President Bill Clinton ended 12 years of Republican presidencies by promising a centrist “third way,” and he was soon joined by Prime Minister Tony Blair, who ended a long run of Tory residence at Number 10 Downing Street on a similar centrist platform.
Since then Republican presidents have sometimes had to get along with Labour Prime Ministers and Democrats have overlapped with Tories, but for the most part the Special Relationship persisted. Putatively Republican President Donald Trump often clashed with Tory Prime Minister Theresa May, who had a more refined style and didn’t share his nationalist instincts, but she’s lately been forced to resign, and will now be replaced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is about as close a copy of Trump as the United Kingdom can find.
Johnson has a longstanding reputation for making up facts that suit him and bluntly insulting anyone who disputes his version of the truth, he’s a Britain-first nationalist who shares Trump’s distrust of international alliances and institutions, he was born in New York City to a wealthy family, and he arguably has an even more ridiculous hair style than the American president. Trump had signaled he would have preferred the even more anti-European Union politician Nigel Farage, who campaigned for Trump during his presidential race, but we expect that he and Johnson will get along quite well at the upcoming economic summits.
Johnson first gained notice in Britain as a journalist, which is a marked contrast from Trump, but we think Trump would have liked his style. He was an anti-European Union crusader at a time when Britain’s entry into the economic alliance was a hotly debated issue. There were plenty of good reasons for Britain to retain its independence, including nosy regulations and open border policies and one-size-fits-all currency, but Johnson wasn’t satisfied with that and invented all sorts of fanciful tales about condom size regulations and other outrages, getting fired from the Times of London for falsifying a quote but later finding a home at the Tory-leaning Telegraph. He parlayed his popularity into eight controversial but not at all catastrophic years as Mayor of London, and then somehow wound in May’s cabinet as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
Britain’s limited involvement in the European Union remained a controversial issue, with the country eventually voting by a slim margin in a referendum to “Brexit” from the agreement. Negotiating the terms of the divorce proved difficult, however, and eventually brought an end to May’s prime ministership. The United Kingdom had wisely followed Thatcher’s advice to retain its Pound Sterling currency rather than accept the Euro that the poorer country’s were using to rack up ruinous debt and require huge bailouts, but it had agreed to accept some very stupid immigration rules and other annoying violations of its sovereignty, so there was ample reason to cut ties with the continent, but on the other hand EU membership also offered very lucrative free trade with the world’s third biggest economy. The EU naturally used that leverage to demand concessions that Johnson and Farage and Trump and other “hard Brexit” advocates resented, and May wound up resigning in frustration with her failure to please anyone.
Perhaps Johnson will have better luck with the negotiations, but the conventional wisdom of American and Fleet Street media is that he’ll have the same problems as May. His Conservative Party and the “Brexit” are both unpopular, Britain’s economy needs the EU more than the EU needs Britain, the country has lately been having its oil tankers seized and harassed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, a problem that will require North Atlantic Treaty Organization assistance, and much like Trump he’s widely regarded by the establishment types as a rank amateur who’s in over his ill-coiffed head. The anti-EU Trump has said he’ll reward Britain with a sweetheart trade deal if it makes a “Brexit,” but no matter how sweet it probably won’t be worth as much as free access to the far closer and nearly as large EU economy, and Johnson and Trump have some disagreements on matters ranging from the Iran nuclear deal to the importance of the NATO alliance.
Still, we wish “BoJo” and Trump the best of luck working it all out, as America and the United Kingdom have helped one another do ever since that unpleasantness back in 1812. In a couple of years there might a crazy left Democratic president and a crazy left Labourite prime minister who find themselves simpatico, and if so we’ll hold out work that doesn’t end badly.

— Bud Norman

Another Muddled Situation in the Middle East

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

— Bud Norman

The Very Early Presidential Polling

The world hasn’t yet revolved halfway through 2019, and the next presidential election isn’t until the 11th month of 2020, but all the political prognosticators are already busily prognosticating. We’ve seen far too many presidential elections to take any of it seriously, as pretty much every one of them turned out differently than what anybody expected at this early point in an election cycle, with the last time around being a perfect example.
Still, we can’t help noticing that despite his characteristic cocksureness President Donald Trump already seems nervous about his reelection chances.
Politico.com and then The New York Times reported that Trump’s own campaign polling shows him faring poorly against the leading Democratic candidates in several of the battleground states that narrowly handed him an electoral college victory, with the Times reporting that Trump had ordered his staff to lie about it, and Trump naturally responded that it was “fake news” fabricated by the “enemies of the people.” The American Broadcasting Company then reported it had copies of the internal polling which verified what the other media had released, and Trump’s campaign manager eventually admitted the numbers were real but insisted saying that it was data from three months ago and they they’d seen a dramatic shift in Trump’s favor since then, although he wouldn’t divulge the newer numbers. Over the weekend Trump fired his campaign pollsters, apparently for leaking the real unhappy numbers that Trump insisted the “fake news” had made up.
Throw in the facts that Trump won in 2016 with a mere 70,000 votes in four crucial states, all of which were within the pollsters’ margins or error, despite the losing the national popular vote by the three million million or so ballots that the pollsters predicted, and that no poll since has shown him within shouting distance of majority approval, except for the Rasmussen company that only surveys the oldsters who still have land line phones, which has never shown him over 50 percent, and we’re more inclined to believe the mostly reliable “fake news” rather than the constantly lying president. As of last March, at least, the president who promised his supporters they’d grow tired of winning seemed clearly to be losing.
Perhaps things have since turned around, as the president now claims, but he’s not releasing the updated numbers from the recently fired polling firm to back it up, and we can’t see what would have caused the claimed uptick in the polls. With the unemployment rate under 4 percent and the gross domestic product growing at an acceptably modest 3 percent rate or so Trump has rarely fallen under 40 percent in his approval ratings, but lately the economic data have been less rosy, and even a few congressional Republicans have timidly suggested that Trump’s trade wars with pretty much the entire world might have something to do with it. We haven’t yet entered any new wars, but his sworn enemies in Iran and the brutal North Korean dictator that Trump said he “fell in love” with are threatening them, and even a few congressional Republicans are expressing misgivings about how he’s handling that.
Last time around Trump had the good fortune to run against former First Lady and Senator and Secretary and presumptive first woman president Hillary Clinton, who was arguably the worst major party presidential candidate ever, but even then he lost the popular vote and barely squeaked out an electoral victory in a few states she foolishly neglected. Much of the public had doubts about the thrice-married and six-times bankrupt and constantly sued and tax cheating real-estate casino-and-real-estate mogul’s character and honesty, and Trump has done nothing since then to reassure them that he’s the Christian leader God has chosen him to make America great thing. Nor has Trump come through with any of those great deals with the Democrats and the rest of the world that he promised to Rust Belt centrists would revive their outdated economic models.
Trump has taken extraordinary and extra-legal measures to build a few more miles of the wall along the southern border that he promised, although he no longer claims that Mexico will happily pay for it, and he’s enforced our immigration policies as cruelly as possible, and he has taunting nicknames for all of his critics, so that will probably placate most of the die-hard fans. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem to have won many converts.
Next time around Trump might get lucky yet once again, on the other hand. The leaked polls show him losing by wide margins in those key states to former Delaware Senator and Vice President Joe Biden, who is a relatively mainstream politician compared to most of his 21 or so primary challengers, and currently enjoys a sizable lead in the primary race, but these damned Democrats are every bit as crazy as the damned Republicans, and we wouldn’t be surprised if the Donkey party chooses someone so far left they’re arguably worse than Trump. At our advanced age we can remember the election of ’72, when President Richard Nixon of all people won a huge popular and electoral landslide victory over the principled war hero but too-far-left Sen. George McGovern, which was shortly followed by Nixon resigning in disgrace as a result of the Watergate scandal. Although a lot has changed since then human nature has remained pretty much the same, and we can easily imagine something like that happening again.
We don’t much care for Biden, who is gaffe-prone and rightly called “Creepy Joe” by Trump for his behavior around women, even if he’s never grabbed any of them by the genitals, as Trump has bragged about doing. Nor do we much like any of the other Democrats, although that Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar seem somewhat acceptable to us, which probably dooms them in the Democratic primaries. Neither do we have any respect for President Donald Trump’s character or policies, and we can at least be sure that he’ll once again be our Republican party’s nominee for president.
We’d like to think that November of next year is a long time away, and that anything could happen in the meantime, but at our advanced age we know that it’s just a blink of the eye and human nature doesn’t much change.

— Bud Norman

The News on a Cold and Snowy Kansas Night

Kansas was cold and snowy on Tuesday, not to mention the ongoing official national state of emergency, so we hunkered down at home and read up on the latest news. None of it, alas, was the least bit warming.
We read all the way to the end of a very lengthy New York Times account of President Donald Trump’s long efforts to thwart the various investigations in his businesses and campaign and transition team and inaugural committee and administration, and found it all too believable. There’s bound to be something in such a long story that will eventually will require a correction, but the general gist of it, that Trump doesn’t like anybody asking questions he’d rather not answer, and is willing to resort to ruthless and arguably constitutional methods to stop it, by now seems undeniably true.
Over at The Washington Post there was a story that speculated Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats will be the next defenestrated administration official, and we hated to hear that. Coats was a longtime Senator from Indiana who served on the Senate’s intelligence committee, a former ambassador to Germany, and is widely considered one of the last of the wise old foreign policy hands who tried to restrain the Trump’s worst gut instincts. He’s joined with the rest of the intelligence community in publicly disagreeing with Trump’s dubious claims about North Korea and Iran and the Islamic State and the threat at America’s southern border, and Trump clearly does not like his advisors disagreeing with him, so the Post’s speculation seemed plausible enough.
None of which was quite so depressing as the damned weather, or a certain sense that there’s nothing to be done about any of it.
What the Trump critics call “obstruction of justice” the Trump apologists call “fighting back,” and even if that Times story had run as long as the history books that will eventually be written it wouldn’t have changed anybody’s mind. Trump fans don’t want answers to those pesky questions anymore than Trump does, and they also share the president’s preference for his set of facts about North Korea and Iran and the Islamic State and the threat at America’s southern border. Trump’s critics and more noisome administration officials seem to have more factual facts on their side, but lately that doesn’t seem to make much difference.
On the other hand the stock markets were slightly up, and local forecasts call for above-freezing highs temperatures in the coming days, and the sports pages had reports from baseball’s spring training. Spring always eventually arrives, and although that usually brings tornados and other severe weather to this part of our great country we’re always happy to see it.
The truth always eventually arrives, too, and we expect that despite the best efforts of Trump and his apologists we will someday read the results of all those various pesky investigations in lengthy news stories and even longer history books. Our guess is it will be the equivalent of a Kansas tornado on the great plains of American history, but that’s what it takes to get the lazy hazy crazy days of summer around here, and there’s nothing we can do about that.

— Bud Norman

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

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

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