How Low is the Question? 2/15/17

Mel Gurtov

The Honeymoon Is Over – by Mel Gurtov

President Trump is often depicted as “unconventional” and his actions “unprecedented.” But his novelty exposes him and his administration to closer scrutiny than any previous presidency. Turns out the emperor has no clothes; his “unconventional” behavior is often criminal, corrupt, duplicitous, unreliable, and incompetent. Across the spectrum of professions—from art museums and lawyers to actors, federal and local government employees, athletes, and NGOs—the outpouring of criticism is unprecedented. So is the number of negative votes cast by Democrats against every one of Trump’s cabinet nominees. Trump has been denied a honeymoon.

People in his administration are following the Trump pattern. His national security special assistant, General Michael Flynn, lied about his pre-inauguration contact with the Russian ambassador, somehow forgetting to mention that the conversation (recorded by US intelligence, it turns out) included discussion of US sanctions. Sean Spicer is the source of constant jokes as he desperately tries to represent the administration’s position—and consistently misrepresents it. (Spicer and Reince Priebus are rumored to be on Trump’s chopping block. Flynn just got chopped.) Kellyanne Conway violated the law by promoting Ivanka Trump’s jewelry on national TV. Betsy De Vos pretends to be an education secretary. Stephen Miller, a top aide to Trump, arrogantly claims that the president’s national security actions “will not be questioned,” and continues to trot out false claims about immigrants’ voting and links to terrorism.

As for Trump, every day he shamelessly violates the Constitution’s so-called emolument clause by profiting from the visits of foreign dignitaries to his hotels and golf resorts. He clearly will not reveal his tax returns or put a wall between him and his assets unless under court order. Every day he displays an inability to focus on the important and instead attacks those who criticize him. And every day he reveals an embarrassing lack of experience in foreign affairs, such as welcoming Japan’s leader as “Prime Minister Shinzo” instead of Abe, changing his mind (at least for now) on “One China” and Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank, insulting the leaders of Mexico and Australia, and sloppily handling classified material and national security conversations (such as happened over dinner with Abe when informed of a North Korean missile test).

Stephen Bannon is a different species entirely. He hides in the wings, avoiding conversation about his attraction to fascism, his understanding of “America First,” and his cozy relationship with far-right white supremacists from the Vatican to France and Britain. Unlike some of his colleagues, he knows what he’s about, and thrives on not having to answer to anyone but Trump. When Bannon calls the media “the opposition party” and advises them to “shut up,” portrays Muslims as enemies of the state, and suggests that the 1930s were “exciting,” we had better wake up to the threat to democracy he poses.

Fortunately, this administration’s dysfunction is costing it in cohesiveness and efficacy. Leaks are more numerous than usual, so much so that an “insider threat” program is reportedly under consideration to catch the leakers. The New York Times reports that Flynn’s National Security Council is in turmoil as foreign policy professionals try to keep up with (and understand) Trump’s tweets. As the fiasco surrounding the executive order on a Muslim ban showed, officials who should be consulted on important decisions are being bypassed. The halls of the State Department and other agencies are largely empty as many experienced people have either resigned or been pushed out.

Trump’s honeymoon never happened because he gave us no reason to be patient and “see how he does.” A majority of Americans are on to him: the February 13 Gallup Poll shows that he has set another record for unpopularity: a 40 percent approval rating and 55 percent disapproval. How low can he go? Watch and see, but also act.

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

Fake News & Lies 2/1/17

Mel Gurtov

Fake News? Fake President! – by Mel Gurtov

The Donald Trump “way” is to shout foul any time he is criticized, for as we have discovered, this man is innately incapable of acknowledging error, much less apologizing. The media are an easy target because Trump, like all presidents before him, knows that the power imbalance in his favor makes it very costly for the media to fight back when the president punches. Whereas Trump has no problem crossing the line in saying that the media “are among the most dishonest human beings on Earth,” the media—at least the mainstream media—respects the line. Can you imagine the Washington Post calling Trump the most dishonest person on the planet—even though he certainly is? (OK, he’s merely one of the most.)

Except that now many in the media are fighting back, actually calling a lie a lie. And it’s obvious from Trump’s and his team’s responses that they have been hurt. Note not only Trump’s silly, childlike charge of “fake news,” the now-familiar “you’re failing” (shades of Meryl Streep), and the lie about an apology. Also note the time of his tweets—five o’clock in the morning, for goodness sake. The Times and the Post are keeping him up at night! Even after his alter ego, Steve Bannon, said the media should “keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile.”

“The failing @nytimes has been wrong about me from the very beginning. Said I would lose the primaries, then the general election. FAKE NEWS!” (5:04 AM – 28 Jan 2017)

“The coverage about me in the @nytimes and the @washingtonpost has been so false and angry that the times actually apologized to its dwindling subscribers and readers. They got me wrong right from the beginning and still have not changed course, and never will. DISHONEST.” (5:16AM, 28 Jan 2017)

We should encourage a sharp response to a disrespectful president and dictatorial administration. In fact, I’d like to see the media issue a collective message to Trump that upholds freedom of the press, recites the intrinsic importance of speaking truth to power in a democracy, and in the strongest possible language vows to resist any attempt to muzzle the media or any government agency.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Extraordinary and Dangerous 2/1/17

Mel Gurtov

Bannon’s Coup  by Mel Gurtov

Stephen K. Bannon, Donald Trump’s chief strategist, has been elevated to the Principals Committee of the National Security Council, the top tier of national-security policymakers.* It is the first time a political affairs official has been made a regular participant in the NSC’s work. The appointment is the most important piece in an extraordinary and dangerous bureaucratic reorganization that Bannon himself may have engineered.

Anyone who thinks bureaucracy doesn’t count should think twice after witnessing what amounts to a coup. Bannon may attend any session of the NSC and the Principals Committee while the intelligence community, represented by the Director of National Intelligence (Mike Pompeo) and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, may not.** Officially, Bannon is now on par with Michael Flynn, the special assistant for national security; but in terms of real access to the president, Bannon’s only peer is Jared Kushner. “It is a startling elevation of a political adviser,” the New York Times says.

Thus, the most important foreign and national security decisions, meaning those made during a crisis, are going to be most influenced by a far-right rabble-rouser and Trump’s son-in-law, neither of whom has anything remotely resembling international experience. (I don’t count Bannon’s time in the Navy, any more than I count Kushner’s donations to Israel.) And in Bannon’s case, that influence is likely to bend the president toward aggressive, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later actions with little or no consultation with experts. What else should we expect from the man who guided Trump’s campaign and essentially wrote his inaugural address on the theme of “America First”?

In practical terms, what might Bannon’s coup mean?

First, it means that the policy-relevant government agencies can expect to be bypassed on important decisions. Thus, for example, Trump’s executive order banning Muslim immigration reportedly was issued without reference to the Office of Legal Counsel in the Exec. Off. of the President, the Dept. of State, or the Dept. of Homeland Security. Nor, evidently, were local-level officials at airports alerted. The Washington Post reported on January 30 that a dissent letter on Trump’s immigration order was being circulated in the State Department. With mass resignations—or were they firings?—of the State Department’s entire management team, Rex Tillerson will be taking over a badly weakened agency largely devoid of experienced leaders and perhaps facing a morale crisis.

Second, despite administration denials, the professional military and intelligence viewpoints at NSC meetings will only be at the table “where issues pertaining to the responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed.” Is that qualification intended to promote efficiency, as Trump’s people say, or to lay the basis for exclusion from the most important decisions?

Third, it means that Trump’s financial interests will remain secret and under his control, so that the inevitable conflicts with payments by foreign governments to Trump will go unpunished.

Fourth, it means that Bannon et al. will continue to work with and encourage right-wing leaders in Europe and elsewhere who are as determined as he to carry out a white nationalist agenda that is anti-immigrant, anti-Semitic, and anti-globalist.

Fifth, it means that Israel will get everything it wants, without a word of concern from Washington. What a sad joke that Trump expects his son-in-law to craft an Israeli-Palestinian settlement while Netanyahu authorizes more settlements in occupied territory, and applauds Trump’s intention to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.

Sixth, it means that Trump’s version of a “reset” of policy toward Russia will avoid the key issues that led to the demise of Obama’s reset in the first place: NATO’s eastward movement, and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and seizure of Crimea. Those matters call for careful diplomacy. Trump is likely to start dismantling sanctions and increasing US investments in Russia without a resolution of geopolitical issues.

Seventh, US policy toward China will be opposite of policy toward Russia. China will be the hard edge of policy: naval buildup, deeper involvement in the South China Sea dispute, support of a Japanese military buildup in contravention of long-established policy, and erosion of the One China policy.

Eighth, nuclear rearmament will again come into vogue—a reversal of the downward trend of recent decades in numbers of weapons and means of delivery.

Ninth, traditional friends of the US will find that friendship doesn’t carry much weight anymore. Mexico’s president and Britain’s prime minister have now discovered that. Alliances therefore will not have the credibility they once had with an unpredictable partner such as the Trump administration.

Eliot Cohen, former counselor to Condoleezza Rice at the State Department and now at Johns Hopkins University, has this warning about the NSC reorganization for his conservative colleagues:

Trump’s disregard for either Secretary of Defense Mattis or Secretary-designate Tillerson in his disastrous policy salvos this week [on immigration and the Mexico wall], in favor of his White House advisers [Bannon, et al.], tells you all you need to know about who is really in charge. To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction.

For the community of conservative thinkers and experts, and more importantly, conservative politicians, this is a testing time. Either you stand up for your principles and for what you know is decent behavior, or you go down, if not now, then years from now, as a coward or opportunist. Your reputation will never recover, nor should it.

Cohen concludes that Trump will fail because the people he attacks will not go away, will persevere, and will ultimately say “enough.” We must hold everyone, especially officeholders, to account, he writes. I have to hope his confidence is warranted.

———-
*The NSC Principals Committee (PC) is the “Cabinet-level senior interagency forum for considering policy issues that affect the national security interests of the United States.” The PC can be convened and chaired by either the National Security Advisor or the Homeland Security Advisor. Its regular attendees will now include the following: Secretary of State; Secretary of the Treasury; Secretary of Defense; Attorney General; Secretary of Homeland Security; Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff; Assistant to the President and Chief Strategist; National Security Advisor; Homeland Security Advisor. The Counsel to the President, Deputy Counsel for National Security Affairs, and the Director of the OMB are also permitted to attend all meetings.

**The Director of National Intelligence is not on either the NSC or the PC. The DNI and JCS Chairman are to attend “where issues pertaining to their responsibilities and expertise are to be discussed,” making their presence optional The Secretary of Commerce, the U.S. Trade Representative, and the Assistant to the President for Economic Policy will be regular attendees “when international economic issues” are on the agenda. The Director of the Office of Science and Technology, who under the Obama administration was to be present when “science and technology related issues” were on the agenda, will no longer attend.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Clamors Are Mistaken 1/25/17

Trump’s America—and Ours   – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Abraham Lincoln once said: “My dream is of a place and a time where America will once again be seen as the last best hope of earth.” Donald J. Trump’s Inaugural Address offered us exactly the opposite vision, one of a selfish, insulated America responsible only to itself, committed only to fixing the supposed “carnage” here but unconcerned about global poverty, Earth’s deteriorating environment and ecosystem, and human rights here and everywhere. He made all the usual, and unfulfillable, promises about jobs, terrorism, and corruption—and avoided all the problems he has always avoided, such as health care for all, equal opportunity for all, his own record of irresponsible behavior, and “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

President Trump doesn’t understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism. Charles de Gaulle did: “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.” Trump’s “American First” doctrine was falsely presented as the former when it clearly is the latter. Putting America first may sound like a noble patriotic idea, but in reality it reflects a careless, ultimately dangerous world view. Walling America off from Mexico, keeping out Muslims fleeing war and oppression, denigrating China, and undermining our European allies have nothing to do with love of country. These promised policies exemplify narrow nationalism of the sort that will reduce respect for the United States and undermine national security.

“There are seasons in every country,” Alexander Hamilton said, “when noise and impudence pass current for worth; and in popular commotions especially, the clamors of interested and factious men are often mistaken for patriotism.” This is such a time, and Donald Trump is such a man.

 

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Fake News Now 1/18/17

Mel Gurtov

Donald Trump’s Fake News Conference – by Mel Gurtov

The media waited with bated breath for Donald Trump’s first news conference in 167 days. But I’m sure many journalists knew what was coming: a show, orchestrated by The Apprentice executive director so as to reveal precisely nothing but used instead to revile his critics. Vladimir Putin couldn’t have done better.

Trump was true to form, and character: He spent very little time answering (actually avoiding) questions, he brought along a small crowd of flatterers to applaud his lines, he had three people (his communications spokesman, his vice president-elect, and his tax lawyer) stand in to defend him, and he bragged about how many jobs he will create and how he had turned down a $2 billion business opportunity with Dubai.

Probably sometime early in his youth, Trump learned that the best defense is to attack. He denounced two media outlets (BuzzFeed and CNN) for daring to publish a report about a questionable Russian dossier on him—the work of an ex-British spy—that other media had decided not to publish. Trump refused to allow the CNN representative to ask a question, angrily saying “you are fake news.” But that remains to be determined, for in fact the intelligence people who briefed him and Obama think the dossier might contain reliable information. Trump is compromised enough by his kissy-kissy relationship with Putin—and if there’s a shred of truth in the dossier, Trump will be in jeopardy.

Trump attacked on other fronts as well. He once again insisted Mexico will pay for a wall—“not a fence”—in one way or another. He allowed that the Russians probably were responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee; but once more he veered away from acknowledging the intelligence finding that Putin himself had ordered the hacking and that Putin’s aim was to help his campaign and hurt Hillary Clinton’s. And his statement that he had “nothing to do with Russia” is patently false. As the Washington Post points out, Trump’s Russian connections go back 30 years, mainly related to his pursuit of real estate opportunities. Still to be determined is whether or not Trump’s associates met with Russian counterparts during and after the campaign, as the dossier alleges.

Trump also tried to preempt further discussion of his financial conflicts of interest by putting the Trump Organization in the hands of his two sons. As various ethics specialists in and out of government have pointed out, that decision is no solution. As one of them said, Trump will be in violation of the Constitution on the day he takes office. He actually had the audacity to say that he has every right to run both his organization and the presidency—implying that we should be grateful for his choice not to do so, as though we don’t already know that he has every intention to remain in charge of his empire. He again refused to release his tax returns, saying that only the press wants him to do so. Trump’s attitude is clear: I’m the president and I’ll do what I want; try to stop me.

In short, what did we learn from the press conference?

First, that Trump will be the same blustering, haughty president that he was on the campaign trail.

Second, that access to him will be extremely limited and produce very little news.

Third, that any news he dislikes will be labeled fake, and the messenger will pay a price.

Fourth, that Trump will completely disregard ethical guidelines at home just as he disregards them abroad.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Unfit to Command 1/11/17

Mel Gurtov

– by Mel Gurtov

During the presidential campaign a significant number of former senior foreign policy and national security officials from both parties spoke in no uncertain terms about Donald Trump’s qualifications to be commander in chief. Let’s recall, for example, an open letter signed by more than 50 people who served in Republican administrations from Nixon to G.W. Bush. Here is part of what they wrote last August:

“From a foreign policy perspective, Donald Trump is not qualified to be President and Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, we are convinced that he would be a dangerous President and would put at risk our country’s national security and well-being. Most fundamentally, Mr. Trump lacks the character, values, and experience to be President. He weakens U.S. moral authority as the leader of the free world. He appears to lack basic knowledge about and belief in the U.S. Constitution, U.S. laws, and U.S. institutions, including religious tolerance, freedom of the press, and an independent judiciary. In addition, Mr. Trump has demonstrated repeatedly that he has little understanding of America’s vital national interests, its complex diplomatic challenges, its indispensable alliances, and the democratic values on which U.S. foreign policy must be based. At the same time, he persistently compliments our adversaries and threatens our allies and friends. Unlike previous Presidents who had limited experience in foreign affairs, Mr. Trump has shown no interest in educating himself. He continues to display an alarming ignorance of basic facts of contemporary international politics. Despite his lack of knowledge, Mr. Trump claims that he understands foreign affairs and “knows more about ISIS than the generals do.”

The letter went on to say that Trump “lacks the temperament to be President,” citing (among many other attributes) his impetuousness, lack of discipline, and inability to “separate truth from falsehood.” It was a devastating attack.

Trump survived. But his critics weren’t wrong then, and they’re not wrong now. His arrogance is unbounded, his ego fills a room. As he said, “I’m somebody that really gets it.” He says “nobody really knows” about climate change; it’s a Chinese hoax. Intelligence briefings aren’t necessary because “I get it when I need it. I’m, like, a smart person.” Despite not using a computer, he knows “a lot about hacking.” “I also know things that other people don’t know” about Russia’s hacking—a claim he promised to explain but, of course, never did.

After months of disputing and criticizing the intel community, and then praising Julian Assange for agreeing with him that Russia did not hack, Trump backed away a day later, as usual trying to turn stupidity into wisdom and a lie into a truth. Said Trump: “The dishonest media likes saying that I am in agreement with Julian Assange—wrong. I simply state what he states, it is for the people to make up their own minds as to the truth. The media likes to make it look like I am against ‘Intelligence’ when in fact I am a big fan!” Surely it is mere coincidence that Trump tweeted that message the day before he was to be briefed by senior intelligence officials who would (once again) decisively identify the Russian government as the source of the hacking. It was also the day (January 5) that former CIA director James Woolsey quit as a senior adviser to Trump’s transition team. No doubt Woolsey found he could no longer tolerate Trump’s dismissive attitude toward the intelligence community.

Prior to his meeting with intelligence agency leaders on January 6, I fully expected that Trump would weasel-word his way around acknowledging Russia’s direct role. He didn’t disappoint, saying he had a “constructive” meeting, has “tremendous respect” for the intelligence people, and understood that “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people were trying” (my emphasis) to hack US systems. Rather than acknowledge the intelligence community’s correctness in identifying what Putin’s Russia had very specifically done and aimed to do, Trump dodged: “there was absolutely no effect on the election . . .”—which of course was not what the intelligence community had investigated, was not within the scope of its work,[1] and certainly was not what Trump or anyone around him could possibly know.

But of course Donald Trump is incapable of changing his mind in response to better information than he possesses. He’s never wrong, and must never apologize. (Read carefully the comments of Reince Priebus and Kellyanne Conway intended to suggest that Trump now believes the intelligence. They’re loaded with qualifications.) And that has profound implications for his conduct of national security. He has a set image of friends and enemies that is not subject to new intelligence or changed behavior on their part. What that means is that no matter what the Chinese, the Iranians, the Mexicans, or the North Koreans might do, Trump will remain Trump. And once those folks figure this out, if they haven’t already, they will lose all respect for the American C-I-C, decide that negotiating with him is worthless and his actions unpredictable, and take action accordingly.

As for the Russians, Trump may insist, as he tweeted Jan. 7, that “Russia will respect us far more” once he’s president. But in fact he’s been compromised by both Putin’s and his own actions. Trump’s noble aim to reset relations with Russia will inevitably raise the question of the price he will pay, and assuredly Putin’s cooperation will not come cheaply.

Francis Wilkinson has an excellent analysis in the Bloomberg News on the systematic manner in which Trump is attacking US institutions. His motive has far less to do with policy differences than with personal power: He can’t abide institutions that are independent of his absolute authority. Trump’s assault on the media goes back many months: the media lies about him, it must be brought into line, the truth lies elsewhere (like Breitbart and, yes, The Enquirer), demean the media. The pattern is obvious now in the case of the intelligence community: first, you denigrate its work; second, you raise the prospect of its downsizing or restructuring; third, you assail its motives and arouse the troops (as when he called the hearings on Russian hacking a “political witch hunt”). Wilkinson maintains that Congress is next in line; and the Pentagon, Treasury, and the Supreme Court may well come after if Trump feels crossed.

Donald Trump, soon to be commander-in-chief, has become a threat not only to democracy but also to national security.

[1] The report says: “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Leverage or Blackmail 12/28/16

Mel Gurtov

The Diplomacy of Donald J. Trump – by Mel Gurtov

Oblivious to Tradition and Good Sense
Those of us who appreciate the unconventional have to have second thoughts after watching Donald J. Trump in action. All the more so when it comes to the conduct of foreign affairs, in which Mr. Trump is a novice. Defying convention, which calls for the president or president-elect to call on the State Department for advice and talking points, and on the intelligence community for daily briefings, Trump at any time might decide to pick up the phone and chat with a foreign leader, might Tweet an opinion, or might make an off-the-cuff remark about a controversial issue. Trouble is, any of these acts might run directly counter to ongoing US foreign policy. You can’t flatter a dictator, interject comments about another country’s domestic affairs, praise one country at the expense of another, or bring family into high-level meetings without consequences. Trump has done all these, and more, and as president seems determined to continue the practice.

Such practices only make sense when understood in terms of Trump’s “art of the deal” approach to diplomacy. And “the deal” must be taken literally, since Trump clearly sees doing the nation’s business as being equivalent to doing his personal business. Protecting the environment, promoting human rights and social justice, and strengthening international law have no place in the deal.

Trump Organization hotels and golf courses outside the US, and Trump’s financial portfolio (Goldman Sachs, Apple, ExxonMobil, Halliburton, and other international firms ), spell conflicts of interest in capital(ist) letters. Given Trump’s lack of transparency on his taxes and business dealings, his refusal to establish a blind trust or divest his financial holdings, and his absolutist belief that “the president cannot have a conflict of interest,” we may never know whether or not he is using his position to further “the brand” and his personal fortune.

Here’s What Trump Has Said and Done
China: Trump broke with longstanding precedent again when he held a telephone conversation with Taiwan’s president Tsai Ing-wen, the first conversation between two leaders since the 1979 US recognition of the PRC and breaking of ties with Taiwan. Contrary to Trump’s insistence that “The President of Taiwan CALLED ME” to offer congratulations, official Taiwan sources said the call had been arranged in advance. Supporting that view, a Washington Post report said the call “was planned weeks ahead by staffers and Taiwan specialists on both sides, according to people familiar with the plans.” In fact, Trump’s pro-Taiwan advisers said they deliberately wanted to send China a message that the old Taiwan policy might change if China’s policies on currency, US investments in China, the trade deficit, North Korea, and the South China Sea did not change. Trump underscored that message by publicly questioning the one-China policy that has guided US-China relations for 40 years. (“I don’t know why we have to be bound by a One China policy unless we make a deal with China,” he said.) Leverage, or blackmail?

During his campaign, Trump had harsh words for China—and in doing so revealed very limited understanding of Chinese motivations, not to mention reliance only on himself for his views of China. He said then what he has said now, that if China doesn’t behave as he sees fit, he will authorize trade and currency sanctions. After all, who needs China?

But if Trump now intends to put China on notice, China is also putting Trump on notice. The Chinese press has carried stories indicating that although positive US-China relations are most important to Chinese leaders, further steps that are contrary to the “One China” principle will be resisted. The press has also reported various negative views of US society and politics today, with the suggestion that the US has become weak and divided in the course of this electoral cycle. If the idea of Taiwan independence, which most concerns Chinese leaders, actually takes shape under Trump, we can expect that China’s pushback will be very strong. The recent incident in South China Sea waters in which a Chinese vessel picked up a US Navy unmanned research drone (later returned) may be just a preview.

Trump’s Taiwan gambit is reminiscent of George W. Bush early in his presidency, when he expressed strong support for Taiwan and authorized a major arms sale. But before long Bush accepted the One China policy of his predecessors and backed off from a shift on Taiwan. It’s not clear that Trump will do the same. (The House recently passed a defense authorization bill that called for the secretary of defense to approve annual “senior military exchanges” with Taiwan.) Trump may just be testing the waters, but more likely is that he believes he can pressure China into making concessions. He’ll find that Beijing does not respond well to pressure tactics or blackmail. And that will leave Taiwan out to dry, vulnerable to Chinese threats.

Philippines: Then there’s Trump’s talk with Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, which ended with an invitation to visit the US and Duterte’s later statement that Trump endorsed the anti-drug crackdown. According to Duterte, Trump was “quite sensitive” to the Philippines’ drug problem and was handling it “the right way.” That was not Obama’s view, of course. Duterte’s crackdown on drugs has caused more than 2000 deaths and several hundred surrenders by users and traffickers. Obama’s criticism of Duterte for trampling on civil liberties and engaging in vigilante justice while suppressing drug trafficking is what got Philippines-US relations off track.

Left unsaid is Trump’s considerable real estate interest in the Philippines, an interest that clearly will conflict with his presidency. As reported in the Washington Post, a newly built Trump Tower condominium outside Manila, which Trump’s sons visited for ceremonies to mark its completion, is operated by a top official in the Duterte government:

“The man writing millions of dollars’ worth of checks to the Trump family is the Duterte government’s special representative to the United States. To argue that these payments will be constitutional if they are paid to the Trump children, and not to Trump personally, is absurd. This conflict demands congressional hearings, and could be an impeachable offense.”

Turkey: Similarly, the Post also reported, Trump has business interests in Turkey, and conveyed compliments from a “close friend” of his to Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. That association, supplemented by Michael Flynn’s involvements with Turkey, could lead Trump to reverse US policy and expel the cleric, now residing in Pennsylvania, whom Erdogan believes is responsible for the recent coup attempt.

Britain: Trump told the British prime minister, Theresa May, “If you travel to the U.S., you should let me know,” an offhand invitation that came only after he spoke to nine other leaders. He later compounded it by saying on Twitter that Britain should name the anti-immigrant leader Nigel Farage its ambassador to Washington, a startling break with diplomatic protocol.

Israel: Trump just can’t wait to show Benjamin Netanyahu just how pro-Israel (i.e., pro-settlements, anti-UN) he can be. He and “Bibi” are of one mind about the irrelevance of a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. So when the US for the first time failed to reject a UN Security Council resolution critical of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine–the US abstained–Netanyahu went ballistic and Trump followed. Mind you, Obama had only recently pledged $38 billion in military aid to Israel over the next 10 years–a huge increase, considering that from the 1967 June War to 2015, total US military exports to Israel came to $34 billion–in hopes Netanyahu would halt further illegal settlements. Trump will no doubt resume the practice of giving aid without conditions. His nominee as ambassador to Israel, a strong supporter of the settlements, will see that Israel gets whatever it wants.

Japan: When Trump met Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in New York shortly after his election, only one other American was in the room: his daughter Ivanka. Trump apparently did not consult with the State Department for talking points. For all we know, Trump may have reiterated his view during the campaign that Japan should shoulder more of its defense burden, leaving open the possibility of Japan’s producing nuclear weapons.

Pakistan: Trump’s phone call with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif showed total disregard for the sensitive issues that mark US relations with his government, including relations with India, involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence services in support of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program. According to the Pakistani government, Trump told Sharif that he was “a terrific guy” who made him feel as though “I’m talking to a person I have known for long.” He described Pakistanis as “one of the most intelligent people.” When Sharif invited Trump to visit Pakistan, the president-elect replied that he would “love to come to a fantastic country, fantastic place of fantastic people.” Trump’s team would not confirm or deny Pakistan’s account.

Kazakhstan: Trump’s penchant for cozying up to dictators (except China’s) shows that he will follow an unfortunate US foreign policy tradition. His call with President Nursultan A. Nazarbayev is indicative: As usual, Trump failed to mention that country’s repressive politics. Nazarbayev has ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, initially as head of the Communist Party before independence. He won his fifth election in April 2015 with about 97 percent of the vote. The Kazakh government claimed that Trump lavishly praised Nazarbayev’s leadership, citing “fantastic success that can be called a ‘miracle.’” More intelligently, Trump apparently also praised the Kazakh government’s surrender of the nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviets.

Russia: Trump’s love affair with Vladimir Putin remains one of the most bizarre stories in international affairs, though I can’t quarrel with the goal of a reset in relations. But the terms of a reset are critical. Since the start of Trump’s campaign, he has endorsed Putin’s strong leadership (stronger than Obama’s, Trump said), avoided criticism of Russian interventions in Ukraine and the Crimea, agreed with Putin on focusing on ISIS in Syria, and—most extraordinarily—rejected the consensus view of the intelligence community on Russian hacking of the US elections. Furthermore, Trump and his future secretary of state, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, have large business interests in Russia. Now Trump has embraced the idea of a nuclear arms race; Putin has said “nyet,” but Trump’s bravado gives him license to push for more nukes and other weapons in the context of a much larger military budget.

In Conclusion
Let’s remember one thing about all these forays into foreign policy: Trump has still not been inaugurated. Thus, he is trying to make policy while still a private citizen and, in all the cases above, without a secretary of state or defense. His recent pronouncements on nuclear weapons, Russia, Israel, China, and the United Nations—all via Twitter or telephone, and thus without benefit of expert advice or questions from the press corps—not only reveal a preparedness to make significant, high-risk departures from longstanding US policy. They also subvert the country’s leadership, making it appear that Trump is already in charge. President Obama is fighting back by executive action. But shouldn’t he also pick up the phone to firmly remind Trump who’s in charge?

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Forever Indebted 12/7/16

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Food Politics: The GMO Conspiracy – by Mel Gurtov

One of the longest-standing tricks of the corporate trade is to produce an item that is dangerous, breakable, or soon to be obsolete and then produce another item that will supposedly remedy the defect. That is what is happening with basic GMO-laden crops such as corn, wheat, and rapeseed: As they become resistant to Roundup and other toxins designed to keep them bug- or disease-free, the producers—such as Monsanto and Syngenta—come up with new herbicides for the farmer to apply.

But the agri-giants have more than one trick up their sleeves. As a major New York Times investigation recently reported, the promise of higher yields using GMO seeds has generally not been fulfilled in the US and Canada. The investigation, using UN data, determined that US and Canadian yields are no greater than comparable yields in Europe, where GMOs are banned; yet US and Canadian farmers apply far more herbicides than do Europeans. And since higher yields per acre is the holy grail for most farmers, the obvious answer from the agri-giants is to apply more herbicides.

If you’ve heard this story before, you might be thinking of the so-called Green Revolution that took India and the Philippines by storm in the 1970s. The promise then was higher yields of rice and wheat thanks to “miracle seeds” supplied by the major agro-businesses, whose research was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Not mentioned was the expensive inputs this miracle would require—lots of water, chemical fertilizer, machinery, irrigation tube wells, and of course capital. The Green Revolution was a boon to rich farmers, fertilizer and equipment suppliers, and loan sharks to whom poor farmers would become forever indebted.

Corporate control of GMO seeds, pesticides, and herbicides is becoming ever more concentrated. Monsanto is merging with Bayer, Syngenta with China National Chemical Corporation, and DuPont with Dow Chemical. The companies will tell us that these takeovers will cheapen their products and thus help feed the world’s 10 billion people in 2050. Their scientists, meanwhile, will produce “studies” that prove the effectiveness and safety of GMO seeds and related toxins. The reality, of course, is likely to be opposite of such claims: seeds, pesticides, and herbicides will become ever more expensive, available mainly to farmers in the richest countries, and the safety of GMO-based foods will depend on whether you listen to European or the North American scientists.

Debate over GMOs should not, in any case, focus exclusively on safety. If the human interest is front and center, the debate should be over how to feed growing populations in a way that preserves family farms, which have been proven time and again to be the wisest stewards of the land, and puts the rights of farmers and communities ahead of corporate rights. From that perspective, the core issue is land reform—restoring land ownership to individual farmers, sharply limiting control of farmland (whether by contract or outright ownership) by corporations, and preventing Monsanto and other agri-giants from suing farmers who choose not to use their GMO seeds.

Fortunately, there are movements underway in a number of states, localities, and countries—called Community Rights—that by law would empower communities to ban GMOs and other destructive practices (such as chemical aerial spraying and fracking). In Latin America and other developing-country areas, a move to “agroecology” is fast gaining the support of small farmers who combine traditional and scientific practices in pursuit of strengthening the local food base. In the end, defeating corporate control of resources must rely on the people most affected; it’s certainly not going to happen from Washington, where political decision making is about to fall into the hands of billionaires and former lobbyists. The call is out for acts of self-determination.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest

Nightmare has Come 11/16/16

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Our worst nightmare has come to pass – by Mel Gurtov

The American people voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by over one million votes. But Trump was right: the system is rigged, meaning that thanks to our outdated and illogical electoral college system, he won. Thus our fellow Americans (s)elected for the first time a person with no military or political experience—“history’s most unpleasant and unprepared candidate,” George Will wrote, not to mention a sexual predator, racist, tax-dodger, and serial liar.

Soon enough we will know the full extent of the damage Donald Trump will exact on the political system and society. But we can predict with some certainty that among his first acts will be nominating an extreme conservative for the Supreme Court, seeking repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), tearing up the Paris Agreement and Obama’s other environmental commitments, supporting legislation to dramatically limit immigration, and pressuring Mexico on border security. And there’s more. The big loser in the election drama is America’s claim to be a showcase of democracy. The election featured two highly unpopular candidates, one of whom saw no problem using irresponsible and dangerous language, while the other was a victim of her own history of disreputable behavior. The Republican Party is in a shambles, with spineless leaders who lack a moral compass. Third parties are weak and lack popular appeal. The FBI intruded into the election, setting a dangerous precedent. Lots of evidence exists of dirty tricks designed to keep minorities from voting and cause havoc in the Democratic Party.

Citizens United, a Supreme Court decision that guarantees money will talk in politics, will remain in force. Liberal values and institutions are about to come under full-scale assault, with the poor and the powerless particularly vulnerable. The term “banana republic” was invoked more than a few times during the campaign to describe the depths to which the US would descend if Trump were elected. Political leaders in Russia, China, and other authoritarian systems must be laughing in their drinks at what American “populism” means in practice.

Every major poll predicted a Hillary Clinton victory. Now, too late, we can try to explain, especially to ourselves, how one of the most politically experienced presidential candidates in US history lost to a business tycoon with a shady history of deal making and not the slightest understanding of world affairs. The initial explanations for his victory center on underestimation of the vote turnout by rural white men, great anxiety about the US economy, the rising cost of Obamacare, stigmatizing of Middle East and Mexican immigrants, anger toward the Washington governing establishment, Hillary Clinton’s email problems, and—yes—Hillary Clinton the woman. Historians, moreover, point out how rare it is for the same party to win three consecutive elections (the Republicans were the last to do so with Ronald Reagan’s two terms followed by George H.W. Bush’s one term). All these issues were identified by the election experts, but none thought them sufficient to project a Trump victory.

We must not let the mainstream media off the hook. The so-called “fourth estate” was anything but: for many months the media refused to call out Trump for what he was—a shameless groper, a misogynist, a racist, xenophobe, and above all a seriously mentally challenged candidate. To the contrary, the media couldn’t get enough of Trump: He was so entertaining and quaintly “unconventional,” they said. As their reward, Trump casually barred critical journalists from his events, never disavowed the screeds of neo-Nazis and white nationalists, and constantly denounced journalists (to wild cheers) for their bias against him. Conflicts of interest in the media abounded: CNN hired Trump’s former campaign manager, who promptly turned around and worked as a Trump adviser. Fox News, equally shameless, rode shotgun for Trump, putting out deliberately false information (for example, that Clinton was about to be indicted “according to sources close to the investigation”), then backtracking when it was too late to matter. Sean Hannity of Fox News, meantime, pretended to be a journalist but was yet another Trump adviser—as was his one-time boss at Fox, Roger Ailes, another groper of women.

The media has much soul-searching to do, just as happened after it realized the George W. Bush administration had sold it a bill of goods on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But now as then, the media will have to do much more than ask why the polls were so wrong. They failed to live up to ordinary moral, ethical, and critical standards. Now the media risks being cowed into submission. As a journalist for the Washington Postlamented, just before the election, “The worst of the media is on full display, as if someone had set out to show just how terrible we hacks could look in these last moments before Election Day.”

This shameful situation cannot be remedied by pleas to government officials to please get back to governing, or appeals for everyone to “come together.” The Republican Party is in for the fight of its life over whether the right or the far right controls it. The Democrats need to decide on new, untainted leadership. The gun-wielding white nationalist crazies who follow Trump will be organizing around various destructive projects, including violence against immigrants and people of color. Maybe worse. Police reform will be out of the question in red states. The Democrats will become yesterday’s Republicans, fighting rearguard actions and trying to obstruct Trump at every turn. And that will play into Trump’s strength, which is to be a dictator who rules by decree, responsible to no one. A “straight talker.” Fact-free, but simple and understandable by all.

On the assumption that Clinton would win, I had planned to ask: Is there room in such depressing circumstances for a progressive agenda at home or abroad? Now I have to think defensively and ask what individual states and communities can do to counter Trump—for example, on his anticipated gutting of climate change legislation and endorsement of the Keystone XL fracking project? Will he say anything to restrain the more than 250 private militia groups, armed with guns and hate, that are bound to pursue their racist, anti-immigrant agenda (“let’s make America white again”)?

Can Trump be trusted not to use his position for private gain? Will he put responsible, knowledgeable people in charge of national defense, the state department, and the department of justice? Or will those departments be purged of liberal professionals? Will Trump terminate the nuclear agreement with Iran, reduce US involvement in NATO and other alliances, and dramatically increase US military spending? Will he seek common ground with the Russians and Chinese, or accede to their interests on (for instance) Ukraine and the South China Sea in order to focus on “America first”? Will he learn the awesome responsibility that goes with having the nuclear codes?

In Washington we must hope that there are enough people in both parties with the backbone to stand up to Trump’s arrogance, cultural backwardness, and tendency to avenge perceived slights. Democrats in the Senate have the filibuster option, which would require 60 senators to end. (There are 49 Senate Democrats.) In our own communities, each of us might take a look around and ask how we can contribute to strengthening education, job opportunities, human rights, protection of the environment, and “one nation, with liberty and justice for all.” Along with worst-case thinking we must have first-class (positive) planning for the time when it becomes clear that Trumpism has failed to deliver on its promises to the working class. Remember: Donald Trump did not receive a popular mandate, and in four years we will have an opportunity to end this nightmare.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Loyalty Danger 11/16/16

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

The Trump Team: Loyal and Dangerous – by Mel Gurtov

Personnel appointments provide a useful glimpse into what policy will be. Senior-level appointees are the policy shapers, and from what we have seen thus far, we are right to have suspected the worst from Donald Trump. A Trump presidency will be the end of climate change commitments and agreements, will bring racial profiling of Middle East immigrants, and will build a wall of some kind between the US and Mexico. His victory will also result in large-scale deportations of nonwhite residents, a free ride for Big Oil, agribusiness, and other giant corporations, a severe tightening of media access, and attacks on marriage equality, abortion, protesting, and other expressions of personal choice. And the love affair with Putin’s Russia, to the detriment of US alliances, will deepen.

But overarching these policy directions is the way Trump conducts business: with emphasis on secrecy, enhancement of his reputation, absolute loyalty to the boss, destruction of critics, and success for family and firm before country. Not surprisingly, such a man has an enemies list. His assistant on African American relations, Omarosa Manigault, said so, explaining: “Every critic, every detractor, will have to bow down to President Trump. It’s everyone who’s ever doubted Donald, who’s ever disagreed, whoever challenged him. It is the ultimate revenge to become the most powerful man in the universe.” Don’t believe her when she says she was only speaking for herself.

The Alligators in the Swamp

The savvy comedian Steven Colbert was among the first to lampoon Donald Trump’s promise to “drain the swamp” of corrupt politicians. Drain the swamp? Trump’s people are the swamp, said Colbert.

Three types of people inhabit the swamp: the loyal politicians and former officials, the lobbyists, and the family circle.

For starters, look at the cast of disreputable, marginally qualified people who are on his “A” list. Rudy Giuliani, former mayor of New York, was initially being touted for attorney general. Now he is being talked about as the next secretary of state, as though the content of the two jobs doesn’t much matter. He was one of Trump’s primary attack dogs on Hillary Clinton, and had no compunctions about lying when he said on national TV that he had inside information that Hillary would be indicted as a result of the FBI’s probe of her emails. So far as I can tell, Giuliani’s only foray into foreign policy is to regularly assail “Islamic extremism.” Toward that end, he has argued that all’s fair in war, hence waterboarding and seizing Iraq’s oil fields are perfectly OK. Giuliani is often out of control, forever seeking attention—and therefore not the sort of level-headed person one would want to be the nation’s top diplomat.

Two other Trump loyalists are being discussed for top jobs. Newt Gingrich was the early favorite for secretary of state despite lacking experience abroad or in diplomacy. A corrupt politician and misogynst, he was reprimanded and fined for ethics violations when he was speaker of the House. Gingrich has also made racist remarks, such as calling President Obama “the food stamp president” who has shown “Kenyan, anticolonial behavior.” Another leading candidate for a foreign policy position is John Bolton, George W. Bush’s wild-eyed former United Nations ambassador and member of several neoconservative organizations. A lawyer who doesn’t like international law or the UN, Bolton opposed US participation in the International Criminal Court and efforts to strengthen international control of biological weapons and nuclear proliferation. Expect exceptionally hawkish advocacy from Bolton, as demonstrated by his fervent support of sanctions on North Korea and termination of the nuclear accord with Iran.

Myron Ebell, a well-known climate denier, is slated to head the Environmental Protection Agency. He comes from the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has the support of the coal industry that, under Obama’s Clean Power Plan, would be hard hit. Ebell regularly berates climatologists, climate-change advocates, and even Pope Francis’ encyclical, which he called “leftist drivel.” With Ebell at the helm at the very time Earth’s temperature is at an all-time high, the high hopes for the Paris Agreement will be dashed. As Noam Chomsky recently put it, “The [Republican] Party is dedicated to racing as rapidly as possible to destruction of organized human life. There is no historical precedent for such a stand.”

(Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, whose Bridgegate scandal has earned convictions for his two top aides, is another loyalist, but one with an uncertain future. Christie has not yet been indicted for authorizing the bridge closures; he might need a presidential pardon. Christie’s fawning embrace of Trump is likely to be rewarded with a top position, though he was removed as head of the transition team soon after Trump’s election.)

For the president’s chief of staff, Trump’s choices were: Stephen Bannon, purveyor of Breitbart News (“news” deserves to be in quotation marks), a far right, anti-immigrant rag devoted to wiping out the last vestiges of liberalism; and Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, who remained loyal to the Chosen One when many Republicans were fleeing the ship. Trump chose Priebus, appointing Bannon a senior counselor. This was a small victory for the Republican establishment, since Bannon is the more outrageous of the two—a white supremacist and anti-Semite. As one of Trump’s top strategists, Bannon will be positioned to limit press and public access to Trump and (as another of Trump’s advisers has said), and come down hard on leaks. (It remains unclear whether or not Bannon has severed ties with Breitbart.) Trump has already harshly criticized the New York Times, and several Jewish reporters received threats during the campaign. We can expect more such pressure tactics down the road.

Then there are individuals who do have relevant experience, but of a kind that threatens the human interest. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who is interested in becoming defense secretary, is one of the most conservative members of the US senate. He has military experience, and has served on the Senate Armed Services Committee. He believes the military is vastly underfunded and lacking readiness. He can be counted on to push for a huge, Reagan-like increase in the already bloated military budget. Sessions was among the first senators to endorse Trump, favors building a wall between the US and Mexico, and is virulently anti-immigrant. He can be expected to team up with other Trump appointees who see terrorists everywhere, especially among Muslims. Together, they will close America’s door to people who take seriously the poem on the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal: “give me your tired, your poor.”)

For the crucial position of special assistant for national security, we again have two very different but equally unfortunate choices: Stephen Hadley, who was a foreign policy adviser to George W. Bush, and retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, a flamboyant Trump adviser noted for shaping Trump’s aversion to foreign adventurism. Flynn, who briefly headed the Defense Intelligence Agency before being removed for mismanagement, has been widely criticized by senior US military officers for his partisan, highly unprofessional attacks on Obama and Hillary Clinton. He has taken a soft line on Russia, and has sometimes been paid by Russia’s RT television network for his work. Hadley has more foreign affairs experience than Flynn, dealing with both the Middle East and Asia, but has a penchant for US interventions of the sort that got Bush into trouble.

Lobbyists, the very people Trump denounced during his campaign, now populate his transition team, as the New York Times has noted. These people reek of conflicts of interest—hardly a novelty, though, in American politics. Thus, a Verizon consultant will choose staff for the FCC; an energy and gas lobbyist will determine the “energy independence” team; a food industry lobbyist will pick the agriculture department leadership. Other industry lobbyists, as the Times points out, are not directly connected to the industry for which they are seeking appointees, but have well-known views that are at variance with the public interest.

Wasn’t it Donald Trump who denounced “pay to play”? It’s commendable that Trump promised in his first 100 days to ban White House and Congressional officials from becoming lobbyists for five years after they leave office. But I guess it’s OK for lobbyists to staff the government with clones.

The Washington Post characterized the list of appointees this way: “a largely homogeneous circle of middle-aged white men, often wealthy, of open ambition and large personality.” We are not likely to find more than a token number of women and minorities. But you won’t have to search hard to find Trump’s family. Here are conflicts of interest writ large. Trump plans not only to have his wife, three oldest children, and son-in-law Jared Kushner take over his businesses in a blind trust that isn’t blind. The children and son-in-law are all being considered for cabinet and other top advisory positions, and Trump goes back and forth on whether he wants them to have top secret security clearances—again, putting familiarity and loyalty ahead of competence, and blurring if not erasing the line between public and private interests.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Clearly Doesn’t Care 10/26/16

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Left Unsaid at the Third Debate  – by Mel Gurtov

Donald Trump waited one day before delivering the punch line to his sad joke, “I will keep you in suspense” about respecting the election results. “Unless I win,” he said to great applause from his supporters. One would expect no less from an exceptionally arrogant man who cannot accept defeat. (His son, Trump Jr., is a chip off the old block. He is quoted as saying that the White House would be a “step down” for his father—a classic “sour grapes” line.)

By taking this unprecedented position, Trump ensured headlines, and probably sent a few more Republican candidates down the tubes. He clearly doesn’t care, since only his “voice” counts, not the party’s. He will become another in a long list of dictators-in-waiting.

But I was also struck by what the candidates didn’t say in the third debate. Here are 10 items I (and, I imagine, many of you) would have liked to have heard discussed:

1. Climate change –Once again, barely a word about the world’s number-one long-term security issue.

2. Nuclear weapons – a discussion of next steps toward genuine arms control, meaning a minimum force (if not nuclear abolition), a halt to further refinement of nuclear weapons, and a new agreement with Russia on substantial weapons reductions.

3. Mosul– Rather than debate how Mosul is being attacked, talk about the aftermath. There won’t be a Mosul, or a Raqqa, once ISIS is driven out. As large-scale fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria has already shown, there is nothing left standing when it is over. The unspoken problem then becomes providing for refugees and the sick, wounded, and elderly survivors who cannot leave.

4. Syria –Deeper US involvement, such as by announcing a no-fly zone that Hillary Clinton favors, won’t save lives in Aleppo or anywhere else, but will almost certainly expand the US role, produce more civilian casualties, and bring it closer to a confrontation with Russia.

5. Russia –A new Cold War is in nobody’s best interest. The contrast between Trump’s know-nothingism and Clinton’s cold warriorism leaves out the possibility of a creative diplomatic approach to Russia. (Consider that the US is now charging Russia with violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, negotiated by Reagan and Gorbachev, by moving ahead on a ground-based cruise missile program. This comes on the heels of Russia’s withdrawal from a plutonium accord. Thus, the direction of US-Russia relations remains decidedly negative, hostile, and thus dangerous.)

6. China–US policy is a mix of multilevel engagement and muted conflict. While the US maintains its “pivot” to Asia, China is continuing its buildup in the disputed South China Sea islands and is courting the Philippines, whose new president Rodrigo Duterte is talking while in Beijing of “separation” from the US. Should US policy toward China change in response? Should Washington call Duterte’s bluff?

7. Energy – Candidates always talk about our needing more energy. But the future points to reliance on renewable sources, which are getting cheaper and are clearly more dependable than fossil fuels and nuclear power.

8. Relations with Israel–Will the US continue to give Israel what it wants, with occasional mild (and meaningless) criticism, or will it finally base policy on principles on social justice, self-determination, and protection of human rights?

9. Income inequality – It’s fine to talk about creating jobs, but growing income inequality in America means still more for the one percent, less for the middle and lower income classes, and thus poor-paying jobs.

10. Military spending—Where will money for increased federal spending on social needs come from? We can talk about higher taxes on the wealthy or cuts in Social Security, but axing military spending remains the taboo subject.

Presidential debates should be learning opportunities. There was a time when they actually were. These last three debates were shouting matches—undignified, personality-based, extremely limited in information or thoughtfulness. America’s “noble experiment” suffered greatly from the exercise.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Dangerous Moment 10/19/16

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

America’s Dangerous Moment  – by Mel Gurtov

On the eve of the third and (thank God!) final presidential debate, the main item still in question is not who will win the election but whether Donald Trump will accept the results. That is America’s dangerous moment.

Trump is well and deservedly known for being a sore loser. He loves to make deals, but by his own admission, he hates to settle disputes and is willing to spend lots of money on lawyers either to win them eventually or have them go on forever. Thus it is no surprise that as he faces defeat at the polls, he is stepping up his charge that the election is rigged and voter fraud is rampant. Needless to say, he offers no proof of either charge. This is what children often do: When they’re losing a game, they walk away rather than accept defeat, charging that the game was unfair. (Of course, when they win, the game is entirely fair.) Now we have the child-man Trump, who loves winning primaries but would rather destabilize the presidential election than face being a loser.

As the media (which Trump blames for the rigging) has widely reported, here and there are Trump supporters who likewise can’t stand the prospect of losing. They seem ready to commit violence at the polls or after the election. Republican officeholders around the country have offered assurances that the elections will be fair; Republicans and Democrats have people watching to see that they are. Many studies have concluded that instances of voter fraud are rare. Mike Pence has said he has confidence that Trump will accept the election results—not the same thing as rejecting charges of rigging, and like Trump’s charges, unsubstantiated. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric is going to create ugly incidents, and the last thing the country needs is a perception that the elections are illegitimate. Lock him up?

I hope President Obama is prepared to send federal marshals wherever necessary to protect the sanctity of the ballot box, just as President Eisenhower used troops to enforce desegregation in Little Rock, and President Kennedy dispatched federal marshals to protect the freedom riders and escort James Meredith to end segregation at the University of Mississippi. There are hateful, violence-prone people out there who march to Trump’s drumming. We cannot allow him to play the dictator and deny good citizens the right to vote.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Pity the Moderators 10/12/16

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

The Final Days of Donald Trump  – by Mel Gurtov

Until a few weeks ago, historians of the US presidency were fixed on Donald Trump’s meteoric and unpredictable rise. Now they will have to focus on his meteoric and unpredictable descent. October 7, 2016 will be remembered as the day Donald Trump effectively lost the election when his contemptuous, disgusting view of women, though well known years ago, came fully into public view with the release of a video that captured his “extremely lewd” (Washington Post) words. Trump’s retreat—an apology that made the laughable claim that “everyone who knows me” knows he is really not a misogynist—was a charade, since everyone knows Trump never really apologizes.

Now the Republican Party chorus line of Trump supporters is again in a pickle: Do we or don’t we dump Trump? Can we dump Trump? (Almost certainly not.) As of October 9, 44 Republican members of Congress, governors, and former officials had disavowed their previous endorsement of him, and a few even called for Trump to step down in favor of Mike Pence (who said he felt “offended” by Trump’s remarks but, incredulously, hoped the second debate would “show what is in his heart”). House speaker Paul Ryan was so “sickened” that he disinvited Trump from a campaign event in Wisconsin; Pence refused to attend in Trump’s place. But most Republican leaders rolled their eyes and, as on previous occasions when Trump has said stupid, ugly things, continued by their silence to support him.

The second presidential debate thus took on new drama. Would Hillary Clinton shake Trump’s hand? (She didn’t when they took the stage, but did at the end.) Could the town-hall style debate focus meaningfully on any topic other than his attitude toward women? (It did.) Would he try to refocus the debate on Bill Clinton’s affairs? (He tried.) Pity the moderators.

The Trump video is the second gift he has handed to Hillary Clinton. The first one was his candidacy: Had the Republicans put anyone other than Trump (or Ted Cruz) up for the presidency, I believe Hillary would have lost the election. Now the video, a second gift not only because of its damaging contents, but also because it hit the press at exactly the same time as some very damaging WikiLeaks emails that reveal Clinton’s coziness with Wall Street, which paid her very well to reassure bankers and corporate leaders of her support of free trade deals and their self-regulation. She is recorded making a distinction between her public and private views—and her private views turn out to be anything but progressive. But the Trump video stole the headlines, and was the first topic in the second debate.
Notes on the Second Debate

Only by taking into account Trump’s near-impossible situation might we say that he did better than expected. But in fact he was his usual self: unrepentant, repetitive, and consistently unwilling to give direct answers to questions. He tried to hold Clinton responsible for just about every problem, from inner-city poverty and crime to chaos in the Middle East and even his ability to use the tax regulations to avoid paying federal taxes. His best moments were attacking her on the private emails and her unfortunate remark to donors about Trump’s support by “deplorables.” His worst moments were his dismissal of moderator Anderson Cooper’s question that suggested Trump was guilty of “sexual assault” by insisting the video merely showed “locker room talk” (he used that phrase four times); his baffling shift from the video to boasting that he will “knock the hell out of ISIS”; and his promise that if elected he would appoint a special prosecutor on Clinton’s emails, telling her “You’d be in jail.”

Clinton held her ground when criticized. She showed poise, patience, and precision, and repeatedly stressed her 30-plus years of public service, particularly on behalf of women, children, and minorities. Clinton’s strategy on the infamous video, well advised in my view, was not to “pile on,” though the first question on a president’s “appropriate behavior” did lead her to say—after Trump made his usual proclamation that “nobody has more respect for women”—that the video “represents exactly who he is,” a man who “insults, ranks, and embarrasses women.”

Public and foreign policy issues did get some attention, though nothing new emerged in the well-known positions of the candidates. Obamacare, immigration, taxes, Syria, the next Supreme Court nominee, and energy were discussed. Trump did raise eyebrows when he disagreed with Pence, who has urged further US military action in Syria, and when he again defended Russia, suggesting that perhaps no hacking at all had occurred and that Russia and Bashir al-Assad are simply engaged in “killing ISIS.” (But then Trump said, “I know nothing about Russia,” which is surely correct.) And when debating energy policy, Trump claimed “EPA is putting the energy companies out of business,” which must be news to Exxon-Mobil et al., whereas Clinton offered a plan for transitioning to clean energy, relying more on natural gas and coal now but focusing on fighting climate change.

Nothing in the second debate suggests a change in the trend to Clinton nationwide. Trump’s supporters will not flee his sinking ship, but Clinton will probably make further gains among minorities, women, and independents. His long history of misogyny has caught up with him, and I cannot imagine that anything might happen to change that reality between now and election day.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Distant Memory 8/24/16

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Our Deteriorating Environment: Is Anybody Listening? -by Mel Gurtov

While the scientists have been doing their job in calling attention to the multiple ways in which environmental decline threatens the planet, we hear less and less from political leaders. Their focus is on the here-and-now—terrorism, jobs, immigration—and not on commitments to the future. Last year’s Paris Agreement on climate change seems like a distant memory.

Here is some of the latest scientific evidence, which points not only to the magnitude and immediacy of the problem but also to the interdependence of its parts:

Five scientists from the Global Change Research Institute, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in College Park, Maryland, give findings on the rate of climate change increase—“unprecedented for at least the past 1,000 years”—and therefore the need for an accelerated response.
To the now familiar melting of the Arctic ice packs—which the most recent study shows is likely to cause a sea level rise of “at least several meters”– should be added the equally if not more dangerous thawing of the permafrost, which means increasing emissions of methane and carbon dioxide. “Indeed,” Chris Mooney reports, “scientists have discovered a simple statistic that underscores the scale of the potential problem: There may be more than twice as much carbon contained in northern permafrost as there is in the atmosphere itself. That’s a staggering thought.” (Methane, by the way, seems to be the unsung villain: all the attention to carbon dioxide, Bill McKibben tells us in The Nation, detracts from methane’s equally potent heat trapping. Increased use of natural gas, plus fracking, are significantly increasing methane emissions in the U.S.)
The world’s largest forest “carbon sink,” the Amazon basin, is losing its ability to soak up excess carbon dioxide, a British study reports. In a nutshell, growth—i.e., conversion of forest land to agriculture—is outpacing forest sustainability.
Human expansion, such as in the Amazon basin, is imperiling the ecosystem itself. A study by European scientists finds that biodiversity levels have fallen below the point where the ecosystem can remain intact. Species decline of 10 percent, the scientists estimate, is dangerous; “but their study found that overall, across the globe, the average decline is already more like 15 percent. In other words, original species are only about 85 percent as abundant (84.6 percent to be precise) as they were before human land-use changes.” Climate change will add substantially to this sobering assessment.
A new UN Environment Programme report covering all parts of the globe found that well-known problems are intensifying. Two problems in particular: “One was worsening air pollution problems, driven, again, by large populations and the swelling of urban cores. Another was widespread water scarcity problems, exacerbated by climate change but also greater demand in growing cities.” More than 1,200 scientists from 160 countries participated in the study.
The first-ever international report on declining populations of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators underscores the looming threat to world food supplies and the agricultural system that supports it. The causes of pollinator extinction are well known: global warming, pesticides, and overuse of agricultural land.
New studies of flooding confirm that rising sea levels as the result of global warming are occurring at a faster rate than ever before. The coastal flooding witnessed in recent years in Miami, Charleston, and Norfolk is likely to be more frequent and prolonged in the future. Ocean levels may rise up three to four feet by 2100.
China, while promising to draw 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources, is, in fact, continuing to construct coal-fired plants—on average, one plant a week until 2020, according to the latest Greenpeace report. The extraordinary fact about this new construction is that it creates huge excess capacity, the result not of central government dictates but rather of permits for investment in coal-fired plants by leaders in distant provinces. Unless this trend stops, as much as $200 billion will be wasted, and water availability will dramatically decline.
Two pieces of good news: nuclear power is in trouble everywhere, and the ozone “hole” over the Antarctic is starting to heal. The latest “World Nuclear Industry Status Report” details the numerous nuclear power plants that have been or in a short time will be shut down. Financing problems, aging plants, and technical breakdowns are a big part of the reason; but competition from renewable energy sources is becoming the most important factor. The future energy picture is captured in this notation: “Globally, wind power output grew by 17 percent, solar by 33 percent, nuclear by 1.3 percent” in the past year, and “Brazil, China, India, Japan and the Netherlands now all generate more electricity from wind turbines alone than from nuclear power plants.” Meantime, thanks to the 1987 Montreal Protocol that phased out ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, the ozone layer is growing back—a sign that international agreements backed by a coalition of scientists do work.

Public opinion trails behind scientific findings on climate change, according to Pew Research Center polls. The urgency of climate change is felt more strongly in Europe and Latin America than in the U.S. and China. That fact is worrisome: Americans and Chinese, who live in the biggest carbon producing societies, should be the most concerned about climate change. On the other hand, Americans’ concern is rising again: the percentage of Americans polled by Gallup in 2016 who believe climate change is a worrisome problem stands at 64 percent. On the other end of the spectrum, only 10 percent of U.S. adults now discount global warming as a major problem. But before we celebrate, we need to remind ourselves that expressions of concern don’t equate to what people are willing to do to combat the problem, even at the polls. And if many of them are inclined to “let the politicians figure it out,” or hide behind “I’m not a scientist” disclaimers, we’re in great trouble.

Sadly, climate change is barely on the election-year agenda. That’s hardly surprising in the case of Donald Trump, a climate change denier. His comeuppance will be when his prize Florida hotel, Mar-a-Lago, goes under water in perhaps thirty years, along with many other coastal properties as mentioned above. Beaches and streets are already flooding in Miami. As for Hillary Clinton, she has mentioned global warming of course, but it’s clearly not a high priority in her campaign. Whether or not that changes in her presidency remains to be seen.

A final thought, which comes from an opinion piece by William Gail, former president of the American Meteorological Society: Future generations may have to start from scratch in grappling with the “new dark age” of climate-altering changes. Their learning process will have been disrupted. Models, technologies, and other resources used to identify patterns, and predict and act on Earth’s dramatic changes, will be largely useless. Our children and grandchildren have no idea what they are inheriting.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Not The End 6/29/16

Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Is Brexit the end of the world?   -by Mel Gurtov

To judge from a New York Times front-page article that appeared two days after the British vote to withdraw from the EU, the entire post-World War II global financial and political structure that the United States led into existence is now imperiled. Western democracy, financial institutions, liberal trade and immigration policies, and alliances are all under challenge now. Right-wing populism is pushing forces opposed to all these arrangements, especially when they are presided over by a supranational structure such as the European Union (EU) that may impinge on national interests. In short, the article contends, Brexit will not only dramatically reduce Great Britain’s influence, economic growth, and even size (if Scotland gains independence); it will turn the world as we know it upside down. I think it is much too early to sound the alarm bell.

To be sure, the impact on the United Kingdom is bound to be severe and long-term. It will now be “on the other side of the negotiating table” from the EU, as one observer said. That means prolonged and potentially painful new trade, travel, and work arrangements that will end up costing British consumers and firms dearly. Both the Conservative and Labour parties will be in turmoil for some time, their leaders blamed for failure at the polls and new leaders struggling to find a way out of a huge mess. Social conflict may escalate, particularly anti-immigrant violence.

But will Britain’s pain extend to others? The EU may well be weakened as it loses a major international player, particularly when it comes to dealing with Russia over Ukraine and Syria, China over human rights and trade, and large-scale economic assistance to troubled economies such as Greece’s. Even more fundamentally, Brexit may be imitated, as nationalist parties in France, Netherlands, and Sweden gain followings for closing their doors to refugees and pulling out of the EU. In the worst case, we might see the renewal of autarky and the emergence of dominant right-wing, neo-fascist parties (look at the recent vote in Austria and Marine Le Pen’s rising popularity in France)—echoes of prewar Europe.

It is far too early, however, to indulge in worst-case thinking. At the least, it remains to be seen whether Britain and other countries embrace trade protectionism or liberalization. It remains to be seen whether the UK becomes “Little Britain,” a bit player on international political and economic issues, or continues to be a strong voice in NATO, the World Bank, and other multilateral organizations. It remains to be seen whether Britain’s economy shrinks badly or, as the chancellor of the exchequer maintains, has in place the tools to weather the coming storm and sustain a strong economy. It remains to be seen if the EU can close ranks, demonstrate the value of integration, and continue to be a prominent international voice on climate change and human rights. It remains to be seen whether the imitation effect of Brexit actually comes about elsewhere in Europe, not to mention in the UK itself. Le Pen may appear to have a clear road to the prime ministership in France, for instance, but she, like Trump, may face strong reactions against the National Front’s thinly disguised racism, France-first sloganeering, and promises to overturn the ideals of multiculturalism and community.

And if you want to think about worst cases, consider the possibility—slight now, but perhaps much greater in coming months—that Brexit causes so much pain for the British people that populism turns against it. According to the Washington Post, three million Brits (and climbing steadily) want another referendum on leaving the EU. That’s very unlikely at the moment, but if negotiations with the EU result in a further dramatic fall of the pound, sliding middle-class income, high unemployment, and other developments that put the British economy in the tank, might not the next British PM have to call for new elections and another referendum?

Key figures in the “leave” EU campaign are already walking back some advertised promises, such as that the approximately £350 million a week that Britain sends to the EU would be used to fund the national health system, or that immigration to Britain would actually go down. An intriguing comment in the Guardian under the name “Teebs” raises another possibility: that David Cameron, having resigned without giving official notice of British withdrawal under Article 50 of the EU treaty, has left his successor with the option of treating the Brexit vote as a nonbinding referendum which Parliament, dominated by “remain” members, can ignore. Well, who knows? Even Boris Johnson, a vociferous Brexit supporter and likely Cameron successor, has said there’s no need to hurry about invoking Article 50. Maybe he wants to see if his optimism about Brexit during the leave-or-remain campaign was actually warranted!

What about the impact of Brexit on the US? Yes, there will be an impact: the Trans-Pacific Partnership may be dead whoever wins the presidential election, since Hillary Clinton had long since promised to renegotiate it and now must contend with Bernie Sanders’ pressure to abandon the TPP altogether. US exports are likely to suffer some (though Britain is not among the top US markets), the US trade deficit will widen some, and Tea Party-ers may feel a surge of energy. But most observers I’ve read do not see a major threat to the US economy from Brexit; and people who believe that Donald Trump’s “America First” message will get a great boost from Brexit are going to be sorely disappointed, since virtually every day he says something that reminds us of just how un-American his message is.

We also ought to consider Brexit’s potential silver linings for the US, at least “silver” from a human-interest point of view. One is that Britain will probably substantially reduce its concrete support of US policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Such a shift, though disputed by some leaders of the “leave” campaign, would be desirable, since it might prod the next US president to reassess commitments to endless war in the Middle East. On the US domestic side, ditching TPP and reassessing the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) would be welcome news for US workers, unions, and many workers abroad, as well as for the environment. A refocusing of the globalization debate on social and economic justice in the US is sorely needed. Thanks to Brexit, not to mention Bernie Sanders and many progressive nongovernmental organizations, that debate may finally get somewhere.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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