Trump Shares Classified Material with Russia — Duck and Cover!

W.J. Astore

U.S. media outlets have been consumed by the story today that President Trump improperly or unwisely shared classified material on ISIS with the Russians, material that apparently came from Israel.  For its part, the Trump administration denies the charge that information was improperly or unwisely shared.

mcmaster
Today, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster defends Trump’s decision to share classified information with the Russians

A couple of comments.  First, the president has broad powers of declassification and the discretion to share sensitive secrets with others.  Sharing classified information with the Russians, an ally of a sort in the struggle against ISIS, is not necessarily a bad idea. Trump seems to have decided it was a way to strengthen relations and build trust at high levels with the Russian government, a defensible position, in my view.

Second, I’ll repeat here what I said about classification and the Hillary Clinton email scandal: Far too much information is classified by the U.S. government.  Classification is vastly overused by our government to conceal many sins, blunders, nefarious designs, and who knows what else.  There’s nothing sacred about secrecy; indeed, a democracy should prefer transparency, rather than stamping everything “secret” or “top secret” and thereby keeping nearly all Americans in the dark.

Obviously, I’m not privy to the exact nature of the intelligence shared, the sensitivity and vulnerability of the source(s) and collection methods, and so on.  I’m not an intelligence trade-craft expert.  So far, Israeli operatives seem unconcerned, but whether their blase attitude is feigned or not is unknown.

Americans elected Trump because he promised to do things differently.  He campaigned on the idea of being unorthodox; indeed, he is unorthodox.  Surely no one should be surprised when he decides to speak in the clear to Russian government officials on matters concerning ISIS and terrorism.

Repeat after me, America: Secrecy is not sacred.  Transparency is desirable.  So too is building trust with rivals as well as friends.  Trump has his faults, major ones I believe, but this current controversy is a tempest in a teapot.

On the Afghan War and Israeli Aid

sparring
Netanyahu: A man who knows how to spar

W.J. Astore

The FP: Foreign Policy feed that I receive had two items that grabbed my attention this morning.  The first involves the war in Afghanistan.  In short, there’s no end in sight.  Unlike in the Vietnam War, no one is seeing any lights at the end of tunnels.  Nevertheless, U.S. and NATO leaders vow to keep supporting Afghan forces as they continue to lose territory to a resurgent Taliban that had basically given up in 2001.

Here’s the latest from FP (co-authored by Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley):

NATO’s not done in Afghanistan. It looks like the United States and NATO are going to stick it out in Afghanistan for at least a few more years, as the Afghan army continues to battle a resurgent Taliban with no end in sight. Following a NATO meeting in Brussels this week, British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon told reporters that U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter “told us the troop numbers and the dispositions are being looked at again,” as President Barack Obama weighs whether to draw the U.S. presence in Afghanistan down from 9,800 to 5,000 by the end of this year. NATO says it’s in, at least through the end of next year. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the allies are abandoning their plans to pull back to Kabul by the end of this year, and “will have what we call a flexible regional approach, meaning that we will continue to be of course in Kabul but also out in the different regions.”

That’s significant. So are comments by an anonymous NATO diplomat who told the AP that the alliance will most likely come up with the $5 billion needed to fund the current number of Afghan security forces through 2020. The longest of the Long Wars grinds on.

Put bluntly, U.S. and NATO leaders continue to reinforce failure in Afghanistan.  Their strategy, such as it is, is simply more of what hasn’t worked over the last fifteen years.  Apparently, forever war is sustainable to the U.S. and NATO.  No one seems to be asking whether the cost is sustainable to the Afghan people.

The second item involves American aid to Israel, which is primarily military aid.  Here’s how the folks at FP put it:

Israel: After much back and forth sparring, the U.S. and Israel appear to be nearing an agreement on a U.S. military aid package. Israeli officials had been hoping that the Obama administration would agree to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) promising $40 billion in aid over a decade — an increase of $10 billion over the last MOU. So far, the U.S. has been discussing a deal in the range of $35-37 billion. Other questions about the aid remain up in the air such as whether the final package will include money for missile defense and how much of the money Israel will be able to spend among its own defense contractors versus American companies.

There you have it: the “sparring” between Israel and the U.S. is about whether Israel will get a huge chunk of America aid, or a gargantuan chunk of aid.  Meanwhile, the U.S. government seems to have no influence over the Israeli government.  Netanyahu does pretty much what he wants to do, even as he thumbs his nose at Obama.

The “punishment” for Netanyahu’s intractability – well, there is none.  As a punch-drunk American heavyweight boxer staggers about the ring, a sneering Israeli lightweight launches punch after punch, taunt after taunt.  And after absorbing the punishment the heavyweight simply throws in the towel and agrees to the lightweight’s terms.

Of course, none of this will change under President Hillary Clinton.  If anything, Clinton will pursue the Afghan War with more vigor and ladle even more “aid” to Israel.  Under President Trump, who knows?  All bets are truly off since Trump changes his positions as often as most men change their underwear.  (For example, Trump first affirmed neutrality in negotiating between the Israelis and Palestinians, then pledged one-sided support for Israel in a speech to AIPAC.)

Well, my dad always said, the more things change, the more they remain the same.  In these two cases, he was right – yet again.

Dissent and Democracies

us constitution
W.J. Astore

Dissent is fundamental to democracy.  Or so we claim.  Until such dissent makes us angry or uncomfortable.  Then we yell at the dissenter to shut up; better yet, we denounce him or her as a traitor to … well, whatever fits.

But responsible criticism of the actions of one’s government is not disloyalty; rather, it’s often a form of higher loyalty, a loyalty to the ideal of freedom of speech as well as the ideal of organized political action.  The alternative is “My government, right or wrong.”  And who wants that, except for government leaders and their lackeys?

The USA and Israel claim to be democracies.  Yet in difficult times, dissent is often suppressed, and dissenters painted as disloyal.  Recall the aftermath of 9/11 in the USA, when those who questioned the rush to war against Iraq were painted as naive peaceniks (at best) or as dupes of Saddam Hussein or even (at worst) as supporters of Al Qaeda.  That was the mentality of Bush and Company, a Manichean “you’re either for us or against us.”  And look where that got us.

Sorry, I’m not “for” a government and its leaders.  I’m “for” the US Constitution and our essential rights and liberties, including the right to dissent from my government when I believe it is wrong.

Today, the debate on Israel and Gaza is similarly heated.  Those who risk expressing sympathy for the Palestinians often get painted as supporters of Hamas and terrorism.  Jon Stewart showcased this mentality on The Daily Show here.  Similarly, David Harris-Gershon wrote a telling article with the meaningful title, “Empathizing with Gaza does NOT make me anti-Semitic, nor pro-Hamas or anti-Israel.  It makes me human.”

It almost goes without saying that Stewart and Harris-Gershon are Jewish. Indeed, Harris-Gershon’s wife was seriously injured by a terrorist bomb in Israel, an ordeal he wrote about in his book, “What Do You Buy the Children of the Terrorist Who Tried to Kill Your Wife?  A Memoir of Jerusalem.”  That they have to fight against the charge of being “self-hating Jews” or enemy sympathizers says much about the suppression of dissent by authoritarian elements in Israel as well as the USA.

Look: The situation in Gaza is highly inflammatory.  As an organization, Hamas is quite obviously dedicated to launching rockets against innocents and building tunnels to launch terrorist attacks.  Few people can blame Israel for wanting to stop the rocket attacks and destroy the tunnels.  But honest people in good faith can definitely disagree with how the Israeli government is going about it.

Let me close with a comment from a Jewish friend.  He wrote to me with grave concern about Israel’s actions in Gaza.  What he said resonated with me.  He said that the Israeli government’s actions in Gaza were betraying a fundamental core value of Jewish identity.

That value?  Compassion.

You may agree or disagree with him.  But is it too much to ask that we take his concern seriously, without denouncing him as naive or misguided or calling him a self-hating Jew or even a traitor?

Update (8/4/14): Call it “dissent” or call it “gumption” (the word Andrew Bacevich uses below): We need it when the experts are marching in lockstep in the pursuit of bad policies, as they did with the Tonkin Gulf Resolution in August 1964 that enabled the disastrous escalation of the Vietnam War.  But let Bacevich tell it:

“It takes gumption to question truths that everyone “knows” to be true. In the summer of 1964, gumption was in short supply. As a direct consequence, 58,000 Americans died, along with a vastly larger number of Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians.

“After 9/11, similar mistakes — deference to the official line and to the conventional wisdom (“terrorism” standing in for communism) — recurred, this time with even less justification. The misbegotten Iraq war was one result. Yet even today, events in Syria, Ukraine, and elsewhere elicit an urge to ‘do something,’ accompanied by the conviction that unless troops are moving or bombs dropping the United States is somehow evading its assigned responsibilities. The question must be asked: Are Americans incapable of learning?”

We’re especially incapable of learning when those few who dare to question the wrongheaded policies of our government are painted as malcontents or traitors.

Check out Bacevich’s article here.

David versus Goliath in the Middle East

david and goliath_aaron wolpert

W.J. Astore

When I was a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel.  I saw Israel as being surrounded by implacable enemies bent on its destruction.  Israel was the plucky underdog, David against Goliath, with Goliath being Arab countries like Egypt and Syria, having militaries trained and equipped by the Soviet Union, sworn enemy of the U.S. during the Cold War (or so my ten-year-old mind saw it).  I recall keeping a scrapbook of articles on the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  I cheered the Israeli “blitzkrieg” (What an odd term for a daring Jewish armored attack!) that crossed the Suez Canal and isolated the Egyptian Third Army, as well as the Israeli riposte on the Golan Heights against Syria.

That was 1973.  Forty-one years later, Israel is engaged in yet another assault on Gaza and the Palestinians.  Compared to the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), the Palestinian militants are undergunned and hopelessly outclassed.  Organizations like Hamas rely on the traditional tactics of terrorists (or freedom-fighters, choose your loaded word): hit-and-run raids, random attacks (unguided rockets), war in the shadows (or in the tunnels).  Who is David and who is Goliath now?

What hasn’t changed, of course, is the mainstream media in the U.S., which cheers the Israelis while condemning Hamas and any other Palestinians who choose resistance instead of compliance.  Watching a snippet of CNN, I witnessed Wolf Blitzer, who poses as a disinterested journalist, demanding from his Palestinian interviewee an immediate stoppage in rocket attacks.  Blitzer had nothing critical to say of Israeli air raids or the disproportionate casualties suffered by the Palestinians in this latest skirmish in a very long war.

What can be done?  As one of my historian friends put it, the Middle East has “a massive legacy of entropy.”  All I know is that more bloodshed, and more innocents killed, like those four young boys playing soccer on the beach, only adds to that entropy — and the legacy of hatred.

Perhaps one thing I’ve learned in four decades is that negotiations in good faith can’t occur when either side sees itself as a heroic David fighting against a glowering Goliath.  Until Israelis and Palestinians see each other as fellow human beings, as equals rather than as monsters, wars will continue, innocents will suffer, and hopes will be left in the dust, slayed like so many Goliaths by self-anointed Davids.