On Game of Chicken
In the classic game of Chicken, two drivers race their cars side by side toward a cliff. The first to hit the brakes is the chicken.
It’s the stuff of a good flick. ‘50s teen icon James Dean, who many baby boomers will remember, played it and pulled through without a scratch in Rebel Without A Cause.
But it’s the stuff of bad leadership. Just last month alone, President Trump played chicken with our economic security, our national security, and our personal security. Yet we are powerless; he’s the only one who can slam on the brakes.
But he doesn’t. At least not until we are close to the cliff. Not until we’ve watched our fortunes threatened in trade feuds with other global powers. Not until we’ve trembled from fears of conflict with a nuclear-armed tyrant. Not until we’ve watched innocent children confined to cages within the borders of our own nation.
The President plays chicken, and we are the pawns. The overarching theme of his high-risk game is that the end justifies the means. But how can that be if the means make us less secure, not more? If the means alienate our allies, pull money from our wallets, or in the case of the children, simply make us ashamed but no safer? Say what you will about illegal immigration, in the case of those thousands of children pulled from their parents, the end did not justify the means. Not even close.
Economic security is the President’s rationale for the tariffs, the trade wars. His biggest target is China, although he also has gone to war with old friends and allies in Europe, and neighbors like Mexico and Canada (which is puzzling; as columnist Tom Friedman put it, “What country wouldn’t want Canada as its neighbor?”)
Trump’s goals with China, arguably virtuous, are to stop its intellectual property thefts and balance our trade gap. But his crusade to accomplish those goals isn’t enriching us, at least not yet; it’s draining us. His defenders argue that it is a necessary evil. I argue otherwise: it is only evil. Evil to American companies that depend on China as a major market, evil to American manufacturers that depend on Chinese parts to produce their products, evil to Americans (and this is mostly baby boomers) who are watching their nest eggs in the uneasy stock market dwindle.
Yet when China announces tit-for-tat retaliation to Trump’s first shot in the war— $50-billion in tariffs— does he say, “Let’s sit down and talk?” Nope. He raises the stakes. To $200-billion. Maybe more. The President’s chief trade advisor Peter Navarro— the guy who angrily promised long loyal allies “a special place in hell” if they cross President Trump— insists that in the trade war, China has “much more to lose.” Point of clarification Mr. Navarro: maybe China has more to lose, but we lose too. This trade war may weaken China (and all the others), but it weakens us too. What’s more, if you know anything about China, its people have a history of hardship. They can endure it far better than us. As its foreign ministry said this week, China is “fully prepared” if a trade war comes.
Our balance of trade with China and our other new enemies wasn’t perfect, but think about this: we were still prosperous. The President’s playing chicken with our prosperity, and we can’t slam on the brakes.
National security has been the President’s ongoing rationale for his tempestuous relationship with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. His rash rhetoric earlier this year about “Little Rocket Man” and “fire and fury” and his own “much bigger” nuclear button had us genuinely worried about war (remember Hawaii’s nuclear alert) before he brought us down (as if he deserves credit for defusing the fuses he lit). While we all hope the amity of the Singapore Summit will last, the nuclear threat has not melted away. Not until Kim’s nuclear weapons do.
And if they don’t, we’ll be right back where we were just months ago, playing chicken, wondering which strongman will choose to launch the first strike. If it does come to that, it’s a very safe bet that North Korea will be crushed and the United States will come out on top. But not without taking some bad blows ourselves. Maybe North Korea has more to lose, but we lose too. Not to mention the losses our allies will suffer.
Yes, North Korean nukes are uncomfortable, and maybe ultimately Trump’s tactics will succeed, but Kim wasn’t threatening to blow us to kingdom come until Trump threatened him. Is this worth playing chicken with our lives, and our allies’? Maybe not, but we can’t slam on the brakes.
Personal security? That’s what’s behind the ceaselessly controversial case of illegal immigrants, which led to children confined in cages, courtesy of the U.S. Government. President Trump said he doesn’t want illegals to “pour into and infest our country” (another commentator recently wondered, mindful of fascism in the 20th Century, will Trump use the word “vermin” next?). At least he’s consistent; the day he launched his presidential campaign, he said of illegal immigrants from Mexico, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
The trouble is, Trump just makes things up. In May, four separate studies were released, the upshot of which was, illegal immigration does not increase violent crime. The libertarian Cato Institute even found that rates of sexual assault and murder are higher among native-born Americans than among illegal immigrants. (It’s a repeat of this lying president’s reckless rhetoric about German Chancellor Angela Merkel, asserting in a tweet that because of her liberal immigration policies, “Crime in Germany is up 10% plus,” which has been thoroughly discredited.)
But Trump has many Americans convinced. Fans of his “zero-tolerance” family separation policy argued that it was the parents’ fault because they had put their kids in this fix. But until he buckled to political pressure, it was the President who kept them there. Which makes me ask, if it was indeed the parents’ negligence, has this nation no conscience to mitigate it, rather than aggravate it?
Caught in their cages, caught in the middle of the President’s game of chicken, were the children themselves, who had nothing to do with any of this.
He even advocated abolishing due process. Several commentators observed that the Statue of Liberty was weeping. Yet she can’t slam on the brakes and neither can we.
Some people think that everything Donald Trump does is part of a strategy, a strategy of putting America First. I think they’re giving him too much credit. Credit for having a strategy at all. Credit for having a well-thought-out plan, whether it pertains to our economic security, our national security, or our personal security.
I think if we’ve learned nothing else about this creature in the White House, it is that he does not operate according to any well-thought-out plan. He operates according to only one principle: the impulses and ego of Donald J. Trump. Once he feels threatened, once he feels offended, everything becomes a tug-of-war. Almost every action is driven by vengeance toward anyone who has looked at him the wrong way, or affirmation of what he has insisted is true.
Chicken is a game. Our security is not. But President Trump doesn’t make the distinction. And we can’t slam on the brakes.
On Caged Children
The most moving statement about the separation of families this week came not from elected politicians, Democrat or Republican. No, it came from the wife of one, or to be accurate, the wife of a former official. Former First Lady Laura Bush, who always made us remember that her husband had a gentle side, wrote in The Washington Post that President Trump’s “zero-tolerance policy is cruel. It is immoral. and it breaks my heart.” Many of us who deplore both the political policies and the personal character of this president have been saying with more ardor as his term drags on, we would take George W. Bush back in a heartbeat. Thanks to Mrs. Bush, it’s true now more than ever.
For Mrs. Bush, whom we can assume would not have penned her column without her husband’s consent, called a spade a spade. Other notable Republican women have only tried to diffuse the family separation issue. Speaking not even directly but through her spokesperson, First Lady Melania Trump said she “hates to see children separated from their families.” That merely mirrored her husband’s empty words a few days before. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen on a Sunday talk show didn’t even acknowledge that there are any separations: “We do not have a policy of separating families at the border. Period.”
Oh my lying eyes. Period.
Forget Trump’s simplistic assertion that this sorrowful situation is borne of a Democratic law. That’s just another counterfeit claim by our lying president, who could fix the problem with a single call on his tweet-tattered phone or his oversized stroke of the pen. He and his attorney general started it; obviously they can stop it.
And forget his sycophantic supporters’ attestations— which, when you think about it, undercut his— that this crackdown is merely a manifestation of the President’s campaign promise. There’s nothing noble about sticking to a promise when it’s an appalling promise.
You can even forget about his advisor Stephen Miller’s explanation that what we’re seeing (with our lying eyes)— which also undercuts Trump’s contention by the way that family separation is the Democrats’ doing— “was a simple decision by the administration to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal entry, period.” (This administration sure does use a lot of periods). A friend of mine wrote when he read that, “You can just feel him calling on his inner Josef Goebbels.” But my friend’s comparison would be lost on Miller. “The message,” Miller says, “is that no one is exempt from immigration law.”
No one. Not even children, who had nothing to do with it.
Back in the 1980s, I covered a flood of asylum seekers from Communist Czechoslovakia who found a loophole at the border to get into Austria. Men, women, and children. After days of divisive debate, even Austria’s hard right, which didn’t exactly have a history of inclusion and compassion for minorities, took pity, and let them in. The children were the trump card. The oppression their families were escaping wasn’t their fault. The refuge their families were seeking wasn’t their choice. But they were stranded, and stateless. Sane, sympathetic arguments saved the day.
A few days ago on NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” anchor Scott Simon interviewed a woman named Sinthia. Her husband in Honduras had been abusive and ferocious, she told Simon. “He hit me with belts, electric cables, shoes, his feet.” So to escape from him, as well as from a judicial system that would turn a blind eye toward his abuse, she had snuck into the U.S. five years ago with her five-year-old son.
She thought she would be safer here. “I thought yes, the United States is a country of a lot of opportunities, and it’s a place where you can find help for people like me who are in situations like this.” Asked about Attorney General Sessions’ announcement that domestic and gang violence aren’t going to be considered grounds for asylum anymore, she responded, “I think it’s unjust, because we come to the United States looking for a better life because we’re in fear for our own lives.”
Oh her innocent eyes.
No doubt the President’s minions, and probably the President himself, would scream back at this unworldly woman, “Unjust? You broke the law to get here. You have no right to be here. You weren’t born here.” As if she was born in a hard-luck place like Honduras while they were born here in a freedom-loving law-abiding opportunity-rich place like America because they are smarter than she is… as opposed to just luckier.
And that is true in spades for the children.
Illegal immigration has been a hot-button issue for decades. The numbers of law-breakers who cross the border have fluctuated for decades. They have even fluctuated during the short course of the Trump administration.
The numbers fluctuate, but the arguments don’t. Hard-line Americans argue that immigrants cost them money. And raise the crime rate. And take their jobs. Sympathetic Americans argue that that’s all bogus.
But today, where children are caught in the middle, the arguments don’t much matter.
The Attorney General— when he defended family separation last week “because God has ordained” the law— proclaimed, “Orderly and lawful processes are good in themselves and protect the weak and lawful.” Unless the weak and lawful are children.
Anyway, Sinthia put the lie to his logic. “Honestly, I accept that crossing a border illegally is breaking a law. But what would he do in my situation? And you want to live. You don’t want to lose your life. I would say, what decision would you make? Would you break the law, or would you just let yourself die?”
When it comes to Jeff Sessions, Stephen Miller, even the President, I’m not sure we want to hear their answer.
Sometimes, when there is no simple solution, we have to figure out which of the hard choices is best. The one Laura Bush would make is. The one this administration has made isn’t.
On Trump’s Summits
It is the nature of the news cycle in the Time of Trump that at the rat-a-tat pace of an AK-47, as this spiteful president shoots one bullet after another into the heart and soul of American alliances and American diplomacy and American prestige and American leadership, one woeful wound swiftly is smothered by another.
It is the nature of the cycle, but it shouldn’t be.
Yet while the impact of Donald Trump’s behavior at the Canadian summit will bedevil us for a long time, the news about it will be smothered by the Singapore summit. It shouldn’t be. Because we can’t afford it.
The news is, Trump disdainfully declined in Canada to sign the traditional joint statement by the seven allies of the G7, shorthand for the Group of Seven democracies that have long shared common values and common causes. But because Donald Trump shows no respect for tradition, let alone practical partnerships, realists now ruefully call it G6+1. What’s worse, Trump didn’t just disagree about major issues with our long-supportive allies, which is his prerogative as president; he insulted and threatened them, which isn’t.
How can it be that the few serious, capable, and world-weary people in this president’s orbit don’t read him the facts of global life? What they need to teach him is, more because of the expansion of the economic and military strength of other nations than due to any self-imposed decline of American power, the United States no longer is the undisputed 900-pound gorilla on the planet. And more important, that if we push them away, they can survive on their own.
I don’t even have to think hard when I scroll through stories I covered around the world to come up with examples of the import of alliances. I shuttled around the Middle East with President Jimmy Carter as he won the support of Arab and European nations to solidify the peace treaty he achieved between Egypt and Israel at Camp David (which against countless challenges has endured to this very day). He couldn’t have done it alone.
I patrolled with foreign soldiers during the civil war in Beirut as President Ronald Reagan cobbled together a force of peacekeepers which, although ultimately not so successful, showed the anxiety of the international community about the war that was ripping that nation apart. We couldn’t have shown it alone.
I did stories, in both Saudi Arabia and at the United Nations, about President George H.W. Bush methodically assembling a coalition of 39 countries to confront Saddam Hussein, which eventually routed his troops after they took up residence in Kuwait. We might not have pulled it off alone.
I’ve traveled with local military units in Colombia and in Bolivia as they attacked drug cartels at the behest of the United States. I’ve covered campaigns for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, where the U.S. was the lead mediator but was not operating in a vacuum. I’ve reported on our multinational agreements and alliances from Libya, from Vietnam, from South Africa, from Afghanistan. As a superpower, we can lead the way, but we can only lead if others choose to follow. If we insult and threaten them, we risk going it alone. Which would cost us dearly.
Yet we are on that track. After the Canadian summit, an editorial cartoon in The Baltimore Sun summed it up sadly: a banner flown in front of President Trump said, “You will bow before me.”
Does it really take a dying American hero to bring us to our senses, to publicly (and not for the first time) scold our president for his damaging, dangerous, and disgraceful behavior? Maybe it does, and maybe others will follow, but for now, it is the weakened but not silenced voice of Senator John McCain that shines. After Trump haughtily tweeted from Air Force One after leaving the summit in Canada that the host nation’s prime minister Justin Trudeau was “very dishonest & weak” (because Trudeau had criticized Trump’s trade policies, which is his prerogative), Senator McCain sent out his own tweet: “To our allies: bipartisan majorities of Americans remain pro-free trade, pro-globalization & supportive of alliances based on 70 years of shared values.”
70 years of shared values. With friends and neighbors who have stood by us just as we have stood by them. 70 years, or more like a hundred, for as Trudeau told reporters, Trump’s national security rationale for tariffs against Canadian steel was “kind of insulting” to a nation that has backed the United States in wars dating back to World War One.
McCain ended his tweet with what our steadfast allies ought to know: “Americans stand with you, even if our president doesn’t.” They ought to know, and they need to know, because one day— hopefully sooner rather than later— we shall have a new president. A new president who understands who our friends are, and understands how friends should be treated.
Donald Trump doesn’t. Which we cannot afford.
On North Korea Summit
The question isn’t why President Trump ever fell for flim-flam spin from North Korea, where suddenly its spasmodic leader yo-yoed earlier this month from “Little Rocket Man” to “very honorable.” That one we understand by now: the man in the Oval Office is spasmodic himself. He doesn’t go deep, he just goes with his gut, which might work when you’re building casinos in Atlantic City (although from his debacles there, not always), but it’s no way to govern. The cancelled summit proves that point yet again.
But no, the question is, why would Trump ever think of treating North Korea any differently than he has treated Iran? After all, these are two of the three nations named by President George W. Bush in 2002 as the “axis of evil.” (The third was Iraq but that’s such a mess right now, we don’t know which side is up.) The evil was, they supported terrorism, they imprisoned their opponents, they suppressed their citizens’ human rights, they aligned with America’s adversaries, and they were building, or believed to be building, weapons of mass destruction (translation: nukes).
Yet Trump effectively destroyed the nuclear deal with Iran while he was making nice with North Korea. Why?
Behavior over the years by both countries has been pretty much the same. So has their rhetoric, tossing threats and vitriol toward the United States. And, lest we forget, both have imprisoned American citizens on apparently bogus charges. President Trump strutted like a peacock when three Americans imprisoned in North Korea were released (and to be sure, he deserves credit for that). However, he has all but abandoned four Americans (maybe five) still behind bars in Iran. What’s the difference?
The answer is, Barack Obama.
Along with five other global powers, Obama struck a deal with Iran, which means Trump won’t; Obama didn’t with North Korea, which meant Trump would try. That’s the difference. Same with Afghanistan, same with Syria. Obama did it one way, so whether Trump has a better way or not, he’s determined to do it differently.
That’s no way to govern either.
This could easily be seen as a product of the president’s personal vengeance, but it’s not just him. The vengeance of the president reflects the vengeance of the modern Republican Party. Throughout President Obama’s two terms, Congressional Republicans carried out a strategy of obstruction, culminating in the final year when they unconscionably refused to consider Merrick Garland’s Supreme Court nomination. Now they’re filling them with judges of like mind. The party’s only consistent strategy was to build barriers on every path Barack Obama tried to take and now, with Donald Trump leading the charge, to undo everything Obama did. We don’t even have to guess at it any more.
What should we even call Exhibit A? Their quest to destroy Obamacare (even though the Congressional Budget Office estimates tens of millions more Americans wouldn’t have insurance without it)? Their opposition to and Trump’s rash withdrawal from the Paris climate accord (even though every other civilized nation on earth supports it)? America’s abrupt abrogation of leadership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which gives China an opening to trade with abandoned American partners)? Or is Exhibit A the knife they are taking to President Obama’s policies that have protected us from the financial fiascos that caused the recession a decade ago, or to his policies produced to protect us from suffocating emissions, or to his “net neutrality” rules that prohibited internet service providers from arbitrarily slowing down specific websites and apps, or to the very existence of the Obama era’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose purpose is explicit in its name? Iran is merely the most recent contender for “Exhibit A” status.
The subsequent conclusion is hard to take but also hard to ignore: the president of the United States has no real allegiance to the American people (or at least the ones who didn’t vote for him). He’s the most powerful man on earth but has no real anchor to policy. No long-held principles. No sense, when he impetuously throws treaties and tariffs and traditions in the air, of where the pieces will fall. No sense, and no apparent concern. And the base of his party, in and out of Washington, is right behind him.
To hear him tell it before the summit went sour, “everyone thinks” he ought to win the Nobel Prize. Sorry Mr. President, everyone didn’t. Yes, we’ve all shared the hope— in our nation’s interest, in our world’s interest— that you could neutralize the nuclear threat from North Korea. But you weren’t even close.
In my many years as a foreign correspondent, I covered conflicts, treaties, and the like, including several arms control pacts with the Soviet Union. I learned three things. One was, when negotiating with adversaries, neither side gets everything it wants, but both get more than they had before. Another was, you don’t increase world stability by making the world less stable. The third was, the U.S. is well served in the long term by consulting and compromising with long-loyal allies, not snubbing and sometimes even insulting them.
But these are concepts that Barack Obama (and, by and large, his predecessors) lived by. So Donald Trump doesn’t.
What’s worse, Trump has been playing chicken with both North Korea and Iran. What if, during the pugnacious phase of Trump’s exchanges with Kim Jong-un, Little Rocket Man had had it with the fire-and-fury threats from the White House and launched some of his little rockets at us? What if, with the U.S. breaking its side of the bargain with Iran, the ayatollahs don’t blink and go full speed ahead to build nuclear weapons? Sure, we might try to destroy their program before they revive it but if we do, there will surely be fire and fury in much of the Middle East. That doesn’t help our allies; it doesn’t help us. With North Korea and Iran both, Trump has played chicken with our lives.
That’s surely no way to govern.
The sudden collapse of any accord with North Korea didn’t come because the facts on the ground changed. By and large, they didn’t. It came because Trump boxed himself in, leaving him no negotiating tool more potent than just bluster. Which might explain why he decided to cancel. It’s called “saving face.”
That’s not about governing at all. It’s about ego. And politics.
On Israel & Palestinians
So much anger in Israel and Gaza. So many deaths. But it all wasn’t born of present-day grievances. And it all wasn’t caused by the new embassy in Jerusalem. It goes much, much deeper. And much, much further back.
Back to the creation of Israel.
I once asked maybe 30 Israelis in Jerusalem, “Are you bitter toward the Palestinians and if you are, why?” The answer almost universally was yes, and the reason, although voiced in a variety of ways, almost universally was the same: “Because when Israel was created in 1948, the Palestinians fled rather than live beside us.”
Then I traveled the surprisingly short distance from Jerusalem down to Ramallah, the capital of the Palestinian West Bank— it’s not 15 miles— and asked about 30 Palestinians the same thing in reverse: “Are you bitter toward the Israelis and if so, why?” Here too, the answer almost universally was yes, but the reason was the polar opposite of what I had heard up the hill in Jerusalem: “Because when Israel was created in 1948, the Jews pushed us from our homes.”
I spent enough time covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over the years that I say with confidence, there is some truth to both versions of events, now 70 years in the past. But here’s what’s most telling about these “man-on-the-street” interviews that I was doing as part of a report for ABC News’s Nightline: I made a point of asking my question only to people who looked too young to even have been born in 1948 (and I confirmed the age of each). What this means is, these young citizens, Israelis and Palestinians alike, didn’t acquire their animus firsthand. They inherited it; they were repeating what they had been told by their parents, which is what the parents had been told by their grandparents. Now we are four generations into the conflict and you can bet, the rancor is even more rigid than before.
How do you get past that?
This is why the past six weeks of clashes between Palestinians in Gaza and the Israeli military is just a bump in the road. It leaves Gaza’s population depleted by the deaths of several dozen Palestinians— whether non-violent demonstrators or hell-bent terrorists, they are dead— and now, after rioters torched the one working border crossing used to move food and fuel from Israel into Gaza, they are deprived of even that. Yet in the midst of front-page developments between the U.S. and North Korea, between the U.S. and Iran, between the U.S. and China, the low-grade war in Gaza is only a back-page story.
And when you look at it in that context, most everything else that buttresses the bitterness there has also been just a bump in the road: the two Intifadas, the failed peace talks, the bullets and bombs and rockets and knives and Molotov cocktails and now, the official opening of the U.S. embassy in the contested city of Jerusalem. Putting aside who’s right and who’s wrong about the status of this holy capital, the American move pushes the two sides even farther apart, not closer together.
Not only that, it diminishes even more the domination the United States once enjoyed as the “go-to” nation, long trying to bring peace to a region that, in modern times, has never really known it. The Palestinians won’t even talk to us any more, not officially anyway. Instead, they’re making eyes at Moscow. As if the whole region isn’t already insecure and unstable enough, just think how much worse it will be (at least from an American point of view, not to mention Israeli) if its future is shaped more by Russia than by the U.S.
How do you get over that?
Last month, a man named Fadi Abu Shammalah wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times, the title of which was, “Why I March in Gaza.” Shammalah is the executive director of the General Union of Cultural Centers in Gaza. I have been there, and it is not where you find your typical trouble-makers.
As I read his piece, having seen the hardship in Gaza with my own eyes, I felt some sympathy. Shammalah told how he explained to his seven-year-old son Ali, the oldest of his three children, why he was putting himself in harm’s way by taking part in the border protests. He told his son he felt the need to demonstrate against “the unbearable living conditions facing residents of the Gaza Strip: four hours of electricity a day, the indignity of having our economy and borders under siege, the fear of having our homes shelled.”
Of course he didn’t mention that his Palestinian community brought at least some of their privations upon themselves. Nor that when he talks about his “nonviolent struggle for our homeland,” history does not indisputably record his “homeland” as a fact.
But what he did mention, as another motivation for his role in the demonstrations, is the crux of the problem: “We have the right to return to our homes. I long to sleep under the olive trees of Bayt Daras, my native village.” It is the crux of the problem because Fadi Abu Shammalah, the father of three young children, was not around himself in 1948 when the modern stage of this conflict began. He has never seen those olive trees under which he longs to sleep. Like the Israelis and the Palestinians I interviewed in Jerusalem and Ramallah, he is repeating what his parents said, and what their parents said before that.
He is right when he writes that life in Gaza is “on the brink of humanitarian collapse,” that people’s lives there “are reduced to a daily struggle for food, water, medicine and electricity.” But that’s an issue for 2018; the disputes about who gets to live where were settled by the spoils of war, if not resolved, in 1948.
Shammalah won’t accept that. Sadly, his little son Ali probably won’t either.
How do you get beyond that?
On 24 hours With Trump
Even the Cuban Missile Crisis took 13 days.
Today though, in Trump World, 13 days is an eternity. There’s not enough space in this column to catalogue, let alone absorb, let alone understand, the past 13 days in Trump World. Any 13 days in Trump World.
So let’s look at just one. Just 24 hours— a span from May 2nd to May 3rd— in the rat-a-tat-tat world of Donald Trump.
The big news was, of course, that Trump did, after all, pay back his personal lawyer Michael Cohen the $130,000 that Cohen had spent to try to silence porn star Stormy Daniels. A waste of good money, by the way; Stormy is not a woman to be silenced.
In the pre-Trump world, the admission by the president’s new lawyer Rudy Giuliani that the president had “funneled” that money through Michael Cohen’s law firm— sure, some might just call it “money laundering” but let’s not get hung up on semantics— could be enough to sink a different president. But not this one.
In the pre-Trump world, the admission by the president himself that he was complicit in the payment of hush money, after flatly saying “No” when reporters on Air Force One asked just a month ago if he’d known about the payment to Ms. Clifford, could be enough to sink a different president. But not this one. (And we won’t even get into the connivance of his staff, like press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who said in early March, “I’ve had conversations with the president about this. He has denied all these allegations.”
Melania must be spinning in her stiletto heels.
Mind you, to hear the President tell it in his Thursday morning tweet (and by “Thursday morning,” I mean 4:46AM, which suggests this president is not the cool cucumber he would have you believe), all this proves is, “Money from the campaign, or campaign contributions, played no roll in this transaction.” But this only raises a bigger question— maybe the big question: which Donald Trump are we supposed to believe? The one who said “No,” or the one who now says “Yes?”
As if we actually wondered whether to trust Trump before this.
And I can’t resist pointing out— even though this goes back a whole week— that in late April, Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded the Fifth Amendment. He’s free to, of course, but one can’t help but bring back the words of Donald Trump himself during his campaign about people who plead the Fifth: “The mob takes the Fifth Amendment. If you’re innocent, why are you taking the Fifth Amendment?” Maybe he needs to ask his lawyer. Come to think of it, when Trump’s lawyer needs a lawyer, maybe Trump needs yet another one himself.
Now, a personal digression: this whole story that Trump did indeed repay Michael Cohen, which until now he had denied and so had Cohen, came up Wednesday night when new lawyer Giuliani spilled the beans on Fox to Trump sycophant Sean Hannity. Now, had Giuliani told this story to me back when I worked as a reporter, I might have asked him a fairly obvious question like, “So are you saying that up til now, Trump has been lying?” Hannity evidently didn’t think that was important.
But mentioning Giuliani is a good segue to a second strange scene on just this one day in Trump World. Namely, Giuliani’s Thursday morning announcement— again on Fox— that three Korean-Americans being held in a prison in North Korea will soon be released.
Normally, we would treat this as good news— great news— and leave it at that.
But here’s one reason why we can’t: because the last time we looked, Giuliani was not the Secretary of State, he was just the president’s lawyer. That might explain why— and excuse me for my obsolete outlook but wouldn’t State normally be the one to make such an announcement, or maybe even the White House?— the State Department could only say in a statement after Giuliani’s second bombshell in this single 24-hour period, “We cannot confirm the validity of these reports.”
They can’t, but Giuliani can?
And here’s a second reason why such good news can still only leave us scratching our heads: Trump’s tweet on the topic. “As everybody is aware, the past Administration has long been asking for three hostages to be released from a North Korean Labor camp, but to no avail.” Actually Mr. President, no one is aware of that, since only one of these three prisoners has been held by the North Koreans since “the past Administration,” meaning Obama’s, was in office. The other two were taken prisoner last year when, in case anyone’s memory is fuzzy on the timing, the man in the White House was none other than… sit down for this… Donald Trump.
Which is a segue of sorts to the third blockbuster in this single 24-hour day, and it really kind of ties everything together: Trump’s first-ever visit, Wednesday, to the State Department. That alone should alarm people, that after more than a year-and-a-quarter in office Trump never paid a visit til now, but what struck me was what he said to State’s employees once he got there.
And if you think I’m talking about his remark about “more spirit than I’ve heard from the State Department in a long time, many years,” I’m not. Although it does prompt the question, How. Would. He. Know? if he’s never been there before now?
But no, I’m talking about another uniquely Trumpian statement when referring to new Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s first-in-his-class status at West Point: “I’ve also heard I was first in my class at the Wharton School of Finance. And sometimes when you hear it, you don’t say anything, you just let it go.” He sure should, since although he has made such a claim many times, it just ain’t true. A look at the school newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian, from Trump’s year, 1968, shows a list of 56 students on the Dean’s List. No mention of Trump. A look at the graduation program the same year lists 20 award winners at Wharton. As well as Class of ’68 recipients of cum laude, magna cum laude, and summa cum laude honors. Again, no Trump.
Too bad, really, that the small scandal with President Trump’s personal physician— admitting that his incandescent account of Trump’s health during the campaign was actually written by the candidate himself— came the day before all the rest of this. I guess if we had simply compared its language to the classic narcissistic hyperbole we hear from the President every day— phrases like “astonishingly excellent,” and “If elected, Mr. Trump, I can state unequivocally, will be the healthiest individual ever elected to the presidency”— we’d have known they were Trump’s own self-admiring words before Dr. Bornstein admitted it.
It’s not as if the statements and events and reversals and lies of this one 24-hour span of time is any big revelation. You could pick just about any 24-hour period and come up with just as much. It is non-stop crisis. Constitutional and otherwise.
Do you remember, just two days before the 2016 election, when Trump said that his opponent Hillary Clinton’s “current scandals and controversies will continue throughout her presidency,” and that it would be “impossible for her to govern?”
It sounds almost peaceful.
I’ve spent much of my life policing people’s grammar. Too much of it, if you ask the people I’ve policed.
Not that mine is perfect. For example I still get mixed up by the difference between “lay” and “lie.” Should I say I’m “laying” down or “lying” down? Well, it’s the latter… I think. “Lay” is an active verb; it means you put something down. “Lie” means something is down, probably horizontally. So I guess if I’m resting on the bed, I’m “lying” down… unless I’ve laid my body down. The only thing I know for sure is, I’m horizontal either way.
Until recently I had the same problem with “farther” and “further.” As in, “I can’t go any farther” versus “I can’t go any further.” Which one is right? Aha. Trick question! Arguably they both are. “Farther” relates to distance, so “I can’t go any farther” means I can’t take another step. “I can’t go any further” might mean, by way of an explanation, “I can’t go any further with this description because I’ve told you everything I know.”
Or should I explain it to you further?
By the way, “who” and “whom” are another puzzle that perplex me to this very day.
But for all my lingual limitations, it doesn’t stop me from foraging for flaws in others. For instance, for many years when someone told me he felt “nauseous,” I corrected him: “If you are nauseous, it means you make other people sick. What you want to say is, you feel nauseated.”
Which probably made him feel nauseated about me.
When a server in a ritzy restaurant asked what I wanted for my “entree,” I corrected the server, explaining in so many words, “Entree comes from French and what it means in France is, the first course. Think of the root of the word: it’s the ‘entry’ to the meal. Like soup, a salad, an appetizer. If you mean, what do I want for my main dish (called the “plat principal” in France, which translates to “principal plate”), I want chicken.”
Yes, I am a guy who likes to hit his head against a brick wall. And yes, you would be right to conclude, since I lived five years in France, I’m a snob. You also would be right to conclude, I must be pretty dull if all I ever wanted was chicken. In any event, it probably made servers sorry that I’d ever made my “entree” into that restaurant.
Which brings me to my latest linguistic pet peeve: “So.” Not that “so” is so bad. To the contrary, think about the sentence you just read. “So” is in it for emphasis, as a synonym for “too” or “unacceptably” or “horribly.” I could have written, “Not that ‘so’ is horribly bad,” and you’d have gotten the same meaning out of it. Likewise, “so” sends positive emphasis: “I am so confused by all this.”
And sometimes, “so” suggests cause and effect. Like last week, in Southwest pilot Tammie Jo Shults’s calm-as-a-cucumber communication to a Philadelphia air traffic controller after one of her two engines blew up: “We have a part of the aircraft missing, so we’re going to need to slow down a bit.” A classic case of cause and effect. The cause? Part of the aircraft is missing. The effect? No choice, we’re slowing down. She was so right.
But if “so” is often used effectively, what’s the pet peeve? It is this: people have started answering questions with “So,” even though it serves no purpose, not as a point of emphasis, not as a link between cause and effect, and not as a conclusion (“So the answer to two plus two must be four.”).
The other day I was listening to an interview on a National Public Radio show and if the host asked a dozen questions, the guest began answering ten of them with “So.” I was riding my bike at the time, so I didn’t take notes (that, by the way, is another example of cause and effect), but let me give you a couple of made-up examples. Q: Where did you go to school? A: So I went to C.S.U.” Or, Q: What time did you hear the explosion? A: So it was about 11 o’clock.”
So when did people start starting their responses with “So?” I looked it up, and although there is no empirical answer, I did come across a pretty good illustration of how widespread it has become. Evidently someone at NPR a few years ago was frustrated by the same issue (well, okay, I’ll admit, it’s not an issue for all of us), and did some research. The upshot? Reporters and hosts— remember, these are supposed to be role models for the English language— started sentences with the word “so” 237 times in a single week.
The article about it, incidentally, was on NPR’s own website, and made this astute assertion about grammatical fixations like mine: “Not everybody cares about it, but the ones who do care care a lot.”
Language, after all, is fluid. Or at least, it’s supposed to be. That’s why the word “bad” now sometimes means “good.” “Sick” can mean “cool” and “cool” doesn’t have to be about the temperature. Years ago, when I hosted a show on the big talk radio station in Denver, I had the editor of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary on the air, and my favorite takeaway was what he told me about the listings of the definitions of words: every ten years, when they put out a new edition, the orders of some definitions change, reflecting frequency of usage. That’s why once, the first definition of “nauseous” was (ahem, quite properly), “Causing nausea,” or put more simply, “Making someone sick.” Now, that’s in the second position, replaced by the more frequently used, “Affected with nausea,” as in, “Feeling sick.”
It also explains the frequency of use these days of the word “awesome” although, while it may explain it, it still doesn’t excuse it. “Awesome” is heroism, love, generosity, the Grand Canyon. It is decidedly not the act of coming up with exact change when you buy a bag of chips at the convenience store. As often as not though, the clerk’s response will be, “Awesome.”
But, like it or not (and I don’t), that’s where our language is. Just please don’t say, “That’s where our language is at.” That’s a whole ‘nother column.
On Waging Wars
Remember when the biggest threat that could keep us awake at night was North Korea’s nukes? That was so, like, February.
Since then, the menace of North Korea has waned in the wake of pugnacious new presidential salvos— or, one might argue, unpresidential salvos— on several newer warfronts: Russia, China, even America itself. It has gotten so bad, the other day I took a long bike ride and forgot to pack my phone, which meant I went something like six hours without tuning into the world’s woes, and when I got back to my car and turned on the news, I found myself half-relieved, but also actually half-surprised, that we weren’t either under attack or on the attack ourselves. I’m old enough to remember the last time anxious Americans felt that way: the showdown with the Soviet Union known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. We’ve fought plenty of wars since then, some of which I’ve covered, but none came with the impromptu and imprudent risks in which this president seems to revel.
The fact is, the whiffs of wars waged by the president fly almost too fast to track. They feel less like the upshot of the “chaos theory” that many analysts advance about President Trump— which would suggest the risks are calculated— and more like the fallout from an “impulse theory”— which would suggest they’re not. If this is true, Donald Trump doubles down and raises the risks of one kind of war or another not because of shrewd strategy but because of ignorant instinct. Just think about the latest…
This past week, the threat of an unthinkable but not inconceivable shooting war with Russia over chemical weapons in Syria. The American missiles launched to discourage more chemical strikes against Syrian citizens might or might not have lasting effect (because they might or might not represent a strategy as opposed to just a spectacle), but knowing that Russia’s president Putin has a penchant for combat almost as big as his own, Trump didn’t have to stick it in Putin’s eye with his taunting tweet about the missiles, “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and ‘smart!” What we got back was a sinister shot from Russia’s ambassador in Washington: “We are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences.” Consequences? They can cut both ways. These adversarial superpowers have decades of experience with restraint, but now, facing each other over Syria, one miscalculation could make that experience moot.
The week before that, the threat of an unimaginable but not unlikely trade war with China over tariffs. Here too, instead of quietly going about the business of evening the playing field, the president openly welcomed economic combat, tweeting, “Trade wars are good, and easy to win.” Easy to win? So far, with even the prospect of a trade war on the horizon, American firms dependent on foreign imports, and farmers dependent on foreign exports, already see unsustainable losses in their immediate future, and Americans with their savings in what had been a soaring stock market already have suffered double-digit losses in their nest eggs. The National Retail Federation accused the president of “playing a game of chicken with the nation’s economy.” This is “good?” And although China has uttered some conciliatory rhetoric, it also has warned that “we will not sit idly by and will take necessary measures if the US hurts China’s interests.” President Trump even earned a reprimand from China’s president Xi— who Trump says will “always” be his friend— that “arrogance” will earn us a place in “the dustbin of history.” That’s some friendship! Leading an economy that inevitably will be bigger than ours, Xi’s ultimatums should not be indifferently ignored.
And just about every week of the year, an incredible but not improbable war against the fundamental foundations of our own society and our own government. Donald Trump has impugned and insulted the integrity of everything from the Judiciary to the media to Congress to overseas allies to members of his own presidential cabinet to Gold Star families whose loved ones made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms. And, needless to say, of law enforcement. Just last week, on Friday the 13th no less, a presidential tweet, trying to allay the impact of James Comey’s blistering new book, characterized federal law enforcement as “a den of thieves and lowlifes!” (As if we should doubt the honesty of a proven crime-fighter whose senior thesis in college appraised the role of religion in politics, against the honesty of a man whose personal and professional integrity and morals have been dubious and decidedly unreligious since he came out of diapers.) Some Americans might see all of this as a political sideshow, but as The New York Times put it in a Monday editorial, “What can seem now like a political sideshow” can “instantly become a constitutional crisis.” Which would put us at war with ourselves.
What President Trump doesn’t seem to grasp is that while he says he’s making America great again, the truth is, by waging wars on so many fronts, he’s actually making it weaker. Weaker economically, weaker diplomatically, maybe even weaker constitutionally. In his binary brain, he doesn’t seem to understand that for every action, there is a reaction.
Or, put more simply, if you shoot at an enemy, the enemy is going to shoot back. Even North Korea.
On President – Then And Now
Do you remember the good old days?
The good old days, when a president dignified his office rather than degrading it.
The good old days, when a president got his guidance— even if gravely flawed— from seasoned advisors and congressional pros and contemplative think tanks, rather than rabble-rousing commentators on a right-wing television network for which ratings are a richer reward than responsibility.
The good old days, when a president went to war— a diplomatic war, an economic war, a military war— by shooting through a carefully aligned gunsight rather than shooting from the hip. And when he seemed to understand that if you shoot at somebody, they’re going to shoot back, rather than assuming that a trade war won’t draw return fire and hurt our side as much as theirs.
I covered half-a-dozen presidents like that over the years, and would take any one of them back in a heartbeat.
Do you remember the good old days when a president would do his best to steady a staggering stock market in which tens of millions of his countrymen have their nest eggs, rather than impulsively imploding it to animate an ill-conceived campaign slogan or, even worse, to vent his personal pique?
The good old days, when a president endeavored to ensure that our environment would be ever clearer, ever cleaner, ever safer, rather than working to pulverize the protections that had been years, even decades, in the making.
The good old days, when a president would condemn and expel from his circle anyone who maligned schoolchildren who had just been through a murderous hell, rather than staying mum about his own supporters’ reprehensible rhetoric.
I fear that some politicians today with their sights on higher office— both Right and Left— have seen the success of the new politics, and will try to build upon it, rather than tear it down and put its pieces in the dustbin of history, where they belong.
Do you remember the good old days when a president put America on a perch alongside our foreign friends to preserve our power and prestige around the globe, rather than indiscriminately asserting “America First” at our friends’ expense, trashing long-productive relationships that got us there in the first place?
The good old days, when a president understood that America’s values are best purveyed by commanding the world’s respect, rather than just commandeering the world’s attention, which is borne more of distress than deference.
The good old days, when a president publicly praised our allies and pummeled our adversaries, rather than pummeling our allies and praising our adversaries.
I reported from some 80 countries over the years where, at one level or another, our nation was seen as a model to admire, if not actually emulate. It will be a long time, if ever, before we are seen that way again.
Do you remember the good old days when a president promulgated a policy and gave the American people time to ponder it, rather than putting out positions and pronouncements at the ratta-tat-tat speed of machine gun fire so that the citizens don’t have much more than a moment to absorb and appraise it?
The good old days, when a president might throw a bunch of balls into the air but have at least a nominal notion of where they will fall and who they will hurt, rather than tossing them up with no more precision than it takes to punch out a single juvenilely-written tweet.
The good old days when a president who made a pledge— about, say, saving young immigrants, or sensibly restricting guns— actually kept his word, or at least tried, rather than shifting his positions from day to day and sometimes hour to hour, depending on the last hardline lackey to whisper in his ear.
I voted for presidents like that, and dread the time that will pass and the damage that will be done before I can vote for one again.
Do you remember the good old days when a president made the most of the diversity we enjoy in our great nation, rather than making mincemeat of it?
The good old days, when a president learned what a president can only learn once he actually occupies the Oval Office and grows in the job, rather than one who thinks he knows it all before he ever gets there.
The good old days, when a president gave us at least a peek at his personal finances so we’d know how, if at all, they affect his political decisions, rather than imperiously ignoring that norm and arrogantly refusing to share those finances with the people he supposedly serves.
Having covered my share of news conferences with presidents, I can’t quite believe that the media doesn’t press this president more on these failings.
Do you remember the good old days, when our president was elected by a majority of the American people, rather than just a majority of the Electoral College?
The good old days, when we expected a president to lie some of the time for political expediency, rather than most of the time for personal expediency.
The good old days, when the most egregious of a president’s lies led to courageous calls for impeachment, rather than sycophantic spells of silence.
I remember those days. It’s still hard to believe that they are gone. I yearn for them again.
On Soldiers At The Mexican Border.
We’ve got a drug problem.
We’ve got it here in Colorado. Prescription opioids and illegal narcotics. The director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Prevention said of the epidemic last week, “It’s getting worse, and it continues to grow.”
But there’s nothing unique about Colorado. We’ve got a drug problem all over America. Unless you live in a cave, you know that by now.
What we don’t have is a solution. Not to the opioid crisis, not to the flow of illegal drugs. Everyone knows that too, but President Trump would have us think otherwise.
President Trump would have us think his “big beautiful wall” at the Mexican border is a big part of the solution. And until it’s built with a price tag in the neighborhood of $18-billion (at Mexico’s expense, of course, to hear him tell it), soldiers sent to the border are the solution.
No they’re not. Dispatching them won’t be a total waste of money— their deterrent value alone might discourage drug smugglers from breaching the border. But the bigger picture is, drug producers south of the border— not just in Mexico, but well down into South America— have found all kinds of ways to get drugs into our country that aren’t carried across the border by a “mule” on foot.
A few years ago, I shot a documentary in Colombia about the drug war, focusing on the cartels that produce the drugs, and on the Colombian anti-narcotics army that the United States pays for, from helicopter gunships clear down to their lip balm. They are called the “Junglas,” and they are hardened by years of combat. We went along on raids in the steamy jungle, we set down under machine-gun fire in clearings ringed with land mines, we got chased by armed cartel criminals trying to save their illicit industry, we watched primitive drug labs go up in smoke. Yet when I came home to Colorado, I sure didn’t come home to a drug-free state.
It was all quite dangerous but, more important, revealing. In half a dozen Central and South American nations, drugs are big business. Take down a business over here, the bad guys just rebuild it over there.
But probably the most revealing single moment on the whole trip was during an interview within the safe walls of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota. An American officer helping run anti-narcotic efforts in Latin America told me that when it comes to stopping the manufacture and movement of illegal drugs toward the United States, we only stay “this far ahead” of the bad guys. He squeezed his thumb and forefinger together as he said it. There was no light, zero, between them.
One case in point: the Drug Enforcement Administration took a camera crew and me to a coastline on the Pacific near the border with Ecuador to see a vessel they had captured, something they call a “one-way” boat. It’s not a submarine, but a “submersible,” visible only about a foot above the water’s surface, designed to smuggle up to ten tons of cocaine out of South America. Remember, that’s in just a single boat. Then, after its one-and-only trip, the submersible is trashed. But by that time, up to ten tons of cocaine are on their way to our nation. From just one submersible. There are hundreds each year that they don’t catch. Which leads to a lot of ruined lives in American cities. Including Denver.
But a lot of drugs don’t take that watery route. Cars and trucks coming north have them secreted in hidden compartments— sometimes ingeniously embedded in gas tanks, engines, tires. You’d have to tear every piece of the vehicle apart to discover them.
Drug exporters hide their product in the heads of dolls coming into the United States as children’s toys. They stick drugs in fruits and vegetables destined for our supermarkets but sidelined to remove the drugs before the journey is complete. They mix cocaine powder with resin used to make plastic deck furniture, then reverse the process and extract the drugs once the furniture has been imported to the U.S.
And of course, as you know if you’ve ever seen a Hollywood movie about drugs, they move them in by air.
Shortly before I left Colombia, a major in the anti-narco army asked me to tell the American people in my documentary, “We are doing all we can. But we cannot fight consumption in your country. You have to do that.” He was right. We have to fight it in Colorado, and every other state in the union.
Sorry to say, up to two thousand soldiers on our two-thousand mile border with Mexico aren’t going to pull it off. They will stop some drugs, but they won’t end the epidemic.
What in the world does Russia want?
Well, the answer is right there before your eyes. In fact it’s in the question itself: the world. Russia wants the world, or at least facets of the world it used to dominate before its predecessor, the Soviet Union, collapsed in ashes. But the bigger question that’s not so clear is, what can we do about it?
When I covered news from time to time in the Soviet Union, then returned several times after Russia was all that survived, people were clear about their goals: Russia wants power, influence, allies, respect. Russia wants a place at the table. Russia wants equal footing with its superpower rival, the United States of America. Attempt to assassinate a traitorous countryman, then lose a bunch of people from its diplomatic bases in the U.S.? It fits right in: Russia cannot be ignored.
That’s why you won’t see Vladimir Putin or anyone else there wearing a ball cap with the embroidered inscription, “Make America Great Again.” But “Make Russia Great Again?” That’s what they’re all about. Which is why, there are limits to what we can do about Russia. Punish it for its behavior? Sure. But change that behavior? Not so much.
On my last few visits, I made documentaries. One was about politics and Putin himself, namely, how he got away with slowly slashing the democratic liberties for which people there used to tell us back in the Soviet days they yearned, then briefly enjoyed after the Soviet demise… yet today, aren’t agitating to reclaim.
His technique was telling. He flourished the flag of nationalism. In and of itself, nationalism isn’t a bad thing: it means pride in your nation’s history, pride in its culture, pride in its achievements, pride in its power. As Americans we have a lot to be proud about. But so do the Russians. From their tenacity in World War Two to their talents in literature and art to their triumphs in the space race— they put a man in orbit before we put a man in space at all.
But more than anything, they are proud of the power they wielded in the world before the Soviet Empire disappeared. Back in the day, when the Soviet Union spoke, the world listened. And sometimes shuddered. What Putin has told his people for years now is, we were a superpower once, we will be a superpower again.
Can we change that? No. Neither isolation nor sanctions nor ousting diplomats will alter that uncompromising ambition.
In fact, the Russian people want superpower status so badly, they are willing to accept the semi-Soviet style state Putin has restored. There has been just one reliable polling agency in Russia— it’s called Levada (Putin had it designated as a “foreign agent,” so it couldn’t even do polling on this month’s election)— and the year before last, Levada asked Russians whether they would be willing to abandon Ukraine in exchange for an easing of sanctions against their country, which have enfeebled their economy. Three-quarters of respondents said no. These people are tough; they have endured worse. The year before that, they were asked to assess the murderous dictator Joseph Stalin. 40% responded that things under Stalin were “more good than bad.”
Which is just what Putin wants. Painting him as an iron-fisted dictator is not going to blunt the affection of his base.
This helps explain why Russia has become a covert combatant in cyberwarfare, a.k.a. hacking. Early this month the Trump administration accused Russia of targeting our utilities, not shutting them down but showing that they could. “From what we can see,” said a Symantec security expert, “they were there.” This is the arms race of the future, and Putin wants to be on the leading edge: disrupt, maybe destroy, an enemy’s energy grids, its transportation systems, its financial data and satellite traffic and information webs and communication networks and healthcare records, even its military complex. They could do it to us; we could do it to them. The threat is that one side strikes and the other sees no alternative but to raise the stakes. If that’s the new normal, it won’t melt buildings but it could melt the society on which they stand.
Melting ours, is just what Mr. Putin wants. The best we could do is retaliate. Which is lose-lose.
It helps explain why Russia has disrupted the election processes of sovereign nations, and not just ours. Sometimes with overt Russian support, nationalist parties in Europe, whose populist policies parrot Putin’s, have proliferated in longtime American allies from Italy to Germany, from Austria to Greece, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic. Some are now governing their countries. This is Russia’s insidious way of reviving the Cold War contests for allies and alliances. It puts NATO in peril, which we see as defensive security but which Putin sees as an offensive threat. It weakens Europe, and what weakens Europe weakens us. It also weakens democracy as we define it.
But that’s just what Putin wants. A Putin advisor in Moscow once gave me his definition of democracy: “Just a system designed to undermine the leadership of a nation.” Another Kremlin politician told me, “When the Soviet Union fell apart, what did we get? Unemployment, corruption, inflation, crime. And the name for that was ‘democracy’.” We’re not going to change the minds of Russians by preaching democracy.
It helps explain why Russia has spent so much in Syria, risking global condemnation for war crimes, brutally bolstering a Syrian despot who drops blazing bombs on his people. Putin made a promise to President Assad that he would pull out all the stops to support his regime, and he kept his word. American intelligence sources say he has earned the respect of other Arab leaders for whom clenched fists are more important than human rights. For half a century, the United States has been the go-to nation all over the Middle East. Today, the Palestinians are proposing Palestinian-Israeli peace talks in Moscow. Russia is a player again. And at our expense.
Which is just what Putin wants. And with American influence in the region waning, it’s too late to turn that ship.
Finally, it explains the new arms race. In an early March speech to his Parliament, President Putin bragged about a new intercontinental missile and a nuclear torpedo that he called “invincible,” able to outsmart every counter-defense the United States could throw into the sky. This reinforced the revelation by U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that our primary focus today is “great power competition,” not terrorism. Forget for a moment that U.S. analysts believe Russia is years away from weapons like those that Putin described. He spoke like a superpower, and the world paid attention.
Which is just what the Russian people want. And short of a nuclear war, what the American people can’t do a whole lot about.
At a forum a few weeks ago in the city of Kaliningrad, President Putin was asked what he most would like to change in all of world history. His answer? “The collapse of the Soviet Union.” That’s why he presents himself to his population as their bold bulwark between superpower status and subservience, which people in Russia told me they call “Putinism.” It shows the world a Russia that must be feared. It reinstates a Russia that cannot be ignored.
That’s what Russia wants. And it’s working. No matter how we respond, Russia’s getting what it wants. Which means our actions are likely to be moot. And its behavior is not likely to change.
On Trump’s Trade War
I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.
President Trump is willing— in fact from the looks of things, President Trump is eager— for a trade war. Consider his tariffs, his disengagement the first week in office from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (the 11 nations we abandoned, representing a market of half-a-billion people, just last week formalized their tariff-cutting trade alliance without us), his whole quixotic crusade for America First in a world where American supremacy is neither totally unchallenged anymore nor thoroughly respected.
What I don’t get is, why? If our economy were going down the tubes and we were desperate, I could see it. A last-ditch effort. A defensive counterpunch.
But does anyone see us going down the tubes? To the contrary, Mr. Trump inherited an economy on the upswing. And maybe partly to his credit, the upswing by and large has continued. At least in the short term, tax reform has put some wind in our sails, although the long term still portends higher deficits.
Look at unemployment. The president protests about losing jobs to foreign competition, but that’s fallacious on two fronts. First, the most authoritative study of the impact of foreign competition on American jobs, put out a little more than a year ago by Ball State University, concluded that 88-percent of U.S. workers who have lost their jobs were not replaced by cheap labor overseas. No, they were replaced by robots. In other words, automation. The study cited General Motors, which once had 600,000 factory workers but today has just a third that number… yet turns out more cars and trucks than ever.
Second, at the beginning of this year, unemployment in the U.S. just last month stood at its lowest point since the start of the new millennium: 4.1-percent. Compare that to almost 10-percent ten years ago during the recession. Another way to look at it is this: last month alone, the economy added 313,000 people to payrolls. The average American worker by the end of last year earned $24.57 per hour, up 40-cents an hour from the year before. We’re on a roll.
But we need a trade war, which might put that in jeopardy?
Look at the stock market. President Trump crows about the record levels it has reached on his watch. You could argue that he has less to crow about now, because once he announced his intransigent commitment to tariffs, it began to tank. But still, compared to when he took office, it has climbed roughly 25% and still is in record territory (although credit where credit is due: the market rose 150-percent under the watch of President Barack Obama, which gave Trump a lucky start).
But with so many Americans depending on the stock market for their nest eggs, we need a trade war?
Look at inflation. It has been at what economists call a “break-even” point ever since the recession. In layman’s terms, that means inflation has been almost inconsequential. But with tariffs, that changes. Tariffs might ultimately spur new production within our shores but that’s far from a sure thing and in the meantime, tariffs mean higher prices. Higher prices for anything in our country made from aluminum or steel, from a soup can to a car. And fewer items sold for export, once other nations slap their own retaliatory tariffs on American products. You can figure out the impact of that on our economy for yourself.
But a trade war is what we want?
Sure, for 30 years we have spent more on imports than we make on exports and we have a growing trade deficit right now. At more than $56-billion a year, it is the highest it has been in a decade. Inarguably it would be good for our economy if that figure came down. But the plurality of the trade deficit is due to the overheated export economy in China. Despite the president’s almost across-the-board application of tariffs, that isn’t going to go away.
Maybe the most comprehensive figure about the state of the American economy is this: it grew at the end of last year by 2.5-percent. That’s better than the year before. And better than the year before that.
But the president says, “I like conflict.” And just like that, he welcomes a trade war.
I like a healthy economy better than I like a hazardous conflict that puts it in peril. So I don’t get it. Or, considering the unanchored, uninformed, and sometimes unhinged behavior of Donald Trump, maybe I do.
If by now we haven’t won the war in Afghanistan, we’re not going to.
And heaven knows, even if our politicians and generals don’t, that while we haven’t conclusively lost the war, we surely haven’t won it. Which was hammered home— not for the first time— late last month. In four attacks over just nine days, more than 130 people were killed by terrorists. Some by the Taliban, some by ISIS. As if it matters.
They struck inside Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, they struck at an Afghan military complex, they struck in Save The Children’s offices in Jalalabad, and in the most lethal of the lot, they struck with a bomb-packed ambulance inside Kabul’s “ring of steel,” supposedly the most secure sector of the city.
But “most secure” in Afghanistan is only relative. Nothing there is secure. Not the capital, not the population, not the government. And not the U.S. mission, whatever it actually is today. That is the terrorists’ intent: to prove that nothing is secure, even after 16-plus years of costly American efforts— with a hundred-thousand troops there at the peak— to exterminate the terrorists and pacify the nation.
Who knows what President Trump might have said about Afghanistan in his State of the Union if not for those four murderous attacks, right on the eve of his address? As it turned out, although it now is America’s longest war ever, and although the president is shoring up the U.S. force back to about 15,000 troops, America’s longest and currently its biggest war rated just 34 words. Stirring words about “our warriors in Afghanistan” and “their heroic Afghan partners,” but none that actually pointed toward victory. That’s because victory is no closer now than it was at the outset. Yet for reasons that defy me, few in Washington are talking about us pulling out and going home.
They ought to examine the evidence instead of their egos. It is there, for all the world to see. Many just aren’t looking.
Exhibit A is simply Afghanistan’s anything-but-simple history. It has been invaded time and time again, beginning before the birth of Christ with Alexander the Great. Then Arabs, Mongols, the British, the Soviets. All swept through and for the most part, all were swept away. Now, with more than 2,200 American deaths already, it’s our turn.
Exhibit B is our own history, a history of mission creep. The original mission was noble, and necessary: we attacked in November, 2001, to rid Afghanistan of the vermin who attacked us on September 11th. The strategy? Annihilate the Taliban who were hosting al-Qaeda and leave Osama bin Laden’s savage soldiers without the safe haven from which they had planned the anti-American attacks. But that mission has come and gone. The latest intelligence concludes that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, and ISIS, and others, now have safe havens in parts of more than two dozen countries on several continents. Whatever we eventually might accomplish in Afghanistan is now moot.
Exhibit C is what we should have learned in earlier wars about alien terrain: no matter how smart we are and how strong we feel, when we’re fighting in the enemy’s neighborhood, he has the advantage. That helps explain why we didn’t win in Vietnam or Iraq. The enemy has survived in his harsh environment since the beginning of time, he knows every nook and cranny when he has to hide, and he has friends around every corner. That is something basic training at Fort Benning can’t equal.
Exhibit D is what we should have learned in earlier wars about counterfeit confidence, which conjures up shades of Vietnam: “Peace is at hand” (except it wasn’t). And shades of Iraq: “Mission accomplished” (except it wasn’t). Now it’s President Trump saying of Afghanistan, “What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.” And, in the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks, the general who leads U.S. Central Command being asked by reporters if victory in Afghanistan is still a possibility. His chillingly predictable answer? “Absolutely, absolutely.” Trouble is, previous presidents and previous commanding generals have been telling us that for 16 years now.
Exhibit E is something more personal, evidence I saw of the enemy’s culture and perseverance the very first time I set foot as a reporter in Afghanistan. It was December, 1979, just days after the Soviets invaded. For all the resistance I eventually saw the Mujahideen— the anti-Soviet guerrilla fighters— show against a superior Soviet military force, it was not as potent as what I learned one of those first few days on the ground. I watched two teams playing polo, swinging their mallets and galloping toward their opponents’ goals. But they weren’t swatting at a ball. They were swatting at the severed head of an enemy. It is an adulteration of an otherwise civilized game that dates back to Genghis Khan. And a metaphor that convinces you, the Afghans aren’t soft.
The Taliban today are from that same stock. They are tough, they are vicious, and they can bide their time. Like ISIS in other parts of the world, they don’t have to hold territory to win. They just have to hold a nation in the grips of their terror. The more than 130 people killed late last month are only the latest piece of proof that it works.
The other proof is, we’ve been fighting there for almost a generation. Yet still, nothing is secure. We haven’t lost, but we haven’t won. And positive public pronouncements notwithstanding, there’s no convincing sign that we ever will.
On Trump’s First Year
For a full year now, I’ve been taking notes. Almost every day. Notes about the Trump presidency.
It wasn’t easy, because before one story could play itself out, another replaced it. My notes became encyclopedically long. There’s a popular theory going around: Trump keeps up this pace so we can’t get preoccupied with any one bit of beastly behavior. Or any single atrocious act. It fast becomes yesterday’s news.
I don’t know if that theory is true or not but what we know for sure is that with just one year under his belt, Trump has redefined the presidency to fit his personality. And his temperament. And his ego. His own chief of staff John Kelly says, “He very seldom asks how other presidents did this.”
So a column of 700 words at the end of Trump’s first year doesn’t do it justice. Sure, he has gotten things done, although not nearly as much as he promised or, in keeping with his contempt for facts, as much as he claims.
But credit where credit is due, if you want to give it. Between cabinet-level appointments and strokes of the presidential pen, Trump has made moves to deregulate American society. Many businesses understandably welcome a looser rein. But what it actually means for most of us is the loss of everything from watchdogs protecting us against corporate misbehavior to provisions protecting us against dirty air.
Tax reform? We needed that, to be sure, but not at the expense of a (decidedly non-conservative) ballooning national debt. (And not at the expense, by the way, of charitable deductions, which I predict will cost our culture dearly.) Federal judgeships? Trump’s party crows about filling them at a record pace, including the vacancy on the Supreme Court. What they don’t mention is that the reason they’ve had so many to fill— including the high court— is that they unconscionably held up President Obama’s nominations for nearly a year until he was out of office. The stock market, which has shot up more than 25% in Trump’s first year? It was already on a roll under Obama, growing ten times that much (yes, 250%) during his presidency. ISIS melting down? That was underway before Trump got to town.
Meantime, from Africa to the Middle East to Europe to the Pacific Rim, President Trump has all but offered up for auction America’s once rewarding role as the world’s sole superpower. He has alienated foreign friends and embraced autocratic foes. He has handed our trade ties to China. And North Korea? A danger, for sure. But we had dangerous adversaries through the Cold War and learned, Cold beats Hot.
Bret Stephens, a longtime conservative columnist for The Wall Street Journal, now with The New York Times, recently recapped the president’s policy record: “Tax cuts. Deregulation. More for the military; less for the United Nations. The Islamic State crushed in its heartland. Assad hit with cruise missiles. Troops to Afghanistan. Arms for Ukraine. A tougher approach to North Korea. Jerusalem recognized as Israel’s capital. The Iran deal decertified. Title IX kangaroo courts on campus condemned. Yes to Keystone. No to Paris. Wall Street roaring and consumer confidence high.”
“What, for a conservative,” he went on, “is there to dislike?”
But he then answered his own question: “The character of your leaders, the culture of governance and the political health of the public… matters a lot more than lowering the top marginal income tax rate by a couple of percentage points.” Stephens cites Trump’s “lying, narcissism, bullying, bigotry, crassness, name calling, ignorance, paranoia, incompetence and pettiness.” He fears that Trump “is empowering a conservative political culture that celebrates everything that patriotic Americans should fear: the cult of strength, open disdain for truthfulness, violent contempt for the Fourth Estate, hostility toward high culture and other types of ‘elitism,’ a penchant for conspiracy theories and, most dangerously, white-identity politics.”
Donald Trump’s personal friend Christopher Ruddy, Newsmax Media’s chief, says, “He’s transformed the bully pulpit like no other president. He’s made the presidency stronger.” But here’s the catch: by denigrating some indispensable democratic institutions— the judiciary, law enforcement, Congress, the media— he has made them weaker. And that’s just in his first year.
Look, I’ve covered news in more than 80 countries, on every continent (except Antarctica). Some, by my own reckoning, were “shithole countries.” There was corruption and filth and hostility in every direction. The phones didn’t work, the food made you sick, you had to break the law and risk arrest to even get the story.
But I confined my pronouncement of that private judgment to letters I sent home from the field. Certainly as a network news correspondent I never vocalized it publicly in any story, because what I said on TV was seen and heard by tens of millions of Americans. My words could have repercussions. But the impact that an assessment like “shithole countries” would have had coming from me obviously pales in comparison to its impact coming from the president of the United States.
Yet last week, commenting about nations in Africa, he allegedly said it anyway (and I use “allegedly” in fairness to the president’s dubious denial that he used those words, although frankly, with no one who was with him actually denying it, I have to conclude that where there’s smoke, there’s fire).
There are so many things wrong with Trump’s coarse comment. To begin with, it is thoroughly unbecoming of the most powerful man in the world, the man who holds the office from which our moral compasses are supposed to be set. (Needless to say though, he’s not the first to dishonor his high office. Exhibit “A” in modern times: Richard Nixon. Exhibit “B”: Bill Clinton.)
Second, it nullifies the sincerity of Trump’s scripted remarks just minutes after referring to “shithole countries” when, at a public ceremony, he signed a Martin Luther King Day proclamation: “Today we celebrate Dr. King for standing up for the self-evident truth Americans hold so dear, that no matter what the color of our skin, or the place of our birth, we are all created equal by God.” Empty words, because they don’t square with the president’s public portrayal of black African nations as “shitholes.”
Third, it encourages hate groups (and in the case of Donald Trump, not for the first time). Neo-Nazi Andrew Anglin wrote on his white supremacist Daily Stormer website that Trump’s words about African countries were “encouraging and refreshing” and indicate that the president “is more or less on the same page as us.” On Twitter, former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke simply called them “perfect.” Trump’s words put him in league with the xenophobic ultranationalist leaders of Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Austria. Maybe this is the kind of company Donald Trump wants to keep, but it’s not the kind of company our country needs to keep.
Fourth, it perpetuates the pattern of eroding respect worldwide for the United States of America, which exacerbates our power to prevail, even with our allies, in today’s geopolitical environment. On the website CNN.com reporters interviewed several Americans they know to be Trump supporters. One of them, a truck driver in Youngstown, Ohio named Geno DiFabio, said of Trump’s language, “In the grand scheme… it’s not going to turn any supporter I know of from him.” Maybe not, but that misses the point: it can have critical consequences, turning more countries away from him, and away from us. Trump already has trashed NATO, maligned Mexico, slurred Pakistan, abandoned Asian trading partners to China, forsaken America’s mantle as a neutral negotiator in the Middle East, and not just incidentally, taunted a demagogic dictator with a nuclear bomb in his arsenal. Does the president think that by describing nations in Africa as “shithole countries,” he brings them into the American fold?
The big city newspaper where I live, The Denver Post, put it well in an editorial. American presidents, it wrote, “should appreciate the good fortune they inherited, through no action of their own, by simply being born in our great country.” South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham, who called Trump “unfit for office” during the campaign but now has an on-again off-again relationship with the president, put it even better: “America is an idea, not a race.” Graham added that his ancestors were immigrants themselves who came from “shithole countries with no skills.” Their descendant became a United States Senator.
By making his comment about “shithole countries” (and as if it couldn’t be more bizarre, making it in the very week when his mental fitness was being broadly debated), our “stable genius” of a president proves he doesn’t have a clue. “America First” doesn’t have to mean “America Only.” Except in Trump’s small-minded little world. Which puts our bigger world in peril.
On 2018’s First Week
“That Was the Week That Was” was a political satire on TV back in the 1960s. But after the week just behind us now, viewers in the ‘60s didn’t know the half of it.
In the one week that launched this new year, at a pace I wouldn’t have thought possible, the president came back to wintry Washington from the warmth of Florida and spread the chill to us all.
On his first working day alone, a savage storm of 16 tweets. He blasted Pakistan for its “lies & deceit,” which is true because Pakistan is a two-faced friend. But it’s also an ally which does share intelligence with us and despite its otherwise ambiguous attitude, also helps us fight terrorism. Now, maybe not so much. Already, China is moving into the void.
He blasted the Palestinians, complaining that “We pay the Palestinians HUNDRED (sic) OF MILLIONS OF DOLLARS a year and get no appreciation or respect.” True too, but does he actually believe that by insulting them before the world, they’re going to become more amenable to America’s role as an even-handed Middle East peace negotiator rather than less? All he did was shoot another bullet in our own back… and, by the way, in his son-in-law’s back, Jared Kushner, whose mandate is to close that “toughest deal of all.”
And of course Trump went big button to bigger button with North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, as if daring a madman to push his button first is an act of sanity.
It’s not. None of those rash reckless tweets made us stronger. Or safer. And that’s just one week overseas.
Here at home, the president again threatened to corrupt the independence of the Department of Justice (no surprise after asserting, “I have the absolute right to do what I want to do with the Justice Department”), first tweeting about “Crooked Hillary Clinton’s top aid (sic),” Huma Abedin: “Jail! Deep State Justice Dept must finally act?” Then later in the week we learned that although the FBI had previously closed the Clinton Foundation investigation for lack of evidence, at Trump’s insistence, they’re back at it.
And he prepared to publicize his vindictive picks for “Dishonesty & Bad Reporting” awards. As Libertarian Denver Post columnist Krista Kafer pointed out, he’s attempting to marginalize the people trying to hold him accountable. “This can’t be good,” she writes, “for democracy.”
Unabashedly in another tweet Trump even claimed credit for a fatality-free year in commercial American air travel: “Since taking office I have been very strict on Commercial Aviation.” Preposterous, because the safe streak dates back to 2013. Which inspired some amusing tweets in response, like, “We had no gas explosions in our house this year. Thank you, Mr. President for your hands-on leadership.…”
Maybe the most striking news last week though wasn’t from Trump, but about him. At the request of some members of Congress who are worried about his mental state, a Yale psychiatrist went to Washington and briefed them about Trump’s fitness to be president. Of course his press secretary called questions about the president’s mental health “disgraceful and laughable.”
But a lot of us aren’t laughing. A local psychiatrist talked to me recently— at his behest, not mine— and told me that while officially people in his profession can’t diagnose someone from afar, in the case of Donald Trump and his very public behavior, they know more about him than they know about some of their own patients. His self-loving weekend tweet that he is “like, really smart” and “a very stable genius” notwithstanding, the diagnosis that many mental health professionals have reached (and written about) is not just narcissism, which is about self-absorption and self-obsession (which any fool can see), but delusional thought disorder, which means he can’t distinguish his own delusions and fantasies from reality.
Which brings us, of course, to The Book, contents of which were released in the midst of all the other inanities of this one wild week. Like, Trump hasn’t read the Constitution. And barely reads anything at all. So let’s say just half of what’s reported in the book is true… or even a quarter… or, what the heck, let’s say just ten percent. Even that would be enough to disqualify this man from working in the Oval Office. My guess— and yes, I’m biased against this president— is that the accuracy quotient is higher than that, because every little tidbit merely affirms what anonymous aides have been quoted saying about their bombastic boss for the past year.
Note to Mr. Trump: this was the first tell-all book but it won’t be the last. Note to the rest of us: this was the first mortifying week of 2018. It won’t be the last.
On Trump and Russia
What’s that our President keeps saying? “Everybody knows that there was no collusion.” That’s his story about claims of collusion between his campaign and Russia, and he’s sticking to it. “There is absolutely no collusion, that’s been proven by every Democrat is saying it.”
Aside from his typically tortured syntax and his disregard for facts, that’s what Mr. Trump told The New York Times a few day after Christmas: “Everybody knows the answer already. There was no collusion.”
I repeat myself because the president repeated himself. 16 times in the Times interview he repeated himself. “Everybody knows that there is no collusion.” As if saying it often enough would convince the world that it’s true.
Sorry Mr. President, but “everybody” doesn’t know that and the world is not yet convinced. Not the Justice Department, not the House Intelligence Committee, not the Senate Intelligence Committee. Which are moving ahead with their investigations. Led in each case, by the way, by Republicans.
Of course we also don’t know that the allegation is false, but that’s the point. Both special counsel Robert Mueller— a Republican himself— and the committees in Congress are trying to find out. Until they do, whether Russia did or did not tamper with an American election to secure its desired outcome is an open question. As are the more damning questions for Trump: during the campaign, did he personally engage in criminal behavior, even indirectly, to win? And in the wake of his victory, was he guilty of obstruction of justice, if not something worse?
Now, since this is an opinion piece, here’s an opinion. By most impartial accounts, Robert Mueller is a straight-laced straight shooter. That’s something few would say about Donald Trump, whose relationship even with “the dishonest media” is stronger than his relationship with the truth. If there is no evidence of collusion with Russia by the Trump campaign, then there is no percentage for Mueller to keep chasing after it anyway.
Don’t forget, he already has brought up four Trump associates on criminal charges including two big names— former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort. So far, his record is two convictions and two other pending indictments. Trump surrogates will argue that it all ends there. But the convictions were for lying to federal agents about contacts with Russians. Which raises the question, if there was nothing untoward about those contacts, why would they lie?
Robert Mueller isn’t just spinning his wheels and it doesn’t look like “it all ends there.” Apparently to stay out of prison, Flynn has agreed to answer whatever he is asked about the Trump campaign. Mueller has thousands of financial records and personal emails and other communications from the Trump team that could uncover a smoking gun, if there’s any smoke at all.
So don’t be fooled by the silence. The website FiveThirtyEight did a comparison of special counsel investigations over almost four decades and concluded that of those that produced criminal charges, “the first occurred more than a year, on average, after the special prosecutor was appointed— while Mueller’s investigation produced its first charges after less than five months.” The investigation is slow, it is methodical. But it is not standing still.
Of course disciples from Trump’s base are doing their best to discredit the special counsel and now they’re bringing up the Clinton campaign’s own shenanigans with Russia and yes, maybe there’s enough misconduct to go around. But don’t forget two things. First, Trump won the election, Clinton didn’t. So if there was any collusion, arguably it helped put Trump in the Oval Office and he’s the one who’s accountable. Second, all they’re trying to do is take your eyes off the ball. Don’t fall for it. Trump is the ball. He can deny collusion, he can call it all a witch hunt. But we won’t know until the investigation is complete. So far, as we launch into 2018, it appears it’s not even close.
On New Year Resolutions
New Year’s resolutions for 2018 are coming soon. Bah humbug. I’d rather recommend resolutions for other folks to make. Resolutions to change not just big stuff, but everyday annoyances. And this doesn’t even pertain to people in the world’s scariest spots like the Middle East. North Korea. The White House.
Take packaging. Please. Have you ever cut your fingers trying to get at what you just bought? Sure, if some purchases weren’t protected by prodigious panels of plastic, the thieves would have a heyday. But there’s something wrong if we need a chainsaw to cleanly cut something open, and a first aid kit to patch ourselves up. I’m told that there’s a tool distinctly designed to open profuse plastic packaging. I’d buy one… except I’d probably cut myself getting at it.
And shoelaces! Do the ends really have to be a foot longer than what you actually need to tie your shoes?
Then there’s brown sugar. Really! We can put a man on the moon— actually we’ve put twelve of them up there (including Alan Shepard, father of Evergreen’s own Laura Shepard Churchley)— but we can’t figure a way to keep brown sugar soft?
And airplane announcements. I was on a plane last month and the pilot was telling us something. Or at least he was talking, I’m sure of that. But no one could decipher what he was saying. Granted, I’d rather the plane’s critical components function flawlessly than the sound system but you have to wonder, if they can build engines to propel 200 tons of metal and fuel and people and pretzel packages thousands of miles through the sky, couldn’t they build speakers to push the pilot’s announcements three feet to our seats?
Like I said, not big stuff but everyday irritants.
Like the strobe lights on squad cars of the Colorado State Patrol. I love what you do, State Patrol, honest, but if the whole point of stopping law-breaking motorists is public safety, wouldn’t it be safer if the rest of us weren’t utterly blinded when you do it?
And litterbugs. It’s easy to understand how, in the‘50s and ‘60s, people thought they could throw everything from trash bags to beer cans to cigarette butts onto the side of the road. It was full of garbage anyway. But most of us have figured out since then that it’s unseemly and unsightly. Most, but not all. Every vehicle comes with an ashtray. If you didn’t know that, please find it.
How about servers in restaurants who grab your glass right around the rim when they’re refilling it? Excuse me, but that’s where my lips go!
And a “thank you” for a tip wouldn’t hurt. Coffee shop or gas station or anyplace else, sometimes the clerk clearly sees you dropping money in the tip jar. But says nothing (trust me, I’ve tested it). It’s a sad commentary that nowadays, the rare “thank you” stands out.
Now, a question to you: when’s the last time it really mattered whether a cashier gave you a couple of pennies change? The penny, sad to say, has outlived its usefulness. Especially when each cent now costs a cent-and-a-half to mint. Sorry, Mr. Lincoln, it’s time to retire.
Since all of this just amounts to a catalog of pet peeves, let me add another: vanilla. Yep, plain ol’ vanilla. I mean, why bother, if within a hundred miles there’s chocolate?
I grant you, we have more consequential challenges to our security and our sanity, like terrorism, and Trump. But wouldn’t it be nice if someone took care of the easy stuff?
On Peace in The Middle East
Just about everything of late that puts us in crisis mode— tensions with Russia, trade with China, even nukes in North Korea— will likely settle into a sustainable if new norm… if no one goes flat-out ballistic.
But not the Middle East. As a correspondent for two television networks, I covered the Middle East off and on for almost forty years. Not just the Hatfield-McCoy feuds that still fuel the burgeoning battles between Shiites and Sunnis, but the gulf between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Nine presidents now, clear back to Richard Nixon, have fiddled with that gulf. Eight of them learned the hard way that it is insurmountable. The ninth, with his official recognition now of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, has only widened it.
But in the bigger picture, that is merely another blip on the radar screen, because the Palestinian-Israeli divide is a microcosm of the greater Middle East: a cauldron of competing cultures, competing beliefs, competing interests, competing ideologies, competing ambitions. Obviously religion is at the core of the region’s conflicts. Then add power, fanaticism, and bragging rights.
Yet in my firsthand experience there, history plays the biggest role of all. You can’t change history, you can’t erase it. You can put it aside of course, which is how South Africa came together after apartheid and, for that matter, how the United States reconciled after the Civil War. But in the Middle East they don’t ignore history. To the contrary, it drives them to this day.
I covered the first Gulf War, for example, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in the early 1990s. Saddam was a nationalist who believed that because modern Kuwait (and its wealth of oil) sits on land that once was part of the ancient pre-Iraqi Babylonian Empire, by rights it should once again be part of Iraq. Twenty to thirty thousand people died in that one.
I covered barbaric battles in the Iran-Iraq War in what was basically a border dispute that had been in play for four centuries. That one dragged on for eight years in the 1980s. An estimated million people died, yet at the end of the day, neither side’s borders shifted a single inch.
Maybe most stupefying is the ongoing and incessant clash between Sunnis and Shiites, which I covered all over the Middle East. The conflict dates back a mere 1,400 years to the death of the Islamic prophet Mohammed and, albeit a simplification, it comes down to who should have inherited Mohammad’s mantle of leadership after he died? Talk about a grudge! It’s behind the deaths of millions in all the centuries since.
And history is at the core of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Which makes resolution particularly perplexing because each faction believes it has history on its side. From control of ancient sites in Jerusalem to control of land that at one time or another has been occupied by both Muslims and Jews, the argument comes down to whose history carries more weight?
In language unique to our current president, Mr. Trump has called an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement “one of the toughest deals of all.” How tough? Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior advisor with Middle East Peace in his protruding portfolio, told some Congressional interns last summer that he doesn’t know if the United States has anything new and unique to offer. So far, at least, we haven’t seen much to change that assessment.
That’s discouraging, but realistic. And part of a pessimistic assessment of the future: there is nothing new to offer on the intractable core issues that have always divided Israel and the Palestinians; there is even more hostility alienating the antagonists now than in years past; and there is even more instability in the region overall. So unlike Russia and China and North Korea, the chasm between Palestinians and Israelis might be a foreign crisis that just keeps coming. The whole Middle East might be.
People are going to die, Mr. President. They might be Arab protestors, they might be Israeli soldiers, they might be American diplomats. And they might just be bystanders, American or Israeli or Arab or otherwise, unwittingly ambushed in the eternal enmity of the Middle East. But some are going to die.
That seems like the inescapable outcome of your resolve to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Of course it has been the capital of the Jewish state since its birth, we already know that. And personally, I’m happy for the Israeli people. As the president said, Jerusalem is the home of Israel’s parliament, its prime minister, its supreme court. On every working trip I ever took to Israel, I accomplished everything from credentials to interviews with government leaders in Jerusalem.
But while President Trump called his decision a “recognition of reality,” let me tell you about the reality on the ground. Or maybe you should hear it from Jordan’s King Abdullah, arguably the most pro-Western ruler in the whole region: “The adoption of this resolution will have serious implications for security and stability in the Middle East.”
A longtime leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization. a woman I used to deal with named Hanan Ashrawi who in the past has been a genuine partner in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, calls Trump’s declaration “the total annihilation of any chances of peace.” And a recipe for bloodshed, which gets us closer to the ground itself. “To people who are looking for an excuse,” she says, “this would be a ready-made excuse.”
Sure enough, the Gaza-based terror group Hamas has urged Palestinians to “incite an uprising in Jerusalem.” That, Mr. President, is the reality. One Hamas heavyweight warned of the president inflaming anti-American animus. It’s hard to argue with his logic when he says, “I don’t understand why he wants to antagonize over a billion Muslims around the world.”
So the reality is, while Israel is America’s most democratic and dependable ally in the Middle East, we might win a moral victory but ultimately enfeeble the partner we want to help. Because by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, we are squandering the peacemaking capital of the United States. You want to strike what you’ve called “the ultimate deal,” Mr. President? How can you possibly negotiate that deal now, after you’ve only deepened the doubts people already had about our incorruptible impartiality as a broker of peace? If a peace pact is the ultimate deal, you might have just erected the ultimate roadblock to achieving it.
It wasn’t going to be easy in the first place. For as long as I covered the attempts of several presidents to achieve peace, there were four so-called “core issues” that stood in the way, and the most emotionally charged of them all was ownership of Jerusalem. So now, instead of leaving it on the table as a do-or-die bargaining chip, we’re just handing it to one of the antagonists and blowing off the other?
Your own son-in-law, who you anointed as your Middle East negotiator, seems to understand the equation for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “If we’re going to try and create more stability in the region as a whole,” he said just last weekend, “you have to solve this issue.” The point is, declaring that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, whether it’s true or not, doesn’t solve the issue. It exacerbates it. You said in your speech that keeping our embassy out of Jerusalem has put us “no closer to a lasting peace.” But antagonizing over a billion Muslims does?
What’s more, this isn’t going to open the floodgates for other influential countries to follow suit. All it’s going to do is give the disaffected an excuse to unleash more violence against us. And diminish our ability to serve as an honest broker. As King Abdullah said, it “will undermine the efforts of the American administration to resume the peace process.”
Of course I could be wrong about all this. Maybe the Palestinians will see what’s happened and decide to negotiate for half-a-loaf before the loaf is altogether gone. Maybe Israel will be so grateful to the president that they’ll make concessions on other issues if peace talks restart. But I wouldn’t bet a dime on any of that.
Every time I ever went to Jerusalem I could see why, clear back to the days of the Roman Empire and the Crusades, armies have fought to control it. It is the Holy City, sacred to Jews, to Muslims, and lest we forget, to Christians across the world. The reality is, it doesn’t really matter right now whose claim to Jerusalem as their capital is morally, historically, or just plain realistically right. The reality of President Trump’s declaration, although I hope I’m wrong, is that people are going to die. And peace is going to be even harder to pull off than before.
Our world scares us in a new way every day.
For those of us who lived through it, the Cold War scared us. We dived under our desks during drills when air raid sirens sounded at school. We built shelters underground when Soviet missiles menaced from Cuba. But that wound down a quarter century ago. The enemy collapsed. We could breathe easy. The threat was over. Our world was safe.
That was so 20th Century. What replaced the Cold War became even scarier: terrorism. It became the new normal. And it has become increasingly complicated to combat.
The early threats of terror were scary enough. But at least, over the two decades during which I covered the Middle East, we knew who the terrorists were. They were the ones with machine guns in their arms or dynamite strapped to their chests.
Not so much any more. As we saw in Manhattan on Halloween, now they are the ones with a steering wheel between their hands. They’ve made the truck a tool of terrorism. Which as a weapon makes it invincible. Former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton delivered this dose of reality after Manhattan: “We cannot prevent everything, everywhere.” No matter where we live. No matter where we travel.
This comes as no surprise to terrorist experts. Back in 2010, Al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire ran an article with the ominous title, “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” counseling that a truck is meant “not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.” It instructed terrorists to “pick up as much speed as you can… to strike as many people as possible in your first run.”
Also, in the early days, especially if we spent time in the Middle East, we knew who was directing the terrorists. Orders to foot soldiers came down from the top of the pyramid, whether it was a government chief or a military commander or the leader of a militant group like the PLO.
Not any more. Not since the Arab Spring almost seven years ago. Middle Eastern presidents and potentates had eyes and ears on every street corner in town, yet they didn’t see it coming. That’s because of the internet, which sometimes serves the purpose of good, but also is employed more and more as an instrument for evil. Radical Palestinians have used it to prompt stabbing attacks against Israelis with the hashtag #KillTheJew. ISIS has used it to recruit fanatical fighters.
So it’s no surprise that investigators found almost 4,000 pieces of ISIS propaganda on the cell phone of Manhattan’s bike path terrorist. Today orders don’t descend from on high. They travel anonymously and uncensored at the speed of gigabytes. And sometimes unseen, until it’s too late.
Now, the newest threat to our peace of mind, let alone our security, comes not from terrorists but from legitimate governments, several of which are feverishly working to create a “quantum computer,” or as the Washington-based Hudson Institute defined it last month, “The computer that could rule the world.” Basically it would be a computer with unprecedented speed and power to decrypt darned near anything. Or to put it in language more of us can understand, to hack darned near anything.
Forget your Target credit card or your Yahoo account or your Equifax credit report. Those are just the hors d’oeuvres. An enemy’s quantum computer could hack our nation’s very infrastructure. It could disrupt, maybe even ruin, our energy grids, our financial records, our transportation systems, our information networks, our health care connections, even our military communications. As the Hudson Institute warned in a report, “Imagine a thousand Equifax breaches happening at once.”
If it comes to that, traditional terrorism might seem like yesterday’s news. And so might the arms race. Because our most consequential competition with adversaries like China and Russia won’t be to have the best bombs any more. It’ll be to have the best computers. This is the next new normal.
We already know we’ve been hacked by adversaries. And we’ve hacked them. The threat is that one side escalates. Then the other follows. The new normal is not your father’s Cold War. It won’t melt buildings. But it could melt the society on which they stand.
On The New Normal
Whether as kids we lived in a close-knit community here in Colorado or a big city elsewhere, the Cold War scared us. That was our normal. Now, a quarter-century after that war wound down, we live with a new war. New threats. A new normal. The Halloween slaughter by an Islamic terrorist on a Manhattan bike path made us conscious of it yet again. No matter where we live.
One new threat is, a truck as a tool of terrorism. We learned about that in July last year when a truck-driving terrorist ran down more than 500 people celebrating Bastille Day in the French city of Nice. 86 innocents died. Then in Berlin. 12 dead. This year, a vehicle attack in Barcelona, two in London. Now, New York City.
This comes as no surprise to terrorist experts. Back in 2010, Al Qaeda’s online magazine Inspire ran an article with the ominous title, “The Ultimate Mowing Machine,” counseling that a truck is meant “not to mow grass but mow down the enemies of Allah.” It instructed terrorists to “pick up as much speed as you can… to strike as many people as possible in your first run.”
Which takes us to the second threat: the internet. It still serves the purpose of good but increasingly it also is employed as an instrument for evil. Radical Palestinians used it to prompt stabbing attacks against Israelis with the hashtag #KillTheJew. ISIS used it to recruit fanatical fighters.
So it’s no surprise that investigators found almost 4,000 pieces of ISIS propaganda on the cell phone of the bike path terrorist. In the decades I covered the Middle East, orders to foot soldiers came down from the top of the pyramid. Now they travel on the internet. Uncensored, and sometimes unseen, until it’s too late.
The third threat is, we have to live with this. Former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton delivered this dose of reality after Manhattan: “We cannot prevent everything, everywhere.” No matter where we live. No matter where we travel.
And finally, although sad to say, we saw in the aftermath of Manhattan the threats posed by the president’s worst instincts. First came his call for the death penalty. Personally, I would escort the terrorist into the death chamber myself. But did Mr. Trump learn nothing from his ill-chosen words last year when he demanded death for Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. Army sergeant who deserted in Afghanistan and ended up a Taliban prisoner? At Bergdahl’s trial which ended just this month, the presiding judge said he would have to take Trump’s imprudence into account in the sentence he’d serve up. Apparently he did. Bergdahl won’t spend another day behind bars.
Now, has the president imprudently influenced an outcome again? He leads the government that will prosecute the Manhattan terrorist. Does he have no understanding of how his words can impact the process? Mr. Trump has the same First Amendment rights as the rest of us. But having the right to make prejudicial remarks, and having the wisdom not to, are two different things.
What’s more, the president showed us how little he cares about actual facts. He restated his plan for stiffer border security, even though the attacker’s home country hasn’t played any role in that plan and even though, back in March, Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security said in a report, “Most foreign-born, U.S.-based violent extremists likely radicalized several years after their entry to the United States.”
It’s all part of the new normal. Which is the scariest part of all.
On Sifting Through The Ashes
Where do we even start?
For people in Northern California right now who’ve been sifting through the ashes of their lives, that’s what they’ve got to be asking: Where do we start? How do we begin to rebuild? When will we ever again feel normal? And our question here in the high country of Colorado is, will we ever have to ask something similar ourselves?
At every catastrophe I’ve ever covered as a journalist— whether fire or flood, upheaval from an earthquake or convulsion from a war— sometimes survivors stand up above the ruins with their children on their shoulders and their shirts on their backs and little more. Not only do their communities look like war zones; they themselves look like refugees from a war.
And yes, many start by sifting. I saw it after Hurricane Katrina, where I met families calmly sifting through the debris of their houses to salvage a toy or two for their kids. I also saw it after a cataclysmic earthquake in Yemen, where the search was far more frantic: families were sifting through the rubble of their dwellings for the remains of their kids.
It’s almost always happening, somewhere. A wire service report in the wake of the truck bomb that killed hundreds last month in Mogadishu describes “desperate relatives (digging) through the rubble with their bare hands in search of scores said to be missing.”
It can give survivors comfort or closure or simply more heartache. It doesn’t necessarily give them a new start.
At least, though, whether in California or Colorado, we have an edge. Because there are differences between loss in our nation and loss elsewhere. I’ve covered catastrophes abroad— from Beirut to Baghdad to Belfast to the Palestinian Territories— where whenever I went back, even years after the dust settled, rubble still sat in place. Here in America, people do get up and clean up and find some way to start all over again. It is part of a quality that’s hard to define but you know it when you see it: the indomitable American spirit.
Of course another difference is, we have resources that most nations don’t have. Not just money, but another quality of the American spirit: the spirit of giving. In my experience, most countries have little culture of charity and less of volunteerism. Here we do. From service clubs to outreach organizations to churches to the newest form of helping our fellow citizens, GoFundMe pages. And from what I’ve seen in my thirty-plus years in Evergreen, the culture is even stronger in our mountain communities than it is in metro Denver. Not to mention national aid organizations like The Red Cross and The Salvation Army.
In the aftermath of disasters, I’ve seen agencies like these responding within hours. People need water? Done. Baby formula? Done. Underclothes? Done. Shelter? Done. American refugees don’t live for years on a dirt floor with only a tent to protect them from the elements. And when it comes to the big picture of shattered infrastructure, some of the money raised for disaster relief typically is set aside to fix that too. Eventually, after this season of hurricanes, you’ll see it in Texas, in Florida, in Puerto Rico. It just won’t be obvious until the people themselves are secure.
We can understand why someone in fire-ravaged Santa Rosa today would be asking the same question we would ask here: “Where do we even start?” But someone tomorrow will have an answer. In other parts of the world, it’s an answer they wouldn’t always get.
On John McCain
It must be nice to be John McCain. Not because he’s battling brain cancer. Not because he bears the scars of a POW. And not because he brooks the barbs of his own party’s president. But it must be nice to feel liberated. To break from political patterns and say what you think must be said, damn the president and damn the consequences.
That would explain why Arizona’s senior senator recently told an audience at a ceremony honoring him in Philadelphia, “We live in a land made of ideals… We are the custodians of those ideals at home, and their champion abroad. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did.”
Senator McCain, like former president George W. Bush just a few days later, never mentioned the name of the president in his sermon about the sorry state of U.S. policies and politics, but we all know who was on the receiving end of his oration about America. As if the man was even listening.
Personally, I never met McCain before I covered part of his run for President. I’d known only three things about him. He was a genuine American war hero, he was a solid conservative, and he had a sturdy streak of independence.
Then came the campaign in 2008. It was the first time I’d ever seen the man face-to-face. He was a nice guy. One day when I was set up to interview him, McCain asked almost as many questions about me as I asked about him.
He won the nomination but lost the election. And the nice guy turned bitter. For the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, if Obama said yes, McCain said no. If Obama said day, McCain said night.
I didn’t lose my respect for the senator’s painful and courageous military service, but I lost my respect for his long-daunted streak of independence. He seemed driven only by one thing: revenge against his triumphant antagonist.
That was then. This is now. John McCain has earned respect again. Big time. Not just because of his dramatic thumbs-down vote in late July on the repeal of Obamacare, when he bolted from his party’s line and complied with his conscience. But because of what he said on the Senate floor shortly before that vote, lamenting the intensifying state of stalemate in Washington: “Our deliberations can still be important and useful, but I think we’d all agree they haven’t been overburdened by greatness lately.” After 30 years in the Senate, it was John McCain at his finest, because it held messages for all of us, although none more than McCain’s colleagues, on both sides of the aisle.
Then Arizona’s senior senator elaborated in an op-ed in The Washington Post. Once again, it was the best of McCain. Once again, he sent a message to his peers: “We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important. That’s not how we were meant to govern… We can fight like hell for our ideas to prevail. But we have to respect each other or at least respect the fact that we need each other.”
Watching the inertia in Washington for many years now and sometimes covering it, I can only wonder, how can anyone argue with that? How can anyone believe that conflict over political principles is more productive than consensus on our country’s core concerns? The experience of his years, and perhaps the reality of his cancer, have made McCain wiser. “Both sides have let this happen,” McCain told his beloved Senate. “Let’s leave the history of who shot first to the historians. I suspect they’ll find we all conspired in our decline.”
And then he showed how big a man he truly has become. “Sometimes, I’ve let my passion rule my reason… Sometimes, I wanted to win more for the sake of winning than to achieve a contested policy.”
It is a long time since the American Congress has been overburdened with benevolent rhetoric and humble thinking and noble men.
It is high time to turn that around. John McCain has done his part. Now it’s up to everyone else.
Just because we’ve dodged some bullets over the years here in Evergreen, we’re not immune to fires. Fires like we’ve just seen in Northern California. Fires that flatten everything in their path. And kill people in the process. This year they were out west. Next year they could be in our own backyards.
We’ve always lived here with the threat of fires, so we’re pretty good about mitigation— trimming limbs too close to the house, cutting down dead trees, raking up dead leaves, replacing wooden shingles with something synthetic. But in a perfect storm of fire-friendly conditions, that won’t save us. Most of the homes ravaged in Santa Rosa were suburban, not exurban. There really wasn’t even a whole lot to mitigate. They had trees, but not as big or dense as ours. Their ground cover was mainly manicured, not wild like ours. There is more fuel to feed the flames here, than there.
Ever since the Hayman fire 15 years ago between Denver and Colorado Springs, which was the biggest wildfire in the recorded history of our state and looked for a time like it could send sparks and fan flames in our direction, I for one have never complained about rain or snow. We’re safer when the subsoil is wet than tinderbox dry. However, we don’t get to choose the timing, as people learned all too well around both Colorado Springs and Fort Collins in 2012 and 2013. Several died, 1,100 homes burned down.
As I read news coverage of the devastation in Santa Rosa, I thought back to two massive fires I covered many years ago, both also in California. One was in the hills of Santa Barbara, where wind whipped a small fire into a frenzy and just like Santa Rosa, the flames ran so fast that people had just minutes to escape. Hundreds of homes were leveled.
The third day after, my camera crew and I went looking for refugees. On a beach, we found a woman and three little kids, with a station wagon nearby. I asked her to tell me about her escape.
She said a police car with a loudspeaker had warned, Get out and get out fast. What did she do then? “I got my kids and grabbed the stuff I need the most and piled everything into the car and barely got out in time.” When I asked what “stuff” she had saved, she broke into sobs and just pointed. At the station wagon. I looked inside. There was her vacuum cleaner. Her toaster. Her coffee pot. Stuff she could replace any day of the week. She had panicked, as many of us would, and thought only about what she used a lot, not what she loved a lot. Her scrapbooks, her jewelry, her records of life itself, all were now ashes.
The other fire was around the town of Grass Valley. A camera crew and I were helicoptering in but before we got to town, we set down on the two-lane highway leading out, because we’d spotted a stack of cars almost melted together in a single heap. Everyone had tried to evacuate at once, which led to a traffic jam, which led to a chain-collision. The flames came so fast, people got out and ran. Their cars were incinerated.
There are lessons here. Before you panic, plan ahead of time what you’ll take, and have it ready to pack in your car. And, plan your evacuation route. More than one in fact. And don’t wait too long. Fires move faster than you think.
We’re not immune.
Twitter might not yet be a big moneymaker, but it sure has turned into a big troublemaker.
This twist in the tenor of Twitter, which was born as a harmless social network, doesn’t require profound analysis. Just two words: Donald Trump, a leading-edge baby boomer who has taken to this new channel of communication with relish. Trump tweets to brag and bamboozle, to berate and belittle, to proclaim that news is fake and wars are forthcoming.
The past week proves the point. When he evidently got up on the wrong side of the bed Sunday morning a week ago, the president let loose on retiring Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who had said of the Trump presidency, “I think Secretary (of State) Tillerson, (Defense) Secretary James Mattis and (White House) chief of staff (John) Kelly are those people that help separate our country from chaos.”
Them’s fightin’ words if you’re the Tweeter-in-Chief (and creator of chaos). Trump’s first tweet across the bow: “Senator Bob Corker ‘begged’ me to endorse him for re-election in Tennessee. I said ‘NO’.” The second one: “He also wanted to be Secretary of State, I said ‘NO THANKS’.” Then, “Didn’t have the guts to run!” And the final foray in the fusillade: “Bob Corker gave us the Iran Deal, & that’s about it.” I thought it was Barack Obama, but apparently alternative facts say otherwise.
Corker, though, got off the most toxic tweet when he shot back, “It’s a shame the White House has become an adult day care center. Someone obviously missed their shift this morning.” Funny how Trump manages to turn certain Republicans some of us never much liked into political heroes.
Funny, too, how his older son Don Junior proves the adage— admittedly adulterated— that the twit doesn’t fall far from the tweet. Young Trump’s own tweet last weekend— after Vice President Pence left a football game to protest players still taking a knee during the national anthem— raises the question, does any American alive have less legitimacy to proclaim, “After almost a decade it’s great to have leaders who have pride in our country again.”
The answer is no, because this is the same young Trump who had so much pride in our country himself during the American presidential campaign that he welcomed Russian collusion to help Dad win. You remember how reluctant he was to swallow his patriotic pride and take that help, don’t you? Three words, all his: “I love it.”
Then there is hurricane-leveled Puerto Rico, beginning with Trump’s tirade of tweets angrily attacking San Juan’s mayor after she complained, “We’re dying here” and begged for more help from Washington. The president’s tactful tweet in response? “Such poor leadership ability by the mayor of San Juan.” And apparently that didn’t sate his appetite for tweeting. Just a few days ago he poured more fuel on the fire: “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders, who have been amazing (under the most difficult circumstances) in P.R. forever!” Maybe we can’t, but is this really the kind of thing you tell American citizens when most still have no electricity, no health care, no clean water to drink, and a death toll that keeps going up? (And especially when you haven’t said the same thing to hurricane victims in places like Florida and Texas.)
The president’s proclivity for tweeting has propagated like cancer, although only selectively. A chart published a few days ago showed that while those frightful wildfires were destroying lives and homes and livelihoods in Northern California, Trump never tweeted about them even once… but transmitted three more tweets insulting Senator Corker. And if you filter out the slaughter the week before in Las Vegas, the rest of the news that week came in bursts of 140 characters or less. The most alarming: Trump’s tweet that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is “wasting his time” looking for a way out of war by negotiating with North Korea. Is Twitter really the place to undercut your own chief diplomat?
The president’s Twitter account itself is suspect. He now claims something like 40 million followers. I use “claims” because if you take the time to Google “Trump twitter account,” you’ll find all kinds of stories about Team Trump electronically creating millions of fake accounts— nearly half the total, according to Newsweek. If true, it’s just to give Trump bragging rights, and that’s not fake news.
But it doesn’t really matter how many followers the man has. He only needs a few hundred: the journalists who cover all things Trump, because Twitter is how the president usually chooses to make news and make trouble, and there’s no ignoring how much he makes.
That’s why now, when you think of Twitter, inevitably you think of Donald Trump. And inescapably you think of trouble. But it’s all quite presidential. Trump has told us that. In tweets.
On Guns and How Nothing Changes
It’s madness. Total madness. No one has to spotlight the madness in the massacre in Las Vegas. But there’s also madness in the reactions of politicians who already were telling us last week, when the blood had hardly even dried, that when it comes to reasonable proposals to regulate rapid-fire rifles, there’s nothing to talk about.
Sure, some senior members of Congress and even, shocker of shockers, the NRA have conceded that maybe a ban on “bump stocks”— the devices that make assault rifles even deadlier— is prudent. Hallelujah. This means even longtime arms acolytes are asking, might fewer have died in Vegas if the killer could release, say, only two rounds per second instead of nine?
How could anyone argue that this is not worth considering?
But some still will, and that’s what even a modest modification of gun regulation will be up against. Like the hollow arguments we heard the day after Vegas: first, we shouldn’t politicize bloodbaths. Second, we can’t prevent bloodbaths. The same arguments we also heard the day after Orlando, the day after San Bernardino, the day after Aurora, the day after Virginia Tech, the day after Newtown.
Newsflash: no one’s contending that we can prevent bloodbaths. Evil is beyond regulation or legislation. What some do contend, though, is that we can reduce the breadth of the bloodbaths. And such easy access to the weapons that trigger them.
The poster boys for hollow thinking this time were the two United States senators from Louisiana. Bill Cassidy assured us, “There’s not going to be a single law which stops somebody determined to do something bad.” The flaw in that? True, nothing will stop everybody. But somebody? Yes, a single law could do that.
Cassidy’s colleague John Kennedy then rode shotgun: “It’s about ultimately getting rid of the 2nd Amendment.” That’s the “camel’s nose under the tent” argument. Open the door just a bit, you’ll never again get it shut. But at risk of offending the animal kingdom, the “camel’s nose” argument is hogwash. Open the door only as wide as need be. Close it when the need has been met. The need, right now, is to make it harder to kill almost 60 people. From a hotel room in Las Vegas or anywhere else.
We won’t win any arguments with statistics. Gun control advocates cite constituencies where strong laws have curtailed gun violence. California proves their point. But opponents cite communities where where despite strong laws, the violence only gets worse. Chicago, or Washington DC, prove theirs. In Colorado, where I live, gun control laws fall somewhere near the middle of the spectrum. So do our statistics for gun violence.
So instead, ask this: if more guns, and more lethal guns, really made us safer, which is the fantasy forwarded by guns rights groups, we would be the safest nation on earth. We’re not. The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet we have almost a third of its mass murders. And semi-automatic assault rifles are the mass murderers’ weapons of choice.
Granted, the right to bear arms is settled law in our country. So be it. But it’s at loggerheads with another cherished right from our Declaration of Independence: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Which means, today, the right not to be mowed down by an armed maniac.
Of course the genie’s out of the bottle— the guns are out there, everywhere, and it’s too late to get them back. But how can anyone argue that keeping more deadly devices out of the marketplace won’t mitigate the madness?
Gun owners plead, “Hey, I hunt,” or “My sport is target practice,” or “I have a right to protect my home.” Valid arguments for sure. But not against limits on some level. Hunting is fine, but you don’t need to do it with a tank, so we can’t own tanks. Target practice is fine, but you don’t need to lob a grenade at a target, so we can’t own grenades. And protecting your home is fine, but do you need an AR-15 with a bump stock to do it?
On North Korea
Can we agree on one thing about the hostility between the United States and North Korea? A cold war is better than a hot one. Just like wisely-chosen words are better than red-line threats.
Yes, sometimes a hot war is inevitable and imperative. But when it comes to our own American interests, a cold war protects our military from costly casualties, our economy from catastrophic trauma, and our security from irrevocable attack.
And now, we need to consider another element in the war heating up with North Korea: South Korea. South Korea already had its own hot war, with the United States as its ally. Against North Korea, with China and the Soviet Union as its allies.
That Korean War in the early 1950s lasted for three years. South Korea’s capital itself, Seoul, changed hands four times. Half-a-million South Koreans died. And more than 200,000 North Koreans. Along with 33,000 Americans, and up to 400,000 Chinese.
At the conclusion of all that carnage, all anyone ended up with was Koreans pointing weapons at fellow Koreans. As they do to this very day.
So South Korea’s own reactions to today’s raging rhetoric should matter.
South Korea’s president issued a statement last week after President Trump’s United Nations speech threatening to “totally destroy North Korea,” saying that “denuclearization is the only way to the future through utmost sanctions and pressure.” That’s hardly an endorsement of all-out war.
And there’s South Korea’s statement earlier this month that its top interest is to ensure that it will never again experience the devastation it once endured. Stratfor geopolitical analyst George Friedman’s conclusion? “Given a major war to end the North’s nuclear program and accepting a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons, South Korea would choose the latter.” Or as a FoxNews defense analyst put it, “A war with North Korea would be hell— And the aftermath even worse.”
So did it really help when the president of the United States mocked the dictator from North Korea at the U.N.? Sure, the epithet “Rocket Man” can give us a good laugh, but since we don’t really know if the guy’s crazy or not, then we also don’t know whether that’s enough to push him eventually over the edge and propel him to go on the attack. He sure seems to be heading that way.
And did it really get us closer to the safety and security we seek when President Trump threatened North Korea’s destruction on the world stage (in the world body established to enforce the peace, no less)? Kim Jong-un already knows we can do it, yet the first response from his government was hardly one of contrition; Trump, it said, sounded like “a barking dog.” Then Kim himself called Trump “mentally deranged.” Then this week his foreign minister claimed that North Korea has the right to shoot down American aircraft that are anywhere near his country.
An old colleague, Mort Rosenblum, former editor of the International Herald Tribune, recently wrote, “Saddam Hussein… or Muammar Qaddafi… ought to teach us something. Tyrants cannot let themselves back away from showdown, least of all Kim Jong-un. God help us all if he delivers a suicide note.” Cornered, he could.
It might become necessary to pulverize North Korea’s nuclear program before it sends a bomb streaking toward a Western ally, an American territory, or the United States itself. And granted, our options are few and from my own experience covering dictators, none is encouraging. Sanctions? In a nation where people’s prosperity has never been a priority, they haven’t made a difference yet. Diplomacy? As history goes, same story. Regime change comes with real risks of blowback. Pressure from China? There are hopeful signs, but when China weighs the dangers of a madman on its border against the prospect of American power on its border, the madman might win.
Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seem cast in the same impulsive, truculent mold. This is not to put Kim and Trump on the same moral plane. North Korea threatens to upset the peace. The United States aspires to uphold it. But if there’s a temperamental miscalculation by either man— leading to what a New York Times analysis called “a nuclear confrontation driven by personal animosity and bravado”— there is no turning back. Then, all of us will be the losers.
Hurricane Harvey hammering Houston. Then Irma inundating Florida. With Jose and Katia waiting in the wings.
While at the other end of America, a wave of wildfires (whose smoke we’ve suffered here) across Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Utah, California, even a handful close by in Colorado. My wife and I just got home from a seven-state road trip where almost all the way from Seattle to eastern Utah, we couldn’t see as far as a mile.
So I know that FEMA chief Brock Long was right the other day when he told NBC’s Tom Costello, “The important thing for the American public to understand is, nobody in the United States, regardless of who you are, is immune to disasters.”
Nobody is immune. Which I had spelled out for me twelve years ago after Hurricane Katrina. My cameraman and I, after several days in New Orleans, left to check out Biloxi, Mississippi, also on the Gulf Coast, where we had heard that the storm had either blown away or washed away or just flattened thousands of homes where they stood.
We heard right. As we roamed through the ruins, we came to a small house sitting askew upon a concrete slab and a young couple standing there staring at it. “Is this your house,” I asked. “No,” the woman answered, “It’s our slab, but it’s not our house.”
In another part of town we came across a single line of homes where every one had collapsed; the eaves of the roofs were knee-high. Three middle-aged brothers who owned them were climbing through the rubble, salvaging whatever property they could find intact and putting it in plastic bins to carry off.
I stopped one of them, a big man plastered with tattoos and sweating through his sleeveless undershirt. I asked if, as a boy, he had been there in 1969 for Hurricane Camille, which I covered early in my career when it blew Biloxi away. He had. I asked what had happened to his family’s home? It just disappeared. I asked what his family did about it? They rebuilt.
So now I knew, this guy already had lost two homes to hurricanes. Yet when I asked if he would rebuild again, with reasonable odds of yet a third total loss in his lifetime, he said he would. Incredulous, I asked why? I expected him to tell me it’s because of family and friends and the only place he ever knew but instead, without missing a beat, he answered my question with one of his own: “Where you from?” I responded, “Originally, San Francisco.” He said, “Don’t you have earthquakes in San Francisco?” Then, noticing that I had said “originally,” he asked, “Where you live now?” “Colorado.” “Don’t y’all have wildfires in Colorado?”
We sure do. In 2012 and 2013, between Colorado Springs and Ft. Collins, fires killed several Coloradans and destroyed 1,100 homes. People from other parts of the country can be excused for wondering why we’d live here. Let alone why anyone would rebuild, once Mother Nature served up a warning.
Then again, I’ve wondered the very same thing over the years when reporting on rivers that overflowed and flooded communities from North Dakota to Mississippi, or when covering tornados that tore towns to shreds from Ohio to Oklahoma. And that doesn’t even include other lethal oddities of Mother Nature, like the hail storm we had here last May that destroyed homes and cars, even the Colorado Mills shopping mall in Lakewood which put many people out of work.
It all reminds me of the timeless line from heavyweight boxing champ Joe Louis when he said of his opponent in an upcoming title match, “He can run, but he can’t hide.” Hurricanes and tornados, fires and floods, earthquakes and hail storms. If one doesn’t get you, the other might. No one, regardless of who you are, is immune.
On Houston and Katrina
Houston has been a story of paralysis: the paralysis of an entire American city. That is what we’ve seen on television.
Harder to see is the more intimate story, really the more important story. It is the same story I reported a dozen years ago almost to the day, and day after day, from Hurricane Katrina. It is the story of uncounted thousands of Americans who are now refugees. The story of citizens who worked at their jobs and sheltered their kids and paid their bills and never expected to be homeless, yet now they are.
And not just homeless, but hopeless. So many people’s houses were under water. Places of business and employment were under water. Grocery stores were under water. Schools were under water.
And roads. But roads weren’t a huge issue for some any more. Their cars were under water too. So they had no easy way to go back to their homes.
Even worse, thousands had no homes to return to, or at the very least, when the waters receded, homes that were not just wet but hip-deep in malodorous mud and mold. And with so many businesses closed, no way to work. No way to earn an income. No way to pay their bills.
That became the story of Houston, as it was the story of New Orleans.
I’ll never forget how a wide band of the Gulf Coast felt like a war zone. The difference? In war zones I’ve covered, people are trying to get away from fighting. In hurricane zones, they are trying to get away from water.
Sometimes clutching their children on their shoulders and in their arms. With only their own wet clothes on their backs.
Yet in the aftermath of Katrina and amidst the wrath of a dozen other natural disasters I’ve seen over the years, people show an unsinkable spirit. Having lost every material possession, enough to drive most of us to grief-stricken sobs, typically they’ll say something along the lines of, “We still have the only things that really matter: the people we love, and the people who love us.”
Houston became a story about the goodness of people. Not just the victims, but those who moved heaven and earth to help them. At Katrina, my cameraman and I spent the very first day after the wind stopped blowing in what became the infamous Lower Ninth Ward, the poor black area where the levee broke.We spent it in a swamp boat, piloted by two men who’d driven all night from northern Louisiana just to help wherever and however they could. We rescued people from rooftops after they’d punched holes through the tiles to stay above the water that chased them to their attics.
Such saints also surfaced in Houston. The Denver Post ran a story about them, the “Cajun Navy,” boatmen who a local filmmaker described like this: “They don’t care if they’re wet, or how hot you are, or how bad you smell.” These are angels from the region who rowed to the rescue.
But between New Orleans and Houston, there also were differences. The Superdome in New Orleans was just as foul and fetid for refugees as you’ve heard. I haven’t heard of anything even close in Houston.
We happened to be at the convention center in New Orleans when the very first National Guard troops entered the city. It was the fourth day after the storm. There was no such delay in Houston.
Relief supplies were inexplicably impeded at New Orleans’ borders for days, to the point where we and other news crews bought flats of bottled water late each night in Baton Rouge and gave them out to stranded citizens the next morning. Houston was supplied as best anyone could.
In New Orleans we even came across a corpse in a wheelchair on a dry piece of land, covered by a blanket. If there were similar signs of despair in Houston, I didn’t see them.
Killer storms are inevitable. Rotten responses are not. Someone learned something from New Orleans. In that respect if none other, Houston might have been paralyzed, but it was lucky things weren’t even worse.
One of my favorite cousins recently sent me this email: “I write this with sadness in my heart. I regret voting for Trump. I miss Ronald Reagan. I miss the feeling I felt about America in the 80’s. I’m embarrassed every time Trump opens his mouth or sends out a tweet.”
Make no mistake, my cousin hasn’t gone Democrat. My cousin is simply a Republican who stopped clinging to a crummy choice. I am proud of my cousin. Better now than never.
This is only a microcosm, of course. But a microcosm of America, borne out by polls (you know, the Fake News polls) that show President Trump’s support, only a minority even on election day, is a smaller minority now. I don’t know what to call it— a stampede, an exodus, just some departures— but a bevy of backers are bailing out.
Like Republican senators who now publicly question their party leader’s moral authority and competence. And corporate heads who have fled from presidential councils that would give them a voice in policy. And the conservative commentator who publicly wrote, “I voted for Trump. And I sorely regret it.” Just like my cousin.
Even the chiefs of our military services have gently challenged the commander-in-chief, breaking their normally non-political posture by explicitly condemning racist hatred after their boss equivocated. For good measure, several major American charities cancelled plans this past week for events at Mar-a-Lago.
This doesn’t mean the administration is unraveling. But back in the 1970s in Washington, I covered Watergate, when the Nixon administration did unravel, and it’s not preposterous to project parallels. A White House preoccupied with its president’s low popularity. Counselors and cabinet officers plotting behind the president’s back. Appointees resigning. Congressmen revolting. The paralysis of government. Eventually people wouldn’t even return Richard Nixon’s calls.
The defections of just the past few weeks span the spectrum of support that any president needs. You lose that critical mass, you can lose the ability to lead. That’s what happened to Nixon. Donald Trump can claim to be the best president ever, but when it comes to major legislative goals, he’s a failure so far.
He has only himself to blame. Remember President Bush at Ground Zero? Remember Obama at the Charleston church? That’s called leadership. Now, instead, we have a president who burns more bridges than he builds. Unity’s not in his vocabulary. He fosters feuds with friends, for heaven’s sake. Even Mitch McConnell is now badmouthing him.
No one need say “I told you so.” We’ve all known that the man will maliciously lash out at the slightest provocation; he told us so himself. We’ve known that he will lie as easily as he breathes; in The Art of the Deal, he told us that too. But millions of Americans shut their eyes real tight and hoped against hope that Trump would change. He even assured us he would: “I will be so presidential, you will be so bored.” Oh what we’d give, Mr. President, especially after your vitriolic speech Tuesday in Phoenix, for a little boredom.
President Trump still could turn everything around. Personally I thought Monday night’s Afghanistan speech, although heavy on hope, was well conceived and well delivered. But we all know from experience, there’s a titanic difference between scripted Trump and spontaneous Trump. We also know that the odds of winning this stalemate, so far from home and relying on unsteady allies against unrelenting enemies, probably are no better under this president than they were under the two before him.
Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker— once on Trump’s short-list for Vice President— last week was blunt: “The President has not yet been able to demonstrate the stability nor some of the competence that he needs to be successful.” South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott was equally blunt: Trump’s “moral authority is compromised.” Colorado’s Cory Gardner castigated the president: “We must call evil by its name.”
There’s a crack in the dike and for Donald Trump, the pressure is pushing the wrong way. This is how the end of Nixon’s presidency began. That was in Nixon’s sixth year. Trump isn’t through his first.
On North Korea
Evergreen’s connections to the big news stories of recent days— troops in Afghanistan, terrorism in Barcelona, racism in Charlottesville, confrontation with North Korea,— are indistinct. But with North Korea warning Sunday of “the uncontrollable phase of a nuclear war,” confrontation is back. And so is belligerence. And so is the nuclear menace. Evergreen isn’t likely in North Korea’s crosshairs. But if the confrontation turns uncontrollable, all of us could be the losers, somehow.
So we still have to ask ourselves, is President Trump’s strategy making war more likely, or less?
Maybe Trump’s right. Maybe he’s got to speak to North Korea’s ruthless Kim Jong-un in confrontational “locked and loaded” language that the equally confrontational Kim can understand.
But I don’t think so. An old colleague, Mort Rosenblum, former editor of the International Herald Tribune, has written, “Saddam Hussein… or Muammar Qaddafi… ought to teach us something. Tyrants cannot let themselves back away from showdown, least of all Kim Jong-un. God help us all if he delivers a suicide note.” Cornered, he could.
Maybe President Trump is right to insist that his threat of “fire and fury like the world has never seen” was “not a dare. It’s a statement of fact.”
But I don’t think so. Another old colleague, Washington Post journalist Michael Dobbs (no relation), reveals in One Minute to Midnight, his book about the Cuban missile crisis, that President Kennedy’s wife Jackie wrote after the showdown, “The danger which troubled my husband was that war might be started not so much by the big men as by the little ones. While big men know the needs for self-control and restraint, little men are sometimes moved more by fear and pride.” Who today will prove to be big?
Maybe President Trump is right to assert, ”It’s about time somebody stuck up for the people of this country” and personally I think he is, but not the way he’s doing it. President Obama’s U.N. ambassador Susan Rice writes in an op-ed piece that President Trump’s threats “risk tipping the Korean Peninsula into war, if the North’s leader… believes them and acts precipitously.” That depends on whether Kim is rational or irrational. Which we don’t really know.
What we do know is that Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump seem cast in the same impulsive, truculent, unseasoned mold. If there’s a temperamental miscalculation, there is no turning back. Which should scare us. Even here in Evergreen.
This is not to put Kim and Trump on the same moral plane. North Korea threatens to upset the peace on both sides of the Pacific. The United States threatens to prevent it.
It might become necessary to pulverize North Korea’s nuclear program before it sends a bomb streaking toward a Western ally, an American territory, or the United States itself. But like his father and grandfather before him, Kim’s only ideology is survival on the family throne. He certainly knows that if he launches weapons at Western targets, he and his nation could be wiped off the face of the earth.
So it’s pretty safe to assume that he won’t be the first to attack. And that he’s not suicidal. And that his bark is worse than his bite. Where I empathize with President Trump is, “pretty safe” is not enough.
Yet our options are precious few and from my own experience covering dictators, none is encouraging. Diplomacy is still one, although it hasn’t gotten us much in the past. Sanctions? In a nation where people’s prosperity has never been a priority, same story. Regime change comes with real risks of blowback. Pressure from China? When it weighs the dangers of a madman on its border against the dangers of a war that could put American power on its border, the madman doesn’t look so bad.
Playing chicken could be catastrophic. If Kim strikes first, he will be disemboweled, but as recent Trump strategist Steve Bannon realistically said last week, not before pouring fire on our friends and us. If we strike first, the result will be the same.
A nuclear North Korea wouldn’t be easy to endure. But a cold war beats a hot one.
On What the President Doesn’t Know About North Korea
On-the-job-training to make hamburgers at White Castle? Makes sense. On-the-job training to make war or peace at the White House? Not so much.
But that’s how it’s been feeling. Exhibit A? Our President’s epiphany earlier this month when China’s president explained the facts of life about North Korea, to which the leader of the free world responded, “After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.” Any of us could have told him that. (And so could the internet.) But he had to hear it from a power whose interests are almost the polar opposite of ours?
Exhibit B: Our sudden shows of strength. For the first time since he moved to the Oval Office, President Trump won bravos from both sides of the aisle when he sent a message to Syria in the form of 59 Cruise missiles. But then, before that dust had even settled, we dropped the mother of non-nuclear bombs on some caves in Afghanistan, and sent a carrier strike force (circuitously, it turns out) to the waters off North Korea.
Personally I don’t think these are bad moves. Aiming a pistol at a miscreant might modify his misbehavior without ever releasing the lock. The trouble is, given his penchant for applause, what the President is pursuing overseas— after some deflating domestic defeats— looks more like feel-good policy than foreign policy. Which might make us safer from a North Korean nuclear threat. Or it might put us in more peril.
Sure, North Korea’s fitful leader Kim Jong-un talks tough. But that’s just how he plays the game. I’ve covered rulers from the likes of Iran and Iraq and Libya and the Soviet Union who also talked tough. Old-timers will particularly recollect Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s warning to the United States, “We will bury you.” He didn’t. It was bluster. The man currently in the White House knows a thing or two about that.
But what he doesn’t seem to know is, while the bad guys in Syria and Afghanistan can’t effectively shoot back, North Korea can. And if you believe that crazy men sometimes do crazy things, it might. As journalist Barbara Demick points out in her insightful book “Nothing to Envy” (taken from a slogan brainwashed into every North Korean child’s head, “We have nothing to envy in this world”), North Korea’s dynasty, now in its third generation, perpetuates a permanent state of almost-war; it keeps its people scared, and loyal.
But Kim Jong-un isn’t suicidal; his only ideology is survival. He isn’t bluffing about being a nuclear threat, but he is bluffing about throwing the first punch. He won’t. Not against our allies, not against us. But if we strike first? He might see no recourse but to strike back. Not only do crazy men do crazy things, desperate men do desperate things.
China understands North Korea. The day after President Trump warned, “The problem will be taken care of,” China warned us, “If war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula, multiple parties will lose and no one will win.” The President should pay heed. The geopolitical consultancy Stratfor, which tracks “the hidden pressures on nations,” warns that “a comprehensive campaign” against North Korea “virtually guarantees full-blown war on the Korean Peninsula.”
I don’t have a splendid solution, not one that would safeguard the world against North Korean nukes. But neither does President Trump, not when you look at the awful options open to him. And neither does China, not when you look its complicated relationship with North Korea, and its dependence on North Korea as a buffer against American military might in its own sphere of influence.
We wouldn’t want to risk everything on the confidence that North Korea is all talk. But President Trump would be prudent to obey the adage, Know thine enemy. As he learned from his Chinese counterpart during that on-the-job training session, he doesn’t, yet.
Here in Colorado, although geographically far removed from the racist and anti-Semitic sentiments that are shaking our nation, we shouldn’t be surprised that they’re out there. Because while we might readily relegate them to America’s backwoods or the American South, they also are part of our own history.
Just 33 years ago, white supremacists in Denver assassinated a provocative liberal host on KOA Radio, Alan Berg. I am mindful, because I ended up working there in his time slot.
Almost a hundred years ago, Benjamin Stapleton— after whom Denver’s onetime airport was named— was elected as the city’s mayor. Only subtly shrouded from voters’ eyes: Stapleton was a member of Colorado’s Ku Klux Klan.
Far removed? Hardly.
But the bigger picture of progress in civil rights in America is positive. By 50 years ago we already had the Civil Rights Act signed into law, forbidding discrimination in the workplace and in public accommodations based on “race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” And both the Voting Rights Act and the 24th Amendment, which together prohibited discriminatory decrees designed to block black Americans and other minorities from taking part in elections.
These laws opened the door to diversity in politics. In the past 50 years there have been countless mayors and police chiefs of color; Denver is among the estimable examples. 49 black citizens today serve in the United States Congress. Both major political parties have had credible black candidates for president. Nine years ago, one of them even won.
We’ve come a long way, baby. But then last week was Charlottesville.
It reaffirmed what I learned covering civil rights as a reporter: the mere making of transformational laws won’t soften the spirit of Americans stuck in the bigotry and bias of the past. While you can amend the legal landscape, you cannot alter the human mind.
I reported from two cities, for example, on the beginning of busing for the purpose of integration. There was anger for sure in the southern city of Louisville, but the resistance and bile and hostility were far worse at “Southie,” the nickname for a high school in south Boston.
I did stories in Idaho, where the Hitler-adoring Aryan Nations had its headquarters. I had to listen to leaders like Richard Butler tell me that Jews were a plague on our nation. In Skokie, Illinois, a heavily Jewish suburb of Chicago, American Nazis used their constitutional rights of assembly and speech to march across the city and spread their message of malevolence.
This week though, I saw a photo from Charlottesville: a black policeman at a barrier, protecting white nationalists behind him who just as eagerly might hang him from a bridge as honor his badge. So we’ve come a long way, baby. But the story from that troubled Virginia city is that some Americans still pledge their ugly allegiance to the past, not the future. We’ve still got a ways to go.
There are those today who maintain that from the moment Barack Obama moved into the White House in 2009, the strong animus against him was not because of his history or his politics, but simply because he was black. Maybe. But we really can’t say for sure.
There also are those who now maintain that because Donald Trump has moved into the White House, there has been a vile and visible rise of white nationalism, with Charlottesville its most recent display. Maybe it’s because of Trump. But again, we really can’t say for sure.
What we can say though is this: Trump’s oratory emboldens the likes of former KKK Imperial Wizard David Duke. His alliances empower white nationalist enabler Steve Bannon. His statements equate America’s most repulsive groups with movements that protest their programs. And now he equates George Washington, who fought to create our country, with Robert E. Lee, who fought to destroy it. The President hasn’t diminished the perception that he’s aiding and abetting America’s foulest factions.
Leaving us to ask, if he’s not, what else can explain it?
And leaving us to wonder, now that it’s out in the open elsewhere, what’s to stop it from rising again in Colorado?
On Foreign Elections
I’ve covered elections in many countries— from Britain to Bolivia, Egypt to Zimbabwe. But never have I seen longer lines of citizens eager, even desperate to vote than in two nations that are roughly at the same latitude but an ocean apart, in more ways than one: Liberia and Venezuela. You’d expect a backward nation like Liberia to be on the skids. But it’s not. Resource-rich Venezuela is. There’s a lesson here.
Liberia was founded by freed American slaves on the western rim of Africa. It is a poor country even in the best of times. But the aftermath of the election I covered there almost a dozen years ago has been a slow but steady build.
Venezuela, by contrast, was rolling in oil. But as we see every day now in news reports, the aftermath of what I covered there— around the same time as Liberia— is a slow and suicidal bleed.
Liberia’s election followed on a decade-and-a-half of civil war that wrecked the nation. Depraved despots went on killing sprees. And survivors endured a living hell. With its only hydroelectric dam destroyed, the war left Liberia with no electricity. Or running water. Or sanitation. Most people in the capital, Monrovia, squatted in the shells of buildings that were burned out or bombed out. Potholes swallowed cars on war-ravaged roads. Citizens swallowed food we wouldn’t feed our dogs.
Yet on election day in Liberia, I saw thousands of people from all over the countryside who walked for hours, many barefoot, through the bush. They lined up all night, then stood all day in the broiling sun, to vote. To be part of their own future. To rise from their own ashes.
What they got was a stable government. Not strong, not rich, and not without corruption. But they chose a president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf— the first female leader on the continent, in fact— who has attracted foreign investors and, although a dispiritingly plodding process on a bedrock of wretchedness and ruin, she is getting the country rebuilt.
Juxtapose that with Venezuela, which had it all. The world’s biggest reserves of petroleum. The U.S. as its biggest customer. It was South America’s richest nation.
Today? Food is short. So is medicine. Electricity too. Sounds more like Liberia.
But Liberia’s war is over. Venezuela’s is not. Although more than a hundred dissidents have died, it’s not really a shooting war. It’s actually a war about economics. And politics. And democracy. On one side are the loyalists of Nicolas Maduro, the socialist successor of populist president Hugo Chavez. On the other side are the citizens who forced the election I covered, an effort to recall Chavez for squandering the nation’s riches.
Venezuela’s election day was like Liberia’s. I met people who stood in the blazing sun for 14 hours. Some lines stretched for ten city blocks. It was a bellwether of the people’s passion. But Chavez blatantly bought votes, giving away so many spoils to the estimated 80% of the population who are poor, they voted to keep the freebies flowing. The recall narrowly lost. But he paid for this political protection out of revenues from the nation’s oil. Little was reinvested in its industry. When Chavez resigned before dying of cancer, his vice president, Maduro, took his place… and perpetuated his policies.
The worst thing though isn’t Maduro’s policies, it’s his politics. Last month he staged a sham election for a constitutional convention where the opposition wasn’t allowed on the ballot. If you want to know the role democracy will play, heed the words of one of Maduro’s military comrades: “There is no possibility that the opposition will govern this country. Mark my words— no possibility.”
President Trump is right to ratchet up sanctions against influential supporters of the regime although, when Maduro defiantly declares, “Keep up your sanctions, Donald Trump,” it doesn’t bode well for a return to democracy. What it bodes is higher gas prices here in the U.S.
Staggering, isn’t it? A nation with nothing has promising prospects. Another endowed with affluence is on the road to ruin. It’s not just about who governs, but how.
I have to vent.
Many columnists across this country write volumes about the undignified, unprincipled, unbalanced, untruthful— and sometimes just flat-out unbelievable— nature of Donald Trump.
Heaven knows they’re right, and heaven knows he deserves it. Nobody can make Trump look like the loathsome leader he is without his help. But as a columnist, I’ve tried to demonstrate his innumerable defects by identifying, largely from my own long experience covering the world, the incalculable deficiencies in his policies.
Deficiencies with America’s allies, where his insults and inattention invite division. With Russia, where his infatuation invites a stronger antagonist. With China, where his incomprehension invites supremacy. With the Middle East, where his ignorance invites failure. With the budget, where his indifference invites suffering. Former NATO Allied Supreme Commander Admiral James Stavridis says, “Our credibility as a global force for good is deteriorating by the moment.”
Having lived through twelve presidential transitions, I know that in roughly every other election, the White House will shift from one set of principles to another and I’m going to get a president whose policies— and sometimes whose wars— I probably won’t like. But what’s wrong with this guy in the White House now transcends all that.
His behavior is not just abnormal. It’s a moral abomination. As centrist columnist David Brooks recently wrote, Trump has “dropped a nuclear bomb on the basic standards of decency in public life.” Or if you need to hear it from a widely-read conservative, how about Bret Stephens, he of recent Wall Street Journal fame, who just called Trump’s presidency “the most morally grotesque administration in American history.”
He seemingly spends more energy answering slights from his adversaries than ensuring support for his agenda, and says nicer things about Russia than he says about American judges, legislators, intelligence agencies, and certainly the media. Even if Trump accidentally does something right, it is superseded by something else he does wrong. The shelf lives of his campaigns for anything constructive are as short as his attention span. And typical of his deceit. After “Made in America Week” last month, his Mar-a-Lago resort applied to hire dozens of foreign workers. During “American Heroes Week,” this president who has never made a sacrifice in military uniform announced his ban on transgender Americans who have. (His GOP convention pledge to “do everything in my power to protect our LGBT citizens?” That is so 2016.)
And as if the whole first six months of Trump don’t demonstrate just how out of control this president is, recent weeks hammer it home. Like the failure of the self-declared doyen of the Art of the Deal to win on health care. And hijacking the Boy Scout Jamboree with a rambling rant that was so ill-advised and vulgar, the Boy Scouts publicly apologized. Not to the President, but for the President.
Then add in the indecorous departures of his spokesman and his chief of staff, both sent packing as if they were the cause of the chaos at the White House. They weren’t. Trump was. Their only sin: they couldn’t clean it up. Maybe the new adult in the White House, General John Kelly, can. But since he can’t spend every hour at the President’s side, don’t bet the farm.
And I haven’t even mentioned Trump “joking” (yeah, right) that policemen should rough up uncharged untried unconvicted suspects. Or his fling with his short-lived potty-mouthed plot-happy communications chief, who (lest we forget) was fired by Kelly, not Trump. Or ongoing outrage about the Trump team’s contacts, or cooperation, or collusion— call it what you will— with Russia.
The world once saw us as Ronald Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill.” And that’s how we saw ourselves. Today though, the shine is fading. Today we look more like an unanchored, unreliable, uncaring power that is forgetting the values that made us shine in the first place.
There. I’ve vented.
But I don’t feel better. Because the President of the United States is still undignified, unprincipled, unbalanced, untruthful— and sometimes just flat-out unbelievable. Heaven help us.
On Colorado Drivers
This is about driving in Colorado. More precisely, it’s about drivers in Colorado. Sure, Donald Trump might make my stomach churn every day of the week, but once I leave home, I put Trump in the back seat where he belongs and churn instead about dangerous or discourteous drivers just ahead of me. Or right behind me. Or in the case of bobbers and weavers, all around me.
You know who I mean: the ones who look like they got their license by bashing the bullseye on all the pop-up monkeys at the state fair: “Congratulations my friend, you hit the jackpot and here’s your prize: a driver’s license good for life.”
That wouldn’t be you, of course. You are either the most cautious, or most polite, or most skilled driver on the road. But how about all the others? How did they ever get that license, anyway?
I got to thinking about this last month when a report came out from an east coast nonprofit called Kars4Kids. After an online survey in all 50 states, it called Coloradans the seventh most polite drivers in America.
Not bad when you realize there are 43 states where drivers apparently aren’t as polite as we are.
Then again, maybe the survey was flawed, because when you look at it, you see questions like, “When a car is trying to pass you on the left, do you maintain your speed, or increase your speed?” Or, “Do you signal before turning or merging always, usually, sometimes, or rarely?” They asked, “Do you respond rudely to being tailgated?”, and “Would you steal someone’s parking spot?”
In other words, they were actually asking us if we think we’re polite! That’s like asking Donald Trump if he thinks he ranks as the best president in American history. “Well, maybe after Abraham Lincoln. Then again, I’m probably even better than him.”
What this politeness appraisal tells me is, people in 43 other states are less in denial than we are.
Not that all states’ drivers are created equal. They’re not. For inexplicable reasons there are certain ways people drive in some states and different ways in others. By region, in the survey, West was best.
What I notice myself is, whether impolite or incognizant, lots of Colorado drivers have distinct deficiencies. One is, a merge lane means “merge,” not “stop.” Another is, if I’m doing 70 on the interstate and have to jam on my brakes and you’re close enough behind me to see what’s in my trunk, you’re going to end up in the trunk yourself. The last takes the form of a joke that asks, “How do you identify a Coloradan?” The answer? “He’s the third one running the red light.”
I did a little survey of my own, emailing several dozen friends here, asking how they feel about their fellow Coloradans behind the wheel. “I grew up in Boston where driving is a full contact sport,” one wrote back. “By comparison Denver drivers are polite angels.” Another Boston-born friend who drives for Uber confirmed that: “I started to grouse about our drivers, then I returned to Boston this spring. I’ll never complain about Colorado drivers again.”
From a former New Yorker: “I just had a driver shoot out in front of me on a side street. My wife commented that in NY, a typical driver in my shoes would have 1) honked like crazy, or 2) taken a gun out and shot the guy. We just avoided it and moved on.” And from another: “In New York a horn is far more important than courtesy. In Chicago pedestrians are fair game. We have it pretty good in Colorado.” In the survey by the way, New York came in dead last.
By and large, my friends thought our politeness placement was pretty fair. And accurate. They cited acts of Colorado kindness on the road. And explained the growing impoliteness we sometimes feel from fellow drivers as the inevitable upshot of growth.
Still though, if you want to get inside my trunk, don’t tailgate. Just ask.
On A Divided State
That used to mean to us pretty much the same thing as the Continental Divide: a high mountain ridge where the water on one side ultimately flows to the Pacific, the water on the other ending up in the Gulf and the Atlantic.
Not any more.
Now, it is a divide defined not just by the rift of our Rocky Mountains but by the rift of our populace. It is between urban and rural Colorado. Between the economically affluent sections of our state where broadband internet access is swift and abundant, and neglected corners of Colorado where internet speeds are only barely better than dial-up. Between corporate consolidation and ma-and-pa farms, between healthcare just minutes away or half-a-day’s drive away, between killer commutes on suburban interstates and killer curves on country roads. It is a divide between the culture of younger Coloradans, who have relinquished their rural roots for remunerative rewards, and older ones, who haven’t.
It is, as The Denver Post put it last Sunday in the debut of its series focusing on the Colorado Divide, about “the issues, values and attitudes that can leave rural and urban residents feeling they live in two Colorados.” It is, as Post journalists Jennifer Brown and Kevin Simpson said, about a “fault line,” and the line is no more lucid than on the charts that pepper their piece.
The first one is about “peak population years” for Colorado’s counties and this speaks volumes about the divide: in 23 of our 64 counties, mainly along the entire eastern border of the state and most of the southern border, the population peaked before 1950. They have been losing people ever since. No surprise if they’re not prospering. Or, for urban Coloradans, if they’re not even on the radar.
Yet they should be, because as one official from remote western Colorado said in the story, “Rural Colorado is the picture of what Colorado promotes itself to be. We’re really the culture of Colorado.”
The next chart is about politics, namely, the counties’ preferences for President. The majority of Coloradans overall voted for Hillary Clinton but two-thirds of the counties— pretty much the whole eastern third of the state and, but for a few pockets, the western quarter— were in the Trump camp. Aside from a handful of outliers, it was only the Front Range— the cities running north to south from Wyoming to New Mexico— that voted for Clinton. Is it any wonder that on impassioned issues in the state legislature from transportation to taxation to education to hospitalization, there are fault lines between urban and rural that often retard reform?
Then there’s a chart— a pie graph, really— about the budget for CDOT, the Colorado Department of Transportation. More than half its “new construction” funds are spent in metro-Denver. Arguably this is justifiable since Denver has grown more than 20% in the past fifteen years and fully half of Colorado’s five-and-a-half million people live in metro-Denver. But if you look at it through rural eyes, there’s still far more asphalt in the rest of the state and therefore, when they require roadwork, rural residents regularly feel rebuffed.
These are just pieces of the Post’s picture of the Colorado Divide. And while many are revelations to me, the most conspicuous come from quotes by two citizens in Colorado’s southeasternmost corner, Baca County.
A woman who runs the county’s weekly newspaper resents Denver-based television weather forecasters because when they use those big maps, “they stand right in front of us. We don’t exist. We get ignored like that.” A county commissioner speaks of a “disconnect” between urban and rural residents: “Maybe we don’t understand the lifestyle that they live. But we sometimes feel we’re not appreciated for what we do.”
The first step toward bridging the Colorado Divide is exposing the sentiments of each side to the other. Each has value, each has needs. The state can flourish if we recognize that, and fail if we don’t.
On Six Months of Trump
July 20th should be important to all Americans. It is the day— 48 years ago now— that Neil Armstrong planted man’s first foot on the moon. His eloquence was no exaggeration: “One giant leap for mankind.”
Virtually every American that transcendent day was electrified. None more, though, than in Wapakoneta, Ohio, Neil Armstrong’s home town, where as a young producer supervising live coverage for ABC News, I watched his first lunar steps.
Never in my lifetime have I seen Americans so proud. Never in my lifetime have I seen Americans so respected. In Wapakoneta and everywhere else.
But the pride has dimmed. And the respect is dwindling.
No one factor, no one war, no one president is singlehandedly responsible. As columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote, our presidents all have “bent the truth to varying degrees,” and “had a vanity that sometimes ran contrary to the public good.”
But none more than Donald Trump. And because today, July 20th, is a milestone of a different kind— the six-month anniversary of his presidency— it must be noted that when it comes to our pride in our nation and others’ respect for it, we are at a new nadir.
Not everyone feels that way. Although Trump’s 36% approval rating (and 58% disapproval) at this point is the worst of any presidency ever, there are still diehards in denial. They applaud Trump for “shaking things up,” as if it doesn’t matter where the pieces fall, or who they hurt.
What is this world coming to? Overseas, despite the President’s protests that he and his global peers have “beautiful” relationships upon which America’s foundation is fortified, those leaders’ actions, sometimes their inactions, speak louder than his empty words. Respect for American supremacy is slipping, although because fellow leaders play the President like a fiddle, he doesn’t seem to see it.
He pays more praise to our dictatorial foes than our democratic friends. But to what advantage? President Putin hasn’t budged an inch in Ukraine or Crimea and still strives to neutralize NATO. And how about the naive notion of an “impenetrable cybersecurity unit” with Russia (which Marco Rubio caustically compared to a chemical weapons partnership with Syria’s Assad)? Trump doesn’t grasp that Putin’s only goal is to Make Russia Great Again, not America.
And China? Although our great negotiator had great expectations for relief from trade imbalances and North Korean threats, China’s president Xi didn’t do squat. His goal? Make China Great Again. Yet Trump is still sucking up, which NPR’s Scott Simon illuminated last weekend in an incisive commentary.
Simon observed that right after the death of oft-imprisoned Chinese human rights campaigner and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, President Trump joined with President Macron in Paris, but “the two leaders who met to celebrate their nations’ shared principles of liberty did not mark the loss of a man who gave his life to the struggle for liberty in his country. In fact, President Trump paused to salute the man who heads the regime that imprisoned Liu Xiaobo.” (“A great leader,” “A very special person.”)
Here at home, Republican lawmakers still want to slash health insurance for tens of millions. They threaten the time-honored separation of church and state. And environmental degradation notwithstanding, they move with resolve toward regulation-lite. JP Morgan chief Jamie Dimon, no fan of regulations, lamented last week, “Some regulations quite clearly create a common good— like clean air and water.”
If all that isn’t enough, some on Trump’s team are culpable of cooperation, if not collusion, with a foreign antagonist’s attempts to affect the American election. Of course Trump, who campaigned against politics as usual, justified this in a Monday tweet as, well, just politics.
All this, between January 20th and July 20th, 2017. We’ve come to all this, in just six months.
July 20th, 1969, was a giant leap for America. But this July 20th, the supreme spirit of Wapakoneta is gone. And there’s no evidence that this “buck stops somewhere else” president can make the leap to fully restore the pride of most Americans, or the respect we long possessed.
On America First
The President’s pronouncement a week ago in Poland was positive and powerful: “The West will never be broken!” Just one catch: Mr. Trump himself is trying to break it.
He is assaulting an incomparable quality that has long distinguished our nation from any other. It is this: when our superpower rivals involve themselves in the affairs of other nations, they ask, “What will strengthen us?” We ask more: “What will strengthen us but keep our allies strong too?” Because we’ve understood, what strengthens them strengthens us. What enriches them enriches us. What reinforces their liberties reinforces ours. And what weakens American allies, weakens America. We’ve understood that, until now.
True, sometimes our involvement with other countries hasn’t worked out so well, but more often than not, it has. For them, for us. Which is what makes the President’s platitudes so puzzling, and his self-styled “America First” policies so pernicious.
On trade, one of the central controversies during Trump’s trip, he berates and browbeats allies more than adversaries. He is threatening new tariffs on imports from proven partners which, if you ask many U.S. manufacturers, will raise our costs without copiously creating new jobs. Not to mention inspiring our longtime friends to talk of retaliation. Also of course, he pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, in effect ceding reliable and remunerative trade relationships to China. This makes us stronger?
On climate, the other core controversy, he will pull out of the Paris climate accord and abrogate America’s agreements on greenhouse gas emissions. Which no less a seasoned diplomat than German Chancellor Merkel declared, most undiplomatically, she “deplores.” The industrialized world’s shift to cleaner fuels and renewable energies is inevitable. And observed in Europe enthusiastically. We just won’t be as big a part of it. China, by the way, will. We are stronger because of this?
On Russia, President Trump told President Putin when they shook hands for the first time, “It’s an honor to be with you.” An honor? To meet a man who takes the territories he wants, who backs the brutal bully in Syria, who has his own critics abducted and imprisoned and killed, and lest we forget, who by consensus in the American intelligence community (which the President continues to dis), fiddled in our American elections? I’m all for patching up paramount geopolitical relationships, but not by turning a blind eye to the other side’s sins.
It is of no small consequence that by showing Russia’s leader respect he does not deserve, President Trump gave President Putin what he has long lusted: to have a seat at the table, to look us in the eye as an equal. This hardly strengthens us. Secretary of State Tillerson rightly said our two nuclear nations have to start figuring out, “How do we live with one another? How do we work with one another?” But do we have to restore Russia to its former glory while we’re at it? Especially when, due in part to President Obama’s inaction in the Middle East, Russia already has a seat again at the table there.
Trump also asked his European audience, “Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?” The conundrum is, he doesn’t. A vital value used to be, “All for one and one for all.” But “America First” turns that on its end. And where are our values when the President has said worse things about Germany’s Merkel, America’s ally, than about Russia’s Putin, America’s antagonist? One upshot is, Merkel’s own political party has deleted the word “friend” from its platform when it talks about the United States. Today Trump’s in France for its independence celebration but France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron, lamented last weekend, “Our common goods have never been so threatened.”
We are still the most powerful nation on earth. But are we still the most respected? And how can we lead when others don’t want to follow?
Show me how any of this strengthens our friends. Show me how it strengthens us.
On Trump’s Travel Ban – No Grandparents?
I hate to get hung up on just one small facet of the partial application of the Trump travel ban, but grandparents can’t travel to the United States to see their grandchildren? REALLY?
When the Supreme Court allowed, pending its formal hearing on the ban, that foreigners can still come in if they have “a credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States,” did the President really believe that shouldn’t include grandparents?
I have kids. I have grandkids. They are the most important family I’ve got. The President might not be grounded in achievable approaches to foreign policy (or dignified declarations about domestic critics), but he is a grandparent himself. Eight times over. I’ve got to believe that he loves his family. Which by most anyone’s definition includes his grandkids. Does he not see that?
When I read about this part of the ban, I thought about a weekend I spent a couple of summers ago at a grief camp for kids. It is run by Mount Evans Home Health Care & Hospice, and gives children who’ve suffered a terrible loss a brief break from their sorrow. They ride horses and catch fish and slide down zip lines and swim, and in-between the fun, there is therapy.
The children sit in circles, along with their adult “buddies” like me, and talk about the loved ones they lost and the futures they face without them. One boy in my circle had lost his father to a motorcycle accident. Another lost his dad to drugs. One girl’s sister had died of a disease. Another no longer had a mom.
And then a little girl started sobbing about her lost loved one. It was her grandmom. I’ll be honest and tell you, in my mind I was thinking that this girl’s loss just wasn’t tragic on the level of the other kids in the circle. Until she told us more. Her grandmother had raised her. Her grandmother was the only family she had. And now grandma was gone. The little girl had no one left.
When the White House announced its definition of “bona fide” relationships, it said it was based on The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Trump’s interpretation is definitely not the act’s two sponsors’ original intent. One was New York Representative Emanuel Celler, who served almost 50 years in the House and once pleaded with President Roosevelt to relax immigration laws to provide a haven for Europeans fleeing the Holocaust.
The other was Senator Edward Kennedy. You don’t have to read up on him to know where his beliefs were anchored. Kennedy’s and Celler’s intent was to reunite immigrant families. But typical of its disregard for precedent, the Trump Administration is turning their legislation on its end and using it to keep bona fide grandparents from uniting with their families.
You’re read it before but it’s worth repeating: when it comes to the threat of terrorism in the United States, incoming refugees, especially those with preexisting relationships here, are not the problem. The mass murderer at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando was born in New Hyde Park, New York. The mass murderer at the Christmas party in San Bernardino had served in the United States Navy during the Iraq War and was born in Chicago. The mass murderer at Fort Hood was an Army psychiatrist for heaven’s sake, born in Arlington, Virginia. Three terrorists. Three Americans.
You’ve heard the phrase “arbitrary and capricious.” As law professor Kathryn Watts wrote in the Yale Law Journal, a poorly rationalized decision is “arbitrary and capricious.” Which surely describes this newest version of the Trump travel ban. It won’t do a darned thing about homegrown terrorists. But it will superfluously, stupidly, separate families.
The Supreme Court is back at full strength with the addition of Coloradan Neil Gorsuch but its conservative composition notwithstanding, it should step in and stop this perversion. If anything seems un-American, it is an embargo on entry for the grandparents.
On ISIS and Its Staying Power
In almost every war I ever covered, the side that took control of traditional symbols of power— legislatures, leaders’ residences, military bases, print and broadcast headquarters— held control of government. But in its war with its many enemies, the Islamic State doesn’t have to keep a hold on vital buildings, as long as it has a hold on the human mind.
That’s why it might be misleading to be cheered by The Denver Post’s hopeful headlines this past week. Like, “Iraqi leader declares end to IS (Islamic State) caliphate.” Then, “Airstrikes in Mosul,” which described the Iraqi army’s “territorial gains.”
Don’t be fooled. From “Peace is at hand” in Vietnam to “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq, we know that politicians strive to shape the narrative. Beware. The Islamic State might have to reinvent itself. But it isn’t going away.
The fact is, it hasn’t even lost its caliphate, at least not yet, let alone its incomprehensible appeal to militant Muslims, or its ominous existence on every continent. You read that right: every continent (if we can exclude Antartica). Last year, experts counted up to two dozen nations with some incarnation of the Islamic State: Islamic State armies, Islamic State affiliates, Islamic State cells, Islamic State wannabes. Today the estimates are half-again higher.
A year ago, even before the self-proclaimed caliphate seemed seriously threatened, one of its leaders said in an audio message to its acolytes, “Whoever thinks that we fight to protect some land or some authority, or that victory is measured thereby, has strayed far from the truth. It is the same, whether Allah blesses us with consolidation or we move into the bare open desert, displaced and pursued.”
Because the “bare open desert” isn’t sand. It’s Christmas parties in San Bernardino and nightclubs in Orlando. It’s bridges in London, airports in Brussels, fireworks spectacles on Independence Day in Nice. As Brookings Institution senior fellow William McCants puts it, “They are prepared to wage a war from the shadows.”
West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center reported last month that in 16 cities across Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State recently has staged roughly 1,500 attacks. And here’s another chiller: in those 16 cities, the Islamic State had been declared defeated. Just because the Islamic State’s enemies are winning some pivotal battles, it doesn’t mean they’re winning the war.
Case in point: the Philippines. In late May, rebels variously described as “aligned with” and “linked to” the Islamic State took control of Marawi City and its 200,000 citizens. Most people have fled but the rebels are still there, fighting house-to-house battles with the Philippine army. By all accounts, even if the army wins, there won’t be much of a city left for citizens who return.
When a nation’s unstable, let alone engulfed by conflict, huge pockets of the population can lose whatever public services they’ve had. For example, in towns through which war has swept in Iraq and Syria, in Libya and Yemen and Afghanistan, life for those left is dismal: no electricity, fuel, bread, or water. No functioning hospitals, no functioning schools. Still a lot of rubble. And still a lot of decomposing bodies buried beneath it. You know what they say about a vacuum. Ideal for a terror group to move in.
I’ve covered it elsewhere. In the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian Authority was so corrupt, it stopped providing services for citizens. Hamas filled the void. Hamas now holds the power. Likewise in Lebanon, where the government pulled out and Hezbollah, with Iran’s support, replaced it. The Islamic State knows this playbook. And can still make friends, especially if President Trump has his way and American aid funds are cut.
You will hear that the Islamic State is on the run. But don’t be fooled. It is not subject to conventional military defeat. And can turn defeat into victory. Don’t let the politicians, nor the generals, nor certainly our inventive and ignorant president with his “secret plan” to defeat the Islamic State tell you otherwise. The Islamic State is not going away.
On a Good Governor
When we’re whipsawed from Washington by the likes of Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi and Donald Trump, it’s refreshing to have a politician here at home who’s more prone to pacify than polarize.
That’s John Hickenlooper.
He has the common touch. After six-and-a-half years as Colorado’s governor and almost eight before that as Denver’s mayor, he hasn’t lost it.
He also has the Midas touch. Hickenlooper started as a geologist, then when the minerals economy went bad, he recreated himself as a brewpub owner and helped launch LoDo. Then he recreated himself again as a mayoral candidate. A most unlikely one. He seemed nerdy and wore ill-fitting suits. And went head-to-head with popular politicians with experience. But he converted most everyone he met. When the political neophyte first came to my talk radio studio, although he and I had clashed in point-counterpoint columns in The Denver Post, he won me over. And won the job. And became one of the nation’s best.
The governor’s office was the natural next step. And he was a natural. Yet again, he became one of the best.
So now, for term-limited John Hickenlooper, what’s the natural next step? His name was in the air when Hillary Clinton looked like our next president. Secretary of Transportation? He was a founding father of FasTracks and for six years chaired the Transportation Committee for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Housing and Urban Development? Commerce? After successes at City Hall and the Statehouse, they would all fit.
But it wasn’t meant to be. Which, Hickenlooper told me in an interview in his Capitol office, did not disappoint him, because his son Teddy is in the taxing transition to high school. “It’s hard to say no to the President of the United States, but I’d have done everything possible to avoid it.” You’ve got to like the man’s priorities.
You’ve also got to like his humility. He says of his childhood, “I was skinny, I wore thick glasses, I had acne. I wasn’t a leader in any sense of the word.” Nor did his life as a scientist and beer merchant, sometimes selling real estate on the side, fit the mold: “None of this stuff you would pick if you wanted to run for office.”
Yet he ran, and his background served him well, especially operating the Wyncoop brewpub. It taught him, “All the pieces have to work in sync or they don’t work at all.” Kind of like government. He also learned, “There is no margin in having an enemy.” Hmmm… kind of like government.
I asked Hickenlooper how his decade-and-a-half leading Denver and Colorado has changed him? “It’s really restrained my impulses. I used to make snap judgements, moved quickly. It’s more important to be thoughtful, think of the consequences of your decisions.” What a concept!
With a year-and-a-half still to go at the statehouse, Hickenlooper isn’t exactly filling out job applications yet. But ask him what’s next and he’ll matter-of-factly tell you that being chief executive officer of a city, then a state, qualifies him for many things. Running a large company. A big foundation. Possibly a university— Colorado politicians like Hank Brown, Bruce Benson, and Bill Armstrong have plowed that path before him.
Inevitably though, an even bigger presidency comes up. Leaving office in early 2019, the timing would work to commence a campaign for the White House. Hickenlooper’s standard answer when asked about this is, I’m focusing on running Colorado. But taking the lead among the nation’s governors in a bi-partisan campaign to prevent the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act, underscored by his news conference Tuesday with Ohio governor and recent Republican presidential candidate John Kasich at the National Press Club in Washington, doesn’t exactly suppress speculation.
Yet still, he sounded genuine when he told me, “There is certainly a strong desire to return to a normal life.” His State Patrol security team, for example, won’t even let him drive.
Personally, holding Hickenlooper’s humility and common sense up against what we see these days in Washington, I’d be fine if the Secret Service does the driving next.
On Who Journalists Should Interview
Before NBC had even aired the second edition last night of its new show with former Fox journalist Megyn Kelly, there was rage about its content. Namely, an interview with Alex Jones, a despicable conspiracy theorist. He’s the one who screamed after the Sandy Hook massacre of 26 people, including 20 kids, that it all had been staged. Staged by the children’s parents, no less. “Completely fake, with actors.”
There was rage from parents, rage from advertisers, rage from celebrities like Chelsea Clinton who, albeit untrained, worked a while as a journalist, and therefore should know better than to tweet, “I hope no parent, no person watches this.”
I pity those Sandy Hook parents for the pain this prolongs, but critics like Clinton are shortsighted because there’s a bigger picture to paint: on Kelly’s debut broadcast the week before, Russian President Vladimir Putin was her blockbuster interview. We didn’t hear a peep of protest.
Yet Putin is more dangerous than Jones. Jones is just a nauseating nut case. Putin is a Machiavellian megalomaniac who has marched into sovereign states and taken by force what he thinks ought to be his. He has brutally bolstered a Syrian despot. He has slashed the civil liberties of his own citizens. And incidentally, evidently he hacked his way into American politics.
But both are worth watching, Putin and Jones. The principle is, better to understand an antagonist than to just ignore him. Megyn Kelly, on the defensive about the Jones interview, put it this way: “Our goal in sitting down with him was to shine a light… on this influential figure, and yes, to discuss the considerable falsehoods he has promoted with near impunity.” So influential, our president even praises this contemptible man (as he praises Putin, too). We surely won’t make sense of it if we hide our heads in the sand.
What every American has to ask is, who should decide who’s worthy of scrutiny and who’s not? Someone on the left, someone on the right? It’s a slippery slope.
What every journalist has to consider is, interviews like this give scumbags a soapbox, but what’s important is how you handle it. What questions you ask, how you phrase them, the tone you take, how you push back if you don’t get honest answers. Even the expression on your face. It all matters.
I’ve interviewed a range of loathsome losers, from American Nazis to murderers on Death Row. I’ve interrogated the likes of Muammar Gaddafi, who led an oppressive government, and Yasser Arafat, who made his bones as a terrorist, and Ayatollah Khomeini, who created the fanatic-friendly Islamic Republic of Iran. The conversations offered insights to their thinking. Should I have ignored them instead?
Granted, when you’re questioning a tyrant on his turf, you need to hold his feet to the fire, yet protect your own feet from getting burned. You have to take care not to cross a certain line… even though you don’t necessarily know where that line actually is.
It’s especially tough to do in parts of the world where, because local journalists are beholden to their governments for their jobs, people assume the same of us. They’re already suspicious, so ask the wrong question, or ask it the wrong way, you can end up dead, and waving the U.S. Constitution won’t help. My mantra always was, if I’m going to get killed for doing my job, it should be because I was star-crossed, not because I was stupid.
In most of the global trouble spots I covered, journalists came from American news organizations and only a handful of other nations, those that had levels of freedoms that come close to ours. Press coverage is something to value, not revile.
So Megyn Kelly, you are the latest in a long line of journalists to ascend to a powerful pulpit. Get the newsmakers, whether saints or sinners. Ask the hard questions, especially if it’s here at home, and don’t let them off the hook. We’ll all be smarter, maybe even public policy will be smarter, because of it.
On Middle East Complexities
Maybe the best way to draw a diagram of rivalries and alliances in the Middle East is to think about how it looks when you boil a pot of spaghetti, then pour out the water and pull out the pasta. You end up with stray strands of starch stuck to the bottom, splayed in shapes that might make Pablo Picasso proud.
The trouble is, such curvilinear contortions might leave an artist proud, but on a Middle East flowchart they only leave us confused. Rivalries I’ve covered there, in large part, are rooted in the principle that “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Which works, until your friend makes up with your enemy and the diagram has to be redrawn. Alliances, for the most part, are marriages of convenience. Which also works, until it’s not so convenient any more. And the diagram has to be redrawn, yet again.
The nations of the Middle East know how the game is played. Yesterday’s enemy is today’s friend. Today’s friend is tomorrow’s enemy. No friendship is forever, no enmity is eternal.
Those nations get it. Us? Not so much. Especially after the past couple of weeks. Saudi Arabia’s now our BFF (“Best Friend Forever”), so when (along with four other Arab governments) it cut diplomatic, trade, and travel ties last week with next-door neighbor Qatar, President Trump jumped in with the Saudis and skewered Qatar, tweeting, “Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!”
It won’t. Not just because it’s not that simple, but also because oil-rich Qatar is not the only state from which funds flow to fanatics. Another? How about our new BFF, Saudi Arabia. And it won’t end the horror because Saudi Arabia isn’t really cross with Qatar for sustaining terrorists. It is cross with Qatar for aligning with Iran which, as a regional superpower, is the Saudis’ most ominous adversary.
Of course we have no more regard for Iran than the Saudis have, so given the logic for rivalries and alliances, it would follow that since Iran is Saudi Arabia’s enemy as well as ours, and Qatar is a friend of our enemy and an enemy of our friend, Qatar would be our enemy too.
But it’s not, (at least not yet). That’s because Qatar offers irresistible attributes as a friend. Namely, it hosts the Middle East headquarters of the United States Central Command, and the air base from which we stage attacks on terrorists. Like the Islamic State.
Even the geopolitical picture of Iran is fuzzier than you’d think. The fact is, the U.S. and Iran have mutual malice toward the Islamic State. In Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, we are fighting the Islamic State. And so is Iran. How does that that jibe with “the enemy of my enemy is my friend?” Especially since Qatar is on the same side too, in the same fight.
To different degrees, the United States today is involved in more Middle East wars than ever before. A friend in one war is an enemy in another. The best we can do, although bewildering, is recognize reality.
And if you need any more head-spinning scenarios, late last week our friend Turkey sent in troops to prop up Qatar, which is our friend but also our friend Saudi Arabia’s enemy.
An old parable I’ve often heard in the Middle East actually explains everything. A scorpion asks a frog to carry it across a river. Afraid of being stung, the frog says no, but the scorpion promises that it would never sting the frog because then they both would drown. So the frog gives the scorpion a lift until, halfway across, the scorpion stings the frog. As they’re dying, the frog asks the scorpion, “Why did you sting me, dooming us both?” The scorpion answers, “Because, my friend, this is the Middle East.”
Someone should explain that to President Trump.
On Keeping America First
Will someone please tell me, when we flip the bird at almost every other nation on earth by withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, announcing that although we’re one of its two worst polluters, our planet is on its own so we can “protect America and its citizens,” how does this keep America First?
When we turn our back on science and stand with the only two nations openly opposed to the agreement— Syria and Nicaragua— while world leaders whose partnership is imperative inveigh that after 70 years, the U.S. has lost its mantle of enlightened attitudes and moral leadership, how does this keep America First?
For that matter, when we stage budgetary attacks on the growing and gainful evolution of renewable energy and doom ourselves to outmoded industries and dirty air, how does that keep America First? If you’ve been to China, you know how many people walk around with medical masks over their mouths, and what it’s like for your eyes to burn wherever you go.
I’m all for putting America First, but too many of the President’s retrograde moves and rude manners put us closer to America Last. As Governor Hickenlooper put it, “Isolationism is not leadership.”
Has the President ever learned that although we were helping post-war Europe back when he was born, since then it often has been Europe helping us? Covering the first Gulf War, I did stories on European allies’ armies that rallied to the American cause (yes, including France). Likewise Afghanistan. Likewise Iraq. But now, with the President actually threatening Germany about military burdens— “Very bad for U.S. This will change”— the leader of our strongest European ally bitterly bewails that the United States no longer is a reliable partner.
Already there are allies like Turkey, Poland, and Hungary flirting with our adversaries. Not to mention Asian nations like South Korea and the Philippines. Between conflicts over climate and trade and mutual defense, the trend can only worsen. The President wouldn’t even affirm the “All for one, one for all” canon of NATO (invoked only once, when Europeans streamed in to support us after 9/11). What he doesn’t understand is, we weaken Europe, our principal buffer against everything from refugees to terrorism to expansionism, and we weaken ourselves.
Russia’s President Putin must be licking his chops. Tell me how this keeps America First?
Where is the logic? Except for North Korea, who does the President dis more than anyone? Not Russia, even though Putin isn’t out to Make America Great Again, he’s out to Make Russia Great Again. Not China, which threatens to replace us as the planet’s economic powerhouse. The answer is Europe, which is, with just a handful of exceptions, the only part of the world that shares our values. Most of our other allies take coffee with us because of what we do for them. The Europeans break bread because of what we mean to them.
Or maybe these days, “meant” to them. The President insolently lectures Europeans about trade imbalances (even though the Germans have created hundreds of thousands of jobs in the United States building electronics and autos of which, by the way, our hypocritical headman has owned several), but in Saudi Arabia, an infamous abuser of human rights and contributor to terrorists, he keeps his mouth shut and does the ceremonial sword dance. This keeps America, and its sacred beliefs in decency and democracy, First?
I’m even wondering, would Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner’s “back-channel” to the Kremlin, apparently insidiously intended to circumvent American intelligence (by using Russian equipment, no less), keep America First?
Maybe when the President pushed the Prime Minister of Montenegro at the NATO conference to bully his way to the front for a photo shoot, it was his metaphor for “America First.” Big mistake. Our security, our prosperity, our liberty are best served by focusing on common interests, not self-interest. That’s how we’ll keep America First. Conserving coalitions, not whacking them with a wrecking ball.
On One Friend’s Cancer
This is about a friend. A thinker. A philosopher.
He wasn’t formally trained that way. He was trained as a doctor. A lung doctor. Which is what’s so ironic. Three years ago he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Unjust, for a man who saved others from the disease. And never once put tobacco between his own lips. Lung cancer usually comes from smoking, but not always. Not for Dr. Dennis Clifford.
I never smoked cigarettes myself but despite my wife’s warnings that cigars are even more poisonous, occasionally on working trips overseas I smoked them. Until the night I got home from a rough trip to the Middle East. We went out to eat and just as I was sheepishly saying that my only treats on the trip were Cuban cigars, Denny walked in. When he came over to say hello, my wife told him what I’d just told her. This tall bearded cerebral man looked down at me and said seven simple words: “I thought you were smarter than that.” They didn’t come from a book. They came from his heart. I never touched another cigar.
When Denny began to die, he began to write. About life. And about death. He posted dozens of engrossing essays, tens of thousands of words, on a website called CaringBridge.org. It’s a place where people share stories, whether spirited or sad, about their health.
He could always see the bright side. Like this excerpt from last year, after thinking all was lost: “I am so grateful to be able to write to you today. Last summer this certainly would have been a fantasy, but I have been given a second life for some mysterious reason and I plan to ride this wonderful wing of well being as long as it lasts.”
And sometimes he was lighthearted, writing posts in the voice of his black standard poodle named Kayla. “I’ve been trained to see the signs of pain in Denny’s face and how he holds his body when he says the ‘pain gremlin’ has gotten ahold of him. I don’t know what a pain gremlin is and believe me I looked very carefully for one to chase him away because that’s my job, but I never saw one.”
Denny also wrote in his own voice about that “pain gremlin,” titling one post “The Hateful Friend”: “Always there upon awakening, ready to start gnawing with its sharp weasel teeth, ready to take away your breath with a sudden sharp stab of astonishing intensity.” He recounted one particular procedure: “Imagine filling your chest cavity with gasoline and lighting it on fire. Pain that chases any consciousness from your brain until you are consumed by it.” To endure such pain is one thing. To describe it is another.
In one post profoundly titled “The Thief of Life,” Denny lucidly described his disease: “When it touches close it smothers anything it possibly can without remorse or hesitation. It lies. It is cunning. Sometimes it knows it is going to win and toys with us dangling hope, only to snatch it away.” This Lutheran Hospital pulmonologist had seen lung cancer beat others. Now it was beating him.
One day, reading some of Denny’s overpowering posts, I was struck by something significant. Many “comments” on the pages were written by people who began with something like, “Dr. Clifford, we’ve never met, but…” The “but” always led to testimonials about how Denny was giving them the capacity to cope with their own staggering challenges, how his strength was strengthening them.
What that told me was, the posts ought to become a book. There already are books out there along these lines, like Mortality, The Last Lecture, When Breath Becomes Air. Each is unique. Denny’s would be too, and evince insights the others don’t.
So with his and his wife’s collaboration, I wrote about it to agents and editors. But I struck out. One wrote back asking, “What does this cover that the other books don’t?” When Denny read that, it was the only time in his incessant illness that I saw some pique: “Just because others have experienced dealing with cancer doesn’t mean they have the same lessons any more than each of us experiences the process of dying in the same way.” But alas, there is no book.
Early this month, Denny wrote his final post: “Cancer in the end always wins. Slowly, inexorably, mercilessly.” All treatments having failed, he was entering hospice.
Eighteen days later, his family added one more post: “Dying is hard but in the end there is peace.” Denny Clifford was gone. His death was the world’s loss. His eloquence, and his inspiration, were the world’s win.
You’d have to figure, if a country can’t get it on with Sesame Street, it’s never going to win a starring role in the league of nations.
But in the case of China, you’d figure wrong. China tried— and technically-speaking, they did Sesame Street they way it ought to be done, right down to Big Bird’s complex costume. But according to Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, who has spent his career not just analyzing China but for many years actually living there (including a stint producing the Chinese version of the show), there was one obstacle their culture couldn’t overcome: marrying humor with education, which is the basis of Sesame Street’s success. But in terms of laying the foundation for a flourishing future, it’s among the few things they’ve gotten wrong.
Listen to the litany of Chinese success stories that Daly laid out to an audience last week at WorldDenver. Some are simply due to the country’s size, but some are due to its determination. China has not just the world’s largest population (about a fifth of all humanity) but its strongest purchasing power. It is the world’s biggest exporter of manufactured goods, its biggest single producer of steel and motor vehicles and many agricultural products. China has the world’s highest capacity of solar and wind-generated power, the most smartphone users, the most university students, the largest middle class (110 million versus 95 million in the U.S.). China has almost a quarter of the world’s connections to the “internet of things,” the concept of connecting any device— from phones to furnaces to coffee makers— with any other.
And most consequential, China is poised to become the world’s Number One economy. Which would leave us as Number Two.
Sure, China’s got problems, and by dint of its humongous size, they are humongous problems. Its successes have elevated everyone’s income. But it’s all relative. Still, the World Bank says, hundreds of millions— roughly the whole of the American population— live on $2-a-day or less, and some are restive. Levels of air, soil, and water pollution are so high— the inevitable repercussion of China’s dogged industrial revolution— that the cost of correcting them is incalculable. In some parts of the country, pollution lowers lifespans by five years. Nationwide, up to a million pollution-related deaths a year. Even its leaders complain that their eyes are burning, so China will face the music.
But still, China is feeling its oats. It was handed new trade opportunities on a silver platter when President Trump perfunctorily pulled the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. It finds itself on the receiving end of pleas by the American president to constrain North Korea (which is not as simple as it might seem). And although it is at loggerheads with some Asian neighbors over its expanding presence in the South China Sea, that expansion has become a reality. The United States has long been the 800-pound gorilla there, guaranteeing the security of our allies (and the security of our global trade). China sees that as an impediment in its own sphere of influence. China, Daly says, wants a “zone of deference,” if not dominance. Although historically a land power, not a sea power, it’s getting what it wants.
And why should we pay attention to all this? Because when we look at our rivals for superpower status, too often we look in the wrong direction, toward Russia. Russia craves the title, but lacks the qualifications. Between a colossal economy, a nuclear-armed military, and ever-increasing influence on every continent, China’s got them. As Robert Daly puts it, “Stop speaking of China’s ‘rise.’ China has risen.”
We want to preserve our position of preeminence on the Pacific Rim. But with China’s own powerful position and its ability to pay for what it wants, plus all the diversions in Washington that muddy our focus, we haven’t yet figured out how. Or decided if we’re even willing to pay the price.
On Trump Meeting Duterte
A really bad guy might be coming to the White House. President Donald Trump late last month invited his Filipino counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte, to pay him a visit.
Duterte is the tough-talking tyrant who actually encouraged the “slaughter” by his own police of drug suspects — not just dealers, but even users. They’re called “extrajudicial killings.” That means no arrest, no trial, no jury, no conviction. Just death. An estimated 7,000 so far.
The reaction from human rights groups was predictable and proper. The Asia director of Human Rights Watch said, “By essentially endorsing Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings.”
Predictable and proper. But also, in the world of realpolitik, naive. The Philippines is a longtime ally that has started tilting toward China. It is an important power on the South China Sea, where China would displace the United States. And according to the White House, the Philippines should be part of an American plan on the Pacific Rim to isolate and weaken nuclear-ambitious North Korea.
That’s where realpolitik comes in. It can be hard to swallow, but what it means is, sometimes we have to put national security ahead of moral values. Sometimes there is no happy ending to the story. Sometimes all we get is the best of a bad lot. Examples are abundant.
For more than a year I covered the revolution in Iran. Hardly a day went by without someone telling me a new story about the Shah’s savagery. The Shah was a bad guy. But he was a friend of the United States. So he was our bad guy. It was painful to stand beside him, but once he was pushed out, look what replaced him. We’d have been better off — arguably the world would have been better off — if the whole revolution had never happened.
On and off for several years I covered Libya under Col. Moammar Khadafy. On every trip to Tripoli, someone surreptitiously told me a story about malevolent misbehavior by this madman. He himself all but admitted to me in an interview that he had harbored terrorists who had just murdered Westerners at two European airports (he called them “freedom fighters”). Khadafy was a bad guy. But eventually, seeing which side his bread was buttered on, he became our bad guy. He could barely be trusted, but look at the anarchy that took root after his death. The Islamic State, al-Qaeda, Mediterranean refugees. We’d have been better off if Khadafy had not been overthrown.
I’ve done countless stories in Egypt. President Anwar Sadat, then Hosni Mubarak after him, they were no friends of democracy. I met them both; they wore suits and ties and seemed civilized. But they oppressed their opposition and ran a police state. It was understandable that in the Arab Spring, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate won the presidency. Then it was deplorable that he was toppled and replaced by Egypt’s military chief. A nation ripe for the seeds of terror once again is a police state. Yet while it hurts me to say it, we are better off.
Even Iraq. I personally witnessed some of Saddam Hussein’s heinous atrocities. Although skeptical about the American case against him and leery of the simmering schism between Sunnis and Shiites, I was glad to see him go. But what followed was a barbaric outburst of centuries-old rancor. Which gave rise not only to the Islamic State but to unparalleled instability throughout the Middle East. That’s what replaced him.
So maybe we’ll be hosting a double-dealing dictator at the White House. He wouldn’t be the first. He won’t be the last (we’re sure to have the Saudis back). And if our realpolitik realities call for it, he shouldn’t be. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak out, even shout out, when American allies act like animals. But it does mean we shouldn’t cut the cord, just because they do.
On Peace in the Middle East
Rarely have I hoped so hard that I’m wrong. But when it comes to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, despite the President’s confident contention last week that ”We will get this done,” we probably won’t.
I’m not a pessimist just because it’s President Trump, although a negotiation requiring delicacy and sensitivity to history and culture wouldn’t seem to be his strength. But no, I’m a pessimist because all eight presidents before him— from Nixon to Obama— tried for peace themselves. Some expended more energy and intellect than others. Some came closer than others. But ultimately, all failed.
Why? Because there are core issues on each side that for practical or ideological reasons do not encourage compromise: final borders for two separate sovereign states, surefire security for each, the fate of Palestinian refugees, and the governance of Jerusalem, to which every side makes sacred claims.
When I covered the peace process, I met not only Palestinian and Israeli leaders, but Palestinian and Israeli citizens on the street. Some on both sides are practical and accept that when it comes to compromise on those core issues, something is better than nothing. But many are uncompromisingly bitter, still looking back almost 70 years to the contentious creation of the Jewish state and three all-out wars that followed, a bitterness that has been passed— on both sides— from generation to generation.
Others are impaired by more recent rancor, like Palestinian campaigns to stab, stone, and bomb Israelis, or Israel’s heavy-handed presence in the West Bank and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. And complicating everything is conflict amongst Palestinians themselves. The Hamas faction says it’s now considering a change in its charter that would define “occupiers” as its enemies rather than “Jews.” But it still won’t recognize Israel, which makes the change a non-starter. And if it still targets Israel with terror, nothing changes at all.
Furthermore, I fear that President Trump is out of his league. For one thing, because he places such faith in his son-in-law and now senior advisor Jared Kushner whom he publicly praised saying, “If you can’t produce peace in the Middle East, nobody can.” Really? But also because back in February, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Washington, President Trump spoke about prospects for peace as if they were no more complicated than prospects for another Trump Tower.
On forming one Israeli-Palestinian state versus two separate states? “I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like.” When I read that, my reaction was that the President is naive, but I checked my preconceived instinct with an unparalleled expert, Ambassador Dennis Ross, America’s envoy and negotiator in the Middle East and advisor under four presidents. His unequivocal conclusion? “The Palestinians and Arabs won’t accept less than statehood.” Yet he adds, “Israel won’t accept a Palestinian state that would threaten its security and put it at risk.” Stalemate. Sound familiar?
To succeed, Ross told me, President Trump must not establish expectations that the parties find impossible to endure. Attitudes recent years have hardened. Excessive expectations could harden them even more.
That said, beginning with his trip to Saudi Arabia and Israel later this month, President Trump is right to try. Not because he’s likely to succeed, but because it is the only way the United States can keep its place at the head of the table. Russia is banging on the door, wanting its own seat there, and if we retreat from our role as the go-to nation, you know what they say about a vacuum: someone will fill it. Russia would shape a world worse than the one we’ve got.
So I am left hoping against hope that President Trump can do what none has done before him. I wish him well. All Americans, for the sake of security in that combustible corner of the world, should wish him well.
On Trump Fans
There must be a hundred columns out there appraising President Trump’s first hundred days. Most don’t rate them well. Mine certainly wouldn’t. But this column isn’t about what I think. I emailed almost thirty conservative friends who I figured might have voted for Trump. This is about what they think. I knew I’d hit the mark when one wrote back, “Wow. I am humbled and honored that a liberal would want MY opinion. Most just want to call me stupid for voting for Trump.”
I asked everyone the same questions and the first one was, “Are you just as enthusiastic now as you were on Election Day?” The answer across the board was yes, with a few caveats. Like this one: “In my mind I didn’t vote for Donald Trump, I voted for Mike Pence— a man of character— and I voted against Hillary Clinton.” Another qualified her answer this way: “We didn’t vote for him because we loved him. We didn’t want Hillary.” Another put it bluntly: “It was as much (maybe more) about not giving the Left another four years as it was Trump.”
Others were purely positive. One said, “Trump has surrounded himself with experienced business people and I think a perspective on what is going on not only in the United States but worldwide. I think it’s also encouraging that he questions so many things” Another explained that he’s “getting more accustomed to Trump every day.”
The next question was, Do the President’s reversals on any issues bother you at all? Which got a virtually universal answer: No! One friend said, “You get to be president, reality hits you square in the face and sometimes you have to change your mind to face situations you didn’t anticipate. I’m glad that he’s willing to do that.” Another called the President’s reversals “a real plus. It hopefully gives you humility, the responsibility to be the leader for 330-million of us, not just for the 63-million who voted for him.” One justified Trump’s reversals saying, “Rhetoric meets reality.” The worst thing anyone said about any reversals was, “Yes, they bother me a little. But nothing like Obama’s long list of broken promises.”
Another question was about the President’s accomplishments: what are their favorites? One friend said, “His moves to deregulate stuff that never needed to be regulated in the first place.” Another said, “Reducing the size of a bloated government… and allowing a major buildup in our depleted military.” Another gave me a laundry list: “Getting us out of TPP, pipeline, cutting red tape, keeping jobs in the U.S., pro-Israel stance, bombing ISIS, and immigration stance… all good.” One friend is glad Trump has changed from a “lead-from-behind and apologetic strategy
back to one of U.S. leadership.” Hands down, most invoked the installation of conservative Neil Gorsuch on the Supreme Court.
I asked about the President’s personal style. If anything brought mildly negative responses, it was Trump’s tweets. One even called them “sickening,” although another admiringly called them “unfiltered Donald Trump.” Another saw value: “They’re getting his message out when the media is not.”
Finally, I asked whether Trump is growing in the job. All said yes. One credits the President’s advisors: “He’s not afraid to say, ‘These guys advise me differently than what my gut tells me but I’m going to listen to them’.” According to another, “He hasn’t tried to be the bully saying ‘It’s our way or the highway.’ That’s how he campaigned and he’s growing into the job.”
What it comes down to is, the Donald Trump I see thro