Saturday, March 18, 2017

Intense International Incidents

This week the Trumpies managed to piss off the Brits and embarrass the Germans, and that was just the list of our major allies that we offended.  First, Mouth of Sauron Sean Spicer made London's spies so angry that they actually spoke up about it.

Out of the gate, Spicer stated that the president still stands by his allegation of wiretapping, even after both the House and Senate have pronounced it false, then proceeded to initiate verbal fights with journalists, which media outlets have fairly termed wild and angry. Next, Spicer rehashed the increasingly threadbare accusations of the right-wing media, backing up the White House’s claim against President Obama, making no impression on the gathered journalists.

Things went from bad to worse when Spicer cited one especially ridiculous far-right claim verbatim:

On Fox News on March 14th, Judge Andrew Napolitano made the following statement: “Three intelligence sources have informed Fox News that President Obama went outside the chain of command. He didn’t use the NSA, he didn’t use the CIA, he didn’t use the FBI, and he didn’t use the Department of Justice. He used GCHQ—what is that? It’s the initials for the British Intelligence Spying Agency. So simply, by having two people saying to them, ‘the President needs transcripts of conversations involved in candidate Trump’s conversations involving President-elect Trump,’ he was able to get it and there’s no American fingerprints on this.”

As I explained a couple days ago, Napolitano has zero background in intelligence and has no idea what he’s talking about. His accusation against Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters, London’s NSA equivalent, was patently absurd, as well as malicious, demonstrating that neither Napolitano nor Fox News have the slightest notion how intelligence works in the real world.

Yet here the White House was publicly endorsing this crackpot theory—and blaming perhaps our closest ally for breaking American laws at the behest of Barack Obama. Our domestic crisis thereby became an international one, for no reason other than the administration has gone global in its efforts to deflect blame from its own stupidity and dishonesty.

This is no small matter. NSA and GCHQ enjoy the most special of special relationships, serving since the Second World War as the cornerstone of the Anglosphere Five Eyes signals intelligence alliance (the others are Canada, Australia, and New Zealand) which defeated Hitler and won the Cold War. This constitutes the most successful espionage alliance in history, and just how close NSA and GCHQ are would be difficult to overstate.

Affectionately calling each other “the cousins,” they interchange personnel and, in the event of disaster—for instance a crippling terrorist attack on agency headquarters—NSA would hand most of its functions over to GCHQ, so that Five Eyes would keep running. It’s long been a source of consternation at Langley that NSA appears to get along better with GCHQ than with CIA. I once witnessed this issue come up in a top-secret meeting with senior officials, in which a CIA boss took an NSA counterpart to task when it became apparent that a piece of highly sensitive intelligence had been shared with “the cousins” before Langley was informed. The NSA senior official’s terse reply silenced the room: “That’s because we trust them.”

Publicly attacking the NSA-GCHQ relationship was therefore a consummately bad idea, particularly by a White House that has already gone so far out of its way to anger and alienate our own spies, and the British reply was one for the record books. Late yesterday, GCHQ issued a remarkable statement:

Recent allegations made by media commentator judge Andrew Napolitano about GCHQ being asked to conduct ‘wiretapping’ against the then president-elect are nonsense. They are utterly ridiculous and should be ignored.
American spy services are famously tight-lipped in their public utterances, falling back on “we can neither confirm nor deny” with a regularity that frustrates journalists. And our spooks are positively loquacious compared to British partners, who seldom say anything on the record to the media. Calling out Fox News and the White House in this manner has no precedent, and indicates just how angry British officials are with the Trump administration. For Prime Minister Teresa May, whose efforts to build bridges with the new president have been deeply unpopular at home, this had to be galling.

If angering the entire British spy apparatus didn't win the prize for worst American diplomatic gaffe in decades, then insulting German Chancellor Angela Merkel to her face certainly did, only to have her quickly make Trump look like the uneducated buffoon he really is.

TO APPRECIATE how shocking President Donald Trump is to modern German sensibilities, consider the “America First!” slogan that so cheers his supporters. Then ponder how Germans—and indeed voters across Europe—would react if an avowed law-and-order nationalist were to seek the office of Bundeskanzler with the slogan: “Germany First!” Several issues divided Mr Trump and Chancellor Angela Merkel at their first meeting in the White House on March 17th. At an often awkward press conference in the East Room, the two leaders politely disagreed on everything from immigration to free trade and the value of seeking multinational agreements. Their comportment could hardly have been more different. Mrs Merkel was every inch the cool, reserved physicist-by-training, at moments giving her American host the icy stare of a Mother Superior told a dirty joke. Mr Trump was dyspeptic, defensive and visibly irritated by press questions about his latest controversial tweets.

But the real dividing line between the two involved the nature of political leadership. Mr Trump, being Mr Trump, presented himself as a tribune of the people, heeding and acting on public demands to end “unfair” treatment of America. He catalogued some of those resentments. He said it is time for members of the NATO alliance to pay their “dues”—countries “must pay what they owe”, he grumbled—though as members of NATO, governments do not technically “owe” anything but have merely made political commitments to spend the equivalent of 2% of GDP on defence. He cited public demands for tighter controls on immigration in the name of “national security,” adding that: “immigration is a privilege, not a right.” He condemned previous free trade deals and spoke of the need for American workers to come first from now on.

Mrs Merkel’s response was subtle but brutal. She noted that free trade agreements have “not always been that popular” in Germany, and referred to protests in her own country relating to free trade pacts that the European Union has either signed with foreign partners or wants to sign. She recalled the specific fears raised by an EU pact with South Korea, and the predictions that the German car industry would suffer from increased competition and more open markets. Instead, she said, the pact with South Korea “brought more jobs” and both sides won. “I represent German interests,” she said at one point, just as the American president “stands up for American interests.” Listen carefully and Mrs Merkel was telling Mr Trump that she, like every leader in the world, has domestic politics to think about. Left unspoken was the point that it is easy, even dangerously easy, to let such distinct national interests provoke a clash. Her core message to Mr Trump was that real political leadership involves seeking a co-operative solution that leaves everyone ahead, and that international relations do not have to be zero-sum.

Mrs Merkel had no desire to pick an open fight. She has long experience with swaggering male leaders who like to throw their weight around, from President Vladimir Putin of Russia to the former French leader, Nicolas Sarkozy. The German press corps that covers the chancellor has long swapped tales of the dry, off-the-record jokes that she cracks at the expense of such men, often under the cover of self-deprecation. After one European summit in Brussels at which the hyper-active Mr Sarkozy had been more manic than usual, Mrs Merkel told her press corps: “I think I am the most boring person that he has ever met.”

The German leader also came prepared. She is an atypical “Playboy” reader. But that magazine’s interview with Donald Trump in 1990 is one clue studied by Team Merkel before their first meeting. In that preview of his “America First” views, nearly 30 years ago, Mr Trump accused allies of subsidising exports while free-riding on American security, growling: "I'd throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country.” The president remains an unlikely Merkel ally. He scorns detail, has praised Britain’s decision to leave the EU, obsesses over trade balances (Germany ran a $53bn trade surplus with America last year), and has called her decision to admit more than a million refugees into Germany “catastrophic”. He has appalled the German government with his open admiration for the iron-fisted nationalism of Mr Putin, his hints that he might lift sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, and his suggestions that NATO is obsolete.

At their press conference Mrs Merkel managed to persuade Mr Trump to state his “strong support” for NATO. She also heard the American leader praise Germany’s schemes for job training and retraining, and apprenticeships in industry. Earlier, she had introduced Mr Trump to bosses from firms like Siemens and BMW, who talked up their American factories and investments. That was smart. Apprenticeships are a big part of Germany’s global brand, and an impressed-sounding Mr Trump noted from the podium that his government is “in the process of rebuilding the American industrial base.”

At this point Trump is bleating on Twitter that this week was fine and that his meeting with Merkel was great.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

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