‘Tis The Season

For another war, because why not? The ones the last Republican President started are going so well.

Earlier this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that he was ready to start talks with North Korea without precondition. “We’ll talk about the weather if you like,” he said. He omitted the part about their having to give up their nuclear weapons and missiles first. But then his own spokesperson undercut him.

North Korea is making some signs that they would be open to discussions of – something – but definitely not giving up their nukes. So Tillerson’s offer was well-timed. But others in the administration, likely including National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, have something else in mind. The problem is that nobody knows what it is.

A number of Washington-based nuclear experts on my Twitter timeline say that the administration seems determined to strike North Korea preventively. That’s likely a war crime, but let that go for now. Dan Drezner is worried, and Joshua Pollack lays it out in a tweet thread. Selected tweets from that thread:

Lindsay Graham is beating the war drums. “Time is running out.” On whose timetable? In the 1950s, his arguments were made on hitting the Soviet Union to prevent them from getting a nuclear arsenal. In the 1960s, it was China. While it would be pleasant for us if they didn’t have nuclear weapons, we’ve all managed to live together for the past 60 years or so. We’ll manage with North Korea too.

It’s possible that the war talk is designed to convince China to magically fix things with North Korea. But they can’t. The US administration doesn’t seem to understand that.

If North Korea is attacked, it will devastate Seoul with conventional artillery. That’s been true for many decades, so Graham and McMaster should know that. Japan would probably take some hits too. My guess is that North Korea still doesn’t have a lot of nuclear-armed missiles deployed, but how about just a couple on Seoul, three on major cities in Japan, and one or two on the US West Coast? That could be pretty ugly, and dropping a bunch of nukes on North Korea wouldn’t bring back those millions of people. The scenario is worked out in more detail here and here.

Meanwhile, Nikki Haley is doing a Colin Powell to convince us that war with Iran is a good idea.

As badly as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have gone, war with North Korea or Iran would be worse. While you’re calling Congress to stop the tax plan, you might want to say that you wish Congress would hold hearings on administration plans for war against North Korea.



Not A Puppet!

Today’s essential read on Trump and Russia is in the Washington Post, by Greg Miller, Greg Jaffe, and Philip Rucker.

Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump continues to reject the evidence that Russia waged an assault on a pillar of American democracy and supported his run for the White House.

The result is without obvious parallel in U.S. history, a situation in which the personal insecurities of the president — and his refusal to accept what even many in his administration regard as objective reality — have impaired the government’s response to a national security threat. The repercussions radiate across the government.

The piece frames Trump’s reaction to Russia as an outcome of his ego needs to believe that he and he alone won the election bigly and his wishful thinking that he and Putin, working together, could solve the world’s problems. That’s fair enough, and those two factors are certainly sufficient to produce the effects reported – the biggest of which is that Presidential daily briefings have to be tailored to avoid irritating the Master on the subject.

But a great many people around Trump, including Donald Junior, who testified another nine hours to Congress yesterday, have had extensive contacts with Russia, so it appears there is more there. The question is “What did the President know, and when did he know it?”

Lots of tidbits in the piece. Trump thought Fiona Hill, one of his competent advisors on Russia, was a clerk and got angry at her when she didn’t act like one, with H.R. McMaster compounding the problem by admonishing her. He took a leak during his pre-briefing for his meeting with Angela Merkel. His obsession with NATO as a protection racket continues.

He’s got it half right – we could do a lot of good if we could work with Russia. But that can’t come at the cost of ignoring the load of bad Russia’s doing now.

Update: Here’s a good companion piece by James Goldgeier about Republicans and Russia.

If Trump were a realist, he would be seeking to deal with Russia from a position of strength, not looking to accommodate Putin from the get-go.  If he were a neoconservative, he would be pressing Putin on his abysmal human rights record. Instead, he is praising Putin for being strong and being tough. And it is unimaginable that any other president would have merely accepted Putin’s denial of election interference and moved on.

So why hasn’t the GOP spoken up? Yes, there are occasional remarks by Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey O. Graham suggesting Donald Trump is getting hoodwinked by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose efforts working with the Trump campaign to swing the 2016 presidential race are under daily scrutiny.

For the most part, however, GOP voters and GOP elites have shrugged off behavior that would have led to outrage in the past. Since it is hard to imagine that a Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or even John Kasich would have been this accommodating of Putin, is the party of Ronald Reagan really prepared to become the party of Trump on foreign policy, especially in America’s relations with Russia?


Russiagate Open Thread: Cue the Theme from Jaws

It looks to me like you’ve got a consummate professional demonstrating that he’s running a thoroughly professional operation, not a GOP-style dog & pony show for the rubes. Any Trump associates / excusers weren’t scared of this man before this, have been informed. Politico, Tuesday:

Moving forward on the Mueller-protection bills is an “absolutely necessary” step after the guilty plea by Michael Flynn, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in an interview. “They need to be combined into one, and I think we have bipartisan agreement about it.”

Blumenthal is a co-sponsor of the stronger of the two Mueller-shielding bills, from Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), which would require the attorney general to seek a federal court’s approval before removing a special counsel. Booker said Tuesday that he is “having great bipartisan conversations” with Graham as well as Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Chris Coons (D-Del.), whose version of the legislation would allow Mueller to seek judicial review of a firing after it occurs…
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Open Thread: Is Putin Not As Omniscient As He (We) Would Like to Pretend?

Hope this clip plays correctly, because (Russian expat & smart journalist) Julia Ioffe’s theories about Russia are… not quite the same as those we usually tell ourselves. She says Russia’s success at interfering in America’s last election has led to “a certain amount of buyer’s remorse”; that Putin is “really a short-term thinker”, and that the Russia government’s penchant for “three-dimensional chess” most closely resembles the social mechanisms of a bunch of teenage boys. Cutting corners because you feel you *have* to cheat is not how a powerful, secure oligarch / nation behaves…

Here’s an August Icarus backgrounder NYMag just reposted — “How Bryan Fogel Accidentally Documented the Russian Olympic Doping Scandal”:

When director Bryan Fogel set out to make his jaw-dropping, absolutely insane doping documentary, Icarus, he didn’t know that he’d walk away with exclusive footage of what may go down as the biggest scandal in the history of sport. He was an amateur cyclist and second-time filmmaker in Los Angeles with a harebrained idea to try out doping himself, and do it on camera — kind of like Super Size Me of performance-enhancing drugs. He got his PEDs from an American doctor (they’re the same drugs used in controversial men’s anti-aging regimens), but had to look elsewhere for a scientist with a questionable moral compass who’d coach him in how to dope and get away with it. Fate brought him to a jolly, mustachioed guy in Russia with a penchant for shirtless Skype sessions. A guy who happened to be Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov. What Fogel didn’t know when he went to Moscow to trail his new friend around with a camera was that he’d wind up inside Russia’s national “anti-doping” laboratory, which was really a front for Russia’s state-run program to juice its Olympic athletes — with alleged ties to Vladimir Putin — of which Rodchenkov happened to be the chief architect.
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The President’s Remarks on the Status of Jerusalem Live Feed

Here’s the live feed for the President’s remarks on the status of Jerusalem. What you’re going to want to watch and listen for is how he frames the specific portions on the status of Jerusalem. Does he call it Israel’s undivided capital? Only the capital of Israel? Or just the capital of Israel? In other words is there some nuance in his statement that keeps the final status of Jerusalem viable diplomatically.

Updated at 1:25 PM EST

The President made two very clear statements about both freedom of religion and access to religious sites in Jerusalem. Even more specifically he stated that Muslims must have access to the al Aqsa Mosque and stating that access for Muslims to the Harem al Sharif must be preserved.

My take away from the speech is that he’s going to continue to sign the waivers to keep the US embassy to Israel in Tel Aviv until an embassy can be built in Jerusalem in accordance with the 1995 law that recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He made a very clear statement that beginning the planning for moving the embassy should not infringe on final status issues between the Israelis and Palestinians. This includes the final status of Jerusalem vis a vis the Israelis and Palestinians.

What needs to be understood is that no matter how nice the speech sounded, nor the nuance and clarity I highlighted above, is that the President’s statements and actions on the status of Jerusalem is completely disconnected from the reality on the ground. Despite seeming to reinforce the US policy preference for a two state solution, by changing US policy and embracing the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act he has undercut the US’s preference for a two state solution by preemptively dealing with the issue of Jerusalem.

This decision and the President’s remarks ignore just how fragile the status quo is in Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. It also ignores the vast minutiae across dozens of categories and sub-categories that have to be negotiated and agreed to before the big ticket items like the final status of Jerusalem can even be considered. Today’s decision places the cart before dozens of horses.

Finally, forget about who started what when. Forget about who did what to whom in the 19th or early 20th Centuries. Right now, today, the Israelis hold all the leverage and power in the relationship with the Palestinians. The Palestinians have three options: 1) acquiesce and remain forever in socio-political and ethno-national limbo, 2) make a good faith effort via a peace negotiation to get the best deal they can get and then live with it as the best that could be gotten, or 3) revolt. The first option is not viable or acceptable. The second only works if the Israeli leadership is willing to make a good faith effort to negotiate a settlement, which the current leadership isn’t. The third is violent self help.

The only things the Palestinians have to trade for a negotiated peace agreement and their own state is an intangible: peace. This isn’t trading land for land or resources for land or even money for land. It is about the Israelis who control the land being willing to give some of it up, as well as the administrative control over it, to the Palestinians in exchange for an intangible concept.

We’re once again back to something akin to Bernard Fall’s remarks about civic action:

Civic action is not the construction of privies or the distribution of anti-malaria sprays. One can’t fight an ideology; one can’t fight a militant doctrine with better privies. Yet this is done constantly. One side says, “land reform,” and the other side says, “better culverts.” One side says, “We are going to kill all those nasty village chiefs and landlords.” The other side says, “Yes, but look, we want to give you prize pigs to improve your strain.” These arguments just do not match. Simple but adequate appeals will have to be found sooner or later.

Simple but adequate appeals indeed…

Wednesday Morning Russiagate Open Thread: “Follow the Money”


Paul Waldman, in the Washington Post:

This may turn out to be no big deal — perhaps Mueller will find that all Trump’s transactions with Deutsche Bank were aboveboard and free of any funny business, and also that nothing he discovers there will lead to evidence of any other misconduct on Trump’s part… But the fact that Mueller is looking at Deutsche Bank means his probe is reaching the very heart of Trump’s financial life.

Why is Deutsche Bank so important? After a string of bankruptcies and broken promises, pretty much every other major bank stopped lending Trump money some years ago. The one exception was Deutsche Bank, to which Trump owed $364 million as of the end of last year. By sheer coincidence, Deutsche Bank recently had to pay $670 million in fines for its role in a Russian money laundering plot (though as Bloomberg reports, the bank’s internal investigation found no link between Trump and that scheme).

At this point, we don’t know exactly what Mueller is looking for in the Deutsche Bank records. Law professor Ryan Goodman suggests that Mueller could be trying to determine if Trump’s loans from the bank were guaranteed by Russian interests, which could mean he was indebted to them in ways that could compromise him.

What we do know is that the Russia investigation has led Mueller to Trump’s personal finances, which provide a target-rich environment if you suspect financial malfeasance…

… In that tweet about Flynn, Trump closes by saying, “There was nothing to hide!” That has indeed been a consistent line from Trump himself, the White House and the president’s defenders: nobody did anything wrong, all the contacts with Russians were just routine, and there’s nothing to hide.

But if that’s the case, why do so many Trump associates keep getting caught lying about Russia?

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The Status of Jerusalem

The Consulate General in Jerusalem is actually the US’s oldest diplomatic outpost. It was originally the US embassy, for lack of a better term, to the Sublime Porte as the Ottoman central government was known. It now functions as the US diplomatic mission to the Palestinians. So before anything else does or does not happen tomorrow, there already is, and has been for over 200 years, a US embassy in Jerusalem.

Before I lay out the various reporting, let me provide my bottom line up front”

It is absolutely silly to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and/or move the US Embassy to Israel to Jerusalem in exchange for nothing. It is poor strategy, it is bad policy, it is a pointless and ultimately self defeating tactic, and it is diplomatically backwards. The reason the US hasn’t moved it’s embassy to Israel to Jerusalem and/or recognized Israel as Jerusalem’s capital isn’t just the security concerns. It is because either of these potential changes in US policy are most effectively used as motivational carrots to cajole the Israelis into negotiating in, if not good faith, then better faith. Unilaterally giving these to the Israelis removes very valuable and effective leverage from the US’s diplomatic tool kit.

1) If the President does recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, I expect violence.

2) If he announces we’re moving the embassy to Jerusalem, I expect a new intifada, not just three days of rage. And how the Israelis respond, will determine just how bad the protests, three days of rage, and/or a new intifada are.

3) Regardless of 1 or 2 if the proposed peace plan that is being reported on is actually announced in 2018 and it is anywhere close to what is being reported on, which has been Netanyahu’s default preference since at least 2014, I expect a new intifada. But it won’t stop there. ISIS and al Qaeda will look to leverage this, as well as broad Arab and Muslim anger over it, to increase recruitment, justify, and expand operations. But not just in the Middle East. You’ll see an attempted expansion/expansion of ISIS and al Qaeda activities in Central and Southeast Asia, Africa, Europe, and the US. The US led Coalition against ISIS in Iraq and Syria will be at increased jeopardy as a result of this.

4) 1 will be bad, 2 will be worse. 3 is going to be a huge honking nightmare. Between what we think/is likely to happen tomorrow and the leaked details of the Saudi backed, US proposed peace plan Mahmoud Abbas has no room to maneuver. The potential/proposed peace plan will be dead on arrival. There will be an increase in violence within and across the region that will spread. And the US’s growing isolation as a diminished influence in the region and within the global system will be accelerated. And the friends of Bibi’s that are handling the US peace proposal efforts for the President are only going to accelerate Israel’s isolation from the allies it’s made in the Arab and Muslim world and from both the EU and the states that it represents.

Noga Tanorpolsky, who does a lot of reporting regarding Israel, has been covering the Schroedinger’s cat back and forth on what tomorrow’s announcement may or may not actually include. She starts with the practical reality that the President clearly indicated he was going to do recognize Jerusalem as Israelis capital and, most likely, also move the US Embassy to Israel.

Then accurately recognizing the reality TV angle that the President likes to take:

Before letting the snark flow freely:

We still don’t actually know exactly what the President is going to announce tomorrow. I’ve seen reporting that indicates he is going to announce that Jerusalem is Israel’s, and only Israel’s, capital. I’ve seen other reporting that he’s just going to announce that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and leave the only part out. And the reporting also seems to include that the President may announce that he is both going to move the embassy some time in the future (which is not news as he’s been saying this for two years) and that he’s also given instructions to figure out the details involved. So we will have to wait and see just what is announced tomorrow and how bad things may get.

The State Department, and, apparently the Department of Defense are trying to stay out of the line of fire on this whole issue.

And the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas are on the same page.

Ha’aretz reports that the President’s expected announcement is uniting not just the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, but all the other states in the region, as well as the EU and Russia in their opposition to his expected decision and announcement.

Abdullah also warned Trump of the decision’s repercussions on Middle East security and stability. Abdullah pledged he would thwart any American initiative to renew the peace process and would encourage resistance among Muslims and Christians alike.

King Salman told Trump that transferring the embasy is a dangerous step that will inflame feelings of Muslims.

Following their conversatisons with Trump, Abdullah and Abbas reportedly spoke and decided to act in complete coordination following Trump’s decision.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that if Trump goes ahead with the decision, Turkey will cut diplomatic ties with Israel. He added that Jerusalem is “a red line for Muslims.” Israel responded that “Jerusalem has been the Jewish capital for 3,000 years.”

Egypt has warned of “possible dangerous repercussions” if U.S. President Donald Trump follows through on plans to recognize contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Arab League Chief Ahmed Abdoul Gheit said Tuesday that any step changing Jerusalem’s status quo would be a “dangerous measure that would have repercussions” throughout the Middle East. He encouraged Trump to reconsider his decision.

EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said that any action would undermine a two-state solution, and must be avoided.

German and French leaders also expressed concern at Trump’s potential decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. French President Emmanuel Macron said the Jerusalem issue must be dealt with “in the framework of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”

Now we wait and see just how badly the US is going to shoot itself in the foot.