A Postscript to Yesterday’s Post ;)

Almost as I was sending yesterday’s entry about the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s July 3 finding upholding the Intelligence Community’s Assessment of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, and expressing dismay at what I consider to be the counter-productive nature of a delegation of Republican Senators’ current trip to Russia, President Trump was hosting a campaign rally in Montana.  In addition to his customary .. er .. inaccuracies, the President said this (I’ve seen the tapes):

“Putin’s fine.  He’s fine.  We’re all fine.  We’re people.”

Such a grotesque denial of reality by our President in the area of most critical importance to the lifeblood and safety of our nation is, frankly, terrifying.  The fact that the crowd cheered as he spouted this and other nonsense was disquieting.  (That said, I do have more than a bit of hope that some Montanans were merely being polite; yesterday, the Wall Street Journal quoted a Montana Trump supporter as saying, “… if Trump … asked me to vote for [Republican Senate candidate Matt] Rosendale, I’d say, ‘Yeah, sure.’  But then I’d go out and still vote for [current Democratic Senator Jon] Tester.”)

In commenting yesterday on the Republican Senate junket to Russia, I suggested that the Senators’ conduct, in the light of the ICA findings as upheld by the Senate Select Committee, was, although seemingly unwise, perhaps merely well-meaning blundering rather than dereliction of duty; I can’t make the same allowance for the President of the United States …

Chatting in the Face of Cyber War

Two related items that shouldn’t be lost in the flurry of the holiday:  The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s issuance of findings on the Intelligence Community’s January, 2017, Assessment of Russian interference in our election process (the ICA) and … a trip currently being taken to Russia by a U.S. Senate delegation.

On July 3, the bipartisan Senate Committee issued a set of its findings on the reliability of the ICA.  The findings are worth reading in their entirety — only 7 pages and readily found through an internet search.  Although many are aware, it’s worth noting that this Committee contains one more Republican than Democrat, and that at least three of the Republicans on the Committee – Sens. Lankford, Cotton, and Cornyn – have been strong supporters of President Trump in other contexts.

First a recap of some of the ICA referred to in the Committee’s report:

  • That Russia executed a “significant escalation” in its attempt to interfere in U.S. domestic politics in the run-up to the 2016 elections through multi-faceted cyber espionage and cyber-driven messaging via Russian-controlled propaganda platforms.
  • That Russia’s activities were in furtherance of its longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order.
  • That Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election, intended to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.
  • That President Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for then-candidate Donald Trump.
  • That President Putin and the Russian Government aspired when possible to help Candidate Trump win by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.

The Senate Committee’s findings regarding the reliability of the ICA include the following:

  • That the ICA was a “sound intelligence product.”
  • That the ICA was supported by evidence reviewed by the Senate Committee.
  • That the intelligence analysts that prepared the ICA were under no politically-motivated pressure to reach any conclusions.
  • That the disagreement among intelligence analysts was reasonable, transparent, and openly debated, with analysts on both sides of the confidence level articulately justifying their positions.
  • That the [Steele] [D]ossier did not in any way inform the analysis in the ICA.

Meanwhile, during the same days that the Senate Select Intelligence Committee was issuing these findings, we have a Senate delegation visiting Russia and conferring with President Putin and Russian officials.  This group – entirely Republican – apparently includes Sens. Richard Shelby (R-AL), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Steve Daines (R-MT), John Kennedy (R-LA), John Thune (R-S.D.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), and … Wisconsin’s own Ron Johnson.  Sen. Shelby has been quoted as saying during the trip, “[The United States and Russia] have a strained relationship, but we could have a better relationship between the U.S. and Russia because there’s some common interests around the world that we could hopefully work together on.”

While Sen. Shelby – for whom, along with Sen. Kennedy, I had a fair measure of respect before this episode – is literally correct – there are indeed areas in which we have common interests with Russia (e.g., the ISIS conflict) — his comment is largely akin to saying that you have a common interest in weed control with a neighbor trying to burn your house down.

I remain an unabashed Richard Nixon – Ronald Reagan follower in the foreign policy sphere.  It is inconceivable that either of those Presidents, given the clear evidence of Russia’s interference in our election process – which Dick Cheney noted last year some would consider “an act of war” — would believe cozy conversations with the Russians at this time to be in America’s best interest.  Both Presidents made clear, publicly and privately, that they understood that the Russians of their day – and Mr. Putin, cut from the cloth of the Cold War, is of their day — respond to strength and resolve, not amiable chatting.  I would suggest that this delegation’s activities are at best well-intended blundering, and arguably a disappointing dereliction of their sworn duty to “… defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic …”

ZTE … Annotated

It generally serves little purpose to regurgitate information available via a brief internet search, but since many people are living their lives without delving into the gory details of every policy disagreement in Washington, it’s worth calling out the current dispute between the White House and just about everybody else in Washington (Democrats, Republicans, and our U.S. security apparatus) over whether to continue sanctions imposed on Chinese telecommunications manufacturer ZTE by – ironically — the Trump Administration.

ZTE has been involved in our telecom industry for years.  It both supplies equipment to some of our small (mostly rural) telecom companies and buys parts (including fiber) from American companies to make its equipment.  These companies are obviously adversely impacted by governmental limitation on their ability to transact with ZTE.  Additionally, ZTE issues have a potential impact on (1) our agriculture industry and (2) Chinese approval of an acquisition by U.S. company Qualcomm deemed critical to Qualcomm’s growth.

ZTE is also reportedly one of China’s key players in the battle for future strategic telecommunications dominance being waged between the U.S. and China.  I understand that 5G is the new horizon; ZTE is one of the companies striving for a foothold in the technology.

Our government has considered ZTE to be a security threat for some time, and banned purchase of its equipment by NASA, the Justice and Commerce Departments in 2013.  In February, our security agencies warned consumers about buying Chinese-manufactured phones.  In early May, the Pentagon banned the purchase of ZTE and Huawei (another Chinese telecom manufacturer) phones near military bases.  The overall concern is that China could utilize the equipment to conduct electronic spying on Americans.  ZTE denies that the equipment could be so utilized, and both China and ZTE deny that the government places any pressure on ZTE.  (Given what even we lay people know about telecommunications technology, it’s hard to believe that ZTE equipment couldn’t be so utilized, or that China, even if it places no pressure on ZTE today, couldn’t start doing so tomorrow.)

If the e-surveillance issue wasn’t enough, ZTE is a bad actor; the Trump Commerce Department placed its ban on American companies’ sales of parts to ZTE because it determined (and is apparently undisputed) that ZTE skirted sanctions in selling equipment to North Korea and Iran.

Our ban has apparently crippled ZTE, a matter of sufficient import to China that President Xi personally raised the ban with President Trump, prompting this tweet by the President:

“President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done! [My emphasis]”

Despite almost unanimous bipartisan concern, the Administration is now seeking to lift its sanctions on ZTE – allowing it to remain in business – provided that it pay a fine in excess of $1 billion, submit to U.S. inspectors, and make changes to its management team.   China would agree to remove billions of dollars of tariffs on our agricultural products as part of the deal.

Aside from the obvious – that neither the President’s supporters nor detractors in this country care about protecting Chinese jobs – I would submit that the President’s actions in trying to resuscitate ZTE are troubling from two perspectives:

  • Defective strategic thinking. Acknowledging that the impact to certain of our companies could be severe if we hold fast on the ZTE sanctions, the President (as noted most articulately by Sen. Marco Rubio) is mixing trade with national security.  The two don’t mix.  I fear that the President is exhibiting the attitude sometimes evident among people with business backgrounds:  believing dollars justify means.  Even putting aside potential security issues and what should be our goal of limiting China’s strategic technological advancement, letting ZTE off the sanctions sends the message that no matter how bad an actor performs, we can be bought off.  I would rather see us temporarily assist the telecoms and farmers adversely impacted by the sanctions than let ZTE off the hook.  (Qualcomm might just be out of luck.)

 

  • The appearance of self-enrichment. I assume that even the President’s most fervent supporters will concede that his sudden reversal on his own administration’s sanctions on ZTE – with a tweet expressing concern for Chinese jobs – was bizarre.  Coming at about the same time as the Chinese government approved a number of trademarks for Ivanka Trump and the Chinese government  granted a $500 million loan to a Chinese construction company for work on an Indonesian theme park (the loan is reportedly the majority of the entire park project’s funding) featuring Trump properties (called park “flagships” by National Review), there is the obvious suspicion that the President’s reversal on ZTE is a quid pro quo for China’s assistance to his family business.

Right now, there are a number of bipartisan moves in Congress to bar the Administration from lifting its bans on ZTE.  Although I generally believe that a President needs to have a fairly free hand in conducting foreign policy – nothing can be achieved when s/he has to deal with 535 Congressional kibitzers – since his discussion with President Xi, he has been – at the very least — sufficiently tone deaf to the ramifications and appearances of his approach that that Congressional interjection is not only warranted – it’s vital.

Jerusalem Embassy Afterthoughts

I got up this morning thinking about yesterday’s post regarding the Administration’s move of our Embassy to Jerusalem.  Keeping in mind the first Principle of this site – that anything I enter may well be all haywire – I see nothing conceptually amiss with what I posted … but woke up realizing that it was too antiseptic, too clinical an analysis of the foreign policy factors in play.  The piece failed to address the physical suffering and emotional anguish being visited every day on people in the Mideast – the overwhelming majority of whom simply want to live their lives and raise their families in peace and without want.  It’s hard not to believe that many of those that actively engage in conflicts are guided by many of the same reactions Americans would have if placed in similar circumstances.

While it is likely, regardless of the opening of our Embassy in Jerusalem, that there would have been disturbances along the Gaza Strip on what the Palestinians call “Nakba Day” (the “Day of Catastrophe”), and that these disturbances would have resulted in some number of deaths and injuries, it seems almost certain that the Embassy move exacerbated the Palestinian anger and frustration already existing.  Although – as noted in the earlier post — I don’t see what strategic foreign policy objectives we advanced by moving the Embassy, I most sincerely hope that I’ve grossly misunderstood the situation.  While some reports indicate that a good number of the Palestinian casualties were members of Hamas, others were not.  I want to hope that we are not responsible for additional innocent lives lost or forever marred because of a move made primarily for U.S. domestic political purposes.

Reactions to Moving our Embassy to Jerusalem

I was asked today for reactions to the Trump Administration’s opening of our Embassy in Jerusalem.  Here we go …

One can find statements by Presidents Clinton, G. W. Bush, and Obama, obviously predating the Trump Administration, all expressing a preference for moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.  Congress passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act in 1995, calling for the embassy to be moved to Jerusalem by 1999 (this hasn’t been done due to a series of authorized Presidential waivers based on security concerns).  The Senate passed a resolution 90 – 0 last June, affirming the Act and calling upon the President to abide by its provisions.  The Obama Administration’s ambassador to Israel said tonight on PBS that moving the embassy was “appropriate.”  President Trump had pledged during his campaign to make the move.  Sen. Chuck Schumer supports the move.  The President can rightly point out that moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem has traditionally had bipartisan support.

Even so, I think it was a strategic mistake.  Despite the Administration’s claim that moving the embassy will help the peace process, given the general reaction to the move throughout the international community, I’m having trouble seeing how it fulfills any strategic foreign policy objectives:

  • It’s added more gas to the raging fire that is the Middle East. To boot, having the opening on the anniversary of Israel’s establishment unnecessarily added insult to injury for many in the Muslim world.
  • It’s a chip we didn’t need to play. Israel is already absolutely ecstatic about the support it is receiving from the Trump Administration; it’s difficult to see how we can get any warmer support from Israel for our objectives than the Administration has already garnered.
  • A criticism that resonates with me is that we took the action without getting anything for it – such as Israeli acquiescence in a two-state solution with the Palestinians, or Israeli collaboration in providing humanitarian aid for the Palestinians under terrible duress in Gaza.
  • The Wall Street Journal has reported that the move has drawn “repeated condemnation” from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt – three allies that form a primary part of our ballast in maintaining Middle East stability against Iran. (The Obama Administration’s Israel Ambassador also indicated tonight that although these three nations will continue to cooperate with us and Israel because they have greater concern about Iranian aggression than they have care for the Palestinians, the optics of the last few days will make it difficult for these nations to cooperate openly with Israel.)
  • The U.K. and France also oppose the move – adding more tension to a relationship already coarsened by our withdrawal from the Iranian Nuclear Deal.
  • If that wasn’t sufficient, my own pet peeve is that the move has given President Erdogan of Turkey – a de facto dictator who has sufficiently cozied up to Russia and Iran lately that I consider Turkey an uncertain NATO ally at best — a chance to condemn Israel and side with U.K. and France against us.

Suffice it to say, it’s not an action I would have taken.  One would have to be pretty dewy-eyed not to believe that domestic political motivations played a large part in the decision, helping the President to both reinforce the allegiance of parts of his base committed to the move while perhaps softening the opposition of some of those confronting him; but those musings are best kept for Noise about his political prospects that we’ll undoubtedly be making in the coming months …

The Haspel Confirmation Dilemma

As I’ve previously indicated in these pages, when considering whether a Presidential nominee should be confirmed by the Senate, I follow a pretty simple two-factor analysis (which, admittedly, is ne’er followed in the current hyper-partisan environment):  Is the nominee objectively qualified for the position?  If so, is there any other objective factor that should nonetheless disqualify him/her from the position for which s/he has been nominated (e.g., prior criminal conviction, demonstrated drug abuse problem, etc.)?  Since the Constitution provides our President the power to nominate whom s/he considers appropriate, I don’t believe that a nominee’s subjective leanings (e.g., whether s/he supports or opposes abortion rights, whether s/he is too soft or too hardline in foreign policy) should be part of the equation.  Accordingly, I believe that Judge Garland should not only have received a hearing, but – absent unreported information coming to light – should also have been confirmed by the Senate, and that it was appropriate that Judge Gorsuch and Secretary of State Pompeo received confirmation.

That said, one of the many reasons that I’m glad that I’m not a sitting Senator is that if I was, I would have to consider whether to vote to confirm Gina Haspel as CIA Director.

Ms. Haspel easily passes the first hurdle; she’s been called the most qualified nominee to head the CIA in the Agency’s history, and has received what USA Today has referred to as “glowing accolades” from former Agency directors that have served in both parties’ administrations.  However, Ms. Haspel’s nomination is the rare one that seems – at least for me – to require careful reflection as to whether the appointment should be rejected due to an “other objective factor” as I used the phrase above.  It’s undisputed that Ms. Haspel ran a CIA “black site” that conducted waterboarding in the wake of 9/11; that she thereafter participated in the destruction of videotapes of questionable interrogations (although she was cleared of inappropriate behavior by a subsequent internal CIA inquiry); and that although she has testified that she supports the Congressional ban on and pledged not to conduct the kinds of activities that she and the CIA conducted after 9/11, she didn’t explicitly characterize those activities as immoral.  Given her record, does Ms. Haspel possess the appropriate moral compass to serve in the position that – along with the presidency itself – is arguably the most consistently subject to the harshest morally conflicting pressures?

It has been widely reported that Sen. John McCain, notwithstanding his warm words for Ms. Haspel’s service to our country over the past three decades, considers Ms. Haspel’s unwillingness to call the CIA’s activities immoral “disqualifying” for the CIA directorship.

I have the deepest respect for Mr. McCain in the realm of foreign affairs.  His sentiments, given his own experience as a POW, are understandable.  At the same time, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, in his book, The Assault on Intelligence, called Ms. Haspel’s earlier selection for the Agency’s Deputy Director under Mr. Pompeo an “inspired choice” due to the high regard Ms. Haspel enjoys among CIA personnel.  Mr. Hayden – who makes clear in his book that he is no admirer of President Trump – argues that those (which would include him) that played a part in the government’s “electronic surveillance, metadata collection, renditions, detentions, interrogations, and targeted killings” have a greater sensitivity to lines that should not be crossed than those that didn’t have to face the moral questions implicit in the conduct of such activities.  It’s a point – although one readily subject to skepticism.

I am less concerned about Ms. Haspel’s unwillingness to condemn the CIA’s past activities, given her pledge not to carry on such activities during her directorship.  I consider it a manner of establishing leadership.  I agree with a premise advanced by others that one does not build esprit de corps in an organization that one intends to lead by trashing the group – particularly if one’s comments, given one’s record, are certain to be viewed by the organization as hypocritical means to advance one’s own career.  Interestingly, Mr. Hayden also states that he viewed Ms. Haspel’s appointment as Deputy Director to be “pitch perfect” because it meant neither a repeat nor repudiation of the Agency’s past.

At the same time, I am concerned with her acknowledged participation in the destruction of the interrogation videotapes.  Can she be trusted?  The only responses I’ve seen to these concerns are that she was following orders (so were Nazi enablers) and was found blameless for the inappropriate operation in the subsequent CIA inquiry (perhaps a whitewash for a loyal and diligent employee).  I’m not sure that these would be sufficient responses for me under many circumstances, although I balance this unease against the ringing affirmations of both Leon Panetta and Mr. Hayden that Ms. Haspel will be willing to “speak truth to power” if required to do so in her interactions with the President.

After all of this “on the one hand, on the other hand” (sounding more than a bit like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof):  I reluctantly support Ms. Haspel’s nomination.  My reasons are many, albeit all simple:  the confidence of former Directors that she will speak truth to a President who, in my opinion, has insufficient respect for the rule of law; her undisputed qualifications and knowledge of the Agency; her willingness, based upon past experience, to disavow any return to the activities that she engaged in post-9/11; her steadfastness in being unwilling to cast aspersions upon the CIA’s post-9/11 activities to further her own career; the high regard that the professionals in a vital, but now beleaguered, part of our national defense have for her; the fact that almost anyone that the President nominates in her stead will probably be less qualified, have less respect for and from the Agency, and be more prone to Presidential pressure; and the fact that we, frankly, need someone tough to lead the CIA.  We confront bad state and non-state actors across the globe.  Although most of us live in an ivory tower, the fact remains [now, sounding like Jack Nicholson’s Col. Nathan Jessup in A Few Good Men  😉 ]:  we need someone who is willing to fight to protect our ivory tower in places and ways that we don’t go to or know about.  Although there is no one alive I respect more than Pope Francis, he wouldn’t be a good fit for the CIA Directorship.  Ms. Haspel is.

I concede that there is more than an element of faith in the expectation that someone that admittedly participated in activities many call torture and in the destruction of videotapes of inappropriate interrogations will be the speaker of truth, guardian of appropriate interrogation practices, and the protector of the rule of law.  Berate me if you wish.  If dilemmas had perfect answers … they wouldn’t be dilemmas.  Thus, although I would vote for Ms. Haspel, I’m glad I don’t have to …

The Fundamental Reason to Stay in the Iran Nuclear Deal

If I understand the reporting correctly, the decision actually looming for President Trump on May 12 is a procedural one:  whether to continue waivers of some of the U.S. sanctions on Iran effected as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the actual title of the agreement limiting Iranian nuclear activity) (the “JCPOA”).  Although there may be a question whether the U.S. will, from a technical standpoint, actually be withdrawing from the JCPOA if the President allows the waivers to lapse, Iran is clearly indicating that that it will deem any reinstitution of sanctions to be a violation of the arrangement, and that it will be free to renew the nuclear-related activity from which it has apparently abstained in accordance with the terms of the deal.

Whether the JCPOA is a “good deal” or a “bad deal” will be debated for decades to come.  I absolutely lack the acumen to venture a reasoned opinion, although it did seem to me a bit Pollyannaish to think that Iran, with a heritage dating back to the Persian Empire, a tradition of seeking influence beyond its borders, and a current established record of state-sponsored terrorism, would mellow sufficiently during the operative term of the arrangement such that it wouldn’t take the steps necessary to become a major nuclear threat as the restrictions wore off.  More importantly, two Americans who have my deepest respect in the realm of foreign affairs – Henry Kissinger and John McCain — expressed serious reservations about the wisdom of the deal before it was executed.

That said, all reports indicate that the international inspectors charged with monitoring Iran’s JCPOA compliance currently consider Iran to be in compliance.  Absent any evidence that Iran has violated the terms of the JCPOA, I would assert that it will be the gravest of errors if the President takes actions that result in the degradation or dissolution of the agreement.  Although commentators supporting the arrangement have come up with a raft of strategic and practical considerations why a de facto withdrawal from the deal is bad for the U.S., my basis is more fundamental:  Good deal or bad, we agreed to it.  It doesn’t matter, in this context, if we should have held out for permanent prohibitions on Iran’s nuclear-related activities, if Iran has types of non-nuclear weapons we consider significant threats, or if Iran is engaging in behaviors we don’t like, etc., etc., etc.  While we should move aggressively through other means to thwart Iran’s untoward activities outside the scope of the JCPOA, if Iran is sticking to the terms of the JCPOA, we should.  We gave our word.  It’s that simple.