• ZipDialog Roundup for Saturday, May 27

    Articles chosen with care. Comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

    ◆ Comment: Trump’s Trip in a Nutshell 

    • Saudi: Completely reverses Obama’s disastrous tilt toward Iran, reorients US policy to fight Iran and terrorism, makes a promising effort to incorporate a large coalition of Muslim states in the fight; good speech, too
    • Israel: Hard to say whether the Palestinian-Israel talks will go anywhere; what Trump did in Saudi does set a positive context, but it is still a stretch; the negatives are that Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas will do everything they can to stop it, and the Palestinians have no effective government to make peace with, nor has their population come to grips with the far-reaching and permanent concessions they will have to make; the Israelis have no confidence that a peace deal would be adhered to or give them more security
    • NATO: Telling the Europeans the hard truth that they need to pay up is good. What’s bad is Trump’s failure to restate the core principle of NATO, that an attack on one is an attack on all (Article 5). That omission could send a catastrophic signal to Russia about the vulnerable Baltic states, which are NATO members. The only reasonable explanation is that Trump is signaling the Europeans that, if you don’t pay up, you cannot expect us to treat you as full alliance partners. Very risky business.

     Jared Kushner’s talk with Russians during transition included possibility of establishing back channel to discuss issues such as Syria  (Washington Post)

    Jared Kushner and Russia’s ambassador to Washington discussed the possibility of setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring, according to U.S. officials briefed on intelligence reports. . . .

    The meeting also was attended by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.

    The White House disclosed the meeting only in March, playing down its significance. But people familiar with the matter say the FBI now considers the encounter, as well as another meeting Kushner had with a Russian banker, to be of investigative interest.

    Kislyak reportedly was taken aback by the suggestion of allowing an American to use Russian communications gear at its embassy or consulate — a proposal that would have carried security risks for Moscow as well as the Trump team. –Washington Post

    Comment: Initial public interest has focused on the idea of a “back channel.” That’s not what’s important here; back channel communications are common. What’s important here is two things. First, the idea of using the Russians’ equipment to communicate this is amazingly amateurish and reckless (or at least at seems that way to me, as a non-professional in secret communications with adversaries). This scheme was probably Flynn’s misjudgment and Kushner’s inexperience. Second, it says the Trump team was extremely concerned the Obama administration was monitoring everything they had to figure out a different way to communicate securely.

    A third issue is bound to come up. What did they want to talk about? If they were talking about Syria, you could criticize them for undermining the sitting president. If they were doing anything that affected the business interests of private parties–and there is no indication they were–then that would be corruption.

     Hillary reappears at Wellesley Commencement, bitter, and attacking Trump (Washington Post)

    Comment: This has to be a Republican plot. It has to be.

    Only the Republicans could possibly gain from having Hillary out there hectoring the crowds, her shrill voice and tone-deaf delivery proving she still cannot give a decent speech, despite her having received tens of millions for giving them. (That’s a cruel joke, of course. She was paid because she and Bill provided access to power. It was a corrupt, rent-extraction game on a vast scale.)

    For Democrats, the real problem is that she reminds people of the none-too-glorious past and makes it harder for the party to develop new faces for the future. To recharge things, the Democrats need some new voices. It would help if they were not yet living in a retirement community on Social Security and a Reverse Mortgage.  

     US, worried about North Korea, plans a test shoot-down of ICBM  (ABC)

    Comment: The dangers from North Korean nukes are real and present. Their last test was a solid-fuel rocket (which means it can be launched quickly) and went to a very high altitude (which means it can already hit targets as far away as Guam).

    To kill these intercontinental missiles, which leave the atmosphere, is different from killing shorter-range missiles.

    The US has been working on this incredibly complex technical task since Reagan proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars). The latest iteration is what they will be testing.

    There is a partisan-political dimension here, too, aside from the need to fund the program. Now that America needs a serious anti-missile defense to protect against a North Korean attack on the continental US, people might want to look back and ask who has opposed, undermined, and underfunded that research at every stage over the past three decades. These political opponents, unlike North Korean missiles, won’t be especially hard to identify.

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  • NATO Summit Underscores Durable Alliance. The US Should Do Nothing to Undermine It

    Guest Author: Arthur Cyr

    Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of After the Cold War.” (Palgrave Macmillan and NYU Press).

    [Editor’s note: ZipDialog is delighted to include this post. The opinions are those of the guest author. Readers are invited to respond, both here and on social media. At ZipDialog, we take dialog seriously.]

     The NATO summit in Brussels on May 25 has received relatively little attention, thanks to the crowded schedule of President Donald Trump’s visit to the Middle East and Europe.

     The diplomatic whirlwind commenced with the Arab Islamic American Summit in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. Leaders from 55 nations addressed the threat of terrorism. The NATO summit is followed immediately by a meeting of the G7, comprised of the world’s principal industrial nations, in Taormina Italy. Since World War II, economic collaboration has been consciously employed as a counter to militarism.

     The brief Brussels meeting contained heavy symbolism. Remnants of the Berlin Wall, and World Trade Center destroyed in the 9/11 attacks, were dedicated. Traditional United States complaints that European allies should spend more on defense are rightly overshadowed by the momentous events these symbols represent. European military aircraft under NATO were patrolling the skies over North American quickly after 9/11.

     The terrorist attack in Manchester in the United Kingdom underscores the continued importance of military cooperation, and doubtless muted the sorts of disagreements which can become public when allied nations gather.

     Indirectly, the attacks draw attention to Britain’s important historic and current roles in transatlantic alliance. Winston Churchill’s World War II government worked assiduously to court American public and leadership opinion.

    Britain steadily fostered cross-Atlantic military cooperation as the Cold War developed. Britain’s Foreign Secretary after World War II, Ernest Bevin, kept the far left of his Labour Party at bay. He was effective in dealing with European leaders in forging the European Coal and Steel Community and forming NATO, key building blocs of modern Europe and the trans-Atlantic relationship with America.

    ◆ In a time of uncertainty, NATO continues to provide promising transatlantic cooperation. The U.S. should do nothing to undermine this.

    The opinions in this post are those of the guest author, Arthur I. Cyr . He and ZipDialog welcome your response here or on social media. Prof. Cyr can also be reached at [email protected]

  • A Brief Guide to Trump’s upcoming NATO Summit

    What Can NATO Do in Today’s Threatening World?

    May 25, the NATO heads of state will meet in Brussels. It’s an important meeting for the world’s most important alliance, the cornerstone of America’s military and diplomatic partnerships.

    If NATO is important to the US, the US is critical to NATO. It is the organization’s de facto leader because it has the diplomatic and military muscle and because it contributes 70 percent of NATO’s $890 million budget.

    What issues are on the table when Trump arrives in Brussels? The same ones that have plagued the organization since the Soviet Union fell in 1991.
    1. Is NATO obsolete?
    2. If not, what is its mission?
    3. Is NATO a paper tiger? If it is, how can it become more relevant?

    A Little Background

    The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in the late 1940s to contain the Soviet Union and safeguard the security of its original fourteen state members. It expanded occasionally during the Cold War, adding Greece and Turkey in the early 1950s, for instance, to contain Soviet probes to gain influence (and a warm-water port) in the Mediterranean.

    After the Cold War, NATO took in many of Eastern Europe’s new democracies, former Soviet satellites eager to form close connections with the West. In the process, the original 14 members doubled to twenty-eight, with Montenegro scheduled to become the twenty-ninth.

    NATO is both political and military

    Although the sub-text of NATO’s mission is to prevent conflict, in reality its reason for being is not peace.

    Today, NATO’s primary purpose is to constrain a belligerent and expansionist Russia.

    That is both a political and military task, and NATO has both dimensions. Or, rather, it has them in principle but not always in practice.

    NATO did not respond to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea or its bombing of the Syrian military and civilian opposition. Russia also guaranteed that Syria’s chemical weapon inventory would be totally liquidated. Not so. Last month the Syrian government committed a chemical attack resulting in the deaths of scores of opposition fighters and civilians. Again, NATO did not respond, although the US did with a barrage of cruise missiles.

    How should the US approach NATO now?

    The contemporary threat array facing the US and NATO is
    • Russian expansionism,
    • A hostile ISIS-Islamic Caliphate, and
    • Acts of domestic terrorism, which struck the West again this week.

    What should NATO’s role be in tackling these threats? My assessment is that NATO is still germane to constraining Russia, but it is not capable of countering ISIS or domestic terrorism.

    The US can regain its global leadership responsibility by using and supporting NATO, provided the NATO member states recognize, define, and implement their limited role as diplomats who are dressed in military uniforms. This is an expensive charade.

    The NATO member state budget commitment is two percent of their GDP. Compare the US 3.6 percent contribution and the 2 percent commitment made by Estonia, Greece, Poland, and UK, with the other 23 states that do not meet their commitments.

    NATO should stay in its lane.

    America’s focus–our national interest–lies in protecting the Baltic states from Russian military aggression, providing military weapons to the Ukraine (a non-NATO member), and re-integrate Turkey into NATO.

    The US can regain its global leadership position and responsibility by leading, using, and supporting NATO.

    Bottom Line: Keep NATO, but consider reducing its budget by 50 percent to allay US critics who seek to terminate the alliance because it is not cost-effective.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦

    Richard Friedman was chair of the National Strategy Forum/Chicago. He has served as a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Counselor to the American Bar Association Committee on National Security.

     

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Wednesday, May 23

    Articles chosen with care. Comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     Britain is now on the highest terror alert, with the military deployed.

    Complex terror operations like the one in Manchester are not executed by one man in his early 20s. The race is on to find the rest of the cell before they strike again.

     Crocodile tears from Europe’s clueless politicians. That’s what Bruce Bawer sees in the aftermath of Manchester. He’s furious about a political class that has casually invited a jihad into Europe

    His commentary on the Manchester slaughter is entitled: “Enabling Murder: Western politicians worry more about being called “Islamophobic” than they do about stopping jihadist slaughter” (City Journal)

    He quotes some of the European pols saying how sad they were and then blows them away:

    Meaningless words, all of them. But Angela Merkel takes the cake: “People in the UK can rest assured that Germany stands shoulder to shoulder with them.” Well, isn’t that . . . reassuring. In what way do such words help anybody to “rest assured” of anything? In any case, how dare she? This, after all, is the woman who opened the floodgates—the woman who, out of some twisted sense of German historical guilt, put European children in danger by inviting into the continent masses of unvetted people from the very part of the world where this monstrous evil has its roots. –Bruce Bawer in City Journal

    He concludes with a fierce, dead-on criticism:

    Today, British leaders refuse to deport imams who preach murder but ban from their shores respected writers and knowledgeable critics of Islam who dare to take on those imams and their theology.

    Strength? Don’t you dare speak of strength. You have the blood of innocent children on your hands.

    Comment: Bawer knows it all first-hand. A cultural critic and poet, he moved from America to Europe two decades ago and soon began writing about the hostility he and his gay partner faced from Muslims there, as well as their intolerance toward Westernized women, Jews, and secular law. He has become a vigorous and much-published critic of multiculturalism, which he sees as a disastrously failed experiment. He now lives in Norway. 

     “Obama intel agency secretly conducted illegal searches on Americans for years” That’s the story from Circa, where John Solomon and Sara Carter’s reporting has run circles around the somnolent MSM. To quote Solomon and Carter, who have seen the classified internal reports:

    The National Security Agency under former President Barack Obama routinely violated American privacy protections while scouring through overseas intercepts and failed to disclose the extent of the problems until the final days before Donald Trump was elected president last fall, according to once top-secret documents that chronicle some of the most serious constitutional abuses to date by the U.S. intelligence community.

    More than 5 percent, or one out of every 20 searches seeking upstream Internet data on Americans inside the NSA’s so-called Section 702 database violated the safeguards Obama and his intelligence chiefs vowed to follow in 2011, according to one classified internal report reviewed by Circa. . . .

    The normally supportive [FISA] court excoriated Obama administration officials. –Circa

    Comment: Why did the Obama administration reveal it at all? My guess: less CYA than telling the FISA Court about it to prevent the Trump Administration from doing the same illegal spying, perhaps on their political enemies. This whole thing is a very nasty piece of work.

     Why the “secular stagnation” of the economy? Nobel economist Robert Schiller, who predicted the housing bubble, has an idea (Here

    His thoughts center on two fears: that jobs are being replaced by technology and that the deep recession of 2008 could recur. Schiller writes:

    My own theory about today’s stagnation focuses on growing angst about rapid advances in technologies that could eventually replace many or most of our jobs, possibly fueling massive economic inequality. People might be increasingly reluctant to spend today because they have vague fears about their long-term employability – fears that may not be uppermost in their minds when they answer consumer-confidence surveys. If that is the case, they might increasingly need stimulus in the form of low interest rates to keep them spending.

    A perennial swirl of good news after a crisis might instill a sort of bland optimism, without actually eliminating the fear of another crisis in the future. –Robert Schiller

     Israel and the Palestinians: Is there any possibility for a settlement?

    One of the most interesting analyses I’ve read comes from Israeli Col. Eran Lerman, writing at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. He situates the Israel-Palestinian problem within the larger diplomatic alignment against Iran, led by Trump and the Saudis (reversing Obama’s tilt toward Iran).

    President Trump’s efforts to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table are taking place against the background of a broader effort to recast US policy in the region. The memory of Secretary of State Alexander Haig’s failed effort, back in 1981, to put together a regional “strategic consensus” against the Soviets may have faded, but the idea behind it is making a comeback. Facing the Iranian revolutionary regime and its proxies on the one hand and radical Sunni versions of Islamist totalitarianism on the other, key regional players are now more open than ever to an informal US-led alliance against their common enemies. The semblance, perhaps even the substance, of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front can facilitate this; but even more important would be a firm policy on Iran.

    Comment: Peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is still a very long shot, partly because Hamas and Iran would do everything possible to undermine it, partly because any Palestinian political leaders who made the concessions essential to peace would have great difficulty surviving it, much less implementing it effectively.  

     Does good news ever come from Iran? No. Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports:

    Iranians Re-Elect a Fake Reformer in a Fake Election

    Rouhani was the lesser of two evils, but Westerners vastly overestimate what an Iranian president can do. –Bloomberg

     Moody’s downgrades China, warning of mounting debts, weakening finances  (Reuters)

    It’s the first time China has been downgraded in 30 years.

    The one-notch downgrade in long-term local and foreign currency issuer ratings, to A1 from Aa3, comes as the Chinese government grapples with the challenges of rising financial risks stemming from years of credit-fueled stimulus.

    “The downgrade reflects Moody’s expectation that China’s financial strength will erode somewhat over the coming years, with economy-wide debt continuing to rise as potential growth slows,” the rating agency said in a statement, changing its outlook for China to stable from negative. –Reuters

    Comment: If China’s economy continues to slow, the global ramifications will be vast. And the regime will worry more about hanging on to power.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    zd-hat-tip-facing-inward-100px-w-margin♥ Hat Tip for helpful suggestions:
    ◆ Richard Baehr
     for the Bruce Bawer article
    ◆ Tom Elia for the Circa article on spying
    ◆ BESA for Lerman article on Israel-Palestine

     

  • In a Nutshell: The Problem of Fighting Terrorism with Saudi partners

    Pres. Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia was largely successful. He restored a sense that America was a firm partner in fighting Iran and terrorism and intended to remain in the region. Our partners and prospective partners had been anxious about those commitments after their disappointment with Pres. Obama.

    (1) The basic problem in dealing with Saudi Arabia on anti-terror efforts is that, however much they work to suppress specific terror groups, their religious ideology and aggressive efforts to spread it have fueled the problem of radical Islam around the world.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    (2) The second, distinct problem is related to the Saudis staunch opposition to Iran and its efforts to spread its national influence and that of Shia Islam. The Saudis, by contrast, are a Sunni sect (Wahhabi) and oppose the spread of Shiism.

    Because the Saudis’ main geopolitical opponent is Iran and because Iran is backing radical Shiite militias and regimes, the Saudis have often opposed them by backing radical Sunnis, including terrorists.

    Trump cannot stop that by persuasion. He can only stop it by helping the Saudis wipe out their radical opponents in these regional civil wars. That would prevent radical Shia terrorist groups from growing and the Saudis from backing radical Sunni terrorists to oppose them.

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  • ZipDialog Roundup for Monday, May 21

    Articles chosen with care. Comments welcomed. Linked articles in bold purple

     My quick take on Trump’s Trip:

    There are two key elements to Trump’s trip, in my opinion.

    The first is to reorient US policy in the Middle East after what most of the region considers the disastrous Obama years.

    Pres. Trump is saying “we are back and we oppose Iran.”

    In return, Trump wants (and expects) local partners to start cutting off terror funding from their locals and participate in the larger battles against Iran and terrorism.

    This stage of the trip, now completed, went very well and included a full-throated speech by Trump that touched the right issues without stepping on toes. It ended, significantly, with “God Bless America,” a phrase seldom uttered in the Land of the Two Holy Places.

    The speech was far-better received than Obama’s famous speech in Cairo, which was a prolonged apology for American policy and included ample references to the Koran. Those were overshadowed by his weak stance toward friends, even weaker stance toward enemies, and refusal to give the speech unless the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood could sit among the dignitaries–another of his disastrous miscalculations, as the region quickly came to see it.

    Trump’s second goal is to reestablish strong ties with NATO, while still pressing the Europeans for more payments.

    His visit to Israel does not have such clear objectives; we’ll know more soon.

    The Vatican trip is simply for show.

    ◆ Further comments: Dan Pipes calls the Saudi speech “pretty good”.

    Pipes is not an easy grader, so that’s a high mark. His praise is related to Trump’s reorientation of US policy toward Iran and Islam more generally.

    But he has some withering criticisms, too, calling the speech “incoherent” and “neither eloquent nor insightful.”

    It’s farcical to announce the opening in Riyadh, the headquarters of Wahhabism, of a “Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology.” –Daniel Pipes

    As always, he is well worth reading.

     Conservative media owner Sinclair is buying the Tribune’s broadcast TV stations. The MSM does not like it.

    The NYTimes has already opposed it, vigorously. Now the Washington Post does, too.

    Here’s the WaPo headline: Sinclair’s TV deal would be good for Trump. And his new FCC is clearing the way.

    When French voters resoundingly elected a centrist president rather than a right-leaning antiglobalist this month, one reason may have been the nation’s news media.

    As a French newspaper editor commented: “We don’t have a Fox News in France.”

    The United States certainly does have one. Pretty soon, it may have the equivalent of two.

    Sinclair Broadcast Group has struck a deal with Tribune Media to buy dozens of local TV stations.

    And what Fox News is for cable, Sinclair could become for broadcast: programming with a soupcon — or more — of conservative spin.

    Already, Sinclair is the largest owner of local TV stations in the nation. If the $3.9 billion deal gets regulatory approval, Sinclair would have 7 of every 10 Americans in its potential audience.

    That’s too much power to repose in one entity,” Michael Copps, who served on the FCC from 2001 to 2012, told me. –Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist

    Comment: There is a real possibility Sinclair will form a national, conservative network to rival Fox, which has struggled recently.

    You would expect Fox to be grumpy. Nobody likes competition.

    But opposition by the Washington Post and New York Times is different. They don’t oppose Sinclair because it will compete with them for revenue. Their opposition is ideological.They oppose Sinclair because it will compete with them for hearts and minds. 

    Still, you have to be amused when the paper owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos trots out anti-trust reasons.

     World Health Organization moves around in style, spending more on travel and upscale hotels than on fighting AIDS  (NY Post)

    The UN health agency blows around $200 million a year on travel costs so its honchos can fly business class and stay in five-star hotels — more than what it reserves for battling some of the world’s biggest health crisis, the AP reports. –NY Post

    The travel budget was also larger than the amount they spent fighting malaria or TB. They did spend more fighting polio.

    Comment: The WHO seems to have adopted Marie Antoinette’s motto. They should remember: it did not work out well for her.

     NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio honors a Marxist-Leninist, Puerto Rican terrorist  (PJ Media)

    Ron Radosh lacerates Pres. Obama for releasing the miscreant, de Blasio for honoring him, and the NY Times for papering over the evil:

    A few days ago, a New York Times headline informed readers that the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade held in New York City  would honor Oscar Lopez Rivera, a person they described as a “long-jailed militant” and a “nationalist” — certainly  a misleading description of the self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist and terrorist.

    If you’re wondering how this could have happened, you should thank President Barack Obama, who paid off any debts he had to the far left by granting Lopez Rivera clemency in the last few days of his administration. –Ron Radosh at PJ Media

     The real story is much hotter than the AP headline: “California Democrats take aim at Trump, GOP Congress  Well, d’uh.

    Here’s the real, crude, and disgusting story:

    In a sign of the vigor of the party’s distaste for the president, outgoing party Chair John Burton, a longtime Democratic lawmaker and powerbroker known for his blunt and profane manner, extended two middle fingers in the air as the crowd cheered and joined him.

    “F— Donald Trump,” he said. –AP

    Comment: Read that again to see what bias looks like. This crude, foul treatment of a democratically-elected leader is called “a sign of vigor.”

    Ask yourself this, if the Republican convention in Texas or Minnesota had chanted “F**k Obama” and held up middle fingers, do you think the Associated Press would have called it “a sign of vigor”? Not a chance. They would have blasted it with their biggest cannon.

    If you treat the same event differently, depending on whose ox is gored, then your reporting is biased.

    That’s one reason Trump’s backers are incensed that the MSM, which was somnolent during so many scandals in recent years, has come out of hibernation now that they have found a President they can hate.

     

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

    zd-hat-tip-facing-inward-100px-w-margin♥ Hat Tip for helpful suggestions:
    ◆ Tom Elia
    for the California Democrats story

     

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Sunday, May 21

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     Well, knock me over with a feather.

    Now that Comey has been fired, he has decided Trump really was trying to influence him  (CNN)

    Former FBI Director James Comey now believes that President Donald Trump was trying to influence his judgment about the Russia probe, a person familiar with his thinking says, but whether that influence amounts to obstruction of justice remains an open question.

    “You have to have intent in order to obstruct justice in the criminal sense,” the source said, adding that “intent is hard to prove.” –CNN

     

     Finally, somebody likes Trump: the Saudis. Partly, it’s Trump. Partly, it’s joy over Obama leaving

    The WaPo doesn’t put it like that, but the Saudi King came out in 110 degree heat to greet the President. No Saudi King did that for BHO.

    Comment: Why? Because they thought Obama had tilted away from them and toward Iran. 

     I love these success stories: Myron Rolle, former NFL safety and Rhodes Scholar, gets degree in neurosurgery  (Fox)

    The medical degree is from Florida State, his residency will be at Harvard’s Mass General.

     Smart, thoughtful article by a student who turned down her “dream college” because it was too expensive.

    Emma Krupp, now a junior at another school, is thriving and, despite regrets, is glad she didn’t mortgage her future. It’s an uplifting article, not a bittersweet one.  (Chicago Tribune)

    Comment: It’s an uplifting article, not a bittersweet one. I took two things away from it. The first is how mature Ms. Krupp is in recognizing that life is filled with trade-offs. She wanted to go into a career in journalism without a huge debt burden, but doing so required her to turn down one of the country’s top J-Schools. Second, it reinforces the need for donors to keep helping universities with student scholarships. America has always been a country of private generosity and still is. College students need that help–with scholarships, paid internships in the summer, and more.

     The Democrats keep lurching left, aggressively booing DNC Chair Tom Perez at California Convention (Sacramento Bee)

    State Democrats’ three-day convention had a raucous start Friday, as liberal activists booed and heckled Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez after marching from the state Capitol to promote a universal heath care program.

    The leader of the nurses’ union that opposed Perez’s recent election had just warned California Democrats that they would put up primary election challengers against lawmakers if they don’t support a bill to create public-funded, universal healthcare. . . .

    “Vote them out,” the crowd chanted, referring to Democrats in the Legislature wavering on whether to support their cause.–Sacramento Bee

    Comment: Their state is broke, despite Silicon Valley. It’s actually losing population for the first time in memory. The Democrats are firmly in control there. And what they want is to spend a lot more money.

     China had a way of stopping US spying. It killed the spies (New York Times)

    The Chinese government systematically dismantled C.I.A. spying operations in the country starting in 2010, killing or imprisoning more than a dozen sources over two years and crippling intelligence gathering there for years afterward. . . . 

    The number of American assets lost in China, officials said, rivaled those lost in the Soviet Union and Russia during the betrayals of both Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, formerly of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I., who divulged intelligence operations to Moscow for years.–New York Times

    Comment: Hanssen turned out to be the spy the Chinese used.

     As Obamacare edges toward death tremors, the NYT does it best to lay the on . . . , oh, go ahead and guess  (New York Times)

    When Humana announced plans to leave all the health law’s marketplaces next year, the president chimed in, “Obamacare continues to fail.”

    Left unremarked on was a big reason for the instability: The Trump administration and Congress are rattling the markets. –New York Times

    Comment: Yep, the problem with the ACA is Trump.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

     

  • ZipDialog for Wednesday, May 17: Making Sense of the News about Trump, Comey, and Russia

     The two big stories are about Pres. Trump:

    (1) The discussion with then-FBI Director Comey about the Mike Flynn investigation, and

    (2) The discussion with the Russians about ISIS.

    Let me offer comments on each, rather than a regular news roundup.

    My goal is to say what we know and don’t know about each and put their importance and potential consequences in some perspective.

     Comment on FBI Director Comey’s private meeting with President Trump

    The meeting was in mid-February, the day after Flynn was fired as National Security Adviser

    The most grievous possibility is that Trump was asking Comey to stop the investigation, which could be seen as obstruction of justice. That’s a very serious charge.

    Comey claims to have written a memo-to-self after the meeting. He held it secretly for three months and then had friends leak it to the press on Tuesday. The anonymous friends read excerpts from the memo and did not release it to the press. They kept their own identities secret, as well.

    Since it was Comey’s own memo, the leak had to come from him. No one besides Comey and the friends though whom he is leaking has actually seen the memo. We don’t know if he wrote memos on other meetings with Trump (or with others), but he probably did.

    I suspect this memo and any others he wrote will be subpoenaed. That could get very interesting. The Democrats, in particular, will enjoy the circus and the stench of scandal, using it to block the Trump presidency.

    Personally, I am disturbed Trump even broached the subject of the Flynn-Russia investigation with Comey.

    Excluding Attorney General Jeff Sessions from the meeting casts further doubt on the propriety of the President’s behavior.

    But there are problems with interpreting the information we currently have as an attempt to obstruct justice, which is how the Democrats and their favorite media are spinning it.

    • First, if there was an attempt to obstruct justice, Comey had a clear legal obligation to report it. He did not. That suggests he thought it was not such an attempt.
    • Second, Comey never discussed this potential obstruction with the second-in-command at his agency, which he presumably would have done if it were a disturbing issue or a close call.
    • Third, Comey never threatened to resign, a threat he famously made during the George W. Bush administration over a DOJ decision. He presumably would have done so–or told his associates about his doubts–if he thought Trump was trying to block an FBI investigation.
    • Fourth, Comey gave very detailed briefings to senior Congressional investigators about the Russian investigation and never mentioned it.
    • Fifth, Comey did not leak this bombshell memo while he was employed at the FBI. He kept it private for three months and only disclosed it after being fired. That means he either did not think the information sufficiently damning or else he thought it was his “job insurance” in case Trump wanted to fire him (a very disturbing possibility, reminiscent of J. Edgar Hoover). Right now, we simply don’t know why he kept it secret, especially if he thought it was so important.
    • Sixth, it is possible that Trump’s statement was less a request to kill the investigation of Michael Flynn (which would be obstruction, if that was Trump’s specific intention) and more a vague aspiration that he hoped this mess would end soon with Flynn cleared. (Again, I do not think the President should say any such thing to the leader of that investigation. That’s true even if his statement falls well short of obstruction.)
    • Finally, we know that the FBI investigation has continued full-throttle and that the former second-in-command, now heading the agency temporarily, said in public testimony that no one has attempted to impede the FBI inquiry. That’s vitally important.
      • If Trump were attempting to obstruct the investigation, it seems likely he would have done more. Of course, the Democrats say he did: he fired Comey. But he did so long after the “bombshell” meeting, so it is hard to connect the two.
      • Comey has also said that he didn’t get the additional resources he needed for the investigation. But that has been rebutted by the acting director (who says he has adequate resources) and the deputy AG (who says flatly that Comey never made such a request).

    Bottom Line:

    1. Trump’s political enemies see the whole episode as more evidence of Nixonian malfeasance, a wonderful chance for hearings that put Trump and the Republicans on the defensive, and a great way to impede and undermine Trump.
    2. Trump’s friends see it as something like an attempted coup by Comey, the intelligence agencies, the sore-loser Democrats, and their friends in the media.
    3. Expect many more shoes to drop, including a grand jury investigation of Russian financial ties by some former Trump campaign aides.

    ◆ Comment on Trump and the Russia Leaks

    Now, several days after the news broke, we still don’t know all the details. But we can reasonably conclude that Trump shared some highly-classified information with the Russians. Although Trump has full authority to do that and did not disclose “sources and methods,” he seems to have spoken without fully recognizing the sensitivity of the information or clearing it in advance with his national-security team.

    After the meeting, they called a couple of the US intelligence agencies to clean up after the fact. Some senior people in those agencies almost certainly were the ones who then leaked that information to the media, vastly compounding the damage as well as committing felonies by disclosing the secret information.

    The New York Times and Washington Post played this story as a huge Trumpian error, endangering US national security. But they never explained how, other than saying that such leaks were terrible and, because the leak came from a US ally, it could endanger that relationship.

    My assessment: Trump may have shared too much; it is hard too say since we don’t know the details publicly. If he did, then it was probably a combination of inexperience handling this classified material and an overestimation of our common interest with the Russians.

    But there is a huge irony here. The media’s main claim is that Trump endangered the US with his leaks.

    But it was the WaPo and NYT that spread that information around the world (via leaks they received) and it was the NYT that went further and identified the US partner who “owned” the intelligence, the Israelis. If the information Trump gave the Russians truly jeopardized the US and was a major violation of our security, then what exactly was the justification for publishing detailed descriptions of this secret data, which shares it not only with the Russians but also Iran, ISIS, and everyone else?

    Bottom Line:

    1. Trump may have made a mistake, but it doesn’t look like a huge one (from what we know so far). It may have been done out of hubris, inexperience, or overestimation of our potential to work with the Russians but not out of malice–and certainly not treason as some unhinged commentators have said.
    2. The media, the Democrats, and Trump’s other opponents, including many traditional conservatives, have exploited his error, exaggerated its impact, and actually compounded the problem by publishing additional classified materials, contradicting their claim that they were only worried about the national-security impact of Trump’s (presumed) error.

    ◆ Bottom Line on the two big stories taken together: the Comey meeting and the Russia meeting:

    This whole ruckus–the damage he inflicted on himself, the damage his adversaries are inflicting on him–destabilizes his presidency, sucks the oxygen out of his policy initiatives, splits the Republican party (whose elected officials don’t know whether to back him or back away), and weakens the country.

    If there is real fire beneath the smoke, the damage will get worse. Much worse.

    On the other hand, if Trump’s supporters think he is being railroaded out of office without conclusive, damning evidence, they will see what they feared all along: a Washington establishment that runs the country, regardless of what the electorate says–an entrenched, unelected elite determined to fight dirty to retain its power.

    Given the already-deep cleavages in the country, either alternative poses serious dangers to America’s consensual, constitutional order.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

     

     

  • ZipDialog Roundup for Tuesday, May 16

    Topics and articles chosen with care. Linked articles in bold purple

     The big stories are all about spying and cyber crime.

     The Washington Post and New York Times lead the reporting on Trump revealing highly-classified information to the Russians. Although the reports are anonymously sourced, they include considerable detail, including the fact that White House people had to clean up after the spill in Aisle 6. They also cite “former intelligence officials,” suggesting Obama’s people are still in the mix, leaking.

    • Washington Post report here.
    • NYT report here
    • The White House has publicly said the reports are false, but they didn’t really say what was false.
    • Every news organization is working on this and I expect plenty more to emerge. 

    Assessment: The anti-Trump left is at DEFCON3, preparing to go nuclear. The anti-Trump right is almost as vocal. Today, their favorite word is treason; tomorrow, it will be impeachment. 

    Those reactions are excessive. At least they are excessive given what we know right now.

    Let’s step back and see what we know.

    Assuming the news reports are largely accurate, Trump told the Russians about a particular kind of terrorist threat that he thought would be of mutual concern. The basic charge against him is that he spoke too freely.

    That’s not illegal, and it’s certainly not treason.

    But it’s not smart, either.

    At this point, we still do not know what damage, if any, his “loose lips” caused–or might cause.

    Although Trump did not disclose “sources and methods” directly, he said enough (according to the WaPo and NYT) that Russian intelligence agencies can walk back the remarks and discover something they shouldn’t know about those sources and methods, particularly about our sources of sensitive human intelligence. We are told that this human intelligence came through an ally, which “owns” the information and will be none-to-pleased. For years, our allies have thought that telling a secret to Washington is pretty close to publishing it.

    Again, assuming these basic facts are accurate, why did Trump do it? My guess: Inexperience, braggadocio, and likely a continued misreading of Russia’s intentions.

    What concerns me is not treason. You don’t do that in a room full of people, as I have tried to remind some friends.

    What concerns me is an undisciplined personal style combined with a chaotic White House organization. This is no way to run a railroad. Or a superpower.  

     Who executed the ransomware attacks? Clues point to North Korea, says the NYT

    The software uses tools we know the North Koreans used in earlier attacks on Sony Pictures and the Bangladesh Central Bank.

    The indicators are far from conclusive, the researchers warned, and it could be weeks, if not months, before investigators are confident enough in their findings to officially point the finger at Pyongyang’s increasingly bold corps of digital hackers. The attackers based their weapon on vulnerabilities that were stolen from the National Security Agency and published last month. –New York Times

    Comment: The attack on Sony was political, designed to punish them for a comedic film they thought mocked Kim Jong Un. The attack on the Bangladesh Central Bank was simply a robbery. That’s what the latest attack was–a crime to earn money.

    I doubt they will earn much money, and I think they will pay a high price because the Chinese were hit by these attacks. You think Beijing likes that?

    Btw, as China puts more pressure on Pyongyang, who will step in to help the North Koreans. There is already evidence the Russians are interested. We know the Iranians are already helping, too.

     Will the US move its embassy to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital? Fox News’ Connor Powell recently reported that Netanyahu told Trump not to move the US embassy right now. Powell’s report is completely false, according to contemporaneous notes of the meeting by the Israelis. Netanyahu was so infuriated by the story that he released private documents proving it false. The story is here in the Jerusalem Post. Similar story here in the Daily Beast.

    It remains to be seen if Fox will withdraw the report–and the reporter.

     Sharp clash between Trump’s team and Netanyahu after a “senior White House official” said the Western Wall was part of the West Bank and not part of Israeli territory. Story here in the Jerusalem Post.

    It seems that the official was prompted to make the statement after members of Netanyahu’s team asked if Netanyahu could join Trump on the visit to the Western Wall and whether Israeli photographers could document the event, to which the Americans replied that the Western Wall was a “disputed territory.”

    The official allegedly went on to say: “This is not your territory but rather part of the West Bank.”

    A source close to the preparations team in Israel told Channel 2 that the statements made by the White House official were received with utter shock by Netanyahu’s team. –Jerusalem Post

    Reuters reports the Israelis are asking the White House to explain the diplomat’s comment, which contradicts the most deeply held views of nearly all Israelis and the stated views of the US President himself.

    Until the 1967 war, Jerusalem was divided and Jews were prohibited (by Jordan) from visiting the Western Wall. Israel, by contrast, perhaps Christians and Muslims to visit their Holy Sites freely within Israel, including sites within Jerusalem’s Old City.

    Comment: Are the Keystone Cops running the White House? Or are the Arabists still running the State Department, perhaps as holdovers from the Eisenhower Administration?

    Whatever the problem is, somebody needs to come in, clean house, and get these operations running efficiently and working in the same direction.

    ♦♦♦♦♦♦♦

     

  • Syrian Regime Walks Hand-in-Hand with Iran and Russia through Dante’s Lowest Circle of Hell

    The vast crimes of Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime are well known.

    Still, it is shocking to see the new depths of their depravity.

    Today, the US State Department released a statement and surveillance photographs showing that Assad’s regime has built a crematorium to incinerate the prisoners they have murdered. (Fox News) The victims come from a prison Amnesty International has already called a “slaughterhouse.

    Surveillance pictures show a building the State Dept. believes to be a crematorium.

    The Syrian regime is using a site outside Damascus to cremate the bodies of thousands of prisoners it has abducted, jailed and murdered during the country’s long-running civil war, the U.S. State Department alleged Monday.

    Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Stuart Jones showed surveillance photos that — combined with intelligence assessments and other reports — officials believe show Bashar Assad’s government is complicit in covering up evidence of mass killings at the Sednaya Prison. Located near Damascus, the prison previously has been called a “human slaughterhouse” by Amnesty International. –Fox News

    The State Department added that these atrocities are being carried out “with unconditional support” from Iran and Russia.

    Here is the State Department’s official transcript of Stuart Jones’s briefing.

    Comment: The thought of a crematorium for political enemies after the Holocaust . . .