The United States is objectively no less powerful than it was seven months ago. Its military forces, its economy, even its political system are virtually unchanged in that short period. Only the presidency has changed hands, with all that entails in terms of personnel and policy.
But American capacity to effect the changes Washington wants to see in the world are diminished: it is unable to rally support from China and Russia for strict sanctions on North Korea, it has made no progress in countering Russian aggression in Ukraine (not to mention Moldova and Georgia), the squabble among Gulf countries has limited its ability to push back against expanded Iranian presence and influence in the region, and neither Palestinians nor Israelis are inclined to pay the Americans much mind. Adversaries are defiant, allies are nervous, and those in between are hedging.
This weakness is largely the result of incoherence. It is a rare day that President Trump, Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson, National Security Adviser McMaster, and UN Ambassador Haley are even close to being tuned to the same wave length. Far more often they each go their own way, pushing or denying military options, pursuing or dropping diplomatic initiatives, befriending or criticizing dictators.
Why they say what they do is rarely clear, and when clear often illogical. Why refuse to certify that Iran is complying with a nuclear deal that everyone else in the world (including the professionals who staff the State and Defense Departments as well as the US intelligence agencies) says it is complying with? Is that because there is some unwritten “spirit” of the agreement? Or is it just to have an excuse to go to war? Or maybe it’s just a way of fulfilling an election campaign pledge but shedding responsibility for real action to the Congress, as with the elimination of DACA (Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals)? No one knows.
Worse: it has become unknowable. The President disdains logic as much as he does facts. What is the logic of threatening the free trade agreement with South Korea when he needs Seoul on board for whatever he wants to do about North Korea? He reacts, based on instinct, and often in different ways on different days, or even different hours. There is really nothing wrong with instinct, or to put it more accurately with heuristics, rules of thumb based on experience. We all use them, including the wisest among us, despite their well-documented distortions. The trouble is the President has no relevant experience. Nor has he read or studied enough to substitute for his inexperience.
This matters as much in politics as it does in foreign policy. Senator McConnell and Speaker Ryan have now been sandbagged (in governmentese that means being surprised by an unexpected and often gratuitous move) more than once by this President. Yesterday, he cut a deal with the Democrats on the budget and hurricane relief that the Republican leadership had publicly stated they would not accept. McConnell and Ryan have thus far not responded in kind. I wouldn’t expect that to last. What goes around comes around.
The one subject on which Washington has reached some limited degree of coherence is, ironically, Russia. Congress reacted to the President’s illogical and seemingly unmotivated affection for Vladimir Putin with sanctions that are coherent and difficult to remove. But that limited coherence of course amplifies the greater incoherence. We still have a president hankering for improved relations with Russia even as the State Department closes down its consulate in San Francisco and orders its diplomats out of the US, in retaliation for a draconian cut Putin ordered in staffing of the US embassy in Moscow.
We’ve also got a President who tells DACA kids how much he loves them and will do something ill-defined for them if Congress doesn’t, while he lets an Attorney General who openly advocates limiting immigration on racial and religious grounds announce that DACA is kaput. Not to mention the presidential pardon for a sheriff who physically abused immigrants, often without regard to whether they were documented or not.
America will be weaker still if Jeff Sessions gets his way and begins to deport those 800,000 productive non-citizens who have spent most of their lives, and careers, in the US. Incoherence is not just dissonance. It will sap America’s strength and render a country founded on admirable principles, but unable to implement them effectively, great only in retrospect. Incoherence is poison. We need to get it out of our system.
Ari Fleischer, onetime press secretary to George W, tweeted today:
This wasn’t handled perfectly by the WH, but it is not a scandal and a short chat after dinner is fine. Please calm down.
Let me count the ways he is wrong:
- It wasn’t a short chat, or a “pull-aside” as they say in the trade. It lasted according to everyone but the White House close to an hour, seated.
- The President got up from his place at the dinner next to the Japanese Prime Minister Abe to go talk with Putin. I needn’t speculate on how Abe felt about that.
- He did this in front of leaders of the rest of the G20, thus signaling to all that he was far more interested in talking with an American adversary than an American ally, even after already having met with Putin for more than 2 hours the same day.
- Trump failed to arrange for another American to be present, even a translator, thus raising the suspicion that he didn’t want his own staff to know the content of the conversation. Staff is usually readily accessible during such a dinner in a neighboring room.
- The conversation took place during an uproar about collusion with the Russians. What more blatant indication of collusion could there be than a long, private talk with Putin that the White House failed to brief to the press?
- The uproar and the Special Counsel investigation are increasingly (and in my view wisely) focusing on financial ties between the Russians and Trump’s real estate ventures. As the President makes no distinction between his public functions and his private business interests, wouldn’t it be reasonable to imagine that a Trump/Putin conversation with no other American present involved Trump’s private business interests?
- I’ll go a step further: if those business interests depend on Russian financing, what would make a reasonable person assume that Putin would not use the threat of withdrawing support, or perhaps the incentive of additional support, to get his way on Syria, Ukraine or other issues?
So maybe it is not (yet) a scandal, but it isn’t fine either. It’s an egregious example of the President’s extraordinarily poor judgment.
Not that we lack other examples: his continued interest in throwing away the Iran nuclear deal without an alternative, his failure to even pretend to hold Putin accountable for interference in the American election, his support for a Republican health bill that would have gutted promises he made as a candidate, his continuing effort to badmouth Obamacare into oblivion (even without a replacement): this presidency is a disaster already and will likely cause catastrophe in the future.
No one should calm down so long as this menace remains in office.
I am getting inquiries about Serbian President Vučić’s meeting yesterday with Vice President Pence. The White House readout is short but includes some detail:
Vice President Mike Pence met today with President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić. The leaders agreed on the importance of the bilateral relationship and expressed the desire to deepen the partnership between the United States and Serbia. The Vice President expressed U.S. support for Serbia’s efforts to join the European Union, the need for continued reforms, and further progress in normalizing the relationship with Kosovo. The leaders discussed the Vice President’s upcoming trip to Podgorica, Montenegro, where he will participate in an Adriatic Charter Summit with leaders from across the Western Balkans region. The Vice President also announced that the United States will provide an additional $10 million contribution to the Regional Housing Program, an internationally funded, joint initiative by Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro that provides housing to those displaced during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.
Vučić has emphasized establishment of a direct channel with the Vice President.
None of this is particularly new or interesting. It is easy enough for the US to support Serbia’s EU prospects, the necessary reforms, and the dialogue with Pristina. A “direct channel” can mean many things: Washington has direct telecommunications links (that bypass the State Department and Foreign Ministries) with a number of countries, but it could also just mean a commitment to answer the phone.
Likely more interesting is what Belgrade and Washington haven’t yet said. There is the specific issue of the three Kosovar American Bytyqi brothers, apparently murdered by Serb police after the war in Kosovo. Vučić long ago promised prosecutions of those responsible but hasn’t delivered. Did Pence raise this case? There is also the general issue of Belgrade’s relationship with Moscow, which has included establishment of a Russian logistics base in Nis, exercises with the Russian military, free Russian arms transfers, and refusal of Serbia to go along with EU sanctions levied because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While President Trump himself is soft on Russia, for many Americans Serbia’s behavior towards Moscow raises questions about its suitability as a US partner.
The most important aspect of this meeting is likely that it occurred at all. No doubt Vučić sought it now primarily because Pence is heading for Montenegro in early August for a multilateral meeting at which Serbia will only be an observer. No Serbian president would want to be upstaged, least of all by Belgrade’s erstwhile junior partner. The Americans likely saw reason in making it clear they want a good relationship with Serbia as well.
But it is also significant that the meeting was with Pence. The Trump Administration apparently wants to continue Obama’s habit of keeping the Vice President out front on Balkans issues, leaving the President to more important tasks. Plus ça change…
PS: Whether or not the White House is interested in the Russia connection, the House of Representatives is. It is requiring the Pentagon to report on Russia/Serbia military cooperation.
The White House is vaunting the President’s positive chemistry with Russian President Putin at their meeting yesterday in Hamburg, on the margins of the G20. Secretary of State Tillerson says Trump raised allegations of Moscow interfering in the US election, but Foreign Minister Lavrov says Trump accepted Putin’s denials. The meeting lasted far longer than planned.
This is precisely the outcome Putin wanted: a “clean slate” with Washington, which acknowledges Moscow as a major world power. Sad!
What might a stronger and more capable president have achieved? He would first off have reminded Putin that the US has not and will not accept the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian intervention against the moderate opposition in Syria, the constant harassment of NATO allies and non-NATO friends by Russian war planes and ships, the attempted coup in Montenegro, and above all hacking intended to affect the outcome of US elections. Only then, if Putin pressed, would my hypothetical president (or imagine pretty much any of those who have served since World War II) have consented to discuss cooperation in Syria, provided that Putin was prepared to acknowledge that a political transition there is necessary and desirable.
Trump can’t do that. First, because he likes Putin. Witness their open mic joking about offensive journalists. Trump either doesn’t know or doesn’t care that dozens of them have been murdered in Putin’s Russia. I would argue our President has even incited violence against American journalists who are critical of him. Putin is the kind of strongman that Trump aspires to be: autocratic, nationalist, and narcissistic.
More important: I suspect there is ample Russian investment in Trump’s real estate ventures in the US and elsewhere. Trump has never denied this. He keeps his denials to property and ventures inside Russia. After his Atlantic City bankruptcy, Trump was on the financial ropes. No one would loan him money. Deutsche Bank is believed to have stepped in.
My guess is that Moscow did too, with hot money that needed laundering. Accepting investment of ill-gotten gains is a violation of US law as I understand it, but Trump never seems to have done the due diligence required. He and the Kushner companies just don’t worry about money laundering.
Trump has made it absolutely clear that he intends for his companies to make lots of money while he is president. This is the likely reason he has refused to make his tax returns public. They would show, far more clearly than the financial disclosure forms all US Government employees fill out, the sources of his wealth. Challenging Putin would have been a sure formula for drying up “hot” Russian oligarch purchases of real estate.
Fortunately, this is the kind of illicit activity that Special Counsel Mueller is particularly well-equipped to handle, not least because he is hiring lawyers experienced in financial crime, as well as related cover-ups. But there is no telling how long it will take for the sleuths to get to the bottom of Trump’s massively complex business arrangements. Even then it will take time to build a case that will hold up in court. Documents and witnesses will be hard to come by, especially on the Russian end of any shady deals.
In my view, the Russians have what they need to ensure, as Tillerson put it, that Trump would not “relitigate” the past: компромат. Compromising material–financial I imagine rather than sexual–will keep Trump emphasizing the positive with Russia. Thus it is that a declining regional power with an economy the size of Spain’s and severe financial pressure due to lower oil and gas prices, puts the President of the United States in a subordinate and compromised position. I thought I would never see the day. But it has arrived.
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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Here’s an interview I did Thursday for Alexander Gupta of UATV (Ukrainian government English-language service).
I didn’t know yet that President Trump had played down his personal concern about Ukraine in his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, saying that “American critics” cared about it. The Russians will have read this as approving their invasion of Crimea and thinly veiled occupation of Luhansk and Donetsk, not to mention their shooting down of a Malaysian passenger plane. It is difficult to imagine what I might have said about this, but here I’ll just say it is outrageous and incredibly stupid.