President Trump has hit two new lows: his racist comment on the origins of some American immigrants and his renewed threat to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal.
Neither is a surprise. His racism has long been apparent. What else was all that “birther” stuff about where Barack Obama was born? He believes, with good reason, that racial prejudice appeals to his almost entirely white base. He has reportedly been saying so to those he has talked to privately since his comments became public. I have no doubt he is correct.
There is just no getting around the hard fact: more than one-third of the American electorate either holds racist views or doesn’t regard racism as a political disqualification. Never mind that African immigrants to America are more educated than its native born, or that Norwegian immigrants to the US fared remarkably poorly. Prejudice ignores the facts.
On the Iran nuclear deal, the President is promising to withdraw unless he gets satisfaction within four months on two issues I regard as important: the deal’s “sunset” (i.e. expiration clauses) and inspection of Iranian nuclear sites. But neither problem, important as they are, can be solved with a unilateral withdrawal four months from now.
It has been apparent since the conclusion of the agreement that something would have to be done about its expiration. But trying to do that now, 7 years before the first of the expirations, is impossible: the Europeans will not go along with a US threat to withdraw and reimpose sanctions at this stage in the deal’s implementation. They might do so as expiration approaches, but they are correct in thinking there is no urgency about the matter.
The US attempt to impose urgency will fail. The Iranians will then have a choice: continue to implement the agreement with the Europeans, or withdraw and make a rush for nuclear weapons. Either move will weaken the US. We could go to war in a last-ditch effort to prevent Iran from going nuclear, but the odds of success in that endeavor are not good and the ramifications for the region are disastrous. I’d bet though on the Iranians continuing to implement the deal, making European support for extending it far less likely and any US rush to war unjustifiable.
As for Iranian military sites, the issues involved are serious and complicated. But neither the US nor the Europeans have exhausted the provisions in the deal to press for inspections to ensure that these sites are not in violation. They should do that first. Trump’s threat all but guarantees they won’t.
The threat to withdraw from the nuclear deal is cast as an ultimatum to the Europeans, not to Iran, to fix these two main issues: expiration and inspection of all sites the International Atomic Energy Agency requests. It ignores the option the Europeans have to continue the agreement without the US. This is Trump’s frequently repeated error in negotiation: he threatens to act on his own best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA) but ignores the other guy’s. The result is that he rarely gets what he wants. The other guy has options too. In this case, both Iran and the Europeans can do better without us than we can by withdrawing.
Trump is still campaigning against Barack Obama: both his statement on the nuclear deal, which refers explicitly to his predecessor, and his racist remarks should be read in that light. The result is two new lows that weaken America’s standing in the world.
I’m just going to leave this eloquent and dignified testimony here:
Most of my readers will have no difficulty comparing and contrasting it with the mendacity of the Donald Trump, who tweeted this morning:
I had a very respectful conversation with the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, and spoke his name from beginning, without hesitation!
Would someone who respected the families of fallen soldiers react this way?
On Tuesday, the Atlantic Council hosted a forum featuring experts Jason Pack, Rhiannon Smith, and Karim Mezran to mark the release of their collaborative report, “The Origins and Evolution of ISIS in Libya.” Christopher Chivvis, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and Associate Director at the International Security and Defense Policy Center, joined the three authors. The report—which seeks to understand the trajectory of jihadist organizations in Libya through a study of the Islamic State—emphasized the crisis of a weak and divided central authority, the allure of Islamist opposition, and the adaptability of jihadist groups in Libya.
In the wake of longtime Libyan autocrat Muammar Qaddafi’s deposition and demise in 2011, the state collapsed into a series of territorial struggles. Libyan jihadism emerged out of this turbulent climate. Pack, Smith, and Mezran report produces three key findings:
- A divided political climate and weak state control enabled the growth of ISIS in Libya.
- The majority of Libyans oppose ISIS, expressing distaste for the organization’s brutal policies and techniques.
- Libyan jihadism is driven by Libyan concerns, despite the dressing of Salafist religious rhetoric.
The crisis of governance in Libya “opened the door for local jihadist groups,” noted Chivvis. In particular, ISIS strategy targeted “under-governed” cities with historical links to global jihadist networks, such as Derna in the east. As jihadist militias proliferated and tensions between Islamists and anti-Islamist General Khalifa Haftar’s forces escalated, increasing numbers of jihadist commanders pledged allegiance to ISIS. Ultimately, ISIS seized Derna in October 2014.
Rival jihadist group Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) expelled ISIS from Derna in May 2016 . However, notes the report, “jihadist organizations have been able to survive and thrive in Libya because they offer governance functions to a population that is starved for them.” Jihadist groups will continue to take advantage of weak governmental authority and local instability.
For this reason, a purely counterterror approach is insufficient. Smith and Pack noted that any successful foreign effort to combat ISIS in Libya must involve targeted capacity building to fill vacuums in Libyan industry and government. The upcoming 2018 national elections could help fill this void, provided that sufficient centralized authority exists at that time to carry them out.
“ISIS is the symptom,” reiterated Pack, “not the cause. The underlying disease is statelessness.”
The lack of a strong national government and consequent decentralization of authority in Libya also means that loyalties—whether to militia leaders or ISIS commanders—are predominantly local. For this reason, Pack explained, it is vitally important that concerned foreign actors focus their efforts on empowering local councils and institutions. Yet since 2011, both the Obama and Trump administrations have limited themselves to assassinations and air strikes in the region. While reluctance to deploy troops is understandable, deferring the problem could lead to perpetual instability, Chivvis cautioned.
Feelings of abandonment are another force driving jihadism in the country. Sirte is a prime example. One of the last Qaddafi holdouts, the city fell to National Transitional Council (NTC) rebel forces in 2011. After NTC control waned, ISIS seized control of the city only to be expelled by Misratan forces allied with the new national authority (the Government of National Accord). Disaffected citizens embraced Islamist opposition in the form of al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar ash-Sharia. Now that Ansar ash-Sharia has also been expelled, Tuesday’s panelists fear the power vacuum left in its wake. Pack cautioned that the cycle of government control followed by superseding jihadist or Islamist opposition may persist.
The great danger and advantage of jihadist groups is adaptability. Although ISIS has lost territory, warned Smith, it now possesses the freedom to mutate—especially if conflict breaks out once again in Sirte.
Networks between Libyan cities and the Levant remain active. In Pack’s estimation, the country functions as a kind of “postgrad for jihadists”: prospective agents are trained in Syria, but learn how to survive and innovate in outposts like Libya. According to Chivvis, ISIS actively sought to build a new front in the country.
Despite the dire situation in Libya, there remains staunch resistance to jihadism. Smith suggests that the Libyan people possess a deep-seated mistrust of foreign interference that ultimately places them in opposition to foreign-based groups like ISIS. This may extend to regional jihadist groups as well.
“The lesser evil of 2011 was, ‘Let’s work with Islamists.’ The lesser evil of 2016 is, ‘Let’s work with French and British and American forces to rid our country of jihadists,’” observed Pack.
I’ve been hesitating to write about Donald Trump’s catastrophic 30% budget cut to the State Department and USAID, because I find myself out of tune with most of my deserving Foreign Service colleagues. Not about the size of the cut: it’s ridiculous. Anything even close to 30% in a single year would render most organizations non-functional, because of their fixed costs. The foreign policy establishment is no different: it has rents to pay, buildings to heat, computers to maintain, and payroll to meet that prevent anything like a 30% cut.
My heresies start with Rex Tillerson’s hesitancy to appoint his subordinates until he has had a look at which jobs he wants to keep and which he wants to abolish. No one intent on cutting positions would want to fill them first. And unlike most commentators, I know that professional Foreign Service and Civil Service officers have stepped up as “actings” to fill the shoes of the missing Trump political appointees, who aren’t likely to be as capable (or as much in tune with my preferences). Of course they should in principle have political guidance, but in its absence they will do what I think is likely best: continue doing what they did before January 20.
Nor do I necessarily disagree with the notion that AID might be folded into State. AID was conceived, and continues to regard itself, as a poverty-reduction organization committed to economic development. But it no longer has anywhere near the resources required to make even a minor dent in global poverty. Nor is it clear that it knows any better how to create jobs abroad than the US government does at home. In any event, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the regional development banks have much greater capacity to reduce poverty than AID, as does the US Millennium Challenge Corporation.
What we need AID money for in the early part of the 21st century is something else. Though I am a diehard Obamista, Mitt Romney had most of it right in a speech on AID during the 2012 campaign: we should be using its resources to help our friends abroad build the institutions required for free enterprise, including protection of property rights and rule of law. What the US needs in abroad is socially and environmentally sensitive capitalist development, including strong civil society organizations that will insist on inclusivity, transparency and accountability. In a word: building states and their civil society counterparts.
AID has the amounts of money that could make a real difference in state- and society-building. But in order to be effective in fraught political environments, it would have to operate under close foreign policy supervision. Thus I’d be happy to see AID–or much of it–folded into the State Department, which is capable of giving the kind of politically sensitive guidance that is difficult when the organizations are separate.
This won’t really happen, any more than the 30% cut. AID’s humanitarian and health programs have strong advocates in Congress, who will keep them intact and separate from State. But much of the rest of AID–in particular the money for its regional economic development activities as well as its “transition” and democratization portfolios–should be given over to state- and society-building under State Department supervision, in particular in the war-torn and fragile states of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.
Look at Latin America and East Asia: with notable exceptions like Venezuela and Thailand, these regions are moving pretty decisively in the democratic, middle income direction, with ups and downs. Brazil is in a trough at the moment, but for those of us who served there 30 years ago, it is vastly improved, both in political and economic terms. The Asia Pacific has developed relatively prosperous, at least semi-democratic states: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia (with reservations), Philippines (even if I don’t like Duterte). Their relatively peaceful evolution is one of the unsung blessings of our time. It is no accident that these are for the most part not the areas of the world generating terrorist threats to the US.
States are a key element of this evolution, as is regional cooperation among them. Washington, stuck in the poverty reduction rut, has not had the funds needed to back either, though it sometimes does well supporting civil society in fragile states, all too often however as an alternative to government. Yes, fold a large part of AID into State, but change the goals it seeks to be commensurate with US interests and the volume of its resources: build viable states that can elaborate and enforce the norms required for modern economies, support cooperation on a regional basis among those viable states, and make sure that civil society has the resources to monitor, evaluate, and advocate for political and economic reform.
USIP’s discussion today of “Getting Ahead of the Curve: the evolving threat of violent extremism” was a study in contrasts. The first panel, of experts who contributed to The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, Al Qaeda and Beyond was devoted to hard-nosed analysis. The second, which discussed both CSIS’ Turning Point and Communities First: A Blueprint for Organizing and Sustaining a Global Movement Against Violent Extremism, was devoted to right-minded but airier policy propositions, at least until I left about 45 minutes before it ended.
The analysis panel, ably chaired by Robin Wright of USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center, offered a gloomy picture: each generation of jihadis is larger than the last, mobilizes faster, draws on more diversified sources of foreign fighters, gets more extreme, and spreads to more locations and causes.
That said, Brookings’ Will McCants noted that ISIS has lost perhaps half its territory as well as 50,000 killed, Raqqa and Mosul are under attack, and its finances are under pressure. It won’t disappear but will return, as it did during the near-defeat in Iraq in 2008/10, to terrorist tactics and prison breaks. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies concurred that the ISIS star has fallen, because of its brutal tactics and readiness to make enemies of too many people. But Al Qaeda is reviving and spreading, especially in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Mali and Somalia. It is even controlling territory, it financing has become more open, and it is embedding Al Qaeda Central cadres, like the Khorasan Group, with its franchisees.
The franchises are increasingly important, Carnegie Endowment’s Fred Wehrey concurred. Al Qaeda has been more successful than ISIS in establishing durable franchises, partly because it focuses on “Dawa” (proselytizing), is relatively “moderate” in behavior towards the local population, and integrates more effectively with local forces. Egypt is particularly fertile ground, as is Yemen.
Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institue for Middle East Policy underlined that jihadism is not going away any time soon. Its narrative and appeal are increasingly entrenched. Al Qaeda and ISIS share the objective of creating a caliphate, but Al Qaeda is the more dangerous as it often works quietly and is more successful at “marbling” (interweaving) local and global strategies.
McCants views state failure as fuel for the protean diversified jihadist resurgence we are witnessing. The diversification and rapidly shifting organizational landscape are big problems, as they make prioritization difficult. Gartenstein-Ross believes the Middle East states will continue to weaken, as they face dramatic challenges like lack of water and parlous finances. Internet penetration in the region is still low, so jihadi mobilization is likely to become more effective and quicker as it expands. Social media are particularly adapted to boost secret identities across boundary lines. Hassan concurred, noting that ISIS in defeat will retreat into the desert, as it did in Iraq in 2008, leaving sleeper cells who will kill its enemies in newly liberated areas. Sunni disenfranchisement, alienation, and lack of leadership make ISIS a viable political option.
Wehrey concluded the first panel by underlining that terrorism is a political strategy and requires in part a political response. Jihadism is not really about religion but about the need for reform. Governance issues are central, vastly compounded by population displacement and Western intervention.
The second panel chaired by USIP’s Georgia Holmer focused, far less decisively, on non-military responses to jihadism.
The National Security Council’s Amy Pope underlined that countering violent extremism (CVE) is now established as an important part of the response to terrorism focused on its root causes in particular communities. She and State Department Under Secretary Sarah Sewall were confident that this community-focused approach, based on civil society and holistic investments, is the right one. We need to be able to tell this story across the security and human rights communities.
Shannon Green of CSIS cited the “measured security response” advocated in Turning Point, noting that anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment reinforces extremism. So too have some of America’s traditional partners in the Gulf, who have financed extremists. We need to be able to levy punitive sanctions in response, undertake a global educational partnership to ensure that extremism has no place in curricula, and review assistance to oppressive governments. She also thought an assistant to the president for CVE would help the cause.
The Prevention Project’s Eric Rosand emphasized community-level engagement that recognizes communities have many problems other than violent extremism and offers them incentives to engage locally in CVE. Law enforcement should have a limited, not a dominant, role.
Asked about what they would advise the incoming Trump Administration, Sewall emphasized the need to coordinate military and intelligence counter-terrorism with civilian CVE and the relative lack of resources for the latter (amounting to no more than .1% of the total). Pope also thought the balance out of whack. CVE needs to grow much bigger. There is lots of evidence that democracy and inclusion work and that alienation and exclusion don’t.
Asked to adduce some concrete examples of CVE that has worked, Pope cited a roundtable in The Hague, Sewall an ongoing project pilot project in East Africa and an AID project in Pakistan. Rosand noted that all too often autocrats readily take up the anti-messaging banner, as it enables them to crack down on dissident voices. That, he suggested, does not work.
My bottom line: Little in this discussion gave me any reason to believe that the incoming Trump Administration will take up the cause of CVE, which would require it to drop its anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, agree to support reformist and more democratic states rather than autocratic ones, invest in aid that is difficult to distinguish from conventional development assistance, accept evidence-based indications of effectiveness, and increase funding for civilian rather than military efforts. #fatchance
Deea Ariana, who graduated with a master’s from SAIS last spring, writes:
One of the inevitable costs of conflict is the damage to critical infrastructure that provides basic services to people and stimulates economic growth. Yet infrastructure procurement in post-conflict contexts is often slow and unable to cope with rising demand. Raffi Mardirosian argued that in the aftermath of conflict, an environment fraught with financial and political risks and weak legal structures hinders the construction and operation of infrastructure projects.
Conflict-affected states lack capital, technology, and skilled management that are essential to constructing new infrastructure. Consider Syria: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) states that rebuilding damaged physical infrastructure will be a “monumental task,”with cost estimates in the range of $100-$200 billion. That is nearly three times the country’s GDP back in 2010, before the conflict erupted.
The ongoing war continues to take a heavy toll on civilians and infrastructure. As Merriam Mashatt, Daniel Long, and James Crum note:
In conflict-sensitive environments, the condition of infrastructure is often a barometer of whether a society will slip further into violence or make a peaceful transition out of the conflict cycle. The rapid restoration of essential services, such as water, sanitation, and electricity, assists in the perception of a return to normalcy and contributes to the peace process.
Increasing access to infrastructure service delivery amid fiscal and capacity constraints calls for an alternative to the traditional public provision of infrastructure.
The idea of private investment in infrastructure has gained currency in recent years, leading to creation of public-private partnerships, or PPPs. These are a way for governments to implement infrastructure and services by utilizing the expertise of the private sector. Both parties share significant risks and management responsibilities.
Gonzalo Araya and Jordan Schwartz explain that private participation in infrastructure in countries emerging from conflict typically requires six to seven years to attract significant levels of investment from the day that the conflict is officially resolved. Usually the first infrastructure investments to arrive in conflict-affected countries are in sectors where financial risk is relatively low, which is mostly in telecommunications, as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Private investments in sectors where assets are harder to secure, such as water, power, or roads, are slower to appear or simply never occur.
There are several challenges to infrastructure reconstruction in conflict-sensitive environments that need to be addressed. P. B. Anand delves into these, explaining that weak governance entails corruption and flawed regulatory oversight, insecurity, and fragmented legal systems that discourage foreign investments. The government of a conflict-affected country must mitigate these challenges to nurture a favorable investment climate and encourage private investment in PPPs.
Donor support can also go a long way. As Andre Jones writes, PPP transactions are likely to rely on donor support in the form of capital subsidies, guarantees, or other mechanisms to facilitate private investment. An often-cited example is that of the restoration of Liberia’s power sector following the civil war in 2003. With support from the Norwegian government, the Liberia Electricity Cooperation (LEC) handed over its management to a Canadian power company, which boosted results. LEC began rebuilding electrical distribution in Monrovia, which led to more people having access to electricity and a significant increase in revenue. Losses were curtailed, peak load more than doubled, and fuel efficiency improved.
While public infrastructure projects accrue a net benefit to society as a whole, they nonetheless result in winners and losers. It is necessary to ensure that services also reach those people who are otherwise socially excluded. This guarantees that the society does not risk relapsing into another fresh bout of conflict by fighting over scarce resources.