The House has reached bipartisan agreement on a sanctions bill that will make it harder for President Trump undo sanctions on Russia (as well as North Korea and Iran), unless he can present evidence that Moscow’s behavior has changed. That’s extraordinary: it has been a long time since Congress has reached a bipartisan agreement on anything important, much less something on which Trump disagrees.
There are still pitfalls. The House version of the bill will be voted on this week and then needs to be reconciled with the Senate’s version, which did not include North Korea. The Administration will do everything possible to water it down, threatening to veto it if it passes in its current form. But if the bill makes it through to approval in both Houses with veto-proof majorities (more than two-thirds), the White House will hesitate to undermine its already weakened president by vetoing and risking an override.
If and when the legislation passes, the US will have something resembling a tough-minded policy on Russian misbehavior, including its election hacking, its annexation of Crimea, and its invasion of eastern Ukraine (but not Syria). The legislation would also toughen policies on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as well as Iran’s missile program and regional interventions.
None of this however should be expected to have an immediate impact. Unilateral sanctions, even “secondary” ones that punish other countries’ companies for doing business with Russia, Iran, and North Korea, are rarely effective in the short-term. Their impact is felt when you negotiate relief from them, not when you impose them. And the fact that the legislation makes it hard to provide relief will be a disincentive to Trump to use the authority the legislation provides, in particular on Russia.
We should of course expect retaliation from the countries sanctioned. Russia will of course maintain the prohibition on adoptions that the Trump campaign and Administration have repeatedly discussed with Moscow’s various representatives. Putin may expel some American spies and diplomats or prohibit American imports. North Korea will likely launch more missiles. Iran will too. Tehran can also target Americans in Iraq or Syria, though doing so risks an American military reaction.
Sanctions would be more effective if multilateral, in particular if the Europeans would join in imposing and implementing their own, comparable measures. That isn’t likely with respect to Iran, where the Europeans are doing good business since the nuclear deal. They may be more likely to act against Russia, though the Italians and others are already chafing at existing sanctions. North Korea is easy for the Europeans, though they are unlikely to join in secondary sanctions against Chinese banks and other companies.
The Trump Administration lacks the rapport with Europe (and most of the rest of the world) to get the kind of multilateral cooperation required to make sanctions bite against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The President may have enjoyed Bastille Day in France with newly elected President Macron, but he has stiff-armed German Chancellor Merkel, who has the real clout. His pal British Prime Minister May is preoccupied now with Brexit, hasn’t been able to form a new government after suffering serious election losses, and in any event carries little weight any longer with the rest of Europe.
So, yes, this flicker of bipartisanship is good news, as it is a counterweight to some of President Trump’s worst instincts, in particular towards Russia. But it does not change international equation. Defiance will continue, as Trump has weakened the United States by offending its allies.
PS: While I was working on this piece, my colleague at SAIS Mike Haltzel published similar but more far-reaching views: A Ray of Hope on our Russia Policy | HuffPost
- Bipartisan Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing U.S. Foreign Assistance Report Launch | Monday, July 24 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Live Webcast | On May 30, 2017, CSIS announced the formation of a Bipartisan Congressional Task Force on Reforming and Reorganizing U.S. Foreign Assistance. After meeting three times and going through several rounds of discussions, this task force has identified actionable recommendations that the Trump administration and the U.S. Congress can take to improve efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of U.S. foreign assistance programs. Senator Todd Young (R-IN) will provide opening remarks, a panel of select task force members will discuss the findings, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) will provide closing remarks.
- Media Diplomacy: Challenging the Indo-Pak Narrative | Monday, July 24 | 3:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The dominant national narratives in India and Pakistan fuel tensions between the two nations. Journalists and social media users play a critical role in crafting hostile public opinions and inciting further animosity. Join the Atlantic Council for a conversation to discuss the influence of media on public perception in India and Pakistan. In a discussion introduced and moderated by Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center, Senator Mushahid Hussain and Minister Manish Tewari will address the role of media in shaping debates emanating from India and Pakistan.
- Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the Trump Administration: Stability or Upheaval? | Tuesday, July 25 | 11:45 am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | While tensions mount between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Saudi Arabia finds itself embroiled in controversy over the royal succession: when King Salman named his son Mohammed Bin Salman crown prince in June, he displaced his elder cousin Mohammed Bin Nayef, who is well respected at home and here in the United States. Meanwhile, conflict continues with Iran and its proxies in Syria and Yemen, and with Qatar closer to home. The Trump administration needs a stable Gulf region to sustain and advance American interests and those of its allies. What does the future hold for Saudi Arabia and the United States? What role should the Trump administration play with its regional partners in the GCC? Panelists include Mohammed Alyahya, Fatimah S. Baeshen, and Hudson Adjunct Fellow Michael Pregent. Hudson Senior Fellow Lee Smith will moderate the conversation.
- Venezuela on the Verge of Collapse: Economic, Social, and Political Challenges | Wednesday, July 26 | 11:45 am – 2:00 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Venezuela, a country with more oil than Saudi Arabia, is facing an economic crisis unseen outside of wartime. Chronic food and medicine shortages have plagued the country, and the crime rate has soared as people turn to black markets to secure common goods. Over the past four months, hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to contest President Nicolás Maduro’s increasingly authoritarian regime. In opposition to the vote scheduled at the end of this month to secure Maduro’s grasp on power, millions of Venezuelans around the world participated in a symbolic July 16 referendum calling for new elections and opposing further changes to the country’s constitution. On Wednesday, panelists Gustavo Coronel, Dr. Rubén Perina, Gabriela Febres-Cordero, and Dr. Boris Saavedra will discuss the political, social, and economic turmoil in Venezuela. Ambassador Jaime Daremblum, director of Hudson Institute’s Center for Latin American Studies, will moderate.
- Hostilities in the Himalayas? Assessing the India-China Border Standoff | Thursday, July 27 | 10 am – 12 pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | India and China are embroiled in a tense border standoff in a highly strategic area of the Himalayas known as Doklam in India and Donglong in China. India and its close ally Bhutan view this land as Bhutanese territory, while China claims it as its own. This event will assess the current dispute and place it in the broader context of India-China border tensions and bilateral relations, while also considering what the future may hold. Additionally, the event will discuss possible implications for Washington and its interests in Asia. The panel features Former Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao; Robert Daly, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States; and Jeff M. Smith, director of Asian security programs at the American Foreign Policy Concil.
- The Ramifications of Rouhani’s Reelection | Friday, July 28 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | On Friday, the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland will host a panel discussion on Iranian public opinion in the aftermath of Hassan Rouhani’s re-election. The event will present new data gathered since the May presidential elections on Iranian attitudes toward domestic and international economic and political issues. In particular, the event will explore current Iranian attitudes toward Rouhani, the nuclear agreement, the Trump administration, regional crises and Iranian domestic policies. Panelists include Nadereh Chamlou, Ebrahim Mohseni, and Paul Pillar. Discussion will be moderated by Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
- Mosul after ISIS: Whither U.S. Policy in Iraq | Monday, July 17 | 2:00 – 3:00 pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | The liberation of Mosul from ISIS control is a major win for the Iraqi government, the United States, and the campaign to defeat the terrorist group – but a critically important question now looms: How can the U.S. ensure that military victory against ISIS doesn’t turn into political defeat in Iraq? Join the Wilson Center as former U.S. policy advisers Anthony J. Blinken, Ambassador James F. Jeffrey, Colin Kahl, and Robert Malley address these and related questions in a teleconference.
- Cyber Risk Monday: The Darkening Web | Monday, July 17 | 3:30 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | No single invention of the last few decades has disrupted the nature of political conflict like the Internet, which is increasingly used as a weapon by actors eager to exploit or curtail global connectivity in order to further their interests. This Atlantic Council discussion celebrating the launch of Alexander Klimberg’s new book The Darkening Web: The War for Cyberspace brings together intelligence specialist Laura Galante, former Deputy Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute, Atlantic Council president and CEO Fred Kempe, and author Alexander Klimberg himself to discuss the chilling consequences the emergence of cyberspace as a new field of conflict has had on the global order. The discussion will be moderated by Tal Kopan.
- Seventh Annual CSIS South China Sea Conference | Tuesday, July 18 | 9:00 am | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | This full-day conference will provide opportunities for in-depth discussion and analysis of the future of the South China Sea disputes, and potential responses, amid policy shifts in Beijing, Manila, and Washington. Panels include “Renewing American Leadership in the Asia-Pacific” (9:00 am) featuring Sen. Cory Gardner, “State of Play in the South China Sea Over the Past Year” (9:45 am), “Militarization, Counter-coercion, and Capacity Building” (1:45 pm), and “U.S. South China Sea Policy under the New Administration” (3:15 pm).
- Anticipating and Mitigating Future Iranian Military Capabilities | Tuesday, July 18 | 10:00 am | International Institute for Strategic Studies | Register Here | In accordance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, Iran will soon be allowed to procure advanced military equipment from international suppliers. How Tehran decides to recapitalize its military could have a profound impact on the security and stability of the Gulf and wider Middle East. VADM (Retd) John ‘Fozzie’ Miller, Michael Eisenstadt, and Michael Elleman will discuss the weaponry Iran is likely to seek, how the acquisition of new capabilities will alter the security environment in the Gulf, and the steps the US and its allies in the region must take now to maximize regional security.
- Latin America Terror Trials | Tuesday, July 18 | 3:00 pm | Center for a Secure Free Society | Register Here | In April 2017, Brazil successfully prosecuted the first case of Islamist terrorism in Latin America’s history when it sentenced eight ISIS sympathizers for terror-related charges. In Peru, the prosecution had less success in prosecuting an alleged Hezbollah operative accused of manipulating explosives in 2014. Meanwhile, Argentina is advancing several cases tied to the 1994 Iranian-backed bombing in Buenos Aires of the AMIA cultural center. Join Hon. Marcos Josegrei da Silva, Moisés Vega de la Cruz, and Ricardo Neeb for a policy discussion on how the U.S. Government and civil society could collaborate with Latin American nations to enact or strengthen laws before the next major Islamist terror attack strikes the region. (Part of the discussion will be in Spanish with continuous interpretation.)
- Recovery in Somalia: How Do We Sustain Gains Against al-Shabab? | Tuesday, July 18 | 10:30 – 11:00 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Somalia’s tenuous progress toward stability will only be sustained if the newly elected government steps up delivery of desperately-needed services to its citizens, offering a viable alternative to al-Shabab extremists. Yet six million Somalis are at risk of famine due to drought, and the looming drawdown of the regional peacekeeping force, AMISOM, threatens to derail the country’s fragile transition if the training of Somali forces is not expedited. Former Somali Minister of Planning and International Cooperation Abdirahman Yusuf Ali Aynte (Abdi Aynte) and U.S. Institute of Peace President Nancy Lindborg will discuss the challenges and potential solutions in a webcast conversation.
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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The North Koreans celebrated July 4 with launch of a missile they claim (and some expert observers confirm) could be an inter-continental one. While they are still presumably some distance from being able to mount a nuclear weapon on an ICBM and deliver it to the US, President Trump had said they wouldn’t be allowed to continue to test this capability.
Trouble is, he seems to have no idea what to do about it. The US and South Korea launched a couple of missiles into the sea in response, but that is really pointless. Kim Jong-un knows full well that Seoul and Washington can obliterate Pyongyang, but he also knows that he has the capability to do likewise to Seoul. He has tens of thousands of well-hidden conventional artillery pieces within range of the South Korean capital. Even if most of them miss their targets, they will do colossal damage, mainly to civilians.
Trump’s bluff and bluster is also failing with the Chinese, who have reached an agreement with the Russians not to up the sanctions pressure on the North. Without Moscow and Beijing, American sanctions are essentially meaningless. Even the recent move against Chinese banks that finance business with North Korea won’t have much impact. The Chinese will likely move their operations to more opaque institutions. We’ll discover those and levy sanctions, leading to an interminable game of cat and mouse.
Admittedly, Trump is doing no worse than previous American administrations, which have likewise found a dearth of options. The difference is that Trump mocked “strategic patience” and promised success, repeatedly. He thus put US credibility on the line and thereby forced his own hand. He may have to “do something” for the sake of his own prestige.
What Beijing and Moscow want is a deal that would suspend at least some US and South Korean military exercises in exchange for freezing the North Korean missile program. That would be a good deal for the Washington and Seoul, since they really have little need to continue the exercises, except as a (feeble) response to Pyongyang’s provocations. It is not however clear that North Korea sees much advantage in that sort of mutual freeze, since the threat their missiles pose is a hypothetical one until they gain a real operational capability.
The US finds itself reduced to asking for a UN Security Council meeting. That is the kind of diplomatic gesture Trump would have mocked while President Obama was in office. It is nonetheless a good idea, to see if there might be some area of agreement among China, Russia, and the US.
Jaw-jaw in this case is certainly better than war-war. The US is up a creek without a paddle. Maybe someone will loan us one.
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