Month: November 2017

What’s wrong with the Atlantic Council report

I naturally agree with large parts of the Atlantic Council report on “Balkans Forward: A New US Strategy for the Region,” even if I think the title overblown. It’s more like a course correction they have recommended, but that presumably wouldn’t have satisfied the donors. I in particular agree that the US needs to return to a more activist approach on some issues in the Balkans, because EU leadership in a period of big strains on its unity and coherence has failed to resolve some key issues.

That said, I disagree with some of the specific recommendations and will try to clarify why. I also wonder why it highlights corruption and offers no recommendations to deal with it, apart from avoiding excessive reliance on “Big Men.”

A permanent US military presence

I would be prepared to consider a permanent US military presence in Southeastern Europe, but I can’t agree that “Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo is ideal for the purpose.” It is not. It lacks the 10,000-foot runway that a serious US base would require, and building one would be difficult given the topography. There is also no need for one, since an F-16 doesn’t know much difference between Aviano (in northern Italy) and Bondsteel.

More important: a US base anywhere should serve US purposes, which are heavily focused on the Middle East and North Africa. We’ve got bases much closer to those theaters than Bondsteel. The Pentagon has long wanted to close Bondsteel, because it doesn’t serve US purposes well.

Nor do I think we can assume that we will always be welcome in Kosovo. Young Kosovar Albanians don’t understand why the country doesn’t have an army. NATO is starting to be seen as a barrier to getting one, and Bondsteel in particular plays looms large in that regard: some internationals don’t think Kosovo needs an army because it has a NATO presence. That won’t fly forever with the country’s citizens. Better to fix the problem than wait for them to protest.

Pursue a “historic rapprochement” with Serbia

This has long been a Belgrade talking point: Washington does not sufficiently embrace us. I’ve been hearing it every since Slobodan Milosevic was defeated at the polls in 2000. The truth is that the US normalized relations with Serbia quickly after that, removing sanctions and instituting cooperation on a wide array of issues. I’ve never seen us do it faster.

From the American perspective, today’s barriers to a closer relationship are on the Serbian side. The Atlantic Council mentions the difficulty that Serbia’s relations with Russia pose. But that is not the only barrier. There are others: Belgrade’s restraints on the press, its failure to establish a truly independent judiciary, its increasing inclination to normalize those responsible for war crimes (and failure to prosecute people responsible for killing Albanian Americans), and its slow approach to normalizing relations with Kosovo. There has been serious backsliding on several of these issues in recent years, which makes it difficult for a US president or vice president to embrace Serbia more warmly.

Regain the United States’ reputation as an honest broker

I don’t think we’ve lost it, though I also think we are more power broker than honest broker. We just haven’t used whatever it is lately. Nothing in the report convinces me otherwise.

Bet on the region’s entrepreneurs and youth

Sure, bet on them but for what? This is the eternal recommendation of all think-tank reports when confronted with lingering problems in post-war countries. Economic development will fix it. But it won’t so long as the politics don’t allow it to happen. In all of the Balkan countries, there are too many resources under the control of political parties for normal free market capitalism to operate effectively. That needs to change, through internationally supervised privatization and liquidation. Only politicians can make that happen.

As for youth, there are a lot of indications that in several Balkan countries the past 20 years has seen ethnic tension passed on to the next generation, sometimes in more virulent forms than the last. I wouldn’t want to bet on some of the region’s youth, because they want to take the region backwards not forward.

Bottom line

The report is a competent analysis of many current issues in the Balkans, but it offers nothing like a new US strategy for the region. Nor is one needed. What we need to do is complete the strategy we adopted around 2000: get all the countries of the region that want to enter NATO or the EU qualified as quickly as possible and admit them to membership whenever the political winds blow in the right direction.

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He knows a hawk from a handsaw

What more is there to say? The US President retweeting hate videos is just the latest unprecedented move towards whatever new low he is trying to achieve. He also reportedly claims that the Access Hollywood video in which he advocates sexual assault is falsified, even though he admitted publicly it is real and apologized for it.  To many, these apparent difficulties distinguishing reality from fiction suggest he is crazy.

I don’t think so. I think he knows his followers all too well and is keeping them satisfied. They want a president who dislikes Muslims. They also want one who keeps women in their place, but the Access Hollywood tape demonstrates that he is among those who sexually abuse women. He needs now to deny that because Fox News and others are trying to pin that charge exclusively on Democrats. Never mind Roy Moore, the pedophile Republican candidate for Senate from Alabama.

The Islamophobic tweets also distract press and public attention away from two profound embarrassments:

  • A tax bill that blatantly transfers wealth from the middle class to the very rich, while undermining Obamacare and rewarding states that vote Republican at the expense of states that vote Democratic;
  • A North Korean dictator who has succeeded in developing an intercontinental ballistic that can reach the United States, something the President had said would not happen.

So the craziness is feigned, as in Hamlet: “I am but mad northnorth-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” Not that this president bears any serious resemblance to Shakespeare’s tragic hero.

What more can we expect from this purposeful madman? More of the same I suppose:

  • blaming immigrants for falsely claimed increases in crime,
  • ignoring mass murders by white American males while denouncing any hint (true or false) of Islam-related violence,
  • favoring Wall Street over main street,
  • dismantling consumer protection and banking regulation,
  • ignoring attacks on our electoral mechanisms while denigrating minorities and trying to keep them from voting,
  • denying responsibility for reversals abroad,
  • threatening Iran in ways that have unified that country’s many dissenters with its conservative religious establishment,
  • cozying up to dictators,
  • eviscerating the State Department while plumping up the Defense Department,
  • friendliness to Russian President Putin while offending America’s British, German, and other allies.

Many electoral promises are going unfulfilled: 5-6% growth, a trillion dollar infrastructure program, bringing companies and jobs home from abroad, reviving the coal industry, and helping black communities. None of those things are really happening, even if he falsely claims they are.

But who is paying attention? After all, Twitter. This is not craziness. He knows a hawk from a handsaw.

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Violence won’t stop in Syria when war ends

I haven’t had a moment to write today, but I did this video a few days ago for the Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, on whose board I serve. Enab Baladi Newspaper published it:

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Peace picks November 27 – December 1

  1. Private Sector Engagement in Afghanistan | Monday, November 27 | 1:00 – 3:00 pm | Center for Strategic and International Studies | Register Here | Private sector development in Afghanistan is a crucial topic for U.S engagement in the region. Between 2002 and 2010, about 57 billion US dollars of official development assistance (ODA) was disbursed to Afghanistan for purposes of reconstruction and development. More recently, the Trump administration committed to extending the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan into the foreseeable future. Military resources alone cannot achieve U.S. foreign policy goals in Afghanistan: it is important to look at the role that the private sector plays in consolidating Afghanistan’s future prosperity and growth. Afghanistan is doing well in fiscal policy, inflation, access to credit, and some aspects of human capital investment (i.e., health expenditures and primary education expenditures). However, to promote private sector growth, Afghanistan needs to tackle political rights, fight corruption, uphold the rule of law, build effective governance, and reform business regulations, to name a few. Fostering a solid private sector in Afghanistan is important for long-term sustainable growth and improving the quality of life for its citizens. Leveraging the private sector to build a robust economic foundation in Afghanistan is a necessary and timely discussion. Panelists will include Gregory Huger of USAID, Mozhgan Wafiq of the Afghanistan Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Jeffrey Grieco of the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce, and Hussein Ali Mahrammi of Federation of Afghanistan’s Craftsmen and Traders. They will be joined by CSIS’s Romina Bandura, Earl Anthony Wayne, and Daniel F. Runde.
  2. What’s Next for Lebanon? | Wednesday, November 29 | 1:00 – 2:30 pm | Arab Center Washington DC (held at the National Press Club) | Register Here | Join us to discuss the implications of the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and the increased belligerent rhetoric against Iran and Hezbollah by Saudi Arabia. This event will feature Joseph Bahout of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Joe Macaron of the Arab Center Washington DC, and Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute.
  3. Raqqa After the Islamic State: Governance Challenges in Post-ISIS Syria | Wednesday, November 29 | 10:00 – 11:30 am | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | With the self-proclaimed Islamic State’s hold on Syrian territory vastly diminished, the campaign to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) enters a new phase. The fall of Raqqa—the capital of ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate—marked a powerful strategic and symbolic loss for the extremist group. Yet the success of the counter-ISIS campaign will ultimately be determined not by battlefield wins, but instead by what follows. Please join the U.S. Institute of Peace to discuss the complex governance challenges in Raqqa and how the United States and the international community can constructively address them. In a recent USIP Special Report, Mona Yacoubian, senior advisor for Syria, the Middle East and North Africa at the Institute, examines the critical governance challenges in Raqqa after the Islamic State. Her report highlights the ethnic, tribal, and strategic complexities that will affect this new phase. To sustain security in the territories freed from ISIS, a broad approach to stabilization will be vital. That approach will have to ensure effective and inclusive governance that is responsive to the needs of the local population. This event’s speakers include Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, Nicholas A. Heras of the Center for a New American Security, Mona Yacoubian of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and moderator Sarhang Hamasaeed of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
  4. A Coming Storm? Shaping a Balkan Future in an Era of Uncertainty | Wednesday, November 29 | 9:00 am – 6:15 | Atlantic Council | Register Here | Although the Western Balkan region has made significant progress in its efforts to integrate into the wider transatlantic community, inspired and guided by its commitment to eventual membership in the European Union (EU), NATO, and other global institutions, that progress is now at risk. The conference will seek to generate new ideas and policy-relevant proposals to craft a way forward for the Balkan region, firmly embedded within the transatlantic community. This conference will engage the highest levels of transatlantic decision-makers, bringing together over 100 participants, ranging from regional leaders to decision-makers from both sides of the Atlantic and top experts in the field, to spotlight what is at stake and spur support for a reenergized Balkans policy in the United States in partnership with the European Union. The all-day event will include five panels and a keynote address.
  5. How to Help Vulnerable States Prevent Their Own Crises | Thursday, November 30 | 2:00 – 3:30 pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register Here | The European Union recently has added a new priority to its foreign and defense policies: Help countries vulnerable to crisis build their resilience against catastrophic events, notably violent conflict, which has uprooted 65 million people worldwide. The EU’s shift is part of a growing global focus on the importance of preventing civil war and its devastation. The United Nations, World Bank and U.S. government are among the organizations taking up this agenda. On November 30, USIP gathers U.S., European and World Bank officials to discuss how governments and international organizations can better coordinate the implementation of this broad new approach to halting violent conflicts. The European Union issued its new framework for policy this year as the World Bank and United Nations are completing a broad study on ways to catalyze the international community to better prevent violent conflicts. Concurrently, the State Department and other U.S. agencies are reviewing the United States’ efforts to help states struggling for stability in the face of warfare. As governments and international organizations improve these strategies, where are the obstacles to better coordination? Christian Leffler of the European Union will open this discussion by laying out the new EU policy framework. Other speakers will include Nancy Lindborg of the US Institute of Peace, Franck Bosquet of the World Bank, Raphael Carland of the State Department, and moderator Joe Hewitt of the US Institute of Peace. 
  6. Public Opinion in a Conflicted Middle East | Thursday, November 30 | 12:00 – 1:30 | Middle East Institute | Register Here | The Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Arab American Institute (AAI) are pleased to host James Zogby (AAI and Zogby Research Services) for the presentation of fresh polling results from across Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iran, and Turkey. The report examines opinions from 7,800 respondents about the U.S. and other regional states’ roles in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. It also looks at Trump Administration policy, political Islam, prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the Iran nuclear deal, and the region’s refugee crisis. Joining Dr. Zogby to discuss the poll findings will be Yousef Munayyer (MEI & U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights), Barbara Slavin (Atlantic Council; Al-Monitor), and Gönül Tol (MEI). MEI senior vice president Paul Salem will moderate the event. The poll and resulting report were commissioned by the Sir Bani Yas Forum, convened annually in the United Arab Emirates on the initiative of H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the U.A.E. Foreign Minister. The findings are being made available for use by the public.
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Enjoy the family, bemoan the country

I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. Family members are responsible for this extraordinary new museum, this incredible piece for The Atlanticthis wonderful dining hall, helping keeping poor kids in college, and serving he US Army in Korea. Not to mention two grandchildren getting ready to outperform and a host of brothers, in-laws, and nieces and nephews doing great things. What could be better?

Alas, my country could be in better shape. It is over-committed abroad and seems unable to figure out how to withdraw without creating vacuums that get filled with people who generate more commitments. At home it is polarized between protectionist nationalists led by white supremacists and a multi-ethnic coalition led by internationalist liberal democrats. Racism remains the country’s original sin, one it cannot acknowledge without contradicting its ideals.

Sexism is racism’s twin and perhaps even more original, as it came over before the first slaves. Its contemporary prevalence is becoming all too obvious. No one should assume that it is only the great and famous who abuse privilege to intimidate, harass, and abuse women. The headlines are the tip of the iceberg, one that extends deep into the working world in all its many sectors, professions, and occupations. Whoever finds herself below someone else in the pecking order runs risks.

Our current national leadership is both racist and sexist. It is also radical and stupid. The combination is causing serious damage internationally, which my colleague Mike Haltzel outlines skillfully at the HuffPost. I nevertheless found something comforting in Dana Milbank’s thanks to those who have blocked so much of the evil the Trump Administration has tried to do, especially on the domestic front. The so-called tax reform, which would dramatically increase the government deficit while transferring wealth from the less affluent to the very rich, is just the latest, sad example. The repeated and so far failed attacks on a conservative, market-oriented system for providing healthcare to most of the heretofore uninsured is another.

President Trump is using executive action in favor of deregulation in many sectors to make up for his total failure so far in the legislative arena. His efforts on environmental issues have been particularly successful and harmful. His minions will soon end the rules that require internet service providers to treat all content equally, allowing the bigger ones to rule the roost in a way that would have prevented the internet from becoming the indispensable tool for virtually everyone that it is today. No doubt there are other areas in which the Administration can give to private companies the public benefits that belong to the country’s citizens. Trump’s conservative judicial appointments will no doubt help that effort.

What everyone whom I know wants to know is when this will end, and how. The stock market, which is performing well (but no better than it did under President Obama), is betting on business as usual, including the proposed corporate tax cut. I’m not. The implications of the tax cut will, I hope, sink it into oblivion before the New Year. Some combination of Congressional and Special Counsel investigations, election losses, Republican retirements or defections, and journalistic revelations will pull down not just Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner but also the President himself. That will be a serious test of our institutions. If they survive, we’ll be saying an even bigger thanks for them the next time Thanksgiving rolls around.

In the meanwhile, I’m going to enjoy this Thanksgiving with my terrific family, even if the country is in big trouble.


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What I said to Voice of America

Here is an interview, in Serbian, that I did for Voice of America November 14. I gather it has been heavily covered in the region:

The report in question is this one: