Crude terror

The devastating London attack brings to light problems in our security agencies as well as the non-solution nature of nationalist populism. Terrorism is something to be tackled partly from within, ‘close the border’-type statements don’t work.

On a day that was supposed to be one of remembrance and commemoration, a day that would symbolize European solidarity and unity, a devastating terrorist attack killing four took place in London. Armed with a weapon and a kitchen knife, Khalid Massood, a 52-year old Brit, managed to shake the world once again.

It is quite often that you hear about terrorist attacks being prevented by counter-intelligence agencies and the police. However, contrary to the London attack, these complex plots involved cautious planning and the acquisition of a myriad of weaponry, explosives and vehicles. This attack is in no way comparable to Charlie Hebdo or 9/11, this attack was carried out by one man who bought a kitchen knife at the local supermarket and had a drivers license. The intelligence agencies had apparently already investigated this man for ‘some years’, but even when a person is known to have radicalized, even if the respective person would have still been under ‘investigation’, this attack could have not been prevented. Not even by an organization as well-funded and -organized as MI-5. 

Besides the obvious shortcomings of intelligence agencies when it comes to preventing such ‘lone-wolf’, guerrilla-esque attacks, it is to be noted that the attacker was a radicalized Brit. See, IS may be losing ground in the complex situation in the middle-east, their online presence has been especially devastating – successful from their point of view. From this we should conclude that the problem of terrorism does not have to do with open borders, or the lack of Western values. If people feel attracted to radical Islamism – because that is what it is, a true molestation of a belief – as was the case this time, the problem lies somewhere else, namely: in society itself. Once again, nationalist populism is merely a non-solution, comprising of bleak – and frankly, weak – rhetoric that does not solve problems.

Because of this, I very much disagree with Carolien Roelants, columnist for NRC, who wrote: “Right, imagine that those values [values of democracy, liberty and freedom of speech] wouldn’t make it against what are, in the end, a few terrorists”. Quite comparable to the famous butterfly that created a hurricane, such events have much larger effects. In part, terrorism has accounted for anti-Islam sentiment and evidently contributed greatly to the right-wing nationalist populism insurgence that now stirs the foundation of our democracy. Besides, if Adrian Elms, grown up in a Western democracy is attracted by such radical beliefs as IS propagates, there is a bigger problem than ‘a few’ terrorist attacks.

Concluding

During the aftermath of the London attacks, a possible second attack in Brussels was prevented by police after the supposed attacker was caught speeding. This example only goes to show that – even though this day of remembrance may have been a more devastating day than others – terrorism is a real fear. Such a crude and practically non-preventable attack shows that privacy-inflicting methods do not always have the upper hand. The fact that the attacker was a Brit shows that empty ‘close the border’-type statements do not work. This attack shines a light on problems within the so-praised Western society and only if terrorism is seen as a problem that also originates from within that Western society can it be treated efficiently and effectively.

For those willing to check out Carolien Roelants article, please note that it is in Dutch.

In defense of Gorsuch

Democrats can’t seem to find a strong foundation for their opposition to the confirmation of supreme court justice nominee Neil Gorsuch. They should abstain from doing so as the shadow of ‘the nuclear option’ casts its shadow over the checks and balances of government.

“Was that a surprise? Was it” Quipped Trump. Trump announced Judge Neil Gorsuch as his supreme court nominee in a ceremony in the East-room that reflected his roots as a reality tv-star remarkably well. It was even reported that Trump had brought not only Neil Gorsuch but also a ‘second’, Judge Thomas Hardiman, to the White House, going for a true Apprentice style ceremony. Taking into account that a supreme court pick shapes a fundamental judiciary institution for decades, the fact that that report was erroneous might be for the best.

As a supreme court justice, Gorsuch’ signature can mean a permanent roadblock for bills and other pieces of legislation. Gorsuch is thus destined to meet tough questions from both sides of the aisle. The first two days of hearings saw Democrats focusing mostly on obvious questions concerning Gorsuch’ stand on abortion, women rights and his apparent favor of big business. Republicans have been busy asking questions about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and how his surname is pronounced, but mostly easy ones on the role of a justice and the judiciary as a whole. As the current Republican President is not so sure about the role of the judiciary nor the concept of the trias politica, they may be asking the wrong person.

After all, Democrats haven’t been able to fully grab on to Gorsuch. Democrats hoped to find any foundation for their opposition in his solidly conservative judiciary record, the recent allegations by a student concerning his view on women and his partaking in defending Bush’s ‘advanced interrogation’. His rebuttals were laser-sharp and well-substantiated leaving Democrats – Sen. Feinstein in this case – with nothing more than: “Oh, that’s helpful”, referring to Gorsuch’ recital of cases in which he favored the ‘small man’. According to two recent papers – here and here – judge Gorsuch can be categorized as a slightly more conservative judge than average; overall, one can argue that Democrats’ claim that Gorsuch is an ‘extremist’ is outright nonsense. Second, note that Democrats, if it were up to them, would have chosen a similarly liberal-leaning judge. Third, note that with a new conservative judge, the 5-4 split in the Supreme Court will remain. 

Lastly, an important factor in the confirmation process is Gorsuch’ identification as an originalist. Now, many has been written on this, some of which I find to be complete nonsense – bluntly describing Gorsuch as a homofobe – some of which I find noteworthy. Judges who adhere to originalist legal thinking interpret the constitution in the light of its original meaning, in 1789, that is. Democrats have – as I noted before – strong concerns with regard to, for example, gay-rights and new technologies. “The technology changes but the principles don’t” said Gorsuch, hinting at a ‘lighter’ version of originalism. Wherein times can change but the principles as written in the constitution remain the leading factor with regard to the decisions of the respective judge – Mr. Gorsuch in this case. Such notions are, quite evidently, music to the ears of any conservative. Again, all the legitimate concerns the Democrats had concerning Gorsuch’ originalist approach were easily rebutted.

Thus, on the one hand Democrats can make their progressive voters happy and cement their role as ‘the opposition’ by voting no. A no-vote will, however, result in the Republicans going the ‘nuclear’ route by abolishing the 60-40 majority needed, after which they will give Gorsuch his lifetime job anyway. On the other hand, Democrats could vote yes – or at least eight of them. See, Gorsuch is, however conservative, a calm, well-tempered judge with excellent scholarly and judiciary records and, most importantly: Gorsuch has no affiliation with Trump whatsoever and has denounced his relentless attacks on the judiciary and the press. Besides, by voting yes, Democrats would not lose their filibuster-power in upcoming, more important, votes.

Of course, Democrats have one tiny leg to stand on. Federal Paper #76 states that a supreme court nominee may be picked by the President since he is a ‘man of abilities, at least respectable’. I have some doubts in that respect.

I saw that David Leonhardt prompted Democrats to oppose judge Gorsuch. His article came down to the notion that voting strategically – avoiding the ‘nuclear’ option – harms the representative nature of the Senate. That may be true, however, opposing Gorsuch is a mere statement, resulting in the loss of their filibuster option and, as a result of image-loss among Republicans, decreasing the chance of bipartisan efforts. Aforementioned would thus decrease the power of the Democrats significantly, allowing no representation of their voters whatsoever.

Just new packaging?

As noted in a previous article, the elections in the Netherlands mean more than the continuation of right-wing populism. Conventional parties, as well as newcomers, have prevailed as right-wing populism is destined to the opposition, however, coming in second is not the same as losing.

“I hope that tomorrow, those non-Dutch journalists that came here to say how crazy we’ve become, have to tell their editors: ‘We’ve booked some expensive hotels, but the Netherlands stayed healthy, there were a few other interesting developments though.'”

These were Alexander Pechtold, first on the list of the progressive Democrats (D66), his words. Yesterday I posted a piece here concerning the bifurcated view that many non-Dutch journalists seem to have, paying attention to the ‘Will the Netherlands be the next domino of populism’ sentiment, seemingly forgetting that, as Pechtold noted, there is more happening; we see a Bernie-esque movement gaining traction fast, we see a right that promises to be ‘truly’ classically liberal and we see a hunkering for stability as the centrist parties gain popularity. As of the 16th of March, headlines are reading ‘Populists appear to fall short […]’ and ‘Rutte beats anti-islam leader Wilders‘, Rutte has won the elections, Wilders didn’t. But has right-wing populism really failed? 

Finishing as the clear winner in terms of the amount of seats is Mark Rutte’s liberal party, carrying 33 seats. Wilders’ freedom party carries 20 after which we find Pechtold’s pro-Europe Democrats and Buma’s conservative Cristian Democrats, both at 19 seats. Trailing are the progressive Green Left and the more traditional and euroskeptic Socialist party, each winning 14 seats. The Labor party wound up with a record low 9 seats.

The established parties will be joined by two newcomers; DENK (“think”), who won three seats and have taken an anti-Wilders, populist, media-bashing approach. Safe to say, they embody everything that is wrong with Wilders’ freedom party, the difference being that their political views are perpendicular to the PVV>

Forum for Democracy (FvD), the anti-EU, right-wing ‘intellectual’ party, promising to bare the ‘system’ from the inside has also won two seats in parliament.

The gist

The true winner, however, is the progressive Green Left under Jesse Klaver; quadrupling its number of seats and now a force to be reckoned with. Seats for the anti-elitist, anti-EU Forum for Democracy are remarkable as well. I consider these developments the result of a healthy democracy – ironic, since Forum for Democracy claims it’s unhealthy.

After all, one can argue – as I am – that Wilders lost, since he didn’t win enough seats to have any authority in upcoming negotiations, and Rutte won, looking forward to a third term as prime-minister. Compared to the projected polls on Wednesday 15, the results were a little off. Rutte’s last-minute jump can be explained by Wilders’ absence in those crucial last weeks and possibly the still prevalent ‘taboo’ of voting for Wilders, but he has mostly Erdogan to thank. His formal and professional handling of such a diplomatic incident has improved his reputation considerably. Rutte then sidelined Wilders spectacularly by noting that governing is not ‘tweeting on the couch’.

One easily forgets that all these developments were due to Wilders’ Freedom party – also a result of a healthy democracy. The ‘new right’ aims to fill the gap on the right between Wilders and Rutte, now that the liberal party has shifted to the left. Jesse Klaver’s progressive left fights back against Wilders’ anti-immigration and anti-Muslim rhetoric, by promoting diversity and solidarity, in the process persuading many youngsters to vote.

Besides all these new ideologies and the fact that more people than ever before are interested in politics, many established parties actually partly adopted Wilders’ far-right views on immigration and the Islam. Especially Sybrand Buma from the centrist Christian Democrats has tried to voice a more sensible conservative sound. Rutte, notably, posted an open letter stating that all ‘who do not take note of our values should act normal or leave’. 

One can thus argue that although Wilders will most certainly not govern, his populist rhetoric has sparked the creation of new parties and ideology’s and made subject of such things as immigration and the ‘Islamization of the Netherlands’. The first being the healthy development of an open democracy. The second a disproportionately featured subject that – as I see it – takes away from more important topics such as climate change and the economy. Wilders can thus keep on tweeting from his couch and Rutte can be prime-minister again. Take note, however, that coming in second in a playing field that comprises of more than twenty parties, is not the same as losing.

A win for Rutte, Putin and Erdogan

It might be obvious that Erdogan benefits from the recent diplomatic spat with the Netherlands. However, with upcoming elections, Dutch prime-minister Mark Rutte benefits from his supposedly professional handling of the situation. And Putin, with tensions within the NATO growing significantly, can count himself winner number three.

Turkey dplomatic conflictForeign media – non-Dutch, that is – flock to the Netherlands to witness the upcoming Dutch elections. Geert Wilders’ freedom party is sinking in the polls as prime minister Mark Rutte’s liberal party and the progressive left under Jesse Klaver are climbing; will this populist tone set forth or will the Netherlands decide to take the more sensible route? Shortly before the spectacle will unfold on the 15th of March comes an unprecedented low in diplomatic relations with Turkey, promising an interesting home straight.

On the 16th of April, the Turkish will vote for constitutional reforms in a nation-wide referendum. This referendum, counting 18 constitutional reforms, states, besides a raise in the number of parliamentary seats, the introduction of an executive presidency. An executive presidency abolishes the office of prime minister and bridges the executive- and legislative branches of government. Effectively handing power to Erdogan, who, judging from his previous contempt for the judiciary and the press, will continue his pro-Russian, non-secular route of autocratic regime.

How we acted

The Turkish secretary of state, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, announced on March 3 that he planned to travel to Rotterdam in the Netherlands to campaign for a yes-vote in the upcoming Turkish referendum. There are roughly 400.000 Turkish Dutch in the Netherlands who are allowed to vote in the referendum, with a large majority living in Rotterdam. Only hours passed before the Dutch government said that the visit would be “undesirable” and “unwanted”, naming the already tense relations between the Turkish Dutch community and other parts of society. On the 11th of March, the day that Cavusoglu was supposed to campaign, his landing rights were evoked by the Dutch government, citing public security concerns. The plane then flew to Germany, where the Turkish family minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, decided to try a car. The cat-and-mouse game continued and upon arrival at the Turkish embassy, the family minister – an eerie ministry – was declared persona non grata and sent back to Germany. Erdogan responded by calling the Dutch “fascist” and “remnants of a Nazi past”, seemingly forgetting that Rotterdam was once bombed to the ground by the Nazi’s. 

Protests sparked in both Rotterdam and Turkey. The skies colored by red Turkish flags. In Rotterdam, many Turkish Dutch set to the streets, one of them – famously, as it went viral on social media – asking “What is this? What is this?”. In Turkey, many set to the streets to protest against the now fascist and Nazi-reminiscent Netherlands, it was now the Netherlands’ turn to ask: “What is this? What is this?”. 

How we should have acted

In the first place, the right to freedom of gathering and freedom of speech should have prevailed. By the standards of any decent liberal interpretation, one should be able to voice his opinion, even when the government strongly condemns it. Second, the government should have foreseen that blocking two Turkish ministers plays right into Erdogan’s wheelhouse. Every opposition is set aside with lumpen statements, claiming these countries are terrorists or Nazi’s, fueling nationalism and winning trust with the Turkish people. Erdogan knew very well that sending two diplomats to the Netherlands would be controversial and conflict provoking. A win for Erdogan.

In the Netherlands, the elections seem to be mostly about the trustworthiness of our current prime-minister Mark Rutte, the populist rhetoric and curious campaign-absence of demagogue Geert Wilders, the youth and progressiveness of Jesse Klaver and the comeback of centrist parties. Wilders, quite predictably, decided to protest against the Turkish minister and proposed tough measures. Rutte, who later said that he would have handled in the same way had this happened last year, acted firmly, claiming that the Netherlands wants to “de-escalate” but that escalation might be inevitable. Of course, one can wonder about the credibility of such statements. Rutte has portrayed himself as the one to stop Wilders, hoping for a bifurcation and, evidently, a third term. By taking a tough stand the prime minister takes the Wilders-esque route and wins votes as a trustworthy leader, forgetting that his move was both strategically questionable and against all moral values of his liberal party. After all, however, a win for Rutte.

Third, and I have not seen this aspect covered yet, one can wonder what this means for NATO-relations. By cooperating with the Turkish government in Syria, delivering oil and easing trade, the Russian government is creating a Turkish dependency on the Russians as well as pulling Turkey out of NATO. With NATO-relations already under pressure, a diplomatic conflict between two members is a welcome surprise to the Russians. Most European countries have now approved of Mark Rutte’s move, however, France – an important NATO-country – has handled Turkish campaigning as described above; by not doing anything. With the weakening of NATO-relations, however slightly, comes a win for Putin.

 

Sessions’ Russian love affair

A short evaluation of the Sessions’ story and its consequences, as well as the general effect of Trump’s positive position with regard to Russia.

In a 1969 agreement between the USSR and the US, both parties decided upon leasing ‘Mount Alto’ to the Russians in an 85-year deal. Here, in Washington DC, we find an impressive white marble building, the embassy of the Russian Federation. Heading southeast, we find ourselves in downtown DC, where the residence of the Russian ambassador to the United States is situated. An American architectural monument built as a wedding gift to Congressman Frank Lowden, an equally impressive piece of twentieth century architecture. Calling this residence home is the current Russian ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak. Now that some key figures in the Trump administration are suspected of alleged ties with Russia, the normally low-key ambassador is a key figures in a political scandal in the making.

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, a name that does not truly reflect his families stature, has praised himself to be a kind of bearer of the South, reflecting classic Southern conservatism; he rejects gay marriage and transgender laws, he opposes immigration and is an early advocate of protectionism, predicting even that Trump would win as a result of his isolationist rhetoric. He seems to have embraced Ted Kennedy’s statement that he is a ‘throwback to a shameful era’.

Since the shameful confirmation process that lead to Sessions’ being rejected a spot as a federal lawyer in 1986, Sessions’ has been known to prepare extensively for his senate hearings. He brought several witnesses with him to prove that his ideology was not based on racism, however, when asked whether he had communicated with Kislyak, Sessions answered “I did not have communications with the Russians”, later saying that he was struck by the question and the conversations did not cross his mind. This answer was given on the tenth of January. Later, on the 27th, he said that he “would recuse myself on anything I should recuse myself on. That’s all I can tell you”. In a response to a Washington Post article , he stated that he “never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false”, noting that he did in fact have conversations with Kysliak, but in his Senator role, not his campaign role. Following these allegations, Sessions recused himself from the ongoing investigation on Russian ties to the 2016 presidential campaign.

Democrats now accuse Sessions of perjury as well as calling for him to resign. To be involved in an act of perjury, however, one has to intentionally lie. Proving that he intentionally lied is historically difficult. One can of course draw parallels with Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, who both resigned as a result of lies about their respective communications with Russian officials during the campaign. Jeff Sessions is simply a much more central figure in the Trump administration and thus incomparable.

Most of what can be categorized as ‘Trumpism’ is just ‘Sessionism’ through a photocopier, he was Trump’s megaphone to the ‘angry white Southerner’. Besides this ideological dependency, Trump has taken over part of his staff as well as his network. A Sessions resignation would do Trump more pain then good, contrary to the resignation of Flynn and Manafort.

The chance that Sessions resigns from being attorney general seems low. However, more leaks concerning campaign officials having any contact with the Russians are bound to surface, disrupting his presidency and slowly paving the way to Democrats calling for a special investigator and Trump having his own, personal Watergate. Ignoring that more officials might have had conversations with Russian officials, Trump’s positive stance on Russia will haunt him for the duration of his term. Every move the administration makes that has anything to do with Russia will be treated more carefully than ever, slowing down progress.

In conclusion, a Sessions resignation seems highly unlikely – too bad since the Flynn resignation brought us H.R. McMaster. Although many Republicans have taken positive stances on Russia, some Republican senators – Lindsey Graham, notably – have not adopted this new found love, giving the Democrats the opportunity to call for a special investigator. Judging from Trump’s love for exclusivity, Trump would certainly love being only the second President to quit during his term.

Equally worrying

An overview of Trump’s address to congress. Liberals may be laughing to early.

Trump to congres

So, the reviews for Trump’s address to congress are in, ‘hopeful’ seems to be the general consensus. The Times, the British one, headlined ‘Trump struck an upbeat tone’. Positive I guess, The Daily Telegraph said that Donald Trump ‘finds his presidential voice’. NRC, my preferred Dutch daily, noted that Trump ‘moderated his tone, but not his message’, The Netherlands’ most prominent correspondent in the U.S said it was both ‘moderated and optimistic’. Even The Washington Post has gone as far as saying the address was ‘optimistic’.

From these headlines one might think that Trump has finally taken a more presidential stand, the glass may be half full again. As I had not yet seen the address myself, I committed myself to not forming any opinion yet, however, one can’t help but go in with a little hope.

So, I’m back and I’ve now seen it and let me say, the address was not the U-turn I hoped it would be, not even a kink in the road, and, to stretch the traffic analogy even further, I don’t think he even crossed lanes. I just noticed another fun analogy in past week’s Banyan column in the Economist. Banyan describes Duterte’s attitude to America not as a pivot but as a pirouette. Without diving into the scope of that article; Trump’s address may be nothing more than a pirouette, not the pivot many acclaim it to be. Still, it seems a little abundant to give Mr. Trump anything other than some style points.

Positive at first, then America first

Hinting at his low approval ratings, it seems natural Trump wanted to change his tune to better fit the formality of such an occasion. The address to congress has, after all, always been a presidential and formal affair. His message was brought ‘deeply from his heart’ and was one of ‘unity and strength’, signalling a ‘new chapter of American greatness’. After noting that his presidency was called upon by a ‘chorus that finally became an earthquake’, he switched to his harsh America First agenda, albeit using different words. Of course, in his speech on ‘unity and strength’, he mentioned only those who ‘came in unity’ to vote for Trump, forgetting the majority of, somehow, non-united voters that did not cast their vote in favor of Trump. 

Although he did not mention such things as an ‘American carnage’, the U.S was once again portrayed as a country that is ridden by foreign criminals and terrorists. The U.S is seemingly riddled with foreigners hoping to blow it up as he calls for an America that is not ‘a sanctuary for extremists’. In this rhetoric, Trump forgot about the recent advice by his national security adviser, who contemplated that he should refrain from using the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. Something that I should note as truly positive – especially as a European – is Trump’s renewed commitment to NATO, which he had called ‘obsolete’ on previous occasions.

As the tirade went on, Trump pledged for the rest of his America First program; immigration, infrastructure, workers, tax cuts etc… However, once again stating all these things is a little superfluous and does not do justice to the nature of this article. What should be noted, however, is the absence of certain things. Some good, some bad. It was refreshing to not see him divulge in hopeless media bashing or the praising of his electoral college victory. However, the absence of such topics as the environment, budget deficits and Russia is alarming.

‘Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. Thank you.’ For many, the moment that stood out was Trump’s tribute to William Ryan Owens, a former Navy Seal who died in a raid in Yemen. ‘He died as he lived, a warrior and a hero’ Trump noted, making for an emotional ending to his speech. However, and I hate to kill the mood, Trump did not mention that Ryan’s parents, who were present, did not accept an invitation to speak with Mr. Trump as they deemed the raid unnecessary. Liberals, evidently, called this tribute a distraction to make sure the press wouldn’t ask too sharp questions.

So, in conclusion

This was, without a doubt, Trump’s most presidential speech. Charlie Mahteslan noted;  ‘If that wasn’t Donald Trump, and we weren’t waiting for something wild to happen, that would have been a very standard, boring speech.’ Which is partly true, he did not diverge from the script as it was brought on the teleprompter and he restrained from any attacks on the press or the judiciary. Points for rhetoric are in check.

All in all, Trump knows he represents a large share of the middle class and Trump knows that the Republicans need those voters to pass their proposals. As long as Trump doesn’t do anything too out of the ordinary, Republicans will stand up and applaud. And as long as Trump promotes his America First agenda, Democrats won’t.