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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Russia’s Trump dossier

I take it as true that Russia interfered in the US election in favor of Donald Trump, even if I don’t go so far as to say that is the reason Hillary Clinton lost the election. Those who don’t agree needn’t read further. I wish you well in your parallel universe.

The overt response President Obama announced yesterday was classic diplomacy: expel diplomats, close official facilities, add key institutions and decision-makers to the list of specially designated individuals subject to sanctions. We don’t know what else might be going on. I won’t be surprised to see publication of news about high-ranking Russians stashing ill-gotten gains abroad. Or, as one of my ambassadors used to put it, pictures of Putin with a goat.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced the classic response: a symmetrical expulsion of diplomats and closure of facilities. But President Putin one-upped him quickly, saying Moscow would not respond in kind. He is leaving the door open to a decision by President Trump on January 20 to rescind Obama’s moves. The choreography is impressive. It conveys clearly that Putin is in charge and suggests that he is magnanimous, not vindictive.

This maneuver puts President-elect Trump in a bind. If he backs off Obama’s moves, he will displease prominent Republican senators whose votes are needed to confirm his Russophilic nominee for Secretary of State, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson. He will also dig an even deeper hole than he is already in with the intelligence community, whose briefings he is skipping and whose assessments he has rejected. If he maintains the expulsions and other measures, he risks ending before it even began his promised reset and partnership with Russia.

I’m thinking he’ll choose the former: he’ll back off at least the expulsions, if not the rest. Why? Because his commitment to befriending Putin’s Russia is the one constant in Trump’s many random statements on foreign policy. America has elected a new president profoundly and consistently committed to partnering with Russia, against the collective wisdom of what he insists on continuing to call “the swamp,” the Washington establishment. Rather than draining it, Trump is installing his own alligators, who will be far friendlier to Russia and far more hostile to China and Iran.

I won’t be surprised if Trump also gives Putin other things he really wants: official acceptance of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a deal on Luhansk and Donestk (in Ukraine’s Donbas) that allows them to be virtually independent of Kiev. This in turn will trigger further Russian irredentist moves in Moldova, Georgia, and the Baltics as well as heightened efforts at partition in the Balkans (Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia). If Ukraine can be de facto partitioned, why not all these other places? If you are an ethnic nationalist and not a liberal democrat, keeping people together from different ethnicities makes no sense.

Barack Obama needs to do his best to block this drift of American foreign policy away from its traditional support for liberal democracy and towards an alliance with ethnic nationalists. I’m hoping he’ll use the covert retaliation against Russia for its interference in the American election to make public whatever we know not only about the Russian elite’s finances but also about its relationship to Trump. As better Russia experts than me have said, Putin unquestionably has a dossier on the President-elect, possibly one that explains his consistent Russophilia. Getting that out in the open would go a long way to clarifying why Trump leans over backwards to accommodate Moscow and to blocking him from continuing to do it.

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Happier new year, Kosovo!

2016 has not been kind to Kosovo. Plagued with too often violent internal dissent over its obligations to two of its neighbors, the government has been unable to assemble the votes it needs to demarcate the border with Montenegro or create an Association of Serb Municipalities in accordance with the Constitutional Court’s thoughtful criteria.

Nor has the external environment been conducive. The Brexit referendum and the American election results have diminished the attraction of two important touchstones: EU membership seems farther off and the incoming Donald Trump administration can be expected to be far less friendly to Kosovo than a Hillary Clinton administration would have been. Neither the EU nor the US seems likely to have much time or energy for Kosovo in the next couple of years.

Limbo is not a good place for a country in the Balkans. Forward motion is always needed to keep the bicycle of state from falling over. The training wheels are off. The Europeans and Americans are no longer holding tight to the seat. If it is to come at all, momentum will now have to be generated from within Kosovo, not outside it.

The current impasse is an opportunity for Kosovo’s citizens to send a clear message to its political leadership: we want real progress in providing jobs and prosperity while preserving security and guaranteeing European-style freedom of expression. No one should want less just because Trump is president or the Europeans are preoccupied with negotiating Britain’s exit.

I might wish that all the political forces in Kosovo would agree that their goals should be sought within the existing constitutional framework. But that will not be the case. Both among Serbs and among Albanians, there are people who reject Kosovo’s statehood, sovereignty and independence. They are clearly in the minority but have managed to hamstring the current government.

Kosovars will have to decide whether a new government or new elections are needed. Neither Europeans nor Americans want to be making decisions for a state they worked hard to make independent and sovereign. I trust the good judgment of Kosovars and wish all of them well in the new year!

Iraqi reflections

Lukman Faily, formerly Iraqi Ambassador in Washington, writes: 

Every year I write 12 tweets as end of year reflections. Would like to keep up this tradition, so here we go:

Defeating Daesh has been a strong factor in uniting Iraqis towards stabilization of their country 1/12.

Inter and intra community cohesion in Iraq is still not strong enough, political leaders need to lead 2/12.

Iraqis still lack defining enough common visions for their development and stability, e.g. national founding fathers need to rise to the challenge 3/12.

We are near the end of Daesh’s existence in Iraq, without common vision for Iraq’s endgame, terrorism will always find a vacuum to occupy, let us get our act together 4/12.

The Iraqi State still lacks cohesiveness, key legislations are still needed, plus common political will to pull together toward safer shores, this is doable but not simple 5/12.

Some steps were taken by Iraqi to fight corruption and mismanagement, not bold enough, this cleansing fight needs to be a national project and not just for the government 6/12.

PM Abadi did an excellent job in making sure that debts and salaries are paid despite oil prices plummeting , is this sustainable without revenue diversification? 7/12.

Iraqi cabinet still has key vacancies (defense, finance and interior) not filled, it is a reflection of parliament’s weak relationship with government, this is not sustainable 8/12.

US, international coalition and Iranian support to Iraq in the fight against Daesh has been a game changer, thank you all, this support has to be sustained for global security 9/12.

Regional geo-politics and socio-politics are becoming more complicated and disjointed, state leaders need to create strong platforms for dialogue, we own the problem and its solution 10/12.

The nature of Iraq’s relationship with some of the Gulf states and Turkey did not stabilize or grow positively during 2016, we need them to appreciate  positively the changes in Iraq after 2003, otherwise we are all going to lose, however they also need to know that the Iraqi blood maintained the security of their countries 11/12.

The tenacity & endurance of Iraqis have been a point of admiration by outsiders, let us also show them that the cradle of civilization will always be a beacon of hope 12/12.

Early retirement from my ambassadorial post after seven years in Iraqi government services was not an easy decision, one can always serve his people via many routes, we owe it to our country.

Allah bless you all and may 2017 bring us peace, inner and social harmony and development.

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2016 sucked, but the world really doesn’t

John Oliver has already said it:


For me, 2016 was a lousy year on many fronts:

  • Russian and Iranian intervention reversed the tide of war in Syria and chased many more innocent civilians from their homes and their country.
  • North Korea has continued its increasingly capable missile and nuclear weapons programs.
  • Major terrorist attacks have succeeded in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin, Orlando, Lahore, Istanbul as well as on board a Paris/Cairo Egyptair flight.
  • Britain voted in a referendum to leave the EU.
  • Donald Trump won the American presidential election, despite a notable lack of qualifications, reasonable policy proposals, and a majority of the popular vote.

Sure some nice things happened too, like the Paris climate change agreement, but global warming continued apace. The Islamic State lost a lot of territory in Syria and Iraq, but many innocent people got killed in the process. The Cubs won the World Series, but Cleveland lost.

Really unalloyed good news has been rare. Or at least not enough to counter the sense of an inexorable slide into more instability, less equity, and more confusion.

Most concerning is that liberal democracy–based on individual rights and rule of law–is losing ground. It’s not just Putin and Russia, but also Xi Jinping and China, Sisi and Egypt, Netanyahu and Israel, Erdogan and Turkey, Duterte and the Philippines, Khamenei and Iran, Kabila and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, even Aung San Suu Kyi and Burma. Leaders and countries are turning in illiberal if not outright autocratic directions. Hopes for liberalizing politics and economics are limited to places like Tunisia and Taiwan, important in their own right but peripheral to the center of gravity in their regions.

2017 is likely to be worse rather than better. There is no visible barrier to deterioration in the Middle East. The North Korean regime is increasingly consolidated. China is exploiting Trump’s provocations to ratchet up its own defiance, the movement of the US embassy to Jerusalem is likely to provoke dramatic Arab reactions, Angela Merkel is in peril, Marine Le Pen has a chance to win the French presidential election, Italian banks may fail, Khamenei, Erdogan, Duterte, and Kabila are determined to hold on to power.

But despair is no more a policy than hope. What counts more than anything else is not the pace of change. That might be very fast under Trump. But it is the direction that really matters. We need to find ways to make the world safer, more stable, more prosperous and more free. Even small steps in the right direction will eventually get you where you want to go. Let’s keep that in mind as we approach the end and the beginning.

Here’s the proof the pudding, but you have to take the long view to see it:

The next four years is unlikely to reverse any of these fabulously positive developments.

Or watch this via Zack Beauchamp (which dates from 2015 and therefore does not include the uptick in war deaths of the past couple of years, which still leaves the numbers low in historic terms):

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Rein him in!

Let’s count the potential international crises the President-elect has signaled he is prepared to initiate:

  1. Conflict with China over the South China Sea and/or Taiwan.
  2. Across-the-board tariffs that would cause a trade war with China.
  3. A nuclear arms race with his putative pal, Russia.
  4. Encouraging South Korea and Japan to get nuclear weapons.
  5. Movement of the US embassy to Israel to Jerusalem, precipitating an Arab and Palestinian reaction.
  6. Conflict with Russia and Iran by initiation of a no-fly zone in Syria.
  7. Withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), negotiation of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), and/or the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Let’s not count withdrawal from NATO, as he has already reneged on that promise, or withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, as even Prime Minister Netanyahu no longer favors that but rather prefers its strict implementation. Let’s also forget about the wall on the Mexican border, as the Mexicans won’t pay for it and Congress is likely to balk as well, and other immigration restrictions, which are inevitable now but will hurt the US more than any other single country. Let’s however add, because it is probably unavoidable:

8. A North Korean demonstration of nuclear and/or missile technology that threatens the US.

This is a spectacular list of things likely to provoke dramatic international reactions. It is also a list too long for any US government, even one led by experienced statespeople, to manage all at once. The neophytes of the Trump administration–including the President-elect himself, his Secretary of State nominee Tillerson, National Security Advisor Flynn, and his trade czar Peter Navarro–are guaranteed to make a hash of it if Trump tries to do even two or three of these things at the same time, never mind all of them.

Trump is blithely unaware of the challenges. He continues to use Twitter as his main means of communication, not only for his personal vendettas but also for what would be major policy shifts, provided he is serious. His defenders have been reduced to claiming that obviously he doesn’t mean exactly what he says on Twitter, as the issues deserve fuller treatment. Let’s not take him too literally, only seriously, they suggest, espousing something closer to a reasonable position on the issues Trump has tweeted wildly about.

This ambiguity about what Trump really intends is an added peril. Our adversaries no longer know what to think and are therefore compelled to prepare for what they regard as the worst. Minor confrontations are inevitable, as is escalation, given Trump’s irascibility. While the US was definitely under a greater external threat during the Cold War (because of the Soviet Union’s nuclear weapons) than it is today, the likelihood of major confrontation is now much higher, due to the uncertainty Trump has perpetrated.

Some are hoping for our institutions to compensate. But Congress and the courts can do little to reign Trump in. The confirmation process for some of his cabinet nominees may give a few in the Senate opportunities to signal their concerns, but there is little that can be done if Trump does not take the signals seriously. The courts rarely intervene on international issues, and then only after years of due process and appeals.

Two other possible brakes on Trump are likewise handicapped. The states can intervene effectively on domestic policy but are able to do little to affect foreign policy. American civil society–its citizens organized in nonprofit groups–will likely focus on domestic policy. The first big demonstration of the new era is likely to be the January 21 Women’s March on Washington. Preserving the benefits of Obamacare is likely to be a major domestic policy concern for civil society in coming months, along with exposure of Trump’s colossal conflicts of interest.

Ironically, it could be the business world that eventually reins in the businessman elect. The kinds of crises Trump is likely to precipitate are not good for US business, which knows how to get its voice heard in Washington. The US Chamber of Commerce was on the outs with Trump even before the election, over trade issues. But a South China Sea crisis or one of the others might be equally devastating to US business interests. Any international crisis will take a toll on economic growth, which is moving along at a decent pace even seven years into the recovery. Trump, whose personal business interests are paltry by big business standards, is going to come under a lot of pressure not to upset the apple cart.

Trump needs to be reined in. Whoever does it will merit the gratitude of the nation.

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