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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Trump’s future crises

My recommended reading for today is Eric Chenoweth’s Let Hamilton Speakwhich is the best argument I’ve seen to date for the Electoral Colleges meeting today in state capitals to fulfill the founders’ intent by rejecting Donald Trump and electing Hillary Clinton, who beat him in the popular vote by close to 3 million votes. Virtually none of those votes has been officially questioned.

But Trump is going to win in the Electoral College. Nate Cohn has an admirably short explanation for how that happened:

Mr. Trump had an advantage in the traditional battlegrounds because most are whiter and less educated than he country as a whole.

The electors, who are basically chosen for their party loyalty, are not going to desert Trump en masse, even if a few may be tempted to bolt. The situation Hamilton anticipated and believed the Electoral College designed to prevent is about to happen. We will elect a prevaricating demagogue spectacularly ill-suited to wield the powers of the American presidency, one who is demonstrating daily by means of ill-considered tweets and soundbites that he has none of the good judgment and restraint required.

It is anyone’s guess how this will end. Some hope Trump will moderate, despite ample evidence to the contrary, in particular in his radical cabinet appointments. Others hope the Congress and courts will block his less judicious moves. But Congressional Republicans are lining up to salute and restraint by the courts is always delayed and rarely applicable to foreign policy. As Trump is astoundingly concerned with his image, public opinion might have an impact. But he has been remarkably successful at making any publicity into good publicity. There is no sign yet that any of these forces will be sufficient to block Trump’s worst instincts.

My own guess is that we are headed for an early international crisis.

Trump has already provoked China twice, once by accepting the Taiwan president’s phone call and once by a harsh remark about Chinese military activity in the South China Sea. Beijing reacted mildly to the first, suggesting it was Taiwan’s fault, and more harshly to the second, seizing an American underwater drone. Much worse could lurk in the future, as Trump has promised a trade war with China that would cause Beijing to retaliate and devastate American exports.

While provocative towards China, Trump is accommodating towards Russia. He has indicated he will end US support to the Syrian revolution (even while promising safe areas that cannot be created due to Russian air defenses) and try to make common cause with Russia against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Secretary of State Kerry has been trying to pull off that partnership for months, without success because the Russians are unwilling to target extremists. They prefer to help Assad retake territory, most recently Aleppo, without regard to civilian casualties. This will strengthen extremism, even as it benefits Russia and Iran. Trump will no doubt be tempted to strike out at Iran, not Russia, but doing so would propel the world into another major Middle East crisis.

That may not, however, be the first Middle East crisis Trump precipitates. He and his nominated ambassador to Israel, who is a strong supporter of West Bank settlements and an opponent of a two-state solution, have pledged to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, a promise other presidents-elect have made but never fulfilled. The reason is clear: it is a final status issue that needs to be part of the negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. Jumping the gun will make it even more difficult than it is today for the US to enlist Arab support for American goals, as will abandonment of the Syrian revolution.

There are other possible crises in the offing. Trump’s promised renunciation of the Iran nuclear deal would certainly precipitate a sharp break with Europe and make it likely that the US would need to use force to block Tehran from nuclear weapons. Conceding Crimea’s annexation to Russia would create serious doubts inside NATO about US willingness to fulfill its alliance obligations. Withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership will cast a pall over trade worldwide and raise serious questions about whether China rather than the US will lead in setting the pace of trade liberalization.

All these possible crises can be brought on more or less unilaterally by the new president quickly and easily. I’ll be in Beijing on Inauguration Day. It will be an interesting perch from which to see what happens.


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Inappropriate happy talk for Syria

Donald Trump, at a loss for something to say as Aleppo fell to Syrian government, Iranian and Russian forces, renewed his call yesterday for safe zones in Syria:

We’re going to try and patch that up and we’re going to try and help people…We’re going to build safe zones…We’re going to get the Gulf States to pay for the safe zones.

What’s wrong with that?

Building a safe zone is not like building a Trump condo. What it requires is US willingness to protect the people concentrated in a particular area. We did this successfully in northern Iraq for many years, with the US patrolling the skies and Kurdish forces keeping Saddam Hussein’s army at bay. It was tried unsuccessfully in Bosnia, because no one was willing to to put their own forces in harm’s way. The result was a slippery slope to on-the-ground intervention.

I might have liked to see “safe zones” once upon a time in Syria, or at least US willingness to destroy the aircraft that attack civilians, including in Aleppo. But the deployment of Russian air forces and defenses more than a year ago precludes the kind of patrolling required for safe zones in western Syria and makes attacks on Syrian aircraft problematic. There are two problems:

  1. The risk to US aircraft enforcing a safe zone;
  2. The risk that US bombing of miscreants might kill Russians.

“So what?” some will say with regard to 2, but I think it fair to say that most of America doesn’t think Syria is a good reason for the US to go to war with Russia. Certainly Trump wouldn’t, as he is planning to ally with Russia against terrorists.

As for the Gulf States paying for safe zones, I suppose they might in principle be prepared to contribute, if only to protect fellow Sunnis (and keep them from seeking asylum in the Gulf). This is not the wall the Mexicans aren’t going to pay for, but the Gulf States don’t have the deep pockets they once had either. Trump may get more out of them than Obama has, but it won’t be much.

Trump’s bombast about safe zones is far from today’s reality and his own priorities. If he wants to make common cause with Russia, he is going to have to cut off aid to the relatively moderate Syrian opposition fighters the CIA has been cultivating for years. Assad would then be able to end resistance to his rule in the remaining parts of western Syria (especially Idlib), as well as in the south. The Turks would continue to control both the northern border of Syria and some its territory west of the Euphrates, where there is already a kind of informal no-fly zone.

The big question mark remains Raqqa in the east, where the Islamic State still holds court. There the Americans need to decide if Turkey and allied Arabs, currently investing Al Bab farther west, will be permitted to do the honors, or if the Defense Department-backed Kurds and allied Arabs will get the prize.

An American-sponsored safe zone in eastern Syria, first at Raqqa and later at Deir Azour, is possible. The Russians haven’t deployed air defenses there. Neither they nor the Syrians fly there often even now. But do the Americans really want to create and protect a kind of Sunnistan in eastern Syria where at least some people would want to think about combining their territory with contiguous Anbar and part of Ninewa in Iraq? We could end up destroying the Syria/Iraq border that the Islamic State was so anxious to erase and creating a Sunni state they would find appetizing in whatever their next incarnation is to be.

There are not a lot of good options left in Syria. Happy talk from the president-elect won’t change that. And it is insulting to the Syrians who have fought so hard and been so badly disappointed.

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Big trouble brewing

President-elect Trump’s cabinet appointments were not moderates from the first. With the exception of Defense and Homeland Security, he has appointed people who oppose the missions of the departments they have been named to lead. Rick Perry famously couldn’t even remember that Energy was one of the departments he said as a candidate he wanted to abolish. Ryan Zinke, named to Interior, opposes the conservation that department is entrusted with.

On domestic issues, we can anticipate that Congress will present a roadblock to some of the more outrageous proposals from the new administration. Abolishing Obamacare without providing an alternative isn’t going to happen, for precisely the reason Republicans opposed it in the first place: there are a lot of people enjoying its benefits. Depriving 20 million people of health insurance is not a winning political maneuver. The Energy Department isn’t going away, if only because it makes our nuclear weapons and manages nuclear waste. I’ll bet the national parks will still be the national parks four years from now, even if they will be open to more commercial activity than today.

On foreign policy, there are fewer constraints. The beneficiaries are not so well defined and presidential powers are dominant. Trump shook the One China policy with a single phone call, precipitating bellicose rhetoric from Beijing about the South China Sea. He has named as ambassador to Israel an advocate of Jewish settlements on the West Bank who opposes the two-state solution and looks forward to moving the embassy to Jerusalem. His bromance with Putin is already shaking allied confidence in NATO. Trump is a master at upsetting apple carts with small gestures.

His nominee for Secretary of State, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, is not at first sight the same type. By all reports, he has been a capable, maybe even an outstanding, manager of a gigantic energy company, which under his guidance even accepted that global warming is real and caused in part by human activity. But he too has been willing to defy expectations and do business not only with Russian President Putin but also a non-sovereign state like Iraqi Kurdistan as well as with petty dictators in weak states who need Exxon to exploit their resources so they can steal the revenue and keep themselves in power. It is hard to picture Tillerson supporting democratic reforms after a career of ignoring regime abuses, as Rachel Maddow ably made clear last night in an interview with Steve Coll:

Perhaps the most important foreign policy nomination has not yet been made: the US Trade Representative is presumably the person who will need to fulfill Trump’s campaign promises by renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations, and ending the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). If he follows through, these moves will make Europe, Asia and Latin America doubt America’s longstanding commitment to free trade and investment, present the Chinese and Russians with opportunities to fill giant gaps, and undermine the World Trade Organization.

That however is not my biggest concern. Trump is an ethnic nationalist with an extreme ethnic nationalist, Steve Bannon, as his chief strategist. They will be sympathetic to ethnic nationalist reasoning, which is what Russian President Putin is offering as an explanation for his aggression in Crimea, Donbas, Transnistria, South Ossetia, and  Abkhazia. “Just trying to protect ethnic Russians,” Putin says. How many of these places will Trump be willing to concede to Russia in order to consummate his bromance with Putin? The Trump administration may also be more sympathetic than Obama has been to Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence ambitions, setting off a series of partitions in the Middle East (Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, even Turkey and Iran are potential candidates).

Four years is a long time. I don’t think it will be more than a month before some of Trump’s international moves brew the United States big trouble.

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The still growing Sunni-Shia divide

The Atlantic Council yesterday introduced a book by a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, Geneive Abdo, titled A New Sectarianism: The Arab Spring and the Rebirth of the Sunni-Shia Divide. Abdo was interviewed by Joyce Karam, Washington Bureau Chief of the Al-Hayat newspaper, and the conversation was broadcast on CSPAN.

Abdo‘s book focuses on the aftermath of the Arab Spring and how the divide between Sunni and Shia factions has widened since 2011. She specifically studied Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The divides undermine already unstable states and may lead to more conflict in the future.

Abdo explained that while many of the revolutionaries of 2011 were optimistic that all the various factions would come together to build a better government—particularly in Egypt—in reality, every faction wanted dominance more than peace. Radical factions took advantage of the chaos to take power and left more moderate factions behind. The competition for dominance over religious messaging is still increasing.

The Sunni-Shia divide has increased as Saudi Arabia and Iran have tried to co-opt the respective Sunni and Shia causes throughout the region. This rivalry between Saudi and Iran comes at the expense of the majority of Sunnis and Shias in the region, who identify more with their own unique brand of Shiism or Sunnism rather than the Iranian or Saudi brand. For example, many Arab Shias feel that Iran controls the Shia who dominate the Iraqi government, which therefore does not represent the Iraq’s interests. The divide between Sunnis and Shias is further exacerbated by intra-Shia and intra-Sunni conflicts throughout the Arab world.

Abdo considers Saudi and Iranian meddling in regional affairs highly detrimental to the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. For example, the Arab Spring in Bahrain was initially a joint Shia-Sunni effort against the government. However, once Saudi Arabia intervened, the conflict became Sunni Bahranis and Saudis versus Shia Bahranis. As a result, Shia Bahranis are virtually silenced in public discourse, to the detriment of the country.

Despite the general animosity between Sunnis and Shias in the region, many governments have avoided uprisings by warning their people that their country could become like Syria. In Morocco, Abdo met individuals who were unhappy with their government, but do not dare protest for fear that Morocco could become the next Syria. Even the Syrian government has been using this tactic. Bashar Al-Assad has often reminded Syrians that as bad as his rule is, it’s better than ISIS rule—if Assad were to leave, the alternative could be much worse.

Too often, according to Abdo, Washington analysts overlook radical tweets and Facebook posts because they are in Arabic or because they are not considered to be reliable. However, radical anti-Sunni or anti-Shia tweets are widely disseminated and significantly contribute to sectarian hatred. The anonymity of social media allows information and ideas to spread without the burden of individual responsibility.

Though Abdo was hesitant to speculate on how a Trump administration would affect the Sunni-Shia divide, she expects Trump to be much tougher on Iranian interventions than Obama was. But his hyper-focus on countering violent extremism will not leave much room for paying attention to sectarian reconciliation in the region.

When asked if she sees any room for Saudi-Iranian reconciliation, Abdo said that a real peace between these two countries is unlikely. Both Saudi and Iran benefit from the regional rivalry, so it is unlikely that either country will take any steps towards rapprochement. Additionally, there is little that the US can do to encourage these regional rivals to reconcile—the best that we can do is work with them and around them.

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You get what you vote for

Washington is in a tizzy today because President-elect Trump is naming Exxon Chief Executive Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State. Former Secretary of State Baker and former Defense Secretary Gates are reputed to be among his advocates. He has a good reputation at Exxon, where he spearheaded negotiations with Russia and resisted sanctions imposed on Moscow after its annexation of Crimea and invasion of southeast Ukraine (Donbas). Much is being made of his supposedly good personal relationship with President Putin, which was presumably a prerequisite of the multi-billion dollar business Tillerson did with state-controlled companies in Russia.

The whining from the Republican side of aisle is loud: Senator McCain and others regard Putin as a butcher because of what he has done in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere. Democrats are no less exercised. The Russians are currently bombing civilians in Aleppo to smithereens. They have also failed to implement the Minsk 2 agreement in Ukraine, which would require a ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons, as well as eventual reintegration of the region into Ukraine.

Dramatic as the situations in Syria and Ukraine are, the alleged Russian intervention in the US election is overshadowing them for the moment. President-elect Trump not only refuses to take his daily intelligence briefing but also doubts the CIA’s reported conclusion that Moscow’s cyberhacking was intended to get him elected.

Throwing Tillerson into this maelstrom is precisely the kind of provocative and daring move that Trump is famous for and promised during the electoral campaign. While unpredictable on many issues, Trump is absolutely consistent on Russia: no matter what Moscow is doing at home and abroad, the President-elect wants to befriend Putin and make him, if not an ally, at least a partner in key issue around the globe. The irony of course is that this is precisely what Hillary Clinton attempted as Secretary of State. Her reset with Moscow failed.

Trump and Tillerson seem far more willing to meet Putin three-quarters of the way. Trump has indicated he is prepared unilaterally to abandon support for the Syrian opposition, which President Obama has kept at lukewarm even as the Russians and Iranians up the ante by intervening directly on behalf of Bashar al Assad. My guess is Trump would also be willing to accept Russian annexation of Crimea. He hasn’t really said anything on that subject, except to claim it wouldn’t have been permitted on his watch. But the Russian ethnonationalist claim to Crimea will resonate with the Steve Bannon faction surrounding Trump.

The arguments against surrendering Crimea to Russia are based on international norms that Trump has shown little or no interest in. Tillerson won’t be much interested either. Unlike General Mattis, who as Defense Secretary can be expected to put the brakes on Trump’s worst instincts, Tillerson at State will more likely press Trump to meet the expectations his campaign created for closer relations with Putin’s Russia, including dropping sanctions.

The implications are vast. The NATO allies already doubt that Trump will fulfill America’s obligations. Acceptance of the annexation of Crimea would pull the rug out from under the Article 5 collective defense guarantee, even though it does not of course apply to Ukraine. Unraveling NATO will lead quickly and inexorably to a world in which the norm against taking territory by force is trashed.

Americans may not have realized it, but this is what they voted for. Tillerson may have been a fine Exxon CEO, but his confirmation hearings should do a deep dive into his views on Crimea, Donbas, Syria, and Putin.

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