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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Saturday Soother – Great Wall Edition, January 12, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Mutianya Section of the Great Wall, about two hours from Beijing

As we cruise into the weekend, and as Wrongo writes this, Trump has yet to declare a national emergency about the southern border. For some background, Time Magazine reports: (parenthesis by Wrongo)

(Declaring a national emergency)…would be a drastic action, but he (Trump) would hardly be the first American president to take extraordinary steps for what he sees as the interest of the nation.

In fact, not only are national emergencies more common than most Americans probably realize, they can also go on for decades — and whether or not Trump declares an emergency for the wall, the nation is already subject to dozens of emergency declarations that are ongoing today.

To be exact, 31 national emergencies are on the books.

The oldest is the national emergency with respect to Iran, declared Nov. 14, 1979. It’s been in place for more than 39 years. The most recent was declared just last November. It was to block the property of certain persons who contributed to destabilizing Nicaragua. Who knew?

The National Emergencies Act of 1976 in theory, requires the President to spell out the powers from specific laws that make it legal for him to declare a national state of emergency, and requires the House and the Senate to review the declaration every six months to see if it’s still necessary. To end a national emergency, both chambers of Congress have to pass a joint resolution.

The shutdown debate is becoming more about presidential power than it is about secure borders. Trump is willing to press the bet. It remains to be seen if Democrats want to play that game as well.

But, it’s time for the weekend to begin! Here in Connecticut’s northwest hills, the morning temperature is expected to be single digits. So beyond the constant shutdown news, we need serious soothing from the cold weather.

Let’s start by brewing up a cup of Portland OR’s Coava Coffee’s single origin Karuthi AA Kenyan coffee ($15/250 grams). The brewer says that it has a long, resonant finish centered on berry and coconut, supported by ginger blossom and chocolate.

Now take a look outside while staying on a warm perch. Today, we are switching from our usual Baroque music to the blues, which seems appropriate after the week we’ve had. Listen to Stevie Ray Vaughn’s “Wall of Denial” from his 1989 album, “In Step”.

Sample of Lyrics:

A wall of denial – is fallin’ down
Wo, it’s fallin’ so hard – down to the ground
Never knew something so strong could be washed away by tears
But this wall of denial was just built on fear

This song should play in its entirety, every time Trump mentions “Border Wall“.

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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Nothing Happened

The Daily Escape:

Snow in Sonoran Desert near Tucson – 2019 photo by Back o’ Beyond

Nothing happened during Trump’s dog and pony show last night. He tried reframing his demand for a wall as a need for better security from drugs, terrorists and criminals. Today, he’s again brought up the national emergency trope. This should be America’s reaction:

Much of his talk was a return to his campaign message that brown people from south of the border must be stopped before they pollute our glorious and exceptional culture. The biggest whopper was that:

Law enforcement professionals have asked for $5.6 billion.

We know who did the asking. We also know that most drugs enter via existing ports of entry that cannot be walled off. We know that the vast majority of terrorists enter via airports, and the paltry number stopped at the border came in from our wall-less neighbor to the north, Canada. Simply put, he couldn’t put together a coherent argument for why this funding dispute about fence construction justifies a government shutdown.

At the end of the day, there is nothing more banal in American politics than a president having a proposal he can’t get the opposition party to agree with. If every policy standoff ended in a government shutdown, we couldn’t have a country at all.

This raises the frightening question of how a president who can’t successfully manage peace and prosperity would deal with an actual crisis.

And one may be in the wings. On Sunday, National Security Advisor John Bolton tried to set conditions for a US retreat from Syria, changing what Trump has said about leaving as soon as possible. Bolton, on a trip to Israel and Turkey, said he would stress with Turkish officials, including President Erdogan, that Kurdish forces must be protected:

We don’t think the Turks ought to undertake military action that’s not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States at a minimum…so they don’t endanger our troops, but also so that they meet the president’s requirement that the Syrian opposition forces that have fought with us are not endangered.”

Turkey was not amused. The YPG Kurds, our allies in Syria, are affiliated with the PKK which is viewed as a terrorist group in Turkey. Turkey has said they won’t allow that group to exist on its border as an organized military force.

When Bolton, accompanied by Joint Chiefs head Joe Dunford and Syria envoy James Jeffrey, landed in Turkey, they received a cold shoulder. The planned meeting with President Erdogan didn’t happen. The meeting was held instead with the Turkish National Security Advisor Ibrahim Kalin and took less than two hours. A planned joint press conference was canceled.

After Bolton’s meeting, Raqip Solyu, Turkey Correspondent for MiddleEastEye reported on an Erdogan speech to his parliament group. It was a slap in Bolton’s face:

YPG/PKK are terrorists. Some say ‘don’t touch them because they are Kurds’. This is unacceptable. Everyone can be a terrorist. They could be Turkmans. Their ethnicity doesn’t matter. Bolton made a big mistake by his statements…

Solyu also reported that Erdogan said:

As it happened in the past, despite our clear agreement with Trump on US withdrawal from Syria, different voices started to come out from different levels of the American administration.

An editorial in an Erdogan aligned newspaper called Bolton’s position a soft coup against Trump.

We have to ask: Is Trump really in charge?

We know he got tough on having a wall once Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter said he was a weakling if he kept the government open without getting his wall.

The NYT reported that in a lunch with television anchors before last night’s Oval Office address, Trump said he was not inclined to give the speech, but was talked into it by his advisers. Trump said:

It’s not going to change a damn thing, but I’m still doing it….

Erdogan likewise had a deal with Trump about the US leaving Syria. Bolton has changed the deal, to add conditions and to prolong the timeline for exit.

So, where is Trump on these issues? If he sticks with what Bolton said, Erdogan is likely to escalate to test who is in charge. His army will probably fire artillery on one or more Kurdish positions near the Turkish border. It may even invade a few towns. This will put serious pressure on the US occupation force, which at least right now, isn’t leaving any time soon.

So, is Trump in charge? Who’s gonna negotiate to reopen the government? Anybody?

Next we’ll hear Trump say:

Government shutdowns are good and easy to win.

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Monday Wake Up Call – January 7, 2019

The Daily Escape:

Monastery at Mt. Kachkanar, Ural Mountains, Russia – 2017 photo by Amos Chapple. Built by a Russian Afghanistan war veteran, the monastery sits on land to be mined for its iron deposits. The land is owned by Roman Abramovich, an oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“You’ve got to get yourself together,
You’ve got stuck in a moment,
And now you can’t get out of it.
Don’t say that later will be better
Now you’re stuck in a moment,
And you can’t get out of it”
– U2

The Wall is Trump’s moment. He believes he doesn’t have to cave in to Democrats. Democrats face the same moment. They rightly believe that if they cave in, Trump will ride them all the way to the 2020 presidential election. We the people are all stuck in this moment, too.

So, let’s take a moment, and understand the border wall today. The border with Mexico is roughly 1,900 miles long, and spans four states: California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. The Berlin Wall was 96 miles long, while the Great Wall of China is 13,000 miles long.

The current wall consists of about 700 miles of varied barriers, ranging from 10-foot rusted fencing made from military surplus corrugated metal left over from the Vietnam era, to chain link fencing and vehicle barriers that are no barrier to pedestrian traffic. Most of this needs replacing just to maintain the status quo. Here’s a map of where and what kind of wall we have:

Source: The Center for Investigative Reporting and OpenStreetMap contributors

A total of $1.7 billion was appropriated in FY17 and FY18 for new and replacement barriers and fences. Most of these funds have been designated to the Army Corps of Engineers. Much of that has been awarded to contractors. Only a small percentage (6%) has been paid out.

The following projects account for about half of these funds:

  • Near San Diego to replace 14 miles of 8-10 foot metal wall/fence with 18-30 foot tall bollard wall system for $287 million to begin in July 2019.
  • In the Rio Grande Valley to build 8 miles of 18 foot bollard wall and replace existing levee wall for $167 million to begin in February 2019.
  • In New Mexico to replace 20 miles of fencing with bollard wall for $73 million
  • In Arizona to build/replace 32 miles of “primary pedestrian wall” for $324 million to begin in April 2019.

That’s roughly $850 million for 75 miles of replacement fencing. At that rate, rebuilding the existing “wall” will take $8.5 billion and 10+ years.

The existing border fence cost about $2.4 billion. Building the rest of it could cost between $15 billion and $25 billion, with an annual maintenance cost of $700 million, according to an estimate by Marc Rosenblum, the deputy director of the US Immigration Policy Program at the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.

Trump will be long gone before his big, beautiful wall from sea to sea is built, if ever. It’s possible that migration patterns will change before that were to happen. And however the barrier system eventually turns out, it still has to be manned and maintained to be effective.

The question on the table this week is does Trump need approval from Congress, or can he just declare a national emergency and build away?

The Secure Fence Act  was signed in 2006 by George W. Bush. The majority of the fencing now in was built before he left office. The last remnants were completed after Obama took office in 2009. However, Trump must follow a decades-old border treaty with Mexico that limits where and how structures can be built along the border.

The 1970 treaty requires that structures cannot disrupt the flow of the rivers, which define the US-Mexican border along Texas and 24 miles in Arizona, according to The International Boundary and Water Commission, a joint US-Mexican agency that administers the treaty.

Turning to Trump’s national emergency idea, The National Emergencies Act was created to limit the power of a president to act without restriction in a situation that he deemed to threaten the republic. It limits the funds available for such construction to funds already appropriated for military construction.

The question is whether Trump can truly declare a “National Emergency” over a political fight. If so, can Trump go forward and legislate by Executive Order in a way that Obama was reviled for?

Time to wake up America! We need to look carefully at what limits on presidential power will be supported by Republicans.

After all, they thought Obama acted as a King.

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