Trump versus Iran: Power Doesn’t Just Corrupt, it Deludes

On January 8, US president Donald Trump addressed the American public concerning a casualty-free Iranian missile attack on US bases in Iraq, where just last week Iranian general Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US drone strike.

If the speech was remarkable in any way, it was for the comparative restraint Trump displayed: Rather than pledging another round of tit-for-tat, he announced new sanctions on Iran, vowed that “as long as I’m president of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon,” called on NATO to “become much more involved in the Middle East process,” and rambled aimlessly about the “Iran nuclear deal” that his administration abrogated in 2018.

What was unremarkable — and unfortunate — in the speech was the obvious assumption underlying it: That the United States enjoys, and SHOULD enjoy, absolute power in international relations.

Trump is hardly unique in publicly stating, or in operating on, that assumption. The claim of such absolute power has been the tacit US doctrine of foreign relations since at least as far back as the end of World War Two.

America emerged from that war as the world’s sole nuclear power and, unlike other combatant countries, with its wealth virtually unscathed and its industrial capacity increased rather than demolished. Its rulers saw themselves as able, and entitled, to dictate terms to almost everyone, on almost everything.

“Power tends to corrupt,” wrote Lord Acton, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Acton was referring to individuals (“great men are almost always bad men”), but his observation is just as true of institutions. And above and beyond corruption, absolute power creates delusion.

The post-war “consensus” on American power around the world began to fray almost immediately.

The Soviet Union acquired “the bomb” and settled in for half a century of dominating eastern Europe.

The US found itself fought to a draw in Korea and defeated in Vietnam when it tried to throw its newfound weight around.

Even after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the US learned that Michael Ledeen’s re-formulation of the doctrine — “every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business” — tends toward big price tags and negative returns.

Yet the delusion persists. It substitutes hubris for humility, sacrificing the blood and treasure of Americans and foreigners alike on the altar of a false god and in pursuit of an imaginary paradise.

The foreign policy recommended by Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address —  “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none” — was, and remains, the common-sense alternative to the nonsensical assumption of absolute American power.

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Trump’s Democratic Critics Want it Both Ways on Biden, Clinton

US president Donald Trump “elevated his political interest above the national interest and demanded foreign interference in an American election,” Peter Beinart asserts at The Atlantic. “What’s received less attention is what the scandal reveals about Joe Biden: He showed poor judgment because his staff shielded him from hard truths. If that sounds faintly familiar, it’s because that same tendency underlay Hillary Clinton’s email woes in 2016.”

Beinart admits that Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s service as a very well-paid member on the board of a Ukrainian energy company at the same time his father’s portfolio included “fighting corruption in the Ukrainian energy industry” was “a problem.”

But it’s not Joe’s fault, see? His staffers didn’t want to confront him about the conflict of interest. They “feared the vice president’s wrath,” and thought him “too fragile” after one son’s death to hear “upsetting news” about the other’s conduct.

Ditto Hillary Clinton. As Secretary of State, she was briefed on (and signed papers agreeing to abide by) State Department protocols on the handling of classified information and the use of non-government email systems.  But Beinart lets Clinton off the hook because her chief of staff and other aides failed to “forcefully convey” her obligations to her.

Here’s Beinart’s case — one also made by other Democratic partisans — boiled down to its essentials:

When Republicans act criminally and/or corruptly, it’s because they’re criminal and/or corrupt.

When Democrats act criminally and/or corruptly, it’s because they’re just poor, temperamental, out-of-their-element naifs who of course have no criminal or corrupt intent, but whose staffers — whether negligently, or out of concern for feelings or fear of offending — neglect to button their winter coats for them, take them by their little mittened hands, and carefully walk them across all those busy, dangerous legal/ethical streets.

There are two obvious problems with this double standard.

One is that for the last three years we’ve been told over and over (by, among others, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden) that Trump is a loose cannon, an eternal man-child who lacks “adults in the room” to help him navigate the intricacies of governing. So why shouldn’t Trump receive the same “Blame the Aides and Get Out of Jail Free Card” that Beinart tries to play on behalf of the other two?

The other is that in arguing that Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton aren’t responsible for their actions because they’re too stupid to discern right from wrong and too simultaneously mean and emotionally delicate to be TOLD right from wrong, Beinart is necessarily also arguing that Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton were and are, by definition, unfit to entrust with responsibilities as weighty as those that go with, say, the presidency of the United States.

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Yep, These People are Stone Cold Crooked

Did vice president Joe Biden threaten to withhold $1 billion in US loan guarantees from the Obama administration if the Ukrainian government failed to remove a prosecutor whose investigation targets included Burisma Holdings, a gas company on whose board Biden’s son, Hunter, sat? Yes. He’s publicly admitted it.

Did president Donald Trump pressure Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to re-open corruption investigations into Burisma in general and the Bidens specifically? Yes. He’s publicly admitted it.

Let us briefly pause while partisan Democrats and partisan Republicans, supporters of Biden and supporters of Trump,  get the screams of “false equivalency!” out of their systems.

I’ll even entertain the notion. Maybe Joe Biden was just worried about corruption in Ukraine and not throwing his vice-presidential weight around to protect his son. Maybe Donald Trump is just worried about corruption in Ukraine and self-dealing by American politicians, rather than cynically abusing his presidential power to have foreign governments torpedo his political opponents.

OK, now let’s get back to the real world where, as Lord Acton wrote, “power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Or, as President Trump tweeted about his accusers, and has he’s established concerning himself over the course of decades, “these people are stone cold crooked.”

The basic facts of both sets of accusations are undisputed by the accused. What’s at issue is their motives.

Those with power (including one of its forms, wealth) tend to act to preserve that power. As the amount of power requiring preservation increases, so does the temptation to use that power in corrupt ways to protect and expand it.

The positions of president and vice-president/potential president, entail considerable power. Suspecting corrupt motives on Biden’s part, Trump’s part, or both, is not only not beyond the pale, it’s perfectly reasonable.

The emerging scandal may cost both Trump and Biden their 2021-2025 presidential ambitions. It could conceivably even cost Trump several months of his current term if the House impeaches and the Senate convicts (the former looks increasingly likely, the latter seemingly unlikely).

But the problem goes deeper than the ambitions or personal moral compasses of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. The problem is power itself. We’ve ceded far too much of it to politicians, and the executive branch in particular has co-opted far too much of what we’ve unwisely ceded to the state in general.

Neither Joe Biden nor Donald Trump should have ever had control over billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine’s government in the first place. If the US does dispense foreign aid (it shouldn’t), the job of the White House is to cut the checks as directed by Congress.

The US, after decades of creep toward dictatorship, is there. The executive branch has seized plenary power because Congress has failed to jealously guard its prerogatives and the Supreme Court has failed to zealously protect our rights.

The authoritarian dystopia into which we’ve fallen, not the specific details of a dictator’s or would-be dictator’s abuses,  is the problem. If we don’t solve it, we solve nothing.

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Trump and Netanyahu: “Mutual Defense” or Just Mutual Political Back-Scratching?

On September 14, US president Donald Trump tweeted (of course) the suggestion of a US-Israel “Mutual Defense Treaty,” citing a call with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Hopefully there’s less going on here than meets the eye: The tweet may just be another mutual publicity back-scratch of the type Trump and Netanyahu frequently exchange when they find themselves in political pickles. And Netanyahu is likely in the biggest such pickle of his career.

After failing to put together a ruling coalition in the wake of April’s general election, Netanyahu called another election for September 17.

Netanyahu also faces imminent indictment on three corruption charges, with a court hearing on the charges scheduled for early October. In June, his wife Sara took a plea deal and paid a fine for misusing state funds.

Netanyahu’s personal future may well depend on him having a political future. He’s pulling out all stops to change the April results, from approving new Israeli squats (“settlements”) in, and even promising to annex parts of, the occupied West Bank, to conducting military attacks in Syria and Iraq and along the Lebanese border.

Talk of a “Mutual Defense Treaty” with the US may well drive some badly needed votes his way, especially to the extent that such a treaty might be thought available only to Netanyahu and his Likud Party but not to Benny Gantz’s Blue and White alliance (the platform of which, by the way, bars indicted politicians from serving in the Knesset, Israel’s legislature).

So maybe Trump’s tweet is just politics. But if it’s for real, it’s a bad idea for the US, a bad idea for Israel, and a bad idea for world peace.

The US doesn’t need Israel’s assistance to defend itself. It already spends far more than any other state in the world on its military,  that amount is many multiples of any amount reasonably related to actual defense, and it faces no existential military threats other than attack with nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missiles, which Israel couldn’t plausibly reduce.

Israel hasn’t faced a military threat to its existence since 1973, and given the web of US-influenced and US-financed relations it’s created with Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, isn’t likely to face any such threat not of its own making for the foreseeable future .

As for peace in general, Trump proposes a “Mutual Defense” pact with a rogue nuclear garrison ethno-state in a tinderbox region. What could possibly go wrong?

A “Mutual Defense Treaty” with the US would only encourage further bad behavior and saber-rattling on the part of the Israelis toward e.g. Iran and Syria. That’s the kind of behavior bound to eventually CREATE a real military threat, resulting in the Israelis demanding US support pursuant to the treaty, on a claim of “Mom, he hit me back FIRST.”

It’s time for the US to start furling its post-World War Two “security umbrella” instead of inviting suspect new partners to join it beneath that umbrella. America’s future, if it is to have one, requires a non-interventionist foreign policy.

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Sneering at “Conspiracy Theories” is a Lazy Substitute for Seeking the Truth

On the morning of August 10, a wealthy sex crimes defendant  was reportedly found dead in his cell at New York’s Metropolitan Correctional Center.

“New York City’s chief medical examiner,” the New York Times reported on August 11, “is confident Jeffrey Epstein died by hanging himself in the jail cell where he was being held without bail on sex-trafficking charges, but is awaiting more information before releasing her determination …”

That same day, the Times published an op-ed by Charlie Warzel complaining that “[e]ven on an internet bursting at the seams with conspiracy theories and hyperpartisanship, Saturday marked a new chapter in our post-truth, ‘choose your own reality’ crisis story.”

After three years of continuously beating the drum for its own  now-discredited conspiracy theory —  that the President of the United States conspired with Vladimir Putin’s regime to rig the 2016 presidential election — the Times doesn’t have much standing to whine about, or sneer at, “conspiracy theories and hyperpartisanship.”

Is Jeffrey Epstein really dead? If so, did he kill himself or was he murdered? If he was murdered, whodunit and why?

Those are legitimate questions. Calling everyone who asks them, or proposes possible answers to them, a “conspiracy theorist” isn’t an argument, it’s intellectual laziness.

Yes, some theories fit the available evidence better than others. And yes, some theories just sound crazy. If someone says a UFO beamed Epstein up, or that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump posed as corrections officers and personally strangled him, I suggest setting those claims aside absent very strong evidence.

But there are plenty of good  reasons to question the “official account.”

Yes, prisoners have committed suicide at federal jails and prisons. But prisoners have also escaped from, and been killed at, such facilities. In fact, notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger was murdered in a federal prison just last year.

Given Epstein’s wealth and power, the wealth and power of persons accused of serious crimes in recently unsealed court documents, the claim of one of his prosecutors that Epstein “belonged to” the US intelligence community, the well-established inability of the federal government to secure its facilities or prevent criminal activity inside those facilities (including the corruption of its own personnel), the equally well-established unreliability of claims made by government agencies and officials in general, and the already flowing stream of admissions that the Metropolitan Correctional Center’s procedures weren’t followed where Jeffrey Epstein was concerned, the question is not why “conspiracy theories” are circulating — it’s why on earth they WOULDN’T be.

No, I’m not saying that Epstein is alive and living it up in “witness protection,” or that he was murdered by a hit team on behalf of one of his “Lolita Express” cronies. I just don’t know. Neither, probably, do you. Nor do those screaming “conspiracy theory!” at every musing contrary to the suicide theory.

Maybe we’ll find out the truth someday. Maybe we won’t. Pretending we already have, and shouting down those who suggest we haven’t, isn’t a method of seeking knowledge. It’s a method of avoiding knowledge.

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The First Amendment Protects Ex-Politicians Too

Most Americans loathe “lobbyists,” and most Americans think “bi-partisanship” sounds like a good, moderate idea representing compromise and common ground for the public good. So a surprise “bi-partisan alliance” between US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and US Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), with the proclaimed goal of passing a bill to ban politicians from working as “lobbyists” — maybe for life, maybe just for some long period — after leaving Congress was bound to get some good press.

It’s a bad idea. It’s an unconstitutional idea. And it’s yet more evidence that “bi-partisanship” is almost always less about the common good than about the one value that America’s two largest political parties share: The desire to have the heavy hand of government make everyone else do things their way.

What’s a “lobbyist?” Someone who “lobbies.” That is, someone who attempts to influence public policy.

If you call your district’s US Representative or your state’s US Senator to ask for a yes or no vote on a bill, you’re lobbying that official.

If you write a letter to the editor hoping to bring public pressure on government officials on an issue you care about, that’s lobbying too.

Suppose you make a sign with a slogan on it and join a crowd in front of a public building to have that sign read by the media and, hopefully, by politicians with the power to act on it? Yep, lobbying.

It’s lobbying if you do it on your own. It’s lobbying if you do it as an activist with a grassroots group. And it’s lobbying if you’re paid to do it by a corporation, a theoretically “independent” policy institute, or a foreign government.

What’s the problem with banning former members of Congress from “lobbying?” Try this on for size:

“Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

That’s most of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. It clearly protects your phone calls, your letters to the editor, and your public protest outings in one fell swoop. It includes no exceptions for former members of Congress, or for people who are paid to speak, write, or protest.

Yes, powerful entities with lots of money like to hire former members of Congress to lobby on their behalf.

Yes, there’s a “revolving door” between Congress, the federal bureaucracy, and those lobbying jobs that lends itself to corruption and sweetheart dealing.

Yes, that’s a problem.

No, a ban on those practices isn’t the solution. It’s unconstitutional, it won’t solve the problem, and a threat to the rights of one American — even a former member of Congress — is a threat to the rights of all Americans.

The only practical, constitutional, and moral way to reduce the influence of powerful lobbies over Congress is to give Congress less  power over the things those lobbies care about — a prospect sure to elicit “bi-partisan” horror among politicians.

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