Trump’s Middle East: no one really knows

Tuesday night’s election result was shocking for many. Though Clinton’s policy in the Middle East seemed predictable, President-elect Trump’s Middle East policy is a mystery.

To begin to unpack this mystery, the Washington Institute for New East policy convened a panel this morning of Middle East scholars and international journalists to discuss what they expect to see from a President Trump. The panel featured Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute, Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel, David Horovitz, founding editor of the Times of Israel, and Jumana Ghunaimat, editor-in-chief of the Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad.

Khashoggi said Saudis were caught off guard by the election, as they were expecting a Clinton presidency. Due to Hillary Clinton’s long track record, they felt they knew what to expect and were ready for what was to come. Saudis are worried about Trump’s support for Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), though they are encouraged by his hard stance on Iran. They are also worried that Trump’s closeness with Putin and softening towards Assad will result in a Syria that is unfriendly to Saudi Arabia.

On Jordan, Ghunaimat said relations between the US and Jordan will likely stay the same. Jordan is a relatively stable and important ally in the region, and nothing Trump has said or done so far indicates that relationship will be in jeopardy.

Horovitz said most Israelis believed that Trump would be best for Israel, but they nevertheless wanted Clinton to win the election. Though they perceived Trump as having more empathy for Israel than Clinton and likely to take Israel’s concerns seriously, Clinton has a long pro-Israel track record. They know they could depend on Clinton to look after Israeli interests whereas Trump is more of a wild card. Israelis are still hopeful that their relationship with President Trump will be better than their relationship with Obama.

Ornstein focused more on the effect that President Trump would have domestically and the factors that led to his election. He blamed the inaccuracy of the polls on the “Bradley effect”—that is, many people were embarrassed to report that they were voting for Trump. The complaints of the white working class are valid and were unaddressed by Washington. This in combination with Clinton’s unpopularity among Democrats led to his election. Ornstein forsees Trump depending on others to make vital decisions, so whom he appoints will be decisive.

Dennis Ross  said we know that Trump wants to get rid of ISIS and to improve our relationship with Russia. But defeating ISIS requires the trust of Sunni militias. This trust cannot be cemented in the face of a Putin-Assad-Trump friendship it would guarantee Shiite strength. Trump needs to approach his relationship with Putin—and, by extension, Assad—very carefully and be sure to enforce consequences when necessary. Aside from this, Ross encouraged humility in the face of Trump’s presidency—we cannot presume to know what he will choose to do, since there is simply not enough information available.

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Tragedy, farce and uncertainty

The evening wasn’t so enjoyable after all. Hillary Clinton, who is still leading in the popular vote, has lost in the electoral college, with several swing states that had been expected to tilt towards her instead going for President-elect Donald Trump. The electoral college, where each state has two votes, no matter what the population (plus the number of representatives), favors less populous states that lean Republican.

This is a tragedy for me personally. I’m an establishment progressive who thinks America has to play a strong role in the world, free trade and investment are desirable, and equal rights for everyone are the indispensable basis of liberal democracy, a system that has served Americans and non-Americans well.

It is also a tragedy for many of my friends around the world. Clinton would have pursued democratic ideals wherever possible. Trump shows no interest in them, at home or abroad. He admires Russian autocrat President Putin, draws support from anti-liberal Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, cozies up to Egyptian strongman President Sisi, and gets plaudits from Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, who is using last summer’s failed coup as an opportunity to crack down on all those who oppose him. Those who believe in equal rights in those countries should despair: they will get no support from the United States for the next four years.

My guess is that the same will be true for liberal democrats in other countries Trump has never mentioned. The moderate Syrian opposition, Ukraine’s Maidan democrats, Europe’s traditional socialists and conservatives, Iran’s Greens (what is left of them), and many others can expect no real sustenance from Trump’s America. Throughout the Balkans, Trump’s victory will empower ethnic nationalists, who are already sending me their schadenfreude. There is a real risk that his white nationalist predilections will inspire a chain reaction of ethnic and sectarian partitions there and in the Middle East, spreading war and instability far and wide.

The Trump victory is also a farce. This self-declared billionaire so far as we know hasn’t paid taxes for decades or given any significant contributions to charity. He notoriously stiffed contractors and used illegal workers when building his hotels, not to mention that his Slovenian-born wife worked illegally in the US. He put his tacky label on cheap imported products. But he now claims to represent the American working class, in particular in its distaste for immigrants and foreign products. He claimed to want to make America great again, but criticized its generals and its fighting men and especially women. All this is bozotic.

How did he win? Women and Hispanics, whom he insulted with vigor during the campaign, shifted their votes only slightly towards Hillary Clinton. More educated Americans shifted more, but they were not enough to offset the shift of non-college educated whites to Trump. Minorities did not turn out in the numbers that elected President Obama. Efforts to suppress their vote by limiting early voting, cutting back on polling hours and places, and requiring proof of identity (Americans do not have identity cards) were marginally successful in some swing states.

The tragedy and farce will remain forever. Uncertainty is the most important result of the election right now. No one knows what Trump will really do. That’s why stock markets worldwide sold off and have only partly recovered. He prides himself on unpredictability and has a Republican Congress to go along with his whims.

Here are my best guesses. At the very least, he will have to proceed with the promised repeal of Obamacare, which has provided tens of millions of Americans with health insurance. Repeal will throw them back into hospital emergency rooms, which are the most expensive way to cure a cold ever invented. He will propose cutting my taxes sharply, with no guarantee that I will reinvest the bounty productively. He will try to throw a lot of money at rebuilding infrastructure, something the Republicans have blocked President Obama from doing. He will appoint an anti-abortion member of the Supreme Court, to fill the existing vacancy.

But little else is clear, especially on foreign policy. Renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement I suppose, but that won’t be easy. Complete the wall on the border with Mexico, though his proposed method for financing it (by taxing remittances from Mexicans in the US) is unlikely to work. Tear up the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Cut a deal with Putin on Ukraine and Syria, surrendering Donbas to the Russians and as much of Syria as they, the Iranians and Assad can conquer. Continue Obama’s fight against the Islamic State, which has been strikingly successful over the last year.

I doubt however that he will tear up the Iranian nuclear deal, which is clearly better than no deal at this point. He’ll make a lot of noise about enforcing it vigorously and may levy new sanctions on Iran based on other issues. We can expect belligerent talk about China’s trade and currency policies, but I suppose those complaints will be channeled into the existing bilateral and multilateral mechanisms that already exist to deal with them.

Worst of all, we are going to have to listen to him and his appointees for the next four years. Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor who closed highway lanes to punish a Democratic mayor for not supporting him, will direct the transition team. Rudy Giuliani, who invented the “stop and frisk” police tactic that has been declared unconstitutional, will likely be the Attorney General. Newt Gingrich, the Speaker of the House cited for ethnics violations, is thought to be a candidate for Secretary of State. This is a rogues’ gallery of male chauvinist has-beens.

It’s had better be a great country. Otherwise how could it survive such a mistake?



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Let’s enjoy this election evening!

I’m doing a press briefing on the implications of the American election for foreign policy in a few hours. Here are the speaking notes I’ve prepared for myself: 

  1. It is a pleasure to be with you tonight, as America concludes an ugly election campaign and decides on its 45th president.
  1. I won’t pretend to be neutral: I have supported Hillary Clinton with words, money, and even knocking on doors in West Philadelphia.
  1. But in these opening remarks, I would like to focus first not on the candidates but rather on the process, which is a complicated one.
  1. One consequence is that there is little uniformity: as you’ll see tonight, the states will close their polls at different times, starting in just a few minutes at 7 pm with Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia.
  1. The initial results will likely favor Trump, but swing states North Carolina and Ohio close their polls at 7:30 pm and by 8 pm lots of Clinton states close their polls.
  1. Key then will be Florida and Pennsylvania, and at 9 pm Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Clinton could be in trouble if she doesn’t win there.
  1. In the meanwhile, you’ll be getting exit polling from many of the “swing” states, those that might go one way or the other. Exit polls in my view are not terribly reliable: sampling errors can be significant, and in many states a significant percentage of people have already voted.
  1. Not only are rules and procedures decided by the states, but the vote in each state determines that state’s votes in the electoral college that meets in state capitals on December 19.
  1. Each state has a number of electoral votes equal to its number of Representatives and Senators. Because each state has two senators, this favors less populous (more Republican) states, but the reliably Democratic District of Columbia, which has no senators, gets three votes as well.
  1. As a result, an election can be close in the popular vote (polling suggests Trump and Clinton are within 3 or 4 percentage points of each other), but the electoral college difference can be big.
  1. If Trump were to get fewer than 200 electoral votes (and Clinton the remaining 338 plus), that might be considered a landslide, even if the popular vote is close.
  1. It is also possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote and win in the electoral college. That happened with George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. I went to bed convinced Gore had won.
  1. By morning, the Florida controversy had erupted and the election was eventually decided in the Supreme Court, which allowed Florida’s determination of the winner to stand and Bush to become President without a popular vote majority.
  1. The lesson here is don’t go to bed too early tonight. It may be late before the outcome is clear and unequivocal. In the last three elections it was past 11 pm.
  1. What does it all mean for foreign policy?
  1. First, I think an uncontested and clear outcome is highly desirable. The world does not need another month of uncertainty about who will be the 45th president.
  1. Second, there are dramatic differences between Trump, who prides himself on unpredictability, and Clinton, who has a long track record well within the post-911 foreign policy consensus.
  1. Trump is erratic, inconsistent, and hyperbolic. He wants to put America first, which he has defined not only as ignoring others, blocking immigrants, and doubting America’s alliances but also destroying the existing international trading system and illogically pursuing a bromance with Vladimir Putin.
  1. Clinton is committed, studious, internationalist, all perhaps to a fault. She once pursued a reset with Putin that failed. She wants to maintain the stability of the international system and restore American authority some think President Obama surrendered in his retrenchment.
  1. A word or two about what this all means in some important parts of the world.
  1. In the Middle East and Europe, including the Baltics and Ukraine, Clinton is far more likely to push back on Russian aggressiveness than Trump.
  1. In Asia, Trump has occasionally talked tough about China’s trade policy and suggested that South Korea and Japan might want to get their own nuclear weapons.
  1. Clinton would certainly not want that but might also be tough with China on trade. She would likely want to continue to build up American alliances in Asia, including with India and Vietnam.
  1. Both Clinton and Trump oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), but Clinton would likely want to renegotiate parts of it and proceed while Trump would scrap it entirely.
  1. Presidents do not always get to decide which issues they focus on. I would expect Moscow and Beijing, and perhaps others, to take an early opportunity to test the new president.
  1. An incident involving China in the South China Sea? North Korean launch of a missile that could reach the US? A new push by Russian-supported insurgents in Donbas? An incident with Iranian ships or missiles in the Gulf? A massive cyberattack?
  1. Clinton understands the capabilities and limits of American power, as well as the need for allied support. Trump does not. He mistakes bravado for strength and unpredictability for leverage.
  1. Most of the world understands this and favors Clinton. Moscow may not be alone in favoring Trump, but it is certainly lonely.
  1. Those of us who enjoy foreign policy for a living—Republicans as well as Democrats like me—will likewise be almost universally relieved if she, not he, becomes president.
  1. But the evening is young. Let’s enjoy it with some questions!
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What the election means for the Balkans

I did this interview for Filip Raunic of the Croatian website Telegram about a week ago. They published it today. 

Q: The situation in the Balkans, especially Bosnia and Hercegovina with separatist tendencies of its entity “Republika Srpska (RS),” is tense. Do you think US will regain its focus on Balkans any time soon? And should it?

A: It is difficult for Washington to focus on the Balkans. Apart from the election, the Americans have a lot of other things they are dealing with: Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Ukraine, Afghanistan, the South China Sea, just to mention a few. Washington long ago transferred the main responsibility in the Balkans to Europe. Still, the US will not accept an RS declaration of independence or other moves that threaten peace and stability in Southeast Europe.

Q: How do you see Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton with respect to foreign policy towards Europe and Balkans?

A: I think Hillary Clinton would be good for all those who look to the EU and NATO as anchors of their foreign policy. She understands the region and will want to see progress by those countries who seek membership in these organizations. Donald Trump appears to know nothing about the Balkans and likely cares less, except when it comes to collecting a few Serb or Croat votes in Ohio. I’ve seen no sign his wife has given him any instruction on Slovenia.

Q: Croatia is considered as the main US ally in the region. If so, would President Clinton because of her interventionist policy be better for Croatia and its political role in the region than president Trump?

A: Croatia is one of several allies in the region: Slovenia, Albania, Bulgaria and Romania we also count as NATO allies, and soon I hope also Montenegro. I know all our allies are special, but I doubt one is more special than others!
Q: In last decade, besides US an EU, Turkey and Russia have also been present in the Balkans with their political influence. Do you see the possibility their influence will prevail if the US decides to pull out from the region?

A: It takes two to influence. Russia is a declining regional power with a GNP less than that of Spain, an aging and shrinking population, an imploding economy, and a petty autocratic as president. Anyone who wants Russia’s influence can have it so far as I am concerned, but I expect most people in the Balkans understand that the EU has a great deal more to offer, especially as it begins to recover from a deep recession.

Turkey, like Russia, has a long history in the Balkans, and its companies have done well there. But it too suffers from a burgeoning autocracy. Sure Ankara will have some influence wherever it plants its commercial activities, but I don’t think it today a very good model of how to administer rule of law or allow a free press.

The US will continue to be diplomatically present and influential in the region, but it will also expect the sovereign states that are allies and friends to handle as much of their own affairs as possible. That, after all, was the purpose of creating the independent states from former Yugoslavia: so that they could manage their own issues and enjoy the benefits of free democratic states.

Today, Milena Pejic of the Belgrade daily Blic asked another question about the election, and I answered: 

Q: I was just hoping that you can give us some final predictions and thoughts about he US election? Who do you think is going to win and who would be the better choice for the rest of the world, particularly Serbia?

A: I have long supported Hillary Clinton and believe she will win: Go vote! –

Neither Clinton nor Trump is likely to give much priority to the Balkans, but Clinton would certainly be committed to stability and democracy there, including the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as Kosovo.

With respect to Serbia, it seems to me recent events suggest it faces a serious political and criminal threat to its democracy and stability from Russian and Russia-aligned forces within Serbia. Trump’s “bromance” with Putin could lead to an increase in this threat. The safest place for Serbian democracy is inside the EU, not straddling between the EU and Moscow.

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Russia’s shenanigans in the Balkans

My colleague Siniša Vuković and I published a piece on today concerning the failed, Russian-backed coup plot in Montenegro last month. It concludes with this:

The Balkans will be way down the list of priorities for the next American president. The Islamic State and al Qaeda; China’s claims in the South China Sea; the wars in Ukraine, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan; North Korea’s nuclear program; and dozens of other problems are far more threatening to U.S. national security. But what America does not need is any further distraction in the Balkans, where two decades of investment have come close to stabilizing a chronically war-prone area that played unhappy roles in World War I, World War II, and the aftermath of the Cold War. It would be better and far less costly to counter Russian efforts there with a renewed preventive effort to enable all the Balkan countries, if they want, to enter NATO and the EU, where they will find themselves far less vulnerable to the Kremlin’s meddling hand.

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Go vote!

It is finally election day in the US. Registrations to vote have soared to over 200 million, but turnout in the past has been under 60% of eligible voters. There is no compulsory or automatic registration in the US, as there is in other countries. Nor is anyone required to vote. Moreover, Americans move often, which means that many will be registered twice, since little effort is made to shift registrations, in particular from one state to another. So the number of registrations may be significantly larger than the number of actual people.

The entire national election process is run not by the Federal government but by the states: they prepare the ballots, set up the polling places, and tabulate the results, which are accumulated in a state-by-state process. Disputes about the process or the results are generally handled first in state courts, not in Federal courts. Fraud is not unheard of, but because the voting, counting and tabulating is transparent and both main political parties participate, it is rare, and impossible on an industrial scale. The system is not “rigged.”

The president is actually elected in the “electoral college,” which meets on December 19 in the various state capitals (not all together). Each state has a number of votes in the “electoral college” equal to its number of senators and representatives in the Congress, with the exception of the District of Columbia (Washington DC). It has three electoral votes even though it has no senators and a single representative (who cannot vote on the floor of the House). The Electoral College essentially favors less populous states, which are often more rural states, but it also means the election will be decided in the relatively few “swing” states (no more than 15) where the outcome is in doubt before election day.

The voting rules, including the time when polls close, are determined by each state. As it happens, most of the states in which polls will close early are expected to vote for Donald Trump, so early returns will likely show him in the lead. Don’t you be misled. From about 9 pm Eastern Standard Time onwards, returns will start to come in from the northeastern states, which generally favor Hillary Clinton.

What are the odds? They favor Clinton at least 2/1. The stock market rose sharply yesterday as her odds appeared to stabilize when the FBI director reaffirmed that he has to reason to indict her for mishandling classified materials. Her likely margin in the popular vote may be not much bigger then 3%, but there is a pretty good chance that Trump won’t break 200 electoral votes, because Clinton is favored to win in so many swing states. That in my view would constitute a “landslide,” given how closely divided the electorate has been in recent times.

Who will vote for whom? Clinton is favored among college graduates, women, minorities, and younger people. Trump is favored among non-college educated whites, men, and older people. Many cities will favor Clinton, rural areas will favor Trump, and the suburbs will be split.

What difference will it make? The choice is stark. This:

Or this:

It will make an enormous difference on foreign policy. Trump is erratic, inconsistent, and hyperbolic. He wants to put America first, which he has defined not only as ignoring others and doubting America’s alliances but also destroying the international trading system and illogically pursuing a bromance with Vladimir Putin. Clinton is committed, studious, and internationalist, all perhaps to a fault. She wants to maintain the stability of the international system and restore American authority surrendered by President Obama in his effort to retrench.

I obviously chose some time ago and voted early (by mail) in the District of Columbia, which I imagine will break 90% for Clinton. I’ll spend part of the day briefing at the State Department’s Foreign Press Center. Then I’ll retreat to friends’ houses and stay up far too late. I went to bed in 2000 thinking Gore had won, only to awake to find he had indeed won the popular vote by hundreds of thousands of votes but would eventually lose Florida by a few hundred, causing him to lose in the Electoral College.

This has been an ugly campaign, marked by the kind of identity politics that I witness in many countries suffering internal strife. We need to bind up the nation’s wounds. That should be possible with Hillary Clinton. But first she has to win. Go vote!

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