Tag: Asia

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  • He has withdrawn from UNESCO, which excludes the US from participation in a lot of cultural, scientific and educational endeavors.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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Weak and getting weaker

President Trump said Saturday en route to Asia that

the reason our stock market is so successful is because of me. I’ve always been great with money, I’ve always been great with jobs, that’s what I do.

None of the these claims are true. Job and economic growth under Trump has been a bit slower than they were s under Obama, not faster. The previous presidency is a major factor in any first 6-10 months of any subsequent presidency, so you can blame that on Obama if you like, but there is no credit due to Trump on both grounds. The stock market is up sharply since Trump’s election, but I’ll only give him credit for that if he takes responsibility for when it falls. The factors determining stock prices are obviously unknown. Trump’s aggressive efforts to eliminate Obamacare and environmental regulations may be part of the story, but the inevitable fall may well erase current gains. Then Trump will no doubt stay silent, or blame Congress and the Democrats.

A president who thinks he determines stock prices is a president unaware of the limits on his power. But we knew that. His tweets this week suggested that the sentence handed down to a soldier who pleaded guilty to desertion was inadequate and that the perpetrator of the terrorist attack in New York City should get the death penalty. The judge in the soldier’s case made clear that it was a previous over-reaching presidential tweet that got the soldier off without prison time. No doubt the courts handling the terrorism case will eliminate consideration of the death penalty for the same reason.

Trump has likewise managed to be counterproductive in other areas as well. The failure to repeal and replace Obamacare is his biggest legislative debacle. The failure to pass his proposed tax cut for business and the rich will be the next. It is likely he will head into the second year of his presidency with no serious legislative accomplishments. His executive actions eliminating environmental and other regulations will be his main achievements, dubious as they may be. They certainly will not bring back coal, as he has repeatedly promised both as candidate and president, but they will still dirty the air Americans breath and the water in the nation’s streams and rivers, not to mention hasten the impact of global warming.

The story is similar in foreign policy, where a president in theory wields more unconstrained power, but Trump has managed to cripple himself by eviscerating the State Department and trying to do everything himself:

Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) has undermined the American position in Asia, where the president will visit for the next 10 days. He is demanding that Russia and China help in stopping North Korea’s nuclear and missile ambitions, something he has given neither one much reason to do. His bravado talk of how strong America is in front of our troops in Japan contrasts sharply with his inability to counter North Korea in any meaningful way, including militarily. No doubt he will pronounce his meetings with Chinese President Xi and Russian President Putin great successes, but the fact remains that neither is willing to do much to restrain Pyongyang.

The President has talked a strong line against Iran but done little or nothing to limit its rise. His decertification of the Iran nuclear deal has so far had no consequences, because everyone understands that we are far better off with the deal than without it. The only serious concerns about it are its “sunset” (expiration) and access to Iranian military sites. To get fixed, both these issues will require major concessions from the US that Trump will be unwilling to make. Trump has done nothing against Iran’s surrogate, Hizbollah, in Syria. Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri’s resignation strengthens Hizbollah’s position there. Not to mention that the war against the Houthis in Yemen is not going well. Iran is far stronger regionally than it was when Trump took office.

The one country in which Trump seems to have a serious impact is Saudi Arabia. His appeal to the Saudis to stop terrorist financing led to Riyadh’s blockade of Qatar, driving it closer to Iran and splitting the Gulf Cooperation Council. That is not the Washington’s advantage. Now he seems to have greenlighted the Kingdom’s crackdown on corruption, leading to the arrest of princes uncomfortable with the meteoric rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Kingdom knows how to turn every phone call from the President into an instrument of royal advantage.

The net effect is clear: the US is weak and getting weaker. This will no doubt continue so long as the president fails to understand the limits on his power.

 

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Trump excels at disappointing

I regret to inform my august readership that Piglet is correct. Trump isn’t gone. He is claiming to have been vindicated, 100%. That of course is false. He was wounded, not vindicated, by the revelation that he hoped former FBI Director Comey would let former National Security Adviser Flynn off the hook and wanted the “cloud” of the Russia investigation lifted. But wanting and hoping are arguably not obstruction, even if I–like Comey–would have taken a president’s hope as an order.

Obstruction for now is in the eye of the beholder. Democrats see obstruction, though they might not if the president were one of their own. Republicans don’t, though there is no doubt they would if the president were not one of their own. Both seem to agree that Special Counsel Robert Mueller should make the determination, which demonstrates his considerable value added: removing the issue from a venue in which it can’t be settled to one in which it can be, on technical legal grounds.

But that will take time. In the meanwhile the Administration is demonstrating once again that it is incoherent. Yesterday, the President blasted Qatar again for financing terrorists, almost in the same moment that the Secretary of State was asking the Saudis and Emirates to back off their embargo of the tiny monarchy that hosts the largest US base in the Middle East:

A bit of inconsistency

Weeks after his disappointing appearance at NATO, the President also reaffirmed the Alliance’s “Article 5” mutual defense obligation, though in doing so he continued to suggest that the money is “pouring into NATO” as a result of his effort to press the allies to meet the commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. That isn’t the way this works: the money goes to the allies’ own defense efforts, not to the Alliance, and it is trickling in as allies begin to meet a commitment set in 2014 under President Obama, as a goal to be reached by 2024.

Some are happy to point out that Trump has not yet had a complete foreign policy disaster. A chipmunk could make it over that bar. He has however

  • weakened NATO,
  • split the Gulf Cooperation Council,
  • boosted China by withdrawing from the Paris climate accord,
  • ended a trade agreement for the Asia Pacific without proposing anything else as a keystone for US policy in the region,
  • failed to respond effectively to North Korean provocations
  • even begun to repair relations with Turkey,
  • and proposed a budget that would decimate US diplomacy and international aid.

America is in worse shape on the international stage than it was at the end of the Obama administration, when many thought we were already in pretty bad shape. Ironically, the best that can be said for Trump is that he has continued Obama’s military efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, though he shares with Obama failure to enunciate a clear plan for how areas like Raqqa and Mosul will be governed once liberated.

Yesterday the President promised “100%” to testify under oath in the Special Counsel investigation of his campaign’s and administration’s connections to Russia. File that with his promise to release his tax returns, to provide documentation of his wife’s legal employment in the US, to prove his claim that millions of fraudulent votes were cast in the election, and a dozen other commitments. The President is unprepared, unreliable, and inconsistent. To my satisfaction, he has even botched repeal and replacement of Obamacare and is well on his way to botching tax reform. The alleged adults in the Administration haven’t yet fixed anything. Trump excels at disappointing.

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Heresies

I’ve been hesitating to write about Donald Trump’s catastrophic 30% budget cut to the State Department and USAID, because I find myself out of tune with most of my deserving Foreign Service colleagues. Not about the size of the cut: it’s ridiculous. Anything even close to 30% in a single year would render most organizations non-functional, because of their fixed costs. The foreign policy establishment is no different: it has rents to pay, buildings to heat, computers to maintain, and payroll to meet that prevent anything like a 30% cut.

My heresies start with Rex Tillerson’s hesitancy to appoint his subordinates until he has had a look at which jobs he wants to keep and which he wants to abolish. No one intent on cutting positions would want to fill them first. And unlike most commentators, I know that professional Foreign Service and Civil Service officers have stepped up as “actings” to fill the shoes of the missing Trump political appointees, who aren’t likely to be as capable (or as much in tune with my preferences). Of course they should in principle have political guidance, but in its absence they will do what I think is likely best: continue doing what they did before January 20.

Nor do I necessarily disagree with the notion that AID might be folded into State. AID was conceived, and continues to regard itself, as a poverty-reduction organization committed to economic development. But it no longer has anywhere near the resources required to make even a minor dent in global poverty. Nor is it clear that it knows any better how to create jobs abroad than the US government does at home. In any event, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the regional development banks have much greater capacity to reduce poverty than AID, as does the US Millennium Challenge Corporation.

What we need AID money for in the early part of the 21st century is something else. Though I am a diehard Obamista, Mitt Romney had most of it right in a speech on AID during the 2012 campaign: we should be using its resources to help our friends abroad build the institutions required for free enterprise, including protection of property rights and rule of law. What the US needs in abroad is socially and environmentally sensitive capitalist development, including strong civil society organizations that will insist on inclusivity, transparency and accountability. In a word: building states and their civil society counterparts.

AID has the amounts of money that could make a real difference in state- and society-building. But in order to be effective in fraught political environments, it would have to operate under close foreign policy supervision. Thus I’d be happy to see AID–or much of it–folded into the State Department, which is capable of giving the kind of politically sensitive guidance that is difficult when the organizations are separate.

This won’t really happen, any more than the 30% cut. AID’s humanitarian and health programs have strong advocates in Congress, who will keep them intact and separate from State. But much of the rest of AID–in particular the money for its regional economic development activities as well as its “transition” and democratization portfolios–should be given over to state- and society-building under State Department supervision, in particular in the war-torn and fragile states of the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.

Look at Latin America and East Asia: with notable exceptions like Venezuela and Thailand, these regions are moving pretty decisively in the democratic, middle income direction, with ups and downs. Brazil is in a trough at the moment, but for those of us who served there 30 years ago, it is vastly improved, both in political and economic terms. The Asia Pacific has developed relatively prosperous, at least semi-democratic states: South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia (with reservations), Philippines (even if I don’t like Duterte). Their relatively peaceful evolution is one of the unsung blessings of our time. It is no accident that these are for the most part not the areas of the world generating terrorist threats to the US.

States are a key element of this evolution, as is regional cooperation among them. Washington, stuck in the poverty reduction rut, has not had the funds needed to back either, though it sometimes does well supporting civil society in fragile states, all too often however as an alternative to government. Yes, fold a large part of AID into State, but change the goals it seeks to be commensurate with US interests and the volume of its resources: build viable states that can elaborate and enforce the norms required for modern economies, support cooperation on a regional basis among those viable states, and make sure that civil society has the resources to monitor, evaluate, and advocate for political and economic reform.

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Trump is losing, but still making chaos

@MaxBoot tweeted last night:

Xi forces affirmation of “One China.” Mexico won’t pay for wall. 9th Circuit stops EO. Flynn/Conway scandals. Is Trump tired of winning yet?

140 characters permitting, he might have added that

  • Trump is delaying the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
  • The administration is forgetting Secretary of State Tillerson’s pledge to prevent Chinese access to the islands it has fortified in the South China Sea.
  • The wall is now projected to cost more than twice candidate Trump’s projection.
  • The President has expressed displeasure that Kellyanne Conway has been “counseled” for violating ethnics regulations.
  • Congressional Republicans are questioning whether National Security Adviser Flynn can remain in place, and the 9th Circuit decision makes it unlikely that the Administration will win an appeal.
  • Trump’s Supreme Court nominee has suggested that criticism of judges, which the President has indulged in repeatedly, is demoralizing and disheartening to the judiciary.

From my Schadenfreude perspective, these are all positive developments. To stimie Trump, or at least try to hold him and his minions accountable, is to make the world better place.

But let’s not kid ourselves. the Trumpistas have already had a devastating impact on American prestige and influence abroad. Trump’s doubts about the NATO Alliance have shaken European confidence. He won’t even be able to visit the UK, where giant crowds would protest his appearance. His immigration ban has demoralized allies in the Arab world, especially Iraq, and boosted extremist recruiting. His bromance with Putin has encouraged the Russians to continue their interventions in Syria and eastern Ukraine. His hostility towards Iran has encouraged its worst impulses, including additional missile tests after being put “on notice.”

While I have good friends who think Barack Obama was a frighteningly weak foreign policy president, his retrenching America is looking coherent and even visionary by comparison. In a few short weeks, Trump has weakened America, not strengthened it.

The ramifications are many. I had a note this morning from the Balkans that read in part:

I have to say that Trumpizm effects the rest of the world in which provinces like Balkans can not understand who is who and what is real American politics and interest towards them!

The same thing might be said in eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Asia Pacific and even in Latin America. At the current rate, it will be true in the Arctic and Antarctica before long. All American presidential transitions are unsettling, but this one is an order of magnitude more chaos-producing than most. It has brought people to power in the White House who simply do not adhere to the well-established lines of American foreign policy, which have served pretty well since 1945. When you need to be reading an obsure Italian Fascist writer to understand the intellectual antecedents of the chief strategist to the President, you know something is wrong.

I’m not immune to radicalism. I indulged in it during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. There are things today that merit hard opposition in my estimation, including Trump’s appointment of cabinet members who oppose the missions of the agencies they are supposed to lead and his appointment of a documented and committed racist as Attorney General. But Trump’s radicalism appears to have little more than his own impulsive and erratic whims as its basis, combined with a few repugnant right-wing shibboleths about race, public education, the environment, and energy production.

The bully is already backing down on some of his worst impulses, but that does nothing to give the world an America that it can understand and rely on. Trump likes unpredictability. Friends and adversaries alike do not.

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Withdraw, renegotiate, or enforce?

With apologies, I’ve been slow to post this fine piece by Sarah Timreck on an event that occurred the week before last:

The Hudson Institute January 25 discussed the Iran deal’s prospects and challenges during the Trump administration. Participants were Michael Pregent, Adjunct Fellow at the Hudson Institute, Gary Samore, Executive Director for Research at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Trita Parsi, Founder and President of the National Iranian American Council. Suzanne Kianpour, Capitol Hill and Foreign Affairs Producer at BBC News, moderated the panel.

With a background as an intelligence officer in Iraq and military experience on the ground facing the IRGC, Pregent opposes the Iran deal and feels that the concessions given by way of sanctions relief are fundamentally destabilizing. Pregent said that he hopes for changes under the Trump administration, which might recognize the deal’s potential to fuel Iran’s hegemonic aspirations and further weaken the region. Although the deal was intended to benefit Iran economically, right now it allows Iran to more freely support groups such as Hezbollah and regimes such as Assad’s. Trump does not need to rip up the deal but rather enforce it, end secret side deals, deny Iranian companies with IRGC stakeholders access to US banking, and continue to put pressure on Iran’s human rights abuses and support of terrorism.

Samore outlined Trump’s options for the deal moving forward. The first , to renege on the agreement and withdraw current presidential sanctions waivers, would undermine support if other members of the P5+1 saw the US as responsible for killing the agreement without just cause. It could also make Iran resume nuclear activity. The second option, renegotiating with Iran for a better deal, is a more complicated choice. The US would add new conditions in order to trade with Iran but also be prepared to offer additional sanctions relief. Samore was not confident that Trump would support this option or if Iran would come to the table. The third option, in which Trump abides by and enforces the deal, would be the option most favored by the P5+1, the foreign policy establishment, and allies in the region. It is therefore Trump’s safest choice. Samore concluded by saying that he is not confident that the deal will last, citing current minor Iranian violations, lingering tension between the US and Iran, and Iranian frustration over the lack of visible sanctions relief.

Parsi discussed the Iran deal in the context of America’s future in the Middle East. The deal was reflective of a change in US-Iranian relations, signaling progress that many believed would never occur. Ultimately, opposition to the deal was more about the regional and geopolitical repercussions than about coming to terms with Iran on critical issues. The Middle East has lost strategic significance for the US and its focus should shift, pivoting towards Asia and other global challenges. The deal allows America to focus its attention elsewhere and not bog down in the region.

Kianpour then asked the panelists about the potential for renegotiating the deal. Pregent emphasized America’s need to remain focused on the Middle East, calling a US pivot away a mistake considering Iran’s strategic goal of keeping the region fractured. Samore believes renegotiation is possible, but does not see willingness within the Trump administration to make more concessions towards Iran. Parsi also did not see a strong likelihood of re-entering talks given how gruesome and tiring the first round was. He also felt the deal gave the US a degree of maneuverability in its relations with regional allies.

Kianpour also asked the panelists about the impact of the deal on internal politics within Iran. While Parsi said there is curiosity on the part of Iranians about Trump’s actions, American conduct in the region, as well as Iranian conduct, will only slowly reveal themselves over the long term. Pregent felt that the deal has emboldened Iran to continue its “nefarious activit[ies],” while also constraining the US, in particular in Syria. Conversely, both Samore and Parsi felt that Pregent was overstating Iran’s influence on America. Problems in the Middle East did not originate from the deal, nor did the Obama administration feel Iran was central to its decision-making.

Many of the questions focused on the impact of destroying the deal and methods of countering Iranian influence in the region. Pregent took the view that because Iran constantly cheats, strictly enforcing the deal would help keep them in check. He advocates that the US take a position of strength when entering negotiations and hold Iran accountable for its actions. Samore remained skeptical the deal would last the entirety of its lifespan, but also warned about what might come after the deal’s expiration, namely the resumption of nuclear activity. Parsi emphasized the need to honor the deal. He also urged the US to listen to the sentiment within Iran to better understand how the deal impacts prospects for the future of the region and American interests there.

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