Trimmer callout

Daniel Henninger at the Wall Street Journal accurately describes the Donald Trump foreign policy modus operandi:

The controversy overflowing the banks of the press conference between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin is a moment to step back and assess the nonstop maelstrom called the Trump presidency.

Mr. Trump’s famous modus operandi is the art of the deal. Keep everyone guessing and off balance. Decision first, details later. Drive events, stay on offense, force everyone to react. In this, Mr. Trump has succeeded.

No one—from the individuals who work daily in the White House to friends and enemies in foreign capitals—knows what he may do next. A high-ranking official from an Asian ally who visited the Journal’s offices recently was asked if his government has a clear idea of what Mr. Trump wants them to do on trade. “No,” he said, “we do not.”

The whole world is back on its heels, which is where, according to theory, the art-of-the-deal master wants them.

As I read, I thought “This is true, and it describes an autocracy because nobody, including his White House staff, knows what he will do next and nobody is stopping him.”

Frank Bruni of the New York Times observes that “when it comes to babysitting this president, the Republican Party is a lost cause.” Bruni’s remark would have come across as a fairly anodyne liberal New York Times talking point had I not been mulling over Trump as autocrat (setting aside all other attributes).

That observation ramifies. Stay tuned.

Although one might make the case that this level of autocracy is impeachable, it would be a mere academic exercise at this point. If his own party won’t buck him, this sad, embarrassing wreck of a man, in control of the imperial Presidency we’ve built, has it in his tiny hands, guided by his cribbed mind, to cause untold damage in the world — that is, in foreign policy.

Henninger gives Trump much credit for the booming economy and for his judicial nominees.

When Mr. Trump entered office amid a generalized panic among political elites, the first thing some of us noticed was that he was filling his government with first-rate people. To revive the economy, they included economic advisers Gary Cohn and Kevin Hassett, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt and OMB Director Mick Mulvaney. On taxes, Paul Ryan and Kevin Brady provided a detailed template. The economy raced to full employment. The stock market boomed.

On the Supreme Court, the most astute minds in the conservative legal movement gave Mr. Trump a list of stellar options. He picked Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh. More wins.

Mr. Trump has said that in Mike Pompeo, Jim Mattis and John Bolton he has the foreign-policy team he always wanted. He also said he wanted to do one-on-ones with Messrs. Xi, Kim and Putin. He has done that. The moment has arrived to start listening less to America’s adversaries and more to his own good people. That, in his first year, was the art of the win.

On foreign policy, his competent people are themselves in the dark, and our Narcissist-in-Chief doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.

Mr. Trump’s supporters say he deserves more time to negotiate wins on these big foreign-policy bets. It’s not going to get better.

(Henninger) Thus, it’s time for “show us the money.”

Trump’s ascendancy has highlighted the warranted discontent of those who’ve been left behind economically. Average is Not Over, and average America does not intend to go off to its Bantustan while the new plutocrats grow ever wealthier.

I think that message has been received. I hope it has been received, anyway, and I’m certainly trying to digest it. Our future is more populist. Restoration of the status quo ante will do average America few favors. This generally fits at least a few of my long-lived notions about course correction for America.

Moreover, the time probably has come (I’m ready at least, and have been ready since the anomalies came to my attention from reading smarter people) to re-examine NATO and our other trans-Atlantic alliances in light of nearly 30 years since the end of the Cold War. But I don’t want Trump-as-autocrat doing it by humiliating our historic allies and engaging in secretive tête-a-tête meetings with Vladimir Putin — and I say that as a Russophile. Rearranging treaties in light of changed facts on the ground needs to be an orderly process.

In 2016, Trump out-performed the polls. People lied or hid their true leanings (because supporting Trump would get you added to The Deplorables by the bien pensants). Having elected their secret favorite, a new tribe has tacitly enacted it own set of smelly tribal orthodoxies, starting with, in effect, “touch not God’s annointed autocrat.”

I’m hoping the current polls’ insane levels of support for Trump among Republicans are again off-base — that people are giving the approved tribal answers while secretly harboring doubts, deep doubts.

I see no reason to believe this except a disorderly and ever-weakening reflex that, under their tribal bluster, my countrymen are sane.

Bruni is calling for a blue wave in November if only to show quisling Republicans that not bucking Trump when appropriate is as dangerous as bucking him. I’m receptive to the idea that having rushed the cockpit of Flight 93 in 2016, wresting the controls from the establishment and putting them in Trump’s tiny hands, it’s time to rush it again and reverse our course.

No, make that “correct our course.” I don’t think there’s any simple going back. But I’m hoping for the emergence of tens of millions of Trimmers.

The ‘trimmer’ is one who disposes his weight so as to keep the ship upon an even keel. And our inspection of his conduct reveals certain general ideas at work … Being concerned to prevent politics from running to extremes, he believes that there is a time for everything and that everything has its time — not providentially, but empirically. He will be found facing in whatever direction the occasion seems to require if the boat is to go even.

May this tribe increase.

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Neither Nor

Neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant, I nevertheless pay a lot of attention to both, because they are where the culturally significant religious action is in my homeland.

Likewise, I pay attention to doings in the Republican and Democrat parties. The sicknesses of those parties is also part of the sickness of my homeland. Politically, I’m not as settled in my American Solidarity Party affiliation as I am in Orthodoxy religiously.

I never was a partisan activist for either party, though I considered myself a Republican until January 20, 2005. GOP insanities bother me more than Democrat insanities because I never hoped for much from the Democrats (though it earlier seemed an inversion of the characteristic party tendencies when Democrats became the party of war on the defenseless unborn while Republicans nominally rose to their defense; I now recognize that the Democrat “party of the ordinary man” is dead).

I think Peggy Noonan, former Reagan speechwriter, still considers herself Republican, and she, too, focuses more on GOP shortcomings. If you can get through the paywall, her April 13 Wall Street Journal column will reward you:

Mr. Trump came from the chaos, he didn’t cause it. He just makes it worse each day by adding his own special incoherence … He happened after 20 years of carelessness and the rise of the enraged intersectional left. He … can’t capitalize on this moment—he can’t help what is formless to find form—because he’s not a serious man.

Republicans will have to figure it out on their own. After they lose the House, they will have time!

Here’s what they should do: They should start to think not like economists but like artists.

The thing about artists is that they try to see the real shape of things. They don’t get lost in factoids and facets of problems, they try to see the thing whole. They try to capture reality. They’re creative, intuitive; they make leaps, study human nature …

If an artist of Reagan’s era were looking around America in 2018, what would she or he see? Marvels, miracles and wonders. A church the other day noted on Twitter that all of us now download data from a cloud onto tablets, like Moses.

But think what would startle the artist unhappily. She or he would see broad swaths of the American middle and working class addicted and lethargic …

A Reagan-era artist would be shocked by our culture, by its knuckle dragging nihilism … The artist would be shocked that “the American dream” has been transmuted from something aspirational and lighted by an egalitarian spirit to something weirdly flat—a house, a car, possessions—and weirdly abstract.

And think twice about your saviors. Those NeverTrump folks trying to take back authority within the party—having apparently decided recently not to start a third one—are the very people who made the current mess. They bought into open-borders ideology. They cooked up Iraq. They allied with big donors. They invented Sarah Palin, who as much as anyone ushered in the age of Trump. They detached the Republican Party from the people.

I also listened to a fascinating podcast last night on a late drive back from a meeting in Indianapolis.

Historian Michael Doran from the Hudson Institute traces The Theological Roots of Foreign Policy, American foreign policy in particular. He starts with Andrew Jackson and traces the “Jacksonian tendency” through the manufacture of dispensational premillenialism with its Zionist obsessions, William Jennings Bryan, Harry Truman and to Donald Trump (in a party jump that’s part of our ongoing realignment — my comment, not his).

Then he traces the competing “progressivist tendency” from mainline missionaries (who substituted imperialist-tinged foreign aid for the mandate to preach, baptize, and teach the Christian faith) through its descendants — John D. Rockefeller, Harry Emerson Fosdick, William Sloan Coffin and others less familiar and memorable to me because they’s not my religious kin as are the Jacksonians.

If you’re looking for a satisfactory wrap-up, it’s not here. Once again, I’m neither-nor.

UPDATE: Doran’s article appears in print, close to verbatim from his speech so far as I can tell. By June 1, it should be free.

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Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.

(Philip K. Dick)

The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god.

(Sir James Fitzjames Stephen)

Place. Limits. Liberty.

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Troll farming

“Have we ever tried to meddle in other countries’ elections?” Laura Ingraham asked former CIA Director James Woolsey this weekend.

With a grin, Woolsey replied, “Oh, probably.”

“We don’t do that anymore though?” Ingraham interrupted. “We don’t mess around in other people’s elections, Jim?”

“Well,” Woolsey said with a smile, “only for a very good cause.”

(Pat Buchanan, who, for the record, I’m aware has gotten “pretty far out there”)

[I]f Putin’s mischief-making constituted an act of war against the United States, then the U.S. has committed acts of war against an astonishingly long list of countries since the end of World War II. One study estimates that we interfered with no fewer than 81 elections in 45 nations from 1946 to 2000. Such efforts have been so brazen and uncontroversial that former CIA Director James Woolsey recently felt comfortable laughing about them with Laura Ingraham on Fox News.

This doesn’t mean that we should respond to Putin’s program of manipulation with indifference. Far from it. But it does mean that a response of self-righteous indignation is risible. To treat such meddling as an act of war on the part of Russia is either to invoke a blatant double standard that permits the U.S. to do things we stridently denounce in others — or it’s to admit that our own actions have been far more pernicious than we like to think. We definitely need to protect the integrity of our elections, but we should do so without placing ourselves unconvincingly on the moral high ground.

(Damon Linker)

If our meddling in other nations’ elections comes as a surprise to you, you really need to get out more.

The indignation and exaggeration about Russian election meddling disgusts me for reasons too numerous to list (well, some of them are at the sub-articulate level, too), but hypocrisy tops the list. Damon Linker is exactly right that we need to respond, but we make ourselves absurd by feigning clean hands. STFU and do what must be done.

Much as I detest 45, trying to portray him as a Manchurian Candidate is absurd. He serves no master save his own massive ego. Even mammon and mistresses are just means to stoke that fire.

UPDATE:

The astonishing thing about Donald Trump’s response to Robert Mueller’s recent indictments is his inability to recognize that Russia’s interference in the 2016 election is about something bigger than him. Look closely at Trump’s tweets.

February 16: “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”

February 17: “General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians and that the only Collusion was between Russia and Crooked H, the DNC and the Dems. Remember the Dirty Dossier, Uranium, Speeches, Emails and the Podesta Company!”

February 18: “I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said “it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.” The Russian “hoax” was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia – it never did!”

Each tweet makes basically the same point: “Sure, Russia may have tried to undermine American democracy. But what really matters is that I never colluded with Putin and won the presidency fair and square.” Even if you believe that Trump is right—that his campaign never assisted Russia’s efforts to swing the election in his favor and that Russia’s efforts had no material effect on its outcome—the narcissism is breathtaking.

(Peter Beinart, The Atlantic, who then goes off the rails by implying that what Russia did was the equivalent of Pearl Harbor or 9/11)

Also, don’t forget the Time magazine story alluded to here.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Love of Country

[O]p-ed provocations notwithstanding, the 25th Amendment option isn’t happening — not without some major presidential deterioration in the midst of a major crisis, and probably not even then. And while I blame Republicans for a thousand things that brought us to this pass, it’s too extreme to blame them for not pursuing an option that’s never been tried before, against a president who was recently and (yes) legitimately elected, especially when that option requires extraordinary coordination across the legislative and executive branches and could easily fail … with God-only-knows what kind of consequences.

People may laugh at [Michael] Wolff’s assertion that “the men and women of the West Wing, for all that the media was ridiculing them, actually felt they had a responsibility to the country,” and for some figures (perhaps especially in the press office) the laughter will be justified. But for others the work has been necessary and important, and the achievement of relative stability a genuine service to the United States.

(Ross Douthat) I for one do not laugh at the West Wingers who have allowed themselves to be slimed for love of country. I think particularly of the military people, whose foreign policy views I probably don’t share, but who at least have views and a somewhat coherent policy.

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“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Trivializing the weightiest things

After illustrating how carefully JFK and Ronald Reagan spoke about nuclear weapons, Peggy Noonan draws the inevitable contrast:

President Donald Trump’s tweet, 7:49 p.m., Jan. 2, 2018: “North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times,’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!”

We’re not going in the right direction, are we?

Here are the reasons Mr. Trump’s tweet is destructive and dangerous.

Because it is cavalier about a subject that could not be graver. Because the language and venue reflect an immature mind, the grammar and usage a cluttered and undisciplined one. By raising the possibility of nuclear exchange on social media, the president diminishes the taboo against nuclear use. Anything you can joke about on Twitter has lost its negative mystique. Destigmatizing the idea of nuclear use makes it more acceptable, more possible—more likely. Bragging about your arsenal makes it sound as if nuclear weapons are like other weapons, when they’re not.

Using a taunting public tone toward an adversary such as Mr. Kim, who may be mad, heightens the chance of nuclear miscalculation. The president’s tweet is an attempt to get under the skin of a sociopath. Is it a good idea to get under the skin of a sociopath who enjoys shooting missiles?

Blithe carelessness on an issue with such high stakes lowers world respect for American leadership. It undermines our standing as a serious and moral player, which is the only kind of player you would trust, and follow, in a crisis.

This illustrates one instance of why, even if I thought there were any substance to President Trump, I believe that his style is itself a grave danger and a mark of national decadence.

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“No man hath a velvet cross.” (Samuel Rutherford, 17th century Scotland)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

Not without friction

This afternoon, Migranyan was lecturing on Putin’s speech at the 2007 Munich Conference on Security Policy, a speech that seems to be Russia’s sole post-Soviet ideological document—and key to understanding how the relationship between Russia and the U.S. reached today’s nadir. Putin, still a painfully awkward speaker at the time, was seven years into his now nearly two-decade reign. Eighteen years prior, in 1989, he had been a KGB officer stationed in Dresden, East Germany, shoveling sensitive documents into a furnace as protesters gathered outside and the Berlin Wall crumbled. Not long after that, the Soviet Union was dead and buried, and the world seemed to have come to a consensus: The Soviet approach to politics—violent, undemocratic—was wrong, even evil. The Western liberal order was a better and more moral form of government.

For a while, Putin had tried to find a role for Russia within that Western order. When Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, named him his successor in 1999, Russia was waging war against Islamist separatists in Chechnya. On 9/11, Putin was the first foreign leader to call President George W. Bush, hoping to impress on him that they were now allies in the struggle against terrorism. He tried to be helpful in Afghanistan. But in 2003, Bush ignored his objections to the invasion of Iraq, going around the United Nations Security Council, where Russia has veto power. It was a humiliating reminder that in the eyes of the West, Russia was irrelevant, that “Russian objections carried no weight,” as Migranyan told his students. But to Putin, it was something more: Under the guise of promoting democracy and human rights, Washington had returned to its Cold War–era policy of deposing and installing foreign leaders. Even the open use of military force was now fair game.

In 2007, speaking to the representatives and defenders of the Western order, Putin officially registered his dissent. “Only two decades ago, the world was ideologically and economically split, and its security was provided by the massive strategic potential of two superpowers,” Putin declaimed sullenly. But that order had been replaced by a “unipolar world” dominated only by America. “It is the world of one master, one sovereign.”

A world order controlled by a single country “has nothing in common with democracy,” he noted pointedly. The current order was both “unacceptable” and ineffective. “Unilateral, illegitimate action” only created “new human tragedies and centers of conflict.” He was referring to Iraq, which by that point had descended into sectarian warfare. The time had come, he said, “to rethink the entire architecture of global security.”

This was the protest of a losing side that wanted to renegotiate the terms of surrender, 16 years after the fact. Nonetheless, Putin has spent the decade since that speech making sure that the United States can never again unilaterally maneuver without encountering friction—and, most important, that it can never, ever depose him.

“You should have seen the faces of [John] McCain and [Joe] Lieberman,” a delighted Migranyan told his students, who appeared to be barely listening. The hawkish American senators who attended Putin’s speech “were gobsmacked. Russia had been written off! And Putin committed a mortal sin in Munich: He told the truth.”

The year that followed, Migranyan said, “was the year of deed and action.” Russia went to war with neighboring Georgia in 2008, a move that Migranyan described as a sort of comeuppance for NATO, which had expanded to include other former Soviet republics. But Western encroachment on Russia’s periphery was not the Kremlin’s central grievance.

The U.S., Migranyan complained, had also been meddling directly in Russian politics. American consultants had engineered painful post-Soviet market reforms, enriching themselves all the while, and had helped elect the enfeebled and unpopular Yeltsin to a second term in 1996. The U.S. government directly funded both Russian and American nongovernmental organizations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, to promote democracy and civil society in Russia. Some of those same NGOs had ties to the so-called color revolutions, which toppled governments in former Soviet republics and replaced them with democratic regimes friendly to the West.

Putin’s Munich doctrine has a corollary: Americans may think they’re promoting democracy, but they’re really spreading chaos. “Look at what happened in Egypt,” Migranyan said, beginning a litany of failed American-backed revolutions. In 2011, the Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak stepped down following protests the U.S. had supported, Migranyan contended. But after “radical Islamists” won power democratically, the U.S. turned a blind eye to a military coup that deposed the new leaders. Then there was Libya. “You toppled the most successful government in North Africa,” Migranyan said, looking in my direction. “In the end, we got a ruined government, a brutally murdered American ambassador, chaos, and Islamic radicals.”

“If we count all the American failures, maybe it’s time you start listening to Russia?,” Migranyan said, growing increasingly agitated. “If [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] has to go, then who comes in, in place of Assad? … Don’t destroy regimes if you don’t know what comes after!”

(Julia Ioffe, What Putin Really Wants, Atlantic)

This is a very long article, in which I was watching for what Putin really wants according to Ioffe. I have a somewhat biased eye, but this was the best I could come up with (although there are echoes of it as well):

Putin has spent the decade since that speech making sure that the United States can never again unilaterally maneuver without encountering friction—and, most important, that it can never, ever depose him.

Judge for yourself whether his fears are realistic. I’ve made my judgment.

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

280 x 2 > enough

Sometimes, Twitter’s 280 characters is a wonderfully capacious:

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.

We have always been at war with Eastasia

I have alluded from time to time to America’s unclean hands in tensions with Russia and/or Vladimir Putin, and specifically to our expansion of NATO right up to Russian borders.

Wednesday, I learned that it’s worse than that. We weren’t acting obliviously. The first Bush administration specifically argued that it was in Russia’s interests that the reunited German be in the NATO orbit, but that NATO would expand no further:

When Gorbachev signaled that unlike his predecessors he had no intention of using force to maintain the Soviet Empire, it almost immediately disintegrated. With that, momentum for German reunification became all but irresistible.

By the end of 1989, the issue facing policymakers on both sides of the rapidly vanishing Iron Curtain was not whether reunification should occur, but where a reunited Germany would fit in a radically transformed political landscape … No one—including German Chancellor Helmut Kohl—thought it a good idea to allow this new Germany to become a free-floater, situated in the center of Europe but untethered from the sort of restraints that the Cold War had imposed.

For Washington, London, and Paris, the solution was obvious: keep the Germans in a warm but firm embrace. Ensuring that a united Germany remained part of NATO would reduce the likelihood of it choosing at some future date to strike an independent course.

The challenge facing the Western allies was to persuade Gorbachev to see the wisdom of this proposition …

To make that prospect palatable, the Bush administration assured the Soviets that they had nothing to fear from a Western alliance that included a united Germany. NATO no longer viewed the USSR as an adversary. Apart from incorporating the territory of the former East Germany, the alliance was going to stay put. Washington was sensitive to and would respect Russia’s own security interests. So at least U.S. officials claimed.

Thanks to newly declassified documents published by the National Security Archive, we now have a clearer appreciation of just how explicit those assurances were. Among the documents is the transcript of an especially revealing conversation between Gorbachev and Secretary of State James Baker in Moscow on February 9, 1990.

… [T]here was no need for Gorbachev to trouble himself about NATO …

“We understand,” Baker continued, “that not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries as well it is important to have guarantees that if the United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO, not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction [emphasis added].” …

Gorbachev replied, remarking only that “it goes without saying that a broadening of the NATO zone is not acceptable.”

To which Baker responded: “We agree with that.

Later that very year German reunification became an accomplished fact. By the end of the following year, Gorbachev was out of a job and the Soviet Union had become defunct. Before another 12 months had passed, Baker’s boss lost his bid for a second term as Americans elected their first post-Cold War president. By this time, countries of the former Warsaw Pact were already clamoring to join NATO. The administration of Bill Clinton proved more than receptive to such appeals. As a consequence, the assurances given to Gorbachev were rendered inoperative.

NATO’s eastward march commenced, with the alliance eventually incorporating not only former Soviet satellites but even former Soviet republics … apparently assuming that Kremlin leaders had no recourse but to concede.

… Clinton’s successors even toyed with the idea of inviting Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO …

At that point, a Kremlin leader less trusting of the West than Gorbachev had been decided that enough was enough. Vladimir Putin, a very nasty piece of work but also arguably a Russian patriot, made it clear that NATO’s eastward expansion had ended. Putin’s 2008 armed intervention in Georgia, annexation of the Crimea in 2014, and multiple incursions into Ukraine beginning that same year elicited howls of protest from the Washington commentariat. Putin, they charged, was trampling on the “norms” of international conduct that were supposed to govern behavior in the post-Cold War world.

But Putin was not wrong to observe that the United States routinely exempted itself from any such norms when it perceived its own vital interests to be at stake

Today’s NATO consists of 29 nations, nearly double what its membership was when Secretary Baker promised Gorbachev that the alliance would not advance a single inch eastward …

In today’s Washington, where Russophobia runs rampant, it has become fashionable to speak of a New Cold War, provoked by Putin’s aggressive actions. Yet if we are indeed embarking upon a new age of brinksmanship, we can trace its origins to 1990 when Putin was merely a disgruntled KGB colonel and we were playing the Soviets for suckers.

In his meeting with Gorbachev, Baker expressed regret about the victorious allies mismanaging the opportunity for peace created by the end of World War II. A similar judgment applies to the opportunity for peace created by the end of the Cold War. Upon reflection, the United States might have been better served had it honored its 1990 commitment to Gorbachev.

(Andrew J. Bacevich, emphasis added)

But we have always been at war with Eastasia, haven’t we?

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Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Where I glean stuff.