Praise for Donald Trump

American-Exceptionalism

President Trump’s statement on US-Saudi relations in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a perversely refreshing breath of fresh air. That sounds kind of like praise, but it really isn’t.

No, what Trump has done, in his typical barely-literate way, is to brutally expose the hypocrisy that has long marked the United States’ approach to human rights. In this, his statement represents a real service.

Other American presidents have long claimed to stand for human rights, but as human rights scholar Julie Mertus writes in her award-winning book Bait and Switch:

The United States still pretends to support universal human rights when it actually recognizes different standards for itself and its friends than those it applies to its enemies.

Mertus concludes:

For the White House … human rights talk is not supported by consistent human rights behavior. On the contrary, the United States applies a double standard for human rights norms: one that applies to the United States and one that applies to the rest of the world.

This makes Trump’s honesty that much more surprising, given his serial dishonesty. He doesn’t even bother with the human rights talk. Trump truly does not care if human rights are violated if there’s something in it for us. Like arms sales, or cooperation against our enemies, or a regional alliance, or low oil prices:

After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!

Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!

After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!

Journalist Graeme Wood sums it up like this: “In other words: our friendship is too sweet to spit out, no matter how poisonous it may be.”

By reaffirming our alliance with Saudi Arabia and standing by Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, whom the CIA has determined ordered the assassination of Khashoggi, Trump shines a bright spotlight on the very hypocrisies other presidents have hidden behind high-minded human rights rhetoric. Like this from Ronald Reagan:

The American people cannot close their eyes to abuses of human rights and injustice, whether they occur among friend or adversary or even on our own shores.

And now consider the reality of Reagan’s record on human rights: condemnation for abuses in the Soviet bloc while turning a blind eye to the brutality of the Haitian government, the murder of civilians by the Honduran and Guatemalan militaries, government-backed death squads in El Salvador, and pro-US contra rebels in Nicaragua, atrocities committed by pro-American rebels in Angola, selling arms to the genocidal Suharto regime in Indonesia …

So maybe we should thank Trump for his honesty by saying out loud what foreign policy realists like Hans Morgenthau long advocated:

The principle of defense of human rights cannot be consistently applied in foreign policy because it can and must come in conflict with other interests more important than the defense of human rights.

Or, as Trump says, America First!

What the lit fuse looks like

(Cartoon: Dom Nelson)
(Cartoon: Dom Nelson)

 

The three members of a Kansas terrorist cell convicted of a 2016 plot to detonate simultaneous car bombs at an apartment complex housing Somali immigrants are now facing sentencing. The lawyers for one of the convicted terrorists, Patrick Stein, are making a plea for a more lenient sentence.

By citing President Donald Trump’s rhetoric.

That’s right: Stein’s lawyers are arguing that the judge should consider how Trump’s words fanned the flames of Stein’s fear and hatred of Muslims, which he learned from and had reinforced by the internet and conservative talk shows, when deciding their client’s sentence.

You can read their sentencing memorandum by following this link. As attorneys James Pratt and Michael Schultz argue:

Patrick Stein was afraid of the Muslim refugees that had come to live in the western Kansas towns of Liberal, Dodge City, and particularly Garden City, Kansas.

Patrick was afraid of Muslims because of what he read about them on the internet and the videos he watched on YouTube. …  Patrick’s knowledge of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, came directly from the internet and conservative talk-show hosts such as Sean Hannity and Michael Savage. Patrick himself had never read the Quran, nor had he participated in a comparative study of any religion.

All of Patrick’s exposure to the Muslim religion has been negative – by choice, through the media to which he exposed himself …

And by the poisonous and paranoid political swamp in which Stein, described by his lawyers as “an early and avid supporter for Donald Trump,” wallowed. That swamp echoed with the anti-Muslim bile vomited up by Fox News hosts like Sean Hannity and talk-radio bigots like Michael Savage.

The fear that it inspired was stoked and amplified by the opportunism of the Kansas Republican Party, which produced campaign mailers like the one below. Gary Barker, executive director of the Kansas State Republican Party, explained that this mailer, and others like it, were distributed across the state because polling showed it was “a positive issue for Republicans.”

Campaign mailer for Kansas GOP candidate
Campaign mailer for Kansas GOP candidate

 

As Stein’s lawyers put it:

2016 was “lit.” The court cannot ignore the circumstances of one of the most rhetorically mold-breaking, violent, awful, hateful and contentious presidential elections in modern history, driven in large measure by the rhetorical China shop bull who is now our president.

They go on to argue that Trump’s appeal for people like Stein, was as “the voice of a lost and ignored white, working-class set of voters,” and that the eventual president’s words had a particularly powerful effect on their client:

Trump’s brand of rough-and-tumble verbal pummeling heightened the rhetorical stakes for people of all political persuasions. A personal normally at a 3 on a scale of political talk might have found themselves at a 7 during the election. A person, like Patrick, who would often be at a 7 during a normal day, might “go to 11.” See SPINAL TAP.

In their effort to secure a lighter sentence for their client, Stein’s attorneys make one last pitch. Acknowledging that the FBI disrupted the plot before it was carried out, his lawyers argue that, thanks to Trump’s victory, Stein and his fellow conspirators would have shelved their planned terrorist attack.

Trump’s win changed everything, and it is reasonable to speculate that it would have changed things among the defendants as well. The urgency for action would be gone. The feeling of a losing battle would be gone.

In short, Stein’s lawyers argue that their client wouldn’t have become a full-fledged terrorist. He wouldn’t have gone through with the plan to slaughter innocent Somalis after all.

Because Trump was the terrorist’s candidate. And Trump won.

The president lit the fuse

(Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal Constitution)
(Mike Luckovich, Atlanta Journal Constitution)

 

Since Monday a series of  pipe bombs have been mailed or delivered to a particular group of Democratic and liberal political figures.

To former President Barack Obama’s office in Washington, D.C., to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s home in New York, to billionaire liberal philanthropist George Soros at his home in New York, to U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), intercepted at a congressional mail facility, and to former CIA Director John Brennan, addressed to him at the studios of CNN. A fifth bomb was sent to former Attorney General Eric Holder but was misaddressed. It was returned to the office of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

Based on what information has been released to the public, all of the bombs appear to share the same design and packaging, suggesting they are all the work of a single group or individual. The recipient list and the political climate in America strongly suggests these attacks amount domestic terrorism. As extremism expert JJ MacNab notes:

But more importantly, all of the targets share something else in common. Each has been critical of the current administration, and each has been repeatedly and publicly attacked by President Donald Trump, either at his rallies, or via Twitter, or both.

Every.

Last.

One.

As counterterrorism expert Mubin Shaikh remarked on Twitter earlier today, “sending mail bombs to coerce or kill politicians is 100% the definition of terrorism.” He’s absolutely right. As I’ve written before, President Trump counts among the ranks of his supporters individuals and groups who have expressed their willingness to take up arms against their fellow Americans. He has refused to condemn extremist violence perpetrated by those whose approval he courts.

Inciting violence against his critics was a regular feature of Trump’s campaign rallies, one his followers all too often acted upon. Here’s a handy compilation if you need a reminder:

Now it seems more than likely that the president’s own rhetoric has once again lit the fuse.

Pay attention to this unhinged threat

(Image: Daily Star)
(Image: Daily Star)

 

It used to be that we had to wait for the latest official statement from North Korea to experience the kind of unhinged threats that President Donald Trump vented toward Iran last night:

If you think I’m exaggerating the comparison, take a look at this handy collection of North Korean gems compiled last year by the Evening Standard:

  • “The four islands of the [Japanese] archipelago should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb of Juche … Japan is no longer needed to exist near us.
  • The US should be “beaten to death like a rabid dog.”
  • “Let’s reduce the US mainland into ashes and darkness. Let’s vent our spite with mobilisation of all retaliation means which have been prepared till now.”
  • Pyongyang is ”ready to use a form of ultimate means” to punish the United States.
  • “The forthcoming measures by DPRK [the Democratic Republic of Korea] will make the US suffer the greatest pain it has ever experienced in its history.”
  • “If the US is stupid enough to shove its stinky face on this land again and keep brandishing its nuclear club despite our repeated warnings, the DPRK will teach the US some manners with the strategic nuclear force that it had so far shown to the world. Any form of military threat or blackmail by the US can never scare the DPRK. On the contrary, it will only redouble the resolve of the Korean army and people to annihilate the enemy.”

Honestly, compared to Kim Jong Un’s government, Trump’s efforts lack real flair or creativity. And generally speaking, Trump’s threats are just as believable.

That said, there are good, and worrying, reasons why we shouldn’t just brush this off, as former National Security Council official Jeffrey Prescott has outlined. The risks here come more from the very real dangers of misstep, blunder, and accidental escalation than they do from a carefully calculated policy of coercion.

Since walking out on the international agreement which had very successfully put a brake on Iran’s nuclear arms program, the United States has failed to offer a viable diplomatic alternative to getting greater cooperation from Tehran. Instead we’ve reverted to the kinds of threats and economic pressure that were proven failures in terms of reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

This led to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warning Trump in a speech Sunday not to raise tensions further. Trump’s bedtime all-cap threat-tweet was his carefully considered reply.

While the United States has unilaterally reimposed sanctions on Iran, our partners in the original agreement have not followed suit. As a consequence, the Trump administration is trying to put pressure on other countries to stop buying Iranian oil. The Iranians have responded by reminding us, and the rest of the world, that they can easily choke off the flow of Middle East oil and natural gas by closing the Strait of Hormuz through which those supplies must pass to reach international markets.

Unsurprisingly then, this increased pressure from the United States has increased tension with Iran, raising the possibilities of further escalation, deliberate or otherwise. To this mix, add the fact that Trump has surrounded himself with advisors – specifically National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – who have long pressed for regime change in Iran.

At the same time, Trump probably believes that his “maximum pressure” approach to North Korea brought that country to the Singapore summit, which, while producing great optics for Trump, delivered nothing in terms of a North Korean commitment to denuclearize. This is something the president himself has apparently come to realize even as he refuses to say so in public.

So keep an eye on this one. Because war with Iran would be catastrophic, for everyone.