Never never land

Today, Sean Hannity is tweeting:

Question of the Day: Who do you believe? Julian Assange or President Obama and Hillary Clinton

Sarah Palin has apologized to Assange, the Wikileaks guru, for criticizing him in the past and is recommending Oliver Stone’s film about Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked some of its most tightly held secrets. President-elect Trump has in the meanwhile quietly cancelled providing the information he said he had on the hacking of the Democrats during the election campaign.

We have somehow entered never never land, where some Republicans (conservatives?) are unwilling to accept the considered judgments of the intelligence community that the Russians were not only responsible for the hacking but also did it to favor Trump’s election. Opposition to President Obama and Hillary Clinton has driven people who used to wear American flag lapel pins into the arms of an autocratic president of Russia and his collaborators in unveiling and publishing private emails and government secrets.

We used to call people like this “traitors” when they were on the left. You don’t have to think Russia has somehow re-inflated itself to the Soviet Union to realize that Putin, Assange, and Snowden are out to weaken the United States and help Moscow regain its great power status. Of course Snowden and Assange have no choice: the former has taken refuge in Russia and the latter in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Both will be prosecuted if the US government ever gets their hands on them. The one virtue of the burst of Republican enthusiasm for Snowden is that it will end any idle chatter about a pardon for him from President Obama. I wonder about Trump though.

Hannity, Palin, and Trump are not under constraints that force them to favor Moscow. They are choosing to align themselves with Putin and his enmity to the US. A significant portion of the Republican electorate has also turned in that direction. Why? My own suspicion is that the ethnic nationalists–white supremacists in the language of my youth–recognize in Putin (as well as Netanyahu, by the way) a Russian analogue: someone who believes profoundly in the superiority and rights of his ethnic group and gender, to the exclusion of others. In other words, it is racism and misogyny that have brought us to never never land.

Many Republicans in Congress are not following Trump in his Russophile direction. Publication within the next couple of weeks of the Obama Administration’s findings on the email hacking will be a moment of truth: will Senate Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham follow through on their many sound bites and take up the cudgels against Trump’s unrealistic attitude toward Moscow during Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing to become Secretary of State, or will they let things slide, allowing the new administration to end the sanctions on Russia and recognize the annexation of Crimea?

If the latter, there are real risks that partition efforts elsewhere will be encouraged. Re-establishing Ukrainian sovereignty over Donbas would become even more difficult. Russia might well annex Transnistria (in Moldova) as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia (in Georgia). In the Balkans, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and possibly even Serbia would find their efforts to establish Europe-eligible multi-ethnic democracies undermined. Instability and possibly worse would ensue. The sooner we get out of never never land, the better.

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This isn’t likely to go well

While there are a lot of other candidates for first international crisis in the new administration, North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs are a likely one.  Donald Trump tweeted yesterday, apparently in response to a remark by North Korean President Kim that his country would soon have an intercontinental ballistic missile:

North Korea just stated that it is in the final stages of developing a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the U.S. It won’t happen!

He then added a bit later:

China has been taking out massive amounts of money & wealth from the U.S. in totally one-sided trade, but won’t help with North Korea. Nice!

If Trump intended that first tweet as a threat of unilateral US military action, he was not the first to propose it. More than ten years ago, current Defense Secretary Carter and former Democratic Defense Secretary Perry proposed the same thing. They wanted to destroy any North Korean missile capable of reaching the US on the launch pad.

But of course it is not clear what the tweet really means. Nor is it clear why Trump assumes that the ICBM in question would be capable of carrying a nuclear weapon to a US target. What he is doing here is what he often does: throwing ambiguous remarks into the public sphere with little or no concern for their factual basis or their impact on others.

That is also true for the second tweet about China. Trump wants Beijing to help with North Korea and to stop what he regards as unfair trade practices. Nothing wrong with that: presidents from Clinton onwards have wanted pretty much the same. But criticizing the Chinese publicly for the one is not likely to get you help on the other. And linking the two is disadvantageous for negotiating both. Trump has threatened to improve his negotiating leverage on trade by unilaterally imposing tariffs, a move that would precipitate Chinese retaliation. What would the odds be then for getting Beijing to move more firmly on North Korea?

Trump is now in a world far more complex than the one he is used to. I’m willing to believe that his business deals are complicated, but they are basically questions of how much people will pay to use his name. There are few other, unrelated, issues between him and his business partners. In international affairs, there are a lot of linked issues between major powers, making it exceedingly difficult to predict the consequences of any particular move. In military parlance, these are “wickedly” complex problems.

Trump can of course learn. He learned that he couldn’t make money running casinos, got out of that business, and started to sell his brand instead. But he doesn’t readily learn from the experience of others. He may listen attentively to Al Gore, but then nominated an Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency who doesn’t believe in human contributions to global warming. He pretended to listen to Mitt Romney, who has named Russia as the greatest strategic threat to the US, but he passed him over for Secretary of State.

A possible exception: his position on torture appears to have shifted after talking with his Defense Department nominee, General Mattis. But that is a rare exception. He has stubbornly persisted on many other issues where the weight of evidence is against his policy prescriptions: the wall with Mexico, repeal of Obamacare, making nice with Vladimir Putin, moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, blocking Muslims from entering the US and registering them once they are here….

We’ve got a president-elect who listens mainly to himself (and has even said as much publicly). The odds of that going well, especially when it comes to North Korea and China, are piddling.

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What the Free Syria Army wants now

Earlier today I posted a message from Syrian civil society organizations. The situation they described appears to be deteriorating, as the Free Syria Army has now posted the message below. “Potemkin” is the word that comes to mind to describe this ceasefire, but the question is whether the opposition still has a viable military option: 

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What Syrian civil society wants now

Baytna Syria sent this message early today, representing the views of an important segment of opposition-oriented Syrian civil society:

The Syrian civil society organizations followed closely the recent developments and discussions regarding the ceasefire agreement signed by opposition armed groups and the Syrian regime mediated by Russia and Turkey as endorsed by UN Security Council resolution 2336.

The signatories welcome any serious and credible ceasefire agreement as it will spare our people further blood, killing, and destruction. Such an agreement should be a prelude to a credible political process that will lead to the realization of the Syrian people’s aspirations in freedom, justice, and dignity.

For such an agreement to acquire the necessary seriousness and credibility, it shall:

  •  include a publicly published monitoring, verification and accountability process. The signatories declare their readiness to participate in any monitoring role required, each according to its mandate and principles.
  •  specify a single wording for the agreement signed by parties to the conflict and the guarantors, and carbon translated to Arabic, Russian, English, and Turkish. The details of the agreement should be made public.
  •  include a published and clear description of the role of the guarantors (Russian Federation and Turkey) and means to verify and sanction any violation.
  •  declare the UN Security Council resolutions as the unique political reference to the negotiation process, especially UNSCR 2118 and UNSCR 2254.

The signatories see in the Higher Negotiations Committee the sole representative of the Syrian revolution and opposition in the negotiations. The Syrian regime should appoint its delegation and negotiations should be between two parties only.

The continued shelling of the Barada valley in Damascus suburbs, Atareb in Aleppo suburbs and other areas in Syria proves yet again the lack of seriousness of the regime to positively engage in any ceasefire process, its insistence on its security/military solution to crush any opposition, and its non-credibility when declaring adopting a political solution to the conflict.

Russian maneuvering with different versions of the agreement and its attempt to impose a new UN Security Council resolution that would give it a role in defining the Syrian opposition team worries us a lot, especially regarding its role as a guarantor to the agreement. This pushes us to ask Turkey, the other guarantor, and countries of the Friends of Syria group, to follow matters closely and to block any understandings or agreements that do not meet the criteria above.

At the end, we would like to stress that the continuous and unhindered delivery of humanitarian and medical aid to all Syrian territories and primarily to the besieged areas remain the real test on the willingness of the regime and its allies to abide by UNSC resolutions, including the latest one 2336 and to engage in a serious and credible political process that leads to the desired political transition in Syria.

Baytna Syria
The Day After
RM Team
Syrian Network for Human Rights
Maram Foundation
Space of Hope
Afaq Academy
Violations Documentation Center in Syria
Bihar Relief Organization

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Serbia’s choice

Milana Pejic at Belgrade daily Blic asked about 2016 the “world between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel? Their publication of some of my response is here. This is my full response: 

2016 was a difficult year on many fronts. Resurgent nationalism in several EU countries, Brexit, and the Italian constitutional referendum have cast doubt on the European project. The long American electoral campaign and Donald Trump’s victory in the electoral college (but not in the popular vote) have raised questions about America’s long-standing commitments to NATO, to Ukraine, to the Syrian opposition, to the two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, to nuclear nonproliferation, and to free trade. No one really knows what the next US administration will do, as Trump prides himself on unpredictability, but the cabinet he has appointed and his provocative tweets during the transition suggest that there will be radical departures in American domestic and foreign policy.

Vladimir Putin appears to be riding high, having intervened in Ukraine, Syria, the US electoral process, and in the politics of many European countries by supporting nationalists. But Russia is overstretched internationally even as its domestic economy is a shambles. Moscow is the capital of a declining regional power with little to offer but oil and gas, arms deals, vetoes in the UN Security Council, and surreptitious destabilization. Those in Serbia who look to Russia as a savior are likely to be disappointed in the long run. Europe has much more to offer once it gets past its present rough patch.

Angela Merkel is today Europe’s de facto leader and defender of liberal democratic ideals. But right-wing nationalists in Germany have gained traction, largely due to the big influx of refugees that Merkel welcomed to a country that needs young workers. Will the wave of nationalism inundating Europe end the Chancellor’s political career? Or will she survive to lead a revival of the European project?

These are important questions for 2017. So too is the question of whether Serbia will continue on the difficult path of preparing itself for European Union membership, with all the sacrifices that entails, or instead choose the much easier but less rewarding road of becoming a Russian satellite, with all the limits to independence and prosperity that entails. The choice is yours, not mine, but you know which I would choose.

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The Russians were here

I’ve been asked a lot of good questions lately about the Russians. Here are my less than fully adequate answers: 

Q: Is this too little too late for President Obama to be retaliating against Russia for the hacking – why didn’t he do this before the election?

A: Obama I suspect was worried about making things worse in the middle of an election campaign. Like everyone else he assumed Hillary Clinton would win. Front runners don’t take chances. Nor did he necessarily have all the evidence he has now.

Too little? What has been announced isn’t much more than the usual diplomatic expulsion, limits on facilities, and sanctions against both institutions and individuals. That is unquestionably too little. But we don’t know what else is happening. I suspect some Russian institutions are going to find their electronics rather buggy for at least a few weeks.

Q: Will Trump just go straight in to lift the sanctions and buddy up to Putin in January?

A: I think Trump would like to buddy up with Putin right away, but he risks alienating key Republican senators if he does. That could put his nominee for Secretary of State, who as Exxon CEO long collaborated with Putin, at risk. There are important Republican Senators who are criticizing Obama for being too soft. How will they feel if Trump reverses even “soft” measures?

Trump also risks digging himself into a deeper hole with the US intelligence and law enforcement communities, which are furious at his refusal to acknowledge that Putin was seeking to disrupt the election and advantage the Republicans. Those communities can make a lot of trouble for a president they don’t respect. Though I hasten to add that Trump is likely to purge them pre-emptively.

Q: Do you think a full investigation will prove beyond doubt that Russia did hack the election, and in an era of fake news will it matter?

A: I do think the Russians hacked the Democrats in an effort to help Trump win. The FBI and Homeland Security published some of the evidence yesterday. More will be forthcoming. It won’t matter at all to those who attribute the whole affair to a fake effort to undermine Trump’s legitimacy.

But if the allegations are true, it really will undermine his legitimacy with a lot of people. He already has a problem because he lost the popular vote by a wide margin. He is guaranteed conflict of interest scandals as soon as he takes office. He has promised a series of international crises that will raise serious questions about his sagacity. 2016 wasn’t pretty. 2017 promises to be worse.

Q: Does Russia feel emboldened to attempt to attack other nations’ elections, like in France or Germany next year for example?

A: Yes, I expect Russia to be emboldened, especially if Trump reverses what Obama has done in expelling Russian spies, closing their facilities, and blocking their assets. Moscow is already backing nationalists who want to weaken the European Union in France, Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere. They are trying to slow the progress of Serbia and Bosnia towards the EU. They planned a coup in Montenegro after the October election there. They will continue doing these things until they are stopped.

Q: Why is Putin doing this – is it an inferiority complex that drives him to pretend Russia is equally powerful as the US, or as the EU even, when it has an economy smaller than California?

A: California’s economy is pretty big. But it is also diversified. Russia’s is wholly dependent on oil and gas, which is worth less than half what it was worth a couple of years ago. In addition to his inferiority complex, Putin needs to distract attention from a disastrous Russian economy as well as its overstretched military. Having an American president elect who kowtows to a Russian president is good not only for Putin’s ego but also for his political longevity.

Q: Hasn’t the negotiation of a Syria ceasefire redounded to Putin’s benefit?

A: Yes, for now. But it is unlikely to last more than a few weeks. If it does last, at least in parts of the country, the next step will be negotiation of a political settlement, which will be much harder because the Russians and Iranians will insist that Assad remain in place, while the opposition wants him out.

If somehow a compromise is found, there will be the reconstruction effort. Where will Russia and Iran find the $200-300 billion required for that? America certainly isn’t going to ante up until there is a serious political transition in progress, which is precisely what Russia wants to avoid. The ultimate Russian prize here is a destroyed and fragmented Syria with minimal resources, half its population displaced, and a Sunni majority that resents what the Russians have done. That’s not what I would call a strategic victory.

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