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If It’s Doomsday, This Must be Belgium

President Donald Trump’s die-hard fans probably loved his performance Wednesday at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels, as he gave all those freeloading Euro-trash leaders the tough talk that always goes over so well at the endless campaign rallies, and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin probably enjoyed it as well. Most of the rest of the world, though, shuddered.
All but two Republican Senators and every single Republican in the House of Representatives preemptively voted for resolutions that affirmed America’s commitment to the NATO alliance Trump was once again criticizing on the way to the summit. When Trump started the meetings off with a rambling breakfast rant about Germany being “captive to Russia” because of a natural gas pipeline project, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and NATO ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchinson and chief of staff John Kelly sat next to him with the same embarrassed look and awkward posture of the wife of a drunken husband spoiling an otherwise cordial ┬ácocktail party. Unless you really relished the video of Trump socking it to the Euro-trash, it’s hard to see what America got out of it.
Trump did get the rest of the NATO members to reaffirm their commitment to increase defense spending to 2 percent of their gross domestic product in the coming years, which they’d all be working toward since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine long before Trump was elected, and the NATO general secretary generously gave Trump all the credit, but then Trump insisted they immediately start spending 4 percent, which is even more than the 3.58 percent that America spends on defense. Trump is probably right that the pipeline deal between Germany and Russia was a bad idea, but of course he vastly overstated Germany’s reliance on Russian energy, and it’s unlikely he’ll convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was a literal captive of Russia when she grew up in East Germany, to back out during the NATO summit. We figure it’s even more unlikely that he’ll press the issue with Putin during an upcoming summit with the Russian dictator that he never seems to criticize.
All of the NATO members except for Turkey are bona fide democracies, except for Turkey, whose autocratic leader Trump never criticizes, and we doubt those country’s leaders will persuade their voters to accept the tax hikes or cuts in other government services to pay for an immediate quadrupling of defense to mollify Trump, who is widely reviled around the world as a bully and the very embodiment of an ugly American. Trump has some legitimate grievances with the the NATO arrangement, but every sane observer in the western world still acknowledge its existential importance, and his tactless style of diplomacy makes it harder for the essential alliance to reach a satisfactory resolution of these longstanding squabbles.
The die-hard fans and the Russian dictator love it, though, and we’re not sure which explains Trump’s rants. Despite the fissures in an alliance that won the Cold War and has mostly resisted Russia’s revanchist ambitions Trump’s rhetoric somehow delights those Americans who resent those smarty-pants Euro-trash countries, and we don’t doubt that figures in his calculations. There’s an ongoing special counsel investigation into the Russian meddling in America’s past presidential election that pretty much only Trump and his most die-hard fans and the Russian dictator accept as an actual fact, and we’d hate to think that past shady dealings with the Russkies is why Trump seems intent on undoing a post-war world order of trade relations and diplomatic alliances.

— Bud Norman

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If This is Thursday, This Must Be Belgium

President Donald Trump’s first foreign trip went well enough through its first six days, with some potentially significant successes offsetting a few relatively minor if undeniably embarrassing missteps, but all along even his most ardent well-wishers had to admit to a certain nervousness about how long that would last. On Thursday Trump was in Belgium for a summit of North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, and our worst fears were largely realized.
The date always struck us as fraught with peril, as Trump had won the presidency while railing that NATO was an “obsolete” federation of deadbeat nations free-riding on America’s on America’s gullible generosity, but upon taking office he made a few steps back from that position. He declared that NATO was “no longer obsolete,” seemed unembarrassed to admit that he’d said some things before he knew much about NATO but that he knew better now, and the high-ranking foreign policy officials he’d appointed went to further lengths to reassure our alliance partners, but he’d occasionally lapse back to campaign rhetoric. During a rather awkward meeting in Washington with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel he handed her a multi-billion dollar invoice for what he thought was owed for American defense spending on behalf of Germany over the past decades, which was more widely reported in the German press than in America’s, and by the time he landed in Belgium there was no guessing what he might have to say.
What he had to say when he took his turn at the podium started well enough, with kinds words for Merkel and a nod to British Prime Minister Theresa May before asking for a moment of silence of the victims of a recent terrorist attack in Britain, and he recalled how NATO had invoked it’s Article Five that an attack on one was attack on all after the terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York in 2001. After that he mostly went on about how most of the NATO nations are free-riding on the gullible shoulders of American taxpayers and he was there to demand back payments. He noted the opulence of the newly-built NATO headquarters where he was speaking, boasted that he’d promised himself not to ask how much it cost, and seemed to imply it was a nice little building they had there and it would be a shame if anything happened to it.
Trump was undeniably correct in noting that the vast majority of NATO’s members hadn’t spent their promised 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense spending, and his most ardent admirers thus have a plausible argument that he’s staking out an ingeniously outrageous opening bargaining according to the art of the deal. This should prove convincing to that 25 percent or so floor of public support that Trump enjoys no matter what, but it’s a harder sell to the rest of both the left and the right. The same left that wanted ┬áto surrender in the Cold War is suddenly talking tough about Russia, while the establishment right that navigated the conflict to a favorable conclusion is fuming that the NATO alliance needs to be dealt with behind the scenes rather than in pubic speeches. That 2 percent of GDP rule was gently pressed behind the scenes even by the administration of President Barack Obama, our NATO partners have been upping the ante ever since, and although thy were coming around at this point it’s hard to see how Trump’s public scolding will urge them along.
Trump’s most ardent admirers will admire his forthright America First stand, but all the international footage shows the heads of state of our NATO allies looking decidedly less enthusiastic about it, and they’re all accountable to British and French and Belgian and other local opinions that have not yet succumbed to Trumpism. The art of the real estate deal and the art of diplomacy are decidedly different, and although we wish him well we can’t help thinking that Trump doesn’t know the difference.The video footage of our NATO allies was far less ebullient than Trump with his Sunni Arab friends from a few days before, and Trump had a few more of the embarrassing missteps on Thursday, including some footage of him seeming to shove his way past the head of state from newly-joined NATO partner Montenegro to get his way to the front of a a photo op, and a couple of awkward handshakes with the French President whose Vichy-derived opponent Trump had more or less endorsed, and all in it all it added up to another bad news cycle.
Meanwhile, back in the states, the news cycle was no kinder. The lead story on most of the network news was that Trump’s son-in-law, the 36-year-old Jared Kushner who has been charged with negotiating Middle East peace being the go-between in our dealings with China and ending America’s opioid crisis and reinvent its federal government, was also the focus of a federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. Russia was no doubt pleased by Trump putting the squeeze on America’s NATO allies, and those looks on our NATO allies’leaders faces, and how those NATO negotiations are likely to go from here. The Republican congressional candidate who was arrested for assaulting a reporter on election eve wound up winning a special election in Montana, possibly because most of the votes were cast before it happened, but that probably won’t help much in the rest of the world and its opinion polls.
As much as we’re rooting for America and its established principles of foreign policy, we can’t shake a certain nervousness about how Trump is negotiating this darned convoluted art of diplomacy. We’ll continue to regard all those sudden Cold Warriors on the left with suspicion, but neither do we trust that the president or his son-in-law is truly putting America or anybody else first.

— Bud Norman

Complications at Christmastime

On Monday an asylum seeker from the Islamic world who had been welcomed into Germany drove a large truck into a crowded Christmas celebration in Berlin, killing at least 12 and injuring dozens more, and a suit-and-tie-wearing Turkish police officer shot a Russian diplomat at an art opening in Ankara, leaving the envoy dead on the floor as he shouted as he shouted about the bloody war being waged in the town of Aleppo and the rest of Syria. Donald Trump was chosen by the Electoral College to be the next President of the United States, too, and the pre-Christmas news is as complicated as ever.
All the details are still unclear from latest the news reports, but the broader facts that have already been established of the matter in Berlin seem clear enough. An all-too-familiar case of a radicalized Islamist waging war against a country that had offered him refuge from war, which no matter how the news puts it in German or English will only harden Germany’s growing opposition to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcoming policies and bolster American support for president-elect Trump’s campaign promises of “extreme vetting.” Every country’s politics and press will somehow complicate it, but it really is as simple as that.
All the gory details of the videotaped murder in Ankara are by now well established, but the broader implications of the act are still muddled. A North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally failed to provide adequate security for a diplomat from Russia, which has lately been very pesky for the alliance, and it was a radicalized member of the country’s police forces that did the deed, so it makes for a thorny situation even without all those videotaped shouts about Aleppo and Syria before the assassin was gunned down. The bloody war in Syria involves the mass-murderous Assad regime striving to retain power against a diverse array of rebel forces, the terror-sponsoring and soon to-be-nuclear-armed apocalyptic suicide cult in Iran, the Iranians’ good friends the Russians, who have supplied much of the firepower that has been brought down on Aleppo and the rest of Syria, of course neighboring Turkey, which has seen a destabilizing swarm of refugees pouring across its border and has shot down a Russian plan as part of its extremely complicated-by-the-Kurds-and-all-that response, along with some American efforts on behalf of some rebels we are assured are not radicalized.
All of which makes it unclear to us just what that suit-and-tie-wearing assassin was shouting about as he gunned down that Russian diplomat. He clearly didn’t like how Russia has been meddling in the Syrian conflict, as we don’t, although not so ardently, but with so many sides to choose from there’s no telling which he picked, and we’re having some difficulty with that choice ourselves, and we note that even our NATO ally and former “special friend” Turkey has lately been flirting with the Russians. That suit-and-tie-wearing assassin probably won’t wind up like that scraggly anarchist who shot Archduke Ferdinand down and wound up starting World War I, but it certainly is a mess that Trump finds himself with.
Trump is undeniably unsullied by any of this, as he was busy firing some b-lister or another on “Celebrity Apprentice” while President Barack Obama was drawing obviously bluffed red lines in the sands of Syria, and offering misspelled “reset buttons” to the Russians, and dismissing the Islamic State that figures so prominently not only in that Syrian conflict but many of those attacks in western countries, and “leading from behind” a pointless war against a pacified Libyan dictator that wound up with an American diplomat and three other brave American souls dead and his party out of White House, but Trump still complicates things still further. He’s the impulsive sort who urged on that Libyan war, and then lied that he was against it all along, and he seems to prefer InfoWars and The National Enquirer as a source of information about what’s going on in the world, and until we see his tax returns we’ll be somewhat suspicious about his own flirtation with the Russians.
All through his remarkably successful campaign Trump had very nice things to say about Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and boasted about the very nice things Putin had said about him, and he promised that Putin would never invade Ukraine and later said it was not necessarily a big deal that he actually had, and talked openly about how NATO wasn’t such a great deal, which always concerned former Russian puppet states and not the increasingly radicalized Turkish state. Since he won on this Russophile platform he has scoffed at the CIA’s conclusion that the Russians interfered in the election, made several high-level appointments with economic ties to Russia, and still hasn’t released those tax returns or any other financial disclosures that would surely prove he doesn’t already have some ongoing deal with the Russians.
Perhaps Trump’s friendly relationship with Putin will fulfill his promise to eliminate the Islamic State, but so far Putin seems more interested in bombing whichever less assuredly less-radicalized American-backed faction poses the greatest threat to the Assad regime, which is so closely aligned with the same Iranians that Trump has promised to negotiate a better nuclear deal with, and there’s always a chance that even an apocalyptic suicide cult will bend to the well to two of world’s three great nuclear powers, but so far Putin seems confident that any Iranian nuclear missiles won’t be landing in Moscow and indifferent to any that might fall on New York, so it’s going to take a difficult negotiation to work all that out. Tough talk of mutually assured destruction worked well during the Cold War, or at least it has so far, but back then there always tax returns and blind trusts involved. In the Christmas season of this crazy election year, after eight years of Obama, it all seems very complicated.
This is the Christmas season, though, and this will be the eighth of the Obama years, and we’ll trust that despite the best efforts of that refugee in Germany the holiday will still be celebrated and that despite that assassin in Turkey another world war won’t interrupt it.

— Bud Norman