Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday August 7, 2016


One of America’s enduring myths is that in a competition between an expert and a person with sound instincts and common sense, the latter will usually prevail. This is based on a widespread belief that the expert gets paralyzed by details while the non-specialist will not be distracted by useless information and will more easily get to the core of the problem. I am not suggesting that this belief is the main reason for Donald Trump’s success, but I think it has certainly contributed to it.

I concede that there may be times when the myth may even be true. But almost never is this the case in the formulation and conduct of American foreign policy. In fact, one of the key reasons the Middle East has been such a mess for so long is because European and American leaders have historically known little or nothing about the region but persisted in interfering in its politics anyway. The British and French bear much of the responsibility for the current instability in the region by the way they divvied up the Ottoman Empire after World War I. But in recent decades the United States has made major blunders of its own. These were two of them.

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan made the fateful decision to intervene in Lebanon’s long running civil war. The Israelis had invaded Lebanon in 1982 in an alliance with Lebanese Christians and remained in force around Beirut. The Syrians had deployed 30,000 troops, mostly in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, And Iran had sent its revolutionary Guards Corps in support of the Shiite Muslims of the South. By this time the previously docile Shiites had formed Hezbollah (Party of God) with a strong militia that often used terrorism as a weapon.

It was into this steaming Lebanese cauldron, that President Reagan introduced the U.S. Marines as the main element of a multination force trying to impose stability - and to get Yassir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization out of the county. But it wasn’t long before America was perceived to be on the side of the Lebanese Christians and the Israelis – against the Muslims.

On October, 23, 1983, the smiling driver of a Mercedes Benz truck filled with several tons of dynamite slammed his vehicle into the Marine headquarters near Beirut Airport, killing 241 American servicemen. This was the deadliest single attack on the Marines since the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima.

Jane Mayer, a top correspondent for the New Yorker, was in Beirut that day, working at the time for the Wall Street Journal. Two years ago she wrote a retrospective in the New Yorker titled “Ronald Reagan’s Benghazi” with the sub-headline, “When militants struck, Congress pointed fingers at the perpetrators, not at political rivals.”

She duly notes that the U.S. military command considered the Marine’s presence a non-combative “peace keeping mission.” So the vehicle gate to the headquarters was left wide open and the sentries were ordered to keep their weapons unloaded.

Mayer also reminds us that six months prior to the Marine barracks tragedy, militants had bombed the U.S. Embassy in Beirut killing sixty-three people including seventeen Americans. Among the dead were seven C.I.A. officers including the agency’s top analyst in the Middle East. She then makes her major point.

“There were more than enough opportunities to lay blame for the horrific losses at high officials’ feet. But unlike today’s Congress, congressmen did not talk of impeaching Ronald Reagan, who was then the President, nor were any subpoenas sent to cabinet members. This was true even though then, as now, the opposition party controlled the majority in the House.”

But instead of playing politics, Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill called for an investigation aimed at finding out what went wrong and why. Just two months later Congress issued a bi-partisan report which found “serious errors of judgement” on the part of officers on the ground and all the way up the chain of command. It also recommended major improvements in embassy security.

Looking back, Reagan had made a strategic error in sending American troops into the Lebanese civil war where the U.S. had no vital interests. But his mistake set off no political witch hunts like the blatantly partisan Benghazi hearings which House Republicans have dragged out over four years – ostensibly because of four American deaths but in reality to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential prospects.

President George W. Bush had very little interest in or knowledge of foreign policy prior to his election. Just days before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, President Bush still didn’t know the significance of the differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims. This is according to Iraqis who supported Saddam Hussein’s ouster but were shocked at what little the President knew of the country he was about to invade ( evidently under false pretenses.)

In a sharply critical new biography of President G.W. Bush, noted historian Jean Edward Smith writes, “His decision to invade Iraq is easily the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American President.” Among other things, it set off a civil war between pro- Saddam Sunnis and pro- Iranian Shiites, which to this day defies efforts to bring peace to Iraq. And however much Donald Trump and Republicans would have us believe that the radical Islamic terrorism of the Islamic State is the fault of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the incontrovertible evidence is that the Islamic State is a direct outgrowth of al Qaeda in Iraq - which did not exist before George W. Bush’s invasion and was firmly established well before Obama’s election.

The cautionary tale here is obvious. Donald Trump’s total ignorance of even the recent political history and geography of Europe and the Middle East - not to mention his complete lack of understanding of the use and escalating dangers of nuclear weapons, can in no way be construed as assets. On the contrary they are screaming red light warnings that as president this man would be a serious danger to this country and to the world.

Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus
Sunday July 24, 2016
In accepting the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, Donald Trump aggressively assumed the mantle of fear-monger-in-chief. His speech stoked fears of hordes of job stealing illegal immigrants, a world filled with fanatical Muslims bent on terrorism, and various alien “others” who threaten America’s very being. The only hope he offered is that if he is elected he will, like some modern-day pied piper, or fairy godfather, magically fix all of American society’s political and economic woes. And implied is that he will restore the natural order of the “benign” rule of white, Christian men. In short, Trump is offering a fairy tale. And that makes me nervous.
Based on more than half a century of national and international reporting - and as a diligent student of world and American history – it is inconceivable to me that Donald Trump could be elected president of the United States. Yet as I examine the presidential contest which according to polls is more or less tied going into the final stages of the campaign, I am filled with a deepening sense of unease, that against all historical precedent and political logic Trump may well prevail in November.
It is not that the convention was a monumental success. Actually it often looked like an unmitigated disaster. But Trump not only seems to survive the chaos he creates – he thrives on it, while his hard core supporters are oblivious to his flaws which for any other presidential candidate, at almost any other time, would be disqualifying. Instead they dismiss his critics as validation of Trump's brilliance and their support for him - and there seems to be no way to shake their blind faith.
I keep hoping against hope that at some point, it might begin to matter to at least some of his supporters that Donald Trump is virtually unable to tell the truth. But failing that, I believe the mainstream media must continue to repeatedly drive home to independent and undecided voters that Donald Trump does not tell the truth most of the time. I’m reminded of the old comedy line, “How can you tell if the man is lying?”  Answer: “When his lips are moving.”
The fact checkers of various news organizations have been seriously challenged by Trump. Recently, Politi-Fact identified 34 of Trump’s statements “Pants on Fire” lies. The Washington Post fact checked 46 Trump claims and gave 70% of them its worst rating- four Pinocchios.
This past week the New York Times devoted nearly two full pages to a story with the headline, “Trump’s Deals Rely on Creativity With the Truth.” The Times reports, “Based on the mountain of court records churned out over the span of Mr. Trump’s career, it is hard to find a project he touched that did not produce allegations of broken promises, blatant lies or outright fraud.” The paper lists some of those cases. “The Trump University students and Trump condo buyers who say they were fleeced; the public servants from New Jersey to Scotland who now say they rue the zoning approvals, licenses or tax breaks they gave based on Trump's promises; the small–time contractors who say Mr. Trump concocted complaints about their work to avoid paying them; the infuriated business partners who say Mr. Trump concealed profits or ignored contractual obligations.”
USA Today reports that there have been 3500 law suits filed in the Courts involving Mr. Trump.
Still my disquiet at the prospect of a Trump presidency goes beyond his compulsive lying and highly dubious business practices. Here in the D.C. area, among the chattering classes at least, a spirited debate is underway. Washington Post Editorial Board member Fred Hiatt (normally, no bleeding heart) put it this way. “The debate is not over the man’s fitness for office- few people privately will make the case that Donald Trump is qualified or temperamentally suitable to be commander-in-chief- but over how much damage he might do. Some say that Trump could be more disruptive than any previous leader. Including propelling the nation toward fascism.”
Hiatt then goes on to ask what Trump might do if faced with a Supreme Court decision denying him the right to round up and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. Would he ignore the court? Hiatt thinks he might. “Given the contempt that Trump expressed for the judiciary, and the ignorance he has displayed of the Constitution, that scenario is not so far-fetched. At such a moment, laws could not save you. Only people could.”
I must confess I was taken aback by that scenario. But a few days later in the New Yorker, the specter of a Trump presidency became even darker.
Jane Mayer, who is one of the magazine’s top reporters and recently the author of a highly revealing book on the Koch brothers, has a blockbuster this week – an explosive interview with Tony Schwartz, the ghost writer of Donald Trump’s 1987 memoir, “The Art of the Deal.” As Mayer reports, in writing the book, Schwartz spent 18 months and hundreds of hours closely observing Trump. The book became a major best seller and did much to create the myth of Trump as a charmingly brash entrepreneur, with an unfailing knack for business. According to Mayer, “The prospect of President Trump terrified (Schwartz.) It wasn’t because of Trump’s ideology- Schwartz doubted that he had one. The problem was Trump’s personality which he considered pathologically impulsive and self-centered.” He also reveals that Trump has a dangerously short attention span. After agreeing to an interview last month, Schwartz told Mayer, “I put lipstick on a pig. I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him greater attention and made him more appealing than he is.” Then comes his true zinger. “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes, there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”
I strongly recommend the entire article in this week’s New Yorker, under the title, “Trump’s Boswell Speaks.” It is indeed a chilling analysis.

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