Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

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.

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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.

March 13, 2017

Early Trump Foreign Policy: A Quick Analysis

What does early Trump foreign policy look like?

The anti-globalism piece is prominent. The Republican administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a move seen as a major symbol of its stated rejection of free trade. Interactions with Mexico have been rocky, but we lack clarity on possible changes in trade relations (NAFTA!) or on border wall construction.

In addition, President Trump issued two executive orders blocking immigration from seven six countries – the Muslim Ban – and halting the admission of refugees to the United States. The racial and religious prejudice underlying the moves on immigration are apparent in Trump’s bigoted rhetoric before and after assuming office, including his own talk of imposing a Muslim Ban; the list of targeted countries which have no connection to improving national security according to the Department of Homeland Security but do have largely Muslim populations; the presence of Steve Bannon, creator of a media platform for white supremacists, as a close presidential advisor; the explicit bigotry of a Trump ally, Rep. Steve King (Iowa); and the reckless behavior of ICE and CBP under Trump.

One Republican member of Congress called out Rep. King’s white supremacist rhetoric:

A traveler at the Houston airport tweeted:

Zand works for BBC and was headed to SXSW. The whole thread of his trip for the UK to Texas is quite a read. (Or, for another example, read about Muhammad Ali Jr’s experiences. Or ICE raids.)

Pulling back from the world may also explain the many empty offices in important US departments that interact with the world, whether on economic (Commerce, Treasury) or diplomatic (State) matters. (Granted, it may also be a lack or preparedness for a well-functioning transition.) At almost every Federal Department, most levels just below the Secretary remain unfilled with no nominee:

Treasury

Meanwhile, the expectation of major budget cuts including at Commerce and State, as well as to foreign aid, will further curtail the US international presence. Far from being a force for fossil fuels, as some critics expected, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appears largely absent from the policy process. Only a few officials dealing with international and national security issues received much outside praise, e.g. Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. Overall, the administration’s comfort with isolationism and isolationism’s nativist (racist) past is front and center.

That said, at least two counterpoints to isolationism stand out.

1) The president is quite enamored with US military strength. In addition to talk of increasing the US military budget by $54 billion, the possibility of (much) deeper US military intervention in Syria and Iraq seems real. We’ve already seen more US Marines in Syria. Or, elsewhere in the Middle East, more drone strikes in Yemen. And we have not heard much yet about Afghanistan.

2) He is also talking about finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At a February 15 press availability with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump seemed interested in finding a deal. More recently, President Trump spoke to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the administration retained two diplomats who had worked on Israel-Palestine issues under President Barack Obama.

Beyond rhetoric, we don’t know much yet about how the administration will handle Russia (given the many ties during the campaign) and related issues like Ukraine; the European Union; and China (after Trump’s botched phone call as President-Elect). These are very important issues of international order and great power politics. Could the Republican Party under Trump seek to be the international leader of a nativist, nationalist ideological movement and repeatedly tangle with proponents of globalism, liberalism, and neo-liberalism? Quite possibly.

North Korea remains a wildcard. When the first international crisis hits, with Pyongyang or some other rival, how will the Trump administration react? Stay tuned.

What would you add to the list?

December 28, 2016

Two States: Kerry’s Six Points

If you want a 2-state solution, US Secretary of State John Kerry’s six points (or here) sum much of it up.

1. “1967 lines with mutually agreed equivalent [land] swaps.”

2. “two states for two peoples, one Jewish & one Arab, with mutual recognition and full equal rights for all their respective citizens.”

3. Palestinian refugees “international assistance, that includes compensation, options…acknowledgment of suffering.” But the Palestinian refugee “solution must be consistent with 2 states for 2 peoples, & cannot affect the fundamental character of Israel.” In short: no return (or possibly VERY limited return) of Palestinians to pre-1967 Israel.

4. Jerusalem will serve as “the internationally recognized capital of the two states.” All religions will have freedom of access to the holy sites. Thought the city will serve as two capitals, the city will not be physically divided.

5. “Satisfy Israel’s security needs and bring a full end to the occupation.” Palestine as a “non-militarized state.”

6. “End conflict & all outstanding claims, enabling normalized relations and enhanced regional security for all.” Implement the Arab Peace Initiative and embed Israeli-Palestinian peace in a wider regional resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But maybe you prefer something other than two states?

December 23, 2016

Trump’s Nuclear New Look?

Yesterday, President-elect Trump made a splash with this tweet  on nuclear weapons:

On the same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin said, “We need to strengthen the military potential of strategic nuclear forces.” A new, nuclear arms race? Putin says no. [UPDATE: Trump told MSNBC yes: “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.”]

It has since come out that in 1987, Trump told an interviewer that the United States and the Soviet Union should work together to prevent other countries from developing nuclear weapons. He said both sides could use “economic retaliation” to stop countries from going nuclear, cutting off US (or Soviet) aid to the point that people were rioting in the streets. In short,

But I also want to suggest another possibility. Trump has also been attacking major conventional weapons systems:

What would you get if you continually downgrade conventional arms and focus more on nuclear weapons? Maybe in a crisis situation you end up relying more on nuclear weapons.

And that reminded me of President Eisenhower (1953-1961) and the early Cold War. Eisenhower’s “New Look” placed greater reliance on nuclear weapons. He wanted nuclear weapons to be more of a regular part of the arsenal, as illustrated by his answer at a March 16, 1955 press conference:

screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-7-16-16-amPerhaps the most memorable line of the answer: “I see no reason why they shouldn’t be used just exactly as you would use a bullet or anything else.”

Of course, this conceals a vast difference between the two leaders. Eisenhower was a general with extensive military experience while Trump has no military experience. That difference makes me even more concerned about increasing US stockpiles of and reliance upon nuclear weapons under the Trump administration.

I could be way off here about Trump but so much seems uncertain about Trump’s policy direction these days that it seemed worth thinking outside the box.

November 16, 2016

What about Israel and Saudi Arabia?

This story made me curious about what exactly is going on between Israel and Saudi Arabia. In 2015, the Economist called them “the new Frenemies.” What can we tell from the google?

Better (friendlier) Saudi media coverage of Israel, according to jpost: “Saudi state-run media appears to be softening its reporting on Israel, running unprecedented columns floating the prospect of direct relations, quoting Israeli officials and filling its newsholes with fewer negative stories on Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.” (or here, here, here) Or, Saudi Arabia “remained notably quiet during Israel’s bombing campaign against the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip” in 2014. In 2014, “former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal published an op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.”

Meetings between Saudi and Israeli officials:  Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi major general, and Dore Gold, a former senior Israeli Foreign Ministry official. They began secret contacts in 2014 and went public in 2015. Eshki visited Israel and met with Gold at a hotel, not the Foreign Ministry. (The Saudi government denied Eshki was an official emissary.) On May 5, 2016, “former Saudi intelligence chief Prince Turki bin Faisal and retired Israeli Major General Yaakov Amidror spoke together at a Washington event hosted by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.”

Diplomatic formalities. After Egypt gave (returned) two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia in April 2016, the “Israeli Defense Ministry confirmed that Riyadh had given Israeli policymakers written assurances of the continued safety of the Straits of Tiran.” (and here)

They have economic ties: “Saudi Arabia has developed clandestine business deals with Israeli companies in recent years, even though Riyadh officially maintains a stringent boycott on Israeli goods. To circumvent the trade boycott, Israeli goods have been shipped to Saudi Arabia under the purview of foreign companies. This circumvention has allowed Israeli IT products and irrigation technology to enter Saudi markets.” And seltzer.

And military arms or cooperation?

  1. Rumors that Israel offered Saudi Arabia the Iron Dome missile system have been denied.The alleged idea was to help Saudi defend itself against rockets from Yemen.
  2. In 2013, Britain’s Sunday Times reported cooperation on a possible military attack on Iran (in Ha’aretz’s words): “According to the diplomatic source quoted by the Times, Saudi Arabia has agreed to let Israel use its air space, and assist an Israeli attack by cooperating on the use of drones, rescue helicopters and tanker planes.”
  3. In 2016, Amos Yadlin, head of military intelligence 2006-2010, suggested cooperation “is done below the screen.” Reports of “an uptick in backdoor dealings.” Intelligence cooperation regarding Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah seems likely.

Aside: in Nov, 2015, Israel opened a diplomatic mission in the United Arab Emirates.

Do you have more useful links on Israel and Saudi Arabia? Let us know.

November 11, 2016

20 Reasons Trump Beat Clinton

This election was super-close. Trump didn’t win key states by much. I say that because that means that if you change many different factors, each one might have changed the outcome. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

  1. Trump’s slogan was clearer (Make America Great Again) and it was easy to see how he tied it to policy change on trade and migration. I don’t think #StrongerTogether has the same umph or link to policy.
  2. Clinton is a woman. Some people who might support a generic Democratic candidate won’t support a female one. Gender.
  3. Trump claimed the change mantle. He was a true outsider, never been in government, never worked in DC, never given a thought, as far as I can tell, to the collective good. Contra the Clinton speeches to Wall Street argument and emphasis on all her experience in government.
  4. Hard for a party to win a third straight term. (thus h/t George H.W. Bush. h/t FDR.)
  5. GOP voter suppression. For example, one report suggested 300K voters were turned away in Wisconsin due to Wisconsin’s voter ID law. If people with ID problems skew lower class, Clinton likely lost many more votes there. Also, see North Carolina.
  6. Trump went for major non-transparency and pulled it off. Broke the bipartisan norm and refused to release his tax returns, I assume because they would show he cheated, he wasn’t worth as much as he claimed, he gave little or nothing to charity, and/or he had investments in Russia. Similarly, his talk of how as president, he would create a “Blind Trust” for his businesses. His refusal to be transparent cost him less politically than what the information would have showed.
  7. Was Tim Kaine a good VP pick? What did an old-ish eastern, white guy add to the ticket? (OK, maybe a VA victory)
  8. Enough people had pro-Trump/anti-Clinton motivation and were willing to overlook a) non-stop lying by Trump b) his anti-women views 3) his bigotry. Some of his macho stance and bullying probably appealed to some voters: he’s tough; he wins; he puts people in their place.
  9. Clinton has been in the national spotlight for 25 years. That is unprecedented for a presidential candidate. It gives your opponents decades to slime you. And if they keep throwing slime, even if all most of it is false, you look slimed. And people believe the next slime because they remember the last one even if the last one was total BS.
  10. Clinton’s alleged email problem. The substance was a big nothing-burger. But the obsession with it, including by the media to the detriment of policy coverage, was amazing and reinforced. (It was par for the course for DC – see Colin Powell as Secretary of State, see 22 mn missing emails from GW Bush administration. But you cannot argue everyone else did it or even they did it more. See #3 above) Politico had a great story on how it actually happened and what that tells us about the US government (and what starving the govt of funding does to its IT resources).
  11. Comey’s late intervention. His last-minute statement, one report suggested, led to a 3-point Clinton drop in the polls.
  12. Unprecedented foreign meddling in a US election. R-u-s-s-i-a. Wikileaks. We may learn more about Russia as time passes.
  13. The Democrats have a great story about helping those bypassed by globalization and the information economy. Helping people get health care (ACA). Pro-education. Providing a cushion in tough times. Obama’s call for massive infrastructure investments (blocked by GOP). I didn’t hear Clinton tell that story. Honestly, maybe she did on the stump, and I missed it.
  14. Trump’s bigotry. Clearly the white nationalists, the KKK, the alt-right (I detest that term) were emboldened by his candidacy. He tapped into cultural anxiety which is a polite way of saying displeasure at equal rights for all regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, and the like.
  15. Clinton was not a great candidate. I hear that. I think it relates to other things I have mentioned, her being a female wonk with a lot of baggage. Not as charismatic an orator.
  16. Campaign choices. See #13. Also, should she have been more about here’s what I am going to do and less here is why Trump is unfit? Did she campaign in the states that needed her presence most? Or, did she appeal enough to the left and Bernie voters? OR, were GOTV allocations spread to the right states?
  17. Trump got free media. A ton. He is great at hogging the spotlight.
  18. The national GOP (e.g. Ryan, McConnell) mostly decided to embrace and support a candidate they knew was unfit to be president. Had they broken with Trump, some GOP voters would have followed.
  19. Trumpism is built on years of national GOP rhetoric and polices. The national GOP paved the way.
  20. The electoral college. She may win by as many as 2 million votes and still lose. She won over more people than he did.

What would you add?

August 4, 2016

After Trump

I am by no means certain that Donald Trump will lose in November. There are ample reasons why he should lose, but I also can see a handful of reasons why he could win. But if we assume, for the moment, that he does lose, what are the questions and likely consequences that follow?

  1. What happens to his millions of die-hard supporters? I tend to think Trump himself will move on to other matters rather than stay around to fight for the soul of the Republican Party. Will another leader try to fill the Trump slot and build on his approach?
  2. Trump has legitimized overt bigotry. Look, we were not in a post-racial America even before this campaign. But large segments of the US population have moved, over the last 50-75 years, away from normal acceptance of some important forms of overt discrimination. Trump brought it back into the mainstream. At best, I imagine people will have to re-fight the fight of de-legitimizing such overt bigotry. Even that raises two concerns a) not easy and b) wastes energy that could have been spent pushing for progress in other ways.
  3. Are the GOP leaders who bravely (sarcasm) stood by Trump forever tainted by their association with the Trump debacle? Let’s set aside for the moment whether  conservative GOP leaders aligned themselves with a ‘fake’ conservative. It is often the case that party leaders are significantly more, or less, conservative (or liberal) than the party presidential nominee. I am more interested in the question of his 1) bigotry and 2) impugning of the US military and those who served. (the late Humayun Khan; Sen. John McCain) The backlash is striking. Will leaders like Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell forever be seen as having put narrow self-interest ahead of country and principle? We know they could have made another choice because lesser known GOP figures, e.g. Rep. Richard Hanna, have done so. (leaving aside the formers and the retireds like Bush, Bush, Bush, and Romney)
  4. Does the Republican Party blame this on Trump or on itself? If the former, I wonder whether the party will truly grapple with the aspects of the party that helped bolster Trump. Trump did not emerge from nowhere. OK, well he kind of did. But overt bigotry, especially toward Muslims, and trouble winning votes from people of color plays on covert bigotry (See dog whistling, law and order, or Lee Atwater) and years of trouble winning votes from people of color in presidential elections. [UPDATE: See this article for more on the Republican Party and its future.]
  5. Trump did not build this post-fact America where what he asserts is ‘true’ despite being false. But he sure eggs it on. Can we recover a sense of science, a sense of discourse built on evaluating claims and making some effort, even if not total, to agree on what the evidence is even if we continue to disagree about how to interpret it and which evidence to highlight? (I should defer to my colleague, Michael P. Lynch, on this question.)
  6. In 2020 and beyond, will we start to see more and more celebrity candidates? Is it about building a brand and then jumping in the national political fray? I do not quite have my finger on what defines a celebrity candidate, but it looks pretty different from a regular candidate or even an outsider like Ross Perot or Carly Fiorina. In short, to what extent has Trump, even if he loses, re-written the playbook for how to try to win the presidency? Or is this 2016 run just a blip?
  7. Does a President Clinton – remember, I am assuming for the sake of discussion that she wins – do anything to attack the economic bases of support for Trump? Trump’s answer is blame the foreigners, build a wall, talk tough, risk massive trade wars etc. I don’t see that as a part of a Clinton presidency. But Sen. Bernie Sanders had a different answer which was to use government to address some of the same societal inequities. One example is free higher education. That won’t happen either, but would a President Clinton try to use re-training, education, health care not tied to employment, and income redistribution policies to get at the economic grievances which, fairly or not, are often tied to globalization and trade deals? Or would these economic issues fester, as has been the case with the 1%/99% debate?

What questions or comments would you add?

June 19, 2015

The People Who Were Murdered: A Challenge to Colin @WNPR

I am issuing a challenge to a local talk show host on WNPR, Colin McEnroe:

How about a full show, 60 minutes, that is not about the lessons, the broader meaning, and the politics of the killings in S. Carolina. How about spending an hour on the nine people who were gunned down? Who they were, what they were like, what they did, who they loved and led, where they came from. Maybe, maybe, maybe if we get deep into the humanity that has just been stolen from our earth, we can start to break down the walls that prevent really grappling with race, guns, and murder.

April 11, 2013

Mideast Matrix

I now publish most of my posts over at Mideast Matrix. Check it out!