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Peter van Buren

Was Jim Mattis the Last 'Adult' in Trump’s Room?

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The idea Mattis was the “adult in the room,” the moral and intellectual restraint on Trump’s evil wishes, is tired. We’ve been recycling that one for two years and more now, as various “adults” were christened as such and rose and fell in the eyes of the media — Flynn, McMaster, Tillerson, Kelly, and now Mattis (the media regards Pompeo and Bolton as “dangerous” and thus not adults. Nobody else seems to make the news.)

Despite these adults’ irregularly scheduled regular departures, there has been no catastrophe, no war with Iran or China, no dismantlement of NATO, no invasion of Freedonia. We can certainly argue over the rights and wrongs of Trump’s foreign policy decisions (for example, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement) as with any other president, but that clearly falls within the boundaries of standard disagreements, not Apocalypse 2018: Trump Unleashed. The big news is that none of the terrible things and in reality, tweets aside, very few of the small bad things, have come to pass. It’s almost as if all the predictions have been… wrong.

Somewhat unique to the Trump era is the idea cabinet officials, appointed by the President and who work for the executive branch, are supposed to be part of some underground #Resistance check and balance system. One pundit critically observed “If Trump holds to form, he will look for a new secretary of Defense who sees the job as turning his preferences into policy rather acting as a guardrail on his impulses.” Leaving out the hyperbole, isn’t that what all presidents look for in their cabinet, people who will help them enact policy?


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Mueller’s Investigation is Missing One Thing: A Crime

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A baby born when Robert Mueller started his investigation would be talking by now. But would she have anything to say?

We last looked at what Mueller had publicly—and what he didn’t have—some 10 months ago, and I remained skeptical that the Trump campaign had in any way colluded with Russia. It’s worth another look now, but first let’s give away the ending (spoiler alert!): there is still no real evidence of, well, much of anything significant about Russiagate. One thing that is clear is that the investigation seems to be ending. Mueller’s office has reportedly even told various defense lawyers that it is “tying up loose ends.” The moment to wrap things up is politically right as well: the Democrats will soon take control of the House; time to hand this all off to them.

Ten months ago the big news was Paul Manafort flipped; that seems to have turned out to be mostly a bust, as we know now he lied like a rug to the Feds and cooperated with the Trump defense team as some sort of mole inside Mueller’s investigation (a heavily-redacted memo about Manafort’s lies, released by Mueller on Friday, adds no significant new details to the Russiagate narrative.)
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Julian Assange Will Die Alongside Your 1st Amendment Rights

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Accidentally disclosed information confirms the US is actively planning to prosecute Julian Assange. What happens to Assange will almost certainly change what can be lawfully published in our democracy. This threat to our freedoms is being largely ignored because Assange, once a progressive journalist, is now regarded as a hero-turned-zero. At stake? The ability of all journalists to inform the public of things the government specifically wants to withhold

A clerical error revealed the Justice Department secretly has filed criminal charges against Assange. Court papers in what appears to be an unrelated case used cut-and-pasted language from documents prepared previously against Assange.

Though the new information makes clear prosecution is planned if Assange can be delivered to American custody, no further details are available. Assange is under scrutiny at a minimum for unauthorized possession of classified material going back to at least 2010, when Wikileaks burst on to the international stage with evidence of American war crimes in Iraq, and exposed years worth of classified State Department diplomatic cables. 

More recently, Assange has been accused of trying to manipulate the 2016 US presidential election with his release of emails from the Democratic National Committee server. The emails, some believe, came to Wikileaks via hackers working for the Russian government (Assange denies this) and are deeply tied to the claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow otherwise known as “Russiagate.”
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Progress or Failure in North Korea?

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In this same week the New York Times asserted North Korea is engaged in a “great deception” over its nuclear forces, South Korean unification minister Cho Myoung Gyon is visiting the United States with plans to meet Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a Member of Congress, and to address several forums.
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Deception in North Korea? Nope, But a New Flavor of Neocon

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What is the state of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula? Are we again heading toward the lip of war, or is progress being made at an expected pace? Are there Asian Neocons fanning the flames for conflict in Pyongyang much as others did with Baghdad?

A year ago, in November 2017, John Brennan estimated the chance of a war with North Korea at 20 to 25 percent. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the odds were 50/50. The New York Times claimed we were “slouching toward war” with the North, on a “collision course.” National security adviser HR McMaster said North Korea represented “the greatest immediate threat to the United States” and that the potential for war with the communist nation grew each day. The US lacked an ambassador in Seoul; Victor Cha was rejected by Trump because, according to “sources and reports,” he didn’t support a preemptive strike on Pyongyang. It was reported the US was “imminently preparing for an attack on North Korea,” driven in part by hawks like Mike Pompeo and John Bolton.

All that was wrong.

Cha, it appears, didn’t in fact support what Trump actually was planning: not a preemptive strike, but a summit meeting with Kim Jong Un, held some five months ago in Singapore following a first try at courtship aside the Seoul Olympics in January 2018. World leaders meeting to talk peace is historically seen as a good thing. Yet the American media consensus was a president they believe is roundly despised globally conveyed “legitimacy” on Kim Jong Un, no matter that his family has ruled North Korea for some seven decades, and his country already holds a seat at the United Nations. No shortage of experts from South Korea universities and American think tanks were found to support those claims.
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What if a #MAGA Guy Ate Twitter’s Face?

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More than a few people have cited the exchange below as justification for my forever trip down the Memory Hole, my ban from Twitter. I used to be there as @wemeantwell. My bad zombie joke about #MAGA, or anything else I wrote that was flippant, is not writing I’m proud of. But ask yourself if indeed what I was doing, in the words of Twitter’s auto-response to me, “harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence someone else’s voice,” or if I was just being rude and childish.
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Diplomacy 101 Case Study: Singapore Summit

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While I can say there isn’t a formal class at the American State Department called Diplomacy 101, some training offered to new hires comes pretty close. Those basic tenets of statecraft, largely unchanged from Thucydides to Bismarck to Pompeo, are important to review in light of the widespread criticism of the Singapore Summit.

You make peace by talking to your adversaries. Diplomacy is almost always a process and rarely a big-bang scale event. Steps backward are expected along with steps forward. Realizing America’s foreign policy goals often means dealing with bad people. As an American diplomat I purposely flattered and befriended gangsters in Japan to help American citizens in trouble, Irish Republican Army terrorists when a change in administration in Washington saw them eligible for visas, and militia leaders in Iraq who sought deals during the Surge. So has every diplomat, along with most intelligence officers and military officers. Many in the media have done exactly the same things to cultivate sources.

The Etruscans, Ethiopians, Egyptians, Eritreans, and Everyone else from A-Z have been conducting diplomacy with adversaries of all flavors, titles, and moral standards since before the word was even invented by the French. A leader whose family has been the sole ruler of his nation for seven some decades, who controls nuclear weapons, whose nation has a seat at the United Nations and embassies in multiple countries around the world already meets any practical test of “legitimacy.” Kim’s nuclear weapons exist whether or not he meets a sitting American president, or ex-presidents Clinton and Carter, though the only chance those weapons may someday be gone rests in such meetings.
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The US is Playing with Fire if It Walks Away from the Iran Nuclear Deal on May 12

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A foreign policy crisis is coming May 12. President Donald Trump’s likely decision on that day to not continue waiving sanctions on Iran under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action will significantly increase the chances of war.

The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action signed by China, Russia, and most of western Europe requires the American president to certify every three months Iran’s nuclear program is in compliance with the deal. In return, the next quarter’s economic sanctions are waived against the Islamic Republic. Earlier this year, Trump warned he was waiving sanctions for the final time, setting a May 12 deadline for significant changes in the agreement to be made. Failing those changes, Trump’s non-signature would trigger sanctions to snap into place.

The changes Trump is insisting on — reduce Iran’s ballistic missile capability, renegotiate the deal’s end date, and allow unrestricted inspections — are designed to force failure.

Iran’s ballistic missile program was purposefully never part of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; as learned during the Cold War, trying to throw every problem into the same pot assured no agreement could ever be reached. Trump trying to add the missile program in three years after the agreement was signed is wholly outside the norms of diplomacy (and the art of dealmaking.) Ballistic missile capability lies at the heart of Iran’s defense. Sanctions have already kept the country from fielding any significant air force, and memories in Tehran of Iraqi air strikes on its cities in the 1980s when Iran lacked retaliatory capability lie deep. The missile program is the cornerstone of Iranian self-preservation and thus understood to be non-negotiable.
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Review: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership is Mostly About Making Jim Comey Rich

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Despite the lofty title, in A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership James Comey comes across in turns petty, smug, sanctimonious, bitter, and most of all, pandering. Comey feeds the rubes exactly what they paid the carnival sideshow barker in front at Barnes and Noble to hear: the pee tape, the jokes about small hands, the comparisons of Trump to a mob boss, and enough Obama-worship to fill a week’s worth of Maddow.
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FARA: Freedom of the Press, But On the Government’s Terms

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A bipartisan group of lawmakers called for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to investigate if Al Jazeera, the news outlet connected to the Qatari government, should register with the Justice Department as an agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA.)

This has broad implications for our First Amendment, our access to dissenting opinions, and in how the rest of the world views us.

The lawmakers claim Al Jazeera “directly undermines American interests” and broadcasts “anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-Israel” material. Al Jazeera would joinRussian outlets RT and Radio Sputnik, Japan’s Cosmomedia, the Korean Broadcasting System, and the China Daily in registering as foreign state propaganda outlets. DOJ has also been asked to look into a range of other Chinese media.

Ironically, the bipartisan request to force Al Jazeera to register comes amid a controversy over the network’s filming of a documentary critical of pro-Israel lobbying in the US The network used an undercover operative to secure footage revealing possibly illegal interactions between advocacy groups and lawmakers.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act was never intended to regulate journalism. The legislation in fact includes finely-worded exemptions for approved journalists, scholars, artists, and the like, who are not required to announce themselves as “agents of a foreign principal” regardless of what they create.
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