Blowhard on the Brink

As shocking as it is to write this sentence, it must be said: Donald Trump did something right.

He finally noticed the abyss once he was right on top of it, calling off a retaliatory strike on Iran after belatedly learning, he said, that 150 people could die.

“I didn’t like it,” Trump told Chuck Todd. “I didn’t think it was proportionate.”

And thank God — and Allah — that he stumbled out just as he stumbled in.

It’s breathtaking that Washington’s conservative foreign policy mandarins would drag us back into Mideast quicksand when we haven’t even had a reckoning about the lies, greed, self-interest and naïveté that led U.S. officials to make so many tragic mistakes in the region.

We sweep in with oblivious swagger, with most Americans not knowing the difference between Shiites and Sunnis, assuming we’re going to swiftly kick butt in an asymmetrical cakewalk. And then we end up stalemated and playing into our enemies’ hands, with hundreds of thousands dead and $5.9 trillion bill for the post-9/11 wars — not to mention that Trumpworld has ended up deeper in the murderous House of Saud’s embrace.

The president blundered into the crisis by canceling the Iranian nuclear deal, tweet-taunting about the “end of Iran” and hiring the hirsute Iran warmonger John Bolton. And our president is such a mercurial blowhard, he could screw it all up again before this column even hits The Times home page.

I’ve been at this treacherous juncture before with presidents. Once the gears in Washington get going, once the military-industrial complex is “cocked & loaded,” once the hawks around you begin Iago-whispering that if you don’t go forward, you’ll be unmanned, it’s awfully hard to reverse course.

Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld steamrollered W. into the forever war in Iraq by playing on his fears of being a wimp if he pulled back once the Pentagon had moved troops, carriers, covert agents and B-2 bombers into the Persian Gulf. The Saudis told W. that Saddam was not sitting on a cache of W.M.D.s, and was simply blustering like any Arab despot would, but W. dreaded being labeled a wimp, as his father had been in his first presidential campaign.

By Friday morning, Republicans were already painting Trump as a scaredy-cat and Iran as a feral cornered cat.

Representative Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois and Iraq war veteran, told MSNBC that the idea we could now negotiate with Iran “has the potential of inviting a look of weakness.”

Cheney came back to haunt us in the form of his dagger-tongued daughter Liz, the Wyoming House member, who said Trump’s inaction “could in fact be a very serious mistake.” She lobbed the nastiest insult she could think of, comparing Trump to Barack Obama.

Even “Fox & Friends,” which can always be counted on to fluff Trump’s ego, raised doubts. Brian Kilmeade warned: “North Korea’s watching. All our enemies are watching.”

But maybe something new could work with the impossible child-man in the White House: positive reinforcement.

That was very smart, Mr. President, not to tangle with the Persians, who have been engaged in geopolitics since 550 B.C., until you have a better sense of exactly what is going on here. Listen to your isolationist instincts and your base, not to batty Bolton. You don’t want to get mired in a war that could spill over to Saudi Arabia and Israel, sparking conflagrations from Afghanistan to Lebanon and beyond.

Just remember: The Iranians are great negotiators with a bad hand and you are a terrible negotiator with a good hand.

Trump told Todd that he thought the Iranians shot down a $130 million drone to get his attention because they wanted to talk. (Like when a little kid flicks a paper airplane at your head, but more expensive.) A rare case of Trump’s bloated ego working to our advantage.

It is not hard to imagine Bolton and Mike Pompeo conjuring a Tonkin specter, with a drone or U.S. plane buzzing Iranian airspace to provoke Iran to respond, so we can start a war. It’s also not hard to imagine the two uber-hawks doing this without Trump understanding what’s going on. And it’s certainly easy to think that Trump might not be leveling with us about how this went down.

At least, unlike W. — another underinformed president — Trump is not a captive of the neocons. He has outside advisers, after all: Fox News anchors.

It’s hard to believe that the man standing between us and another world war is Tucker Carlsonlate of “Dancing With the Stars.”

But we must count on Carlson, who, The Daily Beast reported, has been calling Trump directly to counteract Sean Hannity, who has been cheerleading on air for a strike, threatening Iran: “You’re going to get the living crap bombed out of you.”

Carlson is pointing out something that Trump needs to hear: “The very people — in some cases, literally the same people who lured us into the Iraq quagmire 16 years ago — are demanding a new war, this one with Iran.” He compared the warped intelligence Bush officials used to justify the 2003 Iraq invasion with the “misplaced certainty” exhibited by Pompeo over iffy evidence that Iran attacked a pair of oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

Carlson also cogently noted that Bolton is goading Trump because, for him, a war with Iran would “be like Christmas, Thanksgiving, his birthday wrapped into one.”

Donald “I always attack back … except 100x more” Trump has always been a faux tough guy. In this case, the faux caused a pause — and that was a good thing.

The Coming Sino-American Bust-Up

Whether or not US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, agree to another truce at the upcoming G20 summit in Osaka, the Sino-American conflict has already entered a dangerous new phase. Though a negotiated settlement or a managed continuation of the status quo are possible, a sharp escalation is now the most likely scenario.

NEW YORK – The nascent Sino-American  is the key source of uncertainty in today’s global economy. How the conflict plays out will affect consumer and asset markets of all kinds, as well as the trajectory of inflation, monetary policy, and fiscal conditions around the world. Escalation of the tensions between the world’s two largest economies could well  a global recession and subsequent financial crisis by 2020, even if the US Federal Reserve and other major central banks pursue aggressive monetary easing.
Much, therefore, depends on whether the dispute does indeed evolve into a persistent state of economic and political conflict. In the short term, a planned meeting between US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, at the G20 Summit in Osaka on June 28-29 is a key event to watch. A truce could leave tariffs frozen at the current level, while sparing the Chinese technology giant Huawei from the crippling sanctions that Trump has put forward; failure to reach an agreement could set off a progressive escalation, ultimately leading to the balkanization of the entire global economy.

JAW-JAW OR WAR-WAR?

. On the trade front, the US wants China to buy more American goods, reduce tariff and non-tariff barriers, open more financial and service sectors to foreign direct investment, and commit to maintaining currency stability and transparency with respect to foreign-exchange data.

On technology, the US is demanding that China strengthen intellectual-property protections, cease making the transfer of technology to Chinese firms a condition of market entry for US (and other) companies, and crack down on corporate cyber espionage and theft. A temporary deal could include any of the above, with the US offering medium-term (through the end of 2020, and possibly longer) exemptions to Chinese tech firms that use US components, semiconductors, and software. This would leave Huawei severely constrained, but not dead in the water.

The second possibility is a full-scale trade, tech, and cold war within the next 6-12 months. In this scenario, the US and China would adopt rapidly diverging positions after failing to successfully restart negotiations (with or without a truce). The US would follow through with import tariffs – starting at 10% but increasing to 25% – on the remaining $300 billion worth of Chinese goods that have so far been spared. And the Trump administration would pull the trigger on Huawei and other Chinese tech firms, barring them from purchasing components and software from US companies.

China, meanwhile, would take steps to protect its economy through macro-level stimulus, while retaliating against the US through measures that go beyond tariffs (such as expelling American firms). Huawei might survive within the Chinese market, but its growing global business would effectively be crippled, at least for the time being.

Beyond trade and technology, this scenario also implies increased geopolitical and military tensions. The possibility of some type of conflict over the East and South China Seas, Taiwan, North Korea, Xinjiang, Iran, or Hong Kong could not be ruled out.

Finally, in the third scenario, China and the US would fail to reach a deal on trade and technology, but they would forego rapid escalation. Instead of plunging into a total trade and technology war, the two powers might ratchet up their conflict more gradually. The US would impose new tariffs, but keep them at 10%, while renewing only temporarily exemptions that allow Huawei and other Chinese firms to continue purchasing key US-made inputs, while retaining the option of pulling the plug on Huawei at its discretion. Negotiations could continue, but the US would essentially hold a veto over Huawei’s bid to develop 5G and other key technologies of the global economy. Given that Trump could suddenly pull the plug on the company whenever it suits him, China’s leaders would probably abstain from blatant full-scale retaliation, but would still intervene to minimize the economic damage.

THE GOLDILOCKS OPTION…

The third scenario is the most likely for now, because China is playing a waiting game until November 2020, to see if the US elects a more even-keeled president. Even with a truce, therefore, any negotiations that are relaunched after the G20 summit will probably drag on indefinitely, with no real signs of progress. In the meantime, the Trump administration will want to apply additional pressure on China, while keeping its options open. Better, then, to start with a 10% tariff on that remaining $300 billion worth of exports. The US could always hike the rate to 25%, but at the risk of raising the costs of goods that many of Trump’s own lower-income voters rely on.

SUMMIT SIGNALS

Where does that leave us? If both Xi and Trump find the third scenario attractive, neither will be willing to meet halfway on a deal. That makes the second scenario – a full-scale trade and technology war – the most likely outcome, given that a controlled escalation is inherently unstable.

As matters stand, the probability of a deal eventually being reached is low (my colleagues and I put it at just 25%). Still, we will know more after the G20 summit later this month. If Trump and Xi fail to broker a truce or a temporary agreement regarding Huawei, the US will probably follow through with 10% tariffs on the remaining $300 billion worth of Chinese exports. We will then be in the initial stages of the third scenario.

On the other hand, if Trump and Xi hold a friendly meeting and agree to a truce, the US will probably withhold new tariffs, and we will be in the early stages of the first scenario. This would make the probability of the two sides reaching a deal slightly higher. But a lurch to the third scenario – a precipitous escalation of the current confrontation – would still be more likely, followed eventually by a descent into a full-scale conflict. Where it will end is anyone’s guess, but an escalating trade and tech war is, in my view, more likely than an eventual deal.

Robert Reich: Trump’s Brand is Ayn Rand

Robert Reich explains why Ayn Rand’s ideas have destroyed the common good.

Donald Trump once said he identified
with ayan rands character Howard Roark
in The Fountainhead an architect so
upset that a housing project he designed
didn’t meet specifications
he had it dynamited others in Trump
Circle were influenced by Rand Atlas
Shrugged was said to be the favorite
book of Rex Tillerson Trump Secretary of
State’s Randa also had a major influence
on Mike Pompeo from CIA chief Trump’s
first nominee for Secretary of Labor
Andrew Posner said he spent much of his
free time reading Rand the Republican
leader of the House of Representatives
Paul Ryan
required his staff to read Rams I grew
up reading Iran it inspired me so much
that it’s required waiting in my office
for all my interns of my staff Uber’s
founder and former CEO Travis kalanick
has described himself as a ran follower
before he was sacked he applied many of
her ideas to obras code of values and
even used the cover art for rands book
The Fountainhead as his Twitter avatar
so who is iron Rand and why does she
matter line Rand best known for two
highly popular novels still widely read
today The Fountainhead
published in 1943 an Atlas Shrugged
in 1957 didn’t believe there was a
common good she wrote that selfishness
is a virtue an altruism an evil that
destroys nations when Rand offered these
ideas they seemed quaint
if not far-fetched anyone who lived
through the prior half-century witnessed
our interdependence through depression
and war and after the war we used our
seemingly boundless prosperity to
finance all sorts of public goods
schools and universities a national
highway system and health care for the
Aged and poor we rebuilt war-torn Europe
we sought to guarantee the civil rights
and voting rights of African Americans
we open doors of opportunity to women
of course there was a common good we
were living it
but then starting in the late 1970s
rands views gained ground she became the
intellectual godmother of modern-day
American conservatism this utter
selfishness this contempt for the public
this win at any cost mentality is it
roading American life without adherence
to a set of common notions about right
and wrong we’re living in a jungle where
only the strongest cleverest and most
unscrupulous get ahead and where
everyone must be wary in order to
survive this is not a society it’s not
even a civilization because there’s no
civility at its core it’s a disaster in
other words we have to understand who I
am Rand is so we can reject her
philosophy and dedicate ourselves to
rebuilding the common good the idea of
the common good was once widely
understood and accepted in America I
mean after all the US Constitution was
designed for We the People seeking to
promote the general welfare not for me
the selfish jerk seeking as much wealth
and power as possible yet today you find
growing evidence of its loss

  • CEOs who
    couch their customers loot their
    corporations into fraud investors
  • lawyers and accountants who look the
    other way when corporate clients play
    fast and loose
  • who even collude with
    them to skirt the law
  • Wall Street
    bankers who defraud customers and investors
  • film producers and publicists
    who choose not to see that a powerful
    movie mogul they depend on is sexually
    harassing and abusing young women
  • politicians who take donations really
    bribes from wealthy donors and corporations to enact laws their patrons
    want or
  • shudder the government when they
    don’t get the partisan results they seek
    and a
  • president of the United States who
    repeatedly lies about important issues
    refuses to put his financial holdings
    into a blind trust and then personally
    profits off his office and Momence
    racial and ethnic
    conflict the common good consists of our
    shared values about what we owe one
    another as citizens or bound together in
    the same society a concern for the
    common good keeping the common good in
    mind is a moral attitude it recognizes
    that we’re all in it together if there
    is no common good
    there is no society

Trump Isn’t Just Reversing Obama’s Foreign Policies. He’s Making it Impossible for His Successor to Go Back to Them.

Who says the Trump administration doesn’t know what it’s doing in the Middle East?

Sure, there’s plenty of confusion, diplomatic malpractice and dysfunction in Trumpian foreign policy. But on two critical issues it is deadly functional: The administration is focused like a laser beam on

  1. irreversibly burning U.S. bridges to Iran and
  2. administering last rites to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And if you look at the administration’s actual policies, it’s clear they aren’t just meant to overturn President Barack Obama’s actions, but also to create points of no return—so that successor administrations cannot revert to past approaches even if they want to. If the administration succeeds—and it’s well on its way to doing so—it will have fundamentally damaged U.S. national interests for years to come.

The administration has now done a complete about-face. Whatever Trump’s personal inclinations to prove he’s the world’s greatest negotiator on Iran, his hard-line advisers, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton, want to get rid of the mullahs who rule the Islamic Republic, not engage them. Pompeo and Bolton are now pulling out all the stops not only to provoke Iran into withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—and maybe into a fight as well—but to block a successor from engineering either a broader geopolitical pivot toward Iran or to engage in diplomacy to resolve outstanding U.S-Iranian differences. The administration’s Monday announcement that it will end all waivers of sanctions on countries still importing Iranian oil fits this pattern of relying on coercion and intimidation rather than diplomacy. As for Israel, whatever the president’s personal views on Israeli-Palestinian peace (and during the campaign they were more balanced than they are today), Jared Kushner and his team now seem hellbent on producing a “made in Israel” peace plan that will be dead before arrival and drive the final nail in the coffin of a peace process that is already on life support.

Last year, Pompeo laid out 12 extreme demands that Tehran would have to meet before the Trump administration would agree to re-engage with Iran. The demands would have required Iran to give up all its rights under the JCPOA and to stop pursuing what Tehran sees as its legitimate interests in the region—for example, helping to stabilize Iraq and supporting the government of Adil Abdul-Mahdi to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq. This diktat was swiftly and angrily rejected by the Iranian government.

No amount of economic or diplomatic pressure the U.S. brings to bear on Tehran will force it to knuckle under to these orders. But the administration’s fantastical demands have established a standard that will be used to judge any future nuclear agreement a Democratic, or different kind of Republican, administration might negotiate with Iran, which will almost certainly require both U.S. and Iranian compromises. That means a president who fails to meet these standards will be accused of appeasement, making compromise as well as domestic support for a new agreement far more difficult. The administration is not just killing the Iran nuclear deal; it’s stopping it from coming back to life.

The administration’s decision to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a Foreign Terrorist Organization is also willfully and unnecessarily confrontational, and once done, given the hardcore, militant and enduring nature of the IRGC, it will be nearly impossible to undo. A successor administration, if it did try to undo the designation, would find itself vulnerable to the charges of enabling state-sponsored terrorism. The move will strengthen hard-liners in Iran who oppose accommodation with the U.S. and weaken those elements within the country which favor improved relations with America, who will now have no choice other than to remain silent or close ranks behind the IRGC, further diminishing opportunities for future engagement and diplomacy with Iran. Empowered hard-liners will crack down even more harshly on Iranians who want less political oppression, greater respect for human rights, and more political and civil liberties. All these results were no doubt intended by Pompeo and Bolton, and work together with the economic warfare the administration is waging against Iran, which is aimed at provoking internal unrest inside the country that could ultimately lead to a toppling of clerical rule. The imposition of the total embargo on Iranian oil exports, if successful, will inflict even more economic misery on the Iranian people, hardening the perception that the U.S. government is an enemy not only of the ruling regime but also of the Iranian people—an attitude that will make it harder to ratchet down hostility toward America in the future.

In what would deliver the final coup de grace to any normalization of future U.S.-Iranian relations, Pompeo and Bolton are doing everything they can to goad Iran into a military conflict with the U.S.There is a growing risk that U.S. forces and Iranian IRGC units and Iranian-backed militias could stumble their away into an unintended conflict, especially in Iraq or Syria but also in Yemen, where the administration’s unstinting support for the Saudi Arabia’s inhumane and ineffectual military campaign against the Iranian-backed Houthis risks further provoking Houthi missile attacks on the Kingdom, creating a pretext for the Trump administration to come to the Kingdom’s defense.

There are a number of steps the U.S. could take to mitigate the risks of an unintended conflict with Iran. But the administration has failed to create diplomatic or operational arrangements for communications and crisis management with Iran, suggesting that its goal is not to prevent such a conflict but to deliberately provoke one. And predictably, the IRGC designation has met with a hostile Iranian response: The Iranian Majlis (parliament) has declared every American soldier in the Middle East a terrorist. Thousands of U.S. military personnel are now wearing targets on their backs. Because they operate in close proximity to IRCG units and Iranian-backed militias in Syria and Iraq, the odds have increased dramatically that there will be some kind of confrontation with a high risk of escalation. In other words, U.S. actions have helped set the stage for a U.S.-Iranian conflict that could rule out reconciliation for many more years.

A less confrontational relationship with Iran isn’t this administration’s only casualty. It is also doing all it can to kill and bury the long-standing policy of seeking a two-state solution to achieve a conflict-ending settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Over the past year, the administration has waged a relentless campaign of economic and political pressure against the Palestinians—

  1. closing the PLO office in Washington,
  2. withdrawing U.S. assistance from the U.N. agency that supports Palestinian refugees and
  3. cutting aid to the Palestinian Authority.

While the details of the Kushner plan have been shrouded in secrecy for over a year, the way his team has operated and leaks to the media suggest a plan that gives priority to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politics and needs—one that is reportedly heavy on economic issues and light on the core issues of

  1. Jerusalem,
  2. borders,
  3. refugees and
  4. Palestinian statehood.

Since at least the mid-1990s, both Democratic and Republican administrations have been committed to a two-state solution with a return of the majority of the West Bank to the Palestinians—based on borders from before Israel’s 1967 seizure of that territory—and a physically undivided Jerusalem hosting capitals of both states.But the Trump administration has reversed almost 20 years of U.S. policy by even refusing to unequivocally and consistently endorse the concept in principle of a two-state solution. Trump did support the idea in September 2018. But since then, the administration has dropped the concept and, even worse, delegitimized it. Last week, the Washington Post reportedthat the words Palestinian state are unlikely to appear in the Kushner plan. Even more telling, testifying before Congress last week, Pompeo refused to endorse Palestinian statehood as the goal of U.S. policy.

Even if the words “two-state solution” were uttered, the administration’s view of the Palestinian state is clearly a far cry from the size and contiguity that any Palestinian leader could accept as part of a deal. In this way, the Trump administration’s policies don’t just roll back the very idea of a meaningful two-state solution and push the Palestinians further away from engaging seriously in negotiations leading to a settlement. They also, in aligning so closely with Netanyahu’s vision, make a deal much less likely in future.

For example, the administration’s gratuitous decision—untethered from any U.S. national interest—to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and open an embassy there

  • inflicted serious damage on U.S. credibility as a mediator,
  • marginalized the Palestinian Authority as a key U.S. interlocutor, and
  • subordinated U.S. policy toward the Palestinians to U.S. policy toward Israel.

The administration’s treatment of Jerusalem has drawn a clear hierarchy: Israel’s needs are indisputable and sacred, Palestinian needs are negotiable and worldly. The prospects for a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem are now more remote than ever: With continuing Israeli efforts to formalize their control over all of Jerusalem and the presence of more than 300,000 Israelis living there, it’s hard to imagine there will be either political or territorial space for the establishment of a real Palestinian capital.

The other long-standing diplomatic assumption—that settlement activity would be constrained during the period of negotiations andthat 70 to 80 percentof West Bank settlers who are in blocs close to the 1967 lines would be incorporated into Israel proper in exchange for ceding other land to Palestinians—has been undermined by an administration that has no intention of cutting a deal that would leave Palestinians in control of the majority of the West Bank. Indeed, theadministration has virtually erased the concept of the 1967 lines by enabling and greenlighting the expansion of settlement activity and unilateral Israeli actions on the ground without protest or the imposition of any redlines, not just on the West Bank but in Jerusalem as well. In March 2017, Israel announced the creation of a new settlement in the West Bank, the first in decades. After an initial drop during 2017, settlement construction activity increased 20 percent in 2018.

There is zero chance that any Palestinian leader—let alone one as weak and constrained as Mahmoud Abbas—will accept these conditions on the ground as part of a deal. And speculation is even growing that Netanyahu could use Palestinian rejection of the Kushner plan to outright annex portions of the West Bank.

That’s another area where the administration has done major damage. The Trump administration’s announcement on the eve of the recent Israeli election that it recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights—a decision that was untethered from any logic other than helping to reelect Netanyahu—could portend a U.S. decision to confer similar status onIsrael’s possible decision to annex parts of the West Bank. The administration has refused to challenge Netanyahu’s statement that in a defensive war Israel can keep what it holds. And last week, Pompeo, responding to a reporter’s question, refused to criticize Netanyahu’s statement about annexing West Bank settlements.

Once annexed, there will be no possibility of any solution that involves separating Israelis and Palestinians, thereby condemning them both to live in a one-state reality that is a prescription for unending conflict and violence. In the cruelest of ironies, the administration’s plan to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could extinguish any hope of a diplomatic solution to separate Israelis and Palestinians, and instead guarantee perpetual conflict.

So if the chances of the plan’s success are slim to none, especially in light of the recent Israeli election and the emergence of a very right-wing government, why launch it? The answer is obvious: We believe the administration has defined success in other ways. With zero chance of getting an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, the administration’s real end game is to fundamentally alter U.S. policy toward the conflict and to do everything possible to raise the odds that no successor can reverse the new ground rules. And there may be no time better than now. Listen to U.S. Ambassador David Friedman—a key influencer of the administration’s policy—at last month’s AIPAC conference: “Can we leave this to an administration that may not understand the need for Israel to maintain overriding security control of Judea and Samaria and a permanent defense position in the Jordan Valley?” he asked. Can we run the risk that one day the government of Israel will lament, ‘Why didn’t we make more progress when U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of President Trump, Vice President Pence, Secretary Pompeo, Ambassador Bolton, Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt, and even David Friedman?’ How can we do that?”

The goal isn’t just to drive a stake through the peace process but to ensure that America’s traditional conception of a two-state solution won’t rise from the dead.

Why couldn’t a new administration truly committed to engaging Iran and pushing forward on a two-state solution simply return to traditional policies? We cannot rule this out; but this possibility faces very long odds, particularly if the Trump administration is in charge until 2024.

Even under normal circumstances with a committed and highly skilled administration, Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are excruciatingly difficult issues even to manage, let alone resolve. Success depends on leaders America can’t control who have conflicting interests and their own domestic constraints and, in the case of Iran, on bitterly suspicious adversaries; the issues are politically radioactive for all parties and perceived to be existential, too. And the longer these conflicts persist the more entrenched attitudes become and options for progress contract. Indeed, time is an enemy not an ally; and even under the best of circumstances, any number of deal breakers are always present. In its own inimitable way, the administration is well on its way to hanging “closed for the season” signs on both improving relations with Iran and on a two-state solution and, sadly, irreversibly damaging American credibility and national interests in the process.