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The Real North Korean Missile Crisis is Coming

North Korea makes the Middle East look like a walk.

Firing 59 Tomahawk missiles from warships in the Eastern Mediterranean at Bashar al-Assad’s Al-Shayrat airbase in Syria was not a big deal. Assad can’t strike back. Not at the United States, anyway. But that largely bloodless exercise in deterrence against the development and deployment of weapons of mass destruction will never be repeated on the Korean Peninsula.

For two decades, the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia have practiced a policy of “strategic patience” with the Kim family in Pyongyang, waiting for North Korea’s regime to settle down and moderate its behavior like communist China, Vietnam and Cuba finally did.

It didn’t work.

In 2009, the North Koreans conducted their first underground nuclear test 43 miles northeast of the port city of Kimchaek. Since then, they’ve created several more nuclear weapons—no one is really sure how many they have—and are busy at work on an intercontinental ballistic missile system that could one day wreak genocidal levels of destruction in the Western United States.

Last month, the young tyrant Kim Jong-un fired four missiles into the Sea of Japan, partly to show that he could and partly to find out how the new-on-the-job Trump administration would react. When the White House struck Syria’s Assad regime with Tomahawks, the North Koreans predictably perceived that as a message to them and threatened to test another nuclear weapon. The White House then (incorrectly) said it dispatched the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier group toward the Korean Peninsula, Kim showed off mock-ups of his missiles on international television in the center of Pyongyang, and Vice President Mike Pence said “the era of strategic patience is over.” Kim is now threatening South Korea, Japan and the United States with a pre-emptive nuclear strike.

Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars says this is “the Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion.” It isn’t that bad. This looks like a real crisis, but it’s not. It’s blustery posturing masquerading as brinkmanship. A genuine crisis, however, is probably coming.

In North Korea, like everywhere else, we have only three options: diplomacy, acquiescence or war. Diplomacy, so far, has failed. The last two decades of strategic patience yielded a North Korea with nuclear weapons.

War is always horrendous, but on the Korean Peninsula it’s practically the apocalypse. Even before the Kim family went nuclear, the North Koreans placed enough artillery pieces in hardened positions along the border just 35 miles from South Korea’s capital Seoul to kill hundreds of thousands long before American and South Korean armed forces could stop him.

North Korea would lose a war, no question about it, but it would be so spectacularly destructive that intervention of any kind is impossible unless Kim starts it. And if he does start it, intervention culminating in regime-change is mandatory. He only gets to start a war once.

That’s the nightmare scenario for us as well as for him, but especially him. Neither side wants to go there.

It’s insanely not in Seoul’s interests to start a war for any reason, ever, and so far that has also been true for Washington. That calculus may change if Kim reaches the threshold where he can do to Seattle what he can do to Seoul.    

The United States has long acquiesced to the existence of a communist regime on the Korean Peninsula. If Kim is willing to quit while he’s ahead and call the status quo good enough, the US will too. It’s the best deal he’s going to get, and it’s the best deal we’re going to get.

If the diplomatic option doesn’t work—and it hasn’t worked yet—and Kim threatens to test a system with the power to incinerate the West Coast of the United States with the push of a button, it really will be the Cuban Missile Crisis all over again. This time it might not end so nicely, and the clock will likely run out while Donald Trump is still in the White House.

US Dispatches Carrier Strike Group to Korean Peninsula

On Saturday, the USS Carl Vinson strike group, the aircraft carrier escorted by two guided-missile destroyers, and a guided-missile cruiser, left Singapore and headed to the Sea of Japan. The strike group was originally scheduled to sail to Australia.

The deployment of the Carl Vinson off the Korean peninsula is intended to deter North Korea as well as reassure allies of American commitment. It will also be ready to go to war if need be.

The Department of Defense has been downplaying the group’s deployment as an act of prudence. “There’s not a specific demand signal or specific reason we’re sending her up there,” said Secretary of Defense James Mattis at a Pentagon news conference Tuesday. “She’s stationed in the Western Pacific for a reason. She operates freely up and down the Pacific and she’s on her way up there because that’s where we thought it was most prudent to have her at this time.”

Domestic Discontent Spreading in Russia and Belarus

Just three years after the Euromaidan uprising prompted Ukraine’s president Viktor Yanukovych to flee Kiev for refuge in Moscow, Ukraine has finally begun to make tangible progress in its reform agenda. Yanukovych, who in his two-and-a-half years as president was infamous for stealing the country’s remaining wealth to line his pockets and those of his friends, was drummed from office in large part because of his administration’s rampant corruption.

So perhaps the citizens of Belarus and Russia have taken a cue from their neighbor’s success, though limited, in rooting out the corruption that makes the lives of so many ordinary citizens miserable.

America First is Dead

President Donald Trump hasn’t even finished his first 100 days yet and his isolationist “America First” creed is already dead.

First, he ordered two American battleships in the Eastern Mediterranean to pound Syria’s al-Shayrat airbase with 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. According to Defense Secretary James Mattis, the strikes damaged or destroyed 20 percent of Bashar al-Assad’s air force in ten minutes.

In case you hoped or feared this might be a one-off before returning to business as usual, here’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday this week: “We rededicate ourselves to holding to account any and all who commit crimes against the innocents anywhere in the world.”

And if you hoped the United States was about to join Iran, Russia and Hezbollah in propping up the Assad regime because it’s “secular,” you’re out of luck. “It’s hard to see a government that’s peaceful and stable with Assad,” Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley just said.

What a difference a week makes.

Donald Trump is hardly the first person to get the mother of all reality checks after transitioning from the campaign trail to the White House where he now gets advice and counsel from seasoned professionals rather than campaign managers, political sloganeers and sycophants. George W. Bush promised an end to nation-building abroad, then committed to nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Barack Obama promised to close the prison in Guantanamo Bay. It’s still open.

The president says he changed his mind about Syria because he saw gut-wrenching pictures of children murdered with chemical weapons on television. I don’t buy it, at least not entirely, and I’m not saying he’s lying. We’ve all seen these pictures before. The Assad regime’s latest chemical attack killed roughly 100, but it killed more than 1,400 in 2013 when citizen Trump warned Obama that terrible things would happen if he did anything about it.

The images on TV didn’t change; Trump’s responsibility changed. Before winning the election last November, he wasn’t the least bit responsible for anything that happened abroad. Now he is. It’s a burden few heads of state in the world have to bear. The president of Costa Rica can’t be held remotely responsible for what happens in the Middle East, but the leader of the most powerful country in the world certainly can be, at least to a point.

Pacifists, anti-imperialists and isolationists had their way in Syria during the Obama years. We stayed out of it, and the results are worse than the Iraq War—the metastasizing of ISIS, the serial murder of almost half a million and counting, the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, and the manifestation of a Russian-Syrian-Iranian-Hezbollah terrorist axis.

Smug isolationists ought to be just as chastened by events during the last decade as gung-ho interventionists.

Foreign policy is tragic and brutal. People die if you act and they die if you don’t. If you can’t handle it, don’t run for president. Because if you’re the president of the United States, you’ll have blood on your hands even if you never fire a shot.   

Last September on the campaign trail, Trump said, “I’m not running to be President of the world. I’m running to be President of the United States.” That’s true on the face of it, and no one wants him to be president of the world, but his bombastic America First sloganeering either willfully or obtusely harked back to the noxious America First Committee in 1940 which temporarily convinced the United States to stand aside while Hitler devoured Europe. A lot of people, myself included, feared we might have to re-learn the lessons of the 1930s now that nearly everyone who witnessed that period as an adult is no longer with us, but perhaps we were wrong.

Millions of people breathed a sigh of relief when the president, after telling us what he had just done and why, said “God bless America, and the entire world.” But he lost the support of the paranoid right and the far-right. White nationalist Richard Spencer, who coined the term “alt-right” to describe himself and his followers, says Trump’s reversal is a “total betrayal” and tweeted #StandWithAssad. Paul Joseph Watson at the Alex Jones’ ludicrous conspiracy site Info Wars tweeted, “I guess Trump wasn't ‘Putin's puppet’ after all, he was just another deep state/Neo-Con puppet. I'm officially OFF the Trump train.” And here’s former Ku Klux Klan wizard David Duke: “I'm sure @HillaryClinton is cackling with her co-conspirators tonight. We are now fighting the war @realDonaldTrump was supposed to stop.”

You know who else is furious? The Russians, North Korea, Iran’s ayatollahs, and Hezbollah. The assholes of the world have united.

Meanwhile, Trump gained support for the first time from the Democratic Party. Hillary Clinton proposed striking Assad’s airfields mere hours before the missiles began flying. Senator Chuck Schumer, Senator Bill Nelson and even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi signed on, though they want to be consulted before anything else serious happens.

We are all watching, in real time, the political education of Donald Trump and the political realignment that logically follows. One of the things he’s bound to learn is that the fulcrum of political power lies in the center of American politics, not on the fringes, that when he gains support from the moderate left at the expense of the far-right, his poll numbers go up instead of down. Over the past week, his RealClearPolitics job approval poll average blipped up from 39 percent to 41 percent.

The likelihood that he can be a successful president by catering strictly to his populist and far-right base while alienating everyone else is virtually zero. But if, during the course of his political education, he sees the value in saying thank you and goodbye to talk radio rage-a-holics and builds a coalition that includes the center-left and the center-right—not just on foreign policy but also on infrastructure, health care, and everything else—anything’s possible.

Why Europe is Falling Apart

My newest long-form piece was published in The Tower magazine over the weekend. Here’s the first part.

Europe as we have known it for over five decades has been a stable and prosperous place at peace with itself, famous for its museums, cafes, classical architecture, and graceful retirement from history. But today, it’s under assault. The greatest refugee crisis since World War II is overwhelming the continent, while Jews flee by the thousands. Populist parties so outrageous that they make their American counterparts seem like milquetoast centrists are winning or almost winning one election after another. One of them—Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz—has already transformed Hungary into an authoritarian state. Russian President Vladimir Putin is swaggering like a conquering warlord and winning applause for his exploits as far west as Great Britain. The European Union has already begun to unravel and could be replaced down the road by God only knows what as an aloof United Kingdom decides to go it alone while Europe circles the drain.

Journalist and author James Kirchick lived and worked in Europe for six years, and in his bracing first book, The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues, and the Coming Dark Age, he dives deep into the continent’s turmoil. The cumulative effect is sobering and alarming, but also perversely comforting if misery truly loves company. The book makes it clear that America’s political crisis is part of a larger crisis of democratic liberalism and institutional legitimacy that stretches from Seattle to Athens, and Kirchick does his American readers an invaluable service by informing them, in a can’t-put-it-down style, that they aren’t going through this alone.

Connecting Europe’s seemingly disparate troubles is a continent-wide cratering of the political center and collapsing confidence in the liberal European idea. “In the wake of World War II,” Kirchick writes, “when Europe was divided, both the political left and right valued very highly what the West had and the East coveted: an environment of political and economic freedom, religious openness (even if it often shaded into religious indifference), and peace.” Western Europeans were far more dependent upon the military power of the Pax Americana than they liked to admit, but it paid off for all of us when the Soviet Union finally imploded, calcified communist police states withered away, and Europe’s eastern half rejoined the West.

But a unified liberal Europe only lasted a generation, and the Russian bear is no longer hibernating.

The former Soviet republic of Georgia is a European-like nation located on the southern side of the Caucasus Mountains. This places it technically in Asia, which, while hardly excusing Russia’s invasion in 2008, makes it a slightly different affair than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, the first territorial aggression against a sovereign European state since World War II. Both of these Russian adventures are more ominous than the Russian-backed uprising in far-away Kyrgyzstan in 2010—an event most Europeans and Americans are not even aware of—because what triggered the wars in Georgia and Ukraine could one day ignite one or more violent conflicts inside the European Union itself.

In each case, Moscow concocted bogus threats against ethnic Russians and other minorities as pretexts for war, and the Kremlin has spent years laying the groundwork for more of the same in Eastern Europe, especially in the Baltic states where ethnic Russians live as large minorities, making up, for example, as much as 25 percent of Estonia’s population.

“Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones,” Putin said in 2014, “overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest, ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”

Kirchick points out the obvious implications. “If the ‘Russian nation,’ a unitary entity, had been wrongly ‘divided by borders,’” he writes, “then presumably it is the Russian government’s duty to reassemble it.” Adolf Hitler used precisely that reasoning when he invaded Czechoslovakia, as did Slobodan Milosevic when he and his fellow Serbian nationalists waged genocidal campaigns against Croatians, Bosnians, and Kosovar Albanians after the crackup of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s.

Putin insists he isn’t just mouthing off when he says this sort of thing either. Just a few months after annexing Crimea, he vowed to use “the entire range of available means” to “protect” the Russkiy Mir, the ethnic Russian world outside the country’s borders, and the Kremlin is grooming Russian citizens—schoolchildren especially—for future conquests. A government-endorsed education manual describes its former communist empire as “an example for millions of people around the world of the best and fairest society,” while mourning the loss of its vassals in Central and Eastern Europe. “The Soviet Union lost its security belt,” the manual states, “which a few years later would become a zone of foreign influence, with NATO bases an hour away from St. Petersburg.”

Putin’s state indoctrination has had a measurable effect. Today, 61 percent of Russians agree that “there are parts of neighboring countries that really belong to us.” Only 22 percent thought so in 1991.

While all this is happening, the West is losing the will to defend itself. When asked in 2015 if NATO should assist a member state invaded by Russia, a majority of French, German, and Italian respondents said no.

If that weren’t bad enough, regimes resembling Putin’s are rising inside the European Union itself.

In Hungary, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party have effectively transformed the country into a one-party state. Orbán rewrote the constitution to empower the executive branch of government against the others and transformed the parliament into a tin-pot rubber stamp committee. He persecutes civil society organizations, is empowering a class of loyal oligarchs just as Putin did, and ruthlessly cracks down on independent journalists critical of his rule.

You don’t have to take Kirchick’s word for it. Just listen to Orbán himself. “The new state that we are constructing in Hungary,” he said in 2014, “is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state.” Hungary, he boasted, is “breaking with the dogmas and ideologies that have been adopted by the West and are keeping ourselves independent from them.” He cites China and Russia as models and insists that his supporters are transcending “the liberal state and the era of liberal democracy.”

Maps outlining the engorged borders of “Greater Hungary” that existed during the Austro-Hungarian Empire are now ubiquitous on postcards, T-shirts, bumper stickers, political posters, and flags. In the closing days of World War I, Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory as a result of the Treaty of Trianon. Many Hungarians on the periphery moved “home” to the rump state, but more than three million ethnic Hungarians currently find themselves outside the borders of their ”homeland” in Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovakia.

Reacquiring this lost territory motivated Kingdom of Hungary Regent Miklós Horthy to join Hitler and Mussolini’s Axis during World War II. This attempt to achieve a “Greater Hungary” didn’t pan out, but Orbán and Fidesz are ramping up for another try. In 2010, Orbán declared June 4, the anniversary of the Trianon signing, a “Day of National Cohesion” to lament “the unjust and unfair dismemberment of the Hungarian nation by foreign powers,” which, if Orbán is to be believed, is responsible for Hungary’s current political, economic, and psychological problems.

“No other European country has consecrated irredentism with a state holiday,” Kirchick writes. “On the contrary, it is precisely such jingoistic fervor and imperial nostalgia that the European project was created to overcome….If Hungary applied for EU membership today, it probably wouldn’t be admitted.”

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

Independent, Liberal Universities Under Attack in Eastern Europe

Independent liberal arts universities in Eastern Europe are under attack. Simultaneously, though perhaps for different reasons, two of the region’s best and most independent post-graduate universities are under the serious threat of closure.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s long running feud with the Hungarian-born financier and billionaire George Soros has culminated in an attempt to shutter Central European University (CEU), the institute Soros founded in Budapest in 1991. Despite international outrage and large marches in the streets of Budapest, the government has moved ahead with a law that seems designed to close CEU.

In Assad’s Syria, the Lesser of Two Evils is Still Evil

I finished my latest piece for The Tower magazine mere hours before the White House ordered a battery of missile strikes against Syria’s Assad regime. Here’s the first part.

Last week, the Trump administration replaced Barack Obama’s spineless and counterproductive Syria policy with an even more spineless and counterproductive policy of its own.

For five years, the Obama administration impotently called for the removal of Syria’s blood-soaked tyrant Bashar al-Assad, but UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said Washington wouldn’t even go that far. “Our priority,” she said, “is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson basically said the same thing at the same time in Ankara, and did so while repeating almost verbatim the talking points of Assad’s Russian and Iranian allies. “The longer-term status of President Assad,” he said, “will be decided by the Syrian people.”

Then the Trump administration did an abrupt about-face this week after the regime’s chemical weapons attack in Idlib province and suggested that regime-change may in fact be Washington’s policy going forward. “Assad’s role in the future,” Tillerson said, “is uncertain clearly and with the acts that he has taken, it will seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people.”

After blowing up hospitals and schools and butchering hundreds of thousands with chemical weapons and barrel bombs, there is no chance Assad could win a free and fair election in Syria, but his allies in Tehran and Moscow need never fear a free and fair election as long as he is in power. Assad is the kind of ruler who “wins” elections with 97.6 percent of the “vote.”

His regime has killed almost 500,000 people and displaced millions, triggering the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, but at least he doesn’t massacre cartoonists in Paris or nightclub-goers in Florida. He’s a monster, but he’s not ISIS. In that sense, at least from the standpoint of faraway Washington, he’s the lesser of two evils.

But we need to get a couple of things straight here. Bashar al-Assad is not fighting ISIS in Syria. Not really. Nor are the Russians. Assad and the Russians are fighting every rebel army in the country except ISIS. Look at a map of the country. ISIS’s territory is centered on its “capital” in Raqqa in the northeast, but Assad and Russia’s theater of operations is in the west and along the coast. Only the United States has bombed ISIS in Syria, and only Kurdish militias have seriously resisted ISIS on the ground.

Assad did, however, facilitate ISIS’s rise in Syria and Iraq. Thousands of Americans and Iraqis are dead thanks to his sponsorship of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq—the precursor to ISIS—during the Iraqi insurgency.

This is hardly a secret. “We in Syria intelligence opened all the doors for [the jihadists] to go to Iraq,” Mahmud al-Naser, an intelligence officer who defected to the United States, told the Daily Beast.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

North Korea Ready for Its Sixth Nuclear Test?

North Korea appears on the verge of conducting its sixth test of a nuclear device.

There were two nuclear tests last year and three in total during the rule of Kim Jong Un, who came to power in December 2011.

Recent satellite images show virtually no activity at the North Portal of Punggye-ri test site, in the northeastern corner of the country. Earlier, the activity there was “extensive.” And, as CNN has reported, that sequence is similar to the “pattern of activity just before previous tests, indicating all final preparations are now complete.”

Why Vladimir Putin Covets Montenegro

“Probe with bayonets,” Soviet ruler Vladimir Lenin famously said. “If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, stop.”

Like his late predecessor, Russian President Vladimir Putin will advance until he meets steel. Until this week he met mush in, of all places, the United States government thanks to Republican Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky who used an arcane senate rule to block a vote on the accession of tiny Montenegro—the former Yugoslav republic on the Adriatic between Albania and Croatia—from joining NATO.

“He knows the vote will be 99 to 1,” a disgruntled Republican senator anonymously complained to Politico.

Rather that spit-balling from under his desk, Senator John McCain stood and lobbed a rhetorical hand grenade, and he did it on television: “I repeat again, the senator from Kentucky is now working for Vladimir Putin.”

That was two weeks ago. This week, Paul finally relented and on Tuesday, the Senate ratified Montenegro’s membership in NATO by a vote of 97 to 2—not quite 99 to 1, but close.

Rand Paul isn’t working for Vladimir Putin. He hates war and therefore thinks it makes sense to hate NATO. “Most Americans can’t find Montenegro on a map,” he said in a speech. “Are you willing to send your kids there to fight?”

They say war teaches Americans geography, but Americans don’t need to find Montenegro as long as it is in NATO. NATO expansion doesn’t precipitate wars; it prevents them before they can even get started. Paul apparently hasn’t noticed, but—so far anyway—Vladimir Putin’s Russia only invades and dismembers nations on its periphery, such as Georgia and Ukraine, that haven’t joined the alliance. Those who hate war should want more countries under the West’s security umbrella, not fewer.

Montenegro should be safe enough inside NATO, but until its membership is official, it is exposed. Last fall, Russian intelligence agents ginned up a plot to assassinate the prime minister and install a pro-Russian political party in parliament. They didn’t do it because they randomly woke up one morning and felt like it. They did it because Montenegro applied for NATO membership, and Putin wants Montenegro for himself.

It’s a spectacular piece of real estate, by far one of the most gorgeous countries I have ever visited, with storybook coastal villages, mountains as steep as the Alps, and ancient Mediterranean forests that ceased to exist almost everywhere else in the region thousands of years ago. Russians love to go there on holiday. Americans will too, once they discover it, but that’s not the reason Vladimir Putin covets it.

Where Rand Paul sees a backwater, Vladimir Putin sees a Mediterranean beachhead. In Newsweek, Montenegro’s former Ambassador to NATO Vesko Garcevic points to a Moscow Defense Brief article by Aleksey Nikolsky who notes that in 2013 that the Kremlin made “a request” to “discuss the terms of allowing Russian warships temporary moorage at the ports of Bar and Kotor for refueling, maintenance and other necessities.”

Montenegro told Russia to pound sand.

“In the Balkans there were no states founded on rule of law, democracy, freedom,” Prime Minister Marković told Sohrab Ahmari at the Wall Street Journal in January. “We want to escape from this vicious circle that has been going on for so many centuries, and move toward NATO.”

If the Assad regime falls in Syria, Russia may lose its only Mediterranean port. And since Montenegro is gearing up to join NATO, Russia could be stuck without a backup forever because it’s the only place along the entire northern shore of that sea that doesn’t already belong to the West.

“They are ready to admit even the North Pole to NATO just for the sake of encircling Russia,” Russian Admiral Vladimir Komoyedov said in 2015. Moscow doesn’t get it, though. If Russia were a friendly country like Canada, the West would treat it like Canada. The reason the West doesn’t—and won’t—is because Russia invades and butchers its neighbors and annexes sovereign territory at gunpoint.

What will the West gain when Montenegro’s membership in NATO becomes official? Not much. Barely half a million people live there. The Boise, Idaho, metropolitan area is more populated than that. With roughly 2,000 soldiers, its miniscule army will hardly boost NATO’s military capacity by an iota.

Vladimir Putin wants it and needs it much more than we do, badly enough to assassinate an elected head of state and instigate a regime-change. That’s precisely why he shouldn’t have it.  

For years now, the Kremlin has been violently expanding its power, its influence and even its territory in Europe and Asia. Every time Putin racks up a victory and gets away with it, he grows more confident that he can take more. That’s how it goes with expansionist dictators everywhere. So if you don’t want to go to war against Russia—and only an insane person would—the fewer wins in Putin’s column, the better.

Donald Trump's Cratering Credibility

FBI Director James Comey finally did his duty this week when he testified under oath before the House Intelligence Committee that no evidence exists that Barack Obama wiretapped Donald Trump’s phone last year. It took Comey more than two weeks to say what everyone with a lick of sense knew was the truth all along, that Trump’s tweet three Saturday’s ago accusing his predecessor of a crime worse than Watergate is a lie.

Contrast Comey’s glacial response time with that of British intelligence. Last week, Fox News host Judge Andrew Napolitano said the reason no one can find any evidence that American intelligence agencies tapped Trump’s phone is because the British intelligence agency GCHQ did it. White House Spokesman Sean Spicer repeated the claim the next day. Without delay, GCHQ released an extraordinary rare public statement. “Recent allegations made by media commentator judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.”

The very next day, Spicer and Trump’s National Security Advisor HR McMaster effectively apologized. Fox News suspended Napolitano indefinitely for sparking an international incident with fake news.

That’s the proper way to handle libelous allegations—with instant contempt, and in public.

Compare the results. American journalists and government officials spent more than a week pretending to take Trump’s tweet semi-seriously. Members of Congress said they’d look into it. Reporters asked the White House when they’d see evidence. As if there was anything to look into. As if any evidence might actually be provided some day in the future.

Meanwhile, the British government slammed the case closed in 24 hours. No one will ever ask another question about it again unless they wish to embarrass Sean Spicer.

Comey shouldn’t have waited two and a half weeks to say what he must have known he’d have to say from the very beginning. He should have called a snap press conference within the hour, or at the very least issued a terse statement as GCQH did, rather than let a toxic allegation from the highest level of government stink up America’s air for so long.

Donald Trump is indeed an “unconventional” president, and he takes some getting used to. That’s fine. We’re all going through an adjustment period here. The proper response isn’t instantly obvious to those of us accustomed to giving the president of the United States, no matter who he or she may be, a little deference and respect. I spent eight years politely criticizing the Obama administration and expected to spend the next four or eight years politely criticizing Hillary Clinton’s administration. When Trump eked out a narrow Electoral College victory, I promised myself that I’d do my best to criticize him with the same respectful tone I had used in the past.  

Hundreds if not thousands of journalists and government officials made the same decision I did even as others dug in on day one for total political warfare. I am a moderate by ideology and by temperament. Total political warfare doesn’t suit me, at least not at home in the United States. Finding my footing hasn’t been easy, and it still isn’t. It’s obvious, though, that Britain’s response was the correct one.

Comey’s response, while serious and polite and respectful, is a vestige, an anachronism from an earlier era. “With respect to the president’s tweets,” he said in his testimony, “I have no information that supports those tweets. We have looked carefully inside the FBI.”

He looked carefully inside the FBI? Really? He was under oath, so he probably did, and if so, what a mistake. GCHQ didn’t look inside its own agency carefully, I assure you—it didn’t have time—any more than NASA would look seriously inside its own organization if Vladimir Putin accused it of fomenting international terrorism.

Important men and women with dignified jobs have better things to do than go on a snipe hunt.

The FBI shouldn’t have spent more than five minutes “investigating” Trump’s ludicrous claim that Obama wiretapped his phone for the same reason that they never investigated Trump’s equally ludicrous claim that Obama was born in Kenya. Despite what Trump has said on the subject, law enforcement will not waste its time looking into whether or not Senator Ted Cruz’s father participated in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, nor will the Federal Election Commission bother proving or disproving the president’s boast that he won the popular vote because three million people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton. The American Medical Association certainly won’t look into Trump’s claim that vaccines cause autism. It was thoroughly debunked years before the president disgraced himself by repeating it.

Serious people can’t take the president of the United States seriously. He is a compulsive liar and a crackpot conspiracy theorist and must be treated accordingly without delay.

Essay: Answering the Kremlin's Challenge

On December 20, 1991, NATO foreign ministers gathered at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels for talks with diplomats from the former Warsaw Pact countries were caught by surprise as the (still) Soviet ambassador, Nikolai Afanasievsky, began reading out a letter from Russian President Boris Yeltsin to NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner. “We consider these relations [with NATO] to be very serious and wish to develop this dialogue in each and every direction, both on the political and military levels,” wrote the Russian leader who, five days later, would take control of Moscow’s nuclear arsenal and its permanent seat on the UN Security Council as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics formally went out of existence. Yeltsin’s letter continued: “Today we are raising the question of Russia's membership in NATO.” Unlike the sham Soviet application to join the alliance in 1954, this one was clearly made in good faith, coming a few months after Russian citizens defiantly—and definitively—rejected the old regime, going out in the hundreds of thousands to the streets of Moscow to stand in the way of an attempted hardline coup d’état.

Tillerson's Deference to Beijing or Unfortunate Rookie Mistake?

“You said that China-US relations can only be friendly,” Chinese President Xi Jinping said to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday. “I express my appreciation for this.”

Beijing could not be more pleased with Tillerson’s choice of words. Chinese state media is now crowing because the American diplomat, who seemed resolute in Tokyo and Seoul, appears to have turned deferential in Beijing—perhaps unwittingly. In the Chinese capital, he repeated in public the preferred Chinese formulation of relations between the two powers. On the preceding day at a press conference with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Tillerson said ties between the two countries were guided by “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.”

Global Times, the nationalist tabloid controlled by People’s Daily, cited unnamed “analysts” who declared that Tillerson, by uttering this phrase, “implicitly endorsed the new model of major power relations,” Beijing’s buzz phrase adopted in 2010.

Nonstarter: North Korea's Enablers in Beijing Pose as Neutral Observers

On Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attempted to defuse tensions in North Asia, proposing that North Korea suspend the testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and the US and South Korea suspend military exercises.

Wang’s comments suggest Beijing has become deeply concerned—alarmed even—and is trying to prevent what it sees as a potentially disastrous situation on the Korean peninsula.

The distress inside the Chinese capital is evident. “The two sides are like two accelerating trains coming toward each other, with neither side willing to give way,” Wang said in Beijing. “The question is: Are the two sides really ready for a head-on collision?” 

Beijing’s solution is “to flash the red light and apply brakes on both trains.” “We will switch the issue back onto the track of seeking a negotiated settlement,” he said as he compared his country to “a switchman.”

Brace Yourself for a New Cold War

American-Russian relations are about to take a sharp turn for the worse.

President Donald Trump, like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton before him, hoped to “reset” Washington’s dismal relationship with Moscow, but that was always the longest of long shots. Vladimir Putin’s ideology and perceived national interests require the West as an enemy, and no matter how many times Trump tweets that he respects Putin’s “strength” and says it would be “a good thing” if we could get along with Russia and unite against ISIS, neither the Kremlin nor permanent Washington will allow it.

To be sure, Russians initially swooned when Trump beat Clinton in the election last November.

“It turns out that the United Russia [Vladimir Putin’s party] has won the elections in the United States!” Omsk governor Viktor Nazaro said. “Tonight we can use the slogan with Mr. Trump; Yes We Did,” said Boris Chernyshev, a member of the Russian parliament’s ultranationalist faction. “I want to ride around Moscow with an American flag in the window, if I can find a flag,” said Margarita Simonyan, editor in chief of Putin propaganda channel RT (Russia Today). Alexander Dugin, former professor and fascistic Putinism philosopher, gushed that Trump’s inauguration was “incredibly beautiful—one of the best moments of my life.”

According to international public opinion surveys, Russia is the only country in the entire world where more people rooted for Trump than for Clinton. (He “beat” her in Russia by 21 points.)

He’s one of us, the Russians thought, sort of. A rising leader of the ragtag nationalist anti-globalist movements. Trump’s antipathy toward the European Union, NATO, and the bipartisan political class in the United States imperfectly mirrors their own attitudes and prejudices.

Russian dolls adorned with Trump’s face are available in stores all over Moscow and beyond. Putin even told the state-run media to provide non-stop friendly coverage to the new administration in Washington for a while. According to the Russian news agency Interfax, Russian media mentioned Trump more often in January than it mentioned Putin.

That’s over now. The media swooning has cooled. The Russian ruler has again eclipsed Trump. It’s not hard to understand why.

Having even a potentially innocuous meeting with Russian officials has rapidly turned into a new third rail in American politics. National Security Advisor Mike Flynn lost his job for lying about discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself for saying under oath at a Senate hearing that he had no contacts with Russian officials even though he too had met with Kislyak in his office. Congress is investigating Russia’s hacking of the Democratic National Committee last year, and even Republican members of Congress are wondering aloud if the Trump campaign had anything to do with it.

There is virtually no chance after all this that the Trump administration will be able to get away with lifting sanctions against Russia or anything else that looks chummy or even blandly cooperative without triggering a spectacular backlash that includes members of his own party and possibly even his cabinet.

Don’t think for a moment that Russians haven’t noticed this either. Of course they’ve noticed, and they have every reason to be anxious about it. Before long, anti-Russian sentiment in the United States could eclipse anti-Americanism is Russia. The only reason that hasn’t happened already is because so many Americans hoped for so long against hope that Russia shorn of totalitarian communism would eventually return “home” to the West like the prodigal son.

Russia, though, hasn’t been fully European since the Mongol invasion of Rus in the year 1240. Its forcible incorporation into the Golden Horde Empire endured for more than 200 years. Sure, Russia’s capital is on the European continent, but Russians see themselves as Eurasian. (North Korea and China, don’t forget, border Russia.)

Putin crafted the Eurasian Economic Union—which includes Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia—as an authoritarian crony state-capitalist competitor to the liberal democratic West that he detests. There isn’t a damn thing anybody in Washington can say or do to convince him to dump that project and align himself as a junior partner with the European Union and NATO, not when he’s the undisputed one-man boss of an entire continent-spanning alternative.


Alexander Dugin, philosophical architect of Vladimir Putin's "Eurasianism"

Understand something here. Both the European Union and Putin’s Eurasian Economic Union sent out feelers to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia for possible future membership. Rather than joining Putin’s Union like Belarus and the others, all three signed association agreements with the European Union. And all three have been dismembered and occupied in part by the Russians, indefinitely preventing them from joining the Western alliance. Neither the European Union nor NATO will even consider accepting a member state that has a disputed territorial conflict with Moscow.

If Russian and American national interests are so at odds then, why on earth did the Kremlin bother interfering in our election in order to get Donald Trump elected? I don’t believe that it did, at least not if you put it that way.

Think about it. Almost everybody thought Trump would lose, including the president himself. His win last November surprised everybody. Vladimir Putin is a smart man, but he can’t see the future better than anyone else. Like the rest of us, he assumed Hillary Clinton would win.

So when his cyberagents hacked the Democratic National Committee and released what it found to WikiLeaks, Putin was attacking the presumed incoming president of the United States. He didn’t go after Clinton per se. Rather, he pre-emptively struck against the next White House. He would have done the same thing if Joe Biden or Tim Kaine or any other Democrat were at the top of the ticket. And he would have done the same thing to the Republican Party if, say, Marco Rubio were the GOP nominee and the presumed winner of the general election.

The fact that Trump actually won was a surprise and a bonus.

Trump said last September that he loves WikiLeaks, forgetting everything he ever knew about the rogue outfit. (Someone should ask him what he thinks of WikiLeaks dumping a trove of classified material onto the Internet supposedly revealing how the CIA spies on people all over the world through their smart phones.) Its founder Julian Assange is emphatically not a Republican operative. WikiLeaks has spent its entire existence waging geopolitical warfare against the United States, mostly on behalf of itself, but partly on behalf of the Russians and everyone else in the world who wants to pull down the American “empire.” Like the Russians, Assange trained his fire on Clinton not because he likes the Republicans but because the Democratic Party includes roughly half the elected officials in the United States and presumably would have included the next president of the United States.

Assange and Putin hoped to kneecap the incoming president before she could even get started.

Their hostility toward the United States in general isn’t obvious to everyone in this country. Putin’s approval rating actually increased during the last year among Trump’s most die-hard supporters. The rest of us, though—and the rest of us still includes most Republicans—are reacting against Russian malfeasance more strongly than we have at any time since the Berlin Wall fell.

That reaction is blowing up in the Trump administration’s face, but the president can turn it around by taking an unambiguously hawkish stance against Russia. Putin, meanwhile, can’t do anything to recover his reputation in the United States.

Trump has already started to reverse himself and isn’t as rhetorically kind to Putin as he was even recently. “Even in the way he talks you can now hear notes of Obama,” said Russian Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. “And you can hear in his address [to Congress]: the military budget will be increased by over $50 billion.”

During last year’s campaign, Trump openly considered recognizing Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, joining just a handful of rogue states like North Korea and Venezuela. A couple of weeks ago, though, he backtracked and tweeted, “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?”

Russian soldiers in Crimea

Many of the president’s pro-Putin aides and staff—Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Mike Flynn to a lesser extent—are out now while many of his current cabinet members—in particular United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley and Defense Secretary James Mattis—are as staunchly hawkish on Russia as John McCain and Mitt Romney. Trump hasn’t stuck a sock in their mouths and probably never will. “There's a decreasing number of areas where we can engage cooperatively,” Mattis said recently, “and an increasing number of areas where we're going to have to confront Russia.”

There are other reasons Putin and his claque are unhappy. “With Trump in the White House,” Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes write in Foreign Policy magazine, “Putin has lost his monopoly over geopolitical unpredictability. The Kremlin’s ability to shock the world by taking the initiative and trashing ordinary international rules and customs has allowed Russia to play an oversized international role and to punch above its weight. Putin now has to share the capacity to keep the world off balance with a new American president vastly more powerful than himself. More world leaders are watching anxiously to discover what Trump will do next than are worrying about what Putin will do next.”

So after all this, the Kremlin has ordered Russia’s state-run media to stop writing about Trump as if he’s some kind of hero.

There’s a lot more going on, though, than a cooling of the Trump euphoria in Moscow. The Russians have plenty of reasons to fear the emergence, if not sooner then at least later, of a sustained bipartisan American hostility to Russia and Putin, with Donald Trump himself as its champion, that dwarfs anything the world has seen since Ronald Reagan engaged with détente with the Soviet Union’s last premier Mikhail Gorbachev.

The Kremlin reportedly fears that Trump will be removed from office—either by Congress or a military coup and possibly even assassinated—and that a venomous anti-Russian consensus will unite Americans, finally bringing about at least a partial end to our debilitating political polarization that Russia has been crowing about for a year now. They are most likely wrong about the first part of that equation. An American president hasn’t been assassinated for more than a half-century, no American president has ever been forcibly removed from power against his will internally, and the very idea of a military coup is absurd. The Russians are probably right, though, about the second part. A venomous anti-Russian consensus in America is already rising.

Whatever else happens, at some point Vladimir Putin will inevitably infuriate Trump. The American president is notoriously thin-skinned and couldn’t even get through a phone call with Australia’s friendly Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull without losing his cool. Even leaving all that aside, Trump may soon realize that the most effective way to retire the ongoing controversy surrounding his staff’s real and alleged dodgy ties to Russia is to fulminate against Putin the way he does against Barack Obama and Rosie O'Donnell.

Donald Trump hasn’t even been president for two months yet. His bizarre pro-Russian bumbling could easily turn out to be a mere blip at the start of his presidency. And if a galvanizing anti-Russian consensus does end up emerging, it’s likely to be much more intense than it would have been had Vladimir Putin left us alone.

Mysterious Circumstances Surrounding Russian Murders, Deaths

When Vitaly Churkin, Russia's top United Nations envoy, collapsed suddenly from an apparent heart failure recently, it triggered widespread and predictable murmuring about possible foul play. With so many sudden and mysterious deaths at the upper levels of the Russosphere during the Putin years, chiefly among his opponents, it's no surprise that rumors abound even when a stalwart loyalist like Churkin dies. The actual causes of many of the untimely deaths, like those of Alexander Litvinenko and Boris Nemtsov cases, however, have been considerably less mysterious. Clear assassinations of that kind naturally leave a cloud of suspicion over seemingly innocent but abrupt deaths—and, there have been an inordinate number. Indeed, I noted in a recent column that five prominent Kremlin-linked deaths have occurred in the UK—including Litvinenko, and Alexander Perepilichny whose demise seemed inexplicable until a mysterious Himalayan poison was found in his stomach tissue as this article in The Atlantic explains.

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