Half Empty or Half Full?

In the wake of yesterday’s meeting between Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and Donald J. Trump of the United States of America (USA) it is hard to assess the level of success, if any.  It is likely that we may not know the impact of the meeting for months or even years down the road.

In the short-term it appears that tensions were defused on the Korean peninsula and the likelihood of war decreased.  It is always better to be talking to our adversaries than to be fighting.  As Winston Churchill said in 1954, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”  Should yesterday’s meeting in Singapore lead to further dialogue, that in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It may lead to larger achievements.  Or, it may not.

Given the past history of negotiations with the North Koreans, yesterday’s agreement is less impressive than others under past administrations and therefore does not give anyone solace that the results will be any better.  Here are the highlights of part of the history of past negotiations and agreements.  Note the continuing pattern.  The North Koreans express their willingness to end their nuclear and missile programs in exchange for normalized political and economic relations with the US and the rest of the world.  Deja vu all over again?

  • In December 1985, the DPRK agrees to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but does not complete the inspection agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the international inspectors.  The DPRK linked its approval for IAEA inspectors to the US withdrawing all of its nuclear weapons from the peninsula.
  • In September 1991 President George H.W. Bush announces the unilateral withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.  In response, in November the South Korean president renounces the all elements of nuclear weapons including deployment from other nations and programs to develop their own.
  • In January 1992 the two Koreas sign the South-North Declaration of Denuclearization  of the Korean Peninsula prohibiting nuclear weapons and allowing for mutual inspection and verification.  Later in the year, the DPRK came to allow IAEA inspectors into the country.
  • In June 1994, former president Jimmy Carter negotiates a deal where the DPRK agrees to “freeze” its nuclear program in exchange for high level talks with the US.
  • In October 1994 the US and DPRK adopt the Geneva “Agreed Framework” where the DPRK will freeze its nuclear program and work to dismantle what is in place in exchange for heating oil and other economic assistance and a call for the normalization of all relations between the US and DPRK.
  • In the next few years, the US imposes ever harsher sanctions on the DPRK as they are found to be exporting missile and nuclear technology to countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
  • Late in 1998 President Bill Clinton appoints former Secretary of Defense William Perry to coordinate the US response to North Korean missile and nuclear advances.  The CIA assessed that the DPRK has the capability to reach Hawaii and Alaska with a ballistic missile.
  • Negotiations continue throughout 1999 with an agreement for a reduction in sanctions in response to the renewed inspection of DPRK efforts to dismantle their programs in a “step by step reciprocal fashion.
  • In June 2000 North and South Korea announce an historic agreement to “resolve the question of reunification” of the Korean peninsula.
  • Throughout 2000 envoys from the US and DPRK meet in various locations culminating in the unprecedented visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the DPRK capital in Pyongyang.
  • In January 2002 President George W. Bush includes North Korea in his “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq.
  • In April 2003 Trilateral Talks with the US, DPRK, and China get underway and the DPRK announces that they have nuclear weapons, the first time that they admitted having them.  They tell the US that they would be willing to get rid of them in exchange for “something considerable in return.”
  • Later in the month, Six Party talks are held and the DPRK proposes a step-by-step solution including a “non-aggression treaty,” normalized relations. and the US provides heating fuel and increased food aid, among other things.  In return they will dismantle their nuclear facility and end missile testing and exports.
  • In September 2005 the Six Party talks resume and the DPRK agrees to work to achieve a “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner.”  It will be done in a phased manner in a step-by-step way.
  • In July 2006 the DPRK launches seven missiles, six of which are assessed to be successful.  The UN Security Council condemns the launches and demands that they cease.  The DPRK refuses.
  • And so on, and so on, and so on.  The DPRK comes to the negotiating table, promises to end all of its programs and then proceeds to break all of its promises as the US, the UN Security Council and the world in general condemn them and institute sanctions.

Note how similar the language (in bold, just in case you missed it) is in all of these talks, agreements and protocols compared to Mr. Trump’s announcements as to his belief that Kim will abide by his word.

Kim came to the table because of the nuclear and ballistic missile capability that he now possesses.  He came to display his power as a world player co-equal to the President of the United States thanks to his nuclear capability.  He did not come to turn them over.  The agreements above (and more!) were very, very specific, technical, and based on the complicated and meticulous analytical tools needed to inspect and verify that the North Koreans are complying.

Compare that level of detail with the “agreement” signed in Singapore.  (The full text is here.)  It is surprisingly short and devoid of specifics.  The four main points in the document are (emphasis is mine):

  • “The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”
  • “The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”
  • “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
  • “The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

That’s it.  The rest of the agreement talks (several times) about the “historic” nature of the meeting and other diplomatic language.  No specifics.  No timelines.  No next meetings.  Nothing.  Arguably only the recovery of POW/MIA remains is concrete.

In addition, much to the surprise and consternation of our allies in South Korea and Japan, the president said that he verbally agreed to halt all US exercises on and around Korea — or as he calls them “war games.”  Mr. Trump opined that “We will be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, it is very provocative.”  He also went on to say that he hopes to bring US troops home from the peninsula soon.

Provocative?  Really?  Maybe in Kim’s eyes but hardly in those of the South Koreans or Japanese.  There is a reason that there has been no further large-scale conflict on the Korean peninsula all of these decades. In large part it has to do with our presence and demonstrated capability and will to defend our allies as shown through those “provocative” military exercises.

And what did the US get in return?  A promise to “work toward” denuclearization.  Right in line with roughly three decades of such promises.  There isn’t even a delineation of what, exactly, denuclearization means.  In all previous instances it was clear that the US has a different idea of what that word means as compared to what the DPRK thinks it means.  Whatever happened to “trust but verify?”

Mr. Trump got rolled by Kim.

It was a fantastic public relations coup for both Mr. Trump and Kim.  It looked great, sounded good, and caught the world’s attention.  There was very little to no substance, but hey, it was a PR success.

Surely we can all start over and forget all about the fact that Kim is one of history’s most ruthless dictators that brutally kills his own family members, has 100,000 or more of his citizens in gulags, and routinely starves the general population when funds are needed to pursue his nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.  Water under the bridge.  He took selfies!  He has a nice smile!  He seems like such a nice young man.  Very “talented” and “honorable” according to Mr. Trump.  Give a guy a chance to start over, okay?

But perhaps I’m too pessimistic.  After all, I’m so twentieth century.  Maybe this is a new era with new players and I just don’t see it.

Indeed, I hope that I am wrong.  I truly hope that Mr. Trump’s assessment of Kim Jung Un is correct and that he really does want to do the right thing and leave behind everything that he, his father, and his grandfather worked for all of these many years.

Maybe.

I hope that the glass is half full and that this is the beginning a new, safer era.  Unfortunately we were fooled and played by the North Koreans for so many years that I can only think that it happened again.  The glass is half empty.  With a hole in it.


On The Road To Sedition

Let me start by saying that I understand that many of Mr. Trump’s supporters give him their full-throated approval because they are angry.  As the saying made famous in the movie Network goes, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”

In recent years, perhaps even decades, “professional” politicians of both parties rarely, if ever delivered on their promises while average citizens fought in wars, including our nearly seventeen year conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and to an older generation, in the rice paddies of Viet Nam; struggle financially especially during and after the Great Recession; and have the necessities of life fiddled with including such basics as health care.

There was a palpable desire for something new and different.  Well, we got that, for sure.  Some of you argue that Mr. Trump has not had enough time to really make his mark on the nation or to implement his key policy initiatives.  Perhaps when it comes to policy, although I do not see any coherent or articulate policy concerning anything, except that if President Obama did it, it was bad and needs to be undone.

I would argue however that he has made his mark on the nation, and it isn’t for the better.  Our social and community discourse has become demonstrably worse.  When the president bullies people, calls them names and attacks the basic institutions of our nation, it has an impact.  A negative one, but it does have an impact.

It does not have to be that way.  It is possible to implement new, conservative (I would argue Mr. Trump is not a conservative, but that is a discussion for another day) policies without being vindictive and even vicious.  To me, even if I agreed with his policy aims, which in large part I do not, the end does not justify the means.  Civility is the currency of a functioning democracy and we are about to go bankrupt.

My biggest concern, one that I have expressed in this space before, is that Mr. Trump is working to undermine the basic checks and balances of our democracy to his benefit.  While many modern presidents have stretched the bounds of Executive authority, Mr. Trump seems to think that there are no bounds.  The only question is whether it is a deliberate action on his part, or done out of ignorance of the Constitution and the law, or whether he does it because it is all he knows — he wants to run the country like a family business.  In the end, it doesn’t matter.  The result is the same.

We are on a very slow, day-by-day, slide into autocracy unless all of us wake up and get the Congress to act as the co-equal branch of government that it is.

I see a very distinct pattern beginning to emerge.  Mr. Trump is exploring the bounds of what he can do with an unfettered exercise of power.  He is doing this in several ways.

The president’s Constitutional power to grant pardons for any reason is being used in ways that it has rarely, if ever, been used.  He issues pardons, or promises to do so, to people that have been fully and fairly prosecuted under the law, whether or not they ask for them.  The main point of issuing these pardons to off the wall supporters of his seems to be to send a message.  He has picked pardons for crimes that reflect all of the things he or his aides have been accused of doing, thereby demonstrating that such crimes are meaningless because he says so.

My theory on why he does this lies partly in his life experience.  Mr. Trump is a member of what my father used to call the “New York wise guys.”  Mr. Trump’s view of life is that everyone — everyone! — lies, cheats and steals, but especially politicians.  Those that don’t do so are losers and suckers.  He believes it.  So when someone is convicted of a crime along those lines, he deems it “unfair” because he believes it to be a subjective prosecution.  They only prosecute people they don’t like or who don’t play the game the right way.  In his view, everyone does it, many get away with it, so why can’t he?  In his mind it is because they don’t like him.  Now he has the power to “show them” who the real boss is in town.

Another way he is slipping Constitutional bounds is by vastly expanding the use of Executive powers in the name of “national security.”  This is the reason given for imposing steel and aluminum tariffs on some countries (mostly our friends and allies) while not on others (China).  He is now considering a 25% tariff on vehicles in the name of national security.  Since this impacts primarily Mexico and Canada, and to some extent our NATO allies, they are rightly insulted.  Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week called off a meeting in Washington due to the unseemly way he felt he and his nation were being treated.  It goes even further in that there are a wide variety of new regulations and Executive Orders that are due to be implemented using the rubric of “national security.”  One such example is the mandate that power companies buy a given percentage of electricity produced by coal power plants.

“National security” is being used in ways not imagined when the laws were written. They are interpreted in a way that allows the president to expand his powers into every area of the economy. Invoking national security was meant to be a very narrow, national emergency type of contingency but he is expanding its use far past what seems to be realistic.

Now for the topper, which may be one of the most egregious attempts to assert the primacy of the Executive in our history.

Last week a twenty page letter from Mr. Trump’s lawyers to Special Counsel Robert Mueller revealed the true extent of his power play.  The letter was sent earlier this year, but was only just obtained by the The New York Times.  (Read it for yourself here.)

Among other stretches of Constitutional law, Mr. Trump through his lawyers asserts that because he is the chief law enforcement officer of the United States he cannot illegally obstruct any investigation, including into his own actions.  According to their reasoning, the Constitution gives him the authority to do pretty much anything he pleases due to his special status.  Thus, it is impossible for him to obstruct justice by shutting down a case or firing a subordinate, no matter his motivation, because by extension he is responsible for all such investigations and cannot,  therefore, investigate himself.

What this means in practical terms is that if, as they assert, the president can shut down any investigation for any reason, corrupt or not, he is above the law.  This also infers that he can direct the start of any investigation into anyone for any reason, even if it is for his own corrupt purposes.  The argument continues to say that the only recourse is impeachment, which only means removal from office.

Oh by the way, he can pardon anyone for any crime, including himself.

Theoretically — or practically if you believe their argument — under this interpretation a president could come into office, conduct any series of illegalities for any purpose — to enrich himself or his family or even to commit murder — and could not be held accountable if he pardons himself.  Under their argument in the letter to Mr. Mueller, a sitting president could come into office with the intent of doing harm, do it, pardon himself, be impeached (or resign before being impeached) and then go on his merry way.  No accountability, no punishment, no nothing.  Clearly that is not what the Founding Fathers intended.

Indeed, the last time this came up was in 1776.  In the Declaration of Independence, among the other reasons given for the rebellion against the king, was that (emphasis is mine) “he has obstructed the administration of justice by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers” including “repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct objective establishment of any absolute tyranny over these states.” I did not know King George III, but I do know that Mr. Trump is no King George.  Or at least he should not be.

In case you have any doubts as to what I am saying, here was what Mr. Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for the president, told the Huffington Post this past Sunday.

“In no case can he be subpoenaed or indicted. I don’t know how you can indict while he’s in office. No matter what it is.”  He went on to say that “if he shot James Comey, he’d be impeached the next day,  Impeach him, and then you can do whatever you want to do to him.”

In other words, Mr Giuliani argued that impeachment was the punishment for presidential misbehavior, even if instead of firing the former FBI Director he shot him in order to bring the Russia investigation to an end.

Mr. Trump is on record as saying “I alone can fix it.”  (at the Republican National Conference on 21 July 2016)  He also said “I have the absolute power to pardon myself”  (on Twitter on 4 June 2018.)

I have the absolute power.  Wow.

Taking this picture, coupled with attacks on the rule of law (DOJ, FBI) and the intelligence communities, coupled with attacks on the free press, coupled with attacks on the judiciary coupled with the failure of Congress to call him to task on anything, we are on the downward slope.

He is testing the boundaries of what he can get away with and will continue to expand that effort and try to bend our form of government for his own purposes until he is stopped.  Right now, I don’t see when that will happen.

It is basic to the autocratic play book.  Layer on top of that the typical autocratic play of draping the leader in the flag and espousing faux patriotism by creating a wedge issue out of nothing and thereby weaponizing patriotism (see the NFL).

He also is trying to tell private companies who to fire and has on several occasions pushed the Post Master General to have the United States Postal Service charge Amazon more for delivering packages because he doesn’t like Mr. Jeff Bezos who also happens to own the Washington Post.

How do we stop this?  Vote!

Put people into Congress during the mid-terms that will return to the normalcy of Congress being a co-equal branch of government to the executive.  Republican or Democrat, vote for folks that are not afraid of being the brunt of Twitter bullying and who will actually do their job of checks and balances.  It isn’t even a “conservative” or “liberal” thing — one can institute conservative policies without destroying the essence of our Constitution.

People who are mad as hell at the way they feel, as if they have been used for years, if not decades, are especially susceptible to autocrats that talk tough and claim to protect against the “others.”  The total picture creates dangerous times for us and our future.

I have hope, although it is dwindling.  Right now I have no sense that anyone will stand up and push back on Mr. Trump.  In interview after interview I feel as though the Members of Congress have their collective heads in the sand.  I continue to hear them say that “he wouldn’t do that” because of the political fallout and because it would be beyond the norm.

HELLO!

His entire campaign and administration has been a series of things that “no one else would do.” Time after time he has done and said things that were beyond the pale and each and every time he’s gotten away with all of it.  No repercussions.  Why would he stop now?

We as citizens are the answer.  No one else will save us from ourselves.


Dangerous Times

In the last ten to twelve days we have seen a remarkable display of something — although I am not really sure what we are seeing.  But from where I sit, it isn’t good.

In succession we have Senator John McCain (R-Ariz) (a former nominee for president), former Republican President George W. Bush, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn) and Senator Jeff Flake (R-Ariz) all directly or unmistakably reference, the leadership philosophy, character and fitness for office of our current president.  All found him seriously wanting in every imaginable category.  On top of that, former Democrat President Barack Obama and former Democrat Vice President Joe Biden made similar remarks.  But of course their remarks don’t count because of the fact that the Democrats are all “losers” and “whiners.”  So let’s just focus on the president’s own party and their criticism.

Some Republicans and some reporters and analysts use words like “feud” and “tit for tat” and “Junior High disputes” to describe the events of the last week.  Wrong.  Likewise is it wrong to think that their words have no real meaning because, in at least two cases, they have chosen not to run for re-election.  Perhaps it gave them more leeway to speak up, but it does not change the import of their words.

To brush it off as some kind of personality clash is to lose sight of what serious men of conscience are actually saying.  It is also not really a matter of policy or ideological differences either.  For goodness sake, Senators Corker and Flake vote with about a 96% consistency rate with the stated goals of the rest of their party and presumably of the president.  (Although it is difficult to know about the latter as his grasp of policy details is suspect and he can change his mind about an issue several times in the same day.  For example, with the bipartisan Alexander-Murray bill for a temporary fix of the health care system, where he was for it before he was against it — in the same afternoon.)

These proven Republicans, all of whom I respect even if I don’t agree with their every approach to solving the nation’s problems, make a compelling case that the president is manifestly unfit for office and that his tumbling tumbleweed approach to governing diminishes our place in the world and is dangerous.  It is a question of character and the current president is found to be profoundly lacking, if not completely devoid, of it.  More precisely Senator McCain said, among other things:

To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems, is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.

We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.

Not to put too fine of a point on it, but the phrase “blood and soil” is the phrase used by American white supremacists, is associated with some supporters of this administration, and comes from a philosophy from Nazi Germany. “Blut und Boden.” Look it up.

Likewise Senator Flake characterizes the president’s character as a danger to our nation and to peace in the world.  The speech is worth reading as many think that in historical terms, we will look back upon it as a clarion call to action to stop the reckless behavior of the current administration.  He warns of creating a “new normal” where the most crass and personal petty attacks and lies are taken as the course of events in politics.  His condemnation of the current administration is lengthy, but the heart of the matter can be summed up in these passages:

If we simply become inured to this condition, thinking that it is just politics as usual, then heaven help us. Without fear of the consequences and without consideration of the rules of what is politically safe or palatable, we must stop pretending that the degradation of our politics and the conduct of some in our executive branch are normal. They are not normal. Reckless, outrageous and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous and undignified.

And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy. Such behavior does not project strength because our strength comes from our values. It instead projects a corruption of the spirit and weakness. It is often said that children are watching. Well, they are. And what are we going to do about that? When the next generation asks us, ‘Why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up?’ What are we going to say?

Mr. President, I rise today to say: enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal.

This is not a “tit for tat” or a personality conflict.  These comments, and similar ones by President Bush and even more blunt comments by Senator Corker are alarming.  Or they should be.

Politics in the United States has changed in the past year or so from differences in ideas to one where we argue over the populist slogans of the sloganeer-in-chief.  I heard it described the other day as “emotional sustenance.”  Substance from the chief executive is no longer required, all that is asked of him is that he entertain us.  Sadly, that entertainment is not even positive but geared to salve the emotional feelings surrounding perceived slights of those that just want to be mad at the establishment and he indulges them.  Substance may not be dead in the Congress, but it is on life support because the man at the top cares nothing about it.  Watch the interview from last weekend with Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business News and the president.  She served up the most soft ball type questions imaginable and tried to lead him through his own policies, but with little success.  Asked about Russia he talked about Bob Kraft (owner of the NFL New England Patriots) and the Super Bowl ring he gave (?) to Vladimir Putin.  Having already mentioned the Alexander-Murray bipartisan health care bill, here was his description of it:

Well, I’ve — I have looked at it very, very strongly. And pretty much, we can do almost what they’re getting. I — I think he is a tremendous person. I don’t know Sen. Murray. I hear very, very good things.

I know that Lamar Alexander’s a fine man, and he is really in there to do good for the people. We can do pretty much what we have to do without, you know, the secretary has tremendous leeway in the — under the Obama plans. One of the things that they did, because they were so messed up, they had no choice but to give the secretary leeway because they knew he’d have to be — he or she would have to be changing all the time.

And we can pretty much do whatever we have to do just the way it is. So this was going to be temporary, prior to repeal and replace. We’re going to repeal and replace Obamacare.

A grasp of the issue?  You be the judge.

Here is what we now have in the United States of America.  We have a chief executive who created a cult of personality, and continues to expand that cult, with no grasp of the issues, no desire to learn the issues and who thinks that bullying (“Liddle’ Bob Corker”, “Little Rocket Man”, Jeff “The Flake” Flake, and countless others) is the way to govern and accomplish something meaningful.

And it gets worse.

As late as yesterday, the Commander-in-Chief continued to argue with a Gold Star widow.  Not Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-Fla) who is a close family friend (you may know her better as the president does as “Wacky Congressman (sic) Wilson “).  The widow.

Most disappointing was the press conference given by Chief-of-Staff John Kelly last week.  After giving a heart wrenching, and something the country as a whole needed to understand, explanation as to how our fallen military members are returned home to grieving families, he went too far.  He too attacked Congresswoman Wilson with what was proven to be false accusations.  And he went on to show that in this White House, he is really just an admin guy and mouthpiece for the president.  Clearly, he does the president’s bidding without question and thereby refutes the idea that he is any kind of filter or brake for the president’s divisive views.

Many people, including military veterans, I’ve spoken with are profoundly disappointed in the president and John Kelly.  Many consider this the low point for this administration.

Sadly, I think that demonstrates a lack of imagination.  I don’t think we have yet realized just how low the president and many of his advisers are willing to go.  How many times in the last two years have people said “that’s it” — surely it cannot get any worse.  And then it does.

I think that is why Senators McCain, Corker, and Flake spoke out in recent days.  That is why Presidents Bush and Obama spoke out in recent days.  They realize the serious threat to our republic embodied by this administration and they cannot sit by and watch it be destroyed.

Unfortunately, too many others in Congress are willing to trade their souls for a tax cut.

All of us have a role to play.  We cannot sit idly by and watch our country careen towards ruin.


Deterrence 101

“I’m not the man they think I am at home”  — Elton John in “Rocket Man”

On Tuesday Mr. Trump gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that created controversy. It seems you either hated it or loved it.  Some people agree with his “America First” pronouncements and others interpret his remarks as being muddled and inconsistent. Either way, despite the fact that much of the ensuing discussion focused on his use of the term “Rocket Man” in referring to Kim Jong Un of North Korea, there is much more to learn about Mr. Trump and about deterrence.  (Besides the third grade use of nicknames to belittle people, perhaps some of our insight into Mr. Trump’s real thoughts starts with the lyrics above.)

You can read the full speech for yourself but the focus here is on his remarks about The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea.  To me, it shows a lack of understanding of both international relations and the real ways in which nations influence other nations or deter them from taking actions counter to our own self-interests.

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”  — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017

Mr. Trump’s supporters may give him high marks for his bravado and willingness to “tell it like it is.” Okay.  But what did he really say?

Let’s put this another way.  The goal of the United States and other nations is to “denuclearize” the North Koreans.  As discussed previously in this blog, Kim Jong Un has no motivation to give up his nuclear weapons.  He cares not what happens to his population as long as he and his ruthless regime survive. The lesson he learned from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is that if you give in to the West and give up your Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) your regime falls and you get executed.  Not very motivational to someone like Kim.

Lesson number two comes from Mr. Trump’s speech.  Whether one likes the nuclear agreement with Iran or not, we do not have the same situation developing in Iran as is developing in North Korea.  Iran is not testing nuclear weapons.  The criticism of the agreement has many parts, mostly along the lines of the United States not drawing enough concessions from Iran.  No mention of terrorism, for example. Forgotten in the criticism is that the agreement is intended to be one aspect of a longer term engagement with Iran that does address other areas of concern to us and to them.  It showed that a deal could be made with a regime that refused to have anything at all to do with the West for decades.  It ensures that today we have only one “nuclear problem” to deal with and not two.  I might also point out that it is a multi-lateral agreement.  It is not a U.S. – Iran bilateral agreement as many in the current administration seem to address it.  The agreement includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union representing all members of that organization, and Germany.  If the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, as Mr. Trump indicated yesterday that he will do, do not expect the other participants to follow suit.  Additionally, any other diplomatic engagement with Iran by the U.S. will die. Iran simply will not trust that the U.S. will abide by any future agreements.

This is where we get back to North Korea.  Mr. Trump demands that North Korea come to the table and negotiate a deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.  Hmmm.  Iran did that and now the U.S. calls the deal an embarrassment and threatens to abrogate the agreement.  Or as Mr. Trump said of Iran and the nuclear agreement:

“The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.”  — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017

So, let’s see this from Kim’s viewpoint.  (Who cares what he thinks, some may say?  Let’s not take any grief from those guys — Korean or Iranian. We should care only about ourselves.)  Those sentiments are understandable and in a way, correct.  Except for one thing.  We cannot get Kim (or the Iranians) to do something they don’t want to do just by bullying them.

From Kim’s point of view, those that have trusted the U.S. when it comes to getting rid of their WMD are either dead or betrayed by the U.S.  Not much of an incentive to give them up.

It gets worse.

Kim will not give up his missiles or his nuclear weapons as long as he thinks they are critical to his survival.  Period.  I cannot stress enough that he is all about his personal survival and the continuation of his regime — like it or not.  Diplomatic efforts should focus on providing a way to convince him that his regime will survive into the future with some kind of guarantees from those that share a border with him — China, Russia, and South Korea.  It might work.  But probably not.

It keeps getting worse.

Deterrence is based on several factors, as I’ve discussed in this space in previous posts.  Deterrence cannot work if the nation (or individual) that is the focus of the effort, doesn’t know what it is that they are not supposed to do.  Additionally, clear and realistic (emphasis on realistic) consequences need to be conveyed and understood by those being deterred.  They cannot do something if they don’t know what that is (or out of ignorance they may do it) and the cost/benefit analysis on their end needs to be clear and of a scale that not doing something is better than doing it.  One may think that dying is not a good outcome, but it may be if living with the alternative is unacceptable in their calculus, not ours. Understanding one’s opponent is critical.  We know very little about what goes on in the DPRK, but what we do know seems to be ignored by the current administration, or at least the guy in charge.

In sum, there needs to be a clear understanding of the behavior desired and a credible response that is unacceptable to the recipient.

With that in mind, let’s return to Mr. Trump’s U.N. remarks where he says,  “…but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies…” (meaning if the U.S. is forced to do so).  “Defend” against what?  He does not say.  In the past, North Korea shelled South Korean islands, sank a South Korean naval vessel, killed a U.S. service man in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and other provocations dating back to the capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in 1968.  Not one of these incidents generated a military response from the United States.  Expect Kim to test the efficacy of our intention to “defend” ourselves.  What will be our response if he again shells a South Korean outpost?  I would not expect that the response will be what Mr. Trump threatens, that  “…we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  It is not a credible threat.  The implication that we will “totally destroy” a population of 24 million, with the additional implication by Mr. Trump that it will be with nuclear weapons (the only way to totally destroy a nation) is preposterous.  Or it should be in this scenario.  Kim will not see it as a credible threat.  Even if he does, it only solidifies his belief that having his own deliverable nuclear capability is his only saving grace. Boasting, bullying, and all the bravado Mr. Trump can muster will not change that and it certainly will not bring Kim to the negotiating table — other than as a delaying tactic to put the finishing touches on his arsenal.

This is why a long list of presidents, Republican and Democrat, warn that the United States “will respond at a time and place of our choosing” to provocations and attacks.  It leaves open a wide range of options from doing nothing all the way to “totally destroying” but with a myriad of options in between.  I guess that sounds wimpy to the current administration.  But leaving one’s options open is the best course.

With no clear “red line” — a term that is misused and misunderstood — that puts realistic limits on Kim’s behavior, and with no credible response for Kim to weigh in his strategic calculations, there is no deterrence and certainly no incentive for him to give up his nuclear weapons.

Mr. Trump fails deterrence 101.  There are, of course, many other branches and sequels involved in deterrence theory.  But if one does not understand the basics, that empty threats may only precipitate the action one is trying to deter, then there is little point in trying to get the finer points into play.

Furthermore, since the Korean Armistice of 1953, Kim’s grandfather and father created and hammered home the cult of personality so that today the DPRK is Kim and Kim is the DPRK.  Every citizen from the time that they can talk is taught that the Americans are the worst people on earth and that the Americans only aim in life is to destroy the DPRK.  They believe it.  The Korean War is the example taught over and over, given that North Korea was heavily damaged and lost millions of people, military and civilian, in the course of the conflict. To vilify and belittle their leader only adds gasoline to the fire. Mr. Trump handed the North Korean regime a propaganda coup with his statements about Kim and that we will totally destroy their nation. Roll the videotape! It reinforces everything that the population of North Korea has heard for their entire lives.

Which is not to say that we lay down and roll over.  The number one role of our national government is to protect our citizens.  If Kim pushes we should shove back.  We need to continue to reiterate to Kim that he cannot possibly win any military conflict with us or our allies.  End of discussion on that point. What is necessary is to convey clearly what we expect of the North Korean regime.  Patience and incremental successes may be the path to a common understanding.  We don’t back away from conflict where our national interests are at stake, but we also do not want to precipitate a war that will inevitably lead to massive military and civilian casualties on a whim or because we want to play around with cutesy phrases.  If one studies the military conflicts which we have entered since the Vietnam War, a pattern emerges.  Foreign adversaries continually fail to understand the nature of our society and misinterpret internal political arguments for a lack of will on our part to act militarily.  Mr. Trump may reinforce that perception when Kim tests his proclamation with a relatively minor infraction that we ignore (again) or when we do not “totally destroy” his country.

Kim is not a crazy man, even if he and Mr. Trump are trying to out crazy each other in their rhetoric.  It is totally sane to have as one’s primary strategic goal the survival of oneself and one’s regime.  If the United States truly wants to remove the North Korean’s nuclear capability, the U.S. will have to be more imaginative and creative in our diplomacy.  China, and now Russia which has inserted itself onto the scene, are the key players.  It is not a mission impossible, but it will take cool thinking and lots of patience.  It remains to be seen whether this administration is capable of either, much less both.

 


The Battle of Midway Island

Yesterday, 4 June, marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway Island in 1942 where the U.S. Navy defeated the Imperial Japanese Navy and reversed Allied fortunes in the Pacific campaign. Prior to the battle, the Japanese were on the offensive throughout the Pacific area.  Following the battle, they fought a series of defensive operations and steadily retreated back to the home islands.

In a nutshell, the battle entailed an all-in strategy by the U.S. commanders, Commander-in-Chief Pacific Admiral Chester Nimitz and the tactical commanders Rear Admirals Raymond Spruance and Frank Jack Fletcher.  Thanks to cryptologists that broke the Japanese code, the U.S. was aware of the Japanese plan to attack Midway Island and presumably, remove the U.S. from any further ability to thwart Japanese expansion.  The attack on Midway was accompanied by a nearly simultaneous (due to circumstances the attacks were actually a day apart) on the Aleutian Islands in Alaska — an attempt to remove U.S. Army Air Corps aircraft from being in range of the Japanese home islands.

In the battle four Japanese aircraft carriers went up against three from the U.S. Navy.  In short, all four Japanese carriers — Akagi, Kaga, Hiryu, and Soryu — sank, along with the resulting loss of airplanes, pilots and crews.  They also lost a heavy cruiser, a destroyer, and other ships were badly damaged.  The Japanese Navy was never able to recover from those losses as their industrial capacity simply could not replace what was lost, along with the lack of seasoned pilots.  The U.S. Navy lost one carrier, the USS Yorktown and one destroyer.  Military historians such as John Keegan call the victory “the most stunning and decisive blow in the history of naval warfare.”

Without going into all the details of the battle, it is apparent that there many instances of heroic actions. In our present days of troubled times and divisive political arguments, I find it worthy to focus on a small, but significant portion of the battle.  I trust that today, we can find men (and now women) that hold the same high level of selflessness, courage and devotion as those of the torpedo squadrons of the Douglas TBD Devastators from VT-3 on Yorktown, VT-6 on Enterprise, and VT-8 from the Hornet. These airplanes flew low and slow in order to attack surface ships with torpedoes.  In order to get the torpedo on target, it meant a long, slow, straight approach into the teeth of the Japanese air defenses.

The Devastators were on their own due to inexperience on the part of the American commanders coupled with the desire to strike the Japanese first.  Therefore they launched their aircraft piecemeal which resulted in an uncoordinated attack by the torpedo bombers without fighter escorts.  They were doomed.  Of the forty-one aircraft launched, thirty-five were lost attacking the targets, with no hits against the enemy.  On each of those airplanes, a three-man crew piloted and fought the aircraft.  A heavy loss of life.  The aircraft was never used again in battle in the Pacific.

Their sacrifice secured the victory because while the Japanese were preoccupied with the torpedo bombers, they became confused as to the big picture.  This allowed the Navy’s dive bombers and remaining fighter escorts to arrive over their targets virtually undetected and caught the bulk of the Japanese aircraft on the deck of the carriers while refueling and rearming.  Three Japanese carriers were destroyed in about five minutes and the fourth sank from its damage later in the day.

The pilots and crews of the Devastators did not think that they were on a suicide mission.  No one expects anything bad to happen to them, individually, when on a mission.  Yet, they understood the odds and that they weren’t good.  By the time of the battle, the U.S Navy knew that the aircraft was obsolete and vulnerable, but no replacement aircraft had yet made it to the fleet.  Additionally, once over the Japanese fleet they knew that they were alone, without fighter escort, and had no idea where the dive bombers might be.  They knew that the plan, a coordinated attack with all forms of aircraft striking the Japanese simultaneously was out the window. They were on their own.  And yet, they went forward, alone.

As we argue over less important issues today, it serves us well to remember the sacrifices made by those that went before us.  They knew that they were involved in a cause bigger than their individual lives, and they knew that only true sacrifice would carry the day.  Along with our thoughts as a grateful nation, we should also step back and think of our own lives and ability to follow in their foot steps.

We can all benefit from their selfless example.


But Do They Have A Football Team?

Much has been written and discussed lately concerning the Electoral College.  Some argue that it is an anachronism that outlived its usefulness.  Others argue that it is integral to the foundation of our republic and must stay in place.  There are strong arguments on both sides of the issue and it seems that most people’s opinions are colored by whether they see our country as one nation, indivisible — as stated in the Pledge of Allegiance — or whether they see it as a collection of united states.

Although the discussions surrounding the Electoral College pop up every four years in conjunction with presidential elections , they are more noticeable this time around given that we have two presidents out of the last three (George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump) that lost the popular vote but won in the Electoral College.  There are only three other times in our entire history where this happened.  John Quincy Adams became president in 1824 through a vote in the House of Representatives.  Although Andrew Jackson won more Electoral College votes, he did not win enough to get a majority as required under the Twelfth Amendment (more on that later) and the House elected Mr. Adams.  In 1876 Rutherford B. Hayes became our president despite having lost the popular vote and the Electoral College vote — until 20 disputed electoral votes were changed under a compromise between Republicans and Democrats and awarded to Mr. Hayes.  This despite the fact the his opponent Samuel J. Tilden not only had more popular votes, but had a majority of the vote (just over 50%).  And we think our current election was contentious.  The only other time that the Electoral College victory came despite losing the popular vote was in 1888 when Benjamin Harrison defeated the incumbent president Grover Cleveland by campaigning to keep trade tariffs high to protect American jobs.  Some things don’t change.

For the next 124 years there were no instances of a candidate losing the popular vote but still winning the Electoral College vote.  And now in the first sixteen years of the 21st century it happened twice. Thus the argument over whether it is still a valid way to elect our presidents.

To fully understand the issue, a quick history of the reasons for the Electoral College are in order. Briefly stated, it was established because our esteemed Founding Fathers did not want the citizens of the new United States to elect the president.  Remember that their ideal for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” was really meant for white wealthy males.  The pursuit of happiness meant property, and wealth meant education.  The masses were considered unfit and untrustworthy to elect the “real” leaders of the nation. Thus the president was elected by the Electoral College and United States Senators were elected by the legislatures of each state.  The House of Representatives was the “people’s house” — the safety valve for allowing the average citizen to participate.  Note that Senators are elected for six years (designed to provide stability and experience) and the House is elected every two years, making it easily changeable.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 3 of the Constitution created the Electoral College as the means to elect the President and the Vice President.  In practice it did not work out so well and the procedure was modified through the Twelfth Amendment when it was ratified in 1804.  All subsequent elections have been carried out under that amendment.  Clearly a precedent was set that if our method of electing the president is not efficient or effective, then it can be changed.

Article I, Section 3 of the Constitution was replaced by the Seventeenth Amendment when it was ratified in 1913 and provided for the direct election of Senators, vice having them elected by state legislatures. This is another precedent that our voting procedures can change with the times.

Both of these changes are relevant to the arguments for and against the continued use of the Electoral College.  The arguments are cogent on both sides of the issue, although passions sometimes run rampant rather than logic or historical facts.

Some of the arguments for eliminating the Electoral College, or to significantly change the way that it works, include the following.

  • Our presidential election process is not democratic.  It is the only national office where “one person, one vote” does not apply.  As has happened, the voice of the people can be muted or eliminated by the electors choosing someone who did not win the popular vote.
  • Originally Senators were picked in a manner very similar to the Electoral College voters. That process was changed with an amendment to the Constitution to allow direct voting.  If that can change because the original purpose for state legislators to vote for Senators changed, then that same argument for the purpose of the Electoral College is no longer relevant. We now have an educated citizenry with easy access to communications and an understanding of the issues.
  • The Electoral College was meant to be a check on the whims of the citizens.  Most states now require the electoral voters to match the results of the popular vote in their state, thus the original purpose of the college is no longer followed.
  • Too much power is invested in smaller states relative to their population.  For example, one electoral vote in Wyoming equals 142,741 people whereas in New York one electoral vote equals 519,075 people.  One can argue that this is patently unfair to all voters, and gives disproportionate power to states with small populations.
  • The House of Representatives could elect the next president and in doing so totally ignore the wishes of the electorate.  This would happen if the Electoral College vote ends in a tie, a mathematical possibility unrelated to the national popular vote results.  The vote in the House is by state — one state, one vote — thus giving Rhode Island the exact same say in choosing a president as Texas.
  • It solidifies a two-party system and precludes the possibility of other candidates making a meaningful run for president.
  • A president may punish a state that voted for his/her opponent even though many citizens of that state voted for the winner.
  • Presidential candidates ignore states that are safely in their camp or that they believe will not vote in their favor.  They end up not visiting large states (no serious campaigning by either candidate in New York, California, Texas for example) and small states (no serious campaigning in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming for example).  They only campaign in a handful (about ten) of swing states.

Some of the arguments for keeping the Electoral College as it is include the following.

  • The Electoral College protects states rights.  Small states would lose their voice in presidential elections in favor of states with large populations.  Candidates would only focus on states such as New York, California, Texas and Florida.
  • The two-party system is preserved.  Such a political system is proven to be the best form for governing in the United States through competing political parties and their ideas .  If the Electoral College is eliminated in favor of directly voting for candidates, multiple candidates could conceivably run and splinter the popular vote.  This could allow a candidate with only 20 or 30% of the vote to win.
  • The Electoral College embodies our nation’s principle of federalism and eliminating it could be the first step in dismantling that system of governing.
  • Only the “coastal elites” in large cities would get presidential attention.
  • No one should mess with what the Founding Fathers created.  They knew what they were doing.
  • To change or abolish the Electoral College would require a Constitutional Amendment.  This process may open the door to other changes to our Constitution.
  • A victory in the Electoral College gives the president the legal authority to govern all of the states and all of the population.

To me, the strongest argument for changing or eliminating the system is that states with small populations have a disproportionate impact on the election.  The strongest argument for keeping our current process is to prevent a candidate from winning in a race with multiple candidates and garnishing only a small percentage of the popular vote.

Additionally, given the current political climate in our nation, any attempt now to change the Constitution would probably open a Pandora’s Box of other issues that could fundamentally change our Constitution and thus our way of life.

Although it goes against my preference, I reluctantly conclude that keeping the Electoral College is, at least for now, the best thing for our country.

And no, the Electoral College does not have a football team.  And that’s too bad.


What a Great Country!

As we wake up on the morning after one of the most divisive campaigns in our life times, some of us are elated, some disappointed and a lot of us are probably simply amazed at the results.  Whatever we feel, as is our custom and history, it is time to move on and actually get things done.

Yesterday I had a big dose of what is best about our country.  I was a sworn election judge in the state of Maryland.  Other states may have other titles, or you may simply know us as poll workers.  It was a great civics lesson and a great lesson in what makes this country continue to be great.

It was a very long day (nearly 15 hours on the job) but a very positive day.  Election judges in Maryland are regular citizens who come forward every two years to work for their country and for their fellow citizens.  They cover the spectrum of our national make up.  Young (one can be a judge at 17) and old, from every ethnic group and socio-economic status, and of differing political parties, the judges are a true cross-section of America. Throughout our training and while on the job, each and every person I met was courteous, friendly, conscientious and dedicated to doing the job correctly.  It was inspiring.

I can also assure our fellow citizens that the election judges on the job, at the individual polling places, are serious about the importance of their work and that they took joy in doing the job the right way.  I can also assure you that both the polling process and those working on site are dedicated to allowing for each and every qualified citizen to vote.  It is a great, and dare I say, satisfying process.

Even as the day wore on and we all began to sag a bit in body, there was never a let down in spirit or determination to do things correctly, by the book, and in compliance with the law.  It may surprise a voter who has not had this opportunity to know the meticulous way that the process unfolds. Maryland uses paper ballots that are electronically scanned.  There are three ways that they can be counted and compared and the paper ballots are retained in case of a recount or an anomaly in the electronic tabulation.   There are written procedures followed meticulously that include keeping track of each and every ballot, with double and triple checks and balances and total chain of custody requirements.  Every scrap of paper (ballots, multiple forms for record keeping, and polling material) are accounted for, catalogued and returned to the Board of Elections.  Every two years, these workers take time off from school, work, retirement or whatever to serve their fellow citizens and to help them through the process. It was a good sign for the future of our nation.

Equally gratifying was to work with and observe the voters that came into our precinct to vote.  Just as the workers represented a cross-section of our nation, so did the voters in every way imaginable. That includes the processes to ensure the visually impaired, physically challenged, and just about every other condition imaginable was able to cast their ballot.  Uniformly, the voters were cheerful, excited about exercising their right to vote (even if not uniformly excited about the campaigns themselves), and demonstratively appreciative of the work being done by us at the polling place.  In a particularly memorable way, whenever a young person came in and was identified as a first time voter, the judge working with them would announce it to the rest of us and all of the judges (there were about twelve of us) would shout and clap in congratulations.  The smiles on those first time voters when we did that was priceless.  In a campaign season that did not always highlight the best of our nation, it was exciting and refreshing to see that the voters, our neighbors, were understanding of how little acts of courtesy and kindness can transform a situation.

As we move forward into somewhat uncharted territory in our nation’s history, my hope is that the values, spirit and cooperation that I observed on election day continue as we move on to the next great adventure in our national life.

 


Cold War II

Lost in all of the U.S. presidential campaign news, one may be forgiven for missing the increasingly worrisome activity in northern Europe where the Russian bear is flexing his muscles.  While there have been numerous incidents of Russian military ships and aircraft harassing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other friendly nations’ aircraft and vessels, especially in and near the Black Sea, some of the most provocative have occurred in and around the Baltic Sea.

The number of incidents began to increase in the spring of 2014 and through out the rest of that year there were approximately nineteen serious or high risk incidents including a massive Swedish Navy search for a Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago and simulated bombing and cruise missile attacks against NATO countries as well as exercises perceived to be practice for invading the Baltic States. Throughout 2015 and 2016 there have been numerous additional close encounters with the Russian military, precipitated by the Russians and interpreted to be deliberate provocations.  This includes this past April when two Russian military aircraft flew a simulated attack 30 feet over the guided missile destroyer USS Donald (DDG-75) while in international waters.  A few days later Russian fighters intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over international waters in the Baltic. And the (very long) list of such provocations goes on.

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, at the height of the cold war, such incidents were frequent, and dangerous. In order to prevent misunderstandings which could lead to bloodshed and possible conflict, the United States and Soviet Union formulated the Incidents At Sea Agreement, signed by Secretary of the Navy John Warner, and his Soviet counterpart Admiral Sergei Gorshkov.  By providing specific protocols when U.S. and Soviet ships and aircraft were in proximity to each other it was designed to “enhance mutual knowledge and understanding of military activities; to reduce the possibility of conflict by accident, miscalculation, or the failure of communication; and to increase stability in times of both calm and crisis.”  Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of much of its military back to the homeland, there was very little need for the agreement and it ceased to be useful.  It may be time to update it and renew it.

The real question, however, is what is going on?  Why are the Russians resuming their provocative maneuvers against NATO and other western powers?  The answer may be found in one of two names, or more likely a combination of two names:  Vladimir Putin and Ukraine.  Putin wants to rebuild the Russian Empire and by that we mean that he is looking for good old-fashioned respect as a world and military power.  The incidents are meant to remind the West that he is the major player in his part of the world and that he can (and may?) do whatever he desires.  To paraphrase the old adage, “Russia is back!”  In 2005 he made a major speech to the Russian people where he is translated as saying:

“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”

Remember that this was a large part of his justification for entering Ukraine and in annexing the Crimea. He argues that he is protecting Russian citizens and “ethnic” Russians and thus fulfilling his duties as head of the Russian state.  During the time of the Soviet Union, many now independent nations around the periphery of the old Soviet Union were “colonized” by Russians and many also settled there for economic and other reasons.  They and their descendants remain.

This background is important in understanding the current state of affairs in the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — and to a slightly lesser degree, Poland.  The Baltic States were part of the Soviet Union and Poland was part of the Warsaw Pact dominated by the Soviet Union.

Geographically they are at a strategic disadvantage.  A look at a map reveals two important features. One is that between Poland and Lithuania is a part of the Russian state called Kaliningrad, a major Russian military outpost.  Second is that the border between Russia and Poland and the Baltic States is mostly flat ground with no significant defensible geographic features that would impede a ground attack from rolling across the border and deep into the country under attack.

I had the pleasure of making a short stop in Tallinn the capital of Estonia recently.  The people are very friendly, full of energy and eager to see their new nation become integrated into world affairs. They are also well aware that only a short time ago they were occupied by the Germans and then subjugated by the Russians as one of the republics of the Soviet Union.  They became an independent nation in March 1990 despite resistance to their independence by the Russians.  Their history is very fresh in their in minds and if they doubt the impact Russia can have on their new nation, they are reminded of it every day.  Directly across from their parliament building sits the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral built in the late 1800’s  as a Russian Orthodox cathedral during the time of Estonia’s inclusion in the Russian Empire.  It was part of the Russification efforts underway at the time to assimilate the Estonians. It purposefully occupies the most prominent position in the Old Town on top of a bluff above the town. Although it fell into decay during the Soviet era, it was beautifully restored in recent years but is still considered by many Estonians to be a symbol of Russian oppression.  It should also be noted that while Estonians consider themselves to be culturally different from Russians, approximately 25% of the population is Russian.

Needless to say, the combination of Putin’s desire to regain the “empire” coupled with his actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea makes the Russian military provocations in the Baltic area very meaningful to those that live there.  The Baltic States and Poland are among the twenty-eight members of NATO.  And that’s where it starts to get interesting.

Earlier this month, President Obama and the other heads of state met at a NATO summit in Warsaw. Many topics were covered ranging from Afghanistan to Ballistic Missile Defense to ISIS.  But a major topic, the one capturing the attention of those following it closely, was a key decision concerning the Baltic area.  For several years now, the United States and other members have rotated troops and fighter wings through the Baltic States as a reminder to Russia that NATO has a stake in their continued independence.  At this year’s summit, those provisional deployments were made firmer.  In response to Russian provocations, the NATO members decided to deploy ground forces (four battalions) on a rotating basis, but always there, in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland.  Additionally, air and naval forces will conduct periodic training in and near the area.  The point is much the same as our stationing of troops in West Germany during Cold War I.  Should the Russians make a move on one of these states, they will need to go through NATO forces to do it and thus risk war.  To be clear, the numbers of NATO forces there are a drop in the bucket and would not meaningfully impede a Russian advance.  They are there as a symbol of resolve.  Under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty (the creation of NATO) an attack on one member is considered an attack on all.  It is the principal of collective defense that has helped to keep the peace in Europe and provided the foundation for a period of economic and political stability that has lasted for roughly seventy years.  The first time in the history of NATO that Article 5 was invoked was following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.

The idea of collective defense coupled with the military capability and political will to back it up has been the cornerstone of American foreign policy since World War II.  There was never any doubt about the U.S. commitment to NATO and our allies.  It served as a major block to Soviet adventurism in Cold War I and is a serious warning to Putin’s adventurism as Cold War II begins to build.  Never a doubt.  Until now.

In a foreign policy interview published by the New York Times on 21 July, Mr. Donald J. Trump (R-Manhattan) threw that commitment into doubt.  You can read it for yourself using the link, but here is part of that interview:

SANGER: I was just in the Baltic States. They are very concerned obviously about this new Russian activism, they are seeing submarines off their coasts, they are seeing airplanes they haven’t seen since the Cold War coming, bombers doing test runs. If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?

TRUMP: I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do. I have a serious chance of becoming president and I’m not like Obama, that every time they send some troops into Iraq or anyplace else, he has a news conference to announce it.

SANGER: They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obligated ——

TRUMP: We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.

SANGER: That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.

TRUMP: You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.

SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——

TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.

HABERMAN: And if not?

TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.

Regardless to say, this created a high level of anxiety throughout the capitals of our allies and seriously casts into doubt the viability of collective defense.  To be effective, Article 5 has to be an article of faith for every member and for every potential opponent.  Otherwise, it has little meaning.  As Cold War II develops, I’m sure Vladimir Putin was celebrating.

 


Taxation Without Representation

The title of this piece is the same as the motto that for years can be found on the license plates of vehicles registered in Washington D.C.  Most tourists, when they recognize it, are startled to see it and often ask about it, thus the reason for it being there in the first place.  The answer, however, while simple in response — “the District has no voting representatives in the Congress” — is far less simple in the context of the current political world.

To many D.C. residents, last Tuesday’s Democrat presidential primary in the District was symbolic of their plight in the modern United States.  While afforded the opportunity to vote for one of the nominees (Hillary Clinton won, while Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) won the Republican primary held in March), their votes were the last in the nation and of no significance since the nomination had already been decided.

It may be useful to put things in a quick historical context.  As we all learned in elementary school, Washington became the new capital city for the newly created United States.  Created by Congress through passage of the Residence Act in July 1790, the city’s location was the result of a compromise hammered out between Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton.  The Constitution (Article I, Section 8) already provided for a federal district that was not a part of any state and that would be governed by the Congress.  Maryland and Virginia each donated land along the Potomac River that created a square-shaped jurisdiction and included the existing cities of Georgetown on the Maryland side, and Alexandria on the Virginia side.  In 1846 Congress returned Virginia’s donated land to the state (a complicated story in itself but it has to do with slaves as well as the city of Alexandria, and the fact that all federal buildings were constructed on the Maryland side) creating the current District’s size and shape.

For most of their history, D.C. residents had no say over how their city was governed.  The first significant change came in the early 1960’s with the ratification of the Twenty-third Amendment to the Constitution which gave the District three electoral college votes for president.  The votes are allocated according to population, but regardless, cannot exceed the number of votes allotted to the least populous state.

In 1973, Congress passed the District of Columbia Home Rule Act that allowed for the citizens of the city to elect a mayor and 13 Council members.  The first mayor was elected in 1975.

What is the significance of this brief history lesson?  Well, because of these cases and others, some legal scholars argue that, starting with the return of Virginia’s portion of the District, the Congress undid many elements of the original Constitution, thus setting a precedent that the District should be allowed home rule.

Here’s the real rub.  The District’s citizens resent that Congress over rides many of the laws that they pass within the Council or via referendum among the citizens.  Often, they are undone by conservative members of Congress that, according to many of the District’s citizens, use D.C. as a personal lab to push conservative causes that they cannot get done in their home state or in the Congress.  Additionally, when Congress is gridlocked, the District suffers because their budget, just like the Defense Department or the State Department is held hostage during the negotiations, making it difficult to run the city because even though they have the money (their own money, they argue) unless Congress authorizes them to spend it, they are not able to do so.

This is relevant today, as another major battle is brewing between the District’s government and Congress.  While D.C. supposedly has home rule, they must have their budget approved by Congress . This year the city government says that while they will submit it to Congress for review, they will not wait for approval and will spend the $13 billion dollars as they see fit. That budget breaks down to $4 billion in federal taxes and $7 billion in local property, sales, and other taxes.  (In the past, Congress would block spending on items or issues of which they did not approve. They also control all of the funds, including those through local taxes.) It is, as the Washington Post observed, essentially a Declaration of Independence by the city.  The Congress is not amused.  It may be a fight that D.C. cannot win, with threats of contempt of Congress and possible jail time for the mayor and Council.  Such activity directly in spite of Congress is deemed un-Constitutional.  In a vote in late May, the House voted to nullify the District’s voter approved measure to give themselves autonomy over their own city’s spending.

The real issue of course is whether or not Washington D.C. should become the fifty-first state.

Primarily, the desire of an increasing number of the city’s citizens is for autonomy in creating budgets and taking legislative actions, and gaining voting representation in Congress, just like the “other” states — 67% of voters in D.C. want statehood according to a poll last fall. (Currently the District has one representative or “delegate” in the House but that person cannot vote on legislation.)

The behind the scenes issue is that Washington D.C. voters are primarily Democrats and that giving the District two Senators and a member of Congress would add to the numbers of Democrats in those two legislative bodies.

As argued by the proponents of statehood, and delineated in the Post, Washington D.C. is not an economically backward city dependent on the federal government for its income.  For example:

  • The D.C. economy is bigger per capita than 16 states.
  • The D.C. budget is less reliant on federal funds than are those of 30 states.
  • D.C is actually a “donor state” along with states such as New York, Massachusetts, and California that pay more in federal taxes each year than the receive in services from the federal government.
  • D.C. has a larger population than Vermont and Wyoming.
  • Large portions of the city pay no local taxes as they are federally owned (Capital, White House, monuments, etc.) or are owned by tax-exempt entities.
  • D.C. has its own National Guard unit and its citizens serve in the Armed Forces of the United States without a say in how such forces are used.
  • Most federal workers live in Maryland or Virginia, paying no taxes in D.C., while the city has to bear the expenses of providing services (police, fire, sewer, etc.) to those workers.

The list goes on and on.  Washington D.C. has its share of arguments as to why it should become the fifty-first state.  And yet, there is that pesky little document called the Constitution.

Personally, I do not think that Washington D.C. should become a state.  However, clearly a compromise of some sort that gives the citizens of D.C. some say in their own, and their nation’s affairs should be reachable.  Past efforts at compromise have failed, mainly for political reasons that have little to do with city politics or policies and more to do with wielding power in the Congress.

Other proposals include giving the land back to Maryland and thus D.C. would have two Senators (Maryland’s) and gain representation in the House based on population.  Unfortunately, Maryland does not want to regain the city and the District does not want to join Maryland.

My thought is that D.C. is on the right track.  Allow the city to manage its own fiscal and legislative affairs, just like any other governmental entity in our country.  Make the “delegate” a voting member of the House and add (or subtract) Representatives based on population and the current census used to draw up representation in the House.  No representation in the Senate.

The original creation of Washington D.C. was a compromise.  It seems that a reasonable compromise is attainable in the twenty-first century so that all of our nations’ citizens have some form of representation in designating how their tax dollars will work.


Protecting First Amendment Rights

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

— First Amendment to the Constitution

I must admit that I am somewhat baffled by the string of new laws passed by various state legislatures pretending to protect religious beliefs as they pertain to same-sex marriage and to the LGBT community. Rightfully, several governors vetoed the work done in their legislatures, but others did not and signed them into law.  Taking it one step further, Tennessee passed a law making the Bible the official state book. (As of this writing, it is unclear whether the governor will veto or sign the bill.) In most, if not all, of these cases, legislators claim that religion is under attack.  In fact, they really mean that in their view, conservative Christianity is under attack.  If they felt that “religion” was under attack they would decry Mr. Donald Trump’s and Senator Ted Cruz’s (R-Texas) proposals to ban all Muslims from entering the United States and to spy on those already here.  That is certainly a threat to Muslims practicing their religion.

So why do they feel that way?  The short answer is that I cannot pretend to know what is in their hearts. I will say this, however. I am a practicing Catholic with close ties to my local parish and in no way do I feel that my religion or my ability to practice it is in any kind of danger.  And Catholics know something about being discriminated against for their religion. Without going into a lengthy history lesson, let me remind you that Catholics in most of the original thirteen colonies were widely discriminated against, especially in matters of property, voting or holding office.  Even after the Revolution many of them had prohibitions against Catholics holding office, or requirements for them to denounce their religion before they could hold office. Other religions were equally mistreated.  With the ratification of the Constitution in 1789, freedom of religion as provided in the First Amendment became the law of the land, but it did not preclude suspicion and  intolerance of Catholics which carried into the Twentieth Century and included anti-Catholic criminal acts by the Ku Klux Klan. Some of that sentiment was a carry over from the Reformation.  Much of it centered on immigrants, especially from Germany and Ireland.  Other manifestations centered on a belief that American Catholics, if given a chance, would turn the country over to the Pope in Rome.  In my lifetime I remember the anti-Catholic sentiment directed at John F. Kennedy as he ran for president leading him to make a major speech that certified his loyalty to the United States rather than to the Pope.  There is more, but you get the idea.

So, yeah, I will say it again, I know a little something about “attacks on religion” and I most definitely do not feel that I am under attack.

I do feel that the separation of church and state ratified in the Constitution is under attack. State legislators, and those that support them, seem to feel that the government is forcing them to do something evil by treating LGBT folks as they themselves would want to be treated.  I will say up front, again, that I do not know what is in their hearts or the sincerity of their beliefs, I just fail to see the logic behind the idea that if one serves a same-sex couple a cake that one will then burn in hell. Just like I am not a Constitutional scholar, I am also not a theologian, but I have read the Bible (cover to cover — not bragging, just saying most people I know only read excerpts of it) and I do not see anything about serving cakes to same-sex couples.  I also do not understand the belief that by doing so, one condones the same-sex marriage.  By serving divorced people does one condone divorce?  By serving atheists does one condone atheism?  Of course not, especially since there is nothing to condone, condemn or otherwise get one’s knickers in a knot over.  It’s nobody’s business.

Some argue that the real issue is “protecting” young girls from predatory men in bathrooms. Thus the laws state that one must use the bathrooms designated for use based on one’s birth sex. Besides wondering how that will be enforced, because there is no use in passing a law if it will not be enforced (bathroom police?  which gives a whole new meaning to “drop ’em mister”), I see that issue as a smoke screen to hide much more ominous provisions of those laws that can lead directly to unabashed discrimination under the claim of religious freedom.

The heart of the First Amendment regarding religion is the Establishment Clause.  As interpreted and accepted as law, it is not only the idea that the government cannot establish an official religion, but also that it cannot pass any law that favors one religion over another and cannot pass laws that favor religion over non-religion or vice versa.  In that context, laws created ostensibly to allow religious tolerance can easily become religious intolerance laws as they push the tenets of one religion over others.

I also do not buy the “slippery slope” arguments used by some.  Serving cake to a same-sex couple is not going to result in the eventuality of the government forcing clergy to marry everyone or anyone in their community.  We will have much bigger problems to contend with prior to reaching that point.  It isn’t going to happen.

It seems that in the context of civility and mutual respect that we could survive in a “live and let live” world without having to pass laws over who does or does not get served based on one’s personal religious beliefs. Discrimination is discrimination, however one tries to justify it.

Same-sex marriage is now a reality in the United States and other countries.  With the Supreme Court decision in 2015 in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, same-sex marriages receive equal protection under the law. One may agree or disagree with the decision, but it is what it is and efforts to circumvent the decision by using state laws under the cover of religious tolerance is in my view an abuse of power, and I suspect, will also be shown to be un-constitutional.

I try to understand the real motivation behind such laws.  I am sure there are many that are truly concerned from a religious stand point.  (Which of course assumes that LGBT people are not religious, which is no more true than that all straight people are religious.)  More probably, I think that some of the legislators are really trying to score political points with their constituents.  By that I do not mean that they have listened to the religious concerns of those constituents.  I think instead they are really reacting to what they consider an “out of control” federal government and Supreme Court. They are really trying to show that they will not “tolerate” directions from a “godless” Obama administration.  And they have succeeded — they are ably demonstrating just how intolerant they are.