A Big Blast in Afghanistan

America’s war in Afghanistan has dragging on for so long that by now most Americans have largely forgotten about it, but it was back in the news on Thursday with a literal bang. The Air Force dropped the Mother of All Bombs on an Islamic State encampment, and that’s not just Trumpian hyperbole but the actual nickname of the weapon.
The official moniker is Massive Ordinance Air Blast, but the initials naturally inspired the more apt term that all the military types apparently use. It weighs 22,000 pounds, packs a net explosive weight of 18,700 pounds, and is said to be the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever deployed in the long history of war. That’s still probably insufficient to bring a conclusion to what is already America’s longest-running military conflict, but surely enough to have a literal impact on the Islamic State.
Such serious ordinance suggests a renewed American seriousness about the Afghanistan war, and the broader war on terror, so even if it doesn’t serve any broader military strategy that’s good enough for us. There can be no pity for the Islamic State savages that the bomb fell on, who are just one of the problems we face in Afghanistan but a bigger threat in Iraq and Syria and all the places around the globe where they’ve pulled off terror attacks, and it’s hard to pass up such a golden opportunity to eliminate so many of them in one fell swoop. Although the Islamic State usually embeds itself in civilian areas the target was carelessly free of any non-combatants, and the Russians and Iranians and Sunni Arabs and other players that make fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria so complicated don’t care about godforsaken and mostly oil-free and perpetually troublesome Afghanistan, and that big bomb had been sitting around in a warehouse for years with no good reason not to use it. A 22,000 pound bomb can’t be launched from even an almighty B-52 or placed atop even the most powerful missiles and instead has to be pushed out of a cargo plane, meaning it’s only useful against enemies who lack even World War II-vintage anti-aircraft systems, so that’s another reason to grab the rare chance to try it out on the likes of the Islamic State.
Coming shortly after the 59 Tomahawk missiles that were launched at an airbase in the trickier Syrian terrain, it also sends a potentially useful signal of resolve. President Donald Trump’s administration has since sent mixed signals about that Syrian strike, with the Secretary of State warning that anybody who murders young children anywhere in the world can expect more of the same and the White House Press Secretary stressing that what the president had said just a days before about not being the policeman of the world still applied, and those more conventional bombs don’t seem to have stopped that airbase from launching it’s own conventional bombs in its long-running civil war, but the message with the Mother of All Bombs probably won’t be so muddied. Although the Syrian strike eked out a 51 percent approval ratings in the first poll, there was also heated criticism from both the peacenik left and the isolationist right, as well as principled constitutional conservatives who had insisted that President Barack Obama seek congressional approval for such an action and the sorts of intellectually honest liberals who had to admit they had defended Obama’s inaction. Trump himself had also urged inaction at the time, and “tweeted” the missiles strikes were only used to prop up sagging poll number, and plenty of others on both left and right proved just as flip-floppy, and there’s no telling where they might all flip and flop to next.
What just happened in Afghanistan is a whole lot simpler, though, in military as well as domestic and international politics terms. America went to war in Afghanistan because that is where the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 were launched, and similar intolerable acts were still being planned, and not just President George W. Bush but also future Democratic presidential nominees John Kerry and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and the United Nations Security Council and the leaders of pretty much every decent democratic nation agreed that was sufficient reason to wage war there. Since then there’s been plenty of argument about how it should be fought, although the troop levels and casualty rates have lately been so low you wouldn’t have noticed it during the past campaign, but even after so many years there’s still a bipartisan consensus that America remains entitled to drop any old bomb on that troublesome land that it chooses.
Trump’s action was still empowered by the military authorization that bipartisan majorities granted way back when it all started, too, so there’s no trouble with the argument that critics on both the left and right are raising about the constitutionality of that Syrian strike, and it’s not the same betrayal of his isolationist campaign rhetoric, which also included explicit promises to bomb the barnyard epithet out of the Islamic State. The Russians still want nothing to do with Afghanistan ever again, the Syrians and Iranians and their Sunni antagonists have little reason to care, the United Nations and all the decent democratic nations have more pressing concerns, and the Democrats have better fights to pick, so we can hope that he’s taking advantage of a rare opportunity take care of some business in Afghanistan. Should Trump administration articulate how it’s serving some broader strategic purpose, which it very well might, that would also be nice.
There’s really no getting out of Afghanistan until we leave a country that’s unlikely to ever try anything like Sept. 11 again, and even that low bar seems awful high for a long time to come, and unlikely to be achieved even with the Mother of All Bombs, but with low troop levels and relative-to-the-history-of-war low casualties America has kept the country’s long history of hate from infecting the rest of the world for the past 16 years or so. Such small victories aren’t satisfying to any American, and especially to such accustomed-to-winning-big-league types as Trump, but that’s how the score is kept in a season that’s arguably been lasting the Seventh Century or so.
Dropping that Mother of All Bombs on a remote and conveniently civilian-free camp full of murderous Islamic State thugs during a unique opportunity to do so was a good idea, and kudos to the generals who came up with it and the president who listened to them, despite his campaign promise that he knew more about the Islamic State than the generals did. We’ll count it as one of those small victories in a long, long war, and faintly hope that Trump will settle for that claim.

— Bud Norman

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This Week, On As The White House Turns

At the risk of damning with faint praise, we have to admit that President Donald Trump’s administration is a lot more intriguing than his last reality show. All the characters are more complicated than those B-list celebrities Trump used to fire, the infighting is more vicious, and we prefer the new format of constantly leaked news stories better than carefully edited one-hour-a-week television episodes.
Lately all the subplots seem to be about Steve Bannon, who makes Dennis Rodman and Gary Busey and all those other flamboyantly crazed celebrity apprentices seem bland by comparison. If you haven’t been following the show, Bannon is an ex-Navy officer turned Goldman Sachs investment banker turned publisher of an internet publication he described as a “platform for the alt-right,” and after that he turned into the “chief executive” of Trump’s campaign and then “White House chief strategist.” Until recently he was also a member of the National Security Council, but he’s been rather unceremoniously removed that position and suddenly there’s a great deal of suspense about whether he’ll be around in any capacity for future episodes.
After weeks of leaks about Bannon’s feud with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus the stories are now mostly about his feud with Jared Kushner, whose White House responsibilities include being an envoy to China and bringing peace to the Middle East and getting the Mexicans to pay for a border wall and solving the opioids crisis and reinventing federal government. The very busy 36-year-old Kushner is also the husband of Trump’s beloved daughter Ivanka, another key character in this convoluted plot who has also reportedly feuding with Bannon, and for now he seems to enjoy the advantage that blood proverbially has over water. Trump told the friendly folks at The New York Post that “I like Steve, but you have to remember that he was not involved in the campaign until very late. I had already beaten the all the senators and all the governors, and I didn’t know Steve. I’m my own strategist and it wasn’t like I was going to change my strategy because I was facing crooked Hillary.”
In the past Trump had frequently spoken of his years-long friendship with Bannon, and often cited him as one of those very best people he promised to surround himself, but if you’ve been following the show you know that Trump’s past pronouncements don’t mean much. Despite Trump’s past boasts about his loyalty he’s fired two wives along with all those other B-list celebrities, as well as two campaign managers, both of whom were described by Trump spokespeople as someone Trump barely knew, and a National Security Advisor, and at this point such an old media hand as Bannon can surely read the writing on The New York Post. Should he find himself on the receiving end of Trump’s “you’re fired” catchphrase, though, it would make for a messy divorce even by Trump standards.
Bannon’s complicated role in this even more complicated plot has been the keeper of the “nationalist populist” and “America First” and “anti-establishment” and vaguely “alt-right” flame that Trump ran on, and as the guy who was fending off all those nasty “globalists” and “neocons” and “establishment” types who suddenly were trying to lure Trump away from the one true faith. According to leaks that probably came from Bannon he was credited with that “American carnage” inaugural speech that fired up the faithful and those travel restrictions that sure seemed to keep the campaign promises Trump had made, as well as the immediate efforts to bring the promised Mexican border wall and all that it implied. All of that played well enough wit the hard-core of Trump’s supporters that there was plenty of credit to go around, but it didn’t play nearly so well elsewhere.
The inaugural speech drew mostly negative reviews and a dismal crowd that Trump embarrassingly lied about at great length, the travel restrictions were halted by a couple of federal courts that thought they sure sounded like a Muslim ban and were therefor a violation of the religious establishment clause in the First Amendment, and all the polls show that despite mixed feelings about illegal immigration most Americans now regard a gazillion-dollar wall across the entire Mexican border as an obviously stupid idea. Whatever value those “nationalist populists” brought to the campaign season they’re currently dragging the new season’s ratings down to a 40 percent or so approval rating, so new characters have been brought in. There’s also Chief of Staff Preibus, who used to be the chairman of the Republican National Committee and the guy whose name all the right-wing talk radio hosts used to pit out to describe that hated GOP establishment, so naturally Bannon had several leaked episodes of feuding with them.
Not to mention Jared and Ivanka, who by this point have at least enough combined political clout to deserve a collective tabloid nickname like “Javanka” or something, and have reportedly persuaded Trump to embrace such hairy-legged feminist nonsense as paid maternity leave and apologizing for talking about grabbing women by the wherever and to launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Libyan air base that launched a horrific attack against a nearby village wound up killing scores of men and women and children and some “beautiful babies.” There’s talk they also have something to do with Trump pulling back on his out-dated promises to declare China a currency manipulator and starting slapping 45 percent tariffs on their imports, and serving its dictator steak and au-gratin at his still wholly-owned Mar-a-Lago instead of the Big Mac and fries he promised on the campaign trail, and of course all the true-blue “nationalist populists” are by now feeling betrayed, and the right-wing talk radio hosts are still trying to make sense of it, but Bannon should worry about the overall poll number and those recent Trump remarks to the press.
Should Brannon wound up another one of the very best people that Trump has been forced to defenestrate that would be fine with such old-fashioned Republicans as ourselves. That “alt-right” of his strikes us as the same sort of racist trash that conservatives have long been distancing themselves from, that Mexican border and all it implies seems an overreaction to the admittedly serious but declining-even-before-Trump problem of illegal immigration, that talk of China’s currency manipulation was outdated and the part about 24 percent tariffs was always crazy, the “America First” slogan makes no more sense than it did when used to oppose resistance to the Axis, and except for the undeniable yet recently denied crucial role he played in keeping crooked Hillary from becoming president we don’t see how Bannon has ever done the country much good.
Still, there’s no telling how this story might turn out without Bannon. By the time of the feud with Javanka he had reportedly made peace with Priebus and the rest of the GOP establishment, who were allied against the influence of a couple with no political paper trail except for a long history of generously donating to Democratic candidates and espousing such liberal causes as mandated paid maternity leave for all employees. One of Trump’s sons told the British press that his sister had persuaded his father to launch those 59 Tomahawk missiles against that Syrian air base, which pleased the less constitutionally-minded sorts of “neocons,” and that yet might prove wise, but for all the bleeding-heart reasons that Trump himself outlined and were pretty much the same reasons that President Barack Obama cited when seeking congressional approval for such a strike after a similar chemical attack that killed similarly beautiful babies, which the Republicans in congress and of course Bannon and even the then-unregistered reality star Trump himself found wanting at that time.
We’re pleased by the recent reasonableness of Trump’s China policy, skeptical but open-minded about the Syrian strike, delighted by Trump’s complete retreat from that campaign-season nonsense about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization being “obsolete, and still following all the twists and turns in that ongoing Russkie subplot, but we’re mostly worried that there’s no underlying logic to any of it. Past pronouncements are of course of no use, ¬†except that “unpredictable” remains a goal, and what happens seems to depend largely on what the president saw just on television. The Republican establishment hasn’t done much for Trump lately, that “alt-right” has clearly become burdensome, and we have even less faith in the Javanka faction, and of course theres no telling what those damned outright Democrats might do.. The ratings seem to be driving this plot so far, and that never leads to a satisfactory conclusion.

— Bud Norman

Missile Strikes and the Days to Ponder Them

A Friday and a weekend have passed since President Donald Trump ordered those 59 Tomahawk missiles launched against a Syrian air base in retaliation for a chemical weapons strike it had launched on a village during its prolonged civil war, but so far it’s all being assessed through the fog of war.
There are reports that the same Syrian air base has since launched another deadly attack on the same village, albeit with conventional weapons, so the debate about the effectiveness of Trump’s strike goes on. Some of the Democrats who supported Democratic President Barack Obama’s reluctant effort to win congressional approval for a “pinprick” retaliation against the Syrian regime for a similar atrocity back in ’13 offered begrudging praise, while others took a principled stand for congressional approval and quite hypocritically criticized Trump for both a untoward aggression against a sovereign state and a mere “pinprick.” Some of the Republicans who criticized Trump for the isolationist positions he staked out in the campaign offered begrudging praise for the assertiveness of the strike, even if it was the same “pinprick” they’d ridiculed Obama for asking Congress to approve, which at the time they thought was a constitutionally necessary, so the mainstream of both parties wound up looking pretty ridiculous.
Meanwhile, the fringes of both the left and right proved far more principled but even more ridiculous. Over on the fever pits of the right of the tin-foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists who ardently supported Trump had already concluded that the Syrian dictatorship hadn’t launched a chemical weapons attack on that that village, and that all footage of gassed children who so moved Trump was faked was staged by the same globalist conspiracy that had recently expelled the righteous nationalist Steve Bannon from the National Security Council at the behest of Trump’s wouldn’t-you-know it Jewish son-in-law who is now in charge of Middle East peace and re-inventing government and solving the opioid problem and getting Mexico to pay for the wall along the Mexican border. Far-flung Democratic fever pits and even the recently popular MSNBC network are meanwhile speculating that the strike against a Russian ally was only intended to distracting from the ongoing speculation about Trump’s ties to Russia, which is a crucial supporter of the Syrian dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, which the Trump administration had declared last Wednesday it no was no longer interested in toppling but over the weekend warned Russia to stop supporting.
At this point we don’t have anyone to root for, and from our view on the sidelines it all seems quite foggy. We’re inclined to believe that the Assad dictatorship did indeed launch that horrific attack on that village, just as we believe it did back in ’13, and several times before that during the dictator’s dictatorial reign, and something in our old-fashioned Republican sensibilities has no problem with a muscular response to such outrages. Back in ’13 we opposed Obama’s proposed response because his Secretary of State had described it as a mere “pinprick,” which didn’t seem to serve any strategic purpose, but we must admit the current Republican administration doesn’t seem to have thought any of this out any further. It would take some pretty convoluted theorizing to explain how all of this is an elaborately convoluted plot twist in an ongoing Russo-Trump conspiracy, but it still remains hard to explain away all of the connections between Trump’s past rhetoric and his past associates associations with the Ruskies.
At this point we’re waiting for the fog to lift, and hoping it doesn’t get any foggier.

— Bud Norman

A Quick Response to a Quick Response

Just as we were sitting down to write about the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I, the news came across the internet that President Donald Trump had ordered a launch of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base. The wisdom of America fighting in World War I is still a matter of heated debate a century later, so of course it’s far too soon to say how that missile strike will play out.
The potential consequences of such military actions are as numerous as the trillions of possible moves in a chess game, and finding the most promising line among them requires far more serious contemplation, but the decision was apparently made with some haste. On Tuesday the brutal regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical weapons attack on a village caught up in the country’s seven-year-old civil war and killed scores of innocent men, women, and children, and the Trump administration immediately condemned the atrocity and blamed in the past inaction of the administration of President Barack Obama. On Wednesday Trump told the press that he was personally affected by the footage of the gassed children, and that “It is now my responsibility.” On Thursday afternoon, the 59 or so missiles were launched against the same air base where the chemical attack originated. There are time pressures in both chess and geopolitics that sometimes force players to act quickly and intuitively, but at this point there’s no apparent reason those missiles had to be launched on Thursday.
That horrific Syrian civil war has been dragging on for more than seven years, after all, and Tuesday’s atrocity was by no means the first time that Assad has used chemical weapons. The Syrian air base and all those Tomahawk missiles would have still been there on Monday morning after a weekend of careful thought, which the situation seems to require. Trump was quite right that Obama’s failure to enforce the “red line” he had carelessly drawn over a previous chemical attack on innocents had emboldened Assad to do it again, even if Trump was “tweeting” advice not to do anything at the time, but that’s as much an argument for not drawing red lines as it for enforcing them. Trump is also quite right to regard the chemical attack as a humanitarian outrage and clear violation of international law, but so were the previous chemical attacks that Trump didn’t want to respond to and a Republican Congress eventually declined to authorize the use of military force to punish. There’s also an argument to made, and naturally some people are making it, that Trump’s announcement that the United States no longer sought regime change in Syria also emboldened Assad to undertake his latest atrocity.
This time around the situation is even more complicated. The Syrian regime is hanging on because of support from Iran, who Obama was eager to reach a friendly deal with and Trump has promised to strike a far harsher deal with, as well as the dictatorship in Russia, which both Obama and Trump have seemed all too eager to get along with for probably very different reasons. One of the Syrian regime’s most formidable enemies is the equally abhorrent and potentially more troublesome Islamic State, which Obama infamously dismissed as the “jay-vee team” of terrorism and Trump has promised to destroy, so there’s a tricky problem of trying to harm one without helping the other. Much of Syria is now controlled by Kurdish forces, who about the closest thing to good guys that you’ll find in the Middle East, and have been of much help in America’s complicated dealings with Iraq, but the Kurds are a problem for Turkey, which is also a problem but nonetheless a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and an occasional ally, and Trump once infamously confused them with Iran’s Quds Forces. At this point any rebels remotely resembling modern and democratic types have been pretty much wiped out, thanks to years of inaction, but a few hundred American servicemen are currently in Syria and probably on heightened security at the moment.
There’s certainly a case to be made that Tuesday’s chemical attack was so horrific it demanded an immediate muscular response, and some people are naturally making that case, but events will surely muddy the argument. The initial reports say that the Russians were given a heads-up on the attack and that care was taken not to bomb the Russian parts of that air base, so some care has been taken not to widen the conflict, but given the extremely complicated state of Russo-American relations at the moment it’s hard to say how that will pan out. By now most Americans don’t care much what that awful government in Iran thinks of all this, but for the past 38 years they haven’t seemed to care what Americans think. Americans have never cared much what the rest of the world thinks, either, but that usually winds up making some difference.
Meanwhile, back in the States, there will be political consequences that no one can possibly predict. Trump ran on promises to beef up America’s military might and criticisms of Obama’s weak-kneed foreign policy, but he also explicitly promised an “America First” foreign policy that would avoid the interventionism of the war-mongering neocon establishment that had fallen out of favor with many Republican primary voters and the Rust Belt Democrats who didn’t like Hillary Clinton. He stressed his eagerness to get along with Russia, accused President George W. Bush of lying the country into a Middle East war, lied blatantly about his past support for intervention in Iraq and his more full-throated support for the ill-fated Libyan war, and promised to spend all that war money on re-building America. The comments section at all the Trump-friendly news sources are full of griping by Trump supporters who don’t much care about anyone in Syria and feel betrayed by the missile strike, and we expect that all those Trump-friendly talk radio show hosts wish he’d at least given them a weekend to come up with a justification. It’s hard to see any Democrats siding with Trump on the issue, although they’ll have to add the usual tsk-tsking about Assad gassing those innocents, and unless this missile strike yields unexpectedly quick positive results we don’t see the usual rally-round-the-president sentiment happening.
Fifty or so Tomahawk missiles will hinder Assad’s military capabilities for a while, and might just force him to use conventional bombs rather than chemical weapons in his ongoing war, but unless the missiles keep coming for a while that probably won’t last long. Perhaps Chinese President Xi Jiping will be a bit more wary of Trump during the negotiations at the Mar-a-Lago resort today, but we don’t expect he’s worried that Trump will be lobbing any missiles at his country in the near future, and the nutcase running his client state in North Korea might feel all the more threatened. The strike might also prove to a masterstroke of geo-political 3-D chess playing, as Trump’s more smitten supporters always claim, even when talking about such obvious failures as the recent demise of his health care reform bill, but we’d be mighty impressed if he calculated all those possible combinations in such a short time.
Even after a hundred years people are still sorting out that whole World War I thing. Although we’re no fans of President Woodrow Wilson, and hate the way he used the war to suppress free speech and expand the administrative state and threw away a victory for utopian dreams of a global government, we were planning to write to that he didn’t have much choice but to enter the horrible fray. The alternative was a Europe and world dominated by German militarism and Ottoman theocracy, and the Germans were sinking American ships and waging a war of sabotage and trying to lure Mexico in a revanchist war on our border, and our alliances with Great Britain and France and the emerging democracies were on the line, and our involvement did hasten the end of what was then history’s bloodiest conflict. It’s also true that the war didn’t all wars, as Wilson had promised, and the resulting peace carved the Middle East into all the currently warring states, and Ireland was emboldened to start a bloody war with England that would last for decades, and sub-Saharan Africa wound up with decades of wars, and a not-fully-conquered Germany and an emboldened Japan and a Italy suddenly on the other side would start a far bloodier conflict just two decades later.
These things always take time to sort out, so we’ll reserve a final judgment on Trump’s missile strike. We do hope, though, that some time will be taken before the next military action.

— Bud Norman

As the World Turns

Shortly before the health care bill he backed went down in the flames of 17 percent approval and strident opposition from both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans, President Donald Trump infamously shrugged and admitted to the members of the National Governors Association that “Who knew health care was so complicated?” Throughout his winning campaign Trump had always been similarly cocksure that foreign relations is similarly simpler than all the eggheads make it out to be, but by now he’s surely realizing that it’s also pretty damned complicated.
There’s a meeting scheduled today at Trump’s still-wholly owned Mar-a-Lago resort with the well experienced Chinese President Xi Jiping, which will inevitably entail even more complex negotiations than a deal with a New Jersey gambling commission, and it’s coming on the heels of some pretty complicated developments in the already vexing enough countries of Syria and South Korea. There’s also that ongoing hubbub about Trump’s possible ties to the Russian regime that he’s often made excuses for and his criticisms of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that has long stood against Russian expansionism, and all that business about accusing Great Britain of spying on him and Australia of exporting Islamic terrorism and the continued insistence that Mexico pay for a wall along its northern border. All in all, who knew that it could be so complicated?
The Syrian situation got thornier this week when that unfortunate country’s grotesque government once again used chemical weapons in an attack that killed dozens of non-combitatant women and children during a civil war that has already killed hundreds of thousands of innocents, and although that crosses a clear line of what should be 21st Century lines it’s not simple as that. This isn’t the first or even the second or third time that that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its own people, and after one occasion the administration of President Barack Obama boldly declared a “red line” of American intervention if they ever did it again, but when they provably did it again nothing happened. Obama’s apologists will rightly note that Republicans thwarted an attempt to get congressional authorization to retaliate, but we were among the Republican dissenters because Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry were describing a “pinprick” response that didn’t satisfy our war-mongering neocon sensibilities at all, and suffice to say it was all pretty damned complicated.
In the immediate aftermath of the horrific Syrian chemical attack Trump did the requisite tsk-tsking on Tuesday while asserting “These heinous actions of the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution,” which seems about right to our old-fashioned Republicans selves, but the immediate response of the mostly Democratic media was to dig up all the past “tweets” when reality-show star and recently registered Republican Trump advised Obama to stay out of Syria altogether. By Wednesday Trump was telling the press that the photographs of gassed women and children had “made an impact” and that it was now his responsibility to deal with it, and we’re heartened he seemed to realize how damned complicated it was. It’s complicated further by the fact that the Russian dictatorship that Trump is always making excuses for is backing the Iranian regime that Trump has promised to deal with severely which is backing the grotesque Syrian government that Trump has to admit is pretty awful but has withdrawn the previous bi-partisan policy of calling for its eventual overthrow, and given that nobody in Syria at the moment seems to deserve the United States’ backing the plausible arguments for that policy only complicate matters further.
Meanwhile, over on the other side of the globe in the Korean peninsula, the megalomaniacal rich kid running the North Korean regime is holding nuclear bombs he got his hands on despite the the best efforts of the past several Democratic and Republican administrations and launching missiles east ward into the ocean. Sooner or later even the buffoon running North Korea will find someone who can get those missiles all the way to Los Angeles or San Francisco, and they’ve already got plenty of relatively old-fashioned weapons that can wrak all sorts of havoc on nearby Seoul, South Korea, or Tokyo, Japan, which would make for one hell of a global economic crisis even if you don’t care about any Korean or Japanese people, and for pretty much all of our lives that’s been a sticky wicket.
All that Korean peninsula stuff is bound to come up in those Mar-a-Lago talks with the Chinese, which were already pretty damned complicated. Back during the campaign when Trump made it all sound simple he explained that he’d threaten the Chinese with a 45 percent tariff if they didn’t agree to stop manipulating their currency and running up a multi-billion dollar trade imbalance and otherwise game the international economy. By today’s meeting at the Mar-a-Lago the currency manipulation charges are outdated and Trump is threatening a fight with the Federal Reserve Board if they don’t keep up something close to the Obama-era quantitative easing that you have to admit is a currency manipulation, the ridiculous 45 percent tariff threat is by now long discarded the Trump administration and even Trump himself seems to understand how much of that trade deficit comes back in much-need foreign investment, and when it comes to the fact the Xi represents a a grotesque communist government that committed atrocities you have to remember that Trump has applauded their strength i nputting down protests.

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The past few days have seen former self-described “alt-right platform” editor and Trump “senior advisor” Steve Bannon expelled from from his inexplicable seat the National Security Council, and some old Republican foreign policy hands brought on board despite their publicly stated reservations about Trump, and there’s some hope that things will turn out the way the way even our fatalistic Republican souls dare hope for. We’ve got the president’s son-in-law is charged dealing with Iraq and that complicated Israel-Palestinian thing while re-invent the entire federal government along free-market lines, and the situation with Russia is still very much in the air, and that spoiled rich kid in North Korea truly is crazy, and once again there are all sorts of complicated historical forces that can’t be warded off with the slogan of “America First.”
At the moment the only alternative is that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had won the presidency, and pretty much continued the foreign policy of Obama, and we can’t lament that never never came to pass. Obama’s inaction in Syria did wind up one way or another with Tuesday’s atrocities, Clinton’s full-throated insistence on action in Libya did prove a disaster she felt obliged to be lie about, and the general weakness of Democratic foreign policy in general make it think it could have turned out worse yet. This is is all pretty damned complicated stuff, though, and we’re not all sure the guy with the R next to his name will necessarily get it at all right.

— Bud Norman

Circular Logic in an Oval Office

President Barack Obama’s Oval Office address on Sunday wasn’t so awful as we had feared, and probably won’t prove so awful as the last one, in which he proudly announced the full withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, but that’s not saying much. Although we couldn’t bring ourselves to watch it, and therefore missed out on the reportedly unsettling and thus far unexplained sight of him standing before his desk rather than seated at the usual president position behind it, our reading of the transcript was not reassuring.
The speech begins by noting the ethnic diversity of the victims of Wednesday’s massacre in San Bernardino, California, as if that somehow makes it worse than a more homogenous slaughter, but at least it was quickly followed with a frank admission that what happened was an act of terrorism. By now the facts of the matter are so well-established and widely-reported that even Obama’s stubborn instincts cannot deny them, but we’ll credit him for at long last acknowledging the well-established and widely-reported fact that the long-ago massacre at Fort Hood, Texas, was also an act of terrorism. All of our ex-alcoholic pals tell us that the first step toward recovery is admitting there is a problem, so we are heartened to see that after seven years in office the president has taken a nudge in that direction. He even acknowledged that the previously unspecific sort of terrorism had something to do with “a perverted interpretation of Islam that calls for war against America and the west.”

We’re assured that for the past seven years the president has “confronted this threat each morning in my intelligence briefing,” but we can’t help recalling the Government Accountability Office’s reports that the president had been skipping 58 percent of those briefings, or the more recent reports that he only listens to information regarding a limited number of groups that he considers a terror threat, so we’re not convinced. The president also noted that “our success won’t depend on tough talk,” so neither were were convinced by the tougher than usual talk that followed.
There was a promise that “our military will continue to hunt down terrorist plotters in any country where it is necessary,” but given the president’s previous scoffing about military solutions, and his continued insistence that air strikes and special forces will suffice, again we are not confident. There was also a promise to continue to provide training and assistance to “tens of thousands” of supposedly moderate Syrian rebels, but given the junk we’ve been providing our supposedly moderate friends in Ukraine, and the less-than-ten fighters we’ve actually had on the ground recently, that also seems a bad bet.
A third promise made was that America will step up its offensive against the Islamic State, which the president consistently refers to by the unusual acronym ISIL for fear of mentioning that first word, and he notes that our cooperation with Turkey and France has lately increased, and although he doesn’t mention Russia, which has also lately suffered from Islamic State’s now-global terror network, we can believe that there’s now sufficient international political pressure for Obama to keep that promise. Whether he knows how to do it without strengthening the hands of Turkey and Russia and Iran and other players in the region remains to be seen, and past history suggests otherwise, but at least its a somewhat hopeful development.
The fourth promise was that “with American leadership, the international community has begun to establish a process — and timeline — to pursue ceasefires and a political solution to the Syrian civil war.” This, of course, inspires no confidence at all. There was some hopeful talk about “reviewing” the procedures that waived in one of the San Bernardino killers on a passport from Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or some other unestablished Middle Eastern problem country, but no mention of whether the many thousands of refugees from similarly problematic countries will also be subjected to these improved methods.
Of course there was some talk about what do back here in the homeland, and that was the least inspiring portion of the speech. There was the predictable call to deny gun sales to anyone on the “no-fly list,” even though the “no-fly list” is such a ridiculous compilation of random names that now includes numerous employees of the Homeland Security Department and once included Sen. Ted Kennedy and could easily include you if you’re annoyed office mate decides to make an anonymous call and was until recent an outrage to the leftward side of civil libertarian movement, but at least there weren’t any threats of an executive action to repeal the Second Amendment. There was a call to make it harder to purchase the sort of “assault weapons” that were used in the attack, which aren’t really assault weapons and are currently owned by millions of law-abiding Americans who might wind up using them against the next attackers, but it did seem rather perfunctory.
Of course there was the obligatory scolding about how “it is the responsibility of all Americans — of every faith — to reject discrimination.” It was all rather mild compared to his Attorney General’s previous speech threatening to prosecute any remarks about Islam that “edge toward violence,” and to literally make a federal case out of any playground comments that might be construed as anti-Islamic bullying, but it still suggested a certain tolerance of even the most perverted interpretations of Islam. The obligatory call for religious tolerance omitted any condemnation of anti-Jewish bigotry, even though Jews are the most frequent victims of religious hate crimes in America, and there was no condemnation of the New York Daily News’ sneering dismissal of the thoughts and prayers of Republicans or its editorial claiming that one of the San Bernardino victims was no better than his killer because of his proud statements on behalf of Jewish heritage and Christian beliefs, and we would have preferred an acknowledgment of how very tolerant America has been over the past two decades of Islamist terrorism rather than another unnecessary scolding.
The speech ended with the president saying “may God bless the United States of America,” and although his more secular admirers were probably irked by it at least we took some comfort in that.

— Bud Norman

Giving Thanks for the Holiday Pause

Our heartfelt thanks have been duly given, and we’re slowly coming out of our annual tryptophan coma, so it’s back to our usual business of going on about the sorry state of the world. There’s usually not much in the news during the long Thanksgiving weekend except the easily avoidable fisticuffs over Black Friday bargains, which is another thing to be thankful for, but we expect that by Monday the news will be back in force and we want to be braced.
Several intriguing stories have been temporarily replaced with holiday programming but are bound to be back on the air before all the Christmas specials start up. There’s that 13-month-old video of a fatal and highly suspicious shooting of a black man by police in Chicago, and the shootings at a Black Lives Matter protest in Minneapolis, and the spreading epidemic of protests at American universities over far less macro-aggressive racial matters, and a gnawing suspicion that it’s going to be a long, hot winter. Such unanticipated problems of the post-racial era will likely complicate the on-going debates about the refugees from the Syrian war and the broader issue of unfettered immigration, which will be going on through New Year’s and into the coming primaries.
There’s always a chance those obligatory annual Black Friday estimates will be disappointing, and that the Chinese economy will further suffer as a result, and that the long-feared rate hikes by the Federal Reserve will spook the markets that have so long relied on the intoxicating sweetness of quantitative easing, and that the economy will once again be a pressing issue. The Syrian civil war that’s fueling the aforementioned refugee crisis, as well as a recent spate of terror attacks around the world, will surely not go unnoticed even in a holiday news season. There’s also the big climate change conference coming up in Paris, which the President is touting as a huge blow against the terrorists, unless they manage to blow it up, in which case they would still be a less urgent threat than climate change, but barring any such mishaps we can’t see that story having any legs.
All of which will continue to affect those primaries, which are another thing to grouse about. In almost every cast those suspicious police shootings of black men seem to happen in Democrat-controlled cities, and in the case of that-suppressed-for-13-months-video it happened in a community that was once personally organized by the President himself and is now run by his former Chief of Staff, but we expect that all the Democratic candidates will try to out-do one another in their indignation about the Republicans and their weird insistence on the need for law enforcement and a right to self-defense. The Syrian stuff will make the Democrats all the more insistent in their belief that climate change really is the biggest threat America faces, which polls about as well as the gun-grabbing rhetoric, and the ramped-up share-the-wealth talk isn’t likely to sway a public that can’t help noticing how the wealth seems to be shrinking. Meanwhile the Republicans seem intent on picking whichever candidate can muster the greatest bluster about it all, and it’s hard to hold on to tryptophan-induced sense of serene gratitude.
There’s something to that Thanksgiving insight, though, and we’ll try our best to bitterly cling to it through the coming news. We hope you’ll let that holiday happiness linger at least through the weekend, too, although we can’t promise we’ll have any good news come in the inevitable Monday.

— Bud Norman

The Exponential Complexities of the Middle East

A Russian fighter jet was shot down Tuesday over Syrian air space by an American-armed Turkmen militia group on orders from the Turkish government, further complicating what was already the most confusing conflict in the history of war. The situation will require the most wily and nimble and resolute response by America’s leadership, so we expect that things are about to become even more complicated.
The Turkmen are ethnic Turks living in Syria but loyal to Turkey, which is at odds with the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, whose efforts to remain in power through a long and bloody and confusingly multi-sided civil war have been much aided by the Russians, which is presumably why the Turkmen shot down the Russian fighter jet even though it had reportedly left Turkish air space after a brief and apparently uneventful incursion. Turkey is for some reason or another a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, despite Prime Minister Recep Erdogan leading the country toward a more radically Islamic state, and Erdogan retains a “special friendship” with the Obama administration, probably because of Turkey’s increased radicalization, and the administration is also at odds with Assad, who has crossed “red lines” that changed the president’s calculus and now “has to go” to and is constantly subjected to similarly tough talk from the administration, but unlike the good old days of the Cold War it is no longer so simple as that. Another one of the many sides in the Syrian civil war is the Islamic State, which the administration insists is neither Islamic nor a state even though it has some pretty specific Koranic verses to explain what it’s doing in the Indiana-sized territory it now controls in former parts of Syria and Iraq, and at the moment they’re a bigger pain in the global posterior than even the Assad regime. Pretty much everyone at least claims to be opposed to the Islamic State, including Assad, whose sincerity on this matter is not to be doubted, and Russia, whose warplanes have been effectively targeting the Islamic State rather than the Turkmen and the other American-backed anti-Assad forces ever since the terror group shot down one of its jetliners, and the Assad regime’s sponsors in Iran, who as always are complicating matters further yet.
Which doesn’t begin to suggest the geo-political complexities, much less the domestic political implications, which together are exponential. The Syrian civil war has sent millions of refugees from all over the region into Europe and North America, with opportunist asylum seekers far from the conflict joining the flood, and the inevitable populist backlashes are brewing on both continents. The Islamic State’s terrorism has struck in Turkey and Lebanon as well as the heart of France, and Belgium seems to have been spared so far only by a complete lockdown of its capital city, and the groups threats against several countries including the United States can no longer be dismissed as the bluster of a “jayvee team” of terrorism, and there’s worldwide discontent and increased military action by formerly pacifist countries about that as well. Joining forces with Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies could quickly solve the Islamic State problem, but all those non-Islamic State sides would still be fighting a Syrian civil war and the refugee problem would continue and the rest of the Muslim world’s problems, such as the Yemen civil war that’s largely kept Saudi Arabia from asserting any Sunni power against the Shia Iranians and Alawite Assad in all this mess, or the Palestinians’ “stabbing intifada” against the Israelis, which has largely been overlooked amongst all the other complexities, so it seems unlikely that any country will have the region’s infectious woes solved by its next election.
One can only hope that the utter ineptitude of the current administration leading up to this sorry state of affairs will be well considered in this country’s next election, and that perhaps some correction will be made even before then. All that talk of Assad having to go and red lines being set and moderate forces being trained and air strikes being ordered was always accompanied by assurances of no American boots on the ground and little in the way of action, which emboldened Assad and his allies to use the red-lined tactics that sent the millions of refugees fleeing the region and the thousand of inspired western jihadists flooding into the region to fight for the Islamic State, and a similarly clumsy and irresolute response to Russia’s revanchism in Ukraine seems to have emboldened that country to fly over NATO airspace with impunity. In this case they seem to have made a miscalculation, failing to account for the fact that Turkmen militias armed with American weaponry don’t particularly care what American foreign policy prefers, and that despite its “special relationship” with American neither does Turkey, but once again they didn’t underestimate American resolve. The Iranians, who have been ratcheting up the “death to America” ever since they might or might not have agreed to America’s utter capitulation to its nuclear weapons program, which is eventually going to complicate things to a point that the current mess seems like the good old days, likely figures that it can maintain its puppet Assad regime and leave enough Islamic State to bedevil the infidel west and proceed with its master plan for the battle of Armageddon.
We’ll freely admit that we see no way out of this, but what worries us is that the administration won’t. Instead they insist that our policies have contained the Islamic State, that the refugees should welcomed with certainty that none will import the pathologies of the regions they are fleeing, that Russia’s seemingly expanding influence is a sign of its weakness, that all those “death to America” chants in Iran shouldn’t scuttle the deal we might or might have cut capitulating to their nuclear weapons program, and that climate change is still America’s greatest foreign policy challenge. There are reports that the American jets flying over Islamic State-controlled areas are at last dropping their bombs on the convoys of stolen oil that finance their operation, and that there are a few Americans boots actually on the ground helping to guide the missiles, and the administration did acknowledge Turkey’s right to defend its airspace, and we even read that we’re arming the Kurds, who seem to be among the more reasonable tiles in the vast and vibrant multi-cultural mosaic that is the war-torn Middle East, even though the administration denies it so as not to offend our special friends in increasingly radicalized Turkey, which has its own internal Kurdish problems, which is another one of those complexities, so perhaps there is some wising up going in the administration.
The most immediate concern is that an official if unaccountable NATO member has shot down a Russian fighter jet, and that the world will at long last come to the same ending as “Doctor Strangelove,” but we expect it will prove more complicated than that. We can easily imagine President Barack Obama sounding very much likely President Merkin Muffly as he apologizes to Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and although we despite Putin’s nakedly expansionist national ambitions we credit him with the shrewdness to be satisfied with a few carpet bombings of the offending areas and the west’s abject appeasement. This doesn’t seem like something we’ll be going into toe-to-toe nuclear combat with the Russkies over, as Slim Pickens might have said, but one never knows. Our only surety, alas, is that the whole wide world is now one very sticky wicket.

— Bud Norman

Chuckling Away the Refugee Crisis

We have long noticed that whenever a doctrinaire liberal is confronted with verifiable facts and irrefutable logic he tends to respond with a condescending chuckle and an upturned chin and a self-righteous assurance that only the worst sorts of Fox News-watching and church-going and Republican-voting people and otherwise uncivilized people would be rude as the mention such things. This annoying tendency has been on conspicuous display during the recent debate about what to do with that tidal wave of people desperately fleeing the Middle East, which we are assured is a blameless part of the world where a Religion of Peace prevails, when the modern liberal has been reduced to condescending chuckles and ad hominem arguments to explain why the western world is obviously obliged to import millions of potentially dangerous people from the pathologies of a hostile and increasingly belligerent region.
It wouldn’t be so annoying if it were only coming from the hipsters at the local beer dive, but it’s also coming from President Barack Obama and all of his potential Democratic successors and too many of their allies in the respectable press, not to mention such formerly sensible European Union grandees as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and it seems at the moment the tidal wave will prove irresistible. This comes just days after at least one lone wolf of that tidal wave of putative “refugees” helped pull off a sophisticated and deadly terrorist attack on Paris, and shortly after their allies in the Middle East had downed a Russian jetliner over Egypt and bombed some religiously internecine enemies in Beirut and Ankara, and long since the European continent has been engulfed in decades of similar difficulties with an unassimilated Muslim population, and a numbing 14 years since America suffered an even more deadly attack on its soil, and by now the modern liberal hopes that the same old condescending chuckle and rote recitations of moral relativism will once again suffice. Real arguments for the insane policy of relocating a large chunk of the most troubled parts of the world to the west, however, are harder to come by.
There’s the hard-to-resist sob story about innocent refugees of war, of course, but in this case a suspiciously large chunk of the refugees of the Syrian civil war are young and male and fighting-fit, and an awful lot of them don’t seem to be from Syria, and at the moment a large chunk of Syria as well as Iraq and many other Middle Easter countries are “governed” by people who have openly declared war on the west, and it takes quite a condescending chuckle to dismiss any concerns that the unwashed public in Germany or red state America might have about it. We’re told that the refugees will be properly “vetted,” but no chuckling or ad hominem attacks on our racist motives can dispel our doubts that there’s a database somewhere that can reliably verify each of the proposed 100,000 “Syrian” “refugees” that the administration wants to bring in are really who they say they are, or that the records we’ve been allowed access to in the currently at-war-with-us country of Syria are at all reliable. The lower administration officials whose reputations are at stake on such obviously ridiculous claims are more carefully stating their statements, but the higher and more term-limited officials above them doing the usual chuckling and disparaging of dissenting opinions. The same thing seems to be going on in more vulnerable Europe, and even there the population seems rightly skeptical. There’s the same condescending chuckles and upturned chins and self-righteous talk about religious discriminations, as if the Christians and Yazidis and other victims of the region’s religious genocides weren’t already underrepresented in the west’s relocation efforts, and as if those genuinely blameless minorities didn’t import a cultural and religious hostility toward the west, but we doubt it will prove persuasive to the publics that are expected to welcome these new neighbors.
There’s already a populist backlash growing almost everywhere, from the majority of the United States whose governors have raised objections to the suddenly insurgent political parties that are drawing massive protests through the the rest of remnants of the western world. To the extent the condescending chuckles and ad hominem attacks have succeeded in banishing such arguments from respectable debate In some parts of the western world have succeeded, the most disreputable sorts of people have seized an advantage. In France the notorious and Vichy-linked Le Pen Party has surged in the polls, similarly suspicious organizations Germany are gaining on the increasingly unpopular Merkel, and even here in the relatively unaffected United States Donald Trump has increased his lead in the Republican party’s presidential race, and whichever Democrat facing him seems sure to fare badly on the refugee issue and the broader question of immigration into the country.
That condescending chuckle and those ad hominem arguments cow a lot of people into compliance with liberal orthodoxy, both here and in Europe, but they don’t always carry the day. There are not only a lot of governors but also a full slate of Republican candidates questioning the idea of allowing large numbers of “Syrian” “refugees” into the country, and they seem to have counterparts around the rest of the western world, and in many cases they seem reasonable people, and there’s some hope that the for-now majorities in those jurisdictions will wind up voting for the most respectable champions of the status quo, and that their votes will still count.

–Bud Norman

Renewing the War in Afghanistan

President Barack Obama announced Thursday that the war in Afghanistan will outlast his presidency, with at least 5,500 troops still there on his successor’s inauguration day, and we realized that it was the first mention of that unhappy subject we’d heard in some time. The 18-year-old privates who are still slogging it out in that godforsaken land were 4-year-olds when the conflict began, so by now it has about the same slight effect on the public’s consciousness as one of those long-running reality shows that you are only reminded of when they are inexplicably renewed for another season.
Obama was unmistakably disappointed to make the announcement, and understandably so, as it broke one of his solemn campaign promises from the heady days of ’08 and acknowledged that his Cairo speech and the rest of that open-handed outreach to the Muslim world hadn’t fully soothed the more savage Islamist breasts and that his hated neocon critics had been right all along, but he didn’t have any choice. Ever since he kept his campaign promise to “end the war in Iraq” an even more troublesome war has sprung up in that country and spilled into Syria and drawn in the Iranians and the Russians and unleashed a highly problematic flood of refugees into Europe, not to mention the war in Yemen and the instability in the Libya that he bombed into anarchy and the recent acts of violence against Israelis that he has to make excuses for, so leaving Afghanistan when it’s still so ripe for picking by the worst sorts of people would have been more than even a Nobel Prize-winning peacenik’s reputation could endure. Better to make the inevitable announcement now, let the unpleasantness in Afghanistan once again recede from public attention, and allow the more worshipful first generation of biographers to dwell on how he “ended” the Iraq War.
One hopes the decision will at least prevent the worst-case scenario of the Taliban regaining control of the country and re-opening the terrorist training camps that started the war in the first place, but at this point no one seems to be talking about a best-case scenario. Even in the Bush administration’s most hopeful dreams of democracy-building there were was never any thought that such a stubbornly tribalistic and bellicose and backward country as Afghanistan could ever transformed into something like a functioning state, although they did think that it might be achieved where some Iraqis could still recall a relatively modern and democratic Baghdad, so the goal was always to establish an Afghan government with some legitimacy that would impose at least enough order to shut down the terrorist training camps. That’s still the goal, so far as we can tell, but it’s not at all clear that the past six years or so of the effort have brought us any closer, nor can see how the 9,800 to 5,500 troops that Obama will continue to deploy are going affect any further progress.
The question hasn’t come up in any of the presidential debates, so far, and none of the candidates seem to be talking about it, and neither does anyone else. When we bring it up we’re forced to admit that we can’t see any more favorable outcome than a long hard slog by 18-year-old privates who weren’t even born when this mess began. There are 18-year-old privates in South Korea and Japan and Germany whose parents weren’t yet born when the wars that landed them there began, however, and sometimes that’s the price to be paid for a relatively peaceful global order, and no one likes to talk about that.

— Bud Norman