Tag Archives: trump

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

Seven consequences of Moon Jae-in’s landslide South Korean victory

Moon Jae-in easily won the South Korean presidency in a snap election on Tuesday. (Facebook)

Moon Jae-in (문재인) was easily elected president in South Korea yesterday, following one of the most tumultuous periods in Korean democracy.

Following the December impeachment and the March removal from (by a unanimous 8-0 verdict of the constitutional court) of conservative president Park Guen-hye (박근혜), who now faces criminal charges for accepting bribes, South Korea’s previously scheduled presidential election moved up from December to May 9.

As polls predicted, Moon, the candidate of South Korea’s center-left Democratic Party (더불어민주당) easily won the presidency in a landslide against his nearest rival, Hong Jun-pyo (홍준표), governor of South Gyeongsang province, the candidate of the conservative Liberty Korea Party (자유한국당).

The election marks the end of nearly a decade of conservative rule in the Blue House, South Korea’s presidential office, and Moon has promised to bring a sweep of transparency and reform to domestic policy and a more conciliatory approach to North Korea in foreign policy.

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RELATED: Snap South Korean presidential election
points to tough Moon-Ahn race

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Moon, a longtime human rights activist and attorney, served from 2003 to 2008 as the chief of staff, one of the leading presidential aides, to former president Roh Moo-hyun. Moon was making his second presidential run after losing the 2012 race to Park.

So what’s next? Here are the seven leading policy and political consequences from Moon’s landslide victory. Continue reading Seven consequences of Moon Jae-in’s landslide South Korean victory

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.

Le Pen-Macron debate echoes Trump-Clinton slugfests

Far-right presidential contender Marine Le Pen and centrist Emmanuel Macron clashed in their only debate between the April first-round presidential vote and Sunday’s runoff. (Eric Feferberg / AFP)

For those of us Americans who spent 270 minutes of our autumn in 2016 glued to the television debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the experience of watching Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron spar for 150 minutes, in their only exclusive debate ahead of Sunday’s presidential runoff, felt something like a cross between déjà vu and post-traumatic stress disorder. 

There was Le Pen, with half-baked policy schemes as scattered as the disheveled piles of papers and files in front of her, but plenty of resentment and the attitude you’d expect from the self-proclaimed champion of France’s working class, the losers from globalization, growing immigration and Europeanization.

There was Macron, composed to the point of arrogance, already looking beyond May 7 and toward the June parliamentary elections (where his En marche movement is hoping to go from zero seats in the 577-seat French national assembly to a majority) and beyond to at least one five-year term as the youngest president in France’s history.

At times, as one friend noted, it felt eerily like the New York University experiment that swapped Clinton’s and Trump’s genders (much to the confusion of the experiment’s audience). Continue reading Le Pen-Macron debate echoes Trump-Clinton slugfests

As O’Leary exits race, Canadian Tories focus on a more conventional leadership race

Kevin O’Leary (right) dropped out of the Conservative leadership race last week, but his endorsement of former minister Maxime Bernier (left) doesn’t guarantee Bernier’s victory. (Facebook)

It turns out that Kevin O’Leary wasn’t quite Mr. Wonderful for Canada’s Conservative Party.

Last week, on the brink of the final debate among the candidates to lead the party, the television star and businessman dropped out of the race. Arguing, oddly, that he didn’t think he could win enough votes in the French-speaking province of Quebec, O’Leary immediately endorsed Maxime Bernier.

O’Leary, the closest thing to a frontrunner in the Tory leadership race, has boosted Bernier to quasi-frontrunner status as Conservative party members begin casting ballots that will be counted by the end of May.

That doesn’t mean, however, Bernier has a lock on the leadership. Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer, the former speaker of the House of Commons, has emerged as his leading alternative, though a handful of Ontario-based candidates lingering in third place could ultimately determine the outcome — or emerge as compromise candidates themselves. Continue reading As O’Leary exits race, Canadian Tories focus on a more conventional leadership race

Le Pen’s moment is now, not in 2022 — but she’s already blown it

Marine Le Pen campaigns on the south coast of France. (Facebook)

Every piece of election-related data we have suggests Emmanuel Macron will win this weekend’s presidential runoff in France and, by the standards of most political contests, it will be a landslide — perhaps a victory of more than 20%.

But it comes with a sense of disquiet, even among Macron’s supporters.

Part of it is lingering anxiety from last June’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential election last November. That’s understandable. But the polls are far more slanted in Macron’s favor than they ever were for ‘Remain’ or for Hillary Clinton.

Polls haven’t been enough to stop niggling doubts that Marine Le Pen might somehow win just enough center-right voters, while just enough leftist voters are too disillusioned to vote for the aggressively centrist Macron, to score an upset victory. But pluralities of the supporters of third-placed conservative former prime minister François Fillon and fourth-placed hard-left firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon alike say they will support Macron in the July 7 runoff.

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RELATED: Why France’s election result is still more of the same

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Macron’s campaign for the last week, too, has been somewhat tone-deaf. Of course, a candidate who comes from the political and financial elite might have rethought holding an election-night party at a posh Paris bistro. Le Pen crashed his campaign stop last week at a Whirlpool factory, forcing a sheepish Macron to spend an hour talking to working-class voters. Macron, ultimately, spent far more time trying to engage the workers than Le Pen, who posed for some selfies. But the stunt worked — and made Macron look defensive.

There, too, is a sense that Le Pen’s endorsement from right-wing presidential contender Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and a handful of stragglers on the French right (along with Mélenchon’s refusal to endorse Macron) lacks the urgency of the broad ‘republican front’ that met the shock 2002 French runoff between Jacques Chirac and Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

So what gives?

2022.  Continue reading Le Pen’s moment is now, not in 2022 — but she’s already blown it

Snap South Korean presidential election points to tough Moon-Ahn race

South Korea’s snap presidential election in May now favors the progressive candidate, Moon Jae-in, but he is facing surprisingly strong opposition. (Facebook)

When Moon Jae-in (문재인) won his party’s nomination last Monday, news outlets across the globe immediately proclaimed that the progressive’s nomination all but assured Moon’s victory in the snap presidential election set to take place on May 9. 

Nevertheless, the next 27 days promise to be some of the most tumultuous in the history of South Korean democracy, with former president Park Geun-hye (박근혜) under arrest on bribery and other corruption charges and with US president Donald Trump’s administration taking an increasingly bellicose line over North Korea’s nuclear provocations. Park’s removal from office brought forward the presidential election previously scheduled for December.

Last week’s primaries among all of South Korea’s major parties have effectively settled the presidential field. Almost immediately, though, Moon’s opponents started lining up behind another progressive alternative — former software engineer and entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo (안철수), who kicked off his general election campaign by taking a ride on Seoul’s subways. The hint wasn’t subtle: Ahn is an outsider who understands the problems of everyday Koreans.

It set off an election dynamic that polls say, all of a sudden, is now too close to call.

Once Moon’s ally, former software businessman Ahn Cheol-soo is gaining support from many different corners of South Korean society, united solely by their mutual distrust for Moon. (Facebook)

The sudden Moon-Ahn horse race elevates a long-simmering rivalry that’s defined the South Korean opposition for the better part of the 2010s. Moon and Ahn both hold relatively left-wing views by the standards of South Korean politics. But Ahn is increasingly viewed as more pro-American, given Moon’s skepticism about the US-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system that North Korea and China view as an American provocation. While both Moon and Ahn previously opposed THAAD, which could deploy within weeks, the two candidates are now voicing at least qualified support for its deployment if North Korea’s aggression continues. But Moon has warned that THAAD’s deployment should be halted if North Korea resumes negotiations and freezes its nuclear weapons program.

More broadly, South Korean business elites like that Ahn comes from an entrepreneurial background. Idealistic voters, meanwhile, consider Ahn an untainted maverick who can break the cycle of corruption that’s dogged several administrations from both the left and the right and the ‘chaebol’ conglomerates than dominate the South Korean economy. (Notably, Samsung CEO Jay Y. Lee (이재용) was arrested in February as a result of the wide-ranging corruption scandal that engulfed Park’s presidency, accused of paying up to $40 million in bribes to Park in exchange for favorable treatment for Samsung).

At a stunningly rapid clip, Ahn has defined himself as the outsider to Moon’s insider. In addition, with the Korean right in shambles after Park’s implosion, many conservative voters — for now at least — seem to prefer a strategic vote for Ahn instead of a more right-wing candidate. Continue reading Snap South Korean presidential election points to tough Moon-Ahn race

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.

Saarland’s predictive value for German federal elections is virtually nil

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a conservative Christian Democrat, won a second term as minister-president in Saarland on March 26. (Facebook)

No sooner than Martin Schulz seemed to have captured political lightning in a bottle, his party fizzled in the first state-level test in the leadup to Germany’s autumn federal election.

In the southern state of Saarland last weekend, chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) not only won the election, but improved its support since the last election in 2012, giving the state’s conservative minister-president, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who has served in that role since 2011, a second term.

Headlines blared that the narrow defeat somehow marked a defining moment for Schulz, the newly crowned leader of the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party), which has pulled into a virtual tie with the CDU in opinion polls for the national vote in September.

Don’t believe the hype.

It’s one of the smallest of Germany’s sixteen states, both in area and in population (996,000). Nevertheless, Saarland’s size isn’t the only reason its election results will have little impact on a federal election still six months away and even less predictive value. It’s true that the state election, the first of three such state-level votes this spring, showed that the CDU’s political power isn’t evaporating overnight. But Merkel and Kramp-Karrenbauer, whose Christian Democrats led every opinion poll in the weeks and months preceding the vote, should have expected to win Saarland’s election.

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RELATED: As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives
Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

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Though the renegade Social Democrat Oskar Lafontaine — one of the founders of what is today the democratic socialist Die Linke  ran the state government from 1985 until 1998, when he briefly became Germany’s finance minister, Saarland before 1985 — and since 1999 — has always been friendly territory for the Christian Democrats.

Far more consequential will be the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous state in Germany (with around 17.8 million people) and one of its most wealthy, on May 14 — and in Schleswig-Holstein a week earlier.

In NRW, Hannelore Kraft, a pro-growth Social Democrat who has often been mentioned as a future chancellor, is hoping to win reelection to a third term (she assumed the office of minister-president in 2010). Though the state is historically competitive, Kraft is a popular official, and the SPD has recently taken a meaningful lead since Schulz — who grew up in Eschweiler, a city on the state’s western edge near both The Netherlands and Belgium — became the party’s chancellor candidate. If the Social Democrats fail to hold NRW, it will be a far more depressing harbinger, for many reasons (a fifth of the German electorate, a longtime bellwether, popular SPD incumbent, Schulz’s home state), than the Saarland result.

Continue reading Saarland’s predictive value for German federal elections is virtually nil

Bulgaria’s Borissov (and EU) gets reprieve from dissatisfied voters

Leading EU officials will be relieved that Boyko Borissov is likely to begin a third stint as prime minister, but Bulgaria faces lingering concerns about its economy and corruption. (Facebook)

It’s been nearly two-and-a-half years since the last election, but Bulgarian prime minister Boyko Borissov’s center-right party won just about the same percentage of the vote that it did in 2014 — around 32.7%. 

That performance was good enough for an 11-seat increase in the National Assembly (Народно събрание), making Borissov more likely than not to retain the premiership. It’s a remarkable turnaround after Borissov, dogged by allegations of corruption within his government and after his party suffered a humiliating defeat in last November’s presidential election, resigned earlier this year and triggered snap elections.

If he can form a governing coalition, it would be Borissov’s third non-consecutive stint as prime minister, his first coming in the aftermath of the global financial crisis in 2009. At a time when Russian president Vladimir Putin is working to undermine European democracy, top European leaders and EU officials alike view Borissov as a soothing center-right ally firmly devoted to European integration. EU leaders will certainly far prefer a Borissov government with Bulgaria set (for the first time) to assume the six-month rotating EU presidency in early 2018.

As both an EU and NATO member, Bulgaria is a key ally on the eastern periphery of the European continent. It’s a northern neighbor of the economically depressed Greece and the increasingly autocratic Turkey and just across the Black Sea lies a divided Ukraine and Russian-annexed Crimea. These days, it’s an increasingly tough neighborhood. Despite European anxieties about reliance on Russian natural gas, Borissov last year was already considering the resurrection of the on-again, off-again South Stream gas pipeline from Russia (talks began in 2006, but ended after Borissov won the 2014 election), even as the country’s new president called for better relations with Russia. While the number of ethnic Russians in Bulgaria is negligible (far less than ethnic Turks, which comprise nearly 9% of the population), a large majority of Bulgarians belong to the Orthodox church, sharing important cultural touchstones with Russia.

Earlier this year, voters seemed likely to punish his party, the center-right Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB, Граждани за европейско развитие на България) for years of economic malaise and widespread corruption. GERB’s presidential candidate last November, Tsetska Tsacheva, the former chair of the National Assembly, lost a second-round runoff by a 23% margin to Rumen Radev, an independent and former Bulgarian Air Force commander endorsed by Bulgaria’s center-left.

At the time, coming days after Donald Trump’s successful, if once implausible US presidential campaign, Radev’s victory was yet another incremental geopolitical victory for Russian president Vladimir Putin, given Radev’s call for closer ties with Russia. Indeed, Tsacheva’s defeat was the proximate cause for Borissov’s resignation.

Instead, after the March 26 elections, GERB won 95 seats, the largest bloc in the National Assembly. Continue reading Bulgaria’s Borissov (and EU) gets reprieve from dissatisfied voters

Eight lessons from the 2017 Dutch election results

Twenty-eight parties were vying for 150 seats in the Dutch House of Representatives. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP)

Orange may be the new black.

But as it turns out, orange is also the new bulwark for liberal democracy.

Mark Rutte’s governing center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) performed better than polls predicted in The Netherlands, and Rutte will now return as Dutch prime minister — perhaps through the end of the decade — as head of a multi-party governing coalition.

Conversely, Wednesday’s election amounted to a disappointing result for Geert Wilders and the sharply anti-Europe, anti-Islam and anti-immigration Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom), which blew a longtime polling lead that it had held from the middle of 2015 up to just a couple of weeks ago.

As Dutch voters took a harder look at the campaign, however, they turned away from Wilders’s populism and to the balmier vision of Rutte’s VVD. But they also turned to three other parties that ranged from conservative to liberal to progressive. Indeed, over 65% of the Dutch electorate supported parties that are, essentially, in favor of moderate policymaking, European integration and basic decency to immigrants.

Given that the Dutch election is the first of a half-dozen key European national elections in 2017, all of which are taking place in the dual shadows of last year’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, everyone was watching this vote in particular as a harbinger for European elections this year.

So what does today’s result mean? Here are the top eight takeaways from election night.
Continue reading Eight lessons from the 2017 Dutch election results

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

Overshadowed by scandal, Trump calls for López’s release in Venezuela

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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. Venezuela Flag Icon

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