peacefare.net had a welcome long weekend off, visiting family in New Haven, Connecticut. Little to report from that, except that the Union League Cafe is super and New Haven looks a lot better than it did when I spent a summer there eons ago.
Nothing much happened in Washington either: just the departure (fired? quit?) from the White House of alt-right guru Steve Bannon. He is already back at what some wag on Twitter is calling Reichbart News. Good riddance, though he has every intention of continuing to make his bad ideas influential. That won’t be hard, as President Trump’s instincts lie in the white supremacist, extreme nationalist direction. How Treasury Secretary Mnuchin, who rejected his Yale classmates’ advice he resign, can stomach servicing a president who sympathizes with neo-Nazis is beyond me.
Tonight we’ll be treated to an entirely different guy: the fully scripted Trump, fresh from making a decision on strategy for the war in Afghanistan in accordance with National Security Adviser McMaster’s organized, deliberate, and well-informed process. That has been as rare in this Administration as a solar eclipse, also occurring today.
Predictably the Afghanistan decision is expected to be in favor of some additional troops and a promise of withdrawal. I predicted this “option B” outcome two weeks ago so I am not surprised. I still think though that the real options are “all in” or “all out.” We’ll be back to that choice in a few months. Afghanistan can’t be fixed by military means alone, but terrorist attacks and the Trump Administration’s budget priorities make it likely we won’t be able to do much on the civilian side. So one more president will face the likelihood of repeated failure there. It’s déjà vu all over again, as Yogi Berra said.
Trump won’t stay in scripted mode long. He seems determined to hold a rally in Phoenix Tuesday, despite the mayor’s suggestion that he postpone it. He’ll of course vaunt the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), on which talks began last week, trying to claim that he is thereby fulfilling his promise to ditch NAFTA. He’ll likely make choice comments about building the wall and blocking illegal immigration, maybe even pardoning the Arizona sheriff who has been convicted of contempt of court for continuing a crackdown on immigrants after being ordered to stop. That will please the racists no end.
So the Phoenix event will be déjà vu all over again too.
President Trump, my regular readers will be surprised to hear me say, has been asking the right questions about Afghanistan: why have we been there so long? Why aren’t we winning? These are perfectly reasonable questions. We’ve been at war there for almost 17 years. More than 2400 US service people have been killed and more than 20,000 wounded. When does it end? How?
Unfortunately, Trump seems to be asking these reasonable questions for the wrong reasons: he wants to win and he wants to deliver on a campaign promise to bring American troops home. What matters to Trump is always Trump. But his predecessor wasn’t any better when it came to Afghanistan: he tried to minimize the American commitment but also avoid losing and wanted to bring the boys and girls home as soon as possible, in order to fulfill a campaign promise.
The problem is that those goals are incompatible. There is no reason to believe that the Taliban won’t win–taking over large parts of the country if not all of it–if the US and its coalition allies depart. If the Taliban wins, Al Qaeda and the Islamic State will return.
In order to avoid this outcome, we and some of the coalition will need to stay, perhaps indefinitely. Promising anything else is delusional. The Taliban already control large parts of Afghanistan, according to the New York Times (the darker ochre areas are Taliban control and the lighter areas Taliban support; the red are Islamic State support and control):
It would be silly to think they won’t be able to take more, possibly even Kabul, if the US departs.
Trump is nevertheless likely to land where Obama did: a commitment for several years, followed by promised withdrawal. This kind of compromise outcome does nothing but waste American lives and resources. It is frequently the product of a stalemated White House process: the President is offered Option A to stay indefinitely and Option C to withdraw quickly. He chooses Option B of course: stay for now but draw down later.
There is little justification for Option B. It is better because it is not A or C. But A and C are the real choices. It should be all in or all out, with clarity about the consequences. If we stay, we stay indefinitely, with adequate resources to provide serious support to the Afghan Security Forces, until such time as they don’t need them. If we go, we go completely, recognizing that the extremists will be back and we will likely have to hit them repeatedly, with or without Afghan approval.
This is not a pretty picture. It echoes Vietnam, where President Nixon chose Option B and hung on in support of the South only to have Congress eventually get weary and pull the plug. The short-term results were disastrous: the North took over, killed and “re-educated” a lot of people, invaded Cambodia, and went to war with China. About 2 million people fled, hundreds of thousands are believed to have died. But the long-term results were less catastrophic, from an American geopolitical perspective: a reunified Vietnam remains a Communist autocracy but has become friendly with the US and no longer a threat to its neighbors.
There is an Option D: privatize the war and let mercenaries run it. I give that one a gold star for originality, but all you need to know is that Steve Bannon is pushing it. It’s a bad idea whose time has come only in the minds of those with no memory of, or concern about, what some of those mercenaries did in Iraq, when they were only doing guard duty.
So which option would I choose? I might stay indefinitely (Option A), even putting in some more forces right now to prevent further Taliban inroads, but I would understand those who want to leave completely. My own preference is affected, I admit, by knowing worthy Afghans, who will be either dead or refugees if the US decides to leave. Trump doesn’t likely know so many, or care much about the impact on non-Americans. American First means Afghans last, but I am still betting he chooses Option B: a temporary increase in US forces with a promise to draw down soon. Someone should outlaw Option B.
I spoke this afternoon at the 10th Summer School for Young Diplomats in Kolasin, Montenegro. Here are the speaking notes I prepared on “Global Security Challenges: New Developments and Future Trends.”
- It’s a pleasure to be here, especially in these beautiful mountains. While I’ve been to Montenegro a few times in the past, this is my first visit since it became a NATO ally. That betokens enormous progress. I can only wish all your countries as much success as Montenegro has had over the past twenty years or so.
- That teaches an important lesson in international affairs: if you keep going in the right direction, you will eventually get there.
- I’ve been asked to talk about geopolitical challenges. I’ve got my own ideas about what they are, but I’d like your ideas as well. So let me ask you to write one on each stickie—no more than a phrase is needed.
- My own list of current geopolitical challenges from a Washington perspective is this: the United States, the Middle East, Islamist extremism, Russia, and China as well as nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. That should keep us busy for the next hour and a half.
- First Washington. It is a geopolitical challenge for many countries, because of its global political and economic influence, its enormous capacity for power projection and because of its still ongoing political transition.
- Many of you will wonder how the new Administration will affect your country’s interests. I can’t hope to cover the entire world, but let me say a few things that may help you to work out the implications for your own country.
- President Trump was elected on an explicit promise to “make America great again,” which implies greater attention to American interests in dealing with the rest of the world.
- It also implies reduced attention to American values, especially democracy and human rights. The Administration appears to be applying a double standard: if you are America’s friend, you need not fear Washington will criticize your internal political behavior.
- Presidents Erdogan, Sisi, and Duterte can testify to that, as can Kings Salman of Saudi Arabia and Abdullah of Jordan.
- But if you are President Castro of Cuba or Supreme Leader Khamenei, you can anticipate sharp rebukes from the U.S., and possibly sanctions or other restrictive measures.
- The new Administration has also prioritized the use of military instruments over diplomacy and international aid. While its budget proposal was dead on arrival in Congress, where at least some aspects of diplomacy and aid have strong supporters, you can still expect less diplomacy and less money.
- The only exceptions to this rule so far have been North Korea, where the conventional artillery threat to Seoul and much of South Korea makes American military action unlikely, and the Middle East, where the president has committed his son-in-law and two of his personal lawyers to negotiating peace. I don’t know anyone in Washington who thinks they will be successful, but they may make some progress on confidence-building measures. I’ll return to North Korea later.
- As I am already wandering into the Middle East, let me go there. It has been clear for some time, though few will say it out loud, that American interests there are declining. We need less oil from the Middle East while other countries are taking more, the top non-proliferation issue there is under control for a decade or more, and our allies there want military assistance but not much more.
- By far the most important interest the U.S. has today in the Middle East is terrorism. The current Administration wants to deal with it as a military problem: the objective is to kill Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and get out.
- This was precisely the approach intended by George W. Bush in Afghanistan: kill Al Qaeda and get out. It failed because we couldn’t find all of Al Qaeda. The President changed his mind because we were sure it would return if we left.
- In Syria, this approach faces the same difficulty, as it virtually guarantees that there will be a continuing Sunni insurgency, not to mention its metastases elsewhere in the world.
- That’s where all of you come in: with ISIS on the verge of defeat in Iraq and Syria, it is not attracting so many foreign fighters, who were the focus of much attention in recent years. Nor is the question of terrorist financing as important as once it was.
- The bigger issue is now home-grown terrorism, perhaps inspired or encouraged by fighters returning from Iraq or Syria. In the Balkans, for example, I would now regard this as a big problem, as it is in Europe and the U.S. as well.
- There are two important strategies in dealing with homegrown terrorism: making sure that people are not marginalized but rather have a stake in their own governance and society; and not overreacting to terrorist threats or attacks, as overreaction is precisely what they intend to provoke.
- Right-wing terrorism kills more Americans than Islamic extremism, even counting 9/11.
- We need to avoid the kind of overreaction that the Administration’s travel ban on 6 Muslim countries represents.
- In the Middle East, the Americans will focus next on the Iranian threat.
- That threat is real. Iran has vastly expanded its influence in the region, not so much because of the nuclear agreement but rather due to its support for proxy forces, which long predates the nuclear deal: Hizbollah in Syria as well as Lebanon, Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine.
- The reaction, led by the Saudis, has also been vigorous, making much of the Middle East a battleground for sectarian conflict and even splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar just won’t give up the good relations with Iran that enable both countries to exploit the largest natural gas field in the Middle East.
- Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership has chosen to side with Qatar and Iran, undermining the American effort to construct an anti-Iran alliance that includes the majority Sunni states of the Middle East as well as Israel.
- To sum up on Iran: it has gained a lot of ground in recent years, not least due to the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the civil wars it has exploited in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Americans have not yet figured out what they want to do about it, though my best guess is that they will in due course want to confront Iranian ambitions.
- Russia is another geopolitical challenge, not only in the Middle East.
- Putin’s Russia is using all the instruments of national power at its disposal to challenge the Americans and re-assert its status as a superpower, except for a direct force-on-force military clash that Moscow knows it would lose.
- The Russians are sending ships and planes to provoke NATO allies and sympathetic neutrals, they have invaded Ukraine with only a thin veneer of deniability, they are bombing Syrian moderate opposition, they are selling weapons to Egypt, supporting General Haftar in Libya, and using Sputnik News and Russia Today as propaganda tools.
- They are also interfering in elections, conducting cyberattacks, and plotting and conducting assassinations.
- None of this has provoked much reaction yet from either the Americans or Europeans, apart from Ukraine-related sanctions and a few tit-for-tat aircraft incidents.
- Inexplicably to me, Putin has a lot of admirers in the US, especially among the Republicans and certainly in the Trump Administration, which has made no secret of its desire to get along better with Moscow.
- We’ll have to wait and see what comes of the first Trump/Putin meeting on the margins of the G20 Summit tomorrow and Saturday in Hamburg.
- The American receptiveness to Putin may surprise many of you. It surprises me. I can’t really explain it in conventional national interest terms.
- I think it is related to ethnic nationalism: Trump is what we are calling these days “white nationalist”; Putin is a Russian nationalist. The two admire each other.
- But Russia is a declining regional power with an economy no larger than Spain’s and based largely on energy resources whose value has declined dramatically. It’s only real international capability is to make life difficult for people who want to run serious democracies.
- We are going to need to learn to live with that, responding to it in ways that block the worst consequences and nudge Moscow in more productive directions, but at the same time not accepting the Russian claim to superpower status.
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Military escalation is happening in several places these days:
- Syria: in addition to the March cruise missile strike on a Syrian base in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks US attacks on Iranian-backed forces approaching US-backed forces, downing of at least two Iranian-built drones, and downing of a Syrian warplane. Tehran and Damascus are pressing hard in eastern Syria, in an effort to deny the US and its allies post-war dominance there.
- Yemen: the Saudis and Emirates are continuing their campaign against the Houthis while the Americans amp up their campaign against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Today’s promotion of Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, to Crown Prince of the Kingdom presages more rather than less war there.
- Somalia: the Administration has expanded AFRICOM’s latitude in attacking al Shabaab militants, who are proving more resilient than many anticipated.
- Afghanistan: the White House has delegated authority to increase US forces to the military, which intends to deploy several thousand more Americans to help the Afghans counter the Taliban.
- Russia: Moscow’s warplanes have been conducting provocative maneuvers against NATO for some time, and yesterday a NATO F-16 allegedly approached a Russian plane carrying the Defense Minister.
Meanwhile Iraq’s disparate security forces are closing in on Mosul, civil wars continue in Libya and Mali, and North Korea continues to test its increasingly long-range missiles.
This military escalation is occurring in a vacuum of diplomatic and civilian efforts. Syria talks sponsored by Turkey, Iran and Russia are slated to reconvene soon in Astana, but prospects for serious progress there on military de-escalation are poor. The UN-sponsored political talks in Geneva are stalled. Planning for governance of Raqqa after the defeat of the Islamic State there is unclear.
The UN has announced a new Yemen Special Representative of the Secretary General, but it will be some time before he can relaunch its efforts. The UN-backed government in Libya is still unable to exert authority, especially over the eastern part of the country. The UN’s Mali mission has been suffering casualties, inhibiting any civilian efforts there. President Trump has tweeted the failure of Chinese diplomacy (more accurately, his diplomacy with China) to produce results with North Korea.
None of this should surprise. Apart from North Korea, the Americans are committed to not relying on diplomacy (in particular through the UN) and to avoiding anything resembling state-building. While they may sometimes think about financing removal of rubble or mines in newly liberated areas of Syria, they are determined to avoid any responsibility for governance or law and order. The Trump Administration wants to follow the formula Bush 43 tried in Afghanistan: kill the Islamic State and Al Qaeda enemies and get out. The failure of that approach has apparently been forgotten.
The only substantial diplomatic effort the Trump Administration has been pursuing is with Israel and Palestine, where there is an almost 70-year record of failures, with only occasional, if important, moments of partial success (I am thinking of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, not the Oslo accords). No one is taking bets that Jason Greenblatt’s efforts will succeed, though they may restrain the Israelis a bit and produce some modest improvements in the conditions under which Palestinians live. The two-state solution is, however, as far off as it has ever been.
The worst may be yet to come. The Trump Administration has aligned itself firmly with Israel, the Saudis, and the UAE against Iran. The Iranians seem increasingly determined to carve out their Shia crescent from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean. We are on a collision course with Tehran, even if the nuclear deal hold for now
The Middle East Institute Wednesday hosted a conversation on Iran-Pakistan relations featuring senior fellow Alex Vatanka, retired ambassador to Sri Lanka Teresita C. Schaffer, and MEI’s director of the Center for Pakistan Studies Marvin Weinbaum. The panel—promoting Vatanka’s book Iran and Pakistan: Security, Diplomacy, and American Influence—shed light on the tense and cautious relations between almost-allies and almost-enemies at the crossroads of West and South Asia.
The relationship between Iran and Pakistan is a tale of two regional superpowers. Pakistan boasts a population of 189 million; Iran counts 79 million. Pakistan, noted Vatanka, is nuclear armed; Iran aspires to be. Pakistan is majority Sunni Muslim; Iran is majority Shia. The two countries are embroiled in a proxy war in Yemen. There even exist certain pervasive stereotypes, reported Ambassador Schaffer: Pakistanis view Iranians as weak and Iranians see the Pakistanis as provincial.
Yet the countries do not erupt in open conflict.
One factor that does not contribute to enmity is the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide. Ambassador Schaffer stressed in her remarks that Pakistan has always had an aversion to Sunni-Shia squabbles, for good reasons. Pakistan has a significant Shia minority, including prominent families in politics and business. They comprise approximately 10-15% of the country’s population. Pakistani nationalism draws heavily on Islam as a unifying factor—to the point that proposals to replace the country’s secular laws with Sharia have always faltered at the question of which school of Islam would define legal doctrine.
This preoccupation with national interests over sectarian ones is a defining feature of the relationship between Iran and Pakistan. There is an understanding, notes Vatanka, that all-out conflict must be scrupulously avoided. Pakistan’s number one foreign policy priority is its relationship with India, followed by its relationship with Afghanistan. Iran is preoccupied with its Arab neighbors. Neither country stands to benefit from violence along the Iran-Pakistan border.
This distinctive disregard of religious tensions holds true despite Pakistan’s recent decision to join the Saudi-led Islamic Military Alliance, a coalition of Muslim countries committed to fighting terrorism that has been criticized for its predominantly Sunni membership and an alleged sectarian bent. In fact, noted Schaffer, sparsely populated Saudi Arabia has a long history of drawing upon Pakistani military support. Pakistan’s decision to join the IMA is nothing really new.
Yet the Iranian-Pakistani relationship is strained. Vatanka traces tensions between the two countries back to 1971—before the Iranian Revolution—when the Shah decided to remain neutral in the war between Pakistan and India. This policy of neutrality outlasted the Shah, who was deposed in 1979. The relationship between Iran and Pakistan worsened post-revolution, as Iran’s cozy relationship with the United States abruptly ended. The ideological gulf between the two countries widened: Iran’s zeal for revolution did not match Pakistan’s self-interested nationalism. In addition, the revolution cut off Pakistan’s supply of subsidized Iranian oil. From the Pakistani perspective, Iran’s diplomatic value plummeted.
Despite these historical rifts, Vatanka predicts a cool and reserved future for Iran-Pakistan relations, marked by military caution and mutual indifference. Iran, a natural gas goldmine starved for markets, trades more with Armenia than with its energy-poor neighbor to the east. For the time being, Iran and Pakistan appear locked in a tense and perpetual peace.
Donald Trump has done more damage to the NATO Alliance than the Soviet Union managed in more than 40 years. Even after its implosion, the Alliance endured for another 27 years, fighting its first wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan. It has taken only a bit more than four months for Trump to cast a pall over Europe’s most important link to the United States and to render the Alliance irrelevant.
German Chancellor Merkel has concluded that Europe, “to some extent,” has to go it alone. This was her reaction to Trump’s miserable performance at the NATO Summit meeting last week, when he failed to mention the Article 5 commitment to come to the defense of our allies and harshly criticized their failure to meet NATO’s exhortation that they spend 2% of GDP on defense. That guideline was intended for 2024, but Trump treats it as a treaty commitment and pretends that the allies owe arrears for their many years of not meeting it.
This purposeful mendacity has consequences. It has convinced the allies that they cannot rely on the United States. An important corollary is that they need not follow the US on other issues. Trump will soon discover that our allies have no interest in ratcheting up sanctions on Iran, for example, but instead prefer to continue doing good business with Tehran. Nor are the allies likely to line up and salute on the wars in Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya. “All for one and one for all” has for decades meant Washington could “to some extent” depend on European backing for American initiatives worldwide. That presumption is now null and void.
Who benefits from this Alliance decay? Russia of course. The vodka flowed in the Kremlin last week. Trump’s own ineptitude and the consequent investigations have stymied his efforts to reach out to Moscow. He is nonetheless proving a useful pawn. Russian President Putin’s fondest hope is to throw NATO into disarray. Trump has done it for him, without any apparent quid pro quo.
The notion that the US or NATO would contest Russian action in Ukraine or Syria has evaporated. The consequences will be felt not only in those two countries but also in increased Russian audacity in the Baltics, the Balkans, Georgia, Moldova and elsewhere. I was just informed of a Montenegrin detained and expelled from Moscow. Apparently he was on an unpublished non grata list. We’ll be seeing a lot more of that kind of harassment. Putin will push until there is a push back, which he will have concluded isn’t coming any time soon.
He is correct. Trump is pushing back against his democratic allies far more than against any autocracy. His only real enemies at this point are what he likes to call radical Islamic terrorism and Iran, the two of which he has somehow managed to conflate despite their mutual sectarian enmity. Trump simply ignores the fact that Russia is increasingly aligned if not allied with Iran, not only in Syria. Nor does he pay any attention to the fact that Russia and Iran have never focused their attacks there on the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, but instead collaborated in launching the latest chemical weapons attack on more moderate anti-Assad forces.
This is a brave new world in which the president of the United States is not what I would regard as loyal to democratic principles, at home or abroad, or to our democratic allies. Memorial Day commemorates those who have died in the nation’s service. I feel their loss even more deeply when we abandon the ideals they were seeking to defend. This is indeed a sad Memorial Day for America and its allies.