Hard Diplomacy

Things have gone over the edge. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, with all the parades and green beer and whatnot. Everyone is Irish on this one day? No. we’re all Americans. Why won’t these people assimilate? Hispanic-Americans know better. In early May they wouldn’t dare say that everyone is Mexican for a day, and Muslim-Americans know it’s best to just hide these days – and waving a flag now and then helps. Italian-Americans are still trying to figure out whether or not they’re supposed to be proud of Tony Soprano and those Godfather movies. Those of us who are Czech-Americans just smile. We provide the nation with irony, and just blend in. No one knows who we are – and out here in Hollywood there are voice-coaches who teach “unusual” people how to speak with that flat Midwestern accent, so they sound like Real Americans, or like network newscasters. But the Irish get a pass, at least for one day. Go figure.

But the nation needs more irony, because things have gone over the edge. That just happened in Washington. The White House actually cited a parody published in the Washington Post as an example of all the enthusiastic support out there for President Trump’s proposed budget – the “skinny” budget, which is no more than a list of general ideas – cut everything, everywhere. That’ll free up funds to build that giant wall, which Mexico will never pay for, and fund sixty or seventy billion more for the Pentagon – because our military is now smaller than Finland’s or something. And none of it will happen – no one wants to shut down the country, not even the Republicans who say they hate big government. They don’t. They’re selective about that – but it doesn’t matter. This was not a budget. This was a statement of values. America has gone soft. It’s time for hard power, internationally, and sink-or-swim hard times domestically. Let the losers sink.

The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri had a bit of fun with that in Trump’s budget makes perfect sense and will fix America, and I will tell you why:

This budget will make America a lean, mean fighting machine with bulging, rippling muscles and not an ounce of fat. America has been weak and soft for too long. BUT HOW WILL I SURVIVE ON THIS BUDGET you may be wondering. I AM A HUMAN CHILD, NOT A COSTLY FIGHTER JET. You may not survive, but that is because you are SOFT and WEAK, something this budget is designed to eliminate.

The White House linked to this item at the bottom of its 1600 Daily newsletter – here’s an archived copy before they deleted the link. They liked the title. They should have read it:

What are we cutting?

The State Department, by 29 percent: Right now, all the State Department’s many qualified employees do is sit around being sad that they are never consulted about anything. This is, frankly, depressing, and it is best to put them out of their misery. Besides, they are only trained in Soft Diplomacy, like a woman would do, and NOBODY wants that. Only HARD POWER now that we have a man in charge who thought the name Rex Tillerson was not manly enough and rechristened himself Wayne Tracker. With the money we will save on these sad public servants, we will be able to buy lots of GUNS and F-35s and other cool things that go BOOM and POW and PEW PEW PEW.

Environmental Protection Agency: We absolutely do not need this. Clean rivers and breathable air are making us SOFT and letting the Chinese and the Russians get the jump on us. We must go back to the America that was great, when the air was full of coal and danger and the way you could tell if the air was breathable was by carrying a canary around with you at all times, perched on your leathery, coal-dust-covered finger. Furthermore, we will cut funding to Superfund cleanup in the EPA because the only thing manlier than clean water is DIRTY water…

Commerce Department: This will lose its funding to prepare people for coastal disasters, because in the future we will all be so strong that we can stare down the sea and make it recede by flexing our bulging muscles…

We are decreasing funding to the National Institutes of Health because in the future we will cure disease by punching it, or, if that fails, sending drones after it. Also, we will buy more planes and guns to shoot airborne viruses out of the sky.

That’s just a bit of it. Yes, no one at the White House actually read the thing, unless one or two of them did, and kind of liked it. Donald Trump never backs down. That’s what makes him great. America should never back down. That’s what will make America great again. We can stare down the sea and make it recede by flexing our bulging muscles. That’s a cool metaphor.

That’s also nuts. Sometimes, given more information, or new information, you change your mind. Sometimes you make mistakes – you were dead wrong – and you say oops, sorry about that, and move on. The whole thing will be forgotten the next day. Donald Trump, however, never backs down. He never admits mistakes, and of course no one moves on:

President Trump provoked a rare public dispute with America’s closest ally on Friday after his White House aired an explosive and unsubstantiated claim that Britain’s spy agency had secretly eavesdropped on him at the behest of President Barack Obama during last year’s campaign.

Livid British officials adamantly denied the allegation and secured promises from senior White House officials never to repeat it. But a defiant Mr. Trump refused to back down, making clear that the White House had nothing to retract or apologize for because his spokesman had simply repeated an assertion made by a Fox News commentator. Fox itself later disavowed the report.

So, Trump took a domestic mess and made it into an international mess, but that’s what he does:

The rupture with London was Mr. Trump’s latest quarrel with an ally or foreign power since taking office. Mexico’s president angrily canceled a White House visit in January over Mr. Trump’s proposed border wall. A telephone call with Australia’s prime minister ended abruptly amid a dispute over refugees. Sweden bristled over Mr. Trump’s criticism of its refugee policy. And China refused for weeks to engage with Mr. Trump because of his postelection call with Taiwan’s president.

But this was special:

The president was hosting for the first time Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, who is seen by many Europeans as the most important champion of the liberal international order.

Though polite, the two leaders seemed stiff and distant during their public appearances. European news outlets and social media made much of the fact that she suggested a handshake for photographers in the Oval Office and he did not respond, although it appeared that he did not hear her. Either way, the two were clearly on separate pages on issues like immigration and trade.

It appeared that he did not hear her? That’s generous. He looked the other way. He didn’t even look at her. He doesn’t like her, or perhaps, with a handshake, people would see that she has bigger hands than his. He’s sensitive about his tiny hands. Or perhaps the problem is that she’s a woman. Women are soft. He’s hard – a tough guy. A handshake, captured forever on camera, would imply that “soft” and hard are both fine in this troubled world. Trump isn’t going to admit that.

It doesn’t matter, because the problem was the Brits:

The angry response from Britain stemmed from Mr. Trump’s persistence in accusing Mr. Obama of tapping his phones last year despite the lack of evidence and across-the-board denials. At a briefing on Thursday, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, read from a sheaf of news clippings that he suggested bolstered the president’s claim.

Among them was an assertion by Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News commentator, that Mr. Obama had used Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, the agency known as the GCHQ, to spy on Mr. Trump. In response to Mr. Spicer, the agency quickly denied it as “nonsense” and “utterly ridiculous,” while British officials contacted American counterparts to complain.

Trump wouldn’t let that stand:

“We said nothing,” Mr. Trump told a German reporter who asked about the matter at a news conference with Ms. Merkel. “All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn’t make an opinion on it.” He added: “You shouldn’t be talking to me. You should be talking to Fox.”

He admits nothing, and then he dug himself in deeper:

The president tried making a joke about it, turning to Ms. Merkel, who was angered during Mr. Obama’s administration by reports that the National Security Agency had tapped her cellphone and those of other leaders. “At least we have something in common, perhaps,” Mr. Trump said. She made a face that suggested she had no interest in getting involved.

She probably couldn’t believe this was happening, but still, the issue was the Brits:

Mr. Trump’s unremorseful tenor further stunned British officials, who thought they had managed to contain the matter. Kim Darroch, the British ambassador to the United States, had raised the matter on Thursday night with Mr. Spicer at a St. Patrick’s Day reception in Washington. Mark Lyall Grant, the national security adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, had contacted his American counterpart, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster.

On Friday morning, a spokesman for Mrs. May said the White House had backed off the allegation. “We’ve made clear to the administration that these claims are ridiculous and should be ignored,” the spokesman said, on the condition of anonymity in keeping with British protocol. “We’ve received assurances these allegations won’t be repeated.”

But White House officials, who also requested anonymity, said Mr. Spicer had offered no regret to the ambassador. “He didn’t apologize, no way, no how,” a senior West Wing official said. The officials said they did not know whether General McMaster had apologized.

This was getting absurd:

Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma said on Friday that Mr. Trump had not proved his case and should apologize to Mr. Obama. “Frankly, unless you can produce some pretty compelling truth, I think President Obama is owed an apology,” Mr. Cole told reporters. “If he didn’t do it, we shouldn’t be reckless in accusations that he did.”

Cole wasn’t alone:

Foreign policy analysts expressed astonishment that Mr. Trump would so cavalierly endanger that partnership. “It illustrates the extent to which the White House really doesn’t care what damage they do to crucial relationships in order to avoid admitting their dishonesty,” said Kori Schake, a former national security aide to President George W. Bush now at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “America’s allies are having to protect themselves against being tarred with the White House’s mendacity.”

Eric S. Edelman, an undersecretary of defense under Mr. Bush, has written about the stresses between the United States and Britain in recent years. “I hope that this latest episode doesn’t drive a stake through the heart of the strongest remaining element of Anglo-American partnership,” he said.

Julianne Smith, who was a deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., said Mr. Trump did not appear to realize how much American intelligence agencies depend on Britain in dealing with threats around the world. “He will probably live to see the day when he will regret firing off such an egregious insult to Britain and then failing to apologize for it,” she said.

Trump, like Edith Piaf, doesn’t do regrets, but Josh Barro sees the danger here:

If President Donald Trump gets us all killed, it’s going to be through a chain of events like what we have seen over the past day…

The British are furious, as of course they should be. What Trump’s staff accused them of would be a violation of an informal agreement that the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing countries avoid spying on one another’s citizens.

We are literally having an international incident because our president was mad on the internet.

Obviously, a stupid and gratuitous diplomatic spat with the British is not going to lead to an exchange of nuclear saber rattling. But Trump’s delusional thinking, unwillingness to admit fault, and fragile male ego are not limited to his relations with our close allies.

That’s the problem:

What I most fear about Trump’s presidency is that he will blunder into a nuclear war. If he does, it will look something like this, but with a less-forgiving country than Britain. Perhaps, for example, it could be North Korea, a country doing its best to stir the pot.

It’s not that I think Trump will get offended and immediately order a nuclear strike on a country that offends him. I believe that he could be talked out of that. I even believe that the military chain of command would refuse such a ridiculous order.

Rather, it is that Trump will create a chain of unnecessary provocations, escalating situations that should be de-escalated, until we end up in a nuclear exchange – perhaps even one in which we are making the second strike.

One thing does lead to another:

If you think about international incidents on a scale from “easy to de-escalate” to “hard to de-escalate,” “stupid accusation against GCHQ” is way out on the “easy” end. And yet, this White House cannot even fix that one correctly.

As you watch the White House fail to fix this easy-to-fix screw-up, do you have any confidence in it to manage a confrontation with North Korea with a clear eye toward avoiding millions of deaths on the Korean Peninsula? What will happen if Trump feels de-escalating the situation in Korea will involve a loss of face for him?

Trump talks about nuclear war as though it is a grim inevitability. It’s not – nuclear war is avoided through careful and responsible diplomatic maneuvering by nuclear powers, both friendly and hostile. But “responsible diplomatic maneuvering” is not Trump’s strong suit.

As I watch Trump blunder with Britain, I am terrified that his handling of the Korean crisis might lead to the deaths of many, many, many, many people.

Of course, it probably won’t. But the probability that it will is far too high. Of the unacceptable tail risks of the Trump presidency, this is by far the scariest and most unacceptable. And it’s a bigger deal than healthcare, the “skinny budget,” or any other news this week.

Josh Barro is right to worry, because we will no longer be “soft” over there either:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned for the first time Friday that “all options” are being considered to counter North Korea’s emerging nuclear threat, including a military strike if necessary to safeguard allies and tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the region.

The threat of a U.S. military attack comes after a series of ballistic missile tests by Kim Jong Un’s government in recent weeks has heightened tensions across northeast Asia and raised the possibility of a conflict with an adversary that now possesses nuclear arms and appears close to being able to strike U.S. territory.

The tough talk appears to be a break from previous U.S. administrations, which emphasized diplomacy, economic sanctions and covert operations, including cyberattacks, to try to reduce the danger from one of the world’s most isolated, and unpredictable, dictatorships.

That’s over now:

“Let me be very clear: The policy of strategic patience has ended,” he said, referring to the Obama administration’s policy of trying to wait out the North Korean regime while pressing it with economic sanctions and covert actions…

Tillerson emphasized the need for maintaining economic sanctions on Pyongyang but also made clear that the Trump administration would not be limited to that approach.

So we get this:

Among the options would be to boost South Korea’s anti-missile defenses, a process that is underway, or to enable Japan to build an offensive missile capability. Japan’s 1947 Constitution, imposed by the United States, limits its military to defense only.

Washington also could reintroduce nuclear weapons to U.S. bases in South Korea to serve as a front-line deterrent. They were removed in 1991 under President George H. W. Bush as part of a post-Cold War effort to ease global nuclear tensions.

There was a good reason for that:

Previous administrations have considered a first strike against North Korean missile and nuclear facilities an option of last resort because it almost certainly would provoke a massive retaliation against South Korea and Japan. More than 75,000 U.S. military personnel are stationed in those countries.

The mounting threat could pose the first major foreign policy crisis for the Trump White House. As a candidate, Trump suggested letting Japan and South Korea build their own nuclear weapons to counter North Korea, but he has not pursued that as president.

Even the threat of a preemptive American attack adds risks to a volatile situation since North Korea has always insisted that was the U.S. intention. Its leaders have used that claim to justify creating one of the world’s most heavily armed states.

But there will no talking about that:

Tillerson also appeared to reject the idea of trying to negotiate a freeze in North Korea’s weapons program, a policy that the Clinton administration tried in 1994 by supplying oil and other aid to Pyongyang in an effort to block its then-nascent nuclear development.

The so-called Agreed Framework successfully slowed Pyongyang’s ability to produce weapons-grade plutonium that could be used to fuel a bomb. But the deal collapsed in 2002 when Pyongyang shifted course and pursued a uranium-enrichment route to nuclear arms.

We won’t back down this time, but neither will the other side:

On Thursday, the North Korean Embassy in Beijing invited reporters in for a rare news conference to blame the United States for putting the region at what it called “the brink of nuclear war.”

The bellicose language was not new but issuing the threat in Beijing, which the Trump administration hopes will help constrain Pyongyang, was notable. China has announced a ban on coal imports from North Korea, but analysts doubt Beijing will enforce the ban for fear of creating instability on its border.

For his part, President Trump declared on Twitter that North Korea was “behaving very badly” and dismissed a Chinese proposal to freeze North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs in exchange for a halt to U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

Nope, we’re not going to back down. America won’t do that again, and Joshua Keating sees this:

So how scary are things? While it’s not clear that Tillerson’s threats of military action are any more serious than the tough talk of previous administrations, the prospect of an attack on North Korea is deeply alarming, in large part because, as Jeffery Lewis recently wrote, there’s every indication that North Korea intends to use its nuclear weapons early, to repel such an invasion. Kim does not want to share the fate of Saddam Hussein or Muammar Qaddafi, and if he believes an attack is imminent, the likelihood that he will attack first goes up. So if the U.S. backs up Trump and Tillerson’s boilerplate bluster with a military posture that’s actually more aggressive, that might encourage rather than deter a disaster.

Kim is as “hard” as Trump, and add this:

North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are also improving at an alarming clip. The country appears to be taking the final steps to arm its missiles with nuclear weapons, and earlier this month fired four missiles in what it said was a drill to practice an attack on U.S. military bases in Japan. It’s still years away from developing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, but it appears to be making progress toward that goal. President Trump has vowed that this “won’t happen.” But so far, it’s not clear how he plans to prevent it.

But we can stare down the sea and make it recede by flexing our bulging muscles, can’t we? Things have gone over the edge. There’s a reason people drink so much on Saint Patrick’s Day, and it has nothing to do with the Irish.

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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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One Response to Hard Diplomacy

  1. In “Getting His Way” on March 15, your last words were “This won’t end well….” So true. I’m a pipsqueak in all of this. We’re all part of assorted power “food chains”. Somewhere up at the highest level I can only hope that there are some larger ‘birds of prey’ figuring out how to help this little ‘canary’ to survive. The first step is for them to acknowledge that they have a serious problem on their hands. The Republican Party deliberately chose this destination when they decided to embrace Steve Bannon’s surrogate and put him in the Oval Office….

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