Things That Make You Go, “HMMM.”

I’m channeling my inner Arsenio Hall.

Make no mistake:  I haven’t lost sight of the fact that President Joe Biden, by his willingness to run for the most challenging office in the world at an age more than a decade older than most people – including me — retire, showed a level of selflessness and patriotism we’ve rarely seen in our public officials in recent years.  Mr. Biden is a good man.  I remain thrilled that he is in the White House.  That said, for an Administration whose primary foreign policy pledge has been closer cooperation with allies, it’s been Amateur Hour.

Put aside whether our decision to withdraw from Afghanistan was correct; I don’t think so; many do.  It was Mr. Biden’s call; he’s the President of the United States.  What is becoming apparent is that the allies who got embroiled in the Middle East quagmire 20 years ago because of a grotesquely misguided series of decisions by former President George W. Bush felt inadequately consulted and little considered by our decision to so abruptly withdraw.  This seems an unnecessary error in allied relations.

As I’ve already lamented in these pages, it was pretty darn clear to anyone who read any credible news accounts on Taliban activity in Afghanistan during 2020 and 2021 that it was pretty darn likely that Afghanistan was going to fall to the Taliban almost the minute we withdrew.  In fact, it fell to the Taliban before we withdrew, and it was only under its auspices that we were able to get a lot of Americans and our collaborators out.  To not anticipate that such a precipitous Taliban takeover was at least a possibility, and plan for it, I find a disconcerting oversight on the part of the Administration’s foreign policy team.

Perhaps the most glaring:  The grievous insult to France recently perpetrated by the announcement of our AUKUS arrangement with Australia and the United Kingdom.  I think the arrangement itself – providing nuclear-powered submarines to Australia to help it patrol waters in which China has been increasingly aggressive – is exactly the type of step we need to be taking as we adjust our foreign policy to fit current realities.  That said, anybody with a shred of sense – and Mr. Biden’s foreign policy team is supposed to be comprised of professionals – should have seen that in not being advised and mollified in some fashion before it was announced that they were losing a $60 billion submarine contract with the Australians, the French would feel outraged and humiliated.  French President Emmanuel Macron, in tight political competition with right wing political groups sympathetic to Russia that we do not want to see take control of France, was belittled.   It is reported that Biden Administration National Security Advisor Jake Sherman was aware of all of the AUKUS machinations as they were occurring.  Whether he was or not, this was a stunning unforced blunder.

In a separate vein, I am mystified by Congressional Progressives’ indications that they will withhold their support from the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package already passed in the Senate unless Democrats also pass most or all of the $3.5 trillion “human infrastructure” package currently under their consideration.  Since no Republican support is expected for the human infrastructure package, its passage it will require the support of all Senate Democrats and virtually all House Democrats, moderates as well as Progressives.  If I thought that Progressives’ thundering was merely posturing, it wouldn’t bother me; as it is, I am concerned that some of the self-righteous among them may actually be serious.  If so, I would suggest that their harrumphing is akin to someone who threatens to jump off a roof unless others do what he wants.  Progressives should take whatever they can get on human infrastructure, and be satisfied.  It seems that too many continue to be oblivious that the majority of our citizenry – not only Republicans, but moderate Democrats and many Independents (including me) — have misgivings about the scope and extent of some of their policy aims; and that while their seats are mostly not imperiled by seeking the moon, many moderate Democrats’ seats will be at risk if the party is seen as acting too rashly, and the Democrats could end up forfeiting control of Congress to Republicans.  What will happen to their priorities then?  If Progressives indeed scuttle a bipartisan infrastructure bill that has widespread public support because they can’t get a number of initiatives that a significant segment of our people, correctly or incorrectly, have sincere question about, they deserve their fate.

Unless I’ve missed it, the future of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) recipients remains uncertain as parties’ Congressional delegations wrangle over wider immigration reform.  For years, there has been widespread support, including among the Republican electorate, for granting these young(er) people, who were brought here illegally in their youth, a path to permanent legal status.  I believe that the House of Representatives has already passed a measure to safeguard DACA recipients.  Every minute Democratic Senate leadership delays, a law becomes more difficult, since immigration will undoubtedly be a contentious issue in the 2022 campaign.  I don’t understand why that leadership doesn’t put a simple bill on the Senate floor, requiring all Senators to vote, designed to secure legal status for these blameless individuals.  Either the DACA recipients get protection or the Democrats get an emotive issue.  My guess:  it would pass.

Finally, a good friend asked me recently why I haven’t posted on the Packers.  I never watch preseason games, and I missed the 38-3 debacle while we were vacationing, so my first look at the team was last Monday night’s victory over the Detroit Lions.  Green Bay seemed a long way from a Super Bowl champion to me.  Granting that one of its primary rushing threats, Za’Darius Smith, was absent, the defense was underwhelming, and I don’t think that the team can maintain a championship offense with only meaningful production from Quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Running Back Aaron Jones (who will tire without the assistance of his former backup, Jamaal Williams), and Wide Receiver Davante Adams.  Hopefully, I’ll prove to be sadly mistaken.  Either way, Packer games will provide a wonderful distraction from the other issues we face.

Channeling my inner Mr. Hall was a good way to end the week  ;).  Have a nice weekend.

Deck Reflections on Our Forever War

There has recently been less time to devote to these pages as we do chores left to late summer, among them putting a new coat of stain on our deck.  Such chores do provide mind space for reflection.

While the observations of a retired Midwest blogger add little to the avalanche of commentary attending the Taliban’s swift conquest of Afghanistan as America has withdrawn its forces, the final outcome seems all the more tragic because it was so glaringly predictable.  In a May post on President Joe Biden’s first 100 days, I stated:

“I would submit that Mr. Biden’s most significant foreign policy failing thus far is his decision to withdraw U.S. Troops from Afghanistan.  It seems overwhelmingly likely that the Taliban, who oppose the Afghan government we have kept upright, will overrun the country almost as soon as we depart; we leave ourselves more vulnerable to terrorist attacks; we open the door to suppression of Afghan women; and we will appear to have abandoned another set of Middle East allies (remember the Trump Administration’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria), further reducing our credibility in the region [Emphasis in Original].”  

I didn’t add – perhaps alone, only recently having become aware – that Afghanistan is said to have significant deposits of rare earth minerals required in common high technology instruments, some strategic defense systems, and applications designed to address Climate Change.  By our departure we have apparently ceded a seeming counterweight in this arena to China, which the Centre for Strategic and International Studies reports to have approximately two thirds of certain rare earth elements.  If still not enough:  In The Room Where It Happened (“The Room”), former Trump Administration National Security Advisor John Bolton noted that he cautioned President Donald Trump against withdrawing from Afghanistan in part because he feared that a Taliban takeover might hasten the fall of neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear power, to terrorists.   

There has been some attempt in the liberal media to place some of the responsibility for our departure on Mr. Trump, since his Administration agreed to the arrangement with the Taliban under which America is withdrawing its forces.  (These have concurrence from an odd bedfellow, Mr. Bolton, who commented in The Room: “[Even] after Trump leaves office ….Trump will be responsible for the consequences, politically and militarily.”)  I don’t buy it.  In a post several years ago, I sharply criticized Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action [the actual title of the agreement limiting Iranian nuclear activity (the “JCPOA”)] that the Obama Administration negotiated with the Iranian government – despite the fact that even Democrats now agree that the pact had significant deficiencies — on the fundamental grounds that “we gave our word.”  That consideration does not apply to our agreement with the Taliban.  The international inspectors monitoring Iran’s JCPOA compliance considered Iran to be in compliance at the time we withdrew.  Here, the Taliban have been violating the promises they made to the Trump team from the day they were made.  Mr. Biden had ample grounds upon which to have rejected the agreement had he chosen to do so.

There has also been some suggestion that it’s just that we didn’t expect the Taliban to take Afghanistan … this quickly.  This is sophism.  If we believed that the Taliban was ultimately going to overrun the country, whether it achieved the takeover in a two weeks or six months has no geopolitical strategic significance.  (Such miscalculation was obviously of the first importance insofar as our ability to safely evacuate the Afghans who cooperated with us over the years.  Here our misreading will likely cost of the lives of thousands who relied on us.)

To his credit, as the situation in Afghanistan worsened, President Biden recited the first maxim of presidential leadership:  “The Buck stops with me.”  True.  He also asserted that the Taliban’s swift takeover has proven that this was going to be the result whenever we left.  Most probably true.  He has been widely reported to have chafed against our Afghan involvement over the years because he believed that we should have departed Afghanistan as soon as our initial purpose for entering the country – rooting out the interests that supported Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attack on us – was achieved.  Arguably his view once had significant merit.  However, it overlooks another precept of presidential leadership:  A President must play the hand s/he inherits.  I disagree with Mr. Biden’s claim that our departure will end a “Forever War.” Afghanistan was no more than a front in our Forever War.

I would submit that our nation has been in a Forever War since at least September, 1940, more than a year before it formally entered World War II, when it began to provide military aid to England and its allies.  President Franklin Roosevelt approved the aid because he realized, notwithstanding most Americans’ complacency born of our ocean buffers, that if Nazi Germany prevailed in Europe, it ultimately would come after us; he did it to prevent our becoming, in his words, “a lone island in a world dominated by the philosophy of force.”  By 1945 we had become the world’s preeminent super power.  Since that time, by the very nature of our position, we have been in a Forever War – sometimes hot, sometimes Cold, sometimes via proxy, on military, economic, cyber, advocacy, diplomatic and other battlefronts, and with shifting adversaries, but never truly unchallenged, at peace.  Today we remain, despite our failings and missteps, the world’s preeminent power.  China, Russia, Iran, and other hostile foreign powers are acutely aware of this, which is why they seek to undermine and supplant us either globally or regionally.  I am too much a Nixon-Kissinger foreign policy disciple not to believe that any event that makes us weaker anywhere makes us weaker everywhere.

It has been said that we are right to depart Afghanistan because we could never “win.”  We Americans have a subliminal understanding, given the manner in which we threw off a colonial power over 200 years ago, that determined natives will ultimately prevail over a weary outsider.  Granting that nation building may have been the misguided vision of the George W. Bush Administration, it’s been clear for over a decade that such was not achievable in Afghanistan.  I would nonetheless offer – to use a chess analogy (although all who know me are well aware of how painfully bad I am) – that sometimes achieving a draw is a win.  Our small military footprint constituted a bulwark against terrorist groups likely, if unrestrained, to attack us, and against larger powers whose expansion in the region will only make America strategically less safe:  Iran, Russia, and to an increasing extent, China.  While we could never “win” in Afghanistan, another chess analogy:  it is unwise to voluntarily relinquish a square that thwarts an opponent’s advance. 

While our Afghan withdrawal isn’t, in my view, anywhere near as colossal a blunder as the G. W. Bush Administration invasion of Iraq, I consider it more detrimental to American interests than either President Barack Obama’s failure to follow through on his warning to move against the Syrian regime if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on his own people, or Mr. Trump’s 2019 abandonment of our Kurdish allies, because Mr. Biden’s decision may materially increase the prospect of a terrorist attack(s) on our shores.  I also suspect that it is more unnerving to the world community because most understood that Mr. Obama was a foreign policy neophyte and all recognized that Mr. Trump was an untutored loose cannon.  Mr. Biden was supposed to know better, be a return to American competence and stability, to understand the use of power and the obligation to help those who have in good faith helped and relied on us.  An observation that occurred to me that I have seen reported elsewhere:  our precipitous Afghan withdrawal can do nothing but make Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Middle Eastern Gulf States, South Korea, Taiwan, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia (the latter three Baltic members of NATO on Russia’s doorstep) restive if not outright anxious.  In their places, I would be.  Our hasty departure has weakened our credibility in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, even within the Americas.  I remain confident that we can maintain our preeminent position indefinitely if we act wisely – which has not been the case either domestically or internationally in recent years.  Our global advantage is easily squandered if we continue to blunder.  In 1940, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill could look to us for help.  Today, there is no one behind us to whom we can look for help.    

A couple of very close friends asserted to me recently that as messy as the withdrawal and evacuation have been, Mr. Biden’s decision merely ended a pointless incursion; that with us out of Afghanistan, the region’s terrorist elements will have little remaining interest in us.  I hope they are right.  I fear they are not.  The American people apparently currently largely support our withdrawal, even if they are taken aback by its messy Vietnam-like denouement; I would predict that they will continue to support the withdrawal unless there is a major terrorist attack on our homeland which can be linked to Afghanistan.  If there is, American sentiment will turn on a dime.  Mr. Biden will not be re-elected. 

This has been a dense note – in perhaps more ways than one – but it was actually easier to consider the prospect of America’s waning influence than to dwell on yesterday’s gut-wrenching deaths of our soldiers and Afghans seeking evacuation – at the hands of an ISIS faction, seemingly indicating that we face a continuing threat from that quarter — or on the anguish of the Afghans that will be left in our wake.  I believe that all of us reach out to the same God, if through different paths.  I pray for them.

On the Israeli – Palestinian Conflict

Although a cease fire in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the Gaza Strip may be in effect by the time this note is published, the one thing all observers agree upon is that, from the larger perspective, the conflict seems endless and “intractable.”  I would pose that at this point there are no winners, only losers; and that Israel is the only party in a position to break the cycle. 

 (To set a context here:  in a view not universally shared, I consider Israel strictly a sovereign nation, and not a manifestation or fulfillment of religious faith.  I am an Irish Catholic, but if either Ireland or the Vatican – sovereign nations like Israel — implement a policy which I perceived as contrary to American interests, I would not feel divided loyalty.  I would submit that the only meaningful religious element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is this:  the Almighty is not in favor of His [please excuse the male pronoun ;)] people killing or harming each other, no matter by what faith path they have chosen to reach Him.  Let’s keep God out of this; all human beings deserve the opportunity to live in freedom, peace and security.)

(To set further context:  accompanying my reaction that criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian civilians is warranted is the countervailing memory of a learned American foreign policy figure intoning years ago that Israel was the only nation in the volatile Middle East where America knew it could safely land a plane at any time under any conditions.  I would suggest that such remains true to this day.  Additionally, Israel is, and for the foreseeable future will be, our most effective and reliable regional ally in combatting Iranian terrorism and aggression.  No matter its faults, America needs a strong and secure Israel.  I would venture that President Biden, if not all members of his party, is acutely aware of our need to balance these competing realities.)

I don’t think that it is much disputed in the international community that the settlements Israel has established in the Palestinian territories that it has occupied since the 1967 Middle East war are contrary to international law.  Any comparison of maps of Israel, Palestine and the surrounding environs respectively depicting the region as it existed before 1949, after the establishment of Israel in 1949 through 1967, after the 1967 Middle East War, and evolving to the present day demonstrates Israel’s expansion into land intended by the international community to be inhabited and controlled by the Palestinians when Israel was founded.  While it must be noted that Israel gained a foothold in the occupied territories not because it attacked, but because it was attacked, the increased settlement activity in occupied territories by Israel in recent years seems gratuitous usurpation.  I have seen reports that the most recent conflict was precipitated in part by Israel’s eviction of Palestinians from an East Jerusalem neighborhood (subject to correction by more informed eyes, I am not aware whether this neighborhood was originally part of Israel under the United Nations charter, or an area since claimed by Israel as part its sovereign territory).  Ignoring Palestinians’ frustration serves no purpose.

Given the Holocaust, Israel is and throughout our lifetimes will understandably always be anxious given its close proximity to states and peoples that have for the most part hated it and the Jewish people, have denied its right to exist, and have literally sought to expunge it.  [As the old saying goes, if they really are out to get you, you’re not paranoid  ;)].  The Palestinian terrorist organization, Hamas, allegedly aided by Iran, has launched over 3000 missiles into Israel in the last ten days; this, too, cannot be ignored.  My general concern with Israel’s posture today:  through its own diligence and hard work, and its longstanding relationship with and aid from the United States, it is arguably the strongest military power and maintains the most sophisticated intelligence network in the Middle East.  Its security has been further enhanced by the split in the Arab world that has caused Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf Coast nations to currently have greater concerns about Iran than they do about Israel.  Its “Iron Dome” defense system has performed extraordinarily well and for the most part shielded Israeli citizens from harm.  While it is not hard to imagine what we would do if either Canada or Mexico launched over 3000 missiles into the United States, the fact remains that Israel faces no existential threat from the rag-tag Palestinians. 

More than one former Israeli soldier has publicly criticized Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory (do an internet search, “Project Outreach – Avner Gvaryahu”).  I have heard at least one former Israeli soldier actually compare Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to apartheid.  One American journalist visiting Gaza has described Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as “unconscionable” – “effectively imprison[ing] … people.”  I would offer that Israel has pushed its advantage in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank because it can – and because such favors the political prospects of its Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.  It seems inevitable that such provocations will trigger a response. 

Although Israeli leadership says it “targeted” Hamas leadership and tunnels with its recent strikes into Gaza, there appears to be disproportionate collateral damage among Palestinian civilians, including children.  What unfolded seems akin in kind if not in scale to the inhumanities currently being visited on Yemeni in the Yemen civil war; both conflicts are being pursued by interests that have no regard for the devastation being suffered by innocents caught in the middle.  In the Yemen conflict, the Biden Administration discontinued equipping the Saudis’ military operations.  In Gaza, the situation is more complex, but I would submit that the Administration needs to maintain meaningful pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to halt not only the recent hostilities but to roll back Israel’s aggressive efforts in the occupied territories.  I would argue to Mr. Netanyahu that adoption of a softer policy is in Israel’s long term best interests.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, undue aggression weakens his nation’s stability.  Israel’s perceived disregard for Palestinian civilians:  reduces sympathy for Israel in the international community; threatens its existing relationships with Arab nations (Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco and, informally, Saudi Arabia), and thus, Israel’s security; antagonizes American progressives and liberals, and thus weakens Israel’s alliance with the United States – the linchpin upon which its security rests; exacerbates unrest within Israel between Jewish and Arab Israelis, weakening Israel as a state; and, perhaps most vitally, seems an affront to the principle that justified Israel’s founding — that persecuted and downtrodden innocents deserve respite. 

At least since the time of the Obama Administration, Mr. Netanyahu has seemed to take solace from his support among Republicans, and may believe that such will sustain America’s relationship with Israel despite progressives’ increasing criticism.  If he has made such a calculation, it seems to me that his confidence is misplaced.  I would point out to him that some of those now expressing fealty to Israel count among their ranks those that have sought to whitewash Trump insurgents’ attack on America’s democracy, are attempting to rewrite history by denying that former President Donald Trump lost the 2020 presidential election, and provided at best lukewarm condemnation of the white supremacists who marched through Charlottesville, VA, in August, 2017, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”  Indeed, this group includes past Holocaust deniers.  Can Israel really have confidence that its long-term security will be protected by the likes of these?

There is no question that Israel has the right to defend itself.  While it cannot afford to slacken its military and intelligence readiness, its defense in the coming decades may well rest at least as heavily upon its efforts to lower the Palestinian region’s tribal temperature.  It should extend the carrot while retaining the stick.  It should sincerely embrace the effort to find a viable Israel/Palestine two state solution – for its own sake as well as that of the Palestinians.

Mr. Biden’s First 100 Days: Part II

[If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there].

In addition to President Joe Biden’s demeanor, his staffing selections, his Administration’s response to COVID, and what appears to be at least his early strategic approach to the presidency, what’s left are the nuts and bolts of his early days:

General Domestic Policy:  B

Aside from proposing the massive COVID, Infrastructure, and Family Relief legislative packages listed in Part I, most of the President’s domestic efforts have been understandably directed at undoing what Mr. Trump had done, most prominently in the areas of immigration, “equity” in government, deregulation, and the environment.  (I understand Mr. Biden’s bold pledge to halve U.S. greenhouse gas pollution by 2030, despite the criticisms that it is imprudent and impractical; at the same time, I would not have so quickly cancelled the Keystone XL Pipeline approved by Mr. Trump — a cancellation which disappointed our Canadian ally and cost U.S. and Canadian jobs.)  The Administration’s first crisis has been over the southern border, but although this is an area in which polls show the President doesn’t enjoy the support of the majority of Americans, the situation was so malignly mishandled by the Trump Administration that I, and I’ll venture most Americans, will cut him some slack until at least mid-summer.  All that said:  while all that read these pages are well aware I am not an economist, my main concern about Mr. Biden’s domestic record thus far is that he is simply spending, and seeking to spend, too much money we don’t have.  Intuitively, it seems to me that the Democrats will not be able to sufficiently increase taxes, nor will the programs they are proposing generate enough additional revenues within an acceptable time frame, to avoid a notable increase in an already massive debt.  I do find credible the argument that the ample unemployment benefits provided in last COVID package have created a disincentive for some Americans to return to work.  According to a liberal Obama economist I recently heard, the economy is already “awash” in cash.  The Bond Market is clearly nervous about inflation, and is not as confident as Federal Reserve and Administration officials that any marked acceleration will be temporary and can be controlled.  I tend to agree with the Bond Market.

Foreign Policy:  C

While I most enthusiastically support Mr. Biden’s renewed emphasis on U.S. alliances after the debacle of the Trump “America First” approach, and absolutely applaud a number of steps the President has taken – presenting a strong front to China’s increasingly aggressive measures, imposing sanctions and diplomatic expulsions on Russia for its interference in the 2020 U.S. election, withdrawing our arms support from the Saudis in the Yemen conflict, declaring a “genocide” the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire over a century ago (a poke to make Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan aware that we will not coddle him) – what I consider significant missteps raise greater cause for concern.  Strategically, Mr. Biden seems to believe that the world is willing to return to the state that existed the day Mr. Trump took office.  If so, he is laboring under a dangerous misimpression.  Our allies are understandably wary of our diplomatic constancy when Mr. Trump still garnered over 70 million votes.  China and Russia are significantly better positioned internationally than they were four years ago, and have given no indication that they will readily cede their gains.  Despite Biden Administration coaxing, Iran is showing no willingness to go back to the Obama Administration-negotiated nuclear arrangement without U.S. “concessions.”  North Korea’s nuclear capacity is greatly enhanced.  The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is raging – and is now creating discord between Jewish and Arab Israelis.  Mr. Biden precipitously renewed for five years the Obama Era New Start nuclear treaty with Russia, a renewal actively sought by the Russians and a renewal which former Trump Administration National Security Advisor John Bolton – now no friend of Mr. Trump, and acknowledged even by his detractors to be a savvy foreign policy expert – has opined does not further American interests.  The Administration has thus far refrained, apparently for fear of offending Germany, from taking steps to block the impending completion of the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, through which Russia will deliver natural gas directly to Germany, undercutting Ukraine and enhancing Russia’s leverage over Europe.  (In a partial nod to Mr. Trump, he saw the impending Nord Stream 2 danger, but by that time had so boorishly antagonized German Chancellor Angela Merkel that he had no influence with her.)  However, I would submit that Mr. Biden’s most significant foreign policy failing thus far is his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan.  It seems overwhelmingly likely that the Taliban, who oppose the Afghan government we have kept upright, will overrun the country almost as soon as we depart; we leave ourselves more vulnerable to terrorist attacks; we open the door to suppression of Afghan women; and we will appear to have abandoned another set of Middle East allies (remember the Trump Administration’s abandonment of the Kurds in Syria), further reducing our credibility in the region.  I have made no secret in these pages that consider former President Barack Obama to have been a poor foreign policy president, particularly in his second term.  Rather than learning from Mr. Obama’s mistakes, Mr. Biden seems to be emulating them.  Both strategically and tactically, a disappointing foreign policy start.

So:  if we are grading on the 4-point scale, providing a .5 for every “+,” and giving equal weight to every category, Mr. Biden comes in with a cumulative “GPA” of 3.4 — about a B+  — with an Incomplete [looking not unlike my old report cards:  okay in some areas but less stellar in others  ;)].  That said, the President’s first 100 days are merely that.  For me, the most important grade from a prospective standpoint is the “Incomplete.”  The President’s aura of COVID competence won’t last but a couple of more months; I would submit that Mr. Biden needs to make a fiscally-responsible bipartisan infrastructure deal, bring humane coherence to the southern border, and better mind our foreign policy during his second 100 days if he is to continue his Administration’s momentum.  

Mr. Biden’s First 100 Days: Part I

[This was projected to run earlier, but a note relating to Congressional House Republicans’ recent untoward treatment of U.S. WY Rep. Liz Cheney seemed more immediate.]

Virtually every commentator we know has provided an assessment as to how President Joe Biden has conducted the first 100 days of his presidency – which President Franklin Roosevelt made an unofficial milestone of the American presidency during his first term – and I can’t resist doing the same.  This note will include brief references to several topics worthy of their own future posts; but in the meantime, here we go:

Presidential Tone and Demeanor:  A+

Mr. Biden owes his election partially to the promise that he would not be former President Donald Trump, and on that he has delivered handsomely.  Since he is by all accounts a kindly and decent man, he was undoubtedly going to do well here, but has excelled by reducing the national temperature, while making clear that he is sharp and fully engaged in conducting the office.  He has deftly distanced himself from hyper-partisan flashpoints such as Mr. Trump’s second impeachment and the recent FBI raid on Trump Attorney Rudy Giuliani’s home.  His address to Congress was conversational, sincere, and uplifting.  A Wall Street Journal columnist recently noted that one of the President’s strengths is that at least so far, and unlike his four predecessors, no electoral segment hates him.

Administration Personnel:  B

I would not have as affirmatively focused on achieving a diverse Cabinet as Mr. Biden did, but he has for the most part chosen experienced professionals.  The President’s selections are, furthermore, generally low-key in manner – again, conducive to reducing the temperature of the presidency.  (The exception was Neera Tanden, whose nomination for Director of the Office of Management and Budget, perhaps offered up as “red meat” to the Republicans, was ultimately withdrawn.)  If reports I’ve seen of his past positions are accurate, Secretary of State Antony Blinken perhaps whiffed on several Middle East issues over the last 20 years.  Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Attorney General Merrick Garland are superstar choices.  White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has been effective.  Personal Favorite:  Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who should use his time in the Administration to build relationships to key Democratic constituencies as he gets ready to make another bid for the presidency. 

Administration Execution:  A+

Mr. Biden came to the White House declaring his priority was to pass his COVID relief package and effectively disseminate the COVID vaccines.  Given his singular emphasis, the manner in which he addressed the pandemic became an immediate make-or-break test of his competence in Americans’ minds.  He passed with flying colors, consistently under promising and over delivering.

Administration Strategy:  INCOMPLETE

The President – to my surprise, and I believe to others’ – has thus far chosen not be an incrementalist or a bipartisan collaborator, but has instead “Gone Big.”  The $1.9T COVID relief bill seemingly included more than was strictly needed to address the nation’s pandemic (more on that in Part II), and was passed over Republican Congressional objections despite Mr. Biden’s campaign pledge to seek bipartisanship.  He has now proposed a $2.3T infrastructure plan including components arguably well beyond even a generous definition of “infrastructure” and a $1.8T Families Relief Plan.  He has proposed a sweeping Immigration reform.  He has pleased his party’s progressives, although he was elected in part because he was not overly progressive.  One bids high when one has strong cards; it remains to be seen whether his “Go Big” strategy is effective in a closely-divided Congress (and whether his now-proven willingness to “go it alone” on COVID relief makes Republicans more amenable in future negotiations) or instead proves too ambitious an approach that forfeits the opportunity for significant but more modest legislative achievement.

At the turn of this note, Mr. Biden is doing pretty well.  I don’t want to overwhelm these pages with too much Noise; it seems less exhausting to reserve views on Mr. Biden’s General Domestic Policy and Foreign Policy initiatives – where I would suggest that he perhaps hasn’t performed quite as well — for Part II.

On Vaccinations

It has been reported that one out of three adult Americans has already had at least one COVID vaccination shot; we seem well on our way toward President Joe Biden’s expressed goal of being able to provide a vaccination to all Americans who want one within, at the latest, the next sixty days.  I hope that the Administration is already setting plans, assuming our domestic rollout remains on track, to make our unneeded vaccinations available to citizens of disadvantaged nations as the summer proceeds.  Although our international image has taken on more than a bit of tarnish over the last four years, I would venture that these nations, if given the option of receiving vaccines from the United States, China, or Russia, will still instinctively prefer the American option:  likely better quality, almost certainly fewer explicit or implied strings attached.

Closer to home, set forth below is a note I received recently from a very close friend of many decades – whose antics our adult children still well recall from their early days — who will only become aware of my intent to enter it here as he reads this post.  I am confident he won’t mind; when you read the note, I suspect you will share my confidence : ).

“When I was waiting for my second shot, a young lady (30 – 35) or so was pacing around.  I asked her if this was her first shot and if she was nervous.  She said yes.  I told her not to worry, this was going to be my second shot and it’s no big deal.  You just pull down your pants, they give you the shot and you are on your way. 

????!!!!!  She said WHAT???   She thought you get the shot in your arm!  I asked her who told her that?   She said she saw it on TV.   I told her that they can’t put people getting butt shots on TV plus if they did a lot of people might not get the shot.  Then they called her name and I said Good luck.   

Do you know she gave me the finger when she got out of the office?   How rude!” 

I suspect that all that read these pages either have received their vaccinations, or intend to do so when given the opportunity … while of course, keeping their pants on  ;).  Hopefully, many of our fellow citizens currently expressing reservations will soon resolve to do the same.  In the meantime, stay safe.

Preaching Unity … and Lancing Sedition

[The note immediately below this post, which I published Saturday and characterized as a “Prologue” to this post — in which I elaborated on a tangential observation appearing herein that currently-reported efforts in Congress to impeach President Trump, while warranted, were nonetheless not a wise course — engendered robust contrary reactions from several learned followers of these pages.  Their thoughts are worthy of exploration in the future.  What appears here is the post scheduled some days ago for release today.]

It cannot be denied that President Donald J. Trump, through not only four years of fascist behavior but in his incendiary remarks last Wednesday morning, incited the ensuing riot and storming of our nation’s Capitol.  I have heard a report that the Capitol police officer killed in the attack was assaulted by rioters with a fire extinguisher.  A woman rioter, perhaps truly believing that she was on a quest to save America, was shot as Capitol police defended members of Congress huddled in the legislative chamber.  It no longer matters whether Mr. Trump is clinically deranged, or evil; he is now beyond all doubt not only a clear but present danger to our Republic. 

How we address in the coming weeks, and in the months and years that follow, the anarchy fomented by Donald Trump will determine the future of the country we want for our children and grandchildren.  Until this past Wednesday, I had supposed that President-elect Joe Biden would primarily be a transition president; given his age and conciliatory manner, I expected his term to be the chemotherapy necessary to rid our body politic of the Trump cancer, and that it would be his successor who would actually begin to rebuild our strength after the necessary period of convalescence.

Now, we don’t have that luxury of waiting.  That said, I would suggest that the events at the Capitol both made clear the stark nature of Mr. Biden’s challenge and present an unexpectedly fertile opportunity.  I would submit that upon taking office, he will need to straightforwardly confront the greatest domestic menace to our Republic since Abraham Lincoln, because the emotional currents exploited and exacerbated by Mr. Trump run deep.  At the same time, at a point when all but the most despicable segment of Trump supporters may well be feeling a bit chastened, Mr. Biden must leverage their second thoughts and genuine patriotic spirit to coax them back toward moderation. 

What should occur even before Inauguration Day probably won’t — President Trump’s immediate removal from office.  While reported efforts to undertake Congressional impeachment proceedings against Mr. Trump are entirely warranted, I am not a fan; they will seemingly take too long given the time remaining in the Trump term, perhaps cause Republicans to recommit to the President out of tribal loyalty or self-interest just when many are looking to distance themselves from him, and keep the spotlight on Mr. Trump.  Instead, Vice President Mike Pence (who when it finally came to unambiguous Constitutional duty rather than political sycophancy, did his duty in the Congressional Electoral College vote count – for which I give him no credit) should, despite his lack of backbone, follow the provisions of the 25th Amendment, obtain the signed declaration of the requisite number of Cabinet officials that Mr. Trump is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and become Acting President until Inauguration Day.  Since current reports unsurprisingly indicate that Mr. Pence has no intention of taking this route, perhaps the best we can hope for is de facto protection via informal means; query whether the military might not have already formed a tacit understanding that it will not follow Mr. Trump’s orders without Mr. Pence’s concurrence, and there seems a move among some news and social media outlets to limit Mr. Trump’s ability to broadcast his incendiary and false pronouncements.  If such continues to be the case, we may be able to limp to Inauguration Day without further incident, save Mr. Trump’s inevitable continuing promiscuous use of the presidential pardon power.  

I do harbor hopes, given the changing sentiments caused by the storming of the Capitol, that the coordination of the respective Biden health, diplomatic and defense teams with their outgoing Trump Administration counterparts will be facilitated to speed the Biden Administration’s COVID response, and to communicate to the global community – allies and adversaries alike — that we are steadying our affairs of state and are not to be discounted during the remainder to the Trump term.

Presidents need to shrewdly play the cards they inherit.  If advising Mr. Biden, I would suggest that to be effective, his leadership of our nation will need to effectively and simultaneously strike two complementary but very different tones.  The primary theme continues to be that of reconciliation:  continuing testaments to America’s strength and the fundamental goodness of its people, with emphasis on a more aggressive and cohesive health and economic response to the Covid crisis, racism, the environment, infrastructure, strengthening of foreign alliances, and plans to provide opportunity to those desperate and depressed parts of the nation (importantly, including those areas whose citizens primarily supported Mr. Trump).  In these pursuits, a closely divided Congress controlled by Democrats will arguably enable Mr. Biden to make progress by finding common ground with moderates of both parties, navigating between the obstructionism of Republican radicals and unrealistic expectations of Democratic progressives.

At the same time, Mr. Biden must make clear not only by word but in action that seditious activity will not be tolerated.  In his Inaugural Address, he should explicitly state:

  • Donald Trump lied to you to keep his own power.  There was never any valid dispute regarding the outcome of the election, as declared by election officials of sovereign states of both parties and affirmed by judges of all political philosophies across the country.  Both Donald Trump and his enablers in Congress that sought to disenfranchise millions of voters put themselves ahead of our country, and misled those of you who trusted them.  (So you thought you’d be President, Schoolboy Josh? Lyin’ Ted?)
  • The Biden Administration Justice Department will, directly and through assistance to all other relevant authorities, be investigating the storming of the Capitol and, where the evidence warrants prosecution, will pursue to the full extent of the law all individuals that in any manner participated in or contributed to the events of January 6.  (Are you listening, Donald?  Rudy?  Donny? Rioters, including those responsible for the death of the Capitol Police officer?)
  • That he will ask Congress to pass a domestic terrorism law.
  • That the Biden Administration will be forming a bipartisan commission to consider circumstances in which social media providers should be held accountable for false content disseminated through their facilities without limiting Americans’ right of free speech.  (I haven’t explored the nuances of this, but I have heard knowledgeable experts such as journalist Kara Swisher indicate that it may be possible to reconcile these potentially competing interests.  Such legislation will obviously need to be conscientiously considered and crafted; potential Co-Chairs coming to mind would be Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Mitt Romney.)

I concede that I’ve laid out no easy task for our future president:  suggesting that he thread the needle between amicable national reconciliation and an appropriately robust defense of the Republic.  Although by all accounts, Abraham Lincoln was, like Mr. Biden, a kindly man – we fondly recall Mr. Lincoln’s second Inaugural Address, in which he asked for malice toward none, and charity for all – he also possessed steel resolve; when his benevolent words are recalled, it is rarely noted that before uttering them he first brought about the killing of 300,000 rebels – most of whom believed in their cause as sincerely as the insurgents that invaded the Capitol.  Mr. Biden must manifest a similar combination of amity and resolve.  The days ahead will be difficult for him.  My final piece of advice would be:  look to Mr. Lincoln’s example for guidance and sustenance.

America’s Twilight Zone

The link below attaches to clips from a famous Twilight Zone episode that recently came to mind.  While the appeals for physical violence in one of the scenes, a remnant of an earlier time in American sensibilities, are to be condemned, the episode’s depiction of cowardly failure to confront iniquity has direct parallels today. 

Yesterday, President-Elect Biden called Mr. Trump’s recalcitrance in accepting his defeat and obstructing the transition to the next Administration “irresponsible” – exactly the term and tone I would have suggested if advising him.  Since I’m not advising him, I myself am free to characterize the recent activities of the President and his cohort – among them, Mr. Trump calling Republican Wayne County (Detroit), MI, election canvass board members and sufficiently exerting the pressure of his office on them to cause them to seek to rescind their votes certifying the County’s (heavily Democratic) election results; Mr. Trump being reported by multiple sources to have invited the Michigan state Republican Senate Majority Leader and the Michigan state House Speaker to Washington today, in an apparent effort to have the state’s legislature override Mr. Biden’s 150,000 vote victory in the state by sending Trump electors to the Electoral College; Trump clown lawyer Rudolf Giuliani’s grotesque, unsubstantiated, and patently ridiculous claims of a multi-state widespread conspiracy to steal the election from Mr. Trump – for what they are: treasonous. These activities by the President and his minions have nothing to do with vote count verification; they are efforts consciously undertaken to undo the expressed will of the American people and undermine our people’s faith in the very process that has sustained us throughout our history.  These activities alone warrant Mr. Trump’s impeachment and removal from office.

By making no meaningful effort to counter the coercive activities and the spread of scurrilous disinformation designed to undermine our electoral processes, leaders of a major American political party are cravenly betraying the millions of Americans who have died over almost 250 years to protect our Republic.  That said, the manner in which Republican officeholders have cowered in the face of Mr. Trump’s abhorrent behavior has, however unwittingly, brought into undeniable relief what has perhaps become the glaring weakness in our society:  virtually every one of our elected officials (I am willing to make an exception for U.S. UT Sen. Mitt Romney) now care almost entirely about maintaining their own standing and precious little about our people or our system of government.  Everybody knows that getting re-elected is a very high priority for a politician; but until observing Republicans’ silent acquiescence to – and in some instances, active enablement of — Mr. Trump’s destructive petulance, we – at least I – didn’t believe that we had reached the point that political survival was seemingly most national politicians’ only real priority.  This is a nonpartisan comment; I have no illusions that if a Democratic demagogue arises in the future, Democratic officeholders will respond any better than Republicans are today. 

Although Mr. Trump will not be immediately impeached and removed from office as he should be, and while it still appears that we are overwhelmingly likely to survive Mr. Trump and his cohort’s seditious schemes, we remain in a Twilight Zone of political ambition, poisonous partisanship and propaganda profiteers.  We as citizens should ponder what, if anything, we can do about it.   

Winning America’s Two-Front Domestic War

Not long after the United States’ entry into World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt, in consultation with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, decided upon a “Europe First” strategy:  that the United States would concentrate its efforts, in concert with its British and Russian allies, upon the defeat of Nazi Germany, while it maintained a “holding action” against the Japanese Empire in the Pacific theater.  Although some of the heaviest American casualties came on Pacific islands while the war waged in Europe, America only turned its full attention to the Pacific after victory over Germany was achieved.

I would submit that today, we are again engaged in a two-front war, at home:  against our internal divisive hyper-partisanship and the Coronavirus.  I think President-Elect Biden is pursuing an effective war strategy.  Although perhaps as driven by practical realities as President Roosevelt arguably was in 1942, Mr. Biden seems focused on tacitly addressing our divisiveness by (at least outwardly) exhibiting a calm inevitability while doing what he can regarding the Coronavirus.

On the Divisiveness Front, I would suggest that Election Day was much akin to D-Day in 1944.  Although the war raged for months afterward, D-Day marked the turning point of the war in Europe.  My personal greatest fear – that America might descend into autocracy due to the continuation of President Trump’s constitutional powers combined with his dictatorial tendencies — is now seemingly abating.  All but the most oblivious Trump supporters understand that Mr. Trump lost.  I have yet to find a definitive count of the number of Trump supporters at the Washington, D.C. rally this past weekend; Monday on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Mika Brzezinski mentioned 20,000.  Let’s say it was 35,000.  This would amount to approximately 1 percent of the votes Mr. Trump garnered within about two hours’ drive of D.C.  Although Mr. Trump’s maimed psyche is currently being supported by the greedy and the cowardly – the alt-right media that profit by feeding sugar to the gullible, and the feckless Republican officials more interested in their political careers than in what is good for our nation – the Trump rally turnout hardly constituted a groundswell of rebellion.  The mainstream media is turning off the Trump Show.  The President’s electoral antics haven’t merited an actual front-page story in the Murdoch-controlled Wall Street Journal for days.  That said, winning on the Divisiveness front has arguably moved from achieving Mr. Trump’s departure to obtaining the grudging acquiescence of the majority of Mr. Trump’s less extreme supporters.  By maintaining his poise in the face of the President’s irrational provocations, Mr. Biden is enabling the air to continue to seep out of the Baby Trump balloon.

If advising Mr. Biden, I’d have only one suggestion on this front:  when he speaks, continue to condemn violence on all sides.  Reports of Saturday’s rally indicate that some anti-Trump groups went seemingly seeking confrontation.  Mr. Biden should declare that all Americans are entitled to peacefully demonstrate, and that those that oppose the President should avoid going to pro-Trump rallies.  Mr. Trump needs a fight to maintain relevance – and if none is offered, his avid support will continue its shrivel to the fringes.

On the Coronavirus Front:  In all other realms of national security aside from the virus response, I’d be very surprised if Mr. Biden isn’t informally getting virtually all of the information in the President’s Daily Brief:  members of the intelligence community sharing a repast with old friends outside the Administration, who in turn visit with members of the incoming Administration, and … there you have it.  And/or:  in addition to the fact that Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris gets briefed as a member of the U.S. Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, have U.S. VA Sen. Mark Warner and U.S. CA Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic heads of the two Congressional intelligence committees, stopped by to … er … congratulate Mr. Biden in person?  Maybe.  Would any information passed to Mr. Biden through these avenues constitute a violation of federal law?  Probably.  Any likelihood of detection and consequences?  Little … and none.

As to the Coronavirus response itself:  while noting in his news conference yesterday that “We are a war with the virus,” when asked about the Trump Administration’s unwillingness to work with his team, Mr. Biden prodded Mr. Trump by warning that “More people may die if we don’t coordinate” and “You’d think he’d at least want to go off on a positive note,” but acknowledged that if necessary, the Biden team will “try to pull together a serious and consistent plan so we’re ready on Day 1.”  It is apparent that Mr. Trump is so locked up in his own narcissistic malaise that no entreaty will move him.  My guess:  the drug companies and health equipment manufacturers are already sharing at least as much detail regarding their current status and projections with Biden representatives as they are with the Trump Administration.  Since Mr. Trump seems intent on inaction, no meaningful federal progress will be made until Inauguration Day even if/when the Trump Administration provides all of its data and plans to the Biden Transition Team.  Given comments by Dr. Anthony Fauci, I have hope that the Administration may actually have workable plans.

As Mr. Biden also noted yesterday, things are going to get “much tougher before they get easier” on COVID during the coming months.  That said, we can all help ourselves.  Let’s end where we started, with WWII:  in December, 1944, six months after D-Day, German forces that had been in retreat staged a massive counter-offensive, resulting in what became known as the “Battle of the Bulge.”  American forces in Bastogne, Belgium, were outnumbered, outgunned, and short of supplies.  The Germans demanded American surrender.  The American commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe, responded:  “Nuts.”  Despite being surrounded and ill-equipped, the Americans held on against the German assault until reinforcements arrived.  For the good of our families, our fellow citizens, and ourselves, we likewise have to do our best to hold on.  The key to prevailing on the Coronavirus front is within our control – by wearing masks and limiting if not avoiding indoor social gatherings – as we wait for federal reinforcements to arrive as soon as feasible after Inauguration Day.

China’s Persecution of Muslim Uyghurs

Last night, we happened upon a Public Broadcasting Service Frontline repeat, “China Undercover,” which addresses the Chinese government’s persecution and suppression of Muslim Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang (officially known as, the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region”).  All who wish to be aware have a generalized understanding that the Chinese government has run – and despite its claims to the contrary, might still be running — what it calls “Re-Education Camps” for its Uyghur population – facilities that human rights organizations consider concentration camps – but for any like us that have had little more than a generalized understanding of the situation, the PBS documentary brings home the terror that China is inflicting upon the Uyghurs and its overall Muslim population.  China’s tactics against the Uyghurs are in some regards stunningly reminiscent of those used by the Nazi government upon Jews.  The documentary also notes that Chinese authorities are applying current surveillance technology and Artificial Intelligence to identify and move against the Uyghur population, and that it seems overwhelmingly likely that the authorities either are or will be employing these tools throughout China to identify and eliminate any individuals that it considers a danger.  These are tools of oppression that Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong could only have dreamed of. 

These pages have devoted a fair amount more attention to Russian President Vladimir Putin than they have to Chinese President Xi Jinping.  Although this documentary refers to President Xi himself relatively sparingly, since nothing material goes on in China that Mr. Xi does not approve of, the piece makes unquestionably clear that Mr. Xi … is a bad guy.

I wanted to note this documentary today because at least on PBS Wisconsin, it will run again tonight at 10PM CT.  If one doesn’t mind viewing it on a smaller screen, a link to the entire presentation appears below.