American Foreign Policy after Rexit

March 20, 2018

American Foreign Policy after Rexit

Mr, Rex Tillerson was a poor secretary of state. What follows may be worse.

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Mr. Rex Tillerson paid  a heavy price for calling his White House Boss  “Moron”

EVEN by the reality-TV standards of this White House, the manner in which Mr. Rex Tillerson was sacked as Secretary of State was jaw-dropping. President Donald Trump fired him by tweet, saying that he would be replaced by Mr. Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA. He did not call him until much later, nor did he offer an explanation. Mr. Tillerson’s spokesman said that he had no idea why his boss had been fired. So he was fired, too.

Mr. Tillerson was a poor Secretary of State. Having run ExxonMobil, the tenth-biggest company in the world by revenue, he treated diplomacy like business and his department like a division ripe for restructuring. He seemed to regard his underlings as idle assets and they repaid him with their scorn (see article). So, too, did the President, at least after reports that Mr. Tillerson had called him a “moron”.

Image result for mike pompeo and trumpMr. Mike Pompeo


The new man, Mr. Pompeo, has distinguished himself in Mr. Trump’s eyes by talking up a Trumpian, America First view of the world (see Lexington). The result may well be a more co-ordinated policy, with fewer public rifts between the State Department and the White House. But when you look at the two biggest tests facing American foreign policy, the new set-up does not inspire confidence.

The first of these is North Korea. Mr. Trump’s decision to kick-start negotiations by talking directly to Mr. Kim Jong Un is unconventional. A photo-op with the American President is a great prize for Mr. Kim and, rather than holding it out as a reward, Mr. Trump has chosen to give it away cheap. That is not necessarily a bad idea, given that other approaches have failed and that merely talking is a chance for him to reinforce deterrence by setting out his red lines.


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The trouble is that, whereas the talks aimed at ridding the Korean Peninsula of nuclear weapons will be delicate, complicated and technical, Mr. Trump is impulsive and self-indulgent—as this week’s sacking of Mr. Tillerson showed. Mastering the specifications of the North’s programme and knowing how to blunt it require deep expertise. Any deal to ensure that the North does not cheat, as it has so often before, will need to be thorough and enduring. America must not enhance its own security at the cost of lower security for its allies in South Korea and Japan. And if the talks should come to nothing, as is likely, both sides will need to be sure that the bad blood does not lead to conflict.

The combination, to put it mildly, sits ill with Mr Trump’s style of government. In a properly run administration, the fiddly stuff could be left to underlings. Yet America has no ambassador to South Korea and no under-secretary for arms control. Even if it did, it is not clear that Mr. Trump would give them the time of day. He shows every sign of thinking that he has the flair to broker a breakthrough all by himself. There is a risk Mr. Pompeo would seek to flatter his boss by agreeing.

By a curious symmetry, the second test of American policy involves a nuclear deal that Mr. Trump seems determined to wreck. In May he is due to decide whether to stick with the agreement that curbs Iran’s nuclear programme or pull out. Mr. Pompeo, unlike Mr. Tillerson, is a longtime opponent, as are many Republicans. A pull-out is therefore likely.

That would be a mistake. When it comes to deals, Mr. Trump always believes that he can get a better one—especially if they were negotiated by his predecessor, Mr. Barack Obama. But the Iran deal is already the result of hard-fought trade-offs. The chances that it can be substantially renegotiated are slim indeed. Opening it up in the hope that America can expand it to force Iran to limit its regional ambitions is almost certain to fail.

If America walks away, its European allies will stick with the deal but they will conclude that Mr. Trump puts a low value on the transatlantic alliance. The nuclear agreement may not collapse immediately, but the odds would increase of a nuclear arms-race in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia and Egypt began to prepare for the day when Iran had the bomb. And because of the symmetry, Mr. Kim would surely be less willing to think he could trust an agreement struck with Mr. Trump.

It’s simple really

To hope that Mr. H.R. McMaster, the National Security Adviser, who may shortly be fired himself, or Mr. James Mattis, the Defence Secretary, can be relied on to constrain the president is to clutch at straws. Mr. Trump does not have a foreign policy so much as a worldview rooted in grievance and a belief that others must lose for America to win. He has his tariffs, his talks with North Korea and maybe soon a Middle East peace plan. The world is about to witness Mr.Trump unbound. What could go wrong?

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “After Rexit”

Michael Wolff Says That Washington Will Bury Trump

January 11, 2018

Michael Wolff Says That Washington Will Bury Trump

Listen to Noam Chomsky

October 25, 2017

Listen to Noam Chomsky–The Public Intellectual of My Generation

Noam Chomsky first involved himself in active political protest against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War in 1962, speaking on the subject at small gatherings in churches and homes.[82] However, it was not until 1967 that he publicly entered the debate on United States foreign policy.[83] In February he published a widely read essay in The New York Review of Books entitled “The Responsibility of Intellectuals“, in which he criticized the country’s involvement in the conflict; the essay was based on an earlier talk that he had given to Harvard’s Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.[84] He expanded on his argument to produce his first political book, American Power and the New Mandarins, which was published in 1969 and soon established him at the forefront of American dissent.[85] His other political books of the time included At War with Asia (1971), The Backroom Boys (1973), For Reasons of State (1973), and Peace in the Middle East? (1975), published by Pantheon Books.[86] Coming to be associated with the American New Left movement,[87] he nevertheless thought little of prominent New Left intellectuals Herbert Marcuse and Erich Fromm, and preferred the company of activists to intellectuals.[88] Although The New York Review of Books did publish contributions from Chomsky and other leftists from 1967 to 1973, when an editorial change put a stop to it,[89] he was virtually ignored by the rest of the mainstream press throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.[90]

Along with his writings, Chomsky also became actively involved in left-wing activism. Refusing to pay half his taxes, he publicly supported students who refused the draft, and was arrested for being part of an anti-war teach-in outside the Pentagon.[91] During this time, Chomsky, along with Mitchell Goodman, Denise Levertov, William Sloane Coffin, and Dwight Macdonald, also founded the anti-war collective RESIST.[92] Although he questioned the objectives of the 1968 student protests,[93] he gave many lectures to student activist groups; furthermore, he and his colleague Louis Kampf began running undergraduate courses on politics at MIT, independently of the conservative-dominated political science department.[94] During this period, MIT’s various departments were researching helicopters, smart bombs and counterinsurgency techniques for the war in Vietnam and, as Chomsky says, “a good deal of [nuclear] missile guidance technology was developed right on the MIT campus”.[95] As Chomsky elaborates, “[MIT was] about 90% Pentagon funded at that time. And I personally was right in the middle of it. I was in a military lab … the Research Laboratory for Electronics.”[96] By 1969, student activists were actively campaigning “to stop the war research” at MIT.[97] Chomsky was sympathetic to the students but he also thought it best to keep such research on campus and he proposed that it should be restricted to what he called “systems of a purely defensive and deterrent character”.[98] During this period, MIT had six of its anti-war student activists sentenced to prison terms. Chomsky says MIT’s students suffered things that “should not have happened”, though he has also described MIT as “the freest and the most honest and has the best relations between faculty and students than at any other … [with] quite a good record on civil liberties”.[99] In 1970 he visited the Vietnamese city of Hanoi to give a lecture at the Hanoi University of Science and Technology; on this trip he also toured Laos to visit the refugee camps created by the war, and in 1973 he was among those leading a committee to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the War Resisters League.[100]

President Richard Nixon placed Chomsky on his ‘Enemies List’. As a result of his anti-war activism, Chomsky was ultimately arrested on multiple occasions, and U.S. President Richard Nixon included him on the master version of his Enemies List.[101] He was aware of the potential repercussions of his civil disobedience, and his wife began studying for her own Ph.D. in linguistics in order to support the family in the event of Chomsky’s imprisonment or loss of employment.[102] However, MIT – despite being under some pressure to do so – refused to fire him due to his influential standing in the field of linguistics.[103] His work in this area continued to gain international recognition; in 1967 he received honorary doctorates from both the University of London and the University of Chicago .[104] In 1970, Loyola University and Swarthmore College also awarded him honorary D.H.L.’s, as did Bard College in 1971, Delhi University in 1972, and the University of Massachusetts in 1973.[105]

In 1971 Chomsky gave the Bertrand Russell Memorial Lectures at the University of Cambridge, which were published as Problems of Knowledge and Freedom later that year. He also delivered the Whidden Lectures at McMaster University, the Huizinga Lecture at Leiden University in the Netherlands, the Woodbridge Lectures at Columbia University, and the Kant Lectures at Stanford University.[106] In 1971 he partook in a televised debate with French philosopher Michel Foucault on Dutch television, entitled Human Nature: Justice versus Power.[107] Although largely agreeing with Foucault’s ideas, he was critical of post-modernism and French philosophy generally, believing that post-modern leftist philosophers used obfuscating language which did little to aid the cause of the working-classes[108] and lambasting France as having “a highly parochial and remarkably illiterate culture”.[109] Chomsky also continued to publish prolifically in linguistics, publishing Studies on Semantics in Generative Grammar (1972),[103] an enlarged edition of Language and Mind (1972),[110] and Reflections on Language (1975).[110] In 1974 he became a corresponding fellow of the British Academy.[106]




After the massacre in Las Vegas, nothing is set to change

October 9, 2017


A deathly silence

After the massacre in Las Vegas, nothing is set to change


But do not despair. Some progress on gun laws is possible in America

Print edition | Leaders

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Panoramic Photo of The Las Vegas Strip,Nevada

AFTER the worst mass shooting in recent American history, in which 58 people were killed and 489 wounded, both the president and the majority leaders in Congress sought to keep talk about new gun laws to a minimum. In Vegas that kind of reticence is called a tell. Had Stephen Paddock used a new technology—an armed drone, say—to kill from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, or had he been an immigrant from the Middle East, lawmakers would be rushing to legislate or tighten borders. But he was a retired white man who used some of the 49 guns he owned, so it is the price of freedom.

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There is a weariness to America’s gun debate and the familiar ritual after mass shootings, which are more frequent than in any other rich country. One study counted 166 of them in 14 countries in 2000-14; 133 were in America. Yet, nothing happens, partly because the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has evolved from an armed version of the Boy Scout movement into the foremost mouthpiece for a view of America in which everyone must be armed for their own protection, has a veto in Washington—including over banning “bump stocks” which make semi-automatic guns more lethal.

If America could not overhaul its gun laws after Sandy Hook, when 20 children aged six and seven were shot at school, then what chance is there now? And even if tighter laws on new guns were introduced tomorrow, there would still be a stock of 300m firearms to reckon with.

Such despair is unworthy of this week’s victims. There are plenty of down-is-up arguments about guns, but the Las Vegas shooting, in addition to being the most deadly, has shown up the old NRA line that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun as the most deceitful of the lot.

Granted, America has chosen permissive gun laws for itself. But the body count does not have to be as high as it is today. Research into murder and suicide suggests that making it just slightly harder to get hold of a weapon can reduce the number of killings, many of which are spontaneous and unplanned.

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The NRA has Senators and Congressman in its back pocket. No meaningful change in US Gun Laws is possible. Las Vegas is, therefore, not the last word on Gun Violence in the Land of the Brave and the Free.–Din Merican

It ought to be possible to write laws that respect the right to bear arms while banning weapons and modifications that make it astonishingly easy to kill a lot of people quickly. Most Americans favour such laws and would like universal background checks on gun purchases, too (though support for gun control is less fervent than for gun rights). Such a regime would still leave America with an unusually high number of murders, suicides and fatal accidents involving guns, but the disparity with other countries would be less glaring.

The road from Mandalay Hotel

Tired of waiting for Congress, some cities have introduced their own laws. In upstate New York, where plenty of people hunt, gun laws are permissive. In New York City those laws do not apply. Anyone who wants to carry a gun down Fifth Avenue must first obtain the permission of the NYPD. New York state tightened its laws after Sandy Hook, in effect banning assault weapons. Four other states did the same, though a further 16 responded by making guns easier to buy or carry.

Las Vegas, which sits in a state with some of the loosest rules in the country, should rewrite its own gun laws, too. Real conservatives, who champion local fixes for local problems, ought to cheer that. Of course it would not completely solve the problem. Cities like Chicago, near states with permissive laws, would still be flooded with guns. But in a country with 30,000 gun deaths a year, even small improvements would save a lot of lives. A rough calculation suggests that in the time between the Las Vegas shooting and the publication of this article, a further 320 Americans lost their life to a bullet.

This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline “Deathly silence”


NY Times Book Review: “We Were 8 Years in Power”

October 6, 2017

NY Times Book Review: “We Were 8 Years in Power”


Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “We Were Eight Years in Power” has yet to come out, but it’s already generated a storm of discussion. The Atlantic ran an excerpt; conservatives went on the attack; George Packer, a highly-regarded and left-leaning journalist who got caught in Coates’s cross hairs, issued a rebuttal. A new book from Coates is not merely a literary event. It’s a launch from Cape Canaveral. There’s a lot of awe, heat, resistance.

The simplest way to describe “We Were Eight Years in Power” is as a selection of Coates’s most influential pieces from The Atlantic, organized chronologically. The book is actually far more than that, but for now let’s stick with those pieces, which have established Coates as the pre-eminent black public intellectual of his generation.

It’s not an accident that these reported essays span the years of Barack Obama’s presidency. “Obama’s presence opened a new field for writers,” Coates writes, “and what began as curiosity about the man himself eventually expanded into curiosity about the community he had so consciously made his home and all the old, fitfully slumbering questions he’d awakened about American identity.”

Coates was one of the first to show up to discuss all three of these themes: The man, the community, our national identity. He critiqued respectability politics. He wrote about mass incarceration. He wrote about Michelle Obama and Chicago’s South Side. He wrote about how Barack Obama was exceptional, in many senses, and about the paradoxical limits of the first black president’s power to address race and racism. He wrote about the qualitative difference between white economic prospects and black economic prospects, thanks to discriminatory policies promulgated by the government even during progressive times, and about how, in his view, reparations would be the only way to redress the problem.

Coates often discussed matters of race in a way that many African-Americans wished Obama could have.

One of the book’s most persistent, recurrent themes, a shuttle that flies through the loom, is that black progress is always met with a violent backlash — the modern apotheosis of which was the election of Donald J. Trump. Most of these pieces force a reckoning with ideas that people, mainly whites, avoid contemplating or reject or insist (sometimes rightly) are more complicated: That American democracy was predicated on an enslaved class of Africans; that most white Americans still can’t tolerate the idea of equality; that acknowledging the many legacies of slavery is too much to ask of most whites, because it would disrupt our conception of our country and ourselves.

Coates provokes and invites argument. He’s had a rich life as a blogger, and one of the ways he’s learned — he’s not shy about noting he’s an autodidact — has been through his many followers. It’s as if he’s still carrying on the conversation in his magazine stories.

As indispensable as his voice is, he might well have been crowned “America’s best writer on race,” as one newspaper put it, prematurely. Simply reading and name-checking him came to feel sufficient for some white readers, preventing them from consuming other African-American voices with different points of view and different readings of history.

But taking in Coates’s essays from start to finish is still a bracing thing, like drinking a triple scotch, neat.

Perhaps an even more compelling reason to read “We Were Eight Years in Power” is for the new material Coates has written. He introduces each magazine story with an essay that serves not just as connective tissue, binding one work to the next, but as meta-commentary, reminiscent of Mary McCarthy’s italicized re-reflections in “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.” He calls each one “a kind of extended blog post,” offering a glimpse into what he was thinking and feeling when he wrote the article that follows it. You see in these mini-essays the same mixture of feelings that saturated his two previous works, “The Beautiful Struggle” and “Between the World and Me”: pessimism and vulnerability, mistrust and melancholy, anger and resignation. You realize they must inform, to some degree, his outlook and his journalism. “I had no expectations of white people at all,” he writes at one point.


Credit Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

His disposition also informs his reaction to the experience of sudden celebrity. Coates was dogged by feelings of failure and inadequacy even after he published his first story for The Atlantic, which landed with a splash and a whorl. (“My chief identity, to my mind, was not writer but college dropout.”) As his fame grew, he started getting invited to the White House, and he would leave those visits in a fug of self-doubt. The first time, he thought he had “failed” to get his points across to Obama; the second, he feared he had argued with the president too theatrically. “I was trying to prove to myself that I would not be cowed or seduced by power,” he writes. “It was ridiculous.”

More confusingly to him, white liberals started to bathe him in praise. Throughout his career, Coates had strained against writing anodyne pieces that would soothe the white conscience. What was “The Case for Reparations” if not an argument that sorely tested the imaginations of whites, arguing for “ideas roundly dismissed as crazy”? Yet still he was anointed. It’s a position he finds uncomfortable, which may explain the weariness one periodically sees in Coates’s appearances before largely white audiences, when they come seeking assurance and he responds with all the encouragement of a slamming door. “What if there was no hope at all?” he asks. “Sometimes, I said as much and was often met with a kind of polite and stunned disappointment.”

This is where Coates obviously parts company with Obama, who campaigned on the very notion of hope and the perfectibility of America. Obama still seems to believe that the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. With Obama’s election, Coates briefly allowed himself to entertain the same belief. He was quickly disenchanted. It’s clear he now believes this arc, at best, reaches an asymptote — that dastardly dotted line it can never quite touch. And even that’s probably too optimistic a reading.

One can understand this point of view and deeply sympathize with it. But there are times when Coates seems to unwittingly complicate it. When he writes that he realized, after living in France, that he was lucky not to have been born there — “It is, I think, the very chaos of America that allowed me to prosper” — one wishes he would reckon with this idea for more than a paragraph.

In the election of Trump, Coates sees an affirmation of his bleak worldview. “To Trump whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power,” he writes in the final essay here, recently published to much attention in The Atlantic. “Every Trump voter is most certainly not a white supremacist,” Coates writes. “But every Trump voter felt it acceptable to hand the fate of the country over to one.”

In their quest for affirmation, it’s true that human beings have a depressing capacity for selective listening. Some white voters without a college education, Trump’s most overwhelmingly enthusiastic constituency, took his racism far less seriously than they should have, or just overlooked it — and those are the best-case scenarios. Others privileged their anti-abortion beliefs above all else, or their fealty to the Republican Party, or (in a different vein entirely) their hatred of Washington, hoping to shake the Etch A Sketch and start anew. Or they thought Hillary Clinton was a criminal and moral degenerate.

But I would add that many of us can listen selectively — including Coates. In the first piece in this collection, he recalls the exhilaration of attending the Million Man March organized by Louis Farrakhan. “For us, Farrakhan’s opinions on the Jews mostly seemed beside the point,” he writes. “What stuck was the chance to assert our humanity and our manhood by marching on the Mall, and not acting like we were all fresh out of San Quentin.”

He had to hold contradictions in his head in order to allow himself to get swept up in a moment led by an inflammatory figure. Some Trump voters may have done the same.

It is to Coates’s credit, though, that by the time you’re done reading “We Were Eight Years in Power,” you also see what he does — namely, that far too many whites are overlooking what is so plainly staring them in the face, and that America couldn’t have a black president without boomeranging back to its ugliest self.

Hence Coates’s subtitle: An American tragedy.

Trump appeases an authoritarian Malaysian Prime Minister to The White House

September 13, 2017

Trump appeases an authoritarian Malaysian Prime Minister to the White House

By Editorial Board, The Washington Post

The Post’s View



Malaysian PM Najib Razak reviews an honour guard at The White House. Romeo Ranoco/Reuters

PRESIDENT TRUMP has made a habit of embracing authoritarian rulers he regards as friendly, without regard for their subversion of democratic norms or gross human rights violations. Yet his meeting with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at the White House on Tuesday sets a new low. Not only is Mr. Najib known for imprisoning peaceful opponents, silencing critical media and reversing Malaysia’s progress toward democracy. He also is a subject of the largest foreign kleptocracy investigation ever launched by the U.S. Justice Department.

U.S. investigators have charged that Mr. Najib and close associates diverted $4.5 billion from a Malaysian government investment fund for their own uses, including $730 million that ended up in accounts controlled by the Prime Minister. Justice first filed civil suits seeking the freezing of some $1.7 billion in assets in the United States, including real estate, artworks and stakes in Hollywood movies; more recently, the department asked that those actions be put on hold while it pursues a criminal investigation. Mr. Najib has not been charged with a crime and denies wrongdoing, but the U.S. investigation prompted speculation in Malaysia that he could be arrested if he set foot on American soil — not good PR for a leader who is obligated to call an election sometime in the next few months.

[Here’s what President Trump should tell Malaysia’s prime minister]

With his White House invitation, Mr. Trump has neatly gotten Mr. Najib off that hook and provided him with what the regime will portray as a tacit pre-election endorsement. Despite his repression, Mr. Najib could use that sort of help: In the last election, in 2013, his party lost the popular vote and retained power only because of the gerrymandering of election districts.

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President Trump and other top American officials, left, met at the White House with Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia and his delegation, right .The Post’s Editorial states: “The best way for the United States to build a stronger alliance with Malaysia and bolster its independence from China is to encourage those in the country who support liberal democratic values — while holding Mr. Najib accountable for his human rights violations, as well as any financial crimes he may have committed in the United States”.

If the White House received anything in exchange for that huge political favor, it’s not evident. That’s particularly unfortunate because Mr. Najib’s regime is not only a conspicuous violator of human rights but a relative friend to North Korea. The regime of Kim Jong Un has exported workers to Malaysia to earn hard currency. Kim Jong Un’s estranged half brother was murdered in Kuala Lumpur’s international airport — so far with no consequences for Pyongyang.

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Mr. Trump isn’t the only  U.S. President to pursue a policy of appeasement toward Mr. Najib. Barack Obama was the first appeaser who played golf with and visited the Malaysian Prime Minister in Malaysia.

Mr. Trump isn’t the first U.S. President to pursue a policy of appeasement toward Mr. Najib. President Barack Obama golfed with the Prime Minister and flattered him with the first visit by a U.S. President to Malaysia in nearly half a century. Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump may imagine that courting Mr. Najib is a necessary counter to China, which has hosted him twice in the past year and wooed him with promises of about $100 billion in investments. Yet Mr. Najib’s corruption and disregard for democratic norms mean he will inevitably prefer the values-free patronage of Beijing over alliance with Washington.

The best way for the United States to build a stronger alliance with Malaysia and bolster its independence from China is to encourage those in the country who support liberal democratic values — while holding Mr. Najib accountable for his human rights violations, as well as any financial crimes he may have committed in the United States. If Mr. Trump makes a start at that on Tuesday, he could begin to mitigate the error of inviting Mr. Najib to the White House.