Trump's Trip a Disaster for Transatlantic Relations

Donald Trump manufactures enemies and unfriends allies like it’s his job.

His first trip abroad to the Middle East and Europe could have been a success, could have given him at least a temporary reprieve here at home as his poll numbers continue to slide. He skated through okay in the Middle East, as I wrote last week, one of the toughest places in the entire world to get good reviews. For the European leg of his trip, all he had to do was reassure our friends that the Transatlantic alliance is as robust as ever while refraining from doing or saying anything stupid. He botched it, though, in the one part of the world after Canada and Australia that’s supposed to be easy.

In his speech at the NATO headquarters, rather than calming nerves and reaffirming the mutual defense commitment in Article 5 where an attack on one member state is considered an attack against all, he hectored Europeans for not paying their fair share of defense expenditures.

It’s true that most NATO members don’t spend the suggested two percent of GDP on defense, but 22 of them pledged to increase spending over time until they reach or exceed that two percent threshold. They did this years ago, when Barack Obama was president.

Somebody should have told him.

He rudely shoved Montenegro’s Prime Minister Dusko Markovic on camera like a schoolyard bully. (The video must be seen to be believed.) In Sicily, while other heads of state walked to a plaza for a group photo, Trump refused to walk with them and waited for a golf cart driver to give him a ride, suggesting that Hillary Clinton may have more stamina after all.

“The Germans are bad, very bad,” he reportedly said at a European Union meeting in Brussels. “See the millions of cars they are selling in the U.S.? Terrible. We will stop this.”

His staff quibbled with the report, but this week he trolled Germany using similar language on his Twitter account. “We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany,” he tweeted on Tuesday, “plus they pay FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military. Very bad for U.S. This will change.”


First of all, the United States does not have a trade deficit with Germany. The United States trades with the European Union as a bloc, not with individual nations in particular.

Second, trade deficits, as Adam Smith Institute scholar Tim Worstall explains in Forbes, don’t matter in the slightest. “Trade deficits themselves don't matter and bilateral deficits matter even less than that. Thus the idea that the United States buys more from Germany than that country buys from the United States is simply a matter of no import at all.”

The president of the United States is badgering Germany for no reason other than the fact that he doesn’t know what’s actually happening or how the world works. (He did the same thing to Canada last month.)

“When it comes to diplomacy,” a State Department official said to the Daily Beast, “President Trump is a drunk tourist.” And “President Trump,” writes Kori Schake in The American Interest, “acts as though boorish behavior has no consequences, as though other countries have no choice but to comply with American demands.”

Other countries do have a choice, though, and apparently unlike the American president, they know it.

The new French president Emmanuel Macron went out of his way to snub him and warmly greet German Chancellor Angela Merkel instead. Merkel, for her part, went farther and warned her constituents that Transatlanticism is on the decline now. The days when Europe can count on others are "over to a certain extent,” she said at a rally in Munich. “This is what I have experienced in the last few days."

“Trump must have said some outrageous things behind closed doors for the cautious Markel to make this statement,” former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tweeted on Sunday.

Donald Trump is his own worst enemy. He picks one unnecessary fight after another, not just with his Democratic opposition, which is par for the course in domestic politics, but also with members of his own party, American intelligence agencies, journalists, former American presidents, and our closest friends and allies.

Every one of his self-made enemies is capable of fighting back—the intelligence agencies with leaks, journalists with negative press coverage, members of Congress with investigations and (perhaps later) with articles of impeachment. There’s no telling what European heads of state are going to do, but we’ll find out soon enough.

A lot of us on this side of the Atlantic have been concerned about Europe’s own populist demagogues—Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Nigel Farage in Britain and Norbert Hofer in Austria. Rather than putting these folks in the saddle, Europeans might instead elect a batch of leaders that, with the exception of Serbian war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, are more aggressively anti-American than anyone on the continent since World War II.

Barely four months into his presidency, Donald Trump is flitting from one self-made crisis to another. When a real crisis hits—one that isn’t of his own making and one that none of us can see coming—America First could curdle into America Alone.  

China’s Empty Promises to Rein in North Korea

Last Wednesday, Chinese fighters intercepted a US Air Force WC-135 Constant Phoenix in international airspace near North Korea.

 The mission of the WC-135, known as a “sniffer,” is to detect radioactivity in the atmosphere following a nuclear detonation. It appears this plane was in the region on a routine mission in anticipation of the North’s sixth detonation.

 Two Chinese Su-30 interceptors came within 150 feet of the WC-135, and one of the fighters flew inverted above the American craft. “While we are still investigating the incident, initial reports from the US aircrew characterized the intercept as unprofessional,” said a statement issued by Air Force spokeswoman Lt. Col. Lori Hodge on Friday. “The issue is being addressed with China through appropriate diplomatic and military channels.”

Among the obvious issues to be addressed are the hostile nature of the intercept and the reckless endangerment of the American crew.  

The Geopolitical Education of Donald Trump

On Sunday, President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the leaders of dozens of Muslim-majority countries in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, written by bombastic travel ban architect Stephen Miller. Most of the world cringed in advance. As it turned out, Trump’s speech marks a radical departure from the crude, obnoxious and flat-out hysterical rhetoric we’re all accustomed to hearing from him and (some of) his aides on the subject.

“To the leaders and citizens of every country assembled here today,” he said, “I want you to know that the United States is eager to form closer bonds of friendship, security, culture and commerce…We are not here to lecture — we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership — based on shared interests and values — to pursue a better future for us all.”

“It was frankly the kind of speech President Obama could have given,” CNN’s Fareed Zakaria said, and he’s right.

Those who stressed about this beforehand weren’t wrong to worry. Thanks to the president of the United States, our relations with Mexico are worse than at any time since Pancho Villa. He screamed at Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull after he’d been in office for barely a week. He even said Canada is behaving disgracefully as recently as a month ago.

The travel ban alienated our friends and allies in Iraq back in January (can you believe that was only four months ago?), and he said plenty of unhinged things about Muslims in general and Saudi Arabia in particular when he ran for president. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” he said last year to cheers at one of his campaign rallies, “until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” 

He lied—or at best fabricated a false memory—about “thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks. “I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down,” he said, again at a campaign rally. “And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering.”

“Who blew up the World Trade Center?” he asked on Fox News. “It wasn’t the Iraqis, it was Saudi — take a look at Saudi Arabia, open the documents.”

“Islam hates us,” he said to CNN’s Anderson Cooper a little more than a year ago, as if “Islam” is some kind of a monolith. Obviously lots of Muslims hate us, but plenty don’t, and many of them are our friends. Practically everyone with even an ounce of experience in that part of the world can attest to the fact that a huge range of opinions toward the West exists in the Middle East. It’s as obvious and basic as the fact that lunch follows breakfast. That Trump apparently didn’t know this and spoke about the entire region as if everyone is our enemy alarmed diplomats, foreign policy professionals and foreign correspondents across the entire political spectrum.

No one who can’t tell the difference between a friend and an enemy will ever win a war in the Middle East or anywhere else. I can promise you that. Trump complained endlessly that Barack Obama refused to publicly identify “radical Islamic terrorists” as our enemy. Well, we’re also not going to get anywhere if we refuse to acknowledge that Muslims from Morocco to Kurdistan and even—to a drastically lesser extent—Saudi Arabia are our allies. We especially won’t get anywhere if we treat these people so terribly that they can’t work with us anymore.

Something huge has changed in the meantime, though. Perhaps it’s partly the fact that, per Trump’s own policy, we’re now arming Kurdish Muslims to fight ISIS. The president must have realized, at some point in the recent past, that the Saudis are more vigorously opposed to the Iranian regime than we are and that they’re softening their attitude toward the Israelis. His National Security Advisor HR McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis most certainly have described the lay of the land to him by now, and he apparently listens to them more than he listens to the likes of Steve Bannon. He acknowledged in his speech that the overwhelming majority of people murdered by terrorists are Muslims—a detail that’s hard to square with the notion that every Muslim on earth is programmed as a jihadist.

Professional haters of all things Islamic like Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Frank Gaffney are unteachable. You can point out to these people that Muslim-majority Albania is among the most pro-American countries in the entire world and they’ll still describe it as a jihadist menace. It’s what they do.

Donald Trump is different. He’ll never change his personality. For the rest of his days, Trump’s gonna Trump. He is, however, capable of learning new things and reversing himself.

It’s probably safe to say at this point that the president’s earlier views were the product of staggering ignorance rather than axe-grinding ideology, and it’s easier to fill an empty vessel than to replace the contents of one that is already full.

Syria’s Surreal Fake Peace Process

Staffan de Mistura has a strange job. The United Nations is paying him to organize peace talks in Geneva that he knows perfectly well aren’t going anywhere.

“Nothing substantial" will result from the talks Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said last week. They are just for show, “merely a meeting for the media.”

Of course they are. Even journalists who cover Syria for a living are hardly paying attention, and not just because the general public isn’t interested. We aren’t interested either. The only newsworthy item here is that one of the parties can admit the whole thing is a charade and yet it continues.  

Peace talks work when both sides are tired of fighting and would rather end a war than win it. That isn’t ever likely to happen in Syria. On one side is a sectarian non-Muslim Alawite regime that rightly fears it will be genocided off the face of the earth if it’s ever defeated by the likes of the Al Qaeda and the Nusra Front. On the other side is a hodgepodge of Sunni Muslim militias, most of them Islamist, and they too rightly fear they will be liquidated if the “heretical” mass-murdering totalitarian regime has its way.

What could the two sides possibly ever negotiate? Power-sharing? Impossible. A transition to free and fair elections? Neither side would ever win a proper election and they both know it.

The Assad clan is not stepping aside. Anyone who wants him out of his palace is going to have to shoot him out of his palace. The entire world by now should know enough about Al Qaeda and similar terrorist armies like ISIS and the Taliban that they don’t compromise either. None of these people resemble in any way whatsoever former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat or King Hussein of Jordan who signed peace treaties with Israel.

Syrian peace talks are no more real than Syrian elections, where Assad “won” 99.7 percent of the “vote” in the year 2000. If the Western world were as autocratic as the Middle East and Russia, the Syrians wouldn’t even bother with fake elections or fake peace talks. They’re doing this entirely to make an impression on gullible Westerners. Judging by the near-total dearth of press coverage or confidence that anything remotely productive will ever result from the theater in Geneva, they’re wasting their time. The only people in the West who are actually interested in any of this are those who are paid to show up.

Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura is going through the motions, though, and he might even be sincere. He says there can be no resolution to the Syrian war with some kind of political settlement. Actually, there can be. The war will end the way almost every other war in history has ended—when one side wins and the other side loses.

It’s also entirely possible—and inevitable in the long-run—that both sides will lose. No totalitarian army or regime in history has lasted forever. Rather than pointlessly cajoling the Middle East’s Hitlers and Stalins to lay down their weapons and make peace with each other and with their neighbors, those of us who are actually concerned about Syria, for the sake of our own well-being as well as for Syria’s, should concentrate instead on ensuring that neither side has a future.

Arming the Kurds Is Worth Angering the Turks

My lastest piece in The Tower magazine is live. Here’s the first part:

The United States government has formally announced that it’s going to arm Kurdish militias in Syria in a bid to capture the city of Raqqa from ISIS, the “capital” of the Islamic State’s “caliphate.”

It’s about time.

The YPG, or Kurdish Protection Units, is the largest faction in the Syrian Democratic Forces and the military arm of the leftist Democratic Union Party. It is loosely aligned with the PKK, or Kurdistan Worker’s Party, in Turkey, and has carved out an autonomous region in northern Syria which the Kurds call Rojava. It is, as the Pentagon put it, ““the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”

The Obama administration crafted the plan last year, and the Trump administration initially scrapped it, assuming, for reasons we can only guess at, that the White House could come up with a smarter plan. Arming the Kurds, though, has been the smart plan from day one of the Syrian conflict even though years passed before anyone in Washington figured that out. As Winston Churchill famously said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

Aside from the Israelis, the Kurds are the Middle East’s most capable fighters. The majority are Muslims (a minority are Yezidis and Christians), yet they are as allergic to radical Islam as Americans are. They are among the most staunchly pro-American people in the entire world and make perfect military allies.

If the United States wants indigenous ground forces in Syria to fight ISIS so that our own soldiers don’t have to go in there and do it, the Kurds are the only viable option. Contrary to popular belief, Bashar al-Assad’s Arab Socialist Baath Party regime is not fighting ISIS, nor are the Russians. Assad’s forces are fighting just about every armed group in the country except ISIS.

There are more active militias in Syria right now than just about anyone can keep track of, but most of them, alas, are Islamist, and the vast majority would rather fight Assad than ISIS. After six years of war, political moderates who haven’t already been killed have fled by the millions.

So why didn’t we arm the Kurds earlier? Actually, we did. We just didn’t want the world to know we were doing it.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.

A Tale of Two Ukrainian Cities

The International Republican Institute (IRI) recently released an excellent poll that surveyed citizens on the state of Ukraine's local and municipal governance. Most polling in Ukraine has focused on national or regional-level issues like attitudes toward NATO and EU membership, or voter preferences in an upcoming election. So IRI's Ukrainian Municipal Survey, now in its third year, is especially useful because it sheds light on the challenges and issues that Ukrainians face in their everyday lives.

The poll shows that the vast majority of Ukrainians believe their country is moving in the wrong direction—the most pessimistic among them live in Ukraine's south and east. These numbers are far lower than they were in 2015 and 2016 and, in short, they indicate that the hope and promise of the Maidan revolution is dwindling if not collapsing.

The Center Holds in France—but for How Long?

Nearly everyone but Vladimir Putin, chief Brexiter Nigel Farage, and the staff writers at Breitbart are celebrating centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron’s landslide two-to-one victory in the French presidential election against the National Front’s Marine Le Pen.

In The American Interest, journalist and Paris resident Claire Berlinski compares French voters to “passengers on a long-haul flight, colicky infants on either side, [who] find themselves trapped with a flight attendant cheerfully offering them the chicken or the plate of raw monkey eyeballs dipped in Ebola.”

Lest you suspect she is exaggerating, let’s get this something out of the way: Marine Le Pen isn’t the French Donald Trump. Sure, they’re both right-wing populist change agents backed by the Kremlin, and of course that’s a significant overlap, but Trump is closer to Dwight D. Eisenhower than he is to Le Pen. For when it comes to authoritarian demagoguery, Americans are amateurs. More than just about anyone else in the world, the Europeans are pros at it.

Le Pen’s party was founded not by an abolitionist like the Republican Party but by her father Jean-Marie and his claque of Vichy nostalgists, Holocaust deniers and embittered pied noirs from French Algeria. Le Pen père famously and repeatedly stated on television that the Nazi gas chambers were a mere detail of history and has never been able to scrub the stench of neo-fascism out of his pores.  

Two years ago, Marine forced her father out of the party and tried with some success to detoxify the National Front and rebrand it as one that is anti-European and anti-immigrant rather than quasi-Nazi and anti-Semitic, but as recently as last month she reverted to form and declared that France is blameless for the round-up and deportation of Jews during World War II.

“France wasn’t responsible for the Vel d’Hiv,” she said, referring to events in July of 1942 when almost 5,000 French police officers, on orders of the government in Paris, arrested thousands of Jews and held them in the Vélodrome d’Hiver sports stadium. All, including the children, were later deported by the French authorities to Auschwitz and murdered. “If there was responsibility,” she continued, “it is with those who were in power at the time, it is not with France. France has been mistreated, in people’s minds, for years.”

These events, and France’s complicity in them, are as incontrovertible as the Holocaust itself. The French erected memorials to the victims inside and outside Paris decades ago. Until Le Pen opened her mouth, it wasn’t even controversial, certainly not among decent civilized people. But the National Front is neither decent nor civilized. Just last month, Jean-François Jalkh, who denied that the Nazis used Zyklon B gas to exterminate Jews, was promoted to replace Le Pen as the head of the party. And members of her inner circle have been caught on camera organizing neo-Nazi rallies and waving Iron Cross flags.

These people are not conservatives. They aren’t extreme conservatives or even pseudo-conservatives. They are something else entirely, something a lot of us thought had become permanently alien to Western electoral politics. Yet they beat the conservative party in the first round of elections.

Marine Le Pen and Vladimir Putin openly laud each other. She visited the Kremlin in March of this year and gushed that Putin “represents a new vision…A new world has emerged in the past years. This is Vladimir Putin’s world, Donald Trump’s world in the United States, Mr. Modi’s world in India…I think I am probably the one who shares with all three great nations a vision of cooperation.” As you might expect after such comments, she supports Russia’s violent annexation of the Crimea in Ukraine. “Crimea,” she lied, “has always been Russian.” She goes even farther, though, and denies that Russia even invaded Ukraine in the first place.

Le Pen admires Putin for his anti-European nationalism, which she shares. Putin, for his part, endorsed her for the plain reason that she promised to weaken his enemies in the European Union and NATO by withdrawing from both.

Donald Trump’s bizarre pro-Putin tweets and Putin’s clear preference for him over Hillary Clinton in the American election were never as brazen as the romance between Le Pen and the Kremlin. The surreal chumminess between Trump and Putin was never going to last and may be over already, but it’s probably safe to say that a friendship between Putin and the National Front will last years.

Don’t get complacent just because normal politics prevailed in the election’s second round—the mainstream center-left and center-right parties both collapsed in the first. The underlying malady that hollowed out the establishment center hasn’t yet been addressed let alone solved.

Imagine if, during the presidential election last year in the United States, neither a Democrat nor a Republican were on the ballot. That’s basically what happened in France, and the left-wing revolt is just as creepy as the right’s. Candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon forged a political alliance with the communist party and is practically a communist himself, and he got three times as many votes as the mainstream center-left party. The squishy centrist who won the second round was only the first choice of 24 percent of the country, yet a full third of French voters would rather have raw monkey eyeballs dipped in Ebola for dinner than chicken.

So, sure, the center is holding, but for how long? Macron epitomizes the French status quo and intends to double down on it at the time when the French status quo has been broadly repudiated. Far more people on both ends of the spectrum hate it than like it. If he fails to satisfy the discontented—and it may be as difficult for him as it would have been for Hillary Clinton to satisfy the Trumpkins and the Bernie bros—the outcome of the next French election probably won’t look like this one.   

Russia is Arming the Taliban

So much for Donald Trump’s Russian reset. The United States military has just confirmed that for the past eighteen months, Russia has been arming the Taliban.

“We continue to get reports of this assistance,” General John Nicholson said at a press conference alongside Secretary of Defense James Mattis. “We support anyone who wants to help us advance the reconciliation process, but anyone who arms belligerents who perpetuate attacks like the one we saw two days ago in Mazar-e Sharif is not the best way forward to a peaceful reconciliation.”

There will be no reconciliation with Russia any time soon whether or not this is true but especially not if it is. And it almost certainly is. The Russians say they are arming Al Qaeda’s ideological twins so that the Taliban can fight ISIS. It’s a dubious claim. Heavy Russian machine guns are showing up in Taliban hands far from ISIS positions. More important is that Russia isn’t even denying that it’s arming the Taliban.

The notion that Moscow is a natural ally against radical Islamist terrorists is based on a fantasy. It’s a compelling one, to be sure. On the surface, the Russians are a bit like us. Most of them are white and they are predominantly Christian. Most of Russia is in Asia, but their capital is on the European continent. Their eastward expansion to Alaska, Hawaii and—yes—California differed in so many ways from America’s westward expansion to the same places, but our expansionist history certainly overlaps more with Russia’s than with, say, Norway’s. The United States is clearly a child of the Roman Empire, as much of the architecture in Washington, DC, suggests, while Russia has long considered itself the Third Rome after the original Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. And for much of the 20th Century, the United States and Russia were the world’s twin superpowers.

Now that communism has collapsed everywhere outside North Korea, Cuba and Laos, and now that radical Islamist terrorists menace much of the world—especially Muslim lands, but also the United States and Russia—an alliance at least against that particular threat between Moscow and Washington makes perfect sense. Americans who yearn for it and who are willing to let a certain amount of Vladimir Putin’s nefarious behavior slide to bring it about are entirely reasonable.

Putin, though, isn’t interested.

Russia’s primary geopolitical orientation has been anti-American since the end of World War II. For a brief period, Russia had far too many of its own internal problems to care a whit what the US was up to, but with the rise of former KGB officer Vladimir Putin, whose view of the world was shaped by the Cold War as much as Ronald Reagan’s was, the old Russia of Khrushchev and Brezhnev is back.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Just look at Putin’s behavior—he invaded and annexed parts of Georgia, he invaded and annexed parts of Ukraine, he’s backing Syria’s murderous Assad regime in Syria and only pretending to fight ISIS, and now he’s arming the Taliban.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we got along with Russia?” Trump asked during last year’s campaign. In the alternate universe where that’s actually possible, sure.

A couple of months ago I argued that Vladimir Putin will inevitably stab Donald Trump in the front because he’s a scorpion and it’s what scorpions do. As it turns out, Putin had already stabbed Trump in the front. We just hadn’t realized it yet.

Is Beijing Serious About Restraining Kim Regime?

On Monday, Human Rights Watch asked China to immediately reveal the location of where it is holding eight North Korean defectors.

The group of defectors was stopped after a random traffic check in the northeastern city of Shenyang in mid-March.

“There is no way to sugar coat this: if this group is forced back to North Korea, their lives and safety will be at risk,” said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch. North Korea, now and in the past, has subjected returned defectors to “torture, sexual violence, forced labor—and even worse,” he said in a statement. That is especially true for those returned more than once.

At least four of those detained are females. “President Trump and Chinese President, please save us,” one of the women said in a video. “If we go back to North Korea, we will be dead.”

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.


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