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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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Threat of Bolton Has Receded But Not Threat of War

John Bolton tried his best.

The national security adviser entered the Trump administration as a predictable warmonger with an unslakable thirst for power. He streamlined the national security apparatus to maximize his access to the president. At least at first, he played the role of loyal adjutant to Trump. As in his days as an arms control official in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton quietly planted IEDs on the inside rather than throw bombs from the outside.

But ultimately, like the scorpion that stings the frog halfway across the river, Bolton couldn’t betray his own nature. In his eagerness to start wars with Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran, Bolton spoke out of turn, publicly clashed with his boss, and probably leaked information to the press. By August his position had become untenable, and he suffered the fate of so many Trump collaborators: expulsion by tweet.

Looked at another way, however, Bolton accomplished what he set out to do. He scuttled the negotiations with North Korea by referring to the Libyan example of denuclearization (Pyongyang knew full well what happened to Muammar Qaddafi’s regime). He made sure that U.S. troops remain in Syriaand in Afghanistan as well. He put the fear of a coup in the heart of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. And he ratcheted up the pressure on Iran to the point of near-conflict.

Now, with Trump declaring that the United States is “locked and loaded” in the wake of the attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil supplies, Bolton is no doubt pleased at the prospect of his wildest dream fulfilled: a war with Iran. He nearly pushed the president into military action against Tehran back in June when Trump self-reportedly stopped the strike 10 minutes before it was scheduled to take place.

This time, thanks in part to the work of the not-so-dearly-departed Bolton, the president might go over the edge this time.

Or perhaps Trump will stick to his pattern of making outlandish threats and then turning around to negotiate. The administration has more recently been dialing back its rhetoric. Maybe Bolton the scorpion has managed only to sting himself.

The Latest Incident

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has accused Iran of attacking the Aramco oil facilities in Khurais and Abqaiq in the heart of Saudi Arabia. Saudi and U.S. investigators have reportedly determined that the September 14 attacks came from an Iranian base near the border with Iraq. But the force that has claimed responsibility for the attacks are the Houthis, who have been battling a Saudi-led coalition in Yemen for more than four years.

On the face of it, the obvious culprit would be the Houthis. Over the last month, they have repeatedly launched aerial attacks on Saudi facilities: a drone attack on the Shaybah oil field on August 16, a missile attack against Jizan airport on August 26, a drone attack against Riyadh on August 27, and a failed drone attack on September 3.

Also, as Kate Kizer of Win Without War points out, the Saudis and the Houthis have been engaged in a tit-for-tat game of aerial bombardment. The latest attacks on Saudi oil facilities could very well be a response to the Saudi air strike on Dhamar prison, which killed 100 people two weeks ago.

Tit-for-tat doesn’t, however, mean that it’s been an equal contest. The Saudi campaign has killed thousands and thousands of Yemenis. Houthi attacks have resulted mostly in material damage and four civilian casualties.

Those who point the finger at Iran argue that this latest attack was far from the border with Yemen. But the Khurais oil field (the most recent target) and the Shaybah oil field (hit in mid-August) are both about the same distance from the Yemen border.

The latest attacks were also remarkably successful. The pinpoint strikes forced the suspension of more than half of Saudi oil production. But the Houthis have steadily increased their offensive capabilities, attacking Saudi airports at Jizan and Abha in May and June a total of 17 times. They’ve received some weaponry from Iran but also have some Soviet-era missiles as well as some from North Korea. They are now operating air defense systems as well.

Meanwhile, it’s rather difficult to imagine the Iranian government launching such an attack just after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had talked of Trump possibly meeting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the UN General Assembly in New York this week. Even if the Iranian authorities are reluctant to sit down with Trump, for understandable reasons, attacking Saudi Arabia on the eve of the UN meeting doesn’t make much strategic sense.

On the other hand, Iran pledged that if it couldn’t export its own oil, it would disrupt the global market. The Trump administration has certainly hobbled Iran’s energy industry through direct sanctions and pressure on other countries to stop their imports. Meanwhile, the Saudis didn’t see the attackcoming, which suggests that it didn’t originate from the south, where Saudi air defenses are focused. But the missiles and drones were flying low, so they might have evaded air defenses. They might also have come from multiple locations.

Of course, it might not be an either-or situation. Iran provides some support to the Houthis. So, even if the Houthis are responsible for this attack, they likely got the green light from Tehran for such a significant attack. Or perhaps Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has never much liked rapprochement with the United States, wanted to make sure that any high-level meeting on the sidelines of the UN assembly would not take place.

In any case, the Trump administration was already walking back its hostile rhetoric by Monday. The absence of Bolton might have something to do with that. More likely, however, it reflects the situation on the ground in the Gulf.

The Larger Context

When Saudi Arabia launched its war in Yemen in 2015, the architect of the campaign, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seemed to think it would be a cakewalk. Instead, the Houthis have put up stubborn resistance.

The rebel group, which adheres to a variant of Shi’ite Islam in contrast to the predominantly Sunni Saudis and their Sunni proxies in Yemen, continues to control the capital of Sana’a as well as the northern highlands and a stretch of the Red Sea coast. It has felt confident enough in the past weeks to start setting up a diplomatic corps, with its first envoy dispatched to Iran.

But the most influential development in recent weeks has been a split in the anti-Houthi coalition between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The UAE is focused more on containing Iranian influence rather than rolling it back — and it certainly doesn’t want a war with Tehran.

Back in July, the UAE announced that it would withdraw its troops from Yemen. It continued to support a group of southern separatists who, in mid-August, took over the port of Aden from the Saudi-backed faction.

As if Yemen hasn’t suffered enough — famine, drought, cholera — its civil war now threatens to spiral into a multi-party dispute even more resistant to mediation.

In this situation, the Houthis may feel more confident that they can force the Saudis into following the example of the UAE. It’s not like Mohammed bin Salman to cut his losses, but the war is threatening his larger plans to transform the Saudi economy.

It’s one thing for Riyadh to pour money into the quagmire next door (with the help of U.S. taxpayers). It’s quite another to put its cash cow — oil and gas represent 50 percent of Saudi GDP and 70 percent of export earnings — within range of enemy fire. Also, having failed so miserably to subdue one of the poorest countries in the world, Saudi Arabia may be having second thoughts about confronting a country with considerable economic and military power.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is finding it ever more difficult to end U.S. involvement in wars in the region. Negotiations with the Taliban have stalled, so now U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan is no longer in the offing. Not only are U.S. troops remaining in Syria but more will soon be heading that way. And even though Congress wants the United States out of Yemen, the president keeps vetoing the legislation.

Even the thick-headed Trump should be able to get the message: war with Iran would make these conflicts look like a walk in the woods. His advisers are also warning him that such a war would tank the U.S. economy and doom his reelection chances. That’s probably the only warning that Trump can understand.

After Bolton

Mike Pompeo is no less a warmonger than John Bolton. He also had far more doubts than Bolton ever did about Trump’s suitability as president, which the future secretary of state revealed as he was campaigning for Marco Rubio in the 2016 presidential primaries.

But those doubts are now gone. As Susan Glasser discusses in her recent New Yorker profile“The Secretary of Trump,” Pompeo is the quintessential company man, striving to align his views with that of his president.

If Trump decides not to attack Iran, in other words, Pompeo will go along without a protest.

Meanwhile, the president has chosen his new national security adviser. It would be hard to come up with someone as relentlessly militaristic as Bolton, yet Trump dug deep into his barrel of hawks to come up with someone with that special combination of ruthless craziness and devoted servility.

His short list included Fred Fleitz, Bolton’s previous chief of staff, who heads up the Center for Security Policy, a fiercely Islamophobic think tank devoted to spreading conspiracy theories. Then there was Gen. Keith Kellogg, the vice president’s national security adviser, who’s been central to the effort to provoke regime change in Venezuela and also had the dubious distinction of having served as Paul Bremer’s chief of staff in the U.S. occupation authority in Iraq.

But the nod went to hostage envoy Robert O’Brien. This would seem to be a safe, diplomatic choice. O’Brien is a lawyer who once worked at the UN Security Council.

On the other hand, O’Brien is also a fierce opponent of the Iranian nuclear deal, which he has called “rank appeasement.” On the appointment of his former colleague John Bolton to the position of national security adviser, he had this to say:

The person, if you’re the president of the United States, that you want sitting on your team to negotiate, the best lawyer in the house, the best foreign policy professional in the house, is John Bolton. He’s going to bring a level of seriousness, experience, depth of knowledge, but also hard-nosed, tough negotiation skills. 

I mean, you know, the Iranians are very good negotiators. They took us to the cleaners with the Iran deal. The North Koreans have been doing this for many years, and have taken a number of presidents to the cleaners. No one is going to take John Bolton to the cleaners in a negotiation.

With O’Brien on board, the Trump administration can be counted on to continue its overwhelmingly hostile policy toward a select group of outcasts like Iran, toward allies that don’t toe the U.S. line, and toward multilateralism more generally. Bolton will no longer be holding the reins of national security, trying to nudge the president one way or another.

But Bolton’s bellicose worldview, which both O’Brien and Pompeo share, is the basic operating system of the Trump administration.

Remember: this president is always 10 minutes away from war with someone.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 21, 2019

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The GOP’s Sinister New Nationalism

The worst thing you could be in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s was a “rootless cosmopolitan.” The epithet sometimes came with a death sentence.

The Soviet Communist Party, under the strong guiding hand of Joseph Stalin, had long turned its back on the internationalism of its founders and their commitment to world revolution. In its place, Stalin vowed to “build socialism in one country.” And that ultimately required a new kind of nationalism.

“Rootless cosmopolitan” was not just a term for run-of-the-mill internationalists. It had a very specific meaning. Stalin was targeting Jews.

Ironically, most of the Jews who’d been so influential in the creation of Soviet Communism — Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, Karl Radek — had already been purged or exiled. That didn’t stop Stalin from searching for other hidden enemies, such as a group of Jewish poets, or an imaginary cabal of Jewish doctors determined to assassinate the dictator. The anti-Semitic purges that Stalin began in the Soviet Union spread throughout Eastern Europe as well, as the Communist parties there took a hard turn toward nationalism.

History repeats, Marx once said, first as tragedy and then as comedy.

In mid-July, a group of putative conservative intellectuals gathered in Washington to confirm a new, nationalist direction for their movement. The conference featured the likes of John Bolton and Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, and Julius Krein. According to its mini-manifesto,

The conference on “National Conservatism” will bring together public figures, journalists, scholars, and students who understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.

On the face of it, this ideological transformation mirrors Donald Trump’s assault on “globalists” and pledge to Make America Great Again. Lurking behind this fixation on the nation, as with Stalin’s earlier campaign, is the GOP’s own purge of cosmopolitanism, including the rootless variety.

In this comic reworking of the earlier Soviet tragedy, a key target is not Trotskyism but its distant cousin, neo-conservatism. Many of the neo-conservatives who proved so influential in the 2000s were Jewish — Bill KristolElliott AbramsDavid Frum. Some, like Bill Kristol’s father Irving, were once even Trotskyists, which helps to explain their peculiar transmutation of world revolution into global democracy promotion.

Mind you, most Soviet and East European Communists were not Jewish, and neither are most neo-cons. And the inspiration for this particular conference was Israeli author Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. But it’s hard not see a similar anti-Semitic trope in operation behind the attacks on cosmopolitanism at the conference.

Trump didn’t attend the meeting, and the conference speakers avoided mention of his name. But his upending of the policy status quo has made this nationalist turn possible. Even before he stepped out of the closet to proclaim himself an unabashed nationalist in October 2018, Trump pushed back against the neocon obsession with democracy promotion abroad (indeed, the president doesn’t promote democracy at home either).

Instead, like Stalin, Trump is focusing his revolution in one country. The U.S. president is obsessed with securing the borders and cracking down on “rootless” immigrants. He has repeatedly trafficked in racist rhetoric of the “white makes right” variety. He has heaped scorn on cosmopolitan cities like Baltimore. He is not against Jews per se — witness his strong embrace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel more generally — but only a particular kind of Jew, whose allegiance to Israel or the United States might be called into question because of liberal cosmopolitanism. He particularly bristles at Jews who accuse him (or he thinks have accused him) of anti-Semitism.

This new turn toward nationalism among American conservatives is troubling for reasons other than its implicit indictment of rootless cosmopolitanism. Right now Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and the undocumented are certainly more vulnerable to Trump’s attacks than American Jews. Trump is telling prominent people of color in Congress — not prominent Jewish politicians — to “go home.” The intended audiences for these messages can interpret the rhetoric according to their favorite intolerance: racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia.

But the assault on globalists, on the elite, on financiers like George Soros all push in the same direction: against the internationalism that is in such short supply when it is needed the most.

Against the Globalists

It’s hard these days to find anyone in the United States in a position of political power who will put in a good word for internationalism.

The candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination have largely avoided foreign policy (though both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have issued good statements). And when the candidates do venture into matters beyond these borders, it’s usually to bash China (as several did during the first televised debate) or Russia or Trump’s policy on North Korea.

Then there’s the new Quincy Institute, which unites George Soros and Charles Koch in an effort to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the world. That’s all for the good, of course. But given the Koch funding and its transpartisan agenda, this new initiative is unlikely to embrace strong internationalist institutions and programs except on a strictly ad hoc basis (like support for the Iran nuclear deal).

But while the liberals are busy staying silent about internationalism, the right wing is conducting an all-out frontal assault. Gone are the days of overt enthusiasm for economic globalization or beefed-up security alliances like NATO and, frankly, good riddance. But Trump’s version of America First is spreading through conservative circles like some intellectual version of kudzu. The new fifth column in this nationalist assault are the liberal internationalists, the globalists, the cosmopolitans.

At the National Conservatism conference, for instance, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) led the charge against this new enemy, arguing that an elite of the left and right had sold out the “American middle” to global interests. “Today’s leadership elite is a ‘cosmopolitan’ elite in the way defined by Prof Martha Nussbaum: ‘the cosmopolitan [is] the person whose primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world,’ not to a ‘specifically American identity,’” Hawley wrote in a follow-up tweet. “And the cosmopolitan agenda of hyper-globalization & disrespect for the American middle has been bad for workers, bad for families, bad for America.”

Hawley’s jeremiad against cosmopolitans drew charges of anti-Semitism from various organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. Hawley refused to back down, saying that the “liberal language police have lost their minds.” He then cited his support for Israel and his opposition to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement as proof of his philo-Semitism. Similarly, in 2017, when Trump advisor Stephen Miller accused a reporter of having a “cosmopolitan bias,” charges of anti-Semitic dog-whistling didn’t stick because of the obvious fact that Miller is the one who’s Jewish and the reporter, Jim Acosta, is not.

But again, the anti-Semitism in question is not directed at all Jews, just as Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign exempted Lazar Kaganovich, the only Jewish member of the Politburo in the 1940s. Kaganovich escaped censure because his loyalty, as an uber-Stalinist, was never in question. The charge of cosmopolitanism today is also about loyalty — to America, to Trump’s brand of nationalism, to Netanyahu’s right-wing version of Israel. If American Jews subscribe to that agenda, they can tell themselves that they, too, are exempted from the ugly name-calling.

This campaign against cosmopolitanism is strengthened by repetition across borders: throughout Europe, in Russia, and even in India. Vladimir Putin has his own brand of illiberal nationalism shot through with Orthodox Christianity. The leaders of Hungary and Poland are similarly ill-disposed towards any minorities that might dilute the presumed homogeneity of their countries. More explicitly fascist echoes can be heard in the far-right parties in France, Spain, Italy, and Greece. In India, Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi is challenging the secular, multiethnic, and cosmopolitan democracy enshrined in the constitution.

But here’s the difference with the Soviet Union of the early 1950s. Jewish poets didn’t conspire against Stalin; there was no such Doctor’s Plot. Those were paranoid delusions.

With Hawley and his fellow nationalists, however, some truth lurks in their accusations. A political elite of the left and right did partner with Wall Street and transnational corporations to promote policies that widened economic inequality within the United States and around the world. Neocons did push for military interventions that were wrongheaded and tragic.

But none of this had to do with cosmopolitanism. The perpetrators of these policies were just as vocally patriotic as their current detractors. They believed in American exceptionalism. They’d reject the notion that they’re world citizens first before American citizens. In fact, the people who pushed through the policies that Hawley now excoriates looked a lot like Hawley himself, a WASPish lawyer who graduated from Stanford and Yale and taught in London.

Against the Cities

The ultimate strategy behind this “anti-cosmopolitanism” is not just to pit a disloyal elite against the common American. It’s also to drive a further wedge between those who live in the cities and those who live elsewhere. Cities, after all, are the home base of cosmopolitans.

Case in point: Trump’s latest tweets demonizing Baltimore and its elected representative Elijah Cummings. The president has described the city as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” I’ve been living in Baltimore for the past year and it’s a wonderful place, full of museums and quirky festivals and vibrant neighborhoods. Yes, it has a high murder rate, many abandoned storefronts, and endemic poverty. But welcome to the modern American city, starved of federal funds and abandoned by the wealthy.

Baltimore shouldn’t take it personally. Trump has also gone after Chicago, Oakland, and Ferguson. It’s no accident that Trump singles out cities with large African-American populations for criticism. He knows that he can’t pick up any votes in these places. But he can win points with suburban and rural Americans who have traditionally been suspicious of what takes places in cosmopolitan places: “un-American” activities like race-mixing, gender-bending, and religion-avoiding.

Trump is engaged in political triage. He doesn’t bother campaigning in areas of the country where he’s disliked by the majority. He directs federal funding as much as possible to areas dominated by his supporters. He insults his blue state opponents with electoral impunity. It’s sobering to learn that, according to an analysis in the Cook Political Report, Trump could lose by five million votes — nearly twice the margin of the popular vote in 2016 — and still win the presidency via the Electoral College. Now that is a disgusting mess.

Reorganization of the Right

Not all conservatives have fully embraced this nationalist turn.

Take Bret Stephens, for instance, the New York Times columnist. He’s reluctant to give up on his bedrock commitment to free markets. He tries to stick up for immigration as an important American principle. But even in his explicit rejection of these national conservatives, he can’t resist a few potshots at globalists:

Nationalism offers protection to “somewhere people” against the political and moral preferences of “anywhere people.” And transnational bodies like the European Union have largely failed the test of democratic representation and accountability.

The once-grand coalition of conservatives that created the Reagan revolution — laissez-faire enthusiasts like Milton Friedman, America Firsters like Pat Buchanan, Christian conservatives like Jerry Falwell, neoconservatives like Jeane Kirkpatrick — no longer exists. The parochialists are displacing the globalists, and cosmopolitans are replacing communists as the enemy of choice. Even the mild dissenters within the conservative coalition, like Stephens, feel the need to give nationalism its due.

The Democrats are doing their best to sound the same themes. Elizabeth Warren’s domestic program, after all, is called “economic patriotism.” That’s fine for winning elections. But without a new internationalism, progressives will end up with the tired old foreign policy of the Blob — or worse.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 31, 2019

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Bolton in Wonderland

Only 70 days into his presidency, Ronald Reagan faced an assassination attempt. While he was in surgery and the vice president was mid-flight over Texas, Secretary of State Alexander Haig famously declared in front of the press, “As of now, I am in control here, in the White House.”

Haig’s statement was a surprise to everyone else in the Reagan administration — as well as to anyone with a passing familiarity with the line of succession outlined in the Constitution.

Haig’s presumption of power was the logical culmination of weeks of jockeying for influence within the young administration, with the secretary of state convinced that he should wield control over all aspects of foreign policy. Chief of Staff Jim Baker had this response to Haig’s early memo on the foreign policy process: “Why, what you propose here would give you control over all foreign policy matters; that does not work. The president has that authority.”

Haig’s impromptu press conference would make him the butt of many jokes (including this brilliant parody by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live). Reagan ultimately recovered, but Haig’s reputation never did. He ultimately resigned from his position a little over a year later.

John Bolton has a Haig-sized ego. He aspires to control the ebb and flow of foreign policy in the Trump administration. He is often at odds with his colleagues from the State Department and Pentagon. And he is dealing with a president who, if not asleep much of the time, is only intermittently focused on national security issues.

Recently, Bolton too seemed to have his “I’m in control here” moment. With the conflict intensifying in Venezuela, the national security advisor leaked the opposition plan for the army to defect en massefrom the Maduro government in favor of challenger Juan Guiado. Bolton’s tweets reportedly angeredPresident Trump, who felt “boxed into a corner,” particularly after the defections didn’t materialize and Nicolas Maduro did not flee the country.

The Trump administration is currently facing the consequences of its erratic foreign policy. Put a pin in the map of the world and you’ll either hit an example of U.S. foreign policy failure or, at best, another part of the globe that the administration is studiously ignoring. Conflicts are escalating with Iran and Venezuela. U.S. support of Saudi Arabia and Israel is producing enormous backlash in the region. The trade war with China is back on after the failure of the latest round of negotiations. Talks with North Korea have stalled, and Pyongyang is losing patience.

John Bolton has a rather consistent answer to all of these foreign policy challenges: maximum pressure. He’d like to see regime change in Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea. He’d risk war to achieve these ends.

But the riskiest war that Bolton is courting is the one with his boss. Will Bolton’s ambition overreach itself and produce the same kind of ignominious result that Alexander Haig experienced nearly 40 years ago?

Bolton in Wonderland

John Bolton is that most dangerous of political operators. He is bombastic on the outside and ruthless on the inside. He has the passion of an ideologue and the patience of a realist.

“Bolton has spent decades in federal bureaucracies, complaining often of hating every minute,” Dexter Filkins writes in a recent New Yorker profile. “He has established himself as a ferocious infighter — often working, either by design or by accident, against the grain of the place to which he’s assigned.” Bolton is not above making threats or throwing his weight around. He loves to make liberals, diplomats, and anyone who stands in his way squirm.

As national security advisor, Bolton has arrived after a number of so-called adults have fled the administration (or been tweeted out of office): H.R. McMaster, Rex Tillerson, Jim Mattis, John Kelly. With these obstacles out of the way, Bolton has virtually unrestricted access to the president.

The former national-security officials that Filkins interviews are uniformly aghast at what Bolton has done in his position: reduce coordination, eliminate briefings, encourage chaos. Remember: he hates bureaucracy. But there is method in his madness: he wants to reduce the background chatter so that his own voice is loud and clear in Trump’s ear.

In this looking-glass world, Trump is the Queen of Hearts, who reacts with fury at the world around her. “The embodiment of ungovernable passion,” Lewis Carroll called the queen who rules over Alice in Wonderland. She threatens people left and right with decapitation. Bolton, meanwhile, is the Mad Hatter, presiding over an intimate foreign policy tea party where he is as crazy as a march hare. Once, when the Mad Hatter sang to his sovereign, he received a death sentence as well and only survived through the intercession of Time.

Bolton has been singing to Trump for more than a year and he hasn’t yet been excommunicated. But push might just be coming to shove.

Deal, No Deal

Of all the places where John Bolton would like to go to war, Iran is currently in the lead position.

The national security advisor was in office for less than two months before Trump announced that he was pulling the United States out of the nuclear deal with Iran, a key Bolton objective. Since then, Bolton has been part of the team that has put the squeeze not only on Iran (with additional economic sanctions) but any country with the temerity to continue any kind of economic engagement with Tehran (with the threat of secondary sanctions). Last year, Bolton also asked the Pentagon to prepare a menu of military options for striking Iran, scaring even some seasoned administration officials.

But it was earlier this month that Bolton upped the ante considerably. On May 5, he assumed the prerogative of the commander-in-chief by issuing a direct threat to Iran.

In response to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings, the United States is deploying the USS Abraham Lincoln Carrier Strike Group and a bomber task force to the U.S. Central Command region to send a clear and unmistakable message to the Iranian regime that any attack on United States interests or on those of our allies will be met with unrelenting force. The United States is not seeking war with the Iranian regime, but we are fully prepared to respond to any attack, whether by proxy, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or regular Iranian forces.

Bolton was apparently motivated by a tip from Israel that Iran was preparing an attack on U.S. interests in the region. But the national security advisor was not speaking only for himself. The May 5 statement came from the White House, so it had the full backing of the administration. Pentagon head Patrick Shanahan, CENTCOM Commander Kenneth McKenzie, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford have all endorsed the deployments.

At the same time, Trump is presenting an entirely different face to Iran. Just as he turned on a dime in his policy toward North Korea — from “fire and fury” to lovey-dovey with Kim Jong Un — the president last week told reporters:

What they should be doing is calling me up, sitting down; we can make a deal, a fair deal. … We’re not looking to hurt Iran. I want them to be strong and great and have a great economy. But they should call, and if they do, we’re open to talk to them.

The administration even reached out to the Swiss to provide Iran with the president’s phone number (as if Iran didn’t already know how to reach Trump).

This might seem like so much political theater designed to confuse, terrify, and ultimately cow the Iranians into signing a humiliating agreement with Washington — if not for what happened in the Strait of Hormuz over the weekend.

A Useful Pretext

John Bolton warned on May 5 that Iran should think twice about attacking U.S. interests or face retaliation. One week later, Saudi Arabia reported that an act of sabotage damaged two of its oil tankers, and the United Arab Emirates claimed that the attackers targeted four ships in total. Gulf officials didn’t speculate on who might have been behind the attacks.

The U.S. government has not been so reluctant to point fingers. A preliminary U.S. intelligence assessment has identified Iran as the culprit. Trump, in his characteristic children’s book language, has said, “It’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens.” And now Saudi Arabia is reporting that the Houthis have conducted two drone strikes on its oil facilities. The Houthis are aligned with Iran.

Bolton has what he wants: a pretext for launching a retaliatory strike against Iran. The Strait of Hormuz incident is the equivalent of the yellowcake allegations that helped cement the case for war in Iraq (which turned out to be false) or the chemical weapons allegations that Bolton tried to use to drum up support for a war against Cuba (which also turned out to be false).

Iranians, and many others besides, would like to believe that Trump is being led toward war by Bolton, that the president ultimately wants to make a deal with Iran. Given Trump’s resemblance to the Queen of Hearts, however, it would not be a good idea to bet on his reasonableness.

On the other hand, Bolton might have stuck his neck out a little too far this time. This just might be his Haig moment. He is encroaching on the executive’s power. He is setting up the United States to intervene on the side of a country, Saudi Arabia, that is increasingly reviled around the world for its human rights record.

Like so many of his predecessors who dared to disagree with their boss, Bolton this time might lose his head.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 14, 2019

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A Farewell to Arms Control?

My first trip to Washington, DC to do something other than protest on the streets was to interview for a Herbert Scoville Jr. Peace Fellowship, which brings young people to the nation’s capital to work on arms control and disarmament.

It was 1987, around the time that Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Agreement. The INF treaty committed the United States and the Soviet Union to eliminate nuclear weapons for the first time on a large scale (over 2,500 of them by 1991). It was a high point for the arms control movement.

To get to the interview stage, however, I wrote an application essay about the flaws of arms control agreements — that they provided a false sense of accomplishment, that they capped the number of nuclear weapons but rarely reduced them, that they accepted the “logic” of mutually assured destruction, that they reinforced the privileges of the nuclear club, and so on.

Arms control was conventionally thought of as the path toward disarmament. I made the case instead that arms control was a detour around disarmament.

When I walked into the room for my interview, I found myself facing a dozen of the leading arms control advocates in the country. I’d anticipated a one-on-one discussion, not a full court of inquisition. They understandably grilled me about my arguments and looked universally dissatisfied with my answers. Yet, in the end, they gave me a fellowship, perhaps for the same reason that Antonin Scalia liked to employ one liberal Supreme Court clerk — to have a dissenter close at hand to sharpen arguments. I did my fellowship at Nuclear Times magazine, a periodical devoted to scrapping nuclear weapons rather than merely controlling their production.

Nuclear Times folded long ago. Now the INF agreement, after both the United States and Russia suspended their compliance this February, is effectively dead too. Led by National Security Advisor John Bolton, an inveterate opponent of arms control, the Trump administration has taken aim at a wide range of efforts to control the production and proliferation of weapons, from the Iran nuclear deal to the Arms Trade Treaty that the president just savaged in front of a group of cheering National Rifle Association members.

And yet, Trump has also said, just this week, that he wants to get rid of all nuclear weapons. So, is it time to write an epitaph for arms control and herald a new age of disarmament?

The Swerve

Since my time at Nuclear Times, two major events contributed to pushing some otherwise conservative policy makers away from arms control and towards actual disarmament.

The first development was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The number of nuclear weapons in the world peaked the year before my Washington interview at just over 70,000. The end of the Cold War spurred a reduction to under 14,000 today.

Also, in 1991, Democrat Sam Nunn and Republican Richard Lugar teamed up to create a groundbreaking piece of legislation, the Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program, later dubbed the Nunn-Lugar Act. It provided U.S. funds to decommission weapons of mass destruction in the former Soviet states. Among other results of the program, the new states of Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus became the first countries in history to abandon their nuclear weapons.

But attempts to negotiate a new set of arms control treaties with Russia have run up against a number of obstacles, from the intransigence of congressional hawks to Russia’s seizure of Crimea and involvement in the civil war in Ukraine. Over the years, Congress has chipped away at the funding for CTR. And Richard Lugar died this weekend, the passing of one of the last moderate Republicans committed to a cooperative U.S. relationship with the world.

The other half of Nunn-Lugar, meanwhile, has been part of the second major development: the response to global terrorism.

In 2007, Sam Nunn joined Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, and William Perry to author a series of op-eds in The Wall Street Journal urging the foreign policy establishment to embrace not just arms control, but disarmament. They expressed concern about states like North Korea and Iran acquiring nuclear weapons and disrupting the tenuous balance of nuclear power. But they reserved most of their anxiety for scenarios in which non-state actors acquired nukes:

In today’s war waged on world order by terrorists, nuclear weapons are the ultimate means of mass devastation. And non-state terrorist groups with nuclear weapons are conceptually outside the bounds of a deterrent strategy and present difficult new security challenges.

The United States built an arsenal of nuclear weapons to preserve and extend its global dominance. But now, in a perverse development, nukes threatened that dominance. So, the lions of U.S. foreign policy had decided that they must go. No longer convinced that nukes kept the peace, they pushed for a world free of these weapons of mass destruction.

Two years later, clearly influenced by these arguments, President Barack Obama gave a speech in Prague announcing for the first time that the United States was committed to nuclear disarmament. He outlined a number of steps toward that goal: a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Moscow, U.S. ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, a fissile material cut-off treaty, a strengthened Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and so on. It was an impressive to-do list, but alas this agenda remains unrealized.

The nuclear stand-off of the Cold War was predicated on predictability. The United States and Soviet Union wouldn’t launch a first strike because of the near certainty that the other side would then engage in massive retaliation. But the end of the Cold War and the possibility that nuclear material would fall into the hands of unpredictable actors changed the nuclear calculus.

Then, to complicate matters further, along came the most unpredictable element of all: Donald Trump.

The Trump Paradox

As the self-professed king of negotiators, Donald Trump used to boast of his ability to solve the nuclear impasse if only the U.S. government would appoint him as special emissary to the Soviet Union. Within an hour of meeting Gorbachev, Trump told Nobel Peace Prize winner Bernard Lown, he could end the Cold War. In an article for The New York Times in 1984, journalist William Geist wrote:

The idea that he would ever be allowed to get into a room alone and negotiate for the United States, let alone be successful in disarming the world, seems the naive musing of an optimistic, deluded young man who has never lost at anything he has tried. But he believes that through years of making his views known and through supporting candidates who share his views, it could someday happen.

Young no more and now in a powerful political position, Trump still holds on to this illusion. But to achieve his ambition of personally disarming the world, Trump believes that first he has to get rid of all the poorly negotiated efforts of his predecessors. In this endeavor he is aided by Bolton, who has made it his personal mission to torpedo every arms control treaty that he can bring within his sights.

That’s why the Trump administration seems to be all over the map on arms control. On the one hand, the president has withdrawn from the nuclear deal with Iran and pulled out of one of the last remaining arms control agreements with Russia, the aforementioned INF treaty.

Then, last week, he announced that he would unsign the Arms Trade Treaty, which the Obama administration supported and which imposes a number of important restrictions on the sale and transfer of armaments across borders. The Senate has yet to ratify the treaty. Over 100 nations have both signed and ratified the ATT, and it went into effect in 2014. Trump, by denigrating the ATT, has thrown the United States into the same camp of opposition as North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia.

On the other hand, Trump also declared last week:

Between Russia and China and us, we’re all making hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of weapons, including nuclear, which is ridiculous. And I would say that China will come along, and I would say Russia will come along. It doesn’t really make sense that we’re doing this.

The president has thus instructed officials to prepare for big agreements on nuclear weapons with both Russia and China.

To get from here (dangerous) to there (disarmament), Trump has to follow some pretty obvious steps, points out David Wright, of the Union of Concerned Scientists. These include a new treaty on strategic nuclear weapons with Russia, reentry into the INF Treaty, scaling back on missile defense, and kicking Bolton out of his administration. So far, Trump has expressed zero interest in making any of these moves.

When it comes to any kind of large-scale arms control treaty with Russia and/or China, as Daryl Kimball writes in Arms Control Today, the administration has “no plan, strategy, or capacity to negotiate such a far-reaching deal. Even if it did, negotiations would likely take years.” Kimball suspects that the administration has an entirely different goal in mind: to load the arms-control agenda with so many big asks that it makes future deals, like a new strategic treaty with Russia, untenable. Kimball continues:

If in the coming weeks, however, Team Trump suggests China must join New START or that Russia must agree to limits on tactical nuclear weapons as a condition for its extension, that should be recognized as a disingenuous poison pill designed to create a pretext for killing New START.

Trump will soon come to the same realization on arms control that he did on health care: “Nobody knew [it] could be so complicated.”

Of course, everyone knew that health care — and arms control — could be so complicated. Only Trump believes that he alone, though force of will, can substitute for the patient and informed diplomacy of hundreds of experts. As with his efforts to negotiate with North Korea, once he bumps up against the complexity of the situation, Trump will hand over responsibility for the details to his aides — and that means that Bolton will have a free hand to block any progress in talks with Russia and China.

Since 1987, the logic of arms control has changed. Because of the end of the Cold War, arms control agreements have led to dramatic reductions in nuclear forces and the prevention of states like Iran from becoming nuclear powers. The threat of nuclear material falling into the hands of non-state actors, meanwhile, has shifted the consensus away from deterrence and toward disarmament. Arms control is now clearly part of the solution, not part of the problem.

So, I’ve changed my mind about arms control being a detour around disarmament. Arms control has become more important than ever before, given that a new nuclear arms race beckons.

The United States, China, Russia are all modernizing their arsenals. Key arms control treaties, like the INF, no longer serve as checks on weapon development and deployment. Important initiatives like the Comprehensive Test Ban treaty can’t go forward without U.S. support. The nuclear club refuses to sign the new treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons. And John Bolton is on the loose, like a fox bent on killing off every inhabitant of the henhouse.

So, it isn’t just Donald Trump who has a paradoxical attitude toward nuclear weapons. The world as a whole has never been closer to consensus on the need for disarmament. And yet it’s also never been further away, in a practical sense, from following the necessary steps to achieving global zero.

Perhaps, however, this is only a temporary paradox. Let’s hope that the Trump administration proves to be the detour on the path to finally bidding farewell to nuclear arms.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, May 1, 2019

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Bolton and the Troika of Tyranny

If you’re in the market for a troika of tyranny, Donald Trump, John Bolton, and Mike Pompeo certainly fit the bill. Or, if you’d rather focus on countries not individuals, you might single out Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt as the three most likely candidates. Perhaps, if you’re in a confessional mood, how about Christian fundamentalism, Jewish extremism, and Salafist Wahhabism?

A troika, for those who haven’t read any 19th-century Russian novels recently, is a carriage drawn by three horses. So, the ultimate troika of tyranny, from the point of view of the planet as a whole, would feature the three horsemen of the ongoing apocalypse: climate change, nuclear proliferation, and global pandemic.

But no, that’s not what National Security Advisor John Bolton had in mind when he talked last week of a “troika of tyranny.” In a rehash of a speech he gave in November in Miami, Bolton declared last week that the “troika of tyranny — Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua — is beginning to crumble.” Further laying on the insults, Bolton called Cuba’s Miguel Díaz-Canel, Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega “the three stooges of socialism.”

Ever since George W. Bush included Iraq, Iran, and North Korea in an “axis of evil,” speechmakers have been in search of the holy grail of geopolitical matchmaking (for instance, Condoleezza Rice’s “outposts of tyranny”).

Bush’s phrase, which proved so enduring, was an extraordinarily flawed piece of work. The three countries he grouped together had little to no relationship at the time. Iraq and Iran had fought a nearly decade-long war that left them bitter regional rivals. North Korea, which has no ideological affinity to either country, was probably included in the list so that it didn’t appear anti-Islamic. This particular axis didn’t have a leg to stand on.

Bolton’s more alliterative phrase suffers from the same conceptual problems. Worse, it revives an anti-Communist crusade that could easily expand to include North Korea, China, and any left-leaning country (New Zealand?) that makes the mistake of looking at Bolton funny.

A New Monroe Doctrine?

Trump understands the world in terms of three types of leaders. There are the autocrats he like. There are the autocrats he doesn’t like. And then there are all the rest: the democrats he doesn’t respect.

Cuban leader Miguel Díaz-Canel is one of those autocrats that Trump doesn’t like. It’s not Díaz-Canel’s ideology that rubs the American president the wrong way. After all, Trump has no problem praising China’s Xi Jinping or falling in love with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Rather, Cuba made the unpardonable error of negotiating a détente with Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. So, by the logic of the Trump administration, Cuba is guilty by association.

Over the last two-plus years, Trump has rolled back the elements of the agreements that the Obama administration negotiated with Cuba that culminated in diplomatic recognition in July 2015. The Trump administration has restricted travel to the country, the amount of money that Cubans in America can remit to their families back home, and the deals that U.S. businesses can negotiate with Cuban counterparts. Also, the administration will now allow U.S. entities to file lawsuits against foreign companies operating on property appropriated by the state after the 1959 revolution.

The Obama policy was all about nudging Cuba in a particular direction. More people-to-people contact would increase the free flow of information. More business deals would encourage the growth of market activities. Meanwhile, unrestricted remittances would help Cubans deal with the myriad difficulties of everyday life.

The Trump administration isn’t interested in nudging Cuba in a particular direction. Its punitive measures are designed to encourage regime change, pure and simple. The decision to allow lawsuits to go forward is aimed at scaring off European investors in particular who’ve been operating in Cuba despite decades of U.S. sanctions and embargo. In response, Spain wants the EU to challenge the new U.S. policy at the World Trade Organization.

Bolton never liked Cuba. When he was undersecretary of state for arms control in the George W. Bush administration, Bolton accused the country of making biological weapons. This accusation came only two months after Bush had inaugurated the “axis of evil,” and Bolton was eager to shoehorn Cuba into the new group. But his efforts to designate the Caribbean island a “terrorist threat” — and prepare the ground for yet another U.S. invasion — foundered when a congressional investigation turned up no evidence of a biological weapons program in the country.

Now Bolton is excited to have a second chance to group Cuba with two other countries that have fallen afoul of the United States: Venezuela and Nicaragua.

Like the original members of the “axis of evil,” they don’t have much in common with one another. Cuba is avowedly Marxist in orientation, with a Third World agrarian spin. Venezuela, on the other hand, is a corrupt petro-state led by a leader who calls himself socialist but is really just a klutzy kleptocrat. Then there’s Daniel Ortega, who was once a socialist revolutionary but has transformed himself into a Catholic dictator along the lines of Francisco Franco.

None of these countries poses even the remotest threat to the United States. They have dismal human rights records, but that hasn’t been a concern for the Trump administration anywhere else in the world.

So, why is Bolton bothering to waste his rhetorical flourishes on the trio? The national security advisor claims that Cuba is propping up Maduro. He hints that Ortega’s days are numbered. Is Bolton campaigning to revive what had once been the traditional U.S. approach to Latin America: invasion, occupation, regime change?

After all, his most recent “troika of tyranny” speech was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba on April 17, 1961. And the audience for his speech was similarly chosen with care: the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association.

When it comes to Bolton, war is always a possibility pretty much anywhere in the world. But with the Trump administration focusing most of its wrath against Iran, the “troika of tyranny” speech is probably not the opening salvo of a new, hyper-militarist Monroe Doctrine.

Bolton likely has a longer game plan in mind.

Expanding the Troika

You can almost see the lips beneath the walrus moustache purse in displeasure when Donald Trump shakes hands with Xi Jinping, murmurs sweet nothings to Kim Jong Un, and has quiet confabs with Vladimir Putin.

John Bolton has never concealed his profound antipathy to the current government in North Korea. He wants to rewrite the one-China policy and is willing to use military force against Beijing as part of that effort. As for Russia, Bolton believes that Putin is a liar and Moscow represents a serious long-term strategic threat to the United States.

This, then, is the shadow “troika of tyranny” that John Bolton would roll out in a speech if only Donald Trump’s personal predilections didn’t get in the way.

But that isn’t stopping the national security advisor from carefully preparing the ground to do just that as soon as Trump gets frustrated with Kim, Xi, and/or Putin.

Toward that end, Bolton carefully chose “troika” for his phrase: a Russian word that can later be repurposed to suggest that Moscow is in fact at the root of these problems. And Bolton is hammering away at the “socialist-communist” nature of the three Latin American countries, which will prove enormously useful later on when expanding the troika to include North Korea and China.

In the end, Bolton is after nothing short of a new Cold War.

Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua are small countries with no desire or means to attack the United States. North Korea with its nuclear weapons, China with the world’s second largest military, and Russia with its geopolitical ambitions, on the other hand, are much worthier adversaries.

Prolonged conflict with these three will keep militarists like Bolton in business for decades. As importantly, Bolton can use these larger confrontations to unravel all international institutions, all forms of international cooperation, in fact anything that smacks of an international community.

With all eyes focused these days on Trump and his myriad crimes, John Bolton’s speeches are a reminder that even worse options are waiting in the wings.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, April 24, 2019

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Summit Interruptus

Of all the bizarre things that Donald Trump utters — the lies, the garbled words, the fanciful stories — his comments on his relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are in a category by themselves.

“I was really tough and so was he, and we went back and forth,” Trump told a crowd of supporters in West Virginia in September. “And then we fell in love, OK? No, really, he wrote me beautiful letters, and they’re great letters. We fell in love.”

Trump has bragged about these letters, has shown them to foreign visitors. The two leaders seem to enjoy a mutual personality cult that goes beyond even the friendships that Trump has cultivated with other authoritarian leaders like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman.

So, expectations were high that Trump and Kim would consummate their relationship at a second summit in Vietnam and produce something of lasting importance: denuclearization, removal of economic sanctions, a peace declaration, an exchange of liaison offices.

But the two leaders didn’t even stay for the full meeting. They passed up a final lunch together and skipped the statement signing. The food left uneaten was statement enough. What was supposed to be the crowning achievement of Trump’s foreign policy, the one-and-only rationale for his receiving a Nobel Peace Prize, has turned into a high-profile embarrassment.

Trump reportedly went big and failed, and Kim reportedly went small and failed. Trump’s offer: scrap the nukes and the United States will scrap the sanctions. Kim’s bargain: North Korea would close one key part of the nuclear program, the complex at Yongbyon, in exchange for the removal of the latest and most onerous sanctions.

It was, in many ways, just a rehash of previous offers. The United States has been offering North Korea an all-or-nothing choice for many years now, and North Korea has countered with its preference for a step-by-step process. But Pyongyang’s counter-offer was nothing new either, since it had already closed down Yongbyon twice before as part of the Agreed Framework of 1994 and the Six Party Talks of the George W. Bush era.

Could the two leaders have really expected that these gambits would work in Hanoi?

Can love be so blind?

The Real Story

Trump wants a deal. Everyone else on his foreign policy team, however, thinks that a deal with North Korea is a lousy idea.

Prior to joining the administration, National Security Advisor John Bolton never concealed his preference for regime change in North Korea. He has become more circumspect in his rhetoric now that he’s within whispering distance of the president. But he is still doing what he can behind the scenes to ensure the failure of negotiations.

In Hanoi, for instance, Bolton reportedly inserted a demand that North Korea itemize not only on its nuclear facilities but also its biological and chemical weapons. Bolton made the same demand last May in the lead-up to the Singapore summit:

On the denuclearization side of the program, that means all aspects of their nuclear program. Clearly, the ballistic missiles program, as with Iran, with the intention of being a delivery system for nuclear weapons — that’s gotta go. I think we need to look at their chemical and biological weapons programs as well. The president’s going to raise other issues, the Japanese abductees, South Korean citizens who were kidnapped.

This kind of agenda-loading — plus an ominous reference to the “Libyan model” that Bolton knew would rub the North Koreans the wrong way — is exactly how Bolton likes to operate: he appears to be going with the program only to undermine it from within.

After the Hanoi summit self-destructed, Bolton declared it a “success” — because Trump rejected “a bad deal.” What Bolton really meant was: the summit was successful because it didn’t produce any deal.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, has been just as consistently hawkish as Bolton about North Korea. Heading into the Vietnam summit, he was careful to contradict his president by asserting that North Korea remained a nuclear threat. And then he also made clear that North Korea would get no sanctions reduction until that threat was “substantially reduced.” Pompeo’s own skepticism that anything could be accomplished in Hanoi shaped his pre-summit predictions that “we may not get everything done this week.”

As for the North Korean side, Kim Jong Un obviously doesn’t feel backed up against a wall. He wasn’t going to accept what the Americans had repeatedly offered in the past (even Pompeo understood this). He might have also thought that Trump was the desperate one — attacked on all sides at home, eager to get a deal to prove his negotiating skills, blinded by his desire for a Nobel prize. In the end, Kim has time on his side. He’s in his thirties and doesn’t have to run for reelection. Trump is in his seventies and his reelection chances are not robust.

As with any lovers’ spat, there are disagreements after the fact about who said what. Trump blamed the North Koreans for insisting on the removal of all sanctions. Then the North Koreans held their own press conference to counter that they had asked only for a partial lifting of sanctions. An unnamed senior State Department official ultimately confirmed the North Korean version.

It’s one thing for the administration to attempt to spin the summit for its own purposes to suggest that the collapse wasn’t the U.S. fault, or that the result was actually a success not a failure. But the spin coming from other quarters has been equally disturbing.

Summit Aftermath

The summit didn’t achieve anything new. But let’s be clear: U.S.-North Korean relations are in a much better place today than 18 months ago.

Pyongyang remains committed to a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests. And the United States is scaling back on its war games with South Korea.

Right after the summit ended, the United States announced that it was effectively canceling its large-scale Key Resolve and Foal Eagle military exercises, replacing them with much smaller drills. Trump tweeted:

The reason I do not want military drills with South Korea is to save hundreds of millions of dollars for the U.S. for which we are not reimbursed. That was my position long before I became President. Also, reducing tensions with North Korea at this time is a good thing!

The Democratic Party, so afraid before the summit that the president would make unacceptable concessions to North Korea, has reacted venomously to even the paltry olive branch that Trump has extended to Pyongyang.

“Of course the president did give up a great deal by going to that summit, by enhancing Kim Jong Un’s prestige on the world stage, by giving up those military exercises in the last summit and getting nothing for it.,” Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said on Face the Nation. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum added, “Nobody can be quite so certain, in the future, of our absolute willingness to defend South Korean allies who have received so much less attention from this president than their enemies in the North.”

But wait — South Korea is practically begging the Trump administration to move forward with reconciliation with the North. It agreed to the suspension of the military exercises. This was not the United States abandoning its ally. Only conservative opponents of the Moon Jae-in government are putting up a fuss about the decision on the war games.

Then there is the demand that human rights be part of the negotiations with North Korea. Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl writes:

Trump’s diplomacy with North Korea has been revealed as a fantasy. Real progress would require a restart based on patient diplomacy, ramped-up pressure, and a recognition that the problem entails not just nuclear reactors and missile factories, but torture chambers and concentration camps.

I’m sorry, Jackson, but you’re the one stuck in a fantasy. Sure, patient diplomacy is a key element. Pressure, too, plays a part in geopolitics. But bringing human rights to negotiations about a nuclear program is a sure recipe for failure. Delinking security negotiations from human rights concerns has been the sine qua non of arms-control talks since the 1960s. It’s the only way the United States could negotiate with the Soviets in the 1980s and the only way it could achieve a nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015.

Of course, the human rights situation in North Korea is appalling. Of course, the world community must address the labor camps in the country. But linking human rights to the country’s nuclear program is a sure-fire way of ensuring failure on both fronts.

Finally, columnists have gone to town on Trump for his acceptance of Kim Jong Un’s assertion that he knew nothing about Otto Warmbier, the U.S. college student who was detained in the country, spent many months in a coma in a North Korean prison, and was returned home only to die a week later. Kathleen Parker, in the Post, compares Trump’s credulity in this matter to his acquiescence to Vladimir Putin (on Russian involvement in the U.S. elections) and Mohammed bin Salman (on the crown prince’s involvement in the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi).

It’s unquestionably stupid for Trump to accept the word of any world leader, particularly an autocrat — just as no world leader should accept Trump’s word.

But these situations are not parallel. There is considerable proof the Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. It would be inconceivable that Mohammed bin Salman did not issue the order to get rid of one of his chief critics.

But there is actually very little information about what caused Otto Warmbier to fall into a coma. A medical examination revealed that there was no obvious signs of trauma, much less torture. It would have been highly unusual for North Korea to torture an American college student. He was not a critic of the North Korean regime. No American detainees had previously been killed. Most had been treated rather respectfully, though often subjected to psychological stresses. Americans are useful bargaining chips. Dead or seriously harmed Americans are not.

In other words, there was no motive for Kim Jong Un to order the torture of an American just for the hell of it. He was no doubt aware of the detention. And he has certainly been ruthless in his actions — like killing his uncle and his half-brother. But those killings were politically motivated. In contrast, the North Koreans seemed eager to release Warmbier to the Trump administration so that they wouldn’t have a dead American on their hands.

The death of Otto Warmbier was indeed a tragedy. And North Korea should provide an account of what really happened to the young man. But his death should not prevent rapprochement between North Korean and the United States.

So, in the end, the bromance between Trump and Kim is icky and deserving of ridicule. But hey, to negotiate with a dictator, sometimes it takes a dictator (or a dictator wannabe). There’s still hope that the United States and North Korea can come to some partial agreement that freezes North Korea’s nuclear capability as is (with the hope of reduction later on) and removes some sanctions from the country so that the North Korean economy can grow (and improve people’s lives). Even the current pause in hostilities is beneficial because it allows Seoul and Pyongyang to move incrementally toward reconciliation.

Let’s hope for a third summit. Let’s hope that the love letters continue. Let’s even follow Moon Jae-in’s lead and praise Donald Trump for his political savviness.

Meanwhile, I’ll hold my nose, keep my eyes averted, and hope for peace.

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Trump Punts on Syria

Donald Trump wants to pull U.S. troops out of Syria as quickly as possible.

Well, it’s Wednesday, so that’s what the president wants now. Tomorrow, who knows, maybe he’ll insist that Syria pay for the pullout. Maybe Trump will decide to hold a summit with Bashar al-Assad after deciding that the Syrian leader’s not such a bad guy after all, since he also doesn’t like the Islamic State and owes his position to Russian support. Maybe Trump will team up with Turkey to build a wall around Syria because “if we stop them over there, we won’t fight them over here.”

With Trump, all options seem to be in play, and it all depends on what Fox News covers, what the last autocrat or three-star general whispered in his ear, and whether the president’s spleen is acting up or not. The opinions of his own advisors or the foreign-policy commissariat seem to matter little. If anything, Trump delights in confounding the experts. After all, he believes himself to be the expert-in-chief.

Foreign policy making in the Trump era is a lot like curling. Trump lets lose the stone and then the other members of the team start sweeping at the ice in an attempt to alter the trajectory. Sometimes Trump throws in the general direction of the target. Sometimes his aim is so errant that there’s nothing the sweepers can do.

So, after Trump tweeted his new Syria policy, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo went into action to alter its trajectory. In an attempt to placate allies aghast at Trump’s decision, Bolton put so many conditions on the pull-out as to seem to render the announcement null and void. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo similarly tried to assure Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and the Gulf States that U.S. policy remains steady: defeat the Islamic State, shut out Iran.

This cavalcade of caveats accomplished little more than to confuse allies and mystify observers. Bolton angered Recep Tayyip Erdogan so much with his remarks about continued U.S. support for Syrian Kurds that the Turkish president refused to meet with the national security advisor when he visited Ankara this month. A prominent pro-government newspaper decried Bolton’s “soft coup against Trump.”

Trump has subsequently changed his mind about Syria, somewhat, but it wasn’t at the behest of Bolton or Pompeo. The president was persuaded to go slow on the withdrawal when he received a briefing in Iraq from a lieutenant general who explained that the military needed more time to wrap up operations in Syria. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis had probably said the same thing to Trump. He resigned when the president ignored his advice. Mattis had disagreed one too many times with the president and thus undermined his authority. With Trump, proximity breeds contempt.

Trump originally demanded that troops withdraw in 30 days. Now, the Pentagon has four months to redeploy the couple thousand troops. The rush to the exit will be more like a covert crawl. And they won’t likely be going very far. The latest reports suggest that the redeployed soldiers are heading for Iraq — to bases in Kirkuk and Anbar.

A History of Ambivalence

Trump has been roundly criticized for the incoherence of his policy toward Syria. But let’s face it, Washington has never figured out how to deal with the country — its ruthless leader, its fragmented opposition, its breakaway Kurds, its covetous neighbors — since the Arab Spring protests broke out in 2011.

At the very outset, the Obama administration hesitated to throw its support behind pro-democracy demonstrators and was even more ambivalent about intervening militarily when the demonstrators chose to take up arms.

This was not surprising. Obama had been slow to withdraw support from Hosni Mubarak in Egypt earlier that year when crowds gathered in Tahrir Square. When civil strife broke out in Libya, Obama was equally reluctant to get involved, finally opting to “lead from behind” in the international effort to oust Muammar Gaddafi. The situation in Syria promised to be even more complicated and volatile.

Eventually, the Obama administration dipped its toe in the water with two principal programs, one run by the Pentagon, the other covertly by the CIA. The Pentagon’s program was a spectacular failure, with graduates of the training program either exiting the program to fight for radical groups the United States disdained or going on to ignominious defeat on the battlefield. This initiative ended in 2015.

The CIA program, Timber Sycamore, funneled billions of dollars of arms and equipment to fighters on the ground in Syria, thanks to Saudi financing and Turkish logistics. This program, too, encountered many difficulties. For instance, arms ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda sympathizers. The United States was also reluctant to go all in for fear of provoking Russia. In 2017, Trump canceled this program.

Trump or no Trump, the United States faces myriad problems in Syria. Assad has consolidated his position, with the help of Russia and Iran. The Islamic State has been reduced to a beleaguered fiefdom, but religious extremism hasn’t disappeared and a pretty unsavory group remains in control of Idlib province. The Kurds in the north have established an autonomous region, with U.S. assistance, but the Turkish government considers them a mere extension of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) that it’s fighting within its own borders.

The United States can’t expect to influence this state of play in Syria, and certainly not with only 2,000 troops. So, it makes a lot of sense to pull them out. Let the Israelis and Saudis get angry, and let the Russians, Iranians, and Turks rejoice. U.S. involvement in Syria — hesitant, misguided, quixotic — has been benighted from the beginning.

Trump recently tweeted in support of his action that the United States must “stop the endless wars.” That makes eminent sense.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that Trump actually believes what he tweets. Even as he was making his withdrawal announcement, the president was directing the Pentagon to increase its air strikes on targets in Syria.

More War, Not Less

It’s ludicrous to paint Donald Trump as a peace president. The man is only selectively anti-war. He just doesn’t like the wars that other presidents started.

Trump threatened to use nuclear weapons against North Korea. He considered military options in Venezuela and discussed the potential of a coup with dissident army officers.

But it’s Iran that’s served as the focus of Trump’s most hawkish ambitions. The president hasn’t been content just to unravel the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement that the Obama administration, alongside representatives of several other countries, negotiated with Iran. Nor does Trump want to stop at simply applying another round of economic sanctions against the country.

In September, John Bolton asked the Pentagon for military options to strike Iran. “It definitely rattled people,” a former senior White House official said. “People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.”

But Trump’s confrontational approach to Iran preceded the brashness of Bolton, who has openly advocated regime change in Iran. Shortly after entering the White House, Trump began pushing for the Pentagon to blow up Iranian boats in the Persian Gulf. Mattis, who’d been fired from the Obama administration for his anti-Iranian obsession, thought the plan was ludicrous and never provided the plans Trump wanted.

Countering Iran has been an organizing principle of the administration’s foreign policy, from helping the Saudis in Yemen to pressuring countries worldwide not to trade with Tehran. In his recent speech in Cairo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made clear that even with the Syria pullout the administration remains focused on countering Iran, which “has spread its cancerous influence to Yemen, to Iraq, to Syria, and further into Lebanon.”

With Bolton and Pompeo by his side and Mattis departed, Trump may well go with his gut and attack Iran militarily. He’ll be encouraged in this delusion by Israel and Saudi Arabia. He’ll be looking for some way to distract the media and the American public from his disastrous record as president and the multiple investigations into his affairs and policies. He won’t care about the consequences.

The forever war in the Middle East is far from over.

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

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Articles Featured Korea

Is Korea’s Cold War About to End?

Remarkable changes are taking place on the Korean peninsula.

The two Koreas are actually starting to demilitarize the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Just in the last couple weeks, they have taken down 22 guard posts, demined the Joint Security Area, and established a no-fly-zone about the peninsula’s dividing line. They’ve pulled back from confrontation along their maritime boundary. North Korea has shut down its coastal artillery units and the two sides have discussed a plan to reduce the large number of artillery positions near the border.

One key indicator of the seriousness of these changes: speculators are driving up the price of land near the border on the South Korean side. Even in a slow-motion reunification scenario, this farmland will become increasingly valuable.

The two Koreas have also revived plans to reunify economically, step by step. At the third inter-Korean summit, the leaders of the two countries agreed to relink, finally, the railroad as well as roads and to restart the shuttered Kaesong industrial complex, which married North Korean labor with South Korean capital and managerial skills. Also on tap is the resumption of tourism projects that have brought large numbers of South Koreans to select locations in the north.

All of this has been met with deafening silence in the United States. Worse, the big Korea news this week is, once again, about what the perfidious North Koreans are doing to reinforce the Cold War, not dismantle it.

But maybe this silence is a good thing.

Much Ado about Missiles

A new study by Beyond Parallel, a project of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, has made headlines with its revelations of a network of hidden missile bases in North Korea. The report identifies 13 out of 20 undeclared ballistic missile operating bases and, in the first of a projected series, provides considerable detail about one of these at Sakkanmol.

The report confirms what many skeptics have long maintained: North Korea is not serious about dismantling its nuclear complex. NBC’s article on the report includes this ominous quote from retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey:

It looks as if it is a political charade, and it’s a dangerous one. In the short term, North Korea is the most consequential threat to U.S. national security we’re facing….They have nuclear weapons, they have delivery systems, they are not going to denuclearize. So I think the outcome of all of this is we’re loosening the economic constraints on these people and we’re kidding ourselves.

That all sounds convincing. Except that all of this news coverage neglects to point out the obvious.

North Korea never promised to eliminate its missile program.

The negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang have focused on the nuclear complex – just as the negotiations did between Iran and the United States that culminated in the 2015 nuclear deal. Missiles are not nukes. Even if an ultimate deal addresses Pyongyang’s missile program, the two sides are nowhere near signing an agreement. So, North Korea is not violating anything, not going back on its word, not engaging in any kind of charade. It’s not as if the United States has altered its security posture in the region, outside of cancelling a couple military exercises.

Moreover, this missile complex is nothing new. According to the Beyond Parallel report, the base at Sakkanmol hasn’t had any serious upgrade since 2011. True, it’s a secret base. But North Korea hasn’t provided an inventory of its nuclear or missile complex. Secrecy, as anyone in the CIA or NSA can tell you, is an indispensable part of military strategy. For a country that is so clearly outgunned like North Korea, secrecy is one of its asymmetric advantages. Indeed, no one knows if the country can deliver whatever nuclear weapons it might have.

The base at Sakkanmol, meanwhile, is for short-range missiles. So, the major target would be South Korea. But the South Korean government is not up in arms over the report. “There is nothing new,” said a government spokesman, since North Korea “has never signed any agreement, any negotiation that makes shutting down missile bases mandatory.”

The Beyond Parallel report contains much useful research. It’s the media coverage of the report that’s problematic. Journalists are missing the real news of the two Koreas dismantling Cold War structures on the peninsula in favor of information that reinforces the narrative that North Korea is ultimately untrustworthy.

How to Help Korea

Donald Trump is focused on getting a Nobel Peace Prize for nearly consummating his love affair with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The foreign policy community in Washington, DC — along with the U.S. media and punditry class — is focused on proving itself right that the current peace efforts are a chimera. Members of Trump’s administration, like National Security Adviser John Bolton, have adopted a wait-and-see attitude: They believe that Trump will eventually realize the folly of his overtures, which will create a policy vacuum that they will rush in to fill with their regime-change strategies.

Don’t expect much of a difference now that the Democrats control the House. The party has roundly criticized Trump’s summitry and has consistently pushed for more sanctions, not fewer.

In this dismal context, watching the two Koreas inch incrementally closer together is like sitting in the audience of a performance of Romeo and Juliet. You know the ending, and it’s far from happy.

So, is there any way of altering the current script to avoid a tragedy?

Here’s the good news: It wouldn’t take very much to push the U.S.-North Korean negotiations forward. All the Trump administration has to do is offer to reduce some economic sanctions in exchange for a specific ask, for instance an inventory of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and complex.

This might seem like Arms Control 101. Unfortunately, the U.S. position has been all-or-nothing, not give-and-take. That’s the subtle shift that has to take place before any further, substantial dismantlement of the Cold War on the Korean peninsula can take place. And given the pushback from the foreign policy community, Congress, and even members of Trump’s own administration, this shift will likely have to come from the president himself.

It’s a terrible thing to have to depend on Donald Trump for anything. But if the White House can reduce one of the principle barriers to inter-Korean reconciliation, then Koreans themselves can continue to change the facts on the ground — step by step, without international fanfare — in such a way that outsiders will have to follow the Korean lead rather than the other way around.

By the time journalists have figured everything out what’s going on, perhaps the two Koreas will have managed to end the Cold War, not just rhetorically but physically — and without getting permission from their patrons.

Instead of a preemptive attack, it will be preemptive peace. In this chaotic and increasingly frightening world, that will surely be something to celebrate.

Foreign Policy In Focus, November 14, 2018

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Do Bullies Always Win?

The news that Canada has caved on trade has me depressed.

The glee with which Donald Trump has announced his latest “victory” is galling. Sure, he didn’t force Mexico and Canada to do everything he wanted in the NAFTA replacement. But he certainly can claim a public-relations coup. And his supporters in Congress are milking the moment for all it’s worth.

“While many in Washington claimed it could not be done, President Trump worked tirelessly to bring Canada to the table and negotiate a new trade deal that is better for American workers and consumers,” said Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA).

Yes, yes, I know: the arc of the moral universe is long and it bends toward justice. The problem is, how long is the arc and how big is the universe? In the shorter term, such as the span of a human lifetime, injustice seems more likely the norm.

I would like to believe that Trump’s game of chicken on foreign trade is simply not going to work. But what if it does? What if China blinks? What if the EU buckles? The game of trade is not simply won by those who can negotiate the longest or write the most detailed treaties. It’s often won by those who use crude displays of power.

Geopolitics is not a game for the faint of heart. It’s the perfect playground for bullies.

Bullies were on the ascendant even before America’s Top Tyrant won the presidency in 2016. Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Daniel Ortega: these leaders all believe that their might makes right.

But Trump brings it to another level. Russia, Turkey, Nicaragua, and the Philippines all have rich histories of strong men imposing their wills on resistant populations. The United States lacks that tradition. The rule of law is supposed to keep the bullies in check.

Now Trump is bringing into government a whole club of likeminded pugilists. John Bolton and Mike Pompeo are running foreign policy. The god-awful Jeff Sessions is rewriting the rules of law. And now Trump wants to stuff the Supreme Court with frat boys like Brett Kavanaugh, someone who has never known the difference between right and wrong and, in his most recent testimony, tried to bully Congress into confirming his nomination simple because he’s, well, entitled to it. Ruthlessness got him this far in his career — why shouldn’t he stick with this tactic?

It reminds me of my first day in middle school, when an older boy picked me out of the crowd of incoming sixth graders to punch my arm, a display of power that he enjoyed so much that he turned it into a daily ritual.

But the current situation is much worse than that. It’s like going to school and discovering that not only is that gang of jerks that hates you still controlling the hallways during breaks. Not only are they still extorting lunch money from the weak at lunch.

Not only that, but they’ve taken over the classrooms and the administration, they decide who gets into what courses and what colleges, and they want to make your entire day a living hell.

Bullying Tactics

Bullies are often, though not always, scared of a real fight. They pick on the weak and the easily intimidated. They talk big.

Donald Trump has always talked big. And he seems never to shy away from a fight. But those are verbal battles — in the press or in the courtroom. As for actual fighting, he notoriously avoided the Vietnam War, not for moral reasons but because of supposed bone spurs in his heels.

Like most chickenhawks, Trump talks big about blowing up other countries and taking out their leaders. So far, however, he has only attacked some usual suspects — a few targets in Syria, a widespread bombing campaign in one of the poorest countries on earth (Afghanistan), and a continuation of the U.S. drone program.

True, Trump might be gearing up for a war with Iran. He’s being pushed in that direction by people inside his administration (like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo) as well as neocon hawks like Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (who recently called Trump a “Twitter tiger”).

But I suspect that Trump wants simply to bully Iran into submission. He has hit the country with the sanctions that the previous administration had removed as a result of the nuclear deal. Already, Iran’s oil exports have dropped steeply by 870,000 barrels a day since April. The Trump administration has threatened to penalize any country that imports Iranian oil with secondary sanctions. As a result, South Korea and Japan have already stopped their orders. Meanwhile, U.S. oil exports have gone up, in part to fill the gap.

Of course, not everyone has gone along with Trump. China in particular will continue to purchase Iranian products. And Europeans are openly defying Trump by crafting a deal with Tehran to preserve the nuclear deal and keep open trade and investment links. And oil prices are on the rise, which means more discontent at the pump in the United States, particularly among Trump’s carbon-guzzling supporters.

Trump says he wants a new nuclear deal. But really the end game is regime change in Tehran. For all but the craziest of neocons, the Iraq War has created a new kind of syndrome: maximum pressure, minimum military involvement. It’s what some observers have cannily described as “regime change on the cheap.” So far, thanks to some powerful allies, Iran is hanging tough.

Big Stick, Then Talk

Perhaps if Kim Jong Un were Muslim or didn’t have nuclear weapons or had made the supreme mistake of being nice to Barack Obama, Trump wouldn’t be interested in sitting down to talk with him. As it was, Trump ratcheted up the rhetoric against North Korea in the first year of his term. Then he pivoted, against the advice of many in his administration, toward negotiations. The result was the Singapore summit in June, the first time a sitting American president met with a North Korean leader.

There have been a few interesting changes in the U.S.-North Korean dynamic. The Pentagon agreed to suspend war games with South Korea last summer. Pyongyang has continued a moratorium on nuclear and missile testing as well as dismantled some non-essential parts of the nuclear complex.

But the key problem remains the same. Who will make the first bold move?

Meanwhile, North and South Korea aren’t waiting for Trump to get off the dime. They’ve already begun removing landmines from the DMZ. At the last inter-Korean summit, North and South agreed to significant de-escalation, from a no-fly zone over the border to a transformation of the DMZ into a peace park. That’s bold, and it’s happening now.

As for Trump and Kim? They are apparently enjoying those early days in a romance when men’s thoughts turn constantly to love. As Trump said at a rally in West Virginia last weekend:

I was really being tough and so was he. And we would go back and forth. And then we fell in love, ok? No really. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they’re great letters. And then we fell in love.

So, the two bullies have hit it off. No surprise there. But as in Romeo and Juliet, today’s Montagues and Capulets haven’t yet ended their generational conflict despite the love of the two principals. Such love affairs usually don’t end well.

But let’s say that it does, and the mutual bullying works. In reality, the détente between Washington and Pyongyang will have more to do with the patient negotiations of the quintessential anti-bully, Moon Jae-in.

Stomping on the Palestinians

Donald Trump has promised a brand new deal for Middle East peace. That’s the fraudulent businessman at work. He’s slapped a “new and improved” sticker on a product that is demonstrably inferior to its previous versions, and somehow he thinks the world will buy it.

The Trump administration has put maximum pressure on Palestinians to negotiate from a progressively weaker position and minimum pressure on Israel to make any concessions at all. Trump has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem (a major Israeli demand), zeroed out $200 million in bilateral assistance for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, cut U.S. financial support for a UN agency that has long helped Palestinian refugees, and closed down the Palestinians’ de facto embassy in Washington, DC.

The proper response to this bullying is, of course, to tell the Trump administration to shove its “deal of the century” right up its Foggy Bottom.

And it’s not just Palestinians and liberal American Jews who feel this way. Here’s what former Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner has to say:

While it is Trump’s prerogative to pick and choose whom to support, and how to support them, the ramifications of these abrupt steps will only empower the radicals. The deal of the century can’t be made with Israel alone, and hardballing the Palestinians into submission is likely to blow up on Israel’s doorstep. 

It’s one thing bullying Iran and North Korea. These countries might be backed up against a wall, but they have choices. The Palestinians, after losing so much and then losing even more under Trump, basically have nothing left to lose — except their dignity. Why should they come to the negotiating table to trade this last resource for a manifestly unfair deal?

So, in the four examples cited, bullying worked with Canada, has half-worked with Iran and North Korea, and has had nothing but malign impact on Israeli-Palestinian relations. Unfortunately, for Trump and his minions, bullying isn’t just a tactic, it’s a way of life.

The Comeuppance?

If life imitated Hollywood, the bullies would either experience a life-affirming conversion or get their just desserts.

Let’s forget about the first option. Donald Trump, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo: These guys are not going to pull a David Brock and suddenly realize the many errors of their ways.

Then what about option two? I’d love to see Trump and his crew escorted from the federal government to the federal penitentiary. But how many members of the George W. Bush administration faced prison time for the mishandling of the Iraq War, the torture policy, and the other disasters of U.S. foreign policy? Only one: Lewis Libby, for his role in the Valerie Plame affair.

And how many members of the financial community went to prison for their role in the banking crisis of 2008? Again, only one.

It may turn out that a couple more Trumpsters have to face jail time as a result of the Mueller probe. Maybe even the president himself will be Caponed over his myriad tax scams. But I have my doubts that the aftermath of the 2020 elections will provide us with the grand spectacle of a mass perp walk from the White House.

Unfortunately, the victory of Donald Trump in the 2016 election disproved the adage that “cheaters never prosper.” Indeed, his whole life stands testament to the grim truth that cheaters, if they cheat on a truly grand scale, can get away with it. The same, alas, applies to bullies.

But not always.

The #MeToo movement is only the latest reminder that organized resistance can bring down very powerful bullies. It’s not exactly a Hollywood ending — not until they make a movie about Harvey Weinstein’s rise and fall — but it’s a whole lot better than suffering in silence. As for the Trump administration, well, I don’t know about you but I’d like to shorten the arc of the moral universe and bend it a lot more acutely toward justice.

Foreign Policy In Focus, October 3, 2018