The cost of an incoherent foreign policy

Brett McGurk

The current White House runs a foreign policy with irreconcilable objectives, no internal coherence, and no pretense of gaming out critical decisions before they are taken. Maximalist objectives are set with little thought to what might be required to achieve them. When the real world intrudes, with adversaries, competitors or allies pursuing their own objectives independent from the United States, President Donald Trump lurches from doubling down on risky bets to quitting the field altogether, as happened recently in Syria, leaving allies bewildered.

Nowhere is this incoherence more apparent than in policy toward Iran. On December 18, 2017, Trump signed his National Security Strategy, followed one month later by the National Defense Strategy. These documents set priorities among competing interests and direct U.S. departments and agencies to follow suit. Those the Trump administration issued emphasized a new “great-power competition” against Russia and China, with Asia now the priority region for U.S. engagement.

Much as his predecessor, President Barack Obama, had done, Trump sought to rebalance American priorities after two decades of overcommitment to the Middle East. Obama had intended to “pivot” from the Middle East to Asia. But the Arab uprisings beginning in 2010 led the United States to support maximalist goals in the Middle East, including the wholesale change of ruling regimes in Libya, Egypt and Syria. The administration soon found that it lacked the means to manage the consequences of these policies, or, in the case of Syria, where removing President Bashar al-Assad was the declared policy, saw its stated objective outstrip any realistic American commitment. The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) drew Washington back into the region militarily, but in a cost-effective manner, with limited risk to American personnel and a large coalition to share the burdens.

In early 2018, Trump eliminated long-planned stabilization funding for Syria, allocated military resources only where strictly necessary for defeating ISIS, and declared, “It’s time to come back home.” And yet, despite these resource constraints and a supposed grand strategic shift toward Asia, the Trump administration expanded American aims across the Middle East, focusing above all on Iran. The administration stipulated that all Iranians must leave Syria, even as Trump himself made clear that he wanted to see all Americans leave Syria. Within months of endorsing the National Security Strategy, Trump unilaterally pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal, increased sanctions on Iran, and embarked on a policy of economic strangulation — known as “maximum pressure” — with no objective on which his administration agreed.

Trump said the objective was to ensure that Iran could never produce a nuclear weapon. His national security adviser at the time said the objective was regime change. His secretary of state articulated 12 demands that few Iran experts believed Tehran could meet without regime change. In announcing these maximal-ist goals, moreover, nobody in the administration discussed new resource commitments to the Middle East. On the contrary, the acting Secretary of Defense told the Pentagon that China was the priority. The Iran policy was all ends and no means.

Over the first year of maximum pressure, Iran did not significantly react, leaving open the possibility that the optimistic assumption might hold. But in May of last year, Iran began to go after U.S. allies in the Gulf, first targeting shipping and then attacking Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. The Trump administration appeared to have been caught off guard, responding uncertainly to each Iranian action, whether by incrementally deploying U.S. military assets, issuing threatening tweets, or making a scattershot effort to gather a naval coalition to protect shipping lanes. These halting responses demonstrated a lack of forethought as to how Iran was likely to respond to the new policy.

Beginning this past October, Kataib Hezbollah (KH), an Iranian-backed militia in Iraq, began what senior U.S. military commanders called a “sustained campaign” of rocket attacks on Iraqi bases hosting American forces. These were the first such strikes that KH had undertaken in more than eight years. Having failed to anticipate Iranian reprisals against maximum pressure, Trump later failed to deter the assault or to act effectively once it began. Senior U.S. officials have even speculated that the lack of any American response to the earlier attacks in the Gulf may have encouraged the subsequent attacks on Americans in Iraq.

The violence escalated quickly. The 11th KH rocket attack killed an American contractor, in response to which the United States ordered strikes that killed more than two dozen Iraqi militia members. KH and other militias then sought to storm the U.S. embassy. In response, Trump called a strike on Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s expeditionary Quds Force, outside Baghdad’s international airport. Iran then launched more than a dozen ballistic missiles, which appear to have barely missed American personnel in western Iraq. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded that in his “professional assessment,” the missiles were launched with intent to “kill personnel.”

This cycle of actions and reactions has drawn nearly 20,000 additional U.S. military personnel back into the Middle East since May of last year. The administration appears to have narrowly avoided a significant conflict mainly because Iran’s ballistic missiles narrowly missed American service members. Trump implausibly claimed that Iran was “standing down” the morning after it had fired over a dozen ballistic missiles at U.S. troops, despite Tehran’s having promised further reprisals.

No American official publicly forecast scenarios like this one when the maximum pressure policy began nearly two years ago. Economic pressure was supposed to enhance American leverage and make Iran more pliant going into new negotiations.

Trump himself said he intended to end wars and move forces out of the Middle East region altogether. The unforeseen escalatory cycle is evidence of a policy not working as intended.

As for the aims the secretary of state listed two years ago, the maximum pressure policy is failing to achieve any of them. Iran is now behaving more provocatively, not less. It’s stockpiling more enriched uranium, not less. It’s spinning more centrifuges, not fewer, and continuing to support proxy groups in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Because Trump cannot point to any goal that the policy has advanced, he now touts economic pressure as an end in itself, as if the policy were designed simply to make Iran poorer, as opposed to changing Iran’s nuclear and regional policies (all of which are now worse) for the better.

While Iran may not seek to provoke Washington into direct confrontation, it will likely continue its deniable attacks on American partners in the Gulf and step up political pressure on Iraq to eject U.S. military forces. The successful campaign against ISIS — a mission that brought nearly 20 Western partners into the Middle East to share costs and burdens with Washington — is suspended as coalition forces focus on protecting themselves against Iran. ISIS is under less pressure as a result. And a weak Iraqi government risks making the United States unable to stay in Iraq at all, an outcome that has long been Iran’s ultimate aim. If the United States and its Western partners leave, Russia will surely become Baghdad’s great-power security partner — an irreversible setback for Washington with grave consequences for the people of Iraq and the broader region.

Trump’s policy today is defined by incoherence: maximalist ends, minimalist means, false assumptions, few allies, all pressure, no diplomacy. Indeed, even where the policy has been effective in choking Iran’s economy, it has done so at the cost of aggravating the very allies Washington needs if it is to sustain a competition against great-power rivals.

By Trump’s new standard, any attack that draws American blood may warrant an enormous retaliatory response. Yet with no diplomacy, plus additional sanctions, the risk that such an incident will occur — and the danger to Americans in the region — has only increased. And so, the United States must maintain a significant military force forward and ready in the Middle East, even as its fight against ISIS has stalled and its guiding grand strategy calls for shifting resources out of the region altogether.

Strategy is about choices, priorities, and resource allocation. With economic tools largely exhausted, Iran promising further reprisals, and no prospects for diplomacy, the United States must retain a significant military force in the Middle East region with a credible threat to use it. To deploy thousands of American troops to the Middle East while preparing contingencies to “finish” a possible war with Iran, moreover, begins to impinge on the constitutional prerogatives of Congress. Recent polling shows that most Americans want Congress to reassert its war-making authority.

Today’s crisis in the Middle East should be a time to demand a return to the most basic principles of sound foreign policy, with clarity in objectives and the alignment of resources necessary for achieving them. Objectives that cannot be met without unacceptable tradeoffs, costs or risks should not be pursued. Americans can rightly demand a coherent foreign policy guided by informed, deliberative choice rather than gambles and luck.

Brett H. McGurk served in senior national security positions under Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump and is now a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His article is edited from Foreign Affairs, January 22, 2020, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, January/February 2020.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Duty, Democracy and the Threat of Tribalism

James Mattis.JPG (3033 bytes)Jim Mattis

In late November 2016, I was enjoying Thanks-giving break in my hometown on the Columbia River, Richland, Washington, when I received an unexpected call from Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Would I meet with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss the job of secretary of defense?

I had taken no part in the election campaign and had never met or spoken to Mr. Trump, so to say that I was surprised is an understatement. I doubted I was a viable candidate. Nonetheless, I felt I should go to Bedminster, N.J., for the interview.

I had time on the cross-country flight to ponder how to encapsulate my view of America’s role in the world: To preserve our leadership role, we needed to get our own country’s act together first, especially if we were to help others.

The next day, I was driven to the Trump National Golf Club and was ushered into a modest conference room. I was introduced to the president-elect, the vice president-elect, the incoming White House chief of staff and a handful of others. We talked about the state of our military, where our views aligned and where they differed. Mr. Trump led the wide-ranging, 40-minute discussion, and the tone was amiable.

Afterward, the president-elect escorted me out to the front steps of the colonnaded clubhouse, where the press was gathered. I assumed that I would be on my way back to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where I’d spent the past few years doing research. I figured that my strong support of NATO and my dismissal of the use of torture on prisoners would have the president-elect looking for another candidate.

Standing beside him on the steps, I was surprised for the second time that week when he characterized me to the reporters as “the real deal.” Days later, I was formally nominated.

During the interview, Mr. Trump had asked me if I could do the job. I said I could. I’d never aspired to be secretary of defense and took the opportunity to suggest several other candidates I thought highly capable. Still, having been raised by the Greatest Generation, by two parents who had served in World War II, and subsequently shaped by more than four decades in the Marine Corps, I considered government service to be both honor and duty. When the president asks you to do something, you don’t play Hamlet on the wall, wringing your hands. To quote a great American company’s slogan, you “just do it.” So long as you are prepared, you say yes.

When it comes to the defense of our experiment in democracy and our way of life, ideology should have nothing to do with it. Whether asked to serve by a Democrat or a Republican, you serve. “Politics ends at the water’s edge”: That ethos has shaped and defined me, and I wasn’t going to betray it, no matter how much I was enjoying my life west of the Rockies and spending time with a family I had neglected during my 40-plus years in the Marines.

When I said I could do the job, I meant I felt prepared. I knew the job intimately. In the late 1990s, I had served as the executive secretary to two secretaries of defense, William Perry and William Cohen. I had gained a personal grasp of the immensity and gravity of a “secdef’s” responsibilities. The job is tough.

We were at war, amid the longest continuous stretch of armed conflict in our nation’s history. I’d signed enough letters to next of kin about the death of a loved one to understand the consequences of leading a department on a war footing when the rest of the country was not. The Department of Defense’s millions of devoted troops and civilians spread around the world carried out their mission with a budget larger than the GDPs of all but two dozen countries.

On a personal level, I had no great desire to return to Washington, D.C. I drew no energy from the turmoil and politics that animate our capital. Yet I didn’t feel overwhelmed by the job’s immensities. I also felt confident that I could gain bipartisan support for the Department of Defense despite the political fratricide practiced in Washington.

In any organization, it’s all about selecting the right team. The two qualities I was taught to value most were initiative and aggressiveness. Institutions get the behaviors they reward.

During my monthlong preparation for my Senate confirmation hearings, I read many excellent intelligence briefings. I was struck by the degree to which our competitive military edge was eroding, including our technological advantage. We would have to focus on regaining the edge.

I had been fighting terrorism in the Middle East during my last decade of military service. During that time, and in the three years since I had left active duty, haphazard funding had significantly worsened the situation, doing more damage to our current and future military readiness than any enemy in the field.

Fate, Providence or the chance assignments of a military career had me as ready as I could be when tapped on the shoulder. Without arrogance or ignorance, I could answer yes when asked to serve one more time.

A wise leader must deal with reality and state what he intends, and what level of commitment he is willing to invest in achieving that end. He then has to trust that his subordinates know how to carry that out. Wise leadership requires collaboration; otherwise, it will lead to failure.

An oft-spoken admonition in the Marines is this: When you’re going to a gunfight, bring all your friends with guns. Nations with allies thrive, and those without them wither. Alone, America cannot protect our people and our economy.

At this time, we can see storm clouds gathering. A polemicist’s role is not sufficient for a leader. A leader must display strategic acumen that incorporates respect for those nations that have stood with us when trouble loomed. Returning to a strategic stance that includes the interests of as many nations as we can make common cause with, we can better deal with this imperfect world we occupy together. Absent this, we will occupy an increasingly lonely position, one that puts us at increasing risk in the world.

On a Saturday morning in late 2017, I walked into the secretary of defense’s office, which I had first entered as a colonel on staff 20 years earlier. Using every skill I had learned during my decades as a Marine, I did as well as I could for as long as I could. When my concrete solutions and strategic advice, especially keeping faith with our allies, no longer resonated, it was time to resign, despite the limitless joy I felt serving alongside our troops in defense of our Constitution.

Unlike in the past, where we were unified and drew in allies, currently our own commons seems to be breaking apart. What concerns me most as a military man is not our external adversaries; it is our internal divisiveness. We are dividing into hostile tribes cheering against each other, fueled by emotion and a mutual disdain that jeopardizes our future, instead of rediscovering our common ground and finding solutions.

All Americans need to recognize that our democracy is an experiment — one that can be reversed. We all know that we’re better than our current politics. Tribalism must not be allowed to destroy our experiment.

On each of our coins is inscribed America’s de facto motto, “E Pluribus Unum” — from many, one. For our experiment in democracy to survive, we must live that motto.

Gen. James Mattis’ (retired) essay is edited from The Wall Street Journal, August 28, 2019, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, Nov/December 2019.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Calming the storms of life

Rev. Sandra Smith.jpg (2604 bytes)Rev. Sandra Smith

Growing up around my house, the only discord that ever existed was between me and my siblings at the dinner table. We seemed to have a real knack for pushing the right buttons to set someone off.

As an adult and as a Religious Scientist, I can say that I am much better at being able to say, when I disagree with someone, “I never thought about it that way,” or “I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.”

That isn’t to say I won’t speak up for something I truly believe in, but gone are the days of fighting to the end to prove a point. I think I have learned to become the calm in the face of the storm.

It’s an interesting phenomenon that takes place whenever a tornado starts creating its chaos and random destruction. While devastation is occurring outside the tornado, inside the storm there is dead calm.

This is a little bit like when arguments occur or extreme challenges happen in our everyday lives. There may be chaos going on around us, but we always have a choice as to add fuel to a fire and escalate the chaos or be the voice of reason that is able to be the calm in the storm.

For example, if I am in a job that I don’t really like, or I am in relationship after relationship and I really feel that my boss or my friend or my significant other is the cause of all my woes, I am mistaken. Actually, it is my reaction to what is going on that is causing a problem.

How can I work to see the blessing in my current situation? Realize that at least I have a job — many people don’t have one. I could talk to my significant other on my own or with a counselor. If I can’t repair the situation, I need to let go of it and then explore what I could do differently in my next relationship.

Feeling like I am stuck is a choice.

In the Buddhist philosophy, one major tenet is that the suffering of our life is caused by our attachments. So many people work to get what the neighbors have, just to have the “things.”

From your childhood what do you remember about the holidays, Christmas, Easter, your twentieth birthday? Was it a certain present you got? Perhaps, but for me, it is the love that was shared by friends and family.

When we work to understand clearly what our purpose is in life and we connect with what our vision is, we do our spiritual work. Then the floodgates open and everything unfolds right in front of us.

Every time I am clear about what I want, the way becomes possible.

Rev. Sandra Smith is pastor of the Center for Spiritual Living in Kennewick. Her article is from the Tri-City Herald, June 30, 2019, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, July/August 2019.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Why do they hate us?

Paul Street
Truthdig, June 13, 2018

“Why, oh why, do they hate us?”

So runs the plaintive American cry, as if Washington hasn’t directly and indirectly (through blood-soaked proxies like the Indonesia dictator Suharto and the death-squad regimes of Central America during the 1970s and 1980s) killed untold millions and overthrown governments the world over since 1945. As if the U.S. doesn’t account for nearly 40 percent of the world’s military spending to maintain at least 800 military bases spread across more than 80 “sovereign” nations.

Maybe it has to do with a U.S. media that wrings its hands for months over the deaths of four U.S. soldiers trapped on an imperial mission in Niger but can’t muster so much as a tear for the thousands of innocents regularly killed (victims of what Chomsky has called “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”) by U.S. drone attacks across the Middle East, Southwest Asia and North Africa. Imagine what it is like to live in constant dread of annihilation launched from invisible and unmanned aerial killing machines. The tens of thousands of Yemenis killed and maimed by U.S-backed and U.S.-equipped Saudi Arabian airs raids get no sympathy from most American media. Nor do the more than 1 million Iraqis who died prematurely thanks to Washington’s arch-criminal 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was sold on thoroughly and openly false pretexts and provided essential context for the rise of the Islamic State.

Maybe it’s also about the “good friends” that “we” (our “foreign policy” imperial masters) keep around the world in the names of “freedom” and “democracy.”

These partners in global virtue include:

• Thirty-six nations receiving U.S. military assistance despite being identified as “dictatorships” in 2016 by the right-wing U.S. organization Freedom House.

• The Saudi regime, the leading source and funder of extremist Sunni jihadism and the most reactionary government on earth, currently using U.S. military hardware and ordnance to bomb Yemen into an epic humanitarian crisis.

• The openly racist occupation and apartheid state of Israel, which has sickened the morally sentient world this spring by systemically sniper-killing dozens of young, unarmed Palestinians who have had the audacity to protest their sadistic U.S.-backed siege in the miserable open-air prison that is Gaza.

• Honduras, home to a violently repressive right-wing govern-ment installed through a U.S.-backed military coup in June 2009.

• The Philippines, headed by a thuggish brute who boasts of killing thousands of drug users and dealers with death squads.

• Rwanda, a semi-totalitarian state enlisted in the U.S.-backed multinational rape of the Congo, where 5 million people have been killed since 2008 by imperially sponsored starvation, disease and civil war.

• Ukraine, where a right-wing government that includes and relies on paramilitary neo-Nazis was installed in a U.S.-assisted coup four years ago.

You don’t have to be a leftist to have the elementary moral decency to do Noam Chomsky’s exercise of imagining yourself in other nations’ shoes — on the wrong side of the Pax Americana and its dutiful, consent-manufacturing “mainstream” media.

Four years ago, the University of Chicago’s “realist” U.S. foreign policy expert John Mearsheimer had the all-too- uncommon decency to reflect on the Ukraine crisis and the New Cold War as seen from Russian eyes. “The taproot of the crisis,” Mearsheimer wrote in the nation’s top establishment journal, Foreign Affairs, “is [U.S.-led] NATO expansion and Washing-ton’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” something Vladimir Putin naturally saw as “a direct threat to Russia’s core interests.” And “who can blame him?” Mearsheimer asked, adding that grasping the reasons for Putin’s hostility ought to have been easy since the “United States does not tolerate distant great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the Western hemisphere, much less on its borders.”

The dominant U.S. media now are warning us about the great and resurgent danger of Iran developing a single nuclear weapon. U.S. talking heads and pundits also are leading the charge for the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula [that is, of North Korea].”

It is unthinkable that anyone in the reigning American exceptionalist U.S. media-politics-and-culture complex would raise the question of the denuclearization of the United States. It’s no small matter. The world’s only superpower, the only nation to ever attack civilians with nuclear weapons, is embarking on a super-expensive , top-to-bottom overhaul of a U.S. nuclear arsenal that already houses 5,500 weapons with enough menacing power between them to blow up the world five times over. This $1.7- trillion rebuild includes the creation of provocative new first-strike weapons systems likely to escalate the risks of nuclear exchanges with Russia and/or China. Everyday Americans could have opportunities to more than just imagine what the innocents of Nagasaki experienced in August 1945.

But don’t blame President Donald Trump. Our current reality was initiated under President Barack Obama, leader of a party that is positioning itself as the real and anti-Russian and CIA-backed party of empire in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections.

This extraordinarily costly retooling heightens prospects for human self-extermination in a world in dire need of public investment to end poverty (half the world’s population “lives” on less than $2.50 a day), to replace fossil fuels with clean energy (we are marching to the fatal mark of 500 carbon parts per atmospheric million by 2050, if not sooner), and to clean up the titanic environmental mess we’ve made of our planet.

The perverted national priorities reflected in such appalling, Darth Vader-esque “public investment” — a giant windfall for the high-tech U.S. weapons-industrial complex — are symptoms of the moral collapse that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. warned the United States about in the famous anti-war speech he gave one year to the day before his assassination. “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift,” King said, “is approaching spiritual death.”

That spiritual death is well underway. Material and physical death for the species is not far off on America’s eco- and nuclear- exterminating path, led in no small part by a dominant U.S. media that obsesses over everything Trump and Russia while the underlying bipartisan institutions of imperial U.S. oligarchy lead humanity over the cliff. Americans might want to learn how to take Chomsky’s challenge — imagine ourselves in others’ situation — before it’s too late to imagine anything at all.

– PeaceMeal, May/June 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Will we stop Trump before it’s too late?

Madeleine Albright
The New York Times, March 6, 2018

Madeleine Albright served as United States secretary of state from 1997 to 2001.

On April 28, 1945 — 73 years ago — Italians hung the corpse of their former dictator Benito Mussolini upside down next to a gas station in Milan. Two days later, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker beneath the streets of war-ravaged Berlin. Fascism, it appeared, was dead.

To guard against a recurrence, the survivors of war and the Holocaust joined forces to create the United Nations, forge global financial institutions and — through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights — strengthen the rule of law. In 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and the honor roll of elected governments swelled not only in Central Europe, but also Latin America, Africa and Asia. Almost everywhere, it seemed, dictators were out and democrats were in. Freedom was ascendant.

Today, we are in a new era, testing whether the democratic banner can remain aloft amid terrorism, sectarian conflicts, vulnerable borders, rogue social media and the cynical schemes of ambitious men. The answer is not self-evident. We may be encouraged that most people in most countries still want to live freely and in peace, but there is no ignoring the storm clouds that have gathered. In fact, fascism — and the tendencies that lead toward fascism — pose a more serious threat now than at any time since the end of World War II.

Warning signs include the relentless grab for more authority by governing parties in Hungary, the Philippines, Poland and Turkey — all United States allies. The raw anger that feeds fascism is evident across the Atlantic in the growth of nativist movements opposed to the idea of a united Europe, including in Germany, where the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland has emerged as the principal opposition party. The danger of despotism is on display in the Russia of Vladimir Putin — invader of Ukraine, meddler in foreign democracies, accused political assassin, brazen liar and proud son of the K.G.B. Putin has just been re-elected to a new six-year term, while in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, a ruthless ideologue, is poised to triumph in sham balloting next month. In China, Xi Jinping has persuaded a docile National People’s Congress to lift the constitutional limit on his tenure in power.

Around the Mediterranean, the once bright promise of the Arab Spring has been betrayed by autocratic leaders, such as Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt (also just re-elected), who use security to justify the jailing of reporters and political opponents. Thanks to allies in Moscow and Tehran, the tyrant Bashar al-Assad retains his stranglehold over much of Syria. In Africa, the presidents who serve longest are often the most corrupt, multiplying the harm they inflict with each passing year. Meanwhile, the possibility that fascism will be accorded a fresh chance to strut around the world stage is enhanced by the volatile presidency of Donald Trump.

If freedom is to prevail over the many challenges to it, American leadership is urgently required. This was among the indelible lessons of the 20th century. But by what he has said, done and failed to do, Mr. Trump has steadily diminished America’s positive clout in global councils.

Instead of mobilizing international coalitions to take on world problems, he touts the doctrine of “every nation for itself” and has led America into isolated positions on trade, climate change and Middle East peace. Instead of engaging in creative diplomacy, he has insulted United States neighbors and allies, walked away from key international agreements, mocked multilateral organizations and stripped the State Department of its resources and role. Instead of standing up for the values of a free society, his oft-vented scorn for democracy’s building blocks has strengthened the hands of dictators. No longer need they fear United States criticism regarding human rights or civil liberties. On the contrary, they can and do point to Trump’s own words to justify their repressive actions.

At one time or another, Trump has attacked the judiciary, ridiculed the media, defended torture, condoned police brutality, urged supporters to rough up hecklers and — jokingly or not — equated mere policy disagreements with treason. He tried to undermine faith in America’s electoral process through a bogus advisory commission on voter integrity. He routinely vilifies federal law enforcement institutions. He libels immigrants and the countries from which they come. His words are so often at odds with the truth that they can appear ignorant, yet are in fact calculated to exacerbate religious, social and racial divisions. Overseas, rather than stand up to bullies, Mr. Trump appears to like bullies, and they are delighted to have him represent the American brand. If one were to draft a script chronicling fascism’s resurrection, the abdication of America’s moral leadership would make a credible first scene.

Equally alarming is the chance that Mr. Trump will set in motion events that neither he nor anyone else can control. His policy toward North Korea changes by the day and might quickly return to saber-rattling should Pyongyang prove stubborn before or during talks. His threat to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement could unravel a pact that has made the world safer and could undermine America’s reputation for trustworthiness at a critical moment. His support of protectionist tariffs invites retaliation from major trading partners — creating unnecessary conflicts and putting at risk millions of export-dependent jobs. The recent purge of his national security team raises new questions about the quality of advice he will receive. John Bolton starts work in the White House on Monday.

What is to be done? First, defend the truth. A free press, for example, is not the enemy of the American people; it is the protector of the American people. Second, we must reinforce the principle that no one, not even the president, is above the law. Third, we should each do our part to energize the democratic process by registering new voters, listening respectfully to those with whom we disagree, knocking on doors for favored candidates, and ignoring the cynical counsel: “There’s nothing to be done.”

I’m 80 years old, but I can still be inspired when I see young people coming together to demand the right to study without having to wear a flak jacket.

We should also reflect on the definition of greatness. Can a nation merit that label by aligning itself with dictators and autocrats, ignoring human rights, declaring open season on the environment, and disdaining the use of diplomacy at a time when virtually every serious problem requires international cooperation?

To me, greatness goes a little deeper than how much marble we put in our hotel lobbies and whether we have a Soviet-style military parade. America at its best is a place where people from a multitude of backgrounds work together to safeguard the rights and enrich the lives of all. That’s the example we have always aspired to set and the model people around the world hunger to see. And no politician, not even one in the Oval Office, should be allowed to tarnish that dream.

– PeaceMeal, May/June 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

It’s time for a patriotic GOP intervention

Martin Schram
Tribune News Service, January 3, 2018

Urgent Alert: Attention House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and all Republican congres-sional leaders. Americans of all political persuasions urgently require that you return to the White House. You are being implored to undertake a new mission — a patriotic intervention.

You and you alone, as the leaders of your party, have the position and stature to take the action required to safeguard our homeland, to potentially save the lives of millions of people in South Korea and to preserve the fragile fabric of world peace.

The president that your Republican Party nominated to lead our nation has spun perilously out of control. You have seen it. You know you are personally concerned. Indeed, you know you share the concerns that are privately being expressed by many of the most responsible Republican global policy experts in our country’s most famous conservative think tanks.

They have seen — and are very concerned about — the fact that President Trump has mounted, and then escalated, a campaign of taunting and goading North Korea’s famously unstable dictator. They know this is conduct that is both mindless and dangerous.

They also know Kim Jong Un is an immature and inex-perienced leader who loves to brag that he not only possesses nuclear weapons but can deliver his nuclear-tipped warheads halfway around the world to our homeland.

Unfortunately, the entire world now realizes that what we are witnessing is a clash of nuclear-tipped leaders who really are two of kind. Trump, although he has been around the sun at least 30 times more than Kim, acts every bit as immature and inex-perienced as the North Korean supreme leader. Like Kim, Trump loves to brag and also seems unbothered when his boasts laughably exceed the easily discovered truth. Both leaders clearly have a penchant for out-goading the other about nukes. And our planet’s future could be at stake.

On New Year’s Day, Kim bragged in a speech: “The United States can never fight a war against me and our state. It should properly know that the whole territory of the U.S. is within the range of our nuclear strike and a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office, and this is just a reality, not a threat.”

Just 12 minutes after Trump’s favorite Fox News channel reported Kim’s boast about his desktop “nuclear button,” the U.S. president shamelessly reverted to his inner pre-teen on a playground. He tweeted: North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

Never in the history of the United States has a president chosen to act so publicly in a way that is so juvenile, so reckless and perilous. And all responsible Republicans know their party now bears responsibility for having implored Americans to elect a president who risks the world’s safety to boast of America’s nuclear arsenal as a measure of his playground pre-manhood. Trump doesn’t seem to care if his taunts cause his adversary to flip out and angrily launch his first nuke.

Like the 1974 day when the conscience of conservatives, Sen. Barry Goldwater, led a delegation of Republicans to the White House and told President Richard Nixon he must resign or be impeached and convicted for his Watergate crimes, so too all of the 2018 Republican congressional leaders know, deep down, what they must do.

They must go to the White House, and confront Trump as a sizable group with a 2018 ultimatum that puts patriotism ahead of politics. Tell Trump he must end his reckless, immature and globally perilous practices once and for all — or his fellow Republicans will begin a process to remove him for conduct unbefitting a U.S. president that constitutes a clear and present danger to us all.

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist and author.

– PeaceMeal, Jan/February 2018

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Meet the world’s leaders, in hypocrisy

Nicholas_Kristof.jpg (2627 bytes)Nicholas Kristof

The New York Times
September 21, 2017

Leaders from around the world have descended on New York for United Nations meetings, fancy parties, ringing speeches about helping the poor — and a big dose of hypocrisy.

And — finally! — this is one area where President Trump has shown global leadership.

If there were an award for United Nations chutzpah, the competition would be tough, but the medal might go to Trump for warning that if necessary, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” There were gasps in the hall: A forum for peace was used to threaten to annihilate a nation of 25 million people.

There also was Trump’s praise for American humanitarian aid to Yemen. Patting oneself on the back is often oafish, but in this case it was also offensive. Yemen needs aid because the U.S. is helping Saudi Arabia starve and bomb Yemeni civilians, creating what the U.N. says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. In other words, we are helping to create the very disaster that we’re boasting about alleviating.

It was also sad to see Trump repeatedly plug “sovereignty,” which tends to be the favored word of governments like Russia (even as it invades Ukraine and interferes in the U.S. election) and China (as it supports corrupt autocrats from Zimbabwe to Myanmar).

Speaking of Myanmar, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi skipped the U.N. meeting, after being feted last year, because it’s awkward to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner who defends a brutal campaign of murder, rape and pillage. Many Muslim leaders in attendance, like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did highlight the plight of the Rohingya suffering an ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. If only they were as interested in their own political prisoners!

Meanwhile, world leaders usually ignore places that don’t fit their narratives. Everybody pretty much shrugged at South Sudan and Burundi, both teetering on the edge of genocide; at Congo, where we’re headed for civil strife as the president attempts to cling to power; and at the “four famines”: in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan. To Trump’s credit, he expressed concern Wednesday about South Sudan and Congo and said he would dispatch U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to the region to see what can be done; let’s hope his administration provides desperately needed leadership.

In fairness, there are broader reasons for hope, including astonishing progress against global poverty — more than 100 million children’s lives saved since 1990. Every day, another 300,000 people worldwide get their first access to electricity, and 285,000 to clean water. Global poverty is a huge opportunity, for we now have a much better understanding of how to defeat it: resolve conflicts, invest in girls’ education, empower women, fight malnutrition, support family planning, and so on.

For the first time in human history, less than 10 percent of the world’s population is living in extreme poverty, and we probably could virtually eliminate it over the next 15 years if it were a top global priority. Trump rightly hailed Pepfar, the AIDS program President George W. Bush devised, but he also has proposed sharp cuts in its funding.

The progress on stopping human trafficking is also inspiring. I moderated a U.N. session on the topic, and it was heartening to see an overflow crowd engaging in a historically obscure subject, even as a new report calculated that there are 40 million people who may be called modern slaves. Prime Minister Theresa May convened perhaps the largest meeting of foreign ministers ever on human trafficking.

We now have the tools to achieve enormous progress against these common enemies of humanity — poverty, disease, slavery — but it’s not clear we have the will. What’s striking about this moment is that we have perhaps the worst refugee crisis in 70 years, overlapping with the worst food crisis in 70 years, overlapping with risks of genocide in several countries — and anemic global leadership.

“There is a vacuum of leadership — moral and political — when it comes to the world’s trouble spots, from Syria to Yemen to Myanmar and beyond,” notes David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee. Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, agrees: “I think there’s a leadership vacuum.”

There are exceptions: Wallstrom, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and more.

But many countries are divided at home, distracted by political combat and looking increasingly inward, and in any case, the U.S. remains the indispensable superpower, and it is AWOL. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has achieved a degree of irrelevance that no one thought possible, and Trump is slashing the number of refugees accepted, cutting funds for the U.N. Population Fund and proposing huge cuts for diplomacy, peacekeeping and foreign aid (fortunately, Congress is resisting).

The number that I always find most daunting is this: About one child in four on this planet is physically stunted from malnutrition. And while it is the physical stunting that we can measure, a side effect is a stunting of brain development, holding these children back, holding nations back, holding humanity back.

So it’s maddening to see world leaders posturing in the spotlight and patting themselves on the back while doing so little to tackle humanitarian crises that they themselves have helped create.

– PeaceMeal, Sept/October 2017

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)