Good speech, wrong president

It was a good speech, but one given by the wrong president.

Wrong first because President Trump has done far more to divide Americans in the last seven months than to unite them. His emphasis on the importance of unity at home to the successful pursuit of the war in Afghanistan was well founded. Without a common understanding of why we are fighting and what success looks like, sustaining support for America’s longest war will be impossible. But Donald Trump and his sympathy for neo-Nazi white supremacists are not going to foster that kind of solidarity. His talk now of how bigotry has no place is insufficient. He needs to do far more to fight bigotry, by dropping for example the Administration’s vigorous efforts to prevent minorities from voting.

Wrong because the President claimed that the strategy–fight to create the political conditions for a successful negotiation with the Taliban–is new and that he will be able to pursue it. It’s not new. That is precisely what convinced President Obama to send more troops, but the conditions never proved ripe. Dick Holbrooke and his successors as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (the ones I remember are Marc Grossman, Jim Dobbins, and Laurel Miller) were among the very best available, not only in this country but also abroad. Trump has now all but dismantled the civilian apparatus they built to pursue America’s political and diplomatic goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He has no means left to pursue the strategy he falsely claims he is inventing.

Wrong because Trump betrays America’s weakness when he so blatantly begs for allies to share more burdens and India to play a key role in spurring Afghanistan’s economy. Only a clear and unequivocal US commitment , not “tin cupping” as it is known in the halls of Foggy Bottom, will encourage others to come on board. Burden sharing is a consequence of leadership, not a pre-condition for it. Leaders lead.

Wrong because Trump excludes “nation-building,” without which success in Afghanistan is simply not possible. Only a capable and legitimate Afghan state will be able to establish the law and order required to eliminate safe havens for international terrorists. Trump, like all of his predecessors, tries to exclude the kind of civilian commitment to help the Afghans over a generation that will be required to establish anything resembling the rule of law. But what else would prevent a Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Islamic State resurgence? Only American special operators, in the forever war Trump denies he is pursuing.

Wrong because there is another answer to that question: neighbors matter. Trump bluntly threatened to cut off aid to Pakistan. That hasn’t worked well in the past; we’ll have to wait and see how it works this time around. He failed to mention China, Russia, and Iran, all of which play important roles inside Afghanistan and in the region. They have all also been at odds with the US in Afghanistan. Where is the strategy for rallying the neighbors to the cause?

My compliments to the generals: Mattis, McMaster and Kelly have made Trump sound decent and even patriotic. But he is far from the right guy to unify America behind a renewal of this 17-year-old war, especially if he ignores the civilian role in fixing what ails Afghanistan and bringing other major powers to support the effort. Good speech, wrong president.

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My Balkans Q and A

Albatrit Matoshi of Pristina daily Zeri asked questions last week. I replied:

  1. Not even two months after the parliamentary elections in Kosovo, the central institutions can not be formed as a result of political disunity. Is Kosovo losing ground to international institutions as a result of this political stalemate?

A: There are surely costs to the political stalemate, but “hung” parliaments happen. Even in much more experienced democracies, politicians often take months to form a new government. In the meanwhile, there is a caretaker in place. I trust it is doing the ordinary and necessary business of government.

  1. The Coalition PAN (PDK-AAK-NISMA) has emerged the largest in the June 11 elections, but it faces lack the necessary numbers to form the Assembly and the Government. In the absence of the necessary votes, this coalition is not participating in Assembly sessions, despite the invitation of the US, Germany, France, England, Italy to attend the Assembly. Should political representatives find compromise solutions, as the country risks again to go to extraordinary elections?

A: I hope people will make every effort to come to a compromise solution rather than new elections, but that decision is up to Kosovars, not foreigners.

  1. Should President Hashim Thaçi give the mandate to the second party, in this case to the “Vetëvendosje” candidate for Prime Minister Albin Kurti, if Ramush Haradinaj fails within the legal deadline to form the Government?

A: I am not a lawyer, but the Kosovo Constitution says the President “appoints the candidate for Prime Minister for the establishment of the Government after proposal by the political party or coalition holding the majority in the Assembly.” It seems to me Vetëvendosje would get a mandate if it can propose a government with support of the majority in the Assembly.

  1. In the absence of the Assembly and the Government, Kosovo has not yet ratified the demarcation agreement with Montenegro. If Ramush Haradinaj is elected prime minister, who has mostly objected to this agreement, do you expect that this issue will be resolved?

A: You will have to ask him. I know of no reasonable basis on which to continue opposition to demarcation.

  1. Is the EU likely to abolish visas for Kosovo if the demarcation agreement is sent to international arbitration?

A: You’ll have to ask the EU.

  1. If demarcation is voted in the Assembly, how many months will be needed until the start of the visa-free travel to the EU, given the fact that there are elections in some member states?

A: Again: this is a question for the Europeans.

  1. The new Kosovo government, if formed by a simple parliamentary majority, will face a strong opposition and at the same time will be dependent on the votes of Serbian MPs working under the directives of the Government of Serbia. How stable will be such a government, which will not really have the votes to pass the demarcation agreement, the Association of Municipalities with Serbian Majority, etc.?

A: That doesn’t sound like a formula for stability, but we’ll have to wait and see.

  1. It has been announced that dialogue between Kosovo and Serbia can take place at the level of presidents. How realistic is the move of the dialogue at such stage?

A: The Presidents have established a mutually respectful rapport, which should be sustained. But certainly political instability on the Pristina side could make the dialogue difficult. On the Belgrade side, things look pretty stable for now, even if some contest the validity of the last election.

  1. Serbia’s President Vucic has announced an internal debate on Kosovo. Do you expect the leadership in Belgrade in the framework of the Euro-integration process to remove Kosovo from its constitution?

A: I expect Serbia in the framework of the Euro-integration process to accept the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Kosovo, including (but not only) by removing it from the constitution. Kosovo UN membership and exchange of diplomatic representatives at the ambassadorial level should follow. The question is whether this will be done at the last moment before EU accession, when the negotiating leverage will be entirely on the EU side, or earlier, when Belgrade can hope to get a better deal. I think it is better to do it sooner rather than later, but of course that is up to Serbs, not foreigners, and will depend on the outcome of the internal debate the President has proposed.

Marija Jovicevic of Montenegro daily Pobjeda also asked some questions last week. I replied: 

  1. Serbia will be host of a NATO army exercise in October 2018. Do You think that Montenegro entering NATO is a signal for all other countries in region that Alliance has no alternative?

A: No, I think other countries have a choice to make. There is nothing inevitable about NATO, which only accepts those who are prepared to make the necessary reforms and to contribute positively to the Alliance. Serbia will want to consider all its options.

2. Do you see all of the Western Balkan region in NATO?

A: I might hope for that, but so far only Macedonia and Kosovo have committed to eventual NATO membership, once they meet the necessary requirements. Bosnia and Serbia are hesitating, for obvious reasons. NATO will be fine without them. The question is whether they would be better off with NATO and whether they are prepared to make the necessary commitments.

3. Do You think that Montenegro can be host of a NATO base in future?

A: Best to ask NATO about this possibility. I am not aware of any Alliance requirement for a base in Montenegro right now, though I suppose all of Montenegro’s bases are now in some sense “NATO.”

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Déjà vu all over again had a welcome long weekend off, visiting family in New Haven, Connecticut. Little to report from that, except that the Union League Cafe is super and New Haven looks a lot better than it did when I spent a summer there eons ago.

Nothing much happened in Washington either: just the departure (fired? quit?) from the White House of alt-right guru Steve Bannon. He is already back at what some wag on Twitter is calling Reichbart News. Good riddance, though he has every intention of continuing to make his bad ideas influential. That won’t be hard, as President Trump’s instincts lie in the white supremacist, extreme nationalist direction. How Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, who rejected his Yale classmates’ advice he resign, can stomach servicing a president who sympathizes with neo-Nazis is beyond me.

Tonight we’ll be treated to an entirely different guy: the fully scripted Trump, fresh from making a decision on strategy for the war in Afghanistan in accordance with National Security Adviser McMaster’s organized, deliberate, and well-informed process. That has been as rare in this Administration as a solar eclipse, also occurring today.

Predictably the Afghanistan decision is expected to be in favor of some additional troops and a promise of withdrawal. I predicted this “option B” outcome two weeks ago so I am not surprised. I still think though that the real options are “all in” or “all out.” We’ll be back to that choice in a few months. Afghanistan can’t be fixed by military means alone, but terrorist attacks and the Trump Administration’s budget priorities make it likely we won’t be able to do much on the civilian side. So one more president will face the likelihood of repeated failure there. It’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra said.

Trump won’t stay in scripted mode long. He seems determined to hold a rally in Phoenix Tuesday, despite the mayor’s suggestion that he postpone it. He’ll of course vaunt the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), on which talks began last week, trying to claim that he is thereby fulfilling his promise to ditch NAFTA. He’ll likely make choice comments about building the wall and blocking illegal immigration, maybe even pardoning the Arizona sheriff who has been convicted of contempt of court for continuing a crackdown on immigrants after being ordered to stop. That will please the racists no end.

So the Phoenix event will be déjà vu all over again too.


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Trump continues to sink

Trump is hitting new lows so fast it is hard to keep track. But let’s be clear what he has done lately:

  • given a boost to neo-Nazis, one of whom murdered a peaceful protester and injured 19 others;
  • defended anti-Semites and white supremacists;
  • encouraged racists to continue their protests against taking down Confederate statues;
  • spoken out to defend people who rebelled against the US Government in order to protect slavery;
  • admired a false anecdote about an American general murdering Muslims with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.

He has also dissed the Republican Senate majority leader and several other Republican members of Congress, while floating a rumor that he will pardon an Arizona sheriff who was convicted of refusing to obey a court order to stop abusing immigrants. Senator Corker, the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had a few choice words on Trump today:

Trump’s approval rating has dropped, but only to 40% or so among registered voters. That is from polling before most of the above items happened. He clearly believes that what he is doing will solidify his base and maybe attract some additional support. We’ll see if that turns out to be correct. His numbers among Republicans have started to slip, but they are still around 74%.

Non-Americans will wonder what all this is about. In a word: it’s about race. White working class voters made Trump’s campaign succeed. They are now hesitating to abandon their hero, who promised good jobs, implying that black people, immigrants, and trade agreements had illicitly deprived them of their white privileges. This map of hate groups in the US gives an idea of how pervasive racial divisions (note they are not particularly concentrated in the south):

Trump is figuring that he can husband and strengthen his white working class support, despite the fact that most of the job loss was due to technology, a factor he never mentions.

But there is a problem. Despite his mighty brags, he is not producing more jobs than his predecessor. Brian Klaas puts it succintly:

Nor are jobs pouring back into the US as he claims. Manufacturing jobs are up only slightly, while government jobs (that’s not just the Federal government) continue to climb after a dip under Obama: Manufacturing and government jobs










The stock market is up since Trump’s election, but there is growing realization that he will not be able to deliver much of the regulatory and tax relief he promised and that the Trump Administration is confused at best and chaotic at worst. The smart money is betting on a big correction.

Hillary Clinton couldn’t get the votes she needed in the Midwest to win in the Electoral College, but she was certainly prescient about Donald Trump, whom she knew well:

So, you may well ask, when will this end? It will, but there is still no indication of when the Congressional Republicans will take on the responsibility for bringing this president down.

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Trump is alt-right

You have to hand it to Donald Trump: he will not be scripted for long. Yesterday’s outburst in favor of his initial statement on the Charlottesville demonstrations clearly reflected his true personal feelings: Confederate statues should not come down, demonstrators on the left were as responsible for violence as demonstrators on the right, and alt-right guru Steve Bannon is a good man who gets a bad break from the fake news media.

The alt-right is celebrating. The President of the United States has given them more than they could have imagined: not only a hearing, but sympathy at the highest level. Why would he do that?

It’s certainly not for the relatively few votes that the alt-right mobilizes. The shift away from Trump by independents is now a stampede that dwarfs their political support. Nor is it because the alt-right were early Trump enthusiasts. Since when has Trump been loyal to someone just because they’ve been around a long time? He is notorious for ditching business partners, colleagues, and friends at the first sign of advantage for himself.

The only explanation that stands up to scrutiny is that Trump is himself alt-right: a white nationalist (that’s the polite term these days for a white supremacist). His political programs are all things the alt-right supports. He is trying to limit non-white immigration, non-white access to college, non-white access to health care, and non-white access to government anti-poverty programs. He has done nothing to fulfill his promises to help inner cities or to improve the lot of minorities. What evidence is there that Trump is not a white nationalist?

Where does this alt-right sentiment come from? Trump is the son of a real estate magnate who marched with the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. He worked in his father’s firm when it was refusing to rent to blacks. He launched his political career claiming that the first black president was not legitimate, falsely claiming he was not a natural born US citizen. He ran a campaign in which he described a Mexican American judge as unqualified because he was Mexican American and asked “where’s my black guy?” What would you expect a person with this background to be?

Trump may be correct that there were also perpetrators of violence on the leftist side of the Charlottesville demonstrations. Certainly some of the footage that MSNBC has been running shows counter-demonstrators fighting with the alt-right people. I deplore that behavior, which some “antifa” people advocate. Non-violence is a strategic choice in a situation like this, one that helps to de-legitimize those who use violence.

I also think the Nazis and alt-right should be able to march and speak, so long as they are peaceful. Shutting them up won’t help. Much as I am offended by Confederate monuments, I understand that there are those who remain attached to the world of white supremacy and segregation that they symbolize. No privilege is easy to give up, least of all privilege rooted in your own physiognomy that entitles you to mistreat others. It would be surprising if racists didn’t try to protect their remaining unearned advantages.

Trump is one of them. Firing Bannon, which he may well do, will change little. Did the firing of Manafort, Flynn, Spicer, or Scaramucci change Trump? The problem is at the top. Things won’t change until the president does.

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Why Trump can’t dump the alt-right

President Trump in his belated statement yesterday about the events in Charlottesville said:

Racism is evil — and those who cause violence in its name are criminals and thugs, including KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans,” Trump said in response to the attacks in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the weekend….Those who spread violence in the name of bigotry strike at the very core of America.
What he didn’t include is critical: he did not denounce the alt-right movement whose platform was Breitbart News, once headed by now White House chief strategist Steve Bannon.

Why did Trump not denounce the alt-right?

He is one of them. Trump is a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist whose entire career has been committed to preserving white privilege. As a young real estate magnate his company refused to rent to blacks, as a political gadfly he used the “birther” controversy to challenge the first black president’s legitimacy, as a candidate he questioned the ability of a judge to be objective on grounds of supposed national origins, and as president he is now trying to reduce the number of minorities who can immigrate, go to college, get health insurance, and vote. This is a consistent and unequivocal record.

The implications are important. Trump is not afraid of losing alt-right support or offending white supremacists. The number of alt-right voters is irrelevant to him. He is not even afraid of losing Bannon, whom he might well sacrifice in response to building political pressures, as he did Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, Anthony Scaramucci, and others. What Trump won’t do is abandon the white supremacist program he believes in. It’s not just that the fish rots from the head. The head controls the rest of the body.

This administration is committed to preserving white privilege. The statues of Lee and other Confederates may come down, but the ethnic nationalist ideology will remain.

This has important implications for foreign policy. An administration that won’t defend equal rights at home certainly won’t do it abroad. Nor will it try to protect freedom of speech and the press in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or the Philippines. It will criticize autocrats only when they are enemies: Venezuela’s Maduro, Iran’s Khamenei, and North Korea’s Kim already know that. Trump’s Secretary of State has been refusing to prepare for a meeting of the Community of Democracies he is supposed to host next month. I wonder why.

Applications for the US Foreign Service have declined precipitously. Many prospective candidates are preferring to go to work for nongovernmental organizations. No doubt the Administration will find sufficient numbers of alt-right sympathizers to fill the reduced numbers required to staff a State Department that Trump has marginalized, correctly fearing that its current staff will find it difficult to implement a foreign policy of alliance with autocrats. Liberals and minorities need not apply. The incoming Foreign Service recruits will no doubt soon look like the White House interns: overwhelmingly white and male.

The first seven months of this administration have been damaging: America’s alliances have weakened, its President is the butt of disrespectful jokes worldwide, and adversaries have grown bolder. I dread what comes next.


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