Chosen the Wrong Horse 6/21/17

Disengaging with Cuba – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

President Obama’s engagement with Cuba was one of his administration’s success stories. The policy shift was based on the entirely realistic as well as humanitarian assessment that permanent estrangement deepens enmity, isolates two peoples and separates families, reduces opportunities for improvement in the quality of life in Cuba, inhibits the two-way flow of information, and prevents cooperation on common problems. But the Trump administration, pressed by Senators Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez, is still fighting the Cold War, as evidenced by Trump’s disengagement order this week.

Let’s recall how Obama, in defiance of right-wing critics, reinforced his policy direction and personal visit to Cuba by issuing a legally binding order—Presidential Policy Directive 43—on October 14, 2016, just months before leaving office. PPD-43 makes the case for normalization of relations with Cuba, recites the extensive diplomatic exchanges that have occurred, outlines cooperation in areas of mutual interest, and expresses the hope of improvement in Cuba’s human rights, economy, and regional integration—all while reassuring Cuba that regime change is not US policy. Department by department, the document recites the numerous collaborative ventures ongoing and possible, such as on public health, food security, private investment, environment and ecology protection, immigration, travel, counter-narcotics, and joint scientific projects. One specific step taken by the administration at this time was to remove the ceiling on imports of Cuban rum and cigars. But the one thing Obama could not do was end the embargo, where right-wing members of Congress have always had their best chance to limit engagement.

Obama left Donald Trump with a substantial list of new interactions with Cuba, some of them—such as money transfers to Cuba, and a major increase in tourism—designed to support small businesses and civil society. Obama also left Trump with some unresolved issues with Cuba, such as a sharp increase in Cuban immigration to the United States (in part thanks to the upward pressure on prices due to US tourism), regulatory blockages, and the slow pace of Cuban economic reform. Such problems normally would be resolved over time. Under Trump, however, progress made with Cuba was bound to be set back, just as it was with Iran.

Fidel Castro’s death prior to Trump’s inauguration ordinarily might have been a time for a sympathetic note to Havana and an opportunity to deepen the accords already reached. Instead, Trump tweeted: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.” The implication was that the US would demand changes in Cuba’s human rights and political system in return for continued engagement and a softening of the embargo.

Trump’s partial reversal of Obama’s engagement with Cuba in June 2017—partial because diplomatic relations and most types of tourism remain in place—is more likely to undermine than promote the slow improvements in Cuban civil society that engagement has produced. Independent journalism and private entrepreneurship are reemerging there. Trump’s limits on general US tourism greatly reduce interactions between ordinary citizens of the two countries, and restrictions on how US dollars may be spent undercuts small Cuban businesses. (Surely coincidental is that new American hotels that might compete with future Trump hotels are prohibited from opening in Cuba.) Maintaining the US embargo is also highly unlikely to ease Cuban restrictions on human rights, and making the latter a condition for easing the former is sure to arouse official Cuban anger. As one expert in US-Cuba relations (William LeoGrande) observed, negotiating economic and travel arrangements is one thing, sovereignty is another. Cuba’s memory of US interference is long, and Cuba will not countenance another such era.

The Trump administration’s abandonment of full-fledged engagement with Cuba leaves untouched reassessments of policy toward other, and far more destructive, authoritarian regimes, including the Saudi monarchy, Putin and the Russian oligarchy, al-Sisi’s military regime in Egypt, and Duterte and his henchmen in the Philippines. Once again, a US leader has chosen to ride the wrong horses.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Justice Be Allowed 6/14/17

Keeping Trump Alive: A Strange Consensus – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

The leaders of both parties are divided on numerous matters, but on one critical piece of business they seem united: keep Donald Trump in office. That rather extraordinary, and by no means welcome conclusion, stems from this simple observation: Republicans want to squeeze as much advantage as possible from Trump’s presidency to pursue and complete their domestic agenda, while Democrats want to squeeze the same advantage from Trump’s constant missteps and failure to push through his agenda. Thus, while Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan make excuses for every Trump excess and idiocy, they still value his continuation in office more than his removal—even for a tweet-less Pence presidency. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, on the other hand, attack every Trump move that undermines democracy and world order, but insist that impeachment is premature and that investigations of collusion and obstruction of justice must be allowed to proceed.

Republicans are hoping against hope that Trump’s agenda can somehow survive. Obamacare will finally be replaced, a big tax cut for the wealthy will be enacted, a Muslim ban will pass court muster, and employment and economic growth figures will start looking good. The emperor’s political health is failing, but they need to keep him alive, at least through 2018. Democratic leaders in Congress will do everything they can to frustrate the Republicans’ agenda so they can underscore Trump’s failures. But while Trump’s defeats may be worth celebrating, they do not equate to Democratic success. We should not underestimate how Republican legislative failures play in red states and Congressional districts.

Let’s face it: Republicans have the odds on their side. The chances are slim to none that Trump will be indicted, impeached, or forced to resign. Even in the best of circumstances, Robert Mueller’s investigation will probably take well over a year to reach a conclusion, and it is by no means certain that the conclusion will be so strongly against Trump as to force a Republican-dominated Congress to take action. And at worst the Republicans have Mike Pence waiting in the wings.

Democrats may think that every day Trump is in office buys votes for them, but the jury (literally) is out on that one. Plenty of analyses have appeared lately to show that Democrats remain deeply divided on strategy for 2018 and 2020—in a nutshell, whether to go for the jugular, as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren et al. prefer, and press for a truly progressive list of domestic reforms, or adopt a modestly liberal approach à la Hillary Clinton (and reflected in the Jon Ossoff campaign in Georgia) that is tailored to particular districts in each state.

Writing in the op-ed section of the New York Times on June 12, Charles M. Blow offers a reasonable guide to the road ahead: “In the end, the Resistance must be bigger than impeachment; it must be about political realignment. It must be built upon solid rock of principle and not hang solely on the slender hope of expulsion. This is a long game and will not come to an abrupt conclusion. Perseverance must be the precept; lifelong commitment must be the motto.”

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Jared Center Stage 6/14/17

Jared’s Secrets – by Mel Gurtov

On May 30 President Trump tweeted that Russia is “laughing at the U.S.” If so, it is because the ordinary social and economic agenda of the US government is being sidetracked by the Russiagate investigation, causing the kind of divisiveness and dysfunction that Vladimir Putin presumably wants. But with the fate of the Trump presidency now clearly imperiled, Putin may not be laughing at all: His favorite American family may have a limited future.

“There was a cancer growing on the presidency,” John Dean put it to Richard Nixon. Today, that cancer is back, and it now threatens Trump’s son-in-law. Jared Kushner is front and center in the FBI’s investigation, reports say. He had a number of exchanges with Russian officials prior to January 20, among them the infamous effort, with General Michael Flynn alongside, to set up a secret back channel to Moscow within the Russian embassy in Washington. Kushner also had contact with the head of the state-owned Vnesheconombank (VEB), whose job seems to include projecting Russian influence. It has ties to Wall Street investors and New York banks; it also has had convicted spies among its employees. The Obama administration sanctioned VEB last year, and the banker with whom Kushner spoke has close ties to Putin and a past history with Russian intelligence.

The question with Kushner is the purpose of these contacts. Was he simply wanting to set up a direct communication line to Putin? Was he wanting to open discussion about US-Russia cooperation in Syria? When he talked with the Russian banker, was he wearing his real estate business suit (the bank’s explanation) or simply offering diplomatic niceties (the White House version)?

Here’s a different explanation: Kushner’s purpose, supported by Donald Trump, was to begin redrawing US policy on Russia with the aim of easing sanctions in exchange for certain Russian “services.” The back channel to Putin was no innocent “let’s get together” effort; it amounted to “play for pay.” Removing sanctions on Russia, including those on VEB, would help promote the Trump brand there, a longtime Trump ambition. Talking with Vnesheconombank would facilitate Russian financing of Trump and Kushner business ventures in the US and elsewhere at a time when VEB is in serious financial straits.

Here’s where Deutsche Bank enters the picture: It has made large loans to the Trump Organization, anywhere from $300 million to more than $400 million. Deutsche Bank is the one big bank that has been willing to give Trump loans when all the others have turned him down because of his poor financial record. Vnesheconombank may have been a necessary partner in the deal as guarantor of those loans. (Deutsche Bank has already been penalized $630 million for laundering $10 billion in rubles; US authorities are investigating whose Russian money that is and whether or not the US dollars that the bank converted are tied to Trump). And Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee have written Deutsche Bank with a request for any documents that bear on Russian loans to Trump real estate interests.

While none these contacts were illegal, they created Russian leverage on the Trump administration. Neither Kushner, Flynn, or anyone else in the Trump transition team should have contacted Russians with known intelligence connections and the capacity to put them in a compromising situation. We already know that Flynn’s contact with the Russia ambassador specifically promised a softening of US sanctions on Russia. We also know that soon after taking office, so far unnamed Trump associates—very possibly including Kushner—tried to persuade State Department officials to lift sanctions. But the State officials pushed back, and alerted members of Congress who then sought to insulate the sanctions from Trump pressure.

There was nothing accidental about these secret contacts. Trump surely knew what he was doing: His long delay in firing Flynn, his defense of Flynn since then, and deployment of his son-in-law, suggest as much—all the more so in the case of Flynn, who may have damaging information about his former boss that Trump finds worrisome. Trump’s exchanges of laudatory comments with Putin; his refusal to believe US intelligence conclusions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election; his undermining of US ties with NATO and the European Union; his longstanding efforts to promote Trump’s business interests in Russia; and Trump’s money problems—all these provide a foundation for explaining Kushner’s and Flynn’s mission, which was to curry favor with Putin’s circle by dangling the carrot of ending sanctions.

Some former US intelligence officials have gone beyond calling these contacts stupid or naïve. They are compromising, and border on treachery. They feed directly into the investigations of the Trump team’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign. And they move Jared Kushner to center stage as Trump’s key operative.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Lukewarm Promise 5/31/17

All Is Not Quiet on the Western Front – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Donald Trump’s visit to NATO headquarters last week was consistent with two of his foreign-policy views: the need to pursue close relations with Russia, and skepticism about NATO’s utility. Despite affirmative comments about NATO from his secretary of state and Vice President Mike Pence, Trump persists in accusing NATO members of failing to pay the “massive amounts of money” he says they owe. Rather than reaffirm the US commitment to NATO’s collective-security principle, as its ministers had expected, Trump offered a lukewarm promise “never to forsake” America’s friends. Forgive them if they feel forsaken, or at least undercut, in favor of Putin’s Russia.

Besides Russia, the US sticking points with Europe are the trade deficit (the Germans are “very bad” on that score) and climate change. Trump’s appearance did nothing to reduce differences on those issues. In fact, it’s not clear that any of those topics even came up. His interest is mainly in saving money, counter-terrorism, and, evidently, faster ways to set up golf clubs in Europe. NATO has previously pledged in 2014 to gradually meet the goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on the military by 2024, though at present only four members besides the US have reached that target. (The European Union average is 1.34 percent spending on defense. US military spending is 3.6 percent of GDP.)

Trump’s criticism of NATO’s military spending is hardly new—previous administrations have said the same—but it ignores four points. First, NATO members have made important troop commitments in support of US policy—in the Balkans, for instance, and in Afghanistan—and are active in intelligence gathering and sharing on terrorism. Second, merely jacking up military spending, particularly in order to buy US-made weapons or justify further US contributions to NATO, may be welcome to the US military-industrial complex, but it doesn’t by itself strengthen the organization.

Third, NATO’s 28 European members need to reevaluate the strategic purposes of greater spending. For example, occasional military deployments in the Baltic states and Poland to show solidarity may be in order, but hemming Russia in, which the Pentagon has pushed under Obama and now Trump, and which the Europeans enthusiastically endorse, is needlessly provocative. These troop rotations and exercises exacerbate tensions with Moscow, lead to Russian counteractions, and raise the risk of accidental war.

Fourth, and most fundamentally: Does more military spending buy more security? The European members of NATO have every right to consider their own domestic agendas when deciding on how and when to meet the 2-percent goal. For them, terrorism, employment, immigration, and environmental protection count importantly in national security. Germany and France, for instance, fall well short on NATO spending; but the success of their economies is critical to the European Union’s future. Greece, on the other hand, is one of the four EU countries that meets the 2-percent mark. But why should Greece devote 2 percent of GDP to the military when it still is in a financial crisis, is deeply in debt to the EU, and does not face an external threat?

Trump’s qualified embrace of NATO and his persistent refusal to criticize Russia’s behavior may eventuate in some kind of distancing between the US and Europe. Reflecting German exasperation with Trump, Der Spiegel, in a blistering critique of Trump’s moral and intellectual deficiencies, offers five ways to deal with him. The last one is relevant to NATO: “the international community wakes up and finds a way to circumvent the White House and free itself of its dependence on the U.S.” In light of Russian intervention in Ukraine, Crimea, and Syria, a rift in the alliance could not come at a worse time. And how bizarre, that Trump should be so solicitous of Saudi Arabia and Israel, yet so brusque with the Europeans.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Imperiled Democracy 5/24/17

Our Imperiled Democracy – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Ambitious national political leaders invariably face a problem: how to get things done in the face of competing interests and institutional rules. Democratic leaders generally learn how to accommodate those interests, respect the rules, and understand that accountability is the essence of democracy. They work within the system because for all its flaws, the system works. Autocrats regard competing interests and rules of operation with disdain. Impatient to achieve their ends, they bully opponents, limit accountability and transparency, and seek to become the sole source of authority. Donald Trump seems to be leaning toward the latter approach.

Trump’s problem, as is now obvious, is that he can’t move his agenda as he had hoped. Being president, he recently said, isn’t so easy. His critics keep reminding him that he hasn’t done much in his first 100 days. He thought he could run the American empire the way he runs the Trump empire—in other words, without backtalk, transparency, or accountability. What is so worrisome is Trump’s notion of where the problem lies. For him, it’s democracy under a constitutional system, which he lately is describing as “archaic.” In an interview with Fox News, Trump expressed disappointment with congressional Republicans, but blamed the constitutional checks and balances for his legislative failures. “It’s a very rough system,” he said. “It’s an archaic system. . . . It’s really a bad thing for the country.” He assails judges who countermand his orders. Imagine, said Jeff Sessions: one judge “sitting on an island in the Pacific” can obstruct the chief executive!

The simple fact for Trump is that he can’t automatically get what he wants. The Democrats, the judges, and the press keep standing in his way. And they’re able to do that by relying on “archaic” rules and principles, such as the independence of the judiciary, a free and obstreperous press, and the filibuster. As Trump’s agenda continues to fail, we can expect that he will attack all these institutions even more often and vigorously than before. The theme of the press as “enemy of the people” and publisher of “fake news” will be repeated many times more. Judges in the Ninth Circuit Court and elsewhere who turn back Trump’s assault on immigration will have to be changed, perhaps along with the organization of the court system. The mainstream press will have to be sidelined and when possible silenced. Reince Priebus mentioned the possibility of using libel laws to do so—and even said the administration is “looking at” changing the First Amendment to legitimize suing the media. The other day, Trump’s reelection committee demanded that its video for showing on CNN display “fake news” when the video came to CNN and other mainstream media. CNN refused, with support from NBC, CBS, and ABC, and the campaign committee shouted “censorship.”

These are the sorts of things autocrats do. Trump’s praise (and envy?) of Putin, Xi, el-Sisi, Erdogan, Duterte, and other authoritarian leaders is well known. He may not like certain of their policies, but he admires strongman rule—the way these men “manage” dissent, push through policies, intimidate legislatures and courts. Even Kim Jong-un draws admiration—a “smart cookie” whom he would be “honored” to meet, Trump says, because Kim was able to fend off challenges to his power. It’s a moment ripe for Steve Bannon, who has been out of sight of late but is still lurking around. Some observers see his continuing influence on specific policies, such as immigration and trade. But the bigger threat Bannon poses is to the American way of governing by power sharing and competing interests. Trump’s frustrations are fodder for Bannon, who would like nothing better than to dismantle the state and concentrate enormous power in the White House.

All the above words were written before Trump fired James Comey, the FBI director—a brutal and alarming way to try to scuttle the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Trump and Sessions will now be able to appoint a fellow traveler, so to speak, and while that act will not end Senate and House investigations of Russiagate, it will seriously limit what they can hope to accomplish. Unless the Democrats can find several Republicans who are willing to put full-court pressure on the justice department, there will be no independent prosecutor or special panel. So much for checks and balances.

Here’s the bottom line: the presidency of Donald J. Trump is repugnant and damaging to the proper functioning of democratic processes. Although we progressives can mock Trump all we want (for now), he continues to undermine our system of government and brings us closer to the pure demagoguery he so admires. We citizens must find ways to stop his grasp for greater power. We need profiles in courage.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Autocratic Friends? 5/24/17

Trump in Saudi Arabia: With Friends Like These – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Donald Trump seems to be more popular in Saudi Arabia than in the United States. And the House of Saud knows just how to take advantage of that perception. Borrowing a page from the “Art of the Deal,” the kingdom, in exchange for an elaborate welcome of Trump’s entourage and $55 billion in (promised) business deals, was sold $110 billion in weapons over the next decade. This sale, supposedly for defense, in fact will help ensure the security of the monarchy, not the security of the Persian Gulf or any other country. King Salman and his inner circle understand Trump very well: appeal to his ego with great pomp and circumstance—plus a gold chain to wear—promise him the world on fighting ISIS, agree that Iran is the principal common enemy, and send him on his way with assurances of eternal friendship. (About the only ego-satisfying thing the Saudis couldn’t do is lodge Trump in one of his hotels. Trump had to settle for the Ritz-Carlton, but who knows what will follow.)

Saudi Arabia is not being threatened by Iran or anyone else. But the kingdom is a threat to others, specifically to Yemen, where Saudi bombs have killed numerous civilians and laid the poorest Arab country to waste. Saudi Arabia in fact is committing war crimes in Yemen—which, to be fair, also happened during Obama’s tenure, when the Saudis received logistical and intelligence support. Meantime, Saudi Arabia contributes nothing to resolve the most difficult Middle East issues, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and Syria’s civil war. Nor will they get rid of madrasas (religious schools) that preach wahhabism at home, nurturing future terrorists.

Expect the Trump administration to proclaim that it has effectively overridden Saudi Arabia’s estrangement from the US during the Obama years. “Partnership” is the word of the day, but that is as tentative now as it was before—a cover for mutual suspicion, limited common interests (which include disregard for human rights), and love of oil. Trump has a long history of criticism of Saudi Arabia, has demeaned Muslims since Day One of his campaign, and seeks to keep as many Muslims as possible out of the US. His preaching of respect for all religions rings hollow; no rightminded person would take his speech seriously—all the more so as it was written by Stephen Miller, the pride of Breitbart and a well-known demonizer of Muslims.

As for the House of Saud, it is what it always has been: a repressive, oil-rich regime resistant to political and social change and a consistent human-rights violator at home and abroad. As Human Rights Watch reports:

Through 2016 the Saudi Arabia-led coalition continued an aerial campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen that included numerous unlawful airstrikes that killed and injured thousands of civilians. Saudi authorities also continued their arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents. Dozens of human rights defenders and activists continued to serve long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating political and rights reforms. Authorities continued to discriminate against women and religious minorities.

Michael Dolan of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, argues that Trump’s trip provides an opportunity to create a “Trump Doctrine” that will remedy the weaknesses of prior US policy, particularly toward Iran. Dolan says that Trump’s “hard-nosed ethos and willingness to question foreign policy dogmas” can be the basis for this shift. Saudi Arabia, along with Israel and Turkey, should be the key allies in a coalition to deter Iran—a gift to two authoritarian regimes and one, Israel, that under Benjamin Netanyahu rejects an equitable peace with the Palestinians.

Dolan’s “steely-eyed realism” is actually crackpot realism. It ensures continued repression and warfare by the Saudi government using US weapons—“continued,” because the deal actually builds on a $115-billion weapons sale concluded during the Obama administration. Such realism is also likely to ensure ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and quite possibly the undoing of a nuclear agreement with Iran, giving Iran’s hawks reason to revive its nuclear-weapons program and support anti-US groups throughout the Middle East. In short, if Trump buys into Dolan’s “steely-eyed realism,” it will mean adopting an old doctrine, not a new one—namely, winning the favor of repressive regimes with more money and weapons, and in return getting blowback in the form of terrorism, weakening of civil society, abuses of human rights, and strengthening of autocratic rule.

If the human interest guided US relations with Saudi Arabia, military aid would be drastically reduced, particularly weapons and other help for the Saudis to continue their air war in Yemen. To be brutally honest, the US does not need Saudi Arabia—certainly not for its oil, which a long-term US energy policy focused on renewable energy sources and conservation would ensure. Relations with the Saudis should be thoroughly reevaluated in the context of major changes in US policy toward the Middle East as a whole—including elimination of the tilt to Israel, development assistance to the Palestinians, deepening of engagement with Iran (especially now that Hassan Rouhani has won reelection), a refocusing on helping build civil societies, and an end to interventions in Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan.

Foreign policy begins at home, however. The best thing the Trump administration, or any administration, can do to promote meaningful national security is to seriously confront climate change, move away from reliance on fossil fuels, promote universal health care, and run a transparent, trustworthy government.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

My Empire is More Fun 5/17/17

Watergate II? A Scenario for Trump’s Resignation – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” said Donald Trump to James Comey on February 14, a day after General Flynn was fired as national security special assistant. With those words, which Comey is said to have dutifully recorded in a memo, Trump may have put himself on the path to political oblivion. For the first time we have proof that the president directly interfered in a federal investigation, a criminal offense. To his credit, Comey did not “let it go.”

Every day brings bad news for Trump’s presidency. Every day is a reminder that this man is mentally, temperamentally, and politically unfit for the highest office. Every day also brings new risks to national security, which is in the hands of a commander in chief who is impulsive, uninformed, impervious to expert advice, and given to sudden movements that could mean war. Donald Trump must go, but how?

Up until now I thought our and the nation’s best hope was that somehow, some way, the Republican leadership in Congress would feel compelled by Trump’s outrageous behavior to start the ball rolling toward impeachment. Trump’s bald-faced interference on Flynn’s behalf leads me to a different denouement: his resignation, forced by the same Republicans who would otherwise never be persuaded to start impeachment proceedings.

What is the decisive factor now? Trump’s clear obstruction of justice may be the tipping point for Republican leaders who see no way that a conservative social and economic agenda can be achieved with Trump in office. Trump’s criminal interference shortens the timeline, and feeds their well-reported impatience with him. The Republicans knew all along that Trump was a wild card; but they had no idea how extraordinarily difficult his conduct would make their job. Now they surely must see that their preferred road ahead is going to be eternally blocked by Russiagate investigations. Immigration, taxes, health care, infrastructure jobs, environmental protection laws, abortion, border security—dramatic legislative changes the Republican leadership had planned in all these areas simply cannot move forward with Trump at the helm.

In short, I believe the Republicans are going to decide that they cannot keep sitting on their hands, making up excuses for Trump while watching their moment for remaking America slip by.

The other side of the coin for Republican leaders is a Pence presidency: Would it make their life easier? From their perspective, I believe they would think so. To be sure, Pence would lose a fair number of Trump working-class supporters as well as the Breitbart-Bannon wing of the conservative elite. But Pence would be much more ideologically in tune with Ryan and McConnell, and far more devoted to pushing their legislative agenda. The Republicans would still have the edge in Congress, and under Pence would have a better chance than under Trump to keep that edge in 2018. Maybe they would have to bend a little when dealing with the Democrats, but bending might now look much better than breaking.

So at the risk of engaging in wishful thinking, I am going to predict a Republican turnabout on Trump. Its leaders are going to push Trump to resign “for the good of the country and the party.” And Trump will decide that resignation—“I never liked the job anyway, and running my empire in more fun”—is a better way out than suffering the prolonged indignity of the impeachment process. To which the Republicans will say, amen.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Everything to Gain 5/3/17

Syria’s Guilt  – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

On April 4 chemical weapons were used in an attack on the Syrian city of Khan Sheikhoun in which about 80 people were killed and several hundred wounded. The city is in Idlib Province, home to anti-government fighters and refugees who have fled since the fall of Homs and Aleppo to Bashar al-Assad’s forces. I support the view, challenged by only a few observers, that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the sarin attack. Syria has a history of use of chemical weapons against its own people, motives for using chemical weapons against opposition forces and civilians, and a variety of weapons and chemicals for weapons production that were never destroyed under a 2013 international agreement.

The Trump administration’s missile strike in Syria was said to be in retaliation for the April 4 attack. Russia and Syria challenged that action as a violation of international law, the UN Charter, and the actual facts on the ground. My main concern is with those facts, which point directly at the Syrian regime’s responsibility. As I show below, that conclusion is not only the Trump administration’s; British, French, and Turkish experts who investigated the attack all agree with it, and the findings of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and Human Rights Watch likewise leave no doubt as to Syria’s guilt. My opinion is also reinforced by a private group of 30 people who belong to an informal roundtable of long-term CW experts from Sweden, Norway, Canada, Australia, Germany, Great Britain, the US, and Japan. To be clear, however, I do not support the Trump administration’s retaliatory strike.

The April 4 Attack

British scientists were among the first to identify use of sarin in Syria on April 4. Ahmet Uzumcu, the director-general of the OPCW (which is the implementing body for the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention), told a meeting at the group’s headquarters in The Hague in April that the preliminary assessment of OPCW experts investigating the alleged chemical attack was “that this was a credible allegation.” He said investigators collected samples that were sent for analysis. French intelligence backed up the British and OPCW findings. A French foreign ministry statement reported in late April that “the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians,” based on samples collected from the scene of the attack and compared with samples from a previous Syrian regime chemical attack on Saraqeb in April 2013. The chemical compounds matched those in Syrian stockpiles, says the French report, which also identifies the Syrian aircraft that carried out the attack.

Victims of the attack were taken to Turkish hospitals, where biological samples were obtained and sent to the OPCW for analysis. Turkey’s health ministry reported after autopsies were conducted that sarin was the cause of death. Officials from the World Health Organization also participated in the autopsies.

As for the Russian and Syrian argument concerning the April 2017 attack, Syria alleges that it hit an opposition chemical-weapon warehouse five hours after sarin casualties were video-recorded in the town and disseminated internationally. But Syria’s story has a big hole in it. Journalists with The Guardian visited the site of the attack and found the warehouse, which was “nothing but an abandoned space covered in dust and half-destroyed silos reeking of leftover grain and animal manure.” Syria distributed a video recording of a small ceremony by the Syrian Army chief honoring the pilot who attacked the alleged warehouse—an admission of how the attack took place. Human Rights Watch has just confirmed that conclusion: “Photos and videos of weapon remnants that struck Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 appear to be consistent with the characteristics of a Soviet-made air-dropped chemical bomb specifically designed to deliver sarin.”

The Past Is Prologue

The April attack is only the latest chemical attack by the Syrian regime since 2013, when it used sarin against the opposition-held town of Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. That attack, which caused roughly 1,400 deaths, was characterized by the UN Human Rights Council in a 2014 report as involving “ significant quantities of sarin . . . used in a well-planned indiscriminate attack targeting civilian-inhabited areas . . . ” Faced with a possible US attack on Syria, Russia and the US reached agreement on the complete destruction of Syria’s CW arsenal under international inspection, and Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). But complete destruction never occurred, and the OPCW considered that Syria’s declaration on joining the CWC was incomplete. Chemical weapons specialists from the OPCW who were invited to visit Syria’s principal facility in Damascus found that the inspection was “a ruse.”

An examination of last year’s international effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons, based on interviews with many of the inspectors and U.S. and European officials who were involved, shows the extent to which the Syrian regime controlled where inspectors went, what they saw and, in turn, what they accomplished. That happened in large part because of the ground rules under which the inspectors were allowed into the country, according to the inspectors and officials. The West was unable, for example, to prevent Mr. Assad from continuing to operate weapons-research facilities, including the one in Damascus visited by inspectors, making it easier for the regime to develop a new type of chemical munition using chlorine. And the regime never had to account for the types of short-range rockets that United Nations investigators believe were used in an Aug. 21, 2013, horrific Ghouta sarin gas attack, these officials say.

As the OPCW later confirmed, the Assad regime did everything possible to frustrate its work. Only facilities declared by the Syrian government were open to inspection. The US and other governments had to be content with the 1300 metric tons of chemicals that were destroyed, since to challenge Syria on other facilities might have prevented access to all 23 declared sites. Gregory Koblentz points to the chain of command in Syria’s decision making on chemical weapons use. “Syria, despite being a member of the CWC, maintains a well-organized capacity to conduct multiple types of chemical attacks in support of the regime’s tactical and strategic objectives.” Assad is at the top of the chain of command, one of only a few people Koblentz (and the French declaration noted above) identifies as having decision authority over chemical weapons.

Syria’s Motives

The Assad regime has a history of blaming opposition forces for chemical-weapon attacks. Syria’s, and Russia’s, position is that Syria no longer has chemical weapons, and certainly not sarin. Any chemical weapons not destroyed in 2013 under international inspection must have been hidden in opposition-held territory. The attack, if it occurred at all, was committed by anti-government forces who had hidden the chemicals in a warehouse. Syria says its aircraft struck that site to destroy the chemicals. Syria would never conduct such an attack, Bashar al-Assad says. Why would he do such a terrible thing? As for the pictures of the dead women and children, they were faked.

But most such charges have been refuted by on-the-spot international inspectors. For example, regarding a chemical weapon attack on Aleppo in August 2016:

Based on the evidence presented by the National Authority of the Syrian Arab Republic, the medical records that were reviewed, the results of the sample analyses, and the prevailing narrative of all of the interviews, the FFM [Fact Finding Mission] cannot confidently determine whether or not a specific chemical was used as a weapon in the investigated incident. From the results of the analyses of the samples, the FFM is of the opinion that none of the chemicals identified [by the Syrian regime] are likely to be the cause of death of the casualties in the reported incident.

Finally, there’s the question of motive: Why would Assad order a chemical attack when the war is going well for him and rebel forces are being squeezed into smaller and smaller territory? A Beirut-based journalist, Annia Ciezadlo, provides a very good answer:

The chemical attack came at a time when Assad’s military is overstretched. Chemical weapons are a cheap, effective force multiplier — a way to inflict terror despite limitations of manpower and supply. Their use instills fear in civilians and rebels alike. By discouraging them from joining the last pockets of resistance, this tactic saves Assad something more precious than money: time. The sooner he finishes cleaning up, the more money he saves, and the sooner he can start raking in the billions that international donors and investors have already pledged to “reconstruct” his shattered country. . . . Assad has already used chemical weapons to kill his own people, and he has paid a negligible price. Why would he risk it again? Because his experience shows him that he’ll probably face only minimal consequences. In fact, a look at history — particularly Syrian history — shows that he has everything to gain.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Fails to Connect Dots 4/26/17

No Exit? The NY Times and North Korea  – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Three opinion pieces on US policy toward North Korea have appeared in the New York Times in the past week. They deserve critical comment. The writers are all very capable people who share a deep concern about Korea’s security and the possibility of a major blowup that would cause enormous human and material losses throughout the Asia Pacific. As a longtime student of Korean affairs, however, I find that these commentaries—which reflect analysis in the US mainstream media generally—are narrowly focused and alarmist. They would make it seem that, like climate change, we are doomed because “the situation” has entrapped us.

The first of the three articles is by Nicholas Kristof. He correctly points out that China cannot be relied on to pressure North Korea, nor can attacking North Korea end the nuclear problem. We’re running out of time, he writes, and the danger increases that Trump will stumble into war. So what’s left to try? He offers a “lousy option”: increase the pressure on NK with China’s cooperation “while pushing for a deal in which North Korea would verifiably freeze its nuclear and missile programs without actually giving up its nukes, in exchange for sanctions relief.”

This is a lousy option, though perhaps not for the reason Kristof thinks. Though North Korea certainly wants to keep its nuclear and missile programs, it is very unlikely to agree to freeze them under pressure from US and Chinese sanctions. It’s a case of sticks before carrots—a non-starter. The North Koreans for some strange reason don’t respond well to blackmail. Why not dispatch a high-level US emissary to Pyongyang to negotiate a freeze while sanctions are being scaled back, accompanied by other inducements (such as the promise of US diplomatic recognition and a pledge, as both sides made in 2000, of “no hostile intent”)?

The second article, by Max Fisher, agrees with Kristof that there are no good options for dealing with North Korea, for instance severe sanctions and threats of a missile attack. He’s right there. Fisher warns that the particular problem is the North’s survival instincts, which require it to maintain repression and “a permanent state of near-war.” North Korea’s behavior pattern is to keep provoking tensions, raising the risks of war and threatening preemptive attack. No concessions, Fisher suggests, seem likely to move North Korea from its risk-accepting strategy, which puts the onus on the US and its allies who have so much more to lose. He then offers four conditions that he believes constitute North Korea’s “minimally acceptable” terms: the right to keep its nuclear and missile programs; no regime change; end of sanctions; and “withdrawal or reduction” of the US alliance with South Korea. But Fisher believes these conditions are very unlikely to be met, and thus, like Kristof, wonders if we aren’t headed to “disaster.”

The New York Times editorial board joins with these writers in worrying about Trump’s impulsiveness and the possibility of a disastrous preemptive strike on North Korea. The board holds out hope that China and the US might somehow be able to rein in the North; but its best suggestion is that Trump “ratchet up sanctions and find a way to engage the North in negotiations.”

These three writings share a number of misconceptions. First, the sources they consult—those mentioned and those we may reasonably presume have informed the articles—are weighted in favor of evaluating military capabilities, not diplomacy. Thus, the key analytical question is not what inducements may persuade North Korea to freeze or reduce its nuclear and missile programs, and put them under international inspection, but rather what kind of punishment will hurt North Korea enough for it to surrender its nukes and missiles. Focusing on military capabilities, moreover, ignores intent: It makes quite a difference whether North Korea’s military buildup is for attack or deterrence. And if, as a number of former US officials have said, deterrence of a US attack is responsible for the buildup, that suggests a menu of incentives to provide North Korea with strategic reassurance.

Second, the writers never examine any of the history of US-DPRK diplomacy. So it’s easy to dismiss negotiations as an option, as though it is hopeless to try. There’s more than a little hint here of Cold War-era “you can’t trust the communists.” Yet many in the Korea-watching community have long argued that diplomatic engagement with the North has been productive at times. The 1994 Agreed Framework during the Bill Clinton administration halted North Korea’s production of nuclear weapons for a decade, and the 2005 accord under the Six Party Talks produced an “action-for-action” agreement on political and economic issues that still has value for all sides. And let’s not forget that North Korea is not the only party that has failed to comply with agreements or undermine them with belligerent behavior.

US administrations have consistently posed obstacles to compliance, such as refusal to restart talks until the North has given up its nuclear weapons, refusal to talk to Pyongyang without preconditions, and annually carrying out large-scale military exercises jointly with South Korea.

Third, in the case of Fisher’s article, his list of presumed North Korean conditions for an agreement come from his imagination, not from examination of the record. Ending the US-South Korea alliance is no doubt a North Korean hope; but that’s not among its central demands. Even ending sanctions isn’t a condition per se. What North Korea wants is the legitimacy that comes from diplomatic recognition and assurances of regime survival, along with a peace treaty that ends the Korean War and paves the way for economic aid from the US, South Korea, Japan, and others. What North Korea would accept as conditions for those concessions can only be determined by talking with it—a subject neither Fisher nor any others entertain.

It is hardly surprising, then, that a stalwart of liberal reporting such as the New York Times provides deeply pessimistic accounts of prospects on the Korean peninsula. Instead of offering a perspective that takes engagement-minded diplomacy as its starting point, the Times articles look at worst-case futures. To be sure, the word “negotiations” does appear in these commentaries, but without serious interest in them. We are thus left to throw up our hands and surrender to the inevitable: Trump’s threats, which the Times authors find dangerous but unable to get beyond. Strange that the Times laments the evisceration of the State Department and sidelining of its top leadership, yet fails to connect the dots to North Korea policy.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Love Chocolate Cake 4/19/17

The Shape-Shifter  – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

People in the media are having difficulty in figuring out where Donald Trump’s administration stands on foreign policy issues. He’s a shape-shifter, and in just the last week he has completely changed his stance on Russia, China, NATO, and Syria—all without blinking, without apology, and without explanation. Frankly, I doubt that he pays attention to these changing views; to him they simply show his “flexibility.”

In the real world of international politics, such shifts can’t be dismissed as unremarkable. We’re talking, after all, about serious adversaries—Russia, China, and North Korea—each of which, if not dealt with carefully and with full understanding of the issues in contention, could take steps that lead to war, even nuclear war. The fundamental problem is that the conduct of foreign policy under Donald Trump is amateurish and dangerous, creating the possibility of a catastrophic miscalculation.

Consider: the administration must deal with a Russian leader who has ambitions to restore his country’s status as a great power; with a Chinese leader who wants his country to be co-equal with the United States in world affairs; and with a North Korean leader who wants his country to be acknowledged as a nuclear-weapon state and accorded legitimacy and security assurances. The lesson? They all need to be treated with respect and great delicacy, mindful that each has substantial military capability within easy reach of important US allies, not to mention the US itself.

A Cardinal Rule

So how has the Trump administration dealt with these adversaries? He has adopted all the standard actions typical of US-style crisis management: reprisals, sanctions, warnings, force deployments, threats. These actions violate a cardinal rule of diplomacy: Threats will most likely produce a reaction exactly opposite of the one desired. Threats incite nationalist fervor, invite counter-threats, and obstruct dialogue. Nevertheless, Trump has chosen to violate that rule, with the following results:

With Russia the US has issued what amounts to an ultimatum: distance itself from Syria, or at least do not condone Syria’s use of chemical weapons. The Russians, of course, reject an ultimatum and reject the accusation that Syria used chemical weapons. They threaten to retaliate if the US attacks Syria again.

With China the US demands a change in the terms of trade and Chinese pressure on North Korea to reduce or eliminate its nuclear weapons. Otherwise, says Trump, the US will act on its own against the North. China promises nothing other than a joint review of the trade picture. Xi Jinping didn’t even bring a trade expert with him to the meeting with Trump. As for pressuring Pyongyang, one semi-official Chinese newspaper has mentioned the idea of cutting off North Korea’s fuel supply from China, something China has done before for a short period. On the other (and more convincing) hand, China’s trade with North Korea is up 37 percent this quarter compared with a year ago. Trump sweetens the pot by withdrawing his longstanding charge that China is a currency manipulator, hoping China will salvage the uncompromising US posture. In his usual childlike way, Trump thinks that Xi’s love of the chocolate cake served at one of their dinners means Xi goes along with Trump’s gunboat diplomacy.

With North Korea Trump deploys an aircraft carrier strike force off the Korean coast, presumably to warn Pyongyang that some further provocative step might meet with a forceful US response. Dropping a “mother-of-all-bombs” in Afghanistan is widely believed to send the North Koreans a further warning of US capabilities. But North Korea threatens nuclear war if attacked, says it can easily destroy US bases in South Korea, warns that it is not another Iraq, Libya, or Syria, and carries out yet another missile test (which fails) and huge parade of its missile inventory. A sixth nuclear-weapon test may yet come.
Trump claims that his missile strike on a Syrian military airport was a great success, that his meeting with Xi went beautifully, and that North Korea and Russia are in great trouble. The reality, of course, is quite different: Trump’s actions have raised the stakes with all three countries without having resolved major issues such as Russia’s meddling in the US elections, defeating ISIS in Syria, reducing tensions with China over the South China Sea or THAAD, or ending the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile buildup by North Korea.

Alternatives

If the US objective with Russia, China, and North Korea were to avoid war by accident or design and instead create a path to potential conflict resolution, here are some thoughts about what Trump might have done and can still do.

With Russia, why not accept Putin’s proposal (supported by Bashar al-Assad) for an international investigation of the chemical warfare claim? If Washington is so convinced of Syria’s responsibility—and if Trump believes Russia might well have known about the attack in advance—the US should welcome an investigation with confidence in the outcome. As for the immediate future, the Trump administration should establish Putin’s strategic interest in protecting Assad and seek ways to substitute for it. Trump might, for example, promise no further missile strikes in exchange for Russia’s assurance that Assad will never again employ chemical warfare and will destroy the chemical stocks he has hidden under international inspection. In exchange for ruling out regime change in Syria and removing some sanctions on Russia, Russia would assure the US that it will respect safe zones for anti-Assad forces and people.

With China, Trump has already dropped his incorrect accusation that China is a currency manipulator. Now he must also drop his linkage of trade relations with Chinese pressure on North Korea. Last week Trump tweeted: “I explained to the President of China that a trade deal with the U.S. will be far better for them if they solve the North Korean problem!” But now he may have come to the realization that, as with health care, “it’s complicated.” In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump said: “After listening [to Xi Jinping] for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy. I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea. … But it’s not what you would think.” No, it isn’t.

Hopefully, Trump will stop trying to bait Xi on trade, reevaluate North Korea policy (see below), and focus on larger issues in US-China relations. Trump now says, once again in direct contrast with previous scorching criticisms of China, that he and Xi “get along really well, I really like being with him.” If so, the administration might take up China’s plea not to rely on sanctions and to resume negotiations, which its foreign minister suggested China would support in any format. The US could jump-start the process by withdrawing the fleet near Korea to a nonthreatening distance. (Doing so would remove another source of China’s upset: the US naval force en route to Korea conducted joint drills with Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force in the East China Sea, in the area of islands disputed by China and Japan.) Trump might challenge Beijing to obtain Kim Jong-un’s agreement to forego new nuclear and missile tests in return for a stop to full deployment of the THAAD antimissile system and suspension of future US-South Korea military exercises. In short, test China’s goodwill and North Korean intentions.

With North Korea, it should be obvious to US policymakers that showing “resolve” in the Sea of Japan only makes Kim Jong-un more determined to show his resolve. South Koreans, including both of the two top presidential candidates, are more worried about a US-initiated war with North Korea, without their being consulted, than about a North Korean attack. (“The safety of South Korea is as important as that of the United States,” the leading candidate, Moon Jae-in, said.) Vice President Mike Pence, in South Korea, said “the era of strategic patience is over” and “all options are on the table.” But his bravado, fortunately, did not represent a departure from what the two previous administrations have said, which still rejects a diplomatic initiative with North Korea.

The US and North Korea need to get back to the negotiating table with two objectives in mind: first, remove the sources of current tension, as noted above; second, restore the “action-for-action” principle in the 2005 Six Party Talks agreement and reconsider security assurances and economic assistance to North Korea in exchange for verifiable international inspection of its nuclear weapons and weapons-related facilities.

Conclusion

Successful conflict management calls for establishing a peaceful way of doing business. That other way includes inducements, which may stimulate talks and reciprocal concessions; use of all three levels of diplomacy—official, nonofficial, and people-to-people; and actions on the ground that, by reducing tensions, reverse the momentum for conflict. These actions may pave the way for a process of reengagement and trust-building. At the very least, “getting to yes” with an adversary takes the use of force off the table. Force is always available, but is best when rarely used. Let’s hope the national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, and Pence speak for Trump when they say the US wants to deal “peacefully” with North Korea. But they need a serious plan, not just words for public consumption.

 

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Failed Distractions 4/5/17

The Great Distracter – by Mel Gurtov

Three of Donald Trump’s latest ploys to distract attention from Russiagate have failed.

Mel Gurtov

First was Rep. Devin Nunes’ late night visit to the White House under escort by two staff members to view classified information. The visit increasingly looks like a prearranged attempt to divert his committee’s investigation into Russiagate. One of the escorts had been appointed by Michael Flynn, the former national security assistant; efforts by Flynn’s successor, H.R. McMaster, to remove him were reportedly thwarted by Trump himself. As Sean Spicer might say, this episode doesn’t pass the smell test: It sounds like a “weapon of mass distraction,” as someone on CNN said. Trump is grasping for straws—anything that will lead the media and investigators away from the Russia matter, all the more so now that Jared Kushner’s meeting with the representative of a sanctioned Russian bank has become known.

The second ploy is a signature example of Trump’s untrustworthiness: His turnabout on immunity for government officials who might be prosecuted for criminal behavior. As he has shown time and again, what he once said about a matter is irrelevant to what he now says. Recall that in late September 2016, Trump said in reference to Hillary Clinton and senior staff seeking immunity over her use of a private email server: “The reason they get immunity is because they did something wrong. If they didn’t do anything wrong, they don’t think in terms of immunity. Five people. Folks, I’m telling you: Nobody’s seen anything like this in our country’s history.” Flynn followed up the same month on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “When you are given immunity, that means that you have probably committed a crime.” A number of other Trump senior staff weighed in at that time, trying to score points off the idea that a President Hillary Clinton would be under FBI investigation for years, presenting an intolerable situation.

Now that Trump is under assault, he wants Flynn to testify under immunity, to challenge the Democrats’ “witch hunt.” Same old diversion strategy, and it too smells bad. Trump must be supremely confident that Flynn has nothing to offer the intelligence committees. Recall that Trump waited two weeks before firing Flynn, a clear sign of his hope that Flynn could weather the storm. Flynn, meantime, has lots to gain from a grant of immunity, notably, his discussion of sanctions with Russia’s ambassador while still a private citizen. Like Nunes, Flynn is a proven Trump loyalist—a former campaign booster who will do whatever is demanded of him to frustrate a probe of collusion with the Russians. Wisely, the Senate Intelligence Committee turned Flynn down, at least for now.

Trump’s third ploy is to keep massaging the “wiretap” accusation, each time trying to redirect the media and Congressional investigators. Trump began by directly accusing President Obama of having wiretapped him at Trump Tower. That accusation got nowhere, so he diverted to the accusation that he and his team had been “surveilled” by Obama’s people. Now that that charge has been shown to be nothing more than ordinary and perfectly legal National Security Agency eavesdropping on phone calls initiated from abroad, Trump is asking for investigation of any kind of surveillance by anyone at any time. It’s a fishing expedition that he (probably in league with Stephen Bannon) surely knows can go nowhere.

From the president on down, this is an administration on the defensive, populated by people who are their own worst enemies. The Watergate model looks more relevant by the day.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Care Not a Whit 3/22/17

Trumpcare: An International Embarrassment – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Paul Ryan justifies the current Trumpcare bill as promoting freedom—the right not to have to buy health insurance and thus be “free” to be unhealthy. It’s a revolting position to take, not to mention inhumane and short-sighted, reminiscent of Marie Antoinette’s infamous advice to the starving French masses: “let them eat cake.” A large, unhealthy population—52 million by 2026, including millions of children—guarantees a less educated, skilled, and healthy workforce, more desperation and crime, and more impoverished families and communities needing all kinds of social-welfare help.

Of particular urgency is that Trumpcare will tear apart the largely successful health care net for children—Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Affordable Care Act. According to the Children’s Defense Fund, 94 percent of children have access to health care because of these three programs. The threat now, as two writers (one a physician) in Pennsylvania put it, is that “changes such as federal funding caps or a block grant may pit kids against the disabled, seniors or even their parents. We cannot afford to go backward and the state doesn’t have the resources to fill the gap.”

The Congressional Budget Office report predicts that if, as Trumpcare proposes, federal funding for Planned Parenthood ends for one year, thousands of additional births to parents on Medicaid will result. That will put a huge new strain on Medicaid’s budget, which already is under attack by conservatives. The planned cut will also mean loss of women’s access to critical prenatal and preventive health services that Planned Parenthood provides.

The International Dimension

Less often considered is that Trumpcare tramples on international law. Enacting Trumpcare will put the United States in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

Consider Article 25 of the Universal Declaration, which all UN members must accept:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

Under Trumpcare, the US would also be in violation of several articles of the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child. True, the US has not ratified the CRC; in fact it is the only country in the world that has not ratified it (thanks to Republicans in the Senate who traditionally reject any notion that US law or practice should be subordinate to what the rest of the world accepts). But the US is a signatory to the CRC, thanks to Bill Clinton in 1995, and thus a globally responsible president would at least heed the convention’s most basic requirements, which are surely in the national interest.

Here are the CRC articles relevant to children’s health:

Article 3: States Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision.

Article 6

States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life.

States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.

Article 24

States Parties recognize the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health. States Parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services.

States Parties shall pursue full implementation of this right and, in particular, shall take appropriate measures:

(a) To diminish infant and child mortality;

(b) To ensure the provision of necessary medical assistance and health care to all children with emphasis on the development of primary health care.

There is a campaign for US ratification of the CRC.

Of course the president and his minions care not a whit about international law, any more than they show concern about human rights. Our children, and all children, deserve better.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

No Time to Wait 3/15/17

While Our Attention is Elsewhere, Climate Change Worsens – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Donald Trump’s presidency has gotten so much attention that the latest threats to climate stability have received only passing notice. To be sure, Trump’s belief that climate change is a Chinese “hoax,” and his appointment of climate change deniers to head major agencies, have been widely publicized. Even so, the news of actual events—hurricanes, floods, drought, sharp temperature changes, and other distortions in weather patterns in the US and around the world—typically are being crowded out by Trump’s tantrums, fake news, and conflicts of interest.

For the strong of heart, here are some important developments affecting climate change over the past several months that you may have missed:

· Mexico City’s water table is sinking at an alarming rate, while climate change is causing flooding and drought that may cause mass emigration. Just the latest case of environmental refugees—and potential sources of new conflicts.

· The last estimate of sea-level rise before Obama left office, by the NOAA, sees a worst case of an 8-foot rise by the end of the century. The low estimate is still a1-foot rise. Parts of the US will be hit particularly hard. “An analysis of 90 U.S. cities suggested that such an increase in damaging floods could occur by 2030 in most locations under an intermediate-high sea-level rise scenario and by 2080 under a low scenario. In general, the report suggests it would take just shy of 14 inches of sea-level rise for this to happen in any given location.” A collapse of the West Antarctica is also quite possible, the report said.

· Worldwide, the nuclear industry is losing ground thanks to lower costs for wind and solar energy as well as natural gas, and the Fukushima tragedy in 2011. “Globally, wind power grew by 17%, solar by 33%, nuclear by 1.3%.” The World Nuclear Industry: Status Report 2016; It is no longer economical to invest in a nuclear power plant! As a result, the overall picture is one of cost overruns, abandoned projects, a very little new construction. About the only countries where the nuclear industry continues to thrive are France and South Korea. China’s nuclear industry, which has a high priority in the country’s energy future, has been hit by significant safety failures. Eight of China’s 36 currently operating reactors experienced these shutdowns, all caused by human error. The basic problem, openly discussed by Chinese specialists, is that there aren’t enough well-trained, well-rewarded safety inspectors. China thus is spending many times more money on renewable energy than on new nuclear power plants.

· Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is in serious danger. In 2016 it experienced its largest-ever die-off of coral.

· Deforestation in the Amazon basin, the world’s largest carbon sink, is once again on the rise. Farmers in Bolivia and Brazil are again clearing land in huge swaths for planting soy under contract to Cargill and Bunge. Those giant agribusinesses were among signers of the New York Declaration of Forests, which promises an end to deforestation in order to grow crops such as soy and palm oil. The common estimate is that one-tenth of global carbon emissions stem from clearing of land and accompanying fires in the Amazon region.

· Disintegration of the West Antarctica ice sheet is taking place right now. The elongating crack is unstoppable, and while it reportedly will not mean rising seas for decades, it is just another sign of warming oceans and future peril. By the end of the century, melting of this ice sheet, combined with ice melting elsewhere, will cause an estimated sea rise of five to six feet. That’s an extraordinary increase compared with predictions just a few years ago.

Every climate-change model I’ve seen suggests that we are way behind the curve for combating global warming and its potentially life-altering changes for human populations and habitat. Plans for a nation-wide solution, such as a carbon tax, seem like whistling in the dark given the sorry state of Washington politics. For instance, some Republican elder statesmen, including former secretaries of state George Shultz and James Baker, III, have come forward with a plan to counter climate change. Though they don’t embrace the obvious—that climate change is due mainly to human factors—they do think “the risks” are too great to be ignored. Hence, they recommend a carbon tax starting at $40 a ton at the well head or mine, the proceeds to be returned to consumers in dividend checks. Of course the producers are expected to pass on their tax to consumers.

Good luck. With Scott Pruitt at the helm, the Environmental Protection Agency is about to become the Environmental Destruction Agency. Trump has already given the order for significant cuts in the EPA’s budget. The oil and gas industry has Pruitt in its hip pocket, as just-released emails from Pruitt’s time in Oklahoma make crystal clear. As Forbes reminds us, “In six years he filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the EPA over expansion of the Clean Water Act and regulations on coal-fired power plants.” When Pruitt addressed EPA employees for the first time, he made clear that its business is business. Forbes, which ordinarily is a pro-business publication, firmly stated that Pruitt will be violating EPA’s statutory mission: “Compromise with industry is not included. The mission of the EPA is actually quite simple: ‘to protect human health and the environment—air, water and land’.”

In the US, our best hope lies at the state and city levels, especially now that cities provide the overwhelming portion of greenhouse gas emissions, and those in proximity to coasts have the greatest urgency to act. Here and there—in San Diego and other California cities, for instance, and in Des Moines and Adelaide, Australia—major reductions in those emissions are taking place or are planned. This article states that “over 10,000 initiatives are underway in cities worldwide,” which is admirable. But can these ideas possibly halt the upward curve toward planetary overheating?

James Hansen, the indefatigable former NASA official (he retired in 2013) who first brought the threat of climate change to our attention, believes that a carbon tax and a new kind of nuclear technology represent the last chance to thwart devastating climate change. The Paris Agreement’s call for limiting warming to 2 degrees C. is inadequate, he says. Without drastic political action, Hansen foresees the planet returning to conditions 120,000 years ago, when warming produced sea levels 20 to 30 feet higher than they are now. But Washington, DC is full of climate deniers, so what’s the answer? “It’s really crucial what happens in the near term. But it will take a strong leader who is willing to take on special interests. Whether that can be done without a new party that’s founded on just that principle, I’m not sure. So we’ll have to see.”

Not very encouraging—and we don’t have time to wait and see.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Duped by the Russians 3/8/17

Switching Sides: America and Russia in US Public Opinion -by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Once upon a time in the US you could fairly predict what Americans believe about Russia. Their beliefs would parallel their views of the USSR during the Cold War, with Democrats being relatively more optimistic and uncritical of Russia than their Republican counterparts. As one example, take the spring 2015 poll by Pew Research. It shows that the liberal-conservative divide on Russia held firm, with Republicans far more hawkish than Democrats on the Russia threat, arms to Ukraine, support of NATO, and sanctions on Russia.

But switch to the present and all bets are off. The two camps have changed places. Thanks to Trump’s embrace of Putin, grassroots Republicans have about the same regard for Russia as the Russians themselves. Republicans join with Trump in doubting Russian hacking and the Russian threat to the US; on the other hand, they hope for friendly relations with Russia. Now it’s the Democrats who want to go after Russia with sanctions and a stronger NATO—one reason Vladimir Putin was evidently so anxious that a hawkish Hillary Clinton not win the election and continue Barack Obama’s confrontational policies.

If, as one writer suggests, Trump is the “Manchurian candidate” who has been duped by the Russians into serving as their unknowing agent in Washington, the Republican rank-and-file don’t seem to know or care. They have become America’s “whatevers”: whatever Donald says or does is fine with them. Assessing the relevance of the 1962 movie, Neal Gabler writes that “an admittedly paranoid movie may actually be insufficiently paranoid when it comes to our new reality. It isn’t just the possibility that we had a Manchurian candidate for the presidency. It is the possibility that we now have a Manchurian president, a Manchurian Congress and a Manchurian government.”

As in the movie, it’s up to the liberals to save the country—not from the communists but from the Bannons, Millers, and other conspiratorialists under Trump who, like Putin, want to make the world safe for white Christians, for big business (and oligarchs), and of course for Russia’s ambitions.

Liberals will have a tough time undermining a soft line on Russia. Barring some new revelation by the various investigating committees and the FBI of collusion between Trump’s surrogates and Russian officials last year, the administration will be free to pursue a pro-Russia policy.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

“In Disarray” 2/22/17

Mel Gurtov

Trump, Europe, and Chaos – by Mel Gurtov

Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis went to the Munich Security Conference with reassurances about the US commitment to NATO. However, their visit was anything but reassuring. They said nothing about the European Union nor Brexit, seemed to condition US support of NATO on the Europeans paying more of the bills, and took no questions after their boilerplate speeches. Europeans at the event were quoted as feeling anything but reassured. In fact, some thought the US commitment to Europe was lessened by the Americans’ speeches, which had nothing to offer about Russia, Ukraine, or European unity in general.

The most meaningful comments from the US side were made by Sen. John McCain. He spoke forcefully in defense of Western values, said the administration was “in disarray,” suggested (without mentioning Trump or Stephen Bannon) that certain people were “flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent,” and defended a free and probing press against Trump’s outrageous attacks on “an enemy of the people.” Europeans were left in no doubt who could be counted on their side and whose support was in grave doubt.

Out of the blue came another thunderbolt: a report that two Trump cronies—his personal attorney, the subject of the ongoing FBI investigation of Trump associates’ activities in Russia during the presidential campaign, and a Russian-American businessman who worked on real estate deals with Trump, including one in Moscow—and an obviously ambitious Ukrainian man had engaged in “private” diplomacy designed to “solve” the war there. All three have shady pasts. The three presented their plan to Gen. Michael Flynn, but denied it made it to Trump’s desk. In essence, the plan would put the Ukrainian in the presidential chair and, presumably, lead to a new deal with Russia that would end the war.

“Disarray”? McCain’s characterization is much too charitable. With Trump too busy attacking his critics and Stephen Bannon evidently in charge, the administration is incapable of developing a coherent foreign policy supportive of traditional allies. It is much better at pushing the Trump brand than at promoting the national interest. Trump, Bannon, et al. have abandoned the State Department and the intelligence services in order to pursue their reckless objectives without interference.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

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