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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Radical Islam and its Discontents

In his first speech before Congress, President Donald Trump defied his new National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster when he said the United States government is “taking strong measures to protect our nation from radical Islamic terrorism.”

McMaster believes, as does former president Barack Obama, that the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” alienates America’s Muslim allies and therefore complicates our efforts against Al Qaeda and ISIS.  He implored the president to refrain from using those words, but Trump did it anyway.

Of course he did. Last year, he blasted Hillary Clinton for refusing to say “Islamic terrorism.” She proved him wrong at once by saying “Islamic terrorism,” but Trump’s real target was her former boss Barack Obama, who spent eight years eschewing that and similar phrases.

I spent more than a decade on and off in the Middle East and never heard so much as a whisper about this while I was over there. I used the more precise word “Islamist” to describe Al Qaeda and ISIS hundreds of times in conversations and interviews with all kinds of people, from cab drivers to heads of state, and not a single person ever admonished me for it.

Perhaps no one admonished me because I was precise enough. And it’s certainly possible that some of McMaster’s counterparts in Baghdad grumbled about the words Trump thinks are so crucial. If so, I frankly doubt the sentiment is a common one. If you preface the word “Islamic” with “radical,” you’re effectively saying the same thing as “Islamist.”

In any case, everybody in the Middle East knows perfectly well that the likes of Al Qaeda and ISIS are Islamic as well as Islamist. Not even conspiracy theorists believe otherwise. The region’s secularists, liberals, moderates and even everyday conservatives fear and loathe the Islamists. Referring to them as Salafists, radical Islamists, Islamic extremists, Islamists, or just plain radicals or extremists is fair game. Middle Easterners themselves use those words to describe Al Qaeda and ISIS, so why shouldn’t we?

What one should not do is lump the entire Islamic world into a single sinister category.

Trump’s previous National Security Advisor Mike Flynn did that repeatedly before the president fired him. “Islam is a political ideology,” he said in a speech last August. “It hides behind this notion of it being a religion…It’s like a malignant cancer.” He didn’t say Islamism or radical Islam is a malignant cancer. He said Islam is a malignant cancer, which suggest anyone and everyone who practices that religion is potentially deadly. It ought to go without saying that this kind of inflammatory language alienates nearly all our allies in the Middle East from Kurdistan to Morocco.

Much of the American far-right talks about Islam and terrorism the way Mike Flynn does. (Just read the comment sections on Breitbart). These people have convinced themselves, against all evidence and reason, that moderate Muslims don’t exist, that every Muslim in the entire world is either a genocidal totalitarian or a Muslim-in-name-only.

So on this question at least, Donald Trump is a moderate.

“After 8 years of obfuscation and disastrous Counterterrorism policies those 3 words are key to Victory against Global Jihadism,” Trump’s Deputy Assistant Sebastian Gorka tweeted this week.  The president himself made the same point last year. “Unless you're going to say that, you're never going to solve it.”

Words matter to writers, scholars, diplomats, lawyers and therapists, but they aren’t everything, and they certainly don’t have any magical powers. The United States and its allies could have beaten Adolf Hitler just as easily if nobody on our side even once uttered “National Socialist German Worker’s Party.” In fact, that’s pretty much what happened. Calling our enemies “Nazis” and leaving it at that was perfectly sufficient when coupled with Allied air, sea and land power. I’d be willing to bet that a large majority of Americans aren’t even aware anymore that the National Socialist German Worker’s Party was the longform name of the Nazi Party. If anyone in the Roosevelt administration said, “we can’t just call them Nazis, we have to make it clear that we’re fighting the National Socialist German Worker’s Party,” they’d have been laughed out of the room.

“Not once has an advisor of mine said, man, if we use that phrase, we’re going to turn this whole thing around,” Obama said last year. “If someone seriously thinks we don’t know who we’re fighting, if there’s anyone out there who thinks we’re confused about who our enemies are, that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we’ve taken off the battlefield.”

Even so, he acknowledges that there is a vast gulf between Trump’s rhetoric and Flynn’s. “Do I think that if somebody uses the phrase ‘Islamic terrorism’ that it’s a huge deal?” he said. “No. There is no doubt that [ISIS and Al Qaeda] think and claim that they’re speaking for Islam, but I don’t want to validate what they do.”

Islamic civilization is vast and complex. It includes liberal reformers, moderates, conservatives and hardliners, and some of the hardliners are violent. We can’t evict ISIS from Islam any more than ISIS can evict liberal Muslims like King Mohammed VI of Morocco.

Obama’s and McMaster aversion to offending our allies is almost certainly harmless. But honestly, Trump’s use of the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” most likely is too.

The Closing of the Conservative Mind

Donald Trump won last year’s Republican civil war and most of the losers surrendered.

A buffoonish and narcisistic reality TV star who spent his entire life as a boorish Democrat and who had nothing but contempt for the Republican Party and traditional American conservatism has managed, like a conquering warlord, to rally the vanquished around him.

There are exceptions, however, and Claire Berlinski is one of them. She and I spent the last decade covering foreign affairs in the Middle East and Europe and are alarmed by the new president’s contempt for the American-made trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific security architecture and at how whimsically American conservatives are willing to reverse their own party’s longstanding positions on everything from Vladimir Putin to NATO.

She and I spoke last week.

MJT: I want to start with a quote from retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus.

"Americans should not take the current international order for granted. It did not will itself into existence. We created it. Likewise, it is not naturally self-sustaining. We have sustained it. If we stop doing so, it will fray and, eventually, collapse.”

That is an excellent rebuttal to the Obama administration’s limp foreign policy of managed American decline overseas, and we heard a version of Petraeus’ critique from conservatives for eight years during the previous president’s term. But Petraeus said that two weeks ago while chastising the Trump administration. Donald Trump doing worse than doubling-down on Obamaism rather than reversing it as John McCain or Mitt Romney would have done. He seems to be willing to set the entire American-made international order on fire, as if everything from 1945 onward is suddenly on the table, not just NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership but even Japan’s demilitarization and NATO. He is consistently friendlier to Vladimir Putin’s Russia than he is to Europe. The Republican Party would have a stress-induced heart attack if a Democratic president were doing these things, wouldn’t it?

Claire Berlinski: Yeah, on Twitter David Frum wrote, "It’s as if a hostile foreign power has seized the US government and is by remote control steering it toward the maximum possible catastrophe.” Which it really is. I man, what more would you do?

Did you see that CNN piece about what happened at a Mar-a-Lago dinner party after they got news of the North Korean missile launch? “Trump and [Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo] Abe’s evening meal quickly morphed into a strategy session, the decision-making on full view to fellow diners, who described it in detail to CNN.”

You’re there, I’m not—I can’t tell if people are slowly beginning to realize just what an insane catastrophe we’ve got ourselves into, as in, we could all die from this kind of incompetence and from his species of mental illness—or are the people who voted for him still mostly stuck in cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, minimizing reports like that as, yeah, overwrought, pearl-clutchers' Lügenpresse

I’m scared. Trouble sleeping, scared. I just don’t sense (from here) the urgency that ought to be there around the right issues. Yes, people are marching about abortion rights and racism, but this is so much bigger than abortion rights or building a wall or whatever at this point. This is about basic competence to do the job of the commander-in-chief, to keep communication secure, to read and understand a cable, to make judgments about the last vestiges of the NPT. I frankly don’t know if the guy can even read. And I don’t think he has a clue about what Petraeus said. If we say, “To hell with it,” it will go to hell, and faster than anyone imagines possible.

MJT: You’re right, there isn’t enough urgency about protecting the international order. The only people who seem to care are disaffected Never Trump conservatives and national security liberals from the centrist wing of the Democratic Party. The left, for the most part, is still stuck on identity politics and banging on about how mean and offensive Trump is. Trump is mean and offensive, so that’s fair enough as far as it goes, but if the international order falls apart while they’re making fun of him on Saturday Night Live and Twitter, so what?

The right, meanwhile, is banging on about America First, apparently oblivious to the fact that the last time we had an America First movement in the United States, Adolf Hitler became ruler of Europe. There is no Hitler on the horizon—ISIS is just as vicious but far too weak, and Vladimir Putin doesn’t even qualify as a bat boy in the league Hitler played in—but still. I can’t quite tell if American conservatives are going along with this for tribal partisan reasons or if the vast majority of my fellow citizens, left and right, don’t really care if the world burns as long as ISIS leaves us alone and we can fix health care.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that the American-built international order exists because it serves our national interests. How on earth did we get to the point where left and right alike are blowing it off? Because the Iraq War didn’t work out how we hoped? There has to be more going on than just that. Newt Gingrich suggested last year that NATO might not defend Estonia if Russia invaded, and that has nothing whatsoever to do with the Middle East.

Claire Berlinski: Two thoughts about that “America First” slogan. The first is that I cannot believe, or maybe I can but I just don’t want to, that people are using this slogan and thinking it’s fine. I’ve spent all week writing a response, probably never to be published, to Newt Gingrich’s column in the Washington Post, the one where he wrote that Trump’s model is Margaret Thatcher. (And he appeals to my book to make his case, which is why I’ve spent a week having a futile mental argument with him.) I was looking through the Thatcher archives to see if she’d ever referred to that slogan. I didn't find a specific reference to it, but there are thousands of documents that make it absolutely crystal clear what she would have said, if asked. This is from 1997, well after the end of the Cold War:

We dare not forget that the freedom of this cultured, enterprising people [she was in Prague] was snuffed out by each of the two monstrous, totalitarian systems of our century—intimidated, dismembered, and absorbed by Nazi Germany; subverted, betrayed, and enslaved by Communist Russia; and each time with the West standing impotently aside. These are blots on the history of the civilized world…

How quickly lessons are forgotten and deductions from events distorted! Two world wars have flowed from American disengagement from Europe. [my emphasis] By contrast, the cold war was won because America defended Western Europe’s security as its own...

I keep thinking that something really strange has happened to American collective national memory—whole things that should be there, basic memories of things we all lived through, or things our parents or our grandparents lived through, have [snap!] just gone missing. Like a person who has a stroke and loses the fifth grade. I’ve actually been spending a lot of time puzzling over this, as I guess you are, trying to figure out if this happens to every generation—does everyone sooner or later see this happening if they live long enough? Or is this kind of collective amnesia really specific to this political moment, and if so, why? Is it something to do with the Internet? The long-term effects of television? Could there be a cause that no one’s even imagined yet?*

Anyway, Margaret Thatcher is nothing like Trump, and Newt should know this perfectly well because they were contemporaries. And she would have flipped her wig if an American president had used the slogan “America First” in his inaugural address. Repeatedly. I mean, for God’s sake! You'd have to be entirely unfamiliar with the interwar period and the origins of the Second World War to be unaware where it comes from and what it means. To the point of having no real sense at all of how the world you live in came into being—you’d be like a goldfish circling ‘round and ‘round the tank, thinking, “The tank is eternal, the tank is all there is, the tank is all there has ever been, the tank is all there ever will be.” It’s so goddamned weird: The President of the United States of America and some vast number of American citizens have never read an article in some in-flight magazine about Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee opposing the war against Nazi Germany, or spoken to a Second World War vet, or seen a documentary. The place in their minds where that stuff usually goes, probably along with the whole saga of the Spirit of St. Louis and the baby kidnapping—all of that is just blank. Nothing there. 

I suppose one thing that’s made it possible for someone to use the slogan “America First” is that the generation that lived through the Second World War is dying off. But Trump isn’t that young—he’d have grown up surrounded by veterans of the war; he’d know about all of this just from osmosis, right? I just came across a speech Thatcher gave in 1999 where she said, “There are very few today who doubt the prophetic importance of Churchill’s speeches attacking the appeasement of Nazism in the thirties.” How the hell did we not only manage to find one of those very few but elect him president! 

And that’s the most charitable interpretation. The charitable interpretation is that Trump is entirely unfamiliar with the cultural and political history of the United States, with Churchill’s efforts to convince America to enter the war, with Lindbergh and the America First Committee. He really doesn’t know any of it. But how could a mind so spotlessly virginal be able to understand, no less wisely discharge, the awesome responsibilities of the office he now holds? 

Then there's the less charitable interpretation. How could he not have known by the day he was inaugurated? The media went nuts, the ADL “begged him to reconsider.” So maybe he’s using it consciously. I resist this thought because the idea of an American president who consciously models himself on a Nazi sympathizer like Charles Lindbergh is too weird and frightening to confront, so I retreat to the idea that I'm reading too much into things. But then, that inaugural speech, Jesus. It’s just impossible to avoid hearing all those Nazi associations. One heart, one home, and one glorious destiny…total allegiance…The alternative to believing all of that resonance was intentional is believing the inaugural address of the 45th President of the United States was written with no thought, care or craft. Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth, right? And whichever one it is, it’s unthinkable.

*Maybe one day researchers will pinpoint the moment in 2013 when Flight Attendant X returned from Caracas, bringing with her the highly infectious T. idiocracii virus she’d contracted from a lemur in a petting zoo …

MJT: Like you, Claire, I would like to be charitable. I have always believed that one should not ascribe to malice what can just as easily be explained by incompetence. I repeatedly used that maxim to defend the Obama administration in online discussions, and I will do the same for the Trump administration. It seems like a small thing, but it’s huge actually. Having two incompetent presidents in a row is a very different thing from having two malicious and treasonous presidents in a row. America can survive one of those scenarios, but not the other.

And I think it’s safe to say at this point that Donald Trump is staggeringly incompetent intellectually. He does not read. He learns everything he thinks he knows from television. Where did you learn about Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee? Probably not from television. I certainly didn’t. I am not a historian, but I have shelves and shelves of history books in my office. Meanwhile, the president of the United States is so incurious intellectually that he isn’t even interested in his intelligence briefings.

I got into an argument online recently with a man who calls himself a historian who says he hadn’t heard of the America First Committee until this year. I’m pretty sure he was lying, but either way something terrible indeed has happened to America’s historical memory. The best explanation I can think of is that those who lived through that period are no longer with us and not enough people read anything that isn’t on Facebook.

I don’t mean to come across like an intellectual snob. To paraphrase our City Journal colleague Anthony Daniels, a society that consisted of nothing but scholars would soon starve to death, and it wouldn’t be very interesting while it lasted. But we’re talking about the president of the United States here. I expect more from him than I expect from the man who picks up the garbage on my sidewalk each Monday.

What alarms me even more, though, to be honest, is the vast number of people who voted for him (Because Hillary) and feel some tribal partisan need to defend and Trumpsplain every half-baked thing he says. What is going to happen to the conservative half of America if they convince themselves that every conspiracy theory and "alternative fact" that comes out of his mouth is actually true? I've seen a lot of that in the Arab world and it doesn’t end well.

Claire Berlinski: Yes, this is the second-most-alarming part of the whole thing. (The first-most alarming part being the unprecedented number of massive international crises involving nuked up, stressed-out, barely-above-failed states actors, all about to come to a head even as POTUS calmly dines al fresco— “munching on crisp wedges of iceberg lettuce and blue cheese dressing”—at an unsecure Czar-a-Lago dining table, classified documents strewn hither and yon and illuminated by no-doubt compromised cell phones beaming back to the Kremlin every detail of the interchange.) What are London bookies giving the odds on a nuclear weapons exchange before the end of the administration?

And yes, the second-most-alarming thing is really fucking alarming, too. I know especially well from Ricochet that they are in their own, internally consistent cognitive world and can’t be reasoned out of it. We desperately need a compromise figure—one of true greatness—around whom the country can rally, but I can’t see one. Ben Sasse is too much of a wimp. Because this is getting too dangerous: They don’t think they’re at war with radical Islam, China, or Russia: They thing they’re at war with people like you and me. Heretics.

MJT: Welcome to my world. The left declared me a heretic fifteen years ago. It’s survivable. You will lose some friends but you will also make new ones. Some of your new friends may be temporary while others will be permanent.

At least the left is not hunting heretics at the moment, but I sense something terrible is about to happen to the Democratic Party as well. A cranky socialist from Vermont who isn’t even a Democrat almost pulled off a hostile takeover of that party. Bernie Sanders hasn’t learned a single new thing about economics or politics since the 1930s. He and most of his fans are just as ignorant about foreign policy as Donald Trump. Whatever is wrong with America and the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party, he can’t possibly be the right answer.

Both the left and the right have become much more aggressive in the last year, and they are both becoming less liberal in the classical sense of that word. I fear that the United States is gearing up for a political Clash of the Titans, with two enormous politically unhinged factions battling it out against each other at the ballot box, in Congress and in the streets. It makes me tempted to relocate myself to the countryside.

Something huge is sweeping over America and Donald Trump is just a symptom. If he has a stress-induced heart attack tomorrow and is replaced by Mike Pence I’ll breathe a sigh of relief, but we’re at the very beginning of a new era now, and removing Donald Trump from the White House would not put an end to it. Whatever this is, it seems to be happening in Europe too, and since you live in Paris, I have to ask: how are things looking on the Continent? There is no way that Brexit is the last act of the right-wing populist movements in Europe.

Claire Berlinski: Have you ever read the memorandum that Undersecretary of State Will Clayton sent back to Dean Acheson in 1947 about Europe, arguing for the Marshall Plan? “Without further prompt and substantial aid from the United States,” he wrote,

economic, social, and political disintegration will overwhelm Europe. Aside from the awful implications which this would have for the future peace and security of the world, the immediate effects on our domestic economy would be disastrous: markets for our surplus production gone, unemployment, depression, a heavily unbalanced budget on the background of a mountainous war debt. ·.. It will be necessary for the President and Secretary of State to make a strong spiritual appeal to the American people to sacrifice a little themselves, to draw in their own belts just a little in order to save Europe from starvation and chaos (not from the Russians [emphasis original]) and, at the same time, to preserve, for ourselves and our children the glorious heritage of a free America. 

“The United States,” he concluded, “must run this show.”

So that’s been the policy, since 1947—We can’t be totally straight with Americans about the nature of our security interests in Europe, but we have them. And that’s been true since and remains true now. It’s been taken as axiomatic by US defense planners that, as they put it in the 1995 National Security Strategy, “The United States has vital interests in a Europe that is democratic, undivided, stable and prosperous, open to trade and investment opportunities, and supportive of political, economic, and military cooperation with the United States in Europe and other important parts of the world.” But we never did get around to updating the messaging for Americans: We sold this as, “Let’s make sure the poor kids of Europe don’t starve,” and now, given that they’re visibly not starving, Americans don’t get why it's still important for us to run this show. Our leaders never bothered to explain to them that it was always a little more complicated (but no less important) than that. 

And lately, unsurprisingly, we’ve had a lot of Americans wondering why we do this. Perhaps we don’t have a vital interest in any of this? Would we truly notice the difference if Europe were autocratic, divided, unstable, poor, closed to trade and investment, and unsupportive of cooperation with the United States? Or in an alliance with China

(Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s intellectually healthy to ask these questions: Every so often, even our most fundamental axioms should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. But it is a kind of suicidal ideation, geopolitically speaking, to be asking this question in the White House, right now, precisely as we run the real risk of finding out.) 

So here we are, with Russia taking big bites out of Europe. Just days before Donald Trump became the ultimate guarantor of the West’s security, just days before he enters the White House, the President-elect once again expressed, unprompted, his diffidence or disdain toward NATO and the European Union. He pretty much said there’s no longer a purpose to the West’s security architecture. It’s hard to imagine how his comments would have been different had they been written by the Kremlin (and now of course many of us are wondering if they were, literally). But this is even more bizarre because James Mattis, his own nominee for Secretary of Defense recently warned that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea have created “the most dangerous situation in a crisis-strewn region. And there is the potential I believe that Putin has unleashed forces that he will be personally unable to control.” So God knows what our policy is—I suppose it will depend who wins the bureaucratic shadow war. I wouldn’t bet against Mattis, but that’s another question.

(Tangentially, it’s not ridiculous to describe the EU, as Trump did, as a “vehicle” for German control. What Trump meant was unclear, but it’s true that the point of the EU, even if it is diplomatically unspeakable, is that it’s a vehicle for controlling Germany—which is and will always be an unstoppably dynamic continental power—and peacefully harnessing its energy. The pacification of Germany and its transformation into the continent’s peaceful economic engine are among the greatest achievements in American history, perhaps the greatest. So while I don’t think that’s what Trump meant, he inadvertently said something insightful.)     

So where Europe is going will depend a lot on where the US is going. Angela Merkel’s saying the right thing when she says “Europe’s future is in our hands”—I mean, what else can she say—but the US has always played a role no European power can play, because Europe (especially with Britain out) has no stable, hegemonic power center except Germany, and there are just too many bad memories for Germany to play that role. That’s why Europe has been so hapless at confronting all the things it obviously needs to confront. It can’t agree on a solid plan for the refugee crisis, a single and coherent foreign policy, a response to the Euro crisis, or (as we will soon see) a negotiating strategy with Britain. No one’s really in charge. It was designed with the assumption that the US would, in effect, be in charge. So the EU doesn’t have the authority to fix the problems that are causing the crisis of legitimacy for the EU. 

But the historically illiterate ideologues in the US who assume, because Nigel Farage told them so, that if the EU collapses, you’ll suddenly get a blooming garden of happy, sovereign, prosperous, and independent nation-states, all trading and cooperating together with ease? They’re out of their minds. Everything in European history tells us what would happen: violent competition for mastery and imperial expansion, with the smaller states swallowed up by the larger ones. I mean, do these people even realize that France was never a nation? It went right from being an empire to being part of the EU. 

Anyway, in the last decade or so there’s been a cottage industry in writing books about the mounting risks to Europe and the transatlantic alliance. I wrote one ten years ago; it was widely seen as alarmist. It isn’t seen that way any more, although the odd thing is that I think it should be seen that way, it was alarmist. I missed a lot, and failed to see a lot of strengths that are also here. As you know I just reviewed Jamie Kirchick's first book, The End of Europe, the latest entry in the specter-haunting-Europe genre, and in some chapters, it's excellent, especially when he sticks to his former RFE/RL beat and discusses the way Russia exploits ethnic tensions along Europe’s eastern periphery. Yes, Europe has a big problem assimilating immigrants; yes, we’re seeing the rise of authoritarian populist parties everywhere; yes, the whole thing’s a financial house of cards just waiting for the Italian banks to collapse; yes, they have no idea how to pay for their social welfare states, especially because Europeans don’t have babies. All of that is true. As is the usual list of problems people talk about when they talk about Europe: anti-Semitism, nationalism, high debt levels. Doomed by its own demography to financial shocks and economic sluggishness. The aging population undermines productivity and shifts consumption toward services, such as health care, and away from goods and investment. The shortage of younger workers reduces tax revenues, so immigration to bolster the workforce is the only solution, and tension about immigration inevitable. The number of European states with autocratic elements is on the rise and no one knows what to do about this. And of course, almost every day you read of another boat full of refugees capsizing in the Mediterranean. No one knows what to do about that either. 

The EU’s institutions just weren’t built to handle problems like this. The EU sets monetary policy for Eurozone states, but state capitals retain fiscal and security responsibilities, so the poorer members wind up saddled with debt and sluggish growth—and no state ultimately responsible in a buck-stops-here way for challenges like securing European borders. The banks are still unevenly capitalized and regulated. There is still no common plan to cope with migration within and into Europe.

And Donald Trump is dead wrong about Brexit. It’s a catastrophe, one that will encourage regional and separatist movements throughout Europe. There are dozens of Yugoslavias-in-prospect. I mean, again, this is an important point — these people who want to “go back” to a time when all of these countries were independent know no European history at all. These were collections of duchies and principalities and empires. There was no “France,” there was no “Italy,” there was no “Germany,” and as soon as there were, they started slaughtering each other. For years, the task of figuring out how to get Britain out of Europe in the least damaging way will preoccupy Britain and the Continent, undermining the region’s international clout and weakening transatlantic cooperation, to the extent that the US under Trump isn’t inclined to cooperate about anything. And the far-right populist parties thrive on this kind of chaos. They’re financed by the Kremlin, and sympathetic to it, or willing to accommodate it, and they've making steady electoral gains. And like our populists, they won’t be able to make anything better if they take power. They’ll just create chaos. 

There’s a risk, though, that I hadn’t appreciated in pointing out all of these problems. The risk is of evoking contempt in American readers, rather than concern; fatalism in the place of leadership. The optimism about Europe in 2000 was excessive, but the pessimism about Europe now is also, probably, excessive. The Franco-German border is completely demilitarized. Americans have become totally hysterical about Muslim migration into Europe, but the fear is completely out of proportion. There are seven hundred million Europeans here—a million Muslims won’t change things all that profoundly. The collapse of the European Union does not, inherently, need to be a humanitarian catastrophe—it depends how it’s managed. And if European demography suggests reasons for pessimism about Europe’s future, there is also a bright side: Old people don’t go to war.

I have a lot more to say about this, but short answer: I’m more worried about the US. If the US behaves like a rational superpower, all of this can be managed. But if we keep it up with this Sick-Man-of-the-Globe act, Europe will wash down the tubes with us, I fear. 

The Swamp Strikes Back

Mike Flynn is finished as President Donald Trump's national security advisor. He lied to the administration and to the public and denied telling Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that the Trump administration would roll back the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia. Flynn is admitting now that he “may have” actually said that in a phone call last month, apologized to everybody, and resigned.

How do we know Flynn did it? Because the CIA taped the call and leaked the details. (The CIA was eavesdropping on the Russians, by the way, not on Flynn. It’s what the CIA does.)

The CIA also rejected Flynn deputy Robin Townley’s security clearance, terminating the deputy’s job on the National Security Council.

“They believe this is a hit job from inside the CIA on Flynn and the people close to him,” one anonymous source told Politico. Why might that be happening? Perhaps because, as another anonymous source who is apparently close to the president says, Flynn had been waging “a jihad against the intelligence community.” Trump hasn’t played well with the intelligence community either. You may recall that he compared the CIA and the FBI to Nazi Germany before he was even inaugurated.

The swamp—permanent bipartisan Washington—doesn’t want to be drained. Not by Donald Trump. Not by anybody. And the swamp can strike back—especially the intelligence agencies.

Last November, shortly after Trump won the election, Eli Lake wrote a stirring defense of the Washington swamp for Bloomberg.

But before writing off the swamp entirely, it's worth thinking for a minute about the man we just elected president. While many Americans are no doubt elated, Trump campaigned at times like an authoritarian. He threatened his accusers with lawsuits. He banned members of the press from his events. He promised to jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He encouraged, at times, his audience to rough up protesters.

It may be that all of this banana republic bravado was for show. But if this is truly who Trump is, the country will need the permanent political and governing class to stop him. The leaks, slow-rolling and backstabbing that in normal times infuriate those who try to reform Washington will be the first line of defense.

That is exactly what’s happening now, and there is no sign that it’s going to stop.

And this is not strictly about some “jihad” Flynn and Trump have been waging against the intelligence agencies. Plenty of others in Washington outside the CIA are fighting back too over the administration’s chumminess with Russia.

“Putin’s Russia is our adversary and moral opposite,” Republican senator John McCain wrote in an op-ed for USA Today on Monday this week. “It is committed to the destruction of the post-war, rule-based, world order built on American leadership and the primacy of our political and economic values…There is no placating Putin. There is no transforming him from a gangster to a responsible statesman. Previous administrations have tried and failed not because they didn’t try hard enough, but because Putin wants no part of it.”

“It’s as if a hostile foreign power has seized the US government and is by remote control steering it toward the maximum possible catastrophe,” former Bush administration official David Frum tweeted over the weekend.

Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) says Flynn should lose his security clearance, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says “we have a National Security Advisor who cannot be trusted not to put Putin before America. National security demands that General Flynn be fired immediately.”

That’s a bit much, and neither Pelosi nor Cummings are convincing national security hawks. One could be forgiven for assuming they are simply whacking the Trump administration with whatever partisan stick is at hand.

There should be no question, however, that the Trump administration, including Mike Flynn, is far too cozy with Russia. Even before Flynn said his boss could roll back American sanctions against Moscow, he was a guest on Kremlin propaganda channel RT (Russia Today). He sat next to Vladimir Putin at RT’s anniversary celebration, and he says he wants to partner with Russia in Syria.

Flynn is not, however, naïve, and contrary to Pelosi he does not put Putin’s interests before America’s.

I read Flynn’s book in November so you don’t have to. In it, he divides the world into two camps of hostiles—radical Islamists and what he calls “the alliance,” which includes Russia, Syria, North Korea, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. He understands perfectly well that Vladimir Putin is an enemy of the United States but wants to team up with the Russians anyway to fight ISIS. It’s a defensible position, but it’s of a piece with the Trump administration’s brazenly pro-Russian position.

Last year on “CBS This Morning,” Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich said “[NATO] countries ought to worry about our commitment. They ought to worry about commitment under any circumstances. Every president has been saying that the NATO countries do not pay their fair share…If Russia were to invade Estonia, I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg.”

Unlike some countries in Europe, Estonia does “pay its fair share” of the NATO expense burden, which requires member states to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Estonia spends 2.16 percent while the US spends 3.61 percent. If Gingrich or his boss were to leave the responsible Estonians out to dry in the face of a Russian invasion, NATO would disintegrate overnight and Europe would face its greatest crisis since World War II.

Last summer, Trump said he may be willing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and lift American sanctions against Moscow. If the United States were to recognize Crimea as Russian, we would join a dubious club of rogue states that includes North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela but not a single Western democracy.

Putin, Trump says, is “very smart.” “I think in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A.” “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.” He effectively told NBC’s Matt Lauer that Putin was no worse than Barack Obama. “Do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?” he said when Lauer rattled off a list of Putin’s crimes.

Earlier this month on Fox News, Bill O’Reilly asked the president if he respects Putin. “I do respect him,” Trump said.

“Why?!” O’Reilly said, visibly shocked. “Putin’s a killer.”

“There are a lot of killers,” Trump said, sounding like a leftist who has read Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and little else. “You think our country’s so innocent?”

Trump has been defending and even fawning over Vladimir Putin for a year now with remarkable consistency.

Little Estonia, meanwhile, is digging in and preparing to fight an anti-Russian insurgency by itself.

In 2013, Vladimir Putin gave our new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Russia’s Order of Friendship award. That prize may not be as meaningful as some critics fear, but Tillerson’s experience up until now has been strictly limited to his time at the helm of ExxonMobil, a job he was selected for in part because of his close relationship with Russia.  

And let’s not forget that Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort spent years working for Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian pawn Viktor Yanukovych until he was toppled in the 2014 revolution, and that Trump’s former foreign policy advisor Carter Page has close ties to the Kremlin and Russian gas giant Gazprom.

“If you're not familiar with Gazprom,” Josh Marshall writes, “imagine if most or all of the US energy industry were rolled up into a single company and it were personally controlled by the US President who used it as a source of revenue and patronage. That is Gazprom's role in the Russian political and economic system. It is no exaggeration to say that you cannot be involved with Gazprom at the very high level which Page has been without being wholly in alignment with Putin's policies. Those ties also allow Putin to put Page out of business at any time.”

So with all that as prologue, news that Flynn discussed lifting the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia and lied about it is, shall we say, a tad more sensitive than if he’d lied about something relatively innocuous like discussing a new NAFTA agreement with Canada.

Neither the intelligence agencies nor journalists nor the Democratic Party nor the Republican members of Congress who aren’t on the Trump Train are going to put up with this.

We Are Still Living With Eisenhower’s Biggest Mistake

The Tower magazine just published my latest long-form piece. Here's the first part.

American presidents make the same foreign policy mistakes over and over again. Intervening when they should not. Sitting on the sidelines when it’s the worst possible choice. Treating friends and allies like dirt while trusting duplicitous hostiles. If, as Karl Marx said, history repeats itself first as tragedy and a second time as farce, what are we supposed to say when history repeats itself decade after decade ad infinitum?

Historians are tasked with delivering us from George Santayana’s curse, where those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it, but historians can only save those who take the time to study the historical record, and even then it only works if the historical record is accurate.

Thank goodness, then, for Hudson Institute senior fellow Michael Doran’s valiant attempt to save us from ignorance and bad history in his bracing new book, Ike’s Gamble: America’s Rise to Dominance in the Middle East. He expertly walks us through the Suez Crisis of 1956 and its ghastly aftermath when Republican President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower learned the hard way that Israel, not Egypt or any other Arab state, should be the foundation of America’s security architecture in the Middle East.

When Eisenhower began his first term in 1953, the Cold War was just six years old. Not every country had chosen a side yet. The Middle East and North Africa were for the most part non-aligned, and Eisenhower hoped to bring the Arab world into the American camp.

Great Britain and France were still the predominant Western powers in the region, yet a nationalist anti-colonial wind was blowing—especially in Egypt, where the self-styled Free Officers, led by Mohammed Naguib and the charismatic young Gamal Abdel Nasser, had overthrown King Farouk the previous year. At the time, Nasser and other nationalists in the Arab world seemed to be the vanguard for an entire region, and if Eisenhower wanted the Arabs to stand with Washington against Moscow, he’d have to get on their good side.

Ike was in a tough spot, though, since America’s traditional allies were still colonial powers. Britain and France had drawn most of the Middle East’s borders after the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the waning days of World War I, and they’d installed and continued to maintain several governments in that part of the world. In Egypt’s case, Britain garrisoned troops in the Suez Canal, and both British and French investors owned the Suez Canal Company, which kept almost all the profits from ships transiting to and from the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. Hostility to the new state of Israel was also rampant from Baghdad to Rabat, especially in Israel’s borderland countries like Egypt.

So Ike and his foreign policy team felt compelled to distance themselves from Britain, France, and Israel to prevent the Arab states from aligning themselves with the Soviet Union. Nasser was fast becoming a leader in region-wide Arab politics, and he wanted what remained of the British Empire out of Egypt entirely. Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles—both natural anti-imperialists—decided to act as an honest broker, as they put it, between Cairo, London, Paris, and Jerusalem.

The U.S. hosted talks between the British and the Egyptians over the status of Britain’s military base in the canal zone, and the Americans effectively took Egypt’s side and strong-armed Britain into signing an agreement mandating a withdraw of all of its soldiers within 20 months. With one victory under his belt, Nasser went after the next. He nationalized the Suez Canal Company, even though it wasn’t supposed to be under Egyptian control until 1968 per the treaty, and he closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping.

On October 29, 1956, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt simultaneously and left Eisenhower holding the bag. Ike thought military action was the worst possible response, but at the same time he hoped for a quick Western victory, and he was exasperated with British delays and incompetence. Even so, he reluctantly took Egypt’s side and imposed crippling economic sanctions that effectively deprived Europe of imported energy. “Those who began this operation,” he told his aides, “should be left to work out their own oil problems—to boil in their own oil, so to speak.”

Britain had no choice but to withdraw, followed by France and Israel.

Ike didn’t feel comfortable doing any of this. Britain and France were American allies, after all, even though they behaved recklessly. He simply felt that he had little choice. “How could we possibly support Britain and France,” he said, “if in doing so we lose the whole Arab world?”

Nasser had conned Eisenhower, however, and he had done it masterfully.

One of Nasser’s deceptions should be familiar to anyone who has followed the painful ins and outs of botched Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Over and over again, Nasser used a strategy Doran calls “dangle and delay.” He repeatedly dangled the tantalizing idea of peace between Egypt and Israel in front of Eisenhower’s eyes, only to delay moving forward for one bogus reason after another. He never planned to make peace with Israel or even to engage in serious talks.

Nasser did, however, participate in theatrical arms negotiations with Washington that he knew would never go anywhere.

Eisenhower wanted to equip the Egyptian army. Nasser wasn’t stupid, though. He knew that Ike would attach strings to the deal. Egypt’s soldiers would need to be trained by Americans, and they’d be reliant on Americans for spare and replacement parts. Nasser really wanted to be armed by and tied to the Soviet Union, but had to pretend otherwise lest Eisenhower side with Britain, France, and Israel. So Nasser slowly sabotaged talks with the United States in such a way that made Washington seem unreasonable. That way, when he turned to the Soviet Union for weapons, he could half-plausibly say he had no choice.

Nasser did such a good job pretending to be pro-American that he convinced the United States to give him a world-class broadcasting network that allowed him to speak to the entire Arab world over the radio. Washington expected him to use his radio addresses to rally the Arab world behind America against the Russians. Instead, he used it to blast the United States with virulently anti-American propaganda and to undermine the West’s Arab allies. “Nasser,” Doran writes, “was the first revolutionary leader in the postwar Middle East to exploit the technology in order to call over the heads of the monarchs to the man on the street. Suddenly the Hashemite monarchy [in Iraq and Jordan] found itself sitting atop volcanoes.”

Nasser strode the Arab world like a colossus after his American-made victory in the Suez Crisis, and he became more brazenly anti-American as he gathered strength. Conning Ike was no longer possible, but Nasser didn’t need the United States anymore anyway.

Read the rest in The Tower magazine.


The Real Problem with Trump’s Executive Order

President Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban” isn’t a Muslim ban. The now-infamous executive order he signed last week bans non-citizens from entering the United States regardless of religion if they come from one of seven Muslim-majority nations. Those affected include Christians, Jews, atheists, pre-Islamic Yazidis, Kurds and the brave souls who risked their lives and no doubt saved American lives while working with and for the United States military.

The travel ban initially even included permanent residents of the United States who weren’t allowed to come home and wouldn’t be allowed to return home if they left.

One of the first people detained at a port of entry was a Yazidi woman whose husband worked for the United States military and already lives here. Yazidis are the victims of ISIS genocide. Blocking her entry and separating her from her husband was the immigration equivalent of the TSA strip-searching nuns at the airport.

Vian Dakhil, an Iraqi Yazidi politician who gave a famous speech in parliament about ISIS’ genocide of her people, will not be able to visit Washington next week to pick up her Lantos human rights prize. Decent people everywhere find this outrageous and stupid and cruel.

A friend of mine moved to the United States last month from Iraqi Kurdistan. He got in just under the wire. His wife needs to return to Erbil for a month to finish her master’s degree, and he sent me an email telling me she can’t go if she wants to come back to her husband, her children and her new home in America. “Things are going well here,” he said when I asked how he’s doing, “but Mr. President is giving me a hard time.”

I hired this man on one of my trips to Iraq. He was my fixer, my translator and my driver. He took me into the war zone in Kirkuk outside the Kurdish autonomous area. I trusted him with my life. He is no terrorist. That’s for damn sure. The United States government also knows he isn’t a terrorist. They vetted him for two years.

I visited Iraq seven times and wrote a book about it. I know better than the president does how mind-bogglingly dysfunctional and dangerous that country is. Taking a closer look at immigrants and refugees from Iraq will never elicit a complaint from me.

But not a single terrorist from Trump’s seven countries—Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen—has ever killed anyone on American soil. Every terrorist who has ever killed anyone inside the United States came from someplace else, and none of those countries are on the travel ban list.

The 9/11 hijackers were from Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

The Boston Marathon bombers came from Russia, one of the few foreign countries our new president is so far unwilling to criticize.

“Shoe bomber” Richard Reid was born in Britain.

The male shooter in San Bernardino was born in the United States. His wife is from Pakistan.

Omar Mateen, the Florida nightclub shooter, was also born in the United States.

If we’d had Donald Trump’s policy on the books without interruption for the past 100 years, not a single American life would have been saved.

*

The radical left is doing what it does best—hyperventilating about a rising Nazi regime in America. As if the United States and its allies killed millions of Germans in the 1940s because a clown like Donald Trump saddled up in Berlin.

Even so, it’s clear now that the White House was far more interested in imposing the most draconian ban possible than in protecting American citizens.

One should never assume malevolence as a motive when incompetence explains a botched outcome just as convincingly, but we know now that much of what happened with the rollout was deliberate. The Department of Homeland Security assumed that the travel ban would not apply to Green Card holders, but the White House overruled DHS and said that the travel ban does indeed apply to permanent residents of the United States.

Aides to the chairmen of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Judiciary Committee, and the House Homeland Security Committee say the Trump administration refused to consult with them or even give them a heads-up about the executive order. It doesn’t take a political rocket scientist to figure out why. They would have watered it down.

During his campaign against Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump said he wants to ban every Muslim on earth from coming here. “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on.” Those are his words. He posted them on his website. That declaration is still on his website as of the time of this writing. It has been there for a year now and will almost certainly be there tomorrow.

“When [Trump] first announced it,” former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani said in an interview a couple of days ago on Fox News, “he said, ‘Muslim ban.’ He called me up. He said, ‘Put a commission together. Show me the right way to do it legally.’”

That is why thousands of protesters are streaming into airports all over the country, and that is why so many of them are calling Trump’s executive order a Muslim ban even though it is not. What the president wants is as obvious as a skyscraper to everyone who isn’t plugging their ears.

Trump didn’t want to hear from any experienced professional who might convince him to water down his executive order. Rudy Giuliani's team had already gone far enough.

With the apparent exception of General James Mattis, Trump’s terrific pick for Secretary of Defense, Trump wants to hear from as few experienced people as possible who might moderate his positions. How else to explain his appointment of Steve Bannon—publisher of the incendiary Breitbart website that recently included a “Black Crime” section—to the National Security Council while giving the boot to the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? “Who needs to hear from intelligence or military professionals,” Max Boot sarcastically writes in Foreign Policy, “when you can hear from the publisher of Breitbart?”

So things went as planned, but not really. Trump’s disapproval rating shot up 6 points in four days. It’s already above 50 percent. By contrast, Barack Obama’s disapproval rating early in his term was just 12 percent.

Everyone from the far-left to the Trump’s Republican critics are angry. “In the future,” said Michael McCaul, the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, “such policy changes should be better coordinated with the agencies implementing them and with Congress to ensure we get it right—and don’t undermine our nation’s credibility while trying to restore it.”

“It would have been smarter to coordinate with us,” Virginia Representative Dave Brat said in an interview with The Atlantic. “They could have done a better job announcing how the complexities were going to work in advance.” Brat, by the way, isn’t a Democrat or a Never Trump conservative. He is a right-wing populist and one of the president’s political allies. At least for now, anyway.

The White House is responding to all this in the time-honored tradition of politics. With lies.

“Ha! That’s my formal response,” said an anonymous Republican Congressman to The Atlantic about White House Spokesman Sean Spicer’s claim that House and Senate Republicans wrote Donald Trump’s immigrant and refugee policy. “There was precisely zero coordination with us on the drafting of this executive order.”

Spicer also argued with a straight face that the travel ban had to be rushed through at once because terrorists would swarm into the country if they had a couple weeks notice. It takes more than a year and often up to two years to be vetted as an immigrant or a refugee. Everyone left stranded and everyone who remains banned have already been vetted. They aren’t illegal immigrants. Unlike Mexican border-hoppers, these people got in line and followed the rules.

“My policy,” Trump says, “is similar to what President Obama did in 2011 when he banned visas for refugees from Iraq for six months.”

No, it's not. And that statement can’t be aimed at his base. If Donald Trump’s refugee policy is no different from Barack Obama’s, what was the point of electing him in the first place? The Obama administration slowed down the refugee process for six months in 2011 for entirely sensible reasons, but it never imposed a full travel ban, especially not for permanent residents who already live here.

That’s why nobody protested at the time. To be sure, plenty on the left are partisan hacks—like every other president in American history, both Obama and Trump have their claques of clapping seals who think their guy is right about everything—but no one with a lick of sense ever thought Barack Obama wanted to ban Muslims from the entering the United States.

The president said on Twitter that only 109 people were detained and held for questioning and blamed the chaos on a Delta airlines computer crash.

Sean Spicer said the same thing and more. “Remember we’re talking about a universe of 109 people,” he said. “There were 325,000 people that came into this country over a 24-hour period from another country; 109 of them were stopped for additional screening…I think it’s a shame that people were inconvenienced, obviously. But at the end of the day, we’re talking about a couple hours. I’m sorry that some folks may have had to wait a little while.”

Give us a break. That doesn’t take into account the 348 people in airports all over the world who weren’t allowed to get on planes in the first place, nor does it take into account those, like the Yazidi human rights activist who isn’t welcome here anymore, who were authorized to come here and can’t now. It certainly doesn’t take into account the massive diplomatic and political fallout worldwide or the fact that it feeds into the insane ISIS narrative that the West and the Muslim world are engaged in a clash of civilizations.

American diplomats in Baghdad are warning us—to no avail whatsoever—that our delicate military and political ties are in jeopardy right in the middle of the war against ISIS. You don’t have to take their word for it. Listen to Iraqi General Talib al Kenani in his interview with CBS News. “I’m a four-star general, and I’m banned from entering the U.S.? I have been fighting terrorism for 13 years and winning. Now my kids are now asking if I’m a terrorist? There are many American troops here in Iraq. After this ban how are we supposed to deal with each other? We thought we were partners with our American friends, and now we realize that we’re just considered terrorists.”

The very people we need to keep on our side in the Middle East feel like we hate them, and they aren’t imagining things. The president’s most strident supporters clearly do hate them. The mood in America has grown so alarmingly vicious and reactionary lately that I had to close my comment section for the first time in fifteen years. I will not even consider turning it back on until Donald Trump is out of the White House. The volume of nastiness and hostility is so overwhelming that the entire world is hearing it now that it has a champion in the White House. It’s going to blow back in our faces in ways that we haven’t even figured out yet.  

“It’s a very dangerous thing,” writes Hoover Institution scholar Benjamin Wittes, “to have a White House that can’t with the remotest pretense of competence and governance put together a major policy document on a crucial set of national security issues without inducing an avalanche of litigation and wide diplomatic fallout.”

Former CIA director and retired general David Petraeus is urging the administration to wind down the travel ban as quickly as possible. "Americans should not take the current international order for granted,” he said. “It did not will itself into existence. We created it. Likewise, it is not naturally self-sustaining. We have sustained it. If we stop doing so, it will fray and, eventually, collapse.”

The Trump administration deliberately crafted an executive order to inflict the maximum amount of pain possible, waited for everyone from the radical left to the moderate right to explode, then walked the worst parts of it back and lied about it on television. That isn’t governing. It’s tin-pot theatrics hatched by the former publisher of Breitbart who told journalist and historian Ron Radosh that he wants “to destroy the state” and “bring everything crashing down.” It’s precisely the kind of thing more than 100 conservative foreign policy professionals had in mind last year when they signed a letter saying they refused to work for a Trump administration.

So what’s the real problem with the president’s executive order? The real problem is that President Donald J. Trump has proven himself to be a man who will replace foreign policy, national security, domestic tranquility and America’s reputation with manipulative axe-grinding political drama. “But Hillary” will cut it no more. She is irrelevant now.

Those of us who hoped against the longest of odds that he would grow up and pivot can’t anymore. We know him now as a president and not just a candidate. The gravity of the job is not inspiring him to rise to the majesty of his office. He’s not just boasting about grabbing women by the pussy and yukking it up at sports arenas before howling mobs demanding he throw his political opponent in prison. He’s actually governing now, and he is doing so as a chaos engine.

The Trump era in American history will be every bit as aggressively ugly and stupid as the majority of American voters feared it would be.

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