Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

They Said It:

It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation

To call upon a neighbour and to say: –

“We invaded you last night–we are quite prepared to fight,

Unless you pay us cash to go away.”


And that is called asking for Dane-geld,

And the people who ask it explain

That you’ve only to pay ‘em the Dane-geld

And then  you’ll get rid of the Dane!


It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,

To puff and look important and to say: –

“Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.

We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”


And that is called paying the Dane-geld;

But we’ve  proved it again and  again,

That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld

You never get rid of the Dane.


It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,

For fear they should succumb and go astray;

So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,

You will find it better policy to say: –


“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,

No matter how trifling the cost;

For the end of that game is oppression and shame,

And the nation that pays it is lost!”


Rudyard Kipling, “Dane-Geld,” 1911.



When we first read that Rudy Giuliani had been snubbed by the folks at Trump Tower and sent packing back to wherever it is he calls home these days, we figured that the President-elect was simply trying please his critics, to appear more “presidential” by distancing himself from some of the more controversial members of his coterie.  Giuliani, of course, had been one of Donald Trump’s earliest and most important supporters.  He was with the Donald from the start and never wavered in his loyalty.  And most observers expected that his loyalty would be repaid with a plum job in the new administration, probably the coveted position of Secretary of State.

At the same time, Giuliani would have been a provocative pick, to say the least.  Indeed, his very association with the campaign was one of the signs to which critics pointed as proof of Trump’s unsuitability for high office.  Giuliani had said that he didn’t believe that Barack Obama loves this country and, moreover, that the outgoing president had been inordinately influenced by communism at an early age.  Therefore, the mainstream press and the Washington establishment considered America’s Mayor to be a kook, a “fading politician lighting himself on fire,” in the words of Obama strategist David Axelrod.

All of which is to say that we had in our minds a picture of Giuliani as Sir John Falstaff to Donald Trump’s Henry V.

Falstaff, recall, was a rogue, a highwayman and a drunk, a favored (and favorite) patron at the Boar’s Head Inn.  In his youthful recklessness, Henry – then Prince Hal – had befriended the hilarious, treacherous, and hilariously treacherous Falstaff and had engaged with him and the Boar’s Head crowd in various capers.

Upon the death of Hal’s father, King Henry IV, Falstaff expected soon to be elevated to exulted status.  But things didn’t work out as he had hoped.  In the climactic final scene of Part Two of “Henry IV,” Falstaff stopped his old friend, the new king, on the road from his coronation at Westminster.  “My king,” Falstaff cried, “my Jove, I speak to thee my heart,” to which Henry V replied:

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.

However, the more we read about Trump’s decision to move away from Giuliani and other seasoned politicians of his ilk, the more we began to think that we were wrong.  Trump was not dismissing his embarrassing and now unneeded friends, he was simply doing what he had promised he’d do, that is to say shake up the entire political world, both here and abroad.  Giuliani, you see, couldn’t be Secretary of State because that slot absolutely HAD to be filled with someone from outside of the usual cast of characters.  Outside of even Trump’s unusual cast of characters.  It had to be filled with a radical choice, because, you see, he or she was going to be asked to do a radical job.  Trump was going to change the rules of the game – and raise the stakes.

He interviewed many good people.  Many.  And, of course, he finally settled on ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson.  The process by which he came to such an unusual and surprising choice is, we think, fascinating.  The Washington Post provides the details:

Donald Trump sat in his office at Trump Tower on Dec. 2 facing the most important choice of his transition to the presidency, and his indecision had set off a war among his top aides.

Some favored Mitt Romney, who had trashed Trump during the campaign.  Many wanted the ultimate loyalist, Rudolph W. Giuliani.  Others preferred Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) or retired Gen. David Petraeus.  Trump, who hated being pressured when making important decisions, insisted that he needed more time.  He seemed to have misgivings about all of them.

Then, by happenstance, Trump welcomed into his office a man who has served presidents of both parties, Robert M. Gates.  Trump asked his guest, a former CIA director and former defense secretary, what he thought of the four candidates.  After Gates ran through his thoughts, it seemed that Trump was “looking for a way out,” a person familiar with the session said.

Trump asked whether there was someone else to consider.

“I recommend Rex,” Gates told Trump, referring to Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil.  Gates said in an interview that he had not gone to the meeting intending to recommend Tillerson, and he did not recommend anyone else.  Separately, on the previous day, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice had proposed Tillerson to Vice President-elect Mike Pence.  Rice and Gates, who run a consulting firm that counts ExxonMobil as a client, had jointly concluded that Tillerson might give Trump a fresh alternative. . . .

You have to remember here that Trump could have chosen from literally hundreds of possible candidates.  We are not saying that any old moron can be Secretary of State, but then again, for the last four years, any old moron has.  And before that, the worst and least likable American politician in recent memory held the job.  All of which is to say that Trump had virtually endless possibilities from which to choose, and yet none of them made him happy – until Tillerson.

As far as we’re concerned, the fact that Gates and Rice both independently suggested Tillerson is irrelevant.  Indeed, most of the specifics are irrelevant.  What matters – all that matters, really – is that Trump knew that he had to go beyond the standard list of candidates.  He had to do something not just unexpected, but profound.

During the campaign, Trump was criticized by nearly everyone on all sides and of all ideological affiliations for his “unorthodox” views on foreign policy.  The paleo-Right hated that he intended to engage America’s enemies and not simply withdraw into an isolationist cocoon.  The neoconservative Right hated that he thought the “democratization” of the Middle East was a complete and utter waste of time and resources, financial and human, and that he intended to reverse the last 24 years of bipartisan foreign policy conformity.  The Left hated that he was unconcerned with traditional “human rights” causes, initiatives and norms, and appeared unaware that his ham-fisted blundering could upset the entire post-war global consensus, from NATO to the UN, from the Geneva Conventions to Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and its implicit no nuclear first-strike premise. By the end of the campaign, the near-unanimous assumption among the members of our ruling class was that Trump had to be stopped, if for no other reason than he would screw up and destroy everything that the thirteen presidents before him had worked so hard to create.

What they didn’t understand, of course, what they couldn’t fathom even in their wildest dreams, is that this is precisely what Trump had in mind.

It is possible, we suppose, that we have been overly influenced by the likes of Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who has been among the most astute observers of the Trump phenomenon since its inception.  Adams thinks that Trump is, without question, the most brilliant and accomplished “persuader” he has seen in a great many years, certainly in American politics.  We wouldn’t go anywhere near that far, but we will say that it does seem to us that there is a method to Trump’s madness.  What appears to most observers as absurd, uneducated, dangerous chaos, is, we think, far more likely part of Trump’s genius, part of his plan to impose a new and radically different vision on the American body politic.

For as long as we can remember, every time a businessman either got into the presidential game or even thought about it, the conventional wisdom has responded by insisting that politics isn’t business, and running the country is nothing like running a company.  We don’t doubt that this is true.  We also don’t doubt that it is irrelevant.  Nobody – not even Donald Trump – has ever said that government and business are the same.  What many have said, though, is that there are principles of human behavior that cross the imaginary boundaries between business and politics, but which have been too often forgotten by American policymakers.  Trump has long made this claim and, we believe, he intends to put his money where his mouth is.

In order to explain what we mean by this and where we think the Trump foreign policy is headed, it might be easier for us to take a step back in time and to discuss a policy and strategic tack that might, at first, seem unrelated.  As always, bear with us.

Way back in 1996, in just their second year in the majority in nearly half-a-century, the Gingrich-led Republicans passed a rather remarkable free-market reform bill, one which nearly everyone but the wonkiest of wonks has forgotten by now.  That bill, the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996 – nicknamed the “Freedom to Farm” Act – was intended to end decades of government subsidies and income support to farmers and to allow them to compete in a much freer, much fairer global market.  The idea was to set farmers free, to allow them, not bureaucrats in Washington, to make the decisions about what to grow and when, thus allowing them to utilize their superior knowledge and technology to clean up in the post-Cold War global market.

The idea was both brilliant and ideologically sound.  Free marketeers – who have always loathed farm subsidies and their economic inefficiency – were thrilled.  There was only one catch:  no one else in the global market intended to play by the same rules, which is to say that this “freer” global market never materialized.

The WTO and all of the various free trade agreements proved next to useless in the face of European and Japanese intransigence.  While the U.S. was cutting regulation and cutting government interference, its trading partners maintained their support mechanisms and kept in place their WTO-violating export subsidies, all of which acted as a de facto tariff on American farm products.

Freedom to Farm turned out to be disaster.  Sure, Republicans cut the “official” subsidies quite dramatically.  But the actual farm payouts never went away.  Congress put nearly all of the money that it had “cut” back into the hands of farmers every year in “emergency” agriculture appropriations, which were necessitated by the “vagaries” of the global market.  These payments were off-budget, but that was a mere technicality.  Farm subsidies continued, just in a different, ad-hoc form.

In 2002, when the authorization for Freedom to Farm expired, the Republican in the White House and the Republicans in Congress were forced to concede defeat and to acknowledge that their attempts at reform were woefully inadequate.  They returned to a more traditional approach to ag policy with more traditional subsidy schedules.  It’s not that Freedom to Farm wasn’t based on sound economic ideas; it’s that those economic ideas were no match for reality of the global market.

The problem is that under Freedom to Farm, the United States had unilaterally disarmed.  It had given up all of its leverage.  American farmers no longer had official recourse to government aid, but their global competitors did.  And that, in turn, meant that the American farmers were at a structural disadvantage from the outset.

If you asked Donald Trump, we suspect that he’d tell you that Freedom to Farm is an apt metaphor for the entirety of American foreign policy in the post-Cold War era – if not the post-World War II era.  The United States has given up its leverage and yet seems surprised when the rest of the world doesn’t behave as we want it to.  American foreign policy is built not on cold, hard reality or on the experiences of nations and peoples over centuries.  It is built on a fantasy.

It is important here to remember that the impetus for the American-led post-war regime was FDR’s belief that he and Stalin – Stalin! – could jointly dominate the world and spread a glorious, post-fascist Leftist vision of man united in harmony for peace, understanding, and good will.  As early as 1942, Roosevelt warned Churchill that he intended to be full and equal partners in the post-war world with Stalin and that the Brits had better get used to it.  A year later, before he’d ever even met Stalin, Roosevelt told his ambassador to the Soviet Union, William C. Bullitt, that “I have just a hunch that Stalin doesn’t want anything but security for his country, and I think that if I give him everything I possibly can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work for a world democracy and peace.”

Then there was this from Robert Dallek’s prize winning history, Franklin D. Roosevelt and American Foreign Policy:

Roosevelt described Stalin as having “something else in him besides this revolutionist Bolshevist thing.”  The President thought it had something to do with his training for the “priesthood . . . I think that something entered into this nature of the way in which a Christian gentleman should behave.”

In the end, Roosevelt constructed the post-war world based on his beliefs that all would be right with the world if only he and Stalin could work together.  Or as Amos Perlmutter lout it in his classic In Making the World Safe for Democracy, A Century of Wilsonianism and Its Totalitarian Challengers:

[Roosevelt’s] vision for a postwar world was neo-Wilsonian, totally at odds with reality.  He would help create a new international order, presided over in an equal partnership by the two emerging superpowers, the United States and the USSR, and buttressed by the newly created world organization, the United Nations.

FDR’s wartime diplomacy, geared to his vision of the postwar world, was fueled by what could almost be called a desperate desire to fulfill the dream that the Soviets would be America’s postwar partner.

Of course, as Perlmutter continued, “The world he envisioned and so desperately wanted to create never materialized and, more important, never had a chance of materializing because it rested on a false premise, buttressed by willful ignorance.”  The problem is that even though Roosevelt’s fantasy was immediately exposed as such, the post-war liberal order never conceded the point.  And even when Truman – and Eisenhower, and Kennedy, and Johnson, and Nixon, and Ford, and Carter – were forced to confront the ridiculousness of Roosevelt’s expectations, they simply refused to draw the obvious conclusion, that the fantasy of a benevolent global super-power protecting the world in pursuit of democracy and peace was a bit naïve, to say the least.

Among the post-war presidents, only Reagan seemed to grasp that the notion of a peaceful world was fantastical.  Reagan understood that the United States could not defeat the Soviet Union either through good intentions or by fighting half-assed proxy wars.  Instead, the United States had to find the Soviet’s “currency,” which is to say that he had to figure out what mattered to the Soviets and use it as leverage.

As any schoolboy knows, Reagan did this in at least a couple of ways.  First, he forced the Soviets to spend money they didn’t have to fight a weapons war – i.e. an arms race – that they couldn’t afford.  Second, he cut the Soviet economy off at the knees by working with the Saudis to flood the world with cheap oil.  Reagan knew that the Soviets couldn’t survive a price war on crude, and he used it to his – and the nation’s – advantage.

Unfortunately, Reagan’s insights were forgotten almost as soon as he and Nancy packed up and moved back to Bel-Air.  In 1996, our old friend Michael Mandelbaum, the Christian A. Herter Professor and Director of the American Foreign Policy program at the Johns Hopkins’ School for Advanced International Studies (SAIS), published what can only be described as a devastating critique of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy, and especially of its architects in the Clinton administration.  The Clintons, he claimed, had abandoned the notion of American national interest altogether had decided instead to conduct American “Foreign Policy as Social Work.”  In the article by that name, he wrote:

The abortive interventions [in Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti] shared several features.  Each involved small, poor, weak countries far from the crucial centers that had dominated American foreign policy during the Cold War.  Whereas previous administrations had been concerned with the powerful and potentially dangerous members of the international community, which constitute its core, the Clinton administration turned its attention to the international periphery.

In these peripheral areas the administration was preoccupied not with relations with neighboring countries, the usual subject of foreign policy, but rather with the social, political, and economic conditions within borders.  It aimed to relieve the suffering caused by ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, starvation in Somalia, and oppression in Haiti.  Historically the foreign policy of the United States has centered on American interests, defined as developments that could affect the lives of American citizens.  Nothing that occurred in these three countries fi t that criterion. Instead, the Clinton interventions were intended to promote American values.

Last Spring, Mandelbaum published a book titled Mission Failure:  America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era.  In it, he reiterates his earlier thesis, expanding it to include the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, which, he argues, followed in Clinton’s footsteps and abandoned traditional foreign policy concerns for those of “social work,” i.e. attempting to improve the internal structure and function of erstwhile enemy nations, rather than the external functions.  And this, he argues, was doomed to fail for precisely the same reason Roosevelt’s fantasy was:

[T]he principal reason for the failure of American efforts to improve other countries lay elsewhere – specifically, in the nature of what the United States was attempting.  It did not achieve its goals because those goals were not achievable with the available tools.  The tools of foreign policy are guns, money, and words implying that either or both will be used.  These can and do affect what other countries do outside their own borders; they are far less effective in shaping what other countries are like within those borders.  In making the domestic transformation of other countries the object of its foreign policy, the American government resembled someone trying to open a can with a sponge.  It unwittingly embarked on variations on what was, to borrow a phrase, mission impossible.

Enter Donald Trump.

Why was Trump so disillusioned with the choices he had for Secretary of State?  We can’t answer that question definitively, of course, but we suspect that is was mostly because all of the usual suspects were conventional politicians, schooled in conventional notions of foreign policy and convinced that America’s role in the world was, as Roosevelt put it to William Bullitt: “noblesse oblige.”  Trump wanted someone else, something else.  He wanted a businessman, a negotiator, someone who understood the purpose of leverage.  And it is no coincidence, in our estimation, that the businessman/negotiator he chose was someone who knows oil and energy better than just about anyone else in the world.  It is no mere coincidence, in other words, that Trump selected a man with a deep and intimate understanding if Russia’s “currency” – as well as that of the Middle East oil producers.

The presumption among the members of our ruling class is that Trump is out of his league with Putin, that the doofus real estate magnate with the funny hair is no match for the ruthless former KGB agent, judo black belt, and wanton killer.  It is quite possible that the establishment is right.

But it is also possible that Trump doesn’t need to be in Putin’s league, that he is fortunate enough to have a Secretary of State that is more than a match for Putin, and is armed with a great deal of leverage to use against Russia when the negotiations start.  You see, over the course of the Obama presidency, the United States has become the world’s largest energy producer.  OPEC and Russia can only do so much to alter the global market, given that the United States is no longer just the world’s largest oil consumer, but its largest producer as well.

Trump has been running around the country these last few months, promising to lift the Obama restrictions on energy production.  And most people have taken him at face value that he wants to do so because he wants to “create jobs.”  We – and you, and Rex Tillerson, and Vladimir Putin – know that jobs are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  If the United States could change its status on energy so dramatically during the Obama administration, with one hand tied behind its back, then just imagine what it will be able to do with the Obama-era restrictions lifted.  Just imagine what it will be able to do when it has a pressing global incentive to do so.

Over the course of the next four years, Donald Trump will do a great many things that will confuse, confound, and irritate the members of the ruling class.  He will, perhaps, make a push for greater subsidies for domestic energy production.  Maybe he’ll insist on direct and profound government intervention in the development of the Midland Basin of the Wolfcamp Shale area in Texas.  Whatever he does, the environmental Left will respond by screeching about climate change, while George Will and the establishment Right will stomp their feet and blather on about how this isn’t “capitalism,” but the opposite of it!  Meanwhile, Trump, Tillerson, and Putin – not to mention Ayatollah Khamenei and the Saudis – will understand what is really going on.  Trump will be stealing a page from Reagan’s playbook, while George Will will be holding his breath till he turns blue, acting like a child because he doesn’t think that Trump is smart enough to do what he and his friends convinced ol’ Ronnie to do.

Earlier this month, you may recall, President-elect Trump took a phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen, and official Washington went nuts.  You can’t do such a thing, the insiders shrieked!  Trump is so dumb that he’s blundered into ticking off the Chinese, even before he takes office!  He’s more dangerous than we thought!

Within a few days, however, most people understood that Trump hadn’t blundered into anything.  He hadn’t taken a spontaneous congratulatory call that he should have avoided.  He PLANNED the call months before, and he did so with a specific purpose.

Taiwan, as you likely know, is a sore spot with the Chinese Communists, which is why all American presidents have avoided any official contact with the island nation for the last nearly four decades.  Trump the negotiator knew that this sore spot could be used as leverage, but only if he openly and unapologetically broke with protocol and put the Chinese government on notice.  The “One China” policy was the People’s Republic’s invention.  And the American government maintained the policy out of deference.  Trump made it clear that he would not defer to the Chinese simply out tradition.  If they wanted his respect and his deference, they’d have to earn it – through reciprocity. And thus Trump set the tone for his dealings with China over the course of his presidency.

Are we convinced that this will work, that Trump’s new vision for American greatness will yield the benefits he promises?  Well . . . no.  We know that Russia and China are far more practiced, far more skilled at this game, and far more desperate than anyone in this country is.  Moreover, we know that making common cause and pursuing common ends with totalitarian regimes carries a wholly different set of risks.  Trump will have to tread lightly and remain ever vigilant.  He’s not the only one who will be looking for and using leverage, after all.

Come what may, a sea change in American foreign policy is long overdue.  In the aftermath of 9/11, we and countless others believed that the United States would heed the advice of Lord Palmerston, who famously declared that “England has no eternal friends, England has no perpetual enemies, England has only eternal and perpetual interests.”  We were wrong.  Over the course of the Bush administration, the country tried desperately to make new friends and please everyone.  Over the course of the Obama administration, the country punished its friends and rewarded its enemies.  And now all that will stop.

The danger, of course, is that the face-to-face negotiations will advance to that which Clausewitz described as a “the continuation of policy by other means,” i.e., war.  But war is and always has been on the table.  Obama’s answer to the threat was to pay Dane Geld, which was and is a license for defeat.  Trump will fight if he must, which, of course, decreases the likelihood that he’ll have to.

Copyright 2016. The Political Forum. 3350 Longview Ct., Lincoln NE  68506, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.