Secretary of State Tillerson today in a speech at the Hoover Institution outlined US goals in Syria. Tobias Schneider summarized them succinctly on Twitter:
- Enduring defeat of ISIS & AQ in Syria
- Political resolution to Syria conflict (w/o Assad)
- Diminishing Iranian influence
- Create conditions for safe refugee return
- Syria free from WMD
Those sound in principle desirable to me, though they leave out an important one: preventing instability in Syria’s neighbors, including Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan (all more or less US friends if not allies).
The problem lies one step further on in defining a strategy: the ways and means. Tobias and others on Twitter see this set of goals as a license for an unending US commitment to remain in Syria and to “stabilize” it. Hidden under that rock, which Tillerson was careful to say was not a synonym for nationbuilding, lies a commitment to guess what? Nationbuilding.
But let’s deal first with the the ways and means issue. As I see it, this is all we’ve got going for us in Syria:
- US military presence and capability, including control through proxies of major oil-producing wells and maybe a proxy presence along the borders with Israel and Jordan.
- A UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution (2254) that outlines a political process to prepare a constitution, hold elections, and begin a transition to a democratic system.
- The US veto in the UNSC over any successor resolution that approves and advances the political process.
- US aid to parts of Syria outside Assad’s control, US clout in the IMF and World Bank , and influence over European and Gulf aid.
Is this enough to deliver the five goals? I doubt it. Take just refugee return: it requires that people not be forced back but that they return of their own volition. The trickle (50,000 Tillerson said) who have returned in the last year are truly a drop in the bucket. Most refugees (upwards of 5.5 million if I remember correctly) won’t return until Assad and his security forces are gone, or at least blocked from acting in parts of Syria. Likewise the political resolution, diminishing Iranian influence, and getting rid of WMD also depend on getting rid of Assad, which is a necessary but not sufficient condition.
Even the enduring defeat of ISIS and Al Qaeda likely require Assad to be pushed aside, as he has consistently used his forces preferentially against the moderate opposition rather than the extremists, with whom his regime had an excellent cooperative relationship when US forces were in Iraq from 2003 to 2011. Assad will want to keep some of them around even now, as they help to justify his brutal repression of the Syrian population.
But getting rid of Assad means, let’s face it, rebuilding the Syrian state, which is unlikely to survive in a form able to deliver on the above goals once he is gone. He has made sure of that by waging war against his own population for six long years.
Remember too: he has Russian and Iranian backing to remain in power.
Without better means, it looks to me as if the US is in Syria for a long time and will ultimately fail. That’s not an attractive proposition. The question is whether it would be better to leave now, or soon. Do we have to stay to do nationbuilding? How can it be done best? How long will it take? How much will it cost? More on that in a future post.
….to President of the United States (on my first try). I think that would qualify as not smart, but genius….and a very stable genius at that!
When you need to claim stability and intelligence in reaction to criticism, you are neither stable nor intelligent. President Trump has obviously lent credibility to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. His petulant and egotistical reactions to the book’s criticism demonstrate that he is unable and unwilling to do the hard work of controlling his impulses and gaining the understanding a president requires. No one should be surprised: this has been obvious for some time.
White House aide Stephen Miller offered a determined defense of Trump against Steve Bannon’s allegations in the Wolff book this morning on CNN:
Notable is that Miller never denies explicitly that one or more of the Russians met with Trump, which is the question asked at the start. That is far more important than the controversy that has erupted about how Jake Tapper ended the interview. It seems the President’s number one surrogate was told to stick with the claim that the whole book is made up, rather than explicitly rebut one of the most inflammatory suggestions in it. If Trump did in fact meet with the Russians, that would end any credibility his claim of “no collusion” still has.
While the Washington commentariat has written off the Wolff book as not likely to affect Trump’s base or cause the Republican majority in both Houses of Congress to back off their loyalty to him, I think Trump is fatally compromised. A candidate for president who was unable to constrain his campaign officials and his son from meeting with Russian intelligence agents offering help during the campaign, and who may himself have met with them, should not be sitting in the Oval Office, quite apart from his unsuitable temperament. We should, of course, not forget that candidate Trump appealed publicly for Russian help with Hillary Clinton’s emails, so in that sense collusion is obvious.
Our very stable genius has gotten himself into a deep hole. I don’t really see how he will climb out. But the American political system is for the moment unable to do what is necessary: forcing him to step aside or be replaced, either via impeachment or the 25th Amendment. As long as he lasts, he will be doing damage to America’s standing in the world. His domestic weakness will be reflected one way or another in foreign policy, and his unpredictability, which UN Ambassador Nikki Haley has been lauding, will cause both adversaries and friends to hedge.
Only an unstable dummy would not change course. But that’s what we’ve got. America has survived many mistakes. It may not survive this one.
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:
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
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.
Ivan Angelovski of the Belgrade weekly NIN did this excessively long interview with me last week. I gather it was published yesterday or today:
HOW DO YOU SEE THE WORLD IN 2018? WHAT ARE THE HOTTEST SPOTS?
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.
HOW DO YOU EXPECT THE NORTH KOREA ISSUE TO UNFOLD?
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.
YOU DIDN’T MENTION THE ISSUE OF JERUSALEM?
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?
USA NEVER LOOKED MORE ALONE THAN TODAY.
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.
USA ALWAYS HAD DIFFERENT VOICES FROM THE CONGRESS AND THE ADMINISTRATION IN THE WHITE HOUSE, BUT NOW IT SEEMS THERE ARE DIFFERENT VOICES IN THE ADMINISTRATION ITSELF
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?
TO WHAT DO YOU CREDIT THIS?
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
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?