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Donald Trump’s Crazy Week of Crazy

As Donald Trump approaches a year in the White House, one of his gifts that is too seldom acknowledged is his fine-honed ability to make days seem like weeks and weeks seem like months, even years. As president, he has managed to jam-pack so many bizarre, jaw-dropping antics into such short periods of time—any one of which would be scandalous for any normal White House—that they blur into each other inside the news cycle and soon melt into the morass of Trumpism.

However, for the sake of future historians trying to unravel the unprecedented disaster which is the Trump presidency, let’s review the past week’s Oval Office highlights (such as they were), many of which involve President Trump’s profligate use of Twitter. As is his wont, last Saturday morning the commander-in-chief started tweeting, and even for Trump this was a doozy.

The dark cloud hanging over the White House at the beginning of the new year is the book Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff, which paints a deeply unflattering portrait of the administration. Although Wolff insists his work is factually accurate, his track record suggests otherwise. Nevertheless, his account of an idiot president, hopelessly out of his depth to the point of mental instability, who never wanted the job, surrounded by equally incompetent underlings who spend most of their time leaking on each other and back-biting, rings true to anybody who’s been paying the slightest attention to Team Trump in action. Why the White House allowed a well-known literary rapscallion like Wolff to wander the West Wing for months, unsupervised, is the obvious question here—though, as usual with Trump, there’s no point in asking normal questions of a very abnormal presidency.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Year American Hegemony Ended

The United States has been the world’s greatest power since 1945, when that mantle—half-passed from London to Washington after the First World War—firmly landed in American hands after the Second World War. Since 1991, when the Cold War ended with Soviet collapse, America has been the world’s hegemon, to use the proper term, the force whose power could not be seriously challenged on the global stage.

For 26 years now—a happy generation—America has been able to do whatever it wanted, to anyone, at any time of our choosing, anywhere on earth. Notwithstanding the decline of major sectors of the American economy, our military has covered the globe with deployments as the Pentagon has divided our planet into “geographic combatant commands” to formalize our hegemony. Our allegedly deep defense thinkers have hailed this as our viceroys enacting Washington’s benevolent imperial will anywhere we desire.

It needs to be said that plenty of the planet has been happy to acquiesce in American hegemony. While we’re hardly the pure-hearted hegemon we imagine ourselves to be, the United States appears like a relatively positive force on the global stage, compared to other options. Even among skeptics regarding America’s global dominance, few pine instead for hegemony under, say, Beijing and its Communist party bosses.

Nevertheless, 2017 gave unmistakable signs that American hegemony, which has been waning for a decade, has now ended. A new age has dawned, even though it’s still early and the sun is far from full. As commander-in-chief, in his first year in the Oval Office, President Donald Trump has ranted and raved on Twitter almost daily, with no effect save to confuse our allies about what exactly is going on in Washington. De facto, America has two foreign and defense policies: what the president says and what our national security bureaucracy does. The gap between presidential rhetoric, much of it unhinged, and actual policy toward the world grew throughout 2017.

Read the rest at The Observer…

Warning: Donald Trump Is America’s Slobodan Milošević

It’s a popular parlor and social media game these days to compare Donald Trump to various dictators. This is tempting, given our 45th president’s indulging in authoritarian habits like rage-tweeting at Federal agencies he dislikes, or showing disregard for the rule of law when it gets in his way. Americans are unaccustomed to casual flirtations with dictatorial-sounding memes like crushing CNN bloodily with Trump’s shoe, and many of them never want to normalize such conduct.

More hysterical anti-Trumpers jump immediately to Adolf Hitler, a ridiculous comparison as well as a violation of Godwin’s Law that says more about them than President Trump. Some prefer Benito Mussolini, who like Trump had a pronounced absurdist side as a dictator manqué who never accomplished much of substance. A more recent Italian leader, Silvio Berlusconi, seems a better comparison, since like Trump he boasted luridly of his sexual conquests and acted like the louche, ineffectual billionaire he was. However, Berlusconi never really set out to do much of anything except gain power, whereas Trump preaches nonstop about his alleged desire to Make America Great Again.

The best comparison is one that won’t be too familiar to many Americans and is frankly disturbing. The dictator whom Donald Trump most closely resembles is Slobodan Milošević, the Serbian strongman who pushed Yugoslavia off the cliff over a quarter-century ago, unleashing wars and genocide, then died in The Hague in 2006 while on trial for war crimes. Although Milošević was front-page news throughout the 1990s, since his death he has faded from Western consciousness. Therefore, it’s worthwhile briefly revisiting Milošević, since his similarities to Trump are startling.

First, let’s get out of the way how Milošević and Trump were dissimilar. While the latter is a much-married reality TV showman who lives for the camera and can’t shut up or stay off social media, the former was a colorless Communist functionary, a private man devoted to his wife and possessing a somewhat dour demeanor. As social personalities they could not be more different.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Russia Celebrates the Grim Centenary of Oppressive Police Rule

Russia celebrated a grim centenary this week. On December 20, 1917, the newborn Bolshevik dictatorship established its secret police force to crush opposition. It received the wordy title of the All-Russian Emergency Commission for Combating Counterrevolution and Sabotage, which got shortened to VChK. From the outset this new body was termed the more pronounceable Cheka.

Headed by Felix Dzierżyński, a hard-bitten Polish revolutionary, the Cheka cultivated an elite mystique. Its operatives, who proudly called themselves Chekists, were clad in long black leather coats as they tracked down enemies of the people for rough justice. There was a semi-religious aura around Dzierżyński, whom the Bolsheviks hailed as “Iron Felix” and portrayed as some sort of Red saint. He famously claimed that the ideal Soviet secret policeman possessed “clean hands, a cool head and a warm heart.”

The reality, Dzierżyński expressed more concisely in an interview with Novaya Zhizn in July of 1918:

We stand for organized terrorthis should be frankly admitted. Terror is an absolute necessity during times of revolution. Our aim is to fight against the enemies of the Soviet government and of the new order of life. We judge quickly. In most cases only a day passes between the apprehension of the criminal and his sentence.

From its birth, the Cheka engaged in terror against enemies, real and imagined. Mass executions were a daily affair and Dzierżyński’s men served as judge, jury and executioner of those deemed by the Bolsheviks to be enemies of progress. This included vast swathes of Soviet society. To house them all, the Cheka invented the GULAG, the vast empire of labor camps that stretched across the Soviet Union and imprisoned millions. Under appalling camp conditions, many never completed their sentences, succumbing to malnutrition and disease.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Jim Clapper Just Nuked the Trump Presidency

Spy bosses are by nature the most tight-lipped of people. Those who head our intelligence agencies got there in no small part by knowing precisely what to say to whom, when. In recent decades, as the heads of Western intelligence have emerged from the shadows and are expected to make occasional public statements, their utterances are customarily vague, requiring extensive tea-leaf analysis to derive their actual meanings.

Even in retirement, spymasters remain habitually enigmatic, and none has been more so than James Clapper, who is our nation’s most experienced spy boss. He retired as the Director of National Intelligence at the beginning of 2017, after over six years in that job—a record. That capped off a career in our Intelligence Community that lasted more than a half-century and included the directorships of two of our nation’s spy agencies. Nobody knows the IC better than Clapper.

While his career had its ups and downs—you don’t work in any trade for over 50 years without missteps—the former far outweighed the latter. Clapper, a retired Air Force three-star general, is widely respected in national security circles, across partisan lines, as a guy who knows his stuff and focuses on the job. Naturally, he’s exceptionally discreet as well.

That changed yesterday, when Clapper went on CNN to drop an unimaginably large bombshell on President Donald Trump. Since the inauguration in January, Clapper has made a few critical comments regarding the president and his strange ties to Moscow, but these have been largely anodyne. Clapper began showing his hand in September, with a comment that the IC assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election raised questions about why Trump was in the White House: it “cast doubt on the legitimacy of his victory in the election,” he stated.

Read the rest at The Observer …

The Trump-Putin War on American Intelligence Is in Overdrive

In my last column, I criticized the anti-Trump “resistance” for its excessive zeal in exposing Russian espionage, observing that counterintelligence work driven by politics and emotion rather than facts and discipline is bound to go wrong. At worst, we run the risk of a new wave of McCarthyism, with meandering witch-hunts for Kremlin agents (most of them imaginary) instead of serious counterspy efforts.

What’s interesting is that the “resistance” is a movement of the Left and its adherents, with few exceptions, are recent fans of counterespionage. Their interest in Russian spying is driven by Donald Trump and is as intense as it is new. Their enthusiasm for unmasking traitors customarily outpaces their understanding of real-world intelligence operations.

It’s difficult to miss that these are the same people who mocked Mitt Romney only five years ago when the Republican nominee for president presciently opined that Russia constituted our main geopolitical foe—a suggestion that was mocked as old-think by President Barack Obama and his followers.

Moreover, the Left was hardly brimming with anti-Kremlin zeal back in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was mainly the Right, aided by a few stodgy old Democratic Cold Warriors, that signaled the alarm about Soviet espionage and propaganda as a threat to our country and the West. Indeed, for many on the Left, the notion that Moscow was aggressively spying on us was a notion deserving of derision.

How times change. Now the Left is on the enthusiastic hunt for Russian agents, while the Right has transformed itself seemingly overnight from a Romneyian skepticism about the Kremlin to indifference to the threat at best, and at worst a strange and unsettling affection for Vladimir Putin. President Donald Trump is the Republicans’ biggest Kremlin fan, and his reticence to hear anything bad about Russia extends to any classified White House discussions about Kremlin interference in our 2016 election. As a bombshell new report in the Washington Post explains, the president’s Intelligence Community briefers customarily avoid anything to do with Russia in their daily briefing to the commander-in-chief altogether, lest they upset him by saying something bad about Putin.

Read the rest at The Observer …

Mike Flynn Was Always a Fraud

The fall from grace of retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn is one of the strangest sagas in the annals of America’s military and intelligence services. Just one year ago, his star could hardly have been more ascendant, named as the National Security Advisor to newly-elected President Donald Trump. However, he flamed out of that job in just 24 days, a record. Then, last week, he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about discussions with top Russians, leaving his reputation is in tatters.

How all this happened will be debated for years as the full saga of the Trump White House’s secret ties to Moscow unfolds and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation moves forward like a steamroller, slowly crushing all in its wake. Flynn, the military intelligence professional turned felon, will feature prominently in that sordid story. Now that he’s cooperating with Mueller against President Trump, copping per his plea deal to a relatively minor charge that he may serve no jail time for, Flynn’s role has changed, but it’s no less important.

Just how deeply enmeshed Flynn was with the Russians is now coming into focus. Public embarrassments like appearing at the 10th anniversary gala for RT, Moscow’s propaganda network—including sitting at the head table with Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president—were just the tip of the iceberg. That Flynn took Kremlin money for that controversial appearance should have hinted at worse misdeeds.

For instance, Flynn was lobbying for Russian interests, including lucrative nuclear power deals around the world. This is hardly a normal retirement job for pensioned U.S. Army generals. It now appears Flynn was involved with this while serving as Trump’s national security consigliere. He’s reported to have texted a business colleague that a big nuclear deal was “good to go,” meaning Flynn could now get sanctions lifted off Russia, in the middle of Trump’s inaugural address last January.

Read the rest at The Observer …