Thursday 2 March 2023

Is Donald Trump the Lesser Evil?

"This Thing has to stop"

In a Wall Street Journal editorial, Donald Trump is quoted as saying "This thing [the war in Ukraine] has to stop, and it's got to stop now.  [ . . .] The United States should negotiate peace between these two countries, and I don’t think they should be sending very much.”  Trump has pledged "to clean house of all the warmongers and America-Last globalists."  The editorial goes on to mock Trump's "foreign policy" as "mercurial at best" while noting that the "ever-more-populist Mr. Trump" has set himself apart from his political competition--not just Joe Biden but declared candidate Nikki Haley, and potential primary entrants Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton who are all on record backing Ukraine.  The question mark is Ron DeSantis who is the focus of the editorial.

Trump's Opposition to arming Ukraine

Trump's opposition to the war has the look of spur-of-the-moment, opportunistic populism.  However, according to John Bolton's White House memoir, Trump has long been reticent about arming Ukraine.  Trump was explicitly concerned that arming Ukraine against Russia could provoke World War III which, despite the guffawing of his critics, is a possibility before us today.  Americans learned of Trump's hesitance to sign off on a 250-million-dollar, military-aid package to Ukraine during the impeachment inquiry in 2019.  At the time, to anti-Trumpists like me, leaked minutes of the telephone conversation between Trump and Zelensky seemed irrefutable evidence that the President of the USA was trying to extort the President of Ukraine to get dirt on his political rival.  However, a close focus on a few sentences of the notes taken of that conversation leaves out much of the context.  Trump might well have wondered why the newly-elected President of Ukraine, a Russian-speaker from the east of Ukraine, a multi-millionaire media celebrity like himself, who had campaigned on a promise of peace with Russia and supported the Minsk Agreements, was now asking for weapons to confront the Russian-backed militias in the eastern provinces.  Trump also rankled at giving un-scrutinized military aid to a notoriously corrupt nation which was supplying military technology to China. 

The Conspiracy theory:  Bidens in Ukraine

Trump had also come to accept a conspiracy theory spun by John Giuliani that Ukraine was the source of disinformation undermining his presidential campaigns.  We now know that some of the details of the conspiracy were not entirely theoretical.  In April 2014, Vice-president Biden was in Ukraine--one of his three visits to Ukraine that year--to announce that "we, the United States, stand with [. . .] all the Ukrainian people" and encouraging a "real fight against corruption and victory over corruption."  In May 2014, less than a month after Joe's anti-corruption preaching to Ukrainians, Joe's son Hunter Biden was invited onto the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, and paid $400,000, despite Hunter's being, in his own words, in his "deepest skid into addiction."  Even when George Kent, a Secretary of State official, informed the vice-president's office that Hunter Biden was accepting payment from a Ukrainian company whose chief executive was under investigation for bribery and money-laundering, no action was taken, and the details suppressed.  Hunter's infamous lost-and-found laptop revealed that he had failed to pay the required US taxes on the $400,000-dollar Ukrainian payment and, by 2020, he was two million dollars in arrears on payments to the IRS.  Perhaps most importantly, this information was available prior to the 2020 US presidential election and was published in the New York Post.  However, the FBI labelled the claims as Russian disinformation and executives at Twitter blocked the information from being circulated.

Stormy Daniels versus Navy Joan Roberts Biden

Prosecutors are twisting themselves in knots trying to figure out how to turn Trump's paying Stormy Daniels $130,000 into a crime.  In the meantime, Hunter Biden, having denied paternity and balked at child support, has now gone to court to try and prevent his four-year-old biological daughter from using the name Biden.  If Hunter is a "deadbeat dad," does that make the President of the USA a "deadbeat granddad"?

"Avoiding a Long War"

Far beyond conspiracy theories and the melodrama of dysfunctional families, what really matters is the war in Ukraine.  Trump's run for the presidency in 2024 will consequently be a referendum on the war in Ukraine, first within the Republican Party and, if he is the Republican candidate for President, then in the US electorate at large.  No doubt we will hear Trump's plans for a negotiated peace described as farfetched.  However, they do align with a policy paper published by the Rand Corporation entitled  "Avoiding a Long War: U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict."  The paper is a clearheaded, pragmatic and comprehensive analysis of the war.

American Interests and priorities

The authors of the paper declare straightforwardly that "This Perspective focuses on U.S. interests, which often align with but are not synonymous with Ukrainian interests." The highest priorities, in terms of US and western interests, are: 1) avoiding a nuclear war (the authors reason that Russia's use of nuclear weapons "to prevent a catastrophic defeat" is "plausible") and 2) avoiding escalation of the war into a Russia-NATO conflict.  Their thesis is that the longer the war goes on the more likely these worse-case scenarios become.  Additionally, the authors argue,  a lengthy war in Ukraine diminishes American preparedness to confront China. 

Negotiated Peace is the likely and perhaps only possible outcome

Perhaps the paper's most important conclusion is that "Since neither side appears to have the intention or capabilities to achieve absolute victory, the war will most likely end with some sort of negotiated outcome."  In fact, the best possible guarantee of peace is a negotiated outcome.  Even if the most optimistic of Ukrainian predictions come to fruition and Russian forces are driven out of all Ukrainian territories, Russia could and likely would repair its military and launch another invasion in four or five years.  To guarantee peace, a Ukrainian victory would have to include not only regime change but the dismantling of the Russian state--a possibility which returns us to the worst of all possible hypotheses:  nuclear war.

Lines on a map

Virtually all wars are about where to draw a line on the map.  Where to draw the line between Ukraine and Russia may be a crucial question for Ukrainian nationalists, but the territorial issue matters little to the USA.  Russia is not a threat to the USA unless of course the situation reaches a level of total madness and a nuclear holocaust.  In 2014, Barack Obama dismissed Russia a regional power and therefore no threat to the USA, which raises the question, why has the USA and, in particular, Joe Biden continued to encourage this conflict?  Biden will need to have a convincing answer for American voters before November 2024.  Will the rhetoric of good against evil, right versus wrong, and democracy versus dictatorship prevail against Trump's pragmatic appeals to American self-interest?  As "Avoiding a Long War" outlines, the world-wide costs of this war far outweigh its potential benefits.   In a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "Trump's Best Foreign Policy:  Not Starting Any Wars," Republican Senator J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegies,  announces his support for Donald Trump in 2024 "because he won't recklessly send Americans to fight overseas." Amazingly, American voters may come to decide that Trump, campaigning for a negotiated peace, is on the side of the angels.

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