Tag: Syria

It’s not going to be easy

Iran Friday re-elected President Rouhani, who pressed for and got a nuclear deal with the P5+1 (that’s the US, UK, France, Russia, China and Germany, aka the EU3+3), with approval from the Supreme Leader. During his electoral campaign, Rouhani prioritized market reforms, negotiation of further sanctions relief, attracting foreign investment, and an enhanced regional and international presence for Iran.

Rouhani’s chief opponent was hard-nosed conservative Ebrahim Raisi, who wanted to close off Iran from further cooperation with the international community and build its “resistance” economy. Adopting a populist tone, he promised an increase in welfare benefits and subsidies. Implicated in the 1988 mass execution of thousands of prisoners, Raisi is “the true face of the Islamic Republic,” according to Elliot Abrams.

Iranians rejected that true face: Raisi lost by 19 percentage points, in an election that reportedly drew 70% turnout. Though far from free and fair, since candidates were vetted and many eliminated by the Guardian Council, that’s a definitive result, especially as there were two additional candidates. The Supreme Leader may be delighted that Iranians returned to the polls and did not boycott or otherwise protest too much, as they did in 2009. He may even be satisfied with Rouhani, who is no liberal but rather a stalwart of the regime who attracted support from would-be reformers because of the nuclear deal and the opening to the international community. But Iranians are clearly dissatisfied with clerical domination and isolation from the rest of the world.

Should Americans be happy with the election result or not?

Elliot preferred Raisi, as the human rights situation in Iran has not improved during Rouhani’s presidency and Tehran has become bolder in intervening in the region. The interventions in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have not been a big strain. Iranians would have been far more likely to rebel against Raisi than Rouhani, and the international community far more ready to act. President Trump aligned with that view during his visit to Riyadh, when he backed the Saudis and their effort to organize the Sunni world to counter not only terrorism but also Iran. Confrontation, not Obama’s rapprochement, is now American policy.

Others think Iran is drifting in a more liberal, less religiously conservative direction that should be encouraged, not discouraged. Confrontation will make moderation less likely. Iranians seem to want pretty much what people in the West want: equality of opportunity, transparency, fairness, and rule of law. They oppose the corruption and cronyism that have become endemic in finance and the bureaucracy. Sharia has evaporated. The ideology of the Islamic Republic is fading. Few women are wearing even the hijab.

Of course both views can be correct: the hard core of the regime remains very much in place. Rouhani likely does have a better chance of extending its life than a hardliner like Raisi. But if the people of Iran see only hostile words and new sanctions, how likely are they to warm to the West?

Russia is the alternative, one with which Tehran has been developing stronger ties, especially in Syria. The Iranians like what they have seen of Russian weapons, even if the Russians think the Iranians militarily inept. Their marriage is one of convenience, not a real alliance, but effective enough on the battlefield in Syria. No divorce is likely. New sanctions on Iran, which Congress is contemplating, would not only drive Iranians towards Moscow but also split the Europeans from the US, as they want to continue doing business in Iran.

Iran’s growing power projection capabilities complicate the issue for Washington. Tehran has developed longer-range missiles (up to 4000 km) but has not yet much improved their accuracy. Intended primarily for use against Israel, the missiles can frighten a civilian population but cannot reliably hit military targets. Iran’s Shia militia proxies have strengthened over the past five years, including not only Lebanese Hizbollah but also Popular Mobilization Forces from Iraq and other groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Having been attacked by Stuxnet, Iran has quickly acquired cyber warfare and drone capabilities. All these capabilities are relatively inexpensive, difficult to counter, and readily deployed.

Like Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, Trump has gone from a diehard opponent of the nuclear deal to its de facto strong supporter. The Trump Administration would like to renegotiate it so that the restraints on Iran’s nuclear program do not expire. It is not, however, clear what the Administration is prepared to offer in return, or even what would be attractive to Tehran. Trump would have to do more to open US financial markets to the Iranians, or somehow get the Europeans to join in new sanctions, in order to get the better nuclear deal he promised during his campaign. What are the odds of that?

The bottom line: Washington needs to learn to do more than one thing at a time: keep the nuclear deal in place (or even extend it), counter Iranian trouble-making in the region, and encourage the Iranian people to moderate their Republic’s commitment to exporting revolution using its unconventional but economical capabilities. It’s not going to be easy.

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Middle East policy begins to clarify

The President’s speech on terrorism in Riyadh yesterday to assembled Sunni Muslims broke no new ground in appealing to Muslims to fight terrorism. His two predecessors spent 16 years pushing that line. I know a lot of Muslims tired of hearing that appeal, but it passes for statesmanlike in the more respectable conservative corner of the American press.

In my view, the speech was important in two other ways:

  1. It abandoned US advocacy of democracy, rule of law and human rights;
  2. It rallied Sunnis to an anti-Iran alliance intended to include Israel.

These are not completely new ideas. Washington until 2011 did little to advocate for democracy, rule of law and human rights among its friends in the Middle East. The invasion of Iraq was the exception that proved the rule: Saddam Hussein was (no longer) a friend of the United States. The Bush Administration, in particular Vice President Cheney, actively sought a Sunni alliance against Iran, though the Israel connection was then less obvious.

These ideas do break with Obama Administration philosophy, which wasn’t always so clear in practice. Even while selling Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates vast quantities of weapons, Obama wanted Iran and the Gulf states to “share” the region and expressed a preference for open societies, while reverting quickly, especially in Egypt, to support for autocracy. While Obama did not do much to challenge the Gulf state monarchies openly, the Saudis and others felt heat from him that they are glad to see dissipated.

Trump’s inconsistency, one might even say hypocrisy, is entirely welcome in the Gulf. While he denounced the Saudis during his campaign for failing to pay for US protection and for human rights abuses against gays and lesbians, those complaints were completely forgotten in his visit to Riyadh, as was his criticism of Obama for “bowing” to the Saudi king in accepting a decoration (something Trump did as well). Demands for payment for US military protection have been conveniently converted to Saudi purchases of US military equipment, something Obama also pushed, to even higher levels than Trump has managed so far.

The anti-Iran alliance is likely to be the most immediately relevant of Trump’s ambitions. The trouble is the Iranians are well-prepared for it. They have assembled an impressive array of unconventional military means to counter the Sunni Arabs and Israel economically and effectively. The American invasion of Iraq was particularly helpful to Tehran, since democracy there puts the Shia majority in charge, but Iran’s capabilities extend also to Syria and Lebanon, mainly through the use of well-trained militia surrogates, most importantly Hizbollah. Iran has also managed to float and fly a lot of unconventional capabilities in the Gulf, where harassment of US warships is common. The US Navy has a hard time dealing with small boats and drones.

Binding the Sunni Arabs and Israel together will depend on some sort of rapprochement on Palestinian issues. Prime Minister Netanyahu talked openly today about wanting to be able to fly to Riyadh, and rumors of civil aviation and communication cooperation with Sunni states have been circulating for more than a week. The problem is on the Israeli side: the Arabs will want concessions on Israeli settlements in the West Bank or other issues that Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners will not want to make. Trump is still touting his desire to make the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians, but there is no real sign of an impending breakthrough.

As with most presidential speeches, we should note what was left out. Most notable was the absence of any idea of how the territory retaken from the Islamic State in Syria will be governed. In Iraq, Trump is continuing the Obama policy of support for Baghdad’s reassertion of authority over Sunni areas from which ISIS has been evicted. In Syria, the policy is far less clear and the need for one imminent, as Raqqa will likely fall within months (if not weeks) and Deir Azzour not long after. Will the US allow these eastern Syrian cities to be taken over by Iran-allied Bashar al Assad? Or will there be a real effort to support the Syrian opposition in governing there?

The logic of the speech favors the latter, as does last week’s US attack on Iranian-backed forces allegedly threatening US troops and allies in southern Syria. But let’s not forget Trump’s affection for the Russians, who have cooperated actively with the Iranians and backed Bashar to the hilt. There is still a lot of uncertainty about what Trump will do in the Middle East and how effective his choices will be.

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Making America grate

Donald Trump is a bully. We need only recall his treatment of his Republican competitors, especially Marco Rubio, and his stalking of Hillary Clinton during the last presidential debate, to realize that the President has an irresistible impulse to try to intimidate and dominate others. He tried it again this weekend with his threat to make recordings of their conversations public if former FBI Director Comey leaks to the press. He has also tried it with Kim Jong-un, alternately with offering to talk with him if the conditions are right. He has even tried it with Tea Party Republicans, when they refused to go along with a lousy revision of Obamacare that failed to meet their definition of “repeal.”

It isn’t working, because most adults know how to respond. Kim Jong-un is simply proceeding with his missile tests, knowing full well that ratcheting up UN Security Council sanctions is going to be difficult. By contrast, Comey, though reportedly fine with the existence of tapes of his phone conversations with the President, is not going to testify this week. I imagine he and his lawyers need to weigh a lot of pros and cons, since the Senate Democrats will want to ask him about ongoing investigations. That’s understandable, but sooner or later Comey will also defy the bully.

The bully ends up giving in more often than not, because he hasn’t got all the powers he pretends to wield. Trump has clearly overestimated his powers as president: the courts have stymied his immigration ban, his executive orders are often empty, and the Republicans in Congress are starting to bite back, even if not enough to satisfy me. Trump’s effort at rapprochement with Russia are going nowhere, he has backed off his promise to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and he is now figuratively licking the boots of the Chinese he once accused of raping America.

He really has only confirmation of a Supreme Court justice the Senate Republicans wanted, roll back of environmental and other regulations, and the cruise missile attack on Syria to show for his more than 100 days in the presidency. The former two items are important and something I regret. Gorsuch has already concurred in executing someone who might have been exonerated by DNA evidence. The US will be unable to meet its climate change commitments, even if it doesn’t withdraw from the Paris agreement.

The cruise missile raid has no significance, as it was done as a temperamental one-off without proper diplomatic and military followup that might have tipped the Syrian war in a new direction. Assad has used chemical weapons several times thereafter, without any American response, and now the State Department says he is building a crematorium to hid the execution of thousands of prisoners. In fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda, Trump has racked up a record of doing pretty much what his predecessor was doing but with bigger bombs, more drones, and more civilian casualties. The big difference is the lack of any diplomatic strategy other than bullying.

This week will be an important one: Turkish President Erdogan is in town trying to get the Americans to back off support for Syrian Kurds he regards as terrorists but the American generals think are the only available force able to remove ISIS from the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa. The generals want to do this quickly, they say, because ISIS is planning attacks on the US in Raqqa. Trump is likely to bully Erdogan, though he may also try to sweeten the pot by offering to be helpful on the extradition of Erdogan’s arch-nemesis, Fethullah Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania. That’s an empty promise, as the courts will make the decision.

A different president might cut a deal with Erdogan on Syria, thus preserving strong ties to America’s Turkish allies: if they want to prevent the Kurds from taking Raqqa, let them try. If they fail, the Americans do Plan B with the Kurds. The rationale for haste doesn’t add up: ISIS can plan attacks from anywhere. Removing them from Raqqa without a serious idea for how to govern the place thereafter reminds me of the myth of Sisyphus. You know: he was condemned to rolling a boulder up a hill, only to see it slide back down when he got near the top. That’s what is going to happen if the post-victory scenario in Raqqa has not been well-prepared. ISIS, or worse, will be back.

But options other than bullying, alternating with obsequious flattery, seem well beyond this president’s tool box. A great negotiator he is not. He is making America grate.

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Still a long way to go

I’ve spent the last few days with people from many parts of the Middle East. They were cheerier than you might think, but glimmers of hope go a long way in a dark tunnel. Here are a few of the things I learned.

In Yemen, there are big risks of further radicalization and fragmentation–not just southern secession–if the fighting continues. But both the Houthis, who have bitten off more than they want to chew, and the Saudis, who feel they have prevented an Iranian takeover, are exhausted. Everyone might just be ready to give something like peace a chance.

The best prospect is for agreement that some neutral party will take over the vital port of Hudaydah, through which 70-80% of Yemen’s food supplies flow. That would prevent the impending humanitarian catastrophe and allow some check on the flow of weapons and ammunition into the country. If then Sanaa can be made safe for the return of politicians who have opposed the Houthis, it might be possible to finish the political transition Yemen started more than six years ago by thanking President Hadi for his service and establishing an inclusive interim government. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Iraq is seeing glimmers of hope as well. The Iraqi security forces, including the Kurdish Peshmerga and the mostly Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMUs) as well as the Iraqi army and police, are doing all right in retaking Mosul, where they are moving slowly against strong ISIS resistance and trying hard to avoid civilian casualties. Cooperation has been good. The Pesh and the PMUs are staying on the outskirts of the city while local police backed by the Iraqi Army go inside. The operation should be concluded soon. Cooperation is expected to continue in retaking other towns like Tal Afar and Hawija.

But translating military cooperation against a common enemy into political results is proving difficult. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is planning an independence referendum for the September-November time frame. All the Kurdish political parties except for Gorran are participating in planning that effort. The result will be overwhelming in favor, but an independence declaration will not follow immediately. Erbil plans for a year or two of negotiations with Baghdad over the full range of outstanding issues (territory, oil, finances, displaced people, citizenship, etc.).

Baghdad doesn’t like this idea but isn’t going to try to stop it by force. Preoccupied with growing stabilization and reconstruction requirements, people in Baghdad don’t see how the KRG can pay for independence at current or likely future oil prices, don’t believe Iraq’s neighbors will go along with it, and are focused on instituting the kind of decentralization nationwide that should satisfy not only Iraq’s Kurds but also its Sunni and Shia.

Though any reasonable person would conclude that the Iraqi Kurds have lots of good reasons for wanting independence, they lack the internal and international conditions that would permit it. However, if they are able to negotiate borders with Baghdad and adequate financial arrangements, the picture would change significantly. They would still however face implacable Iranian opposition as well as Turkish discomfort. Ankara may not care so much any more about the KRG’s political status, but Turkish recognition while it is fighting its own and the Syrian Kurds seems a bridge too far.

Syria of course is the toughest nut. There may be some small hope for the Russian/Syrian/Turkish negotiations in Astana to produce workable “de-escalation” zones, though there is still no monitoring or enforcement mechanism. Translating any minor success in Astana to the political talks in Geneva is proving impossible, not least because Bashar al Assad is winning and sees no reason to compromise. The Americans may even hand him Raqaa on a silver platter, so that they can withdraw and declare the Islamic State finished.

Of course it won’t be. Eastern and other parts of Syria (maybe Homs and Hama) will suffer for a long time from a continuing and ever more extremist Sunni insurgency. Nor will the Americans want to ante up for stabilization or reconstruction. They want to kill the Islamic State and get out. Not one dime for governance in Syria is the White House mantra. The Russians, Iranians, and Turks will be stuck for a long time battling shadowy, ruthless, and deadly enemies.

The five million refugees are unlikely to go back under these circumstances. Nor would Assad want them, as he figures they are all his opponents. If the Europeans pay, he might take a token few thousand, but not many more. Another seven million Syrians are displaced inside the country. They aren’t likely going home either.

No Libyans where I was this weekend. But there is a glimmer of hope there that the UN-sponsored political leadership may find some way of compromising with Egyptian-backed would-be autocrat Haftar. That might be nice, or it might be the beginning of the end for one or the other of them, which could either be nice or a big problem.

So a little progress in the Middle East, here and there. But we are a long way from the end of its four civil wars.

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Peace picks May 8-12

  1. Cultural Diplomacy to Tackle Today’s Challenges | Monday, May 8 | 4:30-6pm | SAIS | Register Here | Vali Nasr, Dean of the School of Advanced International Studies, and Fred Bronstein, Dean of the Peabody Institute, invite you to join world class violinist and UN Messenger of Peace Midori, and a distinguished panel, for a 360 degree reflection on how cultural diplomacy can help better address today’s most pressing global challenges. Panel includes Jeffrey Brez, Chief of NGO Relations, Advocacy, and Special Events in the Department of Public Information; Ashlee George, Executive Director of the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project; and Evan Ryan, executive vice president of Axios.
  2. Trump’s Middle East Policy: Analyzing the First Hundred Days | Tuesday, May 9 | 11:45-1:30pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | President Trump’s foreign policy has been heavily scrutinized over the course of his first hundred days in office, as his early steps are likely to shape Washington’s interactions with the international community for the next four years. To examine the broader implications of the new administration’s moves in the Middle East, Hudson Institute will host a bipartisan panel featuring Michael Pregent, former intelligence officer and adjunct fellow at Hudson Institute; Marie Harf, former senior advisor for strategic communications to Secretary of State John Kerry; and David Tafuri, the State Department’s rule of law coordinator in Iraq from 2006 to 2007. On May 9, the panel will assess key strategic issues from Trump’s handling of the JCPOA to his decision to launch cruise missile strikes against a government airbase in Syria, and evaluate the long-term outlook for American foreign policy under the Trump administration. Suzanne Kianpour of BBC News will moderate the discussion.
  3. Iran’s Voters Go to the Polls | Tuesday, May 9 | 12-1:30 | MEI | Register Here | On May 19, Iranians will cast ballots for their next president, choosing between the six candidates authorized by the Supreme Leader’s Guardian Council. Incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, who sought relief from international sanctions by agreeing to constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, faces challengers attacking him on the economy, foreign policy, and his commitment to Islamist revolutionary ideals. Whatever its outcome will be, the election will impact the security landscape of the Gulf and beyond as the Trump Administration develops its regional policy. Middle East Institute (MEI) scholar Alex Vatanka will be joined by author and journalist Nazila Fathi and analyst Alireza Nader (RAND) to discuss the election, its political context, and the potential consequences of the impending vote for Iran, its neighbors, and the United States. Foreign affairs reporter for The Washington Post Ishaan Tharoor will moderate the discussion.
  4. The Upcoming Aramco IPO: Strategy, Investment, Politics | Tuesday, May 9 | 1:00-2:30pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | As part of the Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia intends to offer 5 percent of the state-owned Saudi Aramco to foreign investment in what is expected to be the biggest IPO in history. Tentatively slated for 2018, the IPO is highly anticipated—and likely to be highly scrutinized. The Saudi government has estimated that the company, more than twice the size of Exxon Mobil, is worth $2 trillion, making the shares worth a potential $100 billion. However, analysts within the company have warned that Aramco may be worth at least $500 billion less. Amid these questions, Saudi Arabia has undertaken measures to increase the company’s attractiveness to international investors, including slashing Aramco’s tax rate from 85 to 50 percent, attempting to untangle the company’s finances, and exploring potential ventures and investments in natural gas. Please join the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center for a discussion on the outlook for the IPO, its potential impact on financial markets, implications for oil markets, and possible responses from producers. Panelists include Phillip Cornell, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center, Ayham Kamel, Director, Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group, Jean-Francois Seznec, a nonresident senior fellow in the Global Energy Center, and Richard L. Morningstar, the founding director and chairman of the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council.
  5. Russian and US Roles in the Middle East: the View from Israel | Tuesday, May 9 | 3:00-4:00pm | Wilson Center | Register Here | Israel occupies a unique position in relations with the U.S. and Russia. Israel’s traditionally close ties with the U.S. were undermined by deep differences and growing mistrust during the Obama administration. At the same time, despite profound contradictions in interests and agenda, Israel has developed close relations with Russia. Therefore, Israel serves as a valuable lens through which to view the changing engagement of Russia and America in the region. George F. Kennan Expert Yuri Teper will discuss these shifts and their implications for the new U.S. administration.
  6. Progress and Challenges for Gulf Women | Wednesday, May 10 | 12:00pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Women’s rights in the Middle East, and in the Gulf in particular, have changed greatly in the past decades alongside modernization efforts and the introduction of new technologies such as social media. Though there are still a number of challenges to fully incorporating women into society in the region, positive milestones have likewise been achieved. Please join the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East for a discussion with a panel of Gulf women leaders to explore achievements in this sphere as well as areas where more attention and change is needed. Panelists include Amal Almoallimi, Assistant to the Secretary General, King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue and Board Member, Saudi Human Rights Commission; Hamda Al-Sulaiti, Secretary General, Qatar National Commission for Education, Culture, and Science; and Dr. Lubna Al-Kadi, Founder and Director, Women’s Research and Studies Center, Kuwait.
  7. Western Policy Toward the Syrian Crisis: Looking Forward | Thursday, May 11 | 11:45-1:30pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | As American and European policymakers search for ways to end the conflict already stretching into its sixth year, a new report by Chatham House explains the need for a comprehensive solution combining political and military components: “The absence of a coherent strategic vision for Syria – or the political will to see it through – on the part of Western governments has contributed to the increasing strength and influence of ISIL and other extremist groups. These groups cannot be countered by military means alone, however. Without a political agreement to end the conflict, tactical measures for fighting extremism in Syria will fail, as they have elsewhere.” The key question is: How do you get there? On May 11, Hudson Institute will host a discussion examining both American and European perspectives on the war in Syria and Western policy. Join us as Hudson senior fellow Lee Smith moderates a conversation with European experts Lina Khatib (Chatham House) and Neil Quilliam (Chatham House) and their American counterparts Tony Badran (Foundation for the Defense of Democracies) and Andrew Tabler (The Washington Institute).
  8. The Global Counterterrorism Forum | Friday, May 12 | 9:00-5:00pm | GW Program on Extremism | Register Here | The Global Counterterrorism Forum is an international forum with an overarching mission of reducing the vulnerability of people worldwide to terrorism by preventing, combating, and prosecuting terrorist acts and countering incitement and recruitment to terrorism. This event in particular will tackle domestic terrorism in the U.S., radicalization and de-radicalization, and attempt to draw up a best practices document. About 60 State Department members of the Global Counterterrorism Forum will be present throughout the duration.
  9. Dean’s Forum- Women Who Inspire with Dr. Condoleezza Rice | Friday, May 12 | 2:00-3:30pm | SAIS | Register Here | Dean Vali Nasr, FPI and SAIS Women Lead invite you to join, in a conversation on her new book Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom, Condoleezza Rice. Moderated by Ambassador Shirin Thair-Kheli, Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute.
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Institutional amnesia

I haven’t found a transcript of Secretary of State Tillerson’s remarks at the State Department yesterday, but the New York Times published an account that suggests he was treated to thunderous applause at the end. That makes me wonder who was really in the room.

The problems start with Tillerson’s picture of what the State Department was doing until he took over. He apparently thinks it was mainly promoting economic activity, especially trade with emerging economies. This would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. The main preoccupation of most people at State and most State officers in American embassies abroad is defending US interests, first and foremost in protecting US national security but also including US exports and investment abroad. Though American trade policy is not on the whole mercantilist, I’ve never heard of a generalized instruction to increase economic activity, In any event the State Department is not in charge of the trade agreements the Administration loathes. The separate US Trade Representative negotiates those.

On specific issues Tillerson is equally obtuse and unaware of what has happened until now. On North Korea, he is aiming to pressure North Korea into giving up its nuclear weapons by ratcheting up sanctions and convincing the Chinese to pressure Pyongyang. That has been tried, repeatedly, by his predecessors, without much success. He seems blissfully unaware of that. In other venues, he has emphasized military pressure, but that too has been tried and runs into a big problem: the North Korean conventional threat to South Korea, especially its artillery targeting Seoul.

Tillerson puts a good deal of stock in a high-level dialogue with China. A strategic and economic dialogue with China has been meeting since 2009. The Secretary even now can read about that on the Treasury Department’s website,  though I imagine the administration will eventually get to erasing any sign of the previous president’s activity. Tillerson refers to a 50-year time horizon for the focus of those discussions. I’m going to enjoy hearing whether they get past 3 years.

The Administration is already backing off the US Navy freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, in an apparent effort to mollify the Chinese. Those who feared a belligerent attitude towards China, based on Tillerson’s remarks during his confirmation hearing that we should prevent China from accessing their reclaimed “islands” in the South China Sea need worry no more. Or maybe they do, given the Trump Administration’s lack of consistency and coherence.

Acknowledging that relations with Russia are at a low point, Tillerson still hopes for cooperation with them on a ceasefire in Syria. That’s something his predecessor spent the better part of a year trying to make happen in reality (it has existed for some time on paper).

We are now discussing “de-escalation” zones with Moscow, a watered down version of “safe” zones that is unlikely to work simply because they would be target-rich environments requiring not only restraint from the Russians and Syrian government forces but also protection from non-participants in any agreement, like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Who is going to do that? If you expect moderate opposition forces to do it, you haven’t been paying attention to whom the Russians and Syrians have been assiduously bombing.

On staffing, Tillerson is defending the Administration’s proposal to cut more than 30% of the State Department/USAID budgets but apparently said that would eliminate only 2300 jobs (by attrition), or 3% of the worldwide employees. What that suggests is that the cut to program funds will be gigantic, leaving both State and AID personnel-rich and money-poor. That’s not a formula for either efficiency or effectiveness.

Tillerson implied the State Department hasn’t adjusted to the post-Cold War era. That really does make me laugh, as I lived through the better part of a decade at State during which the Department rethought its strategy and redeployed its personnel, which then had to done again after 9/11 raised the spectre of international terrorism.

This is a Secretary of State almost as ignorant of what has preceded him as President Trump. Institutional amnesia is not a basis on which to build a coherent and effective foreign policy.

PS: Here is the transcript of Tillerson’s remarks. It takes some of the edge off the New York Times version, but not the institutional amnesia.

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