Monday, September 26, 2016

Trump, Disqualified

     As we anticipate the first debate tonight between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, I would like to plead the case as to why Trump  goes into this contest already disqualified from being the President of the United States. I do not mean "disqualified" in a narrowly technical or legal sense, but in a logically objective one, the way someone who had spent a year posting on Facebook how desperately she wanted the Patriots to win the Superbowl would be logically disqualified from serving as referee for that game.
    My judgment is not rooted in some estimation of Trump's character or state of knowledge. Trump may be a much finer, more decent man than the one he plays on TV, and he may know much more than he lets on. He obviously has engaged in some corrupt business practices, but whether or not that should disqualify him from the presidency is an arguable question. Rather, he has disqualified himself by a number of statements he has made and positions to which he has committed himself over the course of this campaign. He stands in such stark breach of the political norms of our system that he can no more reasonably fill the office of President than a publicly rabid Patriots fan could fill the position of referee.
    An old Chinese adage states that "racing chariots cannot chase down one's own words," and in making certain utterances Donald Trump has shaped his public persona in ways that make it utterly incommensurate with the office of President. He is the proverbial square peg pleading to be jammed into a round hole. Indeed, this metaphor is much too quaint. More apt would be to compare him to a virus, which if introduced into our system by being given the office he seeks, will cause breakdown and dysfunction on an unpredictable scale.
    Below I've listed what I deem to be the six most egregiously disqualifying statements made by Donald Trump over the course of the campaign, with my explanation as to why they are so problematic. This is obviously a very partial list that could be greatly expanded, and there is room to quibble about their order of importance. I offer them as food for thought as people prepare to watch the debate:

6) "If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes." Asked whether he would defend our Baltic NATO allies against a Russian attack, NY Times interview, June 20, 2016.
   Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia joined NATO in 2004, over the strong objections of Russia. These Baltic states are in a similar relationship to Russia as the Ukraine- large ethnic Russian minorities live in each, and each nation disputes control of some territory with their larger neighbor. The potential of an outbreak of hostilities along these frontiers is thus very high, and no one who seeks to be Commander in Chief should EVER leave the Russians in any doubt that we stand ready to make good on our commitment to defend our NATO allies, so as to prevent the Russians from doing anything that might snowball quickly into a World War. In making this statement Donald Trump has guaranteed that the Baltic region will be radically destabilized as soon as he takes the oath of office, and he will never be able to conduct diplomacy concerning this region or the affairs of the NATO alliance more generally with the baseline confidence that a new president requires from allies and other counterparts.

5) “26,000 unreported sexual assults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?” Tweet, May 8, 2013.
    Aside from the doubt that this casts on Trump's general capacity as Executive to ensure the 14th Amendment's guarantee of the "equal protection of the law" with respect to issues of gender, this quote taints Trump's credibility as Commander in Chief in relation to the soldiers serving under him. How can soldiers expect him to serve as a fair broker in resolving this chronic problem if this is his professed perspective on its cause? How can they trust that they have his respect if this is his general estimation of their character?
4) “I am prepared to — if they’re not going to take care of us properly...” On whether he was prepared to see South Korea and Japan develop nuclear weapons, CNN, May 4, 2016.
     The entire balance of power in Northeast Asia has been predicated on the demilitarization of Japan and the security partnerships between the US and Japan and South Korea, respectively. For Trump to signal that he is willing to alter that balance of power invites mayhem and discord. The Korean War was in part set in motion by the North Korean leadership's misinterpretation of official pronouncements coming out of the US. With this kind of loose talk Trump tempts fate.

3) “We should have kept the oil. Now we go in, we knock the hell out of them, take the oil, we thereby take their wealth. They have so much money.” Speaking about Iraq on Fox and Friends, August 11, 2015.
        Trump's repeatedly stated intention to take Iraq's oil undermines any and all credibility that may remain in our Mid East policy. Millions of Middle Easterners are already highly suspect of the motives of the US, this will confirm them in their worst suspicions. If Trump actually carried through on the policy he would make us a bandit nation in breach of international law. Even if he never acts on this declaration, his simply having made it will cast a shadow on everything the US does in that region from the moment he is sworn in until doomsday, as every president that succeeds him would be viewed through the lens of this pronouncement. Even staunch allies such as Kuwait and Bahrain would be reticent to cooperate with us, out of fear that their assets would be targeted as plunder.

2) “He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall.” Explaining why Judge Curiel could not fairly try a lawsuit concerning Trump University, June 3, 2016, interview on CNN.
      This statement will forever poison Donald Trump's relationship with both the Latino community and the judiciary. For a man who seeks to be the Executive to call into question the competency of a sitting judge because of his ethnicity is beyond the pale, it fundamentally undermines his capacity to serve as a functional agent within the system of checks and balances that the Founders designed. For an agent of one branch of government to arbitrarily question the legitimacy of officials of the other branches of government is terribly corrosive to the credibility of the system as a whole. No one who wanted to serve the system in good faith should ever have indulged in this kind of invective. 

1) "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." December 7, 2015, campaign press release.
      In principle, this is a breach of the "no test of religion" clause of Article VI of the Constitution and of the First Amendment's prohibition against "the making of any law respecting an establishment of religion [or] impeding the free exercise of religion." This is such an egregious attack on the foundations of our Republic that it alone immediately disqualifies Trump from seeking the office of President. Beyond that, as I have written before, this statement is such a profound breach of the trust of the larger Islamic community that it would effectively hobble Trump in his relations with 1/5 of the world. Even if he repudiated this statement entirely and apologized for it, he would be met with mistrust and hostility in any country that had a significant Muslim population, making the most mundane aspects of foreign relations insuperably difficult. 
      Any one of these statements would have disqualified Trump from serving as President. If he knew how problematic they would be and made them anyway, he demonstrates a contempt for the office that precludes him serving it with any modicum of authority. If he did not know that making these statements would undermine his administration, he manifests a lack of competency that likewise disqualifies him from serving. Questions about whether Trump is a racist or a sexist are interesting, but their relevance to this contest are negated by the evidence of Trump's own words. On the basis of what Trump himself has said, he cannot serve as President of the United States. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Millenials, If You Believe in Global Warming, Vote for Hillary (Not Gary Johnson)

A recent Quinnipiac University poll shows Hillary Clinton losing support among younger voters. In that survey, though Clinton enjoys the support of 41% of the electorate nationally, only 31% of voters aged 18-34 give Clinton as their choice in a four-way race. These younger voters are not rallying to Donald Trump, he exhibits a comparable gap between his national support and that among younger voters.  Rather, it would seem that a large segment of the youth vote that helped carry Barack Obama into the White House is contemplating defecting to Gary Johnson, the Libertarian nominee. He polls 29% of voters aged 18-34, a number far above his aggregate support of 13% among the national electorate at large.

This is counter-intuitive, as polls consistently show the environment to be among the concerns that most motivate younger voters, especially the crisis of global warming. Gary Johnson has managed to create the superficial impression that he is an environmentally conscious candidate. This is in part a function of his personal biography- he is an inveterate outdoorsman and seasoned mountain climber. He has suggested in interviews that he might be open to a "carbon fee" to reduce emissions. But a Johnson presidency, if it ever happened, would set back the fight against global warming by decades.

The Libertarian Party that nominated Johnson is a hotbed (no pun intended) of anti-global warming skepticism. A recent survey taken by the party of its own members found that a plurality agree with Donald Trump that "this whole global warming thing is a hoax." In his report of the survey's results, the Executive Director of the Libertarian Party, Wes Benedict, noted, "My natural inclination is to distrust politicians' proposals that grow government. I also distrust the scientists who live off government grants and benefit from generating hysteria over global warming." His attitude exemplifies the ideological stance of the party as a whole.

For all his attempts at bamboozling younger voters into believing otherwise, Gary Johnson is very much in lockstep with his party on the issue of global warming. He immediately drew intense fire from his co-partisans for his expressed willingness to consider a "carbon fee," and began backpedaling on that pronouncement. More troubling, when asked  in an LA Times interview whether he supports the Paris Agreement, the first effective international protocol that unites the world in the fight against global warming, Gary Johnson predictably dodged the question. His answer gave no position on the accord itself, only some pablum about the power of market forces to protect the environment that might have been lifted from the Libertarian Party platform.

Hillary Clinton suffers from the perception, during a time in which voters on all parts of the political spectrum want to see significant change, that she represents continuity. But on the issue of global warming this conventional wisdom overlooks the fact that we are in the midst of a profound change in US environmental policy that must be fostered and perpetuated if ecological catastrophe is to be averted. The Obama administration invested enormous effort and political capital into negotiating the Paris Agreement, a hugely significant reversal of the fossil fuel-friendly policy of the George W. Bush administration. For all the criticisms of this accord as not having gone far enough, it is the most robust and effective global policy response as yet formulated to the problem of global warming. Given the time frame in which action must be taken, the Paris Agreement is the best and last foundation on which the world has a chance to build moving forward. If the Agreement were scrapped now (say, because a President Johnson or a President Trump reneged on America's commitment to the accord), there is little chance that an effective response, coordinating all of the nations that would need to sign on board, could ever be negotiated again. In this sense, for an environmentally conscientious voter a vote for Hillary Clinton, who will affirm and build on the Paris Agreement, is wiser even than a vote for the Green Party nominee Jill Stein, who effectively advocates jettisoning the accord and going back to the drawing board, a recipe for political disaster.

Millenial voters are those for whom the issue of global warming is most urgent, as they will live to see the worst impacts of environmental degradation if the greenhouse effect is not redressed. For a millenial to vote for Gary Johnson is a vote against one's own interests on a scale that is difficult to exaggerate. Hillary Clinton may be a career politician and a member of the Washington establishment, but in this election cycle, for someone concerned about the mounting crisis of global warming, she is the only choice for President of the United States.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Call Bibi's Bluff

On Friday, September 9, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu posted a short video on YouTube entitled "No Jews." In it, he asks why the presence of Jews on the West Bank (he uses the nomenclature preferred by Gush Emunim settlers, "Judea Samaria") should be considered an obstacle to peace, and accuses Palestinian leaders of pursuing "ethnic cleansing." He compares the Jews living in the Occupied Territory to Arabs living in Israel, noting that "no one would seriously claim that the nearly two million Arabs living inside Israel [are] an obstacle to peace." The implicit rhetorical question is superficially persuasive: if Israel does not require that two million Arabs depart its borders, why would the Palestinian Authority need the 400,000 Jews living in the West Bank to relocate?

This rhetorical question of course overlooks the most salient comparison to be made between Arabs living in Israel and Jews living in the West Bank: they are all citizens of Israel. They thus are all enfranchised to participate in the political affairs of a sovereign nation, unlike the Arab residents of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Netanyahu's short diatribe thus elides the heart of the issue. West Bank settlers are not a problem chiefly because they threaten peace, but because they obstruct Palestinian sovereignty (in a way that Israeli Arabs do not, in Israel's case). In this latter respect it is not the fact that they are Jews which is at issue, but the fact that they are the citizens of a sovereign power that does not formally lay claim to or accept ultimate responsibility for the land on which or the people among whom they live. 

To dwell on the faultiness of Netanyahu's reasoning, however, is to fall into the rhetorical trap that he clearly wishes to set. He expects that all of his political opponents, on hearing his glib and audaciously specious pronouncements, will become apoplectic in voicing the reasons why Jews must of course depart the Occupied Territories. He knows that the aesthetics of this exchange favor him. No one looks good when calling for the expulsion of Jews, especially when those calls are fueled by indignation over the mendacity of one's interlocutor.

In making this rather brilliantly Trumpesque rhetorical sally, however, Netanyahu has inadvertently set a trap for himself much more ironclad than any he has laid out for his opponents. If he seriously, in his position as Prime Minister of Israel, wants to lay down a marker committing the Israeli state to the moral imperative of allowing Jewish settlers to remain on the West Bank, the international community should call his bluff. If forcing Jews to leave the West Bank would be ethnic cleansing, then all world leaders, those of Israel included, should feel compelled to do whatever is necessary to let them stay. 

In this regard, who can doubt that the most egregious motivator of ethnic cleansing on the West Bank today is the de facto state of apartheid driving a wedge between its Jewish and Arab residents? If the world hopes to prevent ethnic cleansing, nothing is more imperative than the immediate establishment of Palestinian statehood. Only when Jews and Arabs on the West Bank are all citizens enjoying a sovereign franchise will the risk of ethnic cleansing be averted.

There is no reason that Jews could not continue to live in that future Palestinian state, either as naturalized citizens or as resident aliens holding permits from their host government. As long as they remained law-abiding and paid taxes into the Palestinian fisc, then as Netanyahu suggests they ought to be welcome. Pragmatically such a plan would face challenges. The residents of Ofer might violently oppose living in any state that is not the holy Jewish kingdom they envision, and radicals on the Palestinian side might try to attack their Jewish neighbors in order to incite an Israeli-Palestinian war. But the idea that four million Palestinians must be kept forever stateless and disenfranchised in order to accommodate the comfort and preferences of 400,000 Jews is as ridiculous as asserting that....well, as asserting that ethnic cleansing is the only path to peace.

If Bibi insists that the relocation of Jews living in the Occupied Territories would be ethnic cleansing, then let him put his money where his mouth is. Let Israel commit the political and economic capital needed to avert such a moral outrage. With sufficient funds and human resources, Israel could facilitate the safety and security of the Israeli residents of the West Bank in the wake of occupation. Palestinian statehood now! It is the only way to avert the catastrophe of ethnic cleansing against which Prime Minister Netanyahu so sagely warns us.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

What is Aleppo?

The cease-fire in the Syrian civil war brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov opens a new chapter in American foreign policy. This is not to suggest that the cease-fire itself will necessarily prove strategically consequential in the long sweep of the conflict. It may ultimately be as fragile as previous attempts to arrest the destructive course of this interminable war. But the terms of the ceasefire itself, and its provisions for intelligence-sharing and "joint targeting" between the U.S. and Russia, represent a fundamental shift in the American response to the evolving conditions of the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring.

In the early days of the Arab Spring the Obama administration adopted a posture of proactive support for the forces of political liberalization in the Arab world, and unequivocal opposition to those leaders determined to use coercion and terror as a means to stay in power. The high point of this stance was embodied by the "mission to protect civilians" undertaken by NATO in the face of Libyan leader Muammar Gadafi's imminent slaughter of opposition groups headquartered in Benghazi.

That strong stance against state terror and in support of liberalization has progressively eroded in the years since the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stephens in 2012, and is finally extinguished for good and all by the terms of the current ceasefire in Syria. Though this might seem like an extreme claim, brief contemplation of the agreement and its consequences makes the point clear. For example,  the ceasefire unconditionally includes groups like Hezbollah that support the Assad regime under its umbrella, while tasking elements of the Free Syrian Army to physically disengage from units of the Al-Qaeda affiliated Levant Conquest Front (formerly known as Al-Nusra) in order to enjoy the ceasefire's protections. With Russian and U.S. forces agreeing to strike consensual targets on intelligence gathered by both nation's security services, it is virtually inevitable that U.S. warplanes, acting on Russian intelligence, will eventually conduct bombing raids against Free Syrian Army forces that have been trained and equipped by the U.S. No Syrian can credibly be expected to believe American protests that "Assad must go" in the wake of such an event. Thus, in essence, the ceasefire cedes control of the political agenda being pursued by foreign brokers in the Syrian conflict to Moscow.

This strange passivity on the part of our current leaders in Washington D.C. is echoed by the state of political discourse in the ongoing presidential election campaign. When asked what he would do about Aleppo, the Libertarian nominee, Gary Johnson (former Governor of New Mexico), notoriously asked, "And what is Aleppo?" The fact that polls do not indicate he will pay much of a political price for this gaffe would seem to suggest that the broader American electorate is paying as little attention to the situation in Syria as Johnson himself. More tellingly, Johnson's proposed "solution" to the Syrian crisis (when he eventually became clear as to what was being asked), that the US should "join hands with diplomatically bring that to an end," is virtually identical to the path already being blazed by the Obama administration. There thus seems to be a general dearth of urgent or creative thinking about the Syrian crisis within the American political establishment at large.

In stumbling upon his verbal misfire Johnson has inadvertently given voice to a question that all Americans, indeed all conscientious global citizens, arguably should contemplate.  Viewing the photo of five-year-old Omran Daqneesh, drawn by rescue workers from the rubble of his family's apartment that had been destroyed by a Syrian government air raid, we should all have pause to ask ourselves, "What is Aleppo?" That photo brought to my mind Picasso's famous artistic invocation of Guernica. In the same way that the bombing of Guernica in 1937 was a sign, ignored by the democracies of that time, of the rising tide of fascism and the destructiveness of the approaching World War, the suffering of Aleppo is an embodiment of forces that will continue to roil the world if the democratic nations of our own time do not effectively respond.

The current outlook is admittedly bleak, but it does not need to remain so. At this low point, even a change in the conversation about Syria would constitute progress. Secretary Clinton, whose candidacy has become mired in petty scandals and rhetorical quagmires, could seize the opportunity to refocus the presidential campaign on genuine matters of policy. She is known to have supported a different course in Syria in the past, one that committed the US more robustly to opposition against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. She has refrained from highlighting this aspect of her record out of deference to President Obama, but at this juncture she is unlikely to successfully turn the conversation toward matters of policy unless she can highlight some way in which she plans to depart from the current administration. Since that is true in any case, it makes pellucid good sense to advocate an independent course in Syria, as it would serve the dual purpose of revitalizing her campaign and raising consciousness about a problem that is of vital importance to the security of the entire world.

In the most narrow factual sense, Secretary Clinton does not need to be asked "what is Aleppo?" But in a more abstract, existential sense, the question stands out very saliently. What is Aleppo? Is it a warning? An omen? An indictment? A human and moral catastrophe? Aleppo is all of these things, and more. Unless a leader like Secretary Clinton can summon the courage to focus our attention on this question, we will not like the answers that time and history eventually bring back to us.