Tag: NATO

Trying to hem him in

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.

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Revenge of the nerds

The foreign policy establishment is beginning to bite back. While President Trump was outperforming even by his own low standards in a press conference Thursday, Senator McCain, Secretary of Defense Mattis, Vice President Pence, and Secretary of State Tillerson were busy in Europe declaring their unqualified commitment to the NATO Alliance, urging the allies to meet their 2014 commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense by 2024, opposing any softening with Russia on Ukraine, denouncing those who doubt Western values, and lauding the post-World War II liberal international framework. Trump likely wasn’t listening–he doesn’t even listen to the questions asked at his own news conference–but no doubt his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, heard what amounts to a cabinet and Congressional rebellion against his boss.

The courage to talk this way comes in part from Trump’s truly miserable ratings with the American public. At 40%, his job approval rating one month into the presidency is the lowest on record:

 

Mid-February Job Approval Ratings During Elected Presidents’ First Year in Office, Eisenhower Through Trump

 

Date Job approval
%
Trump 2017 Feb 13-15 40
Obama 2009 Feb 12-15 64
G.W. Bush 2001 Feb 19-21 62
Clinton 1993 Feb 12-14 51
G.H.W. Bush 1989 Feb 28-Mar 2 63
Reagan 1981 Feb 13-16 55
Carter 1977 Feb 18-21 71
Nixon 1969 Feb 20-25 60
Kennedy 1961 Feb 10-15 72
Eisenhower 1953 Feb 22-27 67
Average 61

He started lower than everyone else and has dropped more than all but Clinton:

 

Change in Presidential Mid-February Job Approval Ratings From Initial Job Approval Ratings, Eisenhower Through Trump
Sorted by change in approval rating

 

Initial approval Mid-February approval Change
% % pct. pts.
G.H.W. Bush 51 63 +12
G.W. Bush 57 62 +5
Carter 66 71 +5
Reagan 51 55 +4
Nixon 59 60 +1
Eisenhower 68 67 -1
Obama 68 64 -4
Trump 45 40 -5
Clinton 58 51 -7
Average 60 61 +1

The American public views Trump as less trustworthy and well informed than his predecessors, as well as less able to get things done and to communicate:

Americans generally respect NATO:

They also think Trump has damaged America’s image abroad:

This is unprecedented: a president with radical foreign policy intentions whose appointees are speaking out in ways that amount to rejection of those intentions. They are trying to hem in the President and prevent him from pursuing the worst of his ideas.

Trump still is the president however. He may be hemmed in by his own minions on NATO and Ukraine, but he is still free to act elsewhere. Iran and Syria are the likely arenas. He won’t renounce the Iran nuclear deal, because the Israelis don’t want him to. But he may seek heightened confrontation with them in Yemen, Bahrain, Iraq, or Syria. He may also try for a partnership with Russia in Syria by abandoning support for the Syrian opposition and trying to ween Moscow from what I suspect is an unbreakable tie to Assad. No successor regime will be as friendly to Russian (and Iranian) interests as Assad has been.

Trump is also rumored to be considering deployment of more US troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State (ISIS). He wouldn’t be the first American president to seek to bolster his popularity at home by waging war abroad. But Americans seem to me tired of foreign interventions. ISIS, while dreadful, is a threat to individual American citizens–even to substantial numbers of them–but it is not an existential threat that can destroy the United States. Apart from North Korea’s eventual capability to deliver nuclear weapons to California, the only threat of that sort I see on the horizon is President Trump’s attack on America’s courts, its free and independent media, its Muslim citizens, and its domestic tranquility.

 

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DC’s fine-tuned machine

Donald Trump yesterday called his team a “fine-tuned machine” in a press conference that prompted one Republican senator to say “He should do this with a therapist, not on live television.” The President was unable to keep his cool even in response to a question about well-documented recent anti-Semitic incidents, instead berating the journalist for his hostility. My first question to would-be foreign government speakers in Washington is whether they can respond to a provocative question without attacking the questioner. After almost a month in office, Trump is still not ready for prime time.

Instead he is spewing falsehoods, making exaggerated claims for his own prowess and experience, denying well-established facts, and conducting a vituperative campaign against the establishment press. He is also promising to catch leakers who are filling the headlines with news about his campaign’s links to Russia and the related ongoing investigations, which could lead to criminal charges against his now resigned National Security Adviser. The chosen replacement is reported to have turned down the job, unable to get a commitment that he would be able to choose his own staff. Trump’s immigration ban, blocked in court, will be withdrawn and replaced with something the President says will be even better.

There is a fine-tuned machine in Washington, but it is not Trump’s White House staff or even his cabinet appointees, most of whom are making it through Senate’s confirmation. The US government’s permanent civil and foreign services are beginning to gain traction. That is apparent in Defense Secretary Mattis’ meeting with NATO allies, where he sought both to get them to spend more on defense (a well-worn talking point that pre-dates Trump) and to reassure them that the Administration is committed to the Alliance. It is also apparent in UN Ambassador Haley’s tough remarks about Russian aggression in Ukraine and Secretary of State Tillerson’s “listening” participation in a G20 meeting, even if he had trouble explaining the President’s remarks on Israel and Palestine to the French foreign minister.

Trump, who is more radical than conservative, will no doubt want to upend more of America’s traditional positions on international issues, as he did when he ditched the multilateral Trans-Pacific Partnership (delighting China) and suggested that the US was no longer committed to a two-state solution in the Middle East. He is said to be thinking about putting substantial numbers of US troops on the ground in Syria, to accelerate the liberation of Raqqa. But the bureaucracy is trying to hem him in and prevent thoughtless departures from established policy by Twitplomacy. Call it the “blob” or the “deep state,” but the professionals know there are good reasons for why we do what we do (and not what we don’t do). They want to ensure that policy changes are well crafted to avoid the kinds of chaos that the immigration ban generated.

The professionals are of course also protecting their own vested bureaucratic interests, from whence the leaks. Trump has all but declared war on the intelligence community and frozen out the State Department, preferring to rely on a National Security Council staff studded with military and former military officers. The nerds want their revenge. They got some with Flynn’s departure. They may target chief strategist Bannon and his side kicks as well, as they are all too clearly the guardians of Trump’s white nationalist radicalism.

Trump is driving a jalopy of his own making, not the Tesla he is entitled to as President. I dread the day he gets into the right driver’s seat and begins to make effective use of the deep state he is now fighting.

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Good riddance, but problems persist

It’s hard not to celebrate the departure of General Flynn from the position of National Security Adviser. He was both pro-Russian and anti-Muslim beyond reason. A sworn enemy of the American intelligence establishment, he got caught by them talking sanctions relief with the Russian ambassador even before Donald Trump was sworn in. Then he allegedly lied to the Vice President about what was said. His comeuppance is well-merited.

Congressional Republicans are now pledging not to investigate him. Why would they do that? They are trying to contain the damage. Their reluctance suggests it is more than likely that Trump knew what Flynn was discussing with the Russians. Flynn’s testimony, or that of others cognizant of the contents of the phone calls, would call into question the President’s own behavior: did he authorize Flynn to discuss sanctions? Was he pleased that Flynn did so? Was this part of a broader scheme of accommodating Moscow’s interests?

The Congressional cover raises other questions: was it part of a deal to obtain Flynn’s resignation? Why wasn’t Flynn just fired? What are his non-disclosure arrangements with the Administration?

Whatever the answers, it is clear that Flynn’s resignation does not solve the basic problem, which is Trump’s unrestrained and so far unconditional desire for an improved relationship with Vladimir Putin. The President has never made it clear what he expects from this improved relationship, only that it would somehow magically make things better in the world. He also hasn’t specified what he would be prepared to give up in return: recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea? Southeastern Ukraine? Independence of Transnistria? Annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are already nominally independent? NATO accession of Montenegro, now on the Senate’s agenda for ratification? Further NATO expansion in the Balkans? NATO expansion further into Scandinavia? An end to American support for rebels in Syria?

These questions persist even without Flynn. Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson may restrain the White House from some particularly bad impulses, especially Trump’s inclination to ditch NATO altogether, but their leverage will be limited. If the President is prepared to pursue a rapprochement with Russia despite the failures recorded by his two immediate predecessors, he will no doubt pick a new National Security Adviser prepared to pursue his policy direction. I doubt that can be David Petraeus, who in any event is already tarred with the brush of security violations. But I trust there are lots of other people who will do the work if given the opportunity.

In the meanwhile, the resignation of the National Security Adviser (and according to the press his deputy) will throw a National Security Council already roiled by leaks into further turmoil. President Trump has already failed to respond with anything but a few thin words of support to Japan when North Korea tested a missile in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. He is looking unprepared for a crisis, which of course means that someone somewhere on earth is likely to think this is a good time to precipitate one. An already messy transition has unsettled America’s relationships across the globe and now seems likely to open the door to a serious security challenge.

It is easy enough to say good riddance to Flynn. But there are real risks involved in a presidency committed to cooperation with Putin’s aggressive Russia and unprepared to meet even the challenge of a North Korean missile test.

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Shortest route to Balkans peace

Filip Raunic of Croatia’s Telegram asked some questions about Bosnia and Herzgovina. I replied: 
Q: Republika Srpska celebrated its National Day, despite the fact that Constitution Court marked it as unconstitutional. The President of Republika Srpska said a few days ago that Bosnia and Hercegovina (BiH) should disintegrate. How do you see his actions and his role in BiH?

A: It has been clear for a long time that Dodik opposes the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is the core of the Dayton agreements. Respecting court decisions, even if you disagree with them, is vital to rule of law and democratic governance, not only in BiH but also here in the US.

Q: If Republika Srpska really decides to call a referendum on independence, do you see the possibility of the reaction from Federation and potentially a new military clash?

A: I don’t think you can expect those who support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which includes most people who live in the country as well as the international community, not to react in some fashion to a referendum on independence. But such referenda often are not fulfilled, since sovereignty requires recognition by other sovereign states. I would expect an RS that declares independence to end up in limbo, with minimal recognition, no serious foreign support, and little ability to satisfy the legitimate aspirations of its people for security and prosperity.

Q: Do you see some similarity in  the situation and behavior of the political elites in Bosnia in the 90’s and today?

A: Yes, I do. But the circumstances are different. Serbia is no longer willing to risk its own prosperity for irredentist political aims, many people in Bosnia and Herzegovina are far better off than they were at the end of the war, Europe’s and NATO’s doors are in principle open to BiH, and its population expects more transparent and accountable governance. The nationalist fervor is far less murderous, but no less dangerous.

Q: Former English diplomat Timothy Less wrote a piece in Foreign Affairs in which he suggest disintegration of Bosnia – Republika Srpska would unite with Serbia and parts of Hercegovina with Croatia. What do you think about this idea?

A: It is just as bad an idea as it was in the 1990s. It would result in the formation of a non-viable rump Islamic Republic in central Bosnia and Herzegovina heavily dependent on Islamist funding from Iran, Saudi Arabia or somewhere else. Why would Croatia or Serbia want such a neighbor on their borders?

Q: You mediated between Croats and Muslims in the 90s and brokered the first agreement of the Dayton peace talks. How do you now look on these days and Dayton agreement. Was Dayton a good framework for Bosnia, and is it still good?

A: It was good enough to end the war, but not good enough to make real peace. It now needs updating, but how and what to do is now up to the citizens of BiH, not the internationals.

Q: Do you think that BiH should enter EU as quickly as possible?

A: I think BiH should qualify to enter the EU as quickly as possible.

Q: If Brussels will hesitate with BiH membership, is there a possibility and danger that Russia and Turkey will gain more influence in Bosnia and would it mean instability for the country?

A: Yes. Russia is already interfering in BiH in ways that are destabilizing. Moscow’s aim seems to be pernicious: to create as much trouble as possible at the least cost.

I don’t see Turkey’s influence in the same light, but it certainly increases the weight of Islamist politics and makes it harder to reach mutual accommodations among Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks.

Q: Croatian president Kolinda Grabar Kitarović recently said that Bosnia is becoming more radicalized in terms of more rigid interpretation of the values of Islam. Do you see Islamic radicalization? Is there a possibility of it if the situation in Bosnia remains tense?

A: I might not see things quite the same way President Grabar Kitarović sees them, but there is certainly a possibility of radicalization if Bosnia and Herzegovina is unable to succeed in satisfying its population’s aspirations. Tension produces polarization and exclusion, which are ingredients that will radicalize at least a few people.

Q: What could we expect from Trump administration for Bosnia and this region?

A: I don’t know what to expect. The new administration has said precious little about the Balkans and nothing to my knowledge about Bosnia and Herzegovina, which are not high on the priority list these days in Washington. The only clear statement I’ve seen is from Secretary of Defense Mattis, who supports the formation of the Kosovo Security Force.

Q: If you would advise Mr. Trump on Bosnia, what would you tell him to do?

A: I’d say a lot has changed for the better in the Balkans since the early 1990s. The United States should commit itself wholeheartedly to finishing the process by helping all the remaining countries to qualify for EU, and if they want it, NATO membership. I’d say that is the shortest and least troublesome route to lasting peace and stability.

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Montenegro, Russia, NATO

Marija Jovićević of Montenegro’s Pobjeda  asked these questions. I responded:

1. Can we expect ratification of Montenegrin Protocol in US Congress in January? Do you see any obstacle in this process?

A: I really don’t know. There appears to be no real opposition, but the Senate has a lot of things on its plate. I hope it will be quickly
reported out of committee and approved in the full Senate in the next couple of weeks. If it doesn’t happen before January 20, I have my
doubts the new administration will make it a priority. Then it will be up to key senators to make it move, which they might want to do to send an unequivocal signal of commitment to the Alliance to both Trump and Putin.

2. Relations between USA and Russia are very complicated at this moment, can this situation affect ratification of Protocol and Montenegro entering NATO?

A: I don’t think anyone in Congress is wanting to slow ratification because of Russian opposition, but it remains to be seen what the new administration will do. I would hope it would want to send the Russians a very clear signal that the NATO door remains open to those who qualify and want to enter. Europe whole and free (which means, among other
things, free to join NATO) is a good idea.

3. Do You expect that relations between Russia and USA could be closer and better after inauguration of Donald Trump?

A: Trump will make an effort to improve relations with Russia, in part by accommodating Russian demands on NATO, Ukraine and Syria. But I don’t think it will work out well for long. Putin doesn’t want good relations with the US. He wants to lead a defiant anti-US, illiberal coalition and establish a Russian sphere of influence in its “near abroad.”

4. What will be policy of the new American administration when we talk about the Balkans?

A: It is hard to tell, as it will be way down the list of priorities. But the new administration is in part an ethnic nationalist one, which doesn’t bode well from my liberal democratic perspective.

5. How do you see relations between Montenegro and USA. Do you expect
any changes after the inauguration of Donald Trump?

A: Certainly if Trump fails to press for Montenegro’s NATO accession, that won’t help Montenegro or its relations with the US. It could even drive Montenegro into Russian arms.

6. We are witnessing Russian interference in elections in USA, in elections in Montenegro also. Russia is using every possible way to
stop Montenegro’s way to NATO. Do you think that this is already lost battle for Moscow?

A: It isn’t over until it’s over. Moscow will continue fighting and will have an easier time of it in the initial phase of a Trump administration. But in the end I think Montenegro will enter NATO this year and help to keep the door open to other aspirants. I for one am grateful to Montenegro for its fortitude and persistence. Let it be rewarded soon!

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