Wednesday, May 17, 2017

An Open Letter to President Donald Trump

Dear President Trump,

        Though I am a lifelong Democrat and voted against you last fall, I approach you not as a partisan but as a fellow American. I appeal to the highest aspirations of your campaign, to your sense of duty to your supporters, and to your patriotic concern for our Republic in asking you to resign the presidency. Though your election to that sacred office was legitimate, your conduct since being inaugurated has made it impossible for you to fulfill its responsibilities efficaciously.

         I make this plea without rancor and under no pretense of knowledge about your private character, motives or designs. The problems that you have encountered could as easily be the product of inexperience, miscalculation, and miscommunication as corruption or malicious intent. But they are real and at this point have become insuperable.

         Your tenure was inevitably going to be divisive. You championed causes (for example, the repeal of Obamacare) that many Americans opposed. In this respect you were not entirely different than any incoming holder of your office. Unlike most of your predecessors you made no attempt to "mend bridges" with your political opposition, but launched into an aggressive push to enact the most controversial measures of your program without bipartisan support. This was unusual but not wholly discreditable. Your supporters, after all, had voted for you as a "disrupter."

        But there was another respect in which you differed from your predecessors. You had used unprecedentedly belligerent and alarmist rhetoric in your path to the White House. You had spoken about banning Muslims from entering the country, and allowed speculation about instituting a "registration" system for Muslim-Americans to go unanswered. You joked about beating up dissenters or jailing members of the press. You questioned the competence of a federal judge because of his Mexican-American heritage. In other words, you created an atmosphere that caused many Americans, some of them already marginalized and vulnerable, to fear the consequences once you assumed the awesome powers of the presidency.

        Unlike the general wisdom of "mending bridges" with the political opposition, the onus upon you to win back the trust of these citizens was a non-negotiable imperative. You had traded away their trust in exchange for political advantage, and it was incumbent upon you to repair that breach so that the business of government could move forward. You have not acknowledged this necessity, but on the contrary have made the situation worse. The precipitate and aggressive manner in which you pursued policies like your travel ban and the continued stridency of your rhetoric has only deepened the fear and distrust sown by your campaign pronouncements.

       If these were the only problems, the situation might yet be redeemable. But compounding these issues have been your general failures in carrying out the task of the executive. Dozens of cabinet-level posts remain unfilled. Critical military maneuvers like your recent dispatch of a carrier group to the waters off of the Korean Peninsula have been bungled. Secret information entrusted to us by our allies has been let slip in conference with a hostile power.

      Questions of basic amity and competency notwithstanding, there might yet be world enough and time for you to repair the damage of your first months in office. But finally, you have forsaken the trust and confidence of the electorate in your mishandling of the FBI's Russia investigation. The nation is very polarized, and it may be true that the vast majority of your supporters remain convinced of your probity and integrity. It was inevitably going to be the case, however, given the polarizing nature of your campaign and your policies, that a substantial portion of the populace would hold you in suspicion, especially given the strange circumstances surrounding Russia's hacking of the election. You have not only failed to assuage the natural and understandable suspicions of these citizens, but have thrown gasoline on the fire of their fears. However innocent your motives may have been in private, your public moves to fire the FBI director and discourage investigations into the ties between your campaign and Russia give you the appearance of a man with something to hide. Indeed, they may rise to the level of criminal obstruction of justice.

     Whether or not criminal charges are warranted, such a mistake cannot be put down to inexperience or benign ineptitude. Given the clear logic of your situation from the outset and the obviously high stakes, your actions constitute political negligence and malpractice of the highest order. It is unreasonable for you to expect the necessary confidence and trust of a critical mass of the electorate moving forward. The best that you can hope for is to set one part of the nation against the other, each side convinced that it has more than ample cause to loathe and fear the other. There is no way to govern under those circumstances. More tragically, that situation can only lead to a coarsening of our civic life and a general deepening of public cynicism that threatens the very foundations of our Republic in the long term.

       Resignation is the clear and honorable choice. This is made all the more evident by the fact that there can be no partisan advantage for your political opponents in such a contingency. Quite the contrary. Your stepping down will make Vice-President Pence our new executive, which will guarantee an uninterrupted dedication to the implementation of a Republican agenda. More months of scandal will hurt the electoral chances of the GOP in the midterm elections, especially if they resolve in articles of impeachment. Resigning now will give Vice President Pence and the Republican Congress an opportunity to enact policies in hopes of winning support for next fall.

      Whether from the perspective of partisan obligation or patriotic duty, resignation is the right thing to do. There is no shame in admitting that you are not up to the task, especially if the job is as crucial to the general welfare as the presidency. History will judge you with gratitude for having the wisdom and the strength to sacrifice your own ambition for the greater good. I respectfully beg you to consider this course of action for the sake of your voters, the country, and our venerable democracy. In any case, should you read these words I thank you for your attention and hope that this message finds you well.

                                 Sincerely,

                                 Andrew Meyer

Monday, April 10, 2017

Tragedy and Farce in Syria

Airstrikes launched against Syria by the Trump administration on April 6 prove Marx's adage about history transpiring first as tragedy, then as farce. The Obama White House's indecision and passivity in the face of the Syrian crisis were an excruciatingly protracted tragedy. For Obama's "red line" to be enforced by a man who has in all other ways disgraced and discredited the office of the presidency is so absurd that to call it "farce" is completely inadequate.

Those on all parts of the political spectrum who grieve at the damage Trump is doing to our Republic will no doubt be inclined to condemn this new Syria policy.  That inclination will be strengthened by the undeniable fact that Trump's motives are suspect and the politics of this policy malodorous. It is no coincidence that Trump has transgressed upon Russian strategic interests just when he most needs to distance himself from Moscow, and seeks the luster of a "war leader" just as his approval ratings hit historic lows.

That being noted, it is nonetheless true that, like the proverbial broken clock, Trump has stumbled upon the right course of action in response to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons. To understand why this is so one need only contemplate the motives of Assad in murdering his own people with sarin gas. There are only two real possibilities in this regard.

The first, a scenario that will be favored by the conspiracy-minded, is that the Assad regime (presumably at the behest of Moscow) launched the sarin gas attack last week to provide Trump with a pretext to "wag the dog." Though appealingly plausible, this scenario is highly unlikely for many reasons. The Assad regime is engaged in a fight for its life, it has little motive to take potentially fatal risks to provide Donald Trump with political cover. The perceived possibility that chemical weapons might be used is a strategic asset Assad would be loath to part with, and any military action on the part of the US will boost morale among the rebels in ways that will materially degrade Damascus's strategic advantage. The same caveats apply when we think of Russia's perspective. Even if we assume that Moscow views Trump as an asset that it wants to protect, Putin has little cause to expend political capital in this way. Moscow faces dissent at home, it can hardly afford to risk being "humiliated" by the US in the eyes of its own people simply to save Donald Trump's bacon.

Occam's Razor dictates that Bashar al-Assad had a different motive in using chemical weapons against his own people. Expressions of disengagement and disinterest on the part of the Trump White House had left the Assad regime feeling that light could be seen at the end of the tunnel leading to a final military resolution of the Syrian civil war. Last week's sarin gas attack was thus a "test balloon," launched in the expectation that it would elicit no response from the US or its allies, and that such a contingency would create terror and chaos among anti-government forces. If the populations among whom the rebels live became persuaded that the Assad regime was about to unleash mass-murder on a scale that even this brutal civil war has not yet seen, the purchase of rebel forces in their current strongholds might become untenable. That was an outcome worth risking blowback from committing such a heinous war crime.

Because this was most likely the motive of Assad's gas attack, it required a response. However minimal the damage done to Assad's forces may have been from Thursday's air strikes, they sufficed to violently commit the U.S. to the proposition that Damascus must not use chemical weapons. Assad understands how politics works- he knows that another gas attack in the future will force the Trump administration to respond with greater destructiveness or risk crippling political embarrassment at home. Therefore, if they have done nothing else of value, the air strikes in Syria have made it highly unlikely that chemical weapons will be used again by the Assad regime. Though that is an admittedly tenuous benefit, it is still real.

If Donald Trump's leadership remains true to form, this military action will not produce a coherent or effective policy in response to the ongoing crisis of the Syrian civil war. Indeed, the risks entailed by any military action cannot help but make one wish that a steadier hand was at the tiller. Still, in this one instance Trump has achieved an at least minimally positive impact. If he garners unearned political capital from this act, the blame unfortunately lies with President Obama. Obama left open the opportunity for Donald Trump to distinguish himself from his predecessor with this display of "decisiveness."  Though this is bitter farce, it does proffer one clear lesson for those who are paying attention: if and when the White House is again occupied by a leader worthy of the presidency, he or she will have to chart a course between the dysfunctional inaction of Barack Obama in Syria and the reckless adventurism of George W. Bush in Iraq.






Saturday, April 01, 2017

Donnie and the Nihilists

I cannot believe I was alone in feeling cognitive dissonance while listening to the testimony of former FBI Special Agent Clint Watts before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Thursday. As Watts explained:

[T]he reason active measures (viz., Russian hacking and propaganda) have worked in this U.S. election is because the Commander-in-Chief [Trump] has used Russian active measures at times, against his opponents...He denies the intel from the United States about Russia. He claims that the election could be rigged. That was the number one theme pushed by RT, Sputnik News… all the way up until the election. He’s made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama’s not a citizen… So, part of the reason active measures works, and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being wiretapped, is because they parrot the same line.

          Watts was making a point so obvious that it should have been the driving message of every credible political and cultural leader on any part of the political spectrum for the last year or more: America was made exceptionally vulnerable to the narratives fabricated by Russian intelligence because these narratives were broadcast and lent credence by the man who held the nomination of the Party of Lincoln. For it to take a special Senate hearing to give robust voice to this observation seems incredible at first, but on second reflection the reason for this circumstance is clear.

As cynical as we have become, as widespread as disenchantment and malaise have grown, we have yet to encounter a wholly values-free candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Even those who most violently abhor Hillary Clinton, for example, would be forced to admit that one could list a set of values that she consistently at least desires to appear to hold. She has allowed her political ambitions to be constrained by the norms of a larger system, as when she conceded the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama for the ostensible sake of party unity or the election to Donald Trump in deference to the integrity of the electoral process.

Donald Trump, on the other hand, is something new. Whatever norm or value he seems to have upheld in one instance (as, for example, when he said gracious things about his opponent on election night) he has violated in another (for example, tweeting without evidence that his predecessor, the nation's first African-American president, was a felon). Outside the interests of his close family (and even that is something of a gray area), it is impossible to determine what might be truly sacred to him beyond the gratification of his own ego.

Herein lies one of the greatest dangers of the Age of Trump. The checks and balances in our system are robust, but their efficacy ultimately rests upon a minimum threshold of commitment to the principles of our founding documents. Our constitutional order is well-equipped to deal with greed, hunger for power, cravenness, extremism, and other politically dysfunctional proclivities. But it is not well-prepared to confront nihilism. An individual unconstrained by loyalty to the most fundamental ideals of the system or even the most basic institutional imperatives can move unchecked by the infrastructure of the state, because the state is designed to presume a minimal assent to its own legitimacy on the part of its operatives.

It is as if in the transition from Obama to Trump, the laws of physic have changed, dissolving the gravitational forces that hold the Executive together. When, for example, the Acting Attorney General brought the White House Counsel the extraordinary news that the National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, was susceptible to blackmail by a foreign power, the system was prepared for almost any response from President Trump. Contrition, defensiveness, alarm, evasion- all of these would have fallen within the range of reaction that officials in various agencies and branches of government could understand and engage. Total inertia, expressing a complete lack of concern for both the present crisis and the functional credibility of the White House as a whole, fell completely outside of the institutional logic that animates the machinery of state.

The leak of classified information to the press in the face of this conundrum was an intuitively sensible solution, but one that fell outside of the parameters of the regular operation of government, and that created new opportunities for the derailment of the machinery of state. It has been remarkable to watch the White House complain about leaks and improper surveillance on the one hand while it simultaneously lies about its members' contact with Russian officials and works to undermine the credibility of the House Intelligence Committee on the other. The idiom of the Trump White House persists in a realm light-years beyond garden-variety hypocrisy. It is the language of a topsy-turvy world in which Rhyme and Reason have been exiled and no gnomon of value can be anchored in the shifting sands of obfuscation and distortion.

Much has been written comparing Donald Trump to figures from history. Is he a latter day Mussolini? A reality-TV version of Huey Long? With his observation that shooting someone in broad daylight on Fifth Avenue would not spoil his image among his supporters, Trump perhaps hit upon the nearest analogue for his political persona in the American past. In his nihilistic disregard for the values and logic of the system he serves, Trump most resembles that other famous New Yorker, Aaron Burr. Indeed, the Trump presidency might be deemed "Aaron Burr's Revenge," in that the same electoral college that denied Burr the presidency has paid out in victory for his historical doppelganger just over two centuries later. Unless an alert citizenry can hold our leaders accountable and defend the integrity of the institutions that are our shared legacy, this time the murder that Burr gets away with may not be that of an individual, but of the system as a whole.












Sunday, March 26, 2017

Public Option Now

The embarrassing failure of the GOP caucus to make good on their six-year pledge to "repeal and replace" the Affordable Care Act is an inflection point in the politics of health care. Democrats should, in the words of an old Chinese adage, "take a warning from the overturned cart ahead" and pursue a robust policy that seizes upon the opportunities of the moment. Many on the left are advocating that the Democrats lift a page from the GOP playbook and begin proposing new legislation right away, in the same way that the Republicans held countless "repeal" votes before there was any hope that they would pass a presidential veto. Though there is provisional wisdom in such strategic thinking, it will only be effective if Democrats are able to take the correct lesson from the GOP's debacle.

The "repeal" dimension of GOP legislation was always going to be much easier than the imperative to "replace" the ACA. Though united in opposition to "Obamacare," when tasked with formulating a policy of their own Republicans were hounded by the same divisions that beset Democrats in 2009 when the ACA was being formulated. Just as some portion of the opposition to the ACA has always been comprised of progressives who do not feel that the bill went far enough in extending coverage and reducing costs, the Republican effort was scuttled by the division between moderate conservatives worried that "Trumpcare" took coverage away from too many people and Freedom Caucus partisans angry that it did not take health insurance away from even more.

The big takeaway from this battle is thus that the bill that can be passed with a unilateral partisan coalition will inevitably be one distorted by ideological wrangling, and therefore unfocused and ineffective as policy. Democrats who are getting ready to propose the institution of a "single payer system" (Medicare for all) are failing to read the lesson of the moment. Such proposals will open up the same kinds of rifts in the Democratic coalition that nearly sank the ACA, and will galvanize energies on the right that have been otherwise neutered by the failure of the "Trumpcare" vote.

Democrats should undertake to move the ball forward from where it sits now, rather than trying to reinvent the field from scratch. The Republicans have declared that the ACA is in peril, and have failed to muster their own coalition to effect a "repeal and replace" rescue. The Democrats should thus respond with a moderate proposal to fix the system as it currently stands. If private insurers are unwilling or unable to offer policies serving the markets created by the ACA exchanges, the federal government should create a "public option" plan to do so.

Ideological opposition on the part of Republicans and conservative Democrats to the creation of a "public option" has been rendered moot by the failure of Trumpcare. If Americans' health care is at stake (and I believe it is), and the GOP cannot summon the political will to act, it naturally falls to the Democrats to step into the breach. Democrats should craft and propose legislation to create a public option immediately and invite their moderate colleagues from across the aisle to join them in a bipartisan initiative to repair the ACA. In the best case scenario the passage of such a law will materially improve the health care of millions of Americans. In the worst case scenario, the proposal of such legislation will put the Trump White House and the GOP on the political defensive for the next four years (and beyond).

Having failed to "repeal and replace" the ACA, the GOP will no doubt try to make the "death spiral" of Obamacare a self-fulfilling prophecy by de-funding key parts of the program and withdrawing institutional support from structures that maintain the working mechanisms of the law. Democrats must move to prevent Republicans from capitalizing on such a strategy by broadcasting that there are reasonable and moderate fixes to the system that could be effected with a modicum of bipartisan compromise. In this way, even if the GOP succeeded in eroding the efficacy of the ACA in the short term, Democrats could run in 2018 and 2020 on the platform of offering the American people a workable alternative rather than more obstruction, dysfunction, and malaise.

The drive for a public option is an imperative that transcends even the urgent chaos of the Trump implosion. Indeed, at this point President Trump is largely irrelevant to Democrats' strategic thinking on this issue (and most others). Even discounting the prospect that Trump may have committed treason and be facing ultimate impeachment, he has so disgraced his office that he can no longer be taken seriously by anyone on any side of the political aisle, in any arena, foreign or domestic. His is now effectively a "zombie presidency," and his political opponents may plan long-term strategy without regard to his preferences or likely actions. If Democrats managed to pass a bipartisan "public option," Trump might veto it in an attempt to pander to his more radical supporters or, conversely, he might sign it into law in a desperate attempt to alleviate the cloud of suspicion and disgrace that is steadily engulfing his administration. The hole into which he has dug himself is so deep that neither stratagem would lift his political fortunes for very long, and in either case the winner in the long term would be the American people.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State

Watching Donald Trump stand next to Bibi Netanyahu yesterday was an exercise in dizzying optics. However much I vehemently disagree with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I grudgingly respect his political acumen and the sacrifices he and his family have made for the state of Israel and the Jewish people more generally. It thus did not surprise me to see Bibi laugh when, during his joint press appearance with Donald Trump, the President answered a question about his commitment to a "two-state solution" by declaring, "I'm looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like. I'm very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one." Perhaps I am projecting my own feelings (and giving Bibi too much credit for his own), but I sensed a Pagliacci-esque melancholy in that laugh, as if the Prime Minister could not believe that his long and distinguished career had landed him in the middle of such a farce.

The lead headline in many of today's newspapers is, predictably "The US Appears to Back Away from Two-State Solution." This is understandable, but is also ridiculous. That is to say, the situation as a whole is inherently nonsensical. For the President of the United States to say something so simultaneously consequential, irresponsible, and utterly incoherent is fundamentally absurd. It is an existential non sequitur, a circumstance that defies logical response.  

The most obvious and perhaps least vexing absurdity about the situation was the failure of anyone in the room to immediately produce the necessary follow-up question: "Which one-state solution do you mean?" For Donald Trump to speak as if there was a single "one state" alternative to the "two-state solution" made as little sense as declaring that one would be happy with either flavor of ice-cream, chocolate or the other one. There are at least four possible "one-state solutions": 1)the one in which Israel's Jewish inhabitants are killed or driven into the sea; 2)the one in which the residents of Gaza and the West Bank are killed or driven into exile; 3)the one in which Israel annexes Gaza and the West Bank but denies its residents citizenship, embarking on a career of apartheid; 4)the one in which everything from the Jordan River to the sea becomes one state of coequal citizens, transforming Israel into the binational state of Israel-Palestine. Which of these "one-state" solutions would the United States find acceptable, and under what conditions would the U.S. acknowledge that "both parties like" it?

The most charitable reading of the situation is that Donald Trump simply did not know what he was talking about, and that he was extemporizing rhetorically as has been his habit all along. As David Brooks has written, "Over the past weeks, we’ve treated the president-elect’s comments as normal policy statements uttered by a normal president-elect...But this is probably the wrong way to read Trump...His statements should probably be treated less like policy declarations and more like Snapchat. They exist to win attention at the moment, but then they disappear...Trump is not a national leader; he is a national show."

The problem, of course, is that now that he has been sworn in, all of Trump's maladroit dicta issue forth with the weight and authority of his office. It does not matter that he is a clown, his words are still heard as those of the President of the United States, and thus cannot fail to do tragic damage. The Jewish settlers on the West Bank who have been quivering in messianic fervor since the election, for example, can only be further inflamed by hearing the words "one state" come from Donald Trump's mouth. There is only one "one state solution" that they care about, and they are not likely to have heard Trump's caveat about what "both parties like" (or to pay it much mind if they did).

I would say that we are through the looking glass, but after almost four weeks of the Trump presidency that Carollian metaphor is too one-dimensional to serve. More aptly, we are falling down a rabbit hole that seemingly has no bottom at all. I began this blog out of dismay at the decisions that led us into the Iraq War, and coined its motto, "Politics can not be conducted in ignorance of the history and culture of other nations," in the conviction that such a deficit of knowledge had derailed our foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. My dismay deepens on seeing that, even as the problem of ignorance becomes more and more obvious, the will to redress it recedes ever further.

Donald Trump is ignorance personified. Were it not so, it would be impossible for him to be so unaware of how little sense his statements of yesterday made, much less how potentially damaging they could be to the cause of peace. The only circumstance more shocking than his political malpractice is the negligence we the American people have displayed in electing him. The fact that Donald Trump knows nothing and cares less has been on display since he began his campaign last August, but we nonetheless elevated him to the office of Washington and Lincoln. Moreover, despite the egregious incompetence he has evinced, Trump still enjoys an approval rating of roughly 40% in most polls, suggesting that he would still win the Republican primary if it were held today. For so many citizens to be content to place the immense wealth and power of the United States into such ludicrously feckless hands feels like national hubris. I hope, for the world's sake as much as our own, that error will not bring about repercussions reminiscent of ancient myth.

Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Trumpty Dumpty or Trumplestiltskin?

As the second week of the Trump presidency rolls on, the struggle ensues to make sense of the herky-jerky motion of the administration in power. So much frenetic activity has transpired to so little discernible constructive purpose that it is difficult to place the current political moment into a comprehensible framework. Two general pictures have begun to emerge among observers grappling with the problem of "Trumpology."

David Brooks of The New York Times exemplifies one side of this analytical divide. He sees the Trump administration as "incompetent" and worse than "amateurs." In his view, "the Trump administration is less a government than a small clique of bloggers and tweeters who are incommunicado with the people who actually help them get things done." Brooks does not completely acquit the Trumpites of bad intent. He calls them out for their ethnic nationalism and bigotry. But he attributes the chaos they have sown to inadvertent malpractice rather than nefarious design.

Though this view is eminently plausible, it is understandably contested by those who view Trumpian entropy with an even more jaundiced eye. This latter perspective is embodied by Yonatan Zunger, who blogs at Medium. Taking together all of the actions and statements of the Trump administration's first week, Zunger asks if they should be read as the trial balloon for a future coup against the democratic institutions of the U.S. government (funded by a recently acquired 19% share in Russia's state oil company).  Where Brooks sees amateurism and incoherence, Zunger sees a "tight inner circle" that "is actively probing the means by which they can seize unchallenged power." All of the provocations (what Heather Richardson calls "shock events") of Trump's first days are not, in this view, arbitrary or unplanned, but are deliberate attempts to gauge the reactions of various federal agencies and to induce "dissent fatigue" in the wider public.

It is easy to see why Zunger's view is persuasive. It is difficult to believe that the denizens of the Trump administration, having risen so precipitously to such heights of power, could possibly be as incompetent as the tenor of their first weeks would suggest. If one eliminates that possibility, then fitting the observable facts into a pattern of malignant intent is the next natural choice.

Zunger's read cannot be dismissed as entirely far-fetched. Nor, it must be emphasized, are the two scenarios outlined by Zunger and Brooks necessarily mutually exclusive. It is entirely possible that the Trump administration (or different parts of it, to varying degrees respectively) are simultaneously deliberately anti-democratic and incoherently maladroit. Time and circumstance will tell which of these two Trumpological analyses is more accurate. Two things are clear from the outset, however.

The first is that, whether they are blundering or scheming, their penchant for callousness and cruelty (and the pain they inflict) remains the same. Whether his travel ban order was a botched attempt to make good on a polemical campaign promise or a clever ruse in pursuit of unconstitutional power, Donald Trump knew it would cause misery and hardship to hundreds of people, and he did not care. However one slices it, Trump's politics incorporate a degree of sadism. His claims to political efficacy all revolve to one degree or another on the promise to make the "right" people (that is, the "wrong people" who don't hold the privilege of being deemed "real Americans") hurt.

The second clear imperative of the Trumpian moment is the urgent need for citizenship. In the end it will not matter whether or not Donald Trump's actions were taken with an eye toward unlimited power. The damage this mode of governance will do to our democratic institutions will be similar in the long run in either case. Citizens on all sides of the political spectrum must stand up and demand that Donald Trump govern in a way that does not sow anger, fear, and chaos, and that the rest of our government (the House, the Senate, the courts, the governors, the state legislatures) hold him accountable to that constraint. In the end, only our vigilance and active civic engagement can insure that our Republic will survive the length of Trump's tenure in office, whatever the truth may be about his intentions and competence.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Trump Travel Ban: Reading the Splatter on the Wall

President Donald Trump's executive order banning travel from 7 Muslim-majority countries (Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Syria) is among the strangest and most shameful chapters in our history. As families are separated, travelers are detained, and federal agencies scramble to understand how the ban is to be enforced, the rest of the world is left trying to make sense of this action. What clear and present danger to the security of the United States has arisen, the urgency of which is so acute as to trigger the sudden roll out of a policy so vaguely articulated and slipshod in execution that it has resulted in institutional chaos?

As policy, this ban simply does not make sense. There have been no recent terrorist attacks on US soil perpetrated by citizens of or travelers from the affected countries. Very stringent protocols are already in place for the vetting of visa and green card holders. Even the refugee communities that are affected by the order are already subject to very thorough security procedures that have been continually updated and reinforced, there is no case to be made (as there was in 2011 when the Obama administration paused refugee processing to review its procedures after the admission of Waad Ramadan Alwan in 2009) for the necessity of a radical overhaul.

As strategy the order makes even less sense than it does as security policy. While it is true that ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other groups hostile to the United States are active in the affected countries, this does not argue for the wisdom of Trump's ban. A total travel ban (extending even to visa holders and legal residents of the US) is a contingency that a nation adopts in a time of war. Thus with his order President Trump has signaled that the U.S. is effectively at war with all the people of Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Syria, a move that can only help the recruiting efforts of anti-US forces operating in those countries. 

This order can not be coherently read as policy, but must be viewed as pure politics. Donald Trump promised his supporters a "Muslim ban," and as Rudy Giuliani admitted, this order is effectively an attempt to make good on that promise. It is designed to create the impression that Trump is making up for laxness on the part of his predecessor. As policy it is a solution in search of a problem (even more, it is a solution that can only exacerbate problems we already have). But as theater it is an effective way of broadcasting to Trump's supporters, "now we are finally getting tough."

This is distressing for several reasons. The fact that the President would jeopardize the security of the US and its armed forces in pursuit of political advantage would be bad enough. But any assessment of the situation is made even worse by the real doubt that the political advantage to be had from this action is itself in any way meaningful. Despite having been sworn in more than a week ago the President seems to still be in campaign mode. That is strange, and is made stranger by the fact that the next election is almost two years away.

However the optics of the current moment might favor the President among his recent voters, the effects of this policy will have a very long time to percolate through the dynamics of our foreign and domestic affairs before their political impact is felt at the polls again. Have the President and his advisors really thought out the long term impact of this move, even in political terms? If not, and the ultimate political fallout of this order predictably works to the detriment of the administration, then we are faced with the very real possibility that the President and his team have sold out the safety and security of the United States for less than nothing. If that is the case, and the Trump administration will ultimately be shown to have shot itself grievously in the foot, one can only wonder at what future mistakes may be in the offing. If the Trump team proves as inept at political strategy as the current mess would seem to indicate, how competently will they conduct strategy in realms where the security and welfare of the United States are genuinely at stake?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Trump's First Test?

Last Friday the Serbian government sent a train emblazoned with the words "Kosovo is Serbia" to the border between Kosovo and Serbia, where it was stopped by Kosovan security. In response the Serbs amassed a force of 60,000 soldiers on the frontier and have pledged to invade Kosovo if any Serbs are attacked. They have failed thus far to move the train across the border, but the standoff continues.

Though Serbia has never acknowledged the independence of Kosovo (a stance in which they are joined by Russia, China, and other nations), the border between these two countries has been relatively peaceful since the conclusion of the Kosovo War of 1998-99. The motivation for the Serbs to stir up unrest now can be nothing other than the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Belgrade's strongest ally and patron has been Vladimir Putin of Russia, and  no force contributed more to the independence of Kosovo than the NATO soldiers led by General Wesley Clark. Thus President Trump's affectionate talk about the former leader and musings about the obsolescence of the latter alliance are the simplest explanation for why the Serbs would feel that this was the opportune moment to be bold.

This all might blow over without producing so much as a footnote for future history books. But this could materialize into a crisis that sets the trajectory for the rest of Trump's term in office. We may find out in dramatic fashion just how much truth there is to the rumors that Donald Trump is a Russian lackey. If we don't achieve clarity on that question, we will at the very least be treated to our first test of the feasibility of Trump's reality-TV mode of communications. The Serbs will be listening very closely to every word said by Trump and his delegated spokespeople. If they get the sense that the Trump administration will not oppose an invasion, a forcible redrawing of the map may be attempted.

If that should happen, the long-term effects cannot be good. The extinguishing of Kosovan independence would be a restructuring much more radical than any of the recent Russian adventures in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine, in that it would entail the dismantling of a territorial power that the US and its allies had recognized as sovereign. Allowing the Serbs to destroy such a significant geopolitical construct that so much NATO blood and treasure had been expended to effect will neuter the Alliance for good and all. Once that has happened, all of the boundaries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States will be in play. Radicals will be incentivized to pursue dreams of "Greater Russia" at the expense of neighboring states, with war and chaos potentially being the final result.

Back in September I wrote that Donald Trump "disqualified himself by a number of statements he has made and positions to which he has committed himself" which stood "in such stark breach of the political norms of our system," that he could not "reasonably fill the office of President." At the time I thought that the Baltic states, where Trump had expressed an unwillingness to foot the bill for our commitment to our NATO allies, would be the flashpoint where his words were likeliest to catch up to him. But the entire world has been listening closely to Donald Trump's "America First" rhetoric, and there are myriad local grievances and scores that aggressive actors will be tempted to settle if they get the sense that the US will stand aside. Unless Mr. Trump can gain in clarity and coherence quickly, we may be treated to an object lesson in the dangers of loose took very soon.

Friday, January 20, 2017

An Open Letter to President Barack Hussein Obama

Dear Mr. President,

       I write to thank you for your eight years of service to our country. Though I have disagreed with you on some issues, particularly with regard to foreign policy, I have never flagged in my admiration of the dignity, erudition, eloquence, and dedication to principle with which you have fulfilled your office. Your stewardship of the economy and the reforms you oversaw to our health care system and financial markets were all landmark achievements. Many of the speeches that you gave are models of depth, insight, and probity that will be studied by and edify students and scholars for generations to come.

Though there is the chance that many of the policy initiatives you have overseen will be rolled back or reversed in the near term, I am confident that your work will have a lasting impact on the historical trajectory of our great Republic. You have presented us with a model of what a president can be, and that will continue to inspire citizens as debates over the shape of government and society continue. Moreover, I know that you will remain actively engaged in public life, and I look forward to continuing to benefit from your efforts and leadership. God bless you and your family, and thank you again for your all your good work.

                                                   Sincerely,


                                                    Andrew Meyer

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mr. Trump, Meet Mr. Godwin, or Mr. Pot, You Must Know Mr. Kettle

Watching our president-elect compare our intelligence agencies to Nazis on Twitter and at yesterday's press conference must have produced feelings of vertigo in many observers across the political spectrum. It is not unprecedented for presidents to come to loggerheads with the intelligence community, but for our elected executive to go full Godwin nine days before being sworn in must set a new record for speed of descent. The only thing more dizzying than the event itself has been the cloud of commentary surrounding it, especially from those who have risen in the president-elect's defense.

It is true that the privately produced dossier leaked by Buzzfeed that occasioned Mr. Trump's remarks is an ethically and journalistically dubious document. But, after he campaigned on the "facts" that Senator Cruz's father had assisted in the assassination of JFK, or that "thousands and thousands" of Muslims had celebrated in New Jersey on 9/11, or that "millions of people" voted illegally on November 8, et cetera, anyone who could listen to Mr. Trump declare that "it's a disgrace that information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public" without feeling some degree of nausea has a seriously skewed sense of plausibility.

This is not meant to excuse Buzzfeed or the media more generally by appeal to some perverse notion that two wrongs make a right. But however ill-used Mr. Trump may have been in the recent media fracas, little can change the fact that he came to the table already sorely bereft of the moral authority necessary to respond to the situation, and proceeded to make matters worse in his usual fashion. A politician who had, in all other ways, behaved in impeccably statesmanlike manner, who then compared the intelligence services to Nazis in the face of this crisis would lose all credibility in the eyes of the public and the political establishment. That otherwise serious commentators feel enabled to defend Donald Trump in this instance arises only from the fact that we have been conditioned to expect so little from Trump through long exposure, and that is a problem.

Presidents routinely come under gratuitous, libelous, and insulting attack, and are occasionally compelled to respond. President-elect Trump has so debased his own public persona and so squandered his own credibility that he comes into office completely destitute of the type of political capital needed to defend the dignity and standing of his office in the usual manner. Moreover, with each new crisis he digs the hole in which he is trapped even deeper. The contrast between his response (for example) to libelous attacks on Ted Cruz ("you can't knock the Enquirer") and on himself ("are we living in Nazi Germany?") reinforces the by now deeply-ingrained impression that nothing matters to Donald Trump apart from his own interests and position. To compare your own momentary discomfort to the worst genocide in history, especially when it arises from practices in which you yourself have frequently indulged, is to declare to the world, "For me, nothing is sacred....apart from myself."

Those of us who have opposed Donald Trump are looking forward to four years of pleas and accusations centered on the general theme of "giving him a chance." While it is true that he is the President-elect of the United States, and that to be a patriotic citizen requires that we all give Donald Trump a "chance" to succeed in office, we should be clear about what such a chance entails. Mr. Trump comes into office under a cloud of disrepute of his own making. He has profaned the principles on which our Republic is founded and forsworn the trust of the electorate he is charged to govern. He labors under an onus of redemption, and unless and until he atones for his many political transgressions by dint of long effort and restraint, he can not expect to receive any normal level of respect or deference from anyone, much less from his political opposition.