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Sometimes No Deal is the Best Deal

President Donald Trump came home from his big summit in Vietnam with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un without a great deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula, much less a Nobel Peace Prize, but it could have been much worse.
In the days leading up to the summit Trump had touted his close personal relationship with Kim, saying he “fell in love” with the “honorable man” who is notorious for his brutal repression of the North Korean people and is clearly intent on building a nuclear stockpile to protect his family’s dictatorship, and there were worries that he’d wind up singing on any old deal that Kim proposed. Kim wanted either a complete or partial lifting of economic sanctions in exchange for a cross-his-heart-and-hope-to-die promise to end his nuclear weapons program, and to Trump’s credit he walked away from the negotiating table. Trump could probably have spun that deal as a great win to his die-hard defenders, even if more objective observers would have realized its worthlessness, but his more seasoned remaining foreign policy advisors apparently talked him out of it, and we’re glad they did. The die-hard Trump defenders were able to compare him to President Ronald Reagan and his famous walk-away from a summit with the Soviet Union in Iceland, and although we don’t think either president or the situations were very similar Trump does deserve our begrudging respect for leaving the summit empty-handed, and we hold it hope it ends as well as it did Reagan and western civilization.
Trump’s sales pitch that he could negotiate America out of any crisis with his irresistible charm and “Art of the Deal” negotiation skills never much impressed us, although it did take in a lot of suckers over his long career as a real estate and casino and pro football and airline and scam university operator, and we never expected it to end the decades old stalemate on the Korean peninsula. The past three generations of the Kim Jong dictatorships have left North Korea an impoverished a miserable nation, but the’ve been pretty good to the Jim Jong dynasty, and they’ve await been backed up the Chinese nuclear arsenal and lately have nukes of their own, as well as plenty of of conventional artillery within range of the populous South Korean and and Japanese capitals, and that leaves them with a pretty strong negotiating position with even the most charming and skillful negotiator.
Trump and his apologists can rightly claim at that least North Korea isn’t lobbing any more missile tests over south Korea or Japan or toward Guam and other American lands, and that high-level negotiations are underway, and that all the rhetoric about “fire and fury like no one’s ever seen” and who’s nuclear button is bigger has been tamped down, and although tat’s clearly a good thing we’re not much impressed. So far as we can tell the North Koreans have temporarily suspended their missile tests because they’re satisfied with the results so far, the high-level talks have been no more successful than the traditional low-level talks would have been over the past decades, and the various Kim Jong dictators were always eager for high-level negotiations even before Trump started “tweeting” all his trash talk. None of Trump’s predecessors dating back to President Harry Truman were able to solve the tricky situation on the Korean peninsula, and all of them saw North Korea’s military steady position improve, but they can all make the boast as much as Trump that at least South Korea was thriving and mushroom clouds appeared on their watch.
We’ve been living with that uneasy situation all our lives, though, and by now we’re so inured to it we assume it will outlast even Trump’s presidency. If it comes down to a nuclear exchange America and it allies have always been the presumptive “winner,” and despite Trump’s trade wars and other tough negotiating tactics with America’s allies we expect that scary balance of power will prove more persuasive to the North Korean dictatorship than Trump’s personal charm and artful negotiating skills.

So far there are no mushroom clouds, which means the news will continue to focus on Trump’s longtime lawyer’s testimony to Congress and other embarrassing domestic matters, and although we hold out the best for the future for now we’ll happily settle for that.

— Bud Norman

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Much Ado About Nothing

The stock markets went wild Thursday on the news that the White House and the Senate’s Democratic leadership have deigned to talk with their Republican antagonists about the ending partial government shutdown. Should the talks lead to an agreement of any sort that actually ends the shutdown there will likely be a boom on Wall Street that leads to champagne bottles being popped and big fat cigars being lighted with fifty dollar bills. In the even more unlikely event that the agreement not only halts the government shutdown but also some eliminates the more job-killing aspects of Obamacare and averts the inevitable collapse under the weight of federal debt, we expect that a $100 bet on a diversified portfolio can be parlayed into a sizeable fortune for those smart enough to cash out quickly.
As much as we hate to dampen Wall Street’s enthusiasm, the long-awaited negotiations seem unlikely to yield anything of lasting importance. The White House would sooner allow a default and all other potentially catastrophic consequences of an un-funded government than allow any changes to its beloved Obamacare, even though the health care reform law is much hated by almost everyone else, and seems confident that its press allies will ensure it suffers no political consequences. The Republicans appear similarly intent on extracting some sort of significant concession from the administration lest they offend their conservative base, even if the press has convinced much of the rest of the country that they’re bunch a anarcho-terrorist hostage takers, and it is hard to imagine them winning enough spending cuts or entitlement reforms to save face.
Both sides seem to be taking a beating in the public opinion polls, though, so some desultory deal or another will eventually be struck. A stop-gap measure that keeps the shutdown out of the news until the upcoming budget ceiling brouhaha is the most likely outcome, we’d wager, and if the Republicans think they have a stronger hand then the country will be right back to where are now. The White House has thus been so determined to keep the Republicans’ hands off Obamacare that they’ve even rejected a proposal to delay the much-reviled individual mandate, which would give them another year to fix their famously fouled-up computer system and put off the wrath of young voters forced to pay for being insured past the next congressional elections, but it wouldn’t be surprising if the administration were just as adamant about the need to increase the federal debt by a few trillion more over the coming years. The Republicans will still be forced by their most crucial voters to fight with any tactic at hand, including a government shutdown and all the resulting bad press, and yet another downturn in the stock markets becomes inevitable.
There’s little chance the government will remain eternally shut down, alas, so the stock markets should eventually recover to whatever extent the new Federal Reserve honcho chooses to keep the printing presses running. Ending Obamacare and restoring sanity to the nation’s finances will await a Republican administration, or such calamities that even a Democratic administration is forced to address them, and whatever bargains are hammered out in the meantime will be of little help in reviving the country’s moribund economy. Everyone involved in the negotiations will be mostly concerned with the political results, and none will realize that a forgetful public will be voting on the basis of their health insurance bills and employment prospects when the far-off mid-term elections at long last come around.
Any Republicans getting skittish about the latest polls should keep in mind that Obamacare and America’s looming insolvency are still going to be around when the votes are cast, and that it will be helpful to remind the public that the party remained steadfast against both even when the public was irked about it. Those frenetic fellows on the trading floors and the talking-heads on the 24-hour news cycle are quite intrigued by what’s going on in Washington in the next few days, but we’ll be paying more attention to football and the baseball playoffs.

— Bud Norman

No Good Options

War drums are once again beating in the Middle East, this time with Syria as the potential battleground, and as usual it’s all a horrible mess with no happy outcomes seeming likely.
There’s always a chance the Obama administration will opt for a sternly worded speech or a scolding resolution by the United Nations or some similar dithering, which would be more in keeping with both its instincts and its campaign rhetoric, but at this point it appears likely they will soon begin air strikes against the dictator Bashir Assad’s forces as they fight various rebel groups in a bloody civil war. American and British warships are already heading to region, and the big media outlets that administration officials use to signal their intentions are quoting anonymous “senior officials” of the White House as saying they are pretty darned certain that Assad is responsible for a chemical weapons attack that killed recently killed hundreds of people. Such an attack crosses the “red line” which Obama famously declared would change his “calculus,” and although Assad has crossed the line several since then it would seem that Obama has at long last grown weary of the disrespect.
It is uncertain what can be gained by air strikes other than some proof that Obama will eventually get around to making good on his ill-advised threats. Anything American forces strike at can be quickly replaced by the Russians, who have remained Assad’s steadfast allies despite Obama’s best efforts to charm and appease them into submission, or the Iranians, who are making their characteristic threats of holy war as they continue to pursue the nuclear weapons that Obama has declared they will not be allowed to have. American military action could provoke Assad to use his chemical weapons with sufficient ruthlessness to win the war, rouse reluctant Syrians to the nationalist cause, and alienate potential allies reluctant to be seen as working with another crusader war against an Islamic country. Should Assad survive an American military intervention, his power and prestige, as well as Russia’s and Iran’s, will be greatly increased.
Should the American military effort succeed in forcing Assad out of power, there is no reason to believe that whoever takes over will be any friendlier to America. At this point the most effective rebel forces are severely Islamist, and in many cases associated with such avowed enemies of America as al-Qaeda, and of course none of them have any experience or expertise in running a country. Air strikes proved effective in removing the nasty Gadaffi dictatorship from Libya, but the aftermath of that success in Benghazi and elsewhere has not been beneficial to anyone. An occupying force in the aftermath of the air strikes might allow America to dictate a more positive outcome, but America no longer has any stomach for such adventures and it is impossible to imagine any line a foreign power might cross that would prompt Obama to take such an action.
Some smart people have reluctantly concluded that a prolonged and bloody stalemate would best serve American interests, with Russia and Iran and al-Qaeda and an increasingly troublesome Turkey all too busy slaughtering one another to pursue any mischief against the United States, but even if the Nobel Peace Prize-winning president were willing to accept the human costs of this strategy no American action would guarantee this result. Neither would American inaction, and in either case the Muslim would almost certainly revert to its habit of blaming America for the carnage. There was some hope back in ’08 that Obama would be able to solve these problems with some of his silver-tongued oratory and his Arabic nomenclature, but not even Obama seems to believe that now.
Even in the media most friendly to the administration there seems to be a growing consensus that better options were available back when the conflict started, but the Secretary of State back then was hailing Assad as a “reformer” and the president was still offering an “open hand” to Iran and seeking to “reset” relations with Russia instead of backing the moderate forces that were once in the game. This is purely speculative, if quite convincing, and offers little help in choosing the least worst of the options that are now available. All that hindsight can now reveal is that the choice is in the hands of people who don’t inspire confidence.

— Bud Norman