Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, July 1, 2019

War With Iran? Or Much Ado About Nothing?

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Over the last few weeks, Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman have engaged in a conversation on a wide range of foreign policy issues. For the sake of clarity and readability, below is a part of that conversation that focuses strictly on Iran-US relations.

BN: Of the various foreign issues that the Trump administration has taken a hawkish, confrontational position on, arguably the most chaotic is Iran. Lots of mixed messages from the White House. Trump claims he's not interested in a war with Iran. In fact, he wants talks with Iran and some kind of negotiated deal. Yet, at the same time, he's pulled the US from the 2015 nuclear deal, re-imposed tough sanctions, and has agreed to move more military assets to the Middle East, expressly with Iran in mind. And meantime, in the background, advisers, like National Security Adviser John Bolton, are privately cheerleading the charge for a military intervention. Do you think this approach to Iran will work? Will it get Trump what he wants? I'm very skeptical.

YS: At this point, I think Iran is overplaying its hand by declaring that it will up its enrichment of nuclear materials, thus removing any incentive for the European Union to actually defend it. At the same time, I am not sure that the regime is strong enough to deal with more escalations with the US. It is overextended in Syria and Yemen, and its economy is tottering toward collapse. Of course, as Venezuela shows, a terrible economy doesn't really matter much to the longevity of the regime as long as it holds all the levers of power securely—and Iran is still in a much better position than Venezuela. But apparently some in the regime are nervous enough to try sabotaging those tankers.
At the end of the day, though, I don't think there will be an Iran-US war. Iran knows that it won't win the war, and Trump is just Trump.

BN: What do you make of the air strikes that almost happened, but were apparently called off by Trump?

YS: I think Trump does not want to escalate this into something that he cannot pull back from—I believe the argument that he got cold feet once he heard hundreds could die—because that would mean an escalation into something that he cannot pull back from. His pattern of behavior is always the same: he takes the option with less risk, and that allows him to withdraw while claiming victory, all while hoping his opponents fold first in face the of his bluster.

BN: I've come across a few different explanations for Trump's decision. You mentioned one of them—the prospect of killing 150 Iranians is a disproportionate response, according to Trump himself, for downing a drone. Another is that Trump got word that the Iranians themselves, including the Quds force commander Soleimani, are ticked that the US drone was shot down. Perhaps it really was a mistake, committed by a rogue official or grunt, and not intended by Tehran. If so, then there's no reason for Trump to up the ante. At bottom, this argument suggests that Trump values and responds more to Iranian motives than Iranian actions. A third explanation that's been bandied about is US politics. In short, Trump got wind that his base would be displeased with another war in the ME. It also didn't help that Tucker Carlson, of Trump's beloved Fox News, took time out of a recent show to rail against a possible war with Iran. For Trump, almost everything he says and does is about base politics—making sure his core 35% of the electorate stays loyal to him and energized to support him. The prospect of fracturing that base, that core, especially given the upcoming presidential dogfight in 2020, dissuaded him from going ahead with a limited military campaign against Iran.

Of course, that didn't settle the situation. After all, Trump believed Iran deserved some punishment for the drone. And then there are the hawks, who are constantly pushing Trump toward war. And so Trump opted for a lower cost, more clandestine cyber activities against Iran. Trump is probably hoping that a non-military response would be viewed by the clerics as a sign that Trump is willing to calm down the situation and that they'll respond in kind. The problem, though, is that Trump has engaged in a number of bluffs during his presidency and the international community is starting to see him as a paper tiger. Iran could try to drive an even harder bargain based on the perception that Trump and his core supporters seem so averse to war.

YS: At the same time, it could be suicidal if Iran pushed harder against the US. While I agree that Trump's base is completely against another war in the Middle East, if they hear that the Iranians are downing a plane full of 35 US soldiers or they hit a carrier, everyone will rally around the flag and bay for blood. So, to some degree, I agree with you, that Trump's credibility might be damaged, but at the same time, the 800-pound gorilla is an 800-pound gorilla: the US is so powerful that states are wary to invoke its wrath.

BN: Yes, you're right. Iran can't press to hard, too recklessly, so as to provoke the US in a war for self-defensive reasons. But it can make life difficult for the US using a variety of tools. And plus, for lots of reasons, it's in Iran's interest to resist the US. That's why it was so tough to get the nuclear deal in 2015. Which leads me to a concern about US Iran policy under Trump. Constant pressure, with no daylight at the end of it all, will likely only force Iran down the same path it’s treaded for 40 years now—threats, tensions, and hostilities with the US. Getting Iran to change its behavior requires the US to have a much more deft diplomatic touch. And I don't think Trump has the advisors around him who can do that or are willing to do that. It might take a third party, perhaps like Japan’s Shinzo Abe (who recently visited Iran), to break the deadlock, defuse tensions, and move Washington and Tehran toward talks. 

YS: That is only true if Iran is in a good shape. Iran’s overextended its commitments in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon, coupled with its current economic problems, exacerbated by Trumps' sanctions, mean the Mullahs are far more worried than they show. Granted, that’s similar to Venezuela, in that the despots can stay in power despite of a wretched economy, but by this point the Mullahs have already had 40 years to deliver wealth and freedom to its citizens, and they have failed. They are running out of time.

BN: Iran's economy is being wrecked by the sanctions, but the external commitments, in my view, aren't as problematic. The war in Syria is just about over. Hezbollah is the major player in Lebanon. And in Yemen, analysts have long said that the US and Israel have far overstated Iran's role in propping up the Houthis. Iran has cultivated proxies throughout the ME. The Soufan Group recently released a great report on precisely this topic. And one of the punchlines is that, since 2003, Iran has been able to cultivate proxies, in a very low cost way, who share a similar vision with Iran and are willing to work with Iran. All of these proxies (in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Bahrain, the Palestinian territories) can create chaos in the ME and harm US interests--and do so in a way that creates at least some plausible deniability for Tehran.

Moreover, we also need to consider this: the coalition that originally got Iran to the negotiating table now leans in support of Iran. The Europeans, Russians, and Chinese doubt US intelligence, think US is making a phony case for war, and desperately want to do business with Iran. In fact, they're all looking for ways to do business in Iran in ways that get around US sanctions. Getting this coalition back together is almost impossible, especially when they consider the US to blame for sparking the current crisis by withdrawing from the nuclear deal, reapplying sanctions, and labeling the IRGC a terrorist group. All of this means that Iran has more room to maneuver, a bit more flexibility, when confronting the US.

In a recent New York Times article, David Sanger touches on my point. He writes, "In fact, while Iran is weaker economically than it was a year ago, it has developed skills it did not possess during the last major nuclear crisis. It can strike ships with more precision and shoot planes out of the air. It now has a major cyber corps, which over the last seven years has paralyzed American banks, infiltrated a dam in the New York suburbs and attacked a Las Vegas casino. These abilities have altered the risk calculations, making the problem Mr. Trump faces with Iran even more vexing than those that confronted President George W. Bush or Mr. Obama.”

YS: Perhaps Iran's external commitments doesn't hurt it at all. At the same time, though, the sanctions still bite—hard. I am still unsure if other states are willing to defy Trump and break the America’s sanctions. I mean, had the Europeans been willing to defy Trump, they would have done that when Trump decided to reimpose the sanctions—especially with his popularity at rock bottom. Instead of assuring their businesses that they could just ignore Trump’s new sanctions, the Europeans are hemming and hawing, leading Iran to escalate—perhaps in desperation.

BN: At this point, what would you recommend to Trump? What should he do, now that he's in this predicament--a predicament, mind you, that he played a big part in provoking?

YS: What predicament? Just wait. The time is on America’s side. If Iran shoots down a plane, killing people, then it will give Trump the carte blanche to bring hell and fury to Iran. If Iran does nothing, then it will be starved to death and the regime will collapse. If Iran restarts its nuclear program, then the EU will have no choice but to reimpose sanctions.

Seriously, nobody in Washington or Brussels cares about Iran. The US is preoccupied with immigration and border issues, while the Europeans are terrified about the populists and Brexit.

BN: Well, the predicament is that the drums of war are beating. Like you, I think the chance for war is low. I think Trump and the Ayatollah have enough sense to pull back before things get out of hand. Still, Trump has hawkish advisers cheerleading for a military intervention. There's always the chance for misperception and miscalculation as hostilities escalate. And the US media is covering Iran like they did the run-up to the Iraq war--lots of enthusiasm for a big story, but little critical insight and analysis of what's happening.

But I digress. If I was Trump, here's what I'd do. First, I'd fire Bolton. His views and policy positions are completely antithetical to Trump's America First program and downright dangerous to US foreign policy and global security. Second, Trump needs to formulate a clear and coherent Iran policy and ensure that it's communicated consistently. In fact, given the level of importance Trump places on the Iran threat, this should've been done way back in 2017. It's apparent that many states in the Middle East, including Iran, don't have a clear sense of what the White House wants from Iran. Third, Trump's team needs to re-engage with China, Europe, and Russia, three actors that could be enormously helpful in putting pressure on Tehran, if necessary, and/or drawing Iran back to the negotiating table, which is preferable.

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

An Update on North Korea

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The diplomatic stalemate with North Korea continues. From June 2018 through April 2019, the absence of diplomatic progress between Washington and Pyongyang wasn’t too worrisome. Sure, the heady optimism of the Singapore summit was fading, particularly after the “failed” Hanoi summit, but there were still glimmers of hope. Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump had a good relationship. North Korea ceased nuclear and missile tests. Perhaps both sides were simply taking a breather, a respite, before getting down to the business of substantive talks. 

Unfortunately, that hasn’t turned out. Since Hanoi, North Korean-US diplomacy has gone off track. At this point, there is zero discussion between the American and North Korean “working teams.” This means, then, talks are at a standstill since Hanoi.

If you recall, the Hanoi summit broke down without any diplomatic agreement or even a joint statement. The North Koreans were willing to shutter bits and pieces of its program in exchange for some sanctions relief. The US rejected the North Korean proposal, arguing that it wouldn’t offer any sanctions relief until the Kim regime scrapped entirely its nuclear program. There was some hope, particularly among the South Koreans, that Trump was merely posturing, trying to get more bargaining leverage, and that he would eventually change his mind and pursue a more modest bargain. That hasn’t happened yet.

Indeed, the way the Hanoi summit unfolded, with Trump declining North Korea’s offer and abruptly ending talks, has turned out to be a big deal. It shocked Kim and his aides. And, as it turns out, angered him as well. So angry was Kim that recent reports indicated he executed five senior officials, squarely placing the blame on them for the lack of a diplomatic breakthrough with the US. However, whether Kim actually had these five officials killed is the subject of an ongoing debate. Already, one of the five (Kim Yong-chol) has been spotted on North Korean media. It is plausible that Kim wanted news of his ruthlessness leaked in order to communicate—both to his cadre of officials and to the US—his displeasure with the pace and direction of the talks with the Americans.

Another powerful sign that Kim is currently unhappy with the US is that North Korea has resumed missile launches in May (May 4th and 9th). Fortunately, the two tests weren’t ICBMs, which gave the Trump administration enough wiggle room to downplay their significance. Indeed, both Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump argued that the short-range tests by North Korea were fine—despite their violating UN Security Council resolutions—it’s the long-range rockets that they’d find provocative.

The good part of minimizing the severity of the tests is that Team Trump didn’t feel forced to counter Kim with retaliatory, escalatory moves. The ominous part, though, is that it’s clear Kim is frustrated with the US. The crux of the matter, I suspect, is that Kim expected to receive more tangible benefits as a result of two meetings with Trump. And at this point, the relationship with Washington hasn’t fundamentally changed. The status quo has held. The relationship hasn’t been normalized; sanctions are still intact; and the US still monitors smuggling and other efforts to circumvent sanctions—including the recent seizure of a North Korean vessel. At bottom, the US still has its foot on the metaphorical throat of the Kim regime.

To his credit, Trump hasn’t inflamed the situation. Among other things, he’s refrained from criticizing or threatening North Korea. In fact, he’s gone out of his way to praise Kim—something that’s triggered significant blowback from American media and analysts. Trump has also maintained the shift toward smaller military exercises with South Korea. In an effort to alleviate pressure on Kim, Trump has even stated that he’s in no rush to get a deal done with North Korea

Where do we go from here? Unfortunately, Trump has unintentionally isolated himself. By moving so quickly to an in-person meeting with Kim last June, and then again this past February in Hanoi, it’s pretty evident that Kim wants little to do with Trump’s negotiating teams. North Korea state media constantly demonizes Pompeo and Bolton, signaling that Kim sees them as personae non grata. Kim seeks only to deal directly with Trump. So the onus is on Trump to reassert forward progress. That’s not an optimal way to conduct foreign policy. US foreign policy—an issue that requires deep experience and expertise—shouldn’t be a one-man show. Plus, Trump is likely to be a distracted president over the next 16 or so months, given US domestic politics. He’ll have little time or patience to devote to intractable issue like North Korea.

Of course, all of this begs a big question: What if Kim believes he’s not receiving what he thinks is the appropriate level of attention from a preoccupied Trump? This is where things could quickly go haywire. Kim could do any of a number of provocative acts, including resuming nuclear and ICBM tests, so as to place him on Trump’s, and the world’s, radar. If that happens, we could be back in the “fire and fury” days of 2017.

To avoid a repeat of those times, I have two recommendations. First, Trump ought to try to convince Kim and his lead negotiators to take the American delegation, led by US representative to North Korea Stephen Biegun, much more seriously. Beigun isn’t Bolton or Pompeo, doesn’t seem like a hawk, and so there’s little reason to fear him. Plus, this would allow the US and North Korea, working diligently behind the scenes and away from public attention, to flesh out areas of common interests and the kind and scope of concessions each side is prepared to make—things that Trump and Kim are unlikely to finalize in a one or two day summit. If an insecure and desperate Kim wants face time with Trump, then Trump should give him a summit or two, as long as the working teams are meeting and making some progress on salient bilateral issues.

Second, Trump needs to scrap his “go big or go home” approach to North Korea. The American quest to achieve its maximal desired outcome (which is still CVID or a variation of it) just isn’t working. After all, North Korea just isn’t willing, and it probably will never be willing, to shutter completely and irreversibly its nuclear program. But given the reports on the Hanoi summit, Kim does seem willing to bargain over parts of it. Instead of looking at this as a sign of Kim’s intransigence, as Bolton and Pompeo do, the US should see this as a possible window of opportunity. Trump’s team should be prepared to negotiate with Kim on a proposal built around freezing/verifying/dismantling parts of Kim’s nuclear program (facilities, nuclear material, technology, weapons, etc.). Start small, build mutual confidence in each other, and then move to more ambitious cooperation.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Turmoil in Venezuela

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Opposition leaders Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo Lopez address a crowd in Caracas on April 30, 2019. EPA: Miguel Gutierrez.

The much-hyped coup in Venezuela hasn’t come to pass. Nicolás Maduro has been more tenacious and his grip on power more durable than many observers have expected.

Rival leader Juan Guaidó, head of the National Assembly, has raised global hopes for a transition in power, but so far hasn’t been able to capitalize on the external support he has from widespread support in the Americas, including from the Trump administration. Simply declaring himself president, because the previous presidential elections were rigged, wasn’t enough to budge Maduro from power. Guaidó has attempted to woo Venezuelan citizens, elites, and members of the military to his side, but wooing all of these different actors has been difficult. While Maduro is despised, citizens are wary of Guaidó—his motives, interests, and capabilities as a leader. And they surely haven’t embraced Guaidó enough to get out into the streets en masse.

There have been some elite and military defections, but not enough to swing the internal balance of power to Guaidó’s advantage. It’s clear that Guaidó believed he had significant military support last week, when he called for uprising against Maduro. But lacking military support and numbers on the streets, his attempted putsch went nowhere. Instead, Maduro quickly and easily put down the few thousands of Venezuelans who responded to Guaidó’s call.

It’s apparent that Maduro is walking a tightrope. He clearly wants to preserve his grip on power. At the same time, though, he knows there are limits on the extent to which he can ask military and security forces to repress the political opposition. After all, he hasn’t gone after Guaidó, which he could have done already. And the street battles haven’t been particularly bloody, despite international worries the country could slide into a full-fledged civil war. The reason for these realities is that Maduro knows he can’t make dramatic, hyper-aggressive moves, such as asking his forces to shoot their fellow countrymen/women, because they could result in a wave of negative cascading effects. Indeed, one is the prospect that the military could fully break with Maduro, leaving him vulnerable to being toppled, arrested, or even losing his life. 

Beyond the Guaidó-Maduro battle for power, there’s another power dynamic in play here: the US and Russian battle for influence in the Western Hemisphere. The US sees Venezuela as part of its backyard and thus a part of its sphere of influence. In line with the long-accepted Monroe doctrine, the US wants all foreign powers out of the Western Hemisphere—demands with which Russia and China are not complying. Russia, meantime, has a host of political, military, and economic interests at stake in backing Maduro. Moscow worries about what might happen to its array of investments in Venezuela if Maduro is washed aside and a different figure, let alone a reformer, rises to the top. Plus, Russia sees the ongoing crisis in Venezuela as a vehicle to get the US bogged down in its own neighborhood, thereby preventing Washington from meddling in affairs abroad, particularly in Russia’s backyard.

How this plays out remains to be seen. The optimal solution is to guide Maduro peacefully out of office—either immediately or via a phased transition—making way for free and fair democratic elections. It’s what best for Venezuelans, who desperately want and need new and improved leadership. The country is less free, wealthy, and stable on his watch. The puzzle, of course, is how to get to that point.

Up to this point, the US has hoped that recognizing Guaidó, squeezing Maduro’s oil funds, and refusing to rule out a military intervention will do the trick. Combined, all of these things have certainly upped the ante for Maduro, but they haven’t eased him out of power yet. And Guaidó hasn’t helped matters with his ill-timed attempted coup. What’s needed is a clever approach that changes the incentives that Maduro and his senior level cadres currently have about supporting the political status quo.

According to the Washington Post, Venezuela’s political opposition is trying to do precisely that by presenting Maduro loyalists a combination of sticks (rejoining the Rio Treaty) and carrots (the prospect of joining a transitional government). Concurrently, the opposition is engaged in diplomatic talks with a host of international actors, including the global powers and various international institutions. All of this is a good start, though more is needed. Below I briefly suggest a few more things the opposition ought to consider.  

First, the opposition must recognize that allowing Maduro and his cabal to exit the corridors of power with some level of face or prestige intact is one potential concession it may have to make. Yes, that will be a tough pill to swallow for some of the opposition, but it might be necessary. Put simply, if Maduro believes he doesn’t have a safe exit option, then, by default, he’ll cling to power for self-preservation purposes.  

Second, I’d advise the opposition to tend toward inclusivity. This is controversial, however. Some opposition members are firmly against allowing any of Maduro’s cadre, especially the very people responsible for Venezuela’s plight, a continued role in politics. That’s understandable. But drawing in the middle and lower strata of Maduro’s circle might be possible, and shouldn’t be ruled out. Look, there’s already bad blood between Chavez and Maduro backers and supporters and the opposition; the key now is to try to find ways to dampen those tensions over both the short- and long-term. Creating an environment that’s palatable to, perhaps, the outer rungs of the old guard is a good thing: it can pave the way for all sides to build trust, create a stake in the changing political system, and move on from the past and look toward the future.

To be clear, in the two arguments above, I’m not suggesting that the opposition should give, without hesitation, Maduro and his acolytes a blanket clean slate. Of course, a new Venezuelan government should be guided by the rule of law. But this government will have to make hard decisions. And in the long-run, it might be best for the nation if some of the old guard are mostly left alone and permitted to retire in peace or allowed to defect to another country, rather than seeking retribution through the courts. The latter route, while maybe legally sensible, risks opening up and deepening existing political fissures in a nation that’s already fragile, unstable, and trending toward violence. 

Third, Guaidó will have to convince the major external players, like Cuba and Russia and the US, that their interests won’t be significantly jeopardized with a new government/regime. Yes, the US will be on board with what seems to be a reform-minded government, though, even here, Guaidó will have to sync his positions and policies with those of the Trump administration. After all, the White House is the biggest and most vigorous international backer he has right now. Cuba and Russia are a different story. Both countries receive considerable political and economic benefits from Venezuela as it currently operates. They will need, at a minimum, a clear statement of how they fit into a Guaidó administration’s plans and reassurance that they won’t be significantly adversely impacted if Maduro leaves/is toppled. Otherwise, Guaidó should expect stiff resistance from Cuba and Russia, and both will undermine his rule until he plays nice with them.  

The above suggestions aren't the only things Guaidó should do right now. I've simply identified some of the most important immediate tasks in order for him and the opposition to ease Maduro out of power. Keep in mind we're witnessing the first stages in a very long game. For even if Guaidó is successful, the problems and complexities don't end there. An entirely new set of governing challenges will emerge. And those are bound to test even the most astute political leaders. Let's hope that Guaidó, or whomever next takes the reins of power, is ready for the moment.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Mueller Report

Photo: Robert Mueller/Getty Images

Yesterday, at long last, after almost two years of investigations, the Mueller Report was finally released. Although the Mueller investigation and his report are now done, the fallout of the Russian election meddling and President Trump's suspect behavior continues. Why? Put simply, while Trump denies it, the report, while not finding evidence of criminal collusion, or conspiracy, does make a strong case for obstruction of justice. In other words, did Trump, or his surrogates, try to engage in a cover-up? Did he (or they, at his request) hinder the ongoing investigation? The verdict? The report explicitly states that it does not exonerate trump for such misdeeds. Based on the report, The Washington Post has highlighted 10 (10!) instances of possible obstruction of justice. Despite all of that, Robert Mueller and his team have left it to Congress to sort out whether Trump obstructed justice and whether to punish Trump if such acts took place.

Trump argues that if no collusion took place, then there’s nothing to obstruct. His political opponents disagree, and they do have a case to be made. Sure, Mueller didn’t find strong enough evidence of obstruction to take a position, but that’s a separate matter from how Trump acted in response to the investigations. He still could have tried to scuttle the investigations—either by getting rid of Mueller and his team or making life difficult for them. And there’s evidence, if you’ve read the report, that Trump attempted to do both. Frankly, probably the only reason Trump didn’t overtly obstruct justice is because some of his staff, like Don McGahn and Rob Porter, declined to do things they knew were extraordinarily shady if not outright illegal. 

Of course, all of this begs a question: Why would Trump attempt to obstruct justice? That’s long been a puzzle, based on a list of things we’ve already known (firings of James Comey and Jeff Sessions, badmouthing Mueller and his team of “angry democrats,” constantly deflecting attention to “Hillary’s emails,” etc.) Logically, it seems that either Trump mistakenly believed he acted illegally, or actually did act illegally and Mueller simply couldn’t pin down his “crimes and misdemeanors.” Whichever the case, Trump believed his presidency was in big trouble. After all, after getting word of the appointment of Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, Trump reportedly said, “Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my Presidency. I'm fucked.” This wasn't a guy who thought he was innocent, no matter how much he declared otherwise on Twitter, at his rallies, and elsewhere.

Because the metaphorical ball has been tossed to Congress, the proceedings are no longer a legal matter and are now a political one. Which means that, because of the deeply polarized electorate and legislature, deciphering the meaning of the report is a partisan affair. Democrats are lining up to pillory trump; the Republicans are largely standing behind Trump, seemingly content with Trump’s labeling of the multi-year investigation as a “witch hunt.”

Democrats now have a decision to make. Do they want to go forward and make the case for impeachment—or not? This question is complicated by the upcoming presidential election in November 2020. A few Democratic candidates, like Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke, have admitted that they’ve only received a few questions about the investigations on the campaign trail, a sign the democratic base is less interested in this sordid affair than in basic democratic concerns (health care, income inequality, climate change, etc.). Moreover, there is no evidence that the Senate would vote to convict trump on impeachment, so impeachment proceedings, in the end, would be mostly symbolic. It would be a gut move to mollify the democratic base.

Additionally, most Americans, at least to this point, don’t support impeaching Trump. Yes, the political left does, but most Americans don't. So going the impeachment route carries big risks. Specifically, an electorate that's tired of investigations could punish the Democrats for overreaching in their efforts to remove Trump from office. And that could result in the Democrats losing the upcoming presidential race and also the House, which they just won in 2018.

My educated guess is that the Democrats won’t move en masse on impeachment. We will probably see a few push for it, and already Elizabeth Warren has called for the House to begin impeachment proceedings. But it's a very risky move. Mostly, they will use the Mueller report as talking points to hammer Trump and the Republicans and to galvanize their base. In the meantime, though, political polarization will continue to widen and harden in the US. Trump won't take his "win" and let the rest go. He will press the case that he was unfairly targeted by crazed Democrats who seek to destroy Trump and all of MAGA's supposed achievements. And that, in turn, only gins up further Trump's rabid base of supporters. And with the 2020 elections around the corner, this makes for a combustible, toxic political brew. Overall, I fully expect turbulent political times in the US will remain a fixture and possibly worsen as we head toward November 2020. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Terror in New Zealand

Jacinda Ardern, wearing a headscarf, walks to mourners

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. AAP: SNPA/Martin Hunter

On Friday, March 15, an Australian, Brenton Tarrant, attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, shooting and killing 51 and wounding roughly 50 more. Appallingly, the attacker live streamed his assault on Facebook, allowing his friends/followers to viscerally follow along. Given what we now know, it's safe to label this tragedy a terror attack. The attack, committed by a lone gunman without state support, were aimed against innocent civilians and carried out for self-described political reasons--all of which is in line with the standard definition of terrorism.

To be clear, Tarrant's political motivations are of the white power variety. (Note: In line with scholars like Kathleen Belew, I use the term white power rather than white nationalism throughout this post.) In his 70 plus page manifesto (which he posted to the web and emailed to various people, including the Prime Minister of New Zealand), the attacker ranted about taking revenge against Muslims, seeking to reverse "white genocide," and preserving European culture. He also suggested a US angle. "One of his goals is to spark 'conflict over the 2nd amendment and the attempted removal of firearms rights' which 'will ultimately result in a civil war that will eventually balkanize the US along political, cultural and, most importantly, racial lines.'"

What to make of this horrific terrorist attack? Well, frankly, lots of things come to mind. Below I'll address three of the most salient takeaway points.

1. The New Zealand attack highlights some of the similarities between jihadist and white power radicalization. Just consider the following. For both types of terrorism in the 21st century, radicalization often involves an online component. Aspiring and nascent extremists search out dark corners of the web (social media, web pages, message boards, and so on), where they find evil, hateful, violent ideologies. As Henry Farrell points out, "a new extreme-right online culture has come into being, shaped by message boards such as 4chan and 8chan." Indeed, just before the Christchurch attack, Tarrant announced his intentions to commit mayhem on 8chan and linked to his manifesto. 

New radicals also typically seek out associations with like-minded extremists. In some cases, this occurs after they’ve already dipped their toes in the hate-filled pockets of the web, in other cases, chance meetings w/extremists are the key to triggering online explorations into racist, xenophobic forums, videos, and the like. Whether online or in-person, Tarrant claimed to have been in contact with Anders Breivik,  the notorious Norwegian terrorist who killed 77, mostly children, in 2011, and some of his sympathizers (the so-called Knights Templar).

These ideologies, once adopted, give people a mission, a socio-political purpose, bonds them to like-minded others, and helps them understand life and their place in it. Usually, conspiracy theories are  central to extremist ideologies, specifying how one’s in-group is being persecuted and discriminated against by various global enemies. The New Zealand terrorist embraced the racist, kooky narrative of white genocide, which argues that low fertility rates by whites in European nations in combination with an "invasion" of peoples of color to these same lands is leading to a shrinking population of white people and a diminution of power of the white race. And even worse, according to Tarrant and the like, in the case of inter-racial/ethnic procreation, the blood of the white race is diluted and tainted.

Over time, the extremist narratives take shape via a written literature (published works, informal manifestos, religious tracts, etc.). There is a large white power literature that includes books, magazines, journals, and online works and manifestos. Probably the most prominent is The Turner Dairies, an infamous but obscure book from the 1970s, but more mainstream books like Pat Buchanan's The Death of the West also have received significant attention from racist white groups. Tarrant openly admitted his admiration for and was influenced by Breivik’s massive 1500 page manifesto left in the wake of his 2011 attack. Experts have even argued that Tarrant’s own manifesto, which he titled "The Great Replacement," was shaped by Breivik’s, as they used similar language and covered similar themes, such as anger at "Islamic migration." 

2. Those who research, think, and write about Sunni Islamic terrorism often frame it as a global, transnational movement and struggle for power. And justifiably so. Just think about, al Qaeda and ISIS, the kingpins of the Sunni jihadist world. Both have global ambitions, disseminate messages and videos to followers worldwide, and have affiliates and cells around the world. Similar stories can be told about Hezbollah, a Shia militant group. White power movements have similarly gone global. White power extremists and terrorists aren't just a bunch of dudes with guns hiding out in the woods or other remote areas, as has long been the caricature of American white supremacists. According to Daniel Byman, "many forms of right-wing terrorism are international terrorism, drawing on international networks, ideas, and personalities from around the world." We know neo-Nazi groups have international branches and chapters. Prominent white supremacist web sites like the Daily Stormer have a global audience. And much like in the jihadist world, white power supporters and groups communicate online, share videos, etc. 

In the case of the New Zealand attacker, he too was caught up and influenced by the global, transnational element of white power. As mentioned above, he drew inspiration Breivik, but also from other white racist murderers, such as Dylan Roof, Darren Osborne, Luca Traini, among others. But it was Breivik in particular who loomed large for Tarrant. I enourage readers of this blog to check out Colin Clarke's recent piece on the cult that surrounds Breivik within the white power environment. Tarrant traveled extensively around Europe, visiting old battlegrounds of the Crusades. Not surprisingly, "Tarrant’s manifesto makes it clear that he sees modern-day immigration to Europe as sort of a modern-day Crusade: A battle of cultures between the Muslim world and European heritage. What he’s upset by most is that Muslims have moved into European countries like France; he’s obsessed with what he sees as declining birthrates in Europe."

3. Prior to the New Zealand terror attack, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern had a largely superficial political profile, at least internationally. Despite her political achievements, becoming the prime minister of New Zealand in 2017, media focused on her looks, her youth, her fashion, and other trivialities. She even became a pop culture celebrity, gracing the cover of magazines and being the subject of major magazine profiles, like Vogue and Time, and appearing on late night American television programs. What we've learned over the past few days is that Ardern should be taken very seriously. During this crisis, she demonstrated her political chops. She’s been impressive. Ardern has demonstrated decisiveness, empathy, grace, and leadership. 

For example, Ardern quickly, without hesitation, called the attacks terrorism, an issue on which many leaders, including the current one in the White House, often equivocate for fear of alientating particular political groups. She defended Muslims, saying "they are us," and disputed the any notion that there's a connection between Muslim immigration and violence. On Saturday, she visited members of the Muslim community in Christchurch, lending them support and compassion, sharing in their grief. Significantly, Ardern offered a powerful symbolic gesture by wearing a hijab, which was lauded worldwide as a "sign of respect" for Muslims.

Additionally, Ardern announced a full inquiry into the attacks. She also declared her intention to move swiftly on gun legislation, and encouraged Kiwis to turn in unwanted weapons. And on Thursday, the 21st, Ardern declared a trio of moves: a ban on semi-automatic weapons and assualt rifles, fines for those who don't comply with the new law, and a buyback program for the heavy artilery weapons already in circulation. Advocates for a soft touch on gun control, in New Zealand and globally, are unlikely to favor the new gun legislation, though even many of them will probably give Ardern kudos for trying her best in difficult in circumstances to keep New Zealanders safe.

Whether all of her moves are enough to heal New Zealand and lower the chances of another mass murder/attack remains to be seen. What is certain is that she's offered a great model for leaders worldwide on how to react and respond personally and politically to a major crisis. And even beyond that, as suggested by Sushil Aaron, "Ms. Ardern is emerging as the definitive progressive antithesis to the crowded field of right-wing strongmen like President Trump, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Narendra Modi of India, whose careers thrive on illiberal, anti-Muslim rhetoric."

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Hanoi Summit

                                                                                                   Photo: Getty Images

Below is a recent conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman on last week's Hanoi Summit between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Did Trump fail, reports widely indicate? Why were Kim and Trump unable to agree to a nuclear deal? What are some takeaway lessons from the meeting? Brad and Yohanes answer those and more questions/puzzles below. 

BN: Here in the US, there's been almost universal criticism of Trump's failure to secure a deal--any kind of a deal--in Hanoi with Kim. The ultimate self-proclaimed dealmaker was unable to finalize a nuclear deal with Kim. To use Ben Rhodes's term, "The Blob" has spoken. The easy response is to say that The Blob extremely dislikes Trump, so their unfavorable reviews of the Hanoi summit aren't really a surprise. I suppose, though, let's dig a little deeper. The pre-summit worry—almost across the board, on the right and left, among academics and policy analysts—was that Trump would give Kim a boatload of concessions in exchange for very little in return from Kim. In fact, that was the rumor the day before the summit ended. But Trump didn't make these concessions. In fact, Trump didn't make any immediate concessions--at least, none beyond the actual meeting with Kim (which does confer legitimacy to Kim, DPRK). Yes, days after the fact, Trump did move to scrap large-scale South Korea-US exercises, replacing them with smaller-scale and virtual ones. But even here, it’s questionable whether this was an outright concession by Trump or something that was motivating by his cost-cutting, government waste obsession.

It's clear, then, that this was a summit that Trump couldn't win, no matter what he did. Hence, the story isn't just The Blob's dislike for Trump, it's that members of The Blob (including prominent academics, serious, distinguished people) have put forward unreasonable and contradictory positions to buttress their claims that Trump failed. That's my first take on Trump-Kim II.

YS: I agree with you totally. The only thing that I will blame Trump is his over-euphoria over the summits: Trump thought that he would be successful due to his charm offensives. He already asked Abe to nominate him for the Nobel. This mirrors what Bill Clinton did in the last year of his presidency when he wanted a Nobel. Clinton pushed both Arafat and Barak in negotiations. Arafat realized that, so he refused to budge, forcing Barak to give all the concessions, until in the end, when Barak simply gave up.

And of course, the DPRK is well known for shifting the goalpost. Just ask Clinton, Bush, and Obama. And Trump's desperation for the Nobel was playing into their hands. But at the same time, was it a disaster?  No, I don't see much fallout from the “failure” of both Singapore and Hanoi summits. China will still help the DPRK regardless of whether the summits have been successful or not, simply because Beijing doesn’t want to see the north collapse and refugees streaming across the border. Russia will keep helping DPRK for the sake of putting the US on the edge. In short, nothing’s new.

As I noted a couple years ago, there is no way the DPRK will give up its nukes because it is a crucial part of the regime’s legitimacy, what makes KJU thinks he can sleep well at night, and giving them is a sign of weakness. Since a lot of people think Trump is a serial liar, I will take what Pompeo, who is still trusted, said, that the DPRK asked for full sanctions to be lifted. And this is similar with all previous negotiating tactics by the north: demand complete sanctions relief, get all the benefits, and then proceed not to do what they promised—because there is no way the Kim regime will give up its nukes.

BN: I blame Trump for short-circuiting the diplomatic process. He stepped in at the beginning, once Kim made the offer to meet via South Korea, and believed that fully engaged diplomacy involving teams from both the US and DPRK wasn't needed. He believed his own hype about his dealmaking skills; he could solve the nuclear crisis singlehandedly. Which meant that he sidelined the experts and negotiators from the start. And that's become an acute problem post-Singapore, as you correctly noted, because of Trump's enthusiastic embrace of Kim. The North Koreans believe Trump's so inexperienced and so politically invested—so eager to win a Nobel, as you point out—in the negotiations with Kim that they believe they can woo Trump, sucker Trump. They don't want anything to do with American negotiators like Pompeo and Biegun; they've postponed meetings, stalled talks, etc. And that's led to scant diplomatic progress the since Singapore. As a result, Trump walked into the Hanoi summit with little agreed upon, a very unusual circumstance for a bilateral meeting between world leaders. It's for that reason I didn't expect much at all to come out the Hanoi talks.

That said, it's hardly a disaster. Trump, to my surprise, used careful language to describe the talks and Kim. Similarly, DPRK state media offered a cheerful take on the summit. Even China's state media put forward an optimistic view on Hanoi. All are good signs. As Trump pointed out, neither side stormed out of Hanoi, and both seemed to have departed on good terms. The downside, of course, is that there are no further talks planned as of now, and who knows will when they’ll resume.

YS: At the same time, we have to ask whether this will mean more intransigence from Trump–he does not take humiliation lightly as we all know—or less belligerence from Kim, since he finally knows that even Trump has his limits. If the failure of Hanoi means that both sides will have a more realistic estimate for each other, I'd chalk this up as just a minor bump in the road—and as you noted, everyone involved in the talks is careful not to torpedo them. On the other hand, if the next meeting is a disaster, if there are no further meetings anytime soon, I think North Korea will again turn in a bellicose direction. At the same time, if it’s apparent that Trump is going to lose the 2020 election, or if the investigations place his presidency in jeopardy, then if I were North Korea, I'd try to get the best deal from Trump while I can. There won't be any US president who is more sympathetic to North Korea.

BN: Exactly. You've led me to another point I wanted to make here: while Trump has incentives to seal a deal with North Korea over the status of its nuclear program, Kim also has incentives to seal a deal with the US. Put simply, as you just mentioned, it's unlikely that Trump's successors will be anywhere near as friendly and cozy with Kim, and as eager to earn a political "win" on the DPRK issue. In fact, it's likely that Trump's successors—especially his immediate successor—will take a much tougher stance on North Korea's nukes, human rights abuses, the Kim regime, and so on. Kim has to realize this. Hence, he's got less than two years to finalize a nuclear deal that allows him to significantly loosen the economic noose around his nation. If he doesn't beat the clock, he'll take a big gamble that Trump wins another term or that the diplomatic momentum will carry over to a post-Trump administration. That’s a very risky bet.

I suspect Trump's successor will be inclined to uphold any deal he makes with Kim, as long as Kim abides by the terms of it, but not so eager to reach an agreement if one isn't clinched by the time they enter office. For example, a Democratic president in 2021 will face strong pressure to show his/her toughness, distance the US from global tyrants, prioritize human rights, and, more generally, junk most of Trump's of foreign policy platform.

BN: Lastly, what do you make of Trump's comments on the Otto Warmbier incident? In my view, taken in isolation, it's somewhat understandable. Trump's in the middle of negotiations with Kim, and he doesn't want to do/say anything that might sabotage current/future talks. That led him to pull his punches on Kim. That said, however, a full-throated defense of Kim—that Kim didn't know about Warmbier's condition, how he become ill/injured, etc.—is off-putting, completely tone deaf, and highly unlikely. And of course, it's difficult to see Trump's comments regarding the Warmbier tragedy in isolation. Indeed, when we combine these comments with his lavish embrace of Kim over the last year, his defense of MBS, his praise for Xi Jinping, and his obsequiousness for Putin, it sure looks like Trump has an affinity for many of the world's brutal strongmen.

YS: I agree. Trump wanted to show Kim that he was willing to bend backward for the sake of negotiations. But I agree: that was a terrible Q&A performance. Doesn't look good at all.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Reflecting on 2018, Looking Ahead to 2019

Below is a recent conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman. As you’ll see, they reflect on the major global political themes from 2018 and look ahead at some of the international storylines that will likely dominate the news/opinion in 2019.

Brad Nelson: So now that 2018's over and done, let's reflect on it a bit. What were the main world politics takeaways of 2018? Any overriding themes? Or emerging trends? I suspect you have a long list to pick from.

Yohanes Sulaiman: People are yelling left and right that Trump is going to destroy the world, but so far, life goes on. We could argue either the international system is far more resilient than scholars/analysts/pundits have believed, or they wildly overestimate Trump's ability to destroy the world.

But seriously, I don't think Trump's influence is really that huge. The media especially make him way bigger and dangerous than he really is and far inflate his influence. Besides, with or without Trump, there are lots ways that things can go wrong. Take the example of Brexit, which happens without Trump's rise. Or the Khashoggi scandal. I don't buy the argument that Trump emboldens dictators or causes global insanity. But critics need a bogeyman, and Trump provides a convenient one.

Putting Trump aside, though, there are several ongoing trends going that I think will have major implications for years to come. First, China is declining. No, China is not going to be like the Soviet Union in the 1980s. But the fact that Xi Jinping had to crack down massively on Muslims in Xinjiang and that China's economy is cooling down are indications that all is not well in China. China's problems started way before Trump's trade war, though the trade war exacerbated it.

Second, Iran may be losing in the Middle East's Great Game. Sure, Trump is withdrawing from Syria, or so he claims. But I think this will also lead to Russia pulling out from Syria. Why? Because Russia is there to prevent the US and EU from challenging it in its sphere of influence. Now that America's threat is withering, Russia will have the excuse it needs to dump an expensive war it can hardly afford. Iran would be left holding the bag and that would strain Iran's already crumbling economy hurt by low prices and sanctions. True, Turkey might try to expand its influence in Syria, but its economy is its Achilles' heel, thereby restricting the scope of Ankara's ambitions. And while a fraying economy does not necessarily lead to the collapse of the regime (see Venezuela and Cuba), a prolonged foreign adventure in the midst of such economic struggles could cause major internal instability and turmoil.

BN: Those are good choices. But in my view, the big story is the continued divisions in the West--between various Western countries and within various Western nations. Trump's a big part of this phenomenon. Trump--his policies, governing style, his personality, and, yes, his tweets--has sparked almost daily chaos and controversy in the US. And he's been the major source of the political unraveling we're now seeing between the US and France, Germany, Britain, Canada, and EU/NATO. The various world gatherings and summits in 2018 (NATO summit, UN annual meeting, G7, G20, Armistice Day), even more so than those in 2017, fully exposed all of the rifts between Western countries, with Trump at the middle of most of the disputes and rancor.

But Trump's not solely to blame. Right-wing populist movements have gathered momentum--due to a mixture of sweeping populism, nationalism, and country-specific factors--in Sweden, Austria, Poland, Germany, France, and Italy. And this, as we know, has created turmoil across Europe (entrenched political divides, protests, street violence, a spike in right-wing extremism). Right now, the West is in a funk, a malaise, which is problematic by itself, but it's caused terrible rippling effects throughout the international system. The West is distracted and preoccupied by internal troubles, creating openings for rivals and enemies and allowing global problems to fester. Climate change, the Syrian conflict and humanitarian fallout, the possible re-grouping of ISIS, Russia's resurgence, China's troublesome behavior, the weakening of international existing norms and rules--all of these things are continuing apace, and the West, collectively, is doing relatively little about it. The world's in trouble if we're counting on an outgoing Merkel, or Trudeau, or Macron to save it.

Now, turning to 2019, the Trump administration is probably the number one topic on my radar. According to reports, the Mueller report should be wrapped up sometime this year. Will it contain any bombshells? Or will it be a nothing-burger? Of course, except for a select few, nobody at this point knows what's in the report. But the impact of it could be dramatic. It could place the Trump presidency in jeopardy. And keep in mind, already, the Democrats are out for blood and pushing impeachment through the House. As a result, even if Trump's not ousted this year, it's pretty clear he'll face significant political heat in 2019. And that heat will inevitably bleed into his presidency.
Indeed, it's very possible the much-criticized 2017 and 2018 years of Trump's presidency will actually be the calm years of his time in the White House. Trump will likely be even more erratic, churn out ever crazier tweets, and lash out even more at real and imagined political foes, both inside the US and beyond. Will that cause more turnover in the White House? Possibly, right? And then there are the policy implications of a insecure, threatened Trump presidency. Does Trump do something rash? Does he manufacture a crisis to save himself?

YS: The divisions in the West are not a new phenomenon, but the group managed to keep it together for years due to good economic growth. Once the economy faltered in 2008 and the immigration crisis started as a result of the Syrian War, coupled with uninspiring leadership from the moderates, citizens in the West looked for political and economic alternatives. Under these conditions, populism has thrived. We have seen this before, back in the 1920s and 30s, when the moderates failed to lead and both the left and the right populist movements seized the initiative, with grave implications. At the moment, because of Trump, the populist right seems to be dominant, but there is also a leftist populist movement. The populist bent sweeping through the Democratic Party in the US is a perfect example. The moderates can provide a viable political-economic alternative or keep cajoling the extremists, it's their choice. But right now, the populists have the momentum.

On the Mueller report: no, I don't think it will be a bombshell. If there was a real smoking gun that implicated Trump, Mueller's team would have wrapped everything up years ago. All the leaks and indictments so far are just like a calculated drip to keep people interested. I won't be surprised if it ends up like the Starr Report, an indictment on a wholly different topic. And Democrats would be crazy to replicate the Republicans' impeachment attempt on Clinton: it will galvanize Trump's supporters and basically hand the election to Trump in 2020.

But I agree that this year could be a crazy year. Already, as you suggested, House Democrats are doing anything they can to destroy Trump, the Democrats are fielding contenders to run against Trump in the 2020 presidential election, and the federal government is closed with no sign of the stalemating breaking soon. So like it or not, 2019 will be another year about Trump, and that will crowd out everything else again.

BN: Are you optimistic or pessimistic about 2019?

YS: Pessimistic, since the moderates are running like chickens with their heads chopped off: they present no vision, no alternative to the global slump. Politicians and leaders are pandering to the worst, lowest instincts, not only in the US, but also in Europe and even in Asia. Merkel is basically a lame duck, and she hasn't been effective since the beginning of the refugee crisis. Macron is becoming irrelevant. Putin is a vulture. China is engaging in a knee-jerk foreign policy. Trump is Trump. 

In essence, things will go down, though I will be happy to be proven wrong.

BN: Overall, on a macro level, I'm pessimistic. The next 25 years will likely be very rocky for many parts of the world. Ian Bremmer's Eurasia Group recently released its "Top Global Risks" report for 2019, and it presents a dour outlook for the foreseeable future. And I agree. The trend lines on a host of important issues (US-China relations, cybersecurity, US politics, Europe, the global order, climate change, etc.) are all pointing downward. These are big and complicated issues, globally defining issues, that will be extremely difficult solve, and if they're not solved, major catastrophes could result. 

But I'm slightly optimistic about 2019, actually. For example, the war in Syria is wrapping up. Brexit issues should get resolved one way or another in the next few months. In the US, the Democrats have the House, which can help restrain Trump. The Mueller report will be released soon, and at that point we'll know whether Trump will serve out his term in office. Moreover, it looks like Europe is no longer hoping to woo Trump and is finally getting its act together by proceeding without the US until the next American president takes office. The world's most notorious despots are safe and not going anywhere in 2019. Yes, the global economy might dip a bit in 2019, but it doesn't look like anything terribly disruptive will occur. New leaders in Mexico and Brazil might offer some stability to their battered, corrupt nations. China is still biding its time regionally, waiting for Taiwan, the US, and the rest of America's allies in Asia, to weaken and stop resisting Beijing's influence, so I don't expect anything rash from Xi.

Russia is a wild card, admittedly. Its maneuvers in the Kerch Strait in November were concerning, and some Russia observers fear that Putin is planning on further expanding Russian control over Ukraine. Perhaps, though Russia's trouble making over the last decade has been of the plausibly deniable, low-cost variety, so I don't anticipate a full-scale invasion or anything of the sort. However, watch out for Ukraine's presidential and parliamentary elections later this year. Both offer Russia ample opportunities to disturb, harass, and threaten Ukraine's political systems and its sovereignty--perhaps via cybermeddling in the elections or provoking a security crisis beforehand. 

So, overall, there's a decent chance that 2019 could be slightly more stable than last year. But I'm going to add a caveat here. Of course, I'm purely looking at how 2019 might process the problems leftover from 2018. What happens when or if a significant crisis or danger pops up this year? In that case, all bets are off. Put simply, I'm not confident at all in the current batch of global leaders, particularly those in the world's great power nations. I don't see anyone capable of rising to the occasion to lead competently the international community during a crisis.