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Choosing Between Scylla and Charybdis

There’s a very complicated situation in the Middle East, as always, and President Donald Trump is of course “tweeting” about it.
A drone attack destroyed much of a major Saudi Arabian oil field, and although a Yemeni rebel group that has been fighting a bloody defensive war with Saudi Arabia and is allied with Iran has claimed responsibility the State Department and America’s intelligence are blaming the Iranian government. Trump’s first “tweet” on the matter said “There is reason to believe we know the culprit, but are locked and loaded depending upon verification, but are waiting to hear from the Kingdom as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed.”
Trump’s “tweet” was characteristically hard to parse, but there was no mistaking a certain belligerence in its tone, as well as certain deference to the Saudis, who have concluded the Iranians are to blame, and Trump and his spokespeople have spent the past two days dialing that back. The Pentagon would reportedly prefer not to fight a war on Saudi Arabia’s behalf, even if the Saudis pay for it, as Trump has suggested, and Trump has repeatedly assured the news media that he does not want another war, although he continues to boast of how ready the military is to wage one.
Our best guess is that Trump genuinely wants to avoid any new Middle East wars. Trump ran as a peacenik, even going so far as to accuse President George W. Bush of lying America into a war with Iraq, a claim previously made only by the far left, and although he fancies himself a tough guy he takes even more pride in his dealmaking prowess, and a new war in the Middle East would be embarrassing. So far Trump hasn’t been able to keep his campaign promises to extract American forces from Afghanistan and Iraq, and critics will plausiblyblame his unilateral withdrawal from a nuclear treaty with Iran for provoking any conflict that might follow, and there will also be troublesome questions about why Trump seems so eager to do the bidding of Saudi Arabia’s awful government.
As Trump’s favorite Rolling Stones song says, though, you can’t always get what you want. The Iranian government is even more awful than Saudi Arabia’s, and Trump will not want to negotiate a new nuclear deal from a position of weakness. He also “tweeted” a grip that the “fake news” media had peddled the lie that he was willing to meet the Iranian dictatorship without any preconditions, which prompted all the networks except Fox News to gleefully replay all the videotape of Trump and his spokespeople repeatedly and explicitly saying he was willing to meet without any preconditions, so he clearly doesn’t want to be seen as an accommodationist.
The Iranians have become increasingly provocative since America reimposed economic sanctions, seizing commercial oil tankers and threatening to shut down the Strait of Hormuz and shooting down an America drone in international air space, and if they continue to escalate their misbehavior even the most pacifist president will eventually have to do something about it. America can’t apply any more economic sanctions, as we’ve already cut off all trade with the regime, which so far hasn’t had the effect that was hoped for, and given Trump’s tenuous relations with the rest of the world he’s unlikely to recruit other countries to join the boycott.
Thanks to fracking and other new technologies America has produced enough energy to sustain its economy since the final years of President Barack Obama’s administration, with no thanks to either Obama or Trump, but oil is an internationally traded commodity and a blow to a major supplier such as Saudi Arabia will result in high prices at your local pump. The global economy was already slowing before the latest Middle East flare-up, in large part because of the global trade war Trump started, so a war would be very bad for everyone’s business, including Trump’s reelection campaign.
If the Iranians continue to impede the flow of oil and thereby cause a global crash that would also look bad. For now Trump finds himself in a damned-if-you and damned-if-you-don’t situation, he has no national security advisor and only an acting Secretary of Defense, he seems beholden for some reason or another to the Saudis, and so far his much bragged about gut instincts and dealmaking prowess haven’t proved impressive.
Here’s hoping it all works out somehow.

— Bud Norman

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Oh Yeah, the Economy

There’s been a lot in the news lately, what with riots raging in Baltimore and Iranian warships seizing vessels ostensibly under the protection of the United States Navy in the Strait of Hormuz and whatever the latest Hillary Clinton scandal might be, but we’re still surprised how little attention is being paid to the ongoing lousiness of the American economy.
All the latest numbers were just awful, with an anemic 0.2 percent growth rate in the gross domestic product last quarter being the most glaringly awful, and yet only obsessive sorts such as ourselves who pay attention to these things would have noticed. The Washington Post had a refreshingly frank assessment of the numbers, as well as a piece about how the weather might be responsible, and all the business pages had some mention of it buried underneath the headlines about the riots and Bruce Jenner’s sex-change plans, but it didn’t get the kind of coverage that provokes water-cooler conversations at your average American place of work. We’re old enough to remember a time when a 0.2 percent quarterly growth rate in the GDP would have had the news anchors breaking into prime-time programming to advise their listeners to hide the children in the cellar, and the tsk-tsking from the respectable press would have been deafening, so the current insouciance seems quite striking.
Most of that hubbub occurred during the occasional economic lulls of Republican administrations, and we suppose the past seven years of more consistently sluggish growth have so inured the public to such data during a Democratic administration that it’s no longer newsworthy, but the economy still seems the sort of thing that people should be talking about. The White House is saying it’s a mere blip due to the unusually cold weather that prevailed in some parts of the country last winter, and as the great Iowahawk points out it is also claiming that last year was the warmest on record, and the dreadful export numbers can be blamed on the global economy, which we’re now proud to say we have little effect on, and there’s always the argument that Republican majorities in Congress aren’t coughing up enough “investment,” although the trillions of debt that have been accumulated in the past seven years don’t seem to have yielded much return, so perhaps the press has its reasons for downplaying the bad news.
Sometime between now and the next presidential election people are bound to notice the persist lousiness of the American economy, however, and we can easily imagine what reasons the press might have for ignoring it even then. There’s no case to be made that the Democratic prescription of high taxes to pay for more spending to enforce more regulations has resulted in the economic growth needed to pay for the billions of dollars of failed social programs that have already been spent in Baltimore or the billions more need for naval power in the Strait of Hormuz or the slightly less exorbitant cost of Hillary Clinton’s lifestyle of the rich and famous, and there’s probably an Obamacare angle on that Bruce Jenner sex-change thing, and at this point the Republicans’ tired but true plan of letting free markets be free and spending the increased revenues on imposing some order on the rest of the world might starting sounding plausible. As far as the respectable press will be concerned, better to focus on income inequality and the stubborn reluctance of some religious types to enthusiastically embrace sex-change operations.
The income inequality schtick might not work so well coming from a candidate who’s been racking up six-figure speaking fees and seven-figure book deals and building up a billion-plus campaign fund from all sorts of one-percenters here and abroad, and the whole party of transgendered libertinism schtick might yet be a few years aways from electoral fruition, so that’s all the more reason to maintain the current complacency about the lousiness of the economy. Sometime between now and the next presidential election it’s bound to come up at the water cooler of your average American workplace, though, and it will be fun to see the obligatory coverage.

— Bud Norman

A Gathering Storm

There has been an avalanche of news lately, almost all of it portending bad outcomes. Mobs of perpetually outraged Muslims have been besieging the embassies of America and other western countries throughout the Middle East and beyond, Chinese mobs have been agitating for a war with Japan over some rocks sticking out of the Pacific Ocean, the long and almost forgotten war in Afghanistan seems to be going badly, a slew of data show the weak American economy is weakening further, the country gets another credit downgrade, and of course there’s always another day’s worth of stories about everything that Mitt Romney’s doing wrong.

It’s not so overwhelming that the president of the United States couldn’t enjoy a weekend of watching football, but it’s voluminous enough that you might have missed the story about the massive international armada that is converging on the Strait of Hormuz. This intriguing tidbit has been largely overlooked amidst all the competing news, but it could portend the worst outcome of all.

Ships heading toward the Strait of Hormuz or sailing nearby in the Mediterranean include three Nimitz class carrier groups and at least 12 battleships and assault ships carrying Marines and special forces from the United States, four minesweepers and a state-of-the-art destroyer from the British Royal Navy, a French aircraft carrier, and supporting warships from 22 other countries. The stated reason for this extraordinary meeting of naval power is a training exercise, but the Iranian government is clearly expected to understand that it is actually there in case of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. There is no reason to believe the armada will offer any direct assistance to the Israelis in such an event, and American foreign policy remains committed to restraining them indefinitely, but Iran has vowed to close the crucial sea lane, attack American bases throughout the region, and strike at any other western interests within range, so there is ample reason for the west to have some naval power handy should Iran dare to make good on its threats.

An Israeli attack on the nuclear facilities in Iran, where the ruling theocrats have openly expressed their ardent desire to destroy the Jewish state and all of its people, should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the situation over the past several years of ineffectual sanctions and failed diplomacy. It is somewhat surprising that the armada is readying for the expected strike now, given that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently stated that Iran is still six or seven months from having 90 percent of what is needed to make a nuclear bomb, and the timing has led to much speculation.

One plausible theory is that the Israelis believe they need to strike during the American presidential election so that Obama will be constrained by public opinion from interfering with their efforts. Although Obama frequently expresses his staunch support of Israel, and with enough tele-promptered eloquence to convince many American voters, the Israelis seem to take a more skeptical view. Giving Obama the sort of scrutiny that is applied when the survival of a nation is a stake, the Israelis likely see a friend of Rashid Khalidi and other Palestinian radicals, a self-described spiritual protégé of a virulently anti-Semitic pastor, a man who has boasted of his long background with the Muslim world and his sympathy for its causes, and a pure product of an internationalist left that despises Israel.

Obama’s presidency has provided the Israelis little reassurance. The president spoke of the indefensible 1967 borders as starting point for negotiations with the Palestinians, has been more exorcised about Jewish apartments being built in Jerusalem than Jewish schools being bombarded with rockets on the Lebanon border, treated the Israeli Prime Minister with a pointed lack of diplomatic protocol, and lately claimed to be too busy for a meeting with Netanyahu even as he finds time for hobnobbing with “The Pimp With a Limp” and other celebrities. The Israelis might well conclude that the best time for action against Iraq is before a second Obama term.

This scenario is not offered as a prediction, merely a possibility. It’s a possibility well worth watching for, though, despite all the other news and even in football season.

— Bud Norman