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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The Security Council speaks, at last

After decades of opposing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Washington yesterday finally did something about it: it abstained on a UN Security Council resolution fully consistent with US policy. This is being interpreted by some as a “kick in the teeth” to Israel and a sign that President Obama is anti-Semitic.

Give me a break. Obama has provided ample military, economic, political and diplomatic support for Israel, whose Prime Minister Netanyahu has returned the favor with efforts to undermine the President at every turn, including blatant support to his Congressional opposition and to candidate Trump, who is promising that things will be different at the UN after January 20. The fact is US abstentions and vetoes of UNSC resolutions critical of Israel have been much more common under previous presidents than under Obama:

The operational part of UN Security Council resolution 2334 includes this on settlements:

The Security Council…

1. Reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in the Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law and a major obstacle to the achievement of the two-State solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace;

2. Reiterates its demand that Israel immediately and completely cease all settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territory, including East Jerusalem, and that it fully respect all of its legal obligations in this regard;

3. Underlines that it will not recognize any changes to the 4 June 1967 lines, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties through negotiations;

4. Stresses that the cessation of all Israeli settlement activities is essential for salvaging the two-State solution, and calls for affirmative steps to be taken immediately to reverse the negative trends on the ground that are imperiling the two-State solution….

This is blunt language by diplomatic standards, but it is not unfair. What it essentially does is to try to preserve the possibility of a two-state solution by preventing unilateral Israeli occupation of territory that is vital to the formation of a Palestinian state. A UNSC resolution of this sort has substantial support among Americans, especially but not only Democrats:

The resolution also includes this, clearly directed for the most part at the Palestinians:

6. Calls for immediate steps to prevent all acts of violence against civilians, including acts of terror, as well as all acts of provocation and destruction, calls for accountability in this regard, and calls for compliance with obligations under international law for the strengthening of ongoing efforts to combat terrorism, including through existing security coordination, and to clearly condemn all acts of terrorism;

The “stabbing” intifada is not acceptable, in other words.

The Council seems to me to have understood Donald Trump perfectly well: while he promised to be fair to the Palestinians early in his campaign, he has shown no sign since the election of anything but willingness to accommodate the most radical Israeli views, both on Jerusalem and settlements.

This resolution is an attempt to send a strong message to him and to those Israelis who want to ditch the idea of a Palestinian state. Their thinly disguised subterfuge of settlement expansion is being called out for what it is: opposition to the two-solution and imposition by one state of unequal protection of rights for Palestinians.

The immediate impact is unlikely to be salutary. Trump, who got the Egyptians to withdraw the resolution two days ago only to see it reintroduced by others and passed on Friday, will want to do something to show he is Israel’s great white hope. Netanyahu will no doubt tell Trump that the resolution is one more reason to signal strong support for Israel by moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.

I’m not sure that will trigger a third intifada or other dire consequences, as some predict. Arabs have a lot of other things on their minds these days. But it is still the wrong thing to do, as the issue of which capitals are where has always been regarded as a “final status” issue subject to negotiations. That is not true of settlements, which have long been regarded, including by the US, as a violation of international humanitarian law that prejudices the outcome of negotiations.

No end of the Israel/Palestine conflict is on the horizon. But this Security Council resolution is a useful reiteration of norms that Israel is violating. When the time comes for final status negotiations, it will make a difference that the Israeli settlements beyond the 1967 lines, including in Jerusalem, are illegal. They will have to be abandoned or legalized, with proper compensation. Anything less would be unjust and unsustainable.

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Yes, season’s greetings

Nari Safavi sent this holiday message and kindly provided permission to publish it:

Beloved Ones,

Often Iran in the mind of the uninitiated conjures up the image of a desert country with monotone climate that is largely dependent on income from petroleum. Surely the climate of a great percentage of country can be described as arid/semi-arid and the oil revenues have historically played a great role in the economy of the country .

Yet when one travels to Iran, it quickly becomes evident as to how important the change of seasons are to the Persian calendar as well as the celebrations of harvests since Iran is a nation of micro-climates . Also when one reads the history of municipalities like the desert city of Yazd which through its Qanat system of guiding the underground water from dozens of miles away for agriculture and the fact hundreds of thousands of people in that city lived off being a supplier to the Silk Road with quilts, scarves and carpets; one realizes that Iranians have a rich history of being innovators , designers and that their culture is really one that is one the last remaining legacies of the ancient fertile crescent.

You may now ask , what relevance does any of this have to do with the sense of mayhem that is currently dominating our world ?

My response would be one of personal experiences and anecdotes. When I try to look back at my formative years and experiences and decouple the commercialism of the holidays from their historic meaning, I find the Yalda (Persian Winter Solstice Holiday) must have meant to be a quiet occasion of reflection about the longest night of the year and coming to terms with nature while spending time with those you value most. Hence, my annual Yalda, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza letter to you and the exploration for potential common bonds. Please forgive the redundancies, if you have received this letter in the previous years.

The Pagan Romans once engaged the Persian (Partians/Ashkani Dynasty) in a five century long struggle for the control of Anatolia. Such conflicts always ​create ​unexpected consequences and exchange of traditions. It is said by many historians that the Romans became fascinated with the Mithraist Persian calendar and its precision of rituals for celebrating the change of seasons. Particular in their attention was the winter solstice – YALDA fest (in Latin-Solis Invictus, the Unconquerable Sun ), which celebrated the bounty of the fall harvest, consisting of dried and preserved agricultural products/fruits. It is also said that Yalda (the probable origin of the word Yuletide) coincided with the birthday of some of the legendary Persian mythical figures and kings like Mithra the god, as well as Artaban/Artabanus, among them. After the conversion to Christianity, the narratives of a new king born in that season and the three wise men who were by most accounts Persian, caused the newly Christianized Romans to appropriate the Yalda holiday as the approximate birth date of the Jesus of Nazareth.

Whatever the historic merits of such claims, one can not help but be attracted to the narratives of connections and the commonalities of our holidays and spiritual traditions. I think that similar connections can probably be found about Hanukkah and Kwanza as well. But what is really important is that they are pretexts for us to develop bonds with one another outside of our daily context of routines and transactions.

It is my hope that during the culminating days of this most turbulent year, we remember the greater cycles of nature and rediscover that there is nothing new under the sun . The challenges that our generation faces can be overcome with a sense of perspective and long term commitment to reforming or rebuilding our institutions; while always maintaining the moral high ground regardless of its short term costs.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Kwanza and Yalda Mobarak,


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Requiem for Aleppo

Rajaa al Altalli of the Center for Civil Society and Democracy in Syria has clear ideas of what should be done about Aleppo and urges us all to call or tweet the following to the Russian and Iranian embassies:

1-    Require the UN investigation team to document and record the human rights violations that took place in Aleppo over the past three months.

2-     Make any and every effort to force a complete and sustainable ceasefire in Syria.

3-     Ensure the safe evacuation of all people who want to leave Eastern Aleppo.

4-     Create the mechanisms, which allow people in other besieged areas in Syria to have the option to stay in their homes without facing death, and starvation.

5-     Honor their commitments under UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and work toward a negotiated peace agreement that will guarantee a political transition in Syria.

The problem of course is that neither Tehran nor Moscow is even remotely interested in doing these things. Both capitals have been using violence against the remaining opposition civilian population in Aleppo and tolerated its use by the Assad regime. They will no doubt repeat the horrors they have inflicted on Aleppo in Douma, Idlib, Palmyra or wherever they attack next. The regime and its allies have adopted a Grozny strategy against opposition-controlled strongholds: level them and chase their populations out, replacing the population whenever the place is strategically located with regime loyalists, whether Syrian or not.

There is no sign at the moment of any serious Russian, Iranian or Syrian government moves against Islamic State territory. That is being left to the Turks and their Free Syrian Army (Arab) allies at Al Bab and to the Americans and the Syrian Democratic Forces (mostly Kurds, some Arabs) around Raqqa. While some still hope that a wedge can be driven between the Russians and Iranians, winning the former over to an effort against extremists while the latter continue to defend Assad, I’ll believe it when I see it.

Buried in the rubble of Aleppo are a lot of good intentions and international norms, which Rajaa is still trying to uphold. The Iranians, Russians, Turks met yesterday to try to strike a deal. It is unlikely to be one Europe and America like, but they won’t resist. Turkey had already abandoned the Aleppo opposition in favor of Russian acquiescence in its Euphrates Shield operation farther north and east, intended to block Syrian Kurdish forces from controlling the entire border with Turkey. The Americans are still focused on defeating the Islamic State at Raqqa and want the Turks to remain west of the Euphrates and out of that battle.

I’m with Rajaa. The Russians and Iranians should do all those things. But they won’t. The values we should uphold have suffered a big defeat at Aleppo. We are going to have to live with the consequences for a long time to come.

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Hidden figures

That’s the new film you are going to want to see, either in its limited opening Christmas day or January 6 when it opens “everywhere.” I had the privilege of seeing it Monday night at the new National African American Museum of History and Culture, where Madame works.

The hidden figures are trifold: blacks, women, and the computations black women were responsible for at NASA in the 1960s, when Jim Crow (that’s racial segregation) still ruled the American south and women held secretarial or menial jobs. The film tells the interwoven tales of the hidden figures with verve, humor, and the sharp-edged sensibilities that more than 50 years of historical perspective give. The bottom line is all too clear: if you exclude anyone from the opportunity to contribute her talents, you weaken your country and render it likely to lose whatever global competition it finds itself in.

America has shed the most egregious forms of segregation: the white and colored bathroom and water fountain signs are now to be found only in the museum’s exhibits on Jim Crow, rather than in real life. But lots of less invisible barriers still prevail in income, education, jobs, housing, religion, and health care.  America is a melting pot that hasn’t yet melted. Donald Trump and many of his supporters are going to try to prevent that from ever happening. That’s the dog whistle behind “make America great again”: restore white privilege after eight years of a black president who supposedly favored blacks and other minorities.

I hear the dog whistle, but it hurts my ears. Obama leaned over backwards not to discomfort white people. His successes–on health care, climate change, the Iran nuclear program, gay marriage–were distinctly non-racial causes. If anything, he disappointed blacks by failing to speak out more forcefully against police brutality and racial inequities of other sorts. He disappointed Latinos by not doing more on immigration. But that is what made him more acceptable to whites, whose votes he needed in order to win his two terms in the White House.

The man is finishing his mandate in much the same non-racial spirit, pardoning people who have served inordinately long sentences, trying to limit emission of green house gases, and explaining with remarkable clarity why he did not intervene in Syria (a decision I disagree with). I am grateful for all of this, as I am for the contributions of the black women who worked for NASA in the 1960s. I only hope we can continue on the path of greater inclusion that they pioneered with such tenacity.

I see no sign whatsoever that President-elect Trump intends to do that. He seems determined to strengthen his ethnic nationalist leanings by allying internationally with like-minded folks abroad, even including Austrian neo-Nazis (not to mention Putin, Netanyahu, Sisi, and other lapsed democrats). Domestically, we are seeing a cabinet formed that is anti-immigration, anti-Muslim and opposed to programs that aim to alleviate poverty, relieve healthcare burdens, and enable broader participation in the nation’s economic and political life.

Who will be the hidden figures of these next four years? I like to think history can’t be reversed, but that might be self-delusion. Will blacks and women return to being hidden figures, contributing but without credit? The undocumented? Muslims? Lesbians, gays, and trans-gender people? The disabled? The president-elect has shown disdain for all those, and more. It is up to us to try to ensure that he fails in trying to repress their aspirations. It is not going to be easy.

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Macedonia in limbo

Macedonia’s December 11 election has left the country in precarious limbo while the State Election Commission decides several appeals. Initial results suggest the former Macedonian ruling party (VMRO-DPMNE) won a plurality but lost seats and now leads at best by only two. Its main opposition (SDSM), which has publicized illegal government-initiated wire taps revealing malfeasance, gained both votes and seats. The main Albanian coalition governing partner (DUI) lost votes and seats, mainly to a new political movement (Besa).

The prospect of losing power has excited former Prime Minister Gruevski to paroxysms against the international community, which he blames for his electoral loss as well as the antecedent scandals that caused the Europeans and Americans to force his resignation last January. A Special Prosecutor has indicted Gruevski for prompting violence against a political opponent. Gruevski is convinced that the Americans and Europeans are doing their best to make sure the final election results do not return him or his party to office.

That is likely true. While everyone is entitled to be considered innocent until proven guilty in court, once indicted politicians in democratic countries generally resign or do not seek public office. The Americans, at least until January 20, and Europeans will think it important that Gruevski conform to that norm. Especially as the accusation is one of abuse of power, his returning to power before the court case is decided would be distasteful at best, prejudicial to the judicial proceedings at worst. The fact that his parliamentary delegation included a convicted war criminal will not help him with the internationals.

The question is whether the opposition can form a coalition that commands a majority in parliament. Numerically, there are ways to do it, but politically some of the combinations are ruled out, as I understand Besa has pledged not to enter a coalition with DUI. Parliamentary systems make government formation particularly complex and difficult.

But the main thing for now is to get a clear election result, which may require that the poll be re-run in some places. Gruevski’s political party doesn’t like that idea and is demonstrating outside the election commission to try to prevent it from happening. That they are entitled to do, but the fact remains: no legitimate government can be formed on the basis of dubious election results.

Macedonia has a habit of driving up to the brink of disaster and only turning away at the last moment, often with international help or pressure of one sort or another. That is not a good way to run a sovereign, democratic state. Skopje’s troubles are causing its hopes for NATO and EU membership to fade farther into the future. Macedonia above all needs institutions that can manage the political competition transparently and fairly. Let’s hope the election commission is up to the task.

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