The week has already been tumultuous. President Trump has
- dissed Puerto Rico by suggesting it is not worthy of the Federal assistance Texas and Florida are still getting,
- thrown the talks about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement into chaos that threatens to cause their collapse,
- decided to withdraw the US from UNESCO because we owe the organization millions while demonstrating that he does not believe in the First Amendment commitment to press freedom that is a pillar of the organization,
- continued to threaten to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal while the rest of the world and his principal advisers have concluded that Tehran has met its obligations,
- issued an executive order designed to further undermine the affordability of health insurance for those Americans who need it the most,
- gotten into a spat with NATO ally Turkey that has eliminated visas for Turks to come to the US and Americans to go to Turkey, and
- prompted the Republican chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to suggest, believably, that the White House is an adult day care center without proper supervision.
Even for Trump, this is an unusual amount of unmotivated and unjustified chaos. No American administration can manage this level of random acts of spite and provocation.
A few Democrats in the House have started to think about articles of impeachment, but that is the least of Trump’s worries right now. No Republicans have demonstrated any real interest in impeachment, or even in supporting a 25th Amendment challenge to Trump’s ability to perform the functions of his office. They are simply too frightened of sinking their own boats along with his.
The world is showing a good deal of maturity in dealing with the madness in Washington. Even Kim Jung-un for now appears ready to stop at childish name calling. The Iranians have indicated they will retaliate against the US if the President decertifies their compliance. But at the same time they appear ready to maintain the nuclear deal with the Europeans. That is smart: it will wean Europe from support for the US and weaken America in its efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program, making it harder once the Iran nuclear deal gets ready to expire to extend its terms.
I can’t really think of a lot more things Trump can do to weaken the US, but I’m sure he can. We are all waiting for his noon-time speech on Iran, which will enumerate a long list of its sins, but so far in the White House public affairs preparations there is no sign of anything more substantial. Trump is mostly bark and little bite. But a dog who barks enough will lose a lot of friends.
It’s Friday the 13th, but unlikely to be much worse than the days that immediately preceded it.
I prepared these speaking notes for a briefing on the Balkans today:
- The US is responsible for three peace agreements in the Balkans: Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia, leaving behind a web that has prevented war for more than 15 years.
- All the countries of the region have made substantial progress in political and economic reform.
- But progress has slowed and even stalled since the European recession.
- The Greek financial crisis, the massive flow of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and Brexit have made it doubtful that the promise of EU membership can be fulfilled any time soon.
- EU charm is not working as well as it once did, despite Mogherini’s strong statements.
- This is a problem for the US because we have been depending on Europe to carry the burden in the Balkans, with US support when needed.
- But if Brussels fails, the peace agreements could unravel, with serious consequences: heightened migration not only through but from the Balkans, growing radicalization of Balkan Muslims, and increasing Russian troublemaking near and even inside NATO.
- What is needed is mainly a diplomatic, not a military, effort to complete Balkan peace processes so that all the countries of the region can join NATO and the EU, if they wish to do so.
- This diplomatic effort could include the following:
- Recommitment with Brussels to existing Balkan borders and states, including a planned response to any scheduling of a Republika Srpska independence referendum.
- Accelerated NATO and EU membership.
- Better carrots and sticks, including expanded trade and targeted sanctions.
- Refocus aid on rule of law, particularly anti-corruption and countering extremism.
- Increased emphasis on National Guard cooperation with Serbia, Kosovo Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia.
- Establish a region-wide truth and reconciliation effort.
- An enhanced effort to solve country-specific issues: Bosnia’s constitutional and electoral inadequacies, UN membership for Kosovo, Macedonia’s name.
- In addition, we need to counter Russian troublemaking by reducing Balkan dependence on Moscow’s gas, sanctioning those who finance Balkan leaders who threaten peace, beefing up our media capabilities, and consulting with Balkan governments on Russian election meddling.
- These are not expensive things, but important ones. Doing them would preserve peace and stability, avoid major costs, limit Russian troublemaking and give us a lot of secure and prosperous friends.
- NATO at a Crossroads: Next steps for the trans-Atlantic alliance | Monday, July 31 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | Brookings Institution | Register Here | Throughout his campaign, President Donald Trump called into question the usefulness of today’s NATO and spoke of building a better relationship with Moscow. Would the president be prepared to go further and suggest ending NATO expansion while seeking a new security architecture that might accommodate and reduce the risk of conflict with Russia? What would be the benefits and costs of such an approach? On July 31, Brookings Senior Fellow Michael O’Hanlon, author of “Beyond NATO: A New Security Architecture for Eastern Europe,” will be joined by Brookings Senior Fellow Steven Pifer, author of “The Eagle and the Trident: U.S.-Ukraine Relations in Turbulent Times.” Torrey Taussig, pre-doctoral research fellow at Brookings, will moderate the discussion.
- Stabilizing Iraq: What is the Future for Minorities? | Tuesday, August 1 | 1:30 – 3:00 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Following ISIS’ rule, the inclusion of minority groups will be crucial to stabilizing Iraq. Nowhere in Iraq is this initiative more essential or complex than around Mosul, with its diverse community of Christians, Yazidis, Turkoman, Shabak, and others. On August 1, the United States Institute of Peace and the Kurdistan Regional Government present a discussion of how to help Iraq’s minority groups rebuild their communities and contribute to a more secure Iraq featuring remarks by Ambassador William Taylor (ret.) of USIP, Ambassador Fareed Yasseen of the Republic of Iraq, and Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government to the United States.
- Justice for the Yezidis: ISIS and Crimes of Genocide | Thursday, August 3 | 11:45 am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | On August 3, 2014, the Islamic State attacked the Yezidis of Sinjar in Iraq’s Nineveh province. Thousands of Yezidis were massacred and many others abducted, while more than half a million fled for their lives. Three years later, the conditions that led to ISIS’ rise and genocide against the Yezidis, Christians, and other ethnic and religious minorities have not been addressed. The successful political reconstruction of Iraq and Kurdistan depends on the ability to ensure justice and fair treatment for the region’s most vulnerable populations. On August 3, Pari Ibrahim of the Free Yezidi Foundation, Naomi Kikoler of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and Nathaniel Hurd of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe will join Hudson Institute’s Eric B. Brown to assess how adherents of the Islamic State movement can be brought to justice for their crimes of genocide, how the safety of vulnerable minority communities can be ensured as Iraq rebuilds, and what role the United States should play in preventing genocide in the future.
- Gaza Approaching a Boiling Point? | Thursday, August 3 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Political and humanitarian conditions in Gaza are in a critical state. The Fatah-Hamas rivalry and the Gulf countries’ rift with Qatar have stymied funding to the territory and exacerbated an already desperate energy crisis. In the midst of pressing humanitarian concerns, what options do Palestinians and Israelis have to help prevent renewed violence? How can the United States and the international community bring the question of Gaza back into regional deliberations and the peace process? The Middle East Institute is pleased to host a discussion with Tareq Baconi of al Shabaka, Laura Friedman of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Christopher McGrath of the UNRWA, and Natan Sachs of the Brookings Institution on ways to mitigate political and humanitarian problems in Gaza.
- Zapad 17: Implications for NATO and the United States | Tuesday, July 11 | 9:00 am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | As NATO steps up its exercises in the Baltic Sea region, Russia is preparing to launch a major exercise in mid-September to test the readiness and capabilities of its air, sea, and ground forces in northeastern Europe. Zapad is a recurring exercise which has included forces from both Russia and Belarus, and serves as a high-profile training event close to NATO territory. Join the Atlantic Council and the Ministry of Defense of Estonia for a public discussion on the implications of Zapad 17.
- Challenges in U.S. Iran Policy | Wednesday, July 12 | 12:30 – 5:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Join the Middle East Institute for a conference to examine the outlines of U.S. policy toward Iran, addressing its overall goals, the strategies pursued, and metrics of success. Panels will include: “Assessing the Threat, Calibrating a Strategy” (1:30 – 2:45 pm), “Challenges in Syria and Iraq” (3:00 – 4:15 pm), and “Challenges in Yemen, Lebanon, and Afghanistan” (4:15 – 5:30 pm). Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and proponent of the U.S. – Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will give the keynote address.
- The War on ISIS: The Forgotten Need for Congressional Authorization | Wednesday, July 12 | 9:30 – 10:30 am | Wilson Center | Register Here | While there is a broad consensus for pursuing ISIS aggressively, the legal grounds upon which the president can expand the use of military force against ISIS are more tenuous. In recent years, the executive branch has justified its actions by pointing to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) – legislation signed into law days after the 9/11 attacks. Is Congress abdicating its authority to authorize wars to the executive branch? Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Jane Harman (director, president, and CEO of the Wilson Center) will comment.
- The July 15 Coup Attempt in Turkey: One Year On | Thursday, July 13 | 9:00 – 11:00 am | Turkish Heritage Organization | Register Here | Last year’s failed coup attempt, carried out by a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), took a considerable toll on the Turkish nation and created enormous domestic, regional, and international risks. Following the death of more than 200 Turkish civilians, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency that is still in effect. Ankara has requested the extradition of suspected mastermind Fethullah Gulen from the U.S., further complicating the already strained relationship between the two NATO allies. Join THO and a distinguished panel of experts including Ambassador James Jeffrey, Mark Hall, Cliff Stearns, and Mujeeb Khan for a look at the July 15 coup attempt one year later. Discussion will be moderated by Alexi-Noelle O’Brien Hosein.
- A New Nuclear Review for a New Age | Thursday, July 13 | 12:15 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The contemporary nuclear environment is very different from that which immediately followed the Cold War. A New Nuclear Review for a New Age, a recent study published by the National Institute for Public Policy, provides timely recommendations for how the United States must respond to the changes and adapt its nuclear posture to deter enemies, assure allies, and limit damage in the event deterrence fails. The Hudson Institute will host a discussion with the director of the study, Dr. Keith Payne, and contributing authors Dr. Matthew Kroenig and Rebeccah Heinrichs.
- Regime Change in Iran: From the 1953 Coup to the Trump Policy Review | Thursday, July 13 | 12:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Atlantic Council presents a panel discussion featuring Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, Malcolm Byrne, and Bruce Riedel on new US government documents released about the 1953 CIA-backed coup that deposed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The discussion will look at the ramifications of the coup for the Iranian people and US-Iran relations and analyze the impact of revived regime change rhetoric among some politicians and advisers seeking to influence the policies of the Trump administration toward Iran and the Middle East at large. Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, will be moderating.
- Post-ISIS Iraq and Syria: Avoiding Chaos | Friday, July 14 | 10:00 am – 12:30 pm | Middle East Policy Council | Register Here | Join the Middle East Policy Council for a conference featuring Ambassador James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Turkey and Iraq; Dr. Denise Natali of the National Defense University; Mr. Wa’el Alzayat, former Syria Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Department of State; and Dr. Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute. Ambassador Richard J. Schmierer, former ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, will be moderating.
The White House is vaunting the President’s positive chemistry with Russian President Putin at their meeting yesterday in Hamburg, on the margins of the G20. Secretary of State Tillerson says Trump raised allegations of Moscow interfering in the US election, but Foreign Minister Lavrov says Trump accepted Putin’s denials. The meeting lasted far longer than planned.
This is precisely the outcome Putin wanted: a “clean slate” with Washington, which acknowledges Moscow as a major world power. Sad!
What might a stronger and more capable president have achieved? He would first off have reminded Putin that the US has not and will not accept the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian intervention against the moderate opposition in Syria, the constant harassment of NATO allies and non-NATO friends by Russian war planes and ships, the attempted coup in Montenegro, and above all hacking intended to affect the outcome of US elections. Only then, if Putin pressed, would my hypothetical president (or imagine pretty much any of those who have served since World War II) have consented to discuss cooperation in Syria, provided that Putin was prepared to acknowledge that a political transition there is necessary and desirable.
Trump can’t do that. First, because he likes Putin. Witness their open mic joking about offensive journalists. Trump either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that dozens of them have been murdered in Putin’s Russia. I would argue our President has even incited violence against American journalists who are critical of him. Putin is the kind of strongman that Trump aspires to be: autocratic, nationalist, and narcissistic.
More important: I suspect there is ample Russian investment in Trump’s real estate ventures in the US and elsewhere. Trump has never denied this. He keeps his denials to property and ventures inside Russia. After his Atlantic City bankruptcy, Trump was on the financial ropes. No one would loan him money. Deutsche Bank is believed to have stepped in.
My guess is that Moscow did too, with hot money that needed laundering. Accepting investment of ill-gotten gains is a violation of US law as I understand it, but Trump never seems to have done the due diligence required. He and the Kushner companies just don’t worry about money laundering.
Trump has made it absolutely clear that he intends for his companies to make lots of money while he is president. This is the likely reason he has refused to make his tax returns public. They would show, far more clearly than the financial disclosure forms all US Government employees fill out, the sources of his wealth. Challenging Putin would have been a sure formula for drying up “hot” Russian oligarch purchases of real estate.
Fortunately, this is the kind of illicit activity that Special Counsel Mueller is particularly well-equipped to handle, not least because he is hiring lawyers experienced in financial crime, as well as related cover-ups. But there is no telling how long it will take for the sleuths to get to the bottom of Trump’s massively complex business arrangements. Even then it will take time to build a case that will hold up in court. Documents and witnesses will be hard to come by, especially on the Russian end of any shady deals.
In my view, the Russians have what they need to ensure, as Tillerson put it, that Trump would not “relitigate” the past: компромат. Compromising material–financial I imagine rather than sexual–will keep Trump emphasizing the positive with Russia. Thus it is that a declining regional power with an economy the size of Spain’s and severe financial pressure due to lower oil and gas prices, puts the President of the United States in a subordinate and compromised position. I thought I would never see the day. But it has arrived.
I spoke this afternoon at the 10th Summer School for Young Diplomats in Kolasin, Montenegro. Here are the speaking notes I prepared on “Global Security Challenges: New Developments and Future Trends.”
- It’s a pleasure to be here, especially in these beautiful mountains. While I’ve been to Montenegro a few times in the past, this is my first visit since it became a NATO ally. That betokens enormous progress. I can only wish all your countries as much success as Montenegro has had over the past twenty years or so.
- That teaches an important lesson in international affairs: if you keep going in the right direction, you will eventually get there.
- I’ve been asked to talk about geopolitical challenges. I’ve got my own ideas about what they are, but I’d like your ideas as well. So let me ask you to write one on each stickie—no more than a phrase is needed.
- My own list of current geopolitical challenges from a Washington perspective is this: the United States, the Middle East, Islamist extremism, Russia, and China as well as nuclear nonproliferation and climate change. That should keep us busy for the next hour and a half.
- First Washington. It is a geopolitical challenge for many countries, because of its global political and economic influence, its enormous capacity for power projection and because of its still ongoing political transition.
- Many of you will wonder how the new Administration will affect your country’s interests. I can’t hope to cover the entire world, but let me say a few things that may help you to work out the implications for your own country.
- President Trump was elected on an explicit promise to “make America great again,” which implies greater attention to American interests in dealing with the rest of the world.
- It also implies reduced attention to American values, especially democracy and human rights. The Administration appears to be applying a double standard: if you are America’s friend, you need not fear Washington will criticize your internal political behavior.
- Presidents Erdogan, Sisi, and Duterte can testify to that, as can Kings Salman of Saudi Arabia and Abdullah of Jordan.
- But if you are President Castro of Cuba or Supreme Leader Khamenei, you can anticipate sharp rebukes from the U.S., and possibly sanctions or other restrictive measures.
- The new Administration has also prioritized the use of military instruments over diplomacy and international aid. While its budget proposal was dead on arrival in Congress, where at least some aspects of diplomacy and aid have strong supporters, you can still expect less diplomacy and less money.
- The only exceptions to this rule so far have been North Korea, where the conventional artillery threat to Seoul and much of South Korea makes American military action unlikely, and the Middle East, where the president has committed his son-in-law and two of his personal lawyers to negotiating peace. I don’t know anyone in Washington who thinks they will be successful, but they may make some progress on confidence-building measures. I’ll return to North Korea later.
- As I am already wandering into the Middle East, let me go there. It has been clear for some time, though few will say it out loud, that American interests there are declining. We need less oil from the Middle East while other countries are taking more, the top non-proliferation issue there is under control for a decade or more, and our allies there want military assistance but not much more.
- By far the most important interest the U.S. has today in the Middle East is terrorism. The current Administration wants to deal with it as a military problem: the objective is to kill Al Qaeda and the Islamic State and get out.
- This was precisely the approach intended by George W. Bush in Afghanistan: kill Al Qaeda and get out. It failed because we couldn’t find all of Al Qaeda. The President changed his mind because we were sure it would return if we left.
- In Syria, this approach faces the same difficulty, as it virtually guarantees that there will be a continuing Sunni insurgency, not to mention its metastases elsewhere in the world.
- That’s where all of you come in: with ISIS on the verge of defeat in Iraq and Syria, it is not attracting so many foreign fighters, who were the focus of much attention in recent years. Nor is the question of terrorist financing as important as once it was.
- The bigger issue is now home-grown terrorism, perhaps inspired or encouraged by fighters returning from Iraq or Syria. In the Balkans, for example, I would now regard this as a big problem, as it is in Europe and the U.S. as well.
- There are two important strategies in dealing with homegrown terrorism: making sure that people are not marginalized but rather have a stake in their own governance and society; and not overreacting to terrorist threats or attacks, as overreaction is precisely what they intend to provoke.
- Right-wing terrorism kills more Americans than Islamic extremism, even counting 9/11.
- We need to avoid the kind of overreaction that the Administration’s travel ban on 6 Muslim countries represents.
- In the Middle East, the Americans will focus next on the Iranian threat.
- That threat is real. Iran has vastly expanded its influence in the region, not so much because of the nuclear agreement but rather due to its support for proxy forces, which long predates the nuclear deal: Hizbollah in Syria as well as Lebanon, Hashd al Shaabi in Iraq, the Houthis in Yemen, Hamas in Palestine.
- The reaction, led by the Saudis, has also been vigorous, making much of the Middle East a battleground for sectarian conflict and even splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar just won’t give up the good relations with Iran that enable both countries to exploit the largest natural gas field in the Middle East.
- Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood leadership has chosen to side with Qatar and Iran, undermining the American effort to construct an anti-Iran alliance that includes the majority Sunni states of the Middle East as well as Israel.
- To sum up on Iran: it has gained a lot of ground in recent years, not least due to the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as the civil wars it has exploited in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. The Americans have not yet figured out what they want to do about it, though my best guess is that they will in due course want to confront Iranian ambitions.
- Russia is another geopolitical challenge, not only in the Middle East.
- Putin’s Russia is using all the instruments of national power at its disposal to challenge the Americans and re-assert its status as a superpower, except for a direct force-on-force military clash that Moscow knows it would lose.
- The Russians are sending ships and planes to provoke NATO allies and sympathetic neutrals, they have invaded Ukraine with only a thin veneer of deniability, they are bombing Syrian moderate opposition, they are selling weapons to Egypt, supporting General Haftar in Libya, and using Sputnik News and Russia Today as propaganda tools.
- They are also interfering in elections, conducting cyberattacks, and plotting and conducting assassinations.
- None of this has provoked much reaction yet from either the Americans or Europeans, apart from Ukraine-related sanctions and a few tit-for-tat aircraft incidents.
- Inexplicably to me, Putin has a lot of admirers in the US, especially among the Republicans and certainly in the Trump Administration, which has made no secret of its desire to get along better with Moscow.
- We’ll have to wait and see what comes of the first Trump/Putin meeting on the margins of the G20 Summit tomorrow and Saturday in Hamburg.
- The American receptiveness to Putin may surprise many of you. It surprises me. I can’t really explain it in conventional national interest terms.
- I think it is related to ethnic nationalism: Trump is what we are calling these days “white nationalist”; Putin is a Russian nationalist. The two admire each other.
- But Russia is a declining regional power with an economy no larger than Spain’s and based largely on energy resources whose value has declined dramatically. It’s only real international capability is to make life difficult for people who want to run serious democracies.
- We are going to need to learn to live with that, responding to it in ways that block the worst consequences and nudge Moscow in more productive directions, but at the same time not accepting the Russian claim to superpower status.
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