Challenges Trump can expect in the Middle East

As the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States nears, the Middle East Policy Council explored the challenges facing President-elect Trump in the region. The panel featured Derek Chollet, Counselor and Senior Advisor at The German Marshal Fund, Jake Sullivan, Visiting Lecturer at Yale Law School and Senior Policy Advisor for the Hillary Clinton campaign, Dimitri Simes, President of the Center for the National Interest and Publisher of The National Interest, and Mary Beth Long, founder and CEO of Metis Solutions and Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Chollet said that the Obama administration faced several challenges: doubt over the future US role in the region, diverging interests in dealing with the Iran nuclear program and the conflict in Syria, and the perception that the US cares less about the region than before 2008. Chollet called the US approach to the Middle East under Obama a recalibration rather than a dramatic shift, stressing America’s sustainable commitment to the region. Most notably, this includes decreasing the US role as a problem solver in the region and encouraging collective security. The new administration will have to decide how to proceed on the Iran deal, the ISIS threat, Syria’s President Assad, and Gulf partnerships.

Sullivan identified five hard questions the incoming administration must answer. First, Trump will need to navigate the US relationship with Iran, both in approaching the nuclear deal as well as holding Iran accountable for its actions outside of the nuclear context, such as human rights abuses. Second, the administration must limit Iranian influence in the region while defeating ISIS in Iraq, a move that could very well strength Iran’s position. The third question concerns creating a long-term stability in Syria beyond supporting the strong man, whether Putin or Assad. Similarly, Sullivan’s fourth question asked whether supporting authoritarian regimes in the region is still sustainable post-Arab Spring, and whether regimes could hold up under pressure for reform. Finally, Sullivan questioned the new administration’s understanding of Russia’s role in the Middle East and where US interests converge with Putin’s objectives.

Simes focused on the US-Russia relationship and expanded on Trump’s challenges in working with Putin. The primary challenge in working with Putin, who Simes noted is not Trump’s friend, will be strategic confrontation with Russia. Because Russia and the US diverge greatly on issues such as Syria, it would be prudent to pursue a more effective relationship with Russia and prevent a rivalry from forming. Simes believes that a poor relationship with Russia will be detrimental to the US and could lead to a stronger Russia-China relationship or even Russian use of terrorism as a weapon against America. Trump has an opportunity to develop a strong relationship with Russia, but must first determine US interests and take Russia seriously as a player on the world stage.

Long said the incoming administration will take a more transactional and pragmatic approach to foreign policy based on US interests. This will result in more straightforward relationships. However, she warned this also has the potential to create inconsistency in the Middle East, because policy will be situational and reactionary in nature. Although the challenges in the region are great, including the battle for Mosul, the refugee crisis, and the US relationship with Iran, Long said the US cannot afford to do everything at once and must rely on regional partners to step up.

In response to a question about US strategy in combating terrorism, specifically ISIS, and the strengths and weakness of US engagement, Chollet said a key US strength lies in its ability to militarily target states. The Islamic state is no different. To this point, Sullivan argued that US military action against terrorism targets the symptoms rather than the causes of radicalization, and more needs to be done to win over moderates, create strong state structures, and increase the confidence of US regional Sunni partners. Long stressed the danger in creating vacuums in which terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda can resurge and become powerful.

The panel also addressed the implications of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Chollet said a move to Jerusalem would be disruptive and could undermine the strategic convergence between Israel and Sunni states working together to confront their shared adversaries in the region. Sullivan agreed that the embassy move would jeopardize efforts to balance the terrorist threat in the region and said the US needs to recognize the challenge, be honest, and identify what it can do to support its partners. Long hoped the embassy issue would lose its primacy in the early days of the administration. The panel agreed the embassy move would not serve US strategic interests.

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Things look different from here

I’m in China, which should go along way to explaining my failure to post on things like President Obama’s farewell address and President elect Trump’s press conference. I was going to just embed them under the title “Compare and contrast,” but I haven’t figured out how to embed on my iPhone or Kindle. Anyway it was just too easy to show what we all know: America has traded a high-minded thinker of impeccable propriety for a low-life four flusher.

So I’ll focus instead on my brief experience here: three days in Nanjing and only two in Beijing. Both astound.

I was expecting Third World. The centers of both are far from it. These places look more like Europe or America at their most orderly and cleanly, albeit too often shrouded in a thick layer of smog that has mostly disappeared there. Traffic is intense but fairly calm. Trains and train stations run like clockwork, some at a remarkably smooth 200 miles per hour. Except for the ubiquitous harassment by young women trying to entrap foreigners into buying them a ridiculously expensive coffee, people on the street are friendly and helpful, despite an almost universal dearth of English. GPS is the answer, if you’ve got free data. The Forbidden City, the palace complex of more or less six hundred years of Ming and Qing emperors, and the Nanjing Memorial to the city’s victims of a Japanese massacre in 1937/38, rent electronic guides in English.

Knowledgeable Chinese are frank and plainspoken in discussions of South China Sea (SCS) issues. They generally defend something like what they understand the government’s position to be, as most of their counterparts in Washington would, but not without citing mistakes and suggesting course corrections. Everyone here thinks the land features of SCS (low and high tide elevations, rocks, reefs or islands) belong to China, but at least some appear to think Beijing will eventually be prepared to negotiate practical compromises with the other claimants, as it has done with some of its land borders.

The Chinese understand American positions well, so they will be surprised and appalled that Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State suggested in Senate testimony today that Beijing be blocked from access to the nine facilities they have built on what they claim as sovereign Chinese territory in the SCS and that the US should back the sovereignty claims of others who had built many more facilities before the Chinese started doing so two years ago. Nominee Rex Tillerson apparently doesn’t know that Trump’s good friends on Taiwan make the same SCS claims as Beijing.

Washington until now has avoided taking sides on the sovereignty claims for decades, as the main US interest in the SCS is freedom of navigation. The Chinese are quick to point out that there is no risk from their side to commercial shipping, as 70-80% of that flows through the SCS to and from China itself. The core issue is freedom of navigation for military ships and planes, which the US pretty much wants to be able to go anywhere anytime. They don’t keep to well established sea lanes or air corridors. The Chinese don’t like that because they think US military craft are spying on them, which is surely true at times even if not always.

Of course there are bigger issues involved. China is a rising power. Some see a clash with the existing US regional hegemon as inevitable. People in both Beijing and Washington would like to avoid that, as it has the potential for catastrophe. That’s why our 15 SAIS masters students are here on a study trip: to think about ways of managing the issues peacefully. I hope Trump doesn’t make that impossible before we publish the findings April 15!

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Montenegro, Russia, NATO

Marija Jovićević of Montenegro’s Pobjeda  asked these questions. I responded:

1. Can we expect ratification of Montenegrin Protocol in US Congress in January? Do you see any obstacle in this process?

A: I really don’t know. There appears to be no real opposition, but the Senate has a lot of things on its plate. I hope it will be quickly
reported out of committee and approved in the full Senate in the next couple of weeks. If it doesn’t happen before January 20, I have my
doubts the new administration will make it a priority. Then it will be up to key senators to make it move, which they might want to do to send an unequivocal signal of commitment to the Alliance to both Trump and Putin.

2. Relations between USA and Russia are very complicated at this moment, can this situation affect ratification of Protocol and Montenegro entering NATO?

A: I don’t think anyone in Congress is wanting to slow ratification because of Russian opposition, but it remains to be seen what the new administration will do. I would hope it would want to send the Russians a very clear signal that the NATO door remains open to those who qualify and want to enter. Europe whole and free (which means, among other
things, free to join NATO) is a good idea.

3. Do You expect that relations between Russia and USA could be closer and better after inauguration of Donald Trump?

A: Trump will make an effort to improve relations with Russia, in part by accommodating Russian demands on NATO, Ukraine and Syria. But I don’t think it will work out well for long. Putin doesn’t want good relations with the US. He wants to lead a defiant anti-US, illiberal coalition and establish a Russian sphere of influence in its “near abroad.”

4. What will be policy of the new American administration when we talk about the Balkans?

A: It is hard to tell, as it will be way down the list of priorities. But the new administration is in part an ethnic nationalist one, which doesn’t bode well from my liberal democratic perspective.

5. How do you see relations between Montenegro and USA. Do you expect
any changes after the inauguration of Donald Trump?

A: Certainly if Trump fails to press for Montenegro’s NATO accession, that won’t help Montenegro or its relations with the US. It could even drive Montenegro into Russian arms.

6. We are witnessing Russian interference in elections in USA, in elections in Montenegro also. Russia is using every possible way to
stop Montenegro’s way to NATO. Do you think that this is already lost battle for Moscow?

A: It isn’t over until it’s over. Moscow will continue fighting and will have an easier time of it in the initial phase of a Trump administration. But in the end I think Montenegro will enter NATO this year and help to keep the door open to other aspirants. I for one am grateful to Montenegro for its fortitude and persistence. Let it be rewarded soon!

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Quite a show

At the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday, America’s intelligence chiefs testified that Moscow had indeed intervened to affect the US election in order to secure the victory of Donald Trump. The Senators on both sides of the aisle made it clear they believe this and that the President-elect is wrong to reject the findings and to denigrate the intelligence community, which he has done repeatedly.

I’d be the first to admit our spies make mistakes. One of the many responsibilities Foreign Service officers (I was one for 21 years) face is trying to iron out differences among embassies, the State Department, and the 17 intelligence institutions. I had big problems during the Bosnian war with the Defense Intelligence Agency, some of whose analysts viewed the Muslims as mainly responsible for atrocities in Bosnia and the Serbs as professional soldiers. History has not been kind to those who held this view.

The intelligence community mistake in concluding that Saddam Hussein might soon have nuclear weapons is the one Trump refers to most often. It was a big one. Without it, America might not have invaded Iraq, it might have pursued the war in Afghanistan more successfully, and the Middle East would certainly be a very different place. Then, too, there was bipartisan agreement in Congress. That is no guarantee of accuracy.

But there is a big difference today: we know what Russia is up to in the Baltics, in Ukraine, in Moldova, in Georgia, and in the Balkans. Moscow is threatening its neighbors and destabilizing any country that even begins to think about joining NATO, or even in some cases the EU. President Putin makes no secret of his propaganda, his military provocations, and his efforts to rally ethnonationalist political forces within Russia’s neighbors. It would be surprising if he weren’t interested in doing likewise in the United States. How could he have resisted the opportunity presented by a white nationalist, russophilic candidate for President?

Trump will get his classified intelligence briefing today in New York. He will then have an opportunity to eat crow or continue his stated belief that the case hasn’t been proven. I doubt he’ll change his tune. But he will be under enormous pressure from Republicans in Congress to do so. Doing so would improve his prospects for reforming the intelligence community, as otherwise neither it nor Congress will be amenable. In any event, Trump will want to make it clear that whatever happened it does not explain his great win and should not affect his commitment to improving relations with Russia.

To that he appears still thoroughly committed, without however making it clear what he expects of the Russians other than attacks on the Islamic State. Those they claim they are already undertaking. They should in any event undertake them for their own good reasons. So it is completely unclear at this stage what Trump hopes to get from giving away the store to Moscow. He seems ready to recognize the annexation of Crimea, withdraw support for the Syrian opposition, and limit NATO expansion, without any sign of a quid pro quo other than a pat on the head from Putin.

While Congressional Republicans are clearly uncomfortable with Trump’s russophilia, they are not objecting too loudly, presumably for fear of retribution. The Democrats are doing what they can to pick up the national security football and run with it. This is an upside-down world: Republicans risk becoming the party of concessions to Russia, trade protectionism, and xenophobia. Stay tuned. This still promises to be quite a show.

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The problem with Tillerson

Everyone seems concerned that Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is too close with the Russians and won’t be tough with them. That in my view is not the problem. Anyone who has successfully negotiated oil deals with Moscow on behalf of an American company has had to be tough.

The problems lie elsewhere:

  1. with the President-elect himself;
  2. in Tillerson’s international experience at Exxon.

Trump, who prides himself on negotiating skills, is approaching Moscow in a way that makes me doubt he has any at all. Rather than making it clear what Moscow needs to do to improve its relationship with the US–an end to destabilization in Europe and the Caucasus, withdrawal of Russian troops from all of Ukraine, real cooperation in reining in Bashar al Assad and attacking the Islamic State in Syria–Trump is putting the cart before the horse: he wants “improved relations” and appears willing to give rather than get. He has cast doubt on US commitment to NATO allies in the Baltics, has suggested he would accept Russian annexation of Crimea, pledged to drop US support for non-extremist opposition in Syria, and neglected to criticize Russia for its failure to attack the Islamic State.

Trump has never to my knowledge stated what he would ask from Russia for the improved relations he seeks. Putin however has made it clear that improved relations will have to be on his terms. He is planning to get without giving.

This fits of course with Trump’s refusal to acknowledge the Russian role and objectives in hacking the Democrats during the election campaign. He is not just soft on Russia. He has adopted Moscow’s views and even aligned himself with Moscow’s Wikileaks proxy, Julian Assange. Trump is doing just about everything he can to convince the world that he is Moscow’s patsy. How could a Secretary of State Tillerson be “tough” with the Russians if his president is their man?

Tillerson himself has proven skillful not only in negotiating with the Russian but also in gaining reserves for Exxon in the developing world, in particular its more autocratic corners. That also requires negotiating skills. What it does not require is any commitment to American values beyond the legal restrictions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Exxon is famous worldwide for doing straight-up business deals: no do-g0od sweeteners. This has served the company well: it makes most of its money outside the United States, often in less salubrious environments.

Of course Tillerson could learn to mouth commitments to human rights and democracy as well as the next CEO of a major American company. But neither Trump nor a National Security Council run by General Flynn is likely to want him to do so. Even with North Korea, Trump has been far more interested in making a deal than in undoing the dictatorship–he even thought sharing a hamburger with Kim Jong un might seal a deal. So the real problem with Tillerson is again not Tillerson, but his boss, who is committed to the status quo when it comes to dictatorships.

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Never never land

Today, Sean Hannity is tweeting:

Question of the Day: Who do you believe? Julian Assange or President Obama and Hillary Clinton

Sarah Palin has apologized to Assange, the Wikileaks guru, for criticizing him in the past and is recommending Oliver Stone’s film about Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked some of its most tightly held secrets. President-elect Trump has in the meanwhile quietly cancelled providing the information he said he had on the hacking of the Democrats during the election campaign.

We have somehow entered never never land, where some Republicans (conservatives?) are unwilling to accept the considered judgments of the intelligence community that the Russians were not only responsible for the hacking but also did it to favor Trump’s election. Opposition to President Obama and Hillary Clinton has driven people who used to wear American flag lapel pins into the arms of an autocratic president of Russia and his collaborators in unveiling and publishing private emails and government secrets.

We used to call people like this “traitors” when they were on the left. You don’t have to think Russia has somehow re-inflated itself to the Soviet Union to realize that Putin, Assange, and Snowden are out to weaken the United States and help Moscow regain its great power status. Of course Snowden and Assange have no choice: the former has taken refuge in Russia and the latter in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Both will be prosecuted if the US government ever gets their hands on them. The one virtue of the burst of Republican enthusiasm for Snowden is that it will end any idle chatter about a pardon for him from President Obama. I wonder about Trump though.

Hannity, Palin, and Trump are not under constraints that force them to favor Moscow. They are choosing to align themselves with Putin and his enmity to the US. A significant portion of the Republican electorate has also turned in that direction. Why? My own suspicion is that the ethnic nationalists–white supremacists in the language of my youth–recognize in Putin (as well as Netanyahu, by the way) a Russian analogue: someone who believes profoundly in the superiority and rights of his ethnic group and gender, to the exclusion of others. In other words, it is racism and misogyny that have brought us to never never land.

Many Republicans in Congress are not following Trump in his Russophile direction. Publication within the next couple of weeks of the Obama Administration’s findings on the email hacking will be a moment of truth: will Senate Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham follow through on their many sound bites and take up the cudgels against Trump’s unrealistic attitude toward Moscow during Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing to become Secretary of State, or will they let things slide, allowing the new administration to end the sanctions on Russia and recognize the annexation of Crimea?

If the latter, there are real risks that partition efforts elsewhere will be encouraged. Re-establishing Ukrainian sovereignty over Donbas would become even more difficult. Russia might well annex Transnistria (in Moldova) as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia (in Georgia). In the Balkans, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and possibly even Serbia would find their efforts to establish Europe-eligible multi-ethnic democracies undermined. Instability and possibly worse would ensue. The sooner we get out of never never land, the better.

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