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The National Security Council as Canary in the White House

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If you’re on Twitter, you should be following Colin Kahl’s feed. Not only was Colin the Deputy National Security Advisor under Obama—and therefore knows stuff—but he was also involved in the transition process, which gives him insights into the workings of this rather opaque and unusual White House.

This morning—as I learned from Cheryl Rofer— he tweeted about Russia, the National Security Council (NSC), and Bannon’s “Strategic Initiatives Group.

As Colin points out, none of this is likely. None of it makes much sense. Russia can’t do much to help counterbalance China. Putin’s unlikely to make concessions of the kind that would make any of this remotely worthwhile. What he doesn’t mention is that it is far from obvious whether Moscow can credibly commit to uphold any grand bargain. It would take enormous skill and planning to proceed in a way that doesn’t set the United States up for massive failure.

Yet here we are, with Trump defaulting back to his campaign rhetoric on Russia and standing by while Putin probes American resolve by buzzing our naval vessels and making a push in Ukraine. .

Colin goes on to lay out two possible reasons for the Trump Administration’s continued folly.

On the one hand, the preferences of the American ethno-nationalist right—particularly its opposition to the European Union and liberal order—align with Russia’s. We might call this the “elective affinity” story. It’s been my default understanding of why elements within the Trump Administration seem determined to undermine US power and influence.

On the other hand, this all amounts to  a “quid pro quo” for Russian assistance in the election. Such a scenario also raises questions of kompromat and other, more complicated, explanations. Regardless of how far down the rabbit hole one prefers to go, it seems increasingly likely that we’re looking at, if nothing else, tacit collusion between members of the Trump campaign and Russian agents.

Of course, neither is exclusive. Some kind of elective affinity—or, at least, shared interests—helps makes sense of why Moscow sought to influence the election in the first place.

Setting aside the “why” for a moment, the possibility of a parallel decision-making structure—let alone one headed by Bannon—making policy should worry everyone. It creates serious concerns about accountability. And it suggests that other national-security principals on the NSC—such as Secretary of Defense Mattis—may prove unable to counterbalance Bannon, Miller, and other ideologues.

Indeed, the evidence suggests that—at least for now—there’s little hope that any “adults” are going to come in and really limit the damage. I still have difficult wrapping my head around the extent of the calamity we now face. The last time someone used American foreign policy as a demonstration of dubious ideological beliefs, the United States invaded Iraq. Hundreds of thousands died. The fallout continues to rock the Middle East. Yet, somehow, the infrastructure of American security survived. Now we have a cabal of white nationalist bloggers intent on correcting that state of affairs.

There is, of course, another possible outcome. Faced with mounting political pressure at home, the Trump Administration swings to a hardline stance on Moscow. Even if it doesn’t overcompensate in dangerous ways—which I think not unlikely—I can imagine of all kinds of reasons why such radically inconsistent signals would prove destabilizing.

McCain can give all the speeches he wants to. The President enjoys enormous discretion on foreign policy and national security, and it requires a very committed legislative branch to put a dent in that discretion. So here we are.

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  • howard

    As best us outside amateurs can tell, this parallel bannon-run security group may well be the single most existential danger in the entire administration. If I were a democratic elected I would be constantly talking about president bannon and his sidekick little Donnie to see if I could bait a blowup.

    As for the supposed adults like mattis, they better get out while they have any good reputation left.

  • smott999

    So late on a getaway Friday before recess, this happened –
    http://www.cnn.com/2017/02/17/politics/comey-russia-senate/

    Which per some reporter’s tweets had Senators tight-lipped and even “ashen” afterwards. Would not even confirm that Comey had been there tho he was plainly seen leaving.

    Some interesting Tweets
    https://mobile.twitter.com/ericgeller/status/832790505452871680

    Here’s hoping it was something big, and gets us real independent public hearings.

    I’m starting to believe notions re there being Russian moles in the FBI NY field office. These would be the guys who misled the NYT and leaked to Rudy. But trying hard not to get on that scary slope. Oy. Louise Mensch had a long article about it.

    • howard

      I think the CNN Link’s reference to being sure the White House doesn’t destroy documents says it all.

      There’s no doubt that the Trump insiders are the sorts of people who think Nixon should have burned the tapes.

      • smott999

        I’m guessing that Comey’s info is not of the paper variety.
        Trump clearly has no notion of security re electronics. There’s drug dealers here in Pittsburgh that have more secure cell phones than Trump.
        Comey has tapes of convos w Russian links .
        And God willing he’s got another tape involving Russian hookers at the Moskva Ritz in 2013.

        • Tom in BK

          There’s drug dealers here in Pittsburgh that have more secure cell phones than Trump.

          Drug dealers from the damn 90’s had better info security than Trump. Even a page to a guy with “420 911” was more secure.

      • keta

        I think the CNN Link’s reference to being sure the White House doesn’t destroy documents says it all.

        Yeah, that jumped out at me too. Though senator Warner’s assurances to this are risible. The White House can, and has, “lost” or “destroyed” all manner of documentation, and as per Daniel in the OP:

        …the possibility of a parallel decision-making structure—let alone one headed by Bannon—making policy should worry everyone. It creates serious concerns about accountability.

      • Dennis Orphen

        “Keep on burning as much documentation as you can and hope the Russians get here before the Americans.”

    • No Longer Middle Aged Man

      First linked article mentions “close to 1,000 Russian internet trolls, actual people, working trying to manipulate our news.” Hello Urd.

      • postmodulator

        Having seen a lot of them, on Reddit and elsewhere, I would tend to think that Urd is too subtle to be one. They also type mediocre English — there are a lot of Russian tics, like dropping articles, things like that. Russian doesn’t have articles and it seems to be the last thing that native Russian speakers master about English.

        • smott999

          What was stunning to me was the near-total disappearance of Russian Comment trolls on various media outlets, whether it was simply Yahoo or NYT or WAPo….absolutely the most virulent anti-Clinton, pro-Trump commenters….even on progressive boards.

          Then after Election Day, go to Comments in WaPo, and they were GONE.

          It was stunning.

          • postmodulator

            I suspect they are all in French language classes.

          • nemdam

            Also suspicious was some of the online Bernie hangouts suddenly became sane the day after the primary ended. I know Reddit’s community changed overnight.

    • I think it’s precious that these Republican senators are flapping their gums like they’re the tough guys who are going to conduct a thorough investigation into this. Let’s just say none of them has demonstrated in the past that they have the stones, ability, or interest to follow through on this.

      • smott999

        Hers hopng that the IC has ways of convincing them….

      • Whirrlaway

        They got through the Watergate hearings all right, more or less.

        • efgoldman

          They got through the Watergate hearings all right, more or less.

          I listened to and watched almost evey minute of the Watergate hearings, house and senate. The situations are not at all comparable. When someone like Cornyn is considered the “moderate, reasonable” Republiklown on the committee, we are already pretty far down the rabbit hole.
          Weiker was a RINO, probably less conservative than Ervin. Baker was a centrist. I don’t remember Gurney from Florida at all.

        • There is nobody in this current crew of posers who had anything to do with the Watergate hearings.

    • Phil Perspective

      Oy. Louise Mensch had a long article about it.

      Why do people treat her or 20Committee as serious people? Both are cranks. It’s hilarious that liberals are teaming up with Glenn Beck types.

      • nemdam

        The fact that you oppose them now make me think they are credible.

  • Joe_JP

    I’m reminded of an old PBS miniseries regarding a left leaning PM winning in the UK & a major “outrageous” thing done was to get a bank loan or something from them. Now, a conservative wants “use” Russia, though the bet is the other way around.

    (Don’t recall the name of the series.)

  • Morse Code for J

    From here on out, I never want to hear about the importance of character or patriotism in an officeholder from a Republican.

    I likewise want to hear nothing about the value of restoring a system governed by bipartisan norms from a Democrat.

    • I second this. fact, my default assumption is that if you are a Republican officeholder you have no character or love of country and you’re just in it for the scams being an officeholder provides you opportunity to.

      • Dennis Orphen

        The Republican party is a criminal organization. All the social conservative bullshit is just smoke and mirrors, part of their modus operandi, tactics, means not ends.

      • nemdam

        Hell, I’m getting to the point where I assume if you are a Republican, you are conspiring with Russia and therefore a literal traitor.

        Nixon is a choir boy compared to the current party.

  • Your link to Rofer’s site is bad.

    • keta

      Try this.

      • dnexon

        Thanks. Should be fixed.

  • LosGatosCA

    Senator Mavericky McMaverick was his usual mavericky self in that speech.

    Right before/after he voted for every unqualified cabinet appointee and supports every piece of legislation that Trump will sign.

    But, he’s the most mavericky poltician to ever own a tire swing!

    • howard

      because this is the time for a popular front, i’m prepared to ignore all of that if mccain does start to vote against trump.

      i don’t expect to have to be put to the test, but just in case….

      • keta

        Seconded. Past pathetic performance matters not a whit if some of these fugnuts can rally against the most destructive US president in generations.

      • Joe_JP

        i’m prepared to ignore all of that if mccain does start to vote against trump.

        He did just vote against a Trump appointee out of concern the person was against military funding.

        http://www.politico.com/story/2017/02/mccain-mulvaney-budget-omb-235069

        • rea

          The way Trump is going, we’re going to need military funding.

  • GeorgeBurnsWasRight

    Putting together a few new reports:
    – Trump thinks he’s a genius at negotiating, should negotiate everything personally, and all previous agreements should be re-negotiated because if he didn’t do them they’re “awful”
    – Trump only trusts a literal handful of people
    – State Dept. shut out of meeting w/ Bibi
    – State Dept. laying off employees
    – competent people are refusing his job offers

    What a cluster fuck his presidency is.

    • howard

      the most amazing part of his self-deception is that he really thinks he is a genius at negotiating, whereas the historic record shows that he’s downright terrible at it.

      • so-in-so

        Right, stiffing people after the fact doesn’t make the original deal “genius”.

        • howard

          and he stiffs them because he tends to overpay in the first place, which is how a man runs a casino into bankruptcy.

          a true great deal-maker – let us say warren buffett for the sake of discussion – never overpays.

    • – Trump only trusts a literal handful of people

      Literal? That is to say, in his case, fewer than two Nac Mac Feegle?

      • wjts

        That man may trust the Nac Mac Feegle, but not even Daft Wullie would trust him. “Nae King! Nae quin! Nae Laird! Nae master! We willna’ be fooled agin!”

        • lizzie

          Lucky for them, they know about happy ass corp ass.

          • Hogan

            Stand back! We’ve got a cheap lawyer, and we’re nae afeard to use him!

    • Ken

      “It’s a great deal, a genius deal, a really great I mean 370 electoral votes greatest landslide ever, we’re very great dealers and this is bigly historic.”

      – Trump, announcing that he’s sold Alaska back to the Russians for promises of future cooperation against ISIS and twenty-four dollars of beads.

  • royko

    Giving a sweetheart deal to Russia at this stage would be pouring gasoline on the Russia election story.

    If he were smart, he’d let it die down before playing favorites with Putin

    If he were smart, he’d wait.

    If he were smart.

    • LosGatosCA

      I don’t use the word ‘if’ anymore.

      Too many bad memories and I’m not getting my hopes up just to be disappointed again.

      What if – Trump voters were actually people with some sense of moral responsibility
      What if – the media understood their most important role in a democracy and why the 1st amendment was the first amendment.
      What if – Democrats understood the game they are competing in and acted accordingly

      Sadly, no.

      • royko

        Sending a love letter to Russia right now is the worst thing he can do politically. Given it’s Trump, I think he goes ahead anyway. I’m delighted. It may end his Presidency, or it may just give Paul Ryan a headache. Either way, I’ll take it.

  • keta

    Daniel, what about Tillerson, Russian sanctions, and Exxon/Russia oil drilling in the arctic? I understand Russia desperately needs the revenues this exploitation would bring, and Exxon would realize huge earnings as well. Some readings indicate Tillerson was Trump’s choice as SoS solely to facilitate this undertaking.

    Any insights?

    • Phil Perspective

      Maybe it’s just as simple as that?

    • vic rattlehead

      I think that’s the most plausible view of Sexy Rexy, and another reason why McCain is a spineless, preening coward. Also, re Exxon – I just picked up Private Empire. Looks good so far.

  • Davis X. Machina

    I keep bumping into people who are indifferent to all of this because the important thing is that someone smashes the US hegemony. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s Trump, from within, out of incompetence, or Putin, from without, pretending he’s Peter the Great, who does the smashing.

    In other words, no hegemon is better than a Russian hegemon, which in turn is better than a US hegemon.

    The absence of any costs to this process, or whether China makes the world a better place by swooping in and picking up the pieces, doesn’t warrant consideration, apparently.

    • efgoldman

      I keep bumping into people who are indifferent to all of this because the important thing is that someone smashes the US hegemony.

      Who are these people, do they matter or are they just cranks, and why are they in Maine?

      • Davis X. Machina

        Some of them were Kucinich people, back when that was a thing. The “Department of Peace” people. Been around the block with them any number of times, since the 2 Jesse Jackson campaigns at least. They’re oppressed by having to live with the shame of residency in This, the Focus of Evil in the Modern World the US. Funny thing, I meet them nowadays in the context of trying to keep immigrants from being deported from This the Focus of Evil in the Modern World the US.

        • efgoldman

          So, a pain in the ass but no influence.

    • Just_Dropping_By

      You’re assuming that supporters of ending US hegemony haven’t weighed the “costs to this process,” but perhaps they simple have a different conclusion about what constitutes a “cost.”

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        or maybe you’re assuming Davis hasn’t spent enough time around those people to know what he’s talking about

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