Monthly Archives: August 2017

Trump v. Kim

The theory of nuclear deterrence is predicated on the idea that, ultimately, nations would act rationally. When I think of the Cuban Missile Crisis, it’s alarming how unnecessarily bellicose both Kennedy and Khrushchev initially acted. Kennedy wanted to prove that he could be as tough and as resolutely anti-Commie as any Republican. Khrushchev hadn’t been in power for long, and needed to mollify more hawkish members of the Politburo. Throughout the crisis, Kennedy got terrible advice from at least some of his generals. But ultimately, both Kennedy and Khrushchev backed down, found a face-saving compromise both sides could live with. Unleashing the horror of thermonuclear holocaust isn’t necessarily unthinkable. People in power do seem capable of thinking about it. General Maxwell Taylor, President Kennedy’s most important military advisor, clearly was willing to at least entertain the thought of it. But finally, in the end, nuclear war was avoided. Ultimately, both the Americans and the Soviets thought better of it. Everyone took a deep breath, reconsidered previously held positions, calmed down. A nuclear exchange was, finally, averted.

And thus it has always been. Diplomacy has, in the final analysis, triumphed over bellicosity. When I look at the world today, I shudder to realize which countries have nuclear capacities. Pakistan is far too unsteady and unstable to really be a nuclear power. It nonetheless is one. So is India. And India and Pakistan loathe each other, with deeply rooted religious animosities unworthy of two great world religions. Still, both countries have nukes, and that’s a scary thought. But when it comes to their nuclear arsenals, both countries have, miraculously, remained rational, reasonable, peaceable. Israel has nuclear weapons, understandable given its many enemies. But, at least so far, without untoward incident. The nuclear arsenal of the former Soviet Union remains poorly maintained and guarded, and at least some weapons exist in exceedingly unstable regions. But everyone does seem to recognize how high the stakes are. The Obama administration negotiated a treaty with Iran, which is holding up exceptionally well, at least so far. Iran’s governance is hardly any kind of ideal, with dual military presences and modes of governance. But even Iran, so far, is behaving reasonably.

And then there’s Kim Jong Un. Who may or may not have a nuclear capability, and who definitely has developed an ICBM. And he’s being opposed by Donald Trump. And while James Matis and Rex Tillerson have responded to North Korean threats with diplomatic language, offering to negotiate a way out of the current dispute, Donald Trump seems intent on acting like a spoiled, angry, frightened child. And we’re in major threat escalation mode. Now, Kim is threatening Guam. Poor Guam. And the Donald is promising ‘fire and fury.’

Here’s what would ordinarily happen. The President of the United States would consult with a number of experts on North Korea. He’d probably start with the assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs from the State Department, plus the assistant secretary for Asian and Pacific security from Defense. Those two officials would have access to the expertise of a number of career diplomats with more specific knowledge of Kim and North Korea. The President would also talk with the US ambassador to South Korea. There would be meetings between State and Defense and intelligence agencies. A coherent, rational, consistent policy would emerge. Diplomatic overtures would begin, certainly involving China, Japan and South Korea. And everyone would commit to both the process and the policy. And six months from now, we’d all be wondering whatever happened to Kim Jong Un. Weren’t we scared of him for awhile there?

That can’t happen with Trump; none of it can. For one thing, none of those positions are filled. There isn’t an ambassador to South Korea–Trump hasn’t named one. State is badly understaffed. So is Defense. And the President of the United States is trying to govern via Twitter, as informed by Fox and friends, advised by ideological extremists (Steve Bannon), and desperately unqualified family members (Jared Kushner.) We have no coherent policy. We have no process by which one might be arrived at.

Nuclear deterrence requires nations to act rationally. Which means, at present, we have to hope that Kim Jong Un fills that role, Donald Trump having abdicated it.

Now, to be fair, Trump is getting some good advice from some qualified people. Jim Mattis, John Kelly and H. R. McMaster are, at least, sensible people. They’re career military men, and they know full well that even a conventional attack on North Korea would be a sickening, disastrous nightmare. We’d probably win such a war. So what? It would result in a humanitarian crisis the likes of which the world has never seen. That choice has to be off the table. The nuclear option has to be off the table and buried fifty feet down in the backyard.

But it may not be. Our current President has not demonstrated a capacity for mature self-reflection, careful strategic planning, or rationality. We have to hope Kim can be the sensible adult in the room. Or, just maybe, Xi Jingping. Otherwise, this whole situation is scary, and getting scarier. Maybe, just maybe, Rex Tillerson and Xi are on the phone right now. Let’s desperately hope so.


War for the Planet of the Apes: Movie Review

War for the Planet of the Apes is, among other things, about an authoritarian American leader who is bound and determined to build a wall between him and his perceived enemies, and also wants the Apes to pay for it. It’s also about Native American genocide, and the persecution of Christianity by ancient Rome, and other incidents of needless brutality perpetrated by the strong over the weak. It’s about a tragic class of cultures. It’s about leadership and suffering. It’s just an extraordinary movie.

This is the third movie, and I think probably the last movie, in the Planet of the Apes reboot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, and continued with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. All three movies have starred the remarkable Andy Serkis as Caesar, a preternaturally intelligent Ape, and a born leader. In the world of these films, a search for a cure for Alzheimers resulted in two unintended consequences. First, Apes, given a drug as part of the research, grew vastly more intelligent. Second, the drug created a pandemic that wiped out most of humanity. The Apes escaped to the forests; mankind retreated to various military compounds. An Ape vs. Human war ensued, driven in part by human paranoia and xenophobia, but also in part by a terribly mistreated Ape, Koba, who sought revenge against his human tormentors.

As this film begins, Koba is dead, killed by Caesar in the previous film. But a well-armed, well led army has begun a war of extermination against the Apes. Caesar continuous insists that he has no interest in killing humans. He realizes that humans and Apes probably can’t co-exist peacefully, but sends the message; leave him the forest, and leave him alone, and he won’t attack humans. That’s not good enough for The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). He intends to wipe Apes off the planet. In one attack, he kills Caesar’s wife and oldest son. Caesar sends the rest of his people away, and heads out, looking for The Colonel, with a small group of close followers. He thinks that killing the Colonel might be enough to get humans to leave him alone. That’s his object.

Caesar is a born leader, tactically advanced and with a sophisticated sense of what humans want and how to defeat them. But he’s stuck on horseback, without more advanced transportation or communication technology. Apes can use human weapons, but have limited ammo. Much of this movie is about Caesar’s journey to find The Colonel, and the discoveries he makes along the way. One discovery involves men who have either been murdered or buried alive. They seem to suffer from a disease that robs of the power of speech. Caesar also meets a young girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), similarly afflicted. She can’t talk, but she is an intelligent young woman, capable of sign-language communication (which is also the main way the Apes communicate), and courageous and loyal. Caesar takes her with him, lacking any better idea what to do with her, and she proves a valuable ally.

The initial plan was for Caesar to go questing after the Colonel, while the rest of his people sought refuge in a desert south of their woods stronghold. But the Colonel’s technological advantages have defeated Caesar’s plan, and Caesar’s people have been captured and taken to a fort The Colonel is building by an old army supply depot. The fort needs a wall. The Apes are set to the task of building it. And Caesar is captured as well, though his Nova and his two ape comrades are free.

Not all Apes, however, are on Caesar’s side. The army has coopted quisling apes, which they call ‘donkeys,’ And, like black overseers during slavery, the ‘donkeys’ prove more vicious and brutal than their human bosses. They also have devised a unique punishment for recalcitrant apes (and for Caesar, eventually). They crucify them.

It turns out that the Colonel has essentially seceded from white society, because of this odd muteness disease. It’s a mutation from the initial Alzheimer’s disease that proved so devastating for humans, and so beneficial to Apes. The Colonel quite ruthlessly executes anyone with the disease. Another army, from ‘up north,’ is on its way to bring him to justice. The wall is protection against another human army. Meanwhile, Caesar only wants to rescue his people. The last thing in the world he wants to is for Ape society to get caught in a crossfire. He just wants them to be free. And, like Moses, he’s willing to bring them to a Promised land he himself will be unable to enter.

Harrelson is wonderfully psychopathic as The Colonel. Serkis, is, of course, utterly brilliant as Caesar. CGI acting is simply acting; his performance is simply that of a superb actor at the top of his craft. The CGI just builds off the performance.

The whole film is rich and powerful. So many historical resonances; so much to take in. I was deeply moved by the entire film, as I was with the previous films. It’s a wonderful movie. It got a little lost in the shuffle of summer movies, but it’s certainly as moving as any. See it on the big screen, if you can, and bask.

Donald Trump: Editor-in-chief

Two oddly similar political news stories came out today, though both got kind of buried in the wake of the astonishing firing of White House Communications Director Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci. In fact, in a strange kind of way, all three stories are connected. I mean, all politicians try to control their own political narratives. That’s why administrations have a ‘communications director.’ But Trump emerges as, perhaps, a bit more hands-on than most.

Okay, so here’s the first story. Remember a few days ago, when the big story involved a meeting between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and an amazing assortment of Russian spies, money launderers, attorneys and hangers-on. The deal was that they would provide dirt on Hillary Clinton, in exchange for, well, who knows? Anyway, Donald Jr. sort belatedly remembered that meeting, which took place in June of 2016, when his Dad was still running. And his initial account of that meeting was misleadingly vague.

Well, it turns out that his Dad wrote it. That is, Donald Trump wrote, or rather, dictated, the first account given by Donald Jr. about his June meeting with Russians. Here’s what the President came up with:

It was a short introductory meeting. I asked Jared and Paul to stop by. We primarily discussed a program about the adoption of Russian children that was active and popular with American families years ago and was since ended by the Russian government, but it was not a campaign issue at that time and there was no follow up.

“I was asked to attend the meeting by an acquaintance, but was not told the name of the person I would be meeting with beforehand.

It’s not that this description of the meeting is a lie. It certainly is misleading. What it leaves out is the fact that it was set up with the promise that Trump Jr. would get dirt on Hillary Clinton, and that the person setting it up claimed it would be “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Also, that the meeting was attended by Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist who has been linked to Russian money-laundering, and by Ike Kaveladze, a former Russian intelligence operator, who is generally believed to still be conducting espionage on behalf of Putin’s government. Also, if Trump knew nothing about this meeting, as he claims, why was he dictating his son’s response to it?

Also, and this is a key question for me, how stupid is this? Did the President genuinely believe that this brief, uninformative statement would end all media coverage of the meeting? Did he really think that Washington Post reporters would stop digging? According to the Post story, various Trump advisors urged Donald Jr. to be much more transparent. Get accurate information out there, quickly. Wouldn’t that have been a better course of action? And can anyone imagine Donald Trump following that counsel?

The second story is even more amazing. A lawsuit alleges that Donald Trump and Sean Spicer colluded with Fox News to build a disinformation campaign around the death of a Democratic National Committee staffer. According to this lawsuit, Trump, Spicer, and Fox News host Sean Hannity worked together to make up the Seth Rich story.

We have to be careful with this one. A private investigator, Rod Wheeler, claims that he was hired by a wealthy Trump supporter, Ed Butowsky, to investigate the death of Seth Rich, a young DNC staffer. Rich, in July 2016, died in an apparent robbery-gone-bad. The crime is still being investigated by DC police. Right-wing media outlets, including Hannity and including Fox News, fell in love with this story last fall, alleging that Rich had been the one responsible for the DNC documents exposed on Wikileaks, and that Hillary Clinton had therefore had him murdered. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest that this might be true, and the Fox narrative has been debunked by law enforcement, and by every fact-checking website out there, including Politifact, Snopes, and

But Fox News ran with it anyway, basing much of their story on quotations from Wheeler. Wheeler now claims that those quotations were fabricated. He also claims that Butowski, President Trump and Spicer were involved in the writing of the story. Wheeler says he was made the scapegoat when other news sources discredited it, and Fox was forced to back off.

I think this story warrants further investigation. And since it’s currently the subject of a lawsuit, it seems likely that it will receive the additional scrutiny it needs. The fact is, Rod Wheeler was the main source for the Seth Rich story on Fox. I think there’s very good reason to question his credibility, including these new allegations involving Trump and Spicer. The Seth Rich story is the very definition of fake news, and Rod Wheeler was instrumental in its creation. And his lawsuit alleges that he was some kind of innocent victim. Uh, no. He says Fox News misquoted him in creating the story. Maybe he was misquoted. But he’s also responsible. For him to play the victim card is a bit much.

On the other hand, if the President and Spicer were involved in embellishing his, Wheeler’s, account, he would certainly be in a position to know. We have seriously untrustworthy people involved here, from Sean Hannity to Wheeler to Spicer. Sadly, one of the most untrustworthy of them is the President. The Seth Rich fake narrative was unquestionably useful to Trump. Probably, at least some Trump supporters still believe it. Did he help craft it? If so, that’s an explosive allegation.

But why should it be? After all, Trump’s entire narrative is both suspect and self-serving. Trump declares himself to be the best negotiator, the best deal-maker, a self-made man, a billionaire, author of the best-selling business book of all time, uniquely smart and driven and good. And none of that’s remotely true. He’s a fabulist, a weaver of tales. A BS artist, and a con man. A liar and a fraud. The Seth Rich story serves Trump’s purposes. Was he involved in creating it? I don’t know, and that the guy who says he did is not someone with a lot of credibility. But maybe.

At the very least, we can see why Trump is having a hard time hiring a communications director. There were a great many people in the room when Trump re-wrote his son’s account of his Russian meeting. Some of them were advising against him doing that, but he’s Trump and did it anyway. Now it’s backfiring on him, as was inevitable. The sheer hubris and stupidity of both stories witness to their credibility. I wish that wasn’t true of the President. But, sadly, it is.