Category: Daniel Serwer

Trying to hem him in

The appointment of H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser is one more step in trying to hem in President Trump on national security policy. He remains in charge of immigration, health care, trade and many other subjects, but the Washington establishment (aka “the blob”) is trying to reassert control of some important foreign policy issues:

  • Vice President Pence has been in Europe reassuring the NATO allies of the Administration’s wholehearted commitment to the Alliance and openness to partnership with the European Union, despite the President’s often expressed skepticism of both.
  • Defense Secretary Mattis has done likewise with NATO and also visited Baghdad, in part to reassure the Iraqis that we are not, as the President has suggested we would, going to “keep” their oil (whatever that means).
  • H.R. is well-known for his book criticizing the generals for not objecting to escalation of the Vietnam War–he isn’t likely to stand by idly if Trump pursues courses of action that can’t be justified or sustained. Nor is he likely to ignore or denigrate the intelligence community.
  • Secretary of State Tillerson has been reassuring Ukraine of America’s support, including on Crimea, and calling out the Russians for failure to implement the Minsk 2 agreement.
  • Republican Senator McCain has trashed Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin, with Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republicans cheering him on amidst growing pressure for serious investigations of the White House’s Russian connections.

With those holes plugged, the main thrust of White House thinking about foreign and national security policy still has two major outlets: Iran and North Korea.

The nuclear deal with Iran is safe because the Europeans have made it clear they will not reimpose sanctions if Trump undermines it and the Israelis have told Trump they prefer the current restraints to none at all. But Tehran’s support for Bashar al Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq gives people in Washington heartburn. Despite the nuclear deal, Tehran has few friends in DC because it has been far so aggressive in pursuing its regional interests.

The May 19 Iranian presidential election is already raising the political temperature in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guard is doing military exercises and shooting off missiles, though it is not clear whether any of them since General Flynn’s “notice” violate UN Security Council resolution 1929:

Iran is prohibited from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons and States…

President Rouhani is feeling the heat, both from the Iranian right wing and from the Americans. Reformists have no one else to vote for, so he will likely to tilt towards the hawks in an effort to improve his prospects, which are good but by no means unassailable. He is also trying to improve relations with the Gulf Arabs, which would solidify his claim to restoring Iran’s influence and prestige in the region.

North Korea is the far easier and more worthy target. Let’s not even consider North Korea’s assassinations, human rights abuses against its own population, and oppression. Kim Jong-un is well on his way to getting missiles that can reach US bases in the Pacific and eventually the US West coast. The Chinese appear to be at their wits’ end with him. The problem is this: no one knows what, if anything, will bring the North Koreans to heel. If we were to try and fail, Pyongyang can retaliate with massive artillery barrages against Seoul. He could even use a few of his nuclear weapons.

If the establishment professionals succeed in their effort to hem Trump in with respect to Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and Iraq’s oil, he still has the opportunity to make a giant hash of things. The President is in charge. Getting Iran and North Korea right will not be easy, especially if the President decides he is better off listening to Steve Bannon than H.R. McMaster. Bad judgment is Trump’s consistent vice. He can get the United States into a lot of trouble.

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Who killed these people?

I received this note this morning from the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade:

Approximately 1,400 civilians were killed in the area of responsibility of the 37th Brigade of the Yugoslav Army in Kosovo in 1999. The mortal remains of a number of victims were discovered in mass graves in Serbia. The present Chief of General Staff of the Serbian Army, Ljubiša Diković, was the Commander of the Brigade at this time. Neither he nor any members of his unit have been held accountable for these crimes.

The evidence showing the presence and the role of the Yugoslav Army in the mass killings of civilians in Izbica, Čirez, Savarine, Rezala and other villages in the Drenica region is presented in the film titled “Ljubiša Diković and the 37th Brigade in Kosovo”, made by the Humanitarian Law Center. This evidence has already been presented in the “Ljubiša Diković” and “Rudnica” Dossiers.

A number of TV services in Serbia, including the public broadcasters Radio and Television of Serbia and Radio and Television of Vojvodina, have refused or have not responded to the request that they screen the film.

So here is the film, which apart from the spooky music seems to me worthy of the attention of anyone concerned with justice in the Balkans:

I hasten to add that there are of course Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and others about whom the same question could be asked. It is to the credit of the Humanitarian Law Center that it has been concerned about all the individuals killed in the 1990s Balkan wars.

Injustice does not justify injustice. The failure to assign responsibility in one case does not excuse the failure to assign responsibility in others. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had limited capacities and is now closed to new cases. The governments of the region owe it to each other and to themselves to assign responsibility, even to their highest officials if that is where the evidence points.

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Revenge of the nerds

The foreign policy establishment is beginning to bite back. While President Trump was outperforming even by his own low standards in a press conference Thursday, Senator McCain, Secretary of Defense Mattis, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of State Tillerson were busy in Europe declaring their unqualified commitment to the NATO Alliance, urging the allies to meet their 2014 commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense by 2024, opposing any softening with Russia on Ukraine, denouncing those who doubt Western values, and lauding the post-World War II liberal international framework. Trump likely wasn’t listening–he doesn’t even listen to the questions asked at his own news conference–but no doubt his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, heard what amounts to a cabinet and Congressional rebellion against his boss.

The courage to talk this way comes in part from Trump’s truly miserable ratings with the American public. At 40%, his job approval rating one month into the presidency is the lowest on record:

 

Mid-February Job Approval Ratings During Elected Presidents’ First Year in Office, Eisenhower Through Trump

 

Date Job approval
%
Trump 2017 Feb 13-15 40
Obama 2009 Feb 12-15 64
G.W. Bush 2001 Feb 19-21 62
Clinton 1993 Feb 12-14 51
G.H.W. Bush 1989 Feb 28-Mar 2 63
Reagan 1981 Feb 13-16 55
Carter 1977 Feb 18-21 71
Nixon 1969 Feb 20-25 60
Kennedy 1961 Feb 10-15 72
Eisenhower 1953 Feb 22-27 67
Average 61

He started lower than everyone else and has dropped more than all but Clinton:

 

Change in Presidential Mid-February Job Approval Ratings From Initial Job Approval Ratings, Eisenhower Through Trump
Sorted by change in approval rating

 

Initial approval Mid-February approval Change
% % pct. pts.
G.H.W. Bush 51 63 +12
G.W. Bush 57 62 +5
Carter 66 71 +5
Reagan 51 55 +4
Nixon 59 60 +1
Eisenhower 68 67 -1
Obama 68 64 -4
Trump 45 40 -5
Clinton 58 51 -7
Average 60 61 +1

The American public views Trump as less trustworthy and well informed than his predecessors, as well as less able to get things done and to communicate:

Americans generally respect NATO:

They also think Trump has damaged America’s image abroad:

This is unprecedented: a president with radical foreign policy intentions whose appointees are speaking out in ways that amount to rejection of those intentions. They are trying to hem in the President and prevent him from pursuing the worst of his ideas.

Trump still is the president however. He may be hemmed in by his own minions on NATO and Ukraine, but he is still free to act elsewhere. Iran and Syria are the likely arenas. He won’t renounce the Iran nuclear deal, because the Israelis don’t want him to. But he may seek heightened confrontation with them in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, or Syria. He may also try for a partnership with Russia in Syria by abandoning support for the Syrian opposition and trying to ween Moscow from what I suspect is an unbreakable tie to Assad. No successor regime will be as friendly to Russian (and Iranian) interests as Assad has been.

Trump is also rumored to be considering deployment of more US troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). He wouldn’t be the first American president to seek to bolster his popularity at home by waging war abroad. But Americans seem to me tired of foreign interventions. ISIS, while dreadful, is a threat to individual American citizens–even to substantial numbers of them–but it is not an existential threat that can destroy the United States. Apart from North Korea’s eventual capability to deliver nuclear weapons to California, the only threat of that sort I see on the horizon is President Trump’s attack on America’s courts, its free and independent media, its Muslim citizens, and its domestic tranquility.

 

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DC’s fine-tuned machine

Donald Trump yesterday called his team a “fine-tuned machine” in a press conference that prompted one Republican senator to say “He should do this with a therapist, not on live television.” The President was unable to keep his cool even in response to a question about well-documented recent anti-Semitic incidents, instead berating the journalist for his hostility. My first question to would-be foreign government speakers in Washington is whether they can respond to a provocative question without attacking the questioner. After almost a month in office, Trump is still not ready for prime time.

Instead he is spewing falsehoods, making exaggerated claims for his own prowess and experience, denying well-established facts, and conducting a vituperative campaign against the establishment press. He is also promising to catch leakers who are filling the headlines with news about his campaign’s links to Russia and the related ongoing investigations, which could lead to criminal charges against his now resigned National Security Adviser. The chosen replacement is reported to have turned down the job, unable to get a commitment that he would be able to choose his own staff. Trump’s immigration ban, blocked in court, will be withdrawn and replaced with something the President says will be even better.

There is a fine-tuned machine in Washington, but it is not Trump’s White House staff or even his cabinet appointees, most of whom are making it through Senate’s confirmation. The US government’s permanent civil and foreign services are beginning to gain traction. That is apparent in Defense Secretary Mattis’ meeting with NATO allies, where he sought both to get them to spend more on defense (a well-worn talking point that pre-dates Trump) and to reassure them that the Administration is committed to the Alliance. It is also apparent in UN Ambassador Haley’s tough remarks about Russian aggression in Ukraine and Secretary of State Tillerson’s “listening” participation in a G20 meeting, even if he had trouble explaining the President’s remarks on Israel and Palestine to the French foreign minister.

Trump, who is more radical than conservative, will no doubt want to upend more of America’s traditional positions on international issues, as he did when he ditched the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (delighting China) and suggested that the US was no longer committed to a two-state solution in the Middle East. He is said to be thinking about putting substantial numbers of US troops on the ground in Syria, to accelerate the liberation of Raqqa. But the bureaucracy is trying to hem him in and prevent thoughtless departures from established policy by Twitplomacy. Call it the “blob” or the “deep state,” but the professionals know there are good reasons for why we do what we do (and not what we don’t do). They want to ensure that policy changes are well crafted to avoid the kinds of chaos that the immigration ban generated.

The professionals are of course also protecting their own vested bureaucratic interests, from whence the leaks. Trump has all but declared war on the intelligence community and frozen out the State Department, preferring to rely on a National Security Council staff studded with military and former military officers. The nerds want their revenge. They got some with Flynn’s departure. They may target chief strategist Bannon and his side kicks as well, as they are all too clearly the guardians of Trump’s white nationalist radicalism.

Trump is driving a jalopy of his own making, not the Tesla he is entitled to as President. I dread the day he gets into the right driver’s seat and begins to make effective use of the deep state he is now fighting.

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Good riddance, but problems persist

It’s hard not to celebrate the departure of General Flynn from the position of National Security Adviser. He was both pro-Russian and anti-Muslim beyond reason. A sworn enemy of the American intelligence establishment, he got caught by them talking sanctions relief with the Russian ambassador even before Donald Trump was sworn in. Then he allegedly lied to the Vice President about what was said. His comeuppance is well-merited.

Congressional Republicans are now pledging not to investigate him. Why would they do that? They are trying to contain the damage. Their reluctance suggests it is more than likely that Trump knew what Flynn was discussing with the Russians. Flynn’s testimony, or that of others cognizant of the contents of the phone calls, would call into question the President’s own behavior: did he authorize Flynn to discuss sanctions? Was he pleased that Flynn did so? Was this part of a broader scheme of accommodating Moscow’s interests?

The Congressional cover raises other questions: was it part of a deal to obtain Flynn’s resignation? Why wasn’t Flynn just fired? What are his non-disclosure arrangements with the Administration?

Whatever the answers, it is clear that Flynn’s resignation does not solve the basic problem, which is Trump’s unrestrained and so far unconditional desire for an improved relationship with Vladimir Putin. The President has never made it clear what he expects from this improved relationship, only that it would somehow magically make things better in the world. He also hasn’t specified what he would be prepared to give up in return: recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea? Southeastern Ukraine? Independence of Transnistria? Annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are already nominally independent? NATO accession of Montenegro, now on the Senate’s agenda for ratification? Further NATO expansion in the Balkans? NATO expansion further into Scandinavia? An end to American support for rebels in Syria?

These questions persist even without Flynn. Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson may restrain the White House from some particularly bad impulses, especially Trump’s inclination to ditch NATO altogether, but their leverage will be limited. If the President is prepared to pursue a rapprochement with Russia despite the failures recorded by his two immediate predecessors, he will no doubt pick a new National Security Adviser prepared to pursue his policy direction. I doubt that can be David Petraeus, who in any event is already tarred with the brush of security violations. But I trust there are lots of other people who will do the work if given the opportunity.

In the meanwhile, the resignation of the National Security Adviser (and according to the press his deputy) will throw a National Security Council already roiled by leaks into further turmoil. President Trump has already failed to respond with anything but a few thin words of support to Japan when North Korea tested a missile in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. He is looking unprepared for a crisis, which of course means that someone somewhere on earth is likely to think this is a good time to precipitate one. An already messy transition has unsettled America’s relationships across the globe and now seems likely to open the door to a serious security challenge.

It is easy enough to say good riddance to Flynn. But there are real risks involved in a presidency committed to cooperation with Putin’s aggressive Russia and unprepared to meet even the challenge of a North Korean missile test.

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Assad may stay, but his abuses shouldn’t

RAND colleagues have again updated their proposal for de-escalation and decentralization in Syria. This time there is no pretense that Assad would cooperate, only an assertion that he is unlikely to do better given his weakening military forces. The proposition now is for a Russian/American/Turkish  and maybe /Iranian agreement imposed on him and the opposition, once Raqqa is taken by the Kurdish and allied Arab forces now investing it.

Raqqa would be put under international (UN or US/Russian) administration, the opposition would remain in control of a slice of the south, Idlib would likely fall to the regime, the “Manbij pocket” would remain in Turkish or surrogate Turkoman hands, and Kurds would rule the rest of the north. Assad would control “useful Syria” in the populous western “spine” and might eventually get his hands on Deir Azzour and its oil resources in the east, where regime forces have held on through more than six years of revolution and war.

The premise behind this proposal is that we are near if not at a mutually hurting stalemate, in which the warring parties conclude that they have no prospect of gaining much from continued fighting. What Jim Dobbins, Phil Gordon, and Jeffrey Martini are proposing is what is known in the negotiating trade as a “way out.” They don’t claim that what they propose is fair or just, only that ending the fighting and refocusing the military effort against the extremists of Jabhat Fateh al Sham and the Islamic State is what serves US interests best. While they don’t say it, I suppose Donald Trump could claim that an internationally administered Raqqa province is the “safe zone” that he has repeatedly promised. This is a faute de mieux proposal based on the emerging situation, not an optimal one.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the proposal is the Kurdish-led attack on Raqqa, followed by a withdrawal in favor of an international administration. Some would like to see Turkish-backed Arab forces engaged there, perhaps in parallel if not jointly with the Kurdish-led Arabs. The rest amounts mainly to acceptance of the status quo, or the presumed status to be.

I understand why Americans focus on who takes Raqqa–it is the “capital” and last real stronghold of the Islamic State in Syria. Its conquest will affect the geopolitics of the region for a long time to come. But I also think it is what Alfred North Whitehead called a “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” For me, the main issue is how the two-thirds of Syrians under Assad control in the western spine of the country will live, what will happen with the 6.6 million displaced people, and whether the 4.8 million Syrian refugees will be welcomed back to the country. It is a mistake to focus on Raqqa without considering these issues.

While the Trump administration may have different ideas, it was hard to imagine until January 20 that the United States would help the Assad regime with anything but the massive humanitarian aid it has provided throughout the fighting, much of which has gone to regime-controlled areas.

Reconstruction assistance is another matter. The Russians and Iranians have already told Assad they have given during the war and cannot be relied upon once it is over. Iran has recently cut its subsidized oil shipments. If the fighting ends with a negotiated agreement along the lines RAND proposes, the Americans and Europeans will be expected to ante up, if not directly at least by allowing IMF and World Bank assistance.

What conditions should govern American and European support for reconstruction?

Here is where the West has a chance to win the peace, even if the opposition has lost the war. It will need to use prospective assistance as leverage to get Assad to drop his authoritarian brutality, illustrated recently by Amnesty International’s graphic report on the executions at Saydnaya prison. The US should lay out clearly and in advance the conditions under which it would consider more than humanitarian assistance to Syria’s civilians under regime control. Something like these might be considered:

  • Release of all political prisoners and an accounting for all those executed or still held.
  • Amnesty for non-violent demonstrators.
  • Reform of the security and judicial services, with accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  • Withdrawal of all foreign forces, including Lebanese Hizbollah as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias, as well as demobilization and dissolution of all sectarian forces.
  • An inclusive process for revising the Syrian constitution and deciding when free and fair elections will be held.
  • Creation of an independent electoral commission.
  • Elimination of excessive constraints on media and political activity.
  • Freedom to return without reprisals for all refugees and displaced people.
  • An end to the crony capitalism that was a driving force of the revolution.

A vigorous and capable UN mission or something of the sort would be required to get fulfillment of such conditions and monitor implementation.

Assad is nowhere near accepting such conditions today. He continues with bold-faced denials, not only of the executions at Saydnaya but even the well-documented use of barrel bombs against civilians and attacks on hospitals and schools. If he persists in that vein, America and Europe should keep their wallets in their pockets and let come what may. Worrying about how Raqqa will be governed is far less important than making sure the abuses come to an end in the areas Assad controls.

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