Tag Archives: Donald Trump

Zaphod Trumplebrox and the Deep State

Douglas Adams nailed it [The Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy (Pan Books, 1979)]:

But it was not in any way a coincidence that today, the day of culmination of the project, the great day of unveiling, the day that the Heart of Gold was finally to be introduced to a marvelling Galaxy, was also a great day of culmination for Zaphod Beeblebrox. It was for the sake of this day that he had first decided to run for the Presidency, a decision which had sent shock waves of astonishment throughout the Imperial Galaxy – Zaphod Beeblebrox? President? Not the Zaphod Beeblebrox? Not the President? Many had seen it as clinching proof that the whole of known creation had finally gone bananas.

… It might have made much difference to them if they’d known exactly how much power the President of the Galaxy actually wielded: none. Only six people in the Galaxy knew that the job of Galactic President was not to wield power but to attract attention away from it.

If he wants a peaceful life, Donald Trump (Not the Donald Trump? Not the President?) should take heed and learn his rightful place.

Dimwitted and dangerous

At some point during last year’s American presidential campaign, the Democratic Party decided that it would play the Russia card and accuse Donald Trump of being at best a Kremlin stooge, at worst a Russian agent. The Democrats then turned this card almost into the centrepiece of their campaign, repeating the charges against Trump again and again. Quite why they they though this strategy was a good one, I cannot imagine, as it merely reinforced their lack of connection with ordinary American voters, but I am guessing that after a while they had said it so often that they came to believe it.

We now know that following Hillary Clinton’s defeat, her advisors met to discuss how to react to their electoral disaster, and that they decided that the best option was to blame it on the Russians. Again, I can’t fathom why, except perhaps that it a) had now became a matter of faith, and b) it excused them from having to examine their own failings.

Since then the Democratic Party has been waging non-stop war against President Trump, focusing on his, and his close associates’, allegedly dubious connections with Russia. Abetting them have been members of the security and intelligence services who have been leaking information to the press at every appropriate opportunity in an effort to derail any attempted rapprochement between the USA and the Russian Federation. The ‘deep state’ (if you believe in such a thing) has been hard at work.

You might say that ‘all is well in love and war’, and that it’s quite fair to use whatever weapon one can in order to attack your political opponents. But in this case, I think, the attacks have not only long since became entirely divorced from reality but have also descended into gross irresponsibility.

Take, for instance, the latest allegations about Trump divulging secrets to the Russians. Horrified by this supposed abuse of power, unknown intelligence officials with the help of the Washington Post have divulged these secrets not merely to the Russians but to THE ENTIRE BLOODY WORLD. Personally, I’m not too bothered by this; my own short career in the world of intelligence persuaded me that it’s far less important than people think it is. Nonetheless, it is extraordinarily hypocritical of Trump’s critics to complain about breaches of secrecy while breaching secrecy themselves on a far grander scale. Trump’s enemies accuse him of being irresponsible, but who’s being irresponsible here?

Next – and I will go out on a limb here and make my biases very clear – I am firmly of the opinion that it is a positive thing if states have good relations with one another. And it’s especially important that powerful states do so. Which is better? A world in which the major powers are in conflict with one another, or a world in which they get on with each other? Obviously, the latter. Thus, IMPROVING US-RUSSIA RELATIONS IS A GOOD IDEA. When Trump said that during the election campaign, he was entirely right. However, his enemies are working flat out to achieve the opposite result. In an effort to undermine their president, they are doing all they can to sabotage US-Russia relations. In other words, they are jeapordizing their own country’s interests, and more broadly the security of the entire world, because they think it is a good way of gaining domestic political advantage. Again, I ask, who’s being irresponsible here?

Finally, in seeking to destroy Trump in this way, his opponents are threatening the internal order of their own country. Perhaps one other explanation for the obsession with Russia is that the ‘Never Trumpists’ aren’t seeking electoral advantage so much as some form of ‘soft coup’ or palace revolution. The hope isn’t to harm Trump’s electoral prospects in 2020, but to force him to resign or to get him impeached. They are, in essence, trying to get around the electoral process.

What makes this dangerous is that many Trump supporters are already convinced that the elites who govern the United States don’t care about their interests and have rigged the system to do them down. Now that they’ve finally got their man elected, they aren’t going to take too kindly to seeing him booted out in such a way. Were this tactic to succeed, it would alienate a large section of the population even more thoroughly than it is already, and could even, in the worst scenarios, have violent consequences (right-wing militias are already responsible for much more violence in the USA than any other type of political group). The Democrats and their allies in the security and intelligence services are playing with fire. Once again, who’s being irresponsible here?

Speaking in Sochi today, Vladimir Putin summed it up well, saying:

They are shaking up the political situation in the USA using anti-Russian slogans. Either they don’t understand what harm they are doing to their own country, in which case they’re simply dimwitted, or they understand fully, and then they’re simply dangerous and unscrupulous.

Personally, I think they’re both.

Can-do attitude

For obvious reasons, military institutions like to have soldiers with a ‘can-do attitude’. When you tell your troops to do something, you don’t want them replying that it all looks a bit too difficult, and they’d rather not, thank you very much. You’d prefer to have people who regard difficulty as a challenge and strive to get the job done however impossible it may seem.

That’s all well and good, but sometimes the job is just plain wrong, and shouldn’t be done at all; or it just can’t be done, no matter how hard you try; or it can only be done at disproportionate cost. In such cases, what you need is not a can-do attitude, but somebody who will say ‘Sorry, boss, but this immoral/stupid/impossible, don’t do it.’

Continue reading Can-do attitude

One thing Trump is right about

Originally posted on CIPS blog here.

Throughout the Cold War, the amount of military violence worldwide grew steadily, reaching a peak in 1992. A major reason was interference by the superpowers in local conflicts. The proxy wars that resulted when the United States and the Soviet Union backed one side or the other in any given country dragged wars out longer and killed an ever-increasing number of people. When the Cold War came to an end, these proxy wars ended too, and the magnitude of worldwide conflict plummeted. Bad relations between the major powers are bad for everybody.

Sadly, proxy wars are now making a minor comeback. The most notable example is Syria, where Iran has backed one side (the Syrian government) and Saudi Arabia and Qatar have backed the other (the rebels). As if that weren’t bad enough, Russia and the United States have also gotten involved. Rather than co-operating against a common enemy, the former is backing the government, and the latter is backing some of the rebel groups. As a result, the Syrian civil war is proving to be prolonged and bloody. Once again, the lesson is clear — disagreement between the USA and the Russian Federation is bad for everyone.

This might seem obvious, but it apparently isn’t. Donald Trump’s desire to mend fences with Russia has made him a target of abuse from his political enemies and from the security studies commentariat. But in this regard, Trump is far more sensible than his numerous critics. In response to their complaints, Trump said on Twitter that, “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think it is bad!” He is entirely right.

Meanwhile, there are forces pushing the Canadian government to use whatever influence it has in Washington to try to sabotage Trump’s attempts to seek rapprochement with Russia. Following Chrystia Freeland’s appointment as Canadian Foreign Minister, the Latvian and Ukrainian ambassadors to Canada publicly urged her “to encourage the incoming Trump administration not to become too cozy with the Kremlin.” According to the Canadian Press,  “The envoys also say new Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland can deliver that message to Washington because of her strong network of contacts in the U.S., as well as her past experience as a journalist who reported extensively from Ukraine and Russia.”

Just what benefit Canada would derive from pressing the Trump administration in this way is not clear. Relations with the new American government are likely to prove tricky enough without adding any extra complications. In any case, a better relationship between Russia and the United States is something we ought to be encouraging, not trying to prevent. Better relations between Russia and Canada would also be useful, and ought to be a priority for the new Foreign Minister. Here’s hoping that Ms. Freeland has the good sense to see the bigger picture and to ignore the ambassadors’ appeal.

 

 

Fact and comment

When reading an intelligence report, it is advisable to distinguish between those parts of the report which are raw information and those which are comments. Intelligence analysts are trained to make this distinction clear. One method is to place raw information in a column on one side of the page and commentary in a separate column on the other side. Another way is to put the word ‘COMMENT’ before any commentary, and to put ‘END OF COMMENT’ at the end. A reader can then evaluate whether a comment seems justified in light of the supporting facts.

With this in mind, let us now turn to the unclassified report released to the public yesterday by the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, entitled ‘Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.’

The report doesn’t do a very good job of separating fact and comment. But it does regularly use the phrase ‘We assess.’ Readers can presumably take anything preceded by this phrase as being equivalent to a comment. So let us look at the report’s assessments, and see what facts are used to justify them. Among the quotations which follow, those which I consider to state facts, rather than opinions, are highlighted in bold.

Continue reading Fact and comment

the lower depths

I returned from a week away without internet, newspapers, or email, to discover that Russian-US relations had plunged to a new low following the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the United States. The only positive element of the whole affair is Vladimir Putin’s refusal to play the game of tit-for-tat. Overall, the event does not strike an encouraging note on which to end the year. Nevertheless, I think that there are some grounds for thinking that Russian-Western relations have now reached rock bottom, and might start getting at least a little better.

Reports in the past couple of months have suggested a growing sense of frustration in Moscow as a result of its inability to get an agreement with the US government about Syria. In the end, Moscow bypassed Washington and reached a deal with the Turks and Iranians. Now, Putin has elected not to respond to the American decision to expel Russia’s diplomats. Together, these acts suggest that the Kremlin has given up on the Obama administration and has decided more or less to ignore it.

This has not gone unnoticed in Washington, where the growing impotence of the United States has caused great angst among the hawks in the American foreign policy establishment. These are accusing Obama of making their country ‘irrelevant’ by failing to take a sufficiently robust line against Russia. In reality, the cases above suggest that America’s increasing irrelevance is more a product of Obama’s refusal to cooperate with countries such as Russia, Turkey, and Iran. Fed up with Washington’s behaviour, others have decided to go it alone.

Obama’s critics are thus in some ways correct, but for the wrong reasons. What is clear is that his years in office have not been good for Russian-Western relations. This is not entirely Obama’s fault. The annexation of Crimea and subsequent civil war in Ukraine would have been bound to aggravate relations no matter who had been in the White House. But the United States could have played its cards better. It didn’t have to push forward with plans for missile defence in Europe, encourage revolution in Ukraine and Syria, refuse to collaborate with Russia in the latter, and so on. Obama and his advisors underestimated Russian power and resolve and consequently failed to pay Russia due respect. In the pursuit of what are fairly minor US interests (such as its objectives in Ukraine, Syria, and Libya), the White House lost sight of the far more important interest of maintaining good relations with the world’s largest country.

That may, however, be about to change. The election of Donald Trump has generated a huge amount of anxiety among the chattering classes in the Western world. But it does provide at least a glimmer of hope that Russian-Western relations may begin to improve. It may be no more than a glimmer, but any ray of light which penetrates the lower depths is to be thoroughly welcomed. Obama began his reign using the slogans ‘change’ and ‘hope’. In reality he provided precious little of either. The arrival of a new administration, therefore, makes this new year more hopeful than most.

The title of Maxim Gorky’s play ‘Na Dne’ is often translated as ‘The Lower Depths’ but a more accurate translation is ‘On the Bottom’. That is where we find ourselves today. But the good thing about being on the bottom is that one can only go up.

Happy New Year!

 

‘Pro-Russian’ wins election

No, not Donald Trump, although I’ll mention him later. On Monday, Bulgaria held the first round of its presidential election. In an effort to scare voters into supporting the government’s preferred candidate, Tsetska Tsacheva, outgoing president Rosen Plevneliev warned that Russia is trying ‘to weaken Europe, to divide Europe, and to make us dependent’. Unsaid but implied in Plevneliev’s statement was the idea that a vote for the ‘pro-Russian’ Socialist Party candidate, and former air force general, Rumen Radev, would be a vote for Putin and a vote to turn Bulgaria into a Russian satrap. As Tsacheva has said, ‘There are two options – to allow Bulgaria slide back into its dark past of ideological lies and submission to foreign interests or … to make sure that Bulgaria stays where it belongs, among free European countries’.

Unfortunately for Plevneliev and Tsacheva, Bulgarian voters viewed things differently. Radev came out on top in Monday’s election, winning 25.7% of the vote, compared with 22% for Tsacheva. The two now go face to face in a run-off, which the ‘Red General’ is expected to win.

The dominoes are falling. On 31 October, ‘pro-Russian’ candidate Igor Dodon won 48.2% of the vote in the first round of the Moldovan presidential election, beating ‘pro-European’ Maia Sandu, who garnered only 38.4%. Next to fall was Bulgaria. Now America. Who’s next? France and Marine Le Pen six months from now? No doubt, they’re beginning to panic in the editorial offices of The Economist and The Interpreter. The ‘pro-Russians’ are on the march.

Or, maybe not. I don’t doubt that Dodon, Radev, and Trump are less hostile to Russia than their opponents, but the ‘pro-Russian’ label is misplaced. People who cast their vote on the basis of foreign policy are relatively rare. Most people’s concerns are thoroughly domestic. They don’t vote for Dodon, Radev, Trump, Le Pen, or anybody else because they are ‘pro-Russian.’ They vote for them because they think that their policies better suit their own personal interests as well as the interests of Moldova, Bulgaria, America, or wherever. Dividing the domestic politics of these countries into ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ Russian is not a useful way of framing events.

Moreover, when elected, the ‘pro-Russian’ candidate often turns out not to be so ‘pro-Russian’ after all. Take, for example, Ukraine’s Viktor Yanukovich. The Russians didn’t regard him as ‘pro-Russian’ in the slightest, and actually preferred the ‘pro-European’ Yulia Timoshenko. There is no telling whether Trump, Dodon, and Radev will actually be ‘pro-Russian’ once in office. What they will be is pro-American, pro-Moldovan, and pro-Bulgarian. If their own country’s interests clash with those of Russia, they will pursue the former at the expense of the latter. They will also be constrained by their countries’ membership in multilateral institutions (most notably NATO and the EU in the case of the Bulgaria), by their countries’ economic and financial ties with other states, by the pro-NATO, pro-EU, anti-Russian attitudes of their bureaucracies, and so on.

Simply put, the media’s obsession with viewing other countries’ elections in terms of the candidates’ relationship to Russia does a disservice to those countries’ politics and to our understanding of the world.