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Archive for October 7th, 2019

Top Military Officers Unload on Trump

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Mark Bowden writes in the Atlantic:

For most of the past two decades, American troops have been deployed all over the world—to about 150 countries. During that time, hundreds of thousands of young men and women have experienced combat, and a generation of officers have come of age dealing with the practical realities of war. They possess a deep well of knowledge and experience. For the past three years, these highly trained professionals have been commanded by Donald Trump.

To get a sense of what serving Trump has been like, I interviewed officers up and down the ranks, as well as several present and former civilian Pentagon employees. Among the officers I spoke with were four of the highest ranks—three or four stars—all recently retired. All but one served Trump directly; the other left the service shortly before Trump was inaugurated. They come from different branches of the military, but I’ll simply refer to them as “the generals.” Some spoke only off the record, some allowed what they said to be quoted without attribution, and some talked on the record.

Military officers are sworn to serve whomever voters send to the White House. Cognizant of the special authority they hold, high-level officers epitomize respect for the chain of command, and are extremely reticent about criticizing their civilian overseers. That those I spoke with made an exception in Trump’s case is telling, and much of what they told me is deeply disturbing. In 20 years of writing about the military, I have never heard officers in high positions express such alarm about a president. Trump’s pronouncements and orders have already risked catastrophic and unnecessary wars in the Middle East and Asia, and have created severe problems for field commanders engaged in combat operations. Frequently caught unawares by Trump’s statements, senior military officers have scrambled, in their aftermath, to steer the country away from tragedy. How many times can they successfully do that before faltering?

Amid threats spanning the globe, from nuclear proliferation to mined tankers in the Persian Gulf to terrorist attacks and cyberwarfare, those in command positions monitor the president’s Twitter feed like field officers scanning the horizon for enemy troop movements. A new front line in national defense has become the White House Situation Room, where the military struggles to accommodate a commander in chief who is both ignorant and capricious. In May, after months of threatening Iran, Trump ordered the carrier group led by the USS Abraham Lincoln to shift from the Mediterranean Sea to the Persian Gulf. On June 20, after an American drone was downed there, he ordered a retaliatory attack—and then called it off minutes before it was to be launched. The next day he said he was “not looking for war” and wanted to talk with Iran’s leaders, while also promising them “obliteration like you’ve never seen before” if they crossed him. He threatened North Korea with “fire and fury” and dispatched a three-aircraft-carrier flotilla to waters off the Korean peninsula—then he pivoted to friendly summits with Kim Jong Un, with whom he announced he was “in love”; canceled long-standing U.S. military exercises with South Korea; and dangled the possibility of withdrawing American forces from the country altogether. While the lovefest continues for the cameras, the U.S. has quietly uncanceled the canceled military exercises, and dropped any mention of a troop withdrawal.

Such rudderless captaincy creates the headlines Trump craves. He revels when his tweets take off. (“Boom!” he says. “Like a rocket!”) Out in the field, where combat is more than wordplay, his tweets have consequences. He is not a president who thinks through consequences—and this, the generals stressed, is not the way serious nations behave.

The generals I spoke with didn’t agree on everything, but they shared the following five characterizations of Trump’s military leadership.

I. HE DISDAINS EXPERTISE

Trump has little interest in the details of policy. He makes up his mind about a thing, and those who disagree with him—even those with manifestly more knowledge and experience—are stupid, or slow, or crazy.

As a personal quality, this can be trying; in a president, it is dangerous. Trump rejects the careful process of decision making that has long guided commanders in chief. Disdain for process might be the defining trait of his leadership. Of course, no process can guarantee good decisions—history makes that clear—but eschewing the tools available to a president is choosing ignorance. What Trump’s supporters call “the deep state” is, in the world of national security—hardly a bastion of progressive politics—a vast reservoir of knowledge and global experience that presidents ignore at their peril. The generals spoke nostalgically of the process followed by previous presidents, who solicited advice from field commanders, foreign-service and intelligence officers, and in some cases key allies before reaching decisions about military action. As different as George W. Bush and Barack Obama were in temperament and policy preferences, one general told me, they were remarkably alike in the Situation Room: Both presidents asked hard questions, wanted prevailing views challenged, insisted on a variety of options to consider, and weighed potential outcomes against broader goals. Trump doesn’t do any of that. Despite commanding the most sophisticated intelligence-gathering apparatus in the world, this president prefers to be briefed by Fox News, and then arrives at decisions without input from others.

One prominent example came on December 19, 2018, when Trump announced, via Twitter, that he was ordering all American forces in Syria home.

“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency,” he tweeted. Later that day he said, “Our boys, our young women, our men, they are all coming back, and they are coming back now.”

This satisfied one of Trump’s campaign promises, and it appealed to the isolationist convictions of his core supporters. Forget the experts, forget the chain of command—they were the people who, after all, had kept American forces engaged in that part of the world for 15 bloody years without noticeably improving things. Enough was enough.

At that moment, however, American troops were in the final stages of crushing the Islamic State, which, contrary to Trump’s assertion, was collapsing but had not yet been defeated. Its brutal caliphate, which had briefly stretched from eastern Iraq to western Syria, had been painstakingly dismantled over the previous five years by an American-led global coalition, which was close to finishing the job. Now they were to stop and come home?

Here, several of the generals felt, was a textbook example of ill-informed decision making. The downsides of a withdrawal were obvious: It would create a power vacuum that would effectively cede the fractured Syrian state to Russia and Iran; it would abandon America’s local allies to an uncertain fate; and it would encourage a diminished ISIS to keep fighting. The decision—which prompted the immediate resignations of the secretary of defense, General James Mattis, and the U.S. special envoy to the mission, Brett McGurk—blindsided not only Congress and America’s allies but the person charged with actually waging the war, General Joseph Votel, the commander of U.S. Central Command. He had not been consulted.

Trump’s tweet put Votel in a difficult spot. Here was a sudden 180-degree turn in U.S. policy that severely undercut an ongoing effort. The American contingent of about 2,000 soldiers, most of them Special Forces, was coordinating with the Iraqi army; the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, consisting primarily of Kurdish militias and Syrians opposed to President Bashar al-Assad; and representatives of NATO, the Arab League, and dozens of countries. This alliance had reduced ISIS’s territory to small pockets of resistance inside Syria. America’s troops were deep in the Euphrates Valley, a long way from their original bases of operation. An estimated 10,000 hard-core Islamist soldiers were fighting to the death. Months of tough combat lay ahead.

Votel’s force in Syria was relatively small, but it required a steady supply of food, ammunition, parts, and medical supplies, and regular troop rotations. The avenue for these vital conveyances—through hundreds of miles of hazardous Iraqi desert—was truck convoys, protected almost exclusively by the SDF. To protect its troops during a retreat, America could have brought in its own troops or replaced those truck convoys with airlifts, but either step would have meant suddenly escalating an engagement that the president had just pronounced finished.

For the American commander, this was a terrible logistical challenge. An orderly withdrawal of his forces would further stress supply lines, therefore necessitating the SDF’s help even more. Votel found himself in the position of having to tell his allies, in effect, We’re screwing you, but we need you now more than ever.

Field commanders are often given orders they don’t like. The military must bow to civilian rule. The generals accept and embrace that. But they also say that no careful decision-making process would have produced Trump’s abrupt about-face.

Votel decided to take an exceedingly rare step: He publicly contradicted his commander in chief. In an interview with CNN he said that no, ISIS was not yet defeated, and now was not the time to retreat. Given his responsibility to his troops and the mission, the general didn’t have much choice.

Votel held everything together. He took advantage of the good relationship he had built with the SDF to buy enough time for Trump to be confronted with the consequences of his decision. A few days later, the president backed down—while predictably refusing to admit that he had done so. American forces would stay in smaller numbers (and France and the U.K. would eventually agree to commit more troops to the effort). The 180-degree turn was converted into something more like a 90-degree one. In the end, the main effects of Trump’s tweet were bruising the trust of allies and heartening both Assad and ISIS.

II. HE TRUSTS ONLY HIS OWN INSTINCTS

Trump believes that his gut feelings about things are excellent, if not genius. Those around him encourage that belief, or they are fired. Winning the White House against all odds may have made it unshakable.

Decisiveness is good, the generals agreed. But making decisions without considering facts is not.

Trump has, on at least one occasion, shown the swiftness and resolution commanders respect: On April 7, 2017, he . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 October 2019 at 6:18 pm

How Joe Biden Empowered China’s Censorship of the NBA

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Matt Stoller writes at BIG:

Over the weekend, the Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet favorable to Hong Kong protesters, a tweet that said “Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.” Twitter is banned in China, and the tweet would have ordinarily been ignored. But Chinese politics is changing; Xi Jinping, having consolidated power using nationalistic rhetoric, has unleashed Cultural Revolution-style pressure inside Chinese bureaucracies. Any bureaucrat who doesn’t ramp up volume aggressively against even a perceived slight to Chinese honor could be undermined or even imprisoned.

There are many examples of this hyper-nationalism; earlier this year, the Chinese government denied visas to German lawmakers who criticized the country’s human rights record. In this case, the offending party was just a basketball team executive. Yet, the CCP can apparently brook no resistance, anywhere.

China’s state-owned top broadcaster said it would stop showing team events, and Chinese tech giant Tencent announced it would no longer live-stream games or carry team news. China’s consulate general in Houston said the team should clarify its views, and the Chinese Basketball Association, led by former NBA player Yao Ming, cut all ties with the Rockets.

The National Basketball League Kowtows

The Rockets are a popular team in China, and China is an important market for the NBA. It would be hard to convey the level of sycophancy to the Chinese that business leaders in America immediately adopted. Morey deleted his tweet and apologized, top NBA player and Adidas spokesperson James Harden said sorry to the Chinese, and the NBA issued two statements, a mild one in English and a harsh condemnation of Morey in Chinese. The billionaire owner of the Rockets, Tilman Fertitta, criticized his own employee.

Most amusingly, the billionaire owner of the Nets, Chinese tech giant Alibaba co-founder and prominent Yale Law donor Joseph Tsai, wrote an essay condemning Morey’s comments, bringing up 19th century Opium Wars as one rationale for why all 1.4 billion people were immediately offended at the comments of someone posting on a platform banned in China.

Why does China have so much leverage?

The Chinese market is massive, both as an importer and exporter. We can see it use its power to attempt to bully U.S. politicians over agricultural products in hopes of gaining leverage in the trade war. This NBA situation is no different.

Among the nearly 1.4 billion people who call China home, 640 million of them watched some kind of NBA programming over the course of the 2017-2018 season, per league figures. That’s nearly twice the population of the entire United States.

“When global partners are looking at the NBA, I think for them the two big markets are really the U.S. and China,” Chang said. “And in some respects for some of these guys, they start to look at China as almost a bigger opportunity going forward.”

The National Basketball Association, like most American producers of goods and services, sees the potential for eye-popping profits in China. Of course, it’s a trade-off that comes with steep costs, like censorship. And it will ultimately collapse because the CCP is not interested in trade, it is interested in dominance.

Since the 1980s, the Chinese have used a simple set of strategies to take over industrial capacity. First, use imports and foreign financing/know-how to learn the business, then gradually replace foreign businesses with domestic ones, and finally subsidize the Chinese producers abroad until they dominate the global market. The Chinese have done this across many different sectors, most prominently the telecommunications equipment space, with Huawei causing a global national security crisis as it is now the best value for telecom equipment buyers in the world.

It’s not obvious how the Chinese could learn how to replace the NBA or international soccer, which is also quite popular in China. China is investing in youth sports, but my guess is that it won’t replace foreign sports starts with its own stars, because there’s no real strategic need to do so. The CCP will simply impose conditions on global sports, ensuring that, like with Chinese-owned social media platform TikTok, sports becomes a zone where politics are not allowed. It is increasingly doing that in Hollywood, as the U.S. government noted in 2015.

A lot of people are saying that the NBA is greedy, willing to sacrifice human rights for profits. And in some sense, that is true. But what just happened to the NBA is a result of signals the U.S. government has been sending to the American business community for years, that commercial relationships with autocracies – however compromised they may appear – ultimately help lead to democracy.

Bill Clinton pioneered this policy framework. The idea was called ‘engagement’ with China, and many Western China watchers, in an orientalist fantasy world, sought to ‘shape’ China as a great power compatible with the liberal international order. As I wrote in June, this policy was part of a “a global utopian view, peddled most aggressively by Thomas Friedman in his 1999 book The Lexus and the Olive Tree and his 2005 The World is Flat…. China would become a democratic state, slowly, because its people wanted McDonald’s and X-Boxes, and McDonald’s and X-Boxes turned countries democratic.” Clinton’s policies sent large chunks of the U.S. industrial base and American factories to China. Under Clinton, U.S. businesses exported capital and technology and even armed the Chinese state, accidentally transferring missile machining tools to the Chinese military.

George Bush and Barack Obama continued this policy architecture. Bush oversaw the main years of the ‘China shock’, when Wall Street, private equity, and China cooperated to rip the economic guts out of the midwest. During the Obama administration, despite some rhetoric of a ‘pivot to Asia’ to deal with China, this policy architecture largely dominated D.C. One very clear example is that of how Joe Biden sought to sell American entertainment product while Vice President.

Joe Biden’s China Deal

In 2012, Hollywood studios were increasingly frustrated at their inability to get into the Chinese market. China had maintained a system whereby American studios could sell only 20 films a year into their fast growing theater chains, and often wouldn’t make decisions until after the movies were made. This created a situation where studios would preemptively censor their own creative work in the hopes that their films would be imported by China.

The Obama administration, pursuing the strategy of engagement, or deepening trade ties, sought to loosen this restriction. And they sent Joe Biden to cut the deal, as Cecilia Kang reported.

During a luncheon [in 2012] in Los Angeles, Vice President Biden convinced China’s vice president to agree to a deal that would unlock new fortunes for Hollywood. Biden asked Xi Jinping to relax China’s quota of allowing only 20 foreign films to be shown at a time and to increase distribution fees for Hollywood firms.

China had been reluctant to change its decades-old restrictions meant to control the flow of non-Chinese films into the nation that could hinder its own arts industry. But Biden pressed his Chinese counterpart during those last hours of Xi’s five-day U.S. visit.

“By the end of the luncheon, we had a handshake,” Biden said Friday at the Creativity Conference hosted by the Motion Picture Association of America, Microsoft and ABC News. As a result, “your share of box office revenues doubled,” Biden told the crowd of network executives, studio heads and technology lobbyists.

Part of this deal was straightforward aid to a U.S. industry, Biden doing the bidding of former Senator Chris Dodd, who had since become the head of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Biden joked there were rumors in the Senate that Dodd “controlled me,” adding that he left a meeting with Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to speak at the MPAA event.

But this deal also signaled to American entertainment executives, including those at the NBA, that U.S. government policy was to encourage more trade with China, no matter what. If they sought to sell their product in China, the U.S. would back them with geopolitical muscle. What Biden and the United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk didn’t consider was the leverage over studio output that that increased dependency on the Chinese market gave to the Chinese government.

Such leverage has already been an important part of China’s exporting power. For decades, . . .

Continue reading.

He also mentions his

. . . upcoming book, Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy. A few years ago, I feel like I lucked into a learning about the secret history of political economy and power in the 20th century. The book, and this newsletter, are the result. If you pre-order it, the book gets on various lists and gets more promotion from fancy people, which then leads to more exposure, and more lists and promotion, etc. That means that the ideas you and I care about – democracy in commerce – get to a wider audience.

It’s already causing trouble. So far, Ed Luce at the Financial Times attacked my arguments about fascist Chinese power, and Farhad Manjoo in the NYT used the book to recast the Obama era in a way that generated bitter pushback from senior Obama officials. This is the debate we need to have as a society. So pre-order it! If you like this newsletter, you will love Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 October 2019 at 6:12 pm

Taxes out of whack: Those who can afford to pay the most pay the least

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Tax the poor so the wealthy can pay less. That is the Republican goal, and they have achieved it.

For more, see “The Rich Really Do Pay Lower Taxes Than You,” by

Written by LeisureGuy

7 October 2019 at 4:57 pm

While Trump Cracked Down on Immigration, a Republican Megadonor Sued for a Special Visa

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Hypocrisy is never attractive. Jake Peterson reports in ProPublica:

As two of the most prolific political donors in the Donald Trump era, billionaires Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein have supported the president’s “America First” agenda. Elizabeth, the president of their shipping supplies company, recently wrote to customers: “Personally, I am an American first. I care about American jobs.”

But when it comes to business, their company has sought special visas for foreign workers — going so far as to sue the government to secure one at the same time federal officials implemented the president’s more stringent immigration policies.

The suit, filed February in federal district court in Illinois, came after the administration rejected the company’s 2018 petition to hire a full-time software engineer from India, court records show. The company sought a type of visa, called an H-1B, that allows foreign workers with special skills to stay in the U.S. for temporary periods.

Uline Inc., a Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin, company that competes with Staples, FedEx Office and OfficeMax, regularly seeks temporary work visas reserved for non-U.S. workers, the company said in a statement.

The Uihleins back conservative candidates and groups that have advocated not only for crackdowns on illegal immigration, but also for stemming legal migration to the U.S.

In court testimony last year in an unrelated case in Texas, Richard Uihlein, who is the company’s CEO, was asked if his contributions to a group that supports conservative representatives were meant to aid not just immigration reform but a tougher immigration policy. Uihlein responded: “I would say that’s correct, yep.”

During the 2018 cycle, federal campaign finance records show, Richard Uihlein gave more than $38 million to conservative candidates and groups and his wife, Elizabeth, gave more than $1.5 million. The only individual donor who gave more to support Republicans during the 2018 cycle than Richard Uihlein was Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Richard Uihlein’s recent political donations included $2.5 million to the failed Illinois gubernatorial campaign of Jeanne Ives, who ran an ad featuring an actor wearing a hoodie, his face covered, thanking her opponent for making the state a “sanctuary state for illegal immigrant criminals.” He also gave $100,000 to a super PAC supporting the failed senate campaign of Roy Moore, the Alabama judge who ran for office amid allegations that he’d sexually molested underage girls. Moore, a staunch supporter of aggressive policies to curb immigration, backed legislation that would’ve halved the number of green cards issued in the U.S. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 October 2019 at 12:29 pm

Lupo revisited with a new blade

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Last Monday I found the Lupo was struggling a bit, so I changed the blade (to a Gillette SharpEdge). I prepped my two-day stubble by first washing it with MR GLO (actually Ach. Brito), rinsing partially, and the rubbing the QED Vanilla shave stick against the grain over all my beard. I wet the Mühle gen 2 synthetic, and the resulting lather was extremely nice—I do love vanilla fragrance—with that dense creamy texture that I’m getting from glyerin-based soaps.

Interestingly, the first pass with the Lupo was again not so easy: more resistance than I expected, and then I realized I was unconsciously comparing it to the resistance I get when using a slant razor on the two-day stubble (and also comparing to the resistance I’ve been encountering with my recent daily use of slants). I continue to believe that a slant razor will cut more easily than a conventional razor.

And the resistance really was present only in the first pass. Passes two and three were quite smooth and easy, and the result was a perfect BBS finish.

I splashed on Paul Sebastian, whose tonka bean ingredient gives it a clear vanilla note. I think I have one aftershave left in the bottle. So it goes.

A good start to a rainy day.

Written by LeisureGuy

7 October 2019 at 9:39 am

Posted in Shaving

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