Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Trump's Syria Decision

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

Alex Brandon/AP.

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

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

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

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

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

What should we make of these developments?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, December 7, 2018

Remembering George H. W. Bush

Image result for george h w bush

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

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

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

Three more thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Is Donald Trump a Realist?

Evan Vucci/AP.

Back in early 2016, Tufts University political science professor and Washington Post columnist Daniel Drezner posed two interesting questions: Is Donald trump a realist? And if so, why don’t more contemporary realists embrace him as one of their own?

At the time, Drezner found that realists, especially those present in the academy, weren’t coming to trump’s defense. Why was that? Drezner believed that “if they’re being intellectually honest,” they would openly claim Trump as one of their own, as this could’ve been realism’s “moment in the sun.” Given that realists often complain that their views aren’t widely shared within the US foreign policy establishment, which advocates more interventionist, activist policy positions, why not back the candidate that seemed to give the US a chance at correcting America’s litany of foreign policy mistakes?

Makes sense, I suppose. Based on his message or platform, as Drezner saw it then, Trump appeared, at least in speech, to be the epitome of what realists would want in a US president. After all, Trump voiced support for upgrading US military power, distancing the US from various international institutions and agreements, focusing on getting Americans back to work and enhancing economic productivity, confronting economic and security free riders in Europe and Asia, taking on a rising China, and getting the US out of Syria. All together, these policy positions signified a shift in US foreign policy to a new era of more restrained US foreign policy interests, great power competition, and boosting American power—all of which are consistent with the application of realist logic and principles to US foreign policy. 

Now that we’re almost two full years into Trump’s presidency, it’s a good time to reflect on this debate. In 2015/16, Donald Trump, candidate for the US presidency, seemed like a realist-oriented aspiring politician. Is that still true today? Is Trump, as US commander in chief and president, a foreign policy realist? Interestingly, Trump himself has claimed the realist mantle, arguing that he’s a principled realist. Is he right? At this point, we have more than enough data to make a reasonable critical assessment. To do so, let’s evaluate trump and his presidency on two dimensions: foreign policy and leadership.

On foreign policy, Trump does share some theoretical and logical similarities with realism. He has carried his skepticism of institutions and multilateral pacts with him into his presidency. In short, if the US isn’t able to wield such institutions to its advantage, so goes the logic, then it’s not worth it to work with or through them. Why? Because most institutions, by design, attempt to constrain the ability of the great powers to act and wield power globally. Given this logic, and given his statements on the campaign trail, it should not be a surprise that, under Trump, the US has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate Agreement, the INF Treaty, and various UN bodies. Trump has also repeatedly criticized NAFTA, NATO, the WTO, and the EU.

But that’s not all. He has challenged China on trade. He has requested, and seems to have gotten, NATO members to begin devoting more spending to their defense budgets, thereby reducing a tad Washington’s concerns about Europe’s free riding. He has renegotiated NAFTA with Canada and Mexico, making slight alterations to the original agreement, to America’s favor. Trump has also scrapped human rights and democracy promotion abroad, the very things which, according to realists, have driven the US into a host of costly wars and quagmires in the post-cold war period. All of these things are connected to seminal realist concepts and arguments, like relative gains, inter-state competition, power, the perils of alliance dynamics, and so on.

Yet, there’s more to the story of Trump’s presidency. Put simply, despite all of the above, Trump has pursued several policies that are inconsistent with realism. For instance, Trump placed roughly 2000 troops inside Syria to fight ISIS, and then expanded the mission, committing to keep US forces there indefinitely to eliminate ISIS safe havens and guard against Iran (and its proxy Hezbollah) gaining a permanent foothold in Syria. So while Trump campaigned on getting out of the Middle East’s protracted conflicts and reducing America’s footprint there, he’s actually done the opposite, upping US commitments to the Middle East.

Furthermore, Trump’s foreign policy lacks strategic focus, or better known among academics and intellectuals as a grand strategy. Essentially, realists have written the literature on grand strategy. In their view, it’s crucial that state leaders have an organizing principles, goals, and interests to motivate and properly direct the course of their foreign policies, so as to avoid letting their policies turn adrift, aimless, and costly. Trump, by contrast, doesn’t operate in a big-picture, comprehensive way. His foreign policy is purely transactional and driven mostly by Trump’s rapport with fellow state leaders. If foreign leaders are willing to flatter Trump, stay at his hotels, say nice things about him, and make minor concessions to US foreign policy, then America’s POTUS is willing stand with them. Of course, there are perils to this approach.

Look at US policy toward the Middle East. Team Trump has decisively cast his lot with Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). MBS buys America’s weapons, gets along well with Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner, fashioned himself as a reformer, and is happily pushing back against Iran, and so the White House has invested considerably in MBS, betting that he, and he alone, holds the keys to solving the Middle East’s array of problems. While not optimal, it’s fine, but only as long as MBS remains in power and free from trouble and misdeeds. We now know that’s not the case, given his role in the Khashoggi affair. MBS is now on shaky ground, suffering significant global blowback, including a severely tarnished image, and we have to wonder if his position domestically is in jeopardy. If he falls anytime soon, the entirety of America’s Middle East foreign policy goes down the drain, with possibly dramatic and costly consequences.

Another policy issue that realists, especially more internationalist realists, criticize is Trump’s apparent willingness to vacate US global leadership. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass terms this “American abdication.” Trump’s propensity to withdraw from existing international agreements and institutions, in combination with his team’s widespread divestment from global diplomacy on a host of issues, has fostered the rise of power vacuums in Europe and Asia. Under Trump, America is increasingly alone, and so are its allies, who have to live without the customary assurances that Washington has their backs. This has, in turn, created an increasingly destabilized world, with Russia and China pressing outward, fomenting disturbances in their neighborhood and beyond. This world is exactly the kind of world that realists—who prize stability and balances of power—abhor.

Let’s turn to the second angle I’d like to explore: Trump’s leadership. This is something that has gone largely ignored in the Trump-realism debate, which has tended to emphasize discrete foreign policies pursued and adopted by the Team Trump. In a sense, that’s not surprising. Academic and intellectual realism is usually framed as a systemic, or 3rd image, theoretical framework that “black boxes” things inside the state, like domestic politics and leadership issues. For many realists, what’s most important are anarchy, systemic power dynamics, and inter-state interactions. One problem, however, is that the historical literature, and even some of the old school theoretical tracts, that informs realism often takes leadership as quite consequential. And it’s a particular type of leadership that’s most prized by many realists, especially those who research foreign policy, decision-making, and narrative case studies: leaders who are rational, wise, strategic, and tough.

Think about realism’s embrace of Machiavelli, who is widely lauded as a master chronicler of pragmatism and power politics. In The Prince, Machiavelli argues that effective leaders are those who are ruthless about exercising power, value the health and security of the state over their own pride and glory and morals, manage well the staffers around him/her, and appreciate how humans and events really are rather than how they hope them to be.

Classic examples of this kind of leadership, according to realists, include Bismarck, Churchill, Reagan, and (George H. W.) Bush 41, among many others. Today, we can consider Vladimir Putin a contemporary example. He’s ruthlessly wielded power internally in Russia, stabilized the state, elevated Russia’s status globally, and has disrupted and undermined the interests of more powerful competitors. In short, Putin has played a bad hand—think about Russian chaos, instability, and weakness in the 1990s—into something much greater, allowing Russia to punch well above its weight internationally. If we’re being honest, Trump comes up well short in comparison to these leaders.

Trump’s time in office is notorious for continual chaos—in his administration, in US politics, and in US society more generally. Trump’s perpetual lies—numbering in the thousands by now—have eroded his credibility among large sectors of American voters. His approval rating has hovered around 35-40%—an amazingly low level of support given the strong US economy—and he’s just lost the House of Representatives to the Democrats. Trump’s erratic personality—manifested most clearly in his campaign rallies and Twitter account—results in a constant cycle of outrageous statements and then fierce blowback by the media. Polling data indicate that Trump’s numbers move in a more favorable direction during times when he’s relatively quiet and restrained; his numbers tank during his more irritable, erratic periods. This trend should be easy to learn, yet Trump’s wild personality and propensity for self-inflicted errors resurfaces time and again. Trump’s much-hyped management skills have translated into near-constant turnover in the White House, damaging leaks by his administration, and in-fighting and bickering among those staffers who have stuck it out. His close staff is filled with incompetents, kleptocrats, and suspected criminals. Plus, Trump is still under investigation for a host of possible criminal activities by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York.

So where does that leave us? How does trump fare as a realist? It’s a mixed bag, and that’s being charitable. As prominent realist scholar Stephen Walt recently stated, Donald Trump is the kind of guy to give realism a bad name. That’s, in short, how most realists view him. The two notable exceptions are Ohio State professor Randall Schweller and Bard College professor Walter Russell Mead, both of whom have lauded Trump for his realist credentials. But overall, realists today argue that Trump has instincts that seem to be consistent with realism, but he lacks a strategic vision, crudely executes foreign policy, and demonstrates little of the leadership qualities that realists traditionally value. I agree. At best, we have left a president whose views and policies do overlap a bit with realism, but who isn’t nearly the realist that he was labeled as years ago.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

The Murder of Jamal Khashoggi

                                      Photo: EPA. Turkish investigators enter Saudi consulate.

As is well known, The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian citizen residing in the U.S., disappeared and was killed inside a Saudi consulate in Turkey. At first, the Saudis denied any role in Khashoggi’s death. Soon thereafter, as video footage of the consulate appeared and rumors spread of the brutal way in which Khashoggi was killed, the Saudis faced a large blowback. But once the cat was out of the bag, so to speak, the Saudis then shifted gears, scrambling to fashion an explanation for something that now everyone knew had happened. At first, they secretly admitted that Khashoggi was killed in an interrogation gone wrong. And then, on October 19th, the Saudis openly disclosed that a “fistfight” in the Saudi consulate led to Khashoggi’s death.

This incident has received considerable global attention, with several consequential storylines. For instance, what can/should states do to protect journalists increasingly under attack from global despots? Should the US hold the Saudis to account for Khashoggi’s muder? And should it reassess its relationship with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA)? What does all of this mean for Mohammad bin Salman's (MBS) standing inside Saudi Arabia and his supposed platform of reform? These are but a small sample of the questions being asked nowadays by journalists, academics, analysts, and policymakers.

Below is a short conversation I recently had with my colleague Dr. Yohanes Sulaiman about this very event. We discuss KSA’s motives for engaging in such a brutal murder, the reactions to it, as well as broader geopolitical fallout that the Saudis might face going forward.  

Brad Nelson: What do you make of Jamal Khashoggi's murder?

Yohanes Sulaiman: This is a society where open dissent is only possible with sufficient political backing form the ruling house or other key players. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has been consolidating his rule, and the last thing he wants is open dissent, especially in the US media, that threatens his image abroad.

But why such clumsiness? Well, there are three reasons that came to my mind. First, the usual organizational fiascos. The Saudis have been silencing their critics without problems before with the usual standard operating procedures, and this time they "forgot" that it happened in Turkish soil, with a very hostile government. Or they are just incompetent.

A second possibility is sabotage within the bureaucracy. Maybe there are rogue agents who want to throw a wrench in Salman's reforms, and this is one of the best way to ruin Saudi Arabia’s image abroad -- an explanation, which, honestly, I don't find compelling.

Third, given that the murder was done openly, it was likely a signal to other dissenters, that the Saudis will come after them regardless of international condemnation.

What do you think?

BN: The whole thing is so bizarre. The details of Khashoggi’s murder are out of a horror movie. We now know he was stalked, tortured, murdered, and then brutally dismembered. Mike Pompeo, dispatched by Trump to KSA to figure out what the heck happened, is caught on video laughing and glad-handing with MBS. Back in Washington, Trump is utterly confused, saying that severe consequences will be imposed on the KSA if it's revealed that the Saudis killed Khashoggi while at the same time opening admitting he has no intention of breaking America's alliance with the KSA. All while this is happening, The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman is frantically running around trying to explain to everyone his misplaced faith in MBS (see here and here and here), triggering, in turn, criticism from academics like Dan Drezner and Stephen Walt. And meantime, the US media has gone into overdrive hyping Khashoggi's death, because he's one of their own.

Some perspective is desperately needed here. The issue really isn't Trump, MBS, or even the killing of Khashoggi. The incident in Turkey is a product of the US giving the Saudis for years a blank check to do what it wants inside its borders and around the world, no matter how flagrant. As long as the Saudis buy American arms, keep the oil pumps flowing, and work to contain Iran, the US happily turns a blind eye to all the nonsense done by the Saudi royals. Engage in reckless killing in Yemen? Fine, go ahead. In fact, the Americans will aid and support you. Spread extremism globally? Whatever. Repress their citizens? Okay, it’s your business, KSA. And if the US doesn't provide any resistance to Saudi misdeeds, who will stand up to the KSA? Qatar? Iran? Canada? Good luck with that. The truth is that US administration after administration has been extraordinarily reluctant to hold the Saudis to account, and as a result, they are all complicit in their crimes and abuses.

Frankly, if the US wasn't willing to downgrade, if not outright sever, ties to the Saudis after 9/11—when, according to the so-called "28 pages of the 9/11 commission report, we know that Saudi officials were in contact with at least two of the 9/11 hijackers, and the collusion between the Saudis and al-Qaeda could have been more extensive than that—it strains credulity to think that the death of a single journalist will do anything significant to US-KSA relations. My guess is this will all blow over in the next weeks and months ahead, and the status quo will hold.

YS: I agree with most of what you wrote, that the Saudis will just do whatever they want because they believe that they can turn on and off the spigot at will. However, I really am quite surprised with such brazenness. As Stalin supposedly remarked, “the death of one man is a tragedy. Death of a million is a statistic.” Didn't the Saudis realize that killing Khashoggi would cause such an uproar and would of course be manipulated by Erdogan, who has an ax to grind against both Trump and the Saudis? Why weren’t the Saudis more subtle?

Here’s a question for you: What is Turkey's aims and objectives to publicize the murder? Beyond the expected five minutes of rage, doesn’t Ankara know that the US will mend its fences with the KSA?

BN: I suspect Turkey sees this moment as way to gain some leverage over the KSA, after years of sour relations due to a fallout over the Muslim Brotherhood, the Qatar crisis, and so on. Seems like Erdogan could've gone much further in pinning blame on the Saudis, so he's holding his punch for now. Moreover, Turkey has decided to treat the killing as a diplomatic affair rather than a criminal case, which would've publicly revealed a lot more by this point. However, as you point out, Turkey has leaked information about Khashoggi's death, which is probably an effort to signal to the Saudis that Turkey has the upper hand here. Turkey is likely trying to gain a favor that it can cash in on a rainy day. Perhaps on Syria. There could also be some spite here, in response to rocky Turkish-KSA ties since the Arab Spring in 2011. The drip, drip, drip of information has been damaging to the Saudis.

Of course, there's the US factor to consider as well. Turkey has been upset at the US for years for supporting and backing the Kurds in Syria. Perhaps the Turks see the Khashoggi murder as a potential avenue to get the US to back off the Kurds. There's already some backroom dealing among the Turks and the US, as Pompeo visited there this week. Maybe a deal is in the works to withhold information embarrassing to the White House in exchange for some concessions on the Kurdish issue. Or perhaps Turkey is simply looking for an opportunity to fix relations with the US, and sees this case as opportunity to do so.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Trump Goes to Brussels

                                                                Photo: Brendan Smialowski /AFP/Getty Images

Below is a conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman, conducted via email over the last few days, on Donald Trump's trip to Brussels for NATO meetings.

Brad Nelson:  So, what’s your take on Trump’s visit to NATO? As you know, here in the States, Trump’s visit has gone over very badly.

Yohanes Sulaiman: What else is new? Trump said stupid things. And now everyone is outraged, saying it is the end of the world that we know it: Trump is doing the bidding of Putin, his master, etc. But in reality, he behaved more or less okay, declared victory, and moved on to London. And nothing really changes except that people remain pissed at Trump. At this point, I am not even sure who I dislike more, Trump, with his earth-scorching tactics, or his over the top critics. It’s kind of sad, actually, because I am really worried about Trump, but his critics' reactions actually makes him look normal.

What we see here is, I think, is how things work under Trump. Trump takes an extreme right position, everyone goes nuts. Then, when Trump actually makes decision, he tracks back a bit, and his a bit-crazy decision actually becomes the new normal, simply because his critics overreact.

BN: Look, he trashed Germany. His threats for the US to go "its own way" if NATO members don't pony up more for their own defenses is a new wrinkle, for sure. The visual of Trump berating NATO General Secretary Stoltenberg was striking, perhaps downright illustrative of his desire to trash the key elements of the western liberal order. Russia is certainly happy. Russian commentators have publicly remarked that Trump's doing to NATO what the Ruskies couldn't for the last 75 years. All of this has greatly unnerved lots of folks, in Europe and here in the States, mostly the internationalist-establishment types.

And I get it. NATO has provided lots of benefits to the US, it links like-minded nations, and is still a valuable presence in Europe. Ultimately, what it comes down to is how one sees Trump. That completely colors how we interpret his NATO trip. If we see a colluding, erratic, radical president, then his statements and actions in Brussels are ominous and dangerous. On the other hand, if he's an all bark, no bite leader, then his NATO adventure was far more benign. Maybe it's just one big photo op for political base, which shares his antipathy toward international bureaucrats and institutions. 

BN: So, in your view, what's motivating Trump? Why is he taking the scorched-earth approach to NATO?

YS: I basically agree with all you noted—Trump behaved boorishly and unnerved a lot of people. I think we really need to understand what motivates him behind the scene, and I have several suggestions:

1. It’s red meat for his base. He believed that he was elected to upend the status quo, to deal with those cheating Europeans and Chinese and whoever else out there. And by golly, he is going to do it in a big way. That explains a lot, but does not really explain all of what’s happening.

2. The more I am thinking about my "extreme is the new normal" argument, the more I think that is the method behind this entire madness. Trump, I think, realizes and takes advantage of the fact that everyone is basically pro-status quo and relying on the United States to maintain the status quo. Thus, what I think he has been doing -- is to take an extreme position, so extreme, that everyone in the end concede something or do something drastically in order to right the ship -- because nobody likes being in a Titanic. It is an arsonist argument, but, I think, that’s the only thing that really explains this entire roller-coaster ride. See this article.

3. I think the entire US establishment (and the media) got suckered badly by painting Trump as the coming barbarian at the gate that is doing far worse than he has been doing. Think about it. The more the media and the entire establishment sound the alarm, the more people will get panicked and will concede something to him, as long as they think they are saving the ship from this crazy guy–even if what Trump has been doing is actually just yelling "fire," not doing something concrete that harms US national security, its national interests, or the liberal order more generally. Yes, yelling fire in a crowded and dark theater can cost people their lives, and considering America’s size and importance, whatever Trump does will have impacts. At the same time, we need to look behind the smoke and the mirror and see what Trump has actually done to upend the EU and NATO—beyond just big talk.

BN: You make good points, though your response covers both motives (base politics) and tactics (taking extreme positions). Catering to his base is probably highly relevant here. We know already that Trump thinks his primary mission as president is to satisfy his base. And his base isn't a fan of international institutions, unelected international bureaucrats, "free riding" Europe, and the like. Your point on tactics is echoed by Trump biographers, who have said that's exactly how he's operated over the years as a businessman. And I can see traces of that in his policies on immigration, trade, North Korea.

To all of this I would add that the positions Trump has staked out on NATO are probably in line with his beliefs and policy preferences. It's not just cynical politics. After all, for decades, he's railed against foreign nations and entities ripping off the US and the lack of good leaders in Washington who can do something about it.

As we've already discussed, Trump's visit to Brussels caused some turmoil. It prevented much from being discussed and debated; the two day meetings turned into The Trump Show. It caused confusion and worries about organizational cohesion. It undermined US credibility. It played right into the hands of Vladimir Putin, which, I'm sure, has rung alarm bells in the Baltic nations, Poland, etc. And of course, China's on the outside observing US behavior and assessing what it means for Asia. Spoiler Alert: good things, likely. The critics of Trump's NATO visit act as if all of the above make for a new, permanent status quo. I think that's a major issue here. They think Trump is ushering in an irrevocable future, one that's dark and dangerous.

I'm willing to agree that Trump's European policies run counter to US national interests and cause unnecessary chaos—in Washington (already, the Pentagon has been busy calling NATO members, reassuring them that the US isn't abandoning any commitments just yet) and Europe. But I'm not so sure they are extraordinarily damaging in the short-term, nor am I so sure that they're particularly enduring.

Just look at the transition from the Bush to Obama years. Within two years, Obama had unwound quite a bit of the damage of the Bush years to US foreign policy vis-a-vis Europe. European leaders loved Obama. European citizens loved Obama. Trust was back, confidence in the US was high once again. I suspect we'll see something similar post-Trump, unless another Trump-like figure follows The Donald in office. If the US elects a fairly conventional president in either 2020 or 2024, Europe will gravitate back to the US. European states have strong national interests to do so. Plus, there are social, cultural, and historical factors that matter and are of more enduring value than Trump. Depending on how much Trump aggravates Europe over the next few years, the next US president might have to invest considerable time in repairing US-Europe ties. But Europe will come around.

YS: I agree with your assessment, which in essence argues that the current international system, more or less, is pro-status quo, meaning that very few states would try advantage of these Trump-made upheavals, especially since there is simply no other acceptable alternative to the US at this point, at least to the European states.

I wonder though, if this, to some degree, confirms part of realists' argument about (international) system effects: that it is rare for individuals to cause damage to the international system. And I think we could argue that the only times individuals could wreak havoc so badly on international system is when the system is more or less multipolar, where power distribution is relatively equal. The question is how far individuals like Trump can really push the constraints until people, groups, and states simply give up and give in. In this case, I think, the US will get a much bigger leeway due to its size and the status-quo bias among the leadership of EU. (Plus, it’s expensive to change the system, as noted by Robert Gilpin in War and Change in World Politics). It looks to me that Trump is all bark and no bite, in regards to the EU, though not to China.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Trump-Kim Summit

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AP Photo/Evan Vucci

Here are a few quick thoughts on the Kim Jong Un-Donald Trump summit. I'll start on a positive note. It's good that Trump and Kim met and talked, and that the meeting seems to have gone well. They've established, it appears, good rapport. Indeed, Kim was rather smiley throughout the public portion of their gathering. This could pave the way for a better relationship between the US and North Korea now--especially given Trump's insistence on personalizing US foreign policy--and going forward, beyond Trump's tenure as president. And the happy vibes from the meeting might portend some actual progress down the line on eliminating/dismantling North Korea's nukes. 

Okay, now for the problems. Let's begin with the agreement signed by Trump and Kim. I encourage you to read it, if you haven't. As North Korean expert Victor Cha asked today on MSNBC, "Did we really need a summit for the agreement?" The short answer is no. At bottom, Trump mostly received promises from Kim that the US has gotten previously from North Korea over the last two decades--and of course, the Kims subsequently broke those pledges. The main end goal of the document, "denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," is not the same as the Trump administration's stated objective of CVID (complete verifiable, irreversible denuclearization). 

Just as troublesome, the signed document is awfully vague and is short on specifics. It doesn't mention anything about timetables for implementing the deal; doesn't address how North Korea and the US are going to define "denuclearization" in practice; nothing about monitoring and verifiying that Kim's keeping his end of the deal. Trump is staking his personal and political reputation as a deal maker, as well as the security of the US and East Asia, mind you, on his new-found trust for Kim. If history is any guide, that seems like a terrible way to make discrete decisions, let alone policy. 

Moreover, the US has given up quite a bit already. Trump now has met Kim, bestowing prestige and legitimacy upon Kim, his government, and his nuclear program. Trump lavished Kim with much praise, calling him "talented," "smart," "a tough negotiator," among other things. Trump has also ended America's "war games" with South Korea. And now that Trump has warmed up to Kim, countries in the region, including China, are already reducing the pressure on Kim, interpreting the flurry of US-Korean diplomacy as evidence that Kim's normalizing his behavior. 

Frankly, I do wish both Trump and Kim great success in their diplomatic efforts. And I'm fine with Trump making concessions, even considerable concessions, if, as a result, the US is safer, the threat of war in Asia is reduced, and North Korea moves in a more modern, freer direction. But this agreement does none of those things. This is hardly the "art of the deal." If anything, Kim has suckered Trump. 

Look what he's accomplished on Trump's watch. Kim has built up his nuclear program, met personally with the president of the US (along with the leaders of South Korea and China), garnered glowing praise from Trump, and basked in the global media spotlight surrounding the summit--all of which are valuable on their own terms, but will likely have beneficial domestic political implications for Kim as well. After all, at a minimum, those things can be used by Pyongyang for propaganda purposes. And in return, what did Kim give up? Not much beyond a freeze on nuclear and missile tests. Actually, it's pretty remarkable that such a young and inexperienced leader has been able to the play the US to the extent he has. 

Friday, May 25, 2018

The US-North Korea Summit: Off or On?

If you have spent any time reading, writing, or even thinking about the US-North Korean standoff lately, I’m sure you’ve noticed something: it’s a very unpredictable situation. Mostly, that’s because the leaders of both countries are themselves very temperamental and capricious. Not, irrational, mind you, but unpredictable, prone to unexpected outbursts, statements, and policy shifts.

Just consider the wild and tumultuous course of North Korean-US relations over the last year or so. They’ve careened from name calling and threats of nuclear war and regime change to the prospect of rapprochement and détente, with Trump quickly and without consultation—apparently, neither from his staff nor from the South Koreans, who’ve acted as a mediator between Washington and Pyongyang—agreeing to meet personally with Kim Jong Un.

With all this in mind, it’s probably not a surprise that the proposed Kim-Trump summit was called off this week by Trump. This news has triggered a wave of speculation about the motives underpinning Trump’s decision to cancel. The overriding narrative, it seems, is that Trump feared that the North Koreans would either cancel the summit or back out at the last minute. Apparently, in the week or two prior to Trump's cancellation, dialogue between North Korea and the US had slowed. In fact, there had been zero of the usual requisite planning and coordination between the advance or security teams of North Korea and US ahead of the Kim-Trump summit. Which led US officials, including Trump, to believe that the North was getting cold feet and ready to pull out of the summit. As a result, not wanting to suffer the massive embarrassment of being stood up by Kim, Trump ostensibly pre-emptively scuppered his meeting with Kim. My former grad school colleague and current professor at UCSB Bridget Coggins called Trump’s move an example of the “insecurity dilemma.”

But was the meeting really canceled? Sort of. It’s true that Trump wrote a formal letter to Kim announcing his decision to scrap the meeting, but he also clearly hedged his position, taking time to praise Kim (“beautiful gesture,” “wonderful dialogue”) and encourage him to “not hesitate to call or write” Trump. Really, the letter was less about canceling the meeting than sending certain signals to Kim. It was a bargaining move, designed to show Kim that Trump isn’t overeager to meet Kim and that Kim and his regime has to do more to prove to the US that they really want the meeting.

What happened next? Well, again, no surprise, Trump now claims that talks with North Korea have picked up again and that his meeting with Kim could be back on. Makes perfect sense for several reasons.

First, as just mentioned, Trump really soft pedaled the cancellation, offering enough clues and hope to Kim that the meeting could still go as planned, or with only a minor delay.

Second, North Korea offered, all things considered, a relatively restrained response to Trump. And Trump, in turn, welcomed the statement, calling it “warm” and “productive.” He even tweeted: Very good news to receive the warm and productive statement from North Korea. We will soon see where it will lead, hopefully to long and enduring prosperity and peace. Only time (and talent) will tell!”

Third, a personal, direct Kim-Trump meeting something both Kim and Trump really want to see happen, whether in June or later down the line. We can see this in how they’ve engaged with one another indirectly over the last year; they’ve done so rather delicately, avoiding big missteps that could sabotage talks. For instance, recent outbursts by North Korea have targeted Veep Mike Pence and NSA John Bolton, not Trump himself. Also, keep in mind that Trump has never explicitly denied that he’s been in direct personal contact with Kim. That doesn’t mean he has talked with Kim, but it can’t be ruled out. And that, in itself, would be a major development.

But it’s more than those things. Both Kim and Trump have broader political and personal incentives to reach some kind of an agreement with the other side—whether a narrow one on nukes or a broader one that leads to détente and normalization of ties. Indeed, there has been lots of speculation about what Kim wants and needs from the US. This discussion can be boiled down to three things: (1) regime security, (2) economic factors, and (3) prestige.

Specifically, Kim wants credible promises that the US won’t attempt to topple or undermine his regime. It’s also likely that he sees the US as part of his program to boost North Korea’s economy: for example, aid packages, removing sanctions, and perhaps starting some trade discussions could be a boon to Pyongyang. Additionally, a thaw between North Korea and the US could offer a host of other benefits to Pyongyang. Put simply, it would signal to the rest of the world that it’s finally okay to engage and seal deals with North Korea, which could offer a broader way for North Korea to stimulate economic investment and development.

Lastly, North Korea and Kim specifically would also receive some measure of prestige. A meeting with Trump, with very few preconditions bargained for by the US, is a Bugs Bunny-sized carrot for Kim. It would allow North Korea to come out of the cold, no longer a pariah state, but a normal member of the international community—and in part due to Kim’s decisions. It would also allow Kim to stand on the world stage alongside Trump, figuratively and likely visually, which presents Kim, and by extension North Korea, as a peer of Trump and the US. Should all of this happen, Kim would get to bask in the praise that’s likely to be heaped on him domestically and internationally.

Now, as for Trump, certainly an agreement of some sort with North Korea appeals to his well-known narcissism. He’s already broached the idea of winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his diplomatic efforts vis-à-vis North Korea. Plus, Trump would get to revel in solving the intractable, insoluble puzzle that his predecessors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, could not. He would get to credibly proclaim himself as a global statesman, a man of plans and action, a problem solver.

But there’s more than personal factors at play here. Trump also has political incentives to reach a deal with North Korea. In short, he needs a political win, and North Korea is a potential political goldmine for Trump. Sure, North Korea does offer a host of pitfalls, but probably not to Trump. At this point in his presidency, when he’s facing the prospect of being a one-term leader, if not outright impeached before his term ends, Trump has nothing to lose politically. It can’t get much worse for him. In the parlance of prospect theory, Trump is operating from a “domain of losses,” and in that domain individuals in general, and Trump in particular, are more likely to make risky decisions. Think of this in terms of gambling. Empirical evidence tells us that gamblers who are on a losing streak don’t stop betting, they instead often continue on, hoping to reverse their fortunes by doing the improbable, winning big. That is one way to look at Trump’s approach to North Korea. He’s hoping to win big so as to turn around his political fortunes, to help save his presidency.

So what should we expect going forward? Given the situation, the stakes, and the leaders involved, any predictions should be issued with great caution. Barring a severe uptick in tensions and hostilities, I still expect the Kim-Trump summit to happen at some point. As stated above, both Kim and Trump have plenty of incentives to go ahead with it.

But in the meantime, there is still opportunity for rocky times, especially as each side jockeys for more bargaining leverage. For instance, might Pyongyang be tempted to resume missile tests to regain the initiative versus Trump? If Trump gets frustrated with the  

The other thing to watch is the wider regional environment and its impact on North Korea diplomacy. Specifically, can the US maintain its North Korea coalition? Already, there are signs that South Korea and China are getting fed up with Trump’s campaign of “maximum pressure,” and greatly prefer the US-North Korean relationship to play out at the negotiating table. Hence, if the US doesn't play its cards right, there is the risk of multiple things happening: the coalition could fracture, the pressure campaign could unwind, and the US could find itself alone and sidelined. This would be the worst of all worlds for Team Trump. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Why Did Trump Withdraw the US From the Iran Nuclear Deal?

Image result for trump iran

Photo: Evan Vucci/AP. Photo shows memorandum, signed by Trump, reinstating 
sanctions on Iran. 

The news that Donald Trump officially decided to re-impose sanctions on Iran and withdraw from the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) is unfortunate but not surprising. After all, Trump has endlessly criticized the deal, pledging to scrap it. He even dropped a big hint that the deal’s end—as far as the US was concerned—was fast approaching. After he signed the last sanctions waiver, Trump announced that Iran was unlikely to receive more waivers from him. And since then, a host of academics and policy analysts have devoted time to reading the tea leaves about the future of the Iran deal, trying to determine if Trump was bluffing, engaging in tough talk with Iran’s clerics, or if he was sincere and that the pact was on life-support. It turns out Trump was honest. 

Trump’s decision begs a few questions. First, why would he wreck a deal that was working, according to almost anyone who’s a serious nuclear expert? As a matter of fact, the nuclear deal, signed and sealed in 2015, was effectively constraining Iran’s ability to produce nuclear-grade fissile material and by extension a nuclear weapon. Second, why sabotage a deal with which Iran was complying? According to the IAEA, America’s JCPOA partners, and America’s military and intelligence agencies, Iran was fulfilling its end of the nuclear deal. So why? What’s going on here?

There are four things to consider.

1. Trump dislikes, actually hates, the Iran nuclear deal. He’s on record saying a number of disparaging things about the deal. Such as, it’s “weak,” “poorly negotiated,” “the worse deal ever negotiated,” “a major embarrassment,” "one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” and so on. Why does he view the deal so harshly?

Hard to say, really. Cynics say that it’s part of Trump’s anti-Obama policymaking: Trump opposes and seeks to unwind all of his predecessors domestic and foreign policy accomplishments, whether Obamacare, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or the Iran nuclear deal. Sounds strange to say that a sitting US president is that vindictive and that those attitudes are shaping a profound part of his presidency, but it’s possible, unfortunately. After all, there is definitely something about Obama that Trump detests. For instance, Trump’s rise to political prominence was built around his crazed effort to undermine and delegitimize Barack Obama’s citizenship and his presidency by challenging the veracity of Obama’s birth certificate. Since then, Trump has spouted a wide range of conspiratorial views about Obama, his policy team, and his bureaucratic supporters inside the US government: they wiretapped him, are connected to the investigations into his affairs, and are looking to damage his presidency (recall his repeated comments/tweets about the so-called “deep state”).

At the same time, positioning himself against the Iran deal has been politically smart for Trump. At bottom, it speaks to his base as well as much of the Republican-Conservative end of the US political spectrum. Just consider this: while the deal is relatively popular among Americans in general, the right, and especially his base, doesn’t like the deal, seeing it as a tool that only strengthens Iran, weakens Israel, and destabilizes the entire Middle East. We can debate the merits of each of these points, but ultimately it doesn’t matter whether right-leaning voters are right or wrong here. What matters most is how his they perceive the deal. And they dislike the deal.

Meantime, there is also the truth that the Iran agreement, as currently constructed, isn’t perfect, it’s flawed, and even the deal’s proponents would say as much. So, on that score, Trump does have a point. For example, the deal does have an expiration date. It doesn’t completely shutter Iran’s nuclear program. It doesn’t deal with a host of issues that Iran critics believe should’ve been broached in a wider deal with Tehran—things like Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, its ballistic missile program, its vigorous support for Syria’s Assad, its antagonistic approach to Israel, it’s revisionist aims, etc.

2. Trump has political incentives to scrap the Iran nuclear pact. Trump is simply fulfilling a campaign promise. On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to scrap the deal if elected. He’s now following through on his promise. Research tells us that most US presidents, most of the time, do actually keep their campaign promises. And fulfilling this promise is especially important to Trump, given how politically weak and vulnerable he is. As mentioned above, by officially reapplying sanctions on Iran, thereby jeopardizing the deal, Trump is appealing to the right, and especially his #MAGA supporters, offering them some red meat to keep them politically satisfied and in his camp. And that’s something that’s always a concern of his, not just because of his personality, but because he’s likely to be primaried come 2020. Already, names like John Kasich, Jeff Flake, and Ben Sasse, among others, have been bandied about as potential contenders for the GOP nomination. As a result, Trump needs to ensure his base is strong, on his side, and politically activated going forward.

3. The White House has a strong, prominent anti-Iran bent. Trump began his tenure in office with several anti-Iran hawks on his team. And since that time, their presence has remained strong. Yeah, Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson have been praised by mainstream types for their moderate views on global politics—of course, Tillerson was widely criticized and lampooned for his management style—and their push for diplomacy over force. But Rex has been ousted and Haley is a secondary figure in Trump’s foreign policy world. More important are General James Mattis, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton, and all three are known to have taken strident positions on Iran, believing that Iran is the biggest source of instability, violence, and terrorism in the Middle East. That then means that, arguably, the three most important US national security posts, the people who influence Trump most on foreign policy—the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the National Security Adviser—are whispering anti-Iran sentiments in Trump’s ear.

Yes, I’m including Mattis. Don’t forget that Mattis was ousted from the Obama White House because he preferred a much more hardline US stance vis-à-vis Iran. So while, as a Trump official, he has indeed advocated the US staying in the deal, I suspect he wasn’t as forceful about it as many people think. In fact, reports indicate that Mattis didn’t put up the same fight for the nuclear deal as he did back on October.  Some argue that Mattis, in effect, saw the writing on the wall and decided to capitulate to Trump’s fait accompli. Perhaps. But I also suspect that, in the end, Trump’s decision loosely accords with Mattis’s worldview, and that’s in part why he push strongly for the US to remain in the deal. On Wednesday, toeing the company line, Mattis testified before a Senate subcommittee, arguing that “we have walked away from the JCPOA because we found it was inadequate for the long-term effort….We will continue to work alongside our allies and partners to ensure that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon.”

4. Trump has learned the wrong lessons from the North Korea crisis. Trump clearly thinks that coercion (sanctions, threats, aggressive tweets, and the like) brought North Korea to the bargaining table. He’s even publicly communicated this, as he’s taken credit lately for everything from North Korea participating in the recent winter Olympics to the ongoing South-North Korean detente. And so what’s happening now is that Team Trump, feeling vindicated in their approach to North Korea, are applying the same tactics to Iran. If it worked on North Korea, the logic goes, it should work on Iran.

There are lots of problems with this thinking, though. North Korea is not Iran. These are completely different countries, sitting in radically different regions, with different leaders, political systems, political cultures, economies, military/defense capabilities, national interests, trade partners, and so on. There’s no prima facie reason to believe that what worked on North Korea will work on Iran. It’s a logical fallacy. And as Trump will find out eventually, despite all the compliance troubles that North Korea has given the US in prior agreements, Iran is probably the more nebulous, complicated case. One major reason is because of Iran’s multilayered domestic politics.  

But more importantly, let’s back up and assess whether Trump is right in asserting that coercion is what has caused Kim to come out of the cold, to open up diplomatically with China, South Korea, and the US. I think he’s fundamentally wrong. The US should be under no illusion that it drew Kim to talks, and that, instead, Kim’s manufactured nuclear crisis induced others to meet with him. Moreover, Kim now feels confident enough—in his domestic political standing and international position—to talk about his nuclear program.

Why? Two reasons. First, after years of consolidating his political power inside North Korea, he’s essentially “coup-proofed” his regime. He feels strong enough politically to venture out of his nation’s territory and offer to make some concessions on peace, weapons, and joint dialogue without fear of being toppled by internal opponents. Second, Kim now has a deterrent capability that’s capable of mitigating security threats from the US. The result of which means Kim doesn’t have to worry about being bullied by the US in talks. Kim’s growing arsenal reduces the negative external implications of making any concessions.

The punchline of all of this is: don’t expect a heavily pressured Iran to react in the ways that the Trump administration anticipates. Furthermore, don’t expect America’s JCPOA partners to support a sustained US-led campaign of threat and sanctions on Iran, given that they see the US, not Iran, as in violation of the nuclear deal. If anything, Trump has needlessly further alienated the US, except in the eyes of Israel and the Sunni states in the Middle East. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Trump Stikes Syria, Again

Syrian research facility, in Barzeh, hit by the US and its allies on April 14th. SANA/AP. 

Below is a conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman, conducted via email over the last few days, on last weekend's strikes on Syria.

Brad Nelson: So, Yohanes, what’s your take on America’s latest round of airstrikes on Syria?

Yohanes Sulaiman: Trump just lobbed a few missiles that will not change the reality on ground. And seeing that he already declared "Mission Accomplished," that means there's no way he is going to escalate the situation further.

On the flip side, there's no way the Russians will allow Assad to lose, but at the same time, I doubt if they really want to escalate this into a war.

All of them know it. Trump knows that Putin will not escalate and Putin knows that Trump will not escalate further. This is a game of full information.

BN: What's new, to me anyway, is that Trump actually went after Syria's chemical weapons facilities. The previous US air strikes on Assad were symbolic, really. In April 2017, Trump targeted the Shayrat airbase, which was quickly repaired. It mostly a show of force, no more than that. Now, the latest attack set back Syria's chemical weapons program. The other thing is that Trump ordered the attack as part of a minilateral coalition, with Britain and France as partners; it wasn't a pure unilateral act against Syria. In some ways, that's reassuring. It shows that, at least when national interests converge, Trump is able to work well with others internationally, at least temporarily. 

Overall, though, the Syria attack revealed the utter chaos inside Trump's national security team and the confusion of Team Trump on Syria. One day, Trump wants to stay in Syria for years, helping to build an on-the-ground force significant enough to prevent ISIS from re-emerging and Iran from spreading its tentacles. The next, Trump wants out as soon as possible. The latter position, getting out of Syria, seems to be the policy de jour, as reports indicate the US seeks to pull out quickly and put an Arab force in its place. That probably won't work and carries risks, but, okay, fine, Trump wants out of Syria. I see the logic of that thinking. And it's consistent with his America First platform.

Yet at the same time, Trump pushed the military for a quick, harsh engagement against Assad. In response, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the generals wanted to route the attack through Congress, to provide legislative oversight, and had to pressure Trump to back down and settle for a more selective, pinprick attack. Now, this turn of events is puzzling. A more devastating attack on Assad would've been extremely risky. It could've triggered a military response from Russia and Iran. And that, in turn, could've pulled the US deeper into the Syrian conflict, which runs counter to Trump's stated preference for staying/getting out of foreign wars.

In part, I'm sure this mushy thinking is product of Trump's emotional, erratic, narcissistic personality. But maybe this also portends the future of Trump's security team going forward, especially given the rise of new NSA John Bolton, a notorious hawk. In short, we might see even more visible fractures between moderates and hawks on various foreign policy crises. If so, we're going to have to hope that the generals (the moderates) have enough influence and are persuasive enough to override the Bolton wing in the White House.

YS: I am not sure how much the attack set back Syria's chemical weapons program. Once Syria know how to make such WMDs, it just needs to stockpile enough and then hide it all over the country. It is not as complicated as running a nuclear weapon program. And with Russia or Iran willing to provide them with as many ingredients as Syria wants, Assad can likely just rebuild it all again.

But I agree that this may be different in the sense that Trump was able to actually bring a coalition to do the dirty work: Britain and France. Granted, they often working closely with the United States (e.g. Libya), but for unilateralist Trump, this is actually an encouraging development. I hope he learns this lesson when he is going to deal with Kim Jong Un in a few weeks!

On your comment on chaos in the Trump's administration, I suspect that things are actually far more stable than we think it is. Maybe I am spending too much time writing and not really paying much attention to the news lately, but seems that after the resignation of Tillerson, the Trump administration is actually moving with one voice. Obviously there are squabbles (e.g. Bolton demanding a much stronger response), but isn't that normal in any deliberations? I mean, think about RFK’s "Thirteen Days," which chronicled the Cuban Missile Crisis, where you have so many options being discussed, including a full force invasion to Cuba that could have triggered a Third World War.

I mean, Trump has his policy preferences, which is, as Kori Schake notes, that he wants to pull US out of Syria, preferring instead to position the US as an off-shore balancer, let the Arabs and other powers share the responsibility to police their own hot spots, and then, once in a while, when he is watching innocent civilians get gassed, demand the military to lob missiles to make his point. Seems like a pretty good policy, actually, rather than declaring a red line that everybody in the end crosses without much repercussions.

BN: On the impact of the attack, yeah, I'm probably being a bit generous to the White House. And the US military has admitted that Assad likely has more chemical weapons stockpiles elsewhere in Syria. Still, it seems the attack was effective, at least in a very narrowly defined sense: the US degraded Assad's ability to use and manufacture chemical weapons.

I still stand by my claim that the Trump team is riddled with chaos and confusion. You're right, every country, regardless of location or regime type, experiences foreign and domestic policy divisions, even sharp fractures. Indeed, this has been an endemic feature of US policy for years. Some would even argue that that is a feature, not a bug, of democratic, decentralized US policymaking. So, sure, this problem isn't just a Trump problem. That said, the internal divisions within Team Trump do seem more than a bit unusual. There has been constant turnover in senior positions in the White House: prominent names like Tillerson, McMaster, Priebus, Hicks, Cohn, Spicer, The Mooch, Flynn, Comey, and a bunch more are all gone.

Furthermore, name an issue and you'll find mixed messages broadcast publicly since day one of Trump's tenure in office. You'll also find constant turf wars and public rebukes involving Trump's security team, and his administration more broadly. Who can forget the very public, open infighting between Reince Priebus and The Mooch? Which lead to the infamous quote:  "I'm a Wall Street guy. I'm more of a front-stabbing person." That's been present on an array foreign and security issues as well. See the various public battles: Rex v. TrumpTrump v. MattisTrump v. HaleyHaley v. Kudlow, Trump v. McMasterKushner v. Miller and Bannon, and so on. It's wild. And it's attributable to Trump. He's confessed that he thrives on conflict and chaos. He's stated: “I like conflict, I like watching it, I like seeing it, and I think it's the best way to go." This is how he operated the Trump Organization and it's how he runs the White House.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Giving Trump Credit on North Korea

Previously, on this blog, I’ve written critically of US President Donald Trump’s approach to the ongoing North Korean crisis. In short, I’ve believed Trump’s bellicose statements and tweets were the wrong track to use against a weak and insecure Kim regime. Threats of force play into the longstanding narrative that the US seeks to overthrow Kim and has imperial ambitions on the Korean Peninsula, which only reinforces Kim’s desire to advance the nation’s nuclear program and makes that program ever more popular among north Korean citizens. And more generally, history has shown that olive branches, of various shapes and sizes, have been more effective in getting North Korean to the negotiating table. While getting the North Koreans to the table isn’t an final end goal, it’s one small goal along a line of many different goals, leading, I would hope, to a negotiated deal of some sort between the US and North Korea (and possibly also South Korea and China).  

The latest news, which I’m sure you’ve all heard about by now, is that Kim has made an offer—via South Korea—to meet Trump later this year. Whether this is the product of American actions (sanctions, military muscle in the area) and statements, diplomatic moves by South Korea, dumb luck, or all of the above, it doesn’t matter. What matters most is that Trump is fully on board with the diplomatic track on North Korea.

Yes, it’s true that members of his administration have done quite a bit of behind the scenes diplomatic legwork over the last year. Most notably, Rex Tillerson, among others, has spent time strengthening the US-South Korea-Japan coalition, in the hopes that a united front can deter Kim from further provocative moves, get him to back down, and go the negotiating route. The problem is that Trump has sent mixed messages in response to Tillerson’s efforts, saying, on the one hand, that he doesn’t want war, but, at the same time, expressing his belief that Tillerson was wasting his time.  

For now, Trump deserves some kudos. In a chaotic and very unconventional way, he’s gotten Kim to reach out to the US. This is a very good development. It seems like it should be self-evident, though in this political climate I fear it’s not: Lowering tensions, reducing the likelihood for war on the Korean peninsula, is good for the US and North Korea, sure, but also South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia, as well as Asia more broadly and the world. And while Trump critics, those on the left and right, worry that the run-up to the meeting and the meeting itself offer ample opportunities for Trump to inflame relations with North Korea, let’s be fair. The fact that Ttrump got Kim to make the first move is a clear win for Trump and the US. 

Moreover, Trump has bucked the conventional wisdom that “too much prep” needs to be done, on both sides, before a Trump-Kim meeting. The prep argument has always seemed like an excuse to prevent the US from engaging in high-level talks. I'm not dismissing some pre-diplomacy legwork as necessary, to be clear. But I do believe that most of those who espouse this logic are making it not because of comitted stance in favor of preparedness but because they have an overly negative, harsh view of Trump (his personality, intellect, etc.), which may or may not have any basis in reality. Besides, talking just to talk—the fear among some, that the talks will therefore be aimless and thus pointless—isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it can help establish an improved personal relationship between Kim and Trump and pave the way for better broader North Korea-US ties. Think of it this way: by May 2018, Kim may have met the US president more times he's met with Xi Jinping, China's president. 

Furthermore, Trump, it appears, has discarded the notion—or at a minimum, he’s not constrained by the notion—that meeting with Kim accords him way too much prestige. That’s mostly hooey. Yes, a summit with Trump will probably enhance kim’s standing domestically, inside of North Korea, as North Korean citizens see him together, on the same stage, with the president of the US. But internationally? Probably not. Which state(s) will change it’s views of Kim and North Korea after one lone set of face-to-face talks with Trump? Consider this: Did the Iran nuclear deal radically alter how the international community sees Iran? Nope. The world, by and large, still sees Iran as a human rights violator and regional instigator of violence and instability—and that’s despite the almost unanimous recognition that Iran is complying with the deal. I’d expect something similar with respect to North Korea.

But here’s the other thing to think about: Should Trump care that a meeting with Kim might enhance Kim’s standing and prestige? Somewhat, but that shouldn’t be a dominant focus, right? But that’s not what the critics are suggesting, at least implicitly. That’s preposterous, though. It’s the cutting off of one’s nose to spite one’s face syndrome, actually. It’s far more important to make diplomatic progress with North Korea than be concerned about how Kim is viewed and treated domestically and globally. And honestly, if Kim does elevate his image in the world, it’s not from one singular meeting with the US, but from consistently complying with the rules and norms and laws of the extant international system. And that should be his—and any dictator’s—reward for coming out of the cold and meaningfully engaging with the world.