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Foreign Policy

All articles with the "Foreign Policy" tag.

Published: Thu, 27 Jul 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Thu, 27 Jul 2017 14:51:54 -0400


Congress Wants to Make It Harder for Trump to Pursue Peace, Easy as Ever for Trump to Pursue War

Mon, 24 Jul 2017 16:40:00 -0400

Congress is finally asserting its role in U.S. foreign policy. Unfortunately, it's not acting to curb a decade and a half of often aimless interventions around the world, let alone to curb the president's power to unilaterally commit the U.S. military to action, as President Donald Trump did when he bombed a Syrian government airfield, as he threatens to do with North Korea, and as President Barack Obama did in Libya in 2011. Instead, Congress passed legislation to tighten sanctions against Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and to prevent the president from easing those sanctions on his own. It passed with a veto-proof majority, and the White House has signaled the president is likely to sign it. That would make it harder for the president to defuse international tensions. But it remains easy for him to escalate tensions. Congress, after all, has showed no interest in reining in the White House's war-making powers. The House leadership just killed an effort by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to repeal the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force, which has been used to provide legal justification for virtually every U.S. military endeavor since the Iraq War, the last conflict that got its own authorization. The U.S. imposed sanctions on Moscow in 2014 in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea. The sanctions did not end the fighting in Ukraine or return Crimea to Ukraine. They did not encourage dialogue between the U.S. and Russia or between Ukraine and Russia. They did help further deteriorate U.S.-Russia relations. This new set of sanctions is aimed at "punishing" Russia for attempting to "influence" the American presidential election. That's not helpful for anything but domestic political rhetoric. Combining sanctions against Russia, which still has normal diplomatic relations with the U.S., and sanctions against North Korea and Iran, so-called "rogue states" which do not have anything resembling normal diplomatic relations with the U.S., don't make them any more palatable. Instead, it's a troubling reminder that one of the easiest way to build a coalition in Washington is around warmongering. Last year's presidential campaign was the third consecutive election where the nominee who advocated better relations with Russia won. Donald Trump ran for president in part on the idea that the U.S. was doing too much around the globe, and specifically rejecting Hillary Clinton's brand of anti-Russia saber-rattling. Perhaps surprisingly, he was able to win the Republican primary while explicitly rejecting the foreign policy doctrines of George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. Trump's early actions in Syria and toward North Korea suggest he's since embraced the role of the U.S. as "world policeman" after all. Leading Democrats, meanwhile, have blamed Russia for Clinton's loss, leading them to embrace far more anti-Russian attitudes than in the Obama era. While Romney was wrong to call Russia America's number one geopolitical foe, Obama too was wrong. Russia is not America's greatest geopolitical foe, and it does not even have to be a geopolitical foe at all. But it is a geopolitical power whose interests will not always align with the U.S.'s, and that's OK. In many of these instances, such as the row over Ukraine that led to the first round of sanctions, there are few compelling American interests for Russia to be at odds with to begin with. Ukraine is not a member of NATO and offers no strategic benefit to the United States. If anything, U.S. involvement in the region reduces the pressure on Ukraine—and on other regional powers, namely the European Union—from taking responsibility for resolving the crisis. Some European countries, incidentally, are worried that new American sanctions could hurt them. Specifically, Germany and Austria worry that the sanctions could threaten Europe's energy supplies, which rely on Russia. American energy companies warned that an earlier version of the bill, which prohibited U.S. companies from participating in any project anywhere in the world where Russian c[...]

Trump to Cut CIA Program That Arms Syrian Rebels. Good—Now Cut the Pentagon's Program, Too.

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 14:55:00 -0400

The Trump administration is reportedly cutting a CIA program that has provided arms to Syrian rebels since 2013. This has provoked a heated reaction from a media obsessed with Russia, and from Russia hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who said such a decision would represent a "complete capitulation" to Bashar Assad, Russia, and Iran. But if anything, the decision doesn't go far enough. Congress should tell the Defense Department to stop equipping, arming, and training Syrians as well. These efforts go back to 2014, when the U.S. and Turkey partnered to aid "moderate" Syrian rebels. From the beginning, critics described the effort as a "disaster in the making." Militant factions backed by the CIA and the Pentagon have been fighting each other. U.S. arms have fallen into the hands of ISIS. Turkey, meanwhile, has become an increasingly unreliable partner as it descends into domestic authoritarianism. So stopping the program, while a small step, makes sense. Yet hysteria over Russia has prompted many pundits and politicians to oppose the change. CBS claims that the "timing of the decision raises questions for the White House" because of a previously undisclosed conversation President Donald Trump had with Russia President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit. But the "timing" isn't really suspicious: Trump called arming Syrian rebels a mistake as far back as September 2014, and he signaled after the election that he was likely to abandon the CIA arms program. U.S. policy on Syria is too important to get lost in this sort of reality-TV politics. Nor should it be guided by the tautological idea that Washington should refrain from doing anything that might please a nation seen as "unfriendly" to U.S. interests. The Washington Post calls the decision to stop the arms flow a "move sought by Moscow." Yes, but it's also a move sought by a majority of Americans, and it has been for years. Deployed now by Democrats interested in reigniting a Cold War with Moscow, the same "my enemy is my enemy" principle manifests when Republicans denounce the Iran nuclear deal. In neither instance does this produce good foreign policy results. Opposing the Iran deal merely because it might benefit Iran is no more sound than opposing disengagement in Syria merely because it might benefit Russia; the important question is whether it benefits the United States. Unfortunately, Trump's Syria policy has been far from consistent. In April, the U.S. launched missile strikes against a government airfield there, assuming the same "world's policeman" role that Trump insisted on the campaign trail that the U.S. couldn't play anymore. And the CIA program isn't the only way Washington has been arming combatants in Syria's civil war. Last December, Congress passed a bill authorizing the then-incoming Trump administration to give anti-aircraft weaponry to "vetted" rebels in Syria. The Pentagon authorization bill now making its way through Congress continues to cover Defense Department efforts to arm Syrian rebels. Only Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) voted against it after mark-up in the House Armed Services Committee, over concern that there wasn't enough oversight. It deserves to go on the same scrap pile as the CIA's effort.[...]

John McCain’s Flawed, Important Example in the Age of Trump

Thu, 20 Jul 2017 12:10:00 -0400

John McCain would be the first to tell you that it does no good to whitewash our heroes. In fact, as he has stressed throughout his six published books and untold thousands of media interviews, it's the imperfections and missteps of our best protagonists, coupled with the arduous and even hopeless natures of their quests, that make them worth studying in the first place. So as the senior Arizona senator grapples with brain cancer in the wake of blod-clot surgery, and the tripartisan tidal wave of sympathetic affection from Republicans, Democrats, and journalists overwhelms the strangled objections of sour contrarians, allow this critical ideological biographer of the man to suggest that it's precisely John McCain's mixture of high-minded virtue and low self-interest, of policy righteousness and interventionist overreach, that makes his a particularly educational example in the era of Donald Trump. Underlying these past hours' outpouring of tributes is the sense that McCain is a pre-Trump throwback to honor and decency, that his irascible independence is precisely what our system of checks and balances cries out for as the 45th president crashes through norm after norm. There is some important truth to that—for instance McCain's global barnstorming tour to reassure America's nervous allies that United States foreign policy involves more than just the whims of its unpredictable commander-in-chief. Few people with half his 80 years would have the stamina for such travel, and even fewer would be driven by such patriotic fire to do what he considers the right thing. But not all of McCain's policy judgments this year have been sound, not all of his motivations have been pure, and not many of Trump's excesses has he meaningfully opposed. The place where his instincts have gotten the worse of him on all of the above is precisely where his counsel is most taken seriously by the press: foreign policy. In March, the same man being praised today as a beloved elder statesman made the hideously false charge that one of his main Senate antagonists, Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), "is now working for Vladimir Putin" because Paul reasonably opposed bringing the troubled ex-Yugoslav country of Montenegro into NATO. (If it were up to McCain, the transatlantic military alliance would now include Georgia and Ukraine, and conditionally Bosnia and Macedonia as well.) During confirmation season, McCain, like all other GOP senators, waved through 90 percent of President Trump's picks, no matter how awful or inexperienced. For whom did he finally bring out the long knives? The perfectly qualified Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney, a former congressman and longtime fiscal conservative in good standing. What was the objection? That Mulvaney questions military as well as non-military spending, and is leery of open-ended missions abroad. "He's anti-defense," McCain charged at the time, inflammatorily. "He voted to remove all of our troops from Afghanistan....That's just bizarre." Being a relentless hawk in American politics means almost never having to say you're sorry for errant belligerence and interventions gone wrong (though Tucker Carlson is belatedly attempting to change that equation). McCain sidekick Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) will never not be invited on the Sunday chat shows to talk fixes to the foreign policy messes he actively egged on. But to a degree that I think many NeverTrump conservatives, and quite a few Hillary Clinton supporters, still have yet to honestly grapple with, the real-world deaths, global chaos, and long-distance quagmires we've been left with after all these fine-sounding Beltway plans are part of the reason we now have a vulgar insult-comic as president. As Ed Krayewski pointed out two weeks ago, a fascinating new research paper found "significant and meaningful relationship between a community's rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump....Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties that shouldered a disproportionate share of the w[...]

On Trump, Jr., Governments Lying, and A World in Disarray: The New Fifth Column

Thu, 13 Jul 2017 23:22:00 -0400

On July 21, Vice News is premiering on HBO a new feature length documentary on U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, titled A World in Disarray, based on a new book of the same name by former George H.W. Bush Middle East advisor and current Council of Foreign Relations poobah Richard Haass. The doc's main narrator and interlocutor (of such former leaders as Tony Blair, George Schultz, and Condoleezza Rice) is former Reasoner and current Vicer Michael C. Moynihan, one-third of the weekly podcast (and Sirius XM radio show!) The Fifth Column. Here's a preview:

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We spend a good chunk of this week's podcast chewing over the mixed-up status of the United States' role in global affairs, the elusive Goldilocks test for interventionism in the Middle East, and the existential angst of relinquishing control over events, with the help of Bloomberg View foreign policy columnist Eli Lake. And as you would expect, there's plenty of debate over the there-there of Donald Trump, Jr.'s dealing with Russians, and the administration's slippery relationship with the truth. Without spoiling too much, some of the phrases uttered include "dick descript," "lesbodians and 9/11," "the Bernard Henri-Levy of stupidity," and "Congratulations, Eli, on being such a spectacular Jew." Listen to the whole thing here:

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Reminder: Over the weekend you can listen to an hour-long version of The Fifth Column on Sirius XM POTUS (channel 124) Saturdays at 11 a.m. ET then Sundays at 1 a.m. and 3 p.m. And you can always find more Fifth Column at iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play,, @wethefifth, and Facebook.

Trump's Narrow View of 'Civilization'

Thu, 06 Jul 2017 17:12:00 -0400

"I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken," President Donald Trump vowed near the end of his doctrine-defining speech today in Warsaw's Krasinski Square. "Our values will prevail, our people will thrive, and our civilization will triumph." Set rhetorically and physically against the backdrop of Poland's inspiring courage and perseverance in the face of long adversity, Trump's address, at turns apocalyptic and motivational, was an attempt to summon similar will to the shared project of defeating radical Islamic terrorism. "Together let us all fight like the Poles: for family, for freedom, for country, and for God," he said. But Trump's policy recommendations for this clash of civilizations were disproportionately inward-looking, borderline paranoid; and his depiction of what constitutes "Western" values was cramped and incomplete. The foundation of the modern "West" as applied to Europe is about more than just faith and family and NATO (the latter of which the president was careful to emphasize in this Russophobic, alliance-loving former satellite state). Free Europe as we know it was built upon free trade, and as Donald Trump will hear earfuls about over the coming days, his mercantilist, zero-sum views on international exchange threaten to inflict harm on the very civilization he aims to protect. To confront the "oppressive ideology" of expansionist Islam, the president today pointed largely to immigration policies, surely music to the ears of the Polish government, which, like those in Hungary and Austria, is currently taking flak from the European Union for refusing to admit relocated refugees. "While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people," Trump said to applause, "our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind…. We cannot accept those who reject our values and who use hatred to justify violence against the innocent." Trump then identified two other sources of trouble that threaten to erode western resolve: the "destabilizing activities" and "support for hostile regimes" by nearby Russia (which may or may not have been target of the immediately preceding paragraph, which covered "propaganda, financial crimes, and cyberwarfare"), and also…well, would you believe bureaucracy? Finally, on both sides of the Atlantic, our citizens are confronted by yet another danger—one firmly within our control. This danger is invisible to some but familiar to the Poles: the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people. The West became great not because of paperwork and regulations but because people were allowed to chase their dreams and pursue their destinies. This is where not just Trumpism, but a whole lot of libertarianism and conservatism, collides into a paradox. Trump is entirely right that the West became great in large part through "allowing every man to pursue his own interest his own way, upon the liberal plan of equality, liberty and justice," as Adam Smith put it in 1776, at the dawn of modern liberalism. This brilliant new idea in admittedly imperfect settings changed the world forever. "The boldness of commoners pursuing their own interests resulted in a Great Enrichment—a rise in Europe and the Anglosphere of real, inflation-corrected incomes per head, from 1800 to the present, by a factor, conservatively measured, of about 30," the economist Deirdre McCloskey wrote in these pages earlier this year. So what's the paradox? In an E.U. setting, that the transnational body itself has been the single most effective mechanism for reducing barriers to trade and movement throughout the bloc. Americans look at Brussels and imagine Bernie Sanders or Bill de Blasio, forever soaking the rich and telling farmers how to curve their bananas. But many Europeans recognize it as the body that dismantled state ownership of airlines and car factories, and allowed Polish plumbers[...]

Did Endless War Cost Hillary Clinton the Presidency?

Mon, 03 Jul 2017 17:31:00 -0400

A new study attributes Donald Trump's victory last year to communities hit hardest by military casualties and angry about being ignored. These voters, the authors suggest, saw Trump as an "opportunity to express that anger at both political parties." The paper—written by Douglas Kriner, a political scientist at Boston University, and Francis Shen, a law professor at the University of Minnesota—provides powerful lessons about the electoral viability of principled non-intervention, a stance that Trump was able to emulate somewhat on the campaign trail but so far has been incapable of putting into practice. The study, available at SSRN, found a "significant and meaningful relationship between a community's rate of military sacrifice and its support for Trump." The statistical model it used suggested that if Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin had suffered "even a modestly lower casualty rate," all three could have flipped to Hillary Clinton, making her the president. The study controlled for party identification, comparing Trump's performance in the communities selected to Mitt Romney's performance in 2012. It also controlled for other relevant factors, including median family income, college education, race, the percentage of a community that is rural, and even how many veterans there were. "Even after including all of these demographic control variables, the relationship between a county's casualty rate and Trump's electoral performance remains positive and statistically significant," the paper noted. "Trump significantly outperformed Romney in counties that shouldered a disproportionate share of the war burden in Iraq and Afghanistan." The president's electoral fate in 2020 "may well rest on the administration's approach to the human costs of war," the paper suggests. "If Trump wants to maintain his connection to this part of his base, his foreign policy would do well to be highly sensitive to American combat casualties." More broadly, the authors argue that "politicians from both parties would do well to more directly recognize and address the needs of those communities whose young women and men are making the ultimate sacrifice for the country." The most effective way of addressing their needs is to advance a foreign policy that does not see Washington as the world's policeman, that treats U.S. military operations as a last resort, and that rethinks the foreign policy establishment's expansive and often vague definition of national security interests. "America has been at war continuously for over 15 years, but few Americans seem to notice," Kriner and Shen write. "This is because the vast majority of citizens have no direct connection to those soldiers fighting, dying, and returning wounded from combat." This has often been cited as a reason that wars don't have much of an impact on elections. The war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001, wasn't mentioned as a policy concern in any of the three Clinton-Trump debates last year. The Trump administration's internal deliberations over whether to institute a troop surge have garnered little media coverage. When President Barack Obama campaigned for reelection in 2012, he bragged that he'd brought the Iraq war to an end and promised to do the same for the war to Afghanistan. In fact, Obama did not end the war in Iraq, a fact he admitted only after Republicans blamed the rise of ISIS on the end of the war, and the conflict in Afghanistan outlasted his tenure. His claims nevertheless received little pushback. Meanwhile, the principle of non-intervention, when articulated by politicians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), is often dismissed as unserious. "Simply being pro- or anti-intervention is not a useful way of thinking about foreign policy," Foreign Policy's Paul Miller wrote in 2014. Paul did not make it far through the 2016 election cycle, though it probably wasn't his antiwar ideas that sank him. His father, the far more radical Ron Pa[...]

Regime Change in Iran Is Neither Necessary Nor Prudent

Fri, 30 Jun 2017 13:30:00 -0400

There's mischief afoot in the White House, and it's the familiar mischief of regime change. Some in President Trump's advisory circle are reportedly pushing for an official embrace of regime change as the United States' policy toward Iran. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is at the forefront of this ill-advised endeavor. "I don't see how anyone can say America can be safe," he told Politico, "as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism" in Iran. Well, senator, let me explain. First, let's agree the government of Iran is an unsavory regime. Tehran has a well-documented record of human rights abuses, so Cotton's "theocratic despotism" label is not unfair. Iran also has a reputation for sponsoring terrorism and backing Syria's genocidal government. To be sure, the recent re-election of President Hassan Rouhani, who campaigned on a message of moderation and liberalization, is a step in the right direction. Rouhani's hardline opponent was considered the favorite of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his voters hailed the win as a victory for peace and positive international diplomacy. More importantly, younger Iranians are increasingly secular and pro-Western. They are challenging their government's strict social controls and have a positive view of America. As these generations mature and Khamenei's cohort dies off, political evolution (if not revolution) is likely. Still, it would be naïve to deny that the potentially free and open Iran of the future is not yet here. But it would be even more naïve—and dangerous, too—to make the leap from this basis to Cotton's support of U.S.-orchestrated regime change. The weight of pragmatic considerations here is enormous. Consider what happened in Iraq, the United States' biggest post-9/11 regime change project. What was sold as a necessary and relatively easy war has dragged on these 14 years. Iraq today is less stable than it was before American military intervention; it has become a breeding ground of terrorism, a festering sore oozing the poison of radicalism across the greater Mideast. We have little to show for more than a decade of nation-building efforts spread across three presidencies. With trillions spent and tens of thousands of American and Iraqi lives lost, no one can credibly say regime change in Iraq was a decision worth repeating. Apply the same approach to Iran, and the results will be more disastrous. Iran has more than double Iraq's population, and Iranians are better educated and more urbanized. Iran is more than triple Iraq's geographic size, and its economy and technological development are both superior to its neighbor to the east. Add to that the United States' history of meddling in Iran's internal affairs—recent history that is not forgotten and will keep Iranian moderates and reformers from being sympathetic to American goals— and the probability of a successful regime change imposed by Washington is exactly nil. The good news is there is no credible case such an effort is needed. Contra the threat inflation from Iran hawks, the country is fundamentally a regional power with bounded influence. It is a majority-Shiite state surrounded by Sunni enemies, most notably the well-armed and U.S.-supported Saudi Arabia. It is halfway across the globe from our shores, isolated from us by the world's largest natural moats, and would be laughably outmatched by the U.S. in conventional warfare. Moreover, American intelligence agencies have consistently and unanimously said since 2007 that Tehran is not engaged in a nuclear weapons program. And though hardly an American ally in the war on terror, Iran does join Washington in actively opposing the Islamic State, the chief terrorism threat we face today. This assessment of Iran's limited capabilities—not to mention the gross expense, risk, and instability regime change would unquestionably produce—is why foreign policy realists argue[...]

The Foolishness of Pursuing Regime Change in Iran

Thu, 29 Jun 2017 00:15:00 -0400

Hearing American policymakers talk about regime change is like watching Wile E. Coyote open a package of dynamite he ordered. No matter how clever his scheme, you know that sooner or later, he'll get blown up. He never seems to figure out that TNT is something to avoid. Some people in Washington are sick of trying to get the government of Iran to change its ways—which include financing terrorism, punishing dissent, and supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad. They have embraced another idea: Help topple the rulers in Tehran in hopes of getting someone more to our liking. This is a reminder of the maxim that for many people, the only use of history is to disregard it. The United States has a long history of fomenting regime change in other countries—including Iran, in a CIA-sponsored coup in 1953—and the results have generally been calamitous. Yet its appeal persists. While he was in Congress, CIA Director Mike Pompeo endorsed the removal of the existing government. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has called for a "peaceful transition" to a new regime in Iran. Among those captivated by the idea is Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas). He told Politico, "I don't see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism." How could America be safe as long as Russia was ruled by a blood-drenched Communist regime that enslaved half of Europe and had the capacity to destroy us in a nuclear holocaust? Through a strong military, firm alliances, and a missile arsenal that ensured our capacity to destroy it in return. The same approach that worked against a hostile superpower could work against a hostile non-superpower. But there have always been Americans who yearn for perfect safety. It's a snare. A certain amount of danger is unavoidable in a multinational world. And the dangers of trying to achieve total security turn out to be the worst dangers of all. It was not Iran that spawned the scariest enemy now on the horizon—the Islamic State group. It was the U.S. occupation of Iraq after we invaded in 2003 to, yes, topple the government. President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney were among those who thought America could never be safe as long as Saddam Hussein was in power. As it happened, America was safer with him than it has been without him. The invasion bogged us down in a bewildering civil war that left 36,000 Americans dead or wounded, destabilized the region, and expanded the influence of ... Iran. The theocratic despotism in Tehran is stronger today than it was in 2003. "Iran not only lost an enemy when Saddam was hanged, it gained an ally in the new Iraq," wrote Thomas Ricks, author of two books about the war. It also came out ahead when we invaded Afghanistan to bring down the Taliban government, another enemy of Tehran. Our reward was the opportunity to fight a war that has lasted 16 years and shows no sign of nearing the end. Regime change in Libya didn't go so well, either. Because it was hard to imagine that anything could be worse than the vicious rule of Moammar Gadhafi, President Barack Obama saw no downside in using air power to bring him down. But success was fleeting. Soon, Libya was embroiled in anarchy and overrun by the Islamic State, with repercussions far beyond its shores. "The instability in Libya and North Africa may be the most significant near-term threat to U.S. and allies' interests on the continent," Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, head of the U.S. Africa Command, said in March. A half-million of the refugees flooding Europe came from Libya. So did Salman Abedi, who killed 22 people in a suicide bombing in Manchester, England, last month. Faced with a perennially hostile government, our best bet is to use pressure and diplomacy to moderate its behavior—as Obama did with the Iranian nuclear deal. It's not ideal, but it's the best of our bad options. Relying on any[...]

As World Refugee Population Hits All-Time High, U.S. on Pace to Welcome Third-Lowest Percentage in Recorded History

Tue, 20 Jun 2017 13:05:00 -0400

Today, like every June 20 this century, is World Refugee Day. Yesterday, to get the grim occasion rolling, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released its annual report on displaced people. The results? A record "65.6 million people were forcibly displaced worldwide at the end of 2016 – a total bigger than the population of the United Kingdom and about 300,000 more than last year." Also: "the total seeking safety across international borders as refugees topped 22.5 million, the highest number seen since UNHCR was founded in 1950 in the aftermath of the Second World War." Happy June 20! The refugee population has spiked alarmingly over the past half-decade, due to civil war and societal breakdown in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, and South Sudan. As I detailed here after President Donald Trump's original travel ban executive order, the worldwide population of refugees (minus the 5.3 million registered with the UN Relief and Work Agency for Palestinians in the Near East), was stable between 2008-2012, at between 10.4 million and 10.6 million. But since then, according to the UNHCR, things have gone like this: 2013: 11.7 million 2014: 14.4 million 2015: 16.1 million 2016: 17.2 million That 64 percent jump since 2012 is the largest five-year increase since 1979-1983, a tumultuous period that saw southeast Asian boat people, exiles from the Iranian Revolution, Flordia Straits-crossers on the Mariel boatlift, and more. Back then, as the refugee population swelled from 6.3 million to 10.6 million, presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter took in an average of 127,000 refugees per yer*, or approximately one out of every 71 worldwide, and assumed a global leadership role in tackling a devilishly complex issue. How does the Trump administration compare? Consider that in the first four full months of his presidency, during this historic spike in displaced people, the United States admitted a total of 13,955 refugees. Over a full year that would be just a tick under 56,000, or one out of every 307 worldwide at last year's refugee population. Trump's target is actually lower than that (50,000), and the number of refugees in 2017 is almost certain to be higher, due to the four famines expected this year in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen, in addition to ongoing wars and civil conflict. And though we inevitably and understandably see such crises through the lens of our domestic policies, the UNHCR report is careful to underline that "Developing regions hosted 84 per cent of the world's refugees," led by Turkey (2.9 million), Pakistan (1.4 million), Lebanon (1.0 million), Iran (979,400), Uganda (940,800), and Ethiopia (791,600). Plenty of other fascinating nuggets, including Germany doubling its refugee population in 2016 alone, in the full report. * The U.S. measures its refugee intake by fiscal year (October-September), while the UNHCR adheres to the calendar. Even so, fiscal 2017, which includes four generous months of Barack Obama's intake (with more than 32,000 admitted), is currently on pace to represent the third-lowest percentage of global refugees taken in by the United States, at 0.35 percent (based on the UN's 2016 baseline of 17.2 million refugees). The only more stingy years on a percentage basis were George W. Bush's 2002 (0.25) and 2003 (0.29). More refugee number-crunching in this post, including this from Reason TV: src="" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen" width="560" height="340" frameborder="0">[...]

Interventionism and Domestic Russia Hysteria Ratchet Up Syria Tensions

Mon, 19 Jun 2017 14:44:00 -0400

An American warplane "immediately" shot down a Syrian fighter jet that the U.S. military accused of dropping bombs "near" U.S.-backed fighters in a town in the Raqqa province "in accordance with the rules of engagement and in collective self-defense of Coalition partnered forces," read a statement from the U.S. Central Command declares. The incident was preceded by an attack by pro-government forces on some U.S.-backed rebels nearby, and it was followed by a statement from Russia that it would suspend cooperation with the U.S. over Syria and treat coalition aircraft as potential targets. This escalation of tensions between the U.S. and Russia illustrates the dangers of wanton military intervention. The U.S.-led coalition in Syria is ostensibly focused on fighting ISIS, a terrorist organization that styles itself a caliphate. Yet the coalition acts independently of Russia, which was invited into Syria by the government, and it acts independently of countries like Iran, which have also been threatened by ISIS but are unwilling to follow the American line. The U.S.-led coalition has taken a lot of pressure off regional powers, even though ISIS threatens their security and territorial integrity far more than it threatens America. The presence of Western countries in the coalition has also reduced the need for states in the region to try to set aside their differences and cooperate on their own. America's toxic domestic climate when it comes to Russia has also made the situation in Syria more dangerous. Constant accusations of collusion between Moscow and the Donald Trump campaign have increased the political cost of cooperation with Russia. While Trump campaigned on improving relations with Russia, since assuming the presidency he has largely adopted the sorts of stances that Russia hawk Hillary Clinton might have been expected to take. Meanwhile, much of the mainstream media had an adulatory reaction to Trump's decision to bomb a Syrian airbase earlier this year—a response that taught Trump that "bold" military actions create strong political leaders. It's hard not to wonder whether this weekend's confrontation was influenced by the president's desire to shake off those accusations of Russia collusion. According to U.S. Central Command, pro-regime forces drove the rebels out of town. The coalition then "contacted its Russian counterparts by telephone via an established 'de-confliction line' to de-escalate the situation and stop the firing." It was after that, according to U.S. Central Command, that the Syrian plane dropped bombs near rebel forces and was subsequently shot down. "This strike can be regarded as another act of defiance of international law by the United States," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to CNN. "What was it, if not an act of aggression? It was also an act of assistance to those terrorists whom the United States is ostensibly fighting against." Russia's Ministry of Defense now says it will consider any coalition jet west of the Euphrates a potential target. The Euphrates runs, more or less, through the eastern portion of Syria. About two-thirds of the country—including Aleppo, its largest city, and Damascus, its capital—lie west of the Euphrates. The city of Raqqa, which ISIS claims as its capital, lies just north and east of the river. The pilot of the Syrian fighter jet was able to eject from the plane, but his fate is presently unknown.[...]

Trump's Wrong on Trade With Germany and a Liability to the Anti-NATO Argument

Sun, 04 Jun 2017 08:00:00 -0400

I've got a few leftover thoughts about Donald Trump's trip to Europe. (Here's what I said about the Middle East portion.) As usual, I oppose both Trump and his mainstream critics. It's possible for both sides to be wrong in a dispute. First, trade. Trump famously said to Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Union, "The Germans are bad, very bad. Look at the millions of cars that they're selling in the USA. Horrible. We're gonna stop that." I'm hoping that Trump is a demagogue who really knows better, because I can't believe that anyone could be so ignorant or unintelligent as to think that selling cars to Americans is evidence of badness. I never dreamed that someone who offered me high-quality products was trying to harm me. (He also says Chinese exporters "rape" us.) It's not just basic economics he'd have to be ignorant of; he'd also have to be clueless that German automakers have built cars in the United States for quite a while (the VW Passat, BMW X Series, Mercedes-Benz C-Class), most of them for export, at least in BMW's case. But even if they weren't building them here, who cares? It's been 241 years since Adam Smith showed that the wealth of nations (i.e., collections of individuals) equals access to products that make life better. "The division of labor"—one of the short list of things that make common people wealthy—"is limited by the extent of the market," Smith wrote. Global trade extends the market as far as possible—until intergalactic trade becomes feasible. It's been only slightly less time since David Ricardo spelled out the principle of comparative advantage, which further elaborated on the source of the gains from trade. (Spoiler alert: we prosper because of our differences, so we shouldn't want the government to "level the playing field.") The Wharton School surely covered those matters. Was Trump too busy giving freshmen swirlies to attend class? (Evidence for Trump's demagogy rather than ignorance is that his hotel rooms are appointed almost entirely with imported products.) Trump tweeted on his return from overseas, "We have a MASSIVE trade deficit with Germany…. Very bad for U.S. This will change." But also found in Smith's The Wealth of Nations is this: "Nothing … can be more absurd than this whole doctrine of the balance of trade." Trump apparently does not know that the United States has run so-called deficits in good times and so-called surpluses in bad times, such as during the Great Depression. Come on, someone with a brain as good as Trump says his is must realize that any "deficit" in the merchandise account is a mirror image of a "surplus" in the capital account. By construction, all such accounts taken together must balance. When foreigners receive dollars for their exports to America, they have three options for how to use the money: buy American exports, invest here, or trade them to someone else who then faces the same options. They can't spend them at home, just as you can't spend euros at Kroger. Why does Trump want foreigners to buy American products rather than invest here? Investment improves our lives by creating new and better products. If we don't like that foreigners by Treasury bonds, i.e., lend money to the government, there's an easy and obvious solution: the government can stop borrowing. On top of everything else, Trump either does not understand or does not care that a 35 percent tariff on German cars would be a tax on Americans—and not just buyers of German cars. One more thing on trade. It's bad enough that Trump spouts such rubbish. But when his National Economic Council director, Gary Cohn, claims that Belgium's trade policies are better than Germany's, we have to wonder what the hell is going on. Under the European Union, both countries' have the same trade policies. Do[...]

George Clooney Leaves Free Market Solutions Out of Proposals to Fight World Poverty

Thu, 01 Jun 2017 14:05:00 -0400

Actor and activist George Clooney took to the Wall Street Journal editorial page last week to propose unconventional solutions to global humanitarian crises. Clooney's "plan" has three basic components: Recognize those trying to implement change from the ground up, work to address corruption, and involve charitable behaviors from businesses. The commentary, "Let the Private Sector Help Tackle the Migration Crisis," initially sounds compelling, but despite what is suggested by the headline, Clooney fails to discuss how the free market can solve problems. His mention of the private sector as a humanitarian solution highlights the role of philanthropy, not free enterprise. Wealthy individuals (such as Clooney himself) donating time and money to the developing world is admirable, but does not have the same effect as entrepreneurship. Consider the example of Azuri Technologies, which provides solar energy to households in Sub-Saharan Africa on a pay-as-you go basis. The company has sold 100,000 solar units since their launch in 2011. Solar can help the 600 million Africans who live without access to electricity, many of whom still rely on kerosene lamps. Also take a look at the high-profile company Bridge International, which builds "schools-in-a-box"—standardized schools and curriculum with tuition less than $1 a day. While Bridge is often tainted by controversy, mostly from fights with teachers' unions and governments, their standardized model and use of technology address many shortcomings of public education in Africa and Asia. In Kenya, the World Bank estimates that 47.3 percent of public school teachers have failed to show up for work on a given day. At a Bridge school, the teacher absentee rate is less than 1 percent. In comparison with the remarkable benefits of free enterprise, Clooney's strategy is much less impressive: "We need to harness the power of business to advance humanitarian solutions. With ample resources and less bureaucracy, the private sector can play a much more important role in addressing famine, providing health care and education, and delivering clean water. Business leaders increasingly want to incorporate humanitarian efforts into the work of their companies. The international yogurt manufacturer Chobani, for example, not only helps resettle refugees but also employs and educates them so they can enjoy a better life. This needs to become the norm, not the exception, for 21st-century businesses." Chobani is, first and foremost, a producer of yogurt. Founder Hamdi Ulukaya then donates to benefit refugees in Europe and the Middle East and employs refugees in the U.S. By providing jobs, Ulukaya, may help settle some refugees. Yet by only including this business-first, charity-second approach in his plan, Clooney fails to fully harness the power of free enterprise. In highlighting charity as part of his solution, Clooney seems to forget that customers' willingness to pay for products that improve their lives is not a Western phenomenon. In the developing world there are no perfect solutions. Yet free enterprise provides measurably better alternatives. Tales of philanthropy are more glamorous than profit-seeking businesses, but also more rare. So, Mr. Clooney, if you desire to incorporate the private sector into your humanitarian solution, embrace its problem-solving ability, not just the generosity of a few of its members.[...]

Jared Kushner's Russian Escapade

Thu, 01 Jun 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Suppose that shortly after the 2008 election, Barack Obama's adviser Valerie Jarrett met with the Chinese ambassador and suggested using a secure link at his embassy to communicate with Beijing beyond the reach of U.S. intelligence agencies. Congressional Republicans and just about everyone else would have been shocked and aggrieved. Why? It would have indicated she was putting more trust in an unfriendly regime than in her own government. It would have put her in debt to ruthless foreigners who might use her to advance their malignant interests. It would have raised grave questions about her (and Obama's) intentions. We might have heard chants of "Lock her up!" That's the equivalent of what President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, did with the Russians, according to The Washington Post. Yet Trump loyalists and allies have done their best to treat it as normal or commendable. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly said, "Any channel of communication, back or otherwise, with a country like Russia is a good thing." A back channel is a fine option, agreed national security adviser H.R. McMaster, because "what that allows you to do is communicate in a discreet manner." Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton said it was "perfectly natural." Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., took a different tack, insisting the whole story is not believable. Well, he can believe it, because Kushner hasn't denied it. Neither has the White House, though it has defended his right to make such contacts. The responses of Kelly and McMaster should come as good news to convicted spies Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen, who are serving life sentences for their back-channel communications with the Kremlin. Maybe Trump will pardon them to show he approves of covert dealings with the Russians. The secrecy sought by Kushner fits a pattern of hiding his Russia contacts. When he filled out his security clearance form, he failed to disclose the meeting with the Russian ambassador, a December meeting with the head of a Russian state-owned bank and dozens of other contacts last year with foreign officials—omissions that could expose him to a felony charge. His lawyer attributed them to an "administrative error." One puzzle about his December meetings is what purpose he had. It's entirely possible that Kushner, a foreign policy novice, came up with the idea because he had no clue what he was doing, what dangers it held or why anyone would object. Conservative commentator and former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy said it could have been merely "galactically stupid." That's the optimistic view. A worse possibility is that Kushner was trying to negotiate with the Russians to lift Obama's sanctions on a government that Trump likes. In that case, he was way out of line, because Trump had not taken office and had no business undercutting the sitting president of the United States. "There's no way that it can be appropriate to say, 'I want to use a hostile government's communications system to avoid our government knowing anything about it,'" Eliot Cohen, who was a top aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, told the Post. In 2008, President-elect Obama declined an invitation to meet with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Washington. "We firmly believe there is only one president at a time," Obama's spokesman said. That didn't used to be a novel concept. Given the lax ethics of the Trump circle, it's hardly inconceivable that Kushner, a real estate tycoon whose father-in-law is a real estate tycoon, had financial motives—trying to reach a discreet deal that could enrich him or Trump, possibly in exchange for kinder treatment of Russia by the U.S. government. And given Trump's distrust of American intelligence ag[...]

The Fifth Column Branches Out to Sirius XM POTUS!

Fri, 26 May 2017 11:05:00 -0400

(image) Some news: The Fifth Column, the 13-month-old, occasionally bleary-eyed politics/media/bad-accents podcast co-hosted by Kmele Foster, Michael C. Moynihan and myself, is expanding to Sirius XM's POTUS (stands for "Politics of the United States") channel, beginning this weekend. You can find POTUS, which bills itself as "Non-Partisan Political Talk," at number 124 on your channel-thingie. The hour-long broadcasts will sometimes be edited versions of the longer podcasts, bonus interview sessions, or live call-in shows. Here's how we're described on the site:

From their enclave in midtown Manhattan, hosts Michael Moynihan, Matt Welch, and Kmele Foster dissect the news, interrogate guests, and question just about everything. The topics are broad, the insights are deep, and the jokes are off color.

Tune in Saturday, May 27, at 11 a.m. ET; and Sunday, May 28, at 1 a.m. ET & again at 3 p.m.

You can listen to an expanded version of what you'll hear there right the hell here. Recorded on Wednesday morning, this show is perhaps blissfully free of all things Bodyslamgate, and instead focuses on the Manchester terrorist attack, debates over "root causes," President Donald Trump's Mideast swing, commemorative drug paraphernalia, #MAGA-hashtag Twitter feeds, the mesmerizing lure of Jewish holidays, and the even more tempting prospects of shotgunning Negro Modelos in the morning. It's all here:

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In addition to LISTENING TO US ON SIRIUS XM POTUS CHANNEL 124, you can fulfill your bonus Fifth Column needs at iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play,, @wethefifth, and Facebook.

Trump: Uniquely Qualified for an Israeli-Palestinian Peace Deal?

Tue, 23 May 2017 17:45:00 -0400

(image) For decades American presidents have tried, with varying degrees of effort and to varying degrees of success, to negotiate a peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Donald Trump, with his apparent lack of interest both in policy detail and in pretending the U.S. is a neutral party, could be uniquely qualified to accomplish what has eluded his predecessors.

Since the Camp David talks of the mid-1970s, the term "peace process" has mostly meant American-led negotiations. That in itself is a problem: When the U.S. takes too large a role in the talks, it removes the pressure from Palestinian and Israeli diplomats to arrive at a deal on their own. But Trump has shown little capacity for the kind of long-term, sustained attention that allows Israelis and Palestinians to abdicate their leadership.

That attention, full of "shuttle diplomacy" and frenetic attempts at legacy-building, rarely moves the peace process forward in a meaningful way. U.S. disengagement, by any avenue, could create the space for real progress.

Trump has also shown little interest in upholding some of the fictions of American diplomacy. When he declares that his administration will "always stand with Israel," he adds none of the nuance of the Obama era, when such language of friendship was constantly coupled with promises to hold Israel accountable. Trump's rhetoric matches the reality on the ground: Since Israel is one of the top recipients of U.S. military aid, negotiators won't see Washington as a neutral party even if the U.S. would like to assume that role.

Trump has, in fact, said he wanted to remain neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Let me sort of be a neutral guy," he said at one campaign stop last year. "I don't want to say whose fault is it. I don't think it helps." This desire did not stop Trump from making unabashedly pro-Israel statements during the campaign or since taking the presidency. With any other politician, a desire for neutrality would be incompatible with statements of unqualified friendship. But Trump is not a typical politician, and his propensity to make contradictory statements without even attempting to reconcile them has arguably destroyed the credibility of his presidency.

Whatever else that might do, it could have the salutory effect of giving Israeli and Palestinian negotiators the impression that they're on their own. A long series of active and respected American presidents have been unable to move the peace process forward. Maybe an inactive president with little credibility is just the jumpstart the negotiations need.