Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Monday, October 9, 2017

How Trump is Screwing Up the North Korean Crisis

                                      
                                                                     Photo: CNN


US President Donald Trump continues to issue incendiary statements and tweets on North Korea. As you may recall, there is the “fire and fury” statement, the “Rocket Man” mocking tweet, the “destroy North Korea” UN speech, and his “calm before the storm” boast, which has been interpreted as a threat to Pyongyang. In two October 7th tweets (see here and here), Trump wrote, “Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid….hasn't worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, makings fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!”

Combined, these statements and tweets suggest that Trump believes or at least wants Kim Jong Un to believe that military force, if not outright regime change, is on America’s agenda. Trump thinks that past American presidents have been far too lenient on North Korea and that tough talk, coercive actions, and maybe even military force are better courses of action. There is a place for coercion, actually. And I’ve advocated a combination of containment and deterrence as appropriate coercive maneuvers. As examples, strengthening America’s partnerships with South Korea and Japan, relying on the principles of Mutually Assured Destruction, boosting missile defenses in Asia and on the homeland, putting pressure on China to manage better North Korea, attempting to squeeze Pyongyang’s diplomatic space and contacts, pursuing economic sanctions, and tracking and punishing smuggling of all kinds—things Team Trump are, mostly, doing—are good, reasonable approaches.

However, the US can’t embrace an “all sticks, no carrots” approach, which is what Trump is doing. It makes the Kim regime feel as if it has no way out of its crisis with the US, no suitable policy off-ramp to avoid a head-on collision: either Pyongyang prepares for war or it capitulates to American demands. There has to be a blend of containment/deterrence with the hope of talks that offer some concessions—some policies and tools that allow Kim Jong Un to save face, feel less insecure, and trust the US in any potential negotiations.

With all this in mind, then, it’s fairly evident to me that Trump is bungling the North Korea crisis. And not only that, he’s getting quite a few fine-grained aspects of the crisis wrong. Please consider the below arguments and empirical realities.

1. Empirical research by the Center for Strategic and International Studies clearly indicates that engagement with North Korea—diplomatic outreach, promises of concessions, etc.—have consistently gotten Pyongyang to the negotiating table. Yes, once at the negotiating table, North Korea has posed problems: it has sabotaged talks and undermined nuclear deals that have been agreed upon over the last 25 years. That said, drawing Pyongyang to talks is a desirable thing. It lowers the tensions and hostilities, regionally and internationally, allowing all sides to take a breather. It also enables existing US-North Korean diplomatic channels to talk and coordinate without the unnecessary burden of a nuclear war looming in the background. And those two things, in turn, just might offer the proper conditions for a comprehensive nuclear deal to get done, finally. After all, that’s the goal, right? 

2. Directly and obliquely threatening a very insecure and isolated Kim Jong Un only bolsters his inclination to stay away from diplomatic talks and expand his nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. The Kims have long believed that the US has designs on overthrowing their government, despite pleas to the contrary by various American administrations since the end of the Korean War. North Koreans think their predicament with the US is an existential dilemma. Upping the threats only plays into the long-held narrative about US intentions and motives vis-à-vis North Korea.

3. North Korea is especially insecure and vulnerable these days. It’s a cornered and isolated nation. Of course, Kim is shunned and threatened by America and its Asia allies, Japan and South Korea. But China, Pyongyang’s lifeline, is also alarmed and tired of Pyongyang’s antics, which only fuels North Korea’s sense of insecurity, particularly its feeling that it could well be abandoned and left unprotected by Beijing. Astonishingly, President Xi Jinping has yet to meet Kim, and there’s no sign of that happening anytime soon. And when Kim has his uncle killed in 2013, he eliminated China’s main contact to North Korea. Additionally, in recent years, and particularly this year, China has voted with the US on UN resolutions condemning North Korea and applying further sanctions on the Kim regime. Sure, there are reports of Russia filling in the economic gap vacated by China, but such activity merely helps to keep the regime afloat another day but doesn’t lessen much Pyongyang’s insecurity. North Korea knows that Russia isn’t attached to the Kim dynasty and doesn’t have strong historical ties and connections to North Korea, and so it’s unlikely that Pyongyang views Moscow as a potential savior. It’s this sense of isolation and danger that informs how North Korea views the world and how it interacts with it.

4. The North Korea problem is no longer a denuclearization problem, as has been suggested by various elements of Team Trump, but rather a deterrence puzzle. As soon as Team Trump realizes this, the better US foreign policy will be. Put simply, Kim has nukes and he’s not giving them up. Handing them over/dismantling them only exacerbates his political and personal insecurities and vulnerabilities, for it means he’ll no longer have the requisite capabilities to deter an American invasion. Plus, years of North Korean propaganda have made both the nation’s nukes and its nuclear scientists quite popular, offering a source of pride in what citizens believe to be an indigenously created and sustained program of scientific achievement. Furthermore, the nuclear program gives the Kim regime a veneer of legitimacy it sorely needs, as it fulfills the promise the Kims have made that they and only they can protect the nation from imperialists and other invaders seeking conquest of North Korea. Mothballing the nuclear program raises the possibility that North Koreans might begin to question the things that have been drummed into heads for decades, potentially leading to the whole house of cards falling down. Don’t underestimate Kim, he knows this. Hence, North Korean denuclearization is a longshot, best-case scenario, one that’s highly unlikely at the moment and thus should not be the focus of US foreign policy. 

5. Team Trump has no clue how to communicate threats to North Korea. Scholarly research shows that whether threats are deemed credible depends crucially on the interests and capabilities of the actor who issues them. If an actor issuing a threat is viewed as powerful, and if that threat covers issues seen as vital to that actor, it's likely those threats will be perceived as credible or believable. On those counts, US threats to North Korea are indeed credible. Keep in mind, though, there are other factors that can enhance or weaken the credibility of threats: most notably, consistently and clarity. Deterrence/compellence scholars have argued that threats are credible if the same message of those threats is explicitly and overtly communicated on a repeated basis. More specifically, (1) the issue at stake, (2) the policy or behavior that is sought by the actor issuing the threat, and (3) type or form of punishment if compliance isn’t forthcoming absolutely must be clearly and repeatedly communicated to the threated side/actor. If not, there is room for the threatened to misinterpret or misunderstand the threat, which can throw both sides into a conflict that might have been otherwise avoided.

On this matter, on consistently and clarity, the Trump administration is performing extraordinarily poorly. In his public statements and tweets, Trump brandishes bellicose rhetoric. In fact, his statements are tweets have been so outside of the norm of past US administrations that North Korean diplomats have been left puzzled by their meaning. As Evan Osnos reports, they’ve been desperately searching for clues in their efforts to decipher the meaning and intent of Trump’s wild and brazen threats. So that, by itself, is a major problem. But additionally, Trump’s statements and tweets are often at odds with public comments made by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Tillerson has repeatedly offered very cautious remarks meant to lower hostilities and make clear that the US seeks diplomacy rather than war. But Trump has, on several occasions, undercut him, arguing that diplomatic overtures are a waste of time. As a result, the North Koreans don’t know what to think. Is Trump simply playing good cop/bad cop with them? Or is Tillerson irrelevant? Is US foreign policy made by Trump via Twitter? Given this sense of uncertainty, and given Pyonyang's insecurities, it makes loads of sense for North Korea to assume and prepare for the worst: that the US, led by an unpredictable and rash leader, isn’t just looking to bully Kim but seeks war against him and his state.

6. The North Korea problem can’t and won’t be solved, whenever it’s eventually ameliorated, by force. On this issue, the much-lampooned Steve Bannon is correct. The US is unable to take out all of North Korea’s nuclear facilities and its missile systems. What this means, then, is that if the US did attempt degrade North Korea’s military capabilities, Kim will have a residual force that could be used to strike against US interests in Asia, enough to cause significant death and destruction—including the deaths of hundreds of thousands American troops and civilians who are stationed/live in the region. Regime Change is also a no-go because Kim would very likely use his nuclear arsenal in response. North Korea’s nuclear doctrine is probably one of “asymmetric escalation,” a term coined by Vipin Narang. This refers to the prospect of North Korea quickly escalating an ongoing conflict, one in which conventional weapons are used against it, to the nuclear realm. Regime change is precisely the kind of conflict that would trigger asymmetric escalation.

Moreover, using military force against North Korea raises the thorny issue of Chinese behavior. In short, what would China do? Would a fed up and disgusted let Kim fall? In that case, it might stay on the sidelines or perhaps even coordinate with the US—so as to ensure that it has a say in what a future North Korea looks like. But the US should by no means assume this behavior by China. For example, what if China fears that regime change equates to North-South unification, Seoul as the capital, and a unified Peninsula, on its border, inside the Western camp, an outcome akin to Germany in the early 1990s? This is exactly the kind of outcome China fears and wants to avoid. So what does China do? Does it rescue Kim?

7. Making Kim believe that the US is hell-bent on using military force against North Korea could cause him to launch a pre-emptive war against the America and South Korea. In other words, coercive pressure by the US could backfire and produce the outcome that everyone globally is looking to avoid. This is a problem that Trump has single-handedly caused: his “madman” approach to North Korea, allegedly inspired by Richard Nixon’s policy posture and decision-making during the Vietnam War, has led Pyongyang to conclude that the Trump administration is looking for a fight. Unfortunately, though, if Kim thinks that no matter what he does—no matter what kinds of policy changes he enacts on the nuclear issue—the US will deploy force against North Korea, then he has incentives to order a first-strike with the hope of gaining early advantages on the battlefield. And as outlined above, given North Korea’s probable asymmetric escalation nuclear doctrine, a first move with conventional forces greatly enhances the likelihood that nuclear weapons will quickly enter the picture. This is the most likely route in which a rational Kim Jong Un, responding to perceived threats and pressures, uses nuclear weapons against the US territory and US interests.

8. Trump’s preference to decertify Iran only makes the North Korean problem more difficult. Surely, Kim is looking Trump’s effort to abrogate the Iran deal and sees this as evidence of the US as being an untrustworthy partner, one whose word is effectively meaningless. Specifically, I’m sure Kim is struck by two things: (1) a deal negotiated by one US government can be stymied by its successor; and (2) Trump wants out of the deal based on details that are unrelated to the actual specifics of it. The IAEA, Mattis, the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford, the Europeans, various nuclear watchdogs, and so on, all say Iran is upholding its end of the nuclear bargain and that the US ought not take measures to scupper it. Hence, Trump can’t really say that Iran’s violating the deal; instead, his claim is that Iran is repudiating the “spirit” of the deal by conducting missile tests and arming extemist/militant groups like Hamas and Hezbollah—bad things, yes, but outside the purview of the deal as negotiated by Iran and the P5+1. With this in mind, why should Kim go ahead with nuclear talks if the US will break its promises down the road? Pushing to renegotiate the Iran deal—a tactic known among Congressional Republicans as “fix it or nix it”—only deincentivizes North Korea to come back to the negotiating table. 

Monday, August 14, 2017

Nazis in Charlottesville


Photo: Incisive

It’s beyond crazy and wild, terrible and horrific, to see the protests, violence, and torch-bearing Nazis in Charlottesville. I spent two years as a grad student at the University of Virginia, or UVA, and loved my time there and in and around Charlottesville. For those who are unaware, it’s a beautiful part of America: UVA is a national treasure, for architectural and historical and scholastic reasons, and the natural scenery of the bucolic surrounding area, which includes Shenandoah National Park and the Blue Ridge Mountains, is breathtaking. It’s so strange to have such a majestic, tranquil area roiled by unrest and murder. Not so long ago I never would have dreamed that Charlottesville would be the center of a major news event, but it is. In fact, the city is a major front in the battle between 21st century America and white nationalists and Nazis. Yes, Nazis.

Trump's Statements

If you scan mainstream news sources and social media, there’s been a justifiable outcry across the political spectrum, against President Trump’s initial statement, one that reeked of bizarre moral equivalency, that blamed “all sides” for Saturday’s violence. By not naming and shaming the Charlottesville Nazis, Trump, in effect, let them off the hook. And they know it. Chatter from Nazis, most notably from The Daily Stormer, showed their pleasure that Trump failed to condemn them, their rhetoric, or their actions. They firmly believe the president of the US has their back, which is by itself astounding and disturbing. But it also means that this Nazi problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Given the political climate (the polarization, Trump in charge, Breitbarters in the White House, etc.), it’s hard not to see them as emboldened, even ascendant, right now.

On Monday, Trump gave a more forceful statement, albeit a scripted, Teleprompter-read one. Keep in mind, though, that it took two days and a second try for Trump to name and denounce "KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups." For a guy who's ultra-quick to call out "losers," "haters," and "bad hombres" and "fake news," his fumfering spoke volumes. Many wondered if Trump was sincere.

Apparently not. On Tuesday, Trump held a disastrous press conference, one that was supposed to focus on his infrastructure plans, but instead was consumed by last weekend's events in Virginia. There, in an off-the-cuff exchange with reporters, he reverted back to his "all sides" sentiment. He did call out the murderer, the Nazi who crashed his car into a crowd, but he also placed blame on the "alt-left," calling them violent, and said that there were some good people who attended the white nationalist rally, and that they "peacefully" marched on Friday night. Evidence shows otherwise, as the marchers shouted "Jews won't replace us," and "Blood and Soil," among other white supremacist slogans. In the aftermath of the Tuesday's press conference, Richard Spencer and David Duke tweeted their plaudits for Trump's performance, which they viewed as a full-throated defense of their movement.

What's going on here? What explains Trump's behavior? Why defend a violent hate movement, one, mind you, that despises members of his own family?

Four Explanations

1. Trump is a racist or has racist inclinations.

I don't throw around the R word lightly, so it's difficult to write that anyone, let alone the American president, could well be a racist. But this is where we're at. The possibility that Trump's a racist or racist inclinations can't be ruled out anymore; it's not just leftist hyper-babble. And we can't simply pin the blame for Trump's various repugnant statements and policies on Stephen Bannon, his Darth Vader-like Chief Strategist. Not when Trump, of his own unprompted volition, publicly and vigorously defended white nationalists. And please note Trump's history. Well before he was a political figure and had to make political calculations about his words and actions, Trump had a checkered past with various identity groups. He (along with his dad and Trump Management) was sued in the 1970s for housing discrimination, played a part in spreading false statements and riling up New Yorkers in the Central Park Five case, and aroused suspicions of bigotry during his Apprentice days. And of course, what helped Trump rise to political prominence, even before his formal participation in US politics, was his "Birther" antics, a xenophobic and racially-tinged campaign against former President Barack Obama. 

2. He far underestimates the goals and intentions of the American white supremacist movement.

It's certainly plausible that he's been fooled by the 21st century uniform of the white nationalists that no longer embraces the white hood. That's been replaced by khakis and white polo shirt. And Richard Spencer, an infamous white nationalist, typically dresses in fancy suits. Perhaps Trump sees the more open, transparent racists as less threatening. Maybe. Relatedly, and more importantly, behind closed doors Trump has reportedly voiced that argument that these folks are simply trying to protect their "heritage." That's revealing. It shows that Trump likely sees at least a chunk of the white supremacists as just another civic action group seeking to assert their interests and voice their grievances. If so, then, in Trump's worldview the white supremacists are no different than union workers, the NRA, the pharmaceutical lobby, and so on.

3. He sees himself in the Nazis

No, I'm not necessarily referring to whether Trump is a racist. Rather, it would not surprise me if viewed the white nationalists as similar political actors existing in a somewhat similar situation: that they are both insurgents or outsiders, attacked, demonized, and misunderstood by the "mainstream media" and the left, willing to say the politically incorrect "hard truths" that nobody dares to say, and desirous of shaking up the political establishment. I think he has a personal affinity for the white nationalists, and feels a sense of kinship with them.

4. Self-preservation politics

Politics are playing a role here, I have no doubt. They are very likely pushing and pulling him in dark directions. I suspect that he believes the rubes (“I love the poorly educated!”) and racists are the support base he simply cannot lose. And at an approval rating about 35%, Trump knows his margin for success, now and in the future, is tenuous at best. Trump seeks to keep the kooks on his side and inspired, in part because of his desire to reciprocate their loyalty, according to those who know him, but also because they're vital cogs in his machine—pledging support, donating money, buying hats, attending rallies, intimidating the press and political opponents, and causing mischief and proselytizing online, where they're members of his army of Internet trolls.

Should Trump fail to keep these groups firmly in his camp and highly motivated, he runs the risk of not just losing the presidency in 2020, but he very well could lose the GOP nomination in 2020—and that’s says nothing about the fate of the impending Congressional elections in 2018. It’s clear that Trump has made a strategic decision to solidify his far right flank by playing up various cultural wedge issues, gambling that satisfied, galvanized racist numbskulls can help to keep him in office. Embedded in this is another gamble: that he won't alienate his overall base of white voters and that they will accept his hug of Nazis, either approving of it or looking away. Certainly, this strategy is ruinous for the country, but, then again, Trump is not a country-first patriot; he’s a me-first plutocrat whose prime directive is to enrich himself and his family.

Reports on the state of the White House reveal a cornered, threatened, and paranoid Trump. For starters, the Russiagate investigations, the constant turnover and infighting within Team Trump, Trump's reckless and incendiary tweets, and the lack of much substantive policy progress are taking a significant toll. It's creating the impression of a White House that's chaotic, incompetent, and mendacious. For instance, most Americans don't think Trump is trustworthy or approve of the job he's doing as president. Most troubling for Trump, even approval from white working class voters without a college degree, his much-hyped base, is trending downward.

Moreover, the GOP vultures are circling Washington, believing that Trump is politically vulnerable. There are already rumblings that his Veep, Mike Pence, is planning contingency operations to run for the presidency in 2020. Conservative power broker Bill Kristol is floating the idea of putting together a “Committee to Not Reelect the President,” sort of an anti-CREEP coalition, for those who recall the Nixon days. There are also, already, a number of prominent Republicans who seem primed to run for the GOP nomination in 2020, such as Ben Sasse, Jeff Flake, and John Kasich: Sasse and Flake have recently released books—a typical first-step for US politicians seriously considering a run at the White House—and Kasich has made sure to keep his name in the news. The avid cable news watcher that he is, Trump is abundantly aware of all these developments.

And then there are the Democrats. Undoubtedly, the Democrats have their issues: they lack clear leaders, they leaders they do have are largely aged and uninspiring, and they lack a clear message and policy alternative to Trump. Yet they are able to get under Trump's skin. His Twitter rants against various Democrats, like Richard Blumenthal and Chuck Schumer, and the Democratic Party make that point clear. And Congressional Democrats are united in their fierce resistance to all things Trump, which makes his life difficult. Without Democratic support, he can't get any legislation passed, has to make excuses and scapegoat others, including members of his own party, for his lightweight governing record, and is forced to rely on executive orders, which, all combined, make him appear weak and feckless.

Making Sense of It All

What does all this mean? The four explanations, individually and/or collectively, leads us to an uncomfortable but inescapable conclusion: Trump has an incentive to turn a blind eye, if not cozy up, to these groups. And Tuesday's defense of the Nazis is just the latest in a string of overtures to them. Indeed, he’s thrown many winks and nods to them since he began his political career more than two years ago. During the campaign, Trump refused to immediately and sharply disavow support from infamous former KKK leader and white nationalist David Duke, repeatedly posted retweets from known white nationalists, and he and his children tweeted the notorious Pepe the Frog memes. His policy proposals and initiatives include “The Wall,” banning transgender folks from the military, the infamous “Muslim Ban” executive order, and a government direction to focus solely on Islamic terrorism, thereby mostly ignoring the more numerous terror acts of white nationalists, among other things. Trump has elevated bogus and extremist “news outlets” like InfoWars and Breitbart. And to top it off, several of his key staff—like Sebastian Gorka, Stephen Miller, and Stephen Bannon—have a history of espousing bigoted, xenophobic views. In all, this has been a bonanza for Nazi types in the US.

If you add it all up, it seems rather dire. Frankly, it feels as if the US is rotting from the inside. A day ago my nine-year-old daughter, after seeing pictures of the Nazi flag on television, said to me: "Dad, I thought the Nazis were defeated in World War II? And why are they here in the United States?" Clearly, we have a massive problem, one that's (1) complex, in that there are multiple causes and contributors to white nationalism and supremacy, (2) growing, considering that the ranks of "alt-right" are swelling and the movement is already planning more "marches" and rallies," and (3) lacks a quick or easy solution. Most troublesome, a part of the problem stems from the highest office in the US. Trump has publicly and tacitly endorsed white supremacy, elevated this ideology and its adherents to mainstream status, and demonized and marginalized those individuals and groups who want to challenge the narrative and actions of white racists. At bottom, we have a sitting US president who's abdicated his moral authority, and that's only one of a host of major foreign and domestic problems that he's either created or worsened since taking office seven months ago.

On a positive note, many good Americans, on the right and left, are activated and mobilized, in various ways, against far, far right extremism, Nazis and others of their ilk, and their abettors in the White House. Much, much more needs to be done, obviously. But don’t despair. Instead, remain vigilant, speak out, put pressure on your Congresspersons to repudiate and investigate extremism and hate groups. Please, let’s make America kind and decent again.  

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Nuclear Brinksmanship: North Korea and the US

                                                                Photo credit: CNN


Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman offer their thoughts on the latest news on North Korea's nuclear program. 

Yohanes Sulaiman: The North Korean nuclear issue has been sliced and diced beyond recognition -- even by us, in the past couple of years. And the core issue remains: how much is the US and its allies willing to pay for getting an outcome they want.

While there have been discussions that a "limited strike" is on the table, frankly, I don't see any "limited strike" as possible. For the North Korean regime, any "provocation" must get a reply, especially a strike by the United States, for one simple reason: This is a very insecure regime that has to ratchet its provocations all way up to eleven. And any attack that goes without response, would make the North Korean people and, more importantly, its political elite question whether the Dear Leader has gone soft or has joined the rank of mortals, and thus presenting an opportunity for an uprising.

In essence, there is only two major options: wait and do nothing or go for war.

1. Wait

Some specialists argue that the regime is vulnerable due to its weak economy, growing discontent, etc. But as we can see from many examples all over the world, such as in Venezuela, where you have a two-bit very unpopular autocrat ruling a country that is wrecked daily with protests from the opposition, any determined autocrat, as long as he or she can maintain the loyalty of political elite, can survive indefinitely.

And North Korea is a special basket case, where you have a population that is totally subservient (they don't even riot during the great famine period!) and a cowed political elite. Moreover, you have China next door, who, while it loathes the regime, hates the possibility of the US presence in the Yalu River even more. Thus, regardless of North Korean provocations, Beijing will keep the supply lines open. And Kim Jong Un also knows that.

2. War

This will be messy for sure. Can't sugarcoat this. Thousands or even millions may die, with sky-high damage, and, depending on the outcome, that would also destroy the reputation of both China and the United States in the region, because the Korean and Japanese population would blame both China and the US. Kim Jong Un's regime is gambling that this will be the brake that forces both China and the US to stay in option one. Why is he confident? See all the appeasement from the US to North Korea since Bill Clinton era and how China keeps supporting the regime even today even after North Korea essentially gave China the finger.

The third option is the Trump option. Trump is so bombastic and unpredictable that he may actually convince China that war is inevitable and that China really needs to do something about Kim Jong Un. At this point, though, China's ineffective policy to North Korea would come home to roost simply because China does not have any Korean policy per se, except keeping the North Korean regime afloat. I doubt Beijing actually considers the possibility of North Korea going rogue, considering the close relationship between Kim Jong Il and Beijing. And even if China wants to do any regime change in North Korea, the possibility has probably already closed when North Korean agents managed to murder Kim Jong Un's brother in Malaysia, preempting this kind of scenario. So, there is very little possibility that China can impose regime change without bringing the entire country down, and Kim Jong Un knows it. And Beijing also knows it.

Brad Nelson: As I see it, the developments over the last day have revealed three new things. (1) US intelligence has recently estimated North Korea could have as many as 60 nukes, which is about three times the typical estimates that I've heard about North Korea nuclear capabilities. Most estimates have placed the country’s nuclear arsenal at around 15-20 nukes. (2) North Korea has the ability to miniaturize a nuclear weapon and therefore weaponize a ballistic missile. Nuclear weapons experts have believed that North Korea would probably perfect this technology, but that it was several years away from doing so. (3) Arguably, the rhetoric from the sitting US president ("fire and fury"), which has escalated tension (North Korea possibly targeting Guam), is another new wrinkle in this intractable situation. 

First, it's certainly possible that Trump's off-the-cuff remarks yesterday, while intended to signal strength and resolve, could be interpreted By Kim as deeply ominous and threatening—that Trump is seriously thinking about a 1st strike against the regime. And if that's the case, Kim, thinking he has nothing to lose, might lash out militarily against American interests in the region (South Korea, Guam, etc.). And second, if Trump really intend to deliver a nuclear 1st strike threat, that goes against decades of US foreign policy, which has embraced the notion of second-strike deterrent or extended deterrent threats as sufficient to protect and preserve US national security interests. Is Trump moving US nuclear policy in a more aggressive direction?   

So what to do? Well, as you know, there've been many different proposals bandied about by policymakers, scholars, and analysts over the years. Recent pieces by Mark Bowden and Jeffrey A. Bader do a good job of highlighting these options, which include regime change, targeted strikes against North Korea's arsenal, delegating the issue to China, putting significant pressure on China to strangle Pyongyang, resuming the six-party talks, doing nothing/acceptance (that North Korea is indeed a nuclear power), containment/deterrence, and direct high-level bilateral negotiations with North Korea’s leadership.

Of these, I'm in favor of a combination of containment/deterrence and negotiations. The other options either likely won't work and/or entail significant costs in blood and treasure (for the US, South Korea, and North Korea). Roughly speaking, my two-track plan involves very senior-level talks up to and possibly including Kim and Trump on freezing then rolling back North Korea's nuclear program over time in exchange for various economic concessions and security guarantees; at the same time, the US would also up its missile defense in the region and on American homeland, strengthen its ties to states throughout Asia via more military exercises and arms transfers, and actively clamp down on North Korea's economy and military. Based on how North Korea responds to all of this, the US could then decide whether to ease up on containment in favor of talks, or prioritize containment over talks. 

Historically for the US, this has been the most successful path to moderating disputes and tensions. The US used this dual-track approach vis-a-vis the Soviets during the cold war, and the Bush and Obama administrations did likewise against Iran. Eventually, both Iran and the Soviets came out of the cold, after they realized they couldn't compete against the US and its allies and needed to play nice with the rest of the world. The downside is that this two-track approach doesn't lend itself to a quick, overnight resolution and it requires patience by American leaders--something that's on short supply at the moment, it seems. Of course, nobody likes the idea of Kim possessing nuclear-tipped ICBMs that can hit dozens of nations, including, it now seems, the heartland of the US. But patience can work in the end. Kim is rational, North Korea is isolated and poor, and China despises Kim and his antics. Plus, I see an added benefit here: if the US sincerely reaches out to Pyongyang, which is what Beijing wants, I suspect that China, seeing its interests taken into account by Washington, will be willing to do more than it has on the North Korea problem.

YS: Again, I don't think that negotiation will work simply because it cannot give both sides what they want: North Korea, at least under Kim Jong Un, simply wants nukes for self-preservation. Kim and his cronies might negotiate, but at the end of the day, they will present the fait accompli: They have nukes, deal with it. And that is unacceptable for everyone else. For Pyongyang, giving up nukes at this stage would risk a massive backlash domestically, because it would (1) signal that the Kim Jong Un's regime is as vulnerable to outside pressure, and (2) defeat the entire raison d'etre of its existence. Other states, such as Iran, can backtrack on their military nuclear programs because they've never tied their legitimacy to them, but not North Korea, which has placed itself in a corner.

What I think we have to deal with in the future is: how to deal with a nuclear North Korea, the possibility of further proliferation, and a massive rearmament in South Korea and Japan. Maybe I am too pessimistic here, but I just don't see Kim being willing or able to negotiate a freeze or roll back of his country’s nukes.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Russia and the Return of Geopolitics in Korea

In his 2014 Foreign Affairs article "The Return of Geopolitics", Walter Russell Mead asserted that whereas the US has been concerned with ideas of "global governance" since the end of the Cold War, powers such as China, Iran and Russia remain focused on traditional questions of territory and power. 

The term "geopolitics" is frequently used in conjunction with Russia's foreign policy. It is, however, often limited to the context of Russian activities in the post-Soviet space. Indeed, much of Russia's current foreign policy is driven by a desire to re-assert influence in countries and regions that were formerly under Soviet control.

Despite not having been a part of the former Soviet empire, the Korean Peninsula offers a unique chance to glean the dichotomy between the US's supposed concentration of "global governance" and the Russian preoccupation with the issue of territory. Much of the international focus on the DPRK has been based on stemming North Korea's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. The primary framework through which the international community has worked to achieve this is through international bodies such as the United Nations, buttressed by international agreements such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Nevertheless, Russia's geopolitical interests have a long history in Korea. Those interests, it seems, are making a comeback. Russia, however, is forced to contend with a divided Korea that makes the pursuit of its geopolitical designs more difficult.

The establishment of a Korean state that is friendly toward Russia, but which is not particularly aligned with one state, has constituted a basic Russian policy toward Korea since the end of the 19th century. The historic roots of Russia's ambitions on the Korean Peninsula date from approximately 1860, during the reign of Aleksandr II. Russian designs for Korea entered a period of abeyance during the Japanese occupation of Korea. After the end of the Second World War, however, the USSR revived its Korea policy based on three fronts: advancing the Soviet Union's national security, increasing the scope of the communist camp, and keeping Russia in the realm of great power politics.

Following the "hot" phase of the Cold War, which included a rupture in Sino-Soviet relations, the balance between China, the United States and the USSR became more-or-less balanced. Nevertheless, the rapprochement between Japan and South Korea following the 1965 normalization agreement between Seoul and Tokyo led to another major shift in the USSR's geopolitical position in Northeast Asia. While the US's alliance system in Asia was based on a series of bilateral agreements between Washington and other individual states, rather than a collective security system such as NATO, Japan-South Korea normalization led to the formation of a Japan-South Korea-US network. In Asia, Russia was unable to form a network of alliances or collective security similar to the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe. As a result, in order to securitize its Far Eastern regions, in 1980 Russia embarked on a program of tripling its direct investment in the Russian Far East's military position, compared with defense spending in the Far East in 1978. Nevertheless, the USSR was unable to undertake such a program, as at this time the first cracks in the Soviet socio-economic system began to appear [1].

Upon assuming leadership of the USSR in 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev hoped to use North Korea as a sort of lightning rod to expand the Soviet Union's influence in East Asia more broadly. In addition to the narrower imperatives of East Asia, Gorbachev's policy of outreach to North Korea was also in part based on his attempts at shoring up cooperation with the broader global communist bloc, including those countries that had kept their distance from the USSR. During the final days of the Soviet era, however, a reform-minded Gorbachev viewed South Korea, having recently experienced a massive economic transformation in the so-called "Miracle on the Han", as a valuable partner for the USSR. In particular, Gorbachev viewed South Korea as a potential source of investment. Yet in the chaotic aftermath of the USSR's collapse, Russian leaders (especially conservative politicians) became increasingly disappointed with the fact that ROK-Russia ties didn't provide the material benefits as had previously been hoped. Boris Yeltsin, therefore, began to move Russia back to a more equidistant position between North and South Korea.  

Moscow's policy of maintaining balanced relations with both Koreas has continued under the Putin government. Russia's attempts at maintaining balanced relations with North and South Korea, however, could end up backfiring, as happened with the USSR's attempts at maintaining balanced relations with both Ethiopia and Somalia in the 1970's. With this in mind, Russia ultimately hopes for a reunified peninsula. Moscow, however, approaches unification with a mindset of cautious optimism.

According to a report published by the Russian committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP), two of Russia's main interests insofar as Korean crisis management is concerned, is for Korean unification to happen gradually, rather than suddenly, and for Korea not necessary to fall under the geopolitical auspices of Russia, but rather for Korea not to come under the geopolitical fold of one single country.

Ideally, unification would occur peaceably. Russia, however, remains wary of the possibility of a large-scaled armed confrontation. By extension, Russia also fears that the aftermath of armed conflict would produce a unified Korean Peninsula with US troops directly on its borders. This makes Russia's geopolitical situation in East Asia not unlike Russia's circumstances in Europe, where the positioning of large-scale military powers increases the possibility of confrontation. In contrast, perhaps the most critical difference between Russia's geopolitical interests toward the Korean Peninsula and other regions on the Russian periphery is that whereas in other areas Russia attempts to create a network of pro-Moscow states on its borders, but as far as Korea is concerned, the most pressing issue for Russia is not creating a buffer state, but rather creating investment opportunities for its Far Eastern regions.

As Russia continues its so-called "turn to the East," the Korean Peninsula will likely hold an increasingly important position in Russia's geopolitical designs. At present, Russia is limited in its ability to exercise geopolitical influence over Korea. The peninsula remains divided, with the northern and Southern halves generally aligned with China and the US, respectively. Should the overall situation in Korea change in any notable way, however, Russia, based on its long-standing interests, will be desirous to take advantage of any major shifts in North and/or South Korea's political circumstances. By striving for closer ties with both North and South Korea, Russia seeks to be primed to, at the very least, not be left out in the cold in any ensuing geopolitical scramble for influence in a reunified Korea.   

[1] А. Б Волынчук "Россия в Северо-Восточной Азии: вектор геополитических интересов"

Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Problems with Trump’s Tweeting

Photo: Reuters

President Donald Trump sure loves Twitter. Social media, including Twitter, if used properly and well, can be valuable tools for world leaders. If not, these tools can cause a lot of headaches, if not something worse, for them. Trump’s fascination with and addiction to Twitter seems to fall in the latter category.

Sure, Trump does use Twitter to highlight his meetings, new legislation and executive orders, and his pet political causes. Unfortunately, he also uses Twitter for a whole lot more than that. He fairly constantly wields his Twitter account to demonize the left, the media, and other domestic opponents. Trump’s recent and much-publicized spat with Morning Joe’s Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski is only the latest example of his reckless use of Twitter. This fiasco is fairly instructive of the perils of Trump using twitter for ill-conceived ends.

So what happened? It’s sufficient to say that Trump, on Thursday, irked by what he perceived as unfair reporting and analysis by Scarborough and Brzezinski, tweeted unflattering remarks about both Joe and Mika, including a misogynist one on Mika, possibly lied about an interaction between him and Joe and Mika, and criticized Morning Joe’s television ratings. (See here and here.) Trump’s tweets, as many do, received a firestorm of attention, to the point that they were discussed and defended in the daily press briefing by Sarah Huckabee Sanders—which caused another round of scorn heaped on the White House. And as for Scarborough and Brzezinski, they kept the story alive by jointly penning an editorial in The Washington Post and debating and criticizing Trump’s tweets the next day on their show. Never to let the other side get the last punch, Trump has continued to tweet about Scarborough and Brzezinski, thereby giving further life to a decidedly negative story that can only hurt himself politically. For instance, he tweeted Friday and Saturday about Joe and Mika and their show, going so far as to call Brzezinski “dumb as a rock.”

Trump thinks he’s defending himself and picking up political points in the process, by putting the “liberal media” in its place. But this is extraordinarily short-sighted. His incendiary tweets, and the Morning Joe debacle in particular, come at a great cost—to him, his political standing and agenda, US institutions, and American society more generally.

So what’s the fallout of his Twitter feud with Morning Joe? Here are several things that immediately come to mind.

1. It highlights the incompetence of not only Trump, but his staff. After all, what kind of a president engages in name calling with journalists on social media? This behavior is usually observed from tweens these days; we don’t expect this from the leader of the so-called free world. As a result, it also renews speculation—as wild it may be—about his mental state and his fitness for the presidency. Additionally, Huckabee Sanders willingly defended the indefensible. In her press briefing, she defended Trump’s tweets and then placed blame on “the liberal media” for constantly criticizing Trump.

2. Attacking the media and journalists only incentivizes them to press harder on Trump regarding his shady business deals, nepotism in the White House, Russiagate, and so on, which only makes life more difficult—not easier—for him.

3. The Morning Joe tweets caused Republican and Democratic Congresspersons to unite publicly in their frustrations with Trump’s coarse rhetoric—taking this situation out of the land of partisanship. Hence, Trump suffered political blowback from the right and left.

4. Did Trump try to coerce, or even blackmail, journalists? That’s exactly what Joe and Mika stated in their Friday Morning Joe discussion of Trump’s tweets. Reportedly, Trump offered to pull some strings to scrap a sordid story on Scarborough and Brzezinski from being published in the National Enquirer. If true, this raises all sorts of questions—legal, as well as moral and ethical. Moreover, does this mean that Trump has another media outlet (besides Fox News) doing his bidding? And was he behind the infamous 2016 Enquirer story that linked Senator and then-GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz’s father to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy?

5. Why is Trump so preoccupied with domestic critics--in fact much more than with the host of complex national security threats and issues the US faces nowadays? Is it simply because he’s a narcissist? Or does he have massive political skeletons in his closet that he wishes remain hidden?

6. Trump’s comments on Brzezinski are likely another window into his thinking about women. Throughout his public life, Trump has a long history making of harsh, misogynist remarks about women—about their intellect, their looks, etc. He’s brushed them off, saying that they were largely made for entertainment purposes. That, in itself, is rather revealing. And his tweets on Mika also expose a very weird obsession with women and bleeding. This first came to light with his post-debate comments on Megyn Kelly. I’m not sure and don’t feel qualified to say what we should make of Trump’s bizarre bleeding comments. That said, I encourage you to look at two recent articles on this topic from The Atlantic and Daily Beast.

7. Trump’s persistent needling and attacking of the media only entrenches preexisting negatively held beliefs about “the liberal media” and “liberal journalists” within his base. Regardless of Trump, maybe these folks would never watch CNN or MSNBC or read The Washington Post or The New York Times. Perhaps. But Trump is ensuring that they never will. But what’s worse, he’s pushing his followers toward pro-Trump fringe outlets like Infowars and Breitbart, which only further fuels the polarization and extremism endemic in US politics today.

This post, so far, has focused only on the domestic repercussions of Trump’s rash, rude, and often vulgar tweets. The sad reality is that Trump’s tweeting also has foreign policy implications. Leftist talking heads and social media types lament that Trump’s tweets could trigger an international war. You may recall his brash, at times unprovoked, tweets on Taiwan, China, North Korea, etc. and the angry responses from officials from these countries, and so it seems there’s a grain of truth in this worry. But wars over Twitter are highly unlikely. The good news is that even if Trump is as dopey as he sometimes seems—and that’s not a given, mind you—other world leaders, by and large, aren’t, especially those in other great power nations. And they aren’t likely to go to war, expending blood and treasure and domestic political capital, over idle words on social media.

Still, that doesn’t mean that Trump’s tweets—yes, even his domestic-focused ones—don’t have a foreign policy consequences. Indeed, Nada Bakos, a former US intelligence officer, recently wrote a thorough, outstanding piece for The Washington Post on this very topic. Bakos argues that Trump’s Twitter account provides foreign actors with ample information—information that’s free, requires almost zero effort to procure, and can be accessed and analyzed in real time.

In particular, she writes: “Trump’s tweets offer plenty of material for analysis. His frequent strong statements in reaction to news coverage or events make it appear as if he lacks impulse control. In building a profile of Trump, an analyst would offer suggestions on how foreign nations could instigate stress or deescalate situations, depending on what type of influence they may want to have over the president.” Further, Trump’s Twitter reveals that he’s quick to anger, easy to flatter, and sensitive about the ongoing Russia investigations. What does this all mean? Put simply, Bakos claims, Trump is actively signaling to the world how foreign actors can gain leverage over him, and by extension the US. He’s telling the world the various pressure points—whether on policy issues or his thin-skinned personality—they can wield to their advantage.

Moreover, even banal things on Trump’s Twitter page can aid foreign actors. For instance, Bakos writes: “Analysts can glean information about Trump’s sleep patterns from the time of day or night when he tweets, showing which topics keep him up, his stress level and his state of mind. Twitter also often reveals what Trump is watching on TV and when, as well as what websites he turns to for news and analysis. Knowing this can be useful for foreign governments when they are planning media events or deciding where to try to seek coverage of their version of world events.”

This is deeply concerning. Trump is placing the US in a potentially horrible position. Not only could Trump be compromised by Russia as a result of possible shenanigans involving him and his staff, he might well be a disadvantaged and disempowered president globally because of his near-constant tweeting. Trump has created an environment in which he can be manipulated to the detriment of US national security, political, and economic interests. Even more troubling, there's no easy solution to this mess. Yes, his staffers want him to forgo his personal Twitter account and let them post as needed using the official @POTUS Twitter handle. But Trump firmly believes he receives tangible political benefits from avoiding the mainstream media and communicating directly to his millions of followers through social media. And another obstacle here is Trump's prickly, obstinate personality: he's not one to back down easily or admit defeat, even if the stakes are small, like the use of his personal Twitter account. Given these variables, it's difficult to envision him changing his Twitter habits. 

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Is Trump's Foreign Policy Anti-Obama?

Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat, recently tweeted a provocative take on Trump foreign policy. He wrote: "NATO. Paris Accords. Saudi Arabia. Cuba. Trump foreign policy has only one guiding principle: do the opposite of Obama, no matter the cost." Of course, his is a partisan take. That said, it makes for an interesting debate topic, as it does at least have the veneer of truth, right? He's only been in office a few months, yet Trump has already targeted several of Obama's key foreign policies. So, with that in mind, I asked my CWCP colleague Yohanes Sulaiman for his thoughts on Murphy's tweet. His response is below, and mine follows afterward.  

Yohanes Sulaiman: Trump as anti-Obama?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that he is against a lot of stuff that Obama was for, like the Paris Accords. But at the same time, Trump is basically responding to what his main constituents, those in the rust belt who voted for him, think and want politically, economically, and so on. His supporters are against trade deals and the Paris Accords, for example, because they fear both are job killers. Like it or not, that's what many people in the so-called flyover states believe.

To simply call whatever Trump does as anti-Obama risks ignoring the real and valid concerns of Trump's base and that, in turn, could hand Trump another term in 2020 on a silver platter.

Brad Nelson: At first glance, there does seem to be an anti-Obama bent to Trump's foreign policy. After all, there have been a number of shifts or reversals, on a wide range of issues, from the Obama era: climate change, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Europe (NATO/EU), and so on. I suspect there are a number of motives in play; it's not as simple as an anti-Obama reflexive impulse. Here are a few guesses.

First, Trump could genuinely believe that Obama foreign policy was misguided, that he sincerely thinks Obama was dragging the US in a wrong direction globally and regionally on security, diplomatic and economic affairs.

Second, he might seek to limit the successes and preferably damage Obama's legacy because of a personal beef with Obama. It's possible. Some say jealously is a factor: that he can’t get past the fact his predecessor was so beloved by the media and a considerable swath of the American public. Others point to personal animosity. For instance, if Trump really sees the ongoing Russiagate negative headlines and investigations as a conspiracy driven by Obama and his staff (like Susan Rice) and Obama holdovers in the US government, it would make sense that he has a big axe to grind against Obama himself. Rolling back or watering down his purported "successes,” like the Paris Accords, the opening to Cuba, the Iran nuclear deal, among other things, are viable ways to spite Obama.

Third, as you suggest, domestic politics likely play a big role here. Many of Trump’s foreign policies and policy statements—including, yes, his tweets—are supported by his core supporters. He’s simply doing what his base wants. For instance, his base wants the wall built, think they’re being ripped off on trade deals by foreign nations, want a more aggressive approach to Islamic terrorism, demand US allies and friend to do more “burden sharing,” see climate change as either a hoax or something that’s been overly dramatized by liberals, and don’t see Russia, and Putin in particular, as enemies of the US. As a result, then, Trump has a domestic political incentive to move away, more or less, from certain Obama foreign policies.

Fourth, Trump seems to have an affinity for strongmen, for autocrats, and that’s moved US foreign policy away from prizing human rights and reform, which stands in contrast to the Obama years. At one time or another, he’s complimented or praised a wide array of foreign autocrats, including al-Sisi, Putin, Kim Jong Un, Erdogan, King Salman, Duterte, Xi Jinping, just to name but a few. Now, why is this the case? Perhaps it’s because his strategic thinking is in line with realpolitik, which coldly prioritizes national security interests above mushy-headed ideals. Maybe it’s because he sees the world’s autocrats as political brothers, with whom he shares similar political beliefs and instincts. Perhaps it’s because he has business interests in some authoritarian countries, and so he feels the need to cozy up to and flatter leaders there.

What say you, CWCP readers? Is Trump simply anti-Obama, or are there other things going on here? Let us know.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Trump Foreign Policy: Change or Not?



For last few weeks, there has considerable discussion in the US about whether there’s change afoot in President Donald Trump’s nascent foreign policy—specifically, whether he’s bending and shifting his so-called “America First” foreign policy more in line with traditional Republican foreign policy values and interests. Those who believe this is the case point to a slew of recent events and statements emanating from the Trump White House: the US air strikes and bombings in Syria and Afghanistan, Trump's public support for NATO, his administration's criticism of Russia, and a palpable de-escalation of tensions with China. In total, these moves may signal a foreign policy direction for Team Trump. But is it? And what’s really going on here?

Below CWCP President Dr. Brad Nelson and CWCP Vice President Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman offer their takes on these topics.

Yohanes Sulaiman

Trying to describe and explain Trump's foreign policy is basically, in my view, trying to answer whether structure or agency is more important. With regards to structural analysis, one could make a strong argument that Trump's recent moves toward "mainstream" GOP foreign policy is basically a result of structural push-back. For instance, in trying to unilaterally punish China economically, he found out that China supposedly holds the cards that might allow him to solve North Korea problem. Similarly, he is moving against Russia because that's the only way for him to deal with Syria problem. As a result, he ends up moving to conventional/mainstream GOP position.

That said, the agency part here is also important: whichever part of the globe Trump is focused on is based on Trump’s whims. And we can actually also make a strong argument that Trump's cajoling China or throwing missiles at Syria is a part of bargaining, in the sense that Trump remains unpredictable, outside the mainstream GOP policy, but he capitalizes on it, thus making moves that catch his domestic and foreign opponents off guard. Assad most likely didn't expect Trump to attack him due to Trump's perceived closeness with Russia. Similarly with North Korea, by dangling the carrot of economic cooperation and the stick of retaliation, Trump might be able to pressure China to actually do something about North Korea. This negotiating stance, which to borrow Nixon's term, the Madman theory, would be outside the GOP's mainstream position.

Brad Nelson

That's an interesting take. But it assumes that Trump's foreign policy really has changed in concrete, significant ways. I look at it this way: I separate Trump's foreign policy goals from his and his staff's statements and the actions taken/implemented by Team Trump. Regarding the latter, sure, there has been considerable shifts and turns since January. Indeed, we seen changes on this front from Trump himself, on NATO, Russia, intervention in Syria, his willingness to use force more generally, and so on. And there's been public pivots and mixed signals within Team Trump. Most notably, it seems as if almost every comment by Nikki Haley is contradicted Trump and his spokesman Sean Spicer.

But all the statements and actions by the White House are done in the service of some foreign policy goal or goals. That's the point of them; they're put out there or implemented to achieve certain outcomes. And so, in my mind, the bigger issue is whether Trump's foreign policy goals have changed in the last three months. On this matter, I'm not so sure. And this is what some hardcore Trumpites are currently arguing, in response to the prevailing view that Trump is forming foreign policy in a random, ad hoc manner. They believe his goals haven't changed at all, and that Trump is flexible in pursuing these goals. In other words, the words and tools used by the US vis-a-vis various global problems and issues might vary over time, but the overarching foreign policy goals will remain mostly the same. Sure, there is a self-serving, partisan aspect to this argument, but it also has some merit.

I think of the 59 missiles recently launched on Syria as one example. American pundits, commentators and analysts were breathlessly quick to proclaim this act a decisive shift in US foreign policy. After all, he campaigned on keeping the US out of needless foreign wars, especially the one in Syria, even going so far as to signal that he'd be willing to delegate the issue to Russia to solve. But additionally, US intervention in Syria up to that point had been solely directed against AQ and ISIS members and activities. So, in their view, the attack on Assad was something new and different--and also something good. This crowd loudly cheered the attack, seeing it as a just and proper punishment for Assad's use of chemical weapons, and something that was long overdue, since Obama walked back his infamous red line years ago.

Meantime, Trump did suffer a temporary blowback from a part of his base as a result of the attack on Syria. These folks started to worry that he'd betrayed them. Was he becoming a normalized GOPer? Were establishment GOPers getting the upper hand over Trump in their battle with outsiders like Steve Bannon? And where was the restrained foreign policy they voted for? Bombing Syria isn't American First, is it?

But in the end, much of this is massive hyperbole. A one-off, limited attack on Syria does not portend deeper US involvement in the war. And since the attack, US defense officials have declared that there aren't further plans to attack/oust Assad. Moreover, there's reason to wonder whether the attack was done solely with Assad in mind. At the time of the bombing, he was meeting with Xi Jinping at Trump's "Southern White House" in Florida, and so it's possible the timing of the attack purposeful: yes, to punish Assad, but also to send a signal to Xi that he's not a pushover, that he's a strong, decisive leader. Of course, there are other possible audiences as well. The North Korea problem has seemingly loomed larger over the last three months, with the Kim cabal and Trump and his staff publicly sparring. It's very possible that Trump hoped the Syria bombing got Kim's attention, serving notice that Kim ought not to test Trump. And lastly, because of a host of scandals and investigations, Trump has been battling low approval polls since the inauguration. It would not be a surprise if the hyper-sensitive Trump thought that bombing Assad would add a distraction into the news cycle and offer a brief rally around the flag effect for his benefit.

But let's get back to the discussion of Trump's foreign policy goals. It seems evident that Trump's main foreign policy goals center around a handful of projects: (1) improving relations with Russia and China, (2) combating terrorism, (3) reducing the threat of North Korea, and (4) bringing more, better jobs back to the US. Does anything that Team Trump has said or done over the last month or so undermine these goals? Not really, right? I mean, I'm not seeing much change on those fronts. The #MOAB was just dropped on ISIS tunnels in Afghanistan; more anti-terrorism troops have been sent to Syria; Trump's already vetoed the TPP, may open up NAFTA, and extracted some Chinese investments while Xi was in town. And Trump hasn’t backed off the notion that better US-Russia ties are a desirable goal.

Oh sure, some will point to the White House's more stringent comments on Russia's actions in Syria, in addition to Trump's statement that US-Russian relations are at a low point, as evidence that big policy changes are in the works. Perhaps, though I'm skeptical. With the hubbub surrounding Team Trump's possible collusion with Russia to win the election, Trump has an incentive to publicly distance himself from Russia. It's one of the paradoxical outcomes we may find going forward: while Trump campaigned on having good ties to Russia, and he may still want the US to have better ties with Russia, the election shenanigans and the subsequent investigations may well force him to pump the brakes on improving ties to Moscow and giving Russia the concessions it desires (lifting of sanctions, reduced support for NATO, etc.). But before we declare Trump's proposed outreach to Russia completely dead, we need more information. In particular, I'd like to know what what's being said behind the scenes: just because public rhetoric on Russia may be heating up a tad from Team Trump, that doesn't necessarily mean that's what's being communicated to Russia privately, away from the public's eyes and ears.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Trump and Russia


Picture credit: CNN

Reports on the connections between Trump/the people in his orbit and Russia continue to dog the White House. This is hardly a surprise, given that he’s made little attempt to publicly, exhaustively clarify his relationship with Russia; instead, he’s opted to dismiss reports as a “witch hunt.” But is it?

President Trump has traveled extensively to Russia, at a minimum, for his beauty pageants. In the past, he’s bragged about meeting and having a good relationship to Russian President Vladimir Putin, something he now denies. Trump’s sons have stated that the Russian market is vital to the growth of the Trump organization, even going so far as to say that “money is pouring in from Russia.” And, as we know, the 800-pound gorilla in the room is his unprovoked and consistently flattering, obsequious remarks about Russia and Putin; Trump’s been more than willing to defend Russia, even if that means he has to criticize and demonize past US presidents, the US media, America’s intelligence community and military, including its generals, in the process. Moreover, some of Trump's stated foreign policy positions--such as his willingness to hand the Middle East to Russia, his tepid support for NATO, his disinterest in Russia's annexation of Crimea, and his inclination to water down if not weaken US sanctions on Moscow--buck longstanding US strategy and are right in line with Russian interests. Indeed, if there’s one consistency in Trump’s chaotic presidency, it’s his blatant Russophilia.

But the smoke surrounding Trump isn’t simply limited to him; it also hovers over a number of Trump consiglieres. Jared Kushner, Michael Flynn, Carter Page, Paul Manafort, JD Gordon, Jeff Sessions, Roger Stone, and Michael Cohen, among others, have been identified as communicating with a host of Russian figures--including the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kiselyak, close associates of Putin, Russian intelligence officers, and even Russian hackers--prior to Trump taking office this January. Even Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who, so far, hasn’t been pinpointed in any nefarious activities with Russia, has deep, friendly ties to Russia as former CEO of ExxonMobil. Indeed, in 2013, Tillerson was awarded the Order of Freedom—Russia’s highest honor for a foreign citizen--personally by Putin.

The links between folks on each side of the Washington-Moscow axis are said to possibly involve such things as business affairs, banking ties, diplomatic discussions, and, of course, the 2016 presidential election. At bottom, then, the manifold linkages and communications binding both sides together seem quite diverse and extensive.

Certainly, all of this begs a host of questions. Most notably, why do so many of Trump advisers, cabinet members, and surrogates have connections to Russia? Why have they repeatedly lied about or hid their ties to Russia? Why is Trump ostensibly a sycophant for Russia and its president? In short, what the heck is going on here?

Benign Events

Maybe the contacts and meetings with Russian figures were mostly innocent. For instance, it’s plausible that they were part of the normal prep for a future Trump administration. After all, that is what incoming administrations do with foreign nations and their diplomats: develop contacts, hold discussions, and get a feel of all of the involved parties. It’s also plausible that the Trump administration’s coziness with Russia is part of a larger strategic plan to woo Moscow for America’s interests. By developing good relations with Russia, so goes the logic, the US might be able to delegate the Syria problem to Moscow, gain a powerful anti-terrorism partner, and seduce a vital state to balance against a continued rising/aggressive China. If either or both are true, I can see how Team Trump could believe it has a political incentive to downplay, perhaps even mislead or lie, about its interactions and engagements with Russia, given the US domestic climate surrounding the Russian hacks and attempts to hijack the election. But if so, it’s gamble the team has made, and probably not a good one. For they’ve now manufactured a bad situation—a cover-up and resultant investigations and a dubious American public—to paper over eye-raising but mostly legal actions and maneuvers. Trump would have been far, far better off simply releasing his taxes and comprehensively detailing and explaining his and his team's relationship to Russia.

Nefarious Schemes 

But maybe Trump and his staff aren’t so innocent. Perhaps all the smoke surrounding the Trump administration is evidence of a truly 5-five alarm fire brewing inside the White House. The big fear among many Americans is that Trump and his staff are deliberately concealing and prevaricating about their interactions with Russia because they have something to hide—that they or Trump himself have done something illegal or something that would provoke widespread outrage in the US.

Yes, the major worry is that they’ve colluded with Russia to damage Hillary Clinton and boost Trump’s chances at winning the presidential election. In other words, Trump is a real life Manchurian Candidate, a foreign stooge swept into power by Moscow, ready and willing to do its bidding. This a conspiratorial view of Trump, to be sure, yet not particularly far-fetched, alas. Given what I’ve already written above about Trump and his staff, plus his public calls during the campaign season exhorting Russia and Wikileaks to damage the Clinton machine, all added on top of his narcissistic personality quirks, a treasonous act is something that just shouldn’t be dismissed.

But even if Trump’s not quite a foreign stooge, not entirely willing to embrace and implement Russian-favored policies and worldviews, there’s still the grave concern about his role in subverting America’s democracy. We already know that the election wasn’t exactly free and fair, given the Russia-Wikileaks collaboration, and that Clinton was likely, though not definitively, cheated out of winning the presidency. That in itself has tarnished the veneer of American democracy: we have to face the fact that foreign powers can manipulate and distort US elections. But if Trump directly or indirectly played a role in stealing the win, that’s something completely different. It’s an internal subversion of the main prized American democratic institution. And if this is the case, how can Americans trust that future candidates won’t act and behave similarly to Trump, willing to ignore and flout US norms and rules and laws? And if they can’t, the very fabric of democracy would be in jeopardy.

Another concern is that Trump has been compromised by Russian intelligence—whether because Trump has business interests and ties to shady Russian kleptocrats and mobsters, his purported lascivious activities, or something altogether different. Here, the logic, as you’d expect, is that Trump has placed himself in a position in which he has to cater to Putin’s policy interests and goals or risk being publicly exposed by a vengeful, savvy Putin. There’s long been unsubstantiated whispers about Trump’s willingness to do business with anyone or anything, no matter if laws are flouted or corruption is the coin of the game—and the recent reports of his business dealings with Azerbaijan, which may also involve Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, only adds credibility to the perception that Trump is more than willing to traffic in murky, dirty waters. Moreover, the 35 page “dossier,” compiled by a former British intelligence officer, outlining Trump’s nighttime activities with Russian prostitutes, has breathed even more life into the idea that Russian officials have substantial Kompromat on him.

If any of this is true, it would be a scandal of epic, unprecedented proportions in US political history. It would make former disgraced US President Richard Nixon seem merely paranoid and inept, hardly a big-time criminal. After all, Nixon’s misdeeds were a bungled attempt to glean information about the Democrats heading into the 1972 presidential election, an election that Nixon won overwhelmingly: he won the popular vote by roughly 18 million and won the electoral vote of 49 of 50 states. In the case of Trump, however, if he and his crew really collaborated with the Russians to win the election—a narrow win, mind you—he aided and abetted a foreign enemy power to breach and subvert the sovereignty of the US. He would be a traitor, subject to all the laws and punishments specified by the American Constitution.

What's Next? 

Right now, the easy thing to say is that we need a blue ribbon independent commission to investigate the election, Trump and his cabal, and the Russian hack. Yes, this type of investigation would be wonderful, as it would be a marked improvement over the current Congressional investigations dominated by the Trump-led GOP. But don’t hold your breath on that happening anytime soon.

Why? Well, keep the following things in mind. First, about 30-35 percent of voting Americans are solidly with Trump, with a smaller base of hardcore supporters willing to ride with Trump until the end. Congressional Republicans, especially those in red states, know this, which makes them hesitant to move strongly against Trump. Second, power dynamics are on Trump’s side. Look, the GOP dominates the House and Senate, which insulates Trump from the type of scrutiny he’d face if he was a Democratic president. Third, Barack Obama has been called the first social media president, but that’s not really true. Donald trump is, and he wields his Twitter and Facebook accounts to his advantage: he has already successfully created his own powerful political narrative, free of filters, which he propagates to millions of people (26+ million on Twitter, 21+ million on Facebook). He paints himself as the champion of the “little guy/gal,” an unfair victim of the “liberal media” and the "deep state," a can-do president with a mandate for real, substantial change, unlike the usual “all-talk” politician. But beyond this, social media have enabled Trump to form a personal connection to his followers, tightening his bond with them, which is an extremely useful political tool for Trump. Fourth, Trump employs an army of public relations folks, like Sean Spicer, Kellyanne Conway, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who hold press conferences and make television appearances to spin Trump’s tweets and public statements for popular consumption. Fifth, Trump is aided by conservative and alt-right echo chambers that includes Fox News, Breitbart, and Infowars, among others. These outlets shout and scream Trump’s narrative (as put forth by Trump himself and spun by his PR professionals), entrenching it, allowing Trump’s base to wallow in their love for all things Trump and to share in their dislike for Trump’s domestic opponents.

So what we have, then, is a neat, tight feedback loop connecting Trump, his staff, Congressional GOPers, the various Trump media arms, and Trump’s base. All parts of this loop are highly motivated, ready to defend Trump and push back against any and all criminal and salacious allegations, obstructing the search for truth. So should we despair that illegal acts by Team Trump might go overlooked? Not exactly. 

Overall, it's a good thing that liberal activists are mobilized, organizing themselves, taking to the streets, and calling their Representatives and Senators--all in the name of truth and justice. It might not seem like much, but Trump, an incessant cable tv-watcher, is aware of these happenings. In fact, they've likely added to the panic that rogue White House staffers report on social media. Liberals need to continue to demand the truth, preparing themselves for a protracted struggle, but do so using only civil, non-violent means. It may seem obvious, but it needs to be said that violence only delegitimizes liberals and their causes and shifts the national discussion from the serious questions about the Trump administration to the extremism of anti-Trump activists. I also recommend that liberal activists begin the process of building formal bridges to independents and moderate/centrist Republicans, so as to ensure that getting to the bottom of #Russiagate isn't strictly a partisan endeavor. 

Additionally, we need journalists to continue to do the deep-digging research and reporting on the Trump and Russia affair. Perhaps these efforts, if more unsavory details are uncovered, will put enough pressure on Trump’s base, especially those who sit outside the hardcore supporters, to recognize that maybe Trump isn’t who they thought he was, which would give some GOPers the green light to move on Trump, if necessary. Or perhaps new information would give Republicans the requisite ammunition to convince a sizable chunk of Trump’s base that more stringent moves against Trump are the right thing to do.