Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Turmoil in Venezuela

Image result for guaido
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. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Trump's Syria Decision

President Donald Trump reacts before speaking at a rally at the Phoenix Convention Center on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2017. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Alex Brandon/AP.

Donald Trump decided to order the withdrawal of all 2000 US Special Forces stationed in Syria. Really, this shouldn't be a surprise.

He's wanted out of Syria for more than a year. Plus, withdrawing from Syria is right in line with his proto-isolationist America First doctrine that's embraced by his hardcore base of supporters. For almost two years Trump uncomfortably pressed on in Syria, despite his policy preferences, deferring instead to the US military, which advocated for a more open-ended, seemingly indefinite military commitment. The rationale was that increased air strikes and presence of US forces were needed to rout ISIS and contain Iran's influence in Syria.

Trump bucked the pressure from the military and decided to do it his way. And in response, establishment and mainstream journalists and analysts and even politicians are up in arms at Trump's decision. They see this as a replay of Barack Obama's 2009 decision to remove US forces from Iraq by the end of 2011, which provided fertile conditions for al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in Iraq to reconstitute themselves and eventually morph into the deadly and destructive ISIS. The conventional wisdom is that Obama's decision was a major strategic blunder by an antsy, naive, foreign policy neophyte.

Trump's decision carries all sorts of risks, critics say. It means Assad has free rein to do as he pleases in Syria. It gives Russia a decisive stake in Syria, making it the ultimate power broker there. Iran now has an opportunity to expand its influence, increasing the chances of Tehran creating its much desired "Shia crescent" in the Middle East. And without the US in Syria, the foot has been taken off the metaphorical throat of both al-Qaeda and ISIS, allowing both groups some breathing space to thrive Syria.

Meantime, as you might expect, Trump has a different take. He claims that it's a good time to get out of Syria, since "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency."

What should we make of these developments?

First, while ISIS has lost about 90% of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq, it's still holding on. It still has a presence in both countries, has thousands of foot soldiers, and the organization is still alive. So why not stay in longer to deliver a knockout blow? Okay, but that begs several questions. What’s a knockout blow? The complete eradication of all ISIS elements in Syria? Fine, but that's going to be more difficult than US hawks believe. As forces on sides close in, the organization on the ground in Syria might fully disappear, but many ISIS foot soldiers and leaders will remain alive and simply disperse, heading underground in Syria or fleeing for safe haven in other nearby failed states. Eventually, it will be like finding a needle in a haystack, and the US will have to cut its losses and leave.  

Additionally, at this point, al-Qaeda is arguably the bigger problem, as it's embedded itself in various communities in Syria, taking up local causes. And getting rid of al-Qaeda in Syria is no easy thing—something the US should fully know by now, after almost two decades of fighting the group in various global venuesUprooting al-Qaeda by force could take decades, if not longer, and so using anti-terrorism as a guidepost is a recipe for the US to remain engaged in an another endless war in the Middle East. Which is a wrongheaded move, on many counts. 

What about the Russia, Iran, and Assad angles? Shouldn’t Trump be concerned about those things and work to confront and contain them? Honestly, those are flawed reasons to keep US forces in Syria. For example, Russia is the main power broker in Syria and has been since 2015, when Vladimir Putin decided to up the ante with the Obama administration by sending in Russian forces. And both Russia and Iran have considerably more vested security, economic, and political interests at stake in Syria (in maintaining their influence there, keeping Syria as a partner, having Assad remain in power, etc.) than does the US. Furthermore, geographic proximity alone—the much shorter distance from Russia and Iran to Syria, compared to the US—automatically means that both nations highly value Syria and are extremely vigilant of what happens there. Syria, after all, is in Iran and Russia’s neighborhood; that’s hardly the case for Washington. As a result, the US is not going to dislodge a highly motivated Russia or Iran from Syria, at least not short of a head-to-head catastrophic confrontation inside Syria. 

Another important question needs to be asked: Even if motives and interests were roughly equal between the US and its rivals in Syria, are 2000 Special Forces enough to make life difficult for the tens of thousands of Syrian, Russian, Iranian, and Hezbollah troops and militants and help the US advance its interests? So far, yes, but probably not over the long-term. Keep in mind that Assad, working in concert with his external backers, continues his march to retake territory that has been seized over the last seven plus years. He’s making progress and it’s fairly inevitable that all of Syria, except perhaps for certain pockets here and there, will once again be under his control. Might not happen soon, but it will likely happen. And at that point, any US troops in Syria would be a cornered, occupying force, illegally in the country and without permission from Assad. What happens then? I can think of a number of nightmare scenarios that could easily come to life.

Well, what about Assad? Shouldn’t the US remain in Syria to act as a check on Assad’s brutality? Obama didn’t think so and neither does Trump. And both are right. This kind of external intervention violates Syria’s sovereignty. It significantly expands America’s mission to Syria, which would then necessitate a new congressional authorization. It also runs counter to US national interests. It’s not the job of America’s military to police the leadership, politics, and governing structures of Syria. The US doesn’t have the foreign political capital, the backing of US citizens, and the requisite resources to act as a permanent warden to a failed and violent Syria.

Sure, withdrawal does carry risks, especially for the Kurds, America's main partner in Syria. But the risks of staying much longer outweigh the benefits of America reducing its footprint there. Frankly, working with America’s counterterrorism partners in the region, in combination with vigorous US air strikes, is probably a better path and one that Trump will likely follow. 

The bigger problem is the chaotic, ramshackle nature of the policy process that produced Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria. As we know now, it wasn’t the product of careful deliberation and consultation with defense and policy experts. There wasn’t a meeting of the minds within the Republican Party. According to the latest reporting, Trump made his decision unilaterally, keeping almost all other relevant US actors in the dark. The Pentagon and State Department weren’t consulted. In fact, Secretary of Defense James Mattis was so bothered by Trump's unilateral decision that he resigned his position, citing conflicting views with Trump. GOP members of congress were caught off guard, and several desperately hope that Trump will reverse course. 

All of this is one more instance—like Trump’s North Korea dealings, his climate change stance, his criticisms of the EU and NATO, and so on—of Trump making a policy announcement and then other parts of the US government, caught flat-footed, then having to either flesh out the details after the fact or walk back Trump’s comments. As should be obvious, this just isn’t a good way to run a government or to make policy. Look, the Syria decision and the political fallout, in combination with the dramatic stock market downturn and the prospect of an imminent government shutdown, has effectively created massive instability and a near panic among US political and economic oberservers.

At bottom, what's happening is a clear example of what James Goldgeier and Elizabeth Saunders call “The Unrestrained Presidency.” In their Foreign Affairs article, Goldgeier and Saunders lament the lack of constraints on the ability of US presidents to exercise dominant power and authority on foreign policy matters. They write:

Going forward, any attempts to stem the growth of presidential power will have to confront not just the damage done by Trump but also the deeper problem that damage has exposed: that the bodies charged with constraining presidential power have been steadily losing both their willingness and their capacity to rein in presidents. Many have written eloquently, particularly since 9/11, about the need for checks on presidential power. But the reality is that Congress is in no shape to reclaim its role in foreign policy—and neither are the other traditional sources of constraint on U.S. presidents. It may take a major shock, such as the rise of China, to reboot the system.

While it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to give an exhaustive analysis of this predicament, it’s sufficient to say that the US presidency, especially under Trump, is demonstrating highly troubling despotic foreign policy tendencies. Do we really want anyone, let alone Trump—someone who knows little about foreign affairs, has shown little interest in understanding substantive foreign policy issues, and cares little about the importance and intricacies of diplomacy—to possess unchecked power on us national security affairs? I sure don’t. 

Friday, December 7, 2018

Remembering George H. W. Bush

Image result for george h w bush

Over the past few days, Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman held a short conversation over email on the recent death of former US President George H. W. Bush. Below is that conversation. 

Brad Nelson: What are your thoughts on the passing of George H.W. Bush?

Yohanes Sulaiman: It is the passing of a great man, a world leader, a mensch, etc.

Three more thoughts.

First, the media talk about how Bush Sr. is different from Trump, and how Bush Jr. wasn’t able to exhibit the kind of caution and restraint in his foreign policy as hid dad did. So I don't want to discuss that. What I want to talk about is about the change in global order. Some argue that without Bush Sr., the collapse of the Berlin Wall might not have been so peaceful. The Russians, Brits, and French were actually aghast at the prospect of German unification, and it was only because of Bush’s diplomacy that those three nations finally allowed Germany to unite. Perhaps there is a lesson somewhere here about the rise of China?

Second, it can be argued that Bush was probably the most prepared foreign policy president, with stints as the head of the CIA, vice presidency, etc. Compared to the leaders who followed, who lacked any foreign policy experience, I could argue that Bush Sr.'s foreign policy was successful because he knew the levers he could pull.

And third, while it could be argued that Reagan won the battles to break the Soviet Union, it was Bush who won the war by presiding over a peaceful transition. Is it a fair assessment, or am I giving too much credit to Bush?

BN: My initial reaction is this: During and for years afterward, George H. W. Bush’s (GHWB) presidency was completely overshadowed by more electric personalities—first by his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, and then by his successor, Bill Clinton. Reagan was seen as the modern GOP Jesus, a conservative exemplar who strengthened the party by bringing evangelicals back into politics and flipping Midwestern and rust belt democrats into Republicans. He kept the US out of costly wars, burnished America's image as a beacon of freedom, and had a hand in winning the cold war. Clinton was young and hip and cool, understood the plight of the common person, and, oh, and he was credited for rejuvenating the US economy in the 1990s.

Bush's legacy was also hamstrung by the fact that he only served one term. Americans—citizens and academics alike—typically don't view one-term presidents as successful. It's basically taken as given that one-termers screwed up somewhere along the way and that's why they weren't reelected to office. 

Over the last few years, especially since the release of Jon Meacham's bio of GHWB in 2015, there's been a critical reassessment of Bush's legacy. And that's allowed Bush's presidency to stand alone, to be evaluated on its own terms. And rightly so. His presidency wasn't perfect, true, especially on domestic matters. But Bush accomplished so much in his 4 years. Mostly seamless German unification. NATO kept intact. Stable Russian-US relations. Norms against conquest upheld. The UN had one of its few shining moments on his watch. And it's not just the individual, discrete accomplishments that matter most, it's that Bush applied a steady hand in a massively changing world, as you point out. He safely, confidently guided the world as it moved from the cold war to a new unipolar era. And given how the US prosecuted the Iraq War in 1991, this unipolar era wasn't one to be feared, as the US wielded its power as a benign hegemon. All credit to Bush.

And so I agree with you on Bush. While Reagan helped bring the USSR to the precipice of the end of the cold war, it was Bush who actually won the cold war. He won it in a literal sense, in that the USSR folded on Christmas Day 1991. But besides that, Bush had the harder part of dealing with the reality of a defeated, nuclear great power. There are lots of ways in which bad things could've happened and then spun out of control. What if Bush had decided to immediately consolidate US gains in his remaining time in office? He resisted those temptations. And frankly, that's something Russians remember to this day and why he's still fondly remembered by them.

BN: And going back to your first point, the GHWB administration does offer lessons for the future of US-China relations, especially for the Chinese. Going forward, China could well be in the position the US was in the late 1980s/early 1990s: riding high atop the international system, flush with power advantages and confidence, faced with the dilemma of what to do about its fallen superpower competitor. Bush showed how a deft touch toward a defeated great power—via diplomacy, face saving tactics, great power cooperation—can yield significant benefits. China should take note. Will Beijing find a way for the US to decline with grace and dignity? Or will it try to harass and humiliate an enervated US in Asia and globally?

YS: The problem with the current Chinese leadership is in their inability to think about what others think. We could argue whether it is due to China's authoritarian leadership. Or China's culture that emphasizes itself as the center of the world. Or the idea of the "Century of humiliation. Whichever is the case, it is a fact that the Chinese leadership is simply unprepared to face a global backlash against their current policies. I doubt that the current Chinese leadership could behave like Bush Sr., who understood what was going on behind the Kremlin walls and tried to make sure that the Soviet Union didn't overreact to the fall of Berlin Wall, thus wrapping up the Cold War. And such experience is unfortunately lacking among current or recent global leadership.

BN: Are you surprised by the sustained, lavish praise, especially here in the States, by talking heads, the media, foreign politicians, and like since GHWB's death?

YS: Not really. Though from what I observe, the media, especially CNN, praises Bush to draw contrasts against Trump.

BN: You're exactly right. The very positive coverage of the passing of GHWB—whether intentional or not--has been a stinging rebuke of Trump. Bush was a devoted father and husband. Bush was a fairly decent guy. He served in war and was a war hero. He was very experienced, in terms of politics and policy. He was a "true" conservative. He ran an organized WH, one that was filled with highly qualified people (Haass, Scowcroft, Baker, among others). And so on. All of these things have been exhaustively discussed and analyzed by the media over the last week, and they all stand in sharp contrast to Donald Trump and his presidency.

But the other interesting part is a clear nostalgia for the late 1980s/early 1990s. The undercurrent of the praiseworthy reporting on Bush, at least as I see it, is that the Bush presidency was a good era, particularly for the US. 

It was a simpler, more stable world. Nations were turning liberal and democratic, enmeshing themselves in the liberal world order, with only a few minor rogue actors posing a threat to the international system. The perils of globalization, jihadist terrorism, the rise of China, a resurgent Russia—these were either minor problems to the US or were light years away from becoming one. The US sat at the apex of the international system, as it won the cold war and stood as the unquestioned lone superpower globally. It quickly and successfully kicked Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, whereby the US demonstrated its enormous raw might and reach of the American military, highlighted its role as a careful protector of long-established liberal norms and rules, and showed sincerity in gaining the requisite buy-in from other nations, including Muslim-majority nations in the ME, in order to prosecute the war. The US had good relations with most of the world. The world wanted to be friends and allies with the US, and the US worked hard at maintaining their friendship. Despite the economic blip that helped to boot Bush out of office by November 1992, it was a period when the US felt good about itself, its role in the world, and saw the promise of better days ahead.

That's a bygone era we now wistfully look at. By contrast, the world today is messy, complicated, filled with ghosts and demons everywhere. The US is turning on itself, as polarization is sky-high. There are large and deep-seated questions percolating these days throughout the US: Who is an American? What is America? Does America still have a global mission? America is engaged in a very self-help dialogue: we're troubled, we need help, but we don't know what to do or where to go, or who is best equipped to lead us out of the wilderness. That's a far cry from where we were in the Bush years.