Tag: United States

On the timing of the Kurdistan referendum

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.

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North Korea has the upper hand

I won’t have time this morning to write about President Trump’s foolish “fire and fury” threat against North Korea, which provoked a specific Pyongyang threat against the US territory of Guam. In any event, I wouldn’t do better than Robert Litwak, who had intelligent things to say about the issue this morning on NPR: 

Secretary of State Tillerson is wandering around the world saying the US wants to talk with North Korea, while the President blusters. That isn’t a good way to get the diplomacy going, because the North Koreans have a better alternative to a negotiated solution (BATNA) than we do: they need only continue their nuclear and missile programs and be prepared to launch a conventional artillery attach on Seoul if we start to act. In the game Trump is playing–military threat–North Korea has the upper hand.

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Job #1 in post-war Syria and Iraq

Not everyone will be as interested as I was in this detailed, hour-long briefing Friday on the war against ISIS, done by Special Presidential Envoy (for the global coalition to defeat ISIS) Brett McGurk:

Compliments to Brett for doing this in such a professional and informative way.

Some highlights in Syria:

  • The ground war is going well, led by capable and effective (Kurdish-led) Syrian Democratic Forces moving towards Raqqa. President Trump’s delegation of tactical authority to field commanders has hastened the process. ISIS is losing territory rapidly.
  • Deconfliction of SDF forces with Russian and  Syrian government forces is functioning well near Raqqa and in the southwest, where the ceasefire is working.
  • Displaced people in Syria are returning to their homes fairly quickly, once demining takes place. They flee towards the SDF, not towards ISIS-controlled territory.
  • Humanitarian supplies have been pre-positioned and are proving adequate to meet demand, albeit with the usual logistical difficulties.
  • The US will do “stabilization,” but not reconstruction or nationbuilding. Stabilization includes demining, rubble removal, restoring basic electricity and water supplies but no education or health services, which will be local responsibilities.
  • The war against ISIS is part of a two-phase process, which includes political transition in Syria.
  • The international community will not be prepared to fund the $200 billion (or multiples of that number) in reconstruction needs until President Assad is gone.

In Iraq:

  • The Iraqi Security Forces have “not lost a battle” in the current campaign against ISIS.
  • Mosul is a much larger challenge than Raqqa, involving more than ten times as many people.
  • The US will not do long-term reconstruction; the Iraqi government will get funding from the IMF and World Bank. Kuwait will host a donor conference.
  • The next battle will be for Tal Afar, then Hawija, then Al Qaim on the border with Syria.
  • The US opposes the “ill-timed” and “ill-prepared” referendum on independence of Iraqi Kurdistan scheduled for September 25.

Plans are being laid for opening key border crossings between Syria and Jordan as well as between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. ISIS finances are drying up, and it can no long recruit or deploy significant numbers of foreign fighters.

I doubt the notion that big parts of Syria can be liberated with Bashar al Assad still in power in Damascus. His regime, with its Russian, Iranian and Shia militia allies, has been more than willing to attack any area outside government control, declaring it infested by terrorists. Will Moscow be ready, willing and able to restrain Bashar once Raqqa is in SDF control? Or will the Americans, anxious to depart as quickly as possible, negotiate its turnover to the Damascus?

We’ll have to wait and see whether the “no more than stabilization” approach Brett advocates, based he says on experience in Iraq after the US collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime, will work. No doubt devolving as much responsibility to local councils in Syria, which I gather are already operating for Tabqa and Raqqa, and to the Iraqi government is a good idea in theory. Local people know the social terrain far better than foreigners. The question is whether it will work in practice.

There are two big, immediate challenges: security (including keeping ISIS fighters from embedding in the local communities and preventing revenge killings) and property rights. Some local security forces have been trained, but it is not yet clear how effective they will be. Even if they are close to perfection, a major issue remains: where will miscreants be tried? A police force without a court system is an instrument of repression, not justice. The same issue arises with respect to property rights: who will decide who is the rightful owner of the apartments that remain standing? What property rights remain, if any, to those whose apartments have been destroyed?

Odds are the post-war period in Syria will be particularly messy, since not everyone is agreed on who holds legitimate authority. In Iraq, there is more consensus, but if Prime Minister Abadi fails to establish more inclusive governance, or allows the Shia popular mobilization forces involved in the liberation of  Mosul to ride herd over the non-Shia populations of Ninewa, continuing insurgency could well be the outcome.

The Islamic State 2.0 (I count its original incarnation in Iraq as 1.0, before the migration to Syria) is close to defeat. Job #1 now is to prevent the emergence of Islamic State 3.0.

PS: One other thing. I’m concerned about Brett’s repeated indications that the coalition forces will take no prisoners but instead kill as many Islamic Staters as possible. There are laws of war that need to be observed, even if opponents don’t.


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Peace picks August 7-11

  1. Teleconference: What is the Future of U.S.-Russia Relations? | Monday, August 7 | 10:00 – 11:00 am | Wilson Center | Register Here | Relations between the United States and Russia continue to sour. New sanctions legislation in Washington – which arrived on President Trump’s desk with a veto-proof majority – prompted not only the ejection of U.S. diplomats from Russia, but a declaration by Minister Medvedev on the “end of hope” for improved ties. At the same time, presidents Trump and Putin appear to anticipate better days. How entrenched is the current state of affairs? Are there avenues left for cooperation? Join the Wilson Center as Deputy Director William E. Pomeranz of the Kennan Institute, Senior Fellow Maxim Trudolyubov, and Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace assess prospects for the U.S.-Russia relationship and unpack the Trump-Putin dynamic. Aaron David Miller will be moderating.
  2. Expanding the Role of Youth in Building Peace, Security | Tuesday, August 8 | 9:30 – 11:00 am| United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | While popular culture and public narratives depict young men mainly as perpetrators of violence, and young women mainly as victims, governments and civil society groups alike are working to elevate the critical role of youth in reducing violent conflict and extremism. That effort has seen added attention in the 19 months since a U.N. Security Council resolution focused governments on the task. The talk will feature panelists Aubrey Cox, senior program specialist at USIP; Rachel Walsh Taza, program coordinator at Search for Common Ground; Jenn Heeg, co-champion at YouthPower Learning; and Imrana Buba, founder of a Nigerian youth-led peacebuilding organization working amid the country’s conflict with the Boko Haram extremist group. Youth Coordinator Michael McCabe of USAID will moderate.
  3. Oil Corruption: How the United States Can Counteract a Curse | Tuesday, August 8 | 12:00 – 2:00 pm | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Register Here | The oil industry has been entangled in serious corruption controversies, from the legality of some companies’ stance on climate change to dealings with producer-country governments. In response, the U.S. government has shown leadership over the past decade in helping bring more transparency to the sector. What are the dimensions of this problem? What is the status of the U.S. commitment? Join Carnegie and Global Witness for an engaging discussion of new findings by Global Witness on Shell’s activities in Nigeria, why corruption in this key economic sector matters, and how the U.S. government—and companies—can be part of the solution. Panelists include Steve Coll of The New Yorker, Olarenwaju SurajuSimon Taylor of Global Witness, and Sarah Chayes of Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program.
  4. The Future of U.S.-Taiwan Relations in New Administrations | Friday, August 11 | 1:30 – 5:15 pm | Heritage Foundation | Register Here | Join the Heritage Foundation for a discussion of Taiwan’s critical cross-strait relations as well as future economic ties with the United States. Panels will include “Cross-Strait Relations and the U.S.” (2:15 pm) and “Future of Economic Relations between the U.S. and Taiwan” (4:00 pm). The keynote address will be given by Lyu-Shun Shen, former representative from the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, D.C.


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What’s so grand about a jury?

The big news yesterday is that Special Counsel Mueller is using a grand jury in his investigation of Russian meddling in the US election. Most Americans know about grand juries primarily from notices they receive summoning them to serve on one. But that rarely happens. I’ve been summoned for jury duty many times and served on a petit jury at the municipal level. I don’t know anyone who has actually served on a Federal grand jury, which can sit for months if not years (usually not continuously but a few days a month).

But here is the short version of what is so grand about a Federal grand jury: it enables the prosecutor (in this case Special Counsel Mueller)

  1. To issue subpoenas (orders to produce evidence or to testify);
  2. Compel testimony in secret, without a lawyer representing the witness present;
  3. Indict (accuse) someone of a crime, provided 12 of the 23 members of the grand jury agree.

The proceedings of a grand jury are secret, but word of them leaks out as they send subpoenas to people. Their proceedings can take a long time, so news of one does not mean that an indictment is imminent. Nor does it tell us anything about who might be indicted for what crime.

That will be little comfort to the President of the United States. It is unclear whether he can be indicted by any body other than the House of Representatives (that’s what we call impeachment). There is no precedent for that. But his associates, family, and campaign officials are certainly indictable.

All indications are that Mueller is focused on financial matters, which may mean he is looking at whether Russian cash played a role in the campaign. Moscow is too smart to have put money directly into Trump’s election effort, which would violate US law. But it may well have made money available to the campaign through “cut outs,” Americans who contributed money provided by Russia.

More likely in my view is that the Trump and Kushner real estate empires are flush with hot Russian money that has purchased condos and golf club memberships and provided loans not available from other sources. In everyday parlance, this would amount to money laundering. And yes, American companies are supposed to conduct due diligence to ensure that financing comes from legitimate sources. Russian money could go a long way to explaining why Trump never criticizes Moscow and often takes its side on specific issues.

Trump’s reaction to the grand jury news was classic distraction: he announced he would have big news at his campaign-style rally in West Virginia last night. That turned out to be the Governor announcing he was switching from the Democratic to the Republican party, which he had left only two years ago. In a scripted speech read from a teleprompter, Trump also denounced the story of Russia’s meddling in the US election as a fabrication to excuse the biggest election loss in history. The loyalist audience loved it.

Trump’s remarks continue his efforts to undermine the Special Counsel, efforts that themselves may constitute obstruction of justice, and to deny what American intelligence agencies have long since concluded: Moscow intervened in the US election to undermine democracy and help elect Trump. If the jury gets to the bottom of why the President behaves this way, it will truly be grand.

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The myth of Kelly

A lot of my friends have great hopes for General Kelly, the new White House Chief of Staff. He fired a potty-mouth slated to become Communications Director before he even officially started the job, has evicted at least two nutters from the National Security Council (or at least concurred in General Mattis booting them), and is said to be tightly controlling access for people and information to the Oval Office. Presidential tweeting has slowed. So far, so good.

But I doubt it will matter in the end. There is no reason to believe that President Trump relies on information, good or bad, in reaching conclusions or formulating policy. Take today’s announcement of a big cut in legal immigration and a proposal to favor more highly qualified immigrants. Matthew Yglesias quickly tweeted this from Pew:

Of course there are American employers who import lower-skilled labor, notably Donald J. Trump himself among them. This matches, though does not exceed, his hypocrisy in manufacturing most of his poor taste clothing line abroad, especially in China.

As someone with no respect for the truth, why would Trump look to information and information quality as a source of wisdom? That would make no sense. He creates his own information: alternative facts Kellyanne Conway calls them.

Moreover, Kelly will have a hard time regulating the flow of information to someone who doesn’t sleep much, is addicted to Twitter and cable TV, and relies on his family members as his chief advisers. It simply won’t be possible to prevent really lousy information from reaching the President.

The policy formulation process in the White House right now seems to be basically this: Trump decides what will satisfy his various constituencies and gives it to them. White supremacists get the Justice Department challenging affirmative action for disadvantaged minorities, Rust Belt males get a big Foxconn plant requiring billions in subsidies, people with no university education get “repeal and replace” (even those who benefit from Obamacare like that), and the Russians get consistent and unwavering indulgence for their hacking of the American election, their attacks on the Syrian opposition, and their invasion of Crimea.

You may ask: how did Russia become one of Trump’s constituencies? My guess is that Trump’s personal business empire depends heavily on hot money investments and condo purchases by Putin cronies. If so, he has good reason not to provoke Putin. We’ll leave that for Special Counsel Mueller to elucidate.

Feeding his constituencies isn’t getting the President anywhere with the broader American public. Disapproval is soaring, while approval is weakening, according to Quinnipiac:

Sisyphus, Wikipedia tells me, “was punished for his self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness by being forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it come back to hit him, repeating this action for eternity.” The self-aggrandizing craftiness and deceitfulness are Trump’s, not Kelly’s. But it is the chief of staff who is likely to be punished for now.

PS: Today’s leak of transcripts of the President’s conversations with Mexican President Pena Neto and Australian Prime Minister Turnbull prove the myth of Kelly faster than I anticipated. The continued leaking suggests he is not yet in full control, and the contents of the transcripts suggest a president who is obsessed with how he looks and indifferent to the interests of his interlocutors. Foreign leaders will be reluctant to believe either that the US can protect the confidentiality of their conversations and to hope such a conversation will lead to anything more than browbeating. That rock has already rolled back down the hill on to Kelly.

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