Tag: North Korea

Still adrift

After a rough start, the Trump Administration has gotten more plaudits lately: the cruise missile attack on a Syrian airfield and the Mother of All Bombs used in Afghanistan pleased those who wanted the United States to show more “resolve.” Vice President Pence then used those two attacks to suggest that North Korea should not try to test the President, all but laying down a new red line. The US would react, he suggested, if Pyongyang tested missiles or a nuclear weapon.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Mattis is rallying allies in the Middle East and National Security Adviser McMaster has been in Afghanistan and India. The President has met with the NATO Secretary General, signed on to Montenegrin accession to the Alliance, endorsed the Export-Import Bank, and certified that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal.

That is all good. It is starting to look like a more or less normal American administration, even if it is using force with more abandon than its predecessor.

It’s not, mainly because of Trump himself. His congratulatory phone call to Turkey’s President Erdogan was the tip-off, as it ignored the obvious problem of a popular referendum used to establish autocratic powers. While Mattis and McMaster are adults who will try to do things right and steer Trump in productive directions, the President’s instincts and mode of operation still raise serious questions. No clear strategy has followed up either the Syrian or the Afghanistan attack. President Assad is still killing civilians with abandon, with help from the Russians and Iranians. The Taliban are still making progress in Afghanistan, perhaps more than ever before. Unless something changes, both American attacks will soon be seen as one-offs that presage no serious plan in either country.

The North Korean situation is similar. While the Americans boast that all means are on the table, Kim Jong-un knows perfectly well that his tens of thousands of conventional artillery pieces targeted on Seoul’s more than 20 million people will deter Washington from serious use of military force. Pence’s bravado was aimed squarely at the American and Chinese audiences. The best he can expect from Pyongyang is a willingness to talk. Kim does not back down on development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, because they are the guarantee of his regime’s survival.

Even if the Chinese exert their maximum leverage, Pyongyang is likely to stay adamant. Meanwhile, the Americans made fools of themselves by losing track of the carrier battle group the White House and Pentagon had said was on its way towards the Korean peninsula when in fact it was near Indonesia. I can only guess how much laughter that is causing in Beijing and Pyongyang. They’ve certainly now learned to doubt whatever Trump claims, which would have been wise anyway.

Despite this and other gaffes, there is at least some reversion to a more normal foreign policy direction. Secretary of State Tillerson remains alone at the State Department, with no other presidential appointees. That in a way is good, as it leaves any issues on which the Administration has given no new guidance in the hands of professionals who will continue to do what they were doing before, albeit with a bit less confidence and a bit more hedging of their bets. But any real progress depends on developing strategies for Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea, not to mention Yemen and Libya, that are clear and achievable. In other words, we are still adrift.

 

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Laconic to a fault

Tomasz Zalewski of the Polish magazine Polityka asked some questions about Secretary of State Tillerson. I replied:

Q: What is the role of Tillerson in making of US foreign policy? Is he its architect, or just an executor of Mr. Trump’s (or other peoples’) orders?

A: If he has any role at all, it appears to be minimal. He hasn’t even been an “executor.” More like a hanger-on.

Q: How valuable are his skills of the former Exxon’s CEO in the US diplomacy?

A: I have seen no value so far. [Maybe I should have added: other than his initial statement to the State Department personnel, which was well received.]

Q: How significant are the 28 percent cuts in the Department of State budget proposed by the White House – and the fact that Tillerson has agreed with them?

A: 28% is a devastating cut in a single year. It won’t happen, but the fact Tillerson agreed to this ridiculous number suggests he has no interest in defending the department he heads.

Q: What to make of the fact that Tillerson does not take the media on his trips and generally says very little in public?

A: He has no understanding of the Secretary of State’s role in public affairs and doesn’t care to learn.

I might add this, the State Department statement on the latest North Korean missile test:

North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.

That’s laconic to a fault, unless there is further action taken. 

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Peace picks March 20-27

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.

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Seriously but not literally

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.

 

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The North Korea conundrum

While America can’t seem to get enough of issues like healthcare and Trump’s Russia connection, North Korea is getting precious few electrons. It deserves more. The hermit kingdom, as we used to call it, is now a nuclear power developing ballistic missiles capable of reaching Japan if not yet the US. President Obama famously told then President-elect Trump that Pyongyang should be at the top of his to-do list.

That hasn’t happened. President Trump has demonstrated more interest in the cancellation of his erstwhile TV reality show than the launch of multiple missiles into the Sea of Japan. Except for a conversation with Japan’s Prime Minister and deployment of an anti-ballistic missile system to South Korea, there has been precious little public sign of White House interest in the issue.

That might be the good news. The last thing the world needs is one of Trump’s rapid fire decisions. Josh Rogin, who is smart and well-informed about these things, says the National Security Council deputies and principals are seized with the issues. They reportedly don’t like Pyongyang’s suggestion that it could stop the missile tests if the US abandoned its military exercises with South Korea, which the North regards as hostile.

Washington will naturally look to Beijing to bring additional pressure on Pyongyang. The Chinese have, however, already cut their coal imports from North Korea as well as many exports to their ill-behaved neighbor. Beijing hesitates to go further because the last thing it wants is the North Korean regime to collapse, which could send refugees fleeing into China and precipitate reunification with a South Korea allied with the US.

There aren’t a lot of other good options out there. Pyongyang has thousands of missiles and artillery pieces already pointed at Seoul. Any belligerent US or South Korean moves could trigger a horrendous barrage. Destroying a North Korean missile on the launch pad, as Ash Carter and Bill Perry proposed more than 10 years ago, has gotten far more difficult, because Pyongyang has made its missiles mobile. The US could agree to talk with the North Koreans, something candidate Trump suggested he would want to do as president. But it is not clear what such talks could do to improve the situation. Yielding to them now would confirm in Kim Jong-un’s perspective that missile tests get attention.

Regime survival is Pyongyang’s top priority. Possession of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles is arguably the best guarantee possible that the US and South Korea will not risk war. Even converting the armistice that ended the Korean War into a peace treaty with American, North Korean, and South Korean signatures would not match that, in particular for a regime committed to extreme self-reliance.

This is not a pretty picture: a real threat to American allies in the Pacific and very few options to manage it. Americans elected Donald Trump to deal with such a conundrum. Let’s see how he does.

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The bigotry of low expectations

President Trump of course said nothing like what I had suggested yesterday in his speech to Congress last night. The tone was marginally less objectionable than his “grab pussy” speech, but as SAIS colleague Eliot Cohen put it:

POTUS clunky speech seemingly judged a success because he did not sound like an unhinged, belligerent maniac. .

Trump repeated virtually all of his worst domestic campaign promises: repeal Obamacare without specifying what should replace it, counter supposedly rising crime by blocking immigrants who don’t commit more crimes than natural born Americans, build an unneeded wall on parts of the border already difficult to cross, drop government regulations that protect Americans from ineffective or unsafe pharmaceuticals, build pipelines that don’t increase American energy security even though the economics no longer justify it….

The only domestic proposition I agreed with is his $1 trillion for infrastructure, but that’s pretty much what Obama wanted to do too. The Republicans in Congress wouldn’t let him.

The only real adjustments were a pledge of support to NATO (but not the European Union, which is arguably just as important to US interests) and a denunciation of hate crimes, which he should have made weeks ago. China went almost unmentioned, he skipped North Korea’s nuclear weapons and Russian interference in the American election, and forgot about climate change entirely. He offered no indication of how he is going to defeat ISIS.

The moment that struck me as most inappropriate was the exploitation of Ryan Owens’ widow (her husband was killed in a botched raid in Yemen that Trump personally approved), who was present in the gallery. I gather veterans shared my reaction:

But the Congress provided the desired long and loud applause.

The public display of a tearful grieving widow for political purposes grates the wrong way with me, but obviously I’m not with the program. Trump thought McCain wasn’t a hero because he was captured. By what logic does Trump think Owens is a hero because he is dead? Wouldn’t logic suggest that Trump prefers fighting men not only uncaptured but also alive?

The press is celebrating the more moderate tone of the speech, exemplified best in Trump’s refraining from criticizing the media. Some people are easy to please.

Throughout the speech, Trump was glued to his Teleprompter. No doubt within 48 hours he’ll be back to saying the things he really means in the acerbic tones that come naturally to his pouting mouth and short fingers.

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