It’s hard not to celebrate the departure of General Flynn from the position of National Security Adviser. He was both pro-Russian and anti-Muslim beyond reason. A sworn enemy of the American intelligence establishment, he got caught by them talking sanctions relief with the Russian ambassador even before Donald Trump was sworn in. Then he allegedly lied to the Vice President about what was said. His comeuppance is well-merited.
Congressional Republicans are now pledging not to investigate him. Why would they do that? They are trying to contain the damage. Their reluctance suggests it is more than likely that Trump knew what Flynn was discussing with the Russians. Flynn’s testimony, or that of others cognizant of the contents of the phone calls, would call into question the President’s own behavior: did he authorize Flynn to discuss sanctions? Was he pleased that Flynn did so? Was this part of a broader scheme of accommodating Moscow’s interests?
The Congressional cover raises other questions: was it part of a deal to obtain Flynn’s resignation? Why wasn’t Flynn just fired? What are his non-disclosure arrangements with the Administration?
Whatever the answers, it is clear that Flynn’s resignation does not solve the basic problem, which is Trump’s unrestrained and so far unconditional desire for an improved relationship with Vladimir Putin. The President has never made it clear what he expects from this improved relationship, only that it would somehow magically make things better in the world. He also hasn’t specified what he would be prepared to give up in return: recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea? Southeastern Ukraine? Independence of Transnistria? Annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are already nominally independent? NATO accession of Montenegro, now on the Senate’s agenda for ratification? Further NATO expansion in the Balkans? NATO expansion further into Scandinavia? An end to American support for rebels in Syria?
These questions persist even without Flynn. Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson may restrain the White House from some particularly bad impulses, especially Trump’s inclination to ditch NATO altogether, but their leverage will be limited. If the President is prepared to pursue a rapprochement with Russia despite the failures recorded by his two immediate predecessors, he will no doubt pick a new National Security Adviser prepared to pursue his policy direction. I doubt that can be David Petraeus, who in any event is already tarred with the brush of security violations. But I trust there are lots of other people who will do the work if given the opportunity.
In the meanwhile, the resignation of the National Security Adviser (and according to the press his deputy) will throw a National Security Council already roiled by leaks into further turmoil. President Trump has already failed to respond with anything but a few thin words of support to Japan when North Korea tested a missile in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. He is looking unprepared for a crisis, which of course means that someone somewhere on earth is likely to think this is a good time to precipitate one. An already messy transition has unsettled America’s relationships across the globe and now seems likely to open the door to a serious security challenge.
It is easy enough to say good riddance to Flynn. But there are real risks involved in a presidency committed to cooperation with Putin’s aggressive Russia and unprepared to meet even the challenge of a North Korean missile test.
Today, Sean Hannity is tweeting:
Question of the Day: Who do you believe? Julian Assange or President Obama and Hillary Clinton
Sarah Palin has apologized to Assange, the Wikileaks guru, for criticizing him in the past and is recommending Oliver Stone’s film about Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who leaked some of its most tightly held secrets. President-elect Trump has in the meanwhile quietly cancelled providing the information he said he had on the hacking of the Democrats during the election campaign.
We have somehow entered never never land, where some Republicans (conservatives?) are unwilling to accept the considered judgments of the intelligence community that the Russians were not only responsible for the hacking but also did it to favor Trump’s election. Opposition to President Obama and Hillary Clinton has driven people who used to wear American flag lapel pins into the arms of an autocratic president of Russia and his collaborators in unveiling and publishing private emails and government secrets.
We used to call people like this “traitors” when they were on the left. You don’t have to think Russia has somehow re-inflated itself to the Soviet Union to realize that Putin, Assange, and Snowden are out to weaken the United States and help Moscow regain its great power status. Of course Snowden and Assange have no choice: the former has taken refuge in Russia and the latter in the Ecuadoran embassy in London. Both will be prosecuted if the US government ever gets their hands on them. The one virtue of the burst of Republican enthusiasm for Snowden is that it will end any idle chatter about a pardon for him from President Obama. I wonder about Trump though.
Hannity, Palin, and Trump are not under constraints that force them to favor Moscow. They are choosing to align themselves with Putin and his enmity to the US. A significant portion of the Republican electorate has also turned in that direction. Why? My own suspicion is that the ethnic nationalists–white supremacists in the language of my youth–recognize in Putin (as well as Netanyahu, by the way) a Russian analogue: someone who believes profoundly in the superiority and rights of his ethnic group and gender, to the exclusion of others. In other words, it is racism and misogyny that have brought us to never never land.
Many Republicans in Congress are not following Trump in his Russophile direction. Publication within the next couple of weeks of the Obama Administration’s findings on the email hacking will be a moment of truth: will Senate Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham follow through on their many sound bites and take up the cudgels against Trump’s unrealistic attitude toward Moscow during Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing to become Secretary of State, or will they let things slide, allowing the new administration to end the sanctions on Russia and recognize the annexation of Crimea?
If the latter, there are real risks that partition efforts elsewhere will be encouraged. Re-establishing Ukrainian sovereignty over Donbas would become even more difficult. Russia might well annex Transnistria (in Moldova) as well as South Ossetia and Abkhazia (in Georgia). In the Balkans, Bosnia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and possibly even Serbia would find their efforts to establish Europe-eligible multi-ethnic democracies undermined. Instability and possibly worse would ensue. The sooner we get out of never never land, the better.
Baytna Syria sent this message early today, representing the views of an important segment of opposition-oriented Syrian civil society:
The Syrian civil society organizations followed closely the recent developments and discussions regarding the ceasefire agreement signed by opposition armed groups and the Syrian regime mediated by Russia and Turkey as endorsed by UN Security Council resolution 2336.
The signatories welcome any serious and credible ceasefire agreement as it will spare our people further blood, killing, and destruction. Such an agreement should be a prelude to a credible political process that will lead to the realization of the Syrian people’s aspirations in freedom, justice, and dignity.
For such an agreement to acquire the necessary seriousness and credibility, it shall:
- include a publicly published monitoring, verification and accountability process. The signatories declare their readiness to participate in any monitoring role required, each according to its mandate and principles.
- specify a single wording for the agreement signed by parties to the conflict and the guarantors, and carbon translated to Arabic, Russian, English, and Turkish. The details of the agreement should be made public.
- include a published and clear description of the role of the guarantors (Russian Federation and Turkey) and means to verify and sanction any violation.
- declare the UN Security Council resolutions as the unique political reference to the negotiation process, especially UNSCR 2118 and UNSCR 2254.
The signatories see in the Higher Negotiations Committee the sole representative of the Syrian revolution and opposition in the negotiations. The Syrian regime should appoint its delegation and negotiations should be between two parties only.
The continued shelling of the Barada valley in Damascus suburbs, Atareb in Aleppo suburbs and other areas in Syria proves yet again the lack of seriousness of the regime to positively engage in any ceasefire process, its insistence on its security/military solution to crush any opposition, and its non-credibility when declaring adopting a political solution to the conflict.
Russian maneuvering with different versions of the agreement and its attempt to impose a new UN Security Council resolution that would give it a role in defining the Syrian opposition team worries us a lot, especially regarding its role as a guarantor to the agreement. This pushes us to ask Turkey, the other guarantor, and countries of the Friends of Syria group, to follow matters closely and to block any understandings or agreements that do not meet the criteria above.
At the end, we would like to stress that the continuous and unhindered delivery of humanitarian and medical aid to all Syrian territories and primarily to the besieged areas remain the real test on the willingness of the regime and its allies to abide by UNSC resolutions, including the latest one 2336 and to engage in a serious and credible political process that leads to the desired political transition in Syria.
The Day After
Syrian Network for Human Rights
Space of Hope
Violations Documentation Center in Syria
Bihar Relief Organization
Milana Pejic at Belgrade daily Blic asked about 2016 the “world between Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel? Their publication of some of my response is here. This is my full response:
2016 was a difficult year on many fronts. Resurgent nationalism in several EU countries, Brexit, and the Italian constitutional referendum have cast doubt on the European project. The long American electoral campaign and Donald Trump’s victory in the electoral college (but not in the popular vote) have raised questions about America’s long-standing commitments to NATO, to Ukraine, to the Syrian opposition, to the two-state solution in Israel/Palestine, to nuclear nonproliferation, and to free trade. No one really knows what the next US administration will do, as Trump prides himself on unpredictability, but the cabinet he has appointed and his provocative tweets during the transition suggest that there will be radical departures in American domestic and foreign policy.
Vladimir Putin appears to be riding high, having intervened in Ukraine, Syria, the US electoral process, and in the politics of many European countries by supporting nationalists. But Russia is overstretched internationally even as its domestic economy is a shambles. Moscow is the capital of a declining regional power with little to offer but oil and gas, arms deals, vetoes in the UN Security Council, and surreptitious destabilization. Those in Serbia who look to Russia as a savior are likely to be disappointed in the long run. Europe has much more to offer once it gets past its present rough patch.
Angela Merkel is today Europe’s de facto leader and defender of liberal democratic ideals. But right-wing nationalists in Germany have gained traction, largely due to the big influx of refugees that Merkel welcomed to a country that needs young workers. Will the wave of nationalism inundating Europe end the Chancellor’s political career? Or will she survive to lead a revival of the European project?
These are important questions for 2017. So too is the question of whether Serbia will continue on the difficult path of preparing itself for European Union membership, with all the sacrifices that entails, or instead choose the much easier but less rewarding road of becoming a Russian satellite, with all the limits to independence and prosperity that entails. The choice is yours, not mine, but you know which I would choose.
My recommended reading for today is Eric Chenoweth’s Let Hamilton Speak, which is the best argument I’ve seen to date for the Electoral Colleges meeting today in state capitals to fulfill the founders’ intent by rejecting Donald Trump and electing Hillary Clinton, who beat him in the popular vote by close to 3 million votes. Virtually none of those votes has been officially questioned.
But Trump is going to win in the Electoral College. Nate Cohn has an admirably short explanation for how that happened:
Mr. Trump had an advantage in the traditional battlegrounds because most are whiter and less educated than he country as a whole.
The electors, who are basically chosen for their party loyalty, are not going to desert Trump en masse, even if a few may be tempted to bolt. The situation Hamilton anticipated and believed the Electoral College designed to prevent is about to happen. We will elect a prevaricating demagogue spectacularly ill-suited to wield the powers of the American presidency, one who is demonstrating daily by means of ill-considered tweets and soundbites that he has none of the good judgment and restraint required.
It is anyone’s guess how this will end. Some hope Trump will moderate, despite ample evidence to the contrary, in particular in his radical cabinet appointments. Others hope the Congress and courts will block his less judicious moves. But Congressional Republicans are lining up to salute and restraint by the courts is always delayed and rarely applicable to foreign policy. As Trump is astoundingly concerned with his image, public opinion might have an impact. But he has been remarkably successful at making any publicity into good publicity. There is no sign yet that any of these forces will be sufficient to block Trump’s worst instincts.
My own guess is that we are headed for an early international crisis.
Trump has already provoked China twice, once by accepting the Taiwan president’s phone call and once by a harsh remark about Chinese military activity in the South China Sea. Beijing reacted mildly to the first, suggesting it was Taiwan’s fault, and more harshly to the second, seizing an American underwater drone. Much worse could lurk in the future, as Trump has promised a trade war with China that would cause Beijing to retaliate and devastate American exports.
While provocative towards China, Trump is accommodating towards Russia. He has indicated he will end US support to the Syrian revolution (even while promising safe areas that cannot be created due to Russian air defenses) and try to make common cause with Russia against the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Secretary of State Kerry has been trying to pull off that partnership for months, without success because the Russians are unwilling to target extremists. They prefer to help Assad retake territory, most recently Aleppo, without regard to civilian casualties. This will strengthen extremism, even as it benefits Russia and Iran. Trump will no doubt be tempted to strike out at Iran, not Russia, but doing so would propel the world into another major Middle East crisis.
That may not, however, be the first Middle East crisis Trump precipitates. He and his nominated ambassador to Israel, who is a strong supporter of West Bank settlements and an opponent of a two-state solution, have pledged to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, a promise other presidents-elect have made but never fulfilled. The reason is clear: it is a final status issue that needs to be part of the negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. Jumping the gun will make it even more difficult than it is today for the US to enlist Arab support for American goals, as will abandonment of the Syrian revolution.
There are other possible crises in the offing. Trump’s promised renunciation of the Iran nuclear deal would certainly precipitate a sharp break with Europe and make it likely that the US would need to use force to block Tehran from nuclear weapons. Conceding Crimea’s annexation to Russia would create serious doubts inside NATO about US willingness to fulfill its alliance obligations. Withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the negotiations for the Trans Pacific Partnership will cast a pall over trade worldwide and raise serious questions about whether China rather than the US will lead in setting the pace of trade liberalization.
All these possible crises can be brought on more or less unilaterally by the new president quickly and easily. I’ll be in Beijing on Inauguration Day. It will be an interesting perch from which to see what happens.
Washington is in a tizzy today because President-elect Trump is naming Exxon Chief Executive Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State. Former Secretary of State Baker and former Defense Secretary Gates are reputed to be among his advocates. He has a good reputation at Exxon, where he spearheaded negotiations with Russia and resisted sanctions imposed on Moscow after its annexation of Crimea and invasion of southeast Ukraine (Donbas). Much is being made of his supposedly good personal relationship with President Putin, which was presumably a prerequisite of the multi-billion dollar business Tillerson did with state-controlled companies in Russia.
The whining from the Republican side of aisle is loud: Senator McCain and others regard Putin as a butcher because of what he has done in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere. Democrats are no less exercised. The Russians are currently bombing civilians in Aleppo to smithereens. They have also failed to implement the Minsk 2 agreement in Ukraine, which would require a ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons, as well as eventual reintegration of the region into Ukraine.
Dramatic as the situations in Syria and Ukraine are, the alleged Russian intervention in the US election is overshadowing them for the moment. President-elect Trump not only refuses to take his daily intelligence briefing but also doubts the CIA’s reported conclusion that Moscow’s cyberhacking was intended to get him elected.
Throwing Tillerson into this maelstrom is precisely the kind of provocative and daring move that Trump is famous for and promised during the electoral campaign. While unpredictable on many issues, Trump is absolutely consistent on Russia: no matter what Moscow is doing at home and abroad, the President-elect wants to befriend Putin and make him, if not an ally, at least a partner in key issue around the globe. The irony of course is that this is precisely what Hillary Clinton attempted as Secretary of State. Her reset with Moscow failed.
Trump and Tillerson seem far more willing to meet Putin three-quarters of the way. Trump has indicated he is prepared unilaterally to abandon support for the Syrian opposition, which President Obama has kept at lukewarm even as the Russians and Iranians up the ante by intervening directly on behalf of Bashar al Assad. My guess is Trump would also be willing to accept Russian annexation of Crimea. He hasn’t really said anything on that subject, except to claim it wouldn’t have been permitted on his watch. But the Russian ethnonationalist claim to Crimea will resonate with the Steve Bannon faction surrounding Trump.
The arguments against surrendering Crimea to Russia are based on international norms that Trump has shown little or no interest in. Tillerson won’t be much interested either. Unlike General Mattis, who as Defense Secretary can be expected to put the brakes on Trump’s worst instincts, Tillerson at State will more likely press Trump to meet the expectations his campaign created for closer relations with Putin’s Russia, including dropping sanctions.
The implications are vast. The NATO allies already doubt that Trump will fulfill America’s obligations. Acceptance of the annexation of Crimea would pull the rug out from under the Article 5 collective defense guarantee, even though it does not of course apply to Ukraine. Unraveling NATO will lead quickly and inexorably to a world in which the norm against taking territory by force is trashed.
Americans may not have realized it, but this is what they voted for. Tillerson may have been a fine Exxon CEO, but his confirmation hearings should do a deep dive into his views on Crimea, Donbas, Syria, and Putin.