Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

March 14, 2018

The Absence of Foreign Policy

By David K. Shipler

            If President Trump doesn’t get us into an all-out war on the Korean Peninsula or elsewhere, his lurching and staggering on the world stage might have the long-term benefit of inducing other countries not to take the United States so seriously. This would look bad from inside the Washington Beltway, where American power to influence the globe is exaggerated, but it could have an upside in certain situations.
For better or worse, the United States has been decisive, as in World War II, when its reluctance to enter the fight allowed Nazi Germany to overwhelm continental Europe, drive Britain back on its heels, and pummel the Soviet Union on the Eastern Front. Instead of opening a second front, the United States sent aid that included canned beef stew. For decades afterwards, Russians sardonically called canned stew “the Second Front.”
Combined with Soviet forces, the U.S. entry into the war, after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was pivotal to its outcome, as we know, and the postwar order in Europe, particularly the NATO alliance to balance Soviet expansionism, was a creature of American leadership. In addition, before the Trump administration, Washington promoted human rights and pluralistic democracy where they suited American interests, which arguably tempered some authoritarianism.
But in its anti-communist fervor during the Cold War, the U.S. also demonstrated dramatic hypocrisy by meddling in foreign elections, turning a blind eye to rights violations, and even installing rightwing dictatorships. As Lord Acton observed, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
It could be, then, that President Trump’s current lack of foreign policy, for which he has been so roundly criticized by specialists, is a good thing. It might be better than a hawkish alternative promoted by the hardliner Mike Pompeo as the next secretary of state.
Sociologists understand that power is a two-way street. Not only must the powerful possess real clout, but the subordinate must also acknowledge the authority and acquiesce to it. The United States has actual military and economic power, but the reality has been exceeded by the image. As a result, an unhealthy phenomenon has developed as European, Middle Eastern, and some Asian countries have looked to Washington for solutions way beyond the capacity and will of American leaders and citizens.  
            Take the Middle East, for example. When Israel and the Palestinians negotiate mostly with the United States, rather than with each other, nothing much happens. The parties wait for an American plan, pick it apart, and retreat into their dogmatic positions. That’s what’s occurring now, as Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, is supposedly on the cusp of presenting a new proposal. The Israeli and Palestinian leaders, residing in Jerusalem and Ramallah, respectively, won’t take the 20-minute ride down the road to meet. Instead, they lobby, plead, excoriate, and pressure the Americans. Even the Palestinian Authority’s recent rejection of the U.S. as a neutral mediator, because of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, leaves more of a vacuum than an opportunity for direct Israeli-Palestinian talks.
            Over the years, the most dramatic progress has been made with minimal or no American involvement, except for final efforts to help the two sides dot the i’s and cross the t’s. The Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty came out of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s bold decision to visit Jerusalem to offer peace, and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s willingness to make the concession of returning the Sinai Peninsula to Egyptian control. President Jimmy Carter helped them conclude the deal, but he did not initiate the effort.
            Similarly, the Oslo accords were negotiated secretly by Israeli and Palestinian officials without the Americans. Again, President Bill Clinton nudged them together at the end, but he did not begin the collaboration, and he could not prevent the process from failing ultimately to bring amicable coexistence. Following Oslo, Israel and Jordan fashioned a peace treaty not with American mediation but as the product of direct Israeli-Jordanian negotiations, which had been going on secretly for years.
            Elsewhere in the Middle East, the U.S. has made one mess after another. It’s a safe bet that if the Soviet Union had remained intact as a powerful benefactor of Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush would not have invaded for fear of Soviet retaliation; years of fruitless carnage would have been avoided.
            Libya would have remained an awful but stable dictatorship, with less violence, if President Obama had not authorized air strikes against the forces of the leader, Muammar Qaddafi, whose downfall set loose ravages of militia warfare. The Syrian civil war would probably have been brought to a short and ruthless end by the Assad government rather than being prolonged brutally by Obama’s tentative, no-win American support of ragtag rebel forces; they received only enough materiel to continue the bloodshed, open space for ISIS, and allow Russia a renewed foothold there.
            Not that American intervention is always so clumsy and damaging. In trade, diplomacy, and the military, the U.S. can be a stabilizing influence. But it takes deft application of various tools to accomplish good ends, and many administrations—Trump’s especially—have proved inadequate to the task.
            The toxic combination of the worst president in modern times with the most incompetent and destructive secretary of state—the departing Rex Tillerson—has paralyzed American diplomacy by leaving key positions empty and by hollowing out the State Department. Much brainpower has been lost to government as valuable, experienced specialists on various regions of the world have been transferred, demoted, demoralized, and driven into retirement. It says enough that on the brink of a possible meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, the United States has no ambassador in Seoul, South Korea, and no high-level expert on Korea in the State Department.
            Most administrations that begin toward one end or the other of the political spectrum find themselves pushed toward the center by international forces they cannot control. That’s the only hope for Trump, who has shown no aptitude for sophisticated negotiation; no recognition of the finer tools of diplomacy; and no aversion to the blunt instruments of military might, torture, tariffs, and insults directed mostly at friends.
Trump, who in business failed to pay some subcontractors and repay loans, has adopted the same dishonest practice as president. He says one thing one day and the opposite the next. Nobody at home or abroad can rely on his word. He has rapidly converted the United States into a party that cannot be trusted to keep its international commitments—to the Iran and climate change agreements, for example. North Korea has taken notice, and so should any foreign government contemplating a deal with Washington.
Therefore, the world would be better served if Trump’s brutish impulses do not coalesce into a coherent strategy that is implemented. For the moment, a reduction in American power and an absence of foreign policy are all to the good.

March 1, 2018

The Faces of Children

By David K. Shipler

            You could not look away from the grim faces on the front page of The New York Times this morning. They were students in Parkland, Florida, who returned to classes two weeks after their school became the latest memorial in America’s litany of shootings.
            Their hollow gazes chilled me in a special way, because they wrenched me back to a picture I had taken 45 years ago of Cambodian children about two weeks after their village of Neak Luong had been mistakenly bombed by an American B-52. The huge bombs had marched through town leaving enormous craters like the footprints of some giant, smashing most of the hospital, obliterating fragile houses, killing and maiming parents of children and children of parents.
Unlike most kids I’d met elsewhere in Indochina, these youngsters of Neak Luong did not crowd curiously around an American to grin and laugh into his camera. They stood silent and unsmiling, their faces impassive from torment—just like those Florida kids—as if the reverberations of shellshock had not yet died away. And perhaps never would.
            The eyes of the tallest girl in my picture haunt me still. She is probably about 12 years old. She looks straight into the lens, but vacantly, without guile or passion. Her stare seems neither angry nor fearful but emotionally flat, like a veil across a wound.
            In the center of today’s picture, too, is a Florida girl whose downcast eyes, in shadow, should not ever be forgotten. She looks broken. Her head bends slightly forward; she might be carrying a red flower, just visible between two teenagers in front of her. She seems about to weep—for all of us.

February 16, 2018

Looking For a Political Bell Curve

By David K. Shipler

            Here is a simple illustration of what’s wrong with Congress. The graph below, plotted from an assessment of Senators’ voting records by The New York Times, shows the deep chasm in the moderate middle where bipartisan compromise and true governing can take place. Both Democrats and Republicans are clustered far outside that center, making negotiation on major issues difficult. We have just seen a result of this in the stalemate over immigration.

Chart by David K. Shipler. Data Source: New York Times

            Voters of various stripes will surely look at this and say, well, I’d like even more Democrats to shift to that liberal left, or I’d be pleased to see more Republicans at the far right of the graph. Fine. When we get to the ideal world, count me in the first group. I’d be glad to see a more liberal, or “progressive,” drift. But the country isn’t built that way, and it cannot be led effectively from either end of the spectrum, or with the current barbell-shaped political distribution. We need a traditional bell curve, where the line bulges in the center and tapers off at both extremes.
            Around that central axis there would still be sharp disagreements between Republicans and Democrats over the size and function of government, the regulation of business, the environment, immigration policy, budget priorities for the military versus social benefits, the makeup of the judiciary, and other matters. But more members of Congress clustered near the center would indicate less dogmatism and more flexibility; they might even be willing to listen seriously to the other side’s arguments.

February 11, 2018

Korean Kremlinology

By David K. Shipler

            The camera angle was perfect, and it was surely no accident. Caught in the same frame, diagonally in the row behind an unsmiling Vice President Mike Pence, sat Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, at the opening of the Olympics in South Korea. Neither, it seemed, dared to look at the other, exchange words, or shake hands.
            One interpretation is that Mr. Pence wants to stay alive politically, and that Ms. Kim wants to stay alive, period. Although she’s rumored to be a close and trusted adviser to her older brother, he has shown no compunction in terminating high-ranking individuals, including relatives, who present a threat to his power or deviate from the prescribed path. And Mr. Pence has thinly disguised presidential aspirations; the last thing he needs is a picture of himself shaking hands with the avowed enemy.
            It is a peculiar tradition in international relations that showing basic courtesy to your adversary is regarded as a concession, as if a hello or a handshake—not to mention actual conversation—were a grand reward to be conferred only in exchange for some prize from the other side. This kind of thinking has prevented the start of many negotiations where one party or the other demands that certain preconditions be met before talks can begin. Sometimes that works, but often it produces silence and misunderstanding.
            The “messages” sent by military actions or visual gestures are usually brittle and dogmatic, lacking the nuance essential to sophisticated approaches across the gulfs of hostility. Whenever the US suspended bombing North Vietnam during a discreet outreach toward launching peace talks, for example, Hanoi interpreted the cessation as pure propaganda aimed at making a warlike America appear conciliatory. When the outreach failed and bombing resumed, the North was convinced it had been right.
            Similarly, North Korea’s joint appearance with South Korean athletes in these Winter Games has been dismissed by the Trump administration as propaganda, aimed at driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington and undermining Washington’s campaign to isolate the North further for its threatening nuclear and missile program. It couldn’t also be that the North Korean leader, Mr. Kim, emboldened militarily, is looking not for domination but for security?
            Watching the VIP section at the Olympic ceremony was like gleaning policy by studying  the lineup of Soviet Politburo members atop the Lenin Mausoleum, and counting the missiles marching past in a parade through Red Square. (Soon, for President Trump’s entertainment, we’ll get to count American missiles rolling along Constitution Avenue.)
As the Korean teams marched together under the neutral flag symbolizing a unified Korean Peninsula, Mr. Pence and his wife remained seated, a technique he copied from the pro football players so vilified by President Trump. Too bad Mr. Pence didn’t take a knee.
            How will his defiant gesture be interpreted? As a rebuff to North Korea? As a rebuff to both Koreas? As a statement of opposition to reunification—or to peace on the peninsula? Take your choice. But you can bet that North Korea will see it differently from what the United States may have meant.
            As later histories often reveal, misunderstandings during acute tension can lead to absurd miscalculations that look comical in retrospect—or highly dangerous. Several episodes during the Vietnam War were revealed at a joint 1997 conference in Hanoi of former US and North Vietnamese officials.
            Comparing notes, they discovered what a pivotal mistake Washington had made in reading elaborate meaning into a coincidence more than three decades earlier. On Feb. 7, 1965, several months before US ground troops were deployed to South Vietnam, North Vietnamese forces attacked an American advisers’ compound and airfield at Pleiku, killing eight Americans and wounding numerous others. On that day, McGeorge Bundy, the national security adviser, happened to be in Saigon assessing the military situation for President Lyndon B. Johnson. And on the same day, the Soviet Premier, Aleksei Kosygin, was visiting Hanoi.
It was the first attack directly on Americans, and since it coincided with the Bundy and Kosygin visits, Washington read it as a calculated policy move by Hanoi. In retaliation, the US began bombing North Vietnam.
Americans at the conference asked why Hanoi had made the assault then. Across the table, Lieut Gen. Dang Vu Hiep, a former deputy of the North Vietnamese Army’s political department, then stationed near Pleiku, explained: “This was a spontaneous attack by the local commander,” he said, who had acted under general orders to do it when ready. The assault by 30 commandos had been planned long in advance; the timing was coincidental. “We did not know Bundy was in Saigon. We were just attacking,” said General Hiep. He told me during a recess that Kosygin “was not pleased” but apparently didn’t feel free to say so publicly.
This came as a revelation to Robert McNamara, defense secretary at the time, who had led the way in organizing the 1997 conference. Had he known about the accident of timing, he said, “I think we’d have put less weight on it and put less interpretation on it as indicative of North Vietnam’s aggressiveness.”
Mutual suspicion is a lens through which innocent mistakes can be distorted into assumptions of malice. As one effort to get negotiations going, for example, the American Ambassador to Poland, John Gronouski, was scheduled to meet with the North Vietnamese Ambassador on Dec. 6, 1966 to receive a reply to a proposal for talks. Gronouski waited in the office of the Polish Foreign Minister, Adam Rapacki, but the Vietnamese envoy did not show up. For 30 years this had been interpreted as a rebuff.
But at the conference, a retired Vietnamese diplomat, Nguyen Dinh Phuong, gave another version. He had been dispatched from Hanoi to Warsaw for the meeting, he said. He had arrived on Dec. 3 (a day that bombing was resumed) and waited with his ambassador at the North Vietnamese Embassy on Dec. 6. ''We waited the whole day,'' he said, ''but the US Ambassador did not show up. On the 7th, the US bombed more forcefully in downtown Hanoi. We concluded that the U.S. did not want to have negotiations.''
Today it would be wishful thinking to imagine that North Korea wants negotiations that might lead to a reduction or elimination of its nuclear arsenal, which is clearly regarded as a deterrent against an American attack. But at the brink of war, amid mutual vilification, the chance of miscalculation is high. If there were ever a moment for direct dialogue to reduce the probability of military accident, this would be it. At least South Korean President Moon Jae-in has been invited by Ms. Kim, at the behest of her brother, to visit Pyongyang, where even fruitless talks might ease tensions.
As for the US and North Korea, perhaps secret communications are ongoing, although no such indication could be seen in Mr. Pence’s frosty demeanor in the vicinity of Ms. Kim. Contacts wouldn’t be technically hard to arrange. North Korea has a delegation in New York at the UN, and both countries have embassies in third countries, where their ambassadors or other staff could converse—provided they didn’t get confused about where they were supposed to meet.

February 3, 2018

Spying on Americans

By David K. Shipler

            The truly serious problem behind the controversial memo released by the House Intelligence Oversight Committee is not so much political as it is constitutional. It is the flawed process of secret intelligence warrants that enable government authorities to do end runs around the Fourth Amendment. That broader issue underlies the question of how the FBI got a warrant to eavesdrop on Carter Page, one of President Trump’s campaign aides.
            Now that Republicans have suddenly discovered their keen interest in civil liberties (albeit for political reasons), they might well revisit their unyielding support of the loosened standards for obtaining warrants that they pushed through in a panic right after 9/11. With the acquiescence of Democrats, the Patriot Act—opposed by only one senator, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin—shot holes through the sensible restrictions on monitoring Americans’ communications.
            First, a bit of history. The Framers, reacting to the British use of writs of assistance to search whole towns for contraband in colonial times, wrote the Fourth Amendment to guard against government intrusion into a citizen’s zone of privacy. Although the word “privacy” does not appear in the Constitution, it is heavily implied and is woven into numerous court opinions.
            Significantly, the Bill of Rights assumes that the people possess rights inherently, not that they are given rights by the government. The Fourth Amendment declares: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
            The terms “unreasonable,” “probable cause,” and “particularly” are among the most commonly debated in criminal cases where searches produce evidence that defense attorneys seek to suppress. Did the police officer act reasonably? Did she have probable cause to believe that such evidence of a crime would be found at a specific time and place? Was the search narrowly tailored to focus only on that purported evidence? And so on.

January 29, 2018

The Shifting Threshold of Outrage

By David K. Shipler

            Fifty years ago this week, Americans who had believed their leaders’ optimistic lies were stunned by the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam’s lightning assault on scores of South Vietnamese towns and cities. An enemy squad even managed to enter the US Embassy compound in Saigon, giving Hanoi and its Vietcong surrogates a propaganda victory—but not the military victory they had sought. Their forces took heavy casualties as the Americans and South Vietnamese pounded them back.
            Furthermore, the expectations of the North Vietnamese commander, General Vo Nguyen Giap, were not fulfilled. As he later revealed, he had predicted that the South Vietnamese army would collapse, the civilian population would rise up in rebellion, and the United States would scale back sharply.
            Yet the American public was not struck by the collision between Hanoi’s goals and the results on the ground. Rather, what pushed much of the country to the threshold of disillusionment and outrage was the collision between American officials’ rosy assessments and the North’s capacity to mount countrywide attacks. Just weeks before the Tet Offensive, the US commander, General William Westmoreland, declared boldly, “We have reached an important point, when the end begins to come into view.” Then the disastrous reality came into view—the prospect of a grinding stalemate at best. It was a psychological turning point in the war.
            That threshold of outrage has risen in recent decades; it now takes a higher dose of deception and corruption to generate sufficient disgust to produce change. President Trump’s chronic lying—he uttered some 2,000 blatant falsehoods and misleading claims during his first year in office—cost him nothing during his campaign. Nor did his boast on tape about grabbing women “by the pussy.” His obvious racism—commending some “fine people” who marched with white supremacists in Charlottesville, and preferring immigration from Norway instead of “shithole” countries in Africa—has not crushed his support among Republicans in Congress or his core of voters.

January 12, 2018

Trump's Consistent Bigotry

By David K. Shipler

President Trump might be erratic and unpredictable in many areas of public concern, as when he tweeted his disapproval this week—and then, 90 minutes later, his approval—of renewing the government’s authority to collect Americans’ international communications without warrants. His multiple positions on extending permission for Dreamers to stay in the US have been dizzying, and his oscillation between assailing and extolling China seems to depend on how recently the Chinese leadership has feted and flattered him.
But his contempt for people who are not whites of European origin has been as steady as his obsequious adulation of Vladimir Putin and his rampant deregulation of American industry. These seem to be unshakable pillars of attitude and policy, standing solidly against the swirling, impulsive chaos of his White House. Trump has been a dependable bigot, painting entire racial and ethnic groups with the broad brush of prejudice.
Nobody should be surprised. He has a long history. In 1972, federal investigators sent “testers” into a Brooklyn housing development managed by Trump’s company. After a black woman was told that there were no vacancies, a white woman was given a choice of two apartments. Extensive further evidence led to one of the largest civil-rights lawsuits in history.

December 19, 2017

The Business Myth

By David K. Shipler

            Somewhere between the reverence for private business and the excoriation of capitalism there must be a middle ground where the virtues of free enterprise are recognized and its menaces are contained. Finding that territory of moderation seems especially difficult today, as President Trump and the Republican-led Congress move to unchain corporations from the taxes and the regulations that protect social justice, consumer interests, worker safety, and the environment. Meanwhile, the incipient revolution against corporate villainy, now led by Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, remains alive but marginal.
            So Washington, for the moment at least, has a government of, by, and for the corporate elite, which was hardly enthusiastic about the Trump candidacy. That is the irony of Trump: a rich entrepreneur stirring up resentment toward powerful business, a splashy spendthrift touting himself as the voice of the “forgotten” struggling blue-collar class, which still approves of him after a year of getting nothing except slogans and wishful thinking.
            The wishful thinking relies on an old myth about business, which has two main parts. First, the notion that reduced corporate taxes will liberate cash to flow to workers, in the form of higher salaries and employment rates, has been a matter of debate for decades between conservatives and liberals. Despite the paucity of evidence from the past, conservatives insist that liberating private companies will boost the overall economy by enhancing capital investment. Liberal economists, by contrast, tend to see the gains going to the wealthy stockholders. Companies are expected to increase dividends and buy back shares, which will raise stock prices.

December 13, 2017

Apathy, Alienation, and Low Voter Turnout

By David K. Shipler

            Not to throw too wet a blanket on Democrats’ euphoria in winning a Senate seat in deeply conservative Alabama, but let’s take a moment to reflect on the sad fact that the worthy candidate, Doug Jones, was elected by merely 20.2 percent of the state’s eligible voters—671,151 out of the 3.3 million who could have cast ballots. His unworthy opponent, the accused pedophile, confirmed bigot, and serial violator of the rule of law, Judge Roy Moore, got 19.5 percent of the electorate.
And the turnout was much higher than expected in a special election, a whopping 40.4 percent, versus the 25 percent that Alabama’s secretary of state had predicted. Wow. In this hotly contested race, which mixed morality with theology and ideology, which put control of the Senate in closer balance, and which exposed the tribal politics that afflicts so many Americans, only 6 out of 10 voters stayed home and let others decide. What an achievement for democracy.
The truth is, it is a democracy that we are in danger of losing unless much higher proportions of citizens participate, at the very least by going to the polls. Otherwise, the middle ground is abandoned to the zealous extremists, some of whom will vote away the civil discourse, the tolerance of political and social plurality, and even the legal rights that protect us all.
This is an urgent truth in presidential elections, just as in state and local contests. With the turnout at 59.3 percent in 2016, only 136.7 million cast ballots, out of 230.6 million eligible voters, whether registered or not. So the percentage needed for victory was very low. It took only 27.3 percent of the country’s eligible citizens over age 18 to put Donald Trump in the White House. (Hillary Clinton got 28.6 percent but of course lost the Electoral College.)
Rule by small minorities has been typical, as a look back two decades demonstrates:
1996 – Bill Clinton was elected by 26.3% of all eligible citizens.
2000 – George W. Bush, by 27.3%
2004 – Bush again, by 31.5%
2008 – Barack Obama, by 33.7%
2012 – Obama again, by 30.6%

December 7, 2017

Jerusalem, Jerusalem

By David K. Shipler

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
Psalm 137:5

            The city of Jerusalem, whose sandstone facades glow ethereally in the slanting light of dawns and dusks, stands on a spine of hills along the lands of milk and of honey. To the east, the land plunging down into the Judean Desert has been traditionally hospitable to milk-producing goat herds. To the west, the fertile coastal plain along the Mediterranean has been sweet with orchards.
            That is the basic biblical geography. At this intersection of semi-nomadic peoples and settled farmers, Jerusalem has been enriched and burdened by ancient affinities and faiths. Its map today is enhanced and scarred by the overlays of history, religion, and nationalism, a treacherous landscape into which President Trump has now stumbled clumsily.
What forces he has unwittingly set loose we do not yet know; predictions in that part of the world are for prophets or fools. But his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish State alone, without also recognizing the Palestinians’ yearning for Jerusalem as the capital of their aspirational state, surely diminishes America’s maneuverability.
It’s hard to see what the United States gains from Trump’s move. For the limited profit of catering to his big donors and his narrow base, Trump has tossed away the American coin of neutrality—as tarnished as it was by years of tilting toward Israel’s interests. Not many Palestinians thought of Washington as truly unbiased, since no previous administration did more than use strong words against Israel’s confiscation of territories for Jewish settlement in the mostly Palestinian West Bank and the eastern districts of Jerusalem. No penalty was exacted: no withholding of aid, no reduction of military support. And now Trump has asked nothing from Israel in exchange for his endorsement.