The Trump Administration is failing, both domestically and internationally.
On the domestic front, last night’s collapse of Republican support for the repeal and replacement of Obama’s health care legislation ends any reasonable prospect of legislative action on this front. Republican Senate leader McConnell says he will bring simple repeal to a vote, which is what President Trump says he now wants.
Were it to pass, the US health care system would be thrown into chaos, with damaging economic consequences. More likely, it will never come to a vote. Instead, the President and his virulently anti-Obamacare Secretary of Health and Human Services will instead try to weaken Obamacare through executive action. That will also cause enormous economic uncertainty and risk stalling an aging economic recovery.
Even if somehow the healthcare debacle is resolved, the Administration needs to raise the debt ceiling by the end of September, in order to avoid a US Government default. There is no agreement yet among Republicans (the Democrats count for little as they are in the minority) on when and how to do this. Since it is a “must-pass” measure, members will try to hang lots of other things onto it, likely delaying passage until the last conceivable moment.
On the international front, it is now clear that not only the President himself but also his son, Don Jr., welcomed and encouraged Russian help during the election campaign, along with the campaign manager and the President’s son-in-law. Special Counsel Mueller will now have to determine whether their behavior violated the legal prohibition on soliciting or accepting foreign assistance.
Judicial standards of proof are much higher than journalistic ones, so we’ll just have to wait and see what Mueller concludes, but in the meanwhile the White House has been reduced to arguing that nothing they did could possibly be illegal, even if it involved active collusion with Moscow. No one should be surprised if Trump welcomes gives Moscow back its spy facilities and the personnel that Obama expelled in retaliation for interference in the US election.
On other issues, the news is no better:
- North Korea: The Administration failed to prevent Pyongyang from testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, as the President promised he would do. His efforts to convince China to get tough with Kim Jong-un have likewise failed. Instead, Seoul is breaking with the US hard line and seeking talks with the North. Trump’s bluster and bullying has gotten him no result at all on the Korean Peninsula.
- Qatar crisis: While the President was encouraging Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to go after Qatar about terrorist financing, his Secretaries of State and Defense have been trying to smooth things over, fearing that Qatar might lean farther towards Iran due to the blockade Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have levied. Mediation efforts (mainly by Kuwait) have so far failed. The Gulf Cooperation Council remains split and weakened, while someone in Washington yesterday leaked intelligence saying the Emirates intentionally provoked the crisis by hacking into Qatari broadcasts with false information about statements the Qatari Emir never made. This is the umpteenth time the Trump Administration has suffered leaks, which of course it denounces but then does nothing about.
- The Islamic State: The military operations to liberate Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS are proceeding, but it is increasingly clear that there are no viable plans for stabilization, reconstruction and governance thereafter. In Mosul, ISIS resistance continues, despite the victory celebration led by Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi. In Raqqa, the Kurdish-led forces taking the city are likely to face Turkish, Syrian government and Iranian resistance once they succeed.
None of these issues is even close to being resolved. All are likely to get more challenging in the future. I confess to Schadenfreude: this Administration and Congress are proving as incoherent and incompetent as predicted. But it is not fun to watch your country paralyzed and weakened. There is no quick way out of the debacle we are in.
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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Hassan Hassan ( @hxhassan) offers this Twitter-published translation of what purports to be the Saudi, Emirati, Bahraini and Egyptian demands of Qatar (I’ve made a few minor editorial adjustments to ease readability):
2. Qatar must immoderately [quickly?] shut down the Turkish military base that is being established, and halt any military cooperation with Turkey in Qatar.
3. Qatar must announce severance of ties with terrorist, ideological & sectarian orgs: MB, ISIS, AQ, HTS, Hizbollah; designate as terrorists
4. Qatar must cease any funding activities to extremist and terrorist individuals, entities & orgs, including US/international designation lists.
5. Qatar must hand over all designated terrorists, wanted by the four countries; freeze their assets; stop hosting others in the future.
6. Qatar must shut down Al Jazeera and all affiliated channels
7. Qatar must stop interference in these countries’ domestic+foreign affairs; stop naturalization of their citizens; extradite such citizens
8. Qatar must provide reparations to these countries for any opportunity costs incurred over the past few years because of Qatari policies.
9. Qatar must become in sync with its Gulf & Arab neighborhood on all levels, and to activate Riyadh Agreement 2013 + 2014
10. Qatar must provide all databases related to oppositionists that it provided support to & clarify what help was provided.
11. Qatar must [close?] all media outlets backed by it directly or indirectly, like Arabi21, Rasd, New Arab, Middle East Eye, Mkamlin, Sharq etc
12. These demands must be agreed within 10 days, otherwise they would be invalidated.
13. Agreement will involve clear goals and mechanism, monthly reports in the first year, every three months the next & annually for 10 years
Here is the Arabic, for those who want to check the translation:
So what is this about?
First it is about asserting preeminence. The Saudis in particular want to make it clear that they lead the Gulf (and more: the Sunni Arab countries). Qatar’s relationship with Turkey, in particular the recently reinforced Turkish base in Qatar, challenges the Kingdom’s preeminence and limits what Riyadh can do, hence its position as number 2 demand.
Second, it is about Iran, which the Emirates and the Kingdom view as a mortal enemy. Qatar has to maintain good relations with Iran, with which it shares a natural gas field. But the diplomatic and security relationship is something its Gulf partners want reduced.
Third, it is about reducing internal threats, especially from the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups as well as non-compliant media and other “oppositionists,” a term that could cover a lot of ground. The demands to stop naturalization and to extradite non-citizens should be read in this context.
Fourth, but only fourth, it is about cutting off support to terrorists, defined to include the Muslim Brotherhood as well as Al Qaeda, ISIS, Hayat Tahrir al Sham, and Hizbollah. The Saudis don’t come to this last demand with clean hands, as their Wahhabi clerics have certainly inspired some of the terrorists, and many think private funds have flowed from Saudis to terrorist groups.
Qatar will be tempted to reject this list of demands in its entirety. That I think would not be so wise. There is a whiff of regime change surrounding this document, especially the 10-day ultimatum. It seems to be saying “do these things or else.” What? The cut-off of transport and trade is already painful, but things could get worse. The bloodless coups of 1972 and 1995 in Qatar are certainly not forgotten.
Better would be to sit with the antagonists and review each point, agreeing where possible and making clear why Doha cannot agree to other points. The more Qatar can indicate cooperation on terrorism, the more backing it can expect from the United States (or at least from Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis–the President is erratic and seems to be conducting a distinctly different foreign policy). The US is unlikely to care much about Turkey’s small military presence in Qatar or to want media shut down without good cause. But the Americans will want Qatar to make all commerce compliant with UN Security Council requirements as well as renounce ties with, and end funding of, designated terrorists.
There seems to be a growing Trumpization infecting negotiating styles worldwide. Making your position clear is desirable. Ignoring the fact that your adversary has alternatives to a negotiated agreement is not. Iran stepped in quickly to help Doha, as did Turkey. The net result of these overblown demands could be to drive Qatar further in their direction. That would be counter-productive. A coup is likewise a risky idea. Better to reach some sort of negotiated outcome.
All eyes are on testimony today by National Intelligence Director Coats and Acting FBI Director McCabe as well as tomorrow’s appearance former FBI Director Comey concerning the President’s efforts to obstruct investigations into his links to Moscow. Coats and McCabe have already disappointed, by refusing to talk about their conversations with President Trump. I’d have been surprised if they did. President Nixon charted this territory more than 40 years ago, with consequences. The truth will out, one way or another.
At the same time, the Middle East is once again entering uncharted territory.
Qatar has long been at odds with the Kingdom, mainly over Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and for Al Jazeera, a mainstay of broadcast news and talk in the Arab world. Apparently encouraged by President Trump’s plea to cut off terrorist financing, the Saudis neglected their own culpability in allowing resources to flow to terrorists and have turned the screws instead on Qatar, breaking diplomatic relations, cutting off trade and transport, and compelling Gulf Cooperation Council members to follow suit. Then today the Islamic State attacked the parliament building and a monument to Ayatollah Khomeini in Tehran, in a transparent effort to heighten sectarian conflict.
President Trump’s gullibility in swallowing whole the Kingdom’s allegation that blocking Qatari financing for the Muslim Brotherhood would be a big win against terrorism has to make them worry. But Doha is unlikely to evict the large American air base it built and hosts, if only because that would leave Qatar even more isolated. Qatar’s only places to turn are Iran, with which it shares a gas field in the Gulf, and Turkey, which is reportedly rushing troops to the emirate. Saudi Arabia has supposedly issued a long list of demands. When that is not met, an effort to topple Qatar’s emir, while perhaps not the Kingdom’s strongest suit, may well be where things are headed.
The attack in Iran, following on ISIS attacks in London, Baghdad, and elsewhere suggests the Islamic State is well-launched on its post-caliphate phase. Mosul has mostly fallen. Kurdish and Arab forces are investing Raqqa. Free Syrian Army and regime-allied forces are racing for Deir Azzour and Bukamel on the Iraqi border. ISIS will be going underground and into the desert, looking for opportunities and trying to inspire homegrown attacks in many different countries. That presents no serious military threat, but it strikes fear and loathing into more people than ISIS’s rule in Mosul and Raqqa. That is terror’s main purpose, which President Trump seems happy to amplify with his travel ban and other gross over-reactions.
The net result is a tangle. Washington is backing the Kingdom, even though Riyadh’s actions are splitting the Gulf Arabs and weakening the united front against terrorism and Iran that President Trump claims to have created last month. At the same time, the Islamic State has attacked Iran, which blames the attack on its sworn enemies, Saudi Arabia and the US. Iran is an enemy of the Islamic State (though not always of Al Qaeda), which would put it on the same side in the fight against ISIS as the US, but don’t expect anyone in Tehran or Washington to acknowledge that. In the Middle East, the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. In uncharted territory, some rules of thumb don’t apply.
Colleagues at RAND have updated their peace proposal for Syria. This should be taken seriously, both because Jim Dobbins, Phil Gordon and Jeffrey Martini are sharp guys and because their previous version turned out to be prescient, or maybe just reflective of Administration thinking before the recent, now mostly lamented, cessation of hostilities. They want to put aside the difficult political question of transition, including the fate of Bashar al Assad, to focus on reducing the violence and extending the cessation of hostilities.
What they’ve done this time is to suggest four different ways in which decentralization could be implemented with Bashar al Assad still in place: one based on existing legislation, a second based on that plus additional taxing and security authority, a third acknowledges existing Kurdish autonomy, and a fourth that extends that autonomy to opposition and government controlled areas, more or less along the lines of their previous proposal. Wisely dropped from their original proposal is the ethnic/sectarian definition of “safe” zones, with the exception of the de facto majority Kurdish area along Syria’s northern border with Turkey.
All of this is perfectly reasonable as an outline of what might happen if the war continues. It just isn’t going to be possible for Assad to re-establish control over all of Syria. Decentralization is unquestionably part of the solution, as it is in Yemen, Libya and Iraq. The opposition already has local governing structures in northern and southern Syria, the Kurds are governing their “cantons” and ISIS unfortunately administers the territory it controls.
But as a proposal that keeps Bashar al Assad in place it looks distinctly like surrender. Assad himself yesterday made clear that he intends to reconquer all of Syria:
There is no sign that he would accept a peace that includes decentralization along any of the lines RAND recommends, even the one based on existing legislation. Nor is there any sign that the Russians and Iranians would compel him to do so. To the contrary: they are doubling and tripling down on their support for Assad’s offensives, most notably right now against Aleppo and Raqqa.
Nor is there any sign that the peacekeeping forces RAND mumbles quietly are necessary in both the original and updated version of its peace plan are going to be available. Even the Iranians and Russians are unlikely to deploy the tens of thousands required on the ground in Syria. Much less so the Qataris, Saudis, Jordanians or even the Turks. Years ago, the UN had polled more traditional troop providing countries and had identified 18,000 that might be made available. Today that number has certainly shrunk. A country the size of Syria would require well over 100,000 by the usual peacekeeping formulas.
The value of this second version of the RAND proposal lies in its careful attention to the pros and cons of different forms of decentralization. Assad is staying, but he won’t be able to achieve his territorial goal. The Americans, whose one real asset in Syria is the local governing structures they have supported, should be thinking about decentralization not with Assad, because he just won’t buy it, but despite Assad. Providing the security resources required to protect local governing structures, and weaving them together into a viable alternative to the regime, is a better plan than the surrender RAND is advocating.
On Wednesday, the Conflict Management Program at SAIS and MEI hosted a talk entitled After the Deal: A Veteran Journalist’s View from Tehran. Speakers included Roy Gutman, McClatchy Middle East bureau chief, and Joyce Karam, Washington bureau chief for Al-Hayat. Daniel Serwer of both SAIS and MEI moderated. Both speakers emphasized the dynamics that caused regional players to be wary of Iran.
Early last Spring, Gutman traveled to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey.
In Israel, he observed that the major national security concern wasn’t the Iranian nuclear program, but rather Iran’s conventional threat through the buildup of Hezbollah forces. Israelis were disappointed that the US was leaving a security vacuum in Syria for Iran to fill. The Israeli position on the Iran deal is difficult to understand; Israeli politicians oppose it, but Israel’s foreign policy elite considers Iranian conventional forces a larger threat.
Jordanian officials also worried about regional chaos and Iranian influence. They were baffled by the half-hearted US response to Assad, as well as its airstrike-only response to ISIS.
Egypt is preoccupied by terrorism and the upheaval in Libya, but Egyptian officials are also concerned about Iran’s growing influence and US inaction.
Officials in every government (aside from Turkey’s) spoke of collusion between Turkey and extremists. The Turks think the Iranians know that the US is not a determined counterpart. They believe the US is appeasing Iran.
Gutman then traveled to Tehran to gauge the mood there. Iran has come in from the cold after 36 years, but Tehran resents the last 36 years of US policy. Change in Iran won’t happen fast. Khamenei has said that Iran’s policy towards the “arrogant” US government won’t change and that Iran will keep supporting its regional allies.
Israel views Hezbollah’s buildup as a direct threat, but Iranian officials told Gutman that the Tehran holds the trigger on Hezbollah’s weapons and won’t pull it unless Israel threatens Lebanon or Iran. However, a former Iranian diplomat admitted that Iran has no vital interest in Lebanon or the Palestinians. Iran also appears to have no vital interest in Yemen, but likes seeing Saudi Arabia embroiled in an unwinnable war. Iran is unalterably opposed to the breakup of Iraq into three states.
Iranian officials don’t think the deal is perfect, but still see it as a win-win for both sides. They view themselves as MENA’s most powerful and stable state. They are glad that US has accepted them as a regional player and negotiating partner.
After the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, Iran filled the vacuum. The Iraqi Army collapsed on Iran’s watch. Iran does not acknowledge its responsibility for this and ascribes the rise of ISIS to others. They also believe that foreign forces fought in Deraa and refused to acknowledge Assad’s role in fomenting terrorism by releasing terrorists from prison. Iranian officials also stated that all sectors of Lebanese society back Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria. Iran needs a reality check.
Iran opposes the creation of a safe zone/no-fly zone in Iraq and has threatened to send basijis into Syria if this happens. Iranians don’t understand the scope of Syria’s humanitarian catastrophe or Iran’s role in it. There are too many disagreements between the US and Iran to form a regional security agreement now. The US needs a policy for Syria; if we don’t have a policy, others will fill the vacuum. The US also needs an official version of what happened in Syria to counter the Iranian invented view of history.
Karam noted that the Arab response to the deal is less monolithic than Israel’s, but the GCC and Israel view Iran’s regional behavior similarly. The UAE, Oman, and Turkey quickly welcomed the deal because they have good trade relations with Iran. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar were more cautious. The Saudis don’t view the deal as US abandonment, but they fear increased Iranian regional meddling. Arab public opinion has shifted drastically since 2008, when 80% of Arabs viewed Iran positively. Now only 12% do. The Arab street is suspicious of the deal. The US explained the deal to Arab governments, but not to their people. The Arab street wonders whether the money Iran will gain from sanctions relief will go to funding Iranian students, or to Qassem Suleimani and more chlorine gas, barrel bombs, and Hezbollah fighters for Assad. Assad is a costly budget item for Iran. When will Iran realize that Assad can’t win? Nevertheless, Hezbollah keeps getting more involved in Syria.
Karam stated that the Gulf countries obtain commitments from the US at talks like Camp David, but then nothing gets done. The US is four years behind on Syria and needs an official policy.
Serwer noted in conclusion that the regional issues would be far worse if Iran had, or were about to get, nuclear weapons.