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A Not-So-Innocent Abroad

President Donald Trump’s second official foreign tour hasn’t yet gotten to the juicy part, which will be today’s long-awaited face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, but it’s already generating plenty of news.
The trip shrewdly began in Poland, where Trump could expect a much-needed welcoming reception. Poles have been favorably inclined to Republican American presidents since at least the days of Ronald Reagan, whose staunch cold warrior stance did much to liberate Poland from the the totalitarian rule of the Soviet Union, and these days their government has a nationalist and protectionist and anti-immigration bent and is waging a war on the local media that make it all the more inclined to embrace such a Republican as Trump. With fans bused in from the Polish hinterlands, Trump delivered a scripted oration denouncing Russian meddling in Ukraine and elsewhere that revved up a huge Polish crowd and confounded the American media.
There was a brief news conference with the American media, though, and of course there were questions about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia that has been a bigger story here than it’s probably been in Poland. Standing next to the Polish head of state, Trump reiterated his view that no matter what his intelligence agencies say Russia might or might not have meddled in the past election to Trump’s benefit, and that if they did it was all the fault of President Barack Obama for letting it happen, and besides everyone does it, and we’re not sure how that will play. There’s no telling what the Poles will make of it, especially when you take into account the press crackdowns on fake news we’ve been reading about, but here in the states all of the putatively fake but still-free press was highlighting that Trump seemed more concerned about Putin’s meddling in Ukraine than his meddling in America’s past election.
All of which makes today’s face-to-face and officially bi-lateral meeting with Putin all the juicier, of course, and it was already juicy enough. That robustly anti-Russian speech Trump gave to the adoring Polish crowd included a robust and widely applauded affirmation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mutual defense clause, which was conspicuously absent from his big oration on his first European and clearly annoyed all our western European NATO allies, but the following press conference probably exacerbated their more general annoyance. Most of those NATO allies have lately survived challenges by the same nationalist and protectionist and anti-immigration impulses that have lately prevailed in Poland in America, and have come up with some proposed globalist free trade arrangements that leave America out and rival the economic clout of the North American Free Trade Agreement that Trump has threatened to dissolve, so the geo-political and global economic implications of that Putin meeting are pretty darned complicated.
If you’ve been following the fake-or-not coverage of that whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia, it’s exponentially more complicated yet. Russia has lately been joining with China to propose that America abandon a longstanding alliance against with South Korea against the North Korean government that just launched a missile test that might deliver a nuclear strike against Alaska, and Trump had plenty of things to say about both regimes during his campaign, all of which have been changed since, so todays big meeting will be damned juicy.
The meeting with Putin will take place in Germany as part of the G-20 summit of the world’s twenty biggest economies, and Trump can’t expect such a friendly reception. There are already angry and violent protests against the globalist world order, which are too angry and stupid to realize that Trump is a sort-of ally, and of course all the establishment types of western Europe have a lingering disdain for Trump since his last foreign trip. There’s little chance that Trump will charm or bully Putin into abandoning North Korea, less chance that he’ll take a firm stand with Putin to defuse all that domestic talk about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia, and no chance at all he’ll come home to the heroic welcome he found in Poland.
The best-case scenario is the least juicy, with Trump and Putin having a boring feeling-out meeting that is full of sound and fury yet signifying nothing, but given the personalities involved that seems unlikely.

— Bud Norman

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What Could Go Wrong?

President Donald Trump is now embarking on his first foreign trip since taking office, and we expect he’ll be glad to get out of the country. He’s spent the week griping to the graduates of the Coast Guard Academy that he’s been the most unfairly treated politician in all history, “tweeting” claims that the ongoing investigations into his campaign’s possible role in Russia’s election meddling are a “witch hunt,” and testily denying everything to a pesky pack of the press, so at least he’ll be able to change the subject for a while.
On the other hand, the conversation might well take another controversial turn or two before the nine-long-days trip is over. The celebrity apprentice president has already provoked controversies in his dealings with such friendly countries as Australia and Germany, which takes some doing, and the itinerary for his trip includes some far trickier encounters.
The tour starts out in Saudia Arabia, where the royal family has reportedly prepared to roll out $68 million worth of red carpet, which should be enough to satisfy even Trump’s sense of grandeur. So far Trump has been saying everything the Saudis want to hear about arms deals and their war in Yemen and other and other deals that are ┬ádear to their hearts, but he’s also the guy who called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States, and until recently he was a vociferous critic of the country, and his planned speech on Islamic radicalism will require more carefully diplomatic language than Trump is accustomed to using. A visit to Saudi Arabia is fraught with peril for even the most seasoned presidents, and Trump is seemingly still starting a learning curve.
The next planned stop is in Israel, which is always tricky. Trump has long been outspokenly supportive of the Jewish state, and enjoyed a friendly relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he’s lately abandoned his campaign promise to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem and reportedly blabbed some top-secrets shared by the Israelis to the Russians, and has long habit of making stereotypical Jewish jokes in public. His daughter and son-in-law are both Jewish, which provides some cover for such japes, but we expect his aides will be nervous for the duration of the visit.
After that Trump moves on to Italy and the vatican for a meeting with Pope Francis. Back in the campaign the Pope opined that Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico wasn’t consistent with Christian values, Trump replied with characteristic bluntness that the Pope was “disgraceful” to say so, but both men are promising a friendlier conversation when they meet face to face. Absent any inappropriate jokes about a priest and a Rabbi and a Presbyterian minister walking in to a bar it seems a safe enough stop.
Next up is Belgium, where he’s scheduled to meet the king and queen and Prime Minister, and although they probably won’t be spending $68 million for the chat that should go fine. He’s also scheduled to meet the newly elected President of France, after Trump implicitly endorsed his Vichy-linked opponent in the recent French vote, as well as the president of the European Union, an institution both Trump and that Vichy-linked opponent have long outspokenly criticized, so that might also require more diplomatic language than Trump is used to using. There’s another meeting scheduled with the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Trump has lately concluded is not “obsolete,” as he frequently described it during the campaign, but he’s still grousing that its members are mostly a bunch of freeloading deadbeats, so there’s no telling how that might go.
Trump’s European trip then returns again to Italy, where he’ll take his place along the leaders of the G7 nations, and we hope he won’t mind sharing the stage with all of them. All those countries have pretty pesky presses of their own, though, and the American media will also be on hand to egg them on, and at that point the conversation might well take any number of controversial turns.
There’s always a chance Trump will return home with a lot of brand new best friends, and that the media won’t find anything to criticize, but Trump being Trump and the media being the media that’s not the way to bet.

— Bud Norman

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Vive La France, Or What’s Left of It

The big news on Sunday was from France, of all places, where what’s left of the global establishment prevailed in a presidential election over the rising global anti-globalist populist movement. No one in France expects the election will herald a glorious new age in that long-declining country, given that it was a choice between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen, but the rest of the world is still debating what it might mean everywhere else.
Emmanuel Macron won by a comfortable 66-34 margin, which is even more comfortable than all the much-maligned polls had predicted, by running as a putatively independent candidate was was “neither left nor right.” He was a longtime member of the Socialist Party, which is one of the two major parties and the closest equivalent of the Democratic party, but had shed the party label when the Socialist incumbent reached an eye-popping 4 percent approval ratings, and would be considered far-left by even current American standards, but he could plausibly claim the centrist position in France. He’s a former investment baker who’s more comfortable with free market capitalism than Democratic runner-up and self-described socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, more unequivocally pro-North Atlantic Treaty Organization than the Republican president, and takes a pro-free trade position while promising restrains on all the regulatory meddling from Brussels.
Macron is also 39 years old, making him the youngest leader of France since Napoleon Bonaparte, which has been a while, and he’s got a 64-year-old wife, which the polls show endeared him to a certain demographic of the French electorate. All politics is local, too, and France is so far outside our locality that we can’t imagine what other oddball issues might have played a role in the election, but so far as we can tell from this far-off vantage point his biggest advantage was that he running against Le Pen.
All the international media described her as the “far-right” candidate, which is accurate enough in an international context, but that doesn’t translate well into American. She was outspokenly opposed to unfettered immigration from the Islamic world and stridently insistent the immigrants conform to traditional French values, and opposed to the infringements on French sovereignty imposed by the European Union, and didn’t cotton to all the free trade involved, so even much of the talk-radio segment of America’s conservative media embraced her as one of their own. The old conservative hands who still write down their words noted that she was until recently the candidate of her father’s National Front Party, which advocated not just nationalism but an industry-socializing and all powerful socialism, and had only renounced the party affiliation because its Vichy roots and unabashed racism polled poorly, and that she wasn’t any kind of conservative recognizable by American standards.
Everywhere in the international media from the center-right to the far-left is celebrating Macron’s victory, but from here on the plains it seems another premature celebration. Macron’s economic prescriptions don’t seem any more likely to fire up the long-moribund French economy than those of his successor with the 4 percent approval rating, and his blithe attitude toward all those undeniably troublesome Muslim immigrants will likely add to that unprecedented 34 percent that a “far-right” candidate just earned in oh-so-enlightened France. The similarly commonsensical Geert Wilders has also lost in Denmark, where the Muslim problem also brought out a signifiant minority, but the “Brexit” vote that pulled Great Britain out of the European Union and the election of President Donald Trump in America, of all places, suggests that the international center is still being pulled in a nationalist direction.
Our hope is is that Macron will take a calculatedly centrist position on immigration, that political parties all around the world will be similarly commonsensical and not leave the nationalist-socialist types to address it, and that France and the rest of us will continue to limp along that rocky path of freedom.

— Bud Norman

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Winning Friends and Influencing People, Trump Style

Some people voted for President Donald Trump because of his speak-first-and-think-later style, on the theory that all those carefully worded opinions that politicians tend to offer had led only to American carnage so surely some crazed off-the-cuff bluster would set things right, but we suspect that most of the people who voted for him did so in spite of it lest Hillary Clinton win. The prospect of a Clinton presidency remains horrifying, but Thursday offered reminders of how very bad the choices were in the last election.
The National Prayer Breakfast was awful enough, with Trump using the solemn occasion to get a couple of childish digs in against former action movie star and California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s low-ratings on the “Apprentice” reality show that made the future president a national celebrity after years of New York tabloid fame. Except for making the President of the United States look petty and vain it didn’t do much harm, and the ongoing feud might help goose the ratings for a show he retains an executive producer credit on, but his reportedly testy telephone conversation with the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is more worrisome.
Those reports suggest that Trump spent much of the call boasting in exaggerated terms about his election victory, then went sour when the talk turned to a deal that President Barack Obama had negotiated for America to take in 1,250 middle eastern refugees being held in Australian detention centers, and ended with Trump angrily telling Turnbull that it was the worst conversation he’d had with a foreign leader all day and then abruptly ending it less than halfway through the time that had been scheduled. Spokespeople for both leaders insisted it had all been very cordial and productive, but the reports from multiple media had multiple sources at both ends, the part about Trump’s exaggerated boasting seems altogether believable given his recent on-the-record and on-video speeches, numerous Republican officials did feel obliged to go on the record about their support for Australia, and the “tweet” Trump issued right afterward about the “dumb deal” lend further credence to the reporting, as does pretty much the entirety of Trump’s career.
The deal that Obama negotiated regarding the refugees is arguably dumb, as so many of Obama’s deals were, but given that it only involved 1,250 people, not the 2,000 that Trump claims, and that the agreement also allowed for American officials to screen out the riskier sorts, we can’t see how it’s dumber than giving offense to an Australian Prime Minister and all the people Australians who elected him. America’s friendship with Australia has included their stalwart support through two world wars and a cold war and the hotter wars in Korea and Vietnam and the more recent battles against radical Islam in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria, and it makes an American president look vain and petty to cut short a conversation about such a relatively trivial matter. Despite the name Turnbull’s Liberal Party is the Australian counterpart of America’s Republican party, too, and undermining him helps the more anti-American opposition in the same way that Trump’s gruff approach to the Mexican President Pena Nieto helps the far-left Marxist who is lately rising in the polls. It might make Trump look tough to those who voted for him because of his talk-first-and-think-later style, but at this point the rest of the world’s opinion also matters.
No matter how dumb the refugee deal might have been it was an agreement that a longtime friend made with a duly-elected American government, too, and Trump’s penchant for suggesting that such agreements won’t survive our quadrennial elections can’t give his future negotiating partners much long-term faith in what he might come up with. The allies we’ve had in Europe through two world wars and a cold war and the more recent conflicts are already worried about his talk about not honoring the North Atlantic Treaty Organizations that have been so essential to the world’s relative peace and prosperity over the past 70 years, and an unnecessary spat with such a reliable ally as Australia over such a small matter as 1,250 refugees we’re allowed to vet will not be reassuring.

— Bud Norman

On the Strange Confluence of the Philippines and the American Presidential Race

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is making an issue of America’s rapidly deteriorating relationship with the Philippines, as any old Republican nominee would, but at this point in such a crazy election year as this it is unlikely to do him any good.
At first glance the issue seems tailor-made for any old Republican’s faltering campaign. The president of a longtime and still-essential Asian ally travels to China to renounce all military and economic ties with the United States, declares an ominous alliance with China and Russia “against the world,” while an incumbent Democratic administration that has spent nearly eight years alienating allies and appeasing enemies is once again clearly caught off-guard, so the Republican rhetoric should pretty much write itself. That defecting president’s pull-out quote about how “America has lost” plays right in with the Republican nominee’s campaign theme that America never wins anymore, too, so it should have been at least enough to push those pesky groping allegations off the front page for a day or two. In such a crazy election year as this, though, it’s a more complicated matter.
For one thing, it’s not quite clear that the Philippines has actually renounced its relationship with the United States or embarked on a new one with China and Russia. President Rodrigo Duterte apparently has, despite some recent backtracking, but he’s only the president of the Philippines and has constitutionally limited authority, and the rest of the government and most of the country have a markedly different opinion that might yet prevail. There’s been an anti-American strain in Filipino politics ever since the United States reluctantly found itself an occupying power in the aftermath of the Spanish-American war, which of course involved some unpleasantness, but that ended centuries of Spanish colonial rule that were far more heavy-handed, and America was eager to quickly hand over power to a sovereign democracy, which was soon conquered by Japanese invaders who were the worst yet, with the Americans coming to the rescue, albeit for somewhat self-interested reasons, and since then the big threat has been the Chinese who had also ruthlessly ruled the country before the Spanish kicked them out, so for the most part Filipinos are kindly inclined toward Americans and the $24 billion dollars of business they with them each year. Indeed, even after nearly eight years of the Obama administration America’s approval rating in the Philippines is higher than anywhere in Europe, Asia, South America, or even the United States itself.
As much as we’d love to blame the estrangement on the Obama administration and both of its godawful Secretaries of State, whose brusque treatment of such longtime allies as the Czechs and Poles and British and Canadians and Australians and Israelis and anti-communist Hondurans and obsequious gestures toward Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood has given the whole world reason to question whether American friendship is worth much or American animosity risks anything, we have to admit that this Duterte character is more at fault. He was elected by the Filipino people in a fit of anti-establishment pique last May, after a populist “Philippines First” campaign that featured him bragging about his penis size, and has since been making all sorts of inexplicable trouble for the country. He instituted “law and order” policy that has killed hundreds of suspected but unproved dealers, called the American president a “son of a whore” for threatening to ask about it at an Asian summit, used the same term to describe Pope Francis over some dispute or another, repeatedly praised the strong leadership of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, threatened his many media critics with official retribution, and publicly regretted that he wasn’t “first in line” for the 1989 gang rape of an Australian missionary.
If this reminds you of anybody be assured that even such anti-Trump publications as Time Magazine and The Guardian have told their readers that the Republican nominee is no Duterte, both noting that the Filipino actually has a long record of political service, and even such anti-Trump sorts as ourselves will admit that Trump hasn’t proposed death squads to deal with the drug problem and that even his most outrageous shtick on the Howard Stern show doesn’t rise to the level of that gang-rape gag. Still, there are sufficient similarities, right down to the boasts about penis size and the feuds with the Pope and the bromance with Putin, to give any voters in a fit of anti-establishment pique some pause. Duterte and his renunciation of longstanding treaty obligations would provide a good talking to almost any old Republican presidential nominee, but in this crazy election year Trump also has other problems exploiting the issue.
Almost any old Republican nominee could hammer the Obama administration and that godawful first Secretary of State who is somehow the Democratic nominee over their reckless policy of alienating allies and appeasing foes, which surely has something to do with Duterte’s latest craziness, but Trump is in poor position to do so. He has declared the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “obsolete” and threatened to leave it for a younger, hotter alliance unless they agree to his financial conditions, suggested that Japan and North Korea might need to acquire nuclear weapons rather than rely on the under-paid American umbrella, given the same suggestion to Saudi Arabia, and generally made clear that the entire Pax Americana is going to be re-negotiated or altogether abandoned no matter the outcome of the upcoming election, so at this point we can hardly blame any ally or foe who plans accordingly.
Besides, most Americans have only the vaguest idea that there is a Philippines, and no idea who Rodrigo Duterte is, and they’re rightfully suspicious about why the Philippines is spelled with a “Ph” but Filipinos use an “F,” and there are more pressing concerns about the populist Republican nominee’s hand size and you-know-what-means and his own foul language and verbal feud with the Pope and how very awful that Democratic nominee is. This latest news from the Philippines is bad for everyone, both major party nominees for the presidency included, and we’ll just have to see how badly it plays out.

— Bud Norman

This is the “This Week” That Was

Last week’s Democratic National Convention seems to have “bounced” nominee Hillary Clinton back into a slight lead in Real Clear Politics’ average of all the polls, and over the weekend Republican nominee Donald J. Trump got off to an awful start on “This Week.”
For those of you who are either in bed or heading to church during the program, which are the only two places any self-respecting person would be at such an ungodly time, “This Week” is the American Broadcasting Company’s version of those oh-so-serious Sunday morning political shows. It’s hosted by George Stephanopolous, a former Clinton family consigliere who never quite got over the habit, and Republicans have long groused with considerable justification that he strives to make them look stupid. Trump, alas, made the job all too easy.
The interview starts promisingly enough, with Trump boasting that his acceptance speech drew more viewers than Clinton’s, and gloating that “I have one of the great temperaments” and that it is such a “winning temperament” that it beat 16 Republican challengers while Clinton has a “bad temperament” that is such a “weak temperament” that it could barely beat a self-described socialist such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Things started going downhill, though, when Stephanopolous asked “What exactly is your relationship with Vladimir Putin?”
Rather than accusing Stephanopolous of asking a loaded and entirely unfair irrelevant question that is so typical of the biased “lame stream” media, which would have been hard for even Trump to do with a straight face, Trump answered that “I have no relationship with him.” Which of course allowed Stephanoplous to mention the three separate occasions when Trump had boasted that he did have a relationship with Putin, to which Trump offered the explanation that “Because he has said some nice things about me over the years. I remember years ago, he said something — many years ago, he said something very nice about me. I said something good about him when Larry King was on. This was a long time ago, and I said he is a tough cookie or something to that effect.” When Stephanopolous was once again so rude as to mention those three more recent public occasions when Trump did boast of speaking with Putin during their appearance on the same “60 Minutes” episode, Trump acknowledged that their separate interviews on the program were conducted on different sides of the world and demanded to know “What do you call a relationship?”
Asked about the Democrats’ criticism of Trump’s recent statements that he would not necessarily honor America’s North American Treaty Organization obligations, and might recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Trump explained that “They only fear one thing, losing the election.” He explained his remarks on Crimea by saying “I’m not going to be mean to anybody. George, you know me pretty well. I don’t bow,” and clarified his position on NATO by saying “I’m all in favor of NATO. I said NATO is obsolete,” and then claimed credit for the organization’s anti-terrorism stance. Asked why a call for arming Ukrainian rebels to resist Russian occupation was dropped from the Republican platform, Trump insisted he was not involved but admitted that his people were.
At which point the interview went even further awry.
“Well, look, you know, I have my own ideas,” Trump said. “(Putin’s) not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand, he’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.” To which Stephanopolous reasonably asked, with a rather stunned look on his face, “Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?” Trump had a rather stunned look on his own face when confronted with this well-known and indisputable fact, but recovered well enough to say “OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet.”
This was followed by a critique of the Obama administration’s Russian policy, which is indeed a ripe target for a counter-attack, but it’s hard to imagine any other Republican in the history of the party making a bigger mess of it. Pretty much any other Republican in the history of the party would have noted that Obama and the Secretary of State who is now the Democratic nominee had betrayed our Polish and Czech allies by reneging on a missile-defense treaty and then offered that ridiculous “reset” button and promised on a hot mic to offer even greater “flexibility” in a second term, which clearly encouraged Russia’s recent revanchism, and even wound up selling Russia a big chunk of America’s uranium reserves shortly after a couple of generous contributions to the past Secretary of State and current Democratic nominee’s phony-baloney “family foundation,” all of which Trump neglected to mention. Pretty much any other Republican wouldn’t be bogged down by Trump’s even friendlier policy pronouncements, though, or his own sizable contributions to that phony-baloney “family foundation,” or his instinct to link the failures of the Obama administration to that free-loading bunch of bums in a NATO pact that Trump is all in favor of and has said is obsolete.
As bad as it was, the Russo-American issue wasn’t even the part of the interview that generated the worst press of the weekend. Trump was also asked to respond to a speech given at the Democratic convention by Kzir Khan, the father of a Muslim Army Captain who died fighting for America in the Iraq War, who had criticized Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigrants. Pretty much any other Republican would have gratefully acknowledged the family’s sacrifice, and respectfully made the case that American policy must nevertheless realistically assess the costs and benefits of admitting large numbers of Muslim immigrants that will surely include less patriotic sorts. Pretty much none of them would speculate that the father’s speech had been written for him, or gratuitously note how the fallen soldier’s mother had stood silently by her husband during his speech, or add that “She probably — maybe she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say,” and certainly none would have compared their efforts to get rich to the sacrifice of a Gold Star family.
There was also a claim that the National Football League had written a letter to Trump expressing their concerns about the presidential debate schedule, which the NFL promptly denied, and which will probably be more widely noted than any of the rest of it because the NFL is such a big deal. All in all, this week got off to a bad start for Trump on “This Week.”

— Bud Norman

A Good Year For Vladimir Putin

The Democrats were loudly cheering some woman’s abortion on Wednesday during their quadrennial party convention, but Donald J. Trump wasn’t about to let them get all the attention. As usual the Republican nominee provided plenty of headline fodder in a Miami press conference, where he addressed the recent hacking and release of Democratic National Party e-mails by telling the Russian government, “Russia — if you’re listening — I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing (from the presumptive Democratic nominee’s accounting during her tenure as Secretary of State). I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.

His apologists insist it was just a joke, and we’ll concede that it might well have been, as it’s always hard to tell with Trump, although we notice that he didn’t have to pause for laughs. In any case he gave his critics something to write about than all the embarrassing things that were going on at the Democratic convention, and allowed them tsk and tut and otherwise wax indignant about Trump inviting the interference of a foreign thug in an American election, persuasively argue that if it was a joke it wasn’t a very funny one, and that there’s no assurance the Russians will take it was one, despite that country’s delightfully bleak sense of humor. It also bolstered a recent conspiracy theory that the Russians were behind the hacking and released the e-mails to help Trump, and revived longstanding worry felt on both the left and right about Trump’s apparent chumminess with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, both of which he addressed with his usual un-parseable eloquence.
“Why do I have to get involved with Putin? I have nothing to do with Putin. I’ve never spoken to him. I don’t know anything about the man other than that he would respect me. He doesn’t respect our president. And if it is Russia — it’s probably not, nobody knows who it is — but if it is Russia, it’s really bad for a different reason, because it shows how little respect they have for our country, when they would hack into a major party and get everything.”
Which will satisfy his apologists as a perfect reasonable response, but more skeptical sorts are likely to notice that it includes an admission that his past claim before an enrapt Republican audience to have spoken with Putin as “stable mates” on the “60 Minutes” program that broadcast one interview with Putin on the eastern half of the world another with Trump in the western half was of course a ridiculous lie, an even more embarrassing admission that the Republican presidential nominee doesn’t know anything about one of America’s most formidable foreign policy foes except that the fellow will surely respect him, and an absurd insinuation that no country would ever dare think of committing espionage against an America with Trump with in charge. Oh, and that it was all a lead-up to that putative punchline about how very amusing it would be the hackers kept up this disrespectful behavior. All in all, it’s not likely to dispel any conspiracy theories or allay any suspicions about Trump’s Russian policy.
Trump might or might not have anything to do with Putin, although he has long pursued business interests in a country where Putin’s approval is needed to do almost anything, and his campaign manager has long done business with the ex-Ukrainian strong-man who was Putin’s ally and his top foreign policy advisor has long done business with the Kremlin-run natural gas monopoly that Putin wields like a cudgel against the Europeans. Throw in all of Trump’s past praise for Putin’s “strength,” his brushing off of Putin’s assassinations of journalists and political foes by saying “our country does a lot of killing, too,” his short-lived plan to outsource the Syrian problem to Putin, last week’s removal from the Republican platform of a plank to supply weapons to the anti-Russian Ukrainian fighters and Trump’s reiteration that he wouldn’t necessarily fulfill America’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization obligations in case of a Russian attack on a member state and that he’d seriously consider recognizing Russia’s claims to Crimea, and it’s going to take some dispelling and allaying. All in all that conspiracy theory about Putin trying to influence the election in Trump’s favor seems at least as plausible as the one about Sen. Ted Cruz’ dad being in on the Kennedy assassination, even if Trump’s good friends at The National Enquirer haven’t yet provided any photographic evidence, and the rest of it suggests to our hardened Cold War sensibilities that Russo-American relations under a Trump administration won’t be at all to our liking.
On the other hand, the presumptive Democratic nominee is the same woman who offered that stupid “reset button” that emboldened Putin’s revanchist ambitions and led directly the the current mess in Ukraine and elsewhere, and the current Democratic president is the one who caught on a “hot” microphone telling a Russian diplomat that he would be even more “flexible” in a second term than he’d been in his feckless first one, and neither that Libertarian guy or that Green Party gal are at all Reagan-esque or even Romney-esque in their anti-Russkie spine, so we figure that no matter the outcome of this election Putin is going to enjoy the next four years more than will we or the rest of the non-Russian world.

— Bud Norman.

From Belgium to Arizona to the Latest “Tweet”

Another deadly Islamist terror attack, this time in Brussels, Belgium, the capital of the European Union and headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The President of the United States spent a full 51 seconds expressing his concern about the matter before launching into some happier talk about his communist Cuban hosts, and then spoke about it again at somewhat greater length with a fawning interviewer from the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network while taking in a baseball game, and the usual talk about a religion of peace and worries about a backlash followed in the usual places, and then the news moved on to more novel stories.
Say what you want about the presidential primary races, there’s no denying their novelty. A bit of actual reality showed up in the Republican’s reality show, however, as the two remaining viable candidates both weighed in on the slaughter in Brussels. Front-runner Donald J. Trump, the self-proclaimed billionaire real-estate-and-gambling-etcetera mogul, argued that some good old-fashioned torture would have prevented the tragedy, while Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was critical of both the administration’s continuing reluctance to address by the problem of Islamist terrorism by name and Trump’s apparent ambivalence about America’s European alliances in general and NATO in particular.
There’s some concern on the more or less respectable left that each terror attack further drives a frightened public into the arms of such a proudly tortuous tough guy as Trump, who once shaved the burly Vince McMahon’s head in a World Wrestling Entertainment production called “Battle of the Billionaires” and has bagged more babes than you’ll ever dream about, believe him, and that might yet prove worth worrying about. A double-whammy of attacks in San Bernardino and Paris knocked the mild-mannered neurosurgeon Dr. Ben Carson out of the race and into the arms of Trump a while back, and the Democrats understandably poll very poorly with their it’s-nothing-to-do-with-Islam stands, and Trump’s sizable horde of followers think anyone with a reluctance about torture is a “pussy,” which is apparently acceptable political parlance these days. There’s still some hope on the more or less respectable right that the public will be nudged to choose someone with a well-informed and keenly strategic mind and statesmanlike temperament, and pay enough attention to Trump’s rambling remarks and and impolitic impulses to notice that he’s not such a man, and that whatever well-justified frustrations we have with Europe they are an important part of our economy and the entire western civilization project, and that European alliances and NATO might yet come in handy again.
The death toll in Brussels didn’t stop the juicier parts of the Republicans’ reality show, however, as some naked pictures of Trump’s latest wife and a bit of libel against Cruz’ fully-clothed wife were both something novel to move to on. An anti-Trump political action committee not affiliated the Cruz campaign apparently had an internet page that featured the aforementioned naked pictures, with some copy suggesting this was not a particularly First Lady-like thing for a woman to have posed for and adding that anyone who was offended might consider voting for Cruz. Although the PAC was not affiliated with the Cruz campaign Trump apparently assumed it was, and he “tweeted” out that “Lyin’ Ted Cruz just used an picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!
Trump’s libelous insinuation that he has reputation-ruining information against a rival’s wife and is withholding it at the threat of blackmail strikes us as a rather big story, too, but this won’t be the first time it’s gone largely unnoticed. A similar libelous insinuation and threat of blackmail was made against the Ricketts family, owners of the Chicago Cubs, who had contributed to another anti-Trump PAC that was running a long-overdue ad featuring some of Trump’s more outrageously misogynistic statements, and he also made a thus-far hollow threat to sue the Canadian-born Cruz over his eligibility to run for the presidency unless he also stopped saying critical things about Trump. He’s also promised to “open up the libel laws” so that anyone who writes anything “mean” about him will “have problems, such problems,” so it’s no surprise that he’s willing to let the public remain unaware of crucial information about a potential First Lady or overlook a looming constitutional crisis if they’ll just bow to his Nietzschean will to power. So far Cruz, who enjoys a reputation as a shrewd lawyer even among his most bitter ideological opponents, hasn’t bowed. He called Trump’s bluff on that birther nonsense and the issue has largely gone away, except among those Trump fans who also buy the Obama birther nonsense, and his “tweet” about his wife was “Pic of your wife not from us. Donald, if you try to attack Heidi, you’re more of a coward than I thought,” which strikes us as rather gallant, if anybody cares about that stuff anymore. The son of the Chicago Cubs’ owner said it was “a little surreal when Donald Trump threatens your mom,” which is defense enough by the Cubs’ standards, and we can only imagine how the likes of the Iranian mullahs or the latest North Korean nutcase will be cowed by Trump’s insulting “tweets.”
Over on the Democratic side the front-runner, former First Lady etcetera Hillary Clinton was calling for more surveillance, presumably of the some sort that she used to damn George W. Bush for doing, and her still-remaining rival, self-described socialist Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, was calling for “international unity,” which we suppose would be a nice thing, assuming everyone was unified on our side. We’re not at all sure what side they will ultimately choose, though, even if we can be assured they won’t be the ones doing the torturing, at least not to the terrorists, so we hope the Republicans and the rest of the country get this one right.
Tuesday’s results were a split decision, but probably don’t reflect any effects of the attack on Brussels. Trump’s big plurality win in the winner-take-all state of Arizona was all about his anti-immigration stance, and probably helped by the left-wing goon squads who tried to shut down his rallies, and Cruz’ landslide majority in Utah was mostly about how Mormons regard such an unscrupulous businessman and unsavory character as Trump. Clinton won Arizona, where her open borders stand plays well with the local Democrats, and Sanders won Utah and Idaho, where such an unscrupulous dealer and unsavory character as Clinton didn’t play well with the handful of Democrats, but the Democratic National Committee probably found another couple hundred of those of “super-delegates” out there and Clinton’s long-promised coronation seems more likely.
We offer our heartfelt condolences to the people of Belgium, and everywhere else from San Bernardino to Moore, Oklahoma, to to Paris to Mumbai that the barbarians have attacked, and wish that America was in better to shape to deal with it.

— Bud Norman

The Exponential Complexities of the Middle East

A Russian fighter jet was shot down Tuesday over Syrian air space by an American-armed Turkmen militia group on orders from the Turkish government, further complicating what was already the most confusing conflict in the history of war. The situation will require the most wily and nimble and resolute response by America’s leadership, so we expect that things are about to become even more complicated.
The Turkmen are ethnic Turks living in Syria but loyal to Turkey, which is at odds with the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, whose efforts to remain in power through a long and bloody and confusingly multi-sided civil war have been much aided by the Russians, which is presumably why the Turkmen shot down the Russian fighter jet even though it had reportedly left Turkish air space after a brief and apparently uneventful incursion. Turkey is for some reason or another a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, despite Prime Minister Recep Erdogan leading the country toward a more radically Islamic state, and Erdogan retains a “special friendship” with the Obama administration, probably because of Turkey’s increased radicalization, and the administration is also at odds with Assad, who has crossed “red lines” that changed the president’s calculus and now “has to go” to and is constantly subjected to similarly tough talk from the administration, but unlike the good old days of the Cold War it is no longer so simple as that. Another one of the many sides in the Syrian civil war is the Islamic State, which the administration insists is neither Islamic nor a state even though it has some pretty specific Koranic verses to explain what it’s doing in the Indiana-sized territory it now controls in former parts of Syria and Iraq, and at the moment they’re a bigger pain in the global posterior than even the Assad regime. Pretty much everyone at least claims to be opposed to the Islamic State, including Assad, whose sincerity on this matter is not to be doubted, and Russia, whose warplanes have been effectively targeting the Islamic State rather than the Turkmen and the other American-backed anti-Assad forces ever since the terror group shot down one of its jetliners, and the Assad regime’s sponsors in Iran, who as always are complicating matters further yet.
Which doesn’t begin to suggest the geo-political complexities, much less the domestic political implications, which together are exponential. The Syrian civil war has sent millions of refugees from all over the region into Europe and North America, with opportunist asylum seekers far from the conflict joining the flood, and the inevitable populist backlashes are brewing on both continents. The Islamic State’s terrorism has struck in Turkey and Lebanon as well as the heart of France, and Belgium seems to have been spared so far only by a complete lockdown of its capital city, and the groups threats against several countries including the United States can no longer be dismissed as the bluster of a “jayvee team” of terrorism, and there’s worldwide discontent and increased military action by formerly pacifist countries about that as well. Joining forces with Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies could quickly solve the Islamic State problem, but all those non-Islamic State sides would still be fighting a Syrian civil war and the refugee problem would continue and the rest of the Muslim world’s problems, such as the Yemen civil war that’s largely kept Saudi Arabia from asserting any Sunni power against the Shia Iranians and Alawite Assad in all this mess, or the Palestinians’ “stabbing intifada” against the Israelis, which has largely been overlooked amongst all the other complexities, so it seems unlikely that any country will have the region’s infectious woes solved by its next election.
One can only hope that the utter ineptitude of the current administration leading up to this sorry state of affairs will be well considered in this country’s next election, and that perhaps some correction will be made even before then. All that talk of Assad having to go and red lines being set and moderate forces being trained and air strikes being ordered was always accompanied by assurances of no American boots on the ground and little in the way of action, which emboldened Assad and his allies to use the red-lined tactics that sent the millions of refugees fleeing the region and the thousand of inspired western jihadists flooding into the region to fight for the Islamic State, and a similarly clumsy and irresolute response to Russia’s revanchism in Ukraine seems to have emboldened that country to fly over NATO airspace with impunity. In this case they seem to have made a miscalculation, failing to account for the fact that Turkmen militias armed with American weaponry don’t particularly care what American foreign policy prefers, and that despite its “special relationship” with American neither does Turkey, but once again they didn’t underestimate American resolve. The Iranians, who have been ratcheting up the “death to America” ever since they might or might not have agreed to America’s utter capitulation to its nuclear weapons program, which is eventually going to complicate things to a point that the current mess seems like the good old days, likely figures that it can maintain its puppet Assad regime and leave enough Islamic State to bedevil the infidel west and proceed with its master plan for the battle of Armageddon.
We’ll freely admit that we see no way out of this, but what worries us is that the administration won’t. Instead they insist that our policies have contained the Islamic State, that the refugees should welcomed with certainty that none will import the pathologies of the regions they are fleeing, that Russia’s seemingly expanding influence is a sign of its weakness, that all those “death to America” chants in Iran shouldn’t scuttle the deal we might or might have cut capitulating to their nuclear weapons program, and that climate change is still America’s greatest foreign policy challenge. There are reports that the American jets flying over Islamic State-controlled areas are at last dropping their bombs on the convoys of stolen oil that finance their operation, and that there are a few Americans boots actually on the ground helping to guide the missiles, and the administration did acknowledge Turkey’s right to defend its airspace, and we even read that we’re arming the Kurds, who seem to be among the more reasonable tiles in the vast and vibrant multi-cultural mosaic that is the war-torn Middle East, even though the administration denies it so as not to offend our special friends in increasingly radicalized Turkey, which has its own internal Kurdish problems, which is another one of those complexities, so perhaps there is some wising up going in the administration.
The most immediate concern is that an official if unaccountable NATO member has shot down a Russian fighter jet, and that the world will at long last come to the same ending as “Doctor Strangelove,” but we expect it will prove more complicated than that. We can easily imagine President Barack Obama sounding very much likely President Merkin Muffly as he apologizes to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and although we despite Putin’s nakedly expansionist national ambitions we credit him with the shrewdness to be satisfied with a few carpet bombings of the offending areas and the west’s abject appeasement. This doesn’t seem like something we’ll be going into toe-to-toe nuclear combat with the Russkies over, as Slim Pickens might have said, but one never knows. Our only surety, alas, is that the whole wide world is now one very sticky wicket.

— Bud Norman