Trump’s First Offer was a Better Deal for Palestine — and Israel

In early 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump pronounced himself “neutral” in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. He also expressed pessimism that a deal between the two sides was even possible: “I have friends of mine that are tremendous businesspeople, that are really great negotiators, [and] they say it’s not doable.”

It didn’t take Trump long to reverse himself — when it was explained to him that $100 million in campaign assistance from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson depended on such a reversal, he re-booted as “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history,” which in Adelsonese means “the most pro-Likud/pro-Netanyahu/anti-Palestinian candidate in the election.”

Nearly four years later — after numerous sops to Likud and favors to save Netanyahu’s premiership amidst his indictment on corruption charges, including moving the US embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem — Trump unveiled his “deal of the century.” 

The deal, in summary: The Israeli regime gets everything it wants; Palestine’s Arabs get to keep some, but not all, of what they already have while giving up quite a bit.

They supposedly get a “state,” but that’s neither Trump’s nor Israel’s to give: The State of Palestine already exists and is already recognized by most other countries.

They get a “capital” in a sliver of East Jerusalem, but Israel will  annex even more Palestinian land.

The new, fake, quasi-state of Palestine will be required to “demilitarize” and trust Israel to defend it, and Israel will exercise veto power over both its foreign policy and its internal security policy.

Trump’s offer is quite a shift from his former “neutrality.” As Lando Calrissian said in The Empire Strikes Back, “this deal is getting worse all the time.” Worse for the Palestinians, obviously, but worse for Israel as well.

US aid and military support have turned Israel into a spoiled child among states. It does what it wants and gets what it wants, not because it deserves to or because it’s able to itself, but because it has a generous and muscular big brother doling out money to it and threatening to beat up anyone who questions its entitlement.

At some point, that relationship will end as all relationships do. The longer that relationship continues, the weaker, more vulnerable, and more over-extended Israel becomes.

If Israel’s regime was interested in peace, or even in its country’s survival, it would unilaterally withdraw to its 1967 borders, begin negotiating administration of Palestinians’ “right of return” to their stolen land, and recognize the existing State of Palestine.

And if Trump was really “pro-Israel,” he’d return to his position of “neutrality” in the matter. Even if it meant refunding Sheldon Adelson’s bribe, eating a little crow, and explaining another change of heart to his confused evangelical supporters.

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US v. Sineneng-Smith: Does Immigration Law Trump Freedom of Speech?

Are you free to express your opinions? The First Amendment says yes, but 8 US Code § 1324 says no. A case currently before the US Supreme Court, United States v. Sineneng-Smith, will presumably clarify the matter, hopefully in favor of free speech.

Evelyn Sineneng-Smith, an immigration consultant, allegedly cheated her clients by charging them $5,900 to file applications for a permanent residency program she knew they didn’t qualify for.

In 2013, a jury convicted  Sineneng-Smith on three counts of mail fraud and three counts of “encouraging or inducing illegal immigration for private financial gain.”

Under that US Code provision, “Any person who … encourages or induces an alien to come to, enter, or reside in the United States, knowing or in reckless disregard of the fact that such coming to, entry, or residence is or will be in violation of law,” can be sentenced to hard time — five years in prison, ten years if it’s for financial gain, life imprisonment or even execution if someone is injured or put in jeopardy of death by that “encouragement.”

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit set aside Sineneng-Smith’s convictions on those “encouragement” counts, ruling that the law is “unconstitutionally overbroad in violation of the First Amendment.”

Federal prosecutors appealed the Ninth Circuit’s ruling to the Supreme Court because that’s what federal prosecutors do .  Their case seems to be that we obviously can’t just have people out there saying whatever they want to say.

But we CAN, and SHOULD — in fact, according to the Constitution, MUST — have people out there saying whatever they want to say.

I encourage anyone and everyone who wants to come to the United States in search of work and/or safety to do so, and to stay here for as long as they please, whether the US government likes it or not.

I just broke the law.

And I did so partly for purposes of “commercial advantage or private financial gain.” I consider unfettered immigration an economic boon to everyone, myself included.

As the late economist (and apparent scofflaw) Milton Friedman noted, “Mexican immigration, over the border, is a good thing. It’s a good thing for the illegal immigrants. It’s a good thing for the United States. It’s a good thing for the citizens of the country.”

The Supreme Court should affirm the Ninth Circuit’s ruling.

If it doesn’t, I guess you’ll be waiting ten years or so for my next column.

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It’s Not Just Trump Supporters: Politics is a Pile of Shared Psychoses

Dr. Bandy Lee, a psychiatrist affiliated with Yale University, posits a “‘shared psychosis’ among just about all of Donald Trump’s followers.”

Her claim came in the context of a discussion of Alan Dershowitz’s use of the word “perfect” to describe his sex life, mirroring Trump’s use of that word regarding a well-known phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky.

Dershowitz has complained to Yale about the claim. He considers it an ethical violation of psychiatrists’ duty not to diagnose conditions absent personal examinations.

This particular version of the claim has a pretty thin basis, but it’s not incorrect. The big problem with it is that it’s too narrow. Donald Trump isn’t some lone Typhoid Mary of “shared psychosis,” nor are his supporters its only victims. Politics as we know it is made up almost entirely of shared psychoses.

The National Institute of Mental Health defines “psychosis” as “conditions that affect the mind, where there has been some loss of contact with reality. … Symptoms of psychosis include delusions (false beliefs) and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that others do not see or hear). Other symptoms include incoherent or nonsense speech, and behavior that is inappropriate for the situation.”

If that doesn’t sound like the daily grind of American politics to you, you haven’t been paying attention to Trump’s Twitter timeline, the Democratic Party’s presidential primary debates, or Congress’s perpetual bickering.

The primary delusion of politics is the notion that someone out there is more qualified to run your life, or at least your neighbor’s life, than you or your neighbor.  In the advanced stages of the psychosis, the victim becomes convinced that he or she IS that someone and decides to seek political office.

By any measure, the psychosis is pandemic. In the US, more than  45%  — at a bare minimum, the entire adult population minus the half who don’t vote and the tiny percentage who vote Libertarian — clearly suffer from it.

To make a bad situation worse, the American political system is set up to ensure that the most delusional patients get put in charge of running the asylum.

While I’m a partisan Libertarian, I have my doubts that we can vote our way out of this epidemic by electing my fellow partisans to office and having them re-jigger the system to stop spreading the contagion and exacerbating its symptoms.

Perhaps we should consider adding clozapine to the water supply.

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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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The Soleimani Assassination: Worse Than a Crime, a Mistake

In March of 1804, French dragoons secretly crossed the Rhine into the German Margraviate of Baden. Acting on orders from Napoleon himself, they kidnapped Louis Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Enghien. After a hastily convened court-martial on charges of bearing arms against France, the duke was shot.

“C’est pire qu’un crime, c’est une faute,” a French official (supposedly, but probably not, Talleyrand) said of the duke’s execution: “It is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.”

That terse evaluation came immediately to mind when news broke of a January 3 US drone strike at Baghdad International Airport.  Iranian general Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ “Quds Force,” and nine others, died in the attack. US president Donald Trump claimed responsibility for ordering the strike and has subsequently defended that decision.

The duke’s execution outraged Europe’s aristocrats, and in particular brought Russia’s Alexander I to the conclusion that Napoleon’s power must be checked. The international reverberations created by Soleimani’s assassination are already shaping up in similar fashion.

Yes, Iran’s government is outraged and vows revenge, but that’s not surprising. It would be hard for US-Iran relations to get much worse short of all-out war.

Five of those killed in the strike were Iraqi military personnel from the country’s Popular Mobilization Forces, including their deputy commander, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

Iraq’s outgoing prime minister denounced the strike as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty and  of the US/Iraq Status of Forces Agreement. The speaker of the country’s parliament vowed to “put an end to US presence” in Iraq. Powerful Shiite religious and political figure Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia forces bedeviled the US occupation after the 2003 invasion, is re-mobilizing those forces to “defend Iraq.”

NATO, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and several leaders of regimes putatively allied with the United States have likewise responded negatively to Soleimani’s assassination.

Trump’s order wasn’t even remotely legal, according to Hoyle, under US law or the 400-year international order since the Peace of Westphalia.

The attack occurred without congressional approval or even notification, let alone the declaration of war that the ever-deteriorating US Constitution requires. Unfortunately, while Congress perpetually rumbles discontent over such things, it’s likely to continue enabling, rather than punish and rein in, such abuses of presidential power.

The attack occurred on the supposedly sovereign soil of a putative ally, killing that ally’s officials and invited guests. While it’s merely an escalation, not a new phenomenon — the previous president, Barack Obama, also claimed and exercised a “right” to murder on foreign soil at will — it’s a significant escalation by a president with fewer and less loyal friends on the global stage.

Whether Trump is “wagging the dog” in an attempt to distract from impeachment, or playing “6D chess” in an attempt to get the US out of Iraq at the demand of the Iraqis themselves (I’ve heard both claims), he’s turning friends against him and currying renewed European sympathy for Iran.

The prospects for peace on Earth have receded significantly since Christmas Day.

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Iraq: America’s Other “Longest War”

As the calendar prepares to flip from 2019 to 2020, protesters stormed the US embassy in Baghdad.  As I write this, the action — a response to US airstrikes in Iraq and Syria which killed at least 25 and wounded more than 50 — hasn’t yet become a reprise of the Iran hostage crisis of 40 years ago, but it’s eerily reminiscent.

Although few Americans seem to notice, Iraq is arguably the second-longest war in US history.

Mainstream media often refer to the 18-year US occupation of Afghanistan as “America’s longest war.” That claim is wrong on its face.

Setting aside a century of “Indian wars” and two decades of involvement in Vietnam prior to the 1965 escalation, the Korean War handily takes the “longest war” prize:  It began in 1950 and has merely been in ceasefire status, with occasional flare-ups and no final settlement, since 1953. If wars were people, the Korean War would be collecting Social Security.

The US war in Iraq is approaching its 28th birthday, also with no end in sight.

It began in January of 1991 with Operation Desert Storm (“the liberation of Kuwait” from Iraqi occupation). The 12 years between that “mother of all battles” and the 2003 US invasion were punctuated by US bombings to facilitate a Kurdish secession movement in the north,  protect persecuted Shiites in the south, and provide convenient distractions from assorted Clinton administration peccadilloes.

Following the short, sharp conventional fighting phase of the invasion, the war remained a very hot conflict — a combination of civil war and anti-occupation insurgency — for years following US president George W. Bush’s “mission accomplished” announcement in May of 2003.

A brief cooling period accompanied Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, but by 2014 American troops (and “civilian contractors,” i.e mercenaries) were once again arriving to intervene in the new regime’s fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The airstrikes which sparked the current protests were carried out in response to a rocket attack on a regime military base in which one of the aforementioned American mercenaries was killed.

The bigger picture:

The US government is using Iraq as a staging area for its ongoing actions in Syria and against Iran (which it blames for this specific rocket attack and for its backing of militias in Iraq in general).

US president Donald Trump talks a good “let’s get out of all these stupid wars” game. But in actuality he has increased, and continues to increase, the size of US military deployments to, and the tempo of US military operations in, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Several thousand US troops remain in Iraq and the war looks likely to stretch into a fourth decade.

There is, of course, an alternative: Trump could put his money where his mouth is and begin withdrawing US troops from the region instead of continuing to pour American blood and treasure into a series of conflicts which should never have happened in the first place.

Peace on Earth? Maybe not. But the US going home and minding its own business would be a good start.

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