Day: April 5, 2017

Laconic to a fault

Tomasz Zalewski of the Polish magazine Polityka asked some questions about Secretary of State Tillerson. I replied:

Q: What is the role of Tillerson in making of US foreign policy? Is he its architect, or just an executor of Mr. Trump’s (or other peoples’) orders?

A: If he has any role at all, it appears to be minimal. He hasn’t even been an “executor.” More like a hanger-on.

Q: How valuable are his skills of the former Exxon’s CEO in the US diplomacy?

A: I have seen no value so far. [Maybe I should have added: other than his initial statement to the State Department personnel, which was well received.]

Q: How significant are the 28 percent cuts in the Department of State budget proposed by the White House – and the fact that Tillerson has agreed with them?

A: 28% is a devastating cut in a single year. It won’t happen, but the fact Tillerson agreed to this ridiculous number suggests he has no interest in defending the department he heads.

Q: What to make of the fact that Tillerson does not take the media on his trips and generally says very little in public?

A: He has no understanding of the Secretary of State’s role in public affairs and doesn’t care to learn.

I might add this, the State Department statement on the latest North Korean missile test:

North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.

That’s laconic to a fault, unless there is further action taken. 

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Assad’s chemicals

The Trump administration has let it be know it has abandoned hope of removing Bashar al Assad from power in Syria. Assad has responded by testing the limits of Washington’s affections: by using chemical weapons, once again. This occurred as the UN and Europe were considering aid to Syria at a Brussels meeting.

So far, Donald Trump has said this cannot be ignored by the civilized world but has done nothing. He has also tried to blame President Obama for the chemical attack for not having bombed Syria the first time Assad used chemical weapons (even if he at the time he urged Obama not to act).

Trump’s failure to act is a green light for Assad to do as he likes. If Washington continues to talk but not do, no doubt Assad will continue and likely ratchet up his chemical attacks, along with his assault on hospitals and other facilities that enable civilian populations to survive in Syria’s war zones.

What could the US administration do if it wanted? Here are a few options:

  1. Create declared safe areas protected from air and ground attacks, as Trump promised to do during the campaign.
  2. Identify and destroy aircraft or artillery involved in launching chemical weapons.
  3. Attack from the air Syrian and allied ground forces that are advancing on opposition-controlled areas.
  4. Make it clear the US will not provide reconstruction aid to any areas of Syria Assad still controls.
  5. Get Moscow to stop Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

None of these are easy at this point. Number 1 requires a significant deployment of US air as well as allied forces on the ground. Beyond the area of northern Syria controlled either by the Turks or the Kurds, it isn’t likely to happen. Number 2 is technically difficult, though it likely could be done, if Assad is dumb enough to park the planes or helicopters involved within reach of US cruise missiles.

Number 3 would put the US at war with Syria and Hizbollah, if not the Russians and Iranians. Number 4 I presume true already, and I suppose Assad does too, so it won’t affect his behavior. Number 5 is the eternal hope, but not one that has proved in any way justified.

None of the options except 2 seems at all likely at this point. The Administration is far more likely to act on North Korea, which has made clear it intends to gain the capability to attack the US, than on Assad, who avoids direct clashes with the US even if his brutal crackdown feeds the Islamic State and al Qaeda beasts that will eventually threaten the US.

It is hard to imagine how Iran, which suffered horrendous chemical attacks from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (which it blames in part on US supplies), justifies its support to a serial chemical weapons abuser. My guess is denial smooths that wrinkle.

Trump may be busy blaming Obama for Assad’s chemical attacks, but the buck has been passed and now stops with Trump. Will he fail to act, like Obama? Or will he plunge the US deeper into the Middle East maelstrom, with unforeseeable consequences?

PS: Here is Trump today on the subject:

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