A Dangerous Game of Chicken

As the “tit-for-tat” trade fight between the US and China escalates, Donald Trump is likely to find that he doesn’t “know China” the way he once thought. When he said that during the presidential campaign, he based his understanding of China on one thing: the high rent in Trump Tower that he had exacted from a Chinese bank. Today, he may still assume he can win a game of chicken by upping the ante until the Chinese eventually fold.

However, Trump and his crew don’t understand Chinese thinking. The Chinese leadership does not respond well to being bullied, least of all now that they have a means of fighting back. China’s commerce ministry said as much in a statement right out of Chairman Mao’s playbook. Mao had often said when dealing with “U.S. imperialism”: “We will not attack unless we are attacked,” Mao often said. “But if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack.”

A ministry spokesman said on April 6, 2018: “The Chinese way of doing things is like this: We do not pick a fight, but if someone does pick a fight, we will fight resolutely. The Chinese have always been very serious in handling these matters. We mean what we say.” And the commerce ministry added in a formal statement: “On the issue of Sino-U.S. trade, the Chinese position has been made very clear. We do not want to fight, but we are not afraid to fight a trade war.”

Trump and other U.S. officials are saying the U.S. isn’t engaged in a trade war with China. But China’s press is already using that term. Perhaps there won’t be a trade war; Trump may simply be employing his usual bluster to force more favorable terms of trade. He risks stepping over the line, however.

Trump needs to understand that the U.S. no longer faces the weak China of Mao’s time. They mean what they say, and they have the resources to fight back.

This is a time like no other when negotiating differences is important. Playing chicken is a fool’s game, especially when the U.S. and China need one another on important international issues, starting with North Korea.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Trump’s Benghazi

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) says he didn’t know. Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) and minority leader Chuck Schumer say they didn’t know either. Nor did several other U.S. senators say they knew that the US has nearly 1,000 troops stationed in Niger, where four Green Berets were recently killed while on a counterterrorism mission. Other U.S. congress members said they did know, but so what? None apparently raised an eyebrow at the growing United States military presence in Africa— a presence that includes combat and has not been authorized, much less debated, by congress.

Actually, all congress members should have known, not necessarily because the Pentagon says it informed everyone, which may or may not be the truth, but because news of the widespread U.S. military deployment in Africa has been around for some time. I wrote about it in June, relying on the reporting of others on the U.S. “arm and assist” program that finds U.S. soldiers based in 24 African countries and perhaps double that number of “outposts” and other facilities. Niger is just one place—Somalia, Cameroon, and Mali are others— where U.S. forces are arming, training, and accompanying local soldiers on dangerous missions.

The U.S. military has not, of course, publicized these missions, knowing full well that they would get unwanted attention. But they are there, and the U.S. Africa Command has become a crucial component of the “war on terror.” As Nick Tulse wrote last April, the U.S. now operates “a constellation of bases integral to expanding U.S. military operations on the African continent and in the Middle East.”

I suspect that many members of congress chose not to take note of these operations for political reasons: to avoid being seen as questioning the pursuit of terrorists everywhere, regardless of cost.

Permit me to quote from the conclusion of my June 2017 commentary, which is suddenly quite germane to the dispute between the wife of Sgt. La David Johnson, one of the four U.S. soldiers killed, and President Trump:

If I were the parent of a service man or woman, I would be enraged that my son or daughter is being sent into missions impossible led, on paper only, by a commander-in-chief who is in fact AWOL. And if I were a citizen of Africa or the Middle East, I would be appalled by the Americans,’ and their governments,’ preference for guns over humanitarian assistance. Imagine what $24 billion in arms sales [to Middle East and African countries] since 2010 could have bought in public health and educational training, small business support, environmental protection, and other elements of human security.

Congress should get its act together and challenge not only the Niger mission, but the legality and strategy of the many other missions in and beyond Africa that put young lives at stake. Let Republicans like Graham in particular investigate the Africa missions with the same zeal they displayed over Benghazi. What The New York Times calls “America’s Forever Wars” must end.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

The Great Distracter

Three of Donald Trump’s latest ploys to distract attention from Russiagate have failed.

First was Rep. Devin Nunes’ late night visit to the White House under escort by two staff members to view classified information. The visit increasingly looks like a prearranged attempt to divert his committee’s investigation into Russia-gate. One of the escorts was appointed by Michael Flynn the former national security assistant and efforts by Flynn’s successor, H. R. McMaster, to remove him were reportedly thwarted by Trump himself. As Sean Spicer might say, this episode doesn’t pass the smell test: It sounds like a “weapon of mass distraction,” as someone on CNN said. Trump is grasping for straws—anything that will lead the media and investigators away from the Russia matter, all the more so now that Jared Kushner’s meeting with the representative of a sanctioned Russian bank has become known.

The second ploy is a signature example of Trump’s untrustworthiness: His turnabout on immunity for government officials who might be prosecuted for criminal behavior. As he has shown time and again, what he once said about a matter is irrelevant to what he now says. Recall that in late September 2016, Trump said in reference to Hillary Clinton and senior staff seeking immunity over her use of a private email server: “The reason they get immunity is because they did something wrong. If they didn’t do anything wrong, they don’t think in terms of immunity. Five people. Folks, I’m telling you: Nobody’s seen anything like this in our country’s history.” Flynn followed up the same month on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “When you are given immunity, that means that you have probably committed a crime.” A number of other Trump senior staff weighed in at that time, trying to score points off the idea that a President Hillary Clinton would be under FBI investigation for years, presenting an intolerable situation.

Now that Trump is under assault, he wants Flynn to testify under immunity, to challenge the Democrats’ “witch hunt.” Same old diversion strategy, and it too smells bad. Trump must be supremely confident that Flynn has nothing to offer the intelligence committees. Recall that Trump waited two weeks before firing Flynn, a clear sign of his hope that Flynn could weather the storm. Flynn, meantime, has lots to gain from a grant of immunity, notably, his discussion of sanctions with Russia’s ambassador while still a private citizen. Like Nunes, Flynn is a proven Trump loyalist—a former campaign booster who will do whatever is demanded of him to frustrate a probe of collusion with the Russians. Wisely, the Senate Intelligence Committee turned Flynn down, at least for now.

Trump’s third ploy is to keep massaging the “wiretap” accusation, each time trying to redirect the media and Congressional investigators. Trump began by directly accusing President Obama of having wiretapped him at Trump Tower. That accusation got nowhere, so he diverted to the accusation that he and his team had been “surveilled” by Obama’s people. Now that that charge has been shown to be nothing more than ordinary and perfectly legal National Security Agency eavesdropping on phone calls initiated from abroad, Trump is asking for investigation of any kind of surveillance by anyone at any time. It’s a fishing expedition that he (probably in league with Stephen Bannon) surely knows can go nowhere.

From the president on down, this is an administration on the defensive, populated by people who are their own worst enemies. The Watergate model looks more relevant by the day.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State

The Republicans: Cowardice in high places

Jeb Bush endorses Ted Cruz. So do Marco Rubio and Mitt Romney. Chris Christie endorses— in fact, practically fawns all over—Donald Trump. Ben Carson suddenly thinks Trump would make a great president, in agreement with Vladimir Putin of all people. Paul Ryan bemoans the sorry state of his party’s campaign but refuses to name names and implies he’ll endorse whoever wins the nomination. The national chairman of the Republican Party likewise indicates unhappiness with the candidates but says he’ll endorse whoever wins. John Kasich appeals to reason but nobody is listening. Who will he endorse when he finally drops out?

These guys are cowards, pure and simple. They have no principles, no scruples, only a skewed sense of party loyalty, which communist party apparatchiks would surely appreciate. Rather than refuse to endorse either of the two frontrunners, they abide by a bizarre tradition of accepting their fate, holding their noses, and supporting candidates they have called— and who have called them— every name in the book. Sure, they say, Trump and Cruz are “con artists,” bigots, bullies— but at least they are our terrible people and, oh yes, they’re loyal conservatives.

Now I’m not so naïve as to believe that the endorsers really mean what they say in support of their suddenly wonderful candidate. Nor do I believe the fence sitters like Paul Ryan when they say (as Ryan did say) that we need to “raise our gaze and aim for a brighter horizon.” All of them are self-serving, jockeying for position, probably with an eye on winning or keeping a job in the next Republican administration. They are desperately trying to show that even though they have some problem with Trump and Cruz— hey, nobody’s perfect— they have an even bigger problem with Hillary Clinton. So they content themselves with supporting the “lesser evil,” or opting (like Ryan) for neutrality.

Let’s not leave this sorry lot without also noting that Trump and Cruz are cowards too, though they mask their insecurities with bravado. They will never acknowledge their race and gender-based hatreds, their moral deficits, their constant lying, or the real impact of their policies (or what passes for policies) on everything from military strategy to social programs and the environment.

History will record that when the Republican Party disintegrated, undone by two demagogues who represented depraved values and dangerous ideas, no one in the party dared to directly challenge and repudiate them. Instead, party leaders pretended that the demagogues’ views might somehow be toned down by wiser advisers or by the realities of power. Now that’s naïveté!

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.

Political will is obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace

One of the cardinal lessons of international conflict resolution is that two fighting is worth more than negotiating. John Kerry faced this truth as he struggled to broker something more meaningful in Gaza than a few hours or days of so-called peace. Unfortunately for him, both Israeli and Hamas leaderships came to believe that peacemaking on their terms would yield few gains, whereas fighting might achieve gains that had been unachievable before. As Jimmy Carter said in his 1979 speech to the Knesset, “The people support a settlement. Political leaders are the obstacles to peace.”

Reports from Israel point to an increasing conviction among its leaders that now is the time to eliminate Hamas once and for all. The tunnels have to be entirely wiped out and the rockets silenced. Hamas’ leadership has to be discredited. Gaza has to have a permanent Israeli military presence. For Hamas, continued fighting justifies its existence and establishes its legitimacy as a negotiating partner. Fighting is also the only way, apparently, Hamas leaders see to end Israel’s blockade of Gaza, open border crossings with Egypt, and thus free Gazans from the economic squeeze that has dramatically reduced their quality of life.

For both sides, and especially for the innocent people who are paying the highest costs for more fighting, this war is particularly anguishing because it was avoidable, as Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group recently argued in his July 17, 2014 New York Times editorial. Thrall pointed a finger at Israel, with U.S. support, for obstructing the reconciliation agreement reached by the PLO and Hamas last April, which might have laid the groundwork for a new peace accord with Israel. Hamas was in a weakened condition then, and agreed to put the Palestinian Authority in the driver’s seat in Gaza as it is in the West Bank. A few generous acts by Israel and the U.S. at that time might have produced entirely different reactions when the kidnappings and murders occurred earlier this month.

In his July 27, 2014 New York Times editorial, David Grossman, Israeli author of The Yellow Wind and other outstanding books on Israeli-Palestinian differences, suggested it may finally be dawning on Israelis of diverse political persuasions that there are no winners in war, and that Israel must negotiate with Hamas. He wrote in the name of a common humanity as well as a deep conviction that Israel’s leadership has failed its people by rejecting a peace that has long been within reach. But nobody in Tel Aviv is listening. Benjamin Netanyahu seems to believe that war is the answer— that somehow, contrary to all the historical evidence about resistance movements, the civilian and military survivors of Israel’s attacks will accept their fate and allow the occupying power to do what it wants. Netanyahu and his supporters will be proven wrong, but before that happens, the suffering of Israelis and Palestinians alike will continue.

And what of the U.S. role? The Israeli air attacks have been met with, “understanding,” by the President, the Secretary of State and other high US officials. Yes, they have expressed “concern” about the “heartbreaking” toll on the Palestinians these attacks have caused— over 1,888 dead and 9,000 wounded last I looked. Israel has lost 63 soldiers and three civilians. Public and Congressional opinion in the U.S. seems to support the official view that Hamas is to blame for this latest round of conflict, so Obama is just where he wants to be— on politically safe terrain.

Kerry said the U.S. goal in Gaza was “an unconditional humanitarian cease-fire.” But the Israelis were never really interested in Kerry’s cease-fire efforts, minimal though they were, until they had achieved their military objectives.

As was reported by the Associated Press on Saturday, August 2, 2014 Netanyahu upbraided the U.S. ambassador to Israel by saying the Obama administration should never “second guess me again” on dealing with Hamas.

You have to hand it to Netanyahu; he knows how to manipulate the Israel-U.S. relationship to his advantage. He knows how rarely Washington follows up its “concern” about Israeli military and political actions with any withdrawal or reduction of support. Thus, he lets the U.S. leadership fret (or pretend to fret) for awhile and engage in endless shuttle diplomacy, while he goes about his business. Already, Washington has announced a resumption of $225 million in aid to Israel for its antimissile system, and you can bet more will be forthcoming.

The U.S. approach to a Middle East peace, like Israel’s and Hamas’ approaches, is one-sided and doesn’t effectively address the core obstacles that have bedeviled diplomacy for decades. A just peace would mean Israeli-Palestinian sharing of authority over Jerusalem, with assured access to all religions; mutual recognition by Israel and the new Palestinian state of each other’s sovereignty and right to exist; compensation to Palestinian refugees; and a land-for-peace formula that would swap arable land annexed by Israel for an equal amount of land Israelis have settled, allowing for creation of a contiguous Palestinian state. Jimmy Carter’s Geneva Initiative and Tikkun magazine’s Geneva Accord are among the sources that demonstrate that a just peace can be constructed if only the various parties have the will to do so.

What is lacking to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace is not so much a fair and viable plan as the political will to carry it out.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.