The Outsider Perspective brought to you by The Beltway Outsiders.
Good Friday Morning! Donald Trump completed his first major trip abroad as President. The trip took him across the Middle East and Europe. In today’s issue, I’ll focus on the fallout surrounding German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments that Europe may have to take its fate into its hands. The US relationship with Europe matters more over the long term than what is happening in the Middle East. I’ll also cover the death a Cold War warrior, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and how he helped avert a nuclear war. But I start off today with the news stories over Jared Kushner’s back channel communication with the Russians. Must read links from the web follow.
Jared Kushner’s back-channel communications with Russia
The news world has been buzzing this week over the revelations that Jared Kushner spoke with the Russian ambassador about establishing a secret back channel between the US and Russia. CNN reports:
President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and trusted aide Jared Kushner may have discussed creating a secret communications channel between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin with Russia’s ambassador Sergei Kislyak, The Washington Post reported Friday, citing US officials briefed on intelligence reports.
The claim comes from intercepts of conversations between Russia’s ambassador and Moscow. Kislyak reportedly told higher-ups in Moscow that Kushner suggested the proposal in a meeting at Trump Tower — which former national security adviser Michael Flynn also attended — in December. Kushner “suggested using Russian diplomatic facilities in the United States for the communications,” the Post reported.
The idea was to have Flynn “speak directly with a senior military official in Moscow to discuss Syria and other security issues,” The New York Times reported, citing three people with knowledge of the discussion.
Admittedly, when this story broke while I was writing the last issue, I didn’t think much of the story. I was even more surprised to see journalists breathlessly reporting the back channel communications as something unique. There’s a laundry list of items issues I have with the Trump administration; this isn’t one.
The primary reason is this: back channel communications between the United States and Russia (or any country) are commonplace. Every administration since FDR has had some covert line with the Russians. We expect the two largest nuclear powers to have private communication. It’s not even noteworthy that Trump had a family member as the primary connection. During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy sent his brother, Robert Kennedy, to meet secretly with the Soviet ambassador. RFK’s goal was to send a message directly to the Soviets to calm tensions and avoid a nuclear war.
Both the New York Times and ABC News put together excellent historical backdrops at all the known back channels in US history. They cover everything known back to Thomas Jefferson. In recent history, the Iran Deal brokered by the Obama administration was initially negotiated solely through back channel communications. President Obama praised the back channels his administration used to negotiate a deal. The point of this isn’t to show hypocrisy; it’s simply to state that back channel diplomacy is a staple of every Presidency. It’s been that way since the founding generation.
So why the hyperventilating over Kushner? In general, I see two main problems. 1) It just looks wrong. Everyone in the administration acts as if they’re guilty. Kushner lied about his contacts with the Russians, just like Michael Flynn. It’s another string in the web of Russian contacts in the Trump campaign and inner circle. 2) Kushner’s suggestion to use Russian facilities with the back channel raised eyebrows. Such a proposition would open the White House staff to espionage.
Neither of these concerns is illegal by itself, but they are disconcerting. They can either show nefarious intent on the part of Kushner or mind-boggling ignorance by Trump’s entire team. Prideful and arrogant ignorance can explain every accusation of ill-intent on the part of Trump’s team. The latter appears more accurate. All of our top spies continue to say there was no collusion between Trump and the Russians.
That evidence could change, of course. As we’ve learned with the Trump administration: nothing is set in stone. But this is what we know right now. There’s no ill-intent present, only arrogant ignorance. That is concerning when the administration is trying to set up back channels. But it’s not illegal or out of the ordinary.
Trump, NATO, and Angela Merkel
Trump’s major international trip wrapped up this week after a tour of Europe and extensive talks with European leaders. Many storylines came out of this visit, but the largest, and most important happened after the trip. In an interview, Merkel said that they could not “completely” rely on the US anymore:
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said her experience at recent international summits featuring US President Donald Trump showed her Europe can’t “completely” rely on the United States and other longstanding allies.”The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over,” Merkel said at a campaign event in Munich.
“The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over,” Merkel said at a campaign event in Munich. She didn’t mention Trump by name in the speech but alluded to the US President’s first foreign trip, where he lambasted NATO allies for their defense expenditure and also labeled Germany “very bad” on trade.”I experienced that in the last a few days, and therefore I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands, of course in friendship with the United States and in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbors wherever it is possible, also with Russia and also with all the other countries,” Merkel said.
“I experienced that in the last a few days, and therefore I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands, of course in friendship with the United States and in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbors wherever it is possible, also with Russia and also with all the other countries,” Merkel said.
“But we need to know that we have to fight for our own future and destiny as Europeans.”
Predictably, this caused an uproar among Western journalists and observers. And to some extent, the concern is legitimate. Europe has not descended into a war the past half-century because they disarmed and let the US run the world. Since the end of WWII, Germany has existed as a shadow of its former self. Without a military, it turned its focus on economics and exports. That focus has made it one of the most powerful economies in the world. But that focus has come at the expense of the US military running affairs across the world.
The US order ensures Germany, France, Italy, and the UK cannot go to war with each other. For centuries before the World Wars, Europe went to war with itself as frequently as the changing seasons. Since the United States took over, these countries have been mostly peaceful (the Cold War freezing lands into place also contributed to this). But as these countries have encountered growing tensions with nationalist forces, the American-led order is being tested. In this aspect, Trump’s challenge to NATO, Europe, and the American Order is fraught with danger. A rearmed Europe allows these countries to descend back into perpetual war; a risk that jeopardizes roping America into another war.
However, I would not read this as a bad story for Trump. Trump’s attacks that Europe should pay for American defense makes sense. It’s not a huge burden to ensure these countries are paying their dues. They should pay their fair share if they want to continue operating with socialized health care and not pay for large militaries. Funding NATO and the American military is Europe’s tax for having a peace and socialized government.
I also would not overreact to what Angela Merkel said in the interview. There’s no such thing as a united Europe. There is no sign she plans on re-arming Germany and taking an offensive stance. Germany relies heavily on NATO and the US to keep evil forces at bay. Specifically, Germany needs the US to keep the Russians at bay from advancing into the peninsula as it did in the Cold War. Europe as a whole chafes in whatever direction Germany chooses to take. Trump has all the leverage in this situation.
Without a military, Merkel’s threats are meaningless. She cannot marshal a united Europe, nor does she have plans on creating a new German military force. She knows Russia offers false hopes. Neither the EU nor NATO without America is powerful enough to repel Russia. Every European nation pivots around America power. There’s nothing on the European continent that changes this reality.
Trump should focus on uniting Europe and ensuring NATO has the resources it needs. His attacks do more harm than good. Doing so will ensure American power abroad remains unchallenged. Merkel’s comments after Trump’s international trip seem worse than they are. She’s not going to push the boundaries in the US-German relationship. Germany lives with a fear that it will descend back into Nazism. That fear will keep a check on Merkel’s willingness to advance too far beyond the current rules of NATO, and the US-German relationship. So while Trump’s comments aren’t artful or wise, there’s a kernel of truth below the surface. Europe should help America rebuild defenses to push back a strengthened Russia.
America loses another Cold War Warrior – Zbigniew Brzezinski dies at 89
Zbigniew Brzezinski was the national security advisor for President Jimmy Carter. You might be more familiar with Brzezinski’s daughter, Mika, who co-hosts Morning Joe with Joe Scarborough on MSNBC. Overall, Carter’s Presidency was an abject failure on nearly any metric you use. On a foreign policy basis, Carter’s administration was particularly disastrous. Carter’s myopic view of achieving world peace through solving the Israel-Palestinian issue cost America significantly in areas, not in Israel or Palestine.
However, Brzezinski’s role in the Carter administration stands out. He single-handedly helped avoid a nuclear war during the peak of the Cold War. And unlike the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the US and USSR were in a facedown, no one knew a nuclear war was imminent in 1979. When you hear about a politician asked how they would handle a “3 a.m.-phone-call,” they’re referring to the call Brzezinski received at 3 a.m. on November 9, 1979:
As he recounted it to me, Brzezinski was awakened at three in the morning by [military assistant William] Odom, who told him that some 250 Soviet missiles had been launched against the United States. Brzezinski knew that the President’s decision time to order retaliation was from three to seven minutes. Thus he told Odom he would stand by for a further call to confirm Soviet launch and the intended targets before calling the President. Brzezinski was convinced we had to hit back and told Odom to confirm that the Strategic Air Command was launching its planes. When Odom called back, he reported that 2,200 missiles had been launched it was an all-out attack. One minute before Brzezinski intended to call the President, Odom called a third time to say that other warning systems were not reporting Soviet launches. Sitting alone in the middle of the night, Brzezinski had not awakened his wife, reckoning that everyone would be dead in half an hour. It had been a false alarm. Someone had mistakenly put military exercise tapes into the computer system.”
It wasn’t the last time this event happened. Nuclear scares from false alarms happened three total times from 1979-80 according to the National Security Archives. Carter’s administration had to tighten down procedures for nuclear weapons. The many scares even frightened the Soviets: “Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev [wrote] secretly to President Carter that the erroneous alert was “fraught with a tremendous danger.” Further, ‘I think you will agree with me that there should be no errors in such matters.’”
Brzezinski’s decision to not escalate things immediately, when he had to respond in under 10 minutes, saved the world from nuclear war. His death also marks another loss of US Cold War warriors. We are slowly losing the generation that helped construct US strategy to contain and defeat Communism and hasten the fall of the USSR. Men like Brzezinski, Paul Nitze, and George Kennan, and others kept the world from nuclear annihilation while protecting America and the West. And as the world turns towards Cold War with Russia again, we need similar leadership in the days ahead.
Excerpts from must-read articles, columns, and links on the web
Conservative Postmodernism, Postmodern Conservatism – Peter Lawler, The Imaginative Conservative
Note: Peter Lawler recently passed away. He was a brilliant mind on the right and the author of books, essays, and columns. Yuval Levin wrote a touching tribute to Lawler over at the Federalist. I’m sharing a segment of one of Lawler’s best pieces here. I recommend the entire piece.
“What has distinguished the modern world, above all, is a particular deﬁnition of what a human being is. That deﬁnition does not describe a real or complete human being. It was not even meant to be completely true, but mainly to be useful as a ﬁction in the pursuit of unprecedented freedom, justice, and prosperity. Modern thought has held that a human being is an individual, and the modern individual is an abstraction, an invention of the human mind. That individual is made more free from social and political constraints, and less directed toward duty and goodness by God and nature, than a real human being ever could be. The modern individual is distinguished from the political animals—the citizens, statesmen, and philosophers—described by the Greek and Roman philosophers, and from the social, familial creatures described by Christian theologians. The modern individual is liberated from the philosopher’s duty to know the truth about nature, from the citizen’s selﬂess devotion to his country, from the creature’s love and fear of God, and even from the loving responsibilities that are inseparable from family life. Conservatives today oppose liberal individualism both because its understanding of the human being is untrue and because that deﬁnition erodes all that is good about distinctively human existence.
The modern world has now ended only in the sense that we have now seen enough of it to judge it. Although we have reason to be grateful for the wealth, health, freedom, and power that modern achievements have given us, we know that the individual’s pursuits of security and happiness will remain always pursuits—and not possessions. So even as the modern world continues to develop, we can be free of its characteristic delusion, its utopianism. We can speak of its strengths and its limitations from a perspective “outside” modernity, and that perspective is the foundation of conservatism today. Conservatives can be (perhaps the only) genuinely postmodern thinkers. The reason we can see beyond the modern world is that its intention to transform human nature has failed. Its project of transforming the human person into the autonomous individual was and remains unrealistic; we can now see the limits of being an individual because we remain more than individuals. The world created by modern individuals to make themselves fully at home turns out to have made human beings less at home than ever.
Conservative thought today is authentic postmodernism, but it is, obviously, not postmodernism as it is usually understood. Most allegedly postmodern thought emphasizes the arbitrary character of all human authority, the freedom of each human being from all standards but his own will or creativity, and the death not only of God but of nature. These allegedly postmodern characteristics are really hypermodern; they aim to “deconstruct” as incoherent and so incredible any residual modern faith in reason or nature. They shout that everything modern—in fact, everything human—is nothing but a construction.”
Crushing on Crushers: Why do intellectuals fall in love with dictators and totalitarians? – Theodore Dalrymple, City Journal
Note: This is a book review of a new book by Paul Hollander that seeks to answer why American intellectuals and academics so often fall in love with dictators.
“Though Hollander does not claim that there is a single explanation for intellectuals’ attraction to dictatorships such as those of Stalin, Mao, and Castro (or Khomeini, in the case of Foucault), let alone to have found it, he nevertheless believes, in my view plausibly, that the longing for quasi-religious belief in an age when actual religion has largely been rejected is a significant part of the explanation. The totalitarian dictators were not the typical politicians of democratic systems who, whatever their rhetoric, seem mainly to tinker at the edges of human existence, are ready or forced to make grubby compromises with their opponents, reveal themselves to be morally and financially corrupt, are more impressive in opposition than in office, have no overarching ideas for the redemption of humanity, and make no claims to be panjandrums of all human knowledge and wisdom. Rather, those dictators were religious leaders who claimed the power to answer all human questions at once and to lead humanity into a land of perpetual milk, honey, and peace. They were omniscient, omnicompetent, loving, and kind, infinitely concerned for the welfare of their people; yet at the same time they were modest, humble, and supposedly embarrassed by the adulation they received. The intellectuals, then, sought in them not men but messiahs.
Evidence of the quasi-religious nature of Sartre’s serial dictator-worship is in the title he gave to the newspaper he relaunched in the 1970s and which still publishes today: Libération. Liberation from what, exactly? France at the time was hardly a tyranny. It is difficult not to conclude that what was meant was a mystical or other-worldly liberation from the existential conditions under which mankind is constrained to labor forever. Unfortunately, few things are less attractive than a religion that dares not speak its name as religion.
Hollander’s engrossing, well-written, and timely book ends with an implicit warning that we are far from having learnt our lesson once and for all, and are therefore far from immune from similar errors of judgment in the future. On the contrary, as dissatisfaction with “normal” politics and politicians rises in many parts of the world, we can expect that utopian illusions will rush in to fill a vacuum”
Rural America is the New ‘Inner City’ – The Wall Street Journal
Note: This is a recently released study from the WSJ. It shows how far rural America has fallen in the last 2 decades. All the social ills people blame the inner cities for having are far more prevalent in rural America.
“A Wall Street Journal analysis shows that since the 1990s, sparsely populated counties have replaced large cities as America’s most troubled areas by key measures of socioeconomic well-being—a decline that’s accelerating
For more than a century, rural towns sustained themselves, and often thrived, through a mix of agriculture and light manufacturing. Until recently, programs funded by counties and townships, combined with the charitable efforts of churches and community groups, provided a viable social safety net in lean times.
Starting in the 1980s, the nation’s basket cases were its urban areas—where a toxic stew of crime, drugs and suburban flight conspired to make large cities the slowest-growing and most troubled places.
Today, however, a Wall Street Journal analysis shows that by many key measures of socioeconomic well-being, those charts have flipped. In terms of poverty, college attainment, teenage births, divorce, death rates from heart disease and cancer, reliance on federal disability insurance and male labor-force participation, rural counties now rank the worst among the four major U.S. population groupings (the others are big cities, suburbs and medium or small metro areas).
In fact, the total rural population—accounting for births, deaths and migration—has declined for five straight years.”
Why the Paris climate deal is meaningless – Oren Cass, Politico
Note: As Trump prepares to pull America from the Paris Climate Deal, it’s worth remembering that the deal itself is meaningless. It doesn’t actually enforce any climate rules. Nor do any countries agree to reduce emissions. It’s an empty piece of paper by any metric you use. This piece is from 2015, while the Paris Deal was being signed.
“Here’s how the game works: The negotiating framework established at a 2014 conference in Lima, Peru, requires each country to submit a plan to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, called an “Intended Nationally Determined Contribution” (INDC). Each submission is at the discretion of the individual country; there is no objective standard it must meet or emissions reduction it must achieve.
Beyond that, it’s nearly impossible even to evaluate or compare them. Developing countries actually blocked a requirement that the plans use a common format and metrics, so an INDC need not even mention emissions levels. Or a country can propose to reduce emissions off a self-defined “business-as-usual” trajectory, essentially deciding how much it wants to emit and then declaring it an “improvement” from the alternative. To prevent such submissions from being challenged, a group of developing countries led by China and India has rejected “any obligatory review mechanism for increasing individual efforts of developing countries.” And lest pressure nevertheless build on the intransigent, no developing country except Mexico submitted an INDC by the initial deadline of March 31—and most either submitted no plan or submitted one only as the final September 30 cut-off approached.
After all this, the final submissions are not enforceable, and carry no consequences beyond “shame” for noncompliance—a fact bizarrely taken for granted by all involved.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the submitted plans are even less impressive than the process that produced them. In aggregate, the promised emissions reductions will barely affect anticipated warming. A variety of inaccurate, apples-to-oranges comparisons have strained to show significant progress. But MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change calculates the improvement by century’s end to be only 0.2 degrees Celsius. Comparing projected emissions to the baseline established by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change back in 2000 shows no improvement at all.”
The Age of Unilateral Rule – Rich Lowry, Politico Magazine
Note: Rich Lowry is always worth reading. His column this week is no exception.
“The beginning of Donald Trump’s presidency has been an extension of the past six years of the Obama administration, when Capitol Hill was largely a sideshow to the main event in the executive branch in general and the Oval Office in particular. Barack Obama and Donald Trump have almost nothing in common, except their modes of governance.
Obama was coolly cerebral and deliberative to a fault, whereas Trump is blustery, instinctual and impulsive. Yet, Obama and Trump are both, in their own ways, attention-hungry celebrities. Obama never demonstrated the patience or aptitude for real persuasion, whether LBJ-style arm-twisting or Reagan-style move-the-needle public argument. Neither has Trump. Institutionally, Obama was content to be a loner, and so is Trump.
Until further notice, this is the American model — government by and of the president. We live in the age of unilateral rule.”
The vulgar realism of Rex Tillerson’s State Department – Dan Drezner, The Atlantic
Note: For an alternative take on why Trump’s Europe trip was a big deal and bad, see this piece in the Atlantic.
“One can detect a disturbing pattern to these actions — non-actions, really. The striking thing about Rex Tillerson’s State Department to date is the degree to which it seems to care only about other governments, as opposed to other societies.
There’s a very vulgar brand of realism that would be consistent with such an approach. This kind of crude realpolitik argues that states are only important actors in world politics. Therefore, a state’s diplomatic resources and attention should focus on interactions with foreign governments. Focusing on sub-state actors or societies could be interpreted as intrusions of sovereignty. And as Trump said in Saudi Arabia, “We are not here to lecture. … We are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be or how to worship.”
The problems with this kind of worldview are so manifest that even realists would be leery of such a narrow vision. One obvious problem, however, is that all governments need to think about their domestic troubles first. If Trump is going to articulate an “America First” strategy, then other countries will reciprocate in kind. Indeed, this benefits the leaders of those countries, particularly if Trump provides the easy out with his bullying behavior.
The other big problem with this form of vulgar realism is that it ignores the last few years of history. Middle Eastern states have fallen apart, and democracies have been repeatedly surprised by election outcomes. Completely neglecting the domestic politics and civil societies in other countries is a surefire way for the State Department to get ambushed by surprising social movements.”
Note: I tend to agree with Andreessen here. Technology innovation like self-driving cars will lead to new industries being born. The jobs lost will be replaced by new industries being born.
“Speaking at the Code Conference at the Terranea Resort in California, Andreessen argued that self-driving cars will not only build productivity and save lives, but will drive many job-creating ancillary industries.
The idea of automation stealing jobs — “It’s a fallacy,” Andreessen said (specifically citing the lump of labor fallacy and the luddite fallacy). “It’s a recurring panic. This happens every 25 or 50 years, people get all amped up about ‘machines are going to take all the jobs’ and it never happens.”
Andreessen used the example of the rise of the automobile industry a century ago, which many thought would cost the livelihood of everyone whose jobs were to take care of horses.
But “the car then created not only a lot of jobs creating cars” but everything else that happened because of the car: Paved streets, restaurants, motels, movie theaters, apartment complexes, office complexes, the entire buildout of suburban America, etc.
“The jobs that were created by the automobile on the second, third, and fourth order effects were 100X, 1000X the number of jobs that blacksmiths had,” he said.
“I think the self-driving car has the opportunity to not only improve productivity for the people in the car, which will be a huge economic boost for those people; Not only has the opportunity to save lives — over a million people die worldwide in road deaths today caused by human drivers, and I think we can take that very close to zero, which is very good for both human welfare and for economic productivity — it’s a very serious dent in productivity when people get killed; And then all the ancillary industries that end up getting built out.””
Satire piece of the week
Pentagon Officials Scramble To Change Nuclear Code From ‘Covfefe’ – The Babylon Bee
WASHINGTON, D.C. — While social media rumors ran wild Wednesday about what President Donald Trump’s accidentally tweeted word “covfefe” meant, Pentagon officials hurriedly changed over hundred of lines of coding in the nuclear missile launch system to remove the word as one of the key passwords to launch a nuclear strike.
“We’re all just glad everyone thought it was an honest spelling error, or some kind of autocorrect fail,” stated Secretary of Defense James Mattis. “I recently said on Face the Nation that nothing keeps me awake at night. That was false. This very scenario keeps me awake at night.”
“President Trump’s Twitter account keeps me awake at night,” he added.
Phones were reportedly ringing off the hook at Strategic Command in Omaha as the new code was relayed to the entire chain of command including all of America’s ballistic missile silos and underwater nuclear-armed submarines.
“We had to change out all the secret laminated code cards and everything,” Mattis added. “I just really hope he doesn’t tweet out the new code,” he said as he refreshed Trump’s Twitter feed, praying the President had not posted anything in the last few minutes.
Thanks for reading!