Are You Exhausted?

I am.

From legal developments surrounding Mr. Donald J. Trump to the continued revelations of evil emanating from the Catholic Church it is hard to catch one’s breath.  It seems that institutions that one could look to for ethical and moral guidance are themselves the worst kind of example for any of us.

It would take me pages to even quickly recap the events from the last week.  I think we will look back on it as some kind of turning point, although I am firmly of the belief that we have only just begun a new “long national nightmare” (as President Gerald Ford said on 9 August 1974 at his inauguration) before we reach an understanding of the totality of the illegal and immoral actions surrounding Mr. Trump, his family, his business and his efforts to skew the 2016 election.

Worse still is that we have a president that lashes out in retaliation for any sort of criticism.  He lashes out not just as a cyber bully (Be Best Mr. President!) but in harming the ability of people to earn a living.  He takes no responsibility for anything, and in fact is actively trying to shut down investigations into his and his associates activities that are against the law.  Duly authorized federal investigations, monitored by Republican political appointees, directed by a former FBI Director under a Republican president, resulting in court cases under duly appointed judges, and verdicts returned by twelve ordinary citizens as provided for in a civilized democracy are branded as “unfair” or “witch hunts”.  There is clear evidence of foreign intervention in our democratic processes and the president not only wants to shut it down, he praises the autocrat responsible for the actions.  Meanwhile he supports white nationalists, repeats provable lies, shows no respect for minorities, and searches for ways to increase his power without the constraints of Congress or the courts.

Everything is personal with him.  Everything.  Mr. Trump has absolutely no understanding of the ideals that support our nation.  The only things that cause him to act — in between golf rounds, “Executive Time” (ie., watching Fox News), and Tweeting — are to do things that benefit him personally.  He sees everything through that light, and it appears to me, assumes that everything anybody else does is similarly guided only by their respective self-interests.  There is no greater good.

He does not understand that there are actually people that serve honorably in government without partisan or personal gain.  He demands loyalty to himself and himself only, not to country or to what is right, or to the ideals of our nation.  His understanding of government, and especially those in the Executive Branch, is that it is merely an extension of the way that he ran Trump Inc. — he gets to be the boss and anyone that has a different idea, or worse tells him he cannot do something, is clearly just trying to screw him over.  In this way he is very petty and childish.  If he doesn’t get his way he acts out.  In Trump Tower as the head of Trump Inc. it is something to read about in the gossip columns and be amused.  In the Oval Office it is dangerous and un-American.

There are still over 500 children separated from their parents in “kiddie jails” created by this president’s policies.  North Korea makes our president look like a laughing-stock as they have gotten away with everything they wanted from Mr. Trump for nothing in return.  The press conference in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin was the most disgusting, vomit inducing performance I have seen from an American president on foreign soil.  The “winning” trade wars over tariffs continue to expand with an increasing threat to our economy and has already driven numerous small businesses under because they could not afford raw materials like steel and aluminum.  The list is endless.  Congress is missing in action (“at least we got Gorsuch” is too high of a price to pay.)

And now we have the Chief Federal Law Enforcement Official in the land acting like the Mafia boss that he really is.  To call Mr. Paul Manafort a “brave man” and that he has “respect” for him because he didn’t “break” is disgusting.  He also belittles our court system by talking about “Justice.”  Mr. Manafort is a convicted felon that took advantage of American tax payers and knowingly broke the law in numerous ways for his own benefit.

“I feel very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family. “Justice” took a 12-year-old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to “break” – make up stories in order to get a “deal.” Such respect for a brave man!”  Mr. Donald J. Trump via Twitter on 22 August 2018

As an aside, one wonders what news Mr. Manafort could “break” (the inference of Mr. Manafort as a POW under torture is further evidence that Mr. Trump has no clue).  To me, for the president to congratulate him for not breaking means that Mr. Trump knows that Mr. Manafort has information to “break” about Mr. Trump and his probable illegal activities.

On the other hand Mr. John Dean, who famously testified against President Richard Nixon, thus breaking open that conspiracy, is a “RAT” (in all caps).  He had choice words for his personal attorney Mr. Michael Cohen who is now a convicted felon after pleading guilty to seven counts, including two that effectively name the president as an unindicted co-conspirator and said that “flipping” should be illegal.  In other words, the primary tool used by law enforcement to solve cases should not be allowed.  Nice.  Oh yeah, he also said that violations of campaign law were “not a big deal.”

“It almost ought to be outlawed. It’s not fair. Because if somebody’s going to give—spend five years like Michael Cohen, or 10 years, or 15 years in jail because of a taxi cab industry, because he defrauded some bank—the last two were tiny ones. You know, campaign violations are considered not a big deal, frankly. But if somebody defrauded a bank and he’s going to get 10 years in jail or 20 years in jail, but if you can say something bad about Donald Trump and you’ll go down to two or three years, which is the deal he made.”

An excerpt from Mr. Donald J Trump’s interview on “Fox and Friends” aired 23 August 2018

Let’s see.  Mr Trump’s personal attorney guilty of numerous crimes including tax evasion.  Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman convicted of numerous crimes including tax evasion.  What are the odds that Mr. Trump also evaded paying taxes?  No wonder he won’t release his tax returns.  Besides, he basically already told us about his crimes.  Remember that during the first presidential debate in 2016 he was accused of not paying taxes and his reply was “That makes me smart.”

And there is so much more.  Instead of draining the swamp he replaced the alligators with crocodiles and turned it into an infinity pool.  Only the best people, indeed.

I worry because we have already seen nasty instances of the president lashing out when something doesn’t go his way.  We have already seen him search for new and creative ways to use his Executive Powers in ways not imagined by the Founding Fathers.  When the heat comes, and it is coming, and we learn the full breath-taking scope of his law breaking over the years, only one’s imagination limits what possible scenarios might play out.

I have written in this space before that any comparisons to Watergate are misguided.  As nasty as he may have been, President Nixon recognized the limits to his power and had at least a modicum of pride in the proper functioning of a democracy.  He resigned.  Mr. Trump has no modicum of decency in any sense.  He proves that daily.  His mantra is that if he gets hit he hits back ten times harder.  There is nothing that we have seen that indicates that he will go quietly into the night when the full scope of his misdeeds are revealed.  I have no idea how this will end in the coming months.  One thing I would bet on, however, is that It isn’t going to be pretty.

If you are as exhausted by all of this as I am already, rest up.  Mr. Trump and his cohorts are counting on us thinking of all of his shenanigans as “normal” and on no one holding him accountable.  It will be “we the people” that are going to have to get the job done.  Vote in November!

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On The Road To Sedition

Let me start by saying that I understand that many of Mr. Trump’s supporters give him their full-throated approval because they are angry.  As the saying made famous in the movie Network goes, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

In recent years, perhaps even decades, “professional” politicians of both parties rarely, if ever delivered on their promises while average citizens fought in wars, including our nearly seventeen year conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to an older generation, in the rice paddies of Viet Nam; struggle financially especially during and after the Great Recession; and have the necessities of life fiddled with including such basics as health care.

There was a palpable desire for something new and different.  Well, we got that, for sure.  Some of you argue that Mr. Trump has not had enough time to really make his mark on the nation or to implement his key policy initiatives.  Perhaps when it comes to policy, although I do not see any coherent or articulate policy concerning anything, except that if President Obama did it, it was bad and needs to be undone.

I would argue however that he has made his mark on the nation, and it isn’t for the better.  Our social and community discourse has become demonstrably worse.  When the president bullies people, calls them names and attacks the basic institutions of our nation, it has an impact.  A negative one, but it does have an impact.

It does not have to be that way.  It is possible to implement new, conservative (I would argue Mr. Trump is not a conservative, but that is a discussion for another day) policies without being vindictive and even vicious.  To me, even if I agreed with his policy aims, which in large part I do not, the end does not justify the means.  Civility is the currency of a functioning democracy and we are about to go bankrupt.

My biggest concern, one that I have expressed in this space before, is that Mr. Trump is working to undermine the basic checks and balances of our democracy to his benefit.  While many modern presidents have stretched the bounds of Executive authority, Mr. Trump seems to think that there are no bounds.  The only question is whether it is a deliberate action on his part, or done out of ignorance of the Constitution and the law, or whether he does it because it is all he knows — he wants to run the country like a family business.  In the end, it doesn’t matter.  The result is the same.

We are on a very slow, day-by-day, slide into autocracy unless all of us wake up and get the Congress to act as the co-equal branch of government that it is.

I see a very distinct pattern beginning to emerge.  Mr. Trump is exploring the bounds of what he can do with an unfettered exercise of power.  He is doing this in several ways.

The president’s Constitutional power to grant pardons for any reason is being used in ways that it has rarely, if ever, been used.  He issues pardons, or promises to do so, to people that have been fully and fairly prosecuted under the law, whether or not they ask for them.  The main point of issuing these pardons to off the wall supporters of his seems to be to send a message.  He has picked pardons for crimes that reflect all of the things he or his aides have been accused of doing, thereby demonstrating that such crimes are meaningless because he says so.

My theory on why he does this lies partly in his life experience.  Mr. Trump is a member of what my father used to call the “New York wise guys.”  Mr. Trump’s view of life is that everyone — everyone! — lies, cheats and steals, but especially politicians.  Those that don’t do so are losers and suckers.  He believes it.  So when someone is convicted of a crime along those lines, he deems it “unfair” because he believes it to be a subjective prosecution.  They only prosecute people they don’t like or who don’t play the game the right way.  In his view, everyone does it, many get away with it, so why can’t he?  In his mind it is because they don’t like him.  Now he has the power to “show them” who the real boss is in town.

Another way he is slipping Constitutional bounds is by vastly expanding the use of Executive powers in the name of “national security.”  This is the reason given for imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on some countries (mostly our friends and allies) while not on others (China).  He is now considering a 25% tariff on vehicles in the name of national security.  Since this impacts primarily Mexico and Canada, and to some extent our NATO allies, they are rightly insulted.  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week called off a meeting in Washington due to the unseemly way he felt he and his nation were being treated.  It goes even further in that there are a wide variety of new regulations and Executive Orders that are due to be implemented using the rubric of “national security.”  One such example is the mandate that power companies buy a given percentage of electricity produced by coal power plants.

“National security” is being used in ways not imagined when the laws were written. They are interpreted in a way that allows the president to expand his powers into every area of the economy. Invoking national security was meant to be a very narrow, national emergency type of contingency but he is expanding its use far past what seems to be realistic.

Now for the topper, which may be one of the most egregious attempts to assert the primacy of the Executive in our history.

Last week a twenty page letter from Mr. Trump’s lawyers to Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed the true extent of his power play.  The letter was sent earlier this year, but was only just obtained by the The New York Times.  (Read it for yourself here.)

Among other stretches of Constitutional law, Mr. Trump through his lawyers asserts that because he is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States he cannot illegally obstruct any investigation, including into his own actions.  According to their reasoning, the Constitution gives him the authority to do pretty much anything he pleases due to his special status.  Thus, it is impossible for him to obstruct justice by shutting down a case or firing a subordinate, no matter his motivation, because by extension he is responsible for all such investigations and cannot,  therefore, investigate himself.

What this means in practical terms is that if, as they assert, the president can shut down any investigation for any reason, corrupt or not, he is above the law.  This also infers that he can direct the start of any investigation into anyone for any reason, even if it is for his own corrupt purposes.  The argument continues to say that the only recourse is impeachment, which only means removal from office.

Oh by the way, he can pardon anyone for any crime, including himself.

Theoretically — or practically if you believe their argument — under this interpretation a president could come into office, conduct any series of illegalities for any purpose — to enrich himself or his family or even to commit murder — and could not be held accountable if he pardons himself.  Under their argument in the letter to Mr. Mueller, a sitting president could come into office with the intent of doing harm, do it, pardon himself, be impeached (or resign before being impeached) and then go on his merry way.  No accountability, no punishment, no nothing.  Clearly that is not what the Founding Fathers intended.

Indeed, the last time this came up was in 1776.  In the Declaration of Independence, among the other reasons given for the rebellion against the king, was that (emphasis is mine) “he has obstructed the administration of justice by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers” including “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct objective establishment of any absolute tyranny over these states.” I did not know King George III, but I do know that Mr. Trump is no King George.  Or at least he should not be.

In case you have any doubts as to what I am saying, here was what Mr. Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for the president, told the Huffington Post this past Sunday.

“In no case can he be subpoenaed or indicted. I don’t know how you can indict while he’s in office. No matter what it is.”  He went on to say that “if he shot James Comey, he’d be impeached the next day,  Impeach him, and then you can do whatever you want to do to him.”

In other words, Mr Giuliani argued that impeachment was the punishment for presidential misbehavior, even if instead of firing the former FBI Director he shot him in order to bring the Russia investigation to an end.

Mr. Trump is on record as saying “I alone can fix it.”  (at the Republican National Conference on 21 July 2016)  He also said “I have the absolute power to pardon myself”  (on Twitter on 4 June 2018.)

I have the absolute power.  Wow.

Taking this picture, coupled with attacks on the rule of law (DOJ, FBI) and the intelligence communities, coupled with attacks on the free press, coupled with attacks on the judiciary coupled with the failure of Congress to call him to task on anything, we are on the downward slope.

He is testing the boundaries of what he can get away with and will continue to expand that effort and try to bend our form of government for his own purposes until he is stopped.  Right now, I don’t see when that will happen.

It is basic to the autocratic play book.  Layer on top of that the typical autocratic play of draping the leader in the flag and espousing faux patriotism by creating a wedge issue out of nothing and thereby weaponizing patriotism (see the NFL).

He also is trying to tell private companies who to fire and has on several occasions pushed the Post Master General to have the United States Postal Service charge Amazon more for delivering packages because he doesn’t like Mr. Jeff Bezos who also happens to own the Washington Post.

How do we stop this?  Vote!

Put people into Congress during the mid-terms that will return to the normalcy of Congress being a co-equal branch of government to the executive.  Republican or Democrat, vote for folks that are not afraid of being the brunt of Twitter bullying and who will actually do their job of checks and balances.  It isn’t even a “conservative” or “liberal” thing — one can institute conservative policies without destroying the essence of our Constitution.

People who are mad as hell at the way they feel, as if they have been used for years, if not decades, are especially susceptible to autocrats that talk tough and claim to protect against the “others.”  The total picture creates dangerous times for us and our future.

I have hope, although it is dwindling.  Right now I have no sense that anyone will stand up and push back on Mr. Trump.  In interview after interview I feel as though the Members of Congress have their collective heads in the sand.  I continue to hear them say that “he wouldn’t do that” because of the political fallout and because it would be beyond the norm.

HELLO!

His entire campaign and administration has been a series of things that “no one else would do.” Time after time he has done and said things that were beyond the pale and each and every time he’s gotten away with all of it.  No repercussions.  Why would he stop now?

We as citizens are the answer.  No one else will save us from ourselves.


Hubris Replaces Foreign Policy

This week the President announced that the United States would withdraw from the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the “Iran Deal.”  It is impossible to predict the short and long-term impacts of this action, but there are huge changes on the horizon as a result.  Some analysts have called our withdrawal the biggest change in the international world order since World War II.  There are many reasons why this may be true.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that the JCPOA was not meant to solve every problem in the Middle East or even to inhibit Iranian adventurism in promoting unrest in the area or their possible development of ballistic missiles.  It was meant, in very technical and specific ways, to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program.  It worked.  The Iranians, unlike the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, do not have nuclear weapons, thanks to the agreement.  There are many valid criticisms of the Iran Deal, and you may even think that the president made the right decision, but to truly discuss it, one must remember that it was meant to be a stepping stone to resolving other issues, including those not addressed in the JCPOA.  Sanctions against Iran for violating existing limits on ballistic missile developments, or as a reaction to other valid issues of concern could still be imposed.  This is one of the reasons why the Europeans pushed so hard for the U.S. to stay in the agreement and to work with them to tackle the other legitimate issues that should be addressed.

The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from a multi-lateral agreement where by all accounts, all elements of the agreement were being followed by all of the members.  During his confirmation hearings just a few weeks ago, now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked if the Iranians were in compliance with the agreement, said “With the information I have been provided, I have seen no evidence they are not in compliance today.”  Further, when asked if the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon, Secretary Pompeo, who was the head of the CIA at the time of his nomination, said, “Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal, there is no indication that I am aware of that if the deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon.”  Recall that under the Iran Deal, Iranian facilities are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and are subject to no notice inspections.  There is no evidence of cheating as some claim.  No proof exists that they have abrogated their responsibilities and indeed the international consensus is that the Iranians have fully complied.

In matters of diplomacy and military strategy, a long-standing adage is that one must always strive to “seize the initiative.”  We have now conceded the initiative to Iran.  They stand on the moral high ground in this agreement as they have filled all of the requirements.  We are the ones that left the agreement, even as we concede that it is working as designed.  Mr. Trump upon announcing our immediate withdrawal gave no specific reasons for doing so other than vague pronouncements that the agreement was “defective at its core.”  Presumably, he means that some years in the future,  the “sunset” clauses of the agreement will kick in and Iran will build nuclear weapons. Besides being technically incorrect, this argument ignores two important factors.  One we know, and the other is speculative but within reason.  First, right now Iran has no nuclear weapons.  Assuming the worst, which over simplifies reality, under the agreement they could start working on them again in ten years.  The last time I looked ten was better than zero. They now have the decision in their hands as to whether to resume their program or not.  They didn’t break the agreement, we did. Secondly, ten years of steady diplomatic effort, as all sides benefit from the agreement, could readily persuade Iran that building nuclear weapons was not in their best interests.  Even if they did threaten to resume their program, nothing precludes the international community from reinstating severe sanctions and other measures to keep them from building them.

Mr. Trump announced the immediate reinstatement of sanctions against Iran and reasoned that sanctions brought the Iranians to the table before and so it will bring them back again for “a better deal.”  Perhaps he is correct.  Even under the current agreement, Iran’s economy is in dire straits.  It might work.  However, logic says that Iran has no incentive to return to the table for a better — to the U.S., but not Iran — deal.  Most obviously, the U.S. walked away from the last deal.  It would be easy for them to brand us as “liars” that cannot be trusted to stick to any agreement.  What trust will they have, even if they return to the table, that we will stand by what we say?  None.

More importantly, we had a multi-national sanctions effort the last time around.  The JCPOA was an agreement between the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, the European Union, and Iran. It was unanimously ratified by the United Nations Security Council.  All other signatories have clearly stated their intention to remain in the agreement, which means no universal sanctions will be reimposed on Iran.  The U.S. may be the biggest economic power in the world, but we cannot alone bring Iran to its knees economically if other nations trade freely with them.  The other members of the agreement have asked Iran to remain in the agreement.  Again, this gives the initiative to Iran.  They may actually want a “better deal” — for them — with the other nations involved as their price for remaining within the agreement.

The president clearly does not understand that the “enemy” has a vote on how things go.  We cannot dictate to other nations when they do not see that their own best interests are being served.  Playing hard ball in a New York City real estate deal may work for him, but nations have other interests at play and can deploy their own form of hard ball.  The Iranian regime went through an eight year war with Iraq without flinching, even as they lost countless lives and treasure.  They are tough.  Bluster will not bring them to the table and may in fact, cause them to demonstrate their own resolve through some form of military action.

Clearly, the U.S. must act in its own best interests.  Always.  However, it is extremely short-sighted to isolate ourselves from our allies and to pretend that no deal can be a win-win for all nations.  Seemingly, to Mr. Trump everything is a zero sum, win-lose proposition.  This is not true and is dangerous in the international arena.  We are quickly isolating ourselves and may find that in a time of need, we are on our own having burned too many bridges.  Other nations may allow “America First” to become “America Alone.”

This is what may be the most troubling aspect of Mr. Trump’s bluster and belligerence toward Iran.  This is why many analysts call this the biggest change in International Relations in the post-World War II era.  Our closest allies, U.K., Germany and France stand against us on this issue, and increasingly, on a number of other issues as well. Couple our stance on these issues with Mr. Trump’s disdain of NATO.  We are helping Mr. Putin achieve his fondest dream, the break up of the western alliance that stands between him and his ambitions.  As we draw away from our western allies, look for Mr. Putin to become ever more adventurous, especially in Estonia or another Baltic state where many ethnic Russians reside.

Mr. Trump’s imposition of sanctions includes any business or nation that does not follow our lead.  In other words, if he follows through, should Germany or any other ally continue doing business with Iran, then we, the U.S., would impose sanctions on those businesses and/or nations — even, he says, our allies.  He is banking (literally and figuratively since the biggest impact would be on the financial industry) that when push comes to shove, western Europe will fall in line and not do business with the Iranians.  That may or may not be a good bet.  Right now, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese plan to stand by the agreement.  If the Europeans cave to Mr. Trump — an action that is politically untenable in their own countries — and re-impose sanctions, the Russians and Chinese will do ever more business with Iran, and thereby achieve their own international goals.  Should the Europeans withdraw from the agreement at some time in the future, clearly the Iranians would have no incentive to abide by it on their end.

All of this, of course, ignores the fact that by withdrawing from the agreement, the U.S. increased the likelihood of war breaking out in the Middle East.  Indeed, just yesterday, Iranian forces fired directly on Israeli military forces for the first time.  The Israelis in turn, bombed Iranian forces and command and control nodes in Syria.  The chances for a major miscalculation, or misunderstood bellicosity, could lead to major regional warfare.

Finally, none of us can currently evaluate the impact of our withdrawal from the Iran Deal as it impacts ongoing negotiations with North Korea.  Mr. Trump and Mr. John Bolton his National Security Adviser, claim that it will strengthen our hand in those discussions because it shows how tough we are.  Or as Mr. Trump said on Tuesday about our withdrawal from the Iran Deal, “the United States no longer makes empty threats.”  It is unclear what he means by that, but I suppose it his way of sounding tough.

An alternative outcome may be that Kim Jung Un comes to believe that along with Saddam and Muhamar Quaddafi, one can put Iran on the list of those that made a deal with the U.S. to give up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and found that we could not be trusted.

Mr. Trump is already talking about the Nobel Peace Prize for his Korean efforts.  In that context, we should be worried that Mr. Trump will do whatever suits him at the moment to get good “ratings”.  Just another episode in the show and a chance to deflect from his problems at home.  However, I honestly hope that his efforts with North Korea pay off and they hand over their nuclear weapons and their ability to produce WMD, but we should be wary.  Frankly, it denies logic that Mr. Kim will hand over his WMD.  This will be at least the third time that North Korea promised to do so, the other two times they reneged.  The meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump will be historic.  If nothing else, we should be thankful that three American citizens held as prisoners in North Korea returned home last night.  To date, that action is the only substantive thing that Kim has done to show his willingness to deal.  They released prisoners in the past, too.  Which of course totally ignores the fact that U.S. citizens were taken as hostages in the first place.  They also kill them, as was the case with Mr. Otto Warmbier, the college student imprisoned and probably tortured by the Koreans who died as a result.  Talking is way better than fighting.  I hope the talks succeed, but I would not hold my breath.  Walking away from the Iran Deal complicates our negotiations with the Koreans.  More on that in a yet to be post in this space.

Maybe Mr. Trump walked away from the Iran Deal because his main foreign policy objective merely entails undoing anything and everything that President Obama put in place.  No clear foreign policy doctrine has emerged from this administration and as French President Macron and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said after talking to the president, there is no U.S. “Plan B.”  That makes it one mighty big gamble.  Every endeavor should have branches and sequels, or “what ifs.”  What if we succeed then what do we do?  What if we don’t succeed, what is the next step?  There is no discernible plan behind just walking away from the agreement.

One might suspect that Mr. Trump’s decision on the Iran Deal was done primarily because he could and that somehow it showed what a tough guy he was.  There are no next steps.  He should look up the definition of hubris (arrogance, conceit, pride, self-importance, egotism, pomposity, excessive pride or defiance leading to nemesis), and nemesis (the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall).

Hubris is not a policy.


Syria. Again.


Syria And The Modern War

This week the president vowed that he would remove U.S. troops from Syria in the near future.  Here is part of what he said at an impromptu news conference at the White House on Tuesday:

“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.  So, it’s time.  It’s time.  We were very successful against ISIS.  But sometimes it’s time to come back home, and we’re thinking about that very seriously, okay?”

Nearly simultaneously, also in Washington, General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of the U.S. Central Command who is the senior officer responsible for our troops in the Middle East said when talking about our troop deployments in the Middle East:

“A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us.”

Confused?

Putting aside Mr. Trump’s inability, or stubborn refusal to understand complex issues, war in the 21st century, and especially in places like Syria and Afghanistan, runs counter to our preconceived notions of what “winning” should be about.  Mr. Trump seems to think that all that is necessary is to “bomb the hell out of them” and then come home.  Seventeen years of continuous combat has provided many lessons learned to our current military leadership and to our Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who himself lead the first ground combat troops into Afghanistan while he was an active duty Marine general.

One important criteria for deciding who is winning and who is losing is finding the correct Measures of Effectiveness (MOE).  One may think they are winning while actually losing.  The classic example can be found with the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II.  The German MOE was tons of Allied merchant ships sunk by their submarines.  It was the wrong measure.  The Allies were building merchant ships at a rate faster than the Germans could sink them, and at the same time, were sinking German submarines (and even more importantly, killing trained and experienced crews) faster than the Germans could build them.  The Germans were losing, even as their MOE showed them winning.

Current reports indicate that our military is using over 90 MOEs in assessing our wars in Syria and Afghanistan.  But even they reportedly admit that they are not sure that they are necessarily measuring the right things.  One thing we know, counting the numbers of killed or wounded adversaries means very little if new recruits, fighting a low-tech war, continue to flow into the battles.

The other adage learned over and over is that the loser gets to decide when the war is over.  As Ryan Crocker former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan said, “As we learned so painfully in Iraq, defeat has meaning only in the eyes of the defeated.”  We can bomb the hell out of them all we want, but short of a Dresden-like annihilation of every living thing, as long as the other side keeps fighting, the war is not over.  This is another of the hard lessons learned in Viet Nam and again in Afghanistan.  The Taliban have not quit, therefore we have been there for seventeen long years despite our overwhelming military capability.

In that vein, ISIS still has strongholds in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq.  In this case, our adversary is like a cancer — if they are not totally excised and destroyed they will spread out again. All of the pain in administering a cure will have been for naught.  ISIS is showing signs of renewed strength in their last strongholds in eastern Syria.  Our comrades in arms in Syria are mostly Kurdish forces.  Kurdish officials warn that it could take “years and years” to finish off ISIS.

Senior U.S. government national security and military officials understand this fact.  They also understand the larger geo-political issues at stake in the Middle East and South Asia and that a precipitous withdrawal of our forces would do long-term damage to our national interests.  The issues are complicated and varied.  Among other things, our credibility in supporting our friends and allies would be compromised.  As a senior Kurdish official is quoted as saying, if the U.S. leaves now (or even in a few months) “it would be a disaster, and even ordinary people in the street will consider it a betrayal.”  That has strategic implications.  Or as another Kurdish leader put it, “after fighting for four years, there is a kind of trust between the Kurdish nation and the American nation.  If the Americans abandon the Kurds, it means they are never going to find any friends in the Middle East.”

That the military viewpoint is at odds with the president may have caused the ouster of National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.  General McMaster continually told the president that we cannot just pull up stakes and leave Syria and Afghanistan, or anywhere else, without first creating the conditions that allow us to withdraw.  If we just walk away, the problems will pop up again.

Of course, we want all of our military women and men to come home.  But if we are truly a world power, certain obligations and responsibilities accrue in support of our friends and allies.  Putting America first does not, or at least should not, mean abandoning a world order that has mostly kept the United States safe and prosperous and the world moving forward.  We can lead or get out of the way.  It is not in our long-term interest to abandon our leadership role in the world.

In the last forty-eight hours the White House has softened the president’s earlier statements.  The new announcement says that the U.S. will stay in Syria until ISIS is defeated and that we will then “transition” to local forces over time.  No time frame was enumerated, but reporting indicates that the president wants to bring home the troops from Syria in about six months or so.  Contrast that to the statements above by those that are actually doing the fighting that it will take years and years.

Syria is a particularly knotty problem.  Over the last few years, there have been arguments both pro and con for U.S. involvement in the country.  The effort to push ISIS out of Iraq necessarily meant that we had to continue to chase them into Syria in order to prevent that nation from becoming a refuge for them.  Borders in the desert are very fluid.  It was necessary to hunt them down and eliminate all sources of support to their regime.  We made good progress in doing that, but the job is not finished.  So we are in Syria.  What does that mean?

In Syria, you can’t tell the players without a score card.  The players include the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad, Russians, Israelis, Iranians, Hezbollah, Turks, Kurds, Syrian rebels, ISIS, the U.S. and factions within factions of several of those groups with religious overtones to it all.

It is important to remember that the conflict in Syria started with peaceful protests that were broken up by Syrian troops firing into crowds which then evolved into a civil war. ISIS took advantage of the turmoil as Bashar lost control of much of Syria’s territory.  Other nations took sides in the civil war and supported proxy troops or committed their own combat forces to support one faction or another.

The situation on the ground and in the air has the wherewithal to mutate into a regional conflict.  All of which has nothing to do with whether or not ISIS is “done.”  Half a dozen nations have combat aircraft in a very small area.  The U.S., Russia, Turkey, and Iran all have their own troops on the ground often supporting different factions that oppose each other in the war.  In a single week in early February, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Iran lost aircraft to hostile fire.

And oh by the way, did you know that Russian “contractors” (Mercenaries?  Little green men from Crimea?) attacked a U.S. base at Deir Ezzor in Syria in mid-February?  What?  You didn’t hear about that?  Could it be because neither the U.S. or Russian leaders wanted to talk about it?  It was no “accident.”  Russia and US forces have a hot line to de-conflict combat forces and missions.  According to the on-scene battle field commander, the U.S. notified the Russians that they were attacking a U.S. base.  The attack continued.  U.S. air strikes turned back the assault with an estimate of over 200 Russians killed.  Many analysts surmise that this attack, that could only have been approved on a national level, was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to see just how committed the U.S. was to our involvement in Syria.

To further complicate matters, Turkey, our NATO ally, is attacking the Kurds — our primary ally in the battle against ISIS.  Those Kurdish forces were drawn away from the fight against ISIS last month when the Turks attacked a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria and the fighters returned home to protect their families.  The Kurds are fighting for an autonomous region in their traditional homeland which is an anathema to Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, all of which actively oppose any independent Kurdish state or de facto state.

And Syrian civilians continue to suffer from barrel bombs, enforced starvation, and other crimes against humanity.

Mr. Trump wants “rich” middle eastern countries to take over the U.S. commitment, but what does that mean?  Troops?  Not going to happen.  Money? Perhaps, to help rebuild cities or to get industries up and running such as oil refineries or other areas where money is needed. Where does the technical know how come from?  Regardless, nothing can happen until stability returns to the region and the population.

The president wants “other nations” to take over.  The last time I looked, they are doing so.  Talks began earlier this month among Iran, Turkey, and Russia.  Conspicuously absent was the U.S.  We were not invited to the talks.  No seat at the table means we will have no say in the future of Syria.  That is dangerous to our long-term interests in the Middle East and our ally Israel.

After the first round of talks, those three countries expressed their support to Bashar and his regime.  A long stated goal of the U.S. was to remove him.  The statement went on to say that they support “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of the neighboring countries.”  This is easily translated to mean that Bashar will stay, his regime will stay, and in playground terms it means they expect the U.S. to butt out.

In case we missed their point, the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia declared that the areas controlled by the U.S. and the Kurds, the second largest swath of territory in Syria behind that controlled by the regime, cannot be used to create “new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism.”

Furthermore, Turkish president Recep Ergogan threatened to attack U.S. troops supporting the Kurds.  And they are a NATO ally.

It is clear that the problem in Syria, and elsewhere, is not a lack of firepower.  The problems are political and stem from the ability — or in this case the inability — of the government to govern.  When all is said and done, the twenty-first century may need a new definition for “winning.” As we are quickly learning, it is not entirely clear what that definition might be.  Developing a political solution that leads to a stable governing entity would be part of it.  Unfortunately, we cannot be a part of developing that solution if we pull up stakes and go home.

There are good and bad reasons to continue to stay in Syria or Afghanistan.  We have already learned in this century that ungoverned territories, with no central governing authority, creates the conditions that allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS and others to grow.  We know that these groups threaten the rule of law and a normal world order.

In order to protect our shores in this environment, we need to think in new ways about our nation’s wars.  Nobody wants American lives wasted in far off lands that most of us could not have located on a map in the last century.  At the same time we need some strategic thinking about what the long-term impact of our actions will be.  There are many experienced and bright people in the Pentagon and elsewhere that are working through these issues.  The answers are difficult and sometimes come at the cost of blood and treasure.  They are not fail proof.  There can be several “right” answers to the problems we face and reasonable people can reasonably disagree as to which ones to pursue.

There is also a “wrong” answer.  That answer is to arbitrarily make decisions for the sole purpose of demonstrating that people have to do whatever one man says just because he says it.  It is especially wrong when that man does not understand the implications of his decisions, and apparently, thinks no further ahead about the issue than whether it can fit into a tweet or not.

War is nasty and complicated.  We are facing new challenges in real time.  Critical thinking and new ways of defining our goals and missions is needed.  Syria is only one of many such dilemmas we will face in the coming years.

 

 


Dereliction of Duty

There are a number of perplexing events unfolding in and around the White House.  My sense is that many Americans are uninterested, unaware, or just minding their own business until all of the facts are in.  I hope that the lack of concern is the latter and not that we as a nation have become inured to the unprecedented developments and are numb to the plethora of constant noise and fury emanating from the White House.  There are so, so many troubling developments surrounding this administration.  Thus far, only one is an existential threat to our democracy.

Yes, Russia again.

It is now over two weeks since Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations as another step in the ongoing investigation conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in our 2016 election. The indictment shows that the clear intent of their actions was to undermine the presidential election by active measures to disrupt the process, and specifically, to hurt Secretary Hillary Clinton and to favor the election of Mr. Donald Trump.  But don’t take my word for it, if you haven’t done so already, read the full 37 page indictment.  The indictment details how the Russians conducted “information warfare against the United States of America.”  Warfare.

News reports today indicate that Mr. Mueller will soon file more indictments, this time specifically naming Russian hackers and outlining their methods in stealing emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Secretary Clinton’s campaign manager Mr. John Podesta.  Please recall that the hacking of the DNC and the campaign were the original reasons for the investigation into the Russian meddling.

Additional reports inform us that seven states had their systems compromised in some way including in at least two cases, getting into the voter registration data bank.  Attempts were made on a total of twenty-one states to get into the voting system.  While there is no evidence to date that any actual votes were compromised or voter information changed to prevent people from voting, many experts consider these to be “probing attacks” to find vulnerabilities for exploitation in the future such as in the 2018 mid-term elections and/or the 2020 national elections.

Last month the heads of the major U.S. intelligence agencies testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee about the Russian meddling attacks.  This included the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, FBI Director Christopher Wray, National Security Agency Director Admiral Mike Rogers, Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. General Robert Ashley and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo.  They were in agreement that the Russians did interfere and that it would happen again.  As Director Coats put it, “There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian midterm operations.”

When asked by committee member Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) if the FBI had been directed by the president to take any specific actions against the Russians, FBI Director Wray said the FBI is undertaking “a lot of specific activities” to counter the Russians but was “not specifically directed by the president.”  If you saw the body language as Mr. Wray answered, it would sound even worse than it does here.

And it does get worse.

This week during testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Admiral Rogers, Director of the National Security Agency and the head of the U.S. military Cyber Command, said that he was using his existing authorities to combat the Russian attacks. When asked a question similar to that asked last month of Director Wray — had the president given him any direction — he acknowledged that the president had not asked his agencies that are charged with conducting cyberoperations to find ways to counter the attackers and had not been granted new authorities to conduct counter operations.

Director Wray and Admiral Rogers are saying that they are on the defensive and doing the best that they can.  However, they are inhibited by the apparent lack of interest from the Commander-in-Chief and have been given no authorization to go on the offensive.  I am sure that the hard-working men and women in the intelligence agencies are doing what they can to protect our country, but they are having to do so with their hands tied and with no consequences for our attacker.

Here is the plain truth from Admiral Rogers during his testimony:

“President Putin has clearly come to the conclusion that there’s little price to pay and that therefore ‘I can continue this activity.’ Clearly what we have done hasn’t been enough.”

I can go on, but you know the story.  And it isn’t pretty.

Here are Mr. Trump’s responses, warnings, actions, deterrent activities, and punishments for Russia, in order: Bumpkiss, Nada, Zilch, Nothing, Goose Egg, Diddly-Squat.

Thank you Commander-in-Chief for keeping us safe from our adversaries and protecting our greatest democratic principle.

The latest story from the administration is that it is all President Obama’s fault.  Should one take that story hook, line and sinker, it still begs the question as to why the president, in office for nearly 14 months, has directed nothing to be done to dissuade and deter further Russian meddling, much less to punish them and hold them accountable for their actions in 2016.  He won’t even implement the sanctions voted on by both parties in the House (by a vote of 419-3) and Senate (98-2) last year designed specifically to punish Russia for their attack.

Why?  The most common answer from pundits, politicians and prognosticators is that in his eyes, to even acknowledge that the Russians interfered, much less to help him as delineated in Mr. Mueller’s court papers, lessens his election victory and somehow makes it less legitimate.

I have other ideas as to why he won’t hold Russia and Vladimir Putin accountable for their actions, but so far, that would be pure speculation.  Let’s go with the “my feelings would be hurt” reason.

Why does anyone accept that as an answer?  Even if he feels that way, he is the president.  As president he took an oath “to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”  To my knowledge there is nothing that precludes that responsibility just because the president’s ego may be bruised.  As Commander-in-Chief he has an obligation to do his duty.  If he refuses, then he is derelict in his duties as delineated in the Constitution.

Why do we continue to pretend otherwise?

 


Where. Is. The. Outrage?

Yesterday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations as a result of the ongoing investigation conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The indictment shows that the clear intent of their actions was to undermine the 2016 presidential election and to favor the election of Donald Trump.  (Read the full 37 page indictment here.)  The indictment details how the Russians conducted “information warfare against the United States of America.”  This was no fly-by-night operation as the core entity, Internet Research Agency, had at least 80 full-time employees and a monthly budget of approximately 73 million Russian rubles a month (about 1.25 million dollars a month).

According to the indictment, the purpose of the covert Russian activity, which included putting undercover Russian operatives in the United States, was to engage “in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.” Once the nominees were selected, the operation focused solely on supporting Mr. Trump and denigrating Mrs. Clinton, including active efforts to discourage possible Clinton supporters from voting for her by spreading false and misleading information.

The Internet Research Agency had hundreds of additional support employees (trolls and other social media experts) beyond the core 80 and included a graphics department, a data analysis department, a search-engine optimization department, an IT department and a finance department.  It was organized with branch heads and assigned duties.  Very sophisticated.

Ultimately the operation’s interference in the 2016 election was not limited to social media or cyberspace.  They also played “dirty tricks” at campaign rallies, organized their own rallies and otherwise put out derogatory and inflammatory information.  For example, in the indictment it states that at one such event they tried to promote the idea that Mrs. Clinton was pro-Muslim by convincing an unaware American citizen to carry a sign “depicting Clinton and a quote attributed to her stating ‘I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of Freedom.'”  They also bought ads on Facebook and other sources claiming that Mrs. Clinton committed “voter fraud” amplifying one of Mr. Trump’s constant refrains.  And more.

But you can read the indictment for yourself.

Here’s the rub.

What is the President of the United States doing to protect our country from a sophisticated asymmetrical attack on our homeland?  So far?  Nothing.

As the NY Times says, Mr. Trump’s “conspicuous silence” is a clear lack of leadership.  His only reaction as of this writing is to tweet that “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”  It’s only about him — not the nation or our security.  Oh by the way, how do you think the Russians and other adversaries around the world view his response?  One word.  Weak.

There are many factual errors in his tweet, among them the fact that the indictment said nothing about whether there was or was not collusion — a totally separate issue from this one — and the start date also has nothing to do with the activities of the Russians or the fact that they favored Mr. Trump and actively worked to get him elected.

(As and aside, for all you conspiracy theorists out there, Mr. Trump visited Moscow in 2013.  Is it not conceivable that he conspired with the Russians then to aid an upcoming presidential campaign?  Even though he had not announced it publicly?  Or maybe the Russians blackmailed him into running with the express purpose of undermining U.S. democracy and attempting to install him in the White House?  The operatives arrived in 2014 because it takes time to set up an effective covert operation, integrate into the community, establish ties and learn the lay of the land before Mr. Trump announced his candidacy in 2015.  But then, I am not a conspiracy theorist.)

Here’s my real point.

Where is the outrage?  Where is the United States’ response to a clear and present danger?  What are we doing to punish the Russians for this grievous attempt to undermine our democracy?  No outrage from the administration.  No warnings to Russia.  Gosh, the president refuses to implement sanctions against Russia already overwhelmingly approved by bipartisan votes in both the House and the Senate last summer.  What is wrong with him?  Will he continue to call the Russian involvement a “hoax” perpetrated by the Democrats as he has consistently and constantly done?  Apparently so, if the statements coming from his press office today are any indication.

Remember that this is only one area of the Special Counsel’s investigation.  Still to come is the result of investigations into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee; the hacking of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails; a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower which Mr. Trump Jr. thought would deliver “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton; and the guilty pleas of Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser, and another campaign adviser.  Mr. Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates have been indicted. Not to mention possible obstruction of justice charges. There is a lot going on for a “hoax.”  Additionally, just because there is no allegation made in one indictment does not mean that it won’t be made in other ones in the future.  If one saw or reads Mr. Rosenstein’s announcement releasing the indictments, he was very, very careful in his wording.  To me he seemed to be signalling that just because no campaign or other U.S. officials were named in this indictment, it does not mean that there will not be some in other indictments yet to come.

Again.  Read the indictment.  Decide for yourself.  I find it to be dereliction of duty by the Commander-in-Chief if the United States does not respond to this attack by the Russians. I am trying to give the president the benefit of the doubt thinking that maybe a response is being planned even as I write this.  I hope so.  However, even if the administration is planning such a response, one would rightly expect a clear, precise and strongly worded statement from the president condemning the Russian activity by now.  It is discouraging to note that this administration has yet to hold even one cabinet level meeting or even one inter-agency task force meeting to address the issue.  Just this week, all of the heads of our intelligence agencies testified before Congress that the Russians were still trying to disrupt our democracy and would surely attempt to disrupt the 2018 and 2020 elections.  And we do nothing.

Where is the outrage?  More importantly, where is the action to combat an attack by the Russians?