Tag: Gulf states

Weak and getting weaker

President Trump said Saturday en route to Asia that

the reason our stock market is so successful is because of me. I’ve always been great with money, I’ve always been great with jobs, that’s what I do.

None of the these claims are true. Job and economic growth under Trump has been a bit slower than they were s under Obama, not faster. The previous presidency is a major factor in any first 6-10 months of any subsequent presidency, so you can blame that on Obama if you like, but there is no credit due to Trump on both grounds. The stock market is up sharply since Trump’s election, but I’ll only give him credit for that if he takes responsibility for when it falls. The factors determining stock prices are obviously unknown. Trump’s aggressive efforts to eliminate Obamacare and environmental regulations may be part of the story, but the inevitable fall may well erase current gains. Then Trump will no doubt stay silent, or blame Congress and the Democrats.

A president who thinks he determines stock prices is a president unaware of the limits on his power. But we knew that. His tweets this week suggested that the sentence handed down to a soldier who pleaded guilty to desertion was inadequate and that the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in New York City should get the death penalty. The judge in the soldier’s case made clear that it was a previous over-reaching presidential tweet that got the soldier off without prison time. No doubt the courts handling the terrorism case will eliminate consideration of the death penalty for the same reason.

Trump has likewise managed to be counterproductive in other areas as well. The failure to repeal and replace Obamacare is his biggest legislative debacle. The failure to pass his proposed tax cut for business and the rich will be the next. It is likely he will head into the second year of his presidency with no serious legislative accomplishments. His executive actions eliminating environmental and other regulations will be his main achievements, dubious as they may be. They certainly will not bring back coal, as he has repeatedly promised both as candidate and president, but they will still dirty the air Americans breath and the water in the nation’s streams and rivers, not to mention hasten the impact of global warming.

The story is similar in foreign policy, where a president in theory wields more unconstrained power, but Trump has managed to cripple himself by eviscerating the State Department and trying to do everything himself:

Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has undermined the American position in Asia, where the president will visit for the next 10 days. He is demanding that Russia and China help in stopping North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, something he has given neither one much reason to do. His bravado talk of how strong America is in front of our troops in Japan contrasts sharply with his inability to counter North Korea in any meaningful way, including militarily. No doubt he will pronounce his meetings with Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin great successes, but the fact remains that neither is willing to do much to restrain Pyongyang.

The President has talked a strong line against Iran but done little or nothing to limit its rise. His decertification of the Iran nuclear deal has so far had no consequences, because everyone understands that we are far better off with the deal than without it. The only serious concerns about it are its “sunset” (expiration) and access to Iranian military sites. To get fixed, both these issues will require major concessions from the US that Trump will be unwilling to make. Trump has done nothing against Iran’s surrogate, Hizbollah, in Syria. Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation strengthens Hizbollah’s position there. Not to mention that the war against the Houthis in Yemen is not going well. Iran is far stronger regionally than it was when Trump took office.

The one country in which Trump seems to have a serious impact is Saudi Arabia. His appeal to the Saudis to stop terrorist financing led to Riyadh’s blockade of Qatar, driving it closer to Iran and splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. That is not the Washington’s advantage. Now he seems to have greenlighted the Kingdom’s crackdown on corruption, leading to the arrest of princes uncomfortable with the meteoric rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Kingdom knows how to turn every phone call from the President into an instrument of royal advantage.

The net effect is clear: the US is weak and getting weaker. This will no doubt continue so long as the president fails to understand the limits on his power.

 

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Arabs like America, not its government

In a refreshing change to most conversations about the Middle East where narratives originating at the government level are given the most importance, the opening panel of the Arab Center Washington DC’s Second Annual Conference on Thursday, October 26, “What Arabs Want: Arab Public Opinion and US Policy” focused foremost on the societal level. Panelists Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland-College Park and the Brookings Institution as well as moderator Tamara Kharroub of the Arab Center discussed a survey of Arab public opinion conducted by the Center over the past two months, analyzing the implications of its findings for US policy and making recommendations on how these findings could be better communicated to an American public.

Kharroub presented the survey, which tested attitudes towards the US, Arab perspectives on US president Trump and his policies, opinions on Middle East policy priorities, and thoughts on what the US president should be doing. This involved 400 respondents in eight Arab countries. Overwhelmingly, Arabs hold positive views of the United States and its people, but negative views on its foreign policy, President Trump, and Trump’s policies.

When asked about specific actions, the majority of respondents said that the US should not intervene in the region, followed closely by those who believed that the US has prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and by those who think the US is focused on crises and conflicts in the region, such as those in Syria and Yemen.

Kharroub pointed out the limitations of the survey, highlighting the fact that around 40% of those approached declined to participate, which she attributed to the political environment in the region, especially since the majority of refusals took place in Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia. Another limitation was the popularity of “I don’t know” as an option to the specific, policy-oriented questions at the end of the survey, making the majority findings partly due to the lack of participation.

Mogahed emphasized the importance of understanding that the Arab public has a nuanced perspective towards the US. Arabs distinguish between the American people and their government. This is important, particularly considering the rhetoric of the Trump administration. Referencing a different but poll, the American public, Mogahed underlined, is more likely to support discriminatory government policies when they believe that those affected by the policies have a negative, hateful view towards Americans. When made to believe that Muslims have a favorable view towards Americans, they are less likely to support such policies. Similarly, if Americans believe that the conflict that they are engaged in with others is due to cultural differences, they are more likely to support violence, but if they believe that it is due to politics, then they are more likely to call for peace.

Telhami focused his analysis on what he called the “Trump factor,” looking into opinions on President Trump and the reasons behind them. The survey revealed negative attitudes towards almost every one of the Trump administration’s policies, except for the improvement of relations with Arab allies. Telhami argued that the reason for this is the frequent visits made by government officials to the region (particularly to GCC countries) and the positive language that Arab regimes have been using to talk about the Trump administration. Trump’s hostility towards Iran is also welcomed by certain groups.

A policy issue that was negatively assessed was the Trump administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is unsurprising considering Trump’s asserted support for Israel and the commotion caused by his proposition of moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, but Telhami also noted that the Palestinian issue was not prioritized as it has been in previous years. This is primarily due to age differences, as older age groups tended to prioritize the issue more, while younger groups still deemed it important but not as urgent. Telhami suggested this may be due to the perceived urgency of more recent events, like the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and Libya.

The most pertinent finding was the distinction Arab opinion makes between the American public and the American government. Mogahed urged that information be presented in more accessible formats, such as short videos that can be posted and circulated on social media. She stressed the importance of being “louder in our criticism of media bias,” especially its portrayal of marginalized groups, and asserted that the public has a responsibility to demand better.

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Peace picks October 23 – 27

  1. Countering Violent Extremism: Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood | Monday, October 23 | 11:30 am – 5:15 pm | Hudson Institute (held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center) | Register Here | This full-day event includes two keynote addresses, the first by Secretary Leon E. Panetta, and the second by former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, as well as two panels titled “Sinews of Terrorism – Communications, Funding, and Ideological Support” and “New Dynamism in Congress.” General David H. Petraeus, formerly of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Ambassador Hussain Haqqani will also speak at the event.
  2. The Future of Orthodox Christianity in Syria and America | Tuesday, October 24 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | Over the last two thousand years, the Church of Antioch has played a major role in the formation and development of Christian theology and philosophy. Today the Church is facing tremendous challenges in its native homeland, Syria. Six years after the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the country is in ruins and millions of its citizens have become refugees or are internally displaced within Syria. The ongoing war has flamed sectarian tensions that threaten the existence of Christianity in one of its earliest locations. Though suffering at home, the Church of Antioch is flourishing abroad with a growing congregation in the United States. What place do Christians and the Antiochian Church have in the future of Syria? What role has the Church played in humanitarian assistance to the millions in need? Why is Orthodoxy finding renewed appeal in Western countries? For answers to these and many other questions regarding the future of Orthodox Christianity in Syria and America, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom will host a conversation with His Beatitude, John X, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, and His Eminence, Metropolitan Joseph, Metropolitan of All North America and Archbishop of New York. Hudson Senior Fellow Samuel Tadros will moderate the conversation.
  3. Tunisia’s Corruption Contagion | Wednesday, October 25 | 12:00 – 2:30 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | Corruption in Tunisia is perceived to be even more pervasive today than under former president Zine el Abidine ben Ali, despite numerous legal measures and civil society initiatives working to fight it. In their upcoming Carnegie paper, “Tunisia’s Corruption Contagion: A Transition at Risk,” Sarah Yerkes and Marwan Muasher argue that corruption has become endemic, as more and more people engage in and benefit from corrupt practices. For the democratic transition to survive, Tunisia must simultaneously address the kleptocracy of the previous regime and the emergence of widespread petty corruption. Can Tunisia’s government and civil society win this fight? Yassine Brahim will provide keynote remarks, and Chaima Bouhlel and Safwan Masri will join Carnegie’s Sarah Yerkes in a discussion of the paper’s findings moderated by Marwan Muasher. Tunisian Ambassador to the United States Fayçal Gouia will provide closing remarks. A light lunch will be served at 12:00 p.m. The discussion will begin at 12:30 p.m.
  4. Trump and the Arab World: First Year Assessment and Policy Recommendations | Thursday, October 26 | 9:00 am – 5:00 pm | Arab Center DC (held at JW Marriott Washington DC) | Register Here | The Arab Center’s second annual conference will begin with an opening keynote titled “US Policy in the Arab World: An Arab Perspective given by Tarek Mitri of the American University of Beirut and will consist of four panels. The first panel, “What Arabs Want: Arab Public Opinion and US Policy,” will feature panelists Tamara Kharroub of the Arab Center DC, Dalia Mogahed of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, and Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland- College Park. The second, “US Policy and Political and Economic Challenges in the Arab World” will include Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies, Perry Cammack of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Hani Findakly of Potomac Capital, and Najib Ghadbian of the University of Arkansas and Special Representative of the Syrian National Coalition to the US. The panel will be moderated by Dina Khoury of George Washington University. The third panel is titled “US-Gulf Relations and US Policy in the Arabian Gulf,” and moderator Khalid Al-Jaber of Qatar University will be joined by Abdullah Baabood of Qatar University, Sheila Carapico of the University of Richmond, David Des Roches of the National Defense University, and Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council. The final panel, “US Policy Recommendations in the Arab World” will feature Marwan Kabalan of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Rami Khouri of the American University of Beirut, Ibrahim Fraihat of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Ellen Laipson of George Mason University, and will be moderated by Laurie King of Georgetown University.
  5. Public Perspectives Toward Democracy | Thursday, October 26 | 12:30 pm | Council on Foreign Relations | Register Here | Panelists discuss global public opinion towards democracy amid the rise of populists and autocrats, and the implications for the future of democracy and U.S. foreign policy. Speakers include Stewart M. Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations, Ken Wollack of the National Democratic Institute, and Katie Simmons of the Pew Research Center.
  6. The Path Forward on Iran: Contain, Enforce, Engage | Thursday, October 26 | 11:00 am – 12:00 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here |  What comes next after President Donald Trump’s decision not to recertify the Iran nuclear deal? Experts from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Center for a New American Security offer a suggested way ahead in a new joint report: Contain, Enforce, and Engage: An Integrated U.S. Strategy to Address Iran’s Nuclear and Regional Challenges. Carnegie President William J. Burns will introduce the report, and Carnegie’s Jen Psaki will moderate a discussion with some of the report’s authors. Speakers include Ariel E. Levite and Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, as well as Ilan Goldenberg and Elizabeth Rosenberg of the Center for a New American Security.
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Peace picks October 2 – 6

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
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Peace picks September 18-22

  1. A Conversation With UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein | Monday, September 18 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | Join the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for the launch of the Morton and Sheppie Abramowitz Lecture featuring UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Carnegie President William J. Burns will join the high commissioner for a conversation on the global state of human rights.
  2. Weighing Bad Options: Past Diplomacy With North Korea and Alliance Options Today | Monday, September 18 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | The Trump administration and its allies are trying to apply maximum pressure on North Korea so that it will accept diplomatic talks predicated on its eventual denuclearization. It has been over a decade since such active hard and soft diplomatic measures have been applied to this policy challenge, even as regional circumstances have changed dramatically. Two veteran diplomats deeply involved with the last set of intense negotiations with North Korea will discuss their experiences and consider options in light of today’s dynamics and will be joined by both U.S. and Japanese experts. Carnegie’s Jim Schoff will moderate. Panelists include Christopher Hill of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at The University of Denver, Mitoji Yabunaka of Ritsumeikan University and Osaka University, Keiji Nakatsuji of Ritsumeikan University, and Douglas H. Paal and James L. Schoff of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This event is co-sponsored by the U.S.-Japan Research Institute.
  3. The Roller Coaster of Turkey-Russia Relations | Tuesday, September 19 | 3:00 – 4:30 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | The history of Turkish-Russian relations is replete with sudden outbursts of anger and unexpected rapprochements. Even in just the past couple of years, Moscow and Ankara swung from conflict to reconciliation with startling speed. Fewer than six months after Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet near Syria in November 2015, the two countries concluded deals on a gas pipeline and a nuclear plant. Following the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Ankara in December 2016, they collaborated on a framework to stop the fighting in Syria. Moving forward, fluctuations will likely continue to characterize this ever-uncertain relationship. In the latest Turkey Project Policy Paper, “An ambiguous partnership: The serpentine trajectory of Turkish-Russian relations in the era of Erdoğan and Putin,” Pavel K. Baev and Kemal Kirişci explore the main areas of interaction between Ankara and Moscow. They discuss the implications of these shifting dynamics on Turkey’s relations with its trans-Atlantic allies, particularly the United States and the European Union. On September 19, 2017, the Center on the United States and Europe (CUSE) will host a panel discussion on the conclusions from this latest Turkey Project Policy Paper. The authors Baev and Kirişci will be joined by Evren Balta, Fulbright visiting scholar at New York University, and Naz Durakoğlu, senior policy advisor to Senator Jeanne Shaheen at the U.S. Senate. The discussion will be moderated by Torrey Taussig, post-doctoral research fellow at Brookings.
  4. Saudi Arabia Looks Forward: Vision 2030 and Mohammed Bin Salman | Wednesday, September 20 | 2:00 pm – 3:30 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | In a new paper titled “Saudi Arabia in Transition,” Karen Elliott House, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who has visited Saudi Arabia for nearly 40 years and a current senior fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, analyzes the progress the Saudis have made and the challenges they face in implementing Vision 2030 amidst the recent changes in leadership. On September 20, the Brookings Intelligence project will host Elliott House for a discussion on her findings, the Trump administration’s Saudi Arabia policy, and Iran’s activities in the region. Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project and a senior fellow, will moderate the discussion. Following their remarks, Elliott House and Riedel will take questions from the audience.
  5. Restoring Stability in a Turbulent Middle East: A Perspective from the League of Arab States | Friday, September 22 | 3:30 pm | Center on Foreign Relations | Register Here | Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit discusses the state of affairs in the Middle East, including the conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, countering the threat of terrorism in the region, the impact of the recent intra-gulf crisis, and how the Arab League operates within this complex climate.
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Incoherence is poison

The United States is objectively no less powerful than it was seven months ago. Its military forces, its economy, even its political system are virtually unchanged in that short period. Only the presidency has changed hands, with all that entails in terms of personnel and policy.

But American capacity to effect the changes Washington wants to see in the world are diminished: it is unable to rally support from China and Russia for strict sanctions on North Korea, it has made no progress in countering Russian aggression in Ukraine (not to mention Moldova and Georgia), the squabble among Gulf countries has limited its ability to push back against expanded Iranian presence and influence in the region, and neither Palestinians nor Israelis are inclined to pay the Americans much mind. Adversaries are defiant, allies are nervous, and those in between are hedging.

This weakness is largely the result of incoherence. It is a rare day that President Trump, Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson, National Security Adviser McMaster, and UN Ambassador Haley are even close to being tuned to the same wave length. Far more often they each go their own way, pushing or denying military options, pursuing or dropping diplomatic initiatives, befriending or criticizing dictators.

Why they say what they do is rarely clear, and when clear often illogical. Why refuse to certify that Iran is complying with a nuclear deal that everyone else in the world (including the professionals who staff the State and Defense Departments as well as the US intelligence agencies) says it is complying with? Is that because there is some unwritten “spirit” of the agreement? Or is it just to have an excuse to go to war? Or maybe it’s just a way of fulfilling an election campaign pledge but shedding responsibility for real action to the Congress, as with the elimination of DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals)? No one knows.

Worse: it has become unknowable. The President disdains logic as much as he does facts. What is the logic of threatening the free trade agreement with South Korea when he needs Seoul on board for whatever he wants to do about North Korea? He reacts, based on instinct, and often in different ways on different days, or even different hours. There is really nothing wrong with instinct, or to put it more accurately with heuristics, rules of thumb based on experience. We all use them, including the wisest among us, despite their well-documented distortions. The trouble is the President has no relevant experience. Nor has he read or studied enough to substitute for his inexperience.

This matters as much in politics as it does in foreign policy. Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan have now been sandbagged (in governmentese that means being surprised by an unexpected and often gratuitous move) more than once by this President. Yesterday, he cut a deal with the Democrats on the budget and hurricane relief that the Republican leadership had publicly stated they would not accept. McConnell and Ryan have thus far not responded in kind. I wouldn’t expect that to last. What goes around comes around.

The one subject on which Washington has reached some limited degree of coherence is, ironically, Russia. Congress reacted to the President’s illogical and seemingly unmotivated affection for Vladimir Putin with sanctions that are coherent and difficult to remove. But that limited coherence of course amplifies the greater incoherence. We still have a president hankering for improved relations with Russia even as the State Department closes down its consulate in San Francisco and orders its diplomats out of the US, in retaliation for a draconian cut Putin ordered in staffing of the US embassy in Moscow.

We’ve also got a President who tells DACA kids how much he loves them and will do something ill-defined for them if Congress doesn’t, while he lets an Attorney General who openly advocates limiting immigration on racial and religious grounds announce that DACA is kaput. Not to mention the presidential pardon for a sheriff who physically abused immigrants, often without regard to whether they were documented or not.

America will be weaker still if Jeff Sessions gets his way and begins to deport those 800,000 productive non-citizens who have spent most of their lives, and careers, in the US. Incoherence is not just dissonance. It will sap America’s strength and render a country founded on admirable principles, but unable to implement them effectively, great only in retrospect. Incoherence is poison. We need to get it out of our system.

 

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