Concerned and uncertain

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:

  1. He has failed to block North Korea’s nuclear program or insist on its adherence to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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Surge 2.0

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.

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Middle East policy begins to clarify

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:

  1. It abandoned US advocacy of democracy, rule of law and human rights;
  2. 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.

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All presidential visits are shows. Host governments do their best to demonstrate to their visitor the best they have to offer, which may or may not correspond to what the president appreciates. The Italians thought the perfect show for Bush 41 would be a performance of Rigoletto, but he declined. That left lots of seats for Embassy Rome, which occupied them happily.

The Saudis have read President Trump far better than the Italians read 41. His face was plastered on the facade of his hotel, King Salman gave him a gold medal right off, and he even appears to have half-enjoyed the all male dancing:

The Kingdom’s unelected rulers are delighted to welcome a president who won’t bug them about democracy or human rights, governs with a tight coterie of family members, and will sell mountains of arms without asking a lot of questions about how they will be used in Yemen. It’s not the America I know and love, but it is definitely one an absolute monarchy can understand and appreciate.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Trump’s administration is enmired in House, Senate and FBI investigations of what is proving to be an extensive network of connections to Russia. He himself confirmed to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that he fired FBI Director Comey in order to relieve pressure from those investigations. That is as close to the dictionary definition of obstruction of justice as anyone would want to get.

Now it is believed his son-in-law Jared Kushner is a person of interest in the FBI investigation. I really am old enough to remember when Libya loaned money to Billy Carter, President Carter’s brother. The President then said:

I am deeply concerned that Billy has received funds from Libya and that he may be under obligation to Libya. These facts will govern my relationship with Billy as long as I am president. Billy has had no influence on U.S. policy or actions concerning Libya in the past, and he will have no influence in the future.

That’s a standard we might expect all future presidents to meet when it comes to the activities of their family members. But there is no sign whatsoever that Trump will even go a millimeter in that direction. Kushner’s sister has been cashing in on her White House connection in selling real estate to Chinese who get green cards in return. Will Jared Kushner himself turn up as heavily engaged with Russian real estate purchasers and financiers? How many of those will have used investments in the US to launder ill-gotten gains? And how much will Trump’s own company gain from his friendliness to the Kingdom?

Of course he wasn’t always so buddy-buddy with the Saudis, whom he criticized mercilessly during his campaign because they don’t pay for American military protection and, he claimed, they push gays off buildings. All that is forgotten now that he is in office. He settled instead for a smaller than Obama arms deal, with no burdensharing or human rights concessions. Blingplomacy is just that: shiny and worth less than it appears.

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Outrageous and incredibly stupid

Here’s an interview I did Thursday for Alexander Gupta of UATV (Ukrainian government English-language service). 

I didn’t know yet that President Trump had played down his personal concern about Ukraine in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, saying that “American critics” cared about it. The Russians will have read this as approving their invasion of Crimea and thinly veiled occupation of Luhansk and Donetsk, not to mention their shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane. It is difficult to imagine what I might have said about this, but here I’ll just say it is outrageous and incredibly stupid.  

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Shared goals, not collusion

President Trump is denouncing the Special Counsel appointed yesterday to investigate Russian influence on the US election as the worst “witch hunt” in American history. A master of the false superlative, he claims to be the worst-treated politician in history.

He is also denying any collusion between himself and the Russians. Oddly, I think this may be true. The search for a smoking gun that proves they were in it together may well be a mistake. Trump and Putin shared goals: they wanted to defeat Hillary Clinton, they wanted to improve relations between Washington and Moscow, they wanted to end American commitments to democratization abroad, to limit freedom at home, to fight “violent Islamic extremism,” and to make a lot of money while enjoying public office. There really is no need for collusion when two people understand each other so well. Look at these photographs and videos of Trump with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and Ambassador Kislyak in the Oval Office (all made available by the Russians, as the American press wasn’t allowed in).

These are men who are genuinely enjoying each other and their common enterprise, not people colluding. It should be no surprise that Trump shared with his Russian pals classified information. Why not, as he said later?

That is the problem: shared goals, not collusion. I witnessed a good deal of this in Wednesday’s hearing on the Balkans. The chair of the committee I testified to is California Republican Rohrabacher, who made it clear repeatedly that he saw nothing wrong with Russian behavior in the Balkans or elsewhere. Why shouldn’t they seek influence, he asked? We claim they interfere in the Balkans, but don’t we?

The answer is no, there is no comparison between Russian behavior and American democratization/rule of law funding through the National Endowment for Democracy or the International Republican and National Democratic Institutes. Russia’s interference has lately included organizing a coup attempt in Montenegro, flooding the Balkans media with blatant disinformation generated by Russia Today and Sputnik News, as well as financing paramilitary groups, renting mobs, and disrupting parliament in Macedonia.

Warned long ago by the FBI that he was the target of Russian intelligence recruitment efforts, Rohrabacher is the congressman whom a colleague cited, jokingly or not is unclear, as receiving payments from Moscow, along with Trump. As for Rohrabacher, I doubt there is any need for payments: he seems sincerely committed to Russia’s perspective on the world and genuinely appreciative of Moscow’s interests.

I have no evidence to confirm or deny the allegation with respect to Trump, only the sense from reading too much about Trump’s real estate transactions that Moscow knows how to reward people without leaving much of a trail. It would be remarkably easy, and illegal, for a foreign government to put money into an American politician’s campaign funds by using a US citizen cut-out, or to ensure that she gets higher than market value for property she sells. Allegations against Trump along those lines are not difficult to find.

Newly appointed Special Counsel Mueller knows these things and can be relied upon to investigate thoroughly. But I hope he doesn’t waste much time looking for the smoking gun that demonstrates collusion. Trump as a candidate and president has not hidden his appreciation for Moscow and its help during the election campaign, when he appealed for the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. The key here is common objectives. People can avoid collusion easily if they share goals.

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