M y first face-to-face encounter with the federal bureaucracy came on January 22, 2001. I was the deputy director of a “parachute team” for incoming president George W. Bush, and our job was to “secure the beachhead” at the Department of Labor on the first day of the new administration. (The political realm loves to borrow military metaphors.) That meant stopping the department from issuing guidance, rules, and statements that reflected the views of the departing Clinton administration. The most important tactical objective in this mission, we were told, was this: Secure the fax machine! (It was 2001, after all.) At that time, there was one specially designated fax machine used to send new regulatory language to the Federal Register, which publishes all newly minted regulations. There was a bureaucrat I’ll call Mitchell Sykes whose job it was to man that fax machine. We were to find Sykes and stop him from doing anything.1
We were barely in the door when the cultural differences between the federal bureaucracy and the rest of America became apparent. We arrived at 8 a.m. The vast majority of career officials, we learned, did not arrive at 8 a.m. So we had trouble finding Mitchell Sykes. We began asking around and were met with shrugs and unknowing looks. The director of the parachute team began to grow agitated. His face reddened, his voice rose, and he slammed the table once or twice. Finally, well after 10, more than two hours after we had first arrived, we were told that Mitchell Sykes was outside our office. With great anticipation, we looked to the door to catch our first glimpse of the all-powerful bureaucratic potentate, the man who controlled the entire Federal Register for the $12 billion, 17,000-strong behemoth called the Department of Labor. And in walked…a nebbish. Balding, bespectacled, with J.C. Penney slacks hiked up above his waist. In a somewhat high-pitched voice, he introduced himself: “Hi, I’m Mitchell.”
The parachute team director looked at him and hesitated a moment, wondering if this could really be the man we were seeking, then asked, “Are you Mitchell Sykes?”
“Yes,” he responded meekly.
The director said: “I want you to stop sending all regulations to the Federal Register right now.”
“OK,” Sykes squeaked.
This was my first introduction to the challenges of the federal bureaucracy. Trying to get anything done requires knowing the pulse points and the people—and then crossing your fingers that they can or will comply. Of course, as a conservative from the think tank world, I had heard tales of the liberal bias of career officials. The skepticism about the ideological motivations of career officials was a subset of a larger conservative skepticism about the administrative state. Steven Hayward sums up this attitude nicely in his new book Patriotism Is Not Enough: “That bureaucratic government is the partisan instrument of the Democratic Party is the most obvious, yet least remarked upon, trait of our time.”
Well over 99 percent of the 2 million-plus people working in the federal government are career officials. Even in the White House, where the president has far more say over personnel, career officials dominate: Of the 1,800 or so people who work for the Executive Office of the President, approximately two-thirds of them are career.Transition briefers had warned us of the practice of “burrowing in.” This term refers to the maneuver by political officials at the end of an administration to shift their jobs into the career civil service, thereby securing lifetime tenure and allowing them to advance their ideological agendas or simply impede needed reforms. Early on, we saw a shameless attempt at burrowing in at the Department of Labor in the person of the woman who had been Labor Secretary Alexis Herman’s chief of staff. She tried to convince us that she was sympathetic to the incoming administration. Knowing that I had worked for Missouri Senator John Ashcroft, she told me that they worshipped at the same church. I was unconvinced, as was the savvy Labor secretary for whom I worked, Elaine Chao, now Donald Trump’s nominee as secretary of transportation. Later, but not that much later, we saw that the attempted burrower had gone on to become chief of staff at the Democratic National Committee.
Another thing we learned about early on was the lifetime tenure rules–technically known as “civil-service protections.” These rules made it exceedingly difficult to fire even obstinate and uncooperative career officials. Walking through the building, we often saw people wearing “Bring Back Baxter” buttons. “Who is Baxter?” I asked. Apparently, Baxter was a career official at DOL. (He was also an officer with the local union for government employees.) During the Clinton administration, Baxter came to believe he did not have to work on departmental business in order to receive his taxpayer-funded paycheck. When he was challenged by Department officials, he threw a tantrum, became abusive, and continued to refuse to do governmental work. To their credit, President Clinton’s political appointees began the hard and painstaking work of building a case against Baxter that would enable them to fire him. (There are indeed mechanisms for dismissing federal employees, but they are arduous and subject to review and being overturned.) After a number of years, the Clinton Department of Labor brought the case and fired the man. Baxter and the local union ginned up protests, distributed the buttons, and filed an appeal. An arbitrator ruled against the Department, and Baxter returned to the office, secure in the knowledge that he would never have to do a stitch of work in exchange for his government paycheck. He was now truly untouchable, unaccountable, and bureaucratically invincible.
The appearance of the Baxter Buttons was also a message for the incoming political team. If the Democratic Clinton administration had failed to get Baxter, there was no way the Republican Bush administration would be able to pursue and win a similar case. As one of my colleagues, a senior political administrator, recalled, the ugly memory of the Baxter case continued to resonate, as his attempts to make personnel shifts were made more difficult by the fear of losing another Baxter-like battle.
Then of course there were the infamous stories of laziness or incompetence. Most everyone in the political world has heard about officials who never show up for work, who have full-time jobs at big-box stores while they are on the government clock, or who can be found most afternoons during the working day at the local pub. I cannot testify to whether these stories are true or not, only that political officials hear and share them all the time. The stories range from the appalling to the ridiculous. Sometimes it can be hard to tell which. One friend of mine named Susan regaled us with the tale of a career receptionist at the Department of Health and Human Services who never passed messages her way, because she was unaware that calls directed to “Sue” were indeed meant for Susan. Very patiently, Susan had her assistant write “Sue is short for Susan” on a sticky note and affix it to her desk. The calls finally began to flow.
Well over 99 percent of the 2 million-plus people working in the federal government are career officials. Even in the White House, where the president has far more say over personnel, career officials dominate: Of the 1,800 or so people who work for the Executive Office of the President, approximately two-thirds of them are career. The vast majority of people working at the largest offices within the EOP—the Office of Management and Budget, the National Security Council, and the U.S. Trade Representative’s office—are career officials.
Many are dedicated professionals who work long hours and are extremely knowledgeable in their areas. This is especially true in the White House, where career officials tend to be the best of the best, hard-working and talented. But it is also true among the highest echelons at most departments, the SES, or Senior Executive Service. Top career officials I worked with at HHS could have made vastly more money working in the private sector but chose to dedicate significant portions of their careers to public service. The political scientist John DiIulio has written a thoughtful book, Bring Back the Bureaucrats, arguing that we need more, not fewer, career officials, to accomplish all of the tasks that Congress has assigned to the administrative state. Regardless of whether you accept his argument, it is clear that career officials do dominate the federal government, and presidential administrations need to take that into account. To be a successful political appointee, you had best learn not only how to work with, but also how to get the most from, career officials.
As for the question of bias, which generally dominates Republican thinking on the question of career officials, it is true that career federal officials are more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. A 2015 poll found that 44 percent of federal employees were Democrats or Democratic leaning, as compared with 40 percent who were Republican or Republican leaning. Senior-level federal officials, with whom top politicals would have the most interaction, were even more Democratic-leaning, by a 48 to 40 margin. And of course, people in the D.C. metropolitan area tend to be even more liberal, meaning that D.C.-based career officials are coming from a more liberal pool of individuals. So it is safe to say that most of the career officials that politicals encounter will be more likely to be Democrats than Republicans. At the same time, the numbers also suggest that while the preference exists, it is not necessarily overwhelming.
In my experience, this likelihood of Democratic lever-pulling does not, however, mean that most career officials bring their political predilections into the carrying out of their duties at work. But some do, and they can do a lot of damage. Lois Lerner and her partisan allies at the Internal Revenue Service appeared all too eager (and able) to quickly execute the Obama administration’s bidding to withhold preferred tax treatment from conservative organizations. But this outrageous and infuriating series of incidents was such a big deal precisely because it was such a blatant example of what career officials should not be doing. And there are certain offices, such as the Division of Civil Rights at the Justice Department, that tend to openly collaborate with Democratic administrations and resist working with Republican administrations. This office covers some of the most contentious issues, including voting rights, hate-crime prosecutions, allegations of police bias, and transgender rights. The prospect of an incoming Trump administration has some officials musing in the press about a possible “exodus” of career staff from that challenging division.O ffices like Lerner’s at the IRS or Civil Rights at Justice, I believe, are exceptions—troubling exceptions, to be sure, but not indicative of the overall relationship between politicals and careers government-wide. There have been many occasions when careers resist excessive action by Democrats and support proposals coming from a Republican president. They may like the Democrats better on the whole. Few would deny that. But to the extent that career officials display a bias in the transmission of their duties, it tends to be not in favor of their political parties but instead in favor of the prerogatives of their agency.
What does this mean? Career officials do not want to see their agencies embarrassed and so will typically resist or argue against actions that can be seen to discredit or harm the reputations of their agencies. They do not want to see the power of their agencies diminished, so they will resist actions that favor another agency over their own. And they believe in the mission of their agencies, so they want the agencies to continue carrying out that mission.
This bias in favor of the prerogatives of an agency does have practical consequences. Someone who signs up to work for the Environmental Protection Agency is more likely to support robust regulation of coal production than, say, someone who works at a conservative think tank. But they also might be resistant to overly aggressive and costly regulations that might lead to criticism of the agency in the Wall Street Journal or, worse from their perspective, the Washington Post. Furthermore, while the EPA official may be more likely to be a liberal, the official at the Pentagon or the Department of Homeland Security might have a more Republican-friendly approach because of job-related insights into national-security threats. Some of these officials may be sympathetic to President Trump’s law-and-order views and tough-on-terror stance. They may also have been frustrated with Obama’s more weak-kneed approaches to these issues.
Donald Trump is a different kind of president from the type we have seen previously. He is blunter and brasher and generally more hostile to the way things are done in Washington. In addition, the opposition to Trump is more adamant, and even perhaps more unhinged, than at any point in the modern age.Above all, career officials have a healthy and realistic sense that Republican and Democratic administrations are different and bring different characteristics with them. I recall one career official in an agency security office who told me that the incoming Obama administration officials were likely to have sexual and narcotic histories that could make it difficult for them to obtain security clearances. When I responded with a knowing smile, he told me that I should not get too cocky: “You guys,” he said, referring to Republicans, “get tripped up for shady business practices.”
This sort of back-and-forth is typical during changes of administration. Career officials are savvy bureaucratic maneuverers. They understand that Republicans come into power looking to reduce the size of government, while Democrats seek to expand its regulatory reach. They have plans and option papers and briefing books on the shelf prepared for Republican administrations and for Democratic ones alike. They are happy to tell political appointees which ideas have been tried before, and why they failed, and perhaps even how they could be made to succeed. Certainly, some will leak, but so will some politicals. And some will cooperate more than others. But for the most part, experienced politicals know who careers are, what they do, and how to work with them. Some meetings of a political nature should of course be held without career officials in the room, but it’s a mistake to shut them out of all meetings. As imperfect and generally pro-Leviathan as the arrangement is, both careers and politicals typically know the score, and there is a generally understood détente among them.
The question for 2017 is whether this détente will hold.D onald Trump is a different kind of president from the type we have seen previously. He is blunter and brasher and generally more hostile to the way things are done in Washington. In addition, the opposition to Trump is more adamant, and even perhaps more unhinged, than at any point in the modern age. This hostility to Trump may reshape the relations between career and political officials in a way that could affect the ability of Trump to carry out his ambitious agenda.
There is some evidence for this notion that things may be different this time. A poll in February 2016 showed that one-quarter of career officials careers would consider quitting their jobs if Trump secured the presidency. Still, 67 percent said they would remain in place, which is not surprising given the lifetime tenure of these jobs. These positions are not given up easily. Furthermore, the promises of those who would consider quitting in the face of a political event they opposed should be taken with a grain of salt. The long line of cars driving north along the I-5 from Hollywood to Canada has not yet materialized, for example.
There were indications of bureaucratic resistance to the legitimately elected president during the transition period. In one Politico piece, career officials at HHS were disturbingly candid about their disdain for President-elect Trump, while at the same time protecting themselves in the veil of anonymity. One told reporter Dan Diamond that “it’s tough from the career staff side,” before asking, “Do you stay and try and be the internal saboteur?” Another called the Trump win “obviously shocking and upsetting,” a third “soul crushing.” One of the staffers quoted paid lip service to the fact that they “respect the need to have a peaceful transition of power,” but added that “it’s just frustrating to calmly hand over the keys when you know they’ll wreck the car.” Politico’s Blake Hounsell quoted one anonymous, presumably career, official lamenting the appointment of ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson at the State Department: “I’ve been resisting the urge to drink since 7 a.m., when I read the news.”
Diamond noted in his story that the older, more senior career HHS officials he spoke to were “more sanguine,” having seen transitions in the past. It’s possible, therefore, to say that the less judicious individuals were just venting and will come into line come the inauguration. But it’s also possible that these younger staffers may represent the new face of a more partisan career bureaucracy. First, the overtness of the career officials cited was alarming, especially given how careful they typically are. Second, Diamond points out that there are 1,000 HHS officials who “can trace their jobs back to Obamacare.” Presumably, these individuals will be most resistant to repealing and replacing Obamacare, the stated policy of the new president. And finally, the open speculation from a career official, even if anonymous, about serving as an “internal saboteur” should raise alarm bells among not only incoming political officials but also career employees, whose jobs are directly tied to their ability to work with, and generate the trust of, political appointees.
Another worrisome portent was open resistance to what should have been viewed as routine requests. Trump’s transition team posed a list of questions to different departments regarding the agencies’ activities in recent years. Such questions are standard operating procedure, and transition teams of both parties present them to agencies during transition as a matter of course. As part of this process, the Trump team asked which career staffers at EPA and the Department of Energy were involved in climate-change policy. These questions made their way into the press and led to hyperbolic headlines such as “Trump team’s demands fuel fear of Energy Department ‘witch hunt.’”
Something similar happened at the State Department, where a request to disclose teams working on gender issues led to similar hysterical headline. The State Department agreed to the request, only because the query asked for position titles, not names, of those involved. The Energy Department, however, actually refused to supply the names of the career officials involved in such activities. This decision was presumably made by political, not career, officials, and it called into question President Obama’s pledge of his full cooperation with the transition. It also sent a powerful message to the career officials: Their resistance to legitimate requests would be largely ignored, and possibly lauded, by the mainstream media.
One other potential difference between previous political-career interactions and the current one is the level of controversy regarding the issues Trump highlighted in his campaign. Candidate Trump ran on repealing Obamacare, combating political correctness, and law and order. Many career officials in these agencies have seen their mission in opposite terms—they were tasked with promoting the Affordable Care Act, maintaining speech regimes on campus, and creating new guidance on how to monitor allegations of racism by police officers. This discrepancy, coupled with then President-elect Trump’s calls to initiate a hiring freeze for federal workers, led to a Washington Post report about federal agencies rushing to fill any possible vacancies before the January 20th turnover. Presumably these new hires would not only get in before a hiring freeze, but also share the Obama administration’s perspective on these hot-button issues.
So it is fair to assume that the mistrust between politicals and careers will be higher in this new administration than in previous administrations. It certainly seems possible that the intransigence of the career officials could be more significant to efforts of the incoming administration than in previous changes of power. If so, the Trump team, already convinced of the hostility of the establishment, may be even warier than a typical GOP political team.
Should there be this kind of open dislike of the Trump politicals by career officials, how might that manifest itself? The careers have a number of tools they might employ. One is the leak. Career officials often have good ties to the media who cover their department, and they know how to get a message out. In addition, stories leaked against a Republican administration are often taken at face value and hyped by both the media and the opposition party. Sometimes leaked charges lead to investigations, many of which are spurious.
Leaking is noisome but ultimately not that effective. When I was serving at the Department of Labor, a particular Washington Post columnist had a knack for getting marginally embarrassing scoops about the international travel of political officials. After the second or third time it happened, it became pretty clear from which office the leaks were emanating. The solution was to limit access to people from that office. This might have the impact of keeping non-leakers out of the loop along with the actual perpetrator, but it was better than foolishly handing a hostile columnist more grist for his attacks. Career officials are generally not happy about being excluded from their official duties, and therefore will have an in-built incentive to put their own pressure on the leaker to knock it off.
Another tactic is “slow walking” policies to which career officials object. This can work for a time, and on certain projects, but it also becomes obvious fairly quickly what is happening. Political leaders have tools with which to combat intentionally dilatory behavior. Senior politicals do annual reviews for careers, and these reviews affect bonuses and salary increases. Politicals also have some say over assignments and placement. An obstinate employee can’t be fired, as we have seen, but can be offered a job at the same level in North Dakota or another distant state. This does not have to be done too often before the word spreads that the politicals know how to use the tools at their disposal and that they are willing to employ them.
A third tactic careers can use is resignation. This is of mixed utility. Politicals, especially in the Trump administration, may see the resignation of a resistant employee as an opportunity, both to get rid of a problem and to hire someone more cooperative. The civil-service rules may make it hard to fire someone unsympathetic to the president, but they do allow some leeway to hire people who are friendly. This ability to shape the incoming career hires may in fact be one of the reasons that, following eight years of Obama, many career officials may be resistant to the incoming administration. In addition, while one or two people might resign, organizing a mass resignation from civil-service jobs that effectively grant lifetime employment and generous benefits is unlikely. The truth is that some career folks may grumble, or leak, or privately seethe, but it is unlikely that they will be able to stop an administration from accomplishing its major administrative priorities.
What this account should reveal, beyond some minimal amusement, is that the career officials are just part of the playing field. They don’t make it impossible for Republicans to accomplish anything, and they don’t necessarily make it easy. They are a factor all incoming administrations need to deal with. Unwise administrations come in and go on hunts for burrowed-in officials, shut out careers from all decisions, and generally try to do the work of thousands of career officials with a handful of political appointees, many of whom have little experience with the agency in question. HHS has a workforce of 70,000, with only about 150 political appointees. It is impossible to get much done unless the politicals let the career officials do their jobs under the direction of the senior political leadership.
If a new political team is thoughtful and knows what it is doing, it can get a lot done. As a former senior political head of administration at a cabinet department told me, “When you get in, you take some time, you get rid of the bad apples.” This does not mean dismissing them, of course. The Baxter case described above demonstrates the folly of that approach. But there are tools wise administrators can use to elevate cooperative officials and move aside obstinate ones. This does not entail making the decisions based on ideology or partisan affiliation. It does mean looking at the willingness of the officials to do the legitimate tasks they are assigned to do.
If the Trump administration heeds these lessons, it can accomplish much in four or possibly eight years. Perhaps not as much as promised in the heat of a campaign—few administrations can—but still a great deal. But to do so requires coming to grips with what the career bureaucracy is, what is isn’t, and how an incoming administration can best deal with it.
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Will There Be An Internal Revolt Against Trump?
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Civic propriety vs the people.
Donald Trump’s critics are becoming more strategic. Democrats who contend that the left should be more selective with what they chose to become outraged over have been winning the argument. Most influential Republicans in and out of elected office stifle their criticisms of the president lest they anger the majority of their constituents who support him. These are sound political strategies, but they leave us with a conundrum. Just because it is politically imprudent to condemn Donald Trump’s divisive impulses doesn’t mean that those impulses are unworthy of criticism. Indeed, even at the risk of sacrificing political capital, Trump’s reckless rhetorical flourishes must be called out for what they are if the country’s humane and republican character is to be preserved.
Last week, Donald Trump was brazenly taken out of context by a handful of media outlets when he called criminal migrants subject to deportation “animals.” The president’s detractors suggested that he was referring to all undocumented immigrants, while Donald Trump’s defenders insist that he was only and obviously referring to the vicious El Salvadoran gang MS-13. Watch the clip for yourself; the president is, as ever, not particularly specific. That ambiguity has proven a strategic asset for Trump. The president and his political operation claim that those who take issue with his remarks are defending a gang of murderous thugs. That tactic is thoughtlessly cynical. Though it is surely common parlance to refer to violent criminals as “animals” and “not human” as the president did, it is also not language we should countenance in a responsible statesman.
There is enough scholarly literature and social science on the effect of dehumanizing rhetoric from political leaders on their respective societies for any conservative with a proper fear of the state to find Trump’s remarks disturbing. Throughout history and across wildly distinct cultures, such language from public officials has prepared the way for social unrest and, ultimately, statist oppression. This is hardly the first time Trump has described criminal immigrants as beasts and implied that individual immigrants were incapable of any independent thought that contradicts their ethnicity’s hive mind. And we have reason to fear the extent to which this kind of rhetoric has greased the skids for inhumane policies that are happening right before our eyes.
The New York Times reported in late April that the Department of Health and Human Services has lost track of nearly 1,500 migrant children who were separated from their parents or were apprehended alone after they crossed the border illegally. They have simply fallen off the radar, prompting concerns that these children could end up in the custody of abusers or human traffickers. Hundreds of children have been separated from their parents at the border, which is a practice that is often legitimate and predates the Trump administration. What is new is that the Trump administration has openly floated the idea of breaking up families as a means of deterring future illegal immigration. The process would be entirely humane, said White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, because HHS does “a very, very good job of putting them in foster care or linking them up with parents or family members in the United States.” Clearly, that is not the case.
What’s more, the process to which illegal migrant parents are subjected is disturbing. No human being could fail to be moved by the all-too-common story of a young mother, forced to wear a yellow bracelet that identifies her as an illegal immigrant parent, weeping in an American courtroom as she is separated from her children. This is not “ordered liberty” or the dispassionate conduct of the affairs of a state. It’s capricious and vengeful, and it is corrupting of the soul. Donald Trump isn’t responsible for a mentality on the right that views this kind of treatment as a necessary evil to which any self-respecting country must appeal; he’s a product of it.
The idea shared by some on the right that even modest comforts for border-crossers are an unacceptable indulgence was evident as early as 2014. That sentiment surfaced in response to broadcaster Glenn Beck who, amid a surge crossing the border in the summer of 2014, sent meals and toys to the border. Some on the right reacted to this act of charity as if he had personally vaulted migrant children over the border fence.
“[H]e is helping the illegals out, how is that different than giving their parents jobs here?” asked Ohio Rep. Andrew Brenner. He added that there is a reason why anyone who “feeds, gives shelter, water and food to illegals” is violating the law: “basic economics.” Breitbart’s John Nolte insisted that Beck’s charity would be exploited by “drug smugglers and human traffickers” to “recruit more” parents of small children to make the hazardous trip north. He added that the affairs of these migrants, their deportation, and whatever relief they are provisioned, should be the exclusive province of the state. But not all on the right were comfortable with even government-provided relief efforts. In a speech at the height of the crisis, former Vice Presidential nominee Sarah Palin attacked the “incentives and invitations” that have transformed America into an “unfunded charity” for illegal immigrants, forcing the “forgotten man” to compete for lower wages and fewer opportunities.
Most of the right’s influential voices recognized this humanitarian tragedy and demanded a compassionate response, but that sentiment was not universal. For some, even the smallest kindness represented a display of weakness that would only be exploited. For the sake of the country, they told themselves, the instinct toward human compassion must be subdued. Two years later, the Republican Party’s primary process became a competition to establish who could prove they were the most uncompromising when it came to illegal migrants. With unconstitutional citizen watch lists, amendments to the founding charter designed to end birthright citizenship, mass deportation squads, and a plan to seize bank records to prevent the transmission of cash overseas, Trump won that contest with ease. To Trump’s supporters, these were mere positioning statements, unworkable as policy but valuable as an expression of his commitment to enforcing immigration law. But Trump’s actions as president—from the pardoning of the scofflaw Joe Arpaio to warrantless immigration raids—suggest that this isn’t about the law at all.
Surely, most Americans do not see what’s wrong with Donald Trump’s expressions of populist fervor. They might agree that violent criminal migrants deserve to be called animals and that those NFL players, mostly African Americans, who refuse to stand for the flag should self-deport. But civic propriety is often in conflict with the kind of bombast that would be at home in a bar or on talk radio. The ideal head of government in a republic of laws cools passions and tempers prejudices. Donald Trump has done just the opposite, and that is a tragedy of which we all must take stock. History will remember those who looked away.
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Cut bait while there's still line.
Nearly three months ago, Donald Trump reaffirmed his status as a maverick who’s liberated from the conventions that shackled past presidents by giving a North Korean despot something North Korean despots have sought for decades. Today, the planned bilateral summit between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un has collapsed. In the intervening weeks, those conventions of which Trump is so disdainful demonstrated their value.
In retrospect, it is a marvel that the prospect of a summit between the American president and the scion of the Communist dynasty in Pyongyang was taken so seriously. Initially, it took Donald Trump a whopping 45 minutes to accept Kim’s overture. In that timeframe, surely complex matters such as American grand strategy, Kim’s domestic position, our complex and conflicting regional alliances, and achievable objectives got short shrift.
Expectations for the summit were unreasonably high almost from the outset. Those high hopes were made physically manifest in the form of 500 collector’s coins commemorating the presumably historic event. For a time, though, those expectations did not seem entirely fanciful.
North Korea’s openness to secret contacts with Trump administration officials, including the CIA director and vice president, were welcome changes of heart. When Trump tweeted about Pyongyang’s willingness to denuclearize, North Korea did not correct him. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea even appeared to drop its opposition to military drills on the Peninsula and the U.S. military presence in South Korea. Mutual concessions seemed to mark the start of a new era. For a time, progress seemed possible. But that progress was only illusory.
This week, North Korea formally closed its nuclear test site. But North Korea’s test site collapsed in October of last year, taking as many as 200 trained professionals with it. Closing a defunct installation isn’t much of a concession. Nor, for that matter, is the surrender of American hostages. Indeed, the only reason to take hostages is to be able to give them up in a negotiation to generate concessions from your interlocutor without having surrendered anything of strategic value. The “peace treaty” that South Korea negotiated with North Korea is likely invalid because the U.S. and China—both parties to the 1953 cease-fire—were not part of the process. Recently, North Korea has rediscovered its opposition to military drills on the peninsula and its commitment to maintaining a nuclear arsenal, and communications between Washington and Pyongyang had broken down. The only thing the two parties agreed upon after ten weeks of preparatory work was on the summit itself. That is a recipe for disaster.
With no clarity on core objectives, the best that anyone could have hoped for from this summit was amicable ambiguity. But the more likely scenario was confusion, mutual hostility, and the closing off of lines of communication. It was a mark of maturity for the president to cut his losses before any irreplaceable American interests were sacrificed. That is, after all, how summits like these tend to end.
There are not many historical examples of bilateral summitry between two hostile powers, but the examples that we have to draw lessons from are not encouraging.
“I have never been so proud of my President as I have been in these sessions and particularly this afternoon,” Secretary of State George Schultz told reporters moments after Ronald Reagan’s summit with Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, failed. Schultz put a positive spin on this summit’s failure, just as Reagan officials had the year earlier when a similar meeting at Geneva, Switzerland, did not produce anything other than an exchange of familiarities. But Reagan’s expectations for the summit were not met, and we are all better off as a result. As I wrote in April:
Had Reagan succeeded on his terms, the deal struck between the two powers in Iceland would have badly strained American relations with its nuclear-armed European allies and provided an economic lifeline to Moscow that might have postponed the Soviet Union’s implosion. In retrospect, the president’s willingness to walk away from the table set the stage for one of the most astonishing events of the 20th Century: the peaceful end of the Cold War and the fall of European communism.
The perils of a failed summit have proved all too real. John F. Kennedy’s 1961 meeting with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, Austria, stands as a warning to headstrong presidents seeking to leave their mark on the world. Kennedy studied closely the cataclysmic miscalculations made in Munich in 1939 and believed himself capable of avoiding the traps into which Neville Chamberlain had fallen, but he made his own unique mistakes. The young president allowed himself to be harangued by Khrushchev, which left the Soviet leader convinced of his weakness. “It was just a disaster,” said Assistant Secretary of State Paul Nitze. “I’m scared to death about what will happen next.” His trepidation was warranted. Within two months, Khrushchev ordered the walling in of East Berliners. One year after that, Soviet high command approved the deployment of nuclear missiles to Cuba, touching off the most dangerous nuclear crisis the world has ever known.
The collapse of a fraught summit between the leader of the free world and the abhorrent head of one of the world’s most repulsive regimes does not signal the end of diplomacy. Indeed, it is a hopeful sign; a failed summit between the two countries’ principals might have closed off pathways to further negotiations. Negotiations between functionaries at lower governmental levels do not carry that risk.
Nor should Western diplomatic professionals worry that Trump has undermined Kim’s domestic position to the point that he will have to adopt a more confrontational posture and appease his regime’s hardline elements. A confrontational North Korea is the status quo ante; not optimal, but not an unknown quantity either. From Soviet generals to the Iranian mullahs, Westerners are frequently in thrall to the idea that a given interlocutor is surely preferable to uncompromising alternatives waiting in the wings. That is the appeaser’s construct. A deal that preserves the longevity of this criminal regime without a verifiable and long-term solution to the threat that a summit is designed to address is far worse than no summit at all.
Trump deserves credit both for being open to outside-the-box solutions to the crisis on the Korean Peninsula and for recognizing when it was time to cut his losses on a bad idea. In the end, if maximum pressure on Pyongyang, Beijing, Moscow, and the rest of the rogues who support this disgraceful state convinces the Kim regime to make some hard choices about its survival, Trump may actually deserve that Nobel Prize.
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Podcast: The DPRK and the NFL.
The Trump-Kim meeting is off, and the question is this: If the announcement of thawing relations with North Korea helped Trump’s approval rating, will this hurt or harm it? And why won’t Trump trumpet the bipartisan legislative successes of the past few weeks? Give a listen.
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The great American novel.
Why won’t the child just listen? Why won’t she come to reason? Where did I do wrong with her?
Parents of difficult children have asked themselves such questions since time immemorial. For all of modern psychology’s advances, today’s parents are no more likely to have good answers than did their forebears a hundred or a thousand years ago. Indeed, modernity itself has compounded the ancient problem, by breaking taboos around honoring mother and father and spawning new reasons for children to rebel against parental order that would have been inconceivable under premodern conditions.
This tangle of themes is at the heart of Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, perhaps the darkest and most acrid novel about parenting in all of American letters.
Roth, who died Tuesday at age 85, never had children. Yet he wrote perceptively and with great empathy for Seymour “the Swede” Levov, the novel’s protagonist, whose love for his daughter, Merry, knows no bounds and is utterly unrequited. Handsome, affable, responsible, and wealthy, the Swede does everything right by the standards of the midcentury American bourgeoisie. He manages a successful enterprise, procures a trophy wife, owns a tasteful estate in the Jersey suburbs, and fathers a girl who brings ruin to it all. There is a rage within Merry, which, as she grows older, explodes (quite literally) in political radicalism before she smothers her inner flames under Far-Eastern asceticism.
Why does Merry go wrong? What is the source of her rage? She isn’t as beautiful as her mother, Dawn, for starters. Dawn is vapid and cold, and she holds Merry as a judgment against her husband; their marriage is loveless. Then there is Merry’s severe stuttering, which speech therapy fails to alleviate for many years. The Swede’s love doesn’t suffice to overcome these natural disadvantages. Nor can the father’s love keep away the ferment and collective rage roiling America in the late 1960s: race riots, assassinations, all manner of sexual and cultural degradation. Merry is disordered because disorder is in the American air she breathes.
So it is that, five years after Merry commits a Weather Underground-style terrorist attack in the name of stopping the American war machine in Vietnam, the Swede finds Merry living in an almost animal-like state on the streets of Newark. Merry is now a fanatical Jainist, filthy and wafer-thin. Having committed bloody acts of terror, she has now adopted the opposite extreme–total pacifism, veganism–perhaps as a form of expiation. The father-daughter exchange that follows makes for excruciating reading for anyone who has ever loved a child:
“You’re not my daughter. You’re not Merry.”
“If you wish to believe that I am not, that may be just as well. It may be for the best.”
“Why don’t you ask me about your mother, Meredith? Should I ask you? Where was your mother born? What is her maiden name? What is her father’s name?
“I don’t want to talk about my mother.”
“Because you know nothing about her. Or about me. Or about the person you pretend to be. . . . Tell me why you’re pretending to be my daughter!”
“If I answer the questions, you will suffer even more. I don’t know how much suffering you want.”
Though set in the turbulent 1960s, American Pastoral has a striking contemporaneity. We, too, are living through an age of intense intergenerational conflict. Today’s aging Boomers are as mystified by the zeal for abstract justice and romantic politics among the young as Roth’s Swede is by Merry’s Marxist and Jainist turns. True, Millennials aren’t, for the most part, setting off bombs at post offices and police stations.
But they mob their professors, ruthlessly discipline and punish their peers online, and take up all manner of secular substitute religions, from mindfulness to “clean eating” to identity politics. They are hungry for order and solidarity and transcendence. Their parents, who only know how to fight battles of cultural and sexual liberation, are no more capable of nourishing that hunger than the feckless, well-intentioned, all-too-sensible Swede.
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Both sides of the issue.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is “appalled.”
Crowned the “free world’s best hope” in 2017 by Rolling Stone, Trudeau has, since then, cut his foreign policy chops: heavy on gender equality, feminism, environmentalism and relatively light on security and geopolitics. He fancies soft-lens moments when he can tear up on cue, fun parades, dress-up extravaganzas and breezy feel-good stuff, all of which is reflected in his photo-posturing and official statements. His election slogan, when running against PM Harper in the 2015 federal election, was to promote “sunny ways.”
This naïve cheer has yet to resonate in the Middle East and, in particular along the Israel-Gaza border. Since withdrawing from the Gaza Strip in 2006, Israel has watched the Dante-esque destruction of what was a robust economy. Under Hamas rule, the Strip has become a theocratic terrorist state. Significant sums of foreign cash donated to develop and support civilian infrastructure are diverted to build terror tunnels, pay terrorist salaries, and produce of all manner of weapons. Incitement to violence against Jews and Israelis is fierce, endemic, and unrestrained. And every so often, a full-blown war breaks out.
Perhaps unaware of the long, complex, tragic backstory, Trudeau blasted Israel in a statement issued on May 16: “Canada deplores and is gravely concerned by the violence in the Gaza Strip that has led to a tragic loss of life and injured countless people.”
He pulls no punches, focusing on one individual who was injured in both legs by Israeli sniper fire at the border: “We are appalled that Dr. Tarek Loubani, a Canadian citizen, is among the wounded–along with so many unarmed people, including civilians, members of the media, first responders, and children.” For a leader who crows about his strong, principle-based support for Israel this is quite the invective. What seems to have stoked his previously dormant ire is the fact that Dr. Loubani was injured by Israeli fire on Monday, May 14, which was a very busy day: the 70th anniversary of the declaration of the state of Israel; the official ceremony opening the American Embassy in Jerusalem; and “Naqba” or “Disaster” Day, commemorated each year by Palestinians.
Each Friday since March, Hamas has staged a “March of Return” at multiple locations along the border fence. Billed as a “peaceful protest,” crowds tend to swell to the tens of thousands following midday prayers, during which Imams fire up the men to annihilate the Zionist occupiers and restore Palestinian and Arab honor.
Hamas recruits protest participants onto buses waiting outside mosques, throwing in financial incentives for attending, hoping to draw women and children as “extras” in this macabre, serial event. Many of the men show up with knives, Molotov cocktails, wire cutters, and other weapons and incendiary devices. A recent innovation is fire kites, which are launched and intended to burn Israeli farmers’ fields, and do. Pyres of car tires are lit, creating a dense, black, toxic screen to provide cover for physical border breaches and confuse Israeli snipers.
These “peaceful” protesters boast openly about their violent intentions, parroting Hamas leaders who, aside from one or two brief cameos well back from the fence, tuck away in their fortified bunkers under Shifa Hospital in Gaza City and other safe havens in the Strip.
Hamas leaders have exhorted these “peaceful” protesters to tear down the border fence and then proceed to remove various bodily organs from Israelis they kill and eat them. They tell Gazans, and anyone paying attention, of their intention to foment chaos at the border. Ideally, the smoke and confusion would facilitate a goal they commend openly: the capture of one or more Israeli soldiers, and, if things go particularly well, perhaps a murderous romp in one of the many civilian villages within a few hundred meters of the border.
For those martyred in this jihad to murder Jews and destroy Israel, Hamas assures, there is an exalted place in Paradise.
Now, all this bluster may sound and seem “peaceful” to PM Trudeau, but it is quite the opposite. There have been multiple fence breaches by terrorists armed with more and less crude weapons. It isn’t necessary to have a tank to kill. Knives, meat cleavers and grenades do the trick, as Israelis know well. This is Hamas, for goodness sake. Read their Charter. Follow their “media.” It’s all there. Zero ambiguity. And they mean it.
Why, Trudeau must be asking, does the IDF not resort to less extreme measures? Live ammunition, he has surely been briefed, is a last resort. Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Water cannons. Even leaflets, social media announcements and radio broadcasts warning people to stay well back from the border—all have been ineffective. And, for that, there is one reason: Hamas. Trudeau’s rage would more appropriately be directed at Hamas incitement, disregard for civilians and commitment to a hateful, murderous ideology.
And what about the “blockade” of Gaza, attributed solely to Israel? Reality check: Egypt enforces a much stricter blockade on the Strip, allowing almost nothing through. Israel, on the other hand, permits passage of truckloads of goods daily: medical supplies, food, even “dual use” materials like cement, gasoline and tires, which are more often than not taken for civilians and allocated to terrorist infrastructure.
Twice in recent weeks, “peaceful” protestors have torched the border checkpoint in Israel for the transfer of goods. It is destroyed.
The Gaza-Israel border is very hostile. Hamas has, in the last decade or so, dug 32 terror tunnels—complete with AC and internet wiring—with the sole intention of burrowing into Israel to launch murderous terror attacks. Jihad. This is not a nuanced struggle.
On this–all of this–Trudeau is silent.
Which brings us back to Dr. Loubani, the Canadian physician who has had at least one previous brush with misfortune in the region. During the protracted street violence in Egypt in 2013, following the coup in which General Sisi ousted Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsi, Dr. Loubani was in Cairo with a film professor from Toronto, who was also a strident anti-Israel activist. En route to Gaza to volunteer in a hospital, the travelers took a travel pause in Cairo. One afternoon, as they tell it, they happened, coincidentally, upon a large, violent demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Hundreds of protesters were arrested and jailed, among them the two Canadians.
Friends and family of the Canadian duo launched a vigorous public relations campaign to draw attention to their plight and pressure the Canadian government to advocate with Egypt for their release. They went out for a walk, their advocates said, and were enjoying ice cream cones. Before they knew it, were surrounded by mayhem. Once there, they felt compelled to administer first aid to injured protesters.
As they languished in prison, however, the initial version gave way to a more complex story. It seems that Loubani and his friend had sophisticated camera and recording equipment with them. Not necessarily eyebrow-raising for a film professor. More unusual, however, would be that they thought to grab the pro gear when heading out for a jet-lagged stroll to get ice cream. (And then there’s the small matter of military dictatorships tending to be sensitive about having violent rallies photographed.)
However, the really interesting part is what Loubani arranged to have his father share with the media while he was still in Cairo’s notorious Tora prison: that they were also in possession of drones. Why? To ferry medical supplies to and from hospitals in Gaza, of course. That drone twist certainly piques one’s interest. There is only one use for drones in the Gaza Strip, and it is neither peaceful nor in any way related to humanitarian or hospital work.
On Monday, May 14, Naqba Day to Palestinians, Dr. Loubani says that he was standing near the border among a cluster of orange-vested medics during a lull in the chaos. He was wearing green scrubs from the Ontario hospital where he works. After being injured by Israeli sniper fire in both legs, Loubani asserted that he was likely targeted by Israeli snipers. (The IDF advises that it is investigating the incident but has no specific information at the moment.)
In light of this backdrop, Trudeau continued to blast Israel: “Reported use of excessive force and live ammunition is inexcusable. It is imperative we establish the facts of what is happening in Gaza. Canada calls for an immediate independent investigation to thoroughly examine the facts on the ground—including any incitement violence and the excessive use of force.”
What we do know is that 50 of the 62 individuals killed that day at the border clash by Israeli sniper were Hamas operatives. We also know that Hamas regularly uses UNRWA schools, hospitals, and clearly marked ambulances to ferry fighters and weapons around the Strip. This is supported by documentary evidence collected over the years. Trudeau’s fury would be more appropriately directed at Hamas for its unconscionable leadership, encouraging extreme terrorist violence, and ongoing incitement against Jews and Israel. Hamas is, after all, listed as a terror organization in Canada and elsewhere for good reason.
The backlash to Trudeau’s statement was strong and quick. He seems, perhaps unwittingly, to have stumbled onto a hornet’s nest and turned to two Jewish MPs to clean up his mess—Michael Levitt and Anthony Housefather, representing electoral ridings in Toronto and Montreal, respectively, with large Jewish populations. They issued a peculiar statement. While not directly critical of the prime minister, they unequivocally condemned and held Hamas responsible for the deaths and injuries at border clashes.
It seems that Trudeau tapped two rookie Liberal MPs, of a total of 184 in his caucus, to be the fig leaves for what seems to be a rather bifurcated and confusing policy on Israel. Some observers speculate that Trudeau hopes to use this clumsy doublespeak to allow him to be “correct,” depending on where and how the chips fall. By dereliction, the prime minister has signaled that the Israel-Gaza issue is a “Jewish” one, as opposed to one of the most important geopolitical crises in the world. Hamas, like Hizballah, Syria, the Houthis, is yet another Iranian proxy. It is disturbing that two Jewish MPs, representing “Jewish” ridings, are the only ones in the Trudeau government speaking out in support of Israel.
On social media, Mr. Housefather, in particular, refers to Canada’s consistent pattern of supporting Israel in UN votes as clear evidence of the prime minister’s true support. Whereas UN votes are important, surely, so are Trudeau’s public comments explaining his support for Israel. He tends to express himself in a sweeping, imprecise manner, oft-repeating distaste for the obsessive bullying of Israel in international forums. All of which is laudable. And he likes to say things about what good friends Canada and Israel are, but that even good friends can, sometimes, disagree.
Indeed, and those are likely the lines he trotted out when he spoke on the telephone with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu one day after his written thrashing of Israel following the Loubani incident. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the exchange, but Trudeau issued a short readout on the call, reporting that he had expressed “thanks for the consular assistance Israel is providing . . . reaffirmed Canada’s call for a neutral process to ascertain how the actions of all the parties concerned . . . contributed to the events of May 14, including the reported incitement by Hamas . . .” And that they “agreed on the importance of addressing the economic crisis in Gaza and jointly affirmed the close and abiding friendship between Canada and Israel.”
In other words, PM Trudeau did nothing to walk back his perfervid criticism of Israel other than to acknowledge, as a possibility, “reported incitement by Hamas.” As if there is any doubt. What Prime Minister Trudeau does not say, in this case, is far more important than what he does.