Month: September 2017

A new low, but not the bottom

President Trump hit it this morning, when he tweeted from his golf weekend in New Jersey that the mayor of San Juan was only complaining about the slow Federal reaction to Hurricane Maria because Democrats had told her to do so. What’s more, he added, the people of Puerto Rico are expecting everything to be done for them rather than pitching in to help. Lest you think I exaggerate, here are the tweets in question:

The Mayor of San Juan, who was very complimentary only a few days ago, has now been told by the Democrats that you must be nasty to Trump.

…Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help. They….

…want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort. 10,000 Federal workers now on Island doing a fantastic job.

Here’s that mayor reacting to the Acting Homeland Security Secretary claiming Puerto Rico is a good news story:

Words fail me: how can someone as crass and callous as Trump even pretend to be President of the United States?

The answer is that Americans voted for him. Fewer than voted for Hillary Clinton, but enough (by 70,000 votes in three states) to get him elected.

What is the cure? There is only one: the Republicans in Congress, who so far have proven unwilling even to begin to challenge Trump in a serious way. Despite harsh criticism from the White House, Senate Majority leader McConnell and Speak Ryan have lined up to salute repeatedly.

The only hope at this point is that a few Republicans outside the leadership will refuse to go along. That is what happened on the health care votes. There is still a possibility that a few of them will join with Democrats in fixing what ails Obamacare, rather than throwing it out with the bathwater. The odds may improve without Tom Price as Health and Human Services Secretary: he was a pernicious influence, aside from being a spendthrift with the public’s money.

On taxes, the Administration is proposing a massive cut for the very wealthy like himself and nothing for the poor, plus barely a smidgen for the middle class. That won’t pass, but it creates an uphill fight for those who would like to do something much more sensible. The process will be slow. Nothing is likely to pass this year, which pretty much guarantees that we will head into next spring with a president who has accomplished nothing beyond a single Supreme Court nominee, who admittedly will do a great deal of damage for decades to come.

This disastrous performance on the domestic front has implications for foreign policy. A president who can’t get a Congress with his own party in the majority in both houses to pass any significant legislation is one foreigners don’t feel much need to respect.The Canadians and Mexicans are busy with diplomatic offenses targeting the states, which are likely to resist the worst of Trump’s trade proposals. The Europeans are biding their time until he is gone, when they hope to take up the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership again.

Nor has Trump given either friend or foe any reason to go along with his harebrained schemes: withdrawing from a nuclear deal with Iran that is clearly in the US interest, threatening North Korea with “fire and fury” while trying to convince them everything will be just fine if they give up nuclear weapons, sending more troops to Afghanistan without any clear objective, doubling down on the drone wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya and elsewhere despite decades of evidence that won’t work. Even Vladimir Putin, who did so much to get Trump elected, is finding him a disappointment.

I can’t remember a time when we have been so ill-served by such obviously corrupt and ill-meaning people. But I suppose this new low is still nowhere near the bottom.

PS: This morning’s tweets about Rex Tillerson’s efforts to negotiate with Pyongyang illustrate how Trump can go lower: “I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man…Save your energy Rex, we’ll do what has to be done!” Tillerson should resign.

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Loser loses

President Trump’s big domestic loss is glaring: Obamacare remains in place and is likely to survive in some form, because the Republicans now need 60 votes in the Senate in order to repeal and replace it. They are going to lose the big tax cuts they proposed yesterday too: no self-respecting Democrat would join such a blatant effort to cut taxes for the well-off, with hardly anything going to the middle class and nothing to the poor while ballooning the deficit. I won’t mention that Trump’s favored candidate lost a primary in Alabama.

The losing doesn’t stop there. The botched response to the hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico looks likely to rival what happened in 2005 in New Orleans. Even the President’s effort to label those who kneel or lock arms during the national anthem played at sport events seems to have backfired, except among his hard-core supporters. Their enthusiasm for the flag they often abuse as clothing is exceeded only by their pleasure in dissing the black players who lead the protests.

But the most important losing is coming in Syria and North Korea, without much in the headlines.

In Syria, Hizbollah and other Shia militias are gaining ground in the east, with ample Russian support. They are also well-embedded in the south, along the border with Israel. The Iranian-backed Shia militia presence inside Syria in strategically important areas is likely the worst long-term outcome of the Syrian debacle for the United States. As Josh Rogin reported yesterday, the Administration seems to have no plan to respond effectively, despite the President’s bombast about Iran.

With North Korea, the Administration’s efforts to squeeze Kim Jung-un hard enough to make him contemplate restraints on his nuclear and missile programs shows no sign of working. Tightened sanctions, US air force flights closer to his borders, and deployment of missile defenses in South Korea and Japan just do not outweigh the advantage Pyongyang will gain from having a credible nuclear threat against US allies and bases in the Asia Pacific and eventually also against Alaska, Hawaii and the lower 48.

The President’s personal insults hurled at Kim have been returned in kind and arguably with better rhetorical flourish (“dotard” beats “Rocket Man” in my estimation). Such tit-for-tat exchanges between leaders make it far less likely that either can back down from the confrontation without serious domestic political implications. Trump will nevertheless likely have to back off his threats of military action, since escalation that would incinerate Seoul with conventional weapons could ensue. Or maybe he won’t back off, in which case the world is in even bigger trouble.

America has elected a loser who has failed to deliver anything beyond a single Supreme Court appointment, plus a lot of vituperation. #MAGA

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The KRG independence referendum

Event Details

On September 25, the KRG is holding a controversial referendum on independence from Iraq. No outside power -other than Israel- supports a declaration of independence by the KRG. Turkey and the US pushed hard to dissuade the KRG from holding the referendum, fearing it would add yet another source of instability to an already destabilized region. Turkey, in particular, expressed its strong opposition to the referendum. Although some have argued that Turkey may be willing to embrace the KRG’s bid for independence due to its close ties with Erbil, the potential for instability and conflict as well as Iraq’s territorial integrity remain Ankara’s main areas of concern. The US fears instability caused by a potential declaration of independence could derail the fight against ISIS. As the KRG’s immediate moves following the referendum remain unclear, Iraq is faced with a highly volatile situation with its territorial integrity at stake.
The SETA Foundation at Washington DC cordially invites you to a panel discussion on what lies ahead following the KRG’s referendum on independence.
* A light lunch will be served
Daniel Serwer, Academic Director of Conflict Management, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)
Denise Natali, Director, Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University (NDU)
Kadir Ustun, Executive Director, The SETA Foundation at Washington DC
Lesley Dudden, Research Assistant, The SETA Foundation at Washington DC
Moderated by Kilic B. Kanat, Research Director, The SETA Foundation at Washington DC
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Trump is about to make a big mess

I find it hard to believe, but it looks as if President Trump is preparing to take the advice of John Bolton to decertify Iranian compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the JCPOA or “Iranian nuclear deal”). This despite the complete lack of factual support for the notion that Iran is substantially violating the deal as well as European refusal to join the US in the reimposition of sanctions required even to begin compelling Tehran to renegotiate.

The consequences will be far-reaching. If Iran opts to remain in compliance, the Europeans will maintain their sanctions relief, at least until the US imposes so-called secondary sanctions against their banks and companies for continuing to do business with Iran. That will cause enormous resentment in Europe, where doubts about President Trump are already rife. Hard to see how our traditional allies will continue to support us on many issues if the Administration makes the mistake of undermining the JCPOA.

In the less likely event that Tehran decides to renege on the deal, the Europeans may back reimposition of sanctions, but Iran would soon (a year?) have nuclear weapons. That might precipitate an Israeli or an American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with no prospect however of delaying Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by more than the eight years or more left on the JCPOA clock. It will be necessary to periodically attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, with devastating consequences for Middle East (and global) stability, as Tehran will strike back in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and possibly even the US.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the planet, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un will be confirmed in his view that only nuclear weapons and the capacity to strike the US will protect his regime from an American attack. Prospects for a negotiated freeze or other limitations on Pyongyang’s nuclear capabilities would go to zero fast, if they are not already there.

Trump likes to overplay his hand, then distract attention so that he can cave. That won’t work well with Iran and North Korea, both of which understand perfectly well how lousy America’s alternatives to a negotiated agreement on their nuclear programs are. Both regimes, once upon a time two-thirds of the “axis of evil,” have understood the other third’s mistake: Saddam Hussein didn’t pursue nuclear weapons aggressively enough to forestall an American invasion.

Not that America today has the stomach for an invasion of either North Korea or Iran, even if they lack nuclear weapons. We are well into two decades of constant but far from completely successful warfare in many countries aimed at wiping out Islamist extremists. Are we really ready to take on two more adversaries, one or both of which might be nuclear-equipped by the time we do?

The alternative is not appetizing either. Basically, we need to content ourselves with deterring both North Korea and Iran from using their nuclear weapons, without pressing for regime change. Their own people will have to find a way to deal with their leaders, which is how things should be. Trump even said so in his UN General Assembly speech, which lauded sovereignty. That in my view comes from the people.

We can and should, however, push back against Iran’s and North Korea’s regional misbehavior, especially insofar as they seek to intimidate or undermine US allies. It is odd indeed that Trump has done nothing to counter Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria, where Hizbollah and Shia militias are reshaping the political landscape. Japan and South Korea could also use less bombast and more real support.

But Trump is president, as he so often reminds us. He seems disinclined to maintain the traditionally effective multilateral approaches to Pyongyang and Tehran and more likely to make a big mess.

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Why have Turkey-Russia relations improved?

It was clear at the Brookings Institution on last Tuesday that nothing is easy to predict when it comes to Turkey-Russia relations. As Torrey Taussig of the Brookings Institution, moderator of the panel “The Roller Coaster of Turkey-Russia Relations,” underlined significant events such as Turkey’s decision to purchase weapons from Russia, the increased dialogue among Turkey, Russia, and Iran concerning the Syrian war, Turkey’s move towards authoritarianism, and increasing anti-Western sentiment in both countries. To further discuss the relationship between Turkey and Russia based on a recently published report, “An Ambiguous Partnership, The Serpentine Trajectory of Turkish-Russian Relations in the Era of Erdoğan and Putin,” Taussig was joined by the authors, Pavel Baev and Kemal Kirişci of the Brookings Institution, as well as Evren Balta of New York University and Naz Durakoğlu of the US Senate.

Immediately evident in the remarks made by the panelists were the frequent fluctuations in relations between Turkey and Russia. Kirişci began his comments by referring to the Turkish shoot-down a Russian plane in 2015. Putin reacted by saying that Turkey’s actions were a “stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists,” associating Turkey with extremist groups fighting in Syria. These comments came only months after Putin had invited Erdoğan to Moscow to restore and open a mosque, making the sharp and sudden shift in discourse an unexpected one. Baev described the study of Turkey-Russia relations as “shooting at a moving target.” Conflicts between the two countries, motivated by their many differences, are common; the positive aspects of their relationship are more puzzling.  

The sources of animosity between the two countries are easier to identify. Kirişci noted Russia’s discomfort with Turkey’s leading role in the world of political Islam, which Balta added was a major security threat to Russia. He added that Russia, in fact, saw itself as part of “European civilization” that Turkey no longer fit into, despite what he considered a long European heritage that dated back to Ottoman times.

According to  Kirişci, beginning with the Arab Spring, Turkey has shifted from a European identity and to a major player in the Islamic world. Turkey saw the Arab Spring from a religious perspective, while Russia simply from a regime change perspective. Balta also referred to the competing interests of Russia and Turkey in Syria, with each supporting opposing sides. Russia has long been a supporter of the regime of Bashar Al Assad, aiding the government in numerous ways in the fight against the opposition, while Turkey has been an outspoken supporter of the opposition, leading to the association with extremist groups mentioned earlier. What has allowed the two countries to maintain a relationship has been in part Turkey’s acceptance of Russia’s role in the Syrian conflict, according to Balta.

Other factors include collaboration on different domestic issues. For example, Turkey imports most of its energy resources from Russia, and pipelines being built in Turkey will make Turkey a transit route for gas from Russia. Russia will be working on the construction of Turkey’s first nuclear plant. The Kurdish issue has also, for the time being, brought the two countries together. While Balta admitted that Russia may find an opportunity to threaten Turkey by taking the side of the Kurds against Turkey in the future, she emphasized that, currently, Russia is more supportive of Turkey in the fight against the Kurds than the US is, raising another point of common anti-Westernism, which multiple panelists evoked. Turkey and Russia mistrust Western intentions in the region, with both perceiving the goals of the West to be regime and territorial change.

Durakoğlu discussed the relationship from a Western perspective, drawing from her experience at the US Department of State. She emphasized that Turkey’s relationship with Europe is largely an economic one, and its relationship with the US is a security-related one. Turkey’s relationship with Russia, in Durakoğlu’s opinion, has no such definition and is “personality-driven,” based largely on a common anti-Western sentiment.

With its recent, post-coup authoritarian trajectory, Turkey has been “taking risks,” relating particularly to its relations with the US, which could “backfire” as the tolerance of American policymakers decreases. Kirişci sees the relationship between Turkey and the US as similar in its ambiguity to the US relationship with Russia. While Turkey has a stronger relationship with the US than it does with Russia, the Kurdish issue ultimately drives Ankara and Washington apart. Durakoğlu seconded this, noting that Turks constitute the biggest international student population in the US.

The panelists talked mostly a Turkish perspective, which Baev justified by reminding the audience that Turkey remains a US ally, while Russia’s relations with the US are less friendly. Tthe importance of understanding Turkey’s relations, whether it be with Russia, Europe, or the US, was made clear at the panel, making the event, as one of a few that have dealt with these topics, all the more valuable.


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Peace picks September 25 – 29

  1. The Trump Administration and the Middle East: What Should America Do Next? | Monday, September 25 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | “Donald Trump promised to do a great deal more in the Middle East than his immediate predecessors, but with much less,” Hudson Institute fellows Michael Doran and Peter Rough wrote recently in Mosaic magazine. “That is, he would achieve significantly more than Barack Obama at a much smaller sacrifice of blood and treasure than was incurred under George W. Bush. This he would accomplish by defining American interests sharply and pursuing them aggressively, not to say ruthlessly. The result would be a global restoration of American credibility and, as Trump never ceased to remind voters, renewed global respect.” Nearly nine months into his term in his office, has President Trump followed through on his promises regarding Middle East policy? Doran and Rough argue that America’s big problem in the region is still Iran. In a written response to the article, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution contends that America is not in a zero-sum contest with the Iranians. On September 25, join us for a frank discussion on the future of U.S. Middle East policy with Doran, Rough, and O’Hanlon. Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Lee Smith will moderate the panel.
  2. Rethinking Political Islam | Monday, September 25 | 5:30 – 8:00 pm | Brookings Institution | Register Here | The rapid succession of events of the past four years have challenged conventional wisdom on political Islam. In “Rethinking Political Islam” (Oxford University Press, 2017), Shadi Hamid and William McCants have gathered together the leading specialists in the field to examine how Islamist movements around the world are rethinking some of their basic assumptions. The contributors, who include Islamist activists and leaders themselves, describe how groups are considering key strategic questions, including gradual versus revolutionary approaches to change; the use of tactical or situational violence; attitudes toward the state; and how ideology and politics interact. On September 25, Graeme Wood of The Atlantic and Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington will join Hamid and McCants for a panel discussion on the book’s findings and conclusions. After the discussion, the panel will take audience questions. A reception and book signing will follow. Attendees may purchase “Rethinking Political Islam” at an exclusive 10 percent discount, with the option of pre-ordering a signed copy online
  3. Confronting the Next Wave of Violent Extremism | Wednesday, September 27 | 9:00 am – 4:30 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | Join the U.S. Institute of Peace and the RESOLVE Network of global experts on violent extremism for the consortium’s annual forum on Wednesday, September 27, to discuss issues such as the risks in hotspots across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe.The forum will feature preeminent international scholars and experts from across the network’s 20-plus partner organizations around the world. In addition to offering opportunities to connect with leading thinkers, practitioners and policymakers involved in developing responses to violent extremism, the day of panels and roundtable discussions will highlight findings from a year-long study on the rise of violent extremism in Bangladesh and preview upcoming research on the politics of religion in the Lake Chad Basin region. Panelists will address questions including what do we know about how and when terrorists decide to enter and exit violence, and how do the politics of religion, migration, and identity factor into efforts to counter violent extremism.
  4. Tunisia’s Road to Reform | Thursday, September 28 | 12:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Please join the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East for a panel discussion on the new Tunisian government and prime minister shuffle. As part of a four-year IMF approved loan, the new government and cabinet must enact fiscal reforms to continue receiving a $2.9 billion loan aimed at strengthening job creation and economic growth. Will the so-called “war government” geared towards reform succeed in this effort? Is enough being done to address corruption and strengthen good governance? What are the major challenges and obstacles facing the Tunisian government in its effort to bring the country back to economic and political stability? The panel will address these and other concerns related to Tunisia’s ongoing transition. Panelists include Oussama Romdhani of the Arab Weekly, independent journalist Fadil Aliriza, and Sarah Yerkes of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. The event will be introduced by Ambassador Frederic C. Hof of the Atlantic Council and moderated by Karim Mezran of the Atlantic Council.
  5. Iran’s Land Bridge: Countering a Growing Influence in the Middle East | Friday, September 29 | 12:00 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The threat of an Iranian land bridge through Iraq and Syria—measured both in established influence and a physical presence—has become a reality. Iran’s goal for regional hegemony, a strategic plan more than three decades in the making, has come to fruition. With such a route in place, Iran can increase logistical and operational support to Lebanese Hezbollah and other IRGC-directed proxies. Is it possible to disrupt this route, and can it be done without provoking further conflict? On September 29, Hudson Institute will host a discussion assessing these and other elements of Iran’s strategic posture in the region. Hudson fellows Michael Pregent, Hillel Fradkin, and Lee Smith will join Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council to discuss the changing situation in the Middle East and the appropriate U.S. policy response.
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