Month: January 2017

Still damaging

President Trump’s Executive Order affects a minor portion of international travelers, and is a first step towards reestablishing control over America’s borders and national security.

This in essence is the administration’s defense of the President’s executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from the US. It completely misses the point.

First: the US already has control over its borders. Vetting of refugees is intense. Vetting of people who get visas and green cards is as well. I suppose there are ways of tightening things up, but it could have been done without presidential executive orders and worldwide publicity inimical to US interests. I know of no evidence that immigrants or refugees pose a serious national security threat.

Just as important: the executive order’s main impact is on people with no intention of traveling to the US, first and foremost the world’s rapidly growing population of 1.6 or more billion Muslims, including 3.3 million who already reside in the US. They will view the order as unjustified and prejudicial, causing at least some to be disillusioned, alienated, hostile, and even radicalized. It will help ISIS and Al Qaeda recruit and inspire retaliation. If I understand correctly, Iran and Iraq have already responded by blocking the entry of Americans.

The ban is in fact part of a long history of barring immigration: by Chinese, Jews, anarchists, Communists, Iranians, and HIV positive people. In almost all these cases, the bans have proven useless, regrettable, unconstitutional, or immoral.

The current ban is likely all of the above. Immigrants from the countries in question (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) have conducted no terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11, though Somalis born in the US have been accused of plotting them. The odds of the ban blocking someone plotting such an attack are essentially zero. They might be higher if people coming from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other allied countries (not to mention Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tunisia) were barred, but Trump won’t block them for fear of the reaction.

The administration already appears to be regretting that the ban blocked Iraqis who had supported the US military. The President’s indication that Christians will be given priority in the future is clearly unconstitutional, but of course any court decision on that question might be years in the future. Singling out Christians will, as Michael Hanna suggested this morning in a tweet, put them at heightened risk throughout the Middle East, where some Muslims will regard the favoritism as aligning Christians politically and militarily with the US. “Do no harm” is the moral imperative most of us like to see applied in international relations. Or at least do more good than harm. The administration ignores that dictum at its peril.

The courts last night blocked application of the ban to people who have already arrived at US airports. But it remains in effect for 90 days for those who have not yet reached US shores. Airlines are blocking people with passports from the countries in question from boarding, even if they have valid visas or green cards.

In other words: the demonstrations last night at airports were great, but Trump continues to cause real harm to American interests and ideals throughout the Muslim world. Our European allies recognize this and are protesting, sometimes loudly. But it is up to Americans to get Trump to reverse his foolish and counter-productive decisions.

PS: Fareed Zakaria says it well:

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Trump is encouraging radicalization

Among the first refugees  blocked last night from entering the US under the President’s new executive order were an Iraqi who had worked for 10 years for the US government and the spouse of one already in the US who had worked for a US contractor. Both had been extensively screened and presumably had good grounds for fearing persecution, which is a requirement for refugee status. This is the way America treats those who work on its behalf?

The President also let it be known yesterday that he intends to favor Christians once reopening the door to refugees from temporarily blocked Muslim countries. He claims, without any evidence whatsoever, that they were discriminated against previously. Let there be no doubt: Christians may have good reason to fear persecution in some of these countries and would likely be a higher percentage of the refugees than anticipated based on their population. But favoring them across the board is, as my Twitter feed put it yesterday, “rank bigotry.” What better way is there to convince Muslims that America is biased against them?

I have no doubt but that some of these idiocies will in due course be corrected. The Congress and courts, respectively, are not going to go along with them. As in other cases, the President will yield to pressure: people who worked for the US government and Muslims will get into the US, after long and entirely unnecessary delays that put their lives at increased risk.

That is little comfort. The damage will already have been done. Muslims worldwide are watching this administration and learning that it regards them as America’s enemy. Alienation and exclusion are primary factors in radicalization. Some small percentage of those watching will move in that direction. Trump is giving them more reason to do so, not less. This of course includes American Muslims, who have been responsible for the vast majority of terrorist plots inside the US in recent years. None of those plots have involved refugees from the countries Trump has blocked.

The US has been at war with Islamic extremism at least since the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Trump has pledged to eradicate it. Instead he is giving people more reason to target Americans, who are at risk both at home and abroad. Let there be no doubt: Trump is encouraging radicalization.

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Winning hearts and minds from ISIS

In the first of AEI’s Bradley lecture series this year on Tuesday, Graeme Wood, author of The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State, discussed the mentality of ISIS followers and recruits. Moderator Fred Kagan, Resident Scholar and Director of the Critical Threats Project at AEI, framed the discussion in two ways. First, he noted that ISIS does not represent a problem with Islam as a religion but rather elements related to Islam. Second, he contextualized ISIS within a larger movement of Salafi jihadi threats, explaining that a narrow focus on ISIS alone is problematic.

Wood discussed current US policy towards ISIS, in particular the cycle of recognizing a threat, countering with decisive military action, supporting regional autocrats who will help America, and creating a “fortress America” in which the US limits Muslims’ movements into and around the country. Wood believes this is a less than coherent policy and fails to address the larger hearts and minds campaign that ISIS has successfully waged among its followers and recruits.

Wood met several Islamic State followers in order to better understand the draw of the organization for its many recruits. In the early days, it was possible to watch conversations unfold on social media, which made it easier to discover individuals and reach out to them to discuss their motivations for joining. Islamic State recruiters spanned the globe, establishing digital and physical presences in different countries and acting as the public arm translating the Islamic State to potential recruits. One of Wood’s most influential interviewees was Musa Cerantonio, an Australian convert who acted as the English language voice and translator for ISIS. Conversations with Cerantonio provided insight into the pervasive nature of Islamic State’s messaging campaign.

There were two main takeaways from these interviews. First, the dominance of religion, whether scripturally accurate or not, causes strict adherence to the apocalyptic vision of the Islamic State. Despite setbacks in Syria and Iraq, ISIS followers’ belief continue to strengthen. Secondly, dissemination of knowledge from the Islamic State across the world has become remarkably easy. For example, in tracing Cerantonio’s Islamic education , Wood discovered that Cerantonio’s teacher was an American who had committed his life to serious Islamic learning and study. What this demonstrates is how the Internet has radically democratized the playing field, making it easier for anyone to spread the ISIS message, increasing the group’s global footprint as well as its danger.

American has failed to address the ISIS’ appeal, which has penetrated the minds of Muslims globally. While it is good to have strong military leadership, the plan for winning the hearts and minds is less clear. A key aspect to countering ISIS attacks is to manage fear, contextualize attacks when possible, and provide for populations while further delegitimizing Islamic State terror.

Because Middle Eastern and Islamic states are on the front line of these conflicts, Wood said that it is imperative to address the systemic problems of poor living conditions and violence within the countries. Because these governments are not good at granting liberty to their people, desperation leads many to look for something else, finding ISIS an appealing option. Kagan here also added that the US pours kerosene on the fire by creating a global crusade against Sunnis and not distinguishing between groups.

ISIS has made itself the best option for people who seek powerful actors to help achieve their goals and aims. The most effective way to counter its appeal is to make ISIS a less unattractive proposition, by lowering its social status. If the Islamic State is no longer the coolest kid on the block, it will be far less effective and the US might have a better chance of managing its threat.

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More own goals

Donald Trump continues to score goals against his own and America’s interests. Just a few examples from the last couple of days:

  1. He announced the building of the border wall shortly before the planned visit of Mexican President Peña Nieto. This has put the visit in doubt and makes it nigh on impossible for Peña Nieto to cooperate with the effort in any way, least of all by paying a dime for the unnecessary and expensive project. Trump continues to claim the Mexicans will pay, but he doesn’t say how and admits it may be complicated. More likely done with smoke and mirrors, not a clear and verifiable transfer of resources.
  2. Trump continues to say that the US should have “taken” Iraq’s oil, has returned to claiming that torture works, and is considering an executive order reviving the “black sites” abroad in which much of it was done. Torture of course does work in the sense that it gets most people to talk, but the information they provide is mostly useless. The draft executive order on “black sites” reportedly denies access to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which is required by the Geneva Conventions. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda will welcome all three of these points, as they help with extremist recruitment and put Americans serving abroad (military and civilian) at heightened risk.
  3. He has revived the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian oil to the US. This will benefit Canada but put excessive amounts of crude into an already oversupplied US market. My bet is that it won’t be built, even if the permits are forthcoming, both because of environmental opposition in Canada and because the economics just don’t work at current oil prices in the mid-$50 range.
  4. He intends to block Syrian refugees from entering the US indefinitely as well as refugees from several other countries temporarily. Blocking carefully vetted Syrians when Europe is taking in many more will strain relations with the European Union, especially as he paired this announcement with repeat of his pledge to create a safe zone in Syria for which there are currently no clear plans. The other countries to be blocked temporarily from sending refugees (Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) have produced few terrorists operating in the US, so this will be seen in those countries as arbitrary discrimination. Countries that have produced more terrorists, like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tunisia, are unaffected, presumably because their governments are friendly to the US.
  5. The Administration is preparing to cut UN funding dramatically. Press reports . say the overall cut will be 40%, which would save at most $2.8 billion, or much less than 1% of the defense budget. Such a cut will reduce US influence in the world organization and its specialized agencies, which are a relatively efficient way of dealing with issues the US does not want to handle on its own. The UN currently has over 117,000 troops in 16 peacekeeping operations, for which the US pays 22% of the total costs.
  6. Trump has pledged an investigation of fraudulent voting in the US. He is citing as evidence for his claim that millions voted illegally a story he says was told him by a non-citizen [sic] who stood in line to vote with people he doubted were citizens. He has also emphasized his concern with people who are registered to vote in two states. Both Trump’s strategist Steve Bannon and his daughter Tiffany are reported to fall in this category. Trump has failed to object to laws and practices intended to suppress voting, mostly by people unlikely to vote for him.

Anyone expecting Trump to moderate once in power should by now be admitting that this is a radical administration that intends to pursue all the bad ideas it campaigned on. There will be no maturation until he is blocked, and even then he is less likely to mature than simply retreat in order to fight another day. He is governing to please his supporters, whose adulation he craves. The rest of us are consigned to opposition. The next big anti-Trump demonstrations will be April 15. I think this time I’ll plan to be in the US.


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Trump’s choices on Turkey and Syria

The Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) hosted three panels last Thursday on Turkey and the Middle East under the Trump Administration. The panels discussed the future of US/Turkish relations as well as Turkish involvement in the Syria conflicts.

The first panel, “Syria and Iraq’s impact on US/Turkey Relations,” was moderated by Ahmet Selim Tekelioglu of the SETA Foundation and featured Hasan Basri Yalcin, director of the Strategy Program at the SETA Foundation, Sasha Gosh-Siminoff, President and Co-Founder of People Demand Change, and Luke Coffey, Director of the Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation.

Yalcin said the bilateral relationship between the US and Turkey under the Obama administration  proved disappointing for both parties, leaving Turkey no choice but to align with Russia. He remained optimistic for the Trump administration and identified three policies tracks it might pursue: 1) interventionist, 2) non-interventionist policy, or 3)  simply a continuation of the Obama policy. The best policy for more balanced US/Turkish relations would be an interventionist approach. Increased support would swing Turkey back to the US and away from Russia and Iran.

Gosh-Siminoff noted that US and Turkish interests align in their desire for stabilization in Syria, but the war on ISIS complicates US involvement. The Trump administration faces a multifaceted challenge: they must balance the needs of traditional allies with the needs of the Syrian people and the terrorist threat.

Coffey sees a need for a greater understanding of the ground troops America supports and arms in the Syrian conflict. He expressed doubt that Americans would support Kurdish fighters if they knew more about their Marxist ideology and ties to the PKK terrorist group; he criticized legislative laziness in differentiating among Kurdish groups. Coffey stated that there are not enough moderates on the ground in Syria to enact change, a statement Gosh-Siminoff contested, arguing that greater support for civil society is essential to deterring extremist ideology and the threat of terrorism long-term. He claimed that Syria’s history as pluralist and moderate society means the country will likely return to that path, if we can provide the environment for this to happen.

The second panel, “The Trump Administration and Middle East Policy,” was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at the SETA Foundation, and featured Kilic Kanat, Research Director at the SETA Foundation, Nicholas Heras, Fellow at the Center for New American Security, and Hassan Hassan, Fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

Kanat identified external influences, such as the upcoming European elections, that will impact Trump’s policy in the Middle East. The new administration will likely be focused primarily on Iran, and it will be difficult to balance regional policies with the nuclear deal. The US will need to reassure traditional allies and assuage growing dissatisfaction with the US in Turkish public opinion.

Heras said National Security Adviser Flynn wants to follow a Balkans model in Syria, dividing it into zones with the cooperation of local forces, then focusing on securing borders and improving governance to maintain Syria’s territorial integrity. The challenge for the Trump team will be convincing other Arab states to contribute to the effort while they are busy in Yemen. Hassan echoed the idea of dividing Syria into zones, but warned that if we  focus attention on one area, ISIS will pop up in another. The administration needs a plan, not for an occupation but rather to help communities upgrade themselves.

The final panel, “Turkey’s Fight Against ISIS,” shifted the focus to Turkey’s role in regional politics. The panel was moderated by Kanat and featured Ufuk Ulutas, author of the recently released State of Savagery, Murat Yesiltas, Director of the Security Policy Program at the SETA Foundation, and Bassam Barabandi, a political adviser at the Syrian High Negotiation Committee.

Ulutas sees ISIS as a proto-state: it maintains a sophisticated and professional army and intelligence network while providing public services. Its emphasis on ex-communicating rivals and establishing a caliphate make it different from other Salafi jihadists like al-Qaeda. ISIS has diverted the attention of the international community towards themselves, exacerbating chaos in the region and giving it an opportunity to fill the vacuum. Yesiltas followed this with an overview of Turkish efforts to defeat ISIS, including ways ISIS has targeted Turkey in retaliation and poses threats to Turkey’s borders and stability. Barabandi added that if the US and the Turks do not depend on local forces they will be unable to defeat ISIS. They need Sunni Arabs for a real solution. The more they recruit and empower the Arabs, the better and more lasting the solution will be.

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That’s goodby in Chinese: zàijiàn.

My introductory two weeks to Nanjing and Beijing, the country’s southern and northern capitals (with a side trip to Haikou on the South China Sea), ended yesterday. I barely scratched the surface, but maybe a few initial impressions are in order.

I was expecting a still Third World country. China hands tell me I would still find that in the countryside, where incomes are far lower. But the city centers are definitely on a par with major urban centers in Europe and Asia, even without a visit to Shanghai. The physical infrastructure is particularly impressive: roads, railways, subways, and airports exceed American standards while handling extraordinary numbers of travelers.

Facilities are often crowded, but people are orderly. Traffic is intense but well behaved by my Roman standards. Most people queue calmly. Jostling happens in close quarters,  but it is gentle compared to New York City or Tokyo. Crime is rare. English language capability on the streets is too. Public toilets are not only widely available but remarkably well maintained, even if not always so modern. The streets in city centers are cleaned day and night, including on weekends. I literally stumbled on one street cleaner sprawled on the sidewalk to polish the bracket that held a litter basket.

That however betrays one of China’s vulnerabilities: it makes low-paying work for large numbers of relatively unproductive people. It is  not a paladin of productivity. Stores are jammed with unoccupied salespeople. The internet is slow and unreliable. I encountered two French entrepreneurs (after all, it is a French word) making a living, with difficulty due to bureaucratic obstacles, speeding up cyber communications.

Construction has played a key role in China’s economy in recent years. Tens of thousands of new, middle class, apartments populate every Beijing neighborhood I saw while crisscrossing the city many times to get to meetings. But in Haikou (a provincial capital in the south) I saw just a lot of mostly completed high rises empty. Someone is not getting paid for those. Bad debts are not a good foundation for future prosperity.

The big looming problems lie in slowing growth and the prospect of demographic implosion. The experts I’m reading think it will be difficult for China to escape the Japan syndrome, which has made Japan stagnate for two decades.

That would have serious implications for stability in China, where competitive politics have been limited to the local level and to the interior of the Communist party. Most people, including those working inside China’s government-sponsored, well-endowed, and well-informed think-tanks, seem to think that is fine. Even in Beijing’s wonderful 798 art district, politics were notable for their absence.

That was not however true at the National Museum, which I visited Sunday after a quick stroll past Mao, who is lit up like a Halloween pumpkin in his Tienanmen square “Maosoleum.” The museum has interesting and well-labeled sections on coins, jade, Song dynasty bas reliefs and other things, but two main permanent expositions: one on Ancient China and one on “Rejuvenation.”

The politics of Ancient China are clear and explicit but do nothing to detract from the magnificent objects on display, some of which date to 5000 BC. The message is cultural pride, economic progress, and social  multiethnicity. China’s frequent wars are mentioned only as they are overcome. The dynasties are treated as essential divisions of the time line, with little reference to their particularities except to note their multiethnic dimensions. A peasant revolt around 200 BC is one of the few other political glosses, included to presage the Communist rebellion.

Rejuvenation couldn’t be more different. Here the theme is recovery from the century of humiliation, which began with the Opium War and imperialist invasion in 1840. Nothing subtle follows. It is all courageous Chinese standing up to foreigners, complete with patriotic songs and dioramas. The Nationalist/Communist civil war goes by fast, blamed on Chiang Kai-shek’s attachment to dictatorship. The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, arguably the darkest periods of Chinese Communism, go unmentioned, as I am told they do also in Chinese schools. The political message thunders: you owe pride and progress to the Communist party, nothing else.

I walked out of this loyalist but obscurantist display into a street replete with the greatest concentration of Western brand names I’ve ever seen: Max Mara, Prada, Burberry, Ferrari, Rolex, Zegna… If contradictions are what drive history, China is in for a lot more history. But the Rejuvenation exhibit was far less populated than the one on Ancient China. Maybe the people are voting with their feet.

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