Writings and observations

mckee

The Western cultures have misunderstood and underestimated the Oriental societies – China, Japan and the Koreas – and their levels of civilization, culture, political objectives and abilities for centuries. Some think we are no better at it today than the followers of Marco Polo and Jorge Alvares were in the 1500’s. As we watch the evolving failures in our attempts to meet the crisis presented by North Korea developing a nuclear threat of world class proportions, one wonders.

This tiny country, sometimes referred to as a hermit kingdom, has an economy that staggers along at the bottom of the bottom quartile, completely beholden to China for its basic existence. Its GDP, when last measured, was an estimated $25 billion in 2015 (compared with South Korea currently approaching $2.0 trillion) placing it 125th in the world (compared with South Korea at 11th.) The two nations were approximately equal in 1970.

Yet North Korea today possesses a nuclear capability second only to the major world powers in its ability to construct weapons. It has a refined intermediate range ballistic missile capable of reaching Japan and the U.S. military bases there, as well as any target in South Korea, and is on the brink of refining an inter-continental range delivery missile, capable of reaching the West Coast of the United States.

But to what end? While it might deliver a single weapon or two at these ranges, it has no capacity to sustain a nuclear attack on multiple targets, or to defend against the predicted mass retaliation that would result if it started something. We classify it with terrorist nations, but it has not sponsored terrorist activities itself since an airline disaster over 30 years ago, and has no apparent intention of doing so now. It does not consider itself an imperialistic nation nor is it beholden to any controlling religion. According to some close observers, the motive for the hermit kingdom’s quest is not to actually mount any attacks on South Korea, Japan or the United States, but merely to hold this power and this capability as a safeguard for their leader, first Kim Jong-il, now his son, Kim Jong-un, so he will not see the same end as Qaddafi in Libya or Hussein in Iraq.

To the mind of the North Korean, their strong nuclear capability is security; it is the only reliable guaranty of the country’s basic sovereignty, to ensure the continued Communist control and the rule of its despotic leader, Kim Jong-un. Once established, the maintenance of this position becomes a matter of “face,” a concept that does not translate accurately and Westerners have difficulty understanding. In this area, we appear to be missing it completely.

The United States keeps tripping over itself in missing or ignoring the Oriental concept of face, and the necessity of saving face, and the abhorrence of losing face in any transaction. From 1992 through 2002, North Korea was a member of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and there were no problems – at least not in this area. But it had aligned itself with Russia during the cold war fallowing the Korean Truce agreements, and this eventually lead George W. Bush to lump North Korea into the “axis of evil” countries in a speech he delivered in 2002. In the face of this insult, and with nowhere to turn, North Korea announced it was pulling out of the NPT and no longer considered itself bound.

When the U.S. started the Iraq war to upset Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-il, father of Kim Jong-un and then leader of North Korea, disappeared for close to two months. Later, observers said he feared an assassination attempt from the United States.

From 2003 through 2009, North Korea reluctantly participated in multinational talks to attempt to resurrect the nonproliferation treaty. All during this time, North Korea was requesting unilateral talks with the United States, which would be consistent with the North Korean objective of being treated with the prestige due a world member of the nuclear club, and clearly an element of “face.” But the United States refused, and would only meet with North Korea in multinational conference. Finally the talks broke down in 2009, with officials from Pyongyang declaring that North Korea would never return to multilateral conferences. The United States has remained just as adamant that it will not participate in unilateral talks with North Korea. This stalemate continues to this day.

Into this background, Secretary of State Tillerson arrived and arranged a state visit to South Korea during the time of the annual joint military exercises. These exercises, which are an annual event for South Korean and U.S. forces in country, are typically based on defensive operations against aggression from the north. This year, however, they included several exercises involving hypothetical missions into the far north by special operations teams, to cut off or neutralize North Korean leadership. The change in mission structure was not missed by North Korean watchers.

In a speech in South Korea, Tillerson said that the United States was about to embark upon a “different approach” with North Korea, as the efforts of the past 20 years had failed. He said he was traveling to South Korea, Japan and China seeking views on the new approach. He did not, however, approach anyone from North Korea, nor in any way solicit their view on what was needed. According to the New York Times reports, he concluded his remarks by saying that he hoped to “deepen cooperation among the United States, Japan and South Korea ‘in the face of North Korea’s dangerous and unlawful nuclear and ballistic missile programs.’” He has provided no details.

Most recently, Tillerson ruled out reopening any negotiations directly with North Korea, stating, “The policy of strategic patience has ended.” He advised that capitulation by North Korea in denuclearizing and giving up their weapons was the only acceptable step.

To anyone paying attention, the demeaning and condescending aspect of the United States’ position towards North Korea as it has unfolded over the years seem obvious. If face was important, as it surely would have been, we consistently ignore that facet in our manner of action; we were and are and have been, in a word, the Ugly American personified. We are accustomed to being the world’s cop, or thinking that we are such, and having nations listen and obey to what we say. We manhandled North Korea over the years in the manner we bullied every minor country of lesser significance, and economic standing and totally dependent upon richer neighbors. We justify this by insisting that we were in the right; our interests were pure, justice was on our side, and world peace depended upon us. We could not be bothered with the arcane, inscrutable, and to us totally irrelevant, mysteries of saving face.

Except we must. It should be obvious that with very minor adjustments in the manner and timing of communications, the United States could convey exactly the same messages to North Korea, provide it with ample assurance of its sovereignty and the security of its leaders, and do so in a manner that allows the country and its leaders to “save face” and not “lose face,” as it complies with the world demands on nuclear proliferation.

At least, it would be worth a try. Do you suppose anyone will catch on before it’s too late?

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McKee

mckee

After watching and listening to the charades between Trump and the President of China at Mar a Lago, together with the dearth of information coming from the Secretary of State as he continues his whistle-stop tour around world, the notion that our President and his posse of amateurs are going to get the best of China’s President Xi Jinping in anything more complicated that a game of rock-paper-scissors is more than worrisome.

While Xi neatly shuffled the economic issues down the road with a 100 day plan to continue “discussions,” of significantly more importance today is China’s position with regard to North Korea. In this area, we are acting like the spoiled child and China is the responsible adult in the room. Whether Trump and his advisers will see this and change course in time is becoming crucially important.

Secretary Tillerson, continuing our course down the wrong path, placed the United States right behind the eight-ball when he declared that no further discussions would be had with the North Koreans on the matter of nuclear proliferation; a declaration that is exactly 180 degrees from where we need to be. To make sure that the forthcoming disaster was not ignored, President Trump then told Xi Jinping at their dinner, and then confirmed it all in a series of tweets, that if China did not take steps to neutralize North Korea’s nuclear threat, the United States would do it alone.

This single-sentence threat to Xi has to rank among the dumbest things Trump has uttered on the international stage in his short term as President. Just exactly who does the Old Fool think is being backed into a corner? It sure as hell is not China! “Oh, you think you can do this without us? Well, why don’t you just go ahead and try?” Slam.

Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, of North Korea, is not backing down. He promptly announced an intent to conduct a nuclear test within the near future, and threatened that if the U.S. took any aggressive action at all towards North Korea, it would respond with attacks on U.S. bases in Japan and South Korea.

Not to be deterred, and in typical fashion, Trump doubled down and dispatched a carrier strike group, the U.S.S. Carl Vinson and its coterie of missile cruisers and destroyers, to the Sea of Japan off the Korean Peninsula, due to arrive in the next week or so.

So far, every threat from us has been met with a counter-threat from the North Korean government, increasing the stakes and repeating the positon that we, not they, are the aggressors here, and that any aggression from the United States will be met with immediate counterattack. Although it may be uncertain what China’s position would be if North Korea strikes first, China is treaty-bound to come to North Korea’s aid if we preemptively attack.

Now, if there is a war on the Korean Peninsula, and China stays out of it, there is no question from a military standpoint that North Korea would completely and quickly lose. North Korea may have a first-strike capability of intermediate range missiles and nuclear warheads that would inflict great damage upon all of South Korea and as far as the remote coasts of Japan, but it has no staying power, and it is completely incapable of sustaining any kind of war term. Our immense military capability would eventually prevail, no matter how extensive the initial destruction might be. However, although we would win this in the end, the devastation to South Korea and perhaps Japan from just the first strike would be horrendous.

If military action is started and China does get into it on the side of the North Koreans, the long term outcome is not at all certain. If it could be contained to the Korean Peninsula that would be one thing; if it spilled over, the premonition is WWIII. Macarthur’s caution of over 65 years’ ago, to avoid at all costs war on the mainland of Asia, which we repeatedly ignore to our everlasting regret, is as timely today as it was then. What has to be obvious is that is if we are to continue to attempt to escalate the military situation anywhere in the Orient, things cannot improve – ever. So long as a military intervention appears imminent, any action by either side will mean an utter and complete world-wide catastrophe.

What is required of us is that we totally upend our present foundations and foreign policy thinking towards China and North Korea and completely reset the dialogue in a new direction. We must realize that the despotic leader of the hermit kingdom can only be cajoled off the ledge of thermonuclear war, and ideally into coughing up his stash of nuclear weapons, through diplomatic means, and that the increasing demands and threats of military action from us do not work but will lead to disaster.

This means we must abandon our time-honored bullying tactic of threatening forthcoming military action if our demands are not being promptly obeyed. We must de-fuse the situation militarily. We should take back the threat we made to Xi, recall the Navy strike force, and assure the Koreans – both North and South – and all of Asia that we have no intention of precipitating military action of any kind. And then we must get out of China’s way in order to allow it to work out a negotiated agreement with North Korea.

We must recognize that we are the wrong entity to lead on a diplomatic solution to this problem. The country with the depth of knowledge, cultural skill and political clout sufficient to pull this off is the despot leader’s next door neighbor, China, which also has an intense interest in seeing North Korea back into the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, and the elimination on its northern border of the war-like attitudes of the supreme leader. China understands the North Koreans, understand its leader, and understands the importance and nuance of “face” and of allowing Kim Jong-un a way out of this mess without a loss of face. It is clearly in China interest to see this happen, and Xi has as much as said so. He does not need blustering threats from our Old Fool to do what needs to be done.

While remonstrating against Trump for his overbearing position, China has still invited the U.S. to cooperate. “Military force cannot resolve the issue,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned recently. But then he said, “Amid challenge there is opportunity. Amid tensions we will also find a kind of opportunity to return to talks.”

The huge question remains, is there anyone listening who can get this to Trump in time, or will the generals win out and insist on blowing something up first?

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McKee

mckee

Dozens of civilians, including more than 20 small children, living in the rebel held Idlib province of northern Syria, were killed by poisonous gasses – perhaps sarin – claimed to have been delivered in a Syrian air strike on the command of Bashar al Assad. The entire world is appalled, with a groundswell of outrage erupting from all quarters.

The immediate reaction of the President of the United States was to blame Barack Obama. Secretary of State Tillerson answered press inquiries with a terse “No Comment.” The only adult response came from former governor Nikki Haley, now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. Haley, whom many thought was in way over her head, took to the floor of the General Assembly to assail the perpetrators of the heinous act, to lambaste the Russians for their probable roll in it, and to demand a full international investigation. There was a plausible if improbable claim by Russia, Iran and Syria that the gas was in rebel storehouses, set off accidently by the conventional air attack. A draft resolution, joined by Britain and France, called for a full investigation by the Organization of the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the proper United Nations body charged with responsibility for such outrages.

However, without waiting for any action by the U.N., without conferring or consulting with any of our allies, without conferring with any Congressional leaders, and without any confirming evidence on the facts surrounding the tragedy to make sure we had it right, President Trump did an abrupt U-turn from an unbroken chain of campaign promises and previously declared statements of policy, and ordered a retaliatory airstrike on a Syrian airbase near Damascus. It is reported that he staffed the mission with General McMasters and Secretary Mattis but not Secretary Tillerson, indicating that consideration was given only to a military response; a diplomatic solution was not even considered.

That the attack might violate international law, be contrary to the United Nations Charter to which we are a signatory, was without authorization of Congress, and was contrary to the repeated promises made during his campaign and the first three months of his term, apparently were of no concern to the White House and its cabal of advisers.

Cost of the attack to the U.S. is close to $94 million. The unit cost of firing a Tomahawk missile from a naval resource is $1.59 million a pop, and we deployed two Navy destroyers into the Eastern Mediterranean to deliver 59 of them into Syria. Reported results include some aircraft shelters and military fortifications blown up, 17 aircraft destroyed, and some reparable damage to runways and tarmac. The airbase was back in operation within hours.

Five soldiers on the base were killed, including perhaps one Russian. Two stray missiles struck villages near the airbase, killing nine and wounding thirteen civilians, including women and at least four children.

When the news was announced, we started by exchanging high-fives and congratulating ourselves for a “proportionate” response. By Sunday morning, as the full extent of the action and the beginnings of the consequences that are going to flow started to sink in, more sobering thoughts began to surface.

Russia has cut the communications link with us in Syria that allowed the two countries to coordinate ground and air operations to avoid firing upon each other. Future operations in country will be immeasurably more dangerous until and unless this communications link is restored. No one knows yet what reaction our soldiers in Syria will encounter from individual Syrian soldiers for the U.S. airstrike – if any. The irony of the death of innocent children being included in as part of an appropriate response to the death of innocent children cannot be explained – so it is simply being overlooked; it is not being mentioned. It is uncertain what Trump’s policy is now – was this strike a one-off, not to be repeated, or the start of a new policy to be put into place in the Middle East? Secretary Tillerson says it’s nothing new, but Trump talks about “being flexible.” It is not clear what this means.

One thing is certain: our foreign policy position worldwide, our relations with Russia, our standing the Middle East, and our position with our allies will not be the same. Obama’s developing policy of cooperation and conciliation has gone out the window. There is no question that the sudden attack on Syria sent a strong message around the world to our allies and foes alike – but it is not at all certain exactly what that message was. A prominent Senator on a morning talk show characterized it as a loud “Bleep you!” to anybody who opposes us.

The hawks are back in charge and are serving notice that the U.S. is once again the world’s top cop. And judge. And jury. And executioner.

How could it get any better?

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McKee

mckee

What a mess. Escalation in the Middle East should have our hair on fire. Instead, our attention is focused on the fascinating machinations of the Old Fool and his minions trying to stay out of their own way, as the connections between his cohorts and Putin’s Russia continue to unravel.

The situation could be safely under the watchful eye of Secretary Tillerson, but with his undermanned and poorly resourced State Department, he is already fully occupied with a disturbing situation evolving in North Korea and a major state visit from the Chinese leader Xi Jinping due within a week. The reticent Secretary has released no details of these events or his intentions – but they both have world shaking possibilities embedded within. They have captured what is left of the imagination of the commentariat, when it is not focused on the Russian conspiracies, real or fictitious. There does not appear to be any time in the Secretary’s schedule for matters pertaining to the military situation in the Middle East.

As to the media, with these new events coming on stage soaking up all the spotlights, the U.S. involvement in the Middle East has apparently become passé, a matter of ho-hum, to be relegated to the end roundup on the nightly news and the back pages of the daily tabloids. Nobody seems interested, and nobody wants to be bothered. Nothing could be worse.

Consider: Contrary to Obama’s promises and the campaign promises of everybody, American forces are now fighting on the ground at the front lines in the Syrian siege at Raqqa, with close to 500 troops on the ground and more expected. We have become central to the Iraqi siege of Mosul, in both ground and air operations there, with over 5,000 troops in country and more expected. We have expanded our involvement in Yemen considerably beyond that of last year; drone attacks last month, for example, exceeded the strikes of last year. Increased support is expected to continue. Military operations in Afghanistan continue without let-up, which has slowed if not stopped the once-planned reduction in forces there.

All of this is being accomplished without fanfare and without any uptick in political or diplomatic planning, without any redefinition of the military mission or any end strategy in any of these areas, and without Congressional authorization. Information flow from Defense has been curtailed considerably, and from State is non-existent.

With the burgeoning influence of ISIS and Al Qaeda, Obama was being drawn into evolving events in the Middle East and Afghanistan, but was attempting to limit the actual engagement of American forces in any fighting on the ground, trying to emphasize that diplomatic solutions and political planning were the key to any significant progress in these regions. Major command decisions on all military operations, down to specific air strikes and drone attacks, were kept in the Whitehouse, in an endeavor to maintain tight control over any escalation of military operations, and to reduce civilian casualties.

Since the administration change in January, responsibility over Middle East affairs appears to have been transferred to or assumed by the Department of Defense under Secretary Mattis. The reports are that General Mattis is coordinating everything with the National Security Advisor McMaster and Secretary of State Tillerson, but since the involvement is primarily military, General McMaster and Secretary Tillerson consider General Mattis, at Defense, to be primary.

The White House has no expertise in the area of military management of operations. The Old Fool has demonstrated that he is not capable of assimilating complex details of anything beyond bumper-sticker simplicity, and he has no one on his personal staff that is any better qualified. Bannon has some military experience, but nothing in the area of foreign policy or Middle Eastern affairs. No one else comes close. Most of the Whitehouse staff positions that existed under Obama remain unfilled – and deliberately so.

The State Department under Secretary Tillerson has been severely hampered in carrying out its responsibilities by the lack of resources. The entire top-tier level of the department was either fired or resigned when Trump took office, and none of the major positions have been filled. Tillerson’s attempt to secure an experienced deputy of his choosing was derailed by Whitehouse infighting or intervention. The department’s critical positions of both deputy secretaries, all six undersecretaries, and most of the assistant secretaries remain empty. Tillerson is apparently operating the entire Department with little more than his personal staff.

This means that the U.S. involvement in the Middle East is now essentially under military control of the Pentagon and without civilian oversight. Under General Mattis’s direction, operational control of military operations below policy level has been moved forward to Central Command, and from there to subordinate units as required. The immediate result has been easier and faster airstrike and ground response. However, while there has been no change in the rules of engagement or in the requirement for consideration of civilian casualties in operational planning, there has also been a dramatic increase in the number of civilian casualties being suffered in the areas of U.S. involvement. While under the existing military conditions, the military defeat of ISIS seems inevitable, ISIS keeps evolving and the tactical considerations keep changing. The military, political and diplomatic complexities boggle.

Does history repeat itself? Reliance upon the generals was what got us up to our collective necks in Viet Nam. Secretary of Defense McNamara and President Johnson both admitted long ago that they abdicated their responsibility of civilian oversight and allowed the generals to hold sway over both military and policy decisions in Viet Nam, and that this was a huge mistake.

I do not question the capabilities or motivations of General Mattis and the military command out of the Pentagon. I have no doubt that Mattis firmly believes he has the best interests of the nation at heart. But there is truth to the adage, “Where the only tool is a hammer, all the problems become nails.”

History teaches that it is essential that there be broad policy oversight from the civilian perspective to counterbalance the military point of view. It is essential that all the tools available be out of the box and included in the planning and implementation of policy. As it stands, this important civilian counterbalance appears to be missing in the oversight structure in place over operations in the Middle East at this time. The Whitehouse does not have the capacity or capability and the Department of State does not have the resources to monitor the developing situation effectively.

The numbers are relatively small today – just as they were in Viet Nam in the middle 1960’s. But surely we recall how quickly those numbers accelerated.

What could possibly go wrong?

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McKee

mckee

Three huge questions remain after Trump’s signature objective of repealing and replacing Obamacare imploded with a resounding fizzle last week.

First, will the Democratic center stop strutting and cackling and get down to the business of repairing the Affordable Care Act?

Second, will the Republican center stop griping and blaming each other, and get busy working something out with the Democrats?

Third, if reason and common sense finally prevails, and Congress demonstrates an ability to actually govern by passing a true coalition bill that patches up the problems and gets the ACA on its feet in all areas, all tuned up and ready to perform as promised – will Trump sign the bill so we can get on with it?

The Freedom Caucus hard-liners on the extreme right are already beginning to fold their arms and declare their intention to do nothing, in the expectation that Obamacare is about to collapse. Yet, despite what the Republican mantra has been, the overwhelming evidence is that the ACA is not in any danger of imploding or blowing up, and is not in any semblance of a death spiral. Enrollment is up, premiums are up some, but not nearly as bad over-all as the Republicans have claimed, and by most economic measures and in most areas, the act is stronger this year than last. While there are serious problems in some areas, and the problems area are more likely to get worse unless something is done, the predictions generally are that overall, the program is more likely to continue to improve. There is simply no serious question that the ACA is here to stay.

The notion that Trump and the hard liners can just wait for the end to arrive on its own means disappointment for everybody all around. The pockets and neglected areas will suffer, and some of these are good sized areas – a few whole states, for example. If this continues, when the counting-up time comes, the Republicans will get the blame if they sit on their hands and refuse to help, since they are the ones with their hands on the levers.

On the other hand, the left edge has suddenly come to life and has begun to promote the virtues of government sponsored and financed single payer – the concept of Medicare for everybody. They point with sincere enthusiasm to all of Europe and the rest of the industrialized world, where health care is considered a fundamental right, a responsibility of the government, and otherwise free to all. Every other country uses some form of government sponsored, single payer except us. And we even use it for our most precious – our children, our elders and our injured warriors. Senator Bernie is already on the stump, and others are beginning to rumble. If a groundswell gets started, and the gals in their funny hats decide to climb aboard, it may be difficult to redirect the effort.

The Democrats could not get single payer, or Medicare for everybody, or government sponsored health care, even out the starting blocks the last time this subject was on the table, eight years ago when the ACA was actually adopted, and when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency. They barely got the ACA adopted, and had to use the ruse of budget reconciliation to get that done. It would seem the height of political naiveté to believe that now, just because the right wing got dumped for being too far right, that there is some momentum to look at a far left solution. By everything that is real and practical, the solution has to come from the middle.

This being said, there are still plenty in Congress – both houses – who march in the vicinity of the middle and who, if their leadership will get out of the way, could pull off a deal with no more consternation than a walk in the spring rain. The measures needed to improve the ACA are well known. Some were actually included in the Republican bill. If deals are honored, if markups are constructive rather than tactical sabotage, if the House drops the Hastert rule and the Senate suspends the filibuster rule – no problem.

Actually, all that really has to happen is for both sides to give up ownership of the fix and of the right to blame. Just make it a true coalition effort.

Pies in the sky? Probably, unfortunately. One drumbeat of the Freedom Caucus, for example, has been to get the federal government out of the picture and leave it to the states. Look at our own Idaho legislature; it has completely bottled up every single effort by anybody to address the issue of healthcare for the uninsured in Idaho. It has refused to go along with the expansion of Medicaid under the ACA, and has thereby lost hundreds of millions of dollars to Idaho. Our Congressional delegation stands in a tight circle right in the center of it all, resolute, eyes tight shut, with dueling pistols at the ready, pointed inward. The politics may simply be insurmountable.

And then, even if it did happen over all this hoopla, the $64 thousand final question would still have to be, will the Old Fool sign the damn thing? Any bets? Any predictions?

Anybody holding their breath?

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McKee

mckee

While the news cycle is fully absorbed with the competing Congressional train-wrecks of healthcare reform and conspiratorial wiretapping, and the Old Fool is doing his best to distract us with outrageous tweets and not-so subtle insults towards European leaders, that faceless amateur he picked to head State is out up-ending over 60 years of policy in the far east. In other times, our hair would be on fire; but now, nobody’s paying attention.

Every other Secretary of State in recent memory, when away from home on a mission to show the flag, has traveled about with much hoopla and a full regalia of hangers-on – including a sizable gaggle from the Washington press corps to keep an eye on things. Not so the newest minted Secretary of State.

Rex Tillerson, who has yet to hold a press conference or even answer a rope-line inquiry, and who has never released a single word of his personal thinking on any subject not connected to big oil, is essentially traveling alone. He has his trimmed down personal staff, but not the cadre of experts from within the department on each of the countries he expects to visit and each of the subjects he intends to address. And there is but one single individual from the press included in the entourage, a journalist with the “Independent Journal Review,” a little-known Internet website of conservative news and opinion. She is not a pool reporter, and is under no obligation to share her stuff, or even to report objectively.

The Secretary’s destination is Beijing, with stop-overs in Japan and South Korea. His trip to South Korea is occurring in the midst of the annual joint military exercise being conducted by U.S. and South Korean forces to, essentially, rehearse the invasion of North Korea – an actual pre-planned operation against North Korea in the event of sufficient provocation, which the military runs every few years as its annual exercise. These goings-on have been with the strident protests from North Korea, accompanied this year by the obvious counter-demonstration from its burgeoning inventory of medium range ballistic missiles.

All this is occurring at a time when the civilian government is in the process of reforming itself upon the ouster of its impeached president, Park Guen-hye. In a somewhat unexpected act of independence from the conservative core of powerbrokers, the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly to impeach Park, and the National Court, made up entirely of Park appointees, followed with an also somewhat unexpected ruling, unanimously upholding the legislative action.

One wonders if this was truly the time and place for the U.S. to throw gasoline into the fray? Nonetheless, into this potentially chaotic political turmoil stepped the undaunted Secretary Tillerson last week to proclaim the United States’ intention to toughen up on its policy towards North Korea, to take a more aggressive efforts to eliminate that country’s nuclear weapons capability, and to declare in rather generic terms, that the old ways were no more. This meant, the Secretary warned, that the U.S. was definitely putting pre-emptive military action back “on the table.” He even suggested that we might provide nuclear weaponry to South Korea. Just in the re-telling of these events, one has the surreal impression that he might be winging it all, as one might do for an after dinner speech at Toastmasters.

The United States has recognized for years that China was essential link to a stable North Korea. Chinese trade and foreign aid keep its economy afloat, making any economic sanctions that do not involve China ineffective. And every time we have tried to raise the specter of military action, China responds to take North Korea’s back. China has been steadfastly unwilling to force Pyongyang’s hand on the international stage. Unilateral action by the United States against North Korea in the past, without multi-national participation and cooperation from China, has proved to be fruitless.

However, with North Korea’s developing nuclear capability and its aggressive posturing towards South Korea – which China views as an increasing security risk and destabilizing to the economy generally – there are indications that China may no longer be willing to support North Korea with the same stoic resolve as before.

The huge question is whether it is better to try to muscle China into changing its position with North Korea, to muscle North Korea directly in the expectation that China will come around, or slow down and work the diplomatic channels, ratcheting up sanctions and covert actions, to allow the gradual processes through China to continue until the North Korean regime eventually topples from internal pressure within.

The latter, patient resolve, was the way of the Obama administration, but the Old Fool is determined to shake the box. So, he put Tillerson out there to scare the bejesus out of everyone who is paying attention. Tillerson released his verbal firebombs in Seoul Friday, then departed for Bejing where he will be this week. We need a passel full of skeptical, by-line hungry, street-wise news hounds like Mike Isikoff or Andrea Mitchell, or even a tested newbie like Kayce Hunt, to unpack this stuff, poke around some, and tell us exactly where China is going.

Instead, our fly on the wall is an unknown, untested and probably ideologically tainted writer for the IJR.

Whoopee.

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McKee

mckee

Every so often some group or another decides that the only way to bring about the result they are promoting is to convene an independent convention of the states to amend the Constitution.

Although it may sound perfectly reasonable, and although the subject matter being promoted may seem to be stalled from achieving the desired Constitutional action any other way, the process of getting there through a convention of the states is a terrible idea with potentially terrible consequences for a variety of complicated and technical, but very sound legal and historical reasons.

This fever is afoot again in Idaho, this year in the form of a Senate Concurrent Resolution now pending in the Idaho State Senate. SCR 108 is application to Congress to add Idaho’s name to a list of states that are requesting a constitutional convention. When this list reaches three-fourths of the states, or 35 in number, Article V of the United States Constitution mandates that Congress convene a convention.

The resolution was just reported out of the Senate State Affairs committee on a closely divided 5-4 vote. It will be on the floor of the Senate next for more debate and a full vote. Some 28 states have already adopted similar resolutions, with Wyoming and Arizona expected to do so shortly. This would make Idaho the 31st state to jump aboard, and is giving the current effort somewhat the look of a bandwagon – or a steamroller.

For the purpose of the analysis presented here, it does not matter that the subject of the proposed amendment, being a balanced budget amendment forbidding deficit spending on the national level, would absolutely lead to economic disasters of titanic proportions resulting in both domestic and world-wide catastrophes of enormous and immediate significance. More will come on this subject later. The point here is that the very idea of a separate constitutional convention all by itself, no matter what the subject or purpose, is wrong-headed, risky, and totally unnecessary.

If there truly was a compelling need for a constitutional amendment, there is no need to call for a separate convention of the states to start the process. We have a perfectly adequate assembly of delegates from every state that is in essentially continuous session year round in Washington D.C., being, of course, the United States Congress, which already has full authority under Article V of the Constitution to start the process of amendment at any time. Thirty-three amendments have been proposed by Congress and sent to the states for their consideration, and twenty-seven have been ratified and incorporated into the Constitution. The point here is that there is a perfectly acceptable procedure for starting a constitutional amendment in the Congress; we know how to do it, we know how to keep it under control, and we know that the procedure works.

There is already pending before Congress a proposal to amend the Constitution in exactly the manner asked for in the Idaho resolution. Similar balanced budget proposals have been submitted in almost every session of Congress since at least the 1930’s; none have ever passed. Only a few have ever seen the floor for a vote as most disappear into the bowels of the germane committees, never to be heard from again. But the fact that Congress has been unable or unwilling to pass a proposed amendment on this subject is not an argument for going around Congress. If anything, it is an argument that the subject is deeper that it appears on the surface, and requires more careful analysis before we go leaping off a cliff. There is no acceptable argument for going around the established procedure and attempting a process that is completely untested and presents so many risks.

What is missing from any general discussion of amending the Constitution by convention is any explanation of exactly how the process might come about. The Constitution provides no guidance. There is no provision in the Constitution or elsewhere on how many delegates are to be included, how they are to be allocated among the states, how they are to be selected from within the states, or how they or their states are to vote. Additional questions on such issues as whether methods can differ from state to state, whether the process should be partisan or non-partisan, the cost of it all, and the source of funding, are all unanswered. Given the realities of today’s Congress, these questions alone are enough to predict that the only result of congressional action will be a Gordian knot. Many, if not most knowledgeable observers predict outright chaos if Congress even attempts to convene a convention.

The proponents argue that under their proposal, the convention call will be for the limited purpose of taking up the subject amendment only, thinking that this removes the chance of chaotic expansion. They are wrong. There is no provision in Article V of the Constitution for limiting the process of amendment by convention, nor does the Constitution elsewhere grant Congress the power to impose such limits. Without some limitation defining the enumerated power being expressed within the Constitution, most scholars agree that Congress would have no power to engraft such a limitation on its own.

Recall that the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was originally begun in Annapolis for the limited purpose of amending the existing Articles of Confederation to insert some measures to improve foreign trade. Then, once the convention was convened, it promptly moved itself to Philadelphia, adopted new rules, and disappeared into closed session. It emerged September of 1787 with a brand new Constitution that completely overhauled the federal government.

It is the consensus of respected historians, legal experts and Constitutional scholars who have examined this issue that any convention convened under Article V could not be limited as to scope or subject matter. Once assembled, and once organized, the new convention could write its own rules, declare its own scope of inquiry, and go wherever it pleased – just as the Constitutional Convention did in 1787.

While it may be unlikely that any convention of states would lead us completely off the rails, it is entirely likely that all sorts of additional issues of the day would come up as different interest groups suddenly insisted upon their urgently needed matter being attended to by the convention. Term limits, gun rights, abortion, the establishment clause, judicial independence, prisoners’ rights, gay marriage and LGBT issues come immediately to mind, as well as the panoply of prisoner’s rights, privacy surrounding the cybernet, and personal freedoms in the shadow of terrorism. There are undoubtedly others. The ACLU’s hair is on fire.

Whether the delegates might voluntarily follow any limitations imposed by Congress and confine themselves exclusively to the subject matter of the call, or ignore the limits and wander off on their own, is a question that simply cannot be answered in advance. The mere possibility of an untethered convention, no matter how carefully constructed and no matter how well intentioned, rummaging through 230 years of Constitutional history and adding to or modifying selected items here and there at their whim, whose work would then be presented for approval by the states in total, with no opportunity for further editing or revision of any of the individual elements, horrifies most. In the past, the mere risk of this happening has been sufficient to bury the idea of a constitutional convention for good.

Given the ability of Congress to act itself in starting a Constitutional amendment if the issue was truly of vital national interest, coupled with the risks and uncertainties of getting an independent convention organized, the probabilities of endless political wrangling over partisan issues, and the huge expense of it all, and adding the uncertainties of what a rogue convention might come up with, it should be clear to all that the decision should be a “no” vote on SCR 108.

Better not bet the farm on it, though.

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mckee

Almost completely overshadowed by the immigration fiasco, Trump released an executive order last week that so far has drawn very little comment. It is an order to the Secretary of Defense which Trump claims will launch the “great rebuilding of the armed forces” that he promised in one of his bumper-sticker policy statements during the campaign.

It does no such thing. The order is, in fact, an utter waste of time that will accomplish nothing.

First, the order directs General Mattis to conduct a 30 day review of the readiness of the armed forces to combat ISIS. The Secretary does not need an order, nor does he need 30 days, to come up with any readiness report on the capability of the military to combat ISIS. As anybody with even a modicum of familiarity with military operations would know, such a report is already prepared in excruciating detail by every unit in every command every single day, with a comprehensive consolidation placed on the Secretary’s desk, and probably included in the President’s daily briefing – if he know what to look for. Asking the Secretary to prepare a report on this subject is merely asking the Secretary to read and summarize the reports that are already under everyone’s nose. It is an indication that Trump does not know any better, and worse, does not have anybody on his staff that he can turn to before putting his foot in his mouth.

Second, the order directs the Secretary of Defense to come up with a plan to rebuild the military in 60 days. In fact, there is a precondition that has to happen first before any plan can be prepared – whether in 60 days or 600 days. The President has to tell General Mattis how much money he can spend.

The blunt facts are that the combined troop levels of all forces of the U.S. military have been reduced from a high of 556,000 in fiscal 2011 to 490,000 in fiscal 2015. The figure is heading toward 450,000 or perhaps even 420,000 by 2019. The reductions are all due almost entirely to the sequester of funds mandated by the Budget Control Act passed at the insistence of the Republican Congress in 2011.

A thorough study that examined the military from the end of WWII was completed in 2010. A Defense Strategic Guidance was based on that study, released in 2012. Under the DSG, the first mission of the military was defeating terrorism through counter terrorism and irregular warfare. The second mission was to deter and defeat aggression by any potential adversary in conventional warfare. It is hugely important that this second mission statement no longer demanded maintaining two or more large scale operations under conventional warfare as necessary to the mission of U.S. forces. The land wars of Korea and WWII, and what the United States had accomplished in WWII in defeating both Germany and Japan were no longer as relevant under the expectations of modern warfare. The change in mission was a crossroads for Obama. His hand after that date was guided by the differences in mission and differences in expectations expressed in that release.

What Obama has been trending towards was to live within the means dictated by the Budget Control Act. This would entail the acceptance of a reduction in standing forces, a reduced ability to sustain large scale combat operations for any length of time, and increased reliance upon allies and coalition operations. The “leading from behind” pejorative arose from Obama’s recognition that the U.S. could not always expect to go into hotspots first and heaviest; sometimes it was more prudent to take a supporting role and allow an ally to lead the way. Further, that the time may have come for the United States to pick its battles, and not respond automatically with military force anywhere in the world anytime an international event was touched off, without assurances of allied support going in.

This means that before the Secretary of Defense should be expected to come up with any plan on alternatives to improve readiness in the military, someone has to answer this questions: (a) must the Secretary work within the budget constraints demanded by the BCA, or (b) may the Secretary expect more funds for defense, and therefore a change in the basic approach? One ought not to need a separate study to choose option (a) or (b) as presented here.

Finally, the executive order directs the Secretary of Defense to work with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to revise the funding requests. But this directive is the wrong way around. Asking the military to come up with what it wants before the President has established limitations on what it can spend is like expecting some parents to rely upon their five year old’s letter to Santa Claus to set their budget for Christmas. This is just plain not the way it is supposed to happen.

Even with the budget reductions to date we still spend more than the next eight countries of the world combined on our military and its operations. We spent close to $600 billion on defense in 2015, while China spent around 1/3 and Russia 1/10 of that amount. By all measures, we still have the strongest military force ever assembled. If Trump wants a larger military than the existing budget will allow, he must be the one to declare it so. He has yet to tip his hand on what he intends in this area, but until he does, his directions to the Secretary of Defense are pointless.

The upshot here is that this executive order as written is pure malarky. A piece of paper to assuage Trump’s base that he is acting on a campaign promise, and has good intentions, but that, in fact, is otherwise worthless. It is, in the word of the Bard, “Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing!”

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mckee

The 9th Circuit opinion was a complete rout.

Trump lost on every single point raised. Further, it was a unanimous opinion of the three-judge panel, leaving no room to maneuver.

The application for an emergency order was denied outright, leaving the lower court’s full temporary restraining order in place, which stopped completely all aspects of Trump’s executive order on immigration practices.

The cognoscenti are having a field day trying to predict what Trump will do next. Most predict that he will not take the obvious and logical step of pulling the executive order back and starting over. Everyone who has touched this thing concedes that if carefully drafted, an order could be entered which would achieve the national security objectives within Constitutional mandates.

Instead, the overwhelming consensus is that Trump, with eyes tight shut and refusing to listen to anyone other than those who agree with him, will continue to defend the sloppy, poorly drafted hodge-podge existing order to the bitter end. And so it goes.

The one person who gained the most out of all this is the right Honorable James L. Robart, that usually unsung trencher from the district court bench who will now and forever proudly carry the Presidential sobriquet of the “So Called Judge,” and upon whom the appellate court rewarded with that rare and most revered of instruments – a copper plated, gold starred, four cornered affirmance suitable for framing that kicked everybody’s ass in sight except his.

Well done, Judge James!

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mckee

Events around Trump can unfold and refold so fast, one cannot keep up. As I was writing and editing this piece, the total circumstance changed three times, not counting the extra little twists and turns, making it impossible to chronicle Trumps actions as they are happening.

In a mind numbing, head spinning whirl, President Trump started with an executive order to build the great wall that realistically wasn’t going anywhere. When Trump saw the situation was developing badly, he made it worse. When that didn’t work, he escalated it and made it much, much worse. When the situation was about to turn into a complete disaster, he tried to bluff his way out and blame it all on Mexico, and when he got called, he tried to out-bluff again. The President of Mexico then tipped over the table and stormed out.

At last, with Congress getting more and more restless, with the realities of international trade beginning to sink in, and with relations between the countries on the brink of disaster, Trump did a silent u-turn and stuffed everything back in the box. The situation is left in limbo, essentially where it started, with nothing positive to show for the hullabaloo that was created. There is an empty executive order to proceed with the wall, but no plans, no money and no means of implementing anything. There is a very angry President Nieto in Mexico, a Mexican press that is boiling over, and a population in Mexico growing more upset with the situation in the United States every day. There is a puzzled ally to our north wondering if Trump has something against Canada that is going to explode, and finally, there is a befuddled White House press with a yard full of inconsistent statements to unravel, and anyone who has been trying to keep up left with a fistful of torn-up and scratched out notes, as the administration’s version of events changed from moment to moment.

As Thomas Friedman pointed out on Meet the Press recently, and what Trump and his cabal of amateurs running the White House do not yet seem to understand, everything in today’s economy is global and everything global is networked. One cannot touch one aspect of anything without reactions and counter reactions spinning through the network to impact trade everywhere.

Mexico is our third largest trading partner. We do over half a trillion dollars in trade with Mexico every year, and, if we don’t screw it up, this could continue to burgeon. President Trump seems bound and determined to screw it up. Trump, who has promised to find jobs, increase trade and improve the economy, wants to build a 30 foot wall between us and our third largest trading partner, and perhaps impose as much as a 20% tariff on all imports.

The current flap all started with an executive order that mentioned beginning construction of the border wall between the United States and Mexico. Trump’s campaign mantra. But there is no money, no source of funding mentioned in the order, and no mechanism for obtaining funds. Congressional leadership indicated that tax revenues would not be available. Without a means to implement construction, the executive order was meaningless – other than perhaps for its value as a token to Trump’s base that he was thinking about the promises he made.

When the White House press made this point to Trump, he hauled out his bumper sticker from the campaign and insisted that Mexico would be expected to pay for the wall. Now, it is one thing for this kind of statement to be made by a candidate for election. The American press, and certainly the world in general, does not place much weight on campaign rhetoric. It is quite another thing, however, when the statement is made by the sitting President of the United States.

Mexico’s President Pena Nieto firmly declared that Mexico had no intention of paying for the wall. Trump rejected this demurrer, and repeated that it would so be paid for by Mexico, eventually, one way or another. In response to this arrogant stance, Nieto suggested that if this was Trump’s position, the state visit should be postponed. Trump promptly replied that until Mexico displayed a more respectful attitude towards the United States’ position, the meet should not happen. The Mexican president declared the next morning that the meeting was off. Trump replied with a harrumph that it was a mutual decision.

The developing situation ended for the day with Sean Spicer’s explanation that funding for the Mexican border wall would come from a 20% import tax – a tariff – that, notwithstanding the clear prohibitions of NAFTA, Trump proposed to impose upon Mexican imports. This set off a blizzard of protest from every quarter. The tariff, of course, would not be a tax on Mexico but on the American consumer. A tariff as stiff as 20% would materially impact trade – all of it, not just the imports, and if U.S. – Mexico trade was impacted, the effects would reach around the world. Everything is networked, remember – one cannot affect one segment without the reactions being felt everywhere. Every competent economist that has looked at this has reported that an untargeted general tariff of this size against imports of this magnitude could well precipitate a global recession.

As the press reported it, President Trump insulted the sovereignty of Mexico on several levels, proposed an intent to breach the trade relations that have existed between the two countries for almost 25 years, and then suggested that Mexico was being disrespectful. Both English and Spanish fail to provide words to describe this developing situation; in Yiddish, however, characterizing brash and insulting behavior has been elevated to a fine art: one then might say the arrogant chutzpah of the new U.S. President trying to cast the blame for any of this upon the Mexican President is jaw-dropping.

Trump’s reaction to this whirling piece of meshuggeneh has been to turn about and walk away. He has not withdrawn or undone anything. There was a telephone call between the two presidents that more or less patched things up personally, but no definitive agreements were reached. We are now advised by Spicer that the 20% tariff was never an actual proposal, but just an idea – it might be 5% or 10%, or not at all – as Trump was just sounding out possibilities. The Congressional reaction towards providing funds to build the wall is unchanged, and Trump has made no further formal request in this area. The executive order is still outstanding, and the meeting with the President of Mexico has not been rescheduled.

These events are still unfolding. Whether the damage to our relations with Mexico can be repaired would seem to be up to Trump. Right now, only egos are involved; no real damage to either country has occurred. But if Trump stays true to his reactions towards every potential crisis up to now, and cannot be counseled to pay attention to the comments of the likes of Thomas Friedman and realize that everything is interrelated, then one may well expect that things eventually will in fact get much, much worse.

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