Tag: China

Size doesn’t matter

President Trump outdid The Onion yesterday, tweeting:

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!

Apart from the obvious stupidity of engaging in a fourth-grade ego contest with a nuclear-armed dictator, this tweet alone demonstrates how unfit Trump is to be president. Let’s consider the reasons why:

  1. Kim’s warning that he now had nuclear capability (and implicitly could hit the US mainland with it, not only US troops in South Korea and Japan) had been issued two days earlier, not just before this tweet. Trump is often criticized for acting too quickly, but one has to wonder whether his TV schedule is allowing enough time for intel briefings, never mind reading a newspaper.
  2. North Korea is a lot less “depleted and food starved” than once it was. Kim has improved its economic performance notably, even if the benefits are largely swept up by a small elite. Does that sound familiar?
  3. American nuclear weapons are unquestionably more powerful than whatever Kim has got, but the real issue is whether Trump is willing to risk loss of Los Angeles or New York (never mine Washington DC). Any US threat or attack, conventional or nuclear, could escalate in that direction.
  4. The world sees tweets like this one as demonstrating that the President is not rational. Who wants to be allied, or even friendly, with a nut?

Size really doesn’t matter. Kim has what he needs: enough credibility for his nuclear and missile capabilities to deter the US from either attacking or pursuing regime change. Nor does he need to turn to those capabilities in the first instance. He has also got a more than credible conventional threat to rain artillery shells on Seoul and much of South Korea, killing hundreds of thousands if not millions of people, wrecking the world’s 11th largest economy, and ending the long peace in East Asia.

Kim’s problem is that he can’t be sure Trump is rational. The Administration likes to advertise this uncertainty as an advantage. No one really knows what the President will do, which he presumes will make them think twice before crossing him.

That however is not how things really work. Uncertainty in international relations makes people hedge. South Korea is doing that already by trying to open an “Olympic” dialogue with the North, which Kim has accepted. If he can open some space between US war threats and South Korean jaw-jaw, Kim will have achieved a great deal. The US will be marginalized from issues on the peninsula and reduced to a second-rate player in the Asia Pacific, where Trump has already ceded trade (by withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership) and the South China Sea to Beijing dominance. Kim will hedge too, turning to Russia to replace the support he has traditionally received from China, and trying to work something out on the economic front with the detente-seeking administration in Seoul.

Trump’s blustering and bullying is self-defeating. The Administration has been successful in tightening UN Security Council sanctions on Pyongyang. The President’s tweet will undo a good deal of the benefit from that significant achievement. He is isolating and weakening the United States, not to mention risking nuclear war. When will the Republicans in Congress wake up to their responsibilities?

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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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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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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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Both Pakistan and the US have options

In August, US President Trump announced a new plan concerning Afghanistan that included a harsh stance on Pakistan, accusing the country of protecting terrorists and threatening to limit financial support. On October 11, the Middle East Institute hosted a panel titled “Where Are U.S.-Pakistan Relations Headed?” to explore Pakistan’s reaction to the plan, the interests of the US and Pakistan in Afghanistan, US policy options, and predictions for the future of US-Pakistan relations. The event featured Daniel Markey and Joshua White of Johns Hopkins University, Shuja Nawaz of the Atlantic Council, and Moeed Yusuf of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Marvin Weinbaum of the Middle East Institute moderated.

Pakistan has reacted mainly by working to create ties with other states in case its relations with the US worsen, while also making efforts to maintain its relations with the US. Nawaz pointed to recent visits of members of the Pakistani government to Washington as maintenance efforts. Efforts to diversify include Pakistan’s strengthening of relations with Russia and Saudi Arabia, and finding alternatives to the benefits it currently receives from the US, such as military support, by looking to countries such as China and Russia to provide equipment.

Yusuf categorized general Pakistani reactions and viewpoints into three camps: one perspective questions the utility of engaging with the US, since the US seems to be intentionally siding with India to “undercut” Pakistan. Another advocates for engagement with the US because of the extent to which Pakistan is dependent on it. A third camp views the US as completely in control of relations between the two countries, suggesting that there are limited options available to Pakistan.

Markey viewed Pakistan’s approach as a sort of negotiation, in which Pakistan is actively pursuing further details on the plan and its possible impacts, and exploring ways in which it can meet US demands in a way that would allow Pakistan to continue pursuing its own agenda.

The clear tension and divisions between the US and Pakistan prompted Weinbaum to ask the panelists whether the two countries have similar interests in Afghanistan and what their respective desired outcomes are. While it may appear that the US and Pakistan have converging interests, such as restoration of stability, the panelists agreed that such a convergence is superficial or limited at best.

White explained that Pakistan’s goals in Afghanistan, and particularly in terms of positive outcomes, are unclear, a point that Pakistan’s lack of strong players in Afghanistan supports. Yusuf mentioned two points of divergence: Pakistan and the US define stability in Afghanistan differently, with Pakistan insisting that India’s absence would be necessary, and the US advocating for an Indian role. The second point of divergence is Pakistan’s view that Afghanistan is becoming the site of a cold war dynamic with Pakistan and China on one side, and the US and India on another, leading to the assumption that the US is using this dynamic “to undermine Chinese influence.”

Most significantly, Markey pointed to a divergence in how the two countries see Pakistan’s overall role in the US Afghanistan strategy. Pakistan has wanted the US to eventually “outsource” its Afghanistan strategy to Islamabad, while US intentions have been quite the opposite: containing Pakistan’s power and limiting its control, ultimately facilitating the achievement of US goals.  

The panelists turned to assessing current US policies and future options with regards to Pakistan. One of the administration’s current tactics is to make clear to Pakistan that it would be more beneficial to the US to cease the relationship than to maintain it, according to White. The US is also working to include other parties, such as its NATO allies, in its Afghanistan strategy. A limitation on US actions is its inability to compel Pakistan militarily, as its current policies prevent it from targeting Taliban militants. Markey noted that the US seems “predisposed” to pursuing compulsion as a strategy and that it has been doing that through actions such as threatening to revoke Pakistan’s status as a major non-NATO ally.

Markey made three main policy recommendations: that the US clarify its goals, that it anticipate Pakistani reactions and plan accordingly, and that it include other countries in the region when studying how policies will affect Afghanistan, suggesting that actions that the US takes in Afghanistan necessarily affect Pakistan and its other neighbors.

Adding a Pakistani perspective, Nawaz stated that Pakistan does not have the same power as the US, particularly in terms of its troops, but it does have its own options should the US exert pressure. One such option is Pakistan’s ability to close its airspace, which is strategic to the US and would force it to resort to other, less convenient routes. Taking this into account, Nawaz reiterated that the US should also be considering other regional actors in its Afghanistan policies, should be aware that Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan each have elections upcoming, and that it should broaden its options, suggesting that it should consider Iran’s role in stabilizing Afghanistan.

Yusuf criticized the US approach to Pakistan as a whole. Compulsion, threats, and other such tactics have all been unsuccessfully employed in the past. There is no reason, therefore, to believe that conditions have changed enough to make this approach successful today. Yusuf reemphasized the importance of having clear messages, plans, and strategies and urged the US to ensure that its demands of Pakistan are realistic and doable in order to engage Pakistan in the restabilization of Afghanistan.

Hypotheticals emerged multiple times throughout the event, with panelists’ analyses dependent on whether or not certain conditions prove to be true in the coming months and years. Thus, the difficulty of predicting the future of US-Pakistan relations and how this relationship will affect Afghanistan was clear. Both countries need to prepare for a variety of scenarios that include other allies and partnerships. Any outcome will have a profound effect not only on Pakistan and the US role in Afghanistan but on many other countries in the region and beyond.

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Big nuclear danger ahead

Pantelis Ikonomou, a former IAEA safeguards inspector, writes: 

The nuclear threat is at a historical high. The North Korean crisis and US President Trump’s intention to decertify the Iran Nuclear deal are the tip of the iceberg.

Neither the Treaty on Non Proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT), nor the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and its safeguards inspectorate nor numerous United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions could stop the world’s nuclear race in recent decades. The number of countries possessing nuclear weapons (NW) increased from five, which are the recognized nuclear weapon states and permanent members of the UNSC, to allegedly nine.

While the rationale for developing and deploying of NW has always been national security through deterrence, hence war prevention, the prospects for maintaining global peace are thinner than ever before.

Just to mention some of the risk factors related to the major nuclear threat:

  • There are currently about 15,000 nuclear warheads in the arsenals of 9 countries (about 14,000 of them possessed by Russia and the US), capable of devastating our globe many times. Additionally, the nuclear material stored under various security conditions in civil and military facilities around the world is estimated to be sufficient to produce 240,000 nuclear devices. As of end 2016, about 204,000 of these are under IAEA safeguards.
  • The NPT is not applied universally. Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea are not parties to the treaty, thus not legally obliged to its restrictions.
  • The majority of states in the international community are disappointed in NW states for not fulfilling their NPT commitments on nuclear disarmament (NPT Art. VI)
  • The 2003 invasion of Iraq, the continuing North Korean crisis, and the up to 15 years limited Iran deal have revealed glaring non-proliferation shortcomings.
  • The failure of the 2015 NPT Review Conference in New York indicated clearly the international community’s distrust in a fair (without double standards) enforcement of international nuclear law.
  • In July 2017 the UN General Assembly adopted by a vast majority a NW Ban Treaty. It is a legally binding instrument towards the total elimination of nuclear weapons that will enter into force after 50 signatures and ratifications.
  • The 2017 Nobel Prize for Peace was awarded to ICAN, a worldwide coalition of NGOs campaigning against NW. Notably, the same award was given in 2005 to the IAEA’s staff and Director General, basically for the Agency’s unbiased and courageous statements failed to deter the invasion of Iraq.

In such an adverse nuclear climate there are two leaders with a finger on the button, Kim Yong-un and Donald Trump, who according to prevailing assessments have dubious nuclear decision capability. This is the fact that creates the highest current risk of major nuclear threat.

Regarding the tough responsibilities of a US president to decide on pushing the nuclear button in a matter of minutes, with no checks and balances by Congress or anyone else, Bob Woodward recalls (The Washington Post, 12 Nov 2016): «In 2008, after then-President-elect Obama was given one sensitive intelligence briefing at a secure facility in Chicago he joked, “It’s good that there are bars on the windows here because if there weren’t, I might be jumping out.”

A historic period not only for US contemporary politics but for the direction of global developments might prove to be the period 15 October to 15 December 2017. President Trump will apparently submit in the next few days to Congress for approval his decision to decertify Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal. Congress will either approve it or send it back with no action, for the president to implement, or not.

A unilateral decision to scrap the deal would mean that the US would not keep its commitments under an agreement reached not only with Iran but with China, Russia, UK, France and Germany and finally adopted by the EU and endorsed by the UNSC Resolution 2231 on 20 July 2015. Moreover, decertifying the Iran deal will mean that the US disrespects and disagrees with the assessments of the responsible UN organization, the IAEA, that Iran is in compliance with the agreement since implementation day 16 January 2016.

Such a decision will open Pandora’s box. Some negative consequences are obvious. It will cloud Iran’s nuclear and political future, worsen the North Korea crisis, degrade political and economic relations of the US with the other five agreement parties and the EU, and increase the international community’s distrust of the UN system, international law, and justice. It will also severely damage the authority of the world’s nuclear watchdog, the IAEA.

Mitigation and finally elimination of the highest risk factor related to the current major nuclear threat is the topmost task in any comprehensive nuclear security plan. It is therefore now a chief challenge to get the US to preserve global peace, in accordance with its leadership responsibilities.

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