Good Old Joe

Alan Zendell, November 14, 2017

Jake Novak of CNBC thinks Joe Biden “is the exact opposite of the kind of candidate voters in both parties proved they want in the 2016 election.” He cites a lot of facts, like the populist appeal of both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and the clear anti-establishment sentiment that characterized that election. He also talks about the democratic base shifting leftward toward Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. And then there are Biden’s inglorious attempts to run for president in 1988 and 2008.

Novak may have his facts straight, but I think he might be completely missing the point. Yes, voters at both ends of the political spectrum went for populism in 2016. And the success of the Trump and Sanders campaigns came from convincing people that the establishment of both parties had failed them, much the way Barrack Obama did in winning the nomination in 2008. But there’s an intangible side to politics that no amount of fact gathering can capture.

While one-third of the country loves President Trump, most of it is somewhere between disappointed and horrified at the way candidate Trump’s populism is playing out now that he’s president. His brand of political incorrectness turned out not to be cute and refreshing, but rather a vehicle for hate mongering and divisiveness. And there is little evidence that his promise to be the president for all Americans had any substance. Nastiness and amoral behavior have a cumulative effect over time that leaves voters feeling disillusioned and betrayed, and we see that occurring daily.

It’s possible that Trump is a fad that is quickly running its course. What appeared flashy and bright two years ago has taken on a dingy, unappetizing patina and a sickly odor. And like most fads this one has left many people wondering what they saw in it in the first place.

A lot of people go through life seeking their soulmate, wasting years, decades even, looking for all the wrong things in all the wrong places, ignoring the staid and true because it isn’t sexy enough. If they’re lucky, the people who’ve always been there and cared about them, those friends who could never be anything more than platonic, are still around when they finally see the light. When the fireworks that burned so brightly and made so much noise have been reduced to a smoky haze, we realize how good fresh air smells, has always smelled if we’d only bothered to notice.

That’s Joe Biden, a decent, eloquent, highly competent man who knows more about foreign relations than Trump and his cabinet combined, who sometimes lacks the luster of what seems to be trending (remember the Edsel?) but who looks so damn good when it falls apart. Many of the voters who were swept up in last year’s tide of populism are now beginning to realize what happened. And wise old Joe, with his gentle tones and old-fashioned values looks like that old friend we’d ignored for so long.

I think Novak is wrong. The sharp swing to the left that some Democrats are taking is a knee-jerk reaction to the nastiness of our elitist president. It’s another wave that will dissipate on the rocky shores of disillusionment, and when it does, honest Joe will still be there, hating no one and reaching out to help. He’ll be seventy-seven in 2020 but so will I, so I can’t hold that against him.

When the agents of change and revolution have all fizzled out, as Trump seems to be doing, someone like Joe Biden will be a different kind of populist. The Encarta dictionary says populism is a political ideology based on the perceived interests of ordinary people, as opposed to those of a privileged elite. Does that sound like Donald Trump or Steve Bannon?

It sounds to me like a definition written for Joe Biden. Pulling the country back from the brink and returning it to normality can also be a profound change.  If anyone understands the hardship many Americans experience – he has lost a wife and two children during his life – it’s Joe, and in my opinion, his voice is exactly what our country needs to heal. Despite his losses there’s no bitterness in him. He’s the same gentle soul who’d rather love than hate that he always was.

But he’s always loved a good fight, too. I hope he still has the energy and desire in 2020. We need him.

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R. E. S. P. E. C. T.

Alan Zendell, November 11, 2017

Aretha Franklin belted it out loud and clear.

The president’s Asia trip has more than anything been a test of how much powerful foreign leaders respect him. The media has been filled with reports and opinions, almost since the day Trump was inaugurated, that they were shocked by him and personally viewed him as an unqualified buffoon. That doesn’t mean they could disregard him. One year into the current administration we’re still the most powerful nation in the world militarily, and he is the Commander-in-Chief.

There’s an interesting parallel with North Korea here. Most leaders consider Kim Jong Un something between crazy and irresponsible, but they don’t deny that he’s capable of doing a lot of damage if he chooses to. Kim may well be playing an exaggerated version of the game Trump loves so much. Act crazy, say anything that comes to mind, and hold your cards close to your vest. No one really knows what goes on in the mind of Kim Jong Un, and the same may be true of Donald Trump’s.

Last month the president claimed to have a wonderful relationship with Congress, though he is routinely criticized in the media by some members, and in private by many more. Now he claims he has wonderful relationships with the leaders of other countries, in particular with Xi Jinping. People I respect believe that may be true, though as I  have said before, my sense is that they’re playing him, and the sport they’re competing in is one in which Trump is seriously overmatched.

If in the face of the press releases about deals with China I still had any doubt of this, Trump resolved them with his statements about Vladimir Putin today. Despite everyone in the American intelligence community, including Trump’s appointed CIA Director Mike Pompeo asserting strongly that Russia meddled in our election last year, Trump says that Putin claims he didn’t do it and “when he tells me that he means it, and I believe him.” That statement was so outrageous it was hard know whether it was just another item in the administration’s tangled web of fake news or if Trump actually believed it.

It raised so much consternation in Washington the president accepted a question about it at today’s press conference in Hanoi. When asked if he really believed Putin, Trump said he thought Putin believed Russia hadn’t meddled in our election, but he (Trump) believed the intelligence experts who were sure Russia had done it. His staff had clearly informed him that he had to walk back his original statement, but what he said in Hanoi only made it worse. It implies Trump believed Russia could have done it without Putin’s knowledge and approval. If that’s true he’s even more overmatched than I thought.

Many people like to label our president as a habitual liar, but he can’t hold a candle to Putin in that regard. Putin has been using lies as propaganda and diplomatic tools all his life. He’s the consummate grand master. What are we to think when our president tells us that when Putin whispers something in his ear he’s telling the truth? It’s hard to imagine what he expects to gain by it. A large majority of Congress believes Russia is guilty, and they control the sanctions Putin wants lifted.

There was no doubt that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe worked very hard to play up to Trump for the media. But realistically, if North Korea does go completely rogue, Japan is directly in its crosshairs, and American anti-missile defenses are the best chance it has of defending itself against Kim’s missiles. I can’t help but take Abe’s over-the-top welcome of Trump with a grain of salt.

Am I being unduly negative? Does it seem that I refuse to give the president credit for anything? It may sound that way, but I believe that Trump is basically a con artist. He has repeatedly lied and contradicted himself, and I find it difficult to take anything he says or does at face value. With someone like Trump I need some kind of proof of his sincerity before I can place any trust in him.

His behavior from day to day still makes him appear unfit for the job. The question I continually wrestle with is whether even an accomplishment like turning Kim Jong Un, should he pull it off, would be enough to offset that. I’m afraid I don’t think it would be. His morally repugnant value system is like his Mexican wall. I don’t think I can get over it no matter what he does.

If I turn out to be wrong about him I will happily acknowledge it, but for now, I’ve seen nothing that changes my view of him.

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The Only One Who Matters

Alan Zendell, November 6, 2017

The United States State Department has more than 30,000 employees. Most of them are dedicated professionals with no political affiliation. Many have narrow specialties which they’ve been honing for twenty years or more. Many speak multiple languages, have served in the foreign service, and have advanced degrees from major universities.

Why do we need so many of them? Because knowing and understanding the subtleties of foreign cultures is essential to a successful foreign policy. In some cases being able to speak their language can make all the difference in resolving disagreements. Not because they don’t speak English or because they might be offended if we don’t bother to learn their language, but because a language often tells us a lot about how people think.

I learned that when I used all my elective points as an undergraduate to study Russian, back in the Cold War days when it seemed that knowing how to speak Russian might be essential one day. Russian is quite different from the romance languages most Americans study, which makes it difficult for us to master. One reason is the way tenses are defined in Russian. Actually, Russian uses “aspects” rather than tenses, which are just similar enough to what we’re used to in English that basic conceptual differences in meaning can get us into trouble. And that’s without considering cultural influences and the effect that a country’s history may have had on its leaders. Many people think that failing to grasp these subtle differences in meaning may have led to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

So when our president, who has demonstrated that he barely understands how our own government functions says vacancies at the State Department don’t have to be filled, he’s making a potentially serious error. And when he has the audacity to say he doesn’t really need them because “I’m the only one that matters,” he’s making an error that could be fatal.

Arrogance and ignorance in our president are a combination that could get a lot of people killed, aside from the fact that so much of what he says makes two-thirds of the nation cringe. The thought of Donald Trump ignoring State Department experts when he negotiates with Russia, China, the Koreas, and Japan is staggering. This isn’t a poker game among old friends. It’s nuclear roulette.

I’m still not sure what National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster meant when he said the president would not temper his language during his trip to Asia. Was he encouraging Mr. Trump to keep shooting from the hip without filtering his words or was he acknowledging that it was impossible for his advisers to control him?

Some people think Trump’s brash, boastful style combined with his unpredictability have earned him the respect of our adversaries. Yet, I have the sense that seasoned old warriors like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and even South Korea’s Moon Jae-in feel like they’re playing chess with a rube. I think they lick their chops when they see him coming, knowing his need to be adored and praised leaves him vulnerable to deceit and manipulation.

When our pipes leak we hire a plumber. When our lights go out we hire an electrician. And when we’re sick we see our doctors. We don’t argue with those people who have spent their lives learning their professions, and it’s no different with diplomacy. In many ways it’s more important, because it’s not only one person or one home that’s at stake. What happens on this Asia trip can affect our country and the world for decades to come. It can alter the world our grandchildren live in. So when our President says he’s the only one who matters, I can only shudder and hope that his advisers can rein him in and keep him from making grievous errors.

The president views himself as a savvy businessman who is now the CEO of the United States. His management style may work in a family-owned business, but even in the business world he surely knows that a CEO of a major corporation who continually ignores his board of directors and stockholders will eventually go down in flames.

This is the world stage, Mr. Trump, and you are not the only person who matters.

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The Beginning of the End?

Alan Zendell, November 2, 2017

Immediately after Robert Mueller announced the guilty plea of George Papadopoulos and the indictments of Paul Manafort and Richard Gates, I received an email asking (rhetorically) if this was the beginning of the end. The end of what, I wondered. The end of the Trump Presidency? Possibly, but I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on it.

More likely, it could mark the beginning of a protracted period in which the president’s ability to get anything done is greatly reduced. That same morning, a quick Gallup poll reported that the president’s approval rating went from an all-time low of 38% to a shocking 33%, which suggests that no one outside his hard core base still supports him, and that base might even be shrinking.

Combined with recent leaks and reports that most of his support in Congress is based on a temporary alignment to pass tax reform, rather than real support or approval of the president himself, that bodes ill for the future success of the administration. A president with such a low approval rating does not inspire confidence either at home or internationally.

What incentive does a sitting member of Congress, especially one who is not up for re-election next year, have to go along with the president when he or she disagrees with him? The president may act as if the country is behind him in spite of the polls, but the reality is that they leave him with little leverage to twist arms. Unfortunately, we’ve become used to a Congress that can’t get out of its own way, so people may not be overly alarmed if Trump’s problems cause that to continue. But the situation may be far more serious with respect to diplomacy.

When other countries, be they allies or adversaries, perceive that an American president is politically wounded, his influence is greatly diminished. Europe, especially Germany has indicated that they understand the need to look out for their own interests. Even if Trump were dealing from strength, his repeated statements that America always comes first assures that.

But what happens when we try to enlist their support for a united effort to rebuild the parts of Syria and Iraq that were destroyed by ISIS? What happens when we need their support for a unified front against North Korea or Iran? The reality is that even if foreign leaders take Trump at his word, their confidence in his ability to convince Congress to go along with him has been undermined.

So if the question is: “Is this the beginning of the end,” it’s reasonable to suggest that it may be the beginning of the end of America as a dominant voice on the world stage. We may still have the most powerful armed forces in the world, but as our most prominent military leaders have repeatedly stated, diplomacy must come first. And a strong military does not by itself assure successful diplomacy when long-term efforts to avoid war are at stake.

To those who would like to see the president impeached, I say be careful what you wish for. If you think the president is weakened now, the chaos that would accompany an impeachment, whether or not it was successful, would emasculate our ability to function either at home or internationally, for at least a year. I agree with those who say that when the president fails the country fails along with him.

And don’t forget that impeachment is a political process, and the House of Representatives will be controlled by the Republicans at least through the end of 2018.  It’s conceivable that a majority of Republicans, especially those who are seriously committed to the party’s legislative agenda might think they would be more successful with Mike Pence in the Oval Office. Surely, there would be less divisiveness and turmoil, and Pence has far more respect among Congress than the president does. But if the performance of Congress in 2017 is any indication, it’s hard to imagine a movement to exchange Trump for Pence taking root, much less building momentum and succeeding.

Unless the Russia investigation finds evidence of treason that it can trace to the president himself, we’d do best to forget the idea of impeachment. If this is the beginning of the end of anything, it’s probably the era in which America is revered and respected by the rest of the world. And that is tragic.

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Things We Take For Granted

Alan Zendell, October 29, 2017

Growing up in the years after the second world war, it was easy to believe that America was the land of the good guys. We were nobler and fairer than the rest of the world, and no one would ever defeat us at anything. We often lost in the Olympics until our crowning achievement in 1960 when our amateur hockey team won the gold medal over the Russians. See? We could even beat their state-sponsored professionals. What couldn’t we do?

Even when the Russians beat us into space, we continued to believe, and a decade later we were on the moon. Even when we abandoned space exploration and got stuck in the morass of Vietnam while our president tried to rig an election, we believed. Even when the stock market crashed in 1987 and the dot.com boom fizzled a few years later, we still took our divine right of superiority for granted.

Then one day we woke up and realized how vulnerable we were to enemies we’d never even suspected, our school systems were failing, our children were graduating from college into an empty job market, until nine-eleven changed everything. We’d never be complacent again – or would we?

We still believed we lived in the best country in the world with leaders that would always do what was best for us. We implicitly understood that we had put our racist past behind us and our grandchildren’s generation would live in color-blind, multi-cultural harmony. Our schools were coming back, and we didn’t mind that our best students were the children of all those brown and yellow people who’d recently emigrated here because, after all, it proved that we were still the land of opportunity.

We even elected a black president. All we had to do was keep the terrorists at bay and everything would be fine – except that just when we sure things could only get better, our corrupt banking system collapsed and nearly brought down our entire economy. We had to open our eyes to reality once again and what we saw wasn’t pretty.

Our government had regressed into partisan bickering that prevented anything meaningful from getting done, just when we needed it to perform at its best. And the attempt to assure that all of our citizens could finally count on affordable, available health care revealed divisions that many of us had forgotten were there. Greed. Class warfare. An undercurrent of latent racism that had never died and was now seething toward a boiling point. Xenophobia. Isolationism.

And then the final blow. Through it all most of us still believed we would wake up every morning knowing we wouldn’t be embarrassed by our president. Somehow we would still project a moral leadership that the rest of the world could respect, because he would never let those forces of division and dissolution take over. Instead, we are shamed every day by what our country is becoming, by what comes out of our morally bankrupt president’s mouth and tweets. Oh, the things we’ve taken for granted and the price we’ve paid.

We can’t do anything about that now, but we can at least stop taking ourselves and our families for granted. We can stop turning blind eyes when someone close to us drinks too much, or becomes dependent on drugs, whether or not they’re legal. And we’d better be honest with ourselves about our own health and fitness. It’s all we really have control over. No more being in denial about that extra ten pounds or that pain you feel when you turn the wrong way or that cough that you can’t shake all winter.

Or, and this isn’t for the squeamish or the faint of heart, even the basic body functions you never think about. I recently emerged from a three month nightmare that has taught me never to be complacent about anything again. Elective surgery to fix an arthritic shoulder seemed simple enough, and it was. But waking up in the hospital with my body’s entire waste disposal system not functioning was one of the things I’d never even considered. Doesn’t everyone just take that for granted?

No one ever expects his or her body to betray him. Just like no one expects his government or his teachers or his president to. But it happens. We can’t afford to take anything for granted ever again. Sometimes things work out in the end. We take a deep breath and realize we dodged another bullet, but we won’t always be lucky. It’s up to us.

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W and Obama, Coincidence?

Alan Zendell, October 20, 2017

I looked up coincidence in two dictionaries and found “a striking occurrence of two or more events at one time apparently by mere chanceand “a remarkable concurrence of events or circumstances without apparent causal connection.” I’m not a big believer in coincidence, which by definition is a rare event. Unless you rely on providence, the more striking coinciding events are, the less likely it is that they really represent a coincidence.

Perhaps yesterday’s speeches by Barrack Obama and George W. Bush which decried the divisive politics of Trumpism really were two random events not causally linked. If that’s true they were the best possible kind of coincidence, unrelated events that shined a light on the damage being done to our democratic values from sources that until recently would have seemed diametrically opposed. What the two former presidents have in common is far more important than what separates them: levels of decency and compassion that are completely foreign to the current resident of the White House and the fact that both have been targets of vicious unrelenting attacks by the very same Mr. Trump.

There’s an opinion column on the CNN website this morning titled, “Why Presidents’ Rebuke of Trump Won’t Matter” (http://www.cnn.com/2017/10/20/politics/donald-trump-barack-obama-george-w-bush-presidents/index.html). It suggests that what Bush and Obama said won’t make any difference because Trump has no respect for either former president and thus their comments will wash off his back unheeded. That may be correct, but it might also miss a more essential point.

Trump’s current public approval rating sits at 38%, while both Gallup and Politico reported as of last June that after two years of Trump’s nonstop ridicule and hyperbolic criticism, Bush’s approval rating had risen to 59% (from a low of 35% when he left office) and Obama’s had climbed to a remarkable 63% five months into the Trump administration. To the extent that the majority of our electorate suffers from voters’ remorse, the words of our two most recent former presidents ought to carry a lot of weight. I was excited to hear both men speak out. Their common threads of bringing people together rather than dividing them and looking outward to the rest of the world rather than retreating into fear-based isolationism made me more optimistic than I’ve felt since Trump was elected.

After leaving office as governor of California, Ronald Reagan adopted the role of gadfly through the vehicle of more than a thousand radio addresses. Reagan understood that even out of office, his popularity gave him a different sort of pulpit, and he used it effectively prior to running for president in 1980. While neither W nor Obama will ever run for president again, Reagan’s example demonstrates the power of a respected, popular voice in times of turmoil.

Whether they coordinate their efforts or not, I believe there is a huge audience of the discontented that hungers for what the two former presidents have to say. Together, they can overcome the seeds of hate and despair that have been planted by Trump and his followers. Together, they can remind us of the American values we grew up with and silence the sounds of racism and xenophobia that have been driving our politics for the past two years. And perhaps more important, as different as these two men’s political beliefs are, they can re-establish the role model of morality and decency that has atrophied under Trump’s leadership. Our children need that. Imagine what growing up under eight years of Trump’s fundamental meanness and lack of moral center could do to them if they don’t have the examples of other leaders of stature who never reduced politics to the depths Trump has.

This isn’t about politics or whether these three presidents have made mistakes in office. Bush and Obama both made some egregious errors during their tenures, but honest errors are quite different from mean-spirited hatefulness. When they were president, I never felt the disgust and embarrassment that I have experienced every day since Donald Trump has taken over the media scene.

The most positive thing I remember about last year’s election (perhaps the only positive thing) was the frequent reminder that our children were watching. They still are, every day. It’s time we changed the tone and content of what they see and hear, and our best hope of that may the re-engagement of Bush and Obama.

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Raqqa

Alan Zendell, October 17, 2017

Where, a mere five years ago, a thriving city of a quarter million (and more including its environs) stood on the Euphrates River in northeastern Syria, this is what’s there now.

raqqa.

Somehow, the world allowed ISIS to take over this city and turn it into a charnel house of terror and death. Everyone stood by and watched it happen, the United States, Europe, Russia, and the rest of the Middle East. And while ISIS destroyed the moral fabric and culture of the city, its physical destruction was the price of its liberation. As is always the case in war, an entrenched fanatical occupying force would rather see a city destroyed than concede defeat.

As of this morning, as news services around the world report the final defeat of ISIS in its self-declared capital, I am disappointed in the White House’s response. This is a vitally important story, easily worth equal time with who did what in Puerto Rico and whether overpaid football players stand for the national anthem. Yet, all the president had to say was that the victory was achieved because of the changes he made to the military, even though it is the result of a strategic initiative orchestrated by his predecessor more than a year ago. The significance of driving ISIS out of Raqqa deserves a better response than who gets to take credit for it.

The victory has been inevitable for months, once we declared our determination to see it through. Did the administration spend that time planning the disposition of over a half million refugees stuck in makeshift camps in Syria and elsewhere? And what of the physical reconstruction of the city in the midst of Syria’s civil war when its government controls only a fraction of the country around Damascus?

If the Trump administration does not have a a clear objective for dealing with the aftermath, it could be as disastrous as the power vacuum left in Iraq after Saddam Hussein was deposed. And perhaps more important from an international perspective is who will now control and govern this oil-rich region. The victory was achieved by U. S. backed Arabs of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and our most dependable allies in the region, the Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units known as the YPG, the armed Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in TurkeyWhile the SDF has grown…to include a notable number of Arab recruits, in practice it remains squarely under YPG command and wholly reliant upon the PKK-trained Kurdish fighters who form its backbone.

There are a number of other major players in this game who all have competing interests: the American-led coalition that provided air support for the assaults on Raqqa, the supporters of Syria’s nominal president Bashar Assad, Iran, Russia, and perhaps most troublesome for the Trump administration, our NATO partner Turkey. Both the United States and Turkey currently list the PKK as a terrorist organization.

It looks like a mess, doesn’t it? I don’t know enough to offer a solution, but if the Trump administration isn’t on top of it, we could soon be facing a new fight more dangerous than the one ISIS posed. Somehow, with all the turmoil over North Korea and the Iran nuclear deal, not to mention the internal struggles in the White House, the situation in Raqqa hasn’t been on anyone’s strategic radar screens, at least not within public view.

The fifteen year disasters of American attempts at nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us not to try it again in Syria. If anything will unite our Congress it will be standing against any attempt to commit serious American resources in Syria, unless the president clearly articulates and defends his end game. Even then, any such initiative will be problematic, as a long-term commitment in Syria would blow both our national budget and the Republicans’ attempt to reduce taxes.

Does the president have a strategy to prevent the predictable explosion when competing forces rush in to fill the new vacuum created by the defeat of ISIS? And what of Russia which is not likely to abandon its long-term investment in Syria? Neither of them is going away, and neither is the YPG. The latter have fought too long and hard for a homeland of their own to simply withdraw into the background now that they’ve proved their value as American allies, but neither Turkey nor Iraq has shown any sign of recognizing the Kurds’ claims for independence.

This situation is going to require the utmost delicacy in American diplomacy, and it will depend on support from our traditional allies in Europe and the so-called moderate Arab nations. All of which raises the question that people have been asking ever since Trump took office. How can we expect our allies to support us when Trump’s actions to date have caused many foreign leaders to question whether they can still trust us diplomatically?

That’s a damn good question. I hope the Trump administration is prepared to answer it.

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