As usual, the president makes his predecessors look better.
Suppose you’re the type of smart conservative reluctantly inclined to give Donald Trump a pass for his boorish behavior and ideological heresies because you like the way the economy is going and appreciate the tough tone of his foreign policy, especially when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism.
These last few weeks haven’t exactly validated your faith in the man, have they?
.. The president has abruptly undermined Israel’s security following a phone call with an Islamist strongman in Turkey. So much for the idea, common on the right, that this is the most pro-Israel administration ever.
.. Contrary to the invidious myth that neoconservatives always put Israel first, the reasons for staying in Syria have everything to do with core U.S. interests. Among them: Keeping ISIS beaten, keeping faith with the Kurds, maintaining leverage in Syria and preventing Russia and Iran from consolidating their grip on the Levant.
.. Powers that maintain a reputation as reliable allies and formidable foes tend to enhance their power. Powers that behave as Trump’s America has squander it.
.. But leave that aside and consider the Trump presidency from a purely Israeli standpoint. Are Israelis better off now that the U.S. Embassy is in Jerusalem? Not materially. The move was mostly a matter of symbolism, albeit of an overdue and useful sort. Are Israelis safer from Iran now that the U.S. is no longer in the Iran deal and sanctions are back in force? Only marginally. Sanctions are a tool of strategy, not a strategy unto themselves.
.. What Israel most needs from the U.S. today is what it needed at its birth in 1948: an America committed to defending the liberal-international order against totalitarian enemies, as opposed to one that conducts a purely transactional foreign policy based on the needs of the moment or the whims of a president.
.. From that, everything follows. It means that the U.S. should not
- sell out small nations — whether it was Israel in 1973 or Kuwait in 1990 — for the sake of currying favor with larger ones. It means we should
- resist interloping foreign aggressors, whether it was the
- Soviets in Egypt in the 1960s, or the
- Russians and Iranians in Syria in this decade. It means we should
- oppose militant religious fundamentalism, whether it is
- Wahhabis in Riyadh or Khomeinists in Tehran or Muslim Brothers in Cairo and Ankara. It means we should
- human rights,
- civil liberties, and
- democratic institutions, in that order.
Trump has stood all of this on its head.
He shows no interest in pushing Russia out of Syria. He has neither articulated nor pursued any coherent strategy for pushing Iran out of Syria. He has all but invited Turkey to interfere in Syria. He has done nothing to prevent Iran from continuing to arm Hezbollah. He shows no regard for the Kurds. His fatuous response to Saudi Arabia’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi is that we’re getting a lot of money from the Saudis.
He speaks with no authority on subjects like press freedom or religious liberty because he assails both at home. His still-secret peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians will have the rare effect of uniting Israelis and Palestinians in their rejection of it
.. If you think the gravest immediate threat to Israel is jihadist Hezbollah backed by fundamentalist Iran backed by cynical Russia, the answer is no.
.. If you think the gravest middle-term threat is the continued Islamization of Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan — gradually transforming the country into a technologically competent Sunni version of Iran — the answer is no.
.. If you think that another grave threat to Israel is the inability to preserve at least a vision of a future Palestinian state — one that pursues good governance and peace with its neighbors while rejecting kleptocracy and terrorism — the answer is no.
And if you think that the ultimate long-term threat to Israel is the resurgence of isolationism in the U.S. and a return to the geopolitics of every nation for itself, the answer is more emphatically no.
World War I and the adversarial mentality.
It’s the eternal argument. When you are fighting a repulsive foe, the ends justify any means and serve as rationale for any selfishness.
Dax’s struggle is not to change the war or to save lives. That’s impossible. The war has won. The struggle is simply to remain a human being, to maintain some contact with goodness in circumstances that are inhumane.
Disillusionment was the classic challenge for the generation that fought and watched that war. Before 1914, there was an assumed faith in progress, a general trust in the institutions and certainties of Western civilization. People, especially in the educated classes, approached life with a gentlemanly, sporting spirit.
As Paul Fussell pointed out in “The Great War and Modern Memory,” the upper classes used genteel words in place of plain ones: slumber for sleep, the heavens for the sky, conquer for win, legion for army.
The war blew away that gentility, those ideals and that faith in progress. Ernest Hemingway captured the rising irony and cynicism in “A Farewell to Arms.” His hero is embarrassed “by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression, in vain.” He had seen nothing sacred in the war, nothing glorious, just meaningless slaughter.
.. European culture suffered a massive disillusion during the conflict — no God, no beauty, no coherence, no meaning, just the cruel ironic joke of life. Cynicism breeds a kind of nihilism, a disbelief in all values, an assumption that others’ motives are bad.
Fussell wrote that the war spread an adversarial mentality. The men in the trenches were obsessed with the enemy — those anonymous creatures across no man’s land who rained down death. “Prolonged trench warfare, whether enacted or remembered, fosters paranoid melodrama,” he wrote.
The “versus habit” construes reality as us versus them — a mentality that spread through British society. It was the officers versus the men, and, when they got home, the students at university versus the dons.
George Orwell wrote that he recognized the Great War mentality lingering even in the 1930s in his own left-wing circles — the same desire to sniff out those who departed from party orthodoxy, the same retelling of mostly false atrocity stories, the same war hysteria. As Christopher Isherwood put it, all the young people who were ashamed of never having fought in the war brought warlike simplicities to political life.
.. Some of the disillusioned drop out of public life, since it’s all meaningless. But others want to burn it all down because it’s all rotten. Moderation is taken for cowardice. Aggression is regarded as courage. No conciliatory word is permitted when a fighting word will do.
Today we face no horrors equal to the Great War, but there is the same loss of faith in progress, the reality of endless political trench warfare, the paranoid melodrama, the specter that we are all being dehumanized amid the fight.
The Times podcast focuses less on Gingrich’s style and more on his use of so-called “wedge issues.” Times columnist Jennifer Senior interviews Republican former congressman Vin Weber about how the GOP “exploited” American differences on cultural issues such as partial-birth abortion and gay marriage to help hand them their first majority in two generations.
But it turns out that “wedge issue” is just another word for “popular position.” In the early 1990s, there wasn’t a meaningful electoral constituency for gay marriage. There wasn’t much public support for partial-birth abortion. By bringing up cultural issues, the Republicans not only gave voice to millions of Americans who had deep concerns about the cultural direction of the country, but also exposed divisions in the Democratic coalition.
Gingrich’s Contract with America (you can read it here) was extensively poll-tested to present only promises that had overwhelming public support. Gingrich was a political street fighter, yes, but he was playing a very strong political hand. Congress was overdue for serious change.
.. it’s hard to argue that he “broke politics” when the GOP House and the Clinton administration worked together to enact significant legislation.
.. What? The president of the United States (a man who is almost certainly a sexual predator, by the way) had an affair with an intern in the Oval Office and lied about it under oath. He lied to the American people. He conducted a systematic smear campaign against his accusers and his investigators. None of this was Newt Gingrich’s fault.
.. It is absolutely worth profiling Gingrich and considering his role in American politics — including the undeniable part he’s played in American polarization. Some of his tactics have absolutely been destructive. But the diagnosis here is just fundamentally wrong.
.. Did Newt Gingrich “break” American politics more than Roe v. Wade did? Do progressives know or care about the shock waves Ted Kennedy’s “Bork’s America” speech sent rippling through conservative America? Lest you need reminding, here is the key part of that vile text:
Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.
But for progressives, Roe is good and Bork is bad, and so a bit of sloppy judicial reasoning or rhetorical excess is but a trifling compared to the worth of the broader cause. It’s the arc of history bending towards justice, and that’s not always neat or clean.
But he’s not the first president to foolishly place his trust in the Russian despot.
President Trump did get one thing right on Monday in Helsinki: Vladimir Putin did make an “incredible offer.”
.. But he’s not the first president to foolishly place his trust in the Russian despot.
President Trump did get one thing right on Monday in Helsinki: Vladimir Putin did make an “incredible offer.”
.. having the indictment, they must have calculated, would strengthen Trump’s hand in the confrontation.
.. Of all the president’s mind-boggling utterances at the press conference, I found this the most stunning.
.. One hoped that Trump’s election would end Obama’s hallmark depictions of moral equivalence between America and thug countries. Yet here’s how the president, at the start of his term, defended Putin when Bill O’Reilly called him a “killer”: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, you think our country is so innocent?”
.. when has this president ever been restrained by a presidential norm?
.. the most alarming part of the presser was the palpable satisfaction the president took in describing Putin’s “incredible” proposal. Trump is desperate to show that his entreaties to the Russian despot — amid the “collusion” controversy and against the better judgment of his skeptical advisers and supporters — could bear real fruit. It made him ripe to get rolled.
.. The proposal to invite Mueller to Moscow brought to mind others who’ve tried to investigate Putin’s regime on Russian soil. There is, of course, Sergei Magnitsky, who exposed the regime’s $230 million fraud only to be clubbed to death with rubber batons in a Russian prison — Putin said he must have had a heart attack.
.. Then there is Nikolai Gorokhov, a lawyer for the Magnitsky family who has been investigating regime involvement in the fraud. He was slated to testify in a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit against Prevezon, a company controlled by Putin cronies that is implicated in the fraud. But then, somehow, Gorokhov “accidentally” fell from the fourth-floor balcony of a Moscow apartment building.
.. Truth be told, the prospect of hosting Mueller’s investigators in his accident-prone country interests Putin less than the “reciprocity” he has in mind.
.. This is classic Putin. The former KGB agent takes every Western misstep as a precedent, to be contorted and pushed to maximum advantage. As we’ve observed over the years, for example, the Kremlin has rationalized its territorial aggression against former Soviet satellites by relying on U.S. spearheading — over Russian objections — of Kosovo’s secession from Serbia.
.. While positing lip-service denials that he meddled in our 2016 election, Putin implies that we had it coming after what he claims was Obama-administration interference in Russia’s 2011 parliamentary elections
.. if our government does not see how Russia (like other rogue nations) is certain to exploit the precedent the Justice Department has set by indicting foreign officials for actions taken on their government’s behalf, we are in for a rude awakening
.. Naturally, Putin expects us to help him investigate Bill Browder. If you think the word “collusion” makes Trump crazy, try uttering the word “Browder” around Putin
.. the Russian dictator repeated his standing allegation that Browder and his associates have evaded taxes on over a billion dollars in Russian income. He further claimed that “they sent a huge amount — $400 million — as a contribution to the campaign of Hillary Clinton.” While this is outlandish, it reminds us of the purported dirt on Mrs. Clinton that Putin’s operatives sought to peddle to the Trump campaign in June 2016.
.. Natalia Veselnitskaya reportedly told Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort that Browder was involved in a tax-evasion scheme that implicated Clinton donors. This, she urged, was information that could be used to damage the Clinton campaign. Ms. Veselnitskaya also rehearsed the Kremlin’s rant against the Magnitsky legislation.
.. at least as far as what is publicly known, the Trump Tower meeting remains the closest brush that Trump has had with “collusion” — the narrative (indeed, the investigation) that has dogged his presidency. It is astonishing that the president would allow Putin to manipulate him into reviving that storyline.
.. Memo to DOJ: Expect Russia to issue indictments and international arrest warrants soon — as Putin said, it’s all about “reciprocity.”.. The “incredible offer” that Putin hit Trump with — and that Trump was palpably thrown by — was not woven out of whole cloth. Did you know that the United States and the Russian Federation have a bilateral mutual-legal-assistance treaty? Yeah, it was negotiated by the Clinton administration and ratified by the Bush administration. The MLAT calls for us to cooperate when the Putin regime seeks to obtain testimony, interview subjects of investigations, locate and identify suspects, transfer persons held in custody, freeze assets — you name it... It’s part of our government’s commitment to the notion that the law-enforcement processes of a constitutional, representative republic dedicated to the rule of law can seamlessly mesh with those of a gangster dictatorship whose idea of due process is deciding which nerve agent — polonium or novichok — is the punishment that fits the “crime.”
.. It enables Putin to pose as the leader of a normal, law-abiding regime that just wants to help Bob Mueller out and maybe ask Bill Browder a couple of questions — preferably out on the balcony.
- Clinton joined with Russia in an agreement to . . . wait for it . . . protect Ukraine.
- Bush looked Putin in the eye, got a “sense of his soul,” and found him “straightforward and trustworthy” — so much so that
- his State Department regarded Russia as a “strategic partner” that was going to help us with Iran (by helping it develop nuclear power!) .
- . . while Russia annexed parts of Georgia.
- Then came Obama’s “Russia Reset” — more “partnering” on Iran,
- ushering Moscow into the World Trade Organization,
- signing off on the Uranium One deal (and let’s not forget that cool $500,000 Russian payday for Bill Clinton and all those millions flowing into the Clinton Foundation) . . .
- while Russia backed Assad and the Iranian mullahs,
- annexed Crimea,
- stoked civil war in eastern Ukraine, and
- conducted cyber attacks on our election system.