“He’s finished”

That was the slogan of the protesters who sought, and eventually achieved, the removal of Slobodan Milosevic from power in Serbia. He provided the opportunity himself, by calling early elections that he lost. The demonstrations that brought him down were in support of the election result.

“He’s finished” would also be a good slogan for Americans seeking to unseat President Trump, who is likewise prone to self-inflicted wounds. Our system doesn’t allow early elections, but certainly Trump’s firing of FBI Director Comey in hope of stymieing the investigation of the president’s campaign’s ties to Russia fits in that category. We also know Trump specifically hoped Comey would can the investigation of former National Security Adviser Flynn’s connections to the Russians. The firing has guaranteed that the investigation will continue, now conducted by an impeccably professional Special Counsel.

The scandal over the President’s revelation of highly classified material to the Russian Foreign Minister has made things much worse. I confess it is not clear what precisely he said that was so highly classified. The US government had already blocked computers and tablets from flights originating in the Middle East. So it was obvious we had some intelligence about that. Government officials have also been talking openly about the Islamic State plotting operations against the US in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, which US-backed Kurdish and Arab forces are investing. What more than this the President might have revealed is unclear.

But that he revealed anything off the cuff and without proper preparation is mind boggling. For good reasons, the intelligence community is extraordinarily jealous of the information it makes available, and it already has ample reason to resent this president. The implications of revealing highly classified information are manifold: they could affect not only the source of the information, but all America’s liasion relationships with intelligence services abroad. The FBI is no less proprietary and has responded to his threat to blackmail Comey with tapes of their conversations by making known the contents of contemporary memoranda recounting. Touché, mon ami.

It could still take months, if not years, to remove this grossly incompetent and ill-prepared president from office. Republicans, who control the Congress, are just beginning to distance themselves and will want much more documentary evidence of his malfeasance before embarking on the perilous course of either impeaching him for “high crimes and misdemeanors” or alternatively removing him from office for inability to discharge its powers and duties, as provided for in the 25th amendment to the constitution. But one of those outcomes is starting to look inevitable.

In the meanwhile though he is planning a trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican, to start this weekend. The first two stops are pretty much the friendliest on earth to Trump. Netanyahu and King Salman share the hope he will focus on doing in Iran, even as Trump issues a waiver to allow the suspension of Iran sanctions to continue because of Tehran’s faithful implementation of the nuclear deal he threatened to tear up on his first day in office. The contradictions are head spinning. So too is the notion that the good Pope Francis will do anything but ream out Trump, gently but expertly, for his indifference to the poor and favoring of the rich.

It would be a miracle if this President got through a foreign trip without a major gaffe. He might do better to stay home and try to mend his relations with the Congress and his broken White House, but he is instead complaining that no president has ever been treated as badly as he has been. His paranoia will increase far from home.

He’s finished. The question is how much more damage he will do before he is gone.

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Preventing new Balkan conflicts

Here are my speaking notes for the testimony I delivered today at the hearing on “The Balkans: Threats to Peace and Stability” of the Subcommittee on Europe, Asia and Emerging Threats of the House International Relations Committee.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. With permission, I would like to submit a written statement for the record and use the few minutes I have for just three key points.

First, the countries of the region made remarkable progress in the 10 years or so after the NATO intervention in Bosnia in 1995. But in the last 10 years, the U.S. effort to pass the baton of leadership to the European Union has allowed slippage. In Bosnia, Kosovo, Serbia, and Macedonia there are now risks of instability that could trigger a regionwide convulsion. That would reflect badly on America’s global leadership role, unravel three peace agreements, and cost us far more than conflict prevention.

Second, those who say ethnic partition through rearrangement of borders would be viable are playing with matches near a powder keg. Moves in that direction would lead to violence, including ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity, and even genocide. It happened in the 1990s and could again. Monoethnic states cannot be achieved without a massive and expensive peacekeeping deployment.

Ethnic partition would not only be violent, it would also generate a new flood of refugees and creation of Islamic mini-states in parts of Bosnia, Serbia, and Kosovo. This was a main reason we refused to move borders in the 1990s. Americans should be even more concerned about it today. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda have had more success recruiting in the Balkans than many once thought possible given the pro-Western and pro-American attitudes of most Muslims there. Reducing Balkan Muslims to rump monoethnic states would radicalize many more.

Damage would not be limited to the Balkans. Russia would welcome ethnic partition, because it would validate Moscow’s destructive irredentist behavior in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Crimea, and Donbas as well as give Moscow a stronger foothold in the region. It would also leave a geographic gap in NATO and the EU that we have long hoped would be filled with friends and allies.

My third point is this: I see no serious alternative in the Balkans to the political and economic reforms required for each of the countries of the region to be eligible for NATO and EU membership. All want to join the EU, which unfortunately will not be able to begin admitting them until 2020 at the earliest. That leaves NATO membership as the vital “carrot” for reform, except in Serbia. We need to do more to enable Balkan countries that want to do so to join the Alliance, as Montenegro is doing.

In Macedonia, this means Europe and the U.S. need to tell Greece “The FYROM” will be invited to join NATO once it reestablishes transparent and accountable democratic governance. In Kosovo, it means ensuring Pristina develops an army designed for international peacekeeping that poses no threat to Serbs. For that, Serbia will need to accept Kosovo’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, by allowing UN membership. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, NATO members should tell Republika Srpska secession will gain no Western recognition or aid for it or any country it joins, including from the IMF or World Bank.

These and other suggestions in my written testimony would put the region back on track and prevent the peace agreements of the 1990s and 2001 from unraveling. So too would ensuring that all Balkan countries have access to energy supplies from countries other than Russia: natural gas from Azerbaijan, LNG from the U.S., or eventually Mediterranean gas from Cyprus or Israel.

Mr. Chairman, I’ve just outlined a substantial list of diplomatic tasks. If the Administration commits to them, implementation might require an American special envoy. But a policy should come first: one based on maintaining current borders, preventing ethnic partition, and pushing harder for NATO and EU membership. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

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Making America grate

Donald Trump is a bully. We need only recall his treatment of his Republican competitors, especially Marco Rubio, and his stalking of Hillary Clinton during the last presidential debate, to realize that the President has an irresistible impulse to try to intimidate and dominate others. He tried it again this weekend with his threat to make recordings of their conversations public if former FBI Director Comey leaks to the press. He has also tried it with Kim Jong-un, alternately with offering to talk with him if the conditions are right. He has even tried it with Tea Party Republicans, when they refused to go along with a lousy revision of Obamacare that failed to meet their definition of “repeal.”

It isn’t working, because most adults know how to respond. Kim Jong-un is simply proceeding with his missile tests, knowing full well that ratcheting up UN Security Council sanctions is going to be difficult. By contrast, Comey, though reportedly fine with the existence of tapes of his phone conversations with the President, is not going to testify this week. I imagine he and his lawyers need to weigh a lot of pros and cons, since the Senate Democrats will want to ask him about ongoing investigations. That’s understandable, but sooner or later Comey will also defy the bully.

The bully ends up giving in more often than not, because he hasn’t got all the powers he pretends to wield. Trump has clearly overestimated his powers as president: the courts have stymied his immigration ban, his executive orders are often empty, and the Republicans in Congress are starting to bite back, even if not enough to satisfy me. Trump’s effort at rapprochement with Russia are going nowhere, he has backed off his promise to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and he is now figuratively licking the boots of the Chinese he once accused of raping America.

He really has only confirmation of a Supreme Court justice the Senate Republicans wanted, roll back of environmental and other regulations, and the cruise missile attack on Syria to show for his more than 100 days in the presidency. The former two items are important and something I regret. Gorsuch has already concurred in executing someone who might have been exonerated by DNA evidence. The US will be unable to meet its climate change commitments, even if it doesn’t withdraw from the Paris agreement.

The cruise missile raid has no significance, as it was done as a temperamental one-off without proper diplomatic and military followup that might have tipped the Syrian war in a new direction. Assad has used chemical weapons several times thereafter, without any American response, and now the State Department says he is building a crematorium to hid the execution of thousands of prisoners. In fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda, Trump has racked up a record of doing pretty much what his predecessor was doing but with bigger bombs, more drones, and more civilian casualties. The big difference is the lack of any diplomatic strategy other than bullying.

This week will be an important one: Turkish President Erdogan is in town trying to get the Americans to back off support for Syrian Kurds he regards as terrorists but the American generals think are the only available force able to remove ISIS from the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. The generals want to do this quickly, they say, because ISIS is planning attacks on the US in Raqqa. Trump is likely to bully Erdogan, though he may also try to sweeten the pot by offering to be helpful on the extradition of Erdogan’s arch-nemesis, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. That’s an empty promise, as the courts will make the decision.

A different president might cut a deal with Erdogan on Syria, thus preserving strong ties to America’s Turkish allies: if they want to prevent the Kurds from taking Raqqa, let them try. If they fail, the Americans do Plan B with the Kurds. The rationale for haste doesn’t add up: ISIS can plan attacks from anywhere. Removing them from Raqqa without a serious idea for how to govern the place thereafter reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus. You know: he was condemned to rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see it slide back down when he got near the top. That’s what is going to happen if the post-victory scenario in Raqqa has not been well-prepared. ISIS, or worse, will be back.

But options other than bullying, alternating with obsequious flattery, seem well beyond this president’s tool box. A great negotiator he is not. He is making America grate.

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Still a long way to go

I’ve spent the last few days with people from many parts of the Middle East. They were cheerier than you might think, but glimmers of hope go a long way in a dark tunnel. Here are a few of the things I learned.

In Yemen, there are big risks of further radicalization and fragmentation–not just southern secession–if the fighting continues. But both the Houthis, who have bitten off more than they want to chew, and the Saudis, who feel they have prevented an Iranian takeover, are exhausted. Everyone might just be ready to give something like peace a chance.

The best prospect is for agreement that some neutral party will take over the vital port of Hudaydah, through which 70-80% of Yemen’s food supplies flow. That would prevent the impending humanitarian catastrophe and allow some check on the flow of weapons and ammunition into the country. If then Sanaa can be made safe for the return of politicians who have opposed the Houthis, it might be possible to finish the political transition Yemen started more than six years ago by thanking President Hadi for his service and establishing an inclusive interim government. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Iraq is seeing glimmers of hope as well. The Iraqi security forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga and the mostly Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs) as well as the Iraqi army and police, are doing all right in retaking Mosul, where they are moving slowly against strong ISIS resistance and trying hard to avoid civilian casualties. Cooperation has been good. The Pesh and the PMUs are staying on the outskirts of the city while local police backed by the Iraqi Army go inside. The operation should be concluded soon. Cooperation is expected to continue in retaking other towns like Tal Afar and Hawija.

But translating military cooperation against a common enemy into political results is proving difficult. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is planning an independence referendum for the September-November time frame. All the Kurdish political parties except for Gorran are participating in planning that effort. The result will be overwhelming in favor, but an independence declaration will not follow immediately. Erbil plans for a year or two of negotiations with Baghdad over the full range of outstanding issues (territory, oil, finances, displaced people, citizenship, etc.).

Baghdad doesn’t like this idea but isn’t going to try to stop it by force. Preoccupied with growing stabilization and reconstruction requirements, people in Baghdad don’t see how the KRG can pay for independence at current or likely future oil prices, don’t believe Iraq’s neighbors will go along with it, and are focused on instituting the kind of decentralization nationwide that should satisfy not only Iraq’s Kurds but also its Sunni and Shia.

Though any reasonable person would conclude that the Iraqi Kurds have lots of good reasons for wanting independence, they lack the internal and international conditions that would permit it. However, if they are able to negotiate borders with Baghdad and adequate financial arrangements, the picture would change significantly. They would still however face implacable Iranian opposition as well as Turkish discomfort. Ankara may not care so much any more about the KRG’s political status, but Turkish recognition while it is fighting its own and the Syrian Kurds seems a bridge too far.

Syria of course is the toughest nut. There may be some small hope for the Russian/Syrian/Turkish negotiations in Astana to produce workable “de-escalation” zones, though there is still no monitoring or enforcement mechanism. Translating any minor success in Astana to the political talks in Geneva is proving impossible, not least because Bashar al Assad is winning and sees no reason to compromise. The Americans may even hand him Raqaa on a silver platter, so that they can withdraw and declare the Islamic State finished.

Of course it won’t be. Eastern and other parts of Syria (maybe Homs and Hama) will suffer for a long time from a continuing and ever more extremist Sunni insurgency. Nor will the Americans want to ante up for stabilization or reconstruction. They want to kill the Islamic State and get out. Not one dime for governance in Syria is the White House mantra. The Russians, Iranians, and Turks will be stuck for a long time battling shadowy, ruthless, and deadly enemies.

The five million refugees are unlikely to go back under these circumstances. Nor would Assad want them, as he figures they are all his opponents. If the Europeans pay, he might take a token few thousand, but not many more. Another seven million Syrians are displaced inside the country. They aren’t likely going home either.

No Libyans where I was this weekend. But there is a glimmer of hope there that the UN-sponsored political leadership may find some way of compromising with Egyptian-backed would-be autocrat Haftar. That might be nice, or it might be the beginning of the end for one or the other of them, which could either be nice or a big problem.

So a little progress in the Middle East, here and there. But we are a long way from the end of its four civil wars.

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Beginning of the end

President Trump’s firing of FBI Director Comey is confirmation of what I said yesterday: Flynn was not the only one compromised. It is really hard to imagine after yesterday’s testimony by former Deputy Attorney General Yates that this hasty move isn’t aimed to block a serious investigation of criminal activity in the White House. Trump simply cannot afford an FBI that acts independently, as it is supposed to do in pursuing criminal activity.

The obvious precedent is the Saturday Night Massacre, when in 1973 President Nixon fired a special prosecutor and both the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General quit in response. Of course there is no possibility Jeff Sessions or his Deputy Attorney General, both cited as recommending the firing, will quit. They are reliable Trump loyalists. The analogy lies in the president’s attempt to stymie an investigation bound to produce results. After Saturday Night, Nixon was compelled to appoint a new special prosecutor and was gone within a year, once impeachment became a certainty.

The Deputy Attorney General is asserting that the firing is due to Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation last summer, which heavily favored Trump’s election campaign. That is bozotic. Comey bent over backwards to help Trump by hiding the fact that the FBI was also investigating his campaign. Trump last summer praised Comey to the skies for his handling of the Clinton emails. No one he appoints as  director after this firing could be relied on to conduct a serious investigation.

The Democrats are calling for an independent special prosecutor.* But it won’t happen until the Republicans realize that this president is going down and will take them with him unless they cut him loose. There is no predicting when they will reach that conclusion, but for the country’s sake I hope it is a matter of weeks or months rather than years. The sooner Mike Pence becomes president the better prepared for the 2018 election the Republicans will be. This should be the beginning of the end for a president clearly determined to prevent anyone from finding out the truth about his and his campaign’s relations with Moscow.

*PS: It turns out this is not possible, as the enabling legislation has been allowed to expire. The correct term of art these days is apparently “special counsel.” Apologies.

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Compromised

Former Deputy Attorney General Yates testified yesterday that former National Security Advisor Flynn was “compromised” by the Russians. They knew he was lying when he claimed his conversations with the Russian Ambassador did not discuss relief from sanctions and could have used that knowledge to blackmail him. They also knew he had accepted payments uncleared and unreported to the Defense Department, as required for former military flag officers.

Yates told the White House General Counsel, but President Trump waited 18 days before firing Flynn until reports of his lies became public. He fired Yates far more quickly: the day after she refused to defend his travel ban in court, which several courts have now ruled unconstitutional. Yates yesterday called it “unlawful,” which was presumably intended to convey that she was not obligated to defend it.

This tale may sound boring in the heartland, but in DC it rarely gets juicier. Flynn, a three-star Army intelligence officer who climbed on the Trump bandwagon early, would have been a fabulous asset for Moscow as national security advisor, though we don’t know that he was ever fully “turned.” We do know that he took payments from Russia Today, Moscow’s virulent propaganda arm, and also from Turkey. And that he cared enough about his rapport with Russia to lie not only to the public but also to the Vice President.

Even better: President Obama warned Trump not to hire Flynn. Trump not only hired him but appears not to have properly vetted him and then tried to protect him. That might have been just the defensive crouch of a new Administration anxious not to suffer any early losses. Or, the President himself may also have been compromised in one way or another, making him reluctant to buck President Putin by firing Flynn. There is really no way to tell with the information at our disposal.

More isn’t likely to become available. No one with a job in the White House is going to help clarify the President’s motives for hesitating to fire Flynn. Only someone now outside, but early in the Administration inside the tight circle surrounding Trump, will know. Nor is the Congress likely to get to the bottom of the matter: at yesterday’s hearing, the Republicans–who control the investigations in both houses–appeared reluctant to ask about anything but why Yates refused to defend the President’s travel ban in court and how Flynn’s lies became public.

So what have we here? A president who tried to protect someone the Russians had compromised fingered by a former official whom he did quickly fire once he knew she would not do his bidding. Call me old fashioned, but this is a scandal of major proportions, with likely far-reaching ramifications. Flynn isn’t the only one compromised.

 

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