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During his three plus years in office, Donald Trump has waged an unrelenting war on the existing non-physical American infrastructure.  This has proven, under today’s realities, to not be to America’s advantage.  It is far more favorable to Russia since their primary goal is to see America seriously weakened.  Thanks to the Coronavirus and overall Trump policy, America is weakening by the minute, medically, economically and politically!

Trump has either made or proposed changes in all of the following areas: Social Security, food stamps, Obamacare, Medicaid, national parks, the Clean Water Act, tobacco law, DACA, school lunch programs, Medicare, taxes, NAFTA, the VA, education funding, the 2019, 2020 and 2021 budgets, the national debt, national environmental policy, national regulatory policy, health care, energy, criminal justice reforms, presidential pardons, the infrastructure and Immigration.  In the process, he has removed many of the legislative and other mandated barriers that keep the unscrupulous from exploiting their fellow Americans.

Additionally, he has been intent on remaking the Federal judiciary.  According to the Economist, in a little over three years, Trump has nominated and won Senate confirmation for 192 federal judges, including 137 district-court judges, 51 appellate judges and two Supreme Court justices. No president since at least Ronald Reagan has racked up judicial appointments so quickly (the closest was Bill Clinton with 189 at this point in his presidency).  By the end of the year, on current trends, a quarter of federal judges will be Trump’s appointees.

Mitch McConnell deserves much of the credit. The Senate majority leader and presidential handmaiden has made confirming the president’s judicial nominees his “top priority”. He has not let Senate norms and institutions get in his way. To speed up the process, Republicans have scheduled confirmation hearings during Senate recesses, and packed several hearings into a single day, over objections from their Democratic colleagues. They have also done away with a century-old tradition giving senators the power to block judicial nominees from their home states.

In addition, McConnell has reportedly been reaching out to senior conservative judges, urging them to consider retiring so they can be replaced while the White House and Senate are still in Republican hands.

What all of this means is that the American judiciary will be held in the grip of conservative judges who are appointed for life, creating an intractable situation for decades for any American who disagrees with them politically.

His focus on “America First” foreign policy has been equally broad and equally destructive.  Consider his position on Israel/Palestine, his withdrawal from or denigration of international organizations and treaties (NAFTA, Iran, the European Union, NATO, the TPP, the Paris Climate Accord, The UN Human Rights Council), his war on the State Department and on the US Intelligence Community, travel bans on diverse countries and populations, his trade wars with Brazil, Argentina and China and his apparent preference for despots (Putin, Duterte, Kim Jong Un, Erdogan, Abdel Fattah el Sisi, Xi Jinping, the Saudi Royals) over those who support democracies, are just some of the examples of the changes he has wrought in our relationships with other nations.

It is a simple fact that we are no longer viewed favorably around the world.  We no longer have the influence in foreign affairs that we had before Trump.  Of course, if you are an isolationist, an America Firster, a Russian or simply a xenophobe, you will applaud his moves in this arena.  If, on the other hand, you see value in positive relations with foreign governments or are concerned about the anti-democratic behavior of others, his attitudes will not please you.  In short, Trump would appear to be promoting and following policies that are not supported by a hefty chunk of the American people.  On the other hand, curiously, those policies would appear to be in line with the goals of the Russian leadership to weaken their American rival.

And what of Coronavirus?  The Washington Post has reported that Trump has overlooked or rejected intelligence on this matter for months.  Nothing is working!  The Russians must be absolutely delighted!  Trump has missed every opportunity since January to step up and do something – testing, the Defense Production Act, Personal Protective Equipment – anything – that would get us at least even and maybe ahead in the battle with Coronavirus.  Yet he has done nothing that has really worked for America – maybe for Russia – but not for America. Does he realize what he is doing?

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who spent his career during the Cold War working on the Soviet Union. 

By Haviland Smith

February  4, 2020

If you look carefully and objectively at the world today, you may be able to perceive that we are approaching a crossroad. Some will even say that we are already in it. And just what is that? The people of this nation and the world are faced at this moment with a decision on what they want for the future. Do we want to continue our own fragile democracy as well as supporting other democratic movements abroad, or are we in the process of giving up on that and seeing the world sink into nationalism and populism?

Much is made of the post-World War II period and the Cold War when the two main competing ideologies were democracy and communism. Some saw it as horribly dangerous, particularly as they watched the hostile, nuclear armed competitors trying to manipulate uncommitted countries to their sides. And it probably was, but our worst fears were never realized. We and the Soviets somehow blundered through without major conflict.

What the Cold War provided to the world was relative security. There always seemed to be one or more superpowers present when things got really dangerous. Those superpowers tended to avoid their own conflicts and to suppress those of their so-called allies. In the Middle East, for example, despite the fact that the Sunni-Shia split had existed since the seventh century, it did not turn into today’s bitter armed conflicts until the end of the 20th century, as the Cold War became history.

Further, since the end of the Cold War, much of the world has seemed to approve globalism, which is the idea that freedom and human rights can be made available to all mankind. Proponents believe that the problems of humanity can best be resolved with democratic globalism.

What you can say about life under globalization is that it is likely to be less violent than life under populism which is a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. This is largely because globalization has tended to bring with it an increased respect among nations for the needs and goals of other countries, where populism and nationalism recognize the desires of individual countries and their citizens above those of the rest of the world.

Was it working? Perhaps, but what has happened is that elements around the world, both on the political right and left, have turned toward nationalism and populism. And this is not a phenomenon limited to the third world; it includes countries that until very recently have appeared to support global democratization, countries like Poland, Hungary, Brazil and the Philippines, to name only a few.  Some observers think it extends to North America and the British Isles as well. How else do you explain Brexit or America’s inclination to turn past friends and supporters into reluctant allies and critics?

President Trump has introduced us to what looks like the coming new political wave. He has identified, won over and is now supporting and supported by those 30 million Americans who really have not benefited from our interest in and support of globalization. It is very clear from the ongoing political scene that they will support him in just about anything he wants to do. In effect, Trump is a strong opponent of globalization and even stronger supporter of nationalism and populism. He has overturned many of the existing policies of past American governments and essentially told the world that the only thing that matters to him (and to America) is whether or not any given issue favors America.

You can’t really say that Trump’s positions on these issues have actually directly caused other nations to follow his policies, but his policies and positions have created an environment in which it is easier for that to happen. Trump openly supports some of the worst, least democratic world leaders. This is true of Egypt, North Korea, the Philippines, Russia, China, Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Poland, Libya and India, to name a few. He appears to love and respect authoritarian leaders who oppose or crush all opposition to their leadership. He has even gone so far as to praise some of the policies of Saddam Hussein and Benito Mussolini! What does that tell us about him and his hopes and goals for the future?

It is clear that millions of Americans have been short-changed under leaders pursuing globalization and that Trump represents a desirable alternative to them.  The problem, quite simply, is that even if that is true, Trump’s seeming preoccupation with authoritarian world leaders, their philosophies and policies and his inclination to emulate them pose a grave threat to our perpetually vulnerable democracy.

The coming election seems to be all about defeating or re-electing President Donald Trump. In that context, America is currently mired in a process that reflects the deep fissures in our society. On the conservative side we have Trump, supported by congressional Republicans who seem to be solely interested in maintaining power at any price, and a base that feels it has been disenfranchised by the post-war years of moderation under both Democratic and Republican administrations. On the more progressive side we have Bernie Sanders, supported by a diverse group of young Americans and Democrats, coupled with those who feel they are not now being fairly treated by Washington. That would include non-white Americans as well as those who are not making it under current conditions. Their immediate, stated goal is to defeat Trump and if that is true, these Americans might better consider moderation.

 

The fact that American youth is far more progressive than past generations may not be sufficient to materially influence the outcome of the election process in Sanders’ favor, but it certainly is a prediction of our world to come.  Unlike past generations, this one is not married to the baby boomer/GenX conviction that anything that smacks of socialism is an unacceptable curse that will ultimately lead to communism. They look at democratic socialism and wonder if it has anything positive to offer that will not threaten their democratic freedoms and is consistent with their beliefs and goals. Some of the issues that grab these progressive Americans include health care, education costs, income disparity, climate change, immigration, the minimum wage and gun policy. At this moment, any one of these issues will provoke conflict between the right and the left. Yet none of them will be resolved.

 

It seems likely that, in the long run, these young people will have a major say in the evolution of our country. It seems equally likely that they will not heavily affect the coming election, primarily because so many Americans occupy the middle ground and view both the ultra-conservatives and the ultra-progressives with varying levels of concern and distrust.

 

Clearly, on the political side the rights and freedoms enjoyed by the individual American under democracy are pretty well set. It’s when we get to the economic side that all hell breaks loose. Capitalism, as it is practiced here, simply does not hack it with much of the far and moderate left any more than “socialism” is acceptable to the conservatives.

If you can get past the hysterical McCarthy era and look around, democratic socialism has enough to offer that it might be more acceptable to you than socialism. If you have served in the U.S. military, socialized medicine as practiced by the U.S. military and financial support for education as reflected in the GI Bill have been a positive part of your life and both are based on federal involvement and control. If you look at the world today, you will see that over two dozen countries operate comfortably and fairly under democratic socialism. Most of the items that bother the Gen Y and Z generations about American capitalism are handled in a far different way under democratic socialism, which focuses on providing basic needs such as health care, quality of life, and education to all people.  Unlike the socialist model, all of this is achieved through democratic means, not through authoritarian mandate.

 

Given current American demographic realities, it is probably safe to say that in the future we will adopt some of the policies advocated now by social democrats. The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not this country is politically and philosophically ready to accept such changes right now. If you believe that a majority of Americans believe in and would vote for social democracy, then you clearly need to support the left wing of the Democratic party and Bernie Sanders. It is interesting to note here that Trump and the Republican Party are supporting Sanders in every way they legally can – clearly because they believe that he would be the easiest opponent for Trump to defeat in the coming presidential election.

 

Anyone who believes the Republicans are right, but does not share their goals, and at the same time believes it is too early to embrace any and all aspects of democratic socialism, might better find a moderate to favor with his or her vote.

 

 

MIDDLE EAST CONFLICT

Given the growing potential for broad conflict now existing in the Middle East, it might be worthwhile to look at that region in terms of past US foreign policy to see just where we do or don’t fit in.

 

Islam has been divided since 632 AD when, after the death of Caliph Muhammad, Muslims were unable to agree on the selection of a new, permanent Caliph.  This ultimately resulted in the division of Islam into its two main branches, the Sunnis and the Shias, two branches that have fought for almost 1400 years for primacy in Islam.

 

America had minor commercial ties with Muscat and Oman under Andrew Jackson as early as 1833, largely at the behest of the Sultan who saw America as a sort of protective balance against the overwhelmingly negative influence of the encroaching British Empire in the region.

 

In the post WWI era, with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France had managed to colonize just about all of the Middle East.  Compared to the machinations of those two empirical powers, the United States looked pretty benign and at least for the moment, had a relatively good reputation in the region.

 

All of this changed in the post WWII era as America began to sign commercial agreements with regional powers designed to give us a handle on the control of Middle East petroleum.  Franklin D. Roosevelt’s comment to an English diplomat on the Anglo-American Petroleum Agreement of 1944 was “Persian (Iranian) oil … is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours.”  In terms of the Shia-Sunni split, please remember that Persia Iran) was and is Shia and Saudi Arabia was and is Sunni. Thus, petroleum has played an important role in regional internal Muslim conflicts (not to mention Western conflicts) in the Middle East, since the middle of the 19th century.

 

Our reputation in the region was not helped by our involvement with Britain in the 1953 coup that overthrew the only democratically elected leader the Iranians have ever had.  Additional US efforts is Syria, Iraq and Egypt did not help our reputation.

 

And thus began the era which is just now coming to a close – the era in which the world’s need for petroleum products dominated everyone’s Middle East policy. That is no longer true, particularly for Americans who now produce far more petroleum products than we need.

 

Why then does it seem that the Middle East is breaking out into open warfare.  Why does it seem, as in the recent cases of the shootdown of the American drone and of the demolition of Saudi petroleum production, that local countries in the Middle East are becoming increasingly bellicose and prone to increasing violence?

 

There is general consensus that the drone attack and particularly the recent attack on Saudi refining capabilities were both Iranian inspired operations.  Think of this against the region’s demographic realities. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 290 million Sunnis and 50 million Shia in the Middle East.  Despite this major disbalance, the bulk of sheer fighting power is represented in Shia Islam – Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.

 

Even more significantly, the Shia in Iraq and Iran have the potential at any time of their choosing, to shut down the Straits of Hormuz, which is the route through which all Middle East oil flows, most emphatically including that which comes from the regional Sunni producers like Saudi Arabia.  And this may well be the main purpose in recent Iran-sponsored hostilities toward their Sunni brethren. Perhaps it is all designed to show the Sunnis that they, the Shia, are the ones who will control any future intra-Muslim conflict.

 

Would the United States and Europe come to the aid of the Sunnis?  After 18 years in Afghanistan, Americans are sick of Middle East conflicts. In addition, there is no written agreement that would bring America to Saudi Arabia’s or any other Sunni’s aid in the event of conflict.

 

On the European side, those who, along with the United States, signed The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) which severely limited Iran’s nuclear development activities, only to see it incredibly stupidly trashed by President Trump, have little reason to support the Sunnis in any future conflict.  They would far prefer to see the JCPOA re-established, along with the potential for regional peace it would bring.

 

As long as the JCPOA remains inoperative and the USA remains Iran-bellicose, we will see unwanted Chinese and Russian interests and activities in the region.  That is definitely not in Europe’s or our national interest.

There is absolutely no way to explain much of what President Trump does nationally or internationally, largely because he changes his mind so often on so many things.   What can be said is that his actions are almost invariably consistent with the goals of Russia.  Equally, up until this moment, there is absolutely no way to know what the motivation for his policies truly is.

 

Some have speculated that he is motivated by his own personal economic goals.  He would like to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.  Others have speculated that his past dalliances in Moscow have compromised him and that he has been blackmailed into his current behaviors.  It is further speculated, given his clear admiration of and support for today’s worst world dictators, that his goal is to become one of their colleagues, changing this country forever.  He has, after all, spoken (jokingly?) of serving for an additional 16 years.

 

To be fair about this, let’s look at Trump without partisan political speculation.  What policies has he followed that have favored the Russians? In order to fully understand this, we have to have a reasonable assessment of Russian motivation in the world.  It is clear that Putin, a former committed KGB colonel, deeply mourns the death of the Soviet Union.  He has said a number of times that it was one of the greatest tragedies in history and that it is his wish that the USSR return to Russia.

 

So, what has Putin done that would support that goal?  Recognizing the ongoing power and influence of the United States in the world, he has done everything humanly possible to weaken the U.S. both internally and internationally.

 

Internally, he has interfered in our 2016 elections and continues to do so today. Whether it was his doing or not, Putin has an American President who has attempted and often succeeded in overturning just about everything his predecessor did to try to make this country a fairer, safer place.  One of the results of this policy is that it has further exacerbated the deep political divisions that exist in our country.  He has basically destroyed the effectiveness of much of the Federal Government.   The State Department, the Intelligence Community, and the regulatory agencies (particularly the Environmental Protection Agency) have all been denigrated and humiliated.  Critical substantive jobs requiring real expertise have been purposely left unoccupied or occupied by Trump sycophants. Top management jobs are often left “acting”, leaving true power to the President.

 

Internationally, he has treated European heads of state with distain and occasional rudeness.  He has spoken against the European Union. NATO and just about every other western originated international agreement.  He has shown his distrust for our involvement with international agreements by withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership (PTT), The Paris Climate Accord, The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Iran nuclear agreement.  None of these moves have strengthened the United States and in the process of acting out his disdain for international cooperation, he has gone a long way toward removing us from our decades-long preeminence in international affairs and limiting our ability to positively influence world affairs.

 

One further clue to his motivation could be Trump’s admiration for and support of some of the world’s most conservative, autocratic leaders, starting with Russia’s Putin who clearly occupies a special place in Trump’s heart.  From there we go on to Kim Jung Un, the North Korean dictator, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Xi Jinping of China, Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, the Saudi Royal family and Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela.  In the past, Trump has even had kind words for Saddam Hussein.

 

Trump’s current crusade on behalf of his Russian friends appears to be the reinstatement of Russia in the G7.  Russia was expelled from that organization when it annexed the Crimea in 2014.  It is fascinating that just this week, Trump announced that he would not sign off on the $250 million in US military aid to the Ukraine, already approved by Congress, which was designed to help the Ukraine confront the Russian occupation.

 

Trump appears to be the only elected leader in the United States who thinks Russia can do no harm and who believes that Russia is a friend rather than the often hostile rival she has traditionally been.  Even without knowing why he takes that position, it can be said without equivocation, that is no position for any President of the United States to take, particularly a Republican.  He is not making the world a safer place in which to live, but he is certainly helping the Russians.

Originally published on Vermont Digger on August 16, 2019

 

Recent repeated instances of terrorist mass murder in our country have made it mandatory that we enact legislation to fix the issue and ultimately save our society as we know it.

 

As a young boy, I was extremely interested in guns and hunting. Out of deference to that passion, my parents enrolled me in an NRA course in Vermont that taught youngsters marksmanship and gun safely.  That was one of the primary functions of the NRA in the l930s.

 

Later in my life, trading on the lessons learned from my NRA education and living mostly abroad, I participated in competitive skeet shooting and hunted all over the world, from Europe through the Middle East.  For years I had access to a goose blind on the Eastern shore of Maryland and took advantage of the wonderful dove hunting of northern Virginia.  I also served six years as a member of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Board. Throughout that period, I was a regular member of the NRA and in the 1960’s became a Life Member.

 

The focus of the NRA changed in 1975 after the passage of the Gun Control ‘Act of 1968 which created a system to federally license gun dealers and established restrictions on particular categories and classes of firearms.  At that point the NRA ceased being an organization that focused on sportsmen, hunters and target shooters.  It began to focus primarily on gun control issues. And that is where it is today.  The only major difference between the NRA today and its pre-1975 predecessor is that it has become incredibly wealthy and has gotten heavily involved in national politics – particularly those surrounding the Second Amendment of the Constitution and the election of Presidents and Members of Congress.

 

Stated succinctly, my interest in guns is in hunting rifles and shotguns.  During my perhaps overactive hunting days which pretty much ended when I turned 85, I had a double barrel, improved cylinder/modified choke 12 gauge shotgun for upland bird hunting; a full choke, 12 gauge automatic shotgun for waterfowl; a .22 caliber rifle for rabbits and a 30.06 rifle for deer, boar and other large animals.  Basically, that array of weapons covered just about any hunting situation you can imagine.  Guns and hunting have played a major positive role in my life.

 

For those reasons, I would be actively disinterested in any legislation that would take those rifles and shotguns away from me and I suspect there are literally millions of people in this country who share that view.

 

But we now have to deal with some new realities that did not exist fifty and more years ago.  We have people who seek to threaten much of our way of life.  Just try to imagine raising kids at a time when you would have to train them to deal with armed attacks on them in their places of worship, their shopping areas, their schools and who knows where else!  This new and horrendous reality has highlighted the wide existence of what are really military style weapons in our society.  It is perfectly legal for you to have a semi-automatic rifle that can fire a round as fast as you can pull the trigger and can be fitted with a cartridge holder that will give you 200 rounds!  The availability of these guns, of bump stocks and cartridge holders to just about anyone who wants to own one can turn anyone into a domestic terrorist.  Please don’t argue self-protection!  You don’t need 200 rounds for that.  A pistol or your hunting weapons will do that nicely.

 

Why are these guns available and why is their continued availability so fiercely defended by the NRA?  It is clear that the NRA decided years ago that to give in on any attempt whatsoever to control guns would soon lead to a total ban.  That view persists and we see it reflected in the NRA reminder to the White House this week that any (White House) action will anger his (the President’s) crucial base.  Clearly, the White House does what the NRA dictates.

 

Any move to control the environment that produces these mass murders is welcome, including background check and red flag legislation, but the only real solution lies elsewhere.  In a perfect world, we would ban all assault weapons and bump stocks, but if it’s OK to kill just a few people at a time but not to kill a large number, then the answer is clear – forget assault weapon and bump stock bans.

 

Ban high capacity magazines.  An assault weapon without a high capacity magazine simply can’t hack it for a committed mass murderer.

 

 

Originally published in Vermont Digger on August 7, 2019

 

A completely fair and free election system is one of the most important elements in any true democracy.

The pressing question before us now is whether or not the Russians are involved in manipulating our election system. The long and the short of this matter is that the U.S. intelligence community (the combined collection and analytical power of all U.S. agencies involved in intelligence matters) has clearly shown that Russia meddled in our elections in 2016, that they are involved in that endeavor now, and most certainly will be involved in 2020. And it is crystal clear that they do it because their overarching goal is to weaken our democratic processes – a blow at the foundation of our democracy.

Our president has deluded himself into thinking that the issue of Russian interference in our elections is fiction. Not only does it challenge his feeble ego, implying that without it he might not have been elected, but Putin has told him it isn’t true. And he is clearly inclined to take Putin’s word ahead to the estimates of the entire U.S. intelligence community. But given his past actions, one has to wonder if President Trump has taken his stance in favor of the Russian position because he believes that, as in the case of 2016, continued Russian operations against our voting structure will increase his chances for reelection.

There always can come a time when our country is under threat from a real enemy. In this case, it is Russia. This is not the time for internal political wrangling. It is a time when our leaders have to look at the reality in a totally nonpartisan, nonpolitical way and act substantively to strengthen our voting system. Apparently, it will be expensive, but there is a strong bipartisan consensus that it can and should be done.

The key people against any proposed fix are President Trump and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. The president can, of course, veto any legislation. McConnell’s role is far more complicated. It starts with the fact that he and his acolytes can block any proposed legislation that comes to the Senate for consideration. Up until now, they have blocked all such attempts, including five separate bipartisan efforts to strengthen the voting system which:

  • required internet companies to disclose purchasers of political ads, to identify foreign influence
    • eased cooperation between state election officials and federal intelligence agencies
    • imposed sanctions on any entity that attacks a U.S. election
    • proposed severe new sanctions on Russia for its cybercrimes
    • protect lawmakers from foreign cyberattacks.

In addition, proposed legislation was shot down that:

  • required paper backup ballots, and gave $600 million in election assistance to the states
    • required presidential campaigns to report to the FBI any offers of assistance from agents of foreign governments,
    • required campaigns to report to the FBI contributions by foreign nationals.

McConnell’s opposition is said to be founded on the basis of his long-held conviction that the federal government should not be in the business of telling the states how to run their elections. That is clearly a legitimate position for a conservative Republican senator to take, but in this case it is most unwise.

Not only are we truly vulnerable to further Russian attacks, but the intelligence community has made it clear that virtually any government or group in the world is capable of doing precisely what the Russians are now up to. It would seem pretty clear that U.S. politicians of any and all political persuasions should be willing if not eager to plug those holes against the potential operations of countries like China, Iran, Venezuela, etc.

Like much of our country’s infrastructure, our voting systems are in crumbling disarray. Every responsible election official agrees that paper back-up ballots, which now exist in only seven states, would go a long way toward bolstering the security of our system, as paperless systems are very vulnerable to hacking. In fact, one of our leading elections equipment manufacturers has said it is foolhardy to have paperless electronic voting systems as the primary voting device in any jurisdiction and has called on Congress to legislate the use of paper ballots and raise the security standards for voting machines.

In short, there seem to be no valid substantive reasons for not overhauling our voting system. All the “nays” seem to be political. Given the height of the stakes, it would seem insane that even our politically divided Congress is unwilling to fix the problem.