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Why Bolton Matters

Unreliable narrators are a staple of literature. Consider the delusional, self-serving narrator of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl or the way Humbert Humbert used his cultured references and gorgeous prose to dress up his crimes in Nabokov’s Lolita.

Now along comes John Bolton and his account of time served in the Trump administration as national security advisor.

Bolton’s latest book has been attacked as fiction by the president, members of his administration, and even members of the administrations of other countries (like South Korea). Bolton is a thoroughly unpleasant hatchet man who has opposed arms control treaties, diplomacy in most forms, and international institutions of all varieties. He is reliably paleoconservative. But does that make him a reliable narrator of his own story as well?

The picture Bolton paints of the Trump administration is a familiar one. We’ve been treated to a succession of tell-all accounts of the horror that has been Donald Trump’s tenure as president: Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury, Philip Rucker and Carol Leonig’s A Very Stable Genius, even A Warning by Anonymous. Each one has added a little more paint to the Hieronymus Bosch picture of the presidency: monsters, unspeakable acts, darkness, and chaos.

Other than a morbid, rubbernecking fascination with atrocity, why is yet another account necessary, and from such a potentially unreliable narrator as John Bolton to boot?

The critics of Bolton’s trustworthiness have a point. But Bolton’s unreliability resides not so much in his ideology as his opportunism.

As a “kiss-up, kick-down kind of guy,” he’ll do whatever it takes to attain power. He has a terminal case of Washingtonitis: he thinks he’s the smartest man in the room and he reeks of entitlement. He entered the Trump administration not as a true believer in Trump, only a true believer in himself. His book not surprisingly portrays John Bolton as the only person in the Trump administration with any sense at all.

It’s easy enough to dismiss Bolton’s so-called revelations.

Here’s why you shouldn’t.

Taking China Off the Table

Foreign policy will not likely be the tipping point for the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s base generally doesn’t care what happens beyond America’s borders (except to keep it beyond America’s borders). And the anti-Trump camp just wants to get rid of the president, regardless of what he has done in the international arena.

Still, Trump is running on his foreign policy record. For instance, he has been busy trying to portray his opponent, Joe Biden, as somehow pro-China. “China wants Sleepy Joe sooo badly,” Trump tweeted back in April. “They want all of those billions of dollars that they have been paying to the U.S. back, and much more. Joe is an easy mark, their DREAM CANDIDATE!”

Then came the ad campaign that portrayed “Beijing Biden” as “China’s puppet” who favors engagement with Beijing without caveats and Biden’s son as the beneficiary of sweetheart deals with the Chinese. The Trump ads slam China for its handling of the coronavirus and suggest that Biden would have fumbled the U.S. response out of deference to Beijing (uh, sound familiar?).

The inconvenient truth, however, is that Trump, to quote Nicholas Kristof, “has been China’s stooge, a sycophantic flatterer and enabler of President Xi Jinping.”

In fact, Beijing would prefer four more years of Trump, not so much because of this sycophancy, but because Trump has been busy upending U.S. alliances that have constrained Chinese geopolitical influence. The trade disputes are an irritant, but China can’t expect Joe Biden to be any easier to deal with on that score. Four more years of Trump, on the other hand, would mean four more years of the ebbing of U.S. engagement in world affairs.

As Trump and Biden escalate their China-bashing, along comes Bolton. No friend of Beijing, the national security advisor is appalled at Trump’s exchanges with Xi Jinping. In one such conversation, Trump effectively signs up the Chinese leader as an in-kind contributor to his reelection campaign. Bolton had to excise Trump’s actual words from his book, but Vanity Fair has filled in the blanks:

According to an unredacted passage shown to Vanity Fair by a source, Trump’s ask is even more crudely shocking when you read Trump’s specific language. “Make sure I win,” Trump allegedly told Xi during a dinner at the G20 conference in Osaka, Japan last summer. “I will probably win anyway, so don’t hurt my farms.… Buy a lot of soybeans and wheat and make sure we win.

Trump was, of course, impeached for attempting the same strategy with Ukraine.

The other shocking revelation from Bolton’s book is Trump’s response to China’s construction of “re-education” camps for the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province. It’s not simply that Trump ignored China’s action, as he contends, to ensure that trade negotiations moved forward. According to Bolton, “Trump said that Xi should go ahead with building the camps, which Trump thought was exactly the right thing to do.”

An American president encouraged another country to engage in a massive human rights violation?

True, American presidents have given the green light to such things in the past: Sukarno’s slaughter of suspected Communists in Indonesia in 1965, Pinochet’s coup and subsequent crackdown on Allende supporters in Chile in 1973, the Salvadoran government’s widespread human rights violations in the 1980s. Horrifying as these atrocities were, American conservatives could rationalize U.S. support for these dictatorships because they were U.S. allies.

But China? That’s going to be a difficult sell for an electorate that’s already been primed, by the Trump administration itself, to demonize Beijing.

So, in effect, the Bolton book has removed China from the 2020 election campaign. Trump will think twice about accusing Biden of cozy ties with Beijing when the Democrats can literally throw the book (Bolton’s, that is) at the president.

Impeachment: Not Dead Yet

Trump loves to play the role of a cornered badger that emerges triumphant in the end. Impeachment would have given an ordinary politician pause. Trump simply held up the Senate’s failure to convict as exoneration, despite all the damning evidence produced by the whistleblower and the subsequent Mueller investigation.

The Democrats wanted Bolton to testify during the hearings. He refused to do so voluntarily. Later, he said that he would testify before the Senate if it issued a subpoena. The Republicans, with the exception of Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Susan Collins (R-ME), voted against calling additional witnesses.

Bolton argues in his book that the Democrats made a mess of the impeachment inquiry. Yet, he could have corroborated the charge of collusion with Ukraine and provided evidence of impeachable offenses in other realms of foreign policy. He didn’t do so.

Now, of course, some Republicans are saying that it would have been better for Bolton to have testified before Congress rather than save his revelations for now. “One of the things about making allegations in a book for $29.95 — certainly it’s going to be a best-seller I’m sure — the problem is that when you’re selling it in a book, you’re not putting yourself in a position to be cross-examined,” Tim Scott (R-SC) recently said.

If Scott and one other Republican had simply voted for additional witnesses, they could have made that happen. And they could have saved themselves the cost of buying Bolton’s book.

In the end, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference in the final votes on impeachment. Except for Romney, the Republicans were unwilling to break with the president.

Bolton’s book, however, is disinterring all the issues surrounding impeachment and in a light unfavorable to the president. Bolton confirms the infamous quid pro quo — military assistance in exchange for an investigation into the Ukraine dealings of Biden’s son — that Trump discussed in a phone call with the Ukrainian president and that was flagged by a whistleblower. “Nor, at the time, did I think Trump’s comments in the call reflected any major change in direction; the linkage of the military assistance with the Giuliani fantasies was already baked in. The call was not the keystone for me, but simply another brick in the wall,” Bolton writes.

Before you shell out $29.95 for the book (actually $32.50 list price), you might wait to see if Congress drags Bolton back to tell his story. This week, Adam Schiff (D-CA) hinted that he might depose the former national security advisor before the House Intelligence Committee.

Who knows? Trump might have to reckon with a second impeachment hearing as he heads into November.

The Benefits of Being Bolton

Bolton predictably criticizes Trump for not being sufficiently hawkish. The president wanted to withdraw troops from the Middle East. He wanted to make nice with North Korea. He had the gall to prioritize trade with China.

From a progressive point of view, that makes Bolton an unreliable narrator. Maybe he was tweaking the facts to make himself look stalwart and wise at the expense of a slow-witted, insufficiently martial president.

But here’s the thing: Bolton hasn’t written anything in his book that contradicts other accounts of the presidency. There was plenty of evidence of the quid pro quo with Ukraine. Trump did not hide his admiration for Xi Jinping. The president is obsessed with getting re-elected, not because he particularly likes his job but because he must prove that he is a winner.

What makes Bolton’s observations most valuable is not their novelty or their acuity but his credentials as a hawk’s hawk. His book isn’t going to make any Democrats or independents or moderate Republicans change their minds about Trump. But it will introduce some doubts into hardcore conservative supporters. They might not publicly renounce the president. Like Bolton himself, they might not even pull the lever for the Democratic candidate.

But they might decide, because of Bolton, to stay home on November 3, just like so many Republicans decided not to attend Trump’s rally in Tulsa this last weekend.

And that, ultimately, is what really puts the fear of Bolton into the Trump reelection campaign.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 24, 2020

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Articles Europe Featured

Will 2020 Be Another Victory Year for Trump and Brexit?

with Valerio Alfonso Bruno 

In early 2017, Europe’s far-right parliamentary bloc met in Koblenz, Germany, to plot its political future. The meeting of the bloc’s leaders — which included Marine le Pen from France, Matteo Salvini from Italy and Geert Wilders from the Netherlands — took place shortly after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump. The group was optimistic about its prospects. “Yesterday a free America, today Koblenz, tomorrow a new Europe,” declared an excited Wilders.

Today, the far right faces a watershed year. After the 2019 European Parliament elections, the European far-right bloc has doubled in size, and Boris Johnson has finally extricated the UK from the European Union — a dream of the far right for some time. On the other hand, Trump heads into an election year amid his own impeachment trial.

The success of the Brexit referendum and Trump’s long-shot presidential bid in 2016 signaled a global turn to the right. Will 2020 deliver a different verdict?

Responding to Impeachment

The news of Donald Trump’s impeachment spread across the world in the hours after the historic House vote in mid-December in favor of impeachment. However, world leaders and high-profile politicians generally reserved judgment on the event. “World reaction muted to nonexistent” was the headline in USA Today. Some responses were general, as when China’s The Global Times took the opportunity of the impeachment to point out the growing “flaws of Western-style democracy.”

Two major exceptions to the lack of reaction from politicians worldwide were Russian President Vladimir Putin and Italy’s leader of the far-right League party, Matteo Salvini. Both expressed strong support for Trump, predicting that he would not only survive the proceedings, but even benefit from the impeachment in terms of electoral support. Both Putin and Salvini condemned the Democratic Party for trying to reverse the will of the people outside the ballot box. The Russian president, during his annual press conference, stated that the Democrats were simply trying to reverse their 2016 loss by “other means.”

Salvini’s League is leading the polls with 31% support. He not only expressed support for Trump, but empathized with him. Indeed, Salvini may also face legal proceedings in 2020 for having blocked a refugee transport from docking at an Italian harbor last year. As with Trump’s impeachment, the Italian senate will decide whether the proceedings will take place or not

Other Trump allies around the world have been notably quiet. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, overwhelmed by his own corruption scandal, was careful to put distance between Israel and the United States over Trump’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, hit by the threat of US trade sanctions, has also not come out strongly in support of Trump in this hour of need. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan joined Trump at the White House in November and appeared before journalists just as the impeachment hearings were getting started in the House. It was a sign of support for Trump, certainly, but otherwise Erdogan has been quiet about the political challenges the US president faces.

With the exception of Israel and the Philippines, where he remains popular, Trump has very low favorability ratings around the world. Based on Pew polling conducted in 32 countries last year, only 29% of people have confidence in the US president. Even in countries with right-wing leadership, like the UK and Hungary, Trump’s numbers are in the low 30s. No doubt that helps explain why Boris Johnson took pains to ask Trump not to “interfere” in the UK elections at the end of last year.

Trump’s erratic policies, his tendency to slap trade sanctions even on close allies, and his mercurial temperament also help explain why the coterie of right-wing and populist leaders around the world are adopting a wait-and-see approach to Trump’s political future.

Brexit and the European Far Right

In Europe, the reactions of far-right parties to Brexit were similarly low-key and revolved around two messages: respect the popular vote and avoid painful negotiations. In particular, Marine Le PenMatteo Salvini and Vox’s Santiago Abascal all agreed on the necessity to respect the “will of the people” and also warned the European Union not to use painful Brexit negotiations to punish the UK and deter other member states from contemplating withdrawal.

Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel, leaders of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), expressed similar sentiments. However, the AfD has called for a possible “exit” of Germany from the EU, the first major German party to adopt such a policy. Indeed, the major far-right parties in Europe, with the exception of AfD and a few others, are very cautious about threatening a possible withdrawal from the European Union. Even Spain’s Vox, which captured around 15% of the vote in last year’s election, is not enthusiastic about a “Spaxit,” even though an EU court ruling in favor of parliamentary immunity for jailed Catalan separatist leaders has put pressure on the party to support EU withdrawal in response.

The euroskepticism of the 2010s that produced calls for a withdrawal from the EU has largely given way to a different far-right strategy: to gain influence within European structures and use them to advance its agenda.

Partly this about-face reflects the interests of the electorate. The National Rally has stepped back from the idea of “Frexit” and leaving the euro bloc because “The French people have shown that they remain attached to the single currency,” according to a party document. Or, as Salvini has said, “We don’t want to leave anything; we want to change the rules of the EU from the inside.” The country where sentiment to leave the EU is highest is the Czech Republic, and it only hits 34%.

The other part of the story is the growing far-right representation in the European Parliament, the coordination of far-right parties in the European space, and the influence of far-right NGOs like CitizenGo. The UK has always been something of an outlier in the European Union — joining late and negotiating multiple exceptions to EU rules. It looks as if Brexit will be an outlier as well.

What’s Next?

In 2017, given the victories of Trump and Brexit the year before, Geert Wilder was justified in his optimism about the future of the far right. In the next few years, he could point to other reasons to be cheerful: the win for Bolsonaro in Brazil, the reelection of Narendra Modi in India, the success of the far right in the Hungarian and Polish parliamentary elections, the electoral surges of Vox in Spain and AfD in Germany.

The situation in 2020 is not so clear. Scandals have overwhelmed key leaders like Netanyahu, Bolsonaro and Trump himself. The far right’s participation in the Austrian coalition government came to an end as a result of another corruption scandal. Despite much media exposure, the efforts of Steve Bannon, Trump’s ideological adviser, to build a “Nationalist International” have not borne fruit.

Much depends on two factors: the results of the Brexit negotiations and the outcome of the 2020 US election. If Britain suffers economically as a result of withdrawal from the EU, the backlash against Johnson and his populist politics will be significant. And if Donald Trump loses in November — in the Electoral College as well as in the popular vote — it will send a strong message that his brand of illiberal, xenophobic populism lacks enduring appeal.

The triumphalism of the far right and its claims of an inevitable march away from liberalism will suffer a major blow. However, the cautious approach by far-right parties worldwide to Trump’s impeachment and Brexit may well signal that those political actors are now adopting long-term strategies to gain power. Their long-term strategy is shifting to a slower infiltration of democratic institutions both at the national that supranational level.

Fair Observer, February 3, 2020

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Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Putin Proposes, Trump Disposes

In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin is proposing a new constitution. Meanwhile, in Washington, U.S. President Donald Trump is disposing of the old constitution.

The first is a demonstration of power meant to showcase the unity of the Russian political system behind a strong leader. The second is an act of desperation that reveals the deep division of the American political system and the ultimate weakness of the president.

Putin will remain president until 2024 and, with this latest move, is possibly preparing the ground for an extension. Trump wants to be reelected to another term that would keep him in the Oval Office until 2024, but he has “joked” six times about becoming president for life. The fates of the United States and Russia are inextricably linked to the authoritarian narcissism of these two figures.

But these men are also part of a much longer historical development. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Russia have experienced an unexpected reversal in fortune.

Looking Ahead to the New Millennium 

Imagine sitting down in front of your computer in 1999 to try to predict the future of the United States and Russia. The trajectories seemed clear enough. The Soviet Union was dead already for eight years, the Berlin Wall was a decade gone, and the United States was the undisputed winner of the Cold War.

If the 20th century was the American century, surely the 21st would be so as well.

Certainly, the largest Soviet successor state, Russia, no longer seemed to be in the running. Its GDP was only a little more than half of what it had been in 1989. Inflation was raging at 36 percent. Billions of dollars had been siphoned out of the country during its putative “transition” to capitalism. Although life expectancy in 1988 was nearly 70 years, it dropped to below 65 years by 1994 — an unprecedented decline for a modern industrialized country not experiencing a major war.

Russia’s nascent democracy, too, was in peril. President Boris Yeltsin — frequently drunk, consistently incompetent, and battling several impeachment threats — resigned on the last day of the millennium and handed power to his prime minister, Vladimir Putin. This little-known apparatchik, an alumnus of the Soviet security system, didn’t face much of a challenge.

A generation of pro-democracy advocates had been compromised by their support for the economic changes that had so clearly impoverished the vast majority of Russians. The country was edging in the direction of a failed state. With secessionist turmoil again roiling Chechnya, the very integrity of the Russian Federation hung in the balance.

Contrast conditions in Russia in 1999 with those in the United States. At that time, America was the world’s sole superpower enjoying its extended unipolar moment.

The U.S. economy was, in the 1990s, in the longest extended economic boom in its history to that point. This expansion, plus a tax increase for the wealthy and a very modest set of cuts in military spending, allowed the administration of Bill Clinton to eliminate the budget deficit by 1998. In 1999, the unemployment rate dropped to 4.1 percent, the lowest in 30 years.

It wasn’t exactly a progressive economic agenda, not with Clinton’s punitive welfare reform and corporate-friendly NAFTA. But it was an economic paradise compared to Russia.

The Clinton administration was also edging in the direction of greater multilateralism. It signed the Rome statutes for the International Criminal Court, though it didn’t submit the treaty to the Senate for approval (the George W. Bush administration withdrew the U.S. signature in 2002). Similarly, Clinton signed the Law of the Seas agreement, which the Senate refused to ratify. He also pushed for the United States to pay its unpaid dues to the United Nations. It was a compromised multilateralism — what Clinton called “a la carte” — but it was a step up from the unilateralism of the Reagan era.

On the political front, Clinton too faced impeachment and a trial. Since the Senate couldn’t muster a two-thirds majority for either count (lying under oath, obstruction of justice), Clinton remained in office. The “vast right-wing conspiracy” — the Koch brothers, the neocons, the progenitors of the alt-right — howled from the margins, but without much effect.

In 1999, at least, American democracy seemed to be in reasonably good shape, at least in comparison to what happened later: the scandalous Supreme Court judgment in the 2000 election, the transformations wrought by the Bush administration after 9/11, and the Citizens United decision on money in politics, to mention just three.

So, if you were sitting at your computer in 1999, you probably weren’t thinking much about Russia, its prospects of returning to superpower status, or any ruinous clash between Moscow and Washington. If you were worried about anything, it was Y2K followed by, maybe, China, which was finishing a decade of dramatic economic growth. Russia was becoming more insular, more illiberal, more nationalist. The United States was flexing its power, economically and militarily, but also moving toward greater diplomatic engagement with the world.

History, it seemed, had made its decision. The United States had benefited enormously from the end of the Cold War; Russia had not.

Case closed.

Twenty Years Later

donald-trump-wars-foreign-policy

Shutterstock

By 2019, the United States had traded places with Russia in many respects.

Consider, for instance, U.S. leadership. Donald Trump isn’t a drunk like Yeltsin but you might think he was, considering the incoherence of his unscripted remarks. The American president is manifestly incompetent, which even the Pentagon acknowledges (as the new book by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker details). And now he is facing impeachment as well.

Were he to resign, as Yeltsin did, Trump would be replaced by someone very much like Vladimir Putin. Mike Pence is a quiet, ruthless, illiberal company man who would continue the Trumpian agenda more competently and thus more effectively. (First prize in the impeachment sweepstakes: Trump stays in office. Second prize: Trump resigns and Pence takes over. Booby prize: Trump is impeached and Pence uses his incumbent status to win the 2020 election).

Trump’s political rise has coincided with a deepening of divisions in the United States. To achieve power and push his agenda, the president has exploited those divisions on practically every issue.

Trump is not a Russian puppet. He’s not even an errand boy, as Yeltsin was for the United States. Trump likes Putin because he is drawn to strong, illiberal leaders who carefully construct their public images. Though he isn’t taking his orders from the Kremlin, Trump is nevertheless doing precisely what Putin would want from an American leader: paralyze America politically, remove any role for human rights in U.S. foreign policy, sow discord in NATO, and get out of Russia’s way along its borders and in the Middle East.

At the level of economic indicators, the American economy couldn’t be more different from Russia circa 1999. Unemployment and inflation are both low; Wall Street is booming. But in other respects, the U.S. economy resembles the go-go days of Russia in the 1990s. The rich are making huge profits and spiriting them away to tax havens overseas. Wealthy oligarchs await the latest government handout — a lease to dig in public lands, an enormous military contract. The government is piling up enormous amounts of debt, as are consumers. A reckoning is on the horizon.

Russia, meanwhile, has recovered from the ravages of the 1990s. Between 1999 and 2008, Russia’s GDP increased by 94 percent and its per capita GDP doubled. More recently, economic growth in 2018 hit a six-year high. The official unemployment rate is currently 4.9 percent (though it’s likely higher). While U.S. life expectancy has declined for three straight years, Russia’s has recovered to 72 years. In nominal terms, the Russian economy is eleventh in the world, behind Canada and Brazil. In terms of purchasing power, however, Russia ranks sixth.

Of course, this is a far cry from the heyday of Soviet power. Moreover, economic growth has been rather anemic over the last year, the number of people living in poverty has been increasing, and the country remains dangerously dependent on its energy exports.

Still, in a country where 70 percent of the population believes that Stalin played a positive role in Russian history, Vladimir Putin’s iron-fist policies have guaranteed him popularity ratings that also hover around 70 percent.

It’s not just a stabilized economy. It’s also Putin’s naked militarism. Over his 20-year reign, the Russian leader has brutally suppressed the Chechens, waged war in Georgia and Ukraine, deployed huge armies on the border of the Baltic nations, rebuilt the Russian military, supplied all comers with weaponry, and indiscriminately bombed large swathes of Syria. In the eyes of many Russians, Putin has indeed made his country great again.

Putin didn’t start out as a nationalist. But particularly after the Russian military campaign on behalf of secessionists in eastern Ukraine, Putin’s appeals began to take on a nationalist tone. A subtle shift in vocabulary tells it all. There are two words in Russian that can be used to describe Russians: russky and rossisky. The first denotes ethnic Russians; the second encompasses all people who live in Russia, regardless of ethnicity. In his speeches, Putin has begun to use the former over the latter.

In perhaps the most dramatic change in Russian foreign policy, Putin has largely abandoned engagement with the United States. He has emphasized the importance of Russian sovereignty above all and has pushed back against NATO encroachment on his borders.

For the most part he has backed a containment policy that permits negotiations, for instance, on arms control. But he has not hesitated to pursue a policy of rollback as well.

This rollback approach has three prongs. The first involves widening the gulf between Europe and the United States and within Europe between illiberal and liberal governments (for example, Hungary and Germany). This strategy involves funding and supporting the European far right and any other Euroskeptical forces. The second prong is to push the United States out of nearby regions — Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq — through key alliances and strategic military campaigns.

Finally, Putin is bringing the battle to the United States itself. By updating Soviet-era disinformation campaigns in an era of social media, Putin has done more to weaken the United States than anything the Communist Party ever dared to consider.

The Russian campaigns might not have gotten Trump elected in 2016 — it’s hard to know what combination of factors pushed a total of 80,000 voters in three swing states to support the Republican candidate — but they certainly contributed to undermining U.S. faith in democratic institutions. All indications suggest that Russia is gearing up for an encore performance in 2020.

Victory of Illiberalism

trump-putin-russia-hacking

(Photo: Mike Maguire / Flickr)

The liberal age, with the United States presiding over it, is over. Illiberal leaders are now in charge of the United States, Brazil, India, China, Russia. The far right is upending electoral calculations in Europe. The expansion of liberal democracy that was presented as an inevitable trajectory in the 1990s now seems as laughable as a world of Betamax and dial-up Internet.

Russia represents the new political norm: guided democracy with authoritarian tendencies. China, in the wake of the Tiananmen crisis of 1989, deliberately eschewed the Gorbachev model of modest democratization. Going forward, however, Beijing may well decide that Putin’s model, with its illusion of democracy, is the future. According to a new convergence theory, China’s market Leninism would gradually approach Russia’s illiberal democracy to create the worst kind of hybrid political economy.

Putin, despite his Soviet background and friendships with putative socialist leaders in Cuba and Venezuela, is a thoroughly right-wing leader. He is pro-religion and anti-LGBT. He embraces a corporate (and corporatist) agenda. He is a militarist. He cares nothing about human rights or democracy. With respect to his foreign policy, perhaps it’s more accurate to describe Putin simply as illiberal. It explains why he supports both right-wing extremists in Europe and left-wingers in Latin America.

One thing Putin is not, however, is a populist. He does not inveigh against a domestic elite, as Trump does. After all, Putin has carefully cultivated a domestic elite from the corporate sector (the oligarchs) and the security sector (the siloviki). Nor does he criticize globalists, as Trump does. Putin desperately wants a seat at the global table, for instance to rejoin the G7.

After 20 years of rule, Putin shows few signs of walking away from power. His current term of office runs until 2024. According to the current constitution, he won’t be able to run again.

But recently Putin announced plans for a new constitution. On the face of it, Russia’s new constitution would prevent the president from serving more than two terms, period. Putin has also touted the new powers the constitution will accord the parliament, such as naming the prime minister.

But the president would retain the authority to dismiss ministers and judges. And the new constitution would institutionalize the State Council, an advisory body chaired by the president. One scenario would be for Putin to step down as president but take up residence at the newly empowered State Council to continue to preside over the Russian government.

Or, Putin might just call another referendum in 2024 to change the constitution again so that he could run once more.

No wonder Donald Trump loves this guy. Putin can restructure government seemingly at will, all in service of his own power. Trump has tried to make the same argument in the U.S. context by essentially saying that he can’t be impeached. Senate Republicans, alas, will probably zombie-walk behind the president, their brains having been eaten at some point in the past.

Post-impeachment, Trump will likely act in an even more unshackled (and unhinged) manner. He will do everything he can to stay in office until 2024. Perhaps, like his pal in Moscow, Trump might call a referendum to change the U.S. constitution so that he can run a third time.

By that time, at the end of Trump’s second term, America’s economic bubble will have burst. Poverty and corruption will be endemic, and the democratic guardrails will have been carted off for scrap. That’s when the reversal of fortunes will be complete, Americans will have a true taste of post-imperial decline, and Russia will emerge the victor of the post-Cold War era.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, January 22, 2020

Categories
Articles Featured Islamophobia

The Real Shadow Policy of the Trump Administration Is Racist Extremism

The Democrats are pursuing two charges in their impeachment of Donald Trump: First, that the president tried to enlist Ukraine’s help for his own political gain. And second, that he’s continued to obstruct Congress in its investigation into this abuse of power.

Trump’s transformation of the Oval Office into both a branch of his business empire and the dirty tricks division of his re-election campaign is certainly disturbing. But the narrowness of these charges should not obscure the broader pattern of Trump’s crimes. From the point of view of basic morality and international law, Trump has committed far more consequential crimes and misdemeanors.

In his construction of an alternate foreign policy that makes an end-run around the State Department’s seasoned diplomats, Trump’s attack dog, Rudy Giuliani, has thrown the president together with corrupt Ukrainian officials and oligarchs. But behind the scenes in the Trump administration, an even more sinister shadow foreign policy informs the administration’s approach to immigration and security issues.

This one puts the president in bed with even more unsavory characters: racist extremists, neo-Nazis and mass shooters. Indeed, the recent leak of Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s emails provides only the latest example of the Trump administration teaming up with white nationalists from around the world.

As a right-wing college activist and later as an aide to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, Miller consistently supported the most restrictive immigration policies. Elevated to the Trump administration, Miller has influenced the president on such policies as the Muslim travel ban and family separation at the Mexico border.

Thanks to Miller, the administration has forcibly sent thousands of desperate asylum seekers back into harm’s way. It separated nearly 70,000 children from their families and held them in detention, more than any other country. These are policies have done far greater harm than Trump’s ham-fisted pressure policy on Ukraine. They fly in the face of basic decency and violate international laws on the status of refugees.

Moreover, the leaked emails reveal that Miller’s rationale for such policies is not just conventionally conservative. It is connected to a global conspiracy theory known as the “great replacement.”

I recently interviewed more than 80 experts and activists from around the world on the rise of the far right. Again and again, they pointed to this theory as the glue that holds the globe’s most noxious right-wing movements together with mainstream conservatives.

According to this far-fetched theory — first promulgated in the racist 1973 novel, The Camp of the Saints, which Miller enthusiastically recommended to Breitbart writers — non-white people are determined to replace whites and undermine their civilization.

Believers of this conspiracy theory include far-right parties in Europe and neo-Nazi organizations around the world. Mass shooters in Christchurch, New Zealand, and El Paso, Texas, have also referenced the “great replacement” in their statements. Because of Miller and his ilk, the White House is now a part of this odious network.

Of course, it’s not just Miller. The president himself has clearly embraced the same philosophy, with his slanders of Mexicans as “rapists and criminals” and prospective African and Haitian immigrants as coming from “shithole” countries.

The administration has appointed people associated with far-right, anti-immigration organizations, like the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), to top positions. Until recently, the former executive director of FAIR, Julie Kirchner, was an immigration services ombudsman in the Department of Homeland Security.

The “great replacement” ideology also has an anti-Muslim slant. Believers of this fictional narrative say that non-white immigrants want to replace the U.S. and European legal systems with Sharia law. The Trump administration has drawn heavily from the work of the famously Islamophobic Center for Security Policy (CSP) and appointed such figures as former Deputy National Security Adviser Charles Kupperman, who served on the CSP board for nearly a decade.

This anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim fanaticism has taken over much of the Republican Party and permeates right-wing media outlets like Breitbart and Fox News.

White nationalists are not content to seal off borders to people of color. They also want to kick out longstanding immigrant communities. This concept of “remigration” is an integral part of the European far right’s agenda and has attracted certain elements of the “alt-right” in the United States as well.

“Remigration” hasn’t yet turned up in a Trump speech or as a Republican Party talking point. But the president has been sending up trial balloons.

Consider his tirade that the quartet of critical congresswomen — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts — should “go back” to the countries they came from. The administration has also attempted to expel hundreds of thousands of people from El Salvador, Honduras and Haiti who have Temporary Protected Status.

Throughout Trump’s presidency, such actions and rhetoric have no doubt resulted in immediate harm to millions. But they threaten even more insidious shifts in the future. In the 1920s, far-right figures like Father Charles Coughlin as well as mainstream conservatives like Calvin Coolidge pushed immigration policies and theories of eugenics that would directly influence Hitler in Germany. As part of a growing, global far-right network today, it’s important not to cast the true danger of this administration in the comparatively narrow terms of an impeachment inquiry alone.

While Trump’s shadowy conduct toward Ukraine is without a doubt illegal, this shadow policy of white nationalism is even worse. It’s not just a crime — it’s a crime against humanity.

Truthout, December 18, 2019

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Articles Europe Featured US Foreign Policy

Trump, Brexit: Where’s the Backlash?

I dutifully got a shot this winter to inoculate myself against four different flu viruses. By exposing myself to weakened strains of these diseases, and preemptively suffering some mild flu symptoms, I can ward off the more serious consequences of a full-on infection and do my part to help stop the further spread of these pathogens.

Both the United States and United Kingdom came down with chills and high fever in 2016.

In the most optimistic scenario, the passage of the Brexit referendum and then Donald Trump’s electoral victory some months would inoculate the general population against an even more serious illness. Surely, once Britons got a foretaste of exiting the European Union they would come to their senses and run back into the embrace of Brussels. Likewise, Americans would experience the horror of a Trump presidency and kick him out of office after his first term (or even before).

So far, so bad.

In the British election last week, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won a decisive victory over both the wavering Labor Party and the more EU-friendly Liberal Democrats. With his commanding parliamentary majority, Johnson will be able to usher the UK out of the EU, and there’s little that anyone can do to stop him.

Meanwhile, across the pond, Congress is impeaching an American president for only the third time in history. That, on the face of it, would seem to be a resolute response to the disease that is Donald Trump. But Donald Trump isn’t going anywhere. According to a number of indications this week, his chances of reelection have even been improved by impeachment — or, at the very least, not adversely affected by it.

Democracy is supposed to be the political system that allows citizens to learn from their mistakes. But what happens when those mistakes are so momentous that they threaten to overwhelm the system and its vaunted self-correction mechanisms?

We’ve been suffering from flu symptoms only to learn that just around the corner is the political equivalent of Ebola.

Johnson’s Folly

In the run up to the recent UK election, Boris Johnson couldn’t seem to stop making mistakes. He threatened to pull the UK out of the EU even without a deal, a move so disruptive that members of his own party bolted into opposition. He invoked emergency powers over parliament to force a vote on his Brexit proposal. He lost vote after vote in the House of Commons.

Through it all, Johnson was his usual buffoonish self, a true English eccentric who has lied and cheated his way to the top. He should have been tossed out of office simply for being an insufferable poser.

But Johnson survived because he knew three things. The Labor Party was a house divided between those who favored staying in the EU and those who wanted out. The leader of the party, Jeremy Corbyn, was deeply unpopular, even in some Labor strongholds. And the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Jo Swinson, was eager for new elections, over the objections of her senior associates, because she thought she could climb over two unpopular parties to reach the top of the political heap.

Johnson was thus able to fall back on his only option: call an election and hope to repopulate parliament with his own people. True to form, Johnson has pulled off yet another improbable win.

Labor, meanwhile, suffered an epic fail, losing some seats it had continuously occupied for a century. Corbyn, having presided over this disaster, will be out on his ear. The Liberal Democrats lost ground in parliament — and Swinson herself couldn’t even hold onto her seat.

Up north, the pro-Remain Scottish National Party has consolidated its control in Scotland and will be pushing as hard as possible for another referendum on independence. Johnson has a large enough parliamentary majority to prevent that from happening for the time being. But the United Kingdom may well be the first casualty of Brexit.

The EU leadership, meanwhile, is relieved that Britain will finally follow through on its plan. The UK has always been a pain in the EU’s butt — demanding innumerable exemptions from EU rules, refusing to join the common currency, serving as a European foothold for American-style laissez-faire capitalism. Finally, there’s an end in sight for the seemingly endless Brexit negotiations, which represented yet another example of British intransigence.

Even though the British population didn’t experience a Brexit backlash in this election, there has been a cautionary backlash within the EU itself. No other country is seriously considering exit at this point. But that’s not necessarily good news. The Euroskeptics who were so excited by Brexit have begun to embrace a different strategy: take over the EU. If you were lukewarm about European integration before — because of its neoliberalism, its retreat on immigration, its bureaucratic excesses — you’re going to be even less enthusiastic if the likes of Brexiteer Nigel Farage takes over.

The Brits might have second thoughts about Brexit when their economy tanks, the Conservative Party eviscerates what’s left of the British welfare state, and the removal of EU benefits (like retiring on a British pension to a sunny Mediterranean country) hits home. A future backlash is certainly possible. But crawling back into the EU will not be so easy — and that’s if the EU will have them.

Nevertheless He Persisted

Jeff Van Drew was a Democratic congressman from New Jersey. He entered Congress in 2018 by flipping a district that Trump won two years earlier by five points. The New Jersey legislator positioned himself as a moderate Democrat. He was one of only two congressional Democrats to vote against moving forward with the impeachment hearings.

He hasn’t switched his position on impeachment. But he is switching parties.

Despite declaring last month that he was a lifelong Democrat, Van Drew decided to become a Republican this month. It wasn’t so much the pull factor from Trump’s party as much as the push factor from the Dems. The New York Times reported on a poll of Democratic primary voters in his New Jersey district that showed 71 percent of them less likely to vote for Van Drew if he continued to oppose impeachment.

Jeff Van Drew is not leading a rush to the exits. The Democrats, with enough votes to impeach in the House, are not cracking down on dissenters. And public opinion continues to favor impeachment, at least among Democratic voters (about 83 percent).

The problem is that a lot of politicians are calculating that impeachment is not a winning issue in heavily Republican areas or potential swing districts.

If you’re a Republican, you face a revolt among your constituents if you consider voting for impeachment. Fewer than 10 percent of Republican voters support impeaching the president. Plus, you risk a fatwa from the president.

Consider the transformation of Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a moderate congresswoman who was never gung ho about Trump’s presidential aspirations. When the impeachment hearings began, she became Trump’s attack dog on the House Intelligence Committee. In so doing, she has solidified her Republican Party voter base and gotten a big lift from the president himself.

Is it disgusting? Yes, absolutely. Is it politically astute. Yes, unfortunately.

Or what about Carly Fiorina, the Republican candidate for president in 2016 whose looks Trump insulted on his way to the nomination? She says that Trump should be impeached. But she still might vote for him in 2020!

She’s not alone. A majority of Americans favor impeachment, but recent polling puts Trump ahead of all Democratic rivals on a head-to-head basis. According to a USAToday poll, Trump leads Joe Biden by 3 percent, Bernie Sanders by 5 percent, Elizabeth Warren by 8 percent, and Pete Buttigieg by 10 percent.

Back in September, in a Washington Post/ABC News poll, the top five Democratic hopefuls were beating Trump, with Biden up by an astounding 16 percent, Sanders 12 percent, Warren 11 percent, Kamala Harris 10 percent, and Buttigieg 6 percent. That was only a few months ago!

So, yes, there’s a backlash. But it seems to be against the Democrats, not Trump. As I wrote back in September:

Impeachment of Trump, at this point, is both a legal and moral necessity. It’s also very likely a political trap.

Trump relishes the role of an underdog, persecuted by the powerful. It’s what enables him to connect to a political base that, aside from his deep-pocket funders, feels disempowered by a rigged economy and a sclerotic political system. Impeachment, for this constituency, vindicates the narrative of the “deep state.” 

Indeed, it suggests that the entire state is out to get Trump — which it is and should. But impeachment is the only thing that can turn the most powerful man in the world into a cornered victim and thus, for a significant number of American voters, a sympathetic character.

It helps, of course, that the president can point to soaring economic indicators, recently announced trade deals with China and our North American neighbors, and a new space command included in the recent budget bill.

It’s galling that a scofflaw can remain sufficiently popular to win elections. No doubt Trump is eyeing the example of Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines who has presided over the extrajudicial killing of thousands of people and yet maintains nearly an 80 percent approval rating.

Trump invited Duterte to the White House and praised his deadly war on drugs. Duterte, after all, is the living proof that you can shoot people indiscriminately and still maintain your popularity. Trump, unleashed in a second term, might just try to test the applicability of that model to the United States.

A Dangerous Acclimatization

There’s been more than one mass shooting a day in the United States this year: 396 as of December 16, according to the Gun Violence Archive. Despite all the political handwringing and the gradual shift in public opinion over the last few years in favor of stricter gun control laws, federal policy has barely shifted. No assault rifle ban. No “red flag” law. No universal background check

What has happened instead? After the mass shootings this summer, companies with names TuffyPacks reported a 300 percent increase in sales of bullet-proof backpacks. Parents are taking prophylactic measures that are pathetically insufficient. Mass shootings are the new normal. Suck it up and move on.

Americans have similarly adjusted to the criminal actions of the president, his violent policies at the border, his verbal abuse of virtually everyone. We haven’t bought TuffyPacks to protect ourselves from the White House. Our skins have just grown tougher.

And that’s the saddest part of all. It’s just a lot harder to generate a backlash when our backs have become accustomed to the lash.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, December 18, 2019

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Articles Featured Korea

Will Impeachment Affect Trump’s Reelection Chances?

One of the hallmarks of a democratic political system is that voters change their minds. In North Korea, 100 percent of voters support the ruling party coalition in election after election. In South Korea since 1998, voters backed 10 years of progressive candidates followed by 10 years of conservative candidates. Then, after a dramatic turnaround in public opinion, South Koreans rallied to impeach the previous president, Park Geun-hye.

In the United States, meanwhile, voters elected Barack Obama to two terms and then opted for someone completely different in 2016. In fact, somewhere between six and nine million people who voted for Obama in 2012 switched to Donald Trump in 2016.

It’s difficult to know what will happen in the 2020 elections. But despite a number of scandals involving the Trump administration – officials resigning in disgrace like Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke or charged with wrongdoing like National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, allegations of corruption and violations of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, and foreign policy fiascos like the trade war with China and the abandonment of the Kurds in Syria – public opinion about the president has remained rather steady.

Donald Trump’s approval rating has gone up and down since he was elected, but not by very much. Except for when he first took office, when he managed to score a 45 percent approval rating – versus 41 percent disapproval – a majority of Americans have given his job performance a thumb’s down. His approval rating has hovered around 40 percent.

So, perhaps it’s not surprising that the current impeachment hearings in the United States are having so little impact on public opinion. Support for impeachment has held steady around 46 percent. If anything, despite additional damaging evidence that the U.S. president indeed attempted to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into helping Trump’s reelection prospects, support for impeachment has dipped slightly.

Americans have made up their minds about Donald Trump. For those who oppose the president, the evidence of wrongdoing coming out of the impeachment hearings is reinforcing their worst fears about the administration. Trump supporters, meanwhile, are following the lead of the Republican Party by dismissing the hearings as boring, trivial, or irrelevant.

This lack of variation in public opinion stands in marked contrast to the South Korean example. In September 2015, more than a year after the Sewol disaster, Park Geun-hye’s approval rating stood at 54 percent. Half a year later, it had fallen to a low of 31. 5 percent. By November 2016, as scandal engulfed the administration, her approval rate had dropped to 4 percent. Park Geun-hye, in other words, was not scandal-proof.

Yet no matter the number of offensive comments he makes or scandals that tarnish the reputation of his administration, Donald Trump can count on a secure base of support. These are the people who will stand by him even if, as Trump famously said, he shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue in New York City.

Of course, a base of support of 40 percent is not enough to win a head-to-head election. But Donald Trump doesn’t need to win the popular vote. Hillary Clinton won by nearly 3 million votes in 2016 but lost in the Electoral College. Her close loss by a combined total of 77,000 votes in three key states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – meant that those states’ electoral votes represented Trump’s margin of victory.

In 2020, Trump could lose by 5 million votes and still carry the Electoral College. In other words, he just needs to maintain his base of support in the key battleground states. He could even lose Michigan and Pennsylvania and still be reelected as long as he wins all the states he won in 2016. It doesn’t matter if everyone on the two coasts rejects him as long as he maintains an edge in the South, the Southwest, and the Midwest and Rust Belt.

Much depends on the U.S. economy. The unemployment rate is at 3.6 percent, which is very low. The stock market is booming.

True, economic growth is low, debt levels are skyrocketing, and trade disputes continue to hit certain sectors very hard.

But Trump is trying to do everything possible to prevent an inevitable recession from hitting before the 2020 election. The president has even called on the Federal Reserve to slash interest rates to below zero. The last time interest rates were zero was during the Great Depression. A negative interest rate would mean that the bank would essentially pay people to take out loans.

Trump knows that he only needs to get his numbers up by a couple percentage points in a couple key states – Wisconsin, Florida – in order to win in 2020. A strong economy is an essential part of his game plan.

His other strategy is to encourage political polarization. Trump knows that his incendiary comments about immigrants, his racially coded denunciations of African American and Latino members of Congress, and his all-out war on the Washington bureaucracy play very well with his base. The president continues to portray himself as an outsider willing to take extreme measures to battle a political status quo. American voters consistently want “change” – that’s why so many millions of people voted for Obama and then for Trump. At least 40 percent of the electorate believe that Trump is battling corrupt, entrenched interests.

The impeachment hearings, unfortunately for the Democrats, reinforce Trump’s narrative that he is David taking on the Goliath of the state. According to the president, he was just trying to root out corruption by enlisting the help of the Ukrainian president to investigate the alleged wrongdoing of Joe Biden’s son and the alleged interference of Ukraine in the U.S. elections in 2016. Trump’s base doesn’t believe that these allegations have been thoroughly debunked.

So, don’t expect Trump’s approval ratings to drop like Park Geun-hye’s during these impeachment hearings. The president will continue to argue that the Democrats are out to get him now through impeachment because they don’t think they can vote him out in the 2020 elections. However misleading that argument may be, Trump might be right about his chances in the next election.

Still, his strategy is risky. A polarizing platform and rhetoric can energize a political base. But it can also make just enough enemies to kill a political future.

Hankyoreh, November 25, 2019

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Don’t Just Focus on Trump’s Crimes at Home

It’s a cliché in Westerns. The bad guys ride into town only to be met by a sheriff who stands tall.

“I am the law,” the sheriff says, “and you boys better move on.”

This line appears in King Vidor’s 1930 film, Billy the Kid. But the speaker, sheriff William Donovan, is one of the bad guys, using his position for personal profit. Donovan’s announcement that he is the law is not a reassuring promise to uphold all that is good and fair. It is a troubling assertion of unchecked power.

So, is Donald Trump a good cop or a bad cop? Much depends on how you view his run-ins with the law.

Even before he became president, Donald Trump and his businesses were involved in 3,500 lawsuits. Despite lacking a law degree, Trump became something of an expert on the legal system, at least in terms of the ways that he could use the courts to intimidate adversaries, get out of paying creditors, and declare bankruptcy.

Now, as president, Trump is having an outsized influence on the legal system with an inside-outside approach. The inside approach is to transform the legal system from within through appointments and the establishment of precedents.

The outside approach challenges the rule of law as a whole. Trump has intervened — or attempted to intervene — into the legal process to make the final decisions himself, much like a Roman emperor presiding over gladiatorial contests with his thumb. Whether it’s the determinations of war crimes by military tribunals, the efforts by Congress to legislate policy, or even the proceedings of foreign courts and international bodies, Trump has acted as if he is the law.

For those worried about what Trump might do in a second term — or that the president might refuse to step down in 2020 after losing at the ballot box — these attacks on the rule of law are extraordinarily troubling.

The Inside Game

As president, Trump has been hit hard by a number of court judgments.

The Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit recently gave the go-ahead to Congress to subpoena eight years of Trump’s accounting records. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York has also ruled that two key financial institutions — Deutsche Bank and Capital One — have to relinquish their Trump files, a decision the president is appealing.

Last month, the administration lost four judgments on immigration issues. A federal court in Texas ruled the president’s emergency declaration to build the border wall to be unlawful. Meanwhile, three federal courts blocked the administration’s attempt to means-test immigration applicants.

Then there have been the judgments that have further sullied the president’s already tarnished reputation. Most recently, the New York Supreme Court ruled that the Trump Foundation has to pay $2 million to charities, a duty the foundation neglected to perform because it was so busy benefiting Trump himself. Back in 2017, Trump University had to pay $25 million in a class action suit that charged the institution with fraud.

That’s just a handful of the many decisions that have gone against Trump. It’s no surprise, then, that Trump sees the court system as an obstacle in the path of expanding his political and personal power. As president, Trump relentlessly attacked these obstacles. When decisions go against him, Trump has defamed the judges, for instance by calling them “Obama judges” and suggesting that they “are putting our country in great danger.”

To remove these obstacles, the president is playing both an inside and an outside game.

The inside game has been to pack the courts with reliable allies. Thanks to Trump’s two picks — and the Republican Party’s stalling tactics in the last year of the Obama administration — the Supreme Court has a 5-4 conservative tilt. In all, Trump has appointed 150 federal judges. They are young, conservative, and poised to have a significant impact on the way law is practiced in the United States. As Daniel Bush writes at NPR, “Legal scholars said in coming years they’d be watching how the new generation of conservative lower court judges approach hot-button issues like gun control, abortion and religious freedom.”

The inside game has also yielded immediate results. The conservative majority on the Supreme Court has handed Trump victories on barring asylum seekers passing through third countries and allowing the military to ban most transgender people from serving. Trump’s lower court appointments have been equally consequential. Consider the “work” of Trevor McFadden, a Trump appointee to the DC District Court. Writes Dana Milbank in The Washington Post:

The House Ways & Means committee filed a lawsuit on July 2 requiring Trump to release his tax returns. The law is unequivocal; it says tax officials “shall” provide returns to the committee on request. But McFadden, who previously ruled against the House over Trump’s use of emergency funds for the border wall, still hasn’t heard arguments in the tax matter, 139 days after the suit was filed. Though not dismissing the case, he rejected the House’s request to expedite it.

The Supreme Court will next consider the question of Trump’s financial documents. The president is counting on five supportive pairs of ears and hoping that Chief Justice John Roberts doesn’t engage in another betrayal as he did on Obamacare.

The Outside Game

armed-drones-drone-war

Shutterstock

In the territory it has occupied since 1967, Israel has permitted the construction of civilian settlements that have violated the human rights of the Palestinian residents of this land. This has been the conclusion of the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, and experts in international humanitarian law.

The U.S. response to settlements has been mixed. As James Zogby wrote earlier this year in LobeLog:

During the past 50 years, there has been a steady erosion in U.S. policy toward Israeli behavior in Palestinian lands. Successive American administrations’ attitudes toward Israeli settlements have gone from passive acquiescence to outright acceptance. Even when some presidents expressed opposition to Israeli settlements, they took no concrete action to stop them. The net result has been that the settlement population in the occupied territories grew from 50,000 during the Carter administration to 620,000 Israeli settlers today.

In December 2016, as one of its last acts, the Obama administration abstained in the UN Security Council resolution declaring the settlements illegal. That was a significant change from the usual U.S. vote against such resolutions.

But this week, the Trump administration reversed all of that. It announced that the settlements are perfectly legal. On top of several other administration decisions — moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights as part of Israel — Trump has eliminated any pretense that the United States can arbitrate disputes as a neutral party in the region. Forget about any peace plans in the Middle East.

It’s only the latest Trump administration flouting of international law. It has broken the U.S. end of the Iran nuclear agreement, it withdrew from the Paris climate deal, and it has routinely ignored human rights violations. The “America First” doctrine is the ultimate trump card in geopolitics when the United States simply doesn’t want to play by the rules of the game.

But Trump is also intervening very personally in specific cases. Consider his recent actions on three military cases.

Last week, the president issued reprieves to three men charged or convicted of war crimes. One man was convicted of ordering the killing of Afghan civilians and then trying to cover up the order. Another was charged with killing an Iraqi captive. A third was awaiting trial on charges of killing an unarmed Afghan. In this third case, Trump didn’t even wait for the trial to produce evidence one way or another.

In making these three judgments, Trump disregarded his Pentagon advisors. He has undermined the military justice system. And he has signaled to the international community that U.S. soldiers can defy the Geneva Conventions with impunity.

Many former military personnel have been appalled by the president’s actions. Former Army Special Forces officer Andrew Exum wrote on Twitter:

This is a sad day for the tens of thousands of us who led troops in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan who were proud of the way in which we maintained our good order and discipline in the face of many challenges. These men, now pardoned, remain a disgrace to our ranks.

Luke Mogelson’s extensive New Yorker piece on Afghanistan puts Trump’s actions into a larger context. Trump’s version of the endless war in Afghanistan has resulted in huge “collateral damage.”

According to the U.N., during the first half of 2019, U.S. and Afghan forces killed more civilians than the Taliban and ISIS did. The shift has been accompanied by curtailed transparency. U.S. air strikes pummel isolated areas where casualties are impossible to confirm, and night raids are conducted by C.I.A.-sponsored groups that operate independently of both the U.S. and the Afghan militaries. Journalists are often denied access to combat units. America’s longest war has never gone well, and American leaders have always lied about it. Obama’s surge was a failure, which he misrepresented as a success. Under Trump, however, the conflict has entered perhaps its most troubling phase, one that is being prosecuted largely in secret.

As Trump’s latest interventions into the military justice process suggest, he is determined to keep these attacks on civilians beyond prosecution.

An Epic Battle

Once again, Donald Trump has decided that he knows better than anyone else — and better than the rule of law. It’s no surprise that he doesn’t think he did anything wrong in his dealings with Ukraine. After all, Trump believes that he is the law. So, by definition, whatever he does is lawful.

This is all shaping up to be an epic battle. It’s not just Trump versus the Democrats or Trump versus Congress. It’s Trump versus the Law. Let’s hope for the same outcome as the old Sonny Curtis hit, “I Fought the Law (and the Law Won).”

As for the future of Trump, he certainly has accumulated a tremendous amount of useful legal knowledge and expertise. Who says that former presidents can’t have second acts? Jimmy Carter built houses. George W. Bush paints portraits.

Once he is removed from office by Congress or the voters, Trump could do a great job in his new base of operations: as a jailhouse lawyer.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, November 20, 2019

Categories
Articles Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

Trump’s Fantasy Ukraine

In fantasy sports, participants draft their own dream teams out of the rosters of existing players. That’s what Donald Trump has done with Ukraine.

He and his advisors have created a fantasy team involving a number of key players, including the Ukrainian president, the former U.S. ambassador, and the former vice president’s son. Then they’ve created a fictitious narrative that brings these players together in what amounts to the president’s own geopolitical game.

And the president continues to bet that his fantasy narrative — a misreading of Ukrainian politics that lies at the heart of the impeachment inquiry — will ultimately win the jackpot. He’s still banking on acquittal in the Senate, reelection in 2020, and all the economic rewards that come to a president unshackled by constitutional restraints.

But the real Ukraine — as opposed to Trump’s fantasy version — may well lead to the unmaking of the president. Revelations from the real Ukraine, also known by the quaint shorthand phrase “facts on the ground,” have already produced a jail term for Trump’s former campaign manager and are threatening to bring down his personal lawyer.

The real Ukraine unseats corrupt autocrats. And Trump may well be next in line.

Trump as Marionette

Trump didn’t come to office with any particular view of Ukraine. He knew Russia to a certain extent, and he liked Russia because Russians invested in his properties and he dreamed of building a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Ukraine, however, was a mystery to him. The Trump Organization contemplated building a hotel and golf course in Kyiv and a resort in the coastal city of Yalta, and Trump’s children (Ivanka, Trump Jr.) visited the country in the 2000s to push these deals forward. But politically Ukraine didn’t register on Trump’s radar as anything other than Russia’s poorer stepbrother.

Take a look at this video of George Stephanopoulos interviewing Trump in July 2016 on the Republican Party’s position on military aid to Ukraine. First, Stephanopoulos had to remind the candidate about the relevant portion of the party platform:

STEPHANOPOULOS: They took away the part of the platform calling for the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine to defend themselves. Why is that a good idea?

TRUMP: Well, look, you know, I have my own ideas. He’s not going into Ukraine, OK? Just so you understand. He’s not going to go into Ukraine, all right? You can mark it down and you can put it down, you can take it anywhere you want.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, he’s already there, isn’t he?

TRUMP: OK, well, he’s there in a certain way, but I’m not there yet. You have Obama there. 

It’s quite clear from the interview that Trump didn’t have his own ideas. He had no ideas at all other than the ridiculous notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “not going into Ukraine” even though the Kremlin had already incorporated Crimea and provided support on the ground for secessionists in the eastern flank of the country. With only a tenuous grasp of what was going on in Ukraine, Trump soon lapsed into utter incoherence.

But as president, Trump quickly developed a view of Ukraine that was built on a number of fanciful tales fed to him by advisors at home and abroad. Trump thinks of himself as an unconventional actor on the world stage, someone who listens to his own gut.

When it comes to Ukraine, however, he has been manipulated as deftly as a mindless marionette.

The Charge of Corruption

Ukraine is one of the few countries that Donald Trump routinely calls corrupt.

He has never called out Russia, for instance, on corruption, though it routinely ranks as a more corrupt country. But the president doesn’t care about corruption in general in Ukraine. He is only obsessed with how Ukraine’s corruption intersects with his own political ambitions. Thus, he has focused on two false narratives: how Hunter Biden’s involvement in a Ukrainian energy company influenced U.S. policy during the Obama administration and how Ukraine tried to undercut the Republican Party in the 2016 campaign.

There’s no question that Ukraine has been very corrupt since it became independent after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Partly, this corruption has been a legacy of the Soviet system and the highly irregular transition from communism to crony capitalism. The privatization of state resources — and the privileged position of canny insiders — produced the same kind of economic oligarchy that prevails in neighboring Russia.

The concentration of economic wealth and its myriad connections to political power inspired two social uprisings in Ukraine. Both were centered around the Maidan Nezaleznosti (Independence Square) in the capital of Kyiv and the various malfeasances of the very Trump-like figure, Viktor Yanukovych.

In 2004, the Orange Revolution targeted Yanukovych’s electoral fraud and managed to force a revote that went in favor of Yanukovych’s opponent. The second uprising in 2013, the Euromaidan, protested the deal that Yanukovych, having become president in the interim, made with Russia at the expense of closer association with the European Union. At the heart of this second uprising, however, was Yanukovych’s rampant corruption, which he even boasted about to other heads of state. During his mafia-like rule, criminal activities spirited as much as $100 billion out of the country.

But this isn’t the corruption that Trump and his allies have fretted about. In fact, they’ve been all too cozy with precisely that set of corrupt actors.

Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort, for instance, helped remake Yanukovych in the wake of his electoral loss in 2004 and helped him win the presidency in 2010, earning tens of millions of dollars in fees. Manafort would eventually be convicted of corruption himself — bank and tax fraud — as a result of the Mueller investigation.

Beginning in 2016, Manafort also began pushing the idea that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Writes Michelle Goldberg, “Manafort seems to have picked up that narrative from his associate Konstantin Kilimnik, a former Russian intelligence officer who, according to federal prosecutors, ‘has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.’”

After Trump’s election, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani made his own connections to Ukraine, signing on to help improve the image of the city of Kharkiv in 2018. But Giuliani has had links to shady operators in the region for some time, people like Ukrainian real-estate develop Pavel Fuks, who was part of the effort to try to build Trump Towers in Moscow.

Also in 2018, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, both Soviet-born American citizens, hired Giuliani to construct a shadow Ukraine policy designed to promote Trump’s interests over the national interests of both countries. The trio visited Ukraine at different points to dig up dirt on Trump’s political opponents and pressured the president to remove U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was devoted to cleaning up Ukrainian corruption.

Giuliani also took advantage of former President Petro Poroshenko’s desperate desire to curry favor with Trump, which basically put prosecutor general Yuriy Lutsenko at Giuliani’s disposal. Lutsenko, a thoroughly unsavory character, very conveniently blocked investigations connected to Mueller’s inquiry and moved forward on investigations into Joe Biden and family.

Both Parnas and Fruman have been arrested and charged with campaign finance irregularities. When Trump denied knowing Parnas, who’d been an obsequious devotee of the president, the businessman reversed himself and decided to cooperate with the impeachment investigation.

Why the campaign to remove Yovanovitch? She was knowledgeable and clearly unwilling to be a Trumpian brownnose. She’d alienated Lutsenko by putting pressure on him to clean up his act. But the precipitating factor was the embassy’s decision, on her watch, to block Viktor Shokin, another Ukrainian prosecutor general, from visiting the United States. According to The Washington Post:

Consular staffers at the embassy blocked the application because of Shokin’s “known corrupt activities,” Yovanovitch testified. “And the next thing we knew, Mayor Giuliani was calling the White House” to inform Trump loyalists that Yovanovitch was denying entry to a Ukrainian who could provide Trump “information about corruption at the embassy, including my corruption.”

Yes, you read that correctly. Not only was Giuliani working with corrupt forces in Ukraine, he wanted the Trump administration to focus on an entirely different hotbed of corruption: the American embassy.

Trump, in other words, has never been concerned about the real corruption going on in Ukraine. As the impeachment inquiry has revealed, corruption had nothing to do with Trump’s holding up of military assistance to the country.

Trump has only ever been concerned about the imaginary corruption that Giuliani, Manafort, and others had manufactured to fit the president’s conspiratorial worldview: by a government that didn’t interfere in the 2016 elections (non-spoiler alert: it was Russia), by a vice-presidential son who didn’t affect U.S. policy (Hunter Biden’s presence on the board of Burisma was stupid and nepotistic but there’s no evidence of wrongdoing), and by an American ambassador who was trying to help clean up corruption in the country (she deserved a commendation, not expulsion).

Foreign Entanglement

It’s bad enough that Trump was misled by his corruption cronies, one who’s in prison and another who, if there’s any justice in this world, will soon join him there. The president’s view of Ukraine was also being influenced by two leaders who have had designs on that country.

The first is the most obvious: Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader has wanted to keep Ukraine as weak as possible and disrupt any potential military deals between Washington and Kyiv so as to consolidate dubious territorial claims on the country. Toward that end, he has emphasized that Ukraine is a “den of corruption,” according to a former U.S. official familiar with the phone calls between Putin and Trump.

Like Giuliani and Manafort, Putin was not referring to the corruption of Yanukovych, whom he counted on as an ally. He had more contemporary targets, including Volodymyr Zelensky, who’d been elected president in 2019 on a wave of anti-corruption fervor. The Washington Post reports:

Trump turned to Putin for guidance on the new leader of Ukraine within days of Zelensky’s election. In a May 3 call, Trump asked Putin about his impressions of Zelensky, according to a Western official familiar with the conversation. Putin said that he had not yet spoken with Zelensky but derided him as a comedian with ties to an oligarch despised by the Kremlin.

Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, shares Putin’s worldview on many issues, including Ukraine. Added to that is Orban’s not-so-hidden desire to expand his influence over the trans-Carpathian section of Ukraine that was part of Hungary prior to World War I. On May 13, over the objections of National Security Advisor John Bolton and the National Security Council’s Fiona Hill, Trump invited Orban to the White House for a meeting. Orban, who has steered Hungary away from democracy and many European Union norms, had been persona non grata in Washington until Trump took office.

Orban has not been enthusiastic about Zelensky and the faction within Ukraine eager to repair its relations with Europe. Following Putin, he prefers those in the country who lean toward Russia. To that end, the Orban government has referred to Ukraine as “semi-fascist” to make it as undesirable as possible to European sensibilities.

This narrative pushed by Putin and Orban, that Ukraine is a semi-fascist den of corruption, is worth examining more closely.

Ukraine Today

Corruption has been rampant in Ukraine. The country ranks 120 out of 180 countries in the Transparency International list, which puts it behind Pakistan and Moldova. A number of journalists have been attacked and killed for covering the corruption beat.

But even before the current president took over, there were signs that the government was getting a handle on the problem. As Karl Volokh wrote in The National Interest in March:

Reforms now in place in Ukraine have reduced national corruption by a staggering $6 billion per year — a figure equivalent to nearly six percent of the country’s official GDP. These reforms, and the increased effectiveness of state tax and revenue authorities have also helped to significantly reduce the size of the country’s once-formidable shadow economy.

And instead of encouraging corruption in Ukraine, the Obama administration (including Biden) did the opposite. “Back in 2015, we relied on the solidarity of our U.S. and European allies to push our elites to take the right steps — steps that would make Ukraine less corrupt and strengthen the rule of law,” writes Maksym Eristavi in Foreign Affairs. One of those steps was firing Viktor Shokin, which Trump has repeatedly pointed to as exhibit number one in his case that Biden, who wanted Shokin out, is the corrupt politician, not him.

Zelensky, despite his anti-corruption exhortations, has faced charges of being too close to a corrupt oligarch, in this case Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV station that aired Servant of the People, the show that brought the president-cum-comedian to worldwide notice. The station was a big supporter of Zelensky’s campaign. Kolomoisky himself left Ukraine in the wake of embezzlement charges connected to the bank he owned, PrivatBank, and took up residence in Switzerland and then Israel.

In what looked a lot like a quid pro quo, Kolomoisky returned to Ukraine just before Zelensky’s inauguration. A district court in Kyiv, meanwhile, ruled that the government’s nationalization of Privatbank was illegal, which means that Kolomoisky might be able to regain control of it.

So, when it comes to corruption, Ukraine is in a better place now than a few years ago, but it’s not out of the woods.

The assertion that Ukraine is semi-fascist is more problematic. True, in the wake of the Euromaidan protests and Russian intervention, far-right and neo-Nazi formations became more powerful. In the government, the Svoboda party controlled three ministries; in the military realm, the neo-Nazi Azov Battalion acquired battle-hardened credibility.

Nationalists have meanwhile attempted to enforce Ukrainian language laws and resurrect far right figures from history. Right-wing paramilitary formations still launch pogroms against Roma and try to terrorize the LGBTQ population. The far-right National Militia served as official monitors in the 2019 elections.

But fascism has little popular appeal in the country. Svoboda, though it created an electoral alliance with several other parties for the 2019 elections, couldn’t get anywhere near the electoral threshold of 5 percent to get into parliament (though it did win a single constituency seat). As a result, the infamous head of the Azov Battalion, Andriy Biletsky, lost his seat in parliament.

The government, meanwhile, has shed any connections to the far right. The current president and previous prime minister are both Jewish (though non-practicing). The president is also, primarily, a Russian speaker, and is not happy with the language law crafted by his predecessor that makes Ukrainian mandatory for public servants.

Ukraine has 99 problems, but a fascist state ain’t one. The organizing of the radical right remains a major problem in the country, as it is throughout Europe and in the United States. But in Ukraine, the radical right has virtually no political power.

So, to recap, a group of self-serving statesmen and craven consultants created a fantasy Ukraine that fed into Trump’s primary preoccupations: the supposed crimes of his political predecessors, the embarrassment of his loss of the popular vote in 2016, and his ruthless determination to win a second term.

That fictitious narrative prompted Trump to break the law. And now he is scrambling to prove that he didn’t do anything wrong and that his understanding of Ukraine is correct. If this were a real fantasy league, Donald Trump’s team would be in last place.

When ousted by popular demand in 2014, Viktor Yanukovych had few places to turn. He ended up in exile in Russia. Booted from office by impeachment or popular vote and hounded by investigations into his myriad financial improprieties, Trump may discover that he, too, might need Putin’s protection. Nancy Pelosi’s challenge to Trump that “all roads lead to Putin” may turn out to be prophetic.

The real Ukraine of anti-corruption advocates will have had its revenge once again.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, November 6, 2019

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Articles Featured Korea US Domestic Policy

Impeachment’s Effect on Trump’s Foreign Policy

Donald Trump is now the subject of an impeachment inquiry in the U.S. Congress. He has committed a range of potentially impeachable offenses. But the Democrats have decided to focus the impeachment investigation on one aspect of the president’s foreign policy. Trump tried to persuade a foreign government, Ukraine, to dig up evidence of corruption connected to one of his Democratic challengers, Joe Biden. This is a direct violation of campaign finance laws.

Trump has not tried to deny his actions. He released a partial transcript of his phone call with the Ukrainian president, which he continually described as “perfect” even though it provided sufficient evidence of his wrongdoing to warrant an investigation. The very next week, Trump turned around and asked China to also help in investigating Biden and his son Hunter. And instead of following the rule of law and cooperating with Congress, Trump has instructed everyone in the administration to refuse to testify and ignore any subpoenas. This is a clear case of obstruction.

So, Trump is not letting the impeachment inquiry alter his approach to foreign policy. He has continued his highly personalistic approach of reaching out to leaders and making the deals that best help not the United States or U.S. allies but Trump’s own political and economic standing. He continues to focus on using his foreign connections to improve his chances in the 2020 elections. He still hopes to get a Nobel Peace Prize for a successful deal (for instance, with North Korea). And he is still making baffling decisions in an effort to keep favored autocrats on his side.

Consider his recent phone call with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Against the advice of many in his administration, Trump agreed to withdraw U.S. military personnel in northern Syria and effectively gave Turkey the green light to launch cross-border attacks on Syrian Kurds. Even Trump’s Republican Party supporters in Congress were aghast at the president’s willingness to abandon the Kurds, a key U.S. ally in the fight against the Islamic State.

Why does Trump do what Erdogan wants him to do? In addition to wanting to avoid a conflict with a NATO ally, Trump argues for ending U.S. wars and bringing U.S. soldiers home. That is certainly popular among U.S. voters these days. But then, shortly after the announced withdrawal from Syria, Trump authorized the deployment of an additional 2,000 troops to Saudi Arabia (on top of the 1,000 troops sent earlier in October). In fact, the Trump administration has deployed 14,000 additional U.S. troops to the Middle East since the spring. Compare that with the 1,000 troops that Trump is withdrawing from northern Syria.

Taken together, Trump’s moves provide more evidence that his foreign policy is focused on rolling back Iran’s influence. Saudi Arabia is Iran’s chief adversary in the region, and the two countries are fighting what amounts to a proxy war in Yemen. Trump might see Turkey, predominantly Sunni, as a potential ally against Iran, although Ankara and Tehran have increased their cooperation in recent years.

Before the impeachment scandal broke, Trump seemed to be exploring ways of resolving various disputes with Iran – for instance, through the good offices of Pakistani leader Imran Khan. But bringing the regime in Tehran to heel has been a more consistent obsession of Trump’s.

Perhaps the president is figuring that whichever way the Iran crisis goes, it will distract attention from the impeachment hearings. If Trump manages to resolve tensions between Riyadh and Tehran, then he can present himself as an indispensable peacemaker – and make the case that Congress should stop its impeachment “witch hunt” for national security reasons. If all attempts at peacemaking fail, Trump can lead the country into a war with Iran – and rely on the rally-around-the-flag effect to bolster his reelection prospects.

For the time being, Trump is emphasizing his capabilities as a dealmaker. “We have a lot of countries in a very good position right now, despite the ‘witch hunt,’ which hurts our country and it hurts America,” he has said. “But Iran wants to do something. North Korea wants to do something, and China would like to do something.”

Foreign policy has gotten the president into hot water. Now he is emphasizing that foreign policy will save his presidency. But it’s not clear whether other countries will cooperate.

Trump has been continually promising a trade deal with China. A partial agreement is now in place that suspends a U.S. tariff hike in exchange for Beijing buying some more U.S. agricultural products and promising to address issues of intellectual property rights. China knows that the U.S. president is increasingly desperate to show some sign of progress in trade negotiations – to calm the U.S. stock market and strengthen his claim that U.S. economic health depends on his presence in the White House. But Beijing also knows that impeachment and the 2020 elections increase its leverage. So, it’s not going to agree to just anything.

North Korea is also not willing to accept any old deal from the United States. In Stockholm, North Korean representatives expressed frustration at the U.S. negotiating position. The Trump administration has reportedly offered the lifting of sanctions on coal and textile exports in exchange for closing down Yongbyon and halting the production of highly enriched uranium. Although such an offer departs from Washington’s previous all-or-nothing approach, North Korea is likely looking for more substantial changes in the sanctions regime. In the meantime, Pyongyang has been testing short-range missiles and a new submarine-capable missile.

Trump knows that any sign of weakness is like blood in the water for the sharks of the international community. Foreign leaders will try to take advantage of that weakness, as Erdogan has apparently already done. As the impeachment inquiry gathers force, the U.S. president will be sorely tempted to demonstrate that he is not weak – by dispatching U.S. military forces, taking a hard line in trade negotiations, and continuing to put heavy demands on allies.

Trump’s impulsiveness is already becoming more pronounced. If he was an unpredictable president before the impeachment hearings began, he has become only more erratic. The bumpy road of U.S. foreign policy is about to get even bumpier.

Hankyoreh, October 12, 2019

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Articles Featured Security US Foreign Policy

Trump’s Endless Wars

Donald Trump loves to talk about ending the endless U.S. wars that he inherited as president. He tweets about it. He endlessly criticizes his predecessors for their martial mistakes.

But like the old saw about the weather, Trump talks a whole lot about endless wars but doesn’t do anything about them.

Just this month, he went against the advice of pretty much everyone to pull 1,000 U.S. troops out of northern Syria where they were protecting a largely autonomous Kurdish region. The result has been an immediate flare-up in the Syrian conflict as Turkey sent troops over the border to take advantage of the U.S. withdrawal.

Then Trump turned around and sent an additional 2,000 troops to Saudi Arabia to help them defend against Iran or the Houthis or perhaps just internal critics of the regime.

In fact, the Trump administration has deployed 14,000 additional U.S. troops to the Middle East since the spring. Compare that with the 1,000 troops that Trump is withdrawing from northern Syria. The president seems more focused on starting fires than putting them out.

Last month, Trump promised a grand deal with the Taliban that would allow the withdrawal of U.S. soldiers from Afghanistan. But that didn’t happen.

And what about the Kushner plan that was supposed to end the endless conflict between Israel and Palestine? Dead on arrival.

America’s drone wars? By March 2019, Trump has launched more drone strikes (2,243) than Obama did in his two terms in office (1,878).

Counter-insurgency campaigns in Africa? Trump has ordered a 10 percent cut in forces on the continent by 2022, but the total forces under the Africa Command actually went up by more than double that amount from 2017 to 2018 (6,000 to 7,500).

Containment of China? The Pentagon, under Trump, has made China its “number one priority,” and much of the increase in military spending in the Trump administration has gone to preparing for war with Beijing.

Meanwhile, on the home front, Trump has declared war on Congress, on the mainstream media, on anyone who disagrees with him. A recent video shows Trump mowing down all of his critics in an altered outtake from the movie, Kingsman. As a meme, it’s disgusting. As a metaphor, it’s chillingly accurate.

Let’s face it: Trump is not against endless war. He is the embodiment of endless war. It’s the essence of his operating system. He went into politics because he understood that it’s endless war by other means (and he’s always been too squeamish to fight in endless wars by ordinary means).

Once and for all, let’s bury the myth of Trump the dealmaker. He’s about as transactional as a heavyweight boxer. Remember: he was the host not of Let’s Make a Deal but of The Apprentice, in which he presided over a war of all against all with a single winner and lots of losers. He has simply brought that spirit of ungenerosity into the White House.

The consequences have been devastating all around.

The Mess in Syria

Somehow Trump figured out the one geopolitical move he could make that could pave the way for a Turkish invasion of Syria, force a desperate alliance between beleaguered Kurds and the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, improve Russia’s standing in the region, and revive the fortunes of the Islamic State.

He seized on this strategy of withdrawing 1,000 troops from northern Syria probably because everyone warned him not to do it. Trump loves to defy expert advice. He’s convinced that he knows better. It’s unclear whence he derives this confidence since he has made disastrous decisions his entire life that have produced bankruptcies, unbuilt buildings all over the world, and a near total refusal of banks to provide him with loans.

The latest fiasco started with a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on October 6 in which Trump effectively endorsed the Turkish cross-border operation in Syria.

David Sanger, in The New York Times, explains that Trump’s “error, some aides concede in off-the-record conversations, was entering the Oct. 6 call underprepared, and then failing to spell out for Mr. Erdogan the potential consequences — from economic sanctions to a contraction of Turkey’s alliance with the United States and its standing in NATO.”

This was enough of a green light for the Turkish leader. Erdogan has been dreaming of invasion for some time in order to neutralize what he believes are a bunch of terrorists aiding Kurdish separatists in southeastern Turkey. He’d also like to relocate many of the Syrian refugees in Turkey to a new Turkish-controlled area in northern Syria.

Until this month, however, Erdogan had been satisfied with a buffer zone. In a sense, U.S. troops were serving as peacekeepers in the region. There were not enough to launch significant military operations but just enough to stand between Turkey and the Kurds on one side and the Syrian government and the Kurds on the other. But no more.

The immediate victims of Trump’s latest decision are the Kurds, the ally that Trump relied on so heavily in his campaign against the Islamic State. The hope of Syrian Kurds for maintaining a peaceful and semi-autonomous state is now gone. The Kurds immediately signed a deal with Damascus that has brought Syrian government forces into the one significant part of the country that remained in opposition hands. When Trump’s callous move forced them to choose, Kurds opted for the devil they knew over the devil across the border.

Turkey’s intervention has displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes. Kurdish refugees are flowing into Iraqi Kurdistan, and humanitarian organizations like Mercy Corps are pulling out their staff from northern Syria. Atrocities against civilians have taken place, including the execution of Kurdish politician Hevrin Khalaf. Turkey is also moving against domestic critics of the military operation, which also happen to be mostly Kurds. Erdogan’s move is motivated in good part by domestic considerations — his desire to silence his critics and generate a spike in nationalist sentiment.

Russia, meanwhile, has moved swiftly to take the place of the United States. Russian troops have flowed into northern Syria to serve as a buffer between Turkey and the government in Damascus. Perhaps it’s better for the Russians to play this role, particularly in the Trump era. But given Moscow’s support for the ruthless Assad, its willingness to sell anybody pretty much any weapon, and its general indifference to human rights, I’m not enthusiastic about an expanded Russian role in Middle East affairs. The United States was no great shakes, but Russia is worse.

Then there’s the Islamic State, which has not disappeared, contrary to Trump’s fanciful assertions. According to The New York Times:

The White House statement on Sunday came as the Islamic State is gathering new strength, conducting guerrilla attacks across Iraq and Syria, retooling its financial networks and targeting new recruits at an allied-run tent camp, American military, counterterrorism and intelligence officers say.

Over the past several months, ISIS has made inroads into the sprawling Al Hol tent camp in northeast Syria, and there is no ready plan to deal with the 70,000 people there, including thousands of family members of ISIS fighters.

American intelligence officials say the Al Hol camp, managed by Syrian Kurdish allies with little aid or security, is evolving into a hotbed of ISIS ideology. The American-backed Syrian Kurdish force also holds more than 10,000 ISIS fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, in separate makeshift prisons.

In the chaos of the Turkish intervention, at least 750 Islamic State adherents escaped from a displacement camp in the Kurdish-held region. Trump has speculated without any proof that the Kurds deliberately released the prisoners in order to draw the United States back into military engagement. Nice try, Donald: the Kurds are no longer counting on the United States for anything.

But the worst part is: it turns out that Trump didn’t end the war with the Islamic State after all.

The War at Home

The president has been conducting a two-front foreign policy war ever since he took office.

Overseas, he’s been involved in numerous conflicts with both allies and adversaries. But at home, he’s also been at war: with his own policymaking apparatus. He has chewed through foreign policy advisors of all types: Jim Mattis, John Bolton, Rex Tillerson, HR McMaster. As he retreats further into the mancave of his twitterverse, Trump has fallen back on the advice of someone with an even more paranoid and incoherent worldview than his own.

It turns out that there’s an advisor even worse than Trump’s own gut: Rudy Giuliani.

The impeachment hearings are every day revealing the real deep state — the shadow foreign policy orchestrated by Trump and Giuliani. Fiona Hill, who was responsible for Russia and Europe policy at the National Security Council, testified that Giuliani worked to get Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, removed from her post. He was also trying to dig up dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. He was even trying to prove that Ukraine helped the Democratic Party in the 2016 elections.

According to The Washington Post, Giuliani “said he believed Hill was out of the loop compared to Sondland and others involved with Ukraine. ‘She just didn’t know,’ he said. He added that he had never talked to her about Ukraine policy.”

Wake up and smell the facts, Rudy: that’s the definition of a shadow foreign policy. The person who knew the most about Russia and Ukraine was out of the loop? And you, Rudy Giuliani, whose knowledge of Ukraine can be boiled down to a handful of ludicrous conspiracy theories, presume to displace Marie Yovanovitch, who speaks the languages of the region, was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Kiev from 2001 to 2004, and was determined to help root out corruption in Ukraine?

And your chief ally in this endeavor, other than a president who has even less understanding of geopolitics than you do, is Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union? Sondland has only one qualification for his job: absolute fealty to Donald Trump. The guy’s nothing more than a glorified hotelier who has spent most of his time in Brussels overseeing an expensive renovation of the ambassador’s residence.

Giuliani has emerged as this generation’s Oliver North, the architect of the Iran-Contra affair during the Reagan years. Like North, Giuliani has been running a covert operation under the noses of the foreign policy professionals. Rudy’s goal was much narrower and grubbier than North’s: the reelection of the president. Giuliani, in other words, was basically a CREEP (Committee to Reelect the President) unto himself.

All of this is bad news for Trump on the impeachment front. But it’s also bad news for Giuliani, particularly if it turns out that he didn’t disclose his lobbying ties, which would expose him to criminal charges. After all, he actively lobbied on Turkey’s behalf to persuade the Trump administration to extradite the cleric Fethullah Gulen from Pennsylvania back to Turkey. Mike Flynn, Trump’s erstwhile former national security advisor, went down for almost the identical offense.

Meanwhile, Rudy was pulling down half a million dollars for his consulting work with the aptly named Fraud Guarantee (or is that Guaranteed Fraud?), which just happened to be owned by one of the Ukrainians recently arrested for campaign finance violations.

It’s not looking good for the president and all the president’s men. Trump continues to try to fight his way out of his predicament. So far, he still has the Republican Party in his corner. But that might not last long.

The impeachment will not be an endless war. It will be nasty and brutish, but it will be relatively short. Trump the putative dealmaker might make one last appearance in an effort to stay out of jail. But the more fitting scenario would be if the president goes down in flames as the most prominent casualty of his own endless war against the U.S. people.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 16, 2019