• Russia and American Flags on Human Hands

    Patterns: Trump, Russia and the 2016 Election: Picks of the Week

    Vladimir Putin has a plan for destroying the West—and it looks a lot like Donald Trump | Slate

    Is Trump a Russian Agent? A Legal Analysis | lawfareblog.com

    Putin, Erdogan mend ties as post-coup Turkey turns toward Russia | Chicago Tribune

    “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

    In a remarkable week that saw the first polls showing a Donald Trump bounce after the Cleveland convention while the Democratic party convention made history with the nomination of the first female candidate for president by a major political party, these 16 words stand out among a torrent of news.

    “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

    In another historic first this week, Donald Trump invited a hostile foreign intelligence agency to hack his political opponent.  Remarkably, Trump’s invitation did not spur the first speculation of Russian interference in America’s 2016 election.  Days before the start of the Democratic party convention, Wikileaks released a trove of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee earlier this year in a move clearly designed to embarrass the Clinton campaign and sow dissension within the Democratic party.

    The release had all the earmarks of a Russian information operation—not the least of which were the Russian-language artifacts found in the documents on Wikileaks.  More ominously, however, several American analysts over the last several years have made compelling cases that Wikileaks itself is a vehicle for Russian intelligence to gather intelligence under the guise of whistleblowing.

    So the conversation had been joined when Trump looked square in the camera and said his now infamous 16 words:

    “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”

    In most cases, you could dismiss these 16 words as the ill-advised boasts of a carnival-barker turned presidential candidate who wanted to draw attention to Secretary Hillary Clinton’s poor judgment about the use of a private email server.  Trump eventually said he was joking, though the video suggests he was deadly serious.

    But most alarming is the emergence of a body of evidence suggesting alignment between candidate Trump and Russian strong-man Vladimir Putin.  The case has been made resoundingly well by others, notably Josh Marshall, Anne Applebaum, and Franklin Foer.  Each is worth a careful read in its own right, but there are some key facts:

    • Donald Trump’s repeated bankruptcies have reportedly made him unattractive to American lenders. As loans from American banks became more difficult for him to win, he turned to Russian investors to underwrite his real estate ventures.  Despite Trumps’ claims this week that he has no investments in Russia, the evidence of his financial ties to Russia is clear.
    • Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked for deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich—who ultimately fled to Moscow after the people of Ukraine ousted him for abandoning plans to join the European Union, allegedly at the insistence of Vladimir Putin.
    • While the Trump campaign took a largely hands-off approach to the drafting of the Republican party platform, media accounts indicate the campaign intervened on one issue, only, to eliminate language from the platform calling for the United States government to provide defensive arms to Ukraine, currently locked in a fight against Russian-backed separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.
    • Trump has repeatedly called into question America’s commitment to NATO. In an interview with the New York Times just last week, he said he could not guarantee that under his presidency the United States would defend NATO allies Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—former Soviet republics that Russian Vladimir Putin is said to covet.  (When Trump insisted he had been misquoted, after the firestorm of criticism ignited by the interview’s contents, the Times released the full transcript.)  Trump doubled down this week when he said that the United States would have to leave NATO in order to get the allies to pick up a larger share of the defense burden.  Reportedly, Trump told a crowd in North Carolina, “We have to walk. Within two days they’re calling back! Get back over here, we’ll pay you whatever the hell you want.”
    • Finally, when asked whether he would consider eliminating economic sanctions imposed against Russia following its annexation of Crimea in 2014, Trump said he “would be looking into that.”

    On balance, you have a major party’s nominee for President of the United States adopting positions in alignment with Russian foreign policy, while inviting that country’s spies to attack the communications of his political opponent.  All of this is taking place against a backdrop of Russian use of “hybrid-warfare,” where information operations and political interference play an early and important role in manipulating an adversary’s public opinion and will. WikiLeaks is the current vehicle, as was noted above, but we’ve seen Russian information operations across Europe, including France, where the anti-immigrant National Front has sought and received funds from Putin’s Russia, and England—where the pro-BREXIT movement also received Russian financial support (and verbal encouragement from one Donald J. Trump).

    Russian intervention in American electoral politics would be stunning, but Russian information operations in the United States are nothing new. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, the U.S. intelligence community worried that Soviet intelligence would be able to use the accounts of UFO enthusiasts, who often provided detailed accounts of strange flight and performance characteristics of craft operating near American military bases, to glean insights about next-generation American aircraft, including stealth aircraft.

    What’s new here is that with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange promising the release of more stolen emails, and confirmation, as of this writing, that the Clinton campaign’s emails were compromised, supposedly by Russia, we appear to have entered an age where Russian leaders believe they can intervene in American politics.

    The only question I have left is whether Donald Trump and his advisers are witting of this intervention, or just dupes.

  • Two men ponder which states will end up Republican and Democratic in front of a map of the United States.

    Picks of the Week: The Most Important Election in 160 Years

     

    Terrorist Attack in Nice, France, Leaves 84 Dead and 202 Injured | New York Times

    Clinton Losing On Honesty In Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Quinnipiac University Swing State Poll Finds | Quinnipiac University

    Why Putin Loves BREXIT | New York Times

    Events in Nice, France, underscore the fact that the U.S. presidential election of 2016 may be the most important election since Abraham Lincoln was elected in 1860.  At stake is the leadership of the global power who has most shaped the liberal international order since 1945—an order under substantial strain.

    The U.S. election is occurring at a time when the Western world faces assault from an unholy alignment of forces: violent Islamic extremists; Putinism; as well as the rise of fascist and neo-fascist parties across Europe.  Each has its own motivations and tactics, but each finds a common focus in the destruction of the liberal order established after World War II, the commitment to freedom, democracy, human rights, political pluralism, and open borders.

    Each of the West’s attackers have their own means and objectives.  Violent Islamic extremists see the West as the barrier to their dreams of a caliphate, a religiously ordered and run state spanning the lands once controlled by Islam in an earlier age.  Extremists use attacks against Western targets to both weaken the West, to instill terror in its populations, and to recruit new adherents.  In the case of ISIS, such attacks may also be intended to provoke an apocalyptic battle that they believe will usher in the end-times.  Theirs is a death cult, but their tactics, combined with other forces, are warping the fabric of the Atlantic political community.

    The Syrian civil war has displaced millions of people.  As refugees have migrated to Europe and elsewhere, the resulting backlash has fueled the rise of fascist and neo-fascist political movements across the continent, including in countries like Austria and France.  In the United Kingdom, the backlash against immigrants helped fuel the recent drive to BREXIT, toppled a British government, and introduced great uncertainty about European cohesion in the face of these mounting challenges.

    The big-winner to emerge from all the chaos in Europe is none-other-than Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Putin resents the West’s victory in the Cold War and has used his military to reassert Russian dominance, most recently in Crimea—which Russia seized from Ukraine in a blatant land-grab more akin to the 19th century scramble for Africa than modern Europe—and in Eastern Ukraine where Russian support for separatists is unambiguous.  For Putin, modern liberal values have never had much personal appeal and they are at odds with the crony authoritarianism he has built in his homeland.

    Enter Donald Trump.  The presumptive Republican nominee for President has played on the fears provoked by these global forces.  He has called for a ban on Muslim’s entering the United States.  He has praised butchers and strong-men from Putin to Saddam Hussein for their ability to use force (not to mention torture and murder) to impose order.  He has warned that the United States may need more intrusive security in the lives of its citizens.  He has said that he would tell the CIA to use torture “a hell of a lot worse that waterboarding.”

    If the United States elects such a candidate president, the West will be lost.  The country that literally helped build global institutions like the United Nations; helped set international standards for transparency, human rights, and political freedom, produced the Marshall Plan, faced down both fascism and communism in the 20th century, and produced an economic and political juggernaut that changed the world cannot be led by someone who rejects fundamental liberal values with a wave of the hand and a snarl.

    In the midst of a wave of terrorism, with added complex pressures from nation states, and an anxious citizenry, the danger is that too much of the American public, already, is taken by Trump’s brand of plain spoken muscular machismo.  He promises things will be better when he’s president.  He repeats simple phrases.  He obscures complexity with unambiguous pronouncements about what he’ll do.

    In the aftermath of Nice, Donald Trump declared “this is war” while Secretary Clinton called for an “intelligence surge.”  The substance of each response is irrelevant in an election year.  What matters now is what will the public embrace: decisive action or incrementalism?  Donald Trump promises the former.  Secretary Clinton’s rhetoric suggests the latter.  But incrementalism is a losing position in American politics.  She has to make clear that as president she will destroy terrorist organizations who threaten the United States and our allies.  She can’t let her use of reason make credible the claim that she’s indecisive in the face of this threat.

    The public needs to feel in their gut that she will keep the country safe, no matter what.  Anything less will cost her the election—an election in which the liberal Western order may very well hang in the balance. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • Photograph of a memorial for Jo Cox.

    Picks of the Week: Turn Down the Rhetoric

    Donald Trump Pushes Conspiracy Theory that Obama Supports ISIS | ABC News

    Suspected Killer of British Lawmaker had ties to Neo-Nazi Group, Watchdog Says | Washington Post

    Pat Robertson: Gays & Islamists are Allies so ‘Let Them Kill Themselves’ | Right Wing Watch

    The flames of political passion are burning white-hot.  Some have questioned the survival of the nation.  Others have said the stakes cut to the core of a people’s identity.  For some, it’s a choice between an open, inclusive society and the preservation of self.  For others, it’s a lose-lose proposition where neither choice is really palatable.

    That’s not a description of the U.S. presidential campaign.  It’s a characterization of the United Kingdom’s referendum over whether to leave the European Union (EU), also known as “Brexit.”  The parallels are at once both eerie and sobering because the United Kingdom appears to have just suffered an instance of political violence stemming from an overheated political process.

    On Thursday, June 16, 2016, Jo Cox, a 41-year old mother of two young children and Member of Parliament, was killed by an assailant who reportedly shouted “Britain First” as he shot, stabbed, and kicked her.  “Britain First,” according to various media accounts, is the name of a far-right British anti-immigrant/anti-Muslim organization.  Cox would have been their worst nightmare: young, a rising star in Labour politics, a dedicated champion for the world’s refugees, and an advocate for the United Kingdom remaining part of the EU.

    Meanwhile, in the United States, the Republican Party’s likely nominee for president suggested in multiple media interviews and on social media that President Barack Obama has a hidden agenda and may even sympathize with ISIS.  A self-proclaimed religious leader says the massacre in Orlando is a problem for “liberals” who love both homosexuals and Islamic extremists.  His advice: “let them kill each other.”  Perhaps it’s not surprising that this all comes years after far too many educated Americans whispered questions regarding President Obama’s faith and country-of-birth.

    For some, this is just politics, cynically but determinedly practiced.  But for others, this is life and death, the fate of nations, the summons of history—and that is why the rhetoric we use in our politics is so important.

    Listen to the voices from across the Atlantic and imagine them with American accents after some future political violence visits our shores.  The environment is “increasingly toxic,” we’d lament:

    That leads to increased prejudice. That leads to increased hate. And, at some stage, that leads to violence.  Whatever the outcome next week, [we’ve] become a much more intolerant and divided society. It’s going to take a long time to heal. —Nick Lowles, Chief Executive of Hope Not Hate, a British anti-extremism organization.

     

    When you shout ‘breaking point’ over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks.  When you present politics as a matter of life and death, as a question of national survival, don’t be surprised if someone takes you at your word. You didn’t make them do it, no, but you didn’t do much to stop it either. —Alex Massie, Spectator Magazine

    But sadly, these aren’t imaginings, these are verbatim quotes given in recent days as a great democracy suffers the shock and horror of political assassination.

    In all my years of study and practice, I’ve learned this: leadership matters.  Leaders can turn a room, a crowd, a town, a country.  Leaders can lead a people to war or put a man on the moon.  And in the months ahead, we can reflect either the better angels of ourselves, or we can look forward to a bleak and terrifying campaign season hoping that, day by day, no one finds their “breaking point” in the morning’s headlines. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • The American and Cuban flags fly side by side on a balcony in Havana, Cuba.

    Picks of the Week: Politics vs. Policy – 2016

    A Better Way: Our Vision for a Confident America | House GOP

    Ryan Unveils National Security Plan; a Gentle Rebuke of Trump’s | Politico

    Paul Ryan lays out GOP’s national security agenda, softening Trump’s edges | The Washington Post

    “Quisling.”  It’s a term that was popular in the mid-twentieth century.  It was used to identify someone who sold out to the enemy.  The term comes from Vidkun Quisling, the leader of the collaborator government in Norway during the Nazi occupation.  To be called a quisling is to have your intelligence, your judgment, and your integrity questioned, all at once.

    No one that I pay much attention to has actually called Barack Obama a quisling for his handling of American foreign policy, but they’ve come close.  In writing and in interviews, they depict the president as naïve or outmaneuvered by crafty rivals, like Vladimir Putin, the Supreme Leader of Iran, or the Castro brothers in Cuba.  In negotiation after negotiation, conservative critics have asserted, the president has made bad deals.

    On the normalizing of relations with Cuba, conservative columnist Charles Krauhammer said, “From Cuba, Obama didn’t even get a token gesture. Not even a fig leaf such as, say, withdrawal of secret police support in Venezuela….”

    Another common refrain is to criticize even the fact of dialogue without preconditions.  Katie Pavlich writing in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, said:

    You’d think allowing citizens to access the Internet would be a starting point for normalization and bringing Cuba into the modern world of information, but Obama made the trip without preconditions, similar to how he approached the nuclear deal with the Iranians. The Castros have taken advantage by tightening their grip instead of welcoming in a new relationship and new freedoms. Censorship is as tough as ever, and dissidents are still rotting in jail.

    But Obama’s love for Cuba and promotion of “change” in the country has nothing to do with helping the Cuban people — it instead harkens back to his days as a young, radical activist in Chicago.

    In Obama’s leftist and radical circles, murderers like Che Guevara are celebrated, worn on T-shirts and portrayed as a revolutionary heroes in college classrooms across the country. What isn’t mentioned is the thousands of people Guevara, in partnership with the Castro brothers, executed for opposing them.

    Noah Rothman of Commentary hit many of the same notes in criticizing the Obama administration’s pursuit of diplomacy with Iran.

    Iran is playing the United States for a sucker. Russia views America as a paper tiger to be disregarded. And all the administration can do is feign insult and pledge to take their grievances to the United Nations, where they will die a quiet and ignominious death. If this White House were still capable of embarrassment, this development would inspire fits of it. Perhaps the members of this administration are just too busy calling opponents of the Iran deal traitors to notice how they have enabled America’s true adversaries to outmaneuver them.

    There is a simple fallacy that far too many Americans believe about diplomacy.  According to a comic-book view of the world, America is strongest and gets the best deals when it doesn’t talk to anyone.  If you think conservatives cooked up this recipe just for President Obama, you need to think again.  Check out this oldie, but goodie—so old that it’s not available online—from the April 4, 1994, issue of National Review.  Former CBS newsman Dan Rather delivered much the same critique about President Bill Clinton’s failing to win a full accounting of American POWs from Vietnam prior to lifting the U.S. trade embargo on that country.  Rather wrote:

    If Bill Clinton is nominated again and runs in 1996, and if he loses in the November election, he may look back on February 3, 1994, as the day he lost. The reason: he lifted the trade embargo on Vietnam. This was reneging, flat-out welshing, on a campaign promise. In his drive to unseat President Bush, he gave his word that he would not lift the trade embargo until and unless there was a full, good-faith accounting for Americans still missing in action.

    (For the record, Senators John McCain and John Kerry, both veterans of the Vietnam War, worked tirelessly to get that accounting.)

    It’s an old and tired playbook Republicans are using, and all of this is merely prologue to the House Republican’s national security strategy, which media left, right, and center rightly recognized as standing in mild opposition to the most absurd elements of Donald Trump’s foreign policy positions—like the idea that the United States would be better off without NATO.

    In the 20+ pages of the document, nowhere does the Republican leadership say they would walk away from the two great “failures” they see in the Obama administration.  They do not plan to abandon the Iran deal, and they do not plan to cut off ties with Cuba.  Here again, Dan Rather is helpful in his error.

    Twenty-two years after Clinton opened relations with America’s one-time enemy, the United States and Vietnam are closer than at any time since the victory of the North Vietnamese in 1975.  They are motivated by shared interests in opposing the expansion of China’s military power.  There’s even talk about the return of American naval vessels to Vietnamese ports.

    No one can predict if, 20 years from now, President Obama’s deals with Cuba and Iran will have ushered in new strategic relationships.  But if history teaches us anything, it is that countries must be in dialogue for there to be real progress on important issues.  President Obama has been open to that dialogue, just as President Clinton was, just as every president should be.  The radical rhetoric of those who advocate shunning adversaries rather than engaging them is dangerous and ill informed. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • Soldier placing American flag at the base of each stone in Arlington National Cemetery.

    Picks of the Week: Memorial Day

    General John Kelly’s Speech About Two Marines In The Path Of A Truck Bomb | Business Insider

    Those Left Behind: The Legacy of Arlington’s Section 60 | Reuters

    Honor the Fallen | Military Times

    As I write this, the sun is rising on the green woods behind my home.  My dog is lying on a chair next to me, snoring.  I’m well fed and I have enough to drink.  I have a good job.  I’m safe.  I’m free.  The dangers of the world, at this very moment, seem distant.  In short, I am blessed.

    Those blessings have many sources and come in many forms.  I’m blessed by the geography of my birth, by decisions made by ancestors generations ago, by the hard work and education valued by my parents and their parents.  You can call it ancestral good luck.

    But I’m also blessed by the selflessness of others—and this Memorial Day weekend, I’m mindful of all those who have given what Lincoln called, “the last full measure of devotion.”

    I was 30 years old when al Qaeda attacked the United States on September 11, 2001.  My country has been at war since.  New students entering the university in the autumn were two or three years old on that fateful day and most certainly don’t remember a time when America was not at war.

    For most Americans, “at war,” has meant a steady stream of difficult news—if they pay attention to such things.  It has not cost Americans increased taxes.  War has not led to shortages of any kind on the home front.

    Yet there are Americans for whom war has exacted the ultimate price.  Fewer than one-half of one percent (0.4 percent, to be precise) of the American public currently serves in the U.S. military.  The folks at fivethirtyeight.com estimate that 7.3 percent of living Americans have served in the military, but when you break that number down, the largest segment is still made up of veterans of World War II.

    In other words, the thinnest of slivers of the American public has borne the weight of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan.  To date, 6,888 Americans have died in the wars we have fought since 9/11, in addition to the 52,435 wounded.

    The first article I selected for this week’s picks of the week is about two Marines—Corporal Jonathan Yale and Lance Corporal Jordan Haerter—who stood their ground in the face of an on-coming suicide bomber.  They are among the 6,888 who have died, but in their selflessness, they kept that number from growing to 7,038.

    Despite a world full of deadly serious issues, the 2016 presidential campaign is already shaping up to reach new lows in terms of personal attacks, insults, and divisiveness.  In the midst of it, we need to remember the Jonathan Yales and Jordan Haerters who are out there, standing their ground for all of us.  We need to be worthy of their sacrifice, as individuals, as candidates, and as a nation.

    We have a lot of work to do.

    Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • Image of the front of the White House at nighttime with an American flag flying proudly upon the rooftop.

    Picks of the Week: The Republic Needs Honest Debate, Not Narratives

    The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru | New York Times

    10 Problems with that New York Times Magazine Profile of White House Aide Ben Rhodes | New York Magazine

    How We Advocated for the Iran Deal | Medium

     

    Last weekend, the New York Times Magazine published an article about White House Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes.  Part hagiography, part hatchet-job, the article by David Samuels has provoked a violent response from multiple corners in Washington.  Nearly a week after publication, people are still talking about it, are still mad, and are still asking questions.

    They should be.

    The article itself is a lyrical look at Ben Rhodes, the 38-year-old Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama who went from Master of Fine Arts program in New York to the 9/11 commission to the Iraq Study Group to the Obama campaign.  The article depicts a confident, even cocky aide whose disdain for more seasoned foreign policy hands is captured in his derisive nickname for them: “the blob.”  They represent all that is wrong with American foreign policy, as the author relates it, despite some of them working in the Obama administration.

    I read the article, and Rhodes, whom I’ve never met, does come off as hubristic.  But I suspect that if I had had his kind of meteoric rise and spent the last 8 years playing at the highest level of national and international policy, I might be a little arrogant, too.

    Personalities aside, the uproar caused by this article stemmed from its treatment of the nuclear disarmament deal with Iran.  Samuels draws a sinister image:picks of the week

    Worse, the article details the administration’s use of journalists and other opinion-shapers to influence the public discussion of the deal.

    Before going any further, we need to address one thing: there are some Iran-sized questions about the validity of the story.  While New York Times Magazine editor Jake Silverstein has said, “In short, we stand behind the piece 100%,” others have raised questions about the unsubstantiated smears of several respected journalists mentioned by name by White House aides for their usefulness in spreading the administration’s viewpoints.  Others, still, have alleged that the article’s author, David Samuels, is a public critic of the Iran deal and the Obama administration’s foreign policy approaches.  In 2009, he authored an article for Slate entitled, “Why Israel Will Bomb Iran: The rational argument for an attack.”

    Despite the hue and cry about it, the idea that the White House was shaping the public discussion of a contentious issue isn’t shocking or especially novel.  In a more egregious example from our recent history, the administration of President George W. Bush used influencers from outlets as diverse as the National Review and the New York Times to convince the public about the need for war in Iraq.  Remember Judith Miller?  On Friday, Samuels published a response to the controversy in which he explained his belief that Rhodes laments the machine he created because it could be used by some future administration to talk the country into war.  Given that an administration has already done that, but just in the era before social media, no one should be shocked when it happens again.

    The shock in this instance should be reserved for the flippancy of the White House staff working for Rhodes, describing how they manipulated the press—if the account is accurate.  “People construct their own sense of source and credibility,” [said Tanya Somander, 31, the director of digital response for the White House Office of Digital Strategy].  “They elect who they are going to believe.”  The White House fed information to various sources to make sure that their message was reaching all of those validators.  It’s politics in the digital age, and there’s something very troubling about it.

    The obvious question given the history of the author is why did the Obama White House give Samuels such access?  Why did they want this story so badly that they would agree to work with someone who has been critical of the administration’s approach?  Here the Samuels account is instructive.  He’s not a critic–he’s a long-form journalist who has watched Rhodes since his ascent began and when he recognized the use of narrative in the selling of the Iran deal, he started asking who had created it.  When the answer was Ben Rhodes, Samuels explained, he pitched the idea of doing a story on it.  Rhodes agreed.  So did Samuels’ editors at the New York Times.

    The violent reaction of the reporters named in the original piece is understandable.  The piece, through assertion and no real evidence, undermines their journalistic integrity and reputation.  The think-tank and advocacy groups that have responded to clarify their roles in the passage of the Iran deal have done so as much to defend the deal itself as to protect their institutional independence.  Yet all of these groups–and the coverage of this story more broadly, are missing the forest for the trees.

    We run a project at the Pell Center called “Story in the Public Square.”  It’s inspired, in part, by the legacy of the stories the public was told about the need for war in Iraq.  We’re trying to expose the use of narratives, not all of which are true, to advance policy.  We do so not because there’s something inherently evil in the use of stories—which are quintessentially human creations—but because we’re cheapening and coarsening the public debate by relying on short hand and emotional appeals rather than facts and reason.

    Am I naïve?  Maybe.  But if all the American public ever gets are stories told to advance a policy—and not reasoned discussion of the facts, options, risks, and benefits, then there will be more Iraq wars, more Vietnams, and more bad policies because people get wrapped up in narratives when facts and reason are their only hope.

    I continue to believe the Iran deal was a good deal and right for the country’s national security.  But no one in the White House should be proud of the stories they told to win the political debate if the stories were anything but true.  Our republic needs more honest debate, not more stories. The outrage this week was sincere, but misplaced.  Worry about the stories we’re telling ourselves. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • Image of the Statue of Liberty at sunset superimposed over a waving American flag.

    Picks of the Week: Trump’s Worldview

    The Kremlin’s Candidate: In the 2016 Election, Putin’s propaganda network is picking sides | Politico

    Transcript: Donald Trump’s foreign policy speech | New York Times

    Trump’s ‘America First’ has ugly echoes from U.S. history | CNN

    Donald Trump, the businessman turned Republican presidential candidate, gave his first foreign policy speech of the campaign this week, invoking the long-discredited language of “America First,” and suggesting that as president he would reconsider America’s relationship with our partners in Europe and Asia.  But he went one step further, still, when he offered a new and dangerous world view, rejecting what he called “globalism,” and questioning the value of international institutions.  Like so many of the other issues that Mr. Trump has raised in the course of his campaign, these are canards, divorced not just from reality, but from the lessons of history.  The danger is that there’s just enough truth in his words to give them credibility to a populace more likely to watch TMZ than CSPAN.

    The reality is that the America First crowd disappeared in the smoke and carnage of December 7, 1941, but 75 years ago, they were also willfully ignorant of the realities of the mid-twentieth century.  The world was in crisis because great powers had put themselves first, going back to the closing days of World War I.  Then it was England and France, seeking a punitive peace, that sowed the seeds of World War II.  As John Maynard Keynes noted in The Economic Consequences of the Peace, the victors in 1918 failed to rebuild the economic system of central Europe, all but assuring some future revision of the Versailles peace accords.

    Over the ensuing 20 years, the great powers all looked inward.  The U.S. Senate kept America out of the League of Nations, seeing it as a threat to American sovereignty and a needless entanglement in world affairs.  (Sound familiar?)  France—and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom—focused on their relative power with Germany, even as the policies of 1918 led to economic disaster and the rise of fascism.  Russia, ostracized as the Soviet Union, was consumed by internal challenges, while Germany, racked with weak governments and economic crises, focused internally, too, until it didn’t.  Trade policies were dominated by tariffs—taxes on imports and exports—intended to help achieve the goal of self-sufficiency.

    For the generation of American leaders who fought the First World War and then weathered the inter-war years only to watch the world descend into the worst cataclysm in the planet’s history—World War II—the lessons were clear.  The United States had to be engaged in Europe and Asia.  The United States needed strong international institutions to define and enforce the rules of international behavior.  The United States wanted and sought free trade in the belief that it would level the economic playing field globally and make all who benefited from it more responsible members of the international system.

    Put simply: those who created the post-Second World War system—the global system we still rely on today—created it based on the lessons of the first half of the twentieth century, the deadliest in human history.  Remember that the Second World War ended with the use of atomic weapons.  Leaders across the planet worried that another world war would be the world’s last.

    That insight is critical to understanding the creation of the post-war world and, in fact, American politics, since 1945.  Dwight Eisenhower, General of the Army, had no political ambition.  But Ike was influenced to run as he watched the Republican party in 1949 and 1950 threaten to withdraw the United States from NATO and the United Nations.  There’s even one account that says Eisenhower decided to run after meeting with conservative Republican Senator Robert Taft—believed to have the inside track to the GOP’s 1952 nomination—prior to Eisenhower’s departure for Europe as the first Supreme Allied Commander of NATO.  Taft refused to reassure Eisenhower that under a Taft administration, America would remain committed to the then-new international organizations.  Eisenhower then, it’s said, knew he had to run.

    The danger in Trump’s world view is that it will make sense to many Americans, tired of the perpetual conflict the United States has found itself in since September 11, 2001.  They simultaneously reject George W. Bush’s bravado and wars and Barack Obama’s indecisiveness and peacemaking.  The public doesn’t understand why the wars we fight are not fought to victory—a sentiment Trump has picked up on—and they wonder why the world seems more dangerous today than it did when Obama took office.  It was supposed to be better by now.

    The 2016 campaign has a long way to go, but the bipartisan consensus on foreign policy—a consensus that seemed to be on life support a decade ago—will fade into the history books if Trump gains control of the Republican Party.  Maybe that’s the danger.  In our celebrity obsessed culture, we’ve forsaken our understanding of history, of why the United States and its allies built this international system, and the costs we’ll surely pay if it collapses. – Jim Ludes, Executive Director

  • Juxtaposing images of President Barack Obama and Republican candidate for the presidency Donald Trump pointing into the crowd at speaking engagements.

    Picks of the Week: Obama & Trump

    Just how much do these men have in common?

    In Donald Trump’s Worldview, America Comes First, and Everybody Else Pays | The New York Times

    A transcript of Donald Trump’s meeting with The Washington Post editorial board | The Washington Post

    The Obama Doctrine | The Atlantic

    A terrorist bombing in Brussels, Belgium, last week took at least 35 lives, as of this writing.  Lost among the proper focus on this latest attack on the West were two important interviews given by the frontrunner for the Republican nomination Donald Trump.

    Most of the punditry has criticized Trump for a complete lack of awareness about the post-Second World War world-order.  He questions America’s commitment to European and Asia security.  He says that NATO has to pay its own freight.  In Asia, the candidate said that if Japan and South Korea have to develop their own nuclear weapons because the United States was pulling back, then so be it.  In two interviews, someone who is a very credible candidate for president swept aside 60 years of American foreign policy consensus that said more nuclear armed states is bad and that the United States must remain preponderant in both Europe and Asia.

    The bottom line for Trump is that the United States, under his leadership, won’t coddle free-riders: governments in Europe and Asia that shortchange their own investments in security because the United States has their back.  The burden in these scenarios to police the world, to oppose Russia’s resurgence in Europe and China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea all falls to the American military and taxpayer.

    What’s remarkable is that while much more politic than Trump, President Obama’s own views of the world may not be all that different.  In a remarkable essay in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg describes “The Obama Doctrine.”  Specifically, in examining the decision not to attack Syria after its President Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons against his own citizens, Goldberg explains that he has “come to believe that, in Obama’s mind, August 30, 2013, was his liberation day, the day he defied not only the foreign-policy establishment and its cruise-missile playbook, but also the demands of America’s frustrating, high-maintenance allies in the Middle East—countries, he complains privately to friends and advisers, that seek to exploit American “muscle” for their own narrow and sectarian ends.”

    America’s allies in Europe and Asia are vital to American national security, but that case has not been made effectively by either American or allied leaders in a long time.  Worse, there is a broad and generally accepted view—and one that is not completely inaccurate—that the United States does all the heavy lifting in the world.  This message resonates with Americans of every political stripe who are exhausted after 15 years of nearly persistent conflict, who have seen middle class incomes shrink, and who fear America’s best days may be behind it.  President Obama won’t say it quite so pointedly, but his policies have clearly signaled in Europe and Asia that America’s allies need to do more.  Trump simply says it. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • Photo of a person holding a life-size version of the cover of Donald Trump's book, Think Big and Kick Ass In Business and Life, among a crowd of others.

    Picks of the Week: Creeping Authoritarianism

     

    The Governing Cancer of our Time | The New York Times

    The best predictor of Trump support isn’t income, education, or age.  It’s authoritarianism. | Vox

     

    More than five years ago in The Providence Journal, I wrote of a specter haunting America. Then I was concerned about impatience on the left of the political spectrum and my growing sense that authoritarianism was gaining in popularity. I repost those views this week in light of the rise of a clearly authoritarian candidate to prominence in the Republican party.

    It doesn’t matter what your political perspective—politics is essential to democracy. You can disagree with the compromises that are made, but it is the best process humanity has created to govern.

     

    In the U.S., the lure of authoritarianism

    Originally published in The Providence Journal, October 20, 2011

    There is a specter haunting America—the specter of authoritarianism. It is not yet mainstream, but it is creeping into mainstream discussions about fixing Washington’s broken politics.

    To be clear: there is a crisis in our democracy. Our governing system, strained by partisanship and poll-watching, has lost its ability to tackle difficult issues. Instead of leadership from any corner, we find a palpable desire, especially in Congress, to pass the buck, to avoid responsibility, and, as a result, to avoid issues of importance.

    The result is a dysfunctional political process that looks paralyzed.

    For those who believe that government is the solution, if it would only get out of its own way, the temptation to dismiss democracy as a hindrance can be overwhelming.

    Such instincts, though are not only misguided, they are dangerous and should be repudiated immediately and emphatically.

    Take for example Peter Orszag, the former Director of the Office of Management and Budget in the first 18 months of the Obama Administration. Writing in The New Republic, Orszag said,

    To solve the serious problems facing our country, we need to minimize the harm from legislative inertia by relying more on automatic policies and depoliticized commissions for certain policy decisions. In other words, radical as it sounds, we need to counter the gridlock of our political institutions by making them a bit less democratic.

    But he’s not alone. James Hansen, of NASA and Columbia University, wrote late last year with an unabashed admiration for the way in which China’s brand of authoritarianism makes it possible for that country to lead on an important (and real) issue like climate change:

    I have the impression that Chinese leadership takes a long view, perhaps because of the long history of their culture, in contrast to the West with its short election cycles. At the same time China has the capacity to implement policy decisions rapidly. The leaders seem to seek the best technical information and do not brand as a hoax that which is inconvenient.

    Of course admiration for a government’s responsiveness to big issues is a far-cry from advocating constitutional change—but it is a slippery slope. And it is one that Americans have stepped onto time and again when difficult challenges have arisen.   Recall the adulation given to German economic progress in the 1930s, or the envy of Soviet achievements in space and science in the late 1950s.

    The current appeal of technocratic authoritarianism is best exemplified in the struggle to get America’s national debt under control.

    In recent years we have heard both Democrats and Republicans propose a statutory budget commission whose recommendations would, in effect, have the force of law.

    A statutory commission with such sweeping authority is not unprecedented. For several decades, Congress has relied on this model to close excess military bases. After study and review, the commission makes its recommendations. If a resolution of disapproval is not passed in both houses of Congress in a certain period of time, the recommendations take on the force of law.

    It’s an ingenious device. Public comment periods built into the process provide members of the House and Senate the opportunity to posture and pontificate while knowing they will never have enough votes to stop the process from proceeding.

    It’s also a complete abdication of constitutional responsibility. Instead of grappling with great and difficult issues, members of Congress cede the authority vested in them by the Constitution to a panel of unelected, unaccountable oligarchs.

    In the case of a statutory deficit commission, Congress would be abandoning the principle of self-rule—authority over our own taxes and our own expenditures—that inspired our founders to seek independence from Britain 235 years ago.

    We should not be seduced by an expedient solution that is inconsistent with our form of government and dangerous to our Constitution. If we conclude that our elected representatives are unable to decide what we should pay in taxes and what we should spend on programs, then someone will soon ask “What do we need them for?”

    The challenges facing the United States are not too big to solve. Nor is the United States too big to fail. Leaders have to lead and accept the electoral consequences of their actions. Anything less leads to paralysis or, worse, a diminished democracy. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

  • US Forces Europe

    Picks of the Week: Cold War Redux? “How could we have let this happen?”

     

    Russia’s hybrid interference in Germany’s refugee policy | European Council on Foreign Relations

    Navy aircraft returning to former Cold War base in Iceland | Stars and Stripes

    NATO to send more forces east to face Russia threat | Stars and StripesRussia

    In the long line of American defense secretaries, few stand out for quiet brilliance. One, however, does: William Perry. Unassuming, likable, and brilliant, he’s a student of both global politics and technology. It was Perry, among others, in the Carter administration who championed an approach to technology that others would later describe as a “revolution in military affairs.” Stealth and precision guided munitions, Perry argued years before he would serve as Secretary of Defense in the Clinton administration, could have strategic consequences. The history of warfare since 1991 has confirmed Dr. Perry’s insights.

    But Bill Perry didn’t prescribe a military technical revolution to fight terrorists or third-world dictators. He, and others, saw it as a way to offset Soviet numerical superiority in Eastern Europe.

    In 2004, bristling from Europe’s repudiation of the Iraq war, the administration of President George W. Bush announced it was withdrawing the bulk of American forces from bases in Europe—especially in Germany. The administration—clearly wanting for a map—argued that American forces would be closer to the fight if they deployed to the war on terror from Kansas rather than Germany. It was anger and frustration—a reaction to allied opposition to America’s war of choice in Iraq dressed in the rhetoric of “cost savings” and a transformed relationship with Russia.

    Recent U.S. Military Events in Europe

    Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Defense via www.defense.gov/

    Unfortunately, as Secretary Perry observed recently, the U.S.-Russia relationship is in tatters. Russia has used force against its neighbors with relative impunity. While their economy buckles under the combined blows of sanctions and the low price of oil, Russia still holds Crimea, still controls a sizable portion of Eastern Ukraine, and appears to have altered the reality on the ground in Syria.
    And now, American policy appears to be stiffening. Military hardware is again moving to positions in Eastern Europe. American and allied aircraft are performing routine intercept operations in the skies over the Baltic Sea. The U.S. Navy is repositioning submarine hunter-aircraft and probably thanking its lucky stars that they didn’t close the submarine base at Groton in the last round of base closures.

    It would be trite to blame any single American administration for “losing” Russia. In the first place, it was never ours to lose. But the ebbs and flows of U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War should remind us of the enduring value of power in the international system and the sheer silliness of making policy decisions out of pique. – Executive Director Jim Ludes

     

    Feature photo credit: U.S. Department of Defense via www.defense.gov/

     

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