2020 Election, Foreign Policy, Trump

Our National Humiliation…

During a week when coronavirus deaths in the United States topped 120,000 and the president of the United States admitted he was trying to slow testing for the virus – more testing means more cases, after all – it might be difficult to fully process that we are also living through a unprecedented time of upheaval in American foreign policy. 

Whether you love him or hate him, Donald Trump has remade American standing in the world with consequences hard measure, but with impact long lasting. Trump’s upheaval has led to dangerous decline.

“Donald Trump has taken America out of key multilateral agreements, crossed swords with allies and pulled the U.S. from a leading role in geopolitical hot spots,” Bloomberg noted this week in an article about how Russian president Vladimir Putin was celebrating the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II with a big parade in Moscow. Since Trump’s election in 2016, Putin has expanding his influence, while angling to stay in office much longer. 

The great American decline: Trump at the G-7 summit in 2019

The Trump led retreat from world leadership has, Bloomberg reported, “opened the way for Putin to build influence in Russia’s western flank, the Middle East and Africa, and to tighten an alliance with China. The planes flying in formation … over Moscow are a reminder that others will be eager to fill the gap if the U.S. withdraws further.”

One can deny the existence of Russian election help to Trump in 2016, but it’s impossible to deny the success of Putin’s repositioning at the expense of the United States and out closest, post-World War II European allies. 

Putin is certainly the largest beneficiary of Trump’s reported decision to remove nearly a third of U.S. troops based in Germany, a key NATO ally, a decision the BBC reported that was meet with widespread dismay in Europe, in part because there was no consultation or even warning. Many German officials believe the decision was prompted when chancellor Angela Merkel cancelled her visit to the U.S. because of the pandemic. In other words, the decision had less to do with a coherent national policy than the president’s personal pique. 

The administration’s Asia policy is in tatters with North and South Korea relations on a hair trigger. Trump tariffs on Chinese imports have cost American consumers (and farmers) billions and left the president begging Chinese president Xi Jinping, according to fired national security advisor John Bolton account, to help him win re-election by buying more U.S. goods. 

Bolton’s hefty book, its publication resisted to the very end by Trump, actually matters to our understanding of the feckless, chaotic Trump foreign policy. As conservative columnist Steve Hays argues only the most cultish Trump defender could dismiss a first-hand account “written by a longtime Republican and stalwart conservative—whose mustachioed face has appeared on Fox News more often than just about anyone other than the anchors.”

Pals: Donald and Vladimir

The power of Bolton’s book rests, Hays says, “less in attention-grabbing disclosure than in the relentless, almost mundane stupidity and recklessness of it all.” 

Or as David Ignatius, a long-time observer of American foreign policy, notes: “Among the most startling disclosures in [Bolton’s book] is his account of President Trump’s dealings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The Turkey story — featuring the American president assuring Erdogan he would ‘take care of things’ in an ongoing federal criminal investigation — may be the clearest, most continuous narrative of misconduct by Trump that has yet surfaced.”

Ignatius says, “It’s a tale that connects some of Trump’s closest advisers: former national security adviser Michael Flynn, personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, and senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.” 

Former John McCain advisor Steve Schmidt says of all this that Trump, “has brought this country in three short years to a place of weakness that is simply unimaginable if you were pondering where we are today from the day where Barack Obama left office. And there were a lot of us on that day who were deeply skeptical and very worried about what a Trump presidency would be. But this is a moment of unparalleled national humiliation, of weakness.”

Trump is not alone, of course, in creating our unparalleled national humiliation. He had plenty of help, most notably in the foreign policy field from the junior senator from Idaho James E. Risch, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Enabling Trump, encouraging his worst instincts and behavior and assisting his destruction of American standing have been the raison d’être of Risch’s otherwise vacuous Senate career. 

When Trump’s first secretary of state Rex Tillerson was fired sometime after calling the president “a moron,” Risch said nothing, made no inquiry, expressed no concern. The same pattern unfolded when retired Marine general James Mattis quit in dispute with Trump over Syrian policy. When Bolton was fired Risch let it pass. He’s said nothing about Bolton’s disclosures. Following the Trump playbook, Risch regularly bashes China, but like the president has no policy ideas to deal with the Chinese military and economic threat. 

Risch has not pursued the case of brutally murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi but has effectively stonewalled efforts to hold the Saudi crown prince to account for the crime. When the State Department’s inspector general was fired recently for reportedly investigating why the administration sidestepped Congress to sell more arms to the corrupt kingdom, Risch said nothing and then helped the secretary of state evade an appearance before this committee.  

Murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi

Risch has gone down the line with Trump is dismissing Russian malevolence, while ignoring the clear effort by the president to coerce the Ukrainian president into a phony investigation of Joe Biden. And when six Republican members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee recently complained to Trump that his draw down of U.S. troops in Germany would “place U.S. national security at risk,” helping only Putin, Risch was silent.

“We live with the idea that the U.S. has an ability to rebound that is almost unlimited,” Michael Duclos, a top European foreign policy official, told The Atlantic’s Tom McTague recently. “For the first time, I’m starting to have some doubts.” For good reason.

As Jim Risch mounts a low-key campaign for re-election, he’s counting that his weakness, his failure to use his position to stem American decline, won’t matter in the deluge of division and misdirection that will increasingly mark all Republican campaigns. Faced with an opponent who so far has been unable – or unwilling – to highlight the senator’s servile deference to Trump’s plundering of America’s standing, Risch will likely continue a 50-yearlong political career distinguished only by its overwhelming partisanship.

History will not be so forgiving. 

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Additional Reading:

Bolton and the GOP

Michael Cohen writes in the Boston Globe: “I have little doubt that most every member of the GOP caucus, as well as Trump’s Cabinet, knows that Bolton’s account is spot-on, but the price for being a card-carrying member of the modern Republican Party is to regularly refuse to see what is in front of one’s nose. All of this makes the Bolton story more than your garden variety tale of grifters grifting. It’s the perfect parable for Trump’s malevolent presidency and the cabal of corrupted enablers too weak, too greedy, and too feckless to stop it.”

The Painful Reckoning 

Many stories this week about the faltering Trump campaign – I know it’s just June – and many, including this piece by Tim Miller, see the campaign’s recent Tulsa rally as a metaphor. Or as Vice President Mike Pence said – they’re going to make America great again, again.

The underwhelming Tulsa rally

Here’s Miller: “Donald Trump doesn’t know how to manage a global pandemic. He doesn’t understand how said crisis intersects with our economic decline or what to do about it. He is fundamentally incapable of being a uniter or a salve for a country that is raw with pain over police violence and racial tensions. And he doesn’t know what to do about the fact that Joe Biden is schlonging him in the polls.” Read the whole thing.

EU Considers U.S. Travel Ban

As the European Union considers keeping American’s out because of the uncontrolled spread of the virus, novelist Francine Prose asks how did we become a pariah nation?

“Unlike the US states that rushed to reopen too soon, that so clearly prioritized economic recovery over human life, the EU countries are saying they’d rather take the financial hit than see more of their citizens die.”

Gore Vidal

I’ve been reading a collection of essays by the late novelist Gore Vidal who, say what you will about his politics (or whatever), was a truly brilliant writer. Here’s a link to his still controversial post 9-11 essay – “The End of Liberty” – that was commissioned for Vanity Fair, but rejected.

Gore Vidal

And if you want to recall what Vidal was like on television you might find this amazing appearance on Dick Cavett’s show in 1971 interesting – or appalling. Cavett’s other guests were Norman Mailer and Janet Flanner, the great New Yorker writer.

Mailer refused to shake hands with Vidal and, well, it kind of went downhill from there. Watch it here.

And thanks for reading.

2020 Election, Foreign Policy, Trump

America’s Retreat…

The United States, the acknowledged world leader in the post-World War II era, is in retreat and decline. Among America’s closest international friends the deterioration of our country’s standing is simply astounding. In a recent survey of our once closest European allies only 28% of the residents of the United Kingdom said the U.S. would act responsibly in the world. In France, 3% – you read that correctly – think the U.S. is best positioned to confront global challenges. 

That this disastrous retreat has taken place under a Republican administration and with a GOP-controlled Senate is a stark reminder of how far Donald Trump’s Republican Party has retreated from the place Ronald Reagan once proclaimed the “shining city on a hill.” 

A portion of Ronald Reagan’s farewell speech in January 1989 as printed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

The number two Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, actually said the quiet part out loud this week, admitting that Trump not only owns the GOP soul, but apparently more importantly has also squeezed the last ounce of independence from his frightened lackeys. “I just think that everybody realizes that our fortunes sort of rise or fall together,” Thune said as he placed a priority on re-election at the expense of absolutely everything else. 

As capable as the president has been of destroying U.S. credibility and puncturing the myth of American exceptionalism, he didn’t get us here all by himself. He had a lot of help from this feckless, rudderless, incompetent collection of Republican senators and members of Congress. And no one wears the feckless label more notably than Idaho’s Jim Risch, who, in title only, sits atop the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A comprehensive listing of Trumpian ineptitude in the foreign policy arena, combined with the willful rejection of critical allies and international institutions, would fill a library shelf, so consider just the most recent examples of America trashing itself with Republican approval. 

Anyone with a sense of how political leadership works would have known that a crisis like a global pandemic would lay bare Trump’s unfitness. “Trump’s handling of the pandemic at home and abroad has exposed more painfully than anything since he took office the meaning of America First,” says William Burns, a 33-year career foreign policy professional who now heads the Carnegie Endowment. “America is first in the world in deaths, first in the world in infections and we stand out as an emblem of global incompetence. The damage to America’s influence and reputation will be very hard to undo.”

Risch was Tweeting on January 24, “Today I was briefed by leading global health experts about the outbreak of a novel coronavirus in China. We learned that the risk of transmission within the U.S. is low at present. I will continue to work closely with U.S. officials to ensure Americans are protected.” But what has he actually done? 

Well, he’s embraced the White House blame China message, while totally ignoring the epicenter of the crisis – the White House. Even that begs the question of just what is Risch’s China strategy? Trump’s only approach, beyond unbroken fidelity to China’s dictatorial leader, involves tariffs that have crippled trade, while forcing U.S. taxpayers to bail out American farmers.

And what of the World Health Organization (WHO)? If the WHO needs reform, is the best strategy to eliminate U.S. funding in the middle of the pandemic? Again, the Idaho senator has no strategy and nothing to say. 

Meanwhile, under cover of COVID-19 confusion, Trump has fired the inspector general at the State Department, Steve Linick, an issue that had the Foreign Relations Committee a real chairman, would be front and center on the committee’s agenda. Risch has said nothing and will do nothing even in the face of published reports that the firing is linked to a number of questionable actions, including an investigation of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s decision to circumvent Congress and make a controversial $8 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia. (I asked Risch’s office for a comment on the IG firing and received no response.) 

Trump’s cashiering of Linick marks the fourth such dismissal in three months and is an obvious effort to eliminate any visage of independent oversight of Trump and his administration’s conduct. The only Republican to immediately express concern about this blatant authoritarianism was Utah’s Mitt Romney who called Trump’s action “a threat to accountable democracy and a fissure in the constitutional balance of power.” Risch, meanwhile, is silent. 

Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

It is telling that in his year and a half as Foreign Relations chairman, Pompeo has not once appeared before Risch’s committee to answer questions about China, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, deteriorating relations with NATO countries, or anything. With dereliction of his Senate duties – never more on display than the recent IG firing – Risch is abetting Trump’s efforts, as Aaron Blake wrote recently in the Washington Post, to “undermine independent oversight of his administration.” 

For good measure this week, Risch, acting as ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, voted to advance the nomination of Texas congressman John Ratcliffe to be director of national intelligence. Ratcliffe is a dedicated Trump toady widely described as the least qualified person ever nominated for such a position. Ratcliffe, with Risch’s help, will complete the politicization of the nation’s intelligence agencies.  

To be sure hypocrisy is part of this story, as well. Risch never tempered his criticism when a Democrat occupied the White House and his partisan disdain was regularly on display during the Obama Administration. “This is a foreign policy that is in shambles,” Risch said in 2012. “In the Middle East, it is a foreign policy of apology, it is a foreign policy of appeasement, it is a foreign policy of dithering and looking the other way. This cannot go on.” Yet, when it comes to Trump, Risch doesn’t critique, analyze or even discuss, he accepts – everything. 

Who benefits from Risch’s behavior and Trump’s foreign policy incoherence and incompetence? China, of course, (and Putin’s Russia) whose aim is to diminish American influence and weaken historic alliances, while discrediting democracy.

Michael Fullilove, a decidedly pro-American scholar who heads the Lowy Institute, Australia’s largest think tank, described it succinctly: “We increasingly feel caught between a reckless China and a feckless America that no longer seems to care about its allies.”

Meanwhile, Jim Risch is on track to be remembered as the worst chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the post-war period. He has certainly earned the distinction. 

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Additional reading:

Can these awful times make us better? 

I really admire the work of Rebecca Solnit who writes eloquently and profoundly about many things. In her recent piece for The Guardian she reflects on all the small, but incredibly important acts of kindness by ordinary people right now. She says: “I sometimes think that capitalism is a catastrophe constantly being mitigated and cleaned up by mutual aid and kinship networks, by the generosity of religious and secular organizations, by the toil of human-rights lawyers and climate groups, and by the kindness of strangers. Imagine if these forces, this spirit, weren’t just the cleanup crew, but were the ones setting the agenda.” 

What it’s like to be a Democrat in Montana?

With no official sanction, I like to think of myself as an honorary Montanan. I’ve never lived there, but I feel about the state like John Steinbeck who wrote in Travels with Charley: “I am in love with Montana. For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection, but with Montana it is love, and it’s difficult to analyze love when you’re in it.” Yup. From the fishing to the political history to Glacier Park, I love the place. Now, read this from a real Montanan, Sarah Vowell, who gets the state pretty well. 

What it was like to have lunch with Noel Coward?

Dorothy Parker was a great wit and a great writer. Among her many quotable quotes: “That woman speaks eighteen languages and can’t say ‘no’ in any of them.” Parker was also a charter member of the Algonquin Roundtable and they surely had a good time. 

The Algonquin Roundtable…

And finally, was Donald Trump a good baseball player? 

“I was supposed to be a pro baseball player,” Donald Trump wrote in 2004. “At the New York Military Academy, I was captain of the baseball team. I worked hard like everyone else, but I had good talent.” Er, well, turns out like so much else he says that isn’t really true. 

Thanks for reading…

Congress, Foreign Policy, Iran, Russia

The Risch Doctrine

In 1965 when Arkansas Sen. J. William Fulbright publicly expressed the private concerns he had long harbored about growing U.S. military involvement in Vietnam, President Lyndon Johnson blew his top.

LBJ had known for some time that the influential chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee had profound misgivings about the president’s policy, systematically shifting the burden of waging a Vietnamese civil war from the South Vietnamese army to American soldiers. Fulbright had been privately pressing his view on Johnson to little effect, so he went public.

Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright and President Lyndon Johnson

Johnson, who could be almost as mean in private as President Donald Trump is in public, complained to an aide that Fulbright “is a cry baby — and I can’t continue to kiss him every morning before breakfast.” The public criticism by a Democratic senator of a Democratic president effectively ended Johnson’s relationship with Fulbright.

But, occasionally history has an interesting way of rewarding political dissent. Today Fulbright is remembered as among the earliest and most prescient voices in opposition to the American tragedy in Southeast Asia. Johnson’s presidency was destroyed over the war and the 58,000 Americans and the millions of Vietnamese who died will forever define his legacy.

The Johnson-Fulbright history is worth recalling in the context of how virtually every other senator who has chaired the Foreign Relations Committee in modern times viewed that role in relation to the White House. The words that define that relationship would be “independent” and “equal.”

By contrast, a year into his tenure as chairman of the committee, the approach of Idaho’s James Risch stands out like a skunk at a garden party. Risch contends his approach — maintaining access to Trump, but never publicly taking issue with anything — is working because as he put it during a recent interview with Boise’s KTVB, “I think it’s good for Idaho and it’s good for me.”

The chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee is among the most consistent endorsers of Trump foreign policy

But the evidence in plain view tells an entirely different story. If Risch really enjoys the vaunted influence at the White House he claims — “I have some influence on what happens in the White House,” he told KTVB — it’s difficult to see how that influence is impacting American foreign policy in any positive manner.

Trump’s decision to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a demonstrably evil influence in the Middle East, was immediately endorsed by Risch who parroted the shockingly thin administration assertions that Trump acted on information indicating the Iranians were planning imminent attacks on Americans.

“His death presents an opportunity for Iraq to determine its own future free from Iranian control,” Risch said just hours before the Iraqi parliament voiced support for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, a decision, should it happen, that would turn Risch’s assertion on its head. Rather than diminish Iranian influence the administration has enhanced Iranian influence.

Meanwhile, while endorsing the “we must act” mantra of the administration, Risch has squandered a chance to help craft something approaching a coherent policy to replace Trump’s ignorant, impulsive and frightfully dangerous policy of threat by tweet. Additionally, Risch has yet to answer why the attack on Soleimani, an option open to previous presidents but rejected by them, happened when it did.

As Bloomberg News put it: “If Soleimani presented an imminent threat, why was Trump given several retaliatory options that didn’t include Soleimani? If there was an imminent threat, how would killing the top general end that threat? And if Team Trump has lied about everything, why wouldn’t they lie now?”

The administration’s justification for the attack has shifted with the news cycle and you can bet Risch will stay the course with Trump, no matter how scattered and incoherent the ration-ale becomes. Yet, the bigger question is simply: What now?

An independent chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee would have moved immediately to conduct hearings, sought the advice of experts on the region and attempted to shape what happens next. But Risch knows that any real effort to grapple with the reality of what Trump hath wrought would involve stinging bipartisan criticism of Trump’s haphazard, dangerous “make it up as you go” foreign policy.

Trump, a thin-skinned, pseudo tough guy, would interpret any critique as disloyalty and almost certainly would lash back. So complete is the president’s hold on people like Risch that the senator dares not utter an even remotely critical comment, even when the stakes amount to war and peace.

The funeral of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Teheran

Risch admitted as much in the Boise interview. “Look, I don’t go out and criticize him publicly,” he said, claiming “spirited conversation” takes place in private, where he’s able to exercise influence. Yet, consider the facts behind Risch’s assertion.

On Risch’s watch, the efforts at detente with a North Korean dictator who sent Trump “beautiful letters” continues to unravel. Trump’s precipitous decision to withdraw U.S forces from Syria has strengthened Russia in the region and enhanced Turkey’s reach. Both countries, by the way, are close to Iran. Iran has resumed its nuclear weapons program after Trump’s Risch-endorsed decision to abandon an international agreement to contain such an effort. NATO is weaker than it has been at almost any time in the post-World War II period. And the post-Soleimani turmoil seems almost certain to give ISIS a new lease on life.

If Risch truly has exercised positive influence behind the scenes, it’s far from evident. In fact, the opposite seems more probable in that whatever influence he has is lost on Trump, a reality Risch came near to admitting in that recent interview. “He is different,” Risch said of Trump, “his decision-making is different.”

No kidding, which is why a person holding the premier position in Congress related to foreign policy must be more than a partisan determined to hold his tongue to maintain dubious “influence.” Risch’s servility enables, even encourages the reckless Trump activities we’ve seen in the first days of 2020.

“What is the point of having a Congress if it has no say about a new American war?” The Atlantic’s George Packer asked recently. Good question. And why have a Foreign Relations Committee chairman if he’s not willing to publicly engage the president?

Risch actually had an answer for that during his KTVB interview. “When I’ve (privately) disagreed with (Trump) he has never, ever treated me with anything but the greatest respect. Now, I’m sure that would change dramatically if I went out on TV and tried to take it on like that. But, but, you have to deal with it as it is.”

By choosing to follow, not lead, the senator has made a historic, career-defining blunder. The mistake has never been more obvious than it was this week.

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2020 Election, Foreign Policy, Idaho Politics, Trump

Leadership Failure

The shambolic, incoherent, incompetent, lie-infested and often just plain crazy foreign policy of Donald Trump was on full display in recent days, while what passes for the TOP (Trump Old Party) foreign policy establishment, including Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, was on August vacation.

In the space of a few days: 

Trump threw a hissy fit when the Danish prime minister rebuffed his scheme to “buy” Greenland and Trump responded by cancelling a state visit. 

Trump wanted to buy Greenland, the Danish prime minister said that was “absurd” and he got mad.

The chaos of the president’s Iranian policy was on full view at the G-7 summit in France where Trump’s decision to pull out of the agreement to control Iran’s nuclear weapons program, with no realistic alternative in place, has become a signature foreign policy failure.  

Trump claimed, with no evidence that talks with China to end an escalating trade war were back on. They were not. Nor had the U.S. made a trade deal with Japan, as Trump claimed. 

And, of course, Vladimir Putin’s best friend, the president of the United States, was doing PR work for the Russian thug with our G-7 allies, while dishonoring years of bipartisan and international condemnation of the former KGB officer. 

Oh, yes, after three Trump photo ops with Kim Jong Un, events that gave the North Korea dictator precisely the legitimacy he craves, that murderous thug is still firing off missiles in violation of United Nation’s sanctions. 

A president who disses our allies and coddles the world’s dictators

“The First Lady has gotten to know Kim Jong Un, and I think she’d agree with me—he is a man with a country that has tremendous potential,” Trump told reporters at the G-7. 

But as journalist Robin Wright pointed out, “Melania Trump has never met Kim.” The White House later issued a “clarification.” Stephanie Grisham, the latest dissembler in the White House press office, said that Trump “confides in his wife on many issues including the detailed elements of his strong relationship with Chairman Kim—and while the First Lady hasn’t met him, the President feels like she’s gotten to know him too” Right. 

It’s difficult to pick the most serious of Trump’s fables from among his smorgasbord of foreign policy lies, half-truths and bouts of wishful thinking, but the continuing championing of Putin has to be among the most worrisome. 

In arguing to readmit Russia to the group of seven, which include the U.K., Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, Trump offered a twisted rationale that was head spinning in its nonsense. Remember that Russia was expelled from the group after Putin’s unlawful and forced “annexation” of Crimea in March 2014. That move marked the first time since the end of World War II that national boundaries in Europe were altered by force. It was, and remains, a very big deal. 

Yet, Trump said, “[Crimea] was sort of taken away from President Obama. Not taken away from President Trump, taken away from President Obama … President Obama was not happy that this happened because it was embarrassing to him. Right. It was very embarrassing to him and he wanted Russia to be out of the, what was called the G8, and that was his determination. He was outsmarted by Putin. He was outsmarted. President Putin outsmarted President Obama.” 

No, Putin did not “outsmart” Obama. Putin invaded a territory that was once part of the old Soviet Union because he wants to put the old union back together. It’s why he’s constantly meddling in Ukraine. His action was a blatant, aggressive violation of international law and the world’s major democracies sanctioned him and kicked him out of the G-7. 

“Trump is the one working to undo those punishments,” Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine, “allowing Putin to reap the rewards of the invasion at no cost, and possibly to grab more territory if he desires. It is a completely Orwellian spectacle: the president trying to reward Russia’s attack is blaming the president who punished the attack for the invasion itself.” 

And this from conservative writer Andrew Egger: “The fact that Trump is more comfortable savaging other U.S. politicians than our actual adversaries isn’t exactly surprising by now, yet the brazenness of it is still sufficient to shock.”

Which brings us to Risch, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, who recently announced his re-election campaign and promptly received Trump’s full-throated endorsement “Senator Jim Risch of the Great State of Idaho has been an incredible supporter of our Agenda!,” Trump Tweeted. It was pay back for Risch’s blind adherence to a foreign policy, as former Defense Secretary James Mattis said recently that “puts us at increasing risk in the world.”

Jim Risch of Idaho, the completely self-assured and totally ineffectual chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In the state’s history only a handful of Idahoans have been given – or earned – a place of national leadership. I think of Republican Sen. James A. McClure, who led the Senate Energy Committee in the early 1980s with considerable distinction, while also serving in a Senate leadership position. Cecil Andrus’s tenure as Secretary of the Interior ranks among the very best in history. William Borah and Frank Church both chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and distinguished themselves by, among other acts, calling various presidents over foreign policy blunders. 

Risch has now reached the pinnacle of a lifetime in public office – he’s a case study of a career politician – but he’s apparently willing to squander any influence he might have over foreign policy to remain “an incredible supporter” of Trump’s agenda. 

Does that mean Risch endorses Putin’s return to the G-7? Does he really believe the efforts to control Iran or North Korean nuclear weapons are in good hands with this president? Does he think it appropriate that the next G-7 summit should be held at Trump’s struggling Florida golf resort, a multi-million dollar scheme to put money in the president’s own pocket? 

We don’t know the answer to these and a dozen other questions because the senator rarely – if ever – comments on anything having to do with Trump’s foreign policy. No statements. No hearings. No leadership. And there isn’t a scintilla of evidence that Risch’s strategy of whispering in Trump’s ear, as he claims to do on a regular basis, has had any effect on either his behavior or his policy. 

It’s not his job, Risch infamously said, the call out the president’s lies.

Risch has arrived at his moment of power and prestige, but he’s opted for partisan politics – and his own re-election – over the national interest. If there were any justice in politics it should cost him his job. 

Foreign Policy, Trump

New World Order…

This piece originally appeared in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune

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Sometimes, what appears to be a minor change in political direction turns out to be a historic turning point.

Did most Americans in 1933 realize that the slew of legislation that flew through Congress in the first 100 days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency would shape the American political environment for decades? The New Deal was a marketing slogan, but the legislation behind the words continues to define the Democratic Party. 

Did most Americans know that an obscure Supreme Court decision in January 1976 involving little understood aspects of campaign finance law – Buckley v. Valeo– would become the triggering event that transformed American politics, leading eventually to “dark money” and vast amounts of unregulated cash perverting democracy? 

Political change rarely comes quickly or decisively, but most often plays out over time in fits and starts. The Age of Trump may be an exception to that rule. 

Will historians look back on Trump’s tenure as a blip or a head spinning turning point? In one area – foreign policy – I’d bet on chaotic turning point. And Idahoans have, if they choose to pay attention, a front row seat to this turning point with their junior senator now chairing the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Yet, Jim Risch seems wholly content to get along and go along with the chaos in American foreign policy rather than make even a feeble effort to shape the direction. 

Ronald Reagan at the Berlin Wall challenging the Soviet leadership

As proof that we have arrived at a historic point rather than a one-off deviation from norm, consider the fact that the party of “tear down this wall,” Ronald Reagan’s famous challenge to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, has transformed itself into a party that not only tolerates, but meekly acquiesces to the former KGB operative who seeks to re-establish the Russian empire. And a Republican president willingly helps him. 

Beyond the stunning and unequivocal conclusions of the Mueller report regarding Russian election interference, including the widespread distribution of disinformation designed to sow discord and help elect Trump, there is other growing evidence of Vladimir Putin’s “grand strategy” to reassert Russian influence in a host of ways. 

A new analysis prepared for the U.S. military reads like something Reagan would have reacted to: “Contrary to conventional analysis, after two decades under Vladimir Putin, Russia represents an ideological challenge to the West, not just a political and military rivalry. Although NATO continues to possess impressive overmatch against Moscow, that edge is dwindling, and Western vulnerabilities in certain military areas are alarming. Moreover, the unwillingness of Western experts and governments to confront the ideological — as well as political and military — aspects of our rivalry with Putinism means that the threat of significant armed conflict is rising.”

The key phrase there is “the unwillingness . . . to confront.”

Donald Trump this week verbally assaulted the British prime minister and the UK’s ambassador to Washington for the handling of Brexit, the still pending UK withdrawal from the European Union, and for a leaked series of British assessments of Trump and his administration, but there has never been even a mild rebuke from the president for Russian actions. Instead, Trump recently joked with Putin about not again interfering in an American election and, of course, Putin favors anything weakening European unity.

As for the Brit ambassador who reported to London that stories of chaos in the Trump White House were mostly true and that Washington has become an unreliable ally, the president Tweeted: “The wacky Ambassador that the U.K. foisted upon the United States is not someone we are thrilled with, a very stupid guy.” 

Two pals in Helsinki…

After Trump repeatedly praised Putin before his election as “a strong leader” and someone he could make great deals with, Trump dismissed all the U.S. intelligence agency’s belief that Russia interfered in his election. “I have President Putin here,” Trump said in that surreal moment in Helsinki in July 2018, “he just said it’s not Russia. I will say this, I don’t see any reason why it would be …” 

Trump recently questioned the long-standing U.S.-Japan mutual defense agreement and he has repeatedly diminished the NATO alliance that has kept the peace in Europe for 75 years. He has shredded relations with France, Canada and even Australia. Yet after North Korea’s murdering dictator called Trump mentally deranged, a dotard, a gangster and a frightened dog, the president chose to coo over the “love letters” between the two, while angling for yet another face-to-face meeting. 

In almost all of the post-war period the Republican Party has claimed the mantle of being strong on national security and the GOP language about protecting American interests often put Democrats on the defensive. Republicans routinely assaulted their opponents for opposing expensive weapons systems. Steve Symms made hay with such issues when he defeated Frank Church in 1980 in the most celebrated Idaho Senate race ever. 

Yet, the challenge presented by Putin and his fellow autocrats must be countered with more than military might, as the new Pentagon report makes profoundly clear. “Political objectives matter to the Kremlin in a zero-sum worldview,” the report asserts. “For Russia to win, the U.S. has to lose.”

Or as the commentator Philip Rotner wrote recently: “Trump’s retreat from the values that defined the post-World War II era of American exceptionalism has immediate negative consequences, above and beyond the long-term damage it does to America’s unique place in the world (as if that weren’t enough).

“It’s a gift to the tyrants of the world. It gives them the one thing they most covet: Impunity.” 

So where is Idaho’s Risch during this historic transformation of U.S. foreign policy? I’ll remind you again that he said recently that, “Russia is the most overrated country in the world.” Putin must live to hear a conservative Republican in the foreign policy establishment say such things because the Russian knows where he wants to go even if the senator does not. 

Risch has explicitly rejected the kind of activist role in shaping foreign policy that marked Church’s long career, as well as that of Idaho’s William Borah in the interwar period. He has the title of chairman, but he is clearly a figurehead, content to win re-election next year by embracing all things Trumpian.

History will not treat either of them well.  

Foreign Policy, U.S. Senate

The Surest Senator of All…

When he speaks about big issues Idaho Senator Jim Risch, the new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, likes to invoke his experience, the dozens of times he’s been on the ballot, his leadership of the Idaho State Senate and his early years as the Ada County prosecutor. One of Risch’s go-to lines is “I’ve been at this a long time.” 

In the increasingly rare interviews Risch grants or when he, also rarely, entertains questions from voters his setup often goes something like this: “I’ve been at this [politics] a long time, I’ve been through 34 elections, I was a prosecutor and [in the context of the Russia investigation] I know what evidence looks like.” 

Idaho Senator James E. Risch

All politicians display a certain level of confidence. It goes with the territory these days. The humble, self-effacing public servant is a relic of American political history, if indeed it has ever existed. But Risch has raised self-assurance to a new level, unlike anything Idaho has seen, well, ever and it’s gotten him into trouble. 

Risch’s first real controversy as chairman came over his initial handling of the Senate’s demand for information from the Trump Administration on the murder of Washington Postcolumnist Jamil Khashoggi. When senator’s demanded that the administration follow the law and report on who had ordered Khashoggi’s brutal murder, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – Risch calls him a close friend – essentially said: “Mind your own business.” 

Risch’s initial response was to fully back the Trump line. “We asked for the information. They sent it. And I put out a press release,” Risch told reporters. Then the proverbial organic matter hit the fan. Senate Republicans on Risch’s own committee demanded more and he did schedule a closed hearing earlier this week, but not before apparently misleading fellow Republicans on just how forthcoming the administration had been. All in all it was a stumbling, incoherent performance by a guy who has “been at this a long time.” 

You have to wonder why? 

Why has Risch worked so hard to shield the president from confronting the murder of a journalist, a murder the nation’s intelligence agencies have placed squarely at the feet of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman? Why are fellow Republicans like Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio, Chuck Grassley and Mitt Romney confronting the administration over reprehensible Saudi behavior, while Risch has been carrying Trump’s water on both shoulders? 

Remember that Trump has said of the Crown Prince, a pal of his son-in-law, that “maybe he did and maybe he didn’t” order the journalist’s murder.

During a contentious recent television interview, recorded while Risch was attending the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany, the senator invoked his “I’ve been at this a long time” certainty with another wrinkle he likes to use – “I know more than you, but because it’s classified I couldn’t possibly comment.” 

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, identified by U.S. intelligence agencies as the man responsible for ordering the death of Washington Post columnist Jamil Khashoggi

Asked by veteran journalist Tim Sebastian whether he agreed with Graham’s characterization that there “was zero chance” that bin Salam had not ordered Khashoggi’s murder, Risch spun into a linguistic tap dance, first refusing to answer whether he agreed with the South Carolina senator and then invoking secrecy.

“I’m on the Intelligence Committee,” Risch said, “Lindsey isn’t. I’ve looked at every scrap of evidence there is on [Khashoggi’s murder] and unfortunately because of my position on the Intelligence Committee I can’t sit here and reiterate that for you, and in that regard I can’t comment on that.” Risch then said he could comment on the 17 Saudi nationals sanctioned by the U.S. government, but apparently his opinion about the Crown Prince is classified. 

Again the question is why? Does Risch so value his access to the White House that he won’t summon moral outrage at the murder of a journalist whose body was dismembered with a bone saw and has still not been found? Why was he willing to launch his chairmanship by alienating fellow Republicans who must increasingly see him as an apologist for the heinous? Is Risch so concerned about a primary challenge from the far right that there is no “red line” of support for Trump that he will not cross? 

In the same period that the senator was covering for the president and the Saudi Crown Prince he was effectively dismissing concerns about Trump campaign involvement with Russia. “It is simply not there,” the former prosecutor explained of his reading of Trump-Russia collusion. That certainty comes even as we now know that Paul Manafort, the convicted former Trump campaign chairman, was meeting with Russian operatives and sharing polling information literally while Trump was securing the GOP nomination in 2016.

In the face of mounting evidence of ongoing Russian efforts to interfere with American elections Risch told the Boise Chamber of Commerce recently “Russia is the most overrated country on the face of the planet. They get so much ink here. They get so much attention here, simply because of Trump, of course. These guys are incredibly inept. They are a nuclear power, there is no question about it. They certainly have some juice, there is no question about it. These guys, they are all bluster.”

Put that comment in context and again ask yourself why? 

On July 27, 2016, then-candidate Trump looked straight into television cameras in Florida and said, “Russia, if you’re listening. I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” — messages Hillary Clinton was said to have deleted from a private email server.

“Actually, Russia was doing more than listening,” as the Associated Press reported last week. “It had been trying to help Republican Trump for months. That very day, hackers working with Russia’s military intelligence tried to break into email accounts associated with Clinton’s personal office. It was just one small part of a sophisticated election interference operation carried out by the Kremlin — and meticulously chronicled by special counsel Robert Mueller.” 

And ask yourself why wouldn’t the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee want to get to the bottom of that and so much more?  

—–0—–

Borah, Church, Foreign Policy, Trump, U.S. Senate

The Risch Doctrine…

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch became chairman of the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee last week and as nearly his first act he bashed the two Idahoans who held that position in the past, William Borah and Frank Church.

In an interview with Idaho Press reporter Betsy Russell, Risch also said his “repertoire does not include sparring publicly with the president of the United States. For many, many different reasons, I think that’s counterproductive, and you won’t see me doing it.”

UNITED STATES – APRIL 8: Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, questions Secretary of State John Kerry, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

In one interview, the new chairman offered a remarkable display of historical ignorance, senatorial obsequiousness, hubris and blind partisanship. Call it “the Risch Doctrine.”

Let’s take them one by one.

“William Borah was around at the time when it was very fashionable, and indeed you could get away with non-involvement in a great matter of international affairs,” Risch told Russell.

The senator is correct that Borah, who represented Idaho in the Senate for 33 years, was, to say the least, skeptical about an aggressive U.S. foreign policy. More correctly, Borah was a non-interventionist, an anti-imperialist and a politician who believed passionately that the Senate must exercise a significant role in developing the country’s foreign policy. He would have been the last to say he would avoid “sparring publicly” with a president. He did so repeatedly, including with presidents of his own Republican Party.

Borah’s determined opposition to the peace treaty after World War I was based in large part on Woodrow Wilson’s arrogance in insisting that the Senate rubber stamp his handy work, accepting his terms or no terms.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Risch says he has his disagreements with President Donald Trump, but you’d be hard to pressed to find even one, while his record is ripe with acquiescence to an administration whose foreign policy from Syria to North Korea and from NATO to Saudi Arabia feels more unhinged, more chaotic by the day.

While Borah elevated the Foreign Relations Committee to something approaching equal standing with Republican presidents such as Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, Risch is first and last a partisan, even to the point of going down the line with Trump, while many other Senate Republicans broke with him this week over sanctioning a Russian oligarch. With a Democrat in the White House, Risch was never reluctant to bash a foreign policy decision. His “sparring” was always in plain sight. Now, it’s all quiet on the Risch front.

Risch also could not refrain from repeating an old smear against Sen. Frank Church, effectively accusing Church of weakening the nation’s intelligence agencies.

“In my judgment,” Risch said, Church “did some things regarding our intelligence-gathering abilities and operations that would not serve us very well today. We need a robust intelligence operation.”

We have a robust intelligence operation, one that has frequently made serious mistakes that require constant vigilance from U.S. senators.

Risch should know this. He’s on the Senate Intelligence Committee, but he has repeatedly excused Trump’s own disregard, indeed contempt, for intelligence agencies, including dismissal of an FBI director who was just a bit too independent for Trump’s taste. You have to wonder if the new chairman has read even a summary of Church’s still very relevant work.

What Church’s landmark investigation really did in the 1970s was to explain to the American people, as UC-Davis historian Kathryn Olmsted told me this week, “what the CIA and FBI and other agencies had been doing in their name during the height of the Cold War.” As professor Olmsted, a scholar of American intelligence and its oversight noted, Church’s investigation “revealed many abuses and some crimes that had been committed, for example, by the CIA.”

One of those crimes was spying on American citizens. The National Security Agency actually conducted mail and phone surveillance on Church and Republican Sen. Howard Baker.

“Thanks to the Church Committee,” Olmsted wrote, “we now know that the CIA engaged mafia dons to stab, poison, shoot and blow up Fidel Castro; that it tried to poison Patrice Lumumba’s toothpaste and that it hired goons to kidnap the general in Chile who was trying to uphold his country’s constitutional democracy and thus stood in the way of a U.S.-backed coup. (He was killed in the course of the kidnapping.) The committee also revealed the FBI’s infamous COINTELPRO program, including the harassment of Martin Luther King Jr.”

Church didn’t weaken the intelligence community — he held it accountable. His work created the modern framework for congressional oversight, that is if Congress would use the power of oversight, and Church’s investigation led to the protections of the so-called FISA court that requires a judge to sign off on surveillance of a kind that the intelligence agencies once initiated on their own.

“This is a great time to be a Republican,” Risch told a partisan crowd at a Lincoln Day dinner in Shoshone last week. “You will not hear about this in the national media, but we have done a great job running this country.” Quite a line to utter while a quarter of the federal government remains shut down and while the president is operating with an “acting” chief of staff, Interior secretary, Office of Management and Budget director, attorney general, Defense secretary and has yet to even nominate ambassadors to a couple dozen countries.

Jim Risch, the committed partisan, has always been the kind of politician focused on his next election. He’s up in 2020 in what should be one of the safest seats in the country and he’s put all his chips on Trump.

But what if things are different in a few months or in a year? What if Robert Mueller’s investigation unspools a web of corruption that makes President Richard Nixon and Watergate look like a third-rate burglary? What if Risch has bet on the wrong guy?

He’s standing on the rolling deck of the USS Trump right now, raising nary a question about a president implicated in scandal from porno payoffs to Russian collusion. The super-partisan will never change, but his hubris may yet — and again — get the best of him.

—–0—–

Foreign Policy, GOP, Trump

Two Things About the Mattis Resignation…

  Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

–Resignation letter of General James Mattis

————

The resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis is being seen, as it should be seen, as not merely a senior Cabinet member leaving after losing a policy battle, but rather as a fundamental repudiation of the worldview of an American president. 

The resignation has stunned Washington, shaken our allies and, for the first time in the first two years of his chaotic presidency, caused significant numbers of elected Republicans to stir themselves to something approaching opposition.

The push back comes too late however. The damage is done. The work to re-establish American moral and political leadership across the globe will take a generation to repaired, if in fact it can be repaired.

Two things about Mattis’s resignation strike me as historically significant. 

Mattis and Trump

First, a principled resignation from public service has rarely, in fact hardly ever, been a feature of our politics. The only resignation in modern times that comes close to what Secretary Mattis did yesterday was the resignation of then-Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1980 in protest of President Jimmy Carter’s decision to attempt a rescue of American hostages held in Iran. That resignation, quietly made before, but not publicly announced until after the ill-fated rescue mission failed, was mentioned in the first three graphs of every Vance obituary when he died in 2002.

In other words, Vance, like Mattis, told the president of the United States that he was so fundamentally opposed to an administration’s policy that he could no longer serve. 

This kind of resignation (as I have noted before) occur with some regularity in other western democracies. Key officials, for example, have been fleeing Theresa May’s government – 19 high profile resignations so far this year – over the British prime minister’s handling the Brexit mess.

Anthony Eden, then the British foreign secretary, resigned in February 1938 after a dispute with Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain over the best approaching to dealing with Benito Mussolini.

French President Emmanuel Macron has recently suffered the resignations of several high ranking officials in his government, one of whom spoke publicly of Macron’s “lack of humanity,” a line that could just as well apply to Trump.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Here’s hoping that the Mattis resignation over a serious matter of principle – of course, Donald Trump broadly ignored Mattis’s advice on a range of issues, not just Syrian policy – begins a new phase in American politics where serious people quit rather than work in an environment that debases their judgment and their sense of patriotism.

As for the argument that Mattis has provided what little adult supervision exists in the Trump Administration, and that he stayed so long in the face of so much chaos in order to protect the military and the world from the worst of Trump, I just don’t buy it.

You only provide the kind of supervision Trump needs (but won’t accept) if you are effective. In the main, the retired Marine Corps general, was not all that effective when it comes to policy. He opposed the decision to abandon the Iranian nuclear deal. Trump did it anyway. He opposed the senseless and constant Trump criticism of NATO allies. Trump kept it up. He even lost on the question of who should head the Joint Chiefs of Staff when Trump rejected his favored nominee. Even when Trump refused to acknowledge the importance of the late Senator John McCain’s career, Mattis publicly did so, but without offering even a mild rebuke to the president’s petty meanness.

The best outcome of Mattis’s resignation could be that the impact of his action will jar Washington Republicans out of their get-along/go-along Trump stupor and cause, at least some of them, to provide real oversight and substantive checks on the president. Mattis presumably could have stimulated this outcome months ago. Now, at last, he has. Maybe, just maybe, a corner has been turned in the reality TV series that the American presidency has become. 

Mattis resignation letter

The second takeaway for me from this historic moment is simply the head spinning reality that this foreign policy and national security chaos is taking place in a Republican Administration. The laws of politics and the orientation of our political parties has been turned completely upside down. The same Republicans who lamented, often with good reason, the Obama Administration’s approach to foreign and defense policy now own the most dysfunctional presidency in modern times. 

Republicans were once able to savage Democrats as “weak” on national security and eager to retreat from world responsibilities. That story line is now completely reversed thanks to Donald Trump.

Republicans who once based a good part of their brand on a clear-eyed reality about America’s role in the world have now embraced an ignorant, uninformed foreign policy that has trashed the post-war international order, facilitated the ambitions of China to further dominate the Pacific, emboldened authoritarian dictators, faked its way through North Korean talks about nuclear weapons and made Vladimir Putin the happiest man to occupy the Kremlin in a long, long time. 

Historians will write about this Republican collapse of rationality for generations to come, as well as those who aided and abetted it. While I suspect General Mattis will be mostly a footnote to this history, remembered more for his resignation than his accomplishments, one phrase in his resignation letter should be the jumping off point to assess why the GOP has fallen so far so fast. A fundamental reason for this debacle is simply the wholesale abandonment of fact-based competency in favor of the ranting and ignorance of a man totally unfit for the office he holds.

“Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from Syria was made hastily, without consulting his national security team or allies … Trump stunned his Cabinet, lawmakers and much of the world with the move by rejecting the advice of his top aides and agreeing to a withdrawal in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.” 

Associated Press coverage of Trump’s Syrian decision.

The key phrase in Mattis’s letter came as he explained his belief in the importance of international alliances and the need to oppose the evil intent of what he called “malign actors and strategic competitors.” Mattis based his opinion, he said, on insight gained, and this is the key phrase, “over four decades of immersion in these issues.”

In their hearts and minds most elected Republicans know that Donald Trump is an ignorant buffoon totally out of his depth. They must pray every night that he will not have to confront a real international crisis.

To allow Trump to get and keep the job he has many Republicans have suspended belief in the importance of “immersion” in reality. The GOP has traded competency and rationality for power and party. And that train wreck continues to unfold in real time.

Many Republicans have been relying on a guy like Jim Mattis to keep this careening locomotive on the tracks. Now, what do they do?

Foreign Policy, Idaho Politics

The Myth of the Saudi Special Relationship

My weekly column in the Lewiston, Idaho Tribune 

———-

On June 9, 1979 Molly Ivins, the brilliant and still widely mourned reporter – she had a rare knack for simultaneously turning a phrase and twisting a knife with her journalism – had an Idaho datelined story in the New York Times.

“Confrontation over Mideast Policies Apparently Taking Shape in Idaho ’80 Race for Senate,” was the headline over Ivins’ story where she explored the fallout from a speech then-Senator Frank Church had given that was deemed to be highly critical of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Church, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, actually had criticized both the Carter Administration and the Saudis in his widely reported speech. Both were guilty, Church said, of undercutting efforts for a comprehensive Mideast peace. The U.S. was “pinning our policy to false assumptions,” Church said, much as the U.S. had placed a losing bet on the “a rotting regime” in Iran when for decades presidents of both parties made apologies for the Shah.

Jimmy Carter with Idaho Senator Frank Church

Church, predictably, was accused of undermining a vital strategic relationship when he criticized the Saudi regime, which was then as now, an often violent and repressive dictatorship. But the Idahoan did it anyway, taking on both a president of his own party and Idaho economic interests. The Boise-based construction firm Morrison-Knudsen had a huge contract in 1979 to build a new city in Saudi Arabia and Church’s eventual 1980 opponent, Steve Symms, was calling for accommodation with the region’s dictators in the interest of selling both American weapons and Idaho wheat.

Some things never change.

Amid the broad international condemnation of the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a gruesome, barbarous hit almost certainly ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – MBS to his “friends” – the current president can only focus on what Time magazine calls a “cold financial calculation: Saudi money for U.S.-made weaponry” that results in American jobs. Or as Donald Trump put it recently, “I don’t like the concept of stopping an investment of $110 billion into the United States.”

Murdered journalist – and U.S. resident – Jamal Khashoggi

It is a brutal and cynical calculation and, like so many other “myths” which have long been the foundation of American foreign policy, it will be self-defeating. Frank Church knew that 40 years ago, Trump and his congressional enablers never will.

The Saudi-U.S. relationship is a veritable case study of how money, influence and delusion come together in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post recently outlined how the “sophisticated Saudi influence machine” has lavished millions on lobbyists, consultants, law firms and think tanks in order to prop up the myth that the Saudi dictatorship is a vital U.S. ally. The kingdom spent more than $27 million on such influence buying last year.

Robert Kagan, a veteran of the George W. Bush State Department and now a foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institution, has argued that America has long harbored a fantasy about “reforming” dictators like MBS. Fanciful as it now seems, some Americans once thought Mussolini or the Shah of Iran would “reform” and we placed naïve bets on such fiction.

“Today, the Saudi crown prince’s U.S. supporters are asking how he could have been so foolish if he, as it appears, ordered the murder of Khashoggi,” Kagan wrote recently. “But who are the fools here? Dictators do what dictators do. We are the ones living in a self-serving fantasy of our own devising, and one that may ultimately come back to bite us.”

Which brings us to the Idaho politician currently in a position to influence U.S. policy toward Saudi Arabia. You might be excused for forgetting that Senator Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican, has such power. But the man who will almost certainly be the next chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee hasn’t, near as I can tell, spoken a syllable about the Saudis. No statement of concern or condemnation over the Khashoggi murder. No thought or threat about sanctions. Risch, who never tired of slamming one aspect or another of Barack Obama’s foreign policy, is now a sphinx as a feckless president makes excuses for the inexcusable.

Jim Risch, the Idaho Republican, will soon chair the Foreign Relations Committee

Some argue, and perhaps Risch believes this too, that American interests are served well enough by the Saudi regime’s effort to create “stability” in the Middle East, while using our weapons and help to churn up more chaos in Syria, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere.

The real Saudi objective and the overriding objective of every despot – this has been the case since Franklin Roosevelt’s historic tete-a-tete with King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud in 1945 – is the preservation of the wealth and power of the ruling monarchy.

When Frank Church called out the Saudis in 1979 he was at the height of his influence and he used his platform to try to redirect U.S. policy. As his biographers LeRoy Ashby and Rod Gramer have noted Church “thought it was time for somebody with some stature in American politics to speak plainly to the Saudis.”

It’s well past time for that to happen again. If only there were a courageous Idahoan in a position of authority in the Senate. But guts and the perspective to take on a woefully ignorant president and a Washington influence machine in the service of a corrupt foreign government is not something you’ll find in Jim Risch.

2016 Election, Foreign Policy, GOP, Obama, Russia, Trump

Trumping the Shark…

 

        “And we’ve got our soldiers sitting there [in South Korea] watching missiles go up. And you say to yourself, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.’ Now we’re protecting Japan because Japan is a natural location for North Korea. So we are protecting them, and you say to yourself, ‘Well, what are we getting out of this?’”

Donald J. Trump in an interview with the New York Times

———-

Republicans, particularly those from the traditional post-war internationalist wing of the Grand Old Party, have devoted most of their waking hours over the past seven and a half years to assailing Barack Obama’s “fickle” foreign policy.

Obama has been bashed for “leading from behind,” for constantly “apologizing” for the United States, for being unwilling to double down on a purely military response to the violence and political turmoil from Egypt to Syria, from Ukraine to Iran.

Neville Chamberlain in 1938
Neville Chamberlain in 1938

In this Republican view Obama is a Kenyan socialist update of Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister who redefined the word “appeasement” so that it has become the most damning of all foreign policy epithets.

Then the GOP nominated Donald Trump.

I’m going to posit that never before in the history of modern U.S. politics has one party, a party that has for so long held rock solid views on foreign policy and America’s place in the world, so quickly and violently changed direction. The Trumpian “pivot” on foreign policy is now complete and the implications are coming into focus. As usual with Trump there is little doubt or nuance.

The Republican presidential candidate detailed for the New York Times yesterday his belief that as president he would not automatically guarantee 70 years of commitments to European security, would not condemn the massive violations of civil liberties underway in the wake of an attempted coup in Turkey and would remove American military and security commitments from far east allies like Japan and Korea.

And that’s just for openers.

The only thing missing from Trump’s capture of the Republican Party were seconding speeches of his nomination from anti-democratic thugs like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkey's Erdogan
Turkey’s Erdogan

Imagine Barack Obama making a statement like Trump made yesterday. Reminded by the Times David E. Sanger that since the attempted coup in Turkey Erdogan “put nearly 50,000 people in jail or suspend them, suspended thousands of teachers, he imprisoned many in the military and the police, he dismissed a lot of the judiciary. Does this worry you? And would you rather deal with a strongman who’s also been a strong ally, or with somebody that’s got a greater appreciation of civil liberties than Mr. Erdogan has? Would you press him to make sure the rule of law applies?”

Trump’s reply: “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country. We have tremendous problems when you have policemen being shot in the streets, when you have riots, when you have Ferguson. When you have Baltimore. When you have all of the things that are happening in this country — we have other problems, and I think we have to focus on those problems. When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.”

Forget the messenger, worry about our own rule of law with such a man in the White House. Worry also about the cognitive dissonance on the new GOP ticket. At the very moment Trump’s interview was posted online Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence was saying this: “We cannot have four more years of … abandoning our friends. … Donald Trump will … stand with our allies.” Right. Got it.

The Reagan doctrine of American Exceptionalism has been reduced in the Age of Trump to: “We’re not in a position to be more aggressive. We have to fix our own mess.” Apparently fixing “our own mess” will cause Trump to look for inspiration to the dictators he refuses to condemn.

Loyal readers know that I have often voiced my own profound concerns about an American foreign policy based on the constant expansion of U.S. military power or the belief, held by Hillary Clinton among others, that nearly every foreign policy challenge demands a military response, but Trump has gone where no Republican has gone since at least Robert Taft in 1952.

Goldwater slogan in 1964
Goldwater slogan in 1964

Trump has torn the Republican Party from its post-war moorings, even more so it is now clear than Barry Goldwater did in 1964. His appeal to nativist, know nothingism, his exploitation of fear, his appalling ignorance of our own history and the world’s has gone way beyond anything we have seen since McCarthy in the early 1950’s. This is truly the GOP’s McCarthy Moment and no time, as Edward R. Murrow said of the Republican’s earlier demagogue, for citizens – particularly Republicans – who oppose his nonsense to remain silent.

It is now truly time to contemplate the consequences of turning over the country’s foreign policy – the nuclear codes for crying out loud – to a man who shouldn’t be trusted with the key to the executive washroom. The country has been here before. Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964 proclaimed that “In your heart you know he is right,” but American voters saw through Goldwater’s bizarre suggestions that battlefield nuclear weapons might be used in Southeast Asia, that a nuclear warhead was “just another weapon” and that North Vietnam could be reduced to a “mud puddle” if only we had the right leadership.

The last time a radical hijacked the GOP, American voters agreed with Democrats who countered Goldwater’s slogan with their own: “In your guts you know he’s nuts.”

Donald J. Trump is certifiably “nuts.”