Saturday, April 23, 2022

PUTIN'S INTERNATIONAL REACH: UKRAINE AND BEYOND

The U.S. has the world's largest economy and broadest level of international security interests and responsibilities. As such it has taken the lead in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine with military aid and punitive economic sanctions against Russia. 

While economic sanctions have been used frequently, the conventional wisdom in international relations has been that they are ineffective in changing the behavior of target nations. The major weakness in the application of sanctions is lack of complete participation by significant governments which provide a "back door" for financial and trade transactions for the target. In the case of Russia these are significant.  The non-participants include China and India, the world's two most populace nations. China has the second largest of the world's economies (GDP) and India is number six. Russia's economy is number eleven.  Thus the current sanctions program, while being more comprehensive and severe than most in the past, has major loopholes which mitigate the effectiveness and can be expected to delay positive outcomes.

 Another complicating factor in prosecuting the response to Russia's invasion is international context. The conflict is not occurring in a vacuum.  Prior to the February, 2022 invasion, the world was neither at peace nor free from threats of higher levels of conflict and those issues remain. Several have ties to Russia which have to be taken into account as the Ukrainian situation plays out both militarily and diplomatically, including the post-conflict realities.

Syria:

In Syria, the multi-party civil war which began in 2014 as part of the "Arab Spring" movement, is still going on.  In the early years, a combination of mostly independent Sunni Muslim militias including the terrorist Islamic State and affiliates of Al Qaida, as well as allegedly more politically moderate forces fighting under the name "Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), had the regime of dictator Bashar al Assad in a precarious situation.

Then Russian President Putin decided to intervene with aviation and special forces ground units.  These groups coordinated with a similar intervention to support Assad's military by the Iranian client, the Shi'ite Hezbollah militia and quasi-political party which operates out of Lebanon.  Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces also showed up. Together these extra-national intervening elements along with the Syrian national army, turned the tide against the collection of anti-Assad forces.  Over the next several months, the battle became increasing violent with large numbers of civilian deaths and millions of Syrians leaving the country to avoid the conflict. U.S. Special Forces and air elements also intervened against  the Islamic State, and with bombing missions against Syrian air fields in response to Assad's air attacks on civilian populations;  in effect fighting on both sides.  

The Russian, Iranian client Hezbollah, and Iranian forces have complicated an already complex international problem in the volatile Middle East which because of Russian involvement, can be more complicated because of the Ukraine war and the requirements of any settlement of that conflict Russia may try to leverage it's negotiating positions to pursue its interests in both/ 

Iran:

Iran represents a major security threat across the Middle East. It shares borders with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, a nuclear power, Turkey, a NATO member, and Saudi Arabia, owner of 17% of the world's oil reserves with recent production levels of 2.5 million barrels per day.  Its theocratic Shi'ite government is openly hostile to the Sunni monarchy in Saudi Arabia and it seeks regional influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and is a sworn enemy of Israel, America's historic ally in the Middle East region.

Currently, President Biden has committed to renew the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action commonly known as the "Iran nuclear deal", which was fostered by President Obama and then shut down by President Trump.  The original agreement which was intended to restrict Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons, was widely criticized for being to narrow, too weak to enforce adequately, as well as being time limited. 

The agreement's members known as The Five + 1, include the U.S., UK, France, China, and Russia, all permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany as well as  representatives of the European Union and Iran.  Iran was brought to the negotiating table by the imposition of harsh economic sanctions and the blocking of Iran's international reserve currencies which were held outside of Iran.  

The renewal negotiations are reportedly making progress and some say they are close to completion. There is a basic irony with respect to the negotiations because Russia is currently participating in the discussions in meetings with Iranian officials in Vienna, Austria. Two things make this situation problematic.  One is the fact that Russia is an ally of Iran's military client Hezbollah in Syia, and thus an indirect ally of Iran. Another, is the fact that the failure of the agreement so far to include restrictions on Iran's ICBM development which would be the delivery system for nuclear weapons as well as a tool for significant conventional weapons aggression. Iran's sponsorship of international terrorism is also absent from the agreement.

 Russia as a de facto ally of Iran, has a significant missile arsenal which it has demonstrated in its conflict with Ukraine and would be an attractive supplier of the technology or weapons if their restrictions were not included in the final agreement.

In fact the Russian emissary to the negotiations in March declared that as a member of the P5+1 negotiating team, when the sanctions against Iran are removed Iran would be free to engage in bilateral trade with Russia and not be in violation of the economic sanctions imposed on Russia in response to the invasion of Ukraine. If Iran chose to do so, especially in the areas of nuclear technology and military equipment, there is little that Biden could do about it.  After promising to renew the agreement that Trump canceled and spending months in negotiation, he needs a foreign policy "victory' to help his struggling approval polls in advance of the November, 2022 mid-term elections and he is unlikely to upend the new  agreement if and when the other members of the 5+1 see it as completed.

Yemen:

One of the most intractable and enduring conflicts currently underway is the civil war in Yemen.  Yemen is a large but narrow country stretching along the southern border of the Arabian peninsula abutting the Arabian Sea on the south and the Red Sea on the east.  It is a poor nation of @30.4 million people which finds itself in 7 year internal conflict enabled by outside nations because of its location and regional geopolitics.

What began as an ethno-religious uprising against an authoritarian leader impacted the interests of Saudi Arabia which shares a southern border with Yemen and Iran which shares a maritime border with Saudi Arabia between the narrow 210 mile width of the Persian Gulf.

This is important because of Iran's regional efforts of political and military interference cited above and in most instances based on its Shi'a Muslim identity which it uses as wedge to gain influence into politically unstable states with Shi'a populations.  Iran thus became a logistic and political supporter of the Shi'a Houthi forces attempting to over throw the Sunni government of Yemen. Iran has long been a hostile rival of Saudi Arabia, both because of its oil wealth and political importance, its moderate stance to the West and its harsh treatment of its own Shi'a minority. 

Saudi Arabia, fearing Yemen would become a hostile client state of Iran's if the Houthis prevailed, put together a coalition of Sunni Arab states to launch a military intervention in Yemen against the Houthis in 2015 which continues to this day.

Russia has a clear relationship with Iran which reflects both a desire to be a power player in the Middle East and a mutual supporting anti-West attitude. To this end Russia has tried to play the role of mediator in the Yemen conflict including outreach to Saudi Arabia. 

Saudi Arabia has leaned towards the West, especially the U.S. where it buys most of its military equipment. In most recent administrations the U.S. has recognized that the Kingdom is a theocratic and authoritarian state but its importance in the region as both a major supplier of oil and as a barrier to Iran's expansion of influence has resulted in give and take moderation in their relationship.  However, President Biden's recent public accusation of de facto head of government Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a "murderer" for his alleged role in the assassination of anti-monarchy Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi, has soured the relationship, as has his  plans to restart the "Iran nuclear deal" which includes lifting the economic sanctions on Iran, but so far does not include prohibitions on international terrorism and ballistic missile production.  The new hostilities on the part of bin Salman were obvious recently by the Saudi's refusal to talk to Biden about increasing oil production in the face of shortages in relation to the economic sanctions on Russia.  

Russian diplomats appear to believe this offers an opportunity to increase influence with Saudi Arabia which means a bigger role to play in the Middle East region, all at the expense of the  U.S.

China:

China's support for Russia in the UN and its non-participation in the economic sanctions policies imposed on Russia is just part of a post-Soviet relationship which was emphasized in Putin's February, 2022 visit to Bejing just prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

United Nations:

The United Nations is a mirror that reflects the international, political/economic alignments of it's 193 members and gives a voice to the majority who lack individual influence with the few world "powers". It's Charter outlines the hopeful promise of peaceful settlement of dispute   

"... to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained. . ."

Despite its' noble goals and the hopes of many that the UN would play a role in defense of Ukraine and punishment of Russia,  the realities of human nature, tribal like national animosities, ethnic, religious and dramatic resource differences, and the quest for power among national leaders, have produced continuous wars since the UN's founding in 1945.  That is the context in which the world now faces the Russian/Ukraine war.  

Unlike all previous wars since 1945 the conflict in Ukraine includes one of the world's "super powers" as an aggressor. Hopes for a united front by the world body's members which could influence the situation isolate or even intervene are thus not a possibility.  Russia is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council which have veto power over any Security Council resolution which are required for security related interventions i.e. "peace keepers"; "peace makers", sanctions etc. The most punishing action the UN has been able to carry out against Russia is the General Assembly's decision to expel Russian from the 47 member UN Human Rights Council. 

Russia's seat on the Security Council and indeed, it's membership in the UN is a Charter protected fact. Only a vote by the Security Council can change these facts and Russia, as a permanent member can use its' veto to protect it's status. An amendment to the Charter changing the procedures would also require a Security Council vote. 

The General Assembly did approve a resolution in March condemning the invasion of Ukraine and demanding a full withdrawal of Russian forces. General Assembly resolutions however are just opinions without legal standing.

Even so, the difficulty of imposing resistance on Russia by the international community can be seen in this non-enforceable vote. While it passed with a huge majority, the shadow of Russia's power was felt by four members who voted against it; Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria as well as Russia itself. But even more to the point, 35 nations chose not to condemn the invasion by abstaining. Most of these were African nations, many of whom have authoritarian leaders themselves but the key abstainers included China, India, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan and Viet Nam and in Latin America, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

Thus the reality is:  the conflict in Ukraine will not be carried out in isolation of world wide international security issues and will endure for months; Putin seems confident that the people of Russia can  endure the pain of cultural isolation and economic sanctions; Russia's influence in world affairs under Putin will remain a threat to Western interests no matter what the terms of the final resolution of the Ukraine conflict are. 


 


Thursday, March 10, 2022

UKRAINE, NUCLEAR WEAPONS, AND THE FUTURE OF COLLECTIVE SECURITY

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is still in its early stages as Russian President Putin escalates the violence and expands his territorial control.  While the Ukrainian military has put up unexpected levels of resistance, the medium and long term outcomes in the face of superior Russian numbers and equipment realistically predict a Russian military victory but a prolonged insurgency.  But the story of the war doesn’t end there. Once organized military resistance is subdued, Putin, unless he has limited objectives, will be faced with the problem of occupying and controlling the nation. Ukraine is larger in size than both France and Germany. It’s population of approximately 42 million people has shown a defiance that will likely remain.  Putin’s invasion force of 150,000-165,000 is not nearly large enough to carry out the requirements for widespread occupation and control. Even if he decides on a strategy of occupying just the larger population centers he would need a much larger force.  This would be a long term commitment with enormous economic and political costs that he may not have fully contemplated. It may even be beyond his economic reach, especially if the current program of economic sanctions and isolation are continued after the armed conflict subsides.

However, Putin’s war on Ukraine will have lasting impacts on the post WWII and post Cold War European security order neither of which properly addressed the possibility of an attack on the  liberal democratic system that seemed to have permanently replaced the centuries old European  conflicts between or involving, nationalist authoritarian regimes. The trends toward international cooperation, diminution of military readiness, and economic and political integration now must be rethought to include the reality of renewed resistance to these models.  

On a more specific level the political/military process which led to the Ukraine invasion should have set off early alarms in 2014 when Putin invaded and occupied the Crimea which was part of Ukraine This act of aggression was a specific violation of the 1994 Budapest Agreement signed by Russia, Great Britain and the United States which was in response to the 1991 dissolution of the former U.S.S.R. which transformed Ukraine and other former Soviet republics into independent, sovereign states. The Budapest Memorandum committed the parties “to “respect  independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and “to refrain from the threat or use of force” against the country. In return the Ukrainian government in Kyiv agreed too give up its large inventory of nuclear weapons which were part of the former Soviet Union’s arsenal.

While the international response to Russia’s invasion of the Crimea included significant economic sanctions which remain in place today as part of the new sanctions policies in response to the February, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine proper, it had no effect on the Russian occupation which in effect annexed the Crimea into Russia.

But the implications for the future of a new international security order stimulated by Russia go beyond Europe.  The world has few “super powers” but many authoritarian regimes who routinely reject international laws and norms.  Putin has now elevated the issue of the use of nuclear weapons from the unthinkable to the conceivable; from deterrence to tactical, with the implied acceptance of associated risks of escalation and their strategic use.  

To be sure, his statements had the ring of bluster to deter any  possibility of NATO intervention in the conflict. But his language regarding the possibility of a NATO imposed “no fly zone” over Ukraine, which would put Ukrainian pilots flying NATO aircraft in direct combat with Russian aircraft. Putin warned of “colossal and catastrophic consequences not only for Europe but also the whole world.” Along with his increased readiness status of his nuclear forces, his words were an unambiguous nuclear threat which he correctly assumed to be an effective end of discussion of even indirect NATO involvement. 

One could easily argue, as Biden and Secretary General of NATO, Jens Staltenberg have, that the risk of “escalation” is too great for direct or indirect military action against Russian troops, a position given even more substance in light of Putin’s nuclear remarks.  But it raises an important question about NATO’s credibility.  What would  Biden’s and Staltenberg’s position be if a similar situation arose in which Putin threatened the territory of a NATO member?  

Biden has stated that “Every square inch of a NATO member’s territory would be defended.” Certainly major European states such as Germany or France would be, but Putin’s goals seem to be to rebuild the former U.S.S.R, not by formal absorption of the now independent republics but by creating demilitarized client states on Russia’s borders by force.  Three such states are Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.  These are tiny nations and they are also NATO members.  Would an invasion of any one or all of them plus an implied threat of a nuclear response if NATO sent troops or aircraft to defend them, make such a response impossible?  Citizens of NATO countries would ask; “Do we want to start a global nuclear war over these “insignificant and unimportant countries”?  It would be taking a risk on principle vs. national interests; a gamble that Putin was bluffing and  would also not take the risk of destroying his own country in a nuclear conflict. But it would be a risk nonetheless if Putin believed that the U.S. led NATO would back down but they didn’t.

Now the possibility of other nuclear armed, authoritarian governments, wishing to carry out aggressive acts with conventional weapons and then use a similar threat, specific or implied, to deter outside intervention, could be the “new normal”. 

China of course comes to mind first, given its huge military, greatly enhanced development of high tech modern weapons systems like aircraft carriers, hypersonic missiles and digital warfare capabilities. China is of course a nuclear weapons state and has a long term geographical claim to the island nation of Taiwan, lying just 100 miles off its southern coast. China as well is engaged in a process of claiming, and building, islands in the South China sea in violation of international law and the territorial claims of other Asian states. 

Recent penetrations of Taiwan’s airspace by Chinese military aircraft are a intimidation strategy and warning sign to convey the message that Taiwan’s drift towards independent status or close political/economic or defense integration with other nation’s will bring a serious Chinese response. Speculation is that China will indeed at some point in time initiate an actual take over of the island. Taiwan has no formal defense commitments from other nations but President Biden has expressed a commitment to “assist” in its defense if threatened. This would seem to invite a Putin like response from Chinese leadership.  

But nuclear weapons provide non-super powers with the similar leverage that Putin used in his territorial aggression. North Korea has a large military and has developed a small nuclear capability.  It seems unlikely that its dictator Kim Jong-un has genuine interests in invading the Republic of South Korea but he uses the threats implied by multiple tests of ballistic missiles and specific threats of nuclear attacks on U.S. territory to intimidate and make demands of his neighbor on the peninsula and its security partner the U.S.  Regional aggression with conventional forces by Kim or a successor is not entirely out of the question. What would be the response if such an event were to occur and Kim renewed his nuclear threats to the U.S.?  South Korean officials must be asking themselves that question.  U.S., South Korean and Japanese efforts to negotiate a nuclear free Korean peninsula with North Korea have failed for decades.

Thus the issue of nuclear proliferation also comes in to play in the context of a different level than the possibility of terrorist acquisition.  The Biden administration is now “close” to reestablishing the Iran nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) first signed in 2015 by Barack Obama and France, the United Kingdom, Russia, Germany and the EU and Iran.  The intent was to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons development program.  Such an effort and the ensuing Agreement would not have been necessary if Iran was not actually on a path to acquire nuclear weapons which it claimed but which Israeli intelligence has produced abundant evidence in support of.  

Parties outside the Obama administration found the Agreement, which did not have the status of a treaty which would have required approval of a non-existent 2/3 majority in the U.S. Senate for ratification, to be fundamentally flawed and the Iranians untrustworthy.  President Trump withdrew from the Agreement and imposed punishing economic sanctions on Iran to persuade them to renegotiate a stronger agreement. The Iranian government under the autocratic rule of the Grand Ayatollah reacted by increasing the enrichment of uranium toward weapons grade levels.   

If Iran achieves nuclear weapons status in spite of the proposed restrictions in the revised agreement, the already politically unstable and conflict ridden Middle East becomes several orders of magnitude more dangerous.  Iran has pursued regional dominance for several decades by supporting terrorism and intervention in conflicts across a swath of the Middle East, especially using its Shia Muslim identity as leverage to influence other nations with similar religious affiliations. This is true in Iraq where it supports that nation’s Shi’ite majority population and government. Iran has also engaged in military intervention in the civil war in Syria in support of the Alawite (an off shoot of Shi’ism) minority government of Bashar al-Assad. It has done this with its insertion of its client Hezbollah, a Shi-ite militia based in Lebanon. 

Iran also supports and supplies weapons to the Shi’ite Houthi insurgency in Yemen which has launched drone and rocket attacks on Saudi oil facilities and airports. Saudi Arabia  and a coalition of Gulf States supports the government of Yemen. 

But the focus of Iran’s hostilities has been directed at the state of Israel since Iran’s Islamic revolution of 1979 and the accession to leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Since then Iran’s political and theocratic leadership has seen Israel as an anti-Muslim, westernized client state of the U.S. which should be “wiped from the map”.  Israel is a nuclear weapons state engaged in a decades long conflict with the PLO and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza of the Palestinian territories.  Iran supports both of these Palestinian groups. Israel has had political support and military aid from U.S. presidents and Congress since becoming an independent state in 1948 but no specific mutual defense arrangement.

Iran’s proxy aggression in the region could become first party military aggression over time and if backed up by possession of nuclear weapons and delivery systems a fraught game of a nuclear threats similar to Russia’s in it’s current invasion of Ukraine could become a reality. What this creates is a high level of uncertainty in the willingness of the U.S. and its collective security partners to actually live up to their stated commitments.  A new era of political instability and violence could be the result. Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons and the U.S. and its Western security partners must reaffirm their commitments against aggression of all sorts.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

TRUMP: 2022 AND 2024

 

It may be too early to start the media consuming speculation about the 2024 presidential election.  Just thinking about it can be exhausting in the context of the current crises.  Inflation, Covid, Ukraine, open borders, climate change, are enough to dominate the feeling of unease underlying polls indicating that “America is on the wrong tack”. However, it is not too early to contemplate the outcomes of the 2022 elections and these contests will have a significant impact on the 2024 process.

The current political predictions, bolstered by historical trends,  all indicate that the control of the House of Representatives will flip to the Republican Party in 2022. Democrats, under the reign of Speaker Nancy Pelosi now control the House by a mere ten seats, a 222 to 212 majority with one seat vacant.  Thus Republicans just need to gain six seats to win to gain a 218 to 217 majority in the 435 seat body. Since all House members are up for reelection, that outcome seems to be an unrealistically low estimate of what can actually occur. In the Senate elections, Republicans need only flip one seat and hold on to their other twenty that are being contended to gain control.  

The dismal outlook for the Democrats is based on several polls over the last few months. President Biden's job approval stands at 40.1% with 54.1 % disapproval.  Sixty-five percent of poll responders say that the country is on the “wrong track”. The Gallup Poll found that while the Democrats still had a  party registration advantage over Republicans of 28% to 24%, Independents far out numbered both party’s self identification at 46%.  Independents however tend to “lean” towards one party or the other and when combined with the Republicans and Democrats as a group, the results were Republicans 47%, Democrats 42%.

 However, despite the political advantage that the Republicans currently hold, the November elections are almost nine months away and the political environment is likely to change.  The  Omicron Covid-19 variant which now dominates new cases reported, is rapidly declining and is likely to become much less of a threat by next November. Barring another variant, this decline will have a positive effect on employment, supply chain issues, inflation and a general lessening of stress on the voting public. Federal Reserve monetary policy is predicted to result in periodic interest rate increases which will also reduce demand in key sectors of the economy and have a beneficial impact on inflation. A diplomatic settlement of the Russian threat of invasion to Ukraine could also have a positive effect on Biden’s approval ratings with a positive “coat tail” benefit to Democratic congressional candidates. 

The message is clear; Republicans cannot assume that favorable results in November while likely,  are  inevitable. The election could be further complicated for Republicans by the continuing attempts by former President Trump to influence the Republican primaries through endorsements,  including against some Republican incumbents, as well as his “off the rails” personal vilification of prominent members of the Republican House and Senate caucuses. These public positions and rants include his support for the Republican National Committee’s recent vote to “censure”Republican Representatives Cheney (R-WY) and Kinzinger (R-IL) for their participation on the House committee investigating the January 6, 2022 riot and invasion of the U.S. Capitol.  

While there is little doubt that the Democrat controlled committee has cast a very wide and politically motivated  net, finding out the truth of the motivating and participating individuals who may have been involved in such an egregious act is important in itself. The RNC censure describes the riot and insurrection as “ordinary citizens engaged in legitimate discourse.”; an absurd characterization of the well documented violence and destruction carried out by an out of control mob.  Numerous former Republican  former government officials and several current Republican Senators have “condemned” this act by the RNC which  has Trump’s personal anger at the two Representatives, both of whom voted to impeach him the second time, for his role in the insurrection, all over it.  The issue is now dividing the party at the congressional level and risks dividing it at the primary voter level this year. 

Trump’s adolescent name calling of those who have rejected his demands for complete sycophancy has reached absurd levels and make him look foolish to some and unstable to others. Trump continues to attack current and former senior Republican officials who were his  supporters during his administration.  He has labeled  Senate Minority Leader, and possible 2023 Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, as “Old broken Down Crow” and a “Loser” and called on Senate Republicans to depose him. McConnell’s “crime”?; assigning partial responsibility to Trump for the Jan.6, riot. Trump has called Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), a key swing vote in the 50-50 partisan Senate, a “Wacko” for supporting a review and modernization of the vague 1887 Electoral Count Act. He has turned on his own former Vice President Mike Pence who was presiding at the time, for saying he had no constitutional authority under the Act, to overturn the 2020 Electoral College vote during the certification process being held at the time of the riot as Trump demanded. 

One of the most important qualities of the U.S. constitutional system since it came  in to effect in 1789, has been the peaceful transition of power characterized by the two term limit on the office of the President and the respect for our democratic election process.  Trump has disgraced this tradition and process with his unfounded claims of the election being “stolen”, his refusal to attend the inauguration of his successor and his incentivizing of the January 6 insurrection of the capitol. 

As he continues to try and make himself the face of the Republican Party, influence the outcomes of the November, 2022 Republican congressional primary elections while dangling the prospect of another presidential run in 2024, he forces the Party and its candidates to carry the weight of this personal and political baggage. While some candidates seem happy to openly support him and seek his endorsements, his continued intervention is a dangerous game at best.  Many voters in his 2016 victory obviously did support his “American First” philosophy and the policies that followed from it. Border security, lower federal taxes, protection of U.S. energy independence, negotiations to improve international trade relations, low inflation an unemployment and resistence to the movement of the Democrat party towards the radical Left.  However many of these same supporters made it clear that they disapproved of Trump’s volatile, ego centered, personality and unstable administration. In his  single four year term Trump had four different Chiefs of Staff and three different Secretaries of Defense; two of the key posts in any administration. These character and personality flaws have even gotten worse since his loss in 2020.  The outcome, and the shifting of attitudes away from Trump in both the electorate and Republican political establishment since then are worth noting.

In his 2016 victory over Hillary Clinton, Trump identified a profound populist feeling of anger and alienation from the Washington establishment which he characterized as “the swamp”. He combined policies of border security and immigration reform, trade improvement, low taxes and reduced government regulatory power under a banner of unabashed patriotism and national identification.His pugnacious personality was overlooked by some and celebrated as a “fighting spirit” by others.  

Hillary Clinton, a former “First Lady”, Senator from a liberal state, and Secretary of State under a liberal President, was the very personification of an entitled member of the Washington elite. 

Trump broke down the Democrat’s fragile “Blue Wall” of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania  and won the Electoral College vote 304 to 227. But Trump lost the national popular vote by 2,865,000 votes.

After four years of hyper partisan conflict and savage pe rsonal attacks on Trump, by Democrats at all levels, including the majority of the national media, Trump responded with obsessive Tweets targeting anyone who criticized him. Political exhaustion in the electorate had set in and “Trump fatigue” became a factor in 2020.

Voting participation was up dramatically from 2016 and Trump lost the national popular vote to Joe Biden by 6,552,000 votes and the Electoral College vote 306 to 232.  But more telling, Trump lost his populist appeal in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania and Biden flipped Arizona and Georgia as well. Perhaps the most significant trend shown in 2020 was that Trump’s support in all three categories measured of younger voters (18-49)  lost ground from 2016.  Also, among the large group of self identified “Independent” voters, Trump’s support declined from 47% to 41%. 

Polls now indicate that “Trump fatigue” has held over from the 2020 election. A January, 2022 poll of  self described GOP primary voters agreed with the opinion that “a new Republican candidate was needed to defeat Biden in the next election” (Nov.2024).  Sixty-seven percent of this same cohort agreed with the statement that “Joe Biden is legally the President”; thus refuting the only issue that Trump is currently identifying himself with and one that will play a role in the 2022 congressional election for those who have won Trump’s endorsement and those who haven’t.

But the problem for the Trump endorsed candidates is serious.  Another recent poll found that only 16% of Republican voters would “definitely” vote for a Trump endorsed candidate.” They might anyway, but the value of Trump’s endorsements and his credibility have all but disappeared. In an incredible attempt to finish it off he recently said that if he were reelected President he would pardon the insurrectionists who might be convicted in federal courts.  This political version of putting on a suicide vest in a lightning storm may do the job.

Thus, the big picture currently for both the 2022 elections and looking ahead to the 2024 presidential elections supports the view that Trump’s time as come and gone. Republican voters cite Trump’s personality as a “major issue”.  That’s a serious understatement and one that is certain not to change as his rants, lies, exaggerations  and charges continue to grow. The 2024 Republican presidential primary contest will certainly be as crowded on as it was in 2016.  In an admittedly early, hypothetical nine candidate contest of likely Republican candidates, Trump won only 36 percent against a field that for the most part lacked national voter identification or existing groups of “core supporters” like Trump. Put another way, these GOP primary voters preferred 64% of the other listed candidates or hadn’t made up their minds. 

There are many unknowns with respect to the future 2024 Democratic presidential candidate which will effect voter’s choice including Biden’s age and health; Vice President Harris’s unpopularity and any number of external factors that might stimulate one or more Democrat challengers.  But there are few unknowns about Trump.  He is what he is and what you see is what you will get.  Republican candidates in the upcoming 2022 elections should begin, or continue, the process of, divorcing themselves from Trump’s hold on the Party. They need not attack him as he will them but they should follow the change in attitudes which started in November, 2020 and have continued over the last year, and make him irrelevant to their campaigns, as the recently elected GOP Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin did. It is not necessary to be a Trump supporter to be a conservative and having Trump on the ticket in 2024 would dramatically change the focus away from the issues that the polls show are alienating voters from the Democrat’s far Left agenda and make Trump and his single issue “Big Lie” about the “stolen” 2020 election, plus his role in the January 6th insurrection and his inflammatory and irresponsible personality the main issues. A losing proposition.

Friday, January 14, 2022

THE STATE OF AMERICAN DEMOCRACY

 You can tell it’s an election year.  Democrats, divided among themselves and in near panic over the likely loss of control of both houses of Congress in the upcoming November elections are searching for an issue to counter both the historic trends of mid-term presidential election s and the collapse of President Biden’s approval ratings across a wide range of issues. Vice President Kamala Harris’s poll numbers are even lower than Biden’s.

Their struggle is complicated by reality.  The chaos of the Afghan withdrawal; the millions of illegal aliens who have crossed Biden’s open southern border; the year long contradictions in messaging and the unpopular Covid 19 vaccination mandates; high levels of consumer price inflation especially in food and energy, are all real.  They have happened and can’t be denied.  In one recent week the Supreme Ct. has found Biden’s vaccination mandate for private businesses with over 100 employees to be an executive branch overreach and Biden’s attempt to make “voting rights” legislation into a viable campaign victory has hit a wall with Democrat senators Sinema and Manchin refusing to provide the 51 vote (including VP Harris’s tie breaking vote) majority to remove the Senate filibuster rule that requires a 60 vote majority to pass legislation in that body. What to do?

At the presidential level Biden is still campaigning against former President Donald Trump.  Of course Trump isn’t running for anything at the present time but Biden apparently thinks that the 2022 mid-term voters are still thinking about Trump and can be convinced that he’s the root of all the current problems.  But Biden’s poll numbers indicate that voters are focused on Biden, not Trump.  So Democrats in Congress and the media have adopted a different  two pronged strategy.  Why not spend trillions of dollars in an attempt to buy votes and at the same time add a level of fear with a hypothetical systemic threat that they can lay at the feet of the Republican opposition.

The first effort has failed to gain much political traction.  Over the objections but eventual acquiescence of the Progressive, far Left wing of the Democratic party congressional caucus, a 1.2 trillion dollar infrastructure bill was passed.  But it was passed with bipartisan support and the basic “roads and bridges” out in the future theme didn’t generate much excitement and hasn’t overcome the angst and anger of many voters which are driving Biden’s low job approval.

The second half of the “see how much of your money we can spend to help you” vote buy, was the 2.6 trillion dollar “Build Back Better” social welfare legislation that hit a monstrous speed bump also with the defection of Senator Joe Manchin (D-WVA) in the evenly divided 50-50 Senate. 

Ignoring the fact that all 50 of the Republican senators also opposed the bill on sound economic reasoning, the Democrats have demonized their own Senator Manchin with the 

nonsensical claim of “the injustice and undemocratic position of one Senator defying the will of the Democratic Party and the people’.  Of course the Republican Senator’s votes count just as much as Manchin’s  and they believe that they represent the preferences of their constituents who are also “the people”.  While the size of the bill has been trimmed to around 1.75 trillion dollars it still lacks the necessary support to pass intact. Portions of the bill will probably eventually pass in pieces of separate legislation or in a further much reduced collective version but it may be “too little, too late” to have much effect on the November elections.

This leaves the Democrat election strategists with the “change the subject” option. The primary focus of this charge being made by Democrat politicians, “cherry picked “ liberal college professors, and the ususal far Left opinion writers, is the January 6, 2021 riot and assault on the U.S. capitol by President Trump supporters responding to his claim that Biden and his supporters in various states, “stole the 2020 presidential election’. While the now labeled “Big Lie” has indeed found no credible supporting evidence it remains a mixed dynamic for Trump’s credibility and that of his supporters in the Congress and a convenient target of attack for Democrats.  Engaging in common political hyperbole and activating the new election strategy,  Biden characterized the riot as Trump personally holding “a dagger at the throat of democracy.” 

While the nearly year long Democratic House committee investigating the events of January 6th, has not yet found any specific ties of Trump to the actual assault,  the Department of Justice has recently announced that a charge of “seditious conspiracy” has been filed against eleven members of the Oath Keepers, a far right extremist group with a few members present at the insurrection.  The leader of this group had outlined a plan for the use of armed force and military like tactics to attack the capitol.  He went on to talk about the necessity of “civil war” in opposition to federal government policies.   This is serious language and should not be taken lightly.  However, the proposed military tactics did not materialize and while force was used armed force was not.  This is not entirely surprising since the rhetoric employed by small extremist groups typically exaggerates their capabilities.  

Even before the revelation announced by the Dept. of Justice, Biden’s theatrical “dagger” meme had been seized on by numerous media types to explore the “possible ‘end’ of democracy” in America. Giving the threat a somewhat broader base, the Democrats have incorporated a claim that Republicans in control of state legislatures are rigging election laws to deprive voters access to the ballot box. In a recent interview a Harvard professor portrayed these revised election regulations as Republicans “legally stealing” upcoming elections. The obvious contradiction of the terms “legally” and “stealing” aside, the solution for Democrats would seem simple; win more elections in these states but they seem to be focused on winning more elections in “toss up states” by stereotyping all Republican candidates as “undemocratic”.

Republicans claim that voting regulation changes are intended to support voting integrity. This claim is not without justification.  The “handwriting is on the wall”. There are two separate “voting rights” bills in the Democrat controlled Congress which would give a “one size fits all” federal control of elections in the 50 states. Included in these bills are a variety of loose standards for voter registration and identification and procedure and reinstatement of the provision in the 1965 Voting Rights Bill that required federal approval of an changes to voting procedures in specific states mostly in the South, with a history, no matter how distant, of discriminatory voting procedures.  The Supreme Ct. struck down this provision in 2013 as unconstitutional and outdated. 

In the critical 2020 senate elections in Georgia, some Democrats urged voters in safe “blue states” to take advantage of Georgia’s permissive registration residency requirements and travel to Georgia temporarily for the sole purpose of voting in this election and then move back home.  New York City has recently approved voting for non-citizens in their municipal elections. The only requirement being residency for at least 30 days.  This new “voting right” applies  to approximately eight hundred thousand immigrants.  

Democrats have long opposed such basic voter identity requirements as a photo ID even in states that issue such special voting versions for free. 

However, even if the Democrats voting rights legislation fails in the Senate it does not mean “the end of democracy”. Once again all evidence in support or opposed to the changes in the various Republican controlled states will be the subject of judicial review if Democrats feel their claims have legal merit.  Of course, the legislation passed in these states itself is “legal” according to the Harvard professor as well as the product of a healthy democratic process in both the election of the legislators and in the enactment of policies by majority vote in their legislative bodies.  Democrats are defining democracy not by process but by outcomes which only fit their ideological conformity and partisan advantage. 

This process is an obvious election tactic to try and diminish the focus on, and importance of the aforementioned policy and economic issues that loom over the Democrat’s probable failures in the November, 2022 mid-term elections. To evaluate the actual “threat to democracy” in the U.S.  a broad view and contextual approach is required.  First however, it is a simple fact that the January 6th, 2021 riot and invasion of on the U.S. capitol was in itself an egregious assault  on the institutions and democratic political processes of America. The peaceful transitions of U.S. governance at the highest level has been a fundamental principle of the American political experience and vital source of stability for our entire constitutional history. There is simply no way to legitimately diminish the seriousness and unacceptability of the assault. Those responsible, either as participants or provocateurs should face the full application of the law. Over 700 individuals have already been charged.  

But does this single irrational act of rejection of our democratic system represent a continuing process of diminution  of that system through violence and intimidation? Does it presage a nation wide acceptance of a general anti-democratic system based on a lessening of support for the core concepts of rule of law, separation of powers, and representative democracy? 

There are indeed,  polls that show a disturbing level of acceptance of violence in pursuit of policy goals.  In a December, 2021 poll, 34% agreed that violence against the government is some times justified.  While 40% of Republicans polled agreed, 41% of Independents and 23% of Democrats also agreed.  The bipartisan nature of this orientation is further demonstrated by the 25% in a second poll that agreed that “force might be justified to achieve” the mostly liberal goals of “civil rights”, “gun control”, “election results” and “labor” policies.  But polls are not “movements” which require dedication, organization and participation.  Also, solid majorities of Americans remain opposed to violence or the use of force against the government.  Despite rampant speculation and political posturing  the fact remains that in the face of the riot and invasion of the capitol and the fantasies of the eleven Oath Keepers, the democratic process actually worked.

The motive of the attack on the capitol was originally described as an attempt to stop the constitutionally required certification of the Electoral College results from the November 2020 presidential election.  While the motivation of the mob seemed to quickly change into one of general occupation and an orgy of vandalism and violence against authority, it failed in it’s original purpose.  It’s failure was inevitable.  The invasion was bound to fail as reserves of law enforcement were brought in.  The certification of the Electoral College results while disrupted, was only delayed a matter of hours as the Congress reconvened in the early hours of January 7 and carried out its duty. In other words, both the rule of law and the democratic process prevailed even in the face of profound and senseless hostility.  

Once again, law suits claiming that the election was corrupt have all failed and  do not represent broad based anti-democratic reality.  Judicial findings based on facts have represented the health of the democratic principal of the “rule of law”.

“The end of democracy” might sell books and stimulate opinion shows and journal articles but our democratic system is not defined by individual events in Washington or anywhere else.  Our democracy operates as a centuries old, extremely broad pyramid whose base is occupied by thousands of “free and fair” elections starting at the local level of school board membership and city councils, and growing through county commissions, state legislatures and governors, judges elected or appointed by elected officials, and finally reaching the top with elections of members of the House of Representatives and the Senate and the President. The American public overwhelmingly supports this system, the Constitution which protects it, and the Bill of Rights that guarantees our basic individual freedoms. 

Virtually all public elected public officials, members of the military, members of the judiciary at all levels and law enforcement personnel take and oath of office in which they swear to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and of the United States”.  

Unfortunately politically inspired violence hiding behind the protection of the claim of “peaceful protests” has become the “new normal” after a year of excess allegedly in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020.  This will probably continue until police forces are rebuilt and allowed to contain it.  The perpetrators have been small extremists groups on both the Left (Antifa) and the Right (Proud Boys) as well as some members of, or adherents to, the Black Lives Matter groups.  The violence was mostly carried out against businesses, empty government buildings and police forces responding to the ensuing riots. With the exception of a few enabling local politicians and district attorneys this violence has been widely condemned by the public and political figures. 

The major political crisis in the U.S. today is the uncompromising polarization of the Congress and the electorate. There is a profound sense of hopelessness, frustration and cynicism that citizens face with the apparent inability of government to deal with the challenges of the continuing pandemic, punishing inflation, spikes in crime and the constant drumbeat of racial hostility and environmental doom sayers.  Democracy doesn’t seem to be working well but the targets for American’s frustrations are the members of the political class not the democratic system.