Sunday, July 26, 2015

Donald Trump is a Mushy Moderate

Anyone who has seen Trump's "The Apprentice" should already know what I know: That, despite his bloviating and general lack of language discipline (intentional or not), he is in his heart a reasonable business guy.  Yes, he prefers to make big, bold, and often controversial proclamations to make his point clear -- and to create a power advantage in negotiations. And, yes, when he's personally attacked, he replies with almost unheard-of levels of venom. Further complicating things, he is a sloppy (if not slightly dyslexic) communicator.

But, when push comes to shove, he generally ends up developing rational and fairly reasonable determinations when the matters get specific.

Case in point: his stance on immigration. You'd think from his rhetoric, which was truly over-the-top and insulting to many Mexicans, that he is essentially a racist and anti-immigrant.

Yet, if you read what he said...

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you. They're not sending you. They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems with us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
What he's really saying has nothing to do with immigrants. He's making a nationalist argument while sounding like a nativist racist. He's saying that the problematic immigrants are part of an intentional import/export strategy of the Mexican government.  He's clearly making this a Mexican government problem -- similar to how he appears to distrust China, Japan, and presumably every other country in the world.  As a business man, he likely sees other countries like other companies  -- constantly looking to compete and put you out of business.

Remember how I said above that Trump "ends up developing rational and fairly reasonable determinations when matters get specific" while you probably rolled your eyes and almost clicked "close" on this browser window?  Check out how problem-solver Trump looks at immigration when it comes to the immigrants themselves -- once he gets beyond the us-versus-them nationalism he defaults to in his rhetoric:
"[First,] we give [the trouble-making illegal immigrants] back to Mexico or we make sure they stay where they came from.  [Then], I have to tell you, some of these people have been here; they've done a good job; in some cases sadly they've been living under the shadows. We have to do something, so whether it's merit, or whether it's whatever, but -- I'm a believer in the merit system. Somebody's been outstanding, we (ought to) try to work something out."
Let's be frank: it's usually far more effective for progressive policies to be hosted by conservative politicians, and visa-versa. And this looks like the makings of a truly progressive policy that is wrapped up in a conservative firebrand shell.  This is the Donald Trump I've seen in action for decades (with the key exception of his "birther" tendencies - which really did seem unhinged; yet still influential enough to force a sitting President to produce his birth certificate).

Donald Trump is a real long-shot to be President due to the very attributes that get him so much attention during the primary season. But if he were to become President somehow, I for one would not be nearly as worried as so many are. I have watched The Apprentice enough to know that his bluster and hyperbolic antics are merely the fire-breathing facade that gives him the cover and political space to be far more reasonable while not losing support of his base - or the fear of his adversaries.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Iran Deal Controversy is About the Doctrine

The heated debate ensuing around the Iran nuclear arms deal is partially about party distrust (with Republicans reflexively not trusting Democrats with foreign policy negotiations), but the more thoughtful and reasonable minds that disagree appear to disagree not on the deal itself, but the fact that there would be a deal at all.

The debate appears to be carved into the etchings of either Obama Doctrine of Foreign Policy or the prior Bush Doctrine of Foreign Policy. To level-set, Thomas Friedman summarized the Obama Doctrine as "we will engage, but we preserve all our capabilities," and according to President G.W. Bush's own memoirs, he characterized his foreign policy as four prongs:

  1. "Make no distinction between terrorists and the nations that harbor them--and hold both to account."
  2. "Take the fight to the enemy overseas before they can attack us again here at home."
  3. "Confront threats before they fully materialize."
  4. "Advance liberty and hope as an alternative to the enemy's ideology of repression and fear."
Beyond the descriptions of each doctrine, a fundamental distinction between these doctrines happens to broadly apply to all Conservative and Progressive thought models: one embraces simplicity and directness, and one embraces complexity, balance, nuance and context.  

Without assigning value to either approach, it's fairly clear that if you embrace the belief that simplicity combined with a proactive, offensive stature sends a potent message to our adversaries and clarifies our stance on behaviors, then no matter what the Iran nuclear deal contains, you're going to see it as the wrong strategy - as any deal with Iran is negotiating with a nation that harbors and funds terrorism against our allies.  Conversely, if you believe that we can segment regimes into rational and irrational components, then you will see this as a great opportunity to use the specter of economic relief as a way to pry away the country's hardliners from power as the mighty Rial empowers the people, and moderates the country.

A great irony in this debate is that the hope and promise of shifting the course of Iran through this deal resembles the same optimistic hope that President Bush, Dick Cheney and the Neoconservatives had with the future of Iraq back in the early 2000s. To add in another layer of irony, Obama's strategy with Iran resembles both Reagan's and Nixon's foreign policy strategies.  In fact, the Iran deal is basically a carbon-copy of Reagan and Nixon's approach, as all three Presidents needed to look at rational engagement despite a host of serious issues we had with both regimes at the time.

This puts Obama's Iran policy of engagement and containment in the company of some historic and successful foreign policy gambles in our history (Soviet Union, China), while also making optimistic bets in terms of behavior modification in the Middle East that puts him firmly in the company of one of the worst foreign policy blunders in history (Iraq). 

This clearly puts the Iran deal into a place of legitimate debate. Within the debate, there needs to be acknowledgement that there cannot be an ideal deal (there's no "i" in "deal"), so we cannot let ourselves fantasize about what should be -- a deal is what can be.

As we listen to and participate in the debate, the doctrine-based analysis arms us with the tools to easily identify the serious pundits while enabling us to more easily sift out the purely partisan rhetoric.

In an effort to help provide clarity, the following is a cheat sheet of what to look for when looking for honest debate brokers:
  • The voices that embrace the Bush Doctrine should only be listened to seriously if they also admit that Obama's optimism for Iran's behavior transformation is similar to their former optimism for transforming the Middle East as a result of the Iraq War.
  • The voices that support the Iran containment plan who did not support the Bush Doctrine should be considered serious only if they also acknowledge that any kind of hope for Iranian behavior change should be compared to the hope and optimism the Neoconservatives had with Iraq. 
  • The voices that embrace Reagan's foreign policy of engagement and containment with the Evil Empire need to acknowledge that, despite the many downsides to the Iran deal, the approach of making a containment deal with Iran is consistent with President Reagan's approach to foreign policy.