In August, US President Trump announced a new plan concerning Afghanistan that included a harsh stance on Pakistan, accusing the country of protecting terrorists and threatening to limit financial support. On October 11, the Middle East Institute hosted a panel titled “Where Are U.S.-Pakistan Relations Headed?” to explore Pakistan’s reaction to the plan, the interests of the US and Pakistan in Afghanistan, US policy options, and predictions for the future of US-Pakistan relations. The event featured Daniel Markey and Joshua White of Johns Hopkins University, Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council, and Moeed Yusuf of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute moderated.
Pakistan has reacted mainly by working to create ties with other states in case its relations with the US worsen, while also making efforts to maintain its relations with the US. Nawaz pointed to recent visits of members of the Pakistani government to Washington as maintenance efforts. Efforts to diversify include Pakistan’s strengthening of relations with Russia and Saudi Arabia, and finding alternatives to the benefits it currently receives from the US, such as military support, by looking to countries such as China and Russia to provide equipment.
Yusuf categorized general Pakistani reactions and viewpoints into three camps: one perspective questions the utility of engaging with the US, since the US seems to be intentionally siding with India to “undercut” Pakistan. Another advocates for engagement with the US because of the extent to which Pakistan is dependent on it. A third camp views the US as completely in control of relations between the two countries, suggesting that there are limited options available to Pakistan.
Markey viewed Pakistan’s approach as a sort of negotiation, in which Pakistan is actively pursuing further details on the plan and its possible impacts, and exploring ways in which it can meet US demands in a way that would allow Pakistan to continue pursuing its own agenda.
The clear tension and divisions between the US and Pakistan prompted Weinbaum to ask the panelists whether the two countries have similar interests in Afghanistan and what their respective desired outcomes are. While it may appear that the US and Pakistan have converging interests, such as restoration of stability, the panelists agreed that such a convergence is superficial or limited at best.
White explained that Pakistan’s goals in Afghanistan, and particularly in terms of positive outcomes, are unclear, a point that Pakistan’s lack of strong players in Afghanistan supports. Yusuf mentioned two points of divergence: Pakistan and the US define stability in Afghanistan differently, with Pakistan insisting that India’s absence would be necessary, and the US advocating for an Indian role. The second point of divergence is Pakistan’s view that Afghanistan is becoming the site of a cold war dynamic with Pakistan and China on one side, and the US and India on another, leading to the assumption that the US is using this dynamic “to undermine Chinese influence.”
Most significantly, Markey pointed to a divergence in how the two countries see Pakistan’s overall role in the US Afghanistan strategy. Pakistan has wanted the US to eventually “outsource” its Afghanistan strategy to Islamabad, while US intentions have been quite the opposite: containing Pakistan’s power and limiting its control, ultimately facilitating the achievement of US goals.
The panelists turned to assessing current US policies and future options with regards to Pakistan. One of the administration’s current tactics is to make clear to Pakistan that it would be more beneficial to the US to cease the relationship than to maintain it, according to White. The US is also working to include other parties, such as its NATO allies, in its Afghanistan strategy. A limitation on US actions is its inability to compel Pakistan militarily, as its current policies prevent it from targeting Taliban militants. Markey noted that the US seems “predisposed” to pursuing compulsion as a strategy and that it has been doing that through actions such as threatening to revoke Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally.
Markey made three main policy recommendations: that the US clarify its goals, that it anticipate Pakistani reactions and plan accordingly, and that it include other countries in the region when studying how policies will affect Afghanistan, suggesting that actions that the US takes in Afghanistan necessarily affect Pakistan and its other neighbors.
Adding a Pakistani perspective, Nawaz stated that Pakistan does not have the same power as the US, particularly in terms of its troops, but it does have its own options should the US exert pressure. One such option is Pakistan’s ability to close its airspace, which is strategic to the US and would force it to resort to other, less convenient routes. Taking this into account, Nawaz reiterated that the US should also be considering other regional actors in its Afghanistan policies, should be aware that Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan each have elections upcoming, and that it should broaden its options, suggesting that it should consider Iran’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan.
Yusuf criticized the US approach to Pakistan as a whole. Compulsion, threats, and other such tactics have all been unsuccessfully employed in the past. There is no reason, therefore, to believe that conditions have changed enough to make this approach successful today. Yusuf reemphasized the importance of having clear messages, plans, and strategies and urged the US to ensure that its demands of Pakistan are realistic and doable in order to engage Pakistan in the restabilization of Afghanistan.
Hypotheticals emerged multiple times throughout the event, with panelists’ analyses dependent on whether or not certain conditions prove to be true in the coming months and years. Thus, the difficulty of predicting the future of US-Pakistan relations and how this relationship will affect Afghanistan was clear. Both countries need to prepare for a variety of scenarios that include other allies and partnerships. Any outcome will have a profound effect not only on Pakistan and the US role in Afghanistan but on many other countries in the region and beyond.
- The Kurdish Crisis: Baghdad, Erbil, and Institutional Reform in Iraq | Tuesday, October 10 | 11:00 am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The ongoing tension between the Kurdistan regional government and the federal government in Baghdad are generating new concerns about the long-term stability of Iraq. Critical issues relating to energy, security, and institutions must be addressed in order to prevent further conflicts and promote economic development. Please join us for a discussion on these topics. The panelists will address the energy aspects of the crisis, the security dimensions, the prospects for institutional reform, and the role the United States should play to help resolve the conflict. Panelists include Dr. Harith Hasan Al Qarawee of the Atlantic Council, Amb. Stuart Jones of the US Department of State, Dr. Denise Natali of the National Defense University, and will be moderated by Amb. Frederic C. Hof of the Atlantic Council.
- The Path Forward for Dealing with North Korea | Tuesday, October 10 | 10:00 – 1:30 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | On October 10, the Center for East Asia Policy Studies and the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings will host leading U.S. experts and former officials to identify actionable policy steps the White House and Congress should take to address the growing threat from North Korea. Panel presentations will focus on Kim Jong Un’s outlook and objectives, the history of negotiations with North Korea, and comparative case studies, including the Berlin Crisis of 1961, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and recent negotiations with Iran. Former Deputy National Security Advisor Avril Haines will deliver a keynote address, sharing insights from her experiences and offering thoughts on the path forward for dealing with North Korea. The first panel, “Who is Kim Jong Un?” will feature moderator Ryan Hass of the John L. Thornton China Center, as well as panelists Jung H. Pak of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, Evan Osnos of the John L. Thornton China Center, and Jean H. Lee of the Wilson International Center for Scholars. The second panel, titled, “Lessons From Historical Case Studies,” will be moderated by Jung H. Pak and will feature Jake Sullivan of Yale Law School, David S. Cohen of Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr LLP, Jonathan D. Pollack of the John L. Thornton China Center, and Author and Journalist Michael Dobbs.
- Drones Under Trump | Wednesday, October 11 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Stimson Center | Register Here | The use of armed drones and the expansive authority to use lethal force claimed by the U.S. government remain some of the most controversial aspects of U.S. counterterrorism policy. Though the Obama administration introduced limited policy constraints on the use of force aimed at increased protection of civilians, and reforms designed to increase transparency near the end of its tenure, the Trump administration appears to be rolling back these policies. Thus far, the Trump administration has expanded operations outside “hot battlefields” and delegated more strike authority to the military. Reports suggest that the new administration is proposing to go even further by loosening the limited policy constraints on the use of force and may seek to broaden the CIA’s role in conducting lethal strikes. These actions and proposals raise renewed concerns about the prospect of endless war and increased secrecy, and underscore the need for meaningful accountability and oversight of U.S. lethal operations abroad. Please join the Stimson Center and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Clinic for a panel event on issues surrounding U.S. drone policy under the Trump administration. The panel will discuss and evaluate past U.S. practice, analyze recent developments, and assess the Trump administration’s approach to the use of force, transparency, and accountability. Panelists include Waleed Alhariri of the Sana’a Center for Strategic Studies, Alex Moorehead of the Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, Luke Hartig of the National Journal’s Network Science Initiative, and Rachel Stohl of the Stimson Center.
- From Mosul to Brain Science to Tech: Creating Peace in a Violent World | Wednesday, October 11 | 9:00 am – 5:00 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | As violent conflict erupts across the globe and the institutions that have kept peace for 70 years strain under the pressure, the demand for sustainable peace and security only grows. The Iraqi city of Mosul searches for a way to recover from the brutal rule of ISIS. Half a world away, Colombia is exploring ways to finance the terms of its historic peace accord. Technology, people power, and brain science are part of an array of possible solutions. Join the first day of the 2017 conference of the Alliance for Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Oct. 11, as experts explore new ideas for preventing and resolving violent conflict. The event will consist of a keynote address and seven panels, which include “Next Steps for Peace in Mosul,” “Innovative Approaches for Financing Peace,” “Transforming Violent Conflict: Where People Power Meets Peacebuilding,” and Stabilizing Conflict-Affected Areas: Policy Challenges, New Opportunities, and Lessons from the Past.”
- Where Are U.S.-Pakistan Relations Headed? | Wednesday, October 11 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | For decades the United States and Pakistan have worked as strategic partners despite differences in priorities, but today this relationship is at a crossroads. The Trump administration seems poised for a confrontation with Pakistan over its alleged protection of Taliban and Haqqani Network insurgents. China’s support of Pakistan, increased Russian and Iranian engagement in the region, and India’s apparent deeper involvement in Afghanistan further complicate Washington’s bilateral relationship with Islamabad. The Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to host an expert panel to examine these developments and the stakes for the United States and Pakistan in preserving their relationship. MEI’s director for Afghanistan and Pakistan studies, Marvin Weinbaum, will moderate the event featuring Daniel Markey, Shuja Nawaz, Joshua White, and Moeed Yusuf.
- How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West | Wednesday, October 11 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Recent global events show that the post-Cold War flow of money and values was not a one-way affair. The West is witnessing an increasingly coordinated assault on its own democratic system. This destructive import of corrupt practices comes not only from post-Soviet kleptocratic regimes like Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Russia, but also from China and other countries around the world whose ruling elites now possess far-reaching financial and political interests in the West. Join Hudson Institute’s Kleptocracy Initiative for a discussion of Ilya Zaslavskiy’s report, “How Non-State Actors Export Kleptocratic Norms to the West.” After opening remarks by Mr. Zaslavskiy and responses by Jeffrey Gedmin and David Kramer, two expert panels will explore the development of corrupt norms and the true nature of contemporary kleptocratic regimes, as well as the methods they deploy to undermine Western democracy – and what can be done to fight back. Panelists will include Louise Shelley of George Mason University, Sarah Chayes of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Ambassador Richard D. Kauzlarich of the Center for Energy Science and Policy and George Mason University, and Paul Massaro of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Charles Davidson of the Kleptocracy Initiative will moderate.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Micah Zenko last week in the New York Times obliterated not only Trump’s proposed “new” strategy in Afghanistan but also the entire military-heavy approach to counter-terrorism that has dominated American efforts since the inauguration of Barack Obama. It simply doesn’t work well to just kill people you think are terrorists: there are always replacements, the civilian collateral damage is enormous, and the ungoverned spaces that result are breeding grounds for more recruits. While ISIS may be going down to defeat in the territory it once controlled, it will reemerge as a guerrilla group using terrorist tactics rather than the more conventional military approach it has so successfully employed the past few years.
So what is the alternative?
Max Boot and P.J. Crowley have already named it loud and clear: nation-building. Regular readers of peacefare.net, and those few who have picked up Righting the Balance advertised on this page, will not be surprised that I think them correct. There are, however, two big problems with this answer:
- Presidents don’t want to do it.
- Americans are convinced it doesn’t work.
The only civilian nation-building assistance effort Americans think successful is the Marshall Plan, launched almost seventy years ago to aid US allies in Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Civilian efforts during the Vietnam war are generally regarded by non-experts as a failure, because we lost the war, even though CORDS (Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support) is regarded by some experts as somewhat successful. Americans generally disregard the modestly successful UN and other efforts since the fall of the Berlin wall.
American presidents are as adverse as public opinion, but often change their minds. Bill Clinton told Americans he was sending US troops to Bosnia for a year. They stayed for 9 years, largely to ensure peace and stability during the nation-building enterprise. US troops deployed to Kosovo in 1999 and are still there, because its sovereignty is still incomplete. George W. Bush famously derided nation-building during his first campaign, and then launched two enormous efforts: in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Barack Obama, as in many things more disciplined than most, withdrew from Iraq but extended the US presence in Afghanistan, largely because the nation-building effort there was still incomplete. President Trump has said we won’t be nation-building in Afghanistan, but he may be the only one left in the US government who believes that is in fact the case.
“Nation-building” is of course a misnomer. I would call what is needed “state-building.” Nations are groups that self-identify. States are institutional structures that can be constructed in particular social contexts that include the existence, or not, of a nation. From this perspective, there are successful multi-national states, including the US, but also less successful ones, like Bosnia or Iraq. But both Bosnia and Iraq are illiberal electoral democracies arguably, even if many will not agree, improvements over the autocracies that preceded them.
Today the question of state-building in the greater Middle East arises not only in Afghanistan but also in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and still in Iraq because of the scheduling of a Kurdistan referendum for September 25. There are basically two ways to go: allow the autocracies to be restored in Syria, Libya and Yemen, or try (as in Afghanistan and Iraq) to preserve some modicum of popular sovereignty. Tunisia is perhaps the best example of success in the latter enterprise.
I think it will be hard to re-impose the autocracies, but President Sisi has mostly done it in Egypt. It isn’t pretty, and it isn’t stable, but it kills a lot of people Sisi defines as terrorists. President Assad would obviously like to do the same thing. In Libya, General Haftar is of the same mind, and in Yemen former President Saleh would presumably like his son to restore the old regime, which was an illiberal democracy in form but an autocracy in practice.
I’d prefer the more democratic route, even if the results are illiberal. Admittedly the preference is more a subjective than an objective one. While you can read in many places, including on peacefare.net, that what is needed to fight terrorism is inclusive states that treat their populations in accordance with international human rights standards, we’ve got precious few recent examples of success. But I am quite certain that the purely military approach simply will not work, and I’d prefer my tax dollars not support the restoration of autocracy.
Much lower I fear. While he has given a couple of half-sane, scripted speeches prepared with Chief of Staff Kelly’s approval, President Trump is still doing what he can to offend as soon as he is off the Teleprompter. Those who don’t approve of him are at this point about 60% of Americans and far higher percentages in most other countries. Russia and Israel are the exceptions. He is still launching ferocious attacks on the American media, retweeting anti-Semitic and racist tweeps, and slamming both Senate supporters and antagonists.
With August waning and an early Labor Day (September 4) looming in the US, prospects are for a difficult fall. The first item of business in the US Congress will be raising the debt ceiling and passing some sort of budget resolution. Trump has made that more difficult by insisting that the budget include money for the wall on the border he has promised the Mexicans would pay for. That’s a non-starter for the Democrats, who have some say in the Senate because 60 votes are needed on the budget issues. Tax reform, which so far means a big tax cut to businesses like Trump’s own, will have to wait. Never mind the promised trillion-dollar infrastructure program.
Trump wants the budget resolved by eliminating the filibuster and allowing bills to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. That is a proposition even more controversial than the wall, so he is publicly hounding Senate Majority leader McConnell into changing Senate rules to allow it. That’s not a way to make friends in the Senate, but so long as the Republicans control the House Trump can be sure it won’t impeach him (which has to precede sending him to the Senate for trial).
While America tries to sort out its internal political mess, the rest of the world is trying to make do without much clarity from Washington. In Asia, China is seizing the initiative on trade and finance, pushing its “belt and road” projects all the way to the Middle East and Africa. North Korea hasn’t tested a missile lately, and there seem to be talks about talks going on behind the scenes with the US, but the prospects of denuclearizing Pyongyang have dropped to zero.
In the Middle East, Syria’s President Assad is still advancing, as are the US-supported, Kurdish-led forces trying to take Raqqa from the Islamic State. The Syrian opposition is being pressed by the UN and everyone else to drop its demand that Assad step aside. Civilian casualties from American and other air attacks in the battle for Raqqa are mounting.
Defense Secretary Mattis is promising Turkey the US will help fight against Kurdish rebels inside Turkey and in Iraq, even as it supports their affiliates in Syria. That’s going to be a hard circle to square. Iraq is also making progress against the Islamic State, but Baghdad still hasn’t convinced its own Kurdistan to call off its independence referendum, scheduled for September 25 but increasingly in doubt.
Jared Kushner is plugging away at the Israel/Palestine issues, in visits to Ramallah, Cairo and Jerusalem. No one is expecting much to come of his efforts. The State Department has refused to reiterate US commitment to a two-state solution, which (as Matt Duss pointed out on Twitter) represents the single largest concession the Palestinians have made to date. Not that anyone had much doubt about which side the Trump Administration was on. We’ll presumably now be treated to the spectacle of Israel and the US proposing various confidence-building measures meant to make life and the economy more palatable for the occupied territories on the West Bank, while Jewish settlements expand and kill off any remaining hope for a two-state solution.
This is enabled in part by some Arab states coming to the conclusion that they care more about countering Iran than supporting the Palestinians. The Saudis and Emiratis seem prepared to collaborate with Israel against Iran, even if Qatar, Iraq, and Oman are headed in the opposite direction. Yemen no longer counts, since it is being obliterated in the Gulf-led war against the Houthi rebellion. Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco are likewise out of the game for now. Egypt and Jordan have made their peace with Israel and have no choice but to keep it.
Trump is increasingly marginalized from all these developments. Weakness at home leads to weakness abroad. His only major push on foreign policy lately has been the renewal and expansion of the American military push in Afghanistan. This allegedly new strategy closely resembles his predecessor’s effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Like Obama, Trump doesn’t want to be blamed for losing Afghanistan, even if it proves impossible to keep his promise to win there.
We can still sink lower: North Korea could test another missile, the Palestinians could tell Kushner where to go, Trump could renounce the Iran nuclear deal, and the country’s long recovery from the financial crisis of 2007/8 could end. But most of all: we could continue to fail to deal with a president who is unqualified, mean-spirited, incompetent, and divisive. Let’s hope Special Counsel Mueller comes up with something compelling, sooner rather than later.
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.