January 11, 2021

How Hard to Fight Insurrection?

What is the best way for the US government, and the new Biden administration, to respond to the insurrection of January 6, 2021? Is a full-court press the best approach to strengthen US democracy? For example, the US government could

  • Impeach Trump and push for conviction (or a resolution censuring Trump is a lesser option)
  • Charge as many of the Capitol insurrectionists as possible with crimes
  • Censure members of Congress who supported the voter fraud fraud even after the Capitol was attacked
  • Disbar Trump’s lawyers who pushed baseless voter fraud cases in tens of cases in November/December 2020
  • Step up Department of Homeland Security and FBI (and others) activity versus white supremacists
  • With linkage to improving voting rights protection as well as addressing structural racism

Talking with Fareed Zakaria, Anne Applebaum said the Biden administration will need to pursue accountability *and* move forward on general needs (e.g. bolstering the US economy, fighting Covid19) at the same time. Is she correct?

More generally, what’s the right mix of coercion and co-optation for a democrat battling on behalf of a democratic system? What approach is most likely to weaken violent, pro-Trump, anti-democratic US actors as opposed to embolden them? Will a crackdown and harsh political measures lead the anti-democratic movement to escalate or de-escalate?

What historical examples, in the United States or elsewhere, are useful to think about? Perhaps Reconstruction (and its end) in the United States?

I don’t have answers. I’m just thinking out loud here.

July 15, 2020

Every Israel-Palestine Solution Faces Major Obstacles

Peter Beinart’s long essay and op-ed noting the end of the two-state solution and embracing one-state with equality for all has made quite a splash, or maybe a thud, depending how you view that idea. One state with equal rights for all does have major feasibility problems. But I think people forget every proposed solution has major drawbacks. Every single one.

The two-state solution, the State of Israel alongside the State of Palestine (in Gaza and most of the West Bank), has been the diplomatic goal for two decades or more, to no avail. It has a bad negotiations track record with prominent diplomatic failures at Camp David (2000) and in the Annapolis process (2008).

If, as two states envisions, the West Bank is to be the core of the new State of Palestine, how do you deal with hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews living in settlements in the West Bank as well as the accompanying infrastructure and Israeli military forces? Israel would annex a little bit of land with large settlements (land swaps) and perhaps compensate other Jews to move. But there could easily be 100,000 settlers who want to stay in the West Bank in the midst of what is intended to be the State of Palestine.

Not surprisingly, some view the two-state option as dead, seeing the whole paradigm as lost. You cannot unscramble that egg. Others opt for a confederal solution where Jewish settlers would stay in the West Bank but have Israeli citizenship; I think not having full rights where you live would mean trouble.

The Trump administration chose to propose two states in name only. The plan asks for no real Israeli concessions and makes many Palestinian steps contingent on US and Israeli approval. The plan’s proposal to keep settlements in place, with 15 of them remaining inside the supposed territory of the fragmented “state” of Palestine, was one of several of the signals in the plan that the Palestinian state is a phantom, not a sovereign state.

What about a one-state solution, as Beinart now favors? In his preferred version, a single state including what is today Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, could be defined as a binational, democratic state where all inhabitants would have citizenship and equal rights. Yet most                                                                                                                                                                                               Palestinians and Israelis have not embraced this approach. It would require today’s State of Israel to downgrade its Jewish national identity. That seems highly unlikely, a powerful state and its national group willingly negotiating away their identity and a chunk of their political power.

On top of that, this would take place amidst a demographic balance that probably favors Palestinians, not Jews, in the long-term. Overnight, Jews could become a minority in the state. Even if Israeli Jews had a protected Jewish communal status and the Law of Return granting Jews automatic citizenship in Israel lived on in some form, most Israeli Jews would see this change as a watering down of their national prerogatives at a time when Israel is far more powerful than Hamas, Fatah, or the Palestinian Authority.

Since Israel dominates all the land already, what if instead of a two-state pathway, it opts for one Jewish state where Palestinians have partial or no rights? Israel’s possible annexation of more of the West Bank would move in this direction.

The inequality and total absence of Palestinian self-determination would not only raise ethical and democratic concerns, but also could mean prolonged violence and insecurity for Israel. As I delve into in my forthcoming book, military force, repression, and coercion have their limits. While relatively weak, Palestinians have national identity and agency. They won’t simply concede and go quiet.

To date, the United States and European Union have been meek, rarely doing more than criticizing Israel verbally. If that changed – and I’m not convinced it will – and either sought to impose economic and political sanctions on Israel, Israel might find itself without a political protector (Washington) and without one or both of its key trading partners.

If Israel pursues one Jewish state with the subjugation of the Palestinian people, can Israel achieve full international legitimacy, including diplomatic relations and recognized international borders? I’m skeptical, but it does seem to be the current Israeli government’s hope despite some warnings otherwise. The idea that ties between Israel and Gulf Arab states are the start of an Arab world disconnection from the Palestinian cause is a specific example of a broader Israeli hope that one Jewish state – de factor or de jure including the West Bank – could be compatible with and international legitimacy.

At the same time, I must note that Israel as one Jewish state that represses Palestinians and rejects Palestinian national self-determination does have an important advantage, inertia. Whether Israel annexes more of the West Bank or not, the status quo is much closer to one Jewish state in control of all the people and all the land than it is to either two states or a single state built on equal rights.

Thus, maybe the question is not between a one-state or a two-state solution. Rather, will the identity of the one state that actually exists in 2020 ever change? Maybe Ian Lustick is right that if the status quo, “a one-state reality,” is ever transformed into a democracy, it will take place over “decades and generations” not years.

Each proposed resolution has major problems with feasibility, implementation, or both. That Peter Beinart now supports an idea that faces huge obstacles does not make him an outlier.





January 13, 2020

Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Israeli Citizenship

Nir Hasson reports in Ha’aretz that in 2018, Israel granted citizenship to 1200 Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem. Unlike Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank or in Gaza, Palestinians in East Jerusalem who are permanent residents in (East) Jerusalem may apply for citizenship.

He notes that this 1200 is “the largest number since Israel captured the eastern half of the city in 1967.” The Ha’aretz headline write agrees, noting “Israel Picks Up Pace…”

As Hasson also details, the rejections were even higher, with 1361 in 2018. That is a total of 2561* applicants and a 53% rejection rate, a rate that seems to be roughly in line with informal numbers Hasson mentions in the article from 2009 forward.

[*I am assuming here that the only options are success or rejection. An earlier International Crisis Group {ICG} report did note a third category, deferrals. For 2001-2010, “Roughly one third were approved, one third were denied and one third were deferred.”]

The larger point is that several factors affect the number of Palestinians in Jerusalem who become Israeli citizens:

1) They have to choose to apply. Most do not.

2) Those who apply have to be approved. In 2018, Israel rejected slightly more than it approved. I assume a 53% rejection rate, if roughly constant year-to-year, would deter some potential applicants.

3) A third factor is that some years Israel was also stripping residency rights from thousands of Palestinians in Jerusalem. The same 2012 ICG report explains:

More than 7,000 Palestinians (out of 293,000) lost their Jerusalem residency rights between 2006 and 2011 – as many as in the previous four decades combined – as Israel claimed that they were living outside the city’s borders, and Jerusalem was no longer their “centre of life”.

Now residency is not the same as citizenship – it offers fewer rights – but it is the status of the vast majority of Palestinians in Israeli-defined East Jerusalem. So even as some Palestinians move to a status, Israeli citizenship, that increases their rights, some number are losing status and rights.

A 2018 human rights report said Israel had stripped residency from 14,595 Palestinians since 1967. So it may be that the pace of Israel’s stripping of residency rights has declined since 2012. [I assume more year-by-year details are out there somewhere for those interested.] But either way, it is another tool to limit the Palestinian population and its members’ rights in Jerusalem. Even if it drops off in use, it could be re-activated should Israel feel the need or desire.

The larger point is that this combination of officials tools – granting citizenship, rejecting citizenship applicants, and stripping residency rights – give the Government of Israel a lot of control over the Palestinian population. Given that, it seems very unlikely to me that Palestinian Jerusalemites could ever have much impact on Israel’s ethno-national demographic proportions under the current circumstances. In short, 1200 new citizens a year does not re-shape a country of about 9 million.


January 4, 2020

On the US Killing of an Iranian General

A collection of thoughts on the US killing of Iran’s IRGC commander, Qasem Soleimani. I mostly comment on the US foreign policy angle. My bottom line: Be wary about the use of military force and claims of its great success.

[Caveat: It is still early. More information will come out, more events will happen. These are preliminary reactions.]

1. I am not convinced we are headed to an Iran-US war. I am not convinced we are not headed to an Iran-US war.

2. If such a war breaks out or if the back-and-forth violence worsens, I (and many others) worry for the people of Iraq, which well could be the battle field in a US-Iranian confrontation. Iraqis have suffered so much already.

3. It will be hard to judge if this US attack was a success for the United States because the US government has stated so many different rationales:

  • stop an imminent attack and save American lives (more on that below)(General Mark Milley to a reporter)(Republican Senate candidate Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to reporters)
  • deter a future attack (or maybe compel Iran to stop the attacks of recent months like downing a US drone, hitting Saudi oil facilities, rocketing an Iraqi military base with US personnel on it)
    • restore deterrence given that previous Trump administration threats had not stopped Iranian-supported attacks on US allies and interests. I say restore – or maybe establish is a better word – because the recent Iranian and US military moves demonstrate US deterrence either failed OR had never been established. At a briefing on the attack on January 3, 2020, a “Senior State Department Official” said
      • 1) The US threatened Iran: “I’m saying if you look at all of the statements that the Secretary and the President and I have said over the last year and a half, and there’s – it was said in different ways, but the thrust of it is if the Iranian regime or its proxies conduct armed attacks that injure American personnel, interests – there’s a number of ways we have said it – there will be decisive action.”
      • 2) Iran ignored the US threats and attacked US and allied targets anyway. After all the Iranian “provocations,” he continued, “it was necessary to fulfill the threat.” The United States used force.
      • In sum, US deterrence failed. 1) the United States said attacks would lead to “decisive action” against Iran 2) Iran continued attacks anyway. It was not deterred. It was not scared off by the potential costs. Will that change now? Will Iran *now* be deterred from attacking US personnel and interest? I’m skeptical, but I don’t know.
  • avenge previous Iranian attacks and Soleimani’s strategic role in many past attacks on US personnel (and others). Punish Iran.
  • a morality play: Soleimani was bad or evil and must be killed. A “thug.”
  • bring about regime change, as in the fall of Iran’s Islamic regime

Other explanations include:

  • Trump wanted to divert attention from his impeachment and the upcoming (I think) trial in the US Senate.
  • Trump likes using US military force, especially in highly-publicized ways; it makes him feel powerful.
  • Trump et al thought this would be a good story for his re-election campaign (coupled with the killing of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi).
  • Obama (and GW Bush) chose not to target Soleimani. For Trump, another ‘I’m better than Obama’ moment.

Judging success presupposes we agree on success at what.

4. I’ve seen unconfirmed suggestions the Government of Israel may have been told in advance. Everyone else, and possibly Israel as well, was in the dark, it seems. Europe, including close allies like England and Germany, were not told. The US did not tell its Gulf allies like Saudi Arabia (via AP reporter).

However, guests at Mar-a-Lago knew in advance. Also, Pres. Trump talked with Sen. Lindsey Graham about it on the golf course.

5. The attack and the discussion since demonstrates many of the shortcomings of the Trump administration:

  • poor alliance relations (see above)
  • lack of transparency (e.g., short, limited, and combative briefings for reporters)(lack of visitor logs to see who President Trump has met with of late.)
  • continuous record of falsehoods (e.g., see Daniel Dale‘s long list of thousands of Trump lies) and Orwellian doublespeak (Trump: “We took action last night to stop a war. We did not take action to start a war.”)
  • impulsive decisionmaking (little process or preparation)(and limited expertise and empty positions)

Each shortcoming has an impact. Allies might be unprepared to offer much rhetorical support and unprepared for the fallout from the attack. Allies or others might be needed to mediate. Lack of information and falsehoods or spin related to the the attack undermine support for the military move. In terms of evidence, the WaPo columnist Anne Applebaum asked a very important question: “why should we believe any accounts, official or off the record, of what Trump claims he is doing in the Middle East?” Impulsive decisionmaking makes for poor alliance relations and poor preparation to frame the narrative of the attack beyond Fox News and the far right outlets.

6. The word imminent suggests Iran or its proxies, at Maj. Gen. Soleimani’s direction, were about to attack the US or an ally. But for the US strike, an attack would have been launched.

Yet the United States has provided no public evidence for that central claim. After hearing what the State Department had to say, Joe Cirincione concluded, “They did not provide one iota of evidence to back up their claims of imminent attack.” Rukmini Callimachi, a New York Times reporter, checked “in with sources, including two US officials who had intelligence briefings after the strike.” She tweeted:

According to them, the evidence suggesting there was to be an imminent attack on American targets is “razor thin”.

After the attack and a closed intelligence briefing, Laura Rozen (Al-Monitor ) reported

[US Rep. Adam] Schiff says he was briefed on the intel, but still has concerns and questions, including: “Why was the decision to kill Soleimani made now, when prior Administrations of both parties considered the risk of escalation to outweigh the benefits?”

In short, the case that the US stopped an imminent attack is thus far not strong, to say the least. That Soleimani was planning attacks in a broad, strategic sense has long – years and years – been true. But that is not the same as making a claim about an imminent attack at the tactical level.

The word imminent is important for legal reasons and gauging whether the attack was justified in terms of self-defense (thread). Moreover, I’d add that the question of whether the attack was imminent also has a non-legal dimension: public opinion and spinning the attack. If people think, ‘omg, they were *about* to attack us and we took this guy out,’ they are probably more likely to support the attack. And vice-versa.

[ADDED, January 5: The LA Times went into detail on US decisionmaking leading up to the killing (so did Politico – tick-tock). You can’t square the LA Times report that the highest US officials did not think Trump would pick the option of killing Soleimani with the claim that Soleimani was planning an imminent attack on the United States that had to be stopped right now. If the latter were true, why – at a meeting with Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Gen. Mark Milley – was the fact that Trump picked the option of killing Soleimani seen as an unexpected choice by those present? By emphasizing that most (all?) top officials thought Trump would not choose to target Soleimani, this evidence further undermines the argument that they thought an attack was imminent. I would 100% expect the US Secretaries of State and Defense and the chair of the JCS would press for US action in the face of a potential attack if they truly felt it was imminent.]

7. The Iran-US sequence of events is VERY important for thinking about what military force does and does not do. What concerns me here and in general is the prominent idea that military force is the only effective tool available to policymakers trying to achieve their national security goals.

For example, US Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) spoke to National Public Radio last night: “Well for those of us who work in this business, I can tell you that in the Middle East, weakness is not appreciated. The only thing that’s appreciated is strength.” (I’ll set aside that cultural angle, that somehow in Risch’s view strategy and geopolitics work differently in the Middle East).

The larger argument – encapsulated in Robert Jervis’s deterrence model as others have noted on twitter – is that using force and projecting strength causes adversaries to back down; “forbearance” (a word Sen. Risch used) and conciliation only invite further demands and attacks.

Is this sometimes accurate? Sure. But not here. The United States, at the direction of the president, withdrew from a diplomatic agreement (no appeasement!), the JCPOA, and began a sanctions campaign against Iran dubbed MAXIMUM PRESSURE. With all this strength and US display of power, the logic outlined here should have led Iran to capitulate if Risch (and others) had it right.

Capitulation could have meant sign a new, less favorable nuclear agreement. Iran didn’t. Instead, it resumed nuclear research and increased its militant confrontations against US & its allies – attack a Saudi facility, down a US drone, missile attack on base in Iraq etc. Items that are exactly what the argument did NOT predict

I’ve long been interested in this argument in the Arab-Israeli context, something I write about in my forthcoming book, The Sword is not enough. One thing we often see in that context is the way the over-emphasis on military force undermines diplomatic off-ramps and the possibility of negotiations.

In sum, the United States got tough, and Iran didn’t cave. Instead, Iran increased its attacks and challenges. Iran did not ‘appreciate’ US strength. Let’s see what happens next.

You might also think of it in reverse: Of late, Iran kept hitting the United States and its allies and, in the end, the United States escalated its use of military force rather than backing down and/or sitting down with Iran in order to negotiate.

8. A brief point I’ve sort of already covered. The United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, an agreement which was working to limit Iran’s nuclear program. The Trump administration decried that agreement in part because it did not address Iranian-sponsored terrorism and militancy across the region. Today, after Trump policy changes, Iran is closer to nuclear proliferation and is sponsoring more aggressive actions. Thus far, Trump policy has made the things Trump officials said they cared about worse, not better.

9. The use of force in and of itself is not a success or US gain. But that has become the frequent Republican response whrn the US military takes action (e.g., former-WI Gov. Scott Walker here or this Tomi Lahren). The reality is that a national interests view asks different questions:
What did the use of force achieve?
Was it a vital or important goal?
Was it the least costly approach?

It reminds me a bit of the George W. Bush administration. As I argued in International Security, President GW Bush’s Middle East policies illustrated that power and influence are not the same. Sure the US has massive military capabilities in 2020. It also did in 2003. But how you use that power – the policy choices – can mean you end up with an Iraq debacle, not glorious liberation. In 2003, the Bush administration was overly enamored with the use of miltary force, too dismissive of diplomatic tools, and not great at learning or adapting as contrary evidence surfaced. Sound familiar?

10. Can we retire the claim, often noted in news stories, that Trump is an isolationist who wants to withdraw from the Middle East? His concrete steps suggest otherwise:

All that said, at the end of the day I agree with Prof. Steve Saideman:



August 4, 2019

We can change this: We can lower gun violence

At these moments, after terrible, widely-publicized (or not) shootings in California, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Ohio, despair comes easily. We express horror, and we demand action. Most importantly, we ask why nothing ever changes, as if there is nothing we can do.

I am simply here to remind you that change can happen.

I know that because we see countless examples of countries that have no mass shootings. Many countries have widespread use of violent video games, widespread adoption of social media, and/or significant mental health issues in the general population and yet have no mass shootings. I am all for better mental health coverage – how about national legislation to guarantee affordable mental health coverage to all! – but that does not remove the need to address guns and the ideological framework that welcomes their use in such horrific ways.

I know that because the National Rifle Association is not invincible as it once seemed. We may not have the NRA on the ropes, but the pressure is on and cracks are appearing.

I know that because the grassroots gun reform movement is real, and growing, and national. It is in blue states and it is in red states. It is @MomsDemand (Moms Demand Action) and @Everytown (Everytown for Gun Safety) and Mothers United Against Violence and many other organizations. It is @AMarch4OurLives. It is people protesting, holding vigils, calling legislators, packing hearing rooms, testifying, donating, voting, and educating.

I know that because my state suffered a horrific mass shooting in 2012, when 26 people were gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown. I vividly remember the shock of the day. This can’t be true, can it? Six-year olds? But it was. And then, on July 28, 2019, there was Stephen Romero, age six, shot dead in Gilroy, California. Maybe when he passed, I thought, the kids who died at Sandy Hook gently held him in their arms.

And yet Connecticut has not stood still. In the face of Republicans repeatedly blocking sensible gun reform at the national level in Congress, the Connecticut legislature has moved forward with changes at the state level. Just this year, our governor signed into law three new items. As of October 1, 2019, guns must be safely stored in homes where there are minors, and guns left in an unattended vehicle must be stored in a trunk or other locked area. A new Connecticut law also prohibits ghost guns.

State and local laws are not enough, and cannot replace national action. Not every state effort will lead to new laws. But when successful, such efforts are an incremental advance. Even in defeat, they will further raise awareness, draw attention to the gun crisis, and build networks of like-minded people.

Yesterday, Kieran Healy, a professor of sociology at Duke University, wrote, “The United States has chosen, and continues to choose, to enact ritual compliance to an ideal of freedom in a way that results in a steady flow of blood sacrifice.”

I agree with him 100%. The language of choice means we live in a reality that can be changed. We can end the steady flow of blood sacrifice. Not in a day, not in a week, but over time. So mourn, memorialize, cry, get angry. And then use our democratic political system to make change happen.

July 20, 2018

US Effectively Ends Israel-Palestine Mediation

Back in December, I wrote that the Trump administration’s formal embrace of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital told us a lot about the kind of Israeli-Palestinian agreement they would put on the table. It would be close to the Netanyahu regime’s view.

The US administration still has not released such a proposal but as things have heated up between Gaza and Israel, the three key US officials on Israel-Palestine besides President Trump –  – have penned an op-ed that could have been written by Netanyahu or pretty much any Likudnik. It is a full-throated endorsement of the right-wing Israeli view of the situation with Gaza. In the whole op-ed, Israel is not an actor; it is only acted upon. The implication is Israel shares zero responsibility for the broken and deadly situation.

The reality is quite different. Neither Hamas nor the Government of Israel have been willing to negotiate – directly or through intermediaries – to make the kinds of concessions that would bring about a substantive change in the strategic situation. The instability, suffering, PTSD, and dead that are part of the status quo are a choice (contra the Likud view). The parties could pursue negotiations and change the reality in which they live. But they both have to make concessions.

What concessions you might ask? I think the Int’l Crisis Group has laid it out in great detail; I’d urge you to read their brief closely, both in terms of what it would take and in terms of the low odds of success:

This leaves one other main option, aside from war or continued escalations, and that is to have an intra-Palestinian reconciliation deal under which the PA fully takes over governance in Gaza, relieving Hamas of responsibility for the Gaza economy and providing Israel with an acceptable partner in Gaza with which it can cooperate on development and easing the blockade (Israel is unlikely to fully lift the blockade, even after the PA takes over).

Crisis Group is not optimistic, but the brief does offer a nuanced understanding of the situation on the ground and a reasoned consideration of the policy options. Kushner et al, the ones actually leading US policy, offer nothing of the sort.

In academic parlance, the United States has long been a ‘biased’ mediator in this conflict, closely allied with one of the parties to the dispute. This WaPo op-ed is beyond that; it offers no hint of a United States as mediator of any sort.

May 22, 2018

The Costs of Neglecting Diplomacy

From the start, the Trump administration has not taken diplomacy seriously. Or maybe that is an understatement; from the start, the Trump administration has been hostile toward diplomacy as a tool in the US foreign policy toolbox. Now we are starting to see the impact on real issues like in trade talks with China and on options for dealing with Iran.

If we think of diplomacy as seeking negotiated outcomes, being willing to make mutual concessions, and building the organizational capacity to pursue the first two points, this administration is not keen on diplomacy. Perhaps the idea conflicts with Pres. Trump’s bullying nature and Art of the Deal bravado. The Trump administration has gutted the main US diplomatic agency, the Department of State. The administration has been slow to fill State positions and multiple senior State professionals have resigned (e.g. Feeley). Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s isolation from the professionals and their expertise and the proposed budget cuts at State sent a clear message of disinterest and neglect.

President Trump may not care. Recall he told an interviewer that in terms of foreign policymaking, “I’m the only one that matters.” That attitude + twitter put US negotiators in a tough position, not knowing if and when they will be undercut or US policy will suddenly shift.

Frequently, however, we see the need for a functioning diplomatic apparatus that helps determine US policy (internally) and then negotiates with other parties. Trump is fine at unilateral policy but that doesn’t require diplomacy. He can withdraw from treaties (TPP, Paris climate accords) or move an embassy to Jerusalem, for example. But he has not had any successful negotiated agreement, nor signs that one is on the way. (And note that even when Trump took a step that an ally, Israel, welcomed, he did so unilaterally and thereby forfeited the possibility of getting an Israeli concession in return for moving the embassy.)

Two recent items suggest the problems with neglecting your diplomats. The first example is that even as Michael Singh applauded the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear agreement), he highlighted the power of multilateral sanctions. Singh himself noted the centrality of diplomacy in a campaign of “maximum pressure” against Iran: “As a senior U.S. official responsible for Iran policy from 2006 to 2008, I know from personal experience that even when the United States was strategically aligned with its diplomatic partners, sanctions required relentless diplomacy in order to be effective.” (emphasis added) Or, Singh, adds: “Diplomacy, not just market signals, will be required to amplify whatever pressure the United States can generate alone, and translate that pressure into policy outcomes.”

Especially given that the US is now NOT strategically aligned with its diplomatic partners on Iran, on what basis should we believe the US can practice relentless diplomacy? All the evidence suggests the opposite. Trump is an inattentive president not open to studying up on issues. The administration lacks a strong inter-agency foreign policy process. etc.

Given that the US is juggling multiple issues with China including trade, North Korea, and Iran, Singh writes, “Diplomacy will also be required to manage the policy tradeoffs looming on the horizon.” Yet on what international issue has the Trump administration set out clear priorities in the face of competing needs and demands?

Singh does write that “Conducting such diplomacy today will be difficult,” but, in his eyes, only because Washington’s European allies are unhappy with US policy. He makes no mention of the US administration’s hostility toward and neglect of diplomacy as an obstacle to its effective use.

In a second example, Ilan Goldenberg builds on a New York Times article about China-US talks to detail Trump administration diplomatic weakness in action. In short, the very things that worry me about Singh’s reliance on relentless diplomacy we learn have led to a mess for the US delegation to China-US negotiations. Some of Goldenberg’s thoughts:

Being part of the international system, let alone the leader of much of it, requires extensive consultation, information sharing, policy coordination, dispute management and resolution, priority setting, and the like with both friends and enemies (not to mention friends you treat like enemies and enemies you treat like friends). If the United States ignores those steps and, in some cases, even lacks the qualified personnel in place who would do such things, I fully expect this China-US example to serve as a template for what we should expect when the Trump administration negotiates.


November 17, 2017

Key Elements of Trump Foreign Policy

Ten months into the Trump administration, what are the key elements of Trump foreign policy? A few thoughts.

On policy issues, the Trump administration has favored

1) Downplaying human rights concerns and democracy promotion (e.g. warm embrace of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Philippines. Mostly quiet regarding Israeli settlements). Whether this de-emphasis is important depends in part on whether you think this is a rhetorical shift or a substantive change in US policy.

2) Replacing multilateral trade deals with, in theory, bilateral ones. The most prominent example was the US pullout from the TPP. I have not seen evidence of any new bilateral trade agreements or negotiations toward that end. (But I’m not a trade person so please let me know what I missed.)

3) Rejecting climate change science and action, whether that means pulling out of the Paris agreement or silencing US reports and scientists at EPA and elsewhere in the US government. This reminds me of a related domestic-international issue, the willingness to sacrifice US science leadership or university R&D leadership – and the related impact on the US economy and US innovation – in order to attack scientists and universities.

4) Making tighter borders, lowering immigration, and reducing refugee acceptance.  Deportations. Given the president’s expressed sympathy for white supremacists after Charlottesville, I’d guess this is a bigoted fear of people who are not white. Other words that come to mind include nativism and xenophobia. President Trump’s base likes his opposition to a multi-ethnic, global United States, and he is happy to oblige.

5) More amenable to sticking with current US allies after some early whinging about traditional European allies and burden-sharing. He seems to have adopted a new friend, Putin’s Russia. More to come on that one!

6) Possibly downplaying negotiations in potential conflict situations, e.g. Iran, North Korea, Israel-Palestine. But this hostility toward negotiating could vary, e.g. the recent report on future Israel-Palestine talks. Trump has been highly inconsistent regarding whether he thinks the United States should negotiate with North Korea.

Meanwhile, Secretary Rex Tillerson is emptying the State Department of experienced and capable diplomats. The loss of experience, unfilled positions, and disinterest in consulting expertise further undermines the diplomatic pathway. Overall – not just at State – how much strategic planning happening? For example, it is hard to discern any kind of vision for US policy toward the Middle East.

7) A heavy emphasis on military force. The dominant (literally) Trump view: coerce and threaten to get your way in international affairs. Including

  • increasing risk of nuclear war (Exhibit A: North Korea tweets)
  • threatening Iran. Is US war, with Saudi help or encouragement, versus Iran possible? Iraq 2002-2003 redux? Aside: With its ally in Riyadh, the US is allied with the weaker or less capable actor in the Iran-Saudi relationship. Iran has repeatedly outplayed the Saudis.
  • Continuing Obama military interventionist policy in several cases: vs ISIS in Iraq and Syria (with all the human suffering caused by US bombing); supporting Saudis in Yemen; continuing drone or other strikes in Somalia etc
  • Slight change in Afghanistan with a few thousand more US military personnel. But otherwise Trump policy seems similar.
  • What will the administration do in Syria and with ties to Syrian Kurds now that ISIS is in a much weaker? Trump seems content to not be deeply involved in the evolution of Syria, unlike Russia or Iran.

What would you add or modify?

September 20, 2017

Trump, what do you stand for? The UN speech a day later

President Trump’s speech at the United Nations yesterday was a muddle, with poorly-executed core concepts. The mismatch between the conceptual emphasis and the desired outcomes was on full display. What does he want in US foreign policy and how does he propose to get there? We do not know.

How can you trumpet sovereignty, over and over, and then make the red meat of your speech about the need to violate the sovereignty of countries? Trump wants sovereignty but he also wants to destroy North Korea and get regime change in Iran. He said the United States is “prepared to take further action if the government of Venezuela persists on its path to impose authoritarian rule on the Venezuelan people.” That is not respecting sovereignty.

I’m not here to protect the governments of Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela, though saying you want to destroy “North Korea,” not the government of North Korea, does seem like throwing out the baby with the bathwater. (In order to save the people of North Korea from this horrid government, we must destroy the people.) But if the Trump administration’s aim is to change those countries, then the guiding principle should be one that actually could lead to the democratic and human rights-observant outcomes that the president wants.

The US pursuit of human rights and democracy has often been at odds with sovereignty. That is why many people in the world see the United States as a hegemon or bully, precisely because they feel Washington has not respected sovereignty for decades as it sought to impose US values (democracy, political rights, freedom) on other countries without their consent. The sanctity of sovereignty is exactly the argument that brutal dictators use to protect themselves, to argue that do-gooder US presidents and, as is often the case, the armed forces sent to represent them, should stay away.

In short, these lines are pure gobbledygook: “America stands with every person living under a brutal regime. Our respect for sovereignty is also a call for action.” The first and second sentences contradict each other. Which is it?

I’m not even sure if President Trump does want democracy and human rights. Yes, he talked about it at the United Nations. At other times he has derided the active US pursuit of human rights and democracy. Remember that in Saudi Arabia, Trump said, “We are not here to lecture—we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship.” Saudi Arabia! Is it unfair to ask for some clarity on the basic aims of Trump policy?

Maybe Trump’s appeal to sovereignty, and the associated ideas of nationalism, was pushback against fears the United Nations and other international institutions are efforts to limit US freedom of action and, thus, limit the exercise of the prerogative associated with a sovereign global power. But then the president needed to make that connection and somehow explain why only the United States can resort to claims of sovereignty.

I do agree with others that China and Russia will appreciate Trump’s emphasis on sovereignty. As in, United States, stop meddling in our affairs with your democracy assistance, annual human rights reports, and general whinging. We are sovereign nations. (Aside: The president’s speech had a throwback element, focusing on rogue states or an updated axis of evil rather than geopolitical foes. In national security terms, is the Trump administration ultimately more concerned about Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela – not to mention Cuba and Syria – or China and Russia?)

How is the Trump administration going to achieve all these political and security objectives? Alone? For an administration that has weakened the Department of State and criticized US allies as much or more than US rivals, the answer seems pretty clear.

And yet even a proponent of the speech like Marc Thiessen falls back on the need for cooperation to achieve US security ends. For example, Trump’s “tough rhetoric was aimed not just at Pyongyang but also at China and other states whose cooperation in squeezing the regime is necessary for a peaceful solution.” Or this passage, also from Thiessen’s op-ed: “What has inspired and enabled the spread of peace, democracy and individual liberty was the principled projection of power by the world’s democratic countries, led by the United States.” Cooperation with China might lead to an improvement with North Korea. Cooperation with other democratic countries helped spread peace and democracy.

If Trump wasn’t really defending sovereignty – everybody stay in your sovereign box and do what you want inside your box – and he wasn’t pushing international cooperation, multilateralism, and international institutions to advocate for democracy and US values, what was his implicit approach? Might makes right. The argument that the United States enjoys sovereign protection but its enemies do not is not an argument about legal rights but rather about power. Do what we say or we, the United States, will “totally destroy” you.

This focus on US power reflects Trump’s foreign policy struggle. Sometimes America First means take care of needs at home and stop getting embroiled all over the world in other people’s messes; it has a mildly isolationist flavor. At other times, America First means the United States is the pre-eminent global power and should use its armed forces to demonstrate to everyone that that is the case, as some previous presidents have been perfectly willing to do.

Either way, what was decidedly absent from Trump’s words was the long, bipartisan US support for a US-led liberal international economic order. SPOILER ALERT: Even for a president who zigs and zags as much as President Trump, support for that order is not forthcoming.

August 17, 2017

Some Basics on Charlottesville, August 12

I wanted to share some preliminary thoughts after reading some of the initial media and eyewitness reports from the demonstrations and attack in Charlottesville. I was not there but I wanted to delve into the ‘sides’ that everyone keeps talking about and set down some basics:

  1. The far right included white supremacists and one or more militias. The white supremacists included Identity Evropa, the Traditionalist Workers’ Party (KKK), the National Socialist Movement, and American Vanguard. (For more general information, the Southern Poverty Law Center maintains a national list of active hate groups.) One right-wing militia that appeared in reports was the Three Percenters.
  2. Both these components of the far right were heavily armed, including long rifles that concerned the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security, Brian Moran.
  3. The white supremacists’ public aim was inequality on the basis of race and religion.
  4. The far right was almost exclusively white and largely (almost exclusively?) male.
  5. Some portion of the counter-protestors came from outside Charlottesville.
  6. The counter-protestors public aim was to reject inequality on the basis of race and religion. Or, if you prefer, the counter-protestors public aim was equality.
  7. Unarmed clergy came to oppose the rally. They did so in a non-violent fashion.
  8. It is hard to tell whether terms like antifa (anti-Fascists), Black Lives Matters, and Communists are being used in reports to refer accurately to people from actual organizations or as blanket ways of categorizing leftist demonstrators (as in the way the word ‘liberals’ if often used).
  9. There were counter-protestors who came ready to fight, often identified as part of the antifa movement. They seem to have had (many) fewer guns. One exception I came across: Members of Redneck Revolt “were armed with shotguns, assault rifles, and pistols.”
  10. There were counter-protestors who came completely unarmed and pursuing solely non-violent protest.
  11. Based on the mostly text reports I have read, I have not been able to get at the proportion in each counter-protest category (#9 and #10).
  12. The counter-protestors included people of various races and genders. This was a point of pride.
  13. The VICE video strongly supports the notion that the car attack that killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others was an intentional attack. It took place in the midst of a protest march composed of two groups of counter-protestors who had come together as one march. The car does not at all appear to enter or be caught up in an area of fighting between ‘sides.’
  14. There were fights and the throwing of projectiles, mostly likely between the white supremacists and some of the counter-protestors, for several hours on Saturday. The use of pepper spray was common. Buzzfeed also reported fights between the far right and police, but I did not find a lot of detail on that claim.
  15. The question of whether the police – VA State Police, Charlottesville Police, perhaps others – performed well remains to be evaluated. There have been questions.

I should stress this is preliminary. I imagine more details and fuller accounts will emerge that may or may not re-shape my understanding of the basics.