On The Shallows

If asked to recommend to anyone of high school or greater age only one book I’ve read in retirement, the choice would be easy: The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr (not that long; a bit over 200 pages). I consider it a horror story, perfect for the Halloween season; Mr. Carr addresses “What the Internet is Doing to our Brains.” I would submit that it is yet scarier today than when published in 2010; given another decade’s passage, and even taking into account my readily-apparent Luddite tendencies, the book is arguably a description of what the Internet has done to the brains of many of our people. Delving too deeply into Mr. Carr’s text may dissuade a reader of this note from reading the book; thus, only a few snippets:

“What we’re trading away in return for the riches of the Net – and only a curmudgeon would refuse to see the riches – is what [Online Media Blogger Scott] Karp calls ‘our old linear thought process.’ Calm, focused, undistracted, the linear mind is being pushed aside by a new kind of mind that wants and needs to take in and dole out information in short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts – the faster, the better.”

“I began to notice that the Net was exerting a much stronger and broader influence over me … It was then that I began worrying about my inability to pay attention to one thing for more than a couple of minutes … Even when I was away from my computer, I yearned to check e-mail, click links, do some Googling.”

“[T]he Net seizes our attention only to scatter it. We focus intensively on the medium itself, on the flickering screen, but we’re distracted by the medium’s rapid-fire delivery of competing messages and stimuli….If the slow progression of words across printed pages dampened our craving to be inundated by mental stimulation, the Net indulges it.”

“In reading online, Maryanne Wolf says, we sacrifice the facility that makes deep reading possible. We revert to being ‘mere decoders of information.’ Our ability to make the rich mental connections that form when we read deeply and without distraction remains largely disengaged.”

“[Researcher Erping Zhu] found that [online readers’] comprehension declined as the number of links increased. Readers were forced to devote more and more of their … brain power to evaluating the links … That left … fewer cognitive resources to devote to understanding what they were reading.”

The following passage, well into the book, particularly resonated with me:

“In a recent essay, the playwright Richard Foreman [said], ‘I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality – a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self – evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.” As we are drained of our “inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance,” [we risk turning into] “pancake people – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.”’”

Mr. Carr does describe manners in which we as a people can safeguard against the dangers he trumpets; there is an extensive discussion of the brain’s neuroplasticity – i.e., the brain’s ability to re-form itself in response to new challenges. He acknowledges that “tuning out is not an option many of us would consider,” but offers that if the Web has addicted us with easy fixes of alluring data snippets, making a conscious and concerted effort to focus without distraction for longer periods on complex material can remake our brains in the same manner as one can strengthen muscles through physical training (my analogy, not his). He describes the reactions of Joseph Weizenbaum of MIT, who created groundbreaking programs in the 1960s, and then came to be alarmed by the manner in which even those who knew better came to perceive his creations:

“Weizenbaum had come to believe [that the] … great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers … is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines. The only way to avoid that fate, Weizenbaum wrote, is to have the self-awareness and the courage to refuse to delegate to computers the most human of our mental activities and intellectual pursuits, particularly ‘tasks that demand wisdom.’”

In the mid-90’s an executive in the cradle of Silicon Valley told me that what he loved about the Internet was the “Knowledge” it made available. I came to have the highest regard for him as we worked together; but if I saw him today, I’d gently suggest that the Internet has certainly proven to be an efficient purveyor of Information … but it remains up to us to maintain the mental diligence and discipline to develop the connections that yield Knowledge.

Please don’t download The Shallows – buy a hard copy ;).

On Substantive Doubts about Elizabeth Warren: Part II

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

Disposition. U.S. MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren clearly is – and makes no bones about being – feisty. Some of her supporters consider it among her greatest strengths. I don’t. As noted above, most pundits predict that Republicans will maintain control of the Senate and that U.S. KY Sen. Mitch McConnell will retain his seat in 2020 and maintain his post as Senate Majority Leader in 2021. Every day of a Warren Administration will feature a blood feud between self-righteous ideologues. Her manner will provide Mr. McConnell the perfect foil to roil the conservative Republican base and trouble centrists. Say what you will about the despicable manner in which Mr. McConnell has performed his Senate leadership role – and I’ve said plenty in these posts, and thought more in terms not suitable for these pages — one of the few things that the vast majority of Americans agree upon: we are weary – indeed, exhausted – from all the fighting. I consider the toxic hyper-partisanship engulfing us to be by far our most pressing national problem. We need to quiet our differences, not further inflame them. We need healing if we are to ever move forward. Although Ms. Warren’s ascendency to the presidency would be an improvement by at least providing us a Chief Executive that respects our institutions and the rule of law, I fear that her natural combativeness will only exacerbate our rabid climate and give the nation a case of whiplash as she attempts to abruptly steer us from the alt-right to the avid-left. (Before I get assailed as sexist for expressing misgivings about an “uppity woman,” I will offer that my preferred candidate for the presidency remains U.S. MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who, unlike Ms. Warren, projects resolve without inciting undue antagonism in her adversaries.)

Finally: Attitude. “We need to … put economic and political power back in the hands of the people [Again, my underscore].” The Washington Post recently ran a piece, to which a link is provided below, that actually prompted me to write this note. It describes Ms. Warren’s answer when asked at a LGBTQ forum how she would respond to a voter whose faith teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman. I agree with the reactions reported in the Post that her response was sufficient to alienate some men, some people of faith, and some holding even moderate conservative tendencies. It exhibited – for someone who constantly touts her rearing in Oklahoma — a lack of understanding of and disdain – indeed, bordering on contempt — for the sincere sentiments of at least a third and perhaps as many as half of “the people” she claims that she wishes to serve. The account of Ms. Warren’s remarks reminded me – even before I had read far enough to see the article’s allusions to them – of former President Obama’s disparagement of those of our people who “cling to guns or religion” and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s labeling many of Mr. Trump’s supporters as “deplorables.” This is not the way to lead a citizenry that is – if one will excuse the jibe – as diverse as we are. Robert Galston wrote in his book, Anti-Pluralism:

“…[I]n May, 2016, candidate Donald Trump [declared] … ‘The only important thing is the unification of the people, [because] the other people don’t mean anything.’ There we have it: the people (that is, the real people) against the other people who are somehow outside and alien.”

I ask: how different, really, is the attitude Ms. Warren exhibited in her forum response from that of Mr. Trump? Does she intend to be inclusive – or exclusive? Is she seeking to lead all of our people – or only her version of “the people,” in the same way that Mr. Trump has made plain that he only wishes to lead his version of “the people”?

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/warrens-same-sex-marriage-quip-captures-what-some-find-exciting–and-others-distressing–about-her/2019/10/11/f3e15a14-ec34-11e9-85c0-85a098e47b37_story.html

The more closely I have examined Sen. Warren, the more firmly I would suggest that former Vice President Joe Biden – despite the egregiously obtuse peccadillos involving his son — is not only the best handicapping choice against Mr. Trump among the Democratic frontrunners; given the seemingly imminent demise of Ms. Klobuchar’s candidacy, Mr. Biden is also by far the most qualified of the Democratic candidates to assume the presidency. I hope that for the future of our nation, he has it within him to show it.

On Substantive Doubts about Elizabeth Warren: Part I

Although impressions abound about Impeachment initiatives against President Trump, this week’s Democratic Presidential Candidate Debate has shifted my reflection more immediately to the candidacy of U.S. MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren, which pundits tell us is surging. All that read these pages are aware that I have serious handicapping reservations about Sen. Warren’s prospects in a general election contest against President Trump; I fear that the President will be able to engender sufficient alarm about her among his wavering 2016 supporters that, taken together with Ms. Warren’s relatively tepid support in the African American community, will enable him to duplicate his narrow 2016 Electoral College victory. Enough has been said here about that; but as Ms. Warren has reportedly begun edging past former Vice President Joe Biden, substantive factors about her are giving me perhaps even greater pause. Notwithstanding what follows: if Sen. Warren secures the Democratic presidential nomination and is running against Mr. Trump, she can rest assured of my vote; she doesn’t appear prone to the President’s character failings or likely to perpetuate his destructive malfeasance. Further, if she is running against a President Mike Pence, she will receive my vote; she has demonstrated strong will and independence throughout her career while Mr. Pence has exhausted my Thesaurus over the last couple of years as I’ve looked for ever-more blog-appropriate synonyms for the word, “sycophant.”

That said, I have deep reservations about her ability to successfully execute the presidency. The very introduction to the Senator’s campaign home page provides hints for my concerns:

“Elizabeth has a lot of plans, but they’re really one simple plan: We need to tackle the corruption in Washington that makes our government work for the wealthy and well-connected, but kicks dirt on everyone else, and put economic and political power back in the hands of the people [My underscore].”

Foreign Policy. I consider the highest responsibility of the President of the United States to safeguard us against foreign enemies. The President must conduct a foreign policy that reassures our allies and checks the unwarranted advances of our adversaries. These are perilous times – made more so by Mr. Trump’s boorishness, ignorance, and incompetence; the horrific tragedy unfolding in Syria as this is typed screams for a steady and knowledgeable steward for U.S. foreign relations. Even so, there is not a word about foreign relations in Ms. Warren’s introductory declaration. She appears to look at our international relations through her domestic prism, stating on her foreign policy page (consisting essentially of progressive slogans) that Washington’s foreign policy serves the “wealthy and well-connected” and calling for an end to “the stranglehold of defense contractors on our military policy.” She pledges to bring our troops home, but displays no understanding of the difficulties of achieving such a withdrawal without regional cataclysm and potential consequent risk to American and allied lives. Her pledge in the second debate not to use our nuclear arsenal in a first strike capacity amounts, in my view, to presidential malpractice. She cries for cuts in “our bloated defense budget,” and calls for a greater reliance on diplomacy; but although we need to ensure that our defense dollars are spent wisely, such railing is somewhat akin to Mr. Trump’s complaints about what he claims are insufficient alliance contributions by our NATO partners. She seems oblivious to the fact that Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran are investing heavily in military and cyber capabilities and that these and other adversaries are responsive to diplomacy backed by strength, not by moral outrage or a “Pretty Please.”

Fiscal Responsibility. Interestingly, while calling our defense budget “unsustainable” (which it probably is; that’s why we need to nurture – not destroy — worldwide alliances to maintain an international balance supporting our interests), Sen. Warren is advocating for (1) a trillion-plus dollar federal expenditure to support free public college and student loan debt forgiveness and (2) what will amount to tens of trillions more for Medicare-for-All. While I support adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act, our current budget realities make these sweeping initiatives as fiscally unsustainable as the Republicans’ chronic obsession with tax cuts. I went into law because I couldn’t do numbers, but it’s clear even to me that we do not have enough rich people and big corporations that we can tax enough to support these programs.

Practicality. “Elizabeth has a lot of plans …” She sure does. Even if Democrats gain control of both Houses of Congress – an outcome that few pundits predict, and one made even less likely if Ms. Warren is the Democratic candidate – she won’t command sufficient support in Congress for the progressive agenda she is proposing; many Americans (including me, and the Democrats representing swing states and districts that are desirous of keeping their seats) will be looking to Congress to check her most progressive impulses. Democrats will appear extreme, out of touch, and inept in the same manner as Republicans did in 2017-18, when they controlled both houses and despite years of haranguing still weren’t able (thankfully) to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

In an effort to keep these posts to at least a somewhat manageable length, what remains of this note will appear in Part II.

On Shepard Smith

Every American that values truth has lost a perhaps indispensable resource. This afternoon, Shepard Smith of Fox News announced that he was leaving the network as of today. Perhaps because of my 40 years as a lawyer, I place the highest credibility upon those willing to speak the truth when the truth is contrary to their own interest. I accordingly considered Mr. Smith’s candid refutations of the endless baseless and/or absurd claims of President Trump and his satellites the most vital on cable news specifically because they were issued from Fox News – which, aside from Chris Wallace and (until today) Mr. Smith (my apologies to any other lone Fox purveyors of truth of whom I’m unaware) – generates its revenues by serving propaganda for Mr. Trump to an audience intent on lapping it up. Mr. Trump has been a vehement critic of Mr. Smith, and indulges in well-publicized fits about any Fox News presentation that is contrary to the fantasy world in which he seeks to live with his followers.

It is no surprise to the readers of these pages that I am generally in agreement with the sentiments expressed by the Morning Joe panel and the rest of the MSNBC lineup (although I’m occasionally surprised that they don’t asphyxiate themselves on their own hyperventilation); I enjoy the relish with which the majority of the CNN talking heads pursue the President’s falsehoods and inanities (although I wonder how they avoid drowning in their own antagonism); but I’m always acutely aware that no matter how sincerely these MSNBC and CNN commentators hold their views, they’re on those networks’ air because their employers’ business models in part involve inciting antipathy toward Mr. Trump and his cohort. What made Mr. Smith different was the fact he was speaking to an audience that generally mostly strongly disagreed with the truth he offered.

I cling to the hope that Mr. Smith’s departure was indeed his own decision; absent contrary indications, I take him at his word that it was. I am troubled by the fact that he leaves very shortly after Attorney General William Barr, according to a New York Times account, traveled to New York to meet with Fox Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch. I can think of no legitimate responsibility of an Attorney General of the United States that requires him/her to meet with a media mogul.

A link to a video of Mr. Smith’s final sign-off is set forth below. Those that didn’t have a chance to regularly see his broadcasts missed something special.  I shall miss him a lot.

https://talkingpointsmemo.com/news/shep-smith-leaving-fox-news

On our Kurdish Allies … and President Oz

The bulk of this note is excerpted from a post I published in April, 2018, pertaining to Syria. Rather than abandon our Kurdish allies – which President Trump in effect ordered this week — I am an unabashed supporter of the Kurds, and of the establishment of an independent Kurdistan — a position that is, for obvious reasons, anathema to the countries that would necessarily be ceding territory if such a state was established. [The “YPG” mentioned in the note is the military arm of the “Syrian Democratic Forces (‘SDF’)” referred to in the current accounts of the President’s decision.] I also left in that post’s paragraph on Ukraine since that nation has also been just a tiny bit in the news lately ;). Not surprisingly, none of the measures I suggested 18 months ago have been undertaken.

Bashar Al-Assad is a hollow man, propped up by Russia and Iran for their own purposes. Since Turkey has also engaged the conflict more as an ally of Russia and Iran than of the U.S., it could also be helpful to U.S. interests if it suffers repercussions for its forays. We might consider broadening our approach to give the Russians, the Iranians, and the Turks something more to think about, lessening their focus on their collaboration protecting Mr. Assad, including the following:

  1. Russia’s strategic interests are on its European border, not in the Middle East. Issue a ringing commitment to NATO. It will reassure our NATO allies, and make Mr. Putin aware that he has challenges in his own neighborhood.

 

  1. Put more than talk behind our support of Ukraine. After quiet consultation with Congress – and with the U.K. and France if they would collaborate — the Administration should execute a codicil to the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances pledging military assistance to Ukraine in the event its borders are infringed, and place a symbolic U.S. force at the Ukraine-Russia border.

 

 

  1. As to Turkey, double the number of U.S. troops assisting our Kurdish allies in the region of Syria in which the YPG is currently fighting ISIS on behalf of the alleged coalition. Inform the Turkish government that any military action against the YPG that results in American casualties will be dealt with severely.

 

  1. Call for dividing Syria into separate states, as was done in Bosnia: an independent Kurdish state – perhaps linked to the Kurdistan region in Iraq; a independent Sunni state (75% of Syrians are Sunni); and an Alawite state under Assad control.
  • It would give the Kurds something to continue to fight for, and would show the U.S. was firmly behind its staunchest and most effective ally against ISIS. Right now, the world doesn’t believe the U.S. can be trusted.
  • It would be unsettling to the Iranians, since Iran has a significant Kurdish population; only a positive.
  • Turkey would hate it. Turkey might require us to close our air bases in Turkey (that said, some analysts assert that the air bases are no longer strategic). Such a step – if a careful assessment is made that U.S. defenses can be maintained without the air bases — may be worth the price: President Erdogan has made himself a de facto dictator, abusing his people’s rights; Turkey has established too warm a relationship with Russia and Iran to be considered a reliable NATO ally; Turkey has condoned the beating of American protesters by Mr. Erdogan’s body guards when he visited the U.S.; Turkey has arguably conspired with Michael Flynn for a kidnapping of Mr. Gulan on American soil. Turkey is, at best, a neutral in the U.S. struggle with Russia and Iran. It should be treated that way.
  • Concededly, Iraq would hate it for giving strength to its Kurdistan regional government. Admittedly a factor that weighs against the move; some accommodation to the Iraqis would need to be made.
  • The Saudis and the other Gulf States would presumably welcome such a move, given the creation of another Sunni state to align against Iran.
  • Ironically, President Assad might favor such a move if it meant that he was able to safely remain in power without the concern that the U.S. would any longer try to have him deposed. (Admittedly, he might well feel that given the way events have unfolded, there is no need to give up any of his country.)

 

I recently suggested that the manner in which we responded to Iran’s September attack on Saudi Arabian oil assets would be closely monitored by adversaries such as the Russia, China, North Korea, and the Taliban. Although I am merely echoing the chorus here, I would similarly submit that Mr. Trump’s decision to pull our forces from our collaboration with the Kurds – in effect leaving hanging those who have most loyally and steadfastly advanced our efforts against ISIS — will be closely noted by our allies within the Middle East and throughout the world. We are riding in an unmoored rollercoaster.

 

The President of the United States, as part of a tweet issued on October 7, 2019, regarding his decision to withdraw U.S. troops:

“As I have stated strongly before … that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom …”

 

“I am Oz, the Great and Powerful … Do you presume to criticize the Great Oz? You ungrateful creatures! The Great Oz has spoken!”

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: 1939: The Wizard of Oz

Discerning the Don … in The Donald

If you haven’t yet read the Memorandum of the July 25, 2019, conversation between President Donald Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky released today, I recommend you do so; it’s but five typewritten pages and readily available online; you owe it to your country not to rely on either a news outlet or a Medicare-aged blogger.

It is undisputed that at the time of the call, the Administration was holding up the distribution of funds to Ukraine that Congress had appropriated to aid its defense against Russia. To me, the highlights:

Mr. Trump to Mr. Zelensky: “[T]he United States has been very very [duplicate in text] good to Ukraine….the United States has been very very [duplicate in text] good to Ukraine.”

Mr. Trump to Mr. Zelensky: “I would like [Mr. Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani] to call you. I will ask him to call you along with the Attorney General.”

Mr. Trump to Mr. Zelensky: “There’s a lot of talk about [former Vice President Joe] Biden’s son [Hunter Biden], that [Joe] Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. [Joe] Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it … [ellipsis in text, indicating pause; no skipped text] It sounds horrible to me.”

Mr. Trump to Mr. Zelensky: “I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of [Joe Biden’s participation in the shutting down of a Ukranian prosecutor]. I’m sure you will figure it out. [My emphasis.]”

 

Mr. Zelensky to Mr. Trump: “Yes you are absolutely right. Not only 100%, but actually 1000% … I would also like to thank you for your great support in the area of defense. We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps specifically we are almost ready to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes. [My only translation in this post: “Please give us the money. If you give us the money, we’ll buy American products. Please give us the money].”

Mr. Zelensky to Mr. Trump: “I will personally tell you that one of my assistants spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine. I just wanted to assure you once again that you have nobody but friends around us … I also wanted to tell you that we are friends. We are great friends and you Mr. President have friends in our country so we can continue our strategic partnership ….”

Mr. Zelensky to Mr. Trump: “[T]he next prosecutor general will be 100% my person….I would kindly ask you if you have any additional information that you can provide to us …”

Mr. Zelensky to Mr. Trump: “Actually the last time I traveled to the United States, I stayed in New York near Central Park and I stayed at the Trump Tower…. I also want to ensure you that we will be very serious about the case [either about the Bidens, or about the Clintons; not clear] and will work on the investigation.”

 

I cast no aspersions toward Mr. Zelensky; his country is trying to maintain its independence against the onslaught of the second most powerful military force in the world. I would have prostrated myself in front of Mr. Trump at least as obsequiously as he did if I felt it was necessary to protect my country.

The President’s defenders argue that the President’s comments weren’t malfeasance because he neither threatened Mr. Zelensky nor specifically offered Mr. Zelensky a quid pro quo for reviewing the investigation of the Ukrainian activities of the Messrs. Biden.

 

“Vito Corleone raised his hands in surprise. ‘I’m asking you a favor, only that. One never knows when one might need a friend, isn’t that true? Here, take this money as a sign of my goodwill and make your own decision. I wouldn’t dare to quarrel with it.’ … He patted Mr. Roberto on the shoulder. ‘Do me this service, eh? I won’t forget it. Ask your friends in the neighborhood about me, they’ll tell you I’m a man who believes in showing his gratitude.’” – Mario Puzo: Book III … The Godfather

Perhaps a Perilous Time

The recent attacks on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities – for which the Iranian-backed Yemen rebels, the Houthis, have claimed credit — create plenty to ponder; they are perhaps the first meaningful yield of the seeds sown by President Trump’s erratic foreign policy, and of the way his heedless, casual, and inconsistent bluster has compromised his – and our — credibility. A few thoughts:

Inasmuch as the location of the Saudi facilities’ damage was on their north and northwest sides, it seems more probable, despite the Houthis’ claims, that the attacks were launched from Iran (to the facilities’ north), rather than from the Houthis’ Yemen strongholds (to the facilities’ south). There are mixed reports as to whether the damage was caused by drones or missiles, but American experts have opined that Iran was the perpetrator because the weapons were Iranian, and too sophisticated to have been entrusted to their Houthi surrogates. That said, the Iranians deny that they were responsible for the attack, and interestingly, the Saudis, obviously feeling trepidation as to what a broad scale Middle East war might mean for them, have asked for U.N. experts to verify the U.S. claims. (Comment: we used to be the gold standard. That our word is no longer sufficient – even with an ally that we have treated better than it deserves – is arguably a result of President George W. Bush’s 2003 claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and an understandable suspicion that Mr. Trump may be seeking a conflict with Iran for his own political purposes. Compromised credibility – both national and personal — is hard to reclaim.) (Another comment: actually a pretty adroit maneuver by the Iranians. While probably not egregious enough to result in all-out war, it has: delayed their regional rival’s public offering of Aramco stock, thus setting back Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s domestic agenda; pointed out to the Saudi Royal Family how easily its wealth can be hit; and raised the price of whatever oil Iran is able to export.)

Since abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the official name of the multilateral Iran Deal negotiated by the Obama Administration to halt Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon — the “JCPOA”), the Trump Administration, in an effort to force Iran to the bargaining table for what it considers a broader and better deal, has imposed financial sanctions upon Iran that have by all accounts crippled its economy. We have apparently not expected a military reprisal in response to our initiative, our approach being “informed,” as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a Foreign Affairs article last November, by Mr. Trump’s “… strategic calculation the Iranian regime understands and fears the United States’ military might.” The most intriguing question: Since we do have the military might to do catastrophic damage to Iran if we choose, why would Iran be so bold as to launch attacks on the Saudi facilities?

While over the years many western foreign policy experts have expressed the hope that Iranian moderates (the “technocrats”), generally considered to be led by President Hassan Rouhani, will control Iran’s future – the fundamental premise upon which the Obama Administration built the JCPOA – these experts generally concede that the true control of the country currently remains with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now 80, and the Islamic conservatives beholden to him, perhaps most prominently the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the “IRGC”). Some of these experts make a point that was initially counterintuitive to me: that the IRGC leaders, despite their rigid adherence to Islam, are not ascetics; these men have major financial interests. Although probably an ancillary irritant, their financial losses due to the American sanctions have undoubtedly added to the ferment that has arisen from what they consider grievous religious and national insults.

Richard Haass, in A World in Disarray, has noted: “[T]here is scant evidence that sanctions can ever be made strong enough to dissuade a country from pursuing what it believes to be a vital national interest ….” From 1938 through 1941, in response to warlike initiatives by the Japanese Empire, the United States imposed increasingly punitive sanctions upon Japan, which in turn strengthened the hand of Japan militarists calling for war against the U.S. Recently-released notes of the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito indicate that he regretted not preventing the Japanese military from leading Japan into a war he felt it couldn’t win. Iran resents American intrusion upon what it considers its rightful regional hegemony. It is history [guided, as TLOML points out, almost entirely by men 😉 ] that aggressive voices generally overwhelm the restrained.

Although – much to my dismay – I heard an MSNBC talking head make a point this week similar to that which follows, I nonetheless offer it here since it’s an impression I’ve had since the President’s earliest days in office [and thus, consider it mine 🙂 ]. I would submit that it is the most critical flaw in Mr. Trump’s foreign policy approach: he knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. It has guided his trade policy, his attitude toward NATO, etc., etc., etc. For someone so obsessed with his own appearance and standing, he inexplicably fails to grasp that first rate political and military leaders are not motivated by money, but by power, “face,” and sometimes religion. I am absolutely convinced that if Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping were given the stark choice of either maintaining power over their countries while living in mud huts or living without power in opulent castles … they’d both opt for the mud huts. Mr. Trump would clearly choose the castle – and is unable to fathom that anyone would do otherwise. These are the contrasting motivations that have caused him to eschew diplomacy in favor of economic sanctions to achieve his goals although, as Mr. Haass has stated, sanctions rarely obtain strategic result. If faced with an existential threat, a true leader can’t be financially bullied to forsake what s/he considers vital interests, and a military leader’s instincts will be … to reach for a gun. These are the people running Iran. Perhaps they either don’t fear our military might enough, or believe that Mr. Trump has the resolve to use it. They are not contestants in a reality show.

I am concerned that Mr. Trump’s honeymoon – the grace period that our international adversaries have actually afforded him because of his emotional unpredictability tied to American military and financial might – might be ending. His reactions to the Iranian foray will be watched closely by Messrs. Putin and Xi, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, the Taliban, and others, with potential consequences for Ukraine, Taiwan, South Korea, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. I fear that we may be entering a perilous time in the Trump presidency.