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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. 

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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Originally published in the Herald of Randolph on June 27, 2019

 

It is clear that there are powerful people both in the United States and in Iran who would like to force a real confrontation between our two countries. What is completely unclear is whether or not those hawks on both sides want a modified Cold War type confrontation, built perhaps on cyberwarfare, or an all-out military confrontation. What this situation, with all its incredibly profound dangers and possible disastrous outcomes, has done is once again prompt the question, “What is the United States doing in the Middle East and what precisely are our goals there?”

Americans tend to ethnocentrism. If something is good for us, it has to be good for everyone else. The problem here is that the Middle East is perhaps the most politically, ethnically, and religiously complicated geographic area on the face of the earth. It will not bend easily to amalgamation or regime change.

Let’s start with the year 634 AD when the Muslim prophet Mohammad died. Most of his followers (those who evolved as the Sunnis) wanted the Muslim community to choose his successor while a minority (those who became the Shia) favored Ali, Mohammad’s son in law, to be the new caliph. The Sunnis won and chose the first caliph, Abu Bakr. This simple disagreement became the single most divisive reality in the Middle East, with fewer than 250 million Shiites (10- 15% of all Muslims) pitted against the remaining 85-90% of Muslims, or 1.5 billion, who are Sunni.

Clearly, most of the Middle East is Sunni, while the Shia are concentrated in Iran and Iraq with significant minority populations in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and India.

Iran is almost 100% Shia and is non-Arab at the same time. Their power in the region is contested by the Saudis who are Arab and Sunni. During the Cold War and in the spirit of winning without hot war, both the USSR and the USA sought to develop and maintain international relationships that strengthened themselves and weakened their enemies. Both sides had acolytes—ours largely in Western Europe, the Soviets’ in Eastern Europe. When either side seemed to be developing helpful acolytes around the world, the other side sought to disrupt the developing or ongoing relationships in question.

The same principle is in full force in the Middle East. Iran, definitely the minority player, sees it as critical to their survival, both as Shia and as non-Arab Indo-Europeans (Persians), to support and maintain all the Shia communities in the region. Hence their support of the Shia Alawite government in Syria, the Shia government in Iraq, the Shia in Lebanon, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen. They are bonded together by their religious beliefs against the Sunni world led by Saudi Arabia.

Their support goes largely to paramilitary organizations like the Houthis, the Syrian rebels, and Hezbollah, all of which are fighting what are essentially paramilitary struggles. This has the unfortunate effect of allowing their enemies, the USA included, to label them as “terrorist” organizations and Iran as a “terrorist” government. If Iran supports terrorism, it must be bad. Thus, it plays emotionally on the minds of many who are concerned about the true forms of terrorism that threaten so many of us in the West.

Of course, the real issue between the US and Iran lies in the joint l953 American/British overthrow of Premier Mohammad Mossadegh, the only democratically elected leader the Iranians have ever had. That questionable act saw the reinstatement of the royal Pahlavi family in Iran and the immediate degradation of what democracy existed there. That lasted until the 1979 revolution which saw the Shah’s ouster and the installation of the regime that rules Iran today. With that history, it is really hard to figure out how they could possibly be favorably disposed toward the USA.

Complicated Factions

But the Sunni-Shia split does not end the issue. There are other matters that add to regional instability. Long established contradictions plague the region. We will examine just a few of the situations that make the design and implementation of foreign policy difficult at best.

With a population of 40 million spread out mostly over Turkey, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world that does not have a state of its own. They are designated “terrorists” by the Turkish government simply because any Kurdish state would include parts of Turkey. At the same time, they are integral to our policies in Syria where, with our support, they have been active combatants against ISIS, ultimately gaining control of much of northeastern Syria. This has deeply strained America’s relationship with Turkey, a longtime ally and NATO member.

ISIS was a product of the US invasion of Iraq which had a large majority of Shia, but which was controlled by Saddam Hussein and his fellow Sunnis. With the overthrow of Sunni rule and with support from Saudi Wahabbis, ISIS was created by the Iraqi Sunnis with the US and Iran as its primary enemies.

Saudi Arabia is the home of Wahabbism, which is a highly puritanical form of Sunni Islam. Combined with the wealth created by the sale of petroleum products, Saudi Wahabbis have long supported the most conservative movements in Islam, including some that we in the West would think of as terrorist organizations. Prior to his election as president, Trump said that “world’s biggest funder of terrorism” was Saudi Arabia.

Additional claims have alleged that the Saudis were a critical financial support base for al Qaida, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Toiba and other terrorist groups, including Hamas.

Whatever the facts, Saudi Arabia clearly undertakes activities and supports groups that add to the instability of the region. In addition, the dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and Saudi support of the violent Sunni coalition that fights against the Shia Houthi in Yemen, provide an additional look at the true nature of the country. None of that addresses the extraordinarily repressive rules that govern behavior in the homeland.

Americans have always supported the concept of a democratic, Jewish state. Under the current Israeli regime, the country has moved sharply to the right, building additional illegal settlements in the West Bank and thwarting any and all moves toward a two-state solution. The Trump administration has supported this newly conservative Israel through an ambassador who encourages Israeli expansion and through the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. The ambivalence of the situation can readily be seen when, during the 2006 war in Lebanon, the Saudis encouraged the Israelis to go ahead and hit Hezbullah!

One of the first things the Trump administration did in the Middle East was withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action governing Iranian nuclear activities that it had entered into under the Obama administration with Iran, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany. Our withdrawal was followed by sanctions that have been devastating for the Iranian economy. Unbelievably, just now, having withdrawn from JCPOA, the Trump administration is demanding that Iran stick to its commitments thereto. Going back in history, Iran simply hates the USA and has for decades since we and the British engineered the overthrow of the Mossadegh regime. Curiously, the way things are shaping up right now, the Iraqi government, in effect created by the United States, will support fellow Shia Iran in its disagreements with the United States.

America’s deep contemporary involvement in the Middle East came as a result of 9/11. Presumably thinking that our invasion of Afghanistan to bring justice to Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden was not enough, we blundered into an additional war in Iraq. Sixteen years later, we are still there, involved in military matters across the region.

Our objectives would appear to be to severely limit Iran’s influence, to disrupt the operations of terrorist organizations, to guarantee Western access to oil and natural gas, and to increase the ability of national military establishments to defend their own territories. Finally, we are presumably interested in reducing instability in the region. In fact, we have supported Israeli expansion, supported an increasingly suspect Saudi Arabia, and brought ourselves to the brink of conflict with Iran.

One of Trump’s early goals, he said, was to get out of Afghanistan and the Middle East. In fact, he has just announced the impending dispatch of 1,000 additional troops to the region and has made moves that can only be viewed as increasing instability and the prospects for conflict.

We survived the Cold War for one basic reason. Policies and goals on both sides were consistent and therefore readable by the other side. There were very few misunderstandings and so, we only rarely approached open conflict.

What do we do today in the Middle East when our present administration is almost never consistent in what it says or does? How is it possible for both our old allies and our adversaries to evolve consistent goals and policies when faced with a totally ambiguous and unpredictable Unites States? That may work in New York real estate, but it is terribly dangerous in the conduct of foreign affairs where actual weapons, not just money, are involved.

Why should American militarily guarantee the continuing delivery of Saudi oil when we have an abundance recently discovered at home? Do we choose between Kurd and Turk, Sunni and Shia, Israeli and Arab, Persian and Arab, moderate and fundamentalist? If we do, precisely how do we go about it? Do we get back into the business of regime change? Do we impose military rule on these ancient antagonists?

All of this is sufficiently difficult in a predictable, consistent world, but when you are operating in a region where on-the-ground realities provide built-in conflict after conflict and, most importantly, where your own government’s policies are designed to be inconsistent, there is little hope for even the most rudimentary success—the avoidance of conflict. Under the scattered policies of the Trump administration, we are simply miles over our heads in the Middle East and might be far better off not to be involved at all.

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Originally published in the Herald of Randolph on May 9, 2019

 

It is sad to say that this country of ours is well populated with people and organizations that are often scofflaws and lawbreakers. On the gentler side of that group are those who are immoral and unprincipled, not necessarily illegal, in their dealings with their fellow Americans. On the other side there are many who see a route to greater riches as well as those who believe, not without reason, that the rules and regulations are often arbitrary and stand in the way of our economic progress.

Recognizing those unhappy realities, there are people here in America who are moved to create mechanisms to discourage the exploiters and protect the exploited. More often than not, true believers in honesty and integrity find their way into our government as the best medium for implementing their personal altruistic notions.

Unfortunately, those who do not share those beliefs are often attracted to the same regulatory government organizations. If your goal is to make it easier to exploit (or to make more money), where better can you reach it than in that place that is responsible for monitoring both the exploiters and the mechanisms used to protect those you wish to exploit?

So, for the advocates of both the exploited and the exploiters, the positions of maximum power where you can most successfully pursue your goals, lie inside the U.S. government. This is particularly true if the political party sharing your points of view controls the White House and has been instrumental in filling appointments to the federal bench, as is the case today.

The key is the establishment of rules and regulations. There is simply no viable organization of any kind, benevolent or not, that does not have rules and regulations for the behavior of its members. These rules and regulations are designed to control behaviors both of those who wish to exploit and those who wish to protect those most likely to be exploited.

Candidate Trump made it perfectly clear where he stood while running for office. He promised to cut the red tape, rules and regulations that affect the American economy. This would save money and stimulate the economy. It has been reported that the Trump administration has enacted 2.7 significant deregulatory actions for every significant regulatory one.

As of late April 2019, 30 U.S. government units ranging from the EPA to the White House experienced modifications in their rules and regulations. Areas of the economy affected were (in the order of the volume of change) environmental, finance, telecommunications, labor, health, transportation, education, agriculture and housing. Thirty-six rules and regulations had been repealed, 54 were in rulemaking, 13 delayed, 28 in effect and 7 unchanged.

The case of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) presents a good example of how these changes are being carried out. The CFPB is an agency responsible for consumer protection in the financial sector. The CFPB’s jurisdiction includes banks, credit unions, securities firms, payday lenders, mortgage servicing operations, foreclosure relief services, debt collectors and other financial companies operating in the United States. The CFPB was authorized by the Dodd-Frank legislation, passed in 2010 to protect Americans from predatory lenders. It recognized the significant negative role of lending organizations in causing the financial crisis of 2007-2008.

From its creation until 2017, the CFPB “has curtailed abusive debt collection practices, reformed mortgage lending, publicized and investigated hundreds of thousands of complaints from aggrieved customers of financial institutions, and extracted nearly $12 billion for 29 million consumers in refunds and canceled debts.” Not bad, unless you were one of the lenders.

Under the Trump administration, Mick Mulvaney, a longtime advocate of payday lenders and opponent of Dodd- Frank, was appointed to lead the CFPB.

On May 24, 2018, Trump signed into law further Congressional legislation exempting dozens of banks from the CFPB’s regulations.

At the EPA, the new managers appointed by Trump supervised the overturning of nine rules on air and emissions, water, chemicals and “other” and continued the process of overturning 17 additional rules and regulations in the same areas.

The realities here in the United States make rules and regulations a critical part of our environment. In their absence, questionable behaviors by, for example, lending institutions, contributed significantly to the financial meltdown of 2007-2008.

There is valid argument that past rules and regulations may have been curtailing economic growth. For that reason, there is every reason to modify them on a bipartisan basis, ensuring that all the involved equities get their say.

Given who we are, once again, with the continued, ongoing, pervasive, unilateral removal of those rules and regulations which control predatory lending behaviors, we can almost assuredly anticipate another national meltdown.

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