Russia Is Poised To Upend The ‘Diplomatic Chessboard’ In Ukraine

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President Vladimir Putin is reasserting his power in Russia, and he could be poised to upend the diplomatic chessboard in Ukraine. Washington and the West seem unprepared to react effectively. 

This article was first published in on September 3, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

In recent months, Russia has seen considerable political turmoil, but there has been little change on the battlefield in Ukraine. Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s mutiny and subsequent assassination have dominated the news while Moscow and Kyiv remain, with modest exceptions, militarily gridlocked. As autumn approaches, however, President Vladimir Putin is reasserting his power in Russia, and he could be poised to upend the diplomatic chessboard in Ukraine. Washington and the West seem unprepared to react effectively.

Putin Tightens His Grip

After Prigozhin’s mutiny, many experts confidently explained that Putin was deeply wounded and his fall was inevitable, if not imminent. Today, these same observers say Prigozhin’s demise unleashes unseen networks of his supporters, seeking revenge.

The Kremlin’s inner workings remain obscure, so no predictions are assured. Nonetheless, Putin is now significantly more secure than he was before the mutiny, even if he has not fully regained his pre-February 2022 dominance.

Consider the hand he holds. Prigozhin is dead, as Putin first proclaimed and Russian authorities later confirmed. Also reportedly killed near Tver last week were Dmitry Utkin, Prigozhin’s top Wagner Group deputy (effectively its military commander) and other top advisors. Putin wants to preserve Wagner’s assets and personnel around the world, and one reason he took two months to eliminate Prigozhin was to ensure his own loyalists controlled the organization. That process may remain incomplete, but Putin has not been asleep.

Moreover, regular military officers who outed themselves by backing Prigozhin are being purged in time-honored Stalinist fashion. Sergey Surovikin, former commander of Russia’s aerospace forces, has been dismissed, notwithstanding that the so-called Surovikin Line has held up well against Ukraine’s offensive. Other Prigozhin collaborators are most likely on the lam. They are heading for the nearest international border, not spinning new plots to overthrow Putin.

That Putin has internal opposition is hardly surprising. “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” is a blazing Shakespearean insight, and it was not crafted uniquely anticipating today’s Russia. The real question in coming months is whether Putin can capitalize on his opponents’ disarray to regain the political and diplomatic momentum that Russia’s faltering battlefield performance has all but lost.

Russia’s Needs and Its Leverage

Any sensible evaluation of Russia’s current geopolitical position concludes that Moscow needs time to seriously reform and rebuild its embarrassingly poor military assets, reinvigorate its economy by ending Western sanctions, and escape political isolation. Putin’s dreamy fascination with recreating the Russian Empire may obscure such reasoning, but he is also a cold-blooded realist, particularly with his own security at stake. Westerners may find it hard to believe, but Putin’s harshest Russian critics are not “anti-war” but “anti-losing.” A stronger Putin is now able, with less concern about domestic second-guessing, to throw NATO into disarray diplomatically, reopening and inflaming existing Western disagreements and discontent with the Ukraine war, thereby buying the time Russia needs to recover and regroup.

If Kyiv’s spring offensive does not produce major battlefield progress, Putin could, without warning, propose a cease-fire within the next two months along existing battle lines and immediately open negotiations. Everything could be on the table, including ending economic warfare against the combatants. Putin might choreograph China’s endorsement of his proposal, with Beijing offering to be a mediator, perhaps suggesting a willingness to help rebuild the war zones in both Russia and Ukraine.

Putin’s key leverage would be Ukraine’s relative lack of success in the summer offensive. In an age of short attention spans, political leaders in Berlin, Paris, and even Washington would be sorely tempted to accept a cease-fire and enter negotiations. In Europe, despite surface rhetorical support for Ukraine, levels of military and financial aid have been slow, grudging, and inadequate. Even though reserves of natural gas may seem sufficient for the coming winter, many will want to put the conflict behind them. Who is certain, for example, that France’s Emmanuel Macron would not jump at the chance to be seen as a peacemaker?

What the West Should Do Now

In America, President Joe Biden faces an uncertain 2024 election. While the press has relished covering the emergence of isolationist, anti-Ukraine-aid Republicans, it has ignored leftist Democrats. In October, 2022, the House Progressive Caucus committed the classic Washington gaffe of saying aloud what they actually believed, issuing a letter conditioning support for further Ukraine aid on Kyiv opening talks with Moscow. The letter was hastily retracted, due to the imminent midterm elections, but the progressive position remains unchanged.

Biden could outmaneuver Republicans opposing Ukraine aid by endorsing a cease-fire and negotiations, speaking directly with Putin, and urging both sides to compromise. He could contest the 2024 election as America’s peacemaker, thereby confounding Donald Trump, who thought he was the apple of Putin’s eye. What would Trump do, reinvent himself as a hawk?
Biden has hardly been a successful war President. The White House’s hesitation to supply one weapons system after another, its undisguised fear of Russian escalation and the onset of World War III, perhaps in a nuclear form, and its general slowness and inattention at the presidential level signal hand-wringing, not hawkishness. There is currently no evidence Moscow is capable of escalating with conventional arms, nor any sign that its nuclear saber-rattling is anything but pure bluff. The sad truth is that Biden’s policy is sputtering, Ukraine could be a political liability, and he may well be looking for a way out. A bold Putin diplomatic maneuver could provide just the pretext Biden needs. Faced with his major international allies heading for the tall grass, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would be left in a nearly untenable position.

It is long past time for a more effective strategy to achieve the oft-stated objectives of restoring full Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to provide aid to Ukraine more coherently. Across NATO, therefore, and especially in Washington, Paris, and Berlin, Ukraine’s supporters need to sharpen and augment their arguments that continued opposition to Russia’s aggression is critical for Western security.

These arguments must be raised now, with summer ending and Washington coming back to life. Otherwise, Moscow might grab the diplomatic steering wheel, with grave consequences all around.

Jim Buckley, Civic Leader

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Remembering his virtues and public service

This article was first published in The National Review on August 24, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

Jim Buckley was the very model of what our founders had in mind for America’s civic leaders, rare at any point in our history, and perhaps rarest of all in today’s politics. His résumé alone does not tell the full story, although he was one of the few people in our history to serve in senior positions in all three branches of the federal government.

More important than the offices he held were the virtues he demonstrated consistently throughout his public service. Jim had character, an attribute that allowed him to withstand the turmoil of politics or business without suffering adverse effects on his behavior or his treatment of others. He was a gentleman in all the appropriate ways: respectful, courteous, and thoughtful, not because he was weak, but precisely because he was secure. He had strong religious faith and political principles, both of which transcended immediate personal gain, whether in fame or fortune. He was educated, unlike so many today who possess college degrees but little more.

Perhaps the most important of Jim Buckley’s virtues, an example to his fellow citizens in our time, was his courage. Quiet courage, as he was not a man to shout, boast, pontificate, or slander, an inner strength that impelled him against daunting odds to do what he saw as right.

In 1970, for example, he ran for the United States Senate from New York on the Conservative Party line, challenging the incumbent Republican, Charles Goodell, for not being, well, Republican. After his third-place finish as a Conservative in 1968, following his brother Bill’s unsuccessful 1965 run for mayor of New York, one could hardly avoid worrying that this candidacy could be a waste of time. Goodell, however, appointed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller to fill the vacancy caused by Robert Kennedy’s assassination, was sufficiently lackluster that Buckley won in a three-way race. I was in Army training at Fort Polk, La., at the time and ignored the rules against playing radios after taps, to listen for election results in distant lands. It was my happiest moment at Fort Polk.

In the Senate, Jim was not a party of one but caucused with Republicans. In his 1976 reelection campaign, he ran on both the Republican and Conservative lines. Unfortunately, he lost to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, causing enormous turmoil at National Review. In 1975, emulating Time magazine, brother Bill had created a “man of the year” award, naming Moynihan as the first honoree. After such flattery, Moynihan had the effrontery to beat “the sainted junior senator,” causing Bill to terminate the man-of-the-year program forever. Sic transit gloria mundi._

During Jim’s Senate tenure, he did two things that stand out as remarkable acts of courage, not just in his personal story, but in America’s history.

The first was his role in the Watergate crisis. As Richard Nixon’s presidency disintegrated, and the House of Representatives moved toward impeachment, levels of partisanship and acrimony rose higher and higher. Through the investigations of the Senate Watergate Committee, the evidence of the break-in and subsequent, ultimately politically fatal, cover-up dominated political discourse in Washington and the country generally. The stakes were high, and emotions were higher. Republicans, in Congress and out, could see that Nixon was badly wounded, but he seemed determined to fight to the very end.

Until, that is, Jim Buckley rose on March 19, 1974, to speak on the Senate floor. He called on Nixon to resign, the first conservative Republican senator to do so, saying: “There is one way and one way only by which the crisis can be resolved, and the country pulled out of the Watergate swamp. I propose an extraordinary act of statesmanship and courage — an act at once noble and heartbreaking; at once serving the greater interests of the nation, the institution of the presidency, and the stated goals for which he [Nixon] so successfully campaigned.”

This call for Nixon to act on his better instincts was not at all unusual for Buckley but seemed somewhat misplaced, given his audience. Nonetheless, as the House impeachment process unfolded, partisan barriers broke down before the accumulating evidence. Nixon ultimately resigned in August 1974 after being told by Republican leaders, including “Mr. Conservative,” Barry Goldwater, that the Senate would convict him if presented with articles of impeachment. Watergate taught many lessons, but one of the clearest was the standard that Jim Buckley set for civic virtue in American leaders: dealing forthrightly with reality, based on high principle.

In the immediate aftermath of Nixon’s fall, innumerable “reforms” were proposed in Congress, almost all constitutionally flawed and dangerous. Perhaps the worst were amendments to federal campaign-finance laws, universally hailed by the press, Democrats, and liberals, essentially all of which were ruinous to the good health of American politics. These included nearly prohibitive limitations on campaign contributions, candidate expenditures, and independent expenditures; disclosure of even small contributions and expenditures; public financing of presidential campaigns and conventions; and a Federal Election Commission to enforce these laws, only one-third of whose members would be appointed by the president, the others by the Senate president pro tem and House speaker.

Woe to those who dared oppose the great thunderers of the media, always vigilant in protecting their own press freedoms but casual at best when it came to protecting the First Amendment’s other free-speech protection — political activity by individual citizens and their voluntary associations.

None of that bothered Jim Buckley in the slightest, bringing him to his finest hour and bringing me, happily, the chance to work with and get to know him. During Watergate, I was a law student and worked as a research assistant to Professor Ralph Winter. Winter (later a Reagan-appointed Second Circuit judge and a powerful voice for sound constitutional interpretation) wrote extensively on why campaign-finance activity should receive the First Amendment’s full protection. Dave Keene, then a Buckley staffer, who had hired me as a summer intern in Vice President Spiro Agnew’s office in 1972 (Watergate summer, for those who weren’t around), called to ask about possibly challenging in court the new campaign-finance law’s constitutionality. Winter was ready immediately.

By the time Congress was putting the last touches on the legislation, I was practicing law in Washington, readying the filings that would initiate the case now known as Buckley v. Valeo. On January 30, 1976, the Supreme Court declared limits on candidate, campaign, and independent expenditures unconstitutional, and also held the Federal Election Commission’s appointment process unconstitutional, thus striking down a federal agency for the first time since the New Deal.

Collectively, Jim Buckley and his eleven coplaintiffs, including former senator Gene McCarthy, looked like they had stepped out of the bar scene in Star Wars, but that was emblematic of Buckley’s appreciation for finding allies in unlikely places. And I must say, listening to conversations between Buckley and McCarthy was the kind of treat few will hear in today’s Senate.

Henceforward, anyone who reads American constitutional law will learn of Buckley v. Valeo, a case that came into being because of the unique courage and principles of one man. There is much more to say about Jim Buckley, but I cannot emphasize enough what luster he brought to our country, and how much of an honor it was to know him.

Biden’s trilateral summit with Japan and South Korea is critical to American security

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This article was first published in The Washington Examiner on August 17, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

This Friday, President Joe Biden will host a trilateral summit critical to American security for decades to come.Joined by Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, Biden hopes to “advance a shared trilateral vision” in the Indo-Pacific and beyond. Aspirations for the summit are high, but whether the leaders are truly prepared for effective trilateral teamwork, or whether Friday is just another meeting on their busy schedules, is unclear.The White House hails the “ironclad” U.S.-Japan and U.S.-ROK alliances, but that very formulation highlights probably the most difficult immediate obstacle they face: Can America’s long-standing “hub-and-spoke” Pacific alliances be transformed, even partially, into collective self-defense structures? This is not the work of one summit, or of only these three partners. No one expects to see an Asian NATO imminently. Nonetheless, China’s existential menace requires evolving beyond the hub-and-spoke paradigm. While Biden’s summit announcement mentions North Korea’s threat, the word “China” does not appear, perhaps for legitimate optical reasons. But if China is not absolutely central to the discussions, Friday’s summit will be a waste of time.A strong Pacific alliance will take work on multiple fronts. For their part, Japanese-Korean relations post-World War II are colored by history, and progress overcoming that history has often been reversed by new waves of hostility, generated by their respective domestic politics. Leaders such as Yoon and Kishida have heavy lifting to do, and despite opposition, both men seem determined to try.In their efforts, trilateral rather than bilateral security strategies and programs can be helpful. This is also how Washington can help pragmatically, moving beyond just voicing strong support for closer Tokyo-Seoul cooperation. A trilateral paradigm can give Seoul and Tokyo new room to enhance their relations, which can then permeate their bilateral dealings.In politico-military planning, trilateral cooperation can build patterns and habits of joint effort that transcend the constraints of bilateral relations, which the respective sides often see as zero-sum exercises. In a trilateral context, allocation of roles and responsibilities, defining and planning for contingencies, and the inevitably more complex consultations, can take the edge off purely bilateral issues. For example, discussing military budgets and defense-production programs — the meat and potatoes of any successful collective-defense partnership — while often contentious, can help justify decisions by each partner in ways that would otherwise be far more difficult to achieve individually or bilaterally. Closer trilateral cooperation is central to effective collective self-defense. For example, Donald Trump once asked South Korean President Moon Jae-in how South Koreans would feel about having Japanese troops fighting alongside them to repel a North Korean invasion. Moon was visibly uncomfortable with the question, given his domestic politics, and largely successful in avoiding a clear answer. Ineluctably, however, the logic for Japanese combat arms assisting South Korea’s defense is unassailable. It could prove far easier to realize in a trilateral structure than bilaterally. The leaders should also discuss how Japan and South Korea can enhance other emerging Indo-Pacific alignments. The Asian security “Quad” (India, Australia, Japan, and America), for example, does not include Seoul or other key players. Adding South Korea to form a “Quint” makes sense but may not yet be ripe. Accordingly, how the ROK and others can participate in the Quad’s emerging agenda is a vital topic. Similarly, neither Japan nor South Korea are now members of the AUKUS project for Great Britain and America to build nuclear-powered submarines with Australia, but they could easily have similar arrangements. Until Congress and the Biden administration take seriously the need for extensive increases in U.S. naval warships and submarines, not to mention more domestic shipbuilding capacity, working with Indo-Pacific allies to enlarge their respective arsenals is essential. Finally, Biden, Yoon, and Kishida should discuss how to cooperate in fending off Chinese designs on Taiwan and the East China Sea. While South Korea has understandably concentrated for decades on North Korea’s threat, Seoul’s leadership increasingly grasps that the more serious threat, economically as well as militarily, is China. It is already a commonplace understanding for the Japanese that an attack on Taiwan is an attack on them, and Koreans increasingly see threats to Taiwan in the same light. South Korea’s interests are essentially those of Japan, and indeed of America.Holding the line against Beijing and Pyongyang in all the waters around Korea and Japan is fundamental, and Taiwan is an essential ally for doing so. Positioned between the East and South China Seas, Taiwan is the key hinge point against China’s threat throughout East Asia. The summit leaders should be clear they will not be inhibited by Beijing’s insistence that countries either recognize China or Taiwan. There are numerous ways to engage in collective security with Taiwan as an effectively independent country, which it is, without saying so expressly.The sheer breadth of Beijing’s challenge is more than one summit can resolve, but the need for Indo-Pacific grand-strategy thinking is urgent. Regularizing these trilateral summits would be an important practical outcome this Friday.

Blame Biden’s Hesitancy for Stalling Ukraine’s Offensive

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Paralyzed by fear of Russian escalation, the administration has sought only to stave off defeat.

This article was first published in The Wall Street Journal on August 13, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

Ukraine’s spring offensive, now well into the summer, isn’t making the headway some proponents had forecast. The Ukrainians aren’t lacking in bravery or tenacity, and they’ve achieved eye-catching successes, such as the recent crippling of Russia’s Olenegorsky Gornyak, a roll-on/roll-off landing ship. Nevertheless, it should be a wake-up call for Washington that its strategy needs reformulating.

The solution isn’t a cease-fire and negotiation, as some in the West advocate. If Vladimir Putin were to agree to it, he would do so at a time of his choosing, not ours. He will likely propose a cease-fire if Moscow contains Kyiv’s attacks by early autumn, with the goal of trying to win through negotiations what Russia’s armed forces have failed to take on the battlefield. Accepting this offer would lead to Ukraine’s de facto partition—an unacceptable proposition for Kyiv and its Eastern European neighbors.

Far from being inevitable, the Ukrainians’ inability to achieve major advances is the natural result of a U.S. strategy aimed only at staving off Russian conquest. Instead, President Biden needs to start vigorously working toward Ukrainian victory.

Ukraine’s offensive failures and Russia’s defensive successes share a common cause: the slow, faltering, nonstrategic supply of military assistance by the West. The serial debates over whether to supply this or that weapons system, the perpetual fear that Russia will escalate to war against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and occasional Kremlin nuclear saber-rattling have instilled a paralyzing caution in Western capitals. Although the U.K. under Boris Johnson wasn’t deterred, NATO has seemed unwilling to fulfill its commitment to restore Ukraine’s full sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This hesitancy is a product of successful deterrence by the Kremlin, not American strategic necessity. There is no evidence that Russia has the conventional military capability to threaten NATO or the will to launch a nuclear strike. Despite Moscow’s repeated nuclear threats, the intelligence community has affirmed in congressional testimony that Russia’s nuclear capabilities haven’t once shifted toward operational status. Mr. Putin has been bluffing. That could change, but succumbing to bluffs gives him exactly what he wants cost-free.

The administration’s timid, haphazard approach to aid has fractured U.S. public support. Mr. Biden has compounded this problem with his insistence that the war is about Wilsonian abstractions of democracy vs. authoritarianism. Wilsonian principles have never motivated U.S. majorities, even when preached by the genuine article. There are compelling arguments that assisting Ukraine serves our strategic interest, but the president isn’t making them. He and Donald Trump both undercut Republican support for aid.

The West—particularly Washington—also needs to rethink sanctions policy radically. Theories about price caps on Russian oil have failed, and Western sanctions generally remain piecemeal and seriously underenforced. These defects aren’t confined to the Ukraine conflict and should prompt NATO institutionally to review how it conducts enforcement. Proclaiming sanctions is great PR, but enforcement is hard, tedious and necessarily done clandestinely where possible. The U.S. and its allies need a massive overhaul and upgrade of our sanction-enforcement instruments, procedures and personnel.

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The Foundation

America’s only hope is for Trump to withdraw from the election race

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If he wins the presidency while still enduring these legal troubles, the US will enter a constitutional crisis

This article was first published in The Telegraph on August 3, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

Donald Trump’s continued pursuit of the 2024 Republican presidential nomination will damage both the party and America, particularly if he succeeds. Neutral observers might think the growing mountain of legal challenges — criminal and civil — including the one filed Tuesday in Washington, would give Trump pause, notwithstanding his current opinion-poll lead in the Republican race. And everyone not named Trump recognises the enormous risks if he becomes the first convicted felon nominated for the presidency, or worse yet elected president.

For Trump, however, staying in the race increases his chances to get the nomination and secure funding to pay his rising legal billS. If he wins next year’s general elections, as is entirely possible, he will be able to terminate the pending federal investigations and prosecutions (although not the New York and Georgia criminal proceedings) or pardon himself if already convicted.

This growing disjunction between the national interest and Trump’s personal political and economic interest is nothing new. Unfortunately, however, there is little doubt he will seek to maximise his personal well-being over the country’s. America is in uncharted waters.

For any normal person, the burden of defending against criminal indictments, as well as civil lawsuits (which could significantly damage his personal finances) would be more than enough to reorient his priorities away from politics. The time involved to prepare for multiple trials and the magnitude of the legal jeopardy Trump faces should impel him to put other matters aside to concentrate on his serious risk of criminal convictions and substantial civil damages.

But Trump is an aberration. Ironically, he sees his best strategy is to use politics as his legal defence. His lawyers will argue at every opportunity that pre-trial proceedings and the trials themselves should be delayed and delayed again, to somewhere past election day. They will file every conceivable pre-trial motion and take every appeal permissible, which follows a long history of Trump’s approach to litigation.

Moreover, given this strategy and his already extraordinarily high legal fees — estimated at roughly $56 million since departing the White House — he needs the presidential campaign to help finance his legal defence. His outlays include legal fees paid on behalf of aides, which in many cases raise ethical issues. Prosecutors have questioned whether lawyers representing witnesses whose interests may be adverse to Trump’s can properly accept compensation from him.

If Trump’s delay strategy prevails, once inaugurated he can dismiss the federal special counsel and order the cases dismissed, which is within the executive branch’s prerogative. The two state cases are a different matter, and would remain pending against Trump, though he will certainly argue that they should be stayed during his presidency. If the state prosecutions proceed, however, and Trump is found guilty in one or both, it would be very Trumpian to refuse, as president, to accept the verdicts, expecting to skate free yet again. The US would face an unprecedented constitutional crisis.

The overall effect of this abnormal turmoil on America’s confidence in the integrity of its law-enforcement and government generally makes predictions hazardous. The vital question is just how deeply divisive and debilitating the consequences would be, and low long-lasting.

Internationally, America’s adversaries would swiftly take full advantage of Trump’s vulnerability and his propensity to comingle national interests with his personal interests. For Trump, obstruction of justice seems to be a way of life, with everything seen through the prism: “How does this benefit Donald Trump?”

Trump is already making clear his governing agenda will be retribution against his political enemies. He recently asserted, erroneously, not to mention almost sacrilegiously, that “I am being indicted for you”, having proclaimed earlier, “I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” Since Trump undoubtedly sees himself as the most “wronged and betrayed” of all, his intentions couldn’t be clearer or more dangerous.

Polls show that Americans do not want a repeat of 2020’s Biden-versus-Trump race; a majority want Trump to drop out. If someone with a rare gift of persuasion could talk sense to Trump, and persuade him to withdraw, any number of pretexts could be found to mask the real reason. There could be “health” issues, or perhaps he could argue no one should be president in their 80s, thereby also throwing shade on Biden. And Biden may yet decide to withdraw, which could lessen the zeal of Trump supporters who want a grudge rematch against the man they think stole the 2020 election.

The only real solution lies in one or more of the criminal trials taking place before November 3, 2024, which is still possible. If Trump is found guilty of one or more felonies, that may be sufficient to awaken enough of his supporters to abandon him, thereby derailing his campaign before he derails the country.

Erratic, irrational and unconstrained: What a second Trump term would mean for America’s foreign policy

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This article was first published in The Hill on August 2, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

The Republican Party could well nominate a convicted felon for president in 2024, given the interplay between Donald Trump’s burgeoning criminal-trial docket and the party’s presidential-selection schedule. Still worse for the country, the felon might actually be elected, despite his prior Oval Office record proving him unfit to set national security policy.

That unappealing prospect warrants intense scrutiny of Trump’s foreign-affairs proclivities, whatever their role in the campaign. If he wins, the implications are enormous. What would a second Trump term hold?

The critical point, one America’s political class still has trouble grasping, is that Trump has neither philosophy nor policies. As president and candidate, his decisions and statements constitute what I’ve called an archipelago of dots, unconnected by chords of logic, salience or results. Trump knew little about international geopolitics upon taking office in 2017, and learned little during his term or thereafter.

Trump’s approach to decision making verges on incoherence. Systematic consideration of the pros and cons of various policy options is rarely his chosen approach. Some issues he considers only glancingly. Others, like international trade, where he believes himself expert, he considers ad nauseum, in endless, repetitive meetings, sometimes reaffirming his earlier conclusions, other times not.

Moreover, Trump presents a classic example of susceptibility to listening to the last person in the door, which itself encourages presidential advisors, members of Congress, political allies and outside interest groups to disrupt orderly decision making lest they be outmaneuvered.

Indeed, Trump disdains knowledge, seeing relations between the United States and foreign lands, especially our adversaries, predominantly as matters of personality: How is his relationship with Vladimir Putin or Kim Jung Un or others? If personal relations are good, Trump believes that country-to-country relations are good. In a recent interview, for instance, Trump said of Xi Jinping: “Central casting. Brilliant guy. You know, when I say he’s brilliant, everyone says, ‘oh, that’s terrible’ … Well, he runs 1.4 billion people with an iron fist. Smart, brilliant, everything perfect. There’s nobody in Hollywood like this guy.”

Trump’s regard for authoritarian rulers has been widely noted but remains inexplicable in a U.S. president. Perhaps Trump admires the powers dictators possess, which he lacks, but the admiration is not reciprocal. He may have fallen in love with Kim Jung Un, for example, but Kim, as cold-blooded as they come, has almost certainly not fallen for him. Foreign leaders, friend or foe, are far more likely see him as ignorant, inexperienced, braggadocious, longing to be one of the big boys and eminently susceptible to flattery. These characteristics were a constant source of risk in Trump’s first term, and would be again in a second term.

Anxious to justify Trump’s erratic behavior, supporters argue a version of the “madman” theory, where seemingly irrational actions strengthen Trump’s hand. In both game theory and reality, choosing seemingly weak options can sometimes, ironically, be advantageous. Take the game of “chicken.” One player can rip out his car’s steering wheel, proving clearly he cannot swerve away from a road’s center line, and thereby signal not just an unwillingness but an inability to turn “chicken.” Think of Richard Nixon telling Henry Kissinger to advise North Vietnam it should accept a U.S. position because otherwise “crazy Nixon” might react belligerently.

“Crazy Nixon’s” credibility, however, rested on his long history of anti-communism. Trump has no history of any principled behavior, so he is simply threatening unpredictably. Unpredictability operationally may surprise an enemy, but unpredictable policy moves only convince the enemy Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing. Moreover, policy shocks confound and dismay our allies, which rely on steady, consistent American leadership, even if they are loathe to admit it. Strategizing can be complicated, but Trump and his supporters reduce it to bumper-sticker-level thinking, reflecting that, yet again, that Trump is in over his head.

Beyond acting on inadequate information, reflection or discussion, Trump is also feckless even after making decisions. When things go wrong, or when he simply changes his mind subsequently (a common occurrence), he invariably tries to distance himself from his own decision, fearing negative media coverage or political criticism. Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Joe Dunford once said cogently: “I just want the president to own it.”

Taking responsibility for mistakes, which all executives make, is central to effective leadership. The willingness to acknowledge error distinguishes great leaders from failures and cowards. It is no accident Dwight Eisenhower prepared a statement for release had the D-Day landings failed, reading in part: “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” It is inconceivable Trump would ever utter such words.

Finally, for constitutional reasons, no one can accurately predict a second Trump term, on national-security or otherwise. The Twenty-Second Amendment bars a third term, freeing him from any reelection worries or constraints. From Inauguration Day on, Trump would be in legacy-building territory, always treacherous ground. Given his preternatural concern with his personal image (leaving other politicians, or even movie stars, far behind), Trump’s potential to make stunning policy reversals, at times not even realizing it, is boundless.

It is not merely possible but likely that hard-core supporters will be appalled, and hard-core opponents breathless, at Trump’s new second-term directions. Thus, despite increasing defense spending in his first term, Trump could freeze or slash military budgets next time. He thought he could negotiate lower prices than Pentagon officials, such as reducing Boeing’s price for replacement Air Force Ones. He would have preferred to spend more building his Mexico-border wall or civilian infrastructure projects. There is thus no guarantee defense spending in a second Trump term would be anywhere near adequate. Unburdened even by wisps of philosophy or consistency, varying day-by-day on how he sees his legacy, Trump will be something to watch.

Substantive philosophy and policy have been largely ignored in this analysis, because they are largely ignored by Trump. Beyond any doubt, that void remains the most important point to understand about a second Trump term. As before, it will be all about himself.

Biden hurt America AND Israel in bashing Bibi’s judicial reforms

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This article was first published in The NY Post on July 30, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

For both America and Israel, President Joe Biden was wrong to intervene in the contentious debate over Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s proposed judicial reforms.
Biden’s spokeswoman criticized Netanyahu, saying it was “unfortunate” he pushed change through Israel’s Knesset “with the slimmest possible majority.”
Biden was mistaken for several reasons.

First, his opinions will have no effect inside Israel, except perhaps hardening already deeply divided viewpoints even further, thereby impeding formation of the “consensus” he says he wants.

This is nothing but virtue signaling, aimed more at Biden’s own domestic constituency than anything else.

And if he had bothered to consider American history, he would know that many historically significant US statutes passed with narrow majorities.
Second, facts matter. Not to be picky, but the Knesset vote was not the “slimmest possible majority.”

Netanyahu’s government has 64 seats of 120, so 61 votes is the thinnest majority, assuming all members vote. Biden’s spokesperson claimed that Israel’s reforms were being pushed through by a government “with the slimmest possible majority.”

Given Israel’s incredibly divided electorate, reflected in multiple recent elections, a 64-vote majority is quite comfortable. Government must go on.

Third, if Biden were truly interested in the security of Israel’s democracy, he should have critiqued the tactics of reform opponents.

Armed-forces reservists, openly proclaiming they were acting as reservists, threatened not to report for their military duty if ordered should the legislation be enacted.

Israel’s judicial reform of its courts’ unchecked power is not as radical as activists would have you believe. This is explicitly undemocratic.

Certainly, in free societies, reservists in their civilian capacity can hold whatever opinions they like and speak, demonstrate and petition the government to advance those views.
Invoking their reserve military status to do so, however, is deeply illegitimate. The phrase “military coup” comes to mind.

While force of arms was not present here, Israel’s precarious place in a dangerous neighborhood means that threatening to withhold military force to defend the country is just as dangerous.

It is fatuous to say, as did some reservists, that they were not advancing political views, just concerns about the future of Israel’s democracy.

The mechanisms of government are the most important political questions of all, and the reservists, acting qua reservists, behaved undemocratically.

Fourth, Biden was disingenuous. While criticizing Netanyahu on a procedural issue, the president’s real focus was the proposed legislation’s substance.

The measure prohibits Israel’s courts from deploying the “reasonableness doctrine” to invalidate government decisions.

“Reasonableness” is a long-standing common-law standard for judging fault or liability in civil or criminal cases, but it is a far different proposition when judges purport to consider invalidating government actions.

At a government-policy level, whether considering executive actions or acts of legislation, “reasonableness” is an inherently nonjudicial standard, a matter of personal political opinion.

Executive officials and legislators are held accountable to their fellow citizens through elections because they necessarily assess the “reasonableness” of possible courses of action.

It is entirely inappropriate for unaccountable judges to make such decisions.
If judges think their personal views are superior, they should leave the courts and run for elective office.

Fifth, it is no answer to say that Knesset majorities need a check because Israel’s parliamentary system does not split legislative from executive power and does not have a written constitution.

Significant, only in recent decades have its courts wielded the “reasonableness doctrine” extensively, giving rise to the inference that when founded in 1948 and for years thereafter, no one anticipated the Supreme Court would assume its current role.

Netanyahu snubs Biden, limits power of Israeli courts despite protests
The real problem, another target of Netanyahu’s reforms, is the self-perpetuating nature of Israel’s Supreme Court.

How would Biden’s US supporters feel if, starting immediately, our Supreme Court picked its own successors?

That would be undemocratic, as Israel’s judicial-selection process is.

Jerusalem’s democratic deficit can be fixed in many ways, and it turns the definition of democracy upside down to argue that affording elected legislators a greater role is undemocratic.

Besides, Israel does have a constitution, an unwritten one, much like the United Kingdom.

Today, written constitutions around the world contain flowery language about citizens’ “rights” that mean absolutely nothing.

A written constitution would not inevitably be a panacea for Israeli divisions.

Clearly, the role of Israel’s judiciary in its vibrant democracy is contentious.
US officials who are real friends of Israel should contribute their thoughts quietly, behind the scenes.

Otherwise, Israeli officials may start commenting publicly on Hunter Biden’s plea deal.

NATO summit must focus on Moldova’s frozen conflict

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This article was first published in The Washington Examiner on July 11, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

NATO leaders meeting in Vilnius, Lithuania, this week have a full agenda of issues critical to the alliance’s future, notably Russia’s continuing war in Ukraine. That war’s outcome, however, affects all now-independent states of the former Soviet Union, perhaps none more directly than Moldova.

Moldova’s geography alone should have made it a far higher NATO priority, particularly after the Kremlin’s unprovoked aggression against Kyiv. Straddling the Dniester River and surrounded by Romania and Ukraine, Moldova embodies one of the still-unresolved “frozen conflicts” that emerged in 1991 upon the USSR’s collapse. Soviet troops on the Dniester’s eastern bank tried to prevent Moldovan independence, engineering the pretend country of “Transnistria,” comprising the sliver of land between Moldova proper and southwestern Ukraine.

The continuing presence of Russian forces in Transnistria, and Moscow’s ill-concealed political and economic support to Communists and Russian sympathizers have been cancers on Moldova ever since. Worse, although remaining Russian forces in Transnistria are modest in numbers, the potential exists to substantially increase those forces, augmented with weapons, delivery systems, and surveillance capabilities endangering both Moldova and Ukraine.

Other frozen conflicts exist across the former Soviet Union, but the Ukraine war means that today none are more potentially dangerous to NATO members, current and prospective. Simply glancing at a map shows the risk of Russia outflanking hard-pressed Ukrainian troops from the West. And bomber forces, drones, or long-range artillery deployed in Moldova would enormously complicate NATO efforts to aid Kyiv resist Moscow’s hegemonic aspirations.

Bluntly put, Moldova has had difficulty getting Washington’s full attention for over thirty years.

For decades after the USSR’s breakup, internal Moldovan politics, compounded by persistent Kremlin interference, made it impossible for its citizens to make clear their desire to unify the country under a constitutional, representative government, free from Moscow’s meddling. Russian machinations continue today, along with the seemingly endemic corruption plaguing many post-Communist states.

Pro-Western Moldovans have focused their attention internationally on joining the European Union, relying on Romania and other Eastern Europeans for support. NATO has not featured in internal political debates, undoubtedly because of Russia’s presence in Transnistria and the Kremlin’s active measure in domestic politics. However, Maia Sandu, Moldova’s current President, is now better positioned to campaign for its politico-military security due to the ongoing hostilities next door. What Sandu and her supporters need are clear indications that NATO, especially Washington, is prepared to be active in ending the country’s frozen conflict.

Moldova’s problems might have been resolved earlier if NATO had seized George W. Bush’s April 2008, proposal to bring Ukraine and Georgia quickly into the Alliance. When Germany and France stymied Bush’s initiative, NATO implicitly confirmed the existence of several grey zones between NATO’s eastern border and Russia. These grey zones in eastern Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia allowed Russia to sustain existing frozen conflicts and create new ones (Georgia in 2008; Ukraine in 2014).

Had Ukraine joined NATO shortly after Bush’s proposal, there might never have been Russian aggression against it, in either 2014 or 2022. Finland’s and Sweden’s 2022 decisions to apply for NATO membership confirmed their realization that the only effective defense against Russia lay with joining the Alliance. Shielded behind Ukraine in NATO, Moldova might have resisted Russian political interference and escaped its frozen-conflict status.

That opportunity botched, today’s circumstances nonetheless provide a compelling reason for NATO itself to launch efforts to expel remaining Russian forces from Moldova and reduce Moscow’s political machinations, voluntarily or otherwise. As part of overall efforts to impose political and economic costs on Russia for invading Ukraine, reducing Russian influence elsewhere in the former Soviet Union should also be an objective. While Moscow’s remaining deployments in Transnistria and Transnistria’s own “military” are now small, the risk of those forces being augmented is considerable. The geostrategic reality for Moldova of Russian troops “behind” Ukrainian soldiers now engaged to the east adds compelling urgency to the West’s deliberations.

In Moldova, Moscow’s forces could be cut off from supplies fairly readily, given their separation from Russia, and other pressures could be brought to bear on Transnistria’s separatist authorities to accept a peaceful dissolution of their illegitimate government. Specific formulations to unwind Transnistria and transition to Moldova’s legitimate government may well prove complicated, but NATO need not now focus on the precise steps subsequently necessary. What we need from the Vilnius Summit is a determination to begin the process of closing out Moldova’s frozen conflict, removing Russian military forces, eliminating Russian political interference, and longer term, aiming for Moldovan NATO membership.

The key point is to act now before Moldova becomes a flashpoint, thereby also undermining Ukraine’s self-defense. Successfully pulling Moldova into the West would be a clear setback for Moscow, encouraging other former Soviet states that they, too, will not be left behind.

John Bolton served as national security adviser to President Donald Trump between 2018 and 2019. Between 2005 and 2006, he served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.

America can’t permit Chinese military expansion in Cuba

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This article was first published in The Hill on July 1, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

Important historical events often get lost in the daily shuffle. Only last week, news of China building a “military training” facility in Cuba came just a day after Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s brief June 19 meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, which was touted as having stabilized Washington-Beijing relations.

Then President Biden weighed in, opining that Xi had been unaware of Beijing’s spy balloon over the United States, which reflected “a great embarrassment for dictators: when they didn’t know what happened.”

China answered angrily that Biden’s remarks were “extremely absurd and irresponsible”; sent in its Washington ambassador to protest; and read America’s ambassador in Beijing the riot act. Biden himself then said, modestly, that his comments hadn’t had “any real consequence.” Just another episode of Biden inadvertently speaking the truth (although what Xi really knew about the balloon remains unclear).

Of course, an attempted paramilitary coup against Russian President Vladimir Putin is an attention-grabber on any day, but when it comes to China, planning a military facility on Cuba’s north coast is far more important than rhetorical exchanges and uneventful diplomatic visits.

Even before Russia’s drama erupted, coverage of China’s “training” base all but disappeared, lost beneath the most recent example of Biden musings contradicting declared U.S. policy. Originally published by the Wall Street Journal, the “military training” story followed its reporting on China opening a new espionage center in Cuba.

The Biden administration initially denied that story, but then reversed itself, saying the spying base emerged under Donald Trump, likely supported by Huawei and ZTE.

The potential of significant Chinese facilities in Cuba is a red-flag threat to America. After the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Washington relied on an “implicit understanding” (in Henry Kissinger’s words) with Moscow to reduce threats emanating from Cuba. Under this understanding, the USSR agreed not to place new offensive weapons or delivery systems in Cuba, and the U.S. agreed not to invade Cuba. Although severely tested by Soviet efforts to build a submarine base at Cienfuegos in 1970, the understanding has held. Moreover, in 2002, Russia closed its Lourdes intelligence base, greatly restricting its Cuban collection capabilities.

Between China and America, however, no such modus operandi has ever existed. Beijing made no commitment comparable to Moscow. Moreover, “military training” could well camouflage offensive weapons, delivery systems or other threatening capabilities.

For example, hypersonic cruise missiles, already harder to detect, track, and destroy than ballistic missiles, are natural candidates for installation in Cuba, a prospect we cannot tolerate, along with many other risks, like a Chinese submarine base. Beijing’s interests in Venezuela’s oil-and-gas assets, its support for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship, and its extensive mineral and other investments throughout Latin America could help make Cuba the center for China’s activities across the Hemisphere.

Beijing plainly deals with Havana as though it has no inhibitions. Neither should we. America should move immediately to thwart China’s intrusive ambitions. Revoking diplomatic relations with Cuba; increased economic sanctions against both China and Cuba; and far stricter implementation of existing sanctions, are required now. Although these steps have previously failed to overthrow Castro or his successors, prior measures were never backed, post-1962, by the possibility of using American force against the regime, assuming Moscow adhered to the “implicit understanding.” Moreover, the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion spooked U.S. officials, thereby ending significant planning for Cuban exile participation in regime-change efforts.

That was then. China’s intrusion into Cuba reflects a significant escalation in its hegemonic aspirations, equal to or graver than the 1960s Soviet presence. One thing is certain: We should not stand idly by. Had Presidents Eisenhower or Kennedy acted more forcefully and effectively against Castro, we might have avoided many perilous Cold War crises, sparing us decades of strategic concern, not to mention the repression of Cuba’s people.

As evidence grows that China is prepared to take full advantage of Cuba’s geographic proximity to America, we need to think again about whether and how to overthrow Havana’s post-Castro regime. With Beijing’s threat rising, we should not miss today’s moment without seriously reconsidering how to return this geographically critical island to its own people’s friendlier hands.

Both Havana and Beijing need to understand, without qualification, that they have no license to engage in behavior threatening the United States. We are bound by no commitment limiting our use of force. Just as Nixon properly blocked the Soviets at Cienfuegos, we should examine how to block construction of Chinese military facilities. Guantanamo Bay, for example, was never prepared as a staging ground for anti-Castro activities but remains fully available to us today.

Verbal sparring between Beijing and Washington, or even ominous developments in Russia, should not distract us from critical opportunities to preclude a rising Chinese threat centered in Cuba. If Biden won’t act, Republican candidates in 2024 should make China’s looming Cuba presence a major campaign issue.

Biden’s foolish rush to rejoin UNESCO has nothing to do with China

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This article was first published in The New York Post on June 20, 2023.  Click Here to read the original article.

Demonstrating yet again that it’s little more than Barack Obama’s third term, the Biden White House is once more pressing to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

This ill-advised gambit will cost about $600 million, apparently just a rounding error for the administration’s budgeteers.

Ronald Reagan rightly withdrew the United States in 1983, citing UNESCO’s highly politicized hostility to freedom of the press and general anti-Americanism; pervasive antisemitism and anti-Israel biases; and utter lack of program and budget discipline.

UNESCO’s US supporters, almost all on the political left, launched a series of unsuccessful efforts to rejoin, repeatedly seeking a new pretext to end the horror of being outside a multilateral organization, no matter how failed and irreparable.

Unfortunately, they persuaded President George W. Bush to return, ostensibly to mitigate the bad press he received for conducting a “unilateralist” foreign policy. Of course, nothing of the sort happened.

With the unwitting Americans seduced back in, UNESCO’s true political agenda emerged under the Obama administration’s welcoming gaze.

In 2011, continuing its decades-long campaign to demonstrate international “statehood” by obtaining membership in UN bodies, the Palestinian Authority, heir to the Palestine Liberation Organization, applied to join UNESCO.

Obama’s support for Palestinian causes so weakened the US position that the PA/PLO’s illegitimate campaign succeeded.

At that point, however, Congress rigorously adhered to a statute (originating as an appropriations rider from then-Sen. Bob Kasten in 1990) prohibiting contributions to UN bodies that admit or increase the status of the PA/PLO, meaning that US “arrearages” began to accrue immediately.

Biden’s excuse for rejoining UNESCO is to counter rising Chinese influence.

The State Department argues, for example, that “we can’t afford to be absent any longer from one of the key fora in which standards around education for science and technology are set.”
This claim is entirely specious. There is little to no need for America to rejoin UNESCO to prevent harmful Chinese influence.

UNESCO “standards” for any sort of education are irrelevant, if not harmful to real education, as we’ve learned over many painful decades.

Even on accords in which UNESCO acts as depositary or assists in administrating a treaty, like the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, America is typically a party to the agreement. So Washington can’t be excluded from any aspect of treaty affairs, whether or not America is inside UNESCO.

The broader issue of Chinese influence in the UN system turns on just how valuable that system is.

Chinese and Russian vetoes block effective action by the Security Council, as during the Cold War.

The UN General Assembly and Human Rights Council have also become essentially irrelevant, leaving only the question of which UN specialized and technical agencies are still worth protecting.

Some certainly are, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization and the International Maritime Organization.

But UNESCO, which never had a clearly defined mission, fails under any sensible cost-benefit analysis.

Biden is making precisely the same mistake as Obama, and, if Biden proceeds further, Congress should firmly block any UNESCO funding, as it has consistently done.
Although the administration obtained authority to waive the Kasten amendment in December 2022 (probably in the dark of night), appropriators can correct the mistake in the coming months.

House Appropriations Committee Republicans should lead the effort to defend taxpayer dollars by repealing this waiver. After all, it was passed in Nancy Pelosi’s waning days as speaker.

Not only that, House appropriators should make clear they will be scrutinizing Biden administration dealings with UNESCO and the UN system more broadly.

With the 2024 presidential campaign underway, moreover, none of the declared Republican candidates appears to support rejoining UNESCO.
Biden’s obsession with returning conveniently highlights several of his vulnerabilities, since basically only liberal Democratic elites care about rejoining. The overwhelming majority of Americans do not.

Make no mistake, UNESCO sees Washington as a spigot from which assessed contributions would flow regularly into its coffers and which Biden’s White House would turn to fully open.

Arguing that it’s trying to counter rising Chinese influence reveals the administration’s double standard on Beijing, given its craven efforts to “improve” relations with Beijing on climate-change issues and many others.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping only underlines the need for real, not illusory, measures to counter Beijing.

Returning to UNESCO is a waste of time and money, not an effective riposte to China.