Archive for the ‘Foreign Policy’ category

You’re Fired! and Ready to Go…Errr, P’raps Not

January 20, 2017

There’s much to be said about the still-unpossible fact that the shitgibbon is now president.  But in this day one of our national experiment in test-to-destruction governance, there’s something…missing.

That would be a government.  Or at least, an administration.

There are roughly 675 Federal positions that require Senate confirmation.*

There are some four thousand more jobs to be filled by direct appointment, and while many of those are minor, many are not.**

So that’s the hole. How far along is Trump to filling it?

Well, according to The Washington Post‘s tracker, Trump has so far sent 30 names to the Senate.***  None have been confirmed.  By comparison in 2009, six Obama cabinet nominees were confirmed as of the inauguration, and four more followed the next week.

And even if/when all those nominated so far do make it through the Senate process, they’ll be doing — or rather not getting done all the work of the senior management of their departments.

Foreign policy? We ain’t got none, for the time being, no matter how often Trump bellows “America First!”  There are no appointees at State below the secretary level. That’s not “none-confirmed.” That’s none, as in not a single deputy, assistant, or under secretary has yet been named.

We’ve got no boots on the ground either.  In a break with prior custom, Trump demanded the resignation of every serving ambassador as of today.  With only three as-yet unvetted, much less confirmed, ambassadorial appointments, and dozens yet to be made, the US is without its head-of-mission everywhere.  While it’s true that politically appointed ambassadors have professional staffs that are still in place, the fact remains that our international representatives aren’t there.

Same goes for the national security apparatus.  The odious and unfit Michael Flynn does not require Senate confirmation, so he’s on the job.  He’s got no help though:

Trump has made one other NSC appointment, tapping retired Gen. Keith Kellogg to be NSC chief of staff. And some reports indicate that Matt Pottinger, a former Wall Street Journal China correspondent who joined the U.S. Marines and grew close to Flynn, may become the NSC’s director for Asia.

It ain’t going to get any better any time soon.  Flynn’s in charge of filling out his org chart, and, as the same Politico article notes, he’s making a mess of it:   (more…)

Advertisements

The Siberian Candidate

July 28, 2016

The Trump story of the morning appears to be a clumsy attempt to walk back yesterday’s folly/treason.  The ferret-headed Benedict Arnold now says he was just kidding.

In the reality-based universe this looks ridiculous, a twelve year old bully’s gambit to duck out of trouble when his mouth makes a promise the rest of him can’t back up.

In a political world described to the electorate but a media community that is either complicit (Fox, et al.) or cowed into ineffectuality (at best), it’s at least a solid move by Trump, and maybe more so.  He gets two main benefits out of what should be a candidacy-killing blunder.

The first is a refocusing of attention onto the Hillary email story, never mind that the actual hack — and the evil thereof –was not on Clinton’s server but was instead an attack against one of America’s two major political parties.  To all those — I spoke to one yesterday — who see Hillary as guilty, guilty, guilty, any means necessary to bring her down is just fine, and this story helps fuel that hunger while reminding everyone, yet again, that Hillary is the worst ever traitor/murderess/spy/arglebarglegabblegibberish….

The second, and even more potent benefit to Trump is the distraction his invocation of Russian spycraft offers the media.  This is classic misdirection. Focus on the more sensational, but ultimately off-the-point element of a story instead of the meat of the matter.

That would be, of course, how Trump has already, and will likely continue to pay off on Putin’s investment in his sorry ass.  Josh Marshall wrote an elegant bill of indictment a week ago, and Adam L. Silverman has gone into some detail on the extraordinary damage Trump is wreaking on more than a half a century of American geopolitics.

To do the TL:DR — Trump increasingly depends on Russian money as more and more of the major players in the western financial system have learned to their sorrow that he’s a litigious deadbeat.  That means that Trump doesn’t have to be a witting agent of the Kremlin; he’s already been bought and paid for (and, as Adam has noted, he’s long curried favor with/genuinely supported Russian authoritarians).

Giotto_di_Bondone_-_No._28_Scenes_from_the_Life_of_Christ_-_12._Judas'_Betrayal_-_WGA09213

You can see how much vig he’s paid already:  threats to NATO and other allies, the signals he’s sending on Putin’s ambitions in the Baltic, Chamberlain-esque appeasement in his seeming willingness to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, explicit changes the GOP position on Ukraine in an unequivocal shift towards the Kremlin line.

Does Trump believe in any of that, independently of a Russian handler? Who knows and who cares.  The threat Trump’s Russian connections poses to US and world security exist whether or not he’s a dupe, a useful idiot, a debtor, or (easily the least likely, IMHO) an actual witting asset of the FSB.  The real story lies in two strands and two only.  First:  follow the money.  What does Trump owe to whom? Where does/can he lay his hands on cash these days?

Second:  look at what Trump has done and proposes to do.  Not the conditional BS — how great it would be if Putin hacked HIllary.  The real stuff, the weakening of the western alliance, down-the-line support for Kremlin actions and arguments.

This is a test of our political media, one I’m afraid is already being flubbed.  Trump is a good — no, a great — three card monte player.  The patter conceals the real action.

This is how a Siberian Candidate gets the job done.

For our part, it’s a matter of keeping the story alive as much as we can in every venue we can: calling representatives, hitting social media, writing letters to the editor, and above all, talking to voters who need help seeing what’s at stake in this election.

Image:  Giotto di Bondone, Judas Receiving Payment For His Betrayalbetween 1304 and 1306.

If The Phone Don’t Ring…

November 18, 2015

Hey everyone!

I’ve got a message for you:

Pick up the damn phone.

The backstory:  I heard last night from a valued reader with connections to the Hill reminded me that there is more this crowd can do than point, sigh, and mock the GOP pants-wetters (abetted by an increasing number of feckless Dems) who so fear the widows and orphans from the latest spasm of our long decade of war in the Middle East.*

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_052

What to do about the attempt to make fear the ground state of American policy?  What to do about the spreading political meme that the proper exercise of US state power is to bar the door to Syrian refugees? How should we stand with President Obama when he says of the fear mongers “that’s not who we are”?

Pick up the damn telephone.

Call your Congressional representatives in the House and the Senate.

You know the drill:  Speak your mind, politely, respectfully, but firmly to whoever you get on the phone.

My reader emphasized, and my own distant memory of an internship on the Hill concurs, that these calls really matter.  House and Senate staffs keep notes and logs.  There are regular reports of how many calls came in, on what side, and with what passion or urgency.  \

Paradoxically, because of the ubiquity of social media, an actual human voice that has taken the trouble to pick up a phone carries a great deal of weight.  So call.

The numbers:

The Senate.

The House.

If you’re feeling extra virtuous — your governor and state legislature representatives would also be worth a call.

We can water the tree of liberty not with blood, but words.

Pick up the damn phone.

PS:  Obama gets it exactly right in this devastating take down of the chicken hawks in the other party.

*Yes, I do know that the conflict there — and “Great” Power strategerizing through its misery — extends well before 2003.  But the Syrian Civil War of the last few years is (at least to me) both a conflict with deep roots and a proximate consequence of Bush the Lesser’s attempt to remake the Middle East into an model US client region.

Image: attr. to Rembrandt van Rijn, The Flight Into Egypt 1627

Pick Up The Damn Phone — The Phonening

August 25, 2015

Yup — that time again, the time when I get to nag  y’all about calling your representatives about the Iran deal.

Champinjoner._Julius_Kronberg_1908._Olja_på_duk_-_Hallwylska_museet_-_47489

Here’s the menu:  if they’ve already said they support the deal, thank them.  I’m just about to do that for Senator Markey.

If they’ve already declared against the deal, tell them, politely, that you disagree, and that you’ll remember this at the next relevant November.  Even if your senators and/or congressperson are utterly safe seat types, they and their staffs hate hearing from a constituent directly that they’re doing a bad job.  Think of it as a long game:  they’re on the wrong side of this one.  But it doesn’t take many calls — shockingly few — to make them just a touch gunshy, which softens them up next time.  That matters, articularly on matters that you may care deeply about, but that haven’t risen to the level of automatic partisan division.

Most important:  if they are still undeclared, tell ’em what you think and emphasize how much this means to you.  I told my peeps that everyone has a make or break issue, and this one is mine.  YMMV — but make sure your representatives know you care. Joe Kennedy is about to hear — again — from me.

Speaking of which — it’s OK to call a second time if your folks are still in play.  That shows you mean it — and that’s what your representatives need to hear.

It really does make a difference.  They keep records of these calls.  The anti-deal folks are funded, out in numbers, and very, very dangerous. This is your chance to punch back.

House of Representatives numbers.

Senate numbers.

You know what to do.

Image: Julius Kronberg, Mushrooms1908

Some Damn Foolish Thing In The Balkans

June 4, 2015

It’s getting interesting* down Athens’ way:

ATHENS — Greece on Thursday told the International Monetary Fund it would not make a $335 million payment due Friday, taking a little-used option to defer that payment and three others until the end of the month.

Coming amid tense debt negotiations with the I.M.F. and European creditors, Greece’s decision holds political and financial-market implications that are hard to predict.

There’s a historical resonance sounding in the brinksmanship going on here.  This isn’t just a matter of debt and punishment.  What’s at stake may extend as far as the post-war and then the post-Cold War idea of Europe.  That would be the one intended to prevent even catastrophically incompetent or indifferent rulers from lurching into any replay of the summer of 1914.

Ludwig_Koch_Die_verbündeten_Monarchen_1915

Here’s Krugthulu, just as worried as I am — and way better informed:**

There’s an odd summer-of-1914 feel to the current state of the Greek crisis. While some of the main players are, rightly, desperate to find a way to head off Grexit and all it entails, others – on the creditor as well as the debtor side — seem not just resigned to collapse but almost as if they’re welcoming the prospect, the way, a century ago, far too many Europeans actually seemed to welcome the end of messy, frustrating diplomacy and the coming of open war.

The most troubling sign to me is the persistence of the disbelief on the part of international elites/opinion shapers that the Greeks might actually bolt from the Euro.  Never mind the risk to  the various institutional ties that are supposed to hold Europe together in a way that bars future conflict, armed and otherwise.  The idea that someone in a dispute might do something you don’t like seems just too difficult to accept on the part of Greece’s negotiating adversaries.

But there is real hardship in Greece right now, and there has been for years.  Political imperatives matter too:  the Greek government is new, left-leaning, and in power because they explicitly promised not to make deals that would satisfy Germany at the expense of the Hellene in the street.  There really is no guarantee — and lots of reasons to believe the reverse — that this one little, broke country will actually do the bidding of its would be financial masters — and yet even the slightest sign that such resistance is real evokes a kind of bemused wonder.

You can see something of the cognitive dissonance even in the brief “breaking” story in the Times linked above:

Although the practice of bundling I.M.F. loan payments into a single sum during a calendar month is allowed under the fund’s rules, the last time that option was taken was by Zambia in the 1970s.

I’m sure there’s a kinder way of reading that sentence, but it hits my ear as “Greece has the right to do this, but they shouldn’t.”  Unwritten rules, old boy.  Unwritten rules.

I’m with Krugman:  whether or not Greece would be better off or not dumping the Euro, Europe and the world gain an enormous amount from financial stability — which would be badly shaken if it looked like Euro-troubles were about to overtake the currency union.  In other words, it looks to me like Europe (even Germany!) needs Greece at this moment at least as much as Athens needs Brussels.

But what do I know:  I once vowed as a blogger not to behave like a pundit, which is to say, to bloviate about stuff I know only superficially and at second hand.  One thing I do know about, though, and have written on, is World War One.  No one’s mobilizing at this moment, and historical analogies are always fraught on so many levels.  But still, the insouciance, the lack of imagination about consequences — that was overwhelming then.  I smell it thickening in the air now.  That’s not good.

*As in, “May you live in interesting times.”

**This was written last Friday, which is to say before this latest news dropped.

Image:  Ludwig Koch, The allied monarchs and their field-marshals in the First World War (Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German Empire with Austria’s Franz Joseph)  c. 1915

This Is Not Good News

August 22, 2014

And don’t say “yeah, except for John McCain”….

Russian “aid”:

The Russian military has moved artillery units manned by Russian personnel inside Ukrainian territory in recent days and is using them to fire at Ukrainian forces, NATO officials said on Friday….

“Russian artillery support — both cross-border and from within Ukraine — is being employed against the Ukrainian armed forces,” [NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu] added.

Putin’s playing a very dangerous game, obviously, and we’re seeing the prescience of those who suggested that he hadn’t, or couldn’t, figure out how turn the knobs up and down on the nationalist wave he hopes to use to distract from his crappy governance.

Arthur_Devis_-_Gentleman_with_a_Cannon_-_Google_Art_Project

And with that bit of obviousness, I’ll stop, given that my analysis of Russian politics and the regional dynamics is worth not what you paid for it, but quite likely less.

Image: Aruther Devis, Gentleman with a Cannon, 1741

China’s Car Dealers and the threat from R-Money: A Clear and Present Danger

August 24, 2012

I didn’t get to this yesterday, but The New York Times reminded us why, for all the justified scorn that can be heaped upon much of its Op-Ed team and the occasions when the Village consumes its straight journalism, it remains essential.

You just don’t get this kind of article without a large, well-resourced commitment to sustained coverage.  It tells us something we simply wouldn’t know — in any kind of broad public way — without their effort.

And the piece offers a model that the Village itself would do well to study:  it provides a strong basis of fact with which to think about broader problems, and it suggests without dictating where that focus of interest might reside.

The piece, you see, is about something that sounds kind of mundane:  an inventory overhang in China’s domestic market.  A huge one:

The glut of everything from steel and household appliances to cars and apartments is hampering China’s efforts to emerge from a sharp economic slowdown. It has also produced a series of price wars and has led manufacturers to redouble efforts to export what they cannot sell at home.

The severity of China’s inventory overhang has been carefully masked by the blocking or adjusting of economic data by the Chinese government — all part of an effort to prop up confidence in the economy among business managers and investors.

But the main nongovernment survey of manufacturers in China showed on Thursday that inventories of finished goods rose much faster in August than in any month since the survey began in April 2004. The previous record for rising inventories, according to the HSBC/Markit survey, had been set in June. May and July also showed increases.

Now, China hands — some of them, at least, including folks I talk to — have been arguing for some time that China’s economy and society are much more vulnerable than some popular accounts have suggested.  The social/political sensitivity of exactly this problem — the need to keep growth roaring to prevent the uneven distribution of the new China’s rewards from inciting real anti-government action — is likely as much why the central leadership has been hiding the numbers as any attempt to boost business confidence.*

There are lots of implications one may draw from the underlying circumstances reported here.  China, as the article’s author, Keith Bradsher, notes, has been one of the few functioning economic engines pumping during the Great Recession. Significant problems there, Bradsher writes,

…give some economists nightmares in which, in the worst case, the United States and much of the world slip back into recession as the Chinese economy sputters, the European currency zone collapses and political gridlock paralyzes the United States.

China is the world’s second-largest economy and has been the largest engine of economic growth since the global financial crisis began in 2008. Economic weakness means that China is likely to buy fewer goods and services from abroad when the sovereign debt crisis in Europe is already hurting demand, raising the prospect of a global glut of goods and falling prices and weak production around the world.

There is, as suggested above, another reason to pay close attention to this story.  For example, if you credit  the argument/research [pdf] advanced by my MIT colleague Yasheng Huang, China after Deng Xiaping has seen a growing gap in rural vs. urban wages, and a shift away from the incredible burst of local and rural entrepeneurship that Deng’s government engendered in the ’80s.  Huang’s work suggests that the long-running theme in Chinese history, center-periphery tension, is experiencing increased strain right now.

While I haven’t heard anyone predicting significant political/social disruption in China is imminent, the risk of destabilization in China is something to be watched.  It’s a country trying to do something very tricky indeed — maintain political structures within a context of enormously rapid economic change and social re-stratification.  It’s a country with which we very heavily engage on a lot of axes, not just economic. Bradsher and theTimes here help their public grasp some of what that readership — us — ought to be paying attention to.

So props to the Times, and do go read this story; as the processes it describes play out, this may have as much impact on our material well being as anything Congress may do quite a while.

And now to my headline:  why does this story reinforce my view that Mitt Romney represents a serious danger to America and the world?

Simple:  he’s an blustering foreign policy ignoramus completely unprepared to deal with the kind of complexities stuff like this pose.  Ryan’s as bad, possibly worse.  Seriously.  This is the weakest foreign policy ticket of my lifetime.  Neither man has any serious time abroad, except for Romney’s mission years in France, which do not  in my view count for much.**  Neither man has done anything in his life that requires navigating complicated intersections of interests across language and history barriers.  Both have had sheltered and shielded lives.  Neither have made a study of any significant international or foreign policy tangle.  They don’t know sh*t. So they rely on advisors — the same crew, for the most part, who performed with such notable skill during the Bush-lite years.

Which is why you get easy braggadocio like this:

If I am fortunate enough to be elected president, I will work to fundamentally alter our economic relationship with China. As I describe in my economic plan, I will begin on Day One by designating China as the currency manipulator it is.

More important, I will take a holistic approach to addressing all of China’s abuses. That includes unilateral actions such as increased enforcement of U.S. trade laws, punitive measures targeting products and industries that rely on misappropriations of our intellectual property, reciprocity in government procurement, and countervailing duties against currency manipulation. It also includes multilateral actions to block technology transfers into China and to create a trading bloc open only for nations genuinely committed to free trade.

Why does Romney think that the last several presidents of both parties have not done this sort of thing?  Lots of reasons.  The multilateral actions proposed are fantasies, for one.  The unilateral ones assume that we face no consequences for such actions.  Not exactly a safe thought.  And finally — moves that at this moment pushed a struggling Chinese economy into worse shape, as Bradsher’s article helps one to grasp, have plenty of unintended consequences that would make most leaders think hard.

Romney is not most leaders.    he is through both life and professional experience astonishingly unprepared for the job he seeks.  When you actually stop and think about what it would mean to sit him opposite the Chinese leadership, your first reaction should be terror.

Of course he does look the part.***

So that’s OK then.

*For one thing, business folks can generally look out over their own car lot/warehouse and kind of see the excess supply themselves.  They talk to each other too…which all reminds me of this true classic of a Doonesbury strip

**Why not?  Because of what he was trying to do in France:  evangelize. The conventional purpose of a Grand Tour or junior year abroad or some such is to expose yourself to the way a culture not your own does things.  Mission activity attempts to express the desirability of your own culture as a replacement for that in which you travel. Very different mental/emotional circumstances.

***Read: white, older, tallish, male, good hair.  He is, to reuse a tired by still marvelous on point phrase, someone to be taken as potential leader only through the subtle bigotry of exceptionally low expectations.

1:  Yes, I am old enough to have read on its first release a comic from Nov. 10, 1973.  What pleases me, lo these many years on, is that I am not so old as to be unable to remember doing so. 😉

Images:  Evert Collier, Newspapers, Letters and Writing Implements on a Wooden Board, c. 1699

Ma Yuan, Dancing and Singing (Peasants Returning from Work), before 1225.