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Hoping for the Best, Contemplating the Worst

President Donald Trump and top officials from his administration are warning that time is running out for a peaceful solution to North Korea’s recent provocations, which might very well be the best thing to be saying, but there’s no denying that every other sort of solution will be very bad. Accepting the fact of the nutcase North Korean dictatorship as a nuclear power with intercontinental ballistic capabilities is also an intolerable outcome, though, and there’s no denying that past efforts at a more conciliatory diplomacy have failed to prevent the North Koreans from recent tests of a nuclear bomb capable of destroying a major city and missiles lobbed over Japanese air space that could reach American territory.
Tough talk hasn’t proved any more effective over the past many decades of dealings with the nutcase North Korean dictatorships, and has failed spectacularly in recent weeks, with their latest and most worrisome round of tests coming after Trump threatened “fire and fury like no one has ever seen” in case of any further provocations, but it might best to keep it up. One fact that the nutcase North Korean dictatorship has to accept is the fact that if it does come down to a nuclear war there won’t be much of North Korea left, as a devastating response to a nuclear attack against the United States has been American policy through every president since Truman, and one this administration might actually relish implementing, and that’s a strong hand to play with even the most nutcase dictators.
As United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who has proved quite adept at the job, put it in an interview with the Cable News Networks’ “State of the Union” program on Sunday, “If North Korea keeps on with this reckless behavior, if the United States has to defend itself or its allies, North Korea will be destroyed.” She was quick to add that “None of us want that. None of us want war. But we also have to look at the fact that we are dealing with someone who is being reckless, irresponsible and is continuing to give threats not only to the United States but to all of its allies.” Which strikes us as some very savvy diplomatic speech. It warns of the dire consequences of making America defend itself or its allies, leaves carefully unsaid what level of provocation would provoke that result, signals a willingness to continue negotiations on reasonable terms, and allows room for peaceful and tolerable solution.
National security advisor H.R. McMaster, a lieutenant Army general who served admirably in three wars and holds a doctorate in American history and is regarded by even the mainstream press as one of the wise hands of the Trump administration, took a similarly strong but precisely worded stand on the American Broadcasting Company’s “This Week” program, saying of the nutcase North Korean dictator that “He’s going to have to give up his nuclear weapons,” noting the president has been very clear about that, but quickly adding “all options are on the table.” Softly spoken but carrying the aforementioned big stick, with a metaphorical also dangled, and a resume to back up both the tough talk and the clear yearning for a peaceful solution, it also seemed as right a diplomatic statement as we could think of.
Trump himself spent the morning “tweeting,” including an apparently newsworthy video of of the president hitting a golf ball and former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton being knocked down by it, which Trump’s fans reportedly found hilarious, but he also “tweeted” a couple of taunts against the nutcase North Korean dictator. One boasted that the United Nations sanctions on North Korea had led to “gas lines,” and another nicknamed the nutcase dictator “Rocket Man.” We don’t doubt that the recent sanctions have hindered North Korea’s economy, but at this point it’s a rare North Korean who owns an automobile and the rest are pretty much accustomed to abject poverty, and it’s clear that nutcase dictator doesn’t care much about any of that. As for that “Rocket Man” zinger, we’re also doubtful that the nutcase dictator can be brought by down by a nickname the same way “Low Energy” Jeb Bush and “Little” Marco Rubio and “Crooked” Clinton were. It’s not at all the polished diplomatic speech we’re accustomed to, but we’ll hold out faint hope it’s so crazy it just might work.
If it doesn’t, and things comes to worst, we’ll trust that America still stands with or without Guam or San Diego and the nutcase North Korean dictatorship doesn’t exist at all, and hope that the damage to everyone is as limited as possible. The best case scenarios involve civilian casualties not seen since the darkest days of the World War II in Seoul, South Korea’s capital and most populous city, and the death toll in North Korea’s capital and most populous city of Pyongyan even worse, and maybe even the nutcase North Korean dictator getting a missile launched against Japan’s capital and most populous city, and perhaps China or the Russians or various other far more formidable nuclear powers getting involved.
Those worst-case scenarios seem unlikely, given that most of the parties involved aren’t nutcase dictatorships, and China has already stated that it won’t stop us from nuking North Korea if North Korea nukes us first, and Haley got both China and Russia on board with those UN sanctions, but there’s no denying it remains a worrisome situation. Should the United States’ intelligence community reach a consensus solution with high a degree of confidence that the nutcase North Korean dictator was about to launch a nuclear attack on America or one of it’s allies the right thing to do might very well be a pre-emptive attack, and there would be some very sound diplomatic explanations for that that, but we can’t shake a nervous feeling about Trump and his “tweets.” He’s told the world that the United States’ intelligence community is probably wrong about Russia’s meddling in the past election and was surely wrong about the imminent threat posed by the nutcase Iraqi dictator’s weapons of mass destruction, and that an American president had lied about it to justify a pre-emptive war, and there’s no telling what either China or Russia might make of that.
We hold out hope and fervent prayers that it all comes to some peaceful and tolerable solution, and aren’t worried by the more measured tough talk from those top administration officials, and feel reassured by those wise old hands who show up on the Sunday morning news talk shows. That dictator in North Korea strikes us as a real nutcase, though, and no matter what wise counsel America finds he’s going to have to some say in how it turns out.

— Bud Norman

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McMastering Trumpian Foreign Policy

According some segments of the conservative media, one of those “deep state” “establishment” “globalist” types threatening President Donald Trump is his own national security advisor. Highly decorated combat veteran and former three star Army general H.R. McMaster stands accused of various heresies against the “nationalist” and “populist” and “alt-right” strains of conservatism, and it’s a more consequential story that the rest of all the palace intrigue that’s been going on at the White House.
McMaster is well-regarded by some other segments of the conservative media as one of the administration grown-ups needed to restrain Trump’s worst tendencies, and enjoys the begrudging respect of the Democrats on Capitol Hill, but such establishmentarian respect is all the more reason for the burn-it-down sorts of conservatives to revile him. They’re livid that he renewed a national security clearance for President Barack Obama’s national security advisor, persuaded Trump to sign off on a statement that Iran has thus far been in compliance with a deal struck with Obama regarding its nuclear weapons program, once worked at a British think-tank partly funded by the hated progressive billionaire George Soros, and has generally been an impediment to the isolationist and Russia-friendly bomb-all-the-Muslims-and-take-their-oil foreign policy they prefer.
Worse yet, McMaster seems to have gained influence in the administration since former four-star Marine general John Kelly took over as chief staff. Kelly has a reputation as someone who doesn’t suffer fools and idiots lightly, so his first order of business was to get rid of a White House communications officer who had proved spectacularly incompetent after a week on the job, and his second was to help McMaster defenestrate three members of the national security council. Each were allies of White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, and if you’ve been binge-watching the Trump show you should already know that he’s the administration’s true keeper of the “nationalist” and “populist” and “alt-right” faith.
Bannon had already lost his seat on the council after bi-partisan complaints that he had no qualifications whatsoever for the job, and his ideological ally Mike Flynn had resigned the national security advisor post in record time after it was revealed he had lied about about his dealings with Russia and talk about all sorts of other foreign intrigues started to surface, and for the moment the Bannonite vision seems to be fading. The former four-star Marine general James Mattis is still Secretary of Defense, and despite his “Mad Dog” nickname he’s also considered one of the restraining grown-ups that the establishment Republicans praise and the Democrats begrudgingly respect.
Not that you’d notice, but Rex Tillerson is still the titular Secretary of State, and the former top Exxon boss has surprisingly proved a stalwart defender of the post-war global order. You can’t help but have noticed United Nations ambassador Nikki Halley after her fine work winning an international agreement to impose sanctions on North Korea for its recent belligerence, but you might not recall she’s also often stood in opposition to a Bannonite foreign policy. With so many foreign policy positions still unfilled, largely due to the administration;s failure to find nominees with the requisite credentials who haven’t publicly expressed previous doubts about Trump’s foreign policy campaign rhetoric, Trump is pretty much stuck with the establishment he promised to burn down.
Hence the recent assault on McMaster in certain segments of the conservative media. One of the most vociferous critics has been BreitbartNews.com, which was formerly run by Bannon as a self-described “platform for the alt-right,” and others are the internet conspiracy theorists Alex Jones and Michael Cernovich, but several of the talk radio hosts and more mainstream conservative outlets such as the Daily Caller have also been piling on, as has the Jerusalem Post’s usually reliable Caroline Glick. They all combine for a relatively small and already-on-board audience, but that audience does include Trump, so it will be interesting to see what effect they have.
Meanwhile pretty much all the mainstream press and certain segments of the conservative media will argue that McMaster is one of the much-needed grownups in the administration, and we’ll go right ahead and pile on ourselves. We’re no fans of Rice, but security clearances have always been granted as a routine courtesy to past national security advisors, and we’d like to see that tradition continue to benefit McMaster some day, and we can’t see what damage she’s likely to do at this point. That deal Obama struck with Iran was every bit as awful as Trump said it was back on the campaign trail, but if the Iranians are shrewd enough to be complying at this point then denying it would only undermine our nation’s credibility when Trump at long last gets around to his promised so-great-your-head-will-spin re-negotiation. Except for the fact some money came from the admittedly noxious Soros, there’s nothing we can find in any of the stories about that British think-tank that make us think worse of McMaster.
As much as we respect the formidable Ms. Glick there’s nothing we can find in McMaster’s history that suggests he’s insufficiently committed to America’s alliance with Israel, and even if he’s not a bomb-all-Muslims-and-take-their-oil kind of guy we figure that’s because he has better ideas about how to deal with the problems that certain segments of the Islamic world undeniably pose. According to all sorts of leaks he was one of the people who pressured Trump into belatedly affirming America’s commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and otherwise counseled the same unfriendly posture toward Russia’s expansionist ambitions that the Republican party had maintained since the dawn of the Cold War, but that’s fine by us.
Trump has thus far publicly “tweeted” his support for McMaster, but there are leaks that he’s privately fuming to friends that he wishes Flynn was still on the job, and on the campaign trail he boasted that he knows more the generals, adding his usual “believe me,” and he hates to disappoint the loyal fans who listen to Jones and Cernovich and the radio talkers. Getting rid of McMaster would surely fuel all the mainstream media talk about the “Russia” thing, but the fans won’t believe a word of that anyway, and Trump has proved entirely unpredictable about everything, so we’ll not venture any guesses how McMaster comes out at the end of this story.
We hope he’ll come out ahead, though, and will at least get his security clearance approved by the next Democratic administration’s national security advisor. During the first Iraq War Captain McMaster led nine American tanks into battle against 28 Iraqi Revolutionary Guard tanks and won by a score of 28-to-zero, was a fellow at the Hoover Institute while rising to his three-star general rank through a series of challenging commands, and despite such establishment credentials he strikes us a very serious man. Trump’s bone spurs prevented him from serving heroically, alas, and he later said his personal Vietnam was avoiding venereal disease on the New York City dating scene of the ’70s, and all his campaign rhetoric about NATO’s obsolescence and Russia’s moral equivalence with the United States and taking the Muslim’s oil struck us as similarly unserious, so we think he could us some establishmentarian grown-ups around him.
That will disappoint the fans, but they’ll surely get over it, and we think that for now they’re outnumbered by the liberals and certain segments of the conservatives and pretty much everybody else.

— Bud Norman

A Rip-Roarin’ Fight, and No Result

Thursday night’s episode in the Republican presidential mini-series was the most entertaining yet, and for those interested in issues it was also the most informative, but it did little to advance the plot. Everyone did well, everyone took a few blows, and no one scored a clear victory.
Even the bit players did well, although not well enough to matter. Former computer executive Carly Fiorina managed get some attention on the undercard debate with jabs at Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s marital problems and rival Republican Donald Trump’s crony style of capitalism, but at this point it seems unlikely to get her back on the main stage. Ohio Gov. John Kasich wasn’t an annoying scold, representing a vast improvement over past debate performances, but that won’t make any difference for a candidate who is far too centrist for the party’s pugnacious mood. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was briefly a front-runner in the race, was as always affable and admirable but couldn’t quite overcome the concerns about his policy chops that have caused his drop in the polls. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose calm and presidential demeanor only emphasizes that he is also too centrist for the moment, did well enough to hurt some of the other candidates but not enough to help himself.
There’s still an outside chance of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie contending for the nomination, what with the first primary being held in friendly New Hampshire, and that chance was probably improved by another strong performance. Being governor of a northeastern blue state has left Christie with some dangerously centrist positions of his own, but he defended his record on guns with vigor and even had a few achievements to cite, and at least his famously pugnacious style suits the fighting mood. Christie also tried to make up for his past literal embrace of President Barack Obama by calling him a “petulant child” for trying to impose gun regulations by executive action, and for the most part he was spared attacks by the others.
That’s probably because at this point the main players are Trump, a real estate mogul and reality television star, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who were mostly saving their jabs for one another.
The first clash came when Trump was asked about his recent insinuations that Cruz’ birth in Canada makes him constitutionally ineligible to become president, a lame reprisal of Trump’s unsuccessful “birther” arguments about Obama, and in his half-hearted stab at the issue Trump carelessly quoted the notoriously left-wing Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe. Cruz, who had already done a fine job of jabbing back at a New York Times hit piece over a long-ago loan that he reported on one form but not another, seemed to relish the fight. He shrewdly quoted Trump’s September assurances about his lawyers being satisfied that Cruz is indeed eligible, getting a good laugh by noting that the constitution hadn’t changed since then but the poll numbers have — a point Trump later laughingly conceded — and of course by noting that his former professor Tribe is a notorious leftist. When the former United States Attorney and Texas State Solicitor with a solid winning record in court cases waved off Trump’s suggestion that he take the matter to court, saying “That I won’t be taking legal advice from Donald Trump,” which got another big laugh, only the most died-hard Trump supporter or eastern bloc Olympic judge wouldn’t have scored the round for Cruz.
Trump got some points back when Cruz was asked about his statement that Trump represents “New York values.” Cruz initially got the applause by telling the noisily Republican South Carolina audience that people understand the term, which got a knowing a laugh, and he recalled a past interview when Trump admitted that his positions on a host of social issues are in line with the New York City rather than the Republican consensus, but he didn’t make much the needed clarification that he wasn’t talking about the hard hat worker riding the subway home to the Bronx, but rather the hipsters and university faculties and media grandees and ward-heeling socialists and blow-dried crony capitalists and creepy celebrities and everything else about the city that even those hard hat workers riding the subway home to the Bronx hate. This allowed Trump to speak with an uncharacteristic quietness about the city’s many undeniable virtues, and warm even our hearts by noting that the great William F. Buckley was a New Yorker, and eloquently recall its resilient response to the country’s most deadly terror attack, so even the eastern bloc Olympic judges will give him that round. He also effectively blunted what could have been a pretty good line, because people really do know what Cruz was talking about, so we give him a few extra points as well.
Cruz and Rubio also clashed, with both taking a few blows. At one point Rubio packed an 11-or-12-point litany of attacks at Cruz in a few brief bursts of sound, and even a former national collegiate debate champion such as Cruz couldn’t speed-talk fast enough to answer them all. Cruz later responded with Rubio’s past defection on the all-important issue of illegal immigration, which is pretty much the sole reason Rubio is stuck in third place rather than running away with this race, and once again Rubio had no defense other than mostly ineffective counter-attacks. On the whole, we’d say that Cruz got the better of it but that Rubio showed the aggressive style that Republicans seem to favor.
We note that Rubio used everything from Planned Parenthood to Common Core against Christie, who is widely perceived as his remaining competition as “the establishment candidate,” as if any sane candidate in either party would want that title in this particular election year, and also against Cruz, whose Senate insurgencies have made him as unpopular with the hated establishment as any of the candidates and thus endeared him to the party’s base, but he didn’t seem to have anything to say about Trump. That’s likely because Trump has lately been more concerned with Cruz and thus has had little to say about Rubio, so we credit both with tactical shrewdness, but we would have like to have seen two figuratively if not literally mess one another’s hair a bit.
Trump mostly did well, too. Aside from from the nice rendition of “New York, New York” he scored well with a question about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s response to the president’s State of the Union address, in which her comments about not heeding the siren call of the angriest voices was widely understood as a criticism of Trump. Haley had already gotten a huge round of applause from her home state audience at the beginning of the debate, and he deftly praised her but admitted that he is indeed angry. An angry nation will surely understand, even if it can’t quite understand what Trump plans to do about it other than hire the best people and make America great again, and by the end of the evening Trump didn’t even seem the angriest man on stage. We think Trump got roughed up pretty well by all the candidates and even the otherwise disinterested and generally very good Fox Business News moderators on his proposal for punitive tariffs on Chinese goods, and trade matters in general, which is supposed to be the master negotiator’s strong point, but we suspect that went unnoticed by the large portion of the audience that was more interested in who got off the best insult.
Happily, though, we notice these debate audiences, if not the audiences at Trump’s rallies, seem to be tiring of his shock jock shtick, and that even he seems to be noticing. We counted three occasions when Trump was roundly booed for either boasting about his popularity or insulting the character of another candidate. After he called Bush a “weak man,” the boos were louder than Bush’s dwindling number of supporters could have possibly generated. On each occasion Trump appeared genuinely chastened, and we think he much preferred the warm applause from his more generous remarks about his hometown and South Carolina’s governor.
All in all, we still have no idea who’s going to win this thing.

–Bud Norman

Our Republican Response to the Republican Response to the Republican Response

What turned out to be an Iliad-and-Odyssey-like quest to purchase a two-dollar replacement nose pad for an aging pair of spectacles put us in the dreaded rush hour traffic of the unlovely and all-too-busy near-west side on Wednesday evening, so to suit our mood we tuned the comfortingly old-fashioned AM radio in our aging automobile onto one of the angrier talk radio talkers. Although we’re usually not inclined to listen to the host’s shrieking diatribes, even if we do mostly agree with what he’s shrieking about, we thought it might pleasantly kill the time at those interminable near-west side traffic stops to hear someone shrieking about that awful State of the Union speech President Barack Obama gave the night before. By the time we finally found our way back to home we had acquired the rare and elusive nose pad, alleviating a slight but annoying pain in the nose, but something in in our old-fashioned Republican soul remained unsettled by the road rage and other rancor we encountered.
Our reliable host eventually got around to a spittle-spewing rant on the president’s infuriating address, with all the capital letters and multiple explanations marks and sneering nicknames and other rhetorical frothing we studiously avoided in our own previously-published grousing on the matter, which we’d like to think conveyed our disgust amply nonetheless, but he spent the first segment of his show grousing with same spittle-spewing and capitalized and exclamation marked disgust about the Republican Party’s traditional response to the speech. Similarly outraged Republican responses to the Republicans’ response were all over the conservative corners of the internet, so it suddenly seems that every wing of our Republican party is as angry about the others as they are about anyone else. To hear that radio host go on about you’d think he’s even angrier about his own party than he is Obama, and that’s saying a lot. We’ve oft shared our own reservation’s about our party’s too-frequent timidity, albeit with what we like to think is our more light and literary touch, but in this case the outrage seems inordinate.
In this case the Republican response was offered by South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, whom we hardly consider an enemy of the conservative cause. She’s a woman, but with an “a” rather than a “y,” and she’s of Indian-from-India descent, but is proudly Christian and has proudly never hyphenated her Americanism, and the reliably conservative people and thus reputedly sexist and xenophobic people of South Carolina seem to like her, so we’ve formed a generally favorable impression of her of admirable career of confounding the Democrats’ convoluted theory of identity politics. She’s struck some less-than-perfect political bargains in a state that was until recently dominated by a Democratic Party that still has a significant and loyal black population to make it a significant player, but even the most famously tough negotiators on the Republican slate will eventually come up against that sort of thing, and she agreed to remove to confederate battle flag from the public square if not from the roof of the “Dukes oF Hazzard” muscle car, but as Bleeding Kansas Republicans so old-fashioned that our Republicanism goes all the way back to Abraham Lincoln we can’t object to such unbiased Unionism and abolitionism. In any case, as we assess her generally low-tax and low-spending ways, we worry that if the likes of South Carolina’s Gov. Haley are banished from conservatism we’ll be left inside a very small tent.
And what were her offending remarks? So far as we can tell, she he went so far as to say that “Today, we live in a time of threats like few others in recent memory. During anxious times, it can be tempting to follow the siren call of the angriest voices. We must resist that temptation.” To compound the offense, she went to say that “In many parts of society today, whether in popular culture, academia, the media, or politics, there’s a false tendency to equate noise with results.” To those who are blissfully unaware of recent internecine Republican politics these might seem blandly true blandishments, or perhaps even a well-deserved jab against the Obama administration’s fear-mongering and divisive rhetoric and the perilous situation it has wrought, along with his blithe dismissals of the very viable threats facing America, along with the academic and media culture that has echoed his efforts, but to those in the know it was readily understood as an attack on Republican front-runner real estate mogul Donald Trump and perhaps even his most troublesome conservative rival Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. Both of the two most potential Republican nominees have been conspicuously angry lately, along with most of the Republican Party and a big chunk of the Democrats, and after that stupid Toyota took long enough to crawl to a left turn we’re angry enough ourselves to understand her remarks accordingly. Her words are frustrating, we must admit, given how very rational and quite forgivable our anger seems.
Still, we retain a respect for Gov. Haley and her advice about not letting anger get the best of us. It is redolent of our beloved Lincoln and his his memorable exhortation during our nation’s darkest hour of “malice towards none, and charity toward all,” and that Burkean claim to the best of our civilization’s traditions, and both the Enlightenment’s and the Christians’ appeal to “come, let us reason together,” and all that Greek stuff about rationalism, so as annoyed as one can become in a near-west side traffic jam with the understandably peeved talk radio talkers talking their compelling complaints we have tried to keep calm within our old-fashioned Republican soul. Given our own mixed record of scraps with equally angered folks, so we’re temperamentally inclined toward to any peaceful resolution that preserves both our liberty and our generously accommodating sense of justice, and we scan the dial enough to note that those even crazier Democrats have their thoroughly corrupt establishment candidate vs. insurrectionist and outright socialist anger thing gong on. At this point we’re clinging to the desultory hope that a perfectly calibrated candidacy of public anger will prevail, and that the most non-socialist and least-authoritarian candidate will wind up as president, and that both reason and tradition and the Enlightment and Christianity all the rest of that Burkean and Greek stuff will somehow sort all this stuff and that all those angry radio talkers will have some good news to proclaim and that the near-west side traffic lights will eventually turn green.

— Bud Norman