Tag: United States

Escalation

Military escalation is happening in several places these days:

  1. Syria:  in addition to the March cruise missile strike on a Syrian base in retaliation for the use of chemical weapons, we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks US attacks on Iranian-backed forces approaching US-backed forces, downing of at least two Iranian-built drones, and downing of a Syrian warplane. Tehran and Damascus are pressing hard in eastern Syria, in an effort to deny the US and its allies post-war dominance there.
  2. Yemen: the Saudis and Emirates are continuing their campaign against the Houthis while the Americans amp up their campaign against Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Today’s promotion of Mohammed bin Salman, the architect of the Saudi intervention in Yemen, to Crown Prince of the Kingdom presages more rather than less war there.
  3. Somalia: the Administration has expanded AFRICOM’s latitude in attacking al Shabaab militants, who are proving more resilient than many anticipated.
  4. Afghanistan: the White House has delegated authority to increase US forces to the military, which intends to deploy several thousand more Americans to help the Afghans counter the Taliban.
  5. Russia: Moscow’s warplanes have been conducting provocative maneuvers against NATO for some time, and yesterday a NATO F-16 allegedly approached a Russian plane carrying the Defense Minister.

Meanwhile Iraq’s disparate security forces are closing in on Mosul, civil wars continue in Libya and Mali, and North Korea continues to test its increasingly long-range missiles.

This military escalation is occurring in a vacuum of diplomatic and civilian efforts. Syria talks sponsored by Turkey, Iran and Russia are slated to reconvene soon in Astana, but prospects for serious progress there on military de-escalation are poor. The UN-sponsored political talks in Geneva are stalled. Planning for governance of Raqqa after the defeat of the Islamic State there is unclear.

The UN has announced a new Yemen Special Representative of the Secretary General, but it will be some time before he can relaunch its efforts. The UN-backed government in Libya is still unable to exert authority, especially over the eastern part of the country. The UN’s Mali mission has been suffering casualties, inhibiting any civilian efforts there. President Trump has tweeted the failure of Chinese diplomacy (more accurately, his diplomacy with China) to produce results with North Korea.

None of this should surprise. Apart from North Korea, the Americans are committed to not relying on diplomacy (in particular through the UN) and to avoiding anything resembling state-building. While they may sometimes think about financing removal of rubble or mines in newly liberated areas of Syria, they are determined to avoid any responsibility for governance or law and order. The Trump Administration wants to follow the formula Bush 43 tried in Afghanistan: kill the Islamic State and Al Qaeda enemies and get out. The failure of that approach has apparently been forgotten.

The only substantial diplomatic effort the Trump Administration has been pursuing is with Israel and Palestine, where there is an almost 70-year record of failures, with only occasional, if important, moments of partial success (I am thinking of the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, not the Oslo accords). No one is taking bets that Jason Greenblatt’s efforts will succeed, though they may restrain the Israelis a bit and produce some modest improvements in the conditions under which Palestinians live. The two-state solution is, however, as far off as it has ever been.

The worst may be yet to come. The Trump Administration has aligned itself firmly with Israel, the Saudis, and the UAE against Iran. The Iranians seem increasingly determined to carve out their Shia crescent from Iraq through Syria and Lebanon all the way to the Mediterranean. We are on a collision course with Tehran, even if the nuclear deal hold for now

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Sessions’ session

Unless you find a white supremacist’s indignant defense of his honor interesting, Attorney General Sessions’ appearance yesterday at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing offered little:Sessions was keen to reject allegations of collusion with the Russians but refused to discuss the substance of his conversations with the President about the Russia investigation, claiming they might be subject to a future claim of executive privilege. Mostly he just doesn’t remember anything about his contacts with the Russians:

His memory problems aside, I am inclined to believe Sessions’ denial of collusion, which is for amateurs. No collusion was necessary among the pros. As candidate and president, Trump has generally agreed with Vladimir Putin. They see the world through the same lenses: power is something they wield mainly to enhance their own standing, they think of themselves and their countries as superior to the rest of the world, and they disdain knowledge and expertise. Putin and Trump share worldviews and objectives: to make themselves important and to milk their governments for as much loot as possible.

Neither Trump nor Sessions has ever shown the slightest concern about Russian interference in the US election. Why should they? As with Wikileaks, they were all for it–Trump remember invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails–so long as it wasn’t against them. Fortunately the Senate is now moving to block Trump from removing the sanctions on Russia without Congressional approval. If the Russians ever take up the cudgels against him, Trump will no doubt get very concerned about their interference in the electoral process. Until then, they are his BFF.

A serious Attorney General would be anxious to see the Russia probe uncover the truth and even help it to do so. Sessions is not a serious Attorney General. He is far more concerned with a 10% bump up in US murders in 2015 than with the sharp decline in the murder rate for more than four decades. He is still worrying about enforcing marijuana prohibition, when most states have already legalized marijuana in some form. He has also been busy making sure that legal settlements can’t support good causes and failing to get US attorneys appointed, to replace the ones Trump summarily dismissed.

Sessions is correct: his honor is being impugned. Some of us view him and his support for a president who doesn’t hide his affection for autocrats and disdain for democracy as dishonorable. Not so much to him as to the nation. These are people who make America small again: they return it to its not so distant racist past, when the Ku Klux Klan ruled many states, miscegenation was prohibited in the South, and blacks were treated as third class citizens (other minorities were second) not entitled to the education and public accommodations afforded to others. I bet Sessions fondly remembers all of that.

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Trump excels at disappointing

I regret to inform my august readership that Piglet is correct. Trump isn’t gone. He is claiming to have been vindicated, 100%. That of course is false. He was wounded, not vindicated, by the revelation that he hoped former FBI Director Comey would let former National Security Adviser Flynn off the hook and wanted the “cloud” of the Russia investigation lifted. But wanting and hoping are arguably not obstruction, even if I–like Comey–would have taken a president’s hope as an order.

Obstruction for now is in the eye of the beholder. Democrats see obstruction, though they might not if the president were one of their own. Republicans don’t, though there is no doubt they would if the president were not one of their own. Both seem to agree that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should make the determination, which demonstrates his considerable value added: removing the issue from a venue in which it can’t be settled to one in which it can be, on technical legal grounds.

But that will take time. In the meanwhile the Administration is demonstrating once again that it is incoherent. Yesterday, the President blasted Qatar again for financing terrorists, almost in the same moment that the Secretary of State was asking the Saudis and Emirates to back off their embargo of the tiny monarchy that hosts the largest US base in the Middle East:

A bit of inconsistency

Weeks after his disappointing appearance at NATO, the President also reaffirmed the Alliance’s “Article 5” mutual defense obligation, though in doing so he continued to suggest that the money is “pouring into NATO” as a result of his effort to press the allies to meet the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. That isn’t the way this works: the money goes to the allies’ own defense efforts, not to the Alliance, and it is trickling in as allies begin to meet a commitment set in 2014 under President Obama, as a goal to be reached by 2024.

Some are happy to point out that Trump has not yet had a complete foreign policy disaster. A chipmunk could make it over that bar. He has however

  • weakened NATO,
  • split the Gulf Cooperation Council,
  • boosted China by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord,
  • ended a trade agreement for the Asia Pacific without proposing anything else as a keystone for US policy in the region,
  • failed to respond effectively to North Korean provocations
  • even begun to repair relations with Turkey,
  • and proposed a budget that would decimate US diplomacy and international aid.

America is in worse shape on the international stage than it was at the end of the Obama administration, when many thought we were already in pretty bad shape. Ironically, the best that can be said for Trump is that he has continued Obama’s military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, though he shares with Obama failure to enunciate a clear plan for how areas like Raqqa and Mosul will be governed once liberated.

Yesterday the President promised “100%” to testify under oath in the Special Counsel investigation of his campaign’s and administration’s connections to Russia. File that with his promise to release his tax returns, to provide documentation of his wife’s legal employment in the US, to prove his claim that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the election, and a dozen other commitments. The President is unprepared, unreliable, and inconsistent. To my satisfaction, he has even botched repeal and replacement of Obamacare and is well on his way to botching tax reform. The alleged adults in the Administration haven’t yet fixed anything. Trump excels at disappointing.

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Obstruction

It is clear in former FBI Director Comey’s written testimony that he thought President Trump tried to obstruct the investigation of his former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn. Comey quotes the President:

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

What is slightly less clear is whether Trump was trying to obstruct the investigation into his own contacts with the Russians.

As Comey explains in his memo, it is standard procedure to assure a target of a foreign intelligence operation that the target is not under investigation, only the attempt to influence or blackmail him. That is what Comey says he did, more than once, in connection with the dossier a former British intelligence agent had prepared on Trump’s Russia connections. Trump couches all his comments about himself in terms of removing the cloud from his presidency by making it known to the public that he himself was not under investigation, which is arguably not obstruction unless that intent can be demonstrated.

Comey did not tell Trump that his and his campaign’s connections to the Russians were not under investigation. That is now the objective of Special Counsel Mueller’s efforts, as a result of Trump’s firing Comey. Trump presumably did not understand the distinction between a counter-intelligence investigation in which he was the target of a foreign operation and one in which his own activities might be at issue. He is not a guy who readily perceives such fine distinctions.

According to Comey’s testimony, Trump’s concerns in several conversations revolve primarily around his own public image and Comey’s personal loyalty. Neither of those surprises. The conversations sound more like a Mafia boss squeezing a subordinate than a president talking to an independent agency chief responsible for prosecuting crimes. Comey reports Trump saying,

“I need loyalty, I expect loyalty.” I [Comey] didn’t move, speak, or change my facial expression in any way during the awkward silence that followed. We simply looked at each other in silence.

That must have been fun!

In my experience, smart US government officials are assiduously respectful of the judicial process. They do not try to interfere to affect their course unless given an explicit opportunity to answer questions, testify, or provide a deposition. Trump’s behavior was out of order, but proving it was criminal obstruction would require evidence of intent, which is not yet available with respect to the President’s own interactions with the Russians, even if it would be pretty easy to assume it.

Comey’s testimony is prepared with admirable skill, literary style, and forethought. I doubt anyone will get much more out of him in the oral testimony tomorrow. This is a man capable of discipline, restraint, and good judgment, even if he behaved badly towards Hillary Clinton. Trump would be well-advised to rethink tweeting spontaneously tomorrow, or tweeting at all. Anything he says might be used against him in a court of law, as his tweets on the travel ban will be.

Of course I won’t mind if the President shortens his time in office. He has already done major damage to the US healthcare system, American alliances, and the international system. He would gladly sell us out to the Russians if provided the opportunity. I wouldn’t want to obstruct his self-destruction.

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Dobrodošli!

I’m thrilled Montenegro joined NATO yesterday, not least because it signals to the rest of the Balkans that the door to Atlantic institutions is still open. But I’ve got to admit that it is a difficult moment for the Alliance: Russia is doing its best to block NATO expansion and the President of the United States is doing his best to undermine its mutual defense commitment.

Moscow’s efforts are by now obvious: an attempted coup in Podgorica last October, hybrid warfare efforts in Macedonia, political and financial support for Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. A rational patriot would react to these attacks on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their respective countries by trying to get into NATO, not stay out of it. Only Serbia has (so far) concluded that it is better off outside NATO than inside it, even if its newly inaugurated president thinks NATO membership would solve many of the countries problems and appears to regret the domestic opposition to it.

But if NATO is now more attractive than ever to the Balkan aspirants, which of course include Kosovo as well, the Article 5 commitment to mutual defense is on shakier ground than ever. President Trump not only omitted it from his speech at NATO. He also neglected to mention it either before or after that speech. Defense Secretary Mattis is busy reassuring the world that the President did recommit to Article 5, but that simply is not true anywhere but in the talking points that the Pentagon and State Department proposed and the President did not use.

What difference does this make? Here is the text of Article 5:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

The mutual defense requirement was triggered for the first time after 9/11, as as an expression of allied solidarity with the United States, including patrolling by allied AWACS over the US and later other measures in support of US operations in the Mediterranean. NATO has also taken collective defense measures in response to threats to Turkey and threats from Russia.

Would NATO defend Montenegro? I have my doubts, especially with Trump in the presidency. Fortunately, an attack on the small country from another state isn’t likely. Podgorica for now at least has good relations with its neighbors, even if the Kosovo parliament has refused to allow demarcation of the border. Far more likely: Russia will continue to try to destabilize Montenegro, using the anti-independence Serb opposition and other Russophiles as its hybrid warfare instrument. Another assassination attempt cannot be ruled out, though Serbia is presumably still ready to foil it.

NATO members, Montenegro now included, are of course expected to meet their own defense requirements. Each NATO member by 2024 is expected to spend 2% of GNP on defense. Montenegro does not meet that goal yet. It makes little difference to Alliance capabilities whether it does so, but its claim on NATO support would be enhanced if it did. Petty it may seem, but President Trump is nothing if not petty.

He allowed Montenegro membership in NATO, once the Senate had approved it overwhelmingly and Defense Secretary Mattis presumably weighed in heavily. For that, not only Montenegro but also the rest of the Balkans should be grateful.

 

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Self defeating

I’ve been off enjoying wife Jackie’s Sarah Lawrence reunion, which followed hard on my own Haverford festivities. But I’ve not been completely out of touch. By now, it should be obvious to all that

  1. The President of the United States has inappropriate and counterproductive reactions to terrorist events.
  2. His withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accord is inane.

Let us consider these two propositions.

The London attacks on Saturday provoked Trump to tweets that called his own travel ban a Travel Ban (thus removing any doubt about its intentions), suggested that current American security measures are inadequate (who, pray tell, is responsible for that?), criticized the (Muslim) mayor of London for trying to reassure the city’s population that the appropriate security measures had been taken, retweeted an exaggerated report of the number killed from a notoriously unreliable source, and suggested that the use of knives by the attackers has somehow silenced the gun debate in the US.

I can’t imagine anyone I know having any one of these reactions to an attack in which the police reacted quickly and effectively to prevent what might otherwise have been a much more serious loss of life. Terrorists seek to create terror. Trump’s reactions were fearful, amplified the magnitude of the attack, and brought him to bizarre conclusions. Contrast this with his personal failure to react to the murder by a white supremacist of two men trying to defend a Muslim and a black woman in Portland, Oregon on Friday. That didn’t fit the Islamic extremism narrative Trump is trying to promote. Hence the silence, even though two Americans were murdered. Homicidal white supremacist attacks in America have been almost three times frequent as Islamist attacks since 9/11.

As for climate change, the President sought to justify his decision on the basis of falsehoods. That of course made no difference to him. Nor did support for the Paris climate agreement from American industry. He preferred to claim to be saving the relatively few coal miner jobs that remain, which won’t happen, and to be serving the interests of the citizens of Pittsburgh, which gave up coal and steel as its primary industrial activities decades ago and voted 75% for Hillary Clinton (not quite the 80% the mayor claimed).

The international ramifications of withdrawal from the Paris accord are many:

  1. The US may still have a seat at the table, but it will no longer be able to speak with any moral authority on the issue of climate change.
  2. Leadership on that will shift to China, which is giving up a lot of coal-powered electrical plants, and to Europe, both of which are forging ahead with renewable sources of energy that will produce lots more jobs than those lost in the coal industry.
  3. No country will in the future accept any American push on environmental standards to be included in trade agreements–all will first require that the US re-commit to Paris.
  4. Trump’s personal standing with many world leaders, already shaky, will decline sharply.

America may still meet its Paris agreement goals, because natural gas is replacing coal rapidly due to market forces and American states and private industry will continue to try to limit greenhouse gases. That would be the ultimate irony: we pay the price for getting out of the agreement, but still meet its targets. That and Trump’s reaction to the London incident are self-defeating.

 

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