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.
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:
- Central authority never completely collapsed in Bosnia. The internationally recognized government continued to exist in Sarajevo.
- 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.
- Nor has central authority in Bosnia been fully restored, 22 years after the wars ended.
- Let me offer a short version of the story.
- After Croat (Catholic) and Bosniak (Muslim) “Federation” forces swept through western Bosnia in August and September 1995, the US peace initiative imposed a ceasefire.
- 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.
- 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.
- NATO initially deployed 60,000 troops, one-third Americans, to guarantee no reversion to war.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Most responsibilities were devolved to the two “entities” created by the warring parties: the Federation and Republika Srpska. The Croat entity was to disappear.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- This was vigorous international state-building backed by the stick of military force.
- The carrot was entry into Euro-Atlantic institutions.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Iran Friday re-elected President Rouhani, who pressed for and got a nuclear deal with the P5+1 (that’s the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, aka the EU3+3), with approval from the Supreme Leader. During his electoral campaign, Rouhani prioritized market reforms, negotiation of further sanctions relief, attracting foreign investment, and an enhanced regional and international presence for Iran.
Rouhani’s chief opponent was hard-nosed conservative Ebrahim Raisi, who wanted to close off Iran from further cooperation with the international community and build its “resistance” economy. Adopting a populist tone, he promised an increase in welfare benefits and subsidies. Implicated in the 1988 mass execution of thousands of prisoners, Raisi is “the true face of the Islamic Republic,” according to Elliot Abrams.
Iranians rejected that true face: Raisi lost by 19 percentage points, in an election that reportedly drew 70% turnout. Though far from free and fair, since candidates were vetted and many eliminated by the Guardian Council, that’s a definitive result, especially as there were two additional candidates. The Supreme Leader may be delighted that Iranians returned to the polls and did not boycott or otherwise protest too much, as they did in 2009. He may even be satisfied with Rouhani, who is no liberal but rather a stalwart of the regime who attracted support from would-be reformers because of the nuclear deal and the opening to the international community. But Iranians are clearly dissatisfied with clerical domination and isolation from the rest of the world.
Should Americans be happy with the election result or not?
Elliot preferred Raisi, as the human rights situation in Iran has not improved during Rouhani’s presidency and Tehran has become bolder in intervening in the region. The interventions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have not been a big strain. Iranians would have been far more likely to rebel against Raisi than Rouhani, and the international community far more ready to act. President Trump aligned with that view during his visit to Riyadh, when he backed the Saudis and their effort to organize the Sunni world to counter not only terrorism but also Iran. Confrontation, not Obama’s rapprochement, is now American policy.
Others think Iran is drifting in a more liberal, less religiously conservative direction that should be encouraged, not discouraged. Confrontation will make moderation less likely. Iranians seem to want pretty much what people in the West want: equality of opportunity, transparency, fairness, and rule of law. They oppose the corruption and cronyism that have become endemic in finance and the bureaucracy. Sharia has evaporated. The ideology of the Islamic Republic is fading. Few women are wearing even the hijab.
Of course both views can be correct: the hard core of the regime remains very much in place. Rouhani likely does have a better chance of extending its life than a hardliner like Raisi. But if the people of Iran see only hostile words and new sanctions, how likely are they to warm to the West?
Russia is the alternative, one with which Tehran has been developing stronger ties, especially in Syria. The Iranians like what they have seen of Russian weapons, even if the Russians think the Iranians militarily inept. Their marriage is one of convenience, not a real alliance, but effective enough on the battlefield in Syria. No divorce is likely. New sanctions on Iran, which Congress is contemplating, would not only drive Iranians towards Moscow but also split the Europeans from the US, as they want to continue doing business in Iran.
Iran’s growing power projection capabilities complicate the issue for Washington. Tehran has developed longer-range missiles (up to 4000 km) but has not yet much improved their accuracy. Intended primarily for use against Israel, the missiles can frighten a civilian population but cannot reliably hit military targets. Iran’s Shia militia proxies have strengthened over the past five years, including not only Lebanese Hizbollah but also Popular Mobilization Forces from Iraq and other groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Having been attacked by Stuxnet, Iran has quickly acquired cyber warfare and drone capabilities. All these capabilities are relatively inexpensive, difficult to counter, and readily deployed.
Like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Trump has gone from a diehard opponent of the nuclear deal to its de facto strong supporter. The Trump Administration would like to renegotiate it so that the restraints on Iran’s nuclear program do not expire. It is not, however, clear what the Administration is prepared to offer in return, or even what would be attractive to Tehran. Trump would have to do more to open US financial markets to the Iranians, or somehow get the Europeans to join in new sanctions, in order to get the better nuclear deal he promised during his campaign. What are the odds of that?
The bottom line: Washington needs to learn to do more than one thing at a time: keep the nuclear deal in place (or even extend it), counter Iranian trouble-making in the region, and encourage the Iranian people to moderate their Republic’s commitment to exporting revolution using its unconventional but economical capabilities. It’s not going to be easy.
Pantelis Ikonomou, a former IAEA nuclear safeguards inspector who holds a PhD in nuclear physics from the University of Vienna, writes:
Nuclear capability is a key factor in global alignments and strategic balances. President Trump has upset both:
- He has failed to block North Korea’s nuclear program or insist on its adherence to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
- He has encouraged US friends such as Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia to obtain nuclear weapons, in breach of the NPT, which could initiate such efforts by other middle powers, including Turkey and Egypt.
- During his visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump did not refer to a Middle East Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zone, a goal set by UN Security Council Resolution 687 (April 1991) and reinforced in the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Neither did the US president urge the Saudis to abandon the notion of a possible nuclear capability under “certain circumstances,” as often expressed by Saudi Arabian officials.
- The US president has suggested abandoning the P5+1 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which would end the related International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring mission that provides unprecedented transparency for the Iranian nuclear program.
- President Trump additionally disrespected basic international commitments (NPT article VI and the New Start Treaty) by planning to extend and upgrade the US nuclear arsenal.
These moves cast a shadow over the NPT, which is the cornerstone of global arms control and non-proliferation efforts. Lack of US adherence dramatically weakens the treaty, since universality is already its Achilles heel.
The May 2015 NPT review conference in New York failed to produce conclusions, which demonstrated the gap between the nuclear weapons states (and their allies) and the rest of the world. Most UN member states have now joined an effort to produce this year a legally binding global treaty to make nuclear weapons illegal. The objective is to pressure the nuclear powers to eliminate nuclear weapons.
German chancellor Angela Merkel at the Munich Security Conference this year questioned the President’s understanding of the UN and EU. She wondered “will we be able to act in concert together or (will we) fall back into parochial policies?”
Trump has not offered a clear vision of a new world order. Nor does he (and the rest of the Western world) appear ready to accept the ongoing redistribution of power and international realignments. Aristotle defined the “final cause” as “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done.” Trump’s purposes remain obscure. The world remains concerned and uncertain.
The US troop surge in 2007 went a long way to stabilizing Iraq. Replicating that effort under Iraqi leadership could work again.
Throughout its operations in Iraq, the Global Coalition has faced issues of coordination among its member-states as the total cost of fighting ISIS mounts. The Coalition consists of 66 members but not all contribute equally, and the United States has increasingly felt pressure to cajole the international community to step up its military aid. The cost to fight ISIS is significant- as of March 2017, the Department of Defense had spent $12.5 billion over the last three years in its operations against ISIS. What’s more, the cost of resettling displaced Iraqis will be enormous- over 600,000 people have fled Mosul in the last few months alone, and many other former ISIS strongholds face considerable reconstruction efforts.
A more pressing problem, however, is the sectarian divide among the allied militias. Those fighting in Mosul include the Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni tribal forces supported by Turkey, Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs), and the Iraqi army and police forces. Indeed, the population’s faith in the security forces also falls on sectarian lines. When asked whether they trusted the Iraqi army or PMUs to keep them safe, 45% of Shia respondents said PMUs and 30% said the Iraqi army; 48% of Sunni respondents answered the Iraqi army and only 4% PMUs.
Politically, reconciliation between different groups remains a challenge as the roots of sectarian conflict remain unaddressed. At the local level, corruption among police officers, judges, and local officials has allowed ISIS to creep back in. At the national level, the Sunni community struggles to enter political discourse, lacking strong leadership and divided among local communities and expatriate elites who claim to represent them. Economically, Iraq depends on oil revenue, which is down over the past several years due to declining oil prices. Corruption and the ongoing cost of fighting ISIS have cut a big slice out of revenue.
The government needs to address both the issue of security and citizen grievances simultaneously, cutting off both the physical and psychological avenues for ISIS’s return and ensuring the population feels safe. Combining military with civilian efforts was at the heart of General Petraeus’ 2007 surge in Iraq. The strategy was not only a surge of additional American troops but also a “surge of ideas,” reorienting operational strategy to emphasize the human terrain. Efforts included rebuilding infrastructure, reconciling groups at the local level, incorporating militia members and insurgents into the state security apparatus, and communicating with populations so they took ownership in rebuilding Iraq.
Applying this model to Iraq’s security today could address current mission weaknesses and neutralize the threat of sectarianism. First and foremost, it is important to put the monopoly over security back in the hands of the state—to do this, PMUs and militias must be folded into the Iraqi army and external influences from regional actors removed. This would create a military force whose size, strength, and military training serve a similar role as the 170,000 US surge troops of 2007 did. Creating a single security force drawn from local forces could improve trust in the national army as well. Iraqis are proud of the PMUs as the most effective force in the country as compared to perceived government failure. By capitalizing on the high morale these forces create, Iraq would have an expanded, ready, and willing force distributed across the country and ensuring threats such as ISIS have no space to reemerge.
The military should rely on civilian counterparts to do the work of reconciling groups at the local level and decentralizing politics. One such project, a reconciliation effort in the ethnically mixed Mahmoudiya neighborhood south of Baghdad, cost $1.5 million. The peace agreement established in 2007 has endured until today.
The Petraeus surge included passing several laws to address key issues that might facilitate political agreement at the national level, such as increasing provincial power and improving the elections law. Decentralization would also improve the local and, by extension, national economies. Rebuilding infrastructure and getting Iraqis back into their homes should be a priority and local leadership could help entice citizens to return. Additionally, supporting small businesses will allow startups to be successful and employ greater numbers of Iraqis. Foreign aid should be likewise reoriented away from humanitarian aid to economic development, partnering with local leaders to help distribute aid for maximum benefit. Investing in local economies will go a long way to creating a stable foundation on which both the local and national economy can grow and thrive.
The surge privileged coordination between military and civilians, focused on the human terrain matters, and supported local level reconciliation . Stabilization is a process rather than a product, and it will take many years—and perhaps many iterations improving upon the last, to hold.
The President’s speech on terrorism in Riyadh yesterday to assembled Sunni Muslims broke no new ground in appealing to Muslims to fight terrorism. His two predecessors spent 16 years pushing that line. I know a lot of Muslims tired of hearing that appeal, but it passes for statesmanlike in the more respectable conservative corner of the American press.
In my view, the speech was important in two other ways:
- It abandoned US advocacy of democracy, rule of law and human rights;
- It rallied Sunnis to an anti-Iran alliance intended to include Israel.
These are not completely new ideas. Washington until 2011 did little to advocate for democracy, rule of law and human rights among its friends in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq was the exception that proved the rule: Saddam Hussein was (no longer) a friend of the United States. The Bush Administration, in particular Vice President Cheney, actively sought a Sunni alliance against Iran, though the Israel connection was then less obvious.
These ideas do break with Obama Administration philosophy, which wasn’t always so clear in practice. Even while selling Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates vast quantities of weapons, Obama wanted Iran and the Gulf states to “share” the region and expressed a preference for open societies, while reverting quickly, especially in Egypt, to support for autocracy. While Obama did not do much to challenge the Gulf state monarchies openly, the Saudis and others felt heat from him that they are glad to see dissipated.
Trump’s inconsistency, one might even say hypocrisy, is entirely welcome in the Gulf. While he denounced the Saudis during his campaign for failing to pay for US protection and for human rights abuses against gays and lesbians, those complaints were completely forgotten in his visit to Riyadh, as was his criticism of Obama for “bowing” to the Saudi king in accepting a decoration (something Trump did as well). Demands for payment for US military protection have been conveniently converted to Saudi purchases of US military equipment, something Obama also pushed, to even higher levels than Trump has managed so far.
The anti-Iran alliance is likely to be the most immediately relevant of Trump’s ambitions. The trouble is the Iranians are well-prepared for it. They have assembled an impressive array of unconventional military means to counter the Sunni Arabs and Israel economically and effectively. The American invasion of Iraq was particularly helpful to Tehran, since democracy there puts the Shia majority in charge, but Iran’s capabilities extend also to Syria and Lebanon, mainly through the use of well-trained militia surrogates, most importantly Hizbollah. Iran has also managed to float and fly a lot of unconventional capabilities in the Gulf, where harassment of US warships is common. The US Navy has a hard time dealing with small boats and drones.
Binding the Sunni Arabs and Israel together will depend on some sort of rapprochement on Palestinian issues. Prime Minister Netanyahu talked openly today about wanting to be able to fly to Riyadh, and rumors of civil aviation and communication cooperation with Sunni states have been circulating for more than a week. The problem is on the Israeli side: the Arabs will want concessions on Israeli settlements in the West Bank or other issues that Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners will not want to make. Trump is still touting his desire to make the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians, but there is no real sign of an impending breakthrough.
As with most presidential speeches, we should note what was left out. Most notable was the absence of any idea of how the territory retaken from the Islamic State in Syria will be governed. In Iraq, Trump is continuing the Obama policy of support for Baghdad’s reassertion of authority over Sunni areas from which ISIS has been evicted. In Syria, the policy is far less clear and the need for one imminent, as Raqqa will likely fall within months (if not weeks) and Deir Azzour not long after. Will the US allow these eastern Syrian cities to be taken over by Iran-allied Bashar al Assad? Or will there be a real effort to support the Syrian opposition in governing there?
The logic of the speech favors the latter, as does last week’s US attack on Iranian-backed forces allegedly threatening US troops and allies in southern Syria. But let’s not forget Trump’s affection for the Russians, who have cooperated actively with the Iranians and backed Bashar to the hilt. There is still a lot of uncertainty about what Trump will do in the Middle East and how effective his choices will be.