Following my op/ed for the Washington Post on this subject, Peter Galbraith and I debated the issue for Iraqi Kurdistan’s Al Rudaw TV:
Comments as always are welcome.
For those who are thinking, what difference does all this make? So the President wrote a fib for his son about a meeting with Russian agents, the Republicans failed to pass Trumpcare by just one vote, the potty-mouthed Communications Director got fired before he was hired? This is all small beans compared to today’s challenges: North Korea with nuclear weapons and missiles that can reach the US, Hizbollah running rampant in Iraq and Syria, Venezuela coming apart at the seams.
Yes, it is small beans, but that makes it more harmful rather than less. The President is weak domestically and disdained internationally:He is unable to manage even small issues without embarrassing himself. International support is evaporating. Japan and South Korea have no choice but to align with the US against Kim Jong-un, but the rest of Asia is still reeling from Trump’s sinking the Trans Pacific Partnership, most of Europe and Latin America are lost to American leadership, and the Middle East is consuming itself.
Adversaries are encouraged. Only friendly dictators are comforted, knowing that Trump will not criticize the homicidal crackdown on drug traffickers in the Philippines or the restoration of military dictatorship in Egypt, never mind the absolute monarchy in Saudi Arabia or the elected autocracy in Turkey.
America’s two biggest challenges right now are China and Russia. The Chinese are bemused by Trump’s warmth one day followed by bluster and threats the next. He has given the Chinese no compelling reason to be helpful on anything: the South China Sea, North Korea, or trade. Beijing hasn’t done anything dramatic to show off its advantages, but it doesn’t really need to. Xi Jinping gets better ratings than Trump, even if he lags Angela Merkel:
Russia is less shy. It is expelling most of the US embassy, with nary a tweet yet from Trump in protest, and assembling a massive military exercise on the border with NATO. President Putin is disappointed in the return on his investment in Trump, but for the moment at least he seems prepared to take it out on the US government rather than Trump’s business empire, which depends on Russian purchasers and investors. That is odds-on the reason for Trump refusing to make his tax returns public, but it will be clear enough the day Russia decides to yank Trump’s personal chain.
I know lots of people think America looked weak under President Obama, who purposefully set out to reduce American commitments around the world. In withdrawing from the Middle East, he left a vacuum that others exploited. But Trump is continuing that policy, with a lot less finesse. Ending aid to the Syrian opposition, declaring that the US has no interest in Libya, allowing President Erdogan to reverse Turkey’s democratic evolution, and failing to oppose Kurdistan’s referendum on independence are decisions that will have serious consequences for a decade or more. His policy proposals are disliked worldwide:
Can the situation be saved by a retired general as White House Chief of Staff? No more than it has been saved by a general as Defense Secretary and another as National Security Adviser. The fish rots from the head, as the late lamented Communications Director averred. General Kelly may impose some order on the policy process, but the President will still say and tweet what he wants, the family will confer with him at will, and the white supremacists, alt right freaks, and Fox news friends he likes so much (except when they won’t fire the Special Prosecutor) will still have his rapt attention. None of that will change what the world thinks of the man and the country he now leads so badly:
Source for the lovely graphs: Trump Unpopular Worldwide, American Image Suffers | Pew Research Center
My piece in the Washington Post this morning concludes:
Washington can hope the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs will restrain themselves and negotiate a peaceful and mutually agreed outcome. But hope is not a policy. It is also still possible the referendum will be postponed, but if held, it is likely to undermine the fight against the Islamic State, heighten tension between Baghdad and Irbil, and cause fighting over the territories they dispute. It could also encourage independence movements in South Yemen, eastern Libya (Cyrenaica) and Syria as well as validate Russian-supported independence claims in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. None of that would be good for the United States, which should be doing what it can to block the referendum and insist on a successful negotiation before it is held, not afterwards.
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.
The issue of Turkey’s nuclear intentions has generated speculation: Is Turkey Secretly Working on Nuclear Weapons? | The National Interest
Pantelis Ikonomou, a former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector, writes:
- Does Turkey aspire for nuclear weapons?
- Is Turkey’s ambitious civilian nuclear program the cover for a military aim?
These tough questions arise when Turkey’s nuclear energy program is viewed in the perspective of other factors. Turkey has signed bilateral agreements that in principle cover the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Those with Russia and Japan include clauses related to enrichment and reprocessing capabilities. These have raised concerns about nuclear ‘’weaponization.’’ In addition, Turkey’s is determined to achieve regional political hegemony along with its latest advances in military industry, missile development and space technology. The nuclear cooperation of Turkey with Pakistan and A. Q. Khan’s network in the 1980s adds another significant dimension.
A state like Turkey that adheres to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would have two routes to developing nuclear weapons:
- “Sneak-out” by trying to carry out clandestine activities related to nuclear weapons development (as were the cases of Iraq 1991, Romania 1992, North Korea 1993, Libya 2004 and lastly Iran 2006).
- “Breakout” of its Safeguards Agreement (as North Korea did in 2003) by using advanced components – enrichment or reprocessing – of its civilian program for military purposes.
Both options would cause severe international responses, but more importantly neither is currently feasible.
Turkey, as a signatory of the NPT is subject since 1982 to the Safeguards inspection regime of the IAEA, whereby the ‘’correctness’’ of its State Declaration is continuously verified. Since 2001 Turkey has also accepted the Additional Protocol to its Safeguards agreement that provides for confirmation of the ‘’completeness’’ of the State Declaration. This confirmation stems from a “broader conclusion” drawn from implementation of rigorous and unrestricted monitoring and verification based on State-specific parameters, relevant satellite imagery and reliable third-party information. The broader conclusion for Turkey has been drawn annually since 2012 and confirms the ‘‘absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities for the State as a whole.’’ Sneak-out is not a viable option.
So far as break-out is concerned, Turkey’s State Declaration to the IAEA includes only two small research reactors, one of them inactive, and one pilot fuel fabrication plant on an experimental level.
Turkey has decided for two Nuclear Power Plant (NPP) projects of four reactor units each for electricity production. One project is to be built and operate at Akkuyu and the other at Sinop.
The Akkuyu project officially started in 2007, but its progress is unusually slow. Although the agreement between Turkey and Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) to build, operate and own (BOO) the NPP was signed in May 2010, final approval of the site license was granted in February 2017 and application for the construction license of the first reactor at Akkuyu was submitted in May 2017. Turkey has also signed a preliminary protocol with Rosatom to acquire a 49 percent stake in the Akkuyu NPP, which will further delay the pre-construction process. Turkey plans to commission the first reactor at Akkuyu at the centenary of the Turkish Republic in 2023 and the second in 2024.
The Sinop project has practically not yet started. Since May 2013, when the relevant cooperation agreement between Turkey and Japan was signed, no application for site licensing has been submitted.
The overriding fact is that there are no NPPs in operation or under construction in Turkey. Likewise, there are no nuclear materials, facilities and activities related to any dual use capability.
If Turkey’s ambition were to achieve nuclear-weapons capability through “breakout,” an advanced civilian nuclear program including enrichment and reprocessing capabilities would be the decisive prerequisite. They do not exist and are an improbable long-term hypothesis. Moreover, the “sneak-out” option of a concealed military nuclear program would be practically not achievable under continued IAEA comprehensive Safeguards measures, including country specific monitoring of the Additional Protocol.
Turkey’s nuclear armed capability shouldn’t be a real concern. It is rather an induced fear, or even a destructive phobia.
- Zapad 17: Implications for NATO and the United States | Tuesday, July 11 | 9:00 am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | As NATO steps up its exercises in the Baltic Sea region, Russia is preparing to launch a major exercise in mid-September to test the readiness and capabilities of its air, sea, and ground forces in northeastern Europe. Zapad is a recurring exercise which has included forces from both Russia and Belarus, and serves as a high-profile training event close to NATO territory. Join the Atlantic Council and the Ministry of Defense of Estonia for a public discussion on the implications of Zapad 17.
- Challenges in U.S. Iran Policy | Wednesday, July 12 | 12:30 – 5:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Join the Middle East Institute for a conference to examine the outlines of U.S. policy toward Iran, addressing its overall goals, the strategies pursued, and metrics of success. Panels will include: “Assessing the Threat, Calibrating a Strategy” (1:30 – 2:45 pm), “Challenges in Syria and Iraq” (3:00 – 4:15 pm), and “Challenges in Yemen, Lebanon, and Afghanistan” (4:15 – 5:30 pm). Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and proponent of the U.S. – Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will give the keynote address.
- The War on ISIS: The Forgotten Need for Congressional Authorization | Wednesday, July 12 | 9:30 – 10:30 am | Wilson Center | Register Here | While there is a broad consensus for pursuing ISIS aggressively, the legal grounds upon which the president can expand the use of military force against ISIS are more tenuous. In recent years, the executive branch has justified its actions by pointing to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) – legislation signed into law days after the 9/11 attacks. Is Congress abdicating its authority to authorize wars to the executive branch? Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Jane Harman (director, president, and CEO of the Wilson Center) will comment.
- The July 15 Coup Attempt in Turkey: One Year On | Thursday, July 13 | 9:00 – 11:00 am | Turkish Heritage Organization | Register Here | Last year’s failed coup attempt, carried out by a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), took a considerable toll on the Turkish nation and created enormous domestic, regional, and international risks. Following the death of more than 200 Turkish civilians, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency that is still in effect. Ankara has requested the extradition of suspected mastermind Fethullah Gulen from the U.S., further complicating the already strained relationship between the two NATO allies. Join THO and a distinguished panel of experts including Ambassador James Jeffrey, Mark Hall, Cliff Stearns, and Mujeeb Khan for a look at the July 15 coup attempt one year later. Discussion will be moderated by Alexi-Noelle O’Brien Hosein.
- A New Nuclear Review for a New Age | Thursday, July 13 | 12:15 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The contemporary nuclear environment is very different from that which immediately followed the Cold War. A New Nuclear Review for a New Age, a recent study published by the National Institute for Public Policy, provides timely recommendations for how the United States must respond to the changes and adapt its nuclear posture to deter enemies, assure allies, and limit damage in the event deterrence fails. The Hudson Institute will host a discussion with the director of the study, Dr. Keith Payne, and contributing authors Dr. Matthew Kroenig and Rebeccah Heinrichs.
- Regime Change in Iran: From the 1953 Coup to the Trump Policy Review | Thursday, July 13 | 12:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Atlantic Council presents a panel discussion featuring Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, Malcolm Byrne, and Bruce Riedel on new US government documents released about the 1953 CIA-backed coup that deposed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The discussion will look at the ramifications of the coup for the Iranian people and US-Iran relations and analyze the impact of revived regime change rhetoric among some politicians and advisers seeking to influence the policies of the Trump administration toward Iran and the Middle East at large. Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, will be moderating.
- Post-ISIS Iraq and Syria: Avoiding Chaos | Friday, July 14 | 10:00 am – 12:30 pm | Middle East Policy Council | Register Here | Join the Middle East Policy Council for a conference featuring Ambassador James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Turkey and Iraq; Dr. Denise Natali of the National Defense University; Mr. Wa’el Alzayat, former Syria Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Department of State; and Dr. Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute. Ambassador Richard J. Schmierer, former ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, will be moderating.