The Iranian Strategy – Policy Mismatch

One has to wonder where the Trump Administration is headed with their policy towards Iran.  There are, to say the least, a number of contradictions.  However, before I get too far into this, I would like to make three comments.

  • For almost forty years the Iranians have been nothing but trouble-makers.  The government is the number one source of state sponsored terrorism in the world.  The leadership continues to try and export the revolution and to thwart U.S. interests in the Middle East.
  • I am glad that Mr. Trump called off last week’s planned strikes into Iran.  Unfortunately, like so many of his decisions, he did so for the wrong reasons.
  • While on active naval service, I made two port calls in the 1970’s to Iran.  One to Bandar Abbas and one to Khorramshahr.  Interesting places, but maybe not too relevant to this piece.  Since then I made several trips through the Strait of Hormuz on U.S. Navy ships in and out of the Persian Gulf, and every time we were tested by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) armed boats.  No shots fired.

As you know, Iran is responsible for a series of attacks on tankers in the Gulf of Oman, near the Strait of Hormuz, in recent weeks.  Five total as of this writing.  Additionally, they launched surface-to-air missiles against U.S. military drones, missing once and hitting two including the most controversial last week.  Why?

The most obvious reason is that their economy is being crushed by sanctions imposed by the U.S.  It is having a direct and profound impact on daily life inside Iran.  The sanctions are succeeding in that respect.  While the United States is demonstrating its ability to succeed in this effort, it forces the Iranians to respond in order to demonstrate their own resolve, show their citizens that they will not bow to the U.S., and to attempt to get relief from the sanctions.  In other words, they are demonstrating that they can have an impact on the world’s economy by stopping all Persian Gulf oil, not just Iranian oil, from reaching the market, thus having a direct impact on countries such as Japan and others that rely on that oil for their own economic well-being.  If they cannot totally stop the flow of oil, then they can make it so costly — insurance rates, the price of oil, military requirements to protect tankers, etc. — that it will still have an impact unacceptable to many countries.  (As a side note, when I worked Middle East issues in the Pentagon, insurance rates for shipping in the Gulf was one of our measures of effectiveness (MOE).  If they went up, we needed more resources.  When they went down, we as a military were being effective in keeping the sea lanes open and secure.)  The point is, the Iranians are not going to stop meddling with the shipping lanes in and out of the Gulf until they feel some sanctions relief.

Here is the mismatch.  The Trump Administration claims that the sanctions will be eased when the Iranians come to the table to renegotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the Iran Nuclear Deal.  Mr. Trump pulled us out of it in May of 2018.  One may claim that the JCPOA was a good deal or a bad deal, but in the short term at least it did stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.  It opened Iran up to verification of its compliance and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) conducts regular inspections to ensure continued compliance.  The other members of the agreement besides the U.S. (the U.K, Russia, China, France, Germany, and European Union) agree that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement and all remain in the agreement while working with Iran to keep them from violating its terms.  Even the U.S. intelligence agencies as late as this spring testified in open hearings to Congress that the Iranians continue to abide by it.

So why would Iran return to negotiate a deal that they had already agreed to but from which the United States withdrew and is now punishing Iran for complying with that treaty?  To be fair, one of the main criticisms of the JCPOA is that it addresses only nuclear weapons and not the development of ballistic missiles or Iran’s continued support of terrorism throughout the region.  Fair enough.  The original idea behind the negotiations was to take it one step at a time.  Solve nuclear weapons and then address missiles in another treaty.  Solve missiles and then address stopping terrorist activities.  A building block approach that would instill trust as each step takes effect and allows for continued negotiations.  It may or may not have worked, but now we will likely never know.  More to the current point, why would the Iranians trust the U.S?  And if this president can tear up a treaty with malice of forethought then what would keep the next president — elections are in 18 months and we may have a new one — from tearing up the Trump Treaty?  There is no trust.

Making matters worse for our current strategy is that our trusted allies and friends no longer trust us either.  Some, especially Japan and Germany and France, are not even sure that they can trust us when we say that  the Iranians are definitely behind the recent attacks.  And if they don’t support us now, they will certainly not support us in an armed conflict in the region.  The U.S. does not want to go it alone in this arena.

Making it worse, even it if it sounds logical on one level, is Mr. Trump’s tweet that maybe the U.S. would not protect shipping without being compensated.

“China gets 91% of its Oil from the [Strait of Hormuz], Japan 62%, & many other countries likewise. So why are we protecting the shipping lanes for other countries (many years) for zero compensation. All of these countries should be protecting their own ships on what has always been a dangerous journey.  We don’t even need to be there in that the U.S. has just become (by far) the largest producer of Energy anywhere in the world!”

While on one level it is imperative for a coalition effort to thwart Iranian attempts to disrupt the shipping lanes, on another it ignores the number one maritime objective of the United States — to protect shipping lanes around the world to ensure the free flow of commerce at sea.  Did that just change because “we don’t even need to be there”?

While Mr. Trump once again made himself the hero of a soon to be catastrophe by fixing the crisis he created, still, calling off the strikes last week was the right call.  He made himself into some kind of humanitarian savior by implying that no one told him about possible loss of human life.  I find that insulting to the U.S. military.  He implies that they aren’t doing the job because he didn’t find out about the number of casualties until 10 minutes before the strikes.  Hogwash!  The president, any president, is offered a series of options for him to choose.  Included in the “pros and cons” of any option is the potential loss of life to Americans and to those under attack when the situation is not all out combat but rather a “message” as these were intended to be.  He is either lying or cannot comprehend basic information.  (By the way, in that series of tweets Mr. Trump tries to sound tough by saying that “we were cocked and loaded” to attack.  Anyone that has served in the military would know that no one talks that way in senior, serious discussions and that besides, the expression is “locked and loaded.”)

But I digress.

The best reason for calling off the strikes is that, according to reports from senior, unnamed officials in the Pentagon but thought to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is that there was no second step.  There was no consideration for what is called branches and sequels — what happens and what steps do we take when the Iranians inevitably respond.  There was no clear understanding of what those strikes would do to enhance our strategy of getting the Iranians to the table.  It would in fact, have made that much harder as the Iranians would likely have escalated their attacks and there were no follow-on U.S. plans.  Fundamentally, Mr. Trump and his advisers lost sight of the fact that the enemy gets a vote on how things unfold.  Without thinking through the next steps, having those strikes go forward would have opened up a potential Pandora’s Box of serious trouble in the Gulf.

Remember this.  There is a reason we have fought in Iraq and Syria.  They are not Iran.  Iran has been a bigger trouble-maker in the region and a bigger counter to our policy goals than the other two ever were or could be.  Why haven’t we gone after the Iranians in the same way?  Because it will be hard.

In the 1987-88 Operation Earnest Will, the U.S. and other nations escorted tankers to protect them from the Iranians. During the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians tried to cut off Iraqi oil shipments through the Gulf.  Besides escorting tankers, the U.S. and coalition forces fought the “tanker wars” to punish the Iranians for placing mines in shipping lanes and other hostile acts.  U.S. Navy ships were hit by mines (none sank) and other Iranian actions resulted in SEAL raids, and attacks on Iranian warships.  Operation Praying Mantis resulted in a number of Iranian ships going to the bottom or being put out of action.  The point is, the Iranian harassment of shipping quickly came to a stop.  The Iranians also learned some valuable lessons in how to combat U.S. forces through asymmetric means.

The Iranian Navy is basically a professional navy built along the lines of most in the world with a recognizable command and control structure.  The real bad guys are the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that have their own forces, ashore and afloat, and do not answer to anyone in the Iranian government other than the Supreme Leader.  Those are the ones to keep an eye on.

So now what?  The Iranians probably think that Mr. Trump is all bluster and no action.  Will that encourage more dangerous provocations on their side?  How will the U.S. respond?  If our policy is to corral Iranian nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions than how do we do that?  No easy answers.

Whether we are officially in or out of the JCPOA, along with the other members of the agreement, it would seem to provide the best frame work for re-engaging with the Iranians.  As far as practical, without losing our advantage in the region, talking is better than fighting.  Should it come to war, we will prevail.  But keep in mind that we are not talking about a few cruise missile strikes into empty air fields in Syria.  It will be messy and we will take casualties.  They will not be pushovers and they will test our capabilities.  Right now, the rest of the world may not be with us.  Most importantly, what is the end game?  What do we want from the fighting?  In 1988 it was for them to quit interfering with shipping lanes.  It worked.  Today we say it is guarantees about no nuclear weapons.  How do we achieve that when everything the Iranians see around them (hello, North Korea) indicates that Mr. Trump responds with love letters to those with the weapons who test them, fire ballistic missiles and threaten the U.S. main land?

The Iranians tried negotiations through the JCPOA and feel like they were tricked.  It will not be easy to get them back to the table, no matter how grim their economy.  The Trump Administration needs to re-engage with the Iranians, without preconditions, but without easing sanctions until talks resume.  Then a measured give and take — known in diplomatic circles as “compromise” — can result in the easing of some sanctions in return for specific Iranian actions. This may be the best way to ease us out of this growing crisis.  Without it, expect the Iranians to continue to act out until they find the limit of U.S. patience.

 


What To Think?

You may have missed it with all of the theatrics surrounding the Trump Shutdown, but some potentially mind-blowing news came out last Friday and over the weekend.

Even as I suffer from Trump fatigue, and you know what I think of him as president, it is impossible to ignore this development.  The FBI started a counter-intelligence investigation of the president in 2017. The President. Of the United States.  It is unknown whether that investigation continues under the guidance of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but it is likely that it does.  A counter-intelligence investigation is totally unlike a criminal investigation.  It is a totally different ball game.  It also puts the possibility of the president’s efforts at obstructing justice into an entirely different dimension.  Perhaps instead of trying to protect himself from embarrassment or through some other motivation, his decision to fire then FBI Director James Comey “over this Russia thing” was with a different outcome in mind.  Coupled with all of the subsequent efforts to stop or disrupt Mr. Mueller’s investigation, it appears he was trying to keep the discovery of conspiracy with a foreign power from becoming known.  In other words, the obstruction was the conspiracy (or collusion as it is popularly, but wrongly, called.)

In this context, the Mueller investigation, and Mr. Trump’s actions as a candidate and as president form a continuum across time and are not a series of discreet events.

It is hard to adequately convey how difficult the decision to do this is.  For the Department of Justice (DOJ), that would have to approve the FBI investigation at its highest level, to sign off on it, would indicate that there is or was extraordinary evidence that something was amiss.  This would be no routine investigation.

Apparently, the FBI became so alarmed at Mr. Trump’s actions that it appeared he was acting on behalf of a foreign power.  They knew that a “normal” president would not talk or act as he was, specifically with respect to Russia and Vladimir Putin, and could only explain it by the concern that he must be under the influence of a foreign power.  In other words, they thought the president could be a Russian agent.  No movie studio would make this movie.  Too preposterous.

To be clear, to be a Russian agent does not necessarily mean that the individual was trained in Russia or by Russians, or even that he was directly controlled by a Russian case agent.  As former CIA Director John Brennan said in testimony to Congress, such people can be “wittingly or unwittingly” agents of a foreign power.  I do not know and cannot make a good guess as to whether Mr. Trump is or is not knowingly a Russian agent.  But I do know that he is acting to further the Russian agenda over the best interests of the United States.

Keep in mind, Mr. Putin was a career KGB agent who attained the rank of Colonel before the end of the Cold War.  He knows what he is doing.

This is scary, mind-blowing, and a conundrum.  Our system of government is based on the premise that the president is above reproach when it comes to national security. One may disagree on specific policy decisions, but we must assume that presidents are doing what they believe are in the best interests of the United States, not a foreign adversary. The president is the final arbiter of military, intelligence, and foreign policy issues.  How do intelligence agencies or law enforcement agencies or the counter intelligence arms of various government agencies deal with an individual who, while under investigation, can over turn, hinder or evade those investigations?  And how should they be held to account?  If by definition the president is the lead diplomat for our country, how can he be wrong?  There are many implications and questions that arise when one starts thinking about our president as a Russian agent.  My head hurts.

Keep in mind that counter intelligence agents are some of the most peculiar people one will ever meet.  Thinking about their job, they are suspicious about everyone and everything that does not fit their mold of the “normal.”  Conspiracies lurk everywhere.  None-the-less, there must have been sufficient reasons to open this investigation or it would never have happened.  They do not investigate the president for the fun of it or for political reasons.  They just do not.  Yes, paranoia runs deep.  Into your life it will creep.  (With apologies to Buffalo Springfield.)  You are not paranoid if it is true.

The possibility gains traction through documented reports that Mr. Trump met one-on-one with Mr. Putin five different times over the last two years with only interpreters in the room.  He then collected the interpreters notes and refused to share what was said with anyone else in the government. Two particularly troubling meetings were the one in Helsinki last summer and an unscheduled meeting at a G-20 dinner in Hamburg Germany where only the Russian interpreter was present. (I have written about these meetings before. I was especially alarmed by the meeting in Germany.)  Rest assured the Russians know what was discussed and agreed to, but not those in the highest levels of our own government.

In my view, the most likely foundation to this arrangement rests on sanctions.  The Russians want them lifted and so does the Trump Organization.  The Russians were heavily sanctioned following their annexation of Crimea and it is hurting their economy.  They want them gone.  The sanctions were the genesis of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian representatives to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.  When you hear “Magnitsky Act” think sanctions.  The Russians want them removed.  Now.  Mr. Trump wants them lifted because following his many bankruptcies, nearly all his money came from Russia. The banks that produced the loans are subject to the sanctions. Continued sanctions means no big money for Trump Org.  Additionally, it is well know that Mr. Trump’s business Holy Grail is to put his name on a Trump Tower Moscow.

My view is that of many possible explanations, the simplest is that Mr. Trump wants to do business in Russia when he leaves office and is willing to bargain with Mr. Putin to get the access.  What other evidence exists?

Let’s look at some of the president’s actions and words.  This list is not exhaustive but representative.

  • As the Republican nominee he had the Republican National Committee 2016 platform changed regarding Ukraine in order to mirror Russian claims and interests.
  • At every opportunity he incessantly praises Mr. Putin which validates Mr. Putin’s self-proclaimed status, empowers him at home, and comes at the expense of our allies and friends.
  • The primary goal of Mr. Putin is to splinter the Western Alliance so that Russia can fill the void and return to the glory days — as Mr. Putin sees it — of the Soviet Union.  Mr Trump aids that goal in many ways.
    • He launches personal and political attacks against the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and others.  He belittles lesser members of the European Union (EU) and NATO.
    • He supports Brexit (The UK departure from the EU) which currently has the UK in turmoil.  This weakens the EU and contributes to chaos in the internal affairs of a key ally.  That internal chaos distracts a force for good and takes a staunch opponent of Russia off of the world stage.
    • When asked in a 2018 interview to name the U.S. “biggest foe globally right now,” Mr. Trump  responded “I think the European Union is a foe.”  The EU contains our closest allies.  The interview was just before he met with Mr. Putin in Helsinki.
    • He continually belittles NATO in public.  It is apparent he does not know how funding for NATO works.  He apparently also does not know that the only time Article V of NATO was invoked (an attack on one nation is an attack on all) was following the terrorist attack in September 2001.  NATO troops have been in Afghanistan from the beginning of the conflict and remain there.  It has been widely reported that Mr. Trump continually pushed his senior aids throughout 2018 to have the U.S. withdraw from NATO.  Such an action would be Mr. Putin’s wildest dream come true.
  • He continually denies that Russia interfered with the U.S. 2016 election. He continually takes Mr. Putin’s word that Russia did not interfere over the facts presented by the entire U.S. intelligence community. Among his justification for taking Mr. Putin’s word is the newly reported reasoning for doing so, including this remarkable quote.  Mr. Trump “said that he raised the election hacking three times and that Mr. Putin denied involvement. But he said Mr. Putin also told him that ‘if we did, we wouldn’t have gotten caught because we’re professionals.’ Mr. Trump said: ‘I thought that was a good point because they are some of the best in the world’ at hacking.”
  • He pushed to have Russia rejoin the G-7 (it was previously the G-8).  The Russians  were expelled following their annexation of Crimea.  Mr. Trump said that he thinks that the punishment is too severe for that act.
  • At the 2018 G-7 summit Mr. Trump opined that of course Crimea belongs to Russia because “they all speak Russian.”  This put fear into the hearts of our Baltic, and NATO, allies that were once part of the Soviet Union and have a large Russian ethnic population.
  • Following the March 2018 poisoning in the UK of the Skirpals, former Russian agents that went over to the West, he said that there was no evidence to support the UK Prime Minister’s denunciations of Russia for an attack on British soil.
  • Last December he called for U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria “now” and turn it over to the Russians.  This is a long-standing goal of the Russians so that they can increase their influence in the Middle East and gain a military presence in the region.
  • He often spouts Russian talking points (propaganda).  The most recent instance was his spontaneous and out of the blue discourse on the Soviet Union, their presence in Afghanistan, and a revisionist history of their reasons for invading. (This was the subject of a recent post in this space, explaining how this promotes Mr. Putin’s view of the restoration of the Soviet empire.)

And so on.  Some big, some small, but all consistent in their praise of Russia and in pushing the Russian agenda.

So, what to think?  Is our president a Russian agent, whether wittingly or unwittingly?  I sincerely hope that the Mueller investigation addresses this issue clearly, either to confirm it or to debunk it.  From where I sit today, and from all that we have seen of Mr. Trump in the last three years, I think it likely.  It is most likely in the nature of long-standing business and other money schemes between Russian oligarchs and Mr. Trump and his family.  That would be in keeping with what we know about him and what he says himself.  With him, no matter the subject, it is all about the money.  Period.

Should this be true, I have no idea how it will be resolved.  It is beyond comprehension.  The President of the United States works for Russia.  Incredible.

The only thing that is clear to me is that Mr. Mueller needs to get the results of his investigation into the open as soon as possible.  I know that he is being meticulous, as he should be.  However, if this is even only a little bit true, our nation is in danger.  We need to know and we need to know before something truly awful happens.  And if it isn’t true, we need to know that as well so that we can move on without distraction to addressing the complex issues that we know await us in 2019

 


American Values For Sale

While many of us were busy with family and friends during the Thanksgiving weekend, spending time appreciating what we have and treasuring the value of those around us, the President of the United States took no time off from his argumentative, derisive, self-centered approach to his office.  Whether in the White House or at his gold-plated palace at Mar-a-Lago, he hit on topics wide and far.  He raged against the independent judiciary, taking on Chief Justice John Roberts in the process, he stated that no one should worry about the troops on the Mexican border missing Thanksgiving with their families, and many topics in between.  His most troubling comments came last Tuesday when he released a statement about the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia and the brutal murder and dismemberment of U.S. resident and Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi.

As you remember, Mr. Khassoggi was lured into the Saudi Embassy in Turkey and tortured, murdered and dismembered by a hit squad sent to do the deed by the de facto head of the Saudi government Mohammad Bin Salman, commonly called MBS by those that want him to be a positive factor in the future development of Saudi Arabia.  Those that know the truth know that he is a reckless and ruthless autocrat bent on solidifying his own power as the Crown Prince in order to ensure that he has complete domination as the future king of Saudi Arabia.

Released on White House letterhead, this is the complete transcript of the statement, a statement that could only have been written by the president himself given the syntax, grammar and punctuation therein.  We would be lucky if it only exhibited poor writing skills, but instead it runs counter to everything the United States stands for during the last seventy years or more.

America First!

The world is a very dangerous place!

The country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up dictator Bashar Assad in Syria (who has killed millions of his own citizens), and much more. Likewise, the Iranians have killed many Americans and other innocent people throughout the Middle East. Iran states openly, and with great force, “Death to America!” and “Death to Israel!” Iran is considered “the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”

On the other hand, Saudi Arabia would gladly withdraw from Yemen if the Iranians would agree to leave. They would immediately provide desperately needed humanitarian assistance. Additionally, Saudi Arabia has agreed to spend billions of dollars in leading the fight against Radical Islamic Terrorism.

After my heavily negotiated trip to Saudi Arabia last year, the Kingdom agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States. This is a record amount of money. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, tremendous economic development, and much additional wealth for the United States. Of the $450 billion, $110 billion will be spent on the purchase of military equipment from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and many other great U.S. defense contractors. If we foolishly cancel these contracts, Russia and China would be the enormous beneficiaries – and very happy to acquire all of this newfound business. It would be a wonderful gift to them directly from the United States!

The crime against Jamal Khashoggi was a terrible one, and one that our country does not condone. Indeed, we have taken strong action against those already known to have participated in the murder. After great independent research, we now know many details of this horrible crime. We have already sanctioned 17 Saudis known to have been involved in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi, and the disposal of his body.

Representatives of Saudi Arabia say that Jamal Khashoggi was an “enemy of the state” and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, but my decision is in no way based on that – this is an unacceptable and horrible crime. King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. Our intelligence agencies continue to assess all information, but it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event – maybe he did and maybe he didn’t!

That being said, we may never know all of the facts surrounding the murder of Mr. Jamal Khashoggi. In any case, our relationship is with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region. It is our paramount goal to fully eliminate the threat of terrorism throughout the world!

I understand there are members of Congress who, for political or other reasons, would like to go in a different direction – and they are free to do so. I will consider whatever ideas are presented to me, but only if they are consistent with the absolute security and safety of America. After the United States, Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producing nation in the world. They have worked closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world. As President of the United States I intend to ensure that, in a very dangerous world, America is pursuing its national interests and vigorously contesting countries that wish to do us harm. Very simply it is called America First!

There is so much wrong, facts as well as policy, that it is difficult to know where to start.  Let’s start at what should have been the beginning, the death of Jamal Khassoggi.  Instead of starting with that fact, he does not address his brutal murder until the fourth paragraph, coming even after he has to congratulate himself on his trip to Saudi Arabia.  To add injury to insult, he repeats the canard that Mr. Khassoggi was “an enemy of the state and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.”  Even the Saudi government did not state that he was, after a trial balloon using that as a mitigating factor was vehemently denounced by multiple countries around the world.  Mr. Trump brings it in as if it was some acceptable reason for murder.  One of the president’s typical tricks.  He paints someone negatively and then denies doing so saying that he didn’t say that, they did.

Even more troubling is Mr. Trump’s denouncing the American media as the “enemy of the people” and then using the term “enemy of the state” to describe a murdered journalist.  No subtlety there, Mr. Trump just gave every dictator and two-bit autocrat in the world the green light to eliminate any journalist that they designate as an “enemy.”

As I and countless others have pointed out, the president grossly exaggerates the so-called “record amount of money” the Saudis will spend and invest in the United States.  So far the Saudis only committed to spending about 14 billion dollars for a missile defense system.  The other “hundreds of billions” of purchases and investments are only possibilities, ideas or something for an unspecified future.  There is nothing on paper to justify the claims made by the president.  Certainly, there is nothing to support the claim that any of it will “create hundreds of thousands of jobs.”  The idea that the Saudis would spend that money buying Chinese or Russian goods and military equipment is, in a word, preposterous.  Since World War II the Saudis sought out and continue to use U.S. training, equipment, spare parts, ammunition and logistical support for their military.  They can not and would not turn to any other country over night to spend money on military items.

Once again for the record, Mr. Trump seems to be influenced by no other world events since the 1973 oil embargo when it comes to assessing the impact of Saudi oil on the market.  The U.S. is a larger producer of oil than Saudi Arabia (thanks to fracking and shale oil, but that’s another story).  The entire Saudi economy (and all of those claimed purchases and investments in the U.S.) depend on oil.  They can impact prices, but not to the extent that Mr. Trump claims.  Indeed the crown jewel of ARAMCO refineries, the national Saudi oil company, is in the United States in Port Arthur, Texas.  Would they really cut off oil shipments to their own refinery?  (The products from the refinery ship to many places in the world, not just the United States.)  And oh by the way, the Saudis do not work “closely with us and have been very responsive to my requests to keeping oil prices at reasonable levels – so important for the world.”  They do what is best for them.  Lower oil prices right now, according to economic analysts, are due primarily because the impact of the embargo on Iran was minimal (its oil is still mostly on the market), the world economy has not expanded as quickly as expected and thus demand is lower, and other economic reasons, not Mr. Trump’s relations with the Saudis.

I could go on and on debunking the myths and out right lies in Mr. Trump’s statement.  You get the idea.  Here is the worst part in my opinion.  The President of the United States clearly states that “it could very well be that the Crown Prince had knowledge of this tragic event” but that it doesn’t matter to the president because their money and the price of oil is more important than upholding human rights, American values and freedom of the press.  Yet another signal to any dictator or would be autocrat that not only will we allow journalists to be killed if they are an “enemy of the state” but that if you pay us enough money, we’ll look the other way.  Unbelievably, the president finishes his statement by saying “maybe he did, and maybe he didn’t!” (are we in the fifth grade?).  In other words, it just doesn’t matter.

Anyone that reads the paper and follows this story knows that the preponderance of evidence is that Mr. Khassoggi was murdered and that the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States calculates that there is the highest probability that the Crown Prince was behind the entire sordid affair.  (That is about as close as the CIA will come to saying he all but dismembered the guy himself.)  Not to worry.  Mr. Trump assures us that he personally talked to the Crown Prince and to the King and that they “vigorously deny any knowledge of the planning or execution of the murder.”  Just as he accepted President Vladimir Putin’s vigorous denial that Russia interfered with the 2016 election, despite the conclusion of the entire intelligence community of the United States.

Once again, as happens in case after case after case with Mr. Trump, he refuses to believe what he does not want to believe and will look for any out available be it an opinion expressed on Fox News, a piece on an alt-right blog, or “the word” of ruthless dictators and autocrats.  Merely deny any wrong doing and the best intelligence agency in the world cannot convince him of anything else.  If one doubts that words have consequences when spoken by the president, consider that Mr. Trump continually belittled U.S. intelligence agencies because they were wrong about WMD in Iraq in 2002.  This weekend the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia used that same argument to say that the CIA’s conclusion that the Crown Prince was involved in murder was wrong.

The real reason Mr. Trump will not come down hard on Saudi Arabia and especially the Crown Prince is because he likes them.  More accurately, he liked the way that they played him during his visit to Riyadh and treated him, literally, like visiting royalty.  He has a misguided view of the Saudi ability, or desire, to help solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  They can act as a counter weight to Iran, but not without U.S. backing which could suck us into a war that we do not want.  In particular, Mr. Trump frequently expressed his appreciation to the Saudis for bailing him out of one of his many bankruptcies.  Likewise his son-in-law Jared Kushner has particularly close ties with the Crown Prince and his company was also intimately involved with Saudi bail outs in the past.

Make no mistake about it.  I am not advocating for breaking diplomatic or military ties with Saudi Arabia.  The world is indeed a dangerous place and we should use all assets at our disposal to promote our national security interests.  That said, Mr. Trump speaks as if the Saudis hold all of the cards.  They do not.  We have vastly more leverage over them than the other way around if Mr. Trump had the ability to utilize the advantage.  He either chooses not do so (because of his personal financial ties?) or is lost in the 70’s with a misguided view of the world, or he is incompetent.

There are numerous ways to make clear our disgust and dissatisfaction with Mr. Khassoggi’s murder.  Here are only a few examples of actions we could take:

  • Sanction the Crown Prince or parts of his world-wide investments and hurt him where it counts.  The 17 Saudis Mr. Trump says we sanctioned include 15 relatively low-level security (hit?) men.  Those assessed by the CIA as primarily responsible for ordering the murder are not sanctioned.
  • Stop supplying the Saudi military in Yemen.  The U.S. is providing assistance that, should it be with held, would severely limit their ability to continue the war in Yemen.  The United Nations assesses the situation in Yemen as the biggest humanitarian crisis taking place in the world.  Their calculations indicate that roughly 85,000 young children have died of hunger during the war.  About 2 million are homeless.  22 million are in need of assistance, especially food.  1.1 million suffer from diarrhea and cholera.  The war is portrayed as a proxy war with Iran to stop Islamic terrorism but in fact, Mohammad Bin Salman intervened in a civil war for his own purposes.  Iran supports the opposition but the Saudi involvement is far larger, bloodier and indiscriminate in hitting civilian targets.
  • Push Mohammad to actually get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and take concrete steps to help the Palestinians form a functioning government and offer substantive proposals for resolving the situation.  Put some of that oil money to use providing for investment in the West Bank and to raise the average Palestinian out of the depths of poverty.  (Fun fact:  Many mid-level to upper-level bureaucrats in Arab countries are of Palestinian heritage.  They make the countries run.  The Arabs have no desire to resolve the situation because it is a convenient scapegoat for distracting their own people by providing a cause to rally around and to continue to rant against Israel.)
  • Stop the Saudi economic and diplomatic attacks on Qatar.  (The headquarters for U.S. forces in the region are in Qatar and it is the location of the largest U.S. air base in the region.  Mr. Trump supports the Saudi assault on the integrity of Qatar.)
  • Stop Mohammad from meddling in Lebanon.  (Last year he kidnapped the Prime Minister of Lebanon while he was in Saudi Arabia, forced him to resign and held him hostage until world diplomatic pressure caused his release.  Theoretically this was to put pressure on Iran and to lessen the influence of Hezbollah in Lebanon.)

These are but a few ideas off the top of my head.  I am sure the regional experts at the State Department and CIA could come up with many more.  Instead, the United States capitulated lock, stock and barrel to the murderous whims of a 33-year-old autocrat in the Middle East.

The president’s statement is really “Saudi Arabia First!”  Bipartisan efforts in the Senate to make Saudi Arabia feel the pain are talked about, but only time will tell if they can get a bill together during the lame duck session coming up given all the rest of the issues they have to deal with in the interim.  Realistically, it could be months before the Congress takes action, if at all.  Meanwhile, the Crown Prince goes his merry way having learned the lesson that he can con Mr. Trump out of anything with a little flattery and some money.

The President of the United States betrayed American values.  He pretends that the facts are unknowable but asserts that they are irrelevant in any case.  He bases his decision on a widely discredited claim that they are spending hundreds of billions of dollars in the U.S. and keeping oil prices low, when in fact, the Saudis are espousing a cut in their oil production in order to try to increase prices.  He disparages the victim by falsely hinting that he was a member of some terrorist network, a claim originally floated by Mohammad in a phone call to the White House and then denied when the world condemned the allegation as totally false.  (Parts of Mr. Trump’s statement were clearly word for word restatements of things the Saudi Crown Prince told him.)  He belittles and ignores the best analysis by his own intelligence agencies.  He shows the worst of his talents and little disposition to take appropriate actions if it does not meet his personal needs, desires and perceptions.  Again, Mr. Trump demonstrates that under his leadership, the United States is weak.

In short, Mr. Trump sold out the United States and our values.  Dictators and autocrats around the world now know that they can kill journalists with impunity if they flatter the president and pay enough money.

The United States is fast losing its place in the world as a leader.  Congress must act to rectify this situation and to set the standard that we will not forsake our values or place in the world for a few dollars more.

 


How Much Is A Life Worth?

Roughly two weeks ago Jamal Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.  Mr. Khashoggi, born and raised in Saudi Arabia, was a frequent critic of the Saudi regime who was living in exile as a permanent green card holder in the United States and was a Washington Post journalist.  Mr. Khashoggi entered the consulate, as seen on security cameras outside the building, but was never observed coming out and has not been heard from since.  The Saudis claim that he left the Consulate in fine condition but can provide no proof and cannot say where he may be.  The Turkish government states that it has hard evidence — reportedly audio and possibly video recordings — that Mr. Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured, murdered and dismembered inside the Consulate.  The Turks report that a fifteen man “hit squad” flew in and out of Turkey from Saudi Arabia on two private aircraft before and after the alleged murder.

This incident is getting the full attention of both political parties in the United States Senate as well as freedom loving nations around the world.  Demands for answers from the Saudis and a full investigation into the disappearance of a respected journalist are growing.  For those nations that care about human rights, this is an egregious and blatant act of state sponsored terrorism against an innocent civilian conducted on the foreign soil of a NATO ally.  It cannot be tolerated.

While acknowledging that a state ordered murder of Mr. Khashoggi  (“if it’s true”) would be a problem (“We don’t like it. We don’t like it even a bit.”),  the President of the United States has been clear over the last several days that restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia should not be on the table.  Or as he said on Thursday, ” I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money.” (Mr. Trump keeps touting the $110 billion arms deal, but analysts say that the Saudis have only committed to about $10 billion and it is debatable that the Saudis will ever buy the full $110 billion as their military cannot assimilate all of those weapons.)  So we know that Mr. Khashoggi’s life is not worth $110 billion or even $10 billion.  What is it worth?

This murderous development significantly impacts U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.  The Trump Administration, through the president’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, has put all of their Middle East policy eggs in the Saudi basket.  The reasons are many, varied and complicated, but if you can’t tell the players without a score card, a quick summary follows.

The modern state of Saudi Arabia was created in 1930 under King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud.  The relationship with the United States began following the discovery of oil in the kingdom in 1938 and dates to a meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul-Aziz aboard the USS Quincy while anchored in the Suez Canal.  A hand shake between the two took on the force of a treaty.  The kingdom would supply oil to the U.S. in exchange for security and protection guarantees from the U.S.  That same basic agreement is still in force today, but with greater complications.

The kingdom was ruled for most of its existence by one of the sons of King Abdul-Aziz.  As one half-brother died, another would succeed him as king.  For all of this time, the main focus of Saudi policy was, and is, the preservation of the rule of the royal family (which now numbers in the thousands with uncles, cousins, second cousins, etc. that can trace lineage back to King Abdul Aziz) and their wealth.  As the brothers died off, there was a power struggle within the family as to how succession would be passed down for the future.  Currently, the winner of that struggle is Mohammad bin Salman, at 33 the current Crown Prince, heir apparent and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia as his father, King Salman, the nominal ruler of the kingdom is reported to be in poor health.

Crown Prince Mohammad, commonly referred to as MBS, is also good friends with Mr. Kushner.  Both are young and apparently bonded in the days following the election in 2016.  Many thought originally  that Prince Mohammad would be a reformer within the kingdom and bring it into the 21st century through economic and social reform.  Recently, analysis of his efforts indicates that he is a good public relations man in pushing the appearance of reform, but in fact his efforts are focused on establishing himself as the autocratic head of state and in consolidating power for himself, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.  For example in 2017 he had over 40 members of  the royal family and senior government officials arrested and imprisoned along with roughly 200 other businessmen, bankers, broadcasters and others.  Ostensibly this was to rid the government of corruption but it is widely viewed as a test of his power and an attempt to eliminate any competition for his leadership.  Most were eventually released after paying “fines” (read bribes) to the Crown Prince worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  It is widely believed that Mr. Kushner may have shared highly classified intelligence with the Prince prior to the purge naming those in the country that opposed his taking the reins .

Mr. Kushner sees MBS as the key to countering Iran in the region and as the key to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The prince positioned himself to be a “player” but so far the Saudis have not delivered on their promises (as anyone knowing how things work in that area would know) even as the U.S. has delivered on their end, most controversially by supporting the Saudis with arms and intelligence during their ongoing military involvement in Yemen.

Additionally, and not surprisingly, both the Trump and Kushner family business organizations have long-standing and wide-spread business involvement in Saudi Arabia.  When Mr. Trump was in serious financial trouble in the 1990s, for example, he sold condos, a hotel, parts of his business and his yacht to Saudis to raise money.  It is rumored that the Saudis saved the Kushner family business by taking on the loan for a prominent New York land mark.  There are other business connections that have been detailed in many venues, but without the release of a certain president’s tax returns and other normally provided financial information, the true extent of the deals cannot be determined.  Oh by the way, the biggest spender at the Trump Hotel in Washington DC since the election is the Saudi government.

Mr. Khashoggi wrote often and furiously about the corruption in the Saudi royal family, their business ties and the efforts by Prince Mohammad to take control of the country.  Or as he said last year to The New Yorker, “It’s an interesting form of dictatorship that is being created in Saudi Arabia.  MBS is now becoming the supreme leader.”

Mr. Khashoggi would never have been murdered without the knowledge of Prince Mohammad.

And all of this is the tip of the iceberg.  Our relationship is a complicated one, on all levels.  There are advantages and disadvantages to working with the Saudis.  The alleged murder of Mr. Khashoggi puts a lot of the national and personal goals of this administration in peril should the president choose to act on punishing the Saudis.  The Senate is invoking the Global Magnitsky Act based on a December 2016 law that invokes sanctions against anyone or any government implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world.  The president is resisting.  (Ironically the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Mr. Trump, Jr. and the Russians concerned the Magnitsky Act which at the time involved sanctions against Russians committing human rights abuses. In December of that year it expanded to a global scale.)

Mr. Trump knows he must act tough, but my bet is that he hopes that it all blows over.  Today he reportedly spoke to King Salman, the titular head of Saudi Arabia, who assured him that the Saudis had nothing to do with Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.  He flatly denied it.  Or as Mr. Trump told reporters today, “It wasn’t like there was a question in his mind.  The denial was very strong.”  (As one recalls, anyone or any government that strongly denies a murder by chemical attack — hello Russia — or preying on young girls — hello Roy Moore — or anything else is believed by Mr. Trump because they are “very strong” in their denials.)

To add injury to insult, Mr. Trump added to his statement by saying that “It sounded to me like it could have been rogue killers.  Who knows?”  Indeed.  Can you say “cover up”?

I can see it developing already.  No official U.S. government action will ensue as Mr. Trump says we can’t be sure who did it.  The Saudis deny it.  Very strongly.  It could have been rogue killers.  We cannot give up billions in arms sales.  Too bad.  I feel bad for his family.  Hey, look over there!

And we move on.

There was a time when the U.S. cared about and set an example for human rights, freedom of the press and other values we held dearly as a nation.  Now, not so much.  Apparently all of our relations are now transactional and only get fully considered based on the financial bottom line.  It only matters how much money is involved, not what is right.

Apparently a human life isn’t worth anything to the United States anymore.


Half Empty or Half Full?

In the wake of yesterday’s meeting between Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and Donald J. Trump of the United States of America (USA) it is hard to assess the level of success, if any.  It is likely that we may not know the impact of the meeting for months or even years down the road.

In the short-term it appears that tensions were defused on the Korean peninsula and the likelihood of war decreased.  It is always better to be talking to our adversaries than to be fighting.  As Winston Churchill said in 1954, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war.”  Should yesterday’s meeting in Singapore lead to further dialogue, that in and of itself is not a bad thing.  It may lead to larger achievements.  Or, it may not.

Given the past history of negotiations with the North Koreans, yesterday’s agreement is less impressive than others under past administrations and therefore does not give anyone solace that the results will be any better.  Here are the highlights of part of the history of past negotiations and agreements.  Note the continuing pattern.  The North Koreans express their willingness to end their nuclear and missile programs in exchange for normalized political and economic relations with the US and the rest of the world.  Deja vu all over again?

  • In December 1985, the DPRK agrees to join the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) but does not complete the inspection agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the international inspectors.  The DPRK linked its approval for IAEA inspectors to the US withdrawing all of its nuclear weapons from the peninsula.
  • In September 1991 President George H.W. Bush announces the unilateral withdrawal of all tactical nuclear weapons from the Korean peninsula.  In response, in November the South Korean president renounces the all elements of nuclear weapons including deployment from other nations and programs to develop their own.
  • In January 1992 the two Koreas sign the South-North Declaration of Denuclearization  of the Korean Peninsula prohibiting nuclear weapons and allowing for mutual inspection and verification.  Later in the year, the DPRK came to allow IAEA inspectors into the country.
  • In June 1994, former president Jimmy Carter negotiates a deal where the DPRK agrees to “freeze” its nuclear program in exchange for high level talks with the US.
  • In October 1994 the US and DPRK adopt the Geneva “Agreed Framework” where the DPRK will freeze its nuclear program and work to dismantle what is in place in exchange for heating oil and other economic assistance and a call for the normalization of all relations between the US and DPRK.
  • In the next few years, the US imposes ever harsher sanctions on the DPRK as they are found to be exporting missile and nuclear technology to countries such as Iran and Pakistan.
  • Late in 1998 President Bill Clinton appoints former Secretary of Defense William Perry to coordinate the US response to North Korean missile and nuclear advances.  The CIA assessed that the DPRK has the capability to reach Hawaii and Alaska with a ballistic missile.
  • Negotiations continue throughout 1999 with an agreement for a reduction in sanctions in response to the renewed inspection of DPRK efforts to dismantle their programs in a “step by step reciprocal fashion.
  • In June 2000 North and South Korea announce an historic agreement to “resolve the question of reunification” of the Korean peninsula.
  • Throughout 2000 envoys from the US and DPRK meet in various locations culminating in the unprecedented visit by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to the DPRK capital in Pyongyang.
  • In January 2002 President George W. Bush includes North Korea in his “axis of evil” along with Iran and Iraq.
  • In April 2003 Trilateral Talks with the US, DPRK, and China get underway and the DPRK announces that they have nuclear weapons, the first time that they admitted having them.  They tell the US that they would be willing to get rid of them in exchange for “something considerable in return.”
  • Later in the month, Six Party talks are held and the DPRK proposes a step-by-step solution including a “non-aggression treaty,” normalized relations. and the US provides heating fuel and increased food aid, among other things.  In return they will dismantle their nuclear facility and end missile testing and exports.
  • In September 2005 the Six Party talks resume and the DPRK agrees to work to achieve a “verifiable denuclearization of the Korean peninsula in a peaceful manner.”  It will be done in a phased manner in a step-by-step way.
  • In July 2006 the DPRK launches seven missiles, six of which are assessed to be successful.  The UN Security Council condemns the launches and demands that they cease.  The DPRK refuses.
  • And so on, and so on, and so on.  The DPRK comes to the negotiating table, promises to end all of its programs and then proceeds to break all of its promises as the US, the UN Security Council and the world in general condemn them and institute sanctions.

Note how similar the language (in bold, just in case you missed it) is in all of these talks, agreements and protocols compared to Mr. Trump’s announcements as to his belief that Kim will abide by his word.

Kim came to the table because of the nuclear and ballistic missile capability that he now possesses.  He came to display his power as a world player co-equal to the President of the United States thanks to his nuclear capability.  He did not come to turn them over.  The agreements above (and more!) were very, very specific, technical, and based on the complicated and meticulous analytical tools needed to inspect and verify that the North Koreans are complying.

Compare that level of detail with the “agreement” signed in Singapore.  (The full text is here.)  It is surprisingly short and devoid of specifics.  The four main points in the document are (emphasis is mine):

  • “The United States and the DPRK commit to establish new U.S.-DPRK relations in accordance with the desire of the peoples of the two countries for peace and prosperity.”
  • “The United States and the DPRK will join their efforts to build a lasting and stable peace regime on the Korean peninsula.”
  • “Reaffirming the April 27, 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, the DPRK commits to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.”
  • “The United States and the DPRK commit to recovering POW/MIA remains, including the immediate repatriation of those already identified.”

That’s it.  The rest of the agreement talks (several times) about the “historic” nature of the meeting and other diplomatic language.  No specifics.  No timelines.  No next meetings.  Nothing.  Arguably only the recovery of POW/MIA remains is concrete.

In addition, much to the surprise and consternation of our allies in South Korea and Japan, the president said that he verbally agreed to halt all US exercises on and around Korea — or as he calls them “war games.”  Mr. Trump opined that “We will be saving a tremendous amount of money. Plus, it is very provocative.”  He also went on to say that he hopes to bring US troops home from the peninsula soon.

Provocative?  Really?  Maybe in Kim’s eyes but hardly in those of the South Koreans or Japanese.  There is a reason that there has been no further large-scale conflict on the Korean peninsula all of these decades. In large part it has to do with our presence and demonstrated capability and will to defend our allies as shown through those “provocative” military exercises.

And what did the US get in return?  A promise to “work toward” denuclearization.  Right in line with roughly three decades of such promises.  There isn’t even a delineation of what, exactly, denuclearization means.  In all previous instances it was clear that the US has a different idea of what that word means as compared to what the DPRK thinks it means.  Whatever happened to “trust but verify?”

Mr. Trump got rolled by Kim.

It was a fantastic public relations coup for both Mr. Trump and Kim.  It looked great, sounded good, and caught the world’s attention.  There was very little to no substance, but hey, it was a PR success.

Surely we can all start over and forget all about the fact that Kim is one of history’s most ruthless dictators that brutally kills his own family members, has 100,000 or more of his citizens in gulags, and routinely starves the general population when funds are needed to pursue his nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.  Water under the bridge.  He took selfies!  He has a nice smile!  He seems like such a nice young man.  Very “talented” and “honorable” according to Mr. Trump.  Give a guy a chance to start over, okay?

But perhaps I’m too pessimistic.  After all, I’m so twentieth century.  Maybe this is a new era with new players and I just don’t see it.

Indeed, I hope that I am wrong.  I truly hope that Mr. Trump’s assessment of Kim Jung Un is correct and that he really does want to do the right thing and leave behind everything that he, his father, and his grandfather worked for all of these many years.

Maybe.

I hope that the glass is half full and that this is the beginning a new, safer era.  Unfortunately we were fooled and played by the North Koreans for so many years that I can only think that it happened again.  The glass is half empty.  With a hole in it.


An Unsteady Hand On the Helm

“Because it’s an economic enemy, because they have taken advantage of us like nobody in history. They have; it’s the greatest theft in the history of the world what they’ve done to the United States. They’ve taken our jobs.” — Candidate Donald J. Trump 3 Nov 2015 responding to a question on China.

“President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”  — The President on Twitter on 13 May 2018

To some, developments surrounding the giant Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE may be a little too technical and down in the weeds.  I think it is a perfect example of how erratically and whimsically the current president operates.  It may also demonstrate that the president is primarily interested in policies that benefit him or his company rather than the nation as a whole.

Stick with me while I outline what happened.  It really is not that complicated.  Consider these facts regarding ZTE.

  • ZTE is a Chinese government-owned telecommunications company, based in China, that manufactures cellphones and other equipment with clients in 160 countries and research centers around the world.
  • ZTE uses U.S. technology and parts that make up nearly half of the materials they use.  They are also the fourth largest seller of smartphones in the U.S.
  • In 2012 the U.S. House Intelligence Committee released an in-depth report on ZTE (and another Chinese company named Huawei) saying that the company poses a national security threat because they are stealing U.S. technology.  The report recommends that “U.S. government systems, particularly sensitive systems, should not include Huawei or ZTE equipment, including component parts.” There was, and presumably still is, a concern that ZTE may be using their products to spy on the U.S. or to provide the opportunity to disrupt essential activities.
  • In 2016 the Commerce Department found that ZTE was violating sanctions laws by selling devices, that included U.S. made parts, to Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Cuba — all under embargoes at the time.
  • In April, the Commerce Department banned it from buying U.S. technology or products for seven years.
  • The Defense Department banned the sale of ZTE and Huawei phones on military bases through the Post Exchange and Navy Exchange systems as they “may pose an unacceptable risk to the department’s personnel, information and mission.”
  • Last week ZTE reported that they were stopping all “major operating activities” which was widely understood to mean that they were going out of business because they could no longer get U.S. parts needed to continue their operation.

So, to summarize, the president is helping a Chinese company that is well-known as a sanctions violator and a threat to U.S. national security to get back into business by ordering the U.S. Commerce Department to “get it done!”  Why?

To be blunt, no one is quite sure.  But of course many people are never quite sure why Mr. Trump does many of the things that he does.  There are several theories, however.

The U.S. is about to enter into a major trade war with China if negotiations taking place this week fail.  Chinese President XI was reported to be “furious” about the decision to ban sales of parts to ZTE and threatened to impose harsh sanctions on the U.S. and/or to walk away from the trade negotiations.  So, apparently, the president on Sunday caved to his demands before ever reaching the negotiating table because it was politically more important to him to get a “deal” than to protect national security.  (Some analysts speculate that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un saw how quickly the president gave in to get something he wanted (“better trade deals with China”) and thus, among other reasons, threatened to walk away from talks with the U.S. in order get concessions.  But I digress.)

As part of that political calculation, Mr. Trump may be, rightly or wrongly, putting the interests of his supporters above national security.  When the Trump administration unilaterally imposed tariffs on Chinese imports earlier this year, the Chinese retaliated by refusing to buy U.S. soy beans.  China is the second-largest market for U.S. agricultural exports.  According to the Department of Agriculture, soy beans are the main crop sold to them.  By the beginning of May, China reportedly cancelled all purchases of U.S. soy beans and turned to Canada and Brazil for their supply.  If the ban continues, it will have a major economic impact in farm communities around the country, but especially in the mid-west.  Farmers are rightly worried that once the Chinese shift to other markets, they will never return to buying U.S. soy beans, whether or not tariffs and trade wars are resolved.  To me, this is yet one more example of Mr. Trump making a grand pronouncement and acting tough without consideration, or more accurately without understanding, the ramifications of his actions.  Other nations will not be dictated to by our president, especially other strong countries with their own interests at stake.

Other possible reasons may be that he may wrangle concessions from China as a quid pro quo to helping ZTE, thus helping to avoid a deep and wide-spread trade war.  Mr. Trump may also have done it because he needs China’s help and cooperation in dealing with Kim Jong Un in North Korea.

There may also be another reason for Mr. Trump caving so quickly.  He tweeted (is this the only way he can communicate with his own administration?) his command to the Commerce Department to save Chinese jobs on Sunday.  Only three days before that, another Chinese government-owned company agreed to finance 500 million dollars of development in Indonesia that will include a hotel, condominiums, and (what else?) a championship golf course with the Trump brand.  The deal will significantly benefit Trump, Inc., the company that he continues to get income from as president.  The deal has been in the works for a considerable period of time, but we can all be assured that the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the actions against ZTE or the impending trade talks.  According to some Constitutional scholars, it may also put the president in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bans gifts from foreign governments.

Whichever reason, or combination of reasons, explains his abrupt about face, Mr. Trump’s action sets a dangerous precedent.  Besides continuing to reinforce the international perception that Mr. Trump is mercurial and cannot be trusted — thus raising questions as to why enter any deal with the U.S. — it violates the long-standing U.S. principle that trade decisions should not be based solely on domestic political reasons.  This is particularly crucial with respect to trade enforcement decisions.  Once other leaders discern that Mr. Trump is willing to cave on issues of trade or national security for purely domestic political reasons, expect more of them to demand concessions for their own issues.

Additionally, putting politics above enforcement weakens our positions on the rule of law and the normal course of interactions between nations.  If  there are no rules, or if the rules can change on Mr. Trump’s whim, we lose all standing to insist that other governments abide by their own agreements.  There appears to be little to no consideration by Mr. Trump as to what happens next when he makes these arbitrary decisions.  As I wrote in my last piece in this space, a prudent decision maker and government leader will consider the consequences of decisions and the subsequent actions that must take place — whether successful, or not successful, or when perverse and unexpected consequences result.

Finally, there are those in and out of government that worry that the Negotiator-in-Chief really is not that good at it.  In this case and others, he demonstrates a propensity to give up leverage (in this case the actions against ZTE) before getting the other side to offer up their own concessions.  In this case China offered nothing in return for the president rescinding the actions against ZTE.  Based on his tweet on Monday, it may be that Mr. Trump’s biggest concern is keeping his good buddy President XI happy.

“ZTE, the large Chinese phone company, buys a big percentage of individual parts from U.S. companies. This is also reflective of the larger trade deal we are negotiating with China and my personal relationship with President Xi.”
This Tweet came only hours after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, in relation to the ZTE issue, that “our position has been that that’s an enforcement action separate from trade.”  So much for the left hand, right hand, and all that.
The ship of state sails on.  We can only guess where we end up.

Hubris Replaces Foreign Policy

This week the President announced that the United States would withdraw from the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the “Iran Deal.”  It is impossible to predict the short and long-term impacts of this action, but there are huge changes on the horizon as a result.  Some analysts have called our withdrawal the biggest change in the international world order since World War II.  There are many reasons why this may be true.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that the JCPOA was not meant to solve every problem in the Middle East or even to inhibit Iranian adventurism in promoting unrest in the area or their possible development of ballistic missiles.  It was meant, in very technical and specific ways, to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program.  It worked.  The Iranians, unlike the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, do not have nuclear weapons, thanks to the agreement.  There are many valid criticisms of the Iran Deal, and you may even think that the president made the right decision, but to truly discuss it, one must remember that it was meant to be a stepping stone to resolving other issues, including those not addressed in the JCPOA.  Sanctions against Iran for violating existing limits on ballistic missile developments, or as a reaction to other valid issues of concern could still be imposed.  This is one of the reasons why the Europeans pushed so hard for the U.S. to stay in the agreement and to work with them to tackle the other legitimate issues that should be addressed.

The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from a multi-lateral agreement where by all accounts, all elements of the agreement were being followed by all of the members.  During his confirmation hearings just a few weeks ago, now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked if the Iranians were in compliance with the agreement, said “With the information I have been provided, I have seen no evidence they are not in compliance today.”  Further, when asked if the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon, Secretary Pompeo, who was the head of the CIA at the time of his nomination, said, “Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal, there is no indication that I am aware of that if the deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon.”  Recall that under the Iran Deal, Iranian facilities are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and are subject to no notice inspections.  There is no evidence of cheating as some claim.  No proof exists that they have abrogated their responsibilities and indeed the international consensus is that the Iranians have fully complied.

In matters of diplomacy and military strategy, a long-standing adage is that one must always strive to “seize the initiative.”  We have now conceded the initiative to Iran.  They stand on the moral high ground in this agreement as they have filled all of the requirements.  We are the ones that left the agreement, even as we concede that it is working as designed.  Mr. Trump upon announcing our immediate withdrawal gave no specific reasons for doing so other than vague pronouncements that the agreement was “defective at its core.”  Presumably, he means that some years in the future,  the “sunset” clauses of the agreement will kick in and Iran will build nuclear weapons. Besides being technically incorrect, this argument ignores two important factors.  One we know, and the other is speculative but within reason.  First, right now Iran has no nuclear weapons.  Assuming the worst, which over simplifies reality, under the agreement they could start working on them again in ten years.  The last time I looked ten was better than zero. They now have the decision in their hands as to whether to resume their program or not.  They didn’t break the agreement, we did. Secondly, ten years of steady diplomatic effort, as all sides benefit from the agreement, could readily persuade Iran that building nuclear weapons was not in their best interests.  Even if they did threaten to resume their program, nothing precludes the international community from reinstating severe sanctions and other measures to keep them from building them.

Mr. Trump announced the immediate reinstatement of sanctions against Iran and reasoned that sanctions brought the Iranians to the table before and so it will bring them back again for “a better deal.”  Perhaps he is correct.  Even under the current agreement, Iran’s economy is in dire straits.  It might work.  However, logic says that Iran has no incentive to return to the table for a better — to the U.S., but not Iran — deal.  Most obviously, the U.S. walked away from the last deal.  It would be easy for them to brand us as “liars” that cannot be trusted to stick to any agreement.  What trust will they have, even if they return to the table, that we will stand by what we say?  None.

More importantly, we had a multi-national sanctions effort the last time around.  The JCPOA was an agreement between the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, the European Union, and Iran. It was unanimously ratified by the United Nations Security Council.  All other signatories have clearly stated their intention to remain in the agreement, which means no universal sanctions will be reimposed on Iran.  The U.S. may be the biggest economic power in the world, but we cannot alone bring Iran to its knees economically if other nations trade freely with them.  The other members of the agreement have asked Iran to remain in the agreement.  Again, this gives the initiative to Iran.  They may actually want a “better deal” — for them — with the other nations involved as their price for remaining within the agreement.

The president clearly does not understand that the “enemy” has a vote on how things go.  We cannot dictate to other nations when they do not see that their own best interests are being served.  Playing hard ball in a New York City real estate deal may work for him, but nations have other interests at play and can deploy their own form of hard ball.  The Iranian regime went through an eight year war with Iraq without flinching, even as they lost countless lives and treasure.  They are tough.  Bluster will not bring them to the table and may in fact, cause them to demonstrate their own resolve through some form of military action.

Clearly, the U.S. must act in its own best interests.  Always.  However, it is extremely short-sighted to isolate ourselves from our allies and to pretend that no deal can be a win-win for all nations.  Seemingly, to Mr. Trump everything is a zero sum, win-lose proposition.  This is not true and is dangerous in the international arena.  We are quickly isolating ourselves and may find that in a time of need, we are on our own having burned too many bridges.  Other nations may allow “America First” to become “America Alone.”

This is what may be the most troubling aspect of Mr. Trump’s bluster and belligerence toward Iran.  This is why many analysts call this the biggest change in International Relations in the post-World War II era.  Our closest allies, U.K., Germany and France stand against us on this issue, and increasingly, on a number of other issues as well. Couple our stance on these issues with Mr. Trump’s disdain of NATO.  We are helping Mr. Putin achieve his fondest dream, the break up of the western alliance that stands between him and his ambitions.  As we draw away from our western allies, look for Mr. Putin to become ever more adventurous, especially in Estonia or another Baltic state where many ethnic Russians reside.

Mr. Trump’s imposition of sanctions includes any business or nation that does not follow our lead.  In other words, if he follows through, should Germany or any other ally continue doing business with Iran, then we, the U.S., would impose sanctions on those businesses and/or nations — even, he says, our allies.  He is banking (literally and figuratively since the biggest impact would be on the financial industry) that when push comes to shove, western Europe will fall in line and not do business with the Iranians.  That may or may not be a good bet.  Right now, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese plan to stand by the agreement.  If the Europeans cave to Mr. Trump — an action that is politically untenable in their own countries — and re-impose sanctions, the Russians and Chinese will do ever more business with Iran, and thereby achieve their own international goals.  Should the Europeans withdraw from the agreement at some time in the future, clearly the Iranians would have no incentive to abide by it on their end.

All of this, of course, ignores the fact that by withdrawing from the agreement, the U.S. increased the likelihood of war breaking out in the Middle East.  Indeed, just yesterday, Iranian forces fired directly on Israeli military forces for the first time.  The Israelis in turn, bombed Iranian forces and command and control nodes in Syria.  The chances for a major miscalculation, or misunderstood bellicosity, could lead to major regional warfare.

Finally, none of us can currently evaluate the impact of our withdrawal from the Iran Deal as it impacts ongoing negotiations with North Korea.  Mr. Trump and Mr. John Bolton his National Security Adviser, claim that it will strengthen our hand in those discussions because it shows how tough we are.  Or as Mr. Trump said on Tuesday about our withdrawal from the Iran Deal, “the United States no longer makes empty threats.”  It is unclear what he means by that, but I suppose it his way of sounding tough.

An alternative outcome may be that Kim Jung Un comes to believe that along with Saddam and Muhamar Quaddafi, one can put Iran on the list of those that made a deal with the U.S. to give up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and found that we could not be trusted.

Mr. Trump is already talking about the Nobel Peace Prize for his Korean efforts.  In that context, we should be worried that Mr. Trump will do whatever suits him at the moment to get good “ratings”.  Just another episode in the show and a chance to deflect from his problems at home.  However, I honestly hope that his efforts with North Korea pay off and they hand over their nuclear weapons and their ability to produce WMD, but we should be wary.  Frankly, it denies logic that Mr. Kim will hand over his WMD.  This will be at least the third time that North Korea promised to do so, the other two times they reneged.  The meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump will be historic.  If nothing else, we should be thankful that three American citizens held as prisoners in North Korea returned home last night.  To date, that action is the only substantive thing that Kim has done to show his willingness to deal.  They released prisoners in the past, too.  Which of course totally ignores the fact that U.S. citizens were taken as hostages in the first place.  They also kill them, as was the case with Mr. Otto Warmbier, the college student imprisoned and probably tortured by the Koreans who died as a result.  Talking is way better than fighting.  I hope the talks succeed, but I would not hold my breath.  Walking away from the Iran Deal complicates our negotiations with the Koreans.  More on that in a yet to be post in this space.

Maybe Mr. Trump walked away from the Iran Deal because his main foreign policy objective merely entails undoing anything and everything that President Obama put in place.  No clear foreign policy doctrine has emerged from this administration and as French President Macron and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said after talking to the president, there is no U.S. “Plan B.”  That makes it one mighty big gamble.  Every endeavor should have branches and sequels, or “what ifs.”  What if we succeed then what do we do?  What if we don’t succeed, what is the next step?  There is no discernible plan behind just walking away from the agreement.

One might suspect that Mr. Trump’s decision on the Iran Deal was done primarily because he could and that somehow it showed what a tough guy he was.  There are no next steps.  He should look up the definition of hubris (arrogance, conceit, pride, self-importance, egotism, pomposity, excessive pride or defiance leading to nemesis), and nemesis (the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall).

Hubris is not a policy.