Laconic to a fault

Tomasz Zalewski of the Polish magazine Polityka asked some questions about Secretary of State Tillerson. I replied:

Q: What is the role of Tillerson in making of US foreign policy? Is he its architect, or just an executor of Mr. Trump’s (or other peoples’) orders?

A: If he has any role at all, it appears to be minimal. He hasn’t even been an “executor.” More like a hanger-on.

Q: How valuable are his skills of the former Exxon’s CEO in the US diplomacy?

A: I have seen no value so far. [Maybe I should have added: other than his initial statement to the State Department personnel, which was well received.]

Q: How significant are the 28 percent cuts in the Department of State budget proposed by the White House – and the fact that Tillerson has agreed with them?

A: 28% is a devastating cut in a single year. It won’t happen, but the fact Tillerson agreed to this ridiculous number suggests he has no interest in defending the department he heads.

Q: What to make of the fact that Tillerson does not take the media on his trips and generally says very little in public?

A: He has no understanding of the Secretary of State’s role in public affairs and doesn’t care to learn.

I might add this, the State Department statement on the latest North Korean missile test:

North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.

That’s laconic to a fault, unless there is further action taken. 

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Assad’s chemicals

The Trump administration has let it be know it has abandoned hope of removing Bashar al Assad from power in Syria. Assad has responded by testing the limits of Washington’s affections: by using chemical weapons, once again. This occurred as the UN and Europe were considering aid to Syria at a Brussels meeting.

So far, Donald Trump has said this cannot be ignored by the civilized world but has done nothing. He has also tried to blame President Obama for the chemical attack for not having bombed Syria the first time Assad used chemical weapons (even if he at the time he urged Obama not to act).

Trump’s failure to act is a green light for Assad to do as he likes. If Washington continues to talk but not do, no doubt Assad will continue and likely ratchet up his chemical attacks, along with his assault on hospitals and other facilities that enable civilian populations to survive in Syria’s war zones.

What could the US administration do if it wanted? Here are a few options:

  1. Create declared safe areas protected from air and ground attacks, as Trump promised to do during the campaign.
  2. Identify and destroy aircraft or artillery involved in launching chemical weapons.
  3. Attack from the air Syrian and allied ground forces that are advancing on opposition-controlled areas.
  4. Make it clear the US will not provide reconstruction aid to any areas of Syria Assad still controls.
  5. Get Moscow to stop Assad’s use of chemical weapons.

None of these are easy at this point. Number 1 requires a significant deployment of US air as well as allied forces on the ground. Beyond the area of northern Syria controlled either by the Turks or the Kurds, it isn’t likely to happen. Number 2 is technically difficult, though it likely could be done, if Assad is dumb enough to park the planes or helicopters involved within reach of US cruise missiles.

Number 3 would put the US at war with Syria and Hizbollah, if not the Russians and Iranians. Number 4 I presume true already, and I suppose Assad does too, so it won’t affect his behavior. Number 5 is the eternal hope, but not one that has proved in any way justified.

None of the options except 2 seems at all likely at this point. The Administration is far more likely to act on North Korea, which has made clear it intends to gain the capability to attack the US, than on Assad, who avoids direct clashes with the US even if his brutal crackdown feeds the Islamic State and al Qaeda beasts that will eventually threaten the US.

It is hard to imagine how Iran, which suffered horrendous chemical attacks from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (which it blames in part on US supplies), justifies its support to a serial chemical weapons abuser. My guess is denial smooths that wrinkle.

Trump may be busy blaming Obama for Assad’s chemical attacks, but the buck has been passed and now stops with Trump. Will he fail to act, like Obama? Or will he plunge the US deeper into the Middle East maelstrom, with unforeseeable consequences?

PS: Here is Trump today on the subject:

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Women’s rights in MENA

Last Wednesday, March 29th, the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies hosted the inaugural Haleh Esfandiari Forum event. Henri J. Barkey, Director of the Middle East Program (MEP) at the Wilson Center introduced keynote speaker, Madeleine Albright, former US Secretary of State. Jane Harman, Director, President and CEO at the Wilson Center, moderated the subsequent conversation.

The Haleh Esfandiari Forum is a series of public events focused on women’s empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), named to honor Haleh Esfandiari’s commitment to promoting women’s empowerment and her leadership of MEP from its inception in 1998 through 2015. Barkey praised Esfandiari, Albright and Harman for their resolute leadership as women at the top of their fields. The attitude on stage was friendly as both Barkey and Harman worked closely with Albright during her time at the Wilson Center and beyond.

Albright praised the Wilson Center for committing resources to promoting women’s rights at a time when many experts focused on big power politics consider the subject of marginal importance. She attributes the Wilson Center’s contribution to Haleh Esfandari’s leadership as a force for change, and as resource for others who strive to make a difference. Albright emphasized that women’s rights are human rights and pointed to the violent treatment of women under Taliban rule in Afghanistan as a poignant reminder of this fact. She condemned groups who ignore the safety and rights of one portion of the population as ignoring the rights of all people. The issues that plague women impact the health of the economy and society as a whole.

Albright spoke about her work with Stephen Hadley at the Atlantic Council developing a plan to promote women’s rights in the MENA region. The team approached the task in a manner atypical of many DC think-tanks by going beyond the District and visiting with people on the ground in the region, including activists, refugees, politicians and monarchs. Calls for change are growing stronger. Civil society and activists are stirring progress; entrepreneurs are creating career opportunities for women outside the reach of government, and in some places authorities are starting to realize that their best resource is not their oil, but rather their people. These “green shoots of progress” need to be cultivated with sustained engagement on the part of the US.

Historically the US is the foremost supporter of women’s rights abroad, but Albright expressed doubt that the new administration will continue the tradition. Asked by Harman about the biggest changes in Congress since her time working for Senator Muskie, Albright highlighted the death of bipartisan solutions. Friendship and partnership across the aisle was a key part of her early experience. Harman concurred, citing the bipartisan House Judiciary Committee vote to impeach Nixon and the cooperation that ensued in the transition period after Nixon’s resignation.

The new administration’s proposed budget cuts directly decrease America’s limited soft-power influence in the region; Albright feels strongly that foreign assistance is one of the most effective tools for promoting US interests abroad and she appeals to Congress to reject cuts on diplomacy and for women’s empowerment around the world.

Albright was prudent to delineate the difference between promoting women’s rights and pushing Western values on the Middle East. She does not advocate for feminist reforms that are carbon copies of those in the US, recognizing that there are different concerns for different cultures. At the same time, she highlights the universal right for women’s voices to be heard, and the strength in solidarity.

Despite setbacks in the US and abroad, Albright remains optimistic. She said that feminist movements have endured across generations and coastlines, united by the idea that each individual life is valuable. She dreams of the day when every girl wakes up and feels that her life is cherished and her rights protected, that she is an individual and her future is determined by her character alone.

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What to do with a big win

Acting Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic has won the presidency in Serbia with a convincing margin over a fragmented opposition in the first round. The question now is what he will do with his overwhelmingly dominant position in Serbian politics.

In foreign policy, Vucic has straddled the yawning gap between European Union ambitions and close relations with Putin’s Russia. Conditioned by decades of non-alignment, Serbs have good reason to like this: they play one side off against the other, getting arms from Russia and lots of money from the EU while refusing to go along with Ukraine-related EU sanctions. So long as US policy on Russia remains in limbo, this straddle is workable. If Trump eventually gets his way and cozies up to Putin, Belgrade will be relieved of any discomfort it may feel from keeping one leg in the West and one in the East. If things go in the other direction, Vucic could come under intensified pressure to join the Ukraine sanctions and align Serbia more completely with Western policy.

Domestically, Vucic also tries to straddle. He claims to be a true democrat and reformer, while outside observers see him as leaning heavily towards illiberal politics: the Serbian press rains praise on him and opprobrium on his competitors, the courts are far from independent, and the ballyhooed corruption investigations rarely touch those close to him. Vucic’s popularity is real, but he lacks a serious political opposition. His closest rival in the presidential poll–former Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic, who has a good reputation–had fewer than one-third the front runner’s votes. The third candidate was a literally a youthful jokester who satirized Serbian politics.

What about the future? It seems to me a new president should keep his focus on longer-term issues–that means at least the five years of his term if not the ten he likely hopes to serve–and not get bogged down in daily events. I’d cite three of particular significance:

  • Opening the media space so that a viable opposition can form and thrive.
  • Building an independent judiciary that is capable of sharply reducing corruption.
  • Moving Serbia definitively towards membership in the European Union, including reaching agreements with Kosovo on difficult outstanding issues.

That is asking a lot. Politicians don’t rise above the fray easily. Certainly Boris Tadic, one of Vucic’s predecessors (2004-12), spent too much of his time managing daily issues of governance. The result was that he achieved little, especially in his second term. Current President Tomislav Nikolic had no choice because Vucic as prime minister was strong enough to keep him out of a lot of issues. So he focused on maintaining relations with Russia and was reasonably successful at that longer-term game, shifting Vucic significantly in that direction.

Vucic likes to say, both in public and in private, that he is not straddling and that he has made a definitive choice to take Serbia into the EU, while maintaining (as many European countries try to do) good relations with Moscow. That is difficult: Moscow last year sponsored a coup attempt in Montenegro, whose accession to NATO it wanted to block, using people and resources that came in part from Serbia. Vucic helped to block Moscow’s move, which targeted Montenegrin Prime Minister Djukanovic for assassination. How do you stay on good terms with people who plot a violent coup against a friendly neighbor?

A big win merits a big move in the direction Vucic really wants to go. We’ll be looking for further signs of his bona fides.

PS: “Anti-dictatorship” protests were held in Belgrade this evening:


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We Exist!

This admirably brief and cogent policy statement by a consortium of 25 Syrian nongovernmental humanitarian and human rights organizations merits consideration, especially in light of the Trump Administration’s acceptance of the continuation of Bashar al Assad in power:

Policy statement for the Brussels Conference on supporting the future of Syria and the region

Brussels 03/04/2017

On 4th and 5th April, the European Union, United Nations, Germany, Kuwait, Norway, Qatar, and UK host the Brussels Conference on Supporting the future of Syria and the region. The Brussels Conference will tackle a range of issues impacting on both immediate life-saving humanitarian priorities as well as longer-term efforts to resolve the conflict. As the violence worsens inside Syria, and political efforts to resolve the conflict prove highly contentious, preparations towards the Conference have been fraught with controversy over if and how ‘reconstruction’ might feature on the agenda, and the political implications of this. The question of how civil society can participate at the Conference, or influence the decisions made, has also been controversial.

In this context, the We Exist! coalition of Syrian civil society organisations makes the following recommendations:

1. Facilitate meaningful participation by independent Syrian civil society groups at the Brussels Conference and follow-up processes – Unfortunately, the experience to date has been that local civil society has generally been the last to get invited into international policy processes on Syria that will impact on their work and the lives of the communities they directly serve. The co-hosts of the Brussels Conference, as well as the preparatory meetings hosted by the UN Office of the Special Envoy Stefan De Mistura and the High Representative Federica Mogherini, ECHO and DG NEAR, should take steps to ensure that diverse Syrian civil society organisations can participate and contribute to the process. In addition, they should ensure effective and inclusive participation in the follow-up process to implement, monitor and evaluate outcomes from the Conference, the Civil Society Chamber meetings and the other side events.

2. Affirm the protection and inclusion of civil society in the substantive commitments and outcomes agreed at the Conference – The Conference should issue a strong call its final declaration as well as in statements by individual governments for the protection and inclusion of independent local civil society organisations in all aspects of the international, national and local response to the Syrian crisis. Attacks on civil society activists and the criminalization of independent civil society groups that has spiraled over the past six years should cease. Respect of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights norms should be strongly reaffirmed and accountability for violations by all parties to the conflict promoted. Parties to the conflict have fostered and manipulated social and other community differences to serve their political and military objectives. As such, support to civil society should embody principles of inclusion, with steps taken to ensure that marginalized groups can engage and diversity in terms of gender, age, political, social and other relevant factors.

3. Rethink Reconstruction – Reconstruction cannot just be about bricks and
concrete, it must address the political, social and economic root causes of the
uprising and subsequent violent conflict. The political transition from violence
towards sustainable peace should be inclusive and representing the aspirations of
the Syrian people for freedom and dignity. Reconstruction should be for all of Syria
and all Syrians, and not determined by the imperatives of conflict or political
violence. As such, it should only start and be funded after credible steps toward a
genuine transition. Accountability and justice are necessary for this to happen –
without these, reconstruction efforts risk becoming new fronts in forced
displacement, the dispossession of property, human rights violations and further
rounds of violence. Donors and the UN should not conflate ‘early recovery’ with
premature involvement without the political conditions for reconstruction being in
place. Furthermore, the important role of independent Syrian civil society
organizations should be affirmed in the political track of negotiations on conflict
resolution inside Syria as well as in any eventual ‘reconstruction’ efforts following a
political settlement. They have a central role to play in promoting human rights,
justice, accountability, peace and reconciliation.

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Peace picks for April 3-10

 1. U.S.-Egyptian Relations In The Age Of ISIS | Monday, April 3rd|11:45-1:00| The Hudson Institute| Register Here

Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s visit to Washington in early April presents an opportunity to renew the American-Egyptian alliance. Over the past three and half years, a wide gulf in policy approaches has led to disagreements on a range of issues, from democracy and human rights, to Islamist extremism and the Libyan Civil War. Will the diplomatic visit mark a new chapter in U.S.-Egyptian relations?

President Sisi’s visit comes at a critical moment for his country. In the Sinai, the Islamic State’s local affiliate is inflicting daily casualties on security forces. Its genocidal campaign against Egyptian Copts has led to a mass flight of Copts from north Sinai. This followed the bombing of the St. Mark Cathedral compound in Cairo that left 29 people dead.

As the new Trump administration refines its strategy towards the Arabic world’s most populous country, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom will host a discussion on the security, political, and religious freedom challenges facing Egypt. On April 3, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute, will join Hudson Senior Fellows Nina Shea and Samuel Tadros to assess the situation in Egypt and discuss effective U.S. policy options toward the country.

2. Is Something Stirring In Central Asia? |Monday, April 3rd | 4:00 PM | Atlantic Council | Register Here

Since the death of Uzekistan’s President Islam Karimov in September of 2016, the stability that characterized key developments and overall dynamics in Uzbekistan as well as in the Central Asia region as a whole, has been undergoing a noticeable shift. Initiatives of the newly installed President Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan and proposals regarding reforms by President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan suggest that something may be stirring in Central Asia. This first joint forum of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Atlantic Council will present these developments, ask if they represent a real shift, and consider the implications of such changes for the Central Asia region as a whole and for its place in the world.

Moderated by Dr. S. Frederick Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
American Foreign Policy Council; The event features Ambassador John Herbst; Ambassador Richard Hoagland Interim Co-chair  OSCE Minsk Group; Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia State department; Dr. Martha Olcott, Visiting Professor at Michigan State University.

3. Afghanistan: The Reconciliation Option |Tuesday, April 4th |12:15- 2:00 PM | The Stimson Center| Register Here

U.S. commanders characterize the fight against the Afghan Taliban as a “stalemate.” As U.S. national security leaders and Congress evaluate strategic choices in Afghanistan, the discussion has narrowly focused on military options and troop levels. The Stimson Center is pleased to host Ambassador Richard Olson who will detail what an alternative approach, a reconciliation option, might look like in Afghanistan. Shamila Chaudhary, former Director for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the National Security Council (2010-2011), will offer comments, Sameer Lalwani, Deputy Director of the South Asia program, will moderate a discussion, and Stimson Center President Brian Finlay will convene the event.

4. Global Cities, Local Neighborhoods In Displacement, Migration, And Promise | Tuesday, April 4th|4:00 -7:00 PM | Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars| Register Here

Please join the Urban Sustainability Laboratory and the Education Policy Program and the Center of Education Policy and Evaluation in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University for the first in a set of seminars to discuss equity and justice challenges that confront our cities and neighborhoods.
By addressing critical issues that face our urbanized world, the seminars seek to both advance public understanding about the significance and future of our world’s cities and to create more sustainable, equitable, and peaceful cities through research and policy.

On April 4, a panel of experts will examine key issues facing neighborhoods and communities in transition in the United States.  From Ferguson to Baltimore, Chicago to Los Angeles, cities and neighborhoods are experiencing transition to larger processes of urban renewal, gentrification, and marginalization, while at the same time under pressure from an intersection of housing, social welfare, education, and political forces within and beyond this country. Panelists will identify solutions and offer a vision for American cities, especially in an increasingly stratified world:

Leon Andrews, Race, Equity, and Leadership Initiative, National League of Cities; Johanna Bockman, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, George Mason University; Michelle Chatman, Department of Crime, Justice, and Security Studies, University of the District of Columbia; Sonya Horsford, Teacher’s College, Columbia University; Derek Hyra, Metropolitan Policy Center, American University

5. Foreign Fighter Fallout |Tuesday, April 4th | 9:00- 12:00 | CSIS | Register Here

As international and local forces battle in Iraq and Syria, an unknown number of the conflict’s tens of thousands foreign fighters may flee to other areas. These returnees could bolster international operations for the Islamic State and al Qaeda, oxygenating social tensions or conducting attacks on U.S. interests and allies around the world. Please join the CSIS Transnational Threats Project (TNT) for an in-depth discussion between Lieutenant General Michael K. Nagata, Director of the Directorate for Strategic Operational Planning at the National Counterterrorism Center and TNT Director & Senior Fellow Tom Sanderson. The discussion and Q&A will be followed by an expert panel discussion moderated by Tom Sanderson.

Weighing the Options: Choices and Challenges in the Middle East (in Arabic) |Wednesday, April 5th | 11:00 AM| Atlantic Council| Register Here

President Donald Trump confronts an array of difficult choices as he and his administration consider how to address the conflicts and problems in the Middle East that continue to threaten global stability. Please join us for an interactive online video discussion in Arabic with Hariri Center experts Abdul Rahman AlAgeli, Sarah El Sirgany, and Nabeel Khoury about the shifts in US policy towards the Middle East under the Trump Administration and how the new approach will impact regional conflicts and alliances, among other issues. The panelists will also share their views on whether the recently released Albright-Hadley Middle East Strategy Task Force report’s strategy is a valid vision to address the problems in the region. Mohamed Elmenshawy will moderate the discussion featuring Nonresident Fellows at Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council Mr. Abdul Rahman AlAgeli, Ms. Sarah El Sirgany, and Dr. Nabeel Khoury.

6. Containing the Civil War Contagion| Wednesday, April 5th | 12:30-1:00| MEI | Register Here

Civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq have killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions, enabled the resurgence of terrorist organizations, and threaten the stability of neighboring countries as well as Europe. These conflicts erupted in the wake of domestic demands for change in the face of repressive governments and in the context of bitter proxy struggles between regional powers. Bringing these civil wars to a sustainable and inclusive end is key to denying space to terrorist groups, repatriating IDPs and refugees, and starting the process of post-war reconstruction.

The Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to host Kathleen Cunningham (Univ. of Maryland), Marc Lynch (George Washington Univ.) and Kenneth M. Pollack (Brookings Institution) for an analysis of the causes and trajectories of the Middle East’s civil wars and policy implications for the United States. Lynch will present the thesis of his recent book The New Arab Wars and Pollock will draw on his co-authored article “Escaping the Civil War Trap in the Middle East” in opening remarks. MEI Scholar Ross Harrison will join as discussant.

7. Syria’s Trajectory and Challenges for the United States |Thursday, April 6th |8:30 AM -3:00 PM | Carnegie Endowment | Register Here

In six years, the Syria conflict has evolved from a democratic uprising to the world’s most pressing international crisis. As a new administration in the United States hones its policy to address the conflict, Carnegie’s Middle East Program will bring together speakers from Syria, other Arab countries, Turkey, Europe, and Russia to examine the potential scenarios for the future of the Syria conflict, the role of external players, as well as the serious political, humanitarian, and security challenges posed by this tragic conflict.

Carnegie’s Middle East Program gathers scholars from around the globe to examine the potential scenarios for the future of the conflict in Syria. Marwan Muasher, Nikolay Kozhanov, Hossein Mousavian, Galip Dalay, Riad Hijab, Rouba Mhaissen, Jihad Makdissi, Abdulhakim Bashar, Bassma Kodmani, Taysir Raddawi, Tobias Ellwood, Shanta Devarajan.

8. A Guide To Geopolitics In The 21st Century|Friday, April 7th |12:00-1:30 PM | Foreign Policy Research Institute | Register Here

How to understand a world where Russia threatens to break up the post-Cold War order in Europe, while China lays the groundwork for a new order in East Asia, and the entire Middle East is riven with conflict —this is the assignment we’ve given to one of the world’s great geopolitical thinkers, Jeremy Black, author of over 100 books on military and diplomatic history.

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