Tag Archives: United States

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

Three ways that Xi Jinping, Davos man, undermined Trump today

Xi Jinping appeared this morning at the World Economic Forum, a first for a Chinese leader, with a full-throated defense of globalization. (Gian Ehrenzeller / European Pressphoto Agency)

Three days before Donald Trump takes office as the most protectionist and nationalist American president since before World War II, and on the same day that British prime minister Theresa May outlined her vision of a ‘hard’ Brexit from both the European Union and the European single market, Chinese president Xi Jinping (习近平) made an audacious claim for China’s global leadership in the 21st century. 

Xi, who delivered a landmark speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, made that claim by embracing the values that American leaders have globally championed for decades (at least prior to Trump’s rise): a stable world order, free trade among nations and the notion that globalization, for all its faults, makes everyone better off.

Xi’s speech, the first ever by a Chinese leader at the World Economic Forum, is the most high-profile response so far from China’s president to Trump’s election. Despite Xi’s generally measured and cautious prose — he never once mentioned Trump by name — there’s no way to view Xi’s remarks other than as a warning and a rebuke to the rise of populist nationalism and protectionism in the United States and Europe over the last 18 months.

There’s a lot of justified ridicule of Davos as the gathering of self-important global ‘elites,’ but Xi’s speech today is perhaps the most important one that’s ever taken place during the forum.

Opening with a line from Charles Dickens, Xi pledged to keep opening China’s economy to the world, and he committed China to a stabilizing role in the world, including to the Paris accord on climate change, and to reforming the global financial system to smooth its bumpiest elements.

But the key point from Xi’s speech is this: ironically, jaw-droppingly, and likely not for the first time in the Trump era, the head of the world’s largest and most durable Communist Party took to the international stage to defend some of the fundamental principles of global capitalism.

Make no mistake, Xi Jinping is not coming to Davos to embrace those other values that remain a hallmark of what American global leadership projects — individual liberty, political freedom and liberal democracy with broad-based protections of civil and minority rights. Notably, no one today can claim that the People’s Republic of China under Xi enjoys the same political freedoms as Americans and Europeans do.

In 2016, China ranked 176 out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index (only Syria, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea were worse). Under Xi, Chinese censorship of the Internet has worsened, with fewer VPN networks still available to circumvent state controls. Under Xi, political dissent has been less tolerated than at any time in the recent past, even in traditionally liberal Hong Kong. Critics allege that Xi’s wide-ranging anti-corruption campaign amounts to a power grab designed to eliminate Xi’s internal enemies. Taiwan’s rejection of a services trade agreement with Beijing and the election of a nominally pro-independence president in Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) have worsened cross-straits relations. China’s east Asian allies are increasingly on alert over Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Nevertheless, Xi’s remarks were a consequential turning point for a country that is home to the world’s largest population (1.3 billion) and its second-largest economy, and a sign that China very much expects to take a stronger global leadership role in the years ahead.

In three key ways, Xi challenged Trump’s world view even before the incoming US president has taken the oath of office. Xi’s gauntlet comes just days after Trump blasted both NATO and the European Union in interviews over the weekend, alienating traditional US allies across the continent and stirring anxiety over the future of the trans-Atlantic alliance. Continue reading Three ways that Xi Jinping, Davos man, undermined Trump today

Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Chrystia Freeland transitioned only four years ago from journalism to politics, but she’s now Canada’s top diplomat. (Facebook)

If there’s a polite Canadian way to let Donald Trump just what Canada’s government thinks of the incoming US president with just over a week before his inauguration, it must certainly be this:

Promoting to the rank of foreign minister — Canada’s chief diplomat and the key official tasked with US relations — a former journalist who has championed free trade, who last year finalized a landmark free trade agreement between Canada and the European Union and whose writings on Ukraine and Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea so offended Russian officials that they placed her on a sanctions list and banned her from setting foot on Russian soil.

Meet Chrystia Freeland.

Like prime minister Justin Trudeau, Freeland is technically very new to elective politics, entering the House of Commons after winning a by-election in Toronto only in 2013. But also like Trudeau, she’s spent her entire adult life steeped in Canadian and global politics.

As recently as last week, Freeland held up Canada as country open to both immigration and trade and a bulwark against rising populism and protectionism in the United States and Europe. As Trump prepares to take power to the south, and as a Conservative MP, Kellie Leitch, tries to win her own party’s leadership with an anti-immigrant and anti-elite message, voters haven’t lost faith in Trudeau’s approach. His post-election honeymoon is continuing into its 15th month, as the Liberal Party continues to enjoy a wide double-digit polling lead.
Continue reading Anti-Russia, pro-trade former journalist Freeland is Canada’s new foreign minister

Why Cameron should have waited until 2017 to hold the Brexit referendum

(pixelbliss / 123rf)

There’s no doubt that world politics in 2016 turned nationalist, anti-globalization and increasingly illiberal, and that’s clear from three touchstone elections — Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s election in May, the decision by British voters to leave the European Union in June and US president-elect Donald Trump’s victory in November. 

But what if the Brexit referendum didn’t even happen in 2016?

Timing is everything in politics and, when former UK prime minister David Cameron originally announced that he would concede a referendum on EU membership, the law that he and his Conservative-led government later enacted in the House of Commons specified that the referendum would be held no later than December 31, 2017. From 2013 throughout much of the 2015 general election campaign across Great Britain, many commentators and politicians assumed that Cameron would hold the referendum in 2017 — and not in 2016.

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RELATED: Leave campaign’s immigration emphasis
could trump Brexit economics

RELATED: In defense of David Cameron

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Only after Cameron’s surprisingly strong 2015 victory did his team seriously consider moving the referendum forward to June 2016, barely a year after the Conservative Party’s sweep to reelection.

At the time, the aggressive approach made a certain amount of sense. Cameron was at the height of his political popularity after the 2015 vote, and so the sooner Cameron could move beyond the European question, the better — and the better to end the uncertainty of a Brexit that began with the 2013 decision to hold a vote. A quicker (and shorter) campaign would give the ‘Leave’ camp less time to raise money and win voters that, though divided, seemed to edge toward the ‘Remain’ camp. Another recession, perhaps sparked by a new American administration or more troubles with European banks or debt, in particular, could dampen voter moods about EU matters.  Continue reading Why Cameron should have waited until 2017 to hold the Brexit referendum

Karlov assassination in Ankara stuns world amid global leadership vacuum

An AP photo shows the gunman who shot and killed Russia’s ambassador to Turkey on Monday. (AP)

Yesterday was the anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s birth date in 1883. 

It was his assassination by a Serbian nationalist in 1914 that set off a chain reaction leading to World War I.

The world is, rightly, alarmed today with the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, who had served in one of his country’s most delicate diplomatic roles since 2013 and whose experience included long stints in North Korea, including as ambassador from 2001 to 2006.

The gunman reportedly shouted ‘Allahu akbar,’ and ‘Do not forget Aleppo! Do not forget Syria!’ as he shot Karlov from behind at a gallery exhibit of Turkish photography.

The assassination comes at a crucial time for relations between Russia and Turkey. Karlov’s killing could immediately chill the fragile diplomatic gains of the last half-year, however, especially at a time when no one really knows what kind of global leadership that president-elect Donald Trump will provide after his inauguration in just over a month in the United States. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly praised Putin as a strong leader and promised to escalate US efforts to push back against ISIS in eastern Syria.

But no one should start preparing for World War III just yet.

Much now depends on how Putin responds — and how nationalist hard-liners within Russia also respond — considering that the gunman seems to have acted with the precise aim of destabilizing the Russia-Turkey relationship. Though Russian nationalists are wary of Turkey, they’re far more hostile to the threat of Islamic extremism. Moreover, the two countries have found common ground when it comes to the threat of Islamic extremism. Karlov’s assassination might ultimately Turkey and Russia together more closely Turkey in efforts to eradicate ISIS and other jihadist elements in the Middle East. The incoming Trump administration would almost certainly welcome and join that common front.

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RELATED: Why Erdoğan is not — and will never be — Putin

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If you’re looking for a silver lining, it’s worth noting that the two countries have been moving closer together after last summer’s coup attempt against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Relations hit their worst point in December 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian jet along the Syrian border. Today, a year later, relations are much improved, if still strained. That means that the diplomatic channels between the two countries are far more open to deal with a trauma like Karlov’s assassination.  Continue reading Karlov assassination in Ankara stuns world amid global leadership vacuum

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.

Castro’s legacy? Libertador or monster? Depends on where you sit.

Fidel
Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in 1959, when Cubans were briefly united in support behind the young new revolutionaries.

History will remember him in the same breath as Mandela or Gandhi for 1959.cuba

History will remember him in the same breath as all the other 20th century monsters for every year that followed.

That’s the tragedy and the shame of the Castro legacy. Continue reading Castro’s legacy? Libertador or monster? Depends on where you sit.

Peña Nieto needs a Trump-sized confrontation to help his ailing presidency

Nearly two-thirds into his presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto is far more unpopular than either of his two predecessors. (Facebook)
Nearly two-thirds into his presidency, Enrique Peña Nieto is far more unpopular than either of his two predecessors. (Facebook)

Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, was elected in July 2012 to great fanfare, so it was almost certain that his administration would fall well short of expectations.Mexico Flag Icon

In the leadup to that 2012 presidential election, Peña Nieto spent so many years as such a heavy frontrunner he was practically Mexico’s president-in-waiting. When he ultimately won the presidency by a margin of around 6.5%, it was less than polls predicted, but still the largest margin of victory in a presidential election since 1994. With movie star looks and a bona-fide star for a wife in Angélica Rivera, a model and telenovela actress, his victory was a triumph not only for himself, but for his party, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI, Institutional Revolutionary Party), which lost the presidency in 2000 after seven decades of consecutive rule in Mexico and that spent a difficult decade shut out of executive power at the national level. In Peña Nieto, the telegenic former governor of the state of Mexico, with over 15 million people, by far the largest in the country and the surrounding state of Mexico’s central federal district.

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RELATED: For El Paso-Juárez,
Trump’s vision of Mexico based on misconception

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When he rose to the presidency, Peña Nieto was widely expected to do just two things as the face of what Mexican voters believed to be a reformed and a modernizing PRI.

First, Peña Nieto would enact a range of reforms liberalizing everything from Mexico’s energy sector to its tax collections scheme. Second, Peña Nieto would bring peace to a country roiled by drug violence, lethal competition among drug cartel and what seemed like an increasingly self-defeating militarized response to drug violence by Peña Nieto’s predecessor, Felipe Calderón, of the conservative Partido Acción Nacional (PAN, National Action Party).

On both fronts, Peña Nieto fell short of expectations.

While Mexico might today be more becalmed than in 2012, violence and government incompetence have dominated headlines. Peña Nieto’s presidency will forever be marred by the abduction and assassination of 43 students in Iguala by police officers in Guerrero state in September 2014. The glory of his government’s capture in 2014 of Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, the leader of the infamous Sinaloa cartel, was soon eclipsed by his escape from a maximum-security prison in 2015, and Guzmán, recaptured seven months later, now faces extradition to the United States.

Peña Nieto’s presidency has been a mix of the good (significant political and economic reforms), the bad (corruption, impunity at the highest level of the PRI and his own administration and ineptitude in the face of cartel strength) and the ugly (the Iguala massacre).

By most measures, though, his performance has been far worse than many observers expected, with less impressive reforms than promised and a legacy of sporadic drug violence, police brutalization, personal conflict-of-interest scandals and continuing widespread corruption at all levels of government. That’s all on top of a Mexican economy struggling to deal with far lower global prices for oil and other commodities. It’s so bad that his approval rating sank earlier this month to just 23%, lower than any Mexican president since Ernesto Zedillo faced an acute peso crisis in the mid-1990s.

In the July 2015 midterm elections, the PRI lost nine seats in the Cámara de Diputados (Chamber of Deputies), the lower house of the Mexican congress, and in the June 2016 gubernatorial elections, the PRI lost power in states it’s held since 1929 — including Veracruz, Tamaulipas Durango and Quintana Roo.

Just this week, as he prepares to deliver his state of the union address on Thursday, Peña Nieto has faced down embarrassing revelations that he plagiarized much of the thesis that he submitted for his law degree. Earlier this month, his wife faced fresh accusations of a new conflicts-of-interest scandal involving the use of a luxury apartment from a Mexican businessman in Miami.

So as the Mexican president prepares to welcome Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for an unexpected private meeting on Wednesday, it’s no understatement that Mexico’s beleaguered president could use a diversion. With his approval ratings so low, though, Trump presents an easy target. Continue reading Peña Nieto needs a Trump-sized confrontation to help his ailing presidency

Photo of the day: A haunting victim of Aleppo’s siege

A dazed child receives medical assistance after another horrific day of urban warfare in the battle of Aleppo.
A dazed child receives medical assistance after another horrific day of urban warfare in the battle of Aleppo.

It’s important for the rest of the world to see what’s happening in Aleppo. Even when it’s ugly. Even when it means a child dazed and confused by the horrors of war. The video is even more heart-breaking. Our hearts should cry for what’s happened in Syria for 5.5 years. It’s disgusting.Syria Flag Icon freesyria

It’s going to get worse in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, now divided between a western half still controlled by Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian army and an eastern half held by Sunni, anti-Assad rebels. The fighting is now fierce, and it has been for weeks. Both sides have committed atrocities. Dwindling water, food, power and medical care for over 2 million residents means that Aleppo could also spiral into a humanitarian crisis.

Russian bombs are making it worse.

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RELATED: Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

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Here in the United States, as we indulge ourselves in a presidential election focused on xenophobia, division and isolationism, when we should be thinking deeply about economic and social policy and global leadership, we may even hear the cries to ‘do something’ above the cowardly screeching  of Trumpismo.

Given the huge American military, most will naturally think first of a military solution. But of course the most effective things that the United States could do are things that it will not. One is to provide more financial aid to Lebanon that can assist the country in assimilating and caring for a deluge of around 1.5 million refugees (though the US government did find $50 million to fund the country’s military earlier this month).

Even more effective would be granting refugee status to more of the victims of Syria’s civil war here in the United States when a trickle of just 10,000 refugees — itself a massive increase — remains deeply inadequate and uncharitable for a country built on immigration.

Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)
Aleppo is currently under siege by all sides in the Syrian civil war. (Karam Al-Masri / AFP / Getty)

Aleppo, the most populous city in Syria, has become in August the center stage for one of the most tragic urban battles of the country’s five-and-a-half year civil war.freesyria Syria Flag Icon

The first battle of Aleppo that began in July 2012 and lasted for months, brought some of the worst of the earliest fighting to an industrial and cultural capital home to some 2.5 million Syrians before the war.

By early 2013, after thousands of deaths and widespread urban destruction (including parts of Aleppo’s old city and the Great Mosque of Aleppo), a stalemate developed between the eastern half, controlled by various Sunni rebel groups and the western half, controlled by the Syrian army that supports president Bashar al-Assad.

Last week, rebel forces — including the hardline militia formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra — broke through to Ramouseh, a key sector in the southwest of the city. Among other things, Ramouseh is home to some of the most important bases in the area for the Syrian army. More importantly, the rebel offensive hoped to open and secure a corridor between the besieged eastern half of Aleppo to other rebel-controlled areas to the south of Aleppo that could provide a pathway to food, water, power and other supplies to the rebel-controlled portions of Aleppo.

As of last week, the rebels had the upper hand after pushing into Ramouseh. Over the weekend, however, the Syrian army reclaimed some of its territory and effectively halted the rebel advance with punishing support from the Russian military.

(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)
(BBC / IHS Conflict Monitor)

Meanwhile, civilians across Aleppo (in both the government- and rebel-controlled areas) face a growing risk of a humanitarian crisis, lacking access to basic necessities like electric power, food and water in fierce summertime conditions. Intriguingly, Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu also claimed over the weekend that Russian and U.S. forces were close to taking ‘joint action’ on Aleppo. It’s odd because Russian president Vladimir Putin firmly backs Assad, while US officials have expressed the view that Assad’s departure alone can bring about a lasting end to the civil war. One possibility is a pause in hostilities to allow aid workers to provide food, water and medical care to civilians caught in what has become one of the deadliest battles in the Syrian civil war to date.

As the battle for Aleppo dominates headlines about Syria’s war, it is quickly becoming a symbolic fight for Syria’s future. Continue reading Who should you want to win the battle for Aleppo?

Is Hillary Clinton really a hawk?

Then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visits American troops in Tripoli in 2011. (US Embassy in Libya)
Then-US secretary of state Hillary Clinton visits American troops in Tripoli in 2011. (US Embassy in Libya)

In Vox on Tuesday, Jeremy Shapiro and Richard Sokolsky argued that, as president, Hillary Clinton would be too focused on her domestic political agenda to be too bothered with foreign policy, whether she’s really a hawk or a dove or [name your bird of prey].USflag

I worry that lets Clinton off the hook for some poor policy decisions over the course of her career, both as a senator from New York and as the nation’s leading diplomat as US secretary of state. After all, it was vice president Joe Biden who proclaimed in Jeffrey Goldberg’s famous piece for The Atlantic earlier this year on the ‘Obama doctrine’ that Hillary ‘Hillary just wants to be Golda Meir.’

That same profile gave us the following nugget into Clinton’s mind on international affairs:

Many people, I noted, want the president to be more forceful in confronting China, especially in the South China Sea. Hillary Clinton, for one, has been heard to say in private settings, “I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world dominated by the Chinese.”

Suffice it to say that, as the 45th president of the United States, Clinton wouldn’t quite welcome the end of unipolarity just yet.

But I also worry for another reason, summed up in four words by former British prime minister Harold MacMillan: ‘Events, dear boy, events.’ George W. Bush, until September 2001, wasn’t supposed to be a foreign policy president, either. You don’t choose your issues in the Oval Office; the issues choose you. (One reason, among many, why Donald Trump remains such a terrifying presidential nominee).

To steal a concept from Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution, who might be the only person left in the United States who’s managed to turn the 2016 general election into an exercise in intellectual growth, I’d like to engage in my own version. I’ll call it  ‘foreign policy hindsight 20/20 for me, but not for thee.’ Continue reading Is Hillary Clinton really a hawk?

NATO comments show why Trump could inadvertently start a global war

Donald Trump enters the convention stage on the first night of the Republican gathering in Cleveland.
Donald Trump enters the convention stage on the first night of the Republican gathering in Cleveland.

The theme of this week’s convention could have already been ‘I Took a Pill in Cleveland,’ because it’s clearly more Mike Posner than Richard Posner.Russia Flag IconUSflag

All eyes last night were on Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who lost the Republican nomination to Donald Trump and, notably, Cruz’s pointed refusal to endorse his rival in a rousing address that is one of the most memorable convention speeches in recent memory. Trump’s allies instructed delegates to boo Cruz off the stage, and they spent the rest of the night trashing Cruz for failing to uphold a ‘pledge’ to support the eventual nominee.

But shortly after Cruz’s speech, David Sanger and Maggie Haberman of The New York Times published a new interview with Trump about foreign policy, in which he indicated that he would be willing as president to break a far more serious pledge — the mutual collective defense clause of Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty that essentially undergirds the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the organization that has been responsible for collective trans-Atlantic security since 1949:

Asked about Russia’s threatening activities, which have unnerved the small Baltic States that are among the more recent entrants into NATO, Mr. Trump said that if Russia attacked them, he would decide whether to come to their aid only after reviewing if those nations “have fulfilled their obligations to us.”

“If they fulfill their obligations to us,” he added, “the answer is yes.”

Mr. Trump’s statement appeared to be the first time that a major candidate for president had suggested conditioning the United States’ defense of its major allies. It was consistent, however, with his previous threat to withdraw American forces from Europe and Asia if those allies fail to pay more for American protection.

The comments caused, with good reason, a foreign policy freakout on both sides of the Atlantic. The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg wrote, ‘It’s Official: Hillary Clinton is Running Against Vladimir Putin.’ In The Financial Times, a plethora of European officials sounded off a ‘wave of alarm.’

In successive waves, NATO’s core members expanded from the United States and western Europe to Turkey in 1952, to (what was then) West Germany in 1955, Spain in 1982, the new eastern and central European Union states in 1999 and 2004 (which include three former Soviet republics, the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia), and Albania and Croatia in 2009. Of course, many of the more recent NATO member states spent the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain subject to Soviet dominance.

Above all, so much of eastern Europe joined NATO to protect themselves from Russian aggression in the future. Article Five provides that an attack on one NATO country is an attack on all NATO countries, entitling the NATO country under attack to invoke the support of all the other NATO members. This has happened exactly once in NATO’s decades-long history, when the United States invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

It’s not the first time Trump has slammed NATO during the campaign; he called it ‘obsolete’ in off-the-cuff remarks at a town hall meeting in March:

 

“Nato has to be changed or we have to do something.  It has to be rejiggered or changed for the better,” he said in response to a question from an audience member.  He said the alternative to an overhaul would be to start an entirely new organisation, though he offered no details on what that would be.

He also reiterated his concern that the US takes too much of the burden within NATO and on the world stage. “The United States cannot afford to be the policeman of the world, folks.  We have to rebuild this country and we have to stop this stuff…we are always the first out,” he offered.

NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, meeting earlier this year with US president Barack Obama, has challenged Donald Trump's criticisms of NATO. (Facebook)
NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg, meeting earlier this year with US president Barack Obama, has challenged Donald Trump’s criticisms of NATO. (Facebook)

The latest attack on NATO and, implicitly, the international order since the end of World War II, came just days after NATO’s secretary-general, former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg, announced a new plan for NATO cooperation on the international efforts to push back ISIS in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Stoltenberg, it’s worth noting, is the first NATO secretary-general to come from a country that shares a land border with mainland Russia. So he, more than anyone, understands the stakes involved.  Continue reading NATO comments show why Trump could inadvertently start a global war