Noah Millman

Obama’s Missing Peace

My MLK-weekend column in The Week is on a theme that Daniel Larison touched on today as well: peace, and the lack thereof, either abroad or at home.

Larison lacerates President Obama for a legacy of “continuing U.S. involvement in wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen, and . . . the ability to start, escalate, and join wars at will without Congressional authorization” (and he might have added the routinized deployment of flying robot assassins), and blames that legacy on a lack of opposition from either left or right. Myself, I focus on one reason for the failure of Obama’s promise in this regard: that we’ve forgotten what it means to hold up peace as an ideal in the first place.

One might well say, who doesn’t wish for peace? But for that wish to be other than idle, one must accept that peace is sometimes more important than other values. Peace cannot merely be the greatest reward of victory. It must be, at least in some circumstances, more important than victory. To say that a lasting peace can only be constructed on a foundation of fundamental agreement and a consonance of interests is to say that a lasting peace is impossible. And even if such a peace is indeed impossible now, merely to hold it up as an ideal requires saying that some differences will not be resolved, and yet even so we will still not fight.

This is a crucial point. It is true that the surest foundation of peace is justice. But justice is very much in the eye of the beholder — and so in a deeper sense, the surest foundation of justice is peace, that is to say, a mutual agreement to respect a process that all sides know is unlikely to give them total victory even if they believe that they are absolutely right.

I’ve written about this before in the context of the diplomatic agreement with Iran. If you assume that peace is what you get when interests are aligned and differences are resolved, then whenever you have materially differing interests between parties you’ll anticipate conflict, and eventually war. If you think that order can only arise from a monopoly of violence, you will want to be pretty sure that you hold that monopoly. So if you assume that we can never be at peace with Iran until it presents no challenge to American interests, then you should expect never to have peace. But if you think that conflicting interests are normal, and yet that the pursuit of peace is noble, you will seek ways to resolve those conflicts when possible, and to live with them unresolved when it is not. And you’ll wind up signing something like the nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, peace as an ideal has been orphaned at home as well as abroad — and it’s not all the fault of the outrageous and obstructionist right:

If peace has been in short supply internationally, the same, unfortunately, holds true in the domestic sphere. The ideal of progress is a noble one, of course. Moreover, President Obama should be applauded for pursuing that ideal in a reasoned, measured, and generally responsible manner, in the face of opposition that, too frequently, anathematized the very idea of compromise.

But a politics that charts by progress as its only star can never rest — and so can never know peace. If it does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, progress must seek them at home. A more perfect union sounds like a wonderful thing to devote one’s life to bringing about. But a world in which we must struggle ceaselessly to make the union more perfect by our own lights — lest our opponent perfect it by their lights first — is to condemn society to an ever-escalating ideological arms race.

This is also something I’ve written about before, in the context of another Obama speech, and again, I don’t intend to ascribe blame for our state of social agitation primarily to the progressive left. My point, rather, is that without peace as an ideal, our politics only has meaning when construed as a battle, whether that’s a battle for progress or for some other set of ideals. We have to be able to talk about peace as an ideal to make its pursuit seem like a laudable goal rather than a pathetic compromise.

This is perhaps a strange message for MLK Day, whose core ideal was justice and who was very willing to disrupt peace in its pursuit (which did not contradict at all his commitment to non-violence). But perhaps that’s precisely why I do want to stress it again today. The very extravagant hopes invested in the Obama Presidency are, in part, a testament to our failure to understand what peace is. On the right, peace is conflated with order; on the left, it is conflated with justice. But peace is a thing in its own right, and the only reason we don’t remember that is that we’ve experienced so little of it.

If we want to recover it, we had best remember.

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Dominance Games and the Ethics Kerfuffle

My latest column at The Week is a follow-up to yesterday’s post:

The first fracas of 2017 provides a useful template for how politics is likely to proceed in the Trump era.

On Monday night, in a vote taken behind closed doors, the House Republican Conference decided to gut the Office of Congressional Ethics, eliminating many of its powers and putting its successor entity under the control of the House Ethics Committee (which is staffed entirely by members of Congress). The uproar was fierce and immediate, not only from the Democrats (who created the body in 2008 in response to the escalating ethical problems of the Hastert/DeLay era), but from reform-minded conservatives and independents as well.

But the most important pushback came from the president-elect, who tweeted on Tuesday:

Lo and behold, Congress got the message, and by mid-day Congress had scrapped its plans — at least for now.

But what exactly was the message?

Well, consider how the drama has affected the various players.

Donald Trump looks like a champion of clean government (though the OCE would have had no power to investigate his Executive branch) and the interests of the people, while still suggesting that he understands the motivations of those who voted to undermine the office. If the House GOP had any intention to hold Trump to account for corruption, they just made it that much harder for themselves.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, an average Republican Congressman from a safe Virginia seat, is going to have his name in the papers for a while as the poster boy for lax ethics enforcement. But his colleagues — many of whom understandably have little love for the office he aimed to cripple — will remember him as the fellow who stood up for their interests. He’ll make friends, not lose them, as a consequence of his actions. The members who voted with him, meanwhile, won’t ever be known unless they want to be.

House Speaker Paul Ryan, on the other hand, officially opposed the measure, but was overruled by his own caucus. Then, when the measure passed, he defended the proposed changes that he had opposed in conference. And finally, after Trump’s twitter attack, he saw his caucus fold in the face of popular opposition from both the left and the right. He is exposed as somebody unable to convince his people to follow his political advice, while Trump looks fearsome — not least because he is capable of coopting Democratic criticisms without being deemed treasonous.

Ryan’s caucus members know, in other words, where the power really lies, and it isn’t in the speaker’s office. And Ryan knows that as well.

My conclusion:

Most fundamentally, the message was a reminder to Republicans in Congress that they owe far more to Trump than Trump does to them — and that he can safely do them far more damage than they dare to do to him. That Congressional Republicans gave Trump such an easy opportunity shows how much they still have to learn about the shape of politics in the Trump era — or how confident they are that they can always offer their Speaker as a sacrifice if the winds begin to turn.

As for the Democrats, the lesson is that the GOP Congress is more exposed than Trump is. Their best chance of winning back a share of national power in 2018 will come from fracturing the fragile alliance between the two sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Now we’ll see who learns to play by the new rules first.

I don’t highlight the role that ordinary citizens played in the fracas, but that is also important. Individual legislators got thousands of angry phone calls from constituents about the ethics vote, and that clearly was vital. That doesn’t really change my analysis, though, for two reasons.

First, we don’t know that only left-wing or Democratic-leaning voters were complaining. After all, liberal good-government groups weren’t the only ones expressing outrage; Judicial Watch also slammed the GOP Congress for its move. And the representatives in question are Republicans, most of whom represent conservative districts, so it makes sense that they would care more about hearing from constituents who could defenestrate them than from folks who would never vote for them in the first place. To an extent, then, the rapid public backlash against the House GOP mirrors or reflects the dynamic Trump’s rise in the first place, which was very much aimed against the GOP as it previously stood.

Second, it is entirely plausible that one reason Trump intervened against the House GOP is precisely because he saw or felt the public outrage. In other words: public pressure affected Trump before it could affect the House GOP directly. This is precisely what I mean by saying that if the Democrats want to score wins, they need to recognize that Trump and the GOP House can be easily separated — because Trump is much more interested in his own personal power and popularity than he is in either the success of the party or any particular policy outcomes.

Anyway, read the whole thing there.

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Ethics? We Don’t Need No Stinking Ethics

I try to avoid getting on the outrage bandwagon. Most outrages turn out to be outright fabrications, like the hate hoaxes that we seem to be endlessly plagued with, or considerably more complicated than they are presented as being.

But sometimes you should be outraged by the genuinely outrageous. Which means you need a good filter to help you figure out what’s worth being outraged about.

For the issues with which he’s most concerned, Norm Ornstein is one of my filters. And he’s pretty outraged about the Republican gutting of the Office of Congressional Ethics:

I have rarely been more angry or dismayed at the conduct of Congress than I was Monday night with the unconscionable, deplorable, underhanded move by Representative Bob Goodlatte to eviscerate and undermine the Office of Congressional Ethics. When House Speaker Paul Ryan and his counterpart Nancy Pelosi indicated weeks ago that they would continue OCE, the reform community—left and right—breathed a sigh of relief. Ryan, like his predecessor John Boehner, had seen the value to the integrity of the House of the office, which has been a stalwart of bipartisan and nonpartisan comity and independence. That makes this bait-and-switch action even more outrageous.

Some have pointed out the relatively recent vintage of the office — it was created in 2008 — as a way of suggesting that its removal merely reverts to a reasonably-functioning prior system. Ornstein rips the stuffing out of that objection: the OCE was created specifically in response to the escalating seriousness of ethics problems in the Hastert/DeLay years (remember them?) and succeeded because both Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner wanted it to.

And Ornstein isn’t buying Paul Ryan’s claims that he tried to preserve the OCE but was overruled by his caucus:

Rules packages get up or down votes, and are top priority for the majority leadership. They are not rejected by the majority party. The package is put together by the leadership; nothing gets included or excluded without the say-so of the speaker. Make no mistake about it: Despite public reports loudly proclaiming his opposition, it’s hard to believe this would have happened had Paul Ryan really tried to stop it. And do not believe Goodlatte’s risable assurance that this strengthens OCE. It has been muzzled and hamstrung, defenestrated and castrated. If Speaker Ryan really is opposed, he can demand a separate vote on the OCE provision when the whole House votes on its rules. If he does not, he owns it, plain and simple.

I’m not at all surprised that stuff like this is happening first. Any time a new party takes power, it makes sense for them to push their highest and most difficult priorities first. When President Obama prioritized health care reform over a more aggressive response to the foreclosure crisis (or, for that matter, climate change), that told you both what he and his party thought would be the hardest sell (do your toughest stuff first), and what would pay the most long-term dividends (in terms of constituents who benefitted from the action).

Republicans would be crazy to do something like this in the run up to an election. So they are doing it immediately after an election. And, as well, they presumably see a strong and independent body policing Congressional ethics as a material obstacle to their individual and collective advancement, such that removing that watchdog will pay dividends down the road.

I suspect the GOP caucus knows what they are doing. I hope advocates of the public interest know how to respond.

UPDATE: well, right after I posted this, the House Republicans backed away from their own proposal in the face of criticism not only from Democrats and independent reform groups but from President-elect Donald Trump.

That doesn’t mean the proposal is dead — Trump’s own tweets against the measure suggested the problem was more the timing than the substance. But nonetheless: it’s a pretty clear message to the GOP House about where the power lies right now. It sure doesn’t look like it’s in the Speaker’s office.

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The Dialectical Utility of Explanations: Election Edition

Kevin Drum has a weird post up about how there are no big lessons of the 2016 election (at least not at the presidential level), because nothing much actually happened:

Everyone wants to draw big, world-historical lessons from this election. That’s understandable, since the result was the election of an unprecedentedly dangerous and unqualified candidate. But the data just doesn’t support any big lessons. Barack Obama won the popular vote in 2012 by 3.9 points. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by 2.1 points. That’s less than a two point difference, despite the fact that Obama is unusually popular and Clinton had to run after eight years of Democratic rule. In the end, she did slightly worse than Obama, which is about what you’d expect. Unfortunately, a little too much of that “slightly worse” happened to be in three must-win states.

Nevertheless, the identity politics critics insist that the lesson for Democrats is to ditch identity politics. The economic lefties say the lesson is that Democrats need to be more populist. The Bernie supporters are sure that Bernie could have won. The DNC haters think it was a massive FUBAR from the Democratic establishment. The moderates blame extremism on social issues for alienating the rural working class.

These have one element in common: All these people thought all these things before the election. Now they’re trying to use the election to prove that they were right all along, dammit. But they weren’t. This election turned on a few tiny electoral shifts and some wildly improbable outside events. There simply aren’t any truly big lessons to be drawn from it.

On one level, this is very true — but it also proves way too much. If nothing matters at all, and the electorate is so partisan that either party could nominate a headless chicken and come pretty close to what econometric models predict, then why bother having elections in the first place? It’s more an argument against democracy itself than against over-interpreting the 2016 election specifically.

And 2016 is a pretty weird year to describe as featuring “just a few tiny electoral shifts.” After all, Donald Trump won the Republican nomination by running against essentially the entirety of his party’s leadership. And his main competition was another guy running against the entirety of his party’s leadership. The overwhelming majority of GOP primary voters opted against everybody contending for support of the party leadership. That’s not a meaningless fact. Then Trump went on to win an electoral college majority in spite of never uniting his party leadership behind him, being massively outspent, and being opposed by essentially the entirety of the media establishment, and a chunk of the conservative counter-establishment. That’s not meaningless either.

Had Trump lost his three key midwestern states by the same narrow margin that he won them, nobody would be saying, “see? we told you Clinton had this in the bag.” They’d be saying, “holy crap — that was way too close!” Republicans would be furiously debating whether someone less outrageous than Donald Trump but running on a Trumpian platform could win in a walk, or whether they should return to the true Reaganite faith. Democrats, meanwhile, would be fretting about erosion of support in the Midwest and whether they need to shore it up by moving left on economics and/or ditching identity politics, or whether they should focus on “flipping” North Carolina and Florida to compensate for their inevitable losses of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2020. Everyone would be debating what the very obvious and meaningful changes in the electorate portend — and in very similar terms to the way they are now.

What is probably a waste of time is focusing too much on the small-ball “lessons” of the Clinton campaign’s arrogance and incompetence. This article about how they lost Michigan is instructive in that regard:

Everybody could see Hillary Clinton was cooked in Iowa. So when, a week-and-a-half out, the Service Employees International Union started hearing anxiety out of Michigan, union officials decided to reroute their volunteers, giving a desperate team on the ground around Detroit some hope.

They started prepping meals and organizing hotel rooms.

SEIU — which had wanted to go to Michigan from the beginning, but been ordered not to — dialed Clinton’s top campaign aides to tell them about the new plan. According to several people familiar with the call, Brooklyn was furious.

Turn that bus around, the Clinton team ordered SEIU. Those volunteers needed to stay in Iowa to fool Donald Trump into competing there, not drive to Michigan, where the Democrat’s models projected a 5-point win through the morning of Election Day.

Michigan organizers were shocked. It was the latest case of Brooklyn ignoring on-the-ground intel and pleas for help in a race that they felt slipping away at the end.

“They believed they were more experienced, which they were. They believed they were smarter, which they weren’t,” said Donnie Fowler, who was consulting for the Democratic National Committee during the final months of the campaign. “They believed they had better information, which they didn’t.”

Flip Michigan and leave the rest of the map, and Trump is still president-elect. But to people who worked in that state and others, how Clinton won the popular vote by 2.8 million votes and lost by 100,000 in states that could have made her president has everything to do with what happened in Michigan. Trump won the state despite getting 30,000 fewer votes than George W. Bush did when he lost it in 2004.

The article goes on to detail exhaustively how Clinton’s campaign in this crucial state ignored all the evidence that it was slipping from their fingers. It’s a hugely damning indictment, and the people who manage and run the next Democratic presidential campaign had better read it.

But it’s not an adequate explanation for Clinton’s loss. Because the Clinton campaign put huge efforts into GOTV in another crucial state — Pennsylvania — that they did see was at risk. And those efforts paid off — Clinton’s vote total was just a whisker shy of Barack Obama’s 2012 winning total in the state, or John Kerry’s winning 2004 total.

And Trump won Pennsylvania by a larger margin than he won Michigan.

The point of an explanation isn’t to provide predictive power, but to help determine what to do next. A predictive model doesn’t need to explain why anything happens, and therefore need not provide any guide to action. “Fundamental models say this election will be close” doesn’t tell you what ground the election will be fought on, or how to maximize your chances of victory fighting on that ground.

The most important lesson of 2016 is not “the country is so partisan that nothing matters” but rather “fundamentals matter way, way more than campaigns.” Trump, after all, made just about every mistake you could possibly make in his campaign. But here we are litigating over which mistake Clinton made that cost her the election, or whether it wasn’t her fault at all but instead the fault of the FBI or the Russians.

But that doesn’t mean that campaigns don’t matter. It means that what matters most about campaigns is whether they understand the fundamentals. The next election will be fought on the ground shaped by the fundamentals of the Trump era. If those fundamentals are meaningfully better than they were in 2016, then it will be an uphill battle for the opposition. If they are stagnant or worse, then the ground will be more favorable. But the fundamentals will determine the shape of the ground, and if the Democrats don’t prepare to fight on that ground then they will not maximize their chances of winning.

Any debate about what the ground looks like and how to fight on it is worth having.

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Threats to Democracy

My latest column at The Week is about Trump’s Russia policy and the panic about Russian hacking. In a nutshell:

Russia’s alleged actions are entirely unsurprising and far from unprecedented. They are not only the kind of thing that Russia has done before, they are the kind of thing that we have done before — including in Russia’s neighborhood. Russia’s actions may well deserve a response — but the most important response would be to make cyber security a significantly higher priority. They certainly don’t merit panic about Russian intentions, or about the fragility of American institutions.

By contrast, the opacity of Trump’s financial relationships does remain a serious problem, and the possibility that he is personally subject to Russian “influence” because of financial liabilities held by Russian banks could taint any attempt to improve relations between our countries. And of course if the Trump campaign actually coordinated with Russia on dirty tricks, that would be a crime amply deserving investigation, and potentially impeachment.

But at this point, there is no evidence at all of that kind of wrongdoing. That ought to matter. And it ought to be possible to investigate the possibility of corruption or criminal collusion without indulging in scaremongering about the Russian threat. Indeed, advocates of a friendlier relationship with Russia should be the first to call for such scrutiny — because an opening to Russia will only be durable if the American people believe that it rests on a solid institutional foundation and genuine mutual interest.

Meanwhile, those arguing that Russia undermined the integrity of the American electoral system need to take a good look in the mirror. Nothing Russia did or didn’t do can come close to the damage that will potentially be done by exaggerating the extent and impact of that influence, much less creating a constitutional crisis in response.

Read the whole thing there.

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Tough Guys and Crackpots

Having a poor opinion of Trump’s overall capabilities, it is pretty easy for me to explain the incoherence of Trump’s choices for his national security team.

Trump likes guys who strike him as tough, no-nonsense, plain-talking practical types. He sees himself as a man of that mold, and he likes the idea of being surrounded by such men. Retired General James Mattis and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson are not only perfectly cast for those roles, they actually are tough, no-nonsense, plain-talking practical types. You can agree or disagree with their views about this or that matter, and you can fret about having a recently-retired general in charge of Defense or someone with such deep corporate ties running State. But in terms of individual capacities it would be hard to find more capable stewards of their respective departments.

But Trump also likes extremist crackpots with a penchant for conspiracy theories. He has a weakness for conspiracy theories himself, and he seems to associate extremism and crackpottery with open-mindedness and a resistance to political correctness. I suspect listening to them makes him feel smart in a way that listening to proper intelligence does not, because proper intelligence trades in probabilities and possibilities while the crackpot offers certainty. Retired General Michael Flynn and Ambassador John Bolton are about as cracked a pair of pots as you are likely to find at their level of experience, and they will have ample opportunity to pour their chosen poison into the President’s ear. The amount of damage they could do is hard to fathom.

How could the same individual make both sets of appointments? It makes no sense at all if you assume that it’s an informed strategy of some sort. But it makes perfect sense if it’s just a matter of psychology, of how they make the boss feel.

Now we have to hope that the tough, practical types have a strategy for isolating, undermining and ultimately disposing of the crackpots. My only comfort is that they both probably know that this is a key part of their job descriptions, as well as their patriotic duty. My fear is that the crackpots know just as well that their job is to undermine their boss’s confidence in the sober men’s loyalty, and that it’s a job they know they are good at.

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A Reading List That Will Live In Infamy

Open thread: what books would you most recommend to readers interested in understanding the Pacific War — its origins, its prosecution, its consequences, and the experience of those involved?

I admit, I’ve read far less about the war than I ought to have given my interest in the subject, and given its enormous importance in American and world history. Partly that’s just because I’m not a “military history” guy — but that’s really no excuse.

In any event: among the books I have read that touch on the Pacific War, and which I found interesting or enlightening, are:

Books I have intended to read, as they have been recommended to me more than once, and that I am ashamed not to have read yet, include:

Additional reader suggestions are explicitly solicited.

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Trump in a China Shop

My latest column at The Week is about Trump’s phone call with the President of Taiwan, and what it portends:

Responding to the dramatic rise of China is easily the most important foreign policy issue facing America. During the campaign, Trump’s China rhetoric focused on economic matters: charges that China was manipulating its currency and that American companies who relocated manufacturing to China were harming American workers. It was reasonable to expect that, once in office, Trump would seek to renegotiate the terms of our economic arrangement with China, whether bluntly by slapping tariffs on Chinese goods (which would likely be struck down by the WTO, and which would surely trigger Chinese retaliation regardless), or through some more sophisticated negotiating strategy. And if he pursued the latter course, there were indications that Trump had something to offer the Chinese in trade.

For example, Trump questioned the necessity of America’s troops being stationed in South Korea. I’ve argued before that coming to an understanding with the Chinese on the future status of a denuclearized peninsula would be a great place to start building a more cooperative relationship with China on geostrategic matters.

Similarly, the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership was substantially about competing with China for the economic allegiance of many of the same countries. Having aggressively criticized the TPP, Trump may have been signaling to the Chinese that he was less interested in that kind of competition for influence than in securing the best deals for American companies and American workers.

It was possible for the Chinese to imagine that a Trump administration would take a firmer, more nationalist line on America’s economic interest, but would be less concerned in preventing China from pursuing its security objectives or expanding its influence in its region.

That interpretation is now somewhat less plausible, to say the least.

Last Friday, the president-elect received a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president, the first contact at that level since America suspended formal diplomatic relations with the island in 1979. Contrary to initial reports, it now appears this was a planned contact arranged months in advance and aimed at letting the Chinese know that America was going to be more assertive going forward.

China’s response has so far been measured, though as Trump’s rhetoric has escalated, so has the Chinese rhetorical response. But the primary reason for that still-measured tone is that the Chinese still do not really know what the intentions of the new administration might be for bilateral relations. If China concludes that Trump is serious about deepening or possibly even normalizing relations with Taiwan, that would likely lead to a direct clash with Beijing, with potentially catastrophic consequences.

But it is also plausible that Trump is playing his pro-Taiwanese advisers like Stephen Yates for chumps, and using Taiwan merely as a bargaining chip in a high-stakes game of poker. Trump may be trying to create a crisis precisely in order to resolve it by trading away a harder line on Taiwan in exchange for concessions elsewhere — presumably on matters of trade. In that case, the biggest risk is that the Taiwanese — or any American allies in the region — take Trump’s promises to them seriously.

A Taiwanese declaration of independence, for example, would likely prompt a Chinese military response. Would America support Taiwan in that circumstance? It’s hard to imagine we would — but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t suffer badly from the fallout. In 2008 the Georgian president launched a campaign to oust Russian troops from rebellious regions of his country, believing he had American backing. Instead, his country suffered a humiliating defeat, and Russian-American relations were poisoned for years to come. The consequences of abandoning Taiwan in comparable circumstances would be far more severe and wide ranging.

The great unknown, and the key to answering any question about the future of U.S.-China relations, is a true sense of how Trump understands the rise of China within the context of the current system of global security that he has been so critical of.

At TAC’s recent foreign policy conference, the primary point of contention among the panelists was over what our China policy should be. Jim Webb argued for a stepped up military deployment to deter and contain a newly assertive China. Andrew Bacevich argued that staying the course of maintaining our alliances was the best way to preserve stability in the western Pacific. And Christopher Layne argued that we are indeed in the middle of a power transition, and that we need to be more accommodating of China’s rise. China is the most important foreign policy question we face, and it is one that divides the TAC family. We need to talk about it more — especially but not only during campaign season.

One other thing to think about as we contemplate the President-elect’s actions: The Bush Administration also came into office also spoiling for a fight with China. 9-11 put any such plans on the back burner, but what we’re seeing now may be a resurgence of that kind of zero-sum primacist thinking. And it’s resurfacing in part because some of the same people are making many of the same arguments. Before the election, I argued that this kind of testicular Jacksonian conservatism was the real heart of Trumpism in foreign policy. It’s far too soon to draw any conclusions, but I do not relish the prospect of being proven right on this score.

Anyway, read the whole thing there.

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Trump’s Cabinet

I was working on a run-down of Trump’s appointments so far, when I saw that Robert Verbruggen did an exemplary job of it already. So I’ll just add my two cents to his.

On foreign policy, right now, there are two important players and two bit players. It is very hard for me to imagine that Nikki Haley will have any influence as U.N. Ambassador, and I suspect that Mike Pompeo, like Governor Haley, was chosen primarily for political reasons; he’ll be in charge of preparing intelligence briefings that Trump refuses to read. So right now it’s Mike Flynn at the NSC, who strikes me as a deeply disturbing crank, versus James Mattis at Defense, who I find reassuring on multiple levels.

The balance depends on who Trump picks as Secretary of State, and whether that appointee tips the scales in favor of extremism or in favor of sobriety. Bolton or Giuliani would tip it decisively in the former direction. Corker would be somewhere in the middle, but I suspect might prove to be a weak player. The main risk with Romney is that he will prove a pure opportunist; since he has neither background in foreign policy nor the trust of the President-elect, his influence will depend on being able to undermine other players, which is a terrible dynamic. So there are a lot of bad choices, but they are not all bad in the same way. I am trying not to get too hopeful about rumors that Trump is expanding the circle of inquiry, and specifically considering John Huntsman, who would make an excellent choice for the job.

On economic policy, Wilbur Ross is a known quantity and promises to be among the most influential Commerce Department heads in history. I expect whoever Trump picks as Trade Representative to be a similarly forceful character. But the big question is what Steve Mnuchin wants, or believes, which is something nobody really knows. If the answer is “nothing much” — which is very possible — then we can expect a Trump administration to rubber-stamp whatever Paul Ryan delivers him. But it’s also possible that Mnuchin has actual views on subjects like tax policy, budgeting, and monetary policy. At this point, it’s a mystery.

It is worth noting in this regard that Mnuchin is somewhat different from Wall Street corporate honchos (and Goldman alumni) Robert Rubin and Hank Paulson in one important respect. Mnuchin made his initial pile at Goldman, but then left to pursue his own entrepreneurial ventures, whereas Rubin and Paulson climbed the greasy pole to the top. Mnuchin never rose to the level where his core concerns were the kind of macro policymaking issues that Treasury Secretaries deal with — but he’s also played the finance game outside of an investment banking context, with his own capital, which is what real businesses have to do. I will be interested to learn how these differences affect his perspective on Federal policy towards the financial system, if they do at all. I will also be very interested to learn whether he reaches out to people who actually know what they are talking about on subjects where he is a novice — which is most subjects under his purview. I’m not holding my breath — but I am watching.

As for the rest of domestic policy, Trump’s appointments are entirely unsurprising and reflect the campaign that Trump ran. Do I think Ben Carson will be a good head of HUD? No — I think he’ll be completely ineffectual. But I also had no reason, based on the campaign, to think that a Trump administration would have any particular plans for HUD. By contrast, it was clear from the campaign that Trump intended to spend a bunch of money on infrastructure, and it turns out Trump appointed someone for Transportation who is eminently qualified for the position. Appointing Betsy DeVos to Education is an indication that Trump has no particular plans for that department, and is happy for it to become a conservative ideological playground, whereas appointing Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is an indication that he intends to follow through as much as possible on a purely law-and-order approach to questions of policing, immigration enforcement, etc. Verbruggen describes this as Trump choosing by issue whether to tack in a movement-conservative or populist direction; I’d say he’s picked people who matter for departments he cares about, and for departments he doesn’t care about he’s chosen people who don’t matter.

The big domestic policy question mark is whether Trump intends to keep his respective promises to repeal Obamacare and to protect Medicare and Social Security from cuts. Paul Ryan wants to help him keep the first promise and break the second. By appointing Tom Price, Trump has put Ryan in a position where he has no basis for complaining about lack of support for doing exactly what he wants. Which, I think, means that Ryan owns both questions, and owns whatever backlash comes of getting either issue wrong, either by cutting popular programs or failing to act expeditiously on his promised agenda. I suspect Ryan will come to rue the invitation to jump into that particular briar patch. But we’ll see, won’t we?

 

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Trump’s Conflicts

I have no polling data to back me up here, so in my latest column at The Week I engaged in pure speculation about why Trump’s actual and potential conflicts of interest aren’t getting more traction than they are. (And, to be fair, they are getting some traction.)

The opportunities for corruption and self-dealing are manifest — and the evidence so far suggests that Trump is blithe to the problem. So why was this never a material issue in the election? And why isn’t there a public groundswell demanding that he divest himself completely of his assets before taking the oath of office, however painful and expensive such a transaction might be?

Pure partisanship is undoubtedly part of the answer. Trump’s opponents are far more concerned about the potential for corruption in his administration than they were about the potential conflicts of the Clinton Foundation, and vice versa. But that surely isn’t the entire explanation. After all, there was plenty of coverage of the Clinton Foundation as a potential source of conflicts, and not by any means only in the conservative media. And Trump’s potential conflicts really are on an entirely different scale from anything we’ve seen before.

Moreover, given that a large part of the rationale for Trump’s candidacy was that he was incorruptible because he had already made his money, you would think that this would be a point of particular concern to his supporters. But that does not appear to be the case. Why not?

Well, consider how the problem looks to someone inclined to empathize with Trump.

Here is a man who, over the course of a lifetime, built a vast and complicated business. Yes, he started out with many advantages; sure, he may have cut some ethical corners and played hardball more often than not. But at the end of the day, he built a business. It was his work, his risk, his reward.

Now you’re saying that because he decided to serve his country, he has to destroy it? It’s not enough that he remove himself from its operations; he has to take this beautiful thing he built, and sell it at a fire sale price, so that we can be satisfied that he won’t use the office of president to make even more money?

That doesn’t seem fair, does it?

It seems even less fair when you consider the contrast with politics-and-moneymaking as usual. The numerous former elected and appointed officials who have parlayed time in government into lucrative consulting, lobbying, or speech-giving have given voters every reason to suspect that their decisions while in government were corrupted by the prospect for post-public-service buck-raking. It’s probably more than a little puzzling to understand why Trump’s ownership of a Washington, D.C., hotel — which foreign diplomats will undoubtedly stay in as a way of showing respect — is worse than earning millions for speeches to industries you (or your wife) hope to regulate. At least Trump actually built the hotel.

In fact, I suspect to many, Trump’s situation seems less disturbing precisely because it is so much more narrowly personal, whereas garden-variety corruption feels more systemic.

The column goes on to talk about the risk of systemic corruption under a Trump administration — the risk, basically, that Trump could abuse the power of his office to reorient the American economy around regime-provided rents.  The thing is, this risk has very little to do with Trump’s conflicts of interest from his business. The scale of his operations and their opacity makes it considerably easier to exact a toll from any business seeking a more favorable regulatory climate, but plenty of foreign kleptocrats have set that kind of operation up without having started out as oligarchs.

Anyway — read the whole thing there.

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