Shared Negatives 9/27/17

Trump and Kim, A Dangerous Pairing – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

“We’re dealing with somebody that we’ll figure out. He may be smart, he may be strategic—and he may be totally crazy.” That was President Trump speaking of Kim Jong-un at his political rally in Alabama last week. But it could easily have been Kim speaking of Trump—and for all we know, Kim has said something like that in meetings with his top advisers. From the standpoint of US-North Korea relations, words like those, far from being analytical, reflect the kind of off-the-cuff remarks that can lead to trouble.

At first glance it may seem silly to compare Trump and Kim. But increasingly, it looks like these two leaders share negative behaviors of the sort that are more conducive to war than to peace. First and foremost, they may be smart and strategic, but there’s a good chance they’re also both “crazy,” in the nonclinical sense that both are given to bravado and threats when calmness and self-control are most needed. Neither seems capable of restraint; they’re both trying to win a pissing match. These two are more like street fighters than national leaders with a sense of responsibility toward their populations and the world.

Second, and most troubling of all, Kim and Trump have let the war of words become personal. We all know how much more dangerous an argument becomes when the disputants abandon the issues in favor of personal attacks and taunting. Kim and Trump are equally adept at disparaging one another, never backing down or apologizing, and always taking everything personally. Name calling at the international level never works, yet these two seem oblivious to that. Like children, they prefer escalating hurtful words to working things out.

A third similarity is that this pissing match is taking place without any kind of intervention. Kim is, of course, a dictator, surrounded—so far as we know—by military yes-men who don’t dare challenge him. Trump may head a democratic system, but within the White House there’s no democracy. Like Kim, he’s surrounded by military men who seem helpless to shut him up even though they know full well what use of force on the Korean peninsula will mean. From all reports, the military and other advisers roll their eyes at Trump’s language but dare not criticize him or take away his smart phone.

As other analysts have noted, the danger is that these exchanges of personal attacks and threats greatly limit options for a pause, let alone for diplomacy. Instead, they box leaders in, making them feel compelled not just to out-threaten the other side, but finally to back up their tough words with action. The latest US step, for instance—sending advanced fighter-bombers over international waters but within sight of North Korea—could lead to a firefight with North Korean jets. Likewise, the DPRK’s foreign minister has said that Trump’s harsh rhetoric amounts to a “declaration of war.”

Provocative words and actions risk a disastrous miscalculation. There is nothing strategic or rational about them, and we—Americans, Koreans, Japanese, Chinese—are all the likely victims. We wait in vain for influential voices that will push for negotiations and a reduction of tensions.

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

About U.S. Reliability 9/20/17

Dealing with North Korean Missiles  –  by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Small powers often have leverage well above their size and capabilities. North Korea is the example par excellence today: It has a primitive economy by all the usual standards, no reliable trade or security partners, and depends on the outside world for essentials such as fuel and food. Yet by virtue of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, Pyongyang has the ability to cause consternation among the great powers.

That needn’t be the case. Sure, six nuclear weapon tests and frequent tests of intermediate- and intercontinental-range missiles, along with threats to incinerate all enemies, can be jarring. But no one knows better than the North Korean military what use of those weapons would mean for their country: annihilation. They have been living with far more powerful US and allied forces ringing their country for more than half a century. Self- and national preservation are foremost among the aims of North Korean leaders. Thus, they frequently bluster and issue messages of doom, and occasionally attack specific South Korean targets. But they are not so suicidal as to use weapons of mass destruction or fire a missile that would hit US or allied territory.

The real purpose of North Korea’s two recent missile tests over Japan is to cause a rupture in relations among the US, China, Japan, and South Korea. Rather than attack Japan, which would galvanize the US-Japan security treaty, these missiles provoke debate in Japan—about US reliability, Japan’s constitutional limitations on taking defensive or offensive action against a threat, and choices of weapons systems (including everything from missile defense to nuclear weapons). All these issues have implications for Japan’s relations with South Korea and China, both of which would strongly protest a major military buildup by Japan and undermine trilateral cooperation in dealing with North Korea.

What is particularly interesting from a human-interest point of view about the ongoing debate on how to deal with North Korea’s missiles is that only one of the major players—namely, China—has focused on a diplomatic resolution. All the others are concerned with weapons options. South Korea’s new president has made an about-face and is fully deploying the US THAAD anti-missile system, amidst talk about significantly upgrading the destructive power of its conventional bombs. Japan is apparently considering investing more in missile defense and acquiring cruise missiles. And Washington is trumpeting US weapons sales to both those countries. China, on the other hand, has proposed a “freeze-for-freeze”—North Korea’s suspension of nuclear and missile testing in return for a US-South Korea suspension of military exercises—that might jumpstart talks with North Korea.

So far, China’s proposal has found no interest in Washington. In Seoul, the government awaits a positive response from North Korea to a proposal for talks on resuming family reunions and other kinds of contact. But in Pyongyang, only Washington’s behavior counts. The North Koreans take the US seriously as a threat. Negotiating depends on “an end to the hostile policy” of the US, a position North Korea has held since Kim Jong-il’s time and has restated at least three times this summer. We have to ask why that view gets no attention from the Western media, and why US officials consistently and wrongly assert that North Korea has no interest in negotiations.

The latest UN Security Council resolution on sanctions includes a call to resume the Six Party Talks on the nuclear issue. It is long past time to craft a diplomatic initiative that is sensitive to North Korea’s security concerns and will test its interest in talking.

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

Conflicted Management 9/13/17

The Endangered Nuclear Deal with Iran  – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations, said the other day that Iran had violated the spirit of the 2015 nuclear accord and that President Trump was likely not to certify Iran’s compliance with it next month. There is no legitimate reason for such a step, but if Trump—who must certify compliance every six months—takes it, he would almost certainly set in motion another nuclear crisis side by side with the one with North Korea.

Two basic facts are before us: first, that the nuclear accord is very much in the interest of all parties, the US in particular; and second, that Iran is not in violation of the agreement. Far from being “the worst deal ever negotiated”—one of those absurd Trumpian generalities—the Iran nuclear deal is a model of conflict management. While the accord doesn’t permanently denuclearize Iran, it does ensure that Iran cannot produce or test a nuclear device for at least 10 years. As a group of 29 scientists and engineers well-known for their expertise on nuclear weapons and arms control wrote in an open letter to President Obama, the agreement

limits the level of enrichment of the uranium that Iran can produce, the amount of enriched uranium it can stockpile, and the number and kinds of centrifuges it can develop and operate. The agreement bans reconversion and reprocessing of reactor fuel, it requires Iran to redesign its Arak research reactor to produce far less plutonium than the original design, and specifies that spent fuel must be shipped out of the country without the plutonium being separated and before any significant quantity can be accumulated. A key result of these restrictions is that it would take Iran many months to enrich uranium for a weapon. We contrast this with the situation before the interim agreement was negotiated in Lausanne: at that time Iran had accumulated enough 20 percent enriched uranium that the required additional enrichment time for weapons use was only a few weeks.

The letter points to other innovative terms, including challenge inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities, a ban on nuclear weapon research and not simply manufacture, and verification procedures that last through 2040. Thirty-six retired admirals and generals wrote in a similar vein, pointing out that the nuclear accord “is not based on trust; the deal requires verification and tough sanctions for failure to comply.”

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is given an exceptionally intrusive role in verifying Iran’s adherence to the agreement. It has verified adherence a number of times. Iran’s ballistic missile tests since 2015 and its support of Hezbollah have nothing to do with the nuclear accord. The administration knows full well that Iran is in compliance; Trump has twice certified to that effect. Trump’s national security team, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, supports continuation of the nuclear accord. Haley’s comment that we shouldn’t pay attention to “technicalities” is simply an attempt to evade the issue, playing to Trump’s base and perhaps pitching her personal ambition to replace Tillerson. She attended a meeting of the IAEA in late August on Iran’s compliance, and is quite familiar with the fact that IAEA inspections have turned up no violations of the accord. Nor has the US provided evidence of any Iranian military sites that should be inspected for violations.

The Trump administration is simply looking for a pretext to scrap the nuclear accord, and there may well be enough votes in the Senate to bring that about if Trump chooses to make a clean break. (He could also declare Iran’s noncompliance but continue to seek enforcement of the agreement, thus avoiding Congressional action.) In either case, Iran would be free to produce enriched uranium and heavy water for plutonium, putting it back on the road to becoming a nuclear weapon state. Once Iran stops complying, expect Israel to gear up for another attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities—this time, with full US support. Trump would then find himself facing two nuclear-weapon crises without a diplomatic strategy for preventing either one from spiraling out of control.

Rather than keep threatening and sanctioning Iran—a path already shown to be totally unproductive with North Korea—the US ought to be thinking about how to improve relations. The accord gives both countries, along with the other parties (Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany), plenty of time to find common ground and essentially make the nuclear option moot. Iran wants foreign investment, recognition of its important role in a Middle East peace process, and especially respect from the United States. Offered those things, Iran’s policies in opposition to the US in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen may be open to change. That possibility needs to be tested through engagement, which is clearly preferable to pressuring Iran in ways that ensure the ascendance of Iran’s—not to mention America’s—hawks.

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

 

Nuclear Lobby’s Case 9/6/17

Echoes of Reagan: Another Nuclear Buildup – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Thirty years ago Americans endured an absurd expansion of the US nuclear-weapon force under President Reagan. The announced weapons modernization program was accompanied by a huge increase in the military budget, the President’s warning to the Soviet Union that he was willing to spend it into oblivion, and crazy talk from some of his advisers about the potential to fight and win a nuclear war. So here we are evidently back to the future as the Trump administration forges ahead with nuclear “modernization,” without a set strategy for the weapons but with billions of dollars to burn.

The Nuclear Lobby

Right now, the US has about 6,800 total nuclear weapons—roughly 1,400 strategic weapons deployed in ground-, air-, and sea-based missiles, and the rest stockpiled or retired. (The Russians’ arsenal is approximately the same in total.) From any rational point of view, these weapons are far more than are necessary to deter an adversary. Submarine-launched ballistic missiles alone—920 of which are fixed on 230 invulnerable submarines, each missile having destructive power equivalent to many Hiroshimas—are sufficient to destroy an entire country and bring on nuclear winter. There simply is no legitimate basis for believing that the nuclear arsenal needs to be larger, more invulnerable, or more accurate and reliable.

Yet as Americans learned long ago, for the nuclear lobby—the pro-nuclear members of Congress, the military industries that test and produce the weapons and the means of their delivery, and the various Pentagon advisory boards, laboratories, and nuclear planners—enough is never enough. These folks can always be counted on to argue that the nuclear stockpile must be periodically revitalized to ensure readiness. And all it takes is a supposed nuclear threat—today meaning North Korea—to bolster the nuclear lobby’s case for upgrading.

The arguments against further investment in nuclear weapons are just as compelling now as they were years ago. As the US invests more in them, so will the Russians and the Chinese, reviving a nuclear arms race. Continued reliance on nukes supports pro-nuclear thinking in Pakistan, India, Israel, North Korea, and elsewhere, contributing to the potential for war by accident or design. These weapons, moreover, which have no purpose other than to deter their use by others, can be inherently destabilizing—as is the case now with a new Cruise missile (price tag: $25 billion), whose accuracy and stealth raise the possibility of a disastrous miscalculation by adversaries. At the same time, such a weapon should, but won’t, eliminate the need for ground-based ICBMs. No, say the weapons proponents: the ground-air-sea nuclear triad will remain, adding billions to the military budget.

The nuclear weapons lobby is surely delighted with Trump’s decision. The lobby was downcast when it seemed that President Obama was headed toward bringing nuclear weapons numbers down to some minimum figure. But he reversed course late in his second administration and agreed to new investments in them, apparently in order to ensure Senate approval of the “New Start” agreement with Russia in 2010. Now, the weapons manufacturers that will be responsible for Trump’s program—Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman—are assured of many more years of multibillion dollar activity.

Present Choices

When we think about national security in the human interest, two considerations are uppermost: the quality of life for our people and a peaceful future for the planet. As to the first, we might evaluate the cost of another nuclear-weapon modernization when matched against the urgent need to start thinking about paying for rebuilding Houston after Hurricane Harvey. The Washington Post reports (August 28) that “Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, caused $160 billion in damage and Hurricane Sandy in 2012 caused around $70 billion in damage, according to inflation-adjusted figures provided by the federal government.” “Harvey” may well cost more—even more than the full cost of Trump’s nuclear modernization program, which will easily top $125 billion. FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) reportedly has only $3.8 billion on hand; the rest of the rescue money must come from elsewhere in the federal budget. But, Texans and Louisianans, don’t count on Trump to divert a dime from the military to bail you out. (Come to think of it, abandoning the Mexico wall project would also be a welcome response to Houston’s calamity.)

The other consideration is global security while nuclear weapons are under the command of Donald Trump. In the May-June 2017 issue of Foreign Affairs, Philip Gordon offers three crisis scenarios—with China, Iran, and North Korea—that Trump might well mishandle and involve the US in war. Each potential crisis might lead a president known for recklessness, unpreparedness, and predilection for making threats to consider use of nuclear weapons. So the issue here is squarely about national security for us and for all.

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

 

Cockamamie Ideas 8/23/17

Farewell, Steve Bannon  – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Steve Bannon’s rise to fame and (some) power was at least as much the product of the media as of his intellect. He proffered various cockamamie ideas about the Deep State and the enemies in media, and he certainly helped shape Trump’s biases against immigrants, women, minorities, Jews, and—well, you name it. Unfortunately, Bannon’s departure is highly unlikely to alter Trump’s nastiness, his longstanding biases, or his administration’s hostility toward mainstream news, Muslims, liberals, environmentalists, educators, and everyone else who gets in its way. This wide-ranging hostility, so evident from the very outset of Trump’s campaign, is too deeply structured in the administration to suddenly disappear just because one hateful man is gone.

Yet the media cannot resist mythmaking. From the moment Bannon left, the question that keeps being asked is, Will Bannon be more or less powerful now that he’s outside the government? Bannon’s baby, Breitbart News, is treated like a giant in the news business, as though where it goes, so goes the alt-right and conservatism in general. All this is nonsense, it seems to me; Bannon is nothing more than an agitator, and agit-prop is Breitbart’s only claim to fame. Bannon and Breitbart will have all they can handle simply competing for “most outrageous” with other alt-right outlets.

Is it really necessary to buy into Bannon’s self-description as a “barbarian” or his promise to “crush the opposition”? The more attention he gets, the more empowered he becomes. Politically, the most important thing about Bannon’s removal from the scene is that, coming on the heels of so many other resignations and firings–and now Breitbart’s blistering assault on Trump’s just-announced Afghanistan policy, and a NY Times report that Trump’s relationship with Senate leader Mitch McConnell has disintegrated Donald Trump’s ability to govern has been seriously weakened. Such internecine warfare points us to the central issue: electing more progressives to Congress, recapturing the presidency, and thus putting science, empathy, tolerance, and social justice back where they belong.

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

 

Fire & Fury 8/9/17

Trump’s Threat –  by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

The problem with Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” statement on North Korea isn’t merely that it intensifies an already tense situation. Nor is it just another example of Trump’s inappropriate, childish language when faced with a complex issue.

Most worrisome is that he seems to have no grasp of how his remarks might play out in real-world international politics. Trying to one-up the North Koreans with threats may give Trump the false sense that he is besting them, since he believes—as always, from his business experience—threats work. But he has no awareness of how threats are received in Pyongyang, not to mention in Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and other capitals. Trump’s language does nothing to move the nuclear issue toward dialogue, but does much to further envenom relations with North Korea and to support the widespread view elsewhere that the president of the US is unstable and prone to violent actions.

In the past Trump has said of North Korea that attacking it sooner rather than later is the best way to resolve the nuclear issue. Bill Clinton disproved that in 1994 by rejecting an attack on North Korea’s nuclear facility at Yongbyon and instead entering into an Agreed Framework with Pyongyang that prevented war. Does Trump still hold to that view? Numerous specialists, and Trump’s own defense department leadership, have concluded that war would be catastrophic, with immediate one million deaths and economic costs of around $1 trillion. Needless to say, Koreans north and south, Japanese, and Chinese would pay the heaviest price for such madness.

But Trump, with his well-known ignorance about nuclear weapons, seems blissfully unaware of such matters. He would rather talk about “fake news,” attack critics, lie about his accomplishments, and keep pushing a domestic agenda that has gotten nowhere. Nuclear weapons, Korean history, North Korean motivations, and the art of diplomacy are outside his area of interest, and to say he is not a fast study is to be overly polite.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded to questions about Trump’s latest threat by saying “Americans should sleep well at night,” dismissing the threat as “rhetoric.” Given the drumbeat of war that the media has engaged in over North Korea’s missiles, I doubt that many informed Americans are sleeping well. I doubt that US military leaders in particular are sleeping well; they have an inexperienced, unpredictable commander-in-chief who just might issue an order to attack North Korea. And most assuredly South Koreans and Japanese are not sleeping well. Warlike rhetoric from the US president can never be dismissed.

In a word, President Trump is a loose cannon, a serious threat to national and international security.

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

Not Much Time (if any) 8/2/17

Reaching Paris Without Stopping in Washington – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

History may record that the planet’s climate crisis was avoided thanks to the efforts of three countries: China, Germany, and France. Or not. The preparedness of those three, and the other EU member-states, to follow through on commitments under the Paris Accord despite the US pull-out is key to planetary survival. Chancellor Angela Merkel has made no bones about it, announcing that the Europeans are determined, in the name of Western values, to meet the Paris goal of keeping planetary temperature rise to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius while also welcoming immigrants and upholding the global trade system.

The Discouraging News

Every expert opinion on climate change includes a dire warning: We haven’t got much time. The latest warning comes from a group of scientists and supportive others called Mission 2020. Reporting in Nature, they believe that if greenhouse gas emissions can turn downward by 2020—emissions have actually flattened out over the last three years—we have a chance to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. But if the Paris goals cannot be met, we are on the way to catastrophic decline. The group reminds us that economic growth in many countries is occurring precisely where use of non-carbon renewable sources has increased dramatically.

Mission 2020 makes a number of specific, entirely doable suggestions on land-use policy, city structures, transportation, and other subjects. But for its ideas to see the light of day, the group emphasizes that we must “use science to guide decisions and set targets. Policies and actions must be based on robust evidence… Those in power must also stand up for science.” Its closing observation is well worth heeding: “There will always be those who hide their heads in the sand and ignore the global risks of climate change. But there are many more of us committed to overcoming this inertia. Let us stay optimistic and act boldly together.”

But optimism will be hard to sustain, especially for future generations. Two other studies just published in Nature Climate Change cast doubt on reaching the 1.5°C target. In fact, these studies, using very different methodologies, conclude that a rise of 2°C or even 3°C by the end of the century is more likely. And the studies were completed before US withdrawal from the Paris Accord. Bill McKibben writes: “”These studies are part of the emerging scientific understanding that we’re in even hotter water than we’d thought. We’re a long ways down the path to disastrous global warming, and the policy response—especially in the United States—has been pathetically underwhelming.”

Indeed, under Donald Trump, the US is contributing mightily to our self-destruction. Deep cuts in the EPA budget; appointments to the environment and energy cabinet posts of dogmatic amateurs; restrictions on scientists’ professional activities, climate-change research, and the climate data base; the purely politically-motivated efforts to salvage the dying coal industry; official obliviousness to Antarctica’s breakup; unabashed promotion of oil and gas industry fracking and other dangerous ventures; systematic elimination of environmental protection regulations—it’s an extraordinary list that future historians will point to as evidence of a bizarre suicidal urge in a certain segment of American society.

It will come as no surprise that a Pew Research Center poll based on opinion in five countries (France, Britain, Spain, Poland, and Germany) finds a major shift in attitudes about the US. Whereas in 2016 favorable opinion of the US in these countries averaged 61 percent to 26 percent unfavorable, now unfavorable opinion is at 52 percent and 46 percent is favorable. Pew did international polling on the US under Trump in more than 30 other countries, and found very little confidence in his leadership—“arrogant, intolerant, and dangerous” were the decisive assessments—a sharp departure from polling when Obama was president. Trump’s Paris decision, along with his Muslim ban and his intention to build a wall on the Mexico border, clearly affected these opinions of him.

Some More Encouraging News

But if crisis breeds opportunity, the failure of US leadership on climate change may be fracturing the old international order in a positive way. While American politicians may still believe the US is destined to lead or is (in Madeleine Albright’s famous phrase) the “indispensable nation,” the rest of the world is moving on. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing that others step forward to fill the leadership gap. As Merkel has said: “The times in which we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent. That is what I experienced in the last few days. That is why I can only say: We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.” Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, added that since the new US administration “has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership,” Canadians must “set our own clear and sovereign course.”

Trump’s transactional approach to international affairs, under which “the deal” must always advantage America first, will be shown to be bankrupt soon enough. The Europeans, the Chinese, and others—including major US cities, states, businesses, and institutions that will make their own deals on the environment, and will benefit as a result in terms of energy savings, cleaner air, employment opportunities, and technological advances. California’s governor Jerry Brown and New York City’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, lead a group called America’s Pledge that has a formidable and growing membership committed to working with the UN to reduce greenhouse emissions. The group now numbers 227 cities and counties, nine states, and more than 1600 businesses and investors.

So long as Trump is in power, however, we and the planet are going to pay a high price. US reliability will become increasingly uncertain on issues aside from climate change. After all, if the US can suddenly pull out of major international commitments such as the Paris accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and raises doubts about its participation in NATO, how credible will its word be on arms control, immigration, and humanitarian aid? Moreover, without US support, dealing with climate change will be that much more difficult. And for Americans, the evisceration of the EPA will have real consequences, starting with public health.

We were warned.

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

 

Incapable & Compromised 7/26/17

Jared Kushner and National Security  – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Jared Kushner’s latest revision of his financial picture reveals a very wealthy man, and couple, who continue to profit enormously from the Trump presidency. But beyond the numbers lies the fact that Kushner, like his father-in-law, seems incapable of telling the truth about either the full extent of his financial empire or the extent of his contacts with foreigners—Russians especially—whose interests are intertwined with his own.

Here’s the current picture for Kushner and Ivanka Trump:

1. He holds managerial and/or leadership positions in 266 real estate and related organizations, most of them in New York City and some in New Jersey.

2. He lists income of over $6 million from two assets—his real estate and media companies.

3. His wife, Ivanka Trump, lists 17 sources of income; and together, they list an additional 221 income sources, mostly real estate but also interest earned on bonds and other financial instruments, with values ranging from $1,000 to $25 million. Kushner failed to list more than 70 of those income sources previously.

4. Their list of financial liabilities is headed by credit lines from Valley National Bank (New Jersey) and Deutsche Bank, each in the range of $5-25 million.

5. The couple continues to earn tens of millions of dollars from their real estate and other businesses, including those they supposedly divested or resigned from. According to the Washington Post’s review of Kushner’s latest filing, he “resigned from 266 corporate positions, and [Ivanka] Trump stepped down from 292 positions… But they still control assets worth at least $139 million, along with another $66 million, at minimum, of assets that are tied to Trump’s stakes in her fashion brand, the Trump hotel in Washington and other real estate projects, according to the filings. And they both continue to draw large sums from outside interests: The couple has jointly made at least $19 million in income from business ventures and listed more than $80 million in real estate and other revenues since the start of 2016 . . .”

Nicholas Kristof makes the case for removing Jared Kushner from his White House job because he’s a security risk. Innocent until proven guilty, for sure; but the circumstantial evidence of a cozy, potentially compromising relationship with the Russians—notably, the secret meeting with Russians in the company of Donald, Jr., the plan to set up a backchannel communications link in the Russian embassy, and the failure to disclose several other meetings with officially connected Russians—is very strong.

In a word, Jared Kushner reeks of corrupt, unpatriotic behavior that may lead to indictments. He will probably be the first person pardoned by President Trump. But in the meantime, Kushner should be removed from office and his security clearance denied—as a matter of national security.

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

Conduit For Loans 7/12/17

Smoking gun?  by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

With the revelation today (July 11) that Donald Trump, Jr. leaped at the opportunity to find some dirt on Hillary Clinton, we have our first clear idea of what his father is hiding concerning the Russia connection. The invitation to meet a “Russian government attorney,” which took place June 9, 2016, came from the son of a real estate magnate, Aras Agalarov, whose construction projects won a major award from Vladimir Putin—and whose invitation to Trump Sr. to bring the Miss Universe contest to Moscow in 2013 began a close family relationship between the Trumps and the Agalarovs.

So what is shaping up is a deal that no Trump could resist: Trump gets information described by the Russian contact in a June 3, 2016 email as “very high level and sensitive” that “would incriminate Hillary” as part of the Russian “government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump also gets a leg up on the Russian real estate market, which he has been trying to break into for years, including a Moscow hotel deal in partnership with Agalarov. In return the Russians gain leverage on the Trump family and an opportunity to reduce or eliminate US sanctions imposed by the Obama administration.

The revelations concerning the June 9 meeting fit neatly with what we already know about Trump-Russian collusion, including Michael Flynn’s effort to set up a back-channel communications link with Moscow and Jared Kushner’s meeting with the well-connected Russian executive of a sanctioned state bank that might be a conduit for loans to Trump via Deutsche Bank.

The June 3 email, which the New York Times acquired, is devastating from a legal as well as political standpoint. It tells us, contrary to the narrative that Don Jr. and the White House have been spinning, that Trump’s campaign had direct contact with officially connected Russians; that the top Trump campaign officials—Don Jr., Kushner, and then-campaign head Paul Manafort—took the offer of Russian help seriously, which may constitute a crime; and that the future president, who was in his Trump Tower office on the day the meeting with the Russian attorney was held one flight below, probably knew of and approved it.

Further investigation of the June 9 meeting will want to focus on details of the conversation: What, if anything, was promised? Is there a connection between that conversation and Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s and Hillary Clinton’s emails that followed within days? But one thing is already clear: the Trump campaign was ready and willing to collude with officially connected Russians in order to promote making America “great again,” and the Russians were only too happy to oblige.

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

 

China – No Korea Tangle 7/5/17

APB: The US-China-North Korea Tangle – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

It’s not too early to sound alarm bells about the downward turn in US-China relations. Trump’s evident frustration with China over its presumed failure to rein in North Korea has already led to a number of steps that have rankled Beijing. These include a State Department report on human trafficking that includes sharp criticism of China’s denial of human rights; statements from the administration about China’s unfair trade practices; a major US arms sale to Taiwan; and a US frigate’s sail-by in South China Sea waters close to Chinese-claimed territory.

A phone call on July 3 from Trump to Xi Jinping comforted the Chinese leader on one point: Trump’s pledge to continue to honor the “One China” principle and prior US-China understandings regarding Taiwan. But even on that point, and no doubt with the $1.4 billion arms sale in mind, Xi reportedly said he “hopes the US will properly handle the Taiwan-related issues in accordance with the one-China principle and the three Sino-US joint communiqués.” Xi also said that while US-China relations had “achieved important results” since his meeting with Trump at Mar-a-lago, “at the same time, the two countries’ relations had been influenced by some negative factors.”

On the face of it, the Xi-Trump conversation seems like a positive exchange. But the Chinese account does not mention that Trump, according to a New York Times report today, also warned China that the US may have to take unilateral steps in dealing with North Korea, which has just tested another long-range ballistic (nuclear-weapons-capable) missile. That warning will only accomplish two things: It will tell China that the brief honeymoon in US-China cooperation is over, and will show once again that Washington has failed to learn the lesson of years past that China cannot, and will not, pressure Kim Jong-un to cease nuclear and missile tests and denuclearize.

Trump has said that Obama’s North Korea policy of “strategic patience” is dead. But Trump’s threat of military action against the North is worse. The Chinese have put forward a “freeze-for-freeze” proposal—a halt to US military exercises on the Korean peninsula in exchange for a halt to North Korean weapons tests—that makes far more sense. Only direct US-North Korea dialogue holds any prospect of reducing the risk of an unprecedented calamitous war.

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

Considered Wrongheaded 6/28/17

Advise, Assist, Arm: The United States at War – by Mel Gurtov

During the Cold War, the US military and the CIA were involved in a multitude of “indirect” interventions in developing countries. A few—most dramatically and tragically, Vietnam—evolved from a supporting US role to large-scale combat missions. The Pentagon typically defined these missions as “low-intensity conflicts,” though they hardly seemed as such to the innocent people caught up in them. Now, just below the radar, the US military is engaged in an ever-increasing number of “advise-and-assist” missions, supplemented by major arms deals and CIA-run drone strikes, that commit the US to long-term intervention in Africa and the Middle East. And Donald Trump, unlike Barack Obama, is happy to cede operational control—to “let the war fighters fight the war,” as Stephen Bannon told CNN.

The Growing US Footprint in Africa

The US Africa Command oversees a vast array of “outposts”—categorized in Pentagon-speak as “consisting of two forward operating sites [including the one official base in Djibouti], 13 cooperative security locations, and 31 contingency locations.” Secret documents in 2015 listed thirty-six outposts “scattered across 24 African countries. These include low-profile locations—from Kenya to South Sudan to a shadowy Libyan airfield—that have never previously been mentioned in published reports. Today, according to an AFRICOM spokesperson, the number of these sites has actually swelled to 46, including ‘15 enduring locations.’ The newly disclosed numbers . . . shed new light on a constellation of bases integral to expanding U.S. military operations on the African continent and in the Middle East,” Nick Turse writes.

These outposts support “seventeen hundred members of the Special Forces and other military personnel [who] are undertaking ninety-six missions in twenty-one countries,” according to one writer. In Somalia, for instance, Navy SEALs are pursuing an al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, with the Somali National Army. SEALs are not simply advising and training; they are involved in combat too, as part of a force of 200-300 Special Forces soldiers. About all that is known about the air and ground assaults is that they are increasing. As the Times reports: “The decision to allow more expansive operations in Somalia is a signal of the Trump administration’s willingness to delegate decision-making power to military commanders and authorize a greater use of force against militant groups.”

The US mission in Africa relies increasingly on training of African troops. The latest report by the Security Assistance Monitor indicates training in fiscal year (FY) 2015 of nearly 34,000 troops, mainly from Burundi, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Niger. Such security assistance is about $2.5 billion in FY2017.

It is essentially substituting for other forms of US assistance that would be so much more meaningful, such as rule-of-law training, development aid, and humanitarian relief such as treatment of AIDS. Ordinarily, the US accounts for about a quarter of humanitarian aid to Africa, but that is now subject to major cuts under Trump. Aid to Africa is slated to be reduced from about $8 billion to $5.2 billion in FY2018—a plan that senior military officers as well as diplomats consider wrongheaded.

The Africa locations are also essential to US military operations in the Middle East, such as in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. In Yemen, for example, US drones support Saudi air strikes, which are being carried out with fewer restrictions than before as the White House allows the military to determine strategy. High civilian casualties are practically guaranteed to continue. Were it not for US protection, Saudi Arabian officials would be on trial for war crimes.

Outsourcing in the Middle East

President Trump dramatized the policy of outsourcing to the military by giving General James Mattis, the defense secretary, authority to determine force levels in Afghanistan. “Several thousand” more US troops may be deployed there, news reports say, as officials acknowledge the war there, fifteen years in, is being lost. (About 9800 US troops are in Afghanistan, out of a total force of around 13,000.) Drone operations have increased fourfold over the Obama years. Nothing the Trump administration has said so far deviates from Obama’s Afghanistan objective, which was to “advise and assist” to the point where government forces could at least keep the Taliban threat at manageable level. But what is different is the delegation to the Pentagon of authority over troop levels and development of a new strategy. Even as the new strategy has yet to materialize, the US commitment gets deeper—another sign that the Trump team is in over its head and that Trump’s supposed distaste for foreign adventures—on behalf of “people that hate us,” he once said of Afghanistan—is a fiction.

US policy on Qatar is another indication of an administration without a consistent message beyond meeting immediate military needs. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seeks to calm relations between Qatar and the other Persian Gulf states that have blockaded and threatened it, Trump remains oblivious to diplomatic solutions. He’s still back in the Middle East, fawning over the Saudi royals and, incredibly, praising their anti-terrorism efforts while denigrating Qatar as a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.” (The US ambassador to Qatar, a career Foreign Service officer, resigned June 13, apparently as scheduled but reportedly also in protest of Trump’s meddling.) But let’s also follow the money here: at the same time Washington is selling the Saudis $110 billion in weapons, it has also announced a $12 billion arms sale to Qatar, thus assuring continued access to the major US air base there.

While the US military gets virtually everything it wants, the UN reports that about 20 million people in Africa and the Middle East are starving. It has requested $4.4 billion to “avert a catastrophe.” Famine is particularly afflicting South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria. One well-informed report from South Sudan indicates ethnic cleansing and possible genocide by the US-supported government forces, causing massive flight from the country amidst widespread hunger (Nick Turse, “Ghost Nation,” Harper’s, July 2017). The Trump administration has done nothing to address the problem.

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

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.

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