A flicker of bipartisanship

The House has reached bipartisan agreement on a sanctions bill that will make it harder for President Trump undo sanctions on Russia (as well as North Korea and Iran), unless he can present evidence that Moscow’s behavior has changed. That’s extraordinary: it has been a long time since Congress has reached a bipartisan agreement on anything important, much less something on which Trump disagrees.

There are still pitfalls. The House version of the bill will be voted on this week and then needs to be reconciled with the Senate’s version, which did not include North Korea. The Administration will do everything possible to water it down, threatening to veto it if it passes in its current form. But if the bill makes it through to approval in both Houses with veto-proof majorities (more than two-thirds), the White House will hesitate to undermine its already weakened president by vetoing and risking an override.

If and when the legislation passes, the US will have something resembling a tough-minded policy on Russian misbehavior, including its election hacking, its annexation of Crimea, and its invasion of eastern Ukraine (but not Syria). The legislation would also toughen policies on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as well as Iran’s missile program and regional interventions.

None of this however should be expected to have an immediate impact. Unilateral sanctions, even “secondary” ones that punish other countries’ companies for doing business with Russia, Iran, and North Korea, are rarely effective in the short-term. Their impact is felt when you negotiate relief from them, not when you impose them. And the fact that the legislation makes it hard to provide relief will be a disincentive to Trump to use the authority the legislation provides, in particular on Russia.

We should of course expect retaliation from the countries sanctioned. Russia will of course maintain the prohibition on adoptions that the Trump campaign and Administration have repeatedly discussed with Moscow’s various representatives. Putin may expel some American spies and diplomats or prohibit American imports. North Korea will likely launch more missiles. Iran will too. Tehran can also target Americans in Iraq or Syria, though doing so risks an American military reaction.

Sanctions would be more effective if multilateral, in particular if the Europeans would join in imposing and implementing their own, comparable measures. That isn’t likely with respect to Iran, where the Europeans are doing good business since the nuclear deal. They may be more likely to act against Russia, though the Italians and others are already chafing at existing sanctions. North Korea is easy for the Europeans, though they are unlikely to join in secondary sanctions against Chinese banks and other companies.

The Trump Administration lacks the rapport with Europe (and most of the rest of the world) to get the kind of multilateral cooperation required to make sanctions bite against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The President may have enjoyed Bastille Day in France with newly elected President Macron, but he has stiff-armed German Chancellor Merkel, who has the real clout. His pal British Prime Minister May is preoccupied now with Brexit, hasn’t been able to form a new government after suffering serious election losses, and in any event carries little weight any longer with the rest of Europe.

So, yes, this flicker of bipartisanship is good news, as it is a counterweight to some of President Trump’s worst instincts, in particular towards Russia. But it does not change international equation. Defiance will continue, as Trump has weakened the United States by offending its allies.

PS: While I was working on this piece, my colleague at SAIS Mike Haltzel published similar but more far-reaching views: A Ray of Hope on our Russia Policy | HuffPost

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Peace picks July 24-28

  1. Bipartisan Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing U.S. Foreign Assistance Report Launch | Monday, July 24 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Live Webcast | On May 30, 2017, CSIS announced the formation of a Bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing U.S. Foreign Assistance. After meeting three times and going through several rounds of discussions, this task force has identified actionable recommendations that the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress can take to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of U.S. foreign assistance programs. Senator Todd Young (R-IN) will provide opening remarks, a panel of select task force members will discuss the findings, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) will provide closing remarks.
  2. Media Diplomacy: Challenging the Indo-Pak Narrative | Monday, July 24 | 3:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The dominant national narratives in India and Pakistan fuel tensions between the two nations. Journalists and social media users play a critical role in crafting hostile public opinions and inciting further animosity. Join the Atlantic Council for a conversation to discuss the influence of media on public perception in India and Pakistan. In a discussion introduced and moderated by Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, Senator Mushahid Hussain and Minister Manish Tewari will address the role of media in shaping debates emanating from India and Pakistan.
  3. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Trump Administration: Stability or Upheaval? | Tuesday, July 25 | 11:45 am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here |  While tensions mount between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia finds itself embroiled in controversy over the royal succession: when King Salman named his son Mohammed Bin Salman crown prince in June, he displaced his elder cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is well respected at home and here in the United States. Meanwhile, conflict continues with Iran and its proxies in Syria and Yemen, and with Qatar closer to home. The Trump administration needs a stable Gulf region to sustain and advance American interests and those of its allies. What does the future hold for Saudi Arabia and the United States? What role should the Trump administration play with its regional partners in the GCC? Panelists include Mohammed Alyahya, Fatimah S. Baeshen, and Hudson Adjunct Fellow Michael Pregent. Hudson Senior Fellow Lee Smith will moderate the conversation.
  4. Venezuela on the Verge of Collapse: Economic, Social, and Political Challenges | Wednesday, July 26 | 11:45 am – 2:00 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Venezuela, a country with more oil than Saudi Arabia, is facing an economic crisis unseen outside of wartime. Chronic food and medicine shortages have plagued the country, and the crime rate has soared as people turn to black markets to secure common goods. Over the past four months, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to contest President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian regime. In opposition to the vote scheduled at the end of this month to secure Maduro’s grasp on power, millions of Venezuelans around the world participated in a symbolic July 16 referendum calling for new elections and opposing further changes to the country’s constitution. On Wednesday, panelists Gustavo CoronelDr. Rubén PerinaGabriela Febres-Cordero, and Dr. Boris Saavedra will discuss the political, social, and economic turmoil in Venezuela. Ambassador Jaime Daremblum, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Latin American Studies, will moderate.
  5. Hostilities in the Himalayas? Assessing the India-China Border Standoff | Thursday, July 27 | 10 am – 12 pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | India and China are embroiled in a tense border standoff in a highly strategic area of the Himalayas known as Doklam in India and Donglong in China. India and its close ally Bhutan view this land as Bhutanese territory, while China claims it as its own. This event will assess the current dispute and place it in the broader context of India-China border tensions and bilateral relations, while also considering what the future may hold. Additionally, the event will discuss possible implications for Washington and its interests in Asia. The panel features Former Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama RaoRobert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States; and Jeff M. Smith, director of Asian security programs at the American Foreign Policy Concil.
  6. The Ramifications of Rouhani’s Reelection | Friday, July 28 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | On Friday, the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland will host a panel discussion on Iranian public opinion in the aftermath of Hassan Rouhani’s re-election. The event will present new data gathered since the May presidential elections on Iranian attitudes toward domestic and international economic and political issues. In particular, the event will explore current Iranian attitudes toward Rouhani, the nuclear agreement, the Trump administration, regional crises and Iranian domestic policies. Panelists include Nadereh ChamlouEbrahim Mohseni, and Paul Pillar. Discussion will be moderated by Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
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Mosul falls, Abadi needs Sunni trust

Here’s the Encounter radio program I did last Thursday for Carol Castiel of VOA, with Jennifer Caffarella of the Institute for the Study of War: 

@CarolCastielVOA summed it up well in a tweet:

is far from defeated despite victory. Abadi needs to win trust of

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The long game in Iraq

As the liberation of Mosul draws near, one question lurks on the horizon: what is the American day-after strategy in Iraq? In response, on Monday the Wilson Center convened a teleconference featuring Anthony J. Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State; Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, former US ambassador to Turkey and Iraq; Colin Kahl, former Deputy Assistant to the President; and Robert Malley, former Senior Adviser to the President for the Counter-ISIL Campaign. Panelists identified two major challenges going forward in Iraq: the specter of Sunni jihadism and Iranian expansionism.

Although ISIS’s territorial base is greatly diminished and will be dealt a severe blow with the liberation of Mosul, the fight is not over. The terrorist organization and self-proclaimed caliphate maintains a presence in outposts such as Al-Qaim in Iraq and Abu Kamal and Deir ez-Zor in Syria. Moreover, cautions Kahl, even if ISIS lost all its territory, the organization would remain.

“Not only are they going to be a virtual, global, transnational phenomenon, even once the physical caliphate is completely smashed, but they’re not going to completely disappear from Iraq and Syria either,” Kahl predicted. “They’re going to revert to what they were before, which is a cellular terrorist network and insurgency.”

Even if ISIS were defeated, the political and economic conditions that gave rise to it would persist, observed Blinken. This raises concerns that another Sunni jihadist group might take the place of ISIS following the liberation Mosul. The solution? Judicious foreign intervention, concluded Monday’s analysts.

Sunnis in Iraq need assurances that their government—currently led by Shia prime minister Haider al-Abadi—will not persecute them. Iraqi Kurds need greater autonomy and a resolution of Arab-Kurdish territorial disputes over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The United States should support functional federalism and the decentralization of federal power to provincial governments, suggested Blinken, and should offer itself up as an “honest broker” in ongoing political disputes between Iraqi Arabs and Iraqi Kurds.

Pacifying Sunni-Shia tensions will require curtailing Iranian influence in post-ISIS Iraq. “If Sunnis feel threatened by Iranian expansionism, we’ll get another ISIS,” warned Ambassador Jeffrey. Ultimately, argued Jeffrey, the United States must give the Iraqi government incentives to position itself as a neutral actor between the US and Iran, even as antagonism between the United States and Iraq simmers. The ambassador suggested that this neutrality should come as the price for American aid in rebuilding Iraq. Malley’s suggestion was less coercive: blunt the influence of Iran by pre-empting it with American aid.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration poses several complications for these plans. While Iraq desperately needs international dollars in order to rebuild its cities, President Trump proposes to slash the State Department and USAID budgets. While neutrality in US-Iranian relations is key to salvaging Iraq, the Trump administration may be tempted to force the country to take sides as antagonism grow more intense. In addition, noted Malley, Iraqi civilian casualties have increased under the Trump administration, which may inflame anti-American sentiment on the ground.

“When it comes to balancing Iran’s influence,” warned Kahl, “we have to play the long game. Hopefully the president takes heed.

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Trump tells all

Donald Trump’s interview with the New York Times published today is a gold mine. It tells us precisely what he most fears the most:

  1. The Special Counsel (Mueller) Russia investigation, and
  2. Any probe of his family finances.

The interview is laced with concerns about Mueller, whom he accuses of having an office laced with “conflicts,” though Trump appears to have no understanding of what constitutes a conflict of interest. Concern about the Russia investigation also underlies the President’s criticism of his own Attorney General for recusing himself from it and the Deputy Attorney General for being from Baltimore, where there are “very few Republicans, if any.” It is also what underlies the accusation that former FBI Director Comey was trying to use a dossier to blackmail the President. Trump is trying desperately and assiduously to undermine the Russia probe and lay the basis for firing the Attorney General, his Deputy, as well as Mueller.


Here is the smoking gun:

SCHMIDT: Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family
finances, unrelated to Russia — is that a red line?
HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?
TRUMP: I would say yeah. I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I
don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make — from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms. I don’t have buildings in Russia. They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that. Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one. Other than I held the Miss Universe pageant there eight, nine years.

Note that Trump, as usual, pooh-poohs criticism and then steers the discussion away from Russian financing, first to the question of whether he has investments in Russia and then to the Miss Universe pageant, both of which are irrelevant to whether he depends on Russian financing.

But the key is that phrase “there’s a condo or something.” There are lots of condos and lots of investments by dubious Russians in Trump properties. President Putin could dry up that money in a heartbeat, rendering Trump’s and Kushner’s real estate empires basket cases. Putin could also make Trump’s and Kushner’s day by encouraging more Russian money to flow.

The Russia connection has other dimensions: admiration for Putin’s autocratic behavior, sympathy with his ethnic nationalism, and genuine belief (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that Moscow could be helpful. But if you want to know why Trump wants to meet privately with Putin and is so consistently and persistently is soft on Russia, money is the answer. I think Trump and Kushner do little due diligence. They are heavily dependent on finances of dubious origins in Russia, which makes them vulnerable to Putin day and night.

Sooner or later, this will all catch up with Trump. Either he will fire Mueller (and maybe also the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General), with dramatic political repercussions, or Mueller will proceed and document the financial connections that give Russia so much control over Trump, also with dramatic political repercussions. This may all move in slow motion, but it will move and catch a president who can’t resist telling all, if you know how to read him.

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It’s not fine

Ari Fleischer, onetime press secretary to George W, tweeted today:

This wasn’t handled perfectly by the WH, but it is not a scandal and a short chat after dinner is fine. Please calm down.

Let me count the ways he is wrong:

  1. It wasn’t a short chat, or a “pull-aside” as they say in the trade. It lasted according to everyone but the White House close to an hour, seated.
  2. The President got up from his place at the dinner next to the Japanese Prime Minister Abe to go talk with Putin. I needn’t speculate on how Abe felt about that.
  3. He did this in front of leaders of the rest of the G20, thus signaling to all that he was far more interested in talking with an American adversary than an American ally, even after already having met with Putin for more than 2 hours the same day.
  4. Trump failed to arrange for another American to be present, even a translator, thus raising the suspicion that he didn’t want his own staff to know the content of the conversation. Staff is usually readily accessible during such a dinner in a neighboring room.
  5. The conversation took place during an uproar about collusion with the Russians. What more blatant indication of collusion could there be than a long, private talk with Putin that the White House failed to brief to the press?
  6. The uproar and the Special Counsel investigation are increasingly (and in my view wisely) focusing on financial ties between the Russians and Trump’s real estate ventures. As the President makes no distinction between his public functions and his private business interests, wouldn’t it be reasonable to imagine that a Trump/Putin conversation with no other American present involved Trump’s private business interests?
  7. I’ll go a step further: if those business interests depend on Russian financing, what would make a reasonable person assume that Putin would not use the threat of withdrawing support, or perhaps the incentive of additional support, to get his way on Syria, Ukraine or other issues?

So maybe it is not (yet) a scandal, but it isn’t fine either. It’s an egregious example of the President’s extraordinarily poor judgment.

Not that we lack other examples: his continued interest in throwing away the Iran nuclear deal without an alternative, his failure to even pretend to hold Putin accountable for interference in the American election, his support for a Republican health bill that would have gutted promises he made as a candidate, his continuing effort to badmouth Obamacare into oblivion (even without a replacement): this presidency is a disaster already and will likely cause catastrophe in the future.

No one should calm down so long as this menace remains in office.

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