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Another Scare from the Korean Peninsula

The nutcase dictatorship of North Korea has been a problem for America since before we were born, but lately it has become scarier than ever. Fox News had a story about the North Koreans recently loading cruise missiles aboard a patrol ship, the Washington Post reported they now have a nuclear missile small and light enough to fit atop the intercontinental ballistics missiles they’ve recently successfully tested, and on Tuesday President Donald Trump responded that “North Korea best not make any more threats” lest it be “met with fire and fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”
That successful ICBM test brought down severe economic sanctions on North Korea from the entirety of the United Nations, and Trump’s rhetoric drew the predictable bipartisan criticisms, but as usual neither seems to care much what the rest of the world thinks. As has been the case since before we were born there are no easy solutions to the problem, but this time around are openly threatening the hard ones. By now we’ve lived through more North Korea scares than we can recall, but this time around seems different.
As discomfiting as Trump’s remarks were, we won’t pile on the bipartisan heap with our usual criticisms. The critics rightly noted that Trump’s characteristically un-parsable language was eerily similar to the apocalyptic hyperbole the North Koreans have long spewed, but the past 50 years of more diplomatic language haven’t prevented this scary moment, so there might be something to to be said for saying things in a way the nutcase North Koreans understand. All through the past 50-plus scary years of both Democratic and Republican administrations America’s clearly understated policy has been that any nuclear attack on our soil will be met with a devastating response, which has thus far worked well enough with far more formidable enemies than the North Koreans, so we won’t object if Trump is merely overstating the same old policy in typically Trumpian fashion.
That ominously-named policy of mutually assured destruction maintained a relative peace in the post-nuclear age because America has has been demonstrably able to make good on the threat, so neither do we mind that Trump is proceeding apace with the previously scheduled war-game exercises with the South Korean democracy and other relatively sane Asian allies and other displays of America’s military might. We’re not sure if the more war-wary and wised-up generals and admirals who surround Trump signed off on that “fire and fury and frankly power” statement, but we’re sure the rest of it wouldn’t be happening without their assent, and we trust that like any soldiers they’re more interested in deterring a war than provoking one.
Which is not to say that Trump’s role in all of this isn’t also a bit discomfiting. His characteristically mangled English leaves some room for doubt about whether that “fire and fury and frankly power” would follow mere threats, and what levels of threat would trigger it, and sometimes there’s something to be said for more diplomatic language. On Tuesday he was “tweeting” that Fox News report full of the anonymously-leaked intelligence sources he usually rails against, seemed to be taking some heed of the Washington Post story with same intelligence agencies whose conclusions about Russian meddling in the past election he has scoffed at, and he wasn’t ready to meet the press and formulate anything at all reassuring. Should the hard solutions become necessary Trump will need bipartisan and widespread public support to pursue them, and so far he’s failed to achieve that. Most of the rest of the world tries to translate his un-parsable English and finds him a bit nutty, too, and that also doesn’t help.
Which is not to say that Trump is nearly as nutty at that nutcase North Korean dictatorship, though, and we hope that both the domestic and international audience will keep in mind that they’re bad guys of this scary moment. Trump’s intrepid if occasionally independent United Nations ambassador did a great job of bringing even the Russians and Chinese on board with the sanctions, and those planned war games exercises might prove an effective bargaining chip in yet another round of negotiations, and for now we can still hope that with the help of all those war-way and wised-up generals his famed real-estate-deal negotiating abilities will suffice to at least kick this radioactive can a bit further down the road toward some sensible solution. We’ll also hope that the nutcase North Korean dictatorship has a few war-wary and wised-up generals of its own, too.

— Bud Norman

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The Post and a “Tweet” and a Twist in the Russia Story

Over the weekend there was another big Washington Post scoop, another blast of “tweets” from President Donald Trump, and yet another intriguing twist in the ongoing story about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia.
The Post’s big story was about how President Barack Obama reacted to the intelligence community’s alarmed reports that Russia was meddling in various ways with the American presidential race, all in favor of Trump and by the direct order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and it seems to support an unnamed administration official’s conclusion that “We choked.” Although Obama ordered that “cyber bombs” be planted in Russian computer systems to be set off if needed, and confronted Putin about the matter at an international summit, the article notes that Russia suffered only “largely symbolic” economic sanctions for its attempt to sabotage an American election
Trump has previously expressed doubt about whether Russia did anything at all in the election, saying that the e-mails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and disseminated by Wikileaks could have been the work of anyone from the Chinese to “some guy sitting on his bed who weighs 400 pounds,” but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to take a swipe at Obama. “Just out: The Obama Administration knew far in advance of Nov. 8 about election meddling by Russia,” Trump “tweeted,” adding “Did nothing about it. Why?” Continuing the theme, he later “tweeted” that “Since the Obama Administration was told way before the 2016 election that the Russians were meddling, why no action? Focus on them, not T!”
Which makes for an interesting twist in the longer-running story, or at least in the way Trump tells it. Instead of continuing to cast doubt on the conclusions of 15 separate intelligence agencies, and the findings of his own Central Intelligence Director, and scoffing at anything at all that runs in The Washington Post or contains anonymous sources, Trump is now outraged that Russia did indeed try to help him get elected and wants the public to direct its outrage at Obama for allowing it to happen. One of the shriller right-wing talk radio hosts we scan across while driving was making essentially the argument a week earlier, and the fans calling in all found it very convincing, but we wonder how it will play with anyone other than Trump’s most loyal supporters or Obama’s most determined critics. It also invites arguments that Trump will have trouble “tweeting” his way through.
The Post’s story was a novella-length opus, so we’re guessing that Trump’s notoriously short attention span didn’t get him to the part where it did a pretty good job of answering the question about why the Obama administration didn’t respond more forcefully. As the reporters document, the intelligence was incomplete about the Russians’ capabilities and what might be provoked, the sanctions imposed after Russia’s violation of the sovereignty of Ukraine and Georgia didn’t leave many more options, and like most Americans Obama incorrectly assumed that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton was going to win anyway. We’ve spent the last 10 years criticizing Obama and are as eager to take another swipe at his sorry presidency as anyone, but in this case we can’t think of anything he might have done that would anyone.
As if to further confuse the issue, Trump also “tweeted” that “Obama Administration official said they ‘choked’ when it came to acting on Russian meddling of election. They didn’t want to hurt Hillary?” We’re not at all clear how quashing any effort Russian effort to get Trump elected would have helped Clinton, and we can’t imagine anything that Obama might have done that would have pleased Trump. A White House address warning that the Russians were actively working to elect Trump would surely have been scoffed at by Trump, even with the 15 intelligence agencies all backing it up, and given the suspicious mood of the electorate we doubt that any of Trump’s supporters would have believed a word of it or cared much even if they did. Even now, we suspect most Trump supporters are outraged that Obama let Putin do all those nasty things that Trump previously said he might not have done.
Today’s a new day, and we expect that the White House communications team will be explaining how the “tweets” speak for themselves but don’t necessarily mean what they say. An earlier Trump “tweet” following a Washington Post story about Trump being investigated by a special counsel on possible obstruction of justice charges griped that he was being investigated because he’d fired the Federal Bureau of Investigation director because of a recommendation by the man who was investigating him, which was wildly wrong on several levels, and by the weekend one of his lawyers was on all the shows insisting that Trump was not under investigation by anyone. This is a common post-“tweet” occurrence, and you can between that Mike Huckabee’s daughter or some other spokesperson will be explaining how Trump still doesn’t necessarily believe in that Russian meddling that he was blaming Obama for.
They’ll pretty much have to, because all the questions that reporters might not be allowed to recorded are going to about what the Trump administration is doing about Russia’s meddling in the election. Until The Washington Post provided an opportunity to attack Obama with it Trump had never definitively acknowledged that Russia had done anything untoward during the election, his transition team made an aborted effort to lift all those largely symbolic sanctions, even the Senate’s Republicans felt obliged to vote for legislation that would not allow Trump to ease the rest of the sanctions, and there are all those other Russian ties and undisclosed meetings between Trump’s close associates and everything else about that Russian meddling that Trump seems have at long last acknowledged.
These days Obama seems to be enjoying his post-presidency a lot more than Trump seems to be enjoying his presidency, and we think he’ll happily accept history’s verdict that he did choke in one of his final crises so long as Trump is lured into admitting that the Russians connived to help his campaign. How Trump responds to that fact is likely to be far more important to how history eventually regards him.

— Bud Norman

Iran, Nukes, and the Parameters of a Robust Debate

There’s still no agreement with Iran regarding its nuclear weapons program, just “Parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” for an agreement, and the Iranians don’t agree that they’ve even agreed to that, but the president assures us this is progress toward peace in our time.
The “JCPOA,” which will soon be one of those must-know acronyms, does seem to have progressed from the administration’s opening bargaining positions but not toward anything that’s likely to result in peace. Even the sympathetic editorialists of The Washington Post concedes that “Obama’s Iran deal falls far short of his own goals,” noting that the heavily fortified Fordow plant and the rest of Iran’s nuclear centers will remain open, not one of the country’s 19,000 centuries will stop spinning, and that “when the accord lapses the Islamic republic will instantly become a threshold nuclear state.” This was enough for the Iranian negotiator Javad Zarif to boast of the concessions he had forced, assuring his countrymen that “We will continue enriching, we will continue research and development,” but he later tweeted that the president was lying about whether the sanctions against Iran would end with reliable verification of their compliance to even such a generous agreement or immediately upon it’s signing. Much more negotiation seems likely, although the president seems eager to have it wrapped up before the Republicans in Congress can scuttle the deal with a sanctions bill and public pressure can force enough Democrats aboard to override a promised veto, but thus far the Iranians don’t seem very agreeable to anything that would actually end their nuclear weapons program.
The president said in a Thursday news conference that he will “welcome a robust debate in the weeks and months to come,” but he also set some parameters for that debate. He argued that the only three options are whatever capitulating deal the negotiations might yield, war, or return to the sanctions. He claimed that his most prominent foreign critics were itching for a war, saying that “It’s no secret that the Israeli Prime Minister and I disagree about whether the United States should move forward with a peaceful resolution to the Iranian issue,” and dismissed the sanctions idea as a plan to “hope for the best.” So the “robust debate” will be between bloodthirsty Jews and starry-eyed dreamers and our very pragmatic president.
If the eventual agreement results in an Iranian nuclear bomb, which seems entirely possible if not likely, we’ll be siding with the bloodthirsty Jews and the starry-eyed dreamers. Even the president admitted in his news conference that it was economic sanctions that brought Iran to the negotiation table, and anyone else might notice that since the sanctions were eased the Iranians’ negotiating positions have hardened, and a bit more of those sanctions might force the kind of widespread revolt among the Iranian people that the president declined to back in ’09, and some further diplomatic and economic isolation and a military coalition promising a viable threat might further encourage some necessary regime change, and as risky as that might be it that doesn’t seem so hopeful as that “JCPOA.” We don’t desire war, nor do we believe that anyone in Israel or among our other nervous Middle East allies would prefer to it to a tenable peace, but if the Iranians are as insistent on war as they’ve acted during these negotiations it might as well come before they get a nuclear weapon rather than after.
The negotiations are expected to continue through June, and there might not be any agreement at all, unless the administration gives in to all of Iran’s demands, which likely include at least one of the Kardashian sisters before it’s all over, and even then the agreement could easily be nullified by a new president. We note the Iranians are sticking to their position that “the destruction of Israel is non-negotiatiable,” which probably won’t be a deal-breaker for the administration, and that they expect the Saudi Arabian government’s U.S.-backed war against Iranian-backed terrorist rebels in Yemen “will, God willingly, have no result other than Saddam’s fate for the aggressors and the U.S. that is the direct sponsor of this crime,” but surely some accommodation can be reached on that as well. Still, there seems to be a lot of talking left even within the Parameters for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and even within the far more constrained parameters of that robust debate the president says he’ll welcome.

— Bud Norman

A Pattern Emerges

President Barack Obama was one of the few world leaders who did not attend the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on Holocaust Memorial Day, just as he was one of the few world leaders who did not attend an earlier march in France protesting terror attacks that killed the staff of a satirical magazine and then four Jews at a Kosher market. He also won’t be meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu when the Israeli Prime Minister comes to Washington to deliver an address to Congress, and a pattern can be inferred.
Which is not to say we infer that the president has any animosity toward the Jewish people. The slight to France was eventually acknowledged as such by the White House, which dispatched aging hippie troubadour James Taylor to serenade them with “You’ve Got a Friend” as a token of regret. The administration issued a clear statement that it does not approve of the Holocaust, too, and its highest-ranking Jew was in attendance at the Auschwitz memorial while the president was trying to sooth relations with the new king of Saudi Arabia. The administration claims the president won’t be meeting with Netanyahu only because it doesn’t want to be seen as meddling in Israel’s upcoming elections, as well, and at least it won’t be denying Netanyahu a visa to make the speech. One might infer that the White House has no special affinity for the Jewish people, as it hard to imagine the president thrice passing up such prime opportunities to demonstrate his respect for Islamist theocracies, people who were shot in self-defense, openly homosexual athletes, or anyone else with a claim to victimization.
That part about not wanting to affect the Israeli elections is especially suspicious, since pretty much everyone in that country already knows that Obama does not want to see Netanyahu reelected, and the State Department is cooperating with an Obama-affiliated organization actively working for Netanyahu’s leftist opposition, and not meeting with a visiting head of state sends as clear a signal and meeting with him, and the administration is still sending out word through its favorite press organs that Obama can’t stand Netanyahu and is angry about the speech. Netanyahu was invited to make the speech by Republican House Speaker John Boehner, and accepted without the usual step of clearing it with the president, and those loyal press organs are happy to explain how it’s an outrageous breach of protocol that has endangered the American-Israeli relationship. To hear The New York Times tell, the Israeli ambassador who passed along the invitation should be declared persona non grata. We can’t recall the same outrage when Obama left Netanyahu cooling his heels for more than an hour at a White House meeting, or was escorted out the back door after yet another meeting, or when the ever-unnamed White House sources questioned Netanyahu’s courage with a barnyard epithet, or when any of Obama’s several other conspicuous breaches of protocol with Israel occurred over the past seven years, but by now Israel should be accustomed to such double standards.
That the White House is still fuming through the press suggests how very bad its relationship with the Jewish state, if not the Jewish people, has become. We suspect that the president is just as annoyed with the Republican majorities in Congress who invited his least favorite international figure to address America, but there is more involved than just domestic politics. Obama is no doubt worried that Netanyahu might persuade enough Democrats to join with the Republicans to override a veto against a bill imposing economic sanctions on Iran, and perhaps even persuade the American public that the president’s endless negotiations with Iran are only allowing that nutcase theocracy the time to build its nuclear arsenal, and those endless talks seem to be the president’s top priority in foreign affairs. An Iranian bomb would pose an existential threat to Israel, which does not seem a priority to the administration at all, and one can infer from that what one wants.

— Bud Norman

The Parties in Retreat

The Republicans and the Democrats are both in retreat, at least in the sense that they have adjourned to separate locations to discuss their strategies for the current legislative session. At the Democratic gathering President Barack Obama was vowing to “play offense,” while the reports from the Republican meeting suggest they’re in retreat in every sense of the word.
It remains to be seen how offensive Obama can be, even after all these years, but there’s no doubting that his boast to the Democratic congressional caucus’s confab at a Baltimore Hilton is more than just bluster. Leaks from the closed-door session indicate the president plans to veto an inevitable bill that would at long last allow construction of the XL Keystone Pipeline, as well as expected legislation imposing new economic sanctions on Iran to protest its continued efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, and both threats further confirm that Obama is in the “what the heck” stage of his presidency. Nixing the pipeline eliminates jobs, inhibits the oil boom that Obama has long resisted but now claims credit for, further annoys a Canadian government that will eventually wind up selling its oil to China, and will only compound any environmental damage to the earth when that carbon-emitting communist country gets its hands on the stuff. Obama would clearly prefer to continue the endless negotiations with Iran on a friendly basis while it builds a nuclear arsenal, and would reportedly rather impose sanctions on Israel on for building apartments to accommodate all the new arrivals from France and other increasingly Islamist countries, but the previous round of economic penalties was the only reason Iran even bothered to indulge the administration in its fanciful notions of a negotiated settlement of the issue. Both positions are so obviously wrong that even the general public can see it, which will matter more to the Democrats running for re-election or higher office in ’16 than it does to Obama, but we expect that the party’s usual discipline will prevail.

The Republicans, who have met in the charming little chocolate-making town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, are reportedly trying to work out their well-publicized intra-party squabbles. They seem sufficiently unified on the XL Keystone and Iran, and have a shot at prying enough poll-watching Democrats away to override a veto, but even if they fall short of the needed 60 votes at least they’re willing to inflict the political damage on the opposition with these and other popular proposals. The potential to set the party up for more significant victories down the road is there, and we are heartened to see the Republicans willing to seize it, but there’s also a worrisome possibility they will squander other opportunities.
On the immigration issue, where the House of Representatives has also challenged the president’s constitutionally dubious executive order to grant temporary amnesty to five million or so illegal immigrants, the most hopeful word from the summit is Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying that “We’re going to try to pass it, we’ll see what happens, if we’re unable to do that, we’ll let you know what comes next.” Even by McConnell’s standards of equivocation, this is not reassuring. Allowing five million illegal immigrants to stay and inviting a few million more to try their luck is also unpopular, but shutting down the Department of Homeland Security and allowing the mainstream media explain why entails significant political risks for the Republicans, so it is a tricky proposition to win a showdown. The Republican leadership has already pledged that it won’t resort to any drastic measures such as a partial temporary shut-down of the government, however, and it’s hard to see how anything less could pose a sufficient threat to the president’s rapidly expanding power.
We note that the Republicans’ retreat will include religious services, and find no mention in any of the press reports of such activities planned at the Democrats’ retreat, so at least the Republicans have a prayer.

— Bud Norman

Nelson Mandela, RIP

Former South African President Nelson Mandela died Friday at the age of 95, and he will be missed by all. The left will forever honor him for all he did to bring down his country’s racist apartheid regime, and the right will always admire him for the things he didn’t do after he gained power.
Most of the adulatory obituaries will stress Mandela’s actions against apartheid, which is understandable. The system of minority rule by the country’s European conquerors was outrageously unfair in its conception, unimaginably brutal in its enforcement, and entirely catastrophic in its results, while Mandela’s heroic opposition entailed 27 years of imprisonment and countless acts of physical and moral courage. It’s a story much loved by the left, which even now uses it to criticize the right for its alleged support of apartheid, but it’s less important and inspiring than what happened after apartheid was toppled and Mandela became his country’s first black president.
Among its other flaws the left’s favored narrative misstates the right’s position on apartheid during the time of Mandela’s struggle. While it is true that President Ronald Reagan opposed the left’s campaign to impose economic sanctions on the apartheid regime, and vetoed a bill that would have barred trade with South Africa, it was not because of an affinity for the system. Reagan publicly denounced apartheid as “morally wrong and politically unacceptable,” and applied much diplomatic effort to end it, but also argued that sanctions would impose more pain on the country’s black citizens than on the government that was oppressing them. The claim remains improvable, but neither can it be disproved, and liberals should take notice that the Obama administration is now making much the same argument for easing sanctions on an equally deplorable Iranian regime.
Conservatives were also cautious about what might happen in a post-apartheid South Africa, and not without reason. Mandela was a self-described communist, so there were legitimate concerns that his ascendancy to power in Africa’s economic powerhouse might tilt the balance of power toward a Soviet Union that was oppressing many millions more people behind the Iron Curtain. His wife was a mean piece of work who had participated in the sadistic killings of black rivals to Mandela’s African National Congress, and the ethnic rivalries within the black population that had long pre-dated the arrival of the Europeans seemed ready to explode in the absence of an authoritarian government. The record of black rule in post-colonial Africa was bleak, with economic devastation and mass starvation and brutal inter-tribal warfare the usual outcome, and there was little cause for hope that the outcome in South Africa would prove an exception to the rule. It was hard to imagine that anything might be worse than apartheid, but the conservative temperament is ever mindful that it was hard to imagine what could be worse than Czarist Russia, Bautista’s Cuba, or the Shah’s Iran, and that the Russians, Cubans, and Iranians all subsequently found out.
That the conservatives’ most dire predictions never came to pass is the most impressive part of Mandela’s story, but of less value for the liberals’ propaganda purposes. To the disappointment of leftists everywhere Mandela did not align the country with the Soviet Union, helping the Cold War come to a successful conclusion a short time later, nor did he impose the Afro-Marxist reforms that had made an economic basket case of the rest of sub-Saharan Africa in the post-colonial era, and with international sanctions lifted his country’s economy survived his more modest efforts. Mandela also proved a true Democrat, modestly declining the opportunity to assume the dictatorial powers that other African revolutionaries had killed for, joining Cincinnatus of ancient Rome and George Washington of early America as one of the few men in history to do so. Perhaps more importantly, Mandela rejected the race-conscious identity politics of the western left and stressed a commonality of man that began with forgiveness for the whites who had treated him so harshly, avoiding the mass killings of retribution that had brought so much misery to other African states. Perhaps it was pragmatism rather than principle, and based on the logical conclusion that killing all the white people in a land that had so long denied educational opportunities to its black people would have unhappy economic consequences for the surviving blacks, but in any case it worked.
South Africa did not become paradise under Mandela’s leadership. Lifting the heavy hand of apartheid unleashed a wave of murder and violence that has at times reduced South Africa to a Hobbesian state of nature, the economy remains a success only by the rock-bottom standards of South Africa, and all the manifest failings of human nature are as evident there as anywhere else. Still, it could have been worse. To see how much worse it might have been without Mandela one need only next door to Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe took over in the former apartheid country of Rhodesia and promptly proved all the conservatives’ predictions true. Mugabe was also a hero of the international left when he came to power, but neither the left nor the rest of the world will ever honor his name as it does Mandela’s.

— Bud Norman

A Deal of Worry

Everything about the deal that the Obama administration is trying to strike with the Iranian government regarding that country’s nuclear ambitions is worrisome. The Secretary of State assures the nation that “We are not blind, and I don’t think we’re stupid,” but it’s worrisome that a man in his position feels obliged to offer such assurances.
Blindness and stupidity are the most likely explanation for the deal, which would ease the international economic sanctions against Iran in exchange for promises of a suspension of some parts of the country’s nuclear program, so perhaps such denials are indeed obligatory. Israel’s Prime Minister has declared the deal “very bad,” which is worrisome because he’s usually right about matters so crucial to country’s continued existence and because it represents yet another example of America’s frayed relationships in the Middle East even if he’s wrong. Even the socialist surrender monkeys of France find the deal too appeasing, and have at least temporarily nixed it as part of the cumbersome six-country negotiating coalition, although it’s worrisome that they are the ones demanding firmness. The Saudis don’t seem at all confident that the deal will so much as delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, as they have now made arrangements with Pakistan to acquire some of their own, and the prospect of a nuclear arms race in a region so rife with hatred and fanaticism is about as worrisome as things get.
Although the Secretary of State touts the long experience of his diplomatic team, it is worrisome that a lead role is being played the ex-social worker whose previous experience with nuclear arms negotiations allowed the North Korean nutcases to acquire enough weapons to menace their part of their world. Worrisome, too, is that the ex-community organizer in charge of these negotiations won the presidency mocking his opponent for being concerned about such a “little country” as Iran and has since pursued an “open hand” relationship even as the country celebrates it hostage-taking revolution with clinched fists and shouts of “death to America.”
There’s always a chance that the French will continue to stand steadfast for Israel and all of the Sunni Arab countries that would be endangered by an Iranian nuclear bomb, although it’s worrisome that it has come to that. Enough of Israel’s remaining Democratic friends in the Senate might yet be convinced to the join the Republicans in continuing the sanctions, which have by all accounts seriously hindered Iran’s economy and weakened its increasingly unpopular government, but it is worrisome that many Democrats will happily go along with efforts to bolster the hideous theocracy. Continuing the sanctions is the very least that needs to be done, and it’s worrisome that the most that will be required doesn’t seem even remotely possible with America’s current leadership.

— Bud Norman