DC’s fine-tuned machine

Donald Trump yesterday called his team a “fine-tuned machine” in a press conference that prompted one Republican senator to say “He should do this with a therapist, not on live television.” The President was unable to keep his cool even in response to a question about well-documented recent anti-Semitic incidents, instead berating the journalist for his hostility. My first question to would-be foreign government speakers in Washington is whether they can respond to a provocative question without attacking the questioner. After almost a month in office, Trump is still not ready for prime time.

Instead he is spewing falsehoods, making exaggerated claims for his own prowess and experience, denying well-established facts, and conducting a vituperative campaign against the establishment press. He is also promising to catch leakers who are filling the headlines with news about his campaign’s links to Russia and the related ongoing investigations, which could lead to criminal charges against his now resigned National Security Adviser. The chosen replacement is reported to have turned down the job, unable to get a commitment that he would be able to choose his own staff. Trump’s immigration ban, blocked in court, will be withdrawn and replaced with something the President says will be even better.

There is a fine-tuned machine in Washington, but it is not Trump’s White House staff or even his cabinet appointees, most of whom are making it through Senate’s confirmation. The US government’s permanent civil and foreign services are beginning to gain traction. That is apparent in Defense Secretary Mattis’ meeting with NATO allies, where he sought both to get them to spend more on defense (a well-worn talking point that pre-dates Trump) and to reassure them that the Administration is committed to the Alliance. It is also apparent in UN Ambassador Haley’s tough remarks about Russian aggression in Ukraine and Secretary of State Tillerson’s “listening” participation in a G20 meeting, even if he had trouble explaining the President’s remarks on Israel and Palestine to the French foreign minister.

Trump, who is more radical than conservative, will no doubt want to upend more of America’s traditional positions on international issues, as he did when he ditched the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (delighting China) and suggested that the US was no longer committed to a two-state solution in the Middle East. He is said to be thinking about putting substantial numbers of US troops on the ground in Syria, to accelerate the liberation of Raqqa. But the bureaucracy is trying to hem him in and prevent thoughtless departures from established policy by Twitplomacy. Call it the “blob” or the “deep state,” but the professionals know there are good reasons for why we do what we do (and not what we don’t do). They want to ensure that policy changes are well crafted to avoid the kinds of chaos that the immigration ban generated.

The professionals are of course also protecting their own vested bureaucratic interests, from whence the leaks. Trump has all but declared war on the intelligence community and frozen out the State Department, preferring to rely on a National Security Council staff studded with military and former military officers. The nerds want their revenge. They got some with Flynn’s departure. They may target chief strategist Bannon and his side kicks as well, as they are all too clearly the guardians of Trump’s white nationalist radicalism.

Trump is driving a jalopy of his own making, not the Tesla he is entitled to as President. I dread the day he gets into the right driver’s seat and begins to make effective use of the deep state he is now fighting.

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Good riddance, but problems persist

It’s hard not to celebrate the departure of General Flynn from the position of National Security Adviser. He was both pro-Russian and anti-Muslim beyond reason. A sworn enemy of the American intelligence establishment, he got caught by them talking sanctions relief with the Russian ambassador even before Donald Trump was sworn in. Then he allegedly lied to the Vice President about what was said. His comeuppance is well-merited.

Congressional Republicans are now pledging not to investigate him. Why would they do that? They are trying to contain the damage. Their reluctance suggests it is more than likely that Trump knew what Flynn was discussing with the Russians. Flynn’s testimony, or that of others cognizant of the contents of the phone calls, would call into question the President’s own behavior: did he authorize Flynn to discuss sanctions? Was he pleased that Flynn did so? Was this part of a broader scheme of accommodating Moscow’s interests?

The Congressional cover raises other questions: was it part of a deal to obtain Flynn’s resignation? Why wasn’t Flynn just fired? What are his non-disclosure arrangements with the Administration?

Whatever the answers, it is clear that Flynn’s resignation does not solve the basic problem, which is Trump’s unrestrained and so far unconditional desire for an improved relationship with Vladimir Putin. The President has never made it clear what he expects from this improved relationship, only that it would somehow magically make things better in the world. He also hasn’t specified what he would be prepared to give up in return: recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea? Southeastern Ukraine? Independence of Transnistria? Annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are already nominally independent? NATO accession of Montenegro, now on the Senate’s agenda for ratification? Further NATO expansion in the Balkans? NATO expansion further into Scandinavia? An end to American support for rebels in Syria?

These questions persist even without Flynn. Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson may restrain the White House from some particularly bad impulses, especially Trump’s inclination to ditch NATO altogether, but their leverage will be limited. If the President is prepared to pursue a rapprochement with Russia despite the failures recorded by his two immediate predecessors, he will no doubt pick a new National Security Adviser prepared to pursue his policy direction. I doubt that can be David Petraeus, who in any event is already tarred with the brush of security violations. But I trust there are lots of other people who will do the work if given the opportunity.

In the meanwhile, the resignation of the National Security Adviser (and according to the press his deputy) will throw a National Security Council already roiled by leaks into further turmoil. President Trump has already failed to respond with anything but a few thin words of support to Japan when North Korea tested a missile in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. He is looking unprepared for a crisis, which of course means that someone somewhere on earth is likely to think this is a good time to precipitate one. An already messy transition has unsettled America’s relationships across the globe and now seems likely to open the door to a serious security challenge.

It is easy enough to say good riddance to Flynn. But there are real risks involved in a presidency committed to cooperation with Putin’s aggressive Russia and unprepared to meet even the challenge of a North Korean missile test.

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Turkish media before the coup attempt

Last Wednesday, Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) and Gallup hosted a research briefing on media use in Turkey, from one of the last surveys conducted in Turkey before the state of emergency instated after the failed coup in July 2016. Chris Stewart, Partner at Gallup, introduced the speakers and noted the dynamism of the media market in Turkey with recent shifts that impact journalism in a huge way. The event featured Benjamin Ryan, Consulting Specialist at Gallup, who shared findings from the World Poll conducted in April 2016 through computer assisted telephone interviews, and William Bell, Director of Research at Voice of America, who presented the findings from BBG’s research in 2016.

Ryan said that Turkey’s survey results on confidence in political institutions resemble those of the US more closely than those of Turkey’s regional neighbors. Confidence in the military is consistently high, and approval of police forces is higher than before. Because this survey predates the attempted coup this summer, it will be interesting to see how that event will impact public opinion in the future. Attitudes on Turkey’s economic outlook showed steady improvement since 2006, particularly among young Turks. Ryan remarked that the steady confidence in political institutions is in line with Erdoğan’s own approval and might indicate his centrality as a leader. Not all of the findings were positive, as trust in the judicial system is notably lower than other institutions, about on par with US ratings.

Despite Freedom House reports indicating a decline in freedom of the press, 38% of those surveyed expressed confidence in media freedom; opinion varied along education, region, and age. Well-educated Turks, as well as those in peripheral regions–particularly the South East–tend to be more critical. Ryan remarked that countries with low press suppression have a positive correlation with public opinion of the media, yet those who had high ratings of suppression, such as Turkey, had no correlation.

Bell explained that on the surface Turkey is among the most diverse media markets, with a large number of media outlets and no clear dominant news source. People have access to foreign media sources and take advantage of them. However, recent political events engendered internet censorship and an overall reduction in media freedom. Many people express dissatisfaction with Turkish news sources. Internet is the most used platform for young people in Turkey, but Bell pointed out that younger population did not deem staying current with the news as important as their older countrymen.

Bell went on to explicate the process BBG uses to assess perceptions of the US abroad, where survey participants rate the importance of several attributes for an ideal state, then assess the United States using the same metric. The characteristics tested, created in collaboration with the US State Department, include quality of education, protection of human rights, peaceful relations among ethnic groups, business opportunities, disaster aid and relief, functioning democracy, and internal crime prevention. The US scored high in education and business opportunities. Over all, Bell showed that Turkey sees the US as better than other Arab countries, and the results show that young Turks are more likely to consider the US in a positive light.

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Assad may stay, but his abuses shouldn’t

RAND colleagues have again updated their proposal for de-escalation and decentralization in Syria. This time there is no pretense that Assad would cooperate, only an assertion that he is unlikely to do better given his weakening military forces. The proposition now is for a Russian/American/Turkish  and maybe /Iranian agreement imposed on him and the opposition, once Raqqa is taken by the Kurdish and allied Arab forces now investing it.

Raqqa would be put under international (UN or US/Russian) administration, the opposition would remain in control of a slice of the south, Idlib would likely fall to the regime, the “Manbij pocket” would remain in Turkish or surrogate Turkoman hands, and Kurds would rule the rest of the north. Assad would control “useful Syria” in the populous western “spine” and might eventually get his hands on Deir Azzour and its oil resources in the east, where regime forces have held on through more than six years of revolution and war.

The premise behind this proposal is that we are near if not at a mutually hurting stalemate, in which the warring parties conclude that they have no prospect of gaining much from continued fighting. What Jim Dobbins, Phil Gordon, and Jeffrey Martini are proposing is what is known in the negotiating trade as a “way out.” They don’t claim that what they propose is fair or just, only that ending the fighting and refocusing the military effort against the extremists of Jabhat Fateh al Sham and the Islamic State is what serves US interests best. While they don’t say it, I suppose Donald Trump could claim that an internationally administered Raqqa province is the “safe zone” that he has repeatedly promised. This is a faute de mieux proposal based on the emerging situation, not an optimal one.

Perhaps the most controversial part of the proposal is the Kurdish-led attack on Raqqa, followed by a withdrawal in favor of an international administration. Some would like to see Turkish-backed Arab forces engaged there, perhaps in parallel if not jointly with the Kurdish-led Arabs. The rest amounts mainly to acceptance of the status quo, or the presumed status to be.

I understand why Americans focus on who takes Raqqa–it is the “capital” and last real stronghold of the Islamic State in Syria. Its conquest will affect the geopolitics of the region for a long time to come. But I also think it is what Alfred North Whitehead called a “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” For me, the main issue is how the two-thirds of Syrians under Assad control in the western spine of the country will live, what will happen with the 6.6 million displaced people, and whether the 4.8 million Syrian refugees will be welcomed back to the country. It is a mistake to focus on Raqqa without considering these issues.

While the Trump administration may have different ideas, it was hard to imagine until January 20 that the United States would help the Assad regime with anything but the massive humanitarian aid it has provided throughout the fighting, much of which has gone to regime-controlled areas.

Reconstruction assistance is another matter. The Russians and Iranians have already told Assad they have given during the war and cannot be relied upon once it is over. Iran has recently cut its subsidized oil shipments. If the fighting ends with a negotiated agreement along the lines RAND proposes, the Americans and Europeans will be expected to ante up, if not directly at least by allowing IMF and World Bank assistance.

What conditions should govern American and European support for reconstruction?

Here is where the West has a chance to win the peace, even if the opposition has lost the war. It will need to use prospective assistance as leverage to get Assad to drop his authoritarian brutality, illustrated recently by Amnesty International’s graphic report on the executions at Saydnaya prison. The US should lay out clearly and in advance the conditions under which it would consider more than humanitarian assistance to Syria’s civilians under regime control. Something like these might be considered:

  • Release of all political prisoners and an accounting for all those executed or still held.
  • Amnesty for non-violent demonstrators.
  • Reform of the security and judicial services, with accountability for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
  • Withdrawal of all foreign forces, including Lebanese Hizbollah as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shia militias, as well as demobilization and dissolution of all sectarian forces.
  • An inclusive process for revising the Syrian constitution and deciding when free and fair elections will be held.
  • Creation of an independent electoral commission.
  • Elimination of excessive constraints on media and political activity.
  • Freedom to return without reprisals for all refugees and displaced people.
  • An end to the crony capitalism that was a driving force of the revolution.

A vigorous and capable UN mission or something of the sort would be required to get fulfillment of such conditions and monitor implementation.

Assad is nowhere near accepting such conditions today. He continues with bold-faced denials, not only of the executions at Saydnaya but even the well-documented use of barrel bombs against civilians and attacks on hospitals and schools. If he persists in that vein, America and Europe should keep their wallets in their pockets and let come what may. Worrying about how Raqqa will be governed is far less important than making sure the abuses come to an end in the areas Assad controls.

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Peace Picks February 13-17

  1. Challenges to the Yemeni Peace Process | Monday, February 13 | 10:00am – 11:30am | The Atlantic Council | Register HERE Please join the Atlantic Council for an on-the-record discussion with H.E. Khaled Alyemany, Yemen’s permanent representative to the United Nations, to discuss challenges and opportunities in the Yemeni peace process. In March 2015, an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen at the request of Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi to reverse an offensive by Houthi rebels allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who was ousted following mass protests in 2011. Almost two years into the conflict, we will assess the main challenges and opportunities in the peace process and the prospects of a sustained political settlement to end the war as well as the role the United States could play in bringing that to fruition.
  2. Afghanistan: Prospects for 2017 and Beyond | Monday, February 13 | 12:15pm – 1:45pm | New America | Register HERE With his inauguration as President, Donald Trump is the third president to command American forces in Afghanistan. Yet Afghanistan continues to receive little attention in public debates over policy. More than 15 years after American forces first entered the country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, what are the prospects for the Afghan government and people and how will Donald Trump shape American policy towards Afghanistan?
  3. Yemen at a Crossroads: The Role of the GCC in 2017 | Monday, February 13 | 6:00pm – 7:30pm | Persian Gulf Institute | Register HERE Please join PGI for a discussion on Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC’s) role in the country for the coming year. We will begin with opening remarks by three individuals with unique experiences in the region followed by a group discussion -that includes you! It will be moderated by PGI President Shahed Ghoreishi and will feature PGI Research Director Robert Bonn. The event will also include time for networking and further discussion in a more informal setting at the end. The bios of our panelists are below. Please reserve your tickets soon because space is limited in order to promote a quality group discussion. We look forward to seeing you there!
  4. The Arab World Upended: Revolution and its Aftermath in Tunisia and Egypt | Tuesday, February 14 | 12:00pm – 1:00pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Register HERE As Egypt marks the sixth anniversary of the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, The Arab World Upended undertakes to track the similarities between the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and the great Western revolutions. It also seeks to explain why the two Arab uprisings experienced such vastly different outcomes and examines the likely enduring legacies of these first two major Arab revolutions of the 21st century on the politics of the entire region.
  5. Iraq and the GCC: New Realities in Gulf Security | Tuesday, February 14 | 1:00pm – 2:30pm | The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington | Register HERE This AGSIW panel will discuss the state of relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Iraq. How do Gulf countries view Iraq’s evolving regional role? What role might they play in reshaping Iraq’s domestic landscape, particularly the crucial struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and bolstering its political stability? Besides counterterrorism and trade, what other opportunities for cooperation and strengthened ties can be explored? Can Iraq reassure GCC states regarding its relationship with Iran, or even use them as a counterweight to Iranian pressure? Could Baghdad help mediate between Tehran and its GCC rivals? What is the Gulf interest in the Kurdish question, and its impact on other regional concerns, including Syria? How does American policy factor into these and other questions?
  6. Challenges and Opportunities for US-Iraqi Relations in the New Era | Wednesday, February 15 | 9:00am – 10:00am | Woodrow Wilson Center | Register HERE Fourteen years after the American-led invasion, Iraq remains a fractured country and stability continues to be an elusive goal. The Kurds in the north are threatening secession while neighboring Iran is projecting its influence to Baghdad. Meanwhile, Iraq is the site of one of the most intense fights against ISIS where Iraqi troops, assisted by American special forces, are slowly working to recapture Mosul. As an oil and gas rich country, Iraq is also an important player in the world energy markets and more strategically significant to the United States than many other states in the region. Complicating the U.S.-Iraqi relationship is the recent White House executive order that temporarily bans Iraqi citizens from entering the United States. Experts will discuss the future of U.S.-Iraq relations within the context of a new American administration.
  7. UN Human Rights Chief on His ‘Impossible Diplomacy’ | Thursday, February 16 | 4:30pm – 6:00pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register HERE Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian career diplomat and leader in international criminal justice, serves as the seventh United Nations high commissioner for human rights. He led in the creation of the International Criminal Court and in the framing of the world’s legal definition of “crimes against humanity.” On Feb. 16, the U.S. Institute of Peace will host Amb. Zeid as he receives the annual Trainor Award from Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Amb. Zeid will speak on “The Impossible Diplomacy of Human Rights.”
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Trump is losing, but still making chaos

@MaxBoot tweeted last night:

Xi forces affirmation of “One China.” Mexico won’t pay for wall. 9th Circuit stops EO. Flynn/Conway scandals. Is Trump tired of winning yet?

140 characters permitting, he might have added that

  • Trump is delaying the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
  • The administration is forgetting Secretary of State Tillerson’s pledge to prevent Chinese access to the islands it has fortified in the South China Sea.
  • The wall is now projected to cost more than twice candidate Trump’s projection.
  • The President has expressed displeasure that Kellyanne Conway has been “counseled” for violating ethnics regulations.
  • Congressional Republicans are questioning whether National Security Adviser Flynn can remain in place, and the 9th Circuit decision makes it unlikely that the Administration will win an appeal.
  • Trump’s Supreme Court nominee has suggested that criticism of judges, which the President has indulged in repeatedly, is demoralizing and disheartening to the judiciary.

From my Schadenfreude perspective, these are all positive developments. To stimie Trump, or at least try to hold him and his minions accountable, is to make the world better place.

But let’s not kid ourselves. the Trumpistas have already had a devastating impact on American prestige and influence abroad. Trump’s doubts about the NATO Alliance have shaken European confidence. He won’t even be able to visit the UK, where giant crowds would protest his appearance. His immigration ban has demoralized allies in the Arab world, especially Iraq, and boosted extremist recruiting. His bromance with Putin has encouraged the Russians to continue their interventions in Syria and eastern Ukraine. His hostility towards Iran has encouraged its worst impulses, including additional missile tests after being put “on notice.”

While I have good friends who think Barack Obama was a frighteningly weak foreign policy president, his retrenching America is looking coherent and even visionary by comparison. In a few short weeks, Trump has weakened America, not strengthened it.

The ramifications are many. I had a note this morning from the Balkans that read in part:

I have to say that Trumpizm effects the rest of the world in which provinces like Balkans can not understand who is who and what is real American politics and interest towards them!

The same thing might be said in eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Asia Pacific and even in Latin America. At the current rate, it will be true in the Arctic and Antarctica before long. All American presidential transitions are unsettling, but this one is an order of magnitude more chaos-producing than most. It has brought people to power in the White House who simply do not adhere to the well-established lines of American foreign policy, which have served pretty well since 1945. When you need to be reading an obsure Italian Fascist writer to understand the intellectual antecedents of the chief strategist to the President, you know something is wrong.

I’m not immune to radicalism. I indulged in it during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. There are things today that merit hard opposition in my estimation, including Trump’s appointment of cabinet members who oppose the missions of the agencies they are supposed to lead and his appointment of a documented and committed racist as Attorney General. But Trump’s radicalism appears to have little more than his own impulsive and erratic whims as its basis, combined with a few repugnant right-wing shibboleths about race, public education, the environment, and energy production.

The bully is already backing down on some of his worst impulses, but that does nothing to give the world an America that it can understand and rely on. Trump likes unpredictability. Friends and adversaries alike do not.

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