Memoirs of the Addams Administration 23.

In 2015, President Barack Obama negotiated American participation in an international agreement to reduce carbon emissions.  The agreement committed the United States to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28 percent of the 2005 level by 2025.[1]  This is known as the Paris climate agreement.[2]  Then President Donald Trump announced that the United States would withdraw from the agreement.  The president’s decision inspired much criticism from home and abroad.[3]  Critics appear to be out of step with ordinary Americans.  Few Americans—of either party apparently—think that the environment is a pressing issue.  Most assign a higher importance to health care, the economy, terrorism, immigration, education, and crime.[4]

Opinion varied on this decision.  On the one hand, if the Paris agreement had been sustained by President Trump, it seems unlikely to have achieved its stated goals.  That goal is to limit global temperature rise to 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels.  One percent of that rise has already occurred.  The Paris agreement would limit further increases by 0.2 degrees.  Worse still, by one report world temperatures will rise by 3.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels by 3.1 degrees by 2100.  On the other hand, the admittedly flawed agreement set the ball rolling toward greater commitments in the future.  One reality appears to be that developing nations pursuing industrialization as the road to prosperity (China and India for example) will need to burn carbon to reach their goals.  The only way to prevent this would be to develop non-carbon alternatives.

Many people saw the decision to withdraw as an American abdication of leadership.[5]  President Trump, the critics said, has tossed aside the American leadership built up over decades.  Now, however, other leaders—especially Germany or China–would step forward.[6]  Right.

Then the “Trump-loves-dictators” theme reappeared.  The logic here failed.  Saudi Arabia has been a loyal American ally for decades; Israel has ruled over a captive Palestinian population since 1967; a series of American presidents have struck agreements on nuclear arms with the Russkies, Communist and post-Communist, while the Obama administrations sought a “re-set” with Vladimir Putin, and negotiated with Iran; and China has been an American “partner” ever since the chain-smoking dwarf Deng Xiaoping took power.  No American president who negotiated with those countries got called a dictator-lover.  Nor should they have been.

Elsewhere, the “Russia scandal” spun its wheels while awaiting the testimony of fired FBI Director James Comey[7] before the Senate Intelligence Committee.[8]  Then various brown dwarves of American popular culture (Kathy Griffin, Ted Nugent) attracted attention for their tasteless comments on public figures.[9]

Still, if you want to worry about something real, terrorists attacked the Iranian parliament and the tomb of Ayatollah Khomeini.  ISIS claimed responsibility; Iran blamed the Americans and the Saudis; and the terrorists were Kurds.  Big storm coming.

[1] The agreement took the form of an executive agreement because President Obama recognized that a treaty would not be ratified by the Senate.

[2] “Trump pulls U.S. out of Paris accord,” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 4.

[3] One poll found that a mere 28 percent of Americans supported withdrawing from the Paris agreement, while 59 percent opposed it.

[4] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 17.  Only 4 percent rank climate in first place on the list of problems.

[5] “Paris: Does Trump’s America still lead the world?” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 6.

[6] “How they see us: Defying the world on climate change,” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 15.

[7] Like Michael Flynn, another “good guy” according to all media reports.

[8] “Russiagate: The plot thickens—again,” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 16.

[9] “Griffin’s Trump stunt: Has the Left lost it?” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 17.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 22.

It will be difficult for future historians to make sense of the commentary on the second, European, leg of President Trump’s first foreign trip.  The “usual subjects” of Mainstream Media (MSM) decried his hectoring of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members to pay more toward the common defense while refusing to make an explicit commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty.[1]  Europeans themselves seemed aghast at his sharp tongue (and in the case of the prime minister of Montenegro, his sharp elbows).[2]  German Chancellor Angela Merkel affirmed that “we have to fight for ourselves.”  She called for European nations to “shoulder emotionally charged challenges such as a common defense and security policy.”

There is reason to doubt the value of all this talk.  On the one hand, a clear-eyed assessment of American vital interests would show that non-Russian Europe and “off-shore Asia” (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines) are vital trading partners and allies of the United States.  It doesn’t matter what President Trump says or fails to say.  If Push comes to Shove, the United States will have to defend those areas.  In contrast, neither Russia nor radical Islam poses an existential threat to the United States.[3]  On the other hand, the European Union (EU) lacks the means and probably the will[4] to provide for its own defense against foreign foes.

In May 2017, a second version of the Trump/RyanCare squeaked through the House of Representatives.  Since then Republican Senators have been trying to sort out a better version.  The Congressional Budget Office then issued an evaluation saying that under the House plan 23 million more Americans would be without health insurance and that premiums would rise for those who are old and sick.  The first part of this isn’t troubling: at least two-thirds of the “uninsured” would be people who never wanted the insurance (let alone the premiums) in the first place.  The second part reflects what the plan itself said: older and sicker people consume a lot more health care than do the young and healthy, so they should pay for it.  Republican senators are divided over the plan.  Public opinion leans against the House plan.[5]

The appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate the “Russia scandal” (including how his friend, protégé, and successor at the FBI James Comey came to be fired by President Trump) means that the investigation could run on for quite some time.  People will know nothing definitive until that investigation is completed.  However, it appears than anything illegal (like collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government hackers who revealed all sorts of inconvenient truths about Hillary Clinton) would have to have taken place before the election of President Trump in November 2016.  Wikileaks published the stolen e-mails on 22 July 2016.  The names of Kellyanne Conway (joined Trump campaign on 1 July 2016) and Steve Bannon (joined Trump campaign in August 2016) have not so far appeared among the list of FBI targets.  Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn—who had a history of legal contacts with the Russians–tried to open a back-channel contact with the Russian government in December 2016.  Maybe, just maybe, this dog won’t hunt.

[1] “Trump in Europe: A frayed alliance,” The Week, 9 June 2017, p. 6.

[2] “How they see us: Europe loses faith in America,” The Week, 9 June 2017, p. 14.  See also: “Russia: Cheering Trump’s NATO policy,” The Week, 9 June 2017, p. 15.

[3] Russia possesses nuclear weapons, but is deterred from using them by American nuclear weapons.  Vladimir Putin has had to make do with “little green men” and cyber-attacks.   Radical Islam doesn’t seem able to conquer anywhere vital to the United States.  Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey all have the means to resist radical Islamists.

[4] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2015/06/17/die-for-danzig-marcel-deat-mourir-pour-danzig-loeuvre-4-may-1939/

[5] “Republican health-care plan struggles in the Senate,” The Week, 9 June 2017, p. 5.

My Weekly Reader 9 June 2017.

Once upon a time, a professor of American diplomatic history said that there were two kinds of countries—lions and jackals.[1]  The United States is a lion (with tooth problems) and Pakistan is a jackal.  Since its creation in 1947, Pakistan has battened on great powers—first Britain and later the United States—by pretending to associate itself with their causes in return for the aid that keeps the failed-from-the-beginning state afloat.  Pakistan also sees India as the chief opponent.  As a result, it sees Afghanistan as a vital interest, whether to give Pakistan “strategic depth” or to prevent the country from being caught between two fires.  In practice, this meant joining the anti-Communist alliance in the Cold War.  Then it meant playing a leading role in the struggle against the Soviets in Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989.[2]

In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Pakistan’s ruler, Pervez Musharraf, that either his signature or his brains would be on an agreement with the United States to cooperate against Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  Musharraf agreed.  Then didn’t.  In 2009, Richard Holbrooke struck a deal that tripled non-military aid to Pakistan provided the country returned to civilian rule.  Pakistan didn’t.  In May 2011, Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in his Pakistan hide-out.[3]  Soon afterward, another American diplomat told the Pakistanis that the SEALs who killed Bin Laden had uncovered a treasure trove of information that—among other things—compromised the government of Pakistan.  Either Pakistan began cooperating with the United States or trouble would follow.  Pakistan agreed to cooperate.  Then didn’t.[4]  Yes, hundreds of greater and lesser members of Al Qaeda fell captive.  However, the attacks continued in Afghanistan.

Countries, like individuals, are prone to blame others for their troubles.[5]  Pakistan’s elites blame India and the United States for Pakistan’s troubles, rather than a historical record of incompetent governance.  Still, there is something to be said for the Pakistani position.  Had the United States guaranteed control of Afghanistan to Pakistan, the Pakistanis might have been willing to act seriously against the Taliban.  The Taliban guarantees Pakistan would remotely control Afghanistan, so Pakistan—through the ISI—arms and aids the Taliban.

Americans seems reluctant to acknowledge that allies may have foreign policy interests of their own.  Similarly, Americans are reluctant to acknowledge that its opponents may have legitimate—to them—foreign policy objectives.  So long as the United States remained the “biggest, baddest” power in the world, it didn’t matter much what foreigners thought.  However, in the last two presidential administrations (Obama, Trump), the United States has engaged in a policy of strategic retreat.  Henceforth, it will matter what foreign powers—like Afghanistan or Israel, or Saudi Arabia—think about American power.

In the Afghan case, however, there is a pattern that has repeated itself from 1979 to the present.  So, American leaders may yet get it right.

[1] W. Stull Holt, in conversation.

[2] Husain Haqqani, Magnificent Delusions (2013); Daniel Markey, No Exist from Pakistan (2013).

[3] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bKht-_lX-u0

[4] Iran opposes Iraq, but the United States refused to choose during the Obama administration.  Pakistan opposes India, but the United States refused to choose during the Obama administration.  Now Donald Trump is president.

[5] Some are more prone to this habit than are others.  British colonial officials, who had wide experience with people subjected to troubles by the British, held Persians (modern-day Iranians) in absolute contempt for this trait.

My Weekly Reader 3 June 2017.

It is characteristic of the long-running funk into which many Western societies have fallen that there have been many “decline of the West” books published in recent decades.  They offer varying analyses shaded by varying clouds of pessimism.  Some focus on economic issues, some on misguided international policies, and some on cultural factors (with rotten schools in the forefront).  Many are inspired by China’s challenge to societies that otherwise could remain complacent.  Some are compelling, many are not.  One recent example come from the former editor of the Economist, Bill Emmot.[1]

Thirty years ago Mancur Olson investigated the rapid revival of the devastated German and Japanese economies after the Second World War and the slower growth of the Western victors in that war.[2]  He found the answer in the role of intermediate groups–political as well as economic–in the different societies.  By intermediate groups he meant both labor unions and businessmen’s association, but also intrusive government regulators.  These groups entrenched established organizations at the expense of newcomers.  They entrenched established procedures at the expense of innovation.  Dictatorship, war, defeat, and foreign occupation had destroyed these intermediate groups in Germany and Japan.  This left individual entrepreneurs free to do what they wanted in a dynamic fashion.  (“And all that implies.”—“The Iron Giant.”)  Elsewhere, the intermediate groups survived the war and sometimes even tightened their grip.

It’s possible to find many examples of dysfunction in Western societies.  Take both the Republican and Democratic parties in the United States for example.  Or the low labor participation rate in the United States as men have fled to disability programs as an alternative to lost familiar work.  Or Japan’s descent from Olsonian prime example of success into a barnacle-encrusted sampan.  Or the domination of the American—and perhaps “Western”–political economies by the banks.  In Japan that has meant a “lack of entrepreneurship or corporate investment” needed for growth.  In the United States, it has meant exploiting a public safety-net to cover imprudent risk.  This has resulted in “rising inequality, distortion of public policy, and [the] generation of collective economic pain and anger.”  And now the dreaded “populism.”

Much later on, several different countries sought to scrape these “barnacles” off the hull. Sweden “reduc[ed] taxation and deregulat[ed] all manner of industries” in pursuit of “more freedom of choice and creativity.”  Switzerland adopted an openness to immigration and also deregulated its labor market to get the right mix of workers to the right industries.  Britain’s embrace of the “Thatcher Revolution,” joined with membership in the European Union allowed Britain to reap both a “brain gain” and a “brawn gain.”[3]

What does Emmott offer by way of possible solutions?  Refreshingly, he does not glom every unpleasant surprise into one whole.  Thus, Putin’s Russia and Islamist terrorism pose no existential threats to Western civilization.  They can be mastered with a coherent effort.  Similarly, “Brexit” is a bad idea but not a rejection of Western values or most Western institutions.  In contrast, he over-states the real danger posed by the Donald Trump administration.  Trump speaks neither for mainstream Republicans nor for Democrats, and his administration will not last beyond his first term.  Then it will be back to business as usual.

Emmott has less to say about solving the real danger: Olson’s intermediate groups.  Appeals for “openness” in discussion isn’t likely to suffice.  It may take a real crisis, alas.

[1] Bill Emmott, The Fate of the West: The Battle to Save the World’s Most Successful Political Idea (2017).

[2] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2016/06/18/the-rise-and-decline-of-nations/

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polish_Plumber.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 21.

There are drafts, then sketches, and then doodles.  President Donald Trump issued a doodle of a proposed budget for fiscal 2018.  The $4.1 trillion plan calls for $54 billion increase in defense spending; an $800 billion reduction in Medicaid spending spread over ten years, a $192 reduction in food stamps, and a $72 billion cut in disability payments.  The plan also called for substantial tax cuts.  Projecting economic growth of 3 percent, the plan projects a balanced budget in ten years.   Neither Social Security nor Medicare, the real engines pulling the budget train at high speed toward a washed-out bridge, received any attention in the budget plan or from Democratic critics of the plan.[1]

Meanwhile, the president made a densely-packed foreign trip.[2]  His first stop came in Saudi Arabia.  Here he played up the minor chord in his campaign rhetoric on Islam, while muting the major chord.  He said positive things about Islam-in-general (“one of the world’s great faiths”), but called on Middle Eastern countries to turn away from radical-Islamists-in-particular.  He promised another vain effort to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.  He also made clear his concern (to put it mildly) about Iran.  Then he sold Saudi Arabia $110 billion in weapons and flew to Israel.  Here he met with both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas.  Trump told Netanyahu that radical Islam and Iran were the common dangers to Israel and the Sunni Arab states, so maybe they could work something out?

Lost in the commentary was any sense of reality.  The Muslim world is torn by a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war.  President Obama could not afford to choose sides because an attack on nuclearizing Iran would have expanded America’s war in the Middle East at a moment when few Americans had any stomach for big wars.  The Iran agreement slowed down Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons while still leaving them bound by sanctions for other issues.[3]  However, Obama’s refusal to choose allowed the Russians to choose the Shi’ite side.  Now President Trump is taking the logical next step.[4]  As for peace between Palestine and Israel, it isn’t likely to happen.  Israel cannot afford to have a Palestinian state created on the West Bank.  It would just be taken over by Hamas, as happened in Gaza.  The West Bank is a lot closer to Israel’s population centers than is Gaza.  It’s well within flying range of the Hamas rockets.

At home, the appointment of one-time FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate the whole Russian mess either made things worse for the president or made them better.[5]  It depends on whether actual “collusion” took place between the Trump campaign and the Russian “organs of state security.”  It is not much remarked that the names of the dominant figures in the Trump campaign, Steve Bannon and Kelly Ann Conway, never appear in rumors of collusion.  So far, it has been minor, peripheral figures—and Michael Flynn.  Even with Flynn, the abundant leaking of information about his communications with Russians never mentions the hacking.  The leaks do suggest that he has other grounds for taking the Fifth.[6]  All of them involve things he did not tell the White House.

[1] “Trump’s budget proposal raises bipartisan concerns,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 7.

[2] “Trump’s Middle East reset,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 6.

[3] In short, he earned the Nobel Peace Prize he had been awarded early in his first term by Europeans intervening in an American election after the fact.

[4] That’s certainly how it looked to Iran.  “How they see us: Uniting the Middle East against Iran,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 17.

[5] “Mueller: Trump’s worst nightmare?” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 19.

[6] “Flynn: The center of multiple scandals,” The Week, 2 June 2017, p. 19.

My Weekly Reader 30 May 2017.

Ali Soufan was born in Lebanon in 1971, but ended up living in the United States and became an American citizen.[1]  “Education’s the thing, don’t you know.”[2]  In 1995 he got a BA in Political Science from Mansfield University.[3]  Later on he got an MA in International Relations from Vanillanova.  Then he went into the EffaBeeEye.

No chasing bank-robbers or goombas for him.  The harps had those jobs sewn up.[4]  He spoke Arabic and the Bureau only had eight Arabic speakers, so he went into counter-terrorism.  In 1999 he went to Jordan to liase with the Jordanian intelligence service, which had uncovered leads to what would be called the “Millennium bomb plot.”  Here began another theme in his career.  He found a box of files in the CIA station, allegedly ignored by the over-worked agents, containing maps of the targets.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  In 2000 he went to Yemen as part of the team investigating the bombing of the USS “Cole.”  Here he made important discoveries.  He went back to Yemen after 9/11 to pursue leads.  Here he figured out that the CIA had held back information from the FBI that might have allowed him to connect the “Cole” attack with the 9/11 plot.[5]  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.  Then he interrogated captured Al Qaeda terrorists.  Subsequently, some of his subjects were transferred to CIA control and were subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.[6]

By 2005 Soufan had become fed-up or burned-out.  He resigned from the Bureau to start a consultancy.  In 2011 he published The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.[7]  Here he tracked the campaign against Al Qaeda from 9/11 to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  Now Soufan has published Anatomy of Terror: From the Death of Bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State (2017).[8]  The American invasion of Iraq (2003) triggered a disaster.  Partisan observer—Soufan included–put too much emphasis on the botched occupation.  Iraq was a social IED waiting to be tripped.  The invasion itself lit the fuse.

Even before OBL died, Al Qaeda had transformed into something else, something worse.  It had become Zarqawi’s Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.  The remnants of that group fell back to Syria and became the Islamic State (ISIS).  More importantly (unless you’re stuck inside the Caliphate), ISIS called for the “lone wolf” attacks that have wreaked havoc in Europe and the United States.  Boko Haram (Nigeria), Al Shabab (Somalia), Jumatul Mujahedeen (Bangladesh), and Abu Sayaf (Philippines) all align themselves with the ideology of Al Qaeda.  We live with the results.

[1] I conjecture that his parents fled the awful Lebanese civil war of 1975-1990.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lebanese_Civil_War  So, that’s one anecdotal argument against President Trump’s “Muslim ban.”  The recent suicide bombing in Manchester, England, offers an equally compelling anecdotal argument on the other side.  So, we probably shouldn’t rely upon anecdotal evidence.  “Well, d’uh,”–my sons.

[2] I think that’s from one volume of the trilogy U.S.A. by John Dos Passos, but I can’t find the exact reference.

[3] Mansfield is a former teachers college in the middle of nowhere in north-central Pennsylvania.   He got his BA when he was 24, so he lost some time somewhere doing something.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whitey_Bulger

[5][5] Before people start jumping all over the CIA, read the Report of the 9/11 Commission.  Not just the executive summary, but the whole thing.  Then look at the list of Commission members and run down their career tracks.

[6] Soufan subsequently made public comments on the results obtained by the different approaches.  The CIA seemed more vexed than grateful.

[7] In Western culture, black flags usually denote pirates.  Until the 18th Century, captured pirates rarely got a trial.  You just hanged them at the yard-arm or threw them overboard if there were some sharks handy.  This is a plea for cultural sensitivity on the part of radical Islamists.  Falls under the heading of “enlightened self-interest.”

[8] At least he didn’t call it Al Qaeda: Covenant or Al Qaeda: Dead Men Tell No Tales.

Memoirs of the Addams Administration 20.

Many people who did not want Donald Trump to become president have now swung around to the position that he is unfit to remain president.  Since President Trump has obeyed the courts when they contradicted some of his executive orders and most of the rhetorical violence has come from the left, his critics have abandoned the fascist/authoritarian-populist critique.  Instead, they have attacked on the line of his emotional immaturity/impulsiveness/need for adulation.[1]  Certainly, the president provides his critics with a lot of good stand-up material.

In January 2017, when embroiled in a controversy about Russian meddling in the presidential election in which American intelligence agencies appeared to be the source of leaks of classified information intended to discredit the Trump presidency, President Donald Trump asked James Comey, the Director of the EffaBeeEye, for his “loyalty.”  Later, but still early in the Trump administration, the National Security Adviser-designate, General Michael Flynn (ret.), misled Vice President Michael Pence about the nature of his contacts with Russkie government officials.[2]  Then, members of the intelligence agencies, ones with access to state secrets, leaked evidence of Flynn’s contact with the Russkies.  Flynn then had to resign.  The newly-elected and politically-inexperienced president expressed to Comey the hope that his disgraced former National Security Advisor would not be pursued.  “He’s a good guy,” said the president, “I hope you can let this go.”[3]  Director Comey returned to his office, wrote a Memorandum of Conversation (MemCon), and showed it to his chief subordinates.

After President Trump dismissed Director Comey, one of Comey’s subordinates—or more likely one of their sluggers—then leaked selected bits of the MemCon to the press.  The ensuing fire-storm led Ron Rosenstein, the acting Attorney General for Russian matters, to appoint Robert Mueller as Special Something to investigate Russian meddling in the election of 2016.  “And all that implies.”[4]

Soon afterward, it was revealed that President Trump had shared intelligence information about the Islamic State (ISIS) with the Russkie foreign minister and the ambassador.[5]  The intelligence purportedly came from Israel.[6]  One alleged concern arose from the possibility that the Russians would reveal this information to ISIS (with whom they are at war) or use it to blackmail the original source to provide information for Russian attacks on ISIS.  The dependence of American intelligence agencies on foreign service liaisons for much “human intelligence” (actual spies) means that endangering those sources is a really serious matter.  Our “friends” could decide to pull down the blinds.  Who could blame them?

[1] “Trump: Is he unfit for office?” The Week, 26 May 2017, p. 8.  On the other hand, the firing of F.B.I. Director James Comey led to much discussion of the prospect that the president could be forced out of office over a criminal matter.  “Comey: Trump’s ‘Saturday Night Massacre’?” The Week, 26 May 2017, p. 18.  A situationally-helpful comic effect can be achieved by reading these criticisms of the president in conjunction with reviews of Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (2017).

[2] “Comey memo triggers new Trump crisis,” The Week, 26 May 2017, p. 6.

[3] If you cannot imagine expressing the same hope to the authorities on behalf of one of your friends, then the federal government is the place for you.

[4] It is possible that the investigations by both Mueller and by House and Senate committees will lead to the leaking of other Comey MemCons, perhaps regarding his investigation of Hillary Clinton.

[5] “Trump’s intelligence sharing with Russia,” The Week, 26 May 2017, p. 7.

[6] The intelligence budget is—purportedly—linked to the defense budget.  When military spending fell after the collapse of the Soviet Union, so did spending on intelligence.  Thereafter, the United States relied ever more heavily upon liaison relationships with foreign intelligence agencies to fill the gaps.  That’s fine so long as foreign intelligence agencies are pursuing the American agenda, rather than the agenda of their own governments.