Sunday, February 26, 2017

Generalizing

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Two US Generals are in the news today for very different reasons, but they are both American warriors who we should know a lot more about. They fought in different wars decades apart, in wildly different methods. One took a legendary Cavalry unit into the jungles of Southeast Asia and fought the very first pitched battle of the Vietnam war, and proved that with the right air and artillery support the American grunts could take and hold any piece of ground they wanted, no matter the resistance. The other led an armored brigade in the largest tank battle since the Second World War - a battle so deep in the Iraqi desert that history remembers it only by it's map coordinates - the battle of 73 Easting.

HR McMaster


Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond "H. R." McMaster last week accepted President Donald Trumps appointment as National Security Adviser. McMaster is a well respected leader, thoughtful and intelligent, and has often shown a willingness to innovate that is quite unusual in the US Army.

In late February of 1991, he was a captain commanding E (Eagle) Troop of 2ACR (Second Armored Cavalry Regiment). McMaster had 120 soldiers, a dozen Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and nine M1A1 Abrams tanks under his direct command. The 2nd ACR rolled across the Saudi border late on the night of February 23d and struck out east across the Iraqi desert with McMaster's Eagle in the vanguard. The mission was to cut off the Iraqi retreat north from Kuwait and cover the Marines in Kuwait from the heavy Republican Guard armored forces known to be in Northern Iraq - particularly the feared Tawakalna Division and the Iraqi 50th Armored Brigade.

The next few days VII Corps raced across Iraq behind 2ACR Eagle, Iron, Killer and Ghost troops, facing light and mixed resistance from Saddam Hussein's terrified conscript troops scattered across the desert. The key was the Republican Guard armored divisions, and the American armor had to get there in time.

By the morning of the 26th, 3d Squadron was in contact with the Iraqi 50th Armored to the south, and command had ordered the 2nd ACR and the UK 1st Armored to pivot east to attack the Republican Guards tanks. By 9am a violent sandstorm kicked up, and while the vehicles could maneuver as ordered, they advanced slowly due to a complete lack of air support. By 3 o'clock the 3d Armored Division was in position with 2nd ACR at 50 Easting, and General Franks was frustrated, waiting for the 1st Infantry to get into position. He ordered 2nd ACR to attack out to 70 Easting, and the battle was joined.

McMaster was in the lead tank, with his other 8 Abrams spread out line abreast, with the mounted infantry in Bradleys just behind. By 3:45 they were in close combat with the well organized and professional  Tawakalna Division in prepared defensive positions. It was a knife fight in a phone booth, but the better trained, technologically superior forces under McMaster's viciously aggressive leadership shredded the defensive lines and charged through.

At 4:10 Eagle took fire from a small village, and swept through it destroying gun positions and killing or taking prisoner the dismounted Iraqi infantry. Ten minutes later McMaster led Eagle up and over a sharp ridge and came face to face with an Iraqi tank company on the reverse slope. He fired on the first T-72, destroying it, and his other tanks made short work of the other eight. From that position, he could see Iraqi tanks and defensive positions just 3 kilometers east. Despite having been ordered to limit his advance to 70 Easting, he charged to some high ground at 74 Easting and opened fire. These were by far the best Iraqi troops the men of Eagle had encountered. They held fast, and their tankers tried to maneuver and engage the American Abrams tanks in their T-72s. They were brave and professional, but they were surprised and at a tremendous technological disadvantage, and McMaster wasn't offering any quarter. Eagle destroyed 18 Iraqi tanks in the first minutes of the fight, and McMaster ordered two of his Bradley's north to regain contact with Captain Joe Sartiano's Ghost troop.

From there, the fight moved north from Eagle's position into a wadi with Ghost in overwatch. There followed several hours of fierce fighting as wave after wave of Republican Guards tried to retreat through the Wadi and encountered Ghost Troop's tanks and troops. The fighting along 74 Easting went on until about 10:30 the night of the 26th, when the 1st Infantry Division pushed through the line held by 2nd ACR and let the attack on Objective Norfolk.

HR McMaster was awarded the Silver Star for the battle, and he went on to serve on the CENTCOM staff as Deputy to General John Abizaid. When the US went to war in Iraq again, he took command of the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment and was assigned the mission of securing the city of Tal Afar. His unconventional and innovative approach to that mission was noticed by many, particularly because of the favorable coverage in places like PBS Frontline, CBS 60 Minutes and a long-read article in The New Yorker.

In 2008 he was promoted to Brigadier General and assigned to Doctrine and Training Command, and in 2012 he was given his second star and assigned command of the Army Maneuver Center of Excellence. In 2014 he was promoted to Lieutenant General and given command of the Army Capabilities Integration Center under Training and Doctrine Command.

Of all Trump's cabinet picks, this may very well be the best one. It is telling that McMaster wasn't Trump's first choice, or even second. But he will serve as a strong, independent voice in the White House, and as a man who truly knows war, a soldier who has killed in battle, he will serve to temper a civilian leadership that seems all to ready to send our young men and women in harms way.


Hal Moore


On a sadder note, another Lieutenant General - this one the legendary Hal Moore - died a few weeks ago just three days before his 95th birthday. Moore had a long and distinguished
Army career, but he can never be separated from the Battle of Ia Drang in November of 1965. Before that, the US leadership had struggled to understand the kind of war - and the kind of enemy - they faced in Vietnam. This wasn't the kind of war they understood. They wanted to find a way to engage the enemy in large pitched battles where greater US firepower could annihilate them. The job fell to Lt. Colonel Moore's 7th Cavalry - the same unit led by GA Custer at the Little Big Horn, and recently redesignated 'Airmobile' - to create that kind of battle.

50 kilometers south of Pleiku in Gia Lai province is the Ia Drang valley. 'Ia' is Hmong for river, so it is the valley of the river Drang. Cambodia is only 15 km to the east, and even worse, sits in the shadow of the Chu Pong Massif, a huge mountain complex that at the time of the battle was the home of two regiments of North Vietnamese Army troops. On the morning of November 14th, 1965, 7th Cavalry Hueys began delivering troops of the 1st Battalion. By noon Moore had the 200 troopers of A and B Companies on the ground at LZ Xray. Earlier that morning the first troops on the ground had captured an NVA soldier who was more than happy to inform the that there were three Battalions of North Vietnamese regulars on the mountain above them. The Cavalry troopers set up a perimeter oriented east and south towards the mountain across a dry creek bed, with Moore's HQ detachment in the center of the LZ behind them. The first shots were fired about 12:15. Nobody knew it, but the next 46 hours would be hell unlike anything they had ever known.

For the next 2½ hours A and B Companies fought a desperate close range battle with hundreds of NVA soldiers at the creekbed while Moore desperately worked to get the rest of his Battalion on the LZ and in the fight. At 2:30, C Company was inserted, but many were killed and wounded just trying to get off the helicopter and behind some kind of cover. About that time, the NVA shifted their attack to the south. The newly arrived C Company troopers reinforced the southern perimeter to A Company's left and within minutes was trying to hold against an assault by 200 enemy troops. At this point Moore and his team began directing heavy, effective artillery from Plei Me and air support had begun to arrive. By 4 o'clock the NVA withdrew, leaving behind over a hundred dead.

By then, Moore's final company, D, was on the ground and in the fight. They reinforced A Company on the creek bed just as the NVA attacked again. The American troops had very effectively positioned their M-60 machine guns, and they managed to - just barely - keep the A Company line from being broken and the LZ overrun. By this time, the medevac choppers had refused to fly into LZ Xray to evacuate the wounded due to the intense volume of incoming fire - rifles, machine guns, mortars and rockets - so the crews of the assault choppers kept coming back, time after time, hauling in water and ammunition and hauling out wounded soldiers. Two Huey pilots would win the Medal of Honor that bloody day on LZ Xray.

As the afternoon wore on, Moore was able to reposition his troopers to provide a 360° perimeter and get his mortar teams set up behind A and B Companies to provide additional fire support. As it got dark, the Americans dug in and the NVA began to send small units to probe their lines. Colonel Moore ordered his machine guns to hold fire so as not to give away their positions, and the troopers fought off these attacks with rifles, grenades and mortars.

At 6:30 the next morning, just before sunrise, the NVA launched a heavy attack at C Company's left flank. They closed to within a few dozen meters of the Americans positions, their fire tearing through the LZ and causing casualties around the entire perimeter. C Company was able to hold, although they took a lot of casualties. An hour later they launced a second attack against the southern perimeter, and C Company began to waver. If they broke, the NVA would pour through the break in the line and overrun the entire Battalion. Moore immediately ordered his radioman to call a 'Broken Arrow'. This was a combat infantry commander's last, desperate option. If he's about to be overrun, a Broken Arrow was issued and EVERY American combat aircraft in the entire country was detached from it's mission and sent to the site of the battle.

At 8 o'clock the airstrikes began to arrive, but with the NVA forces just a few meters away, there was no margin of error. One American F-100 dropped napalm inside the LZ Xray perimeter, resulting in a number of friendly fire casualties. But the air support and an endless artillery barrage had turned the battle and the last moment. By 10am the NVA buglers sounded withdraw and the battle was over. Sporadic firefights continued, but by noon the exhausted 7th Cavalry troops were reinforced by soldiers from the 2nd Battalion, 5th Cavalry, and the medevac flights were finally resumed.

The next morning, November 16th, LZ Xray was secured and the 7th Cavalry survivors extracted. Through it all, Colonel Hal Moore was a calm, professional leader. He was everywhere on Xray, keeping his troops in the fight, moving men and supplies, positioning weapons, and calling fire support. We know so much about this fight because through it all, from the very first lift into LZ Xray, noted journalist and writer Joe Galloway was at Col. Moore's side. In 1998, Galloway was awarded the Bronze Star with V (for valor) Device, the highest military award won by a civilian in the Vietnam war.

Hal Moore was the epitome of what a military commander should be. A polite Kentuckian, he cared for his men but he understood that he had to accomplish the mission. He carried the weight of all those young men he lost for the rest of his life, and he never broke faith with them. He was amongst the best of us, and he is missed.


** Pedantic note**

An 'Easting' (along with a 'Northing') is a Cartesian coordinate used to designate distances on an x/y basis. It's part of a mapping protocol called the Universal Transverse Mercator system (UTM). It is useful for designating locations that otherwise have little in the way of landmarks, particularly if you happen to actually BE in that trackless place. It gave the tankers in their fast moving vehicles a way to figure out where to go and where to stop that was more effective than latitude and longitude at that scale.
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Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Two Kinds of Fake News

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But hey, you can go ahead and read it if you want
Fake news. It first came up in the campaign as a term to describe the articles Eastern European trolls would post on social media. They were designed to look like regular online news outlets, but they had outrageous headlines and utterly false stories designed to accumulate clicks and go viral across the social media ecosystem. A large portion of the American electorate, having become accustomed to dishonest outlets like Fox, Drudge and Limbaugh, were more than happy to accept any story that reinforced the beliefs they already held. This time around, however, that process was accelerated and deepened by a large number of Bernie Sanders deadenders who were more than happy to click, share and forward anything they perceived as damaging to the Hillary Clinton campaign - no matter how tendentious and nonsensical it might be.

Now you had these fake news stories being blasted around the internet by both the far-left and the far-right, and as a result no matter which faction you identified with, you could find people you wanted to trust telling you things you wanted to hear. It was clumsy, and often stupid, but over time it had an effect - not only convincing individuals but keeping various narratives alive in the more traditional media outlets due to endless, heavy daily interest.

Now, after the election, it's not a big factor anymore. Except that with the entrance of the term 'fake news' into the common vernacular, it has become synonymous with 'any news I don't want to believe'. The Trump administration in particular has embraced the concept. They've been questioning the reliability and credibility of major news outlets for months, so it's now easy for them to label stories they couldn't otherwise deny or avoid as 'fake news' and claim that it is actually THEY that have the credibility.

All this happened, and it was a problem. But we all know that if we WANT to, we can easily identify genuine fake news by using the available sources to confirm what we're being told. Of course, there are still a LOT of Americans who don't want to check the veracity of a story they like - they'd rather just believe it and forward it to all their friends,. But there's another kind of fake news - and it's a much bigger problem for the professional news media themselves.

We have a President and and administration that lies constantly, and glaringly. They don't obfuscate, they don't dissemble, they LIE. They make up facts to support any policy goal or ideological contention, whether they need to or not. They don't care about being fact-checked, they don't care about being directly called out on live television. They get their chosen narrative out there, and they know that there is a constituency that will believe it. They use this method to discredit institutions like voting and the courts. They use it to spread fear of crime and terrorism. They use it to constantly fluff the ego of our sociopath in chief.

Now it's true that political leaders have lied since time immemorial. But this time is truly different - it's so relentless, so unapologetic, so easily debunked that it can't be whitewashed or shrugged off. Now we have all our major media outlets routinely pointing out one blatant lie after another coming directly from the president and then repeated by his cabinet and communications staff. From millions of 'illegal' votes to the worst murder rate in 47 years, this is simultaneously embarrassing and toxic. And it raises an important question.

What should journalists and news outlets do? Should they allow these people to come on their air and look into the camera and lie repeatedly and outrageously to their audience? They haven't developed a methodology for pushing back on the lies - nothing works, they just keep repeating the lies and doubling down, claiming to have 'evidence' to support them. Evidence we never see. Or should they adopt some kind of 'three strikes and you're out' rule? Perhaps they should announce that anyone who comes on their shows and tells a cumulative total of three clear, easily established lies will not be invited back.

Or is there some other approach new outlets could take? Print journalism is easy - they can include the quotes and the fact checking in the story together. It's really the television and the radio where these lies get out into the wild and can never be truly called back. But in the Trump era, journalists and media outlets are going to have to figure this out. Because the rules have changed, and they can no longer do their jobs if they don't find a way to adapt.
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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Motivated Skepticism and the Sanders Legacy

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Part of the Problem
I find I spend an inordinate amount of time cautioning people to be skeptical. Be skeptical of journalism, be skeptical of charts and graphs, be skeptical of 'scientific breakthroughs', be skeptical of politician's pronouncements - just verify everything before you accept it as fact. But beyond all that, the most important thing to be skeptical of in our post-factual internet driven siloed echo-chamber world is anything that reinforces something you WANT to believe, or that reinforces your core ideological world-view. Because no matter how careful we are, this is where we are vulnerable to sloppy logic and blind spots. If you read something and it makes you angry, be skeptical. But if you read something that makes you happy? Raise the threshold on it even higher.

This, of course, brings us to the Russian offensive cyber attacks interfering with the US presidential election. It's not at all surprising that Trump wants to disregard these intelligence reports. He's deeply invested in having won a HUGE victory, and any narrative that has him eking out a close split decision with help from the Russian GRU and the US FBI is not going to sit well with him. It's a little less expected to see so much of the US far right embracing the Kremlin as an innocent party and the Obama administration as evil, but considering the recent Russian far right positions on LGBT people and Islam, along with their support for white nationalist movements in Europe it's not that far-fetched a consideration.

But there is a third constituency gleefully wrapping their arms around the Russian government attackers and their stooge Julian Assange. BernieBros. I continue to use this term because it is useful. It describes a fairly small but significant portion of the American left wing who, over the years of the Bush and Obama presidencies have come to loathe everything that America is, and respond with a knee-jerk glee at anything that they see as weakening it. These people infuriate me. They don't attack the American Political Right anymore, and they certainly aren't interested in defending their nation. They attack their natural coalition as evil neo-liberal sellouts and take the position that it is the American Political LEFT that is the problem with America.

So, in the case of the Russian cyber-attacks, these American liberals happily march in lockstep with Donald Trump's far right authoritarian supporters. "Where is the evidence", they demand. Actually, there's a lot of evidence, and it's easy to find. Professional network security firms were reporting on Russian attacks on the DNC and Clinton campaigns as early as April. But if you show them the evidence, they declare it as worthless and go back to demanding to see 'the evidence'. This is a tactic they learned from Fox News and the Tea Party.

Next they demand 'proof'. Setting aside for a moment that there is no possible proof that they would accept as dispositive, these are intelligence agencies we're talking about. To provide 'proof' would require them to give up sources and networks in place, and there's simply no way they're going to do that. So demands for proof are safe - they can never be met.

Most of all, as someone with a long history in technology including working for a very advanced cyber security software vendor, it's amazing to me how so many of these people have somehow become experts in the field of enterprise network security, malware analysis and mitigation and computer forensics - all in a matter of weeks. They are perfect happy to stroke their chin and explain to me that it's impossible to trace a cyber attack back to its source. When I ask them about SIEM data, log analysis, malware signatures and exploit histories they have nothing to say, but nonetheless they KNOW that it's easy for hackers to hide their location (as if that was saying anything close to the same thing).

I'm deeply troubled by this faction of the American Liberal community that has become so utterly nihilistic as to be more closely aligned with Trump than they are with me. They worry me because they can easily offset the Democratic party's demographic advantage and hand continued power to the extreme ideologues that have taken over the Republican party. And they seem to be becoming nothing so much as a mirror-image of the tea party. They want different things, but they are immune to facts and reality and utterly refuse to compromise. They are a natural part of what should be forming up as a solid anti-Trump coalition, and instead they can't bring themselves to challenge him on something as basic and simple as this.
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Thursday, December 8, 2016

One China, Two China, Red China, Blue China

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This? This means nothing
As difficult as it is to keep up with the Trump Trainwreck of the Day™, most of them are merely stupid manifestations of his deranged mental state and lack of contact with reality. A few are genuinely problematic. And some we assume are horrible just because HE'S horrible, and some people we trust assure us that they are, in fact, horrible. Into this last category falls the now infamous 'congratulatory phone call' from President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. The basis for the uproar is America's longstanding acceptance of the 'One China Policy', wherein both the PRC and the ROC agree that there is only one nation called China, and merely disagree on where the capital city is and what system of governance should be in place. All this is viewed as a temporary condition, much as it was in Germany and continues to be on the Korean Peninsula.

The American governmental leadership has agreed to participate in this farce since 1972, and in 1979 President Carter withdrew diplomatic recognition from Taipei. No high level contacts between the US and Taiwan have occurred since. In lieu of an embassy, most western nations (who also play along with the One China policy) have private "Trade Missions" that work with the Taiwanese government - and much business is done. The US is the primary supplier of weapons to the ROC, and for decades America has maintained a weird passive-aggressive 'ambiguity' about when and under what circumstances we might intervene in a cross-strait war.

This is all - quite obviously - transparent farce. The two key underpinnings of American (and Western) acceptance of the One China policy are a.) Respect for Beijing and the PRC government's diplomatic sensibilities in not supporting Taiwanese independence and b.) maintenance of an American 'strategic ambiguity' in the China sea. Those two approaches do not require the precise formula the US has employed over the last forty years. One could easily imagine a One China policy that included high level political contacts. The government in Beijing would complain, but as an adversary power they tend to complain about a lot of US actions - just as we complain about many Chinese policies. They complain when we have contact with the Dalai Llama, fer crissakes.

Whether or not Trump was aware of the historical diplomatic issues in play when he spoke to President Tsai, let's be careful not to overreact to the call. It won't lead to war - it won't even necessarily lead to a change in US policy. Of course, THAT'S not entirely certain. In the narrow, through-the-looking-glass Trumpian world view, China (along with Mexico) are the global villians that have out-smarted, out-played and out-negotiated the US for decades. If he were to decide to actually act on this demented worldview (and make no mistake, it would be in spite of the resistance of most of his more rational advisers), then it becomes somewhat difficult to predict the form of those policy changes. Tariffs on goods are possible, but if he wanted to play hardball without starting a trade war perhaps shifting US policy toward Taiwan might be considered.

Lots of things are possible, and most of them are bad. But right now this is a nothingburger.
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Monday, December 5, 2016

Pointless Pipeline Protests

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Dakota Access Pipeline - Still Going to be Built
The various factions of the #NoDAPL movement stood fast in the face of some very ugly tactics by the state, and eventually the Corps of Engineers decided to deny an easement for the route that crossed under Lake Oahe on the Standing Rock reservation and undertake an environmental study of alternate routes. This has been repeatedly declared a great victory, but that's a determination that requires a closer look at both the immediate and longer term outcomes.

Don't get me wrong - I'm in no way arguing that it wasn't a victory for the Sioux people - as in any classic NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) protest, when the offending development is re-routed into somebody else's neighborhood, it must be seen as a local victory for the NIMBY faction.

But the first question that comes to mind is one of outcome. The determination of the US Government was to give in to demands to re-route the pipeline. But was this the actual goal all along? Were all those courageous people out there accepting that the pipeline would ultimately be built, and it was simply a question of which vulnerable population would be put at risk? Did they use the rallying cry #NoDAPL because #RerouteDAPL was somewhat less compelling? If the goal of the protest was to simply build the pipeline on US rather than indigenous soil, it was a small, local success of no larger significance. If the goal was anything more than merely changing the pipeline's route, the movement was a failure, not a success.

So six months of Sturm und Drang have ensured nothing but the 'protection' of a single community from the horrors and deprivations of an oil pipeline. But that's a victory, right? It's not obvious. We know that fossil fuels are adding to the carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere and contributing to a rapidly warming climate. Burning fossil fuels is dangerous to human civilization, and needs to be curtailed. But here's the thing - burning fossil fuels IS being curtailed. Despite some political outliers - mostly in the United States - people, governments, militaries and corporations recognize that climate change is a problem and they need to radically shift the source of energy generation. The reason the price of crude oil collapsed in the last several years is lack of demand - the more people all over the globe build wind, solar, wave and other renewable energy sources, the less they will need to burn oil, gas and coal. This is an irreversible process - sure, it's one that would be helped by an enlightened carbon tax policy, but it's one that will continue, and will accelerate.

From a larger viewpoint, I have to confess I simply don't understand the recent fixation from the left on pipeline projects. I understand the opposition to fossil fuels, but to approach that goal with a 'no pipelines' policy agenda strikes me as being ideologically opposed to trousers and expressing it by boycotting suspenders. There's lots of other ways to hold up your pants, and most of them are inferior to suspenders. The same is true of pipelines. There are two and a half MILLION miles of energy pipelines in the US already - it seems a bit late in the game to decide to oppose them. But even more critically, if an energy company wants to ship its oil and we deny them access to a pipeline, they'll simply ship it by rail. In old, rusting, rarely inspected rail tank cars, through the center of cities and towns and across thousands of old, deteriorating bridges. Frankly, given a choice, I'd prefer a shiny new pipeline if you don't mind. The simple fact is you can't stop people from selling us a commodity we WANT to buy by trying to limit how they ship it to us. (Never lose sight of the fact that if one day we found we couldn't just drive around the corner and buy a tank-full of gas we'd be apoplectic.) There are times when protest is effective - this simply isn't one of them.

Of course, as of November 8, much of this is a moot point. The Trump administration is pro-fossil fuel, pro business, pro-corporation, pro-profit and anti-regulation. There is little doubt that we can expect much less of this kind of government flexibility in the next few years. But the argument is an important one, and I suspect we will keep having it.
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Monday, November 14, 2016

The Rocky Road Ahead

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I guess we're stuck with him
So. Hearts are broken, people are frightened, and dire predictions of the end of American constitutional democracy abound. It’s time to take a deep breath and think about what we’re truly facing. It’s not going to be pretty - even if we try to think about it realistically, setting aside the Trump bombast and madness, we’re going to lose a great deal of the progress that has been so painstakingly achieved in the last hundred years.

There will be many bad outcomes in the coming years, and few, if any good ones. But we need to abandon the tearful vague terrors and start trying to see the contours of the road ahead. Here’s my first pass.


Healthcare

Obamacare is toast. The Republicans have placed far too much emphasis on its repeal to back away now, regardless of who it harms or how much. Certainly the subsidies are doomed, and the Medicaid expansion (in fact, Medicaid as we know it is dead - see below). There will be some amusing arguments as Republicans struggle to keep the ‘good’ parts of Obamacare - guaranteed coverage and community rating - while scrapping the ‘bad’ subsidies, mandates and exchanges. But eventually they will have to kill off the whole thing, and we will go back to a worse version of the bad old days when insurance companies can sell worthless policies and then cancel them when a claim is filed. Worse, they will allow interstate competition, which will allow insurance companies to base themselves in the friendliest of states (Arizona, for example) and then follow those ridiculously loose regulations all around the country. A classic ‘race to the bottom’.


Budget

The greatest nightmare of modern Republican control over the US government is the Paul Ryan budget. We know what it looks like, because the House of Representatives has passed it numerous times. They will pass it again, and President Trump will sign it. We know it will include huge deficit - financed tax cuts for the wealthy, and that it will include deep cuts to social welfare programs. Medicare and social security may be safe - Trump likes them, but still might bargain them away - but Medicaid will be block-granted to the states, and we know what happens then.

Two points worth noting immediately. First, the rising deficit along with whatever infrastructure program Trump can convince the Congress to accept will provide the kind of fiscal stimulus the Republicans have been obstructing for years, and the economy should benefit in at least the short run. Second, offsetting that, the financial deregulation we can be certain is coming will put the economy on course for another catastrophic failure.

We know that Trump will want higher spending on Defense, Infrastructure and the VA. Congress will give him a free hand on Defense, and will probably go along with increases to the Veterans budget, but he’s liable to get serious pushback on Infrastructure. At some point in the next four years we can expect dramatic changes to the Tax Code.


Foreign Policy

Iran
Trump may - or may not - specifically abrogate the Iran nuclear treaty, but it doesn’t really matter. Congress will want to pass new sanctions legislation, and that will put the United States in violation of the treaty, not Iran. The rest of the P5+1 nations will be furious, and will work with Iran to shield them from the new American sanctions. The isolation of the US in Europe will be deep and dark.


NATO
Was Trump serious when he talked about limiting the US commitment to NATO? Will he insist that other states take more responsibility for their own defence? (We need to think about Korea and Japan in this context too, even though they are not actually part of the NATO alliance). American participation in longstanding security alliances around the world is one of the places where a President Trump can do the most global harm. Once those nations begin to doubt the American commitment, they are going to have to do what they feel they must for their own safety and survival. In many cases, this would mean establishing security agreements with China or Russia, which will change the balance of power radically. In some cases, particularly South Korea, it might mean yet another nuclear state.


Afghanistan
It’s anybody’s guess what Trump will do in Afghanistan. If his rhetoric is to be believed, one would think he would withdraw our troops and mission - it costs a lot and there’s nothing there in America’s interest. But it will provide a key test case - how much influence will the generals and the warhawk advisers around him have? If he leave the US mission in Afghanistan in place - or even enlarges it - it will be a clear signal that he’ll let his advisers make most of the less interesting decisions, and that will only make things that much worse.

Of course, he’ll be confronted with the same political considerations - if you pull the US troops and funds out of Afghanistan, the government will fall, Pakistan will be in a position to control the Taliban government and India will have a bigger problem with their Muslim neighbors.


ISIS/Syria
Trump has vowed to ‘destroy’ ISIS, and he has said he would do so quickly. Nobody believes for a moment that’s even possible, but it does raise the question: What actions will he take to differentiate his administration from the Obama policies? Any increase in US operations in Syria will risk coming into conflict with Russian combat operations, so some new coordination with the Russian military will be necessary. But that seems more than likely - Trump will likely overturn the US position that Bashar al-Assad must go, and rather work Russia and the Syrian regime to roll back ISIS. That will mean - at a minimum - withdrawing aid to the rebels (and perhaps the Kurds), and possibly supporting attacks against them.


Russia
The number one issue with Russia as Trump takes office is the sanctions that the US and Europe imposed after the Russians annexed Crimea. The sanctions regime is written to expire - and therefore needs to be renewed - every six months. Under Obama’s leadership, sanctions will be renewed in December, but in June we can expect President Trump to lead a push (with Eastern European nations) to end them. The Putin government will be friendly to the Trump administration until then at least, but a major part of Putin's popularity is his strong anti-American stance, and he's going to have to rattle his saber every now and then. And yes, the American response under Trump might be quite stupid and dangerous.


Immigration

At this point we’ve got to take him at his word. We know he doesn’t have the funding, personnel or infrastructure to find, detain and deport millions of undocumented Latinos, but he can cancel DACA and crank up the current enforcement mechanism to eleven. That will mean LOTS of people leaving, many on their own to avoid being deported, many others in ICE enforcement activities. At some point, the lettuce is going to rot in the fields and the construction projects are going to stall for lack of labor. Actions have consequences, and when you use a blunt instrument in the public policy arena the consequences usually come in the form of a blunt instrument of their own.

He’s spent too much time talking about building a wall on the southern border to not take action, but getting funding, right-of-way and dealing with lawsuits will take a very long time. It will be mostly talk for years, and whatever money is spent will NOT be recouped from the Mexican government.


Education

Sweeping changes are coming to federal education policy. Common Core is gone. Some kind of universal school voucher program is on the way. The tea party lunatics probably won’t be able to actually eliminate the Department of Education, but they will succeed in crippling it, and the damage will be slow, relentless, long-term and possibly irreversible.

Homeland Security

Here’s where things begin to get problematic. We’re going to see an avowed authoritarian defining the security state in terms we could never imagine. In addition to aggressive immigration enforcement, we’ll see aggressive domestic law enforcement policies including stop & frisk and much less federal oversight of local police agencies in human rights and brutality cases. Eventually we’ll see a terrorist attack on US soil, and then what happens is  anybody’s guess. When he’s actually in the White House, in power, he will be in a position to overreact to a San Bernardino or an Orlando. And make no mistake, ISIS knows he WILL overreact, and they can finally get what they want if they push him hard enough. And we’ve been far too accepting of the American domestic surveillance state, but hold onto your pixels, because it’s about to get a whole lot worse.

Environment

There’s no doubt that Trump will be a disaster for Environmental policy. From violating or outright abrogating the Paris agreement to increased coal production to drilling for oil and gas on Federal lands like ANWR and offshore to elimination of environmental regulations, we’re going to see a catastrophe unfold. On the upside, demand for fossil fuels is soft - you can’t increase production without an increase in demand - and many states have more stringent environmental regulations than the Federal Government, so things in those places won’t change at all. But many nations won’t participate in intensive carbon pollution reduction if the United States does not do its part, so we are facing a delay in Climate Change mitigation we cannot afford.

Judiciary

Donald Trump is so unstable, so corrupt and so incoherent that the Trump Presidency will likely last only four years, and the Senate Majority may only last for two. But his judicial appointments (which will almost certainly be outsourced to Republican legislators) will be with us for decades to come, and we can expect them to be worst kind of ideologue hacks. Long after the country has regained its senses and sent a an honest Liberal back to the White House, progressive legislation will be constrained by a Federal judiciary full of right-wing cranks.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Checks & Balances & Then What?

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Whew. I need a vacation
I have written extensively about the problems associated with the antiquated, obsolete and remarkably fragile American system of democratic governance. And certainly, to the extent that any ideologically based group, organization or party can exploit that kind of fragility simply by refusing to accept the norms of behavior that are necessary to make such a system functional, the Tea Party wing of the Republican party has repeatedly exploited that system. But in a way, I thought, there are limits to how far they could ultimately push that process.

After all, didn't we learn in school that the three branches of government are co-equal, and that there are 'checks and balances' available to each to prevent any other from acting arbitrarily or unilaterally running roughshod over the government as a whole? And certainly there are checks on that kind of action such as Presidential Vetoes, the so-called 'Power of the Purse' and Judicial oversight that are effective in limiting most kinds of excessive abuse.

But here's the nightmare that's just coming into focus. While the system at least gives the branches the power to prevent another branch from acting in dangerous, arbitrary or excessive manner, there is nothing to prevent a branch from simply not acting at all. And it is in these unforeseen acts of, well, INaction that we are sewing the seeds of the destruction of our own democratic system. Don't pass a funding bill? Government shuts down. Don't vote to raise the debt ceiling? Government defaults. Don't confirm judiciary appointments? Democracy collapses. And once again, to emphasize the scale of the problem, there is NOTHING in the system to prevent such tantrums of inaction. No rules. No sanctions. No arbitration. No recourse.

These are the kinds of activities of governance that were - and have always been - dependent upon the expected norms of behavior. Men of good will - statesmen if you will - would simply never subvert the system and harm the work of the people in order to advance their own partisan agenda. That wasn't something that anyone wanted to see attached to their own name, reputation and legacy. Then along came Newt Gingrich and the ultimate disintegration of the entire edifice was underway.

It's key to realize that this is all the Republicans. And it's the path they have adopted because, in their decline from a national political organization to a regional one, they have lost the ability to win national elections, and therefore, under the co-equal checks & balances system we have always had, they had no ability to implement their preferred policies. Of course, that's as it should be - the idea is that the people decide policy by placing in power the party whose agenda they prefer. But to the modern American political Right, none of this is about democracy. In fact, democratic norms are the primary impediment to their goals, so democratic norms are disregarded without compunction.

Would the Democratic party have acted (or NOT acted) in this way if the roles and power distribution were reversed? Who knows? We'd like to think we place a higher value on the beliefs and values of democracy than we do on winning, but if red meat accusations of treasonous perfidy and apocalyptic rhetoric drives the voting base into a spittle flecked rage, it's hard to control the kind of people they will send to Washington, and when anger and hate trump (heh) honor, all bets are off.
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