Saturday, December 31, 2016

A little perspective on 2016

Hillary fans and Trump Haters (which are not necessarily the same) are convinced 2016 is the worst year ever.  For the non-politically minded, the deaths of Prince, David Bowie, Ron Glass, Carrie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds, George Michael and Bob Denver (to name a few of the celebrities who passed away this year), 2016 has also been the worse year ever.

But was 2016 nearly as bad as April 1945 was for Japan when the US dropped two atomic bombs killing 128,000 Japanese?  Or was it as bad as 1979 in Cambodia, the final year of the Khmer Rouge Killing Fields which estimates are over 1 million executed Cambodians?  Or what about 1353, the final year of the Black Death which by then had seen the deaths of over 100-125 million?  Perspective is a mothefucker sometimes.

For all of Mr. Trumps shortfalls, are let's be honest he has many, since winning the election he seems to have calmed much of his anti-immigrant and anti-NATO rhetoric.  But fear not for Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry are spending their final days in office pissing of Israel and Russia.  For an administration that has prided itself on using diplomacy over force, the handling of the Israeli settlements (which Mr. Obama and company successfully ignored for the previous years) and the 35 Russian "spys" (which Mr. Obama and Mr. Kerry knew about for years!) that were expelled seem particularly ham-fisted approaches.  It is telling that now Mr. Putin appears to be the elder statesman compared to Mr. Obama's rather petulant approach.

As I had been saying all year, 2016 is certainly one of the more interesting years of late but is is by no means deserving of all of the angst and tears (real as well as virtual) that I've seen being shed on social media.  Mr. Trump is the next President, no matter how much many don't want that to be.  Funny how these are the same people who were so angered and puzzled by Mr. Obama's critics and demanded that they (his critics) remember that he is their President.  Absolutely correct except guess what?  Now you all have to do the same thing for Mr. Trump.

Going into 2017, there is potential for the US and Russia to form a new relationship that hasn't been seen since WWII.  Old alliances and relationships may change or fall by the wayside as a result but that should deter the US from trying.  Thus far, Mr. Putin has stayed his hand even after a Russian ambassador was assassinated in Turkey, Russia was accused of hacking our elections, and even after 35 of his diplomats were sent back home.  Could all just be a ruse of course but let's take it a face value for now and try to forge something new and better in 2017.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

37 Days Later

It has been 37 days since Donald Trump won the election and guess what?  We are still arguing about the results!  Hillary Clinton supporters, and Donald Trump haters which are not necessarily the same thing, have hit upon a new strategy….blame the Russians!  Mr. Obama and the White House are going along keeping everyone's tempers at full even though there are many questions that should be giving all some pause;

1.  As the Hillary fans and Trump haters point out, Hillary won the popular vote by 2.3 million!  Okay, so if the Russians were behind this why did Hillary win in the popular vote?

2.  The CIA is now convinced the Russians "hacked" the results!  Okay except why is the CIA the agency coming forward with this allegation?  The Department of Homeland Security had been charged with protecting our voting systems from just such outside meddling yet they have been remarkably quiet throughout this time.  Also, if the Russians did hack into our voting systems…exactly how did the CIA determine this?  If any agency has the expertise and equipment it would be the NSA, not the CIA, coming forward with proof.  Again, more crickets.

3.  The Russians hacked into our voting systems!  But why then aren't any state board of elections coming forward?  Even in backwards ass Ohio, where the county and NOT the state controls your right to vote, no county board of elections have been reporting incidents of hacking. Voting systems vary by county (in Ohio alone there are 88 counties).  Russia would have to be be able to hack each individual county, not just the state to insure the results were skewed towards Trump.  In so doing, would not the popular vote also have gone to Hillary?

 (Want to know why we have an electoral college?  Because only recently has technology caught up to where a national voting system could be possible.  Throughout most of the US history, ballots were paper and had to be hand-counted.  There was no possible to insure there would be no voting fraud with paper ballots so each state was responsible for establishing their voting system.  Based on their poll results, electors would then go to Washington and represent their state's results.)

4.  Russian was meddling in US affairs in retaliation against Hillary!  Putin maybe many things but he is not dumb-enough to do something that could easily be traced back to the Kremlin and give the US a legitimate reason to attack Russia!

5.  Vast right wing conspiracy!  In Michigan, voting fraud was discovered…to have been committed by Democratic voters voting for Hillary.

What we have here, to paraphrase my favorite character actor Strother Martin, is a failure of intellect.  Much like the movie "Inception", we are going through a story within a story wrapped up in an enigma.  Trump haters are so desperate to invalidate the results they are willing to suspend any rational analysis of the absence of facts and go chasing down the rabbit hole after Russians.  The White House has tacitly gone down the rabbit hole as well, barring Congress from receiving the CIA briefing until after Mr. Obama's approval.  Our favorite intellectual giants, celebrities, are all calling for electors to violate their own state's results and vote for a third part candidate.

The very people now willing to buy into the CIA unannounced findings are the very ones that were apoplectic just a few years ago about the CIA's findings of WMDs in Iraq that proved to be untrue.  Russia would suddenly have a far greater cyber ability than has ever been experienced in order to have pulled this off.  Why risk retaliation of war or an attack on its own elections if discovered?

No the evidence is too anecdotal to be believed.  Trump's victory is still so unimaginable to most that they would rather believe in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy, or Russian hackers, than in the reality that their fellow Americans chose Mr. Trump over Hillary.  They forget that continuing to deny the results means future elections will constantly be subjected to this type of disbelief and then people will wonder why no one comes out to vote any more.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

The Power of Social Media

Mr. Trump, hate or love him, is truly a man of the 21st Century.  No, he isn't going to pen some great literary that captures the time nor is he likely to going to cure cancer or solve world hunger.  But what he is doing, and something Hillary never did, is leverage social media to get his word out and rally his supporters.

In the last week or so, Mr. Trump has taken to Twitter (his preferred medium) to go after Boeing for its $4 billion price tag on the new Air Force one replacement.  Boeing was completely caught off guard and fumbled some long-winded, rambling reply.  Most tellingly, their stocks took a hit.

Mr. Trump then followed with a slap to Lockheed Martin for its ridiculously overpriced F-35.  Their stocks immediately dropped by 2 percent.

The litany of names Mr. Trump has been called by his detractors during the election and his since his victory are legion.  But what they and even many of Mr. Trump's supporters miss is he successfully uses social media (and by extension the mainstream media) to get within the decision circles of his opponents.  In 140 characters or less, Mr. Trump continues to put politicians, media pundits and now military corporations on notice leaving them flapping in the wind as they try to cobble some sort of counter.  Too late, Mr. Trump has struck and moved on.

The F-35 is perhaps the clearest case of why this works.  The F-35 was begun in 1996 and perhaps represents the clearest case of "an elephant is a mouse built by committee".  The entire F-35 program has been nothing but committees all brining their requirements to the table with no adults empowered to say "NO!".  Rather than forming his own committees to counter the corporate committees, Mr. Trump is bypassing the whole thing and going right after the juggler.

It is brash, it is theatrical, and so far it has worked.  The committees are too large, to awkward, and too slow to react to Mr. Trump's mastery of social media.  But what's odd is how everyone thinks this is something new.  Mr. Trump's favored way of communication is merely an update to the something that harkens back to FDR….the President's Weekly Radio Address.

FDR needed a way to reach out to voters and convince them to support the New Deal.  He used the then modern technology of radio to conduct essentially a nationwide fireside chat.  It worked!  People felt as though FDR was sitting in their living rooms talking to them personally.

Mr. Trump is doing the same thing but both his personality and his choice of medium (Twitter) eschews the warmth and homespun folksiness of FDR in favor of a brash, just the facts approach of a New York businessman.

Political pundits and critics alike will most likely doubt (in reality, hope) that Mr. Trump will be able to keep this up for 4 years.  However, how many of us believed that a brash, loudmouthed, New Yorker with a bad hairdo could get elected?

Those same critics may be worried that the F-35 is just too big to cancel.  And that's where Mr. Trump's brashness may just pay off.  Who is to say something is too big to fail?  The F-35 won't do what its supposed to do, it was dumb-downed a longtime ago by all of the competing committees from the various branches of the service and the Pentagon.

But if cancels the program, what then?  For starters, Mr. Trump could simply increase production of the F-15E Strike Eagles to fill the void of the legacy fighters that are coming to the end of their lifecycle.  He can also increase the use of stand-off munitions to strike enemy air forces before they even take-off. Finally, he can unitize cyber warfare to shutdown enemy command and control networks and power grids.  So no Virginia, there is no such thing as something too big to fail.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Turkey and NATO

One of tenants of Mr. Trump's foreign policy is going to be some form of fair-share pay by both NATO and Japan.  The latter, under Prime Minister Abe, seems to coincide with a desire by the Japanese to have a stronger military in light of a more aggressive China and North Korea.

NATO was conceived as an alliance that would deter invasion by the Soviet Union into Europe.  Failing that, NATO would at least be able to hold the Soviet forces until the US could send its forces from the mainland.  When the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact fell, along with the advent of the European Union, the role of NATO morphed from being strictly a defense pact to a quasi-European Union self defense force.

Most would have thought that with the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, NATO would also cease.  However, NATO allowed the member nations to scale back their military spending without losing the sense that Europe was still able to protect itself.  NATO couldn't be eliminated because none of the member nations were spending enough on their own defense to protect their own countries.

The one exception to this rule, besides the US, was the enigmatic Turkey.  Turkey is a secular Muslim (the only one in NATO) that since ancient times provides a strategic buffer between Europe and Asia (the land mass formerly known as Asia Minor).  Turkey was a member more because of its geography than any ideological, political and certainly theological leanings.  The US wanted to base nuclear weapons as close to the Soviet Union as possible and Turkey provided just such a location.

Turkey has always had different views from the rest of NATO.  When coalition forces pounded Saddam Hussein into surrender during DESERT STORM, Turkey and Iraq were still very much cooperating along the Turkish/Iraq border.  While the US and West were slamming Syria for their politics, Turkey was slamming Syria for holding up the Anatolia water project (which would allow Turkey to sell water to Syria and Iraq).

Now we come to the recent coup that tried to oust President Erdogan.  Erdogan's rhetoric and increasingly anti-West leanings caused the US and NATO to look away during the coup (despite the 60 or so nuclear warheads at Incirlik Air Base being left up for grabs).  The coup failed and Erdogan has become even more hardline anti-US, pro-Russia.  He has now replaced around 150 Turkish officials assigned to NATO with pro-Russia officials.

If Turkey, which has the largest Army in NATO, and the US under Trump were to back out of NATO it would force Europe to either abandon NATO altogether or radically increase military spending.  Compound this scenario with the likelihood that more European governments will become nationalistic, anti-immigrant (read, anti-Muslim) and Europe will start to look more like it did prior to World War I.

Mr. Putin may be amassing his forces along the borders of European not so much out of preparation to start a war but rather to prevent a panicky Europe from starting one.  As of this writing, Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin continue to seem to like one another and want to work together.  Let us hope that this continues and avoid the potential for World War III.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Fake News

In the aftermath of Donald Trump wining the election, it has become customary to deride any dissenting view as "fake news".  As a way of purging the Internet of fake news and fake news sites, self-appointed thought policy such Mark Zurckerbeg are going after the "alt-right"…translated, the white supremacist, racist, anti-Semites that are hated by except themselves.  But this is a thinly veiled attack on ANY dissenting view.

Case in point, there was an attack last week on Ohio State campus.  Immediately, the headlines were reporting an "active shooter".  Liberals and anti-gun proponents swung immediately into action labeling the attack a result of "voting for Trump" and the lax gun-control laws that Trump supporters demand.  Except……the attacker didn't use a gun, he used a car.  Crickets chirping then.

Earlier that day, on the opposite political spectrum, much was being made about this sign;


The sign in posted in the window of Schuler's Bakery in Springfield, OH (just up the road from where I live).  Local stations and papers were posting headlines about how many people were protesting this sign and how is was causing an outrage…..except no one was really protesting this sign, especially no one in Springfield.  All of the "protests" were from social media by people who didn't even live in the area.  It was a non-story made possible through the modern marvel known as social media.  Another way fake news is created, posted something on social media and just sit back and wait for Internet trolls to become offended.  Then repost said comments as "breaking news" and voila!   Instant news.  Works for both conservatives and liberals alike.

NPR, which tries to portray itself as above such subterfuge, ran a piece yesterday on Vladmir Putin's Russia and what it will mean now that Donald Trump is becoming President.  The guest was a Russian who had some tremendous insights into Putin and how his anti-American rhetoric shapes Russian foreign policy and actions.  Yet the host could not help but try to spin this into how Putin was somehow responsible for generating "fake news" stories that were almost always against Hillary Clinton.  Furthermore, the host could help himself and lead listeners to believe (or at least affirm their suspicions) that Putin is why Hillary lost.  Fake news within fake news.

"Fake news" doesn't apply only to those stories that disagree with your point of view.  A fake news story can also be created to agree with your point of view.  For example, I personally believe that the US military has been at war too long without a reset of personnel and equipment and thus its ability to conduct operations against another opponent is greatly diminished.

So now Mr. Trump comes along and promises to make "American Great Again" and this includes strengthening the military.  Sounds good but where is he going to find the money?  Higher taxes?  Well apparently the work has already been done for him.  In 2015, then Deputy Defense Secretary Robert. O. Wok commissioned a study to improve efficiency in the DoD.  It found that there are over 1 million contract personnel employed by the Pentagon, wasting over $1.25 billion!  Mysteriously, the report got shelved.  All Mr. Trump has to do is dust it off, make a few Tweets, and PRESTO!  Instant jump in his approval ratings!  Yet, did he really do anything?

Right now the headlines are filled with reports about the fire in Oakland that has killed at least 36 so far.  We saw the fire chief moved to tears as she reported on the efforts of her firefighters and the gruesome details of recovering remains by the bucketful.  Except…..now it starting to come out that the city of Oakland KNEW about the death-trap conditions of the art commune for at least 2 years and did not close it down.  Tears for the dead or the guilty?  Watch as more fake news gets created around this situation and how it keeps your attention from other news stories.

Going back to my example of the attack at Ohio State, the news was reluctant to associate the word "terror" or "terrorist attack" with the deaths and were even more afraid to point out the suspected attacker was a Somali man.  While all eyes focus on moisten at the deaths in Oakland, we are being led away from the potential that terrorist attacks may be on the rise.  Just this morning, it was announced that Los Angeles has been threatened with a credible attack on the LA Transit System.  The news always reports anti-Muslim pieces but what gets lost is there are plenty of anti-American or anti-Christian Muslims as well.  It doesn't justify either side but our reality is more and more shaped by only hearing one side of the news.

What can you do?  Always ask "why" is a particular headline being reported (even if it's one you agree with).  Look at foreign news reports and contrast how they are reporting a story compared to American news reports (or vice versa).  And remember, now more than ever what you tend to see on your phone and computer has been filtered based on your previous likes and interests.



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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Foreign Policy

President-elect Trump pick of Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, as his National Security Advisor panicked those who had grown comfortable with the Susan Rice school of foreign policy.  Whereas Ms. Rice is a career bureaucrat, Flynn 33 years in the US Army.  Uniforms tend to make bureaucrats and diplomats nervous especially given Flynn's statement that the US was less safe in 2014 than it was prior to 9/11.

Now it appear James "Mad Dog" Mattis, a retired Marine Corps 4-star, will be the next Secretary of Defense.  Should Mattis be appointed, Mr. Trump's cabinet will be one of the most hawkish in many years.  This may be by design as a way of "draining the swamp" of career bureaucrats but it also might signal a different approach to foreign policy that will be much more decisive than the Obama doctrine.

On the surface it seems that Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin are getting along famously.  Yet Russia has deployed its nuclear capable Iskander missiles Kalinigrad, Russia placing the missiles within range of targets in Poland and NATO.  The missile deployment is in retaliation for NATO troop deployments (including 4,000 soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division).  The move has been met with hostility by Moscow, however it remains to be seen if Mr. Putin will have the same reaction once Mr. Trump takes office.

Mr. Putin has said he is ready for a re-set of US-Russian relations.  Under the Obama Administration, relations deteriorated even though Mr. Obama and his advisors were decidedly un-hawkish.  The question is, will Mr. Putin continues to reach out to the US with a very hawkish Trump Administration?  If the answer is "yes", then the recasting of US-Russia relations will have major impacts on other US alliances.

We may be seeing a clue already.  Mr. Trump has used his favorite policy weapon, Twitter, to get under Prime Minister May's skin.  He has publicly called on her to appoint Nigel Farage,  his friend and major campaign supporter, to be appointed as UK ambassador to the US.  Ms. May is highly irritated as these types of things are not done publicly, furthermore having a US president dictate to a UK prime minister just isn't done.

However, May is under increasing pressure to make Brexit happen and she has yet to take action making her vulnerable.  The current UK ambassador, Sir Kim Darroch, is seen by many in the UK as a European Union lackey and career politician, so Mr. Trump may yet get his way.  Should he, it will risk chilling relations with the US greatest ally at a time when the world is drastically reshaping (in no small way thanks to Mr. Trump himself).

We are going into unchartered waters with a new US President who has never held office and will treat foreign policy matters more like business deals.  The US and Russia could conceivably forge an alliance going forward to deal with terrorism in the Middle East, leaving out Europe and UK for the first time since World War II.  Unlike Europe, Russia can offer oil to the fossil-fuel dependent US to help counter-act any effects their Middle East interventions might have on oil prices.

Far-fetched?  Perhaps no more so than some New York business tycoon with bad hair becoming President of the United States.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Trump's foreign policy, at least so far

President-elect Trump, a New York business tycoon, has expressed some interesting preferences when it comes to foreign policy.  Playing up his image as a successful businessman, Mr. Trump has expressed his frustration that NATO members are not paying their fair share.  He has gone on even further to say that the US may withhold military support unless NATO partners start paying.

From a purely business perspective, this hardline stance is appealing.  Hey, you don't pay then why should I give you support?  In effect, Mr. Trump's foreign policy seems to going in the isolationist direction.  If he maintains this stance as he enters the White House, it also means Mr. Trump is going to radically reshape international affairs beyond just the US role. 

The most obvious consequence, and the one Mr. Trump seems to going for, is the US will no longer play traffic cop to the various conflicts going on in the world.  Mr. Trump's stance seems like it be the US is willing to help, so long as you are willing to pay.  Quid pro quo.

Such a foreign policy stance would be radically different from anything the US has done since the isolationism of the 1930s.  Much like then, Trump seems to feel in order for "America to  be great again", it needs to distance itself from foreign intervention.  Russia and Syria apparently are taking Mr. Trump at his word as relations with the US suddenly warmed after the election.

At the same time, Mr. Trump's isolation predilection has NATO extremely worried.  In effect, should Mr. Trump start withdrawing US forces from NATO, while simultaneously increasing relations with Russia, Europe will be very vulnerable to future Russia expansion.  Let's be honest, NATO was always about holding off a Soviet forces long enough for the US to muster stateside forces.  Remove US forces, or at least US willingness to engage, and NATO becomes a paper tiger.

Mr. Trump's business perspective, and apparent lack of historical acumen, could radically reshape alliances that have existed since the Second World.  The US has always looked to Europe as an ally in dealing with world affairs but Mr Trump only seems interested should it prove financially rewarding to the US.

One of the reasons Germany does not spend more on defense is because that last thing Europe, the US and Soviet Union wanted to see is a military strong Germany.  The Prussians, followed by the Weimar Republic, followed by the Third Reich was enough proof to the Allied Powers that allowing Germany to have an unrestricted military just wasn't in anyone's best interest.  Mr. Trump's policy could negate this and allow for a hard-line German leader to spend without restriction on building up the German military.  Given the already seething anti-immigration feelings by right-wing Germans, this could become a very explosive combination.

Even before Mr. Trump assumes office his victory is reshaping European politics.  Marine Le Pen, a French conservative nationalist, went from being a long-shot to the likely next French president.  British Prime Minister Theresa May is now facing more pressure to make Brexit happen sooner than later.  Angela Merkel's ability to win another term may have just been completely abolished.  

The US tends to be European-centric in its foreign policy but let's not forget that Mr. Trump's idea of foreign policy would also apply to Japan.  A fully militarized Japan was unthinkable to the US and Asia after World War II but and increasingly right-wing government in Japan, with an increased threat from China, could see a fully militarized Japan reappear.  Such a possibility would further worsen relations between Japan and North Korea.  Russia, unlike the United States, still very much remembers what happens when you underestimate Japan.  

By pulling US military support out of Japan, it will force the Japanese to spend more on defense.  A militarily stronger Japan will be alarming to the Pacific Rim (including Russia) and will see increased military spending across the region.  The Philippines have no love for Japan either and with the specter of US withdrawal from the region, it will force Manilla even closer to Beijing.  Yeah, none of that looks good.

Trump's policy thus far also ignores Africa which is the source of all of out strategic minerals that we depend on for the jobs Mr. Trump intends to create.  A reluctant US means China and Russia will become the new colonial powers in Africa.  Once in, the US will never be able to negotiate the Chinese and Russians back out.

Mr. Trump has demonstrated no appreciation for history nor for long-term foreign policy decisions.  His  choice to shepherd this neo-isolationism approach looks to be Newt Gingrich.  Mr. Gingrich is a neo-conservative who believes the US has been "too soft on Iran and North Korea", "the United Nations is corrupt", and "Palestinians are an invented people." At first it may appear his stance is opposite of Mr. Trump's but Gingrich can very easily re-align his opinions as to a rationale for the US to pull out of various alliances.  Combine that with Mr. Gingrich's tendency to lecture those he feels are intellectually inferior to himself and we don't have the most auspicious beginnings to the Trump foreign policy team.

I've been critical of much of the US foreign policy, especially under Mr. Obama, but to become isolated from long-term allies is the wrong answer.  Mr. Trump's policies don't address the situation created by US policies in the Middle East.  Mr. Trump's policies do nothing to engage and develop African nations.  Change is constant but Mr. Trump wants to turn our focus on ourselves to the detriment of others.  Four years of that may be four years too long.  The world will be a very different place and the US may not have much of a say in it anymore.  To some that may sound like a good thing but you may want to ask Poland about how they feel about Sep 1, 1939.