Category Archives: United States

Cuba is the perfect example of Trump’s shambolic foreign policy decision-making

Increasingly, the future of Cuba seems less in the hands of Americans than in the hands of Cubans themselves. (Kevin Lees)

One day, the Castro regime will end, and the Cuban people may have the right to decide which elements of ‘socialism’ they will keep and which they will jettison. It will be their decision, of course, not the decision of any American official sitting in an office in Washington.

Yet the Trump administration’s decision last week to roll back some (importantly — not all) of the changes that characterized the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba makes that day more difficult to see on the horizon.

After just over five months in office, US president Donald Trump’s decision on Cuban policy almost perfectly crystallizes the way decisions are made in his administration. Trump was all over the place on Cuba in his improbable 2015-16 presidential campaign but by the time of the general election, Trump was promising Republicans — including older Cuban Americans in electoral vote-rich Florida — that he would roll back the Obama administration’s overtures.

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RELATED: Why normalization with Cuba will be harder than advertised

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Dutifully, Trump went to Miami last Friday, flanked by Florida senator (and former presidential rival) Marco Rubio and others, to announce exactly that, denouncing the Obama administration’s ‘one-sided deal’ with Cuba:

But the golden rule of the Trump era is quickly becoming: don’t worry about what he says or Tweets, look at what he does. And behind the bombast about defending human rights or the rhetoric trashing Barack Obama, Trump is leaving the guts of the Obama-era opening in

In reality, Trump’s policy rolls back very little. The hallmark of the Obama-era, Pore Francis-brokered deal — reestablished diplomatic relations and reopened embassies in Havana and Washington — is unchanged. The direct flights that many US carriers now operate from throughout the United States will continue. Trump will not restore Bush-era limits on Cuban Americans to travel back to the island or send money back. US tourists who continue to travel to Cuba under the new regulations will still be permitted to bring home some of Cuba’s famous cigars and rum. Nor does Trump’s new policy reinstate the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy that the Obama administration ended on January 13, which previously permitted all Cubans who reached US soil to remain in the United States (while repatriating Cubans intercepted at sea).

It’s classic Trump — make a promise based on short-term considerations, back down in the face of facts and real-world constraints, then keep just enough of your promise to declare victory. Continue reading Cuba is the perfect example of Trump’s shambolic foreign policy decision-making

Why Trump’s outreach to Saudi Arabia might not be so clueless

US president Donald Trump made his first visit to Saudi Arabia over the weekend. (Mandel Ngan / Getty)

Most American presidents kick off their international schedule with a visit to neighboring Canada or Mexico.

US president Donald Trump, having picked fights in his first 100 days with both, instead chose Saudi Arabia, launching a five-stop tour that has now taken him to Israel and will also take him to the Vatican, Italy and Belgium on his maiden foreign trip in office. As many commentators have noted, Saudi Arabia was an incredibly odd choice for the leader of a secular democracy.

Nevertheless, Trump came to Saudi Arabia with a firm message of camaraderie. The Obama administration took a more balanced approach to the conflicts of the Middle East, measuring support on a case-by-case basis. While Obama-era policy didn’t exactly rebuff the Saudis, it did put some limits on the bilateral relationship (belatedly, on the use of US arms to kill civilians in the ongoing war in Yemen). Moreover, the Saudis were aghast at the multilateral deal with Iran over nuclear energy, given that it created a preliminary avenue of cooperation between Washington and Tehran, though no one should doubt that the United States remains much closer to Saudi Arabia than to Iran, and that was always true during the Obama administration.

But Trump is returning to the previous approach — unqualified support for Saudi Arabia vis-à-vis its neighbors, especially Iran. In contrast to the Obama administration’s desire to stay out of the regional Sunni-Shiite conflict, essentially a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Trump has made it clear that he’s taking the Sunni side.

It’s a throwback to US policy, not in the 2000s under the Bush administration, but more to the 1980s under the Reagan administration. Unlike George W. Bush, who routinely spoke about human rights and democracy, Trump brought no value judgments to Riyadh, though the Saudi kingdom remains one of the most repressive regimes on the planet. Bizarrely, Trump’s daughter Ivanka discussed female entrepreneurship in a country where women do not have the right to drive cars. US commerce secretary Wilbur Ross marveled at the lack of protesters, in a country where freedom of expression is met with imprisonment — or worse.

The Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh projected Trump’s face, alongside that of the Saudi king, Salman, on its facade.

It’s not clear, exactly, what Trump received in return. Trump handed gift after gift to the Saudis, in exchange for the royal treatment in Riyadh, with parades and pomp and little else, short of bold new promises to help rein in Sunni extremism, and the opening of a new Global Center for Combating Extremist Ideology.

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RELATED: One chart that explains Obama-era Middle East policy

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That’s clear enough from the $110 billion arms deal that Trump signed with the Saudis on Saturday, which will boost Saudi efforts to bolster Yemen’s president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi in an ongoing and bloody war with nominally Shiite Houthi rebels that control Yemen’s north, and who are supported in part by Iran. In an uncharacteristically bland speech on Saturday, Trump embraced the Muslim world as an ally in the global fight against extremist ideologies — remarkable for a president who, during the 2016 election, called for a ban on all Muslims entering the United States and who railed against the Saudis for funding the kind of extremists who planned and carried out the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Generally speaking, though, the consensus is that Trump got played for a sucker.

But there’s another interpretation worth considering. Continue reading Why Trump’s outreach to Saudi Arabia might not be so clueless

How I view American politics (and the Trump administration) today

The ‘religious freedom’ executive order was a cheap photo opportunity, a publicity stunt; it doesn’t (yet) rewrite the Internal Revenue Code and constitutionally, it cannot.

The American Health Care Act passed the House of Representatives, narrowly, by a 217 to 213 margin today, too, but it certainly will not survive the Senate in its current form, which was denounced by every group from the American Medical Association to the AARP. That’s quite clear from Orrin Hatch, let alone moderate Republicans like Susan Collins.

Repeal of much of the Dodd-Frank Act, the financial services reform, is making its way through the House — and may also pass the House, but unless the Senate eliminates the legislative filibuster, Republicans will be hard-pressed to find 60 votes in the Senate, where Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, whose chief policy legacy is the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, will surely stand for hours to filibuster her way to national political stardom.

Meanwhile, Trump (though he had a temper tantrum about a shutdown) and the GOP caved on a budget that looks very much like something Hillary Clinton would have approved.

Good luck to Trump in solving Puerto Rico’s impending bankruptcy and a pending referendum on statehood in two months.

Nikki Haley, James Mattis and H.R. McMaster (the latter replacing an erratic national security advisor fired in disgrace just 20 days into the administration)  are ignoring the lunacy of Trump’s unthinking blather, contradicting him in plain sight and driving a sane foreign policy not dissimilar to Obama-era policy: pro-NATO, cautious of Russia, ambitious to look to the Pacific, reluctant to get bogged down in the Middle East. (Yeah, yeah, Israeli-Palestinian peace is so easy, Don). As Haley and Mattis, in particular, travel the world putting out Trump’s fires, allies (and rivals) are learning not to take seriously the words of the sitting American president. It takes something to kick an Australian prime minister twice in four months. For months — years! — NATO was obsolete; then, all of a sudden, ‘NATO is no longer obsolete.’ At this point, I almost expect Trump to try to renegotiate NAFTA by extending it to South American and Asia and calling it the ‘Trump Pacific Partnership.’

If you could forget (for one millisecond) just how much is at stake for the lives and livelihoods and safety of so many Americans (to say nothing of South Koreans, Japanese, Europeans and so on), it would be endearing, even touching, to watch a president learn what the job entails in real time. It’s a ‘teachable moment,’ as one former certain president liked to say. For Trump’s hard-core nationalist supporters, the first 100 days must have felt like a Schoolhouse Rock. Policy — from Chinese relations to US health care reform — is indeed harder than you thought.

I don’t doubt the challenges ahead for those of us who oppose Trump. Immigrants are terrified, and there are reasons for women, people of color, LGBT Americans and the poorest among us to be especially anxious. I will not minimize the ugliness and the divisiveness that Trump has single-handedly brought into American political discourse.

But today was (mostly) smoke, not fire, and it seems like House Republicans put themselves on record supporting a deeply divisive bill that will never become law — without so much as a CBO score. They may pay dearly in 2018. That’s still a long ways off.

For now, Obamacare is still intact (though, yeah, it has some flaws that need fixed). So is the Johnson Amendment. So is the EPA. So is the Export-Import Bank. So is USAID. So is State. So is the FBI (which continues to investigate the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian intelligence). So are all our institutions, even if they have no political appointees.

The not-quite-a-Muslim ban was halted twice by federal courts, and so many eyes are on Trump that he’s deported fewer immigrants (so far) than Obama. Not a single brick of border wall is built (it’s an idiotic idea anyway for anyone who understands modern air travel), and Mexico is certainly not going to pay. Though Trump may outrage Mexicans enough that they elect a leftist populist of their own in 2018.

Meanwhile, sensible tax reform (including lower corporate rates and some form of repatriation), Trump’s oft-promised infrastructure spending and Ivanka Trump’s promise of universal maternity leave — all of which would have been top priorities in a Clinton administration, working with House speaker Paul Ryan and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, now seem farther than ever from being enacted.

Governing is tough work, and the Trump administration has no clue how to do it.

Reince Preibus, Steve Bannon, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Gary Cohn — they are all competing for Trump’s ear, and they all have their strengths and weaknesses in the Oval Office. But they share in common this: none of them had a day’s experience in government before January 20. Rex Tillerson, whose sole experience is with one company — Exxon-Mobile — still doesn’t even have a deputy secretary of state, let alone anyone else to guide him.

Every day, the novelty of Trump’s blather on Twitter wears off, as do the outlandish remarks showing just how little respect he has for American history and the American presidency (‘no one asks why the Civil War was fought,’ come on). As on The Apprentice, he’s doing a great job pretending like he’s in charge, running things. Hell, I don’t care how much he golfs. I don’t care how many times he throws fake Rose Garden parties for fake legislative accomplishments, spews fake facts about the world and his administration, all while whining about fake news. There’s one statistic from which Trump can never hide: 28.1 million watched the Season 1 finale of The Apprentice. By the last season, that shrank to just 4.5 million, as the schtick wore off and viewers grew bored.

Savor that, at least, tonight, on a day of such venom, hubris and pain.

When Barack Obama was president, I wrote often about his flaws on foreign policy, and I certainly would have done the same with Hillary Clinton — or Mitt Romney or Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or John Kasich.

If and when the Trump administration scores a major foreign policy or diplomatic victory, I’ll be the first to applaud.

But I’ll never relent. Trumpismo and its empty know-nothing populism is a fraud, and it has been since June 2015 — most of all to the voters who elected Trump to the most important elective office in the world’s largest economic and military power.

For those of us — conservatives, liberals, libertarians — who have always been #NeverTrump, keep up the fight, each in our own ways, for a government that works to maximize economic and cultural opportunity for all. And let’s take a moment, on such a dreary day for the American republic, to love one another and continue seeking ways to bring Americans back together, with a government in 2018 and 2020 that we can respect again.

The answer to Syria is the OPCW, not reckless machismo

As US president Donald Trump hosted Chinese president Xi Jinping last night, he also launched a Tomahawk missile strike in Syria. (Facebook)

It was an impressive bit of dinner theater for Xi Jinping last night at Mar-a-Lago.

Less than three months into his presidency, Donald Trump has already deployed American force, launching a barrage of missiles against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The attack wasn’t a disaster — it didn’t appear this morning to have killed any civilians, it didn’t accidentally hit any stocks of sarin nerve gas. The strikes were well executed, and that’s to the credit of the US armed forces, US defense secretary James Mattis and US national security advisor H.R. McMaster. The strikes, which took place while Trump was hosting a dinner in Florida for the Chinese president, should put Xi on notice that the same fate could befall North Korea if Chinese diplomacy cannot retard or halt North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. (Though it might also put Kim Jong-un on notice that he should be more preemptive in his approach to international affairs in the Trump era).

Though it’s difficult, set aside how you feel about Barack Obama, on the one hand, and Trump, on the other hand. It’s possible to believe that in 2013, the United States and its European allies stood down from Obama’s ‘red line’ rhetoric because doing so facilitated the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons uqest to remove chemical weapons from Syria. Obviously, by 2017, it’s clear that Assad either produced new chemical weapons or never fully turned over 100% of his stocks back in 2013 and 2014. Either way, there’s a rational basis for responding with more force, and American officials on both the right and left (and many more US allies) are lining up to support Trump’s strikes in retaliation for the chemical warfare — including his 2016 presidential rival, Hillary Clinton, a former secretary of state. In some ways, Trump’s step was a throwback to the Clinton administration, which routinely and liberally deployed missile strikes to send messages from Sudan to Iraq, long before the restraint of the Obama era and the full-barrel bluster of the Bush administration.

That still doesn’t mean it was the right step.

The international community’s chief goal now vis-à-vis chemical weapons should be forcing Assad to hand over the remaining stockpiles of any chemical weapons. That means getting OPCW on the ground (despite an ongoing civil war) to inspect and remove those weapons. But with so many more Russian troops on the ground in Syria today than in 2013, and with Moscow unhappy with Trump’s new approach, that will make it more difficult for the OPCW to maneuver, not less. That’s without getting into the issue of whether this hurts the ongoing US goal of defeating ISIS (hint: it does). That’s without getting into the constitutionality of the strikes without congressional approval.

Moreover, what happens if Assad (or someone among the pro-Assad forces) decides to gas 100 more people next week? Or 100,000 people? Will Trump escalate strikes? If you’re as brutal as Assad, it’s worth losing an airstrip that Russian forces can easily rebuild in a month.

Then what?

In short, it’s very easy to see how Trump could be forced to escalate, which could embolden North Korea. US military assets aren’t unlimited, and getting bogged down in Syria within his first 100 days as president would leave Trump far fewer military options (including not just actual force, but the threat of force) in dealing with the North Korean problem.

Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists

Across Europe, support for Trump-style populists is falling, even though many European populists were growing long before Trump entered the political scene. (123RF / Evgeny Gromov)

If there’s one thing that unites Europeans, it’s the concept that they are better — more enlightened, more cultured and more sophisticated — than Americans.

That was especially true during the presidency of George W. Bush, when France, Germany and other leading anchors of the European Union vociferously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. In 2002, it sometimes seemed like German chancellor Gerhard Schröder was running against Bush, not against his conservative German challenger, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber.

Europeans might be leaning in a similar direction in the Trump era, even though it’s hardly been a month since Donald Trump took office. In the days after Trump’s surprise election last November (and after the Brexit vote last summer), populists like Geert Wilders in The Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France had reason to believe that Trump’s victory would give political tailwinds to their own electoral efforts in 2017.

If anything, however, Europeans are pulling back from populism in the first months of 2017. As four of the founding EU countries gear up for elections in the coming months — the first will be The Netherlands in just nine days — the threat of a Trump-style populist surging to power seems increasingly farfetched.

Maybe Europeans simply outright disdain what they perceive as the vulgar, Jacksonian urges of American voters. Maybe it’s shock at the way Trump’s inexperienced administration has bumbled through its first 40 days or the troubles of British prime minister Theresa May in navigating her country through the thicket of Brexit and withdrawing from the European Union.

More likely though, it could be that Trump’s oft-stated criticism of NATO and praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin have finally shaken Europeans out of the fog that’s gathered for 70 years under the penumbra of pax Americana. Even as officials like US vice president Mike Pence and US defense secretary James Mattis reassure European allies that the United States is committed to the trans-Atlantic security alliance, Trump continues to muse about NATO being obsolete (as recently as the week before his inauguration). Furthermore, the America-first nationalism that emerged from Trump’s successful campaign has continued into his administration and promises a new, more skeptical approach to prior American obligations not only in Europe, but worldwide. Just ten days into office, Trump trashed the European Union as a ‘threat’ to the United States, only to back down and call it ‘wonderful’ in February. Breitbart, the outlet that senior Trump strategist Stephen Bannon headed until last summer, ran a headline in January proclaiming that Trump would make the European Union ‘history.’

All of which has left Europeans also rethinking their security position and considering a day when American security guarantees are withdrawn — or simply too unreliable to be trusted.

Arguably, NATO always undermined the European Union, in structural terms, because NATO has been the far more important body for guaranteeing trans-Atlantic security. Though Federica Mogherini is a talented and saavy diplomat, the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy is far less important to trans-Atlantic security than the NATO secretary-general (currently, former Norwegian prime minster Jens Stoltenberg). While the stakes of EU policymaking — trade, consumer and environmental regulation, competition law and other economic regulation and a good deal of European fiscal and monetary policy — aren’t low, they would be higher still if the European Union, instead of NATO, were truly responsible for European defense and security. That’s perhaps one reason why the European Union has been stuck since the early 2000s in its own ‘Articles of Confederation’ moment — too far united to pull the entire scheme apart, not yet united enough to pull closer together.

Perhaps, alternatively, it has nothing to do with blowback to Trump or Brexit, and voters in the core western European countries, which are accustomed to a less Schumpeterian form of capitalism, are simply more immune to radical swings than their counterparts subject to the janglier peaks and valleys of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. It’s not too much to think that, possibly, in the aftermath of both Brexit and Trump’s election, core Europe, unleashed from the toxic dynamic of British euroscepticism and emboldened to forge new relationships from outside the American security aegis, may be finding a new confidence after years of economic ennui.

Nevertheless, populists across Europe who tried to cloak themselves in the warm embrace of Trumpismo throughout 2016 are increasingly struggling in 2017. A dark and uncertain 2016 is giving way rapidly to a European spring in 2017 where centrists, progressives and conservatives alike are finding ways to push back against populist and xenophobic threats.  Continue reading Trump effect: Europe turning toward integration, away from populists

Low-key Kislyak lies at the heart of Trump’s ongoing Russia mystery

Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak lies at the heart of the mysteries surrounding ties between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign. (Sputnik)

He’s served as the Kremlin’s man in Washington since 2008.

But only now has Sergey Kislyak, the low-key Russian ambassador to the United States, started making headlines as the person no one in the Trump administration seems to remember meeting.

It’s not a crime for a sitting US senator to meet with the ambassador of a country that sits on the UN security council, even one that’s sometimes , like Russia. It might not even, as a technical matter, be perjury, that US attorney general Jeff Sessions ‘forgot’ about the two conversations he is now reported to have had with Kislyak in 2016 at the height of the presidential election campaign.

So who is the old Russian hand at the center of a controversy that’s already claimed the resignation of Mike Flynn, the retired general who is no longer national security advisor, and might claim Sessions as well?

Kislyak is a longtime career diplomat who speaks fluent English and French. In contrast to Russia’s long-serving foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, the burlier and less polished Kislyak mostly avoids the spotlight. If reports are true, Kislyak is already a lame-duck ambassador — Moscow is reportedly readying a more hard-line figure, deputy prime minister Anatoly Antonov, to replace Kislyak.

One of the mysteries of the current brouhaha over the Trump campaign’s ties to Kremlin officials is the disconnect in December between Kislyak’s initial anger over the outgoing Obama administration’s additional sanctions (related to increasing indications that Russia attempted to use cybertricks to interfere with the US election) and the Kremlin’s more relaxed response a day later — after nearly a half-dozen calls between Flynn and Kislyak:

The concerns about the contacts were cemented by a series of phone calls between Mr. Kislyak and Michael T. Flynn, who had been poised to become Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. The calls began on Dec. 29, shortly after Mr. Kislyak was summoned to the State Department and informed that, in retaliation for Russian election meddling, the United States was expelling 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives and imposing other sanctions. Mr. Kislyak was irate and threatened a forceful Russia response, according to people familiar with the exchange.

But a day later, Mr. Putin said his government would not retaliate, prompting a Twitter post from Mr. Trump praising the Russian president — and puzzling Obama White House officials. On Jan. 2, administration officials learned that Mr. Kislyak — after leaving the State Department meeting — called Mr. Flynn, and that the two talked multiple times in the 36 hours that followed. American intelligence agencies routinely wiretap the phones of Russian diplomats, and transcripts of the calls showed that Mr. Flynn urged the Russians not to respond, saying relations would improve once Mr. Trump was in office, according to multiple current and former officials.

So who is Kislyak and how did he come to be the Kremlin’s envoy to Washington for a decade?

Continue reading Low-key Kislyak lies at the heart of Trump’s ongoing Russia mystery

Full investigation now the only way to clear Trump White House on Russia quid pro quo

The now-famous mural of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Lithuania’s capital city of Vilnius.

With national security advisor Michael Flynn’s resignation and new reporting from The New York Times that Trump campaign officials had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials, it is time to ask the fundamental question about this administration’s underlying weakness over Russia:

Was there a quid pro quo between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign to help Trump win?

No one wants to believe this, of course, and it is an important moment to give Trump as many benefits of the doubt as possible. It is probably true that Trump would have defeated Hillary Clinton without any Russian cyber-shenanigans (though of course Richard Nixon would have easily defeated George McGovern in 1972 without ordering a break-in at the Watergate Hotel). It is also true that the leaks coming from the intelligence community could represent a serious threat to civil liberties, though it is not clear to me whether this information is coming directly from the intelligence community or secondhand from any number of potential investigations. There are many ‘known unknowns’ here, and there are potentially even more ‘unknown unknowns.’

But here is what we think that we know, as of February 15: Continue reading Full investigation now the only way to clear Trump White House on Russia quid pro quo

Flynn resignation offers Trump administration a crucial restart

Michael Flynn has resigned as national security advisor. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

On the 25th day of the Trump administration, its national security adviser, retired general Michael Flynn, was forced to resign.

The final blow came from reports that the Trump administration learned last month that the US Department of Justice warned that Flynn could be susceptible to blackmail from the Kremlin. The resignation also followed reports that Flynn misled US vice president Mike Pence and others about the extent of his discussions during the presidential transition with Russian counterparts regarding the lifting of the Obama administration’s sanctions on Moscow.

Some quick thoughts.

Continue reading Flynn resignation offers Trump administration a crucial restart

How Trump could become a national-level version of Jesse Ventura

Before Trump waged his insurgent candidacy, professional wrestler Jesse Ventura won election as governor of Minnesota. (Reuters)

How about this for a black swan?

Americans haven’t elected a take-no-prisoners executive bound to drag the country into a hard-right populist dystopia.

Instead, they’ve elected a third-party-style insurgent (albeit from within the Republican Party) who will struggle to make allies in either congressional party and fizzle out after four years of smoke, but not a lot of noise — or economic or policy accomplishments.

It already happened — in Minnesota. In 1998, voters weary of grey establishmentarians, elected instead the flamboyant Jesse Ventura, a former professional wrestler. Christening himself as Jesse ‘the Mind’ Ventura, he narrowly clipped Republican Norm Coleman (then St. Paul mayor) and Democrat Skip Humphrey (the son of the former vice president). But Ventura, in his one lonely term as governor, transformed a $4 billion budget surplus into a $4.5 billion deficit and otherwise spent most of his time fighting with the media and with members of the state legislature.

Ventura, who ran and governed on the quirky Reform Party ticket founded in 1996 by Ross Perot, lent his support in 2000 to Trump’s nascent bid for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination. Trump eventually lost to the anti-trade, anti-immigrant conservative commentator Pat Buchanan.

Far from a lapse to 1930s-style authoritarianism, perhaps the Trump administration will be far more like a national version of the Ventura experiment. Trump has already squandered nearly a quarter of his first 100 days on distractions and controversy. 

Continue reading How Trump could become a national-level version of Jesse Ventura

The case for optimism in Tillerson’s State Department

Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, will win confirmation today as the next US secretary of state.

He stumbled and mumbled in a Texas drawl through hours of cringe-worthy hearings before the US Senate’s foreign relations committee.

He refused to label Russian president Vladimir Putin a ‘war criminal,’ and he dissembled about human rights abuses when asked about the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte or about Saudi Arabia. Moreover, at times, Tillerson seemed to distance himself from Trump when he failed to commit to pull out of Iran’s nuclear deal, and Marco Rubio, the Florida senator who lost the Republican nomination to Trump last year, lectured Tillerson on human rights in Russia, Syria and around the world.

Nevertheless, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson easily won confirmation yesterday by the full Senate, and he will succeed John Kerry as the next US secretary of state, despite the earlier misgivings of Rubio and several other hawkish Republican senators.

Say what you want about Tillerson, he’s never — to my knowledge — joked about an impending US invasion with the sitting Mexican president into Mexico to get the ‘bad hombres’ or hung up on the Australian prime minister after a wholly unprofessional rant about winning the election and trying to welch out of a prior US agreement.

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RELATED: Tillerson’s not a bad choice for State,
he’s just a bad choice for Trump’s administration

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But perhaps the most interesting thing about Tillerson’s nomination was that US president Donald Trump ultimately selected Tillerson and not Lee Raymond, Tillerson’s predecessor as ExxonMobil CEO. As between the two, Raymond is far more ‘Trumpier.’  He routinely denied either that climate change is man-made or that climate change is, in fact, occurring. Raymond presided over the massive efforts after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill to improve the company’s safety record, and he successfully merged his company with Mobil. But he routinely flouted SEC rules on counting oil reserves and he also presided over a human rights fiasco in Aceh, then a separatist province in Indonesia.

By all rights, Raymond was always the alpha male to Tillerson’s beta male. After taking over the reins of ExxonMobil in 2005, Tillerson promptly acknowledged that climate change is a real threat and, after the Democratic Party took control of both the US congress and the presidency in 2009, even advocated for a carbon tax (instead of the more complicated, if more popular cap-and-trade legislation).

There’s no doubt that Raymond is exactly the kind of personality that Trump respects, and Raymond — even, one suspects, at the age of 78 — would have gone into Foggy Bottom ready to disrupt. By contrast, Tillerson is a life-long Texan Boy Scout and quintessential company man who spent his entire four-decade career at Exxon. While there are real doubts about whether Tillerson will succeed, one of the biggest is whether he can shift, after so many years, to such a very different role and such a very different bureaucracy.

In a more ‘normal’ Republican administration, under Rubio or Jeb Bush or Scott Walker or John Kasich, Tillerson might be a refreshing choice at State. Instead, the Trump administration’s inexperience and Trump’s odd conciliatory relationship with Putin have only highlighted Tillerson’s own lack of diplomatic experience and Russia ties.  More than any other administration in recent memory, the Trump administration is full of government outsiders with scant experience inside the executive branch. That’s true for Trump, but it is also true for the chief of staff Reince Preibus, for chief strategist Stephen Bannon, for national security adviser Mike Flynn. So another worry is Tillerson he might simply fade alongside so many other forceful personalities, including Trump himself, Flynn, Bannon and others.

That’s not to say Tillerson isn’t bright or capable. It’s clear, above all from Steve Coll’s indispensable 2012 book, Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, just how knowledgeable and effective Tillerson was in negotiations around the world. At Exxon, Tillerson pursued a foreign policy designed to help his company’s interests and his shareholders, and that didn’t always line up with the interests of the US government’s foreign policy, most notably as his company chafed at economic sanctions in recent years against Russia. On at least two occasions, ExxonMobil got the better of Venezuela under Tillerson’s leadership, and Tillerson effectively sidelined the central Iraqi government in Baghdad to make a better deal with autonomous Kurdistan in the north. That’s above and beyond the more well-known ties between Tillerson and Putin over ExxonMobil’s Siberian oil deals, and navigating the longstanding relationships between his company and dictatorial oil-rich autocracies like Nigeria, Equatorial Guinea and Chad. (Coll’s book really is required reading for those who want to understand foreign policy in the Trump era).

Tillerson, it’s clear, knows his way around the international landscape — probably far more intimately than Trump himself, who has already gaffed his way across the globe in less than two weeks in the Oval Office. Continue reading The case for optimism in Tillerson’s State Department

A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Yazidi women in both Syria and Iraq have suffered greatly at the hands of ISIS — but they will be caught up in Trump-era restrictions on refugees all the same. (Reuters)

There’s a neighborhood in Los Angeles, commonly known as Tehrangeles, that is home to up to a half-million Persian Americans, most of whom fled Iran after the 1979 Islamic republic or who are their second-generation children and third-generation grandchildren, all of them American citizens. 

The neighborhood runs along Westwood Boulevard, and it is home to some of the wealthiest Angelinos. But under the executive action that US president Donald Trump signed Friday afternoon, their relatives in Iran will have a much more difficult time visiting them in Los Angeles (or elsewhere in the United States). The impact of the order, over the weekend, proved far deeper than originally imagined last week when drafts of the order circulated widely in the media.

The ban attempts to accomplish at least five different actions, all of which began to take effect immediately on Friday:

  • First, the order institutes a ban for 90 days on immigrants from seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya.
  • Secondly, the ban initially seemed to include even US permanent residents with valid green cards with citizenship from those seven countries (though the Department of Homeland Security was walking that back on Sunday, after reports that presidential adviser and former Breitbart editor Steve Bannon initially overruled DHS objections Friday). But it also includes citizens of third countries with dual citizenship (which presents its own problems and which the White House does not seem to be walking back).
  • Third, it institutes a 120-day freeze on all refugees into the United States from anywhere across the globe and an indefinite ban for all refugees from Syria.
  • Fourth, it places a cap of 50,000 on all refugees for 2017 — that’s far less than nearly 85,000 refugees who were admitted to the United States in 2016, though it’s not markedly less than the nearly 55,000 refugees admitted in 2011 (the lowest point of the Obama administration) and it’s more than the roughly 25,000 to 30,000 refugees admitted in 2002 and 2003 during the Bush administration.
  • Fifth, and finally, when the United States once again permits refugees, it purports to prioritize admitting those refugees ‘when the person is a religious minority in his country of nationality facing religious persecution.’ It’s widely assumed that this is a back-door approach to prioritizing Christian refugees. More on that below.

In practice, it’s already incredibly difficult to get a visa of any variety if you are coming from one of those countries, with a few exceptions. But formalizing the list is both overbroad (it captures mostly innocent travelers and refugees) and underbroad (it doesn’t include potential terrorists from other countries), and experts believe it will hurt US citizens, US businesses and bona fide refugees who otherwise might have expected asylum in the United States. On Sunday, many Republican leaders, including Arizona senator John McCain admitted as such:

Ultimately, we fear this executive order will become a self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism. At this very moment, American troops are fighting side-by-side with our Iraqi partners to defeat ISIL. But this executive order bans Iraqi pilots from coming to military bases in Arizona to fight our common enemies. Our most important allies in the fight against ISIL are the vast majority of Muslims who reject its apocalyptic ideology of hatred. This executive order sends a signal, intended or not, that America does not want Muslims coming into our country. That is why we fear this executive order may do more to help terrorist recruitment than improve our security.

On the campaign trail, Trump initially called for a ban on all Muslims from entering the country; when experts responded that such a broad-based religious test would be unconstitutional, Trump said he would instead extend the ban on the basis of nationality.

Friday’s executive action looks like the first step of institutionalizing the de facto Muslim ban that Trump originally promised (thought it would on its face be blatantly unconstitutional).

Of course, as many commentators have noted, the list doesn’t contain the countries that match the nationalities of the September 2001 hijackers — mostly Saudi Arabia. But it doesn’t contain Lebanon, though Hezbollah fighters have aligned with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in that country’s civil war. It doesn’t include Egypt, which is the most populous Muslim country in north Africa and home to one of the Sept. 2001 terrorists. Nor does it include Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Nor Pakistan nor Afghanistan, where US troops fought to eradicate forms of hardline Taliban government and where US troops ultimately tracked and killed Osama bin Laden.

This isn’t a call to add more countries to the list, of course, which would be even more self-defeating as US policy. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Bannon and Trump, anticipating this criticism, will use it to justify a second round of countries.

In the meanwhile, the diplomatic fallout is only just beginning (and certainly will intensify — Monday is the first full business day after we’ve read the actual text of Friday’s executive order). Already, Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel, citing the obligations of international law under the Geneva Conventions, disavowed the ban. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau used it as an opportunity to showcase his country’s openness to immigration and welcomed the refugees to Canada. Even Theresa May, the British prime minister who shared a stage with Trump in Washington on Friday afternoon, distanced herself from the ban, and British foreign minister Boris Johnson called it ‘divisive.’

But the most direct impact will be felt in relations with the seven countries directly affected by the ban, and there are already indications that the United States will suffer a strategic, diplomatic and possible economic price for Trump’s hasty unilateral executive order.  Continue reading A country-by-country look at Trump’s immigration executive order

Mexico starts to fight back in earnest against Trump’s US border wall and protectionism threat

Former president Vicente Fox takes a bat to a Trump-shaped piñata in September.

Vicente Fox wants you to know that Mexico is not paying for ‘that fucking wall.’

Though US president Donald Trump officially took office just six days ago, his willingness to push his key campaign proposal of building a border wall along the southern border of the United States has already touched off a diplomatic crisis with Mexican officials. After Trump enacted an executive order (of somewhat dubious legality) instructing the federal government to start construction on the wall, Mexico’s president Enrique Peña Nieto cancelled a planned trip to meet Trump in Washington today.

Though Peña Nieto welcomed Trump on a surprise campaign visit to Mexico City last summer, backing down from confronting someone who was then just the Republican Party presidential nominee, Wednesday’s executive order and the White House’s insistence that Mexico will pay for the wall led Peña Nieto to push back in a video message late Wednesday night. Trump responded with his own Twitter rant on Thursday, essentially daring Peña Nieto to cancel the meeting, during which the two presidents planned to discuss cooperation on security and renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

No one, however, has been more outspoken against Trump than Fox, who served as president between 2000 and 2006 and who has railed against Trump’s proposed border wall, routinely in profane terms. In September, Fox gleefully took a bat to a Trump-shaped piñata and, upon completion, noted that Trump was just was empty-brained as the empty piñata.

Fox is a former president who knows a little something about political revolutions.

In 2000, he became the first president in seven decades from outside the long-governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party). His election, to this day, represents a watershed moment in Mexico’s multiparty democracy. Fox (and his successor) are members of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN, National Action Party) that held the Mexican presidency for 12 years — until the telegenic Peña Nieto’s election in 2012, when the PRI returned to Los Pinos. Fox, like George W. Bush in the 1990s, was a governor, and before the Sept. 2001 terrorist attacks refocused the Bush administration’s efforts, the two presidents had hoped to work together on immigration reform and deeper harmonization between the two countries, a priority that fell to the back burner with two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Continue reading Mexico starts to fight back in earnest against Trump’s US border wall and protectionism threat

Pulling out of TPP: the first major foreign policy error of the Trump administration

The Trump administration today pulled out of the 12-nation TPP talks. (123rf / art1980)

Keeping a promise from his 2016 campaign, US president Donald Trump formally pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership today, a 12-nation trade and investment agreement in the works for nearly a decade.

Though the move will win plaudits from both the populist right and the anti-trade left (including Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, the former Democratic presidential candidate) Trump’s move is the first major unforced foreign policy error of the Trump administration. TPP opposition brings together an ascendant protectionist coalition that includes many of Trump’s populist supporters, but also many rust-belt and leftist Democrats and many organized labor officials.

In junking the US role in the TPP, a death knell for the trade accord, Trump has now cleared the way for the People’s Republic of China to set the baseline for trade rules across the Asia-Pacific region, negating hopes from the previous Obama administration to ‘pivot’ the country’s strategic and economic orientation toward the fast-growing region and backtracking on a decades-long bipartisan consensus that the United States takes an open and, indeed, leading approach to the ideal of free trade.

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RELATED: One reason for Americans to support TPP?
Absolving US sins in Vietnam

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Though the general terms of global trade will continue to be governed by the World Trade Organization, regional trade deals allow for countries to deepen trade ties in ways that go beyond the standard WTO rules and to develop strategic alliances.

Trump railed against the TPP from the earliest months of his presidential campaign, arguing that it gave China an unfair advantage:

The TPP is horrible deal. It’s a deal that was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.

But China was never a signatory to the TPP and, indeed, was never party to the 12-country talks that also included stalwart US allies like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan. The US national interest in negotiating and signing an agreement like the TPP would have been to create a trade paradigm in the region that seeks to help US interests in contrast to Chinese interests and, of course, to draw both traditional allies and new allies closer to the United States economically and strategically.

If anything, the TPP provided a framework to protect the United States from Chinese competition. To the extent that American manufacturing jobs have suffered as a result of international trade, and from trade with China, in particular, it has come from the decision in 2000 by a Republican Congress and Democratic president Bill Clinton to grant permanent normal trade relations to China (which had previously been subject to an annual congressional vote) and in 2001 to admit China to the WTO, lessening the ability of the United States to deploy protective tariffs against China.

Continue reading Pulling out of TPP: the first major foreign policy error of the Trump administration

Tillerson’s not a bad choice for State; he’s just a bad choice for Trump’s administration.

ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson is rumored to be Donald Trump’s pick to serve as Secretary of State.

In a ‘normal’ presidential administration, nominating the CEO of one of the world’s leading oil companies as the chief diplomatic officer of the United States would be a maverick, refreshing and, perhaps, inspiring choice.

After all, it takes some diplomatic skill to navigate the tangled shoals of doing business in some of the world’s leading oil producers, and foreign policy mandarins in Washington certainly have no monopoly on international affairs. As CEO of ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson has embraced the need for alternative energy sources, he has demonstrated that he understands the global challenges of climate change, and he has been a canny and creative executive. He’s obviously a very intelligent guy.

In Donald Trump’s administration, however, Tillerson would be a disastrous choice — for at least two reasons.

The first is the hulking brown bear in the room. Continue reading Tillerson’s not a bad choice for State; he’s just a bad choice for Trump’s administration.

Why Branstad is such a smart choice as ambassador to China

Iowa governor Terry Branstad has a longstanding relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping. (Getty Images)

There are a lot of reasons to doubt US president-elect Donald Trump’s incoming national security and foreign affairs team.

But his choice of Iowa governor Terry Branstad as the next US ambassador to China isn’t among them.

Branstad, it’s true, doesn’t speak Mandarin like former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, rumored to be under consideration for Trump’s State department. Nor is he an American of Chinese descent like former Washington governor Gary Locke. Both Huntsman and Locke served as ambassadors to China in the Obama administration.

Branstad has been elected to six terms as Iowa’s governor (for the first time in 1982 and most recently in 2014), and he has increasingly seen the effects of closer trade with China from the vantage point of a state that, after California, produces more agricultural output than anywhere else in the United States.

More importantly, however, Branstad has something of a personal relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平). Branstad was serving as governor when Xi made a two-week trip as part of a Chinese delegation to rural Muscatine in Iowa. Since that time, Branstad has visited China many times, most recently at a trade delegation in 2011, and Branstad hosted a dinner for Xi in 2012 when China’s paramount leader returned to Iowa.  Continue reading Why Branstad is such a smart choice as ambassador to China