On the Jewish calendar, today is the 50th anniversary of the reunification (or conquest, depending on how you look at it) of Jerusalem. The holy city has now been under Israeli control for as long as the combined periods of the British Mandate (1917-1948) and Jordanian rule (1948-1967). 2017 also marks the 500th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Jerusalem; Israeli rule still has a while to go before it matches their 400 year tenure of sovereignty, which I consider to be the record-holder (though dating events of the First Temple period is extremely contentious and it’s a matter of interpretation whether to consider the East Roman Empire under Constantine to be a new regime or a continuation of Roman rule). Regardless, 50 years is entirely respectable in historical terms, certainly for a modern state.
Except that it is not respected: Israeli sovereignty in the entirety of Jerusalem is not generally recognized, for very obvious reasons. The eastern part of the city was conquered in a war initiated by Israel (preemptively, in the context of very legitimate fears of an imminent attack). While the previous occupier of the eastern portion of the city, Jordan, renounced all claims many years ago, Jordan’s own claims were never recognized by most of the world, so that renunciation did not automatically validate Israel’s own claims. And a significant minority of Jerusalem’s residents, and most of its Arab population, remain non-citizens. Jerusalem is in many ways a microcosm of Israel itself, a place of unparalleled importance to Jewish history, all of which is under Israeli sovereign control, but only part of which is generally recognized as such, and the whole a peculiar hybrid of a modern democracy and a religio-nationalist regime.
For 50 years, Israel has lived and grown around this fundamentally unsettled and ambiguous condition. Its aims, honestly plainly, have been not to resolve those ambiguities until conditions on the ground are sufficiently favorable that they are likely to be resolved in Israel’s favor. It believes — not without reason — that any other course of action would expose its citizenry to unacceptable risk of violence, and also potentially fatal to the country’s national spirit.
It is common to say that a trend that cannot continue will not continue, and that a condition that cannot endure will not endure. I have been known to apply those adages to the situation in Israel and Palestine myself, and to join the chorus that says that Israel must, for its own sake, prioritize resolution of these ambiguities and irregularities, before events resolve them in far more unfavorable ways.
But a fiftieth anniversary is a good occasion to consider the other possibility, the possibility that what has endured and been endured for fifty years might continue for another fifty, and that one day Israel might celebrate a centenary of Jewish sovereignty in Jerusalem without the Messiah having come, without peace having been agreed, without borders having been generally recognized, without much of its population’s citizenship being settled — and without a catastrophe. That might not be the world that we want to live in — it might not be the world that either Jewish or Arab residents of Jerusalem want to live in. But it might be the world we get.
And it’s worth imagining what it will feel like, to those of us fortunate enough to still be alive in fifty years, and to the grandchildren of those Jerusalemites alive today, to have watched more settled and nominally secure orders rise and fall around the world, while their own formally less-settled existence endured.
What conclusions will they — and we — draw about the ways of the world if that should come to pass?
Ross Douthat has been taking a lot of flack for his suggestion that Vice President Pence and President Trump’s cabinet act to remove Trump from office under the 25th Amendment. Two of the best responses are by Charles C. W. Cooke and Josh Barro. The most important, which isn’t really a direct response to Douthat but which articulates the key background concern, is by our own editor, Robert W. Merry.
The common thread in all of these responses is absolutely correct: removing Trump in this manner would amount to a kind of coup. Trump’s behavior since being elected is entirely consistent with his behavior during the campaign and throughout his career, and he won anyway, substantially because of the near universal opposition (or at least abstention) of the great and good. To remove him now on the grounds of being unfit would be understood, quite properly, as a direct repudiation of the outcome of the election. One can imagine the horrible potential consequences of such a move — particularly since, if he is deposed, you can be absolutely certain that Trump will personally spend the rest of his natural life making those consequences as horrible as possible, without regard for the cost to the country.
Nonetheless, the discussion does not end there.
First of all, we may be in the middle of a quasi-coup already, in the sense that the military and the intelligence community may be preventing the President from conducting his own foreign policy (assuming that he has one, which at this point is highly doubtful). If the President continues to act in an alarmingly erratic manner, I don’t think it is far-fetched to imagine that the cordon around him will tighten further, to the point where an entire generation of senior leadership of the military and espionage services become accustomed to the notion that one of their key functions is to protect the country from its own president. This is precisely the scenario I worried about in my recent column. It is not obvious to me that four years of institutional insubordination is better for our democracy than a cabinet coup would be.
Indeed, there is an argument to be made that at least a cabinet coup would be forthright and above-board about what is going on. And, as Douthat points out, members of Trump’s own cabinet are in a better position than anyone, including the voters, to be able to say: we’ve seen the man up close, and he’s simply unable to do the job. To be clear: that’s not what the 25th Amendment was designed for — but it is a lot closer to what it is for than having Congress impeach a President who has not (yet) credibly been accused of any high crimes or misdemeanors.
(As an aside: I’m curious to learn whether the various folks debating the application of the 25th Amendment have read this little-remembered political thriller by the late Bill Safire. I encourage people to check it out; it’s not a bad read and it’s always interesting to see what well-informed observers in the past could imagine about the future.)
Second, consider the inherent limits on the precedent that would be set by a cabinet coup. The cabinet is not like Congress, independently accountable to the people. Nor is it like the military, a permanent bureaucratic interest. The cabinet is a creation of the president. So what lesson would future presidents draw from a cabinet coup against Trump? They would take care that their cabinets were stocked with people who would be unlikely to want to remove them from office and install their Vice Presidents in their stead. But that is already the normal state of affairs in a properly functioning party system. Trump is extraordinary in that he took over the GOP from the outside, and therefore brought only a handful of people into government who were part of his “movement.” How often will that situation recur?
Moreover, if the precedent were more serious, and future presidents genuinely had to worry about losing the confidence of their party and potentially being removed by their cabinet in consequence, would that be such a terrible constitutional innovation? It’s pretty much exactly what happens in parliamentary systems, where votes of no-confidence are how leaders can be deposed in between scheduled elections. Douthat has expressed his own enthusiasm for Theresa May. Perhaps he wishes we could acquire someone like her as chief executive by a similar constitutional operation.
Finally, those who worry about the political fallout from Trump’s removal, noting the powerful and justified popular fury at elite failure that powered his campaign, need to reckon with the fact that Trump’s presidency is going to do nothing whatsoever to reduce the scope of that fury. Indeed, it could well magnify it. Trump shows every sign of reneging on every significant promise he made during the campaign. He has no plans to address the economic or social problems that powered his own populist revolt. His only hope for continuance in power is to continue to stoke the resentments that put him in office in the first place. Trump is not the cause of the crisis — but neither is he any plausible part of the solution.
That solution can only come from — to coin a phrase — a “political revolution.” It doesn’t have to be Bernie Sanders’s version — it doesn’t have to be limited to one version at all. But it has to be something that involves people organizing to do politics, not putting their hopes in a comic-opera Napoleon figure. In that sense, perhaps nothing would be better than to demonstrate the manifest futility of the Trump quest, the extraordinary weakness of one angry, vain, solipsistic man pitted against the entire edifice of elite administration.
I would not go so far as to say I endorse Douthat’s proposal. But I will heartily endorse a bit more public honesty, both by those who are familiar with the actual situation inside the White House and those who so far have preferred to make their case for muddling through without reference to just how dire that situation appears to be. Those who continue to hope that Trump perseveres need to reckon with the near-total evaporation of his support, not only in the permanent bureaucracy but among his own appointees, and the reasons it has evaporated. These are the most important paragraphs in Douthat’s column:
Read the things that these people, members of his inner circle, his personally selected appointees, say daily through anonymous quotations to the press. (And I assure you they say worse off the record.) They have no respect for him, indeed they seem to palpitate with contempt for him, and to regard their mission as equivalent to being stewards for a syphilitic emperor.
It is not squishy New York Times conservatives who regard the president as a child, an intellectual void, a hopeless case, a threat to national security; it is people who are self-selected loyalists, who supported him in the campaign, who daily go to work for him. And all this, in the fourth month of his administration.
This will not get better. It could easily get worse.
That is the problem in a nutshell. Any argument for muddling through — which is by far the preferable course for the integrity of our democratic institutions — needs to defend muddling through with that, and not some fantasy version of who one hoped Trump might have been, or might yet transform into.
Apologies for the belated posting — I had thought I had posted this last night. I am going to be interviewed on NPR’s Morning Edition this morning at 6:30am eastern time, talking about the ongoing threat to civilian control of the military and intelligence services posed by the chaos of the Trump administration.
I will post a link to the audio file when one becomes available.
UPDATE: the audio is available here.
Last month, in a column I wrote for The Week, I wondered whether President Trump’s “sloth and incompetence” might actually save America from catastrophic war by signaling clearly to our most important geopolitical rival — China — that they can easily get more by picking our pockets than by trying to mug us, while deluding the most nationalistic portion of the American public into thinking that all was well and America was becoming great again.
But as the administration’s collapse hastens, it seems likely that the illusion of dominance will be impossible to maintain. So my latest column in The Week is about what the Chinese themselves are up to.
Just this month, The New York Times published two major stories sounding the alarm, one about China’s burgeoning investments in Africa, the other about China’s massive investments in infrastructure in Southeast and Central Asia. As the Trump administration slips further into solipsistic delusion, starving its own diplomatic corps and boasting about trade dealsin which America got badly outmaneuvered, China’s potential moves on the global chessboard only multiply. Alarm would seem to be justified.
But what game is China actually playing? Is China constructing a 21st-century version of a colonial empire? If so, is that something America ought to be concerned about? And what should — what can — we do about it?
Read the whole thing to see how I answer the question in full. But I conclude:
Ultimately, whether China’s bets pay off spectacularly or only partially — or whether they are largely written off — the most important fact remains the quality and scale of the bets themselves, and the fact that China can readily afford them. That’s the important contest we’ve been losing.
If we invest in our own human and physical capital, we’ll be in a position to deploy that capital in ways that are mutually beneficial to ourselves and our trade and investment partners. If we neglect strength at home in favor of shows of dominance abroad, we’ll be playing right into China’s hands.
Unfortunately, with the generals increasingly in charge of foreign policy and both Congress and the administration essentially paralyzed, it seems all too likely that we’ll get precisely the opposite.
In the wake of the latest and most serious misdeed by President Trump, I re-read this op-ed by a former Minuteman III nuclear launch officer about why it is imperative that Trump not become President:
During my years in the Air Force, I worked over 300 nuclear “alerts”—24-hour shifts 100 feet below the Wyoming tundra. I sat at my post believing, through both the Bush and Obama administrations, that the president was fundamentally rational and would never ask me to do my terrible duty. Not unless the country was in the direst of national emergencies.
With Trump as president, the young men and women who are assigned to our nuclear forces will have no such assurances.
I am a Republican and I have long worked in Republican politics. It gives me no pleasure to say this, but I believe my party’s nominee for president is mentally unfit to assume this heavy responsibility.
But he does have that formal responsibility. And the individuals directly below him in the chain of command have had ample time to accumulate the evidence that he is not capable of assuming it.
I have been inclined for some time to assume that they have made their own contingency plans for insubordination, just in case the worst proves true. Indeed, I assumed that when General James Mattis took the job as Secretary of Defense, he did so substantially in order to interpose his body and his mind between the president and the country’s fate, and thereby remove the need for a more fateful decision down the road.
In the wake of the most recent revelations, though, I wonder whether they are thinking about how to put those plans into action in a more thorough if less dramatic fashion.
That’s the theme of my latest column at The Week:
From here on, if it was not already the case, at every level of the chain of command, individuals will question whether communicating information up the chain in the normal manner could fatally compromise a mission. Since such intelligence is frequently the basis for military action, the same is true of military communications with the commander in chief.
One should assume that foreign governments are making the same assessment, and taking action to curtail their cooperation with American intelligence so as to protect their own national security. The mutual trust that is necessary for intelligence cooperation will have been compromised very severely. . . .
America’s military and intelligence services are therefore faced with a difficult dilemma. The only way to preserve America’s assets will be to routinize the violation of the chain of command by cordoning off the president from information that he properly needs to make informed decisions. Moreover, in order to reassure foreign allies, military and intelligence services will need to show their willingness to violate the chain of command in this fashion. It will need to become an open secret that the president of the United States is, in effect, no longer the president.
The threat this poses to America’s democratic and constitutional system should not be minimized.
The headline refers to a “coup,” which sounds alarmist, but we might not even notice a smooth glide into a world in which the military and intelligence services make policy and give the president a “recommendation” to “approve” rather than being given options to choose between based on the president’s own policy directives. After all, we barely notice anymore that Congress has no role in war-making, or that the president is no longer bound by treaty or international law.
If the men in uniform quietly moved to protect us from our chosen leader, we might find the knowledge that there are grownups in charge to be comforting, at least in contrast to the alternative. Indeed, if America were a foreign country, our intelligence services would probably already be sounding out their military about options.
Anyway, read the whole thing there, and weep.
I will admit that upon hearing the news I indulged in some of the same inner snark that I imagine is widespread. There is indeed something perfect about the choice.
Of course I doubt it really matters in any important sense — and not just because it’s hardly the most crucial appointment in the first place for American diplomacy. Ambassadors these days have little autonomy, and an ambassador in this administration has an even more impossible job than usual. As Michael Sean Winters explains for the National Catholic Reporter:
My friend, Ambassador Tom Melady, who served as Vatican ambassador during the administration of George H. W. Bush and who has since gone to God, used to tell the story about one of his successors, former Congresswoman Lindy Boggs. When the White House floated her name, a Vatican official contacted Melady to ask if she would have access to decision-makers, seeing as it was her husband, Hale Boggs, who had been Majority Leader in the House, and she had never held a leadership position in Congress. Melady explained that her son ran the most influential lobbying firm in Washington and her calls would be answered.
Some months later, according to Melady, Ambassador Boggs was called to a meeting by the Vatican’s foreign minister. There was a matter of some urgency he wished to bring up. Mrs. Boggs asked if she could borrow the phone on his desk, and within two minutes, she had Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on the phone. That is what the Vatican wants in an ambassador.
It is not clear if Mrs. Gingrich will have that kind of access to President Trump’s team or to his Secretary of State, or if she will have to route it through her husband. It is not clear how much longer Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will be at the helm of that department. He told Chuck Todd yesterday that he has to earn President Trump’s confidence every day, which is hardly what someone with a close working relationship says. Tillerson also pledged never to compromise his own values, which also indicates some distance between the two and a concern on Tillerson’s part not to get pulled too completely into the Trump vortex. It is the kind of comment Trump notices and does not appreciate. Ask Jim Comey.
It’s been plain for a while that this administration has not only no interest in diplomacy as a tool of statecraft, but limited interest in statecraft at all. The administration has used appointments like these for purposes of symbolism, but even when it has done so — as, for example, with the appointment of David Friedman to be ambassador to Israel — there’s every reason to question whether there’s any substance behind it, not so much because the administration’s real agenda may contradict the symbolic agenda but because there probably isn’t any real agenda at all.
Still, the symbolism here is pretty snarkily delicious.
I will confess something: I can very easily imagine myself as James Comey. I remember, when I worked on Wall Street, developing the reputation of being one of those guys who wouldn’t just toe the line, but actually spoke his mind if something didn’t smell right, and had to be convinced. But I could be convinced. I worked within the system as it existed, for better and for worse.
I can’t quite imagine myself making it to Comey’s level in the Justice Department, but if I imagine that I suddenly found myself there, I can easily imagine myself, like Comey, running to John Ashcroft’s bedside to bolster his commitment not to rubber-stamp a dubious grant of surveillance authority. And I can also easily imagine myself splitting hairs to give my superiors at least some of the leeway they wanted to implement a regime of torture-based interrogations. I can easily envision that mix of profiles in courage and in coyness that constitute James Comey’s record in office.
And I can imagine myself being torn apart by the situation of having to investigate possible law-breaking, including possibly covering up that law-breaking, by a major party presidential candidate in an environment of hyper-partisanship.
All of which is by way of prelude to explain my latest column at The Week, about the tragedy of James Comey:
If Comey was trying to put his thumb on the scales for the Republicans, he could not have done so in a more ham-handed fashion. If he was trying to stay above the partisan fray, he could not have failed more spectacularly. He will likely be remembered more as a fool than a villain, the fellow who stumbling after an intruder with his candle in the dark, lit the drapes on fire and ultimately burned the house down.
But I see Comey as a tragic figure, in the classic sense: someone undone by a flaw that is inseparable from his virtues. His fall is a sign of just how corrupted by rabid partisanship our government has become. And if we don’t do something about that, James Comey won’t be the last honorable public servant who turns himself into exactly what he was trying to keep himself from becoming.
Read the whole thing there.
Read this piece in Politico about the firing of FBI Director James Comey:
President Donald Trump weighed firing his FBI director for more than a week. When he finally pulled the trigger Tuesday afternoon, he didn’t call James Comey. He sent his longtime private security guard to deliver the termination letter in a manila folder to FBI headquarters.
He had grown enraged by the Russia investigation, two advisers said, frustrated by his inability to control the mushrooming narrative around Russia. He repeatedly asked aides why the Russia investigation wouldn’t disappear and demanded they speak out for him. He would sometimes scream at television clips about the probe, one adviser said.
Trump’s firing of the high-profile FBI director on the 110th day since taking office marked another sudden turn for an administration that has fired its acting attorney general, national security adviser and now its FBI director, who Trump had praised until recent weeks and even blew a kiss to during a January appearance.
The news stunned Comey, who saw his dismissal on TV while speaking inside the FBI office in Los Angeles. It startled all but the uppermost ring of White House advisers, who said grumbling about Comey hadn’t dominated their own morning senior staff meetings. Other top officials learned just before it happened and were unaware he was considering firing Comey. “Nobody really knew,” one senior White House official said. “Our phones all buzzed and people said, What?”
It sounds very much like Politico got people in the White House to say, flat out, that the firing was about quashing the Russia investigation. The most parsimonious assumption is that, in fact, the President fired his FBI director in an attempt to quash that investigation, and disloyal aides are trying to (a) protect themselves in the event of a Congressional investigation by preemptively saying that they had no idea this was coming, and (b) put Congress on the spot by making it abundantly clear that such an investigation is warranted. Is Congress really not going to do anything in response?
I suppose they might not. The Republican strategy so far seems to be to count on their voters either never believing their lying eyes, or on complete epistemic closure to prevent their voters from ever learning unpleasant news, or on being so convinced of the absolute evil of Team Blue that there is literally nothing that would make them change their mind about the lesser evil.
But consider the implications of the alternative assumption: that these anonymous aides and officials are exaggerating, confabulating or carefully communicating partial truths in order to maximally damage their boss. How on earth can a White House function in such an environment? When your staff is sufficiently disloyal that they are telling reporters that you are engaged in what amounts to obstruction of justice, how can you make policy of any kind?
I personally incline toward the parsimonious explanation. But for those who still want to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, I’m genuinely curious: even assuming you’re right, how much better is that really?
To take the optimistic case regarding Macron for a moment, though, I want to harken back to a column I wrote last year in the wake of Brexit. Back then, I wrote that Britain’s vote to leave had done Europe “an enormous favor, no matter whether you think “Europe” is a good or bad idea.” Why?
If you think it’s a bad idea, then Britain is about to prove that it is possible to leave and survive. The transition is going to be expensive — Britain will enter a recession in the short term, and the long-term transition may be even more painful than the short, particularly if London cannot retain its position as the financial capital of Europe. But if Britain wants to be a country rather than a city-state, it’s a transition it will have to make at some point. Merely by proving it can be done, Britain will give heart to any other state reconsidering rule from Brussels.
But if you think Europe is a good idea, then you must think it can be made to work. And the only way Europe can work is by becoming a deeper union. The euro can only function if Europe has a common fiscal policy. Europe can only wield diplomatic clout commensurate with its demographic and economic bulk if it has a common defense policy. And Britain was always going to remain the largest, strongest foot-dragger to further cessions of national sovereignty.
What does a “deeper” union mean?
“Deepen” does not necessarily mean becoming a highly centralized, unitary state, much less a homogeneous culture. The United States’ federal system reserves considerable power to the several states; Canada’s federal system reserves even more power to its provinces, as does Germany to its Länder and Switzerland to its cantons. There’s no reason why Europe could not go down a similar path.
To do so, however, its founding members must compromise their conflicting visions of what Europe is supposed to be. Germany is going to have to accept that it has an open-ended responsibility for the welfare of citizens of other European states. Not for the states themselves, much less their leaders — but for their citizens: Germans will have to come to see Greeks as more like Ossis than like Ausländer. And France is going to have to accept that a functional Europe is one in which France is just a large and powerful province rather than an empire of its own.
In other words, a “deeper” union doesn’t need to mean a more highly-regulated or centralized one. But it does mean having a central European government that is directly responsible for and accountable to a European citizenry, a European electorate. In the absence of such responsibility and such accountability, “Europe” becomes a means for the political class to do an end-run around the citizenry of the various European states, and that process is one of the main drivers of right-wing populism across Europe.
Now, with Macron in charge of France and Markel in charge of Germany, you have two emphatically liberal, capitalist, transnationalists in charge of Europe’s core states. Macron even celebrated his victory with Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” the European anthem, rather than the French anthem, “La Marseillaise.” If these two can’t work together on fixing the structural problems with the design of the E.U., then probably nobody can.
So there’s the counter case to my own case that things are only going to get worse. The advocates of Europe now have their best chance to make their imagined future a reality. They probably deserve a shot.
Marine Le Pen significantly underperformed expectations on election day yesterday, winning only slightly more than half of the votes won by president-elect Emmanuel Macron, or slightly more than a third of the total. Polls only a week ago showed her getting just above 40%, though over the past few days it was clear that she was bleeding rather than gaining support. Nonetheless, I think a lot of the commentariat expected that some combination of higher-than-estimated abstentions (turnout was indeed sharply down from recent prior elections) and enthusiasm by Le Pen’s base would lead to at least a small error in the opposite direction — a Macron win, but not an overwhelming one. But his victory was indeed overwhelming.
Why did Le Pen underperform? I can think of several plausible reasons. Most broadly, I suspect that there is a negative Trump effect on right-wing populism in Europe, partly because Trump’s victory has energized the opposition to that populist surge while removing America as a necessary antagonist for European populists, and partly because Trump has been such an embarrassing failure already. In France specifically, I suspect that Le Pen’s euroskepticism was more of a double-edged sword than it was in Britain, and that there was real concern about Le Pen’s failure to articulate a new course. Tactically, I suspect that Mélenchon’s endorsement helped bring some of his supporters around, and the massive document dump on the eve of the second round likely hurt Le Pen badly and helped Macron by energizing his supporters.
So the center held, and advocates of the vitality of that center can reasonably rejoice. USA Today‘s editorial on Macron’s victory starts off on the expected note:
The French roundly rejected the isolationism and fear-mongering of populist French candidate Marine Le Pen in the presidential election Sunday, reembracing the European Union, the continent’s decades-old experiment in economic union, stability and peace borne out of the ashes of World War II.
For an America that engaged in two costly wars in the past century spawned by a divided Europe, that’s good news.
But as soon as you dig in to that very editorial, more ominous tones begin to sound. Macron does not yet have a parliamentary majority to support his program. He has a limited amount of time to demonstrate that he can make headway in reducing France’s persistently high unemployment. As the editorial says at one point: “while the messenger of French populism has suffered a defeat, the underlying concerns about globalization and Muslim immigration remain potent forces.”
This is ultimately the question. If Macron’s program has the answers to France’s problems, then his election is an extremely good thing. We should none of us be cavalier about tossing out arrangements that have anchored our politics for so long, and nobody should be sanguine about the rise of the populist right. Populism is a symptom of deep dysfunction in a political system.
But you can’t crow about the decisive defeat of a symptom. You can only be pleased when the disease itself goes into remission. And I remain very skeptical that Macron has anything resembling a cure in his toolbox — among other things because he has mis-diagnosed the disease.
Which is the theme of my “opposing view,” which appears on the same page:
The primary reason why Le Pen did as well as she did [twice as well as her party’s best prior performance] is the widespread and growing discontent with the future that France has been pursuing for the past generation, and which Macron’s campaign exemplified: a future of ever-closer European integration and ever-weaker bonds of solidarity uniting the people of France.
Questions of sovereignty and identity were central to both campaigns. And while a clear majority of French voters have rejected precipitous withdrawal from the European Union, the stigmatization of immigrants, and an open embrace of Vladimir Putin’s Russia, the discontent with the French establishment consensus in all three areas is manifestly growing. Most fundamental is the urgent desire by French citizens simply for greater control over their individual and collective lives — a sense that they can choose their future, and not merely suffer it.