What to do in the Balkans

I prepared these speaking notes for a briefing on the Balkans today:

  1. The US is responsible for three peace agreements in the Balkans: Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, leaving behind a web that has prevented war for more than 15 years.
  1. All the countries of the region have made substantial progress in political and economic reform.
  1. But progress has slowed and even stalled since the European recession.
  1. The Greek financial crisis, the massive flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and Brexit have made it doubtful that the promise of EU membership can be fulfilled any time soon.
  1. EU charm is not working as well as it once did, despite Mogherini’s strong statements.
  1. This is a problem for the US because we have been depending on Europe to carry the burden in the Balkans, with US support when needed.
  1. But if Brussels fails, the peace agreements could unravel, with serious consequences: heightened migration not only through but from the Balkans, growing radicalization of Balkan Muslims, and increasing Russian troublemaking near and even inside NATO.
  1. What is needed is mainly a diplomatic, not a military, effort to complete Balkan peace processes so that all the countries of the region can join NATO and the EU, if they wish to do so.
  1. This diplomatic effort could include the following:
  • Recommitment with Brussels to existing Balkan borders and states, including a planned response to any scheduling of a Republika Srpska independence referendum.
  • Accelerated NATO and EU membership.
  • Better carrots and sticks, including expanded trade and targeted sanctions.
  • Refocus aid on rule of law, particularly anti-corruption and countering extremism.
  • Increased emphasis on National Guard cooperation with Serbia, Kosovo Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia.
  • Establish a region-wide truth and reconciliation effort.
  • An enhanced effort to solve country-specific issues: Bosnia’s constitutional and electoral inadequacies, UN membership for Kosovo, Macedonia’s name.
  1. In addition, we need to counter Russian troublemaking by reducing Balkan dependence on Moscow’s gas, sanctioning those who finance Balkan leaders who threaten peace, beefing up our media capabilities, and consulting with Balkan governments on Russian election meddling.
  1. These are not expensive things, but important ones. Doing them would preserve peace and stability, avoid major costs, limit Russian troublemaking and give us a lot of secure and prosperous friends.
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Tunisia needs to keep trying

Since the overthrow of the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has been on a long journey of reform and change. However, as panelists at the Atlantic Council’s “Tunisia’s Road to Reform” last Thursday pointed out, the destination does not always appear to be democratization and economic improvement, two of the revolution’s goals. The event included former Tunisian communications minister Oussama Romdhani of the Arab Weekly, Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Fadil Aliriza, an independent journalist based in Tunis. The discussion was moderated by Karim Mezran introduced by Fred Hof of the Atlantic Council.

Tunisia’s path to democratization began with a national dialogue and the election of a new president, and according to Romdhani will continue with the upcoming municipal elections of 2018 and the general elections of 2019. There are several obstacles to democratization, including lack of participation in elections and failure of political parties to gain respect and credibility. Tunisia’s political parties, the most significant of which are Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes, are largely disconnected from the reality faced by their constituents and are inefficient due to the continuous feuding that occurs between them. Aliriza criticized the current parties saying that they are based on personality rather than politics and that their categorization (liberal, secular, Islamist, etc) and ideologies are outdated and based on the old, pre-revolution model.

Romdhani also referred to social unrest, which he considered to be in part a result of the desire for “instant gratification” by Tunisia’s youth. This has put pressure on a government that, in his view, does not have the means to provide reform in a short period of time. Economic pressures, the instability in neighboring Libya, and lack of support from the West are all additional obstacles to democratization and reform listed.

Yerkes and Aliriza both went a step further to say that Tunisia has actually taken steps towards authoritarianism, a claim that they supported using several recent events, including a cabinet reshuffle, the postponement of municipal elections, and the adoption of a reconciliation law. It was the reconciliation law that seemed to be the most worrying to Aliriza, because it pardons civil servants accused of contributing to corruption under the old regime. This he said is a violation of the constitution and an effort to create a separate justice system for those associated with the old regime. The law is only beneficial to a minority of the population and has caused protests and unrest in the country.

Most importantly, the debate around the law is distracting the government as well as civil society organizations from focusing on reform. The government does have the means, Aliriza argued, but is misusing them. The law threatens the country’s stability, the disconnect between the regime and the people is growing, and the government’s legitimacy is under question. The government seems to be engaging in revolution-denial by repeating “old regime practices.”

Aliriza’s focus on the government’s shortcomings led Mezran to inquire what the panelists thought should be done about the flawed operations of the parliament and political parties. Aliriza responded by emphasizing the importance of employing staff for parliament in order to allow parliamentarians to connect with their constituencies, bridging the existing divide. He also proposed the creation of new parties and the greater inclusion of youth in formal politics. Yerkes agreed on the need for parliamentary staff to allow parliamentarians to travel and meet with the population.

She also thinks the time has come to move past Tunisia’s consensus model. The requirement that political parties agree with each other on policy issues may have previously provided stability, Yerkes admitted, but is currently undermining the legitimacy of each party in the eyes of its followers. The lack of debate has led to stagnation.

More defensively, Romdhani called for a change in perspective when viewing Tunisia’s government. Credibility, for example, should not be viewed as an isolated issue, but should rather in a regional context: the Tunisian people, in comparison with other countries that witnessed revolutions as part of the Arab spring, are still committed to freedom and democracy, making the Tunisian case “less worrisome” than others. Furthermore, in what can be interpreted as a response to Aliriza’s firm opposition to the reconciliation law, Romdhani said that those opposed to the law must pursue an already existing legal process and better explain their concerns instead of resorting to protests and filibusters.

While the panel revolved mostly around challenges and obstacles to reform in Tunisia, Yerkes took some time to remind the audience of promising aspects of the country’s development. These include the potential that the 2019 election brings and the role that civil society plays in holding the government accountable. Despite a large number of challenges, Tunisia remains, in the eyes of many, an example of a successful Arab revolution. As long is it continues to take steps towards fulfilling such a vision, that image will persist.

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Peace picks October 2 – 6

  1. All Jihad is Local: Lessons from ISIS in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula | Monday, October 2 | 12:15 – 1:45 pm | New America | Register Here | In “All Jihad is Local: Inside ISIS Recruitment in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula”, a forthcoming paper from New America, Nate Rosenblatt and David Sterman examine thousands of ISIS’ own entry records, finding that ISIS benefitted from different factors that enabled its mobilization of fighters in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. In addition to providing the first subnational examination of ISIS recruitment in these regions based on ISIS’ own records, the paper argues that addressing terrorist recruitment will require moving from asking “what theory explains why people become terrorists” to asking “where does a theory explain why people become terrorists.”  To discuss these issues and present initial findings from the forthcoming report, New America welcomes the authors of the report: Nate Rosenblatt, a fellow with New America’s International Security program, Oxford doctoral student, an independent Middle East/North Africa consultant, who has lived, worked, and conducted field research in Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates and David Sterman, a policy analyst with New America’s International Security program. New America also welcomes Douglas Ollivant, ASU Future of War Senior Fellow at New America. He is a managing partner of the strategic consulting firm Mantid International, a retired Army officer, and was Director for Iraq at the National Security Council during both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations.
  2. Defense Cooperation in the West Pacific: Countering Chinese and North Korean Threats | Monday, October 6 | 12:00 – 2:00 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The western Pacific faces growing threats from a rising China and an increasingly bellicose North Korea. American policy is in the midst of change and Japan, too, is responding to the rise in regional tensions. Exactly what is the threat? What are the options for addressing it? What possibilities exist for greater cooperation? On October 2, Hudson Institute will host a distinguished panel of experts to examine these and related questions in light of growing challenges to regional and national security. Seth Cropsey, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower, will moderate a discussion with Richard D. Fisher, Jr. of the International Assessment and Strategy Center, Paul Giarra of Global Strategies & Transformation, Jun Isomura of Hudson Institute, and Kanji Ishimaru of ShinMaywa Industries, Ltd.
  3. Russia: Time to Contain? | Tuesday, October 3 | 6:00 – 8:00 pm | McCain Institute for International Leadership | Register Here | Under President Vladimir Putin, Russia has become an increasingly authoritarian regime that also flexes its muscles aggressively abroad, most notably in Ukraine and Syria. Indeed, Putin’s Russia has invaded neighboring states; imprisoned, poisoned or killed government opponents and critics; increasingly violated its own population’s human rights; and launched unprecedented interference into other countries’ elections and internal affairs. The challenges facing the Trump administration when it comes to dealing with Putin’s Russia are mounting. What should the U.S. strategy be toward Russia? Hear leading experts debate “Russia: Time for Containment?” – the latest in the Debate and Decision Series at the McCain Institute. Joining the panel are Evelyn N. Farkas of the Atlantic Council and NBC/MSNBC, Thomas Graham of Kissinger Associates, David J. Kramer of the McCain Institute and Florida International University, and Matthew Rojansky of the Woodrow Wilson Center. The event will be moderated by Elise Labott of CNN. The first 100 guests to register for this debate will receive a free copy of “Back to Containment: Dealing with Putin’s Regime” by David Kramer.
  4. What Path Forward for Libya? | Thursday, October 5 | 1:30 – 4:30 pm | Middle East Institute (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | Libya occupies a sensitive position for the security of Arab and European neighbors, including many U.S. allies, and in managing the region’s destabilizing migration flows. The country’s fractious politics and armed insurgencies are depriving Libyans of security, basic services, and economic stability, and leave the country vulnerable to jihadi terrorism. The United Nations has proposed a roadmap for rethinking the embattled government of national accord and binding Libya’s rival parliaments and militia commander Khalifa Haftar into the negotiation of a consensus path forward. The Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to present a two-panel symposium that will examine opportunities for the United States and the international community to advance Libya’s security and mobilize to meet the humanitarian challenges. The first panel, titled “How Can the International Community Promote Libya’s Stability and Security” features H.E. Wafa Bugaighis of the Embassy of Libya to the United States, Nigel Lea of GardaWorld Federal Services, Inc., Jason Pack of the US-Libya Business Association, Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and will be moderated by Jonathan Winer of the Middle East Institute. The second panel, titled “ Improving Humanitarian Relief and Advancing Development” will include Tamim Baiou, a development & international relations advisor, Maria do Valle Ribeiro, United Nations deputy special representative, humanitarian & development coordinator in Libya, Jean-Louis Romanet Perroux  of the  EU Delegation to Libya, Hasan Tuluy of the World Bank, and will be moderated by James Bays of Al Jazeera English.
  5. Sixteen Years and Counting in Afghanistan: What’s Next for America’s Longest War? | Thursday, October 5 | 10:30 am – 12:00 pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Register Here | October marks 16 years since a U.S.-led troop mission entered Afghanistan to eliminate sanctuaries for al-Qaeda and to remove its Taliban hosts from power. Those initial goals were achieved fairly quickly, and yet more than a decade and a half later, American soldiers are still in Afghanistan fighting a seemingly unending war. This event will address how we got to where we are today; what the best and worst policies would be moving forward; whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy can turn the tide of such a long and complicated war, and what the regional ramifications of this strategy could be — particularly in terms of implications for India and Pakistan. Panelists include Hamdullah Mohib, Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States, Christopher Kolenda of the Center for a New American Security, Luke Coffey of the Heritage Foundation, and Shamila Chaudhary of Johns Hopkins SAIS. The event will be moderated by Abraham Denmark of the Wilson Center.
  6. Middle East Crises and Conflicts – The Way Ahead | Thursday, October 5 | 1:00 – 2:30 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | With ISIS potentially nearing battlefield defeat, and the six-year civil war in Syria at least temporarily easing, it may be tempting to assume concerns in the Middle East are waning. In reality, both Iraq and Syria still have serious challenges ahead—among them, managing the huge displacements of populations. Elsewhere, conflicts persist. Libya has struggled in the years after Gadhafi, and while internal conflict may have diminished somewhat there lately, competing leaders and groups still struggle over power. Saudi Arabia is enjoying generally good relations with the Trump administration, but remains bogged down in a bloody conflict in Yemen that has contributed to some of the planet’s worst food and health tragedies. On October 5, the Foreign Policy program at Brookings will host an event examining the crises across the Middle East and North Africa. Panelists include Brookings experts John Allen, Daniel Byman, Mara Karlin, and Federica Saini Fasanotti. Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings senior fellow, will moderate the discussion.
  7. Iraq After the Kurdistan Referendum: What Next? | Thursday, October 5 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The fight against ISIS helped to bring parts of Iraq’s deeply fractured society closer together, but that fragile unity is now under pressure. While the Kurds are expected to vote in a historic popular referendum on September 25 to pursue independence, the lack of political inclusion and security for Sunni Arabs—which facilitated ISIS’s rapid expansion—remains unsolved. Meanwhile, Iran’s growing influence in Baghdad and its support of militias throughout Iraq has added to the sectarian divide and the country’s political dysfunction. On October 5, Hudson Institute will host a panel discussion on the implications of the referendum and the way forward. Hudson Senior Fellows Eric Brown and Jonas Parello-Plesner, having recently returned from Kurdistan, will examine how the scheduled referendum is likely to impact stability and political reconstruction after ISIS, as well as discussions both between Erbil and Baghdad and among Kurdistan, Turkey, and Iran, which all have independent interests in the referendum’s outcome. Hudson Adjunct Fellow Michael Pregent visited Mosul after it was liberated from ISIS and will assess Iran’s positions and influence throughout Iraq and what it means for unity and for U.S. national interests.
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Tillerson should undo his undoer

President Trump in two tweets this morning yanked the rug out from under Secretary of State Tillerson’s efforts to negotiate with the North Koreans:

Anyone who doubts the power of social media should consider this example. Never before has a Secretary of State been undone so quickly and with fewer words.

Some will say Tillerson was trying to do the right thing and should stay, to act as a bulwark with Secretary of Defense Mattis and National Security Adviser McMaster against the worst instincts of the president.

But the bulwark just collapsed. No foreign leader would now have any confidence in what Tillerson says. Kim Jung-un already had good reasons for skepticism, since the President, claiming to be “locked and loaded,” had threatened “fire and fury.” Now Kim has confirmation from Trump himself that talks would be useless and that North Korea should move as quickly as possible to gain the nuclear capability that will prevent an American attack. Pyongyang’s options for survival have been reduced to threatening nuclear war.

The only real reason for Tillerson to stay at this point is to join an effort by the Vice President to trigger Amendment 25 (section 4) of the constitution:

Whenever the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive departments or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall immediately assume the powers and duties of the office as Acting President.

The President gets to appeal, but the process is time-limited and does not require impeachment in the House or a trial in the Senate:

Thereafter, when the President transmits to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives his written declaration that no inability exists, he shall resume the powers and duties of his office unless the Vice President and a majority of either the principal officers of the executive department or of such other body as Congress may by law provide, transmit within four days to the President pro tempore of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives their written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. Thereupon Congress shall decide the issue, assembling within forty-eight hours for that purpose if not in session. If the Congress, within twenty-one days after receipt of the latter written declaration, or, if Congress is not in session, within twenty-one days after Congress is required to assemble, determines by two-thirds vote of both Houses that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, the Vice President shall continue to discharge the same as Acting President; otherwise, the President shall resume the powers and duties of his office.

There is, to my knowledge, no such vice-presidential effort to trigger the “inability” clause of the constitution, which would be risky at best and suicidal at worst. But if the Republicans continue to back a harebrained president, we will soon find ourselves in a war with North Korea that could escalate to a nuclear exchange. We’ll “win,” but only with horrendous consequences for South Korea, Japan, and US troops in the Asia Pacific.

The time to stop this president “unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office” is now. Some will argue that Pence could be worse, as he is far more conservative in the conventional sense than Trump. But Pence has respect for American institutions and values that Trump lacks. He would do things I wouldn’t like, including undermining Obamacare and pursuing a “fatten the rich” tax cut. But he would be far more judicious about North Korea, Iran, and America’s other big challenges. Tillerson can still prove his worth by undoing his undoer.

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A new low, but not the bottom

President Trump hit it this morning, when he tweeted from his golf weekend in New Jersey that the mayor of San Juan was only complaining about the slow Federal reaction to Hurricane Maria because Democrats had told her to do so. What’s more, he added, the people of Puerto Rico are expecting everything to be done for them rather than pitching in to help. Lest you think I exaggerate, here are the tweets in question:

The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.

…Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They….

…want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.

Here’s that mayor reacting to the Acting Homeland Security Secretary claiming Puerto Rico is a good news story:

Words fail me: how can someone as crass and callous as Trump even pretend to be President of the United States?

The answer is that Americans voted for him. Fewer than voted for Hillary Clinton, but enough (by 70,000 votes in three states) to get him elected.

What is the cure? There is only one: the Republicans in Congress, who so far have proven unwilling even to begin to challenge Trump in a serious way. Despite harsh criticism from the White House, Senate Majority leader McConnell and Speak Ryan have lined up to salute repeatedly.

The only hope at this point is that a few Republicans outside the leadership will refuse to go along. That is what happened on the health care votes. There is still a possibility that a few of them will join with Democrats in fixing what ails Obamacare, rather than throwing it out with the bathwater. The odds may improve without Tom Price as Health and Human Services Secretary: he was a pernicious influence, aside from being a spendthrift with the public’s money.

On taxes, the Administration is proposing a massive cut for the very wealthy like himself and nothing for the poor, plus barely a smidgen for the middle class. That won’t pass, but it creates an uphill fight for those who would like to do something much more sensible. The process will be slow. Nothing is likely to pass this year, which pretty much guarantees that we will head into next spring with a president who has accomplished nothing beyond a single Supreme Court nominee, who admittedly will do a great deal of damage for decades to come.

This disastrous performance on the domestic front has implications for foreign policy. A president who can’t get a Congress with his own party in the majority in both houses to pass any significant legislation is one foreigners don’t feel much need to respect.The Canadians and Mexicans are busy with diplomatic offenses targeting the states, which are likely to resist the worst of Trump’s trade proposals. The Europeans are biding their time until he is gone, when they hope to take up the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership again.

Nor has Trump given either friend or foe any reason to go along with his harebrained schemes: withdrawing from a nuclear deal with Iran that is clearly in the US interest, threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” while trying to convince them everything will be just fine if they give up nuclear weapons, sending more troops to Afghanistan without any clear objective, doubling down on the drone wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere despite decades of evidence that won’t work. Even Vladimir Putin, who did so much to get Trump elected, is finding him a disappointment.

I can’t remember a time when we have been so ill-served by such obviously corrupt and ill-meaning people. But I suppose this new low is still nowhere near the bottom.

PS: This morning’s tweets about Rex Tillerson’s efforts to negotiate with Pyongyang illustrate how Trump can go lower: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Tillerson should resign.

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Loser loses

President Trump’s big domestic loss is glaring: Obamacare remains in place and is likely to survive in some form, because the Republicans now need 60 votes in the Senate in order to repeal and replace it. They are going to lose the big tax cuts they proposed yesterday too: no self-respecting Democrat would join such a blatant effort to cut taxes for the well-off, with hardly anything going to the middle class and nothing to the poor while ballooning the deficit. I won’t mention that Trump’s favored candidate lost a primary in Alabama.

The losing doesn’t stop there. The botched response to the hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico looks likely to rival what happened in 2005 in New Orleans. Even the President’s effort to label those who kneel or lock arms during the national anthem played at sport events seems to have backfired, except among his hard-core supporters. Their enthusiasm for the flag they often abuse as clothing is exceeded only by their pleasure in dissing the black players who lead the protests.

But the most important losing is coming in Syria and North Korea, without much in the headlines.

In Syria, Hizbollah and other Shia militias are gaining ground in the east, with ample Russian support. They are also well-embedded in the south, along the border with Israel. The Iranian-backed Shia militia presence inside Syria in strategically important areas is likely the worst long-term outcome of the Syrian debacle for the United States. As Josh Rogin reported yesterday, the Administration seems to have no plan to respond effectively, despite the President’s bombast about Iran.

With North Korea, the Administration’s efforts to squeeze Kim Jung-un hard enough to make him contemplate restraints on his nuclear and missile programs shows no sign of working. Tightened sanctions, US air force flights closer to his borders, and deployment of missile defenses in South Korea and Japan just do not outweigh the advantage Pyongyang will gain from having a credible nuclear threat against US allies and bases in the Asia Pacific and eventually also against Alaska, Hawaii and the lower 48.

The President’s personal insults hurled at Kim have been returned in kind and arguably with better rhetorical flourish (“dotard” beats “Rocket Man” in my estimation). Such tit-for-tat exchanges between leaders make it far less likely that either can back down from the confrontation without serious domestic political implications. Trump will nevertheless likely have to back off his threats of military action, since escalation that would incinerate Seoul with conventional weapons could ensue. Or maybe he won’t back off, in which case the world is in even bigger trouble.

America has elected a loser who has failed to deliver anything beyond a single Supreme Court appointment, plus a lot of vituperation. #MAGA

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