The last few days have been deeply troubling. I fear that I will be saying that over and over and over for the next three and a half years. Every time it seems that our president cannot do anything more outrageous, he does it. There is no low bar. Every time I think he’s gone about as far as he can go, he goes further. Yesterday takes the cake. So far. I can never say he won’t go lower.
I do not need to go into detail about President Trump’s impromptu press conference from the gilded lobby of Trump Tower. You have undoubtedly heard all about it already. And if you haven’t, all you need to know about his support of Nazis and Klansmen, not to mention how he butchered our history by putting Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on an equal basis with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, is the following Tweet at 4:45PM, immediately following the president’s remarks yesterday, from former KKK leader David Duke:
Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.
So now what? Well, lots of politicians and business executives separated themselves from President Trump’s moral equivalency of putting the KKK, Nazis, Anti-Semites and other white supremacy groups on the same level as those that oppose them. Unfortunately most did not separate themselves from the president himself — just his remarks. Look carefully and you will see that very few actually condemned the president. A real failure of moral courage.
As Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said in a speech to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” For two years we have listened to Mr. Trump disparage group after group after group, from women to Mexican Americans. The events of the last few days are just one more data point in a long list of unacceptable statements and actions of the same vein. He is the same guy, we shouldn’t be surprised. So, when is he going to be held accountable by an equal branch of government — the Congress? When are Cabinet members and White House Staffers going to leave? Any ideas that Mr. Trump will change are pure fantasy. In a piece published this afternoon, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote out five concrete steps that Republicans must take to regain the moral high ground, restore the good name of the Republican Party and put Mr. Trump in a box to limit any future damage to our country. It is worth a look.
Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely that the Republican leaders in Congress will do anything substantive to rein in Mr. Trump. They are focused on achieving their “agenda” which apparently does not include taking action to counter the rise of the vilest elements of our society. Thus the rats know that they can come out into the light now because no one is trying to push them back into their holes.
Looking at this from another angle, I am deeply disturbed not only by the president’s defense of racists bent on destruction (“both sides” did not commit a terrorist act, which I am not afraid to say even though Mr. Trump said it was “legal semantics”). I am ever more disturbed by his actions, of which yesterday’s impromptu press conference was just one more in a long line of troubling actions by the president.
This is what I mean. Yesterday’s press event was supposed to be an announcement concerning infrastructure plans. The president was to sign an Executive Order and turn the event over to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (spouse of Senator Mitch McConnell by the way) and depart — no questions from the press. It was planned. The Chief of Staff John Kelly, the Secretary and other cabinet level individuals were in place, briefed and all knew the plan. The president knew the plan and said he would stick to the “script.” He lied to all of them. The evidence? He had a copy of his speech from Saturday in his pocket which he pulled out. It wasn’t left over from Saturday — he purposefully pulled it from his pocket to start his tirade about the events in Charlottesville. He knew before he came down that would happen but did not bother to tell any of the other participants. One look at the photos and videos of the Chief of Staff show his dismay and dare I say horror at what was happening.
And that is my point.
Mr. Trump just had to prove — had to — that no one can control him and that he can do whatever the heck he wants to do. Period. He gave an inappropriate speech on Saturday following the disturbing events in Charlottesville. He doubled down through a nameless staffer on Sunday. On Monday cooler heads got to him and he read a prepared speech, without any emotion or sense that he believed what he was saying, but he did it and it helped. And then, and then, he could not control himself and the real Donald J. Trump came through. A petulant, whiny individual who always, always, always has to have the last word. He will not be controlled, he cannot be controlled.
You need further evidence? Look at his remarks on North Korea and Venezuela. Yes, Venezuela. He threatened military action against Venezuela because he could. And thereby undermined ongoing diplomatic efforts with our Latin American neighbors trying to bring pressure on that regime. And undermined Vice President Mike Pence who was on a diplomatic mission in Latin America.
He does things just to show that he can. Because he wants to. It is always, always, always only about him. That is even more frightening than what appears to be in his heart. Whether or not Donald J. Trump is a racist is something I can never know. But his words and actions indicate that if he is not, he is at least clueless about the mission and intent of the white supremacists who see him as “their man” and see him as helping their cause.
Where are our moral leaders at the national level? Thank goodness many mayors and governors around the country and of both political parties stood up and took action. Shoot, even the members of the service leaders on the Joint Chiefs of Staff put out statements today condemning the events in Charlottesville and the racist nature of those acts. They were clear and unambiguous. They did not mention Mr. Trump directly, but it is very clear when you read them that they are reacting to the president’s remarks from yesterday.
When will Congress find its moral footing?
It was a sad day for our country in Charlottesville Virginia yesterday when white supremacists, including self-avowed Ku Klux Klansmen, Neo-Nazis, Anti-Semites and others demonstrated, resulting in the loss of three lives — one woman killed in a white supremacist terror attack and two Virginia State Police Troopers helping to protect the citizens of Charlottesville died when their helicopter crashed.
I could hardly believe that this was happening in our country. Not so much that such people exist — it is a sad but true fact that they do — but that so many of them came from around the country to impose their twisted vision of America on the good citizens of Charlottesville.
More unbelievable, and vastly more disappointing and troublesome to me, our president refused to denounce the white supremacists and refused to call it an act of terror when a car deliberately plowed into a crowd of peaceful protesters denouncing the white supremacists .
I just happened to see the president’s remarks live, as they happened. Many of you probably saw them replayed on various news stations. The clip most played is the president saying:
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”
Watching it closely, and paying attention to the body language, it was clear to me that President Trump was ad libbing the “many sides” phrase. Which he repeated with his characteristic hand gestures usually utilized in conjunction with “believe me.” What is not shown, and astounded me in the moment, was during his prepared remarks, he deviated from the script several times, including a long riff in the middle of his remarks about the unfolding tragedy in Charlottesville to assure us, as a nation, that he was doing a great job.
“Our country is doing very well in so many ways. We have record — just absolute record employment. We have unemployment, the lowest it’s been in almost 17 years. We have companies pouring into our country. Foxconn and car companies, and so many others, they’re coming back to our country. We’re renegotiating trade deals to make them great for our country and great for the American worker. We have so many incredible things happening in our country. So when I watch Charlottesville, to me it’s very, very sad.”
It always has to be about him.
Not only did he fail his course on Presidency 101 and what to say and do when faced with a tragic event, he totally failed in calling out the white supremacists and in making clear that there was no place for them in our United States. On “many sides” indeed. He doesn’t have the guts to call out Nazis? The KKK? He has the guts to call out the immigrant parents of a United States Army officer killed in action defending our country but not these yahoos? What the heck? My father and father-in-law were World War II veterans, what did they fight for if professed Nazis can carry swastikas in the streets and the president refuses to call them out?
The only answer I can come up with is that he doesn’t want to upset his “base.” One would hope that he doesn’t want white supremacists in his base, but apparently that isn’t the case. Am I hyperventilating? Perhaps. But I am not making this up from thin air. Look at the comments from the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke on the eve of the demonstration.
“This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. That’s what we gotta do.”
Was that a one-off? Let’s take another sample from a white supremacist who said the following after the president’s remarks.
“Trump’s comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa [I looked this up — it is short for antifascists] are haters.”
“There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about white nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
You get the picture. That’s why words matter and especially from the president. He knows that and if he doesn’t then his staff sorely let him down. But having watched his remarks live, he appeared to deviate from his prepared remarks on several occasions so as not to be specific about the groups behind the hate. I guess he just cannot bring himself to separate from his so called supporters.
As I write, the White House staff is in full damage control mode saying essentially that of course the president denounces all hate groups. Why would they go into damage control mode if the president’s remarks were not in fact totally inadequate? Because he didn’t and he hasn’t actually rebuked these far right-wing extremists and terrorists. How hard is it to say that driving a car into a peaceful crowd to purposely maim and kill is an act of terrorism? He certainly is not shy. Except in these cases. Where is Mr. I’m-not-politically-correct?
Thankfully politicians of every stripe from Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex) to former Vice President Joe Biden came out in full-throated condemnation of the white supremacists and also chastised the president for his missed hand slap to the violent white supremacists. There is hope that all of us will stand up for what we believe actually makes America great and not let this behavior continue unchallenged. And we should voice our opinions to President Trump to let him know how badly he let us all down, both as president and as a person.
Clearly these far right-wing nuts think that the president is on their side. With so called alt-right (a nice name for white supremacists) supporters on his personal staff in the White House — Mr. Steve Bannon and alleged doctor Sebastian Gorka to name two — they have good reason to think so. The only way that he can disabuse them of that notion is to clearly, forcefully and unambiguously tell them to climb back into their holes and that he refuses their support in any way, shape, or form. Otherwise, he is not the president of the United States that I know and love.
As you probably heard, on Sunday a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 Fitter ground attack bomber. This was the first air-to-air destruction of a piloted aircraft by the U.S. since 1999 and the second by a NATO aircraft in the region following the November 2015 shoot down of a Syrian SU-24 by a Turkish Air Force F-16. Both Syria and their ally Russia immediately protested the action. In addition, the Russians declared that any U.S. or coalition aircraft flying “west of the Euphrates River” while Russian or Syrian aircraft are in the area “will be considered air targets” and subject to attack. Today, a U.S. F-15 shot down an armed Iranian drone, the second one this month.
While none of the participants in the many-sided Syrian conflict desire to go to war with each other, and certainly the Russians and the U.S. do not war, the conditions are very volatile in a confined geographic area. This is a dangerous situation that is very susceptible to a mistake or miscalculation by one of the parties leading to a hot war, or at least a serious shooting incident. In short, it is a burning fuse that needs to be snuffed out before reaching the explosives. Given the conflicting goals of those involved, that may be difficult. The situation is exacerbated by the Russian withdrawal from a de-confliction protocol whereby U.S. and coalition aircraft communicate with Russian aircraft to warn and alert each other of their locations and missions. Negotiations are underway to restore that protocol. This is the second time that the Russians withdrew from it, the first coming after the U.S. Navy cruise missile strikes against a Syrian airfield last April. The relationship then was shortly restored.
The shoot downs occurred following Syrian and Iranian attacks on U.S. backed anti-Syrian forces fighting the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. Some coalition advisers were near the forces attacked from the air. Following several warnings, the U.S. says it acted in self-defense.
It is difficult to tell the players without a score card. In short, the major players in Syria are Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, the United Kingdom, and France. Supplying arms and money to the anti-Assad regime are Saudi Arabia and Qatar. (Remember also that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are involved in their own dispute which resulted in the isolation of Qatar from the outside world. Both are allies of the U.S. but the dispute is serious and involves Qatari relations with Iran, which is engaged in a major struggle with Saudi Arabia for dominance in the region. And, oh by the way, one of the major airfields used by the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) is in Qatar as is the air control headquarters and the Forward Headquarters for the U.S. Central Command. It’s complicated.)
U.S. and coalition forces are mainly fighting from the air, with some U.S. Special Forces on the ground training and advising various militias fighting against ISIS and covertly supporting those aligned against the Syrian regime. Russia supports the Bashar regime and both Russia and Syria consider any group inside of Syria fighting against Bashar’s forces as “terrorists.” This includes those supported by the U.S. coalition. The Russians claim to be fighting ISIS but in actuality they are going after the “terrorists” that oppose Bashar’s regime, which was the case with the recent aircraft and drone attacks leading to the shoot downs. Turkey also opposes the Bashar regime but also opposes the Kurdish PKK (The Kurdistan Workers Party), a group fighting for a Kurdish state carved from Turkey, Syria and Iran. The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, but many of the forces that have liberated parts of Iraq and Syria from ISIS are other Kurdish forces trained by the U.S. Iran supports the Bashar regime, but also opposes ISIS. Iranian forces and militias are fighting in Syria in support of the regime and in Iraq, in conjunction with Iraqi troops, to root out ISIS. Iran also supports Lebanon’s Hezbollah which is fighting in Syria to support Bashar. In something of a proxy war, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are aiding anti-Bashar forces with money and arms, even as they have their own dispute and Qatar is friendly to Iran.
Got all that? And the country is about as big as the Middle Atlantic states — roughly Richmond to New York City and Pittsburgh to the west.
U.S. policy in Syria has been and is muddled. Since taking over in January, the Trump Administration has not articulated a clear policy or strategy towards Syria. Our focus is primarily on defeating ISIS, an effort that is slowly but steadily eliminating their caliphate in Iraq and Syria.
The lack of a clear strategy in Syria is reflected in the April cruise missile attacks. At the time, I applauded President Trump’s decision to express our dissatisfaction over the Syrian use of chemical weapons. But it was only a one time strike to “send a message” and had no real long-term ramifications or follow-up. There was no strategy behind the strikes. (One way to tell the seriousness of such a military attack is the longevity of the action and the targets chosen. If we really wanted to punish Bashar’s regime the attack would have been centered on Damascus and gone after the Interior Ministry or Ministry of Defense in order to make the decision makers pay a price. Instead we destroyed some aircraft at a remote air base. To truly take on a larger military operation — which I am not advocating — it would have been a much more serious decision that could lead to direct military conflict with Syrian forces, and conceivably Russian forces. While we are concerned with the humanitarian conditions in Syria, it is not currently our policy to resolve the Syrian conflict through combat.)
The take-away from all this is that the Middle East continues to be a tinder box that could go from a smoldering problem to a conflagration without much effort. Despite bluster and name calling, neither the U.S. or Russia want to see the situation escalate — especially against each other. But both nations need to be very careful as other players in the region could relish such a situation in order for them to meet their own priorities and interests, not the least of which is to diminish the stature of the United States in the region and in the world.
These are dangerous times that must be taken seriously. While we are focused on our own internal daily struggles and tweets, we also must keep our heads up and our eyes on the ball. The rest of the world is busy pursuing their own agenda. If we want to be part of events that shape our future, then we must pay attention and clearly state our own goals.
United States policy for many past presidential administrations firmly states that a nuclear armed North Korea is unacceptable to our national security interests and is a threat to peace around the world. This stance continues with the current administration. Unfortunately, despite sanctions and diplomatic isolation, North Korea already tested five nuclear weapons between 2006 and 2016. Some intelligence reports, as widely cited in the media, indicate that there may soon be another such test. Meanwhile, the North Koreans continue to test ballistic missiles, ever-increasing their sophistication and range.
The threat of a nuclear armed North Korea becomes real when they reach the capability to mount a nuclear weapon on top of a long-range missile. Experts differ on that estimate. Some say it is “years” away and some say it could come as soon as 2018. No one knows for sure, but they do know that the pace of the Korean progress towards that goal is steadily increasing.
When that day arrives, a clear and present danger will exist for the United States and for our friends and allies in the Pacific area. Thus the question: How to implement our stated policy of preventing that danger from becoming real? There is no easy answer.
The Trump Administration, like those before it, states that “all options” are on the table. The implied but not so subtle threat is one of military action. To take such action is not so simple as it may seem to some. In practical terms, North Korean nuclear sites are underground and the intelligence community is not positive that it knows where all of those sites are located. Reaching a hardened underground site with a conventional missile or bomb is difficult, if not impossible. It is possible to destroy such a site with our own nuclear weapons, assuming we have it correctly located, but despite the facile way some people talk about nuclear weapons, no credible official thinks that taking a first strike with nuclear weapons is part of the solution at this point. A bomb without a delivery system is not able to reach the target. To stop the threat, eliminate the delivery system.
However, further complicating the issue is that part of the North’s missile development includes mobile Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that makes targeting the delivery system before launch that much more difficult. They have also tested submarine launched ballistic missiles, which are even harder to locate without sufficient warning and planning. So while the military option is and should be on the table, the practical aspects of eliminating the threat without a major conflict are daunting.
The ace in the hole held by North Korea is the fact that Seoul, the capital with a population in the city and suburbs of nearly 24 million, is only about 40 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). The North amassed and maintains large numbers of artillery, rocket, and ballistic missiles along the DMZ, many with a range capable of reaching Seoul. This is a huge deterrent to unilateral U.S. or allied strikes. Additionally, North Korea already has operational ballistic missiles that can reach Japan, the Philippines, Guam and other locations with U.S. military bases and U.S ex-pats. There are other threats as well, but you get the picture.
The Korean War began in 1950, and technically never ended, although an Armistice was reached in 1953. The war resulted in approximately 2.7 million Korean deaths, with an additional 800,000 Chinese and 33,000 American dead. Since then Civil Defense capabilities in the South have vastly improved and the citizens practice taking shelter. Also new are the preemption plans of the United States and South Korean military that in the early stages of conflict would seek to take out the North’s ability to wreak wide-spread damage in the South. However, despite these plans and practices, the devastation of extended combat would be real and with a lasting impact.
The key to a non-military solution in North Korea is China. President Trump tried to impart to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the U.S. in April the importance we place on this issue and the need for Chinese influence to reign in the North Koreans. Presumably President Xi took the information on board, but China has their own interests on the peninsula. First and foremost, they do not want a united Korea, especially one allied with the United States. Secondly, they are unwilling to deal with the economic fallout of a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis on their border should the regime of Kim Jong-un fall. Kim is the ruthless Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or as we call it, North Korea.
Most of us know of the ruthless leadership of Leader Kim, including having his uncle and half-brother killed. He does not appear to be “crazy” as some would have it, but he is isolated, inexperienced, and convinced of his infallibility. For a minute, take a look at the world from his point of view. Assume that he is committed to his personal and the regime’s survival. Assume also that he believes his own propaganda and that the world really is out to get him. Here is what he sees.
Kim knows well of the fate of two previous strongmen, Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Both had programs to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). Both were pressured by world leaders, diplomatically and militarily, to give up their WMD programs. We now know that both actually did give them up. One ended up sexually violated and killed in the desert and the other was hung. Kim Jong-un is not about to fall prey, as he sees it, to the same trick. He will not willingly give up his nuclear and missile programs just because the U.S. threatens him or China cajoles him. Economic sanctions seem to hurt only the North Korean population, Kim and his cronies are immune from the deprivations that seriously impact his citizens. Rebellion from within is nearly impossible given the total control over the population wielded by the state and the total immersion into a way of life and a propaganda machine that influences the average citizens from the day that they are born.
During the Cold War, the superpowers possessed nuclear weapons and competed for influence and territory for many decades without nuclear war becoming a reality. There were many reasons for our survival despite some serious crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the lesser known 1973 Arab-Israeli War when the U.S. military world-wide went to DEFCON III (Defense Condition 3), the two closest instances of direct conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Foremost among these reasons is the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (aptly known as MAD) where the chance of total and equal destruction deterred each side from using their nuclear weapons. (Although in fact, most nuclear war plans did not contemplate an all or nothing use of nuclear weapons. There were (are?) war fighting plans using nuclear weapons in limited strikes that may or may not escalate based on the war aims. It also has to do with hitting counter-value or counter-force targets — in over simplified words, hitting cities or military forces. But I digress, although it useful to remember this concept of counter-value versus counter-force targeting in thinking about North Korea.)
It is unlikely that North Korea can be deterred from using its nuclear force based merely on the concept of MAD. Kim does not want to die, he wants to survive, but he will not go down without a fight. If his survival is threatened in a way he finds credible, he may go down swinging.
Diplomatically, it is difficult to know what will bring the North to the table with a credible negotiating team willing to provide a solution to inhibiting or eliminating their nuclear program. On-site inspections and verification must be part of any solution, but Kim has signaled he will never allow them to occur. Past U.S. administrations have entered into negotiations with them only to find them unserious and uninterested in a real solution. They were only interested in finding out how much they could get from the West before opting out of any reciprocal actions.
There may be some value in taking a similar approach to the one that the world took with Iran. While President Obama is often and furiously “blamed” for “caving” to the Iranians, a few things need to be remembered about the agreement. First, it was not a bilateral U.S.-Iran agreement. It was a multi-lateral agreement that includes, among others, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union, China and Russia. Second, it in fact did stop Iranian development of nuclear weapons, at least in the short run. The idea is that eventually Iran will benefit sufficiently economically without a nuclear weapons program that they will forgo it rather than suffer more sanctions in the future. Third, it did open the country to outside inspectors. No deal is credible without continued verification. The deal was a result of focused sanctions that hurt the Iranians where it counted.
Using this model may or may not be possible, but it could be a starting point for a meaningful international diplomatic effort to resolve the Kim issue. However, thus far other world leaders have been content to allow the U.S. and China to solve this problem as they are less threatened by the DPRK. China is the key to any solution, but particularly one involving meaningful sanctions. To be meaningful, they must hit Kim and his fellow oligarchs where it hurts — in their pocket books and life styles. So far there is no evidence that current sanctions are having any impact on the leadership, only on the population. Thus China (and others) need to meaningfully and consistently enforce economic sanctions.
For other world leaders that do not seem too concerned, they should consider what may be the biggest threat from the North Korean nuclear program. Cash strapped and looking for a market, it is conceivable that the DPRK will (and maybe already has) export their knowledge and expertise to the highest bidder. This may and probably will in the future include terrorist organizations and rogue states. That alone should be enough to get most of the world on board with solving this problem.
Finally, and, as it should be, a last resort, there are a number of military options that may preclude full-scale war. Cyber attacks that cripple the nuclear infrastructure for example could be carried out. (Remember reports in 2010 that the “Stuxnet” virus crippled the Iranian nuclear centrifuges in what is thought to be a combined U.S.-Israeli operation.) Other clandestine operations are surely in the U.S. playbook.
Should conventional military force be required, a counter-force strike aimed at limiting the DPRK’s ability to do damage in South Korea could be followed by an offer to negotiate with Kim.
Another option is to specifically target Kim and the senior leadership in a decapitation strike that removes the DPRK leadership and thus limits their ability to retaliate. This seems to have the biggest chance of success. If a pre-emptive U.S. military strike could lead to a massive conflict on the peninsula and surrounding areas anyway, then go for the leadership first in the chance that the command and control abilities and the will to fight may be eliminated before the conflict spirals out of control.
While the DPRK is increasing its capabilities, so are the U.S and our regional allies. While we may not be able to locate and eliminate all of the nuclear sites and mobile launchers on the ground, using increasingly sophisticated Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems the U.S. can limit the impact of a strike by destroying the missiles in flight. Current systems include Ground Based Mid-Course Defense (GMD) based in California and Alaska which tested well against ICBM targets, the Navy’s Aegis destroyers and cruisers have proven adept at hitting ballistic missiles and the Army’s Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems have as well, depending on the threat and the environment. You may recall that the U.S. is presently deploying the THAAD system in South Korea, although in April President Trump inexplicably called on the Koreans to pay us one billion dollars for the system unless they terminate or renegotiate a bilateral trade agreement — “a horrible deal.” For now, the deployment continues.
It does not take a crystal ball to determine that the Trump Administration will face its toughest international challenge in North Korea. Whether in the coming months, as the DPRK accelerates its testing of missile and weapon systems, or in the coming years, one should expect action in one form or another in the near future. It will take a confident and realistic combination of diplomatic and economic measures from the international community coupled with unparalleled military readiness. What is certain is that the problem will not go away on its own.
With the daily crises that seem to emanate from the Trump White House, it is often difficult to keep track of those things that are important — almost all of it is in some way — and those things that are not only important, but conceivably life changing for our nation. Three of those things come to the forefront this week. One is the events in Syria, two is concern over the ever more belligerent actions of North Korea, and three is the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and the possible resulting use of the “nuclear option” in the Senate that will forever change that body and the future of the Supreme Court. The latter issue is worthy of an entire blog unto itself. Before turning my attention to the first two issues, let me just say briefly that Judge Gorsuch will be on the court for decades to come, so that alone makes it a big deal. Changing the confirmation process to a straight up or down vote will make confirmation of future Supreme Court nominations a purely partisan endeavor with ever more radical judges the norm — by Republican or Democrat presidents — and removing any last vestige of a purely non-partisan Supreme Court. In my view, the Democrats should vote for cloture (allow a vote to go forward without a filibuster) and then vote their conscience as to whether Judge Gorsuch is qualified to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.
That said, let’s turn back to the first two issues of international policy. They are important on their own merits as well as for the precedent they may set under the administration of President Trump. Let’s address Syria first.
You undoubtedly saw the heart-wrenching pictures coming from Idlib Syria following a chemical attack on innocent civilians. Reports estimate at least seventy people died a horrific death with hundreds sickened by the toxic chemical — likely Sarin. The Syrians are known to routinely use chlorine gas against opposition fighters, but this attack is significantly different. As you may remember, the Syrians made a similar attack in August of 2013 and then President Obama declared that the Syrians had crossed a “red line” and would pay the consequences. When our British allies refused to participate and the Congress got cold feet on whether to support such action or not, President Obama decided against military action. In a blog at the time I decried the lack of action and moral fortitude of not only our country, but of the entire civilized world for taking no action. I also predicted that it would eventually come back to haunt us.
It looks like the same thing will happen this time around. Loud denunciations, Security Council resolutions and much wringing of hands around the world as the order of the day, but in the end, no action taken. President Trump, apparently forgetting that he is now the president and responsible for U.S. foreign policy, condemned the attack and then blamed President Obama for it taking place. This is the entire statement as posted on the official White House website.
Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.
How ironic that President Trump condemns his predecessor for doing nothing and then does nothing himself. Actually, that’s not too surprising given his comments in 2013. He posted the following statement then.
President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your “powder” for another (and more important) day! — Twitter from @realdonaldtrump on 7 September 2013.
Note that was while President Obama was deciding how to respond to the Syrians for a chemical attack.
Also note that the most recent attack came five days after the Trump administration through U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that they would no longer focus on Syria or the regime of Bashar al-Assad. More precisely, Ambassador Haley said, “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way the previous administration maybe did. Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.” Secretary Tillerson followed up later by saying, “I think the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.” The same Syrian people gassed, I suppose. Make no mistake, in the way of foreign policy, and particularly in the Middle East, when the United States says that in essence, they are no longer concerned about Syria, that is a green light to the ruthless regime to do whatever they feel like doing without fear of retribution. Not surprisingly, the Russians who in the deal made in 2013 were to guarantee no Syrian chemical agents would remain in the country, claim that the chemicals came from a “rebel workshop” bombed by Syrian aircraft.
Sorely missing from President Trump’s statement and those of his administration is any indication of actions in response. It seems that in foreign policy, as in his domestic policy thus far, whenever something happens our new president can only lash out at others to assign blame. That is a pretty weak foreign policy position and it will be duly and clearly noted by our friends and enemies around the world.
We see a similarly troubling scenario unfolding with North Korea, and they surely noted our lack of action in Syria. The North Koreans are quickly moving towards a capability to hit the United States with long-range missiles and will in a few years have the ability to mount nuclear weapons on those missiles. As I write this the North Koreans have the capability to reach approximately 300,000 Americans in South Korea, Japan and on bases in the Pacific area. The ruthless North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un is not suicidal or crazy as some have described him. He is, however, isolated, unskilled in foreign affairs and threatened. Reportedly, he refers to the fate of Saddam Hussein repeatedly (hanged, you may remember) and vows not to go down without a fight. The key question is whether or not he will respond to a perceived provocation or start one of his own. It is an extremely dangerous situation that can lead to miscalculations on both sides of the border.
One key element of deterrence is that the people you want to deter from an act must know what is that they are not supposed to do and understand the consequences of doing it anyway. One’s intentions need to be clear, and the punishment beyond the pale in terms of an actor’s cost-benefit calculations. A corollary is to never threaten something that you are not ready or willing to do. This is why it is troubling that President Trump said in a recent interview that, “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.” When asked if he thought the U.S. could solve the North Korean problem, and if so, how, he added, “I don’t have to say any more. Totally.”
I agree with Secretary Tillerson, speaking for the Trump administration, that the last 20 years of U.S. efforts to bring North Korea under control have failed. I agree that all options must remain on the table. I also agree that China is the key to solving the problem. However, it is not possible to solve the problem without China, and for the president to suggest that it can be done without Chinese involvement is a statement without knowledge behind it or a bluff, both dangerous in the current situation.
Further confusing the issue is Secretary Tillerson’s statement today, following yet another North Korean missile test. He said, in a twenty-three word statement,
North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.
No one knows what that means. Of course one could take it at face value, but it is, shall we say, exceedingly rare for the Secretary of State of the United States of America to refuse to comment on a situation that directly threatens the well-being of the nation and its friends and allies.
In total, it is all very strange.
President Trump meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping starting tomorrow at Mar-a-Lago (and once again charging the American taxpayer for the use of his own resort — yet another topic of discussion in this space in the future). North Korea will be a major topic of discussion, to be sure. Unclear, however, is the path the negotiations will follow. In the interview in the Financial Times referenced above, President Trump indicated that “trade deals” will lead to further cooperation on North Korea. How that will play out is hazy. Chinese concerns over North Korea are tempered by the fact that they do not want to be left holding the bag economically should North Korea collapse, and they most definitely do not want U.S. troops on their border should war break out and the Americans sweep through North Korea. There are many problems to be solved on both sides of the negotiating table.
These are matters of great concern to the world, but with a direct impact on our own well-being. They will take a delicate and knowledgeable effort to resolve and probably cannot be accomplished in one meeting. We will soon learn whether or not President Trump is up for the task at hand. To me, the signs are that he is not.
These are troubling times, with seemingly a crisis a day of the administration’s own creation. And yet, the Trump Administration has not been tested in the crucible of national security. In the coming days and weeks, we will see whether or not our president has “the right stuff.”
We are approaching the end of the third week of the administration of President Donald J. Trump. For some reason it seems more like the end of three years of his administration. I am already getting worn out from seeing All Trump, All The Time. I suppose that his ever-present countenance would be a natural result of the characteristics of the type of person, campaigner, and president that he is — all based on his perceived success as a “brand” and a television reality star. Like the old cliché goes, even bad publicity is better than no publicity at all, apparently.
By nature, I am not prone to hyperbole and have worked in Washington D.C. long enough to know that sometimes people make mistakes and that the learning curve can be very steep. Missteps blow up on the national stage. So I would like to think that the Trump Administration is growing into the job. Three weeks is not enough time to get everything in order. Indeed, his cabinet is mostly just now reporting for duty. And yet. And yet.
It is difficult for me to ignore or give the benefit of the doubt to his words and actions thus far. In truth, many of his actions — the Executive Orders — are mostly PR events, with the obvious exception of his ban (his word not mine) on refugees from seven Muslim countries. One can debate whether that is a good or bad policy — personally from a national security perspective I think it does far more harm than good — but my interest is bigger than just one particular Order. Since it came out, I have watched with interest all the activity around it, from the White House, to Congress, to the judicial system, to the press corps .
From what I have seen, I am deeply concerned that a Constitutional crisis is not far ahead.
Here is why I think so. At the risk of taking a “Chicken Little” approach to his administration, and understanding that any criticism is labeled as whining and makes me a “LOSER!”, there are some troubling indicators. As I think about these indicators, I am unsure whether they are part of some master plan, or if the president and some of his senior staff are just unable to deal with reality, or if their management style may be likened to a three wood shot in a tiled bathroom.
President Trump lashes out at everyone that he believes is in his way. It doesn’t matter if it is a television host or the leader of another country. If he wants it, he should get it. Childish? Perhaps. Impetuous? Perhaps. Dangerous? Yes, but in what way? Is it dangerous because it is a master plan to create chaos and let things get so bad that our fellow citizens look for a savior to reclaim the land? What powers will be given to that savior that undermine our core values? Or is it dangerous because the president really does not know what he is doing and may in fact have some disability that precludes rational behavior? Deliberate or accidental? I am not sure it matters if the result is the same.
“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power.” — 1984 by George Orwell
(Most of us read 1984 in High School. I just re-read it and recommend it to you.)
President Trump seems to be the type of person that has always used power, in one form or another, to achieve his personal goals. When thwarted, he lashes out. When he lashes out, he does so to belittle and demean those that have displeased him. He has a long history of doing so. When he was a television personality it didn’t matter and may have been mildly amusing. As a presidential candidate it was troublesome, but had no direct impact on policy and the well-being of the nation. As president, it has direct consequences.
The most disturbing aspect of his attacks is where they are directed. We have three equal branches of government. They often disagree and criticism of one branch by another is not unheard of in our history. However, at least publicly, those criticisms were of a decision or a policy and not directed at the individual or the institution. President Trump attacks the person and the institution. For example, when his ban on refugees entering the country was put on hold by a Federal judge, he attacked not only the decision, but the individual.
“The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!” –President Trump on Twitter 4 February
Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad! — President Trump on Twitter 5 February
These are but two of his many tweets about the case. (I never thought I would use the words “tweets” and “president” in the same sentence and actually have it make sense.) Besides attacking the judge, and in a speech this week he attacked the entire judiciary system, he is removing himself from any responsibility for keeping the nation safe. Claiming that if “something happens” (note he doesn’t just say a terrorist attack) it is the fault of the judge and judiciary system and not his as Commander-in-Chief. Sorry, Mr. President. Your job is to use every legal method available to you to keep our nation safe. Period.
Fear-mongering seems to be another aspect of this presidency and helps to create the conditions for a “savior”. President Trump’s tweets, statements, and those of several of his advisers make it sound like a catastrophe is at hand. In their telling, since the stay went into effect thousands of people, most of whom are terrorists, woke up and decided to go to the airport, buy a ticket and fly to the USA. Gotta get the terrorists there now, now, now. Profoundly untrue. The “people pouring in” have gone through “extreme vetting.” They are green card holders and people, usually families with wife, husband and kids, with visas. It is easy for anyone to know (and one would think the president would be one) what procedures the newly arriving refugees (not “illegal immigrants”) go through. And if you don’t know, I recommend this article written by a person that conducted those interviews and reviewed the cases. No visa was granted in less than 18 months of vetting, most take three to five years, and far more people are denied entry than are allowed to enter the country.
When established news outlets try to present such information, the president attacks the media with continual claims of “fake news” for every story unfavorable to his preferred narrative. Apparently, if one criticizes anything related to the president (including the sale of his daughters apparel) you are “unfair” or “very, very dishonest”. Speaking of which….
No, I won’t go that far yet. It just is amazing to me, however, that the president and his advisers can pretend that something didn’t happen or that they never said something when the video and audio exists to prove that in fact they did. I don’t want to exaggerate, but it is eerily reminiscent of what came out of the Ministry of Truth in the use of “doublethink” in Orwell’s 1984. Here is an explanation of doublethink from the book.
“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”
Congress thus far chooses not to exercise its role as a further balance to the president. With four or five individual exceptions in the Senate for very specific issues, the Republican controlled Congress has not challenged the president. Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in particular goes out of his way to ignore the daily tweets, misstatements and falsehoods coming from the White House. He is probably taking the long view that the president will eventually come around and that the Republican Congress can get its agenda past the president. Why he still thinks that, I have no idea. President Trump is the same guy as Candidate Trump and the same guy as The Apprentice Trump. Until the Republican Congress (Democrats cannot do it, they are all whiners and losers) stands up to the president and calls him out for his more egregious actions, there will be danger in the air.
To me, that is why President Trump is going after the judiciary and the media. Congress has provided no resistance. Only the bench and the journalists are holding him to account. If he can discredit both of those institutions, then he may decide that he can ignore them with impunity. There goes the system of checks and balances.
Remember that President Trump continually reminds the nation that he does not have to do certain things (like reveal his taxes, divest his business interests, and countless other issues) because the law exempts the president, and besides, as I’ve heard him say way too many times “I won. I don’t have to do it. The people who voted for me knew all about me and XX.” (Fill in the blank — feel free to use just about any issue one can think of.)
Am I ready to man the barricades? No. I do think that it is incumbent on all of us to continue to watch developments very closely and to not become desensitized to the outrageous words coming from the White House, or worse, become bored with it all. The minute we stop paying attention is when we enter the most dangerous period.
We may not all agree on the policy questions, but I think that we all agree that keeping an eye on all three branches of government is important to our way of life. Is the current atmosphere a case of rookie mistakes, undisciplined advocates, unhealthy egos, part of a plan, or all of the above? I have no idea what to think, but in the end, it just doesn’t matter. All are potential threats to our well-being.
Sad. Outrageous. Horrifying. Anger inducing. Numbing. These are some of the feelings I have had, just as I am sure many of you share, following the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday. Horrible. Unfortunately, I have similar reactions to the politicians in our United States who either have no clue as to what they are talking about, or are purposefully using this tragedy for political purposes. Those same politicians accuse others of “politicizing” a tragedy following a mass shooting when they speak out for gun safety laws and yet they have no problem politicizing a tragic terrorist attack. Their comments are to me nearly as terrifying as the attacks themselves.
There are several issues at play here, and a twitter post or sound bite will not reflect the complexities of the situation. First and foremost one must remember that the purpose of terror is to create fear and a resultant over reaction that causes us to change our way of life or to take some action that meets the terrorists’ long-term goal. Make no mistake, despite some statements to the contrary, the terrorists have a clear purpose and a clear goal beyond just taking as many lives as possible. This is one area where the reckless statements by some running for president play right into the hands of the terrorists.
Additionally, one must understand the strategic goals of these particular terrorists who appear to be associated, if not directly controlled, by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Creating the “caliphate” or fundamentalist nation that they have declared is not an end unto itself just as the terrorist attacks are not an end. Their vision — and we must understand them from their perspective not ours — is to cause the apocalyptic battle of the West versus the caliphate. In other words, they really, really, want the United States and European forces to invade their territory in order to precipitate the clash of civilizations. They believe that the result will be cataclysmic and result in the end of the world as we know it and establish a world dominated by them.
This is an important point and necessitates taking the long view. This is a clash of ideologies. This is a clash of world views. This is a clash of civilizations. I make those statements with no sense of drama or over reach. It is a fact and one that the arm-chair quarterbacks and “bomb them to the stone age” activists do not understand. If every member of ISIS was killed on Wednesday in their caliphate, the terrorists still would have attacked on Friday and others would come in to take their place. This is a long war that will not be resolved solely by military action.
Am I saying that no military action is necessary? No. We need to take military action and we need to take the fight to ISIS. What I am saying is that such action is necessary, but not sufficient. Clearly ISIS established their ability to reach beyond the caliphate. The bombing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai, the bombings in Beirut and now the attack in Paris are certainly ISIS efforts to show that forces that oppose them will be attacked. However, since we are also dealing on a psychological and ideological level, there are other aspects to those attacks and it very well may be that they are also a result of what the president observed last week prior to the attacks. Not directly related as in retaliation or defiance, but that the facts are related. He said ISIS is “contained.” While this remark is getting shrill ridicule from presidential aspirants, he may be right. The caliphate is shrinking geographically, the number of recruits seems to be dwindling, and more nations are joining the fight against them. Under that circumstance, ISIS leaders would need to demonstrate that they are still strong and provide more fodder for gaining recruits. Additionally, without going into a history of the western world, the ISIS ideology and their pronouncements are reflective of their perception that Europe squashed the spread of Islam in the Eighth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, to name a few of the ideological underpinnings of ISIS and jihadist culture in general. This is in essence revenge for historical defeats and a demonstration that the war to spread Islam is not over.
I want leaders that understand just how complicated the resolution of this mess will be and in this piece I have only touched the tip of the iceberg of all that is in play. I want sober leaders, not emotional, uninformed individuals that over-react, or worse, pander for political purposes. I want leaders that have emotions — which one of us does not react with emotion to events in Paris — but that do not act emotionally. Sending the men and women of our Armed Forces into harms way should not be a knee jerk reaction. And once again, for all our sakes, just stop it with talking about “boots on the ground”! That has no meaning and tends to show one’s lack of understanding of how the military works. Do they mean combat troops? Advisors? Logisticians? Intelligence capabilities? Marines? Army? What do they mean? We must also never forget that by using the term “boots on the ground” we take out the human aspect. Somehow saying “boots on the ground” removes the obligation of our leaders to understand the consequences of sending our fellow citizens into a situation where inevitably some will be killed and seriously wounded with the consequential impact on their family and friends — not to mention the loss of our nation’s future leaders. These decisions should never be taken lightly or out of some misplaced desire to show how tough they are. Nearly all the proposals I have seen from the flock of presidential wannabe’s are amateurish at best, or fraught with danger to our nation at their worst (with the specific exception of Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina whose proposals I am not 100% in agreement with, but at least he has a sober and thought-out plan.) By the way, none of those folks will be in office until about 14 months from now. It is sure a lot easier to say what should be done than to be the person responsible for actually making the decision. They show their ignorance when they do things like point to the “massive French response” and say that we should do the same. The “massive” response is twelve (count them, twelve) aircraft bombing shacks in the desert. The United States and coalition does more than that on a slow day and have been for over a year. ISIS will not be defeated from the air. No fly zones make no sense either, as several have proposed, because ISIS has no aircraft. A no fly zone will bring us into direct conflict with Syrian aircraft (which we may want but such a decision should not be made in the heat of emotion), and with Russian aircraft (we are not fighting the Russians). I could go on, but you get the idea. We definitely do need to step up the military pressure on ISIS, especially on the ground, but we need to realize that it is easier said than done and we need to make sure we know what we are doing. Military experts always ask “what is the next step?” and “what is the end game?” and “what does it look like when we are successful?” — none of those specific questions have been answered by advocates of a bigger U.S. military effort and their plans have only very non-specific terms.
I am most bewildered, flabbergasted and profoundly disappointed by the calls from Republican candidates for president and the twenty-five (at last count — twenty-four Republicans and one Democrat) state governors who say that they will “outlaw” Syrian refugees, or indeed any Muslim refugees from settling in the United States. It is doubtful that they have the legal authority to “outlaw” refugees, but more troubling is that they even propose it. This is perhaps more dangerous to the future of the United States than the attacks in Paris. It would also be a tremendous victory for ISIS should we “outlaw” Muslims in the United States. It proves their narrative that the West is “against” Islam. ISIS also does not want to see those refugees leave their caliphate. It ruins their narrative and gives them no basis to govern.
Most troubling are the cheers for the leading Republican candidate Mr. Donald Trump when he calls for a “deportation force” to round-up 11 million people from their homes and force them out of the country. Enforce immigration laws, certainly. Work towards some form of comprehensive immigration reform, certainly. But round-up 11 million people by force? Really? In the United States? Over the weekend he went several steps further by declaring no Muslim refugees should enter the country — and oh by the way, when he’s president he will have those already legally here deported — but he also said that if he were president he would “strongly consider” shutting down mosques in the United States. So much for the Constitution.
Even more troubling is that Mr. Trump was not alone in his demagoguery. Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz said we should only allow “Christians” into the country. As if we have a litmus test on religion as to who can come into the country. Bye Bye Constitution. Governor Chris Christie said he would not allow any refugees into the country, “even for orphans under the age of five.” Nice.
Clearly they do not remember the glorious chapters of our nation’s history such as rounding up Native Americans and forcing them onto reservations or rounding up Japanese Americans and placing them in internment camps, or refusing to allow Jewish refugees into the country in the late 1930s.
It also belies the facts. Safety is a concern, obviously. Should they have looked into the issue more closely, instead of just shooting their mouths off for the sake of some votes, they would see that the situation for refugees coming into our country are vastly different from Europe. Light years different. Europe is being inundated by refugees leaving the Middle East. We are not. Unless they can swim the Atlantic Ocean refugees allowed into the United States are carefully vetted, consist almost entirely of families with women and children, and take about 18 months from the beginning of the process until they arrive in this country. They should also know that so far, all but one of the Paris attackers was from France and Belgium.
I might also point out that refusing to take in refugees does not make us any safer as anyone with a valid passport that is not on a watch list can get into the country. Do these politicians want to stop all foreigners from coming in to the country? Some apparently do. Senator Rand Paul introduced legislation yesterday that prevents anyone from roughly 30 countries that have a “high risk” of terrorism or significant jihadist movements from entering the country (which would include France, by the way) and imposes a 30 day moratorium on anyone from any country entering the United States until the government verifies that no terrorists can enter the country from anywhere on earth using a passport. So much for the world economy when all movement is shut down. I suppose that the specifics of how that works is similar to what my old calculus books used to say, “the proof is left to the reader.” Or better yet as they say on “Monday Night Football” — “c’mon man!” All of which ignores actions such as those of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City where he killed 168 people and wounded over 600 others. An American, a military veteran, and a Christian.
We do not need amateurs and demagogues leading our nation.
Should we increase our intelligence activities, be super aware and learn to operate in the new reality of life with terrorism in the 21st century? Of course. Do we need to re-think our anti-ISIS strategy and consider increased military involvement? Of course. However, I have serious problems with the politicization of the issue and the glaring lack of specifics from most candidates. And most of what I have heard proposed plays right into the hands of the terrorists. Besides, it is un-American.