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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

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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

A Big Blast in Afghanistan

America’s war in Afghanistan has dragging on for so long that by now most Americans have largely forgotten about it, but it was back in the news on Thursday with a literal bang. The Air Force dropped the Mother of All Bombs on an Islamic State encampment, and that’s not just Trumpian hyperbole but the actual nickname of the weapon.
The official moniker is Massive Ordinance Air Blast, but the initials naturally inspired the more apt term that all the military types apparently use. It weighs 22,000 pounds, packs a net explosive weight of 18,700 pounds, and is said to be the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever deployed in the long history of war. That’s still probably insufficient to bring a conclusion to what is already America’s longest-running military conflict, but surely enough to have a literal impact on the Islamic State.
Such serious ordinance suggests a renewed American seriousness about the Afghanistan war, and the broader war on terror, so even if it doesn’t serve any broader military strategy that’s good enough for us. There can be no pity for the Islamic State savages that the bomb fell on, who are just one of the problems we face in Afghanistan but a bigger threat in Iraq and Syria and all the places around the globe where they’ve pulled off terror attacks, and it’s hard to pass up such a golden opportunity to eliminate so many of them in one fell swoop. Although the Islamic State usually embeds itself in civilian areas the target was carelessly free of any non-combatants, and the Russians and Iranians and Sunni Arabs and other players that make fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria so complicated don’t care about godforsaken and mostly oil-free and perpetually troublesome Afghanistan, and that big bomb had been sitting around in a warehouse for years with no good reason not to use it. A 22,000 pound bomb can’t be launched from even an almighty B-52 or placed atop even the most powerful missiles and instead has to be pushed out of a cargo plane, meaning it’s only useful against enemies who lack even World War II-vintage anti-aircraft systems, so that’s another reason to grab the rare chance to try it out on the likes of the Islamic State.
Coming shortly after the 59 Tomahawk missiles that were launched at an airbase in the trickier Syrian terrain, it also sends a potentially useful signal of resolve. President Donald Trump’s administration has since sent mixed signals about that Syrian strike, with the Secretary of State warning that anybody who murders young children anywhere in the world can expect more of the same and the White House Press Secretary stressing that what the president had said just a days before about not being the policeman of the world still applied, and those more conventional bombs don’t seem to have stopped that airbase from launching it’s own conventional bombs in its long-running civil war, but the message with the Mother of All Bombs probably won’t be so muddied. Although the Syrian strike eked out a 51 percent approval ratings in the first poll, there was also heated criticism from both the peacenik left and the isolationist right, as well as principled constitutional conservatives who had insisted that President Barack Obama seek congressional approval for such an action and the sorts of intellectually honest liberals who had to admit they had defended Obama’s inaction. Trump himself had also urged inaction at the time, and “tweeted” the missiles strikes were only used to prop up sagging poll number, and plenty of others on both left and right proved just as flip-floppy, and there’s no telling where they might all flip and flop to next.
What just happened in Afghanistan is a whole lot simpler, though, in military as well as domestic and international politics terms. America went to war in Afghanistan because that is where the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were launched, and similar intolerable acts were still being planned, and not just President George W. Bush but also future Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the United Nations Security Council and the leaders of pretty much every decent democratic nation agreed that was sufficient reason to wage war there. Since then there’s been plenty of argument about how it should be fought, although the troop levels and casualty rates have lately been so low you wouldn’t have noticed it during the past campaign, but even after so many years there’s still a bipartisan consensus that America remains entitled to drop any old bomb on that troublesome land that it chooses.
Trump’s action was still empowered by the military authorization that bipartisan majorities granted way back when it all started, too, so there’s no trouble with the argument that critics on both the left and right are raising about the constitutionality of that Syrian strike, and it’s not the same betrayal of his isolationist campaign rhetoric, which also included explicit promises to bomb the barnyard epithet out of the Islamic State. The Russians still want nothing to do with Afghanistan ever again, the Syrians and Iranians and their Sunni antagonists have little reason to care, the United Nations and all the decent democratic nations have more pressing concerns, and the Democrats have better fights to pick, so we can hope that he’s taking advantage of a rare opportunity take care of some business in Afghanistan. Should Trump administration articulate how it’s serving some broader strategic purpose, which it very well might, that would also be nice.
There’s really no getting out of Afghanistan until we leave a country that’s unlikely to ever try anything like Sept. 11 again, and even that low bar seems awful high for a long time to come, and unlikely to be achieved even with the Mother of All Bombs, but with low troop levels and relative-to-the-history-of-war low casualties America has kept the country’s long history of hate from infecting the rest of the world for the past 16 years or so. Such small victories aren’t satisfying to any American, and especially to such accustomed-to-winning-big-league types as Trump, but that’s how the score is kept in a season that’s arguably been lasting the Seventh Century or so.
Dropping that Mother of All Bombs on a remote and conveniently civilian-free camp full of murderous Islamic State thugs during a unique opportunity to do so was a good idea, and kudos to the generals who came up with it and the president who listened to them, despite his campaign promise that he knew more about the Islamic State than the generals did. We’ll count it as one of those small victories in a long, long war, and faintly hope that Trump will settle for that claim.

— Bud Norman

From Russia, With Love

President-elect Donald Trump has peddled conspiracy theories about President George W. Bush lying America into a war, President Barack Obama being born in Kenya, and the father of would-be president and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz being in on the Kennedy assassination, and many of his more fervent supporters are currently convinced that despite her deathly illness former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and would-be first woman president Hillary Clinton somehow finds the energy to run a satanic child sex ring in the back room of a pizzeria, so we’ll come right out and admit to a sneaking suspicion that there’s something fishy going on between Trump and the Russkies.
Our first sniff of a certain malodor came way back when Trump was still considered a long shot in the Republican primary, and he exchanged such fulsome praise with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin that it bordered on the homo-erotic. He later fired his first campaign manager and replaced him with a fellow who had substantial business dealings with Russia, and added a foreign policy advisor with similar ties, and then there were the resurrected quotes from Trump’s son about how the family business was heavily invested in Russia, and Trump’s own claims on national television that Russia would never invade Ukraine, and that you could write it down, and that it wouldn’t necessarily be a big deal even if they did, which of course they already had done. He also publicly urged Russia to release whatever e-mails they had hacked from Clinton’s scandalously unsecured server, although he later claimed it was meant facetiously, and when the e-mails from her party’s and her campaign manager’s accounts surfaced and started a bad a news cycle that culminated in all those rumors of a satanic child sex ring in the back of a pizzeria he scoffed at the very idea that the Russians might have had anything to do with it, even though it did seem plausible.
Trump wound up firing that campaign manager with the Russian business ties after they were widely reported, but since his election he’s chosen a national security advisor who has travelled to Moscow to dine with Putin and appear on the regime’s propaganda television network and otherwise seems to have a certain affinity for Russia, and his reported but as-yet-unannounced choice for Secretary of State is a former Exxon chief executive officer who negotiated a $500 billion deal with Putin’s kleptocracy in 2011 and was awarded Russia’s “Order of Friendship” a year later. Now the Obama administration and The New York Times and The Washington Post are all reporting that Russians were indeed responsible for the hacked and leaked e-mails, and that Republican e-mails were also hacked but not leaked, and Trump is once again scoffing at the very idea the idea the Russians might have had anything to do with, even though it now seems all the more plausible.
There might be some innocent explanation for all of this, and the more pro-Trump sorts of publications have already concocted several.
One theory holds that the late-breaking bad news cycle engendered by those leaked e-mails didn’t sway any voters anyway, which is also plausible, but they surely didn’t do the Democratic ticket any good and given how very close the race was in three states that swung the electoral college victory it’s plausible as well that they did make a difference. There’s an adjunct theory that even if the Russians did hack the Republican party they didn’t find anything worth leaking, but that doesn’t seem at all plausible. In any case, it’s hard to build a convincing case that Americans and their president-elect shouldn’t be concerned about even ineffectual interference in an American election.
Another theory, offered by Trump himself, is that you just can’t believe anything you hear from America’s so-called “intelligence community.” In a characteristically defiant television interview, Trump noted these were “the same people” who told Bush that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction during the lead-up to the America’s invasion of that country, which Trump had previously insisted Bush somehow knew was not true, and that he regards it all as a Democrat-controlled attempt to undermine him. He’s already announced that he doesn’t want to be bothered with daily intelligence briefings, making us nostalgic for all the talk radio outrage about reports that Obama was skipping them way back when, and leading us to wonder where he does get his information about the world. Trump has praised “InfoWars” for its “awesome reputation,” and he recommended The National Enquirer for a Pulitzer Prize, and their track records are even worse than that of America’s “intelligence community.” Perhaps Trump has his own high-tech global counter-intelligence operation like all the jet-setting international playboy billionaire villains in the James Bonds movies, which we admit would be pretty cool, but we also can’t shake a certain suspicion that he’s just going with his gut and the latest “tweet” he saw and his own naked self-interest.
Sooner or later will come the theory, already percolating in the comments sections of countless news reports and bubbling just between the lines of the official statements, that an alliance with Russia is best for America and who better to negotiate it than the savvy businessmen who have already swung such profitable deals with our former adversary. All through the campaign Trump was talking about aligning with Russia to defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, even though Russia was already aligned with the odious dictatorship in Syria and mostly devoted to defeating the more secular rebels rather than the Islamic State. Syria is more or less a puppet state of Iran, whose nuclear ambitions Trump promised to thwart by scuttling Obama’s loophole-ridden deal that country’s terror-sponsoring theocracy, and Russia is currently aligned with Iran, but we’re sure the theorists will eventually explain how that works out.
From our admittedly old-fashioned Republican perspective, it doesn’t seem plausible. After a Cold War childhood we remain instinctively suspicious of the Russkies, and remain appalled by how they deny their citizens basic rights, and we stand steadfastly against their recent revanchism in Ukraine and the bullying of their bullying of other neighbors and their meddling in the Middle East on behalf of its most dangerous regimes, and we can’t see how the economic benefits of a partnership with a moribund economy and dwindling population and a strongman dictatorship will outweigh such considerations as the survival of free societies in Europe and the Middle East and elsewhere.
We’d like to think that Trump’s oft-stated affinity for strongman dictatorships explains his rapprochement with Russia, and not some economic benefit he might accrue from the partnership, and we surely look forward to his tax returns and other financial disclosures and plenty of congressional investigations that would clearly disprove any such notion, but in age when Ted Cruz’s dad was probably in on the Kennedy assassination and Hillary Clinton is still getting around well enough to run a satanic child sex ring in the back of a pizzeria there will always be a nagging suspicion. Enough of the old Cold War-era Republicans are still around still around in the Senate and even the House to perhaps allow for a congressional investigation, and we wish them well, even if it does wind up with only more conspiracy theories

— Bud Norman

The Latest Round of Terrorism and the Race

The past weekend was another bloody one in radical Islam’s ongoing war against America and the rest of the western world, with three more apparent terrorist attacks occurring in a St. Cloud, Minnesota, shopping mall, along a charity foot race route in New Jersey, and in the fashionable Chelsea neighborhood of New York City. No one was killed but dozens were seriously injured, and although one suspect has been arrested in both the New Jersey and New York incidents there’s not yet any link to the Minneapolis attacks and no definitive evidence that any of it is tied to international groups, but it’s all the scarier to contemplate that these sorts of things are just popping up spontaneously.
The Islamic State, or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant or if you prefer to use the ISIS and ISIL initials that omit the word “Islamic,” has claimed credit for the guy dressed in a security guard’s garb who started attacking unsuspecting shoppers at the Minneapolis mall and stabbed nine people before being killed by an armed off-duty police officer who luckily happened to be shopping there. That guy was named Dahir Adan, a member of the greater Minneapolis area’s large Somali-American population that was relocated there from their war torn land, and while it’s not yet clear if the Islamic State or whatever initials you want to call it are merely trying to take credit it does seem clear that he was sympathetic to their Islamic supremacist views. Meanwhile the guy being accused of setting off those pressure-cooker bombs in New Jersey and New York is named Ahmad Khan Ramani, a naturalized American citizen born in Afghanistan, and although no one is currently claiming any credit for his atrocities his friends are telling the press that he’s been noticeably more religious since a trip to his ancestral homeland. Even the most polite of those press seemed to acknowledge that radical Islam and its ongoing war against America and the rest of the west might well have had something to do with it.
All of which, of course, leads us to the more pressing matter of presidential politics.
While the stereotypically Democratic governor of Minnesota went into the usual recitations about Islam being a religion of peace, and the Democratic governor of New York and the Republican governor of New Jersey were being just slightly more frank, and the administration of Democratic President Barack Barack Obama was emphasizing how there’s yet not definitive link to any broader plots, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton was at least calling for “tough vetting” of immigrants from lands where the more radical sort of Islam prevails. Such cynical sorts as ourselves note traces of her former president husband’s successful “triangulation” strategy of taking a slightly less extreme version of the Republican nominee’s more popular stands, in this case Republican nominee Donald J. Trump’s policy of “extreme vetting,” and of course she added the stereotypical Democratic asides about blaming Islam per se for the more radical interpretations of the faith, but we glumly suspect that some portion of the voting public will find it an acceptable balance.
Meanwhile the Republican nominee was taking a much tougher approach, telling his friends on the Fox News Network’s “Fox and Friends” that “We’re going to do something extremely tough over there, like knock the hell out of them. And we have to get everybody together and we have to lead them to a change because we’re not knocking them, we’re hitting them every once in a while, we’re hitting them in certain places, we’re being very gentle about it, we’re going to have to be very tough.” Which we suspect some portion of the voting public will find very reassuring, but such cynical sorts as ourselves wonder how knocking them over there will affect what’s happening so frequently here, and how it squares with the more placidly isolationist policies that he has advocated for elsewhere in all this mess, and whether either of them mean a word of it.
Before the wounds of the weekend’s victims were even treated, the Republican nominee was was once again congratulating himself for having “called it” and the Democratic nominee was alleging that the difference between “tough vetting” and “extreme vetting” was fueling Islamic radicalism, and both were making claims about the other that some portion of the public will likely find persuasive. Such cynical sorts as ourselves took a day to say a prayer for those victims, and offer a plea that America somehow and for some reason still enjoy God’s blessings.

— Bud Norman

Your Candidates For Commander-in-Chief, Alas

While President Barack Obama was making another stop on his diplomatic trip to the Far East Wednesday, his would-be successors were appearing on the MSNBC cable network’s “Commander in Chief Forum,” with both spending a half-hour or so answering a series of questions about defense and foreign policy from the National Broadcasting Company’s Matt Lauer and selected members of a an audience comprised mostly of military veterans. None of it, needless to say, was at all reassuring.
A dear friend’s 70th birthday party and a principled lack of cable access kept us from watching the event live, but thanks to the modern miracle of YouTube we were able to watch all the grilling of both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, and without commercial interruption at that. We can’t recommend you do, though, as the lack of direct confrontation between the candidates made for rather dreary viewing.
An unfavorable coin toss determined that Clinton would be given the first half-hour, ending that remarkable 6-for-6 coin-flipping streak that helped her win the Iowa caucus, and her bad luck didn’t end there. She had a well-crafted introductory statement about her long experience in foreign affairs as a First Lady and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Secretary of State, and how it has honed her judgment, but that just walked right into Lauer’s first question about that unindexed and yet ongoing e-mail scandal of hers. She had a well-rehearsed answer acknowledging that it had been a mistake to use a private server for many of e-mail communications, insisted she had used only the government server for anything with a “header” indicating it was classified. She clearly hoped that no one would know that much classifiable information was coming to her attention before it could be classified, and that someone with better judgment would have treated it as such, and that there are plenty of other holes in her story. Alas, the next audience member was an Air Force veteran whose work had required security clearances, and who was convinced that he would have been jailed for the actions Clinton has now admitted, so she had to run through yet another variation on the same unconvincing lines.
Lauer then asked about Clinton’s vote as a senator in favor of the Iraq War, which is by now such an unpopular affair that the Republican nominee is bragging that he had always opposed it and that George W. Bush had lied the country into the mess. Clinton once again apologized for the vote, and rightly noted that Trump’s claims to have been opposed all along are completely baseless, then made a plausible argument that her willingness to admit and learn from mistakes has improved her judgment. Although still on the defensive she seemed to be punching back at that point, but the next question was about that awful deal the Obama administration struck with the Iranians on their nuclear weapons programs.
Clinton first noted about how she had worked to impose harsh sanctions on the Iranian government, without acknowledging that the sanctions had begun under the previous administration, then boasted that had succeeded in forcing Iran to the negotiating table. Given the worse-than-Nevill-Chamberlain sort of appeasement that resulted from the negotiations this hardly seems a success, but at least the worst of the deal was finalized by her successor as Secretary of State. She’ll be very tough in enforcing that awful package of appeasement, Clinton assured the audience, and she also talked tough about Iran’s many other outrages, and we had a certain sense that she was trying to put at least some distance between herself and the Obama administration.
There was also talk about the sorry state of the Veterans Administration, which Clinton can’t be readily blamed for and which she seemed plenty outraged about, and when asked to explain her policy toward the Islamic State “as briefly as you can” she sounded very hawkish even as she promised there would be no ground troops in either Iraq or Syria. She also talked about going after Islamic State leader Bagu al-Baghdadi, “just like we did with Osama bin Laden,” reminding the audience of the Obama administration’s biggest hit of the past seven-and-a-half-years, and finished with a vow to be tough on terrorism but making no promises to prevent it altogether.
Even Trump’s most media-averse admirers would be hard pressed to find fault with Lauer’s performance, which kept Clinton on the defensive through most of the interview. A more thorough interrogation about the e-mails would have required the hours that Republican congressional investigations spent on the matter, so we’ll also give Lauer some reluctant credit for compressing it into a few challenges about her most outrageous claims. Even Clinton’s most die-hard detractors would have to admit that she seemed quite feisty in her defense, however, with none of the coughing fits or fatigue or seizures or other afflictions that have lately been talked about all over the internet, and unless you’re already well aware of what she was talking there were no takeaway gaffes. We imagine that her most avid fans were well pleased with the performance, that her most disdainful detractors were not at all swayed, and that anyone in the undecided ranks would be waiting to hear what the Republican might say.
What the Republican had to say was hard to parse, as usual, but so far as we can tell it boiled down to him saying that everything was going to be great with him in charge, believe him. Asked what experiences he had to demonstrate the judgment to run America’s foreign he mentioned his vast business empire, which includes deals in countries overseas, some of which of are really taking advantage of the rest of the United States, believe him, so surely he could tell when it was necessary to put American military lives in harm’s way. He reiterated his lie that he was speaking out against the Iraq War before it was launched, citing an interview in GQ magazine that appeared about a year into the war as proof, and added that the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq was also a “total disaster.” Trump was asked about his well-known propensity to say outrageous things, and his own recent admission that he has occasionally chosen wrong words, and how that might affect his performance as a head of state, and Trump went on about how certain wrong words were needed to defeat all those more qualified Republican candidates that stood in his way to the nomination. He then mentioned his recent trip to Mexico, where he was respectfully greeted with diplomatic protocol and didn’t say anything to get him kicked out, then bragged that the trip had been so successful that some Mexican official who arranged the trip was fired due to the Mexican public’s ensuing outrage over the invitation.
Lauer revived an old Trump quote claiming to know more about the Islamic State than the American military’s generals did, and Trump noted that the generals have no been successful thus far, although he blamed Obama and Secretaries of State Clinton and John Kerry for the failure, and that there might well be an entirely different group of generals he’ll be dealing with that, and that they’ll be the types who won’t have MacArthur and Patton spinning in their graves. He even suggested that his secret plan for defeating the Islamic State will await the 30 days he’s giving the generals to come up with their own plan, and that their might might even be incorporated into his secret plan, but in any case it’s going to be a great plan, believe him.
Whatever that plan might turn out to be, be assured that if it amounts to any military action at all it’s going to include plenty of old-fashioned plunder. Trump has embraced the far-left’s chants about “Bush lied, people died,” but he clearly has no use for that “No blood for oil” slogan, and explained that “I’ve always said we shouldn’t be in there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil.” At this point Lauer made a rare interruption to ask how that might be accomplished, and Trump acknowledged that some people would be “left behind” to get the job done, and Lauer didn’t ask how many of these people there would be, or how many soldiers and airmen would be needed to protect them, much less the many hundreds of miles of pipelines and supply lines need for the project, not to mention the fallout from the inevitable worldwide outrage over the planet’s mightiest military power claiming waging openly proclaimed wars of plunder.
A woman who was introduced as a Democrat and a graduate of the first West Point class to include women got to ask a question about illegal immigrants being allowed in the military, seeming to favor the idea herself, and she got a big hand for that first woman West Pointer distinction, and with his usual keen sense of the crowd Trump said he would work with that. The next questions were about Russia, though, and not so easily handled.
Whatever concerns the people of Mexico or those unfortunate oil-rich lands currently held by the Islamic State might have about a Trump administration, the future of Russo-American relations look rosy indeed, believe him. Trump once again confidently predicted he would have “a good relationship with Putin, and a very good relationship with Russia,” again promised that “as long as he says good things about me, I’ll say good things about him,” protested an interjection by Lauer about the likelihood that Putin’s government hacked the Democratic National Committee by saying “nobody knows that for a fact,” lamented that Obama and Putin were photographed exchanging icy stares during the Group of 20 summit, and seemed sure he’d get a more respectful Air Force One greeting from the Russians than Obama got from the Chinese. Trump suggested a possible alliance with the Russians against the Islamic State, made no mention of Russia’s aggression in Georgia and the Ukraine and threats against much of the rest of the former Soviet empire, and when asked about such issues he said “it’s possible” that Putin will abandon his revanchist ambitions in the event of a Trump administration.
Trump was also asked about the VA, a problem he also cannot be credibly blamed for and is plenty outraged about, and he offered what seemed a sensible idea of providing vouchers for veterans to seek care in the private sector when waiting lines at the government-run doctor’s office became dangerously long. Clinton had scored some points with the veterans by opposing “privatization,” which according to the polls even scares veterans in this day and age, and we note that Trump took pains to insist his plan wasn’t “privatization.” We’d prefer a capitalist-minded Republican who’d embrace the term and make the compelling case for it, and there’s no better case to be made for it than government-run health care, but these days that’s too much to ask for. One of the last questions was about the large number of sexual-harassment charges being alleged in the military, and Trump was reminded of a “tweet” that read “What did these geniuses think when they put men and women together?,” and he defended it by saying “Many people say that.” He added that it was necessary to keep the military court system, and then later that we need to establish a military court system, and he did come out forthrightly in favor of imposing consequences for sexual assaults.
Lauer’s now being pilloried by the left for failing to press Trump on many of these statements, but from our never-Trump perspective on the right we’ll grudgingly concede that it would have been awful hard to compress all the questions into a mere half-hour. With about two-thirds of Clinton’s interview spent on the defensive we’ll have to kick our feet against the sand and lower our heads and say it seemed fair enough, all in all, and that the candidates had only themselves to blame.
Trump probably came out of it slightly better than even, poll-wise. Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters got the the “take their oil” rhetoric they’ve come to expect, while Trump’s most die-hard opponents will glumly concede that at least he didn’t repeat his talk about the indiscriminate torture of detainees and the killing of their civilian relatives and the neo-con overreach of the past 16 years of American foreign policy, and the sensitive souls of the Huffington Post were even worried that might have seem slightly presidential to those who can’t spare the time to think through the implications of that “take their oil” policy. Most of Trump’s most disdainful opponents won’t bother with that, either, but in any case they’ll not be swayed.
Clinton and Trump will face each other head-to-head later this month, unless Clinton succumbs to fatal illness or Trump finds some scheduling or moderator issue as an excuse to dodge it, depending on which internet rumors you prefer to believer, and that might be more fun. At this point, though, we don’t expect it will be any more reassuring.

— Bud Norman

A Dreary Look at the Latest Standings

Around this time of every year two of our daily news-reading rituals are checking in on the Major League Baseball standings, with a particular eye on where The New York Yankees stand in the American League’s eastern division, and a similarly quick glance at the essential Real Clear Politics internet sites’ widely watched averages of all the political polls, usually with an even more fervent rooting interest in how the Republican candidates are faring. During this recently hot and humid and stormy early summer, both have been rather dreary chores.
At the moment our Yankees are a couple of games under .500 and tied for last place in their division, even if they’re still within shouting distance of their rather mediocre rivals and there’s plenty of season of left before the Fall Classic, but their in-the-red run differential proves they’ve been eking out their wins and getting blown out in their more numerous losses and after a full third of the season we’ve yet to find anything in all the statistics that inspires much hope for their championship chances. Meanwhile the Republican party’s presumptive presidential nominee is also behind but within shouting distance if not within the margin-of-error of the Democratic party’s worse-than-mediocre presumptive presidential nominee in the aggregate of all the polls, and there’s also plenty of season left in that game, but the obsessive sort of sports fan who delves deeper into the numbers will find few championship hopes.
Not only do the latest data show Donald J. Trump losing to Hillary Clinton by 5.8 percentage points, but the same poll he used to lavishly praise when it routinely and correctly showed him in the lead in the Republican primary races now has him losing by a landslide 12 percentage points, another poll that has so far proved prescient has a whopping 70 percent of the country regarding him unfavorably and a more-than-decisive 55 percent saying they’d never vote for him, which exceeds even the unusually high disapproval of his worse-than-mediocre rival, the electoral map is more daunting yet, and although Trump is within shouting distance in some big swing states he’s somehow in trouble in such small but reliably Republican states as Utah and Kansas. Worse yet, these numbers come after what should have been a good week for Trump.

The big story of the past week has been the mass murder of 50 people and the serious wounding of many more at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub by a nutcase Islamist who had phoned in his fealty to the nutcase Islamic State before committing his slaughter, and as horrific as it was we’d have expected any old presumptive Republican nominee to get a bump from it. Another all-too-common mass slaughter on American soil by and Islamist nutcase and tied directly to the nutcase Islamic State was once again weakly addressed by a Democratic administration that seemed more offended by the Republican nominee than the mass-murderer and was reduced to angrily explaining why it won’t use the term “radical Islamic terrorism” and had not so long dismissed the Islamic State that arose in the aftermath of its premature withdrawal from Iraq as “jayvee team” of terrorism, and although the presumptive Democratic nominee felt obliged to tell the press she was “happy” to call it radical Islamic terrorism it should have been a good week for any presumptive Republican nominee. During this hot and humid and stormy early summer, though, the presumptive Republican nominee seems to have lost this gimme game to his worse-than-mediocre rivals.
Maybe it’s the way his immediately “tweeted” response was to congratulate himself for having predicted another terrorist attack on American soil rather than offering thoughts and prayers to the victims and their loved ones, as if it would require some sort of Nostradamus to make such a prophecy, or the way he immediately pandered to the homosexual community that had been targeted in the murders and using the cacophonous neologism “bigly” in the process, or that his past stands on the Islamic State have ranged from bombing the barnyard epithet against them and sending in up to 30,000 ground troops to outsourcing the problem that alluringly strong Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, or the way he failed to make case the case that Obama’s policies and had led to the tragedy and instead said something in his typically un-parsable English that allowed to press to plausibly characterize it as yet another of his frequent bizarre conspiracy theories, but in any case Trump seems to have fared more badly in the polls than even the worse-than-mediocre President Barack Obama and the even more unpopular presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and their utterly worthless responses on the issue.
It’s all a shame, because even in such a hot and humid and stormy early summer it could have been different. The New York Yankees have the biggest media market and a winning tradition and despite all that salary cap socialism they have the most resources and could have made a couple of trades or free agent signings that would have at least put them in contention, and the Republican party had at least three or four and as many 16 other choices that would have a big lead over the worse-than-mediocre competition at this point. Although we’re no longer taking any rooting interest in the race we believe that the presumptive Republican nominee’s self-aggrandizing and opportunistic and illiterate response was at least better than the opposition’s willful denial of an ongoing problem their policies have promulgated, and we can’t help but think that if the Republicans had a team that knows how to play this game it would be sitting on a cheering lead about now.

— Bud Norman

Radical Islamic Terrorism, This Time Around

There should be some respectful and contemplative pause between such horrible carnage as occurred over the weekend in Florida and the inevitable and necessary political debates that always follow, but that no longer seems possible. With the death toll yet to be tallied, the all too familiar arguments are already being advanced.
This time around it’s difficult for the left to state its usual case. The murders of at least 50 people at an Orlando nightclub already sets a record for the deadliest mass shooting in American history, which would ordinarily cause many of the more prominent media and the predictable politicians to amplify their ritual calls for further gun control laws, but as usual none of their proposals wouldn’t have done anything to prevent the murders and in this case it’s far, far more complicated than that. The nightclub where the murders occurred catered to a homosexual clientele, the murderer made clear that he was motivated by his murderously anti-homosexual Islamic beliefs and his fealty to the Islamic State terror organization that has lately been inflicting such horrors on the homosexuals and the Christians and more peaceable Muslims and many others sorts of similarly sympathetic people in a the wide swath of the Middle East it now commands. Thus the President of the United States who lit the White House in the rainbow colors of the homosexual rights movement to celebrate same-sex marriage and dismissed the Islamic State as a “jayvee” team” of terrorism and insists there’s no such thing as radical Islamic terrorism and that at any rate the Koran doesn’t say about homosexuality what that mass murderer read in its plain text and has declared the future should not belong to those who slander the Prophet Muhammad finds himself arguing about gun control from a muddled position.
Even the most polite press media are now obliged to acknowledge that the Islamic State is proudly and credibly blaming credit for the mass murder on American soil, even the president and the rest of the government officials at every level are openly calling it an act of terrorism of some undefined sort of another, and there’s also the unavoidable matter that the killer not only passed those much-ballyhooed background checks for a weapons purchase but also for a position in the federal government, and that his outspoken anti-homosexual Islamic views somehow exempted him from official scrutiny even after two investigations by federal authorities. The recent Secretary of State and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, who has fancied herself a fearless defender of homosexual rights for the past few years it’s been so popular, finds herself a similarly muddled situation.
Meanwhile, the presumptive Republican nominee, real-estate-and-gambling-and-strip-joint-and-professional-wrestling-and-scam-university-and-reality show mogul Donald J. Trump, has staked out what is at least a clearer stand. He’s on record on for wiping out the killer’s family and torturing anyone suspected of being involved with him and banning even the people with more peaceable notions of Islam from entering the country, and he’s used barnyard profanity to describe the bombings he’d inflict on the Islamic State, and although he’s backtracked all the crazy talk about ordering war crimes and how the military would bend to his will if he did, and although he’s also talked about out-sourcing that Islamic State problem to the alluringly strong Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, he still somehow comes off at the stronger horse to an understandably horrified public.
As we pray for those poor souls who suffered in the weekend’s massacre, we’d like to think that some more sensible solution could be found in a respectful and contemplative pause between such horrors and our nation’s response, but that no longer seems possible.

— Bud Norman