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Meanwhile, Far Away in the Far East

President Donald Trump picked as good a time as any to embark on an extended multi-nation tour of Asia, given all the bad political news for the Republicans over the past week, but as usual he managed to grab his share of the attention.
During the campaign Trump frequently claimed that America had been “raped” by China in their trade relationship, but while in China he basically said that America was asking for it. “Who can blame a country for being able taking advantage of another country for their benefit of their own citizens?,” he said to an audience of Chinese political and business and leaders quite a few American businessmen, who responded with a slight and nervous-sounding laughter. He placed the blame for America’s trade deficit with China squarely on “past administrations,” apparently beginning with the Nixon administration, a charge he later reiterated via “tweet,” and the die hard-supporters back home were all more robustly cheering the implication that things are going to be different from now own.
Trump wasn’t talking the campaign talk labelling China a currency manipulator or slapping 45 percent tariffs on Chinese imports or holding the negotiations over a Big Mac and fries rather than a state dinner, though, and he didn’t give any details about what he wanted to change. We don’t claim to be the masterful negotiator that Trump claims to be, but we note he also didn’t give any details about how he’s going to persuade the Chinese to go along with his announced plan to take advantage of them for the benefit of his citizens, and most of the business leaders in the audience seemed to be hoping for a different tactic.
China is going to have to reconfigure its entire economy to get its citizens buying enough Harley-Davidson motorcycles and Gibson electric guitars to make much of a dent in the trade imbalance, and although it probably would make the country a whole lot cooler they’re unlikely to do so for Trump’s sake. America’s economy will also require a lot of reconfiguring before Americans stop snatching up low-priced Chinese-made products at Wal-Mart, although doing without some of that junk might also make America cooler, and there’s also the matter of the high-end airplanes and delicious wheat that folks here in Kansas make and the Chinese spend a lot of money on, so the Chinese will have some some threats of their own to make when any treaty is being debated in the Senate. Something better than the status quo is possible, and we wish Trump well in achieving that, but for the foreseeable future a balance of trade isn’t possible, and neither is it necessary desirable, so we hope Trump will be more understated and realistic in the future.
The trip also took Trump to Vietnam, which gave his critics an opportunity to chortle about the bone spurs that prevented him from serving in a war there, and brought him into direct contact with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, which also gave his critics plenty to work with. Trump told reporters that Putin had assured him that Russia didn’t do the tiniest bit of meddling in the past American presidential, and Trump said that he believed him, although after the predictable outrage he quickly revised that to mean that he believed that Putin actually believed that, and that in fact he believes the contrary conclusion of America’s intelligence agencies, at least now that they’re headed by his appointees and saying the same things they said under Obama’s appointees.
Continuing his penchant for disparaging past American governments in front of foreign audiences, Trump dismissed Obama’s past intelligence chiefs as “political hacks,” although both began their careers in Republican administrations and were decorated combat veterans of the war in Vietnam, and said the same things about Russian meddling that the Trump appointees are saying. In any case, Trump made clear that he didn’t see any reason why Russian attempts to sabotage an American should stand in the way of friendly relations.
There was also a stop in the Philippines, where the current President is Rodrigo Dueterte, who has cursed the Pope as the “son of a whore” and called an American president a “black bastard” and routinely forces kisses on women at his campaign rallies and unleashed gangs of vigilantes who have killed thousands of suspected drug users. Trump has previously praised Dueterte’s approach to the country’s problem, and always seemed quite comfortable with the rest of it, and Dueterte seems to like Trump’s style, too, so their meeting was fairly cordial. There’s a huge “Trump Tower” being built in downtown Manila, too, and Trump hasn’t divested himself of the branding agreement that’s expected to earn him millions of dollars, and the real owner of the property also happens to be Dueterte’s trade minister, so we expect it to remain cordial no matter how many suspected drug users are shot down without so much as a warrant.
The Philippines has lately benefited from America’s military support in quashing one of its occasional outbreaks of terrorism from it’s long-troublesome Muslim minority in the southern islands, too, and Dueterte has tamped down his anti-American rhetoric. He remains resistant to restoring America’s past military presence in the country and continues to make concessions to the Chinese in an apparent belief that they’re a more reliable diplomatic and economic partner.
During a stop in South Korea Trump managed to avoid making many big headlines, at least not to big enough to nudge the electoral losses or a Southern Gothic sex scandal out of the way, as he carefully avoided to referring to North Korean dictator Kim Jon-Ung as “Little Rocket Man.” The talk was tough, but within the usual diplomatic bounds, so the critics couldn’t muster of a case that he was taunting the North Korean nutcase into a nuclear confrontation by lowering himself to the dictator’s level of personal insult. After Kim once again called Trump a dotard, meaning an old and demented person, though, Trump “tweeted” back that “Why should Kim Jong-Un insult me by calling me ‘old,’ when I would NEVER call him ‘short and fat.’ Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend — and maybe that will someday happen!” Around the same time he offered to arbitrate some of China’s disputes with its neighbors over islands in the South China Sea, citing his great negotiation skills, but was politely declined by all parties.
At every stop along the way the leaders went out of their way to provide the most lavish welcomes and flattering praise, however, and Trump seemed to thoroughly enjoy it. Our guess is he and his fans will take it was proof that they’re making America great again, but that’s about all they’ll get out of it.

— Bud Norman

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The Un-Calm Before the Storm

So far as we can tell from his “tweets” and other public pronouncements, President Donald Trump is intent on some sort of military action against North Korea. The public pronouncements from the nutcase dictatorship of North Korea make clear that they consider Trump’s words a declaration of war, and the idea isn’t so nutty.
Trump has “tweeted” that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” seeking a peaceful resolution to North Korea’s nuclear provocations, adding “Save your energy, Rex, we will do what has to be done.” At a photo-op with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Trump chided the generals for being slow in delivering him “military options,” later saying, as they all smiled for the pictures, “This is the calm before the storm.” Numerous questions about what that meant were answered with “you’ll see,” but Trump’s latest “tweets” said the past 25 years of diplomacy with North Korea have been “making fools of U.S. negotiators,” and “Sorry, but only one thing will work!”
That one thing clearly isn’t a negotiated resolution, and Trump is clearly impatient with the economic pressure that has lately been exerted on North Korea, by now even Trump doesn’t hold out much hope the Chinese can resolve the matter, so that doesn’t leave many non-military options. Trump and his most die-hard supporters appear quite confident that they’ll prevail in this game of nuclear brinksmanship, but it’s making the rest of us in pretty much the entire world rather nervous, and we can only guess at what that nutcase dictatorship makes of it.
If it does come down to a war America will win it, and Trump is right to emphasize that persuasive argument, but that’s no reason to start a war that could possibly be avoided. Any bar brawler can show you the scars and still-nagging injuries he got in the fights he won, cemeteries around the world are filled with the graves of soldiers from wars America won, and the best case scenarios for a quick win against North Korea include millions of enemy and allied deaths. We don’t advocate appeasement, as North Korea’s newly-upgraded nuclear capabilities are indeed intolerable, but we’d feel calmer if Trump heeded President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to speak more softly as he wields a big stick, and didn’t render his Secretary of State’s efforts at a peaceful resolution a waste of time.
We’d be calmer yet if we thought that America had an effective Secretary of State on the job, or a cohesive foreign policy and an effective foreign service to go with it. Some of those southeast Asian allies Trump is making very nervous don’t have American ambassadors or fully staff embassies, key State Department positions have gone unfilled, and it’s not clear who’s advising Trump that calling the nutcase North Korean dictator “Little Rocket Man” and ruling out talks is sound diplomacy. Trump has some solid foreign hands around with his Defense Secretary and Chief of Staff and national security advisor, all multi-starred generals with hard-earned first-hand knowledge of how horrible even won wars are, all far more knowledgable about military realities in general and on the densely populated Korean peninsula in particular, but we notice they’re all striking a less bellicose tone in the very rare public pronouncements.
Trump’s grousing about the all the generals who have been slow in providing him military options suggests to us that the entire military is less enthusiastic about war with North Korean than is Trump, and we assume there are some relatively sane functionaries in the nutcase dictatorship that have reached the same conclusion. They’ve probably also noticed Trump’s dysfunctional relationship America’s foreign policy establishment, with the nutcase dictator amused that Trump’s own Secretary of State called him a “moron” and didn’t get summarily executed, and they’re probably less impressed with Trump’s bluster than his die-hard supporters.
The nutcase dictator probably pays even less attention to his sanest advisors than Trump does, though, and he might decide that so long as Trump has already declared war he might as well get it started with a strike on South Korea or Japan or the American territory of Guam or, if the most alarming claims are true, the west coast of America. At this point even the most sane advisors won’t advise him that Trump hasn’t already more or less declared war, and even if the nutcase dictator realizes somewhere in his deranged brain that he’ll lose the war he’ll figure that if he’s already lost he might as well get a few licks in along the way. So far as we can tell from the news reports he’d get a lot of licks in, and the generals and the military in general seem to agree, and with anything short of outright appeasement we’d rather put that scenario off to very last possible moment.
Perhaps this is the grand strategy that Trump and his die-hard supporters believe, and we have to hope so, although we wonder with ¬†how Trump came to know more than generals or any previous head of state in history during his real estate and reality show career. If it comes to war, we hope it’s only because it was waged to avert an immediate threat to American lives, could not have been avoided otherwise, and that the Commander in Chief who ordered it could convincingly explain that to his countrymen and our allies and the rest of the nervous world.

— Bud Norman

“Tweet”-le Dee and “Tweet”-le Dumb

As we look back on all the many natural disasters and wars and other catastrophes that have afflicted America during our long lifetimes, we now do so with a wistful nostalgia for the good old days when at least there was no “tweeting.” Over the past weekend President Donald Trump “tweeted” a war of words with the mayor of hurricane-battered Puerto Rico’s largest city, “and tweeted” that his Secretary of State’s efforts to avoid a more literal war with nuclear-armed North Korea are a waste of time, so the technological revolution that made it possible doesn’t seem to have wrought any progress.
Trump hadn’t suffered any bad reviews and therefore gained a couple of points in the opinions for his response to the historic hurricanes that battered Texas and Florida, but he’s clearly irked that he’s no getting any raves for his response to a third hurricane that knocked down thousands of buildings and knocked off all the electrical power and left much of the island underwater. There were compelling accounts of Trump’s delay in waiving the Jones Act and other arcane regulations that delayed rescue efforts, and how long it took to get a three-star general on job, and embarrassing comparisons to the manpower and dollars deployed in other recent and lesser natural disasters, so of course all the Democrats and their friends in the media went wild with it. The trump administration’s response, alas, was rather ham-fisted.
Trump’s initial “tweets” mostly griped that Puerto Rico was a debt-ridden burden on the country with an outdated electrical even before the hurricane, which is a true enough truth but one that this is probably not best time to bring up, and he later explained that rescue and recovery efforts had been hampered by the fact that Puerto Rico is an island, which he further helpfully explained means that “It’s surrounded by water, big ocean water.” His Secretary of Homeland Security called the response to this 135-miles of big ocean water a “Good news story,” which led almost immediately to the mayor of Puerto Rico’s largest city telling all the cameras that “Damn it, this is not a good news story. This is a people-are-dying story. This is a life-or-death story. This is a there’s-a-truckload-of-stuff-that-cannot-be-taken-to-people story. This is a story of a devastation that continues to worsen because people are not getting food and water.”
Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz never mentioned Trump by name during her lament, but the review was so insufficiently enthusiastic that he went on one of his “tweeting” tirades. He first “tweeted” that “The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.” After some ellipses he continued “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and other in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They,” followed by more ellipses, “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 federal workers now on island doing a fantastic job. Which is the sort of weapons-grade “tweeting” that Trump’s loyal supporters expect from their at-least-he-fights champion, but we expect that on most of the other judges’ cards they scored the round for the flyweight from Puerto Rico.
Cruz is a mere five feet tall but she has degrees from two major American universities looks quite formidable in a Latin spitfire sort or way behind her endearingly geeky glasses, and all the “fake news” had eerily authentic footage of her wading in chest-deep waters with a bullhorn nestled between her neck and shoulders while shaking the hand of some anonymous Puerto Rican who of course was pitching in on a community efforts, with simultaneous footage of Trump schmoozing with rich white people at some fancy golf tournament. The Trump fans will still love the “tweets,” but for everyone else it’s the same bad optics that got the jet-setting and out-of-touch Health and Human Services Secretary fired in another footnote to a weird week. We wish Trump’s public relations team well in the planned victory tour in Puerto Rico in the next few days, and expect that at least the fans will be well satisfied no matter how it goes.
Despite the golf tournament and the ongoing crises of the Puerto Rican recovery and certain National Football League players not being sufficiently respectful during the playing of the national anthem, Trump found time to “tweet” that “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man.” If you haven’t been following this harrowing story, “Little Rocket Man” is now Trump’s favorite sobriquet for the nutcase but nuclear-armed dictator of North Korea, which has unsettled every seasoned foreign policy inside and outside of the administration and had unknown effects in the North Korean dictatorship. “Save your energy Rex,” Trump ominously added without a comma, “we’ll do what has to be done!”
The at-least-he-fights sorts of fans will love it, but to all those more seasoned foreign policy hands and amateur observers such as ourselves it is a bit unsettling. With due caution we have supported Trump’s tough stance with North Korea, given that the last decades of a more conciliatory approach have brought us the current predicament, but at least none of those desultory decades saw a nuclear conflict and its millions of inevitable casualties played out, and even our old cold warrior souls know that any attempt at a peaceful resolution is never a waste of time.
This isn’t the first time Trump has “tweeted” criticisms of his wonderful Secretary of State, who has also been compellingly criticized by the Democrats and their media friends for failing to appoint candidates to key positions and going along with Trump’s planned downsizing of the State Department, and there’s plenty of speculation that he’s the next high-ranking cabinet member to resign. He’s a former Exxon head honcho who’s an official “Friend of Russia” without any previous diplomatic experience, too, so his surprisingly moderating influence on Trump’s foreign probably won’t do him much good. Changing Secretaries of State in the middle of this particular stream will be troublesome, as will the prospects of finding anyone remotely qualified for the job who would want it, but that seems a mere “tweet” away.

— Bud Norman