An Unsteady Hand On the Helm

“Because it’s an economic enemy, because they have taken advantage of us like nobody in history. They have; it’s the greatest theft in the history of the world what they’ve done to the United States. They’ve taken our jobs.” — Candidate Donald J. Trump 3 Nov 2015 responding to a question on China.

“President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”  — The President on Twitter on 13 May 2018

To some, developments surrounding the giant Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE may be a little too technical and down in the weeds.  I think it is a perfect example of how erratically and whimsically the current president operates.  It may also demonstrate that the president is primarily interested in policies that benefit him or his company rather than the nation as a whole.

Stick with me while I outline what happened.  It really is not that complicated.  Consider these facts regarding ZTE.

  • ZTE is a Chinese government-owned telecommunications company, based in China, that manufactures cellphones and other equipment with clients in 160 countries and research centers around the world.
  • ZTE uses U.S. technology and parts that make up nearly half of the materials they use.  They are also the fourth largest seller of smartphones in the U.S.
  • In 2012 the U.S. House Intelligence Committee released an in-depth report on ZTE (and another Chinese company named Huawei) saying that the company poses a national security threat because they are stealing U.S. technology.  The report recommends that “U.S. government systems, particularly sensitive systems, should not include Huawei or ZTE equipment, including component parts.” There was, and presumably still is, a concern that ZTE may be using their products to spy on the U.S. or to provide the opportunity to disrupt essential activities.
  • In 2016 the Commerce Department found that ZTE was violating sanctions laws by selling devices, that included U.S. made parts, to Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Cuba — all under embargoes at the time.
  • In April, the Commerce Department banned it from buying U.S. technology or products for seven years.
  • The Defense Department banned the sale of ZTE and Huawei phones on military bases through the Post Exchange and Navy Exchange systems as they “may pose an unacceptable risk to the department’s personnel, information and mission.”
  • Last week ZTE reported that they were stopping all “major operating activities” which was widely understood to mean that they were going out of business because they could no longer get U.S. parts needed to continue their operation.

So, to summarize, the president is helping a Chinese company that is well-known as a sanctions violator and a threat to U.S. national security to get back into business by ordering the U.S. Commerce Department to “get it done!”  Why?

To be blunt, no one is quite sure.  But of course many people are never quite sure why Mr. Trump does many of the things that he does.  There are several theories, however.

The U.S. is about to enter into a major trade war with China if negotiations taking place this week fail.  Chinese President XI was reported to be “furious” about the decision to ban sales of parts to ZTE and threatened to impose harsh sanctions on the U.S. and/or to walk away from the trade negotiations.  So, apparently, the president on Sunday caved to his demands before ever reaching the negotiating table because it was politically more important to him to get a “deal” than to protect national security.  (Some analysts speculate that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un saw how quickly the president gave in to get something he wanted (“better trade deals with China”) and thus, among other reasons, threatened to walk away from talks with the U.S. in order get concessions.  But I digress.)

As part of that political calculation, Mr. Trump may be, rightly or wrongly, putting the interests of his supporters above national security.  When the Trump administration unilaterally imposed tariffs on Chinese imports earlier this year, the Chinese retaliated by refusing to buy U.S. soy beans.  China is the second-largest market for U.S. agricultural exports.  According to the Department of Agriculture, soy beans are the main crop sold to them.  By the beginning of May, China reportedly cancelled all purchases of U.S. soy beans and turned to Canada and Brazil for their supply.  If the ban continues, it will have a major economic impact in farm communities around the country, but especially in the mid-west.  Farmers are rightly worried that once the Chinese shift to other markets, they will never return to buying U.S. soy beans, whether or not tariffs and trade wars are resolved.  To me, this is yet one more example of Mr. Trump making a grand pronouncement and acting tough without consideration, or more accurately without understanding, the ramifications of his actions.  Other nations will not be dictated to by our president, especially other strong countries with their own interests at stake.

Other possible reasons may be that he may wrangle concessions from China as a quid pro quo to helping ZTE, thus helping to avoid a deep and wide-spread trade war.  Mr. Trump may also have done it because he needs China’s help and cooperation in dealing with Kim Jong Un in North Korea.

There may also be another reason for Mr. Trump caving so quickly.  He tweeted (is this the only way he can communicate with his own administration?) his command to the Commerce Department to save Chinese jobs on Sunday.  Only three days before that, another Chinese government-owned company agreed to finance 500 million dollars of development in Indonesia that will include a hotel, condominiums, and (what else?) a championship golf course with the Trump brand.  The deal will significantly benefit Trump, Inc., the company that he continues to get income from as president.  The deal has been in the works for a considerable period of time, but we can all be assured that the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the actions against ZTE or the impending trade talks.  According to some Constitutional scholars, it may also put the president in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bans gifts from foreign governments.

Whichever reason, or combination of reasons, explains his abrupt about face, Mr. Trump’s action sets a dangerous precedent.  Besides continuing to reinforce the international perception that Mr. Trump is mercurial and cannot be trusted — thus raising questions as to why enter any deal with the U.S. — it violates the long-standing U.S. principle that trade decisions should not be based solely on domestic political reasons.  This is particularly crucial with respect to trade enforcement decisions.  Once other leaders discern that Mr. Trump is willing to cave on issues of trade or national security for purely domestic political reasons, expect more of them to demand concessions for their own issues.

Additionally, putting politics above enforcement weakens our positions on the rule of law and the normal course of interactions between nations.  If  there are no rules, or if the rules can change on Mr. Trump’s whim, we lose all standing to insist that other governments abide by their own agreements.  There appears to be little to no consideration by Mr. Trump as to what happens next when he makes these arbitrary decisions.  As I wrote in my last piece in this space, a prudent decision maker and government leader will consider the consequences of decisions and the subsequent actions that must take place — whether successful, or not successful, or when perverse and unexpected consequences result.

Finally, there are those in and out of government that worry that the Negotiator-in-Chief really is not that good at it.  In this case and others, he demonstrates a propensity to give up leverage (in this case the actions against ZTE) before getting the other side to offer up their own concessions.  In this case China offered nothing in return for the president rescinding the actions against ZTE.  Based on his tweet on Monday, it may be that Mr. Trump’s biggest concern is keeping his good buddy President XI happy.

“ZTE, the large Chinese phone company, buys a big percentage of individual parts from U.S. companies. This is also reflective of the larger trade deal we are negotiating with China and my personal relationship with President Xi.”
This Tweet came only hours after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, in relation to the ZTE issue, that “our position has been that that’s an enforcement action separate from trade.”  So much for the left hand, right hand, and all that.
The ship of state sails on.  We can only guess where we end up.
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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 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.

 

 


Rocket Man! C’mon Down!

Earlier this month, the president surprised his senior advisers and the world by agreeing to meet with the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un “sometime in May.”  As of this writing, the details have yet to be worked out, and the details are important.  There is no word yet on where or when they will meet and no word on an agenda.  Clearly these issues can be worked out, but for such a momentous meeting, planning already should be well underway in order to make it a meaningful meeting.

There are pluses and minuses to this gambit, as with many international affairs of state.  Mr. Trump is taking a huge gamble.  It could be argued that no approach to stopping North Korea from developing nuclear weapons has worked over the past twenty-five years or more.  Certainly, talking is better than fighting, which seemed to be the president’s preferred option right up until it wasn’t. Maybe it will work.  However, if history is any guide, it will not.  It will especially not work in getting Mr. Kim to give up his nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

South Korean envoys met with Mr. Kim and members of his regime following the Winter Olympics.  This is a huge diplomatic break-through and is significant in trying to reach accommodation on the status of the Korean Peninsula.  Mr. Kim had never met with any South Korean delegation, ever.  The talks were described as very productive and resulted in some concrete developments.  Among them were the opening of a hot-line between Mr. Kim and South Korea’s president Mr. Moon Jae In.  Mr. Kim also proposed talks with the United States on denuclearization, and indicated he would suspend nuclear and missile tests before and during any talks.  Significantly, he dropped one of his long-standing demands that the United States and South Korea must stop large-scale joint military exercises.  In fact, he professed an understanding that the annual joint exercises must proceed this spring.  Additionally, he agreed to an April summit with Mr. Moon and chose the “Peace House”, a South Korean building inside Panmunjom at the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the two Koreas, as the location of the talks.

All of these developments are significant measures of progress and form the background to the meeting that took place in the White House.  After briefing their president, the South Korean envoys flew to Washington to brief their American allies, including a closely held invitation from Mr. Kim to Mr. Trump for a meeting.  All involved — North Koreans, South Koreans, U.S. National Security aides — thought that research, debate and analysis would take place before a response would be proffered.  Instead, Mr. Trump crashed the meeting between U.S. and South Korean officials (Mr. Trump was scheduled to meet with them the next day) and within a few minutes of a mention of the proposed summit, he accepted it. Mr. Trump caused some consternation as he then hinted at the upcoming announcement himself with an unusual visit to the White House press room, even before Mr. Kim and other important allies in the region, such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had been informed of the decision.  Indeed, it still is unclear whether Mr. Kim actually acknowledges Mr. Trump’s response.

What could go wrong?

Right off the bat, Mr. Trump gave Mr. Kim the biggest international diplomatic success of his regime.  Mr. Kim — and his father and grandfather before him — struggled mightily to be seen as serious players in their own right and of equal stature to all major powers in the world.  Now Mr. Kim will meet the President of the United States on co-equal terms.  He attained his biggest goal with no concessions on his part.  Perhaps this development is worth the price of admission, but it is a huge gamble as it emboldens Mr. Kim and further buffs up his supreme confidence in his own abilities and instincts.

While we think that the North Koreans are coming to the table because of the increased sanctions and Mr. Trump’s belligerent rhetoric, Mr. Kim is thinking that Mr. Trump is coming to the table because we need to deal with them as a nuclear power.  The two views of these vastly different countries are about 180 degrees out of synch due to cultural, regional and political reasons.  There is a high probability of miscalculation and misunderstanding on both sides.

On the U.S. side we will be conferring with one hand tied behind our back.  There is no U.S. Ambassador in South Korea, no Assistant Secretary of East Asians Affairs in the State Department and the top North Korean expert resigned (many of the other policy analysts and subject matter expert offices are also empty) and we have no Secretary of State.  It is unclear whether the Senate can (or will) confirm Mr. Mike Pompeo, the proposed nominee to take Mr. Tillerson’s place, before a meeting in May.  Additionally, rumors are rife that the current National Security Adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster will depart shortly.

(Intermission:  What is up with the way Mr. Trump treats his senior advisers?  Is he afraid to confront individuals he wants to remove from service or does he relish humiliating them?  Does “winning” mean one has to debase, humiliate and bully people?  Let’s just name a few:  FBI Director James Comey found out he was fired via cable news; Chief of Staff Reince Priebus learned he was fired via Twitter as he was getting off of Air Force One where he was just with the president; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was fired via Twitter as he returned from a diplomatic tour of Africa; and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe found out he was fired via an email three minutes before it broke on cable news.  I must have missed finding out about this leadership technique in my many years of service to the nation.)

To Mr. Kim, having nuclear weapons and a ballistic missile program got him the recognition that he craved.  Additionally, as I have written in this space before, he takes a look at what happened to his former dictator colleagues Gaddafi and Saddam when they gave up their programs developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and I think it naive at best to think that any negotiation will entice him to give his up now.  At best, we may get him to freeze further testing, but without knowing exactly how far along his program may be, it might be too late for a freeze to deter him from using his weapons at some point in the future.

And then there is the terminology.  Given the cultural differences and mightily different world views, what exactly does “denuclearization” — the administration’s goal for the Korean peninsula — mean, anyway?  For us, it is Mr. Kim giving up all of his nuclear weapons, with verifiable inspections and international monitoring to ensure they are gone to stay.  To Mr. Kim, at least from past negotiations, it means that the U.S. pulls its military from the Korean peninsula.  Which of course, is, or at least should be, a total non-starter for us and our Asian allies.  There are other similar areas of concern where words matter but have not, and possible will not, be resolved before the meeting takes place.  It is difficult to meet common ground if both sides have different ideas of what is being talked about.

Take another look at the lack of experienced personnel to lead this effort.  Compare that to years of negotiations by the North Koreans with the U.S. and other nations.  They are reported to be among the toughest negotiators in the world, and even when the West thinks they’ve reached an accord, they are surprised to find that the North Koreans proclaim the opposite and/or quickly break the promises from their side.  In every meeting over many years, their negotiators amply demonstrated that they are tenacious, persistent, and determined. They will do everything possible to unwind sanctions and to achieve their goals without making any meaningful concessions.

There is a reason so little progress has occurred over many administrations, Democrat or Republican.

Other area experts worry that we are starting at the top rather than at the bottom.  The argument goes that a summit should be the culmination of negotiations rather than the start.  As outlined above, the devil is in the details and national leaders are rarely called upon to negotiate specific, very technical aspects of treaties.  Their job is to set the tone and resolve any last minute sticking points, not to start from scratch.  Given the personalities of the two leaders involved, there is a lot that could go wrong (“Lil’ Rocket Man” vs. “Mentally Deranged Dotard”), should the talks ever actually take place.

Two possible outcomes — one relatively positive and one very negative — could result from these talks.  The mostly positive outcome is that no specific agreements come from the summit, but that the meeting of the two leaders “jump starts” meaningful talks that lead to progress.  We should be prepared for incremental progress, perhaps starting with an actual peace treaty between the warring factions of the Korean War rather than the continuing armistice.  (Many people forget that we are technically still at war on the Korean peninsula.)

The negative outcome could be that both sides see no progress and the two leaders assess the other as “weak” or unwilling to break an impasse.  In this scenario, one or both sides could decide that they gave peace a chance, it didn’t work, and the only remaining option is combat — either a renewal of the Korean War, or more likely, a series of aggressive actions, probes, and tests of military resolve that could quickly escalate out of hand.

Big risks sometimes have big rewards.  I would feel better about the risk in this case if I believed that Mr. Trump truly understood the situation and had actually calculated the pros and cons of this unprecedented adventure.  This gambit has the feel of a game show gamble.

 


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?


The Dark Days to Come

As we approach the end of a tumultuous 2017, let me offer my wish that each of you have a joyous holiday season and that 2018 brings you all the best.  Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas and a fine Festivus!

While I sincerely hope that all of us have a wonderful 2018 in our own ways, I am concerned that as a country we will hit turbulent waters at best or worse, experience a Constitutional crisis.  I gave up prognosticating some years ago.  However, since it is the end of the year, I will offer up my scenario as to how the coming year will unfold as the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller plays out.  There are certainly other very important events to come in 2018 that the administration will face, such as dealing with a bellicose North Korea, implementing a tax cut by expanding the deficit, undermining the Affordable Care Act, retooling immigration and someday passing a budget.  All of these will be overshadowed by the unfolding drama surrounding Mr. Mueller’s investigation and its final results.  It will not be pretty.

Lest we forget, as I see it there are four distinct areas of investigation for the Special Counsel.  Three have been his focus from the beginning and the fourth I surmise got added as the investigation looked into the activities of Mr. Paul Manafort and others and the resulting relationship to the original three areas of interest.  The four are concerns over Russian interference in the election, possible collusion between the campaign and the Russians, whether or not the FBI investigation into these matters was obstructed by the president or his advisers, and my fourth, money laundering and/or tax evasion by the president and/or family.  Let’s look at them one by one.

Many of us forget that the original intent of the investigation, starting with the FBI and CIA in 2016, was to determine the extent, methods, and impact of Russian interference in that year’s election.  The combined intelligence community in the United States and elsewhere concluded some time ago that the Russians did interfere.  End of discussion.  The questions of how, why, whether it mattered or not and what to do stop it in the future remain unanswered.  Reportedly, the president refuses to discuss it with his top advisers, has yet to hold any cabinet level discussions as to how to protect future elections and continues to deny that it ever happened.  This is unconscionable.  Regardless of one’s political views, all of us should be upset that there is overwhelming evidence that it occurred and there is no evidence that anyone is doing anything substantive to prevent it in the future.  There is still no federal coordinated action to stop it from happening again.  As Americans we should be appalled.  Michael V. Hayden had a lifetime of experience in the intelligence community and was CIA director under President George W. Bush.  His view of the Russian meddling?  That it is the political equivalent of the attack on September 11.  He further said,

“What the president has to say is, ‘We know the Russians did it, they know they did it, I know they did it, and we will not rest until we learn everything there is to know about how and do everything possible to prevent it from happening again. He has never said anything close to that and will never say anything close to that.”

Perhaps some in Congress will wake up to the fact that action is needed, and soon.  I won’t hold my breath for the president to initiate any action.  When Mr. Mueller’s findings come forward, we may have an impetus for action by the rest of the government.

The second area of investigation, and the one most focus on including the president, is whether or not the president’s campaign colluded with the Russians to interfere in the election and impede Secretary Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory.  This one is more complicated and takes more than a sound bite or Twitter statement to unfold.  In short, the theory is that in exchange for “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton and other “aids” during the election, the new administration, if they won, would lift sanctions on Russia imposed for a variety of reasons generated by Russian bad actors, and not just during the election.  This one is less clear as to the extent that the campaign organization knew what they were doing.  Their best defense, if one can call it that, is that they were incompetent.  That line of  reasoning is becoming less tenable as more and more instances of meetings between campaign representatives and Russian representatives become known.  In addition, both campaigns were briefed in August 2016, following the official nominations, that the Russians were trying to interfere in the election, that other bad actors might also try, and the two campaigns need to notify the FBI if they detect any Russian overtures or other activity.  The Trump campaign made no such reports to the FBI.  It is hard to claim ignorance under those circumstances.

The third area of investigation involves possible obstruction of justice.  This stems in one way from the aforementioned meetings with Russian operatives during the campaign.  Various campaign officials initially denied any such meetings.  It grew bigger after the president fired then FBI Director Jim Comey and bragged in a Lester Holt interview on NBC and later in a private conversation with the Russian (!) Foreign Minister and Ambassador that it was over the “Russia thing.”  Director Comey testified under oath that the president asked him to drop the investigation into former NSC Director Michael Flynn’s interactions with the Russians.  (The same Michael Flynn that pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those very interactions.)  As if that is not enough, the investigation also includes the president himself pushing prevarications on Air Force One concerning his son Donald Trump Jr. and his interactions with the Russians.  They made a very weak attempt to cover it up, allegedly at the president’s direct involvement in the cover up story.

You can’t tell the players without a program.

Not on the “official” list but the area that will cause the biggest consternation, and at the same time pull everything together, is my notion that the Special Counsel and his office are looking into the Trump Organization’s and family’s financial dealings.  I think that they will find instances of money laundering and tax evasion.  Very much like what they come up with concerning Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates — only with Russians rather than corrupt Ukrainians.

Many focus on Mr. Trump’s visit to Moscow for the Miss Universe Pageant and his subsequent attempts at creating new business opportunities in Russia.  Lost to some is the knowledge that he started visiting Russia in 1987 and has made trips off and on since then.  If his son is to be believed, lots of their investment money came from Russian sources.  U.S. banks would not underwrite his endeavors after four bankruptcies and he was desperate.  Think of it as a “Godfather” scenario.  “Donnie, don’t worry.  We’ll take care of the problem.  Relax.  But at some time in the future we may come and ask you for a favor.”  Or as Don Corleone says it much better in the original, “Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me. But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.”

My opinion as to the results?

  • The Russians interfered in many, many ways in the election but the number of votes that changed because of those actions (none of which were by actual vote tampering) is unknown.
  • Aides to Mr. Trump did collude with the Russians but the president will benefit from plausible deniability as there will be no way to tie it directly to him.
  • The investigation will conclude that Mr. Trump and some of his aides did try to obstruct justice by interfering in the attempt to investigate his family and campaign ties to the Russians.
  • The Special Counsel will conclude that prior to becoming president, Mr. Trump knowingly engaged in unethical and illegal financial transactions.  These transactions helped Russian oligarchs launder money in Trump investments and real estate purchases.  His hundreds of LLCs and shell corporations were used to hide these transactions and to limit the taxes he was by law responsible for paying.

That’s when the “fun” starts.

First, prior to the Special Counsel’s findings, the House committees investigating these matters will rush out findings — possibly in early January — that will find that there is no evidence of collusion, they did not look at obstruction of justice because it is a criminal matter, and did not investigate his finances.  They will say that the Russians interfered in the election but it is unclear to what extent and in any case, the interference did not change the election.

The president will seize on this report, claim that it proves his innocence and that there was “no collusion!”

The president will try to fire Special Counsel Mueller because, he will reason, the House committees already proved that there was “no collusion!” and so there is no need for the investigation to continue.  To do so would make it a “witch hunt” based on the Democrats efforts to push a “hoax” and an attempt to disenfranchise millions of Trump voters because of a deep hatred of Mr. Trump.  Fox News and some House Republicans will cry long and loud that this is an attempted FBI “coup” to overthrow the duly elected President of the United States.  (By the way, this has already happened in the last 48 hours.  The attacks on the FBI and Department of Justice from certain Republican Members of Congress are despicable.  Please note that they are not attacking the facts, the results so far or any other substantive issue.  They only attack the people and the institution with the goal to sow doubt in advance of just this scenario.)

The Senate will try to protect the Special Counsel but at the same time expand their investigation to include the other nominees — Jill Stein and Hillary Clinton — to show that it wasn’t just Mr. Trump.  When the Special Counsel’s findings start to leak out, the Senate, caught in a bind as to how to act as the president continues to undermine, ignore and invalidate the non-partisan results, delays action.

The Special Counsel will name Mr. Trump as an un-indicted co-conspirator.

Mr. Trump will not step down  from the presidency and tries to pardon those indicted as well as himself.  This will lead to a Constitutional crisis.

The “#metoo” movement continues to build pressure against Mr. Trump as more allegations of harassment by multiple women come out and he calls them all “liars.”

To make sure that justice prevails, state prosecutors step in to bring state charges — especially on money and tax issues. Mr. Trump cannot pardon violations of state law, only federal.

The issue of pardons for whom and for what gets challenged in court and follows an expedited path to the Supreme Court.

Pressure will build for the Congress to act.  However, the House and Senate will not act to impeach the president and will cite the upcoming 2018 elections as the reason.  “Let the American people decide.”

Democrats win big in the elections.  While campaigning they will not use the word “impeach” but will insist that Mr. Trump needs to be held accountable for his actions with Congressional oversight.

Mr. Trump, Fox News, and some House Republicans continue to cry that the system was rigged and that an attempted “coup” is underway.  Mr. Trump embarks on a series of campaign rallies to build support among the minority of voters that still support him. Angry demonstrations ensue.

Most Americans are appalled at the complete story and the fact that Mr. Trump will not step down plus the fact that he is trying to pardon the wrong doers — especially close family members.  The Democratic landslide is a result of voters being fed up because Congress will not act.

Very bitter disputes break out in violence on both sides of the issue as Mr. Trump continues purposely to stir up animosity and anger.

There is very little energy left to try to tackle the big issues facing our nation.  American influence in the world continues to wane and other nations take advantage of our inward rage and lack of attention to international affairs.  The Russians continue to meddle in western European elections and to support Syria and Iran.  China consolidates its economic power and pulls other Asian nations closer to its orbit as they become the de facto leader of the region under the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

2018 ends without resolution of the Constitutional issues surrounding Mr. Trump and his associates’ actions.  Trials begin for Mr. Manafort, Mr. Gates, and Mr. Kushner and others close to the president.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

 

 


While You Were Tweeting

I trust that you all had an enjoyable Thanksgiving weekend.  In many ways we have so much to be thankful for so it is always nice to take time out and to reflect on our good fortune — whatever form that may take.

In our nationally induced tryptophan haze, one may have noticed, or more hopefully ignored, a bevy of tweets and other distractions that obscure the many important legislative challenges coming up in the next four weeks.  Or more accurately, in the few days that the House and Senate are actually in session before Christmas.  Nearly all of the following impact Americans in some form or another and are important to the smooth functioning of our nation.  These are important issues that deserve serious consideration and discussion.  I will let you decide whether or not that will happen.

To name a few:

  • Tax cuts.  The president promised a “great big beautiful Christmas present” with completion of the Republican tax cut.  Both the House — which passed its version before Thanksgiving — and the Senate — which hopes to pass its version this week — have significantly different bills designed to permanently cut corporate taxes and to cut some lower and middle class taxes for a while.  The Republican leadership is touting both bills as a boon to the middle class.  Sorry, but I don’t see it.  Besides adding at least 1.5 trillion dollars to the national debt over the next ten years, it makes some puzzling changes.  For example, nearly all deductions (mortgage, student loan, state and local taxes, medical expenses, moving expenses and about 40 some more) are removed from the individual taxpayers’ ability to use them but keeps them in place for corporations.  The argument is that the individual standard deduction will greatly increase (roughly doubled) and therefore there will be no need to itemize.  At the same time, corporate taxes drop roughly 40 percent (from 35% to 20%) but they still keep all itemized deductions, including those listed above that go away for the rest of us.  The real kicker is that corporate tax rates and rules are permanent and the rules for the rest of us are temporary.  The non-partisan Tax Policy Center (TPC) estimates that for many of us, our taxes will actually go up over the next ten years as compared to current law.  This happens primarily because of the “sunset” provisions impacting everyday Americans.  Many Republicans are arguing that some time “in the future” Congress will make them permanent and so in the end, we all benefit.  Except.  Except.  There is no guarantee that they will become permanent.  If they don’t, we are victims of a big lie.  And if they do, then it all has been a sham and a trick.  In order to meet the rules of the Senate, they cannot exceed the 1.5 trillion dollar addition to the national debt.  (To do so, they need 60 votes in the Senate, which means getting Democrats onboard, who, so far, have been shut out of any input to the bill.)  Thus, the permanent cuts for corporations are paid for by the average tax payer.   But not to worry, according to the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Dick Mulvaney, it is all a trick.  A “gimmick.”  As he said on Meet the Press, in order to meet the Senate rules, “certain proposals can only have certain economic impact.  One of the ways to game the system is to make things expire.”  Or as he went on to say, “a lot of this is a gimmick… to get through these rules in the Senate.”  This from the president’s point man on the cuts and in charge of explaining them to the public.  There is a whole lot more to this issue, but it deserves a separate piece as the issues are complex with wide impacts on each of our futures.  Keep an eye on this.

(Please note that there is no need to place a time limit on getting this legislation right. It is an arbitrary political goal to “deliver” a tax cut by Christmas.  Remember that as it crowds out the following issues, many of which do have — or have already reached — a drop dead date to accomplish.)

  • Government Shutdown.  Funding to operate the federal government expires on 8 December.  Here we go again.  Both Republicans and Democrats are using the imminent expiration of the spending authorization to promote their political agendas.  As in the past, it is unlikely that the Republicans can pass a spending bill without at least some Democrats voting for it as well (there is always a hard-core Republican group opposed to the amount of spending and the impact on the deficit — although they mysteriously voted for the increased deficit from the tax cuts).  There is a “summit” planned tomorrow involving the leaders of both parties from both houses and the president to try to come to accommodation on this and other issues.  Probably there will be a short-term extension to keep the government operating — a continuing resolution or CR.  CRs wreak havoc on all government agencies from defense to agriculture as they limit immediate spending and give no clear guidance for the future, thus severely inhibiting planning for the future.  Predictions are not optimistic as to a quick resolution because the Republican leadership remains laser focused on getting the tax cuts finished first.
  • Defense Spending.  As part of the overall objective of setting spending levels for 2018 many want to see defense spending increased from about $549 billion to about $600 billion.  In order to do that, Congress must rescind a bipartisan 2011 budget deal that set spending caps on all areas of government.  Democrats are insisting that any increases in defense spending must be matched by increases in non-defense spending or they will not vote to lift the 2011 caps.  Under Senate rules, 60 votes are required to change the bipartisan agreement providing the limits so Democrats have a say in how this is resolved.  Very little progress in resolving the issue is apparent and this impacts the funding for the government as a whole (see above).
  • Health Care. Politicians on both sides of the aisle want to see the market stabilized for health care.  Not surprisingly, there are differences on how to do it.  The Alexander-Murray health care bill is a bipartisan effort to bring some continuity and stabilization to health care under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).  The administration opposes this bill and the Senate version of the tax cut plan eliminates the penalty for not having insurance — thus creating the possibility of increased premiums for those with insurance and eventually driving a predicted 13 million from the roles.  (See my previous posts about the “three-legged stool” needed to keep the system stable.)  Democrats say the Alexander-Murray bill is off the table if the repeal of a key provision of the ACA is enacted.  Republicans are still making noise about “repeal and replace in 2018.”  Compromise seems unlikely and the public suffers.
  • The Children’s Health Insurance Program.  The generally popular CHIP provides health coverage for about 9 million poor children and others.  The current legislation expired on 30 September and it is unknown when this usually bipartisan issue will be addressed.  To date, the states have picked up the slack to keep the program going in the short-term but many say that funds will run out at the end of the year.  This is also caught up in the “need” to address tax cuts before other legislation.
  • Immigration.  The president announced the expiration of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) (the Dreamers) program last September and gave Congress until March to come up with a system for dealing with the children brought here illegally by their parents.  Many Democrats say that they will not vote for any spending bills unless this issue is addressed by the end of the year.  Some Republicans say that they will not address immigration unless “The Wall” is part of the bill.  There are also Republicans that agree that the Dreamers issue needs to be addressed and that may actually favor their remaining in the country.  But, again, they argue this cannot be part of any spending bill and can only be addressed after the tax cuts pass.
  • Intelligence Gathering.  On 31 December of this year Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act will expire.  This section of the law, approved by Congress in 2008 as a part of the response to the terrorist attacks on 11 September 2001, is intended as a tool to track and thus foil foreign terrorists.  It is meant for use in conjunction with foreign citizens outside of the United States and has specific provisions to protect American citizens.  Unfortunately, critics of the provision claim that vast amounts of information is collected on U.S. citizens as they communicate with foreigners — any foreign national, not just those suspected of being terrorists.  Known as “incidental surveillance” it raises many questions of privacy and government intrusion into the lives of innocent, ordinary U.S. citizens.  The NSA considers this provision to be among their most important collection capabilities and fear that if they lose the ability to continue the surveillance that it will severely inhibit their counter-terrorism capability.  There is general bipartisan support to extend the statute, but with some restrictions to further try to protect Americans’ privacy.  Currently, there are no plans to address the expiring statute by the end of the year.
  • Disaster Relief.  The Administration asked Congress for $44 billion in disaster relief for help in mitigating the impact of the hurricanes and wildfires that affected many areas of the country this year.  To pay for it, they have asked for reductions in other expenditures, such as benefit programs.  By all accounts, 44 billion — a lot — is inadequate to meet the need.  Puerto Rico alone estimates that it will cost $99 billion to get the island back on its feet.  Congress has promised to provide the aid, but does not plan to address the issue with concrete action (money duly appropriated) until the tax cut plan is finished.
  • Iran Sanctions.  By declaring in October that Iran was not in compliance with the international deal to limit Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, the president activated a 60 day period which expires in December for Congress to act to impose new sanctions or not.  The general sense is that there is mostly bipartisan agreement not to extend new sanctions on Iran and thus to keep the deal in place.  However, at the end of the 60 day period the ball is back in the president’s court and it may be that inaction on the part of Congress will lead to action by the president and thus put the deal in jeopardy.

And there’s more!  But you get the idea.  Not much of anything will get done until the tax cuts are passed, which is not a sure thing in the Senate.  Even if it does get through the Senate this week, or soon after, they still need to reconcile the two versions of the bill — no easy task as they are significantly different in several important areas.  All deadlines discussed for the tax cuts are purely political and self-imposed, unlike many other items in need of Congressional attention.

It is sure to be a busy political December.  Enjoy!  And don’t let the tweeting distract you from the real action going on.