Eyeing the Uncertainty Ahead

On the weekend of February 9-10, Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal devoted her column to whether President Trump and his team will be ready for their first crisis. She indicated that it was “almost a miracle” that no crisis had occurred during Mr. Trump’s first two years, and added, “He’ll face one eventually, and there’s good reason to worry the administration will be unprepared.” She listed as possibilities Russian aggression against Europe, Chinese aggression against Taiwan, a coordinated cyber attack on the U.S. power grid, a bombing of Iran missile sites, or “an accidental launch somewhere.”

I generally think highly of Ms. Noonan. After considering her comments, I constructed a post in which I agreed that it was highly likely that the Trump Administration will face a crisis during the next two years, and that one could have little confidence that the Administration will be ready when it occurs. At that point, however, I indicated that I had somewhat less concern than she did about the possibility of a crisis being provoked by Russia or China. I contended that although these adversaries almost certainly initially relished the American domestic instability wrought by Mr. Trump, they themselves might now have concerns about the President’s erratic behavior as he is increasingly besieged at home – and how he might lash out if confronted. I suggested that both nations might well be warily eyeing the President as one would a capricious 8-year-old holding a loaded gun.

I thought it was sound. I liked it. I’m glad I didn’t publish it. I’ve realized that unfortunately, what I had been planning to submit was very possibly wrong with regard to Russia, and perhaps with regard to China as well.

Although in the last two years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has psychologically cemented his Crimean annexation, made Russia a Middle East military power broker through relations with Iran and Syria, reestablished ties with China, established significant relationships with purported U. S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and watched as Mr. Trump has sown shards of doubt within the NATO alliance, Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations recently pointed out that Mr. Putin has a track record of pushing ahead where he sees opportunity. Dr. Haass pointed not only to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 — at a time that President Obama’s influence was waning — but also Russia’s aggressive actions vis a vis NATO partner Georgia in August 2008 to “protect” two separatist Georgian regions – a point at which President G.W. Bush lacked the practical ability to intercede. Since almost any future President of either party will take a firmer stand against Russian aggression than Mr. Putin can reasonably expect from Mr. Trump, the risk to even those NATO nations within what Russia perceives as its region of influence, such as Estonia and Latvia, may increase significantly if Mr. Putin perceives that Mr. Trump is likely to be removed from office or lose his reelection bid.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his intent to fulfill the “China Dream” – to make China the world’s preeminent power. He is seeking to make China the world’s largest economy, improve its military might, and have it ingratiate itself across the globe through infrastructure projects and benign (from a power politics perspective) alliances such as Climate Change. However, China’s economy has faltered during the last two years, it faces dangerous credit and demographic crises, and Mr. Xi is facing some party disgruntlement. China still needs a significant U.S. interaction to foster its own economic growth. Although its interests over the next two years seemingly lie in catering to Mr. Trump rather than antagonizing him … Taiwan has got to look mighty tempting. American commitment to Taiwan is the only thing standing between the island and a mainland takeover. Its independence is the pebble in Mr. Xi’s shoe. Henry Kissinger wrote in World Order that a senior Chinese diplomat once told him that the Korean War was the only strategic mistake Mao Zedong ever made, because the resulting American commitment to Taiwan “delayed Chinese unification by a century.” (Seventy years have now passed since the Communist takeover in China.) The Washington Post reported this week that Mr. Xi “is growing impatient with Taiwan.” It is not inconceivable that Mr. Xi might conclude that President Trump’s clear distaste for international entanglements combined with Mr. Trump’s domestic difficulties provides Mr. Xi the best opportunity to “unify” China as Mr. Xi will have during his presidency.

We are entering what are arguably the most perilous times our nation has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Hopefully, we will not necessarily become so preoccupied with maintaining the foundations of our system during the remainder of the Trump presidency that our capability to safeguard world order is materially compromised; there’s no other nation on earth with the means or the will to do it. Whether alt-conservatives or avid progressives realize it (and at times, I doubt that either group does), Americans have as much to lose as the rest of humankind if we abandon our global guardianship role to any greater extent than we have already.

On the Foxconn Unraveling and Related Reflections

This supplements earlier references in these pages to Wisconsin’s relationship with Foxconn: a transaction that is now becoming almost undisputedly recognized as a fiasco. Despite Foxconn’s recent declaration – after jawboning by President Trump – that the facility will include manufacturing capability, upon hearing of the Foxconn statement, I had the same thought as set forth by Charlie Sykes in The Bulwark article linked below:

“[The Foxconn statement about maintaining manufacturing at the Wisconsin facility] seemed driven more by a desire to kiss the president’s ring than by business realities. So what will Foxconn do? Short term, they are likely to maintain a sort of Trumpian Potemkin village in Wisconsin to keep up the appearance that the company is doing Trump’s bidding. [My emphasis].”


Mr. Sykes clearly implies that he believes that Foxconn simply intends to wait out Mr. Trump. If the President’s political fortunes continue to slide, it would seem likely that Foxconn will ultimately quietly scuttle its Racine manufacturing plans with no real fear of U. S. reprisal … but with possibly significant consequences for Mr. Trump’s potentially-pivotal 2020 Wisconsin electoral prospects.

Mr. Sykes’ comment reminded me of a reference in a recent Wall Street Journal piece about current U.S. – E.U. trade negotiations, which suggested that in the face of aggressive U.S. demands, one of the E.U.’s strategies may be simply … to wait out the Trump Administration.  As recently as last Friday, the Journal similarly reported that in current U.S.-China trade negotiations, “…Chinese officials seem confident of a deal because they believe Mr. Trump needs the political boost … The Chinese team came [to the negotiating table the week of January 28] with very few new proposals … Instead, the officials largely reiterated [past Chinese] pledges ….”

If the President’s political standing doesn’t improve, Mr. Trump and his team may find that over the next two years, delay and retrenchment become favored tactics across a wide spectrum of those from whom the Administration is seeking concessions.

On the Decision to Withdraw from Syria

There are a plethora of aspects to President Trump’s decision to remove our troops from Syria, seemingly virtually all bad; these are being covered by any number of experts much better versed than I.  There appear to be few sensible members of the Administration nor knowledgeable members of Congress that support this decision.  Sen. Chris Coons has suggested that more than ninety members of the Senate disagree with this decision.  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford was apparently notified of Mr. Trump’s decision after the President announced it by tweet.  If this latter report is accurate, it is more than unnerving; it is scary.

It appears that departing Defense Secretary James Mattis was aware of the decision before it was made, and voiced strong disagreement.  Although every American should wish Mr. Mattis well on a personal level, his resignation is both disheartening and alarming – disheartening because he was a level, experienced voice that provided a steady hand in what is clearly a sea of chaos; alarming because it is clear from his resignation letter that he had lost the ability to curb President Trump’s aberrant impulses.

At some level, all of us can appreciate the President’s desire — magnified by his isolationist spirit – to start to withdraw from our seemingly intractable Middle Eastern involvements.  (To boot, he promised his supporters that he would withdraw, and he is manic about fulfilling campaign promises.)  These understandable motivations need to be balanced against the likelihood that the withdrawal will enable ISIS to regroup, solidify Russian influence in the Middle East, aid Iran, imperil Israel, project a lack of American resolve in other areas of the world, etc., etc.  That said, the two areas of concern that most stand out for me are the manifestly disunited process preceding the decision and the peril in which the contemplated withdrawal will place our Kurdish allies in Syria.

Our Syrian Kurdish allies have been our most effective fighting force against ISIS.  They have clearly hoped that given the support that they have provided us, we would in turn support their desire for an autonomous region if not an independent Kurdish state.  They are hated by ISIS, the Assad regime, and Turkey.  Kurds, generally, are considered a danger by Iran and Russia.  The Afghan and Iraq regimes certainly have no love for them, due to their own nations’ independent-minded Kurds.  If we go forward with this withdrawal, we are turning our backs on these dedicated allies.  They are going to be assaulted from virtually all sides.

While there are profound examples in our history of a President making decisions contrary to the recommendations of his military command and prevailing opinion (Abraham Lincoln’s conduct of the Civil War coming most readily to mind), it is disturbing that this President – untutored, rash, self-focused, at least preoccupied by if not unraveling as a result of the Mueller probe — is dispensing with appropriate procedural guideposts in the conduct of the most sensitive of his responsibilities.  And:  before ISIS-designed or -inspired bombs start going off in Paris, Berlin, London, or New York, our Syrian Kurdish allies may well have been purged.

I still see bumper stickers around Madison declaring about Mr. Trump:  “Not My President.”  With all due respect, Mr. Trump is our President (the Russians influenced segments of our citizenry, but it was still our people that pulled the voting levers), and thus, our Commander in Chief.  Military strategy falls within his purview.  Those of us calling for respect for law in other contexts need to have respect for our laws in all contexts.  However, although a certain amount of damage has already been done by the withdrawal announcement, I am hoping that Mr. Trump will ultimately reverse this decision given the widespread outcry – including from those that have generally supported him — regarding its potential consequences.

Playing Chess in the Sea of Asov

A rare [and brief ;)] second note on the same day – hearkening back to Part I of the 2020 GOP Tea Leaves post, in which I suggested that President Trump may face long odds in any quest for a second term …

For any not conversant with the Russians’ hostile actions on November 25 against Ukrainian vessels seeking to enter the Sea of Asov, a link is provided below.  The Russians’ activities clearly indicate an attempt to seal off Ukraine’s use of a waterway that it shares with Russia.  These actions have been condemned by the international community.  This Russian effort is possible only because of its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.


Russians are renowned for their ability at chess.  I would guess that President Putin is an above-average chess player, and I am confident that he well understands his place on the board.  (I would also assume that he fully appreciates the adage, “Possession is nine tenths of the law.”)  If Mr. Putin has determined, based upon the 2018 election results, that President Trump is unlikely either to seek or win a second term – and further surmised that Mr. Trump’s conduct of his office is likely to be constrained if not crippled during the next two years – he may have concluded that this is the time to begin moving aggressively to advance his position on the world board …

Link to Senior Administration Official’s Anonymous NYT Op-Ed

It is likely that everyone that has an interest has already read the anonymous op-ed piece published today in the New York Times authored by a senior political appointee of the Administration (i.e., an official that cannot be labeled a part of the President’s fantasized “deep state”).  Nonetheless, this was worth posting in the event that there is anyone having an interest that wishes to access it.


McCain’s Final Message

Although I suspect that most that care to have already read this, there is no better summation of America’s place in the world and current struggles than Sen. McCain’s last message.

My fellow Americans, whom I have gratefully served for sixty years, and especially my fellow Arizonans,

Thank you for the privilege of serving you and for the rewarding life that service in uniform and in public office has allowed me to lead. I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.

I have often observed that I am the luckiest person on earth. I feel that way even now as I prepare for the end of my life. I have loved my life, all of it. I have had experiences, adventures and friendships enough for ten satisfying lives, and I am so thankful. Like most people, I have regrets. But I would not trade a day of my life, in good or bad times, for the best day of anyone else’s.

I owe that satisfaction to the love of my family. No man ever had a more loving wife or children he was prouder of than I am of mine. And I owe it to America. To be connected to America’s causes – liberty, equal justice, respect for the dignity of all people – brings happiness more sublime than life’s fleeting pleasures. Our identities and sense of worth are not circumscribed but enlarged by serving good causes bigger than ourselves.

“Fellow Americans” – that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the process.

We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideals, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.

We are three-hundred-and-twenty-five million opinionated, vociferous individuals. We argue and compete and sometimes even vilify each other in our raucous public debates. But we have always had so much more in common with each other than in disagreement. If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country we will get through these challenging times. We will come through them stronger than before. We always do.

Ten years ago, I had the privilege to concede defeat in the election for president. I want to end my farewell to you with the heartfelt faith in Americans that I felt so powerfully that evening.

I feel it powerfully still.

Do not despair of our present difficulties but believe always in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here. Americans never quit. We never surrender. We never hide from history. We make history.

Farewell, fellow Americans. God bless you, and God bless America.

A Monday’s Sundry Thoughts

Of assorted items in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:

  1. An Op-Ed piece by Mike Solon, former adviser to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, entitled, “Tax Cuts Bust ‘Secular Stagnation’,” in which Mr. Solon asserts that the 4.1% second quarter GDP growth “… should finally discredit three popular claims made by opponents of the president’s policies: that tax cuts would blow a hole in the deficit, that corporate tax cuts would serve only rich investors, and that secular stagnation was a valid excuse for the slow growth of the Obama era.”

That we have had recent and fast economic growth is a fact.  I’m a bit surprised that Mr. Solon is willing to claim lasting vindication for the Republican measures so quickly.  A significant majority of the economists quoted in Journal pieces over the last six months have opined that the tax cut and attendant spending bill have given us a short-term economic boost akin to one’s feeling after downing an expresso … while they fear we will have a similar economic letdown as the burst wears off.  That said, this is an instance where the long term score will be what it is.  I intend to paperclip this piece to my January calendar for each of the next few years to see how Mr. Solon’s assertions bear out over time.

  1. An article entitled, “China Says It Isn’t to Blame for Failure of NXP-Qualcomm Deal,” citing China’s State Administration for Market Regulation’s recent failure to approve Qualcomm’s acquisition of NXP – which the regulator claims was due to its concerns with the deal’s anti-competitive aspects. The piece indicates that the regulator denies that its failure to approve the acquisition was related to the U.S.- China trade friction.  The account included the following:  “[Despite the regulator’s denial,] people with knowledge of the situation have told the Journal that the friction is the main reason for [the regulator’s withholding of approval].”  The article added the following observation by a China economist:  “For Beijing, which is seeking to develop its own semi-conductor industry, blocking the NXP acquisition pays an added dividend:  It hinders the growth of Qualcomm, which has a commanding position in cutting-edge chip technology.”

I can’t fault China for utilizing legal (or at least colorably legal) measures that serve as counter-measures to our retaliatory tariffs and/or slow our advancement in a strategic industry; it’s Foreign Policy 101:  “You make a move, then I make a move.”  As per a post I made a while back, I do question the Trump Administration for literally saving China telecom giant ZTE, whose activities in this country create national security issues for us and better enable China to compete against the U.S. in the race to 5G technology.  The billion dollar fine that the Administration has assessed against ZTE is pittance in the scheme of things.

  1. Yet, I would submit that the most noteworthy item was a story in the middle of the paper entitled, “In Afghanistan, U.S. Sees Signs of Peace.” The piece is not really very long, but manages to state all of the following in neutral terms:  Afghanistan’s “beleaguered” soldiers have failed to recapture significant new ground from the Taliban; civilian deaths have hit historic highs; Afghanistan is struggling to build a reliable air force and expand its elite fighters; the number of Afghan districts controlled by the government has dropped from about a half to a third in the last six months; our troops want the Afghans to close some remote check points because they’re easy targets for the Taliban; a suicide bomber killed at least 20 people at the entrance to an airport a few hours before our Gen. Joseph Votel, who oversees U.S. Afghan war operations, arrived there;  “[i]n western Afghanistan, local officials warned the American commander that the Taliban were making gains with the help of neighboring Iran”; “U.S. officials in southern Afghanistan said they needed more time to prop up an Afghan military capable of securing the country without American help”; and “[NATO] allies in the north warned that internal Afghan political divisions posed as big a risk to stability as the Taliban.”  [My italics].

At the same time, as the account dutifully records the above facts, it reports that American officials “don’t believe that the numbers tell the whole story”; that U.S. and Afghan officials have stated that the Taliban have shown a new willingness to negotiate; and that Gen. Votel indicates that the U.S. forces’ assessment “… has to account for both an objective and subjective evaluation of the situation,” that “[i]f we only focus on objectives aspects, you will miss something,” that “[w]e’re seeing some things that are moving in the right direction,” and that the state of play still leaves him feeling “cautiously optimistic.”

What follows is in no way a criticism of President Trump; I would submit that he inherited an untenable situation created by President George W. Bush that might well have been better handled subsequently by President Obama.  It’s most certainly not intended as a criticism of Gen. Votel or the American command; they’ve been given a mission, and no one ever effectively executed an endeavor by being pessimistic.  However, the juxtaposition of objective facts and American statements in this piece (which I recommend be read by anyone able to access it) sounded for me – and perhaps would for others with longer memories – unnerving echoes of 1960s’ accounts of the Vietnam War.  This is one area in which I suspect that Mr. Trump and I might privately agree:  it’s hard to see how we can achieve stable and durable conditions in Afghanistan enabling us to depart; if we can’t secure the situation, our people are sacrificing to simply postpone the inevitable; like the North Vietnamese, the Taliban and other Afghan factions understand that we’re fighting in their homeland, undoubtedly recognize that we’re weary, and realize that they can win by simply waiting us out; but – unlike the Vietnam conflict, where the North Vietnamese were simply satisfied to have us leave – it’s hard to see how any agreement enabling us to withdraw won’t ultimately facilitate terror’s following us home.  A terrible dilemma; an area in which I have genuine sympathy for the President, and heartache for our people fighting this battle …