Archive for the ‘Middle East’ category

Strategic Thinking?

October 6, 2017

President Trump has signaled that he plans to “decertify” (not recertify in terms of the agreement with Congress) the Iran Nuclear deal. This Presidential act is expected to add this mind boggling foreign policy move to walking away from the Paris Climate Agreement and the abrupt withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Trade Pact. The President seems to be steadily making progress isolating America from the rest of the world.

It might not be difficult to understand why the Iran Nuclear Deal might not seem such a great success. Iran promised to side line its nuclear development activities in return for an end to crippling economic sanctions. Iran, however, did not agree for ever and explicitly did not agree to change its ways beyond the narrow scope of the agreement.

For the John Boltons of this world, this was a weak, maybe useless, agreement.  Israel thought much the same.  Drive for a “better deal” was the conservative mantra.  Hmmm.

The preposterous justification for stretching out Iran negotiations was that their economy was failing and soon there might be a regime change.  What makes anyone think a new Iranian regime would be better than the one that currently exists? Recent history would strongly suggest that Iran would tend towards even greater extremes and regional destabilization. And which Middle East country might lead a better power than Iran? Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia Egypt, or Turkey?

Should the US impose economic sanctions and effectively refute the agreement, most foreign policy experts foresee a global realignment with China and Russia supporting Iran.

If the Trump Administration is expecting Europe to stand solidly behind US policy, this may be a short sighted view. From all technical reports, Iran has abided by the terms of the 6 nation agreement. How could Germany, France, or England convince its citizens that reimposing sanctions was now the right thing to do?

Of course being tough on Iran does play well with many Trump supporters and is music to the Bush era chicken hawks. But this does not answer the question, what is or would be President Trump’s strategy?

One could conclude the President could initiate some new round of negotiations where his self proclaimed deal making skills would come out on top. This is not a strategy.  One could also conclude that there might be some other motivation for what appears to be illogical behavior.

For example, President Trump could be so insecure that he will not rest until he has dismantled every policy established during the Obama years. The President may be so blinded that he can not grasp the advice aides are providing unless the advice reinforces his instincts.

One could also conclude that the President seeks an isolationist USA, separated from other world alliance by self inflicted decisions.  President Trump could see such a situation as producing a ripe set of financial opportunities for the Trump brand.

With no permanent alliances where there were implied mutual behaviors placed upon the US and the other country, the Trump enterprises (and its supporters) could forge all sorts of “one off” deals around the world without fear of breaking some treaty or international understanding. Hmmm.

President Trump is our President thanks to an open election. Although the outcome was close, as Americans we are expected to abide by the results. The implication here is that the President is free to disengage from, refute, or even form, new bilateral arrangements which may not be good for most Americans. Elections have consequences.

There is a picture emerging around the Trump Presidency. President Trump is combining the worst elements of the Republican Party (petty and selfish interests) with his own turmoil loving tendencies to turn the US into a country others do not understand and certainly do not trust. Previous Administrations gave far more attention to both domestic and foreign events, especially as they related to the overall strength of the US economy.

Today, the stock market is at all time highs. The President may think that this is the vote of confidence and high Dow Jones averages protects him from any unanticipated blow back from his policies. Think again Mr President. If big money, pension funds, and hedge fund managers. lose confidence when the market crashes, the Trump Presidency will be a lame duck if it even last to 2020.

Whether it be unpaid tax reform, cheapened healthcare, or discrimination under the name “religious beliefs”, history will quickly show how devastatingly poor the Trump Administrations choices have been.

And then someone will again ask, what was the President’s strategies? What was he thinking?  Did it consider the average American, or just himself?

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Leading From Behind, II

September 5, 2017

America’s two major political parties have spent the last decade identifying issues which their supporters held sacred and then blaming their political opponents for supposed transgressions, regardless of what was best for our Country. One of the best examples might be Republican’s claims that President Obama was weak on foreign policy and specialized in “leading from behind”. Evidence abounded, Republicans claimed. Look at the Middle East, North Korea, and Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Hmmm.

Hypocrisy overflowed with each criticism of President Obama. It was on Republican President George W Bush watch that Iraq was invaded and occupied and when Afghanistan’s police mission morphed into nation building. And, it was a Republican controlled Congress which refused to vote any authorization for Middle East military action while the world watched Syria melt down.

So, today we have a Republican President and a Republican controlled Congress. What type of global leadership does America present now?

The first statement that can be made is that when foreign affairs is measured in “tweets”, American is in a leading position.

The second statement might be President Trump believes in “strategy-free” foreign affairs. This second statement enables the President to speak sharply about a subject and then undercut his emphasis with a completely unrelated comment whose consequence is to negate any positive effect his first statement might produce. Witness the call for China to help reign in North Korea one moment and then threatening to punish China with trade restrictions.

The President, of course, is trying to have it both ways (delight his supporters with tough talk towards both North Korea and China while blindly thinking tough talk is enough or that China could care the least about North Korean threats towards the US).

The third statement might be the “proof is in the pudding”. Has President Trump succeeded at anything domestically or in foreign policy? Has President Trump or Congress lined up global leaders behind any Trump policies, especially any aimed at making the global community economically stronger and more secure?

Do world leaders think better of President Trump than his predecessor former President Obama?

The world is a very complicated place and the days of US overwhelming economic and military superiority versus the rest of the world is over. Nuclear weapons lie in many different countries’ hands. Developed Countries are wealthy by historic standards. Further, the national interests of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Russia and Europe are not aligned other than to think the US already has too much and they have too little. Hmmm.

President Obama left a legacy which President Trump has worked to negate. President Obama comprehended global events as complicated and complex, and requiring thoughtful, integrated US response.  The Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans Pacific Partnership were two worthwhile and potentially useful initiatives which worked on real issues while building trust and partnership.

So President Trump’s attacking or walking away from policies which could help bind nations together (or at least keep them from drifting further apart), seems a bit short sighted.

I wonder if President Trump’s “tweet driven” style could be seen as “Leading From Behind, II”.  Do you think it is as thoughtful as former President Obama’s foreign policies?

Afghanistan, The Middle East All Over Again?

May 13, 2017

The Trump Administration is mulling once again taking a greater presence in Afghanistan. The concern these official site is the growing Taliban strength and the clandestine support the Taliban are receiving from Russia. Government sources are leaking that increased military presence is intended to drive the Taliban back to negotiations and not to pursue nation building. Hmmm.

The Taliban resurgence should surprise no one. Afghanistan is closer to a “failed” State than an emerging democracy due to the ethnic and tribal difference reinforced by years of corruption and drug dealing. Before 9/11, the Taliban did ruled Afghanistan but only with the brute and cruel force of its boots. Is that the type of Afghan Government the US wishes to emerge?

With respect to Russian involvement, please get me a glass of water as I sit down to catch my breath. Who would have thought? When Russia invaded and attempted to occupy Afghanistan in the 80’s, it was the US who armed and covertly trained the opposition (mostly Taliban). Pay back?

On a different front, there is less but similar talk about Syria and Iraq where American advisors are helping Kurds and Iraqis to retake Mosel and Raqqa and rid those cities of ISIS control. Ending the Syrian civil war and driving ISIS out of Iraq appear clearly worthwhile objectives, most would agree. Not surprisingly, more American advisors and air support are felt necessary to provide combat help, training, and tactical advice.  Hmmm.

Of the Trump Administration senior appointees, Secretary of Defense Mattis and National Security Advisor H R McMaster are consider top shelf, experienced, principled, and capable. Both Mattis and McMaster should be expected to act prudently and with the country’s best interest in mind. Never the less, any talk of increasing American military presence in the Muslim world should worry us. Why?

There are several reasons.

  1. Increasing troop presence can easily lead to the proverbial slippery slope. One foot in will quickly lead to a second, third, and, fourth step and possibly many more steps.
  2. Greater US presence, while arguments can be made about short term objectives, really begs what are the US long term interests and goals.
  3. And most importantly, what would be the exit plan should our goals not be reached or our interests change?

Former President Obama had chosen a foreign policy based upon urging Muslim countries solve their own differences (mainly religious, Sunni versus Shiite, moderate versus radical fundamentalist) in order to earn US military support. With President Trump it is unclear whether he views the greater Middle East similarly or even whether he is capable of holding any strategic (versus tactical) views. Therein lies the danger.

Committing US forces without a strategic vision harkens memories of heroic US military efforts followed by constant erosion of any gains. Hmmm.

With a President who excels in distraction, Americans must be careful not to cheer the commitment of more young men and women to a war which cannot be won.

The Fog Of Syria

April 8, 2017

President Trump ordered a military strike against a Syrian airbase in response to horrific pictures of a Syrian Government suspected Sarin gas attack on defenseless Syrian civilians. Initially most members of Congress welcomed the action and those who did not, kept quiet because the tide of public opinion was demanding some US response. Now as the dust is settling, other voices are being raised. Hmmm.

Supporters of President Trump’s actions (actually the specific plans are the product of the Defense Department, not the President) describe the airbase attack as proportional and an appropriate first step. Supporters are also quick to say they hope this action was not be lost on the North Koreans or the Chinese. No more President Obama – Mr Nice Guy – foreign policy, they say. Hmmm.

Other observers point out that the Sarin gas may have come from stock piles held by terrorists and were released when an errant bomb hit the stash. Possible, and an extremely important point if true. But, rebel held chemical weapons seems highly unlikely while Syria has already admitted to possessing chemical weapons in the past.

What’s next?

Bashar Assad’s opponents point out that innocent civilians are dying everyday when Syrian forces drop conventional barrel bombs. What is the difference (gas or bombs) for defenseless people?

This line of reasoning supports the US taking further steps, like disabling other airbases, establishing no fly zones, or even partitioning Syria thereby liberating areas for Assad opponents to set up government. Sound reasonable?

No sooner have such proposals been made than others point out that ISIS, al Qaeda, Hezbollah, and other similar groups make up some of those who think one of the partitioned Syrian areas would be just fine for their control. Is that what President Trump is thinking?

Yesterday, about 150 protesters blocked traffic in Philadelphia as a protest against President Trump’s Syrian airstrike. The protesters were against the use of force. I wonder what these people think about the nature of the Syrian civil war?

Former President Obama assessed the Syrian situation as one not amenable to western, non-Muslim intervention. Peace would return to the Middle East only when local leaders agreed to live together in harmony. Obama was willing to supply training and coordinating help but severely limited the direct US fighting involvement.

Under Obama, the US policy was still pregnant, but much less than obvious than a full fledged occupation.

Some foreign policy wonks describe the Syrian conflict as a proxy war for the Iranian-Saudi relationship. With Russia’s involvement, there is the possibility of a resumption of the old East-West proxy wars. And some only see the Syrian mess as a conflict between Sunni and Shiite or a battle waged by a greedy authoritarian family against a poor population. Hmmm.

Former President Obama’s strategy may have been wise but it did not “feel” good, it was not decisive in nature. President Trump’s quick and timely response feels better. Only time will reveal whether President Trump has acted wisely or whether his actions will help or hinder a resolution to the Syrian civil war.

Not much is clear in the Syrian fog of war.

Trump’s Syria

April 5, 2017

How many people do you know, besides yourself, who wished they could take back something they may have said in haste? Plenty I bet. Former President Obama is surely one of them too. His unfortunate “red line” warning is a good example.

Former President Obama was quite on the mark when he expressed outrage that anyone, and in particular, the Syrian Government would use chemical warfare, and use these outlawed weapons on its own people. Obama’s issuing of a warning he could not enforce was at its best like pulling for an inside straight. There was no way the treat would alter the behavior of a regime fighting for its life. At it worst, Obama’s red line reinforced the impression that the US would not act in any decisive manner to end the Syrian insurrection.

A lot has happened since the former President’s ill fated words. Russia’s entry into the conflict seems to have tilted power back into the Syrian Government’s hands. While needless deaths have continued, there seems to have been every indication that the civil war was heading to a conclusion. And then yesterday, Syria used chemical weapons again.

Pictures of the aftermath are horrific. Shown are defenseless civilians, including children, reacting to the painful and life threatening effects of these weapons (believed to be sarin gas). In what had already been documented as a war against humanity, a new outrageous chapter was opened.

President Trump now has the spotlight on him. What will the President do?

President Trump, in a pattern which seems genuinely him, immediately blamed someone else, this time President Obama. If President Trump really believes these words, America and Americans are really in trouble.

Lest we not forget, in another place on the globe, North Korea has continued to act provocatively on President Trump’s watch and other than words, the President has done nothing. Now President Trump has two failed States acting up and both apparently uninterested in making any deal with the great deal maker.

Syria sits in the middle of the Middle East. The invasion and occupation of Iraq opened Pandora’s Box, destabilizing the entire region. Thinking that an outside force, especial a non-Muslim force, can put Humpty Dumpty together again is wishful thinking.

North Korea, which lies snuggly against China’s northeast border, represents a different but equally dangerous challenge. Like President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Kim Jung Un is all about how to keep himself in power, and like Syria, North Korea cares little about the well being of its citizens. President Trump has said “all options are on the table” in response to North Korean provocations (striking the US west coast with a nuclear weapon). Does that sound like a red line?

Whether President Trump likes it or not, his Administration now owns North Korea and Syria. What ever goes right or wrong in either regime will be like fly paper. The great deal maker will not be able to get it off his hands.

Brexit Implications

March 30, 2017

Yesterday British Prime Minister Theresa May signed the official document triggering the European Union’s exit provision, Article 50. With that move Britain has begun its retreat from Europe opening the doors to an uncertain future.

From the British perspective, Brexit is about sovereignty and the ability to more effectively deal with non-British labor, (read to exclude those Britain decides it does not want). The measure passed narrowly but in a Democracy, an inch is as good as a mile.

From the EU perspective, Britain’s departure is unwelcome but not for a want for Briton in particular. The EU worries that Brexit is just the first shoe to drop and more are around the corner. Question, if the EU is so good why would countries want to get out?

In forming the EU, member countries traded some sovereignty for a large common market where trading rules were fixed and not subject to populous tariffs or other whims. Regrettably, the EU also formed a parliament and a wide range of bureaucratic branches fully committed to establishing regulation on all facets of commerce and life in general. Critics see the EU and its Directorates as needless expense supporting a gigantic jobs program.

One of the more troublesome outcomes has been how the EU deals with immigrants. Any immigrant who gains access to a EU member State, for example refugees fleeing war in central Africa, once these immigrants set foot in a member State, they are free to travel to any other State seeking work. And of course, while seeking work, the immigrants are qualified to receive welfare support. IMO, the EU’s inability to deal with this one issue, more than any other, tipped the British vote to leave the EU.

Reports indicate that France may want to follow Briton. France’s reasons center on right wing politics. Life will be better if France calls the shots, the right claims.

The danger embedded in Brexit requires one to check history and see what happened when there was less dependance among European Countries. World War I and II, and all the other wars leading up to world wars should be a sobering reflection. Remember, European Countries have both a long history and a sharp memory.

In addition, these countries are, in comparison to the US, relatively ethnically pure (not much diversity).  Germany tend to be german, France tends to be french, etc. (Ironically, this homogeneity is want makes Italy or Spain or France etc so nice to visit.)

Following World War II the western world was fortunate to have leaders who knew the old world order had to be changed. Within Europe, a series of government agreements, for example the EU (European Government and flag), the Euro (European wide common currency), and NATO (European wide military alliance which include the US). These agreements provided enough grit that the nationalistic urges to settle differences between members would give way to more rational solutions.

The EU common market represent one of the top three markets in the world. Within world currencies, the Euro is often viewed as second only to the US dollar. And visiting Europe with its advanced transportation network (and trouble free border crossing) is a preferred vacation destination. Brexit is a short sighted and most likely unwise move by Britain.

With the rise of China (wealth and military strength), the implosion of the Middle East, the economic stagnation of Japan, and nuclear uncertainty of Pakistan, India, and North Korea, world order is under pressure. Britain by itself provides no reassurance that the British can wield diplomatic or economic strength useful in hammering out a functioning world order better than Britain being an EU member in good standing. The odds are that Briton is on a slide to obscurity (nice place to visit, but….).

Brexit could not have come at a worse time given the naivety of the incoming Trump Administration. Can a “one off deal making” mentality summon up the strategic vision necessary to guide other countries towards a peaceful world order?

Beginning To Look Back

January 11, 2017

President Obama gave his farewell speech yesterday in Chicago. Pundits suggested President Obama wanted to write his “legacy” before the Trump Administration has a chance to eviscerate it. George W Bush, when asked in the ashes of his failed Presidency, what would his legacy be, replied to the effect, “don’t know. History will determine that and history takes a long time”. Hmmm.

Comparing the two men and their terms in office, President Obama would look hands down the more successful President. But with whom would you rather have a beer?

George W Bush, despite his wealth and familiarity with the moneyed class, seemed such an easy going person and a comfortable person to be around. Barack Obama could also at times display a friendly look but too frequently flashed a message of disdain or intellectual arrogance.

President Obama appeared not to suffer fools well. And in Washington there is no shortage of self centered, free loading, bureaucrats and legislators only too ready to claim something based on half truths or no truths at all.

President Bush was quite correct in saying history takes a long time before it renders a clear verdict. President Obama has much to be proud about but the repeal and replace of Obamacare may obscure his bold (but not bold enough) steps towards universal healthcare coverage. His efforts towards renewable energy and other quality of life issues may confront an unsympathetic Congress and Presidency once Donald Trump is inaugurated. Obama’s 8 year efforts around immigration reform, voting rights support, and inclusion will be an afterthought with the new Administration. What will remain in 8 years is open to question.

On the foreign stage, IMO, President Obama has diagnosed the Middle East (including Israel) correctly. One can argue whether the Arab world should offer the peace branch to Israel or Israel should initiate a sincere proposal first. But until the Arab world settles its power and Islamic sect differences, there is little reason to expect success. The next Administration is likely to take sides, picking which ever group seems most useful short term. Hmmm.

With respect to China and Russia, President Obama rowed against long held State Department views of a proper world order. China and Russia both have a different view, not surprisingly placing their country’s interest ahead of other countries including the US. President Obama diagnosed Asia and in particular China as the country to watch and to update US China foreign policy accordingly.

China is far wealthier and more populated than Russia. Maintaining government control requires meeting the economic needs of its 1+ billion head population.  Unfortunately it will not be easy task for China to continue spreading new wealth to Chinese peasants without 10% growth each year.  Authoritarian countries usually look for outsiders to blame when domestic policies falter.

A fair President Obama criticism might be that in all matters, his preference for “no drama” and “no theater” probably kept him from communicating effectively to the American people in terms they would understand. Whether the issue was healthcare where America spend twice as much as the modern world, and do not provide coverage to all Americans, or where America’s defense budget is 10 times as large as the next biggest spending country, or where America spends more per student on K-12 education than any other country, yet produces test score results in the middle of the pack, President Obama shunned any attempts to bring about change by dramatizing these facts.

President Obama will, however, be remembered from day 1 as a decent man with a smart and gracious wife who lead a White House life, with their children, which was above the fray but not aloof. President Obama’s few emotional occasions dealt with tragedies like the Newtown Elementary School shootings, not whether the Dow Jones Average reached a new high.

Strangely some of President Obama’s most vocal critics come from the African American community. And some of the unkindest words reference little or no progress in jobs and opportunities. Using a football analogy, offensive linemen can out block defensive linemen for just a few seconds creating an opening for a running back. If the back is not ready, or does not run through the opening quickly enough, the running back will be caught for no gain. I wonder why the African American community does not see the chance they had and squandered?

The next Administration will initially be graded in comparison to President Obama’s record. Soon however, Trump Administration policies and unforeseen world events will shape America’s history and the Obama comparisons will cease being relevant. Then historians will have their chance to cast a more informed light on legacy.