The myth of Kelly

A lot of my friends have great hopes for General Kelly, the new White House Chief of Staff. He fired a potty-mouth slated to become Communications Director before he even officially started the job, has evicted at least two nutters from the National Security Council (or at least concurred in General Mattis booting them), and is said to be tightly controlling access for people and information to the Oval Office. Presidential tweeting has slowed. So far, so good.

But I doubt it will matter in the end. There is no reason to believe that President Trump relies on information, good or bad, in reaching conclusions or formulating policy. Take today’s announcement of a big cut in legal immigration and a proposal to favor more highly qualified immigrants. Matthew Yglesias quickly tweeted this from Pew:

Of course there are American employers who import lower-skilled labor, notably Donald J. Trump himself among them. This matches, though does not exceed, his hypocrisy in manufacturing most of his poor taste clothing line abroad, especially in China.

As someone with no respect for the truth, why would Trump look to information and information quality as a source of wisdom? That would make no sense. He creates his own information: alternative facts Kellyanne Conway calls them.

Moreover, Kelly will have a hard time regulating the flow of information to someone who doesn’t sleep much, is addicted to Twitter and cable TV, and relies on his family members as his chief advisers. It simply won’t be possible to prevent really lousy information from reaching the President.

The policy formulation process in the White House right now seems to be basically this: Trump decides what will satisfy his various constituencies and gives it to them. White supremacists get the Justice Department challenging affirmative action for disadvantaged minorities, Rust Belt males get a big Foxconn plant requiring billions in subsidies, people with no university education get “repeal and replace” (even those who benefit from Obamacare like that), and the Russians get consistent and unwavering indulgence for their hacking of the American election, their attacks on the Syrian opposition, and their invasion of Crimea.

You may ask: how did Russia become one of Trump’s constituencies? My guess is that Trump’s personal business empire depends heavily on hot money investments and condo purchases by Putin cronies. If so, he has good reason not to provoke Putin. We’ll leave that for Special Counsel Mueller to elucidate.

Feeding his constituencies isn’t getting the President anywhere with the broader American public. Disapproval is soaring, while approval is weakening, according to Quinnipiac:

Sisyphus, Wikipedia tells me, “was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it come back to hit him, repeating this action for eternity.” The self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness are Trump’s, not Kelly’s. But it is the chief of staff who is likely to be punished for now.

PS: Today’s leak of transcripts of the President’s conversations with Mexican President Pena Neto and Australian Prime Minister Turnbull prove the myth of Kelly faster than I anticipated. The continued leaking suggests he is not yet in full control, and the contents of the transcripts suggest a president who is obsessed with how he looks and indifferent to the interests of his interlocutors. Foreign leaders will be reluctant to believe either that the US can protect the confidentiality of their conversations and to hope such a conversation will lead to anything more than browbeating. That rock has already rolled back down the hill on to Kelly.

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Small beans matter

For those who are thinking, what difference does all this make? So the President wrote a fib for his son about a meeting with Russian agents, the Republicans failed to pass Trumpcare by just one vote, the potty-mouthed Communications Director got fired before he was hired? This is all small beans compared to today’s challenges: North Korea with nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach the US, Hizbollah running rampant in Iraq and Syria, Venezuela coming apart at the seams.

Yes, it is small beans, but that makes it more harmful rather than less. The President is weak domestically and disdained internationally:He is unable to manage even small issues without embarrassing himself. International support is evaporating. Japan and South Korea have no choice but to align with the US against Kim Jong-un, but the rest of Asia is still reeling from Trump’s sinking the Trans Pacific Partnership, most of Europe and Latin America are lost to American leadership, and the Middle East is consuming itself.

Adversaries are encouraged. Only friendly dictators are comforted, knowing that Trump will not criticize the homicidal crackdown on drug traffickers in the Philippines or the restoration of military dictatorship in Egypt, never mind the absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia or the elected autocracy in Turkey.

America’s two biggest challenges right now are China and Russia. The Chinese are bemused by Trump’s warmth one day followed by bluster and threats the next. He has given the Chinese no compelling reason to be helpful on anything: the South China Sea, North Korea, or trade. Beijing hasn’t done anything dramatic to show off its advantages, but it doesn’t really need to. Xi Jinping gets better ratings than Trump, even if he lags Angela Merkel:

Russia is less shy. It is expelling most of the US embassy, with nary a tweet yet from Trump in protest, and assembling a massive military exercise on the border with NATO. President Putin is disappointed in the return on his investment in Trump, but for the moment at least he seems prepared to take it out on the US government rather than Trump’s business empire, which depends on Russian purchasers and investors. That is odds-on the reason for Trump refusing to make his tax returns public, but it will be clear enough the day Russia decides to yank Trump’s personal chain.

I know lots of people think America looked weak under President Obama, who purposefully set out to reduce American commitments around the world. In withdrawing from the Middle East, he left a vacuum that others exploited. But Trump is continuing that policy, with a lot less finesse. Ending aid to the Syrian opposition, declaring that the US has no interest in Libya, allowing President Erdogan to reverse Turkey’s democratic evolution, and failing to oppose Kurdistan’s referendum on independence are decisions that will have serious consequences for a decade or more. His policy proposals are disliked worldwide:

Can the situation be saved by a retired general as White House Chief of Staff? No more than it has been saved by a general as Defense Secretary and another as National Security Adviser. The fish rots from the head, as the late lamented Communications Director averred. General Kelly may impose some order on the policy process, but the President will still say and tweet what he wants, the family will confer with him at will, and the white supremacists, alt right freaks, and Fox news friends he likes so much (except when they won’t fire the Special Prosecutor) will still have his rapt attention. None of that will change what the world thinks of the man and the country he now leads so badly:

Source for the lovely graphs: Trump Unpopular Worldwide, American Image Suffers | Pew Research Center


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Peace picks July 31 – August 4

  1. NATO at a Crossroads: Next steps for the trans-Atlantic alliance | Monday, July 31 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Brookings Institution | Register Here | Throughout his campaign, President Donald Trump called into question the usefulness of today’s NATO and spoke of building a better relationship with Moscow. Would the president be prepared to go further and suggest ending NATO expansion while seeking a new security architecture that might accommodate and reduce the risk of conflict with Russia? What would be the benefits and costs of such an approach? On July 31, Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon, author of “Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe,” will be joined by Brookings Senior Fellow Steven Pifer, author of “The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times.” Torrey Taussig, pre-doctoral research fellow at Brookings, will moderate the discussion.
  2. Stabilizing Iraq: What is the Future for Minorities? | Tuesday, August 1 | 1:30 – 3:00 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Following ISIS’ rule, the inclusion of minority groups will be crucial to stabilizing Iraq. Nowhere in Iraq is this initiative more essential or complex than around Mosul, with its diverse community of Christians, Yazidis, Turkoman, Shabak, and others.  On August 1, the United States Institute of Peace and the Kurdistan Regional Government present a discussion of how to help Iraq’s minority groups rebuild their communities and contribute to a more secure Iraq featuring remarks by Ambassador William Taylor (ret.) of USIP, Ambassador Fareed Yasseen of the Republic of Iraq, and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States.
  3. Justice for the Yezidis: ISIS and Crimes of Genocide | Thursday, August 3 | 11:45 am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State attacked the Yezidis of Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh province. Thousands of Yezidis were massacred and many others abducted, while more than half a million fled for their lives. Three years later, the conditions that led to ISIS’ rise and genocide against the Yezidis, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities have not been addressed. The successful political reconstruction of Iraq and Kurdistan depends on the ability to ensure justice and fair treatment for the region’s most vulnerable populations. On August 3, Pari Ibrahim of the Free Yezidi Foundation, Naomi Kikoler of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Nathaniel Hurd of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe will join Hudson Institute’s Eric B. Brown to assess how adherents of the Islamic State movement can be brought to justice for their crimes of genocide, how the safety of vulnerable minority communities can be ensured as Iraq rebuilds, and what role the United States should play in preventing genocide in the future.
  4. Gaza Approaching a Boiling Point? | Thursday, August 3 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Political and humanitarian conditions in Gaza are in a critical state. The Fatah-Hamas rivalry and the Gulf countries’ rift with Qatar have stymied funding to the territory and exacerbated an already desperate energy crisis. In the midst of pressing humanitarian concerns, what options do Palestinians and Israelis have to help prevent renewed violence? How can the United States and the international community bring the question of Gaza back into regional deliberations and the peace process? The Middle East Institute is pleased to host a discussion with Tareq Baconi of al Shabaka, Laura Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Christopher McGrath of the UNRWA, and Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution on ways to mitigate political and humanitarian problems in Gaza.


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Trump is a loser

Let us count the ways:

  1. The effort to “repeal and replace” the health care that his predecessor provided to tens of millions of Americans has failed in the Senate, ending the legislative fight.
  2. The Congress has passed, with veto-proof majorities, legislation that ties his hands on sanctions against Russia, which has responded by levying the retaliation it had postponed in anticipation of getting a better deal from Trump. The idea of a new reset with Russia is mostly dead.
  3. The North Koreans have launched another Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, thus proving empty the President’s promise it wouldn’t happen.
  4. The newly named White House Communications Director has demonstrated both incompetence and offensiveness in a taped on-the-record interview with a leading American journalist and in a claim that his publicly available financial records had been leaked.
  5. The Attorney General Trump has been trying to chase from office has refused to resign, and the Republican chair of the committee that would have to approve a successor has made it clear he will not do so. It is sounding as if the Senate may not formally adjourn for recess, which would eliminate his only option for getting a new Attorney General without Senate approval.

This is a presidency in free-fall. It gets no respect abroad except from autocrats and would-be dictators. Its support at home has declined below 40% in the population at large and likely stands no higher than that in Congress, despite Republican majorities in both houses.

How will Trump react?

The way bullies do. He will try to bluster and distract, with an obnoxious tweet here and an appearance with police officers there. He will try to shore up his base with declarations of religious devotion and homophobia. He will shove back, trying to push out his establishment chief of staff. He will try to crash Obamacare by badmouthing and denying it the funding it requires to be sustainable.

What he will not do is reflect on what has gone wrong, what the country needs, and how he can recover by providing it. There isn’t any sign at all that Trump is capable of concern about anything but himself and his family. While he has been losing battle after battle, he has been ignoring or abandoning others: he has cut aid for the Syrian opposition, failed to get involved in resolving a violent standoff between Israel and Palestinians in Jerusalem, and has ignored the damaging spat between Qatar and other Arab states that he encourage the Saudis to initiate.

The United States is over-extended and poorly led. The world is going to need to take care of itself. That’s not the worst idea. But it is a perilous one. Trump has been extraordinarily lucky not to have faced a serious international crisis in his first six months in office. The next six months aren’t likely to be so benign.

PS: I forgot to mention one more loss: Trump attempted by Tweet to instruct the US military to get rid of transsexuals. The Joint Chiefs refused to take anything but a formal, written instruction. It is clear they don’t want to follow that either, so the loss may not be only temporary.

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What Vučić wants

Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on Monday published an op/ed in the Belgrade daily Blic on “Why we need an internal dialogue on Kosovo.” While there have been both skeptical and welcoming reactions to this overture, I think the President’s views on merit reading by all those who seek peace in the Balkans. Blic has given me permission to publish the full text in English. I am grateful to SAIS graduate Marko Grujicic for the translation: 

Why I asked the Serbs and other citizens of Serbia to talk about Kosovo and Metohija? Why do I consider this dialogue decisive for the future of our country and the people? Why open this topic at all if we all learned to be silent and against everything, as any solution would assume that every politician who dares to search for it would pay the price. On the other hand, all others would pretend to be those who know about Kosovo much more than they really do, that they had much better solutions but nobody asked for their opinion.

Therefore it is important, now more than ever, to look into the mirror and to boldly and clearly see all the scars, wounds and shortcomings on our own face. At the same time, we have to try to cure what is possible while not giving up in desperation, due to the problem which we have been grappling with.

It is time that, as a nation, we stop burying our heads in the sand like ostriches and to try to be realistic; not to allow ourselves to lose or give to someone what we have, but also not to wait for what we have long lost to arrive in our hands. When Shimon Peres, the man I had the privilege talking with several times, was once asked why he insisted so much on negotiations with the Palestinians, he said: “Because it will open the seaports of peace throughout the Mediterranean. It is the duty of a leader to pursue the kind of freedom that gives peace and to endure such freedom constantly, even when faced with hostility, suspicion and disappointment. Just imagine what could happen if it does not work.” Even today, when I need to answer about the need for the dialogue with Pristina and the internal, Serbian dialogue, on Kosovo, the end of this quote contains the essence of the whole story – “Just imagine what could happen.” If suddenly everyone remains silent; if we stop talking. After many years dealing with politics in this region, I know this answer very well. Since 1878, since the creation of the so-called Prizren league we, the Serbs, did not want to be responsible enough to understand the strength and aspirations of the Albanians. On the other hand, it is a great mistake of the Albanians, for which I am grateful, that they lack the understanding of Serbian state and national interests and underestimate them; even worse, an attempt to sweep them under the rug because someone thinks this is possible with the support of the great powers.

It is time for us, as a nation, to stop burying our head in the sand as an ostrich and to be realistic

Serbia is not to be underestimated, despite the fact that the Albanians in the implementation of their national ideas have the significant support from most Western countries. Today’s Serbia is not as infectious as it was, Serbia is not as weak as it was in 1999, 2004 and 2008, but Serbia is not, nor should it be, conceited and arrogant as, not rarely, it used to be.

Silence means we no longer care about the answers to anything. Silence means we have nothing to ask for; that we have ceased to hope; that we are ready for the last option, for the conflict – both our inner one but also with everyone around us.

Silence is the quality of those who think only they are right. Those who do not want to listen to anyone else. Those who are convinced that they are the smartest, have nothing more to learn, are superior to all the others, and that they have nothing more to talk about with anyone else. This is the modus operandi of tyrannies – always ready to spill someone else’s blood. At the culmination, silence is the end. After the silence no one speaks and the only sound is a long, uneven scream. I cannot see myself in this business of silence nor in such a numb Serbia. If that happens, not only will my policy be a failure, but also my whole life and the lives of all of us. That is something I will never agree on, no matter who thinks I am too vociferous, I ask too many questions, I talk more than I should. Just imagine what could be, if it is different? If I were one of those silent who bring people into conflict and war, just to teach them the geography of their own country? Or if I were one of those who would, in response to tapping on the shoulder and candies given by some of the Western embassies, agree to deliver all Serbian hearths, thus becoming, as they say, a great reformer. Read more

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How is the war against ISIS going?

Here is the video (live webcasting did not work) of Middle East Institute’s noon event on “Assessing the Trump Administration’s Counterterrorism Policy” featuring Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk, Jennifer Cafarella (Institute for the Study of War), Matthew Levitt (Washington Institute for Near East Policy), Joshua Geltzer (New America), and the director of the Middle East Institute’s (MEI) Countering Terrorism Project, Charles Lister:

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