Friday, May 11, 2018

It takes a thief

Green-headed tree agama, via San Diego Zoo.

David F. Brooks finally starting to give in to his inner sycophant, as he contemplates Donald Trump's and Michael Cohen's histories with organized crime. Maybe it's a feature-not-a bug! At least from the foreign policy perspective ("Donald Trump's Lizard Wisdom"):
I can’t help but wonder if that kind of background has provided a decent education for dealing with the sort of hopped-up mobsters running parts of the world today. There is growing reason to believe that Donald Trump understands the thug mind a whole lot better than the people who attended our prestigious Foreign Service academies.
"Hopped-up" (1920s slang for "maniacal in a drug-induced kind of way") makes it art.

The Brooks hypothesis is that just as it takes a thief to catch a thief, so it takes somebody who's practiced on Fat Tony Salerno to equip a chap to deal with Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, and Ayatollah Khamenei, and the Trumpian triumphs of recent weeks demonstrate that. Not that Brooks is advocating the Trump doctrine!
Please don’t take this as an endorsement of the Trump foreign policy. I’d feel a lot better if Trump showed some awareness of the complexity of the systems he’s disrupting, and the possibly cataclysmic unintended consequences. But there is some lizard wisdom here.
It's just the Douthat electric slide: "I'm not saying, I'm just saying."

I think there may be a couple of flaws in this argument, one being that none of these eggs are actually chickens at present, as in the North Korea case:
Trump’s bellicosity seems to have worked. It’s impossible to know how things will pan out, but the situation with North Korea today is a lot better than it was six months ago. Hostages are being released, talks are being held. There seems to be a chance for progress unfelt in years.
You know how I feel about that one: the warming tone is entirely a result of the hard work of the Seoul government and, I might add now, Pyongyang's increasing confidence that Trump's "bellicosity" is bluff and that the chaos and absence of leadership in the current White House is a rare opportunity for them to gain some advantage in the long struggle. From Kim Jong-un's point of view, the summit with Trump in Singapore is an end in itself, a hugely impressive photo op, which he has already paid for with the release of the last three US prisoners held in North Korea—not an occasion at which anything further will be accomplished. There's no staff in Washington that's capable of doing more, there's no further easy stuff that Pyongyang can offer. That's why it's being scheduled so soon, with no time for proper preparation (I guess he'll be practicing his aggressive handshakes), and why he's already given Trump the only significant gift he could easily deliver. There's nothing to prepare for.
The second piece of evidence is our trade talks with China. Over the past few decades, the Western diplomatic community made a big bet: If we all behaved decently toward Chinese leaders, then they’d naturally come to embrace liberal economic and cultural values and we could all eventually share a pinot at the University Club.
The bet went wrong. Today’s Chinese elites are polite and coolheaded, but their economic, political and military behavior remains pure thug.... The president has pushed back harder on the Chinese and has netted some results. After some Trump swagger, Xi Jinping promised to “significantly lower” Chinese tariffs on imported vehicles. Again, it’s hard to know how this will turn out...
You probably know how I feel about that one too. Trump has already done virtually everything the Chinese government could possibly want, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, abandoning US allies in the South China Sea in return for China being "a tremendous help" on North Korea (though he has told Vietnamese president Tran Dai Quang, “If I can help mediate or arbitrate, please let me know, I’m a very good mediator and arbitrator”), and allowed the "Belt-and-Road" initiative to move into Africa and Latin America without any US competition, because what do we care about all those shithole countries anyway?

Brooks cites Thomas L. Friedman as saying Trump's battle with China is "a fight worth having", but not Friedman's comment that Trump's doing it completely wrong ("Trump is also risking a trade war with the very allies we need to move China in the right direction — Japan, South Korea, Europe and Canada — by threatening them with steel and aluminum tariffs if they don’t meet his demands. Trump seems to believe that he can reshape how China approaches the next era of global trade without allies — just American brute force. Good luck with that"). Finally the automobile tariff is the most trivial possible place to fight it. Mercedes and BMW will be the prime beneficiaries, if anything happens, and China has kept none of the promises it's been making on trade since the accession of Xi Jinping in 2013.
The third piece of evidence is Iran. I have doubts about the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the nuke agreement. But I do know that the argument that many of the Obama people relied on as predicate for the deal is wrong. They argued that, deep down, the Iranian leaders are worldly sophisticates who, if we just gave them the welcome mat, would want to join our community of nations.
This is the vanity of the educated class going back for centuries. Since we’re obviously so superior, everybody else secretly wants to be like us. It’s wrong. Thugs gotta thug. Religious fanatics gotta fanaticize.
Bartender, pour me another prussic acid, where do I start?

I guess by noting that if you think he might be making the wrong decision, you should probably entertain the possibility that the logic you're attributing to him could be faulty, or at least not insult the logic of those you think might be in the right. In this case I'd like to see some evidence for that "predicate" on the part of "the Obama people", excuse all the scare quotes. My understanding was that we thought everyone in Iran was not the same person, and that most of the population consists of bored and powerless people under 25 who would really like an interesting job, music and movies, and a chance to visit Europe or North America, not worldly sophisticates but normal kids, and the leadership divided between those who would do anything to keep them from that fate and those who would rather hold out some hope in return for their votes. The former including the Revolutionary Guards who didn't even try to conceal their glee in the leadup to Trump's announcement

Iran's hardliners are preparing to bring President Hassan Rohani to heel if U.S. President Donald Trump scraps Tehran's nuclear deal with major powers, officials and analysts believe.
Trump has threatened to abrogate the 2015 agreement by not extending sanctions waivers when they expire on May 12, if Britain, France and Germany do not "fix" its "terrible flaws".
This sets the stage for a resurgence of political infighting within Iran's complex power structure, Iranian officials said.
Annulment of the accord could tip the balance of power in favour of hardliners looking to constrain the relatively moderate Rohani's ability to open up to the West. (Haaretz)

and are now congratulating themselves that diplomacy is over (that missile attack on Israel looks like a kind of celebration—"Ding dong, the deal is dead!"):
European countries are powerless to salvage the nuclear deal with Iran after the United States' decision to pull out, the deputy head of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) was quoted on Thursday as saying.
"Europe cannot act independently over the nuclear deal," Brigadier General Hossein Salami said, according to the semi-official Fars news agency, after Britain, France and Germany said they remained committed to the deal.
"Iran's enemies are not seeking military confrontation. They want to pressure our country by economic isolation ... Resistance is the only way to confront these enemies, not diplomacy," Salami was quoted as saying. (Lebanese Daily Star)
Note the word "elite" in that first paragraph. To people like Brooks, it must be weird to parse that usage, since the IRGC doesn't drink pinot (gris or noir?) at the University Club or believe that everybody would like to belong to the "educated class".

Apparently it's "elitist" to want everybody to have a good education, or a chance to drink a nice Pinot noir, I suppose because it's asking people to be less like themselves, whether we're talking about our own distressed "white working class" voters or thuggish and fanatical foreign leaders. We should instead attempt to be more like them in dealing with them, thugs when we're talking to North Koreans and insensitive about women and people of color when we're talking to hillbillies. I want to do something with this curious symmetry in Brooks's view of Asian dictators and Appalachian shopkeepers, but it isn't ripe yet.

My own opinion is that it does not take a thief to catch a thief, nor does it take a Trump to catch a Kim. A thief will just steal stuff, and a Trump will just try to figure a way to take a cut from the negotiations (I'm sure he's dreaming of a golf course in the Joseon countryside). The hope that Trump could be qualified to save us just by being such a shitty person is not very well founded.

Cross-posted at The Rectification of Names.

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