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Credit Where Credit is Due

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has reportedly been killed by the American military, and although we never exult in the death of another human we must admit the world is better off without him. Baghdadi was the leader of the Islamic State, the radical Islamist State terror gang that bloodily reigned over a large swath of the Middle East until recently, and anything that hastens its demise is for the best.
President Donald Trump characteristically took most of the credit for how Baghdadi had “died like a dog,” although he also acknowledged the efforts of the troops who had actually carried out the dangerous mission, and we must begrudgingly admit he has done something right. We were always harsh critics of President Barack Obama, but begrudgingly gave him some of the credit for the necessary killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, so we’re obliged do the same for Trump.
We only gave Obama so much credit for the bin Laden hit, though, and would always roll our eyes when our Democratic friends boasted of how Obama had succeeded where President George W. Bush had failed, which seemed to us like bragging about how Nixon landed a man on the moon after Presidents Kennedy and Johnson had failed in the effort. These things take time, usually more time than any president has, and in the end presidents just give the go-ahead and take the credit for what was long planned before they took office.
Obama would have never been able to order the mission that killed bin-Laden if Bush hadn’t driven al-Qaeda from its base in Afghanistan, and redirected America’s intelligence and military and diplomatic power to the fight against radical Islamism, and whatever you think about how that’s worked out it did wind up with Obama taking credit for taking out bin-Laden and al-Qaeda not being in the news these days. The Islamic State wound up bloodily ruling a large swath of the Middle East in large part because of Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq, where they had mostly won a very unpopular Bush started, but by the end of second term Obama was gored to send a small number of troops to Syria to train and support and give air cover to some fierce and relatively democratic Kurdish fighters who were opposed to both the Islamic State and the Syrian dictatorship.
The strategy came to fruition during the Trump administration, with the Islamic State driven from its self-proclaimed Caliphate, albeit still intact as a terror organization with operatives all over Europe, and at that point Trump claimed all credit for the victory and decided to abandon our Kurdish allies to an invasion by the Kurd-hating turks, and let Turkey and the Syrian dictatorship and its Iranian and Russian allies work things out. Even a majority of the Republicans in Congress thought this a premature withdrawal and abandonment of America honor, with some comparing it to Obama’s blunder in Iraq, but Trump has at least gone back for long enough to take out Baghdadi.
He’ll surely be bragging about it until election day, if he gets there, just like Obama did with bin Laden, only far more so. Back then Trump “tweeted” a lot about how Obama was getting too much credit, and how any old president would have done the same thing. In one “tweet” he gave the credit to Admiral William McRaven, who meticulously verified bin Laden’s location and planned the mission, but these days McRaven is an outspoken critic of Tump’s foreign policy, so now we’re not sure who the hero might be.
With all due respect to both presidents for giving the order any old president would give, the deaths both of bin Laden and Baghdadi are only so big a deal. The murderous medieval ideology they championed remains a threat to peace and freedom on earth, and will require America’s careful thought and constant vigilance and occasionally violent engagements. Neither party seems up to that on a regular basis, but we figure they both have their moments.

— Bud Norman

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Trump Jumps the Shark

The folks who provide entertainment programming for television often use the expression “jump the shark,” which derives from the episode late in the last season of “Happy Days” when Fonzie ski-jumped over a tank of sharks, and it’s meant to convey when a show has run out of ideas and become completely ridiculous. On Thursday President Donald Trump’s long-running yet low-rated reality show arrived at its “jump the shark” moment.
On Tuesday Trump’s own heads of his own administration’s intelligence agencies testified under oath and camera before Congress about various national security issues, and differed with the president on matters ranging from Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs to China’s and Russia’s cyber-terrorism intentions to the remaining strength of the Islamic State to the need for a big beautiful wall along the entirety of the southern border. On Wednesday Trump “tweeted” that the men and women he had appointed to assure America’s safety were “passive and naive” and “wrong” and “should go back to school,” which was embarrassing enough. By Thursday Trump was telling an impromptu news conference that it was all “fake news,” as his chiefs had all assured him they were merely misquoted and were in fact entirely in agreement with him, and at that point President Fonzie looked likely to crash into the sharks.
Go right ahead and believe that the undeniably hostile-to-Trump news media overemphasized the intelligence agencies’ many disagreements with Trump, but if you think the Trump appointees were misquoted or taken out of context you can easily watch their full testimony from Congress’ own C-Span or any of the networks that covered it live, including Fox News. You can also read the intelligence agencies’ 42-page “Worldwide Threat Assessment” report at their own official “.gov” website, or request a copy from the Government Printing Office. It might all be a “deep state” conspiracy that created all the networks’ video footage with computer generated imagery, and then hacked into the government’s web domain and printing warehouses to plant that phony document, and is now coercing Trump’s appointees not to confirm his latest claims that their testimony was “fake news,” but if so the conspirators are so damned good that resistance is certainly futile.
Trump also told the “fake news” cameras that his border wall is currently being built, claimed credit for the portion build years before his administration near San Diego, and predicted that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would soon be humbly begging him to build a wall, and boasted of such successes that no one will care if he doesn’t get a wall built. The die-hard fans will buy all of it, but most of the rest of the country seems to be growing weary of the storyline.
For now all the hostile-to-Trump news media and all the late night comedy shows are having great fun with it, and we’re eager to hear what all the right-wing talk radio talkers and the rest of the obsequious-to-Trump news media have to say. On several occasions over the past many years Trump has asked his die-hard supporters to believe him rather than their lying eyes, and they’ve always been willing to do so, but this time the more reluctant supporters aren’t playing along.
Not only are Trump’s own appointees to head the national intelligence agencies stubbornly insisting on their clear-eyed assessments of the actual facts rather than Trump’s “alternative facts,” but so are several other members of his foreign policy-making team, as well as a decisive number of congressional Republicans. Trump boasted that he had wiped out the Islamic State when he announced a controversial decision to withdraw all American forces from Syria, but his Secretary of State and national security advisor seem to have talked him into to only a partial withdrawal, his intelligence agencies continue to warn that the Islamic State still poses a threat to America and its allies, and on Thursday Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and a majority of his Republican caucus joined in a 68-to-23 vote for a resolution rebuking Trump’s claims and announced policy on Syria.
A similar number of Senate Republicans have voted to protect a special counsel investigation into Russia’s cyber-meddling in America’s elections, which the intelligence agencies all agree is ongoing, despite Trump’s assurances that he’s been assured by the Russian dictator that it’s all a “witch hunt.” There seems a be a similar skepticism in the Senate about Trump’s boasts that he’s eliminated the nuclear threat from North Korea, or soon will, which the intelligence agencies also dispute. Based on the latest reports about the congressional negotiations underway to pass some sort of funding agreement to keep the government open for a while longer, the Republicans seem to agree with the intelligence agencies that big beautiful border wall isn’t such an urgent need as Trump insists.
The president probably has a more loyal following among the Republicans in the House of Representatives, but they’re a minority in that chamber, and Trump’s version of the truth is currently running into a great deal of resistance from his own party and own administration and the rest of the government. Worse yet, his reality show is jumping into the shark tank of actual reality.

— 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

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

Another Memorial Day

Today’s a good day for burgers and beer and goofing off and other great American things, but one should also aside a few moments of gratitude for the brave soldiers and sailors and airmen who make them possible. In hopes of helping, we’ll observe our tradition of re-posting an essay we first published back in ’12. It’s still all too true.

On a long walk through old and picturesque Riverside neighborhood of Wichita, Kansas, you might happen upon a small monument to the veterans of the Spanish-American War. Located on a tiny triangle of grass diving a street leading to Riverside Park, the memorial features a statue of a dashing young soldier armed with a rife and clad in the rakishly informal uniform of the era, a cannon captured from a Spanish ship, and a small plaque thanking all of the men who served America in that long ago conflict.
We always pause at the spot to enjoy the statue, an elegant bronze work that tarnished a fine emerald shade, and often to reflect on the Spanish-American War and the men who fought it. Sometimes we’ll wonder, too, about the men and women who honored those soldiers and sailors by building the small monument. The Spanish-American War had been one of the controversial ones, and the resulting bloodier war in the Philippines was still underway and being hotly debated at the time monument was installed, so we suspect it was intended as a political statement as well as an expression of gratitude, and the the monument builders had to endure the animosity of their isolationist neighbors.
We’ll also wonder, on occasion, how many passersby are surprised to learn from the monument that there ever was a Spanish-American War. The war last for only four months of 1898, and involved a relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors, so our current crop of history teachers might be inclined to give it only mention as a regrettable act of American colonialism before on to the more exciting tales of the ’60s protest movement or whatever it is they’re teaching these days. The world still feels the effects of those four months in 1898, when that relatively small number of American soldiers and sailors ended more than three centuries of Spanish colonial preeminence on the world state, and permanently altered, for better and worse, the the destinies of Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam, yet the whole affair is now largely forgotten.
If you keep walking past the park and across the Little Arkansas River toward the east bank of the Arkansas River, just beyond the Mid-America All-Indian Center and the giant Keeper of the Plains statue at the confluence of the rivers, you’ll find a series of similar monuments dedicated to the veterans of other wars. One features an old torpedo and honors the men who died aboard the S.S. El Dorado, “One of 57 submarines on eternal patrol,” during the Second World War. Another monument lists the names of the many local men who died serving in the Merchant Marines. An austere black marble plaque beneath an American flag is dedicated to all U.S. Marines. There’s a more elaborate area devoted to the veterans of the Korean War, with a statue, several flags, numerous plaques and a Korean gateway, which wasn’t erected until 2001, long after the controversies of the conflicted had subsided.
The veterans of the Vietnam War are honored with a touching statue of an American soldier standing next to a seated South Vietnamese soldier, which was donated by local Vietnamese-Americans as an expression of gratitude to everyone of all nationalities who tried to save their ancestral homeland from communism, and that won’t be formally dedicated until the Fourth of July. We hope the ceremony will be free of protestors, or any acrimony, but even at this late date the feelings engendered by that war remain strong. Some Americans veterans of the war have publicly complained about the include of a non-American soldiers in the veterans’ park, while some who opposed the war have privately grumbled about any monument to the Vietnam conflict at all. Both the memorial and the attending controversy serve as reminders that the effects of that war are still being felt, not just by the world but by individual human beings.
Walk a few more blocks toward the old Sedgwick County Courthouse and there’s a grand monument to the Wichita boys who went off to fight for the Union in the Civil War, featuring the kind of ornate but dignified statuary that Americans of the late 18th Century knew how to do so well, but a more moving memorial can be found over on Hillside Avenue in the Maple Grove Cemetery, where there’s a circle of well-kept graves marked by American flags and austere gravestones for the Wichita boys who didn’t come back. Throughout the city were are more plaques, statues, portraits, and other small markets to honor the men and women who have fought for this country, and of course a good many graves for fallen heroes in every cemetery. This city honors those who fight for its freedom and safety, and that is one reason we are proud to call it home.
There is no monument here to the brave men and women who have fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, and no memorial to those who died in those far-off lands, but there should be, and soon. Both wars, and especially the Iraq War, have been controversial, and any memorial will be perceived by some as a political statement rather than an expression of gratitude, but it is not too soon to honor those for fought for us. The effects of the wars will outlive all of us, and none of us will ever see their ultimate consequences, but there is reason to believe that the establishments of even tenuous democracies in the heart of the Islamic middle east and the defeats of Al-Qade and the Islamic State might yet prove a boon to humanity, and that faint hope is the reason those brave soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought and died there.
If we wait until the ill feelings subside, we might wait until the wars have been largely forgotten. In every city and town of the country there should be something that stands for those who gave their lives for American in even the most controversial wars, and it should be something that will stand for a century or more. Something that will cause the passersby of the 22nd Century to stop and reflect, and be grateful.

— Bud Norman

Gut Instincts and Complicated Situations

President Donald Trump promised on Monday that within 24 to 48 hours he will announce a “major decision” about the Syrian dictatorship’s recent chemical attack on its own citizens during that country’s long and bloody civil war. “Nothing is off the table,” Trump added, and he promised “It will be met, and met forcefully.”
So for the next 24 to 48 hours, if not much longer than that, one can only speculate what that forceful response will be. He’ll be getting advice from his newly-installed and third national security advisor, a recent Secretary of State, several brass-laden generals, and a United Nations ambassador who’s proved pretty savvy, but they’ll be laying out unsatisfactory options and Trump tends to go with his gut rather than expert advice. Trump’s gut is hard to predict in this case, because it’s a damned complicated situation.
The long and bloody war in Syria is being waged against the second-generation dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, which no decent person likes, but is backed by the military might of the Iranian theocracy, which no decent person likes, as well the mightier military of the Russian dictatorship, which even Trump is lately having second thoughts about. On the other hand, one of the various factions waging war against Assad is the Islamic State, the head-chopping and crucifying bunch that has supplanted al-Qaeda as the world’s most deranged Islamist terror gang, and no decent person likes them. There are other factions, too, including those plucky Iraqi Kurds who have sustained the sort of democracy that President George W. Bush envisioned when he launched the second Iraq War. You’ll even find some factions who purport to be fighting for something like modernity, although they seem to have the lesser hand.
You’ll also find a few thousand American troops in the mix, and they find themselves in an especially damned complicated situation. They were first sent there by President Barack Obama, whose incoherent foreign policy had once dismissed the Islamic State as the “JV team” of Islamist terrorism and praised Assad as a “reformer,” then went to a limited war against both, and they’re still there in the Trump administration’s incoherent foreign policy, which had boasted that it will soon pull all American troops out of the theater after their great victory over the Islamic State but is now promising a forceful response to the Assad dictatorship’s outrageous chemical attack on its own people. In both administrations American troops have clashed with both Assad and Islamic State forces, and it’s always been clear who they’ve been against, but never quite clear who they were for.
Even the simplest wars are complicated enough, but in this case all the political implications will be mind-boggling for Trump’s gut. He ran for president on the promise to be even more isolationist than Obama, and went far further in criticizing the Bush-eras of Republican foreign policy, but he also derided all of his presidential predecessors as a bunch of wimps who’d gone easy on Islamist terrorists and the Syrians and Iranians, even as he gave the Russians a pass, so it’s hard to say what his gut tells him now.
One of Obama’s most conspicuous and poll-damaging foreign policy fiascos was declaring a “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons and then failing to back it up after the Assad regime gassed its own people for a second generation, and Trump got bipartisan praise and a bump in the polls after he responded to another chemical attack with a relatively harmless cruise missile strike on Syrian airbase. That didn’t deter Assad and his allies from the most recent attack, though, not after Trump announced he would soon be pulling all American forces from the theater, and another missile strike might not have the same political effect.
Trump might choose to wage a more aggressive war against the Assad regime, then take all their oil, as he’s talked about, which would be as tough as he’s always promised to be, but it would also break his promises about being even less Bush-ian than Obama, and more recent promises about pulling all forces out of Syria. Waging a more aggressive war against the Assad regime entails a more aggressive war against the Iranians and Russians, and despite Trump’s tough talk his gut doesn’t seem to have the stomach for that. As for taking their oil, Syria actually doesn’t have much of it, and it would be a violation of the same Geneva Convention as Assad’s gas attack.
Diplomatic pressure could bring the world’s dislike of both the Assad dictatorship and it’s allies and what’s left of the Islamic State to inflict greater economic damage, but Trump also ran against international coalitions, and is lately threatening hardball negotiations with all our trading powers, so even that surprisingly strong UN ambassador is going to have a problem pulling that off.
Trump is rightly if pettily noting that all of his presidential predecessors failed to avert the damned complicated situation he finds himself in, and we have to admit it is a damned complicated situation. None of the available responses seem satisfactory, even if you leave Trump’s naked political self-interest out of the equation.
Any country’s chemical attack on its enemies, especially its people, is an affront to international law and human decency that cannot go unchallenged. Lobbing a few missiles at an empty air base won’t do much, though, and a war to effect regime change will entail all the things Trump criticized about the Bush years. That Obama-like promise to pull all American forces out is already proving problematic. All of which is further complicated, of course, by the ever expanding “Russia thing” here at home, which has lately required a harder administration stand against Russia.
The only thing we’ll bet on is that our erstwhile Kurdish and putatively pro-modernity allies will wind up losing, and that the outcome won’t be happy for anyone involved. Still, we’ll hope for the best.

— Bud Norman

On the Odd New Detente with the Damned Old Russkies

One of the foremost reasons we’ve long suspected that there’s something more to the “Russia thing” than a “WITCH HUNT!” is President Donald Trump’s undeniable Russophilia. It’s been apparent from the start and was once again on full display again Tuesday’s news.
Trump boastfully acknowledged to the press that during a president-to-dictator phone call the president congratulated the dictator on his landslide victory over the last unbanned-from-the-ballot opponent in an obviously phony-baloney race, and his press secretary acknowledged that he didn’t bring up any of that unpleasantness regarding the people that Russia quite clearly poisoned on the sovereign soil of our longtime ally Great Britain. Instead the president and the dictator focused on areas of possible agreement, according the press secretary, and the president himself called it a “very good call.” Certain Republicans and most Democrats were appalled, but no one should have been appalled.
During his unlikely presidential campaign Trump boasted of his close personal relationship with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and although he later denied any relationship with Putin at all he wound up predicting they’d eventually be good friends. He praised Putin’s “strong leadership” and reveled in similar compliments from the dictator, and scoffed at the emerging reports of Russian interference in the election, saying it was just as likely some obese fellow in his New Jersey bedroom. Trump denied that Russia had invaded Ukraine, then clarified that he meant Russia had indeed done so but only “in a sense.” Trump also touted the many advantages of a Russo-American alliance in dealing with such threats as the Syrian civil war and terrorism in general and Chinese trade or whatnot, and described the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance as “obsolete.” Even the erstwhile Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was taken aback when Trump defended Putin’s indisputable assassinations of journalists and political rivals by saying “We do plenty of killing here.”
As president Trump has mostly hewed to the same Russo-friendly foreign policy. He’s eventually conceded to all of his intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the Russian did meddle in the last election, but still figures some fat guy in Jersey might have also been in on it and show far has shown any little interest in doing anything about it. His aides, by now mostly fired or on their way out, at long last persuaded Trump to affirm America’s commitment to the NATO agreement, although he continued to castigate them all as freeloaders. He claims credit for the sanctions that even most the Republicans in Congress insisted on, but he took his own sweet time about it, and although his United Nations ambassador and recently-fired Secretary of State took strong stands on the Russkies poisoning people on British soil Trump hasn’t “tweeted” a thing about it.
Trump’s defenders point to the “dozens” or “near 200” Russkies killed by American forces during a recent skirmish in the war going on in Syria and Iraq, depending on which media reports you read, but the lieutenant general that was on the ground and in charge says they were mercenary forces not aligned with the Russian government and the American forces got permission to wipe them out from the frustrated Russkie command. They also note that war is going so quite swimmingly in defeating the Islamic State, the vilest villain in the conflict, but at this point it’s hard predict how American and Russian and that very odious Syrian dictatorship come out of it. They also note that Trump has been trumpeting a surge in military spending, but what should Russia care if it’s not about them? In the aftermath of that president-to-dictator phone call both Trump and his press secretary said the two heads of state of would soon met to discuss way ways to avoid an arms race.
The most benign explanation seems to be that for entirely disinterested reasons Trump truly admires Putin’s authoritarian rule, thinks our long trading and military partners are a bunch of freeloaders, and that however things turn out in Syria or elsewhere at least you don’t worry about the Islamic State anymore. It’s an openly held opinion on some of the far right message boards, and has slightly more carefully-worded apologists on talk radio and certain other conservative media, but that’s a hard sale these days. A small but significant percentage of Republicans are still standing on the same Cold War-era and Russo-phobic foreign policy ground that President Barack Obama ridiculed just just six short years ago, and all the Democrats seems to have suddenly found the same anti-Russian religion.
Given all the rest that’s going on in the “Russia thing,” it still looks suspicious to us. As we wondered back during the primaries, what the heck kind of Republican talks like that?

— Bud Norman

Another Round of Trumpian Distractions

American-backed forces have recently won a significant and potentially decisive victory against the Islamic State terror gang, the stock market is up and the rest of the numbers suggest the American economy has largely weathered all those hurricanes, and generally things could be worse. The smart move for an American president would be to act humble, let others to give him credit, then use the good will that’s been engendered to enlist allies in making things better yet, and not create any distractions, but that’s not President Donald Trump’s style.
Instead Trump has characteristically chosen to claim undue credit for the recent successes, further engendered ill will with his opponents by blaming them for recent failures, and provided his antagonists in the press with with plenty of distractions. He got off to a promising start Monday by appearing in a joint news conference with the Republican Senate majority, whom Trump has very publicly blamed for his the Republican party’s failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, among other legislative failures, and assuring the country their relationship has never been stronger. One of the questions inevitable questions from the reporters was about why Trump had gone 12 days without any public mention of four American servicemen who had died in combat in Niger, a little-known African country where few Americans were even aware that any American soldiers were in harm’s way there, and rather than frankly answering the question Trump chose to criticize all the previous presidents for failing to even write a letter or make a phone call to the families of fallen soldiers.
The Trump administration had to admit it hadn’t yet sent any of the letters they’ve written to the families of those fallen soldiers, nor made any consoling phone calls, while the past two administrations had officials testifying to the respect their presidents had paid, and so it proved another distraction. Trump specifically criticized President Barack Obama for failing to make a phone call to assuage the grief of Gen. John Kelly, Trump’s current chief of staff whose son had died in Afghanistan, but that didn’t help. Obama did give the Kelly family a seat of honor at a banquet honoring Gold Star families, Kelly has assiduously and admirably resisted anyone from letting his son’s death be used for anyone political purposes, and Trump still hasn’t answered why he let 12 days lapse before making any mention of the deaths of four American servicemen in a country most Americans didn’t even know we were at war.
Then you had Arizona’s Republican Sen. John McCain using the occasion of being awarded a National Constitutional Liberty Medal award to warn that “To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, and to abandon the ideas we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain the ‘last, best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is an unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to to the ash heap of history.” McCain carefully never mentioned Trump by name, but it was quite clear who he was talking about, and even Trump clearly understood.
Trump told some talk radio host that “People have to be careful, because at some point I fight back. I’m being very, very nice, but at some point I fight back, and it won’t be pretty.” Even Trump cannot deny that McCain heroically endured extra years of torture in a hellish North Vietnamese prisoner of war camp rather than abandon his men and hand the enemy a public relations victory, even if the draft-dodging president got away with saying “I like a guy who wasn’t caught, OK?,” so we doubt that McCain is much worried about what Trump might “tweet” about him as he struggles with terminal cancer. This looks to be another losing fight for Trump, except with his those staunch loyalists who still hate McCain for losing to Obama.
That big win against the Islamic State and the fairly healthy economy can plausibly be attributed to Trump, and there’s no denying he hasn’t yet hindered either effort, so we suggest he settle for that for now. Both represent mere incremental gains on on what has been happening for a while now, even during the hated Obama administration, and it seems best to engender that good will to make a lot of other things better.

— Bud Norman

Another Day at the White House Communications Office

Every single day these days seems to bring another story that the beleaguered souls at the White House communications have to somehow explain. The latest comes courtesy of that pesky Washington Post, which reports that President Donald Trump blabbed some top-secrets to those two Russian officials he met with last week.
The Post was palpably disappointed to concede there’s nothing at all illegal about that, as any president has the clear authority to declassify anything he wants, but they nonetheless made a strong case that it was damned stupid. They didn’t divulge much of what was shared, except that it had something to do with the Islamic State, and that it was something that had been passed along from an allied country’s intelligence agencies, which might not be pleased that it was then passed on the Russians. Respected national security advisor H.R. McMaster, who replaced the currently scandalized-because-of-Russia Michael Flynn on the job, said that the story “as reported, is false,” but a few hours later the Post made a strong case that the rest of his statement wasn’t nearly so definitive, except for a clear denial that Trump hadn’t revealed the foreign source of any information or how they might have got it.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer eventually “tweeted” that the story is “100 percent false,” but by now most people don’t regard him as any more trustworthy than The Washington Post, and all but the most stubbornly loyal Trump supporters will have to admit that it sounds like something he might do. By now the most stubbornly loyal Trump supporters say it was actually another masterstroke of diplomacy, ensuring the promised rapprochement with Russia that will defeat the Islamic State, but at the moment that’s a hard sell and being made only on the far fringes of the media.
That meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister came the very day after Trump fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation director who was leading an inquiry into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and the only media allowed in the meeting was a photographer from Tass, which everyone old enough to remember the Cold War knows is a Russian propaganda outlet, and the pictures showed Trump looking far more happy and friendly than in any of those more photographed moments with Germany’s Angela Merkel or Britain’s Theresa May or the other world leaders have that lately passed through Washington. The FBI firing and all the glaring mismatch between what the White House communications said and what the president himself said the next day on television had already carried a bad news cycle for Trump through the weekend, so Monday’s story in The Washington Post was surely a strain on those poor beleaguered souls at the White House communications office.
They’ll surely do their usual yeoman’s work muddying the waters, though, and as usual they’ll make some perfectly valid criticisms of that pesky press, which never does get these things 100 percent right. ¬†There’s something likely to be something else to come up today, though, and those poor beleaguered souls at the White House communications office aren’t the only ones dreading it.

— Bud Norman