I’ve spent the last few days with people from many parts of the Middle East. They were cheerier than you might think, but glimmers of hope go a long way in a dark tunnel. Here are a few of the things I learned.
In Yemen, there are big risks of further radicalization and fragmentation–not just southern secession–if the fighting continues. But both the Houthis, who have bitten off more than they want to chew, and the Saudis, who feel they have prevented an Iranian takeover, are exhausted. Everyone might just be ready to give something like peace a chance.
The best prospect is for agreement that some neutral party will take over the vital port of Hudaydah, through which 70-80% of Yemen’s food supplies flow. That would prevent the impending humanitarian catastrophe and allow some check on the flow of weapons and ammunition into the country. If then Sanaa can be made safe for the return of politicians who have opposed the Houthis, it might be possible to finish the political transition Yemen started more than six years ago by thanking President Hadi for his service and establishing an inclusive interim government. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Iraq is seeing glimmers of hope as well. The Iraqi security forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga and the mostly Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs) as well as the Iraqi army and police, are doing all right in retaking Mosul, where they are moving slowly against strong ISIS resistance and trying hard to avoid civilian casualties. Cooperation has been good. The Pesh and the PMUs are staying on the outskirts of the city while local police backed by the Iraqi Army go inside. The operation should be concluded soon. Cooperation is expected to continue in retaking other towns like Tal Afar and Hawija.
But translating military cooperation against a common enemy into political results is proving difficult. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is planning an independence referendum for the September-November time frame. All the Kurdish political parties except for Gorran are participating in planning that effort. The result will be overwhelming in favor, but an independence declaration will not follow immediately. Erbil plans for a year or two of negotiations with Baghdad over the full range of outstanding issues (territory, oil, finances, displaced people, citizenship, etc.).
Baghdad doesn’t like this idea but isn’t going to try to stop it by force. Preoccupied with growing stabilization and reconstruction requirements, people in Baghdad don’t see how the KRG can pay for independence at current or likely future oil prices, don’t believe Iraq’s neighbors will go along with it, and are focused on instituting the kind of decentralization nationwide that should satisfy not only Iraq’s Kurds but also its Sunni and Shia.
Though any reasonable person would conclude that the Iraqi Kurds have lots of good reasons for wanting independence, they lack the internal and international conditions that would permit it. However, if they are able to negotiate borders with Baghdad and adequate financial arrangements, the picture would change significantly. They would still however face implacable Iranian opposition as well as Turkish discomfort. Ankara may not care so much any more about the KRG’s political status, but Turkish recognition while it is fighting its own and the Syrian Kurds seems a bridge too far.
Syria of course is the toughest nut. There may be some small hope for the Russian/Syrian/Turkish negotiations in Astana to produce workable “de-escalation” zones, though there is still no monitoring or enforcement mechanism. Translating any minor success in Astana to the political talks in Geneva is proving impossible, not least because Bashar al Assad is winning and sees no reason to compromise. The Americans may even hand him Raqaa on a silver platter, so that they can withdraw and declare the Islamic State finished.
Of course it won’t be. Eastern and other parts of Syria (maybe Homs and Hama) will suffer for a long time from a continuing and ever more extremist Sunni insurgency. Nor will the Americans want to ante up for stabilization or reconstruction. They want to kill the Islamic State and get out. Not one dime for governance in Syria is the White House mantra. The Russians, Iranians, and Turks will be stuck for a long time battling shadowy, ruthless, and deadly enemies.
The five million refugees are unlikely to go back under these circumstances. Nor would Assad want them, as he figures they are all his opponents. If the Europeans pay, he might take a token few thousand, but not many more. Another seven million Syrians are displaced inside the country. They aren’t likely going home either.
No Libyans where I was this weekend. But there is a glimmer of hope there that the UN-sponsored political leadership may find some way of compromising with Egyptian-backed would-be autocrat Haftar. That might be nice, or it might be the beginning of the end for one or the other of them, which could either be nice or a big problem.
So a little progress in the Middle East, here and there. But we are a long way from the end of its four civil wars.
President Trump’s firing of FBI Director Comey is confirmation of what I said yesterday: Flynn was not the only one compromised. It is really hard to imagine after yesterday’s testimony by former Deputy Attorney General Yates that this hasty move isn’t aimed to block a serious investigation of criminal activity in the White House. Trump simply cannot afford an FBI that acts independently, as it is supposed to do in pursuing criminal activity.
The obvious precedent is the Saturday Night Massacre, when in 1973 President Nixon fired a special prosecutor and both the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General quit in response. Of course there is no possibility Jeff Sessions or his Deputy Attorney General, both cited as recommending the firing, will quit. They are reliable Trump loyalists. The analogy lies in the president’s attempt to stymie an investigation bound to produce results. After Saturday Night, Nixon was compelled to appoint a new special prosecutor and was gone within a year, once impeachment became a certainty.
The Deputy Attorney General is asserting that the firing is due to Comey’s handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation last summer, which heavily favored Trump’s election campaign. That is bozotic. Comey bent over backwards to help Trump by hiding the fact that the FBI was also investigating his campaign. Trump last summer praised Comey to the skies for his handling of the Clinton emails. No one he appoints as director after this firing could be relied on to conduct a serious investigation.
The Democrats are calling for an independent special prosecutor.* But it won’t happen until the Republicans realize that this president is going down and will take them with him unless they cut him loose. There is no predicting when they will reach that conclusion, but for the country’s sake I hope it is a matter of weeks or months rather than years. The sooner Mike Pence becomes president the better prepared for the 2018 election the Republicans will be. This should be the beginning of the end for a president clearly determined to prevent anyone from finding out the truth about his and his campaign’s relations with Moscow.
*PS: It turns out this is not possible, as the enabling legislation has been allowed to expire. The correct term of art these days is apparently “special counsel.” Apologies.
Former Deputy Attorney General Yates testified yesterday that former National Security Advisor Flynn was “compromised” by the Russians. They knew he was lying when he claimed his conversations with the Russian Ambassador did not discuss relief from sanctions and could have used that knowledge to blackmail him. They also knew he had accepted payments uncleared and unreported to the Defense Department, as required for former military flag officers.
Yates told the White House General Counsel, but President Trump waited 18 days before firing Flynn until reports of his lies became public. He fired Yates far more quickly: the day after she refused to defend his travel ban in court, which several courts have now ruled unconstitutional. Yates yesterday called it “unlawful,” which was presumably intended to convey that she was not obligated to defend it.
This tale may sound boring in the heartland, but in DC it rarely gets juicier. Flynn, a three-star Army intelligence officer who climbed on the Trump bandwagon early, would have been a fabulous asset for Moscow as national security advisor, though we don’t know that he was ever fully “turned.” We do know that he took payments from Russia Today, Moscow’s virulent propaganda arm, and also from Turkey. And that he cared enough about his rapport with Russia to lie not only to the public but also to the Vice President.
Even better: President Obama warned Trump not to hire Flynn. Trump not only hired him but appears not to have properly vetted him and then tried to protect him. That might have been just the defensive crouch of a new Administration anxious not to suffer any early losses. Or, the President himself may also have been compromised in one way or another, making him reluctant to buck President Putin by firing Flynn. There is really no way to tell with the information at our disposal.
More isn’t likely to become available. No one with a job in the White House is going to help clarify the President’s motives for hesitating to fire Flynn. Only someone now outside, but early in the Administration inside the tight circle surrounding Trump, will know. Nor is the Congress likely to get to the bottom of the matter: at yesterday’s hearing, the Republicans–who control the investigations in both houses–appeared reluctant to ask about anything but why Yates refused to defend the President’s travel ban in court and how Flynn’s lies became public.
So what have we here? A president who tried to protect someone the Russians had compromised fingered by a former official whom he did quickly fire once he knew she would not do his bidding. Call me old fashioned, but this is a scandal of major proportions, with likely far-reaching ramifications. Flynn isn’t the only one compromised.
Neophyte politician Emanuele Macron today is projected to have won the French presidency, defeating nationalist Marine Le Pen. The outcome will not end the anti-European Union, anti-euro, anti-NATO, anti-immigrant surge in French politics, but it settles the presidency in reliably liberal democratic hands for the next five years.
The potential problem lies in the National Assembly, which is scheduled for elections in June. Macron lacks a well-established political party, so he may have trouble gaining the same kind of dominant legislative power French presidents have usually wielded. Le Pen may do much better in legislative elections, as her party is well-established and her support is spread through much of the country.
That said, this is the second European election that has repudiated Trump-like nationalists, aka white supremacists. The first was in the Netherlands, where racist Geert Wilders did less well than expected. The next will be in September in Germany, where Chancellor Merkel also did well in a regional election yesterday. In any event, both she and her principal opponent, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, are reliable anti-nationalists.
What does this mean for the US? We seem far less able to reject the nationalist upsurge than Europe, where only Britain has fallen victim by approving exit from the EU. But there is no doubt President Trump and his minions have been hoping for nationalist fellow travelers in Europe, where he might even hope they would break up the Union, which he loathes. Their disappointment will be felt all the more deeply because Barack Obama endorsed Macron while Trump all but endorsed Le Pen.
Trump’s last European hope now is likely Italy, where elections are due before May 2018 and may be held early. There populist comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement has been gaining ground. The Italians, remember, invented the businessman/populist/nationalist more than 20 years ago, when Silvio Berlusconi first came on the political scene. He is blessedly discredited, but Grillo is no better.
Trump, who endorsed Le Pen, now has more important things to worry about. He won the vote in the House last week to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, the health insurance law that has greatly expanded coverage for Americans, especially (the irony!) Trump voters in key states. Trump is trying hard to crash Obamacare by trashing the state-level marketplaces in which people can sign up for health insurance. He figures then the Democrats in the Senate will have to cooperate with some modified version of “repeal and replace” that would then have to be sent back to the House for final approval.
Trump is also planning his first foreign travel as president this month: Saudi Arabia, Israel/Palestine, Rome for the Pope as well as the Italian government, then Brussels for meetings with the EU, NATO and the Belgian government, and Taormina (Sicily) for the G7 summit.
The Saudis are no doubt looking forward to a meeting with a president who won’t harass them about human rights and is hostile to Iran, the Israelis and Palestinians are still waiting to see if the administration has any serious ideas about their peace process, the EU and NATO will hope the visit marks the end of the president’s skepticism about their institutions, and the G7 will be thankful their club has survived the rise of China and the death of the G8 (which included Russia).
Trump’s past foreign trips have been notable for serious gaffes as well as aggressive pursuit of his business interests. I’d bet we’ll see more of the same on this one. But they serve another purpose: they’ll help us all forget that he has been unsuccessful so far in dunning North Korea into submission and hasn’t made any progress on renegotiating NAFTA or blocking people from his selected Muslim countries from entering the US.
A Le Pen win would have made Trump’s upcoming travel a triumphal march through a Europe on the ropes. At least, phew!, that is not going to happen.
- Cultural Diplomacy to Tackle Today’s Challenges | Monday, May 8 | 4:30-6pm | SAIS | Register Here | Vali Nasr, Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies, and Fred Bronstein, Dean of the Peabody Institute, invite you to join world class violinist and UN Messenger of Peace Midori, and a distinguished panel, for a 360 degree reflection on how cultural diplomacy can help better address today’s most pressing global challenges. Panel includes Jeffrey Brez, Chief of NGO Relations, Advocacy, and Special Events in the Department of Public Information; Ashlee George, Executive Director of the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project; and Evan Ryan, executive vice president of Axios.
- Trump’s Middle East Policy: Analyzing the First Hundred Days | Tuesday, May 9 | 11:45-1:30pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | President Trump’s foreign policy has been heavily scrutinized over the course of his first hundred days in office, as his early steps are likely to shape Washington’s interactions with the international community for the next four years. To examine the broader implications of the new administration’s moves in the Middle East, Hudson Institute will host a bipartisan panel featuring Michael Pregent, former intelligence officer and adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute; Marie Harf, former senior advisor for strategic communications to Secretary of State John Kerry; and David Tafuri, the State Department’s rule of law coordinator in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. On May 9, the panel will assess key strategic issues from Trump’s handling of the JCPOA to his decision to launch cruise missile strikes against a government airbase in Syria, and evaluate the long-term outlook for American foreign policy under the Trump administration. Suzanne Kianpour of BBC News will moderate the discussion.
- Iran’s Voters Go to the Polls | Tuesday, May 9 | 12-1:30 | MEI | Register Here | On May 19, Iranians will cast ballots for their next president, choosing between the six candidates authorized by the Supreme Leader’s Guardian Council. Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who sought relief from international sanctions by agreeing to constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, faces challengers attacking him on the economy, foreign policy, and his commitment to Islamist revolutionary ideals. Whatever its outcome will be, the election will impact the security landscape of the Gulf and beyond as the Trump Administration develops its regional policy. Middle East Institute (MEI) scholar Alex Vatanka will be joined by author and journalist Nazila Fathi and analyst Alireza Nader (RAND) to discuss the election, its political context, and the potential consequences of the impending vote for Iran, its neighbors, and the United States. Foreign affairs reporter for The Washington Post Ishaan Tharoor will moderate the discussion.
- The Upcoming Aramco IPO: Strategy, Investment, Politics | Tuesday, May 9 | 1:00-2:30pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | As part of the Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia intends to offer 5 percent of the state-owned Saudi Aramco to foreign investment in what is expected to be the biggest IPO in history. Tentatively slated for 2018, the IPO is highly anticipated—and likely to be highly scrutinized. The Saudi government has estimated that the company, more than twice the size of Exxon Mobil, is worth $2 trillion, making the shares worth a potential $100 billion. However, analysts within the company have warned that Aramco may be worth at least $500 billion less. Amid these questions, Saudi Arabia has undertaken measures to increase the company’s attractiveness to international investors, including slashing Aramco’s tax rate from 85 to 50 percent, attempting to untangle the company’s finances, and exploring potential ventures and investments in natural gas. Please join the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center for a discussion on the outlook for the IPO, its potential impact on financial markets, implications for oil markets, and possible responses from producers. Panelists include Phillip Cornell, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, Ayham Kamel, Director, Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group, Jean-Francois Seznec, a nonresident senior fellow in the Global Energy Center, and Richard L. Morningstar, the founding director and chairman of the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council.
- Russian and US Roles in the Middle East: the View from Israel | Tuesday, May 9 | 3:00-4:00pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | Israel occupies a unique position in relations with the U.S. and Russia. Israel’s traditionally close ties with the U.S. were undermined by deep differences and growing mistrust during the Obama administration. At the same time, despite profound contradictions in interests and agenda, Israel has developed close relations with Russia. Therefore, Israel serves as a valuable lens through which to view the changing engagement of Russia and America in the region. George F. Kennan Expert Yuri Teper will discuss these shifts and their implications for the new U.S. administration.
- Progress and Challenges for Gulf Women | Wednesday, May 10 | 12:00pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Women’s rights in the Middle East, and in the Gulf in particular, have changed greatly in the past decades alongside modernization efforts and the introduction of new technologies such as social media. Though there are still a number of challenges to fully incorporating women into society in the region, positive milestones have likewise been achieved. Please join the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East for a discussion with a panel of Gulf women leaders to explore achievements in this sphere as well as areas where more attention and change is needed. Panelists include Amal Almoallimi, Assistant to the Secretary General, King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue and Board Member, Saudi Human Rights Commission; Hamda Al-Sulaiti, Secretary General, Qatar National Commission for Education, Culture, and Science; and Dr. Lubna Al-Kadi, Founder and Director, Women’s Research and Studies Center, Kuwait.
- Western Policy Toward the Syrian Crisis: Looking Forward | Thursday, May 11 | 11:45-1:30pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | As American and European policymakers search for ways to end the conflict already stretching into its sixth year, a new report by Chatham House explains the need for a comprehensive solution combining political and military components: “The absence of a coherent strategic vision for Syria – or the political will to see it through – on the part of Western governments has contributed to the increasing strength and influence of ISIL and other extremist groups. These groups cannot be countered by military means alone, however. Without a political agreement to end the conflict, tactical measures for fighting extremism in Syria will fail, as they have elsewhere.” The key question is: How do you get there? On May 11, Hudson Institute will host a discussion examining both American and European perspectives on the war in Syria and Western policy. Join us as Hudson senior fellow Lee Smith moderates a conversation with European experts Lina Khatib (Chatham House) and Neil Quilliam (Chatham House) and their American counterparts Tony Badran (Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) and Andrew Tabler (The Washington Institute).
- The Global Counterterrorism Forum | Friday, May 12 | 9:00-5:00pm | GW Program on Extremism | Register Here | The Global Counterterrorism Forum is an international forum with an overarching mission of reducing the vulnerability of people worldwide to terrorism by preventing, combating, and prosecuting terrorist acts and countering incitement and recruitment to terrorism. This event in particular will tackle domestic terrorism in the U.S., radicalization and de-radicalization, and attempt to draw up a best practices document. About 60 State Department members of the Global Counterterrorism Forum will be present throughout the duration.
- Dean’s Forum- Women Who Inspire with Dr. Condoleezza Rice | Friday, May 12 | 2:00-3:30pm | SAIS | Register Here | Dean Vali Nasr, FPI and SAIS Women Lead invite you to join, in a conversation on her new book Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, Condoleezza Rice. Moderated by Ambassador Shirin Thair-Kheli, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute.
I haven’t found a transcript of Secretary of State Tillerson’s remarks at the State Department yesterday, but the New York Times published an account that suggests he was treated to thunderous applause at the end. That makes me wonder who was really in the room.
The problems start with Tillerson’s picture of what the State Department was doing until he took over. He apparently thinks it was mainly promoting economic activity, especially trade with emerging economies. This would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. The main preoccupation of most people at State and most State officers in American embassies abroad is defending US interests, first and foremost in protecting US national security but also including US exports and investment abroad. Though American trade policy is not on the whole mercantilist, I’ve never heard of a generalized instruction to increase economic activity, In any event the State Department is not in charge of the trade agreements the Administration loathes. The separate US Trade Representative negotiates those.
On specific issues Tillerson is equally obtuse and unaware of what has happened until now. On North Korea, he is aiming to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons by ratcheting up sanctions and convincing the Chinese to pressure Pyongyang. That has been tried, repeatedly, by his predecessors, without much success. He seems blissfully unaware of that. In other venues, he has emphasized military pressure, but that too has been tried and runs into a big problem: the North Korean conventional threat to South Korea, especially its artillery targeting Seoul.
Tillerson puts a good deal of stock in a high-level dialogue with China. A strategic and economic dialogue with China has been meeting since 2009. The Secretary even now can read about that on the Treasury Department’s website, though I imagine the administration will eventually get to erasing any sign of the previous president’s activity. Tillerson refers to a 50-year time horizon for the focus of those discussions. I’m going to enjoy hearing whether they get past 3 years.
The Administration is already backing off the US Navy freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, in an apparent effort to mollify the Chinese. Those who feared a belligerent attitude towards China, based on Tillerson’s remarks during his confirmation hearing that we should prevent China from accessing their reclaimed “islands” in the South China Sea need worry no more. Or maybe they do, given the Trump Administration’s lack of consistency and coherence.
Acknowledging that relations with Russia are at a low point, Tillerson still hopes for cooperation with them on a ceasefire in Syria. That’s something his predecessor spent the better part of a year trying to make happen in reality (it has existed for some time on paper).
We are now discussing “de-escalation” zones with Moscow, a watered down version of “safe” zones that is unlikely to work simply because they would be target-rich environments requiring not only restraint from the Russians and Syrian government forces but also protection from non-participants in any agreement, like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Who is going to do that? If you expect moderate opposition forces to do it, you haven’t been paying attention to whom the Russians and Syrians have been assiduously bombing.
On staffing, Tillerson is defending the Administration’s proposal to cut more than 30% of the State Department/USAID budgets but apparently said that would eliminate only 2300 jobs (by attrition), or 3% of the worldwide employees. What that suggests is that the cut to program funds will be gigantic, leaving both State and AID personnel-rich and money-poor. That’s not a formula for either efficiency or effectiveness.
Tillerson implied the State Department hasn’t adjusted to the post-Cold War era. That really does make me laugh, as I lived through the better part of a decade at State during which the Department rethought its strategy and redeployed its personnel, which then had to done again after 9/11 raised the spectre of international terrorism.
This is a Secretary of State almost as ignorant of what has preceded him as President Trump. Institutional amnesia is not a basis on which to build a coherent and effective foreign policy.
PS: Here is the transcript of Tillerson’s remarks. It takes some of the edge off the New York Times version, but not the institutional amnesia.