Tag: United Nations

The risks of something nutty

I’ve been trying to follow my own good advice: Donald Trump is a distraction from the real things going on in this troubling and troubled world. Best to ignore his inanity and focus on what matters.

It isn’t easy. President Trump spent much of the week flogging the idea that we should arm school teachers to prevent mass shootings. This is a patently bad idea for many reasons:

  • The perpetrators are always armed with greater fire power than a teacher could conceal;
  • An armed teacher who survives confrontation with a perpetrator would face serious risks once the SWAT team arrives;
  • The risk of harm to innocent bystanders from a teacher with a handgun would be far greater than the risk from the SWAT team;
  • Few teachers would take up this privilege;
  • The environment in schools would however become far more antagonistic between teachers and students than it already is, since the idea is to keep secret which teachers are armed;
  • There would be a risk of students getting hold of a teacher’s gun;
  • Administration of such a program, including training and storage of weapons and ammunition, would be burdensome, not to mention the costs of insurance and legal settlements.

Even the stationing of trained and armed uniformed guards in schools has not demonstrably helped.

Trump’s advocacy of this bad idea, which pleases his National Rifle Association donors, distracts from other things going on, most notably the indictments of his senior campaign officials (Paul Manafort and Rick Gates) on top of the indictments of more than a dozen Russians who hacked the 2016 election.

There can no longer be any doubt that Russia conspired to discredit the electoral process and support Trump’s candidacy. Nor can there be any doubt that President Putin blessed, if he didn’t actually order, the effort. The Russians also appear to have relieved Manafort and Gates of debt obligations while they were serving the campaign, in return for something still unknown. Both are likely headed for lengthy prison terms for “conspiracy against the United States” and other crimes, even as Trump’s supporters at a conservative political conference this week chanted “lock her up!”

That is not the whole story of this week’s real news. Washington has let it be known it has intercepts of the the Kremlin approving if not ordering an attack by Russian mercenaries on US soldiers and their allies in eastern Syria a couple of weeks ago. Moscow is also participating with the Syrian government in a ferocious bombardment of civilian targets in East Ghouta, outside Damascus, killing hundreds. A UN Security Council resolution intended to initiate a ceasefire is still held up, by guess who? Moscow is trying to eke out at least of few more days of air raids on East Ghouta, in hopes that is will surrender to Damascus after almost seven years of siege.

Trump continues his refusal to criticize Moscow, even if much of his Administration is trying to find ways to bite back. That in the end may be this week’s real news: what the President says is increasingly disconnected from reality and aimed mainly to protect himself from the Special Counsel’s investigation. The more he hears Mueller’s footsteps, the crazier Trump gets. He is becoming a kind of pugnacious and erratic figurehead presiding over an Administration that is far more in touch with reality and trying to prevent him from doing what his predecessor called “stupid shit.” I hope the saner folks succeed, but the risks of Trump doing something nutty are increasing.

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President Trump last night read slowly from a teleprompter and convinced much of America’s media that he could behave soberly and offer an opportunity for bipartisan action on immigration and infrastructure.

Less visibly, the speech was full of indications that danger lies ahead. This is a radical Administration. The President harbors ambitions that could get the country into lots of trouble.

Among these is a commitment to purging the Federal government of his opponents, who admittedly are many. As Slate notes, he called on Congress

…to empower every Cabinet secretary with the authority to reward good workers—and to remove federal employees who undermine the public trust or fail the American people.

This is a blatant attack on the Civil Service (and presumably also the Foreign Service), which he wants to replace with loyalists. He is accomplishing just that at the Justice Department already, where he has fired a Deputy Attorney General, an FBI Director, and a Deputy Director. All were well-respected professionals. Less visibly, hundreds and perhaps thousands of professionals are leaving other government departments. Trump will try to replace them with people who share his views on immigration, climate change, abortion, race, and the economy.

The President’s economic braggadocio failed to acknowledge that job growth was marginally faster under his predecessor, that record low unemployment for blacks had already been achieved before he was inaugurated, and that the benefits of his income tax cut go overwhelmingly to the very rich. Nor did he mention the big declines in the stock market yesterday and the day before, claiming credit only for the big run up in stocks since his inauguration. It would be odd indeed if the market had not reacted positively to his massive corporate tax cut, but I won’t be surprised if stocks now correct. Since he has claimed credit for the rise, he deserves blame for any fall.

Turning to foreign policy, the President prioritizes fair trade. So far he has done nothing to achieve it. He abandoned the Trans Pacific Partnership, which would have given the US a leading role in Asian trade. The 11 other countries involved are proceeding without the US, and without the provisions on labor and environmental standards the US championed. His renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement is going slowly, not least because so many American companies benefit from it. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with Europe is moribund. The US trade deficit has increased under Trump.

He also prioritizes immigration, blaming illegal immigrants for murdering two Long Island girls. But crime rates among immigrants are lower than in the general population. He wants an immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship for people brought to the US illegally as children, but it would also fund his dubious “great wall” and shifts immigration away from family unification and diversity towards more “qualified” white people, even though current immigrants are already more qualified than native-born Americans.

Turning to more conventional foreign policy issues, the President said:

Around the world, we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our values. In confronting these dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict, and unmatched power is the surest means of our defense.

Then he promises to boost defense spending in general and nuclear weapons in particular. The latter have little to do with current challenges, and the former is proving inadequate to meet them.

Yes, ISIS as an organized military force that controls territory in Iraq and Syria has been largely defeated, but no one expects its militants to evaporate into thin air. The civilian assistance efforts needed to counter the terrorists as they head underground–building inclusive and effective governance and economies–are nowhere to be seen in this Administration’s plans. Instead, Trump threatens to cut foreign aid to countries that vote against the US in the UN General Assembly, a threat that failed to garner support for the US move of its embassy to Jerusalem. Such heavy-handed conditioning of US assistance on a single issue irrelevant to US interests is guaranteed to reduce American influence abroad.

North Korea is the toughest of this Administration’s foreign policy challenges. Trump offered nothing in response to the threat its missiles and nuclear weapons pose. Instead he waxed eloquent North Korean oppression. This implies an American commitment to regime change, which is precisely the wrong thing to be signaling if you want to somehow limit Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs. Kim Jong-un sees them guarantees of regime continuity and will pursue them as long as thinks the US is out to overthrow him.

What was missing from the speech? Trump failed to mention the rules-based international order the US has painstakingly built since World War II, Russian interference in the US election, and his own Administration’s refusal to follow Congressional instructions to levy additional sanctions on Moscow. Putin is still pulling the strings. Ugh.

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Syria strategy

Secretary of State Tillerson today in a speech at the Hoover Institution outlined US goals in Syria. Tobias Schneider summarized them succinctly on Twitter:

  • Enduring defeat of ISIS & AQ in Syria
  • Political resolution to Syria conflict (w/o Assad)
  • Diminishing Iranian influence
  • Create conditions for safe refugee return
  • Syria free from WMD

Those sound in principle desirable to me, though they leave out an important one: preventing instability in Syria’s neighbors, including Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan (all more or less US friends if not allies).

The problem lies one step further on in defining a strategy: the ways and means. Tobias and others on Twitter see this set of goals as a license for an unending US commitment to remain in Syria and to “stabilize” it. Hidden under that rock, which Tillerson was careful to say was not a synonym for nationbuilding, lies a commitment to guess what? Nationbuilding.

But let’s deal first with the the ways and means issue. As I see it, this is all we’ve got going for us in Syria:

  1. US military presence and capability, including control through proxies of major oil-producing wells and maybe a proxy presence along the borders with Israel and Jordan.
  2. A UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution (2254) that outlines a political process to prepare a constitution, hold elections, and begin a transition to a democratic system.
  3. The US veto in the UNSC over any successor resolution that approves and advances the political process.
  4. US aid to parts of Syria outside Assad’s control, US clout in the IMF and World Bank, and influence over European and Gulf aid.

Is this enough to deliver the five goals? I doubt it. Take just refugee return: it requires that people not be forced back but that they return of their own volition. The trickle (50,000 Tillerson said) who have returned in the last year are truly a drop in the bucket. Most refugees (upwards of 5.5 million if I remember correctly) won’t return until Assad and his security forces are gone, or at least blocked from acting in parts of Syria. Likewise the political resolution, diminishing Iranian influence, and getting rid of WMD also depend on getting rid of Assad, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Even the enduring defeat of ISIS and Al Qaeda likely require Assad to be pushed aside, as he has consistently used his forces preferentially against the moderate opposition rather than the extremists, with whom his regime had an excellent cooperative relationship when US forces were in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. Assad will want to keep some of them around even now, as they help to justify his brutal repression of the Syrian population.

But getting rid of Assad means, let’s face it, rebuilding the Syrian state, which is unlikely to survive in a form able to deliver on the above goals once he is gone. He has made sure of that by waging war against his own population for six long years.

Remember too: he has Russian and Iranian backing to remain in power.

Without better means, it looks to me as if the US is in Syria for a long time and will ultimately fail. That’s not an attractive proposition. The question is whether it would be better to leave now, or soon. Do we have to stay to do nationbuilding? How can it be done best? How long will it take? How much will it cost? More on that in a future post.

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Trump’s threat to the nuclear deal

Pantelis Ikonomou, former IAEA nuclear inspector, offers this reflection on President Trump’s continuing threat to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal: 

Last Friday, the US president said he is extending the sanctions waver for Iran one last time, for another 120 days, so Europe and the US can fix the nuclear deal’s “terrible flaws”.

Should we be relieved? Rather disappointed for the continuation of an ambiguous policy with unclear scope and dangerous consequences.

What are the “terrible flaws” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA)?

Crown points of concern for the US president are the nuclear agreement’s “sunset clauses” and  “suspicious sites” in Iran, which are not monitored.

How can these be fixed in the upcoming 120 days?

The agreement’s deadlines regarding specified actions and defined sanctions have been thoroughly discussed and agreed upon by all signatories, including the United States.

As for “suspicious sites”, the IAEA has the agreed right and obligation to request access to any site it might consider necessary under the scope of the agreement. Such a request would be based on an IAEA assessment of credible open-source or other information provided by an IAEA member state, including the US.

Antilogos to Trump’s stance:

The IAEA confirmed in a succession of reports that Iran is fully complying with the commitments made under the JCPOA, the world’s “most robust nuclear verification regime”.

The European High Representative Federica Mogherini, one day before Trump’s decision Friday, following a meeting in Brussels with the Foreign Ministers of France, Germany, the UK and Iran, stated that “the continued successful implementation of JCPOA ensures that Iran’s nuclear programme remains exclusively peaceful.” Europe considers that the agreement “is crucial for its security (and)…is determined to preserve it.”

Neither Russia nor China are backing president Trump’s stance on the Iran agreement. To the contrary, they both defend JCPOA, which they have both shaped and signed. It is in fact a multilateral agreement endorsed by the UN Security Council.

Trump’s position on the deal keeps Iran in closer ties to Russia, its foremost geopolitical ally; it could also push Tehran closer to Beijing.

Moreover, hardliners in Iran might assume full control of power in Tehran, triggering this time a non-safeguarded nuclear program, thus “pushing” other candidates in the region to follow Iran’s nuclear breakout.

At a time of acute nuclear threat, in particular the open-ended North Korean crisis, jeopardizing the integrity of the non-proliferation architecture, along with breaking solid bridges with historical friends and steadfast allies, could create a paramount threat to global security.


Pantelis Ikonomou

Former IAEA nuclear inspector

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Size doesn’t matter

President Trump outdid The Onion yesterday, tweeting:

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!

Apart from the obvious stupidity of engaging in a fourth-grade ego contest with a nuclear-armed dictator, this tweet alone demonstrates how unfit Trump is to be president. Let’s consider the reasons why:

  1. Kim’s warning that he now had nuclear capability (and implicitly could hit the US mainland with it, not only US troops in South Korea and Japan) had been issued two days earlier, not just before this tweet. Trump is often criticized for acting too quickly, but one has to wonder whether his TV schedule is allowing enough time for intel briefings, never mind reading a newspaper.
  2. North Korea is a lot less “depleted and food starved” than once it was. Kim has improved its economic performance notably, even if the benefits are largely swept up by a small elite. Does that sound familiar?
  3. American nuclear weapons are unquestionably more powerful than whatever Kim has got, but the real issue is whether Trump is willing to risk loss of Los Angeles or New York (never mine Washington DC). Any US threat or attack, conventional or nuclear, could escalate in that direction.
  4. The world sees tweets like this one as demonstrating that the President is not rational. Who wants to be allied, or even friendly, with a nut?

Size really doesn’t matter. Kim has what he needs: enough credibility for his nuclear and missile capabilities to deter the US from either attacking or pursuing regime change. Nor does he need to turn to those capabilities in the first instance. He has also got a more than credible conventional threat to rain artillery shells on Seoul and much of South Korea, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, wrecking the world’s 11th largest economy, and ending the long peace in East Asia.

Kim’s problem is that he can’t be sure Trump is rational. The Administration likes to advertise this uncertainty as an advantage. No one really knows what the President will do, which he presumes will make them think twice before crossing him.

That however is not how things really work. Uncertainty in international relations makes people hedge. South Korea is doing that already by trying to open an “Olympic” dialogue with the North, which Kim has accepted. If he can open some space between US war threats and South Korean jaw-jaw, Kim will have achieved a great deal. The US will be marginalized from issues on the peninsula and reduced to a second-rate player in the Asia Pacific, where Trump has already ceded trade (by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the South China Sea to Beijing dominance. Kim will hedge too, turning to Russia to replace the support he has traditionally received from China, and trying to work something out on the economic front with the detente-seeking administration in Seoul.

Trump’s blustering and bullying is self-defeating. The Administration has been successful in tightening UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang. The President’s tweet will undo a good deal of the benefit from that significant achievement. He is isolating and weakening the United States, not to mention risking nuclear war. When will the Republicans in Congress wake up to their responsibilities?

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Pretense doesn’t govern well

I’ve been hesitating to post this, fearing someone would demonstrate that it’s not really Nikki Haley and that the scam is on me. That could still happen, but I am doubting it. It certainly sounds like her. Nor has she denied it so far as I can tell. The American press hasn’t given this scam many electrons. They are being extra-cautious these days to prevent Fake News accusations.

That’s Nikki Haley, the Republicans’ great female hope, scammed by two Russian prankster comedians pretending to be the Polish Foreign Minister. Binomo, the country she claims to be watching carefully, doesn’t exist.

I don’t know how this call was placed and why she accepted it. Usually senior government officials take their foreign calls either through the State Department executive secretariat or the White House switch. It’s foolish to do otherwise. The bureaucrats have good ways of checking on the identity of the caller.

What is striking about Haley’s behavior is how ready she is to pretend that she knows what she is talking about. A diplomat can’t know everything going on worldwide every day. I’ve often had to ask foreign government officials to explain in more detail what they are talking about–not the least because their perspective on the news could be different from ours. Saying “I’ll have to get back to you about that” is perfectly acceptable. Haley gets there eventually, but not before she has been well scammed.

Pretense, which is akin to lying but intended to make something appear true, is a distinguishing characteristic of this Administration. Trump pretends his first year in office was a successful one, hoping that saying will make it so. He pretends that he understands the details of legislation. He pretends to have good relations with Republicans in Congress. He pretends to have an agreement with China’s President about North Korea. He pretends that the Special Counsel investigation has demonstrated no collusion with Russia, repeating it 16 times. hoping the idea will stick.

It is not surprising to see others in the Administration take up this habit. Hierarchies model themselves on the top. It may even work–Nikki Haley likely pulled this “I know what you are talking about” act many times before getting caught. Not everyone will have been fooled, but that hasn’t deterred her. She’ll continue to play her pretense game. She, like the President, is more concerned to appear knowledgeable than to understand what is really going on.

This is a serious vulnerability in the diplomatic world, where there are a lot of people scamming every day of the week. Knowing the difference between true and false is a key diplomatic skill. Nikki Haley has had a lot of good press for her coherence and verbal skills, two qualities President Trump lacks. But she’ll need to get a lot better at detecting bullshit if she is going to succeed in diplomacy, never mind fulfill Republican expectations that she will break the glass ceiling in 2020 or 2024 to become president. Pretense doesn’t govern well, as Trump demonstrates every day.


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