The Joy of Income Taxes

These pages have two main purposes:  to provide another perspective on the matters it addresses for those who care to consider it, and to discipline me to refine my own ideas through the exercise of writing them down.  I am 100% confident that no one cares what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis.

That said:  this weekend, I’m doing our income taxes.  I’ve always done ‘em.  Don’t use tax software, but do ‘em old school:  by reading the hard copy Instruction Booklet and filling out the forms longhand.  It’s obviously a tedious endeavor requiring concentration, although I have never particularly minded it.

This year, I’m absolutely looking forward to it.  The task will necessarily distract me for a number of hours from what is happening in Ukraine – the killing of innocents, the irretrievable upheaval of lives, the destruction of structures and institutions, the usurpation of one nation by another more powerful … just because it can.  As I get lost in the IRS’ arcane world and the numbers flow by, my outrage will dissipate, at least for a while.

In the eyes of the Almighty, there is no difference between what is happening in Ukraine today and what has happened and is happening in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, parts of Africa, and so on, and so on, and so on.  We are just seeing the obliteration of Ukraine’s society and culture more clearly due to its proximity to Western media.  I am having trouble putting it aside.

Have a good weekend.  As I get engrossed with taking this number or that from this worksheet or that and entering it onto this line of the return or that, I hope I will.

The State of the Union

If counseling President Joe Biden on the strategy for tonight’s State of the Union address, I would advise that he focus on the primary challenge facing the future of global democracy:  the poisonous partisan divisions within America eating away at our national core.  That said, such would have to be done obliquely.  He should seek to leverage Americans’ overwhelming support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russia by devoting more than half of the speech to the Russian invasion, and assert that the attack is on the freedom of all democracies, an assault on all free peoples.  As I suggested in an earlier note, he must make it “real” for Americans:  what Russia is doing is the same as if Canada simply decided to take Alaska; I would remark that I had seen a commentator compare Ukrainians’ toughness to Texans, and note what would happen if somebody tried to invade Texas – intentionally invoking the support of two of our states politically inhospitable to him.  I would quote Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s declaration, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”  He should note how he and his team have worked with our NATO allies to stand up to a ravenous aggressor.  He should note how the Western nations’ combined economic sanctions are crippling Russia, and that we are shipping Ukraine all the military equipment we can.  Then – creeping up on the point – he might declare that no matter where an American might stand on gun rights, abortion rights, vaccines and masks, or whatever, these are differences of opinion that a free people can have – as contrasted with the Ukrainians’ fight for actual freedom:  that they’re throwing themselves under Russian tanks to slow the Russian advance; that they’re ready to die rather than be swept back behind the Iron Curtain; that they want real elections, not Russian mockeries.  I would recommend that he be so bold to declare that anyone that defends Vladimir Putin or the Russian actions is providing aid and comfort to tyrants.  He should tell our citizens that he was going to talk straight with them:  that although his Administration will do all it reasonably can to soften the impact of inflation – and call on Congress to suspend the federal 18-cent gasoline tax through the remainder of 2022 — it is likely that while this battle rages inflation could worsen.  We cannot commit soldiers to the Ukrainians’ struggle for freedom, but we can do this.

While he should make references to his Build Back Better Plan, to COVID, to Climate Change, to his recent nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, he shouldn’t dwell on these or other domestic issues.  He needs to evoke Americans’ visceral feeling for freedom.  If he can keep the majority of Americans on his side on this critical point, it creates a rallying point, something for all of us to be against – Russian aggression — that we desperately need.

Fiery, inspirational speeches are obviously not Mr. Biden’s forte.  Frankly, I’d have him spend the last hour before the speech watching clips of John F. Kennedy’s delivery and of President Zelenskyy’s recent speeches from bunkers.

I have no illusions that this crisis or even the best speech of Mr. Biden’s life will be a panacea for what besets us; our partisan divisions are too deep.  Even in much more congenial times, George H. W. Bush was defeated for re-election after a term that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and a resounding military victory in Desert Storm.  That said, if Mr. Biden can use this moment to get at least some of our people to recognize the difference between real freedom and the faux freedom now at the center of our domestic strife, and to focus us as a people on a common and true enemy, it’s a start.

On Volodymyr Zelenskyy

As this is typed, the Russians are bombing Kyiv, Ukraine’s capitol.  CNN is reporting that the United States is urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Russia’s primary target, to leave Ukraine and set up a government in exile.  As of this minute, Mr. Zelenskyy is remaining in Kyiv to fight for a free Ukraine.  CNN has reported his response to the American offer: 

“I need ammunition, not a ride.”

A Question of Strategic Interest

As this is typed, Russian troops are advancing across Ukraine at the order of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  I don’t speak Russian, but from reports understand that Russia, the world’s second-mightiest nuclear power, has claimed both that it is acting because it feared an attack by underpowered Ukraine, and that its invasion is necessary to “de-Nazify” a Ukrainian government led by President Volodymyr Zelensky — who is Jewish.  It is obviously the most naked violation of another nation’s sovereignty that Europe has seen since 1940.  I doubt Mr. Putin believes his own lies.  It is cruelly ironic that his pretext for Russia’s advance actually echoes Nazi Germany’s usurpation of other sovereign nations’ territories and freedoms prior to World War II in the name of Lebensraum (“Living Space”).  There are those, including me in a December post, who wanted the Administration to be more forthright in signaling America’s resolve to deter Russian warmongering.  I concede that any such overtures, had they been undertaken, would probably have been fruitless.  It now seems apparent that Mr. Putin is obsessed by a visceral need to answer the insults and to rectify the injustices he perceives to have been visited upon Russian sovereignty by the Western powers at the fall of the Soviet Union – compulsions ominously reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s obsessions and railings at the Western powers for the insults and injustices he considered to have been visited upon Germany at the conclusion of World War I. 

In President Joe Biden’s Thursday speech in response to the invasion, he was as firm in tone as he is capable of being (it is not within him to radiate the menace from the podium that Ronald Reagan could).  I don’t know much about international financial systems, but the financial sanctions that will be imposed on Russia sounded harsh.  That said, they don’t sound like much of a deterrent, but rather like measures that Mr. Putin has foreseen would be imposed if Russia commenced the invasion.  Perhaps more importantly, it does appear that the Administration has forged cohesion among a lot of disparate nations to stand against the Russian aggression, which was seemingly its overarching strategic goal (more on this below).  At the same time, I was disappointed in three aspects of Mr. Biden’s speech.  First, he made no mention of shipping Ukraine additional military aid.  Although Ukraine’s need for humanitarian aid will come, right now its people need all materiel we are willing to send them to check Russia’s advance.  Second, I would offer that Mr. Biden wasn’t very effective at making this foreign policy challenge real for Americans, certainly not for those with isolationist tendencies (we’ve had isolationists wishing to ignore what was going on “over there” as long as we’ve been a nation).  I would have liked to see him “bring home” the Ukrainians’ endangered freedom by observing, “How would we like it if Canada had the military strength to simply grab Alaska and take away Alaskans’ freedom merely because it borders Canada?  That is what Putin is doing.”  Finally, I found the President’s attempts to assure Americans about their gas prices too apologetic; he impliedly took responsibility to keep gas prices down.  I submit that what he should have said – what former President Donald Trump, given his COVID track record, undoubtedly would have said – is that gas prices and some other prices were probably going to go even higher due to the Ukrainian conflict, and that increased prices were Vladimir Putin’s fault (with such point to be hammered home with every Administration communication in the coming months).  If a majority of Americans accepted that higher prices were exacerbated by Vladimir Putin’s unjust invasion and our attempts to aid Ukrainian freedom, the Administration would be in good stead politically on inflation, at least for a while.  Mr. Biden entirely whiffed on the opportunity.   

So what is our strategic posture at this point?  A passing remark by a pundit during the week before the invasion has nagged at me ever since: 

Ukraine [in and of itself] is of no strategic importance to the United States.

While some of us chafed at the Biden Administration’s seemingly slow response to the Russian buildup at the Ukrainian border, there is no question that Mr. Biden and his team used the evidence and duration of the Russian buildup to forge a much higher level of unity, consensus, and resolve among NATO and European Union members against Russia than at least I would have considered achievable last Thanksgiving.  The NATO allies, clearly alarmed, have cooperated to reinforce each other’s borders vulnerable to a Russian advance.  At the same time, aside from providing materiel to the Ukrainians – with whom they have no mutual defense pact – they have appeared to be conceding Ukraine to Mr. Putin, like a square on the chess board, if he wanted to take it. If Ukraine’s primary significance to the United States is to occupy a hunk of land serving as a buffer between Russia and our NATO allies, and otherwise has little value to the United States (as contrasted, for example, with our vital concern in keeping Cuba free of enemy nuclear weapons in the 1960s and ensuring the flow of Middle East oil in the 1970s), at this point, what is our overarching strategic interest?  (If Ukraine has a greater objective strategic value than I’ve indicated here, I’m hoping that someone reading this note will enlighten me via comment; but let’s assume the negative for the moment.)

I’ve been writing a post on and off for months about a comprehensive foreign policy framework that I believe that we should employ, but will give away the punchline here:  we can’t go on as we have since 1945.  We can no longer be everywhere and do everything; even aside from our internal partisan divisions, our burgeoning domestic obligations mean we can’t afford it.  We need emotionally and financially committed regional allies across the globe to withstand hostile and able autocracies.  Mr. Biden, by his rhetoric and actions during this crisis, is evidencing that he sees this.  He doesn’t want the Ukrainians to lose their nation, and have their freedoms extinguished by Russia, to the point that to deter Russia he perhaps to some extent compromised the secrecy of some of our intelligence apparatus, sources and methods to leak as much as the Administration had about Russian intentions; but what he seemingly believes that we primarily need to achieve out of this confrontation is an awakened, energized, and unified NATO to stand as a European bulwark against further Russian incursions.  If so, he has succeeded.

If Ukrainian freedom is our primary objective, we (hopefully as part of a NATO force) should deploy troops to Ukraine.  If it is the strengthening of the NATO alliance itself, we probably shouldn’t.

So what is our overarching interest?  Again, assuming arguendo that Ukraine has little objective realpolitik value to us, is maintaining its people’s freedom against a malign aggressor, in and of itself, a strategic interest for a nation that calls itself the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?”  In June, 1963, President John F. Kennedy stood in West Berlin and declared, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”  In West Berlin, in June, 1987, President Ronald Reagan spoke of freedom and famously called on Russian General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev:  “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  Yet neither man risked nuclear war and American casualties by sending troops to free the subjugated.  Mr. Putin, who, perhaps most unnervingly, now seems not only consumed with grievance but a bit unbalanced, has alluded to his willingness to use nuclear weapons if confronted too aggressively.  How Chinese President Xi Jinping and his cabinet might integrate their interpretation of our response into any initiative they might be considering against Taiwan must also be factored in.  Eisenhower Administration Secretary of State John Foster Dulles once observed in connection with America’s policy of Soviet deterrence, “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art.  If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war.  If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”   

Television accounts and my tiny Twitter feed are overflowing with declarations lauding the Ukranians’ courage and expressions of support.  Mr. Biden said in his address yesterday that “America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” Yet, Mr. Zelensky said from an undisclosed location last night that he has asked all 27 NATO members why Ukraine can’t be a member of NATO, and has gotten no response. I haven’t seen anybody advocating for the deployment of either NATO or American forces into Ukraine.  Absent that, all this talk … is just talk.

If I was advising Mr. Biden and there was general consensus among the foreign policy team that the Russian aggression had enabled the Administration to unexpectedly strengthen the strategic NATO alliance against Russian manipulation and that Ukraine itself had no value other than as a buffer between Russia and NATO, would I advise that he commit American troops to protect Ukrainians’ freedom – perhaps risking the threat of a nuclear escalation, and inevitably resulting in the death of American soldiers?

The President isn’t the Pope, concerned with the protection of all humankind; s/he works for the American people.  Yet – with the exception of the period from January, 2017, through January, 2021 — the President of the United States has since 1941 been the leader of the Free World.  Viewing clips of Messrs. Kennedy’s and Reagan’s Berlin speeches (linked below) lean me in one direction.  Even putting aside the risk of nuclear escalation, the thought of Americans attending funerals of their husbands and wives, their fathers and mothers, their sons and daughters, as a result of a conflict over land arguably without strategic value – as we have too frequently in the last 60 years — leans me in the other.

In this situation, where is the “brink” Mr. Dulles referred to? When push came to shove — as it has — I’d probably counsel Mr. Biden to maintain the policy he has adopted, perhaps with more aggressive provision of materiel to Ukraine.  I’d move – as he is – to reinforce our NATO allies’ borders with a marked influx of American soldiers and materiel.  (I’d also make sufficient movements in Asia to let Mr. Xi know that we haven’t forgotten about him.)  Otherwise, I’d sit tight, waiting for the inevitable denouement in Ukraine. 

All the same:  these echoes from the past probably wouldn’t let me sleep.

A Requiem for Economic Diplomacy

Putin might want Nord Stream 2 [the natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, financially advantageous to both nations, which will presumably be scuttled if Russia invades Ukraine], but … he definitely wants Ukraine more than that pipeline.

  • Kadri Liik, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, on January 28, 2022, at an event held by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As this is typed, there are reports of an imminent invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops and materiel massed at Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Russian satellite Belarus. Putting aside – if one can – the human loss and destruction of freedom which will attend any Russian attack, I would submit that Russia’s bellicosity despite the allied democracies’ threat to apply what Russian President Vladimir Putin undoubtedly understands will be truly punitive economic sanctions on the Russian economy and people provides a final debunking of the notion of Economic Diplomacy:  the theory that forging economic interdependence between nations will discourage them from engaging in military and other provocative actions likely to earn the enmity of other nations with whom they do business to sustain their respective economies.

Economic Diplomacy didn’t seem like a bad idea in the 1990s, when China was desirous of expanding its economy and providing at least marginally greater freedoms for its citizens, and Russia’s fledgling democracy was seeking economic stability after the fall of the Soviet Union.  It was seemingly based on the belief in some liberal democratic economic quarters that economic priorities would become the dominant driver of world affairs.  More money for everybody would make it less likely that anybody would want to threaten the golden goose.  In retrospect, it appears that its adherents underestimated the strength of other prevalent motivations among states and their leaders, such as national aspirations, power, religion, patriotism, and ancestral antipathies.  With the benefit of hindsight, I would venture that a fundamental underpinning of the premise that economic interdependence would facilitate equilibrium among traditionally contentious powers was the assumption that Western-style liberal democracy would inexorably sweep across the globe.  If such sweep had continued – bringing forth an international system where most militarily- and economically-powerful nations were governed by officials who were dependent upon the support, and thus at least to a certain extent the economic wellbeing, of their respective citizens to stay in power — perhaps economic interdependence would have indeed salved political frictions between nations.  It didn’t, so it hasn’t.  Instead, the global meshing of the economies of democratic and authoritarian nations has inadvertently created an asymmetric advantage for the autocracies. 

The most blatant indication that Economic Diplomacy has failed – and has, indeed, provided a strategic advantage to authoritarian powers — is the muscular disdain which China presents a world disturbed by its established human rights abuses, its unapologetic subjugation of Hong Kong, its flouting of other nations’ corporations’ intellectual property rights, etc., etc., etc.  The Mainland regime’s flagrant disregard of the credibility of Hong Kong – for over a century, one of Asia’s foremost financial centers — shows that it thinks first in political, not in economic, terms.  It doesn’t care what the world thinks.  In theory, a nation hosts the Olympics to create a positive image, generate economic opportunity, and foster worldwide goodwill.  If that was originally China’s aim, it is clear that such is no longer a strategic goal; instead, visiting athletes and the nations they represent figuratively tiptoe at the Games rather than risking offending the Chinese government.  Chinese President Xi Jinping and his government don’t need to heed international concerns or the preferences of ordinary Chinese citizens to stay in power.

Contrast this Chinese indifference with the political and economic attitudes in the democracies.  The world was outraged for a period after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre … but it came back.  Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that major movie studios now scrupulously avoid casting China or Chinese as villains in their films, lest they be cut off from Chinese consumers.  Apple, Tesla, Google, and other global corporate icons comply with Chinese government demands rather than lose access to the China market (and in Apple’s and Tesla’s case, critical Chinese manufacturing resources), which would probably result in significant reductions in their stock prices.  Such price declines not only affect the careers of these organizations’ senior executives; they also affect the prospects of politicians dependent upon the votes of citizens alarmed at losses in their nest eggs.  Recall that former President Donald Trump’s last trade arrangement with China was primarily designed to reinstitute China’s purchase of produce raised in states that strongly supported Mr. Trump.  Maybe Chinese citizens would truly be angry if their government terminated their access to Google Search, Apple phones, American films, and Tesla EVs.  Mr. Xi doesn’t need his citizens’ approval to keep his job.  Democratic leaders do.

Let’s move to Russia.  It has been widely reported that the most influential member of NATO reluctant to confront Russia in the Ukraine crisis is Germany, to the point that Germany has even in some ways obstructed other NATO nations’ support of Ukraine.  Despite Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Germany authorized the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany in 2018.  Germany’s dilemma is clear:  as it is winding down its coal and nuclear power sources to address climate change concerns, it is becoming ever more dependent on Russian natural gas.  While Germany has come under increasing pressure to be more supportive of NATO’s efforts against Russian aggression, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, as a democratic leader, obviously needs to be responsive to the needs of his citizens.  (In fairness, while I strongly support the defense of Ukraine, it is cold in Madison, WI as this is typed.  If our heat was dependent upon Russian resources, would I be as aggressively calling for my government to confront Russia?  I hope so, but would certainly have a measure of pause.)  On the other hand, although democratic sanctions and loss of German natural gas revenue will certainly inflict hardship on the Russian economy and people, Mr. Putin has already weathered national demonstrations related to his unjustified imprisonment of his chief domestic political opponent, Alexei Navalny; he is obviously not worried about being ousted by Russian citizens as a result of the loss of revenue and resources from allied democracies.

If counseling Mr. Biden, I would indicate that it falls to him to accelerate the dismantling of America’s economic interdependence in areas in which such now places our nation at a strategic disadvantage.  I would advise him to completely recast the thrust of his Build Back Better Plan toward national security concerns, broadly conceptualized.  While the following suggestion would undoubtedly irritate progressives [and elicit strong pushback from someone very, very close to me  😉 ], at this juncture I’d be less concerned with domestic challenges such as early education, child care, health care expansion, etc., and would instead seek legislation to accelerate our preparations where our most advanced military capabilities are lagging and in areas where we are currently strategically exposed, such as sophisticated microchip design and production and rare earth mineral mining and refinement capabilities.  (Reflect:  while these pages have noted Mainland China’s ancestral territorial desires to control Taiwan, one should not overlook the strategic technological vulnerability for liberal democracies that could be created by any Chinese takeover of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company — described by Time Magazine as the company “that makes the world’s tech run.”) 

I admit that these suggestions have a hint of parochialism – a bit of, “Buy American,” or at least, “Buy Reliably Democratic.”  Such measures would increase good-paying American jobs, but right now finding workers, not opportunities, is obviously our economic challenge.  It might well perpetuate if not exacerbate our currently uncomfortable inflationary pressures.  In some instances, it might even slow global climate change efforts – for example, if Germany sought to reduce its current and projected reliance on Russian natural gas by slowing its plans to move away from its nuclear energy and carbon fuel resources.  Even so, insurance costs money.  Even if Mr. Putin ultimately stands down rather than have his forces invade Ukraine, I would suggest that he will do so not because he fears democratic economic sanctions or the loss of German natural gas revenues but because he discovered that NATO had greater military resolve to resist his advances than he had anticipated.  He, and particularly Mr. Xi, will learn from this incident and look for other means to probe democratic vulnerabilities.  It is up to Mr. Biden and other democratic leaders to move aggressively to counteract such likely future endeavors.

On the China and Russia Advances

On one occasion, an eminent Chinese told me that letting Stalin lead Mao into authorizing the Korean War [in 1950] was the only strategic mistake Mao ever made because, in the end, the Korean War delayed Chinese unification by a century in that it led to America’s commitment to Taiwan.

  • Henry Kissinger, World Order

When [Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and] the United States and NATO did not come to Georgia’s aid militarily … [Russian President Vladimir Putin understood that NATO] did not have the political will to fight for partners outside the alliance … that the United States’ security priorities were focused elsewhere. …   

The notion that Putin is an opportunist, at best an improviser, but not a strategist, is a dangerous misread. …

The 2014 war [in which Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine] is essentially a big (war) game of “chicken.”  Based upon the West’s past performance in Georgia, Putin anticipated that the West would blink first in Ukraine, balking at the high costs of the confrontation, which he had laid out very clearly with his offensive defense. … This game of chicken will be a long one.

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

Perhaps a bit lost in some U.S. quarters amid Thanksgiving gatherings, the coming of Omnicron, and the Supreme Court’s consideration of an abortion case, were recent complementary statements and actions by the Chinese and Russian governments.  While China was condemning the passage of the USS Milius through the Taiwan Strait that separates Taiwan from the Chinese mainland – although the American destroyer was apparently entirely in international waters and operating in accordance with international law – Russia, while amassing thousands of troops, drones, and electronic-warfare systems at its border with Ukraine, criticized what it called, “significant intensification of the actions of American strategic bomber aviation near the borders of Russia.”

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe declared that “China and Russia are united together like a great mountain. Our friendship is unbreakable.”  The Russian Defense Ministry separately indicated at almost the same time, “The heads of the military departments [of Russia and China] stressed the inviolability of friendship and the strength of ties between Russia and China.”    

Presumably to both tire and test Taiwan’s defenses, China increased the number of aircraft it is sending into “gray” airspace near Taiwan, the realm just outside Taiwanese territorial airspace that Taiwan monitors to provide it with additional time to respond to threats.  Meanwhile, the head of Ukraine’s defense intelligence agency has claimed that Russia has plans to invade Ukraine this winter.  Mr. Putin has indicated that any NATO deployment of troops or advanced missiles to Ukraine would cross a “red line,” and Russia would act, while making reference to Russia’s hypersonic missiles.  (Hypersonic weapons travel at more than five times the speed of sound, and are intended to evade American defense systems.)

Although America has sold defensive weapons to Taiwan for decades under the Taiwan Relations Act (the “TRA”), and maintains a token troop contingent on the island, the TRA does not obligate the U.S. to defend Taiwan if it comes under attack.  As most are aware, Ukraine is not a member of NATO and thus isn’t covered by Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter, which obligates NATO members to defend each other if one is attacked.  Mr. Putin has warned against admitting Ukraine to NATO.  (President Joe Biden reportedly opposes Ukraine’s NATO admission until its government does more to address corruption.)  Even so, in response to the Russian buildup, NATO officials have threatened economic and political ramifications for Russia while noting that they have no military obligation to Ukraine.  U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has intoned that any further escalation by Russia against Ukraine would be of “great concern” and “trigger serious consequences.” 

How seriously can Vladimir Putin be expected to take this verbal posturing?  Can anyone who has ever read about the bitter torment that the Russian population endured in defeating the Nazi invasion during World War II believe that the Russian people can’t withstand any hardships caused by any level of NATO economic and political sanctions?  Who would one suppose that the vast majority of Russians, fed only Russian media, will ultimately blame for their misery – NATO, or Mr. Putin?  As for the steadfastness of the NATO bloc, I found a website indicating that in 2019 (seemingly a sufficiently-current reference for this note), 41% of the European Union’s natural gas, 27% of its crude oil, and 47% of its solid fuel were imported from Russia.  With winter looming, how staunch will Mr. Putin believe that the European NATO allies will really be?

This note anticipates a post on foreign policy strategy that has been in the works for some time, but every President faces challenges requiring grand strategy to yield to immediate necessity; President Biden may well be facing such a challenge at present.  It is certainly arguable that China and Russia are probing American readiness in contemplation of a de facto pincer movement in the coming months to test American resources and resolve.  I would submit that we will be best served if Mr. Biden responds steadily but proactively.  A few notions:

The President came to office pledging to make diplomacy rather than militancy the linchpin of American foreign policy.  That’s an admirable sentiment, but as Richard Haass noted in A World in Disarray, “As a rule of thumb, diplomacy and negotiations tend to reflect realities on the ground, not change them.”  Global strongmen operate according to the same code as grade school bullies; they will be deterred by soft speech only if those they confront are willing and able, as President Theodore Roosevelt observed over a century ago, to accompany their measured tones with a big stick.

America currently maintains the most formidable military and weaponry in the world (although we are behind in some areas; for example, I have read commentary stating that we currently trail China in the afore-mentioned hypersonic missile technology).  At the same time, our advantage appears to be waning as both China and Russia are able to prioritize military preparedness in a way that we, with domestic obligations in a democracy, are having and will have trouble matching in coming years.  Arguably, time is not on our side.

China’s President Xi Jinping has demonstrated less patience in advancing Chinese territorial interests – principally, in the manner that the Mainland has over the last several years asserted its governmental dominance over Hong Kong in clear contravention of the “One Country, Two Systems” embodied in the 1997 Sino-British Joint Declaration under which the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty of the region to China — than his renowned predecessors, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.  China has threatened that it will not countenance the elevation of Taiwan to nationhood status. 

Ms. Hill and Mr. Gaddy make clear in Mr. Putin that the Russian President, in addition to his savvy, is paranoid and aggrieved.  While one might assume that the leader of the nation with the world’s second-mightiest nuclear arsenal would be confident that no nation would ever seek to invade Russia, the country’s experience and his own background make him wary and aggressive.  Ukraine gained its sovereignty when the Soviet Union dissolved.  Most recall Mr. Putin’s 2005 declaration that “the demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”  He later indicated that he considered the Soviet Union to be Russia, “only it had a different name.”  These are dangerous sentiments; they would lead one to believe that Mr. Putin considers Ukraine part of Russia, and perhaps any outside intervention on Ukraine’s behalf a de facto invasion of Russia.  That said, the Russian President is perhaps unsurpassed among today’s global leaders at assessing the strengths as well as the weaknesses of his adversaries.  It is hard to believe (at least for me) that unless provoked beyond all bounds, he is going to start a confrontation that he believes might result in an escalation that he might not win and could result in nuclear conflagration.  He has to assume that despite all of China’s and Russia’s mutual professions of friendship, that if he gets into a major struggle with NATO, Mr. Xi will not stop to aid Russia, but will instead exploit the distraction to advance China’s interests in Asia.

Mr. Biden faces a daunting balancing act.  The U.S. Defense Department recently released an unclassified summary of its Global-Posture Review that the Wall Street Journal aptly described as an assessment of how to best deploy our resources as “the U.S. moves to take on Beijing while deterring Russia and fighting terrorism in the Middle East and Africa.”  Presidents Biden and Putin are holding a virtual summit about Ukraine today; hopefully, Mr. Biden will take none of his options off the table.  If he simply talks at Mr. Putin and hereafter at Mr. Xi and they correctly conclude that he will do nothing more, I would predict that within five years – and perhaps much sooner — Ukraine will again be a Russian satellite and Taiwan will have truly been made into the Chinese province that China now claims that it is.  If he pushes back too hard, and presents what either Mr. Xi or Mr. Putin view as too egregious an affront, a military conflict could result.  These calculations are complicated by the reality that America’s military might is vast, but it is not unlimited.

I would submit that the time to move is now:  that Mr. Biden should press the case while he still holds a relatively stronger military hand than Messrs. Putin and Xi.  I would hope that he will be resolute without being foolhardy [obviously easier said than done  ;)]. 

My definition of the difference as to Ukraine:  Increase the provision of defensive arms to Ukraine.  Despite Mr. Putin’s rumblings and reported Biden Administration disinclinations regarding American troop involvement, arrange for an invitation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and then station a NATO force (including American troops) in Kiev.  (Kiev, Ukraine’s capitol, is removed from Ukraine’s separatist regions and the Russian border.)  Unless there are indications that the pervasive corruption in Ukraine is of the kind that would divulge NATO military secrets to Russia, I would expedite Ukraine’s admission into NATO.  (Would the West rather have a corrupt Ukraine within its orbit and subject to its pressures, or have another Russian satellite, like Belarus, on its borders?)  On the other hand, I would not – repeat not – place missile or other systems in Ukraine which could be used to fire into Russia. 

Mr. Putin will seethe.  Will he act militarily?  I’d warrant that he won’t, if he is convinced that NATO is ready to respond militarily if he does.  Despite his bluster, he well knows that neither little Ukraine nor NATO is going to invade Russia.  Would he severely restrict energy exports to Europe?  At least highly possible; unquestionably a severe concern for Europe.  At the same time, Russia’s exports to Europe are almost 40% of its economy.  Unless Mr. Putin can find other ready buyers for his oil and gas, his voluntary restriction of trade with Europe in a dispute he has precipitated will seemingly send his own economy into recession and provoke his populace, clearly already restive with his 20-year rule.

The Biden Administration should simultaneously take similar steps with regard to Taiwan.  Despite China’s bristling, the U.S. should continue to look for ways to expand its relationship with the island, such as the Administration’s recent invitation to Taiwan to attend its “Summit for Democracy.”  It should increase its provision of defensive arms to the island under the TRA.  After arranging for an invitation from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, it should increase American troop presence on the island, but – given the ambiguous nature of Taiwan’s legal status — not beyond the point that the force can be called “advisory” or credibly be considered “token.”  It should increase its naval presence around Taiwan. 

Will Mr. Xi smolder?  Undoubtedly.  However, I would venture that Mr. Xi seeks to have China control the world, not destroy it.  It is hard to believe (again, perhaps only for me) that he will risk a military invasion of Taiwan at this point, if he believes that there is a real possibility that the United States will militarily intervene.  It is also hard for me to believe that he will view increased U.S. presence in the Asian theater as an overt threat (although he will certainly consider it an irritant and affront).  He knows that we are not going to invade China.  In the face of an orchestrated but not overdone U.S. buildup, he will presumably pause.  He will hopefully conclude (hopefully incorrectly) that time is on his side with regard to Taiwan; but not yet.

Right now, I suspect that many of those that have gotten this far in this ponderous note are mighty glad that I’m not in a position to advise Mr. Biden  ;).  I fully understand that America is war-weary after 20 years of grotesquely-squandered blood and treasure in wantonly ill-conceived warfare in a part of the world less strategically important than either Europe or Asia.  I fully acknowledge that it’s easy for a retired Midwest blogger to pontificate; I would hate to have actual foreign policy responsibility.  That said, I submit that the only manner in which we will maintain equilibrium in an increasingly illiberal world is if those who would take what they believe they can get away with are persuaded that we will act if need be.  For any who believe that Russia and China are amenable to reasoned persuasion if they have no fear of military reprisal to their military aggression in their respective spheres, I would respond:  Crimea.  Hong Kong.  If we dither, we will again be perceived as meekly turning our backs on those who asked for our help – to not only their detriment but our own.  While the approaches outlined in this post are but holding actions while a broader collective containment strategy, based upon enhancing the capabilities of our allies, can be undertaken, I would suggest that we need to heed a prophetic (and poetic) reminder from long ago:

“All is over.  Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness.  She has suffered in every respect by her association with the Western democracies …

You will find that in a period of time which may be measured by years, but may be measured only by months, Czechoslovakia will be engulfed ….[T]hat story is over and told. … It is the most grievous consequence of what we have done and of what we have left undone in the last five years – five years of futile good intention, five years of eager search for the line of least resistance, five years of uninterrupted retreat of British power …

Those are the features … which marked an improvident stewardship for which Great Britain and France have dearly to pay. …

Many people, no doubt, honestly believe that they are only giving away the interests of Czechoslovakia, whereas I fear we shall find that we have deeply compromised … the safety … of Great Britain and France. …

You must have diplomatic and correct relations, but there can never be friendship between the British democracy and … that Power which spurns Christian ethics, which cheers its onward course by a barbarous paganism, which vaunts the spirit of aggression and conquest, which derives strength and perverted pleasure from persecution, and uses … with pitiless brutality the threat of murderous force.   That power cannot ever be the trusted friend of the British democracy.”

  • Winston Churchill, in the House of Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, October 5, 1938

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.