Archive for the ‘War & Peace’ Category

The Fire is Still Burning

donald-trump-salute-696x417After a year of Trump, there’s a dangerous tendency to believe it wasn’t that bad.

Not so fast! There should be little comfort in disasters delayed, but not averted. The shoes have not dropped, but the threats to our democracy remain:

  • Trump has not attacked North Korea – not yet.
  • Trump has not fired the second round of investigators who would expose his crimes – not yet.
  • Trump has not pardoned those who would rat him out to save themselves jail time – not yet.
  • Trump has not fired Secretary Tillerson, one of the few adults in the room – not yet.
  • Trump has not defied court orders – not yet.
  • Trump has not forced those loyal to him in government to illegally harass, audit, or impede newspapers, TV channels, or reporters as Nixon did – not yet.
  • Trump has not, post-election, incited crowds to violence against fellow citizens – not yet.
  • Trump has not tried to raise insurrection against the FBI, the judiciary, or other parts of government potentially thwarting his criminality – not yet.

We all know that he is capable of these transgressions and more. He remains the same narcissistic, egomaniacal, ignorant, juvenile, volatile, vengeful, dictatorial demagogue he always has been.

Watching and waiting is not enough. Trump must be confronted and constrained before he mis-steps. On this, patriotic Republicans, Democrats, liberals, moderates and conservatives must see their mutual interest and should act in unison.



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Since the Cold War, Presidents have had the ability to use the nation’s nuclear weapons without prior authorization by Congress.  Current law allows Presidents to shoot first and asks questions later.  This must change.  The time has come to rein in the President’s authority within traditional Constitutional limits by updating the War Powers Resolution.

Current doctrine rests on three assumptions – that unbounded Presidential authority to use the military is necessary for defense (the Necessity assumption), that the Constitution gives Presidents that authority (the Commander in Chief assumption), and that elections will reliably choose Presidents with the judgment, character and wisdom appropriate to such power (the Character assumption).  All three assumptions are false.

Necessity: Rapid military response by a President acting alone would be required in only the most extreme and unlikely scenarios.  The President’s authority to act alone can and should be limited to those situations.  Congress should update the War Powers Resolution to limit Presidential authority to take military action to emergencies in which Congress cannot be consulted, and to require that other senior officials outside of the President’s chain of command concur with the President’s judgement.  An exception should be made in only the most exigent circumstances.

Commander in Chief: Presidential authority to command the military is not absolute.  Military commanders, including the Commander in Chief, are always limited to the lawful use of forces under their command.  As the Constitution puts it, the President’s authority as Commander in Chief applies only “when called into the actual Service of the United States”.  Congress has the sole authority to make war and define the lawful parameters under which the Commander operates.

It has always been so throughout history.   It is the Sovereign power of a country which delegates military authority to Commanders, such as the President; Commanders have no self-authorizing power to make war.  For the United States, the sovereign power to make war is vested solely in Congress.

Character:  Presidential elections sometimes fail to bring us leaders who are widely trusted, both Democrats and Republicans.  At times this has been more obvious, troubling and dangerous.  However well chosen a President may be, it is unwise to delegate too much power to any one person.  We are flawed creatures, and our Constitution was designed to provide a measure of protection from human frailties.

Irresponsible Presidents are a rarity, but we cannot rely on that alone.  We need an updated War Powers Resolution to provide rapid defense in emergencies, but to deny any President the means to start unauthorized war.  Any broader authority subverts the Constitution, and places us all at untenable risk.

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888310_40006bf856fa4889a769e8d5541e98d4The on-going clash between left and right is putting at risk the stability of Constitutional democracy, the rule of law, peace, and prosperity.  Conservatives and Liberals must stop shouting at each other long enough to notice and protect more important shared values, and to halt the destruction of institutions in motion now that threatens to destroy us all.

Left and right speak to some common goals including shared prosperity, and respect for democracy and the rule of law.  Where left and right part is the means.  Left sees state intervention on behalf of those who struggle as the means to shared prosperity, whereas right sees less fettered market forces as the means to shared prosperity.

Neocons and demagogues push the right a fatal step further – they see the destruction of the state as legitimate means to an end.  Economic self-interest has been perverted into hostility to the state, hostility to foreigners, and hostility to stabilizing international norms and institutions.  For some conservatives, it has been a convenient rhetorical tool to sell limited taxation and regulation at the ballot box.  However most conservatives never sought to destroy the institutions of democracy.

Now, reap the whirlwind.  The destruction of the state and the rise of demagogues is a danger to all, right and left.

[H]istory tells us where this leads – demonizing foreigners, domestic political opponents, and the judiciary, domestic strife, calls to violence, and the inevitable final refuge of struggling dictators – war

That brings us to Thomas Picketty, whose simple and unassailable observation about income and wealth reveals a dangerous failure to deliver on the promise.  Left and right can debate why until the cows come home.  What’s undeniable is that the status quo isn’t working well enough for too many of us.  That is an unstable situation, and it is a fundamental threat to peace, prosperity and democracy.


The #1 most pressing problem is that left and right are dissipating all their energies debating the means to prosperity, and are missing out on the far more important shared concern.  Demagogues and authoritarians seek to destroy the state as a path to free markets and personal power.  They will take us all down with them if we do not act.  The green elephant in the room (above) threatens to destroy us all.

The hope is in a faith that unites many: Constitutional democracy, rule of law, state institutions, the international security architecture, and a kind of global integration good for all.  This is where we must turn our attention.

This is a call for good people on the right and left to put aside the questions that divide, for a time, and turn to the far more urgent problem – how do we preserve Constitutional democracy, the international security architecture, peace, and human decency against the rising tide of nationalism, foolish demagoguery, authoritarianism, and ill-informed or malevolent leadership?

If we don’t act, history tells us where this leads – demonizing foreigners, domestic political opponents, and the judiciary, domestic strife, calls to violence, and the inevitable final refuge of struggling dictators – war.

Don’t wait until it’s too late.

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600px-flag_of_the_united_states-svgHow will Trump act out his slogan, “America First”?

There are two broad possibilities, one transactional, the other strategic.  The transactional stream views each choice as a zero-sum game.  When one country gains an advantage, another loses.  The strategic stream seeks opportunities for mutual gain, sees peace and prosperity beyond our borders as good for America too, and considers whether both short and longer term consequences will be good for us.

Here are some examples:



  • We win if we maximize our exports and minimize our imports
  • We win if we exclude goods that can be made domestically


  • We win if we maximize trade volume balanced equally
  • We win if we achieve full employment domestically, even if we import at high volume
  • We win if we and other countries have stronger economies, rising wages and improving working conditions



  • We win if we have a strong military
  • Allies must take care of themselves, and be no burden to us
  • If our allies need help, we will be there if we see it as in our interests to do so at the time.


  • We win if we and our allies all have a strong military
  • When our allies are strong, it’s good for us.
  • If our allies need help, they can rely on us 100%.



  • We can weather the storm at home, if it comes
  • Drill, baby, drill


  • Instability beyond our borders is a threat to us
  • We can prosper by developing and selling the energy solutions of tomorrow



  • Israel right or wrong


  • General peace and prosperity for all is good for us and good for Israel

So the questions is not, America First or World First.  The question is, which vision of America First really does put America first?

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paxromanamapDonald Trump wants to end Pax Americana because it costs too much. Countries protected by American military dominance must pay, according to Trump, because we can’t afford our present posture.

Contrary to Trump, we can’t afford to abandon defending others. The cost of our own defense would rise, and we would endanger ourselves, if we walk away.

There’s a quid pro quo in place. Everyone benefits. Especially America. If we stop providing global stability, others would need to see to their own defense, and the fundamental post-war deal would unravel. We would trigger a dangerous return to a multi-polar, unstable world. That kind of isolationism is dangerous and misguided.

By providing a security umbrella we save others money, that much is so. But we also save ourselves, and we increase our own security. Countries under our umbrella pose no threat to us, and they pose no threat to others. Thus our potential rivals face a simplified defense posture, and so do we. They need only concern themselves with a unified western world, and we need only concern ourselves with a few rivals.

Could we ask for more from our putative friends? Yes. Specifically, we must demand that the Saudis and others abandon tolerating and promoting religious fanaticism. Their cash and their troops are secondary. Trump should know this if he aspires to be President.

If Trump has his way, and we return to a multi-polar world, all military budgets would be larger, especially ours. Each country would necessarily go after its own parochial agenda, with our ability to moderate allies’ behavior greatly diminished. The risks of local tensions escalating out of control would be much greater.

Pax Americana remains a safer and cheaper situation for all. We must not abandon it, even if Mr Trump wins the election. He claims he listens to the best people. Let’s hope he does, before he triggers a of round regional conflict and global re-militarization.

Update: An editorial in USA Today concludes, “this prospective commander in chief’s views are not just irresponsible: they are cataclysmically dangerous.”

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The Russia Game

 “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.”  

Winston Churchill

Just how Putin interprets that national interest is coming into focus, and it is a dangerous vision. Look beyond the claimed intentions, and discern the pattern emerging from the actual actions:

  • Intention 1: Re-establish for Russia the sense of might, malice, and unpredictability with which the Soviet Union was formerly viewed. The subtext is clear – fear us, respect us, for you don’t know what we will do.
  • Intention 2: Provoke, confront and test the limits of Western acquiescence to bold decisive military aggression – for example, to taking America’s proxies off the battlefield in Syria, to shooting down civilian aircraft (KAL 007 take 2), to taking Crimea, to taking part or perhaps all of Ukraine. Look for more to come – right up to, and perhaps over, the brink of live fire between Russian and American forces.
  • Intention 3: Secure Syria for Russia, with Assad as the means.

Of these, the third is the least of our concerns. The first two pose a serious threat. There is no appetite in the Oval Office for confronting Russia in the skies over Syria. Yet direct confrontation is where this all leads.

Washington will soon be forced to make a choice between a potentially apocalyptic confrontation, and abandoning the field. If there are no sleepless nights in the White House, there should be.

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It’s time to switch sides, to utilize Assad and his government as a means to defeat the Islamic State, and to cooperate with Russia to do it.  How do you do that without being seen to renounce the prior policy?

John Kerry formulated it this way – Assad’s removal “doesn’t have to be on day one or month one or whatever”.  “[W]e’re not being doctrinaire about the specific date or time,” Kerry said.

This is rhetorical prelude to what’s become increasingly obvious – defeating ISIS without Assad may be impractical or impossible.  Moreover, it may be undesirable to destroy Assad’s government, even if it were possible.

We’ve learned the hard way the chaos that resulted from destroying the Iraqi army, the Iraqi government, and the general de-Bathification.  In hindsight, that’s how we won the war and lost the peace.  We should not repeat that mistake in Syria.  We dare not destroy the institutions of government that hold a country together and make social order possible.

We should switch sides, work with the Russians, accept that we many need to retain Assad, for now, and ultimately seek to re-make the Assad government at a later stage.  Kerry’s new formulation may be the first step along that road.

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