The Aleppo defeat

You can always tell when a cause is lost: the UN General Assembly passes a resolution to stop the bombing, allow in aid, and protect civilians. This was the clear signal this week that Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo are on the verge of defeat at the hands of multinational Shia militias as well as Iranian, Russian and Syrian government forces. Russian efforts to arrange a ceasefire for evacuation of civilians have failed, so far. Fighting age men are reportedly disappearing, likely some of them into prisons from which they will never emerge.

Assad is crowing. For good reason: victory in Aleppo will allow him to concentrate his forces against Idlib, which is the last remaining bit of what he has termed “useful Syria” that he doesn’t control. It runs from Damascus north to Aleppo and west to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. If he doesn’t already, Assad will soon control about one-third of the country’s territory and tw0-thirds of its population.

But the war will still not be over. The opposition will have some territory in the south along the Jordanian border and some in the north (west of the Euphrates), while the Kurds will control the rest of the border with Turkey and the Islamic State will control Raqqa and much of the relatively unpopulated east. The defeat at Aleppo and the impending defeat at Idlib will drive more opposition fighters into the arms of extremist jihadis, strengthening both Jabhat al Sham (the erstwhile Al Qaeda affiliate) and the Islamic State.

Assad now seems likely to survive, if only because the Americans will continue to pursue Jabhat al Sham and the Islamic State, which now represent by far the largest threat to his hold on power. This will make life easy for Trump. In order to ally with Russia as he says he wants to do, he’ll need only to cut American assistance to those few non-jihadi opposition who are still fighting Assad and provide support only to those willing to join the campaign against the Islamic State at Raqqa.

How Trump and National Security Adviser Flynn will square this de facto alignment with Iran I don’t know, but who’s watching? Like George W. Bush before him, Trump is likely to open still another door to Iranian power projection to the west.

Assad’s survival is not however the end of the story. Syria is a shambles. It needs hundreds of billions in aid. The Americans have already provided billions, but that has been overwhelmingly humanitarian assistance, much of which went to regime-controlled areas. I doubt however that the Americans will be interested in providing reconstruction assistance to the Assad regime. Even for a Trump administration, that might be a bit much, and in any event Congress likely wouldn’t go along.

The Europeans will be under a lot pressure to provide aid, since Assad will provide them with some minimal reason to hope that refugees will return if the Syrian economy revives. That however will be a false promise, as he doesn’t want them to return and restart the rebellion against him. He prefers to provide homes and livelihoods to non-Syrians, mainly Shia, who have fought on his behalf.

The people who should ante up are the Russians and Iranians, who have caused much of the damage and are coming out on the winning side. That entails obligations that the Washington and Brussels recognize, but Moscow and Tehran don’t. They aren’t likely to do more than minimal assistance calculated to help Assad regain and maintain control over strategically important turf.

Without a significant influx of resources, Syria will remain a fragmented basket case for many years to come. Even after Raqqa and Deir Azzour fall (precisely to whom is not yet clear), Islamist insurgency is likely to continue. Turkey and its Arab and Turkmen allies will control part of the north, with the Syrian Kurdish PYD controlling the rest. A bit of the south will remain in opposition control.

The Aleppo defeat may be the beginning of the end, but it is not yet the end.

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The anti-cabinet

I’ve already noted that Donald Trump’s cabinet picks are not moderates. Since then he has added to his radical menagerie several who have clear and compelling records of opposition to the departments they are being asked to lead:

  • Tom Price at Health and Human Services is a diehard opponent of Obamacare and advocate of its immediate repeal, as well as a proponent of privatizing Medicare.
  • Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development is an opponent of government programs in general and dislikes HUD’s mission.
  • Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t believe in taking action to prevent climate change.
  • Andy Puzder at Labor opposes the minimum wage.
  • Wilbur Ross at Commerce is an investor who has benefited from protectionist steel tariffs and from moving plants abroad.
  • McMorris Rodgers at Interior wants to open Federal lands to greater mining and energy development.

The only departments that have gotten people who are committed to their missions as currently understood are Defense (James Mattis) and Homeland Security (John Kelly). Pretty much everywhere else you’ve got people more committed to dismantling than in building. This is a cabinet that makes Ronald Reagan look like a RINO (that’s a Republican in name only).

There is nothing surprising in this. While Trump has feigned occasional interest in climate change or in helping American workers, he was open and blunt in his campaign about his disdain for much of what the US government aims to do. Americans are getting what they were promised: radical change.

The problem is it’s change in directions we don’t need. Despite what Trump’s supporters think, the American economy has been growing for more than 7 years now, with unemployment declining and the deficit shrinking. Trump has promised faster growth, but that will likely depend not on the cabinet but rather on massive infrastructure spending. President Obama proposed that as well, but Congressional Republicans never went along. Will they for Trump? Probably, as his proposal emphasizes not government spending but rather private investment in infrastructure, which means little of it will serve truly public purposes.

There are still a few more cabinet shoes to drop. Most important will be Secretary of State and US Trade Representative (USTR). I don’t believe it likely that with an already radical cabinet Trump will opt for moderation in either of these posts. Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon are going to be pressing hard for dyed-in-the-wool Trumpistas. Expect a NAFTA and TPP opponent at USTR and an anti-diplomat at State. There John Bolton, who despises the State Department, or Rex Tillerson, Exxon chief executive, would be my best guesses, though Bolton’s hostility to Russian President Putin makes him an odd fit for Trump.

Trump’s proposed cabinet is predominantly men, wealthy donors and Republican hardliners. But most importantly it is people who doubt the Federal government has a proper role in ensuring anything but hard security. For the rest, Trump’s appointees are going to try to slash and burn.

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I’m disappointed

In his valedictory address on counterterrorism yesterday at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, President Obama waxed poetic about diplomacy, development and the contributions civilians can make to US national security:

…alongside our outstanding military work, we have to draw upon the strength of our diplomacy.  Terrorists would love to see us walk away from the type of work that builds international coalitions, and ends conflicts, and stops the spread of deadly weapons.  It would make life easier for them; it would be a tragic mistake for us.

Just think about what we’ve done these last eight years without firing a shot.  We’ve rolled back Iran’s nuclear program.  That’s not just my assessment, that’s the assessment of Israeli intelligence, even though they were opposed to the deal.  We’ve secured nuclear materials around the globe, reducing the risk that they fall into the hands of terrorists.  We’ve eliminated Syria’s declared chemical weapons program.  All of these steps have helped keep us safe and helped keep our troops safe.  Those are the result of diplomacy.  And sustained diplomatic efforts, no matter how frustrating or difficult they sometimes appear, are going to be required to resolve the conflicts roiling the in Middle East, from Yemen, to Syria, to Israel and Palestine.  And if we don’t have strong efforts there, the more you will be called upon to clean up after the failure of diplomacy.

Similarly, any long-term strategy to reduce the threat of terrorism depends on investments that strengthen some of these fragile societies.  Our generals, our commanders understand this.  This is not charity.  It’s fundamental to our national security.  A dollar spent on development is worth a lot more than a dollar spent fighting a war.  (Applause.)

This is how we prevent conflicts from starting in the first place.  This is how we can ensure that peace is lasting — after we’ve fought.  It’s how we stop people from falling prey to extremism — because children are going to school and they can think for themselves, and families can feed themselves and aren’t desperate, and communities are not ravaged by diseases, and countries are not devastated by climate changes.

As Americans, we have to see the value of empowering civil societies so that there are outlets for people’s frustrations, and we have to support entrepreneurs who want to build businesses instead of destroying.  We have to invest in young people because the areas that are generating terrorists are typically having a huge youth bulge, which makes them more dangerous.  And there are times where we need to help refugees who have escaped the horrors of war in search of a better life.   Our military recognizes that these issues of governance and human dignity and development are vital to our security.  It’s central to our plans in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Let’s make sure that this wisdom is reflected in our budgets, as well.

So, how well has this eloquent, and eminently logical, president done in ensuring his wisdom is reflected in his budgets?

Okay, but not great, would be my answer.

The ratio of Defense to International Affairs outlays has declined only marginally since the George W. Bush era, when Defense outlays were generally between 14 and 16 times the level of International Affairs expenditures, inflated in large part by the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Declines in this ratio have been pretty steady since FY 2009.

By FY 2015, it was down to 11.4 and projected in FY 2016 to decline to under 11. This has been achieved by a big bump up in International Affairs outlays in FY 2009, followed by years of declines in Defense outlays, largely due to sequestration. Here is the raw data, which I got here. I’m not vouching for the ratios, because I calculated them myself, but I think they are mostly correct.

The real increase (in 2009 dollars) of International Affairs outlays is thus modest: maybe 10/12% over the eight years of the Obama administration. More disturbing is this: I don’t know many people who would argue that American civilian capabilities to do the things the President cites are much greater than they were when he took office. A lot of the increase has been chewed up in increased security expenditures for State and USAID , whose officers find it difficult to leave our fortress embassies, often located in the middle of nowhere. Another slice has gone to increased staff, to the point that all Foreign Service officers I talk with complain about the excessive numbers of people they now need to clear every lousy bit of press guidance with.

President-elect Trump seems determined to make things worse, perhaps much worse. He has promised a big military buildup and a ferocious attack on the Islamic State while pooh-poohing what he terms nation building, refusing to receive most intelligence briefings, and neglecting to consult with the State Department on his initial diplomatic moves. Expect a real slash and burn attitude in Foggy Bottom and at the Reagan building when the time comes.

President Obama deserves credit for some signal diplomatic achievements: the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate change agreement are the two most often cited, including by the President himself. Neither of those however really serves the counterterrorism objective that was the subject of this speech. It is building inclusive states more than anything else that helps counter terrorism. Obama has been allergic to that objective, not only in Syria and Libya but also in Yemen. Only in Iraq has he deigned to weigh in, when he supported the more ecumenical Haidar al Abadi to replace the hopelessly sectarian Nouri al Maliki as prime minister.

So Obama, who many hoped would be a transformational president when it comes to foreign policy, is more likely to represent not much more than a blip in an inexorable trend: putting America’s troops in the front line rather than its diplomats and aid workers. I’m disappointed.

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These are not moderates

Pizzagate is the misnomer we are using today to refer to entirely false reports of a pedophilic child-smuggling ring operating out of the back of Comet pizza, whose ping-pong tables attract a lot of youngsters and their families. I can personally testify that the pizza there is particularly good, if you like the “flat-bread” variety. Yesterday a North Carolinian with an assault rifle and another firearm decided to “self-investigate” the nonsense reports, which have been spread in part by recently designated National Security Adviser Flynn and his at least equally lame-brained son. The gunman appears to have shot once or twice but did not injure anyone.

This was clearly a dangerous situation that the DC police handled well and quickly. Props to them. But it bodes ill. We are used to recognizing attacks as ISIS-inspired. What we are facing now are attacks inspired by America’s very own conspiracy theorists, fake news inventors, and gun-toting defenders of virtue. This is the beginning of an alt_right rebellion against people of moderation.

The incoming Trump administration has taken the lid off the pot in which these characters normally find themselves contained. The Flynns are an extreme case, but Trump’s projected cabinet is full of other, marginally less demented, instances of delusion. Ben Carson, named today as Housing and Human Development Secretary, believes the theory of evolution is the work of the devil. Betsy DeVos, future Education Secretary, is a strong advocate of charter schools, despite their poor performance in her home state of Michigan. Steven Mnuchin, soon to be Treasury Secretary, has distinguished himself as a bottom feeding businessman with no apparent concern for the public welfare. He prepared Trump’s campaign tax proposal to sharply lower tax rates on the highest earners,  though he now denies that will happen. Prospective Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a segregationist turned mere racist.

This cabinet is somehow being portrayed as relatively moderate, presumably compared to Trump’s campaign and his closest “strategic” adviser Steve Bannon. I suppose it is, but that’s only because Bannon is a true dyed-in-the-wool anti-Semite, misogynist, racist and conspiracy theorist. None of the cabinet appointees comes down even close to that low standard, but they are mostly just a step above. The early appointment of Nikki Haley as UN ambassador serves as a convenient fig leaf, one that will does little to hide the ugly truth. The only serious moderating influence likely so far will come from Defense Secretary-designate Mattis, who however has pretty extreme views on Iran and its relationship to ISIS.

The latest news is that Exxon CEO Tillerson as Secretary of State. From Trump’s perspective, he has the great virtue of a good relationship with Russian President Putin, whom Trump intends to befriend by surrendering US support for the Syrian rebels and for re-integration of Crimea and Donbas into Ukraine.

In short, we are looking at a White House and cabinet drawn from the margins of American politics, not its moderate center. President-elect Trump feels he owes his election to “out of the box” views, which he is prepared to pursue in office. Neither he nor his appointees will moderate until forced to do so by strong resistance. It is going to be a difficult four years.


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Peace picks, December 5-9

  1. The Arab Woman: Enhancing Leadership and Resilience | Monday, December 5 | 10:00am – 3:30pm | United States Institute of Peace | Click HERE to Register

    Social and economic empowerment of women has been shown to strengthen stability and resilience. From the national level to the grassroots, Arab women continue to face and overcome challenges to lead their countries and communities, while empowering one another.
    Panelists, including leaders of government and civil society, will explore opportunities for the League of Arab States to invest in supporting women’s empowerment for the region’s peace and prosperity. The discussion will feature success stories of Arab women leaders breaking barriers, assess Arab and global initiatives focusing on women, and make recommendations for greater inclusivity.
    Featuring Ambassador Inas Mekkawy,Head of Women, Family and Childhood Development, League of Arab States, Randa Hudome, Founder, Fahmy Hudome International, Manal Omar, Associate Vice President, Center for Middle East and Africa, U.S. Institute of Peace, Hibaaq Osman, Founder & CEO, El Karama, Donald Steinberg, CEO, World Learning, Representative Ilhan Omar, Minnesota House Representative for District 60B, Linda Bishai, Director of North Africa Programs, U.S. Institute of Peace, Kathleen Kuehnast, Senior Gender Advisor, U.S. Institute of Peace, Marwa AlKhairo, Manager of Partnership Development, International Youth Foundation, Hajar Sharief, Co-Founder, Libya Ma’an Nabneeha, Sali Osman, Cybersecurity Risk Advisory, Ernest and Young, “One to Watch” Award from Executive Women’s Forum

  2. The Future of US-Turkish Relations: Cooperation or Frustration | Monday, December 5 | 10:00am – 11:15am | Bipartisan Policy Center | Click HERE to Register

    Change may be in the future for U.S.-Turkey relations. Members of the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump have expressed both admiration for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and deep suspicion toward his brand of Islamist politics. Whether the new administration goes all in on Turkey or abandons it, this decision will have profound implications for the fight against ISIS, the outcome of the Syrian civil war, and Turkey’s domestic stability.
    At this crucial juncture, join the Bipartisan Policy Center for the release of a new report detailing recommendations for the next administration and a discussion of the future of U.S.-Turkey relationship.
    Featuring Charles Wald (Ret.), Former Deputy Commander, U.S. European Command, Co-Chair, BPC’s National Security Program, Eric Edelman, Former U.S. Ambassador to Finland and Turkey, Co-Chair, BPC’s Turkey Initiative, Amberin Zaman, Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson International, Center for Scholars, Columnist, Al-Monitor

  3. Global Economic Challenges for Donald Trump | Monday, December 5 | 10:00am – 12:00pm | American Enterprise Institute | Click HERE to Register

    On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump will assume office at a time of considerable strain in the global economy and after an election campaign that has raised serious questions about the relative benefits of globalization.
    This seminar will take stock of how the US economy might be affected by the ongoing European sovereign debt crisis, the transformation of China’s economic growth model, and Japan’s renewed efforts to stave off deflation. It will also consider what international economic policies the Trump administration should pursue and the risks that unorthodox monetary policies by the world’s major central banks might pose for the global currency market.
    Featuring Alex J. Pollock, R Street Institute, Fred Bergsten, Peterson Institute for International Economics, Jeffrey Frankel, Harvard University, Greg Ip, The Wall Street Journal, Anne Krueger, SAIS, Desmond Lachman, AEI

  4. Strengthening US-Arab Cyber Security Policy Cooperation | Monday, December 5 | 1:30pm – 4:30pm | Middle East Institute | Click HERE to Register

    Cyber threats are on the rise in the Middle East, ranging from electronic vandalism or financial crimes to sabotage and virtual acts of war. Governments and businesses in the Middle East have suffered damaging attacks. State actors and hacker collectives in the region are also believed to be targeting the U.S. military, civilian government agencies, and private sector systems.
    What systemic problems will the United States and Arab states confront in the next few years? Are there gaps in national policy or in the collaboration between governments and the private sector that render the United States vulnerable? What is the state of the U.S.-Arab dialogue within these global issues, and how can Washington and its Arab partners coordinate better?
    The Middle East Institute is pleased to host industry and policy experts for a program examining Middle Eastern cyber threat trends and developments affecting national security, essential services, and the economy. Register now to hear the analysis and recommendations of these leaders in the field.
    Featuring Wendy Chamberlin, President, Middle East Institute, Sean Kanuck
    Attorney and Strategic Consultant; former National Intelligence Officer for Cyber Issues, Omar al-Ibrahim, Security Researcher and Consultant, Omprotect LLC; Assistant Professor, Kuwait University, Robert Knake, Whitney Shepardson Senior Fellow, Council on Foreign Relations, Paul Kurtz, Founder and CEO, TruSTAR Technology, Patrick Tucker, (Moderator), Technology Editor, DefenseOne, James A. Lewis, Senior Vice President and Director, Strategic Technologies Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies

  5. Kurds—A Beacon of Hope or a Harbinger of More Chaos | Monday, December 5 | 2:00pm – 3:00pm | Brookings Institution | Click HERE to Register

    For the United States, Syrian Kurds are reliable boots on the ground in the fight against the Islamic State. Their agenda for autonomy and self-rule in northern Syria, however, is a source of vexation for Turkey. Ankara is worried about the emergence of a Kurdish state along its borders, which could bolster the demands of Kurds within Turkey for greater political recognition. Limitations on Kurds’ right to social and cultural self-expression is now viewed as a major flaw in Turkey’s democratic edifice. Its actions in Syria against the Kurdish forces also undermine the international coalition against ISIS. In return, these factors hamper Turkey’s relations with the U.S.
    How can the actors in this regional theater break through the deadlock? In the latest Turkey Project Policy Paper, “Two routes to an impasse: Understanding Turkey’s Kurdish policy,” Ayşegül Aydın of University of Colorado and historical sociologist Cem Emrence of Leiden University explore how “politics of moderation” could offer the most effective solution to the crisis in the region, and discuss how the different actors involved—Turkey, the Kurds, and the United States—should take a more proactive approach, including a willingness to make compromises, in the interest of forging a lasting peace.
    On December 5, 2016, the Turkey Project at Brookings will host a panel discussion on new approaches to the “Kurdish issue” in Turkey and its neighborhood. At the event, Ayşegül Aydın will present conclusions from her co-authored paper. Following her remarks, Nicholas Danforth of the Bipartisan Policy Center and Soner Cagaptay of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy will offer their perspectives. The discussion will be moderated by the Brookings TÜSİAD Senior Fellow Kemal Kirişci.

  6. Inside the Islamist Terrorist’s Mind: A Conversation with Former CIA Interrogator James Mitchell | Tuesday, December 6 | American Enterprise Institute | Click HERE to Register

    As a key architect of the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, James Mitchell spent thousands of hours questioning terrorists, including 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM). He came to understand the terrorist mind better than anyone in America.
    Now, for the first time, Dr. Mitchell will share what KSM told him — including his opinions of US counterterrorism policy, the Bush administration’s response to 9/11, his plans for future attacks, and why he is certain they will ultimately prevail in their war against America.
    Join Dr. Mitchell and AEI’s Marc Thiessen for a discussion of Dr. Mitchell’s new book, “Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America” (Crown Forum, 2016), as he offers a first-person account of the enhanced interrogation program and his personal interactions with the men behind the deadliest terrorist attack in history.

  7. Afghanistan in 2016: A Survey of the Afghan People | Wednesday, December 7 | 9:30am – 11:30am | United States Institute of Peace | Click HERE to Register

    The Asia Foundation, in partnership with the U.S. Institute of Peace, will present the findings of the 2016 Survey of the Afghan People at USIP on December 7. Crucial questions of security, economic stability, and reconciliation face the administration of President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah. As they begin their third year in office, an atmosphere of increasing civilian casualties and unrest in the provincial capitals threatens the fragile but significant progress the country has made toward peace and prosperity over the past decade.
    The findings of The Asia Foundation’s 12th annual Survey of the Afghan People are being released at an important moment for Afghanistan. The 2016 survey, based on face-to-face interviews with a nationally representative sample of more than 12,600 Afghan citizens, reveals their views on a range of issues including security, the economy, essential services, governance and political participation, corruption, justice, and gender equality. This year’s survey extends to new areas, including youth issues, migration, citizens’ awareness of legal resources, reconciliation with the Taliban, the Islamic State (ISIL/ISIS), landmines, and access to social media on mobile phones.
    Conducted across the country’s 34 provinces, The Asia Foundation’s series of annual surveys since 2004 in Afghanistan provides an unmatched barometer of Afghan public opinion over time. Taken together, the surveys are a resource for policymakers in government, the international community and the broader Afghan public as they seek to navigate a difficult landscape toward a more peaceful and prosperous future for Afghanistan and the region.
    Featuring Nancy Lindborg, President, U.S. Institute of Peace, David D. Arnold, President, The Asia Foundation, Zach Warren, Survey and Research Director in Afghanistan, The Asia Foundation, Idrees Ilham, Director of Governance Programs in Afghanistan, The Asia Foundation, Jena Karim, Former Deputy Country Representative for Programs in Afghanistan, The Asia Foundation, Scott Worden, Director, Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs, U.S. Institute of Peace

  8. Potential for Middle East Cooperation in Various Fields | Wednesday, December 7 | 11:30am – 2:30pm | Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies | Click HERE to Register

    The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Conflict Management Program of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) are pleased to host five of the contributing authors, Anthony Cordesman (CSIS), Shahrokh Fardoust (College of William and Mary), Querine Hanlon (Strategic Capacity Group), Ross Harrison (MEI), and Jean-Francois Seznec (MEI & SAIS), for a discussion of opportunities in regional cooperation and the costs of the prevailing competition and rivalries between states. Paul Salem (MEI) will moderate the discussion.

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Trump in a china shop

President-elect Trump has talked by phone with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, breaking a tradition of non-communication at the highest level since the US downgraded relations with Taiwan and recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979. Beijing has protested to Washington but is blaming Taipei in public.

The specifics of how the phone call was arranged remain murky. Did Trump initiate it, or President Tsai? Who else was involved? Did a Washington lobbyist or politician benefit from it? These things don’t just happen, but how and why in this case is still unclear.

So what?

Trump is claiming it’s no big deal: why shouldn’t he talk with the leader of a state that the US has close security and economic ties with? He is still a private citizen, even if president-elect. He has opted not to use the State Department in arranging for his congratulatory phone calls from overseas, presumably so that he is free to do as he likes. He likes to be unpredictable and not to give anything away for free: the phone call is in Trump’s view a signal to Beijing that it will need to give as well as get.

Part of the background to the phone call is apparently a visit to Trump from former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton, who advocates closer ties with Taiwan. He is also rumored to be a candidate for Secretary of State in the Trump Administration. Bolton shares Trump’s “take no prisoners” negotiating style: put your opponent off balance and keep him there.

While the Logan Act of 1799 prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments in disputes with the US, only one person has ever been indicted under its provisions. Private citizens doing business with foreign governments without the approval of the US government is far more the rule than the exception. I could be accused of doing it myself quite often, even if I state explicitly in virtually all my dealings that I don’t speak for the US.

The real issue here is the One China policy, not the phone call. Taiwan in the 37 years since US recognition of Beijing (and de-recognition of Taipei) has become increasingly democratic, secure, and prosperous. President Tsai is no fan of One China, claiming instead that Taiwan is already a state but hesitating to claim independence and sovereignty. Should the US continue with the Nixon-era policy of supporting Beijing’s claim to Taiwan, or should it move in the direction of recognizing what many would regard as reality: that a democratic Taiwan will never freely accept reintegration with the mainland?

I don’t know the answer to that question, even if Hong Kong’s travails under Chinese sovereignty raise doubts. But I’m sure a congratulatory phone call is no way to reformulate a policy with gigantic implications for relations between Beijing and Washington, whose economies will remain locked in an inevitable embrace for decades to come and whose militaries will be competing as well as cooperating worldwide. This may be only the first of many Trump diplomatic maneuvers I doubt, but it is a particularly important one if you look past the phone call.

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