Post #145: Trump’s America—and Ours

Abraham Lincoln once said: “My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.” Donald J. Trump’s Inaugural Address offered us exactly the opposite vision, one of a selfish, insulated America responsible only to itself, committed only to fixing the supposed “carnage” here but unconcerned about global poverty, Earth’s deteriorating environment and ecosystem, and human rights here and everywhere.  He made all the usual, and unfulfillable, promises about jobs, terrorism, and corruption—and avoided all the problems he has always avoided, such as health care for all, equal opportunity for all, his own record of irresponsible behavior, and “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

President Trump doesn’t understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism.  Charles de Gaulle did: “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”  Trump’s “American First” doctrine was falsely presented as the former when it clearly is the latter. Putting America first may sound like a noble patriotic idea, but in reality it reflects a careless, ultimately dangerous world view.  Walling America off from Mexico, keeping out Muslims fleeing war and oppression, denigrating China, and undermining our European allies have nothing to do with love of country.  These promised policies exemplify narrow nationalism of the sort that will reduce respect for the United States and undermine national security.

“There are seasons in every country,” Alexander Hamilton said, “when noise and impudence pass current for worth; and in popular commotions especially, the clamors of interested and factious men are often mistaken for patriotism.”  This is such a time, and Donald Trump is such a man.

Post #144: Donald Trump’s Lies and Team Trump’s Headaches

We are all aware that Donald Trump lies—repeatedly, and without remorse.  That is outrageous enough; but equally outrageous is the insistence of some of his handlers that truth no longer matters: what Trump says, he believes to be true, and therefore it is true.  Never mind the facts. Throughout the campaign he built on the post-truth paradigm, starting with the birther myth and continuing through lies such as: Muslims in New Jersey cheered the 9/11 attack, his tax returns cannot be revealed because of an IRS audit, his charitable contributions are very generous, and Trump University provided an excellent education.

The media continue to be too charitable when discussing Trump’s lies.  The New York Times just published ten “fake news” stories that Trump has generated over the years, ranging from health care to unemployment (www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/business/media/trump-fake-news.html). Typical of Trump, who (according to the actual author of The Art of the Deal) only reads stuff about himself, his sources are right-wing rags on the Internet, such as Breitbart.  But posting fake news is lying, isn’t it?  For even when the honest media corrects him, as the Times story indicates, Trump does not retreat. He knowingly persists, which to me is what makes his reporting the equivalent of lying.

So how do Trump’s people get around the lying? By redefining opinion as truth. Vice President-elect Mike Pence shocked interviewer George Stephanopoulos in the following exchange regarding Trump’s claim that three million people illegally voted in November:

PENCE: Well, it’s his right to express his opinion as president-elect of the United States.

I think one of the things that’s refreshing about our president-elect and one of the reasons why I think he made such an incredible connection with people all across this country is because he tells you what’s on his mind.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But why is it refreshing to make false statements?

PENCE: Look, I don’t know that that is a false statement, George, and neither do you. The simple fact is that…

STEPHANOPOULOS: I know there’s no evidence for it (www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2016/12/05/interviewers-cannot-let-the-lies-fly-by).

Pence would not relent:

PENCE: I think the American people find it very refreshing that they have a president who will tell them what’s on his mind. And I think the connection that he made in the course…

STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether it’s true or not?

Believe it or not, Pence said “true or not” wasn’t the important question. George Orwell is smiling.

Trump lies so often that it is hard to keep up. But here are a few recent lies that strike me as being particularly notorious:

 

  • When James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, tried to reassure Trump that the intelligence community had “not made any judgment” about the infamous dossier’s reliability, Trump tweeted that he had been told by Clapper that the report was “false and fictitious,” and “illegally circulated.”
  • Trump accused CNN of turning over the dossier to the media. In fact, CNN neither divulged the dossier nor linked its story to BuzzFeed. (See Jim Rutenberg’s column (nytimes.com/2017/01/12/business/media/trump-media-news-conference.html) on why the media must quickly get its act together in response to Trump’s divide-and-rule strategy.)
  • Trump said he would put the Trump Organization in the hands of his sons. But he bragged that he could run both the organization and the government. Does anyone seriously believe Trump won’t be involved in running his empire? He’s been doing business every day since his election. When he promised no new investments abroad, that didn’t include expansion of existing properties, like his golf course in Scotland. Expect more of such calculated ambiguity, aka lying.
  • Trump insists he really won the popular vote because 3 million people voted illegally. It’s a lie, plain and simple.  Trump is incapable of admitting that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by a H-U-G-E margin.
  • Trump says he has held numerous press conferences, which he asserts probably won him the nomination. We must have been asleep.
  • Trump says Americans don’t care about his tax returns; only the press cares. Really?
  • Trump points to all the jobs he has saved by pressuring corporate leaders to keep jobs at home or (most recently) cut prices on weapons. In fact, his tactics have saved precious few jobs; corporate decisions were made prior to his calls, and on the basis of cost savings, not Trump’s interventions.

Pity Trump’s transition team, which has the burden of trying to explain the lies away and address his late night tweets, which often are tirades. (He is currently in disputes with NATO, Germany, the CIA director, China, and the African American community.) The team’s nominees for cabinet-level positions have to go one step further: They are forced to square their own policy preferences with Trump’s, which on a number of occasions has not worked out (www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-cabinet-nominees-keep-contradicting-him/2017/01/12/).  Here’s a summary of some of the contradictions:

  • Waterboarding and torture: Trump favors them, but Gen. James Mattis (Defense) and Mike Pompeo (CIA) are opposed. Jeff Sessions (Attorney General) only opposes waterboarding.
  • The Russian threat: Tillerson (State) considers it real; Mattis sees Russia trying to divide NATO. Trump is happy that Putin likes him.  And speaking of NATO:
  • Trump just called NATO “obsolete,” shocking the Europeans; but Tillerson and Mattis vigorously support the US commitment to NATO.
  • Russian hacking: Pompeo is convinced; Trump obviously isn’t.
  • Creating a Muslim registry: Trump has said he wants one, Sessions and Tillerson are opposed.
  • Building a wall at the Mexico border: Gen. John Kelly (Homeland Security) is opposed to this signature Trump idea.
  • The Iran nuclear deal: Mattis says it’s imperfect, but must be honored. Trump has said he would scrap it.

Some observers suggest that these differences of opinion are a healthy sign—that Trump doesn’t want yes-men. We shall see.

Post #143: Donald Trump’s Fake News Conference

The media waited with baited breath for Donald Trump’s first news conference in 167 days.  But I’m sure many journalists knew what was coming: a show, orchestrated by The Apprentice executive director so as to reveal precisely nothing but used to revile his critics.  Vladimir Putin couldn’t have done better.

Trump was true to form, and character: He spent very little time answering (actually avoiding) questions, he brought along a small crowd of flatterers to applaud his lines, he had three people (his communications spokesman, his vice president-elect, and his tax lawyer) stand in to defend him, and he bragged about how many jobs he will create and how he had turned down a $2 billion business opportunity with Dubai.

Probably sometime early in his youth, Trump learned that the best defense is to attack.  He denounced two media outlets (BuzzFeed and CNN) for daring to publish a report about a questionable Russian dossier on him—the work of an ex-British spy—that other media had decided not to publish. Trump refused to allow the CNN representative to ask a question, angrily saying “you are fake news.” But that remains to be determined, for in fact the intelligence people who briefed him and Obama think the dossier might contain reliable information.  Trump is compromised enough by his kissy-kissy relationship with Putin—and if there’s a shred of truth in the dossier, Trump will be in jeopardy.

Trump attacked on other fronts as well.  He once again insisted Mexico will pay for a wall—“not a fence”—in one way or another.  He allowed that the Russians probably were responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee; but once more he veered away from acknowledging the intelligence finding that Putin himself had ordered the hacking and that Putin’s aim was to help his campaign and hurt Hillary Clinton’s. And his statement that he had “nothing to do with Russia” is patently false. As the Washington Post points out, Trump’s Russian connections go back 30 years, mainly related to his pursuit of real estate opportunities (www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-says-he-has-nothing-to-do-with-russia-thirty-years-of-history-shows-otherwise/2017/01/11/).  Still to be determined is whether or not Trump’s associates met with Russian counterparts during and after the campaign, as the dossier alleges.

Trump also tried to preempt further discussion of his financial conflicts of interest by putting the Trump Organization in the hands of his two sons.  As various ethics specialists in and out of government have pointed out, that decision is no solution.  As one of them said, Trump will be in violation of the Constitution on the day he takes office.  He actually had the audacity to say that he has every right to run both his organization and the presidency—implying that we should be grateful for his choice not to do so, as though we don’t already know that he has every intention to remain in charge of his empire. He again refused to release his tax returns, saying that only the press wants him to do so. Trump’s attitude is clear: I’m the president and I’ll do what I want; try to stop me.

In short, what did we learn from the press conference?

  • First, that Trump will be the same blustering, haughty president that he was on the campaign trail.
  • Second, that access to him will be extremely limited and produce very little news.
  • Third, that any news he dislikes will be labeled fake, and the messenger will pay a price.
  • Fourth, that Trump will completely disregard ethical guidelines at home just as he disregards them abroad.

Post #142: Unfit to Command

 

During the presidential campaign a significant number of former senior foreign policy and national security officials from both parties spoke in no uncertain terms about Donald Trump’s qualifications to be commander in chief.  Let’s recall, for example, an open letter signed by over 50 people who served in Republican administrations from Nixon to G.W. Bush.   Here is part of what they wrote last August (www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/08/08/us/politics/national-security-letter-trump.html):

“From a foreign policy perspective, Donald Trump is not qualified to be President and Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, we are convinced that he would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being. Most fundamentally, Mr. Trump lacks the character, values, and experience to be President. He weakens U.S. moral authority as the leader of the free world. He appears to lack basic knowledge about and belief in the U.S. Constitution, U.S. laws, and U.S. institutions, including religious tolerance, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary. In addition, Mr. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding of America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which U.S. foreign policy must be based. At the same time, he persistently compliments our adversaries and threatens our allies and friends. Unlike previous Presidents who had limited experience in foreign affairs, Mr. Trump has shown no interest in educating himself. He continues to display an alarming ignorance of basic facts of contemporary international politics. Despite his lack of knowledge, Mr. Trump claims that he understands foreign affairs and “knows more about ISIS than the generals do.”

The letter went on to say that Trump “lacks the temperament to be President,” citing (among many other attributes) his impetuousness, lack of discipline, and inability to “separate truth from falsehood.” It was a devastating attack.

Trump survived. But his critics weren’t wrong then, and they’re not wrong now. His arrogance is unbounded, his ego fills a room.  As he said, “I’m somebody that really gets it.”  He says “nobody really knows” about climate change; it’s a Chinese hoax.  Intelligence briefings aren’t necessary because “I get it when I need it. I’m, like, a smart person.” Despite not using a computer, he knows “a lot about hacking.” “I also know things that other people don’t know” about Russia’s hacking—a claim he promised to explain but, of course, never did.

After months of disputing and criticizing the intel community, and then praising Julian Assange for agreeing with him that Russia did not hack, Trump backed away a day later, as usual trying to turn stupidity into wisdom and a lie into a truth.  Said Trump: “The dishonest media likes saying that I am in agreement with Julian Assange—wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people to make up their own minds as to the truth. The media likes to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!”  Surely it is mere coincidence that Trump twitted that message the day before he was to be briefed by senior intelligence officials who would (once again) decisively identify the Russian government as the source of the hacking. It was also the day (January 5) that former CIA director James Woolsey quit as a senior adviser to Trump’s transition team.  No doubt  Woolsey found he could no longer tolerate Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the intelligence community.

Prior to his meeting with intelligence agency leaders on January 6, I fully expected that Trump would weasel-word his way around acknowledging Russia’s direct role.  He didn’t disappoint, saying he had a “constructive” meeting, has “tremendous respect” for the intelligence people, and understood that “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people were trying” (my emphasis) to hack US systems. Rather than acknowledge the intelligence community’s correctness in identifying what Putin’s Russia had very specifically done and aimed to do, Trump dodged: “there was absolutely no effect on the election . . .”—which of course was not what the intelligence community had investigated, was not within the scope of its work,[1] and certainly was not what Trump or anyone around him could possibly know.

But of course Donald Trump is incapable of changing his mind in response to better information than he possesses.  He’s never wrong, and must never apologize. (Read carefully the comments of Reince Priebus and Kellyanne Conway intended to suggest that Trump now believes the intelligence.  They’re loaded with qualifications.)  And that has profound implications for his conduct of national security.  He has a set image of friends and enemies that is not subject to new intelligence or changed behavior on their part.  What that means is that no matter what the Chinese, the Iranians, the Mexicans, or the North Koreans might do, Trump will remain Trump.  And once those folks figure this out, if they haven’t already, they will lose all respect for the American C-I-C, decide that negotiating with him is worthless and his actions unpredictable, and take action accordingly.

As for the Russians, Trump may insist, as he tweeted Jan. 7, that “Russia will respect us far more” once he’s president.  But in fact he’s been compromised by both Putin’s and his own actions.  Trump’s noble aim to reset relations with Russia will inevitably raise the question of the price he will pay, and assuredly Putin’s cooperation will not come cheaply.

russian-dolls

Francis Wilkinson has an excellent analysis in the Bloomberg News on the systematic manner in which Trump is attacking US institutions (www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-01-05/trump-s-systematic-attack-on-u-s-institutions).  His motive has far less to do with policy differences than with personal power: He can’t abide institutions that are independent of his absolute authority. Trump’s assault on the media goes back many months: the media lies about him, it must be brought into line, the truth lies elsewhere (like Breitbart and, yes, The Enquirer), demean the media. The pattern is obvious now in the case of the intelligence community: first, you denigrate its work; second, you raise the prospect of its downsizing or restructuring; third, you assail its motives and arouse the troops (as when he called the hearings on Russian hacking a “political witch hunt”).  Wilkinson maintains that Congress is next in line; and the Pentagon, Treasury, and the Supreme Court may well come after if Trump feels crossed.

Donald Trump, soon to be commander-in-chief, has become a threat not only to democracy but also to national security.

[1] The report says: “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”

 

Post #141: Can Donald Trump Be Contained?

There’s just no getting around it: the president-elect of the United States is a pathological liar. He is also a terribly insecure individual who is desperate for attention and spiteful of critics. Setbacks are humiliating to him; he will answer them with vicious counterattacks because he cannot stand losing. And when he does lose, he will proclaim victory.  Thus, there is no room around him for naysayers (for they are disloyal), no room for experts (since policy isn’t his thing), and certainly no room for the truth (for, as someone said a long time ago, facts are the enemy of truth).  This one-dimensional man thrives on threats, the spotlight, and winning at all costs: the profile of a demagogue.

The central question before us is, How can such an egotistical, power-hungry person who has created a wall around him that defies access be upended?  For in Donald Trump we have two very imposing obstacles to democratic rule: his superiority complex, and his so far successful strategy of isolation from questioners.

Trump’s character is on display in a PBS video, “President Trump,” that we should all see: www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/film/president-trump/.  Not that we don’t already know most of the aspects of his character that are on the video.  But by piecing together the views of people who have spent time with him, in some cases going back to his childhood, the video gives us a picture of an exceptionally ambitious person whose primary purpose in life is winning.  From that perspective, we can understand why he does what he does:

  • Why he admires people like himself (and like his father, for that matter)—autocrats;
  • Why he can’t stand to lose, and won’t take “no” for an answer;
  • Why he believes he can order individuals and giant corporations alike to do his bidding;
  • Why he thinks tweeting is equivalent to governing;
  • Why he doesn’t believe his promises are meant to be kept (such as holding press conferences, divesting assets, showing his tax returns);
  • Why he habitually lies and rejects well-established facts that run counter to his instincts;
  • Why he is so self-congratulatory—he “knows things that other people don’t know”;
  • Why he doesn’t think he needs intelligence briefings;
  • Why he is enamored of other super-wealthy people and generals;
  • Why he characterizes those who oppose him as “enemies.”

We have never had a national leader with such a flawed, and dangerous, character.  To be sure, we are all flawed in one way or another, and we have had our share of presidents with serious character issues.  But Trump is a case apart, someone so out of touch with traditional American values—compromise, equity, openness, community, justice, lawfulness, respect for difference—and so unpredictable in behavior that I tremble to think how he can possibly deal sensibly with the complicated foreign and domestic problems we face.

I do have one project I would like to see materialize right now: media representatives, mainstream and alternative, come together to issue a joint challenge to the Trump team, and Donald Trump in particular, to start communicating regularly, directly, and factually with the American people on the major policy issues. “Stop lying, stop hiding, fulfill promises.”

In a coming blog I will try bringing together paths of resistance to Trumpism that have been reported from around the country.  I invite readers to send me links to activities, especially at the local level (state, city, town), that show how we are fighting back.

Post #140: The Diplomacy of Donald J. Trump

Oblivious to Tradition and Good Sense

Those of us who appreciate the unconventional have to have second thoughts after watching Donald J. Trump in action.  All the more so when it comes to the conduct of foreign affairs, in which Mr. Trump is a novice.  Defying convention, which calls for the president or president-elect to call on the State Department for advice and talking points, and on the intelligence community for daily briefings, Trump at any time might decide to pick up the phone and chat with a foreign leader, might Twitter an opinion, or might make an off-the-uff remark about a controversial issue.  Trouble is, any of these acts might run directly counter to ongoing US foreign policy.  You can’t flatter a dictator, interject comments about another country’s domestic affairs, praise one country at the expense of another, or bring family into high-level meetings without consequences.  Trump has done all these, and more, and as president seems determined to continue the practice.

Such practices only make sense when understood in terms of Trump’s “art of the deal” approach to diplomacy.  And “the deal” must be taken literally, since Trump clearly sees doing the nation’s business as being equivalent to doing his personal business. Protecting the environment, promoting human rights and social justice, and strengthening international law have no place in the deal.

Trump Organization hotels and golf courses outside the US, and Trump’s financial portfolio (Goldman Sachs, Apple, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, and other international firms—see www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-complex-stock-portfolio-could-create-yet-more-conflicts/2016/12/01/25ec0e88-b663-11e6-959c-172c82123976_story.html) –spell conflicts of interest in capital(ist) letters. Given Trump’s lack of transparency on his taxes and business dealings, his refusal to establish a blind trust or divest his financial holdings, and his absolutist belief that “the president cannot have a conflict of interest,” we may never know whether or not he is using his position to further “the brand” and his personal fortune.

Here’s What Trump Has Said and Done

China: Trump broke with longstanding precedent again when he held a telephone conversation with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, the first conversation between two leaders since the 1979 US recognition of the PRC and breaking of ties with Taiwan.  Contrary to Trump’s insistence that “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME” to offer congratulations, official Taiwan sources said the call had been arranged in advance.  Supporting that view, a Washington Post report said the call “was planned weeks ahead by staffers and Taiwan specialists on both sides, according to people familiar with the plans” (www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trumps-taiwan-phone-call-was-weeks-in-the-planning-say-people-who-were-involved/2016/12/04/f8be4b0c-ba4e-11e6-94ac-3d324840106c_story.html).  In fact, Trump’s pro-Taiwan advisers said they deliberately wanted to send China a message that the old Taiwan policy might change if China’s policies on currency, US investments in China, the trade deficit, North Korea, and the South China Sea did not change. Trump underscored that message by publicly questioning the one-China policy that has guided US-China relations for forty years.  (“I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China,” he said.) Leverage, or blackmail?

During his campaign, Trump had harsh words for China—and in doing so revealed very limited understanding of Chinese motivations, not to mention reliance only on himself for his views of China (see Post #110 and my article at www.chinausfocus.com/foreign-policy/trump-faces-china-some-unsettling-thoughts).  He said then what he has said now, that if China doesn’t behave as he sees fit, he will authorize trade and currency sanctions.  After all, who needs China?

But if Trump now intends to put China on notice, China is also putting Trump on notice.  The Chinese press has carried stories indicating that although positive US-China relations are most important to Chinese leaders, further steps that are contrary to the “One China” principle will be resisted.  The press has also reported various negative views of US society and politics today, with the suggestion that the US has become weak and divided in the course of this electoral cycle. If the idea of Taiwan independence, which most concerns Chinese leaders, actually takes shape under Trump, we can expect that China’s pushback will be very strong. The recent incident in South China Sea waters in which a Chinese vessel picked up a US Navy unmanned research drone (later returned) may be just a preview.

Trump’s Taiwan gambit is reminiscent of George W. Bush early in his presidency, when he expressed strong support for Taiwan and authorized a major arms sale.  But before long Bush accepted the One China policy of his predecessors and backed off from a shift on Taiwan. It’s not clear that Trump will do the same. (The House recently passed a defense authorization bill that called for the secretary of defense to approve annual “senior military exchanges” with Taiwan [http://focustaiwan.tw/news/aall/201612030012.aspx].)  Trump may just be testing the waters, but more likely is that he believes he can pressure China into making concessions. He’ll find that Beijing does not respond well to pressure tactics or blackmail.  And that will leave Taiwan out to dry, vulnerable to Chinese threats.

Philippines: Then there’s Trump’s talk with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, which ended with an invitation to visit the US and Duterte’s later statement that Trump endorsed the anti-drug crackdown. According to Duterte, Trump was “quite sensitive” to the Philippines’ drug problem and was handling it “the right way.”  That was not Obama’s view, of course. Duterte’s crackdown on drugs has caused over 2000 deaths and several hundred surrenders by users and traffickers. His criticism of Duterte for trampling on civil liberties and engaging in vigilante justice while suppressing drug trafficking is what got Philippines-US relations off track.

Left unsaid is Trump’s considerable real estate interest in the Philippines, an interest that clearly will conflict with his presidency. As reported in the Washington Post, a newly built Trump Tower condominium outside Manila, which Trump’s sons visited for ceremonies to mark its completion, is operated by a top official in the Duterte government:

“The man writing millions of dollars’ worth of checks to the Trump family is the Duterte government’s special representative to the United States. To argue that these payments will be constitutional if they are paid to the Trump children, and not to Trump personally, is absurd. This conflict demands congressional hearings, and could be an impeachable offense.” ( www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/right-turn/wp/2016/12/14/ethics-experts-warn-that-trump-is-courting-disaster)

Turkey: Similarly, the Post also reported, Trump has business interests in Turkey, and conveyed compliments from a “close friend” of his to Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That association, supplemented by Michael Flynn’s involvements with Turkey, could lead Trump to reverse US policy and expel the cleric, now residing in Pennsylvania, whom Erdogan believes is responsible for the recent coup attempt.

Britain:  Trump told the British prime minister, Theresa May, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know,” an offhand invitation that came only after he spoke to nine other leaders. He later compounded it by saying on Twitter that Britain should name the anti-immigrant leader Nigel Farage its ambassador to Washington, a startling break with diplomatic protocol.

Israel: Trump just can’t wait to show Benjamin Netanyahu just how pro-Israel (i.e., pro-settlements, anti-UN) he can be.  He and “Bibi” are of one mind about the irrelevance of a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.  So when the US for the first time failed to reject a UN Security Council resolution critical of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine–the US abstained–Netanyahu went ballistic and Trump followed.  Mind you, Obama had only recently pledged $38 billion in military aid to Israel over the next 10 years–a huge increase, considering that from the 1967 June War to 2015, total US military exports to Israel came to $34 billion–in hopes Netanyahu would halt further illegal settlements.  Trump will no doubt resume the practice of giving aid without conditions. His nominee as ambassador to Israel, a strong supporter of the settlements, will see that Israel gets whatever it wants.

Japan: When Trump met Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in New York shortly after his election, only one other American was in the room: his daughter Ivanka.  Trump apparently did not consult with the State Department for talking points. For all we know, Trump may have reiterated his view during the campaign that Japan should shoulder more of its defense burden, leaving open the possibility of Japan’s producing nuclear weapons.

Pakistan: Trump’s phone call with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif showed total disregard for the sensitive issues that mark US relations with his government, including relations with India, involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence services in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. According to the Pakistani government, Trump told  Sharif that he was “a terrific guy” who made him feel as though “I’m talking to a person I have known for long.” He described Pakistanis as “one of the most intelligent people.” When Sharif invited Trump to visit Pakistan, the president-elect replied that he would “love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people.” Trump’s team would not confirm or deny Pakistan’s account.

Kazakhstan:  Trump’s penchant for cozying up to dictators (except China’s) shows that he will follow an unfortunate US foreign policy tradition.  His call with President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev is indicative: As usual, Trump failed to mention that country’s repressive politics. Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, initially as head of the Communist Party before independence. He won his fifth election in April 2015 with about 97 percent of the vote. The Kazakh government claimed that Trump lavishly praised Nazarbayev’s leadership, citing “fantastic success that can be called a ‘miracle.’”  More intelligently, Trump apparently also praised the Kazakh government’s surrender of the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviets.

Russia:  Trump’s love affair with Vladimir Putin remains one of the most bizarre stories in international affairs, though I can’t quarrel with the goal of a reset in relations.  But the terms of a reset are critical.  Since the start of Trump’s campaign, he has endorsed Putin’s strong leadership (stronger than Obama’s, Trump said), avoided criticism of Russian interventions in Ukraine and the Crimea, agreed with Putin on focusing on ISIS in Syria, and—most extraordinarily—rejected the consensus view of the intelligence community on Russian hacking of the US elections.  Furthermore, Trump and his future secretary of state, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, have large business interests in Russia. Now Trump has embraced the idea of a nuclear arms race; Putin has said “nyet,” but Trump’s bravado gives him license to push for more nukes and other weapons in the context of a much larger military budget.

In Conclusion

Let’s remember one thing about all these forays into foreign policy: Trump has still not been inaugurated.  Thus, he is trying to make policy while still a private citizen and, in all the cases above, without a secretary of state or defense. His recent pronouncements on nuclear weapons, Russia, Israel, China, and the United Nations—all via Twitter or telephone, and thus without benefit of expert advice or questions from the press corps—not only reveal a preparedness to make significant, high-risk departures from longstanding US policy.  They also subvert the country’s leadership, making it appear that Trump is already in charge.  President Obama is fighting back by executive action. But shouldn’t he also pick up the phone to firmly remind Trump who’s in charge?

Post #139: People Power in Seoul

Over the last several weekends, roughly 4 million Koreans have taken part in demonstrations in Seoul and other cities with the aim of bringing down President Park Geun-hye, who has now been impeached for abuses of power and other misdeeds.  The immediate consequence is that South Korea is politically paralyzed, awaiting a further ruling on impeachment and probable new elections in spring.

The government crisis began in October with the discovery of tapes belonging to a close friend and confidante of President Park named Choi Soon-sil.  The tapes revealed a bizarre situation in which Choi, whose father had been close to Park’s father, the authoritarian former President Park Chung-hee, was given access to all kinds of official documents even though she (Choi) had no government position or other authority.  Choi apparently exerted great influence over the president’s speeches and decisions. As the full extent of that influence became apparent, Park’s popularity plummeted; her approval rating was 4 percent by the end of November.

The scandal has led to other charges. Choi used her closeness to Park to extract millions of dollars in donations to her foundation from some of South Korea’s leading conglomerates. Park is said to have been fully aware of this gambit, for which Choi has been arrested. She will go on trial December 19 on fraud and embezzlement charges. Park is also being charged with dereliction of duty in the Sewol ferry disaster in April 2014 in which 304 people, mostly students, drowned.  Park only belatedly reacted to the news; her whereabouts (dubbed the “seven missing hours”) remain a mystery and are being investigated.

The rising chorus of anger made it impossible for many in Park’s own party, Saenuri, to support her continuation in office. The last public protest before the impeachment vote, on December 3, drew about 2.3 million people. The vote was 234-56, with 62 members of Saenuri joining the opposition.  President Park has now been suspended from office, and her prime minister—who is almost as unpopular as she due to corruption and other accusations—has taken over.  The next step is a vote of the 9-member Constitutional Court, which has 180 days to rule on the validity of the impeachment.  A two-thirds vote is necessary to uphold impeachment, in which case new elections will be held.

President Park has refused to resign despite the overwhelming disapproval.  She says she will await the Constitutional Court’s ruling.  This stubbornness grates against the public, which continues to demonstrate, demanding her resignation. But the main effect of this standoff is that the caretaker government has very limited powers in domestic and foreign affairs.

Meanwhile, several candidates are already preparing to contest a new presidential election. Two are of particular interest: Moon Jae-in, a human-rights lawyer who once headed the Democratic United Party and who might even have beaten Park in the 2012 election had not Korean intelligence spread false rumors about him on the Internet, which the police then covered up until exposure after the election; and retiring United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who at the moment has no political party.  It could boil down to a contest between a progressive who will attempt to re-engage North Korea, and a well-known diplomat who will be a reliable friend of Washington and uphold a hard-nosed policy on the North.

While the paralysis in Seoul might be thought of as an opportunity for North Korea, the opposite is more likely going to hold.  Not only is Kim Jong-un probably going to want to see how the presidential election comes out—meaning whether someone like Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun takes over, since both pursued peaceful relations with Pyongyang.  Kim Jong-un surely also has his eyes on how Donald Trump’s administration will behave, hoping perhaps that US ties with Seoul will loosen as Trump once seemed to promise.  (Recall that Trump once said he might invite Kim Jong-un to Washington.) A progressive leader in Seoul may welcome some distancing from the US, as surely would China.  These days South Korea-China relations have soured because President Park agreed to US deployment of a theater missile defense system (known by the initials THAAD) in the South, which the Chinese believe is really aimed at them.

Although the US has been careful not to say anything about the current political situation in Seoul for fear of being depicted as a meddler, it should consider the virtues of having a progressive again in power in Korea. Kim Dae-jung’s so-called Sunshine Policy produced meaningful economic and social interactions between North and South. Let the South Korean people decide if they want to try those approaches again. Perhaps Trump will agree; all his top foreign policy nominees are focused on the Middle East, and Trump seems disinclined to making North Korea’s nuclear weapons a top priority. As I’ve written many times, despite all the frustrations inherent in dealing with North Korea—not least the two nuclear tests and twenty-five missile tests this year—the only realistic option is engagement via a new package deal. The fundamental US objective, one that all parties share, is to avoid another Korean war.  The resumption of North-South Korean talks, and perhaps of the Six Party Talks (US-China-Russia-Japan plus the two Koreas) as well, would be a welcome departure from the current game of sanctions and military maneuvering.

Critical appraisals of foreign affairs from a global-citizen perspective.