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A Troubled Lawyer and His Three Clients

The news was once again jam-packed on Monday, and included a blowout win by The New York Yankees and a very slight uptick in the stock markets, but the two separate but perhaps related headlines that stood out for us involved Russia and Sean Hannity.
If you’ve been following the whole “Russia thing” subplot in President Donald Trump’s latest reality show, you’re already aware that he won the Republican nomination on a platform that was conspicuously more Russia-friendly than any Democrat had ever dared, with fulsome praise for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin and disparaging comments about the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that had long thwarted Russia’s ambitions, and news of Russia’s meddling on Trump’s behalf and frequent undisclosed but since acknowledged contacts took place between the Russians and the Trump campaign have been prominent in the media ever since. Lately Trump has been boasting that no president has ever been tougher on the Russkies than Trump, including Truman and and Kennedy and Ike and Nixon and Reagan and all those wimps who temporarily won the Cold War, but the very latest news still sounds suspicious to our ears.
Trump has by now accepted his own appointees’ to the intelligence agencies consensus conclusion that Russia did indeed meddle in the last American presidential election on Trump’s behalf, and he didn’t veto a Russian sanctions bill that was passed by a veto-proof bipartisan majority in both chambers of commerce. American troops recently killed a couple hundred Russians in the Syrian civil war theater, he’s launched two retaliatory strikes against Russia’s Syrian allies after their chemical attacks on civilians, and even named Putin in a “tweet” criticizing his support for a “Gas Killing Animal.” His currently unfilled State Department and a formidably led Defense Department a remarkably sound United Nations ambassador have announced tough sanctions on Russian oligarchs and promised a extended opposition to the Syrian dictatorship.
Which sounds good  to our old fashioned neocon Republican ears, except that we don’t believe a word of it. Trump only grudgingly acknowledged Russia’s meddling in the last election, and still insists that it was Democratic nominee “Crooked” Hillary Clinton who conspired with the Russkies to hand Trump his improbable presidency, clearly regards it as no big deal. He’s been pretty darned slow in enforcing that veto-proof bill he signed imposing Russian sanctions, too. His missile strikes in Libya have carefully avoided Russian casualties, and the two hundred or so Russians he killed were not Russian soldiers but rather mercenaries opposing the Syrian dictatorship, so the Russian government has not been upset by it. The Trump administration’s recent expulsion of Russian diplomats reportedly annoyed Trump, and by Monday he was walking back his stalwart UN ambassador’s tough talk about sanctions.
Meanwhile Trump is dealing with all the legal subplots about pornographic video performers and Playboy playmates and the numerous women who claim in court filings and media interviews that Trump has groped them, and Michael Cohen, the lawyer and self-described “fixer” who long handled these sorts of problems for Trump has lately had no-knock search warrants executed at his home and office and most recent hotel room. There are also reports from the same newspaper chain which owes us a pension that the same lawyer was making contact with Russian officials in Prague during the campaign, and at this point both Trump and his longtime lawyer have some explaining to do.
As the court documents reveal, and the mainstream media have giddily disseminated, that Cohen’s main client was Trump. When he pressed in court he revealed that another client was a big Republican who had hired him to pay hush money to a big time Republican fund-raiser who had impregnated another Playboy playmate, and when pressed to name a third client he reluctantly named talk radio host and Fox News personality Hannity. The news broke while Hannity was on the radio waves, and he quickly emphasized that although he had sought Cohen’s legal advice it had nothing to do with paying off any playmates, pregnant or otherwise.
We’ll take the notoriously puritanical Hannity’s word for that, despite his apologetics for Trump’s many undenied and even boasted about adulteries, but we still got a chuckle out of it. Trump and Hannity and their hilariously incompetent lawyer are all properly embarrassed at the moment, as far as were concerned, and although there are many nits to be picked with the far more formidable legal teams arrayed against them, including that former Federal Bureau of Investigation director with the currently best-selling book, and given everything else it seems another bad cycle for Trump and his most die-hard supporters.

— Bud Norman

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A Two-Front, or More, War for Trump

President Donald Trump spent some of the past weekend lobbing actual missiles at Syrian chemical weapons sites, and the rest lobbing rhetorical missiles at former Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey. In both cases, it remains to be seen how effective those attacks will prove.
The actual missiles lobbed into Syria were a justifiable response to a vicious dictatorship’s use of chemical weapons in its brutal prosecution of a civil war that America has reluctantly wound up in, as far as our old-fashioned Republican selves are concerned, and we were pleasantly surprised to note the strikes were carried out in coordination with the militaries of France and England the diplomatic approval of several other important allies. The last time Trump lobbed missiles at Syrian targets he got some rare bipartisan praise and a bump in the polls, but it didn’t deter the latest chemical attack by the Syrian dictatorship, and this time around some of his most vocal supporters are grousing about another one of those neo-con military-industrial complex establishment entanglements, so there’s no telling how it plays out now.
Trump had earlier “tweeted” the complete withdrawal of American forces from the entire Syrian civil war mess, claiming undue credit for the recent near-annihilation of the head-chopping and crucifying Islamist terrorist gang that had declared itself the Islamic State in much of Syria and Iraq, and he didn’t seem to mind that meant leaving the vicious Syrian dictatorship in permanent power to do what illegal atrocities it might. Nor did he he seem to mind that he was also allowing Syria’s equally odious dictator partnerships in Iran and Russia an extraordinary influence in the volatile and still strategically important region.
After the tear-jerking footage of the aftermath of the last chemical attacks were broadcast on all the networks, and the wise old foreign policy hands in London and Paris and Berlin and in Trump’s own administration and the bipartisan press argued that such a cruel violation international law must be met with a forceful response, Trump was “tweeting” a warning to Russia to get ready for a strike by his “shiny, new and smart” missiles. This apparently took the wise old foreign policy hands in London and Paris and the military brass in the Pentagon by surprise, so the next day Trump was “tweeting that the missiles might take a while, and the day after that we hit those Syrian chemical weapons sites. For now Trump has taken the position that America will sustain its diplomatic and economic as well as military influence in the region, but all reports suggest he’s been talked into that by by all those “deep state” and “New World” types, so those erstwhile non-interventionist talk radio hosts might prove more persuasive..
In any case the Syrian dictator is broadcasting images on the state-controlled Syrian media of himself walking calmly into work, visibly unworried by the paper tiger of the west’s ineffectual pinprick missile strikes, and on their state-controlled media neither Russia nor Iran seem at all unfazed, and despite the best efforts of Fox News and his most loyal talk radio allies Trump was unable to do the same.
Instead Trump spent much of the rest of the weekend “tweeting” insults about the FBI director he fired, calling him a liar and a “leaker” and “slime ball,” and otherwise undermine the credibility of Comey’s soon-to-published and already best-selling book. The advance publicity has already revived talk of Russian prostitutes urinating on one another in a Moscow hotel room at Trump’s request, the size of his hands and unusual hue of his skin, possibly impeachable attempts to obstruct justice, and counter charges by Comey that Trump reminded him of the organized crime figures he’d prosecuted earlier in his career, and it wound up hogging up much of the front pages and news hours from the missile strikes in Syria.
Our guess is that neither Trump nor Comey comes out of this battle metaphorically unbloodied. Comey did do some undeniably dumb things during his otherwise distinguished career, especially when he found himself directing the FBI at a time when both major party presidential campaigns were under investigation for some pretty appalling reasons, so the advance copies of the book are already getting some very mixed reviews from bipartisan media. On the other hand, many Americans will probably regard Comey as less a “slime ball” than the failed casino-and-strip bar magnate who’s also currently fending off legal problems with pornographic video performers and Playboy playmates and various women who allege he groped them, not to mention all the creepy recordings from Trump’s appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show and “Access Hollywood” and soft-core Playboy videos and his boasts in his best-selling self-help books.
Even if Trump succeeds in convincing his die-hard fans that Comey’s a a “leaker” and a liar and a “slime ball,” the increasingly scary investigation into the “Russia thing” by special counsel Robert Mueller that resulted from Comey’s firing continue. Despite attempts by Trump and his supporters to impugn the character of the Eagle Scout war hero with a distinguished and blessed by both parties career of public service leading that investigation, Trump’s “tweets” indicate he regards that investigation as a bigger deal than any old Syrian civil war.

— Bud Norman

Shakespeare Vs. Trump

We’ve long noticed that one of President Donald Trump’s many peculiar tendencies is to “tweet” or tell a television camera whatever happens to be on his mind at the moment. His most die-hard supporters have always loved his “tell it like it is” style, but we’ve always thought it ill-suited to the presidency. Our preference is for Polonius’ advice to Laertes in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” to “give thy thoughts no tongue, nor any un-proportioned thought his act. Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.”
Trump clearly has no patience for such old-fashioned and highfalutin advice, however, and thus often winds up “tweeting” or telling a camera something that is quite different from what was on his mind at an earlier moment. The latest example once again involves the bloody and damned complicated Syrian civil war, and America’s even more damned complicated role in it, and shooting from the hip has so far proved a poor tactic.
After the Syrian dictatorship apparently launched another deadly chemical attack on in its citizens recently, Trump “tweeted” and talked tough. He denounced the Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad as an “animal,” and went so far as to criticize by name Russian dictator Vladimir Putin for his pro-Assad role in the civil war. By Wednesday he was “tweeting” that “Russia vows to shoot down any all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!’ You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”
All of Trump’s critics on the left were of course horrified by such bellicosity, but so were many of the die-hard supporters on talk radio and internet sites who had cheered his “tweets” of a few days earlier about pulling out of the Syrian civil war altogether. That earlier “tweet” had already been talked back considerably by various more careful administration spokespeople, and by Thursday Trump himself was “tweeting” back his more recent imminent threats. “Never said an attack on Syria would take place,” Trump implausibly “tweeted,” adding “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”
On our way home with some fish tacos from the great Tacos Lopez drive-through over on West Street we heard one of the anti-immigrant and isolationist talk radio hosts claiming credit for talking Trump into his latest strategic retreat, but we’d like to think it was due to the more informed and deliberative advice of the surprisingly sound Defense Secretary and United Nations ambassador and potential next Secretary of State that Trump somehow has on hand, and we hope even that wild-eyed but experienced third national security advisor who came on board Wednesday. There’s a strong case to be made for enforcing a red line against chemical attacks, especially if we’re able to cobble together the international support that Trump’s administration is reportedly seeking, and we’re open to any arguments for washing our hands of the whole mess, but we think it best that wiser and more knowledgable people than ourselves carefully deliberate these matters before the president “tweets” about them.
We certainly wish those wise old hands well. The Syrian situation is complicated enough, and Trump is making tough demands on a nuclear arms treaty the Iranian theocratic dictatorship even as he’s signaled he intends to hand them Syria on a silver platter, and that whole thing with Russia is pretty damned complicated, too. On the other side of the globe Trump is engaged “twitter” feuds and diplomatic dances with the North Korean dictator, and has lately refrained from taunting him as “Little Rocket Man,” and has been talking and “tweeting” tough about trade negotiations with our ostensible allies in democratic South Korea. The stock markets have sighed a green arrow sigh after Trump lately “tweeted” back his earlier tough talk about a trade war with China, and there are reports that he’s even considering reviving the Trans-Pacific Partnership that President Barack Obama had negotiated with China’s neighbors. Trump had long been critical of multilateral trade agreements in general, and ones negotiated by Obama in particular, but given the howls of pain coming from the stock markets and agricultural states and various other export industries it suddenly seems a more sensible approach to dealing with China’s undeniably unfair business practices than all-out trade war.
There’s some faint cause for hope, therefore, that some semblance of a more or less effective foreign policy might emerge from all this. We can’t imagine Trump coherently explaining it to the world, though, and count on lots of incoherent “tweets” and televised statements further complicating things along the way. He probably won’t hear it, bout our advice is the same the Bard might well have said  to Trump, to give thy thoughts no tongue nor “tweet,” nor any un-proportioned thought your action. As for the part about not being vulgar, we hold out no hope Trump will heed that sage advice.

— Bud Norman

Gut Instincts and Complicated Situations

President Donald Trump promised on Monday that within 24 to 48 hours he will announce a “major decision” about the Syrian dictatorship’s recent chemical attack on its own citizens during that country’s long and bloody civil war. “Nothing is off the table,” Trump added, and he promised “It will be met, and met forcefully.”
So for the next 24 to 48 hours, if not much longer than that, one can only speculate what that forceful response will be. He’ll be getting advice from his newly-installed and third national security advisor, a recent Secretary of State, several brass-laden generals, and a United Nations ambassador who’s proved pretty savvy, but they’ll be laying out unsatisfactory options and Trump tends to go with his gut rather than expert advice. Trump’s gut is hard to predict in this case, because it’s a damned complicated situation.
The long and bloody war in Syria is being waged against the second-generation dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, which no decent person likes, but is backed by the military might of the Iranian theocracy, which no decent person likes, as well the mightier military of the Russian dictatorship, which even Trump is lately having second thoughts about. On the other hand, one of the various factions waging war against Assad is the Islamic State, the head-chopping and crucifying bunch that has supplanted al-Qaeda as the world’s most deranged Islamist terror gang, and no decent person likes them. There are other factions, too, including those plucky Iraqi Kurds who have sustained the sort of democracy that President George W. Bush envisioned when he launched the second Iraq War. You’ll even find some factions who purport to be fighting for something like modernity, although they seem to have the lesser hand.
You’ll also find a few thousand American troops in the mix, and they find themselves in an especially damned complicated situation. They were first sent there by President Barack Obama, whose incoherent foreign policy had once dismissed the Islamic State as the “JV team” of Islamist terrorism and praised Assad as a “reformer,” then went to a limited war against both, and they’re still there in the Trump administration’s incoherent foreign policy, which had boasted that it will soon pull all American troops out of the theater after their great victory over the Islamic State but is now promising a forceful response to the Assad dictatorship’s outrageous chemical attack on its own people. In both administrations American troops have clashed with both Assad and Islamic State forces, and it’s always been clear who they’ve been against, but never quite clear who they were for.
Even the simplest wars are complicated enough, but in this case all the political implications will be mind-boggling for Trump’s gut. He ran for president on the promise to be even more isolationist than Obama, and went far further in criticizing the Bush-eras of Republican foreign policy, but he also derided all of his presidential predecessors as a bunch of wimps who’d gone easy on Islamist terrorists and the Syrians and Iranians, even as he gave the Russians a pass, so it’s hard to say what his gut tells him now.
One of Obama’s most conspicuous and poll-damaging foreign policy fiascos was declaring a “red line” against Assad’s use of chemical weapons and then failing to back it up after the Assad regime gassed its own people for a second generation, and Trump got bipartisan praise and a bump in the polls after he responded to another chemical attack with a relatively harmless cruise missile strike on Syrian airbase. That didn’t deter Assad and his allies from the most recent attack, though, not after Trump announced he would soon be pulling all American forces from the theater, and another missile strike might not have the same political effect.
Trump might choose to wage a more aggressive war against the Assad regime, then take all their oil, as he’s talked about, which would be as tough as he’s always promised to be, but it would also break his promises about being even less Bush-ian than Obama, and more recent promises about pulling all forces out of Syria. Waging a more aggressive war against the Assad regime entails a more aggressive war against the Iranians and Russians, and despite Trump’s tough talk his gut doesn’t seem to have the stomach for that. As for taking their oil, Syria actually doesn’t have much of it, and it would be a violation of the same Geneva Convention as Assad’s gas attack.
Diplomatic pressure could bring the world’s dislike of both the Assad dictatorship and it’s allies and what’s left of the Islamic State to inflict greater economic damage, but Trump also ran against international coalitions, and is lately threatening hardball negotiations with all our trading powers, so even that surprisingly strong UN ambassador is going to have a problem pulling that off.
Trump is rightly if pettily noting that all of his presidential predecessors failed to avert the damned complicated situation he finds himself in, and we have to admit it is a damned complicated situation. None of the available responses seem satisfactory, even if you leave Trump’s naked political self-interest out of the equation.
Any country’s chemical attack on its enemies, especially its people, is an affront to international law and human decency that cannot go unchallenged. Lobbing a few missiles at an empty air base won’t do much, though, and a war to effect regime change will entail all the things Trump criticized about the Bush years. That Obama-like promise to pull all American forces out is already proving problematic. All of which is further complicated, of course, by the ever expanding “Russia thing” here at home, which has lately required a harder administration stand against Russia.
The only thing we’ll bet on is that our erstwhile Kurdish and putatively pro-modernity allies will wind up losing, and that the outcome won’t be happy for anyone involved. Still, we’ll hope for the best.

— Bud Norman

On the Odd New Detente with the Damned Old Russkies

One of the foremost reasons we’ve long suspected that there’s something more to the “Russia thing” than a “WITCH HUNT!” is President Donald Trump’s undeniable Russophilia. It’s been apparent from the start and was once again on full display again Tuesday’s news.
Trump boastfully acknowledged to the press that during a president-to-dictator phone call the president congratulated the dictator on his landslide victory over the last unbanned-from-the-ballot opponent in an obviously phony-baloney race, and his press secretary acknowledged that he didn’t bring up any of that unpleasantness regarding the people that Russia quite clearly poisoned on the sovereign soil of our longtime ally Great Britain. Instead the president and the dictator focused on areas of possible agreement, according the press secretary, and the president himself called it a “very good call.” Certain Republicans and most Democrats were appalled, but no one should have been appalled.
During his unlikely presidential campaign Trump boasted of his close personal relationship with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, and although he later denied any relationship with Putin at all he wound up predicting they’d eventually be good friends. He praised Putin’s “strong leadership” and reveled in similar compliments from the dictator, and scoffed at the emerging reports of Russian interference in the election, saying it was just as likely some obese fellow in his New Jersey bedroom. Trump denied that Russia had invaded Ukraine, then clarified that he meant Russia had indeed done so but only “in a sense.” Trump also touted the many advantages of a Russo-American alliance in dealing with such threats as the Syrian civil war and terrorism in general and Chinese trade or whatnot, and described the North Atlantic Treaty Organization alliance as “obsolete.” Even the erstwhile Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was taken aback when Trump defended Putin’s indisputable assassinations of journalists and political rivals by saying “We do plenty of killing here.”
As president Trump has mostly hewed to the same Russo-friendly foreign policy. He’s eventually conceded to all of his intelligence agencies’ conclusion that the Russian did meddle in the last election, but still figures some fat guy in Jersey might have also been in on it and show far has shown any little interest in doing anything about it. His aides, by now mostly fired or on their way out, at long last persuaded Trump to affirm America’s commitment to the NATO agreement, although he continued to castigate them all as freeloaders. He claims credit for the sanctions that even most the Republicans in Congress insisted on, but he took his own sweet time about it, and although his United Nations ambassador and recently-fired Secretary of State took strong stands on the Russkies poisoning people on British soil Trump hasn’t “tweeted” a thing about it.
Trump’s defenders point to the “dozens” or “near 200” Russkies killed by American forces during a recent skirmish in the war going on in Syria and Iraq, depending on which media reports you read, but the lieutenant general that was on the ground and in charge says they were mercenary forces not aligned with the Russian government and the American forces got permission to wipe them out from the frustrated Russkie command. They also note that war is going so quite swimmingly in defeating the Islamic State, the vilest villain in the conflict, but at this point it’s hard predict how American and Russian and that very odious Syrian dictatorship come out of it. They also note that Trump has been trumpeting a surge in military spending, but what should Russia care if it’s not about them? In the aftermath of that president-to-dictator phone call both Trump and his press secretary said the two heads of state of would soon met to discuss way ways to avoid an arms race.
The most benign explanation seems to be that for entirely disinterested reasons Trump truly admires Putin’s authoritarian rule, thinks our long trading and military partners are a bunch of freeloaders, and that however things turn out in Syria or elsewhere at least you don’t worry about the Islamic State anymore. It’s an openly held opinion on some of the far right message boards, and has slightly more carefully-worded apologists on talk radio and certain other conservative media, but that’s a hard sale these days. A small but significant percentage of Republicans are still standing on the same Cold War-era and Russo-phobic foreign policy ground that President Barack Obama ridiculed just just six short years ago, and all the Democrats seems to have suddenly found the same anti-Russian religion.
Given all the rest that’s going on in the “Russia thing,” it still looks suspicious to us. As we wondered back during the primaries, what the heck kind of Republican talks like that?

— Bud Norman

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

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