Fighting to win

No, this won’t be about the American elections. It’s about Syria.

The Russians and the Iranians are doubling down in Aleppo, where the insurgent part of town is virtually surrounded, civilians are under daily bombardment, and too brief humanitarian pauses are routinely flaunted. The breach opposition forces have made in the siege is mostly unusable, as it is constantly under fire. The Russians are now flying their bombers from Iranian territory, in order to shorten the transit time and increase the ops  tempo.

Why would they do this?

They have good reasons. If they ever did, Tehran and Moscow no longer have any hope that a successor regime in Syria would treat their interests respectfully. So many Syrians have now suffered from their intervention that they can count only on autocracy, of Assad or someone like him. They may not share Assad’s objective of retaking control of every inch of Syria, but they want him to win in Aleppo because they think that will ensure his survival in power.

Assad understands this and will drag his allies as deep into the hole he has dug for himself as possible. Yesterday and today he attacked Kurdish forces in northern Syria, if not for the first time still for the first time in a long time. There had been a de facto truce between the regime and the Kurds, who have gotten some support from the Russians (as well as the Americans). It looks as if Assad has decided to put the Russians on the spot, knowing that they don’t dare abandon him for the sake of the Kurds.

Assad is even looking strong enough for the Chinese to pitch some military assistance in his direction. They don’t really have a dog in this fight, but they presumably want to come out on the winning side. If that is an autocracy, all the better.

Meanwhile, the Americans are sticking to their game plan, which requires them to focus exclusively on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS): the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have taken the strategically important northern town of Manbij from ISIS and are heading towards Jarablus, on the border where the Euphrates crosses from Turkey into Syria. Washington has supposedly promised that the Kurds will withdraw from the Manbij “pocket” once the fighting is over, leaving Arabs in charge to prevent the Kurds from controlling the entire northern border of Syria and thus to please the Turks. We’ll see if that intention holds.

The big losers in all this are non-extremist Syrians, particularly those who live in opposition-controlled areas. Their cause at this point seems lost, which I suppose is why the White House persists in its indifference. Only resounding defeat of ISIS will play well in the American election campaign. Obama is also fighting to win, but in a different war from the one Putin and Assad are pursuing.

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The company he keeps

Donald Trump yesterday overhauled for the umpteenth time his campaign apparatus, bringing in Breitbart News executive Stephen Bannon, promoting pollster Kellyanne Conway, adding former Fox News chief Roger Ailes as an advisor, and sidelining campaign chair Paul Manafort. He already had on board Walid Phares, who appeared last night on the PBS Newshour paired with top Clinton surrogate Wendy Sherman.

There is no better way to understand a candidate than from the company he keeps.

Breitbart News Network is an unabashed Trump supporter with a record of misleading, inaccurate and mistaken coverage aimed at embarrassing its political enemies on the left. Fox News is the leading right-wing news outlet, with no concern for anything resembling balance in its own coverage. Ailes has resigned as its chief, accused of sexual harassment that he denies. Manafort is listed as a recipient of millions in cash in the black book of Ukraine’s erstwhile pro-Russian rulers. Walid Phares is a former spokesman and leader of a Christian militia in Lebanon thought to have committed war crimes. 

Conway is the only one in this lineup I would consider even remotely respectable. She is a Republican pollster who claims to have predicted correctly the outcomes of the major 2012 races. All have ridden the Trump wave and will likely be well paid for their services, but they are not folks I would want to sit down to dinner with.

Where are the Republicans who would make respectable dinner companions? Not supporting Trump is the short answer. Some say they will vote for Clinton. Others won’t go that far. But Trump has definitely made enemies of my Republican colleagues and friends.

Last night’s performance in West Bend, Wisconsin says something more about the company Trump keeps. Advertised as a “law and order” speech, Trump addressed the nearly all-white group in a 95% white community repeatedly as if he were in Milwaukee, which is two-thirds black. I have no idea why he thinks this subterfuge will get him any black votes. It is well known that he has avoided predominantly black audiences. He made an important point last night: black people are principal victims of street violence of all sorts. They know that well, but they also know that West Bend is not Milwaukee.

This kind of smoke and mirrors offends, but it was not the only offensive part of last night’s performance. Trump apparently has no more to say about law and order than he said about national security: he wants to use “extreme vetting” to make immigration more difficult and renegotiate trade deals. He had a few positive words for the police and promised more of them, but there was little more “law and order” substance than that, along with his usual promise to create lots of jobs. His recitation of statistics showing increases in crime was cherry-picked. While recently ticking up in some places, overall violent crime in the US is dramatically and pretty steadily down for more than 20 years:

US violent crime


Clearly Trump and his friends don’t keep company with the facts any more than they do with black people or objectivity in the media.

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Nation-building isn’t a four letter word

Donald Trump yesterday followed in a long tradition of American presidential candidates and presidents who have forsworn nation-building.

George H. W. Bush said he was sending the marines to Somalia in 1992 to restore order and enable feeding the population. When Washington discovered that we couldn’t get out without leaving chaos behind, we turned the nation-building over to a UN mission (run by a US Navy Admiral) that failed. We are still fighting insurgent terrorists in Somalia.

Bill Clinton said in 1995 we would send US troops to a NATO mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina for only a year, to oversee implementation of only the military aspects of the Dayton peace agreements. He discovered the obstacles to peace implementation didn’t divide neatly into civilian and military components. US troops stayed for almost 10 years and some still remain. They likewise have stayed in Kosovo much longer than initially projected. In both Bosnia and Kosovo, their presence has had positive effects.

George W. Bush declared during the 2000 election campaign that US troops don’t do nation-building. But once he had invaded Afghanistan and Iraq he discovered that we couldn’t get the troops out without it. He then launched the two biggest and most expensive nation-building efforts since the Marshall Plan after World War II.

Barack Obama has been more disciplined than his predecessors: he pulled US troops out of Iraq almost completely (in accordance with an agreement and timetable negotiated and signed by his predecessor) and has tried to get them out of Afghanistan. The negative consequences of failure to build an inclusive state in Iraq, including Prime Minister Maliki’s turn to sectarianism and the rise of a Sunni insurgency, are documented in the Washington Post this morning. The consequences in Afghanistan are all too obvious: the Taliban are back in force and the Islamic State is trying to gain traction. Obama has said that one of his worst mistakes was failing to provide adequate assistance to Libya after the fall of Qaddafi.

When Trump yesterday declared an end to nation-building, he was repeating what his predecessors have said, and mostly regretted. The American people are reluctant to govern others, even if they are quick to tell others how to govern. Trump followed that tradition too, by announcing that he would somehow make sure that lesbians, gays, transgender and queer people are treated with respect abroad and honor killings stopped.

It is of course unfair to blame all the consequences of reluctance to do nation-building on American presidents.

First, because they are reflecting the real preferences of their constituents. Americans want their resources expended at home, not abroad. Many believe that 25% of the Federal budget is spent on foreign aid, even though the actual figure is less than 1%. If I thought one-quarter of my tax money was going overseas, I would want foreign aid cut too.

Second, because the task they are trying to avoid really is difficult and expensive. It is properly called state-building rather than nation-building, a term presidents prefer because it sounds pejorative. But what we needed in Somalia, Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya is a legitimate organization that could govern on a particular territory. The people on that territory might or might not constitute a “nation.”

Given what we know about terrorist groups and their affinity for weak or fragile states that cannot fully control their territory, state-building is not optional. Without it, post-war Syria or Yemen will, like post-war Iraq and Afghanistan, provide haven to people who wish harm not only to their own state but also to us.

That doesn’t mean the US has to be responsible for the state-building. You break it, you buy it is the prevailing rule. The Russians and Iranians in Syria along with the Saudis and other Gulf states in Yemen should be thinking about that as they bomb with abandon. The UN is already stuck with the job in Libya, where it appears to be making slow headway in gaining traction for a national unity government.

But what kind of state-building will Russia and Iran, or the Gulf states, do? Not the kind of state-building that even Donald Trump says he wants. What presidents call nation-building may not be what they want to do, but it is not a four letter word either. If you want to keep America safe, you are going to have to figure out how to get it done.

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The race isn’t over

Donald Trump delivered his much-ballyhooed Islamic State speech today. He began with a lengthy account of extremist attacks aimed at doing exactly what the Islamic State intends: scaring people. Beyond that, the speech was mostly a rehash of well-worn ideas:

  1. If you won’t call your enemy Islamic extremism, you can’t fight it.
  2. Guantanamo has to remain open.
  3. Immigration has to be restricted, and from some unspecified countries stopped.
  4. We should ship people home who don’t share “our” values.
  5. We should continue using drones and amp up intelligence but also capture a few more bad guys.
  6. We shouldn’t do nation-building, but
  7. We should somehow protect LGBTQ people and prevent honor killings abroad.
  8. We should have kept the US military in Iraq to hold on to its oil.
  9. Clinton and Obama are responsible for the rise of the Islamic State.
  10. We should convene an international conference to form a coalition to fight it, including NATO [sic] and Russia.

I suppose the relatively restrained tone of this hodge-podge and absence of any unfortunate adlibs will generate a new barrage of people saying he is now on track. But we are not likely more than 24 hours from one more outrageous remark intended to attract the media attention this speech is unlikely to get.

What Trump did not offer were any serious new ideas about how to deal with the Islamic State and other Islamist extremists. Nothing in this pale recitation comes even close to something anyone would call a new strategy.

I don’t really think there is one to be had. As Benjamin H. Friedman suggeststhere is more danger in overreacting to international terrorism than from the phenomenon itself. It might even be said that is the purpose of many terrorists. Despite his even tone today, Trump is clearly willing to take that risk, at least so far as domestic policy is concerned. But he did not suggest he would do anything different about the wars in Syria, Libya and Yemen than what Obama is already doing. Even his suggestion that we work with the Russians is nothing new. John Kerry has been pursuing that idea for months without much visible progress so far. 

The sad fact is that this guy is not ready to be a Congressman from Wyoming, much less president of the United States. The polling, as interpreted by 538, has him with an 11.1% chance of winning. There is even informed talk of a Clinton landslide

Trump didn’t do himself a lot of good today, even if he avoided any big mistakes. But these are early weeks in a long campaign. Frightening as it is to me, I suspect at least 40% of voters will vote for him. Clinton is winning because Trump is losing. She has not overcome the trust and likability deficits that have plagued her candidacy. No one should imagine the race is over.

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Good humored but determined

It’s Ferragosto 2016: that’s the Italian height of summer, when everyone who is anyone heads for the beaches and mountains.

I’m in my office in DC. I never did catch the Ferragosto bug, despite 10 years of living in Italy. I like the light traffic and slow pace this time of year. Anyone who happens to be in town is easy to see and there are lots of solid hours in which to read, write, and edit. Not to mention clear the desk.

This year Ferragosto is particularly entertaining. The Rio Olympics have provided their share of fantastic performances, especially by American swimmers and gymnasts:

Final Five


The natural talent, the physique, and the will to train to gold medal standard in any sport are all rare. So it is to be expected that larger countries will have more of these people. It is also likely that rich countries will have more of the resources required to find and train the gifted. When the Star-Spangled Banner plays, we should all remember that the US is advantaged in both size and wealth.

And we should remember smaller countries that produce extraordinary performances, like Kosovar Majlinda Kelmendi’s in judo:

Majlinda Kelmendi

There are a lot of competitors on the way to a triumph like this one. Many give spectacular performances, just not sufficiently spectacular to make it all the way to Rio, or at Rio to the medals. The difference in swimming is measured in hundreds of a second. Michael Phelps won the 200 meter butterfly in 4/100s:

Michael Phelps, 200 meter butterfly

Most of us are never going to enjoy even a moment in our lives when we perform at gold medal level in anything, but we should get joy from the triumphs we do have the good fortune to enjoy.

We can also get a good deal of pleasure from watching a performance like Usain Bolt’s:

It’s just extraordinarily boisterous and gorgeous. It defies reasonable expectations and makes us realize how limiting expectations can be. We do best to set high goals–there is no telling how close to them we may be able to come.

That’s clearly what Ibtihaj Muhammad did in winning bronze in saber:

Good humored, but determined!


Yemen talks need rethinking

The most recent round of peace talks between the Houthis, supporters of former president Ali Abdullah Salih, Yemen’s government in exile lead by Abd Rabbuuh Mansur Hadi, and the regional powers involved in the GCC campaign in Yemen has gone nowhere. Hadi’s government in exile has departed from Kuwait. They signed a recently proposed UN deal and left it up to the Houthis to ratify the agreement and keep the talks moving.

The Houthis have not, and will not. This should come as no surprise. The Kuwait talks in their present form cannot lead to a political solution for three reasons:

1. The assumptions and structure that underpin the talks preclude an equitable settlement. On April 17, 2015 the Security Council adopted Resolution 2216, which has served as the basis for all Yemen peace talks since then. Then UNSC president Jordan (a party to the GCC coalition that has supplied planes and arms to pro-Hadi forces) proposed the resolution. It calls for the Houthis to withdraw from all territory they have seized since 2014 and to surrender their weapons.

That’s not likely to happen anytime soon. Particularly troublesome is that unconditional Houthi surrender has become a precondition for further political negotiations, not an end goal. Once the Houthis surrender their weapons and retreat from seized territory, they lose their bargaining chips in the negotiations. The Houthis initiated the current conflict because they felt they were not being heard in the political process. They aren’t going to trust Hadi to include them in Yemen’s future without the threat of force. The UNSC resolution also reiterates the legitimacy of the Hadi government and extols the GCC Initiative that removed Salih from power, led to the National Dialogue Conference, and created a draft constitution.

Widely credited with helping to avoid civil war in Yemen after the 2011 uprising, the National Dialogue Conference failed to represent the demands of the groups that had fought for Salih’s removal. Women, young people, the Houthis, and representatives of the movement for southern independence were all marginalized. Despite an initial unanimous agreement to a federal structure for Yemen, the process fell apart when it came to deciding the precise terms. A small, unrepresentative committee Hadi hand-picked redrew Yemen’s 21 governorates into a 6 regions. Criticism was widespread: the Houthis, southerners, the salafi Rashad Union, and others questioned the new map.

This led to the Houthi take over of Sana’a in September 2014. Going back to the GCC Initiative without addressing the grievances of young activists, Southerners, and especially the Houthis will accomplish nothing. A new starting point for a more representative political process is needed.

By far the most damning aspect of UNSC 2216 is its exoneration of the Saudi-led campaign. The Resolution makes no mention of a multilateral ceasefire, even while noting the deteriorating humanitarian situation. In fact, the GCC air campaign is not mentioned at all, even though the UN assistant secretary-general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, reported the day prior that the majority of casualties were civilians. Demanding that only  the Houthis put down their weapons without asking the same of “pro-Hadi forces” will never work.

2. The Kuwait talks do not represent the forces fighting on the ground. The war in Yemen is widely portrayed as a war with two sides:

  1. the Houthis and forces loyal to Ali Abdullah Salih;
  2. Allegedly “Pro-Hadi forces,” who include southern secessionists, tribes in central Yemen who are fighting more to remove the Houthis than to reinstate Hadi, and people in the  Houthi stronghold of Sa‘ada who oppose the Houthis on religious and political grounds.

A large portion of the forces fighting the Houthis share many of their grievances and also felt side-lined by the elite-dominated GCC Initiative, but oppose the Houthis’ turn to violence and effort to dominate opposition to Hadi. Many do not want to see Hadi re-installed as president, but none of them have been represented at talks in Kuwait or Geneva. While “pro-Hadi forces” are united for now by a common enemy, if the Houthis retreat Hadi will lose what little influence he commands on the ground.

3. The war has stalemated on the battlefield, but both sides still believe they can use force to extract more concessions at the negotiating table. When the Yemeni government in exile walked away from the talks the first time, the Houthis escalated their shelling of the Saudi border. There is no genuine commitment on either side to reaching a political solution for the sake of the Yemeni people.

Throughout all negotiations, Hadi has not budged an inch. He demands a full return of his government and has offered no concessions to his opponents. He sees the negotiations as a zero-sum game. Any power-sharing deal with the Houthis and other groups in Yemen would come at a cost to his monopoly. With the GCC and much of the international community behind him, Hadi has no reason to accommodate Houthi interests.

The Houthis, on the other hand, lost international legitimacy when they violently chased the Yemeni government from Sana’a. Their most recent proposal, to form a joint body to oversee a political transition to a national unity government, went nowhere. Their subsequent move to form a governing council with supporters of Ali Abdullah Salih lost them any sympathy they might have enjoyed from the international community.

Peace talks in Yemen need rethinking. The international community needs to stop seeing the GCC as an impartial arbiter when it is in fact a party to Yemen’s war. The negotiations need to include all the stakeholders, including southerners and civil society actors. Then it might be possible to begin talking about trust-building measures that could lead to partial Houthi and Salih withdrawal and disarmament as well as aid delivery to besieged Ta’iz. Without these changes, Yemen’s war will continue and its abysmal humanitarian situation will continue to deteriorate.

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