We’ll start this week’s collection with the thoughts of Patrick Cockburn on Syria, since he knows more about what’s going on there than virtually any other journalist:
President Donald Trump had little option but to order a missile strike against a Syrian airbase after holding Syria responsible for that poison gas attack on Khan Sheikhoun that killed 80 civilians. He had criticised President Obama for being weak, slow and indecisive when facing similar challenges, so he could scarcely do nothing when President Bashar al-Assad appeared to breach the agreement in 2013 to hand over all his chemical weapons to be destroyed.
The fact that the US has taken its first direct military action against Assad is significant, not so much because it has done much damage to the Syrian armed forces, but because it may be repeated. Senior politicians and generals in the US have been calling for air strikes to take out or at last “ground” the whole Syrian air force. This option is now more on the table than it was previously, but that does not mean that it is going to happen.
The launching of 59 Tomahawk missiles that killed six people and did an unknown amount of damage at al-Shayrat airbase in Homs province in central Syria is symbolic. But it is a warning that is likely to be taken seriously in both Moscow and Damascus, because full-scale American intervention against Assad is the one thing that would deny them victory in the war.
Those who argue that the Syrian armed forces would not have done anything quite so foolish and against their own interests as to launch the strikes, probably underestimate the extent of the stupidity present in all armies. There is an old Israeli military saying, employed about a number of their commanders, which is apposite and says that the general “was so stupid that even the other generals noticed”.
As for the Russians, their military intervention in Syria has hitherto been highly successful because it has re-established them, at least in the Middle East, as a superpower. If they conclude that Assad was indeed behind the chemical attack – something they currently deny – then they will be infuriated that he has risked so much for so little. The Kremlin will be eager to continue to pursue parallel policies with Washington, something that dates back to 2015 when Obama decided not to oppose Putin’s military intervention on the side of Assad. This was a critical moment in the outcome of the war.
From Trump’s point of view there is a great advantage in any cross words coming from Moscow because they will counter accusations in the US that he is too close to the Russians. Democratic Party and media criticism, based on conspiracy theories claiming that Russian hackers determined the course of the election, will be deflated and Trump will have his first foreign policy success. The missile strike could do more change to the political landscape than in Syria.
Cockburn’s piece is strangely comforting, in that it says that what’s been done is roughly what any rational successor to President Obama would have done to advance US strategy in the region. HRC has basically agreed with the action, which suggests that she would have done something very similar, although she would probably now be in the process of gaining agreement from Congress. I’m somewhat less outraged than some others about not asking Congress before taking this retaliatory action: there’s a very strong argument that any President would have had to act quickly.
The coalition which is strongly critical of the action consists of Putin, Iran, Breitbart, Ann Coulter, most of Europe’s leading deplorables and Bozo Bernie, and he’s certainly lost the support of Max Benwell:
I first began to support Donald Trump when he forced Barack Obama to release his birth certificate in 2011. It was groundbreaking – no other sitting president had ever been made to do it. But then again, Obama was like no other president.
But with the air strikes in Syria, everything has changed. Trump isn’t the president I thought he was. I just wish I had the chance to realise my mistake sooner.
Before he entered the White House, Trump had been accused of ripping off business partners, discriminating against ethnic minorities, and defrauding students. He had also declared corporate bankruptcy several times, and oversaw the financial collapse of multiple casinos. So you can imagine my excitement five years later when he launched his presidential campaign and, in his first mesmerising speech, called Mexican people rapists.
When Trump became president, my loyal support only grew. I didn’t mind when he lied about the size of the crowd at his inauguration. He had my full support when he falsely claimed Obama wiretapped him. And when he recently defended Bill O’Reilly, who has been accused of sexual harassment by multiple women, I saw no wrong at all.
Everyone has their own personal principles. Your “red lines”, so to speak. Mine are as follows: you can do whatever you want. You can ban all refugees coming to America. You can try to cut healthcare benefits that keep millions of Americans alive, and roll back the regulations designed to protect millions from climate change. You can be sexist, racist and brag about sexually assaulting women. But don’t bomb an airfield used by a dictator for attacks on his own people. How can you support someone after that?
I thought he was going to be great. But in the end, he disappointed us all, and after showing so much promise. He crossed a line. And that’s why I can no longer support Donald Trump.
Ann Coulter herself could hardly have expressed it better.
Mention of Iran, though, brings up an issue which didn’t hit the banner headlines this week. Stéphane Lauer looks at the dilemma which Boeing have presented:
The US aerospace company Boeing, announcing a deal on the sale of sixty 737 MAX aircraft to Iran Aseman Airlines on Tuesday (April 4th), poses a major problem for the White House, which has the final say on this type of agreement. Will US President Donald Trump ‘s hostility towards Iran, and in particular the Iranian nuclear agreement signed in 2015 by his predecessor, fade in the face of The opportunity to trade with this country, and thus create jobs in the United States?
This is the first time this has happened since Mr. Trump took office on January 20. Boeing had already announced the sale of eighty aircraft worth 16.6 billion dollars (15.55 billion euros) to Iran Air in December 2016. But at the time, Obama, who had been one of the main architects of the nuclear agreement with Iran, still occupied the White House.
One of the counterparts to the compromise reached in 2015 between Iran, the United States, Russia , China , France , the United Kingdom and Germany consisted of lifting the economic sanctions imposed on Tehran, which agreed to limit its ability to acquire nuclear weapons and to accept international inspections to verify their application. Mr. Trump has repeatedly denounced this compromise, which he says leaves a free hand to a state that sponsors terrorism and destabilizes the Middle East. The US president has hinted that he could reverse this deal.
The problem is that, at the same time, Mr. Trump also promised that he would do everything in his power to create employment in American industry. This is indeed the subject of the announcement made by Boeing, the sale of sixty 737 MAX would be likely to create 18,000 jobs in the United States.
But the main obstacle is likely to be political . Part of the Republican majority in Congress does not hide its hostility to trade with Iran. On Tuesday, Illinois Republican Representative Peter Roskam described the agreement announced by Boeing as “outrageous” , saying it coincided with the revelation that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Tehran, is accused of carrying out a toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhoun , a town held by opponents of his regime. Mr. Roskam called on Mr. Trump to do “ everything in his power” to stop the sale of the Boeing.
Poor Donnie. To fulfil one campaign promise, he has to break another. Who knew that governing could be so complicated?
Another thing which didn’t get all that much attention was the visit of the Egyptian President. Dorothea Hahn comments:
According to the rules of the late 18th century which determine the course of presidential elections in the USA, Donald Trump has been validly elected to the White House. But his admiration does not extend to other duly elected government officials. When with Theresa May from Great Britain, Justin Trudeau from Canada and Angela Merkel, he seems like a flail that is not interested in foreign policy and, above all, seems to hope that the encounter will pass quickly. On the other hand, he glows in the company of tyrants. With them he smiles, distributes compliments and speaks of cooperation.
The most recent example of this authoritarian preference is the meeting with Abdel Fatah al-Sisi on Monday at the White House. The man, who led the coup in 2013 against the first democratically elected government in Cairo, and since then threw thousands of oppositionists into the Egyptian prisons, was the first foreign state leader to congratulate Trump on the electoral victory last November. On Monday, he sat next to him in front of a fireplace in the White House and beamed, while Trump praised him for his “fantastic work”.
Trump’s argument for the demonstrative kindness to the autocrats is the fight against terrorism – especially against IS. In a region that has many other problems, antiterrorism is a modest common denominator. But even this reduced co-operation has narrow borders, which also shows itself in conflicting interests in Syria: Saudi Arabia wants the fall of Assad, Turkey wants Washington (and in Iraq) to give up its privileged relationship with Kurdish forces . And Egypt is constantly producing new supplies of jihadists through political repression and economic hardship in its own country.
The authoritarian preference produces images that show Trump with a certain long overdue foreign policy interest. But it does not provide a political strategy for one of the most complex regions of the planet.
Moving quickly on, Per Olav Ødegård has some thoughts on a couple of meetings involving China’s President Xi:
Directly from Donald Trump to Erna Solberg. No one can deny the president Xi Jinping in the Chinese century.
In the most important US-China summit in decades, it’s mostly about North Korea and trade. Behind closed doors in Trumps country Mar-a-Lago in Florida expected a day of tough conditions and harsh demands.
There will be more harmonious in the People’s Great Hall in Beijing in a few days, during the first Norwegian-Chinese summit since the Ice Age began in 2010. There is no time to take up the difficult topic, read human rights.
An inexperienced president who formulates policy with big letters on twitter meets an extremely experienced executive with high global ambitions.
The Chinese have had problems with getting a handle on Trump. Is he just a paper tiger or is he serious? Does he want cooperation or seek confrontation?
Mao Zedong launched the concept paper tiger in 1946 to describe the reactionary forces at home and abroad. A paper tiger, whether a leader or a nation, gives the impression of being big and powerful. In reality, the paper tiger is weak and nothing to be afraid of.
As part of the Trumps standard repertoire in the campaign, he was hostile about China. They had for years exploited the US and caused the US factory gates were closed.
– When Donald Trump becomes president will China know that America is again in the lead for global business and that there will be an end to currency-fixing and cheating, it was said at Trumps website.
Trump appeared like a tiger. It scared Beijing that after the election victory Trump broke a 37-year long American practice by talking to Taiwan’s president on the phone , and then question the one-China-policy. That there is only one China PRC credo.
In February Trump’s tone was differwnt. He called Xi and said that the one-China policy remained unchanged. Now the pressure was on to strengthen cooperation. In Chinese eyes resembled Trump, with contradictions and retreat, a paper tiger.
With Prime Minister Solberg’s mission to the Middle Kingdom is a delegation of 230 participants, including leading Norwegian business leaders who will be meeting a thousand Chinese counterparts. There are contracts on the table. It’s time for “business as usual”.
However, there was never any break in trade. Norwegian exports to China have increased sharply in recent years. But political normalization provides greater flexibility and at last negotiations on a free trade agreement can be finalized.
China pushed Norway out in the cold because the Nobel Committee in 2010 gave the Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo . He is still in prison for his dissenting opinions. In Xi’s presidency there is even less room for dissent. It makes it even more important than before to talk about human rights in China.
Norway defends happily loud and clear universal human rights. It is apparently just not doing it now. It’ll have to wait for another time, when dialogue is well underway.
With the risks it entails for Norway when emerging as a paper tiger.
Now some history. Enrique Feás notices some similarities between Trump and President Hoover:
In 1928 a large part of the population of the United States felt dissatisfied. Technology and globalization had put farmers in a precarious situation: motor vehicles had displaced beasts of burden and generated an agricultural surplus that exerted downward pressure on prices and salaries, exacerbated by the competitive price of imports, which were perceived as a threat.
In parallel, Mexican immigration was considered a problem. To the many Mexicans who decided to stay in the territories incorporated to the United States after the war of 1848 were added the exiled and displaced by the Mexican revolution of 1910-1920. Many worked in mining, industry or railways and favored American expansion, but with the crisis of 1920-21 began an aggressive anti-immigration campaign that resulted in the creation of a Customs Patrol on the border with the neighbor country in 1924 (the wall would not begin to be built until seventy years later).
Protectionism and the curbing of immigration were therefore hot topics in the 1928 election campaign. Herbert Hoover, a wealthy, politically-minded, somewhat arrogant mining entrepreneur (“who at forty has not made a million dollars is nobody”) He was able to interpret the discontent of Protestant white farmers and workers: during his electoral campaign he promised first to raise tariffs, second to stop immigration and guaranteed all their jobs and wages. Its electoral slogan was very simple: “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage”. And it worked.
Neither the expulsion of the Mexicans nor the protectionism helped the economic recovery, but rather they harmed it, delaying it. Between 1929 and 1933, US imports fell 66% and exports 61%, and unemployment rose to 25%. Herbert Hoover was swept in the following elections against Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who pioneered the New Deal and recovery, reduced tariffs and, after World War II, helped lay the foundations of a new world order based on economic and Trade and multilateralism.
Hoover left the presidency amid the hostility of the press and the resentment of the population, but over time he would be able to rehabilitate his image, doing advisory work for the Truman administration. Retired from public life, he died in New York in 1964, probably mired in remorse. Who was going to tell him that in the second decade of the following century another businessman turned president, faced with similar problems, would be willing to repeat the same mistakes.
I guess most of us are a bit young to remember all that, although it probably made a big impression on a then middle-aged future Senator from VT who will no doubt see himself as the new FDR to save America.
I learned this week that Mar-a-Lago was actually left to the USA by its original owner for use as a winter White House, but that the government sold it off because it was too expensive to run. So I’m going to finish with this fascinating piece from Mark S Smith:
DONALD Trump seems to be exacting some kind of sweet revenge on the genteel folk of Palm Beach, Florida – and they’re not happy. If you’ve never heard of this place, that’s exactly how the people who live here like it. Three drawbridges, which rise for passing yachts, isolate the town from the rest of the world and keep the riff-raff at bay – as one observer once put it, in case of insurrection on the mainland.
Welcome to America’s most exclusive community – “the island”, as locals call it. This balmy, sun-drenched 13-mile spit of sand, 90 minutes’ drive north from Miami, is a village of the privacy-obsessed and gaga rich. Around 30 of the 400 wealthiest people in the world own property in here, as do celebrities including Rod Stewart, Jimmy Buffet, Celine Dion, and tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.
Each weekend the president spends here – five out of 10 so far – security protocols have closed bridges, clogged thoroughfares and blocked roads, essentially cutting the south of the town off from the north.
On top of that, small armies of protesters often show up when the president is in residence, as well as supporter groups wearing “Make America Great Again” caps and media crews. Not only has this added to the traffic congestion, but it has also been blamed for lost sales to businesses, dozens of restaurant cancellations and widespread frustration.
However, the most destabilising effect is the sudden abundance of unwelcome attention from the outside world.
These disruptions cap a private, 30-year war that Trump and the blue-bloods here, who dominate Palm Beach, have waged on one another. Now that he is the president, some here say Trump is relishing their current displeasure.
Most people here will tell you – even Trump supporters – that the brash, loud-mouthed, self-aggrandising New York property tycoon has never fitted in. He may be a billionaire, own Mar-a-Lago and even be the leader of the free world, but Trump has a bellboy’s hope in hell of ever garnering the kind of pedigree required here.
His response back in 1990, when asked in a Vanity Fair article if he was bothered at not being invited to join the exclusive Bath and Tennis Club (lovingly known as the B&T): “They kiss my ass in Palm Beach. Those phonies.”
The deeper you dig, the more ironic it seems that most Palm Beachers voted for him.
To better understand the often-unfathomable mindset of Trump, his strange relationship with Palm Beach offers fascinating insights.
Another resident, a former banker from Manhattan, is waiting for his wife outside the Chanel store. He says he has played golf at Mar-a-Lago and has also eaten there.
“It was very nice,” he says. “Trump likes to work the crowd at dinnertime and greet people. My wife thought he was like a glorified maitre d’ who imagined himself bigger than he really is – but I found him polite and very gracious.”
Clarke says she’s heard that one too from a few people here, the likening of Trump to a jumped-up maître d’. And there it is, the perfect encapsulation of a class barrier never to be breached by Trump, and by extension the nearly 500 members of Mar-a-Lago, who may not be welcome at the Everglades or the B&T.
In many ways, Palm Beach is Trump’s ideal playground. He doesn’t simply seek attention, he craves confrontation and this subtropical barrier island off the Florida coast uniquely fits the bill.
Survive Sunday. If you can, enjoy it too.