Self defeating

I’ve been off enjoying wife Jackie’s Sarah Lawrence reunion, which followed hard on my own Haverford festivities. But I’ve not been completely out of touch. By now, it should be obvious to all that

  1. The President of the United States has inappropriate and counterproductive reactions to terrorist events.
  2. His withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord is inane.

Let us consider these two propositions.

The London attacks on Saturday provoked Trump to tweets that called his own travel ban a Travel Ban (thus removing any doubt about its intentions), suggested that current American security measures are inadequate (who, pray tell, is responsible for that?), criticized the (Muslim) mayor of London for trying to reassure the city’s population that the appropriate security measures had been taken, retweeted an exaggerated report of the number killed from a notoriously unreliable source, and suggested that the use of knives by the attackers has somehow silenced the gun debate in the US.

I can’t imagine anyone I know having any one of these reactions to an attack in which the police reacted quickly and effectively to prevent what might otherwise have been a much more serious loss of life. Terrorists seek to create terror. Trump’s reactions were fearful, amplified the magnitude of the attack, and brought him to bizarre conclusions. Contrast this with his personal failure to react to the murder by a white supremacist of two men trying to defend a Muslim and a black woman in Portland, Oregon on Friday. That didn’t fit the Islamic extremism narrative Trump is trying to promote. Hence the silence, even though two Americans were murdered. Homicidal white supremacist attacks in America have been almost three times frequent as Islamist attacks since 9/11.

As for climate change, the President sought to justify his decision on the basis of falsehoods. That of course made no difference to him. Nor did support for the Paris climate agreement from American industry. He preferred to claim to be saving the relatively few coal miner jobs that remain, which won’t happen, and to be serving the interests of the citizens of Pittsburgh, which gave up coal and steel as its primary industrial activities decades ago and voted 75% for Hillary Clinton (not quite the 80% the mayor claimed).

The international ramifications of withdrawal from the Paris accord are many:

  1. The US may still have a seat at the table, but it will no longer be able to speak with any moral authority on the issue of climate change.
  2. Leadership on that will shift to China, which is giving up a lot of coal-powered electrical plants, and to Europe, both of which are forging ahead with renewable sources of energy that will produce lots more jobs than those lost in the coal industry.
  3. No country will in the future accept any American push on environmental standards to be included in trade agreements–all will first require that the US re-commit to Paris.
  4. Trump’s personal standing with many world leaders, already shaky, will decline sharply.

America may still meet its Paris agreement goals, because natural gas is replacing coal rapidly due to market forces and American states and private industry will continue to try to limit greenhouse gases. That would be the ultimate irony: we pay the price for getting out of the agreement, but still meet its targets. That and Trump’s reaction to the London incident are self-defeating.


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Justice takes forethought

My friends at the Syria Justice & Accountability Centre, on whose board I serve, have had some recent success in their media outreach. Here is the audio of their appearance on National Public Radio yesterday, focused on their collaborative efforts to apply technology in exploiting the massive data base on wartime abuses they have assembled:

NPR followed that with a Facebook Live discussion:

The Al Jazeera website has also been paying attention.

None of us think justice is imminent in Syria. But that makes those who do this work all the more valuable: it will be too late to collect the data once conditions permit trials.

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America First will put America last

Here, according to National Security Adviser McMaster and National Economic Council Director Gary D. Cohn is the essence of President Trump’s America First foreign policy:

In short, those societies that share our interests will find no friend more steadfast than the United States. Those that choose to challenge our interests will encounter the firmest resolve.

Like many policy statements, this one is more notable for what it omits than what it includes. Pursuit of national interests is a vital ingredient of any worthy foreign policy. But it is not the be-all and end-all.

Values are important as well. Their pursuit distinguishes the United States from many other countries and is, in my view, the essential and proper basis for American exceptionalism. We are a nation based on the proposition that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. If you believe that proposition, you are condemned to pursue a foreign policy that is based in part on the values it embodies.

That is what America has done since World War II: through the Cold War, the unipolar decade, and the war on terror. Values have not always prevailed over interests, but they have been a serious factor that could be subsumed but not completely ignored. They are an indispensable basis for our alliances, especially NATO.

No longer. In Trump’s worldview, the world simply doesn’t permit it, McMaster and Cohn say:

The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.

This Hobbesian jungle makes even partial reliance on values seem a luxury, one this President thinks the United States can ill afford.

McMaster and Cohn also say Trump reiterated American commitment to Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, which provides for the common defense (usually abbreviated as “an attack on one is an attack on all”). He definitely did not do that. The allies noticed and are preparing themselves for a world without US leadership as a result. Trump’s worldview is a self-fulfilling prophecy: if you treat the world as a Hobbesian jungle, it will likely react like one.

This radical reorientation of US foreign policy away from its post-World War II dual focus on both interests and values is a radical departure, but it is not an innovation. Many countries act the way Trump wants America to act, feeling they can’t afford the values part. None of them however find themselves appreciated or followed the way the US is appreciated and followed, or at least has been until now. Rather than making America great again, Trump’s foreign policy aims to make America ordinary again. It will be just one of those nations engaging and competing for advantage. It will not be a leader or catalyst.

It should therefore be no surprise Trump is ready to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, which will relegate the US to renegade status in the eyes of much of the world. My colleagues tell me we are on track to meet the targets we ourselves set for reducing carbon emissions, largely because of the market-driven substitution of natural gas for coal in electricity production. So unless you think, as Trump does, that coal is going to revive magically, withdrawal now from the Paris agreement is pointless.

Trump hopes US withdrawal will cause the agreement to collapse, thus proving that his view of the world is correct. It won’t. Like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the countries involved are likely to realize that collective action will work even in the absence of the US, because values do really count. Nor will the rest of he world easily forget US abandonment of them. Recovery from Trump’s denigration of American values will be long and difficult. America First will put America last.

This is where America First foreign policy lands you (it’s Stu Jones, a professional former ambassador and acting assistant secretary for the Near East): in a long silence that speaks much more loudly than the illogical words that follow.

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Memorial Day for America and the Alliance

Donald Trump has done more damage to the NATO Alliance than the Soviet Union managed in more than 40 years. Even after its implosion, the Alliance endured for another 27 years, fighting its first wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. It has taken only a bit more than four months for Trump to cast a pall over Europe’s most important link to the United States and to render the Alliance irrelevant.

German Chancellor Merkel has concluded that Europe, “to some extent,” has to go it alone. This was her reaction to Trump’s miserable performance at the NATO Summit meeting last week, when he failed to mention the Article 5 commitment to come to the defense of our allies and harshly criticized their failure to meet NATO’s exhortation that they spend 2% of GDP on defense. That guideline was intended for 2024, but Trump treats it as a treaty commitment and pretends that the allies owe arrears for their many years of not meeting it.

This purposeful mendacity has consequences. It has convinced the allies that they cannot rely on the United States. An important corollary is that they need not follow the US on other issues. Trump will soon discover that our allies have no interest in ratcheting up sanctions on Iran, for example, but instead prefer to continue doing good business with Tehran. Nor are the allies likely to line up and salute on the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya. “All for one and one for all” has for decades meant Washington could “to some extent” depend on European backing for American initiatives worldwide. That presumption is now null and void.

Who benefits from this Alliance decay? Russia of course. The vodka flowed in the Kremlin last week. Trump’s own ineptitude and the consequent investigations have stymied his efforts to reach out to Moscow. He is nonetheless proving a useful pawn. Russian President Putin’s fondest hope is to throw NATO into disarray. Trump has done it for him, without any apparent quid pro quo.

The notion that the US or NATO would contest Russian action in Ukraine or Syria has evaporated. The consequences will be felt not only in those two countries but also in increased Russian audacity in the Baltics, the Balkans, Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere. I was just informed of a Montenegrin detained and expelled  from Moscow. Apparently he was on an unpublished non grata list. We’ll be seeing a lot more of that kind of harassment. Putin will push until there is a push back, which he will have concluded isn’t coming any time soon.

He is correct. Trump is pushing back against his democratic allies far more than against any autocracy. His only real enemies at this point are what he likes to call radical Islamic terrorism and Iran, the two of which he has somehow managed to conflate despite their mutual sectarian enmity. Trump simply ignores the fact that Russia is increasingly aligned if not allied with Iran, not only in Syria. Nor does he pay any attention to the fact that Russia and Iran have never focused their attacks there on the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, but instead collaborated in launching the latest chemical weapons attack on more moderate anti-Assad forces.

This is a brave new world in which the president of the United States is not what I would regard as loyal to democratic principles, at home or abroad, or to our democratic allies. Memorial Day commemorates those who have died in the nation’s service. I feel their loss even more deeply when we abandon the ideals they were seeking to defend. This is indeed a sad Memorial Day for America and its allies.

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Back channels

Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and key adviser, is reported to have tried to set up a secret “back channel” with the Russians, using Russian communications and circumventing US intelligence agencies and the National Security Council. Is there something wrong with that?

Not necessarily. The president can set up pretty much any channel he wants. President Obama set up a secret channel with Cuba in preparation for normalizing diplomatic relations. He also set up a secret channel with Iran in preparation for the nuclear deal. Both these were kept hidden not only from the American people, but also from most of the bureaucracy, in particular much of the State Department. I don’t know about the intelligence agencies. It’s not smart to try to keep anything from them, as they may well pick up traces of it and blow a back channel the president values.

First problem: Trump wasn’t yet president when Kushner’s effort allegedly took place in early December. That makes it more analogous to the allegations against Ronald Reagan, who some allege encouraged the Iranians via a back channel to hold on to the American hostages captured in 1979 until he took the oath of office in January 1980. Those allegations have not been proven.

Second problem: It is illegal for US citizens to negotiate with foreign powers in a dispute with the United States, but the 1799 Logan Act has only once led to an indictment and no one has been successfully prosecuted. So that is an unlikely legal course of action, especially as the Russians seem to have rejected Kushner’s overture, unless the overture itself is regarded as the opening of a negotiation.

Third problem: A lot will depend on what Kushner wanted to use the channel for. Many of us–I count myself in this category–are coming to believe that both Kushner’s companies and Trump’s are heavily dependent on Russian investment in, and purchases of, real estate. I’m no lawyer, but my understanding is that American companies are required to do due diligence on investors and purchasers to ensure that their assets are not derived from criminal activity. Clean Russian assets of the size Trump needed after his bankruptcies, and that Kushner needed for his big deals, have got to be pretty rare.

So questions become: was the due diligence adequate? If not, were the Russians blackmailing Kushner or Trump, thus making a secret communications channel desirable even before January 20? Was the back channel being set up to negotiate improved conditions for Kushner or Trump companies, perhaps in exchange for support for Russian ambitions in Ukraine or Syria once Trump was in office? There are many other possibilities, but few of them are savory and some of them are downright malevolent. All are speculative and unproven at this point.

Fourth problem: Now that a serious Special Counsel has been appointed, we can expect the FBI to examine Trump’s and Kushner’s personal and campaign finances with a fine tooth comb. Trump will react to that angrily, obfuscating where he can and trying to disrupt and divert the investigation by throwing in other issues, in particular the leaks that Trump seems unable to stop despite his many threats. The effort at coverup may turn out to be just as important as the intended uses of the back channel. That’s certainly what happened in the Watergate case: the break-in was a problem, but the cover-up was a full-blown crisis that would have led to impeachment, hence Nixon’s resignation.

Nothing can lead to impeachment so long as the House Republicans remain loyal to a president they dislike and even despise. There is no telling how long that will last, but the smart money is betting at least through the 2018 election. It is just impossible to predict which straw will break the camel’s back. In Bill Clinton’s case, it was lying about Monica Lewinski, after years of far more serious allegations (none of which panned out). Trump has already survived far more than anyone would have predicted. He may well survive much more.

Or not. No telling. But Kushner’s back channel isn’t going away any time soon.



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From Bosnia to Iraq, with love

Some colleagues interested in Iraq asked what lessons had been learned from states that have emerged from a collapse of central authority. I was assigned Bosnia. Here is what I had to say:

  1. Central authority never completely collapsed in Bosnia. The internationally recognized government continued to exist in Sarajevo.
  1. But its authority did not extend during more than three years of the war to the three-quarters of the country controlled by unrecognized Croat and Serb military and governing structures, analogous in a way to Kurdistan under Saddam Hussein.
  1. Nor has central authority in Bosnia been fully restored, 22 years after the wars ended.
  1. Let me offer a short version of the story.
  1. After Croat (Catholic) and Bosniak (Muslim) “Federation” forces swept through western Bosnia in August and September 1995, the US peace initiative imposed a ceasefire.
  1. At Dayton, we rolled back the Federation forces from about 67% of the territory to 51% and accepted the governing authority of Republika Srpska on the remaining 49%. The Federation and Republika Srpska are two sub-state units of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
  1. This was done with the concurrence of Croatia and Serbia, Bosnia’s nearest neighbors. They were responsible for the war; peace could not be made without them.
  1. NATO initially deployed 60,000 troops, one-third Americans, to guarantee no reversion to war.
  1. We also created a thin central government with limited competences: foreign affairs, customs, currency, immigration, and a few other things like international communications and law enforcement.
  1. The currency used was the Deutschmark, as there was no possibility of agreement on anything else. As a consequence, there could be no: no printing of money and no devaluation.
  1. Under the Dayton constitution, this thin central government and the corresponding parliament were power-sharing arrangements: no important decisions could be made without all ethnic groups agreeing. This was repeated in the Federation down to the municipality level.
  1. Most responsibilities were devolved to the two “entities” created by the warring parties: the Federation and Republika Srpska. The Croat entity was to disappear.
  1. But that Dayton formula proved insufficient to create a functioning state. A civilian international community “High Representative,” designed at Dayton as powerless, was entrusted in 1997 with virtually dictatorial powers to fire officials and promulgate laws.
  1. From 1997 to 2006, he undertook the strengthening of the central government by fiat, with authority derived from a Peace Implementation Council in which the major powers were represented.
  1. With support from the NATO forces, he and the other civilian organizations he reigned over dismantled the separate Croat governing structures, organized elections, unified the army and defense ministries, the customs, the banking system, the license plates, and to some degree the courts, arrested war crime indictees, vetted the police, blocked broadcast of hate speech, instituted direct election of mayors, and beefed up the central government’s authority.
  1. This was vigorous international state-building backed by the stick of military force.
  1. The carrot was entry into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
  1. In 1999, four years after the war, a summit meeting in Sarajevo opened for all the countries of former Yugoslavia the prospect of membership in NATO and the European Union, a commitment that has been reiterated several times since.
  1. While Bosnia lags most of the rest of the Balkans in qualifying because of its still dysfunctional governing structure, incentives like a Stabilization and Association Agreement and a Schengen visa waiver have proven critical in thickening the authority of the central government.
  1. Present circumstances—which include Brexit, the refugee crisis, and a long recession as well as a decision not to admit any new EU members before 2020—have postponed the most important carrot and reduced its attractiveness, which accounts for a lot of the difficulties the Balkans, and Bosnia specifically, are facing right now.
  1. One other detail from Bosnia that may have some relevance to Iraq: the international community, in the person of an American “supervisor,” took on direct governing authority over the Brcko District, perhaps the most contested area during the war.

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