Somehow Expecting Pragmatism

President Obama did what presidents are supposed to do. He reassured the nation. Donald Trump will be the next president, in January, and he did lose the popular vote by a few million, so more than half the country is a bit frightened. What happens next? Trump did appoint a white-nationalist who seems to hate Jews, and Muslims, and uppity black folks and Hispanics, as his right-hand man. Steve Bannon will be his “chief strategist” – his Karl Rove. That list of who should get the hell out of America, or at least sit down and shut up, was what Bannon’s Breitbart News was all about. That’s a worry, and Trump himself is easily angered and intentionally vindictive – he always says that if someone hits him hard, he’ll hit back ten times harder. That’s a reflex now. He doesn’t think, he attacks, and that’s what some people love about him. That’s also what worries people. Donald Trump never dropped below at least sixty percent of those polled, including Republicans, saying that sort of thing made him unfit to be president – but he wasn’t Hillary Clinton. The thinking must have been that he won’t be that way once he becomes president. After seventy years of being one way, he’ll be another way. The job will change him.

Slightly less than half of all those who voted, decided to take that chance. It could happen. That was a gamble. The man knows nothing about domestic policy. The man knows nothing about foreign policy. He’s never held office or worked in government, so he has no idea how things get done, or get stalled – or even who’s supposed to be doing what at any given time – but the job will change him.

As Jake Barnes says, bitterly, at the end of that Hemingway novel, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” President Obama told America to think so:

President Obama held his first news conference since voters sharply rejected his candidate and his party at the polls last week, reassuring people at home and abroad that Donald Trump was committed to governing in a more pragmatic fashion than his harsh campaign style would suggest.

“He’s going to be the next president and regardless of what experience or assumptions he brought to the office,” said Obama, who met with Trump for the first time last week. “This office has a way of waking you up.”

Things will be fine, or they won’t:

At moments the president offered advice to his successor that sometimes sounded like a warning. He urged Trump to respect “those norms that are vital to a functioning democracy,” such as “civility and tolerance and a commitment to reason and facts and analysis.” For months Obama had accused candidate Trump of breaching those norms during a bitter and contentious campaign.

After last week’s shocking election results, Obama struck a more sanguine note. “I think he’s sincere in wanting to be a successful president and moving this country forward,” Obama said. “I don’t think any president ever comes in saying to himself, ‘I want to figure out how to make people angry or alienate half the country.'”

That may be wishful thinking, but it had to be said for many reasons:

The president sought to reassure U.S. allies, noting that in his conversation with Trump last week, the New York businessman “expressed a great interest in maintaining our core strategic relationships,” including the one with NATO. As he visits with world leaders, Obama vowed to let them know “that there is no weakening of resolve” when it comes to America meeting its commitments and defending its allies.

That was meant to be reassuring. Ignore what Trump has said, over and over. He didn’t mean it, or from here on out he won’t mean it. Obama said everyone should relax:

He expressed hope that on issues such as the Affordable Care Act, the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Trump would modify his position.

“I don’t think he is ideological. I think, ultimately, he is pragmatic,” Obama said. “And that can serve him well as long as he has got good people around him and he has a clear sense of direction.”

That was a conditional sentence. If this, then that, but the conditions may not be met:

Much of the president’s hour-long news conference was dominated by questions of his view of Trump’s character, temperament and fitness for office. Obama offered careful praise for Trump’s ability to galvanize his constituency.

“What’s clear is that he was able to tap into, yes, the anxieties, but also the enthusiasm of his voters in a way that was impressive,” the president said. He observed that Trump was “impervious to events that might have sunk another candidate. That’s powerful stuff.”

But Obama cautioned that Trump would not be able to govern as he campaigned: “There are going to be certain elements of his temperament that will not serve him well unless he recognizes them and corrects them.”

It may be too late for that. The damage is already done. Trump hasn’t thought carefully about Israel, he’s reacted in proud anger, so this was inevitable:

Emboldened by the Republican sweep of last week’s American elections, right-wing members of the Israeli government have called anew for the abandonment of a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians.

“The combination of changes in the United States, in Europe and in the region provide Israel with a unique opportunity to reset and rethink everything,” Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister and the leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, told a gathering of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem on Monday.

Mr. Bennett, who advocates annexing 60 percent of the occupied West Bank to Israel, exulted on the morning after Donald J. Trump’s victory: “The era of a Palestinian state is over.”

That sentiment was only amplified when Jason Greenblatt, a lawyer and co-chairman of the Trump campaign’s Israel Advisory Committee, told Israel’s Army Radio that Mr. Trump does not consider West Bank settlements to be an obstacle to peace, in a stark reversal of longstanding American policy.

That does reverse more than thirty years of American policy, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, of trying to get Israel to consider a Palestinian state, to give the Palestinians something, to calm things down over there. Now, with Trump, our policy will be to give them nothing, ever. All the Muslims in the Middle East who have been white-hot angry since 1947 about the Palestinian situation can just go pound sand – they have plenty of it. Like we care? What could go wrong?

Even Benjamin Netanyahu knows better. The Jewish Home Party is not his Likud Party, only a small part of it, like the Tea Party here is to the Republicans, and Netanyahu is a pragmatist:

Israel’s Supreme Court on Monday rejected a government request for a six-month delay of the demolition of a West Bank outpost built on privately-owned Palestinian land. The court-ordered demolition is slated for Dec. 25, and the government had argued for the delay in part to temper a potentially violent settler response.

On Sunday, a ministerial committee of rightists within the Likud party and the governing coalition approved a contentious bill to retroactively legalize illegal settlement on Palestinian land that was intended to salvage the Amona outpost, but it may be a precursor of things to come.

Although the pro-settler camp was promoting the bill long before Mr. Trump’s victory, the decision was taken, unusually, over Mr. Netanyahu’s vehement objections and despite his exhortations for a delay.

Mr. Netanyahu warmly welcomed Mr. Trump’s victory, calling him “a true friend” of Israel. But Mr. Netanyahu has also since instructed his ministers and legislators to be discreet, saying the incoming administration should be allowed “to formulate – together with us – its policy vis-à-vis Israel and the region through accepted and quiet channels, and not via interviews and statements.”

In short, Donald Trump doesn’t run Israel, yet, and that “potentially violent settler response” is a worry, just as the United States might worry about the wrath of the Muslim world if we’re part of this. Netanyahu knows better. Donald Trump had better hire some careful thinkers, fast, but this might be a problem:

President-elect Donald Trump is leaning toward naming as secretary of state John Bolton, a bellicose enemy of Russia and Iran who is among the most hawkish members of the Republican foreign policy community, according to two sources familiar with Trump’s thinking.

Trump admires Vladimir Putin, who might not be happy with this, but few are happy with this guy:

Bolton is the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, but served less than two years, as Democrats banded together to block his long-term appointment. His time was marked by a rapid uptick in anti-American sentiment among the global diplomatic community. Bolton remains one of the most disliked foreign policy operators on the world stage.

One source said that Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker still had an outside chance of winning the position, if he made a play for it and enough Republicans rallied to his side. The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that Rudy Giuliani is also under consideration for the post.

Rudy Giuliani was the mayor of New York. There are a lot of Jews in New York, even if a whole lot of them are Upper West Side Woody Allen bleeding-heart liberals. That might work. Bolton, however, might not:

Bolton would be an aggressive selection for Trump, shattering his pledge to work peacefully with other countries. Bolton, who has called for the bombing of Iran, held high-level roles in three different Republican administrations between 1998 and 2006. He is now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank whose vice president has described Trump as “an idiot.”

Bolton, through an assistant, declined to comment.

Well, yeah, what do you say to that? Still, this is an odd possibility:

If confirmed as Trump’s top diplomat, Bolton would be reporting to a commander-in-chief who appears to espouse a worldview that is diametrically opposed to his own. Bolton has repeatedly slammed President Barack Obama for his willingness to engage in limited cooperation with Russia in Syria and Iran.

“While Mr. Obama sleepwalks, Mr. Putin is ardently pursuing Russia’s Middle East objectives,” Bolton wrote in a 2013 op ed that argued against assuming the U.S. has common interests with Russia in Syria.

In 2014, speculating that Russia was responsible for the downing of a Malaysian plane over Ukraine, Bolton told Fox News, “I think we’ve got to begin to treat Russia like the adversary that Putin is currently demonstrating it to be.”

That presents a problem:

Bolton’s potential new boss, a man who has extensive financial ties with Russia, is far more likely than Obama to legitimize Moscow’s military endeavors in the Middle East. Trump broke with the Republican orthodoxy by suggesting that the U.S. abandon its efforts to fight ISIS in Syria and let Russia take over. “This has happened before. We back a certain side, and that side turns out to be a total catastrophe,” Trump said in September, referring to the U.S. support for the opposition groups fighting ISIS and Syrian president Bashar Assad. “Russia likes Assad, seemingly, a lot – let them worry about ISIS. Let them fight it out.”

On Monday, as talk of Bolton as secretary of state swirled, Trump called Putin. The two leaders committed to working to normalize relations, a Kremlin readout of the call said. The current relationship, Trump and Putin agreed, is “extremely unsatisfactory.”

Still, that conversation must have been interesting… Vlad, John Bolton will be my secretary of state. No, he won’t, Don – I put you in power and can have you removed, right now.

Perhaps that didn’t happen, but Joshua Keating sees this:

A permahawk with a reputation for bullying subordinates who disagree with his views, John Bolton was the most controversial U.S. ambassador to the United Nations – an organization he openly disdained – ever. President George W. Bush had to use a recess appointment to get him the job after Senate Democrats, and a few Republicans, refused to vote on his nomination. Perhaps because of his famous penchant for belittling and attacking those who don’t nod approvingly at his opinions and positions, even he concedes that the United States accomplished “little or nothing” of what the Bush administration wanted while he was ambassador.

So what would a Secretary of State Bolton believe? Bolton not only opposes the nuclear agreement with Iran, but he has consistently advocated war to stop the country’s nuclear program. In stark contrast to the president-elect, he has argued in favor of regime change in Syria. He was a prominent advocate of the Iraq war and continues to defend the invasion to this day.

What was Trump thinking? Maybe he wasn’t thinking, yet. He’s not on the job, yet. But others have been thinking:

Seventy-six national security experts urged President-elect Donald J. Trump on Monday to reverse his hostility to the nuclear agreement signed with Iran last year and to use it as a tool to ease other tensions with the country.

A report signed by the experts, including former officials from both major political parties, argued that the nuclear agreement had reduced the threat of war in the Middle East.

Mr. Trump has called the nuclear agreement a foreign-policy disaster. He vowed during his campaign to renegotiate or renounce the deal, one of President Obama’s signature achievements.

The report stated, “The deal proved that diplomacy with Iran can bear fruit despite skepticism about Iranian sincerity, the inclination of Iran’s supreme leader to abide by the deal, or the ability of Iranian hard-liners to sabotage diplomacy.”

It urged the incoming Trump administration to use the nuclear agreement as the basis for cooperation on other issues, including a desire by Iran and the United States to eliminate the Islamic State, which has convulsed the Middle East and carried out attacks in the West.

That makes sense, but they hit Donald Trump and he’ll hit back ten times harder – a predawn tweetstorm ridiculing them all perhaps – but then the new job, the actual job, may make Trump a pragmatist:

How easily – or even whether – Mr. Trump can make good on his promise to renegotiate or scrap the agreement remains unclear. It was negotiated among Iran and six major powers including the United States, and was endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.

The countries who joined the United States in signing the deal – Iran, Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany – have said they intend to honor the agreement, which would isolate the United States should it withdraw, and would weaken the effect of any unilateral American sanctions.

On Monday, European Union ministers added their endorsement of the agreement.

And some things are counterproductive:

Should the pact collapse, Iran would presumably be free to develop nuclear weapons – an outcome that many nations, including Iran’s Middle East neighbors, say would destabilize the region.

Mr. Trump’s repudiation of the agreement would also put him at odds with Russia, risking new tensions after vowing to improve Washington’s relationship with Moscow.

Iran would get its nukes right away, and Vlad would be pissed off. We could just nuke Iran and be done with it, but then we’d likely have a real World War III – so the options are limited. Obama did say the job was like that, and Simon Shuster reports on another problem:

On Sunday evening, after the leaders of Europe had spent the better part of a week trying to guess the scale of Donald Trump’s contempt for the NATO alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, its secretary general, offered the U.S. President-elect a reminder of what that alliance has cost.

He didn’t give the sum in terms of money – as Trump has so often tried to do – but in the lives of European soldiers, more than a 1,000 of whom have died fighting alongside U.S. forces in Afghanistan. As Stoltenberg wrote in the Observer on Remembrance Sunday: “Today of all days, we remember them.”

Stoltenberg did the unthinkable. He told Donald Trump that it’s not always about the money, which will only piss him off:

It was an oddly emotional statement from a man better known for bureaucratic platitudes, and it showed just how anxious the Europeans have become about the U.S. commitment to their defense. They have good reason to be. Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Trump has suggested that the world’s most powerful military alliance should be run like an insurance scheme or a protection racket. In a typical remark on the issue this summer, he said allies that don’t “reasonably reimburse” the U.S. for the costs of defense should expect to be told, “Congratulations, you will be defending yourself.”

No one can say for sure what exactly that would mean in practice. An emerging consensus in Europe has called Trump’s remarks the beginning of the end of the global order that has kept the West united since World War II. At best they mark the start of a bruising renegotiation of the transatlantic friendship. But it’s hard to tell which is closer to Trump’s true intention, because like so many of his policy positions, the statements he has made on NATO have come with plenty of caveats and room for retreat. During the primary race this spring, he repeatedly called the alliance “obsolete.” But after winning the Republican nomination, he told the New York Times in July that he would like to preserve it, adding that only “fools and haters” would suggest Trump does not want to protect U.S. allies.

He just wants them to pay big bucks for that protection, and they will pay up. They have no choice. Pay up or die. He’s a master deal-maker. Grab the cash. America wins.

Obama said that Trump will not abandon NATO. The job requires that he not abandon NATO. That doesn’t mean we can’t grab the cash, except for this:

If Trump continues to push the notion that NATO is a commercial enterprise – reliant less on the mutual trust and commitment of its members than on the question of who is picking up the check – he could alienate his European partners so completely that they will have no alliance left to defend. “Everybody will be so frustrated and disappointed with the other side that they will not feel a desire to continue,” says Shapiro. “NATO will become a hollow shell, because nobody will be contributing.”

A lot of that frustration has already begun to show. Even Europe’s typically cautious and understated officials have begun warning that NATO could split down the middle. “It might be that [Trump’s] policy priorities will lead America far away from some of the European basic principles or interests,” Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s top official for foreign and security policy, said in an interview televised last week. “And in that case Brussels as well as all the European capitals decide our own foreign policy priorities independently from what happens in Washington.”

One option would be for Europe to create an alternative to NATO, most likely under the umbrella of an EU army. But mustering the political will for such a project does not seem likely any time soon. The mood across Europe, much like in the U.S., has been overwhelmed by feelings of nationalism and retrenchment, especially after the U.K. voted in June to leave the EU. If that trend continues, Europeans will likely need to start thinking in terms of national rather than collective defense – a worrisome prospect for the part of the world where nationalism helped spark two world wars.

Well, there is that. Trump might want to think this through, but don’t expect that. Obama said that Trump will think this through – he’ll have to – the job will change him. Isn’t it pretty to think so?

As Jeremy Stahl reports, Trump hasn’t changed this:

One of Donald Trump’s top aides Kellyanne Conway on Sunday warned Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to temper his criticism of the president-elect and that he should “be very careful about characterizing somebody in the legal sense.”

Reid had characterized Trump as “a sexual predator who lost the popular vote and fueled his campaign with bigotry and hate.” During the campaign, more than a dozen women accused Trump of sexual misconduct with many of them describing what he did to them as outright assault. In a leaked 2004 tape, he boasted openly about sexual assault in crude terms. He began his campaign with bigoted attacks describing Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and his campaign was strongly backed by openly racist voices such as former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.

Republican Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who has quickly turned into a strong supporter of the Trump presidency and backed him throughout his campaign for the White House, described Trump’s attacks on a federal judge for his Mexican heritage as the “textbook definition of a racist comment.” These are just a tiny sample of the incidences of misogyny and racism attributed to Trump, his campaign, and his supporters.

The point is, there is some basis for Reid’s criticism of the Trump candidacy along with his citing of the personal accusations against Trump that haven’t gone away just because he won the White House. Still, Conway thinks it’s appropriate to warn an opposition leader that he needs to speak differently “in the legal sense,” with the implicit suggestion being that Trump might take legal action against said opponent.

Throughout his campaign, Trump did say that, if elected, he’d ask Congress to change the libel laws. If he thought a news article was unfair to him, he could then use the justice department to sue the Washington Post or New York Times, or MSNBC or CNN, for defamation. They’d pay. If he won, the damages they’d have to pay would be so massive that they’d go out of business. If he lost, the legal costs would be so massive that they’d go out of business. All other news organization would then know that they had better clear all news stories with the White House before print or broadcast.

That was the idea. The constitution says that there shall be no laws abridging freedom of speech. Freedom of the press is part of the package, except in matters of national security – but the Supreme Court did allow the Washington Post and New York Times to publish the Pentagon Papers. A president feeling he has been treated unfairly doesn’t fall under any definition of national security. No president can do what Donald Trump is proposing, but maybe he’ll grow into the job.

Maybe the job will change Donald Trump. Obama says it will. That was the day’s reassurance. Few were reassured.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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