Month: August 2017

Empty slots and special envoys

Let me try to clarify a bit the issues of empty slots and special envoys in the State Department, which I find confused in some of the public discussion.

The normal procedure in the State Department is that there are no empty slots, except when the position is slated for elimination. Secretary Tillerson is being reasonable when he refuses to fill jobs that he wants to eliminate. For the rest, someone moves up the hierarchy to be “acting.” So when an ambassador is out of country or not yet named, the “deputy chief of mission” (aka The Minister in most non-American embassies) is acting as Charge’ d’affaires ad interim. The same principle applies to jobs at State: if the Assistant Secretary for the Near East has not been named, a deputy assistant secretary moves up and acts in that role, and on down the line.

This means that more high-ranking jobs at State are in professional hands right now than normally, because the Trump Administration has been slow to name its appointees. I don’t bemoan that, because I fear that they may name people in the mold of Steven Miller, Sebastian Gorka or Steve Bannon. I’d much prefer a professional with long experience in those jobs to a white supremacist rabble rouser.

There is however a problem: many of the more senior State people are resigning rather than work for an Administration that does not respect them or their efforts. Someone with 20 or more years in can resign a Foreign Service commission and get a pension. If they are also over 50, the prospects of a second career are attractive. That means some of the “acting” people may have much less experience. That’s not good, but it is still likely better than a young batch of Trumpistas.

A lot of concern has been expressed in the last few days about elimination of some of the special envoys, who are appointed for specific topics, like Muslim world or human rights in North Korea. Most new administrations come in saying there are too many special envoys and try to eliminate lots of them. What they mean is that the last administration’s special envoys do not represent the new administration’s priorities. The new people soon realize how useful they are for giving added visibility to subjects that don’t fall naturally into the pigeon holes of the State Department bureaus and appoint some of their own, as a way of reshaping priorities.

There is nothing unusual about this. It is quite reasonable that the Trump administration might eliminate the special envoy for the Syrian opposition, support to which it has abandoned, but keep the one for the war against the Islamic State. Ditto for the Muslim world: why would an Islamophobe administration want to keep that? The problem is not the special envoys but the priorities. Much of the work the special envoys do is any event done by the normal bureaucratic hierarchy. What suffers is visibility and focus.

So State’s problems today have far less to do with empty slots or abolished special envoys, and far more to do with cockeyed priorities. That’s even worse.


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Trump’s Moscow tower

This was the big deal Trump was pursuing, right up to his becoming a serious candidate for president. His staff thought it would help him get elected. But the deal didn’t go through, and Putin supported Trump’s election anyway.

How do we square that circle?

First, as Julia Ioffe repeatedly notes, it is clear that Putin and Co. did not look favorably on Trump doing business in Russia. Trump tried repeatedly over many years, without success. My guess is that the Russians, who did deals with inside Russia with lots of major international hotel chains, viewed Trump as a two-bit player. They, after all, knew how shaky his finances were, because Russian investors had been propping him up for the better part of two decades. The Russians had no reason to treat a small timer like Trump who likely laundered money for them in the same league with Ritz-Carlton.

So when his minions went to Moscow offering Trump Tower, Putin and Co. had no reason to buy the idea, least of all after oil prices dropped in 2014. But the other part of the deal was attractive: help Trump in the election campaign, make a laughing-stock of the US, and shake peoples’ confidence in the democratic system worldwide. It worked far better than anyone in Moscow likely imagined, but luck is always an important part of diplomacy and politics.

Trump meanwhile could not say anything bad about Putin, even though his Moscow tower deal was scuppered, because doing so would endanger the hot Russian money flowing into his real estate projects. That is true to this day. Even now that he has been caught prevaricating about his company’s and campaign’s relationships with the Russians, and even as president, Trump doesn’t dare put at risk his business empire. The Russians can do without him. He still can’t do without the Russians.

This is a sad and sordid tale. Some Republicans, and some in his own Administration, have indicated their doubts about Trump: whether he represents or even understands American values, whether he knows how to be president, and whether he is able and willing to separate his personal interests from those of the US government. But those are still isolated, even if weighty, voices. The polling, if it can be trusted, suggests Trump’s 30-40% base is sticking with him, they say no matter what. He is unpopular by historical standards, even within the Republican party, but it hasn’t really mattered, yet.

We’ll see what happens when the Congress returns from its non-recess. Will Senator McConnell pretend he didn’t hear Trump’s resounding criticism? Will Senator McCain continue to blast Trump but do nothing more than his one vote against repeal of Obamacare? How about Senator Flake? Will he buckle? Will Congressman Ryan continue his nascent campaign for the 2020 presidential nomination? Unless the Republican leadership starts to organize against Trump, the odds are he’ll make it to the 2018 election and continue on past because the electoral map is so unfavorable to Democrats.

We can therefore be grateful that Bannon and Gorka are back at the Breitbart zoo and the Trump triumvirate (Generals Kelley, Mattis and McMaster) are starting to steer the ship of state, at least on foreign policy (Tillerson much less so, especially after he threw the President under the bus with his doubts about whether Trump spoke for American values). Far be it from me to approve of a soft military coup, but the Afghanistan decision was at least properly staffed out and analyzed. With North Korea firing missiles over Japan, the generals know as well as anyone the horrifying consequences of war with Pyongyang. They will insist on a deliberative process. The same applies to the Iran nuclear deal.

But Trump, left to his own devices, would not be the first American president to take the country to war in part to extract himself from domestic political difficulties. His loud mouth has already threatened fire and fury from locked and loaded weapons. Bluster is only the first stage of Trump’s approach to foreign policy. Distraction is the next phase.

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Micah Zenko last week in the New York Times obliterated not only Trump’s proposed “new” strategy in Afghanistan but also the entire military-heavy approach to counter-terrorism that has dominated American efforts since the inauguration of Barack Obama. It simply doesn’t work well to just kill people you think are terrorists: there are always replacements, the civilian collateral damage is enormous, and the ungoverned spaces that result are breeding grounds for more recruits. While ISIS may be going down to defeat in the territory it once controlled, it will reemerge as a guerrilla group using terrorist tactics rather than the more conventional military approach it has so successfully employed the past few years.

So what is the alternative?

Max Boot and P.J. Crowley have already named it loud and clear: nation-building. Regular readers of, and those few who have picked up Righting the Balance advertised on this page, will not be surprised that I think them correct. There are, however, two big problems with this answer:

  1. Presidents don’t want to do it.
  2. Americans are convinced it doesn’t work.

The only civilian nation-building assistance effort Americans think successful is the Marshall Plan, launched almost seventy years ago to aid US allies in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Civilian efforts during the Vietnam war are generally regarded by non-experts as a failure, because we lost the war, even though CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) is regarded by some experts as somewhat successful. Americans generally disregard the modestly successful UN and other efforts since the fall of the Berlin wall.

American presidents are as adverse as public opinion, but often change their minds. Bill Clinton told Americans he was sending US troops to Bosnia for a year. They stayed for 9 years, largely to ensure peace and stability during the nation-building enterprise. US troops deployed to Kosovo in 1999 and are still there, because its sovereignty is still incomplete. George W. Bush famously derided nation-building during his first campaign, and then launched two enormous efforts: in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Barack Obama, as in many things more disciplined than most, withdrew from Iraq but extended the US presence in Afghanistan, largely because the nation-building effort there was still incomplete. President Trump has said we won’t be nation-building in Afghanistan, but he may be the only one left in the US government who believes that is in fact the case.

“Nation-building” is of course a misnomer. I would call what is needed “state-building.” Nations are groups that self-identify. States are institutional structures that can be constructed in particular social contexts that include the existence, or not, of a nation. From this perspective, there are successful multi-national states, including the US, but also less successful ones, like Bosnia or Iraq. But both Bosnia and Iraq are illiberal electoral democracies arguably, even if many will not agree, improvements over the autocracies that preceded them.

Today the question of state-building in the greater Middle East arises not only in Afghanistan but also in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and still in Iraq because of the scheduling of a Kurdistan referendum for September 25. There are basically two ways to go: allow the autocracies to be restored in Syria, Libya and Yemen, or try (as in Afghanistan and Iraq) to preserve some modicum of popular sovereignty. Tunisia is perhaps the best example of success in the latter enterprise.

I think it will be hard to re-impose the autocracies, but President Sisi has mostly done it in Egypt. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t stable, but it kills a lot of people Sisi defines as terrorists. President Assad would obviously like to do the same thing. In Libya, General Haftar is of the same mind, and in Yemen former President Saleh would presumably like his son to restore the old regime, which was an illiberal democracy in form but an autocracy in practice.

I’d prefer the more democratic route, even if the results are illiberal. Admittedly the preference is more a subjective than an objective one. While you can read in many places, including on, that what is needed to fight terrorism is inclusive states that treat their populations in accordance with international human rights standards, we’ve got precious few recent examples of success.  But I am quite certain that the purely military approach simply will not work, and I’d prefer my tax dollars not support the restoration of autocracy.

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Harvey hits Houston hard

Storms are a test of political leadership. Snowstorms in the US often upend mayors and governors who appear unprepared. Hurricane Katrina undermined Bush 43. Hurricane Sandy showed President Obama off to good advantage.

The jury is still out on President Trump’s reaction to Harvey, which hit the Texas Gulf Coast yesterday morning and is now flooding Houston. He did a good job of appearing to be prepared on Friday: holding meetings, tweeting mightily, and touting the cooperation among the local, state and federal governments. Bluster is one of his favorite modes.

This morning there are less convincing signs. He has tweeted about subjects other than the storm (a disreputable friend’s book, Missouri politics, the border wall with Mexico), in an obvious effort to distract attention from the storm. Distraction is another one of his favorite modes.

He is also claiming the storm is unprecedented. That isn’t true. What is true is that he recently revoked Obama-imposed standards for flood protection, apparently because they were designed as a response to the climate change that Trump denies is happening (or denies is due to human activity, or denies is harmful, or…).

That was done so recently it won’t have any impact on the damage due to Harvey, but the sad fact is that the US is not well-prepared for storms. We allow building in areas that are likely to get flooded, even rebuilding in those areas after a devastating storm. Much of this is paid for by US government-sponsored flood insurance, or Federal Emergency Management Administration loans and grants. The criteria for building vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

Houston seems likely to get the brunt of Harvey, which is now stalled there and dumping feet of rain per day on the fourth largest city in the country, with 2.3 million inhabitants. Damage is likely to be catastrophic, particularly if the storm remains there and doesn’t move to the north or east as previously predicted. Deaths so far have been few (only 2), but look for that number to rise. The aftermath can be more deadly than the storm itself, as water drains slowly and people run out of supplies. Remember New Orleans?

Trump can be happy for one thing: the storm has obliterated news of North Korea’s missile tests Saturday morning. No one is noticing that so far Washington has not responded, despite threatening fire and fury and claiming to be locked and loaded. The sad fact is there is nothing much military we can do, because of Pyongyang’s threat to South Korea and Japan. The diplomatic track is opaque, but we can hope something is moving there.

It is hard not to notice when the Secretary of State, speaking of American values, refuses to defend the President and instead says he speaks for himself. Tillerson, heretofore largely an advocate of a values-free foreign policy, disowns the President of the United States because of values? I thought I’d never see the day. I can’t wait for Trump’s wack back at Tillerson, or will he be too busy claiming the response to Harvey is really good?

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Good luck

As of January 19, there were 1920 pardon and 11335 commutation petitions pending at the Justice Department. President Trump skipped over those in favor of pardoning a former sheriff who had defied a court order to stop racial profiling of Latinos. Sheriff Arpaio is 85 and still had an opportunity to appeal. He was in no danger of going to jail. What the President did was not a humanitarian gesture. He was sending, as he has repeatedly during his lifetime, a clear and unequivocal signal that he respects no law and adheres to the notion that whites are superior and deserve special treatment.

I trust the signal will not be lost on America’s rapidly growing Hispanic population, 29% of which voted for Trump despite his many anti-Latino statements: claiming Mexicans coming to the US were criminals and rapists, suggesting a judge born in Indiana could not be fair because his grandparents were Mexican, and promising to make Mexico pay for his border wall. The Republicans have long thought they needed to do something to recoup some socially conservative Latinos. Hard to see how that will happen now.

The White House also apparently fired Sebastian Gorka, the falsely credentialed “terrorism expert” on the White House staff. Gorka was more TV court jester than serious policy wonk, but Chief of Staff Kelly and others in the administration had had their fill of him. That is good. Among other things, he had a history of Hungarian ultra-nationalist and anti-Semitic activism. I suppose Jewish right-wingers, taken aback by Trump’s solicitude for neo-Nazis in the wake of their murder of a counter-protester in Charlottesville, pressured for Gorka’s removal.

Both these decisions were announced on a Friday evening as a massive hurricane bore down on the Texas Gulf Coast, with likely devastating consequences. No doubt someone thought the news of Arpaio’s pardoning, and maybe also Gorka’s firing, could be inundated along with Houston. Asked about what he had to say to people in the path of the hurricane, Trump was flippant: “good luck to everybody” he chimed.

Bearing down on Trump is an investigation of Russian meddling in the US election and hot ruble financing of Trump and Kushner real estate. The Congressional committees are not letting up and Special Counsel Mueller is issuing subpoenas, for which he needs to get grand jury approval. The Mueller team isn’t leaking at all (in contrast to a White House that can’t keep anything secret), so it is hard to know precisely what they are pursuing. But they have hired a lot of financial crime experts. So I am inclined to treat Mr. Trump to his own words: “good luck.” He is going to need it, though of course the Arpaio pardon signals clearly he will pardon himself and his family members if need be.

So are we. The North Koreans again launched missiles this morning, apparently in protest of an impending US-led military exercise. Pyongyang aimed its relatively short-range missiles in a non-threatening direction, but still. Trump’s bluster about stopping their missile development is proving just that: bluster. How will he react to North Korean defiance? Yes, we’ll need good luck, and wise heads, too.

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How low can he go?

Much lower I fear. While he has given a couple of half-sane, scripted speeches prepared with Chief of Staff Kelly’s approval, President Trump is still doing what he can to offend as soon as he is off the Teleprompter. Those who don’t approve of him are at this point about 60% of Americans and far higher percentages in most other countries. Russia and Israel are the exceptions. He is still launching ferocious attacks on the American media, retweeting anti-Semitic and racist tweeps, and slamming both Senate supporters and antagonists.

With August waning and an early Labor Day (September 4) looming in the US, prospects are for a difficult fall. The first item of business in the US Congress will be raising the debt ceiling and passing some sort of budget resolution. Trump has made that more difficult by insisting that the budget include money for the wall on the border he has promised the Mexicans would pay for. That’s a non-starter for the Democrats, who have some say in the Senate because 60 votes are needed on the budget issues. Tax reform, which so far means a big tax cut to businesses like Trump’s own, will have to wait. Never mind the promised trillion-dollar infrastructure program.

Trump wants the budget resolved by eliminating the filibuster and allowing bills to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. That is a proposition even more controversial than the wall, so he is publicly hounding Senate Majority leader McConnell into changing Senate rules to allow it. That’s not a way to make friends in the Senate, but so long as the Republicans control the House Trump can be sure it won’t impeach him (which has to precede sending him to the Senate for trial).

While America tries to sort out its internal political mess, the rest of the world is trying to make do without much clarity from Washington. In Asia, China is seizing the initiative on trade and finance, pushing its “belt and road” projects all the way to the Middle East and Africa. North Korea hasn’t tested a missile lately, and there seem to be talks about talks going on behind the scenes with the US, but the prospects of denuclearizing Pyongyang have dropped to zero.

In the Middle East, Syria’s President Assad is still advancing, as are the US-supported, Kurdish-led forces trying to take Raqqa from the Islamic State. The Syrian opposition is being pressed by the UN and everyone else to drop its demand that Assad step aside. Civilian casualties from American and other air attacks in the battle for Raqqa are mounting.

Defense Secretary Mattis is promising Turkey the US will help fight against Kurdish rebels inside Turkey and in Iraq, even as it supports their affiliates in Syria. That’s going to be a hard circle to square. Iraq is also making progress against the Islamic State, but Baghdad still hasn’t convinced its own Kurdistan to call off its independence referendum, scheduled for September 25 but increasingly in doubt.

Jared Kushner is plugging away at the Israel/Palestine issues, in visits to Ramallah, Cairo and Jerusalem. No one is expecting much to come of his efforts. The State Department has refused to reiterate US commitment to a two-state solution, which (as Matt Duss pointed out on Twitter) represents the single largest concession the Palestinians have made to date. Not that anyone had much doubt about which side the Trump Administration was on. We’ll presumably now be treated to the spectacle of Israel and the US proposing various confidence-building measures meant to make life and the economy more palatable for the occupied territories on the West Bank, while Jewish settlements expand and kill off any remaining hope for a two-state solution.

This is enabled in part by some Arab states coming to the conclusion that they care more about countering Iran than supporting the Palestinians. The Saudis and Emiratis seem prepared to collaborate with Israel against Iran, even if Qatar, Iraq, and Oman are headed in the opposite direction. Yemen no longer counts, since it is being obliterated in the Gulf-led war against the Houthi rebellion. Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco are likewise out of the game for now. Egypt and Jordan have made their peace with Israel and have no choice but to keep it.

Trump is increasingly marginalized from all these developments. Weakness at home leads to weakness abroad. His only major push on foreign policy lately has been the renewal and expansion of the American military push in Afghanistan. This allegedly new strategy closely resembles his predecessor’s effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Like Obama, Trump doesn’t want to be blamed for losing Afghanistan, even if it proves impossible to keep his promise to win there.

We can still sink lower: North Korea could test another missile, the Palestinians could tell Kushner where to go, Trump could renounce the Iran nuclear deal, and the country’s long recovery from the financial crisis of 2007/8 could end. But most of all: we could continue to fail to deal with a president who is unqualified, mean-spirited, incompetent, and divisive. Let’s hope Special Counsel Mueller comes up with something compelling, sooner rather than later.


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