Trump’s Wag-the-Dog War

The president is looking for a dangerous domestic enemy to fight.

Some presidents, when they get into trouble before an election, try to “wag the dog” by starting a war abroad. Donald Trump seems ready to wag the dog by starting a war at home. Be afraid — he just might get his wish.

How did we get here? Well, when historians summarize the Trump team’s approach to dealing with the coronavirus, it will take only a few paragraphs:

“They talked as if they were locking down like China. They acted as if they were going for herd immunity like Sweden. They prepared for neither. And they claimed to be superior to both. In the end, they got the worst of all worlds — uncontrolled viral spread and an unemployment catastrophe.

“And then the story turned really dark.

“As the virus spread, and businesses had to shut down again and schools and universities were paralyzed as to whether to open or stay closed in the fall, Trump’s poll numbers nose-dived. Joe Biden opened up a 15-point lead in a national head-to-head survey.

“So, in a desperate effort to salvage his campaign, Trump turned to the Middle East Dictator’s Official Handbook and found just what he was looking for, the chapter titled, ‘What to Do When Your People Turn Against You?’

“Answer: Turn them against each other and then present yourself as the only source of law and order.”

America blessedly is not Syria, yet, but Trump is adopting the same broad approach that Bashar al-Assad did back in 2011, when peaceful protests broke out in the southern Syrian town of Dara’a, calling for democratic reforms; the protests then spread throughout the country.

Had al-Assad responded with even the mildest offer of more participatory politics, he would have been hailed as a savior by a majority of Syrians. One of their main chants during the demonstrations was, “Silmiya, silmiya” (“Peaceful, peaceful”).

But al-Assad did not want to share power, and so he made sure that the protests were not peaceful. He had his soldiers open fire on and arrest nonviolent demonstrators, many of them Sunni Muslims. Over time, the peaceful, secular elements of the Syrian democracy movement were sidelined, as hardened Islamists began to spearhead the fight against al-Assad. In the process, the uprising was transformed into a naked, rule-or-die sectarian civil war between al-Assad’s Alawite Shiite forces and various Sunni jihadist groups.

Al-Assad got exactly what he wanted — not a war between his dictatorship and his people peacefully asking to have their voices heard, but a war with Islamic radicals in which he could play the law-and-order president, backed by Russia and Iran. In the end, his country was destroyed and hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed or forced to flee. But al-Assad stayed in power. Today, he’s the top dog on a pile of rubble.

I have zero tolerance for any American protesters who resort to violence in any U.S. city, because it damages homes and businesses already hammered by the coronavirus — many of them minority-owned — and because violence will only turn off and repel the majority needed to drive change.

But when I heard Trump suggest, as he did in the Oval Office on Monday, that he was going to send federal forces into U.S. cities, where the local mayors have not invited him, the first word that popped into my head was “Syria.”

Listen to how Trump put it: “I’m going to do something — that, I can tell you. Because we’re not going to let New York and Chicago and Philadelphia and Detroit and Baltimore and all of these — Oakland is a mess. We’re not going to let this happen in our country.”

These cities, Trump stressed, are “all run by very liberal Democrats. All run, really, by radical left. If Biden got in, that would be true for the country. The whole country would go to hell. And we’re not going to let it go to hell.”

This is coming so straight from the Middle East Dictator’s Handbook, it’s chilling. In Syria, al-Assad used plainclothes, pro-regime thugs, known as the shabiha (“the apparitions”) to make protesters disappear. In Portland, Ore., we saw militarized federal forces wearing battle fatigues, but no identifiable markings, arresting people and putting them into unmarked vans. How can this happen in America?

Authoritarian populists — whether Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland, or al-Assad — “win by dividing the people and presenting themselves as the savior of the good and ordinary citizens against the undeserving agents of subversion and ‘cultural pollution,’” explained Stanford’s Larry Diamond, author of “Ill Winds: Saving Democracy From Russian Rage, Chinese Ambition, and American Complacency.”

In the face of such a threat, the left needs to be smart. Stop calling for “defunding the police” and then saying that “defunding” doesn’t mean disbanding. If it doesn’t mean that then say what it means: “reform.” Defunding the police, calling police officers “pigs,” taking over whole neighborhoods with barricades — these are terrible messages, not to mention strategies, easily exploitable by Trump.

The scene that The Times’s Mike Baker described from Portland in the early hours of Tuesday — Day 54 of the protests there — is not good: “Some leaders in the Black community, grateful for a reckoning on race, worry that what should be a moment for racial justice could be squandered by violence. Businesses supportive of reforms have been left demoralized by the mayhem the protests have brought. … On Tuesday morning, police said another jewelry store had been looted. As federal agents appeared to try detaining one person, others in the crowd rushed to free the person.”

A new Washington Post-ABC News poll, according to The Post, found that a “majority of Americans support the Black Lives Matter movement and a record 69 percent say Black people and other minorities are not treated as equal to white people in the criminal justice system. But the public generally opposes calls to shift some police funding to social services or remove statues of Confederate generals or presidents who enslaved people.”

All of this street violence and defund-the-police rhetoric plays into the only effective Trump ad that I’ve seen on television. It goes like this: A phone rings and a recording begins: “You have reached the 911 police emergency line. Due to defunding of the police department, we’re sorry but no one is here to take your call. If you’re calling to report a rape, please press 1. To report a murder, press 2. To report a home invasion, press 3. For all other crimes, leave your name and number and someone will get back to you. Our estimated wait time is currently five days. Goodbye.”

Today’s protesters need to trump Trump by taking a page from another foreign leader — a liberal — Ekrem Imamoglu, who managed to win the 2019 election to become the mayor of Istanbul, despite the illiberal Erdogan using every dirty trick possible to steal the election. Imamoglu’s campaign strategy was called “radical love.”

Radical love meant reaching out to the more traditional and religious Erdogan supporters, listening to them, showing them respect and making clear that they were not “the enemy” — that Erdogan was the enemy, because he was the enemy of unity and mutual respect, and there could be no progress without them.

As a recent essay on Imamoglu’s strategy in The Journal of Democracy noted, he overcame Erdogan with a “message of inclusiveness, an attitude of respect toward [Erdogan] supporters, and a focus on bread-and-butter issues that could unite voters across opposing political camps. On June 23, Imamoglu was again elected mayor of Istanbul, but this time with more than 54 percent of the vote — the largest mandate obtained by an Istanbul mayor since 1984 — against 45 percent for his opponent.”

Radical love. Wow. I bet that could work in America, too. It’s the perfect answer to Trump’s politics of division — and it’s the one strategy he’ll never imitate.

Biden Should Not Debate Trump Unless …

Here are two conditions the Democrat should set.

I worry about Joe Biden debating Donald Trump. He should do it only under two conditions. Otherwise, he’s giving Trump unfair advantages.

First, Biden should declare that he will take part in a debate only if Trump releases his tax returns for 2016 through 2018. Biden has already done so, and they are on his website. Trump must, too. No more gifting Trump something he can attack while hiding his own questionable finances.

And second, Biden should insist that a real-time fact-checking team approved by both candidates be hired by the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates — and that 10 minutes before the scheduled conclusion of the debate this team report on any misleading statements, phony numbers or outright lies either candidate had uttered. That way no one in that massive television audience can go away easily misled.

Debates always have ground rules. Why can’t telling the truth and equal transparency on taxes be conditions for this one?

Yes, the fact that we have to make truth-telling an explicit condition is an incredibly sad statement about our time; normally such things are unspoken and understood. But if the past teaches us anything, Trump might very well lie and mislead for the entire debate, forcing Biden to have to spend a majority of his time correcting Trump before making his own points.

That is not a good way for Biden to reintroduce himself to the American people. And, let’s not kid ourselves, these debates will be his reintroduction to most Americans, who have neither seen nor heard from him for months if not years.

Because of Covid-19, Biden has been sticking close to home, wearing a mask and social distancing. And with the coronavirus now spreading further, and Biden being a responsible individual and role model, it’s likely that he won’t be able to engage with any large groups of voters before Election Day. Therefore, the three scheduled televised debates, which will garner huge audiences, will carry more weight for him than ever.

He should not go into such a high-stakes moment ceding any advantages to Trump. Trump is badly trailing in the polls, and he needs these debates much more than Biden does to win over undecided voters. So Biden needs to make Trump pay for them in the currency of transparency and fact-checking — universal principles that will level the playing field for him and illuminate and enrich the debates for all citizens.

Of course, Trump will stomp and protest and say, “No way.” Fine. Let Trump cancel. Let Trump look American voters in the eye and say: “There will be no debate, because I should be able to continue hiding my tax returns from you all, even though I promised that I wouldn’t and even though Biden has shown you his. And there will be no debate, because I should be able to make any statement I want without any independent fact-checking.”

If Trump says that, Biden can retort: “Well, that’s not a debate then, that’s a circus. If that’s what you want, why don’t we just arm wrestle or flip a coin to see who wins?”

I get why Republican senators and Fox News don’t press Trump on his taxes or call out his lies. They’re afraid of him and his base and unconcerned about the truth. But why should Biden, or the rest of us, play along?

After all, these issues around taxes and truth are more vital than ever for voters to make an informed choice.

Trump, you will recall, never sold his Trump Organization holdings or put them into a blind trust — as past presidents did with their investments — to avoid any conflicts of interest. Rather, his assets are in a revocable trust, whose trustees are his eldest son, Donald Jr., and Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer. Which is a joke.

Trump promised during the last campaign to release his tax returns after an I.R.S. “audit” was finished. Which turned out to have been another joke.

Once elected, Trump claimed that the American people were not interested in seeing his tax returns. Actually, we are now more interested than ever — and not just because it’s utterly unfair that Biden go into the debate with all his income exposed (he and his wife, Jill, earned more than $15 million in the two years after they left the Obama administration, largely from speaking engagements and books) while Trump doesn’t have to do the same.

There must be something in those tax returns that Trump really does not want the American public to see. It may be just silly — that he’s actually not all that rich. It may have to do with the fact that foreign delegations and domestic lobbyists, who want to curry favor with him, stay in his hotel in Washington or use it for corporate entertaining.

Or, more ominously, it may be related to Trump’s incomprehensible willingness to give Russian President Vladimir Putin the benefit of every doubt for the last three-plus years. Virtually every time there has been a major public dispute between Putin and U.S. intelligence agencies alleging Russian misdeeds — including, of late, that the Kremlin offered bounties for the killing of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan — Trump has sided with Putin.

The notion that Putin may have leverage over him is not crazy, given little previous hints by his sons.

As Michael Hirsh recalled in a 2018 article in Foreign Policy about how Russian money helped to save the Trump empire from bankruptcy: “In September 2008, at the ‘Bridging U.S. and Emerging Markets Real Estate’ conference in New York, the president’s eldest son, Donald Jr., said:

‘In terms of high-end product influx into the United States, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets. Say, in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo, and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.’”

The American people need to know if Trump is in debt in any way to Russian banks and financiers who might be close to Putin. Because if Trump is re-elected, and unconstrained from needing to run again, he will most likely act even more slavishly toward Putin, and that is a national security threat.

At the same time, debating Trump is unlike debating any other human being. Trump literally lies as he breathes, and because he has absolutely no shamethere are no guardrails. According to the Fact Checker team at The Washington Post, between Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, and May 29, 2020, he made 19,127 false or misleading claims.

Biden has been dogged by bone-headed issues of plagiarism in his career, but nothing compared to Trump’s daily fire hose of dishonesty, which has no rival in U.S. presidential history. That’s why it’s so important to insist that the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates hire independent fact-checkers who, after the two candidates give their closing arguments — but before the debate goes off the air — would present a rundown of any statements that were false or only partly true.

Only if leading into the debate, American voters have a clear picture of Trump’s tax returns alongside Biden’s, and only if, coming out of the debate, they have a clear picture of who was telling the truth and who was not, will they be able to make a fair judgment between the two candidates.

That kind of debate and only that kind of debate would be worthy of voters’ consideration and Biden’s participation.

Otherwise, Joe, stay in your basement.

Thomas Friedman, Iraq war booster

The New York Times columnist broke down what the Iraq was really about for Charlie Rose on May 29, 2003.

Jerome Delay/AP
So that’s what that was all about?

At the end of May 2003, America was on the verge of one of its longest-running, most expensive wars in Iraq. Yet Iraq war boosters were feeling vindicated by the swift march on Baghdad, which had fallen within weeks, and the swift collapse of the regime.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a fan of the Iraq war, appeared on Charlie Rose to crow about this rousing success on May 29 2003. The brief clip below from that interview (the full interview can be found here) is a fascinating glimpse into the id of Washington insiders like Friedman before the invasion in March of that year and for the first few months, at least, of what was to prove a long occupation.

He appears to still think it was the right choice. He wrote last June, in a column on Syria, that: “You can’t go from Saddam to Switzerland without getting stuck in Hobbes — a war of all against all — unless you have a well-armed external midwife, whom everyone on the ground both fears and trusts to manage the transition. In Iraq, that was America” and “the only reason Iraq has any chance for a decent outcome today is because America was on the ground with tens of thousands of troops to act as that well-armed midwife, reasonably trusted and certainly feared by all sides, to manage Iraq’s transition to more consensual politics.”

I don’t ever remember a time in my five years in Iraq where the US was generally seen as a trusted “midwife” by a majority, or even a large minority, of people. Whether or not Iraq might have a found a better, less bloody way out from the shadow of Saddam Hussein without an invasion and occupation, is now something forever unknowable.

(I just made the below transcript from the above clip. I’ve omitted most “uhms” and the like, and may have made one or two errors since the audio is a bit compromised):

Rose: “Now that the war is over and there’s some difficulty with the peace, was it worth doing?”

After Russian trolls target black Americans, one city fights back

Friedman: “I think it was unquestionably worth doing Charlie, and I think that looking back that I now certainly feel I understand what the war was about and it’s interesting to talk about it here in silicon valley because I think looking back at the 1990s I can identify there are actually three bubbles of the 1990s, there was the Nasdaq bubble, there was the corporate governance bubble, and lastly there was what I would call the terrorism bubble, and the first two were based on creative accounting and the last two were based on moral creative accounting. The terrorism bubble that built up over the 1990s said flying airplanes into the World Trade Center, that’s Ok. Wrapping yourself with dynamite and blowing up Israelis in the pizza parlour, that’s Ok. Because we’re weak and they’re strong and the weak have a different morality. Having your preachers say that’s Ok? That’s Ok. Having your charities raise money for people who do these kinds of things? That’s Ok. And having your press call people who do these kind of things martyrs? That’s Ok. And that build up as a bubble, Charlie. And 9/11 to me was the peak of that bubble. And  what we learned on 9/11 in a gut way was that bubble was a fundamental threat to our society because there is no wall high enough no INS agent smart enough no metal detector efficient enough to protect an open society from people motivated by that bubble. And what we needed to do was to go over to that part of the world and burst that bubble. We needed to go over there basically uhm, and, uh, uhm take out a very big stick, right in the heart of that world and burst that bubble. And there was only one way to do it because part of that bubble said ‘we’ve got you’ this bubble is actually going to level the balance of power between us and you because we don’t care about life, we’re ready to sacrifice and all you care about is your stock options and your hummers. And what they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad uhm, and basically saying which part of this sentence don’t  you understand. You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go, well suck on this. Ok. That, Charlie, was what this war was about. We could have hit Saudi Arabia. It was part of that bubble. We could have hit Pakistan,  We hit Iraq, because we could. And that’s the real truth. “

What’s maybe most interesting about this bizarre set of views was that they were so commonplace back then. Al Qaeda has hit the United States, so we must hit back at them. Not just at Al Qaeda, or the people who might have directly assisted them, but a much bigger “them:” A whole civilization who had started to loom in the sight of people like Thomas Friedman as an existential threat to America.

Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. The Iraqi people had had nothing to do with 9/11. Were there people there who were delighted to see the US get a bloody nose from Osama bin Laden? Yes. The previous decade had seen a US-backed sanctions effort targeting Saddam Hussein that crippled the country. Never mind that Saddam brought that upon his people with the invasion of Kuwait. Average people were the ones who suffered the most. In 1999 UNICEF estimated that the mortality rate for children under the age of five had doubled in central and southern Iraq since sanctions were imposed, from 56 dead children per 1,000 between 1984-1989 to 131 per 1,000 between 1994-1999.

I don’t begrudge them their anger, not least because they weren’t doing anything to harm people here in the US. I never understood the terror that seemed to grip so many Americans after 9/11, perhaps because by that point I’d covered small wars and grasping poverty we haven’t seen the likes of in the US for generations across Southeast Asia. A few years prior, I covered the independence of East Timor. The murder of Monitor stringer Sander Thoenes there was what led me to getting picked up by the paper — and he was just one of over 100,000 excess deaths in the tiny country during Indonesia’s 24-year occupation. For comparison, that was one in seven people in East Timor. One in seven Americans dying as the result of war and occupation would be 44 million people.

I had schoolmates who died in the towers, one dear friend who departed from the heights of Tower Two just minutes before it would have been too late, and who struggled with survivor’s guilt about the colleagues who stayed at their desks, for years after (most reckoned the plane that had crashed into the first tower was an accident, not a terrorist attack). It effected me, as it effected almost all Americans.

But it didn’t seem that hard to keep some perspective. And having lived in Muslim majority Indonesia since 1993 and spending the years after 9/11 covering Al Qaeda and aligned militant groups in the region, I’d learned enough to know that a war that could be painted as against Muslims in general would suit Al Qaeda right down to the ground – such a reaction is what they wanted, since they reckoned that would yield them a bonanza of new recruits.

Mr. Friedman has gone from strength to strength in the years since, with handsome speakers fees for him to explain his theories about how the world is changing and evolving. But that brief clip above shows a man whose analysis is easily swayed by emotion, by sentiment.

“What they needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying which part of this sentence don’t you understand. You don’t think we care about our open society, you think this bubble fantasy we’re going to just let it go, well suck on this” is not the sort of comment that comes from dispassionate, reasoned analysis. It comes from fear.

We learned in a “gut way (that) bubble was a fundamental threat to our society?” That’s not really learning. As horrible as that attack on us was, there was no fundamental threat to our society. We have done a good job in the years since increasing security (to the point that, in some views, we have actually threatened our own open society ourselves) and preventing any further major attacks on our soil. Did the invasion of Iraq and taking out “a very big stick” accomplish that? No.

Finally, even the notion of a “terrorism bubble” in the 1990s was a bit of a myth. The decade that the 9/11 attacks began so horrifically was among the safest ones when terrorism in the skies is considered ever (since supplanted by the last decade). There were 469 fatalities for passengers, crews and passengers for commercial fliers in the 2000s, 256 of those on 9/11. In the 1990s, there were just under 400 fatalities. In the 1980s, there were about 1,400 and in the 1970s, there were just over 800 killed. When total number of commercial flights are included to make apples to apples comparisons, the most dangerous decade was the 1930s, with 616 fatalities per billion passenger flights. The 2000s had 22 per billion flights taken.

If there has been a “terrorism” bubble it appeared to have burst around 1991judging by this graph at the Global Terrorism Database maintained at the University of Maryland with funding from the Department of Homeland Security. Terrorism, though, surged again after 2003, largely with a rise in terrorist incidents in Afghanistan and Iraq associated with the wars being fought in those lands.

At this time of looking back, let’s try to remember the track records and quality of argument presented by people whose views and advice are sought before the wars of our future.