Global Thoughts — 11 May 2022

Wearing my new birthday shirt at Bahamar resort in the Bahamas. Using my passport for the first time in 2 years.

This is in the department of true stories you think are so stupid that they are not true. If you want to talk about kids in private school, you might have heard the line “He’s the kind of kid who would bring his driver to a fist fight” – well, we heard that some kid at our friend’s school recently actually had the family driver bring him to another school for a fist fight. (They have drivers here because most kids don’t own cars in New York City.) Only problem is that the other school kids knew he was coming because he was stupid enough to post his plans on social media, and a posse of about a dozen kids showed up to greet him and threw a wrench at a very expensive Porsche.

In other news, at my son’s school, “the boyz” in his class have started a great little business picking up coffees for the girls in the class who each pay someone $5 a day to pick up their coffee orders at the nearby Starbucks. I have a feeling these girls’ daddies would be furious if they knew just how much money was being spent on this; my son made $30 yesterday alone and he’s not the only one doing this (but my enterprising son did come up with the idea). Once a week the kids get to go off campus for lunch and I offered him money, but he said he didn’t need any since he’s getting all this loot.  So I guess I got my piece of the action.

The concierge in my office building says that about 85-90% of our building in midtown Manhattan is occupied Monday-Thursday with drop-off on Fridays. I can live with that. Every time some crisis happens, they tell you that people’s habits will permanently change. I don’t see it. Attendance at movie theaters and in airports is pretty much back to normal and college graduates want jobs in offices. People have been spending extravagantly and driving large cars even though every ten years when the market goes kaput they say people will become more frugal. Meanwhile, if we have a bit of a recession, so be it. Prices are too frothy for everything because demand has been crazy, and gamblers in the stock market are still trying to place bets thinking they will beat the experts. It’s not a healthy market for the past year, and we could use a bit of market capitulation to bring things back to earth.

Now that the mask mandates on airplanes are lifted, flying is fun again. So I went for a day to Bahamar resort in the Bahamas. The Grand Hyatt has a Reserve boutique within the hotel and it offers excellent value for money. You can get a very nice suite on a concierge floor for half the price of a small room at the Rosewood next door. There is a new water park on site and it has about 6 slides that are fine along with a lazy river, a flow rider and a wave pool. Not as great as Atlantis but good enough. Bahamar is just 10 minutes from the airport and I was very happy with a 24 hour stay, especially now since sundown is after 7pm. It has a nice gym and spa, Cleo Restaurant in the SLS Hotel has good Mediterranean food and if you are in the Reserve, you can go to the Nexus Club which has a lovely infinity pool and ocean front view and offers its own food service and staff that take good care of you. They give 24 hour a day covid testing in the lobby and it’s free to hotel guests, so that helps deal with the testing requirement for reentry to the US. There is a test from Abbott called the Abbott Binax Now Covid AG Card Home Test with eMed Telelehealth Services for Travel. You can buy a set of 6 tests from Emed for $150 and then you can take the test with you out of the country, do it online and wait 15 minutes for the results to be emailed to you. Saves you the trouble of running around looking for a testing center. Friends of mine use these when traveling abroad. Otherwise, it pays to catch covid every 90 days so that you exempt out of testing. I know for certain that in at least 3 countries that feed lots of travelers to the USA, pre-departure airport covid testing has been rigged to yield negative test results. Nobody wants to have to deal with finding out at the airport that you can’t board a flight – neither the host country nor the traveler. The USA has always welcomed home its citizens and they should get rid of the pre-departure Covid test requirement for its citizens. It’s a farce and at this point it is just not worth it. Some people are coming home sick anyway, they always have and they always will.  At this point, the cost to everyone of finding the few sick people entering is not worth trying to prevent it and making everyone nervous about going anywhere.

Here is some news you can use. I’ve been very frustrated about travel insurance because too often things you think will be covered are not. For instance, most if not all policies do not cover a cancelled flight due to the crew timing out. Or they might cover a cancelled flight due to weather or mechanical breakdown but not unless you had to wait at least 12 hours to get on another flight (or even more time). The deluxe policies have higher limits but they are for things you don’t normally worry about, such as hospitalization costs. The main things such as cancellation due to illness or death are pretty straightforward because they either happen or they don’t, and you may not be getting more coverage for paying extra money for deluxe plans than just buying the basic plans. I’ve sat here comparing the language of various company plans and they are all pretty lousy. Travelex seems to be the best of the lot after about 20 years of experience.

One thing to know: I called up the insurer who handles American Express Platinum insurance that comes along with travel booked using the card. I wondered if their coverage is enough to cause one not to buy other insurance. Here are 3 major things not covered by their insurance:

  1. If parent gets sick or dies, they won’t pay for you to stop the trip and join them.
  2. If you get covid, they won’t pay for your hotel quarantine.
  3. They only cover things you paid for prior to your trip. So if you gave a guarantee for a hotel room that will paid upon your stay (or that gets charged because you cancelled the trip within the cancellation period), they won’t pay.

One thing you do get though is $250 per person if your flight is cancelled and there is a 4 hour delay by the airline till the next flight. Under normal travel insurance policies, I might not qualify, but under Amex I do. You get that benefit by charging the ticket to your card. Just be sure to file your claim within 30 days of the incident.

The most important thing we’ve learned over the past few years is how fragile our supposed reality really is. You think everything is stable and boring, that we live in a global village where everyone is dependent on each other and therefore will take care of each other, and that the cold war was so 20th century – and then boom, you get the Chinese hiding a covid breakout and then all of a sudden letting the world get infected and virtually shut down, supply chains are interrupted, and then just when you think the water is warm again, the Russians invade the third largest country in Europe and threaten the west with nuclear war if they fight back too hard.

Did we all just spend 2 years in a pandemic only to be at the mercy of a roughly 70 year old Russian with an inferiority complex, delusions of grandeur, nobody around him to give him a reality check who  essentially has given himself a license not to give a shit about how many people go down with him if he fails in a completely ridiculous folly into which he has extended himself?

We all bought into the idea that the west was in decline, that the east was ascendant and that Xi and Putin were chess-masters while we were bickering over checkers.  All of a sudden, they look like idiots and Biden is leading NATO, pacifist countries such as Germany and Japan, and sideline allies such as Sweden and Finland to rediscover their vulnerability and to climb down from their high horses about their opposition to anything warlike. Everything that Xi and Putin didn’t want to happen has happened. Which just goes to show something that I have said for about 20 years since 9/11 – you think the West has lost its purpose and is weak, but then you kick it – you get one free kick and then the West rises up and gets its ass in gear and puts you on the mat. Pearl Harbor, 9/11 and now this Ukraine thing – they are the free kicks that wake up the sleeping giant. It’s a good thing though – once in a generation, we need to be reminded that our supposedly safe world is not all that safe and that our sleepy lives can be disrupted in a single month.

Russians didn’t get this, but Putin stood in that public square making his big rally speech about Ukraine wearing a $14,000 coat by Lora Piano. Considering that the per capita GDP of Russia is about $10,000 a year, that means his coat was nearly 1.5x the average annual income. Wonder what Russians would think about that.

My parents and our kids at my niece’s wedding

It’s clear from satellite images that Russian claims of staged massacres in the Ukrainian town of Bucha are false because you can see that 2 weeks apart the same bodies are lying in the same places in the street. Satellites don’t lie. It’s interesting that Israel has no friends in the world; only allies and enemies. Their prime minister refuses to condemn Russia and they look like hypocrites, but they are in a hard place, like many other countries except that in its case the moral quandary is more striking. They can’t count on the US so they have to deal with Russia, for instance in Syria where the US pulled out and left the Russians in charge. The UN has been shown to be worthless and the calls of “Never Again” are also worthless because the Russians are making more money than ever before as the price of oil goes up and the Europeans don’t really want to put teeth behind the sanctions. And the US is so afraid of pushing Putin’s buttons that it continues to make the same mistakes it made 10 years ago in allowing Moscow the initiative for fear of escalation. But step back for a second and think about all these “war crimes” – this stuff goes on every day in Africa and it’s been going on in Syria for years. Nobody cares. It’s just that these Ukrainians are White Europeans so it’s harder to ignore the outrage and it’s harder to turn these refugees away, especially since the countries taking them in think they will be useful to them later. But I’m sure that a lot of the third world looks at this and says What About Us?

I’m not comfortable with the idea that Putin is hamstringing NATO by threatening nuclear response to conventional defensive moves, and I asked one of America’s top Russian experts what we could do to broaden the theater and put pressure on Russia. She suggested making moves to counter Russia in the Eastern Mediterranean, such as in Syria. Russia has really used all of its assets in Ukraine to the point that they are asking Syria to send over volunteers. The Syrians and the Wagner mercenaries are mainly cannon fodder because they are not trained for that kind of fighting. Russia considers its footprint in Syria to be of major importance and wouldn’t want to be having to fight in both places at once. That was something I was considering before I met with her, and I am glad that she validated my thoughts on this.

I asked if Putin would have invaded had Trump been president; she believes that Trump would not have had such a debacle when he pulled out of Afghanistan, and that this debacle encouraged Putin to invade. Generals were always able to convince Trump not to pull entirely out of a given area such as Syria but to leave some troops behind just in case. Biden overruled his military and insisted on pulling every last person out, which is why it was so bad. True, Biden inherited Trump’s lousy deal with the Taliban, but Biden had enough cause to get out of that deal had he wanted to. He used Trump as an excuse because he really wanted to exit. Probably blind-sided by feelings for his dead son who had been in the military, he was almost irrational in the way he forced the exit from Afghanistan.

Mike Pompeo is a serious person, I’m told. If he wants to be president, he would be qualified. I’ve been trying to find out if he is a serious guy because I was not impressed with him as secretary of state, but Washington insiders are vouching for him.

It is said by Iranians that the Iranians are currently more afraid of the Israelis than the Americans. Israelis strike back. What the Iranians fear is an Israeli strike or counterstrike that leads to war followed by American participation.  Deterrence might be helped by having the Americans give the Israelis support to do something that hurts Iran, where it’s not publicly stated that the Americans did it, but that it is obvious to the Iranians that the Israelis could not have done it without American help.

The Biden Administration, someone joked to me, has the most diverse group of unqualified people in it. The Trump Administration was simply unqualified.

Elizabeth in Israel on a class trip abroad.

A very senior counter-terrorism analyst recently met with senior officials in the Israeli security, intelligence and defense establishment. I asked him if they prefer Trump or Biden. Very few preferred Trump; they said he was erratic and inconsistent. They like Biden personally. There is a split though; the professionals prefer a return to the JCPOA with Iran even if it is a bad deal. They prefer a deal to no deal. Prime Minister Bennett however is against the deal and prefers no deal.  Others tell me that the Israelis are too savvy to state a preference for one administration over another and are so close to the Americans that they have to adjust and work with whomever is in power. But clearly they must have a preference; it is obvious that the Arab countries preferred Trump and you could see this when they all met with the Israelis a month or two ago and showed their joint displeasure with Washington.

This is important to know the answer because Trump supporters believe that Israel was much better off with Trump in office and figure the Israelis can’t stand Biden. I figure it is better to let Israelis be the judge of that and, as far as I am concerned, this is the verdict I care about.  Blinken’s team has been learning on the job, and it is disappointing that various Obama officials seem to be making the same mistake in this administration, but Blinken’s team seems to be most improved and there are disagreements going on, which helps explain why intelligence about Russia was leaked before the invasion. Whether by design or by leak, it was a good move that helped delay that invasion and unify allies.

In retrospect, Putin’s moves over the past several years fit more into the pattern of preparing for this war. Shutting down all the organizations in the country that could oppose him and taking over all the media and blasting propaganda against Ukraine and the West – all this shows that he was laying the groundwork for being able to totally control what would be said inside Russia once he decided to launch the invasion. Although people are focused on the money part of this – bankrupt Russia and the oligarchs to pressure Putin – I agree with others such as Mikhail Khodorkovsky (once Russia’s richest man who was put down by Putin) who say that Putin is an elderly criminal who is more focused on his place in Russian history than the money at this point. And a guy with a crazy mission and delusions of grandeur are more dangerous than a guy simply trying to collect more money.

In retrospect, Benny Gantz’s moves in Israel seem to have been preparation to profit from the recent loss of Prime Minister Bennett’s parliamentary majority this week. He is in the best position to become prime minister if Bennett cannot stay in power. Others tell me that Gantz’s party might not pass the electoral threshold to remain in the parliament in case of an election.

I just finished reading Jay Solomon’s “The Iran Wars” written in 2016 which recently caught my eye. He was chief middle east correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. It is an interesting read 6 years later because you can see how things turned out. Unfortunately, it took me so long to get to the end of the book that by the time I reached the end I had forgotten the beginning. But anyway, there is a pattern here and it matches a book that I read about Russia’s attempt to influence the 2016 elections. Both authors wrote that Obama’s team was so afraid of escalating tensions during negotiations with an aggressive counterpart, be it Russia or Iran, that they did not react to hostile actions. The problem was that the other side had no such qualms and kept pushing the envelope. Back then they were afraid of 20% enrichment and now we are talking about 90%. The Russians did whatever they wanted in 2016 and have gone on to invade Ukraine. The people running Biden’s foreign policy are the same as Obama, and they did not learn from history. In 2016, Obama’s team kept conceding to the Iranians to the point that red lines were no longer red lines for the Americans; the French were insisting that the Americans hold tight. So were many Democrats and Republicans as well as the Israelis and Gulf Arab states. You can see 6 years later that the deal was a lousy deal and that even now Biden’s team wants a deal so much that they are letting the Iranians walk all over them and the Israelis and Gulf states are again protesting.

I really would like to see a moderate Republican run for president and bring back establishment Republicans who have a good record of handling foreign policy. Chris Sununu of New Hampshire would be a good choice; he recently trounced Biden in a poll in his state. Biden had carried New Hampshire with 53% last year, so this is big news.

Home-made macaroons! Something looks Yummy.

During Passover, I was trying to think of some relevance to our day in history. 40% of the Matza we eat for Passover is produced in the Ukraine. The last couple of years have taught us that we take for granted our peace and quiet and the idea that the world beyond our borders is optional and mostly boring. But the Ukrainians could not, even after 30 years of independence. In a stroke, the Russians marched in and attempted to take over their country. Millions have fled and their cities have been destroyed. Countries like Moldavia and the Baltics are afraid for their future. People in Western Europe started stocking up on radiation therapies. Even a few years ago, a friend from the UK who works in the pharmaceutical industry was not permitted to stay overnight in the Baltics for fear that the Russians might invade at any time. Imagine what it is like now.

A few weeks ago my Russian barber said Putin was a brilliant man and now he thinks he’s an idiot. Actually, I’m really surprised at what an idiot Putin has turned out to be. Reminds me of the 1980’s when everyone thought the Japanese were so smart and taking over the world until we found out they had actually done some stupid things such as buying prime companies and real estate they had no idea what to do with and that they didn’t know how to run their economy. For the past 30 years, the Japanese have been laggards in the world and if you invested in that country’s markets you lost money.

Last year when Russia’s army had these huge exercises, they told people that 200,000 troops participated and it scared Western analysts. Except that it was lie – for every 2,000 troops they said actually participated, only about 200 were there. For every ship that was there, they said there was a squadron of ships. The question is whether or not Putin actually knew all this. You have to assume he did not. But that’s probably because anyone who would have told him the truth would have been afraid of being shot. On the day he invaded Ukraine, he called in 30-40 oligarchs and they sat there stone-faced while he told them about what he did. Nobody had the balls to stand up to him because he made them what they are and they didn’t want to be tossed into prison. Not that he asked anyone for their opinions before he went into Ukraine. It was just a few people who made the decision, which is part of the reason it failed. Hardly anyone in the military was trusted to be in on the decision or the planning.

Why would you want to stand up to him? A Mr. Tinkov was worth more than $9 billion in November. He was an oligarch who started a big bank in Russia. After he criticized Putin on social media about 2 weeks ago, he was threatened with his life and was told his bank would be nationalized. He sold his 35% stake for 3% of its value. That’s still $270 million but nothing like what he had owned.

Same goes for China’s Xi. Nobody wants to stand up to him. It’s clear that this Zero Covid strategy is a loser for China. It’s trashing their economy and it ain’t working. He’s doing tremendous damage to the country on all fronts and I can’t see any redeeming qualities to what he’s doing there. If I were one of the top people running China, I wouldn’t vote for him at this year’s party congress to stay on the job. In both cases, you see the danger of one man being unchecked and not being able to adjust to a situation and bringing down the whole country with him. Doesn’t matter if he reverses himself on technology companies; they don’t trust him anymore and markets outside China don’t need to kowtow to him. He’s screwed up China’s economy and has made the whole country’s agenda revolve around him. You have thousands of officials running around like idiots and treating Chinese people like dogs because they are more afraid of being seen not to be eager beavers doing his bidding, even if they know it’s stupid. But hey, if you want China to stay down for another generation, let this guy stay in charge as long as he likes.  I’m going to suspect that Xi must be wondering how effective his vaunted military is going to be if he actually tries to invade Taiwan. I’d bet not even half as good as anyone thinks. They have no real combat experience over there and that’s part of the problem you see with the Russians. And we all know the North Koreans are faking what they’ve got. The Americans have not just the military kit but the combat experience. OK, so let’s say that Xi was mighty smart in using Covid lockdowns to turn Shanghai and Hong Kong into police states. But whos’s going to want to stay in that police state? Only losers. Great win!

As far as Putin goes, it’s pretty clear to me that Russia is going to lose in Ukraine several months from now. Time works against him here and he’s just digging himself in deeper in terms of the humble pie he’s going to eat. They are eventually going to run out of personnel, armaments, money and goods. Russia has limits on what it can produce for its military and it’s used up 2 years of tanks already. Not to mention that it won’t be able to sell stuff to others if it doesn’t have what it needs and its customers are going to be underwhelmed with what they’re selling after seeing how lousy their stuff is. The Russians spend $65 billion a year on their military; the US will have spent $40 billion in Ukraine in just 2 months and that’s not counting all the other countries pitching in.

They are going to absolutely bury the Russians with this war and leave that country sprawling for the next 20 years digging itself out just like Reagan buried the Soviet Union after outspending them. After May 15, it’s gonna be really hard to get their oil sold as the two top global oil traders have pulled out from Russia. NATO is going to include Finland and Sweden and they are good players that would make the Baltics pretty safe. The US is offering special immigration visas to nuclear scientists from Russia and anyone with a brain is leaving if they can get out, even more so if the Russians reinstitute a draft to mobilize more soldiers. Countries that rely on Russia will have to think twice about whether being allied with a country with a shitty military is a really good ally to have. Secondary sanctions will kick in affecting China, India, Africa, Latin America and all the countries that have been playing both sides. Airplanes won’t fly inside Russia for lack of spare parts and retail stores will have bare shelves. The West is going to make sure he loses and cannot save face. He might use nuclear weapons but the west will not back down. They could knock out his positions in Syria and the Mediterranean in a few hours and then he’d see all his work of 20 years go down the drain. It’s funny because the west pulled out of Afghanistan to save money and yet it’s given more money to Ukraine in the past 2 months (if Biden’s $33 billion is approved by Congress that will mean the US has spent $46 billion so far) than it spent in a year in Afghanistan which was about $40 billion on average.  Like I say a lot here, pre-emptive investment is always cheaper than cleaning up after the fact. If Biden could get the Saudis on board to flood the oil markets for the check mate, the Russians would be swept on the mat just like they were when there was an oil glut in the 1980’s.

Now let’s switch gears on Ukraine for a minute. I had an interesting phone call with an Israeli attorney friend of 30 years who is British educated and who has a wife from Eastern Ukraine. When you talk to him, you get a very different take on what’s going on with the Ukraine and you cannot dismiss it as Russian propaganda, because his wife has family there and they are telling her what’s going on. He himself lives part-time in Romania so he sees Eastern Europe up front. Interestingly, he tells me that he keeps his teenage kids in Timisoara because between Miami, Israel and that city in Romania, he says they have by far the best schools. He says that the Western media is either ignoring or not reporting some very important things that are relevant to this issue.

He says that for 8 years there’s been war in the eastern provinces and that Ukraine has been killing people of Russian ethnicity who live in the area. Putin told Zelensky that it had to stop or that he would invade. He was telling him this even one week before he invaded. Zelensky asked the Americans what to do and they said they would have his back. But not really. My friend says that in these regions people would much rather be part of Russia than the Ukraine, which is opposite to what we’ve been reading in the media where they say that even Russians in this region are opposed to Russia. My other friend who has trained Ukrainian troops and is on top of things disagrees and says that if Ukrainians were shooting Russians, the Russians would be calling in international observers and producing evidence of it. You can decide who you want to believe.

Anyway, he has several criticisms and they are worth reviewing: 1. He says that Biden’s foreign policy team is incompetent and paralyzed with inaction (he says that Biden is viewed as a nominally in charge guy who is a ‘joke’), that sanctions are never going to work against a country that holds so many of the planet’s natural resources and a head of state worth $100 billion who might have lost a few yachts but otherwise took over 400 airplanes. He says that Russia feels threatened by NATO expansionism and that their concerns must be dealt with. Had Trump been president, Putin would never have invaded because Trump was not in favor of expanding NATO. 2. China and India are chomping at the bit to renegotiate their contracts with Russia on more favorable terms; India will always side with Russia who has stood up for India through the years. Between China, India, Latin America and Africa, all these countries will be trading with Russia, leaving the Americans and Europeans powerful but alone in the world. Just look at the Saudis agreeing to take Chinese currency for their oil instead of dollars. This represents a sea change in the world of business and the Americans need to get off their high horse and be more dynamic with its policy. The Americans just give out money to Africa but the Chinese invest and become partners all over the place; they are more situated in these countries than the Americans and are securing what they need and making it hard to ignore them. Ultimately, he thinks that Putin never expected to take all of Ukraine and will be fine to take the eastern part of the country appearing to have conceded the western part, but having gotten what he hoped to achieve.

I put this stuff here for your consideration and admit that I don’t know what the heck is going on here beyond what I read, but I think I know enough to be satisfied that US Intelligence has been performing better than I expected, and the efforts of the last decade to train Ukrainian troops was a good investment, certainly better than what the US got out of training Syrians, Afghanis and Iraqis. These events have also shaken up Taiwan policy, and the US is now stepping hard on the Taiwanese to be more realistic about which arms it purchases and what kinds of preparations it makes for a Chinese invasion that is becoming more plausible than before. The Chinese embrace of Russia has awakened the rest of the world to giving more credence to those who see China as a threat to global stability.

Reception at the beautiful UAE Embassy in DC. at the Institute Conference. Looks like the inside of a Grand Hyatt hotel, right?

I recently attended a conference of the Washington Institute, a think tank specializing in Near and Middle East affairs, where I am a Trustee. I was hoping that I would hear a bunch of newsworthy things to report to you, but 99% of what I heard I already know and wouldn’t be different from anything you already know from reading this site. Beyond what you hear, you also get to meet and see a lot of important people and to form impressions of them. For instance, the King of Jordan makes a really professional presentation and seems to know his stuff. You get the impression from him that there is a good old boys club in the Middle East of leaders of countries that coordinate their positions. Then there is the ambassador of the UAE to the US Yousef Al-Otaiba who comes across as super sexy and a really polished representative of his country who has managed to thrive in Washington over the past 15 years. Then you meet someone like Philip Gordon, national security advisor to the Vice President, and you could understand why Kamala Harris is having an awful time gaining traction as Veep and why you would not feel too confident with this guy being in charge of national security if he gets promoted to NSA to the President. More about this later.

One of the main impressions I got from 3 days at this conference is that countries in the Middle East increasingly see the US as an unreliable partner. Like I haven’t told you that already. The UAE’s Otaiba didn’t say it aloud, but he gave unmistakable signals that he was furious with the US, and I know that when missiles from Yemen (proxies of Iran) rained down on Abu-Dhabi in January, the US didn’t call them to offer support and when the UAE asked for support, they got shit in return. They had to go to the Israelis who gave them whatever they could. It shouldn’t surprise you that I attended a beautiful dinner party at the UAE embassy including the ambassadors of the UAE, Bahrain and Israel on a date which happened to be Israeli Independence Day. I was told that was probably the biggest dinner party ever hosted at that embassy which, by the way, included an open bar, which you might not expect at the embassy of a Moslem-dominated country. One senior level analyst said the US was guilty of “malpractice” by Biden’s self-important foreign policy team that doesn’t believe in returning phone calls and taking advice. Even parts of the government that often interface with analysts such as the team negotiating the Iran deal don’t really seem to listen to outside advisors. So far, they seem to be doing just “fantastic” on their own. To my mind, time is going by, the Iranians are clearly playing for time and moving along with their nuclear program pushing US-declared red lines further and further into irrelevance, and the US just keeps looking more desperate and without any options.

So if you know that Iran is not signing any nuclear deals with the US no matter how badly the US wants the deal and the reason many allies think the US has become a “joke” (you should hear what I hear on phone calls with people around the world), because they anticipate that in November the Congress will turn Republican and in 2 more years there will be a Republican president and that they themselves don’t have to deal with elections in the countries they run, you might think that the people in the White House would start to think that to get people like Russia and Iran to “Yes”, they might collaborate more with Republicans to show a united front in foreign policy so that people would be more likely to think that whatever the White House agrees to will be honored 2 years from now. In previous decades, White House administrations contained senior officials from both political parties. But instead, Nancy Pelosi goes to the Ukraine with zero Republicans legitimately invited, and then comes grandstanding back and attaches a bunch of Covid aid provisions to the Ukraine foreign aid bill that she knows Republicans won’t vote for. So what do you think people abroad think of us?

So I asked this Philip Gordon dude what he thinks about this, meaning whether or not we should recalibrate our foreign policy to be less partisan and perhaps more effective by taking a longer and more inclusive view of things. I saw him privately as he was leaving the room and he didn’t want to talk to me after hearing the question. Now, I’ve been around DC asking hard questions to top officials for 35 years and I expect people that are good at what they do to want to engage with me and talk about it. He wasn’t being put on the spot in front of an audience and at 9 at night he had nowhere to rush off to. He didn’t want to reply and his overall presentation was blah and not terribly realistic – the foreign policy experts took issue with a lot of what he said during sessions held the next day. So if you want to know why Kamala Harris sucks (and the consensus among virtually everyone I know is that she does), it’s partially because she’s got a sucky team of advisors like him.

The consensus opinions I heard were that there is too much loose talk in the Biden Administration about what they want to do in Ukraine and what we are doing, there is no Plan B in terms of what happens if there is no Iranian deal, and that the Biden Administration is too risk averse and therefore losing credibility abroad in terms of anyone thinking that America will actually do anything if attacked. Therefore, people are not sufficiently afraid of America and this needs to change. The effect of what we’re doing is to box ourselves in as our enemies become more certain of what the US will and will not do and therefore are able to push the envelope to a greater degree knowing we won’t react. We also look foolishly aggressive by bragging about things that ought to be kept secret and enable deniability so as not to goad our opponent into having to attack just to defend wounded pride. It’s just stupidity at both ends of the same candle.

Several senior think tank analysts said to me that I got this wrong – that the object for a party in America in power is to advance their ideological agenda and not necessarily to accomplish anything. And that if something in foreign affairs actually gets done, that’s icing on the cake but not actually intended. If so, that’s pretty sad.

Also sad: There was a session on Middle East Studies in American universities and how the field has alienated anyone who doesn’t agree to a progressive agenda. The pyrrhic nature of the victory is that nobody can name a single academic today that is known as a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs like the late Fouad Ajami, Bernard Lewis and Edward Said were. Now it’s just think tank people out there, because the ones that don’t take foreign money at least are seen as objective and not just hacks.

Jordan’s King Abdullah was probably the most interesting speaker, even though you expect heads of state to say little. He was very enthusiastically touting support of Iraq’s current prime minister who is up for election. I am told that he also backed him last year. He says that having a strong regional bloc to get things done and to make sure Iran doesn’t take over Iraq means having the current guy Khadimi keep his position. Frankly, I know nothing about him. I’m being told that MBZ, the de facto ruler of the UAE, has been prodding the King to make reforms in Jordan. Several concrete plans are on the table but the question is whether they will be implemented (of course nobody asked him about such pesky matters). I would imagine that if I were king of Jordan, I would be frustrated that after over 20 years on the job and being as old today as my father was when he died of cancer (61), that other than a new airport and some roads and buildings, cellphones and internet, the country looks pretty much the same as it did 30 years ago when I started visiting the place. Others will tell me that everyone should just be happy that the country hasn’t fallen to revolution and that considering how many demands are made upon the country (think of Syrian refugees) and how little the country has going for it, that it doesn’t break down.

He mentioned several times that Russian forces have been pulling back from Syria to be used in the Ukraine, leaving Iran and its proxies to fill the void. That was news to me and it relates to an earlier discussion in this paper about Russian activity in the Mediterranean – I was suggesting the Americans could eject them from their gains in that region and indeed they are already having to walk away from positions they hold due to being stretched thin in Ukraine. He’s hoping that regional actors would like to try and improve the situation in Syria. The UAE is lining up trying to bribe the Syrians and we’ll see in the coming months if they succeed in getting Assad to take the bait and move away from the Iranians – I wouldn’t bet on it. He’d probably rather stay alive than get goodies from the UAE.

New recruiting sign at your HR office? This was at Rice to Riches rice pudding shop in Soho in NYC.

He predicted that more countries will join the Abraham Accords, and it’s clear to me that everyone who is on board wants the Saudis to join in. It’s interesting that Israel joined CENTCOM, the US central command for the middle east, and it interfaces there with defense attaches in countries with whom it does not have official relations such as Saudi. The King was talking to us from Centcom in Tampa, Florida where he was on a business trip. (It was quite nice of him not to diss the Institute’s forum while being on a business trip to a military base in Florida.) Kings don’t usually go to Centcom but this one does, because he sees himself as a military rat running a country. The other thing he mentioned several times was how he was coordinating with other regional leaders such as Egypt in terms of lining up votes on UN resolutions. King Abdullah doesn’t look as young as he did when he became king and he has a facial tick and looks somewhat aged after recent spinal surgery, but he is highly professional, fluent in English, and he is not the kind of guy you would ignore and would want to work with, not because he is charismatic or powerful, but because he comes across as a steady hand in a region where competence and prudence is needed. He’s not as savvy as his late father, but he’s still OK. [Maybe a bit petty – I wouldn’t keep feuding with his brother as he is, and I’m told his brother Hamza has virtually no street cred in Jordan. He belongs in exile in the UK or in the US. The UAE’s MBZ got rid of that stain he had while keeping the princess captured, and maybe he can tell Abdullah to do the same and let go of this.] Maybe this is why Jordan has been the winner of bipartisan support in the US, with even more foreign aid than Israel gets, and which went up under Trump at a time when foreign aid tended to go down.

Regional actors see Turkey’s Erdogan’s charm offensive for what it is – trying to get himself across the finish line with upcoming elections in his country. They expect him to revert to form if he wins, so it is a bit of a hedge all around by countries that will take what they can get from him now, and not expect too much into the future. That also means that Turkey won’t get much now because they don’t trust him.

The Israeli government may not survive long and the wild card is whether or not Bibi Netanyahu (the former prime minister who is in legal jeopardy) runs for re-election. If he doesn’t, several people in the current prime minister Bennett’s party see opportunity in switching parties and trying to take over the Likud if that party can contemplate life after Bibi. Generally, a new election would yield the same result as the past 3 elections, and many in the government have more to lose in an election than to gain, but because the government hinges on just a few people who might find advantage out of this, they may all have to sink together. It’s called the Weakest Link and that’s how Israel runs. Until Abbas dies, nobody expects any action on the Palestinian issue. He’s an old man who refuses to step aside and the corruption is so bad there that the various people who might succeed him are all looked at through the lens of who is more or less corrupted by whom.

One of their analysts Hanin Ghaddar wrote an interesting book called Hizbullah Land giving you a very full picture of what Lebanon looks like in terms of Hizbullah. My takeaway is that the previous generation of Hizbullah had people who were more disciplined and motivated by ideology; now it’s become more of a gun for hire organization and it’s been harder to make payments since the country’s finances have gone kaput. Also, the organization is not as pure as it seemed to be when it was seen to be defending Lebanon against Israel. Now it’s viewed as an instrument to protect Syria’s Assad and to simply control Lebanon for the benefit of Iran.  Mothers are not so thrilled to be martyrs for this, especially when they don’t get the payments they expected or those that deliver the payments expect sex favors in return from the surviving women. My takeaway from this is that Hizbullah will show reduced motivation as a fighting force unless the Iranians get a ton of money out of the nuclear deal and it gets funneled back to Lebanon.

A very slimmed down Karen celebrating her birthday

In another example of something nobody needed at the moment that has come out of the blue – the abortion issue takes center stage as a leaked opinion from the Supreme Court says it will actually do what everyone expected – reverse the Roe v Wade decision in the 1970’s that made abortion a constitutionally protected right in America. Now it will be up to the states to decide (which to me on a certain level is not at all a bad thing), but that effectively means it will be illegal in almost half the country, and Congress in a few years will vote to ban it, once the Republicans control both the Congress and the White House. A clear majority of Americans do not believe abortions should be banned, and my advice to Republicans is that this falls within the department of things that just because you can do them doesn’t mean that you should. The prospect of a national ban will scare people because today it will be abortions and tomorrow it will be something else. Also, I think it’s just hypocritical. If you say you are against government telling people what to do such as to mandate masks and that government shouldn’t interfere in matters of personal choice and responsibility, then you shouldn’t tell people they can’t have abortions. I’m fine with not using government funds to pay for abortions and I think that people who consider it sinful shouldn’t have abortions, but I don’t think that government needs to ban all kinds of sinful behavior just like we stopped banning gay sex 50 years ago. The crime of Murder is something I think we all understand as one of the ten biblical commandments commonly defined as the malicious killing of another living person; abortion is not in that category even if you consider it a type of murder and nobody seriously thinks that is what God meant in the book of Exodus when he said “thou shalt not murder.” Nobody knew about abortions in ancient Egypt any more than Jews in the desert knew about elevators which Orthodox Jews generally don’t use on the Sabbath. That’s not what American government is supposed to be about. This is a free country and we generally don’t want government messing around with people’s personal decisions. It’s going to be a big thing to tell people that what they were doing for 50 years is now a crime and people are not going to like being told what to do any more than the Democrats are looking for trouble when they try to reinstate the mask mandates on airplanes if the appeals court upholds the mandate.

Republicans might win the battle here, and after 30 years of working the statehouses and local districts mainly for this one purpose, they deserve this victory, but they will lose the war. People will come to despise the Supreme Court as a house of political hacks, which it basically already is but not as in-your-face as this. It will scare people that the Republicans are a bunch of Talibans in waiting that talk about personal freedoms except when it offends their evangelical base. It shows a lack of respect for public opinion in a country where several of the last justices were appointed under weird situations by a president who was elected by a minority vote and who stated in their confirmation hearings that they would respect settled law, which is also a bedrock of conservatism. And someday the Democrats will come into power and take revenge. It is judicial activism to turn the legal landscape topsy turvy, even if the Roe decision was lousy law. This is just no way to run a country and it will put America into the dumpster of countries that are backward in a world that is not moving in this direction, even in countries seen as Catholic-dominant where laws outlawing abortion have been falling away.

Practically speaking, poor people will be the most inconvenienced. People will get their pills sent to them via friends if they can’t get them directly and anyone who really wants an abortion will get one. It will be a victory for the books but with the unintended consequence that people will just thumb their noses and do what they want anyway. It may alienate the church from people and wind up being a net minus. Coercion does that, you know.

When does life begin anyway? Get this: Bret Stephens wrote in the NY Times, “When the kids move out of the house.”

Let’s end off with a funny joke that wins my award for stupidest question of the month. My kid was on a trip to Israel this week bathing in the Dead Sea and some locals cat-called the girls and groped some of them. (Where was the security detail, I wondered? On the beach watching?) The kids jumped on the two buses and got out of the there. The school sent out a note telling us about these delicate feathered kids and how they put the boys on one bus and the girls on another bus so they could process all this. Someone asked me, what about the trans kids? Did they have a third bus for them?  Did one drop down from the dessert sky like Manna? What I want to know is if you were a girl and felt threatened, would you really want some trans boy on the bus sitting there commiserating with you?

Next month we are set to go to Iceland, and my wife and I are looking forward to a weekend in a castle in Ireland as well as a visit to Dublin in July. We are hoping that the Grand Egyptian Museum will open in Cairo in November and are planning a visit to Egypt in December if it all goes well.  Hopefully, over the next several months the Ukraine matter will resolve itself, although I think that if it does it will be despite US diplomatic efforts, and that the financial markets will rebound soon after. Patience is a virtue here.

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