Foreign affairs is always an ethics-gray zone, with complex “ends justify the means” trade-offs amid cultural clashes and uncomfortable alliances are unavoidable. President Trump has apparently decided that the nation’s alliance with Saudi Arabia is more important than taking a hard moral-ethical stand regarding what the CIA has determined was a premeditated murder committed by a member of the Saudi ruling family against a journalist. In foreign policy, such trade-offs are the norm rather than the exception, “Everybody does it” is the operative rationalization because, for centuries, every country does do it. It’s not ethical. It’s practical. The American news media is making this episode special because a) it involves a journalist, so their interests are skewed and b) it is President Trump, and everything he does must be condemned to further the aims of the resistance.
That was the measured, dignified description of the fired FBI chief in President Trump’s latest tweet on the matter of Comey’s tell-all book, “A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership. The Ethics Alarms verdict on the allegation doesn’t require reading the book, which I wouldn’t do if Jigsaw had me trapped in a room and gave me the choice of writing a book report on it or chewing off my own foot. (Okay, maybe I’d read it then, but I’d still have to think about it.)
We know Comey is untruthful already—he lied to Congress—and the fact that his book exists proves that he’s a slimeball.
I know I repeat myself a lot, for ethics issues are on a merry-go-round that never stops. However, I think I’ve written more than enough about the unethical practice of government officials who have left an administration cashing in with tell-all books before the administration has ended. The practice is a crass betrayal, venal, disloyal, damaging to the nation and its institutions, and I don’t care who the slimeball author is, or which President he slimes. They are all slimeballs, by definition. One of the first was President Reagan’s arrogant Budget Director, Stockman, early in that administration. Prior to Stockman, the predominant attitude and ethics was the one embodied by General George Marshall (no relation, alas), World War One and Two military leader, former Secretary of State, and architect of the Marshall plan, when he was offered a million dollars to write his memoirs in the 1950s, after he had retired from public life. Marshall turned down the cash, explaining that he couldn’t write a truthful memoir without undermining people still at working for the United States in the government and military.
How quaint! What a sap!
Or so James Comey probably thinks. Continue reading
I have told the story here before, I think, of the poker hand I once witnessed in Las Vegas that forever serves as a warning about the dangers of confirmation bias. I was considering joining a seven card stud table at a casino, and as is my practice, decided to watch a few hands to see what the competition was like. One player stood out: an elderly, grandmotherly woman who played hesitantly and was prone to say things like “Oh, dear!” and talk to herself. She obviously irritated the other players, who were all male and the human equivalents of the Dogs Playing Poker.
As it happened the third hands I watched was a big one, with most of the players showing pairs and flushes. The grandmother dithered and sighed as usual, and when it she was faced, after the last card, with the decision of whether to call a huge bet, she delayed, pushed all her chips into the center to raise, and then pulled them back, saying that she would fold instead. The players protested, and the dealer informed her that once her chips had crossed the line on the table, her bet was complete. She looked horrified, and explained piteously that she had never played by those rules before. It was to no avail, however, and the remaining players eagerly called her wager, happy to take advantage of her gaffe.
The old woman had four jacks! It wasn’t a gaffe, it was an act, all of it. She had been taking advantage of the other players’ eagerness to stereotype her. Once the betting was over, she dropped the mask. “Four of a kind, gentlemen!’ she said authoritatively, revealing her hand. She raked in the gigantic pile of chips, and got up from her chair. “Thanks for the competition. I think I’ll try another table now.” She was heading to a table where they would think she was a clueless old lady, having blown her cover at this one.
I thought about that poker player when I was reading the comments on social media and from various pundits after it was reported that Donald Trump had engaged in a telephone conversation with the Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.
Ever since the U.S. officially recognized Red China, Taiwan, formerly Formosa, has been treated diplomatically as if it doesn’t exist. Taiwan, the Chinese island territory where Chinese Nationalists fled after Communists took over the country, still claims to be the real government of the Chinese mainland. Under President Jimmy Carter’s “One China” policy, the U.S. officially refuses to recognize it as independent. It is, however, a convenient fiction. As Slate explained in 2000:
While the U.S. officially adheres to the one-China policy, it practices a de facto two-China policy. Under the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, the U.S. sells Taiwan military weapons, and the language of the act warns the People’s Republic that any coercive unification efforts would be “of grave concern to the United States.”Beginning in the late 1980s, the two Chinas flouted their one-China policies by establishing economic and cultural but not political ties….Taiwan… has continued to pay lip service to independence–two Chinas–but, out of fear of provoking China, has refrained from explicitly repudiating the one-China policy.
An incoming President publicly treating Taiwan’s leader as a head of state is bound to make China nervous. Sine everyone has already concluded that Donald Trump is an impulsive, reckless idiot, the phone conversation was immediately interpreted by his critics in that context. Similarly on social media: every Angry Left poster who mentioned the incident was contemptuous, as if any of them had superior diplomatic expertise to Trump, who is not exactly unfamiliar with the Chinese, with whom he has had many business dealings. Many were also fearful. This is the apparently agreed-upon strategy of de-legitimizing Trump: he’s scary. He’s not a real American President ( just as many Republicans claimed Obama was an alien), with American virtues and values. He’s a bull in a china shop! (China, get it?) A beast, not a statesman! He’s Hitler, a criminal, a dictator, the boogeyman. See? See? This is going to start World War III!
This interpretation of Trump’s actions is pure confirmation bias. If a President-Elect with respected foreign policy credentials (not that we’ve had one since in 50 years) had done exactly the same thing, exactly the same way, it would be debated, but many more would see it as wily diplomacy. Again, confirmation bias: nobody really knows what the idea behind the call was, or if there was an idea. The Democratic National Committee responded by saying, “Donald Trump is either too incompetent to understand that his foolish phone call threatens our national security, or he’s doing it deliberately because he reportedly wants to build hotels in Taiwan to pad his own pockets.” Wow…THAT’s fair! Stay classy, Democrats! I’m sure this is the way to win back the trust and support of the electorate. Talk about a parody of partisan rhetoric; tell us again about how the mean old Republicans wouldn’t give Barack Obama a chance.
As regular readers here know, I have been on a fruitless quest to find a single articulate, informed, unemotional and substantive argument for Donald Trump’s Presidency. Not only have no such arguments surfaced, nothing has come even close. This entry is different. It does not blather on about “elites,” or “tearing it down,” or use rationalizations like “we’re all doomed anyway.” It does not default to reasons why Hillary Clinton is worse, an increasingly plausible theory, but still not a case for Trump. The argument that Trump is a better risk than Hillary because she would get away with her excesses while a biased news media will keep Trump under the scrutiny that they should subject every President to but reserve only for Republicans is too pretzelian to be taken seriously, but otherwise intelligent analysts keep proposing it. They are that desperate.
The article by former Robert Kennedy speechwriter Adam Walinsky is different in kind, and deserves attention. His perspective is interesting, and his gauzy perspective on Jack and Bobby is what I would expect from an ancient True Believer. Call me cynical, but those who extol the commitment to peace of a President who set the fuse for the Vietnam War and whose projction of weakness to the Soviet Union nearly sparked a nuclear war are not credible nor respectable advocates. Still, his argument is novel and his position is sincere, with many valid observations leading to what I judge as an absurd and reckless conclusion.
It is worth reading, though: I Was RFK’s Speechwriter. Now I’m Voting for Trump. Here’s Why….The Democratic Party has become something both JFK and RFK would deplore—the party of war.
Some thoughts as I read the comment below from Ethics Alarms stalwart Steve-O-in-NJ:
- Woodrow Wilson is indeed, in many ways, one of the best comps for President Obama.
- Yet there are still many, even those whose updates appear on my own Facebook page, who will shout to the skies that all such criticisms are partisan, racist, unfair attacks on a marvelous, brilliant, misunderstood Chief Executive.
- Why is that fading breed of Democrats fading? And where are the statesmanlike Republicans? Is there one?
Here is Steve’s Comment of the Day on the post, Leon Panetta’s Memoirs, and Reconsidering Ethics Alarms’ Absolute Condemnation Of Such Books:
When Robert Gates, formerly President Obama’s Secretary of Defense, published his memoirs, I wrote:
Bottom line: these people betray their colleagues for money, and often, as is Robert Gates’s case, out of spite. Former Defense Secretary Gates, like the others, was given an opportunity to serve his country in a high executive branch position. He was privy to policy discussions and the inner workings of the administration. He was trusted. To reveal details of his tenure while the administration he worked for is still in office, done in a way designed to provoke criticism and embarrass his former associates and boss, is the height of disloyalty, and a breach of implicit confidentiality.
The honorable and ethical way to write such a book would be to wait until it could not actively interfere with the work of the Executive Branch. The people may have a right to know, but they do not have a right to know everything immediately. People in high policy-making positions must be able to be themselves, express opinions, and have productive meetings with the confidence that those they work with are not collecting notes for a future Book-of-the-Month sellout. Books like Gates’s undermine that trust, make it more difficult to get candid and controversial opinions and ideas into the decision-making process, and ultimately hurt all of us. The former Secretary and those who appreciate the additional ammunition for administration-bashing can assemble a lot of rationalizations for the book, but they all boil down to “Everybody Does It,” the most threadbare and cowardly rationalization of all.The ethical thing would have been for Gates to write the book in a few years, or not to write it at all.
You can’t get much more definite than that, can you?
I could, without much difficulty, distinguish between Gates’ book and the recently released book by former Obama CIA director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, “Worthy Fights,” that is drawing fire from Obama loyalists. Gates’ book often seemed petty and hypocritical, and I do think he was cashing in. He is, in my view, nowhere near Panetta’s caliber as an administrator or a thinker, and I trust Panetta as a public servant who isn’t motivated by money or celebrity, but by love of country. (Yes, he was by far the best of Bill Clinton’s team.) But rather than do that, and open myself up to the legitimate accusation that I am accepting the identical conduct from Panetta that I condemned from Gates because I respect Panetta more, I’ll just admit that my attack on Gates’ book was excessive, and that there are legitimate reasons, sometimes, and patriotic ones, for a high appointee to write such a book. Continue reading
“We don’t have a strategy yet.”
—President Barack Obama, responding to a question regarding the military response to ISIS in Iraq and Stria.
But hey, there’s no rush!
I don’t enjoy beating dead horses, I don’t like using Ethics Alarms to pile on, and I try not to say I told you so. However, if you were looking for a statement that constitutes signature significance of this man’s complete lack of fitness to serve as a leader of anything more complicated or important than a Rotary Chapter, this is it. Let’s see:
- It is an admission of inattention to duty.
- It is a confession of incompetence.
- Coming on the heels of studied disengagement via fundraisers and golfing, it is proof of neglect.
- In the context of Obama’s reported focus on illegal immigration and climate change, it demonstrates warped priorities
- It is frightening, and
- Even if true, this is an irresponsible thing to say in public if you want to be taken seriously as Commander-in-Chief and as a world leader.
It is depressing to read the comments of desperate Democratic Obama enablers on various websites. One said, “You don’t reveal to your enemy that you have a strategy!” No, you utter fool, you don’t reveal to your enemy what your strategy is. (Obama has done this too, in Iraq and Afghanistan.) If you believe world leaders benefit by acting as if they just walked off the street with no clue what they are doing, perhaps Obama’s next brilliant ploy should be to appear wearing a propeller beanie and speak like stroke victim. That should really fool ’em!