Out of Africa: Part I

In the first half of September, we traveled to Kenya on Safari.  This site would make a poor travel log, so suffice it to say that our adventure offered everything we had hoped for — the opportunity to see innumerable African species, including all of those in the American imagination, in their domain (i.e., the “bush”), while (happily) not having to spend our nights in accommodations that one associates with big game hunters of a century past.  If you have the inclination and means to visit Africa, don’t put it off; it will be one of your most memorable experiences. 

Kenya became an independent nation in 1963, emerging from what had been (mostly British) colonial rule existing since the late 19th century.  It has been said that since achieving independence, the country’s leadership — a few families have effectively controlled the government — has been too slow to break down the vestiges of colonialism.  We arguably saw indications of that throughout our excursion; virtually all of the guests everywhere we stayed were Caucasian or Asian.  It is a land where tribal traditions and constitutional government are in search of peaceful accommodation, one of stark contrast between enduring customs and onrushing modernity. 

One visiting Kenya cannot help but recognize the material benefits we in America have, and the precious democratic practices we seemingly remain at risk of frittering away.

Kenya had elected a new president, William Ruto, shortly before we arrived.  The outgoing president, Uhuru Kenyatta (son of Kenya’s first president), was stepping down after two terms in accord with the Kenyan Constitution.  Mr. Ruto’s opponent, Raila Odinga — who had lost notwithstanding an endorsement from Mr. Kenyatta (Mr. Odinga, having lost five presidential elections, is somewhat the Harold Stassen of Kenya) — had appealed Mr. Ruto’s victory to the nation’s highest tribunal; we arrived in the country two days before the tribunal was to decide on his appeal.  Kenya has a history of unrest arising from disputed elections; rioting attendant to a 2007 election dispute claimed over 1,000 lives, and lesser disturbances accompanied a challenge to Mr. Kenyatta’s 2017 election.  We were aware at the time we arrived that there was some concern throughout the country, despite both candidates’ and Mr. Kenyatta’s pleas for calm, that disturbances might follow any final declaration upholding Mr. Ruto’s victory; however, when his victory was sanctioned, all remained quiet. 

Our safari guide was Manson [since I haven’t sought this incredible gentleman’s consent to refer to him, not his real name], about 40.  Descended from a father of the Maasai tribe and a mother from the Kikuyu tribe, tribal mores caused Manson to leave his Maasai village in his middle-school years.  He was taken in by a Catholic mission, and completed advanced studies under the mission’s auspices.  Manson is a naturalist with a specialization in ornithology, and possesses a seemingly-encyclopedic knowledge of the habits of East African birds (which he used as indicators to locate Africa’s celebrated wildlife for us in unexpected parts of the parks).  Because of the just-concluded Kenyan presidential election, politics naturally came up early during the trip; Manson observed with satisfaction that his country had finally achieved a transfer of presidential power without riots.  He follows international affairs; after he asked me whether I thought America should negotiate with Russia over Ukraine, and I indicated that I then opposed negotiation because I didn’t think it would stop Mr. Putin from continuing to stir unrest among democracies, he immediately responded, “I completely agree.”  He was then in the process of building a house – almost unheard of except for affluent Kenyans.  He has two daughters, 20 and 14.  His elder daughter had recently been awarded a green card to the U.S. through the U.S. Diversity Visa Program (known as the “Green Card Lottery”) and he was thrilled.  He said to me, “In America, if you work hard, you can get ahead.”  While some born and reared in the U.S. might question the statement, from the perspective of a Kenyan, it is undeniable.

Our excursion took us both north and west of Nairobi to visit the wildlife preserves; it is hard for any American who has never been in a Third World country to imagine life in rural Kenya.  While the flora is gorgeous and the soil the rich burnt orange of Utah, Kenyans residing in remote villages have desperately limited means.  Manson mentioned how much improved the roads surrounding Nairobi had become during Mr. Kenyatta’s term as president, but outside the city the roads were, to an American, barely passable.  (“Were most roads in Kenya like this ten years ago?” TLOML asked as we pounded along a particularly sacroiliac-abusive stretch.  “Oh, this is much better,” Manson replied, without any trace of irony.)  Shanty hamlets and markets exist on the wayside amid plastic bottles and refuse for which there is no means of disposal.  People (including small children), cattle, goats, even camels walk perilously close to vehicles whizzing along the road.  Tiny thatched huts (it sounds like a cliché, but it’s not), smaller than almost any room in any American home built in the last century, dot the surrounding fields, housing whole families.  There is very little health insurance.  Where the roads are reasonably traversable, speed is maintained not by stoplights but by mountainous speed bumps – and at every speed bump, people approach the slowing cars from the side of the road to try to sell produce, water, or souvenirs.  (Manson was amused when I suggested that they were “businessmen,” and referred to them as such for the rest of the trip.)   

Early in our trip, Manson described how difficult life can be for elementary-school-aged Kenyans, particularly outside Nairobi.  There are frequently over 100 in a class, with limited facilities and poorly-paid teachers; many times the schools receiving the tuition fail to pay the teachers, who in turn therefore sometimes demand payment directly from the students and send them away if they cannot comply.  (Unexpectedly, grade school children are better dressed than some adults because many schools require uniforms.)  Manson indicated that in his early years, he himself had at times been sent home from school because his family lacked the money to pay his teachers.  At about the mid-point of our trip, our van broke down between preserves.  While Manson called back to Nairobi for assistance, the delay provided the opportunity to walk around (for safety purposes, most time in wildlife preserves is spent in the vehicle) and appreciate the vista.  A middle schooler, Sam, walked by and then stopped while we waited by the side of the road.  He was stoic, and didn’t speak much English, but it became clear that he understood it perfectly.  Random motorists would stop, come over and speak with Manson in Swahili, and look under the hood of our vehicle; sometimes tinkering would go on; more talk would ensue; the engine wouldn’t start; and they would leave, soon followed by other well-meaning, but equally ineffective, Good Samaritans.  Sam and I watched this cycle several times.  Finally I quietly asked him, “Do you think any of these guys know anything about cars?”  For a moment his deadpan disappeared; I got a brilliant smile, and he shook his head.  At some break in the (in)action, Manson came over and asked Sam why he wasn’t in school.  It turned out that he had been sent home because he couldn’t pay his teacher.  Manson was clearly taken back to his own past, and asked how much money Sam needed to be allowed back in school:  it was 500KSh – 500 Kenyan shillings.  Manson and I split the needed tuition.  Before being too struck by our generosity, be aware:  at the time, 500KSh amounted to $4.35 – another stark indication as to how far many Kenyans’ material means differ from our own.

To avoid unduly taxing your eyes or your stamina, the remainder of this note will appear in Part II.

On Ukraine Today

My sense – although the impression, even if now accurate, can be dispelled by NATO allies’ future decisive action – is that Ukraine might be starting to slip away.

“Putin knows that unexpected events can and will blow things off course in domestic and foreign policy. … This means he focuses on contingency and adaptive planning to deal with them. … Having back-up plans means learning from past mistakes as well as successes.”

  • Mr. Putin; Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy

After initially misunderstanding Ukrainians’ devotion to a Ukrainian state, underestimating Ukrainian grit and determination, grossly overestimating the competence of the Russian military, misjudging NATO unity and resolve, counting on a cold winter to cause Europeans to prioritize Russian fuel over Ukrainian sovereignty, and hoping that vague threats of nuclear weaponry would deter NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin has adjusted his war strategy to four pillars:  holding the Ukrainian territory Russia now controls; terrorizing the Ukrainian population through continuous missile strikes (simultaneously destroying symbols of Ukrainian heritage); transitioning Russia to a wartime footing by mobilizing Russian industry for military production while conscripting a massive number of additional soldiers (i.e., following a centuries-old Russian tradition of feeding untrained Russian bodies into the meat grinder to compensate for Russian officer cronyism and incompetence); and waiting the West out. 

Mr. Putin is now literally seeking to grind it out.  Evil.  But savvy.

For much of the conflict, I consider the United States’ response to have been almost pitch-perfect.  The Biden Administration first sought to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine by publicizing its intelligence on Russian plans and deployments.  President Joe Biden then masterfully marshaled NATO unity and action.  Thereafter, understandably concerned that the conflict could lead to nuclear war (although those fears currently appear abated), America and its NATO allies have (in then-Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby’s word) “curated” their military assistance to Ukraine – a tit for every Russian tat – an approach designed to maintain a fiction that NATO is not at war with Russia.

The irony is that Mr. Putin maintains no such illusions; he considers NATO to be at war with Russia.  You know what?  He’s right. 

At the time this is typed, NATO allies are divided over whether to and which tanks to provide to Ukraine.  Reportedly, the United States doesn’t want to provide its Abrams tanks to Ukraine because … they require a lot of training and need a lot of gas.  Germany isn’t yet willing to send its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine because … it isn’t.  (Germany reportedly is willing to let other NATO nations send their Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, and the U.K. is sending 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks.)  This follows diddling over whether to and who should provide planes to Ukrainians, diddling over which and how many missile defense systems are suitable for Ukraine (so far, we’ve provided one Patriot system), and hand-wringing over what firepower has too much range to provide to the Ukrainians.  (God forbid that they start taking the battle to Russia in Russia, although this might cause some Russians to question Russian media claims about Russia’s success.)

Last week, President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass made a point that resonated with me:  slow escalations rarely work; the enemy simply adapts.  He used Vietnam as an example, and although that war otherwise has little in common with the Ukrainian conflict, the analogy is apt.  NATO has slowly escalated, and Russia has correspondingly adapted.

It’s time for America and its NATO allies to conceptually and viscerally internalize the fact that although at this point only Ukrainians are actively fighting and dying, NATO is indeed at war (albeit so far conventional) with Russia.  Poland understands this reality – it has experienced life under Russian rule – which is why, despite its elected leadership’s increasingly illiberal leanings, it is among the NATO allies most aggressively assisting Ukraine’s defense.  Finland and Sweden understand Russia’s voraciousness when it is guided by a KGB soul such as Mr. Putin, which is why they seek NATO membership after decades of reluctance.  (The Biden Administration should put maximum pressure on Turkey and Hungary to vote to admit Finland and Sweden to NATO immediately.  NATO Treaty provisions are what they are, but how to deal with two states that are now at best quasi-allies is an issue that the Alliance needs to consider.)  Once NATO as a whole accepts the reality that it is at war with Russia, the steps that follow largely dictate themselves.  In America’s case, I would submit that we should refrain only from providing Ukraine nuclear weaponry and the resources required to help rebuff any Chinese invasion of Taiwan; otherwise, within the confines of the Ukrainian aid package Congress passed at the end of 2022, we should furnish Ukrainians whatever we can that they either know or can be trained how to use.  

Our national debt is now approaching World War II levels.  I wholeheartedly agree that at some time in the not-too-distant future, we do need to lay a plan to curb our spending and increase our revenues.  Given their past support of costly initiatives of former Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, any protests for fiscal conservatism put forth by Republicans during this Congress will obviously be patently hypocritical, but I would further submit that any such claims asserted by MAGAs in the context of limiting future aid to Ukraine will also amount to a cloak for anti-democratic aims.  No matter the size of our debt, this is NOT the time to back off on aid to Ukraine – a position I believe to be shared by sensible members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is frequently compared to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  During the last year, I have frequently turned to the World War II speeches Mr. Churchill rendered in the months after France fell to the Nazis and before the United States entered the war.  It is clear that Mr. Churchill then believed that if Britain could just hold on long enough, America’s entry into the war – with its military and manufacturing resources – would ultimately ensure victory.  Mr. Zelenskyy is now nervous and exhausted, and he’s showing it.  I am confident that he is acutely aware that in one vital respect, his position is in fact the reverse of Mr. Churchill’s so long ago:  since the Russian invasion, although seemingly teetering at times, has not collapsed, it is Mr. Putin that is calculating that if he can just hold out long enough, NATO will lose the will to support Ukraine, and then … Ukraine will be Russia’s.

If Mr. Putin was going to be internally deposed for this Russian military debacle, he already would have been.  If he is to be externally judged for this monstrous insult to humanity and international order, that reckoning is a long time off.  We and our NATO allies need to grasp that we are at war, quit diddling, and give it all we have – now and into the foreseeable future.

An Early January Potpourri

A series of random thoughts as 2023 begins:

I have heard commentators declare that the U.S. House of Representatives’ Republicans’ antics in their ongoing efforts to elect a Speaker don’t constitute a flaw, but rather a facet, of a vibrant democracy.  Although an exchange of clashing viewpoints has been one of the wellsprings of American democracy from the days of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, such is only the case if such differing viewpoints are offered in good faith – i.e., with the sincere intent to select a better leader or reach a better policy approach for the greater good of America.  I don’t have any insight into the views or motives of the vast majority of Republican House members who are refusing to vote for U.S. CA Rep Kevin McCarthy for Speaker.  I have already indicated in these pages that if a GOP representative, I myself wouldn’t be supporting Mr. McCarthy because he has shown that he doesn’t have the steadfastness for the job.  That said, I would submit that there is strong evidence that at least two of Mr. McCarthy’s most vocal opponents, election-deniers U.S. FL Rep. Matt Gaetz and U.S. CO Rep. Lauren Boebert, are simply hyper-partisan, self-promoting provocateurs.  I see little to indicate any motive for their current drive to oust Mr. McCarthy beyond personal ambition.

The current Republican (Animal) House dysfunction is troubling on a deeper level.  As Mr. McCarthy concedes more and more to the most rabid members of his caucus, how will he – and therefore, we – manage when a crisis needing unanticipated funding and unity inevitably occurs during the next two years?  Will the agitators come away from this internecine party battle with the power to prevent a vote on a bill raising the federal debt ceiling, causing the United States to default on its full faith and credit?  Will they be able to block additional needed aid to Ukraine, or aid to assist Taiwan, should Mainland China elect to invade the island?  Will they hinder the provision of assistance to California if it suffers an earthquake, or to Puerto Rico if it is battered by another devastating hurricane, because they don’t consider these to really be part of their America?  Will they fund the Biden Administration’s efforts if we are suddenly hit with another pandemic – or declare the announcement of a new virus merely a hoax?  You may dismiss these concerns as unduly alarmist.  If so, I hope you’re right.

Next:  the situation at the southwest border is human tragedy, a logistical quagmire, and a political nightmare.  Immigration has been a visceral issue for Republican voters, and generally a political winner for Republicans, for most of this century.  On Thursday, the President announced new approaches that may have value and/or simply be a bandage.  I have no substantive solutions to offer for the challenges we face.  I would venture this:  if Mr. Biden intends to seek re-election, his Administration had better achieve notable improvements to our humanitarian and security challenges at the border this year.  If not, immigration may well prove to be the issue that Mr. Biden’s Republican opponent can wield most effectively against him in the upcoming campaign.

Next:  I find it ironic that Republican-controlled states’ immediate reflex to oppose anything that the Biden Administration proposes is, in certain areas, helping the Administration either substantively or politically.  Republican lawsuits thus far successfully thwarting Administration efforts to dismantle Title 42 – a Trump Administration initiative used to quickly expel immigrants at the southwest border – have, by keeping Title 42 in effect, perhaps prevented even greater politically-damaging border havoc for the Administration.  (In an irony within an irony, the Administration’s new border protection measures reportedly expand the practice of immediate expulsion authorized under Title 42 to unsponsored migrants from Nicaragua, Cuba and Haiti.)  Likewise, Republican-led states’ efforts to throw out Mr. Biden’s plan to forgive federal student loan debt – no matter what one thinks of the Administration policy substantively – undoubtedly redounds to Mr. Biden’s benefit politically.  (The President can justifiably say to all those whose obligations would be forgiven or reduced:  “I tried to help you, and they wouldn’t let me.”)  Who are those borrowers going to vote for in 2024?

Next:  On a human level, all of us who are aware are saddened by the sudden cardiac arrest suffered by Buffalo Bills Safety Damar Hamlin in last Monday night’s NFL football game.  As this is typed, Mr. Hamlin’s prognosis is reportedly improving.  (I heard some ghoul ask one of Mr. Hamlin’s doctors this week whether he might recover sufficiently to return to the game.  Really? That reporter should be made to face an unblocked rush from the San Francisco 49er defensive line.)  All hope for Mr. Hamlin’s quick and complete recovery.  At the same time, I am perplexed by the calls I hear from some for the NFL to “do something” to prevent afflictions such as that suffered by Mr. Hamlin.  All who read these pages are aware that I am an NFL fan.  Make no mistake:  I believe that the NFL and its owners are much more concerned with protecting the multi-billion colossus they have created than they are with player safety.  That said, having watched thousands of NFL tackles in my lifetime, I saw nothing unique or untoward about the collision that stopped Mr. Hamlin’s heart.  Assuming that the NFL tests all players for cardiac fitness as part of its initial processes, I don’t know what the NFL could have done before or do now to guard against tragic disorders such as Mr. Hamlin incurred Monday night.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of football in this country – a popularity, whether one likes it or not, which arises in large measure from the game’s ferocity – perhaps we should ban the game due to the physiological and attendant psychological damage suffered by players resulting from repeated head and other reasonably-foreseeable trauma.  TLOML and I were always happy that our sons never played the game at any serious level.  At the same time, if mine was the voice deciding for all of America whether to keep or ban football, I don’t know which way I would vote.  Our citizens voluntarily choose to downhill ski, sky dive, rock climb, bungee jump, and play soccer (which at advanced levels has its own head trauma challenges).  People are injured or killed every day riding bicycles.  By high school, every football player that chooses to play knows the risk.  Even though the average NFL career is short, the NFL annual base salary is over $700,000; the average American salary is under $55,000 a year.  Even if possessed in my late teens and early 20’s of the wisdom of Medicare-eligible years and aware of the game’s dangers [and despite lacking the coordination to efficiently tie my shoes 😉 ], would I still have gone into the NFL — to make the kind of money that could form a base of financial security for a lifetime — if I had had the ability?  I would have.

Finally:  Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan has announced that she will not seek re-election in 2024.

I have mentioned a number of times in these pages that I hope, for the good of my children and grandchildren, that U.S. Transportation Secretary and former South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg is someday president of the United States.  It has been clear, however, that notwithstanding President Biden’s selection of Mr. Buttigieg as Transportation Secretary – an appointment of an extremely able young politician with a seemingly bright future who withdrew from the 2020 Democratic nomination race (along with U.S. MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar) just in time for Mr. Biden to corral all moderate liberal support and win the nomination – Cabinet experience is not a sufficient background upon which to mount a credible campaign for the presidency.  If Mr. Buttigieg wishes to run for the Democratic Party’s Presidential nomination at some point in the future, he will no longer be able to employ the “Exciting Newcomer” lane he used in 2020; he will need a significant position from which to launch his campaign:  a Governorship or a U.S. Senate seat.  If he can win either office after leaving the Biden Administration, he can bide his time:  he will be 42 on election day 2024, which means that he will be viable, from an age perspective, for at least the five presidential election cycles after 2024 – to 2044 [and, judging by the age of our recent major party presidential nominees, perhaps longer 😉 ].

I suspect that Mr. Buttigieg agrees with my assessment that he will need a substantial post if he wishes to mount another campaign for the presidency.  I suspect that he agrees with my assessment that no Democrat will be elected a U.S. Senator or Governor in Mr. Buttigieg’s native Indiana for many years to come.  I also suspect that he agrees with my assessment that he needs to establish greater rapport with and support in the African American community than he had in 2020 in order to make a viable run.  For some months, I thought that he and his husband, Chasten Buttigieg, might move their family from Washington, D.C., commuting distance down to Baltimore, since the term of Democratic Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, 79, will expire in two years.

I was wrong about Mr. Buttigieg’s moving plans.  Last summer, the Buttigiegs established their legal residence in Traverse City, MI, Mr. C. Buttigieg’s home town, and registered to vote.

There are a lot of ambitious politicians in Michigan, as there are in all states.  Many will consider a campaign for Ms. Stabenow’s seat, and all will consider and call Mr. Buttigieg a carpetbagger if he seeks Michigan Democrats’ U.S. Senate nomination.  That said, presidential support would be an advantage in a Senate primary contest; the President has compared Mr. Buttigieg to his own beloved son, Beau; and a President pays his debts. 

As former President Donald Trump sometimes says:  We’ll see what happens. 

More than enough Noise for one post.

On Kevin McCarthy

[At the time this is scheduled, U.S. CA Rep. Kevin McCarthy has failed three times to secure the needed 218 votes needed to become Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.]

I’m flummoxed.  We’ve all heard the clichés intoned by commentators:  “S/He will do anything to get power.”  Or:  “S/He will do anything to keep power.”  These pronouncements have in recent times frequently been made in reference to Republican officeholders bowing to claims of election fraud they know are false, but are equally applicable to rationalizations by politicians of both parties who understand the proper course but decline to take it to protect their own political careers.

What puzzles me about these phrases:  their inclusion of the word, “power.”  The groveling in which U.S. CA Rep. Kevin McCarthy has engaged since the November election to try to appease at least 218 members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Republican Caucus so he can become the Speaker of the House has been so publicly demeaning – to the extent that Mr. McCarthy has reportedly agreed to a rule that would provide any handful within the Republican majority the right to seek his ouster from the Speakership at any time – that it is obvious that he doesn’t really seek power; he won’t have any.  He covets the trappings of power that would attend having his name etched into some marble Capitol wall under those of recent House Speakers such as Sam Rayburn, Tip O’Neill, Newt Gingrich, and Nancy Pelosi.  No matter what you think of these past Speakers’ respective policy preferences, each was knowledgeable, savvy, and tough. 

If – imagine this 😉 – I was a member of the House Republican Caucus, I’d be a hard No on Mr. McCarthy (unless the only alternative was U.S. OH Rep. Jim Jordan, whom I consider at this point to arguably present a greater danger to American democracy than former President Donald Trump).  My principal objection to Mr. McCarthy would not be among those raised by House Republicans – a number of whom seek an American Apartheid and a few of whom, if reports are accurate, may have lent support to activities surrounding the insurrection on January 6, 2021 — but because he doesn’t have the fortitude.  For months, he should have been telling the recalcitrant members of his caucus to either vote for him, or go … (you fill in the rest), and then walked away.

The Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives is third in line to the presidency of the United States.  While some negotiation among any group of ambitious, strong-minded individuals is to be expected, Mr. McCarthy hasn’t grasped that attaining the Speakership by bootlicking would reduce his post to a sham.  He apparently lacks the understanding of how to acquire and wield real power, and on this ground alone is unworthy of the position he seeks.  Put aside all of the terribly vital issues upon which we generally focus, including the ongoing existential threats of our democracy; put aside the Democrats’ partisan chortling, and any unseemly guilty satisfaction some undoubtedly feel at the Republicans’ disarray; consider only this:  If as a result of a devastating terror attack or other tragedy, Mr. McCarthy became President of the United States, do you think Chinese President Xi Jinping or Russian President Vladimir Putin would take him seriously?  In their places, would you?

On Joe Biden

With the coming of the new Congress, in which a Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives seems more intent on dragging us into a maelstrom of hyper-partisan maneuvering and antagonism than serving us, this seems an appropriate time to review President Joe Biden’s first two years in office and ponder his political future.

All presidents since World War II have at least one notable positive achievement to their respective credits.  (Even those of us who abhor President Donald Trump must concede that the development of extremely effective COVID-19 vaccines in an unprecedentedly-short amount of time through his Administration’s Operation Warp Speed probably saved millions of lives.)  That said, I would submit that at this point in his term, the most consequential American president we have had since Franklin Delano Roosevelt is Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr.

The positive value of a president’s accomplishments is determined by the gravity of the challenges s/he faces.  I consider Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Mr. Roosevelt to be our three greatest presidents due to the manner in which they successfully addressed the existential threats to our nation that respectively confronted them.  President Biden has – thus far, successfully – faced challenges of the same character.

Mr. Biden resolved to run for the presidency after watching Mr. Trump’s waffling response to the unrest arising from the white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, VA, in August, 2017.  The President has indicated that after Charlottesville, he considered Democrats’ primary mission to remove Mr. Trump from the White House in 2020, and that he believed (as voting patterns ultimately demonstrated, correctly) that he was the only Democrat who could defeat Mr. Trump (an assessment shared by Mr. Trump).  Through his (albeit uncomfortably narrow) victory (by less than 1% in each of the states of Georgia, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, which provided him the decisive 57 Electoral College votes), Mr. Biden saved America from descending into the fascist autocracy that many of us feared would attend Mr. Trump’s re-election – a fear since confirmed by the uncontested findings of the U.S. House’s “January 6th” Committee.

One could argue that simply by beating Mr. Trump and thus (at least at present) protecting American democracy, Mr. Biden should be placed at the head of his post-WWII peers.  Although the President has begun to tout the legislative achievements wrought during his first two years in office, I consider the way he has conducted the presidency – decent, stable, open – and the effective manner in which his Administration dispensed the COVID vaccines becoming available as he took office to be his most notable domestic contributions.  I view his legislative accomplishments, while unquestionably impressive given the faction-driven Congress with which he had to deal, to pale in comparison to the manner in which he has protected America and other global democracies by first fostering cohesion among NATO allies when Russia invaded Ukraine – a point at which the alliance was in its greatest disarray since its founding — and since marshalling its effective support of Ukraine while deftly managing American domestic sentiment.  Putting aside the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin would obviously be dancing in Kyiv today had Mr. Trump been re-elected, I would venture that none of Mr. Biden’s other living presidential predecessors could have done as well in the face of the Russian aggression as Mr. Biden did within the circumstances he found the world when he took office.

The President hasn’t been perfect – no president is.  I think the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was a strategic mistake, there is clearly an unresolved mess at our southwest border, and I question – without knowing the innards of both Congressional and Democratic caucus maneuvering — whether a “small ball” approach to legislation might not have achieved more than his “Go Big” approach, but Mr. Biden has gotten a lot more right than he has wrong.

All Americans owe President Biden a debt of gratitude, whether they see it or not.  Even so, he should announce before his upcoming State of the Union Address that he is NOT going to seek re-election.

The President has frequently asserted that we overstayed our mission in Afghanistan, which is why he ordered the withdrawal.  If counseling him today, I would remind him that the reason he got into the presidential race in 2020 – the mission – was to beat Donald Trump. He was the only guy who could.  He did.  The mission was accomplished.  Whether by divine providence or fortunate happenstance, he was probably the only 2020 American presidential candidate who, when the situation demanded it, could have as effectively rallied NATO against Russia’s offensive in Ukraine.  He did.  That course is set. 

That’s enough.

Presidential elections are about matchups.  While Mr. Biden correctly assessed that he was the only Democrat who could defeat Mr. Trump in 2020, I will venture that given Mr. Trump’s obviously significantly-weakened political standing with independent voters, if Mr. Trump wins the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, any moderate (or even moderately-progressive) Democratic candidate facing Mr. Trump, not just Mr. Biden, will be able to claim enough swing voters in enough swing states to win the presidency.

I would suggest to Mr. Biden that his focus for the 2024 presidential election shouldn’t be premised on Mr. Trump winning the Republican nomination; it should be based on what happens if he doesn’t.  Mr. Trump’s outsized presence has dominated our collective view of the political landscape since at least the day he assumed the presidency.  If Mr. Biden runs and faces any Republican challenger in 2024 save Mr. Trump – across a gamut as wide as FL Gov. Ron DeSantis to (about to be former) U.S. WY Rep. Liz Cheney – voters’ focus will no longer be centered on Mr. Trump, but will be where it generally is when an incumbent President seeks re-election:  on the President. 

I find it disconcerting that at least according to some reports, Mr. Biden and his team believe that the Democrats did much better than expected in the 2022 mid-term elections because of Mr. Biden’s and Democrats’ affirmative domestic and foreign policy achievements.  One can certainly argue that those accomplishments should have been the reasons that the Democrats fared as well as they did, but I consider it a dangerous misperception to believe that they were; if they had been, Mr. Biden’s approval rating would be significantly higher than it is.  While Democrats’ fortunes were clearly politically aided by the Republican-appointed U.S. Supreme Court Justices’ vitiation of women’s U.S. Constitutional abortion rights, I would assert that they did better than expected – while in reality, doing no more than squeaking by – principally because a majority of Americans (if not a majority of Republicans) couldn’t stomach the notion of turning their government over to election deniers – i.e., either liars or fools.  Such hardly constituted a resounding mandate for Democrats.

I would submit that if the President seeks re-election in 2024 and Mr. Trump is not the Republican nominee, one issue will dominate voters’ minds:  Mr. Biden’s age.  He would be running for re-election when 4 years older than President Ronald Reagan was when he left the White House. 

As most that read these pages are aware, we live in Madison, WI, perhaps the chief citadel of progressivism between the coasts.  Even so, when the prospect of another Biden campaign comes up in conversation, almost to a person our friends – if called upon, certain Biden 2024 votes — either cringe or shrug.  “He’s so old,” they say – the italics implicit in their tone.  A decade younger than Mr. Biden, I myself wonder:  How does Mr. Biden keep up the pace?  Even if the President doesn’t fall subject to some significant physical ail during the next six years:  How can he possibly maintain the presidential pace until he is 86?  Any political handicapper cannot help but consider:  If Mr. Biden’s age is a paramount concern to those who will be committed Biden supporters, how well will Mr. Biden score with independent voters in what promises to be an extremely tight race against committed Republican opposition if his (probably significantly younger) Republican opponent is not so overtly autocratically toxic as Mr. Trump?      

A key part of a great performance is knowing when to leave the stage:  an understanding shared by Johnny Carson and Joe DiMaggio, not grasped by Michael Jordan or Tom Brady.  Aside from what seems at least to me to be a very uncertain political route to a second term, I would suggest to Mr. Biden that it is not substantively good for the country to have a president as old as he is; only the existential dangers to the country presented by Mr. Trump even made him consider a candidacy in 2020.  As long as he remains a viable political presence, the House Republicans will be hell-bent on tarnishing his name and dragging his son, Hunter (whom he clearly truly loves) through the mud.  It is a presidential power maxim that a president loses the ability to get things done when s/he either can’t run or indicates that s/he won’t run for another term; I would venture that in Mr. Biden’s case, the opposite might be true.  He can govern above the fray, establish an apolitical credibility.  Republicans will lose interest in his son the minute he announces he isn’t seeking re-election.  Since no progressive legislation is going to get through the House Republicans in any case, Mr. Biden might be able to achieve some moderate bipartisan agreements with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and swing district House Republicans they don’t see such resulting legislation as directly aiding a Biden re-election effort.

In the last two years, Mr. Biden has successfully protected democracy at home and abroad.  While I sincerely hope that this will not always be the case, it seems overwhelmingly likely that in order to win the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, the Republican candidate will need to accommodate MAGAism to at least some extent, which I would assert means that s/he will, to at least that extent, present a continuing danger to American democracy.  I would advise Mr. Biden that the best way he can secure what he has won for us is to step aside for another Democrat better positioned to defend his advances against what will undoubtedly be a fierce and cohesive Republican onslaught.

Thank you for the honor of sharing these posts with you again in 2022.  May you and all of your family and friends enjoy a Healthy and Happy New Year.

Echoes from the Past

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits Washington today and addresses Congress this evening.  He will remind us that the battle against tyranny is never over.

“I feel greatly honoured that you should have invited me to enter the United States Senate Chamber and address the representatives of both branches of Congress. … I was brought up in my father’s house to believe in democracy.  ‘Trust the people’ – that was his message.  … I have steered confidently towards the Gettysburg ideal of ‘government of the people by the people for the people.’ … I [am] … to meet with the President of the United States and to arrange with him all that mapping out of our military plans, and for all those intimate meetings of the high officers of the armed services of both countries, which are indispensable to the successful prosecution of the war. …

What kind of people do [the Axis Powers] think we are?  Is it possible that they do not realize that we shall never cease to persevere against them? … [W]e are facing a group of mighty foes who seek our ruin; here we are defending all that to free men is dear. … Do we not owe it to ourselves, to our children, to mankind tormented, to make sure that these catastrophes shall not engulf us?  … Duty and prudence alike command first that the germ-centres of hatred and revenge shall be constantly and vigilantly surveyed and treated in good time, and secondly, that an adequate organization shall be set up to make sure that the pestilence can be controlled … before it spreads and rages throughout the entire earth. …

Prodigious hammer-strokes have been needed to bring us together. … I will say that he must indeed have a blind soul who cannot see that some great purpose and design is being worked out here below, of which we have the honour to be the faithful servants. …

I avow my hope and faith, sure and inviolate, that in the days to come the British and American peoples will for their own safety and for the good of all walk together side by side in majesty, in justice, and in peace.”  

  • British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a Joint Address to the Congress of the United States, December 26, 1941

Election Reflections

“I would be thrilled to be proven overly-pessimistic, and recognize that Democrats may still maintain control of the Senate, but inflation currently appears to be the Death Star through which the Empire will strike back.”

  • McCoy’s Noise, November 2, 2022 

Although I didn’t actually rule out the possibility that Democrats would hold the Senate, I am indeed thrilled to find myself guilty of having had too little faith in the American majority’s appreciation of the MAGA danger to democracy 🙂 .  As the results have rolled out in the days following the election, a few disparate reflections:

The most important and heartening first:  voters’ nationwide general – not total, but general – rejection of 2020 election deniers.  If we are going to rebuild faith in our democracy and reverse the distrust in our election systems and workers despicably sown in so many of our people by former President Donald Trump, this was a necessary first step.  Part of Democrats’ better-than-expected showing was seemingly Mr. Trump’s aggressive reentry into the campaign during its last month, and the galvanizing counter-effect it had not only on progressives and liberals but independents and moderates.  More – there is always more — on Mr. Trump below. 

Notwithstanding the delight [or relief  😉 ] felt by those of us encouraged by the recent results, at the time this is typed it seems highly likely that MAGA-infected Republicans will control the House of Representatives.  (The numbers aren’t finalized yet, but it appears Republicans may command a House majority at least in part because of aggressive Florida gerrymandering effected by Republican FL Gov. Ron DeSantis, while a similar Democratic gerrymandering effort in New York was struck down by that state’s highest court.  While on principle I’m glad that the Democrats’ New York effort was overturned, it’s infuriating that rabidly-partisan Republican gerrymandering in states like Wisconsin and Florida have been allowed to stand.)  While the GOP’s subpar performance may – but only may – dampen its appetite for the most excessive partisan mischief such as impeaching President Joe Biden, investigating Mr. Biden’s son, Hunter, cutting Social Security and Medicare, or passing a nationwide abortion ban, the House seems overwhelmingly likely to seek to restrict funding for Ukraine’s defense and play politics with the debt ceiling – i.e., with the full faith and credit of the United States. 

Many will recall that in a lame duck session following WI Gov. Tony Evers’ defeat of then-WI Gov. Scott Walker, the MAGA-infected Wisconsin State Legislature passed a series of laws hobbling Mr. Evers’ ability to undo some of Mr. Walker’s programs and policies.  Given the paralysis and partisan histrionics that seem overwhelmingly likely to ensue when Republicans take control of the House of Representatives, I would hope that for the good of the nation, during the upcoming lame duck Congressional session Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (due to the power of the filibuster) can agree to pass measures that have received or could garner bipartisan support to blunt some of the most destructive future MAGA impulses.  (Any bills passed by the next Congress to repeal such bipartisan enactments will succumb to President Joe Biden’s veto.)  Below is a short list of such potential measures.  There are undoubtedly others that I have overlooked.

  1. Raising the federal debt limit to an amount projected to carry the United States through to April 1, 2025.  Our citizenry will really decide the future direction it wishes the nation to take based upon whom it elects president in 2024.  In the meantime, the full faith and credit of the United States should not be held hostage to partisan rabble.
  • Authorizing the President, under his Constitutional powers as Commander-in-Chief, to reallocate such amounts of the United States’ military budget to support NATO’s effort against Russian military aggression as he deems fit and proper, provided that the president cannot disproportionately reduce defense expenditures in any state.
  • Revising the Electoral Count Act.  The House has already passed revisions; the Senate has reported revisions out of committee with bipartisan support.
  • Providing those qualifying under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) a path to U.S. citizenship. 
  • Enacting the Afghan Adjustment Act to assure that those Afghans who were brought to safety by the U.S. military may apply for protection to stay in the U.S. long-term.

I concede that given the strongly-worded criticisms of Mr. McConnell I have lodged in these pages over the years, even I find it surprising that I sincerely hope that Senate Republicans name Mr. McConnell their leader to ensure that some level of sanity continues in the Senate. 

I was obviously elated by Mr. Evers’ 3-point victory over Trump-endorsed Republican Wisconsin Gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels.  Mr. Evers’ re-election reduces the risk to the integrity of Wisconsin’s 2024 electoral process and enables at least somewhat balanced administration of my state’s government.  Some close friends have indicated to me that they attribute the 1-point loss of Democratic U.S. Senate Nominee WI Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, an African American, to U.S. WI Sen. Ron Johnson primarily to racism.  While those notions undoubtedly contain some truth, I recall another black candidate, former President Barack Obama, who won here handily twice – the latter time with a Wisconsinite on the opposing ticket.  In a close race, there are many factors at play.  I consider Mr. Barnes’ demonstrable inclinations on police funding and immigration enforcement, despite his campaign protestations, to have been a genuine political liability in Wisconsin’s polarized political environment.  I will always suspect, given the narrowness of Mr. Barnes’ defeat, that as the Democratic Senate nominee, WI Treasurer Sarah Godlewski might have squeaked past Mr. Johnson.  ‘Nuff said; it is what it is.

Two final notes on Mr. Trump:

I consider his recent declaration of his candidacy for the 2024 Republican Party’s presidential nomination, while presenting a fascist threat to the country and being politically bad for the Republican Party, clearly the smart move for him personally, which is all that he has ever cared about.  More on that as we move into the parties’ respective 2024 political machinations.

The most delicious last:  of all of the Trump acolytes running in this past cycle, I considered Republican AZ Gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake the most dangerous.  She was the Trump acolyte that some pundits have opined had captured Mr. Trump’s personal affection and mantle – his spiritual heir, with much of his charismatic appeal – the one in whom he placed the most store.  Like Mr. Trump before her, during her campaign Ms. Lake sharply criticized the late U.S. AZ Sen. John McCain.  At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) shortly after she won her party’s gubernatorial primary, she declared, “We drove a stake through the heart of the McCain machine.”  At a rally shortly before the election, she referred to Mr. McCain as a “loser” and told “McCain Republicans” “to get the hell out” of the gathering. 

As all are aware, Mr. Trump lost Arizona to President Joe Biden in 2020 by three-tenths of one point.  As all who care are aware, analysts have recently projected Ms. Lake the loser to Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate and AZ Secretary of State Katie Hobbs by less than one percent.  I hadn’t yet seen anyone else make this point when it occurred to me:  After an oft-recounted courageous military career, Mr. McCain was easily elected to the U.S. Senate by Arizonans six times beginning in 1986.  He died in 2018.  His service to his country still wasn’t completed.  He has since in effect beaten Donald Trump in Arizona.  Twice.  From the grave.

Requiescat in pace, sir.  Unless we need you again in 2024.

America Ascendant

It is hard not to be taken up with the difficulties confronting us.  They are generally and regularly addressed in these pages and they obviously will be again.  At the same time, America still has more going for it than any other nation on earth.

One need only travel out of the country as we have over the last decade to appreciate that the vast majority of Americans live in better circumstances than a significant majority of the rest of the world’s population.  Visit Asia, the Caribbean, South America, Africa; get away from the nice sections of their cities and plush tourist enclaves, and see how much better the vast majority of Americans have it than most of those with whom we share the globe. 

Unemployment is low and the dollar is strong.  Inflation is high, and without doubt providing serious immediate hardship to our financially-constrained citizens, but some experts now opine that price pressures may be at the cusp of a decline.  More importantly, if a stable relatively-higher inflation rate results from a concerted effort to replenish the domestic capabilities we’ve allowed to wither over the past 30 years in homage to the Great Corporate God, Lower Cost, such would arguably lead to better employment opportunities for some currently-challenged segments of our people and is a price we should be willing to pay to reduce our global supply chain vulnerabilities exposed by the pandemic.  We have the intellectual and financial capital to get this done.  No one else in the world does.

Our immigration policy and practices are obviously currently in shambles — primarily due to Republican grandstanding but also contributed to by Democrats – and we need more effective border controls.  That said, the crush at our southern border exists because – as has been true for centuries of immigrants coming from our east and west – people from other lands understand that this nation offers them and their loved ones the best opportunity for a free, better life.  It remains within our grasp to restore the healthy mix of immigrants that has always been our lifeblood.  Few if any other nations have this opportunity.

Watching the stock market retreat can be disconcerting, but using the Dow Jones Index as the indicator, the lowest point of the recent slide brought us to levels about on a par with late February, 2020, when Donald Trump was wishing away COVID because he didn’t want to alarm the high-flying stock market.  The market could fall roughly another 20% from there (to about 23,000) and be at a level not seen since the prehistoric days of … January, 2019.  Were those in the market feeling poor that day?  Ironically, equity values have fluctuated because economic indicators look strong, which the market realizes will cause the Federal Reserve to keep raising interest rates to battle inflation.  Investors are moving from stocks to bonds because the latter are starting to generate appreciable returns.  Being (as all are acutely aware) no financier, I nevertheless timidly venture that at a macro level, having liquid assets divided more evenly between stocks and bonds is a good thing.  Did anybody think that the market was always going to go up?

We’ve beaten the pandemic.  It was at great cost; over 1 million American lives lost – many, in my view, due to the self-absorption of Donald Trump.  At the same time, through the efforts of the scientific community and the Trump and Biden Administrations, we developed and distributed incredibly effective vaccines in an incredibly short time that got us back on our feet.  We will lose more Americans this winter, but it seems likely that most of these will sadly be lost due to their own misguided decisions.

America’s stature on the world stage hasn’t been as high as it is now since at least before the 2003 Iraq invasion.  While our standing has risen largely due to Russia’s barbaric and blundering invasion of Ukraine, and no one could have predicted that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would prove to be a Winston Churchill-like wartime leader, the NATO unity and effective support of Ukraine we’ve seen over the last eight months was anything but certain when the invasion began.  The allied success is a direct result of President Joe Biden’s incredibly skillful marshalling of NATO and deft management of American domestic sentiment.  Russia’s recent sham annexation of Ukrainian regions has been overwhelmingly condemned in the United Nations; China, Russia’s most significant ally, is clearly less than pleased.  The Russian nation will be a crippled pariah as long as Vladimir Putin remains its President.  (More on nuclear weapons below.)

China is also currently off its stride, which clearly augments our global position.  Chinese President Xi Jinping’s own ambition and impatience have significantly slowed and perhaps thwarted his aspirations for “The China Dream.”  Some China experts are opining that Mr. Xi’s recent seizing of a third term as President has sown dissention within China’s hierarchy.  Mr. Xi’s decision to spurn western-developed COVID vaccines for less effective Chinese vaccines and his enforcement of aggressive COVID lockdowns have not only hindered his economy but caused unrest among his people.  His human rights record — the de facto renunciation of the “One Country, Two Systems” policy with Hong Kong with attendant suppression of protestors; the bellicose comments about Taiwan; the regime’s concentration-camp treatment of Uighurs — has created deep reservations within the democracies about closer relations with China.  His buildup of Chinese armed forces and attempt to usurp and militarize the South China Sea have disconcerted both China’s Pacific friends and adversaries, causing some to welcome a greater American presence.  Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road initiative – i.e., a concerted effort to curry favor among poorer nations by providing them loans for their infrastructure projects — has saddled China with bad loans while its punitive collection methods on early arrangements have created reluctance to participate in other prospective applicants.  China’s economy is unquestionably slowing; Mr. Xi’s subordination of his predecessors’ freer-market policies to political orthodoxy and imposition of tighter government control over the nation’s economy have cooled global investors’ enthusiasm about China, accordingly strengthening America’s position as the dominant global economy and currency. 

We live, as we have for over 70 years, under threat of nuclear holocaust.  While we certainly cannot discount the possibility of an exchange between squabbling minor nuclear players (if there is such a thing) such as India and Pakistan, I would submit that we retain the same robust objective and psychological defense against a direct attack on us or our allies that we’ve had throughout the nuclear age:  Mutually-Assured Destruction (with the fitting acronym, “MAD”).  As long as the leader of a nuclear power – even one as stressed as Mr. Putin is at present – truly believes that launching a nuclear attack against us or our allies will elicit a nuclear response, I don’t believe s/he will do it.  The media focuses regularly on North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un.  I would assert that Mr. Kim’s posturing is strategically defensive (to protect himself against the U.S. and China) rather than offensive.  He undoubtedly realizes that the one sure thing that will happen if he launches a nuclear strike is that he himself will die.  (If our counterstrike doesn’t get him, the Chinese will.)  While an impending nuclear Iran is obviously of concern, I would submit that the conservative Shia Islam the regime imposes at home casts a patina of theocratic zealotry over its foreign policy aims, which I see as plain-old territorial:  to dominate the Middle East.  I would suggest that similar to Mr. Kim, its leaders must recognize that providing nuclear provocation to either the United States or Israel, no matter how it goes for us, won’t end well for them.  There is, obviously, a key caveat to this:  the world must believe that the President of the United States will respond if either the U.S. or its allies are attacked.  Save Mr. Trump, we’ve had such a President throughout the nuclear age; our safety in this quarter depends on such continuing.

Climate Change threatens us all.  There are those in America who still question its severity but few if any still doubt its existence.  Many of the nations that are now and soon will be suffering the greatest environmental hardship did little to cause the danger and have no ability to meaningfully address it.  The United States cannot fix the problem alone, but we are among the fortunate few nations that have it within our power to make changes, and to encourage others to make changes, to meaningfully reduce its impact.  Perhaps more importantly, at this stage American ingenuity is the most likely vehicle we have to develop new scientific approaches to clean up the mess that we have played such a large part – for decades, clearly unwittingly — in creating.

Despite all of these advantages, I recognize that we are holding elections next month in which it seems likely that the Republican Party – now completely dominated by MAGA fascists and fools and the cowards that bow before them — will gain control of at least one, and perhaps both, houses of Congress.  There is nothing here to cheer those that consider America the “beacon of freedom” described by President Ronald Reagan.  However, no matter the Congressional political complexion as of January, 2023, a good man remains President.  He will be able to defend if not extend what I consider to be an impressive array of achievements over the last two years (an assessment worthy of a separate post).  More importantly from a strategic political standpoint, MAGAs seem poised to overplay their hand in the House of Representatives.  They will dance to Donald Trump’s tune.  They give rein to the excesses of the likes of U.S. FL Rep. Matt Gaetz, U.S. GA Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green, and U.S. CO Rep. Lauren Boebert.  They will at least try to impeach Mr. Biden and current House Speaker U.S. CA Rep. Nancy Pelosi.  They will hound Hunter Biden.  They will attempt to hold America’s debt ceiling hostage.  They will seek to cut funding to Ukraine.  They will vote to repeal or restrict the Affordable Care Act.  They will propose major changes to Social Security and Medicare.  Almost certainly, they will pass a bill imposing severe national limitations on abortion.  Their legislative efforts will either die in the Senate (even if Republicans control that chamber) or will be vetoed by President Biden.  I believe that what these forays will do – because I believe that the majority of Americans value genuine democracy and hold America to be a well-meaning nation – will cause a backlash against MAGA excesses that will make it easier for the 2024 Democratic Presidential nominee to win the presidency (if the electoral process is fair) than will be the case if Democrats continue to control Congress.  Our experience since President Franklin Roosevelt – brought into the starkest relief by Donald Trump – has shown us that our democracy ultimately depends not on Congress but upon who sits in the White House.

Through the wisdom, industry and perseverance of our forebears and our land’s natural bounty, no other nation on earth has the advantages and opportunities we do today.  Which means:  It’s up to us to keep faith, and to uphold the promise of America.  Stay well.

On the Nuclear Challenge

As you are probably aware, Russian President Vladimir Putin has recently repeatedly threatened to use so-called “tactical” nuclear weapons as a way to reverse Russia’s no-longer-deniable battlefield debacle in Ukraine.  At a gathering on October 6, President Joe Biden reportedly observed, “I don’t think there’s any such thing as the ability to easily [use] a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”  ­­­­­­­­­­­The President’s comments are obviously the most authoritative allusions to the risk of nuclear holocaust arising from the Russian invasion.

On October 1, Wall Street Journal Columnist Peggy Noonan quoted former President John Kennedy from June, 1963, when Mr. Kennedy asserted, “Above all, while defending our own vital interests, nuclear powers must avert those confrontations which bring an adversary to a choice of either a humiliating defeat or a nuclear war,” and “[Leaving a nuclear-armed adversary no option but a humiliating defeat would be] a collective death-wish for the world.”  She also quoted former President Ronald Reagan’s well-known declaration, “A nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.”   

On October 2, Wall Street Journal Columnist Walter Russell Mead wrote, “As the Biden administration scrambles to manage the most dangerous international confrontation since the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it must see the world through Mr. Putin’s eyes.  Only then can officials know how seriously to take the nuclear saber-rattling and develop an appropriate response. … Mr. Putin sees global politics today as a struggle between a rapacious and domineering West and the rest of the world bent on resisting our arrogance and exploitation. … Mr. Putin’s version of the anti-American world view gives a special role to Russia.”

On October 7, MSNBC’s Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough declared:  “I know people love to say … that there’s no substitute but the complete destruction of Vladimir Putin.  No!  … They have more nuclear weapons than anybody else on the face of the earth, and we’re … going to have to be creative as Kennedy was when you got the missiles out of Cuba but quietly got the missiles out of Turkey.  We’re not dealing with Belarus here.  We’re dealing with a country that has nuclear weapons and doesn’t have any problems threatening to use them.”

The President is obviously the best judge regarding the likelihood of escalation if Russia chooses to use nuclear weapons in the Ukraine conflict.  That said, I completely disagree with the implication of Ms. Noonan and Messrs. Mead and Scarborough (which, no matter how obliquely they phrased it, I submit is inherent in their comments) that we should look for a way to – there is no other word for it – appease Mr. Putin’s delusions.  It’s too late for that.  Such perspective is akin to someone saying in 1940, “We need to see the world through Herr Hitler’s eyes.  He sees the extermination of the Jews as existential to Germany’s survival.”  At this point, the Ukrainians (with our and NATO support) should be – as they clearly are — in it to win it.  Mr. Scarborough’s reference to Mr. Kennedy’s order removing our nuclear arsenal from Turkey following the Cuban Missile Crisis is inapposite.  In October, 1962, no shot was fired, no lives were wantonly sacrificed, no property was needlessly destroyed.  Here, we have a campaign of unbounded barbarism – the latest intense barrages against Ukrainian civilian infrastructure coming this week — intended to destroy a people and its culture.  These losses cannot be undone.  Since the invasion began, media talking heads have constantly intoned about the need to provide Mr. Putin an “off ramp.”  Putting aside the fact that the Russian President has shown no indication that he is looking for an off ramp, I don’t see how any just settlement could include allowing Russia to retain any of the territory that it has stolen from Ukraine or releasing Russia from its obligation for reparations for Ukrainian losses (reportedly over a trillion dollars; a knotty problem obviously not yet ripe for consideration).  Most strategically, I myself can never get beyond the question I’ve already posed in these pages:  Unless one believes – and I do not see how one could – that following any Russian-Ukrainian settlement, Mr. Putin would cease attempting to undermine Ukraine’s and other democracies across the world, what long term value does an inevitably temporary settlement bring?  The Ukrainians and NATO must unreservedly press their advantage to culmination here – which, I concede, is more likely than not to involve the deposition of Mr. Putin.

I also take issue with those that conflate what may be politically (and perhaps literally) existential for Mr. Putin with what is existential for Russia.  U.S. and NATO officials need to continue to emphasize that they have no designs on Russia beyond reestablishment of Ukraine’s borders as they existed prior to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.  Among the audiences for such reassurances are members of the Russian leadership and the Russian populace (for the latter, to the extent that the messages get through.)  Although Mr. Putin is reportedly now only surrounded by hardliners, perhaps these reassurances about the limits of NATO’s aims combined with Russia’s battlefield losses will ultimately cause some of Mr. Putin’s advisors to ask themselves:  Is our floundering attempt to expand the Russian Empire worth nuclear Armageddon?  However, declarations regarding the limits of NATO’s mission apparently also need to be reinforced with the Ukrainians.  Washington Post Columnist David Ignatius reported this week that many Ukrainians see Russia, not Mr. Putin, as the enemy.  While those sentiments are certainly understandable, Ukrainians must come to recognize that while they deserve recompense for what has been done to them and protection against future Russian imperialism, any aspirations to bring about the dissolution of a nuclear-powered Russian state are neither attainable nor even advisable.  

I’ve heard any number of commentators inquire of any idea to avoid a possibly approaching nuclear confrontation.  I have one.  If this hasn’t already been tried, I would counsel Mr. Biden to quietly – with no notice to news outlets before or after — call the one man who probably still has significant influence on Mr. Putin:  Chinese President Xi Jinping.  I would propose that the President make clear to Mr. Xi that if Russia uses nuclear weaponry in Ukraine, we are prepared to respond in kind.  If Mr. Biden is serious – and he’d better be — I would  suggest that the President specifically state that he understood that his credibility with Mr. Xi would be forever lost if he did not follow through as he was indicating that he would.  I would recommend that the President reiterate his recent observation that he saw little hope for avoiding a nuclear Armageddon if such an exchange began.  I would advise that the President then suggest to Mr. Xi that Mr. Xi call Mr. Putin and indicate that if Russia initiated the use of nuclear weapons in its Ukraine struggle, China would join the international community in opposing Russia.  Additionally, Mr. Biden might suggest to Mr. Xi that since China undoubtedly has sources very close to Mr. Putin as we obviously do, Mr. Xi might instruct his agents to do what they could to impede Mr. Putin if it seemed likely that Mr. Putin was about to resort to a nuclear option.

I’ve recently heard our current relationship with China described as “cold,” “almost nonexistent.”  No matter.  Nuclear issues transcend all others.  The question would be how Mr. Xi would react to any overtures from Mr. Biden as outlined above.  The primary principle of foreign policy would apply:  nations will act in what they consider their own best interest.  Presumably, Mr. Xi wants China to ultimately control the world, not have it blown up.  If Mr. Xi either doesn’t take Mr. Biden seriously or calculates that there is better than an even chance that China will ultimately benefit from a U.S. – Russian nuclear exchange, he will stand back.  If Mr. Xi instead determines that China and the world he seeks to dominate will be engulfed if the U.S. and Russia so engage, he might well act as Mr. Biden suggested – even if he indicated on the call that he wouldn’t.

I disagree with the notion that China may view the U.S. support of Ukraine as an opportunity to expedite any plans it has to invade Taiwan.  America retains the Pacific strength to effectively support Taiwan’s resistance to any Chinese aggression, and I would suspect that Mr. Xi views the U.S. support of Ukraine as evidence of a greater level of American resolve to support its allies and protect its interests — at least while Mr. Biden is President — than was apparent before Russia invaded Ukraine.  There is, of course, a concession somewhat corresponding to our 1963 removal of our nuclear missiles from Turkey that Mr. Xi might raise if Mr. Biden indeed suggested that he intercede with Mr. Putin:  our private assurance that that we would not aggressively aid Taiwan if China chose to invade the island.  While from Mr. Xi’s perspective there would be significant benefit to asking, Mr. Biden would certainly and properly reject such a suggestion out of hand.

Some might say that this note borders on rant; I would timidly venture that it is but an expression of fervent belief 🙂 .  [I suspect that right now, many of those that follow these pages are exceedingly glad that I am not advising President Biden  😉 .]  I concede that I might feel less strongly if the Ukrainians were seeking a compromise with Russia – after all, it is they who are dying, it is their existence that has been forever altered, while we sit here spouting about strategic options – but they understand that it is their (and our) freedom they are fighting for.  Too often strategy and sentiment are in conflict; in Ukraine, they align.  For those of us of or approaching Medicare eligibility, any manner of U.S. accommodation to Mr. Putin’s nuclear threats would be the easy course; given America’s nuclear armament, any material threat from foreign adversaries will never reach our shores in our lifetimes.  That said, for our children’s and grandchildren’s sake, America cannot allow itself to become the “lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force” that former President Franklin Roosevelt warned against in 1940.  We should continue to vigorously support Ukraine no matter what nuclear threats Vladimir Putin makes.  

Observations About Immigrants and Immigration

Last night this came up on my Twitter feed, and I feel it appropriate to record it in these pages. In recent years, I’ve had the privilege to visit with recent immigrants to the United States from many nations and with citizens of distant lands. Despite all of the rancor and discord about immigration that has arisen in our public discourse over the last score of years, those from outside our country still invariably see America as the “beacon of freedom and opportunity” President Reagan referred to in his remarks, and they feel what he described as the “magical, intoxicating power of America.” While there are many aspects of our immigration policy that require attention, we need to cherish and nurture such a priceless mantle.