Category Archives: Foreign Policy

The Russia Sanctions: From Headache to Migraine for the Trump Administration – Updated

The US Senate approved amendment S. Amdt 232 to S.722 (Iran Sanctions bill) on June 14, 2017 on a 97-2 vote (No. 144) and it’s worth our while to look at precisely what this amendment provides [Congressional Record]:

The amendment would do a number of things. It would codify and
strengthen six existing Obama administration Executive orders on Russia
and Ukraine and on Russian cyber activities and the sanctions flowing
from them.

The Obama Administration imposed sanctions on Russian in the wake of Russia’s incursions and take over of Crimea, described by Reuters on December 20, 2016. The article notes that the incoming administration, Rex Tillerson included, were in favor of easing these sanctions.

It would provide for strict congressional review of any effort by the
President to relax and suspend and terminate or waive Russian sanctions
patterned after the Iran Review Act.

This provision likely won’t be well received at the White House, as it removes the administration’s power to unilaterally ease the sanctions, including the ones added in the aftermath of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.  The ‘cyber’ sanctions included the removal of 35 Russian diplomats and the closing of two Russian properties identified as “rest and recreation” locales, but commonly believed to be intelligence centers by US authorities.  It was reported last May that the administration was giving consideration to returning the two controversial properties to the Russians.[WaPo]

It would require mandatory imposition of sanctions on malicious cyber
activity against the United States, on corrupt Russian actors around
the world, on foreign sanctions evaders violating the Russia, Ukraine,
and cyber-related sanctions controls, on those involved in serious
human rights abuses in territories forcibly controlled by Russia, and
on special Russian crude oil projects around the world.

The use of the term “mandatory” is important in this context.  The message is clear, should the Russians or their agents engage in further acts of “malicious cyber activity, then imposition of sanctions is an absolute, non-negotiable, manner.  Notice, please, the list of activities which would trigger sanctions: Violating sanction controls, human rights abuses, and Crude Oil Projects.  The latter will be of great interest to the Russian oligarchs and “comrade” Putin.

It would authorize broad new sanctions on key sectors of Russia’s
economy, including mining, metals, shipping, and railways, as well as
new investments in energy pipelines.

The inclusion of “metals” is interesting,  considering the Trump promise to build oil pipelines with American steel.  The promise has a compromise:  On March 31, 2017 the Los Angeles Times reported that about half the steel for the Keystone Pipeline would come from an Arkansas plant and the rest will be imported. The rationale?

“The steel is already literally sitting there” waiting to be used, White House spokeswoman Sanders told reporters, explaining the reversal. Evraz Steel, a Canadian subsidiary of Russia’s Evraz PLC, had signed on to provide 24 percent of the steel before the project was rejected under Obama, according to Reuters, and some pipe segments have already been built.” [CSMonitor]

It would crack down on anyone investing in corrupt privatization
efforts in Russia–something we have seen a lot of over 20 years.
It would broaden the Treasury Department’s authority to impose
geographic targeting orders, allowing investigators to obtain ATM and
wire transfer records so Treasury can better target illicit activity of
Russian oligarchs in the United States.

A few translations might be in order.  “Corrupt privatization” is an analytic term used to describe Russian versions of privatization as essentially corrupt — “corruption has resulted from the privatization of public assets whether “bought” (typically at grossly undervalued prices) or by government officials in effect taking private control of assets still officially publicly owned.”  “Geographic targeting” refers to the authority given to the Department of the Treasury to regulate sanctions over regions, and not just specific countries or companies.  ATM and wire transfer records are of great interest to FINcen, and FINcen is the division of the Treasury which investigates financial fraud and other illegal activity.  (See also OFAC FAQ compliance)  At the risk of unsupported speculation, we can muse that if FINcen has the power to investigate wire transfers to Russia, and if the Special Counsel has access to FINcen investigations, then any attempts to evade sanctions can end up in the hands of the Special Counsel’s investigation.  This might get messy indeed.

It would require Treasury to provide Congress with a study on the
tangled web of senior government officials from Russia and their family
members and any current U.S. economic exposures to Russian oligarchs
and their investments, and that includes real estate.

This portion of the amendment widens the net.  “Any current US economic exposure to Russian oligarchs and their investments” is sufficiently broad to include anyone, any company, any corporation, and any family.  And, while we’re discussing real estate, this opens the possibility — even the probability — of a report on the transaction in which Russia’s “Fertilizer King” bought a Trump property in Florida at a price well over the market. [Miami Herald]  The term exposure could also extend to the fine art of money laundering, succinctly explained by this Business Insider article.  When the word “investments” pops up we can assume that the powers thus authorized in the Amendment can look into shell corporations.  “The real big shots don’t bother with casinos, crooked bank managers, junkets, or smurfs. They manage to transfer millions, or billions, without handling cash or involving banks at all, instead funneling their money through corporate deals (bribes, kickbacks, and embezzlement schemes), which are exempt from currency controls.”

It would require the administration to assess and report to Congress
on extending secondary sanctions to additional Russian oligarchs and
state-owned and related enterprises.

We can also safely assume that an administration which wanted to ease sanctions on Russia will not be best pleased with having to self-report on the possibility of extending secondary sanctions to “additional Russian oligarch,” etc.  For clarification, “secondary sanctions” are defined as follows: “Secondary sanctions are a relatively new kind of sanction that has been implemented frequently over the past five years, particularly relating to Iran. These kinds of sanctions supplement other sanctions programs by targeting non-U.S. persons (primarily foreign financial institutions and foreign sanctions evaders) who do business with individuals, countries, regimes, and organizations in Iran.” [OFACnet]  The Amendment provides for an administration report of the relative effectiveness of levying such secondary sanctions.

So, what to expect?  Since the administration failed to apply the brakes on the Senate, we could reasonably expect it to try to ameliorate these provisions in the House.  This should separate the Reagan Would Be Spinning In His Grave Republicans from the Dear Leader Trump Is Always Right Crowd.  Speculation Warning: Trump friendly representatives may try to argue that the Senate Amendment is “too broad,” or “too vague.”  The problem with this is that the Senate amendment is neither too broad or “void for vagueness.” There will be the “sanctions don’t work” argument perhaps — but this falters if those in favor of reverting to the old level of Cuban sanctions try to have it both ways — Cuban sanctions OK, Russian sanctions not OK.

Not to put too fine a point to it, but 97 members of the US Senate have just elevated the administration’s Russian sanctions headache to a full bore hemiplegic migraine.

Update: S. 722 (Iran Sanctions Bill with Russian Sanctions Amendment) passed the Senate on a 98-2 vote (number 147) The only members of the Senate voting against the bill were Sanders (I-VT) and Paul (R-KY).

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Filed under Economy, Foreign Policy, Politics

Nymphaea Tetragona in the White House

I am coming to the conclusion that the occupant of the Oval Office is the Great Orange Marshmallow.  Talks “tough.” Acts like a dainty and fragile Purple Water Lily.  The Nymphaea Tetragona with a smart phone reacts to the UK’s three terrorist attacks in a short span of time with his cringing call for a “travel ban” to add a “layer of safety.”  Don’t let the facts get in the way. Facts like noting the Manchester Bomber was born in the UK.

Every time Nymphaea Tetragona tweets his insecurities into the public domain some thugs around the world take comfort.  He’s playing straight into their narrative.  ISIS, or whatever name they are giving themselves these days, would love for the western nations to bestow legitimacy on their criminal activities by calling for a “War on Terror,” or a Clash of Civilizations — as if Daesh were even remotely civilized.

What’s needed is a realistic view of Daesh — they are losing control of their territory in the Middle East and lashing out, calling for their affiliates to Take Action.  They are little more than a well armed street gang.  They are not “Islamic” any more than the Ku Klux Klan is Christian.  They are, again, a well armed criminal enterprise.  They would love to be romanticized into a Force recognized by great powers.  They aren’t. They are cowardly bombers and thugs.  Any self-disrespecting cowardly thug would be pleased to see their “cause” in the headlines, their actions elevated to the category of military operations.  However, bombing kids and their parents at a concert, or driving a van into pedestrians isn’t remotely a military operation — it is cowardly, it is criminal.

Instead of travel bans and other dysfunctional responses we need to operate as a national anti-gang operation.  No, joining a street gang is NOT a venture into “belonging” and “affiliation;” it is to brand oneself as a criminal.  No, seeking self fulfillment by accepting criminal behavior as a lifestyle choice isn’t a productive route; it merely serves to degrade the person adopting it.   It would be helpful if politicians would stop playing into the romanticized version of what is, as presented, simply a matter of criminal behavior on the part of some very dysfunctional people.

We know what doesn’t work.  Demonizing and marginalizing members of specific religious or ethnic groups doesn’t work — it plays into the criminal narrative; it gives credence to the criminal slogans and propaganda.  Failure to acknowledge the sources of criminal behavior is counter-productive — it allows dictatorial governments which support radical ideologies to operate with impunity.  (Even if such governments offer our delicate Purple Water Lily a welcome worthy of four repetitions of Pomp and Circumstance. )

What might be much more productive would be developing better working relationships with communities in which there are youth at risk.  Improving the economic situations for those youth — better education, better job training, better visions of what their lives can be like in this society.  This is not to be accomplished by encouraging the outrageous ranting of white supremacists spewing hate and rattling their 2nd Amendment equipage.

It certainly won’t be accomplished by following the lead of the Purple Water Lily, Great Orange Marshmallow, cringing with his smartphone, tweeting out misinformed and much mistaken whines about “keeping safe,” protected from threats real and imagined, comforted by a “strong Dear Leader” whose tweets are substitutes for information, analysis, and reflection.

We don’t need to accept substitutes. We don’t need to accept the overinflated self importance of the criminal elements.  We don’t need to play follow the leader with a person who leads from a position of weakness and fear.  We DO need to redouble our efforts to be that City on A Hill, a beacon of enlightenment and reason.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Homeland Security, Politics

Ripped from a few Headlines: Friday Edition

If you haven’t already seen the New Yorker article concerning Trump, Putin, and what the Russians want…click immediately for some excellent reporting and analysis. Here’s a taste:

“The great fear is the neutering of NATO and the decoupling of America from European security. If that happens, it gives Putin all kinds of opportunities. If Trump steps back the way he seemed to as a candidate, you might not even need to do things like invade the Baltic states. You can just dominate them anyway. You’re beginning to see the collapse of institutions built to insure our security. And if that happens you will see the re-nationalizing of Europe as a whole.”


If anyone is counting, and they are, there have now been THREE Jewish cemeteries vandalized within the last few weeks, St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Rochester, NY. And then there are the bomb threats to Jewish community centers.

“In all, 48 JCCs in 26 states and one Canadian province received nearly 60 bomb threats during January, according to the JCCA, an association of JCCs. Most were made in rapid succession on three days: January 9, 18 and 31. A number of JCCs, including Orlando’s, received multiple threats. On February 20, another wave of bomb threats hit 11 JCCs across the country, bringing the total to 68 incidents targeting 53 JCCs, according to the JCCA.” [CNN]

It would appear that while most people are protesting immigration related raids, Muslim travel bans, and assorted Trumpian outrages, others are taking the opportunity to express their antisemiticism, racism, and bigotry.


Meanwhile in the last two months four mosques have been attacked by arsonists.  The Oval Office remains silent:

“The press has certainly covered Trump’s attitudes—and those of his top advisors—toward Islam, particularly since he announced a ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim nations on January 27. But attacks on American mosques have received far less attention than the bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers. As far as I’m aware, no reporter has asked Trump about them at a press conference. And no major network would suggest that Trump’s failure “to adopt a stern, public line” against Islamophobia has been “politically damaging.”


Floating around in the Swamp, the Trumpster Regime — again (and again) says there was no connection between the campaign and Russian operatives. This, of course, goes nowhere toward explaining the contacts made by Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, Jared Kushner, Roger Stone, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Flynn, … and what names are to come?


The most bizarre explanation for opposing Motor Voter/automatic  registration in Nevada comes compliments of Nevada’s political gadfly and whack job Ira Hansen, did you miss this one?

“Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, was the most vocal opponent during the committee hearing and said it represented an overreach of people’s privacy, especially those who don’t want to partake in the electoral process.”

 

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Hate Crimes, Immigration, Nevada legislature, Nevada politics, Politics, racism, Voting, White Supremacists

Focus on the issue, not the straw man in the corner

First, let me say I am utterly uninterested in re-litigating the 2016 election results. My attention to the Russian Connection(s) is based on my concern that the Russian government — read Vladimir Putin — sought to influence the trajectory and substance of American foreign policy such that it would align with Russian interests.

Russian national interests (elimination of sanctions for its actions in Ukraine, diminishing NATO support for the Baltic States, reintegrating Crimea within Russian borders, separating the interests of the United States and Germany, retaining the Assad Regime in Syria to secure its naval base) are not necessarily American interests.

Secondly, there is ample evidence that the Russians sought to influence the direction of US foreign policy.  If there was no coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians, then why was Paul Manafort, a man with copious ties to Russian backed opponents of the Ukrainian government, hired as part of the campaign organization? What was the role of Carter Page in the campaign and its foreign policy pronouncements? Why did General Flynn lie to the vice-president about his discussions with members of Putin’s government? Our Commerce Secretary is tied to the Cyprus Bank and its connections to Russian money laundering.  And, now did Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions meet with the Russian ambassador on matters related to the Senate Armed Forces Committee, or did the agenda include aligning US policy with that of the Putin government?

And all the while the press reports the Oval Office incumbent said things like, “Russia is not going into Ukraine,” and trying to clean up this mess later when it was pointed out that Russia was in Ukraine — in Crimea. Further, the incumbent repeated his comments that ‘wouldn’t it be nice if we had better relations with Russia?’

The Obama Administration placed sanctions on Russia for (1) its activities in Ukraine, especially eastern Ukraine where it is still supporting rebel forces, and (2) for its hacking of American political organizations and individuals — the DNC, etc.  I think we can agree that Russian arms and personnel shipments to eastern Ukraine are a violation of that nation’s sovereignty.  So, why has the current Oval Office been silent about Russian recognition of citizenship documents issued by Ukrainian rebel forces? Or, the continued military operations in eastern Ukraine?  If the administration is not aligning its foreign policy interests with those of the Putin government then it is doing a remarkable impersonation of precisely that.

The Russians perceive the expansion of NATO as a direct threat, what does the Oval Office say — we must require that all nations chip in more money to insure our support, leaving the Generals to clean up the mess and seek to alleviate the confusion on the part of our allies.  If this doesn’t align with Russian interests its hard to image what would.

The bottom line is that we need to focus on our national security, this isn’t selfish, it’s security.  We need to know if the current administration is compromised.  We need to know if the current administration is compromising American security interests.  We won’t be able to answer these questions if the Republicans are successful in driving the narrative as one of partisan politics informed by a reaction to election results.

The issues raised begin with Russian tampering in our election processes, but they don’t end there.  At issue is whether or not US foreign policy is focused on long term American interests, and is NOT predicated on promoting the interests of a hostile government.

Focus please.  The election result argument is a straw man. The “wouldn’t it be nice” argument is a straw man. The pontification upon whether specific laws were broken is a straw man.  The parsing of phrases in Senate hearings is a straw man. These subtopics are related to the essential issue but they should not be confused with it. Should these straw men take center stage, then it will be all the more difficult to discern IF American foreign policy is made based on OUR interests, or if American interests have been compromised.

We need an independent commission to investigate the possible compromising of American security interests, and the sooner the better.

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Filed under Confirmations, Foreign Policy, Politics

2092 days

The Trumpster promised that if President Obama would release his birth certificate he would release his tax returns.  So, as of April 27, 2011 Trumpster was on record … Not that keeping his word is of much importance.  It’s been 2092 days since the promise was made and subsequently ignored.

It’s not just the returns. Build a wall?  Well, maybe a bit of fencing. Mexico will pay for it? No, that would be the American taxpayers. Now, the Trumpster announces health insurance for everyone,  Everyone!  Well not unless the old ideas like health savings accounts, portability, high risk pool can do the job. That these haven’t worked in the past is conveniently omitted.

It appears the only words which tend to hold are the Kremlin talking points. NATO is obsolete. (Unless you happen to be in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland…) The European market is failing. (Unless you happen to be in Germany, France, Spain…)

At least some questions might be addressed by releasing the tax returns, but until such time as they appear in public the obvious conclusion is that there are “foreign entanglements” enveloping the president-elect.

2092 and counting.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Health Care, health insurance, Politics

The Taiwan Call: There’s a message in here somewhere

trump tie scotch tape It’s amateur hour in Washington, D.C.  Not just for the Trumpster’s transition team but for the Beltway Media too?  45 years of foreign policy precedent just got reversed, and the punditocracy doesn’t seem to understand that the Orange Foolious isn’t thinking in terms of national issues. Personal ones perhaps, but national – not so much.

The Reagan administration understood; the GHW Bush administration understood; the GW Bush Administration understood – but his Republican version hasn’t grasp the finer points of international diplomacy, perhaps not even some of the more blatant ones to date.

There is really NO reason for having three different answers to the same question (Why did you take the call?) in today’s world.

Personal issues, perhaps:

“Weeks before President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, a businesswoman claiming to be associated with his conglomerate made inquiries about a major investment in building luxury hotels as part of the island’s new airport development. Weeks before President-elect Donald Trump’s controversial phone call with Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, a businesswoman claiming to be associated with his conglomerate made inquiries about a major investment in building luxury hotels as part of the island’s new airport development.” [Guardian]

And, we note the carefully phrased disclaimer from Trumpster Aides:

“A representative for Trump Hotels said there had been no authorized visits to Taiwan on behalf of its brand for development purposes, nor are there any active conversations.”  [WSJ]

Humm, no “authorized visits” and no “active conversations.”  This is interesting verbiage because from the same WSJ article we find:

“Reached Saturday by The Wall Street Journal, Ms. Chen, who is also known as Charlyne Chen, said she’s not a Trump employee, but has worked as a promoter and salesperson of real estate properties in Las Vegas and has a letter stating that she is a “sales ambassador” for Mr. Trump’s company.

She said the meeting with Taoyuan’s mayor to discuss the Taoyuan Aerotropolis project was arranged by former Taiwan Vice President Annette Lu, whom Ms. Chen said is a friend who had hoped to bring the Trump brand to Taoyuan, where she had previously served as magistrate. She said the meeting took place in September, “way before” Mr. Trump’s election, and talks about any project are at a “very, very early stage and there has been zero details.”  [WSJ]

Thus we are now in the realm of – What’s an “authorized visit?” And, what’s an “active conversation?”   It seems there is another lady in the mix:

Anne-Marie Donoghue, who identifies herself on her Facebook page as a Trump Hotels Asia sales director, posted a photo from a visit to Taiwan this fall, saying that she was in Taipei and enjoying the trip. “Work trip but it has been so fun!!!” [WSJ]

It’s not “official” but there’s a “sales ambassador” involved?  It’s not “active” but there have been two individuals involved in “work” on behalf of the Trumpster’s brand in Taiwan?  One of which was having “so much fun!!!”

Deniability is a lovely thing but it doesn’t work when back door dealings are posted on social media and published in the business press.

First it was Argentina, now it’s Taiwan… the message is that the Orange Foolious is still “selling his brand,” and quite possibly selling out American interests.

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Filed under Foreign Policy, Nevada politics, Politics, Republicans

Meanwhile: What We Aren’t Talking About

World Map I have this miserable feeling that what is purported to be a debate including foreign policy on October 19th in Las Vegas, NV will devolve into a session about emails/Benghazi… both manufactured outrages which are GOP specialties.

Meanwhile in our very real world there are some important issues which are not being addressed, not being explained for the American public.  Here are a few —

Greece.  If we thought this issue of a European Union country in dire financial straits as over – think again.  There is currently more happy talk about the restoration of the Greek economy, but yet more bail out money is in the offing.  Another $3.1 billion loan has been authorized to the government.

“Greece’s debt stands at about 180 percent of Gross Domestic Product and the International Monetary Fund has been arguing that the primary surplus targets set by Athens’ creditors to secure the massive rescue loans will prove too tough to respect. It remains unclear whether the IMF will take part in future loans without some form of debt reduction, something the 19-nation eurogroup is reluctant to discuss, given the many billions already spent on keeping the country afloat.” [USNWR]

In other words the economic/foreign policy questions related to the Greek economic crisis and its implications hasn’t been resolved, it’s merely been postponed.  I’d like to hear candidates discuss how the US should address problems created in the Greek/Eurozone economy by the aggregation of debt and the reluctance of bond holders to reduce their interest rates or renegotiate the rates. I don’t think we’re going to hear it.

China. There will probably be some references to China in terms of US trade, and the balance of trade between the US and China – but let’s guess that there will be radio silence on the freedom movement in Hong Kong.  The democracy movement is still alive in that area, the vestiges of the Umbrella Revolution survive, but the delicate balance of interests has implications for US policy in the region.  Will the fate of the Umbrella Revolution be referenced in foreign policy debates? Probably not.

South China Sea.  Here’s a situation fraught with consequences for the region, and for US interests.  China seeks to expand its influence in the area, the position of the Philippine government remains unclear.  China has made inferences to US ‘intervention’  in the area, and has told New Zealand to ‘butt out.’ [NZHerald]  Meanwhile, Indonesia has made a show of force in the South China Sea, and Japan is joining US patrols.  Singapore has expressed concern over the safety of fishermen and coast guard patrols, even though it is not a claimant in any territorial disputes.  Explication? Again, likely not.

Democratic Republic of Congo.  The election disputes turned deadly in late September.  President Kabila’s term is supposed to end in December, but elections have been put on hold, precipitating the violence.  The Vatican has weighed in, calling for a peaceful resolution of the election issues.  The US State Department issued a revised travel warning for the country five days ago.

“The potential for civil unrest remains high in Kinshasa and other major cities. In addition armed groups, bandits, and some elements of the Congolese armed forces continue to engage in murder, kidnapping, and robbery in a number of areas of eastern DRC. Very poor transportation infrastructure throughout the country and poor security conditions make it difficult for the U.S. Embassy to provide consular services anywhere outside of Kinshasa.” [USSoS]

Is the US prepared to react to continued civil unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo?  At what point does the US express its position, and make it clear we’d support UN initiatives to secure a peaceful transition of power?  We aren’t likely to find out during campaign season.

Turkey.  The coup attempt in Turkey created problems for US – Turkey relations.  [Fortune]  The relationship was complicated in the first place, and isn’t likely to get simplified any time soon. [WaPo]   Subtopics include our relationship with the Kurds, our relationship with the Erdogan government, our relationship with NATO.  And then there are Pentagon discussions about arming the YPG.  The situation is further complicated by talks between Russia and the Erdogan government over a pipeline.  

Russia and Eastern Europe.  Two days ago the Polish government expressed its disapproval of Russian missiles being deployed in Kaliningrad, in an area bordering Poland and Lithuania. [Reuters]  The Estonians weren’t pleased by the moving of the Iskander-M missiles either. [Guardian] The situation became more ‘touchy’ with Estonian charges of Russian incursions into Estonian air space. [EuOnline]  These aren’t issues to be minimized especially in light of Russian activities in Ukraine.

Putin is now claiming that Russian was “forced” to defend Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine, “Putin had denied sending troops into Crimea, before annexing it in 2014, and issued similar denials regarding Donbas. However, he has issued statements seemingly admitting to armed Russian presence in both regions since.”   Said Putin, stating the obvious.  The situation is rendered more tenuous as Germany is downplaying the idea of Four Way Summit on Ukraine. [Reuters]  There are talks scheduled for this Thursday and Friday, but evidently not much hope for any progress toward ending Russian incursions or the ‘separatist’ movement in eastern Ukraine.  The fighting continues.  

Without a better and fuller discussion of foreign policy issues in the political arena, Americans may have to live up to the old saw, “War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.”

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