Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Curfewed Nights: An Assessment of the Crisis in Kashmir and Its Implications for Domestic and International Security

Author interview in Srinagar, 2011.
Photo: Cornelia-Adriana Baciu

Curfewed Night: A Frontline Memoir of Life, Love and War in Kashmir, the memoir on the conflict in Kashmir by the Indian journalist Basharat Peer which won the Crossword Prize for Non-Fiction and was chosen among the Books of the Year by The Economist and The New Yorker, is the first thing to come into my mind when I think about Kashmir.

“It is human to feel fatigued. But worse than fatigue was the brutal state repression which ended previous uprisings,” were the words of one respondent from Kashmir in relation to the 2016-2017 uprising in Kashmir, in which more than 100 protesters were killed and 150,000 injured by Indian military and para-military forces, during my field research on both sides of Kashmir, in India and Pakistan in 2010 and 2011. I visited the Kashmir Valley for the first time just after the end of the riots, in November 2010, during my exchange semester at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, and I experienced the curfews for the first time.

Kashmir has a long history of unrest, and each time “central government forces have entered and ransacked homes and beaten up residents irrespective of age and gender. This kind of brutal suppression is done with a sole objective to quell the uprising,” reported one respondent, who wanted to remain anonymous.

Previous unrests have not achieved “Azaadi” (in Kashmiri, peace), but they highlighted the Kashmir conflict globally and dismantled the Indian projection that Kashmiris are happy with the Indian rule.

Art 370. as Peace Dividend in Kashmir

One key finding of my research in Kashmir, when I conducted interviews with leaders of the Kashmiri movement on both sides (India and Pakistan) – including people like Syed Ali Gillani (who was under house arrest at the time of the interview) and Yasin Malik, the leader of the JKLF (Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front) – was related to Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has subtly scrapped on 05 August 2019, only ten days before Indian National Day and 73 years since the independence from British colonial rulers and established of a free Indian state. The move was done amid the imposition of a state of total curfew and lockdown in Kashmir. Demilitarisation of the Kashmir Valley and implementation of Art. 370, which has been gradually eroded over time, emerged as one of the most feasible solutions to stabilise trust relations between Delhi and Srinagar.

“The demilitarisation of Kashmir or reduction of the number of security forces could bring a sense of freedom among the local population and could lay a stable basis for the consolidation of trust relations between Srinagar and Delhi,” stated one respondent. Ultimately, non-lethal crowd-control measures would better fit to a democracy like India. “India cannot claim to be the largest democracy and at the same time enact brutal oppression against Kashmiri citizens. Its human rights record in Kashmir is going to mar its reputation globally and can also become a stumbling block in the pursuit of covetous membership in Nuclear Suppliers Group and UN Security Council,” related another respondent.

The re-establishment of the conditions of semi-autonomous status of Kashmir, which was guaranteed under Art. 370 of the Indian Constitution, was believed by the majority of the respondents in the analysed sample to contribute to reduce anti-India resentments. This measure would have had the potential to increase the role of local population in the decision-making process, reassembling the meaning of self-determination and the essential aspiration of Azaadi.

The righteous and judicious implementation of Art. 370 could have constituted a feasible peace model in the region, even more sustainable than the implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 47 of 1948, which, while can be claimed to be still valid (UN decisions are valid until they are invalidated by the organ which took it), probably from a legal perspective is in a state of desuetude. Moreover, the UN resolution had little relevance in the self-determination endeavour of the Kashmiri people, as it only offered two options, either accession to India or to Pakistan (UNSC Resolution 47, S/726, para. 7); there was no option of ‘Azaadi’.

Internal autonomy guaranteed under Art. 370 was a pre-condition for the (formerly princely state Jammu and Kashmir) accession to India at the time of Partition in 1947. Art. 370, corroborated with constitutional provisions 35a, guaranteed the Kashmiris internal autonomy, with their own parliament, government and even flag, and rights of property acquisition in the region to Kashmiris only. Although initially a temporary provision, Art. 370 was rendered permanent by India’s Supreme Court in 1957.

The chances of a revocation of the BJP government decision and re-institution of Art. 370 seem very thin, as an appeal at the Supreme Court can be made only by the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly but this is currently dissolved, and it is not clear whether the Governor can pursue such procedures.

Implications for Domestic and International Security

The BJP decision to politically align Jammu and Kashmir with the other Indian states was accompanied by a series of measures by the federal government, such as a total lockdown in the Kashmir, house arrest of previous chief ministers Omar Abdullah (National Congress) and Mehbooba Mufti (Peoples Democratic Party), and the activation of Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure prohibiting gatherings of more than four people. These oppressive measures are likely to increase the sense of frustration and thus the possibility of violent unrest in Kashmir, which is boiling.

One possibility to overcome the current impasse would be international mediation, and a commission consisting of representatives of the European Union, United States, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and China, could assist in reconciling the issue. However, such a scenario seems rather unlikely, considering that India has explicitly asked international actors and allies not to intervene in what is considered a matter of internal affairs.

International mediation on the Kashmir issue can be a challenge for the global community, considering the Shimla Agreement of 1972, signed and ratified by India and Pakistan in 1972. According to Art. 4.II of the agreement, “[n]either side shall seek to alter it unilaterally, irrespective of mutual differences and legal interpretations.” But this provision shall not whatsoever become the shield for oppression and human rights violations. The Shimla Agreement also pledges in Art. I. that “the principles and purposes of the Charter of the United Nations shall govern the relations between the two countries [India and Pakistan].” The international community shall keep a close eye on the development in the region and not remain silent in case of violation of such fundamental principles like the UN Charter, as this will weaken its credibility.

While a potential international mediation might ameliorate the immense tensions, it would probably be illusory to believe that it could solve the decades-long dispute between India and Pakistan. Muslims in South Asia began to fear for their identity since the end of the Mughal Empire, and until a model which guarantees Muslim rights, as Art. 370 did, is found, political uprising and violent confrontation remain an extreme risk. In case of a new unrest in Kashmir, a new crisis between the two nuclear states, as it was the case during the Kargil War in 1999, cannot be completely ruled out, as Pakistan has already pledged its support for the Kashmir cause – with Prime Minister Imran Khan holding an historical speech in Azad Kashmir on 14 August, which coincided with Pakistan Independence Day.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

What to Make of the Attacks in El Paso and Dayton?


Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

Last Friday, August 3rd, two horrific shooting attacks occurred in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Combined, 32 people were killed, and dozens more were hurt and wounded.

The El Paso attack, ostensibly, was motivated by anti-Hispanic sentiment. The manifesto posted by the gunman before the shooting indicated his worry about Hispanics “invading" the US, “replacing” white people over time, especially in Texas, leading to a single-party dictatorship in the US. These are standard racist tropes used by white power groups to demonize and justify violence against non-white populations, whether Hispanics/Latinos, Jews, Muslims, African-Americans, etc. The motive for the Dayton shooting is less clear. That shooter has expressed left-wing sympathies, though with no note or manifesto or any other corroboration, it’s unfair to directly tie his politics to the murders he committed.

These attacks have roiled the US, and, as you might expect given the current political climate in America, the political fallout has been particularly dramatic.

Republicans—the party of gun rights—and their supporters have been on the defensive. They’ve blamed mental health issues, violent video games, and the lack of God in people’s lives as prime factors in the attacks—traditional conservative arguments that the right trots out to explain away gun violence. They’ve also attempted to score points by linking the Dayton shooter to left-wing causes and ideologies. Trump himself stated, “The Dayton situation, he was a fan of Antifa, he was a fan of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, nothing to do with Trump, but nobody ever mentions that.”

As expected, Democrats of all stripes have renewed with vigor their calls for stricter gun control. They’ve also come out strongly against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for blocking various gun bills in Congress. In fact, Ohio Congressman (and long shot for the Democratic nomination for president) Tim Ryan announced plans to lead a caravan to Kentucky, McConnell’s home state, to raise awareness of existing gun bills on the table and to put pressure on McConnell to take action. Additionally, Democrats have intensely criticized president Trump for his incendiary rhetoric (both on the campaign trail and while in office). Presidential contenders Beto O’Rourke and Elizabeth Warren, for example, have taken the gloves off, labeling Trump a white supremacist who deserves some of the blame for the violence.

Quite a bit of left-wing commentary has argued that Trump is directly connected to the recent spate of right-wing violence and attacks. Which begs a good question: Is this true? Is Trump to blame for these attacks? I’m sure for many Americans, including some conservatives, it sure feels like Trump has something to do with the spike in right-wing violence. After all, trump has routinely lampooned and launched verbal attacks against Latinos, Muslims, African-Americans, women, Democrats, the media, among many others. But does all this mean that Trump’s to blame or responsible for last weekend’s violence? What do we make of Trump’s role? Let’s take a clear-eyed look at this issue.

Well, to begin, white power attacks and violence long pre-date Trump. The US has a sordid and violent history of race relations—with minorities receiving the brunt of the very negative economic, political, security consequences. The slavery era, reconstruction, internment camps, the rise of the Klan, the backlash against civil rights legislation, the prominence of extremist militia groups, deportations—all of these things span from before the founding of the US republic and run right through to today. The virus of white power and supremacy—and the attendant demonization of and violence against the so-called non-white “other” in society—hasn’t been removed from the US body politic and it in fact still thrives in dark corners of American life. And while Americans—both citizens and politicians—became preoccupied with Islamic terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, the white power movement, forgotten and overlooked, continued to gather steam. Indeed, the leading cause of violent mass extremist attacks on American soil since 9/11 have been committed by white power individuals and groups. So this is something that’s been on the rise well before Trump arrived on the political scene.

And even when we look at the specifics of recent individual violent hate crimes and attacks, especially those committed during the Trump era, it’s difficult to clearly and definitively attribute causal force to Trump—even though many want to do so. For starters, it’s hard enough to discern motives and intentions, especially without any kind of manifesto or public statement. And even in cases in which such a document is present, that’s no guarantee we can identify a clear motive. Mass murderers, like people more generally, often lie and dissemble and exaggerate for their own purposes. Plus, the white power movement presents its own difficulties. Even though the El Paso killer seemed to use language about minorities that’s consistent with what Trump has used in the past, it’s also language that’s often and easily found in white power circles—circles that aren’t only American, but are increasingly transnational. The “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which the El Paso shooter discussed at length in his manifesto, actually originates from a French writer, Renuad Camus, and has been picked by other infamous white power types, like the Christchurch, New Zealand shooter.

To be clear, all of the above is not meant to absolve Trump of any and all responsibility. Instead, it’s meant to say that Trump is not a singular direct cause of the white power violence in the US. In my view, it’s better to view the Trump-white power connection as a complex set of forces.

In Trump, white racists have found an once-in-a-lifetime president who publicly espouses views and policies, particularly on race relations, trade, and immigration, that fit with their political preferences. At the same time, pockets of white Americans have become disaffected and angry and fearful, because of globalization, automation, US wars, 9/11, and the drug crisis, among other factors. In Trump, the disaffected and angry, desperate for any politician to relieve their burdens and crises, have found someone who proclaimed to championed their cause and felt their pain. And a booming economy, conservative Supreme Court justices, along with biased and fake news disseminated by Russian trolls, mainstream news sources, social media, and POTUS himself, have kept them loyal to Trump. This is the context in which not only white racists but also the disaffected and angry have opted for Trump and continue to support him.

Trump, in turn, seeing these white voters as his core base of support—one that’s indispensable to his reelection—has gone out of his way to appease them and keep them activated by telling them what they want to hear, regardless of whether his statements bear any resemblance to truth or decency, and implementing policies, such as the Muslim ban, the wall, and family separations, they favor. Overall, Trump’s goal has been to create continual domestic chaos, which keeps his core base ginned up and willing to go to bat for him—online, at public rallies, and at the polls. One salient way he’s done this is by making race/ethnicity a key animating feature of us politics and policymaking. This is the gamble he’s made. Of course, he might be wrong, in that the chaos and coarseness could turn off just enough independents and fringe members of the core to turn the election to the Democrats in 2020.

In the meantime, though, all of this has led to a very combustible political environment. In short, Trump has fostered a political climate in white power extremism and violence can flourish. And white racists and their sympathizers are more prominent than they’ve been in decades. Certainly, since 2015, they’ve been mainstreamed. And with someone they see as one of their own in the White House, and with the overwhelming majority of the GOP (which is in control of the Senate) indefatigable in its defense and support of Trump and his views and policies, they’re now politically ascendant. They have representation in both the executive and legislative branches of the US government. Moreover, it’s evident they feel free to say what they want and to organize publicly. The fierce confrontation in Charlottesville in 2017 is one of many sad contemporary examples. 

Or look at Trump’s political rallies. They’ve been marred by fist fights against anti-MAGA folks, chants of “lock her up” and “send her back,” and even a reference by a crowd member to shooting “invading” Hispanics—which generated applause and laughter from both the crowd and Trump. To which Trump responded, “That’s only in the Panhandle can you get away with that statement.”

It’s a troubling situation. What if Trump is reelected in 2020? Maybe he moderates a bit on racial/ethnic issues, just because he doesn’t have to worry about another political campaign and can focus on burnishing his legacy as president. Maybe, but maybe not. Perhaps what we’ve seen and heard from Trump isn’t a political act, but a roughly accurate representation of his worldview. And if he’s not re-elected? That doesn’t necessarily portend better news, frankly. The fires Trump has lit won’t burn out once he leaves office, whenever that is. The US will deal with the political, social, and cultural ramifications of Trump’s rule well after he leaves the presidency. Healing the nation will take up considerable time for the next few presidents, much like it took the US years to recover from the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s. Moreover, there’s another issue. There are kids, likely living in MAGA households, who parrot Trump’s heated rhetoric in schools. These kids will probably grow up to be MAGA adults. What then? These are rough times with no easy answers.

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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(SAUL LOEB / AFP / GETTY)


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."