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

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

— Bud Norman

Barack Obama’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure

More than eight exceedingly long years have passed since those “Hope and Change” days when Sen. Barack Obama was running his first successful presidential campaign, but we still well remember the giddy optimism of his die-hard supporters. One of the promises they all seemed to believe was that after eight exceedingly long years of George W. Bush’s crazy cowboy foreign policy had tarnished America’s reputation, the rest of the world would once again admire and respect America under the apologetically cosmopolitan leadership of a former community organizer and not-yet-one-term Senator. Judging by President Obama’s recent foreign travels, in the lame duck days of his not at all optimistic second term, we’d say that hasn’t quite panned out.
Obama’s trip east turned into the latest installment of the old “National Lampoon’s Vacation” franchise, with the ironic twist of the President of the United States playing the Chevy Chase role, along with some of the late Rodney Dangerfield’s “I get no respect” shtick. It began with Air Force One touching ground at the Beijing airport before the Group of 20 summit, with no red carpet or high-ranking handshakes or reassuring photo opportunities to greet the president, and without even the courtesy of one of those high-rise airplane ladders he wound up exiting from the belly the beast as he would in such hostile territory as Afghanistan, and a Chinese official wound up in a shoving match with the American press and shouting “This is our country, this is our airport” at National Security Adviser Susan Rice. There were further diplomatic statements from both sides regarding the matter, and none of them left any doubt it was an intentional insult to a President of the United States.
The president was there mainly to finalize his insane “Paris climate accord,” which is not a treaty because it would never be ratified by even a Democratic senate but is nonetheless binding enough to impose all sorts of onerous regulations on the American economy to make a meaningless gesture about a problem that might or might not exist, and apparently that was enough reason to endure the snub. The Chinese government’s only obligation under the “Paris climate accord” is to maybe think about doing something so absolutely stupid in another 14 years or so, and apparently that was enough to inspire such an official show of contempt.
During the big economic summit Obama also managed to outrage the Fleet Street press and its avid British readership, which has been an annoying habit of his since he first took office in those “Hope and Change” days and sent back a bust of Winston Churchill, by once again threatening Great Britain with trade recriminations for its exit from the European Union, which is by now a fact despite his earlier toothless threats. Moving on to Laos, the tour featured the President of the Philippines vowing that if the President of the United States brought up the subject of the Filipino death squads currently battling the country’s suspected drug dealers in a planned meeting he would say “son of a bitch, I swear at you.” With the Philippines’ effect on the global climate being rather minimal this was enough for Obama to briefly cancel the meeting, but after the usual the exchange of diplomatic statements the meeting went on and apparently no curse words were exchanged and nothing much of any other interest happened. Obama also took the occasion of being in Laos to pledge help with all those unexploded bombs that America dropped there some decades back, and to lecture some young Laotian students about how lazy Americans aren’t doing enough to help with climate change as such industrious and pre-industrial peoples such as themselves.
Meanwhile, Russian planes were making “unsafe close intercepts” on American planes over the Black Sea, the Iranian navy was harassing American warships in the Persian Gulf, and no ally nor rival anywhere in the world seemed to admire or respect the apologetic cosmopolitan leadership of the apologetically cosmopolitan American president. This comes at the end of eight long years of riling the allies everywhere from Poland and the Czech Republican to the more capitalist portions of Honduras, and appeasing the rivals in the insane Shiite theocracy of Iran and the troublemaking Sunnis of the Muslim Brotherhood, and “resetting” relations with Russia back to Cold War lines on the map of Ukraine, and confront China’s brazen territorial expansion with such timidity that even China’s targets are threatening to curse Obama’s mother.
There’s not so much talk of “Hope and Change” in this election year, and we certainly can’t find any. The Democratic nominee was Obama’s Secretary of State during the first four of the past eight disastrous years, and offered that emboldening “reset button” to the Russians, and although she is credibly credited with advising sterner policies at times one of those times was the disastrous deposing of a defanged Libyan dictator and the ensuing chaos that spread from that country. The Republican nominee talks much sterner stuff, to the point of proposing random torture on prisoners of war and killing their relatives and turning all their oil rights over to the Exxon Corporation, but he seems even friendlier to the Russians and until he releases tax returns there will be reasonable suspicions about just how friendly, and he was also outspokenly in favor of deposing that defanged Libyan dictator, although he now routinely lies and says he wasn’t, and he’s also openly speculated about not honoring America’s treaty obligations if he didn’t like the deal and starting trade wars with China, and he blames that crazy cowboy Bush and his lies for all the dysfunctions of the Middle East, and he’s spouted much other similar nonsense that doesn’t inspire much hope for positive change.
We’ll just have to get used it, we guess, and the rest of the post-American world will have to as well. Still, we can’t help thinking that all of us will wind up fondly recalling those good old crazy cowboy days.

— Bud Norman

Meanwhile, in the Rest of the World

Americans tend not to notice such things, what with the college basketball championship tournament looming and the economy continuing to sputter along and all the other domestic distractions hogging the news pages, but the rest of the world is rapidly spinning out of control.
It has not gone entirely unnoticed that Russia has effectively seized control of a good chunk of Ukraine, which involves Europeans and a villain reminiscent of the Cold War and is therefore the sort of international news that American media feel obliged to report, but the story has effectively stolen all the attention from equally unsettling developments elsewhere. China has taken the opportunity to engage in some old-fashioned land-grabbing of its own, taking an increasingly belligerent stance toward Japan over some obscure islands in the East China Sea and using warships to blockade the Filipino soldiers defending some other obscure islands nearby. South America’s salsa-dancing version of Marxism continues to implode in Venezuela, where the government continues to crack down on the popular uprising with a murderous brutality, and the lack of coverage conveniently spares it any international opprobrium and all the radical chic Chavezistas in Hollywood any embarrassment. The apocalyptic suicide cult that rules Iran continues its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, and even the ever-optimistic weenies of the European Union are no longer hopeful that diplomacy will stop them. Iran’s allies in Syria continue to massacre their people with wild abandon, the Syrian chemical weapons that the aforementioned Russian villain promised to take care of after the American president weaseled out of his “red line” declaration are still stockpiled, and even the ever-optimistic weenie Secretary of State John Kerry has reportedly judged our policy there a failure. Kerry has still found time to pursue his fool’s errand of an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord, but the only sign of progress to be found there is Israel’s reluctant release of some Palestinian terrorists.
This litany no doubt omits numerous other disasters currently occurring around the world, but it should suffice to suggest a world rapidly spinning out of control. It should also suffice to prompt a serious public discussion of America’s foreign policy, but this is probably too much to hope for until the basketball tournament is completed. For now all of these stories are but a quarrel in a far away country by people of which know little, to borrow British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s description of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, and until the effects of conflagration are felt here take little interest. That might happen sooner rather than later, however, and it’s not too early to start thinking about what America might be doing wrong. The stock market’s already taken a dive on the bankruptcies of a few Chinese firms, the American motorist’s next fill-up will be pricier because of the anxieties on the international oil market, and Chamberlain was not the first western idealist to be reminded of the historical lesson that land-grabbing dictatorships have always ended badly.
A serious public discussion might lead to the conclusion that America’s foreign policy is doing something seriously wrong, which is another reason so many of the media are reluctant to give these stories due prominence. Russia’s brazen disregard for its previous recognition of Ukraine’s borders began with an American effort to “re-set” relations on an apologetic basis by reneging on missile defense agreements with the former Russian puppets Poland the Czech Republic. China’s encroachments followed similar blandishments toward that expansionist dictatorship. Iran’s march toward nuclear Armageddon has been a response to the offer of an “open hand” and the administration’s embrace of the equally apocalyptic suicide cult of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which is yet another one of those disasters omitted from our litany. Syria’s brutality is being carried out with the certainty that it has nothing to fear from an administration that had out-sourced its “red line” to the same Russian villain now ruling much of Ukraine, and Venezuela’s is carried out with confidence that the radical chic Chavezistas in the administration won’t raise too much of a fuss.
The conclusion is so obvious that even the administration is lately taking a tougher line, with Kerry warning Russia that it has until Monday to begin leaving Ukraine or face serious consequences. Kerry isn’t clear on what those consequences might be, however, and it is even more unclear how they might counter the Russian troops being amassed on the Ukrainian border. Back in the domestic news we note that the administration’s Defense Secretary wants to cut the military to pre-World War II levels and the president’s proposed budget would have America spending less on national defense than on debt service payments that would fund the lion’s share of China’s military build-up, and we expect that the Russians and Chinese and Iranians and Syrians and the rest of the world’s troublesome countries have also noticed. Our erstwhile allies have probably noticed, too, and one can only hope that Americans eventually will as well.

— Bud Norman