Before Thursday’s jaw-dropping 77-minute free-form press conference, US president Donald Trump made a rare foray into Latin American politics on Wednesday night, publicly calling for the release of Leopoldo López, a Venezuelan opposition leader imprisoned by the chavista government since 2014.
It was a surprising move by Trump, who was having dinner Wednesday night with López’s wife, Lilian Tintori, and Florida senator Marco Rubio. Trump joins many figures from across the political spectrum over the last three years, including former US president Barack Obama and Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, who renewed calls to release López on Thursday.
López, on the third anniversary of his arrest, is now at the heart of the Venezuelan opposition struggle in its daunting task of removing an increasingly undemocratic chavista regime through democratic means. Despite Trump’s call on Twitter to free López, a Venezuelan appeals court upheld the opposition leader’s sentence Thursday morning, and foreign minister Delcy Rodríguez chided Trump in response.
In February 2014, when protestors were already taking to the streets against Maduro’s government (and when the economic situation, though dire, was far better than today), López was leading the way calling for peaceful protests in hopes of toppling the government through show of popular disapproval. Those protests, however, turned deadly when police deployed lethal force against the protesters and 43 people died. López was promptly arrested and, months later in September 2015, found guilty of public incitement of violence. His imprisonment is widely considered to be politically motivated by international groups and figures ranging from the United Nations to the Dalai Lama, and his arrest was one of the reasons why the South American trading bloc, MERCOSUR, suspended Venezuela’s membership in December 2016, citing problems with human rights and the rule of law. Continue reading Overshadowed by scandal, Trump calls for López’s release in Venezuela→
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.
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).
In 2008, US president Barack Obama won the largest Democratic mandate in a generation, in part, by pledging to change the tone in Washington.
But in 2016, after eight years of increasingly bitter and partisan posturing, it’s Obama’s one-time rival, Hillary Clinton, who now has the opportunity to transcend the hyper-partisanship that began with the divided government under her husband’s administration in the 1990s.
Donald Trump’s hostile takeover of the Republican Party laid bare the long-growing schism among various Republican constituencies. Currently, the two living former Republican presidents (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), the party’s most recent presidential nominee (former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney), its one-time 2016 frontrunners (former Florida governor Jeb Bush, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, Texas senator Ted Cruz and Florida senator Marco Rubio) and the Republican in the highest-ranking elected official — speaker of the House (Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan) — have all refused to endorse Trump.
Despite the promise that the coming general election will be nasty, even by the recent standards of American politics, Clinton, if she’s nimble enough, can become a unifying and moderate figure who can work with both Republicans and Democrats. If Trump loses as badly as polls suggest he might, the Republican Party will be a shambles on November 8. The fight for Senate control was always a toss-up, and a Trump debacle could endanger even Republican control of the House of Representatives.
Increasingly, the debate in world politics is tilting away from traditional left-right discourses, replaced by a much darker fight, for the first time since the 1930s, between populist nationalism and globalist internationalism — and not just in the United States, but everywhere from the Philippines to the United Kingdom. In that fight, Ryan (and Bush and moderate Republicans) have much more in common with Clinton and the officials who will lead a Clinton administration than with Trump.
Make no mistake, if Clinton wins the presidency in November, she’s not going to form a German-style ‘grand coalition’ with Ryan and leading Republicans. Postwar German politics operates largely on consensus to a degree unknown in American (or even much of European) politics. Still, German chancellor Angela Merkel has already paved the way for how a successful Clinton presidency might unfold, and Clinton advisers would be smart to figure out, as the campaign unfolds, how to position Clinton as a kind of American ‘Mutti.’ Clinton is already reaching out to moderate Republican donors, but the challenge goes much deeper — to become a kind of acceptable figure to both blue-state and red-state America.
It’s not clear that Clinton has the same political skill to pull off in the United States what Merkel has done in Germany.
Neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump will come out of the ‘Super Tuesday’ primaries tonight with the delegates they need to wrap up either the respective Democratic or Republican presidential nominations.
Trump, in particular, will face sustained pressure from Texas senator Ted Cruz, who won Texas and Oklahoma, from Florida senator Marco Rubio, who won Minnesota’s caucuses and only narrowly lost Virginia and even from Ohio governor John Kasich, who may have won Vermont.
But the most likely outcome certainly seems like a Trump-Clinton general election. (And yes, that means I was wrong about my forecast of how the Republican contest would unfold).
There are, of course, reasons to believe that Trump would force a much tougher race against Clinton than Cruz or Rubio, because of his showmanship, his ability to transcend the left-right polarization and his ability to run against the ‘establishment’ choice of Clinton just as easily as he dispatched Jeb Bush.
But there’s also a chance that Clinton will demolish him.
It’s not often that I write about American politics because there are already so many pundits doing it, and the comparative advantage of a website like Suffragio lies in deeper analysis of global electoral politics and foreign policy informed by that analysis.
But we’re now just over three weeks away from the most competitive Republican presidential nomination contest in memory, and we’re six months into the era of Trumpismo. For what it’s worth, no one knows exactly how the spring nominating process will end because there are so many variables — and you shouldn’t trust anyone who says otherwise.
Still, we’re not on Mars and, while there are certainly new factors in 2016 that matter more than ever, there is deep precedential value from prior contests.
Step back from the horse race, step back from the scorecards of last night’s debate, step back from the peculiarities of Iowa and New Hampshire. Envision what the Republican general election campaign in November 2016 will have to offer to an electorate where young voters, women (possibly in historical numbers) and racial and ethnic minorities will still favor the Democratic ticket, barring a catastrophic turn in voting patterns or economic conditions.
Who, given the current 15-candidate field, will Republicans want running that campaign?
1 From the beginning, I’ve always thought Marco Rubio was the likeliest candidate to win the GOP nomination #GOPDebate
Given the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in sub-Saharan Africa at a time of breakneck economic growth for the region, what would your administration’s three most important priorities for US policy in Africa be?
Last week, two of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination delivered Major and Very Serious Foreign Policy Addresses designed to establish their credibility on international affairs.
Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who delivered an address last Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, and Florida senator Marco Rubio delivered an address to the Foreign Policy Initiative in New York. Bush and Rubio alike delivered plenty of bromides about projecting U.S. strength and toughness against the enemies of the United States, with plenty of withering attacks on the foreign policy of the Obama administration, including the likely Democratic presidential nominee, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. But critics on both the right and the left panned the speeches as the same old neoconservative sauce poured back into a barely disguised new bottle.
Once again, Rubio fails to understand the limits of applying pressure to another state…. Rubio boasts about wanting to usher in a “new American century,” and these are the bankrupt, discredited policies he wants to use create it.
Jeb Bush didn’t mention his brother, George W. Bush, Tuesday night in his foreign policy speech. But he might as well have…. Jeb’s speech is a reboot of his brother’s neoconservative view of the world, albeit in a somewhat stripped-down form. He thinks American military power “won” the war in Iraq. The lesson we should learn, Bush suggests, is that a bigger US military commitment to the Middle East is the best way to solve its biggest problems.
Ultimately, these haughty foreign policy speeches have little to do with establishing a foreign policy vision. They’ve become part of the traditional bunting of a modern presidential campaign — like flag pins and campaign rallies and the increasingly customary mid-summer overseas trip in general election years (à laBarack Obama in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012) that, at best, amounts to a weeklong photo-op and pedantically positive news coverage. In a primary election, grand foreign policy addresses are one part presidential playacting and one part rallying the base.
For all the posturing, these speeches will all be long outdated by the time either Bush or Rubio hopes to take office in January 2017. Despite bluster on Cuba and Iran, it will be nearly impossible for any presidential administration, Democratic or Republican, to roll back US-Cuban normalization or to shred an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear energy program agreed among European, Chinese and Russian leaders, notwithstanding Rubio’s promise last week to do precisely that.
That’s assuming Cuba and Iran will even be foreign policy priorities in a year and a half.
In the space of 48 hours, two political scions will announce their candidacy for president of the United States.
Hillary Clinton, the wife of former president Bill Clinton, and a New York senator and U.S. secretary of state in her own right, formally launched her presidential campaign in a picture-perfect event on Roosevelt Island in New York City on Saturday.
Jeb Bush, the son of former president George H.W. Bush and the brother of former president George W. Bush, announced that he is formally a candidate for president in Miami later today.
Fully 15 out of 19 hijackers in the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were Saudi nationals, products of a country governed by a royal family in a centuries-long symbiotic relationship with fundamentalist Wahhabism. When US special forces finally found and killed Osama bin Laden (also a Saudi national) in 2011, he was being protected by Pakistani forces, with plenty of sympathizers within Pakistan’s military and intelligence community.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor Pakistan, however, have ever been designated by the US State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list, which has always had more to do with the geopolitics of American foreign policy than with reality.
So on the heels of US president Barack Obama’s meeting with Cuban president Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas last weekend (pictured above), the Obama administration announced on Tuesday that it would recommend removing Cuba from the ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list. The recommendation will take effect in 45 days, following the Obama administration’s notification to the US Congress. Though Congressional action is unlikely to halt Obama’s decision, Obama will need the Republican-controlled Congress to approve any measure to lift the embargo initially imposed on Cuba in 1960 by the United States. Former president George W. Bush took a similar decision with respect to North Korea in June 2008 in consideration for the reclusive country’s decision to allow greater inspection of its nuclear sites.
Republican president Ronald Reagan initially added Cuba to the list in 1982, when it became clear that its leader Fidel Castro was supporting leftist guerrilla movements across Latin America that the Reagan administration believed imperative to stop. Nevertheless, Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua in the 1980s and Hugo Chavez’s firmly anti-American government in Venezuela in the 2000s never landed on the list. The most recent 2013 State Department review that justified Cuba’s continued ‘terror sponsor’ status reads like satire, noting that the Cuban government is harboring fugitives from the US justice system, Basque nationalists and Colombian rebels. Never mind the Spanish government concluded a ceasefire with the Basque guerrilla ETA in 2011 and even though Havana was by 2012 hosting talking between the Colombian government and the left-wing FARC.
Though a few dozen US nationals are currently in Cuba evading American law, Cuba is hardly the only country guilty of this. Edward Snowden has been in Russia nearly two years. Yemen, Somalia and dozens of other countries are likely harboring individuals who pose much greater threats to US national interests than Cuba these days. The decision leaves just Syria, Sudan and Iran on the list, all of which have ties to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah or the Palestinian group Hamas.
Cuba participated in the pan-American summit last week in Panama City only for the first time since 1994 when the first summit was held, and though Obama and Castro outlined their countries’ respective differences at length, Obama argued that the longstanding enmity between the two countries originated in another time:
“The United States will not be imprisoned by the past — we’re looking to the future,” Mr. Obama, 53, said of his approach to Cuba at the summit meeting’s first plenary session on Saturday. “I’m not interested in having battles that frankly started before I was born.”
“The Cold War,” he added, “has been over for a long time.”
Critics, from hawkish Republicans to Democrats like former Senate foreign relations committee chair Robert Menendez condemned Obama’s decision, and it’s not clear that Obama will succeed in his quest to lift the embargo in the remainder of his administration. Obama’s critics also include the Miami-born Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida and the son of Cuban immigrants. Rubio, who became the third major Republican to announce a presidential campaign on Monday, sharply denounced the Obama administration’s overtures to Cuba, putting him out of step with many American voters, including increasingly younger Cuban Americans.
Though the decision to remove Cuba is mostly symbolic, it will open Cuba to the global payments system because international banks with links to the United States have largely avoided handling Cuban funds, out of fear of repercussions from the US department of justice. That, in turn, will facilitate the formal re-opening of embassies in both Havana and Washington. Lifting the designation also means that the US government may now provide greater economic assistance.
Domestic policy considerations have long delayed the thawing of US-Cuba relations, but Cuba hasn’t been sponsor of terrorism in decades, and there’s no evidence that Cuba ever supported any kind of terrorism that truly threatened US national interests. Even in the absence of the parallel US opening to Cuba, the Obama administration’s decision to remove Cuba from the list of terrorism sponsors was long overdue.
I argue this morning in The National Interest that the recent spat between New Jersey governor Chris Christie and U.S. senator Rand Paul from Kentucky over foreign policy is a lot more complex than the ‘pro-security hawk’ versus ‘libertarian isolationist’ paradigm.
Rather, the coming fight over foreign policy in the Republican Party as we approach the 2014 midterm elections and the pre-primary phase of the 2016 election will take place on three planes:
the familiar security/liberty fight over PRISM, whistleblowers, homeland security and other civil liberties matters;
unilateralists (in the mould of former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton) versus multilateralists like former World Bank president Robert Zoelick; and
the traditional IR theory fight between realists (who are often in line with Paul and other libertarians) and liberals (including hawkish neoconservatives as well as liberal interventionists).
While they may be on opposite sides of the liberty/security spectrum, we don’t know where any of the 2016 hopefuls may ultimately land, including Christie himself, to say nothing of U.S. senators Ted Cruz of Texas or Marco Rubio of Florida or U.S. congressman Paul Ryan:
We still don’t know where Christie’s ultimate views on international-relations theory lie because that’s not exactly one of the key concerns of a U.S. state governor. But given that the battle for the future of Republican foreign policy is actually three interconnected fights, it could well be that, despite their other disagreements, he and Paul find common cause against more aggressive neoconservative voices.
The bottom line is that we likely know where the Democrats will fall on all of these fights, especially if their nominee is former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton. That makes the Republican Party an interesting laboratory these days for new ideas and original thinking in American foreign policy.