Month: December 2017

Pretense doesn’t govern well

I’ve been hesitating to post this, fearing someone would demonstrate that it’s not really Nikki Haley and that the scam is on me. That could still happen, but I am doubting it. It certainly sounds like her. Nor has she denied it so far as I can tell. The American press hasn’t given this scam many electrons. They are being extra-cautious these days to prevent Fake News accusations.

That’s Nikki Haley, the Republicans’ great female hope, scammed by two Russian prankster comedians pretending to be the Polish Foreign Minister. Binomo, the country she claims to be watching carefully, doesn’t exist.

I don’t know how this call was placed and why she accepted it. Usually senior government officials take their foreign calls either through the State Department executive secretariat or the White House switch. It’s foolish to do otherwise. The bureaucrats have good ways of checking on the identity of the caller.

What is striking about Haley’s behavior is how ready she is to pretend that she knows what she is talking about. A diplomat can’t know everything going on worldwide every day. I’ve often had to ask foreign government officials to explain in more detail what they are talking about–not the least because their perspective on the news could be different from ours. Saying “I’ll have to get back to you about that” is perfectly acceptable. Haley gets there eventually, but not before she has been well scammed.

Pretense, which is akin to lying but intended to make something appear true, is a distinguishing characteristic of this Administration. Trump pretends his first year in office was a successful one, hoping that saying will make it so. He pretends that he understands the details of legislation. He pretends to have good relations with Republicans in Congress. He pretends to have an agreement with China’s President about North Korea. He pretends that the Special Counsel investigation has demonstrated no collusion with Russia, repeating it 16 times. hoping the idea will stick.

It is not surprising to see others in the Administration take up this habit. Hierarchies model themselves on the top. It may even work–Nikki Haley likely pulled this “I know what you are talking about” act many times before getting caught. Not everyone will have been fooled, but that hasn’t deterred her. She’ll continue to play her pretense game. She, like the President, is more concerned to appear knowledgeable than to understand what is really going on.

This is a serious vulnerability in the diplomatic world, where there are a lot of people scamming every day of the week. Knowing the difference between true and false is a key diplomatic skill. Nikki Haley has had a lot of good press for her coherence and verbal skills, two qualities President Trump lacks. But she’ll need to get a lot better at detecting bullshit if she is going to succeed in diplomacy, never mind fulfill Republican expectations that she will break the glass ceiling in 2020 or 2024 to become president. Pretense doesn’t govern well, as Trump demonstrates every day.


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This interview is too long

Ivan Angelovski of the Belgrade weekly NIN did this excessively long interview with me last week. I gather it was published yesterday or today: 


The world is in bad shape in 2018. The big issues confronting the United States have to do with North Korea and Iran but apart from the success against Daesh in Iraq and in Syria there isn’t a lot of good news for the United States. There’s a lot of concern I think in Washington and beyond that the president is weakening the United States internationally rather than strengthening it.

North Korea and Iran are the key hotspots in the near term. In the longer term we face a big adjustment to Chinese power, especially in the Pacific but also elsewhere in the world. We obviously face some challenge from Russia as well, but I think it’s a very different challenge. Putin is looking large today but when his bubble bursts he will not look all that large. In the meanwhile we face real challenges, especially from their expertise on the Internet.

There are lots of other challenges. Challenges in Africa and the Middle East especially in Yemen and Libya. The world is not in good shape.


Deterrence has worked and it probably will continue to work. It’s very clear why Kim Jong-Un wants nuclear weapons. It’s for regime preservation.That’s quite rational.Attacking the United States unprovoked with nuclear weapons would be an obvious and serious error because we would respond. But by the same token an American attack on North Korea would be a serious mistake because they can respond not only with nuclear weapons but also with conventional artillery against Seoul and kill hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. So what options do we have? The main one is to sit down and negotiate with the North Koreans.


The issue of Jerusalem is a self-imposed wound by the United States. There is no issue with Jerusalem that has to be solved tomorrow. There are many other issues that have to be solved between the Israelis and the Palestinians first. The president chose to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem in order to satisfy domestic constituencies, apparently without any serious thought being given to the international repercussions. Why would he do that? Because the Christian evangelicals and a limited number of his big donors wanted it. I also think that he had come to understand that his peace initiative was going no place so he wasn’t ruining anything by doing this, at least in his mind. That said it would have been very easy to do this in a way that was palatable to the Palestinians and to the Arabs had he added a sentence to the decision that said “I look forward to the day when there will also be a capital of Palestine in Jerusalem”. Arabs and Palestinians would have applauded, everybody in the world would have been happy with the addition of one senstence. It’s very telling that he didn’t end that sentence. He’s completely hard over on the Israeli side. Not just on the Israeli side but on the Netanyahu side of this dispute. Netanyahu doesn’t want a Palestinian state and certainly not now. Trump committed an own-goal. It’s just fantastic that a hundred and twenty-eight countries voted against us in the General Assembly. What more evidence do you need that this guy is weakening the United States?


It’s not surprising. This is a guy who puts America first, who’s criticized our closest allies, at this point I don’t think he can even visit Germany or maybe even London. I think the demonstrations in London against him would be truly massive.They know that and that’s why they’re not scheduling that visit. But Germany feels the same way. He is intentionally alienating our closest allies. The negotiations with Mexico and Canada over the North American Free Trade Agreement are going badly, he’s made the South Koreans very nervous.The Japanese seem to get on ok with him because their inclination is to move in the direction of doing more on defense.Trump wants that so I think there there’s a meeting of the minds, the Saudis obviously like him, the Emiratis like him, but everybody else in the Middle East is pretty grumpy about him, including even Sisi, who Trump declared his best friend.

One problem that isn’t so visible abroad is if that the Americans are having trouble speaking with one voice. You hear very different things out of the National Security Council, out of

the president, the State Department and the Defense Department.That alone causes nervousness around the world and makes people hedge against the possibility that what the president said yesterday isn’t going to be true tomorrow.That’s a big problem.


You don’t usually have six or seven voices coming out of Washington. There’s a big deterioration in mental and verbal discipline. ThePresident himself is not mentally or verbally disciplined, he doesn’t say the same thing from one day to another, so why should anybody else be disciplined if he isn’t?


His lack of education and bullheadedness are important factors. He simply did not get a good education. I don’t care if he went to Wharton.He doesn’t show much more than a sixth-grade education. He doesn’t read much, he doesn’t learn easily, he learns from things that affect him personally but not from things people tell him about something else. He has made a career of lying – he lies about his real estate projects, he lies about how much money he has, he’s unreliable in paying his contractors. He has gotten away with it. So why would you expect him to be different at over 70? He enjoyed success for 50 years by lying. Read more

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A weakened America

Is America stronger after 11 months of Donald Trump or not?

It is demonstrably weaker, mainly because of his diplomatic moves and non-moves, but also because Trump has done nothing to reduce American military commitments and a good deal to expand them. Let me enumerate:

The diplomatic front:

  • Trump withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) early in the game. The remaining negotiating partners have X-ed out the provisions the US wanted on labor and environmental protection and are preparing to proceed, without American participation. TPP was America’s ace in the Asia Pacific.
  • He is withdrawing as well from the Paris Climate Change accord. That is also proceeding without the US, which will be unable to affect international deliberations on climate change unless and until it rejoins.
  • He has withdrawn from UNESCO, which excludes the US from participation in a lot of cultural, scientific and educational endeavors.
  • He hasn’t announced withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but the negotiations on revising it are thought to be going very badly, mainly because of excessive US demands.
  • He has refused to certify that the Iran nuclear deal is in the US interest, which is so patently obvious that the Republican-controlled Congress is making no moves to withdraw from it.
  • His ill-framed appeal to the Saudis to halt financing of terrorists has precipitated a dramatic split among US allies within the Gulf Cooperation Council.
  • Through his son-in-law he encouraged the Saudis to try to try to depose Lebanon’s prime minister and embargo Qatar, making the prime minister more popular than ever and shifting Doha’s allegiance to Iran.
  • He has continued American support for the Saudi/Emirati war effort in Yemen, while at the same time the State Department has called for an end to the Saudi/Emirati blockade due to the humanitarian crisis there.
  • His decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem heightened tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, undermined his own peace initiative, and obstructed the rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia he hoped for.
  • He has done nothing to counter Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and Syria, or Russia’s position in Syria and Ukraine.
  • He initially embraced Turkey’s now President Erdogan but has watched helplessly while Turkey tarnishes its democratic credentials and drifts into the Russian orbit.
  • He has also embraced other autocrats: Philippine President Duterte, China’s President Xi, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to name only three.
  • He has failed to carry the banner of American values and preferred instead transactional relationships that have so far produced nothing substantial for the US.

The military front:

  • Use of drones is way up.
  • So is deployment of US troops in Europe, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, not to mention ships and planes in the Asia Pacific.
  • The Islamic State, while retreating in Syria and Iraq, is advancing in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and Al Qaeda are also holding their own.
  • Allies are hesitating to pitch in, because the president is erratic. Japan, South Korea, and the Europeans are hedging because the US can no longer be relied on.
  • The US continues to back the Saudi and Emirati campaign against the Houthis in Yemen, precipitating a massive humanitarian crisis.
  • Cyberthreats to the US, including its elections, have increased, without any counter from the administration.
  • Promises that North Korea would not be allowed to develop a missile that could strike the US have gone unfulfilled, and Trump did nothing effective once it accomplished that goal.
  • Military options against North Korea, which are all that Trump seems to be interested in, will bring catastrophic results not only for Koreans but also for US forces stationed there and in the region.
  • Russia continues to occupy part of Ukraine, with no effective military or diplomatic response by the US, and Moscow continues its aggressive stance near the Baltics, in the North Sea, in the Arctic, and in the Pacific.

The diplomatic record is one of almost unmitigated failure and ineffectiveness, apart from new UN Security Council sanctions on North Korea. The military record is more mixed: ISIS is defeated on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, but that is a victory well foreshadowed in the previous administration. It is also far from reassuring, since ISIS will now go underground and re-initiate its terrorist efforts. None of the other military pushes has done more than hold the line. Anyone who expected Trump to withdraw from excessive military commitments should be very disappointed. Anyone who expects him to be successful diplomatically without a fully staffed and empowered State Department is deluded.

The US is more absent diplomatically than present, and more present militarily than effective. We are punching well below our weight. This should be no surprise: the State Department is eviscerated and the Pentagon is exhausted. Allies are puzzled. Adversaries are taking advantage.

Where will we be after another three years of this?


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The wrong chair

Serbia, State Department official Hoyt Yee warned in October, could not “sit on two chairs.” He meant it has to choose between the European Union and Russia, between the West and the East. This is admittedly asking a lot of a country that enjoyed a leading role in the heyday of the Non-Aligned Movement and continues to regard itself as at least militarily “unaligned,” whatever that means in the post-Cold War world.

Serbian President Vucic was in Moscow earlier this week to meet with President Putin. He said things there that at least sound to Washington ears as if he is choosing the East. He

repeated a vow that Serbia will not join EU nations in imposing sanctions against Russia, though he ‘can’t guarantee what will happen after I leave this post.’

He says he asked Russia to join the Belgrade/Pristina talks if Kosovo manages to convince the US to join them:

Vucic has also claimed claimed that Serbia is the only country in Europe that has never voted against Russia in any international forum.
Let’s be clear: Serbia is free to choose its alignment or non-alignment, just like any other sovereign state. But it really cannot sit on two stools. Aligning its foreign policy with the EU is part of the process of qualifying for accession. While Brussels may choose to be wishy-washy about it in the near term, the votes for accession simply won’t be there when the time comes unless Serbia meets the membership criteria.
That will include not only alignment with EU sanctions and other decisions vis-a-vis Russia but also acceptance of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Kosovo and normalization of relations between the two states. Twenty-three out of 28 EU members have recognized Kosovo. I doubt any of the 23 will be willing to accept Serbia as an EU member unless is normalizes relations with its erstwhile province. But I am certain the Dutch and Germans will hold out no matter what.
What does normalization entail? There are two crucial steps:
  1. Entry of Kosovo into the UN General Assembly;
  2. Exchange of diplomats at the ambassadorial level.

Note that neither of these steps involves “recognition of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence,” which Serb politicians have pledged not to do. Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence was an expression of political will that breached no international law, as the International Court of Justice has advised, in response to a Serbian request. Nor is bilateral recognition necessary, as entry into the UN makes that superfluous. Exchange of diplomatic representatives at the ambassadorial level is in any case the moral equivalent. East and West Germany called them “permanent representatives.”

When should Serbia normalize relations with Kosovo? Belgrade’s approach has been to postpone until just before EU accession. That is a serious error. At the final stages of negotiation, all the leverage is on the EU side. Just ask Slovenia and Croatia, which had to yield on important issues in the final stages of their accession negotiations. The same will happen with Serbia: if it gets to that final stage without normalizing relations with Kosovo, it won’t get anything in return for it.

This means Serbia would be wiser to sit on the EU chair sooner rather than later, negotiating what it can in return for Kosovo’s UN membership and exchange of something like permanent representatives. What can it get? I don’t know, but no one will ever know unless it tries. And having Moscow at the Pristina/Belgrade talks won’t help. After all, Russia has recognized the independence of breakaway provinces of Georgia and Moldova, while annexing Crimea and supporting secessionists in Ukraine’s southeast. Is it wise for Serbia to be relying on Russia to assert Belgrade’s sovereignty over Kosovo?


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It may not last

I spent three days last week in Baghdad: two talking with people from all over the Middle East (with the important exception of Turkey) about the current situation and one talking with Iraqis.

First Baghdad: It is looking and sounding far more peaceful than it did six years ago, when I last visited. No detonations, lots of trees and other plants, heavy traffic, and bustling sidewalks. I didn’t get out of the Green Zone a lot, but we did stop in Kadhimia and Adhamiyah to see the main mosques. Apart from the all too evident sectarian character of both (the former Shia and the latter Sunni), there was nothing remarkable: just people going about normal life shopping, chatting, praying, strolling, and honking. What a change from 2004-2011, when I visited a couple of times per year. Adhamiyah during part of that time had to be surrounded with T-walls and checkpoints to protect its population from slaughter.

The Iraqi leadership: We of course only met a few people in high places, including the President, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of parliament, and one minister, in addition to a member of parliament and some of the prime minister’s staff. All are happy to see the Islamic State defeated on the battlefield and all are concerned not to allow it to revive. All are also looking to make cross-sectarian or cross-ethnic alliances in advance of next year’s May 12 election. None were waving sectarian or ethnic identity as their main calling card. This data suggests why (sorry for the size–Wordpress won’t scale it up):

In the general population, sectarian and ethnic identities are still terribly important. While Ayatollah Sistani’s call for volunteers roused some Sunnis to the cause of fighting ISIS, the Popular Mobilization Units he spawned are mostly aggressively Shia and believed to harbor political ambitions. Nor has the Kurdish retreat from pursuing independence reduced popular Kurdish enthusiasm for their own, independent state.

But the leadership has come to understand that gaining a majority in parliament and thereby control of the state requires, under the somewhat ramshackle 2005 constitution, coalitions. Besides, most Iraqis are looking for civil or secular technocrats to run the country. That reduces the relevance of ethnic and sectarian identity, of which Iraqis seem to have had their fill, at least as qualifications for governing.

None of this means the competition among the elite is finished, or even attenuated. To the contrary: all the main sectarian and ethnic blocks are fragmenting. The Kurds are no longer as united as once they were, among the Shia both the Dawa party and what used to be the Supreme Council are split, and there is no clearly dominant figure among the Sunnis. This should make cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian alliances a far more important factor than they have been in the past.

The other Middle Easterners: The mood among the other Middle Easterners attending this session of the Middle East Institute’s Dialogue was likewise more sanguine and friendly than I would have anticipated. All, like the Iraqis, are glad to see the Islamic State dealt defeat in Iraq and Syria, even if they anticipate that it will go underground and re-emerge as an insurgency. All disapproved but seemed more puzzled than angry about President Trump’s announcement on moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. All were happy to see Iraq in a better place.

There the commonalities seemed to end. The Iranians, who in the past have sometimes appeared irascible, were calm and analytical as well as concerned that their victory in Syria brought responsibilities they would rather avoid and anxious for a political solution in Yemen. They also seemed concerned that Iran’s effort to defend itself by supporting Shia proxy forces in the region was at its limit.

The Saudis and Emiratis were enthused about the new direction Riyadh is taking not only in Iraq but also in Yemen and in domestic Saudi policy. Others from Arab countries (Egypt and Jordan) were more reflective and a bit unsure what to make of the “new” Saudi Arabia. Several were concerned that the war is not really over: an Israeli or American attack on the Iranians or Hizbollah there could renew hostilities, not to mention the risk of an American clash with the Russians.

Unfortunately there were neither Turks nor Kurds in these group discussions. Had there been, the atmosphere and substance would have been more contentious. The uncertainty about American policy towards the Syrian Kurds is still big: will the Americans restrain them from attacking inside Turkey, or helping the Kurdish insurgents there? Will the Americans try to take back the heavier weapons they provided? Will the Americans withdraw precipitously? There are a lot of known unknowns that could affect the situation in Syria dramatically.

The extra-regional great powers: While a Moscow-based participant was quick to suggest that Russia had defeated ISIS, the Russians and Chinese were concerned, not happy, that post-ISIS Syria is their responsibility. They want the US involved, for both political and financial reasons. The Americans are showing no such inclination. Their assumption is that the Astana/Sochi process run by the Russians with cooperation from Iran and Turkey has superseded the Geneva process run by the UN to resolve the political conflict in Syria. They see no reason beyond defeating ISIS and possibly countering Iran for the American presence in Syria.

Bottom line: Despite the war in Yemen and the uncertainties surrounding how the war is ending in Syria, there is more reason to be sanguine about the region than people in Washington perceive. The bad news is it may not last.


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The longer he lasts, the weaker we get

I spent yesterday getting home from Baghdad, so missed the opportunity to say anything quick and trenchant about the Administration’s National Security Strategy. The main takeaways are these:

  1. It is closer to establishment thinking than anticipated given the predilections of the President for upsetting the apple cart;
  2. Still, it is more hostile to China and less realistic about Russia than many of us might like;
  3. It bears little resemblance to what the President has been saying and doing.

He wasn’t even able to read from the Teleprompter “principled realism” and converted it to “our new strategy is based on a principle, realism.” Credit to @PeterBeinart for that observation.

As in most documents of this sort, what was left out is as interesting as what is included.

Everyone is noticing the absence of climate change, which the Administration continues to deny despite the obvious and devastating hurricanes that hit Texas and Puerto Rico this year as well as the current fires burning in California. Sure it could all be random variation, but we know that isn’t likely because of the long secular record scientists have been able to construct. The planet is detectably warming–witness the melting of sea ice in the Arctic–with serious implications for US national security, whether or not human activity is the cause. The Administration is ignoring the problem because it would cost more money than the Republicans want to spend and block the dismantling of Obama’s energy-related regulatory actions.

Other things missing, as Max Boot notes, are free trade, democracy promotion, and international  cooperation, in particular in the form of expanding the rules-based international order.

More immediately concerning in my view is any serious consideration to what happens after the defeat of the Islamic State. There is reference to helping fragile states to avoid threats to the US homeland, but that could mean simply strengthening their security forces and ignoring governance, economic and social issues that lie at the root of extremism. Dictatorship is no cure for what ails the weak states of the Middle East. It is what brought about the Islamic State and we won’t be able to eradicate it using only force.

But in the end, the main problem with this document is that it doesn’t jibe with what the President himself says and believes, as Max documents in some detail. Last week in Baghdad, I found this divergence between the Administration and the President the single biggest concern among Middle Easterners (including Iraqis, Saudis, Iranians, and Emiratis). Their consternation about the move of the US embassy to Jerusalem was no greater. The world is used to clear US positions. Their absence creates an enormous vulnerability, one that even the Russians and Chinese find unsettling. When other countries cannot count on what the President says, they hedge in ways that weaken the US.

A well-crafted national security strategy won’t fix that problem. Nor will any amount of adult guidance from Generals McMaster, Mattis, and Kelly. The President can’t get it right even from a Teleprompter. He lacks the mental discipline and depth of experience to understand the implications outside the US of what he says and does not say. Even if the national security strategy were 100% on target, the longer this presidency lasts, the weaker the US will get.

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