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Time to Rethink the US-ROK Alliance

North Korea has blown up the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong. It is threatening an all-out pamphlet war in response to defectors sending anti-regime propaganda to the north. South Korea’s unification minister has stepped down after failing to meet with his North Korean counterparts during his 14-month tenure.

Pyongyang is not happy about the balloons launched by defectors carrying leaflets and dollar bills. But the real problem is that North Korea remains heavily sanctioned and South Korea has been unable or unwilling to alleviate that situation.

Meanwhile, South Korea is being pressured from the other side. The Trump administration has pushed hard for Seoul to pay more for the maintenance of U.S. bases and troops in the country: a preposterous increase from $900 million to $5 billion. South Korea countered with a 13 percent increase that Washington rejected. Only 4 percent of South Koreans believe that their country should accept the U.S. demand.

On top of that, the United States has refused to provide much if any wiggle room for South Korea to pursue economic projects with North Korea. Even as Trump attempted to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the United States maintained strict sanctions on the country.

It is very frustrating to be the object of geopolitics rather than the subject. South Korea is a weak geopolitical actor because other countries, primarily the United States and North Korea, are determining the conditions within which Seoul is operating.

President Moon Jae-in has tried to turn lemons into lemonade by presenting himself as the great conciliator. He pulled off three meetings with Kim Jong Un in 2018, two at the DMZ and one in Pyongyang, and breathed new life into inter-Korean relations. He managed to preserve a working relationship with Donald Trump, largely through flattery. Early on, he mended fences with China over the THAAD dispute. Moon did a brilliant job given the circumstances.

Much of that strategy now lies in tatters, blown up like the liaison office in Kaesong.

Some in Seoul are no doubt advising Moon to adopt a posture of “strategic patience” toward the United States. In November, American voters may well remove Trump from office, and then South Korea can negotiate with the more pragmatic and predictable Joe Biden.

But Biden’s predictability will pose an equally frustrating challenge. A Biden administration will probably accept Seoul’s offer of a modest increase in host nation support. But Biden will not likely offer a new approach to North Korea. Expect yet another strategic review of U.S. policy, followed by a continuation of the status quo: maximum pressure on Pyongyang, short of war, until it adopts a more conciliatory negotiating position. South Korea’s role as a passive actor in this drama will not change.

Perhaps it’s time for South Korea, then, to assert more independence and become a master of its own fate. Above all, that will require a reconsideration of the military alliance with the United States.

From a military point of view, South Korea doesn’t need the presence of U.S. troops on the peninsula. They serve a largely symbolic function as a concrete sign of U.S. commitment. At some point, after the resolution of ongoing negotiations, South Korea will assume full operational control of military forces. After years of arms imports, South Korea’s hardware advantage gives it a vast military superiority over the North.

The United States has been an obstacle in the way of improving inter-Korean relations. And it has forced a partnership with Tokyo that Seoul finds uncomfortable. On top of that, South Korea periodically worries that it will be drawn into the conflict between Washington and Beijing.

A cost-benefit analysis of the U.S.-South Korean alliance suggests that it no longer serves Seoul’s interests as it once might have.

Meanwhile, the United States is engaged in its own assessment of the benefits of that relationship. Under Trump, the United States has called into question virtually all of its military alliances. The burden-sharing that Trump is attempting to force on NATO, on Japan, and on South Korea is only an extreme version of what the foreign policy elite in Washington has demanded for years.

Biden is expected to take a more supportive position toward these military alliances. But the economic challenges posed by the coronavirus as well as the longer-term erosion of U.S. geopolitical influence mean that the United States will likely continue Trump’s cost-cutting approach but in more polite terms and according to a different timeline.

Instead of passively watching this process unfold, South Korea should get ahead of the curve. It should begin asserting its independence from the United States. It should prepare for the time when the two countries have a normal relationship rather than a “special” relationship.

It has been 70 years since the Korean War and the division of the peninsula. Overcoming that division, ultimately, will require altering South Korea’s relationship with the United States. The question that remains: will it be South Korea or the United States that takes the lead in changing the relationship?

By respectfully taking the initiative, South Korea can become a full-fledged actor in geopolitics. It can thank the United States for all of the help provided over the years (and hold its tongue about the unsavory aspects of the alliance like the prostitution around military bases). It can hold a party for the departing U.S. troops. And it can then set about re-imagining the North East Asian region with a unified peninsula at its heart.

Hankyoreh, June 29, 2020

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Articles Featured US Domestic Policy

Is Obama Running Again in 2020?

The U.S. presidential election in November will most likely pit current president Donald Trump against former vice president Joe Biden. These two elderly men have already begun to attack each other in speeches, in TV ads, and through their political surrogates. They are challenging each other’s fitness for office, their respective policy positions, and the advisors that surround them.

But the 2020 election will in fact revolve around a different figure entirely: former president Barack Obama.

Biden, who was Obama’s second-in-command, is unabashedly proud of the accomplishments of those eight years in office. He promises to return the country to the kind of stability and prosperity that the United States enjoyed at that time.

From day one in office, meanwhile, Donald Trump has sought to destroy as much of Obama’s legacy as he can. In the foreign policy realm, he unraveled the Iran nuclear deal, withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, and undermined the détente with Cuba, all signature Obama accomplishments. At home, he has tried to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, the universal health care initiative known as Obamacare.

Trump has been determined to tear down Obama in an attempt to elevate himself. The reasons are obvious. The United States is in an economic depression with tens of millions of people suddenly out of work. More than 90,000 people have died of the coronavirus, and the pandemic shows no sign of disappearing from the country.

Trump doesn’t have a lot to show for his three years in office. He steadfastly refuses to take any responsibility for his catastrophic failures.

Instead, Trump is experimenting with putting the blame on China for everything. He has spread various conspiracy theories – that the virus was manufactured in a Chinese lab, that Beijing deliberate misled the world about the nature of the disease – to help shift the blame.

For domestic purposes, however, Trump needs an enemy closer to home. In November, after all, he is running against the Democratic Party, not the Chinese Communist Party.

For Trump’s base, Barack Obama is the perfect scapegoat. Many Trump supporters never believed that Obama was a legitimate president. They didn’t think he was born in the United States. They suspected that he was Muslim. And the racists in Trump’s base never accepted an African American president.

Trump has attempted to blame Obama for the U.S. lack of preparedness for COVID-19. “We inherited a lot of garbage,” Trump said. “They had tests that were no good.” The Obama administration actually had no tests, because COVID-19 didn’t exist until three years into Trump’s administration.

Trump accused the Obama administration of depleting stockpiles of essential equipment like ventilators, but in fact the Strategic National Stockpile was full of critical supplies, including ventilators. The Trump administration was simply slow in distributing those supplies to states in need.

Trump has argued that the Obama administration didn’t leave any kind of plan for dealing with a pandemic. In fact, Obama’s team prepared a detailed 69-page Pandemic Playbook. The Trump administration deliberately ignored it.

But the most outrageous charge that the Trump team has come up with in preparation for the November elections is “Obamagate.”

Over the last several weeks, Trump has elaborated yet another conspiracy theory to explain why his administration has been so incompetent and plagued by scandals. The Obama administration, he claims, was engaged in sabotaging the new administration from the very start. Obama did so, apparently, by directing the FBI to entrap incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. It also, Trump has alleged, illegally wiretapped his phone and planted a spy on his campaign staff. This was, according to Trump, “The biggest political crime in American history, by far!”

Needless to say, Trump is once again making things up. His own Justice Department has investigated the charges and concluded that there was no wiretap or spy embedded in the Trump campaign.

As for Flynn, he clearly engaged in violations in his dealings with both Russia and Turkey. He lied about the details of these conversations. And he pleaded guilty to the charges. Only recently, as a result of enormous pressure coming from Trump, Attorney General William Barr announced that the Justice Department would drop its case against Flynn, prompting Trump to claim his Obamagate claims vindicated.

Flynn is not yet off the hook. The judge presiding over the case has appointed a former prosecutor to effectively take up the Justice Department’s previous charges. As a result, Trump might ultimately regret his decision because this former prosecutor is beyond his control and may dig up even more damaging information about Flynn and the administration he briefly served in.

Trump wants his allies to pick up his Obamagate conspiracy theory and run with it. He is demanding that his congressional supporters launch an investigation and subpoena Obama to testify. He is demanding that his attorney general take another look at the FBI’s handling of the investigation into interference in the 2016 elections.

So far, at least, there is considerable reluctance, even among Trump allies, to support the president’s latest imaginary conspiracy. Neither South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham nor Attorney General Barr has given any credence to Obamagate.

Trump’s strategy all along has been to throw as many accusations as he can come up with at his opponents, with the hope that something will stick. After all, he made his name politically by pushing the “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. It didn’t matter that Obama proved repeatedly that he’d been born in America.

Once again, Obama is at the center of American politics. During this year’s presidential campaign, Trump will attempt to prove that his upending of Obama’s accomplishments has benefited the country. Biden will argue that the United States has gone off the rails since Trump’s inauguration and the first step should be to put the train back on the tracks.

I hope that Obamagate never gains any traction outside of Trump’s narrow base. But Obama will cast a long shadow on the November election nonetheless. He remains more politically popular than either Trump or Biden. For Trump to have any chance to reelection, he has to drag down Obama’s reputation. So, expect the current president to continue to slam the previous president repeatedly between now and the presidential election. This campaign of mudslinging and baseless accusations is the scandal the media should focus on.

Hankyoreh, May 24, 2020

 

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Articles China Featured US Foreign Policy

Trump’s ‘Uncreative Destruction’ of the U.S.-China Relationship

Economists like to think of the wreckage caused by stock market downturns, widespread bankruptcies, and corporate downsizing as “creative destruction.” As it destroys the old and the dysfunctional, the capitalist system continually spurs innovation, much as a forest fire prepares the ground for new growth.

Or so the representatives of the dismal science argue.

Donald Trump, who is neither economist nor scientist, has his own version of creative destruction. He is determined to destroy the Affordable Care Act and replace it with his own health insurance alternative. He has torn up the Iran nuclear deal in favor of negotiating something brand new with Tehran. He has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and argues that the United States is reducing carbon emissions in its own superior manner.

The problem, of course, is that Trump is very good at destruction but, despite his previous job as a real estate mogul, exceedingly bad at construction. Indeed, there’s abundant evidence that he never intended to replace what he is destroying with anything at all. Trump has never offered any viable alternative to Obamacare or any new negotiating framework with Iran. And prior to the recent economic downturn, U.S. carbon emissions were increasing after several years of decline.

Perhaps the most dangerous example of Trump’s uncreative destruction is his approach to China.

Previously, Trump said that he simply wanted to level the playing field by placing trade with China on a fairer and more reciprocal basis, strengthening the regime of intellectual property rights, and stopping Beijing from manipulating its currency.

He was willing to go to great lengths to accomplish this goal. The tariffs that Trump imposed on Chinese products precipitated a trade war that jeopardized the livelihoods of millions of American farmers and workers. The initial trade deal that the United States and China signed in January, even though many of the U.S. tariffs remain in place, was supposed to be the grand alternative to the old and dysfunctional trade relationship.

But here again, Trump is not telling the truth. He and his team have a very different set of objectives. As with so many other elements of his domestic and foreign policy, Trump wants to tear apart the current system — in this case, the network of economic ties between the United States and China — and replace it with absolutely nothing at all.

Oh sure, Trump believes that U.S. manufacturers can step up to take the place of Chinese suppliers. More recently, as the administration “turbocharges” its efforts to isolate China in response to its purported pandemic mistakes, it has talked of creating an Economic Prosperity Network of trusted allies like South Korea, Australia, India, and Vietnam. But this is all whistling in the dark, because the administration doesn’t really understand the consequences — for the world economy, for the U.S. economy — of tearing apart the global supply chain in this way.

Just how poorly Trump understands all this is reflected in his statement last week that “we could cut off the whole relationship” with China and “save $500 billion.” This from the president who erroneously believes that China is paying the United States “billions and billions of dollars of tariffs a month.” What else do you expect from a man who received a BS in economics from Wharton?

Unlike many of the administration’s other policies, however, its hardline approach to China has some bipartisan support. Engagement with China has virtually disappeared as a policy option in the Democratic Party. Joe Biden, the Democrats’ presumptive presidential candidate, has attempted to present himself as the tougher alternative when it comes to China, a misguided effort to fend off charges of his bedding down with Beijing.

Finger to the wind, Biden is crafting policies in response not just to Trump but to public opinion. In 2017, 44 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China, compared to 47 percent who held an unfavorable opinion of the country, according to Pew. In this year’s survey, only 26 percent looked at China positively versus 66 percent who viewed it negatively. The latter category includes 62 percent of Democrats.

Writing for the Atlantic Council, Michael Greenwald sums up the new conventional wisdom of the centrists:

The United States can no longer remain content with the notion of a Chinese economic threat arising in the distant future. The advent of COVID-19 has made it more apparent than any other time including the US-China trade war that now is the moment for the United States, European Union, and other like-minded countries to diversify supply chains away from China.

That’s what makes Trump’s uncreative destruction vis a vis China so dangerous. It may not stop after November, no matter who wins the election.

The Great Disentanglement

China’s economic shutdown at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic disrupted many global supply chains, prompting a number of countries and corporations to accelerate their strategy of reducing their dependency on China for components.

Rising labor costs in China, concerns over human rights abuses there, but especially the trade war between Washington and Beijing had contributed to the U.S. fashion industry and tech firms like Apple rethinking their own supply chains. Japan, heavily dependent on Chinese trade, is using $2 billion in economic stimulus funds to subsidize the move of Japanese firms out of China.

The Trump administration is thus swimming with the current in its effort to isolate China. It has imposed sanctions because of China’s violations of Uyghur human rights. It has levied penalties against China for its cooperation with Iranian firms. And it has threatened to add another set of tariffs on top of the existing ones for China’s handling of the coronavirus.

Its latest initiative has been to tighten the screws on the Chinese technology firm, Huawei. Last week, the administration announced sanctions against any firms using U.S.-made equipment that supply the Chinese tech giant. The chief victim of these new restrictions will be the Taiwanese firm TSMC, which supplies 90 percent of Huawei’s smartphone chips.

In other words, the Trump administration is committed not only to severing U.S. economic connections with China. It wants to put as much pressure on other countries as well to disentangle themselves from Chinese manufacturing. Taiwan, of course, has no particular love for Mainland China. It battles Beijing on a daily basis to get international recognition — from other countries and from global organizations like the World Health Organization.

But the Taiwanese economy is also heavily dependent on its cross-strait neighbor. As Eleanor Albert points out:

China is Taiwan’s largest trading partner, accounting for nearly 30 percent of the island’s total trade, and trade between the two reached $150.5 billion in 2018 (up from $35 billion in 1999). China and Taiwan have also agreed to allow banks, insurers, and other financial service providers to work in both markets.

And it probably won’t be Huawei but Taiwan that suffers from the U.S. move. As Michael Reilly notes, “Huawei’s size in the global market means its Taiwanese suppliers cannot easily find an alternative customer of comparable standing to replace it.” China, meanwhile, will either find another source of chips outside the U.S. sphere, or it will do what the United States has been threatening to do: bring production of critical components back closer to home.

Another key player in the containment of China is India. Trump’s friendship with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a right-wing Hindu nationalist, is more than simply an ideological affection. Trump sealed a $3 billion in military sales deal with India in February, with a trade deal still on the horizon.

Modi, in turn, is hoping to be the biggest beneficiary of the falling out between Washington and Beijing. “The government in April reached out to more than 1,000 companies in the U.S. and through overseas missions to offer incentives for manufacturers seeking to move out of China,” reports Bloomberg. “India is prioritizing medical equipment suppliers, food processing units, textiles, leather, and auto part makers among more than 550 products covered in the discussions.”

Vietnam is another regional competitor that the United States is supporting in its containment strategy. With only a couple hundred reported coronavirus cases and zero deaths, Vietnam is poised to emerge from the current crisis virtually unscathed. With low labor costs and an authoritarian government that can enforce deals, it is already a favored alternative for corporations looking for alternatives to China. But wildcat strikes have been happening in greater numbers in the country, and the Vietnamese government recently approved the country’s first independent trade union.

Yet with a more technologically sophisticated infrastructure, China will continue to look more attractive to investors than India or Vietnam.

Don’t Count Out China

If your image of the Chinese economy is stuck in the 1980s — cheap toys and mass-produced baubles — then you probably think that severing economic ties with the country is no big deal. America can produce its own plastic junk, right?

But China is no longer hurrying to catch up to the West. In some ways, the West is already in China’s rearview mirror.

Huawei is well-known for the part it’s playing in the rollout of 5G networks worldwide. China is not only ahead of the curve in upgrading to 5G domestically, it is busy manufacturing all the new tech that will run on these high-speed networks, like virtual reality and augmented reality and AI-driven devices.

Perhaps more to the point, China is not simply part of the global supply chain. It is using these new technologies to revolutionize the global supply chain.

For instance, it’s using 3-D modeling to shorten product development. It has long integrated drones into its distribution networks. “Chinese supply chain companies are incorporating groundbreaking technologies like cloud-based systems, data analytics, and artificial intelligence (AI) and using them to redesign supply chain operations,” writes Adina-Laura Achim.

And don’t discount the role of a well-financed, centralized, authoritarian government. The Trump administration is, frankly, at a huge disadvantage when it tries to pressure companies to relocate their operations. Writes Manisha Mirchandani:

The global technology and consumer electronics sectors are especially reliant on China’s infrastructure and specialized labor pool, neither of which will be easy to replicate. The Chinese government is already mobilizing resources to convince producers of China’s unique merits as a manufacturing location. Zhengzhou, within Henan Province, has appointed officials to support Apple’s partner Foxconn in mitigating the disruptions caused by the coronavirus, while the Ministry of Finance is increasing credit support to the manufacturing sector. Further, the Chinese government is likely to channel stimulus efforts to develop the country’s high-tech manufacturing infrastructure, moving away from its low-value manufacturing base and accelerating its vision for a technology-driven services economy.  

The Trump administration is playing the short game, trying to use tariffs and anti-Chinese sentiment to hobble a rising power. China, on the other hand, is playing the long game, translating its trade surpluses into structural advantages in a fast-evolving global economy.

Will the Conflict Turn Hot?

Despite the economic ravages of the pandemic, the Pentagon continues to demand the lion’s share of the U.S. budget. It wants another $705 billion for 2021, after increasing its budget by 20 percent between 2016 and 2020.

This appalling waste of government resources has already caused long-term damage to the economic competitiveness of the United States. But it’s all the money the Pentagon is spending on “deterring China” that might prove more devastating in the short term.

The U.S. Navy announced this month that it was sending its entire forward-deployed sub fleet on “contingency response operations” as a warning to China. Last month, the U.S. Navy Expeditionary Strike Group sailed into the South China Sea to support Malaysia’s oil exploration in an area that China claims. Aside from the reality that oil exploration makes no economic sense at a time of record low oil prices, the United States should be helping the countries bordering the South China Sea come to a fair resolution of their disputes, not throwing more armaments at the problem.

There’s also heightened risk of confrontation in the Taiwan Strait, the East China Sea, and even in outer space. A huge portion of the Pentagon’s budget goes toward preparing for war with China — and, frankly, provoking war as well.

What does this all have to do with the Great Disentanglement?

The close economic ties between the United States and China have always represented a significant constraint on military confrontation. Surely the two countries would not risk grievous economic harm by coming to blows. Economic cooperation also provides multiple channels for resolving conflicts and communicating discontent. The United States and Soviet Union never had that kind of buffer.

If the Great Disentanglement goes forward, however, then the two countries have less to lose economically in a military confrontation. Trading partners, of course, sometimes go to war with one another. But as the data demonstrates, more trade generally translates into less war.

There are lots and lots of problems in the U.S.-China economic relationship. But they pale in comparison to World War III.

Foreign Policy In Focus, May 20, 2020

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

The President as Political Hit Man

Donald Trump filed his paperwork to run for reelection only hours after his inauguration in January 2017, setting a presidential record, the first of his many dubious achievements. For a man who relished the adulation and bombast of campaigning, it should have surprised no one that he charged out of the starting gate so quickly for 2020 as well. After all, he’d already spent much of the December before his inauguration on a ”thank you” tour of the swing states that had unexpectedly supported him on Election Day — Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin — and visited Florida for a rally only a couple of weeks after he took the oath of office. In much the same way that Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once embraced “permanent revolution,” Donald Trump embarked on a “permanent campaign.”

But The Donald was fixated on 2020 even before he pulled off the upset of the century on November 8, 2016. After all, no one seems to have been more surprised by his victory that day than Trump himself.

According to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury and his personal attorney Michael Cohen, even on election night 2016, the billionaire tycoon didn’t think he’d win his first presidential bid. His wife, Melania, assured by her husband that he’d lose, reportedly wept as the news came in that she would indeed be heading for the White House. Before his surprise victory, Trump described the election many times as “rigged” and seemed poised to declare the vote illegitimate as soon as the final returns rolled in. The attacks he’d launched on Hillary Clinton during the campaign — on her health, her integrity, her email account — were not only designed to savage an opponent but also to undermine in advance the person that everyone expected to be the next president.

In other words, Trump was already gearing up to go after her in 2020. And this wasn’t even a commitment to run again for president. Although he reveled in all the media attention during the 2016 campaign, he was far more focused on the economic benefits to his cohort, his businesses, his family, and above all himself. He understood that attacking Clinton had real potential to become a post-election profession.

Before Election Day, for instance, Trump was already exploring the possibility of establishing his own TV network to cater to the anti-Clinton base he’d mobilized. The relentless stigmatizing of the Democratic standard bearer — the threats of legal action, the “lock her up” chants, the hints at dark conspiracies — could easily have morphed into a new “birther” movement led by Trump himself. With Clinton in the White House, he could have continued in quasi-campaign mode as a kind of shadow president, without all the onerous tasks of an actual commander-in-chief.

Thanks to 77,744 voters in three key states on November 8, 2016, the Electoral College not only catapulted a bemused Trump into the White House but eliminated his chief electoral rival. Hillary Clinton’s political career was effectively over and Donald Trump suddenly found himself alone in the boxing ring, his very identity as a boxer at risk.

As president, however, he soon discovered that a ruthless and amoral executive could wield almost unlimited power in the Oval Office. Ever since, he’s used that power to harvest a bumper crop of carrots: windfall profits at his hotels, international contracts for his son-in-law Jared Kushner’s family business, not to speak of fat consulting gigs and other goodies for his cronies. Trump is a carrot-lover from way back. But ever vengeful, he loves sticks even more. He’s used those sticks to punish his enemies, real or imagined, in the media, in business, and most saliently in politics. His tenuous sense of self requires such enemies.

Even as president, Trump thrives as an underdog, beset on all sides. Over the last three years, he turned the world of politics into a target-rich environment. He’s attacked one international leader after another — though not the autocrats — for failing to show sufficient fealty. At home, he’s blasted the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives with a special focus on Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He’s lashed out against “deep state” opponents within the government, particularly those with the temerity to speak honestly during the impeachment hearings. He typically took time at a rally in Mississippi to besmirch the reputation of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court aspirant Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault. He’s even regularly gone after members of his inner circle, from former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to former Pentagon chief Jim Mattis, blaming them for his own policy failures.

Those relentless attacks constitute the ambient noise of the Trump era. But a clear signal has emerged from this background chatter. Since committing to run for a second term, he’s mounted one campaign of political assassination after another against any would-be successor to Hillary Clinton. Just as he ran a unique campaign in 2016 and has governed in an unprecedented manner, Donald Trump is launching what will be a one-of-a-kind reelection effort. This is no normal primary season to be followed by run-of-the-mill party conventions and a general election like every other.

Trump isn’t just determined to destroy politics as usual with his incendiary rhetoric, his Twitter end runs around the media, or his authoritarian governing style. He wants to destroy politics itself, full stop.

Last Man Standing

Over the course of 40 seasons, the American reality show Survivor has been filmed at many different locations and in a variety of formats. Still, the basic rules have remained the same. Contestants are divided into different “tribes” that must survive in adverse conditions and face extraordinary challenges. A series of votes in Tribal Councils then determine who can stay on the island. Sometimes, tribes or individuals win temporary immunity from expulsion. As the numbers dwindle, the tribes merge and individuals begin to compete more directly against one another. A Final Tribal Council determines the winner among the two or three remaining contestants.

What makes Survivor different from typical game shows — and arguably explains its enduring success — is that contestants don’t win simply by besting their adversaries in head-to-head battles as in Jeopardy or American Idol. Instead, they have to avoid getting voted off the island by fellow contestants. You win, in other words, through persuasion, negotiation, and manipulation.

The first season’s victor, Richard Hatch, “was not the most physically able of the contestants,” psychologist Vivian Zayas once explained. “In fact, out of the twelve individual Challenges, he only won one. Richard was also not the most liked. He was perceived as arrogant and overly confident, and even picked by some to be one of the first to get voted off the island.” Ultimately, what made Hatch successful was his ability to form alliances.

To put it in Trumpian terms, you win Survivor by being best at the art of the deal. At times, this requires ruthlessness, wheedling, and outright lies. It makes perfect sense that Trump would revive his stagnant career by translating Survivor into the business world in his show, The Apprentice. Less predictable perhaps was his application of this strategy to electoral politics.

The 2020 election resembles nothing less than a political version of the Survivor franchise. Donald Trump fully intends to be the last man standing. To do so, however, he must contrive to get everyone else voted off the island. The first to go was the tribe of Republican rivals he defeated in the 2016 primary and who no longer pose a political threat. Next to exit, in the general election, was the leader of the rival tribe of Democrats, Hillary Clinton.

In 2020, having won the equivalent of Survivor’s immunity prize, Trump has earned a pass to the final round in November. He faces no significant challenge within the Republican Party. In fact, nine states — Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, Kansas, Minnesota, Nevada, South Carolina and Wisconsin — have scrapped their primaries altogether and pledged their delegates to him. In the remaining primaries, he’s racking up the kinds of results that only totalitarian leaders typically enjoy like the 97% of caucus delegates he captured in Iowa, the 97% of primary voters in Arkansas, and his 86% margin of victory in New Hampshire.

As befits a political survivor, Trump has excelled at forging alliances. An irreligious and profane man, he still managed to win over the evangelical community. Despite his previously liberal record on social issues, he successfully courted the anti-abortion vote. A draft dodger, he’s effectively pandered to veterans and active-duty soldiers. And though he’s a billionaire given to grossly conspicuous consumption, he even managed to woo the disenfranchised in the Rust Belt and elsewhere. After capturing the Republican Party in this way, he then purged it of just about anyone without the requisite level of sycophancy to the commander-in-chief. In 2016, he also fashioned informal alliances with disgruntled Democrats and independent voters. Since then, he’s tried to make further inroads in the Democratic Party by persuading a few politicians like New Jersey Congressman Jeff Van Drew to switch parties. His pardon of corrupt Democratic pol Rod Blagojevich might even win him some additional crossover votes in Illinois.

Trump hopes, of course, that the 2016 alliances he forged among Democratic and independent voters in key swing states will produce the same results in 2020. Indeed, those voters may well pull the lever for him again, even if they supported Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections. It’s not just his politically incorrect personality that has won them over. During his presidency, he’s used the power of the state to direct significant resources toward such constituencies.

To compensate, for instance, for losses incurred in his trade war with China, he’s provided $28 billion in farm subsidies over the last two years. Even with the first part of a Sino-American trade deal in place, the president has promised critical rural voters yet more handouts in this election year. Although his tax cuts have certainly put plenty of extra money in the pockets of his wealthy supporters and affluent suburbanites, there’s evidence that those cuts have also advantaged red states over blue ones, just as job growth has favored such states, in part because of the help his administration has given to specific economic sectors like the oil, coal, and chemical industries.

All of this, however, could mean little if Donald Trump faces a popular Democrat in November. So the president has gone into overdrive to ensure that those he considers his strongest potential rivals are voted off the island before the ultimate contest begins.

Going After Biden

Joe Biden formally threw his hat into the presidential ring on April 25, 2019. But Donald Trump’s anxiety about running against him had begun much earlier. In July 2018, according to campaign advisers, the president was already fretting Biden might win back some white, working-class voters in swing states like Pennsylvania. However, the president promptly began to insist that Biden would be a “dream candidate,” resorting to his common and often effective strategy of saying the opposite of what he really thought.

That summer, Trump was well aware that, in election 2020 polls, he was seven points behind his possible future Democratic opponent. So he began to go after “sleepy Joe” (as he nicknamed him) on Twitter. He insulted Biden’s age, intelligence, and political record, but a true hatchet job required a sharper hatchet.

Trump had long sought a lawyer who could do some of his hatchet work for him, a figure akin to Roy Cohn, the anti-Communist huckster who assisted Senator Joe McCarthy and later served as The Donald’s mentor. Several people aspired to play that very role, including Michael Cohen, who became the president’s personal lawyer. But like former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in the end, he proved insufficiently loyal in the president’s eyes.

Rudy Giuliani has emerged as the latest in this line of fixers. He endorsed Trump in 2016 and then entered his administration as an adviser on cybersecurity. In April 2018, after the FBI raided Michael Cohen’s office, Giuliani joined Trump’s legal team. He immediately went to work exploiting his past connections in Ukraine as part of an effort to shift blame to that country for Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections. At some point in the fall of 2018, hooking up with two shady operators, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, he began to investigate Biden, his son Hunter, and the latter’s links to the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. When Volodymyr Zelensky became that country’s president in April 2019, Trump felt emboldened, thanks to Giuliani, to press the new leader to relaunch an investigation into the Biden family even though the previous effort had produced nothing.

It was an extraordinarily risky move, coming just after Special Counsel Robert Mueller, in his long-awaited report, had described Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump administration’s attempts to cover up its Kremlin connections. But that’s how much Trump worried about the man he then expected to be his foremost political rival in 2020. For reelection, Giuliani and Trump knew that nothing illicit actually had to be nailed down when it came to Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian activities. They simply had to damage his father’s reputation through insinuation.

Trump was furious at the impeachment inquiry that followed his “perfect” phone call with Zelensky on July 25, 2019. In the end, however, even though the House investigation exonerated Biden and implicated Trump, it was the Democrat’s reputation that suffered the greater hit.

As Peter Beinart wrote in The Atlantic:

By keeping Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine in the news, they have turned them into a rough analogue to Hillary Clinton’s missing emails in 2016 — a pseudo-scandal that undermines a leading Democratic candidate’s reputation for honesty. The Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee last fall launched a $10 million advertising blitz aimed at convincing Americans that Joe Biden’s behavior toward Ukraine was corrupt.

Biden’s national poll numbers didn’t actually suffer much during the impeachment investigation, but his leads in the early state primaries did. Beginning with an ad campaign in Iowa, the president seemed determined to kneecap Biden in those very primaries. True, the Democratic candidate did himself no favors with lackluster debate performances and his usual verbal gaffes. Trump’s strategy, however, helped ensure that the residents of Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada nearly voted the competing tribe’s leading candidate off the island before the big Tribal Council on Super Tuesday. Only a resounding victory in South Carolina kept Biden in the race, propelling him to a surprising comeback on Super Tuesday.

Targeting the Rest

Trump deployed his traditional strategy of attack to minimize the other Democratic candidates for 2020 as well. He ridiculed Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas,” made fun of Mike Bloomberg’s height, and intentionally garbled Pete Buttigieg’s last name. But the candidate Trump seemed most worried about replacing Biden as the party’s nominee was Bernie Sanders.

After all, Sanders has some of the very strengths that made Trump such an attractive candidate in 2016. The Vermont independent is a political outsider who can credibly distance himself from the failings of both major parties. He has an authentically populist agenda that targets the very corporate fat cats who are Trump’s closest friends, allies, and supporters. He can potentially appeal to voters who didn’t go to the polls in 2016, those who voted for Trump but haven’t been able to stomach his performance in the White House, and young people who otherwise might not bother to turn out at all.

This profile has, for instance, attracted the endorsement of popular libertarian podcaster Joe Rogan. Former Republican Congressman Joe Walsh, who voted for Trump in 2016 before challenging the president for the party’s nomination this year, has already pledged to vote for Sanders if he becomes the nominee. Even far-right pundit Ann Coulter, once an ardent Trump supporter, declared last year that she’d consider voting for Sanders if he took a harder stance on immigration. “I don’t care about the rest of the socialist stuff,” she told PBS. “Just: can we do something for ordinary Americans?”

Trump himself has expressed concerns about taking on Sanders. “Frankly, I would rather run against Bloomberg than Bernie Sanders,” Trump told reporters last month. “Because Sanders has real followers, whether you like them or not, whether you agree with them or not — I happen to think it’s terrible what he says — but he has followers.”

A significant number of those followers in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania switched parties to vote for Trump in 2016. If they were to go back to Sanders in 2020 — and if the Democrats who voted for Clinton generally maintained their party loyalty — the Vermont independent could win those three states and probably the election in November.

Of course, in his worrying about Sanders, Trump could well be using his simplistic version of reverse psychology. The president could be pretending to be scared of Sanders when he really wants to run against a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” next fall. Citing Republican Party sources, for instance, the New York Times concluded in January that “President Trump’s advisers see Senator Bernie Sanders as their ideal Democratic opponent in November and have been doing what they can to elevate his profile and bolster his chances of winning the Iowa caucuses.” These advisers are well aware that, according to a November poll by NPR/PBS and an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last March, only 20%-25% of Americans are enthusiastic about a “socialist” candidate. For these reasons, Trump urged South Carolina Republicans to cross the aisle to back Sanders in the Democratic primary in order to shut down Biden once and for all.

To play it safe, however, the president has also begun to focus a portion of his considerable ire on Sanders. He’s already mounted vigorous attacks on his approach to health-care reform, his opposition to the assassination of the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, his supposed hypocrisy as a “wealthy, fossil fuel-guzzling millionaire,” and above all that socialism of his. It’s just a taste of what’s to come. According to someone who saw the opposition research the Republicans compiled on Sanders in 2016, it “was so massive it had to be transported on a cart.”

And that’s before Trump blows all this material out of proportion through outright lies and misrepresentation.

And the Winner Is…

At the end of August, Donald Trump heads into the Republican Party’s nominating convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, with some advantages he didn’t have four years ago.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton had raised nearly twice as much money as he did. This time, the president has already collected more than $100 million. (Barack Obama had $82 million at this point in 2012.) A war chest like that supports a large ground operation eager to flip some blue states like Minnesota, New Hampshire, Nevada, and even New Mexico. Trump has the authority of incumbency, plus a reputation for invincibility that’s been enhanced by his surviving both the Mueller investigation and impeachment by the House. As long as a coronavirus pandemic doesn’t truly shut down the global economy, he will continue to claim, misleadingly, that low unemployment figures and modest growth are his personal achievements.

In a normal political contest, Trump would have to deal with a raft of negatives, including his relative unpopularity, his many policy failures, his embarrassments on the global stage, and of course, the cuts his administration has made in funds to prepare for a possible pandemic. Election 2020, however, is anything but a normal political contest. Trump has been busy gaming the system, focusing virtually all his efforts on Electoral College swing states, while Republicans do their damnedest to purge voter rolls, suppress turnout, and ignore warnings from the U.S. intelligence community of coming Russian election interference.

Donald Trump has also been hard at work stripping politics of its content, a longer-term trend for which he’s anything but the sole culprit. Still, more than any other candidate in memory, he’s boiled elections down to pissing contests and personality clashes. In addition, his nonstop barrage of lies has thoroughly confused voters about what his administration has and hasn’t done. In the process, he’s delegitimized the mainstream media, placed himself above the law, and reduced American politics to a litmus test of loyalty.

It’s not yet possible to predict the winner of the 2020 election, but the loser is already clear: the American public. Trump has sabotaged in a significant way the normal give-and-take, compromise, and negotiation once at the heart of everyday politics. He believes only in power, the more naked the better. He long ago gave up on elite opinion. Now, he doesn’t want to take any chances on the vagaries of popular choice either.

Trump believes that he already owns the island, that he’s now the survivor-in-chief. To maintain that illusion, he’ll do anything in his power to ensure that he’s never voted off the island, certainly not by something beyond his control like actual democracy.

TomDispatch, March 10, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Cleaning Up Trump’s Global Mess

The next presidential election will not likely hinge on foreign policy.

Americans will go to the polls in November to express their fervent support, or disgust, for Donald Trump. The candidates’ positions on the issues — on any issues — matter only to a dwindling number of voters who have somehow managed, over the last three years, to remain undecided about the current president’s fitness for higher office.

Of course, people are still responding to the pollsters when asked what they care about going into the election. Health care ranks number one in recent Gallup and Harris polls. The economy remains at the top of the Pew surveys, with the environment climbing to the number two position. National security, particularly terrorism, hovers somewhere near the top of the rankings.

But how many Americans will actually make up their minds in November based on these issues?  According to The New York Times, only about 9 percent of the electorate is “truly persuadable.” Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight arrives at a similar number — somewhere between 7 and 9 percent.

Even this number overstates the size of this sliver of the electorate. The last election was decided in the Electoral College by a relatively small number of voters in three swing states. So, the “truly persuadables” of California or Oklahoma will be indistinguishable in the blue or red wave. Only the undecided voters in places like Florida and Wisconsin will matter.

These undecided swing-state supervoters, who hold the fate of the nation in their hands, might not care about anything except, ultimately, the personality of the candidates. The issues that matter to them will likely be domestic: health care or the state of the economy. Unless Trump starts a war between now and November — which is not impossible, given his impulsiveness — foreign policy will not decide this election.

Still, it’s important to look at how the candidates consider the U.S. role in the world to understand what will happen after November. I’ve spent the last three years evaluating Trump’s erratic foreign policy: his militarism, his irrational trade policy, his war on migrants. If he gets reelected, expect four more years of nonstop aggression. It’s a terrifying prospect.

If Trump gets booted in November, he will leave behind considerable wreckage. How do the Dems propose to clean up this mess?

Status Quo Ante?

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The Democrats offer such a wide range of options when it comes to foreign policy that they really represent three distinct parties. Dismayed by how far to the right the party of Trump has gone, you can back a moderate Republican in the person of Mike Bloomberg. With Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, you can opt for a Democratic version of “the Blob,” Washington’s foreign policy consensus. Or you could veer to the left and embrace Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

Of course, with Trump as the reference point, all the Democrats share a family resemblance when it comes to foreign policy. They all acknowledge the threat of climate change, want to revive U.S. diplomacy, and promise to smooth over relations with allies. Any one of them would repair some of the damage of the Trump years.

But the damage goes deeper than what Trump has wrought. So, a return to the “good old days” of the Obama years — with its expanded drone attacks, failed negotiations with North Korea, and corporate-friendly trade deals — won’t be sufficient. With that in mind, let’s look at the Democratic line-up, beginning with the man who is closest to Trump in temperament and views: Mike Bloomberg.

As a billionaire, a former Republican, and a fiscal conservative, Bloomberg is the textbook middle-of-the-road option. In some ways, President Bloomberg would not alter Trump’s foreign policy. He’s a fierce defender of Saudi Arabia, for instance, and continues to believe that its leader Mohammad bin Salman is the face of reform. Bloomberg is also a big booster of Israel and Benjamin Netanyahu in particular. Like Trump, the media mogul has a fondness for Xi Jinping and doesn’t consider him a dictator.

Despite his credentials as a fiscal conservative, Bloomberg wouldn’t cut the military budget, which reflects his innate hawkishness. And he has no problem increasing surveillance of Americans and non-Americans alike.

On the other hand, Bloomberg supports rejoining the Iran nuclear deal without preconditions. He has poured a tremendous amount of his own money into battling the fossil fuel industry and promoting clean energy alternatives. He also wants to boost, not cut, immigration rates. He wouldn’t wage costly trade wars with China or America’s allies.

In other words, Bloomberg represents what the Republican Party might have looked like if it had evolved from the Yankee conservatism of George H.W. Bush instead of going off on the ruthless trajectory of the neoconservatives in the 2000s and the neopopulists under Trump. Bloomberg offers a version of Nixonian realpolitik with a green coating. He’s the kind of telegenic authoritarian that the chattering classes criticize but ultimately tolerate.

Pete Buttigieg has positioned himself as the most cosmopolitan of the candidates, the one who has studied abroad, served in the military overseas, and speaks a smattering of languages. Like Bill Clinton, he can code-switch between small-town American boyishness and Oxbridge sophistication.

In his first major foreign policy speech in July, Buttigieg offered five pretty good proposals: rejoin the Iran deal and the Paris climate accord, repeal and replace the Authorization for Use of Military Force, block assistance to Israel if it annexes the West Bank, and invest in renewable energy. In general, Buttigieg is firmly pro-Israel, but he at least is willing to break with the AIPAC line when it comes to saying yes to everything Benjamin Netanyahu wants.

Ultimately, however, Buttigieg is a younger, hipper version of the Blob. As Michael Brenes explains in The New Republic:

On close examination, Buttigieg’s foreign policy departs very little from the suburban-friendly centrism of his domestic plans. His ideas are of a piece with those of previous Democratic presidential candidates who have sought to project military strength and entrusted U.S. strategy to an inherently hawkish establishment of national security experts. Despite the salutary rhetoric, plenty of evidence suggests a Buttigieg presidency would likely extend the forever war rather than terminate it. 

Amy Klobuchar falls into roughly the same category as Buttigieg, both of them trying to navigate a centrist position among the crowded field of candidates. She wants to get tough with China on economic relations and human rights, but also end the current trade war. She says she supports the Green New Deal, but also favors nuclear energy. She has supported an expansion of drone strikes but says she wants more transparency. She supports the Iran nuclear deal but calls Iran one of the two biggest threats to the United States.

In other words, she’s an ace triangulator. But she’s also perhaps the least experienced candidate on foreign policy, as her failure to name Mexico’s president in a recent interview reveals.

The Biden Alternative

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(Photo: Munich Security Conference / Flickr)

It’s instructive to examine Joe Biden’s current Foreign Affairs piece in light of what the more popular Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and Klobuchar are offering. Biden is an unexciting candidate in many ways, and he has suffered recent setbacks in Iowa and New Hampshire. A poor showing in South Carolina — indeed, anything except an outright victory there — will probably put the nomination beyond his grasp.

Still, Biden has presented himself as the most experienced foreign policy candidate and remains a key party insider, so his views will be influential even if he falls far back in the pack.

His Foreign Affairs essay is entitled “Why America Must Lead Again,” which suggests the usual American exceptionalism. However, Biden leads not with military strength but with defense of democracy, rolling back Trump’s egregious immigration policies, and rooting out corruption.

“Democracies — paralyzed by hyperpartisanship, hobbled by corruption, weighed down by extreme inequality — are having a harder time delivering for their people,” he writes. He pledges to pull together a Summit for Democracy in his first year focused on “fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights in their own nations and abroad.” That’s a good idea that all the candidates should endorse.

Biden recasts trade policy as a “foreign policy for the middle class,” which translates into trade deals with labor and environmental provisions along with strong enforcement mechanisms. And he emphasizes diplomacy, not military force — ending the “forever wars,” ending U.S. involvement in the Saudi-led war in Yemen, negotiating deals with adversaries, going back to the table on climate change.

In fact, with its emphases on democracy, fair trade, and military restraint, Biden’s article is virtually indistinguishable from Elizabeth Warren’s own Foreign Affairs essay from one year earlier.

This reflects two things: a progressive shift in the mainstream of the Democratic Party and an inherited frustration with the Blob. Biden’s essay would have made a fine Nobel Prize speech instead of what Obama actually delivered, which was a measured defense of just war.

However, Biden is largely interested in restoring U.S. foreign policy to what existed prior to Trump, but with a certain naivete about the influence of the Blob. As such, it’s what Biden doesn’t say that’s perhaps more telling than what he does. For instance, he has little to say about the use of military force beyond the usual bromides about maintaining U.S. military superiority and resorting to the Pentagon only as a final option.

And that brings us to the progressive alternatives.

Moving Forward, Not Backward

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Rewinding U.S. foreign policy to December 2016 would be an enormous step forward. Ending Trump’s racist immigration policies, putting the nuclear button (and all other military buttons) as far from his fingers as possible, restoring a modicum of predictability to U.S. relations with allies, and rejoining key international agreements: that’s all worth supporting.

But Trump’s 2016 victory is also a reminder that the status quo is much more fragile than anyone ever expected. In office, Trump has skewered several important foreign policy certainties: that you just can’t meet with someone like Kim Jong Un, that you can’t walk away from a multilateral trade agreement, that you can’t reassign Pentagon funds to some other mission.

Democrats would do well to remember that the Blob has a Wizard of Oz quality. It speaks with the deep voice of authority, but it has no real public legitimacy. The average American is much more willing to consider radical changes in U.S. global posture than the Blob would countenance.

So, when progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren talk about significant reductions in military spending — something that Bloomberg rejects and Biden sidesteps — it’s not so unfeasible as many pundits claim.

Let’s start with Sanders. If you look at the key points of his foreign policy, they’re not that different from Biden’s. His commitment to democracy and human rights even leads a centrist commentator like Jackson Diehl to give Sanders a cautious thumb’s up on foreign policy (which is, in turn, a corrective to the Washington Post article claiming that Sanders would “upend America’s global role”).

Sanders is not an isolationist. He is simply (and rightly) skeptical of U.S. military interventions. He doesn’t just talk about the military as a last resort but wants to adjust U.S. spending priorities to ensure that the Pentagon no longer has a disproportionate effect on U.S. foreign policy. How much is he willing to cut? Perhaps wisely, he hasn’t talked about a specific figure, preferring to focus on misplaced budget priorities:

The time is long overdue for us to take a hard look at military spending, including the “war on terror,” and whether it makes sense to spend trillions more on endless wars, wars that often cause more problems than they solve. Call me a radical, but maybe before funding a new space force, we should make sure no American goes bankrupt because of a medical bill or dies because they can’t afford to go to a doctor on time.

Elizabeth Warren has been more specific about Pentagon budget cuts, and that has made her a more convenient target. In her detailed health care plan, she proposed cutting $800 billion from the military budget over 10 years. That might sound like a lot, and as a result, Washington Post columnist Henry Olsen called her a more terrifying choice than Trump.

But a reduction of $80 billion a year wouldn’t even restore the Pentagon to Obama-era levels. In 2015, military spending was $586 billion. By 2019, it had grown to $716 billion, and Trump now wants to push it to $740 billion. So, just returning to Obama-level spending, not taking into consideration the rate of inflation, would require something much closer to a $150 billion cut, nearly twice what Warren proposes.

Neither Sanders nor Warren has offered anything truly transformational akin to a Global Green New Deal (as opposed to the domestic GND that Sanders touts), a new set of institutions to govern the global economy (a New Bretton Woods), or some fundamentally different way of engaging China and Russia. Although Warren’s catchphrase has been “I have a plan for that,” it hasn’t applied to foreign policy. As for Sanders, his Eurocentrism has prevented him from offering anything truly global in scope.

Looking Elsewhere

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Fortunately, other progressives are making bold proposals that the eventual Democratic presidential candidate can raise up. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) recently laid out a package of seven bills that would truly restore the United States to a leadership position in the world — through ethical action rather than stirring rhetoric or (worse) military/economic hegemony.

Two of Omar’s proposals are simple, imperative, and yet impossible without the Democrats winning a commanding margin in the Senate: ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (the United States is the only country that hasn’t signed it) and re-signing and ratifying participation in the International Criminal Court.

A third bill, which would prohibit any security assistance to human-rights-abusing countries, is well worth considering. But it would encounter considerable resistance since the top recipients, Israel and Egypt, would face immediate scrutiny and their U.S. supporters would balk.

Three other proposals could attract bipartisan support. One would provide congressional oversight of any economic sanctions the executive branch wants to impose. A second would push the United States to take leadership on a global migration pact at the UN. A third would internationalize the YouthBuild program, which helps disadvantaged youth get the education and job training they need.

The final bill in the series, the Global Peacebuilding Act, is particularly visionary. Instead of diverting $5 billion from the Pentagon to build the Wall, this legislation would transfer $5 billion from the Pentagon’s fund for fighting overseas wars into a multilateral Global Peacebuilding Fund. Such an elegant use of Trump’s own stratagem could attract support from many Democrats and even some Republicans.

Will any of this make a difference in November?

It’s likely that anyone who would spend the time and energy to parse the foreign policy differences among all the candidates has already made up their mind about Trump. Moreover, what will win the presidential election is power, not policy: power of rhetoric, but more importantly power on the ground.

And there’s one more element. Particularly with his foreign policy, Trump has gradually whittled his base of support down to the nativists, those who despise “shithole” countries, who want nothing but larger walls, who want to quarantine the United States from foreign influences of all sorts. Trump’s rivals, by offering a more inclusive global vision, could motivate a larger turnout among the foreign born and the larger diaspora communities.

Perhaps in this way, at least, foreign policy can play a pivotal role in the election where it counts: getting out the vote.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, February 19, 2020

Categories
Articles China Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Trump’s Undeclared State of Emergency

Trump’s public appeal to China last week to help with uncovering dirt on the Biden family was both a brazen flouting of the law and (it pains me to say) an astute political tactic.

“China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine,” Trump announced to reporters only moments after saying, about trade talks with Beijing, that “if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power.”

Trump’s move coincides with two other critical revelations in the impeachment scandal.

The first is the release of texts that provide the proverbial smoking gun: the Trump administration was indeed promising a quid pro quo of a White House visit and/or the unfreezing of military aid for Ukraine’s assistance in digging up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Then came the announcement of a second whistleblower with direct knowledge of the phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Taken together — the appeal to China, the damning text messages, the second whistleblower — these developments add up to what I’d previously written was missing: a slam dunk in the impeachment of the president. He broke the law. He has tried to cover up the breaking of the law. He continues to break the law — and is defying the constitution by refusing to cooperate with Congress on its investigations.

But Trump, the Republican Party, and their captive media occupy a different reality, where the president is up against a vast conspiracy of corrupt officials, do-nothing Democrats, and biased mainstream journalists. This part of their story is obvious: it’s reiterated over and over in Trump’s tweets, Republican talking points, and Rush Limbaugh rants.

What’s not so obvious is that this conspiracy extends to the rule of law. According to this skewed version of reality, corruption has penetrated the bedrock institutions of American society: the political sphere, the intelligence agencies, the mainstream media. Corruption has transformed the very fabric of politics, culture, and law.

To root out corruption, then, it’s necessary to step outside the rule of law. Donald Trump hasn’t declared a state of emergency. But he is acting as if he has (which, in case you’re wondering, is illegal). His decision not to cooperate with congressional inquiries, including the most recent impeachment inquiry, is also part of this unstated state of emergency.

The phone call with Zelensky was “perfect” not because it conformed with the conventional understanding of presidential conduct, but because it corresponded to Trump’s unstated state of emergency. His appeal to China was equally an attempt to normalize his acts according to this deep state of emergency.

Trump has tipped over the political chessboard because he believes that it’s warped. He is continuing to play nonetheless, but on his own board, with his own pieces, and according to his own rules.

What makes Trump’s move so fiendishly clever is that his paranoid style of governance has a grain of truth to it. The chessboard is warped.

A rule of law that permits a vice president’s son to benefit so blatantly from his father’s position, maintains a revolving door that transforms “corruption” into business as usual, and creates a state patronage system (the military-industrial complex) of astonishing size and influence is something of a contradiction in terms.

The rules are determined by law — except when they’re determined by power. American politicians have long traded on their government connections with foreign leaders for private gain. That they did so only after leaving office, in accordance with the dictates of the rule of law, only gives the corruption a veneer of respectability.

Trump, of course, doesn’t even respect this veneer. His violations of the emoluments clause of the U.S. constitution indicate that he is so impatient to use his office for personal gain that he isn’t waiting to leave the White House to start his influence-peddling. Trump’s chessboard, in other words, is even more warped than the conventional one.

The astute reader might ask how Trump can simultaneously challenge and benefit from the corruptions of the status quo. You could have asked the same question of Nicolae Ceausescu, the leader of Romania, who purported to lead an egalitarian workers’ state but lived in unbelievable opulence. Leaders who operate according to unstated states of emergency can get away with such contradictions through outright repression or extraordinary lies. Trump, so far, has relied on the latter.

Such a state doesn’t last forever. On December 21, 1989, Ceausescu was giving what he believed to be a routine speech in Bucharest. This time, however, behind the first row of supporters, the crowd began to boo. The look on the leader’s face when he understood what was happening was priceless. It was his last public appearance. The next day, he and his wife fled the city by helicopter. They didn’t get far. They were tried and executed on Christmas Day.

At what point will Trump have his Ceausescu moment, when he realizes that the base he’d always counted on has turned its back on him?

China Syndrome

Donald Trump has alleged that Hunter Biden made $1.5 billion in payoffs from Chinese businesses. As with pretty much everything that comes out Trump’s mouth, this allegation is false. Biden’s son served in an unpaid capacity on the board of a U.S.-China joint venture, BHR Partners. In October 2017, Hunter Biden invested somewhere around $420,000 to acquire a 10 percent stake in the company and reportedly hasn’t received any compensation from his involvement in BHR.

There was no kickback. There was no collusion (Joe Biden wasn’t in government in October 2017). So, it’s a non-story.

But again, it’s a non-story according to the finer points of the law. Let’s face it: Biden’s son was following in the time-honored tradition of trading on his political influence. Indeed, it’s what Ivanka Trump, Jared Kushner, and Kushner’s sister Nicole Meyer all have done with China as well – receiving most-favored-person status from the country after paterfamilias Donald Trump had already taken office.

In other words, the public is primed to believe that if you lie down with the Chinese, you wake up with pay-offs. To quote only the most salient example, Henry Kissinger, who helped negotiate détente with Beijing in the 1970s, went on to make tens of millions of dollars in consulting fees from parlaying his contacts once he left government.

Even if Hunter Biden wasn’t making out like a bandit in China, there’s the huge monthly salary he was pulling down as a board member of the Ukrainian energy company. As David von Drehle points out in The Washington Post, sober working people making $50,000 a year may be skeptical of a system in which a vice president’s addicted son reportedly collected that sum every month.” It’s not corruption by the conventional definition, but it’s unseemly.

Corruption: that’s the word that Trump is trumpeting, over and over. It’s a tricky strategy. Trump knows corruption when he sees it because, well, he’s soaking in it. But as long as his base continues to view him as an anti-corruption fighter, a drainer of the swamp instead of a denizen of it, the president will continue to hold his party captive and fend off impeachment charges.

Perhaps, however, Trump has overreached this time. The latest polling suggests that nearly 20 percent of registered Republicans now want the House to vote to remove the president from office.

Meanwhile, Trump is upsetting his party in other ways.

Phony Phone Calls

The phone calls that Trump has with foreign leaders read like something out of an absurdist play: Trump Ubu.

He congratulates Vladimir Putin on his election victory even though his advisors pleaded with him beforehand not to. He promises to help Saudi Arabia join the Group of Seven. He praises Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous drug policy. In his quest for a Nobel Peace Prize, he tries to enlist the help of Japan’s Shinzo Abe. He drones on about chocolate cake with China’s Xi Jinping.

But his most recent phone conversation with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan has generated some bipartisan criticism — and all because Trump is defying the Pentagon and trying to pull U.S. troops out of Syria. “It is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home,” Trump tweeted.

The problem is that Trump is also giving Turkey a green light to strike against the Kurds in northern Syria. Trump’s critics, including those in the Republican Party, are worried that the Islamic State will re-emerge and the abandonment of a steadfast Kurdish ally will make others around the world think twice about siding with a fickle United States. Trump’s close pal in the Senate, Lindsey Graham (R-SC), called the president’s move “a disaster in the making.”

It’s not clear if Trump will actually go ahead with this plan any more than he followed through on his earlier declaration of a U.S. withdrawal from Syria. But all it takes is one phony phone call for Republicans to realize that the commander-in-chief does whatever he wants without any consideration of the party’s stated goals.

The Republican Party is not going to get bent out of shape about Trump breaking the law. Or Trump’s involvement in corruption. Or even his obstruction of justice. He has been engaged in these activities since day one. Republicans will continue to blather on about how his peccadillos don’t rise to the level of the “high crimes” required for impeachment.

But the president, in his “great and unmatched wisdom,” may yet piss off his party on some other foreign policy issue. He might, for instance, make a deal with Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, or some other disreputable rival autocrat that the Republicans just can’t stomach. Perhaps he’ll impulsively pull the United States out of NATO. Or maybe he’ll start savaging a critical mass of Republican lawmakers out of sheer pique.

Then Republicans will be forced to acknowledge that Trump’s unstated state of emergency is an authentic emergency that requires — for the sake of the Constitution, democracy, and rule of law — the removal of the perpetrator. They won’t do so out of principle. They will do so only out of expediency: to save their party and their own skins in the next elections and maybe the courtroom as well.

That’s when Trump will appear in front of the crowds to give a speech — perhaps during the impeachment process, perhaps at the height of the 2020 election campaign — and hear nothing but crickets from Graham, Fox News, and his previously rock-solid base. Maybe there will be even some boos. That’s when Trump will have his Ceausescu moment. And that will be the last moment of his inglorious political career.

Trump Force One — and a growing majority of the country — awaits this moment.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 9, 2019

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For Trump, Regime Change Begins at Home

A month after he won the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump gave a speech in North Carolina where he declared that “we will stop racing to topple foreign regimes that we know nothing about, that we shouldn’t be involved with.”

It’s still commonplace for foreign policy analysts of the leftright, and center to distinguish Trump from his predecessors by pointing out that he hasn’t pursued the regime-policies of either neoconservatives or liberal internationalists. After all, there’s been no Iraq or Libya on Trump’s watch.

It’s a pretty myth.

True, Trump has no beef against dictators who write him “beautiful” letters, so regime change is off the table for the time being with North Korea. But Trump developed a specific animus against Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and did what he could to push him out of office. First, Trump talked about the military option. Then he ratcheted up sanctions against the country. Finally, he supported what might have been a coup if the plotters hadn’t made such a mess of it.

With Iran, the regime-change policy has been both subtler and more aggressive. Rather than encourage a coup within the country, Trump has developed a variety of different strategies to squeeze the regime.

First, he withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal (over the objections of a number of his key advisors). Then he imposed ever-more punitive sanctions on the country and pressed hard against nations that continued to import energy from Tehran. Finally, he has continued to stand by Saudi Arabia as it seeks to destabilize Iran.

So far, Trump hasn’t sent in the soldiers. But the goal of the administration remains the same.

Of course, Trump denies that regime change is his objective. But it doesn’t really matter what Trump says. His rhetoric floats above reality like smog over a city.

Rather than debate the finer points of Trump’s objectives — which change from day to day, perhaps minute to minute — let’s reverse the lens. If it’s difficult to determine precisely what Trump’s intentions are toward countries he knows nothing about, it’s much easier to figure out what Trump wants to do in the one country he does know something about.

Trump wants regime change in the United States. He’s not interested in changing the leadership in the White House, as long as he’s occupying the Oval Office. But he does want to change the very nature of the government.

Fox News and others love to talk about a “coup” by a “deep state” desperate to remove Trump from power. It’s but one more example of the radical right projecting its covert hopes and fears onto its adversaries.

The coup is real. But it’s all about Trump transforming American governance from within and expanding executive power to the max. It’s not Trump vs. the “deep state.” It’s Trump vs. the state, full stop.

Incredibly, Trump has been busy enlisting the services of foreign leaders who can help make that happen. And it’s this malfeasance — on top of his other crimes — that has now driven Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats to attempt a regime change of their own.

From Norway to Ukraine

Trump has flouted U.S. rules and regulations, relying on the incorrigible American love of outlaws to maintain his political base. The publication of the Mueller report, which detailed the wrongdoing of the Trump campaign and its connections to Russia, should have made the president think twice about once again enlisting the services of a foreign government to improve his own electoral chances.

But when asked by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos on June 13, Trump responded, “If somebody called from a country, Norway, ‘We have information on your opponent,’ oh, I think I’d want to hear it…It’s not an interference, they have information — I think I’d take it.” Federal law, of course, prohibits the solicitation of anything of value from a foreign government in connection with an election.

The next month, Trump flipped the script. Instead of a foreign leader phoning in with a juicy morsel of information, Trump himself was trying to extract the intel from an unwilling or at least uncomfortable interlocutor. In a phone call with Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump reportedly pressured the Ukrainian president to initiate a corruption investigation into the business dealings of Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son.

Someone in the intelligence community who listened in on the phone call — and possibly Trump’s other communications with foreign leaders — decided that the president crossed a line. This person blew the whistle, which is how the phone call came to public notice.

Trump admits that he talked about Biden with the Ukrainian leader. He even admits that he put a hold on U.S. military aid to Ukraine prior to the phone call. But Trump denies any wrongdoing, including any hint that U.S. aid would stop flowing if Zelensky didn’t comply with the request.

Trump, as usual, has tried to turn the tables by accusing both Joe Biden and his son of impropriety. Hunter Biden had served on the board of a large Ukrainian natural-gas company, Burisma, while his father was vice president.

Although there is no evidence that Hunter Biden’s position affected Obama administration policy toward Ukraine, that hasn’t prevented Trump’s attack dog, Rudy Giuliani, from trying to manufacture such a connection. In 2018, Giuliani started building a case that Biden pressured the Ukrainian government to fire its prosecutor general Viktor Shokin because he was investigating Hunter Biden and Burisma’s co-founder Mykola Zlochevsky.

As Adam Entous explains in The New Yorker:

There is no credible evidence that Biden sought Shokin’s removal in order to protect Hunter. According to Amos Hochstein, the Obama Administration’s special envoy for energy policy, Shokin was removed because of concerns by the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the U.S. government that he wasn’t pursuing corruption investigations. Contrary to the assertions that Shokin was fired because he was investigating Burisma and Zlochevsky, Hochstein said, “many of us in the U.S. government believed that Shokin was the one protecting Zlochevsky.”

Facts be damned, Republican supporters of Trump are scrambling to get ahead of the scandal. The top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes (R-CA), reading the old cue cards from Russiagate, immediately blamed everything on Hillary Clinton and the opposition research she’d dug up on Hunter Biden’s Ukrainian connections to counter his father’s possible presidential candidacy in 2016. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) urged Trump to release a transcript of the phone conversation because he’s convinced that it will exonerate Trump.

It’s not the scandal itself that reveals Trump’s executive overreach. It’s his blithe disregard of all rules in his quest for absolute power. He simply refuses to be handcuffed (literally and figuratively).

In a democracy, the state — its checks-and-balances, its bureaucracy — is the box that contains any potential autocrats. The Republican Party adopted its anti-statist philosophy largely to benefit businesses and the wealthy. Trump has a different agenda. He’s against the American state largely to benefit himself.

The Siren Call of Impeachment

The Democrats have been in a quandary since practically day one of the Trump administration.

Here was a president whose crimes and misdemeanors preceded his assumption of office. But for the first two years of Trump’s term, the Democrats were a minority in both houses of Congress. After 2018, they controlled the House, which meant that they could launch a series of investigations that the president and his team have stonewalled. Because the Senate remains in Republican hands, impeachment continues to be a long shot.

And yet, Trump continues to act with impunity. So, the Ukraine call has emerged as the proverbial line in the sand. A number of prominent Democrats threatened to proceed with impeachment if Trump didn’t disclose the full contents of his call with Zelensky. Some otherwise centrist Democrats, like Dean Phillips of Minnesota and Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, joined the bandwagon.

Trump backed down by promising to release both a transcript of his phone call with Zelensky and the whistleblower’s complaint. But Pelosi decided on Tuesday to press forward with an impeachment inquiry nonetheless. Right now, it looks as though the impeachment inquiry will focus only on the Ukraine matter rather than the other obstruction and financial issues that congressional committees are investigating.

Impeachment of Trump, at this point, is both a legal and moral necessity. It’s also very likely a political trap.

Trump relishes the role of an underdog, persecuted by the powerful. It’s what enables him to connect to a political base that, aside from his deep-pocket funders, feels disempowered by a rigged economy and a sclerotic political system. Impeachment, for this constituency, vindicates the narrative of the “deep state.”

Indeed, it suggests that the entire state is out to get Trump – which it is and should. But impeachment is the only thing that can turn the most powerful man in the world into a cornered victim and thus, for a significant number of American voters, a sympathetic character.

Even better for Trump if impeachment hinges on this particular scandal. The rough transcript of the phone call, released on Wednesday, does not exonerate the president. It demonstrates that he brought up the Bidens as part of an implied offer of greater assistance to Ukraine. But it’s not a slam-dunk either, since there was no specific quid pro quo. A more comprehensive transcript as well as the whistleblower’s full complaint might provide more details. But inevitably there will be room for interpretation, and Trump will drive the bulldozer of his reelection campaign right through that gap.

Public opinion, at this early juncture, is against impeachment. According to a Quinnipiac poll released on Wednesday morning, which doesn’t reflect the events of the last few days, shows that 37 percent of Americans favor impeachment and 57 percent are opposed. Virtually no Republicans support impeachment.

Yet, if the Dems had continued to equivocate, they would have appeared weak and lacking the leadership necessary to govern the country. Appeasing Trump is not a good election strategy.

There’s no easy way out of this impossible situation. But let’s think inside the box. Or, rather, inside the boxing ring.

At a rally last year, Biden said of Trump, “If we were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.” Trump responded by tweet: “He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way.”

So, let Trump and Biden fight a battle royal, just the two of them out back of the White House. If the country gets lucky, they’ll knock each other out — and out of the running for 2020. It would be a gift of regime change for both political parties. And maybe someone who’s not so punchdrunk will occupy the Oval Office in 2021.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 25, 2019