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Meanwhile, Far Away in the Far East

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

— Bud Norman

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The President’s I.Q. vs. the Late Night Comics

The topic of all the late night comedy show monologues on Tuesday night was all too predictable. In an interview with Forbes Magazines published Tuesday morning President Donald Trump boasted of his scores on intelligence quotient tests, and that’s like catnip to all the catty and Trump-hating comics on late night television.
Trump walked right into it with his response to a question about recent reports that his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had called the president an expletive-deleted sort of “moron,” which had gone conspicuously undenied by Tillerson during an otherwise obsequious public statement and provided loomed large in the day’s news cycle and provided plenty of late-night fodder for the comics. The president plausibly denied the widely-verified and conspicuously undenied reports as “fake news,” but couldn’t help adding that “if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare I.Q. tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.”
As die-hard a Trump supporter as you might be, it takes a heart of stone to deny those smug liberal late-night comics their cheap laughs about it. Late night audiences and pretty much everyone else knows that the really smart guys don’t brag about how smart they are, even if the late night comics do, in a clear way, and that a President who’s making that boast in response to the by-now-apparently true stories that his Secretary of State called him an expletive-deleted sort of “moron” is in an even more ridiculous position.
Trump’s die-hard supporters can rightly note that he’s very wealthy, although several reliable publications report he’s only as a third as rich as he claims, and he did indeed win the presidency, although he had the extraordinary good fortune to be running against Hillary Clinton and still finished second in the popular and by now there’s no denying that the man does possess an extraordinary intelligence of a certain sort. He’s had some spectacular personal and financial failures in his historic career, but enough successes that he’s wound up with an undeniable fortune and an objectively hot third trophy wife and the White House, so he can’t be so dumb as those late night comics claim.
There are all kinds of smarts, though, and not all of them are well matched to the challenges of statesmanship. Trump’s challenge to his Secretary of State’s I.Q. score involves a very perilous situation on the nuclear-armed Korean peninsula, and comes in the middle of another feud with the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee about the president’s temperament and stability, along with other pressing legislative matters requiring the votes of numerous other congressional Republicans the president has been feuding with, and even Trump’s most die-hard supporters are struggling to make it sound reassuringly smart.

— Bud Norman

A Corker of a Feud

Reality shows usually derive their drama from petty disputes between the main characters, and President Donald Trump’s current action-packed series is no exception to the rule. Trump’s latest spat with Tennessee’s Republican Sen. Bob Corker, though, is likely to spill over into the real reality.
If you’ve been following the show since it debuted with the main character descending from the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy, you might recall Corker as the mild-mannered and impeccably mainstream Senator who was one of the first Grand Old Party establishment types to endorse Trump’s candidacy after Trump had all but wrapped up the Republican nomination. Corker even so went so far as to describe Trump to MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” as “courteous, kind, and respectful,” and “not at all what people think,” and his name was floated as a possible pick for Vice President or Secretary of State, but since then the relationship has gone sour.
As chairman of the Senate’s foreign relations committee Corker shepherded a Russian sanctions bill that was clearly intended to curtail Trump’s ability to negotiate with that country. Following Trump’s widely criticized response to the deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Virginia, Corker was one of several congressional Republicans who joined in the criticism, going so far as to say “The President has not been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to demonstrate in order to be successful.” During the recent episodes when Trump was feuding with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over his efforts to negotiate a peaceful resolution to the conflict with North Korea, Corker that Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Chief of Staff John Kelly were among the were among the few administration officials “that help keep the country from chaos.”
On Sunday Trump did his usual illiterate counter-punching with a series of three “tweets” firing back at Corker, all with the usual vehemence. “Senator Bob Corker ‘begged’ me to endorse him for re-election reelection in Tennessee. I said’NO’ and he dropped (said he could not win without…” one read, which was continued in the next “tweet” with “… my endorsement.) I said ‘NO THANKS!’ He wanted to be Secretary of State, I said “NO THANKS!” He is also largely responsible for the horrendous Iran deal!” The third “tweet” added “Hence, I would fully expect Corker to be a negative voice and stand in the way of our great agenda. Didn’t have the guts to run!”
The part about Corker being largely responsible for the Iran deal is entirely untrue, as Corker was an outspoken critic and a key reason President Barack Obama didn’t dare submit it to the Senate for ratification as a treaty and thus had to sign it as a presidential agreement, which is why Trump should be grateful he can now undo it by executive action. Corker contends that Trump had called him to offer his endorsement as an inducement to run again, that he withdrew his name for consideration for Secretary of State before Trump reached a decision, and that he’s not seeking for re-election for reasons other than cowardice. Given both what we’ve learned about both men over their long public lives, we’re inclined to believe Corker on each count.
In any case Corker isn’t running for reelection and is all the more unintimidated by Trump’s “tweets.” He responded with a phone call to The New York Times to categorically deny all of Trump’s “tweeted” claims, and to say that the president is treating his office “like a reality show” and that his handling of the North Korean crisis puts the country “on the path to World War III.” Corker even went to his own “Twitter” feed to opine that “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.”
The spat has received plenty of media attention, of course, and most of the commentary has been about how it will affect Trump’s ability to get his legislative agenda passed. Republicans can only afford to lose three votes from their slim majority in the Senate, which includes “Lyin'” Ted Cruz and “Little” Marco Rubio and the ugly Rand Paul and the unheroic John McCain, among several other members that Trump has gone out of his way to insult, so the general conclusion has been that enmity of the gutless Corker will likely further complicate the art of the legislative deal for Trump. There’s a counter-theory on the talk radio shows that Trump’s feuds with his own party are a brilliant strategy, which involves burning down the Republican party and bring forth a Trump-ian Phoenix from the ashes in order to defeat the almost-as-hated Democrats, but it’s hard to see that playing out soon enough to get anything passed before the next mid-terms.
So long as the Republicans are blamed for their legislative failures and the Republican president is held blameless that will probably be fine with Trump, but we worry Americans in general and Republicans in particular might have bigger problems. Corker is a fellow mild-mannered and impeccably mainstream Republican, even if he isn’t so wised-up as ourselves that he once went on cable television to describe Trump as “kind, courteous, respectful,” and we think he might be right about the adult day care at the White House with the adult supervision occasionally gone missing.
We’re not the only ones who can’t shake that nagging worry, or even the only Republicans. Corker claims most of his colleagues share his concerns, and so far few congressional Republicans have taken a public stand with Trump in in feud, and a very stalwart Pennsylvania GOP congressman from Pennsylvania who’s also not seeking went on the MSNBC cable network to admit his own worries. The latest poll from the Associated Press has Trump at a new low approval rating of 32 percent, with only 27 percent of women favorably inclined, and more worrisome it showed a positive 67 percent among Republicans. That’s a landslide in a general election, but in the past few hyper-partisan decades presidents have usually scored around 90 percent in their own parties, with the political Mendoza line set at around 80 percent, and the defection of nearly a third of the Republican grass-roots and a significant number of its elected representatives should give pause to the other two-thirds of the party.
Stay tuned, though. According to another recent episode, this is just the calm before the storm. Also, there’s an intriguing subplot involving Trump’s first wife and his third wife and First Lady to keep you diverted until the next twist.

— Bud Norman

The Un-Calm Before the Storm

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

— Bud Norman

“Tweet”-le Dee and “Tweet”-le Dumb

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

— Bud Norman

Two Tales of One Speech

President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the entire world from the podium at the United Nations on Tuesday, but as always he seemed to be speaking mostly to his fans. As always the fans loved it, even if the UN-bashing was watered down somewhat from the campaign speeches, and the rest of the world was less enthusiastic.
After opening the speech with some self-congratulatory talk about the American stock market and unemployment rates, both of which have indeed lately improved at a slightly better pace than before he took he office, Trump welcomed the UN’s general assembly to his home town of New York City as if they had recently arrived solely to hear him speak. After that he got to more substantive matters, including a threat to completely annihilate North Korea, a warning that America will no longer share its traditional burdens in enforcing world order elsewhere, a promise that America would no longer attempt to impose its values of freedom and democracy on an unwitting world, some harsh criticisms of certain countries that are unfree and undemocratic, some more subtle criticisms of certain other countries that are also unfree and undemocratic but more formidable foes, and a full-throated announcement of the “America First” policy he successfully ran on.
The fans surely loved almost all of it, and the rest of the world will have a hard time arguing with much of the speech.
A threat by an American president to utterly annihilate another nation is unusual in a UN speech, but that has long been the unavoidable American policy in response to a nuclear attack, which North Korea has lately been threatening in clear terms, so Trump might as well have said so. Using the taunting “Rocket Man” nickname for the nutcase North Korean dictator that Trump had previously “tweeted” was unnecessary and probably not helpful, and we along with most of the rest of the world would have preferred some added lines about our hopes for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but Trump is still on the same solid ground as any other American president would be in vowing a devastating response to a nuclear attack against America. He also seemed to leave room for a preemptive nuclear attack based on intelligence reports of an imminent threat, though, and given Trump’s past remarks to the world press about the unreliability of America’s intelligence community and his harsh criticisms of its previous preemptive military actions that’s a more complicated matter.
Trump is also on solid ground with his complaints that America has borne an unfair share of the burden of enforcing the world order, along with the implicit argument that the UN is charging us too much for its small role, but right now is probably not the best time to be making that argument. Trump’s savvy UN ambassador Nikki Haley has recently convinced both the Chinese and Russian members of the Security Council to sign on to harsh sanctions against North Korea, which might prove helpful if either country is as good as their word, and there’s still a chance that a peaceful resolution worked out in the UN will make our outsized bills to the usually worthless organization well worth the cost. Trump did tamp down his past criticisms of the UN and didn’t threaten a complete withdrawal, though, so the disappointment of his fans should be well compensated by the relief of the rest of the world.
By now both the American left and right and all those Trump fans who fit somewhere in that spectrum agree the country shouldn’t be imposing all of its values on the rest of the world, and the rest of the world surely won’t argue with that, but Trump’s oration leaves plenty of room for other arguments. He spoke of each nation’s sovereign right to settle its own domestic squabbles, but singled out North Korea and Iran and Venezuela for scorn about they’re handling it, and didn’t make clear what standards he expected from the rest of the world. North Korea and Iran and Venezuela well deserve America’s scorn, and whatever pressure America can apply, but so do China and Russia and other more formidable foes that Trump left largely unmentioned, and at this point a Trump Doctrine seems vague.
Trump made it clear that his guiding principle is “America First,” and he rightly noted that every American president has had the same priority and that every other world leader has also put his nation’s interest first, so the rest of the world has only self-interested arguments about that. Still, those Americans who aren’t fans of Trump, along with the rest of the world, can argue Trump doesn’t espouse an enlightened view of America’s self-interest. That “America First” slogan always bothered us, given its historic association with the pre-World War II isolationists who were sure America would fare just fine in a world dominated by the Axis powers, and it doesn’t sound any better coming from Trump.
It could have been a lot worse, though, and we’ll take some solace in our longtime and old-fashioned Republican conviction that the United Nations isn’t really that big a deal. Our reading of the English language  editions of the foreign press suggests that the rest of the world mostly regards Trump as a boastful and boisterous buffoon, so we’re left wondering how they’re taking the speech, and worrying if Trump cares about that so long as the fans are pleased.

— Bud Norman

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

The Days Grow Short When You Reach September

Labor Day went well around here, with the Wichita Wingnuts heading into the double-A American Association playoffs with a 4-1 regular season finale win over the Salina Stockade that featured several defensive gems, a hospitable old hippie friend of ours charbroiling copious amounts of bratwurst and burgers and other red Kansas meat while handing out Pabsts and blaring old Doors records on the sound system, and the weather was nice and hot. Still, there was no shaking that melancholy feeling the holiday always brings.
Although the autumnal equinox is still a couple of weeks away and the warm weather is likely to linger past that, today nonetheless marks the end of the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer. School is back in session, Congress is ending its recess, and by longstanding social agreement everybody else also gets down to serious business. The rigorously timed violence of football has already started to supplant the more leisurely paced and gentlemanly sport of baseball, the white shoes and straw hats are replaced by more somber apparel, school buses are once again slowing traffic, and conferences are being convened all over to assess the various messes the summer has left us in, and what might become of it in the fall.
The reconvened Congress finds itself with plenty of work to do. Summer’s end brought a thousand-year-flood that left America’s fourth-most-populous city under several feet of water, so they’ll have to find some way to pitch in on the calamitous cost of that, which wouldn’t be easy in the best of circumstances. In these circumstances they also face hard and fast end-of-the-month deadlines to pass a continuing spending resolution to keep the government fully open and a debt-ceiling increase to pay for it, which is always hard enough even without a thousand-year natural disaster to help pay for, and that’s not to mention the nutcase North Korean dictatorship that’s been making increasingly plausible threats to start a nuclear war that would make that thousand-year-flood look like a minor inconvenience.
There’s also the complicating factor of Trump, and everything he’s been up to over the summer. The Republican-controlled Congress was never technically in recess, for fear that Trump would make some crazy recess appointment to inoculate himself from the ongoing congressional probes into “Russia,” and nothing that has transpired during their unofficial vacation has likely been reassuring to them. Trump threatened to force a government shutdown unless all the spending resolutions and debt ceiling increases and whatnot included funding for his campaign promise of a border wall, which is a cause few other Republicans and absolutely no Democrats are willing to fight for, but that was before the thousand-year flood happened so there’s some hope Trump once again won’t make good on his threats. He’s also ramping up the anti-immigration rhetoric on other fronts, and although there are plausible arguments for some of them this probably isn’t the best month to be making them.
Throw in the nutcase North Korean dictatorship threatening a nuclear war and Trump’s intemperate responses, the leaks about “Russia” that are reaching thousand-year-flood levels, and the more open animosity between the Republicans in Congress and the relatively newly-fledged Republican in the White House, along with the ongoing fact that the Democrats are as always a complete disaster, and it looks to be an anxious September. The political consequences of not offering needed help to the flooded fourth-most populous city of the country or allowing the government to shut down its assistance would be dire, though, and the federal default that would shortly follow a failure to pass another damned debt-ceiling increase would be comparable to a nuclear war, so we’ll hold out hope that all the self-interested parties involved will reach some mutually beneficial agreement just ahead of the hard-and-fast deadlines.
In the meantime we have own bills our to pay, as we’re sure you do, and we’ll trust that most of the rest of us will somehow get down to such necessary business. There’s still some baseball left to provide solace, and not long after that ends basketball season starts up, with the Wichita State University Wheatshockers looking like a championship contender, and there will always be another summer, perhaps one more lazy yet not quite so hazy or crazy as the past one, and hope springs eternal.

— Bud Norman

An Uneasy Labor Day

Labor Day is supposed to provide a brief respite from the news, but lately there is no escape.
On Sunday the nutcase dictatorship running North Korea successfully tested a thermonuclear bomb five times more powerful than anything in its previous arsenal, which comes shortly after provocative tests of long-range missiles that could reach as far America’s west coast, and follows decades of verbal provocations that have lately been ramped up to an alarming level. This seems a particularly inopportune time to pick petty fights with our longstanding allies in the very sane democracy running South Korea, but that is exactly what President Donald Trump has chosen to do.
Trump “tweeted” shortly after North Korea’s nuclear test that South Korea’s ongoing efforts to reach a diplomatic solution to the crisis amounted to “appeasement,” adding that the North Koreans “only understand one thing,” with an exclamation mark added for emphasis, and he also reportedly instructed his aides to begin preparations for a unilateral withdrawal from a free trade agreement with South Korea. Neither stand seems to comport with the very complicated facts of the situation, and neither seem likely to do anyone any good.
South Korea’s efforts at diplomacy are easily understandable, given the devastation that the country would suffer even in a brief war involving only conventional weaponry, but Trump should be aware that they’ve also backed up their efforts with a strong military posture. The South Koreans are currently conducting bombing drills, practicing ballistic missile strikes on key North Korean targets, and defiantly continuing other large-scale military exercises with American forces. They’ve also reluctantly agreed to proceed with a American-made missile defense system that President Barack Obama negotiated, all the more reluctantly after Trump tried to make them pay billions of dollars for the equipment that is mostly intended to shoot down any missiles heading toward America’s west coast, and won’t offer any protection from the old-fashioned artillery barrages that could rain down on the more than 10 million people of Seoul who are just 30 miles away from the supposedly demilitarized border.
So far as we can tell South Korea hasn’t offered any concessions of land or other strategic advantages to maintain the tenuous peace, which is the definition of appeasement that has informed the past many centuries of diplomacy, and our guess is that after 54 years of coping more or less peacefully with their nutcase neighbors to the north they know them better than Trump ever could.
There are some strong arguments to be made against that free trade agreement with South Korea, which didn’t increase overall American exports to the country as promised and instead increased the trade deficit, and Americans can rightly complain that our very sane democratic allies have taken full advantage of some badly negotiated loopholes, but of course the facts are more complicated than that. There’s also a strong argument to be made that for all sorts of complicated reasons our exports to South Korea might have fallen even further without the agreement, that America’s trade deficits with other countries are no more troubling than your own swelling trade deficit with your local grocery store, and that in any case South Korea’s doubling of its financial investment in America’s economy since the agreement was made more than makes up for the difference.
All politics is local, too, and here in Kansas and other red states it’s widely noted that beef exports to South Korea have increased by an impressive 150 percent since the agreement. We suppose that the local aircraft plants have also been among the winners, and given how very good the world-class steaks are around here we’re sure that some epicurean South Koreans have also benefited.
Some future economic historian might definitively prove that both sides came out ahead, with South Korea relatively slightly better off from the deal, which is fine by us but is surely anathema to every fibre of Trump’s being. Trump might flip-flop on all sorts of other positions, but he has always maintained with a granite consistency that every negotiation comes down to a matter of winners and losers, and that no matter how far ahead you get if the other guy gets even further ahead you’re the loser. This view has always had a certain appeal to the “America First” types from pre-World War II up until now, and seems work well enough in the New York real estate biz, but it’s never been the way for the country’s preeminent economic, military, and cultural power to conduct business with the rest of the world.
Especially when you’re dealing with a complicated situation between a sane democratic ally and the nutcase dictatorship just to the north of them who might now be able to launch a missile with a thermonuclear bomb atop that could devastate one of the cities on America’s west coast. Trump is safely ensconced on the east coast, where he’s talking tough on both trade and thermonuclear war, and can be sure that no matter how devastating the war at least he and most of America came out the relative winner, but we’d prefer he take a broader view of the situation. That $20 billion or so trade deficit with the South Koreans is a mere rounding error in the context of a multi-trillion dollar economy, and nothing close to the hit that the stock markets the rest of the American economy would take if Seoul or Tokyo were flattened or an international trade war broke out, and there’s also a strong argument to be made for the lives of all those millions of people in Seoul and Tokyo and now America’s west coast, so now hardly seems the time for  petty spats with the South Koreans.
According to press reports all the military generals and Goldman-Sachs veterans that Trump has surrounded himself with have been urging that he speak more softly while still  wielding the big stick he inherited from all those previous hated presidents, as another populist Republican president with more bona fide tough guy credentials once advised, so we’ll hold out some hope they’ll prevail. During the campaign all of Trump’s reluctant supporters assured us that he’d hire such seasoned hands and heed their counsel, but he kept talking about how he knew more than the generals and that he was his own main security advisor and could make decisions without all the information that those squishy establishment types seemed to need, and we guess we’ll have to wait to see how that turns out.
In the meantime we plan to have some charbroiled Kansas beef and a couple of Colorado-brewed beers, watch some baseball, and otherwise celebrate America’s labor and take a day off from the rest of the news. We hope it turns out pleasantly for all you, as well.

— Bud Norman

The Latest Contretemps and the Coming Deadlines

The fallout from President Donald Trump’s response to the deadly violence that ensued from a white supremacist rally in Virginia over the weekend continued on Wednesday. Several more Republican congress members announced their objections to Trump’s statements, and the Fox News network reported that it couldn’t find any who were willing to speak on camera in the president’s defense. The Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a statement that was clearly an implicit rebuke of their Commander in Chief’s comments, and several administration officials were anxiously leaking that they had nothing to do with any of it. Also, the mayor of Phoenix asked Trump to cancel an upcoming rally in the city, and Trump had to shutter two advisory panels comprised of the nation’s top business executives and labor leaders rather than accept the mass protest resignations that were soon coming.
Sooner or later the news will move on to something else, including fresh twists on the old stories about “Russia” and White House in-fighting and the Republicans’ stalled agenda of unpopular legislation, but Trump will wade into all of them as a weakened president. The opprobrium of everyone from the leaders of the Democratic and Republican party to the nation’s top military brass to the chief executive officer of Campbell’s Soup will only shore up Trump’s “anti-establishment” credentials with his most stubborn base of support, but although they’re still numerous enough to fill an arena in Phoenix he’s going to need more help than that to start winning.
That stalled agenda of unpopular Republican legislations was already stalled and unpopular largely because of Trump’s low poll numbers, which are lower than any previous presidents’ had been at this point in a first term, and its hard to see how Trump’s past few days will win any new supporters. Trump’s past feuds with his party’s congressional leadership and his own cabinet members and the military’s top brass and the economy’s most successful executives were also largely responsible for the Republican agenda being both stalled and unpopular, which is what’s mostly driving those low poll numbers, and heightening the hostilities seems a questionable strategy.
An unpopular and defiantly anti-establshment president is going to have muster some some pretty ubermensch-ian will to power to prevail against the established order and the popular consensus that sustains it in the more consequential stories that are bound to soon come. The world is at least a troubled place as ever, with more than usual number of hot spots that have lately been forgotten, and it’s worth noting that many of our democratic allies Trump had already been feuding with also stated their objections to his statements on that white supremacist rally in Virginia. The Republicans’ stalled and unpopular agenda is coming up against some very hard deadlines next month, too, and some unifying presidential leadership is going to needed to avert all sorts of catastrophes.
By the end of September the Congress needs to pass some sort of convoluted continuing resolution or some such congressional gobbledygook to keep the government open for business, as well as yet another debt-ceiling increase to pay for it, lest the government suspend many services and perhaps even default on its debt. Both Trump and the more usual sorts of Republicans ran on a promise of a return to good old days of budgets bills that went through committee and got passed by both chambers of congress and were signed into law by the president, as well as promises of a quickly balanced budget, but at this point they’re highly unlikely to keep those promises right away, and even that convoluted continuing resolution and another round of borrowing is going to be hard to achieve.
The mild political consequences of a partial government shutdown and the far more dire economic ones of a default on the national debt give every Republican member of Congress some leverage in the upcoming negotiations on that convoluted continuing resolution, none of the Democratic members will have motive to offer the majority party any help, and Trump’s reputation as a master deal will be tested more severely than it was in any of his real estate or casino negotiations. When Trump’s casinos went bankrupt he came out many millions ahead while his creditors lost collective billions, and during the campaign he temporarily roiled the world’s markets by suggesting that American could win with the same methods, so we wouldn’t be surprised if the next dreary round of continuing resolution and debt-ceiling debates involves more than usual amount of brinksmanship.
We’ll hold out hope that most dire circumstances will somehow be forestalled, just as the more-than-usual-amount of brinkmanship with the North Koreans seems to have provided a brief respite from that round of news, and we’ll count on some sort of established order prevailing at least a little while longer. If the president could be please refrain from picking any more fights with the growing majority of Americans who aren’t among his most stubborn fans we’ll feel better yet.

— Bud Norman