Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, December 22, 2019

India's Rough and Tumble 2019

Protesters participate in a mass rally against the Indian government's Citizenship Amendment Act in Kolkata on Dec. 16.
Protesters participate in a mass rally against the Indian government's Citizenship Amendment Act in Kolkata on Dec. 16. DIBYANGSHU SARKAR/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

In 2019, Western news has focused on several themes, many of which, not surprisingly, are connected to US President Donald Trump and his policies, such as Trump's impeachment, US-China (trade and technology) relations, the viability and future of NATO, the continued presence of anti-democratic populist leaders, the spike in white nationalism and white nationalist violence, Brexit, and so on. The intense focus on Trump has squeezed out almost any room for several very important but overlooked events and issues in 2019. Here, in this blog post, there's one specific case I'd like to focus on, one that's in need of more attention by a wider audience. In short, in my mind, the country to watch in 2019—and arguably, in 2020, as well—has been India. 

India has been roiled by turmoil and violence this past year. In February, India engaged in a dangerous tit-for-tat military exchange with nuclear-armed neighbor Pakistan over a terrorist bombing in India-administered Kashmir. India went on the offensive and attacked a Jaish-e-Mohammed camp in Pakistan, Pakistan responded with an air strike across the Line of Control, and the subcontinent looked as if it was on the precipice of a catastrophic war. Indeed, as Paul Staniland points out, "With an Indian pilot in Pakistani hands, the crisis looked as though it might escalate, and there are credible reports that India threatened missile strikes against Pakistan, amidst efforts at crisis management by third parties. Pakistan soon returned the captured pilot to India and the crisis abated." 

In August, under the guise of building a more cohesive Indian state, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Home Minister Amit Shah, begun deeply tightening its control over Jammu and Kashmir. The government removed article 370 of the constitution, thereby stripping Jammu and Kashmir of its special autonomous status, and relegated the region to the status of "union territory." At the same time, the government cracked down on political dissidents and opponents and enacted an Internet and phone blackout in these two areas. It's a combustible situation that has yet to be fully resolved, as political opponents and human rights activists attest. 

More recently, on December 11, the BJP government passed "The Citizenship Amendment Bill," which "would give many citizens of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh the opportunity to apply for Indian citizenship based on their beliefs alone. But the Bill stipulates they must be Hindu, Christian, Sikh, Jain, Parsi or Buddhist; Muslims are not listed." This, in turn, has triggered waves of protests and demonstrations throughout India, home to roughly two hundred million Muslims who are feeling targeted and repressed by the BJP. But it’s not only Muslims who are on edge, it’s local student and activists and advocates who fear that India is backsliding away from its longstanding commitment to democracy and human rights and moving toward an ethno-religious authoritarian state.

In the end, the bill has predictably turned up the political heat in India, triggering violence, bloodshed, and a heavy-handed crackdown led by the state. According to the Washington Post, “In an effort to try to quell the protests, the Indian government has detained thousands and turned off Internet access in several cities. Those actions appear to have only further incited the protesters and prompted more violence. Friday marked a particularly bloody day for cities in the country’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, as 15 protesters in several cities lost their lives, according to state police officials. Internet in 15 cities remained suspended in the state Saturday. Despite these curbs, the protests show no signs of abating, and at least four demonstrations took place across Delhi, the capital region.”

What's going on here? What's explains India's behavior in 2019? The oft-told story about India nowadays is that the government is helmed by ardent Hindu nationalists who seek to remake the state and society in line with their ethno-politico preferences and interests. According to this narrative, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his BJP are a bunch of hardcore Hindu nationalists, and once they captured power in 2014, they were then in a position to act on their ethno-political dreams. And since coming into office, Modi, through word and legislation and other forms of political action, has operationalized Hindu nationalism as both a political means and a political end to be achieved. Yes, it’s an end, because a Hindu state is the ultimate goal for the BJP.

But it’s also a useful means to various ends, because pro-Hindu policies are popular among the BJP’s base of support and they strengthen the party’s hold onto power, both of which fuel the government’s ability to get its way on politics and policy. Modi himself has wielded Hindu nationalism as a magic wand for his and his party’s advantage. Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer nicely captures this point. Bremmer argues that electoral pressures—specifically, the spring 2019 parliamentary elections—and a weakening economy directly led Modi to double down on Hindu nationalism. He writes: “India’s economy began to slow, a product of the external global market environment, continued structural challenges on the domestic front and short-sighted government policies. Modi opted to turn to Hindu nationalism to bolster his poll numbers, a decision that helped him perform better than expected in national elections in spring 2019. And after securing reelection, Modi continued leaning his shoulder into Hindu nationalism, while neglecting issues like land reform or reducing trade barriers.”

The other crucial element here—one that has received far less attention—is that we’re witnessing some of the fits and spurts associated with a power rising on the world stage. History tells us that it can be very disruptive when rising powers, which are usually revisionist to some degree in nature, seek a larger place in the world: the rising power, pushing outward and placing stress on the extant regional and world orders, wants more influence and power; status quo powers, meantime, are reluctant to grant such things, fearing a diminution of their status regionally and globally. We’re now seeing the early stages of this process playing out in India’s rise. India is clearly a rising power and sees itself as such, wants to be recognized as a global power, and it is becoming far less inclined to compromise on what it perceives as its core national interests. Under Modi, India is no longer interested in punching below its weight on global affairs; it seeks a place at the table of great powers, whether they like it or not. Admittedly, while India’s foreign policy isn’t nearly as expansionist or aggressive as China’s is these days, it’s evident that Delhi is flaring its elbows a bit in search of influence and prestige commensurate with its growing material power. This is causing India to butt heads with Pakistan, of course, but also potentially with China, the US, and Russia.

Finally, let’s touch on the implications of all of this. In particular, what is the global impact of all of India’s moves in 2019? And what kind of blowback might India face? There are lots of ways to answer this question. For the sake of brevity, I’ll limit my remarks to three central points.

First, India’s overt Hindu nationalist play risks degrading the nation’s soft power. According to Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Woodrow Wilson center, “These protests have hurt the government’s image....Global perceptions are shifting-and that’s no small matter for a nation that has long enjoyed a relatively positive image abroad and considerable soft power.” While this is probably true for the short-run, especially as images of violence leak out to the world, it’s less clear that it will hold over the long-term. Ultimately, the global fallout of the domestic turmoil depends on how Modi and his BJP deal with India’s festering social and political divisions. Do they attempt damage control, reaching out and protecting the rights of distressed citizens and inhabitants of India and resisting the siren song of Hindu tyranny—perhaps by limiting the implementation of the proposed National Registry? If they do, foreign countries that value human rights, especially the Western powers consumed with China’s dominance, will be more than happy to forgive and forget India’s rough and tumble 2019.

Second, 2019 has definitively raised the stakes in South Asia. For roughly the past 20 years, Pakistan counted on a level of restraint from India in response to regional events—terror attacks, Kashmir, missile tests, etc.—which has allowed it to poke and prod and undermine Indian interests. It would no longer be wise for Pakistan to assume India will exhibit such restraint going forward, even in its relations with Pakistan. Moreover, it should not assume that nuclear deterrence will necessarily, automatically hold each side at bay. Highly nationalist India and Pakistan are demonstrating a greater willingness to defend and protect their interests, take chances and embrace reckless foreign policies, and accept costs along the way. This is an alarming situation, particularly considering the subcontinent’s history of inter-state rivalry and ethnic divides, stockpiles of nuclear arms, and presence of terror groups.

Third, there is a chance that relations with the US could be adversely impacted. Frankly, at this point, the Trump administration doesn’t seek to pick a fight with India over its domestic policies—which makes sense, given Trump’s policy of mostly staying out of the business of other countries’ internal politics. If Trump turns up the heat on India anytime soon, it will be because of its trade and broader economic policy. Moreover, Trump and his acolytes value India’s role as a potential local counterbalancer to China’s movement and expansion in South Asia and the Indian Ocean. After all, the reason the US government has changed the name of its Asia policy from “Asia-Pacific” to “Indo-Pacific” is to highlight India’s growing importance in US foreign policy.

The bigger problem for India are America’s democrats.  Just last week, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar canceled a meeting a US Congressional Foreign Affairs Committee because of the presence of Washington Democrat Pramila Jayapal, who, along with the so-called Squad, has been openly critical of the Modi government, its human rights policy, and its cozy relationship with Donald Trump. Indeed, “Jayapal has introduced a bi-partisan resolution in the House calling for an end to the restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir and for the Government of India to respect international human rights law.” This, as should be expected, has triggered the ire of the BJP.

In general, as long as the Trump White House continues to downplay human rights and the state of global democracy in its foreign policymaking, Congressional Democrats will harp on these issues, as they try to make the case that they, not Trump or his Republican Party, are the only ones in the US capable of formulating and implementing an ethical, moral policy platform. And if a Democrat takes the White House in the November 2020 election, she or he will face pressure from the liberal base to depart from Trump’s convention of turning a blind eye to human rights abuses and democratic backsliding worldwide. My guess is that a Democratic foreign policy will primarily critique and pressure China, North Korea, and Russia, among other nations, though India probably won’t get a free pass from America’s left. That, in turn, will create friction in Delhi-Washington ties, thereby requiring deft diplomacy to ensure relations don’t suffer a severe setback from the previous decade of bilateral progress and momentum.     

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Impact of the Death of al-Baghdadi

Image result for al baghdadi
Photo: AP.

Below is a conversation between Drs. Brad Nelson and Yohanes Sulaiman on the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. It was conducted via email over the last week. 

Brad Nelson: There are a lot of things happening in Syria lately. Basically, it's been non-stop Syria news for the last few weeks or so. Here, in this exchange, let’s focus on much-discussed, much-hyped event: the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of ISIS. What do you make of it? And what kind of impact will it have on ISIS?

Yohanes Sulaiman: While the death of al Baghdadi is significant in terms of PR for Trump and a blow to the ego of the ISIS, in a larger strategic picture, this does not have that much of an impact. ISIS has been in decline for the past few years. ISIS managed to get big because the conditions were right: Syria was in disarray while Iraq's government has lacking in legitimacy, providing fertile grounds for ISIS to grow and to gain a significant chuck of territory. Due to its brutality, though, ISIS ended up being hated and hounded by everyone. And its opponents have gotten wiser in dealing with it—e.g. attacking its internet propaganda infrastructure, establishing improving deradicalization programs, etc. While ISIS-inspired lone wolf attacks remain a problem, it is not that significant of a threat.

What next for ISIS? I think a collaboration with al Qaeda (AQ) probably its best option. Based on the fact that al Baghdadi was found in a stronghold of AQ in Syria, the two groups probably reached an accommodation of some sort.

BN: I see al-Baghdadi's death as simply accelerating trends that are already in motion. It pushes the group further toward decentralization. As the caliphate crumbled and its fighters have gone underground, ISIS has less sway over its affiliates and franchises. And without a credible leader right now, that's even more so the case. And then there's the prospect that al-Baghdadi's successor will likely lack his military, religious, and organizational credentials. If the next ISIS leader is a step back from al-Baghdadi in terms of respect and prestige, there's the chance that its affiliates will try to take advantage of the situation by broadening and deepening their autonomy from ISIS HQ and a few might even defect, sliding toward AQ. 

There is already lots of talk of ISIS lashing out now--as it seeks to avenge al-Baghdadi's death, remain relevant, and forestall any defections. Sure, we might see an uptick in ISIS-related violence.  However, keep in mind that ISIS was already very violent, wielding violence almost indiscriminantly, so I really don't anticipate too much change there. 

Bruce Hoffman has argued that an AQ-ISIS merger (or really a re-merger) could well happen. I'm a little more skeptical, at least for now. Yes, collaboration is something ISIS could opt for, but it would probably be unwise at the moment. AQ knows that ISIS is in flux (having lost its leader and recently promoted a possible neophyte), and as a result, al-Zawahiri is likely to see ISIS as weakened and desperate. AQ has the bargaining leverage. If ISIS wants to work with AQ, then AQ would be smart to demand it happening on AQ's terms. Would ISIS go for that? It’s unknown at this point, especially since we don't know much about al-Hashemi thus far.

My expectation is this: Rather than working with ISIS, I expect AQ to try to drive the stake in ISIS's heart by attempting to sow further divisions within ISIS and even press ISIS affiliates to switch teams. Why fold (in its competition with ISIS) when AQ has an opportunity to win the game, so to speak?

YS: Keep in mind that ISIS and its ilk can only be successful under narrow main conditions: first is the weaknesses of the states where they operate, and second, when states are simply unprepared to deal with these groups. So, I don't think we will see an emergence of a third group or reemergence of both AQ and ISIS as a global jihadist network at this point. Syria and Iraq are still in a mess, but they are stabilizing, and the populace are totally alienated due to ISIS brutality. Afghanistan remains a weak state, but the Taliban is more of a local phenomenon than an international movement. Same thing with Somalia and Nigeria. Terrorists there are really a product of local movements that tried to link themselves to a global jihadist movement. And nowadays states are far more prepared to deal with the reemergence of the new al-Qaeda or ISIS. Granted, this does not rule out any lone wolf attacks, but as John Mueller notes, especially in the US, the risk of a terrorist attack is very low, and in Europe, the police are much wiser to deal with the threats. And financing, especially from the Gulf States, is drying up. While terrorists may be able to work with local jihadist groups or criminal groups for financing, it seems to me that ISIS might find it harder than al Qaeda due to its extremism.

BN: Iraq and Syria are among the most chaotic, unstable, and violent states in the world. There are ample opportunities for AQ and ISIS to re-emerge there if the metaphorical foot is taken off their throats. Plus, ISIS still has anywhere from 14-18,000 foot soldiers, so that group still has a deep bench, with arms, and millions of dollars the group has squirreled away.

Regarding AQ: AQ is still very strong in Iraq and Syria. Research from Colin Clarke and Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, among others, on the political dynamics in Syria says that AQ has embedded itself in local structures and populations in Syria, and it's going to be hard to remove the group. And AQ has had a longstanding presence in Sunni Iraqis areas since shortly after the US invasion in 2003.

All of this, in combination with some of the things I've already said in this exchange, leads me to believe that both groups are still formidable, though ISIS is the more dangerous global terrorist group. It's a desperate, decentralized group looking to remain relevant and important globally. It's very likely seeking quick "wins" right now. AQ is playing a different game. It doesn't have the same short-term, narrow perspective. There is also accumulating evidence that AQ has learned the lessons of its past, learned from the mistakes of ISIS, and learned from the "successes" of groups like Hezbollah. As a result, AQ is biding its time, regrouping and establishing momentum in the broader Middle East. And for those reasons, AQ isn't quite the global threat that ISIS is, in my view. 

BN: The one last point I’d like to make concerns the organizational literature’s thoughts on the death of al-Baghdadi. Jacob Shapiro, Jenna Jordan, and others others, have written on how mature, bureaucratized, layered terrorist organizations that have targeted wellsprings of support can withstand the loss of key leaders. These groups have built-in rules and processes that allow militants to get promoted up the ranks as needed; they also have the requisite base of support to replenish the ranks as militants either get promoted, killed, or simply defect from the organization.

This, of course, doesn’t describe all terror groups. Many groups are young, fragile, and very reliant on a leader. By contrast, ISIS is a classic example of a bureaucratized group with a strong base of support—both locally, regionally, and internationally. ISIS has the infrastructure to move into a post-Baghdadi era. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. But for those expecting ISIS to fade away, well, that’s unlikely. 

The good part, though, is that the group isn't nearly the global menace it was in 2015, it's unlikely to recapture its past glory and power, and it has been plagued by what Max Abrahms calls "stupid" leadership

In short, ISIS faces a dilemma. It can go underground, rest and recover, but risk getting eclipsed once again by AQ. This is the safe choice. Or it can continue to act as an impulsive, ultra-violent organization, in order to retain global brand visibility and attention. This is the risky and arguably dumbest choice. Because in remaining violent, killing everyone and everything in its path, ISIS will remain the subject of a harsh counterterrorism measures by states around the world. And those counterterrorism efforts will make life very difficult for the group and its members. They degrade ISIS's capabilities, create a brain drain through attrition, and effectively hem in the group. My guess is that ISIS will chose the second option. This will keep the group in the news and as a global threat to security, but also ensure that it is constantly hounded and on the run.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art 370. as Peace Dividend in Kashmir

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

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

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

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

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

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

Implications for Domestic and International Security

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 8, 2019

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

Photograph: Mario Tama/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 1, 2019

War With Iran? Or Much Ado About Nothing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

An Update on North Korea

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Turmoil in Venezuela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Mueller Report

Photo: Robert Mueller/Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Terror in New Zealand

Jacinda Ardern, wearing a headscarf, walks to mourners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Hanoi Summit

                                                                                                   Photo: Getty Images

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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