One Cheer for Trump on Iran

On June 21, President Donald Trump informed the world (via tweet) that after getting US forces “cocked and loaded” to carry out strikes on Iranian targets the night before, he had canceled those strikes at the last minute rather than prospectively kill 150 people. “Not proportionate,” he wrote, “to [Iranian forces] shooting down an unmanned drone” earlier that week.

Anti-interventionists (including me) cheered the move. US hawks moaned that Trump had suddenly and inexplicably gone soft by avoiding the war they want so badly. Pretty much everyone thinks the “proportionality” claim isn’t the true explanation, given Trump’s over the top predisposition on most things.

But hey, I’ll take it, and I’ll thank Trump for it. Every time he avoids escalation toward outright war with the Iranians or anyone else, he’s doing the right thing and should get credit for it.

As to the bigger picture, the question now is whether Trump will undo his earlier errors on US policy toward Iran instead of compounding them.

He doesn’t seem inclined to. On June 24, he signed an executive order imposing new sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameini, and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, also in retaliation for the downing of a US drone — possibly over Iranian airspace, certainly  more than 5,000 miles from airspace it had any business in.

Unfortunately, Trump considers his warlike attitude toward Iran a campaign promise and seems to have every intention of keeping that promise. He was elected president on, among other things, his stated intention of undoing former President Barack Obama’s most significant foreign policy accomplishment, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, (the “Iran nuclear deal”).

That JCPOA began winding down four decades of mutual belligerence  that began when Iranians had the gall and temerity to overthrow a dictator installed by the US , replacing him with a government more to their own liking. In exchange for partial lifting of sanctions and return of some money stolen by the US government after their revolution, the Iranians gave up a nuclear weapons program they don’t appear to have actually had, going above and beyond their already existing (and apparently kept) obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Trump violated the deal, pretending that he was “withdrawing” the US from it (the deal is codified as a UN Security resolution; the only way to withdraw from it is to withdraw from the UN itself). He’s reimposed US sanctions and pressured US allies to do likewise.

In violating the agreement and returning to a belligerent footing, he confirmed something the Iranians, like the Sioux, have long had good reason to believe:  That the US government can’t be trusted to keep its word.

That’s a lot of toothpaste to get back in the tube, and it’s not clear that Trump intends to even try.  Canceling the strike may have just been a message to Iran and to recalcitrant US allies: “We could have gone to war but CHOSE not to.”

We should be glad he chose not to, and hope he keeps choosing not to.

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The “Solution” to Flag-Burning is Simpler Than a Constitutional Amendment

On June 14 — “Flag Day” in the United States — US Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) and US Representative Steve Womack (R-AR) proposed a constitutional amendment: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.” President Donald Trump promptly indicated his support for the amendment via Twitter, calling it a “no-brainer.”

The amendment isn’t likely to get approval by 2/3 of both houses of Congress and ratification by the legislatures of  at least 38 states, to become part of the US Constitution.

Nor is that its proponents’ goal. It’s just another perennial election tactic, pulled out in every Congress since the Supreme Court noticed that flag-burning is protected by the First Amendment,  that Republicans hope will gain them a few points in close races by allowing them to caricature their Democratic opponents as “unpatriotic.”

One downside of the tactic is that it exposes those who use or support it as authoritarians. Which, admittedly, doesn’t hurt Republican candidates very much since most of them work overtime to expose themselves as such anyway.

Another downside of the tactic is that it allows authoritarian Democrats to use flag-burning as a proxy for civil liberties generally so that they can pretend they support freedom.

If flag-burning is really a “problem,” it’s a problem with a simple solution:

If you don’t want to burn a flag, don’t buy a flag, soak it in kerosene, and set it on fire.

If you do want to burn a flag, don’t steal someone else’s flag, and don’t burn a flag on the private property of someone who objects, or in a way that creates a danger to others (in a dry forest, for example).

Either way, don’t try to tell people what they may or may not do with pieces of cloth they rightfully own.

Wow, see how easy that was?

Yes, I understand that many Americans care deeply about the flag. I get it. I served under it in the Marine Corps. My grandfather’s coffin was draped in the 48-star version of it in honor of his service in World War 2.

The flag is an inspiring symbol for millions. Those millions are fully entitled to their heartfelt emotions over it and to express those motions by standing in its presence, singing songs that praise it, and so forth.

For others, it symbolizes various evils to which they object. And those others are likewise entitled to voice their objections in any peaceful manner they choose, including burning it.

It’s a piece of cloth. Anything beyond that is something you bring to it, not  an intrinsic quality of the flag itself.  Feel free to express your  convictions through the flag. And tolerate others who do likewise.

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Opposition Research: It’s Not Trump’s Fault That Politics is a “Dirty” Game

In a June 12 interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, President Donald Trump freely admitted that he would listen to foreigners offering him “dirt” on his political opponents: “I think you might want to listen, there isn’t anything wrong with listening …. Somebody comes up and says, ‘hey, I have information on your opponent,’ do you call the FBI?”

Unsurprisingly, critics from both major parties pounced on Trump’s statement, condemning it on grounds of morality, patriotism, and law. Equally unsurprisingly, those critics are wrong in (at least) their first two reasons. Some are also hypocrites who should stop clutching their pearls for long enough to wash the “dirt” off them.

A quick timeline:

In 2015, the Washington Free Beacon, a (then anti-Trump) Republican newspaper, hired a company called Fusion GPS to conduct opposition research on several Republican presidential primary candidates, including Trump. Once it became clear that Trump would be the GOP’s nominee, that project ended.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee used a cut-out (law firm Perkins Coie) to hire — again — Fusion GPS, which in turn hired a foreigner, former British Spy Christopher Steele, to work foreign sources (especially Russian sources) for opposition research on Trump. Steele’s output was a still-controversial “dossier” full of alleged “dirt.”

Also in 2016, three members of Trump’s campaign — Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort — met with a Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, in hopes of getting “dirt” on Clinton.

Every serious political campaign conducts opposition research and views the information it gathers with two questions in mind:

First, is the information true (or at least plausible)?

Second, is the information useful?

Where or from whom the information comes from is only relevant in light of those two questions.

And that’s exactly how it SHOULD work.

Campaign opposition research is a primary source of public knowledge about the candidates who are seeking our votes.

If that information is true, it’s true whether it originated in Minneapolis or in Moscow.

If that true information is pertinent to our voting decisions, it’s neither moral nor patriotic to ignore or denounce it solely on the basis of where it came from.

With respect to the law, the Trump Tower meeting mentioned above was extensively (and expensively) investigated by the US Department of Justice. After two years of probing alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Special Counsel Robert Mueller reported that his investigation “did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

While Trump still faces congressional investigations on the question of whether he committed crimes by obstructing Mueller’s investigation, and while DOJ is now inquiring as to possible misuse of the “Steele dossier” to justify the FBI’s spy operation on his campaign, he’s been exonerated on the matter of seeking foreign “dirt.” And it’s unlikely that the DNC or the Clinton campaign will be found legally culpable for their use of foreign information sources, either.

That, again, is as it should be.

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Pork is Not the Problem

It’s that time of year: Citizens Against Government Waste just released its annual “Pig Book,” a compendium and analysis of pork barrel spending, aka earmarks, by the US Congress in 2019.

Summary: Congressional appropriations for 2019 include 282 earmarks, up from 232 last year. The cost comes to $15.3 billion, up from $14.7 billion.

That sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But not nearly as much as one might think, in the scheme of things.

The federal government plans to spend more than $4.5 trillion in 2019. Those earmarks constitute a whopping one third of one percent of that total.

Critics of earmarks point out, correctly, that they’re used by members of Congress to direct federal spending to their own districts, not always with much “public good” justification (cue complaints about $500,000 for the Sparta Teapot Museum, $7.5 million for golf education, etc.)

True, all of it — but it’s baked into any political process. Whether formal earmarks exist or not, politicians will support bills that spend money in their districts, oppose bills that don’t, shill for their favored projects, and make deals to bring home the bacon.

And, it should be mentioned, earmarks do not directly increase total spending. They simply require that if Congress appropriates $10 billion for Purpose X, $1 million of that $10 billion be spent on Project Y.

The problem in that hypothetical isn’t the $1 million earmark, it’s the $10 billion appropriation.

The problem with the real numbers isn’t $15 billion in earmarks, it’s $4.5 trillion in federal spending.

If Congress has $9 million to spend on a fruit fly quarantine program and $3 million to blow on bad loans to ship buyers (among 2019 earmarks), Congress has too much money to spend on, respectively, Agriculture and THUD (Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development).

Congress DOES have too much money — money it takes from all of us via various tax schemes, and money it borrows in our names on the promise to bond-holders that it will beat us out of it, with interest, later.

Earmarks could be part of the answer to that problem.

If Congress specified in greater detail where and how EVERY dollar of EVERY appropriation must be spent, instead of just handing the dough over the executive branch under broad categories, we’d have a much better idea of where it was going — and be better prepared to protest, and bring pressure to bear against, wasteful spending.

It would also clarify “separation of powers” violations, such as President Donald Trump’s illegal and unconstitutional “emergency” misappropriation of  Treasury and Defense Department funds for his pet “border wall” project, making it easier to rein in presidential misbehavior.

Silly earmarks are fun to point out, but concern over them comes at the expense of addressing the bigger problem: The spending is too damn high.

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Trump’s Trade Policy—A Reductio ad Absurdum

Before and since becoming president, Donald Trump has consistently maintained that the U.S. trade deficit in general—and the trade deficit with China in particular—is bad for Americans. As he says, again and again, Americans “lose” by importing goods from abroad and gain by exporting goods to foreigners. His tariff increases and newly imposed tariffs have been aimed, or so he claims, at reducing the U.S. trade deficit and thereby cutting Americans’ “losses.”

Economists and people with an elementary understanding of economics have condemned this view from the beginning as folly and as harmful to the economic well-being of Americans and foreigners alike. But the president and his advisors have ignored or shrugged off such criticism, dismissing it as at variance with what people can see plainly with their own eyes, such as increased employment in certain firms benefiting from tariff-hobbled foreign competition.

So, let’s consider the president’s trade policy in, as it were, its very best light. Suppose, then, that the government succeeded in eliminating the trade deficit entirely. Residents of the USA would continue to sell huge quantities of goods to foreigners but buy nothing at all from foreign sellers. The trade deficit would be not only diminished but wiped out and replaced by a huge trade surplus. Trumpian triumph!

Note, however, that such an outcome would be impossible to sustain for long even if it could be attained (which in fact it could not). Foreigners would be spending huge quantities of dollars to purchase goods from Americans, but they would have no means of earning dollars because Americans would not be buying anything from them. Foreigners could continue to make such purchases only if they received dollar credits from foreigners. But lenders would have no incentive to lend dollars to the Chinese, say, when they knew that the Chinese would have no ability to repay the loans because they would have no means of earning dollars in the future by sales to Americans. So a big U.S. trade surplus requires that totally implausible assumptions be made about international transactions in general and international lending in particular.

But apart from such practical difficulties and impossibilities, a Trumpian trade triumph, even if it could be achieved, would be a horrible objective to attain. Americans would be employing labor services, natural resources, and other productive inputs to produce goods and shipping them to foreign buyers. In exchange, they would receive nothing but bank account balances. Such a deal! Surrendering huge volumes of valuable goods and receiving in return larger numerals in people’s bank account statements, more dollars that could not be used to purchase anything, no matter how important or desirable, from abroad—all such purchases having somehow been stopped by a harebrained government and the economic ignoramus in charge of it.

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Instead of a US Peace Plan for the Middle East, How about a US Peace Plan for the US?

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo describes the Trump administration’s plan for peace between Israel and Palestinian Arabs as “unexecutable.” President Trump says Pompeo “may be right.”

Good! As addiction counselors say, the first step is admitting you have a problem.  With addiction, the way out is not “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” It’s admitting that the thing you’re addicted to will never solve your problems and giving up that thing.

The United States suffers from a long-term addiction, since at least the end of World War 2, to trying to run the world.

That addiction has cost American taxpayers trillions of dollars.

It’s cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of Americans and millions of citizens of other countries.

It’s empowered evil regimes to suppress human rights both at home and abroad.

And it has never, ever “worked” in the sense of bringing about lasting peace, any more than booze saves marriages or methamphetamine repairs mental anguish.

In fact, just like booze or methamphetamine, the US addiction to world “leadership” wrecks the lives of everyone around the addict too. Which means that if the US gets its act together, everyone else, not just Americans, will be better off.

Here’s a four-step peace plan that addresses the roots of the problem instead of just unsuccessfully trying to treat the symptoms:

First, the US should shut down its military bases on foreign soil and withdraw its troops from the foreign countries they’re currently operating in.

Second, the US should end economic sanctions on, and extend full diplomatic recognition and trade privileges to, all the countries it’s currently bullying.

Third, the US should end all foreign aid, especially military aid.

Fourth and finally, the US should dramatically decrease its so-called “defense” budget to levels consistent with actual defense.

Cold turkey withdrawal may be out of the question, but the US can and should wean itself off the damaging drug of foreign interventionism.

Let the Arabs and Israelis settle their own hash. Quit taking sides between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Stop pretending North Korea is or ever has been a threat to the United States. Step back and let Venezuelans, Syrians, and Libyans decide who’s going to run Venezuela, Syria, and Libya.

It won’t be easy, but it’s not complicated either. The US can continue drinking itself to death on the poison of foreign meddling, or not. Not is better.

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