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

June 16, 2019

Phantoms of War


By David K. Shipler

                On the night of August 4, 1964, as two US destroyers were reporting attacks by North Vietnamese PT boats in the Tonkin Gulf, Navy Commander James Stockdale took off from the USS Ticonderoga to fly support. He spent more than 90 minutes below 2,000 feet searching for North Vietnamese vessels. “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” he wrote in a book twenty years later, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets—there were no PT boats there . . . there was nothing there but black water and American firepower."
                Yet the imagined incident, coming two days after an actual attack, prompted President Lyndon Johnson to denounce Hanoi’s “repeated acts of violence” and order a bombing run against a North Vietnamese oil depot. The sortie of 18 planes was led, ironically, by Stockdale, who knew conclusively what had not happened but followed orders to help “launch a war under false pretenses,” as he said in his book. (He was shot down on a later mission, spent seven years as a POW, and in 1992 ran for vice president on Ross Perot’s ticket.)
                The cautionary tale of the Tonkin Gulf has been revived in recent days by the Trump administration’s assertions of absolute certainty that Iran was responsible for attacks on two oil tankers. The evidence is sketchy—primarily a video showing Iranian Revolutionary Guards removing, not planting, a limpet mine—and sundry sightings of Iranian vessels in the area, as they always are. There might be intercepted communications, called SIGINT (signal intelligence) in the trade, but they haven’t been released.
So the nature of Iran’s involvement is far from clear, and a close look at the Tonkin Gulf episode can be instructive, for it contained plenty of doubt at the time, including ambivalent eyewitness accounts by sailors, a misunderstood North Vietnamese communication, previous commando raids on North Vietnam, and other elements kept from the American public. Indeed, as declassified documents and recorded White House conversations have since revealed, both Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Johnson had doubts about whether the second attack had actually occurred. Several days later, Johnson said, “Hell, those damn stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish.”
Yet the president used it to inspire Congress to approve the broad war authorization known as the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, passed by the House unanimously and with just two dissenting votes in the Senate. It’s possible that another pretext would have been found for going to war, but this one stands as the benchmark of history.
                Presidents had more credibility then. Perhaps high-level lying since has had the bizarre virtue of promoting skepticism, for today it’s hard to imagine widespread acquiescence to making war against Iran. Thanks to the chronic mendacity of the Trump administration, preceded by the Bush administration’s fantasies of Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction,” a certain distrust has become a sign of civic health.
                Americans were dramatically deceived over the Tonkin Gulf. They were not fully informed that for months before the incident, the US Navy and the CIA had been supporting repeated raids by South Vietnamese commandos and patrol boats on North Vietnamese islands and coastal installations. According to a definitive history by the US Naval Institute’s Naval History Magazine, OPPLAN 34A, as it was named, conducted two attacks on islands 25 miles apart the night of July 30-31. The USS Maddox was also in the area collecting electronic intelligence on radar frequencies, navigational aids, and the like.
    Days later, on Aug. 2, a real attack on the Maddox did occur. Three North Vietnamese PT boats launched several torpedoes at the Maddox, which was not hit. The boats were damaged by gunfire from the ship and US aircraft.
                The attack was interpreted in Washington as a major act of aggression against American forces. But from what is now known, it appears to have been a local commander’s initiative to retaliate for the commando raids and coastal assaults. So said the head of the Institute of Military History, Gen. Nguyen Dinh Uoc, at a conference in Hanoi organized by McNamara in 1997.
                In 1964, McNamara had publicly and falsely denied knowledge of any South Vietnamese raids, but privately he suspected that Tonkin Gulf was retaliation for them, as he told Johnson in a recorded call declassified in 2005. “There's no question but what that had bearing on it,” he said to the president. “On Friday night, as you probably know, we had four TP [sic] boats from [South] Vietnam, manned by [South] Vietnamese or other nationals, attack two islands, and we expended, oh, 1,000 rounds of ammunition of one kind or another against them. We probably shot up a radar station and a few other miscellaneous buildings. And following 24 hours after that with this destroyer in the same area undoubtedly led them to connect the two events.”
                It was the second “attack” on Aug. 4 that clinched the narrative of North Vietnamese aggression against US forces. It never occurred, as accumulated evidence shows and as McNamara was told in November 1995 by Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, North Vietnam’s wartime military commander.
                Reports from the Maddox and another destroyer, the USS Turner Joy, were contradictory and full of illusions—phantoms, as Stockdale later wrote. The night was stormy, with high seas that created false contacts on radar. Although the ships were 100 miles offshore, sailors thought they saw lights from enemy vessels passing close at hand. As the Maddox took evasive action, sonar operators probably thought they detected torpedo wakes when they were picking up propeller wash against the rudder during sharp turns.
                To add to the confusion, the destroyer task force commander, Captain John Herrick, first called an attack into question, then provided contrary information. His first message said: “Review of action makes many reported contacts and torpedoes fired appear doubtful. Freak weather effects on radar and overeager sonarmen may have accounted for many reports. No actual visual sightings by MADDOX. Suggest complete evaluation before any further action taken.” A second message said that the Turner Joy’s crew had spotted two torpedoes on sonar and nearby lights visually.
                Further, the National Security Agency picked up a North Vietnamese transmission: "Shot down two planes in the battle area. We sacrificed two comrades but all the rest are okay. The enemy ship could also have been damaged.” The author of the Naval History Magazine report, Lieut. Commander Pat Paterson, found that the message was about the actual attack on Aug. 2 “but had been routinely transmitted in a follow-up report during the second ‘attack.’ The North Vietnamese were oblivious to the confusion it would generate.”
                In fact, however, it didn’t generate confusion. It was misinterpreted as the smoking gun by McNamara and hawkish advisers to the president. Johnson was pressed to act, and he did. Later analysis of SIGINT showed that some communications were mistranslated, bore altered time stamps, and contained information never provided to the White House. Significantly, no North Vietnamese radio transmissions were intercepted during the night of Aug. 4, a silence that should have been a red flag.
                Today, Trump is being pressed on Iran by his hawkish advisers, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Gone from his administration are the restraining voices of former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who analyzed the Tonkin Gulf fiasco in his book, Dereliction of Duty, and of former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.
                With chilling relevance to today, the historian and journalist Gareth Porter wrote on the 50th anniversary in 2014, “The deeper lesson of the Tonkin Gulf episode is how a group of senior national security officials seeks determinedly through hardball – and even illicit — tactics to advance its own war agenda, even though they knew the President of the United States was resisting it.”

June 13, 2019

Trump Tells the Truth


By David K. Shipler

                In a rare moment of candor and accuracy, President Trump today used the word “incredible” to describe his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Upon her announcement that she will be leaving the post, Trump tweeted, “She is a very special person with extraordinary talents, who has done an incredible job!”
                The entire White House press corps suddenly found itself in unfamiliar agreement with a tweet from on high.
                Reactions to the unprecedented spasm of presidential honesty came swiftly from an array of eighth-grade English teachers. “While the adjective ‘incredible’ has been corrupted in slang to substitute for such superlatives as “amazing’ and ‘extraordinary,’” said Mrs. Matthews of Chatham (NJ) Junior High School, “all of my students know very well that it means, ‘not believable.’ Its root is credo, Latin for ‘I believe,’ and is made negative by the prefix ‘in.’” For emphasis, she slapped her 15-inch ruler on her desk, her routine method of keeping her students awake and attentive.
                Trump surely knows the proper definition of “incredible,” several other teachers observed, because he went for a couple of years to Fordham, a Jesuit college where precise thinking and respect for language are de rigueur, and then to an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania.
                Jane Doe, who covers the White House for the East Overshoe Gazette summed up the feeling among her colleagues: “We just hope his next press secretary is less incredible.”

In case you’re wondering, this is satire—although the Trump tweet is real.

June 3, 2019

The Circular Spectrum

By David K. Shipler

“It reminds me of the Soviet Union.”
--Philip B. Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center, on the Trump Administration’s politicization of climate science.

                The spectrum of political and social views is usually pictured as a straight line running from left to right. But the range of positions on some matters might better be rendered as a circle, with the line bent around until the two extreme ends are joined in common excess.
                Take the rejection of science, for example. On the right are the deniers of all the careful and extensive research documenting the human contributions to global warming. On the left are the deniers of all the careful and extensive research into the human immune system’s activation by means of vaccines. They are not identical in their suspicion of elites in the scientific community, but they are close enough to be put together at the bottom of that circle.
                And anti-Semitism. Typically seen on the extreme right among neo-Nazis and other white supremacists, ugly manifestations have also surfaced on the left. In the US, some college students have mixed anti-Semitic stereotypes into their criticisms of Israel, as has Democratic Congresswoman Ihlan Omar. Britain’s Labour Party is under investigation for anti-Semitism by the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission. Seven members of Parliament quit Labour in February in protest over its leadership’s failure to deal sufficiently with anti-Semitism as well as Brexit.
                Left-right similarities can be seen on some college campuses that have been stages for intolerant assaults in both directions. Shortly after 9/11, conservative students and alumni monitored and reported liberal professors for views expressed in and out of class, and tried to get some fired. More recently, liberal and minority students have shouted down conservative and racist speakers, or have pressed administrators to disinvite them. These attempts to silence expression are less prevalent than they appear from the news coverage they receive, but they have special gravity at institutions supposedly devoted to free intellectual inquiry. In places of higher learning, especially, a viewpoint considered offensive is best confronted with solid research, sound argument, and precise rebuttal.

June 1, 2019

Bad Spellers for Immigration Shutdown


By David K. Shipler

                After years of dithering about the immigration issue, the national Bad Spellers (BS) movement has finally endorsed President Trump’s border wall and other tough restrictions. But the organization also warned that his proposal to base immigration on merit would pose great dangers to American culture.
                “The risks are obvious when you look at the pictures and the names of the eight co-winners of the Scripps National Spelling Bee,” said a BS statement. “Rishik Gandhasri, Saketh Sundar, Shruthika Padhy, Sohum Sukhatankar, Abhijay Kodali, Christopher Serrao, Rohan Raja—and, by the way, the only one who seems like a white Anglo, Erin Howard. All these kids with families originally from India or somewhere else in South Asia who can spell all those ridiculous words that nobody ever uses—are they even English words?”
                BS went on to point out what every red-blooded American knows, that the right to misspell is enshrined in the Constitution (First Amendment) and exemplified by our president, who was made an honorary member of BS even before his inauguration. “Donald Trump is a true repesentative [sic] of the Peopel [sic],” said the announcement at the time. “He knows how to capitalize randomely [sic] and use apostrofes [sic] at will. He’s all about substence [sic], not spelling.”
                The fear, BS explained, is that hordes of hostile “aliens” will invade the country and undermine its devotion to the pluralism of spelling and grammar, which are core principles practiced daily in tweets, emails, conversations, and even classrooms. The evolution of the English language will be frozen at a pompous stage. It is obvious from the spelling bee results, BS argued, that immigrants’ high regard for education and their ambition to get ahead threaten American values. “Here is the question: What freedom do we have if not the freedom to spell as we wish?”
                In an effort to appeal to Trump, BS drove its point home with this: “The insistance [sic] on propper [sic] spelling is just another form of political correctness.”

Full disclosure: This is satire!

May 27, 2019

A Memorial Day Reflection


By David K. Shipler

                Ronald Young died last year. He served his country for his entire adult life, not in uniform but in the ranks of those unsung Americans who campaign for peace, who use not lethal arms but the weapon of morality to call their country to its highest values. They should also be honored on Memorial Day.
For Ron’s memoir, Crossing Boundaries in the Americas,Vietnam and the Middle EastI wrote a preface from which this essay is adapted. It calls upon us to consider what lenses we use to see ourselves and our past.
History is written by the victors, as Winston Churchill observed. It is then interpreted by the powerful, and periodically reinterpreted as values mature and new voices are heard. In other words, history is malleable. Russians under communism used to joke about the disappearance of important figures from official recollections: “What is the definition of a Soviet historian?” The answer: “A person who can predict the past.”
We Americans like to think we’re more truthful than autocracies, and we are, but only to a degree. While no central government dictates what we learn about our history, we have multiple versions manipulated instead by a thousand points of institutional bias, from the Texas school board’s textbook requirements to the museums and monuments scattered across the country. In democracies, too, what is taught and known about the past is shaped by the cultural consensus of the present.
Not long ago, Native Americans (then called “Indians”) appeared in classrooms and films as ruthless primitives. If they were occasionally admired, it was only for their savage nobility—their exotic rituals and canny self-reliance—or as collaborators with the white man against their own. I went to school in the 1950s, and I cannot remember reading a line in a textbook or hearing a sentence from a teacher about the atrocities visited upon them.
Nor was slavery sufficiently woven into the American story. Not until the waning years of the twentieth century did visitors to Monticello, Mount Vernon, and other plantations see anything of the majority of residents who had lived there—the enslaved blacks who built and labored on the land. Tours concentrated on the owners’ elaborate mansions, furniture, silverware, and china.
That this has changed—that the powerless are now seen—is a tribute to America’s sporadic capacity for self-correction. We hail Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement that were so vilified and spied upon by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. What an FBI memo called a “demagogic speech” that made King “the most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country” we now celebrate as one of the most inspiring pieces of eloquence in our history: “I have a dream.”
Yet even this evolving self-portrait underestimates a whole subculture of America’s sons and daughters who struggled against established policies and norms. They include blacks who sacrificed to overturn segregation and whites who journeyed south to join them in the civil rights movement. They include those who defied the military draft to resist the war in Vietnam, protested United States aid for Latin American dictatorships, urged nuclear disarmament, demanded protection of the environment, and called broadly on their country to stand for peace and humane justice—not easy standards for a superpower to achieve, evidently.
These Americans have been the backbone of our conscience. If we sing of their achievements too softly, we miss essential ingredients of our country’s greatness.
Ron Young was one of those Americans. I first met him when he and his wife, Carol Jensen, visited Jerusalem, where I was a correspondent, from their home base of Amman, Jordan. Their task, for the Americans Friends Service Committee, was to cross the rigid boundaries that divided Israelis and Arabs—and the internal boundaries that divided Israelis and Arabs among themselves—so they could report to Quakers back home on the state of the Middle East and its faltering peace process.
Being a reporter was my job, too. But Ron and Carol seemed to be doing much more. In harvesting competing perspectives, they were also seeding a measure of interaction and dialogue. They were carrying the contrasting views across those boundaries and leaving them for contemplation by the other side. To believe that this would make a difference took enormous faith in people’s good sense and their capacity to listen, especially to voices different from their own.
Given the absence of Israeli-Palestinian peace nearly forty years after their efforts, you might conclude that their faith was misplaced. But they never struck me as naïve. They honored the decency in people, respected their need for dignity, and looked at hard truths with a clear gaze. We need more of this realistic idealism. Lofty goals cannot be reached by cynicism.
So Ron’s story was the country’s story—or, a part of the country’s story not usually told vividly. Because he came of age by following pathways that led through the most momentous protest movements in the nation’s postwar experience, his personal narrative filled in the picture of a turbulent society reaching for moral poise.
He told me little of this during our long conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during those years in Jerusalem. Perhaps I never asked—a grievous failing for a reporter. But he also never volunteered, a measure of his humility. He was not a man obsessed with himself.
But he was a man driven by the desire to see injustice made right—not with the flashing rhetoric of hyperbole, not with unprovable accusations of conspiracy or venality, but with the quiet assurance that understanding can be nourished from those seeds of listening.
At a time when organized religion is most publicized for its intolerance, Ron held regard for the clergy of diverse faiths as catalysts of change. That began at the height of efforts to topple Jim Crow segregation, when he dropped out of Wesleyan to work at a black church in Memphis under the Reverend James Lawson, Jr., who set him to reading and thinking about topics far beyond the immediate racial conflicts, including the threat of nuclear war.
Ron visited the Dominican Republic after the United States invasion, went to Uruguay for a conference on nonviolence and social change, and would have been drawn more deeply into Latin America were it not for the escalation of the war in Vietnam.
He worked for the religious and pacifist organization, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He burned his draft card, campaigned with the peace movement, and led a delegation including religious leaders for discussions with non-communist South Vietnamese who opposed the war. His anti-war credentials enabled him to visit North Vietnam in 1970 as part of a small group of religious figures to deliver mail to and from American POWs and their families.
In later years he translated those early contacts with religious leaders into a longterm effort toward Middle East peace. It’s hard to think of anyone else with his deep experience who could mobilize Muslim, Jewish, and Christian clergy in the way that he did, to keep pressing the United States to keep Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects alive.
Ron was 75 when he died of septic shock. I don't know if he would want a flag lowered to half mast, but he deserves the tribute as much as any soldier who falls in battle. If you are ever tempted to despair that Americans have lost their moral compass, look into Ron Young’s generous life of active idealism. And remember that he has not been alone.

May 17, 2019

Endangering American Muslims


By David K. Shipler

                If the Trump administration goes ahead with its plan to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, hundreds of thousands of US citizens could face federal prosecution for providing funds and leadership to mosques and Islamic community centers across the country. That is because federal law prohibits “material support” for terrorist groups, and some key Trump insiders accept the slanderous allegation by anti-Islam activists that the Brotherhood effectively owns mosques and has infiltrated the United States.
                Muslim Americans and their institutions could also face rising jeopardy from local authorities and organized citizens, who would employ the designation to mobilize fear. Mosques already have difficulty in some locations getting zoning changes and building permits, and extremists could easily use the official label of “terrorist” to justify vigilante violence. In other words, the hatred stoked by President Trump and some of his allies would be granted the force of law.
While President George W. Bush kept the anti-Muslim movement at bay, even after 9/11, Trump has surrounded himself with admirers and promoters of vitriolic alarmists who portray Islam in sinister terms reminiscent of the smears and suspicions fueled by hunts for communists in the McCarthy era of the 1950s.
Stephen Miller, a leading White House adviser, has a long record, dating back to his senior year at Duke in 2007, of imagining what he terms “Islamofascism” as being at war with Western civilization. Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, remains in the president’s inner circle after running Breitbart, the rightwing outlet that helped promulgate baseless assertions that Islamic centers were fronts for the Muslim Brotherhood’s stealthy program to subvert America by imposing Sharia, Muslim religious law.
Frank Gaffney, who served on Trump’s transition team, distorts Islamic sources to create an ominous specter of community centers, mosques, and Muslim organizations controlled by the Brotherhood. Gaffney has been praised by Bannon as “one of the senior thought leaders and men of action in this whole war against Islamic radical jihad.” Between 2013 and 2017, Mike Pompeo, now Secretary of State, appeared on Gaffney’s radio program 34 times, according to The Atlantic.

May 6, 2019

Democrats Miss the Target


By David K. Shipler

It is so easy for President Trump and his allies to distract Democrats into skirmishes on the sidelines of the big game. Yes, it’s outrageous that Attorney General William Barr played spin doctor on the Mueller report by distorting its content. Yes, it’s even more outrageous that Barr is defying a Congressional subpoena to be questioned yet again about why he said what he said about the report.
But what’s really important is what the report itself says, not what Barr says about it. That’s what Democrats should be focusing on. For if you read all 448 pages, as every citizen should, you’ll see a troubling picture emerge of a bizarre, uneducable president who tries to run the government as if he were the head of a crime syndicate.
He uses his office to manipulate and intimidate. He lies to his aides, and they lie to him. He grooms himself as a cult figure whose approval is granted or withheld to the favor or detriment of acolytes. Some tell him they will obey even as they decide to defy him. He issues implicit threats (though not of violence, so far), and clearly expects his underlings to break the law on his behalf. When they do not, they are deemed “weak” and marked for retribution.  
More to the point of the Mueller investigation, the evidence in the report supports an assessment that Trump did, indeed, attempt to obstruct justice in at least two of the cases investigated, and possibly in another five. Mueller stops short of making that judgment explicitly. But since his report is like a legal textbook on the conditions required to make the charge, and his evidence on both sides of each question is spread out dispassionately in precise detail, even a layman can see the obvious.
This is what Democrats should be talking about. This is what they should be holding hearings on. They don’t need Barr to pillory, and they don’t need the “unredacted” version of the report. There is plenty in the public pages if anybody bothers to wade through the dry prose.
At the report’s end, Mueller writes something akin to a legal brief, rebutting arguments by Trump’s lawyers that obstruction statutes are too narrow and the Constitution too broad in its grant of executive power to permit a president to be charged for such behavior. With citations of Supreme Court opinions and discussions of legislative intent, Mueller has produced a document ready-made for a prosecutor wishing to defend any appeal against either criminal charges or impeachment.
The national interest might have been better served if Mueller had not punted on the bottom-line question of whether he thinks Trump tried to obstruct justice. “We determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment,” he writes, content with an approach that responsible journalists know as a kind of forensic exercise: on the one hand this, on the other hand that. Let the readers make up their own minds. “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime,” Mueller says, “it also does not exonerate him.”
Yet the evidence he lays out so impartially draws you to a conclusion in almost every instance. Mueller defines the three conditions that must be met for an obstruction charge: first, an obstructive act likely to interfere with an investigation; second, a nexus between the act and an official proceeding such as a grand-jury or law-enforcement investigation; and third, an intent to impede the investigation.
(Late today, more than 450 former federal prosecutors issued a letter concluding that Trump would have been charged with obstruction had he not been president.)
The two Trump activities that appear to satisfy all three conditions involve his praise and hints of a pardon for Paul Manafort, his former campaign manager, and his efforts to limit the scope of the special counsel’s investigation to future elections, excluding 2016.
Trump frequently used the Mafia term “flip” to disparage insiders who turn state’s evidence, and Manafort won Trump’s accolades for refusing to “break.” By contrast, Trump called Michael Cohen, his former lawyer, a “rat” for cooperating with the special counsel.   
 “There is evidence that the President's actions had the potential to influence Manafort's decision whether to cooperate with the government,” Mueller says in his analysis of whether Trump committed an obstructive act. The report notes that while Manafort pleaded guilty in one case and entered a cooperation agreement, he lied to investigators after Trump “suggested that a pardon was a more likely possibility if Manafort continued not to cooperate with the government.” Further, Trump’s public statements during Manafort’s trial in another case, “including during jury deliberations, also had the potential to influence the trial jury.”
A nexus with an ongoing investigation clearly existed, Mueller finds, and the intent condition was also satisfied: “Evidence concerning the President's conduct towards Manafort indicates that the President intended to encourage Manafort to not cooperate with the government.” Sections on Roger Stone, Trump’s adviser, are blacked out, because his prosecution is ongoing.
Trump’s attempts to limit the investigation’s scope also appear in the report as having met the obstruction law’s three conditions. This came about as Trump tried to get Attorney General Jeff Sessions to scale back the investigation to future elections, although Sessions had recused himself. Oddly, Trump picked as his messenger Corey Lewandowski, a private citizen and former campaign manager. Lewandowski never delivered the request.
 The attempt “would qualify as an obstructive act if it would naturally obstruct the investigation and any grand jury proceedings that might flow from the inquiry,” Mueller writes, stopping short of giving the obvious answer. Since a grand jury investigation had become public knowledge at the time, the nexus to an official proceeding would exist if limiting the investigation “would have the natural and probable effect of impeding that grand jury proceeding.” That sounds like a no-brainer.
Finally, the report is crystal clear on intent: “Substantial evidence indicates that the President 's effort to have Sessions limit the scope of the Special Counsel's investigation to future election interference was intended to prevent further investigative scrutiny of the President's and his campaign's conduct.”
Mueller’s evidence places other episodes in a gray area between probable and iffy. Among those, the case against Trump seeming strongest is his repeated demand that Mueller be removed. Since the investigation would have continued anyway, “a factfinder would need to consider whether the act had the potential to delay further action in the investigation, chill the actions of any replacement Special Counsel, or otherwise impede the investigation.” The other two conditions—the nexus and the intent—appear to have been satisfied in Trump’s desire to get rid of Mueller.
 Trump’s actions portrayed by the report as less certain to qualify as obstruction of justice include his appeal to James Comey, the FBI director, to lay off Michael Flynn, the national security adviser; his dismissal of Comey; Trump’s repeated efforts to get Sessions to “unrecuse” himself and take over the investigation; and his orders to White House Counsel Don McGahn to deny that he tried to fire Mueller. Various caveats and questions are raised in all these cases, although a layman could be forgiven for seeing fire where there is smoke.
The report is refreshing because it embraces ambiguity where relevant, leaves room for debate on each of these episodes, and is full of solid research and sound reasoning, a rare display these days of intellectual honesty and impartial integrity.
Yet even without a final, ringing declaration of judgment, its cascading evidence provides a cumulative indictment of Trump—if not criminally, then in the broader sense of the term, as a president incapable and unfit, ignorant or indifferent to the law and the Constitution, unwilling to learn, and thoroughly incompetent to govern in a system that restrains authoritarianism. The Democrats should forget Barr and concentrate on what the report tells us about Trump.

April 30, 2019

Rethinking Russia--Part Two


By David K. Shipler

                Donald Trump certainly acted like a guilty man when it came to accusations that he and his campaign had cooperated with Russia in promoting his candidacy. If a playwright had created such a character, he would have been considered too obvious.
                This is the fourth key question in assessing Russia’s actions during the 2016 campaign. The first three—whether the Russians hacked the Democrats’ emails, whether the Russians impersonated Americans online to exacerbate fissures in the society, and whether those activities helped elect Trump—were examined in Part One. Now we look at numbers 4 through 6.
                4. Based on Trump’s display of anxiety about the Russia investigation, his attempts to stop it, his aides’ interactions with Russians, and the lies some told to Congress and FBI agents, the assumption of a cover-up seemed reasonable. Trump and some of his people acted as if they were hiding something illicit or illegal.
Furthermore, the Mueller report said, dozens of Russian tweets and posts were cited or retweeted by campaign officials, including Donald J. Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Michael T. Flynn. But there is no evidence that they knew of the Russian origins. And the investigation didn’t find cooperation or coordination or conspiracy. Rather, the evidence it lays out portrays a haphazard array of contacts among Americans and Russians in erratic pursuit of two apparent goals: profitable business opportunities and improved superpower relations.

April 29, 2019

Rethinking Russia--Part One

By David K. Shipler

                Imprecise thinking about Russia has afflicted the United States in the wake of the 2016 election. The lines between fact and speculation have been blurred. The evidence of Russian misdeeds has been expanded into broad, unproven theories about Moscow’s motives and the impact on the election results. Legitimate contacts between Americans and Russians have been clouded with suspicion. And together, all these parts—both Russian activities and American reactions—have hobbled the ability of the United States to engage Russia in the kind of fruitful relationship that would promote American national interests.
                The election interference was only part of a broad deterioration, notes Kenneth Yalowitz, a veteran diplomat who served many years in Moscow, and then as US ambassador to Georgia and Belarus. It was preceded by a series of damaging episodes that broke down dialogue. “The bureaucracies have no connections anymore,” he said. “There’s no systematic conversation any longer. We don’t know each other. Given the very difficult state of the relationship, this is the time we should be talking to each other.” Instead, he said, “Our policy is just sanctions and breaking agreements.”
The downward slide can be mapped with landmarks of hostility: the West’s expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, which ignited historic Russian fears of close encirclement; the European Union’s courting Ukraine, the home of defense industries and a Russian naval base; American support for street protesters’ ouster of Ukraine’s elected, pro-Moscow president; then Russia’s thinly-disguised invasion of eastern Ukraine and overt annexation of Crimea, which reanimated Western fears of aggressive expansionism; a Russian tit-for-tat maneuver in America’s back yard to help prop up the anti-US regime in Venezuela; Russia’s military intervention in Syria, which restored Moscow’s foothold in the Middle East; Moscow’s violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and President Trump’s scrapping the agreement instead of renegotiating; Russian backing for right-wing racist parties in Europe; Moscow’s cyber intrusions into politics and elections in Estonia, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Germany, France, and Austria; and Russian money to support Brexit, seen as part of a grand plan by the Kremlin to break up European cohesion.
                It’s a grim and dangerous list. When the election is added, with the surrounding political anger, the rigor and clarity required to evaluate what has happened is going to be hard to achieve. Trump, who campaigned on improving the relationship, has handcuffed himself by appearing unduly pro-Russia. He has fawned over President Vladimir Putin, downplayed the election interference, tried to thwart Mueller’s investigation, and left real policy to such hawks as National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
                Moreover, the American debate has been muffled, thanks largely to Russia’s having cemented its standing as an adversary. Unorthodox voices have been marginalized as they question conventional wisdom and hold Washington at least partly responsible for the rising tensions.

April 17, 2019

The Scourge of Military Commissions


By David K. Shipler

                Of all the self-inflicted wounds by the United States since 9/11, the flawed military commissions set up to try suspected foreign terrorists rank high on the list. At Guantanamo, the commissions have been bogged down in a swamp of dubious ethical, legal, and procedural practices. Their constitutionality has been challenged, their partial secrecy denounced.
Some of their military judges have demonstrated bias, and one was reprimanded this week by the powerful Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which vacated all his orders back to Nov. 19, 2015, the date he initiated a conflict of interest by applying to the Justice Department to be an immigration judge. All rulings on his orders by the Court of Military Commission Review were also set aside, wiping the slate almost clean of pretrial decisions in the case, now requiring re-argument on many of the issues. It was a telling illustration of the mess that’s been created.
Without the military commissions, it’s a good bet that the most prominent prisoners at Guantanamo would have been executed years ago, or at least be sitting on death row waiting for the needle. They would have been tried in civilian federal courts, which Republicans have blocked, although the courts are the jewel in the crown of the American judicial system. If juries had found them guilty, it’s hard to imagine anything but the death penalty. Instead, the alleged organizers of the 9/11 attacks and the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen have been in U.S. custody for more than 15 years, at taxpayers’ expense, waiting for trial by military commissions that are so ill-conceived as to be vulnerable to obstruction by prosecutors and multiple motions by defense attorneys seeking to guard their clients’ rights.

April 10, 2019

Will Israel Slam the Door?

By David K. Shipler

                In the 52 years since Israel took control of the West Bank from Jordan during the Six-Day War, the prospect of attaining peace by granting some form of self-government to the area’s Palestinian Arabs has hovered over the conflict like an apparition of hope or dread, depending on your political view. Now, that approach to solving the conflict might be closed off by Israel’s tight election results, since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is positioned to form a right-wing coalition.
In the first two decades after the 1967 war, the notion of an independent Palestinian state was so anathema to most Israeli Jews that it was supported only on the far left, mainly by Communists in the tiny Hadash party. Even liberal Peace Now leaders, who opposed Jewish settlements that were being built in the West Bank, avoided advocating Palestinian statehood for fear that their movement would lose credibility in Israel’s mainstream.
Indeed, Israel’s 1978 Camp David accord with Egypt, which led to a peace treaty in 1979, stopped short of calling for a Palestinian state, providing instead for “autonomy,” which was ill-defined and never implemented. Once statehood gained traction in Israeli politics following the 1993 Oslo accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization, support among Israelis usually oscillated just above and below 50 percent, with occasional spikes during peaceful stretches.
That support itself carried so many caveats that it would have been impossible to convert into statehood without broad changes of attitude among both Israelis and Palestinians. Spates of terrorism by Palestinians knocked off some percentage points, as would be expected, but even in relatively calm periods, Israeli Jews expressed serious doubts about statehood defined as Palestinians might accept, and Palestinians had their own reservations about the compromises they would have to make.
A joint Israeli-Palestinian poll in December 2013, for example, found an abstract two-state solution supported by 63 percent of Israelis and 53 percent of Palestinians. But the numbers declined as details were specified. Israeli withdrawal from all but 3 percent of the West Bank—all Jewish settlements except those in several large blocks—was favored by only 44 percent of Israelis. A Palestine with no army and only a strong police and multinational force appealed to 60 percent of Israelis but just 28 percent of Palestinians. Dividing Jerusalem was accepted by merely 37 and 32 percent of Israelis and Palestinians respectively—each side wanted the city all for itself. And in December 2012, a refugee solution providing for compensation to Palestinian refugees, their right of return to the new Palestinian state, and an undefined number admitted to Israel, won only minority support on both sides—39 percent of Israelis and 49 percent of Palestinians.

March 7, 2019

Through the Minefield of Anti-Semitism


By David K. Shipler

                Israel is surrounded by a minefield that protects it from critics who step carelessly, such as the new congresswoman, Ilhan Omar. The explosives, planted by history, are the ancient anti-Semitic stereotypes that will blow up the argument of anyone who triggers them, no matter how cogent her position is otherwise. That is what Omar has experienced. She first detonated her case with the longstanding caricature of moneyed Jews buying undue influence, and then with the old calumny of Jews as disloyal to their own country. In among those lethal comments, her valid points and humane pleas were covered by debris.
You can’t truly appreciate the power of stereotypes without a sense of history. To understand the recent uproar and ugly resonance of the blackface worn years ago by Virginia’s Governor Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, for example, you have to know about the demeaning minstrel shows of the past, which pictured blacks as stupid, lazy, and comically inept. To grasp the full implications of Omar’s statements, you have to recognize the nerves they touch in the collective memory of oppression.
             It’s not enough to condemn someone who stumbles around in this landscape. Omar needs the kind of guidance that has been provided in the past by the Anti-Defamation League, which has engaged and taught, not just blamed, those guilty of anti-Semitic statements. In 1981, for example, after Rev. Bailey Smith, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, declared, “God Almighty does not hear the prayer of a Jew,” the ADL invited him and a delegation on a nine-day visit to Israel. Officials who met him didn’t bring up the comment and portrayed him as well-meaning, probably unknowing. He confessed that he should not have singled out the Jews, when he meant that the way to God was only through Jesus Christ.
So one has to wonder whether Omar knew what she was saying, and whether she is educable. Born in Somalia, fleeing at age eight with her family to a refugee camp in Kenya, and finally making it to the United States, she has clearly absorbed—perhaps unconsciously—at least a couple of the most virulent images from which Jews have suffered through centuries.

March 3, 2019

How to Get Rid of Trump


By David K. Shipler

                “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” So said Ralph Waldo Emerson, as recalled by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. It is an admonition that ought to be placed as a screen saver on the computers of all the eager Democrats in the House of Representatives who are licking their chops at the prospect of impeaching President Trump. A king who survives an attempt on his throne can be wild with vengeance, especially when backed by zealous toadies and street fighters.
                  If the report by special counsel Robert Mueller turns out to be an anti-climax after nearly two years of hype, Republicans who have circled the wagons around Trump will probably remain in place. As long as they don’t see Trump as a political liability, he’s safe, for impeachment is a legal-political hybrid. Without a smoking gun linking him explicitly to Russian manipulation of the 2016 election, hardly any House Republicans would vote for articles of impeachment, and the Republican-led Senate would fall far short of the two-thirds needed for conviction. The Republican Party of 2019 is a very different animal from the Republican Party of 1974, when its leaders, Senator Barry Goldwater among them, told Richard Nixon to resign or be impeached and convicted.
 Therefore, two other scenarios for dumping Trump seem more conceivable:
                 1. A Democratic electoral sweep in 2020 decisive enough to force the Republican Party into a cowering fit of reform.
This is the preferable outcome. If Democrats take the White House and the Senate, and keep or increase their majority in the House, Republicans might regroup as a more centrist, responsibly conservative movement that conducts serious debates over serious issues. Instead of rightist radicalism that favors the destruction of government, a reborn Republican Party might try to govern on behalf of a broader array of Americans.

February 17, 2019

America Down the Rabbit Hole

By David K. Shipler

                The United States desperately needs a Lewis Carroll to depict the satirical farce of our Wonderland. We have fallen into an alternative universe that cannot be captured by any responsible news reporter scrupulous about facts or careful nonfiction author tethered to footnotes. Only an imaginative talent for the bizarre can give us our current equivalents of the Hatter of the Mad Tea Party, the disappearing Cheshire Cat, the tyrannical Queen of Hearts with her dictum, “Off with his head!” Not to mention the Jabberwocky’s “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves, did gyre and gimble in the wabe.” He could be wearing a MAGA hat. Oh, for a Lewis Carroll!
                The latest scene would be President Trump’s fictional southern border, a place of dystopian invasion by swarthy, half-bestial creatures pouring in with drugs and criminal intent, waved on by gleeful Democrats jumping up and down with joy unrestrained. But fear not! The Great Wall of Trump hermetically seals the dark evil from the pure white good, and all is calmly virtuous inside. And by the way, when the wall is not actually built, the Trumpists merely have to say that it is being constructed, and then pretend that it magically stands even where nobody can see it. And all who hear the Jabberwocky’s enticing poetry dream peacefully between their pure white sheets.
                  Exaggerated fantasies of fictitious threats are not unheard of in American history. Driven by fears of French subversion, the Alien and Sedition Acts under President John Adams criminalized criticism of the government and subjected foreigners to arrest and deportation without cause or due process. President Woodrow Wilson led a campaign of paranoia, portraying opponents of entry into World War I as disloyal and deserving “a firm hand of repression.” Under him, the 1917 Espionage Act facilitated the prosecution of 2,000 socialists, anarchists, other political dissidents and labor union leaders. The 1918 Sedition Act set criminal penalties for “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about” the American form of government, the Constitution, the flag, the military, or its uniforms. Imaginary dangers from Japanese-Americans during World War II landed them in very real internment camps. And the McCarthy era of nonsensical anxiety about communist infiltration generated career-busting witch hunts.
                Against that background, Trump’s manipulation of his national-emergency power to move a few billion dollars around looks like a moderate test of the constitutional system’s checks and balances, but hardly the devastating wrecking ball that opponents have described. It is unwise, opportunistic, and contemptuous of the ingenious separation-of-powers mechanism that the Framers invented. If adopted as standard practice, it could also be used by future, liberal presidents to declare national emergencies in health care, climate change, and gun violence, as the few Republicans willing to stand up from their party’s supine position have warned.

February 5, 2019

Can a Racist Be Redeemed?


By David K. Shipler

                A significant question hovers over the furor surrounding Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s evident racism at age 25: Does a racist act justify a life sentence, or can a person evolve? Are racist attitudes malleable or thoroughly embedded in character? Is bigotry curable or merely discoverable, as through an old statement, action, or photograph?
                This conundrum, which is larger than Northam, has been mostly absent from demands that he resign. But it’s central to mapping ways forward from America’s quagmire of bigotry. If individuals’ racial prejudices are impervious to change, how does society make progress? Or if prejudice can be reduced, how is that best accomplished? These are not new issues, but they take on urgency with a President Trump who reflects and enables biases against an array of ethnic, racial, and religious groups, from Mexicans to blacks to Muslims.
                Unfortunately, Northam has failed to lead the discussion where it should go. He has neither acknowledged his sin nor chronicled his redemption. He has forfeited a teaching opportunity that might have helped the public see how a person can confront and revise his prejudices—if that is indeed his case. It is worth wondering whether he might have salvaged his political career with candid introspection. Maybe not, but it would have served the greater good, for the journey from racism through reform is one needed by society as a whole.  
                Northam’s sin was the inflammatory picture he evidently chose for his own page in his 1984 medical school yearbook. It showed two men standing side by side, one in blackface, the other in the white robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Northam either was or was not one of the men, depending on which of his ambiguous statements you credit. In any case, he also admitted darkening his face with shoe polish on another occasion, to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance. That touched a nerve of racial history, when whites in blackface used to perform in minstrel shows that mocked African-Americans as dumb, lazy, fearful, and ridiculous.
                Relatively few whites are sufficiently attuned to the overtones of history, the undertones of stereotyping, and the innuendoes that trigger, for many African-Americans, the long echoes of hatred. If nothing else beneficial has happened during the Northam episode, the mainstream media have at least given a short course on the ugly practice of blackface. It still endures occasionally in Halloween costumes and “ghetto parties” on campuses, where administrators huff and puff and punish.
                How to remedy the scourge of bigotry often depends on how changeable people seem to be. Since widespread redemption appears doubtful, the society has erected a superstructure of inhibitions—both legal and cultural—designed to prevent prejudiced thoughts from being translated into behavior. Violating anti-discrimination laws carries legal penalties; violating cultural norms can mean losing a job, a promotion, a friendship, a reputation. The results are anything but consistent, as illustrated vividly by the contrasting reactions to Northam and Trump. Northam’s Democratic Party denounces him, and Trump’s Republicans look the other way.

January 31, 2019

The Wind Chill Factor


By David K. Shipler

                President Trump warmed the hearts of Americans today by declaring the wind chill factor “FAKE NEWS” concocted by “Democrat weathermen” who are part of the “deep state.”
                “Wrong!” he tweeted right before breakfast toward the end of his insomnia. “The weathermen seem to be extremely passive and naïve when it comes to temperature. Don’t they read their own thermometers? The thermometer says 10 below, and they say it feels like 40 below! Sad!”
                In case his point was lost, he added the obvious, somewhat gratuitously: “Perhaps meteorology (I got that from spellcheck) should go back to school!”
                Millions of his fervent supporters across the country felt immediately warmer. In Wisconsin, the 27,000 citizens who put him over the edge in 2016 went without coats and gloves. One told a TV reporter at WXYZ, “See? Trump tells it like it is.” Another, who left his MAGA hat home, slapped his arms around himself and jumped up and down, his breath in a freezing fog before him. He declared happily, “Trump keeps his promises!”   

January 27, 2019

Lessons From the Shutdown


By David K. Shipler

                It’s too bad that air controllers and TSA agents didn’t call in sick on day one of the shutdown. Maybe next time. They’d get the government reopened in about 90 minutes.
               That’s Lesson One. Here are some others:
·         Financial security is a mirage for huge numbers of fulltime employees, not only of the federal government but of private firms as well. Wages are too low and expenses too high to generate an adequate cushion of savings for families in the so-called middle class. People quickly ran out of cash for such basic needs as housing and food. As a former Coast Guard commandant told NPR, petty officers with two or three kids are paid below the poverty line.
·         If those with steady government jobs are so vulnerable, think of the fragility of low-skilled laborers paid less, who might not be able to get more than part-time work. Every dime that comes in goes out, leaving them on the constant edge of crisis. An uncovered medical bill, missed work for a child’s illness, a car repair, a layoff, reduced food stamps, delayed housing subsidies, or myriad other disruptions can send families into a downward spiral.
·         Those housing subsidies—particularly the government’s Section 8 vouchers that help pay rent to private landlords for low-income tenants—faced interruption, exposing the poor to eviction and surely undermining owners’ willingness to accept the vouchers. It’s hard enough in normal times to get landlords’ participation in the program, and funding is inadequate anyway. Waiting lists are long, and families who have to pay unsubsidized market rents are often forced to cut spending on food. That leads to malnutrition among children at crucial stages of brain development, studies have found, creating long-term intellectual impairment. This is likely to be a hidden cost of the shutdown.

January 17, 2019

The Solution: A Trump-Pelosi Duel


By David K. Shipler

                If you’ve seen the musical Hamilton or read the book by Ron Chernow, you might have gained some appreciation of dueling, not so much as a method of ritualized murder but as a conflict-resolution device. Of course Alexander Hamilton was shot to death by Aaron Burr, which is always a risk in political confrontations, at least metaphorically. Yet it didn’t have to end that way. It could have been played more deftly to regain and preserve honor for both parties.
                Perhaps that’s the answer for President Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as my friend Steve Weisman impishly suggested over lunch in Washington this week. Trump is stubborn, and Pelosi’s scrappy, and they’ve wrapped themselves in their egos as some 800,000 Americans, unpaid during the government shutdown, discover the pitfalls of working for Uncle Sam.
                In Hamilton’s age, Chernow writes, duels following insults were “de rigueur” among those “who identified with America’s social elite.” To restore dignity, demonstrate courage, and avoid being marked as cowardly, rising to the challenge was unavoidable. However, “duelists did not automatically try to kill their opponents,” Chernow explains. “The mere threat of gunplay concentrated the minds of antagonists, forcing them and their seconds into extensive negotiations that often ended with apologies instead of bullets.”
                If things went too far and you faced off with pistols, you could “throw away your shot,” that is, aim wildly to avoid inflicting a mortal wound. There’s evidence that Hamilton did just that in his duel with Burr. But the youthful Hamilton of years earlier, alight with revolutionary fervor, sings at the outset of the musical, “I will not throw away my shot!” That’s about both him and his cause. It’s enough to stir the patriotic heart of any American audience, even in our dispiriting time.

January 10, 2019

Trump's Foreign Policy Vacuum


By David K. Shipler
“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.”
                                                                                                                   --The Wizard of Oz

            Watching the United States on the world stage today is like suffering from double vision. President Donald Trump strides, postures, and dramatically decrees. Then his subordinates stay approximately where they were before.
Trump credits Vladimir Putin’s denials that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, and then the Justice Department indicts a bunch of Russians for doing precisely that. Trump announces a sudden withdrawal of 2,000 American troops from Syria, and then his national security adviser, John Bolton, says they’re staying there to fight ISIS and defend our Kurdish allies.
It’s not that Trump has no influence over his own foreign policy. It’s that he has no policy. He has only impulses and whims—not all of which are necessarily bad. But since he detests veteran professionals who have been working on these problems for decades, and since he has let Bolton strip the National Security Council bare, Trump’s tweets are unsupported by any process of deliberation or execution that might actually translate into action on the ground.
Although the president is excoriated for this incompetence, it could someday save us from an impetuous war that he thinks up after watching Sean Hannity. Inertia, the tendency of a body to continue traveling at the same speed in the same direction, is fundamental in government. Whether you’re a right-wing conspiracy theorist who calls it the “deep state,” or a center-to-left citizen who laments the paucity of “adults in the room,” your nation’s well-being these days is protected by the difficulty of turning the ship of state on a dime, as Trump repeatedly tries to do.
It would be interesting to know—and in some future year we might find out—whether the generals and admirals have developed a secret method of resistance to this demented commander-in-chief’s rash orders. There have been reports of their slow-walking certain commands that can be bogged down in logistics and bureaucracy. But what if Trump wakes up early one morning, gets incensed by something on Fox and Friends, and calls in the officer with the nuclear football to obliterate a country that has ticked him off? Is there any subversive understanding in the military about how to defy such an order? If so, would it be treason? Probably, but it might also save the country.

January 3, 2019

Looking for a Political Sweet Spot


By David K. Shipler

                The new Democratic majority in the House of Representatives is faced with a tricky feat of navigation. It must appeal to the upsurge of national outrage against President Trump from the left while steering a course that will also attract the respect of moderate Americans near the center. And to do that, its committees that draft bills and conduct investigations will need to find an elusive sweet spot where liberal principles meet pragmatic governance—with broad appeal.
                It goes without saying that the behavior of the House Democrats will set the stage for the 2020 presidential election. Trump will vilify them no matter what, but if they give him ammunition by flying off into fits of extreme rhetoric and blizzards of subpoenas, they run the risk of appearing politically vindictive and irresponsible. If such accusations stick, they will stain whatever Democratic candidate emerges as the party’s nominee.
Therefore, every argument and assertion has to be well-phrased and factually unassailable. Every subpoena—and there should be many—has to be carefully supported by legitimate grounds for investigative necessity. No flamboyant grand-standing, no smear campaigns, no positions too radical to woo back independent Trump voters are likely to work.
                Furthermore, whatever positions and policies the Democrats adopt need to be explained and justified better than Nancy Pelosi is usually able to do. She’s an accomplished fund-raiser and herder of the cats in her caucus, and she can get legislation passed. But let’s face it, she’s not a great messenger on broadcast news, the unfortunate test these days of a successful politician. Too often she can’t put a persuasive sentence together. Either she has to practice her lines or let a more articulate Democrat do the talking.
                Liberals are feeling too heady after the mid-terms, with voters having elected Native Americans, Muslims, and record-breaking numbers of women. It’s reasonable to think that the tide has begun turning against a Republican Party bent on dismantling much of the good that government does for the people. But the operative word is “begun,” for this is not a revolution so much as a stirring, perhaps the prelude to a sea change that might mature eventually into a dramatic expulsion from power of the pro-rich, anti-minority misogynists who have diminished America.