The One Smart Man

Self-confidence is a good thing. Everyone admires that. It might be the NFL linebacker that absolutely guarantees his team will win the big game. Sure, that’s trash-talk to make the other guys worry a bit, or to fire up his guys, but it’s pretty cool. His team may lose, but he had the right attitude. He knew things, even if he didn’t. Reality doesn’t matter a whole lot in this circumstance. It’s the attitude. No one will call him out on that.

That’s useful in wartime. In 1944, Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer came up with that incredibly popular song with a simple refrain – “You got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and don’t mess with Mister In-Between.”

That’s the same thing. Hitler was on the run. The Japs were on the run. Our guys were dying left and right, but don’t dwell on that – and don’t get all thoughtful in some in-between way, wondering about this efficacy of this strategy or that, or what comes next, when we do win. Attitude is everything. The song was used in Here Come the Waves and won the Oscar for Best Original Song – a sign of the times. Self-confidence is everything. Self-confidence is necessary.

That may be why no Trump supporters had a problem with him when he said “I know more about ISIS than the generals, believe me.” They knew he didn’t, but that was the right attitude. Reality doesn’t matter a whole lot in this circumstance either. Democrats and the rest of the Republicans offered thoughtful policies on the Middle East. Do the wrong thing and bad things could happen. That was the in-between stuff. That was the negative stuff. Trump would have none of it, and just enough of the American people agreed with him. It was like that wall that will never be built, or busting down doors and putting eleven million people in boxcars and sending them south. It was like the NFL linebacker. He may have been full of shit, but he had the right attitude. His self-confidence won him the election.

That’s fine – Americans love self-confidence – but winning the election is one thing. Governing is another, and this weekend Trump’s self-confidence seemed a bit unhinged:

In a rare post-election interview that aired Sunday, Trump argued for why he did not need to receive regular classified intelligence briefings on national security and foreign affairs, saying he told intelligence officials to only brief him when a situation the intelligence community is monitoring changes…

“I’m, like, a smart person. I don’t have to be told the same thing in the same words every single day for the next eight years,” the president-elect added. “I don’t need that. But I do say, ‘If something should change, let us know.'”

Trump emphasized that Vice President-elect Mike Pence was receiving daily briefings.

Mike Pence would mess with Mister In-Between. Someone has to do it, but Trump is the smart one, the one smart man who knows things, that man with the right attitude:

The interview came days after Trump garnered widespread criticism among national security experts by condemning a Washington Post report which said that the CIA found Russian intelligence agencies meddled in the US election to help the Republican presidential nominee.

Critics argued that the president-elect was attempting to undermine the intelligence community’s credibility.

In Sunday’s interview, Trump refused to acknowledge the report’s credibility, dismissing claims that Russia attempted to help Trump by hacking the emails of top Democrats and selectively leaking them.

“I think it’s ridiculous,” Trump said of the Washington Post report. “I think it’s just another excuse. I don’t believe it. I don’t know why and I think it’s just – you know, they talked about all sorts of things. Every week it’s another excuse.”

The one smart man knows better, somehow, but we’ve been here before. In the Ron Suskind book The One Percent Doctrine: Deep Inside America’s Pursuit of Its Enemies Since 9/11 there was this on how Bush responded to the August 6th warning in that day’s intelligence briefing:

The book’s opening anecdote tells of an unnamed CIA briefer who flew to Bush’s Texas ranch during the scary summer of 2001, amid a flurry of reports of a pending al-Qaeda attack, to call the president’s attention personally to the now-famous Aug. 6, 2001, memo titled “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in US.” Bush reportedly heard the briefer out and replied: “All right. You’ve covered your ass, now.”

The one smart man knew better. One month later he didn’t, and in the Guardian, Spencer Ackerman reports this:

Legislators overseeing the CIA and other intelligence agencies have told the Guardian they will be vigilant about reprisals from Donald Trump over an internal assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to ensure Trump’s victory.

Fears of retaliation rose within US intelligence agencies over a tense weekend that saw Trump publicly dismiss not only the assessment but the basic competence of the intelligence apparatus.

“When the president-elect’s transition team is attempting to discredit the entire intelligence community [IC], it has never been more important for the IC and Congress to guard against possible political pressure or retaliation against intelligence analysts,” Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, told the Guardian.

Like his Democratic colleagues on the panel, Wyden is pressing Barack Obama for additional public disclosures revealing Russian electoral interference. Such pressure has placed the CIA and other intelligence agencies between the incoming president to whom they will soon answer and a chorus of legislators, mostly but not exclusively Democrats, who consider the Russia hack a national emergency.

The “one smart man” in all of this has put them in some difficulty:

“There is not just smoke here. There is a blazing 10-alarm fire, the sirens are wailing, the Russians provided the lighter fluid, and Trump is standing half-burnt and holding a match,” said Glenn Carle, a retired CIA officer and interrogator.

“The facts hurt, Trump won’t like the truth, and he will without question seek to destroy those individuals or organizations that say or do anything that he thinks harm his precious grandiosity.”

Well, that’s the pattern:

On Friday, the Washington Post reported that intelligence sources believe the Russians decided to penetrate the Democratic National Committee’s digital networks with the goal of aiding Trump, not merely to spread uncertainty about the outcome of the election.

In response, Trump attacked the credibility of the intelligence agencies on which he will rely for early warning of security emergencies and geopolitical developments. His transition team said in a statement: “These are the same people who said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

This will not end well:

Adam Schiff, the leading Democrat on the House intelligence committee, said Trump “cannot abide the idea that Russian hacking helped his campaign” and was lashing out in a manner that undermined confidence in his handling of intelligence.

“If Trump is willing to disregard sound intelligence now, and demean the hard-working and patriotic Americans who produced it, I fear what he will do as president when confronted with unpleasant truths,” Schiff said.

“Will he accept the best insights of our agencies, or punish them for daring to contradict his assumptions?”

That’s a good question, and there’s another danger, considering Trump’s supreme self-confidence:

Carle, the retired CIA officer, said Trump’s temperament had played into Russia’s hands and put the president-elect on a collision course with the CIA.

He said: “Look, in my professional assessment as an intelligence officer, Trump has a reflexive, defensive, monumentally narcissistic personality, for whom the facts and national interest are irrelevant, and the only thing that counts is whatever gives personal advantage and directs attention to himself.”

“He is about the juiciest intelligence target an intelligence office could imagine. He groans with vulnerabilities. He will only work with individuals or entities that agree with him and build him up, and he is a shockingly easy intelligence ‘target’ to manipulate.”

Were Trump an intelligence officer himself, Carle said, “He would be removed and possibly charged with having accepted the clandestine support of a hostile power to the harm of the United States”

Okay, there is that, but it’s not just the CIA:

Two Senate Republicans joined demands for a bipartisan probe into Russia’s suspected election interference allegedly designed to bolster Donald Trump as questions continue to mount about the president-elect’s expected decision to nominate a secretary of state candidate with close ties to Russia.

Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) – the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee – joined calls by incoming Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and Armed Services ranking Democrat Jack Reed (R.I.) for a thorough, bipartisan investigation of Russian influence in the U.S. elections. Their statement came two days after The Washington Post reported the CIA’s private conclusion that Russia’s activities were intended to tip the scales to help Trump.

“Recent reports of Russian interference in our election should alarm every American,” the four senators said in a statement on Sunday morning. “Democrats and Republicans must work together, and across the jurisdictional lines of the Congress, to examine these recent incidents thoroughly and devise comprehensive solutions to deter and defend against further cyberattacks.”

This Washington Post item then goes on to discuss the other Republicans who are joining Graham and McCain in this effort, but they are few:

Republicans may be loath to join calls for such a wide-ranging investigation into Russia’s election-related activities given that Trump has dismissed the CIA claims as “ridiculous.” They may worry about picking an obvious fight with the president-elect before he is even inaugurated. Trump has signaled he wants a warmer relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he praised during the campaign.

They’d rather not argue with him. He says he’s the one smart man about Russia – the rest of them are fools – and that sort of thing worked well in the election. That’ll keep them in line. Voters don’t like reality either, but this may be a fairly prosaic matter:

Russia interfered in the U.S. elections to get revenge against Hillary Clinton, a former U.S. ambassador to the Kremlin said Sunday.

Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, said he thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to help Donald Trump win the presidency to hurt Clinton.

“Let’s remember that Vladimir Putin thinks [Clinton] interfered in his election – the parliamentary election in December 2011 – and has said as much publicly, and I’ve heard him talk about it privately,” McFaul said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

This was no more than a personal spat. Presumably, Putin would have had no problem with Bernie Sanders or Joe Biden. This wasn’t about Trump at all, but E. J. Dionne is still worried:

The CIA’s finding that Vladimir Putin’s Russia actively intervened in our election to help Donald Trump explains why many of us are not simply disappointed or unhappy that Trump won. We are genuinely alarmed. And Trump’s cavalier response to these fears only deepens them.

When The Post revealed the CIA’s conclusions about Russia, Trump’s response was to insult the CIA, tell a lie about the size of his victory and act as if an election, still very fresh in our minds, were some sort of historical event dating back to the Pilgrims.

The statement put out by Trump’s transition team, so obtuse and so arrogant, needs to be cited in full: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.'”

That Trump would happily trash our own CIA to get Putin off the hook is disturbing enough – and, by the way, there were dissenters in the CIA on Iraq. That he would ignore the risks our intelligence agents take on so many fronts to protect us is outrageous…

Oh, yes, and about his having won “one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history”? In the past 10 elections, Trump’s Electoral College take ranks seventh.

In fact, Trump may not be the one smart man among us:

The CIA finding is all the more worrisome because of how Trump has willingly served as a Putin apologist. On NBC in September, for example, Trump sounded very impressed with Putin’s power when he declared: “The man has very strong control over a country.” Well, yes, an autocrat whose opponents often turn up dead does exercise “very strong control.” Trump went on to declare that Putin had been a leader “far more than our president has been a leader.” I don’t know about Trump, but I think most Americans would rather live under Barack Obama.

That may not be the case, but there’s something else:

A further cause for concern: Trump and his top lieutenant Stephen K. Bannon have openly allied themselves with the far-right forces in Europe that Putin has championed. In a timely article for the Atlantic, “Russia and the Threat to Liberal Democracy,” Larry Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, speaks of a “romance between far-right, anti-immigrant European parties” and Putin. A Trump romance with Putin fits neatly into this narrative – which is precisely why Trump should want to dispel our fears rather than aggravate them. Diamond declared: “We stand now at the most dangerous moment for liberal democracy since the end of World War II.” Why are we afraid? Because Trump gives us reason to worry he will not be on the right side of this fight.

Nor was it reassuring that a day after the story about the CIA’s finding broke, Trump’s inner circle leaked that his likely choice as secretary of state was Rex Tillerson, the ExxonMobil chairman and chief executive who had negotiated oil deals with Putin. For Tillerson’s efforts, Putin awarded him Russia’s Order of Friendship. “Friends and associates said few U.S. citizens are closer to Mr. Putin than Mr. Tillerson,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

Dionne is not eliminating the negative, obviously:

Is it paranoid to want to know whether Tillerson’s ties to Putin are why he is at the top of Trump’s list to be our top diplomat? Is it out of line to wonder, given Trump’s lack of transparency about his finances, what role Russia has played in his business empire? After all, his son Donald Trump Jr. said in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets” and added: “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Now more than ever, we need to know exactly what he was talking about.

Dionne is not singing that old Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer song about accentuating the positive. Neither is Daniel Treisman. He’s a professor of political science out here at UCLA and the author of The Return: Russia’s Journey from Gorbachev to Medvedev and director of the Russia Political Insight project – and he has this to say:

In the 1962 political thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” a hostile government uses covert measures and secret agents in an elaborate plot to get its favored candidate elected president of the United States. The scenario seemed fanciful even at the height of the Cold War.

Today, the idea seems strangely topical.

To be clear, nobody has suggested that President-elect Donald Trump and his team are secretly working for Moscow. Law enforcement officials who investigated the campaign’s Kremlin ties last summer said they found no conclusive evidence of a direct link between Trump and the Russian government.

Indirect links are another story.

Those are a problem:

Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, resigned last August after his work helping a Putin-connected billionaire buy Ukrainian television assets attracted scrutiny. According to Newsweek, “American and European intelligence” investigated another campaign adviser, Carter Page, who was allegedly channeling messages from the Kremlin – a charge he denies.

Trump’s pick for national security adviser, Lt. General Michael Flynn, boasts of having made a high-level briefing to Russia’s military intelligence staff (GRU). He was paid to be interviewed live at a gala dinner marking the 10th anniversary of RT, the television channel that is Russia’s main international purveyor of propaganda.

And there’s the Exxon Mobile guy who will be our next secretary of state:

Tillerson told reporters in 2014 that he and colleagues had lobbied in Washington against the sanctions placed on Russia over its actions in Ukraine. Lifting those sanctions would mean a bonanza for his company. It would also give Putin a green light – so many experts believe – for potential further aggression against Russia’s neighbors.

But the “one smart man” knows better, unless he doesn’t:

Trump has stunned foreign policy experts – both Democrats and Republicans – with a series of pronouncements that echo or applaud Kremlin positions. He has said that Putin “is doing a great job” and has pledged to “get along very well with” him. Rather than Putin being behind the cyberattacks disrupting the US election, Trump has suggested the culprit may be “some guy in his home in New Jersey.”

He assured an interviewer that Putin would not “go into Ukraine,” only to be told that the Russians already had. He has said he’d “take a look at” recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and has cast doubt on whether he would assist NATO members if attacked. No act by Moscow could have done more to undermine confidence in the alliance.

Trump may not be the Manchurian Candidate but that’s close enough, and there’s this:

First, even if he wishes to bargain hard for US interests, Trump enters the contest with Putin at a disadvantage, having given away his strongest cards. He has already granted Putin’s first goal – to be brought out of isolation – without asking anything in return, and has shown that he has little stomach to continue sanctions. On Syria, he has backed away from demanding Assad’s ouster.

By making unrequited concessions and raising expectations of rapprochement, he has placed Putin in the driver’s seat. The Russian leader will likely view him as naïve and seek to exploit his inexperience, vanity and desire for quick results. The danger is that Trump will concede even more US interests in return for insignificant gestures.

Now add this:

The second danger arises from Trump’s famed temperament. Putin, who has lately cultivated a reputation for unpredictability, may have finally found his match in this regard. With two leaders improvising recklessly, the risk of miscalculations rises.

Not only are both leaders prone to gamble, each has surrounded himself with colleagues with a conspiratorial view of the world. Putin’s intelligence service aides are known to exaggerate the influence of the CIA in world events. Trump’s national security advisor designee, according to several news organizations, has used social media to push fake news stories.

The combination of inaccurate information and impulsive decision making is deeply troubling when found in a single leader. In two, it is downright dangerous.

Treisman is certainly not accentuating the positive, because there may be nothing positive here, and there is this now:

President-elect Donald Trump said Sunday that “nobody really knows” whether climate change is real and that he is “studying” whether the United States should withdraw from the global warming agreement struck in Paris a year ago.

In an interview with “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, Trump said he’s “very open-minded” on whether climate change is underway but has serious concerns about how President Obama’s efforts to cut carbon emissions have undercut America’s global competitiveness.

“I’m still open-minded. Nobody really knows,” Trump said. “Look, I’m somebody that gets it, and nobody really knows. It’s not something that’s so hard and fast. I do know this: Other countries are eating our lunch.”

Nobody really knows? Scientists and statisticians know – all of them. Those who think science is useful know. And then there’s the “one smart man” among us. All the scientists and statistician could be wrong, every single one of them. “I’m, like, a smart person.” It might be that they’re smart too, but he’s got that covered:

Last week Trump’s transition team for the Energy Department asked officials there to identify which employees have participated in international climate negotiations or worked on domestic efforts to cut greenhouse gases, such as calculating the social cost of carbon. Several scientists, federal union officials and public watchdog groups have expressed concern that these individuals could be targeted for retaliation once Trump takes office.

They may be smart, their science may be sound, they may be career civil servants, not political appointees at all, but they’ll be out of a job soon. They think they’re so smart. He’ll show them.

Trump certainly has supreme self-confidence, and Jackson Diehl looks at another way this plays out:

Donald Trump is about to lead the West into the third and darkest phase of its 15-year quest to neutralize the threat of Islamic extremism. The first was George W. Bush’s freedom initiative, which posited that political liberalization in the Middle East’s rotting autocracies would dry up terrorist recruiting. The second was the engagement policy of Barack Obama, who bet that respectful dialogue and attention to Muslim demands for justice – above all for the Palestinians – would make the West a less compelling target.

Both were widely judged to be failures. Now the new president will embrace the approach that both Bush and Obama explicitly ruled out as morally wrong and practically counterproductive: civilizational conflict.

Enter the “one smart man” in all this:

The outlines of what might well be called the Trump crusade are easily located in the rhetoric of Stephen K. Bannon, Michael T. Flynn, Jeff Sessions and other Trump appointees. They describe a “long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam,” as Bannon put it, or “a world war against a messianic mass movement of evil people,” as Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, has written.

Bush and Obama were careful to distinguish the terrorists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State from Islam itself, which they described as a great religion worthy of respect. Not Flynn. Islam, he has said, is a cancer, a political movement masquerading as a religion and the product of an inferior culture. “I don’t believe that all cultures are morally equivalent, and I think the West, and especially America, is far more civilized, far more ethical and moral,” he argued in a book published this year.

This third way, however, may not be so smart:

Trump’s civilizational conflict will be experienced not by Shiite militias or Sunni terrorists – who will surely welcome it – but by average citizens across the Muslim world. They will see it in the “extreme vetting,” if not an outright ban, they will be subjected to in seeking to enter the United States. And they will feel it in the ramping up of U.S. support for dictators and monarchs who are judged by Trump to be tactical allies in the civilizational war.

First among these will be Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who has been lionized by Trump and his aides for supposedly battling jihadists while seeking the “reform” of Islam. In three years of the harshest rule his country has known in at least half a century, Sissi has wrecked the economy and all but destroyed a once-vibrant secular civil society. Yet the increasingly unpopular dictator is quickly emerging as the foremost Trump ally in the region, already invited for the White House visit that Obama denied him.

Other autocratic regimes may quietly fall in behind Trump’s strategy, despite its anti-Islamic cast. Saudi Arabia and other monarchies will welcome heightened U.S. hostility to Iran as well as to the Muslim Brotherhood; Bahrain, the base for the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf, quickly signaled its obeisance by staging a national day celebration in Trump’s new Pennsylvania Avenue hotel.

And then:

It’s not hard to foresee the consequences of this movement. Muslims who despise jihadists and long to modernize their countries with free markets and democratic institutions will be alienated from their potential Western partners. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda, which all along have promoted the idea of civilizational war with the West, will gain new recruits, both in the Middle East and among Western Muslims…

Bush and Obama tried to transform the Muslim Middle East, or U.S. relations with it, and failed. Trump’s aim will be to quarantine and repress the region and its religion. The worst foreseeable outcome is that he will succeed.

But isn’t Trump the one and perhaps only smart man in the world now? Perhaps we should have messed with Mister In-Between – but we had eight years of him and all we got was economic recovery and healthcare for nearly everyone and the end to the war in Iraq and so on. The guy who never said he was the smartest guy in the room, even if he often was, who always wanted to listen to other views and took them seriously, didn’t have that totally awesome self-confidence that Americans seem to love. Oh well. We’ll have to make do with trash-talk. There’s no other choice now.

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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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