Thursday, January 26, 2017

Rating Obama

I’d give Obama a 6 or 7 out of 10.  I would give most of his predecessors a 5 or less.
Trump’s election showed that some of Obama’s greatest successes were his biggest failings.  He saved the US from a 2nd great depression, but failed to prosecute any of the guys who caused the recession.  He ripped off the middle class to help the super-poor and the super-rich.  The poor got welfare and the rich got no jail and low taxes.  Income inequality got worse on his watch, probably because it was the easiest course to keep the economy going, but he failed to help a lot of regular people as the rich got richer.  Unemployment is down, but many people have worse jobs than before 2008.
Obamacare expanded government health care, but it was a mess, purposely so to help the health insurance industry, hospital administrators, doctors, etc.  The real solution was single-payer Medicare of all, and Obama didn’t do it.  I would not be surprised to see him on the boards of some healthcare companies and banks soon or making speeches to them, ala Hillary and Bill.
He also failed to get any kind of gun control; his heart was in the right place, but the NRA beat him.
On foreign policy, he did great keeping us out of new wars.  He was right not to intervene in Ukraine or Syria, but he and the EU made a mess of Libya.  Iraq and Afghanistan are still a mess, and will probably collapse into some kind of chaos if we ever leave entirely.  That’s not all his fault, but he didn’t solve it.  The Iran deal was quite an accomplishment; I hope Trump doesn’t destroy it.  Israel hates Obama, bur should love him; he ended up pitting the Arab states against each other, Sunni v. Shiite, Iran v. Saudi, etc., which meant they couldn’t focus on Israel.  Except for the Palestinians (a problem Israel itself created) Israel is safer than it has been for years.  He was right to try to focus on Asia, but failed.  I think the Israeli lobby would not allow him to turn away from the Middle East.
One of Obama’s strengths was his honesty and decency, keeping corruption at bay.  Because he was such a decent person, he probably didn’t perceive how corrupt Hillary appeared to voters.  For Obama’s main failings it’s useful to look at Bernie’s campaign rather than Hillary’s or Trump’s – health care, inequality, guns….
I’m probably the wrong person to talk about race.  I would give Obama pretty good marks for being evenhanded, especially for being black himself.  But I can see that many blacks think he failed them.
He was a great speaker.  I will really miss that.  I think we have gone from a college level vocabulary to a third grade one.  But I speaking may be overrated.  Some of Obama’s most eloquent speeches were about gun violence, and they made no difference.
Obama’s presidency would have been much better, maybe even great, if the Republican Congress had not stonewalled everything he tried to do.

I like being tough on leakers.  When I was in Brasilia, I had several contacts who used to give me information on Brazil’s nuclear weapons program.  I used to report this pretty straight in secret cables, using their names.  CIA reports like that don’t use names; they have some super secret database that links reports to names.  Their reports say something like, “According to a reliable source with access.”  Only the CIA ops guys know who that really is.  If my old cables had been released, my old contacts would have been in big trouble.  So, I’m unhappy Chelsea/Bradley Manning got released.  
Also, when I worked in DC on missile proliferation, we relied on intelligence to to try to stop transfers to bad countries.  The intel agencies often did not want us to use their intel because it might give away their "sources and methods.”  We were forbidden to use their info until they cleared it, which sometimes took weeks or months.  Several times NYT reporter Michael Gordon called me at home around 10 pm to get me to comment on a story based on leaked intel information about something some bad country was doing.  State was always the dove, saying to wait, while the Pentagon wanted to act and beat up the bad guy.  The leak to Gordon was always correct, sometimes of top secret information, intended to pressure us to act.  I aways did the “refuse to confirm or deny” thing with Gordon, but the leak was clearly from the hawkish Republicans in the Pentagon under the G.H.W. Bush admin, probably from people who worked for then Asst. Sec. Steve Hadley, who went on to be G.W. Bush’s NSC Advisor.  
I would like to think that leaks are a dishonest way to push a policy in Washington and should be punished.  
I also didn’t mention immigration.  My first State job was issuing visas in Sao Paulo, Brazil.  I always felt bad denying a visa, because it probably meant that person would never get to the US, while if a Mexican was denied, they could just sneak across the border.  It was a racist policy favoring those who could walk across the border over those who had to fly.  Immigration laws have been like Prohibition, on the books but totally disregarded.  Now that I’m retired and shopping at a lot of discount stores, I often hear more Spanish spoken than English.  Denver has changed just in the years we’ve been out here.  Obama and the Democrats (and Reagan) refused to enforce the immigration laws.  I think that is dishonest and undermines respect for law in general.  Mexicans are inclined to regard American law as toothless, whether it’s about immigration or drugs.  It’s tough to be a law enforcement officer when your boss, the President, says, “Oh, violating this law is no big deal; let them all go.”  I know Obama deported a lot of people, but as in the financial crisis, he didn’t get the job done in a way that pleased the American public.  

I suppose I was never smart enough or tough enough to win a leak war; so, I didn’t like them.  And it is against the laws on the books.
On Mexican territory (California, Texas, etc.), my view is that we won it fair and square and it’s ours now.  Maybe it’s like Israel’s West Bank.  We’ve created even more than 2,500 settlements on it.  And what about the Indians?  Do they get the whole country back?
I have thought about Mexico and California in connection with Ukraine.  Ukraine used to be part of Russia, i.e., “the Ukraine,” like “the American Mid-West.”  Both have been breadbaskets of the country, and Kiev was really the first capital of what became Russia when Moscow was still a backwater, the 11th or 12th century.  The Russians established a naval base at Sevastopol in 1783.  California did not become part of the US until the 1800s and the San Diego Naval Base was not built until the 1920s.  Arguably, our forcing Russia to give up its base at Sevastopol is like Russia encouraging Mexico to take back San Diego and force the US to remove its naval base.  Not the same, but there are similarities.
On migration, I just worry that our country is changing.  The Hispanics have been in Colorado for hundreds of years.  Senator and Sec. of Interior Salazar was from one of those families.  But in general, Hispanics have no shared history with the British Europeans who founded the US on the East Coast.  Washington and Jefferson have no ancestral connection to them, as European immigrants have.  Plus they come here for economic reasons, not political ones; so, they don’t have any particular reverence for the American form of government.  It’s okay, but they are used to the corruption in Mexico, too.  Countries change, but we could have controlled how it did.  We passed laws on immigration, but they were ignored.  We had a preference, but we ignored it, and just let nature take its course.  It’s not unlike global warming; if you ignore it, the impact sneaks up on you.
So, who represents this historically elite East Coast establishment that I extolled?  Donald Trump, the Europeans’ answer to Barack Obama.  I am hopeful that he will do some good things by instinct, but intellectually he could hardly be farther from the founding fathers.  I don’t think Hillary was the real East Coast heir, because her appeal was to the newly powerful Americans -- Hispanics and blacks, (with the votes) and Jews (with the money).  She was to be the voice of the new America, not the old one.  Now we have the voice of the old one, and it speaks with a third grade vocabulary.  Oh well….

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Obama and Inequality

In general Obama has been a good President; however at this moment there appear to be some significant failures.  History may change perceptions, but it appears one of the main reasons his designated successor, Hillary, failed was that Obama failed to deal with income inequality.  

Obama prevented the great recession from becoming a second great depression, but in doing so he rewarded the tycoons who caused the recession, rather than punishing them.  Obama threw his support behind the super wealthy, who will no doubt reward him in retirement, as they did the Clintons.  His decision has exacerbated income inequality to the point where it has become apparent to the population at large, which caused the backlash against him in the last election.  It was certainly one of the most important factors in Trump’s victory.  

The situation was not all Obama’s fault, since it started under Bush.  The Republicans in Congress were strongly in favor of protecting the wealthy.  The Democrats passed Dodd-Frank while they still could, but its limits were prospective, weak and did nothing to punish Wall Street for what it had done to create the 2008 mortgage crisis.  Obama tried to protect the poor, especially Hispanics and blacks by placing the burden of recovering from the recession on the white middle class.  I don’t think he targeted the middle class; it was just the course of least resistance to have them bail out both the lower classes and the super wealthy.  But it highlighted the fact that Democrats didn’t really care about the middle class, which became increasing evident during Hillary’s campaign.  

This is a bad part of Obama’s legacy that the Democrats will have to bear.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Baltic Tripwire

I am worried that the membership in NATO of the Baltic states - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania - creates a tripwire that could lead to nuclear war with Russia.  

All three of these Baltic countries are legitimate nations with their own histories, ethnicities, languages, and so on.  Over the years, however, they have often been dominated or annexed by one of their more powerful neighbors, often by Russia, but also by Sweden, Poland, Germany and others.  

Poland’s national poem, Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, begins, “O Lithuania, my fatherland….”  Wikipedia says that Mickiewicz mean Lithuania to refer to a region and not a country.  In any case, when he wrote the poem, Poland-Lithuania had ceased to exist because it had been divided between Russia, Prussia and Austria.  This is typical of the history of the region.  For NATO to step in and say the borders of the Baltic countries are inviolable is potentially risky.  

We have already seen what happened when Ukraine tried to take away Russia’s Sevastopol seaport in Crimea.  If Ukraine had been a member of NATO, we might have been drawn toward a shooting war with Russia.  Of course a low intensity shooting war has continued in Ukraine, but with no direct participation by NATO.  

While the Baltic states may not have the strategic importance for Russia of the seaport in Crimea, which has been a Russian naval base since 1783, the Baltics have traditionally been influenced by their biggest neighbor, Russia, and if Russia perceived that they constituted a threat, it might react in a similar manner to the Crimean crisis.  

Of course, the West wants the thriving, friendly Baltic states to continue to be independent and free.  However, there is is the military question of whether they are defensible, situated as they are between the Baltic Sea and Russia, only about 100 miles wide.  All of the borders are somewhat artificial, a result of World War II and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.  Poland, which is the next easternmost extension of NATO, is much more defensible.  It is larger and is separated from Russia by non-NATO nations Ukraine and Belarus, except for the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad on its border.  

Because the Baltic countries are so small and bounded by the sea, there is little room for military maneuver.  There is even limited territory to accommodate NATO troops and weapons for a war with a large country like Russia.  The Russians defeated both Napoleon and Hitler.  The population of the three Baltic states is only about six million (Estonia - 1,300,000), Latvia - 2,000,000, Lithuania - 2,900,000), less than the population of New York City.  Should we be willing to risk the existence of New York City, and perhaps the United States,  to protect six million people who throughout history have been under the sway of the Russian empire?  Of course, a crisis does not have to lead to nuclear war, but it might.  Was it wise for NATO to take on this obligation?  Of course, when it did, NATO and the US were in the ascendency, and Russia was falling on hard times.  At the moment the US is becoming much more fearful of Russia, except for Donald Trump.  Is the Cold War returning?  Are we returning to the old strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD)?  Will we go mad over the Baltics?  
I don’t think so.  But it is a pressure point where NATO might be vulnerable.  

Monday, January 16, 2017

Poland and NATO

When I was assigned to the US embassy in Warsaw, Poland, in the mid-1990s, there was nothing that Poland wanted more than to be a member of NATO.  

As the Science Counselor at Embassy Warsaw, my main job was to oversee the Maria Sladowski Curie II fund, which was set up by the US and Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Communist government of Poland in order to help Polish scientists who were facing financial hardship after the huge  changes in Polish funding for science under the new, poorer government.  Under the Communist government, almost all funding for science and technology had come from the the government.  Under the new, democratic government most scientists had to find funding from the private sector.  The MSC II fund was supposed to help ease the transition for the scientists and engineers for five years from its signature.  

When I arrived in Poland, both the US and Poland were contributing about two million dollars per year to the fund.  But after a year, the Republicans under Newt Gingrich took over the US House and cut off funding for the fund, although the US was obligated to fund it for another three years, at least.  The Science Committee of the US House of Representatives called then-Secretary of State Warren Christopher to testify and several members (perhaps Democrats) raked him over the coals for cutting off the Polish funding; so, he found funding for one more year in funds in the existing State Department budget.  The following year, he did not, and what little money there was in the State Department science budget went to Chinese scientists because the State Department felt that the Chinese needed help more than the Polish scientists.  

As a result, I was called in several times to see the Polish diplomat at the Foreign Ministry who was in charge of relations with the Western Hemisphere.  He was so senior that I would not normally talk to him, but he wanted to express his displeasure at the US failing to meet its obligations under the MSC II cooperation agreement.  He said we were obligated to continue our contributions, which we were, despite the fact that the US House of Representatives refused to approve the payment.  I told him that if he was really upset he should talk to the US Ambassador instead of me, or should tell the Polish Ambassador to complain to an undersecretary in Washington, or even to the Secretary, since had gotten personally involved the previous year.  But the Pole was unwilling to protest to anyone higher ranking, because Poland was not yet a member of NATO, and he did not want to do anything that might injure their chance to join NATO, which was much more important to Poland than the MSC II.  Meanwhile, he said the Poles, whose government was much poorer than America’s, were willing and able to fund their part of the joint agreement.  

I was personally very upset at being accused correctly by the Poles of an American failure to honor its commitments.  I believe that American should be true to its word.  I agree with Gen. Mattas, who recently said regarding the Iran agreement in testimony for his appointment as Defense Secretary, “But when America gives her word, we have to live up to it and work with our allies.” I wish Newt Gingrich and his Republican colleagues had been as honorable as Gen. Mattas is.  

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Intelligence Doves vs. Hawks

All the commotion between the Trump team and the intelligence community reminds me of the incoming Reagan administration while I was working on NIE 11-12 on Russian military technology.  I started under the dovish administration led by Jimmy Carter, with Adm. Stansfield Turner.  Under Carter, the military services led by the Defense Intelligence Agency (most recently led by Gen. Flynn) were hawkish, claiming the Soviets had many dangerous new military high tech weapons.  I, joined by the CIA, argued that the intelligence did not support such conclusions; they were working on new weapons, but there was so far no indication they would work well enough to deploy in the field.  I gradually got some language inserted that downplayed the danger to the US. (I think the last 30 or 40 years have proved me right.)  

When Reagan came in with his new CIA chief, Bill Casey, the threat from the Soviet Union (Reagan’s evil empire) got raised again. Turner and his deputy, Adm. Inman, left the CIA.  I would like to think that I got the threat watered down a little bit, but who knows?  

This change of administrations highlights the animosity permeating the intelligence community during this change of administration.  Back then, the Republicans were the hawks worried about the Soviet evil empire.  Today, it’s the Democrats who are worried about the Soviets, joined by some Republicans like John McCain and Marco Rubio.  In general, though, the sides have changed.  The Democrats are afraid of Russia, and the majority of the incoming Republicans are not.  Despite Trump’s views, there are still many old Cold Warriors in the Republican Party; so, it is less likely that the Trump administration will be as dovish toward Russia as Carter was, even with Tillerson at State.     

Saturday, January 07, 2017

Foreign Involvement in Reagan’s Election

The most egregious example of foreign involvement in elections was the Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini's support for Reagan’s election over Carter.  

… American journalists. Bob Woodward and Walter Pincus have reported in the Washington Post and Alfonso Chardy in the Miami Herald that three Reagan campaign aides met in a Washington DC hotel in early October, 1980, with a self-described "Iranian exile" who offered, on behalf of the Iranian government, to release the hostages to Reagan, not Carter, in order to ensure Carter's defeat in the November 4, 1980 election.  

… 'We don't have to worry about an October surprise' a jubilant staffer at the [Reagan] campaign's operations center (told Honegger). 'Dick's cut a deal.'"
"Dick" was Richard Allen, and the deal apparently was a promise of arms in return for a delay by Tehran in releasing the hostages. A few days after the conversation Honegger describes, another Reagan campaign official, future CIA director William Casey, was sufficiently confident to tell journalist Roland Perry on October 30 that if something happened to give Carter the election, "it won't be the hostages."
In return for the hostage release after his inauguration, Reagan reportedly promised Iran arms that would be provided by Israel, which also wanted to curry favor with the new Reagan administration, and of course Reagan also rewarded Iran with the infamous Iran-Contra deal, providing Iran with missiles it should not have gotten legally.  

In Reagan’s case there are many allegations that his campaign conspired with the Iranian government not to release the hostages before the election so as to increase the chances of Reagan’s election.  In Trump’s case there is so far no indication that Trump conspired with Putin to defeat Hillary.  Whatever Putin did, he seems to have done it for his own reasons, not because he was requested to do so by Trump, making Putin’s actions much less egregious than Iran’s on behalf of Reagan.  Carter was too decent to put the US through the acrimonious sparring of the legality of the election like Obama and Hillary have done.  Gore also accepted his questionable defeat from the Supreme Court without throwing the country into a constitutional crisis.  Today’s Democrats are seeking a constitutional crisis by trying to use the intelligence community to invalidate Trump’s election.  

Russian Intercepts

I am disappointed that the intelligence community has publicly stated that it is intercepting messages from high ranking Russian government officials, as reported by the Washington Post.  I am surprised that the Director of National Intelligence and the Director of NSA would publicly disclose such sensitive sources.  They must be very motivated to destroy Donald Trump if they are willing to give away the crown jewels of their intelligence in order to do so.  These are men with an extreme political agenda, presumably  motivated by their devotion to Barack Obama, rather than to the United States.  If Trump is able to take office, he would fire them immediately for disloyalty to their country and disgracing their military uniform.  

Politicizing the Intelligence Community

The idea that the American intelligence community is not political is unrealistic.  Senior officials are appointed by the sitting President and owe him some kind of allegiance, although how much depends on the individuals involved.  They are probably chosen because their political beliefs or inclinations are similar to those of other senior administration officials, particularly the President’s.  

I saw this first hand when I was the State Department representative on a National Intelligence Estimate about the Soviet Union’s military technology (NIE 11-12)  that began under the Carter administration and ended under the Reagan administration.  Carter’s CIA chief, Adm. Stansfield Turner, was probably somewhat dovish, like Carter.  Reagan replaced him with Bill Casey, an old hawkish OSS officer, who had been Reagan's campaign.manager.  

As work on the estimate began, the military representatives were very hawkish, wanting to include language that made the Soviets look like technological supermen who were developing high tech weapons that the US would be unable to counter.  Although I was not a very senior participant, I began to push back against this, because I did not think the intelligence supported it.  The Soviets were indeed working on high tech things that the US was not working on and that we did not understand completely, but that did not justify the conclusion that this research was going to result in weapons that would change the balance of forces between the US and the Soviet Union.  As I began to push back, I found I had support from some of the CIA representatives, who were perhaps unwilling to lead the charge against the military reps.  But around the time of the election, things changed.  The Deputy Director of the CIA, Adm. Bobby Inman, abruptly quit, and of course, Casey replaced Turner.  Under Casey, the hawkish views began to be a stronger theme in the NIE.  Casey was famous for mumbling, and when I attended the final review of the NIE, chaired by Casey, I was never sure what he said.  I would like to think that the NIE came out slightly less hawkish than it would have without my participation, but it’s hard to tell.  I think my viewpoint has been supported by what has happened in the 35 years since the NIE.  The Soviets or the Russians have still not defeated the US with some kind of high tech doomsday machine.    

In any case, the fact that Reagan’s campaign manager took over the CIA illustrates that the CIA is not an apolitical organization.  Like the Supreme Court, the CIA reads the newspapers (and a lot of other stuff).  Brennan and Clapper are not that political, but as such senior officials they are part of the intense political machinations that make Washington what it is.  

Friday, January 06, 2017

Trump and the Intelligence Community

The media commentariat thinks it is terrible that Trump has criticized the intelligence community judgement that Russia was behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other hacks related to the election.  On the other hand, it is not surprising that Trump would resist the conclusion that Russia influenced the election in his favor.  It makes it appear that he is a candidate elected by Russia against the wishes of the American people.  The intelligence community is saying that Trump is a disloyal American who has been planted by Russia to help Russia dominate the US.  He is a real “Manchurian Candidate,” life imitating the movie.  When James Clapper implies that Trump is a Russian agent, he is laying the groundwork for a coup by the intelligence agencies.  Clapper and Brennan would be happy to get rid of Trump, maybe lock him up in Guantanamo, and the mainstream press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, NBC, CNN, and all the rest would be glad to see him go.  They could then stage a new election to elect Hillary Clinton, who they all believe is Obama’s rightful heir.  

I don't really believe this will happen, but I understand why Trump might believe that he is being attacked by the intelligence community, and if they don’t remove him from office, they will try to diminish his power as President.  Of course, Clapper and Brennan will be gone when Trump takes office, unless they actually try to prevent him from taking office.  But if they leave, the intelligence community will still contain many lower level agents who oppose Trump, including some operations guys, who are basically hired killers working for the government.  Fortunately, the Secret Service is not a significant part of the intelligence community, and I believe they take their duty to protect him very seriously.  So, even if Hillary, Clapper, Brennan, Schumer, Pelosi, McCain, and company try to stage a coup, I think it is likely to fail.  But it would create political chaos in the country, because many of the political and financial elites on the two coasts would support it.  

But it’s sad even to think that senior officials of the US might lead a coup against the elected President.  If guys at the FBI, NSA or CIA are reading this, remember that you took an oath to defend the Constitution, not the political and financial elites of the East and West Coasts.  If you want to get rid of Trump, impeach him or amend the Constitution.