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The Lonesome Death of Jamal Khashoggi

The government of Saudi Arabia now acknowledges that dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside a Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey, but we’re assured by the government of Saudi Arabia that it had nothing to do with it. To hear the Saudi Arabian government tell it, the pudgy and 59-year-old Khashoggi started a fistfight with 15 Saudi Arabian government operatives who had been flown into Turkey for a polite conversation, and that it ended to everyone’s regret.
The story is so blatantly preposterous that even such loyal American friends of the Saudi Arabian government as President Donald Trump are expressing some skepticism, but it probably won’t much. matter. Khashoggi was a legal American resident and a writer for one of America’s most longstanding and prestigious newspapers, and the best evidence suggests that he was mutilated and then murdered and then dismembered on the orders of the Saudi Arabian government, but on the other hand Saudi Arabia has done tens of millions of dollars of business with Trump and hundreds of billions of dollars of business with other American businesses.
All the right-wing talk radio talkers are stressing that Khashoggi had a past relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood and was a noisome critic of a Saudi Arabian government so enlightened that it has lately granted some women the right to drive an automobile, as well as a writer for those enemies of both the Saudi Arabian and American people at The Washington Post, and to hear them tell it you’d think the guy had some mutilation and murder and dismemberment coming. Besides, as the President of the United States has frequently noted, he was merely a legal resident rather than a fully-fledged citizens, and his murder wasn’t committed on American soil, and Saudi-American relations are  very tricky.
The hundreds of billions of dollars of business that America does with the Saudi Arabians can’t be dismissed lightly, and they do indeed play a very complicated role in the exponentially more complicated Middle East foreign policy mess, and we’re open to an argument for the cold-blooded calculation that even the mutilation and murder and dismemberment of a single human being must be weighted against that. Even so, we’d rather the argument was made honestly, and without the apparent disregard for the fate of a fellow human being. Surely America is still great enough relative to Saudi Arabia to insist on such niceties.
Last week Trump got a big response from a Republican rally crowd by recalling how the state’s Republican Rep. Greg Gianforte had committed criminal assault against a reporter shortly before his election to Congress. “Any guy who can do a body slam, that’s my kind of guy,” said Trump, a former professional wrestler himself, followed by uproarious laughter. Even in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s now-acknowledged demise Trump has praised the Saudi prime and dictator Mohammad bin Salman’s “strong control” of his country, and he seems to have a similar affinity for strong men rulers everywhere, including the nutcase North Korean dictator that he told a cheering rally crowd  he “fell in love with.”
All this international business and politics is indeed damned complicated, and we can’t pretend to know how it should proceed from here, but we’d like to think that the mutilation and murder and dismemberment of a legal American resident and fellow human being should carry some weight in our country’s considerations, even if he did write for The Washington Post.

— Bud Norman

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The Strange Case of Jamal Khashoggi

Over the years we’ve read a lot of improbable cloak-and-dagger novels and watched many fanciful films about international intrigue, but we’ve never come across a story quite so fascinating as the real-life disappearance and almost certain murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Even with unfettered access to the very best findings of America’s crack intelligence agencies President Donald Trump will not say with any certainty what has become of Kashoggi, and we can’t claim to have any better information. but we are far more objective and fairly certain of a few established facts. Khashoggi provably entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, on Oct. 2 to deal with paperwork for an upcoming wedding, and so far neither the fiancee who was waiting outside nor the consulate’s constant security cameras nor anyone else can testify that he ever came out. It’s also a verifiable fact that Khashoggi was considered an enemy of the people by the Saudi Arabian government, with no other obvious enemies who might have access to a Saudi Arabian consulate, and although that’s not conclusive proof of anything it’s worth keeping in mind.
So far the government of Turkey is officially coy about its conclusions, but unofficially it’s been leaking a flood of information to various world media that they have audiotape from Khashoggi’s cell phone of his brutal torture and murder and dismemberment, that on the day after Khashoggi’s disappearance their investigators found the consulate both thoroughly scrubbed and freshly painted, and they’ve got the flight records of 15 suspicious Saudis with provably close ties to their government and an autopsy specialist with a bone saw who flew into Istanbul just shortly before Khashoggi’s arrival at the consulate. Turkey’s government is lately almost as Islamist and authoritarian and untrustworthy as Saudi Arabia’s, and has its own complicated geo-political reasons to embarrass Saudi Arabia, but they’ve also got the sort of highly effective domestic security apparatus that could prove such claims, and would be just as happy to embarrass Saudi Arabia with the truth.
By now even such steadfast Trump loyalists as South Carolina’s Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham say that the Saudis look pretty damned guilty, and it would take a pretty imaginative novelist or screenwriter to come up with some other plausible plot twist, but Trump holds out for the possibility that some group of “rogue killers” might have killed Khashoggin in defiance of the Saudi government’s wishes.
;Some of those cloak-and-dagger novels we’ve read and foreign intrigue films we’ve watched had some pretty glaring plot holes, but even dime novels and $10 Hollywood movies could never come up with such a convoluted plot twist as that. Getting a group of “rogue killers” into a Saudi consulate in Istanbul just as an expatriate Saudi journalist and enemy of the Saudi people showed up would be tough enough for the “Mission: Impossible” screenwriters, much less why fellow enemies of the Saudi people would want to kill him, and never the mind the crews of rogue cleaners and painters who showed up in the immediate aftermath to scrub the alleged crime scene clean.
One never really knows, though, so perhaps Trump is right to hold out hope that neither Saudi King Salman bin Abdelaziz Al Saud nor current dictator Prince Mohammad bin Salman had anything do with whatever unpleasantness that might have transpired at a Saudi consulate. Back during the campaign Trump publicly boasted that he got along great with the Saudis because they did tens of millions of dollars of business with him, and they rolled out quite the red carpet for him on his first state visit abroad, and these days Trump can rightly argue that they do billions in business with far bigger American companies and as always play a crucial strategic role in America’s tricky middle-eastern foreign policy. Surely they deserve some benefit of the doubt.
Besides, as Trump as always reminds his interviewers, this Khashoggi guy wasn’t an American citizen, and even if he did get tortured and murdered and dismembered it didn’t happen here, so it arguably isn’t any of America’s business. Khashoggi was a legal American resident, which by law means he’s entitled to same protections of the state as anyone else living here, but what’s that against the millions and billions of dollars in trade that Trump and America get from the Saudis. That Khahshoggi guy also wrote for The Washington Post, long considered a leading light of America’s free press, but these days they’re also deemed enemies of the people.
The biggest mystery at this point is why Trump doesn’t just come right out and say, “Yeah, so what if the Saudis tortured and killed and dismembered this guy?” Khashoggi wasn’t even an American citizen, after all, and he wrote regularly for those enemies of the American people at The Washington Post, so we doubt that many of Trump’s die-hard defenders give much of a damn about what happened to that guy. What happened to that Khashoggi guy might slightly heighten the fervor of Trump’s opponents, but it probably won’t much swell their number.
In any case, this poor Khashoggi guy’s tale seems headed to a more desultory conclusion than any cloak-and-dagger novel we’ve ever read or any foreign intrigue film we’ve ever seen, and we worry that America won’t come out any greater.

— Bud Norman

America First, Morality After That

President Donald Trump sat down for an interview with Lesley Stahl of the “60 Minutes” program that aired on Sunday, far away from the friendly confines of “Fox and Friends,” and of course it was full of news.
He suggested that Defense Secretary Jim “Mad Dog” Mattis, widely considered a restraining influence on Trump’s more rash foreign policy impulses, is “sort of a Democrat, if you want to know the truth,” and might soon be leaving the White House. He wouldn’t comment on how long Attorney General Jeff Sessions will be around, except to say “We’ll see what happens come midterms,” which suggests that something will happen after the looming midterm elections. He denied mocking the woman who alleged that Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault while they were both high schools, although Trump sure did seem to revel in all the laughs he got talking about her at a recenta campaign rally. He effused about the trustworthiness of murderous North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, but added “That doesn’t mean I can’t be proven wrong,” which is newsworthy for its uncharacteristic modesty.
More striking to us, though, was Trump’s continued affinity for murderous Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and murderous Saudi Arabian dictator Mohammad bin Salam, and his apparent insouciance about murderous dictatorships in general.
Although Trump  now grudgingly acknowledges that yeah, Putin probably did meddle in America’s past presidential election, which all of America’s intelligence agencies insist with complete certainty,  he added that China’s murderous dictatorship probably did the same, which no intelligence agency has suggested, and he seemed to shrug it all off as business as usual. Way back in the campaign Trump told friendly Fox News interviewer Bill O’Reilly that yeah, Putin occasionally a journalist or dissident or political opponent or two, but “There a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, do you think our country’s so innocent?,” and he told the far feistier Stahl the relies on Russia, and he noted with apparent satisfaction that Putin none of Putin’s recent assassination attempts have happened in America or to Americans abroad.
Trump has talked tough about “severe punishment” for Saudi Arabia if it’s proved the government brutally murdered and dismembered self-exiled Saudi dissident and Washington Post writer and legal American resident Jamal Kashoggi, as all of the world’s intelligence agencies and every sane observer has concluded, but we expect it will require some rather extraordinary proof before he’s nudged to say that yeah, they probably did it. Even if he is somehow convinced that the Saudi friends who treated to him to such a flattering state visit and do billions of dollars of business with American corporations of millions of dollars of business with his own still wholly-owned companies, he’s already pointed out that the alleged killing happened in Turkey, “and to the best of our knowledge, Kashoggi is not a United States citizen.” An American president should speak with more certainty about such easily learnable facts, and should also be aware the a legal residency in the United States also entitles one to the protection of the state, but Trump clearly thinks America lacks the moral standing to fuss about such things.
Trump bluntly told the country as much before he was elected. He said so not only to O’Reilly and his Fox viewers but to all the revved-up rally crowds that chanted along with his “America First” slogan, not knowing or caring it faithfully echoed the pre-World War II isolationist movement that thought Fortress America could get along just fine in a world otherwise ruled by the Axis powers. Long before he started his unlikely political career Trump had hired a ghostwriter to pen “The Art of Deal,” which explicitly described his Machiavellian worldview of everything in life from love to business to foreign relations as a zero-sum game that comes down to winners and losers, with the rules being strictly for suckers. Even as he successfully courted the evangelical Christian vote, he made it quite clear he didn’t believe in all that nonsense loving one’s neighbor and turning the other cheek and the meek being blessed.
On one warm and sunny Hawaiian December day in ’41 America realized that despite two oceans and a couple of placid neighbors to the north and south America could not get along just fine with the Axis powers, and with the help of some carefully cultivated democratic allies the country waged a costly but ultimately victorious war against those murder dictatorships. The allies also  much needed the help of a murderous communist dictatorship in Russia, which waged a fare more costly war but a sizable victory of it, as well as an unpleasantly authoritarian regime in China that soon fell to an even more murderous communist dictatorship, but somehow the free and democratic nations of the world cobbled together trade agreements and diplomatic arrangements and military alliances that have worked the necessary moral compromise out pretty well for most part over the past 70-plus, at least relative to most of humankind’s bloody and impoverished history.
There have been plenty of wars and moral compromises along the way, of course. Fighting Chinese and Soviet communism involved a couple of horrific wars that resulted in a still-troublesome tie on the Korean peninsula and a arguable loss to a unified and more-or-less capitalist Vietnam that now offers potential strategic advantages to the United States, and America has overlooked some unsavory behavior from anti-communist regimes and any country that can help keep the international economy well lubricated with oil. There were greater moral exigencies to be arguably considered at the time, though, and at no point did any Republican or Democratic president ever signaled that he didn’t much about such behavior. Those bipartisan fancy-pants “experts” got a lot of things wrong, but they also rebuilt former vanquished adversaries into formidable friends, nurtured the free and democratic nations they had rescued from murderous dictatorships, and we think they know better than Trump, and we’ll hate to see the last few of them leave his administration.
Trump is quite right that America has done a lot of killing, and that like any country populated by mere human beings we’re not so innocent, but we think he’s quite wrong to suggest America should begin to atone for its sins by giving the green-light to any of his favored murderous dictators to keep killing off any pesky journalists or political opponents or assorted dissidents. We don’t think it will help make America great again.

— Bud Norman

Another Day of Foreign Intrigues

President Donald Trump’s first foreign tour has produced some notable but hard-to-explain successes, as well as some relatively minor but easy-to-ridicule missteps, but it hasn’t been able to keep what Trump calls “the Russia thing with Trump and Russia” out of the news.
While Trump was making what can be considered an inappropriately upbeat comment in the guest book of Israel’s holocaust museum, The Washington Post was running a story that he had asked national intelligence director Daniel Coats and National Security Agency director Admiral Michael Rogers to deny that there was anything to that whole Russia thing with and Russia. This might not be the evidence of obstruction of justice that so many of Trump’s critics have been hoping for, but it’s still far more inappropriate than what Trump wrote in that guest book, and noisily intruded on what Trump had surely hoped would be a much-needed favorable news cycle.
Trump and his most ardent defenders could have dismissed it as just another fake news smear from the “Washington Compost,” but Tuesday also saw the under-oath congressional testimony of former Central Intelligence Agency director John Brennan and the aforementioned Coats and Rogers, and it did nothing to undermine the story. Brennan not only declined to dismiss the whole Russia thing with Trump and Russia but spoke at length about his certainty that Russia did indeed meddle in America’s latest presidential election and his concerns that some people in the Trump campaign were either wittingly or unwittingly involved. Both Coats and Rogers declined to either confirm or deny the Post’s latest big story, citing the now familiar reason that doing so would involve divulging classified information, which is not necessarily damning but not at all what Trump and his most ardent defenders wanted to hear.
That’s not to mention all the other ongoing news about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is still exercising his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and resisting a congressional subpoena for his financial documents, which is not necessarily damning but never looks good, and it invites all the snarkier Trump critics to dredge up video montages of Trump saying that all the Hillary Clinton who staffers who the Fifth were clearly guilty and Flynn himself leading chants of “lock her up” at the Republican convention. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort remains under investigation, too, and The Washington Post is still claiming that some senior-level administration member who was a senior-level campaign staffer is as well, and all the talk is that it’s son-in-law. Fox News has also retracted a story about how a murdered 27-year-old staff at the Democratic National Committee had leaked all those e-mails during the crime, and Sean Hannity also agreed to back off the story at the request of the family, which was the last alternative theory to the idea that the Russians did it.
Trump’s embrace of a youthful Saudi king who so far seems genuinely committed to modernizing his kingdom might yet prove a diplomatic masterstroke, and it’s worth noting that the undeniably Islamophobic Trump seems to have a better rapport with at least the Sunni Muslim world than the embarrassingly Islamophilic President Barack Obama ever did. Given how much more troublesome the Iranian regime has been lately, the inevitable backlash from the Shiites might prove worth the provocation. Despite his clumsy attempts at holding hands with his wife and writing in guest books seems to have reassured the Israelis of America’s continued support for their survival, which is a welcome relief to them and ourselves after all the blatant offenses of the Obama years.
That’s all theoretical for now and very to hard to explain, though, and we expect that Trump’s best explanation will be that it was stupendous and the best and everyone says so. So far he’s handled his foreign adventure well enough, but the remaining itinerary includes plenty of opportunities for missteps, and even if he gets through that the Russia thing with Russia and Trump will likely still be there when he arrives home.

— Bud Norman

Another Day on a Long Trip

The third day of President Donald Trump’s nine-day foreign voyage went well enough that the more hostile media did their best to change the subject back to all the scandals that he hoped he’d left behind, but there was no keeping anybody’s eyes off it. There were a couple of things the critics could reasonably carp on, and all the more momentous things that can’t help being debated during any presidential visit to Israel, where Trump found himself the day after his royal welcome to Saudi Arabia, which further complicates that already complex debate, but at the end Trump seemed to have muddled through a relatively good news cycle.
Trump donned a yarmulke and went down to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem to pay his respects to several millennia of Jewish tradition, becoming the first American president to do so at the much-disputed site while holding the office, and even such staunchly old-fashioned yet neo-conservative and philo-semitic and NeverTrumper Republican goyim as ourselves had to admire the chutzpah of that. Although he’s still backing away from that oft-stated campaign promise to relocate the embassy from Tel Avid to Jerusalem, which was a step too far even for the likes of us, we’re surely not the only ones who are pleased to see the stark difference with President Barack Obama’s anti-Israeli policies. Some of Trump’s supporters on the alt-right are no doubt disappointed, and the more blatantly anti-semitic portions of the left are also offended, but we hope that most of us are rooting for the Israelis rather than the people who have vowed to exterminate them.
Some of those Jew-haters are in Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni nations that Trump had been partying with the two days before, and some are in Iran and the rest of the Shiite sphere that Trump had thundered against, and nobody here or in the Middle East seems to know how that’s all going to work out in the end. We’d like to think that Trump has ingeniously calculated some great deal that will bring about peace in that eternally warring region just as surely as President Andrew Jackson would have averted America’s Civil War, but we just can’t bring ourselves to do it, so for now we’ll take solace in the face that at least he’s not disrespecting the Israelis the way Obama used to do.
Still, there’s no denying the Trump-bashers some fun from such a marathon journey. All our liberal Facebook friends were sharing the footage of Trump noticing that Natanyahu and his wife were holding hands as the walked from the runway and then trying to do the same with his First Lady and having her slap his hand away, and we’ll have to leave it to the more ardent Trump apologists to explain how it doesn’t look bad. Some of Trump’s slighter lapses have been attributed by his communication team to “exhaustion,” which is credible enough excuse on behalf of an obese 70-year-old who eschews any exercise other than a weekly round on a Trump-banded golf course, but the late night wags are entitled to their montages of Trump bragging about his stamina, and it is only three days into a night-day tour.
There are the usual reasonable arguments from both the left and the right about how Trump’s pro-Saudi and pro-Israel and vaguely pro-Russian-yet stridently against aligned-with-Russia Iran stance will eventually work out, but for now we’ll be glad that unlike Obama he’s not apologizing for American influence in the region, even that Iraq war he claimed President George W. Bush lied us into, which even Obama didn’t claim. Things don’t seem any more muddied in the Middle East than before showed up, and even after that admittedly awkward hand-holding incident we’ll hold out out hope it will also continue to forestall the inevitable conflagration. All in all, that’s a pretty darned good news cycle from Trump these days.
Meanwhile, back in the states, the anti-Trump press has been able to take advantage of the dullness of it all by posting some stories hard to deal with for an administration on an ambitious foreign tour. Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is defying a congressional subpoena and invoking the Fifth Amendment in the various ongoing investigations into that Russia thing with Trump and Russia, as Trump calls it, and that’s enough to intrude on the front pages. Flynn’s invocation of the Fifth Amendment doesn’t imply any guilt, as his Trump-friendly advocates can rightly say, but Trump’s critics are entitled to gleefully run the the late night comedy montage of Trump saying that his opponents’ use of the Fifth Amendment was the refuge of the guilty.
Sooner or later Trump will return to that temporarily paused news cycle, and although he hasn’t made any glaring missteps on his trip he’s yet to bring any undeniable foreign achievements, so we’d call it a draw so far. The next six days will involve a Pope and G-7 worth or world leaders that Trump has publicly feuded with, and it’s bound to be exhausting, but we’ll hope for the best. Not for Trump’s sake, but the sake of peace, and some respite this awful ongoing news cycle.

— Bud Norman<

A Fairly Smooth Start to Trump’s Trip

President Donald Trump’s first overseas trip is going well enough, so far. There have been none of the glaringly undiplomatic moments that some feared, some begrudging praise for his speech in Saudi Arabia from the erstwhile Republican foreign policy establishment, and it managed to push all those stories about the Russia thing with Trump and Russia off the front pages and top-of-the-hour reports for a weekend.
No president goes to the Middle East and without provoking some controversy, of course, and Trump was never going to be an exception to that rule. There was some relatively minor quibbling about his swaying along with an all-male sword dance that the Saudis like to do, as well as the usual nitpicking about protocol. Although the left was obliged to praise the First Lady and First Daughter for refusing to cover their hair according to local custom, they also came up with the inevitable past “tweets” by Trump criticizing Democratic visitors for doing the same. The right was mightily pleased that Trump didn’t bow to the Saudi king, as President Barack Obama was accused of doing when he stooped a bit too low to shake hands with the much shorter monarch, but the left delighted in pictures of Trump also leaning a bit to accept a golden medallion from his relatively diminutive host.
There are also the more substantive controversies about more substantive matters, of course. A much-ballyhooed speech to an audience that included several heads of Islamic states managed to avoid the “Islam hates us” and “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on” rhetoric, which was a relief to to his critics on the left but a disappoint to some of his supporters on the right. The speech was quite clear in its opposition to Iran’s regional and global ambitions, which played well on the right and especially well with his Sunni audience, but naturally upset those on the left that had grown accustomed to Obama’s Shiite tilt, and was worrisome to the centrist types who thinks it’s best that America not take either side in the bloody millennia-and-a-half-year-old schism. There was no mention of human rights in the speech, and instead a clear disclaimer that Trump had no intention of telling anyone how to deal with their internal affairs, which these days wins both praise and criticism from certain sections of both sides of the aisle.
The visit also saw the signing of a $110 billion defense deal with the Saudis for some very high-tech weaponry, but that was pretty much the same deal that the Obama administration had negotiated, so no one in either party seemed to have much to say about that. There was also some high-brow discussion about how Trump’s apparent support for authoritarian regimes so long as they suppress terrorism will address the root causes of terrorism, which are thought to include U.S.-backed authoritarian regimes suppressing all sorts of needed reform movements, but in all fairness no one on either the right or left or anywhere in between seems to have figured out what the hell is going on.
Trump’s trip moves on to Israel and the Vatican and Belgium and a G-7 meeting full of wary world leaders before he gets home, so there’s still plenty of potential for something glaringly undiplomatic to happen, but he’s got figure it’s going pretty well so far. If he can keep his thumbs away from a “twitter” machine he might even be able to keep that Russia thing with Trump and Russia on the inside pages and bottom-of-the-hour updates for a whole week, with the inevitable controversies being more easily ignored.

— Bud Norman

What Could Go Wrong?

President Donald Trump is now embarking on his first foreign trip since taking office, and we expect he’ll be glad to get out of the country. He’s spent the week griping to the graduates of the Coast Guard Academy that he’s been the most unfairly treated politician in all history, “tweeting” claims that the ongoing investigations into his campaign’s possible role in Russia’s election meddling are a “witch hunt,” and testily denying everything to a pesky pack of the press, so at least he’ll be able to change the subject for a while.
On the other hand, the conversation might well take another controversial turn or two before the nine-long-days trip is over. The celebrity apprentice president has already provoked controversies in his dealings with such friendly countries as Australia and Germany, which takes some doing, and the itinerary for his trip includes some far trickier encounters.
The tour starts out in Saudia Arabia, where the royal family has reportedly prepared to roll out $68 million worth of red carpet, which should be enough to satisfy even Trump’s sense of grandeur. So far Trump has been saying everything the Saudis want to hear about arms deals and their war in Yemen and other and other deals that are  dear to their hearts, but he’s also the guy who called for a complete ban on Muslims entering the United States, and until recently he was a vociferous critic of the country, and his planned speech on Islamic radicalism will require more carefully diplomatic language than Trump is accustomed to using. A visit to Saudi Arabia is fraught with peril for even the most seasoned presidents, and Trump is seemingly still starting a learning curve.
The next planned stop is in Israel, which is always tricky. Trump has long been outspokenly supportive of the Jewish state, and enjoyed a friendly relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but he’s lately abandoned his campaign promise to relocate the American embassy to Jerusalem and reportedly blabbed some top-secrets shared by the Israelis to the Russians, and has long habit of making stereotypical Jewish jokes in public. His daughter and son-in-law are both Jewish, which provides some cover for such japes, but we expect his aides will be nervous for the duration of the visit.
After that Trump moves on to Italy and the vatican for a meeting with Pope Francis. Back in the campaign the Pope opined that Trump’s proposed wall along the border with Mexico wasn’t consistent with Christian values, Trump replied with characteristic bluntness that the Pope was “disgraceful” to say so, but both men are promising a friendlier conversation when they meet face to face. Absent any inappropriate jokes about a priest and a Rabbi and a Presbyterian minister walking in to a bar it seems a safe enough stop.
Next up is Belgium, where he’s scheduled to meet the king and queen and Prime Minister, and although they probably won’t be spending $68 million for the chat that should go fine. He’s also scheduled to meet the newly elected President of France, after Trump implicitly endorsed his Vichy-linked opponent in the recent French vote, as well as the president of the European Union, an institution both Trump and that Vichy-linked opponent have long outspokenly criticized, so that might also require more diplomatic language than Trump is used to using. There’s another meeting scheduled with the leaders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Trump has lately concluded is not “obsolete,” as he frequently described it during the campaign, but he’s still grousing that its members are mostly a bunch of freeloading deadbeats, so there’s no telling how that might go.
Trump’s European trip then returns again to Italy, where he’ll take his place along the leaders of the G7 nations, and we hope he won’t mind sharing the stage with all of them. All those countries have pretty pesky presses of their own, though, and the American media will also be on hand to egg them on, and at that point the conversation might well take any number of controversial turns.
There’s always a chance Trump will return home with a lot of brand new best friends, and that the media won’t find anything to criticize, but Trump being Trump and the media being the media that’s not the way to bet.

— Bud Norman

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A New Year Opens in the Middle East

Unsurprisingly enough, the first big story of the year is coming at us from the Middle East. That constantly troubled region was already troublesome enough for the rest of the world, what with civil wars breaking out in Syria and Libya and Yemen and elsewhere and the refugees spilling into the west in unmanageable numbers and ballistic missiles test being conducted by aspiring nuclear powers and terrorist attacks occurring from Paris to San Bernardino, but now we’ve got that whole Shi’ite versus Sunni thing coming to a head with increased tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Shi’ite versus Sunni thing goes back more than 1,400 years, and so far as we can tell has something do with whether Mohammad’s family or closest friends should have inherited his spiritual authority, but we’ll skip ahead to the present day when Iran is the most powerful Shi’ite country and Saudi Arabia is the most important Sunni country and the old hatreds still persist. The two countries were already fighting proxy wars in Yemen, where Iran-backed rebels had overthrown the Saudi-backed government, and in an even more complicated war in the former portions of Iraq and Syria that are now controlled by the Islamic State, which is Sunni but threateningly crazy even by Saudi standards, where the Saudis’ ineffectual fighters are also opposed by the Iran-backed Syrian regime and their suddenly dominant Russian ally, but now the tensions have again  been significantly increased. After a couple of decades of imprisonment the Saudis chose the date of January Second to execute, by beheading or firing squad, 46 crazy-even-by-Saudi-standards Sunni terrorists and one prominent Shi’ite cleric. That lattermost execution seemed calculated to inflame Shi’ite sensibilities and quickly led to an arson assault on by an angry mob on the Saudi embassy in Iran, which was clearly tolerated by the otherwise repressive Iranian regime. Since then there’s been a suspension of diplomatic ties and talk of outright war, as well as the usual diplomatic dissembling.
It’s enough to roil the international stock markets and recall Iran’s past assaults on its guest embassies and spur conspiracy theories about how the plunging price of oil is provoking a mutually beneficial war, and it’s bound to affect the ongoing politics of the United States of America. Even such harsh critics are ourselves won’t blame the Obama administration for the more-than-1,400-year-old Sunni versus Shi’ite thing, but even the administration’s most determined apologists can’t muster an argument that the past seven years of American foreign policy have worked out well. The retreat from Iraq is looking very much like a mistake, even if America’s entry into the country is so widely regarded as a mistake that even the leading Republican candidates feel obliged to say so, and that awful deal giving Iran $150 billion and no meaningful restraints on the nuclear weapons program they’ve been flouting ever since it went unsigned is looking more awful than ever, the planned retreat from still-troublesome Afghanistan now looks as if it might await another administration or two, and even modern liberalism’s exquisitely well-intentioned guiding principle about abandoning traditional allies and extending open hands to traditional enemies is now clearly called into question.
The Republicans will be challenged to come up with a plausible solution to this more-than-1,400-year-old mess, and we have little confidence they will, but we expect that even the most stridently xenophobic and reactionary policies they propose will seem more plausible than whatever the Democrats can come up with. The Democrats are by now obliged to pretend that whatever ails the world surely has nothing to do Islam, and that whatever more-than-1,400-year-old problems do seem to be occurring can surely be blamed on George W. Bush’s crazy cowboy ways, and that at any rate climate change is the more pressing concern, so we expect they’ll find themselves in a defensive position by Election Day. There’s no telling what will happen between now and then, but another terror attack on the west seems more likely than an outbreak of peace.
We have little regard for the terror-supporting and theologically totalitarian but not quite so crazy as Islamic State regime of Saudi Arabia, and none whatsoever for the terror-supporting and theologically totalitarian and soon-to-be-nuclear-armed regime of Iran, and at this point our only rooting interesting in the region is for democratic and humane Israel and the last of the Christians and Yazidis and Zoroastrians and secular agnostics and other religious minorities in that dismal part of the world, and we won’t pretend to have solutions to this more-than-1,400-year-old problem. Something different is obviously called for, however, and one way or another we do expect that will eventually occur.

— Bud Norman

Are You Serious? The Bad Guys Are

The pull-out quote of the day belongs to one Jassem Mohammed al-Bayati, a member of the Iraq parliament’s ruling coalition. Explaining to The Washington Post why his government has recently joined “a substantial and serious coalition” with Russia, Iran, and Syria in the fight against the Islamic State, he said: “Iraq has had enough of the unserious support and procedures of the international coalition.”
That unserious international coalition that al-Bayati refers to is the Obama administration and whatever partners it still has on board, so it’s hard to dispute his characterization of their efforts in the region. The administration’s apologists will note that the administration has spent a congressionally authorized $500 million to train and equip 5,400 Syrian good guys to get in on the fight against the Islamic State yet not on the side of Russia, Iran, and Syria, but after days of denial the Pentagon finally apologized last week for the fact that only 54 of them actually took the field, and that at the moment only four of five of them are still in the fight, and that one of them and his 70 or so ragged troops had recently surrendered all their equipment to a group backed by al-Qaeda, which has now reportedly put aside any theological quibbles and allied itself with the Islamic State in the ongoing troubles. Meanwhile, the once formidable fighting forces of the more or less moderates Kurds are getting pounded, largely due to a lack of support from their former American friends, erstwhile allies ranging from Israel to Saudi Arabia are also making plans for a post-American era in the Middle East, and everywhere from Ukraine to Japan people are figuring out that America’s amity has no benefits and America’s enmity brings no consequences. This is bound to strike any Middle Eastern observer as unserious, even in the unlikely event they share Obama’s assessment of the ascendant Islamic State as the “jayvee team” of terrorism.
Russia, Iran, and Syria, on the other hand, must appear quite serious to anyone with an existential stake in the situation. Russia is consolidating its recent gains in Eastern Europe as it assumes a new role as the power broker in the Middle East, Iran is gloating over a deal that gives them an easy path to a nuclear bomb along with a $150 billion signing bonus it can spend on terrorism against the country it continues to call “the Great Satan,” and Syria continues to feel free to cross any red lines that the administration might threaten. The Sunni monarchies that are threatened by both the Shiite Iranian-Syrian axis and the more radical Sunni Islamic State-al-Qaeda axis might yet team up with the Jewish state of Israel, which faces the same threats and suddenly finds itself with some very strange bedfellows, but any alliances that might occur will be made with the clear understanding that the Americans they once counted on are no long serious.
How this might improve America’s standing in the world remains to be seen, but we’re sure the administration’s apologists are already working on some explanation. If the combined might of Russia, Iran, and Syria were to defeat the Islamic State, or at least hold them in the current stalemate through the next election, it will surely indicate the Islamic State really was a “jayvee team” after all. That three of the world’s worst governments would hold sway in a key part of the world, where once valued allies and essential national interests are at stake, well, that can be blamed on George W. Bush or some other manifestation of America’s racist and Islamophobic and imperialist hubris. The vice president once boasted Iraq was a “stable government” and “one of the administration’s greatest achievements” when American troops were pulled out, in keeping with a campaign promise made long before the resultant catastrophe, but that shouldn’t stop him from stating the argument in a presidential campaign.
These are serious times, but we can’t argue with any Iraqi parliament member who thinks we have an unserious administration. We worry that he and a lot of other influential people around the world share our suspicion that the administration was elected and re-elected by an unserious country.

— Bud Norman

Pure Evil and Moral Relativism

maSomething in the modern liberal mindset always seeks to find a moral equivalence between western civilization and its enemies, but the Islamic State is making the task more difficult than usual. The terror gang that is currently hiding much of Iraq and Syria, already notorious for mass executions and beheadings and crucifixions, has now reached for a new level of sadism by burning a captured Jordanian pilot alive.
If that sounds too much like wartime propaganda to be true, you need only search the internet for the video of the horrific event that the Islamic State has proudly posted to encourage more recruits to join their ruthless jihad. Such brutality has considerable appeal to the enemies of western civilization, offering both full indulgence of mankind’s most evil instincts and the promise of a heavenly reward, and confounds the modern liberal mindset. One has to reach back centuries to find such brutal methods employed by the west, no matter how one might try to equate water boarding or the Abu Ghraib prison scandal with the Islamic State’s behavior, and demonstrates an evil in the human soul that modern liberalism usually ascribes only to opponents of same-sex marriage or higher tax rates on the upper income brackets or some other Republican policy preference.
Acknowledging such evil in the sacrosanct “other” calls into question the moral relativism of modern liberalism, suggests the need for a stronger and more active military than modern liberalism would prefer to have, and disproves the theory that the west’s enemies can be placated by soothing rhetoric and concessions of land. Such evil is a distraction from the more pressing business of fundamental transformation of the west, too, and a political inconvenience for those politicians who would prefer to believe that it will never affect our land. Americans have been among those beheaded, though, and when terror groups have controlled lands far away they have used them to launch deadly attacks in countries far away including our own. The president’s assurances that the “tide of war is receding” because that is the public’s preference will not suffice, and only a thorough victory over the Islamic State will.
The Jordanian government has responded with executions of Islamic State prisoners, the Saudi King is vowing an increased military response with quotations from Clint Eastwood’s more robust movies, and one hopes that a similarly stiff response will come from much of the Islamic world. Perhaps that will still even modern liberalism to resistance, but we expect the usual rationalizations instead.

— Bud Norman