Sessions’ session

Unless you find a white supremacist’s indignant defense of his honor interesting, Attorney General Sessions’ appearance yesterday at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing offered little:Sessions was keen to reject allegations of collusion with the Russians but refused to discuss the substance of his conversations with the President about the Russia investigation, claiming they might be subject to a future claim of executive privilege. Mostly he just doesn’t remember anything about his contacts with the Russians:

His memory problems aside, I am inclined to believe Sessions’ denial of collusion, which is for amateurs. No collusion was necessary among the pros. As candidate and president, Trump has generally agreed with Vladimir Putin. They see the world through the same lenses: power is something they wield mainly to enhance their own standing, they think of themselves and their countries as superior to the rest of the world, and they disdain knowledge and expertise. Putin and Trump share worldviews and objectives: to make themselves important and to milk their governments for as much loot as possible.

Neither Trump nor Sessions has ever shown the slightest concern about Russian interference in the US election. Why should they? As with Wikileaks, they were all for it–Trump remember invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails–so long as it wasn’t against them. Fortunately the Senate is now moving to block Trump from removing the sanctions on Russia without Congressional approval. If the Russians ever take up the cudgels against him, Trump will no doubt get very concerned about their interference in the electoral process. Until then, they are his BFF.

A serious Attorney General would be anxious to see the Russia probe uncover the truth and even help it to do so. Sessions is not a serious Attorney General. He is far more concerned with a 10% bump up in US murders in 2015 than with the sharp decline in the murder rate for more than four decades. He is still worrying about enforcing marijuana prohibition, when most states have already legalized marijuana in some form. He has also been busy making sure that legal settlements can’t support good causes and failing to get US attorneys appointed, to replace the ones Trump summarily dismissed.

Sessions is correct: his honor is being impugned. Some of us view him and his support for a president who doesn’t hide his affection for autocrats and disdain for democracy as dishonorable. Not so much to him as to the nation. These are people who make America small again: they return it to its not so distant racist past, when the Ku Klux Klan ruled many states, miscegenation was prohibited in the South, and blacks were treated as third class citizens (other minorities were second) not entitled to the education and public accommodations afforded to others. I bet Sessions fondly remembers all of that.

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The KLA isn’t the only winner

A coalition led by three parties that trace their origins to the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) won a plurality in Kosovo’s parliamentary election yesterday. Running for the first time together, the winning KLA coalition has promised the prime minister’s post to Ramush Haradinaj, who was acquitted twice by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The Self-Determination Movement (Vetëvendosje), which advocates a referendum on union with Albania, came in second, with former Prime Minister Mustafa’s coalition a close but disappointing third.

Ramush was serving as prime minister in 2005 when ICTY first indicted him. He resigned and went to The Hague to defend himself, successfully. He was indicted again in 2011 and acquitted again in 2012. French authorities detained him in January of this year at the request of Serbia but freed him in April. His appointment as prime minister will complicate relations with Serbia, whose laws he unquestionably broke during Kosovo’s armed rebellion in 1998 and 1999, and Montenegro, as he for several years has opposed demarcation of its already agreed border with Kosovo. Ramush’s brother and supporter Daut was convicted in 2002 of murdering members of a KLA rival group. He was also involved in a short-lived but violent Albanian insurgency in Macedonia in 2001.

The emergence of a KLA government will complicate an already complicated situation. It will harden attitudes among Serbs, both within Kosovo and in Belgrade, where a former deputy prime minister to a Milosevic-supporting government is now president, elected on a pro-European Union platform. The EU and US will try to revive implementation of a Brussels agreement that provides for reintegration of Serb-majority northern Kosovo with the rest of the country, in exchange for more Serb autonomy. Ramush has the kind of authority required to reach such an agreement with the Serbs, but he will want in exchange needed Serb support for conversion of Kosovo’s lightly armed security forces into a small NATO-compatible army.

Having more than doubled its vote in percentage terms, Self-Determination is also a big winner and will be the new government’s main opposition. Using so far non-lethal violence both on the streets and in parliament to make its points, it opposes Kosovo statehood, preferring to make the country a part of Albania, and the talks with Belgrade. It also criticizes both the winning coalition and the outgoing government for corruption and abuse of power, a charge that resonates strongly in a country disappointed in the economic benefits of almost a decade of independence. Self-Determination’s mayor of Pristina, Shpend Ahmeti, has acquired a good reputation for managing the city well.

The big loser in this election is the political party derived from Kosovo’s peaceful protest movement of the 1990s, led then by Ibrahim Rugova. Coming in third, its fragile ad hoc coalition will have a difficult time influencing events in a political scenario dominated by the out-sized personalities of Ramush, Self-Determinatio leader Albin Kurti, and President Thaci, another former KLA leader.

Many will feel trepidation about domination of Kosovo by former KLAers and Self-Determination, both of which are led by consummate showmen. They seem more likely to compete for attention, often appealing to pan-Albanian  and anti-Serb nationalist sentiment, than for prizes in good governance. But we all need to respect the outcome of truly democratic elections, which these seem to have been. Ramush and his government can always prove their critics wrong. I wish them well in meeting the real needs in today’s Kosovo: economic and social improvement as well as good relations with its neighbors.

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Trump excels at disappointing

I regret to inform my august readership that Piglet is correct. Trump isn’t gone. He is claiming to have been vindicated, 100%. That of course is false. He was wounded, not vindicated, by the revelation that he hoped former FBI Director Comey would let former National Security Adviser Flynn off the hook and wanted the “cloud” of the Russia investigation lifted. But wanting and hoping are arguably not obstruction, even if I–like Comey–would have taken a president’s hope as an order.

Obstruction for now is in the eye of the beholder. Democrats see obstruction, though they might not if the president were one of their own. Republicans don’t, though there is no doubt they would if the president were not one of their own. Both seem to agree that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should make the determination, which demonstrates his considerable value added: removing the issue from a venue in which it can’t be settled to one in which it can be, on technical legal grounds.

But that will take time. In the meanwhile the Administration is demonstrating once again that it is incoherent. Yesterday, the President blasted Qatar again for financing terrorists, almost in the same moment that the Secretary of State was asking the Saudis and Emirates to back off their embargo of the tiny monarchy that hosts the largest US base in the Middle East:

A bit of inconsistency

Weeks after his disappointing appearance at NATO, the President also reaffirmed the Alliance’s “Article 5” mutual defense obligation, though in doing so he continued to suggest that the money is “pouring into NATO” as a result of his effort to press the allies to meet the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. That isn’t the way this works: the money goes to the allies’ own defense efforts, not to the Alliance, and it is trickling in as allies begin to meet a commitment set in 2014 under President Obama, as a goal to be reached by 2024.

Some are happy to point out that Trump has not yet had a complete foreign policy disaster. A chipmunk could make it over that bar. He has however

  • weakened NATO,
  • split the Gulf Cooperation Council,
  • boosted China by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord,
  • ended a trade agreement for the Asia Pacific without proposing anything else as a keystone for US policy in the region,
  • failed to respond effectively to North Korean provocations
  • even begun to repair relations with Turkey,
  • and proposed a budget that would decimate US diplomacy and international aid.

America is in worse shape on the international stage than it was at the end of the Obama administration, when many thought we were already in pretty bad shape. Ironically, the best that can be said for Trump is that he has continued Obama’s military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, though he shares with Obama failure to enunciate a clear plan for how areas like Raqqa and Mosul will be governed once liberated.

Yesterday the President promised “100%” to testify under oath in the Special Counsel investigation of his campaign’s and administration’s connections to Russia. File that with his promise to release his tax returns, to provide documentation of his wife’s legal employment in the US, to prove his claim that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the election, and a dozen other commitments. The President is unprepared, unreliable, and inconsistent. To my satisfaction, he has even botched repeal and replacement of Obamacare and is well on his way to botching tax reform. The alleged adults in the Administration haven’t yet fixed anything. Trump excels at disappointing.

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It is clear in former FBI Director Comey’s written testimony that he thought President Trump tried to obstruct the investigation of his former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. Comey quotes the President:

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

What is slightly less clear is whether Trump was trying to obstruct the investigation into his own contacts with the Russians.

As Comey explains in his memo, it is standard procedure to assure a target of a foreign intelligence operation that the target is not under investigation, only the attempt to influence or blackmail him. That is what Comey says he did, more than once, in connection with the dossier a former British intelligence agent had prepared on Trump’s Russia connections. Trump couches all his comments about himself in terms of removing the cloud from his presidency by making it known to the public that he himself was not under investigation, which is arguably not obstruction unless that intent can be demonstrated.

Comey did not tell Trump that his and his campaign’s connections to the Russians were not under investigation. That is now the objective of Special Counsel Mueller’s efforts, as a result of Trump’s firing Comey. Trump presumably did not understand the distinction between a counter-intelligence investigation in which he was the target of a foreign operation and one in which his own activities might be at issue. He is not a guy who readily perceives such fine distinctions.

According to Comey’s testimony, Trump’s concerns in several conversations revolve primarily around his own public image and Comey’s personal loyalty. Neither of those surprises. The conversations sound more like a Mafia boss squeezing a subordinate than a president talking to an independent agency chief responsible for prosecuting crimes. Comey reports Trump saying,

“I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I [Comey] didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.

That must have been fun!

In my experience, smart US government officials are assiduously respectful of the judicial process. They do not try to interfere to affect their course unless given an explicit opportunity to answer questions, testify, or provide a deposition. Trump’s behavior was out of order, but proving it was criminal obstruction would require evidence of intent, which is not yet available with respect to the President’s own interactions with the Russians, even if it would be pretty easy to assume it.

Comey’s testimony is prepared with admirable skill, literary style, and forethought. I doubt anyone will get much more out of him in the oral testimony tomorrow. This is a man capable of discipline, restraint, and good judgment, even if he behaved badly towards Hillary Clinton. Trump would be well-advised to rethink tweeting spontaneously tomorrow, or tweeting at all. Anything he says might be used against him in a court of law, as his tweets on the travel ban will be.

Of course I won’t mind if the President shortens his time in office. He has already done major damage to the US healthcare system, American alliances, and the international system. He would gladly sell us out to the Russians if provided the opportunity. I wouldn’t want to obstruct his self-destruction.

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Uncharted territory

All eyes are on testimony today by National Intelligence Director Coats and Acting FBI Director McCabe as well as tomorrow’s appearance former FBI Director Comey concerning the President’s efforts to obstruct investigations into his links to Moscow. Coats and McCabe have already disappointed, by refusing to talk about their conversations with President Trump. I’d have been surprised if they did. President Nixon charted this territory more than 40 years ago, with consequences. The truth will out, one way or another.

At the same time, the Middle East is once again entering uncharted territory.

Qatar has long been at odds with the Kingdom, mainly over Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and for Al Jazeera, a mainstay of broadcast news and talk in the Arab world. Apparently encouraged by President Trump’s plea to cut off terrorist financing, the Saudis neglected their own culpability in allowing resources to flow to terrorists and have turned the screws instead on Qatar, breaking diplomatic relations, cutting off trade and transport, and compelling Gulf Cooperation Council members to follow suit. Then today the Islamic State attacked the parliament building and a monument to Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, in a transparent effort to heighten sectarian conflict.

President Trump’s gullibility in swallowing whole the Kingdom’s allegation that blocking Qatari financing for the Muslim Brotherhood would be a big win against terrorism has to make them worry. But Doha is unlikely to evict the large American air base it built and hosts, if only because that would leave Qatar even more isolated. Qatar’s only places to turn are Iran, with which it shares a gas field in the Gulf, and Turkey, which is reportedly rushing troops to the emirate. Saudi Arabia has supposedly issued a long list of demands. When that is not met, an effort to topple Qatar’s emir, while perhaps not the Kingdom’s strongest suit, may well be where things are headed.

The attack in Iran, following on ISIS attacks in London, Baghdad, and elsewhere suggests the Islamic State is well-launched on its post-caliphate phase. Mosul has mostly fallen. Kurdish and Arab forces are investing Raqqa. Free Syrian Army and regime-allied forces are racing for Deir Azzour and Bukamel on the Iraqi border. ISIS will be going underground and into the desert, looking for opportunities and trying to inspire homegrown attacks in many different countries. That presents no serious military threat, but it strikes fear and loathing into more people than ISIS’s rule in Mosul and Raqqa. That is terror’s main purpose, which President Trump seems happy to amplify with his travel ban and other gross over-reactions.

The net result is a tangle. Washington is backing the Kingdom, even though Riyadh’s actions are splitting the Gulf Arabs and weakening the united front against terrorism and Iran that President Trump claims to have created last month. At the same time, the Islamic State has attacked Iran, which blames the attack on its sworn enemies, Saudi Arabia and the US. Iran is an enemy of the Islamic State (though not always of Al Qaeda), which would put it on the same side in the fight against ISIS as the US, but don’t expect anyone in Tehran or Washington to acknowledge that. In the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. In uncharted territory, some rules of thumb don’t apply.

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I’m thrilled Montenegro joined NATO yesterday, not least because it signals to the rest of the Balkans that the door to Atlantic institutions is still open. But I’ve got to admit that it is a difficult moment for the Alliance: Russia is doing its best to block NATO expansion and the President of the United States is doing his best to undermine its mutual defense commitment.

Moscow’s efforts are by now obvious: an attempted coup in Podgorica last October, hybrid warfare efforts in Macedonia, political and financial support for Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. A rational patriot would react to these attacks on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their respective countries by trying to get into NATO, not stay out of it. Only Serbia has (so far) concluded that it is better off outside NATO than inside it, even if its newly inaugurated president thinks NATO membership would solve many of the countries problems and appears to regret the domestic opposition to it.

But if NATO is now more attractive than ever to the Balkan aspirants, which of course include Kosovo as well, the Article 5 commitment to mutual defense is on shakier ground than ever. President Trump not only omitted it from his speech at NATO. He also neglected to mention it either before or after that speech. Defense Secretary Mattis is busy reassuring the world that the President did recommit to Article 5, but that simply is not true anywhere but in the talking points that the Pentagon and State Department proposed and the President did not use.

What difference does this make? Here is the text of Article 5:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

The mutual defense requirement was triggered for the first time after 9/11, as as an expression of allied solidarity with the United States, including patrolling by allied AWACS over the US and later other measures in support of US operations in the Mediterranean. NATO has also taken collective defense measures in response to threats to Turkey and threats from Russia.

Would NATO defend Montenegro? I have my doubts, especially with Trump in the presidency. Fortunately, an attack on the small country from another state isn’t likely. Podgorica for now at least has good relations with its neighbors, even if the Kosovo parliament has refused to allow demarcation of the border. Far more likely: Russia will continue to try to destabilize Montenegro, using the anti-independence Serb opposition and other Russophiles as its hybrid warfare instrument. Another assassination attempt cannot be ruled out, though Serbia is presumably still ready to foil it.

NATO members, Montenegro now included, are of course expected to meet their own defense requirements. Each NATO member by 2024 is expected to spend 2% of GNP on defense. Montenegro does not meet that goal yet. It makes little difference to Alliance capabilities whether it does so, but its claim on NATO support would be enhanced if it did. Petty it may seem, but President Trump is nothing if not petty.

He allowed Montenegro membership in NATO, once the Senate had approved it overwhelmingly and Defense Secretary Mattis presumably weighed in heavily. For that, not only Montenegro but also the rest of the Balkans should be grateful.


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