Archive for the ‘President Obama’ Category

“Obama savaged his successor’s stated inclinations on counterterrorism”

18/12/2016

Without ever using Donald Trump’s name, Barack Obama savaged his successor’s stated inclinations on counterterrorism while issuing an impassioned plea not to sacrifice fundamental American values in the name of national security. Obama used the final set-piece security speech of his presidency to present a highly selective account of his record, particularly about the mass surveillance architecture he embraced and the drone strikes that will be synonymous with his name. In doing so, Obama argued that he avoided “overreach” and tacitly implored Trump to follow his template. “People and nations do not make good decisions when they are driven by fear,” Obama warned at MacDill air force base in Florida, before a military audience to whom he paid tribute. “These terrorists can never directly destroy our way of life, but we can do it for them if we lose track of who we are and the values that this nation was founded upon.” Obama reserved a note of retribution for the Republican Congress that he holds responsible for preventing him from closing the Guantánamo Bay detention center. He suggested that he would continue transferring detainees until he leaves the Oval Office on 20 January, even though that tactic alone will not empty the Cuban facility.

Expanded powers for JSOC

06/12/2016

The Obama administration is giving the elite Joint Special Operations Command — the organization that helped kill Osama bin Laden in a 2011 raid by Navy SEALs — expanded power to track, plan and potentially launch attacks on terrorist cells around the globe, a move driven by concerns of a dispersed terrorist threat as Islamic State militants are driven from strongholds in Iraq and Syria, U.S. officials said. The missions could occur well beyond the battlefields of places like Iraq, Syria and Libya where Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) has carried out clandestine operations in the past. When finalized, it will elevate JSOC from being a highly-valued strike tool used by regional military commands to leading a new multiagency intelligence and action force. Known as the “Counter-External Operations Task Force,” the group will be designed to take JSOC’s targeting model — honed over the last 15 years of conflict — and export it globally to go after terrorist networks plotting attacks against the West. The creation of a new JSOC entity this late in the Obama’s tenure is the “codification” of best practices in targeting terrorists outside of conventional conflict zones, according to the officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss administration deliberations. It is unclear, however, if the administration of President-elect Donald Trump will keep this and other structures set up by Obama. They include guidelines for counterterrorism operations such as approval by several agencies before a drone strike and “near certainty” that no civilians will be killed. This series of presidential orders is known as the “playbook.”

“The result could be the end of the post-1945 Pax Americana”

04/12/2016

Max Boot, echoing William Inboden, writes about the similarities between Trump and Obama, “It is hard to imagine two presidents more dissimilar than Barack Obama, the cerebral and elegant liberal law professor, and Donald Trump, the brash populist and reality TV star. But if Trump’s campaign pronouncements are anything to judge by, his foreign policy may be more in sync with President Obama’s than either man would care to admit. And not in a good way: Trump shares with Obama a desire to pull back from the world but lacks Obama’s calm, deliberative style and respect for international institutions. A Trump presidency is inherently unpredictable — no one knows how much of his overblown rhetoric to take seriously — but if he does even half the things he suggested on the campaign trail, the result could be the end of the post-1945 Pax Americana”.

Boot goes on to note “One of Trump’s top priorities is to improve relations with Vladimir Putin. In a post-election phone call, Trump told the Russian dictator that “he is very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia.” Sound familiar? Obama spoke in virtually identical terms when he took office in 2009. Hence his failed “reset” of relations with Moscow. This was part of Obama’s larger rejection of what he saw as the moralizing, interventionist approach of the George W. Bush administration. (Obama also thought that Dmitry Medvedev, then Russia’s president, would be a more accommodating partner than Putin, who remained as prime minister.) During the 2008 campaign, Obama made a big point of saying that he would talk to any foreign leaders without any preconditions — a stance that his primary challenger, Hillary Clinton, criticized as naive. In office, Obama has re-established relations with the Castros in Cuba and Myanmar’s junta, reached a nuclear deal with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Iran, and did little to back up his calls for Bashar al-Assad to leave office. Instead of enforcing his “red line” with Syria, Obama agreed to a Russian-orchestrated deal under which Assad was supposed to give up his chemical weapons (a pledge the Syrian despot has not fully carried out). Obama has also refused to take any military action to stop Assad’s assaults on civilians, notwithstanding his creation of an Atrocities Prevention Board. Obama has often expressed his admiration for George H.W. Bush, and he has largely governed as an amoral realpolitiker who has put American interests, as he defines them, above the promotion of American values. Far from proselytizing for freedom and democracy, Obama has given a series of speeches in venues including Cairo and the Laotian capital of Vientiane — speeches that, to critics, have sounded like apologies for past American misconduct. (Obama’s aides have claimed he was merely “reckoning with history.”) When Iranian protesters took to the streets in the 2009 Green Revolution, Obama did not express support because he feared that doing so would interfere with his attempts to engage with the Iranian regime”.

Boot contends that “On only a few occasions has Obama allowed idealistic considerations to gain the upper hand in his cold-blooded foreign policy — and never for long. He did intervene in Libya to help topple Muammar al-Qaddafi — an intervention Trump supported at the time but now criticizes — but he did little to try to shape post-Qaddafi Libya and gives every indication of regretting his initial intervention. He also called for Hosni Mubarak to step down as Egypt’s ruler during the Arab Spring but did not oppose the subsequent military coup that ousted an elected Muslim Brotherhood government and installed the regime of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. It is obvious that human rights promotion, while not dismissed entirely, has not been an animating principle of the president’s foreign policy. More broadly, Obama has given every indication that he does not see America as an exemplar but rather a deeply flawed nation whose forays abroad often have harmful consequences. In a 2009 press conference, Obama dismissed the idea that America is “uniquely qualified to lead the world,” saying, “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” That doesn’t mean that Obama hates America, as the cruder right-wing attacks have had it. In the very same press conference, he went on to say: “Now, the fact that I am very proud of my country and I think that we’ve got a whole lot to offer the world does not lessen my interest in recognizing the value and wonderful qualities of other countries, or recognizing that we’re not always going to be right, or that other people may have good ideas, or that in order for us to work collectively, all parties have to compromise and that includes us.” Thus Obama sees the United States as imperfect but virtuous as long as it acts in concert with others — something that it has not always done”.

The piece argues that “Trump, who has a far more jaundiced view of America than Obama does. In a revealing July 20 interview with the New York Times, Trump dismissed concerns about the massive violations of civil liberties being committed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s regime in Turkey: “When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.” In a similar vein, Trump dismissed concerns that Putin kills journalists: “Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.” This is the kind of moral relativism that Republicans once denounced but now accept from the president-elect. As with Obama, Trump’s refusal to see America as a country with a mission leads him to look askance upon interventions abroad. Like Obama, he eschews nation-building and expresses a preference to work with foreign rulers regardless of their lack of democratic legitimacy. Trump reiterated to the Wall Street Journal after his election that he plans to end support for Syrian rebels and align with Russia in Syria: “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS.” And never mind that Iran, Russia, and Assad are all committing war crimes. Trump’s approach is quite different from what Clinton advocated during the campaign; she called for no-fly zones and safe zones. But it’s not so different from Obama’s current policy, which provides a modicum of aid to the Syrian rebels but tacitly concedes that Assad will stay in power”.

It concludes “This is not to suggest that Trump’s worldview is identical to Obama’s. One of their big divisions is over international institutions. Obama negotiated an international accord to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases; Trump has said global warming is a Chinese hoax and called for pulling out of the Paris agreement. Obama negotiated a nuclear accord with Iran; Trump promises to renegotiate it, calling it a “disgraceful deal” and an “embarrassment to our country.” Obama is a free-trader who negotiated the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); Trump is a protectionist who vows to withdraw from the TPP, rip up NAFTA, and impose tariffs. Obama has been supportive of NATO, working to expand the forces that the alliance deploys in Eastern Europe and the Baltics to guard against Russian aggression; Trump has called NATO “obsolete” and questioned the need to station U.S. troops to defend countries that don’t pay enough for the privilege. In sum, Obama is a believer in international organizations and international law; Trump is not. It is hard to imagine Trump saying, as Obama did: “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being. But what makes us exceptional is not our ability to flout international norms and the rule of law; it’s our willingness to affirm them through our actions.” In turn, it is hard to imagine Obama ever threatening to bomb the “shit” out of another country, to steal its oil, or to torture detainees — all of which would constitute war crimes”.

He ends “In the terms coined by Walter Russell Mead, Obama is a Jeffersonian, while Trump is a Jacksonian: The former believes that the United States should perfect its own democracy and go “not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” whereas the latter believes that “the United States should not seek out foreign quarrels” but that it should clobber anyone who messes with it. What unites Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, in spite of their substantial differences, is that both support quasi-isolationism — or, if you prefer, noninterventionism — unless severely provoked. Obama has been intent on pulling the United States back from the Middle East. The result of his withdrawal of troops from Iraq and his failure to get more actively involved in ending the Syrian civil war has been to create a vacuum of power that has been filled by the likes of the Islamic State and Hezbollah. Undaunted, Trump has said he wants not only to continue the pullback from the Middle East (he wants to subcontract American policy in Syria to Putin) but also to retreat from Europe and East Asia. He has suggested that he may lift sanctions on Russia and pull U.S. troops out of countries (from Germany to Japan) if he feels they are not paying enough for American protection. It is quite possible, then, that Trump’s foreign policy would represent an intensification rather than a repudiation of Obama’s “lead from behind” approach. American power survived eight years of an Obama presidency, albeit in diminished form. If the president-elect governs the way he campaigned (which, admittedly, is not necessarily a safe assumption), there is good cause to wonder whether U.S. ascendancy will survive four to eight years of Trumpism. The post-American age may be arriving sooner than imagined, ushered in by a president with an “America First” foreign policy”.

Mattis at DoD?

02/12/2016

An article profiles James Mattis who could be the next defence secretary, “If President-elect Donald Trump picks Gen. James Mattis to be his secretary of defense, the retired Marine and combat veteran may be a moderating influence on the impulsive incoming commander in chief. But Mattis shares a hawkish view of Iran echoed by others in Trump’s national security team, raising the potential specter of a conflict with Tehran. The president-elect’s hints that he will nominate Mattis for the job have raised hopes among conservative policy experts and some lawmakers in Congress that the former commander could add strategic perspective and prudence to a Trump White House sorely in need of both. Revered as a war-fighting legend in the Marine Corps, the “warrior monk” is also well-steeped in history and strategy and carries around a copy of Marcus Aurelius’s “Meditations.” Trump, a novice in foreign affairs, has often relied on his instincts and his shoot-from-the-hip style throughout his career in real estate and, more recently, as a presidential candidate. And given Trump’s isolationist campaign trail rhetoric and trashing of U.S. alliances, some former defense officials and lawmakers believe Mattis could steer the president-elect and his national security team away from hasty action or a radical break with America’s traditional foreign policy”.

The piece adds “Nominating Mattis, who only retired from active military service three years ago, also will test a long-established principle of civilian control of the armed forces. Trump has already appointed a retired three-star Army lieutenant general — Mike Flynn — as his national security advisor. At least two other retired generals have met with Trump as possible candidates for secretary of state or other top positions: Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly and Army Gen. David Petraeus. Only Mattis would require a congressional exemption to serve as a civilian secretary of defense. It’s unclear if Mattis’s forceful personality will ultimately gain Trump’s ear and shape his decisions. Yet his moderating influence is already on display: Trump told the New York Times last week that after a conversation with Mattis, the president-elect re-examined his views on waterboarding and torturing terrorist suspects, a stump speech staple. Trump said he was “surprised” Mattis didn’t think such tactics were useful and that the president-elect came away “impressed by that answer.” Mattis is famous for his blunt, salty language when speaking to troops preparing for battle. But the retired four-star general has often displayed a nuanced understanding of geopolitics that contrasts with Trump’s black-and-white view of the world, say officials and officers who have worked with Mattis. His nomination would also serve to reassure prospective Republican appointees to the Pentagon, many of whom are ambivalent about signing up to work for the Trump administration, given the president-elect’s off-the-cuff remarks and nativist “America First” rhetoric during the campaign”.

The article adds “When it comes to the threat posed by Iran, however, Mattis seems closer to other Trump advisors and most Republican lawmakers. In a speech last April, Mattis ranked Iran as “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East” and cited Tehran’s hostile rhetoric toward Israel and Persian Gulf states. Mattis sharply criticised President Barack Obama over the nuclear deal negotiated with Tehran last year. His view of the danger posed by Iran, coupled with the hawkish outlook shared by Flynn and Trump’s nominee for CIA director, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), could pave the way for heightened U.S. tensions with Tehran. Mattis led U.S. Central Command from 2010 to 2013, overseeing U.S. forces across the Middle East. He later said his first three questions every day during those years were “Iran, Iran, and Iran.” A former Centcom official told FP that Mattis spent much of his time there focused on Iran and the potential threats it poses”.

It adds that “Mattis would eventually be forced out of his job at Centcom in 2013 after a series of disagreements with the White House over Iran. He argued — unsuccessfully — for a tougher military posture designed to deter Tehran from backing its proxies in Yemen and elsewhere in the region, a view shared by many others at Centcom. But unlike other hawks advising Trump, Mattis is more realistic about U.S. options in the Middle East, former colleagues said. He recognizes that a unilateral bid to dump the Iran nuclear deal — which was negotiated between major powers and Tehran — might harm American interests. Instead, the colleagues said, Mattis probably would argue for enforcing every provision of the nuclear deal, insisting that Iran abide by the agreement “to the letter.” “He’s not a rash guy. He’s not looking to tear the lid of this thing and just duke it out,” the congressional staffer said. The former Centcom official agreed. “You have a number of people who are coming onto the [Trump] team who are going to take a strong line on Iran,” but “Mattis really brings an enormous range of experience on these issues that would be very important and that requires you, frankly, to be very realistic in understanding the vast capabilities and limitations of American power.” In his April speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C., Mattis questioned the benefits of the Iran nuclear deal but said “there’s no going back” on it and the next president would have to live with it”.

It mentions that “Yet he also is a voracious reader, fond of quoting Marcus Aurelius and comfortably fluent in ancient history and geopolitics. He has a relentless work ethic and is a demanding boss, with no patience for shoddy work or missed deadlines. Widely respected across the government, Mattis likely would win broad and swift support from both parties in Congress if he is nominated as the next Pentagon chief. But lawmakers would have to make an exception for Mattis. By law, a defense secretary must have retired from active military service at least seven years before taking the job. His nomination would require amending current legislation, thereby expending some of the new administration’s already shaky political capital. Congress has granted such an exception only once before, in 1950, for retired Gen. George Marshall, when he served as President Harry Truman’s defense secretary to manage the Korean War. But Marshall was a staff officer and a diplomat. And although Mattis has a breadth of experience from his 44 years in uniform, he may struggle as a civilian administrator of the sprawling Defense Department bureaucracy and its $600 billion budget. Some senior defense officials are wary of Mattis possibly taking over the Pentagon and applying military-style leadership to a largely civilian workforce”.

It adds that “Having several recently retired military officers serving in top administration positions would mark an unprecedented break with convention. It could send a charged symbolic message that the top brass favour one political party over another and that civilian leadership has failed and only former generals can repair the damage. “They are all independently extremely capable as individuals, but appointing them all creates an optics problem,” said Edelman, now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Trump reportedly mulled naming Flynn to the Pentagon job. But unlike Mattis, the retired Army intelligence chief would have faced stiff opposition in Congress to amending the law and allowing him to take the post. Whoever gets the job, one of the first big issues the incoming defense secretary will face is the Pentagon’s budget, which is currently funded through a stopgap measure slated to expire next March. Trump has promised to dramatically increase defense spending by roughly $100 billion over the course of his first term to pay for dozens of new warships, hundreds of planes, and tens of thousands of additional troops — increases that have not come along with any proposed change in U.S. strategy. But it’s unclear how the massive arms buildup would be funded, as Trump has also promised a big tax cut and a major investment in infrastructure projects across the country. The battle over military spending could spark feuds not only between Republican and Democratic lawmakers but among different factions inside the GOP — with some fiscal conservatives reluctant to raise federal spending even for defense”.

Duterte changes sides

01/12/2016

Max Boot writes about Filipino foreign policy and the consequences of its turn to China, “International relations theorists of a “realist” persuasion like to claim that states are rational actors pursuing their strategic interests in an anarchic world where power alone matters. Ideology and domestic politics do not much concern these thinkers; they believe that a nation’s foreign policy is much more likely to be shaped by factors such as geography, demography, and economics. This was the viewpoint of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, who famously tried to realign China from being a foe of the United States to a friend — never mind that the Chinese leader they had to deal with was Mao Zedong, one of the worst mass murderers in history. “Nixinger” believed, correctly, that China’s interest in countering Soviet power would lead it to draw closer with the United States. But even in the case of China the applicability of realist insights was limited. China did not begin the transformation that would make it a leading economic force and trade partner of the United States until Mao had died, replaced by the reformist Deng Xiaoping. Even today China is more foe than friend of America”.

Boot goes on to point out how “Today, the Philippines is Exhibit A in illustrating the limits of the realist conceit that some unvarying strategic logic governs foreign policy. The Philippines has seen a vertigo-inducing change in its foreign-policy orientation since Rodrigo Duterte became president this summer. This crude populist is now transforming the Philippines’ relationship with the United States in a fundamental and worrying manner. The Philippines is America’s oldest ally in Asia, and until recently one of the closest”.

Boot mentions how “In 2014, President Barack Obama signed an agreement with then-President Benigno Aquino III that would allow U.S. forces more regular access to bases in the Philippines and increase the tempo of training exercises and military cooperation between the two countries. Now that achievement looks increasingly like a dead letter. Duterte journeyed to Beijing this week to announce his “separation from the United States” in military and economic terms. “America has lost,” Duterte said. He claimed that a new alliance of the Philippines, China, and Russia would emerge — “there are three of us against the world.” His trade secretary said the Philippines and China were inking $13 billion in trade deals; that’s a pretty hefty signing bonus for switching sides. Duterte said he will soon end military cooperation with the United States, despite the opposition of his armed forces. What could account for this head-snapping transformation? Manila’s strategic and economic interests have not changed. While China is the Philippines’ second-largest trade partner, its largest is Japan, a close American ally and a foe of Chinese expansionism. The third-largest trade partner is the United States”.

He notes that “the Philippine people remain largely pro-American. English is the lingua franca of the Philippines. The Armed Forces of the Philippines have many decades of cooperation with the United States and have been built in the image of the U.S. military; they have no experience working with China’s People’s Liberation Army. Moreover, and despite Duterte’s nasty rhetoric and ad hominems, the United States continues to express its desire to protect the Philippines. This massive geopolitical shift is entirely Duterte’s doing. It cannot be explained any other way. It is a product of his peculiar psychology. He has long been ideologically hostile to the United States — he has called Obama a “son of a whore” — and he feels an ideological affinity with China’s authoritarian rulers. Although elected democratically, Duterte is a strongman in the making. He has already violated the rule of law to unleash death squads that are said to have killed at least 1,900 people, including a 5-year-old boy, in the name of fighting drugs. He has cited Hitler as his role model: “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is 3 million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.” He has also said “I don’t give a shit” about human rights. China’s rulers don’t put their worldview quite so crassly, but they, too, don’t care much for human rights. The Duterte-Xi Jinping marriage thus seems like a natural match”.

Boot point out that “From the American viewpoint, Duterte’s flip-flop — assuming it leads to a lasting strategic shift — is a potential disaster. Aligned with the United States and its regional allies, the Philippines can provide a vital platform to oppose Chinese aggression in the South China and East China seas. If the Philippines becomes a Chinese satrapy, by contrast, Washington will find itself hard-pressed to hold the “first island chain” in the Western Pacific that encompasses “the Japanese archipelago, the Ryukyus, Taiwan, and the Philippine archipelago.” Defending that line of island barriers has been a linchpin of U.S. strategy since the Cold War. It now could be undone because of the whims of one unhinged leader. China could either neutralise this vital American ally or even potentially turn the Philippines into a PLA Navy base for menacing U.S. allies such as Taiwan, Japan, and Australia. At the very least, the U.S. Navy will find it much harder to protect the most important sea lanes in the world; each year $5.3 trillion in goods passes through the South China Sea, including $1.2 trillion in U.S. trade”.

He notes that “The opposition is already making hay over Duterte’s China trip. A Supreme Court justice in Manila has warned the president that, were he to give up sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal, it could result in his impeachment. The only good news from the American standpoint is that what Duterte is doing could be undone by a more rational successor, assuming that democracy in the Philippines survives this time of testing”.

Obama, attempting to secure his legacy

29/11/2016

A report discusses the legacy building attempts of President Obama, “With less than three months left in office, President Barack Obama will soon relinquish his foreign-policy legacy to the gimlet-eyed gaze of historians and presidential scholars. But before that happens, the White House is hellbent on completing an ambitious to-do list that will face a considerable head wind in Congress.  Eight years ago, the energetic senator from Illinois came to power on a promise to end the bloody wars and counterterrorism policies of former President George W. Bush, a Republican. But the 8,400 troops currently in Afghanistan and 5,000 in Iraq — not to mention regular airstrikes on Islamist fighters in Syria, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia — demonstrate the intractability of America’s post-9/11 conflicts. And though Obama closed the book on the CIA’s enhanced interrogation program, the lasting presence of the U.S. military prison in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is a stinging reminder of unfulfilled campaign promises to do away with the excesses of the Bush era”.

It goes on to mention how “Other widely touted achievements, such as the Iran nuclear deal or the rapprochement with Cuba, could be rolled back by Obama’s successor or Congress. Just last week, days before Secretary of State John Kerry received a peace award in Ireland for securing the Iran deal, House Republicans announced plans to pass a 10-year reauthorization of sanctions on Tehran that could undermine the landmark accord. For the president’s critics, that deal is the most vulnerable part of his foreign-policy legacy. “The Iran deal will be in trouble no matter who is elected,” said James Carafano, a conservative foreign-policy expert at the Heritage Foundation. Obama’s supporters say an underappreciated aspect of his legacy — the successful restoration of America’s standing in the world after Bush’s presidency — may be the most in danger”.

The author adds that “Another major part of Obama’s legacy relies on galvanizing Congress in the dying days of his presidency. On trade, Congress has yet to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive pact involving 11 Pacific Rim countries and the United States that the White House views as essential to boosting U.S. exports and checking China’s influence in the region. And on Syria, U.S. efforts to broker a cease-fire have failed in a conflict that has killed at least 400,000 people and displaced millions more”.

The article notes the list of items Obama will try to protect “In his final months in office, Obama will be keen to prevent any attempt by Congress to undermine the Iran nuclear agreement reached in July 2015 between Tehran and world powers. The president maintains that he already has all the authority he needs to reimpose economic penalties if Tehran violates the deal and is seeking to stave off growing bipartisan support for renewing the Iran Sanctions Act, which expires in December. However, hawkish Democrats want to send a clear message to Iran that the United States stands ready to resume economic sanctions if needed. And some Republicans want to introduce additional measures that could broaden possible sanctions. Some of those new sanctions could amount to poison pills that effectively sabotage the Iran deal, possibly prompting Tehran to renounce the agreement”.

He adds that “Congressional Republicans could also forgo tinkering with sanctions in exchange for promises to pursue another bill that imposes economic penalties against Iran for its ballistic missile testing. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying organization, adamantly wants both bills approved, which could prevent Republicans from using either legislation as a political messaging tool”.

The piece notes that he will also try to cement counterterrorism policies, “In July, Obama released policy guidance outlining in unprecedented detail his extensive rules on drone strikes, “kill or capture” missions, and detention. But because little of Obama’s so-called counterterrorism playbook is enshrined in law, a future commander in chief could reverse key parts of it. Brookings Institution legal scholar Benjamin Wittes said laws regarding the use of force and armed conflict are “frankly pretty permissive” and the next president will have “wiggle room” to change the way U.S. counterterrorism missions operate. “If we’re going to kill people — and, by the way, we’re going to kill people — you have to have a process for it,” Wittes told FP. “Otherwise, it becomes sort of Putin-esque. If you don’t know the rules, then you’re in a very scary world.” Obama has steadily loosened the rules of engagement for American troops and aircraft in places like Afghanistan and Somalia, where U.S. special operations forces are accompanying local forces on the ground. In Afghanistan, U.S. special ops commandos have been given the green light to fight the Islamic State and the Taliban — in loosely defined self-defense missions — as American troops accompany Afghan army units in the field. In June, Obama allowed U.S. aircraft to target both extremist groups in Afghanistan”.

Rightly the piece admits that “Obama has already all but lost the fight on another early campaign promise — to shutter the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay. Though the Obama administration has steadily whittled down the inmate population since 2009, 60 men remain detained there”.

Revising the 9/11 terrorism bill

It ends that he hopes to revise a terrorism bill, “The first and only veto override of Obama’s presidency came in September when Congress voted overwhelmingly to allow 9/11 victims’ families to sue Saudi Arabia for its alleged role in the terrorist attack. But less than 24 hours later, Congress’s top Republican leaders announced they might rewrite the legislation “so that our service members do not have legal problems overseas,” said House Speaker Paul Ryan said after the 348-77 vote. That was the same argument cited by Obama when he vetoed the legislation. But the president might be blocked from reversing the law from within his own Democratic Party. New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who is expected to become the next Senate Democratic leader, remains opposed to any changes. And no lawmaker — either in the House or Senate — has yet offered to rally support for revising the law, a congressional aide told FP on condition of anonymity”.

Obama speaks to Putin

27/11/2016

President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin spoke for about four minutes on Sunday at the APEC summit about Syria and Ukraine, a White House official said. “The president urged President Putin to uphold Russia’s commitments under the Minsk agreements, underscoring the U.S. and our partners’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty,” the official said. The summit is taking place in Peru’s capital, Lima. Obama also emphasized the need for their two countries’ foreign ministers “to continue pursuing initiatives, together with the broader international community, to diminish the violence and alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people,” the official said.

Trump’s cabinet, coming together

25/11/2016

A report in The Hill notes how Trump’s Cabinet is coming together, “President-elect Donald Trump is rewarding allies with top roles in his administration as he prepares to enter the Oval Office in January. Trump is also showing a willingness to bury the hatchet with former rivals, considering some of them for Cabinet positions”.

For secretary of State the article notes how “Mitt Romney appears to be the current front-runner to become the nation’s top diplomat despite openly feuding with Trump during the campaign, according to the Wall Street Journal. The former Massachusetts governor delivered a stinging rebuke of Trump in March, warning Americans about the businessman and calling him a “phony” and a “fraud.” Trump hit back, labeling Romney a “failed candidate” for losing the 2012 presidential race. While the pair appear to have put the past behind them, some differences over national security seemingly remain, especially surrounding their views of Russia. Romney slammed Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “thug” late last year as Trump praised the Russian leader. Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s most trusted allies, is also seen as a top contender for secretary of State. The former New York City mayor was once seen as the favourite for the position. Some Republicans have expressed concerned over Giuliani serving in the position, including lawmakers like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has come out in opposition to his appointment. The Journal reported that there’s an internal struggle between members of Trump’s team over whether the businessman should tap Romney or Giuliani –– or look elsewhere”.

For DoD the article notes that “Trump said he is “seriously considering” retired Marine Gen. James Mattis to helm the Pentagon. The real estate mogul praised Mattis as “the real deal” and the retired general has earned an endorsement from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. The president-elect has already indicated he listens to the retired senior military officer, who would require a special waiver from Congress to serve in the position. During a meeting with The New York Times on Tuesday, Trump told journalists that he asked Mattis where he stands on waterboarding and was surprised to hear that he was opposed. While campaigning, Trump embraced waterboarding as an interrogation method, despite international law banning the practice”.

For AG the piece notes the nomination of Jeff Sessions, but mentions how “the Alabama senator’s nomination set off a political firestorm among Democrats and civil rights groups who voiced concerns about Sessions overseeing the agency’s Civil Rights Division. In 1986, he was denied a federal judge position over allegations that he called the NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union “un-American” and said he thought the Ku Klux Klan was “OK, until he learned they smoked marijuana.” Sessions denied making some of the comments and said others were taken out of context. Sessions is likely to be confirmed with a GOP-controlled Senate. Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) was also named CIA director the same day Sessions was nominated”.

For DHS it notes how “Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee who helped advise Trump during his campaign, is among those in the running. McCaul is considering a primary challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) in 2018, but has indicated he’d be interested in a role in the Trump administration. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach is also being considered for the role. He drew headlines for a photograph of himself meeting with Trump where he might have revealed his plans for the agency. Other potential contenders include retired Marine Gen. John F. Kelly and Frances Townsend, a homeland security and counterterrorism expert who served in George W. Bush’s administration, according to The Washington Post“.

For Treasury the names are a mix of Wall St bankers who may attempt to rein in Trump’s protectionism and others not fit for any office, “Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) has been mentioned as a contender and he met with Trump last week to discuss tax policy and financial regulations. He’s been a vocal opponent of the Export-Import Bank. But the House Financial Services Committee chairman has said he isn’t seeking a position and doesn’t expect an offer, though he would still have the conversation if Trump’s team reached out. Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker who was Trump’s national finance chairman, is another name for this position”.

HHS is said to go to “Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), a former orthopedic surgeon, is seen as a front-runner to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, sources told The Hill. Price has been a leading opponent of ObamaCare and introduced a bill last year to repeal and replace the law. Trump has repeatedly vowed to dismantle President Obama’s signature healthcare law once he takes office, though in recent weeks he has signaled a willingness to keep certain parts of the law. Republicans expect to place ObamaCare high on the agenda next year with majorities in both chambers. The chairman of the Budget Committee has also had a role in drafting the healthcare section of House Republicans’ “Better Way” agenda. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who is term-limited and a close Trump ally, was seen as a candidate for this agency, but ruled out an administration job in a CNN interview”.

For ambassador to United Nations, “Trump announced that he tapped South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley to be U.N. ambassador. Haley, who supported Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in the primary, also has a contentious history with Trump. She took a thinly veiled shot at Trump during the GOP rebuttal to the State of the Union and linked his rhetoric to the 2015 shooting at a black church in Charleston, S.C. Haley, an Indian-American, was the first woman and minority to be named to a senior role in the incoming administration.  The two-term governor doesn’t have much foreign policy experience, though she’s spent time abroad when negotiating trade deals for businesses in the Palmetto State. If she’s confirmed, Haley would be the first ambassador since Madeleine Albright to go straight to the U.N. without serving in any other federal government job”.

For the education system, the article notes how “Betsy DeVos, a leading proponent of school choice and charter schools, announced Wednesday that she accepted Trump’s offer to serve in the top Education post. DeVos was the second woman nominated to Trump’s Cabinet, hours after Haley’s nomination was announced. She currently serves as the chairwoman of the American Federation for Children, an education group that advocates for school choice policies. DeVos, former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman, is a billionaire GOP donor who had withheld support for Trump and attended the Republican National Convention this summer as a delegate backing Ohio Gov. John Kasich. She could face scrutiny over her previous support of Common Core, a set of education standards that Trump railed against during the campaign. DeVos backed Common Core when it was at the state level, but opposed it when it became a federal standard”.
Worryingly Ben Carson might be on the loose, any job would be dangerous with Carson “in charge” but it appears that he has been offered HUD, “After expressing disinterest in serving as secretary of Health and Human Services, Ben Carson said this week that he has been offered the top job at HUD. Carson hinted in a Facebook post on Wednesday that he would accept a position in the incoming administration, though he has said he will be thinking it over during the Thanksgiving holiday. Armstrong Williams, Carson’s business adviser, said the job at HUD matches Carson’s interests and that the retired neurosurgeon, who grew up in poverty in Detroit, could help rebuild America’s inner cities. On the campaign trail, Trump made an appeal to minorities, specifically African-Americans and Hispanics, that he would strengthen inner cities. Carson has yet to make an official decision, but Williams told The Hill last week that Carson has no government experience. “The last thing he would want to do was take a position that could cripple the presidency,” Williams said”.

“Trump’s ultimate impact on the court’s membership”

23/11/2016

Robert Barnes writes that the election has re-shaped the Supreme Court, “The political earthquake that hit has enormous consequences for the Supreme Court, swallowing up Judge Merrick Garland’s ill-fated nomination and dismantling Democratic hopes for a liberal majority on the high court for the first time in nearly a half-century. In the short term, Republican Donald Trump’s victory means that at some point next year, the nine-member court will be restored to full capacity, once again with a majority of Republican-appointed justices”.

Barnes argues that “Democratic attempts to filibuster Trump’s choice would likely lead Republicans to end that option for Supreme Court justices, just as Democrats did for other judicial nominations when their party controlled the Senate. Trump’s upset victory likely changes the court’s docket as well: Court challenges to President Obama’s regulations regarding the Affordable Care Act and immigration, which have preoccupied the justices in recent terms, will likely disappear under a President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress. The long-term question will be Trump’s ultimate impact on the court’s membership, and whether he gets the chance to do more than choose the successor to Justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February. Two of the court’s liberals, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, are 83 and 78, respectively. Moderate conservative Justice Anthony M. Kennedy is 80. As long as those three stay, the court’s rulings on sensitive social issues — protecting abortion rights, affirmative action and gay rights, for instance — are secure. “A lot of the big things are actually ones on which the court already has a so-called liberal majority,” Neal K. Katyal, the acting solicitor general under President Obama, said before the court’s term began last month. Tuesday’s election assures that Kennedy will remain the court’s pivotal justice, for now. Trump has said he will draw his Supreme Court nominee from a list of 20 judges and one senator: Mike Lee of Utah. All appear to be more conservative than Kennedy, the court’s longest-serving justice. Kennedy is the member of the current court most likely to be in the majority when the court splits 5 to 4 in its most controversial decisions. Most of the time, he sides with Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and the court’s other remaining conservatives: Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito”.

The piece goes on to note that “on some social issues, Kennedy sides with the liberals: Ginsburg, Breyer and Obama’s two choices for the court, Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. He joined them and wrote the majority opinion finding that gay couples have a constitutional right to marry; in fact, Kennedy has written all of the court’s cases protecting gay rights. Last term, he wrote the decision approving the limited use of race in college admission decisions, and voted to strike down a Texas law that the court said imposed unnecessary burdens on a woman’s right to obtain an abortion. But three of the five justices supporting those issues are the oldest on the court. Abortion rights advocates immediately sounded an alarm. “President-elect Trump has publicly pledged to overturn Roe and promised punishment for the one in three American women who will have an abortion in her lifetime,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. She was referring to Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision assuring a woman’s right to an abortion. Garland, a moderate liberal who is chief judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, would likely have replaced Kennedy as the justice in the middle. Obama nominated him last March in part because Republicans in the past have said he was the most likely Democratic nominee to win confirmation”.

The writer points out that the “Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared on the night of Scalia’s death that Republicans would not act on any Obama nominee. The move brought charges that McConnell had politicized the process, but the gambit worked: It will now be a Republican president making the lifetime appointment to replace Scalia. Trump has said his nominee will come from the list compiled with the help of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, and the legal group, the Federalist Society. His nominee will be like Scalia in seeking to overturn Roe and be a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, Trump has said. All eyes will now be on the court’s oldest members, Kennedy and Ginsburg. Replacing Kennedy with a more stalwart conservative would immediately impact the court’s dynamics. He has given no indication about how long he intends to serve on the court. Ginsburg has said she will serve as long as she is up to the job. She would likely be loath to allow Trump to pick her successor; she caused an uproar this summer when in media interviews she called him a “faker” and said she feared for the court and the country if he were elected. Ginsburg turned aside calls from some liberals that she retire years ago, so that Obama could name her replacement. She said it was unclear whether the Senate would confirm her successor. And she told The Washington Post that there was no rush: She felt it was likely that another Democrat would be elected after Obama”.

 

“Putin wants to challenge the notion of a U.S.-led world order”

21/11/2016

A piece warns of how Putin is taking control ofthe Middle East, “Sir Lawrence Freedman defines strategy as “the art of creating power.” This is a useful lens through which to consider one of this year’s key geopolitical trends: Russia’s return to the Middle East. Apart from its close ties to the Syrian regime, which date back to the 1970s, Moscow has had no substantial role in the Middle East since 1972, when President Anwar Sadat kicked Soviet advisors out of Egypt. Why return now? At a general level, it’s clear that Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to challenge the notion of a U.S.-led world order and encourage the return to a multipolar one, though there are certain self-imposed constraints on his ambitions. Although he has intervened in Georgia and Ukraine, he doesn’t seem willing to start a wider war by attacking any Eastern European states that are already members of NATO. In the Middle East, however, Putin has a theater to undermine Western influence, and to create power for himself, without the risk of triggering a war with the West. As any demagogue knows, one way to create power out of nothing is to find a division and then exploit it. In the Middle East, the fundamental division Russia has exploited is the one between the West’s aversion to Islamists, on the one hand, and human rights abuses on the other. The conflict between these aims often produces equivocation in Western foreign policy. It also opens up political space where Russia can operate by investing in repression and discounting democracy”.

The article correctly notes how “Moscow unequivocally supports the current authoritarian regimes in Damascus, Cairo, and Tobruk, which it portrays as bulwarks against the spread of radical Islam. In Egypt, Putin has consistently backed President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s actions against the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, in the face of widespread evidence of repressive tactics by his military government. Since 2013, Russia has stepped in to provide arms to the Egyptian government, exploiting U.S. reluctance to provide military hardware that could be used for domestic political repression. Although Egypt continues to depend on much greater levels of financial support from Washington than from Moscow, this action exemplifies Russia’s strategy for exploiting any seam between the United States and its regional allies when Washington equivocates between security and human rights. We see the same thing in Libya and Syria, where Russia does not contend with an established U.S. partner. In Syria, despite human rights atrocities by the Syrian government that have attracted Western scorn, the West has not been able to explain how getting rid of Bashar al-Assad’s regime would improve the country’s security, since that could lead to a rise in Islamist anarchy. Putin has exploited this gap by unreservedly backing Assad, leaving the West arguing for a gradual “transition” away from the Syrian president. And that further boosts the influence of Russia and Iran, the only countries with the leverage to initiate any such transition”.

The piece argues that “Though Putin has tried to insert himself into several other areas of Middle Eastern politics this year, we should not exaggerate his influence. Recall for example that the propaganda value the Russians attached to a Syria bombing raid from an Iranian base in August irritated Tehran, and the Russians were kicked off the base three days later. Likewise, Putin’s attempt to carve out a role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process this year, which appears primarily designed to challenge the United States as the key broker, is not likely to result in any breakthrough. So is Putin a strategic mastermind or a reckless gambler? The reality is more prosaic. Yes, Russia has made diplomatic gains this year, notably in eastern Libya and Turkey, and has propped up Assad, but this has come at serious long-term economic cost to Russia”.

It expands on this point noting how “As any demagogue knows, the only way to maintain power generated out of nothing through division is to keep stoking the flames of perpetual conflict upon which these divisions depend. But when you make a perpetual enemy out of the West, you can’t be surprised when you seem to be perpetually on the receiving end of economic sanctions and a general wariness by Western firms to invest in your country. It’s possible that Putin believed his actions in the Middle East would give him leverage to bargain sanctions away, despite the fact that Ukrainian and Syrian sanctions are not formally linked. But it’s more realistic to assume that Putin’s encouragement of a state of perpetual conflict with the West makes a relaxation of sanctions unlikely in the near term. If anything, Putin has boxed Russia into a position where it must increasingly orient its economy toward China, and away from the West, which gives Beijing considerable leverage over Moscow. It’s also important to note the role of deception and bluff in Russian strategy. This is a way of generating power out of nothing, but it’s a duplicitous kind of power that in the long run destroys one’s credibility. Take for example Russia’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. Despite being on different sides of the Syrian civil war, Putin has managed to bring Riyadh into its diplomatic orbit through cooperation on oil policy, given how both Saudi-led OPEC states and Russia need substantially higher prices for government budgets to break even”.

It posits that “Moscow has voiced commitment to such cooperation, and the Saudis appear to have bought into this assurance — for without it, Russia could simply gobble up much of any market share conceded by a Saudi production cut. But Riyadh will almost certainly lose out in any such deal. Last month, Igor Sechin, the CEO of Russian state-controlled oil company Rosneft, said his company would not take part in any such cut, implicitly contradicting Putin. Russia seems to want to get the Saudis to sign on to a deal Moscow has no real intention of supporting. But it’s hard to see how long Putin can trick them into doing the heavy lifting. In the short term, the official announcement of an OPEC-Russia oil production deal, which is expected to come this month, will temporarily lift prices. But in the long term, when the deal breaks down, as it must, it will erode Putin’s credibility with Riyadh and OPEC. Gauging the success of Putin’s strategy really depends on the time frame: In 2016, Russia is up in the Middle East; in the longer term, the damage he has done to the Russian economy by breaking with the West will outweigh the value of an alliance with the likes of eastern Libya or even perhaps Turkey. Already battered by low oil prices, the Russian economy can hardly afford to be unplugged from Western capital markets and investment”.

He ends “But maybe Russian international success is entirely the wrong way of thinking about what Putin gains from a strategy of perpetual conflict. Strategy might be the art of creating power, but the power the strategist is most interested in might be at home. Perpetual conflict abroad clearly helps rally popular support among Russians to keep Putin entrenched in the Kremlin, even as his country rots around him”.

Obama’s reassurance mission

19/11/2016

The last time President Barack Obama took questions from reporters abroad, he dismissed Donald Trump as an “unqualified” peddler of “wacky ideas,” expressing confidence during his September swing through Asia that voters would ultimately reject the candidate who ran so vocally against his own agenda. Now, as he embarks upon his final scheduled overseas trip as President, Obama faces an altogether different scenario: Trump is his successor, and instead of a cheering farewell tour, he’s embarking upon a reassurance mission for deeply shaken foreign allies. At stops in Greece, Germany and Peru, Obama will be left explaining the US election results to foreign counterparts whose anxieties about Trump he’s been fueling for more than a year by denouncing Trump from podiums across the globe. Obama must now convince foreign governments and populations that the future isn’t as bleak as he once predicted.

Trump’s transition in disarray

17/11/2016

The New York Times reports that Trump’s transition is in disarray, “President-elect Donald J. Trump’s transition was in disarray on Tuesday, marked by firings, infighting and revelations that American allies were blindly dialing in to Trump Tower to try to reach the soon-to-be-leader of the free world. One week after Mr. Trump scored an upset victory that took him by surprise, his team was improvising the most basic traditions of assuming power. That included working without official State Department briefing materials in his first conversations with foreign leaders. Two officials who had been handling national security for the transition, former Representative Mike Rogers of Michigan and Matthew Freedman, a lobbyist who consults with corporations and foreign governments, were fired. Both were part of what officials described as a purge orchestrated by Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and close adviser”.

The article notes how “The dismissals followed the abrupt firing on Friday of Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, who was replaced as chief of the transition by Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Mr. Kushner, a transition official said, was systematically dismissing people like Mr. Rogers who had ties with Mr. Christie. As a federal prosecutor, Mr. Christie had sent Mr. Kushner’s father to jail. Prominent American allies were in the meantime scrambling to figure out how and when to contact Mr. Trump. At times, they have been patched through to him in his luxury office tower with little warning, according to a Western diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity to detail private conversations. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt was the first to reach Mr. Trump for such a call last Wednesday, followed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel not long afterward. But that was about 24 hours before Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain got through — a striking break from diplomatic practice given the close alliance between the United States and Britain. Despite the haphazard nature of Mr. Trump’s early calls with world leaders, his advisers said the transition team was not suffering unusual setbacks. They argued that they were hard at work behind the scenes dealing with the same troubles that incoming presidents have faced for decades”.

It adds that “Trump himself fired back at critics with a Twitter message he sent about 10 p.m. “Very organized process taking place as I decide on Cabinet and many other positions,” he wrote. “I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!” The process is “completely normal,” said Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor, who emerged on Tuesday as the leading contender to be Mr. Trump’s secretary of state. “It happened in the Reagan transition. Clinton had delays in hiring people.” Giuliani, who made his comments in a telephone interview, added: “This is a hard thing to do. Transitions always have glitches. This is an enormously complex process.” There were some reports within the transition of score-settling. One member of the transition team said that at least one reason Mr. Rogers had fallen out of favour among Mr. Trump’s advisers was that, as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he had overseen a report about the 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, which concluded that the Obama administration had not intentionally misled the public about the events there. That report echoed the findings of numerous other government investigations into the episode. The report’s conclusions were at odds with the campaign position of Mr. Trump, who repeatedly blamed Hillary Clinton, his Democratic opponent and the secretary of state during the attacks, for the resulting deaths of four Americans”.

Not supurisingly the article notes “Eliot A. Cohen, a former State Department official who had criticized Mr. Trump during the campaign but said after his election that he would keep an open mind about advising him, said Tuesday on Twitter that he had changed his opinion. After speaking to the transition team, he wrote, he had “changed my recommendation: stay away.” He added: “They’re angry, arrogant, screaming ‘you LOST!’ Will be ugly.” Mr. Cohen, a conservative Republican who served under President George W. Bush, said Trump transition officials had excoriated him after he offered some names of people who might serve in the new administration, but only if they felt departments were led by credible people. “They think of these jobs as lollipops,” Mr. Cohen said in an interview. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, weighed in as well. On Tuesday, he issued a blunt warning to Mr. Trump and his emerging foreign policy team not to be taken in by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whom Mr. Trump praised during the campaign”.

The piece mentions that “Some of the early transition difficulties may reflect the fact that Mr. Trump, who has no governing experience or Washington network and campaigned as an agent of change, does not have a long list of establishment figures from the Bush era to tap. His allies suggested that might ultimately prove positive for Mr. Trump if he was able to assemble a functioning team that would bring new perspectives to his administration. For advice on building Mr. Trump’s national security team, his inner circle has been relying on three hawkish current and former American officials: Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California, who is chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; Peter Hoekstra, a former Republican congressman and former chairman of the Intelligence Committee; and Frank Gaffney, a Pentagon official during the Reagan administration and a founder of the Center for Security Policy. Mr. Gaffney has long advanced baseless conspiracy theories, including that President Obama might be a closet Muslim. The Southern Poverty Law Center described him as “one of America’s most notorious Islamophobes.” Prominent donors to Mr. Trump were also having little success in recruiting people for rank-and-file posts in his administration”.

“A palpable sense of dread settled on the intelligence community”

13/11/2016

The election results were only hours old Wednesday when a sober team of intelligence analysts carrying black satchels and secure communications gear began preparing to give President-elect Donald Trump his first unfiltered look at the nation’s secrets. The initial presentation — to be delivered as early as Thursday — is likely to be a read-through of the President’s Daily Brief, the same highly classified summary of security developments delivered every day to President Obama. After that, U.S. intelligence officials are expected to schedule a series of meetings to apprise Trump of covert CIA operations against terrorist groups, the intercepted communications of world leaders, and satellite photos of nuclear installations in North Korea. The sessions are designed to bring a new president up to speed on what the nation’s spy agencies know and do. But with Trump, the meetings are likely to be tense encounters between wary intelligence professionals and a newly minted president-elect who has demonstrated abundant disdain for their work. A palpable sense of dread settled on the intelligence community Wednesday as Hillary Clinton, the candidate many expected to win, conceded the race to a GOP upstart who has dismissed U.S. spy agencies’ views on Russia and Syria, and even threatened to order the CIA to resume the use of interrogation methods condemned as torture”.

“Outside-the-box iconoclasts and establishment Republican allies”

13/11/2016

Rumours on Trump’s cabinet are starting to circulate, one article notes, “Early on in his campaign, the Republican businessman sent a warning shot to the party’s old guard by promising to hire “new voices” instead of gray-haired apparatchiks “who have perfect résumés but very little to brag about except responsibility for a long history of failed policies and continued losses at war.” Those remarks, which came in Trump’s first major foreign policy address in April, put many GOP hawks on notice, and precipitated a number of high-level defections to Hillary Clinton, including prominent neoconservative Republican Bob Kagan. But individuals familiar with the Trump campaign’s thinking tell Foreign Policy the real estate tycoon’s cabinet is likely to include a mix of outside-the-box iconoclasts and establishment Republican allies, including even Bush-era foreign policy hawks. Trump’s preference for political outsiders, especially those with private sector experience, has been reflected in his reported consideration of Forrest Lucas, co-founder of the oil products company Lucas Oil, as interior secretary, and Steven Mnuchin, a Goldman Sachs alum, for treasury secretary. For secretary of state, a variety of names are under consideration, including Newt Gingrich, who loyally defended Trump through a range of controversies and gaffes during the campaign. Most famous for his role as House speaker and architect of the GOP’s Contract With America in the 1990s, Gingrich is also a historian of modern European history. His Tulane University doctoral thesis, “Belgian Education Policy in the Congo, 1945-1960,” looked at the role of colonialism in the Central African country. He also taught history at West Georgia College, now the University of West Georgia, in the 1970s. Another top candidate for the Foggy Bottom job is Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Corker has repeatedly blasted Moscow for its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and intervention in Syria — positions that put him at odds with Trump, who has openly praised Putin and expressed a desire to warm relations with the Cold War adversary”.

The article mentions how “Corker has used his gravitas on the committee to defend Trump’s unorthodox foreign policy views, and even gone so far as to describe Trump as a “Bush 41” Republican on diplomatic issues. In August, Corker said he’d “strongly consider” serving under Trump as secretary of state. Also under consideration for the job is John Bolton, the former ambassador to the United Nations under President George W. Bush. Oftentimes the face of Bush’s unilateralist foreign policy, Bolton was a controversial figure at the U.N., but could refashion himself for a Trump presidency centered around “America First” policies. For secretary of defense, a handful of nominees are on Trump’s short list, according to two people familiar with his thinking. The would-be picks include Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), the businessman’s most loyal ally in the Senate and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who repeatedly criticized the GOP for moving too slowly to embrace Trump. The close relationship between the two men dates back to 2005, when they both opposed a $1.2 billion United Nations plan to renovate its Manhattan headquarters. During his victory speech, Trump specifically praised Sessions, calling him “highly respected in Washington because he’s as smart as you get.” Though New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is officially the head of Trump’s transition team, Sessions has played an increasingly active role, leading many to believe he will have his pick of plum administration jobs”.

The report notes that “Another potential nominee for the top Pentagon job is Jim Talent, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Missouri senator. For four years, Talent served as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and focused his attention on military readiness. In a recent opinion piece in the American Spectator, Talent expressed “profound discomfort” with Clinton and Trump. But he defended his decision to vote for the real estate mogul — “it’s the right thing to do, not an easy thing” — because Trump has a plan “for rebuilding America’s armed forces.” A “Reagan-era buildup of the military” he wrote, “will be the most important contribution he could make to American security.” “I have concerns about aspects of Trump’s approach to the world, and particularly his view of America’s alliance relationships,” Talent wrote. “On the other hand, there is a reasonable chance that Trump would adjust his views on those points as he actually confronts the challenges of his presidency.” Michael Flynn, the former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, could also land the top Pentagon job but would have to receive a waiver from Congress because of a law requiring retired military officers to wait seven years before going back to the Pentagon as the top civilian leader. Flynn has also been rumoured for White House national security advisor, a powerful role that would not require Senate confirmation”.

It goes on to mention that “Potential contenders for CIA director include Flynn and ex-Michigan Rep. Mike Rogers, the former Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Rogers, who unlike Trump is a Russia hawk, has reportedly been playing a senior role on the Trump transition team. The position of attorney general could go to either Christie or former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, according to a report by NBC News earlier this week. Both men have been among Trump’s most loyal surrogates, though Christie could be a liability given the cloud of corruption charges hanging over the “Bridgegate” scandal. Walid Phares, an American scholar of Lebanese descent, has been nominally serving as a Trump foreign-policy advisor for several months. He could fit in as a White House senior advisor, according to one Trump insider. Richard Grenell, a former Bush administration spokesman to the United Nations, is on a list of candidates for U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Grenell had been appointed top national security spokesman for Mitt Romney, only to abruptly resign after social conservatives in the party rose up to denounce his selection as an openly gay Republican. Grenell has more recently used his Twitter feed to denounce Hillary Clinton and American political press coverage”.

It ends “For secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, one Trump insider said former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is a contender. On Wednesday, Politico reported that conservative Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke is also a potential candidate. He gained prominence at the Republican National Convention in Ohio when he declared “blue lives matter” in solidarity with law enforcement officers. Christie could fit into that cabinet position as well”.

Trump wins, everyone else loses

09/11/2016

The New York Times reports “Donald John Trump was elected the 45th president of the United States on Tuesday in a stunning culmination of an explosive, populist and polarizing campaign that took relentless aim at the institutions and long-held ideals of American democracy. The surprise outcome, defying late polls that showed Hillary Clinton with a modest but persistent edge, threatened convulsions throughout the country and the world, where skeptics had watched with alarm as Mr. Trump’s unvarnished overtures to disillusioned voters took hold. The triumph for Mr. Trump, 70, a real estate developer-turned-reality television star with no government experience, was a powerful rejection of the establishment forces that had assembled against him, from the world of business to government, and the consensus they had forged on everything from trade to immigration”.

It contends “The results amounted to a repudiation, not only of Mrs. Clinton, but of President Obama, whose legacy is suddenly imperiled. And it was a decisive demonstration of power by a largely overlooked coalition of mostly blue-collar white and working-class voters who felt that the promise of the United States had slipped their grasp amid decades of globalization and multiculturalism. In Mr. Trump, a thrice-married Manhattanite who lives in a marble-wrapped three-story penthouse apartment on Fifth Avenue, they found an improbable champion. “The forgotten men and women of our country will be forgotten no longer,” Mr. Trump told supporters around 3 a.m. on Wednesday at a rally in New York City, just after Mrs. Clinton called to concede. In a departure from a blistering campaign in which he repeatedly stoked division, Mr. Trump sought to do something he had conspicuously avoided as a candidate: Appeal for unity. “Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division,” he said. “It is time for us to come together as one united people. It’s time.” That, he added, “is so important to me.” He offered unusually warm words for Mrs. Clinton, who he has suggested should be in jail, saying she was owed “a major debt of gratitude for her service to our country.” Bolstered by Mr. Trump’s strong showing, Republicans retained control of the Senate. Only one Republican-controlled seat, in Illinois, fell to Democrats early in the evening. And Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, a Republican, easily won re-election in a race that had been among the country’s most competitive. A handful of other Republican incumbents facing difficult races were running better than expected”.

Pointedly it mentions “Trump’s win — stretching across the battleground states of Florida, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania — seemed likely to set off financial jitters and immediate unease among international allies, many of which were startled when Mr. Trump in his campaign cast doubt on the necessity of America’s military commitments abroad and its allegiance to international economic partnerships. From the moment he entered the campaign, with a shocking set of claims that Mexican immigrants were rapists and criminals, Mr. Trump was widely underestimated as a candidate, first by his opponents for the Republican nomination and later by Mrs. Clinton, his Democratic rival. His rise was largely missed by polling organizations and data analysts. And an air of improbability trailed his campaign, to the detriment of those who dismissed his angry message, his improvisational style and his appeal to disillusioned voters. He suggested remedies that raised questions of constitutionality, like a ban on Muslims entering the United States. He threatened opponents, promising lawsuits against news organizations that covered him critically and women who accused him of sexual assault. At times, he simply lied. But Mr. Trump’s unfiltered rallies and unshakable self-regard attracted a zealous following, fusing unsubtle identity politics with an economic populism that often defied party doctrine. His rallies — furious, entertaining, heavy on name-calling and nationalist overtones — became the nexus of a political movement, with daily promises of sweeping victory, in the election and otherwise, and an insistence that the country’s political machinery was “rigged” against Mr. Trump and those who admired him”.

The piece adds that Trump “seemed to embody the success and grandeur that so many of his followers felt was missing from their own lives — and from the country itself. And he scoffed at the poll-driven word-parsing ways of modern politics, calling them a waste of time and money. Instead, he relied on his gut. At his victory party at the New York Hilton Midtown, where a raucous crowd indulged in a cash bar and wore hats bearing his ubiquitous campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” voters expressed gratification that their voices had, at last, been heard. “He was talking to people who weren’t being spoken to,” said Joseph Gravagna, 37, a marketing company owner from Rockland County, N.Y. “That’s how I knew he was going to win.” For Mrs. Clinton, the defeat signaled an astonishing end to a political dynasty that has colored Democratic politics for a generation. Eight years after losing to President Obama in the Democratic primary — and 16 years after leaving the White House for the United States Senate, as President Bill Clinton exited office — she had seemed positioned to carry on two legacies: her husband’s and the president’s. Her shocking loss was a devastating turn for the sprawling world of Clinton aides and strategists who believed they had built an electoral machine that would swamp Mr. Trump’s ragtag band of loyal operatives and family members, many of whom had no experience running a national campaign”.

Correctly it adds “on Tuesday night, stricken Clinton aides who believed that Mr. Trump had no mathematical path to victory, anxiously paced the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center as states in which they were confident of victory, like Florida and North Carolina, either fell to Mr. Trump or seemed in danger of tipping his way. Mrs. Clinton watched the grim results roll in from a suite at the nearby Peninsula Hotel, surrounded by her family, friends and advisers who had the day before celebrated her candidacy with a champagne toast on her campaign plane. But over and over, Mrs. Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate were exposed. She failed to excite voters hungry for change. She struggled to build trust with Americans who were baffled by her decision to use a private email server as secretary of state. And she strained to make a persuasive case for herself as a champion of the economically downtrodden after delivering perfunctory paid speeches that earned her millions of dollars. The returns Tuesday also amounted to a historic rebuke of the Democratic Partyfrom the white blue-collar voters who had formed the party base from the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt to Mr. Clinton’s. Yet Mrs. Clinton and her advisers had taken for granted that states like Michigan and Wisconsin would stick with a Democratic nominee, and that she could repeat Mr. Obama’s strategy of mobilizing the party’s ascendant liberal coalition rather than pursuing a more moderate course like her husband did 24 years ago. But not until these voters were offered a Republican who ran as an unapologetic populist, railing against foreign trade deals and illegal immigration, did they move so drastically away from their ancestral political home. To the surprise of many on the left, white voters who had helped elect the nation’s first black president, appeared more reluctant to line up behind a white woman”.

Crucially it mentions how “From Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, industrial towns once full of union voters who for decades offered their votes to Democratic presidential candidates, even in the party’s lean years, shifted to Mr. Trump’s Republican Party. One county in the Mahoning Valley of Ohio, Trumbull, went to Mr. Trump by a six-point margin. Four years ago, Mr. Obama won there by 22 points. Mrs. Clinton’s loss was especially crushing to millions who had cheered her march toward history as, they hoped, the nation’s first female president. For supporters, the election often felt like a referendum on gender progress: an opportunity to elevate a woman to the nation’s top job and to repudiate a man whose remarkably boorish behaviour toward women had assumed center stage during much of the campaign. Mr. Trump boasted, in a 2005 video released last month, about using his public profile to commit sexual assault. He suggested that female political rivals lacked a presidential “look.” He ranked women on a scale of one to 10″.

Worryingly it turns to January where “Uncertainty abounds as Mr. Trump prepares to take office. His campaign featured a shape-shifting list of policy proposals, often seeming to change hour to hour. His staff was in constant turmoil, with Mr. Trump’s children serving critical campaign roles and a rotating cast of advisers alternately seeking access to Mr. Trump’s ear, losing it and, often, regaining it, depending on the day. Even Mr. Trump’s full embrace of the Republican Party came exceedingly late in life, leaving members of both parties unsure about what he truly believes. He has donated heavily to both parties and has long described his politics as the transactional reality of a businessman. Mr. Trump’s dozens of business entanglements — many of them in foreign countries — will follow him into the Oval Office, raising questions about potential conflicts of interest. His refusal to release his tax returns, and his acknowledgment that he did not pay federal income taxes for years, has left the American people with considerable gaps in their understanding of the financial dealings. But this they do know: Mr. Trump will thoroughly reimagine the tone, standards and expectations of the presidency, molding it in his own self-aggrandizing image. He is set to take the oath of office on Jan. 20”.

Return of the Blob?

05/11/2016

A report addresses the return of the “Blob” as Obama prepares to leave office, “Obama’s presidency sent Washington’s foreign-policy hawks, or “the Blob,” as White House aide Ben Rhodes once disparagingly called them, into the wilderness. But the Blob is back, facing its best opportunity in eight years to push for a greater U.S. military role in the Middle East, this time in Syria. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, hold vastly divergent positions on how to bring the five-and-a-half-year war in Syria to an end. As secretary of state, Clinton favoured arming Sunni rebels against President Bashar al-Assad and has proposed installing a no-fly zone or safe zone to protect civilians from Russian and Syrian government bombers. She has also called for providing additional arms and training to Kurdish fighters battling the Islamic State. It’s less clear, however, how far she would go in arming opposition groups devoted to toppling Assad”.

The piece adds “Neither Clinton nor most of the others who are calling for a tougher military response in Syria are advocating the kind of full-fledged intervention, with U.S. ground forces, that the United States has undertaken over the past 15 years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Still, her proposals have emboldened those who believe that only American firepower is capable of forcing Assad to pursue a peace deal in good faith. Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who now advises the Syrian opposition, says he believes both Clinton and Trump would pursue a “more aggressive” Syria policy than the Obama administration — though he has no expectations of U.S. forces entering the war to fight Assad”.

He notes “plenty of voices still believe that Obama got it right by withstanding pressure from Washington’s foreign-policy establishment to bomb Assad and increase arms deliveries to a hodgepodge of rebel groups, many of whom have become entangled in alliances with extremists. Some experts say there is even scepticism within Clinton’s tight-knit group of foreign-policy advisors by some who doubt the wisdom of deepening America’s military involvement in Syria. As for a Trump presidency, the GOP nominee has expressed little interest in taking down the Syrian leader, saying in the Oct. 19 presidential debate that “you may very well end up with worse than Assad” if others vie to fill a leadership vacuum his departure would create. Instead, Trump would prefer to work with NATO allies and Russia to defeat the Islamic State: “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIS?” he asked at a rally in July. As Obama leaves office next January, foreign-policy wonks will have their best opportunity yet to recalibrate and redirect U.S. policy for Syria. Here’s a mix of hawkish and dovish proposals, as outlined to Foreign Policy, the next president could consider”.

The first involves “no-bomb zones”, “Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, believes Russia’s deployment of advanced missile defense systems would prove more complicated for a Clinton presidency than when she first began pushing the idea of a no-fly zone from inside the Obama administration. But Lister said the United States and Turkey have already effectively created no-bomb zones for Russian and Syrian aircraft in northeastern Syria and northern Aleppo. He suggested deploying international commandos to other areas in Syria to deter airstrikes. Lister also estimated that some 70 armed opposition groups, which he deemed “sufficiently moderate,” have been vetted by the CIA and Defense Department to receive military assistance from the United States”.

It continues with another option which suggests cutting off the rebels with the hope that the war will then end “Some critics of a military solution in Syria see the crisis from an entirely different perspective: They believe the Obama administration did not move fast enough to cut off allied support for the rebels who are linked to extremists — including the Islamic State and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — a dynamic that prolonged the war in Syria. “Escalation has failed to win this proxy war. It has only prolonged it and increased the death toll,” said Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. While no fan of Assad, Landis said the regime’s atrocities do not justify providing military and logistical support to rebels in the dim hope of a political transition that might bring a better outcome. Even so, Landis said there’s still time for the next U.S. president to get the policy right. “The U.S. should help bring the Syrian civil war to a quick end in order to reduce the suffering of the Syrian people,” he said. “The U.S. can assist in this by refusing to send more arms and money to the rebels and to encourage our allies, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, to reduce arms shipments and money flows to insurgents.”

A more aggressive strategy is outlined with decisive military force, “A new U.S. president will need to impose and maintain a credible cease-fire in Syria, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. By most accounts, a U.S.- and Russian-brokered initiative to stop the fighting in eastern Aleppo unraveled in September after Damascus and Moscow restarted a massive bombing campaign. Tabler said Syria paid no price — nor has it ever — for violating the fighting pause. But he said Washington could enforce future cease-fires by launching cruise missile strikes from U.S. warships, or from a neighbouring country, to destroy Syrian airfields and other targets. To avoid escalating tensions with Moscow, the United States would need to limit its targeting to military facilities where the Russians are not present”. In August, Tabler co-wrote a New York Times op-ed with Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy who initially supported, but later regretted, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq”.

Importantly it adds “punishing Assad’s regime is easier said than done. Russia has signaled it will use its influence at the U.N. to block attempts by the United States and its allies to further sanction Syria for dropping chlorine-filled toxic bombs on opposition-controlled towns. The new president will have to find a way to overcome Russian opposition”.

The other option is to simply increase the arms to the rebels “The Syrian civil war will either end in defeat for one party or it will come to peace as the result of a negotiated settlement that most likely will be based on the 2012 Geneva communiqué, brokered by the United Nations. Faysal Itani, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, said he prefers the diplomatic outcome. But getting there will require a military buildup of Syria’s beleaguered rebel forces”.

The last option, and perhaps by far the weakest as it would give Russia and Iran the status and influence they crave is to do a deal “A grand bargain would require buy-in from key regional countries, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and especially Iran and Russia, Bowen said. The deal should also entail “security service reform including demilitarization of militias and the withdrawal of foreign forces,” he said.

Dems, 2016 and Iran

03/11/2016

An interesting article argues that Democrats are getting a “pass” on the Iran deal during these elections, “Democrats in Congress found themselves squeezed in a political vise over the Iran nuclear deal. President Barack Obama leaned heavily on fellow Democrats to back the agreement in the biggest lobbying effort of his administration. And pro-Israel groups launched a full-court press against the deal, spending tens of millions of dollars on adswarning lawmakers they would have “blood on their hands” if they endorsed the accord. In the end, the White House won the heated political battle, securing just enough support among Democrats in the Senate to stave off a bid to block the deal. But many Jewish groups and donors at the time warned Democratic lawmakers who supported the Iran agreement that they would pay a steep political price in the 2016 election”.

Pointedly, the writer argues “Yet more than a year later, no Democrat has been kicked out of office over the nuclear deal in a primary and it’s unlikely that any Democratic incumbent will lose their seat in the Nov. 8 election because of it. The much-anticipated blowback has yet to materialise, despite opinion polls that show a majority of Americans oppose the agreement. Although the Republican Party is hitting the issue hard in Senate and House races across the country, conservative Jewish organizations and activists have mostly pulled their punches and resisted funding rivals of lawmakers who voted for the Iran agreement. Both opponents and supporters of the deal agree the main reason the issue has not become a political spoiler is the man at the top of the Republican ticket, Donald Trump. The toxic nature of Trump’s candidacy, from his comments denigrating women to his refusal to accept the election result if he loses, has dominated the campaign and pushed aside policy debates that normally occur in presidential contests. He has turned off swaths of conservative Jewish and pro-Israel activists by trafficking in anti-Semitic rhetoric, as well bashing immigrants and U.S. allies, while praising Russian President Vladimir Putin”.

The author mentions “In last week’s presidential debate, Trump called the Iran agreement “the stupidest deal of all time, a deal that’s going to give Iran absolutely (sic)nuclear weapons.” But the Iran agreement barely featured in post-debate media coverage, largely because of Trump’s jaw-dropping comment that he was not sure if he would accept the results of the election. “This hasn’t exactly been a policy-oriented campaign season,” said Jeff Ballabon, a former media executive who runs a conservative pro-Israel super PAC called Iron Dome Alliance. “Like pretty much every substantive issue, Israel and the Iran deal have taken a back-burner to matters of personality, conduct, and style.” With Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton consistently ahead in national polls and widening her lead in key states, pro-Israel hawks are mostly resigned to a Clinton victory and see no reason to antagonise the next administration — as well as a possible Democratic majority in the Senate”.

Naturally he notes how “Sheldon Adelson, the conservative Jewish megadonor known for his hawkish stance on Israel, spent at least $98 million on Republican candidates in the 2012 elections. This year, the Las Vegas billionaire and his wife have spent only about $40 million on campaigns nationwide. And generally, Jewish donors have shunned Trump in a dramatic way. Of all funds contributed to major party candidates this year by Jewish donors, 95 percent went to Clinton and only 5 percent to Trump, according to an analysis published last month on FiveThirtyEight. That’s a sharp contrast to the 2012 presidential campaign, when about 71 percent of the $160 million given to major party candidates went to Obama’s reelection campaign and 29 percent went to the Republican nominee, Mitt Romney. The funding four years ago roughly reflected the breakdown of the Jewish vote in that election. Until it became clear Trump would be the nominee, organizations and donors on both sides of the Iran nuclear issue were bracing for a no-holds-barred brawl in the election season. To national security hawks and conservative Jewish groups in Washington, Democrats — particularly incumbents who openly endorsed the deal — looked vulnerable and ripe for defeat at the ballot box”.

The report notes “Advocates of the deal, however, say Trump’s antics and insults are not the only reason the issue is not gaining more traction. They argue the agreement is working, and that there is no smoking gun that shows Iran is violating the deal and secretly building nuclear weapons. The agreement offers “a way to defang Iran’s weapons program without firing a shot,” said Jessica Rosenblum of J Street, a progressive pro-Israel group that supports the agreement.  “It’s good policy and it’s good politics.” The agreement clinched in July 2015 between Iran and major powers, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, imposed strict limits on Tehran’s nuclear program in return for lifting economic sanctions that were choking the Iranian economy. The White House says the agreement blocks Iran’s potential path to a nuclear weapon as it imposed extensive international inspections and forced Tehran to dismantle a heavy water reactor, remove thousands of centrifuges for uranium enrichment, and ship out stockpiles of medium-enriched uranium. But opponents maintain that easing sanctions enables Iran to bankroll its militant proxies across the Middle East, and opens the door to Tehran acquiring a nuclear arsenal in 15 years when certain provisions of the agreement expire. Critics also object to how the deal was implemented. Republicans were outraged over a $400 million cash payment that Washington sent Iran on the same day last January that several American prisoners were released by Tehran. The United States sent the funds to settle a longstanding claim by Iran before an international tribunal. The money had been set aside to pay for weapons that were never delivered because the pro-U.S. monarchy fell following the Iranian revolution of 1979”.

Interestingly it notes “Throughout her campaign, Clinton has never shied away from expressing her support of the deal, even though a majority of Americans say they oppose it. She has argued the agreement “lowers the threat” posed by Iran and has vowed to hold Tehran accountable for other activities that fall outside the deal. Americans disapprove of the deal, 57 percent to 30 percent, according to a February poll by Gallup. And surveys have shown Republican voters overwhelmingly oppose the accord. Yet some polls indicate a majority of Jewish voters support the deal, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s outspoken opposition. Anxious to retain a GOP majority in the Senate, Republican candidates and conservative political action committees see the issue as a winner. The Iran nuclear deal is a frequent talking point in pivotal Senate races in Florida, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Nevada, and Illinois, with Republicans seeking to portray their opponents as naive and weak on national security. In New Hampshire, Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte is gambling that her opposition to the nuclear deal can help her fend off a serious challenge from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan. Ayotte made the issue a key part of a $4.2 million advertising buy for her campaign”.

“Weighing plans to rush more firepower to CIA-backed units”

03/11/2016

As rebel-held sections of Aleppo crumbled under Russian bombing this month, the Obama administration was secretly weighing plans to rush more firepower to CIA-backed units in ­Syria. The proposal, which involved weapons that might help those forces defend themselves against Russian aircraft and artillery, made its way onto the agenda of a recent meeting President Obama held with his national security team. And that’s as far as it got. Neither approved nor rejected, the plan was left in a state of ambiguity that U.S. officials said reflects growing administration skepticism about escalating a covert CIA program that has trained and armed thousands of Syrian fighters over the past three years. The operation has served as the centerpiece of the U.S. strategy to press Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step aside. But U.S. officials said there are growing doubts that even an expanded version could achieve that outcome because of Moscow’s intervention. Obama, officials said, now seems inclined to leave the fate of the CIA program up to the next occupant of the White House. If so, Obama’s successor will inherit an array of unattractive options. Critics of the proposal to increase arms shipments warn that it would only worsen the violence in Syria without fundamentally changing the outcome. But inaction has its own risks — increasing the likelihood that Aleppo will fall, that tens of thousands of CIA-backed fighters will search for more-reliable allies, and that the United States will lose leverage over regional partners that until now have refrained from delivering more-dangerous arms to Assad’s opponents.

“Obama administration abandoned efforts to cooperate with Russia”

12/10/2016

U.S.-Russia relations fell to a new post-Cold War low as the Obama administration abandoned efforts to cooperate with Russia on ending the Syrian civil war and forming a common front against terrorists there, and Moscow suspended a landmark nuclear agreement. The latter move, scuttling a deal the two countries signed in 2000 to dispose of their stocks of weapons-grade plutonium, was largely symbolic. But it provided the Kremlin with an opportunity to cite a series of what it called “unfriendly actions” toward Russia — from Ukraine-related and human rights sanctions to the deployment of NATO forces in the Baltics. The United States, the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement, has “done all it could to destroy the atmosphere encouraging cooperation.” Of far more immediate concern, the end of the Syria deal left the administration with no apparent diplomatic options remaining to stop the carnage in Aleppo and beyond after the collapse of a short-lived cease-fire deal negotiated last month.

Congress overrides Obama’s veto

10/10/2016

The Senate is moving forward with a pledge by leadership to try to override President Obama’s veto of legislation that would allow families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia in court. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) set the vote on overriding the veto, along with two hours of debate, for Wednesday. The showdown could end with lawmakers nixing the president’s veto for the first time in his administration”.

 

“An impassioned plea for an open world order”

06/10/2016

In this the 4,700th post, an article discusses Obama’s last UN speech, “Barack Obama used the pulpit of his last speech before the United Nations to make an impassioned plea for an open world order, even as walls rise against refugees, protectionism makes a comeback, and the West faces the prospect of a simmering cold war with Russia and other authoritarian states. The address represented a rallying cry for beleaguered democratic, pro-trade governments to promote the values of human rights and free markets. Obama also explicitly rejected the politics of isolationism, demagoguery, and nationalism that have gained political traction from the American heartland to Moscow. There appears to be a growing contest between authoritarianism and liberalism right now, and I want everybody to understand — I am not neutral in that contest. I believe in a liberal political order,” Obama said. “So those of us who believe in democracy, we need to speak out forcefully.”

It goes onto point out that “The U.S. president took aim at plenty of targets during his speech but trained a sharp burst of rhetorical fire on a country that has, in the course of his own administration, become Washington’s international nemesis and, at best, awkward diplomatic dance partner — Vladimir Putin’s Russia. He specifically rebuked Russia for intimidating its neighbours and using military might to shape the future of its growing sphere of influence. Obama argued that Russia’s military interventions — from Syria, where it is shoring up President Bashar al-Assad’s government, to Ukraine, where Russian-backed rebels seized control of Crimea and continue to challenge a Western-backed government in Kiev — are unsustainable over the long haul”.

Interestingly the writer notes how “Obama also took a swipe at China, which has erected an archipelago of military installations on disputed islands in the South China Sea. He said a “peaceful resolution” of China’s territorial dispute “will mean far greater stability than … militarization” in the region. Obama also challenged China to ensure that its troublesome client, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, pays a price for his recent test of a nuclear explosive, a flagrant violation of multiple Security Council resolutions that China has supported. “When North Korea tests a bomb, that endangers all of us. And any country that breaks this basic bargain must face consequences,” he said. Hours after Obama’s speech, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — Turkey’s democratically elected, though increasingly authoritarian, leader — delivered his first address to the international community since a failed coup attempt in July. Erdogan implored world leaders to crack down on Fethullah Gulen”.

The report notes how “Obama’s speech also served up a blunt rejection of growing calls for sealing national borders, including Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s proposal for a “beautiful wall” along the U.S. southern border to keep out foreigners from Mexico and elsewhere. “Today, a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself,” Obama said. “So the answer cannot be a simple rejection of global integration. Instead, we must work together to make sure the benefits of such integration are … squarely addressed.”That included a now familiar endorsement of free trade, which Obama hailed as a necessary component for a more prosperous and peaceful world. He described “trade wars,” protectionism, and tariff hikes as “failed models of the past” and reiterated his pitch for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim countries awaiting ratification by signatories”.

The piece goes on to note how “even in Washington’s political climate, Obama’s free trade message has become increasingly isolated. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has disowned the trade pact, despite her vocal support for it as Obama’s secretary of state; so has progressive firebrand Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who challenged her for the nomination. Trump calls the trade pact, which would link together about 40 percent of the global economy, one of the “worst deals” ever forged. Yet Obama sounded an uncharacteristically populist note in his speech, highlighting the need for the world’s wealthiest to strike a fairer bargain with the world’s workers. “A world in which 1 percent of humanity controls as much wealth as the other 99 percent will never be stable,” the U.S. president told the gathering of foreign leaders. “A society that asks less of oligarchs than ordinary citizens will rot from within.” Although part of Obama’s speech centered on his forward-looking policy goals, he also sought to burnish his presidential legacy on the world stage. He noted that the meltdown of the global financial system, which nearly collapsed during the final years of George W. Bush’s administration, was stabilised under his watch. He cited landmark diplomatic agreements with Cuba, resulting in restored relations, and Iran, where sanctions relief was traded for the restriction of Tehran’s nuclear program. He also pointed to Washington’s role in supporting peace talks that ended Latin America’s longest civil war in Colombia”.

The report ends, “Obama struck a fatalistic note over the prospects of restoring peace in the Middle East, where leaders have demonised rival sects, persecuted political opponents, and tolerated the perversion of Islam. “[Such forces] are now at work helping to fuel both Syria’s tragic civil war and the mindless, medieval menace of ISIL,” he said, referring to the Islamic State. “If we are honest, we understand that no external power is going to be able to force different religious communities or ethnic communities to coexist for long,” Obama said. In the meantime, Obama said the United States and its coalition partners will continue to undertake a “united and relentless” military campaign against the Islamic State in Syria. Beyond that, Washington will limit its action to pressing for an elusive diplomatic settlement to the conflict while working to deliver assistance to those in need. The recent breakdown in the Syrian cease-fire, however, has raised doubts over the viability of such a plan.

 

Obama’s insane foreign policy

04/10/2016

An excellent article argues that Obama’s Syria policy is the definition of insanity, “The latest diplomatic attempt to bring calm to Syria and pave a pathway toward peace appears to have failed. After a week of blocked aid deliveries and cease-fire violations, Russian aircraft on Mondayreportedly bombed a joint U.N.-Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid convoy and warehouse outside Aleppo, killing nearly half of its staff, including a SARC regional aid director. The attack came just minutes after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime declared the cease-fire dead. Several dozen more people were then killed and wounded in heavy air and artillery strikes on the besieged rebel-held districts of Aleppo city. The remains of a Russian air-dropped OFAB-type fragmentation bomb have been discovered in the wreckage of the SARC warehouse, and U.S. investigations have concluded that Russian Sukhoi Su-24 jets were responsible. Speaking after the incident, U.N. humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien said the bombing — which lasted nearly two hours — could be a “war crime.” None of this should come as a surprise, even as the consequences are potentially devastating. The Russian government, much less the Assad regime, has never been a reliable partner for peace in Syria. But even after Russia’s alleged bombing of the aid convoy, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration is still plowing its energies into a deal that aims to work with the Russian government”.

The piece notes “Despite the flagrant violation of international humanitarian law, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stood in New York on Tuesday and maintained that the “cease-fire is not dead.” The Obama administration appears to believe that the escalating fighting elsewhere in Syria — including the targeted airstrike on a medical facility in the town of Khan Touman late Tuesday, which killed 13 people — is just a figment of the world’s imagination. On Wednesday, Kerry told the U.N. Security Council that Russia’s denial of responsibility for targeting the aid convoy was evidence that it lived in a “parallel universe,” but, even so, he proceeded to call for another go at the very same deal that failed only a week prior”.

He argues later that “The Obama administration has viewed the Syrian crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. But diplomatic failures such as this one continue to embolden extremist actors like al Qaeda, which has purposely presented itself as a reliable and necessary opposition ally, seemingly dedicated only to the cause of ridding Syria of the Assad regime. By so deeply embedding within Syrian revolutionary dynamics and claiming to fill the vacuum left behind by insufficient foreign support or protection, al Qaeda’s narrative is constantly strengthened by perceptions of American inadequacy. Thus, U.S. failures do not exist in a vacuum — our adversaries quickly translate them into their own victories. It is long past time for the United States to reassess its shameful approach to the Syrian crisis. Both the Islamic State and al Qaeda are symptoms of the conflict, and the conflict itself is a symptom of fundamentally failed governance. In choosing to treat the symptoms, Washington continues to reduce its chances of resolving the larger issues at play in Syria”.

The piece mentions how “It should now be patently clear that contrary to the hopes of some, the Russian government is not the key to controlling the Assad regime’s heinous behaviours. For a week straight, the Syrian government consistently ignored Moscow’s demands and destroyed a cease-fire deal that had been largely of Russia’s making. The regime also reinforced its troop positions around Aleppo and amassed forces opposite the strategic northern town of Jisr al-Shughour, and its aircraft were blamed for bombings around Aleppo, north of the city of Homs, and in parts of southern Daraa governorate. And after the Assad government declared the cease-fire over, Russia ferociously destroyed an aid convoy intended for 78,000 civilians. The Syrian regime’s decision to scuttle the latest diplomatic effort should drive home one simple point: Bashar al-Assad does not intend to step down from power, and he will use any means at his disposal to prevent that from happening. From industrialised arrest, torture, chemical weapons, barrel bombs, and incendiary and cluster weapons to medieval-style sieges — no method is too severe if it helps him pursue his goal. Beyond feeble public appeals and a 2013 agreement to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, which appears to have left some behind and ignored the regime’s chlorine gas attacks, the United States has never chosen to challenge such brazen brutality. And that’s why these tactics remain decidedly in use by the Assad regime”.

He notes that “The United States can no longer continue its meek attempts to contain the Syrian crisis’s effects. Five years ago, Syria was a local problem; today it is an international one. U.S. indecision, risk aversion, a total divergence between rhetoric and policy, and a failure to uphold clearly stated “red lines” have all combined into what can best be described as a cold-hearted, hypocritical approach. At worst, Washington has indirectly abetted the wholesale destruction of a nation-state, in direct contradiction to its fundamental national security interests and its most tightly held values. These failures began in the early days of the Syrian uprising. Though the Obama administration first proclaimed that Assad had lost his legitimacy in July 2011, it took more than a year after that to develop a meaningful policy to assist the opposition. Even then, U.S. support consisted only of providing food and nonlethal equipment. Later, the CIA’s vet, train, and equip program to the Free Syrian Army found some minimal success, but U.S. commitment remained negligible when compared with our often uncoordinated regional allies, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. It seems U.S. officials wanted Assad out but wanted others — whom administration officials would say in private they did not trust — to do it for them. The result? Nearly half a million people dead, more than 1 million people living under siege, and 11 million people displaced. Catastrophic refugee flows have led to an anti-immigrant backlash in Europe and the rise of far-right politics while Syria is now home to perhaps the greatest concentration of jihadi militants in any single country ever. Put aside the threat posed by the Islamic State for a second: Syria now hosts a thriving de facto al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham — formerly the Nusra Front — the most capable, politically savvy, and militarily powerful al Qaeda movement in history. Al Qaeda’s central leadership has also revitalized itself inside Syria, with the international terrorist organisation’s newly named deputy leaderalmost certainly residing in the country. The correlation is simple: U.S. shortcomings equal al Qaeda’s success in Syria”.

He goes on to mention “After several years of ignoring this threat, U.S. policymakers finally turned their attention to al Qaeda this year. It was too late. Washington’s repeated failures had already given the jihadis the time and space to shape the dynamics of the war such that any attack by the United States or Russia would only further undermine U.S. influence and empower al Qaeda. Unfortunately, it is indisputably true that most Syrians living in opposition areas now view al Qaeda as a more trustworthy and capable protector of their lives than the United States. If there were ever a sign of policy failure, this would be it. Faced with this situation, the United States must consider addressing its Syria policy shortcomings, beginning with five key points. First, Assad is not and can never be the solution for Syria. There is simply no scenario in which any meaningful portion of opposition society will ever give in to his rule. The longer Assad remains in power, the more extremists will benefit. Second, there will be no purely military solution to Syria’s conflict — a negotiated settlement is the only feasible path toward stability. However, Assad will never treat a political process with any level of seriousness until placed under meaningful pressure, which the United States has thus far done everything in its power not to do”.

The third point he raises is that “A partition would not only fail to solve Syria’s conflict, but it would also likely exacerbate the existing drivers and create new ones. Opposition to partition is arguably the single issue that unites communities supportive of and opposed to Assad. Fourth, combating al Qaeda in Syria cannot be done solely with bullets and bombs. Defeating it is instead an issue of providing a more attractive and sustainable alternative to the jihadi group’s narrative. Given its successful efforts to embed within the opposition and build popular acceptance as a military (not a political) ally, al Qaeda does not represent a conventional counterterrorist problem. Adopting conventional means such as airstrikes will fail to defeat the group, and instead we must out-compete it”.

He ends “although the Islamic State may be an adversary the United States can fight largely in isolation from the broader Syrian crisis, it remains an asymmetric and opportunistic terrorist movement. By its very nature, it can be counted on to exploit the continued conflict in Syria for its own ends. If Assad remains in place indefinitely and the conflict continues or worsens, the Islamic State will undoubtedly live to fight another day. When questioned on the failure of the current U.S. policy in Syria, senior members of the Obama administration — and indeed the president himself — have repeatedly and cynically proclaimed: “What’s the alternative?” as if to say there are none. In fact, there are alternatives, and they all require a more determined use of U.S. hard and soft power. Civilian protection should remain the core focus of any broad-based strategy, but it must be backed up by real and discernible consequences for violators. Given the five-year U.S. track record, the Assad regime knows all too well Washington’s hesitancy to threaten the use of anything close to force, and Damascus has repeatedly reaped the rewards of that impotent stance. If the United States hopes to develop an effective Syria policy, that has to change quickly”.

 

“Democratic constitutional order in Poland has broken down”

29/09/2016

Poland’s constitutional crisis is discussed, “After simmering for nine months, the tension between Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party and the country’s highest court, the Constitutional Tribunal, is coming to a boil. The PiS government is attempting an unconstitutional takeover of the tribunal—ignoring its rulings, trying to pack it with new judges, and, most recently, threatening the head judge with prosecution. At stake are the survival of constitutional democracy and the rule of law in Poland. On July 27, the European Commission, which has been pressing the PiS to change course for months, called on the government to remedy the situation within three months or risk facing disciplinary proceedings that could lead to sanctions. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chair of the PiS and puppet master behind Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s government, responded that he was “amused” by Brussels’ warning. In the weeks since then, the PiS has pressed on with its attacks”.

The report continues “The PiS is determined to defeat the Constitutional Tribunal because it is a major impediment to Kaczynski’s plan to introduce a populist electoral autocracy in Poland along the lines of Viktor Orban’s in Hungary. When Orban became prime minister, in 2010, he had a parliamentary majority large enough to legally rewrite Hungary’s constitution to help cement his grip on power. But in Poland, where the procedures for amending the constitution are more demanding, the PiS does not have that option, and many of its initiatives—including laws designed to control the media, limit civil liberties, politicize the civil service, and attack judicial independence—risk being declared unconstitutional. As a result, the government is engaged in a blatantly illegal effort to subjugate the Constitutional Tribunal. So far, the judges have held firm, ruling unconstitutional the very laws that the government has passed to attack them, such as its December 2015 law that sought to cripple the court by changing the rules governing its operations. But the PiS is growing more crude and aggressive, and its recent threat to prosecute the Tribunal’s top judge suggests that it may take more forceful action to crush judicial independence before too long. European leaders, meanwhile, are beset by crises—from Brexit to the refugees to continued economic weakness in the eurozone—and many may be tempted to avoid conflict with Warsaw. Yet the EU has no excuse for inaction. In the case of Hungary, EU leaders may have been caught unawares by Orban’s assaults on democracy. But Kaczynski and his PiS colleagues are hardly subtle about their intentions. Allowing them to stamp out constitutional democracy in one of Europe’s largest and most strategically important member states would mean the end of the EU’s “union of values” and would further damage its battered reputation”.

The writer goes on to add “The roots of the current constitutional crisis lie, ironically, with the centrist Civic Platform (PO) party, which governed Poland from 2007 to 2015. In its last month in office, the outgoing government appointed three judges to the Constitutional Tribunal to replace three who were retiring. That was perfectly legal. But the PO sought to further stack the deck by appointing replacements for two additional judges set to retire in December 2015, after the new PiS government would take office. The PiS-affiliated president, Andrzej Duda, refused to swear in any of the five judges, even after the Constitutional Tribunal ruled that only two had been nominated illegally. Instead, Duda swore in a slate of five different judges named by the new PiS-led parliament. The tribunal refused to hear cases together with the illegitimate replacement judges and a standoff with the government ensued. Since then, the PiS has passed laws designed to curtail the tribunal’s authority and make it subservient to the current parliamentary majority. The tribunal has judged the new laws unconstitutional, but the government has in turn refused to recognise those judgments. Quite simply, the democratic constitutional order in Poland has broken down”.

He notes that “In January of this year, the EU intervened. For the first time ever, the European Commission announced that it would be assessing the threat to the rule of law in Poland by activating the so-called Rule of Law Framework, which had been established in March 2014 in response to the erosion of the rule of law in Hungary and the EU’s failure to confront it. Before then, the EU’s main disciplinary tool—Article Seven of the Treaty on European Union—was viewed by many as an impractical nuclear option: it allowed the EU to suspend voting rights and impose other sanctions on a member state, but only after other governments agreed unanimously that the state in question was in “serious and persistent breach” of the EU’s fundamental values. The Rule of Law Framework was conceived as a precursor to Article Seven—a means to gradually ramp up pressure on a member government. On June 1, 2016, after months of failed negotiations, the commission finally issued a formal Rule of Law Opinion expressing concerns over the appointment of new judges, the laws passed by the government concerning the functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal, the government’s non-implementation of the tribunal’s rulings, and the effectiveness of constitutional review in the country more generally. International pressure on the Polish government, including from the Obama administration, continued to mount in the run-up to the July NATO summit in Warsaw. On the eve of the summit, the Polish parliament rushed through a new law on the Constitutional Tribunal, which it claimed responded to EU and international criticism. But the European Commission made it clear that it saw these reforms as wholly inadequate, with First Vice-President Frans Timmermans declaring that “the main issues which threaten the rule of law in Poland that have not been resolved.” On July 27, the commission launched the next step in the Rule of Law Mechanism—issuing a Rule of Law Recommendation to Poland, which asked the PiS government to publish and implement recent Constitutional Tribunal rulings and assure that any further legal reforms would respect the tribunal’s judgments. The Commission warned that if Poland failed to act on these recommendations within three months, it might trigger Article Seven”.

Crucially he writes that “The EU’s failure to stand up to Orban in Hungary, however, does not inspire confidence about how it will act in Poland. But the situations in the two countries differ enough that Brussels may be able to do more this time. First, whereas Orban’s Fidesz party was able to entrench its hold on power through legal constitutional amendments, PiS is blatantly violating the Polish constitution and crushing the high court that is trying to defend it. This makes it much harder for European leaders to sit back in silence. Second, Kaczynski’s PiS has fewer friends in Brussels—and throughout Europe—than does Orban’s Fidesz. Fidesz is a member of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament, and most EPP leaders have backed it throughout the deterioration of democracy in Hungary. The EPP has been willing to defend Orban out of partisan loyalty and because his party delivers the votes they need to dominate law-making in the parliament. The PiS, which belongs to the much smaller European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, is in a considerably weaker position. This weakness was on display recently, when members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted overwhelmingly (513 to 142 with 30 abstentions) for a resolution calling on the Polish government to respect democratic principles and the rule of law. The PiS’ political position is further damaged by the prospect of Brexit, since the largest party in the ECR, and one of the PiS’ staunchest defenders, is the British Conservative Party”.

Interestingly he writes that “But the Polish government still has an ace up its sleeve in Orban, who has explicitly pledged to block Article Seven sanctions against Poland. And therein lies a profound flaw in the EU’s approach to defending the rule of law and other democratic values. The threat looming behind the Rule of Law Framework is Article Seven, but the sanctions stage of Article Seven can only be triggered after there is unanimity among member governments. So long as the EU tolerates one autocrat—Orban—he can protect others of his ilk. The Polish government can count on the protection of Orban—as well as perhaps the leaders of the other Visegrad countries (Czech Republic and Slovakia)—and knows that ultimately Article Seven sanctions are unlikely to be imposed. But that is no reason not to trigger an Article Seven vote anyway. It is time for Europe’s leaders to stand up and be counted”.

He ends “Even a vote that fails to secure the unanimity needed for sanctions could be a galvanizing event, helping Europe’s democratic leaders remember what they and their union stand for. In the wake of such a vote, the EPP might finally eject and denounce Fidesz, a party that has not only undermined pluralist democracy but has eagerly stoked xenophobia. Talk among members of the European Parliament of cutting off EU funding to countries that flout European values is increasing, and even the failure of a vote against the Polish government might finally push leaders to get serious about using the power of the purse to deny autocrats the EU funds they use to prop up their regimes”.

“Keep U.S. policy on LGBT rights out of the local media spotlight”

25/09/2016

An article discusses how the United States gay rights policy has negative consequences.

It opens “For decades, the United States has championed human rights abroad as part of its foreign policy. Yet Washington’s attempts to balance promoting human rights with realpolitik has often been messy and inconsistent, especially when dealing with rights-violating regimes that remain important geostrategic actors. During her famous 1995 “Human Rights are Women’s Rights” speech, First Lady Hillary Clinton riled a key economic partner, China, when she harshly criticized its treatment of women. By contrast, in 1974, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger rebuked the U.S. ambassador to Chile, David Popper, for raising the issue of torture with Chilean officials. Kissinger suggested that Popper “cut out the political science lectures.” Yet it remains an open question to this day as to how aggressively the State Department should promote democratic principles, an act that often infuriates foreign countries or leads to a backlash. Today, the inclusion of LGBT equality in Washington’s worldwide human rights-promotion package is highlighting precisely this dilemma”.

The author writes that “Despite its checkered past on gay rights—the State Department expelled gay employees in the 1950s—the United States under President Barack Obama has dramatically changed its policy. In February 2015, the State Department appointed Randy Berry as the first U.S. special envoy for LGBT rights. At the time, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the importance of “defending and promoting” the rights of LGBT individuals to American diplomacy. More recently, the U.S. ambassador to Sweden Azita Raji marched in the Stockholm Pride Parade, and in India, the U.S. Embassy lit up its facade in rainbow colors after the June shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando. Yet in much of the Arab Middle East, where populations overwhelmingly oppose homosexuality (including 95 percent of Egyptians and 97 percent of Jordanians), LGBT-rights promotion is more complicated. There, widespread hostility to gay rights puts the United States in a difficult position. One might argue that just as Washington has aggressively advocated for women’s rights and the welfare of religious minorities across the globe, so too should it consistently and publicly back gay rights, even if that means rebuffing foreign governments. Such a forceful approach, however, contradicts the wishes of many LGBT people actually living in the Arab Middle East. In 2015, for instance, the U.S. ambassador to Jordan, Alice Wells, attended a small event in Amman organized by members of the local LGBT community. Many Jordanians were outraged, and after her public appearance a number of LGBT individuals were violently harassed, according to a Jordanian blogger who went by the pseudonym Ahmad. One popular local news program devoted an astonishing 70 minutes to bashing Wells, comparing her actions to visiting an Islamic State gathering on the grounds that both would be a violation of Jordan’s sovereignty and local laws”.

The writer argues that the support of Wells was seen as evidence that “gay rights are part of a “foreign agenda.” Ahmad explained that the ambassador stigmatized the local LGBT cause by associating it with the West and spoiled its chance of being regarded as an authentic Jordanian phenomenon. Ahmad compared the dynamics between the conservative elements of his society and the LGBT community to a high school brawl—just as a student engaged in a fistfight wouldn’t want someone else to jump in on his or her behalf, neither does a local activist want the United States to interfere with a campaign”.

The piece goes on to mention that “For the LGBT community in Jordan, any association with foreigners is tricky. Yet the situation is especially difficult when it comes to the United States. Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, points to the high levels of anti-Americanism in many Arab countries and the widespread perception in the region that the United States is an imperialistic power, especially after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hamid explains that for people “as misunderstood” as the Arab LGBT community, association with the U.S. government can be problematic”.

He goes on to make the point that “When it comes to geopolitics, the United States has critical strategic interests in Amman and it should be wary of antagonizing its ally. Jordan has played an important role throughout the war against the Islamic State, such as heavily bombarding ISIS targets inside Syria. Amman also hosts, unofficially, thousands of U.S. military personnel, according to a report from Vice. The Jordanian government is less likely to cooperate with Washington if it feels that the latter’s diplomats are insulting and undermining it by publicly raising the issue of LGBT rights. If the United States truly feels it must take part in LGBT activism in Jordan or other Arab countries that have high levels of homophobia, community members have suggested discrete steps that U.S. diplomats can take. One activist, Nadine, recommended offering emergency relocation and job training for LGBT individuals who may be physically at risk. Neela Ghosal, a senior gay-rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, emphasized that private discussions with foreign governments through, for instance, health and justice ministries, can be a productive way for Washington to reiterate its concerns on the issue”.

It ends “Ghosal urged the United States to consult with local LGBT organizations before taking any action, to ensure that whatever it intends to do actually helps civil society. Most importantly, Washington should keep U.S. policy on LGBT rights out of the local media spotlight. (In what may be a sign of progress, both U.S. LGBT Special Envoy Randy Berry and Ambassador to Jordan Alice Wells repeatedly declined to be interviewed about the United States’ support for LGBT rights in the Arab world.) Promoting LGBT rights is a cornerstone of the State Department’s human rights agenda. But, in Jordan at least, this promotion has had a damaging effect—delegitimizing the local LGBT community and putting it at even greater risk. Perhaps, when it comes to LGBT rights, Washington should ensure first of all that its policies do no harm”.

4,400 US troops in Iraq and Syria

23/09/2016

Hundreds of additional U.S. troops have flowed into Iraq during the past week as American and Iraqi forces there begin final preparations to launch an invasion of Mosul this fall.  The size of the U.S. force in Iraq and Syria now tops 4,400, up from about 3,900 last week, defense officials said. President Obama authorized several troop increases for Iraq earlier this year but those troops did not deploy immediately. The latest uptick brings the current footprint closer to the legal cap of 4,647″

Philippines, tilting to China?

23/09/2016

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he’s considering buying weapons from Russia and China while also ending joint patrols with U.S. forces in the South China Sea. In a televised speech Tuesday before military officers in Manila, Duterte said that two countries — which he didn’t identify — had agreed to give the Philippines a 25-year soft loan to buy military equipment. Later, he said that Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and “technical people” in the armed forces would visit China and Russia “and see what’s best.” While Duterte said he didn’t want to cut the “umbilical cord” with his allies, the remarks were the latest to signal a shift away from the Philippine-U.S. defence treaty in place since 1951. Since engaging in a public spat with U.S. President Barack Obama last week, Duterte has denounced American military killings during the early days of colonial rule and called for U.S. forces to leave the southern island of Mindanao.

“Legacy of the pivot is only partially complete”

21/09/2016

An article questions the pivot of Obama, “Barack Obama’s trip to Asia marks the final lap in his acclaimed “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. The narrative of this policy, as trumpeted by current and former administration officials, is predictably positive — expounding the bold but careful execution of a strategy from Day One in the Oval Office. However, the real story may cast a less shimmering glow across the Pacific. A combination of inattention, surprise, and mistakes characterised the early years of Asia policy under Obama. Despite this inauspicious beginning, the administration reacted well to each of these obstacles, and these midcourse adjustments culminated in the pivot. The legacy of the policy, however, may ultimately be out of the president’s control as it rests in the hands of Congress and the next president”.

The writer argues that “The Asia that Obama expected when he took office was not the Asia that he got. Confronted with a global financial crisis, two wars, and policy priorities of climate change and health care reform, America’s first president with roots in the Pacific did not exactly have the luxury of looking East. The priorities for Asia were not laid out in any formal “pivot” document largely because the goals, based on my many conversations with Obama’s Asia team, were modest: 1) deeply engage China; 2) balance this with a strong alliance with Japan; 3) address the North Korean problem; and 4) re-evaluate free-trade agreements. In each case, the White House got slapped down. Obama wanted to implement a new cooperative strategy that offered strategic security reassurances to Beijing as it encouraged the country to partner with the United States in solving common global problems. The conciliatory language embedded in Obama’s November 2009 speech (i.e., that he did not seek to contain China and that Beijing was central to Washington’s global agenda) led journalists to write of a new “G2” strategy. As evidence, they pointed to the fact that the administration did not approve arms sales to Taiwan in its first year in office, and the presidentrefused to meet with the Dalai Lama”.

The arrogance, naiveity or both of Obama are clearly seen when the author writes that “Obama wanted to deal with one of the most vexing problems in the region by extending the unclenched fist to North Korea, penning a personal message through Special Representative for North Korea Policy Stephen Bosworth (the contents of which are still unknown) to move forward with high-level, bilateral denuclearization negotiations. Finally, the politics of his party compelled the president to call a timeout on all trade deals, most significantly for Asia, putting the Korea-U.S. FTA (KORUS) on hold, along with ratification of two other Latin American agreements (Panama and Colombia). Events in the first 18 months of Obama’s presidency undermined each of these objectives. In the case of China, Beijing disappointed America’s G2 policy by not delivering on climate change at the 2009 Copenhagen summit (it would do better in Paris in 2015); moreover, it launched what would become an unprecedented set of territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. The president’s disillusionment with the policy was evident as early as November 2009, as his principal Asia advisor, Jeffrey Bader, laterrecounted, when Obama was reportedly angered by Beijing’s haughty attitude and its efforts to disrupt his online conversations with the Chinese people”.

The article goes on to mention how “Presidencies are remembered not for their plans coming into the Oval Office, but for how they react to the surprises thrown their way. In this regard, Obama responded with worthy midcourse adjustments. The White House’s critical but unseen coordination with the Japanese government during the Fukushima meltdown, followed by the more public Operation Tomodachi recovery project and the return of the LDP to power under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, helped to restore the reservoir of trust in the alliance. In North Korea, Obama transitioned from engagement to containment, helping to erect a comprehensive multilateral sanctions regime. And while unsuccessful with Pyongyang, he demonstrated positive and historic diplomatic advances with Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos. The White House elevated relations with other partners like South Korea and Australia, both of whom were willing to contribute on signature Obama projects like climate change, nuclear security, and global health. On trade, starting with the National Export Initiative in the 2010 State of the Union speech, Obama engineered an astounding turnaround on trade that linked the nation’s economic recovery and job creation to export promotion, eventually leading to the passage of KORUS and the championing of the 12-member Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Perhaps most important from the Asian perch, Obama just gave more “face time” to Asia. He broke the tradition of one annual trip to Asia after the United States joined the East Asia Summit in 2011, and went beyond the typical Northeast Asia circuit to Indonesia, India, and Australia as part of a larger G20 strategy that incorporated Asia. The current (and last trip) to Asia for Obama was the 11th of his presidency, the same as Bill Clinton’s 11 and more than George W. Bush’s eight. These adjustments would eventually aggregate to the “pivot” as announced in a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011. As much as the administration would like to take a victory lap in Asia, the legacy of the pivot is only partially complete”.

He rightly points out that “it is on the China account where there remains much work. On the one hand, the administration responded well to its initial disappointment with G2 by returning “normalcy” to its relations with China in Obama’s second year. The president stopped refusing to meet with the Dalai Lama, and it resumed authorizing arms sales to Taiwan. More generally, it implemented a nuanced strategy balancing pockets of competition and cooperation with Beijing that resulted in significant agreements on climate change in Paris,maritime risk reduction protocols, counterproliferation (Iran and North Korea), and cybersecurity. Any Obama official will recite the number of hours the president and National Security Advisor Susan Rice have spent with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Washington; Sunnylands, California; Beijing, and elsewhere to build the type of Kissingerian relationship with the Chinese that could lead to such deals. Yet these accomplishments are bookended by continued Chinese land reclamations and military infrastructure building in the South China Sea, and aggressive patrolling in the East China Sea despite international opprobrium and U.S. freedom of navigation operations”.

The author moves to the second part of the article, North Korea, where it “remains a stain on the pivot legacy. Under Obama, North Korea has conducted an unprecedented three nuclear tests and 72 major kinetic and missile provocations. By comparison, there was one nuclear test and 19 provocations during Bush’s two terms. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities will have evolved during the span of the Obama presidency from a fledgling program to a stockpile of as many as 35 nuclear bombs and potentially a survivable deterrent. While the pivot’s defenders might argue that little more could have been done to stop China or North Korea, historians are often unkind, associating arguably unavoidable outcomes with negligent policy”.

He ends “Yet, the pivot’s legacy ultimately will be determined by ratification of the TPP. The 12-member free-trade pact, the first to include the world’s second- and third-largest economies, is not just important for business. As a high-standards agreement it has the potential to affect more than just tariffs, reaching deep into member countries to create conformity on labour, the environment, food safety, intellectual property, cybersecurity, the digital economy, development, and other standards. If China were to join the TPP, conformity with these clauses would have a transformative strategic effect on the nature of the Chinese state. Though a distant outcome at the moment, it is not implausible”.

He later concludes “During Obama’s swing through Asia this week, he will get more questions about the TPP than he will care to answer. Unfortunately, the fate of Asia’s most significant new institution is beyond his control and now in the hands of an uncooperative Congress and two presidential candidates who oppose the deal. Historians undeniably will give Obama credit for the strategic priorities his presidency gave to Asia, but the president may indeed find himself in another campaign as a private citizen to ratify the TPP, and thus complete his unfinished legacy in Asia.

“al Qaeda has filled the breach left by the absence of the United States”

19/09/2016

An important piece notes how al Qaeda is returning to Syria, “The struggle for Aleppo poses an awful threat for the United States. The ongoing battle for what was once Syria’s second-largest city has united two of the most prominent opposition coalitions. Their goal is to defeat Bashar al-Assad’s regime. But there’s one more thing they have in common — neither has ever received significant help from Washington in their joint effort to break a nearly month-long siege of opposition-controlled areas of the city and conquer the rest of it. The groups that have been trying to protect civilians in Aleppo from the siege tactics and indiscriminate attacks of the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies may succeed nonetheless. But Washington’s inaction may inadvertently be paving the way for Syria’s next Islamic State. That’s because al Qaeda has filled the breach left by the absence of the United States. Al Qaeda is resurgent globally, exploiting American blind spots, and building a popular local vanguard to oversee the transformation of local populations in countries where the state has collapsed. Syria is its current focus. The United States now has little choice but to reorient its strategy in Syria to focus on the threat posed by al Qaeda”.

The writers add “Al Qaeda’s presence and influence in Syria was never confined to its formal affiliate, the Nusra Front. It dispatched numerous senior leaders and strategists to oversee the creation of a vanguard for al Qaeda within the Syrian revolutionary movement after the start of the civil war in 2011. These operatives, which the U.S. government calls the “Khorasan group,” not only advised the Nusra Front’s top leadership, but also leaders of other Syrian opposition groups. Al Qaeda’s intent was to cultivate a series of rebel groups sympathetic to its aims while building a formal affiliate to normalize and diffuse its ideology. Al Qaeda probably also intended to establish a buffer against the possibility that an American intervention could destroy al Qaeda’s entire network by eliminating one organization. The Syrian war now involves U.S.-vetted and armed moderate groups, but also includes a significant component belonging to either Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the successor of the Nusra Front, or its close ally, Ahrar al-Sham. Both are now vital components of the largest opposition coalitions operating in Aleppo, Jaysh al-Fatah, and Fatah Halab. Ahrar al-Sham epitomizes how al Qaeda is developing a network of sympathetic local revolutionary forces: The Syrian opposition group is a key node in the al Qaeda network that has nonetheless achieved the image of a “mainstream” Syrian opposition movement. It is the largest and most powerful recipient of al Qaeda’s tutelage after Jabhat Fateh al-Sham”.

They write worryingly that “Ahrar al-Sham’s activity demonstrates that its strategy is joined at the hip with al Qaeda, and represents a local vanguard for the transnational jihadi group in Syria. Al Qaeda’s signature is apparent in Ahrar al-Sham’s campaign to transform the religious identity of Syrians. The group governs through a series of sharia courts throughout the northern Idlib and Aleppo provinces, operating in parallel to the Nusra Front, which enforces hard-line rulings such as veil requirements for women and restricts freedom of the press. Ahrar al-Sham’s goal is to replace the Assad regime with a theocracy. This vision is a fundamental change from the initial demands of the Syrian opposition in 2011 for a democratic and pluralistic system. Syrian opposition groups nonetheless view Ahrar al-Sham as a “mainstream” actor, because of its major contributions to the war against the Assad regime. It serves as the mortar that binds opposition groups together in northern Syria and is well-positioned to merge these forces with Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and solidify sharia-based governance — all without the world realizing that the result would be a major win for al Qaeda’s aims in Syria”.

They argue that “Turkey is using its intervention in northern Syria against the Islamic State and the U.S.-allied Syrian Democratic Forces to position itself as a power broker and is empowering its strongest opposition ally, Ahrar al-Sham, to play a key role. Ahrar al-Sham participated in the Turkey-backed offensive near the Euphrates but did not publicize its role, as American air support for the initial operation incentivised Turkey to emphasise the role of Free Syrian Army-affiliated groups. Ahrar al Sham has long called for Turkey’s direct involvement in the Syrian Civil War, including publicly advocating for a Turkey-implemented safe zone in northern Aleppo in August 2015. The United States risks losing the war against extremism in Syria if it continues to allow Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to be seen by the Syrian people as the victors in Aleppo. Ahrar al-Sham is as much a part of al Qaeda’s long game in Syria as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. It shares the same goal to shape Syria’s population in a way that facilitates global jihad, and its pragmatic approach advances al Qaeda’s aim to build a durable safe haven in the Levant”.

The piece ends “Ahrar al Sham’s window to disavow al Qaeda and work against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham should be closing rapidly. The United States must take action to provide Syrian civilians and opposition groups with an acceptable alternative to the al Qaeda network. Washington must also focus on preventing the further development of sharia-based governance structures in opposition-held areas in order to combat al Qaeda’s subversive strategy. If Ahrar al-Sham does not act decisively to counteract al Qaeda in Syria, it must be treated as, and targeted as, an equal threat. For the time being, U.S. policymakers must resist the temptation to drift into an alliance with Russia and Assad to accomplish this goal. Any such partnership would ensure remaining “mainstream” opposition groups will turn away from the United States and toward hard-line elements of the Syrian opposition, effectively removing any potential Sunni partners against the Islamic State and al Qaeda from the battlefield. An alliance with Russia or Assad would only accelerate al Qaeda’s victory”.

Saudi Arabia in the new Middle East

17/09/2016

A piece discusses how Saudi Arabia is dealing with the new Middle East, “Those concerned about the fallout from President Barack Obama and his administration’s nuclear deal with Iran — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — the hits just keep on coming. The recent revelation that the United States handed over $400 million in cash to Iran on the same day that it was releasing four American captives is but the latest disturbing detail in the saga that has become Obama’s extended experiment in appeasing the mullahs. Add it to the long list of other threatening post-deal developments, including the intensification of Iran’s ballistic missile program, the continuation of its efforts to illicitly procure nuclear materials, and the expansion of its aggressive and destabilising activities across the Middle East. Oh, and don’t forget thedetention of three new American hostages, of course. Somewhat less noticed in the JCPOA’s aftermath, but potentially no less consequential for regional security, has been the steadily escalating confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This was not a wholly unexpected development. Many analysts warned that the Saudis would not look kindly on a U.S.-Iranian agreement, negotiated largely behind their backs, that ended up leaving the country’s arch-enemy, the Shiite theocracy across the Gulf, with a large nuclear infrastructure, hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and a more or less open field to indulge its quest for regional hegemony. The Saudis, inevitably, would read it as America abandoning its historical role as the guarantor of Gulf security in favor of some new dispensation with an unreconstructed Iran — one that threatened to irreversibly alter the region’s correlation of forces in Iran’s favour”.

The article goes on in a similarly sweeping terms to argue “Obama’s penchant for stoking Saudi paranoia and fears has no doubt made matters much worse: Declaring, for example, that his aim was to establish an “equilibrium” between the Saudis, a longstanding U.S. ally, and Iran, a revolutionary power that has systematically attacked U.S. interests for four decades. Or publicly complaining about the fact that he’s“compelled” to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally at all. Instead, Obama has opted to diss the Saudis repeatedly as free-riders who seek to exploit American muscle for their own narrow, sectarian purposes. In Obama’s telling, the Iranians — handmaidens to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s multi-year campaign of war crimes and mass murder — have legitimate “equities” in places like Syria that deserve to be protected (Could he mean the land bridge via Damascus by which Iran supplies its Lebanese client, the terrorist group Hezbollah, with tens of thousands of missiles and rockets that will be used in its next war with Israel?). Rather than seeking to counter Iran’s revisionist agenda, Obama’s view is that the Saudis need to accommodate themselves to “sharing” the Gulf with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism”.

The writer goes on to add “Confronted with a newly empowered Iran and a retrenching America, the kingdom is striking back, not rolling over. It believes Obama’s policies have purposefully created a dangerous vacuum in the region, one that is primarily being filled by an Iran bent on sowing chaos and destruction, ultimately targeting the downfall of the House of Saud itself. No longer able to rely on Pax Americana, and unwilling to watch passively as the mullahs slip the noose over their collective neck, the Saudis have increasingly taken matters into their own hands, especially since the ascension of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 2015, adopting a much more assertive and high-risk, even provocative, national security posture with a single-minded mission to challenge and confront Iran. The opening shot (literally) in Salman’s new anti-Iran campaign was fired even before the JCPOA was finalized in July 2015. In March of last year, the Saudis intervened in Yemen to stop Iran-backed Houthi rebels from taking control of the country. The Obama administration subsequently supported the effort, reluctantly, by supplying intelligence and military equipment. Though the Saudis — and a handful of Sunni allies, led by the United Arab Emirates — succeeded in rolling back rebel gains in southern Yemen, the war has been bogged down for months”.

Thankfully he does notice the obvious point that “The Saudis have also been active participants in Syria’s civil war, supplying weapons to Sunni rebels seeking to topple the Iranian-backed Assad regime. While the Saudis have worked closely with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in this effort, the kingdom has persistently pushed for a more aggressive strategy to remove Assad from power and sever Iranian influence in Syria — including by supporting a number of radical jihadist groups, some with close links to al Qaeda. Following the large-scale intervention by Russia’s air force to bolster the Syrian regime in the fall of 2015, the Saudis, with CIA cooperation, increased the flow of weaponry to the rebels, helping to inflict significant casualties on pro-regime units — including leading elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that, together with Iranian-backed Shiite militias, have served as the vanguard of Assad’s army. And even as the Russian/Iranian-led offensive has turned the tide of battle decisively in the regime’s favor, the Saudis have not eased their pressure. In February 2016, the kingdom even announced that it was willing to commit its own ground troops to an international force should the U.S.-led coalition decide it was useful. The offer allegedly remains on the table. More recently, a surge of Saudi weapons to a jihadist-led rebel coalition helped foil, at least for now, the Syrian government’s efforts to reconquer the strategic city of Aleppo”.

More worrying for global order and the future nations acceptance of the Pax Americana, he correctly writes that “the Saudis increasingly seeking to flex their muscle across the security, diplomatic, economic, and even religious spheres. To recount the highlights in some detail helps to underscore the sustained and comprehensive nature of the current Saudi campaign:

— In August 2015, in an unprecedented operation for Saudi intelligence, Saudi agents captured the planner of the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Ahmed Ibrahim al-Mughassil, a Saudi Shiite with deep links to Iran and Hezbollah, was detained in Beirut as he was exiting a flight from Tehran and immediately rendered to the kingdom for interrogation. At the time, the United States had a longstanding bounty of $5 million for any information leading to Mughassil’s arrest.

— Last December, King Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s deputy crown prince and defense minister, announced the formation of an anti-terrorism coalition of 34 Sunni states that would be headquartered in Saudi Arabia and focused in particular on thwarting Iranian-backed aggression throughout the region. Only a few months later, more than 20 of the coalition’s members conducted large-scale military exercises in northern Saudi Arabia, near the Iraqi border — coincident with the kingdom’s public offer to commit ground forces to Syria.

— In early March, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) formally designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. In its statement, the GCC accused Hezbollah of “hostile acts” to undermine the sovereignty, security, and stability of GCC members. It also charged the group with responsibility for “terror and incitement” in Yemen and Iraq. Shortly thereafter, the Arab League followed suit, also declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

—The next month, the Saudis ramped up their diplomatic offensive at the April summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. With more than 30 leaders in attendance, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the kingdom not only succeeded in passing a final statement that denounced Hezbollah for conducting terrorist attacks across the region; it also got an explicit condemnation of Iran for its “continued support for terrorism” and its interference in the internal affairs of member states, including Bahrain, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen”.

He goes on to make the point that “The burgeoning Israeli-Saudi ties are clearly unnerving the Iranians. After the Eshki trip to Israel, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a harsh rebuke, tweeting: “Revelation of Saudi government’s relations with Zionist regime was stab in the back of [the] Islamic [community].” Days earlier, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, launched an extended attack on the kingdom, focusing in particular on Prince Turki’s activities and the Eshki visit. Nasrallah insisted that “None of this could have happened without the Saudi government’s approval.” He lamented that Israel is no longer viewed as an enemy by the Arab states, and claimed that “the worst and most important development in this matter is Saudi Arabia taking its relationship with Israel from a clandestine connection to a public one.” Nasrallah warned, “Saudi Arabia is set to recognize Israel,” and was ready to normalize relations “for free, without receiving anything in return” on the Palestinian issue. A particular Iranian worry when it comes to deepening Saudi-Israeli coordination could well concern Iran’s internal stability. The Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, has long viewed Iran’s large, disparate, and disgruntled minority communities as potentially a major vulnerability for the regime. This view was articulated most forcefully by Meir Dagan, the late Mossad chief, who regularly made the case to U.S. officials that promoting the downfall of Iran should be an essential element of any strategy, short of war, to end the Iranian nuclear threat. Dagan was convinced that more could be done to appeal to the Iranian people, in particular by working with dissatisfied minority populations who comprise an estimated 40 to 50 percent of Iran’s population. He also believed that the Arab Gulf states might participate in such a strategy, especially if the United States played a coordinating role”.

He ends “To be fair, the Obama administration can rightly claim a degree of credit for encouraging the Saudis to step up to this larger role. Obama has made clear that part of his “mission” as president has been to spur traditional U.S. allies, like the Saudis, to take action for themselves, rather than always waiting for the United States to lead and then “holding our coat.” The president has called this his “anti-free rider campaign.” The problem, of course, is that the administration’s effort to promote greater burden sharing has not been pursued by way of revitalising alliances with a new sense of common purpose and cooperation, but by leaving traditional partners feeling abandoned and betrayed. Obama seems to have been under the illusion that the abrupt retrenchment of U.S. power and leadership from the Middle East would result in the organic rise of a new regional equilibrium as local actors were forced to play larger roles in ensuring peace and stability. Instead, the policy has created a dangerous vacuum that’s been filled not only by predatory enemies like Russia and Iran, but by frightened partners such as the Saudis, who increasingly may seek to remedy their security dilemma through acts of self-preservation that not only fail to take U.S. interests into account, but could actually run counter to them”.

“These objectives do not add up to a coherent policy”

07/09/2016

An article discusses a defence of Obama’s foreign policy given recently, “The Middle East remains the most dangerous, most complicated, and perhaps most controversial element in the Obama administration’s conduct of world affairs. In an interview with Foreign Policy contributor Aaron David Miller, Robert Malley, special assistant to the president and coordinator for the Middle East on the National Security Council staff, discussed President Barack Obama’s Middle East policies in depth. It is not only a polished, sober assessment of the actions and interests of the Obama administration, it’s a surprising one, too — it’s rare that a White House insider and counsel to the president gives us such insight into how off-base much of Obama’s approach to the region is. As ambassador to Turkey and Iraq during the Obama administration’s first term, I had a front row seat as much of that approach developed”.

The writer notes that “Malley’s rendition of Obama’s actions. His account of the Syrian chemical weapons denouement gives more credit to the administration’s decisiveness and less to pure chance — Putin compromising to thwart U.S. military action that Obama had essentially ruled out — than the public record justifies. Malley is basically right, however, in his assessment of the Iran nuclear deal, and the role of “tough multilateral diplomacy” and threat of force in achieving a breakthrough. But a list of American actions does not alone make a coherent mosaic. What gives context are the objectives that underlie activity. Malley, in the two he stresses, and the one he basically ignores, reveals why — as Miller noted — many believe “the Middle East is going to look a lot worse when Barack Obama leaves office than when he arrived.” For Malley, the core administration objectives are 1) avoiding attacks, particularly terrorist, on Americans (“the president’s priority … must be to defend America’s security”) and, 2) avoiding disastrous military adventures (“costly, open-ended conflicts”; “getting bogged down in military adventures”; and avoiding the myth “that military victory invariably translates into lasting political success”). The problem is that these objectives do not add up to a coherent policy — at best, they are things to be careful about when doing foreign policy. But Malley insists these are the standards by which to measure the administration”.

The writer argues that “He has half a point with the first. Since Sept. 11, 2001, the American people have been fixated on avoiding any terrorist attack on U.S. soil. In fact, a recent poll found that 42 percent of Americans say they are less safe from terrorism than before 9/11. But that persistent fear can lead us to ignore what was long thought vital: that if America does not deal with the broader threats to peace that so devastated Europe and Asia in the past century, it places its own security at existential risk. To emphasise the importance of avoiding unsuccessful military operations — his second “core” objective — Malley inflates the dangers. His target, as often with this administration, is the last administration”.

He argues correctly that “it didn’t actually happen as Malley describes: Obama became president not in 2003, but 2009. By then, almost all fighting had ceased in Iraq, President George W. Bush had begun withdrawing forces and had committed to pull out all troops before 2012. Likewise, Bush had opted not to confront Iran militarily over nuclear programs, begun the P5+1 negotiations with Tehran, mobilised the international community with four Security Council resolutions, and negotiated with the Iranians in Baghdad to avoid tensions over Iraq. Even more troubling is Malley’s lack of emphasis on the classic U.S. foreign policy objective since the 1940s: the maintenance of a global security order based on liberal values, international law, and trade and finance — all enabled by collective security centered on America’s readiness to defend these goals; not only against ideological rivals but also regional hegemons seeking to subjugate neighbours and carve out no-go zones against us”.

The article adds “Malley touches on this objective in describing the Obama administration’s balancing act, but does not dwell on what seemingly should be a central objective. That’s understandable, perhaps, as the administration put little emphasis on its role in maintaining global order in the Middle East. Initially Obama’s White House team did not have to prioritize these issues, as the focus was — apart from Iran’s nukes — nonstate actors and the Arab Spring. But recently we’ve witnessed serious challenges to that order: the rise of the Islamic State; the Bashar al-Assad regime’s slaughter of its population and subsequent fallout; the refugee tidal wave across the Middle East and into Europe; Iran’s infiltration of four Arab states; and Russia’s military return. None of these threats — apart from the Islamic State, and then only recently — has generated a robust American response”.

Correctly he writes that “no-risk, no-casualty American aerial campaigns against terrorists convince no one that Uncle Sam will be there when things get rough. Ducking military challenges that carry risks is what our partners see. The administration may want to dismiss those unhappy with Washington’s Iran policy as hopeless opponents of a reasonable (and here I agree with Malley) nuclear deal. But aside from Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, nobody in the region opposes that agreement explicitly”.

He ends “One explanation for Obama’s failure to respond effectively to threats to the regional order by Iran, the Islamic State, and now the Russians is the administration’s obsession with Malley’s two objectives, especially avoiding military missteps. Running a deterrence policy always risks military setbacks. But if minimizing risk is job one, deterrence necessarily gets short shrift. Even worse might come. Malley’s emphasis on “testing” the Russians, his assumptions that Putin could bog down in Syria where Assad can’t win, his hope for a better relationship with Iran, and his disparaging tone toward partners together suggest that perhaps the administration does have a Middle East grand strategy, albeit one not vetted publicly: to “share” (the president’s word, not Malley’s) the region with those anti-status quo forces now helping turn it into a nightmare. In this regard, Malley’s most worrisome words refer to the end of Obama’s time in the White House: “six months is a long time … there is still so much to be done.”

Ireland’s choice, sovereignty vs money

05/09/2016

An article notes the tax affairs of Apple in Ireland, “American tech giant Apple had $234 billion in annual revenues in 2015. Now, it’s going to have to pony up $14.5 billion to Irish authorities for skirting taxes. That’s according to the European Commission, which announced Tuesday that Apple had paid a tax rate of just 1 percent or even less — .0005 percent, in some years — on its European profits while some of the company’s operations were based in Ireland. The commission determined such a low tax rate was illegal because it creates an illegal trade incentive. “Member States cannot give tax benefits to selected companies — this is illegal under EU state aid rules. The Commission’s investigation concluded that Ireland granted illegal tax benefits to Apple, which enabled it to pay substantially less tax than other businesses over many years, commissioner Margrethe Vestager, in charge of competition policy, said in a statementTuesday”.

The report adds “The massive penalty is likely to send shockwaves through boardrooms of companies like Amazon and McDonald’s that have extensive operations in Europe. European authorities are investigating both companies to see if they paid their fair share of taxes. The ruling also puts the Obama administration in a tight spot. President Barack Obama wants to keep American companies in the country to contribute to U.S. revenue. At the same time, he doesn’t want European authorities to target American companies simply because they’re American and doing business in Europe. In a statement Tuesday, the Treasury Department said it was disappointed in the ruling”.

The piece goes on to mention “Republicans share the president’s frustration. In a statement, House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin said, “This decision is awful. Slamming a company with a giant tax bill — years after the fact — sends exactly the wrong message to job creators on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s also in direct violation of many European countries’ treaty obligations.” Both Apple, which has been operating in Ireland since 1980, and the Irish government have said they would appeal the ruling”.

It notes “Andrea Montanino, director of global business and economics at the Atlantic Council who previously worked at the European Commission, put the blame for the mess on Dublin. “There are rules in Europe as there are rules in the United States,” Montanino told Foreign Policy Tuesday. “You have to comply with the rules. I would not say it’s the fault of Apple. Apple followed the rules. It is Ireland that broke the rules.”

Violent America?

03/09/2016

An article argues that even if guns were banned the United States would still be a violent place, “In 1923, the British novelist D. H. Lawrence offered a grim assessment of America and Americans: “All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” Lawrence’s observations of the American character did not draw upon deep wells of direct personal experience. When he wrote those lines, he had only been living in the United States for a bit more than a year and had spent much of that time among artists and the literati. But he was neither the first nor the last to make such an observation. Nearly 50 years ago, surveying both the wreckage of the 1960s and centuries of archives, the brilliant historian Richard Hofstadter acknowledged that “Americans certainly have reason to inquire whether, when compared with other advanced industrial nations, they are not a people of exceptional violence.” The allegation that the American character is essentially murderous — or at least more murderous than that of other nations — still strikes a chord today. It’s not just the periodic invitations to violence that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has issued over the course of his campaign, most recently against his Democratic competitor Hillary Clinton. This summer’s headlines have also enumerated trauma after trauma. Eight members of a single family murdered in Ohio. Forty-nine dead in a mass shooting in Florida. Shootings by police claiming the lives of black Americans in Louisiana, Minnesota, and Maryland. Fatal shootings of police in Texas, Louisiana, and California. Breaking reports of horror follow one another fast enough to induce a kind of whiplash”.

He argues that “consider the strenuousness with which each political party now routinely denies that Americans are inherently violent, a refrain that can begin to feel like protesting too much. In his final speech at the Republican National Convention last month, Trump bemoaned the “violence in our streets and the chaos in our communities” but, true to form, laid the blame on hordes of “illegal immigrants … roaming free to threaten peaceful citizens”; “brutal Islamic terrorism”; and the enabling of a Democratic president whom Trump has previously and unsubtly intimated isn’t really American himself. Democrats likewise tend to suggest that, for Americans, acts of violence are an aberration. Announcing a gun safety program in the wake of last December’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, President Barack Obama declared: “We are not inherently more prone to violence. But we are the only advanced country on Earth that sees this kind of mass violence erupt with this kind of frequency.” From this perspective, violence in America does not indicate anything “inherent” in the American character: It is about the presence of guns, the availability of which is a contingent and remediable matter of policy”.

The piece adds “But what if there’s good reason to believe that being American has always involved a relationship of some kind to violence — whether as its victim, as its perpetrator, as a complicit party, or even as all of these at once. Rather than assuming, in Obama’s words, that Americans are “not inherently more prone to violence,” the country owes it to itself to finally try to consider the question directly. How is violence quantified, and what are the benchmarks used to assess whether a given society’s level of violence is high or low, normal or exceptional? The general practice among researchers across numerous disciplines is to present yearly “intentional homicide” rates per 100,000 of a given nation’s population; crucially, these figures do not include deaths directly related to full-blown wars”.

The author mentions how “The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) compiles national figures for its reports, the most recent of which reflects data from 2012 and 2013. Per the UNODC, some 437,000 people were murdered worldwide in 2012, putting the average murder rate at 6.2 victims per 100,000 persons. But beyond that average figure, as you might expect, there is wide variation in terms of both individual nations and continents. Regionally, Central America and southern Africa both clock in at over four times the global average (more than 25 per 100,000), while Western Europe and East Asia are some five times lower than it. Within continents and regions, the variations can be stark. Thus, to take Africa as an example, the rate in Senegal is 2.8; Egypt, 3.4; Sudan, 11.2; and Lesotho, the highest, at 38. In Europe, Switzerland’s rate is 0.6; the U.K., 1; Finland, 1.6; Lithuania, 6.7; and Russia, the highest, at 9.2. The Americas show the widest variation: Canada’s rate is 1.6; Argentina, 5.5; Costa Rica, 8.5; Panama, 17.2; Mexico, 21.5; and Honduras, the highest in the world — at 90.4 per 100,000. Against this backdrop, for the period of 2007-2012, the United States has averaged 4.9 homicides per 100,000 persons. America thus stands more or less shoulder to shoulder with Iran (4.1), Cuba (4.2), Latvia (4.7), and Albania (5). So much for the data on homicides tout court. The question then is whether or not to consider America’s standing among countries like these to be an aberration. Such states certainly aren’t in the same class as the United States in terms of development metrics like per capita GDP, and this fact tends to get cited by American politicians and political observers as prima facie evidence that something else (whether “terrorists” or guns) is skewing their country’s violence data, pushing it out of its allegedly more “natural” peer group — places like the Scandinavian states, the U.K., or Japan. But while such comparisons may sound rigorous at first blush, they are often naively aspirational (at best) or deliberately deceptive and chauvinistic (at worst). Nowhere is this more blatant than in the context of the debate over guns. For example, many gun control advocates and supposedly objective analysts will condemn violence in the United States as abnormal by invoking comparisons to “developed” nations as defined by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Yet these comparisons will regularly exclude Mexico, which is not only an OECD member but also America’s third-largest trading partner and its unfortunate next-door neighbor. The reason given for this exclusion, as though self-explanatory, is “the drug war.” The annual U.S. market for illegal drugs may be well over $109 billion, and an estimated quarter-million guns may be trafficked to Mexican cartels from the United States in any given year, but inviting the contemplation of such queasy moral entanglements is apparently less politically expedient, and more offensive to patriotic amour-propre, than demanding why America can’t just clean up its act and be more like the places we feel it “should” resemble”.

Interestingly he notes “It’s not just our use of empirical metrics for evaluating violence in America that can be dubious. Opining on the supposedly inherent tendencies of vast groups of people toward violence — Americans, Muslims, the left-handed, anyone — should rightly raise flags. It’s the kind of thing you might expect from a 19th-century phrenologist, someone who would measure skulls for indicators of “destructiveness.” But although the vintage pseudo-scientific quackery underwriting such speculation may have fallen out of fashion, the sentiments themselves haven’t disappeared. Consider Iowa Rep. Steve King, for example, pontificating on the civilizational contributions of whites versus other “subgroups,” or research indicating widespread biases whereby black Americans are perceived to be both “prone to violence” and less susceptible to pain. Passing judgment on “a people” as an abstraction rarely leads anywhere good and frequently reveals more about the observer than the observed”.

He argues that “Because like most goods and ills in America — from job opportunities to education to healthy drinking water — violence is not equally distributed among Americans. Indeed, drilling down into the demographics of violence in America reads like an indictment of society’s broader treatment of the poor and marginalized. As analysts have pointedly observed, black Americans are someeight times more likely to be murdered than their white compatriots and, in any given year, will be killed at rates anywhere from 10 to 20 times the benchmark OECD rates. When the homicide rates for individual states rather than the national average are compared, the results are damning: The murder rates in Louisiana (11.93 per 100,000) and Washington, D.C., (13.92) are on par with figures from countries like Nicaragua (11), the Central African Republic (11.8), and Côte d’Ivoire (13.6)”.

He makes the point that “Although in the past year many cities have experienced a sharp and disturbing increase in homicides, with no clear explanation as to why, overall violent crime rates have been dropping for decades, even as Americans have consistently expresseda conviction that crime has been steadily getting “worse” and even as they have accordingly purchased more guns than ever before. From a certain perspective, when considering America’s unprecedented saturation with firearms, observers may be forced to admit that the surprising thing is how much moreviolent America could be than it currently is. If there is any singular feature that characterizes how many Americans understand our national relation to violence, it is our ingenuity at looking the other way, at siloing problems away from one another, and at disavowing, sublimating, or repackaging our complicity in the most easily observable patterns”.

He ends “Signs of supposed progress in expressions of American violence often disguise profound continuities. For example: The era of highly visible public lynchings, which is estimated to have claimed some 5,000 lives, has passed. Yet since then we have moved on to an institutionalized death penalty regime, wherein states that previously had the highest numbers of lynchings now have the greatest numbers of black people on death row. Both per capita and in raw numbers, America’s prisons warehouse more human beings than any other country on the planet, and its police demonstrate a clear pattern of racial bias in killing their fellow citizens at a rate stratospherically higher than that of any of its supposed peer nations. U.S. soldiers are deployed in some 135 countries, and the number of troops actually engaged in combat is almost certainly much higher than authorities are willing to admit. Meanwhile, America is far and away the world’s largest exporter of weapons, with the global arms industry’s largest and most profitable players based in the United States and reaping booming markets in conflict zones while being heavily subsidized by federal and state tax dollars. Everyday Americans may not be “inherently more prone to violence,” but our way of life is certainly structured around violence and around selectively empowering, quarantining, directing, and monetizing it at home and abroad. The majority of Americans apparently find no cognitive dissonance in this arrangement, if we even perceive it at all. Instead, we express bafflement and outrage that we are not something other than what we are and what we have always been. Plumbing what lurks within the “essential American soul,” a cynic might suggest, is a self-indulgent exercise, a red herring. The better question might be whether we even have one in the first place”.

“Overly positive spin on the progress of the U.S. fight against the Islamic State”

30/08/2016

An article notes the benefits for Trump in a recently released intelliegence report, “A new congressional investigation has concluded that senior military officials presented an overly positive spin on the progress of the U.S. fight against the Islamic State, but its initial findings stopped short of explicitly charging the Obama administration with cooking the books. The White House shouldn’t break out the champagne: The findings could still be a lose-lose proposition for both the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton just as Donald Trump appeared to be on the ropes amid plunging poll numbers and sharp attacks from members of his own party”.

The piece adds “Trump’s primary attack on Clinton’s national security credentials centers around his accusations that she and the president whom she served deserve blame for the spread — if not the very birth — of the Islamic State. The mogul has stepped up his rhetorical attacks on both Clinton and President Barack Obama in recent days, deriding Obama as the “founder” of the group and labeling Clinton its “co-founder.” As with so many of Trump’s attacks, it’s a wholly inaccurate claim. The Islamic State grew out of the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq, an extremely violent Islamist group that battled U.S. forces after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, five years before Obama even took office. The president made an early series of remarks downplaying its capabilities, but has since launched an expansive military campaign that officials say has dramatically shrunk the size of its self-proclaimed caliphate. Still, the new evidence that the U.S. war against the Islamic State may not be going as well as the administration has claimed makes it easier for Trump to accuse Obama of intentionally misrepresenting the facts on the ground or to argue that the president was so incompetent that that he didn’t even realize that he was being misled by his commanders”.

The piece mentions that “Trump has already begun rolling out variants of that line of attack, part of the concerted Republican strategy to persuade voters that Obama bears responsibility both for losing Iraq by prematurely withdrawing American troops and for creating a vacuum that ISIS stepped in to fill. The president, Republicans argue, was also slow to grasp the severity of the new threat as evidenced by his tone-deaf and inaccurate description of the Islamic State as the “JV team” of international terrorism. Offered a way to back out of the clearly incorrect remarks on Thursday, Trump instead doubled down to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. “No, I meant he’s the founder of ISIS,” Trump said. Hewitt pushed back, saying the president is trying to defeat the group, but the New York businessman gave no ground. “I don’t care,” Trump replied. “He was the founder.” Now Trump’s efforts to attack Obama’s — and Clinton’s — handling of the Islamic State’s spread are getting a boost from the House report, which could be used as rhetorical ammunition in the GOP push to diminish the counterterrorism gains of the entire administration. The Republican chairs of the House Armed Services and Intelligence committees, and of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, formed the task force to investigate allegations that the U.S. Central Command, in charge of the war in the Middle East, had manipulated intelligence in 2014 and 2015″.

It adds that “the House panel concluded, was yes: CENTCOM leaders approved intelligence that “typically provided a more positive depiction of U.S. anti-terrorism efforts than was warranted by facts on the ground and were consistently more positive than analysis produced by other elements of the Intelligence Community.” It also corroborated claims by CENTCOM whistleblowers that “superiors were distorting their products” or pressuring them to do so. The findings were first reported by the Daily Beast. The House report found no evidence that administration officials implicitly or explicitly pressured senior CENTCOM officials to cook the books, but Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves and one of the task force’s leaders, hinted that political motivations might ultimately explain the skewed intel analysis. The Democratic minority on the House Intelligence Committee, which conducted its own review, agreed with the majority’s conclusions about the faulty assessments but repeatedly emphasized that neither probe found administration involvement”.

It ends noting that “Trump and his allies haven’t shied away from alleging just such a connection, even though even Republican investigators couldn’t find one. Kelly Ayotte, a vulnerable Republican senator running for reelection in New Hampshire and one of the Obama administration’s loudest critics, was one of the first to weigh in on Thursday. “A successful strategy to defeat the scourge of radical Islamist terrorism must be based on facts — not rosy assessments manipulated to support a political narrative,” she said. Still, Trump’s ability to capitalize politically on the Obama administration’s track record in the war against the Islamic State may be complicated by inconvenient realities in his own record, including inaccurate claims that he initially both opposed the Iraq invasion (he supported it) and the subsequent withdrawal of U.S. forces (he backed that, too).

US airstrikes in Libya

08/08/2016

The United States escalated its war against the Islamic State in Libya on Monday, conducting airstrikes in the coastal city of Surt as part of a new military campaign against the extremist Sunni terrorist group’s stronghold in North Africa. President Obama approved the strikes last week after Libya’s fragile United Nations-backed unity government asked for help in its fight against the Islamic State, administration officials said. The strikes, which American officials have forecast for months, are intended to help break an impasse between Libyan militias and the Islamic State fighters they have cornered in a grinding urban battle in Surt’s downtown”.

May’s Brexiteers, Johnson, Davis and Fox

27/07/2016

David Francis writes about the team for Brexit, “The prime minister who took power because of the Brexit just formed a cabinet shaped by the Brexit — but it’s not at all clear how that new government will actually manage the Brexit. The appointments by newly minted British Prime Minister Theresa May came quickly and in succession. Brexit opponent George Osborne is out as British treasury secretary, replaced by fellow opponent Philip Hammond, who left his job as foreign secretary. Hammond is being replaced by Boris Johnson, the flamboyant and controversial former mayor of London who championed the pro-Brexit movement”.

Francis writes that “Two new positions have been created to deal with the logistics of the Brexit. David Davis, a Eurosceptic conservative who campaigned to leave, wasnamed secretary of state for exiting the European Union — the so-called Brexit minister — created to guide the process to show the U.K. out of the EU. Liam Fox, another veteran of the Eurosceptic right, was appointed to the new role of international trade minister, charged with delivering the improved trade deals pro-exit campaigners promised the U.K. could get if it left the EU. He’s also pro-Brexit. In other words, five people — the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer, both anti-Brexit, and the foreign secretary, Brexit minister, and international trade minister, all pro-Brexit — are now charged with seeing Britain out of the European Union, which means they have to come to terms with 27 other nations on issues ranging from exports to migration to marriage privileges. It’s already shaping up as a messy and chaotic divorce”.

He points out that “The prime minister has said that she would not soon invoke Article 50, which would officially begin the process of formally removing Britain from the EU, before 2017 and that talks with Brussels should not be launched before the end of year. She said Britain needs time to develop its negotiating strategy. European leaders want May to get on with the Brexit, and have said no talks would start before London officially moves to leave. British officials want the U.K. to have access to the European common market, a notion powerful German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected. She said there would be no “cherry picking” of what London wants to keep from its EU membership while jettisoning the aspects of the relationship it dislikes, such as policies allowing EU citizens to have passport-free travel to the U.K. Hammond has said talks between London and Brussels could take six years, four years longer than allowed by Article 50″.

The piece notes that “The truth is no one knows what will happen next simply because a nation has never left the European Union, said Nicolas Véron, a French economist and visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “A lot of things will happen in six months,” he told Foreign Policy on Wednesday, referring to May’s refusal to invoke Article 50 before 2017. “We don’t know what, but six months is a lot of time for unexpected things to happen in politics.” One immediate reaction was clear: shock that Johnson has become the new face of British diplomacy. The former mayor of London is known for getting stuck on a zip line and knocking over a Japanese child while playing rugby, as well as for odd statements about drugs and food. “It’s difficult to really make sense of the choices, especially Boris Johnson,” said Véron, who characterized the picks, and how they were made public, as chaotic. “The less chaotic choice is Hammond as chancellor. I struggle to make sense of the Johnson appointment in particular.” He added that he wasn’t familiar with either Davis or Fox. Mujtaba Rahman, a Europe expert at the Eurasia Group, told FP the makeup of the cabinet is a reflection of British politics more than it is an effort to put together a team that can deal with Europe; it’s slightly favoured in the pro-Brexit camp, just as the referendum was. He added, “Boris Johnson in particular is a serious risk, given his role in the Leave campaign and subsequent withdrawal from the premiership.” That’s because Johnson has, at best, a spotty reputation as a British diplomat. In the run-up to the Brexit vote, he compared Winston Churchill’s fight against totalitarian regimes in World War II with Britain’s efforts to leave a “federal superstate” and blasted President Barack Obama for his anti-Brexit stance”.

Correctly he point out Johnson’s myriad other gaffes, “Johnson has also praised Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for protecting Palmyra from the Islamic State. Then, in May, he was awarded 1,000 pounds, or $1,314, in a British magazine contest on who could write the most offensive poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It reads:

There was a young fellow from Ankara
Who was a terrific wankerer
Till he sowed his wild oats
With the help of a goat
But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

A 2015 trip to Iraq by Johnson has also proven controversial. Documentsreleased by the Foreign Office in January 2016 showed it had to pick up a bar tab run up by Johnson, block his planned trip to the front line of the war against the Islamic State, and stop him from driving a sports car out of an Iraqi showroom. Even May has been critical of Johnson’s ability as a statesman. Speaking in late June, before Johnson announced he would not be running for prime minister, she said: “Boris negotiated in Europe. I seem to remember [the] last time he did a deal with the Germans, he came back with three nearly new water cannon[s],” referring to anti-riot weapons Johnson secured as London’s mayor”.

The piece notes “When asked about Johnson’s appointment Wednesday, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at Wednesday’s press briefing, “We’re always going to be able to work with the British, no matter who is occupying the role of foreign secretary because of our deep abiding special relationship with the United Kingdom.” He added the relationship between London and Washington “goes beyond personalities.” The other officials named Wednesday all face daunting challenges. Hammond, who has vast experience dealing with European leaders like Merkel and French President François Hollande, must navigate the U.K. through what nearly three-thirds of economists recently surveyed by Bloomberg predict to be a looming recession due to the Brexit. He must also deal with a pound sterling hovering around 31-year lows against the dollar. Britons have seen the value of their currency drop as 1.32 pounds equal one dollar. On June 23, the day of the referendum, one pound was worth $1.49. In addition, capital has been fleeing the country in the wake of the Brexit. Last week, M&G Investments suspended a 4.4 billion-pound ($5.7 billion) real-estate fund there, following in the footsteps of Aviva Investors and Standard Life Investments after a number of investors pulled out of their funds”.

It concludes “Finally, Hammond, along with Fox, will have to repair the trade relationship between London and Washington. Obama has said that Britain would moveto the back of the line when it comes to negotiating a U.K./U.S. trade deal, as opposed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the entirety of the EU.

Clinton-Kaine

23/07/2016

A report in the New York Times notes that Hillary Clinton has chosen Senator Tim Kaine as her vice presidential choice, “Hillary Clinton named Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia to be her running mate Friday, selecting a battleground-state politician with working-class roots and a fluency in Spanish, traits that she believes can bolster her chances to defeat Donald J. Trump in November. Mrs. Clinton’s choice, which she announced via text message to supporters, came after her advisers spent months poring over potential vice-presidential candidates who could lift the Democratic ticket in an unpredictable race against Mr. Trump. In the end, Mrs. Clinton decided that Mr. Kaine, 58, a former governor of Virginia who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, had the qualifications and background, and the personal chemistry with her, to make the ticket a success”.

It reports that “Clinton had entertained more daring choices. She considered Thomas E. Perez, the secretary of labor, who would have been the first Hispanic on a major party ticket; Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who would have been the first African-American to seek the vice presidency; and James G. Stavridis, a retired four-star Navy admiral who served as the supreme allied commander at NATO but had never held elected office. Ultimately, Mrs. Clinton, who told PBS that she was “afflicted with the responsibility gene,” avoided taking a chance with a less experienced vice-presidential candidate and declined to push the historic nature of her candidacy by adding another woman or a minority to the ticket. Instead, the campaign, which had become concerned about its deficit with white men, focused on Mr. Kaine and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, and looked more closely at Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado”.
The article notes that “At a campaign stop with Mrs. Clinton in Annandale, Va., last week, Mr. Kaine tried out for the role. “Do you want a ‘You’re fired’ president or a ‘You’re hired’ president?” he asked the crowd. “Do you want a trash-talker president or a bridge-builder president?” He compared Mrs. Clinton’s record of public service to that of his wife, Anne Holton, Virginia’s secretary of education. In recent days, former President Bill Clinton and the White House had expressed support for Mr. Kaine. Mrs. Clinton will formally introduce Mr. Kaine as her running mate at a campaign stop on Saturday at Florida International University in Miami, which has a large number of Hispanic students. The announcement came after a day of campaign events in Orlando and Tampa in which Mrs. Clinton tried to offer a rebuke, both in actions and in words, to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. In Orlando, she laid flowers on a makeshift memorial outside the Pulse nightclub, where a gunman who expressed sympathy with the Islamic State killed 49 people last month. At an earlier round-table discussion with emergency medical workers and elected officials, Mrs. Clinton nodded solemnly and hardly spoke, an implicit contrast with Mr. Trump’s 75-minute speech on Thursday night”.

The piece goes on to note how “At a rally in Tampa on Friday evening, Mrs. Clinton blasted the bleak vision of America presented by her Republican rival. “The last thing that we need is somebody who is running for president who talks trash about America,” Mrs. Clinton said. She showed solidarity with Mr. Trump’s top primary rival, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. “I mean, I never thought I’d say these words, but Ted Cruz was right,” she said, and then quoted Mr. Cruz’s despondent Wednesday night speech. “Vote your conscience.” Now some of the job of discrediting Mr. Trump will fall to Mr. Kaine, who wrote on Twitter that he was eager to hit the campaign trail. “Just got off the phone with Hillary,” he said. “I’m honored to be her running mate.” Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Kaine have similar positions on many issues, and they are said to share an easy rapport and an interest in policy details. “I do have a fondness for wonks,” Mrs. Clinton said in the PBS interview. Asked whether Mr. Kaine was boring, Mrs. Clinton said, “I love that about him.” She added, “He’s never lost an election.” Republicans seized on the selection and tried to sow discord among Democrats, arguing that the pick was evidence that Mrs. Clinton had been dishonest with her party’s liberal base. “Hillary Clinton’s choice of Tim Kaine does nothing to unify a fractured Democrat base which is repelled by her dishonesty and cronyism,” Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, said in a statement. “After spending last week pandering to grass-roots Democrats with Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton has chosen someone who holds positions that she’s spent the entire primary trying to get to the left of.” The Trump campaign quickly labeled Mrs. Clinton’s new running mate “Corrupt Kaine,” pointing to lavish gifts he had received during his years as governor and lieutenant governor of Virginia”.

Worryingly it points out that “some in the party’s liberal wing expressed dismay, claiming that Mr. Kaine was out of step with it on some of its core issues, like trade. “As we saw in Donald Trump’s speech last night, Republicans will run hard against Democrats on trade this year,” said Stephanie Taylor, a co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Unfortunately, since Tim Kaine voted to fast-track the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Republicans now have a new opening to attack Democrats on this economic populist issue.” She added, “The mood of the country is a populist one.” The son of a welder who owned a small metalworking shop, Mr. Kaine, a Roman Catholic, grew up around Kansas City, Mo. He attended a Jesuit school and took a break from law school at Harvard to spend time as a Catholic missionary in Honduras, an experience that his family has said shaped him and helped him become fluent in Spanish. Early in his career, Mr. Kaine worked on fair housing and civil rights issues as a lawyer. He was elected to the City Council in Richmond, Va., in 1994, and proceeded to climb the ranks of elected office in the state. He became the city’s mayor in 1998, the state’s lieutenant governor in 2002 and the governor in 2006. He also served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. As governor, Mr. Kaine drew some support from rural parts of the state as well as strong backing in the state’s Democratic-leaning suburban areas. He led the state through one of its darkest times, the shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32 people in 2007. In 2013, Mr. Kaine implored the United States Senate to find a “small measure of courage” to fight the gun lobby and impose tougher background checks on gun ownership”.

It goes on to mention “Mr. Kaine was an early endorser of Senator Barack Obama’s presidential bid in the 2008 nominating fight against Mrs. Clinton. Mr. Kaine was also considered on Mr. Obama’s shortlist of vice-presidential candidates before Mr. Obama selected Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware. In 2012, Mr. Kaine defeated George Allen, a Republican, to take the Senate seat being vacated by the Democrat Jim Webb. Mrs. Clinton’s choice of Mr. Kaine underscores the rising political importance of Virginia, a state with a significant suburban and minority population. Mr. Obama defeated John McCain in the state by more than six percentage points, the first time since Lyndon B. Johnson’s victory in 1964 that the state had voted for a Democratic presidential nominee. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll from July 15 shows Mrs. Clinton ahead of Mr. Trump for the state’s 13 electoral votes by nine percentage points. The search for a running mate began in April, after Mrs. Clinton had decisively won the New York primary, with a number of candidates. Mrs. Clinton came to the process with a unique vantage point, having been closely involved in her husband’s selection of Senator Al Gore of Tennessee in 1992, a choice that brought youth and Southern charm to a ticket already overflowing with it. With just days remaining before her announcement of a running mate, Mrs. Clinton had not yet made up her mind as her advisers debated what attributes voters might want in a vice president”.

It ends, “As the search narrowed, Mrs. Clinton wanted to test her chemistry on the campaign trail with Mr. Kaine. After their Virginia rally last week, she invited him to her home in Washington for a meeting that lasted until 10:30 p.m. Last Saturday, the day after meeting with other candidates in Washington, she invited Mr. Kaine and his wife to lunch at her home in Chappaqua, N.Y., with her family. At 7:30 p.m. Friday, just after her fiery speech in Tampa, Mrs. Clinton called Mr. Kaine to give him the news, before calling President Obama to let him know that she had chosen his friend”.

Kerry meets Putin, discusses military cooperation in Syria

21/07/2016

Secretary of State John Kerry met with President Vladimir V. Putin in Moscow late Thursday night to discuss a proposed extensive military cooperation agreement that for the first time would coordinate American and Russian air attacks on the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Both men said they were hopeful of reaching an accord. “I hope after today’s consultations you’ll be able to advise him of the progress made and possible headway for us to make,” Mr. Putin said, referring to conversations between Mr. Kerry and President Obama. Mr. Kerry responded: “Hopefully, we’ll be able to make some genuine progress that is measurable and implementable and that can make a difference in the course of events in Syria.”  The proposed agreement calls for the creation of a joint military command center staffed by military and intelligence officers who would share information so as to permit “integrated operations.” It has generated deep unease at the Pentagon and in some quarters of the State Department, where it is seen as too conciliatory to both the Russians and the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.

USAID, department for state building?

19/07/2016

An article by Max Boot argues that USAID should become a department for state building, “Nation-building abroad has become a neuralgic term in American politics ever since it became associated with the lengthy and costly wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Opposition to it is one of the few things that Barack Obama and Donald Trump can agree on. Both believe that “nation-building begins at home,” as the president so often says. And yet, at the same time that U.S. leaders proclaim their opposition to nation-building, they acknowledge that failing states pose a serious threat to American interests. As Obama said in his 2016 State of the Union address, “Even without [the Islamic State] … instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world — in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in parts of Central America, in Africa, and Asia. Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks. Others will just fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees. The world will look to us to help solve these problems.” But the United States cannot adequately respond to global instability with military force alone”.

Boot goes on to write “The U.S. public will not support more large-scale interventions like the ones in Iraq and Afghanistan, absent a compelling casus belli, while lesser military measures — such as drone strikes and Special Operations raids — are unlikely to prove adequate to safeguard American security. Although “kinetic” strikes can kill terrorist leaders, such as the Taliban’s Mullah Mansour or al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden, they can seldom eliminate entrenched terrorist organisations — and they can never create indigenous institutions capable of maintaining law and order on their own. The United States needs a civilian capacity to foster better-functioning institutions in chaotic countries — what is popularly known as nation-building. Various federal agencies, from the Department of State to the Department of Agriculture, currently have aspects of nation-building in their portfolio but none sees it as a main mission. The failure to prepare for nation-building was brutally exposed in Iraq in 2003 when the Bush administration had to assemble the ramshackle Coalition Provisional Authority at the last minute to take over from Saddam Hussein’s government — with predictably catastrophic consequences”.

Boot argues that “The United States needs a dedicated nation-building agency — not to undertake military occupations but to avoid them by helping allied governments to secure their own territory without need for large numbers of American troops. Fortunately, there’s a natural candidate for that mission: the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). To embrace a state-building mission, however, USAID will have to be transformed. The agency will need to do less but do it better. Instead of trying to promote development for its own sake in every poor country in the world, it should limit its efforts to enhancing core state functions in strategically important countries. The proposed 2016 budget for USAID is $22.3 billion, of which $10.7 billion is in core accounts directly managed by USAID. Of this, only $2.4 billion is to be spent on what might be considered state-building. The rest is dedicated to poverty alleviation, global health, biodiversity, women’s empowerment, education, sanitation, and economic and agriculture development. These are admirable goals, but USAID has demonstrated no particular advantage in any of these fields compared to international organizations (such as the United Nations and the World Bank) and nongovernmental organizations (such as Oxfam and Africare). Accordingly, USAID should leave these areas either to multinational or private-sector organizations, cutting back its own support to NGOs working in these areas”.

Boot goes on to argue “USAID and its defenders will argue that everything it does contributes to nation-building, because the public goods it supports — such as health care, electricity, and environmental protections — are commonly found in successful states. The USAID website argues: “Progress is only sustainable when supported by capable governments and institutions that can ensure the health, safety and well-being of their people.” That is true, but successful states are not successful because they provide public goods; they provide public goods because they are successful. USAID should focus less on temporarily increasing outputs in public health, education, and other sectors, and more on building durable state capacity so that host nations can manage their own affairs — even if their clinics or schools may never attain USAID’s ideals. Even democracy can be a luxury good in the developing world”.

He continues “Yet the USAID program for nation-building is billed as Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance. The most important issue — governance — is put in last place, with most of USAID’s emphasis on supporting elections, political parties, and civil society organizations, rather than nuts-and-bolts governmental functions. Yet the United States can live with undemocratic states as long as they behave responsibly; indeed, states such as Jordan and Singapore are close American allies. Many become democracies in time, as did South Korea, Chile, and Indonesia. And, while perhaps distasteful to some, the United States has a long tendency to look the other way at human-rights violations committed by strategically important countries such as Egypt and Vietnam. The United States cannot live with ungoverned spaces, however, which inevitably become a breeding ground for and exporter of terrorism, criminal networks, disease, refugees, and other problems. Nurturing representative institutions is a legitimate job for the National Endowment for Democracy. But USAID should prioritize effective governance over democratic governance”.

He reiterates his point “Instead of trying to promote welcome but inessential services — from electricity to free elections — USAID should focus on the bare necessities of stable states. These include training security forces that can exercise a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, supporting courts that can dispense a semblance of justice, staffing a professional civil service that is not compromised by rampant corruption, and constructing financial mechanisms that can allow the state to raise and spend revenue with some degree of transparency. USAID does not, at the moment, have the necessary competency in any of these fields; none of these areas are adequately addressed by any existing U.S. government program. The U.S. Armed Forces, for example, assist foreign militaries, but the crucial job of assisting foreign police forces and courts falls to the Departments of State and Justice which outsource them to contractors of dubious value”.

He says that the new USAID should “focus its state-building initiative on supporting a few other strategically important countries at risk of subversion: Ukraine and Georgia, which are vulnerable to Russian encroachment; Mongolia and Myanmar, which are vulnerable to Chinese encroachment; and nations in Latin America — particularly Columbia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico — that are vulnerable to a significant narcotrafficking threat. USAID is, of course, already present in all these places but because of its amorphous development mission and its tendency to get stretched too thin, it does not devote the critical resources and attention that these high-risk countries require to enhance basic governmental capacity. This is still a substantial undertaking, but it would exclude more than half of the countries where USAID currently operates. USAID should not be committing scarce resources in strategically irrelevant countries such as Lesotho and Madagascar, in unfriendly countries such as China, or in rapidly developing countries such as India. Money and personnel can better be focused elsewhere for maximum geopolitical return”.

Interestingly he mentions that “In order to reduce its reliance on contractors, USAID needs to transform its workforce. USAID’s staff, while talented, are often not the specialists needed for state-building. USAID employs few experienced civil engineers, urban managers, civil service development specialists, security and policing experts, or development economists. Many permanent staff are recent graduates of master’s degree programs in international relations with little direct experience managing government agencies or businesses. USAID needs to hire more mid-career professionals with substantial experience in managing large organizations and working in foreign cultures. One fertile source of recruits should be the U.S. Army, which is in the process of laying off thousands of officers and noncommissioned officers with extensive state-building experience. Any of these changes suggested above, indeed any change at all, will be fiercely resisted by vested interests. Countries that face losing their USAID programs will complain. So will USAID employees and contractors who will lose their jobs and grants. Such a transformation can only be accomplished if the next administration makes it a priority”.

Pointedly he ends “Of course there is no guarantee that even a restructured USAID will succeed at nation-building in every instance or even in most instances. This is a notoriously difficult undertaking. The United States, however, has had success in contributing to state-building in such disparate countries as Colombia, East Timor, El Salvador, Germany, Italy, Japan, Kosovo, the Philippines, and South Korea, with USAID having played a role in some of those instances. Although there is no way to predict how often USAID will succeed, even a few successes are worth the relatively modest (by government standards) investment. There is simply no good alternative to nation-building if the United States wants to address the problem of failed states while avoiding endless military interventions. And if the U.S. government is to get better at nation-building, a transformed USAID needs to take the lead role.

 

Israel, selling gas to Turkey?

17/07/2016

A report notes the possibility of Israel-Turkey energy deals, “and Turkey agreed to normalize diplomatic relations Monday, six years after an Israeli raid on a Turkish aid ship sent to Gaza opened a bitter divide between two Mediterranean countries that had long been friendly. And while shared security concerns were apparently the biggest driver of the rapprochement, the deal could potentially pave the way for Israel to use its abundant reserves of natural gas to become a major energy supplier to Turkey in the years to come. The reconciliation announced by Israeli and Turkish officials, in separate press conferences, marked the culmination of years of informal talks ushered along by the European Union and by U.S. officials including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry”.

The writer goes on to make the point “Speaking to reporters in Rome, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed the “strategic importance” of the deal, especially at a time of deepening insecurity across the eastern Mediterranean. The five-year old civil war in Syria continues apace, while terrorist attacks have hammered both Turkey, and to a lesser extent, Israel in recent months. “Energy diplomacy has been crucial in lubricating the relationship and giving them a non-controversial platform for contacts in recent years, but I think the reconciliation is definitely about security,” said Brenda Shaffer, a Georgetown University expert on the region. Under the terms of the deal, Israel will pay Turkey $20 million in compensation for the victims of the 2010 raid, but it won’t lift the naval blockade on Gaza. Turkey, for its part, will ship aid to Gaza through Israel, rather than unilaterally, and promised to ensure that Hamas only carries out political activities on Turkish soil, rather than plotting attacks against Israel”.

Johnson adds that “After the governments in Israel and Turkey ratify the final agreement, the two sides will exchange ambassadors and unwind some economic sanctions. That will pave the way for greater security and intelligence cooperation. For Turkey, reconciliation with Israel comes not just as the region is unraveling, but while Ankara’s ties to other once-close friends have frayed. Turkish relations with Russia went into a nosedive last year after Turkish jets shot down a Russian bomber that briefly crossed into its airspace. That chilled ties between the two, hammered Turkish tourism and trade, and put Turkish-Russian energy projects on ice. On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan apologized to Russian President Vladimir Putin for shooting down the jet, and indicated that Ankara is ready to normalize relations with Russia. For Israel, and especially for Netanyahu, healing the breach with Turkey has been a primary objective for years, but has gained urgency as the Syrian crisis continues to worsen. The prime minister spoke of Monday’s reconciliation as creating “islands of stability” around Israel; since Turkey shares a border with Syria, closer cooperation between Israel and Turkey could help minimise the fallout from the civil war and the terrorist petri dish it has created. But for Netanyahu, restoring normal ties with Turkey could also bring an economic benefit: a potential new market for Israeli energy exports. Late last year, the Israeli prime minister pressed the case for exporting Israeli gas — rather than keeping it all for the domestic market — by touting the geopolitical benefits of energy exports. One of the prizes he flagged? Closer ties with Turkey”.

It adds later that “Netanyahu again emphasized Israel’s hoped-for role as a supplier of natural gas to neighbours around the region, including Turkey, as well as to countries in Europe. The reconciliation, Netanyahu said in joint remarks with Kerry, “has also immense implications for the Israeli economy – and I use that word advisedly – immense implications for the Israeli economy, and I mean positive immense implications.” The prime minister said that Israeli gas, especially at the large Leviathan field off the Israeli coast, could supply enough energy for domestic use as well as exports to Egypt, Turkey, and European countries desperate to find suppliers other than Russia. Israel has already explored some deals to sell gas to neighbours like Egypt and Jordan. But there are technical and commercial obstacles to big gas deals with Turkey. Building a pipeline in the deep waters of the Mediterranean would likely be very expensive, as would building a terminal to ship gas by tanker. At the same time, the world is awash in natural gas right now, and Turkey has increasing options to meet its future energy needs, including piped gas from countries like Iran and Azerbaijan, as well as gas from the Middle East or the United States shipped by tanker”.

“Obama will send 560 more troops to Iraq”

17/07/2016

President Obama will send 560 more troops to Iraq to help retake Mosul, the largest city still controlled by the Islamic State, a deployment intended to capitalize on recent battlefield gains that also illustrates the obstacles that Mr. Obama has faced in trying to wind down America’s wars.  The additional troops, announced here on Monday by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, are the latest escalation of the American military role in Iraq by Mr. Obama, who withdrew the last American soldiers from Iraq at the end of 2011. He began sending them back three years later after Islamic State fighters swept into the country from Syria. Many of the newly deployed troops will be based at an airfield 40 miles south of Mosul that was reclaimed by Iraqi soldiers on Saturday. Administration officials said the airfield would be critical to a successful military operation because the United States could use it as a staging area to provide logistical support to Iraqi forces as they try to retake Mosul”.

South China Sea: An undecided China

17/07/2016

A Foreign Policy article writes that the Chinese do not know what they want in the South China Sea, “With a decision from an international ad hoc tribunal tasked with reviewing China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea looming, regional tensions are running high. A key problem is that no nation involved in the current round of tension — not even China itself — has a crystal-clear view of what exactly Beijing is trying to achieve in the South China Sea. That’s because three different schools of thought are each struggling for dominance in Chinese analytical and policy-making circles. A look at the debate within China helps explain the lack of effective communication and the rise of strategic distrust between China, Southeast Asian nations with competing claims, and the United States”.

It reports “China’s leaders — from President Xi Jinping to Foreign Minister Wang Yi to military leaders like Admiral Sun Jianguo — repeat the well-worn lines that the South China Sea islands have always been Chinese territory, China’s actions are legitimate measures to safeguard its own sovereignty, China will not pursue expansive policies beyond legitimate territorial claims, and limited military installations on newly built islands are for defensive purposes. Some countries in ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), however, find these explanations unconvincing, feel threatened by China’s island-building, and therefore want the United States to check Chinese power. Some U.S. officials have claimed that China is seeking “militarization” in the region, or even “hegemony.” But in reality, it’s not at all clear that China itself really knows what it wants to achieve in the South China Sea”.

Cruially he writes that “there are three schools of thought among Chinese analysts about optimal policies toward the region: let’s call them realists, hardliners, and moderates. Chinese academic publications, media reports, and online opinions offer a glimpse into these different views”.

The first camp he discusses is the realists, “China’s realists believe that the fundamentals of China’s current South China Sea policy are sound, with no adjustment needed. They recognise the diplomatic and reputational costs incurred, but tend to slight them because they value China’s physical presence and material capability much more highly than its image abroad. Their belief is underpinned by a crude realist understanding of international politics: material power — and not ephemeral (and in any case un-measurable) factors such as reputation, image, or international law — is the decisive factor in international politics. They thus think time is on China’s side, as long as China can manage its rise”.

Worryingly he writes “This kind of realpolitik thinking now dominates China’s South China Sea decision-making. Realists think they are safeguarding China’s national interests by enhancing its material presence in the South China Sea. But they are uncertain about what to do with the newly constructed islands. Should Beijing push for a new round of military installations including placing offensive weapons systems, or are defensive equipments really sufficient for the status quo? Realists want power in the South China Sea, yet are unsure how much power is enough.”

It posits that “A second school of thought — the hardliners — provides alarming answers to the questions realists haven’t yet answered. Not only do they think China should present the seven new islandsconstructed out of existing features, including Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef — as faits accompli to the outside world, but China should further expand its territorial and military reach in the South China Sea. Such expansion could include: building the islands into mini-bases, conquering some if not all of the features currently under other countries’ control, or turning the Nine-Dash Line map, first published in 1947 and which now serves as Beijing’s legal basis for its claims in the South China Sea, into a territorial demarcation line, thus claiming most of the South China Sea’s territorial waters for China. Hardliners have no regard for the concerns and anxieties of the outside world; they wish only to maximize China’s self-interest”.

He points out that “It is clear that some international media reports about China claiming 90 percent of the South China Sea are actually describing this, and only this, school of thought inside China. The good news is that this view does not yet dominate high-level decision-making. Hardliners within government are usually found in the military and law enforcement agencies. A maximalist policy toward the South China Sea would certainly serve their parochial bureaucratic interests. But hardliners also reside in the Chinese general public, the vast majority of which only has a superficial and impressionistic view of the South China Sea situation. Grassroots hardliner calls for assertiveness are based on emotional nationalism, not a studied consideration of China’s interests. The difference between the hardliners and the realists is that, while the hardliners’ views are also based on realpolitik, there is an additional underpinning of hyper-nationalism, making accommodation with other countries especially difficult. Although the hardliners are not dominating current policy, the leadership cannot easily ignore or dismiss them for fear of stoking popular nationalism, a grassroots force which can easily spin out of control”.

The most “sensible” group, is the final, “The third group, the moderates, believe it’s time for China to adjust its policy to clarify, if only gradually, its goals in the South China Sea. Moderates recognise that Beijing’s current ambiguity about its territorial claims and strategic design is feeding the outside world’s fear and distrust. They fault the government for failing to provide a compelling strategic narrative and promote effective communication with the outside world. China’s habitual just-do-it approach when it comes to major strategic decisions such as island building is actually harmful to its own self-interest. By forgoing any attempt to legitimise island-building, it ensures international suspicion of rather than sympathy for China’s actions. Moderates argue that China needs to gradually clarify the Nine-Dash Line. Maintaining deliberate ambiguity would simply make the map a historical burden and an unnecessary obstacle to reaching diplomatic compromise. In their view, it is counterproductive to interpret the map as a territorial demarcation line, because doing so would make China an adversary of most Southeast Asian states as well as the United States. Were China to go down this path, they argue, it would eventually face the ominous danger of strategic over-stretch. The biggest problem for China, the moderates observe, is that it lacks a clear and effective strategy for the South China Sea”.

He clarifies the position further noting “The moderates differ much from the realists and the hardliners. But the three share an extremely important area of agreement: the necessity of island-building. During my extensive conversations with leading Chinese scholars and government officials since last year, I have not come across a single person who would say island building is a mistake. They may give different reasons for construction and offer different assessments of the consequences, but they all believe that this is something China must do, sooner or later. These reasons range from the more strategic to the more mundane; from establishing a strategic foothold in the South China Sea to providing better living conditions for Chinese personnel stationed there”.

Turning to the non-Chinese aspect of it he argues “Members of the international community have repeatedly criticized China’s island-building. But given the apparent national consensus inside China, and also given the fact that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea does not strictly proscribe building on existing maritime features, is it a good policy to keep targeting island building activities themselves? Wouldn’t it be in every nation’s interest to move on to the more strategic question of creating a new but stable regional status quo? A new status quo demands China clarify its strategic intentions. Right now, not even the Chinese leadership has a clear answer to that question. Among the three schools analyzed above, only the extreme hardliners have a quick, but highly destabilizing, answer. The rest of China is debating what China’s strategy toward the South China Sea should be. This is an important fact. It suggests that China’s South China Sea policy has not hardened yet, and is thus malleable”.

He ends “The international community — especially the United States and ASEAN — should create favourable conditions for shaping China’s policy toward a more conciliatory and cooperative direction. In particular, they should help raise the importance of the moderates in Chinese decision-making, turning them from a minority view to a majority consensus. The unfortunate effect of some of the rhetoric from U.S. officials about Chinese “hegemony” in East Asia is to confirm the hardliners’ view that the United States wants to contain China, thus undermining the moderates’ position within China’s domestic debate. Among the three schools discussed above, only hardliners unequivocally seek some sort of military hegemony. If American officials take this view as China’s national policy, they will simply talk past their more moderate Chinese interlocutors, creating a potentially dangerous communication gap between the two sides”.

 

State attacks Obama’s Syria policy

09/07/2016

An article notes the post-Obama planning at State has already begun, “The decision of 51 State Department officials to sign a document dissenting from President Barack Obama’s Syria policy elevates perspective over distortion. These officials resuscitated the artificially depressed reputation of the United States in the eyes of despairing and disgusted Syrians, their neighbours, and American allies in Europe. They killed the White House pretense that critics of the administration’s Syria policy are partisan politicians, war-mongering neoconservatives, and clueless think tankers. Although their dissent will not likely alter the Obama administration’s failed policy over its final six months, it’s a meaningful gesture that might help to restore U.S. honour. Those who signed the document exhibited courage and character. Secretary of State John Kerry and his media spokesman have forthrightly defended those who dissented in the right way in the proper channel. Still, by speaking out, these diplomats knowingly put their careers on the line. When the document and the names of its authors become public — as they inevitably will — those who felt morally compelled to dissent will be subjected to all manner of abuse and harassment by back-shooters lurking anonymously in the digital world and, more quietly, in the corridors of the government. One can only hope the White House will not count among those questioning their motives and qualifications”.

Crucially the author argues that “the dissenters have offered their president a much-needed opportunity to rethink his approach to a problem from hell. The essence of the administration strategy to date has been to divide, artificially and ineffectively, the problem of Syria in two: an Islamic State half, and a Bashar al-Assad half. The former has been harassed with coalition air attacks and ground operations by a Kurdish militia. The latter has been left free to conduct an unlimited campaign of civilian eradication, one that has benefited the Islamic State incalculably in terms of local and worldwide recruitment while creating a humanitarian catastrophe and a migrant crisis. Assad and the Islamic State are inescapably two sides of the same coin, one purchasing the destruction of Syria and the dispersal of its people”.

It goes on to mention how “Obama has vowed to degrade and destroy the Islamic State. His director of central intelligence, John Brennan, just told Congress that this is not going so well. How can it — at least in Syria — with Assad piling onto his own citizenry endless war crimes and crimes against humanity? Since late September 2015, Russia has joined the regime and Iran in both facilitating and committing crimes against civilians. Moscow, incidentally, loses no sleep over Syrians emptying into Turkey and Western Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin enjoys and promotes the resulting nativist, populist drift of European (and American) politics. None of the foregoing is disputed by the administration. Barely a day goes by without some senior American official or spokesperson condemning a civilian-centric military campaign by the Assad regime supported by Russia and Iran, one that guts the Geneva peace process on which Obama has bet everything. But the likelihood of peaceful political transition for Syria and the protection of its civilians (two issues that are inextricably linked) have been left entirely at the disposal and discretion of three parties: Assad, Iran, and Russia. Kerry earnestly implores these parties to show mercy. He may as well speak to a mirror. His boss has given him nothing beyond a smile and a shoeshine with which to work”.

Pointedly the author notes “It would be reasonable to conclude that Obama has reluctantly accepted mass murder in Syria as a cost of doing nuclear business with Iran. No doubt he hates it. No doubt he wants it to stop. But to push back against Assad — to take limited military steps to make his attempts at mass murder slightly more difficult — risks angering Tehran and perhaps causing Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to abandon the nuclear agreement. Indeed, while the agreement was being negotiated the president assured his Iranian counterpart in writing that Tehran’s murderous client — a person who has put Syria at the service of Iran’s Hezbollah militia in Lebanon while breathing oxygen into the lungs of the Islamic State — would not be attacked as the United States chased the Islamic State in eastern Syria. No doubt resisting mass murder in Syria would offend Iran. Would it be enough to cause Tehran to renounce the nuclear agreement and the economic benefits connected thereto? My assessment is probably not, although the risk is not zero. Preserving the ability of Hezbollah to menace Israel and imprison Lebanon is of paramount importance to Tehran. Iran knows that Assad is essential to its grand strategy: Even Syrian army officers reportedly cringe at their country’s subordination to foreigners, and surely Syria’s humiliation would not last long in a post-Assad era. Khamenei has had no problem pursuing policies and practices in Syria that undermine the fight against the Islamic State and threaten America’s regional partners, even as he authorised closure on the nuclear agreement. It is Washington that has been unable to walk and chew gum simultaneously, with millions of people paying the price”.

Correctly he argues “All of this requires urgent review by the U.S. government. The State Department dissenters have proposed a specific military methodology with cruise missiles to make it hard for the Assad regime to kill on an industrial scale where and when it wants. Although such action might well complicate and frustrate some aspects of civilian slaughter, the real center of gravity in this matter lies with the intent and leadership of the American commander in chief. If he decides that U.S. passivity in the face of a monumental massacre causing lethal political fallout is no longer sustainable, he must make clear his desires to Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and demand from the Pentagon a range of options aimed at making it hard for Assad to do his worst. It might be that cruise missiles aimed at Syrian military aircraft bases would top the list. But this is a matter for military professionals to sort out and for the president to decide. There are, to be sure, risks associated with changing course and protecting civilians — at least some of them — from mass homicide. These risks cannot be swept under the carpet. Yet neither can the risks associated with leaving 100 percent of leverage in the hands of mass murderers — Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime — be ignored. The progressive emptying of Syria caused by the symbiotic Assad-Islamic State relationship cannot be permanently contained by Turkey and other neighbours of Syria. And as long as civilians are on the bull’s-eye the prospects for diplomacy and political compromise are zero”.

He ends “Fifty-one State Department officials who have loyally helped to implement a dysfunctional White House policy have finally said, “Enough.” Even if Obama is content to bequeath to his successor a humanitarian abomination and geopolitical catastrophe, these officials have placed before the world the proposition that the United States can and ultimately will do its duty. They have rendered a powerful service. They deserve the thanks of the nation.

 

Clinton, opposing, then support TPP

05/07/2016

A piece argues that Clinton can come back to support free trade even after opposing it, “In October, with Sen. Bernie Sanders proving to be a peskier-than-expected challenger for the Democratic presidential ticket, Hillary Clinton came out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal with Pacific nations that would cover 40 percent of the world’s economy. It was, in the context of the heated fight for the Democratic nomination, understandable enough: Sanders was surging on his revolutionary message, which included an assault on free trade. He ended up nudging Clinton to the left on many other issues too, from Wall Street regulation to energy oversight”.

Pointedly the author writes “But for anybody who followed Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state, those comments were jarring: She had championed the deal herself, put it at the center of her own diplomatic “pivot” to Asia, and called it the “gold standard” of trade deals. Repeatedly during her time as the nation’s top diplomat, Clinton touted the pact, strongly backed by her boss, President Barack Obama. One count has her publicly supporting it 45 times.  Trade experts don’t buy Clinton’s supposed change of heart. They told Foreign Policy that they very much doubt she would simply scrap a trade deal negotiated in good faith with many Asian nations, some of whom, like Japan, are close U.S. allies. Clinton knows, they say, that jettisoning the deal now would poison U.S. standing around the world”.

Interestingly he writes “There’s a clear path for her to evolve back to supporting the TPP, especially now that the fight for the Democratic nomination is over. Clinton has said she would fight currency manipulation by China, which is not a signatory to the TPP, and by other nations like Japan and Vietnam, which are signatories, with new duties and tariffs. Many who oppose the Asian trade deal are also concerned about currency manipulation, conveniently ignoring the fact that most economists figure this has been a non-issue for years. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a former U.S trade representative, and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) won’t back it because they don’t think there is adequate punishment for deliberately cheapening a nation’s currency, which makes their exports more competitive. An undervalued currency also makes it more attractive for U.S. companies to ship jobs overseas, where they can pay less in wages”.

The piece notes “There is precedent for this kind of maneuvering, and Clinton doesn’t have to look hard to find it. When her husband, Bill Clinton, took office, he made environmental and labor side agreements to the North American Free Trade Agreement to placate opponents, especially labor unions, which opposed the pact. “He then worked very hard to pass it,” said Scott Miller, a trade expert at the Center for Strategic and Advanced International Studies. Miller said he does not believe Clinton has issued a hard “no” on TPP. “She’s been hedged. She said it’s not good enough; she hasn’t said she opposes it. The ‘not good enough’ gives her a window,” he said”.

It goes on to make the point “If the United States does ultimately abandon TPP, it would open the door for China to step in. Right now, Beijing is negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, a deal meant to rival TPP that does not include the United States, but which would include India, potentially making it a major Asian trade bloc. Obama often argues that the TPP is needed to allow the United States to set the rules of the game in the Asia-Pacific, rather than abdicating the playing field to China. “I have every expectation that [RCEP] will get negotiated and it will not include the U.S. That gives China negotiating leverage,” Branstetter said. “If we’re not out there negotiating and ultimately passing deals other nations will move forward as we’re standing still.”Clinton’s flip-flop on trade makes sense politically. Both presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and Sanders have used trade as a bogeyman for why the working and middle classes are falling behind. They have convinced many voters that international trade pacts like the TPP cost America manufacturing jobs, essentially creating two classes of citizens: those with a college degree, who are enjoying the benefits of a growing economy, and those without one, who have been left behind. Economists of all stripes overwhelmingly agree that free trade benefits the overall economy, increases overall employment, and saves consumers money — but some workers in some sectors see a lot more of the pain than the gains”.

It ends “If the fate of Obama’s signature trade deals falls to a President Clinton, Miller cautioned against expecting a quick passage. He said it would take months for Clinton to get her administration up and running, and even more time to create the momentum to push the deal through Congress. For Branstetter, nothing less than the credibility of the United States is at stake.“If the U.S. turns its back on TPP, we will be deeply undermining our stance as a negotiating partner,” he added. Killing it “would make it much harder for that going forward to negotiate good trade deals.”

State Department revolts against Obama

25/06/2016

More than 50 State Department diplomats have signed an internal memo sharply critical of the Obama administration’s policy in Syria, urging the United States to carry out military strikes against the government of President Bashar al-Assad to stop its persistent violations of a cease-fire in the country’s five-year-old civil war. The memo, a draft of which was provided to The New York Times by a State Department official, says American policy has been “overwhelmed” by the unrelenting violence in Syria. It calls for “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.” Such a step would represent a radical shift in the administration’s approach to the civil war in Syria, and there is little evidence that President Obama has plans to change course. Mr. Obama has emphasized the military campaign against the Islamic State over efforts to dislodge Mr. Assad. Diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, have all but collapsed. But the memo, filed in the State Department’s “dissent channel,” underscores the deep rifts and lingering frustration within the administration over how to deal with a war that has killed more than 400,000 people”.

“Granted military commanders new powers to assist Afghan troops”

23/06/2016

President Obama has granted military commanders new powers to assist Afghan troops combat the Taliban, U.S. officials said, in a move that pulls the United States farther away from the president’s goal of ending the long Afghanistan conflict before he leaves office. The new measures approved by Obama late last month will permit military leaders to send U.S. troops on battlefield missions with conventional Afghan forces, broadening an activity that now occurs only with elite local troops, and will expand the use of U.S. air power for offensive missions against the Taliban. Officials said they will only be approved in limited circumstances when they are expected to have “strategic effect.” “This added flexibility is fully supported by the Afghan government, and will help the Afghans at an important moment for the country,” said a senior administration official who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss decisions that have not been made public”.

“He’s the one negotiating the terms of his surrender”

21/06/2016

A piece argues that Sanders has influened the party platform, “Sanders has accepted he’s lost the war but, having won key battles, he’s the one negotiating the terms of his surrender. The Vermont Independent senator turned Democratic presidential contender met with presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton for two hours behind closed doors at a Washington hotel Tuesday night as the polls closed in the last primary of the Democratic nominating contest. A truce is taking shape between the former Senate colleagues, with Sanders and Clinton vowing in recent days to work together to defeat presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in November. Still, Sanders came to the summit with a list of demands for reforming the Democratic Party, including a vow to push for “the most progressive platform ever passed” by the party. He’s already staked out positions well to the left of Clinton’s foreign policy on issues ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to the war against the Islamic State, setting the stage for potentially bitter fights”.

Worryingly the piece notes “he has succeeded — and even exceeded observers’ expectations – in forcing the Democratic Party to re-evaluate its long-held assumptions about the use of military force abroad. Clinton embodies many of those views, and Sanders won millions of votes by coming at her from the left and arguing for a less interventionist foreign policy. The Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign declined to comment on what contributions Sanders may have made to the foreign policy debate during the Democratic primary. Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs also did not respond to a request for comment. Sanders’s campaign announced he will give a video address from Burlington, Vermont, on Thursday, raising expectations that he will formally abandon his quest for the nomination — and yet, the email announcing the address was titled: “The political revolution continues.” Sanders launched his campaign with a laser-sharp focus on domestic issues like universal health care and an expanded social welfare system. By the end, though, he had succeeded in putting Clinton on the defensive on issues like Libya’s unraveling, the ongoing carnage in Iraq, and international trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which she came out against despite backing it countless times as Obama’s top diplomat”.

The report goes to point out “While often deflecting questions on the specifics of his foreign policy, Sanders sought to undermine Clinton’s far deeper experience by questioning her judgment — a strategy Trump has already begun to emulatein his general election campaign. And Sanders also forced concessions from the DNC that could have a lasting impact on the party far beyond its convention in Philadelphia in July. Due to Sanders’s undeniable success in mobilising Democratic voters and bringing new ones — particularly young people — into the party, DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz gave him five seats on the powerful committee charged with drafting the party’s platform. Clinton, who ultimately won 3 million more votes than her rival, received just one extra seat. Even before the picks were named, Sanders’s national security advisors said he should’ve focused more on foreign policy, believing him to be more closely aligned with the Democratic base on the issue than Clinton. Several promised to push for a platform with more liberal foreign policy proposals than she has espoused, particularly in calling for more “evenhandedness” toward Palestinians in language about the long-stymied peace process”.

Thankfully the piece mentions “Jim Zogby, a foreign policy advisor for Sanders who was named to the drafting committee, credited the Vermont senator for pushing Clinton totalk more about Palestinian rights and whether Israel had used disproportionate force in retaliatory strikes. “Ending the taboo about discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in a measured and balanced way was historic,” Zogby told Foreign Policy on Tuesday. He has said he will push for the word “occupation” to be included in the platform to describe the nearly five-decade Israeli presence in land Palestinians claim for a future state”.

With ill omens for the future of US leadership and willingness to look overseas the report mentions “Rather than fade away with Sanders’s campaign, Trump has given the judgment attack a second life. In recent weeks, he has parroted Sanders’s language and even invoked his name, wielding the word “judgment” some half a dozen times in as many days in late May and early June. Lee said of Sanders’s tactic, “I could question his judgment,” referring to his vote for the 2001 authorization. “But I’m not going to say that,” she laughed, “questioning another’s judgment is pushing it a little bit.” Still, she doesn’t think it will hurt Clinton in the general election, particularly against Trump who “has no foreign policy.” She said Sanders did succeed in raising “an alternative vision on foreign policy: The fact that Democrats can be strong on national security and care about global peace, without continuing to use the military option as a first resort rather than the last.” It remains too soon to tell how enthusiastically Sanders will campaign for Clinton and what else he would be willing to do to help defeat Trump. The senator continued to withhold his endorsement following Tuesday night’s meeting, though many outside observers believe he will eventually throw his support behind her”.

It ends “Wasserman Schultz said in a statement timed with the meeting: “Now that our 2016 primaries are officially at their end, Democrats are ready to unify and take on both Trump and the Republican Party that he represents.” Sanders has long accused Wasserman Schultz of being in the tank for Clinton and replacing her is one of his primary demands, though she insists she’s staying put. Still, Briggs, the Sanders spokesman, told reporters earlier Tuesday that the senator will not drop out “today, or tomorrow, or the next day” and “plans to stay in this through the Democratic convention.”

Former Gitmo prisoners fight again

19/06/2016

The Obama administration believes that at least 12 detainees released from the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have launched attacks against U.S. or allied forces in Afghanistan, killing about a half-dozen Americans, according to current and former U.S. officials. In March, a senior Pentagon official made a startling admission to lawmakers when he acknowledged that former Guantanamo inmates were responsible for the deaths of Americans overseas. The official, Paul Lewis, who oversees Guantanamo issues at the Defense Department, provided no details, and the Obama administration has since declined to elaborate publicly on his statement because the intelligence behind it is classified”.

The new for new ideas from a Clinton presidency

17/06/2016

David Rothkopf argues that Trump is a trap for Clinton, “Donald Trump is a gift to Hillary Clinton. And a trap. Because as good as it was (and as satisfying as it was to hear), it fell into the pattern of every other phase of this campaign so far, which is making everything about Trump. For Clinton to win, she needs to energise the electorate about what she is for and not just what she is against, or the outcome may well be very much like that experienced by Trump’s opponents thus far. Clinton’s foreign-policy address in San Diego Thursday was certainly effective as far as it went. In fact, it was so effective at enumerating Trump’s flaws as a potential commander in chief it revealed a somewhat different challenge Clinton and her speechwriters face: Figuring out how to keep such speeches short enough so that audience members could get home in time to tuck their kids into bed. “Donald Trump’s ideas aren’t just different,” she said in one of her many effective, slashing assaults on the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee. “They are dangerously incoherent. They’re not even really ideas — just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.” In those brief couple of lines, you can see the beauty of opposing a human toxic waste dump like Trump: No hyperbole is necessary. Just tell it like it is, and it should be clear to any listener with a third-grade education that Trump has no more business being president than he would have teaching a course on humility”.

Rothkopf writes that “When she said Trump is “temperamentally unfit to hold” office, no one who has watched him can doubt it, but listing his idiocies — from suggesting more countries have nukes to actually arguing it wouldn’t matter to us if they used them, from singing the praises of the North Korean regime to suggesting we hand over Syria to the Islamic State — drove home the point with precision. And if her onslaught wasn’t enough, a day or two earlier that same North Korean regime actually endorsed Trump’s candidacy, an act that on its own speaks volumes about just how unfit Trump really is. North Korea wants to bring down America, folks. And its leaders know the surest way to do that is to put The Donald into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. No, it was clear Clinton’s advisors saw giving a foreign-policy speech as a special opportunity because Trump has made himself so stunningly vulnerable in that respect”.

He makes the point that “The problem with beating Trump — to paraphrase Clinton about her former boss Barack Obama’s foreign policy — is that simply being against him is not a foreign policy. (She once suggested Obama’s “don’t do stupid shit” “insight” was not enough to constitute a foreign policy. And, of course, there is no doubt that electing Trump would be the stupidest shit of all.) But that alone is not a vision for America’s future. Nor — and perhaps more importantly — is that platform alone likely to inspire more voters to see the positive reasons for voting for Clinton. Voters deserve a better speech than she gave Thursday, and if she wants to counter the wave of irrational emotion that is the only thing that could sweep a man like Trump into office, Clinton is going to have to start making people more passionate about why they should stand and vote for her, rather than why they should be against the creep the GOP now seems to be uniting around”.

He rightly makes the point that “In order for Clinton to inspire in voters the same kind of passion, she must make clear how the ideas she stands for are new and different and why she is the right person to be president at this moment, the person with the vision to imagine and realize a new world for our children and our children’s children. We need — and she needs — a few big, new ideas. And though it was expert in its dissection of Trump, Thursday’s speech was workmanlike, bland as oatmeal about her own foreign policy, and ultimately devoid of big, new ideas. There was nothing objectionable in it, of course. The points she raised — how the United States needs to be fostering strength at home, cultivating alliances, using diplomacy and development, being “wise with our rivals,” having a plan to defeat terrorists, and staying true to our values — were solid ones. It was just what you would expect from a professional who has years of familiarity with these issues”.

He mentions that “Being “wise” with Russia and China makes sense, of course. But we could use specifics and, while we’re at it, less reflexive China and trade bashing on the campaign trail. It creates a tension that Bill Clinton discovered. It’s easy to blame trade problems on foreigners. But it is also wrong, and when in office, he reversed on these issues as his wife is likely to discover she must also do. But we can go further: We need a doctrine of interdependence with China that recognizes it as a vital ally, as well as a potential rival, one that harnesses better our common interests. And we need to find a new path forward to ensure our deteriorating relationship with Russia does not get worse — even while sending a message that a new administration will not be as feckless in opposition to displays of raw Russian aggression as Obama has been. Of course, we need to defeat terrorists — which means a shift from playing whack-a-mole with an ever-evolving array of terrorist groups to combating extremism more broadly. That means not just knowing what we are against in the Middle East and elsewhere but what we are for”.

He ends “There are still five months left in this campaign. Frankly, that’s more than enough time for a whole campaign (or two). Trump is bad and must be stopped. The only way to do that is to vote for Clinton. But if she does not reach for the big ideas, surround herself with new faces, make certain voters know that she is not just the face of an establishment that fears a Trump presidency (for good reason), she may not win the support of enough voters to actually win. Trump is tapping into passion and frustration with Washington. She can’t help but be seen as part of the system … unless she makes it clear that her experience has not only convinced her massive, fundamental change is needed but that she has the ideas and the people around her to help produce that change. Experience, intelligence, and steadiness are great traits in a president. But they are not enough for a candidate. A candidate needs to inspire, to resonate with the electorate not just in their heads but in their hearts, and to give them real hope, and the one candidate capable of doing this has yet to begin doing so. Perhaps Thursday’s speech was a necessary step — outlining the Trump threat. If so, good enough, but we can’t wait too long for the follow-up speech, one that describes the promise of a Clinton presidency and moves us to stand behind it”.

“Rhodes is portrayed in the profile as the master of reducing issues to tweets”

15/06/2016

An article from the World Today notes the role of Ben Rhodes, “On May 5 The New York Times Magazine published a profile of Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Such an article might have attracted little interest but Rhodes’s condescending remarks have made him the focus of much negative attention. His comments not only call into question the honesty of policy statements from the White House, but they also display a fundamental disregard for the news media’s role in informing the public about what its government is doing. Performing that role requires that the relationship between press and government, although characterized by dynamic tension, be built on a foundation of mutual respect”.

The piece adds “Rhodes told the article’s author, David Samuels, that journalists who cover international affairs from Washington ‘literally know nothing’ and are part of a foreign policy establishment he dismisses as an irrelevant ‘Blob’. Samuels reports that Rhodes has ‘a healthy contempt’ for the Blob and its members – including Hillary Clinton and former Defence Secretary Robert Gates – who ‘whine incessantly’. Rhodes is portrayed in the profile as the master of reducing issues to tweets and having few scruples about twisting public opinion in ways that advance the White House’s political agenda. Other administrations have similarly embraced ‘messaging’, but few have had a high-ranking staff member be so foolish as to brag publicly about his skill as a manipulator”.

The author goes on to write that “Even more unsettling in this article is the total absence of evidence that Rhodes understands the purposes or history of American foreign policy. Rhodes, who is 38, left university wanting to become a novelist. The 9/11 attacks led him to venture into international affairs, and his writing skill carried him through a series of Washington jobs that took him to the White House. He comes across in the Samuels article as a slick salesman, someone who would be just as comfortable spinning the attributes of a used car as he is in convincing the public to follow the White House lead on global affairs”.

Correctly, the writer mentions “This article, along with Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent essay The Obama Doctrine in The Atlantic, point to a fundamental shallowness in the Obama administration’s worldview. These reports are in line with cautionary words from Gates, who in his 2014 memoir, Duty, noted his concerns about the Obama national security staff, writing that they had no ‘firsthand knowledge of real-world governing’ and ‘lack an awareness of the world they had just entered’ Rhodes is part of this; well-meaning, perhaps, but not possessing the knowledge someone in his position should have. Although Rhodes’s claim that journalists ‘know nothing’ is wrong as well as insulting, they could know more”.

The piece ends “Rhodes and his White House colleagues have disproportionate influence over US foreign policy because of significant shifts of authority away from State, Defence, and other cabinet departments, with the White House enjoying mission creep. The National Security Council (NSC) was created in 1947 to bring together top-level foreign policy advisers and provide greater coherence to foreign policy planning. Its director, the national security adviser, has sometimes wielded considerable power, visibly, by Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration, for example, and less visibly but more effectively by Brent Scowcroft during the George HW Bush presidency. The NSC staff has grown enormously. During Scowcroft’s tenure, it comprised 50 people. It has doubled with each successive presidency: 100 during Bill Clinton’s tenure; 200 under George W Bush; and during the Obama presidency it has reached 400 (and it is most definitely not eight times more efficient that it was during Scowcroft’s time). Senator John McCain has introduced legislation to cap the NSC staff at 150, but managing the White House is not the business of Congress. Obama and his aides have opened themselves to such pressure by allowing the NSC to become so bloated, although the current national security adviser, Susan Rice, has promised substantial shrinkage by the time Obama’s term ends”.

He concludes “The fragility of the balance of power between the White House and other parts of the executive branch was apparent during the efforts to secure congressional approval of the Iran nuclear agreement, during which Rhodes’s messaging skills were heavily relied upon by the administration. This episode is closely examined in Samuels’ article, and this is where Rhodes opened himself to much of the criticism he has since received. Rhodes and his team recruited friendly arms control experts to speak at think-tanks, post material on social media sites, and brief reporters. Rhodes told Samuels: ‘We created an echo chamber … They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.’ He added: ‘We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively,’ and said of the agreement’s opponents, ‘We drove them crazy.’ There is something vaguely Nixonian about those comments. Rhodes has since defended himself, writing ‘the objective of that kind of effort is to build as much public support as you can – that’s a function of White House communications.’ But when does an effort to build public support cross the line into manipulation of the public? Ben Rhodes is now paying for his hubristic encounter with The New York Times. As Barack Obama wraps up his presidency with trips to Europe, Asia and elsewhere, Obama cannot be pleased that his presumed alter ego has become the focus of so much negative attention”.

It finishes “Despite Washington’s perennial fascination with personalities, larger issues are involved. The National Security Council staff is enormously powerful, and it has a duty to knowledgeably craft America’s global agenda and to provide honest information about that process to American and global publics. As the Ben Rhodes episode illustrates, that duty is not being carried out as it should be”.

 

“The Clinton Doctrine is better equipped than that of Obama or Trump”

13/06/2016

In Foreign Affairs a piece notes the Hillary Clinton Doctrine, “On April 27, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivered his first foreign policy speech of the campaign. In the statement, Trump promised to ensure “global peace,” rebuild the U.S. military, eliminate the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and change Washington’s approach to NATO. His platform is as ambitious as it is contradictory and implausible. He advocates for a U.S. withdrawal from international conflict even as he wants to boost Washington’s role in promoting world peace. This is a far cry from the likely Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, who has called on the United States to intervene more directly in global conflict. Not only are Clinton’s and Trump’s foreign policy platforms vastly different from each other, they are both miles apart from that of U.S. President Barack Obama. The “Obama Doctrine,” as it has become known, has kept the United States out of conflicts that did not pose a direct threat to national security in the White House’s view, but not without consequences. This policy has had its successes, such as the raid that killed former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. But it has also had its failures, such as the missed opportunity to topple the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which would have prevented the conflict from spawning incipient threats. When Obama departs, this foreign policy will go with him; no matter who wins in November, the next president will take a different approach to the world’s varied challenges, making foreign policy a crucial issue in this year’s election”.

The writer goes on to describe the “Obama Doctrine” what is in effect a quasi-isolationism, “The crux of the Obama Doctrine has been to seek multilateral intervention when possible and unilateral action when necessary. Over the last eight years, Washington has avoided intervening in conflicts that, in the view of the administration, did not pose core national security threats, whether in Asia, Europe, or the Middle East. But this seemingly credible foreign policy approach was overshadowed by the administration’s “pivot to Asia,” wherein Washington chose to focus more on Asian security and less on transatlantic concerns. The United States sent fresh troops to Australia, bolstered its presence in Japan, and established new naval access in the Philippines and Singapore. European and Middle Eastern allies, sensing that Washington was neglecting their needs in order to counterbalance China’s ascendance, reacted negatively. The Obama administration soon rebranded the policy as the “rebalance to Asia,” but it was too late to reassure allies sufficiently”.

The piece goes on to mention “In assessing Obama’s foreign policy as a whole, his critics tend to highlight instances where he chose strategic restraint instead of intervention. In the April 2016 issue of The Atlantic, for example, author Jeffrey Goldberg focuses narrowly on the president’s policies in Syria to argue that Obama walked a path of restraint across the world. The president’s grand strategy, however, is at least mildly activist in nature. This is true even in areas where the administration has exercised the most caution, such as the Middle East. Obama recommitted to U.S. interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, oversaw the Iranian nuclear deal, attacked al Qaeda and ISIS, and focused (albeit belatedly) on Syria by pushing hard for a diplomatic deal. Although Obama deserves fair marks for his overall foreign policy record, his administration has made a series of critical strategic errors: it bungled the pivot to Asia, and it failed to regain the trust of Washington’s allies in the Gulf. Moreover, the overdue rebalance back to Europe failed to prevent Putin from outfoxing Western allies in Ukraine and Syria”.

Quite rightly he argues that “the Trump Doctrine should fail before he gets a chance to put it into practice. His perspective on U.S. foreign policy is contradictory, confusing, and destined for the historical dustbin if enacted. For example, Trump has promised to restore “global peace,” rebuild the U.S. military, eliminate ISIS, contain “radical Islam,” and act as a reliable ally. At the same time, he has also promised to withdraw from NATO if allies do not take more responsibility for their own security”.

He turns to Clinton “Clinton’s foreign policy may be the most sound of all three. Her policies are more robust than Obama’s on every major security challenge and are better positioned to help the United States secure favourable outcomes to a range of global conflicts. The world’s challenges require a determined use of U.S. leadership­, not isolationism. And in the areas where Obama’s restraint has failed, the more activist Hillary Clinton Doctrine (not to be confused with that of her husband, former U.S. President Bill Clinton’s doctrine of humanitarian intervention) could likely prevail. The Hillary Clinton Doctrine would counter Russian aggression by strengthening the European Reassurance Initiative, which would permanently place larger amounts of allied troops and weaponry in eastern Europe. Obama’s ERI focused on the installation of equipment and modest, rotating brigades of multinational troops. Most important, the administration has failed to negotiate reciprocal commitments from its European allies. When the Free Syrian Army could legitimately have crippled Assad’s regime, Clinton favoured creating a no-fly zone that would have facilitated the attack. This would have prevented Russia from entering the conflict and tipping its outcome in Assad’s favour, as well. She also called for a refugee safe zone, which could have stopped the migration crisis before it started. Had Obama supported regime change in Syria, Clinton would likely have helped orchestrate the UN’s biggest peacekeeping operation to date. This would have prevented ISIS from taking root in the country and could have led to a stable and successful transition of power. At any rate, the world would have likely avoided a prolonged civil war that has turned into a proxy battle that threatens Middle Eastern and European security alike. Even now, Clinton favors a no-fly zone and a refugee exclusion zone. Under her plan, NATO would guard the sky, Turkey would provide ground forces, the EU would oversee refugee zones, and the UN would monitor Syria’s diplomatic channels”.

The writer correctly argues that “The former secretary of state received blame for mishandling the Benghazi siege, but her assessment of Libya’s challenges following the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi was nevertheless correct. It took nearly two years for Libya’s government and security apparatus to deteriorate. There was ample time for the international community to support a civilian stability operation that could have disarmed or disbanded the country’s militias. Instead, Western allies failed to secure the peace after NATO’s successful military operation, and a civil-cum-proxy war gradually emerged. These forces also failed to prevent regime weapons from spreading across the region. This was the case in Mali, where arms helped propel a brutal conflict that ended only after a costly French intervention. As president, Clinton would refocus Washington’s attention on Libya—not only to root out ISIS training camps but to support the country’s coalition government as well. The Ukraine crisis provides another instance where Obama’s restraint proved costly. By failing to support Ukraine’s fight against Russia, the Obama administration squandered the West’s opportunity to deter Moscow from future aggression. A Clinton administration, however, would have provided Ukraine with lethal weapons at the onset of the crisis. This would have prevented Russia from aiding separatist rebels in Crimea and could have made Putin think twice before intervening in Syria. Furthermore, her administration would not only raise the cost of Russian aggression and restore conventional deterrence in Europe, it would give the Ukrainian government a more complete set of tools that could help restore the country’s freedom from Moscow”.

He argues that a Clinton administration would make Europe responsible for its own security. However this is unlikely. With renewed American leadership the Europeans would have little reason to increase defence spending, yet this is a price worth paying for increased US involvement in world affairs.

He ends arguing that “Global instability is set to continue, and likely increase, after Obama leaves office. The next president will have a slim margin of error for solving these problems. But had the Clinton Doctrine been in place over the last four years, odds are that the United States could have kept Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council happy, deterred Putin from intervening in Syria, removed the Assad regime from power, and gotten the UN to shepherd a governance transition after his removal. Libya would have been a more stable (albeit struggling) country as well. In Asia, Washington would have seen Beijing’s hard-liners have less influence in Chinese affairs. And in Europe, Clinton could have made U.S. allies provide a greater share of their own security burden. Plus, a Clinton administration would have also been able to negotiate a successful nuclear deal with Iran. The number of security crises is more than likely to increase over the coming years, and the Clinton Doctrine is better equipped than that of Obama or Trump to deal with them”.