Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi visited the United States Institute of Peace on Monday to discuss the future of security and government in Iraq as well as the prospects of US-Iraqi relations during the Trump administration.
Al-Abadi praised the work of the Iraqi Security Forces in not only liberating Iraq from ISIS but also winning back the trust of the people. He highlighted the security forces’ accomplishments, including the return of over one million people to their homes, the military partnership with the Kurdish peshmerga, and the imminent recapture of Mosul. However, al-Abadi stressed that military force alone would not defeat threats like ISIS and a more comprehensive approach, incorporating a successful hearts and minds campaign, would be necessary.
Al-Abadi also addressed future challenges to security in the aftermath of Mosul and ISIS. He said religious minorities, who have suffered severely at the hands of ISIS, are part of Iraqi society and have the same rights as all Iraqis. But there is uncertainty over whether they will return to Iraq due to increasing delays in reconstruction efforts. He also said that the government intends on investigating and punishing ISIS crimes. Militia fighters would also be subject to the law and their demobilization and reintegration into society monitored. Elements of the Popular Mobilization Forces would not be involved in politics while continuing to carry arms, which is at odds with the political process.
Turning to government challenges, al-Abadi discussed the balance between federal and regional authority and how best to reform and improve the Iraqi political situation. He stressed the importance of keeping politicians accountable and placing citizens’ trust in strong political institutions. Calling it a new day for democracy, al-Abadi said that while change is difficult, it is essential for people to believe in the government’s ability to reconstruct liberated territories, eliminate the ISIS threat, and make politics inclusive and representative of all Iraqis.
However, developing good governance is not easy and Iraq must proceed with caution. Al-Abadi cited the need to maintain peace and not antagonize or polarize people early on, especially in plans to govern newly liberated territories such as Mosul. He was hopeful that the provincial elections, scheduled for late 2017, will return new politicians who want to move the country forward towards democracy, building bridges for cooperation rather than walls of provincial and sectarian division.
Coming directly from the White House and a conversation with President Trump, al-Abadi was satisfied with the level of support from the new administration and the prospects for a better relationship with the United States. Trump wants to be more engaged and face terrorism head-on, a move al-Abadi welcomes in the continued fight against ISIS.
As for regional and international partners, al-Abadi saw positive elements as well as areas for improvement in the fighting terrorism. The region could work more vigorously against ISIS and its recruiting efforts, an oversight that enabled the group to build its capacities in the first place. The international community has pledged support to stabilizing Mosul, and the recent visit of the Saudi foreign minister to Baghdad was welcome. Iraq is eager to deliver the aid and assistance desperately needed to rebuild the country and to stop regional conflicts.
1. Addressing the North Korean Threat: A Discussion with Congressman Joe Wilson | Monday, March 20th | 11:30-1:00PM | The Hudson Institute | Register Here |
Hudson Institute will host a timely conversation on the growing threat of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs to the Unites States and our East Asian allies. U.S. Representative Joe Wilson, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Readiness Subcommittee, will join Hudson missile defense and East Asia security experts Rebeccah Heinrichs and Arthur Herman for an in-depth discussion on the status of Pyongyang’s weapons development activities and how the U.S. and our regional allies should respond to bolster their security.
2. From Scarcity to Security: Water as a Resource for Middle East Peacebuilding | Monday, March 20th | 12:00-2:00 PM | The Elliot School | Register Here |
In the Middle East, water has often constituted a source of tension between Israel, the Palestinians and neighboring states. In recent years, however, regional leaders have increasingly identified water security as a shared interest that transcends borders – and even a potential avenue for peacebuilding. Join Gidon Bromberg, Israeli Director, EcoPeace Middle East and Marina Djernaes, Director, EcoPeace Center for Water Security for a discussion on this resource.
For two decades, the EcoPeace Middle East organization has engaged Israelis, Palestinians, and Jordanians in the joint promotion of practical solutions to transboundary problems of scarcity and pollution. In the process, they have fostered regional alliances, built environmental infrastructure, altered allocation policies, and shined spotlights on the environmental crises facing sacred sites such as the Jordan River and the Dead Sea. This panel will draw on decades of civil society and intergovernmental experience to highlight the potential of water security as a catalyst for peace building in the Middle East and beyond.
3. Rebuilding Syria: Reconstruction and Legitimacy | Tuesday, March 21st | 12:30 | The Atlantic Council | Register Here |
The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East is launching a new initiative, Rebuilding Syria: Reconstruction and Legitimacy. Over the next two years, the Hariri Center will pool expertise from multiple specialists to cover the many challenges of rebuilding Syria including in: economics, finance, development, infrastructure, political economy, civil society, food security, energy, law, and employment. More than just a cursory overview, the initiative will produce a strategic roadmap to reconstruction with the participation of Syrians and the support of the international community.
The Hariri Center invites you to a discussion on the technical and political challenges ahead for rebuilding Syria with country and development experts on March 21, 2017 from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. at the Atlantic Council headquarters in Washington, D.C. Our panelists will include Dr. Osama Kadi, president of the Syrian Economic Task Force, Mr. Todd Diamond, Middle East director for Chemonics International, Mona Yacoubian, former deputy assistant administrator for the Middle East at the US Agency for International Development, and Bassam Barabandi, former Syrian diplomat and co-founder of People Demand Change. The conversation will be moderated by Hariri Center Senior Fellow Faysal Itani. Mr. Omar Shawaf, chairman and founder of BINAA, will give introductory remarks.
4. A Conversation with His Excellency Gebran Bassil, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, The Republic of Lebanon| Tuesday, March 21st | 3:00-4:00 PM | The Wilson Center | Register Here |
The Lebanon Ideas Forum is an assemblage of scholars, journalists, policymakers, and diplomats who will discuss issues concerning Lebanon, its wider region, and relations with the United States and Europe. This event is the inaugural event in the Lebanon Ideas Forum series. The Lebanon Ideas Forum is part of a greater strategic partnership between the Middle East Program at the Wilson Center and Safadi Foundation USA, which was established in 2017. Join the Wilson Center this Tuesday for a discussion with Lara Alameh, President of the Board and CEO, Safadi Foundation USA, and Gebran Bassil, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants, The Republic of Lebanon.
5. Securing Southeastern Europe: A New Model for Progress in the Balkans? | Tuesday, March 21st | 4:00 PM | The Atlantic Council | Register Here
Please join the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative on Tuesday, March 21 at 4:00 p.m. for a conversation with the foreign ministers of Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro, as they discuss security cooperation in the Western Balkans.
At this public event, Foreign Minister Ditmir Bushati, Foreign Minister Srdjan Darmanovic, and Foreign Minister Davor Ivo Stier will jointly discuss their perspective on the security challenges facing Southeastern Europe, as well as their insights on addressing issues ranging from Islamic radicalization and terrorist threats to the completion of Montenegro’s NATO accession process.
6. The Interrogation of Saddam Hussein and US policy in Iraq | Wednesday, March 22nd | 10:00-11:30 | Brookings | Register Here |
On March 22, the Brookings Intelligence Project will host former CIA analyst John Nixon to outline his findings from his interrogation of Hussein, and what lessons he believes can be learned. Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel, director of the Intelligence Project, will provide introductory remarks and moderate the discussion. Following their remarks, Riedel and Nixon will take questions from the audience.
7. U.S.- Iran Relations: Opportunities for the New Administration | Wednesday, March 22nd | 11:30-12:30 | The Wilson Center | Register Here |
Ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution and subsequent hostage situation, Iran-US relations have been characterized by mutual misperceptions. The nuclear deal of June 2015 between Iran and the “P5+1” came to fruition against this backdrop, in large part due to the efforts of The Right Honourable Catherine Ashton, Baroness of Upholland, Former Vice President of the European Commission and former High Representative of the EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Ambassador Wendy R. Sherman, Senior Counselor at Albright Stonebridge Group and former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
The July 2015 deal was an unprecedented step towards rebuilding that trust, though tensions are being fueled by military cooperation with Russia in Syria and new sanctions announced by the Trump administration. The new administration faces familiar challenges in relations with Iran, but also some key strategic and economic opportunities. Rob Litwak, Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies, will moderate a discussion between Baroness Ashton and Ambassador Sherman who well know these challenges and opportunities, and can speak to how the U.S. can be appealing to their strategic interests using diplomacy and negotiations.
8. The Impact of Gender Norms on Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia | Wednesday, March 22nd | 12:00-1:00 | The Elliot School | Register Here |
Dr. Hala Aldosari will lead a discussion on the impact of gender norms on the construction of women’s roles and identity in Saudi Arabia. Analysis of key limitations of personal status laws, planning of women’s health services and the concepts of legislation on violence against women will be presented. The talk will also delve into the role of state and non-state agents in shaping the discourse on gender norms and roles, in light of the recent economic and political trends.
Hala Aldosari received her PhD and postdoctoral training in health services research and the social determinants of women’s health. Her research and publications are focused on the intersection of gender, laws, health and political identity in Saudi Arabia. She works on different projects to promote women’s rights and prevention from violence against women and girls. In 2016, she won the Freedom award for her leading role to promote human rights and democracy in Saudi Arabia.
9. Reaffirming the U.S.-Taiwan Security Relationship | Friday, March 24th | 12:00-2:00 PM | The Hudson Institute | Register Here |
As President Donald Trump meets with China’s President Xi Jinping next month, one subject that is likely to be discussed is Taiwan. President Trump has inherited a clear and long-established diplomatic and security structure pledged to defend Taiwan, its democratic political institutions, and the freedoms its people enjoy. The keystones of U.S. relations with Taiwan are the Taiwan Relations Act and the Six Assurances which established guidelines for U.S. policy toward Taiwan over the last four decades. The Six Assurances addressed U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, set a fixed stance on sovereignty issues, and guaranteed that previous agreements calling for U.S. assistance to defend Taiwan would remain firmly in effect.
On March 24, Hudson Institute’s Center for American Seapower will host a distinguished panel of experts to examine the Trump administration’s stance on Taiwan and the outlook for existing agreements to protect Taiwan. Hudson senior fellows Seth Cropsey and William Schneider will be joined by Dennis Wilder, a professor at Georgetown University, and Ian Easton of the Project 2049 Institute. The panel will assess what is needed to fulfill and fortify the existing agreements with Taiwan and assure not only this partnership, but the U.S.’s entire network of regional and global alliances.
Donald Trump’s first budget proposal is like his tweets: intentionally exaggerated to attract attention. There is no way this budget will pass Congress, where it gores as many Republicans as it does Democrats. The boost in Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs–three of the more amply funded and least efficient US government agencies–aims to please those terrified of the threat from what Trump wants to call violent Islamic extremism, which kills fewer Americans than lightening strikes.
Trump is also preparing for the negotiation with Congress by anchoring his budget on the extreme right, knowing the outcome will be somewhere in the middle. This is classic Trump negotiating behavior, and has potential to gain him support from the Tea Party Republicans. They are none too happy with Ryancare, which amends but does not repeal or replace Obamacare, no matter how often Republicans repeat that phrase.
At the State Department, a 29% cut in a single year will pretty much devastate normal diplomacy, even if the Secretary of State will never find his wings clipped. State has a lot of fixed costs in embassies where the heat, air conditioning, and guard forces need to be fully funded. It also has salaries that need to be paid, as well as routine allowances, moving costs, tuition for kids whose parents are stationed abroad, and the costs of services to other US government agencies resident in our embassies.
I had 36 of those when I was Deputy Chief of Mission and Charge’ d’Affaires in Rome. Ninety per cent of the personnel there were either from other agencies or servicing them, including a large contingent from the Defense Department. They would scream loudly if their services were cut by 29%, never mind the 50% or more that is likely because of the fixed costs.
Yesterday in Japan Secretary Tillerson justified the State Department cuts this way:
…as time goes by, there will be fewer military conflicts that the US will be directly engaged in. And second, that as we become more effective in our aid programs, that we will also be attracting resources from other countries, allies, and other sources as well to contribute in our development aid and our disaster assistance.
This is a ridiculous way to justify a first-year cut, especially as Trump has just deployed another 1000 troops to Syria and Tillerson himself is threatening war against North Korea. We face at least another decade of war and post-war transition in the Middle East (not only Syria but also Yemen, Iraq, and Libya). We can expect South Korea to handle most of the post-war requirements on the Korean Peninsula, but the notion that no burdens will fall to the US is not credible. Besides, other countries follow those who lead, not those who cut back.
In one sense, we shouldn’t worry too much: it isn’t all going to happen. Congress won’t let Meals on Wheels and other social welfare programs die, though it may well allow the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the United States Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars to go under or get starvation budgets. State and USAID should do better than that, as they have stronger constituencies in Congress.
But even if State gets back much of its money, our diplomatic corps and foreign assistance workers will suffer demoralization. They already weren’t in high spirits during the last of the Obama years, as the President let Syria go to hell, the pivot to the Asia Pacific faltered, and whole continents were ignored (especially Africa and Latin America). For good reasons, the State Department and the US Agency for International Development believe they are in the front lines of defending American interests globally: they issue visas, try to get foreign governments on board with whatever the President wants, and ensure that America participates in efforts to reduce poverty and discourage extremism worldwide.
Besides the cuts to State and AID, many domestic cuts will affect America’s role in the world. The 31% cut to EPA is intended in part to hamstring its efforts on global warming. The 6% cut at the Department of Energy will likely have that impact too. The Treasury cut (4%) apparently includes its important foreign assistance, which is vital to helping other countries set up Finance Ministries that can conduct serious growth-promoting macroeconomic policies and cooperate with the US in law enforcement, including economic sanctions.
The net effect is this: even if corrected in Congress, the Trump Administration budget announced yesterday will have a devastating impact on America’s influence in the world, over and above the disrespect in which the President himself is held in many countries. It should be taken seriously but not literally. America is not going to be great again on the global stage under this administration.
In his Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture February 28, Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm discussed the sociopolitical landscape of the Middle East and America’s foreign policy options within the context of the Obama administration’s legacy in the region and the Trump administration’s inheritance.
Gnehm focused on the Arab Spring and its aftermath as well as intervention by outside powers in regional power struggles. With hopes dashed and chaos raging across the region, old power centers such as the military and entrenched bureaucracies have reasserted themselves and undone much of the work the revolutions hoped to do. The conflicts erupting in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, have led to increased external intervention and proxy conflict. Notably, Iran and Russia have spread their influence and military clout around the region in pursuit of their own national interests.
The US has remained notable for its absence. Obama’s reluctance to intervene confused and angered many traditional American allies. This led to a widespread view in the Middle East that a gap exists between expectations and US performance. Obama’s hopeful rhetoric in 2009 in Cairo did little to create actionable change in the region. The administration’s failure to follow through on its Syria red line was devastating to American credibility and lost the United States respect in the region. Although the Obama administration’s efforts in combating ISIS and supporting the Syrian opposition were significant, the widespread feeling of disappointment is Trump’s inheritance as he took the reins earlier this year.
Gnehm weighed Trump’s policy options in confronting the regional landscape as it stands and in charting a course for the future. In Syria, Trump could continue the present policy of arming Kurds and rebels, ramp up American military presence, or accept the existing Russian and Iranian influence. Although each option has its consequences, Gnehm felt that directly engaging militarily with ISIS would underscore Trump’s current rhetoric. In Iraq, Trump could continue supporting the Iraqi government to regain control of territory and continue to provide assistance and training to Iraqi Kurds, or he could increase American involvement.
Iran poses a greater challenge to Trump due to its opportunistic bids for power in the region, which undercut Saudi Arabia and position Tehran as the champion of Islam. With regards to the nuclear deal, Gnehm saw four options Trump could pursue:
- directly confront Iran and respond with force to force,
- impose new sanctions,
- alter the nuclear deal,
- or continue the Obama administration’s policy of engaging with Iran to curtail its aggressive behavior.
How Trump chooses to deal with Iran has implications for America’s regional allies, who remain uncertain about US commitment. The Trump administration may be able to restore good faith among allies in the Gulf, especially in light of his tough line on Iran. However, Gnehm also stressed the humanitarian crisis in the region as people remain displaced, areas destroyed, and societies shattered. Although the administration has not said much about this aspect of the regional landscape, it will remain a significant challenge for policy in the months and years to come.
A little over a month into his presidency, Trump will soon discover that the world he has inherited is a difficult and complicated place with opportunities, risks, and unintended consequences. No course of action Trump chooses to take will be smooth or neatly solve the complex problems and challenges the region faces. Just as Obama raised expectations and collapsed on performance, Trump’s bombastic approach could result in the same outcome.
- Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum: Negotiation Day – Negotiators’ Behavior in the End Game | Monday, February 27 | 9 – 10:30am | SAIS Johns Hopkins | Register Here | No analytical work has ever addressed the subject of How Negotiations End. We know that negotiators act differently in the endgame–when they see the end is in sight, good or bad, and they work to that end. This project addresses that situation, examining way in which the endgame ends positively or negatively, and the way in which typical behavioral patterns are encountered on the way. A path breaking study of a neglected topic. The book is now in press with Cambridge University Press, the latest study of the Process of International Negotiation (PIN) Program at Clingendael, Netherlands.
- Potential Negotiations in the Upcoming Year | Monday, February 27 | 11 am – 12:30 pm | SAIS Johns Hopkins | Register Here | We are faced today with an international situation filled with challenges for negotiation. These represent opportunities open for pursuit; others represent situations looking for an opportunity. In this situation, what are the prospects for pursuing and developing negotiations as a means of managing conflict and of furthering US policy goals.Speakers:Thomas Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations, the Russian Federation, India, Israel, and JordanPrinceton Lyman, former US Ambassador to Nigerial and South Africa
Galia Golan, Professor at the School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya
Vali Nasr, Dean of Johns Hopkins SAIS
I WIlliam Zartman, Jacob Blaustein Professor Emeritus of International Organizations and Conflict Resolution, SAIS – Moderator
Location Kenney Herter Auditorium, 1740 Massachusetts Avenue NW
- Crude Strategy: Rethinking the U.S. Military Commitment to Defend Persian Gulf Oil | Monday, February 27 | 11 – 12:30pm | Cato Institute | Register Here | Should the United States continue to use its military to guarantee the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf? For more than 30 years, U.S. foreign policy has been shaped by a commitment to safeguard the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf. Yet profound changes in international oil markets, growth in domestic U.S. energy production, and dramatic shifts in the Middle Eastern balance of power suggest that it may be time to reconsider whether this commitment is still warranted. In Crude Strategy, a multidisciplinary team of political scientists, economists, and historians set out to explore the links between Persian Gulf oil and U.S. national security. Their essays explore key questions such as the potential economic cost of disruption in oil supply, whether disruptions can be blunted with nonmilitary tools, the potential for instability in Saudi Arabia, and the most effective U.S. military posture for the region. By clarifying the assumptions underlying the U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, the authors conclude that the case for revising America’s grand strategy towards the region is far stronger than is commonly assumed.
- The Trump Administration and the Future of the Kurds | Monday February 27 | 2 – 3:30pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | The Kurdish issue in the Middle East is at an important juncture. The Iraqi Kurds, faced with an unsettled Iraq, are itching to declare their independence. The Syrian Kurds have managed to affiliate themselves with the United States against ISIS but face a hostile reaction from Turkey, their northern neighbor, intent on rolling back their successes. The Turkish Kurds have to contend with the effects of government attempts at suppressing their legal political representatives and the war between the Turkish state and the PKK, which are challenging the country’s stability. Our panel will discuss these and other issues pertaining to the future Kurdish political landscape.
- U.S. – Turkey Cooperation in Syria and the Role of the U.S. in the Middle East | Monday February 27 | 3 – 4:30pm | Turkish Heritage Organization | Register Here | The Trump administration has inherited numerous, complex challenges in the Middle East. Regional instability caused by the Syrian civil war continues to have a profound impact on one of the U.S.’s most strategic NATO allies – Turkey – and on the bilateral relationship between Washington and Ankara. As the Trump administration prepares to tackle these issues and re-shape America’s role in the region, experts will discuss the choices and challenges facing the U.S. and Turkey.
- The Impact of Shifting Geopolitics on MENA Energy | Tuesday February 28 | 12 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Changes in the energy market, new entrants, and conflicting economic and national security interests at the regional and global level have altered the market power of Middle Eastern oil and gas producers. Industry developments and new policies under the Trump administration are likely to lead to the expansion of U.S. shale oil and gas production and increased exports. Russia vies daily with Saudi Arabia to be the world’s largest producer, while prices remain far below levels of a few years ago. How are Middle Eastern states coping politically and economically with the challenges of a global energy market in an historic transition?
- Obama’s Legacy, Trump’s Inheritance in the Middle East (Annual Kuwait Chair Lecture) | Tuesday February 28 | 6:30 – 7:45pm | Elliott School of International Affairs | Register Here | Join us as Ambassador Edward “Skip” Gnehm examines the environment in the Middle East that President Trump inherits from his predecessor and explores the parameters for action by the new administration.
- Food for Humanity | Wednesday March 1 | 12:15 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute’s Arts & Culture Program is pleased to host a conversation about the political, emotional and symbolic significance of food for displaced and diaspora communities. The panel will explore the unifying role of food, its ability to generate empathy, and its power to build community among diverse peoples through the ritual sharing of a meal. The panel will also discuss how food can serve as a source of income, a form of cultural resistance, and as a means of preserving identity and heritage for refugee communities in the face of loss.
- How People Become Terrorists | Wednesday March 1 | 12:15 – 1:45pm | New America | Register Here | In the years since 9/11 the scope and nature of the global neo-jihadi threat to the West has changed radically, prompting reassessments from those following the threat. In his latest book Misunderstanding Terrorism, Marc Sageman examines the current threat and articulates a new model of how people become terrorists, which has strong implications for the fight against terrorists that go against the conventional wisdom. New America welcomes Dr. Sageman for a discussion of what is driving the current generation of jihadists to become terrorists and how the U.S. should adapt to the threat. Marc Sageman is a Senior Fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and the author of Misunderstanding Terrorism and two other critically acclaimed books: Understanding Terror Networks (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004) and Leaderless Jihad (UPP, 2007).
- Women of the Caliphate: Gender Dynamics in State-Building Jihadi Organizations | Thursday March 2 | 5:30 – 7pm | American University | Register Here | A Talk with Hamoon Khelghat-Doost, from the National University of Singapore. Hamoon Khelghat-Doost looks at gender dynamics within jihadi organizations by examining their standpoint on the state-building process. His talk will explore the reasons for jihadi organizations, such as ISIS, to incorporate a relatively high number of women. Khelghat-Doost has conducted fieldwork in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and along Syrian borders in southern Turkey.
- Prospects for the Next Generation of Palestinian Leadership | Friday March 3 | 12 – 1:30pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | President Trump’s backpedaling on the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution shines a spotlight on the Palestinians’ looming leadership crisis. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, now 81, has yet to cultivate a successor, and his administration faces growing concerns about its credibility twelve years after the last national elections. How should the next generation of Palestinian leaders approach such complex issues as Israeli settlement expansion, a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, economic troubles, and engagement on the international stage?
The appointment of H.R. McMaster as National Security Adviser is one more step in trying to hem in President Trump on national security policy. He remains in charge of immigration, health care, trade and many other subjects, but the Washington establishment (aka “the blob”) is trying to reassert control of some important foreign policy issues:
- Vice President Pence has been in Europe reassuring the NATO allies of the Administration’s wholehearted commitment to the Alliance and openness to partnership with the European Union, despite the President’s often expressed skepticism of both.
- Defense Secretary Mattis has done likewise with NATO and also visited Baghdad, in part to reassure the Iraqis that we are not, as the President has suggested we would, going to “keep” their oil (whatever that means).
- H.R. is well-known for his book criticizing the generals for not objecting to escalation of the Vietnam War–he isn’t likely to stand by idly if Trump pursues courses of action that can’t be justified or sustained. Nor is he likely to ignore or denigrate the intelligence community.
- Secretary of State Tillerson has been reassuring Ukraine of America’s support, including on Crimea, and calling out the Russians for failure to implement the Minsk 2 agreement.
- Republican Senator McCain has trashed Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin, with Senator Lindsey Graham and other Republicans cheering him on amidst growing pressure for serious investigations of the White House’s Russian connections.
With those holes plugged, the main thrust of White House thinking about foreign and national security policy still has two major outlets: Iran and North Korea.
The nuclear deal with Iran is safe because the Europeans have made it clear they will not reimpose sanctions if Trump undermines it and the Israelis have told Trump they prefer the current restraints to none at all. But Tehran’s support for Bashar al Assad in Syria, the Houthis in Yemen, and Shiite militias in Iraq gives people in Washington heartburn. Despite the nuclear deal, Tehran has few friends in DC because it has been far so aggressive in pursuing its regional interests.
The May 19 Iranian presidential election is already raising the political temperature in Tehran. The Revolutionary Guard is doing military exercises and shooting off missiles, though it is not clear whether any of them since General Flynn’s “notice” violate UN Security Council resolution 1929:
Iran is prohibited from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons and States…
President Rouhani is feeling the heat, both from the Iranian right wing and from the Americans. Reformists have no one else to vote for, so he will likely to tilt towards the hawks in an effort to improve his prospects, which are good but by no means unassailable. He is also trying to improve relations with the Gulf Arabs, which would solidify his claim to restoring Iran’s influence and prestige in the region.
North Korea is the far easier and more worthy target. Let’s not even consider North Korea’s assassinations, human rights abuses against its own population, and oppression. Kim Jong-un is well on his way to getting missiles that can reach US bases in the Pacific and eventually the US West coast. The Chinese appear to be at their wits’ end with him. The problem is this: no one knows what, if anything, will bring the North Koreans to heel. If we were to try and fail, Pyongyang can retaliate with massive artillery barrages against Seoul. He could even use a few of his nuclear weapons.
If the establishment professionals succeed in their effort to hem Trump in with respect to Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and Iraq’s oil, he still has the opportunity to make a giant hash of things. The President is in charge. Getting Iran and North Korea right will not be easy, especially if the President decides he is better off listening to Steve Bannon than H.R. McMaster. Bad judgment is Trump’s consistent vice. He can get the United States into a lot of trouble.