Jared Kushner’s Top Secret Clearance

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On his majesty’s secret service

W.J. Astore

Word is that President Trump intervened to grant his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a “top secret” security clearance.  So what?  That’s the president’s prerogative, and Kushner needs this clearance to perform all the magic he’s apparently capable of, such as reinventing government, negotiating with Mexico, solving the opioid epidemic, and bringing peace to the Middle East.

Top Secret security clearances are quite common in America: more than one million people have them, and at least another three million have secret/confidential ones.  Of course, not all TS clearances are created equal.  They all require background investigations, but some are “special,” and some are SCI, which stands for compartmentalized information.  In other words, just because you have a TS clearance doesn’t mean you can access all TS information.  You have to have “a need to know.”  You have to be “read in” to certain programs.  And some programs are so secret that only a few people have access to them.

One would assume Kushner needs access to top secret intelligence in his job as a “peace envoy” for the Middle East.  Lacking such a clearance, Kushner would have to be fired, but as Trump’s son-in-law and as a special friend to the Israelis and Saudis, Jared is not about to be fired.  Trump apparently lied about intervening to approve Jared’s clearance (“The president was equally forthright a month ago when he unequivocally denied that he intervened in any way to get a permanent security clearance for his son-in-law,” notes The Guardian), but Trump lies a lot.  It’s a little like breathing for him.

What’s the real issue here?  For me, as I wrote about back in 2015, it’s how the government uses classification schemes to keep secrets from us, the American people.  Apparently, either we or they can’t handle the truth.  To cite myself:

Our government uses security classification not so much to keep us safe, but to keep the national security state safe — safe from the eyes of the American people.

As The Guardian reported in 2013:

“A committee established by Congress, the Public Interest Declassification Board, warned in December that rampant over-classification is ‘imped[ing] informed government decisions and an informed public’ and, worse, ‘enabl[ing] corruption and malfeasance’. In one instance it documented, a government agency was found to be classifying one petabyte of new data every 18 months, the equivalent of 20m filing cabinets filled with text.”

Nowadays, seemingly everything is classified.  And if it’s classified, if it’s secret, we can’t know about it. Because we can’t be trusted with it.  That’s a fine idea for an autocracy or dictatorship, but not so fine for a democracy.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people?  Impossible when nearly everything of any importance is classified.

America, Trump or Jared’s loose lips aren’t the problem.  The problem is a government shrouded in secrecy.

Trump and North Korea

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All aboard the “peace train”?

W.J. Astore

This week Trump is off to Vietnam to meet with Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea.  Revealingly, the bar is already being set very low for what may be accomplished at this meeting.  Trump’s original goal was denuclearization, meaning that North Korea would have to give up its nuclear weapons program and remove whatever atomic bombs or warheads it has.  But North Korea isn’t stupid.  They know what happened to Qaddafi when he got rid of his weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in Libya.  For North Korea, nuclear WMD is a sort of insurance policy — a rational arsenal to deter the U.S. from launching a regime-change war.

Coming out of the last summit in Singapore between these men, Trump essentially declared “peace in our time,” even though North Korea has yet to make any significant changes in its nuclear weapons program.  Again, why should North Korea surrender its weapons?

If Ronald Reagan’s motto was “trust — but verify” with the Soviet Union, Trump’s motto with North Korea is simply “trust.”  It’s encouraging that Trump is no longer threatening to bring nuclear fire and fury to the North Koreans, and that Kim Jong-un is no longer approving launches of missiles in the general direction of Hawaii.  But is there any treaty being negotiated with substantive details of verification?  Do the North Koreans truly have any intent to give up their nuclear weapons?  I’d say the answer to both questions is no.

Interestingly, at the request of the Trump administration, the Japanese government has nominated Trump for a Nobel Peace Prize for his attempted rapprochement with North Korea.  Perhaps Trump’s peculiar brand of diplomacy may ease tensions with North Korea.  Detente may be followed by a negotiated settlement and an end to the rancor produced by the Korean War.  Such an ending would indeed be prize-worthy.

Trump’s quixotic efforts seem more vanity project than a well-considered project for peace.  Yet perhaps a vain wannabe dictator like Trump has an edge in understanding a vain and very real dictator like Kim Jong-un.  Trump, after all, did speak of a special bond he has with Kim, one that’s akin to falling in love.  And doesn’t love conquer all?

Trump, sadly, is probably being played by North Korea.  But who cares if lives are saved?  Facing possible famine, the North Korean people could surely use food and other aid.  Let’s hope the U.S. is able to give them some in exchange for promises, however vague, of denuclearization, however defined.

At this point, I’m tired of thinking of countries and national egos.  I’d rather think of saving lives.  Why not start in North Korea?

Trump Questions NATO: The Horror!

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Trump at a NATO meeting.  Looking to go his own way?

W.J. Astore

News that President Trump has considered withdrawing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has drawn great consternation and criticism in the mainstream media.  According to the New York Times, “Mr. Trump’s national security team, including Jim Mattis, then the defense secretary, and John R. Bolton, the national security adviser, scrambled to keep American strategy on track without mention of a withdrawal that would drastically reduce Washington’s influence in Europe and could embolden Russia for decades.”  On NBC News today, an op-ed suggests that “Trump’s reported desire to leave NATO is a belated Christmas present for Putin.”  In both cases, there’s more than a hint that Trump is favoring Russia and Putin while possibly endangering European allies.

Twenty years ago, I was a major at the Air Force Academy, and we hosted a symposium on coalition warfare during which the future of NATO was discussed.  This was a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact.  There were quite a few senior officers at that symposium who, like Trump today, were willing to question the continued relevance of NATO.  One of the “roundtables” specifically addressed the future of NATO.  Its chair was retired General James P. McCarthy, USAF, and its panel consisted of retired Generals Andrew L. Goodpaster, USA; Sir Anthony Farrar-Hockley; and John A. Shaud, USAF.

With another officer, I wrote an “executive summary” of this symposium and what these retired generals said about NATO back in 1998.  Here’s what I wrote two decades ago:

The value of America’s most successful and most enduring alliance, NATO, has been called into question since the end of the Cold War, a confrontation many credit it with winning.  But, like many successful alliances after the common foe has been vanquished, NATO’s long-time raison d’être has seemingly evaporated.  That the alliance has managed not just to survive but thrive has baffled many observers.  The four former high-ranking NATO generals who made up this panel shared a common view of the continued high value of the alliance to America’s foreign policy interests.  However, their views diverged on several key issues that face NATO in the years ahead.

General McCarthy opened the discussion … [suggesting] that advancing the causes of peace, prosperity, and security remain NATO’s central task, made more difficult today because of the expansion of NATO’s membership.  Yet NATO continues to be important on the continent to discourage temptations to revert to old insecurities.  General Shaud echoed Goodpaster’s view of NATO’s essential role, saying if NATO did not exist, we would have to invent it.

On the effects of expansion, Shaud stated that NATO needed to expand, both in membership to include Eastern Europe and in mission to include conflict prevention and “out of area” operations.  Goodpaster quoted the late Secretary General Manfred Woerner, “It’s either out of area or out of business.”  He then raised a provocative question: Should NATO’s mission expand to include not just nations but peoples?  General Farrar-Hockley expanded on NATO’s continuing value, noting that during the Cold War, member countries came not to seek advantage for themselves over other members but came to put alliance interests and views first.

The sensitive issue of the effects of NATO’s expansion on Russia brought out disagreement among the panel members.  Farrar-Hockley took the position that to forego expansion because of Russian concerns would be to grant Russia a continuing fiefdom in Eastern Europe.  Russia has nothing to fear from NATO, and besides, it can do nothing to prevent expansion.  If the Soviet Union was an anemic tiger, Russia is more like a circus tiger that may growl but won’t bite.  Goodpaster suggested that NATO could have followed a different path that would not have antagonized Russia.  In the early post-Cold War years, the Soviet Union may have been open to an “overarching relationship” encompassing peaceful relations.  But as NATO developed partnerships with Eastern European countries, it chose not to pursue this approach with Russia.  Partnership for Peace itself could have been done differently by providing a more equal forum analogous to the new European-Atlantic Partnership Council.  Goodpaster asked rhetorically if NATO is a defensive alliance or a collective security alliance, but answered that NATO is what the times require.  It is ultimately a forum for solidarity in Europe, an organization in which different peoples have come to respect and trust one another.  Shaud took a middle view, saying NATO should ensure Russia does not become isolated; continuing dialogue is necessary.  He noted that earlier panels had pointed out Russia’s historical concerns about encirclement, suggesting that Russia’s views on expansion are not ephemeral concerns but rather enduring issues.

Policy Implications

One of the more pressing questions NATO faces today is expansion, the possible inclusion of former Soviet states.  Russian leaders believe, perhaps with some justification, that NATO is directed at them.  It is not that NATO has aggressive intentions, but that former Soviet satellites seek security in NATO’s orbit, thereby tending further to isolate Russia from the West.  The possibilities are ominous—the rise of a new demagogue in Russia in the absence of effective leadership, or alternatively chaos resulting from the implosion of an ungovernable, ineffective state.  How should the United States and NATO manage this sensitive relationship?  Can Russia be brought back from the brink on which it now stands through inclusion in Western institutions?  Or should NATO gather the flock against the impending storm, expanding to Russia’s very doorstep to take in all states desiring inclusion?  If NATO continues to expand, what will become of the cohesion that has been the hallmark of the most successful alliance in modern history?  If NATO stops expanding, what will become of non-members if crisis erupts in regions formerly controlled by the Soviet Union?  Whatever course of action NATO adopts, communication and openness must be its bywords; secrecy and exclusion will reap only suspicion and mistrust.

Again, this was written 20 years ago.  But I’d like to make a few points about this discussion:

  1. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO was no longer needed in Europe in the sense of its original purpose.
  2. Senior leaders disagreed on whether NATO expansion would serve the peace in Europe. Like General Goodpaster, some believed expansion would isolate and perhaps antagonize Russia, while others believed this was a risk worth taking in efforts to contain possible Russian aggression or turmoil.
  3. There was consensus that NATO was worth preserving in some form, but at other times during the symposium, concerns were expressed about equity, i.e. burden-sharing, and the perceived unfairness of the U.S. paying much more that its fair share to keep the alliance functioning.

In short, a generation ago military experts questioned whether NATO had outlived its purpose.  They asked whether the U.S. was paying too high a price, and they wondered whether NATO expansion would alienate Russia.  These were reasonable questions then, and they remain reasonable today.

Trump is not some “Russian agent” or Putin stooge for questioning whether the U.S. still needs to be in NATO.  In this case, he’s shown a willingness to think outside the NATO box.  After all, how long should NATO last?  Don’t all alliances eventually come to an end?  Or is NATO to exist forever?

Personally, I don’t think a precipitous withdrawal from NATO would be in the best interests of the U.S.  But surely there’s something to be said for building a new agreement or alliance in Europe that would be less driven by military concerns, less dependent on American money and weaponry and troops, and more inclusive toward Russia.

Trump, the Wall, and Ruling by Emergency Decree

Paul v. Hindenburg
As President of Weimar, Paul von Hindenburg ruled by emergency decree, becoming a proto-dictator.  Is America heading down that road?

W.J. Astore

In the Weimar Republic of Germany during the early 1930s, the President of that time, Paul von Hindenburg, ruled increasingly by emergency decree due to a hopelessly divided and ineffectual Reichstag (parliament or congress).  In 1932, for example, Hindenburg issued 66 emergency decrees while the Reichstag itself succeeded in passing only five laws.  Even before Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, Hindenburg had emerged, in a supposedly democratic Germany, as a fuhrer or dictator, issuing decrees in the name of getting things done.  A time-limited “emergency” executive power, in sum, became Weimar’s new normal, setting the stage for a much more malignant autocracy in the future.

As Donald Trump contemplates declaring a national emergency to enlarge America’s preexisting wall along the border with Mexico, Americans would do well to remember the Weimar example.  Ruling by emergency decree is the path to authoritarianism, and Congress, no matter how divided or ineffectual it is, should act to stop executive overreach before it finds itself neutered and irrelevant.

Of course, the U.S. Congress has already largely refused to exercise its “power of the purse” over the military as well as its power to declare (and control) America’s wars.  Whether America’s elected representatives have the collective guts to stop Trump’s potential usurpation of power remains to be seen.

One thing is certain.  Americans are growing accustomed to a divided, dysfunctional, even a shutdown, government.  And we’re growing accustomed to presidents acting like dictators, especially under circumstances couched as “wars” or other national emergencies (as determined by that same executive branch).  No matter your political party or allegiance (or lack thereof), this is not how democracy works — it’s how democracy dies.

The Bankruptcy of Conventional Wisdom at the Pentagon

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A fair depiction of General Petraeus and the busy uniforms of America’s generals

W.J. Astore

Perhaps the most blatant example of the bankruptcy of conventional wisdom at the Pentagon came from retired General David Petraeus in an interview with PBS reporter Judy Woodruff in June of 2017.  Petraeus spoke of a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to Afghanistan and the need for a “generational struggle” with Islamic terrorists who are located there.  Comparing Afghanistan to the U.S. commitment to South Korea, he hinted U.S. troops might be there for 60 or more years (though he backtracked on the 60-year figure when challenged by Woodruff).

Here’s a telling excerpt from his interview:

We need to recognize that we went there [Afghanistan] for a reason and we stayed for a reason, to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other transnational extremists, the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.

That’s why we need to stay. We also have a very useful platform there for the regional counterterrorist effort. And, of course, we have greatly reduced the capabilities of al-Qaida’s senior leaders in that region, including, of course, taking out Osama bin Laden.

But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable.

These statements are so wrongheaded it’s hard to know where to begin to correct them:

  1. The U.S. military went into Afghanistan to punish the Taliban after 9/11.  Punishment was administered and the Taliban overthrown in 2001, after which the U.S. military should have left.  The decision to stay was foolish and disastrous.  Extending a disastrous occupation is only aggravating the folly.
  2. “Transnational extremists”: According to the U.S. military, the Af-Pak region has exploded with terrorist elements, and indeed Petraeus and his fellow generals count twenty or more factions in Afghanistan.  In sum, rather than weakening Islamic extremism in the area, U.S. military action has served to strengthen it.
  3. “A very useful platform”: The U.S. has spent roughly a trillion dollars on its eighteen-year-old war in the Af-Pak region.  The results?  The Taliban has increased its hold over Afghan territory and Islamic extremism has flourished.  How is this “very useful” to the United States?
  4. A “long haul” that’s “sustainable”: What exactly is “sustainable” about a war you’ve been fighting — and losing — for nearly two decades?  Leaving aside the dead and maimed troops, how is a trillion dollars a “sustainable” price for a lost war?
  5. No “victory parade.”  At least Petraeus is right here, though I wouldn’t put it past Trump to have a military parade to celebrate some sort of “victory” somewhere.

It appears President Trump is finally fed up, suggesting a withdrawal of troops from Syria as well as a force drawdown in Afghanistan.  But it appears Trump is already caving to pressure from the Pentagon and the usual neo-con suspects, e.g. National Security Adviser John Bolton suggests U.S. troops won’t withdraw from Syria without a guarantee from Turkey not to attack America’s Kurdish allies, which, according to the New York Times, may extend America’s troop commitment by “months or years.”

Trump needs to realize that, if it were up to the Pentagon, America today would still be fighting the Vietnam War, rather than working closely with Vietnam as a partner in efforts to counterbalance China.

The Pentagon’s conventional wisdom is that U.S. troops, once committed, must never leave a region.  Victory or defeat doesn’t matter.  What matters is “sustaining” a “sustainable” commitment.  Hence troops are still in Iraq, still in Afghanistan, still in Syria, still in 800+ bases around the world, because any withdrawal is couched as surrender, a display of weakness, so says America’s military “experts.”

The U.S. doesn’t need a “sustainable, sustained commitment” to the Middle East or Central Asia or anywhere else for that matter, other than right here in the USA.  We need a sustainable, sustained commitment to a better health care system.  To better roads, bridges, airports. To affordable education.  To tax cuts that actually help the middle class.

When it comes to “generational struggles,” David Petraeus, let’s fight for a better America, not for sustaining troops in lost causes around the world.

Military Clothing for Presidents? No, Sir!

W.J. Astore

A reader reminded me yesterday of an article I wrote a decade ago about U.S. presidents donning military flight jackets.  And he sent along this image of President Trump dressed up for his recent visit to the troops in Iraq:

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Here’s my article from 2010 on this subject.  You can see how much U.S. presidents listen to me.

This past weekend, President Obama made a surprise trip to Afghanistan, during which he doffed his civilian coat and tie and donned a “Commander-in-chief” leather flight jacket provided to him by the Air Force. I suppose the president believed he could better connect with the troops by wearing “less formal” garb; I suppose as well he thought he was honoring the military by wearing the flight jacket associated with Air Force One. But as snazzy as the president may have looked in his flight jacket (and I liked my jacket when I was in the Air Force), his decision to don it was a blunder.

No, I’m not saying the president is a military wannabe; I’m not saying the president is a poseur. What I’m saying is that the president, whether he knows it or not, is blurring the vitally important distinction between a democratically-elected, thoroughly civilian, commander-in-chief and the military members the president commands in our — the people’s — name.

Though the president commands our military, he is not, strictly speaking, a member of it. Rather, as our highest ranking public servant, he stands above it, exercising the authority granted to him by the Constitution to command the military in the people’s name.

Whenever the president addresses our troops, he should, indeed he must, appear in civilian clothing, because that’s precisely what he is: a civilian, a very special one, to be sure, but that’s what he is — and what he always must be.

We must wean ourselves from Hollywood illusions that our president should parade around like the ultimate fighter pilot (even if, once upon a time, he flew fighters, like George W. Bush did). This is not the set of “Independence Day.” Neither is it a photo op.

President Obama admires Abraham Lincoln. When Lincoln visited General George McClellan during our Civil War, he didn’t don a military greatcoat; instead, with army tents and uniformed men all around him, Lincoln dared to look incongruous in his dress civilian clothes, complete with top hat.

Incongruous? Perhaps. But look closely at the photo: Never was Lincoln’s authority clearer.

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And that’s the point: Lincoln knew he was a civilian commander-in-chief. Precisely by not donning military clothing, he asserted his ultimate civilian authority over McClellan and the army.

Please, President Obama (and all future presidents): Put away the flight jackets and other militaria when you address our troops. Appear as the civilian commander-in-chief that you are. By doing so, you remind our troops that they are citizens first, and soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen second.

As our wars grow ever longer, that’s a reminder that should loom ever larger.

Addendum (12/18): Besides taking multiple draft deferments during the Vietnam War, it appears Donald Trump had the help of two podiatrists who rented space from his father.  Those doctors appear to have done Young Trump a favor by diagnosing him with heel spurs, which disqualified him from being drafted.  And yet Trump the draft dodger is now proud to wear military clothing and to boast that “nobody does military better than me.”  What a country we live in!

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Another shot of Trump in a flight jacket.  Why didn’t Melania get one?

Trump, Troop Withdrawals, and Winning the 2020 Election

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President Trump with Defense Secretary Mattis

W.J. Astore

Good news: President Trump is withdrawing troops from Syria and Afghanistan.  While the President’s stated reason for the Syrian withdrawal — that Isis is totally defeated in the region — is dubious, it’s hard to tell how the presence of a couple of thousand U.S. troops is either needed or desirable for counter-terror operations there.  In Afghanistan, Trump has ordered the withdrawal of seven thousand U.S. troops, or roughly half the force there.  One can only hope he’ll withdraw the remaining troops by the end of 2019.

Trump’s moves are consistent with his campaign promises about ending costly troop deployments and wasteful overseas wars.  Despite this, he’s being castigated by Republicans and Democrats for putting America at risk by leaving Syria and preparing to leave Afghanistan.  Ostensibly, the U.S. has two major political parties, but they often act together as a single war party.  Trump knows this and is unafraid (so far) to confront them.

Indeed, it’s possible Trump won in 2016 because he outspokenly denounced the waste of America’s wars.  Evidence suggests that pro-Trump sentiment in rural areas especially was driven in part by people who agreed with his anti-war critique: by people who’d either served in these wars or whose sons/daughters had served.

Compare this to the Clintons and mainstream Democrats (and Republicans), who’ve worked hard to suppress anti-war forces, the McGovernite wing of the party, so to speak.  Recall that it was Hillary the Hawk who warmly and proudly embraced Henry Kissinger in 2016, and look where that got her.

Adding further intrigue and disruption is Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s announcement of his resignation, effective in February 2019.  I never thought Mattis was the right candidate to serve as America’s civilian Secretary of Defense; Trump apparently sees him as too conventional in outlook (almost a Democrat, Trump has said).  Mattis has disagreed with Trump’s boorish treatment of America’s allies, especially of NATO, and there’s no doubt that Trump has been crude, rude, and socially unacceptable, as we used to say as teenagers.  But that is Trump’s prerogative.  The Americans who elected him, after all, knew they weren’t getting a glad-handing soft-talking diplomat.

Finally, Trump is still fighting for five billion dollars to extend the wall along the southern border with Mexico.  He’s threatening to shutdown the government for a very long time and (at least partially) to own the blame.  It’s a waste of money, of course, though $5 billion is a drop in the bucket when you consider the Pentagon’s budget of roughly $716 billion.

I’m a huge Trump critic (I was very critical of Obama as well), but I give him credit for taking unpopular stances even as he tries to honor campaign promises.  Pulling ground troops out of Syria and Afghanistan is the right thing to do.  The wall is a ridiculous boondoggle, but even here, Trump is willing to fight for it.  Would that Democratic leadership show similar resolve over issues like affordable health care, a living wage, and climate change.

Bring the troops home, Mister President.  End the wars and reinvest in America.  If you do these things, it’s likely you’ll be reelected in 2020.  It pains me to write that, because I’m no fan of Trump’s mendacity and greed, among his many other faults, but I think it’s true.