Ending in China

Tell an American that something is impossible and they’ll set out to prove you wrong. Nothing is impossible – as long as you have the right attitude, as Norman Vincent Peale had been telling America since 1935 or so – the middle of the Great Depression. That was something to cling to in an awful world, perhaps the only hope people had at the time. Things did get better, but not because of anyone’s attitude. Much had to do with public policy, and monetary policy, and then a second worldwide war that meant everyone had a job and a paycheck – but the message didn’t change. Peale’s 1952 book on the Power of Positive Thinking was on the New York Times’ bestseller list for years. Even in good times Americans will believe anything.

That’s why there are endless self-help books. So, there’s this cool job that pays well, which will make you cool too, but you clearly don’t have the knowledge or experience to do the job, and maybe you don’t even have the smarts to even know what would be going on most of the time. Apply for it anyway. If the interviewer asks if you can do the job, really, honestly, say yes you can – no problem. Think positively. You can do it, somehow. You’ll learn on the job. You’ll grow into it – and the implicit assumption is that the interviewer will be impressed by your positive attitude and hire you on the spot. Forget knowledge and experience and smarts. That positive attitude matters more.

That’s nonsense. You won’t get the job, if you’re lucky. If you do, you’ll be gone in three weeks, and then you can scrape up a few bucks for another self-help book to help figure out what went wrong. Was it your attitude? Did you secretly assume you would fail? It’s time to banish those thoughts. There are ways to do that. Read on.

Someone will get rich here. It won’t be you – but the dream lives on. Donald Trump never had the knowledge and experience and smarts to be president – not even close – but he does seem to be president. There’s hope. Tell an American that something is impossible and they’ll set out to prove you wrong – that’s Donald Trump’s life. American voters were the interviewers. They liked his attitude. It wasn’t positive. It was downright nasty. But he said he could do the job. How hard could it be? Every president before him had been a fool. He wasn’t a fool. That’s a positive attitude.

That was also nonsense. This job is hard. Things come up too soon, before you even know where the men’s room is, and you have to deal with them. There’s no way to fake it ’til you make it. The best thing to do is say likely things, hoping no one notices you have no idea what you’re talking about. Bluster – that’s a subset of positive thinking.

That’s what just happened. For Trump, Syria happened, and Anne Gearan reports on a man faking it:

President Trump confronted the enormity of the six-year-old Syrian conflict on Wednesday, acknowledging that he now bears responsibility for a war his predecessor could not end, but offering no specifics on what he could do differently.

Clearly emotional, Trump said a chemical attack in Syria that killed scores of civilians, including children, “crossed a lot of lines for me.”

“When you kill innocent children, innocent babies – babies! – little babies,” Trump said, “that crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line, many, many lines.”

Trump said the multifaceted conflict “is now my responsibility,” and he appeared to reckon with the same lack of good options in Syria that repeatedly confounded President Barack Obama.

Trump seemed to be hoping that was the appropriate thing to say, but he wasn’t saying much of anything:

Trump suggested that the attack Tuesday had changed his mind about his approach to Syria, which had seemed to focus exclusively on defeating the Islamic State, but he did not say what that might mean.

“I like to think of myself as a very flexible person,” Trump said in a Rose Garden news conference with Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

“And I will tell you that attack on children yesterday had a big impact on me, big impact. That was a horrible, horrible thing,” Trump said. “I’ve been watching it and seeing it, and it doesn’t get any worse than that.”

Yeah, well, so what? There was no so what:

The president would not say whether military action against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is more likely as a result of the attack, and he did not address whether his concern on behalf of the dead and injured civilians had changed his mind about the wisdom of accepting Syrian refugees into the United States.

But he did say his “attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.”

There was nothing there, but there was this:

On Wednesday, Trump repeated campaign-trail criticism of the Obama administration for threatening military action over that 2013 attack and then backing off. For the balance of his presidency, Obama struggled with the limits of an arm’s-length approach that he maintained was still preferable to direct military involvement.

“We have a big problem. We have somebody that is not doing the right thing. And that’s going to be my responsibility,” Trump said. “But I’ll tell you, that responsibility could’ve made, been made, a lot easier if it was handled years ago.”

Trump had supported Obama’s decision not to bomb in 2013, but as a candidate, he used the episode as an example of what he called the Democrat’s weakness and indecision.

This was Obama’s fault, but he would nobly step up to the task, like a man, but no one knew what that meant:

U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley suggested the United States could intervene militarily, although she, too, was not specific about what that might entail.

She was faking it too, but others at the UN took up the slack:

The British and French ambassadors to the United Nations criticized Russia directly for protecting the Assad government at the expense of civilians.

“History will judge all of us in how we respond to these unforgettable and unforgivable images of the innocent,” British Ambassador Matthew Rycroft said. “How long are we going to sit here and pretend that actions in these chambers have no conse­quences?”

He said Russia and China squandered an opportunity to call out Syria when they vetoed a February effort to condemn smaller reported instances of chemical weapons use.

Nikki Haley did mention Russia in passing. Donald Trump didn’t mention Russia at all, and Steve Benen offers this:

Six weeks after Trump declared, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated,” I half-expected him to say today, “Nobody knew that Assad could be so monstrous.”

The president wants everyone to now know that his “attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.” Okay, but what was his attitude before based on? Why did it take this week’s violence and bloodshed to change Trump’s mind about something he should’ve known before?

If it seems like this keeps happening with Trump, it’s not your imagination. Trump thought overhauling the nation’s health care system would be easy, right up until he discovered that it’s “complicated.” He “didn’t realize” the nuances of how Congress works. He thought private-sector deal-making was effectively the same as reaching governmental agreements, and was surprised to discover otherwise.

He apparently didn’t realize that Assad is responsible for a series of deadly atrocities, which is why we’re only now seeing the president’s attitude toward Assad “change very much.”

The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank puts it this way:

Trump’s discoveries of seemingly obvious things raise two possibilities: 1) He thinks people are awfully stupid, or 2) he is discovering for himself things the rest of us already knew. Which is true? Nobody knows.

The new guy on the job is a bit of an embarrassment, and Paul Waldman explains that:

Ask any conservative about what they objected to in former president Barack Obama’s foreign policy record, and the first words out of their mouth will be “RED LINE!” They’ll tell you that Obama was weak and feckless, and that his unwillingness to attack Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s government after it used chemical weapons on civilians in 2013 sent a message to the world that the United States wouldn’t stand up for its principles or follow through on its threats.

But now Donald Trump is president, and the whole world knows that they’d better watch themselves. Or maybe not. Maybe Trump’s “America first” foreign policy is a signal to the world that as long as you don’t directly threaten whatever Trump happens to care about on a given day, you can do whatever you want.

That’s where this is heading:

Obama allowed Assad to conduct a chemical weapons attack “and then did nothing,” so in response to this chemical weapons attack, Trump will… do nothing (other than have his U.N. ambassador call on Russia to rein Syria in). The man who five months after the election is still trying to convince everyone how great his victory was reacts to a new foreign policy problem his administration confronts by saying, “Hey, does everyone know Obama sucks?”

But Obama didn’t suck:

In December 2012, the Obama administration announced that it had intelligence demonstrating that Assad’s government was preparing to deploy chemical weapons. Obama said that any use of such weapons would constitute a “red line,” and “there will be consequences.” The following August, Assad launched a chemical weapon attack on civilians, and the administration threatened to begin a bombing campaign. Obama then sought authorization from Congress for military action, but it quickly became clear he wouldn’t get it, including from Republicans. In the end, the administration partnered with Russia to negotiate a deal under which Syria would hand over chemical stockpiles for destruction.

It was widely believed that Obama never wanted to initiate a bombing campaign, for fear that it would suck the United States into a deep involvement in the Syrian civil war, and he actually hoped that Congress would rebuff his request for military authorization. Which may well be true. But if you ask those conservatives what exactly they would have done differently in the circumstances, you quickly discover that they didn’t have any better ideas. The Syrian civil war is a nightmare in which a monstrous dictator is facing off against, among other forces, a monstrous terrorist group. There are no good outcomes, and our ability to shape this conflict to our advantage is near zero.

So we get the new guy, faking it:

Last week, the Trump administration made explicit what had been implicit: that the United States will not be seeking to remove Assad from power. “The longer-term status of President Assad,” said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday “will be decided by the Syrian people.” On the same day, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said that “our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”

That may have been an unspoken assumption of Obama administration policy, but as people with experience in foreign affairs understand, saying something out loud, even if it what’s everyone knows to be the case, can have profound consequences. Did Assad take these remarks as a signal that he can do whatever he wants? Is that why he launched another chemical attack for the first time in nearly four years? We can’t say for sure, but it’s certainly possible, and it’s what even some in Trump’s own party are saying. He may well know now that there’s nothing constraining him.

That means that the United States fakes it:

Trump is stepping up military action in places where the United States is already engaged, advocating huge increases in military spending, and simultaneously trying to gut the State Department. His secretary of state seems to be sleepwalking through his job, and is operating with barely any staff; it’s obvious that the administration regards diplomacy as little more than a distraction. With regard to Syria, the administration’s position is literally that 1) it’s bad for Assad to kill civilians, but 2) we don’t want anyone fleeing that war to come to America, and 3) it’s all Obama’s fault anyway.

It’s obvious that under this president, America certainly won’t be standing up for human rights or democracy. When Trump embraces a brutal dictator like Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi and says “He’s done a fantastic job,” that much is obvious. It isn’t even clear what goals the administration will be pursuing.

What kind of world would Trump like to create? Your guess is as good as mine. That’s not exactly a recipe for global stability.

That’s the new guy on the job, and Sam Stein, with Jessica Schulberg and Paul Blumenthal, adds this:

Perhaps Trump does believe in strategic vagueness; in keeping allies and foes alike guessing at what U.S. policy will be. But the more likely explanation is that he is hiding the absence of a plan. And that may be because Trump’s foreign policy, much like that Wednesday press availability, is hopelessly conflicted and disjointed. Under his world vision, America must be strong but not engaged, firm but not predictable, a force for stability but not propping up alliances, compassionate but with less concern for civilian casualties and the money spent on humanitarian aid.

That’s a masterful job of saying likely things that might sound impressive, but it’s nonsense:

Syria is focal point of these contradictions. If Trump does attack the Assad regime, it inevitably will be seen as an attack against Russian President Vladimir Putin as well – one of several reasons Obama was reluctant to intervene. Trump, who favors closer relations with Putin, has long opposed aggressive action against the Assad regime, which has managed to remain in power in large part because of support from Moscow.

On Wednesday, the president argued that his newfound position was a result of his pragmatism rather than ignorance. But it is clear that the administration has yet to arrive at a comprehensive approach toward Syria.

That may be impossible for the new guy who never did have the knowledge and experience and smarts for the job he said he could do – no problem – but the problems keep coming. CNN’s Stephen Collinson previews the next one:

It’s a blind date with global ramifications.

President Donald Trump and China’s President Xi Jinping meet for the first time Thursday and will seek to forge a connection and to stabilize the world’s most important diplomatic relationship, despite a gulf between them in experience, temperament and global outlook.

Both have a long way to come to meet in the middle.

Trump, the brash, outspoken, political novice who seems to give little mind to policy details, anchored his campaign on China bashing. He once warned that China had committed “rape” against the US economy and tweeted that global warming was a Chinese ruse to damage US manufacturing.

Xi, though more prone to depart from his talking points than his predecessor Hu Jintao, spent decades navigating treacherous Communist Party politics, and speaks in the formal diction of Chinese statesmanship, where words and linguistic formulae for defining diplomatic relationships matter above all.

Okay, this is the new guy, who is trying to fake it ’til he makes it, and the guy in power because he already had the knowledge and experience and smarts to do the job:

Xi is the most powerful Chinese leader in decades, and is flexing Chinese power in Asia on behalf of a nation still on the ascent.

Trump’s political position is far more precarious. He’s the most unpopular new American president since pollsters began assessing approval ratings. He took office at a time when US power in Asia is seen to be ebbing, to China’s advantage. And the President’s decision to pull the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal might have been seen as a win by his supporters, but was seen in Asia as a harbinger of a US retreat.

It seems that Xi has already won, and David Usborne adds this:

You almost wish President Xi Jinping had lingered in Helsinki rather than continuing on his way to southern Florida for his two-day sojourn at Mar-a-Lago, the stucco-and-terracotta confection that nowadays, on account of its owner, has been dubbed the Southern White House.

That would be Donald Trump, who seems entirely unprepared for a first face-to-face with his Chinese counterpart. He doesn’t have his ambassador in Beijing yet. His trade negotiator has not been confirmed. Nor are the State Department experts who would normally formulate Asia policy and brief the president on it yet in place. It is possible we are underestimating the homework he has done ahead of it, but on balance that seems unlikely. True, Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State, went on a ground-laying trip to Beijing last month, but was assailed for issuing a statement afterwards that read as if it had been written for him by his hosts.

This won’t be a fair fight, and Daniel Kurtz-Phelan sees this:

In the middle of January, while Donald Trump and his aides were devising a tale of American Carnage to be delivered a few days later to a modestly sized inauguration crowd in Washington, Chinese leader Xi Jinping was addressing a more rarefied audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Trump’s speech would be dark and angry. Xi’s was hopeful and assured – a high-minded paean to openness and cooperation and global community. It pledged that China would act not just for its own well-being, but for the well-being of people everywhere, before concluding with a call to “march arm in arm toward a bright future.”

Xi’s upbeat message might have seemed surprising given events of the previous months. The incoming U.S. president had launched his campaign declaring, “You have a problem with ISIS. You have a bigger problem with China,” and gotten ferocious applause during the race proclaiming, “We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country.” He had threatened to overturn the understanding that underpinned the two countries’ diplomatic relationship, the One China policy, and that goes to the heart of Beijing’s most acute national-security concern. He had broken protocol to take a call from the president of Taiwan. His most influential adviser, Steve Bannon, had blithely expressed “no doubt” that America would go to war with an “arrogant” and “expansionist” China by 2025. His nominee for secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, had hinted at a belligerent new approach in the South China Sea.

It seems we made a bad hire:

With skillful handling, Xi and his officials could not only manage Trump’s bluster and bravado, they could turn his posturing to their own considerable advantage.

Xi, by doing nothing more than delaying a phone call, had compelled Trump to reverse course on the One China policy. (“The president always gets something,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer insisted of the reversal, but the only apparent concession from China since Election Day had been suddenly favorable treatment of Trump Organization trademark requests.) Secretary of State Tillerson had shown up in Beijing and parroted Chinese talking points before a meeting, and then parroted them again afterward for good measure. (“He was aware of his word choice,” Tillerson’s spokesman later confirmed, while China’s state-run media crowed that the talking points had never been used by anyone in the Obama administration.) And soon enough, Xi had gotten just the sort of personal gesture he wanted: an invitation to meet with Trump at Mar-a-Lago this week, for a two-day encounter heavy on flattering photo ops and light on bothersome media interaction.

Trump may be getting played here:

Ahead of Xi’s arrival on Thursday, the dynamic is playing out again. Trump has issued the usual tough-guy ultimatums. “The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits and job losses,” he tweeted. “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will,” he said in an interview. “The clock has now run out, and all options are on the table,” a White House official added after another North Korean missile test this week.

Xi knows how such ultimatums should be handled. He has prepared the ground through informal channels, with his adept ambassador to Washington cultivating the ever-self-confident Jared Kushner and working around the more watchful diplomats and policy makers in the rest of the U.S. government (who mostly objected to the Mar-a-Lago meeting happening at all). He has crafted “a package of pledges designed to give the U.S. president some ‘tweetable’ promises to present as victories,” as the Washington Post put it, shiny objects that will placate Trump without ceding real ground. As the White House gloats in triumph, the Chinese will be happy to play along. And Xi will go home having gotten what he needs to strengthen his domestic position: praise for skillful handling of Washington and credit for exposing his American counterpart as a “paper tiger.”

That’s the plan:

Xi will try to avert any breakdowns: He has an interest in stability ahead of a November Communist Party Congress that will launch his second term. So, starting at Mar-a-Lago, he will play to Trump’s narcissism and political needs while taking advantage of the strategic opportunity at hand.

And for China’s leaders, the opportunity is significant. In Trump, they suddenly have an American president who sees the world in a way they can exploit – and has expressed only disdain for the rules-based liberal order his predecessors have worked to uphold. He cares little about how other powerful governments treat either their own people or less powerful countries they consider within their sphere of influence. He shows no interest in offering an alternative approach for American economic leadership in Asia after scrapping the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, leaving it to Beijing to set the rules instead.

And thus China becomes the real world power:

Trump is happy to sacrifice long-term advantages for the sake of a deal that serves his own narrow interests in the short term: Like a customer in a pawnshop, he is so desperate for an immediate payout that he doesn’t worry about the ultimate value of what he’s giving up. Xi, meanwhile, can seamlessly claim the role of responsible world statesman. At Davos, he had only to say the right words to elicit cheers from the crowd. Following another speech in support of the Paris climate accord the next day, The Economist deemed him “the global grown-up” of our time.

And that leaves Donald Trump the obviously unqualified kid who actually got the really impressive job. He did have that all-American positive can-do attitude. Tell an American that something is impossible and they’ll set out to prove you wrong. Then wait a few weeks. The world will prove you right. The power of positive thinking is limited. There may be no power there at all.

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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1 Response to Ending in China

  1. Rick says:

    Although not a “believer”, in the traditional sense, I actually do believe in Norman Vincent Peale’s “The Power of Positive Thinking“, but not in the sense that you, Alan, describe it — either a bit of slight-of-hand one invokes hoping to magically make things better, or else nothing but a bluff — but in the sense that, if you’re going to get some seemingly impossible task done (like FDR’s task of turning around the economy, for example), you’re not going to bother even seriously trying if you keep thinking it can’t be done.

    Trump’s different. He’s a bluffer. He doesn’t bother learning how to do something, he just figures he can get people to do things by the force of his own personality. Someone who just bullshits you doesn’t really believe in a positive anything.

    But while I’m here, I also want to reiterate, and join Paul Waldman in disputing something I’ve been hearing on TV all week from Republicans, and even some news people who ought to know better:

    Ask any conservative about what they objected to in former president Barack Obama’s foreign policy record, and the first words out of their mouth will be “RED LINE!”

    They’ll tell you that Obama was weak and feckless, and that his unwillingness to attack Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s government after it used chemical weapons on civilians in 2013 sent a message to the world that the United States wouldn’t stand up for its principles or follow through on its threats.

    Even after all these years, Trump still argues that line, even after revisiting his own tweets from back then, admonishing Obama not to give in to temptation and join the fight in Syria:

    Donald J. Trump
    The only reason President Obama wants to attack Syria is to save face over his very dumb RED LINE statement. Do NOT attack Syria, fix U.S.A.
    7:13 AM – 5 Sep 2013

    Donald Trump has a tendency to “misremember” things he’s said in the past, helped along by another of his tendencies, to just not listen or acknowledge when reminded of things he’s said before, such as:

    In a May 2016 interview on MSNBC, Mr. Trump said the United States had “bigger problems than Assad.” He added, “I would have stayed out of Syria and wouldn’t have fought so much for Assad, against Assad.” …

    “I think going in was a terrible, terrible mistake. Syria, we have to solve that problem because we are going to just keep fighting, fighting forever. I have a different view on Syria than everybody else,” he said during an interview with The New York Times.

    And while Obama’s famous “RED LINE statement”, according to Trump, might have been “dumb”, maybe because it set up public expectations of military action that would go unfulfilled, Waldman is right when he claims that Obama didn’t “back away”:

    In December 2012, the Obama administration announced that it had intelligence demonstrating that Assad’s government was preparing to deploy chemical weapons. Obama said that any use of such weapons would constitute a “red line,” and “there will be consequences.”

    The following August, Assad launched a chemical weapon attack on civilians, and the administration threatened to begin a bombing campaign. Obama then sought authorization from Congress for military action, but it quickly became clear he wouldn’t get it, including from Republicans. In the end, the administration partnered with Russia to negotiate a deal under which Syria would hand over chemical stockpiles for destruction.

    The point of which is, every time some Republican — and also some pundit or reporter, for that matter — goes on TV to state as fact that President Obama drew a red line, then totally ignored it, they need to be reminded that, first of all, the people’s representatives in Congress turned down Obama’s requests for military action in Syria back in 2013 — something which our present president agreed with Congress on back then — but that, nevertheless, Obama continued on to work with Russia, of all countries, to destroy Syria’s chemical weaponry — which, by the way, actually amounts to not walking away.

    And in retrospect, it may be just as well that Obama didn’t get his way in 2013, since winning that fight would probably have been just as impossible as it seemed at the time, and even fighting it would have only added more death and destruction to the chaos.

    But now President Trump has his own chance to bluff his way through this problem in Syria, giving not only all of us a real-life opportunity to second-guess his decision, but also to see how he spins his results when the next election campaign rolls around.


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