Wednesday, April 26, 2017

A Call To Action: March For Science...What I Did For Love

Wendy reports on the Science March in the latest installment in her "A Call To Action" series....

This past Saturday, Tom and I marched in the NYC March for Science.  Overcast skies turned to light drizzle turned to pouring rain.  And yet over 25000 protesters kept marching through the Upper West Side to Columbus Circle and further down Broadway.  A middle aged woman stood in front of the Trump International Hotel and Tower with a sign that read "Fund Research, Not Walls."  Can't argue with that.  Others I liked included "One Trip to Mar-a-Lago Equals Ten Funded Grants.  "Make American Geek Again." "Women Belong in the Lab." "There is No Planet B."  And what was to me, a very poignant sign, left hanging on a post near the end of the march which simply said, "STEM."

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, shoes and outdoorI know there was some debate about this march, about politicizing science.  And I actually agree with those who carried signs saying "Science Is Not A Liberal Agenda."  But from the first moment I heard about this march, I knew that I would be there.

Like so many of you, I've long contributed my time and money to causes that are particularly important to me.  I volunteer for Hope's Door, a domestic violence agency, and for Planned Parenthood because I believe that these organizations, and others like them, are the first step towards economic equality for women, even those amongst us who are most disadvantaged.  My devotion to women's rights likely stems from the particular time in American history that I experienced as a young woman -- at the advent of "the pill" and Roe v Wade and as a transfer student to a newly co-ed college.  I've also volunteered many years as a board of education member in my community and as a tutor and mentor to young men at Children's Village, a residential school for underprivileged children.  That interest likely stems from the steady beat of my childhood that education is the great equalizer. . I've attended rallies to oppose the immigration ban and I've made countless calls to Congress -- simply because it felt to me like the right thing to do. 

The science march was different.  I'm going to say something now that's trite, but true.

I marched in the March for Science for my daughters.

Nothing -- not even the appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court -- will affect my daughters' futures as surely, as strongly, and as negatively as cuts to funding for science research.  The benefits of science research are a public good.  The vaccine that was developed to end small pox and the one that will be developed to end Zika, the technology that brought us seat belts, air bags and blind spot detection: these developments benefit us all.   We need continued progress in combating cancer, diabetes, autism, and depression.  We need continued progress in matching organ donors to recipients.  We need to control population growth and we need to feed the population that’s already here on earth. 

And, of course, there's the elephant in the room: the consequences of climate change threaten the very existence of the planet.  One of my daughters, an entomologist, went to a rally in Orono, ME on Saturday carrying a sign that read "Mosquitoes Are Ready For Climate Change; are you?"  Indeed.  Those Zika-carrying mosquitoes are adapting, while we turn a blind eye.

You may dodge a virus or a car accident, but climate change is upon us already and will, if unchecked, pose a risk to humanity itself.  For my generation, climate change feels more like a concept than a direct threat. Not so for our children and grandchildren.  Gutting the EPA and the NIH mortgages my daughters' futures, and there's nothing this mother cares about more than her daughters.  So I marched.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

D.T. Phone Home

This week, Steve reports to our readers on a rather interesting fact about our readers, and sees some intriguing implications…

This week, the news was the news.

First came the intrepid reporters who discovered that the great armada Trump sent sailing to give North Korea a glimpse of good old-fashioned Republican shock and awe was actually headed in the opposite direction, leaving Sean Spicer writhing on the press podium with an explanation so tortured and painful that you’d have thought he’d just been bumped from a United flight.

Then, of course, the big news in the world of news was the ouster of Bill O’Reilly, which should have been a triumphant story about fearless women forcing a major company to seize the high moral ground regarding the kind of corporate culture a twenty-first century organization should embrace. Unfortunately, we are talking about decidedly Twentieth Century Fox, whose corporate culture reeks of a nineteenth-century gentleman’s club. Just weeks ago, Fox had inked O’Reilly to a new contract at a point in time when they knew full well about the sexual misconduct allegations piling up against their star. Their decision to terminate him therefore had little to do with an ethical stance, and much more with the fact that major sponsors suddenly viewed O’Reilly as the most toxic item in advertising since Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi. 

But the juiciest news of the week about news was that it was not Fox, nor Fox’s law firm, nor anything to do with Fox that led to O’Reilly’s demise. Full credit there goes to rival news organization The New York Times, which had waged a full-throttle investigation and multi-page expose on O’Reilly’s behavior. Salute the guts of the Times, whose leaders must be keenly aware that Fox will no doubt immediately commence its own retaliatory investigations, intent to find, or conveniently invent, Donald-Trump-style-embarrassing allegations about executives at the Grey Lady.  Watch out, New York Times execs: Fox News is the founder and ancestral home of fake news.

And let us round out the week of news here in our very own microscopic corner of the blogosphere, where we’ve noticed a curious bit of news about, well,

Like any website, we have access to basic data about where our readers are located. As you would expect, most of our readers are here in the United States – but the number is actually only about 60%. We were startled to learn that a full 40% or our readership is outside the United States.

We drilled down on that number, expecting the next highest readership to come from the logical places: our close, English-speaking allies – the U.K. and Canada.  Nope. A grand total of 3% of our audience comes from these two countries combined.

No, after the United States, the three biggest countries following BTRTN are – get this – Russia, France, and the Ukraine. Russia accounts for a full 7% of our readers. France is 6%, and Ukraine is 5%. That is to say, a full 12% of the traffic to our humble little political website is from the former Soviet Union. That was pretty darn startling news about us.

Now, perhaps most of that traffic is simply low grade cyberbots programmed by high school students in Kiev to find any and all combinations or groupings of words in the English language that include “Trump,” “blowhard,” “Putin,” and “shirtless angry dictator.”

And then there’s a fanciful romantic notion that BTRTN has been discovered by pockets of idealistic Russian intellectuals who just want a few good Trump and Putin jokes to stay sane as much as people in the United States.

But one cannot ignore the possibility that there is actually something intentional and vaguely sinister in those mysterious clicks, and it is hard to ignore the now familiar pattern that Russian and Ukrainian visits to our site vastly outnumber those from the four closest allies of the United States combined.  It suggests that Russia is simply devouring data about the United States in such massive quantities that even our little butterfly wings churning madly in the thin air at the distant reaches of the blogosphere have earned a weekly fly-by from some low-level intelligence functionary.

Hmmmm… I just had an idea! Dear readers in the United States, please bear with me for a moment. I would like to directly address our readers in Russia for a few paragraphs. 

“Hello, out there, Mr. or Ms. Low-level Russian intelligence functionary! This is Steve, a writer here at I hope you are enjoying this week’s column, and I thank you and all of your comrades for coming back week after week! Do you mind if I ask you a few questions, as long as I know you are reading this?

“First, I just have to ask… Doesn’t Russia know that Carter Page is just a small-time con artist who probably got dumped after so many first dates that he will promise anything to anybody? This guy must be the neediest milquetoast that the KGB had ever tried to recruit. Help me with this one, ok?

“But let me move on to my second question…

“Is Russia surging ahead in an entirely new form of warfare that is solely and wholly about the collection, manipulation, and redistribution of information? I mean, we just dropped that Mother of All Bombs, but I have a bad feeling that Russia is building the Mother of All Databases.

“Seriously, now… the United States spends billions on cyber intelligence, but it seems that money is all going toward sabotaging Kim Jong-Un missile launches, Iranian centrifuges, and trying to shorten the queue at VA Hospitals from sixteen years to under five months.

“You Russians, on the other hand, seem to be totally and completely focused on the business of collecting IP addresses, manipulating social media trend data, malevolently circulating erroneous and inflammatory information, and timing viciously incendiary fake news stories at just the moment when our President is alone with his Samsung Galaxy in Mar-a-Lago, waiting for sunrise with his itchy twitter finger.

“Why build bombs, you seem to be saying, when the United States can be manipulated into dropping them for you?  Why build weaponry to attack the United States when you can use data to get us to rip ourselves to pieces?

“As long as we’re having this nice little conversation, can you just tell us this: what exactly do you plan to do with the recordings you must have of Flynn and Manafort offering policy quid pro quos in exchange for you hacking the DNC? And was either of those clowns stupid enough to have confirmed on tape that Trump knew?

“Hey… hey… I know I am keeping you longer than you expected, and that you have to write up twenty more websites before your break, but just answer one more question, ok?

“Does Vlad still think it was such a brilliant idea to get Donald Trump elected President of the United States? Because my bet is that he has the worst case of buyer’s remorse since George Dubya picked Dick Cheney.

“Sure, you were having a real good laugh back in March because Donald Trump was single-handedly alienating long-standing U.S. allies, representing the United States as a nation of ignorant, bigoted, and uneducated buffoons, and – like so many other empty campaign promises – rapidly making the United States not so great, again and again and again.

“But beware of the law of unintended consequences. You had not counted on Trump being so casually adventurous with military excursions. Isn’t that ironic? When he said that he wasn’t interested in Syria, didn’t want the U.S. involved in foreign wars, and that he thought NATO was obsolete, you Russians – you, of all people – you believed his fake news! You thought you were doing all the spinning, but you got spun worse than anybody.

First you saw him decide that Assad is what Donald Rumsfeld used to call a 'good target,' and now you have to worry about that lone warm water port. 

Then you saw a crazy man waving a red flag in front of a prepubescent North Korean tyrant who’s got a finger on a nuclear arsenal, and you are correctly terrified about the regional fall-out from that potential catastrophe.

“Now you see him suddenly enjoying engaging in foreign military actions, which is what U.S. presidents do to distract citizens from domestic problems. You hear him saying that NATO isn’t obsolete after all.  Which, face it, is the last thing that dear Mother Russia wanted to hear.

“Hey there, Mr. Russian Reader, we have a suggestion. For your sake, for ours, and for the sake of everyone on the planet, it’s time to bring your little Donald Trump adventure to an end. It’s time to bring Donald Trump back from the brink on Korea, Syria, and Afghanistan, and time for him – and all of us – to focus on the issue of whether he committed an impeachable offense. What do you say?

“It is time to work all those back channels you created and get a message to Donald Trump. Tell him to pick up that hotline and get in touch with you.

“DT phone home! To Moscow. Let him know exactly what you have on him.

“It is time for you to reclaim the alien you foolishly thrust into our Presidency.  All you have to do is wrap that little tape in an envelope – you know, the one where Manafort mentions Trump’s name -- and address it to a news organization that actually knows how to bring a bad guy down. Send it to people who have the guts, the wherewithal, and the experience to do it the way only a real news organization knows how.

“Gee, what a coincidence. Just this week, The New York Times just did exactly that. Give them a try.

“And, hey, this goes out to all you folks in Russia who are reading our stuff – not just the intelligence officers! If any of you would like to open a dialog with us, just email us at  We’d be thrilled to hear from you. We’d love to know what you think of this crazy situation we are all in together. And we hope you’ve enjoyed our work. In its own little way, our site does give you a sense that as stupid as our country may look from time to time, we still have the power of an unrestricted and free press.

“And that may be the thing that actually does, someday, make us great again."

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Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Georgia’s 6th District: Ossoff Has a Chance to Win Outright, But A Runoff More Likely

We put this chart together three weeks ago to help understand the five special elections in the House in 2017 that were necessitated by political appointments.  Four of them were by Trump of cabinet members, and the other was in California and involved a Democrat representative landing that state’s Attorney General position.  Many eyes are focused on these races as providing insights into the state of the Trump presidency (and this is a legitimate thought) and also as a predictor of the 2018 midterms (this far less so).

Primary     Run-off
General Election
Nov. 2016 Outcome
Trump vs   Clinton
Pompeo (R)
Apr 11
61/30  R+31
60/33  R+27
Zinke (R)
May 25
56/41  R+15
56/36  R+20
Bacerra (D)
Apr 4
Jun 6
77/23 D+100 (D v D)
84/11  D+73
Price (R)
Apr 18
Jun 20
62/38  R+23
48/47  R+1
Mulvaney (R)
May 2
May 16
Jun 20
59/39  R+20
57/39  R+18

Since then the GOP received an enormous scare in Kansas’ 4th District, where they won the election on April 11th by a mere 7 points, just six months after Mike Pompeo won the same seat by +31 and Donald Trump the same district by +27.

Then California 34th went as predicted, with two Democrats taking the top two slots and Democrats winning 91% of the vote.  Thus it is a foregone conclusion that the Dems will hold this seat in the June runoff.

This brings is to today’s election, the primary race for Georgia’s 6th District.  This one is commanding national attention as Jon Ossoff, a Democratic newbie, leads the field of 18 and has a chance to win the seat outright if he can achieve more than 50% of the vote.  This would flip Tom Price’s seat, long a GOP stronghold, to the Dems, and be used by the Dems as evidence that Trump is losing support and could lose the House in 2018.

The main reason for the Democrat’s optimism is Hillary Clinton’s strong showing in the district in 2016 relative to that of Barack Obama in 2012 and 2008.  As the chart shows, she lost to Trump by only a single point, 48/47.  Obama, on the other hand, was defeated by 18 points by John McCain in 2008 and 23 points by Mitt Romney in 2012.  And even though Tom Price won again in November 2016 by a comfortable margin (+23), that margin was slightly tighter this go-round than his wins in 2014 (+32) and 2012 (+29).  All of this, plus the rather disastrous start to the Trump administration and Price’s own failure as a key player in the “replace and repeal Obamacare” debacle, have led to Dem optimism that they can win here.

Georgia’s 6th is comprised primarily of northern Atlanta suburbs, which have higher median incomes than the state as a whole as well as greater educational attainment.  It also has a reasonably significant minority population, roughly 25%.  Ossoff has raised a whopping total of more than $8 million through the end of March, while the GOP candidates combined raised less than a million.  National volunteers have poured in to help Ossoff, while dialers from all corners (including us) are helping to get out the vote.

There have been ten polls since mid-March, and all tell a similar story.  Ossoff has consistently polled in the low 40’s and no other candidate is close.  But the GOP candidates combined are in the mid-40’s and lead him.  There seems to be modest momentum in Ossoff’s favor, as the most recent poll has him at 45%, but that, of course, could be noise.

The X Factor is, of course, turnout.  Special elections typically feature very low turnouts but the significance of this race, which has fueled the money and the effort, make it hard to know.  The GOP has countered the Dems' effort but probably not as effectively.  The fact that they do not have a single candidate who has broken through is a minus.

BTRTN views this as a near 50/50 proposition in all ways.  We believe Ossoff will easily win tonight, and come very close to the magic 50% level but will most likely fall short.  We would peg the odds of him winning the seat outright tonight at roughly 45%.

You can watch the tabulations tonight, after the polls close at 7 PM EST, here:

If Ossoff wins the seat either tonight or in June, it will be a major story.  Certainly it will have to reflect some disenchantment with Trump, but probably says little about the 2018 midterms.  There is just too much time between now and then to consider it a harbinger.  But it will certainly be a wake-up call for Trump, if he needs yet another one.

Monday, April 17, 2017

The Trump Doctrine: Ask Not What You Can Do for Your Country. Ask What Your Country Can Do for The Trump Brand.

A number of recent articles have attempted to articulate a "Trump Doctrine." Steve does not think it is all that complicated...

You have to hand it to the writers of The White House Apprentice. They have jammed more plot twists into their first ten weeks than Lost had in six full seasons. Indeed, it's too bad that someone already used the title “Lost.”

In this week’s episode, Donald Trump fully reversed himself on just about every single thing that he appeared to believe way back in, uh, last week. Historians will no doubt come to refer to the first ten weeks of his Presidency as the B.S. era (that is, Before Syria), and he now appears to be in a transition period that future Schlesingers will no doubt refer to as his embrace of weapons of mass confusion.

Last week Putin was his friend, China was an insidious, inscrutable currency manipulator that should be able to easily handle its petulant kid brother North Korea, Syria was some country in the Middle East that he wanted no part of, Steve Bannon was Trump’s dark lord and master, NATO was obsolete, the Export-Import Bank was about to be deported, and Janet Yellen had her resume on the street.

In seven days, each of these positions has been lifted, spun, and landed precisely 180 degrees opposite of where they had been. Dorothy Hamill, Nancy Kerrigan, and Michelle Kwan combined would have had a tough time pulling off more triple axels in a single week.

The White House Haul of Mirrors began with Trump’s stunning about-face on intervention in Syria. Only days before Secretary of Oil and once-believed extinct tyrant-assurer Rex Tillerson had announced that removing Assad was “up to the Syrian people,” which is sort of like saying that revitalizing the coal industry is “up to the coal miners.” It would be hard to send a more unambiguous statement of purposeful neglect, weary disdain, and contemptuous disinterest.

Then, of course, Donald Trump turned on his television, and finally saw what pretty much everyone else in the world already knew: Assad hideously murders his own people at a prodigious rate, occasionally varying his methods to include chemical weapons.  

59 Tomahawk missiles later, Trump enjoyed a brief refractory period during which politicians and journalists praised his Syrian airstrike as if he had actually accomplished something beyond a nifty PR coup at the expense of US taxpayers. 

As fate would have it, Trump was entertaining Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago when he ordered the missile launch.  Trump would later relish telling Fox Business News’s Money Honey Maria Bartiromo that he and Xi Jinping were enjoying “the most beautiful piece of chocolate cake” when the bombs started flying.Unfortunately, as Donald retold the tale of the cake to Bartiromo, he said that those missiles were “heading to Iraq.” Yes, Trump really did forget which country he had launched a missile attack on. 

In what is becoming a familiar pattern, Trump had a perfectly pleasant meeting a major world figure and suddenly everything changed. Everything. China – the country that Trump once said was “raping” the United States through currency manipulation – was no longer a currency manipulator. Xi Jinping would  spend a mere ten minutes – literally ten minutes, by Trump’s own measure -- explaining the history of relations between China and Korea to Trump, and Trump suddenly changed his tune and began talking about how challenging and difficult it will be for China to help us contain Kim Jong-Un.

Trump’s new found bromance with Xi Jinping came at a particularly convenient moment, as his long-distance love affair with Vladimir Putin had just scored a double-frown emoticon.

Putin pointed out that the United States does not exactly have an unblemished track record of proving that nations in the Middle East actually possess and use Weapons of Mass Destruction before showering them with shock and awe. When Trump’s team countered with claims that they possessed intelligence that proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that Assad was directly responsible for the last week’s chemical weapons attack, the Russians dismissed the evidence as if it were a tweet alleging that Barack Obama had wired tapped Trump Tower. Give Putin and Assad credit for learning from the master. It appears that the fastest growing U.S. export under the Trump administration is fake news.

In a week with flip-flops large and small, the final doozy was seeing Steve Bannon in uncontained free-fall, much like the scene at the end of Star Wars when Darth Vadar’s space craft whirls wildly off into space, damaged but not destroyed, ominously leaving the door open for the inevitable sequel.  Bannon’s banishment appeared to represent closure on the internecine holy war between the “White House Democrats,” led by Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Bannon’s one-man brand of radical anti-government vigilantism. 

The victory of Kushner over Bannon has been explained a number of ways, but all are deficient. 

Some view it to be the triumph of a more centrist realpolitik over hard-right politics of small government, minimal regulation, isolationism, and radically reduced government. Yet Trump’s positions on the Muslim ban, illegal immigration, and most pointedly climate change are still on the far edge of Bannonism. 

Some argue that Kushner’s ascendance and Bannon’s fall is simply a tale of an increasingly sagacious Trump learning that the running for office is different than running the government. This, however, would imply that the guy who wakes up at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning with an urgent need to spout utter bullshit on Twitter is capable of nuanced insight into the difference between campaigning, governing, or, for that matter, masturbation. Don’t buy it.

When in doubt, it is always wise to opt for the simplest possible explanation, and in the case of Donald Trump, only the simplest possible explanation is even worth considering

The simplest explanation is this: Kushner is in and Bannon is out because Kushner’s advice is making Trump look good, and Bannon is out because Bannon’s advice is making Trump look bad. We have elected a President who truly cares only about one thing: how he is personally perceived. If you make him look good, you have a job. If you don’t, you are history.

Steve Bannon has been behind some of the most egregious failures of Trump’s shockingly inept first three months as President. 

  • It was Bannon who urged a rapid vote on healthcare in order to force House Republicans to go on the record about whether or not they supported the Republican healthcare initiative. Bannon intended to use the vote to develop an “enemies list” of House Representatives to “primary” in the mid-terms. The Freedom Caucus humiliated Trump by calling his bluff. 
  • Bannon urged that nothing be done about Assad's use of chemical weapons, based on his uncompromising interpretation of "America First."
  • It was Bannon’s people who attempted to manufacture evidence to support Trump’s allegation that Obama had wire-tapped the Trump campaign. The ensuing farce – in which the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee was revealed to have been played like a lapdog – shattered the reputation of Congressman Nunes, requiring him to recuse himself from the very investigation he was charged to lead.
Bannon proved himself inept, and demonstrated that he cared more about his extremist  right wing principle than Donald Trump’s personal brand. Big mistakes. 

Three strikes and you’re out. What did Trump do? You guessed it. He went to Jared!

Jared Kushner, on the other hand, has been around his father-in-law long enough to understand that the only thing that matters in Trump’s decision-making is what will make Trump personally look good. 

Kushner’s standing surged with the apparently successful Mar-a-Lago meet-and-greet with Xi Jinping.

Kushner, interestingly, was AWOL on a skiing vacation during the healthcare fiasco. Perhaps Kushner was just savvy enough to see a train wreck coming with no survivors.

But Kushner’s real coup, however, was to be on the side of those advocating a military response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Don’t kid yourself that Kushner or anyone else in the White House argued for that military strike based on a position of a moral high ground.  Or, for that matter, that anyone believed that the national security of the United States of America was at risk. 

No, the military strike was a PR bonanza for the Trump brand. End of story.

In a single stroke, he could be seen as a macho Commander-in-Chief restoring America’s reputation for tough, fast action. He had a clear shot to spank one of the world’s most evil dictators for an action of unspeakable cruelty.  Most important of all, as his Presidency remains enshrouded in a cloud of suspicion that he colluded with Russia to influence the U.S. election, the military strike allowed him to be seen taking a hard line with Vladimir Putin. At a time when the very legitimacy of Trump’s Presidency rests in a cozy web of connections to Putin’s government, being seen as being highly adversarial with Putin was just what Brand Trump needed. 

There has been plenty of specious talk about a “Trump Doctrine” lying somewhere beneath his flip-flops, ill-conceived initiatives, and poorly-implemented orders. There are commentators who try to make a virtue of his alleged "flexibility," or argue that his lack of a guiding philosophy should be viewed positively... that he does not allow dogma to dictate rigid positions. Puh-lease.

If there is an underlying principle here, it is that Trump values lying over principle. The real Trump Doctrine is transparent: Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what your country can do to help the Donald Trump brand. 

It has been all-too-painfully clear that history – either in the form of centuries of human knowledge, or simply in terms of what the White House believed last week – is of absolutely no relevance to this President as he makes decisions of profound global consequence based on whether they will score a bump in his ratings. It is merely a question of "what feels right" for the Trump brand in the immediate moment.

It appears equally true that decisions are made with little or no forethought about their consequences... what they might mean five minutes, five days, five months, or five years from now. After the missile attack, Vladimir Putin warned Trump not to strike Syria again. Did his people fail to anticipate that reaction? What does that mean if  Assad decides to gas more innocent people? That we will get more deeply involved in Syria, and risk a direct confrontation with Russia? Or that next time, we will simply turn away? Did anyone at the White House think that one through before activating the launch codes? 

Now, all eyes turn east to the building crisis in the Korean Peninsula. 

We have a woefully under-educated, impulsive, and instinctively aggressive American President on one side of the 38th parallel, and an immature, explosive, and instinctively insecure child tyrant on the other.  Ten million people live in Seoul, 35 miles from the demilitarized zone, in easy striking distance of conventional weaponry. If ever there was a time when we need cool heads, deep knowledge, consideration of a full range of options, the collective input and support of global leaders, and extreme caution with military force, this is it.

Instead, we have a son-in-law whose expertise appears to be that of a senior brand manager, working for a President whose only criteria in decision making is whether something is good for Trump or bad for Trump.

Ask not whether this President is here to serve our country, ask only whether he thinks the country is here to serve him.  

The answer is already clear, and it's called the Trump Doctrine.


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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Wag the Country

Steve is decidedly not on board with the generally positive reaction to Donald Trump’s Tomahawk chop at Assad for the Syrian President’s appalling deployment of chemical weapons on his own innocent citizens.

The use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashari al-Assad was a grotesque act of genocide by one of the most heinous human beings on the planet.  That seems to be one of the few undisputed, actual, real, non-fake, totally uncontested facts in Washington, D.C. this past week.

But exactly what to do about it, when to do it, which international partners should we engage with to do something about it, and with what exact real near-term and long-term objectives, all, however, seem to be reasonable questions that might have merited a modicum of reflection before inputting the launch codes.

Donald Trump ran for President on a platform of nationalism and isolationism, overtly and frequently rejecting the notion that the United States should be the world’s “policeman.” His Secretary of State Rex (apparently short for “Rex-it”) Tillerson announced only last week that the United States had no interest in further involvement in Syria.  Trump’s chief strategy advisor, Steve Bannon, led a campaign based on the philosophy that America should be spending its money on its own citizens here in the United States, should not be aiding immigrants or refugees, should not engage in military adventures overseas, should make other NATO members pay more for their defense, should decrease financial support to the United Nations, and should decrease foreign aid. The new Trump budget proposes gaping cuts in humanitarian aid as part of its effort to reduce the size of government and the tax bill. As final relevant notes, Trump urged then-President Obama not to respond to Assad's use of chemical weapons in 2013, and, only months ago, then-candidate Donald Trump excoriated Hillary Clinton for advocating more activist positions – including military incursions – in the Middle East in general and specifically in Syria. “She will bring us into World War III,” he ominously warned.

Then Donald Trump saw a horrifying video – no doubt on Fox News -- of the Assad carnage, and instantly all that campaign mumbo-jumbo went out the window. Now we have to act! I guess we are the world’s policeman, after all.

Trump announced that some form of punishment was necessary, and gave his military brass a day to cook up some options before launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to mess up an airport tarmac while being exceptionally careful to avoid hurting any of the people who were actually responsible for using poison gas on babies. We are left to infer that Trump's teams held the airplanes responsible rather than the people who initiated their mission.

In fairness, the response to Trump’s action has been pretty much “thumbs up” across the Board, from Republicans and Democrats alike, the press, and in foreign capitals (“Hey, America is back in the bombing business!”). The reprisal was generally considered a “commensurate” response, which is diplomacy-speak for saying we spanked Assad firmly but not so hard that his Uncle Vladimir is going to show up on our front porch.  How diplomats do the math of “commensurate response” is beyond me, but we now know that 72 innocent civilians dying in horrific spasms of asphyxiation has been equated by the commensurate response cognoscenti as the equivalent of 59 Tomahawk missiles blowing up a bunch of used Russian planes.

I truly need help on this “commensurate” concept, and how it was determined in this specific case. Every now and again one reads one of those awful stories of a horrific parent locking their car on a hot day with a baby inside, usually with catastrophic outcomes. Using this Syrian “commensurate response” thinking, one assumes that the punishment for the parent in our example would be to blow up the Hyundai and let the parent walk.

Now – lest there be no misinterpretation – my issue is not with Trump taking action. It is with whether it was enough action, whether it was the right action, whether we might have wanted to weigh a few alternatives, talked to some allies, and done some long term planning before we start shooting things. My take is that this just might have been just one of those “feel good” one-off blow-up-some-shit things that Republican presidents do when they are overwhelmed by global complexity.  We should be pleased that Trump did something, and I suspect that most of the people who applauded it as a “commensurate response” were simply pleased that Trump did not go full-on wing-nut and respond with some shock-and-awful random carpet bombing of Damascus.

Responding or not is not the issue.

However, these are curious times, and Donald Trump, in doing what was generally acknowledged as a “reasonable” response, still managed to reveal new and ever more worrisome things about his White House. 

Did “doing the right thing” simply reveal how profoundly ignorant he was of the situation in Syria even as he spoke about it while campaigning?

Did “doing the right thing” reveal more clearly than any action to date that he has no deep particular belief or allegiance to the “nationalist” philosophy he ran on?  And is that good or bad?

Did he “do the right thing” to actually help the suffering people of Syria, or just to please the press and establishment figures in the United States whose approval Trump craves even as he disparages them?

Did “doing the right thing” mean that Donald Trump is just one more in a long line of testosterone-laden conventional Republican presidents who launch missiles first and figure out the objective after?

And – finally – was one reason that Donald Trump “did the right thing” was because he knew that 59 Tomahawk missiles in retaliation for a poison gas attack was a can’t-miss public relations bonanza? You may call me cynical, but I have watched this guy lie non-stop on every subject near-and-dear to me for the last two years, so I absolutely refuse to accept his explanations about anything at face value.There is always a "what's in it for Trump?" in his every breath.

Most striking among the rapidly unfolding events was Donald Trump’s initial and quite visceral reaction to seeing the videotape that showed the exact effect that poison gas has on human beings. Trump was horrified, indignant, and bent on taking action.

However, his reaction reveals just how much this President bases his decision process not on philosophy, principle, history, and granular analysis, but on the latest television images that come across on Fox News.

Donald Trump’s reaction to the sight of a chemical weapons attack on the civilian population was as if he was being exposed to the murderous butchery of the Assad regime for the very first time in his life.

He held a White House press conference in which he expressed his outrage at the poison gas attack, nothing that the action “crossed several lines” for him. He openly volunteered that “something should be done.”

It does not take a Washington think-tank expert to understand the mind-boggling scope of the Syrian civil war, which has killed four hundred thousand people in the past six yearsWhich means that the 72 deaths in last week's chemical weapons attack was actually a lower total than the average daily death toll for each and every day since the conflict began.

A U.N. investigation concluded that the Syrian government used chlorine gas twice on its own citizens in 2016. The use of chemical weapons by Assad in 2013 resulted in 1,400 deaths.  Yet Donald Trump steadfastly maintained throughout his campaign that the United States should not get involved in Syria, and should absolutely not allow Syrian refugees to come to the United States.

Then he finally sees the truth in the only way he knows how to process it: on a video on cable television news. And his entire world view changes.  Instantly.  Should we be terrified at how superficial his grasp of the world is? Or at how rapidly he can change his mind?  Or should we just shut up and be happy that this time a video on Fox News actually forced him to come to grips with that heretofore alien concept called reality?

The irony in Trump being saluted for his missile strike is thick. In truth, the major reason that Assad holds power is because most Americans have not had the stomach to get into another bloody, messy, complicated, extensive war in the Middle East. Yes, because George W. Bush made such stupid decisions in unilaterally invading Iraq, our citizenry has become rightly squeamish about committing our military to take out a Hitler-grade monster who is casually slaughtering helpless citizens in order to maintain his power. Hamlet Obama endlessly debated going into Syria and removing Assad, and one of the low points of his presidency was his failure to act on the “red line” he drew on the use of chemical weapons. But Obama actually did what presidents are supposed to do: take the matter to Congress, where most Republicans opposed any military action. (So, too, btw, did a certain private citizen named Donald Trump.) Obama also took the measure of popular sentiment, and realized that the country could not stand to see more young Americans die to rescue a screwed-up Middle Eastern country from itself. Obama found little support among our allies internationally, and ultimately made the decision to not take on a unilateral war that had zero support. And, one is left to infer, Obama viewed a showy volley of missiles -- like the one Trump just executed -- to be a meaningless, ineffectual gesture.

Of course, the second lesson of our Iraq folly was that you can’t take out a government in the Middle East if you don’t know what power will rise to fill the vacuum. Our supposed learning from Iraq was that Saddam Hussein was a horrible butcher, but at least he could hold that patchwork country together and prevent a savage civil war. So, too, now Assad is protected out of a fear that Syria will fall into the hands of ISIS if there is a vacuum of leadership.

Add it all up: George W. Bush initiates a stupid war in Iraq, making Barack Obama extremely skittish about committing to military involvement to take out Assad.  Donald Trump comes to office and sends a dainty and tidy little missile attack on a sad-sack airfield, and suddenly he is John Wayne.

Which brings us to our next point: what exactly did 59 Tomahawk missiles accomplish?  I have heard it on all the news channels; advocates and talking heads braying, “Well, we really sent Assad a message!  We showed Assad that he can’t step over the line and use chemical weapons without getting punished for it.”


Assad lost a few airplanes.  He will just go buy new ones from Vladimir Putin. Assad sat comfortably in his palace throughout the raid, serene in the knowledge that no bombs were headed his way. He was probably sipping Chablis and for all we know he was watching re-runs of The Apprentice.

And what about our “message?” As far as I can tell, our “message” to Assad was that “if you want to commit genocide on your own people, we simply will not tolerate it if you use chemical weapons.  It is perfectly acceptable to us for you to use conventional bombs, machine guns, mortar shells, and howitzers to slaughter your people, but if you use chemical weapons, we will blow up some of your airplanes.” Take that, mister. Now, let’s get back to the coverage of The Masters.

What we accomplished was more akin to self-stimulation than any real military or diplomatic triumph. You might feel really good for a few minutes, but that feeling fades fast and you sure as hell have not done a thing for anybody else. 

Not one person in Syria is any safer from Assad today than they were yesterday.

Not one Syrian refugee is getting any more help from the United States today than they did yesterday.

Not one American soldier in the Middle East is any safer today than yesterday.

By my reckoning, there is one person who really, really benefited from sending 59 cruise missiles on a pinpoint-targeted mission designed to have all the consequential impact of a Nerf ball hurled into a room full of helium balloons.

And that would be Donald Trump.

Just for kicks, go on Netflix tonight and rent the 1997 movie “Wag the Dog.” In this classic, a president who is in the thick of a sex scandal that could drive him from office turns to Hollywood to create an epic diversion.  A wholly fictional “war with Albania” is manufactured on Hollywood sets, and the “fake news” coverage of that war pushes the president’s sex scandal to the back burner.  Global conflict is the potent distraction from domestic unrest; it is the preferred panacea of presidents.

It’s well documented that Americans “pull together” and “support their president” in times of war. The nation was actually surprisingly united at the outset of the Iraq war: we had been duped into believing that war was necessary to prevent Saddam Hussein from unleashing a wide variety of poison gas and nuclear weaponry. Believe it or not, even Ronald Reagan’s completely goofy escapade in Grenada was widely and enthusiastically supported by the U.S. citizenry at the time.

Now consider the overwhelmingly negative position Donald Trump is in less than 100 days into his term. His approval ratings are the lowest ever recorded for a president in his first months in office. Despite having a decisive Republican majority, he was unable to win House approval of his single most important legislative goal, the repeal of ObamaCare.  He has now twice flubbed his Muslim ban. His embarrassing accusation of having been wiretapped by President Obama triggered the perhaps more humiliating disclosure that his staff leaked information to the leader of the House Intelligence Committee in an attempt to justify his tweet. This disclosure required committee chairman Nunes to become the second Trump administration legal official who had to recuse himself from investigating Trump’s biggest problem of all: the ever-growing cloud of suspicion that his campaign colluded with the Russian government to steal the 2016 Presidential election.  

Indeed, it seems that Trump’s primary focus these days is to generate distractions – to create competing news stories that dilute press and popular focus on the potentially impeachable offense inherent in the Russian collusion.

Given this bleak picture, it would not surprise me in the least if this cynical manipulator of public opinion has realized that war is the ultimate distraction. Appearing to be the tough leader who makes the hard decisions to bring in the American military is just the type of thing that makes for a bump in the approval ratings.

So what should he have done?

Wouldn’t this be a heck of a time for Donald Trump to finally demonstrate whatever value he sees in sucking up to Vladimir Putin by calling Putin and demanding a multinational summit to solve the carnage in Syria and create a global military intervention that removes Assad in a way that doesn’t cede control to ISIS? 

Would it be a good time to call for a bipartisan committee to draft specific actions that the United States can take to address the underlying problems in Syria?

As long as Donald Trump is changing his mind about things, what if he had said that along with the 59 cruise missiles, we are going to open our doors to 100,000 Syrian refugees?

What if he had done something – anything – beyond trying to solve bombs with more bombs?

A simple reminder: when Teddy Roosevelt said, "Speak softly, but carry a big stick," the "speak softly" came first. I do not recall him ever amending that phrase to imply that you can skip over the talking phase and just start dropping bombs as the first step.

Yes, this article flies in the face of a lot of happy talk in America now. Trump supporters are ecstatic because he has finally done something that looks vaguely presidential. Democrats are delighted because Trump appears to have rejected the isolationism of Steve Bannon and is now hewing to a more traditional centrist Republican – indeed, more Clintonesque -- foreign policy. Our allies in foreign capitals overseas, who had grown worried that America appeared to be abdicating its global responsibilities, were giddy to see us out and bombing again.

Unless there is real follow-up, a real desire to grapple with the underlying issues, and a real willingness to engage in a deep, long-term, and comprehensive way to solve the Syria crisis, then the Tomahawks were just an easy and cheap stunt that helped nobody outside of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Watch. Donald Trump has gotten what he needs out of Syria, and you won't hear about it from his administration for months, if not years. 

He's already off looking for the next distraction.

Wag the dog? More like Donald Trump wagging the country.

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