Military colleagues (same ones who produced this fine piece) recently asked some good questions. I replied:
- How could DoD and DoS be better postured to address regional and world conflicts to ensure a whole of government approach to identify and synchronize lines of effort in both planning and execution?
While intellectually DoD and DoS are more in agreement on a whole of government approach than any other time I can remember in the past 20 years, there is a gigantic imbalance in the capacities and cultures of the two institutions. State persists with a “sink or swim” culture fundamentally opposed to planning, which is still honored more in the breach than the observance. It also lacks appropriate personnel and resources. That is about to get worse, not better, due to budget cuts.
Ideally, State Department officers should train with military units with which they might deploy in the future. That would vastly increase mutual esteem and communication. But it is mostly impossible today. The best that can be hoped for is some commonality in the training materials for both, though State is likely to be doing precious little training for stabilization operations in the next few years. I fear we are back to where we were 20 years ago: our military instrument is far more potent than our civilian instruments, and there is a yawning gap between them.
2. What does a successfully concluded campaign against ISIS look like? Considering costs, reputation, and balance of influence, how should the U.S./Coalition define success? Is the defeat of ISIS a success if it causes the balance of power in the region to shift towards Iran, Assad, or Russia?
Success in Syria should be defined in terms of sustainable peace and security. That won’t be possible under Assad or with the Russians and Iranians playing the roles they play today in propping up a minority dictator and repressing the majority Sunni population. So long as Assad is there, Syrians will be fighting him. The longer it lasts, the more those Syrians will be extremist.
After a successful campaign against ISIS, Syrians in different parts of the country should be able to govern themselves, repress terrorist activity with forces that do not oppress or attack the rest of the population, begin to return economic activity to prewar levels, and return to their homes or resettle freely without fear of persecution. We are a very long way from that, even in the most stable parts of the country (some Kurdish-controlled areas and parts of the south).
3. Does U.S. foreign policy strike the right balance in supporting U.S. interests and its role as a global power? Or, should the U.S. consider a more isolationist approach to foreign policy? What impact could an isolationist policy have on Middle East security and stability, balance of influence by regional and world actors, and U.S. national interests?
It is a mistake to ask foreign policy experts about isolationism, which they will all condemn, but I’ll go this far: U.S. interests in the Middle East are not as salient as they once were and we should be thinking and planning about reducing our commitments and burdens there.
The main U.S. interests in the region apart from counter-terrorism are generally defined as these: non-proliferation, oil, maintenance of alliances, and human rights/democracy. The only significant proliferation risk in the region (Iran) is on hold for 10-15 years or so, the U.S. is far less dependent on Middle East oil than once it was, our allies are mostly interested in military assistance, and we appear to have mostly given up on human rights and democracy in the region.
I think it is arguable that a) deterring Iran could be (maybe better be) accomplished with a much reduced U.S. presence in the Gulf, b) we should not be spending as much American treasure as in the past or risking American lives for oil flowing out of the Gulf to China and Japan (which should share that burden more than in the past), c) our allies should be taking on more of the burden of defending themselves with the enormous amount of kit we’ve sold them, and d) human rights and democracy will gain traction in the region better with less U.S. military presence.
4. What are the competing national interests of the U.S. and Iran in the Middle East and what are the options for alleviating U.S. / Iranian tensions to mutual satisfaction and improved regional stability?
Iran is a revolutionary power looking to extend its security perimeter into neighboring states and to burnish its Islamist credentials by resistance to Israel. It will be impossible to overcome these problems exclusively in a bilateral U.S./Iran context, though increased communication between Tehran and Washington (including diplomatic representatives at some level in each of their capitals) is highly desirable.
Regional stability would also benefit from some sort of regional security architecture—think OSCE in Europe or ASEAN in Asia. This would aim at de-escalating Sunni/Shia, Saudi/Iranian, Turkish/Iranian, and other regional conflicts and tensions. There are few places on earth today with less regional cooperation and connectivity than the Middle East and North Africa.
5. What are the respective national interests of the U.S. and Russia in the Middle East and what are the options for alleviating U.S./Russian tensions to mutual satisfaction and improved regional stability?
It is approaching 100 days since Donald Trump took office. He is getting applause in Washington for a cruise missile attack on a Syrian air base responsible for launching a chemical attack, and I suppose he’ll get some tomorrow for using the biggest conventional bomb ever in Afghanistan, but he has yet to clarify his goals or enunciate strategy for achieving them in either country, or anywhere else.
Here is a summary of the incoherent foreign policy of a president who is playing golf more often than any in recent memory and spending more money on security and travel for himself and his family:
- Threats to do something about North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missiles if China doesn’t, but it is clear what. Promised concessions on trade to China if it will and backed off his pledge to designate Beijing as a currency manipulator, which in any event hasn’t been true for a couple of years. The guy is one tough negotiator: carrots up front.
- Warm greetings to Egyptian autocrat Sisi, who continues to hold US citizens in prison on trumped up charges (pun half-intended) and has vastly increased repression over and above his predecessors’ already draconian measures, not to mention his cozying up to the Russians and making a peace settlement in Libya impossible by supporting a would-be strongman.
- A plea to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to pause settlements, which Netanyahu is pointedly ignoring with the authorization of the first brand-new settlement in many years.
- An unfriendly meeting with Germany’s Chancellor Merkel, during which Trump pointedly refused to shake the hand of Europe’s de facto leader and strong US ally.
- Increased air strikes in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen that have caused a notable bump in civilian deaths, as well as increased (but now unannounced) US deployments to all three.
- Revelations of a web of contacts between the Trump campaign (and eventual appointees) and Russian businesspeople, spies, and government officials. If there is no fire beneath all this smoke, it will be a miracle.
- Delegation of major responsibilities to son-in-law real estate heir Jared Kushner, who at various times has appeared to be entrusted with Israel/Palestine negotiations, China, Iraq, reducing the Federal bureaucracy, and countering the opioid epidemic.
- Initial efforts to build a pointless wall on the Mexican border that would cost many billions the American taxpayer will need to pay, despite the years of decline in illegal immigration from Mexico. I’d guess no more than a few miles of this wasteful project will ever be completed, as Congress will not provide the funding required for more.
- A travel ban that courts are consistently finding violates the US constitution by singling out Muslim countries that have not in fact sent terrorists to the US.
- Decisions on coal that will make it impossible for the US to meet its commitments under the Paris climate change agreement.
I could go on, especially with respect to domestic policy: utter failure so far to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, a Supreme Court nominee so extreme his approval required the Senate to nuke the long-standing requirement for 60 votes in the Senate, and a budget proposal that cuts everything but Defense and Homeland Security, including crippling cuts to the State Department and USAID (not to mention the zeroing out of the UN Population Fund).
There is one reason to hope that things might improve on the international front. National Security Adviser McMaster, who is a serious expert himself, is hiring serious people with real expertise. He has already gotten Trump to reverse direction on NATO, which the President is now praising. But the State Department is still a wasteland, with no appointees to any of the sub-cabinet positions and a Secretary of State who seems not to understand or care for the public affairs part of his job. He was initially laconic to a fault. Now he talks but contradicts himself. I’m not sure which is worse.
Yes, I too would have thought Americans up in arms at this wholesale betrayal of their values, but I’m afraid it is no longer clear what those values are. Are we prepared to play a leadership role in moving the world towards liberal democracy, or are we content to cut deals with the worst autocrats on earth? Are we going to rely on real facts and knowledge, or are we going to try to scam the world, just as Trump has scammed his investors and contractors as well as the students at his “university”? Are we going to pursue a foreign policy that relies at least in part on diplomacy and international assistance, or are we going to use only the military?
Our current course is clear: towards a more militarized, less honest, and more illiberal foreign policy. I’m not seeing anything on the horizon that will turn us in a better direction.
For those who doubt that things are so bad, here is Trump’ April 12 interview with Fox Business, in which he remembered the cake he was eating when he ordered the missile strike but not the country targeted (at 27:30-29:30):
Never mind that he forgets that he opposed an attack on Syria while President Obama was in office and fails to credit his predecessor for the military technology used, not to mention that the meeting with Xi Jinping he claims went well the Chinese think went badly, especially with respect to Syria and North Korea.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted April 4 a panel “Containing the Civil War Contagion” featuring Kathleen Cunningham, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland; Marc Lynch, Professor of Political Science at George Washington University, and Kenneth M. Pollack, Senior Fellow at Brookings; the discussion was moderated by MEI’s Ross Harrison.
Lynch said that a conversation on civil wars in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) should not begin with the uprisings in 2011, as these point only to the tipping point of a larger trend. The steady decline in ability of states to deliver economic goods and to tackle issues such as growing poverty, deteriorating infrastructure and corruption had continued for over a decade. As citizens’ demands of their governments mounted, there was a new pattern of civilian empowerment through social media and civil society.
The events of 2011 occurred at the intersection of these two trends. Even after six years, not a single factor contributing to state decline has been alleviated. Rather the causes have intensified. Where we see the restoration of autocratic stability, the regimes maintain a surface level of stability but accelerate the underlying drivers of instability. If the current trajectory is followed, region-wide volatility encompassing many of our Sunni-Arab allies will be the result.
Citing international intervention as a driving force that prolongs and intensifies violence, Lynch sees little hope for resolution of the on-going civil wars in the next four years. International actors can only do good if their intentions are aligned, which has proven impossible in Syria, Libya and Yemen. From a policy perspective, there is little hope for making a positive impact in areas that have already collapsed, but he encourages the White House to strengthen state capacity in our regional allies. This support should go beyond security forces, as seen in Tunisia, to promote responsible, responsive and transparent governance.
Pollack said he agreed with Lynch on the issues despite their different beliefs on policy options. The most pressing issue for international powers from the civil wars is spill over: terrorism, refugee crises, economic disruption, and spreading instability. Unlike Lynch, Pollack believes that it is possible to end other countries civil wars, it is just hard to do so. US actions over the past few years are inconsequential because they lacked muscle; limited intervention is unproductive.
The civil wars are due in part to deliberate actions by the Assad and Gaddafi regimes to turn protest movements into civil wars. Western intervention may succeed in preventing the outbreak of civil war and its eventual spillover. How much engagement is needed? Pollack believes you either do it right, or you get out. He sees potential for the US to determine the outcome in Syria, but advocates strongly that the US should leave Yemen alone.
Cunningham said that civil wars are increasingly fragmented, posing unique challenges to negotiating a settlement in traditional ways. There are more options than just staying out or negotiating a peace agreement involving all parties. The alternative is piecemeal settlements that entail getting some, but not all, of the groups to stop fighting.
The key to this strategy is to stop the fighting in stages, which is most likely to be successful when people on the ground want to stop fighting and feel it is feasible to do so. She feels that targeted pressure on groups is likely to be more fruitful than calling for everyone to lay down their arms. This necessitates understanding what people on the ground will accept in return for not fighting. In Syria she sees an outcome where the Kurds maintain autonomy, ISIS is pushed out, and low level fighting persists in opposition areas. But it is hard to imagine a situation where Assad is out of power.
1. U.S.-Egyptian Relations In The Age Of ISIS | Monday, April 3rd|11:45-1:00| The Hudson Institute| Register Here
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah el-Sisi’s visit to Washington in early April presents an opportunity to renew the American-Egyptian alliance. Over the past three and half years, a wide gulf in policy approaches has led to disagreements on a range of issues, from democracy and human rights, to Islamist extremism and the Libyan Civil War. Will the diplomatic visit mark a new chapter in U.S.-Egyptian relations?
President Sisi’s visit comes at a critical moment for his country. In the Sinai, the Islamic State’s local affiliate is inflicting daily casualties on security forces. Its genocidal campaign against Egyptian Copts has led to a mass flight of Copts from north Sinai. This followed the bombing of the St. Mark Cathedral compound in Cairo that left 29 people dead.
As the new Trump administration refines its strategy towards the Arabic world’s most populous country, Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom will host a discussion on the security, political, and religious freedom challenges facing Egypt. On April 3, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, Vice President of the Middle East Media Research Institute, will join Hudson Senior Fellows Nina Shea and Samuel Tadros to assess the situation in Egypt and discuss effective U.S. policy options toward the country.
2. Is Something Stirring In Central Asia? |Monday, April 3rd | 4:00 PM | Atlantic Council | Register Here
Since the death of Uzekistan’s President Islam Karimov in September of 2016, the stability that characterized key developments and overall dynamics in Uzbekistan as well as in the Central Asia region as a whole, has been undergoing a noticeable shift. Initiatives of the newly installed President Mirziyoyev in Uzbekistan and proposals regarding reforms by President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan suggest that something may be stirring in Central Asia. This first joint forum of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Atlantic Council will present these developments, ask if they represent a real shift, and consider the implications of such changes for the Central Asia region as a whole and for its place in the world.
Moderated by Dr. S. Frederick Starr, Chairman, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute
American Foreign Policy Council; The event features Ambassador John Herbst; Ambassador Richard Hoagland Interim Co-chair OSCE Minsk Group; Daniel Rosenblum, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central Asia State department; Dr. Martha Olcott, Visiting Professor at Michigan State University.
3. Afghanistan: The Reconciliation Option |Tuesday, April 4th |12:15- 2:00 PM | The Stimson Center| Register Here
U.S. commanders characterize the fight against the Afghan Taliban as a “stalemate.” As U.S. national security leaders and Congress evaluate strategic choices in Afghanistan, the discussion has narrowly focused on military options and troop levels. The Stimson Center is pleased to host Ambassador Richard Olson who will detail what an alternative approach, a reconciliation option, might look like in Afghanistan. Shamila Chaudhary, former Director for Pakistan and Afghanistan on the National Security Council (2010-2011), will offer comments, Sameer Lalwani, Deputy Director of the South Asia program, will moderate a discussion, and Stimson Center President Brian Finlay will convene the event.
4. Global Cities, Local Neighborhoods In Displacement, Migration, And Promise | Tuesday, April 4th|4:00 -7:00 PM | Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars| Register Here
Please join the Urban Sustainability Laboratory and the Education Policy Program and the Center of Education Policy and Evaluation in the College of Education and Human Development at George Mason University for the first in a set of seminars to discuss equity and justice challenges that confront our cities and neighborhoods.
By addressing critical issues that face our urbanized world, the seminars seek to both advance public understanding about the significance and future of our world’s cities and to create more sustainable, equitable, and peaceful cities through research and policy.
On April 4, a panel of experts will examine key issues facing neighborhoods and communities in transition in the United States. From Ferguson to Baltimore, Chicago to Los Angeles, cities and neighborhoods are experiencing transition to larger processes of urban renewal, gentrification, and marginalization, while at the same time under pressure from an intersection of housing, social welfare, education, and political forces within and beyond this country. Panelists will identify solutions and offer a vision for American cities, especially in an increasingly stratified world:
Leon Andrews, Race, Equity, and Leadership Initiative, National League of Cities; Johanna Bockman, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, George Mason University; Michelle Chatman, Department of Crime, Justice, and Security Studies, University of the District of Columbia; Sonya Horsford, Teacher’s College, Columbia University; Derek Hyra, Metropolitan Policy Center, American University
5. Foreign Fighter Fallout |Tuesday, April 4th | 9:00- 12:00 | CSIS | Register Here
As international and local forces battle in Iraq and Syria, an unknown number of the conflict’s tens of thousands foreign fighters may flee to other areas. These returnees could bolster international operations for the Islamic State and al Qaeda, oxygenating social tensions or conducting attacks on U.S. interests and allies around the world. Please join the CSIS Transnational Threats Project (TNT) for an in-depth discussion between Lieutenant General Michael K. Nagata, Director of the Directorate for Strategic Operational Planning at the National Counterterrorism Center and TNT Director & Senior Fellow Tom Sanderson. The discussion and Q&A will be followed by an expert panel discussion moderated by Tom Sanderson.
Weighing the Options: Choices and Challenges in the Middle East (in Arabic) |Wednesday, April 5th | 11:00 AM| Atlantic Council| Register Here
President Donald Trump confronts an array of difficult choices as he and his administration consider how to address the conflicts and problems in the Middle East that continue to threaten global stability. Please join us for an interactive online video discussion in Arabic with Hariri Center experts Abdul Rahman AlAgeli, Sarah El Sirgany, and Nabeel Khoury about the shifts in US policy towards the Middle East under the Trump Administration and how the new approach will impact regional conflicts and alliances, among other issues. The panelists will also share their views on whether the recently released Albright-Hadley Middle East Strategy Task Force report’s strategy is a valid vision to address the problems in the region. Mohamed Elmenshawy will moderate the discussion featuring Nonresident Fellows at Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council Mr. Abdul Rahman AlAgeli, Ms. Sarah El Sirgany, and Dr. Nabeel Khoury.
6. Containing the Civil War Contagion| Wednesday, April 5th | 12:30-1:00| MEI | Register Here
Civil wars in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Iraq have killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions, enabled the resurgence of terrorist organizations, and threaten the stability of neighboring countries as well as Europe. These conflicts erupted in the wake of domestic demands for change in the face of repressive governments and in the context of bitter proxy struggles between regional powers. Bringing these civil wars to a sustainable and inclusive end is key to denying space to terrorist groups, repatriating IDPs and refugees, and starting the process of post-war reconstruction.
The Middle East Institute (MEI) is pleased to host Kathleen Cunningham (Univ. of Maryland), Marc Lynch (George Washington Univ.) and Kenneth M. Pollack (Brookings Institution) for an analysis of the causes and trajectories of the Middle East’s civil wars and policy implications for the United States. Lynch will present the thesis of his recent book The New Arab Wars and Pollock will draw on his co-authored article “Escaping the Civil War Trap in the Middle East” in opening remarks. MEI Scholar Ross Harrison will join as discussant.
7. Syria’s Trajectory and Challenges for the United States |Thursday, April 6th |8:30 AM -3:00 PM | Carnegie Endowment | Register Here
In six years, the Syria conflict has evolved from a democratic uprising to the world’s most pressing international crisis. As a new administration in the United States hones its policy to address the conflict, Carnegie’s Middle East Program will bring together speakers from Syria, other Arab countries, Turkey, Europe, and Russia to examine the potential scenarios for the future of the Syria conflict, the role of external players, as well as the serious political, humanitarian, and security challenges posed by this tragic conflict.
Carnegie’s Middle East Program gathers scholars from around the globe to examine the potential scenarios for the future of the conflict in Syria. Marwan Muasher, Nikolay Kozhanov, Hossein Mousavian, Galip Dalay, Riad Hijab, Rouba Mhaissen, Jihad Makdissi, Abdulhakim Bashar, Bassma Kodmani, Taysir Raddawi, Tobias Ellwood, Shanta Devarajan.
8. A Guide To Geopolitics In The 21st Century|Friday, April 7th |12:00-1:30 PM | Foreign Policy Research Institute | Register Here
How to understand a world where Russia threatens to break up the post-Cold War order in Europe, while China lays the groundwork for a new order in East Asia, and the entire Middle East is riven with conflict —this is the assignment we’ve given to one of the world’s great geopolitical thinkers, Jeremy Black, author of over 100 books on military and diplomatic history.
It’s only a hundred days or so, but President Trump promised lots of things would happen within that time period. What has he actually accomplished? I’m not asking what he has done. I know full well he has signed many executive orders. But what difference has it all made, or will make in the foreseeable future?
Precious little would be my guess. Obamacare is here to stay, unless Trump and his minions manage to undermine it with smack talk. Yesterday’s effort to undo Obama’s climate change actions will be challenged in the bureaucracy, in court, in Congress, and by economic reality. Coal isn’t coming back. Everyone but the coal miners knows it. The border wall is looking doubtful, and the Mexicans are certainly not going to pay for it. Manufacturing jobs are not returning to the US, despite the President’s frequent misuse of company announcements. NAFTA and the Iran nuclear deal are still in place, even if the Trans Pacific Partnership is not.
This is a dismal record relative to his promises, but it doesn’t mean Trump has had no impact. More than one hundred people died in an American bombing in Mosul, and other bombings in Syria and Yemen are causing more collateral damage than in the past. The Administration denies loosening the rules of engagement (those govern where you can bomb based on what information), but it’s like border enforcement: tell the operators that you won’t hold them accountable for abuses and you can be pretty sure some will abuse.
When I spoke in Rome last week at the Italian Institute for International Affairs, no one objected to my identifying Trump as an enemy to those who have benefited from the post-World War II Pax Americana. Trump’s popularity is not only low in the U.S., it is dismally low abroad as well. Even the Russians no longer like him, as it has become all too clear that he will be unable to deliver America into their hands. Today the Senate voted overwhelmingly to ratify the accession of tiny Montenegro to NATO. Moscow will be disappointed, as it tried last October to block Podgorica from joining the Alliance by sponsoring a coup against its president. I needn’t mention how little Chancellor Merkel thinks of Trump, never mind the Australian prime minister and many other (formerly) close allies.
There are of course Trump fans around the world. Brexiteers like him, but he won’t be able to visit the UK any time soon because the protests would be massive. The Saudis are anticipating his wholehearted support for their war in Yemen, but you can bet most Yemenis won’t be so enthusiastic. Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu used to like Trump, but his ardor cooled after the President tried to restrain settlement-building in the West Bank. The Chinese are developing a taste for Trump because he is so easy to buy off: a quick decision on a trademark issue for one of his companies seems to have bought them a reversal of Trump’s resistance to the One China policy.
I know lots of people who did not like President Obama. Some thought him hostile to private enterprise. Others thought him irresolute in foreign policy and national security. Still others resented his failure to push harder on human rights issues abroad or to protect civil liberties at home. All these folks would happily trade in Trump for a third Obama term, which is what Hillary Clinton promised to serve.
But being president is not a popularity contest. A president can remain in office for his full four years no matter how unpopular he is. Trump is not going away anytime soon, unless the Republicans in Congress come to believe that he represents a threat to their re-election or to the election of a Republican president in 2020. The investigation of his campaign’s link to the Russians is the best bet for convincing Republicans to betray him. Let’s hope it can be wrested from Devin Nunes’ grasp and put in the hands of someone more independent and responsible.
After more than seven years of promising to repeal and replace Obamacare, the Republicans last week couldn’t find enough votes in the House of Representatives they control to pass a watered down version of what they had promised to do. That’s the good news. Obamacare will remain in place. Millions will not be deprived of coverage that meets minimal standards and provides reasonable benefits. The taxes required to sustain the system, which are collected from the very wealthy, will remain in place, at least for now, as will the Medicaid expansion.
The bad news is that President Trump and the Congressional Republicans will now heap opprobrium on Obamacare and hinder its effectiveness, in order to prove that it still needs to be repealed and replaced rather than fixed and expanded. It’s failing, they say, so let’s discourage companies from offering the health insurance it made available to many millions of people. And let’s kick as many people off Medicaid, the state-based system that provides health care to poor, as possible. The worse it gets, the better.
Trump has made a lifetime “success” of failure. Look at what we know of his tax returns, which admittedly isn’t much. But it is enough to know that he used losses over many years to offset his income to pay far less tax than would otherwise be required. A lot less in percentage terms than people making a small fraction of his income.
The self-fulfilling prophecy is a technique that can be used in foreign policy as well. Islamic extremism is our greatest threat, Trump says, so let’s go after it with the full force of the US military, neglecting any efforts to make extremism a less attractive proposition and intensifying military attacks, with predictable consequences for collateral damage. The result is predictable after 16 years of already aggressive military efforts: there will be more radical Islamic extremists in more countries four years from now than there are today, just as there are more than four years ago. Failure will become its own reward, justifying yet another ratcheting up of the military effort.
But you don’t have to wait. You can see this happening today with Yemen, where Trump is contemplating more support for a war that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have already demonstrated to be fruitless. Up the ante, as in Vietnam.
So what will stop this pattern of building on failure? Only a solid and definitive “no” from the American people. The resistance to repealing Obamacare was a good rehearsal, but far more is needed. Trump is still telling more lies than anyone can keep track of with a scorecard, which the Washington Post is helpfully maintaining. He is also sending more troops to Iraq and Syria, without revealing their numbers. Without a stronger civilian effort to shore up decent civilian governance they are destined to become part of Trump’s consistent record of building his personal success on other people’s failures. Unless we all stop that from happening this time around.