Trump Will Reinvigorate NATO

In many precincts, there is this misleading suggestion that Donald Trump is backing off of America’s traditional support for NATO, a claim undermined by a reading of his actual position. Joint security pacts are only sustainable when all participants have security capabilities; Trump gets this. That is why NATO calls for each nation to spend 2% of GDP on defense to avoid free-riders. Otherwise, nations can rely on the defense capabilities of other nations. That isn’t collective security; it is one country providing a free, outsourced military for others.

Sadly, many nations are not spending the 2%, instead benefiting from the U.S. security umbrella without pulling their weight. That is unsustainable; even President Obama has called for more defense spending from NATO allies. Alliances, like personal friendships, are two-way streets. States like Estonia and Poland are meeting the minimum while those like Italy and Spain are in default. Italy, a wealthy country, spends less than 1% of GDP on defense. Germany, home to Europe’s top economy, is little better at a meager 1.2%. Relatively poor countries like Poland, Estonia, and Greece are meeting their NATO requirement while wealthy European states are gladly allowing their military to atrophy, enjoying a defense apparatus subsidized by the American taxpayer who is already carrying over $19 trillion in national debt.

Trump recognizes the 2% minimum is useless without enforcement mechanisms. Unless there are consequences for failing to spend 2% (either a fine or loss of membership), European nations will continue to ignore the requirement. Trump’s plan would simply put in penalties for falling short of 2% and would reinvigorate NATO. By forcing Europe to invest its military and thereby reconfirm its commitment to joint security, the alliance will be stronger and could more easily deter Russia. Putin sees a Europe with decaying powers and weak militaries; it is no wonder he is pursuing expansion. A weak Europe has given Putin room to expand, and by being lax on NATO enforcement, we have allowed Europe to weaken. Given NATO’s reliance on American power, we alone have the leverage to get the 23 members who inadequately invest in defense to meet their commitment. The result will be an energized NATO that makes Eastern Europe more not less safe.

Trump’s push for more NATO spending is the only way to stand up to Putin and protect our allies. Islamic terror, an Expansionist Russia, and a strengthening Iran are global problems. They require global responses. Europe should recognize this, especially after a string of terrorist attacks have hit Belgium, France, and now even Germany. Our current policy of blindly subsidizing many European powers has turned NATO from a collective defense pact into a bunch of nations free-riding on the US (and to a lesser extent the UK, Poland, Estonia, and Greece who are spending the 2%). Our European partners need to determine whether they want to help provide and enjoy collective security and meet their commitments.

Trump’s policy will return NATO to its original promise-a transatlantic alliance of democracies all providing for the security of each other. That will make NATO stronger and its collective defense mechanism more credible. Putin will no longer be able to devour the decaying carcass of Europe; instead, the Continent will be able to deter Putin and other aspiring powers like Russia and China. We can then deal with these nations from a position of strength, striking deals when possible and pushing back when necessary. America and the world will be better for it.

Advertisements

The State of the Union: Strong But Unsatisfactory

Later today, President Barack Obama will deliver his final State of the Union Address, filled with the typical pomp and circumstance. Following the pattern of virtually every speech given by each of his predecessors in the Modern Era, Obama will declare the State of our Union is “strong” or something to that effect. Democrats certainly will hope voters feel exactly that way in November as they try to retain the White House for a third straight term, a feat they have not accomplished since President Truman. However, the leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, has a campaign slogan (Make America Great Again) that could be taken to imply the state of our union is not strong.

So cutting through the partisan spin; what really is the state of the union? I would argue it is strong but unsatisfactory. The fact is that America is the best positioned nation in the world, but there is still much work to be done. In this sense, both sides have valid points to be made; our situation is not necessarily as dire as republicans campaigning suggest while there are greater risks to our future than the President has conceded.

To be frank, the fact we are strong is not really an accomplishment for the President. While we were in deep recession in 2009 when Obama assumed Office, America was still the strongest nation on earth. While our banking system had been crippled by the Housing Crisis and Lehman failure, requiring the Bush Administration to launch widespread bailouts to avert Depression, the worst of the financial crisis had passed by January 20, 2009, and depression was off the table. America was still the center of innovation with the best technology firms in the world residing here, mainly in California. We were the clear global hegemon economically and militarily.

Today, I would argue that last sentence still rings true. Yes, GDP growth has been undeniably sluggish, but our economy is far larger than any other, and it adds far more value than export-driven China, which has run into significant problems of its own of late. The official unemployment rate is down to 5%, and even if we adjust for some of the cyclical weakness in the labor force participant rate, unemployment would be 6.5-7%, which is neither great nor horrible. Yes, China is saber-rattling in the South China Sea, and Putin has caused problems in Syria and Eastern Europe, but our military and naval wherewithal is without rival.

China’s military might is entirely regional, and Putin lacks the economic power to exert influence much beyond his own borders and Syria. Given his nuclear arsenal, we cannot force him to do anything, but he can’t force other nations to do much either. He and China are undoubtedly challenging the U.S. Security Order with limited successes, but the fact remains, there is nary a region in the world where we are not a key (if not the key) player. America is the lone indispensable nation on the face of the earth. The setbacks and loss of influence in the Middle East, parts of Eastern Europe, and select spots in South Asia are not markers of inevitable decline but rather missteps quickly reversible under new, more assertive American leadership.

Consider the following questions. Is there a nation you would rather be today than the United States? Would you trade America’s future for that of another nation? Is there a more dynamic economy on earth? Would you swap our military power for that of another country? Is there a nation where you can enjoy more political freedoms or economic potential than here?

Chances are you would answer “no” to all (or at least most) of those questions. How then, can one say the state of our union is anything but strong? Again, the same was true in 2008, and it is a testament to just how well positioned America is and how dynamic the American people are that these statements are almost taken as a given. Being “strong” is really not an accomplishment of the President; the accomplishment is not torpedoing that strength, something almost no President could manage to do. That is why the American people rightly demand more than a strong state of the union.

Now, Obama has some indisputable accomplishments. The economy is stronger than in 2008, but it is not strong enough. GDP growth of around 2-2.5% has been positive but not spectacular. Real median income is lower than in 2000; the typical worker has not felt this recovery. This has been a problem for 15 years and is a serious challenge neither party has done a good job of addressing. We need to make structural reforms, restructure our tax code, and improve education to build a stronger economy from the bottom-up to grease the tracks of upward mobility. A poverty rate of 15% continues to be a stain on this country, and our programs need to focus more on lifting people from poverty rather than simply making poverty more comfortable. We need to reform, and yes cut, entitlements like Medicare and Social Security to ensure they will be solvent for those of us who really need them in our later years. Is our economy strong? Yes. Satisfactory? No.

Beyond economics, we have unsatisfactory progress in other areas. Race relations are not where they should be, and in too many communities, police-community (particularly in black precincts) relations are not where they should be. Many parties (from a media that generalizes every story to bad cops to self-aggrandizing community leaders) share the blame, but we need to take steps in local communities to rebuild trust. Gun violence is too high, and this nation does not handle mental illness as well as it could. There are no easy answers, and the gun issue is too often politicized. The scourge of violence is real though. Is our culture strong? Yes. Satisfactory? No.

In foreign affairs, we do not have a clear strategy to permanently roll back ISIS from Iraq and Syria and its outposts in Libya and elsewhere, though our military certainly has the capability to defeat the terrorist organization. We have ceded influence to Iran in the Middle East. Our Eastern European allies are on edge as NATO seems ambivalent about a bellicose Putin, and we are not investing sufficiently in a 21st century Navy that can guarantee freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. We have the tools to address these international challenges; it is just a matter of gathering the will and thinking in years not weeks when budgeting and planning. Is our international standing strong? Yes. Satisfactory? No.

The President is right to say the state of our union is strong, and America continues to be the world’s best positioned nation—the world’s only superpower. That said, republicans are right to say we can do a lot to make America even stronger and build an economy that works better for everyday citizens. GOP candidates need to refine their rhetoric and avoid doom and gloom, which is not in sync with reality.

The genius of America is that we are always striving to make the country better because the pursuit of happiness and liberty is an unending effort. We are never satisfied with the state of the union. The GOP should offer clear contrasts with and criticisms of current policy but must maintain optimism. We are an optimistic people, and the optimism is entirely justified.

After all, how else should we feel about the strongest, most morally just nation on earth that serves as a beacon of hope for oppressed people the world over?

Feckless Actions That Caused a Firestorm

Earlier today, President Obama unveiled a batch of executive branch actions with the purported intention of cutting gun violence. While too often castigating his opponents on the issue as either heartless or in the pocket of the gun lobby, on the whole, the President offered an impassioned, compelling argument for more action on the gun issue, capped off by Obama startlingly and powerfully shedding tears as he discussed the horrific Newtown murders. Unsurprisingly, many in the GOP were up in arms (a sample: Trump, Cruz, Ryan, Price), and depressingly, some commentators even suggested Obama’s tears were fake.

Many on the right have put themselves in the position of simultaneously arguing President Obama’s actions won’t do anything yet pose existential threats to our constitution and the 2nd Amendment (this seems to be the NRA’s argument), which is a difficult if not impossible case to make. Sadly, by so quickly rushing to politicize the issue, many Republicans have shed the high ground as Obama’s orders are toothless, intended to rev up a political base needing motivation ahead of an Election. Will they solve the problem? No. Are they legal though? Almost certainly.

Aside from some uncontroversial actions on mental health, the thrust of the executive actions are focused on what it means to be a gun dealer. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is clarifying what it means to be a gun dealer, namely whether or not a gun-seller has to get a background check on the gun-buyer. Given Obama’s directive, the ATF has attempted to guide sellers whether they need to seek a license and thereby get background checks, and it’s a mess.

Obama is not to blame for why the rules are a mess. Congress is because it consistently writes vague laws, leaving it to the Executive Branch to fill in the details. By doing so, the Congress abdicates its legislative authority to the regulatory bodies under the President. Congress has no grounds to write intentionally vague laws and then complain over the interpretation. Here is the text of the law Obama is clarifying:

The term “dealer” means (A) any person engaged in the business of selling firearms at wholesale or retail, (B) any person engaged in the business of repairing firearms or of making or fitting special barrels, stocks, or trigger mechanisms to firearms, or (C) any person who is a pawnbroker. The term “licensed dealer” means any dealer who is licensed under the provisions of this chapter.

….The term “engaged in the business” means—

as applied to a dealer in firearms, as defined in section 921(a)(11)(A), a person who devotes time, attention, and labor to dealing in firearms as a regular course of trade or business with the principal objective of livelihood and profit through the repetitive purchase and resale of firearms, but such term shall not include a person who makes occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who sells all or part of his personal collection of firearms

In plain English, if you occasionally sell a firearm, you do not need to get a license. This exception, created by Congress, is what is referred to as the “gun show loophole” as at gun shows some individuals may decide to sell a gun or trade with another collector to enhance a collection. However, those who make a business selling guns have to follow the same legal procedures whether selling in their store or at a show. There is no exception for all sales at gun shows—the gun show loophole is really a misnomer.

The law begs the question though: when does occasional cease to be occasional? When does having a hobby turn into a business? We would all probably agree that selling 1 gun per year counts as occasional but selling 3,000 would not. However, Congress has left a massive gray zone; they intentionally ducked the issue, avoiding controversy, and passed it off to the President. There is no numerical definition for occasional, and Obama does not attempt to set one. There is as plausible an argument to be made that 50 sales ceases to be occasional as 100 sales. Don’t be surprised if different Presidents enforce at different levels; Congress’s vagueness and cowardice has empowered the Executive to do just that.

Obama is essentially telling his ATF to be more stringent in its enforcement of occasional, which Congress has granted him the right to do. Obama is not threatening our Constitutional balance of power; rather, Congress has abdicated its constitutionally prescribed ones, signing them over to the President. This is not the act of an Imperial President but the result of an Impotent Legislature. If Congress does not feel the intent of their words are being enforced, they have the ability to pass a new law more clearly stating what “on occasion” means, thereby restricting the President’s discretion. Barring that, what Obama did was perfectly legal. It also isn’t dangerous to our Constitution; unless one wants to argue existing laws and their gray area unjustly infringe upon the Second Amendment, a tough sell both in the court of public opinion and in the court of law.

These actions barely move the needle and will have next to no impact on gun crime as so few gun sales will be impacted. Few mass murderers purchased guns in a sale that would have been regulated differently thanks to these changes. This is political theater with the President trying to show he is doing something to rev his base while implicitly acknowledging to do something more sweeping Democrats need to take congress, meaning those who want tighter gun control have to get out and vote. I think it is clear that Obama wants to fundamentally change our gun laws, but (unlike on immigration and soon perhaps GITMO), he recognized his limits and acted within them. It makes for good base politics but will have an imperceptible impact on gun violence.

Instead of attacking Obama for showmanship and impotence while acknowledging that in his heart he wants to see lower gun violence (and arguing he is just pushing the wrong proposals), some on the right reflexively and sadly attacked his motives, suggested he was destroying and 2nd amendment, and lamented the uselessness of his actions. Again, the second and third points seem incoherent when paired together. This is an example of Republicans politicizing the issue as much as the President to enthuse their own base ahead of an election.

Sadly, it increasingly seems like both sides lack the will for a substantive discourse on this (and other) issues, preferring to gin up their respective bases rather than making persuasive arguments and finding common ground. We keep yelling past each on guns, achieving nothing. Meanwhile, China lands planes on disputed islands in the South China Sea, Iran and Saudi Arabia inch closer to conflict, and North Korea may have conducted a nuclear test. No wonder people hate politics.

 

If you like what you read, follow me on Twitter too!

The Paris Agreement: Yet Another Meaningless Deal

On Saturday, nearly 200 nations signed a climate pact that President Barack Obama called a “turning point for the world.” Obama argued this agreement was the one “the world needed.” Upon reading the actual text of the deal, it would appear the world didn’t need very much, if the President’s claim is to be taken at face value. In the end, this deal is as fanciful and toothless as the Kellogg-Briand Pact of nearly a century ago that banned war in the wake of World War I. While the failings of this deal are unlikely to be as grave (World War II was pretty awful, you know), it suffers from the same fatal flaw: no enforceability.

This agreement doesn’t actually do anything; it is merely a voluntary plan whereby nations will unilaterally cut emissions or something. The over-arching goal is to keep global temperatures rising 2 degrees (Celsius) from the current expectation of some in the science community for 2.7-3.7 degrees. If this voluntary deal works really well (!!!), the agreement leaves open the possibility of pushing for a more aggressive 1.5 degree target.

This agreement “invites Parties to communicate their first nationally determined contribution no later than when the Party submits its respective instrument of ratification, accession, or approval.” This agreement merely invites nations to come up with their own plan to bring down emissions to unspecified levels to lead to less climate change. Does that sound vague? Don’t worry; this agreement also creates an “ad hoc working group” to monitor nations’ progress because groups of bureaucrats are renowned for getting things done.

Signing to this deal merely signifies the “Voluntary participation authorized by each Party involved.” Are there any enforcement mechanisms that punish nations for failing to bring emissions down (or for some developed nations, rise more slowly)? Nope. We are operating solely on the trust system—no way that could produce underwhelming results. Some hailed the underlying goal of the deal as ground-breaking: “Parties aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.” Others may contend that the phrase “as soon as possible” means absolutely nothing and gives offending nations plenty of room to maneuver if confronted (i.e. more action just wasn’t possible). This deal also says developed nations are to give developing ones at least $100 billion/year by 2020 to help fund their development, thereby making income redistribution an international affair. Good luck getting everyone to write those checks…

Those who are unconvinced climate change is the world’s most pressing problem and aren’t prepared to crush the economy to cut emissions should actually be thrilled by today’s deal as no new policies have to be implemented. If we actually wanted to cut emissions, any deal needs to have set targets and strict ramifications for violations (for example, automatic WTO admissible tariffs to hurt the economy of offenders). Otherwise, developing nations, like China and India, will cheat, pointing to the fact there were no restrictions on the West’s industrial revolution a century ago. Of course, they benefit from our revolution (India doesn’t have to invent the car for instance), so there should be restrictions if we are to have some, though perhaps not quite as onerous for a bit of time. Adhering to unenforceable deals threatens to leave the American economy relatively uncompetitive as other nations’ flout the deal’s requirements.

Fortunately for the climate alarmists in our midst, the private sector is already helping to solve the problem. Our abundance of natural gas is hurting coal, and with or without government regulations, coal will likely go the way of the dodo bird in this country over the coming decades. As we export LNG, energy production around the world will only get cleaner. Automotive emissions keep improving, and the advent of the electric car will only help. Continued advancement in battery technology could facilitate a smaller, cleaner grid while improvements in transmission will make nuclear more viable in more regions. Even in countries like China, popular discontent over ridiculous pollution levels could force the regime to act over time if only to keep the public happy. Indian cities aren’t far behind.

However, our President is a climate alarmist, which leaves one befuddled as to why he would be happy with this deal that is voluntary and lacking enforcement mechanisms. This climate pact is strikingly similar to the Iran Deal, which is nonbinding (heck no one even signed the agreement!) and has laughable verification measures (not to mention the fact that re-imposing sanctions with Russian approval and European unity is as likely as Hell freezing over, unless of course unfettered climate change here serious impacts the temperature down below…).

Our President seems to have a lot of trust in foreign powers to do the right thing despite their national interest. It’s a fascinating turn for a President who so recognized the free-rider problem, he coerced Americans to buy healthcare insurance or face stiff financial penalties (the individual mandate). Of course, if the insurance under Obamacare is as good and affordable as advertised, wouldn’t people be clamoring for it and not need coercion? I guess, unlike China and Iran, Americans can’t be trusted to the right thing.

Moreover, our President may see no need to make legally-binding agreements since he never feels the law binds him as evidenced by the lawless immigration executive orders and potential one on Guantanamo Bay. Ultimately, our President seems to enjoy doing things for the sake of doing things. That is how Democrats inevitably react to gun violence (just pass a law, even if it wouldn’t have stopped this shooting). Obama wanted a deal with Iran to check off a box on his legacy, even if the deal was a poor one. Similarly, he wanted to do something on the climate. We can all sleep easy and claim the moral high ground now that this high-sounding, completely unenforceable garble has been agreed to. In the view of our leadership, just doing something is an achievement, results be damned. That is the only way to explain the Iran Deal, the Paris Accord, gun violence reactions, and our tepid ISIS bombing campaign. At least we can feel good about ourselves as the world implodes!

Now, I don’t believe economy-crushing cuts make sense, but it astonishes me how horrendous of a negotiator our President and his Secretary of State, John Kerry, are. They are either delusional or lying when calling such a deal as this a groundbreaker. If we ever want to deal successfully with China or Putin or Iran, this naïve idealism is dangerous.

Recently, Obama and the Left have often linked climate change to terrorism. Well, the Paris Agreement will do as much for emissions as those 20 bombings/day have done to roll back ISIS.

Just like coal, this deal will end up being a puff a smoke, not worth the two weeks of diplomats’ hot air blown in Paris.

Trump Isn’t the Problem; He’s the Symptom

On Monday afternoon, Donald Trump announced a plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States, sending shockwaves through the political universe. The plan drew condemnation from most of the chattering class and his fellow candidates, though undoubtedly, many of his supporters were on board with the thrust of the plan, even though Trump suggested even American citizens, who happen to be Muslim, will be banned from re-entering the country. To be frank, this plan is abhorrent and repulsive to our constitutional ideals and merits unequivocal rejection. It is now easy to cast Trump as a problem (and for the GOP’s electoral chances in 2016, I would argue everyday he dominates the news cycle is problematic), but in reality, Trump is merely the symptom and not the problem itself.

Focusing on the plan first, it manages a perfect trifecta: unconstitutional, irrational, and unworkable. Working backwards, it is unworkable because it is absolutely impractical to know for certain whether or not a foreigner, seeking to enter the country as a tourist, is a Muslim. Are we going to ask for religious documentation? How do we know that a Radical Islamic terrorist isn’t merely pretending to be a Christian? Proving a negative (ie that one is not secretly a Muslim) is a dead end. Immigration would ground to a total halt. Plus in many of the most dangerous places, verification is an impossibility, hence the House plan to temporarily pause the Syrian refugee program.

It is also irrational because it misplaces the threat. Do we feel better about a businessman from Vancouver, who happens to be Muslim, visiting family in Seattle or a self-declared non-Muslim from Raqqa, Syria coming to the country? Under the religion-only test, the Syrian gets through and Canadian gets blocked. Does that seem rational? Clearly, radical Islam is a serious problem, but not all of Islam is. Any ban should focus on specific countries not religions.

Trump understands that Americans are scared, and he is right that we need to button-up our immigration policies; he just does so in an ineffective way. The fact is the threat to this country comes from ISIS-controlled territory in Iraq, Syria, and Libya or al-Qaeda controlled territory in Yemen and Afghanistan as well as portions of North Africa (or from Westerners who travelled and were trained in these places). The rational policy is tighten policies for all people, who either live in or have visited those countries, irrespective of their faith. That means suspending the refugee program until verification concerns noted by Obama’s FBI Director James Comey and others have been rectified. It also means altering our visa waiver program (the bipartisan Feinstein-Flake bill is a very good start) whereby a French citizen can go to Syria, develop skills to launch an attack, go back to France, and then come to the US without a visa to launch an attack here. Anyone visiting a hotbed of Islamic terror should be required to get a visa, irrespective of what country they are from and what their faith is. These policies would do far more to keep the bad guys out while avoiding the clear moral issues of blindly banning all Muslims.

Where the Trump plan totally goes off the rails is its treatment of US citizens who happen to be Muslim. Entering the country is a clear, fundamental right that Trump is depriving based on one’s religion without any probable cause. That is a blatant violation of the First Amendment right to freedom of religion. Attacking people for their faith is the domain of the left, as evidenced by their attacks on the Sisters of the Poor and Christian florists. Trump also suggested “closing” parts of the internet up. To those who would protest about freedom of speech in the first amendment, he would call them “foolish people.”

It is easy to defend constitutional rights during tranquil times, but the true mettle of one’s commitment to our ideals and freedoms shows during dire times. Trump is flunking that test, promising to shred the rights of Muslim citizens, functionally blockading them from leaving and banning them from returning, in the name of protection. Again, I ask are you more concerned about a Muslim American spending a weekend in Toronto or a detached young male who is a non-Muslim American (unaffiliated with an aid group for argument’s sake) in Syria. Freedom of religion is the quintessential American right, and we as conservatives have fought hard to protect it. To quote President Ronald Reagan from 1984: “government should not make it more difficult for Christians, Jews, Muslims, or other believing people to practice their faith.” Trump would do exactly that, and that is deplorable.

It is the nature of mankind to trade some freedoms for the hopes of safety, a natural proclivity Trump is playing to. Charlatans in the past like Senator Joe McCarthy fed off this fear. Democrats are currently using this fear in an effort to strip due process rights away from some looking to buy guns. A low point in this nation’s history was the internment of Japanese citizens where our fear led us to strip fellow citizens of their rights just because of who they were. Tragically, the Supreme Court upheld this policy in Korematsu v. US. I would point you to Justice Frank Murphy’s powerful dissent, in which he declared (emphasis my own), “But to infer that examples of individual disloyalty prove group disloyalty and justify discriminatory action against the entire group is to deny that, under our system of law, individual guilt is the sole basis for deprivation of rights. Moreover, this inference, which is at the very heart of the evacuation orders, has been used in support of the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy.”

America does not stoop to the level of our adversaries to beat them; our constitutional ideals are meaningless if we are so fickle and weak-kneed. We punish those who themselves commit wrong, not just belong to a certain group. We mustn’t repeat the tragedies of the past, by stripping rights in the supposed effort to protect ourselves. The inclination can be strong, but we must rise above it and keep our dignity for in the words of Alexis de Tocqueville, “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.” We must stand united against this irrational, ineffectual, and unconstitutional policy.

Republicans and conservatives need to stand up to Trump’s divisive rhetoric. We have worked hard for years to make clear we are at war with Radical Islam but not all of Islam; in fact, we need moderate Muslim leaders themselves to stand against radicals. Trump’s plan lumps in all Muslims, threatening to undo this work. It also makes it easier for Democrats, hobbled by slavish political correctness, to avoid the term Radical Islam. Some on the left will also undoubtedly use the Trump plan to marginalize other GOP plans on refugees (like the House bill) as racist and not as the much needed reform they are.

After clearly going past the line (if he hadn’t already), it is now easy to dismiss Trump as the problem whereas he is really the symptom of a bigger problem. An increasing portion of the American public, particularly the working class, feels disenfranchised. The whole public is scared; prior to the San Bernardino terror attack, only 33% of Americans approved of Obama’s handling of ISIS, and only 38% approved of his handling of terrorism (from CNN-ORC). Obama’s consistent dismissal of ISIS has perhaps irreversibly damaged his credibility on national security. Trump’s tough talk is reassuring, even if the underlying policies aren’t feasible.

By the same token, the Republican Party has been an abject failure when it comes to explaining how its policies will help the working class, perhaps because much of its donors are corporatist Wall Streeters. In 2012, Mitt Romney lost voters whose top issue was having a President “who cares about people like me” by a stunning 81-18% margin. He never articulated how his policies would help ordinary, working Americans. At this point, no serious Republican Presidential contender, apart from Trump, have made a serious stride in this area (though Rubio has been trying harder than others, and hopefully, Paul Ryan will be a thought leader in this area). Perhaps recognizing this country has shed 5 million manufacturing jobs in 20 years, hurting millions of Americans, Trump has pledged to go after China and Mexico. Will these policies work? Not necessarily, but he at least provides the illusion of caring.

For many Americans, the past 20 years have been hard. While Clinton oversaw an economic expansion, manufacturing sputtered in his second term and his foreign policy left us less safe. While Bush’s ability to keep us safe after 9/11 is a tremendous accomplishment, his economic policy is mixed and he is not blameless for the financial crisis. Under Obama, our record has been tepid with inequality worsening while his dithering in the Middle East has left us more unsafe. The establishment and mainstream political parties have failed many Americans, and it is no wonder they have looked elsewhere, to someone out of the political class addressing their security and economic concerns, Donald Trump.

That is why the efforts to marginalize Trump based on his egregious rhetoric have failed spectacularly. The establishment is pointing out to voters what the establishment doesn’t like, but these voters have lost faith in the establishment because it has failed to deliver for them. The only way to attack Trump is to effectively argue he, one of the world’s greatest marketers, is selling a false bill of goods and won’t deliver. Someone must also step up and detail an economic vision that re-enfranchises a middle and working class that has been left behind.

Until then, we are destined to hear this self-aggrandizing candidate offer more unserious if not offensive plans while his poll numbers likely stay high. Trump’s anti-Muslim ban runs counter to the values we espouse and would be a dangerous degradation of constitutional rights. This has to be the impetus for other candidates to actually offer plans that will bring the middle and working classes into the fold. Unless someone else offers a compelling vision to these voters, the Trump phenomenon isn’t going away, no matter what he says.

Demagoguery and Destroying Due Process Won’t Solve Gun Violence

After the horrifying murders in San Bernardino Tuesday and Colorado Springs last Friday, democrats are following the advice of former Obama Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel: never let a “serious crisis go to waste.” Emanuel, of course, is so morally bankrupt he apparently slowed an investigation into the death of an African-American teenager at the hands of a Police Officer to preserve his re-election chances. Sensing political advantage, democrats are out in full force, attacking republicans, demonizing those who pray for shooting victims, and urging new laws irrespective of their efficacy. They have entered full “do something for the sake of doing something even if it achieves nothing” mode while poisoning our political discourse, thereby making it harder to actually solve the problem of gun violence.

Make no mistake, gun violence is a serious problem. However, we should note that gun crimes have been halved since the early 1990’s while violent crime is back to 1970’s levels. I say this not to diminish current violence, which remains intolerably high, but to provide context as facts tend to improve the quality of solutions put forth. Even though we are safer than ever before, we are averaging roughly 1 mass shooting (the FBI defines a mass shooting as 4+ victims; depending on definition parameters, there have been anywhere from 70 to 355 “mass shootings” this year) per day. Yet for many, it feels as though violence has escalated to unprecedented levels in recent years. For this, I would point to the proliferation of social media and 24-hour news channels, which make us far more aware of these acts of violence. On net, this is a good thing as the constant reminder of human suffering will hopefully further our resolve in solving the underlying problems that beget such violence. Sadly, some, typically but not exclusively, on the left exploit these tragedies to whip up a frenzy, divide us, and all but suggest the NRA’s millions of members are callous, blood-thirsty monsters.

Sensing an opportunity to feed off Americans’ heartbreak, Democrats are pushing reforms that would do little to stop gun violence and severely undermine Americans’ fundamental rights. Let’s focus on Senator Dianne Feinstein’s proposed amendment (supported wholeheartedly by Obama and Senator Harry Reid) to block Americans on the Terror Watch List from purchasing guns. Republicans kept this proposal from becoming law by a vote of 45-54. Now, one does not need to have much political acumen to recognize the Feinstein proposal would poll extremely well (my bet would be 90-10 or better initially); after all, who wants terrorists to get guns? However, the facts are a bit more complicated, and strong polling doesn’t make it wise policy.

For perspective, the terror watch list likely contains the names of about 1 million Americans. I would note that the Terror watch list is far more encompassing than the No-Fly list, which includes about 800 Americans. In the past even The Huffington Post has ridiculed the relative ease with which one could get on the terror watch list, and I would emphasize authorities merely need “reasonable suspicion” to put someone on the list. This is a different, lower standard than the one our system of due process demands in criminal cases (beyond any reasonable doubt). That is critical because the Feinstein proposal would strip Americans of a fundamental right without affording them due process. (As an aside, democrats blocked Sen. John Cornyn’s amendment that would have given authorities 72 hours to ask a court to block a gun sale to someone on the watch list thereby preserving due process while achieving what democrats wanted. I will leave you to decide whether the left was interested in merely scoring political points or in solving the problem.)

Our constitutional architecture affords the preservation of Americans’ fundamental rights, which we may only be deprived of with “due process of law.” The Supreme Court reaffirmed that individuals have a fundamental right to bear arms in 2008’s DC v. Heller. Due process includes things like facing one’s accuser, having a jury of peers, the presumption of innocence, and so on. The Feinstein bill undermines this basic tenet of our Republic. I ask:

  1. Should the government be allowed to do warrantless searches of Americans on the Watch List whenever and wherever it wants?
  2. Should the government be allowed to regulate the speech of those on the Watch List or bar members from associating with certain other people?
  3. Should the government be allowed to proactively detain people on the Watch List for indeterminate periods of time?

I expect (and certainly hope) you would answer “no” to all these questions. Even though we want to stop suspected terrorists, we as a society recognize that fundamental rights are sacrosanct, and abridging them is very serious (and dangerous). As such, we afford suspects a fair legal process that puts the burden on the government to prove its case in a court of law before punishing the accused. There are times that our nation has grown emotional and forgotten this system, and it has been a stain on our history. In particular, I point to the internment of Japanese-Americans, violating their fundamental rights without due process. Shamefully, the Supreme Court upheld internment in Korematsu v. US. That decision, along with Dred Scott and Plessy, still impugns the reputation of our highest court.

I do not think the Feinstein proposal, had it been enacted, would ever be so damning as Korematsu, but violating fundamental rights has virtually never looked wise in hindsight. Some undoubtedly have the greater good in mind in their support of this proposal, but sadly, in no cause has more harm been done that of the greater good. Such thinking too often descends into an “ends justify the means philosophy” that airbrushes increasingly grievous wrongs in the name of safety, supposed equality, or other catchy slogans (“workers of the world unite”…). The fact is that gun ownership is a fundamental right, and stripping such rights is anathema to our values.

Yes, those on the Watch List can appeal to get off it, but this is an individual, presumed guilty, attempting to prove innocence, throwing the basic tenet of our justice system on its head. Further, the threshold for being on the watch list is lower for being convicted of a crime, making it even harder for individuals to get off the list. We afford accused murders with far greater protections than people on this list (who can include the relatives of suspected terrorists whom have not engaged in radical activities themselves). That is unjust.

We also must reject the notion that if we don’t let someone fly on a plane we shouldn’t let them own a gun (though again I emphasize the no fly list is a small subset of the watch list. We allow most on the watch list to fly, albeit with stricter scrutiny). While again I see the appeal of the argument, there is a key distinction. Flying on planes is not a fundamental right; it is a privilege, giving the government far more latitude to regulate who flies. It is similar to how states only allow licensed individuals to drive, requiring people to pass a driving and eyesight test. These are not fundamental rights, like gun ownership, religious freedom, undue searches etc. Rather than facing strict scrutiny, the government only needs a rational basis to deny a license or keep someone from flying. Comparing guns to planes, while appealing, is ultimately flawed legally.

In reality, many on the left don’t believe gun ownership should be a fundamental right, and they push policies like this one to degrade its status over time. Let’s be honest, and have the real debate, not one that appeals to emotions during times of duress but has severe legal consequences. Let’s discuss whether we should leave the constitution as is or roll back the 2nd amendment and make gun ownership a privilege like riding an airplane. Many on the right would welcome this debate, and we should have all-encompassing discussions on guns, the acceptance of violence in society, and mental health. It is the left, which knows deep down most Americans don’t want to repeal the 2nd amendment, that is avoiding this debate.

Instead, it finds back doors that actually would not do much to solve the underlying problem to score political points and feel better since they will have done something (even if that something does not solve the problem). The Feinstein amendment would place an undue burden on Americans wrongly on the watch list, probably numbering in the tens of thousands, while likely failing to deter terrorists. Do we seriously believe someone willing to die for a depraved, hateful cause will give up and turn away from violence if they can’t buy a gun, or will they look to the black market, use our porous borders to smuggle weapons, or build improvised explosives?

If democrats were so serious about solving the issue of gun violence, why didn’t they address it via sweeping reform when Obama was President and they controlled both chambers of congress? The level of violence in this country is still unacceptable, and we all bear some blame for not doing more to help the mentally ill, the economically hopeless, and to build a culture that shuns violence. We need to get serious about these issues, but in our haste, we must remember the civil liberties on which this nation was founded and avoid the temptation to undermine fundamental rights in the name of the greater good.

There are things we can do to help the mentally ill, give doctors more power to treat, improve background checks (and unlike most conservatives I would personally support the thrust of Manchin-Toomey to close the private sale transfer, though almost no mass shootings have been committed by people using this “loophole”), and stiffen penalties for those who traffic weapons.

Maliciously attacking those who pray for the grieving will not solve the problem. Nor will pushing constitutionally doomed legislation to score political points. Rather than restricting the rights of law-abiding citizens, let’s focus on solving real problems. Over-riding due process is not the solution. It rarely, if ever, is.

Putin’s Goal: Prove NATO’s Dead

After years of provoking Western powers, Vladimir Putin finally crossed someone who was willing to stand up to an increasingly imperialistic Russia when Turkey shot down a Russian jet that had violated its airspace. It is in many way fitting that the man with the strength to act was President Recep Erdogan who is emulating the Putin model at home. Facing term limits as Prime Minister, Erdogan shifted to the Presidency, which was previously a ceremonial role, and has been moving powers to that office. As such, he remains the de facto leader of the country as evidenced by the fact he, and not the PM, is the person Putin and President Obama interact with during this and other crises. As with Putin in Russia, in Turkey, the powers increasingly are endowed to the man not the office. Just as Putin has ramped nationalistic rhetoric the past decade to consolidate public opinion, Erdogan has let religion creep into a government that has been proudly secular to secure support. In Erdogan, Putin has a worthy and like-minded adversary.

While some of his actions have been unseemly, the fact is Erdogan is an ally in NATO with Turkey an indispensable nation in the Middle East that on balance is a positive influence. That raises the stakes of this incident severely, and a NATO power has not shot down a Russian plane since 1952. With Russian and American planes flying over limited airspace, the risk of accident or unintended escalation is great, and with our nuclear arsenals, the cost of a worst case scenario is unimaginable. Given the mutual defense clause (Article 5), a Turkey-Russia skirmish is equally dangerous.

Now, I do not ascribe to the view that this incident could be the precipice of a world war, despite the fact World War I was beget by a minor incident. Irrespective of constant underestimation by some on the left (who seem to have a real penchant for underestimating threats, mind you), Putin is not an oafish brute, seeking to use hard power everywhere. He is a strategic thinker who uses hard power only when necessary. A direct Turkish-Russian war is in no one’s interest. His goal is a different one entirely with long-lasting geopolitical implications: to prove what we secretly fear to be true, that NATO is dead.

NATO enlargement has been a key policy priority for years, and it is a wise policy assuming two conditions are met. First, the new country’s principles and policies are in-line with the organization’s goals and values (one does not typically allow enemies into an alliance). That condition has largely been met during enlargement, and if anything the former Soviet States who have been the focus of enlargement more forcefully support a united Europe than existing ones. Second, member nations must have the same willingness to provide for the common defense of new members as existing ones, for a failure to defend any nation would undermine the basic fabric of the alliance. If NATO members are unwilling to fight on behalf of Country X, they should not accept Country X into the alliance. This is the condition that Putin is wisely testing. Invading Turkish airspace is not intended to provoke Turkey; it is a test of NATO’s resolve. We must calibrate our response accordingly.

For months, Putin has been provoking the West from buzzing U.S. ships to sending submarines near Swedish waters. Since launching airstrikes in Syria, Russia has violated Turkish airspace several times, and after repeated warnings, Turkey shot down an unmanned drone last month. It must also be noted that the fact Russia is bombing near the Turkish border is your evidence he isn’t focused on defeating ISIS as they do not control that territory. He is bombing moderate rebels to help boost Assad’s grip on power. Putin does want to eradicate ISIS eventually as that’s required to help Assad, but his mission is to roll back all rebel groups and is currently focused on moderate rebels to ensure there is no credible alternative to Assad, or an Assad-like crony. Of course, some of these rebel groups, including the Turkmen, are supported by Turkey, only antagonizing Russian-Turkish relations further.

It is from this perspective that Erdogan’s decision to down a Russian jet must be viewed. Russia has ignored repeated warnings about entering your airspace and is killing the very rebel groups you have been helping. It’s an exasperating situation that can fairly be seen as an act of war. So when a Russian plane entered Turkey, even if it was for less than 30 seconds, Erdogan felt compelled and was entirely justified in acting. To be clear, Erdogan is completely in the right. That said, I think Erdogan likely made a strategic error here. It is one thing to shoot down an unmanned drone; it is another to shoot down a jet, which led to the death of the pilot and a marine. The fact the Russian plane appears to have been shot down over Syrian territory also makes the decision even more questionable.

If anything, this incident has given Putin cover to intensify bombing against the pro-Turkey rebels, and he will likely deter tourism (Turkey has a mock-Kremlin so many Russians visit it) and other joint economic projects. Shooting down a Russian jet also increases the tail-risk of the situation escalating beyond anyone’s controls.

Is a 17 second violation enough to merit being shot down? The slippery slope argument is powerful here, if not 17 seconds, is 1 minute enough, 5 minutes? Further, the history of appeasing strongmen in the hopes their thirst for expansion is satiated is disastrous, and a violation of airspace is a violation no matter how long it lasts. That said, my reaction given the brevity of the incident would have been to give Putin just one more mulligan, have scrambled jets but not shot, come out publicly with the information a Russian jet violated Turkish air space, publicly vow to shoot down any jet that enters the air space going forward, and proactively offer coordination to avoid a similar incident (an offer which Putin would likely ignore). Should a jet violate the airspace after Tuesday, I would then shoot it down without hesitation. This policy to me would not fall into the appeasement camp, but be a final proverbial warning shot that I would then act upon if necessary (unlike certain people who erase their red lines).

We are now in a dangerous situation, one Putin precisely wants to be in. What if he violates Turkish airspace again? Erdogan would have to act again, but does that just result in further escalation from Putin? We also know that Europe, France in particular, sees Putin as an essential partner in Syria. Thanks to years of dithering on our part, Putin has been able to insert Russia as an integral player in a political solution. He and Iran continue to prop Assad up, and unless we are willing to put in our ground troops and risk direct conflict, they will have to acquiesce to any political transition. Putin is using Syria to gain leverage in his real area of territorial ambitions: Europe. Therefore, our response to his aggression needs to be centered in Eastern Europe.

Putin is fully aware Europe wants him involved as a partner in the fight against ISIS, and as such, he has us over a barrel. While Europe seems willing to continue the existing sanctions against Russia over his invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, they are unlikely to support a significant ratcheting of pressure for fear that will preclude him from cooperating on the Assad question. Putin has the ability to keep provoking with little if any ramification. As such, he will continue poking to find the weak underbelly of NATO to exploit it.

In all likelihood, NATO members urged Erdogan to soften just as we urged France not to invoke Article 5 after Paris, which is shameful. Does anyone really think Italy is willing to face off with Russia over Turkey? NATO membership has devolved into a two-tier system: nations whom we would defend no matter what, and nations who we would defend depending on the aggressor. Now, Turkey is such a critical player in the Middle East, it may be a core member, but this flare-up will only serve to increase the tensions between the Russia hawks and doves in NATO. This could be a prelude to a stiffer test of NATO’s resolve.

Ultimately, there is no strategic reason for Putin to war with Turkey, but there are NATO members that should be worried. In particular, I have concerns about Estonia, which has a 25% Russian-speaking population; remember, Putin used supposed discrimination against Russian-speakers to explain his annexation of Crimea. He also exploited this population to foment an “internal” resistance in East Ukraine that has totally crippled the nation. Estonia is in the process of fencing its Russian border over this very fear. The appearance of an internal rebellion is preferable for Putin as it would make it easier for some NATO members to say Article 5 does not apply (it must be an external aggressor). With its large Russian population, Latvia too is a potential target.

Estonia is a country of 1 million, and Western Europe is uninterested in a direct confrontation with a nuclear power, especially given the pressing problems in Syria. Turkey was the first attack on NATO, and the Baltic States are the obvious next target. While these are small nations, their defense is critical. Once it appears Article 5 does not apply to a member, how can we know what members of NATO are really protected? By enlarging the alliance to nations we are unwilling to protect, we actually risk shrinking the alliance in the long-run. Sure, the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, UK, Poland and others are almost certainly core nations, but Eastern Europe should be petrified. How important are they? Are Germans willing to die for Slovenians should Putin go too far?

NATO is now an alliance without a cause and as a result is dying a slow death. What is its raison d’être now that the Soviet Union is gone? It has been wandering aimlessly without any core objectives; all the while, European armed forces have decayed and much of the continent is headed for economic and geopolitical irrelevance. Eastern Europe sees Putin for the threat he is, but the rest of Europe and current US leadership doesn’t see Putin as a mortal danger. We are minimizing (if not ridiculing) his aggressiveness as a result. We do so at our own peril.

Fracturing NATO and cracking the façade of a united Europe would be a dramatic diplomatic coup and undermine the security order of the world. Action in Estonia, if not responded to, would render NATO impotent and show the US, not only unwilling to enforce red lines, but unwilling to defend allies. That could have cascading ramifications across Eastern Europe and Asia where American allies like the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea face an increasingly adversarial and expansionist China. If they question U.S. commitment, we risk capitulations that could up-end the balance of power in that region.

This is what at stake. We are not on the precipice of a Turkey-Russia war (in all likelihood), but we face something equally dangerous. Putin is pushing around the edges of NATO to test how united we really are, and if we actually will honor our commitments. Proving that Article 5 is really more bark than bite for non-core nations could unravel the US-security compact that has kept the world safe, and we in its center, in favor of a world where the Russia-China-Iran axis gains strength and US reliability is questioned. The seeds have been sown for a second Cold War, if it has not already begun.

In response to the Turkish air invasion, we must make crystal clear that NATO support cannot be questioned. We have increased our military presence in the Baltics a bit, but NATO needs to move beyond a token presence. Announcing further deployments to Estonia and the Baltics in the wake of the Turkey incident would be a clear signal to Putin that he should not test NATO resolve. Simultaneously, we should commit to build the cancelled-missile defense shield in Eastern Europe, for which the Poles have clamored. This would apply a real cost to Putin’s actions. If you mess with a NATO country, it must be clear, we will work against your strategic objectives (dominion over Eastern Europe) and redouble commitment to member nations. Putin’s goal here is not to intimidate Turkey; it is to prepare for a grand pivot to Europe. Accordingly, NATO must pre-emptively harden its European positions.  Whether he is actually willing to call NATO’s bluff in the Baltics is uncertain, but we should pro-actively make clear NATO commitments aren’t a bluff to ward off any potential Russian intervention.

With the rise of ISIS, it should be Eastern Europe in a panic. Putin has built leverage over Europe in Syria and is now testing NATO. We must stand firm and signal our commitment to all member nations. Putin, like any thinking person, can see that NATO is divided with many members likely lacking the will to risk war with him over smaller, newer members. Destroying the illusion of NATO joint security and unwavering US commitment to its treaties would be the greatest political coup since Nixon opened relations with China. That is why we must come out now, in the wake of Turkey, and dispel these concerns, affirm all NATO nations stand firm, increase our presence in the Baltics to comfort these nations, and build the begged-for missile defense shield. Maintaining the balance of power not just in Europe but also in Asia requires this reaction and a steadfast commitment to all allies, big and small.

NATO is being tested in a way it hasn’t since the Cold War ended. We must prove it is an organization that has not outlived its usefulness. To do otherwise would undermine US leadership and the quarter-century of great power peace and prosperity it has bought us.