Published: Thu, 19 Jan 2017 00:00:00 -0500
Last Build Date: Thu, 19 Jan 2017 20:19:52 -0500
Thu, 19 Jan 2017 17:33:00 -0500
(image) On Tuesday night, I participated in an event at The SoHo Forum, the great monthly series of Oxford-style debates in Manhattan curated and moderated by Barron's stalwart Gene Epstein, with the help of The Smith Family Foundation. The debate was with New York magazine political writer and frequent libertarian-baiter Jonathan Chait, author of the published-just-this-week Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail. The proposition under discussion was: "Based on his record of accomplishments, Barack Obama has been a great president."
In voting before the debate, the audience declared themselves as 31 percent pro-greatness, 51 percent anti-, and 18 percent undecided. After the discussion those numbers were 22, 75, and 3. My parting gift to the president of the United States was apparently to convince one-quarter of the people in a ballroom to turn against his eight years in office. It's true that I definitely had homefield advantage−the crowd was none too pleased about Chait's characterization of the Tea Party as being partly a product of racist animus, nor about his gushing for the Iran deal. But it's about how many minds you change, man. (Or at least, whether you can get your debate opponent to call you a "vile" and "nasty" man.)
There were some C-SPAN cameras filming, and I don't know when/where/how that footage will be available, but we have the audio here, which you can listen to below. Topics roam from drones to Libya, Obamacare to stimulus, climate change to criminal justice. Enjoy:
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Thu, 12 Jan 2017 14:08:00 -0500President Obama entered office eight years ago on a wave of optimism that he was heralding substantive change, even if it was ill-defined on the campaign trail. On the foreign policy front, that meant ending the Iraq war, refocusing on the war in Afghanistan, and being willing to engage with America's enemies. Next week, Obama leaves office with the United States military engaged in operations to varying degrees of intensity in more than half a dozen countries against a number of radical Islamist terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and their various affiliates, plus Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, where the U.S. has provided crucial backing to the authoritarian regime of Yoweri Museveni. Some of the interventions Obama is bequeathing his successor were ones he himself inherited. The Afghanistan war has now gone on for longer than the American Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined. President Obama ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009—a concomitant "surge" of diplomatic personnel was supposed to accelerate the end of the war. Instead, any opportunity to take advantage of the surge to end the war was wasted by bureaucratic infighting and inertia. The withdrawal date for U.S. troops in Afghanistan was regularly delayed, and is now set for later this year, after President Obama leaves office. U.S. troops are fighting not just the Taliban, the Al-Qaeda ally that drew the U.S. into Afghanistan after 9/11, but also the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has recently been operating in Afghanistan. Ending the war in Afghanistan will be up to Obama's successor. President Obama did preside over the end of the Iraq war, and in the 2012 election he took credit for ending it as part of his campaign, even though the war ended based on a status of forces agreement negotiated by the Bush administration. President Obama tried to delay that negotiated end by keeping U.S. forces in Iraq past the withdrawal date. In 2014, U.S. troops began to return to Iraq as part of the campaign against ISIS. That campaign also finally opened the door for the Obama administration to send the U.S. military into Syria, after a previous effort motivated by the Assad regime's purported use of chemical weapons against civilians failed. Opponents of ending the war in Iraq pointed to the return of U.S. troops as vindicating their position, since they had argued a U.S. withdrawal would destabilize Iraq. That was very much a self-fulfilling prophecy. The U.S. invasion of Iraq destabilized the country, while the extended occupation enfeebled the post-Hussein government, fostering in it a dependence on foreign support. Other disasters are entirely of the Obama administration's making. The 2011 U.S. intervention in Libya was heralded as a different kind of intervention than the invasion of Iraq, because it was supported by the Arab League, did not involve a significant number of U.S. troops on the ground, and did not lead to an extended occupation. Many of the effects, however, were similar. The intervention destabilized Libya. Weapons from the former Qaddafi regime were spread far and wide, from Nigeria to Syria, aggravating conflicts across North Africa and the Middle East. Mali, which the U.S. had a few years earlier identified as one of Africa's "most enlightened democracies," suffered a coup and was beset by Islamist militants from Libya, bringing it to the verge of collapse. The U.S. intervention in Libya also contributed to the refugee crisis with which European countries are now dealing. U.S. special forces are in Libya fighting against ISIS, which, along with Al-Qaeda and other smaller terrorist groups, did not exist in Libya prior to the intervention. The Obama administration has also opened up fronts in the global war on terror (though they dropped the terminology) in West Africa, sending U.S. troops to aid local forces in the fight against Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group which has aligned itself with ISIS and Al-Qaeda. The U.S. is building a $100 million drone base i[...]
Mon, 09 Jan 2017 12:35:00 -0500
(image) Friday afternoon's news dump, as Scott Shackford blogged here, was an oddly unconvincing report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence about Russian attempts to undermine the U.S. presidential election. A few hours later, The Fifth Column, your favorite Kmele Foster-co-hosted podcast, got deep into some whiskey sent to us by loyal listeners. You can probably guess at the results. Listen to the whole thing here:
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As one might expect on a podcast that includes former Reasoner Michael C. Moynihan, the subject of Russia came up in the previous episode, on Dec. 30. For more Fifth Column check out iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, wethefifth.com, @wethefifth, and Facebook.
Fri, 06 Jan 2017 10:23:00 -0500When I was a tween in smoggy Southern California, I would sporadically experience during moments of stress and high exertion unpleasant bouts of hyperventiliation. The unlikely solution? Breathe into a paper bag, until the lungs (and nerves) calm down. The New York Times needs to breathe into a paper bag. Last night, The Paper of Record dropped this bit of alarmism into the anti-Trump slipstream. Here's how Times columnist Charles M. Blow shared the news on Twitter: This man is not NORMAL! He's also an outrage and offense to our protocols and institutional traditions. UGH… https://t.co/sWd8NOBCCE — Charles M. Blow (@CharlesMBlow) January 6, 2017 When you pick through the article's alarmist adjectives to get down to the underlying facts, you're left with this nut: Politically appointed American ambassadors (i.e., those selected by the president from outside the Foreign Service, usually from a pool that coincidentally overlaps with his biggest donors and bundlers), by tradition, end their terms on Inauguration Day. Usually the president grants waivers to extend the terms of those who need a little extra time for stuff like not disrupting kids' school years. This time around, the incoming Trump administration has told the political ambassadors that there will be no waivers. Among the phrases and quotes used to characterize this move: "quite extraordinary," "exacerbates jitters among allies," "spite and payback," "guillotine," and so on. Among the relevant notions the article leaves out: How many ambassadors are "political" (usually about one-third), and how many of them will be impacted by this change. For the latter, let's go to Associated Press diplomatic correspondent Matt Lee: In the past two inter-party transitions (Clinton-Bush, Bush-Obama) only about 10 political ambos have gotten extensions, per officials. https://t.co/fNiAGROxDX — Matt Lee (@APDiploWriter) January 6, 2017 I suppose "Trump inconveniences 10 families" isn't a particularly sexy story, so we're left with heavy breathing like this: "The directive has...upended the personal lives of many ambassadors, who are scrambling to secure living arrangements and acquire visas allowing them to remain in their countries so their children can remain in school." In other words, a handful of very rich people find themselves having to navigate the same disruptions that multiple military families face every damned day. (Also, re: "scrambling to...acquire visas," each of the four postings referenced in the article—Costa Rica, the Czech Republic, Belgium, and Switzerland—allow U.S. citizens to visit without a visa for up to 90 days, which means that those dreaded disrupted school years can likely be stitched together via a single trip outside the country on, say, Easter.) Part of the attempt at controversy here involves an unrealistic notion of what a U.S. ambassador actually does. Imagine being an American injured in a terror attack in Germany or France and there's no U.S. ambassador there. — Garance Franke-Ruta (@thegarance) January 6, 2017 This is in fact pretty easy for me to imagine, traveling as often as I do to a part of France regularly patrolled by machine-gun-toting cops, and I can testify as someone who lived eight years abroad and who has interacted with a dozen or so U.S. ambassadors, the absence of a local embassy chief would mean squat-all. Ambassadors, particularly political appointees, are ribbon-cutters and toast-makers. Embassies, particularly in high-profile countries, are not really oriented around the concerns of individual Americans. And should something truly bad happen to you out in foreigner-land, it would almost certainly be the Foreign Service staff to help you out. Matt Lee again: Almost all US embassies have competent career DCMs who will become charges d'affaires and ambos ad interim in absence of nominated envoys. https://t.co/fNiAGROxDX — Matt Lee (@APDiploWriter) January 6, 2017 Lee concludes, "This is a non-story. Presidents choose their ow[...]
Thu, 05 Jan 2017 21:36:00 -0500We were always at war with Eastasia. MSNBC, a seemingly neoconservative news outlet, is enraged that Congressional Republicans won't accept—on blind faith—the intelligence community's view that Russia was the source of the Podesta email hack. MSNBC commentator Joy Reid was particularly incensed that any Republican would dare question the honor of Director of National Security James Clapper, a man who lied about the NSA committing the most massive Fourth Amendment violation in history. Clapper told the Senate Armed Services Committee today that Russia had engaged in an unprecedented level of interference in the U.S. presidential election, for whatever his opinion is worth (not much, I hope). Sen. John McCain lashed out at Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who has claimed that Russia was not the source of the leaked information about Hillary Clinton. McCain asked Clapper, "Do you think there's any credibility we should attach to [Julian Assange], given his record?" "Not in my view," said Clapper. Perhaps McCain should have asked Clapper if the director himself deserves any credibility, in the eyes of the American people, given his past misstatements about his office's gross violation of their civil liberties. But there was nary a mention of Clapper's past dishonesty during Reid's show on Thursday night. Filling in for the usual 8:00 p.m. anchor, Chris Hayes, Reid asked Republican Rep. Mo Brooks, a member of the House Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees, whether he considered himself, "a Julian Assange Republican like Sean Hannity, or a John McCain Republican like DNI Clapper and others who say Russia was behind the hacking?" Brooks replied that he thought a healthy degree of skepticism was warranted, particularly given how badly the intelligence community dropped the ball in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Reid fired back, "You didn't answer the question. Who do you believe?" Later on the program, Reid mocked Republicans for not siding with anti-Russia hawks McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham—the sane foreign policy Republicans, in her view. Sorry to belabor this point, but McCain and Graham are radical interventionist neoconservatives. Why is a supposedly liberal network carrying water for them? This is a telltale symptom of Trump derangement syndrome. Chris Matthews, to his credit, was much more reasonable, and invited Sen. Rand Paul onto his show to discuss the hacking from a less partisan point of view. Paul said that he didn't think the leaked information about Clinton mattered much in his home state of Kentucky. He also reminded viewers that Clapper misled the American people about whether the NSA was spying on them. (Paul has previously said that if Edward Snowden goes to jail, he should share a cell with Clapper.) It seems like the libertarian-friendly Paul is offering one of the only principled, independent perspectives in politics these days. Everyone else asks whether a given development would help or undermine Trump, and then adjusts their opinions accordingly. Meanwhile, intelligence officials are touting emails showing that Russian leaders were happy about Trump's victory as evidence they were involved in the hack. This prove nothing, of course, except that Russian leaders were indeed happy about Trump winning the election—something everyone already knew.[...]
Thu, 05 Jan 2017 14:00:00 -0500Next week America's intelligence community will release an unclassified report detailing as much as they publicly can why they believe the Russian government hacked and leaked private emails from the Democratic National Committee and engaged in a campaign of fake news intended to influence the outcome of the presidential election. Because of the confluence of President-Elect Donald Trump's reflexively defensive personality and the lack of trust good chunks of the public have of our intelligence leaders, it is easy to predict that the outcome of this report's release will be more public squabbling. Was Russia truly responsible? Is Trump Vladimir Putin's willing lackey? Or is he being used and doesn't realize it? At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing today, though, the emphasis was on what to do about it, whether America has a strategy on cyberattacks, why America doesn't have a strategy, what deterrence and retaliation looks like, and whether we should treat our intelligence community with much more credibility than Wikileaks' Julian Assange. That last part was a little bit strange, given that one of the participants in the hearing was outgoing Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who will forever be remembered for openly lying to a Senate committee about the National Security Agency (NSA) engaging in mass surveillance of American citizens. Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana) said he was "astounded" at the idea that people would grant Assange greater credibility than our intel folks. As much of a critic I've been of Clapper, it's worth noting that he emphasized a couple of very important facts to the committee. First, they need to grasp the difference between foreign surveillance and espionage and an actual cyberattack for the very obvious reason that America engages in surveillance and espionage of foreign nations (and cyberattacks as well, honestly). A policy of retaliating against other countries who engage in the same practices will result in some nasty blowback and unintended consequences. It's something to keep in mind when discussing things like China's hacking and collection of private information about federal government employees. Second, he wanted the Senate committee to resist the idea of looking at responses to cyberattacks as a tit for tat game where America strikes back in the same fashion. It's not an arms race with the non-word "cyber" inserted everywhere. "Noncyber tools have been more effective in changing our adversary's behavior," he said. But after several hours of the hearing, one thing became abundantly clear: This was a debate on how aggressively America should react to these incidents. There was very little to no discussion of taking defensive actions or protective measures to keep Americans safe from hacking. The main of the discussion (when not about how our intelligence operatives deserve all of our respect) was about what sort of interventions or punishments America needs to implement to deter attacks. Early on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chairman of the committee, set the tone by suggesting that while it's clear that the Russian government didn't directly interfere with voting, if the information released by the hackers and if the propaganda and fake news efforts Russia put forward actually influenced the election results, he considered that to possibly be an act of aggression. He later complained that handling incidences of cyberattacks against the United States on a case-by-case basis was not "a strategy." Other senators on in both parties were also very much caught up in the idea of how America will respond to attacks in the vein of "What do we do to these countries?" rather than from an interest in bolstering American cybersecurity. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) asked what it would take to "impose enough of a cost to get them to stop." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), still living in full fear that the world is out to destroy us all, wanted to kno[...]
Thu, 05 Jan 2017 13:12:00 -0500
(image) How many bombs did the U.S. military drop last year? It's hard to get an exact count, but Micah Zenko and Jennifer Wilson have done the best tally they can:
In President Obama's last year in office, the United States dropped 26,171 bombs in seven countries. This estimate is undoubtedly low, considering reliable data is only available for airstrikes in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, and a single "strike," according to the Pentagon's definition, can involve multiple bombs or munitions. In 2016, the United States dropped 3,027 more bombs—and in one more country, Libya—than in 2015.
Most (24,287) were dropped in Iraq and Syria.
The full list:
To read their whole post, go here; to look at 2015's tally, go here. To remind yourself that we knew way back in 2008 that Barack Obama wasn't the dove many of his supporters were expecting, go here. And since some people still seem convinced that Obama has been pulling the U.S. back from the world, you may also want to go here to see Daniel Larison doing battle with the idea that Obama has had a "commitment to retrenchment." Writes Larison: "The U.S. is involved in more wars in more countries today than it was when Obama became president. By any reasonable definition, that can't be what retrenchment looks like."
Tue, 03 Jan 2017 12:20:00 -0500Russian government hackers have taken control over our power grid! Oh, wait … no … never mind. A laptop not connected to the power grid at all had some malware on it that does not appear to be connected to the Russian government after all. You'll be forgiven for having ignored this final absurd international cybersecurity story of 2016 in favor of celebrating the passing of a year many folks couldn't wait to see end. On Friday evening, The Washington Post reported that hackers connected to the Russian government had penetrated the United States electrical grid through a Vermont power company, and the culprits were the same hacking group President Barack Obama's administration had associated with getting the release of internal emails from the Democratic National Committee. The story spread like wildfire through social media, particularly among those unhappy with President-Elect Donald Trump's warm relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his open skepticism of federal intelligence reports. Except the story turned out to be wildly inaccurate. Very quickly it turned out that the infected computer was not connected to the power grid and that the hackers (Russian or otherwise) did not gain access to the power plant. And by Monday, The Washington Post had reported that it didn't even appear that Russian hackers were even involved. The Post relied on anonymous government sources for its reporting, and when dealing with cybersecurity and tech issues there are so many opportunities for information to go awry. Relying on anonymous information from intel officials deliberately trying to shield themselves from taking responsibility for such leaks is a bad idea. In fairness to the Post, it very quickly corrected its mistakes, though it came after the story spread far and wide. It's very easy—and relevant—to look at what happened with this report and reflect back on the insistence from government sources that Saddam Hussein was hoarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Trump himself pointed this comparison out even before Friday's news blitz, attempting to shield himself from criticism for any connection to the DNC hack. America went to war over WMDs and many, many people died, Americans and Iraqis (and others). It seems unlikely that a response as extreme would happen between the U.S. and Russia, even had Hillary Clinton won instead of Trump. Nevertheless, we should all be very concerned at the possibility of not just history repeating, but for both media outlets and government intelligence officials to repeat their roles in helping make it happen. It's so easy to screw up reporting on cybersecurity (CNN was roundly mocked for using a screenshot from video game Fallout 4 to accompany its coverage of Russian sanctions to show what hacking looked like). Even before the initial Washington Post report was corrected, there was a big red flag buried deep within it. The initial reporting acknowledged that any "hacking" that took place happened because whoever was operating the computer in question clicked on a link from a phishing email that installed malware on the computer. Just as with the hack in the Democratic National Convention case, this isn't just a situation of a malicious intruder forcing his way into a system. He or she or they were invited in because of poor security practices on the user end. It's very important to remind folks of this component of cybersecurity vulnerability because otherwise this debate becomes about "What should America do to countries that engage in cyberespionage?" instead of "What should America do to prevent cyberespionage?" The difference between those two questions is very relevant. The first question creates an environment of intrusion and intervention in other countries. The second question creates an environment of protecting America from threats and making our defenses stronger. On [...]
Mon, 02 Jan 2017 11:05:00 -0500For the American press and many partisans, one of Donald Trump's very gravest sins is his "bromance" with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. It's a sure sign of The Donald's stupidness, ignorance, naiveity, or flat-out lack of any moral seriousness that he seems to be OK with the Russians grabbing Crimea, edging its way into Ukraine, helping an even-bigger POS, Bashar al Assad, in Syria, and even "hacking" an election (or maybe not). These are all serious actions and worthy of argument, analysis, and sharp disagreement. But the presumption of most of Trump's critics (they exist on the right, too) when it comes to his Putinphilia is the unexamined equation of today's Russia and the Soviet Union. Just like the Soviets, this unspoken argument goes, Russia is bent on world domination or, at the very least, regaining the contours of its former empire of Soviet republics and effective control of countries in the Baltics and Eastern Europe. Against such a dire and unexamined starting point, Washington Post Moscow Bureau Chief David Filipov has written an important article worth reading. After recounting the very good year that Putin had in 2016 (brokering a cease-fire in Syria, winning praise from President-elect Trump, getting his "man" elected in the U.S., high-though-not-stellar approval ratings at home), he reminds us: Russia is not the Soviet Union, this is not the Cold War, and Moscow is not looking for world domination. Putin's goal is limited to reducing U.S. influence while ensuring Russia's vital interests, and the power he can project is still limited by a weak economy and a global reach that pales in comparison to that of the United States. He can't act anywhere he wants, he can't do it alone, and a lot still depends on whether and how far President-elect Donald Trump decides to go along with him. Filipov notes that Russia's economy is still in the shitter and highly dependent upon energy exports. Even though Putin has a personal rating in the 80s, only around half of the country thinks it is heading in the right direction and all sorts of structural reforms of the public sector and the economy have stalled or failed miserably. The typical Russian household is spending more than half its money on food and groceries for the first time in seven years and Russian GDP has declined from a peak of $2.2 trillion in 2013 to just $1.3 trillion, which works out to a second-world per-capita figure of $9,000. Putin recently refused a plan from his military to re-establish naval bases in Cuba and Vietnam, at least in part because of the cost. Filipov concludes: Putin has succeeded because he only picks fights with the United States when Russian vital interests are at stake and Russia has a reasonable chance of prevailing, said Simon Saradzhyan, founding director of the Russia Matters Project at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. Saradzhyan argues that the primary consideration here is whether the United States is willing to commit its full might: In Ukraine, U.S. vital interests were not at stake, and ultimately, he said, the Obama administration decided they were not in Syria, either. "Soviet leaders sought to counter the United States everywhere and anywhere," Saradzhyan said. "Putin has a much more limited outlook shaped by capacities of his country's economy, demographics and other components of national might."... Even as Putin steams into 2017 at the height of his power, the question is what happens to Russia's standing the moment Trump takes control of the world's most powerful nation. While Moscow is likely to continue to push to expand its influence where it can at the expense of the United States, co-opting the new administration — for example, in the fight against terrorism — wherever it is feasible, Putin is unlikely to act in a way that openly challenges the new U.S. pre[...]
Thu, 29 Dec 2016 14:00:00 -05002016 is mercifully coming to an end this weekend, and the Obama presidency will end less than three weeks later. Despite Donald Trump's insistence that he'll do things differently, January 20, 2017 will be no more a clean break from the past than January 20, 2009, was, especially when it comes to the exercise of U.S. foreign policy abroad. Both Barack Obama and Trump made a change in foreign policy part of their successful first presidential campaigns—for both, that promise of change was nebulous and uncertain. It allowed people with all different kinds of ideas about U.S. foreign policy to believe his vision would comport with their own. President Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, just 10 months into office. He leaves office with a war in Afghanistan that's gone on longer than the Civil War, World War I, and World War II combined, a war in Iraq (and Syria) that's not quite the same as the one he inherited (the names and places have changed), and intervention-induced chaos in places like Libya and Yemen. Trump, meanwhile, sent all sorts of mixed signals about how his administration might conduct, or frame, its foreign policy during the campaign—he was no non-interventionist but also challenged the Republican foreign policy establishment during the primaries. His freewheeling style so far has earned some dividends, while his cabinet picks, like Rex Tillerson at secretary of state and Gen. James Mattis at defense, will at their confirmations have to frame whatever the Trump administration's actual foreign policy, or foreign policy narrative, might be. Even a foreign policy left adrift is destructive, and like the Obama administration before it, the Trump administration, too, will inherit a number of conflict zones and hot spots in which the United States is engaged. Afghanistan In 2009, President Obama ordered a troop surge in Afghanistan, a war that at that point had entered its ninth year. "When the history of the Obama presidency is written," The New York Times reported on December 5, 2009, about Obama's decision to accelerate the troop surge and subsequent withdrawal as visualized in a bell curve chart, "that day with the chart may prove to be a turning point, the moment a young commander in chief set in motion a high-stakes gamble to turn around a losing war." Seven years later, the Afghanistan war continues. Most recently, the putative withdrawal was pushed into 2017, with at least 6,000 U.S. troops staying through next year. In 2009, the point of the surge was to create the space for Afghan security forces to operate on their own. A concomitant "civilian surge" from the State Department was supposed to strengthen Afghan national institutions. Bureaucratic infighting and incompetence instead wasted any opportunity that the surge might have created for a withdrawal. Last year, President Obama became the first Nobel Peace Prize winner to bomb another Nobel Peace Prize winner when an American gunship launched a strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. Today, U.S. forces are fighting not just the Taliban but ISIS fighters as well. Obama has slowed down the pull out in large part because Afghan forces are unprepared to fight alone. Trump, meanwhile, has argued against both nation-building in Afghanistan and setting withdrawal dates (that insurgents would know) yet in favor of a long-term military presence in Afghanistan to keep it from becoming a failed states. Iraq By the time President Obama took office, a status of forces agreement had been negotiated between the U.S. and Iraq that would see all U.S. troops withdrawn by 2011. While Obama tried to keep a residual U.S. force of 10,000 in Iraq past that date, the Iraqi government was unwilling to extend immunity to U.S. troops who stayed in the country longer. Nevertheless, Obama campaigned [...]
Wed, 21 Dec 2016 15:40:00 -0500"Is Donald Trump a "freewheeling" "madman"? While Trump challenged foreign policy norms on the campaign trail, not holding back on attacking the George W. Bush legacy, he was hardly a non-interventionist—often complaining that the United States was not reimbursed for its security commitments and military actions around the world. Trump wants to make a deal. So far he's something of a wildcard. Since becoming president-elect, Trump has made a number of moves that have rattled the foreign policy establishment, although his cabinet picks were not one of them. Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state nominee, was reportedly initially suggested by Bob Gates, the former Bush and Obama administration defense secretary, and backed by Condoleezza Rice, Bush's former national security advisor and secretary of state, both of whom run a consulting firm that represents ExxonMobil, where Tillerson is CEO. Former President Bush called Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where the nomination hearings will be heard, with "effusive" praise, and former Vice President Dick Cheney also backed Tillerson. Henry Kissinger, former Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford secretary of state, meanwhile, was cautiously optimistic about Trump in a Face the Nation interview, telling John Dickerson Trump, "a phenomenon that foreign countries haven't seen," had the "possibility of going down in history as a very considerable president" because of the perception around the world that Obama "basically withdrew America from international politics" and because Trump was "asking a lot of unfamiliar questions." The Washington Post's David Ignatius asks whether "Trump's freewheeling foreign policy could have its benefits," pointing to the "useful ambiguity and negotiating room" Trump created with the congratulatory phone call he took from the president of Taiwan. China captured an unmanned navy drone in the South China Sea, where China has been building military facilities on artificial structures, which was returned. Trump later tweeted the U.S. should "tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!" On Fox News Sunday last week, he asked why the U.S. ought to defer to China on relations with Taiwan and the One China policy, which Kissinger helped construct. At the Washington Post, James Hohmann suggests Trump is following Nixon's "madman theory" on foreign policy, also pointing to Trump's approach to China as bearing some fruit, calling it "the first vindication of this approach." Since the election, Trump has re-affirmed U.S. security commitments to NATO and to countries like South Korea. The European Union invited Trump to a summit in Europe at his earliest convenience as soon as he was elected, and a NATO summit early next year in Brussels ought to be one of the first venues for Trump to demonstrate what's he meant by wanting to cut a deal, and whether he's ready to de-escalate American security commitments or whether he intends to continue a bipartisan foreign policy that sees America as an indispensable nation that must be involved everywhere.[...]
Wed, 21 Dec 2016 00:01:00 -0500Donald Trump began to express doubts about the wisdom of overthrowing Saddam Hussein soon after the 2003 invasion of Iraq and by 2004 was criticizing the war as senseless and counterproductive—or, as he put it more recently, "a big, fat mistake." Hillary Clinton, by contrast, did not admit the war was a mistake until more than a decade after she voted for it. John Bolton, the former U.N. ambassador whom Trump reportedly plans to nominate as deputy secretary of state, has Clinton beat: He still thinks the war was a good idea. Bolton's stubborn defense of a disastrous war he helped engineer, which by itself should be enough to disqualify him from any position related to foreign policy, reflects interventionist instincts that are glaringly inconsistent with Trump's critique of reckless regime change and naïve nation building. In a recent speech, Trump reaffirmed his "commitment to only engage the use of military forces when it's in the vital national security interest of the United States." He said "we will stop racing to topple foreign regimes…that we know nothing about," promised that his administration will instead be "guided by the lessons of history and a desire to promote stability," and declared that "the destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally…come to an end." It is hard to think of a worse candidate to help implement that vision than Bolton. As undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, he was largely responsible for the deception used to justify the invasion of Iraq, a stratagem that Trump has condemned in no uncertain terms. "They lied," Trump said during a debate last February. "They said there were weapons of mass destruction. There were none, and they knew there were none." Bolton is not only a liar, according to Trump himself, but a liar who does not learn from his big, fat mistakes. "I still think the decision to overthrow Saddam was correct," he told The Washington Examiner last year. Undaunted by the results of that intervention, which according to Trump created chaotic conditions conducive to terrorism, Bolton supported overthrowing Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, which according to Trump continued "the destructive cycle of intervention and chaos." More recently Bolton has advocated bombing Iran and argued that the U.S. should have intervened earlier and more decisively in Syria's civil war. Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator who briefly vied with Trump for the Republican presidential nomination and who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is dismayed by the gap between Bolton's belligerence and Trump's criticism of wanton war making. "I want Trump to pick somebody who agrees with what he said on the stump," Paul told Reason last week. "The fact that the administration would consider Bolton makes one wonder how deeply felt or deeply held those beliefs are." In a Rare essay explaining why he will oppose any nomination of Bolton for a State Department position, Paul describes him as "a longtime member of the failed Washington elite that Trump vowed to oppose, hell-bent on repeating virtually every foreign policy mistake the U.S. has made in the last 15 years—particularly those Trump promised to avoid as president." Paul notes that Bolton "more often stood with Hillary Clinton and against what Donald Trump has advised." Trump's puzzling fondness for Bolton, whom he calls "a tough cookie," is of a piece with his promise to "build up" a military that already receives more money than its seven closest competitors combined. "I'm a very militaristic person," Trump bragged during a debate last year, even as he criticized the Iraq war. Trump says he aims, like Ronald Reagan, to achieve "peace through strength." But a military buildup hardly seems cons[...]
Mon, 19 Dec 2016 14:00:00 -0500Aleppo — the Syrian city that's been the center of the anti-Assad resistance for more than five years — appears to have finally fallen after a spectacularly brutal onslaught by Syrian government and Russian forces. President-elect Donald Trump responded to the humanitarian disaster, which includes the indiscriminate bombing of civilians and other atrocities, by telling attendees of a Pennsylvania rally last week, "When I look at what's going on in Syria, it's so sad," adding, "we're going to help people." Trump said he wants to build "safe zones" for civilians "so they can have a chance." In 2015, Trump also advocated for safe zones as a potential solution to the refugee crisis. Arguing that large numbers of refugees could "destroy all of Europe," Trump instead proposed building "a big beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they'll be happier." Knowing that the creation of such safe zones will require both an enormous financial commitment but also military personnel, Trump called for the oil-rich Sunni Gulf states (presumably including Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar), which have been supporting rebel forces, to band their resources together for this vaguely-defined humanitarian project. During the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton had called for the imposition of "no-fly zones" in Syria, which Trump warned could "lead to World War 3." Indeed, no-fly zones are enforced with the threat of violence and with Russian fighter jets providing cover for Syria's Assad regime, any U.S. efforts to repel them would reasonably be seen as an act of war. One retired naval officer described no-fly zones as "the cocktail party military application of power of choice," but without an actual proposed end-game, they are potentially disastrous. That's why Trump's call for "safe zones," while not in the Clinton mold of humanitarian war-making, should also be met with skepticism. Even if Trump is able to convince a regional power like Saudi Arabia to invest its cash and military in providing "safe" areas for civilians, they will inevitably be forced to face down hostile actors — be they Assad's military forces, Russian forces, or even ISIS. It's hard to imagine the Saudis sticking their necks out for Syrian civilians, especially after more than half a decade of civil war in Syria. Besides, even if the Saudis did intervene at this late stage, they're bogged down with their own war in Yemen, where they've very likely committed war crimes against that country's civilian population backed by both U.S.-provided weapons and even U.S. tactical military support. Trump's foreign policy — nearly always inscrutable during the campaign — is slowly being fleshed out. His opposition to military intervention in Syria won him plaudits from some anti-war libertarians, but "safe zones" are just "no-fly zones" by another name. And even if Trump is able to convince the U.S.' nominal allies in the Gulf to intervene on behalf of civilians, he should remember that they'll inevitably lean on the U.S. for support, and that's the kind of mission creep that inevitably drags a country into a war.[...]
Mon, 19 Dec 2016 00:01:00 -0500Judging from the reaction to some of Donald Trump's Cabinet choices, there are two types of businesspeople Democrats distrust: those who behave as you would expect businesspeople to behave and those who don't. Neither Andrew Puzder nor Rex Tillerson has found many champions in the opposition party. Puzder, chosen to head the Department of Labor, is head of CKE Restaurants, parent company of the Hardee's and Carl's Jr. fast-food chains. In that job, he has learned a lot about hiring and managing employees—the "labor" that is the focus of the department's activities. For some reason, it comes as a shock to many people that Trump would nominate someone who opposes big increases in the minimum wage. "Instead of creating a living wage," Puzder wrote last year, "the fight for dramatic minimum-wage increases could leave millions with no wage at all." This happens to be standard economic theory. No less a liberal authority than Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, in 1998, mocked those "who very much want to believe that the price of labor—unlike that of gasoline, or of Manhattan apartments—can be set based on considerations of justice, not supply and demand." Puzder deserves credit for creating jobs: CKE and its franchisees employ some 90,000 people. Not surprisingly, he doesn't like government dictates that raise his outlets' costs and reduce their profitability. He is candid about the advantages of machines, which, he has pointed out, never show up late or file lawsuits. His background gives him a different perspective than a labor activist would offer. But union champions rarely join Republican Cabinets. Unlike some Trump appointees—I'm looking at you, Ben Carson—Puzder won't need a crash course on the issues his department handles. Nor is he hostile to compromise. Based on an interview in March, the Los Angeles Times reported that "he's not against a minimum wage higher than today's federal level of $7.25 an hour, or even to indexing the minimum to inflation." Puzder could mitigate some of Trump's worst impulses. During the presidential campaign, he argued that "every candidate should support a path to legal status—short of citizenship—for illegal immigrants." Tillerson, picked for secretary of state, is not a cartoon version of the Texas oilman. As president of the Boy Scouts of America, he pushed to allow gay troop leaders. Exxon Mobil has donated to Planned Parenthood. The right-wing Family Research Council warns that Tillerson "may be the greatest ally liberals have in the Cabinet for their abortion and LGBT agendas." Most notably, he endorsed a carbon tax to combat global warming—and Exxon Mobil has lobbied Congress to pass one. Having someone with that viewpoint in the most important foreign policy job could be helpful to the planet. Critics think he will put the interests of big oil above those of the American public. But CEOs are not free agents. They are used to serving the interests of shareholders while catering to customers. As head of Exxon Mobil, Tillerson profited from high oil prices. But had he gone to Ford, he would have acquired a new preference for cheap fuel. There's no obvious reason that Tillerson can't similarly shift his allegiance to serving the public interest (to the extent his boss allows). Besides, his background invites merciless scrutiny of any decision that affects his old industry. He can expect to be held to a tougher standard on such matters than anyone else would be. Tillerson came to the president-elect's attention at the suggestion of Robert Gates, who served ably as defense secretary under George W. Bush and Barack Obama and endorsed Hillary Clinton. Gates' recommendation ought to carry bipartisan weight, even if his consulting [...]
Thu, 15 Dec 2016 00:01:00 -0500To anyone weary of 15 years of inconclusive war, Donald Trump's recent foreign policy speech offered heartening words. He thinks the United States should stop pursuing regime change abroad and start fixing its own problems. "We will stop racing to topple" foreign governments "that we know nothing about," he recently told a crowd in Fayetteville, North Carolina. "We're guided by the lessons of history and a desire to promote stability—stability all over—and strength in our land. This destructive cycle of intervention and chaos must finally, folks, come to an end." This promise is particularly relevant to Syrian ruler Bashar Assad, whom President Barack Obama once called on to leave. It also will reassure Egyptian strongman Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who restored an autocracy that Obama's pressure had helped bring down. Trump has no interest in toppling dictators. His goal is maintaining order. So he says. But Trump's attention to the lessons of history goes only so far. In other places, he has heedlessly put stability at risk already. His blithe disdain for long-standing commitments and understandings invites a different destructive cycle that could make the previous chaos seem like ripples on a pond. The first danger involves China, whose government Trump offended by taking a call from the president of Taiwan and indicating he may scrap our "one China" policy. The implication was that he may be willing to recognize Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province. It may not sound like a big deal to him, because the Republic of China, as Taiwan calls itself, has enjoyed de facto independence since 1949. But that's where respect for the lessons of history comes in. For a long time, the three governments have operated according to a compromise: China leaves Taiwan alone to govern itself; Taiwan doesn't declare its independence; and the United States acknowledges China's claim on the island while selling arms to Taiwan. No one loves the arrangement, but it's kept the peace. By calling it into question, Trump challenges the Chinese government on turf that it can't give up. Were he to restore diplomatic relations with Taipei, Beijing would doubtless break ties with Washington and look for new ways to subvert our interests. Any overt move by Taiwan toward independence would provoke forceful military action by China. Are Americans ready to fight for Taiwan? Upsetting the status quo would violate a couple of basic axioms of geopolitics. One is not to push an adversary into a corner where his only option is war. Another is not to pick a fight where the enemy's stake is much greater than yours. By ignoring these rules, the president-elect runs the risk of unleashing the very turbulence he abhors. If his policy toward China is dangerously aggressive, his policy toward Russia is dangerously accommodating. Trump is famously enamored of President Vladimir Putin, and he has complained that our European allies are not paying enough for their own defense. Asked in July whether he would use military force in the case of a Russian invasion of Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania—all NATO members—he hedged. "I don't want to tell you what I'd do, because I don't want Putin to know what I'd do," he said, suggesting it would depend on whether the invaded country had "fulfilled their obligations to us." The implication was that the U.S. might stand by and let Russia seize one of its former states. Now, the original decision to include these countries in our defense alliance may have been a mistake. (I think it was.) But it's not a decision to be revisited when someone like Putin looms. To suggest we might tolerate such aggression is to invite it. To tolerate a Russian [...]