[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] A [/yt_dropcap]fter 100 days of Trump presidency the question arises: has it begun to undermine some fundamental norms of American democracy and tradition?
To fathom how urgent may be such a question in the era of “alternative facts” and “fake news” we need to consider the following indisputable facts: Trump and his advisers in the White House have repeatedly threatened their political opponents and journalists who dare criticize or raise serious questions about the administration. Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has suggested weakening First Amendment protections governing freedom of the press as a tactic to combat criticism. Foreign dictators and authoritarian personalities (Putin, Le Pen, Duterte, al-Sisi) have been praised and admired while our democratic allies have been treated with contempt, the legitimacy of US federal judges who have ruled against the administration policies has been mocked. This is just to mention the most salient facts.
Moreover, the trump family has unprecedented conflicts of interest and are openly defiant about their intentions to profit from the presidency with impunity, never mind that ethics lawyers have sounded the alarm and warned that the Constitution is being violated and impeachable offenses are being performed, especially those connected with receiving benefits from foreign governments through business dealings while in office. Lawsuits have already been filed on those grounds.
Is this the new commonplace normal? The good news is that these anomalies are being noticed more and more by thoughtful people and the press. The bad news is that there is no guarantee that those lawsuits would prevail in a court of law. It could take years before they are resolved and meanwhile the country would have been transformed into a Banana Republic. Nevertheless, the courts, within American democracy, continue to play and important role in defining the scope and limits of presidential power, and clarify constitutional principles.
Congress too, however, has a constitutionally mandated duty to check presidential power. It has a plethora of tools available if it chose to act, but so far, the Republican faction of Congress which is in control, has shown little inclination to use them even if the vast majority of them are not enthusiastic about Trump’s presidency and see him as an embarrassment and even a threat to the Constitution.
The corollary question at this point is this: can these reluctant Republicans be convinced to act? Public opinion might have to do the convincing with their voting. For, if general apathy and the feeling of being overwhelmed by this unprecedented presidency win out and the unacceptable becomes the norm, it will signal the beginning of the end for American democracy as we know it. We will in effect have become a Banana Republic.
Israel gives Ukraine intelligence. “The best thing” that could have happened to Israel-NATO relations?
NATO sources tell ‘Haaretz’ some of the intel is on the Iranian drones in Ukraine, writes Yossi Melman at Israeli newspaper.
Israel has stepped up its intelligence assistance to Ukraine in recent weeks via NATO, sources in Brussels told ‘Haaretz’, with Jerusalem remaining keen to keep its aid to the embattled country indirect.
“Iran’s decision to supply drones and increase its military cooperation with Russia is a strategic mistake by Tehran and the best thing that could have happened to Israel-NATO relations,” an Israeli defense source told ‘Haaretz’.
Only a month and a half ago, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces, Aviv Kochavi, turned down a proposal by Ukraine’s defense minister to share information on the Iranian drones being shot down over his country. These details would have come in return for the passing on of Israeli intelligence. Israel feared that Russia might respond by hampering the Israel Air Force’s freedom in Syria’s skies, as Iran tries to deepen its presence against Israel to the north.
But American pressure and the stepped-up Iranian aid to Russia have convinced Israel to abandon its policy of apathy.
Last month, senior European officials told ‘Haaretz’ that under American pressure, Israel agreed to underwrite the purchase of millions of dollars of “strategic materials” for Ukraine. The materials were transferred via a NATO country, and Israel agreed to let NATO countries transfer to Ukraine weapons including electro-optical and fire-control systems made by Israeli firms.
Over several years, the Mossad, Military Intelligence, the IAF and the navy have built up a database on Iran’s drones. If Brussels gains access to this data, Ukraine and NATO countries will benefit, as will other states such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Australia.
In 1994, Israel signed an agreement granting it status as a NATO “partner.” This lets it appoint an ambassador and a military attaché, and take part in the alliance’s air and sea exercises in the Baltic states, Montenegro and the Indian Ocean.
Berlin doesn’t trust Washington. Scholz doesn’t trust the U.S.
“If the U.S. is involved directly it’s more likely to use military force to defend its allies in Europe,” Carlo Masala, a German military expert with strong ties to the country’s political establishment, said on German public television. “That’s a very strong rationale for Scholz and why he insists that the U.S. is involved,” quotes POLITICO.
The breakthrough on sending Western-made battle tanks to Ukraine sparked hopes in both Washington and Europe that the tortured transatlantic debate over arming the country had been resolved once and for all. But… Just hours after German Chancellor Olaf Scholz cleared the way for the export of German-made tanks to the country, the focus shifted to the who, what, where and when of supplying fighter jets to Ukraine.
Once again, Scholz was the first to slam on the brakes, repeatedly warning in recent days of the dangers of “escalation,” while insisting that NATO would not become directly involved in the conflict. If you feel like you’ve seen this movie before, join the club.
It turns out that an even bigger fear for Scholz than escalation is that NATO, and in particular the U.S., wouldn’t get involved if Russia were to retaliate against, say Germany. That worry — according to an adviser to the German government — is the reason that Scholz insisted that Washington agree to supply Ukraine with M1 Abrams tanks before the chancellor would lift his veto on delivering German-made Leopard 2 tanks.
While the NATO treaty’s Article 5 calls on alliance members to support one another in the event of an attack, it doesn’t require allies to respond with military force. In other words, Scholz doesn’t trust the U.S.
Given that Washington has about 40,000 troops in Germany and has already committed roughly $30 billion in military aid to Ukraine (more than 10 times the German total), one might reasonably question the logic underlying Scholz’s argument.
How an American ‘Mozart Group’ imploded in Ukraine
The Mozart Group, one of the most prominent, private American military organizations in Ukraine, has collapsed under a cloud of accusations ranging from financial improprieties to alcohol-addled misjudgments, writes Jeffrey Gettleman at ‘The New York Times’.
Its struggles provide a revealing window into the world of foreign volunteer groups that have flocked to Ukraine with noble intentions only to be tripped up by the stresses of managing a complicated enterprise in a war zone. The Mozart Group was training Ukrainian soldiers and evacuating frontline residents until the money ran out. Its collapse sheds light on the stresses faced by such groups.
Jeffrey Gettleman writes: “Andrew Milburn, a former American Marine colonel and leader of the Mozart Group, stood in a chilly meeting room on the second floor of an apartment building in Kyiv about to deliver some bad news. In front of him sat half a dozen men who had traveled to Ukraine on their own dime to work for him.
“Guys, I’m gutted,” he said. “The Mozart Group is dead.”
The men stared back at him with blank faces.
One asked as he walked toward the door, “What should I do with my helmet?”
“I’ve seen this happen many times,” said one of Mozart’s veteran trainers, who, like many others, spoke only anonymously out of concerns that the Russians might target him. “You got to run these groups like a business. We didn’t do that.”
Hundreds if not thousands of foreign veterans and volunteers have passed through Ukraine. Many of them, like Mr. Milburn and his group, are hard-living men who have spent their adult lives steeped in violence, solo fliers trying to work together in a very dangerous environment without a lot of structure or rules.”
“After months struggling to hold itself together, Mozart was plagued by defections, infighting, a break-in at its office headquarters and a lawsuit filed by the company’s chief financial officer, Andrew Bain, seeking the ouster of Mr. Milburn.
The lawsuit, filed in Wyoming, where Mozart is registered as a limited liability company, is a litany of petty and serious allegations, accusing Mr. Milburn among other things of making derogatory comments about Ukraine’s leadership while “significantly intoxicated,” letting his dog urinate in a borrowed apartment and “diverting company funds” and other financial malfeasance.
When Mr. Milburn showed up in Ukraine in early March last year, the capital, Kyiv, was seemingly on the precipice. Russian forces were blasting their way in from the suburbs and Ukraine was rushing thousands of inexperienced soldiers to the front.
That’s when, through a mutual friend, Mr. Milburn, 59, met Mr. Bain, 58. Also a former Marine colonel, Mr. Bain had been working in media and marketing in Ukraine for more than 30 years. Mr. Milburn, whose career has tracked America’s wars of the past three decades, from Somalia to Iraq, had both the combat experience and the contacts. He counts Marine heavyweights like the author Bing West and a former defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, as friends.
Mr. Bain had the organization. For eight years, since Russia invaded eastern Ukraine in 2014, he had been running the Ukrainian Freedom Fund, a charity he set up that turned donations into desperately needed gear for the Ukrainian military.
The two founded Mozart, the name a saucy response to the Russian mercenary force that uses the name of another famous composer, the Wagner Group. They also ran a short-lived podcast called “Two Marines in Kyiv.”
With the Ukrainian military desperate for all the Western support it could get, Mozart quickly expanded from a handful of combat vets to more than 50 employees from a dozen countries. The group’s two specialties became last-chance extractions of civilians trapped on the front lines, which was extremely dangerous work, and condensed military training.
As spring passed to summer, more Ukrainian military units asked Mozart for training. But the Ukrainians could not pay for it, leaving Mozart reliant on a small pool of steady donors, including a group of East Coast financiers with Jewish-Ukrainian roots and a Texas tycoon.
Everyone involved said it became stressful just making payroll. And several employees said that the way the money flowed into the organization, which was overseen by Mr. Bain, was opaque.
On top of that, the people Mozart hired were not the easiest to manage. Many were grizzled combat vets who admitted to struggling with PTSD and heavy drinking. When they weren’t working, they gravitated to Kyiv’s strip clubs, bars and online dating. “There was a lot of cursing, a lot of womanizing, a lot of things you wouldn’t want to take to mass,” said another trainer, Rob.
In September, they lost an important funding stream when a charity called Allied Extract decided to use less expensive Ukrainian teams to rescue civilians.
Not long after that, a clip of Mr. Milburn disparaging Ukraine’s leadership circulated widely on social media. “I happen to have a Ukraine flag tied to my bag, but I’m not, ‘Oh my God, Ukraine is so awesome,’” he said. “I understand that there are plenty of screwed-up people running Ukraine.” The clip was taken from The Team House podcast, in which guests are invited into a living room setting to drink hard liquor with the hosts.
Mr. Milburn has rented a new office in Kyiv and says he is determined to resurrect the operation. But he’s not going back to the front anytime soon.
Wearing a gray sweatshirt, black sweatpants and running shoes, he spent hours this week in front of his laptop. He’s scouting out new business, such as training courses for hostile environments. He’s writing emails to donors.”
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