Trump is bluffing

The hothead-in-chief might be talking up war with North Korea, but there’s little sign that the military is preparing for it:

Among the signals that a major U.S. operation is not imminent is a trip just underway by Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a small cadre of his staff. He arrived Friday in Hawaii with plans to visit Japan, South Korea and China, all of which would be in peril if a war between North Korea and the United States explodes.

The aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its accompanying flotilla of destroyers and guided-missile cruisers also returned to port Wednesday in Yokosuka, Japan, the Navy announced. The ships and the thousands of U.S. service members aboard spent three months patrolling the region and could have stayed at sea off the coast of the Korean Peninsula if the Pentagon was preparing for near-term conflict.

[…]

Despite North Korea’s colorful and threatening rhetorical broadsides, there also are few signs that the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is spoiling for a fight that could lead to his ouster, and there has been no evacuation of American citizens from South Korea announced, said Michael C. Horowitz, a political-science professor and author at the University of Pennsylvania who studies military conflict.

“The U.S. is pre-positioned to respond to North Korean aggression on the peninsula all the time,” Horowitz said. “But what we are not seeing yet are true naval movements, family movements and troop movements that would suggest that the military is preparing for imminent conflict.”

If North Korea carries out its threat to launch missiles at Guam – especially if they actually hit that American island – Pyongyang will be a parking lot within the hour. It would be Pearl Harbor all over again, and even the Chinese would likely stay neutral if North Korea starts the war. (The announced plan is to have the missiles land several miles offshore, but how much faith do you have in North Korean targeting technology?)

But even with my low opinion of Trump, I don’t think he’ll launch this war. It wouldn’t be the first time he’s announced grandiose plans that come to nothing.

And call me optimistic, but I think Trump would suddenly find himself resigning for “health reasons” if he actually did order a pre-emptive nuclear strike on North Korea.

In 2017 that counts as optimism.

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Why Netanyahu’s in trouble

Bloomberg explains why the Israeli Prime Minister is at risk of indictment:

Police are pursuing charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust against Netanyahu, according to the document outlining Harow’s plea agreement. Investigators have been questioning witnesses in at least four separate cases, details of which have been leaked over the past year to Israeli media.

[…]

The first [case] involves suspicions that Netanyahu received cigars, champagne and other gifts from businessmen, including billionaire Arnon Milchan, the Hollywood producer of films such as “Fight Club” and “The Big Short,” according to Channel 2 TV. In a second case, Netanyahu is suspected of conspiring with the owner of Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper to undermine Israel Hayom, a competing free daily backed by U.S. casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, chairman and majority owner of Las Vegas Sands Corp. In two other cases, involving associates of his, Netanyahu isn’t said to be a suspect. They involve officials and businessmen who allegedly profited from Israel’s purchase of nuclear submarines from Germany’s ThyssenKrupp AG in a deal worth more than $1.5 billion, and accusations that Netanyahu’s government gave special treatment to Bezeq Israeli Telecommunication Corp., the country’s largest telecommunications company, which is controlled by Netanyahu’s friend Shaul Elovitch.

[…]

Netanyahu, whose 11 years in office make him Israel’s longest-serving prime minister after founding father David Ben-Gurion, wouldn’t be legally obligated to resign. And putting him on trial could take years: Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, was indicted on corruption charges in 2009, acquitted on the most serious charges in 2012, convicted on other charges in 2014 and entered prison only in 2016 (he was released last month). Other investigations, of former Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon, continued for years without resulting in charges against them.

The media in Israel’s Arab enemies will have a field day.  At the same time, people in these countries may start to wonder why the hated Zionist state is able to bring down its leaders for corruption.

When bad clients happen to good lawyers

Yesterday, lawyer Jay Sekulow appeared on Fox News Sunday to defend President Donald Trump.  It did not go well for him.  (The real fun starts around the 3:00 mark.)

From all indications, Sekulow’s appearances on other Sunday-morning interview shows didn’t go much better, and twitter’s blue checkmarks piled on:

The thing is, while Sekulow may have come across like Eugene Levy in Armed and Dangerous, the guy undeniably has some serious skills as a lawyer:

All told, Sekulow came off a bit like a Washington novice, which he’s definitely not. His face and his name are well known in the nation’s capital and among conservatives generally — but not for this kind of work. He’s an experienced litigator on behalf of conservative causes, especially causes dear to the religious right. White-collar defense lawyers, particularly those who defend political figures, form a small community in Washington, and Sekulow is not part of it.

Sekulow made his first big Washington debut in 1987 in the Supreme Court when he helped the evangelical group Jews for Jesus defeat a measure that banned the distribution of religious literature at Los Angeles International Airport.

His performance was unimpressive, American Lawyer magazine wrote at the time. Sekulow was “rude and aggressive,” the publication wrote, “so nervous that at times he appeared nearly out of control.”

Fortunately for Sekulow, it was an easy case to win. The ordinance barred “First Amendment activity” at the airport, presenting clear constitutional problems. And win Sekulow did — in a unanimous decision striking down the measure.

“I left the courtroom feeling like the Beatles must have felt leaving Shea Stadium,” he wrote in 2005.

The victory turned Sekulow, a self-described Messianic Jew, into a crusader for religious expression and a celebrity on the Christian right, a status that has only grown since then. Over three decades, he built a legal and media empire by representing religious groups, antiabortion advocates and other conservative organizations in high-profile court battles.

With televangelist Pat Robertson, Sekulow launched the American Center for Law and Justice — a conservative response to the American Civil Liberties Union — which litigates evangelical causes, often with great success. He has appeared before the Supreme Court on 11 other occasions and has filed numerous amicus briefs in cases related to civil liberties.

Even with Robertson’s backing, you don’t make it before the Supreme Court 11 times without being really good at your job.  Agree or disagree with his political and legal positions, Sekulow has a history of being a very effective advocate.

So what went wrong yesterday? It looks like Sekulow made a few mistakes often made by lawyers, though rarely with so many people watching:

1. He is trying to practice law in a legal area with which he has no experience.  Sekulow may be a skilled constitutional lawyer, especially for religious-freedom cases, but he seems hopelessly out of his depth in defending the President from impeachment or even possible criminal charges.

2. He is way too emotionally attached to his client.  Lawyers, like doctors, have to maintain some degree of professional distance from their clients.  You must advocate for their position in keeping with the law and professional decorum, but taking cases too personally can lead to smuggling drugs to a jailed client, or even providing support to terrorist organizations.

Like a depressing number of religious-right figures, Sekulow has practically sold his soul to Donald Trump.  A man who has never lived up to their personal standards, and is a latecomer to their political views, is now the great savior who got them a conservative Supreme Court Justice and promises more victories to come.

Trump’s approval rating is at 38.8% and falling, but he still has the true believers in his corner.  And they seem so personally invested in their hero that they’ll do anything for him, even making themselves look ridiculous and incompetent on television.

Serious question: has anyone ever done business with Donald Trump and come out better for the experience?  Anyone?

Disfellowship of the ring

When a Nova Scotia couple called off their engagement, the husband-to-be asked for the return of an engagement ring which apparently cost as much as two Nissan Micras.  His ex-fiancee refused, and a small claims court adjudicator sided with her:

A woman who broke up with her fiance after a fight over wedding expenses can keep the engagement ring, a Halifax adjudicator has ruled.

Devin Sherrington had sued his would-be bride, Lauren Arbuckle, in small claims court for the 3.25 carat diamond ring, worth as much as $19,000.

Sherrington, a personal trainer, and Arbuckle, a hairstylist and make-up artist, had planned to marry in 2016. But he postponed the wedding amid arguments over its cost, small claims adjudicator Gregg Knudsen said in a written ruling released Wednesday.

[…]

Arbuckle — who texts showed had originally wanted to elope but Sherrington wanted “a party” — then ended the relationship altogether, Knudsen said.

Knudsen said it wasn’t Arbuckle who broke the engagement — and that was the key issue in deciding who keeps the ring.

“I find the postponement was an indefinite postponement, sufficient to treat the engagement as over. Ms. Arbuckle may have ended the relationship but Mr. Sherrington ended the engagement,” said Knudsen.

“It is the conditional aspect of the gift, the marriage or the intent to marry, which is the critical issue. The determination of the entitlement to the engagement ring is based upon who broke off the engagement and who didn’t.”

In the end, Knudsen said text messages exchanged by the two showed Sherrington had told Arbuckle she could keep the ring anyway.

The adjudicator did, however, order Arbuckle to pay Sherrington $2,914 for her share of a trip to Mexico they had taken together.

The battle over the ring may ultimately be moot: Arbuckle has filed for bankruptcy, so the ring is in the possession of the trustee in bankruptcy.

Disagreements about money have destroyed many a marriage – or in this case, an engagement.  Sounds like an expensive lesson for everyone involved.

Yesterday’s liberal is today’s racist

Not too long ago, the essay that cost Hal Niedzviecki his job would have been considered remarkably progressive.

The editor of Write magazine, published by the Writers Union of Canada, committed the mortal sin of telling white authors to make their books a little less white.  But it’s not the “alt-right” that got upset about it:

The Writers’ Union of Canada has issued an apology and the editor of its magazine has resigned after publishing an opinion piece titled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to Indigenous writing.

“I don’t believe in cultural appropriation,” began the editorial by Hal Niedzviecki in the spring issue of Write magazine. “In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities. I’d go so far as to say that there should even be an award for doing so – the Appropriation Prize for best book by an author who writes about people who aren’t even remotely like her or him.”

He wrote that CanLit was “exhaustingly white and middle-class” because its producers are generally so and people tend to write what they know. “I say: Write what you don’t know. Get outside your own head. Relentlessly explore the lives of people who aren’t like you … Win the Appropriation Prize.”

Some people were enraged, and the fallout was swift: TWUC issued an apology, a board member resigned, TWUC’s Equity Task Force issued a list of demands – and Mr. Niedzviecki left his position.

“I had no intention of offending anyone with the article,” Mr. Niedzviecki told The Globe and Mail Wednesday, after resigning that morning – his choice, he says.

“I absolutely understand why people are upset. I think that I was a little tone deaf, and I was failing to recognize how charged the term cultural appropriation is and how deeply painful acts of cultural appropriation have been to Indigenous people.”

But a quick fix is not the answer, says the contributor whose tweetstorm Tuesday brought attention to the issue – pointing to deeper problems at the organization and in CanLit.

“I would like for [TWUC] to look at the practices by which they run their organization and look at the way it enforces systemic oppression and try and figure out ways to counteract that,” Alicia Elliott told The Globe from Brantford, Ont.

The TWUC Equity Task Force issued a statement, saying it was “angry and appalled” by the column, and shocked that it was published – saying it was an indication of structural racism, “brazen malice, or extreme negligence.” It issued a list of demands, including that the next three issues be turned over to Indigenous and other racialized editors and writers, affirmative action hiring for the next editor and future office staff and a future issue dedicated to bringing historical context to the issue.

Like Boys Don’t Cry director Kimberley Peirce, confronted by mob of shrieking yahoos for the mortal sin of casting a female actress as a trans man in 1999, Niedzviecki learned the hard way that his cultural liberalism won’t protect him anymore.

Adopting practices from a culture other than your own used to be height of openness and tolerance.  Now it is “cultural appropriation” and akin to genocide itself.  Only a native person can tell a story involving native peoples, and if you suggest otherwise you deserve to be hounded out of your job.

If they could take a moment to stop punching each other to talk about their beliefs, I think the social-justice warriors and the neo-fascists would find they have surprisingly much in common, especially when it comes to keeping their respective cultures walled off from infection by people with different colored skin.

Of course, as a straight white man, it’s probably easy for me to say all of this.  Were I a native person, struggling with the legacy of residential schools and persistent, horrific inequalities and injustices, perhaps I would feel differently.  Historically, white people have given the First Nations little reason to believe their intentions are benign.  People should try to understand what native Canadians have experienced and how they feel.

If any attempt to do so is denounced as “cultural appropriation,” however, it’s not going to happen.

A setback for fascism

I predicted that Marine Le Pen would win over 40% of the vote in the French Presidential election.  Obviously I jinxed her.  You’re welcome, world.

This was a blowout of historic proportions.  Even Barry Goldwater and George McGovern won a greater share of the vote than Marine Le Pen.

Compared to her father’s performance in the 2002 French Presidential election, however, her 2017 performance looks pretty good.  In France there is still a taboo against voting for the hard-right Front National, but the taboo isn’t nearly as strong as it was fifteen years ago.

Also, in 2002 French voters turned out in huge numbers – 80% turnout – to beat back the fascist candidate.  This time around, abstentions and spoiled ballots were at a level unseen since 1969, due in no small part to far-left supporters who insisted they saw little difference between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen.

Timothy Garton Ash explains why the Le Pen crowd could come back stronger, should Macron fail:

Thanks to France’s superior electoral system and strong republican tradition, the political outcome is better than the victories of Donald Trump and Brexit, but the underlying electoral reality is in some ways worse. Trump came from the world of buccaneer capitalism, not from a long-established party of the far right; and most of the 52% who voted for Brexit were not voting for Nigel Farage. After Le Pen’s disgusting, mendacious, jeering performance in last Wednesday’s television debate, no one could have any doubt who they were voting for. She makes Farage look almost reasonable.

From the country which gave us the 1789 example of violent revolution, we now have the personification of today’s worldwide anti-liberal counter-revolution. Le Pen is the very model of a modern national populist. She herself boasted in the TV debate that she is best placed to deal with this brave new world, “to talk about Russia with Putin, to talk about the United States with Trump, to talk about Great Britain with Theresa May”. (How sickening to see a British prime minister listed in that company.) There is every reason to believe that this wave of populist reaction against globalisation, liberalisation and Europeanisation still has a lot of pent-up anger behind it.

[…]

…Macron knows what needs to be done in France but is unlikely to succeed in doing it. To those who supported Le Pen you have to add the many who abstained, including leftwing voters who described this second round as a choice between cholera and the plague. The president-elect has no established party behind him, so it is totally unclear what majority will emerge from next month’s French parliamentary elections.

He is already being described as “Renzi 2.0”, a reference to the Italian would-be-reformist former premier Matteo Renzi. His super-ambitious target is to reduce public spending from 56% of GDP to just – wait for it – 52%. The obstacles to change in France are enormous, from powerful unions and a bloated public sector to farmers who make a habit of blocking roads with tractors. If Macron fails to reform France, in 2022 we may yet have a president Le Pen.

For now, ironically, Le Pen and the European hard-right may be dragged down by the emergence of another extremist:

Rule by toddlers

If you’re the parent of a young child, you know the dollar store is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you can always find something inexpensive to keep your little one from being booooorrrred for a while. A curse because the child learns to expect something from every time you drop in to buy garbage bags.

My five-year-old knows how to play this game, and he’ll inevitably ask to buy something whenever we stop in to Dollarama. But sometimes he won’t find something he really wants, so he’ll just grab something completely at random from a shelf.  It may be something in which he’s never before expressed an interest, or he may already have one gathering dust at home. Doesn’t matter: he had his heart set on getting a new toy, any toy is better than nothing, and the world will come to an end if you say no.

This is exactly what I thought of when the American Health Care Act, a cobbled-together replacement for Obamacare, just barely passed in the House of Representatives this afternoon:

The arguments on the floor—and the House’s decision to vote before the bill could be scored by the Congressional Budget Office—suggest that even many of the people who just passed it don’t even know everything about the bill. That’s to be expected: A collection of amendments written to garner political support since the original draft of the AHCA could have sometimes obscure interaction effects, and many of those are still being uncovered, even as the bill moves on to the Senate. But the broad strokes are known, and even with the official CBO report not expected until next week, health-policy experts have most of the AHCA figured out.

[…]

All in all, the baseline projections of reducing coverage by over 20 million people and federal savings of $300 billion will still apply to the AHCA, which must be officially scored by the CBO over the next few weeks in order to pass by the reconciliation process in the Senate. If passed there and signed by President Trump, the Medicaid program will be slashed, and fewer older, low-income, and sick people will be able to afford insurance. The Patient and State Stability Fund will likely provide financial relief and affordable coverage for thousands of sicker Americans, but it still appears that more people of similar health status will be ejected into the ranks of the uninsured. Fewer people will be offered employer coverage as well, although it’s unclear how much changes in essential benefits will affect them. The amendments will mostly affect those at the extremes. “In terms of their marginal effect, it all depends on what states will take them up,” Guyer said.

As the forthcoming CBO report will probably document, the basic framework of the law hasn’t changed that much. There are likely to be plenty additions to the AHCA as it goes through the more moderate Senate, and there will probably be tweaks that eliminate some of the current provisions in the House version. But as things stand, sick people and families that make less money will be less able to afford coverage than they are under the current law. Each change may necessitate a trip through the policy weeds to fully probe all of its effects, but the big picture doesn’t appear to be changing.

After years of moaning about Obamacare, Republicans were finally given the chance to do something about it, and were caught completely flat-footed.  But they had to do something for President Trump’s first hundred-odd days in office, so they threw together this disaster of a bill – which seems to accomplish little except rendering millions of Americans again uninsurable – so they could say they kept their promise.

In reality, the bill has almost no chance of making it through the Senate unscathed, but even if Trump and the GOP caucus hadn’t decided to throw a “Mission Accomplished” party in the White House Rose Garden this evening, they still would have come out of this looking callous at best and downright cruel at worst.

One of the things that drew me to conservatism is that it’s supposed to be prudent.  Conservatives are supposed to believe government should not embark on a major project – like, say, a fundamental restructuring of one-sixth of a country’s economy – without crunching the numbers, weighing the alternatives and making sure they get it right.

If the Republican Party hadn’t already exposed this as a myth by uniting behind a fundamentally unfit leader, the health care fiasco has ended all doubt.  And they will pay dearly in the 2018 mid-term elections, as long as Democrats don’t screw it up.

Aw dammit.