It happened in Alabama last night. A favored candidate of the Republican revolt against its traditional establishment lost to a Democrat in a dyed-red state. Black voters turned out in unprecedented numbers while some Republicans stayed home rather than vote for a racist child molester removed twice from the state bench for defying court orders. My compliments to both groups, though it is still disturbing that upwards of 48% of Alabama voters yesterday thought Roy Moore was a tolerable choice. My compliments also to Doug Jones, the successful Democratic candidate, who refused to abandon his pro-choice, pro-integration positions.
It is also happening with American policy towards North Korea. Secretary of State Tillerson has abandoned the pretense that Pyongyang will have to give up its nuclear weapons before Washington will talk. President Trump’s promise that Kim Jong-un would not get a missile that could deliver a nuclear missile to the US has in effect been abandoned. The North has gotten there, though it likely can’t yet marry the missile to the warhead and enable the warhead to survive re-entry into the atmosphere. Its rapid technological progress lately suggests there is no stopping the North from becoming a full-fledged nuclear weapons state.
This means the US no longer has many options. It can attack the North, but that would trigger a massive artillery barrage against Seoul and much of the rest of South Korea. Escalation to a nuclear exchange would be a real possibility. The only other option is containment and deterrence. There is no real issue of containment with North Korea: its hostility to the South is real, but it is mainly concerned with preservation of its own regime. US officials have been insisting that deterrence is not an option, but it is and they know it. There is no reason to believe that Kim Jong-un would be willing to risk a nuclear exchange except in extremis. He thinks of North Korea’s nuclear weapons as deterring the US from an invasion.
Letting Kim keep his nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles is not good. It will encourage other governments to consider getting the same capabilities, not least because of uncertainty about US commitments. This is especially true for South Korea and Japan, but the Iranians will also be watching what happens with North Korea with an eye to the eventual expiration of many of its commitments in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, aka the Iran nuclear deal). Many countries have given up the nuclear option because they felt more secure without than they would with, but that era seems to be coming to a close.
A world with a lot more nuclear weapons states is no more attractive than a world with Roy Moore in the Senate. We need to be doing everything we can to avoid both. But this President supported Roy Moore and mishandled North Korea. His weakness both at home and abroad is little comfort. Trump could issue a tweet tomorrow that would strip Tillerson of any semblance of credibility and put the US on course towards nuclear war. Transformation to a presidency that is more judicious both domestically and internationally is much to be wished, but little to be expected. Reality bites.
President Trump’s big domestic loss is glaring: Obamacare remains in place and is likely to survive in some form, because the Republicans now need 60 votes in the Senate in order to repeal and replace it. They are going to lose the big tax cuts they proposed yesterday too: no self-respecting Democrat would join such a blatant effort to cut taxes for the well-off, with hardly anything going to the middle class and nothing to the poor while ballooning the deficit. I won’t mention that Trump’s favored candidate lost a primary in Alabama.
The losing doesn’t stop there. The botched response to the hurricane devastation in Puerto Rico looks likely to rival what happened in 2005 in New Orleans. Even the President’s effort to label those who kneel or lock arms during the national anthem played at sport events seems to have backfired, except among his hard-core supporters. Their enthusiasm for the flag they often abuse as clothing is exceeded only by their pleasure in dissing the black players who lead the protests.
But the most important losing is coming in Syria and North Korea, without much in the headlines.
In Syria, Hizbollah and other Shia militias are gaining ground in the east, with ample Russian support. They are also well-embedded in the south, along the border with Israel. The Iranian-backed Shia militia presence inside Syria in strategically important areas is likely the worst long-term outcome of the Syrian debacle for the United States. As Josh Rogin reported yesterday, the Administration seems to have no plan to respond effectively, despite the President’s bombast about Iran.
With North Korea, the Administration’s efforts to squeeze Kim Jung-un hard enough to make him contemplate restraints on his nuclear and missile programs shows no sign of working. Tightened sanctions, US air force flights closer to his borders, and deployment of missile defenses in South Korea and Japan just do not outweigh the advantage Pyongyang will gain from having a credible nuclear threat against US allies and bases in the Asia Pacific and eventually also against Alaska, Hawaii and the lower 48.
The President’s personal insults hurled at Kim have been returned in kind and arguably with better rhetorical flourish (“dotard” beats “Rocket Man” in my estimation). Such tit-for-tat exchanges between leaders make it far less likely that either can back down from the confrontation without serious domestic political implications. Trump will nevertheless likely have to back off his threats of military action, since escalation that would incinerate Seoul with conventional weapons could ensue. Or maybe he won’t back off, in which case the world is in even bigger trouble.
America has elected a loser who has failed to deliver anything beyond a single Supreme Court appointment, plus a lot of vituperation. #MAGA
This was the big deal Trump was pursuing, right up to his becoming a serious candidate for president. His staff thought it would help him get elected. But the deal didn’t go through, and Putin supported Trump’s election anyway.
How do we square that circle?
First, as Julia Ioffe repeatedly notes, it is clear that Putin and Co. did not look favorably on Trump doing business in Russia. Trump tried repeatedly over many years, without success. My guess is that the Russians, who did deals with inside Russia with lots of major international hotel chains, viewed Trump as a two-bit player. They, after all, knew how shaky his finances were, because Russian investors had been propping him up for the better part of two decades. The Russians had no reason to treat a small timer like Trump who likely laundered money for them in the same league with Ritz-Carlton.
So when his minions went to Moscow offering Trump Tower, Putin and Co. had no reason to buy the idea, least of all after oil prices dropped in 2014. But the other part of the deal was attractive: help Trump in the election campaign, make a laughing-stock of the US, and shake peoples’ confidence in the democratic system worldwide. It worked far better than anyone in Moscow likely imagined, but luck is always an important part of diplomacy and politics.
Trump meanwhile could not say anything bad about Putin, even though his Moscow tower deal was scuppered, because doing so would endanger the hot Russian money flowing into his real estate projects. That is true to this day. Even now that he has been caught prevaricating about his company’s and campaign’s relationships with the Russians, and even as president, Trump doesn’t dare put at risk his business empire. The Russians can do without him. He still can’t do without the Russians.
This is a sad and sordid tale. Some Republicans, and some in his own Administration, have indicated their doubts about Trump: whether he represents or even understands American values, whether he knows how to be president, and whether he is able and willing to separate his personal interests from those of the US government. But those are still isolated, even if weighty, voices. The polling, if it can be trusted, suggests Trump’s 30-40% base is sticking with him, they say no matter what. He is unpopular by historical standards, even within the Republican party, but it hasn’t really mattered, yet.
We’ll see what happens when the Congress returns from its non-recess. Will Senator McConnell pretend he didn’t hear Trump’s resounding criticism? Will Senator McCain continue to blast Trump but do nothing more than his one vote against repeal of Obamacare? How about Senator Flake? Will he buckle? Will Congressman Ryan continue his nascent campaign for the 2020 presidential nomination? Unless the Republican leadership starts to organize against Trump, the odds are he’ll make it to the 2018 election and continue on past because the electoral map is so unfavorable to Democrats.
We can therefore be grateful that Bannon and Gorka are back at the Breitbart zoo and the Trump triumvirate (Generals Kelley, Mattis and McMaster) are starting to steer the ship of state, at least on foreign policy (Tillerson much less so, especially after he threw the President under the bus with his doubts about whether Trump spoke for American values). Far be it from me to approve of a soft military coup, but the Afghanistan decision was at least properly staffed out and analyzed. With North Korea firing missiles over Japan, the generals know as well as anyone the horrifying consequences of war with Pyongyang. They will insist on a deliberative process. The same applies to the Iran nuclear deal.
But Trump, left to his own devices, would not be the first American president to take the country to war in part to extract himself from domestic political difficulties. His loud mouth has already threatened fire and fury from locked and loaded weapons. Bluster is only the first stage of Trump’s approach to foreign policy. Distraction is the next phase.
Pantelis Ikonomou, a former IAEA nuclear safeguards inspector who holds a PhD in nuclear physics from the University of Vienna, writes:
Nuclear capability is a key factor in global alignments and strategic balances. President Trump has upset both:
- He has failed to block North Korea’s nuclear program or insist on its adherence to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).
- He has encouraged US friends such as Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia to obtain nuclear weapons, in breach of the NPT, which could initiate such efforts by other middle powers, including Turkey and Egypt.
- During his visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump did not refer to a Middle East Nuclear-Weapons-Free-Zone, a goal set by UN Security Council Resolution 687 (April 1991) and reinforced in the 2010 NPT Review Conference. Neither did the US president urge the Saudis to abandon the notion of a possible nuclear capability under “certain circumstances,” as often expressed by Saudi Arabian officials.
- The US president has suggested abandoning the P5+1 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, which would end the related International Atomic Energy Agency monitoring mission that provides unprecedented transparency for the Iranian nuclear program.
- President Trump additionally disrespected basic international commitments (NPT article VI and the New Start Treaty) by planning to extend and upgrade the US nuclear arsenal.
These moves cast a shadow over the NPT, which is the cornerstone of global arms control and non-proliferation efforts. Lack of US adherence dramatically weakens the treaty, since universality is already its Achilles heel.
The May 2015 NPT review conference in New York failed to produce conclusions, which demonstrated the gap between the nuclear weapons states (and their allies) and the rest of the world. Most UN member states have now joined an effort to produce this year a legally binding global treaty to make nuclear weapons illegal. The objective is to pressure the nuclear powers to eliminate nuclear weapons.
German chancellor Angela Merkel at the Munich Security Conference this year questioned the President’s understanding of the UN and EU. She wondered “will we be able to act in concert together or (will we) fall back into parochial policies?”
Trump has not offered a clear vision of a new world order. Nor does he (and the rest of the Western world) appear ready to accept the ongoing redistribution of power and international realignments. Aristotle defined the “final cause” as “the end, that for the sake of which a thing is done.” Trump’s purposes remain obscure. The world remains concerned and uncertain.
It’s hard not to celebrate the departure of General Flynn from the position of National Security Adviser. He was both pro-Russian and anti-Muslim beyond reason. A sworn enemy of the American intelligence establishment, he got caught by them talking sanctions relief with the Russian ambassador even before Donald Trump was sworn in. Then he allegedly lied to the Vice President about what was said. His comeuppance is well-merited.
Congressional Republicans are now pledging not to investigate him. Why would they do that? They are trying to contain the damage. Their reluctance suggests it is more than likely that Trump knew what Flynn was discussing with the Russians. Flynn’s testimony, or that of others cognizant of the contents of the phone calls, would call into question the President’s own behavior: did he authorize Flynn to discuss sanctions? Was he pleased that Flynn did so? Was this part of a broader scheme of accommodating Moscow’s interests?
The Congressional cover raises other questions: was it part of a deal to obtain Flynn’s resignation? Why wasn’t Flynn just fired? What are his non-disclosure arrangements with the Administration?
Whatever the answers, it is clear that Flynn’s resignation does not solve the basic problem, which is Trump’s unrestrained and so far unconditional desire for an improved relationship with Vladimir Putin. The President has never made it clear what he expects from this improved relationship, only that it would somehow magically make things better in the world. He also hasn’t specified what he would be prepared to give up in return: recognition of Russian annexation of Crimea? Southeastern Ukraine? Independence of Transnistria? Annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which are already nominally independent? NATO accession of Montenegro, now on the Senate’s agenda for ratification? Further NATO expansion in the Balkans? NATO expansion further into Scandinavia? An end to American support for rebels in Syria?
These questions persist even without Flynn. Secretary of Defense Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson may restrain the White House from some particularly bad impulses, especially Trump’s inclination to ditch NATO altogether, but their leverage will be limited. If the President is prepared to pursue a rapprochement with Russia despite the failures recorded by his two immediate predecessors, he will no doubt pick a new National Security Adviser prepared to pursue his policy direction. I doubt that can be David Petraeus, who in any event is already tarred with the brush of security violations. But I trust there are lots of other people who will do the work if given the opportunity.
In the meanwhile, the resignation of the National Security Adviser (and according to the press his deputy) will throw a National Security Council already roiled by leaks into further turmoil. President Trump has already failed to respond with anything but a few thin words of support to Japan when North Korea tested a missile in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. He is looking unprepared for a crisis, which of course means that someone somewhere on earth is likely to think this is a good time to precipitate one. An already messy transition has unsettled America’s relationships across the globe and now seems likely to open the door to a serious security challenge.
It is easy enough to say good riddance to Flynn. But there are real risks involved in a presidency committed to cooperation with Putin’s aggressive Russia and unprepared to meet even the challenge of a North Korean missile test.
I’m doing a press briefing on the implications of the American election for foreign policy in a few hours. Here are the speaking notes I’ve prepared for myself:
- It is a pleasure to be with you tonight, as America concludes an ugly election campaign and decides on its 45th president.
- I won’t pretend to be neutral: I have supported Hillary Clinton with words, money, and even knocking on doors in West Philadelphia.
- But in these opening remarks, I would like to focus first not on the candidates but rather on the process, which is a complicated one.
- One consequence is that there is little uniformity: as you’ll see tonight, the states will close their polls at different times, starting in just a few minutes at 7 pm with Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia.
- The initial results will likely favor Trump, but swing states North Carolina and Ohio close their polls at 7:30 pm and by 8 pm lots of Clinton states close their polls.
- Key then will be Florida and Pennsylvania, and at 9 pm Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin. Clinton could be in trouble if she doesn’t win there.
- In the meanwhile, you’ll be getting exit polling from many of the “swing” states, those that might go one way or the other. Exit polls in my view are not terribly reliable: sampling errors can be significant, and in many states a significant percentage of people have already voted.
- Not only are rules and procedures decided by the states, but the vote in each state determines that state’s votes in the electoral college that meets in state capitals on December 19.
- Each state has a number of electoral votes equal to its number of Representatives and Senators. Because each state has two senators, this favors less populous (more Republican) states, but the reliably Democratic District of Columbia, which has no senators, gets three votes as well.
- As a result, an election can be close in the popular vote (polling suggests Trump and Clinton are within 3 or 4 percentage points of each other), but the electoral college difference can be big.
- If Trump were to get fewer than 200 electoral votes (and Clinton the remaining 338 plus), that might be considered a landslide, even if the popular vote is close.
- It is also possible for a candidate to lose the popular vote and win in the electoral college. That happened with George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000. I went to bed convinced Gore had won.
- By morning, the Florida controversy had erupted and the election was eventually decided in the Supreme Court, which allowed Florida’s determination of the winner to stand and Bush to become President without a popular vote majority.
- The lesson here is don’t go to bed too early tonight. It may be late before the outcome is clear and unequivocal. In the last three elections it was past 11 pm.
- What does it all mean for foreign policy?
- First, I think an uncontested and clear outcome is highly desirable. The world does not need another month of uncertainty about who will be the 45th president.
- Second, there are dramatic differences between Trump, who prides himself on unpredictability, and Clinton, who has a long track record well within the post-911 foreign policy consensus.
- Trump is erratic, inconsistent, and hyperbolic. He wants to put America first, which he has defined not only as ignoring others, blocking immigrants, and doubting America’s alliances but also destroying the existing international trading system and illogically pursuing a bromance with Vladimir Putin.
- Clinton is committed, studious, internationalist, all perhaps to a fault. She once pursued a reset with Putin that failed. She wants to maintain the stability of the international system and restore American authority some think President Obama surrendered in his retrenchment.
- A word or two about what this all means in some important parts of the world.
- In the Middle East and Europe, including the Baltics and Ukraine, Clinton is far more likely to push back on Russian aggressiveness than Trump.
- In Asia, Trump has occasionally talked tough about China’s trade policy and suggested that South Korea and Japan might want to get their own nuclear weapons.
- Clinton would certainly not want that but might also be tough with China on trade. She would likely want to continue to build up American alliances in Asia, including with India and Vietnam.
- Both Clinton and Trump oppose the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), but Clinton would likely want to renegotiate parts of it and proceed while Trump would scrap it entirely.
- Presidents do not always get to decide which issues they focus on. I would expect Moscow and Beijing, and perhaps others, to take an early opportunity to test the new president.
- An incident involving China in the South China Sea? North Korean launch of a missile that could reach the US? A new push by Russian-supported insurgents in Donbas? An incident with Iranian ships or missiles in the Gulf? A massive cyberattack?
- Clinton understands the capabilities and limits of American power, as well as the need for allied support. Trump does not. He mistakes bravado for strength and unpredictability for leverage.
- Most of the world understands this and favors Clinton. Moscow may not be alone in favoring Trump, but it is certainly lonely.
- Those of us who enjoy foreign policy for a living—Republicans as well as Democrats like me—will likewise be almost universally relieved if she, not he, becomes president.
- But the evening is young. Let’s enjoy it with some questions!