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Give Blame Where It’s Due, Please

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy lays flowers to commemorate victims of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane crash, at a memorial in Boryspil International airport outside Kiev, Ukraine January 9, 2020. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters)

On the menu today: how the claim that the United States is ultimately responsible for the Iranian military shooting down a passenger airliner is just the latest example of “blame America first,”; the New York Times prepares to endorse a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary; David Brooks offers some painful honesty; and yet another pretty good jobs report.

They Always Blame America First

Jeane Kirkpatrick accurately declared: “they always blame Americans first.”

Sure, the Iranian air-defense system would not have been on highest alert this week if the United States had not killed Soleimani outside the Baghdad International Airport January 3. But the Iranians made the choice to fire rockets into Iraq that evening, the Iranian government made the choice to permit civilian air traffic in the hours after their rocket attack, and ultimately it was the Iranian military that fired the surface-to-air missile. You really have to squint and stretch to say that this tragedy — which killed 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, eleven Ukrainians (including the crew members), ten Swedish, seven Afghans, and three Germans — is President Trump’s fault.

One question for the military-technology experts: Does this tragedy stem from poor training on the part of the Iranian military, or does Russian air-defense system equipment do a lousy job of differentiating between civilian airliners and military jets?

Whatever the answer to that question is, the fact remains that right now, the Democratic grassroots believe that Trump is the root of all evil, and all bad things that happen lead back to him in one form or another. There’s a Democratic primary and impeachment battle going on simultaneously. No one of any stature in the Democratic party can afford the political risk of publicly arguing or even acknowledging that anything isn’t Trump’s fault. The Democratic presidential candidates, in particular, have to offer the biggest, most vocal, most emphatic, “yes, you’re right, grassroots” that they possibly can.

“Innocent civilians are now dead because they were caught in the middle of an unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat,” Pete Buttigieg declared. The most common term floating around Thursday night was “crossfire,” even though Tuesday night only one side was firing any weapons. Keep in mind, so far in this conflict, the United States military hasn’t fired anything into or in the direction of Iranian territory.

If we really want to extend blame beyond the Iranian military, there is a long list of individuals and institutions who should be standing in line ahead of President Trump. Let’s start with Iranian aviation authorities who kept their local civilian aircraft flying, and the airlines who chose to keep flights taking off shortly after Iranian military action — when no one could know for sure whether the military action had concluded.

About 2 1/2 hours before the Ukraine International Airlines jet with 176 people on board took off, the Federal Aviation Administration issued emergency orders prohibiting American pilots and airlines from flying over Iran, the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman.

The notices warned that heightened military activity and political tension in the Middle East posed “an inadvertent risk” to U.S. aircraft “due to the potential for miscalculation or mis-identification.”

Foreign airlines aren’t bound by FAA directives, but they often follow them. In this case, however, several large international carriers — including Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways and Aeroflot — continued to fly in and out of Tehran after Iran fired missiles at military bases inside Iraq that house U.S. troops. They still were flying after the FAA warning, and after the Ukrainian jetliner crashed, according to data from Flightradar24, which tracks flights around the world.

“It was awfully peculiar and awfully risky,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. “That’s a theater of war and these guys were acting like there was nothing going on.”

Goelz said airlines should have canceled all flights when Iran fired the missiles.

That Kirkpatrick speech from the 1984 Republican National Convention, linked above, is always worth rereading, because while the particular issues change, the philosophy doesn’t. (Although note one section of her speech dealt with Iranian-backed terrorism: “When our Marines, sent to Lebanon on a multinational peacekeeping mission with the consent of the United States Congress, were murdered in their sleep, the “blame America first crowd” didn’t blame the terrorists who murdered the Marines, they blamed the United States.”)

Kirkpatrick concluded: “The American people know that it’s dangerous to blame ourselves for terrible problems that we did not cause. They understand just as the distinguished French writer, Jean Francois Revel, understands the dangers of endless self-criticism and self-denigration. He wrote: ‘Clearly, a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself.’”

A certain kind of U.S. foreign-policy thinker or lawmaker believes that if we just apply the right combination of incentives, every problem beyond our shores can be fixed. If some foreign leader takes action against us, it’s because we didn’t do something we should have or because we did do something we shouldn’t. It’s as if they don’t really see foreign leaders and peoples as having independent wills and agencies, just instinctive responses to our actions, and that all of their acts, no matter how malevolent, are entirely rational responses to our failures to meet their expectations.

A couple people griped that Monday’s piece assessed the behavior of the Iranian government starting in 1979 — you know, when the revolution and current regime took over — and didn’t go back to the coup in 1953 or the formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1914. (At least this is a refreshing change from the folks who believe Iranian history began when Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal.)

I’m a big fan of studying history, but the past can’t be changed. When trying to figure out how to deal with the threat of this regime, declarations like, “well, we never should have opposed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq 67 years ago!” don’t really get us anywhere.

The New York Times Endorsement Is Coming. Curb Your Enthusiasm!

The common reaction in conservative circles to the news that the New York Times will have “a transparent process” before their endorsement in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary will be to scoff that no one cares what the Times thinks and that no one decides who to vote for based on newspaper endorsements.

Look, one lucky Democratic presidential candidate is going to get one good news cycle out of this. Even if the endorsement is not enormously consequential, every Democratic campaign would rather have it than not have it. The candidate who gets it will almost certainly mention it in some television ads during the primary, although not the general election. And the stakes matter more for some candidates than others. Elizabeth Warren was more or less engineered in a laboratory to appeal to the Times editorial board. If she doesn’t get the endorsement, it’s a bad day for her.

And no matter what the editorial actually says, people will read certain meanings into the choice. If the Times endorses Joe Biden, it will be seen as a sign that the Times editorial board doesn’t have faith that the rest of the field can beat Trump. If the Times endorses Buttigieg, it will be seen as a sign that the Times editorial board wants the formula that worked for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — the young, smart, well-spoken rising star. If the Times endorses Bernie Sanders, it will be seen as a sign that the Times editorial board wants to lead the Socialist Revolution from the offices of a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan.

As for me, I hope that the process begins with each candidate first individually pouring his or her heart out, directly to a camera, talking about their hopes and dreams and what they feel they can offer the editors of the Times that the other candidates can’t. I hope they say what the endorsement means to them, and how it could be the start of something life-changing and unforgettable. I want to see an edited montage of each candidate talking with the editors, hopefully showcasing a wide range of moments showcasing their entire personality — impassioned, laughing, solemn. Then I want all of the candidates to come out in a group, dressed in their finest, and then deputy editor Kathleen Kingsbury comes out with a single rose, and they sort this out like on ABC’s The Bachelor — lots of heated competition, crying, and broken hearts.

‘The Ultimate Bonding, Attention-Grabbing and Profit-Maximization Mechanism’

Speaking of the New York Times, David Brooks writes a painfully honest column about how issues get discussed during this presidency, with a paragraph his readers probably won’t want to hear: “This is Trump’s ultimate victory. Every argument on every topic is now all about him. Hating Trump together has become the ultimate bonding, attention-grabbing and profit-maximization mechanism for those of us in anti-Trump world. So you get a series of exaggerated fervors — the Mueller report! Impeachment! The Steele dossier! — that lead ultimately nowhere.”

A Trump rival — in either party, really — could make a completely different argument. The argument would focus upon promising to deliver the same results that people like from this presidency without all of the endless circus, controversy, erratic decision-making, chaotic staff turnover and gleeful antagonism that comes with this president. A candidate could promise that he won’t mess with an economy that is roaring by instituting any giant, sweeping new regulations or massive tax increases. A candidate could promise to continue enforcement of current immigration law, but with measures to ensure that everyone, even those who enter the country illegally, are treated humanely and with dignity while in U.S. custody. A candidate could promise to release his tax returns, put his finances into a blind trust, and bend over backward to ensure his personal financial interests and government policy never intersect or intertwine. A candidate could pledge that no matter how much his political foes irritated him, he would strive to treat everyone in public life with respect, to set a good example. A candidate could pledge that he would try to resist the temptation of the imperial presidency and trying to change policy as much as possible through executive orders and recognize that any major change to U.S. law needs to have buy-in from representatives from both major parties.

But a candidate like that wouldn’t get big television ratings, I guess.

ADDENDUM: Just as this newsletter is sent off to the editors, we learn the latest jobs report is fine, but not great: “The US economy added 145,000 jobs in December, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday. The unemployment rate remained steady at 3.5%, which is a historic low.”

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