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Foreign Policy

All articles with the "Foreign Policy" tag.

Published: Wed, 20 Sep 2017 00:00:00 -0400

Last Build Date: Wed, 20 Sep 2017 23:03:36 -0400


Trump's Selective Sovereignty Is Par for the Course in U.S. Foreign Policy

Wed, 20 Sep 2017 15:30:00 -0400

The New York Times claims Donald Trump "sketched out a radically different vision of the world order than his forebears" by "declaring Tuesday that sovereignty should be the guiding principle of affairs between nations." That is not remotely true. Nor is Trump unusual in employing "a strikingly selective definition of sovereignty," which the Times suggests also sets him apart from his predecessors. Still, it is worth considering the role that the concept of sovereignty plays in Trump's U.N. speech, because it clarifies the limits of international cooperation and illustrates the conflicting impulses that drive U.S. foreign policy. When Trump talks about sovereignty, he is mostly talking about preserving the status quo by recognizing the authority of existing governments to decide what happens within the territories they control. There is very little moral content to this understanding of sovereignty, which does not begin to address the question of what makes a government or its actions legitimate. But that doesn't mean this barebones version of sovereignty is not useful. Other things being equal, a world where nation-states respect each other's borders (no matter how arbitrary they might be) is apt to be more secure, peaceful, and prosperous than a world where they don't. Each government has an interest in maintaining that principle, creating the common ground on which an organization like the U.N. is built. Describing the benefits of sovereignty, Trump repeatedly lists peace, security, and prosperity. He says nothing about freedom or individual rights, with good reason. Respect for freedom and individual rights is not part of the international consensus, except perhaps at such a high level of abstraction that the terms become meaningless. "We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government," Trump says. "We want harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife. We are guided by outcomes, not ideology. We have a policy of principled realism, rooted in shared goals, interests, and values." So far, so good. But Trump adds that "we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation." Although there are bound to be arguments about the details, the duty of nation-states to respect each other's rights is the basis for a rough consensus. Not so their duty to "respect the interests of their own people," because who is to say what those are? The concept of sovereignty Trump is advocating implies that each country's government gets to make that call. If one national government tried to enforce its judgment of whether another was properly serving the interests of its citizens, it would be violating the latter's sovereignty. Trump's "two core sovereign duties" contradict each other. That is just the beginning of Trump's incoherence. He says North Korea's nuclear weapons make the world more dangerous, which is an argument for joint action based on a threat to international security. But he also notes that "the depraved regime in North Korea" is "responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more." All of that is horrifyingly true, but if sovereignty requires respect for diverse "systems of government," it is not an argument for international intervention. Trump likewise condemns Iran's mistreatment of Iranians, Syria's mistreatment of Syrians, Venezuela's mistreatment of Venezuelans, and Cuba's mistreatment of Cubans. He says the way those regimes treat their citizens justifies economic sanctions and even military action by other countries. But if sovereignty is agnostic about how people should be ruled, those responses amount to international aggression. As the Times notes, Trump's outrage is selective. He praises the autocratic regime in Saudi Arabia for helping to fight terrorism, and he says nothing about human rights violations by U.S. allies or by great powers such as China and Ru[...]

Show Business Patter Aside, Trump's a Fairly Conventional Militarist

Wed, 20 Sep 2017 12:45:00 -0400

In his first address to the United Nations, President Trump displayed both his show business chops and the contradictions inherent in his foreign policy choices. Many of those choices are far more mainstream than Trump's rhetoric, or the commentary on it, suggests. Trump says he wants a July 4 military parade that mirrors the French's Bastille day festivities, with a celebration of military strength. That's certainly different, but not substantively, from Trump's predecessors, who were often laudatory of and deferential to military leaders. Trump is reportedly looking to expand the drone war. Obama did a good job maintaining an illusion of accountability for the CIA's drone program. Trump may dispel this illusion, but he's not changing the nature of the program—it was always a dangerous program with little transparency and no effective accountability. Since his election, Trump's foreign policy has not looked that much different from his predecessors. On Afghanistan, for example, Trump made the decision to stay, as did Presidents Obama and Bush. He merely couched it in different language. Trump talks about the need for Europe to take more responsibility for its own defense and contribute more to NATO, yet he has embraced NATO as well as its ill-advised expansion. His administration had taken the same meddling posture as past establishment foreign policy figures when it comes to respecting the rights of sovereign countries to govern their own affairs. At the UN speech itself, Trump intoned that Americans "do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government." Yet, later in the same speech, he praised U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and insisted that the internal situation in Venezuela was "completely unacceptable" and that the U.S. could not "stand by and watch." "As a responsible neighbor and friend, we and all others have a goal, Trump told the U.N. "That goal is to help them regain their freedom, recover their country, and restore their democracy. I would like to thank leaders in this room for condemning the regime and providing vital support to the Venezuelan people." Remarkably, Trump recently said explicitly that the military option was on the table for the South American country. The interventionist stance on Venezuela Trump expressed at the United Nations could have easily been articulated by most of his predecessors. The difference, as always, is largely rhetorical. In his speech, Trump also blasted Iran as part of a "small group of rogue regimes" and said the U.S. would "totally destroy" North Korea if it had too. Rhetoric aside, his approach toward Iran and North Korea has been relatively tame. Trump has so far declined every opportunity he's had to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. There's been little substance behind his anti-Iran showmanship. On North Korea, Trump has made efforts to engage China on the North Korea and to, in general, seek diplomatic solutions. His rhetoric may be more colorful than his predecessors, but here even his rhetoric is not all that different. At the UN, Trump said the U.S. could destroy North Korea. Obama, too, has noted that the U.S. could destroy North Korea with its arsenal. It's a true statement and one of the facts acting as a deterrent to a North Korean nuclear strike. Nevertheless, Trump's UN speech lead to predictable responses from foreign leaders, not just from countries like Iran but from European allies too. "It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience," Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said. American presidents have been very good at masking destructive U.S. foreign policy in lofty rhetoric. Trump isn't. But that should be welcomed as an opportunity to make U.S. foreign policy less destructive. Hiding flaws in rhetoric had never been a real solution.[...]

Rand Paul: 'I Think President Trump's Instincts Are Still Leaning Against Major Involvement in Foreign War With Great Land Forces'

Fri, 15 Sep 2017 14:35:00 -0400

"We're at war in basically about seven different countries right now, none of them authorized by Congress," Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) told me yesterday on Sirius XM Insight's Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang, in the wake of Paul's losing attempt Wednesday to repeal the post-9/11 authorizations for use of military force. "Senator McCain would have us in 30, 40, 50. He has never met a war he wasn't interested in getting the U.S. involved in." It was one of many colorful foreign policy comments the Tea Party senator made on everything from the Afghanistan mini-surge, to President Donald Trump's interventionism ("I try to give him a little bit of a benefit of a doubt"), to the fortunes of foreign policy realists in D.C. ("they're less likely to be completely bonkers crazy like the neocons"). You can listen to a couple of snippets on SoundCloud (1, 2), and also read an edited partial transcript below. I started out by asking about Wednesday's 61-36 Senate vote to kill Paul's amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have given a six-month sunset to the authorizations for use of military force that were passed on Sept. 14, 2001, and again in 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq War: Paul: It was an exciting time. We, for the first time in 15 years, had a debate and a full Senate vote on whether or not it is our constitutional duty and responsibility to vote on war. Ever since 9/11 happened we voted to go after those who attacked us, but that resolution has now been used to justify war in half a dozen countries, maybe a little bit more. In fact Obama bombed seven countries without any kind of approval from Congress, and I think that's wrong. It's bad for our country, but it's also a disservice to our soldiers to be at war in so many places, send them to so many misbegotten corners of the globe without really having a full spirited debate about whether or not the public supports the war. MW: Now you say it's the first time in 15 years. Is it really the first time in 15 years that this actually was debated on the Senate floor? Paul: I think it was the first time we had a full Senate vote on it. Two years ago I got them to discuss an AUMF because they had a water bill in the foreign relations committee; it was a water bill for Africa. They'd been working on it for seven years, and if you want to see a bunch of annoyed grumpy old Senators, try to cut off some money they're wanting to give to some other country, and boy do they get grumpy. All I did was introduce an amendment saying something about whether we should have an AUMF, and all of a sudden everything hits the fan and we come to a screeching halt. But out of it I forced a debate on the AUMF. And this is an important point for those who are listening, is that you don't get anything around here just by sitting around, you've got to force them to do it. They will tell you just non-stop, ad nauseam, "Oh, yes you're right Senator but this is neither the time nor the place. You should bring this up in committee." Then when you try to bring it up in committee they say, "Now Senator, you know this is not the time nor the place to bring this up." Nothing ever gets discussed, and they continually squash debate, but in public they profess to love debate and they profess, "You're exactly right. We should be discussing whether we should be at war. It's the most important point we debate in Congress." And yet they stifle it and don't want to talk about it. It took 15 years to get a vote on it. MW: So you're saying that yesterday, when your good friend Senator John McCain was saying that he would welcome to work with you on putting together language having to do with adapted authorization of use of military force, that you're not participating in overseas betting markets on that happening? Paul: Well, here's the deal. He would be happy to work with me on an authorization that actually expands the scope of war around the world. We're at war in basically about seven different countries right now, none of them aut[...]

Justin Amash and Rand Paul Talk Congressional Pushback on SiriusXM Insight from 2-4 p.m. ET

Thu, 14 Sep 2017 13:00:00 -0400

(image) Did you see yesterday's noble attempt by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) to actually debate the authorizations for use of military force that provide legal cover for America's seven ongoing wars? Did you note the shockingly successful move by Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.) Tuesday to block Attorney General Jeff Sessions' re-expansion of the evil practice of civil asset forfeiture? I am scheduled to interview both libertarian-leaning legislators today about their exertions between 2-4 p.m. ET, while guest-hosting SiriusXM Insight channel 121's Tell Me Everything With John Fugelsang.

Also on the docket are The Atlantic's Emily Yoffe, author of a much-praised (including here) three-part series (one, two, three) on problematic campus rape policies, and Bloomberg View foreign policy columnist Eli Lake, who will discuss the much-neglected anniversary of Sept. 14.

You can call in to heckle at 877 974-7487.

Better Relations with Russia Should be Welcomed, Not Feared

Wed, 13 Sep 2017 15:05:00 -0400

Did you hear the one about Moscow hoping to normalize relations with the United States? BuzzFeed has obtained a Russian document, composed in March, that laid out a proposal for "the wholesale restoration of diplomatic, military, and intelligence channels severed between the two countries after Russia's military interventions in Ukraine and Syria." A spokesperson for the National Security Council suggested to BuzzFeed that "administration overtures" were not the chief reason the Russian government believed this normalization was possible. Buzzfeed's John Hudson disputes this: "Of course, Russian officials could simply have listened to Trump's extensive public remarks, which repeatedly touted the benefits of engagement with Moscow as recently as February," he writes, quoting the president saying he'd "love to be able to get along with Russia" at a press conference that month. (Hudson didn't include the end of the quote: "It's possible I won't be able to get along with Putin.") A willingness to "seek friendship and good will with the nations of the world," as Trump put it in his inaugural address, and an "understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first," is an acknowledgement that poorly defined security interests have led the U.S. to all kinds of unnecessary stand-offs and escalations. Hudson alludes to Trump's "warm rhetoric," but expressing a desire for better relations with Russia is supposed to make diplomacy easier. There's nothing wrong with that. In any event, obsessive coverage of the purported Russia-Trump conspiracies has poisoned the well for normalizing U.S.-Russian relations. The famously media-obsessed Trump has allowed media coverage of the Russia-Trump story to drive his own actions; among other things, that meant shooting himself in the foot by firing FBI Director James Comey, which invited Congress to appoint a special counsel to investigate Trump's Russia connections. Eventually he embraced veto-proof Russia sanctions that were helpful only as ammo for domestic political rhetoric. Now Washington and Moscow are locked into petty battles over over trivia like consulate parking spaces. The sanctions Trump signed were initially so severe—barring American companies from participating in any energy venture in which any Russian entities had any stake—that even the European Union (EU) raised concerns. EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker insisted Europe was "fully committed to the Russia sanctions regime," but he worried about "unintended unilateral effects that impact the EU's energy security interests." The European Union, for all its lofty rhetoric, does not have the capability to defend itself, relying instead on NATO, whose borders don't exactly match the EU's. Notably, NATO includes the United States, which bears the brunt of the aliance's costs. What Juncker wants—and what Trump challenged on the campaign trail but has largely come to accept as president—is for the United States to maintain European security guarantees. Trump has pressed European allies to contribute more to NATO, and he was rebuffed. Juncker insisted Europe's spending on foreign aid counts toward the NATO commitment of spending 3 percent of GDP on defense. Outside of the U.S., most NATO countries spending above the minimum are on the EU's borders—countries like Poland and Lithuania, whose acute fear of invasion is rooted in their histories with Russia. The U.S. ought to pursue normalized relations with Moscow. Washington has no national security interests in Ukraine, and the conflict there ought to be resolved between Russia and Ukraine and, if it so pressed, the European Union. All sides would be incentivized to talk through their problems if they didn't have the U.S. to lean on.[...]

Watch Rand Paul Urge Congress to Stop Letting the President ‘Do Whatever He Wants’ in War

Wed, 13 Sep 2017 13:20:00 -0400

Moments ago, the United States Senate voted 61-36 to kill an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act offered by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would have given a six-month sunset to the authorizations for use of military force that were passed on Sept. 14, 2001, and again in 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq War.

"I rise today to oppose unauthorized, undeclared, and unconstitutional war," Paul declared yesterday, while getting his amendment scheduled for a vote. "None of the seven wars we're involved with now has anything to do with 9/11," he argued on last night's Hardball.

Paul's floor speech today was a stinging rebuke to Senate's "abdication" of responsibility to the executive branch in the waging of war, and the resulting interventionist promiscuity. "The neoconservatives and the neoliberals believe the president has unlimited authority," the senator complained. Watch the whole thing below:

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Read Eli Lake's 2010 Reason article on "The 9/14 Presidency," and Brian Doherty's post this week on Paul's attempt to force Congress to perform arguably its most important constitutional function.

China and Russia Warn U.S. About Regime Change in North Korea

Tue, 12 Sep 2017 13:34:00 -0400

(image) As the United Nations passes new sanctions against North Korea, watered down at the behest of Russia and China, the two countries warned the United States against pursuing regime change in North Korea.

The Russian representative at the U.N. expressed concern the U.S. wasn't reaffirming "the four nos"—no regime change, no regime collapse, no accelerated reunification, and no military deployment north of the 38th parallel dividing the Korean peninsula.

"The Chinese side will never allow conflict or war on the peninsula," a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry said today.

That's all well and good, but if Russia and China are really concerned about what the U.S. might do on the Korean peninsula they should step in and offer solutions rather than admonishments.

Instead, the two major powers have largely remained on the sideline as North Korea inches closer to nuclear weapons capability, leaving the responsibility of reacting to the developments to the U.S., which Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley stressed, is ready to act alone to stop the North Korean regime if necessary.

It should not be surprising that regime change—a flawed tool fraught with negative consequences—is still on the table. It is a tool America's foreign policy makers are familiar with and return to with regularity despite its history of failure.

Over the last seventy years, the U.S. has taken on the role of world policeman. Donald Trump, who campaigned in part on questioning the wisdom of that role, has largely embraced it as president, revealing how this foreign policy status quo is ingrained and difficult to change.

The administration hopes sanctions against North Korea might at the least bring the regime back to the negotiating table. It bases this idea on the sanctions that pressured Iran into negotiating a nuclear deal. It remains unclear, however, how much those long-term sanctions influenced Iran's decision to negotiate, given the country's internal politics. Sanctions might have delayed diplomatic efforts by offering domestic hard-liners a talking point against negotiating.

Russia and China's efforts to temper the U.N sanctions further muddles the issue. They are two of five countries with veto power in the Security Council. If they are not convinced of the efficacy of sanctions they ought to kill them.

They have not killed the sanctions, because they offer the perception something is being done about the North Korea crisis. Without sanctions the U.S. could rightly ask Russia and China what, exactly, is their contribution to a solution.

The U.S. is right to ask the question anyway. Both countries have a greater interest than the U.S. in reining in North Korea, but have opted not to expose their leadership to criticism over any diplomatic failure.

The critiques will be much harsher if North Korea spirals out of control. The U.S. is comitted to defending its allies in the region, Japan and South Korea. North Korea knows it. Russia and China do, too. The Trump administration has signaled clearly ("fire and fury") the U.S. is willing to use overwhelming force to respond to any North Korean aggression.

If China and Russia fear regime change in the neighboring Korean peninsula, and they should, they can help prevent it by assuming more responsibility for North Korea—by engaging in public diplomatic efforts that would allow, and maybe even encourage, the U.S. to responsibly pull back.

Putin Warns: Don't Push North Korea Into 'Dead End'

Fri, 08 Sep 2017 14:25:00 -0400

(image) Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected a proposal by South Korea's president, Moon Jae In, to deal with North Korea's latest missile tests by cutting off the country's oil supplies.

"We should not act out of emotions and push North Korea into a dead end," Putin told reporters at a joint press conference with Moon. "We must act with calm and avoid steps that could raise tensions."

He is not wrong. But Moscow's inability or unwillingness to pursue its own diplomatic efforts with Pyongyang have rendered Putin's calls for a political solution toothless.

Putin also met with Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday, and he declared afterward that Abe and he "decisively condemned" North Korea's missile tests.

Russia and Japan have been engaged in a different diplomatic effort, aiming to end their World War 2 hostilities. (The fighting stopped in 1945, but the two nations never formally reached a peace.) In addition to discussing a peace treaty, Putin and Abe talked about joint economic activities in the disputed Northern Territories, Japanese islands captured by Soviet forces at the end of World War 2.

Meanwhile, Admiral Scott Swift, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, claimed this week that America's North Korean strategy of sanctions and diplomacy has worked so far.

"I say it has worked because we are not at war," he told The Washington Post, insisting the U.S. had not foreclosed on diplomacy even as "all options are on the table."

That's all well and good, but the U.S.'s best move may be not to play. Every other country in the six-party talks with North Korea that collapsed in 2009—South Korea, Russia, Japan, and China—should have more incentive to pursue a diplomatic solution than the United States does. Their stake in regional security and stability is much bigger than America's.

But the U.S. made itself a guarantor of global security after World War 2, effectively taking responsibility for those regional stakes. Were North Korea to launch a nuclear warhead at an American ally or outpost, the U.S. is still capable of the "assured destruction" portion of the "mutually assured destruction" policy that kept the Cold War free of nuclear strikes. That's not so for the countries in the region.

Returning the responsibility for regional security to regional actors would be a much more powerful alternative to sanctions, military exercises, and other sorts of pressure that can only make armed conflict more likely.

Once Dovish-Sounding Trump Getting Very Bad Foreign Policy Advice

Fri, 08 Sep 2017 12:20:00 -0400

In April of 2016, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd published a piece entitled, "Donald the Dove, Hillary the Hawk." For all his reality TV machismo, Dowd argued, Trump was in some ways a more dovish candidate than Hillary Clinton. "The prime example of commander-in-chief judgment Trump offers is the fact that, like Obama, he thought the invasion of Iraq was a stupid idea," Dowd wrote. "He can sound belligerent, of course, saying that he would bomb the expletive-deleted out of ISIS and that he would think up new and imaginative ways to torture terrorists and kill their families. But he says that in most cases he would rather do the art of the deal than shock and awe." Dowd built her case on a foundation of campaign- and pre-campaign-era comments from Trump pairing his personal "militarism" with pledges to eschew the interventionist missteps of recent history. The United States will "pursue a new foreign policy that finally learns from the mistakes of the past," Trump said before taking office. "We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments, folks. Our goal is stability, not chaos." "Unlike other candidates for the presidency, war and aggression will not be my first instinct," stated then-candidate Trump. "A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really truly signs of strength." Since Trump took office, Dowd's headline has become infamous and laughable. While Hillary remains a hawk, Donald is most definitely not governing like a dove or even, to use his own recent phrase, a subscriber of "principled realism." On the contrary, he has maintained or escalated all the reckless interventionism of his predecessors. Trump has threatened preventive military action against North Korea and even Venezuela. He launched the first U.S. strikes against Syrian government targets and is said to be considering drone strikes in the Philippines. His August speech on Afghanistan pledged perpetual war and nation-building under another name.He is adamant about hiking military spending to pay for new, unjustified misadventures abroad, despite the Pentagon's unaudited books and long record of abundant waste. Candidate Trump asked good foreign policy questions; President Trump has not given good answers.Realism and stability are nowhere to be found. What happened? Whither Trump's positive instincts, however inconsistent, against aggression? In his Afghanistan speech, Trump explained his reversal as a mature response to his discovering the realities of the presidency. The more probable explanation is less flattering: Trump is heeding the advice of his top advisers. These are establishment figures who have a more conventional approach to foreign policy. They are comfortable with the post-9/11 status quo of counterproductive interventions into the political affairs of chaotic, Middle Eastern, African, and East Asian countries. Where Trump once asked good questions, too many of his advisers have no such curiosity. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is key in this dynamic. Trump once critiqued nation-building. McMaster has endorsed "state-building in places like Afghanistan and Iraq." Now, while claiming to reject them, Trump is making nation-building commitments. Trump once expressed dismay at the length of U.S. military interventions. McMaster has championed "U.S. commitment over time" in Korea as a model of long-term occupation to be followed in the Mideast. Now, Trump has rejected his "original instinct... to pull out" of Afghanistan in favor of permanent commitment in pursuit of unachievable goals. At one time Trump advocated fresh diplomatic engagement with North Korea. McMaster has hyped it as a threat that cannot be overstated and has threatened preventive war. Trump has now pivoted to talking of preventive "fire and fury," a military reaction to Pyongyang's all-too-common saber rattling[...]

From Pig’s Blood Assassination Fantasies to the Depressingly Real Afghan Surge

Fri, 01 Sep 2017 15:27:00 -0400

On Aug. 17, President Donald Trump, in the wake of the Barcelona terrorist attack, tweeted that we all should "Study what General Pershing of the United States did to terrorists when caught. There was no more Radical Islamic Terror for 35 years!" On Aug. 21, the president laid out his new Afghanistan policy, reversing campaign rhetoric by backing an open-ended increase of around 4,000 U.S. troops. The two statements, separated by four days (or four months in Trump News-Cycle Time) were understandably treated as wholly separate events. But they are not. Trump's allusion to one of his favorite historical fables—an alleged Pershing mass killing which historians unanimously agree there is zero evidence of having ever taken place—advertises a core belief that has always been at tension with the president's expressed skepticism about military intervention. Namely, that a key tactical error separating America from victory against Islamic terrorists is the self-restricting embrace of "political correctness." This formulation, long embraced by the likes of Ralph Peters, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Ben Carson, and Rick Santorum, can mean everything from the refusal to utter the phrase radical Islamic terrorism ("She won't even mention the words," Trump clucked at Hillary Clinton during one of their debates), to the broader and vaguer sense that America lacks the "will to win" straight-up violations of the Geneva Conventions. "We're fighting a very politically correct war," candidate Trump lamented to Fox & Friends in December 2015. "When you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families." In domestic fights against suspected bad guys, there is no equivalent to the countervailing Trumpian foreign policy tendency to eschew nation-building and avoid disastrous wars. This means that taking the proverbial gloves off America's internal law enforcement cops will likely be a one-way ratchet. President Trump, through his campaigning as the "law and order" candidate, to his appointment of Jeff Sessions as attorney general, issuance of succeeding travel bans, attempts to punish "sanctuary cities," fondness for draconian drug prohibition, pardoning of Joe Arpaio, mutual affection for recently resigned Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, re-starting of the controversial 1033 program of transferring military surplus gear to local law enforcement, and much more, has sent the unmistakable message that he will aggressively move around any perceived impediment—including the judiciary branch and the United States Constitution—to give cops and prosecutors more power. He has never exhibited a drop of anxiety about potentially punishing the innocent or otherwise producing unintended consequences. But overseas, there had been reason to hope that Trump's internal conflicts would at least produce some kind of draw. "Afghanistan is, is not going well. Nothing's going well—I guess we've been in Afghanistan almost 17 years," the president-elect said in a joint interview with Bild and The Times of London back in January, sounding not unlike Ron Paul, at least until his very next words: "But you look at all of the places, now in all fairness, we haven't let our people do what they're supposed to do….We haven't let our military win." Why did the bellicose version of the 45th president win out over the intervention-skeptic? Some anti-war voices assert that with the exit of strategist Steve Bannon, the president's foreign policy has been captured by his generals. That may well have merit. But Trump, and the people who supported and voted for him, and even man of his #NeverTrump antagonists, have long indulged in the dangerous delusion that military victory is achievable through the removal of proverbial handcuffs. This was true during primary season, through the general election, in the first seven m[...]

‘Experts’ Fear Trump Will Talk to Kim Jong Un, New York Times Reports

Thu, 31 Aug 2017 13:24:00 -0400

President Trump fired off a tweet bemoaning the "extortion money" the U.S. has been paying North Korea over the last two decades. "Talking is not the answer!" the president huffed. Not really, Defense Secretary James Mattis and other members of the administration clarified immediately. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has previously signaled the answer to the North Korea crisis is conversational. Still, Trump's tweet "revealed a paradox in how Asia experts view the crisis," The New York Times reported. Some fear Trump commencing a "risky, unpredictable dialogue" with Kim Jong Un more than him starting a war. "What the North Koreans are angling for is to bring the danger and tension to a crescendo, and then to pivot to a peace proposal," Daniel Russel, the previous assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs, told The Times. "All of this is focused on pressuring the U.S. to enter direct talks with Kim on his terms. That is the big trap." A trap, The Times noted, President Clinton almost fell into in the 1990s. But the prospect of direct talks shouldn't be seen that way. "I suspect that in the end, the president might fall back on his event-planning background," Michael Green, an Asia advisor for President George W. Bush, told The Times. "This is not a Miss Universe pageant or a pro wrestling match, so that might stop Trump in his tracks." American foreign policy may not have been conducted by a WWE Hall of Famer before, but that doesn't mean wrestling-like tropes haven't been used before. After all, Bush called North Korea, Iran, and Iraq an "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address. That description, the subsequent invasion of Iraq, and the deterioration of relations with Iran in the Bush era offer few incentives for North Korea other than to press ahead with its current program for deterring regime change. Six-party talks—North Korea, South Korea, the U.S., China, Japan, and Russia—collapsed in 2006 over North Korean satellite launches, which served much the same purpose as its test missile launches. It should come as no surprise that a military build-up across East Asia and a perceived lack of interest in resuming negotiations produced more and more North Korean missile tests. President Obama's "Asia pivot," a sanitized term for a China containment policy, meanwhile, predictably led to a more confrontational stance from China. The Times cites the death of American citizen Otto Wermbier, who was imprisoned by the North Korean regime, and the broader political climate, as impediments to such talks. But there are more fundamental stumbling blocks, primarily that there is not all that much for the U.S. to discuss with North Korea outside of the reality that multilateral negotiations are the best path forward for the region. Despite deteriorating U.S.-Russia relations, the region, like the world, is a far less divided place today than it has been at any time since the establishment of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. Trump has tried to cultivate a relationship with Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as well as China President Xi Jinping. Multilateral negotiations are the most promising path to resolving the North Korean crisis. If bilateral talks can lead to multilateral negotiations, they would be a success. The Times nevertheless conceded such two-way talks remained "a far-fetched notion." Any talks will be, on a basic level, unpredictable. There are no easy solutions to the crisis. Talking them through, however, whether two-way, six-way or some other way, decreases the chance of a pre-emptive or reactive war.[...]

North Korea Fires Another Missile Over Japan, to Predictable Responses

Tue, 29 Aug 2017 11:58:00 -0400

The missile North Korea fired over Japan last night is being treated by that country, President Trump, and the U.S. media as an event of consequence. "A missile launch across Japan is an outrageous act that poses an unprecedented, grave and serious threat, and significantly undermines the peace and security of the region," Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters. "Threatening and destabilizing actions only increase the North Korean regime's isolation in the region and among all nations of the world," President Trump said in a White House statement. "All options are on the table." The rattled reactions have become as predictable as the missile test launches that are sound and fury signifying nothing. The launch over Japan is at least North Korea's 14th missile test launch this year. The U.S. and its allies should stop swinging their rhetorical dicks and insist on a resumption of talks with as few preconditions as possible. While North Korea's weapons capability has very slowly improved, they remain light years behind the U.S. military and would remain so for a long time, even if the U.S. suddenly stopped its massive military spending. North Korea's launch is not the first of its kind—the regime fired a missile that flew over Japan in 2009. Unlike yesterday's missile, which Western intelligence services say was an intermediate-range ballistic missile, North Korea claimed the 2009 missile carried a space-bound satellite (it crashed far east off the coast of Japan instead). Then-prime minster of Japan, Taro Ase, called that launch a provocative act, in spite of North Korea having given Japan prior notice. The launch prompted increased sanctions that effectively killed the possibility of restarting multi-party negotiations. North Korea gave no notice this time. Now as it did then, Japan did not try to shoot the missile down. "The risks of trying to intercept one of these missiles and failing is extremely high," the Hoover Institution's Michael Auslin told The Atlantic. "Unless you knew for certain that either because it was an intentional launch towards a population center or an accident, these decisions have to be made in an extremely short period of time… Japan at least has the ability to attempt to act—whether it is actually prepared to do so is entirely different." This concern raises the question of what, exactly, is accomplished by all those U.S.-Japanese military drills. The two countries launched what they called the largest joint drill of its kind just earlier this month. If these drills, which North Korea insists are provocative, too, do not increase the readiness and ability of regional powers to defend themselves, what exactly is the point of them? A pre-emptive strike is largely a bluff, and one Trump is unlikely to be committed to. North Korea's terrain would make it an even harder country to invade. Given its history, North Korea would be an even tougher challenge than a place like Iraq to affect regime change and nation building. North Korea does not pose an existential threat to the U.S., nor to its allies. The time for its missile launching for the benefit of TV cameras ought to come to an end. If, in the worst case, the North Koreans launched a nuclear missile that could be shot down by the U.S.'s expensive missile defense system, North Korea would find itself on the business end of a one-way Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) policy. Trump's "fire and fury" comments about the North Korean threat signaled, in Trumpian fashion, that here MAD was still in play. Trump has spent much of his first year reaching out to China, a country he believed before taking office could force North Korea to act in a certain way. He's found out, maybe, that the reality is more complex. Perhaps only Trump can go to Pyon[...]

Rex Tillerson Is Right: Trump, and All U.S. Presidents, Speak For Themselves

Mon, 28 Aug 2017 11:05:00 -0400

(image) Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked by Fox News' Chris Wallace how President Trump's statements on racial violence, which blamed the media and both-sidesism more than the individuals themselves, reflect on American values, and whether they make the advancement of such undefined values more difficult. "The president speaks for himself," Tillerson responded curtly.

And he's right.

Tillerson also insisted that America's values, rather, were voiced by the State Department

"We represent the American people," Tillerson said of the department he runs. "We represent America's values, our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment of people the world over, and that message has never changed."


The State Department no more represents American values than the U.S. president does. While the president "speaks for himself," the State Department does, arguably, articulate the values privileged by the U.S. government.

These are still not necessarily reflective of the American people, and that's ok. In a nation of more than 300 million, it's ridiculous to think any one person or institution could express American values. Instead, the U.S. government is a mix of political partisans, who represent, at best, the values of the voters who put them in power, and career officials, who represent, at best, those values useful to the U.S. government.

American values, such as they are, are an emergent property, articulated by actions at an individual and community level, not something imposed from above.

Barack Obama would often complain that "this is not who we are as a country" when things didn't go his way, particularly on the kind of partisan issues, like guns and government spending, that deeply divide the country. Such an attitude was unhelpful, and certainly didn't make it easier to build a consensus.

Foreigners will sometimes tell U.S. tourists that they "love Americans" but "hate their government." It's as important a distinction for Americans to realize this as for anyone else.

Politicians running the ideological gamut of beliefs will regularly insist they speak for all Americans, especially once they are in power. But no matter how high-minded their rhetoric, these politicians ultimately only speak for those interests they choose to represent, prioritize, and engage. That's how republican democracy works—by throwing together such politicians, each with a different set of interests they believe represent "Americans," and imposing checks and balances on them while they attempt to compromise or coalition-build, or get nothing at all done, which is good too.

Tillerson is right—Trump speaks for himself, not for all Americans. It's not yet a dictatorship, after all.

Trump Sticks to Status Quo With Idiotic Afghanistan Plans

Sun, 27 Aug 2017 08:00:00 -0400

Steve Bannon's Breitbart and others notwithstanding, that was Trump being Trump when he announced he would not be quitting Afghanistan, despite the manifest futility and counterproductivity—that is, idiocy—of America's 16-year war there. He is not a captive of "my generals," bad as they are. He is his own man. Just look at the attitude toward military power he displayed throughout his presidential campaign and young presidency. He boasted of being the most "militaristic" candidate in the large Republican field—and that was saying something. He promised to "bomb the shit" out of ISIS, torture terrorist suspects, and kill their families. He promised to win. So now he says his military's renewed effort in Afghanistan will be directed at killing terrorists and eradicating evil. What else is new? The great disrupter of the establishment turns out to be—surprise, surprise—a man of the establishment. He craves its acceptance and adoration, but he'll settle for the love of his base until the real thing comes along. "If you can't be with the one you love, honey," Stephen Stills wrote, "love the one you're with." The base may not like that he has put his "instincts" about Afghanistan on a shelf, but so be it. Sure, during Barack Obama's second term Trump questioned the wisdom of staying the course in Afghanistan, although in October 2015 he said, "At this point we probably have to [leave US troops there] because that thing will collapse in about two seconds after they leave." The pro-withdrawal statements are easily explained in light of the Trumpian MO. As J.P. Sottile writes, "Trump never had a 'policy' of anti-interventionism. He was simply a troll who tweeted out oppositional statements attacking Obama's foreign policy. If Obama was doing it … he was against it. He knew that no matter what, it was red meat for his future base…. Sorry, but [his turn to intervene] wasn't a Deep State plot…." Does anyone know what Trump's position on Afghanistan was on Sept. 12, 2001? I see nothing on the record, but it is hard to believe he opposed George W. Bush's invasion and occupation back then. It would have been out of character, to say the least, for him to have opposed a military response to 9/11. He probably thought Donald Rumsfeld's war-on-the-cheap strategy was for losers. Moreover, while he dishonestly and repeatedly bragged that he opposed in advance the U.S. military actions Iraq and Libya, I can't recall his bragging about his early opposition to the Afghan war. (I think he mentioned this one time.) In light of his change of heart, Trump's foes in the media, who love to point out flip-flops, would surely be pointing this out if it were true. Beyond this, Trump's position is a tangled mess. He presents what is now his war as a matter of national security: his toy soldiers will be killing "terrorists" who allegedly threaten America, not building a democracy or telling the Afghans how to live. Leave aside the fact that killing alleged terrorists creates even more of them, as many military people recognize. Graeme Wood writes, "On September 11, 2001, al Qaeda commanded an army of 400. A decade and a half later, the Islamic State (or ISIS) had mobilized some 40,000 people to travel to Iraq and Syria." There was no ISIS in Afghanistan in 2001. The national-security state is a perpetual motion machine, which is fine with most politicians, the military bureaucracy, and its contractors. Yet while Trump says Afghanistan is about national security, he also says: America will work with the Afghan government as long as we see determination and progress. However, our commitment is not unlimited, and our support is not a blank check. The government of Afghanistan must carry their [...]

Watch Matt Welch on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher Tonight at 10 p.m. ET

Fri, 25 Aug 2017 15:45:00 -0400

(image) As mentioned here yesterday, tonight live at 10 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. Pacific, I'll be a panelist on HBO's long-running current-events and comedy program, Real Time with Bill Maher. Joining me at the desk will be Democratic political commentator Paul Begala, former Obama White House foreign policy hand Nayyera Haq, and, beginning at the halfway point, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who will likely talk about his recent column, "I'm a White Man. Hear Me Out." Kicking off the show will be an interview with Rev. Jesse Jackson. I'm sure the subject of Donald Trump will come up, and hopefully his disappointing re-surge in Afghanistan.

I was last on the show in May; here's the Overtime segment from that:

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