Much lower I fear. While he has given a couple of half-sane, scripted speeches prepared with Chief of Staff Kelly’s approval, President Trump is still doing what he can to offend as soon as he is off the Teleprompter. Those who don’t approve of him are at this point about 60% of Americans and far higher percentages in most other countries. Russia and Israel are the exceptions. He is still launching ferocious attacks on the American media, retweeting anti-Semitic and racist tweeps, and slamming both Senate supporters and antagonists.
With August waning and an early Labor Day (September 4) looming in the US, prospects are for a difficult fall. The first item of business in the US Congress will be raising the debt ceiling and passing some sort of budget resolution. Trump has made that more difficult by insisting that the budget include money for the wall on the border he has promised the Mexicans would pay for. That’s a non-starter for the Democrats, who have some say in the Senate because 60 votes are needed on the budget issues. Tax reform, which so far means a big tax cut to businesses like Trump’s own, will have to wait. Never mind the promised trillion-dollar infrastructure program.
Trump wants the budget resolved by eliminating the filibuster and allowing bills to pass in the Senate with a simple majority. That is a proposition even more controversial than the wall, so he is publicly hounding Senate Majority leader McConnell into changing Senate rules to allow it. That’s not a way to make friends in the Senate, but so long as the Republicans control the House Trump can be sure it won’t impeach him (which has to precede sending him to the Senate for trial).
While America tries to sort out its internal political mess, the rest of the world is trying to make do without much clarity from Washington. In Asia, China is seizing the initiative on trade and finance, pushing its “belt and road” projects all the way to the Middle East and Africa. North Korea hasn’t tested a missile lately, and there seem to be talks about talks going on behind the scenes with the US, but the prospects of denuclearizing Pyongyang have dropped to zero.
In the Middle East, Syria’s President Assad is still advancing, as are the US-supported, Kurdish-led forces trying to take Raqqa from the Islamic State. The Syrian opposition is being pressed by the UN and everyone else to drop its demand that Assad step aside. Civilian casualties from American and other air attacks in the battle for Raqqa are mounting.
Defense Secretary Mattis is promising Turkey the US will help fight against Kurdish rebels inside Turkey and in Iraq, even as it supports their affiliates in Syria. That’s going to be a hard circle to square. Iraq is also making progress against the Islamic State, but Baghdad still hasn’t convinced its own Kurdistan to call off its independence referendum, scheduled for September 25 but increasingly in doubt.
Jared Kushner is plugging away at the Israel/Palestine issues, in visits to Ramallah, Cairo and Jerusalem. No one is expecting much to come of his efforts. The State Department has refused to reiterate US commitment to a two-state solution, which (as Matt Duss pointed out on Twitter) represents the single largest concession the Palestinians have made to date. Not that anyone had much doubt about which side the Trump Administration was on. We’ll presumably now be treated to the spectacle of Israel and the US proposing various confidence-building measures meant to make life and the economy more palatable for the occupied territories on the West Bank, while Jewish settlements expand and kill off any remaining hope for a two-state solution.
This is enabled in part by some Arab states coming to the conclusion that they care more about countering Iran than supporting the Palestinians. The Saudis and Emiratis seem prepared to collaborate with Israel against Iran, even if Qatar, Iraq, and Oman are headed in the opposite direction. Yemen no longer counts, since it is being obliterated in the Gulf-led war against the Houthi rebellion. Libya, Tunisia, and Morocco are likewise out of the game for now. Egypt and Jordan have made their peace with Israel and have no choice but to keep it.
Trump is increasingly marginalized from all these developments. Weakness at home leads to weakness abroad. His only major push on foreign policy lately has been the renewal and expansion of the American military push in Afghanistan. This allegedly new strategy closely resembles his predecessor’s effort to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Like Obama, Trump doesn’t want to be blamed for losing Afghanistan, even if it proves impossible to keep his promise to win there.
We can still sink lower: North Korea could test another missile, the Palestinians could tell Kushner where to go, Trump could renounce the Iran nuclear deal, and the country’s long recovery from the financial crisis of 2007/8 could end. But most of all: we could continue to fail to deal with a president who is unqualified, mean-spirited, incompetent, and divisive. Let’s hope Special Counsel Mueller comes up with something compelling, sooner rather than later.
As the Syrian conflict continues both international institutions and Syrian civil society are building a vision for the future reconstruction of the country. At MEI’s 70th Anniversary Conference Wednesday a panel was convened to discuss these issues and highlight the economic and governance challenges facing reconstruction efforts.
As Deputy Executive Secretary of UNESCWA and former Syrian Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs, Abdullah al Dardari has been tasked with developing a reconstruction plan for Syria. He first set out the daunting scale of reconstruction efforts required through the example of housing infrastructure. In order to meet Syria’s housing needs the country will need to build 300,000 new homes per year for ten years. Given that prior to 2011 they only managed 90,000 per year this will clearly stretch on resources. Housing reconstruction would also require 30 million tons of cement per year, but domestic production only reaches 5 million tons. Importing 25 million tons of cement is not possible given the current state of infrastructure and the current account. Mixing such a large amount of cement also requires huge volumes of water, which will be a challenge given Syria’s water crisis.
Dardari assured the audience that while the engineering and financing problems of reconstruction are troubling, of most concern are the governance challenges that must be addressed first. An inclusive, representative, accountable, and capable governance structure must be developed that enables the Syrian people to negotiate freely the difficult choices to be made early in the development process, such as to which regions limited resources are to be directed first.
Also of vital importance will be balance between decentralization and a unified Syria. Dardari emphatically rejected any proposals for the division of Syria as this would only lead to further fragmentation and dysfunction. Division proposals denythe complexity of Syria’s ethnic and sectarian makeup, as no area is dominated by a single group. Even the Alawite ‘heartlands’ of Lattakia and Tartous are 50 per cent Sunni. Furthermore, the Syrian model post-Ottoman is a centralized national project, which should not be reversed. Practically speaking, reconstruction requires a centralized process as networked systems such as electricity and transport must come from a single authority.
The other Syrian on the panel, Karam Foundation founder Lina Sergie Attar, firmly agreed that Syria must remain unified. However the conflict has led to a degree of decentralization that will be irreversible. Convincing places such as Raqqa and Idlib, which are currently far removed from the central government’s authority to return to the fold, will require representative and inclusive institutions able to rebuild trust.
Shanta Devarajan, Chief Economist of the World Bank for the Middle East and North Africa region, gave insight into its preparations for rebuilding post-conflict Syria. The World Bank is laying the foundation of a private sector to be transplanted to Syria through the establishment of Special Enterprise Zones (SEZs) in Jordan. In these zones both Jordanians and Syrians are permitted to work, with Jordan agreeing to grant 300,000 work permits to Syrians. The goods produced will enter the EU at reduced concessionary rates. Many of the investors in the SEZs have been Syrians who would have otherwise directed their capital towards the Gulf. This suggests that capital mobilization from the Syrian community will be possible, and must be a central component of the estimated US$200 billion required to return Syrian GDP to 2010 levels.
The World Bank is also prioritizing education and health care in their redevelopment plans as these sectors have been disproportionately targeted in the conflict with troubling consequences for Syria’s human development indicators. Attar confirmed that education projects are also a focus for the Karam Foundation, which is calling for flexible and innovative solutions for a generation of children that has missed up to five years of essential schooling.
Attar was granted the last word on the rebuilding of Syria and argued that reconstruction without justice will never be lead to an enduring peace. In her view, many Syrians would not have rejected Assad and his regime remaining if it meant the violence would stop, however this is no longer possible as all trust has been eroded. While Dardari argued that economic reconstruction is part of the reconciliation process itself, including developing industries and sectors that cross lines to addressing the exploitative war economy, Attar believes the removal of Assad and his regime must be the first step to reconciliation and a priority in the peace process.
- For 130 Million People, A Need for Longer-Term Relief | Monday, October 14th | 9.30am – 11am | US Institute of Peace | click HERE to register
Many violent conflicts have become chronic. In order to build sustainable peace, humanitarian relief must also contribute to or complement long-term development goals. While discussions at the World Humanitarian Summit raised meaningful questions about how humanitarian and development sectors are responding to protracted conflict, institutions are still trying to improve the response even as the needs grow more urgent.
This Conflict Prevention and Resolution Forum event will look at how the short-term needs of vulnerable communities, particularly the victims of war, can be met in ways that contribute to longer-term peacebuilding, development and rebuilding.
Carla Koppell – Vice President, Center for Applied Conflict Transformation, U.S. Institute of Peace
Matt McGuire – U.S. Executive Director, World Bank
Michael Talhami – Senior Water and Shelter (WATHAB) advisor, International Committee of the Red Cross (Jordan)
Colin Bruce – Director, Africa Regional Integration, World Bank
Jeff Helsing – Associate Vice President, Center for Applied Conflict Transformation, U. S. Institute of Peace
- Governing Uncertainty: Governance in Tunisia Following Authoritarian Breakdown| Monday, November 14th | 12.30pm – 2pm | Johns Hopkins SAIS | click HERE to register
The immediate period between the ousting of authoritarian president Ben Ali and the first post-uprising elections in Tunisia in 2011 raises many questions. Who was really calling the shots, and what was the impact of their decisions? This presentation will address some of these questions based on research carried out in Tunisia between 2013-2015.
The discussion will be given by Ms. Sabina Henneberg, PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins SAIS. Sabina’s doctoral dissertation is on the current political transformations in North Africa. She is the author of several articles and papers on Tunisia.
- Troubling the Political: Women in the Jordanian Day-Waged Labor Movement | Monday, November 14th | 12.30pm – 2pm | Georgetown University | click HERE to register
The Jordanian Day-Waged Labor Movement (DWLM) played a central role in the Jordanian Popular Movement (al-Hirak al-Sha’bi al-Urduni), commonly referred to as the Hirak, from 2011 to the end of 2012. The large number of women who were active and took on leading roles in the DWLM contrasts with the absence women’s organizations in other aspects of the Hirak. Drawing on extensive research in Jordan, Professor Sara Ababneh argues that the DWLM was able to attract so many women because it developed a discourse and flexible structure that understood women to be embedded within communities and prioritized their economic needs. By studying this discourse and structure, it is possible to learn important lessons about gender inclusive political and institutional reform.
Dr. Sara Ababneh is an Assistant Professor for the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan. She is currently a visiting fellow at Center for the Study of Social Difference at Columbia University.
- A Conversation With UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson | Monday, November 14th | 5pm – 6pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | click HERE to register
Join the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace for a conversation with UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson on the future of the United Nations and multilateralism in a changing global landscape. As he prepares to step down from a forty year long career in diplomacy and the UN, DSG Eliasson will reflect on the challenges facing the international community and the opportunities for global cooperation. Carnegie President William J. Burns will introduce and moderate the conversation.
- What Does the World Expect of President-elect Donald Trump? | Tuesday, November 15th | 11am – 12.30pm | Wilson Center | click HERE to register
The next U.S. Administration faces a complicated, volatile world. Join us for spirited conversation about the foreign policy expectations and challenges confronting the next President of the United States with distinguished Wilson Center experts on Russia, China, the Middle East, Latin America and more.
Jane Harman – Director, President and CEO, Wilson Center
Cynthia J. Arnson – Director, Latin American Program
Robert S. Litwak – Vice President for Scholars and Academic Relations and Director, International Security Studies
Aaron David Miller – Vice President for New Initiatives and Distinguished Scholar
Matthew Rojansky – Director, Kennan Institute
Duncan Wood – Director, Mexico Institute
- The Battle for Pakistan: The Fight Against Terrorism and Militancy | Tuesday, November 15th | 11.30am | Atlantic Council | click HERE to register
Please join the Atlantic Council for an assessment of Pakistan’s National Action Plan by a Distinguished Fellow of the South Asia Center, Mr. Shuja Nawaz. Mr. Nawaz’s assessment is based on a nine-month study for the United States Institute of Peace. A degree of cautious optimism about Pakistan’s future is warranted, but greater efforts are needed to fundamentally change the landscape that nurtures terrorism and militancy in Pakistan today. In this discussion, Mr. Nawaz will suggest ways in which the National Action Plan can be improved and reviewed by the government and parliament of Pakistan such as setting clear benchmarks and improving coordination among the provinces. Dr. Moeed Yusuf, Associate Vice President of the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace; and Dr. Thomas F. Lynch III, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Institute of National Strategic Studies at National Defense University, will discuss the current state of Pakistan’s efforts against terrorism and militancy. The event will be moderated by Dr. Bharath Gopalaswamy, director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council. The event is co-hosted with the United States Institute of Peace.
A conversation with:
Mr. Shuja Nawaz– Distinguished Fellow, South Asia Center, Atlantic Council
Dr. Moeed Yusuf – Associate Vice President of Asia Center, United States Institute of Peace
Dr. Thomas F. Lynch III – Distinguished Research Fellow, Institute of National Strategic Studies, National Defense University
- 70th Annual Middle East Institute Conference | Wednesday, November 16th | 9am – 5pm| Middle East Institute | click HERE to register
Please join MEI as we celebrate 70 years of history at our 70th Annual Conference which will convene prominent Middle Eastern and American experts and foreign policy practitioners for four panel conversations covering the prevailing challenges facing the new U.S. administration as it sets its Middle East agenda.
- Morocco’s Fight With Violent Extremism | Wednesday, November 16th | 12pm – 1.20pm| Hudson Institute | click HERE to register
The Kingdom of Morocco is undertaking a comprehensive effort to tackle violent Islamism by combining traditional security measures with development initiatives, governance reform, and education. One of the leaders in this fight is Dr. Ahmed Abbadi, the president of the League of Mohammedan Scholars. The League is a body of religious scholars charged by King Mohammed VI with countering and dismantling the ideology of Islamic State and other radical movements. On November 16, Dr. Abbadi will speak at Hudson Institute about Morocco’s experiences in the fight against Islamist extremism, including the importance of ideology, youth outreach, and education.
- A Debate on Pakistan: What Future Role for America? | Wednesday, November 16th | 1.30pm – 3pm| United States Institute of Peace | click HERE to register
The United States’ assistance has helped Pakistan address critical domestic challenges, notably in energy, infrastructure, and counter-terrorism. Still some scholars argue this aid has been counterproductive. U.S. legislators effectively blocked a loan to help Pakistan buy F-16 fighter jets this year, saying Pakistani authorities are not doing enough to curtail Afghan insurgents from using Pakistan as a safe haven.
As relations have deteriorated, some scholars increasingly have raised questions on the utility and viability of assistance to Pakistan. The November 16 USIP debate will examine that question, as well as challenges for the next U.S. president in addressing the countries’ relationship, and Pakistan’s future as a U.S. partner. Speakers will include longtime South Asia scholar and policy analyst Lisa Curtis; former Pakistani ambassador to the United States Husain Haqqani; former Pakistan central bank governor Ishrat Husain; and Ambassador Robin Raphel, who served as the United States’ first assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia and U.S. Coordinator for Non-Military Assistance to Pakistan.
- The United States, the Next President, and the Middle East: A View From Israel | Wednesday, November 16th | 4pm – 5pm| Wilson Center | click HERE to register
Please join us as former Deputy Minister of Defense Ephraim Sneh shares his perspective on a range of issues related to Israel’s national security, the civil war in Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the nuclear agreement with Iran. As a long-time observer and participant in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Mr. Sneh will also offer his analysis of the U.S. Presidential elections and the challenges that will face the new administration.
Tuesday night’s election result was shocking for many. Though Clinton’s policy in the Middle East seemed predictable, President-elect Trump’s Middle East policy is a mystery.
To begin to unpack this mystery, the Washington Institute for New East policy convened a panel this morning of Middle East scholars and international journalists to discuss what they expect to see from a President Trump. The panel featured Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute, Norman Ornstein, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and the editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel, David Horovitz, founding editor of the Times of Israel, and Jumana Ghunaimat, editor-in-chief of the Jordanian newspaper Al-Ghad.
Khashoggi said Saudis were caught off guard by the election, as they were expecting a Clinton presidency. Due to Hillary Clinton’s long track record, they felt they knew what to expect and were ready for what was to come. Saudis are worried about Trump’s support for Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), though they are encouraged by his hard stance on Iran. They are also worried that Trump’s closeness with Putin and softening towards Assad will result in a Syria that is unfriendly to Saudi Arabia.
On Jordan, Ghunaimat said relations between the US and Jordan will likely stay the same. Jordan is a relatively stable and important ally in the region, and nothing Trump has said or done so far indicates that relationship will be in jeopardy.
Horovitz said most Israelis believed that Trump would be best for Israel, but they nevertheless wanted Clinton to win the election. Though they perceived Trump as having more empathy for Israel than Clinton and likely to take Israel’s concerns seriously, Clinton has a long pro-Israel track record. They know they could depend on Clinton to look after Israeli interests whereas Trump is more of a wild card. Israelis are still hopeful that their relationship with President Trump will be better than their relationship with Obama.
Ornstein focused more on the effect that President Trump would have domestically and the factors that led to his election. He blamed the inaccuracy of the polls on the “Bradley effect”—that is, many people were embarrassed to report that they were voting for Trump. The complaints of the white working class are valid and were unaddressed by Washington. This in combination with Clinton’s unpopularity among Democrats led to his election. Ornstein forsees Trump depending on others to make vital decisions, so whom he appoints will be decisive.
Dennis Ross said we know that Trump wants to get rid of ISIS and to improve our relationship with Russia. But defeating ISIS requires the trust of Sunni militias. This trust cannot be cemented in the face of a Putin-Assad-Trump friendship it would guarantee Shiite strength. Trump needs to approach his relationship with Putin—and, by extension, Assad—very carefully and be sure to enforce consequences when necessary. Aside from this, Ross encouraged humility in the face of Trump’s presidency—we cannot presume to know what he will choose to do, since there is simply not enough information available.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan is often ignored when discussing the conflicts throughout the Middle East. However, given its central position (and its shared borders with Iraq, Syria and the Palestinian West Bank) it inevitably plays a pivotal geo-strategic role. Its close relationship with the United States only heightens its regional significance.
To address Jordan’s role in the region and beyond, a knowledgeable Jordanian spoke last week at a roundtable discussion in Washington DC, specifically about his country’s stake in the regional conflicts—namely, the civil war in Syria and the rise of ISIS.
Chaos and displacement of populations throughout the Middle East affects Jordan directly, since many refugees often seek resettlement in Jordan. The Jordanian government faces tremendous pressure to take in more and more refugees from neighboring countries. However, the Jordanian government and public are concerned with the security risk that these refugees pose, especially those migrating from areas formerly held by ISIS. Refugees admitted into Jordan go through a rigorous vetting process and are closely monitored. Amman is wary of the spread of radicalism domestically, and is concerned that refugees will encourage native Jordanians to join Islamist groups.
The refugee population has become a serious economic burden. Prior to the Arab Spring, Jordan had its economy in order—it had surfaced from the crippling debt of the 1990s and had a steadily growing GDP. The influx of refugees has forced the government to scramble to create institutions to care for these people (such as schools, hospitals, etc.). In addition to this pressure from refugees, Jordan’s tourism, transportation, and private sector haven’t been able to weather these economic blows and have been suffering recently. While they were guaranteed financial assistance from the UK and the US at the London Conference earlier this year, this assistance has not yet arrived. The official did, however, note that the US has been providing Jordan with $1.3 billion annually, which has been incredibly helpful in keeping the Jordanian economy in balance.
On Jordan’s ability to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the response was that Jordan would probably not be able to fill this role. Jordan does have a friendly relationship with Saudi Arabia—the Saudis and the Emiratis give Jordan $5 billion a year for project support, and there is talk of letting Jordan into the GCC. However, Jordan’s relationship with Iran is not strong and therefore Amman cannot serve as mediator.
Jordan has been pivotal in establishing a Free Syrian Army (FSA) “safe haven” in Southern Syria. Amman sees the southern faction of the FSA as relatively benign and capable of securing the south as a buffer zone against regime or extremist aggression.
On the US presidential election, the perception in Jordan is that Hillary Clinton has a clear and practical plan for the Middle East whereas Donald Trump is just bluffing.
Here is the draft of the State Department dissent message on Syria, on which the New York Times based its coverage yesterday. So far as I can tell the final version is not publicly available, but this draft is polished. The argument is basically that the US has sufficient moral and strategic reason to attack Syrian government forces with stand-off weapons with the goal of getting President Asad to abide by the internationally mandated cessation of hostilities and initiate serious negotiations on a political transition, as required by the Geneva I communique and numerous subsequent international decisions. The dissent memo admits some downsides: a deterioration of relations with Russia and possible “second order” effects.
Those downsides require more consideration. There is no international mandate to attack Syrian government forces. Intervention in this case would in that sense have even less multilateral sanction than the NATO attack on Qaddafi’s forces in Libya, where there was a UN Security Council mandate, albeit one that authorized “all necessary means” to save civilians rather than to change the regime. Asad has not directly attacked the US, even if his reaction to Syria’s internal rebellion has created conditions that are inimical to US interests by attracting extremists and undermining stability in neighboring countries.
The Russia angle is also daunting. Moscow may well react by intensifying its attacks on the opposition forces the US supports, who are already targeted by Russian warplanes. Unilateral US intervention against Syrian government forces would also help Moscow to argue it is doing no worse in Ukraine, where it supports opposition forces behind a thin veil of denials that its forces are directly involved. The US is not ready to respond in kind to Russian escalation in Ukraine, if only because the European allies would not want it. Kiev might be the unintended victim of US escalation in Syria.
Second order effects could also include loss of European, Turkish and Jordanian support, because of an increased refugee flow out of Syria, as well as increased Iranian support for the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, destabilization of Bahrain and Shia militias in Iraq. Greater chaos in Syria could also help ISIS to revive its flagging fortunes and al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra to pursue its fight against the Syrian government.
These downsides are all too real, but so is the current situation: Russia, the Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah are making mincemeat of the US-supported Syrian opposition while more extremist forces are gaining momentum. President Obama is reluctant to attack sovereign states that have not attacked the US directly without an international mandate of some sort. That is understandable. But doing nothing military to respond to a deteriorating situation is a decision too, one with real and unfortunately burgeoning negative consequences for US interests.
Hezbollah is the way out of this quandary. It is not a state. It is a designated terrorist group that has killed hundreds of Americans, and many others as well. The Americans say they are fighting terrorist groups in Syria. Why not Hezbollah? Its ground forces there have become increasingly important to the Syrian government’s cause. Getting Hezbollah out of the fight would arguably have as much impact on the military balance as strikes on the Syrian army, which is already a declining and demoralized force.
Washington need not start with military action. It could lead with diplomacy, telling Moscow and Tehran that we want Hezbollah to leave Syria tout de suite. If it fails to leave by a date certain, we could then strip it of its immunity and treat it like the other terrorist groups in Syria. Moscow might even welcome such a move, since Hezbollah efforts in Syria strengthen Iran’s hold, not Russia’s.
Tehran would be furious, claiming Hezbollah is in Syria at the request of its legitimate government. Hezbollah would likely try to strike US, Israeli or even Jewish targets in the region or beyond. It has managed in the past to murder Jews as far away as Argentina. Doing so would confirm the thesis that Hezbollah is a terrorist group and redouble the need to act decisively against it.
No suggestions for what to do or not do in Syria are simple. The situation has gotten so fraught that any proposition will have complicated and unpredictable consequences. But the State Department dissenters missed an opportunity to duck some of the President’s objections and strengthen their own argument by focusing on a terrorist group, rather than the regime’s own forces. Don’t forget Hezbollah.