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
I regret to inform my august readership that Piglet is correct. Trump isn’t gone. He is claiming to have been vindicated, 100%. That of course is false. He was wounded, not vindicated, by the revelation that he hoped former FBI Director Comey would let former National Security Adviser Flynn off the hook and wanted the “cloud” of the Russia investigation lifted. But wanting and hoping are arguably not obstruction, even if I–like Comey–would have taken a president’s hope as an order.
Obstruction for now is in the eye of the beholder. Democrats see obstruction, though they might not if the president were one of their own. Republicans don’t, though there is no doubt they would if the president were not one of their own. Both seem to agree that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should make the determination, which demonstrates his considerable value added: removing the issue from a venue in which it can’t be settled to one in which it can be, on technical legal grounds.
But that will take time. In the meanwhile the Administration is demonstrating once again that it is incoherent. Yesterday, the President blasted Qatar again for financing terrorists, almost in the same moment that the Secretary of State was asking the Saudis and Emirates to back off their embargo of the tiny monarchy that hosts the largest US base in the Middle East:
Weeks after his disappointing appearance at NATO, the President also reaffirmed the Alliance’s “Article 5” mutual defense obligation, though in doing so he continued to suggest that the money is “pouring into NATO” as a result of his effort to press the allies to meet the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. That isn’t the way this works: the money goes to the allies’ own defense efforts, not to the Alliance, and it is trickling in as allies begin to meet a commitment set in 2014 under President Obama, as a goal to be reached by 2024.
Some are happy to point out that Trump has not yet had a complete foreign policy disaster. A chipmunk could make it over that bar. He has however
- weakened NATO,
- split the Gulf Cooperation Council,
- boosted China by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord,
- ended a trade agreement for the Asia Pacific without proposing anything else as a keystone for US policy in the region,
- failed to respond effectively to North Korean provocations
- even begun to repair relations with Turkey,
- and proposed a budget that would decimate US diplomacy and international aid.
America is in worse shape on the international stage than it was at the end of the Obama administration, when many thought we were already in pretty bad shape. Ironically, the best that can be said for Trump is that he has continued Obama’s military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, though he shares with Obama failure to enunciate a clear plan for how areas like Raqqa and Mosul will be governed once liberated.
Yesterday the President promised “100%” to testify under oath in the Special Counsel investigation of his campaign’s and administration’s connections to Russia. File that with his promise to release his tax returns, to provide documentation of his wife’s legal employment in the US, to prove his claim that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the election, and a dozen other commitments. The President is unprepared, unreliable, and inconsistent. To my satisfaction, he has even botched repeal and replacement of Obamacare and is well on his way to botching tax reform. The alleged adults in the Administration haven’t yet fixed anything. Trump excels at disappointing.
I’ve been off enjoying wife Jackie’s Sarah Lawrence reunion, which followed hard on my own Haverford festivities. But I’ve not been completely out of touch. By now, it should be obvious to all that
- The President of the United States has inappropriate and counterproductive reactions to terrorist events.
- His withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord is inane.
Let us consider these two propositions.
The London attacks on Saturday provoked Trump to tweets that called his own travel ban a Travel Ban (thus removing any doubt about its intentions), suggested that current American security measures are inadequate (who, pray tell, is responsible for that?), criticized the (Muslim) mayor of London for trying to reassure the city’s population that the appropriate security measures had been taken, retweeted an exaggerated report of the number killed from a notoriously unreliable source, and suggested that the use of knives by the attackers has somehow silenced the gun debate in the US.
I can’t imagine anyone I know having any one of these reactions to an attack in which the police reacted quickly and effectively to prevent what might otherwise have been a much more serious loss of life. Terrorists seek to create terror. Trump’s reactions were fearful, amplified the magnitude of the attack, and brought him to bizarre conclusions. Contrast this with his personal failure to react to the murder by a white supremacist of two men trying to defend a Muslim and a black woman in Portland, Oregon on Friday. That didn’t fit the Islamic extremism narrative Trump is trying to promote. Hence the silence, even though two Americans were murdered. Homicidal white supremacist attacks in America have been almost three times frequent as Islamist attacks since 9/11.
As for climate change, the President sought to justify his decision on the basis of falsehoods. That of course made no difference to him. Nor did support for the Paris climate agreement from American industry. He preferred to claim to be saving the relatively few coal miner jobs that remain, which won’t happen, and to be serving the interests of the citizens of Pittsburgh, which gave up coal and steel as its primary industrial activities decades ago and voted 75% for Hillary Clinton (not quite the 80% the mayor claimed).
The international ramifications of withdrawal from the Paris accord are many:
- The US may still have a seat at the table, but it will no longer be able to speak with any moral authority on the issue of climate change.
- Leadership on that will shift to China, which is giving up a lot of coal-powered electrical plants, and to Europe, both of which are forging ahead with renewable sources of energy that will produce lots more jobs than those lost in the coal industry.
- No country will in the future accept any American push on environmental standards to be included in trade agreements–all will first require that the US re-commit to Paris.
- Trump’s personal standing with many world leaders, already shaky, will decline sharply.
America may still meet its Paris agreement goals, because natural gas is replacing coal rapidly due to market forces and American states and private industry will continue to try to limit greenhouse gases. That would be the ultimate irony: we pay the price for getting out of the agreement, but still meet its targets. That and Trump’s reaction to the London incident are self-defeating.
All presidential visits are shows. Host governments do their best to demonstrate to their visitor the best they have to offer, which may or may not correspond to what the president appreciates. The Italians thought the perfect show for Bush 41 would be a performance of Rigoletto, but he declined. That left lots of seats for Embassy Rome, which occupied them happily.
The Saudis have read President Trump far better than the Italians read 41. His face was plastered on the facade of his hotel, King Salman gave him a gold medal right off, and he even appears to have half-enjoyed the all male dancing:
The Kingdom’s unelected rulers are delighted to welcome a president who won’t bug them about democracy or human rights, governs with a tight coterie of family members, and will sell mountains of arms without asking a lot of questions about how they will be used in Yemen. It’s not the America I know and love, but it is definitely one an absolute monarchy can understand and appreciate.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Trump’s administration is enmired in House, Senate and FBI investigations of what is proving to be an extensive network of connections to Russia. He himself confirmed to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov that he fired FBI Director Comey in order to relieve pressure from those investigations. That is as close to the dictionary definition of obstruction of justice as anyone would want to get.
Now it is believed his son-in-law Jared Kushner is a person of interest in the FBI investigation. I really am old enough to remember when Libya loaned money to Billy Carter, President Carter’s brother. The President then said:
I am deeply concerned that Billy has received funds from Libya and that he may be under obligation to Libya. These facts will govern my relationship with Billy as long as I am president. Billy has had no influence on U.S. policy or actions concerning Libya in the past, and he will have no influence in the future.
That’s a standard we might expect all future presidents to meet when it comes to the activities of their family members. But there is no sign whatsoever that Trump will even go a millimeter in that direction. Kushner’s sister has been cashing in on her White House connection in selling real estate to Chinese who get green cards in return. Will Jared Kushner himself turn up as heavily engaged with Russian real estate purchasers and financiers? How many of those will have used investments in the US to launder ill-gotten gains? And how much will Trump’s own company gain from his friendliness to the Kingdom?
Of course he wasn’t always so buddy-buddy with the Saudis, whom he criticized mercilessly during his campaign because they don’t pay for American military protection and, he claimed, they push gays off buildings. All that is forgotten now that he is in office. He settled instead for a smaller than Obama arms deal, with no burdensharing or human rights concessions. Blingplomacy is just that: shiny and worth less than it appears.
Donald Trump is a bully. We need only recall his treatment of his Republican competitors, especially Marco Rubio, and his stalking of Hillary Clinton during the last presidential debate, to realize that the President has an irresistible impulse to try to intimidate and dominate others. He tried it again this weekend with his threat to make recordings of their conversations public if former FBI Director Comey leaks to the press. He has also tried it with Kim Jong-un, alternately with offering to talk with him if the conditions are right. He has even tried it with Tea Party Republicans, when they refused to go along with a lousy revision of Obamacare that failed to meet their definition of “repeal.”
It isn’t working, because most adults know how to respond. Kim Jong-un is simply proceeding with his missile tests, knowing full well that ratcheting up UN Security Council sanctions is going to be difficult. By contrast, Comey, though reportedly fine with the existence of tapes of his phone conversations with the President, is not going to testify this week. I imagine he and his lawyers need to weigh a lot of pros and cons, since the Senate Democrats will want to ask him about ongoing investigations. That’s understandable, but sooner or later Comey will also defy the bully.
The bully ends up giving in more often than not, because he hasn’t got all the powers he pretends to wield. Trump has clearly overestimated his powers as president: the courts have stymied his immigration ban, his executive orders are often empty, and the Republicans in Congress are starting to bite back, even if not enough to satisfy me. Trump’s effort at rapprochement with Russia are going nowhere, he has backed off his promise to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and he is now figuratively licking the boots of the Chinese he once accused of raping America.
He really has only confirmation of a Supreme Court justice the Senate Republicans wanted, roll back of environmental and other regulations, and the cruise missile attack on Syria to show for his more than 100 days in the presidency. The former two items are important and something I regret. Gorsuch has already concurred in executing someone who might have been exonerated by DNA evidence. The US will be unable to meet its climate change commitments, even if it doesn’t withdraw from the Paris agreement.
The cruise missile raid has no significance, as it was done as a temperamental one-off without proper diplomatic and military followup that might have tipped the Syrian war in a new direction. Assad has used chemical weapons several times thereafter, without any American response, and now the State Department says he is building a crematorium to hid the execution of thousands of prisoners. In fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda, Trump has racked up a record of doing pretty much what his predecessor was doing but with bigger bombs, more drones, and more civilian casualties. The big difference is the lack of any diplomatic strategy other than bullying.
This week will be an important one: Turkish President Erdogan is in town trying to get the Americans to back off support for Syrian Kurds he regards as terrorists but the American generals think are the only available force able to remove ISIS from the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. The generals want to do this quickly, they say, because ISIS is planning attacks on the US in Raqqa. Trump is likely to bully Erdogan, though he may also try to sweeten the pot by offering to be helpful on the extradition of Erdogan’s arch-nemesis, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. That’s an empty promise, as the courts will make the decision.
A different president might cut a deal with Erdogan on Syria, thus preserving strong ties to America’s Turkish allies: if they want to prevent the Kurds from taking Raqqa, let them try. If they fail, the Americans do Plan B with the Kurds. The rationale for haste doesn’t add up: ISIS can plan attacks from anywhere. Removing them from Raqqa without a serious idea for how to govern the place thereafter reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus. You know: he was condemned to rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see it slide back down when he got near the top. That’s what is going to happen if the post-victory scenario in Raqqa has not been well-prepared. ISIS, or worse, will be back.
But options other than bullying, alternating with obsequious flattery, seem well beyond this president’s tool box. A great negotiator he is not. He is making America grate.
Neophyte politician Emanuele Macron today is projected to have won the French presidency, defeating nationalist Marine Le Pen. The outcome will not end the anti-European Union, anti-euro, anti-NATO, anti-immigrant surge in French politics, but it settles the presidency in reliably liberal democratic hands for the next five years.
The potential problem lies in the National Assembly, which is scheduled for elections in June. Macron lacks a well-established political party, so he may have trouble gaining the same kind of dominant legislative power French presidents have usually wielded. Le Pen may do much better in legislative elections, as her party is well-established and her support is spread through much of the country.
That said, this is the second European election that has repudiated Trump-like nationalists, aka white supremacists. The first was in the Netherlands, where racist Geert Wilders did less well than expected. The next will be in September in Germany, where Chancellor Merkel also did well in a regional election yesterday. In any event, both she and her principal opponent, Social Democrat Martin Schulz, are reliable anti-nationalists.
What does this mean for the US? We seem far less able to reject the nationalist upsurge than Europe, where only Britain has fallen victim by approving exit from the EU. But there is no doubt President Trump and his minions have been hoping for nationalist fellow travelers in Europe, where he might even hope they would break up the Union, which he loathes. Their disappointment will be felt all the more deeply because Barack Obama endorsed Macron while Trump all but endorsed Le Pen.
Trump’s last European hope now is likely Italy, where elections are due before May 2018 and may be held early. There populist comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star movement has been gaining ground. The Italians, remember, invented the businessman/populist/nationalist more than 20 years ago, when Silvio Berlusconi first came on the political scene. He is blessedly discredited, but Grillo is no better.
Trump, who endorsed Le Pen, now has more important things to worry about. He won the vote in the House last week to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, the health insurance law that has greatly expanded coverage for Americans, especially (the irony!) Trump voters in key states. Trump is trying hard to crash Obamacare by trashing the state-level marketplaces in which people can sign up for health insurance. He figures then the Democrats in the Senate will have to cooperate with some modified version of “repeal and replace” that would then have to be sent back to the House for final approval.
Trump is also planning his first foreign travel as president this month: Saudi Arabia, Israel/Palestine, Rome for the Pope as well as the Italian government, then Brussels for meetings with the EU, NATO and the Belgian government, and Taormina (Sicily) for the G7 summit.
The Saudis are no doubt looking forward to a meeting with a president who won’t harass them about human rights and is hostile to Iran, the Israelis and Palestinians are still waiting to see if the administration has any serious ideas about their peace process, the EU and NATO will hope the visit marks the end of the president’s skepticism about their institutions, and the G7 will be thankful their club has survived the rise of China and the death of the G8 (which included Russia).
Trump’s past foreign trips have been notable for serious gaffes as well as aggressive pursuit of his business interests. I’d bet we’ll see more of the same on this one. But they serve another purpose: they’ll help us all forget that he has been unsuccessful so far in dunning North Korea into submission and hasn’t made any progress on renegotiating NAFTA or blocking people from his selected Muslim countries from entering the US.
A Le Pen win would have made Trump’s upcoming travel a triumphal march through a Europe on the ropes. At least, phew!, that is not going to happen.