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[update below]

The greatest parade in the world, as I say on every Bastille Day. Today’s was somewhat particular in view of the guest of honor, whom Emmanuel Macron invited to commemorate the centenary of America’s entry into World War I and the arrival of US troops in France. I was initially appalled by the specter of le gros con at the Place de la Concorde on France’s fête nationale but, after a few seconds of reflection, figured that it was totally normal that the president of the French Republic would invite the POTUS to Paris to mark the occasion, and all the more so as the parade was to be led by 190 American soldiers and with a flyover by US Air Force Thunderbirds and an F-22 Raptor.

As for the politics of the invitation, I think it was a shrewd move on Macron’s part. And Trump—who tweeted that the parade was “magnificent”—was clearly impressed and enjoyed himself. He looked like a boy seeing a military parade for the very first time (“Wow! Awesome! Why can’t we have parades like that?”). If that gets him gushing about France and enables Macron to roll him in the process, tant mieux.

The army marching band’s playing Daft Punk at the end: that was pretty cool IMO. I doubt anyone was expecting that one.

For pundit commentary, if one is interested, France 24 had a round-table last night on “Trump in Paris: America’s new place in the world.” The representative of Republicans in France: I had the dubious pleasure of debating him some seven years back. I told the debate host afterward never again to pair us in a contradictory exchange. As for the rep of La France Insoumise, he’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s spokesman for defense and foreign policy. No comment.

France 5’s ‘C dans l’air’ yesterday on Trump in Paris is also worth the watch.

UPDATE: The New Yorker’s very smart Francophile Adam Gopnik, in a comment otherwise riddled with small errors on French political parties and recent French political history, asks “Why is Emmanuel Macron being so nice to Donald Trump?”

See also the FT’s Gideon Rachman column, “Emmanuel Macron demonstrates fine art of handling Donald Trump.”

Writer and broadcaster Mary Dejevsky, writing in The Guardian, says that “Even in the face of Trump’s sexism, Macron is a genius in diplomacy.” The lede: “The French president showed elegance and discretion with Trump, as he has with Putin. His diplomatic skill shows up Theresa May’s ineptitude.”

And The Washington Post’s sharp Paris correspondent, James McAuley, says “‘Thank you, dear Donald’: Why Macron invited Trump to France.”

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Ottawa G7 summit meeting, 21 July 1981 (photo: Georges Bendrihem/AFP)

Ottawa G7 summit meeting, 21 July 1981 (photo: Georges Bendrihem/AFP)

This is the title of well-known filmmaker-author Patrick Rotman’s most interesting 55 minute documentary—en V.O., ‘Mitterrand l’Américain’—on François Mitterrand’s friendship with the United States, which aired on France 5 this past Sunday. Mitterrand, the first Socialist president of the French Fifth Republic—and who brought Communists into the government immediately after his election in May 1981, at the height of the Cold War—was Washington’s best ally during his fourteen years in power, so one learns. Rotman indeed portrays Mitterrand as an outright pro-American. This is not exactly the impression one has gathered from other sources, e.g. Ronald Tiersky’s biography but also in some of Mitterrand’s own pre-1981 writings. As Rotman’s principal informants were Mitterrand’s closest foreign and defense policy advisers in the Élysée—Jacques Attali, Hubert Védrine, and Admiral Jacques Lanxade, who are interviewed throughout—his depiction of the relationship is compelling.

Much of the story has been told over the years, e.g. the Americans’ alarm at the appointing of the four Communist ministers to Socialist prime minister Pierre Mauroy’s first government, President Reagan dispatching Vice-President Bush to Paris to find out what the French were up to, and Bush returning to Washington satisfied with Mitterrand’s assurances. This we know. What was said in private by the principal actors is most interesting, though. Védrine recounts that Mitterrand told Bush that there were no greater adversaries on the French political scene than the Socialists and the Communists, that the two rival left-wing parties were separated by, among many other things, fundamentally different conceptions of the “philosophie de l’homme” and of “la place de l’homme dans la société et l’État.” In Attali’s account, Mitterrand explained to Bush that the only way to reduce the weight of the Communist party in French society—the PCF representing 20-25% of the electorate from 1945 to the 1981 election—was to ally with it—with the unavowed goal of stripping it of its voters.

Attali, in recounting Bush’s June 1981 visit to the Élysée, said that the US vice-president was “intellectually a European” and with Mitterrand and his advisers having the sentiment that, in the company of Bush and his entourage, they were with “Europeans.” Well! Like father, not like son. A veritable friendship between Mitterrand and Bush was forged at this moment. Védrine described Bush as an “elegant and distinguished” man, one of the rare American presidents who possessed a “culture internationale” before acceding to executive office, that Bush exhibited “great consideration” for Mitterrand, and with the two men “appreciat[ing] one another greatly.”

As for Ronald Reagan, he and Mitterrand would become, in Rotman’s words, thick as thieves (“ils vont s’entendre comme larrons en foire“) and despite all that separated them politically. Between the French Parti Socialiste and US Republican Party, there wasn’t a whole lot in common. Reagan was wary of Mitterrand when the latter was elected—less than four months after Reagan’s inauguration—but changed his attitude, and particularly after they met at the Ottawa G7 summit in July ’81. The two developed a “warm relationship,” as Védrine tells it, adding that the common view of Reagan as an “idiot” was “totally false,” that he was “un homme simple, intelligent, perspicace,” and also “sympa et accueillant.” Attali, for his part, said that Mitterrand was fascinated by Reagan and they got along “marvelously well,” that Reagan was “warm and charming” and always telling “funny stories” during their down time together. When with Ron, François and his advisers “laughed a lot.” How about that. The Mitterrand-Reagan/Bush relationships were, along with perhaps that of Georges Pompidou and Richard Nixon, the closest of a French and American president(s) in our time.

The relationship was, of course, ultimately based less on personality than national interest and geopolitics. There were points of divergence here—and with tension in the Franco-American relationship ensuing—over the Euro-Siberian gas pipeline, French arms sales to Nicaragua, France’s refusal to include its nuclear force de frappe in any East-West arms control negotiations, and the 1986 US bombing of Libya (this not mentioned in the documentary), to name a few, but these were secondary, fleeting disputes and did not undermine the convergence over the really big issue—the Soviet Union—on which Mitterrand and Reagan were in complete agreement. That Mitterrand would be a faithful ally of the US vis-à-vis the Soviet Union was understood by Reagan at the Ottawa summit, when Mitterrand informed him of the Farewell Dossier, which Reagan’s National Security Advisor of the time, Richard Allen—interviewed in the documentary—called a “remarkable gift from France.” As Védrine put it, the Farewell Dossier was, for Reagan, proof of France’s “fiabilité, efficacité, et utilité” as an ally.

The proof in the pudding was, however, the Euromissile crisis. As it happens, last week I took my American students on a field trip to the Socialist Party HQ on the Rue de Solférino, where we were kindly received by a member of the PS National Secretariat, who gave us an informal talk about the party, past and present. During the discussion of the Mitterrand years I mentioned France’s alignment with the US on the Euromissiles and relative insignificance of the early 1980s “peace” movement here—unlike in Great Britain and West Germany at the time—to which he quoted Mitterrand’s famous words—seen in the documentary—that “pacifism is in the West whereas the SS-20s are in the East.”

Mitterrand’s hard line on the Soviets should not have been surprising in view of his own political past as an anti-communist, and who entered into the short-lived Common Program with the PCF for purely opportunistic reasons—as, in the 1970s, it was the only way for Mitterrand and the left to have a chance at winning national elections—but also, as mentioned above, for strategic ones, to crush the communists by embracing them. In this regard, the documentary reveals declassified cables from the US embassy in Paris detailing the secret contacts Mitterrand established with the US in the 1960s and ’70s, to assure the Americans of his indefatigable support for the Atlantic alliance. Mitterrand, who was an habitué of the Avenue Gabriel, told his American interlocutors that, once in power, he would junk Gaullism and lead a pro-American foreign policy, and that such had been his position since the Fourth Republic. And when Mitterrand entered into the circumstantial alliance with the PCF in the 1970s, he felt more than ever that he needed the United States.

Moving ahead to the Bush 41 administration, the documentary looks at the Mitterrand-Bush interactions in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, in which the convergence of views is highlighted more than the well-known disagreements, notably over the looming reunification of Germany (as Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher were rather less enthusiastic over the prospect than was Bush). The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was, of course, the overriding geopolitical issue in the latter half of 1990 and with Mitterrand deciding from the very outset that force would have to be used against Saddam Hussein if he did not unconditionally withdraw his troops. For Védrine, the French position was crystal clear, which is that it was quite simply impossible for the international community to allow a state to invade a neighboring state—and that was a member of the United Nations—and annex it outright. The Iraqi action could not be allowed to stand, as allowing it to would open all sorts of Pandora’s Boxes. As a consequence, Saddam would have to execute a complete withdrawal from Kuwait or be compelled to do so by the force of arms, period (my own personal position at the time was identical, BTW).

Védrine, emphasizing Mitterrand’s “profound attachment to the international order,” says that there was no pressure on this whatever from the Americans. For Mitterrand, however, military action against Iraq necessitated a UN Security Council resolution—which was forthcoming—and a broad international coalition, which was also forthcoming. As Admiral Lanxade, who was Mitterrand’s military chief-of-staff at the Élysée at the time and liaison with National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft in the White House, tells it, Mitterrand’s political entourage did not favor a close alignment with the United States over Iraq and that there was “reticence” to France participating in the impending military action. Lanxade does not name names, though one presumes that the reticent ones included Jean-Pierre Chevènement (obviously), Roland Dumas, Pierre Joxe, Paul Quilès, and perhaps Jack Lang. According to Lanxade, Mitterrand, faced with the qualms, informed the Council of Ministers in one meeting that “we may disagree with the Americans at times but we cannot be anti-American.” Boom! Fin de discussion.

Lanxade recounts the telephone conversation between Mitterrand and Bush on the eve of the international coalition’s military action against Iraq, on January 15th 1991. He calls the conversation “extraordinary” in tone and solemnity, recalling that of FDR and Winston Churchill on the eve of the D-Day landings. No less. Lanxade concludes that the quality of the Franco-American relationship in the early 1990s was “exceptional.”

The documentary ends with Bush’s departure from the White House and does not treat the two-plus years of Bill Clinton’s presidency that overlapped with Mitterrand’s. There probably isn’t much of note to recount, as it was the fin de règne for Mitterrand, who was in a cohabitation with the right and dying of prostate cancer. That he was disappointed that Bush was not reelected goes without saying. But it was not only on account of their personal relationship, as when it came to American presidents, the French, until the 1990s, systematically preferred Republicans to Democrats. And in 1992, no one in France knew Clinton—and whom the French political class, media, and public opinion did not take to until his persecution during the Monica Lewinsky affair in 1998, when he became hugely popular here. On this, the French were totally right.

The documentary may be watched until Sunday here (in France at least; it may or may not be viewable abroad). And here it is on YouTube.

As it so happens, François Mitterrand was born 100 years ago today. Joyeux anniversaire, tonton!

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North of the Mexico-Arizona border, 2007 (Photo credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)

North of the Mexico-Arizona border, 2007 (Photo credit: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times)

In case one missed it, Vox had a must-read piece by Dara Lind dated April 28th on America’s “disastrous, forgotten 1996 law that created today’s immigration problem.” The law in question, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), was forced on the Clinton administration by the Republican Congress of the time, though was not bereft of Democratic support and with President Clinton not exactly signing the bill under duress. Au contraire.

IIRIRA has indeed been a disastrous law, as it has dramatically increased the number of undocumented migrants in the US who could be—and have been—deported and without judicial recourse, curtailed the possibilities for undocumented migrants to regularize their status, and placed even legal resident aliens in more precarious situations. And Vox is correct to say that the law has been “forgotten,” as the only persons who know anything about it are professionals in the immigration field plus, obviously, undocumented migrants or legal immigrants who are directly concerned by its provisions.

This is one of those lois scélérates enacted in the 1990s—along with the crime and welfare bills—that will need to be repealed—that must be repealed—if the US is to reform its calamitous immigration system—and which is certainly worse than France’s. For that, there will, at minimum, need to be a Democrat in the White House and a Democratic majority in Congress. Inshallah.

On Donald Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the Mexican border, Princeton University sociologist Douglas S. Massey—who is one of the top academic specialists on the subjects of immigration and international migration, notably between Mexico and the US—has a tribune dated April 21st on the Market Watch website saying that it “would be a waste of money.” The reason: undocumented immigration from Mexico essentially ended in 2008, with more Mexicans returning home in the intervening years than heading north to the US. And the reason for this: there are fewer jobs for them in the US and more in Mexico. It has nothing to do with more restrictionist laws or border fences.

I somehow doubt Trump will read Massey on this—or change his mind if he does.

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Clinton vs Trump projection_Screenshot by Ryan Witt

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update]

Nice-looking map, though is not for real—at least not yet. It’s a projection of the outcome of a hypothetical Hillary Clinton-Donald Trump general election match-up based on polls taken in May and June of last year, which were worth what they were worth. I’m dubious about some of it—e.g. I really don’t see Wyoming voting Democratic under any circumstances and it is not out of the question that Texas could go blue—but am nonetheless confident that this is pretty much how the map will look on the night of November 8th in the now likely event that we do get that Clinton-Trump contest.

Continuing from my post of yesterday, in which I touched on the eventual legacy of Bernie Sanders’s candidacy, a likely one—that one hopes for, at any rate—is that it will push the Democratic Party to the left on issues relating to economic inequality, with the Dems advocating increased government action to reduce this. Bernie supporters are quite certain that such will not happen with Hillary in the White House but blogger-political science professor Scott Lemieux begs to differ. In a piece in TNR (April 29th) he explains, convincingly IMO, “Why Hillary will govern more like Bernie than people think,” arguing that if the Dems as a whole move left, Hillary will too, as, “in the end, parties matter just as much as individuals.” If Hillary is to govern from the left, though, it will be important that Bernie’s supporters stay mobilized and work within the Democratic Party, so Markos Moulitsas—founder-editor of the Über-partisan Daily Kos—exhorted them to do in a commentary after last Tuesday’s primaries.

Foreign policy is sure to be an issue in the campaign, particularly in view of what Trump has had to say on the subject, notably in his speech last Wednesday, which analyst Fred Kaplan trenchantly called “the most senseless, self-contradicting foreign policy speech by any major party’s presidential nominee in modern history” and “even more incoherent than his impromptu ramblings.” The Donald’s speech, needless to say, got low marks across the political spectrum (the NYT editorial on the speech has this great line: “When one has a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when one’s experience is limited to real estate deals, everything looks like a lease negotiation.”).

Hillary, ça va de soi, has no such credibility problem when it comes to foreign policy, though lefties have been denouncing her as a neocon warmonger for years. And more grist was added to the left’s Hillary hysteria mill with the NYT Magazine’s widely read article last week on “How Hillary Clinton became a hawk,” with author Mark Landler observing that “[t]hroughout her career [Hillary Clinton] has displayed instincts on foreign policy that are more aggressive than those of President Obama—and most Democrats.” Landler’s piece—an excerpt of his newly published book, which looks most interesting—quite literally struck terror into one well-known Hillary-hating Bernie Bro academic political science friend—otherwise a smart guy but who has a severe case of Clinton Derangement Syndrome—who asserted on social media that “I really do fear for what she would do as president.” He and other lefties have indeed been of the intimate conviction that Hillary, the day she takes office, will look around for a war to start, that she will order the Pentagon to attack some country, probably in the Middle East but maybe anywhere. And why will she do this? Because she likes war. And she’s Hillary Clinton. C’est tout.

People need to get a grip. Landler’s piece did indeed reveal Hillary’s deep respect for the men and women of the US military, her internationalism, and greater propensity than President Obama to advocate the use of force in situations where the option is seriously on the table. In this, she may be a little more hawkish than other establishment Democrats but, I would venture, no more so than her husband was, or than Al Gore or John Kerry likely would have been had they been elected POTUS. Her 2002 Iraq vote is a big stain—and that lefties do not forgive her for (though it wasn’t redhibitory for them in John Kerry’s case in ’04)—but would she have attacked Iraq had she been in the Oval Office at the time? I doubt it. Really.

Hillary is also being pilloried by lefties for the Libya intervention—for which she was the leading proponent in the administration—and particularly for the failure to adequately anticipate and deal with the aftermath. Personally, I thought Libya was a close call but tilted toward intervention; and once Obama made the decision, I was 100% gung-ho. As for the post-regime change planning, sure, this didn’t happen the way it should have, but it didn’t seem that way at the time. And I don’t recall any of today’s Monday morning Cassandra quarterbacks warning of it back then. Syria: Hillary was the most interventionist actor in the Obama administration through 2012. I didn’t share her viewpoint. But the Syria policy she advocated was not beyond the pale among Democrats—and was indeed that of certain Syria specialists whose analyses I respect. And Israel and her AIPAC speech? Ouf. So what? What difference does it make?

In short, Hillary is getting a bum rap from the left on foreign policy. In point of fact, she is an establishment Democrat and mainstream Hamiltonian—in the Walter Russell Mead sense—in her foreign policy positioning. Though I have largely sided with Obama in his foreign policy decisions, I don’t have a problem with Hillary in this domain. And Hillary’s “toughness”—how I hate that word—on foreign policy will likely draw Republican defectors in November—who will discount her progressive positions on domestic issues (banking on the GOP holding the House and thereby acting as a brake). And the more Republican defectors, the wider her margin of victory will be and, consequently, the better Democratic candidates down-ballot are likely to perform. So let’s keep our eyes on the big picture.

But “[i]s Hillary Clinton really the foreign policy super-hawk she is portrayed to be?” so asks Vox’s Max Fisher? Answer: it’s a complicated question but, in short, no, she is, in fact, not; and she is far more dovish than any of the remaining Republican candidates. And, pour mémoire, she wholeheartedly supported the Iran deal and secretly pushed for normalization with Cuba for years before it finally happened.

All this being said, though, I still feel more comfortable with Bernie’s foreign policy vision as spelled out by UMass Amherst political science professor and informal Bernie adviser Charli Carpenter, in a post (April 27th) on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog.

On the subject of foreign policy, did one see Obama’s speech in Hannover last Monday, in which he spoke about Europe? If not, watch it here. He’s excellent, comme d’hab’.

Some have expressed concern about Hillary being indicted for the email business, which would put a serious crimp in her candidacy indeed. But in point of fact, she most likely won’t be indicted and shouldn’t be, as Richard O. Lempert—the Eric Stein Distinguished University Professor of Law and Sociology emeritus at the University of Michigan—explained in an “objective legal analysis” in The American Prospect (March 20th), asserting that “[t]here is no reason to think that Clinton committed any crimes with respect to the use of her email server.” And how likely is it that the Obama administration’s Justice Department will legally pursue Hillary over this?

As for the emails, The Guardian’s political columnist Jill Abramson read through them, leading her to assert (March 28th) that “[t]his may shock you: Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest,” adding that “I investigated Hillary and know she likes a ‘zone of privacy’ around her[; t]his lack of transparency, rather than any actual corruption, is her greatest flaw.” And then, FWIW, there’s the témoignage by an anonymous activist, who wrote that “[she] was one of the most ardent Hillary haters on the planet…until [she] read her emails.”

And Hillary’s speeches at Goldman Sachs and her stonewalling on releasing the transcripts? MoJo’s Kevin Drum is pretty sure there’s nothing there—that, as an issue, it’s one big nothing—and that “[e]veryone knows why [she] won’t release her Goldman Sachs speeches.”

And then there was Charles Koch saying that he could just possibly vote for Hillary in November, which prompted an “aha!” from Hillary-hating gauchistes on social media (which I saw with my own eyes). But The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, who has written the most important book out there on the Koch brothers and their malevolent influence in the GOP—and in American politics more generally—dismissed that out of hand (April 26th), saying “Koch for Clinton? Not a chance.”

On the Republicans, just four points. First, though I am not displeased by the prospect of Trump’s nomination—in view of the debacle it will bring about for the GOP in November—I nonetheless adhere to Slate columnist Jamelle Bouie’s sentiment (April 27th) on Trump’s apparent triumph, which is “Don’t ever get used to it: This is unprecedented and terrifying.” Second, in case one missed it, read Paul Krugman’s April 25th column on the “The 8 A.M. Call,” on how we would really not want to have Trump or Ted Cruz at the helm in the event of a sudden global financial meltdown. Third, Trumpism is the likely future of the Republican Party—and Clintonism of the Democrats—as Michael Lind argued (April 16th) in the NYT. Fourth, as Politico reports (April 29th), both Dem and GOP insiders are convinced that “Clinton [will] crush Trump in November.” Voilà.

UPDATE: There have actually been a few analyses of Trump’s foreign policy speech by serious persons that have been less dismissive of it than those of most mainstream commentators. E.g. Jacob Heillbrun—editor of The National Interest—explained in Politico (April 27th) “Why [he] hosted Trump’s foreign policy speech.” Writing in TPM (April 28th), John Judis asserted that “Trump’s foreign policy speech should be discussed not dismissed.” Salon’s foreign affairs columnist Patrick L. Smith submitted (April 28th) that “Trump opposed Iraq, Hillary voted for war: Let’s take his foreign policy vision seriously,” further opining that “Trump gets some things very wrong, but [the] speech was still daring, spot on and [an] important contrast with Hillary.” And the Financial Times’s Edward Luce weighed in on the speech in a column (May 1st) entitled “Donald Trump’s war with best and brightest,” in which he asserted that “[Trump’s] confused foreign policy still offers a legitimate contrast to Clinton’s.”

John Judis has another column on Trump in TPM (May 1st), BTW, this on his economic vision: “Trumponomics explained – sort of.”

2nd UPDATE: NYT columnist Ross Douthat has had a couple of good pieces of late. One, “The idea of Trump’s electability,” examines the intriguing question of why Republican primary voters are about to deliver the nomination to a candidate who is manifestly one of the most unelectable of the 22 or however many it was who entered the race, when electability has always been an important criteria for voters in primaries. In the other, “Give us a king!,” Douthat discusses the increasing support in the American electorate for a strong presidency, or what he calls “executive branch Caesarism.” Money quote: “That clamor [for a strong executive] is loudest from the Trumpistas and their dear leader. Donald Trump is clearly running to be an American caudillo, not the president of a constitutional republic, and his entire campaign is a cult of personality in the style of (the pro-Trump) Vladimir Putin.”

3rd UPDATE: University of Nebraska political science profs John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse have a must-read post (May 2nd) on WaPo’s Monkey Cage blog, “A surprising number of Americans dislike how messy democracy is. They like Trump.” According to their data, the “surprising number of Americans [who] feel dismissive about such core features of democratic government as deliberation, compromise and decision-making by elected, accountable officials” are far more Republican than Democrat.

In this vein, Andrew Sullivan has a pessimistic, almost alarmist article in the May 2nd issue of New York magazine on—what else?—the Trump phenomenon: “Democracies end when they are too democratic: And right now, America is a breeding ground for tyranny.” Money quote (one among a number):

And so those Democrats who are gleefully predicting a Clinton landslide in November need to both check their complacency and understand that the Trump question really isn’t a cause for partisan Schadenfreude anymore. It’s much more dangerous than that. Those still backing the demagogue of the left, Bernie Sanders, might want to reflect that their critique of Clinton’s experience and expertise — and their facile conflation of that with corruption — is only playing into Trump’s hands. That it will fall to Clinton to temper her party’s ambitions will be uncomfortable to watch, since her willingness to compromise and equivocate is precisely what many Americans find so distrustful. And yet she may soon be all we have left to counter the threat. She needs to grasp the lethality of her foe, moderate the kind of identity politics that unwittingly empowers him, make an unapologetic case that experience and moderation are not vices, address much more directly the anxieties of the white working class—and Democrats must listen.

And the concluding paragraph

For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.

Sullivan’s article is long—almost 8,000 words—but is worth the read.

4th UPDATE: Bruce Bartlett has reposted on his Facebook page his thoughts (here) on Trump’s candidacy dated last August 30th. They were prescient and worth rereading today.

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Vladimir-Putin-Islamic-State-troops-609757

This piece by George Soros in Project Syndicate (February 10th) merits a blog post, not a mere tweet. It begins

The leaders of the United States and the European Union are making a grievous error in thinking that President Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a potential ally in the fight against the Islamic State. The evidence contradicts them. Putin’s current aim is to foster the EU’s disintegration, and the best way to do so is to flood the EU with Syrian refugees.

Soros gets it right, IMHO. Putin, via Russia’s action in Syria, is out to destroy the European Union as a supranational political entity and assert Russian primacy in Europe. Europeans need to understand this and, if they have the interest and will, to resist it.

On Syria and US policy, Aaron David Miller has a spot on tribune in The Wall Street Journal (February 12th), “The flawed logic in blaming the U.S. for Syria’s humanitarian crisis.” ADM concludes

As horrible as the destruction in Syria has become, the U.S. doesn’t bear primary responsibility. A more accurate assessment starts with Bashar Assad, ISIS, Iran (and Hezbollah), and Russia.

In case one missed it, Vox’s Max Fisher has a must-read post dated February 10th on the “14 hard truths on Syria no one wants to admit.”

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Barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, December 2013 (photo: Aleppo Media Centre)

Barrel bomb attack, Aleppo, December 2013 (photo: Aleppo Media Centre)

I’ve been riveted these days to the refugee crisis in Europe, as have millions of others, and specifically to the tragedy of the Syrians who are landing on the continent en masse. I’ve had tears in my eyes more than once watching the televised interviews of Syrian refugees who have lost everything: their homes, livelihoods, life savings, family and friends dispersed—when not killed—social networks gone… And their country. Lost forever. Syria is shattered. It’s finished and won’t be put back together. The Syrian people are living through a nightmare such that I cannot begin to imagine. (If one has two hours to spare, France 2’s Envoyé Special two days ago was entirely devoted to the refugee crisis and may be viewed here through next Thursday).

One consequence of the surge of Syrian refugees on Europe’s shores has been a proliferation of commentaries trashing President Obama’s non-interventionist Syria policy of the past four years. I’ve been seeing a fair amount of this on social media, with those denouncing Obama’s inaction calling it the biggest stain—that’s the favored word (tache, en français)—on his foreign policy record. The Obama-bashers include not only right-wingers—whom I pay no attention to, as they just want to bash Obama—but also academics, policy intellectuals, and MENA-specialized journalists whom I highly respect—some I know personally—such as him, him, him, and him; also see him and him. These Obama detractors have, needless to say, been arguing for intervention in the Syrian civil war since the outset—arming “moderate” rebel forces (i.e. the Free Syrian Army), establishing a no-fly zone, and/or taking out the Syrian barrel bombers via air power. I was totally opposed to an intervention to August 2013—as I wrote several times here on AWAV—though became more open-minded on the question after the Ba’athist regime’s chemical weapons attack in Ghouta—Obama’s famous “red line.” But Obama, seeing that he did not have the support of Congress or US public opinion—overwhelmingly hostile to another American war in the Middle East—decided against sending in the USAF. If there’s been a valid critique of Obama on Syria, it was his about-face at this moment; he could have acted the “leader” and done what he was thought was right—and not left France in the lurch,which was not nice—though it would have certainly been a fool’s errand in the end: an open-ended conflict with no end game, overwhelming pressure for the use of ground troops—which absolutely no one has advocated (at least openly)—and the US coming up against Russia, Iran, and Hizbullah, not to mention its putative regional allies—Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar—who have been arming non-moderate rebels from the very outset and are going to do what they’re going to do in Syria regardless of US may wish. The US would have been intervening in an exceptionally nasty and complex civil war, and that had already been invested by a number of regional actors who feel they have more at stake in the outcome than the US does itself. Syria is a catastrophe and would have been even if the US had done everything the interventionists had advocated. So despite legitimate criticisms of the president’s decisions, I have little patience for the Obama-bashing of my interventionist associates.

Saying all this better than I ever could is Aaron David Miller, who has an excellent, first-rate, 100% bull’s-eye essay in Foreign Policy, “It’s not Obama’s fault.” The lede: “The inconvenient truths about why you can’t blame the West for what’s happened in Syria.” ADM gets it exactly right on Obama and Syria. No money quotes. Just read the piece. The whole thing.

On Obama’s MENA policy more generally, see Marc Lynch’s excellent article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, “Obama and the Middle East: Rightsizing the U.S. Role.” Lynch has his critiques of Obama’s MENA policy comme moi—e.g. I will fault him for pulling back from Libya after the successful intervention and backing the Saudis in Yemen—but defends it in the main. He begins

Critics of U.S. President Barack Obama’s Middle East strategy often complain that Obama lacks a strategic vision. This is almost exactly wrong. Obama came to office with a conviction that reducing the United States’ massive military and political investment in the Middle East was a vital national security interest in its own right. The occupation of Iraq and the excesses of the war on terrorism had left the United States overextended, especially at a time of economic crisis. “Rightsizing” the United States’ footprint in the region meant not only reducing its material presence but also exercising restraint diplomatically, stepping back and challenging allies to take greater responsibility for their own security. Obama has adhered consistently to this strategy, prioritizing it ruthlessly along the way and firmly resisting efforts to force it off track. This was not a strategy much beloved in Washington or in a region hard-wired for the exercise of American power. But it was a clear and coherent strategy that led Obama to undertake major initiatives on the problems he viewed as rising to the level of core national security interests: Iran’s nuclear weapons program, terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the war in Iraq.

On Syria, Lynch has this

The defining issue of Obama’s tenure will likely be Syria, whose bloodshed, radicalization, and regional destabilization will haunt the Middle East for decades to come. Few policies have been criticized more widely than Obama’s refusal to become militarily involved in support of Syria’s insurgency. It is easy to understand the outrage in the face of the Syrian regime’s unrelenting carnage and daily evils. But the hard reality, which Obama understood, is that none of the popular proposals for intervention would have made things better. Syria was doomed to its horrific civil war almost from the moment President Bashar al-
Assad chose to resort to military repression to stay in power and his opponents chose to take up arms and transform a peaceful uprising into an insurgency. U.S. forces could have been more or less deeply involved in the civil war that followed, but no degree of U.S. military intervention would have solved the problem. Even a large-scale military action would likely have failed, as the fruitless occupation of Iraq so painfully demonstrated.

Supporters of a Syria intervention usually insisted that they did not want U.S. boots on the ground. But the Obama administration was keenly aware of the pressures for escalation that would have followed even a limited operation, because the ideas for a limited U.S. intervention made little sense. Assad was not going to run away at the first sign of NATO bombers, and the limits of airpower have been demonstrated by the air campaign in Iraq and Syria against the Islamic State. A no-fly zone might have quickly grounded Assad’s air force, but it would not have protected rebels from mortars or ground actions. Providing antiaircraft weapons to the rebels would have made a tactical difference but would also have posed 
a threat to civil aviation. The U.S. military would have had to defend any safe areas that it declared, which could not be done from the air alone.

Arming the opposition, the most popular proposal and one that the United States has fitfully pursued, 
was always the least likely to succeed. The Syrian opposition was from the beginning hopelessly fragmented and has become increasingly radicalized as the war has ground on. As early as 2012, huge amounts of money and guns were already flowing to opposition groups from the Gulf countries and Turkey, and covert U.S. operations were already under way. But there were few effective and ideologically acceptable groups that the United States could comfortably arm. Arming the opposition would not have given the United States control over these groups, and it would have inevitably entailed U.S. support for extreme jihadists. Insurgents do insurgent things, and as the Syrian uprising morphed into an insurgency, it became increasingly radicalized and brutal.

Assad’s foreign patrons roughly matched whatever support came to the insurgents. As a result, increased external help for the Syrian rebels led only to a more destructive balance of power, with minor fluctuations in each direction within a broader strategic stalemate. And an empowered opposition was always going to become less willing to compromise, as was an empowered Assad. Short of an outright victory by one side, no balance of power could have compelled negotiations.

In the face of all of this, the Obama administration was wise to resist the slippery slope of intervention and instead to try to corral its allies, shape the conditions for negotiations, and alleviate human suffering. Its worst blunder, the aborted bombing threat of August and September 2013, demonstrated just how easy it was to get drawn in: Obama’s redline on the use of chemical weapons had been mostly a rhetorical sop to give the appearance of toughness, but once articulated, it became costly to abandon. Obama was wise enough to walk away and pay the reputational costs of backing down—but it is telling how near a thing the bombing was.

As with ADM, Marc Lynch says it better than I. C’est tout ce que j’ai à dire.

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obama-foreign-policy

Yesterday I had a post taking apart putative GOP foreign policy heavyweight Marco Rubio’s critique of President Obama’s action in this domain, and notably in the Middle East. So now I come across an article in the upcoming issue of Foreign Affairs, by the journal’s editor Gideon Rose, on Obama’s foreign policy record, which, Rose argues, is very largely positive.

The piece begins with the inevitable sports metaphor

How should one judge a president’s handling of foreign policy? Some focus on what happens in a few lonely moments of crisis, casting the nation’s leader as Horatius at the bridge or Casey at the bat. But a better analogy would be a member of a relay team or a middle relief pitcher: somebody who takes over from a predecessor, does a hard job for a while, and then passes things on to the next guy.

In baseball, there are special statistics used to judge such players, the hold and the blown save, which essentially tally whether the pitcher’s team keeps or loses the lead while he’s in the game. Looked at in such a light, Barack Obama has done pretty well. Having inherited two wars and a global economic crisis from the George W. Bush administration—the foreign policy equivalent of runners on base with no outs—Obama has extricated the country from some old problems, avoided getting trapped in some new ones, and made some solid pickups on the side.

There have been errors, wild pitches, and lost opportunities. But like George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Obama will likely pass on to his successor an overall foreign policy agenda and national power position in better shape than when he entered office, ones that the next administration can build on to improve things further. Given how many administrations fail even that limited test, such an accomplishment is worthy of praise rather than the contempt the administration’s foreign policy often receives.

The key to Obama’s success has been his grasp of the big picture: his appreciation of the liberal international order that the United States has nurtured over the last seven decades, together with his recognition that the core of that order needed to be salvaged by pulling back from misguided adventures and feuds in the global periphery. The president is variously painted as a softheaded idealist, a cold-blooded realist, or a naive incompetent. But he is actually best understood as an ideological liberal with a conservative temperament—somebody who felt that after a period of reckless overexpansion and belligerent unilateralism, the country’s long-term foreign policy goals could best be furthered by short-term retrenchment. In this, he was almost certainly correct, and with the necessary backpedaling having been accomplished, Washington can turn its attention to figuring out how to get the liberal order moving forward once again.

An “ideological liberal with a conservative temperament.” Tout à fait. I like that.

On MENA

…looking at recent history, the president concluded that the region’s various domestic problems are neither easily solvable nor his to solve. After all, as the former administration official Philip Gordon has noted, “In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.” And in Yemen, one might add, the United States relied on drone strikes and active diplomacy, and the result is a costly disaster. If the Middle East is bent on convulsing itself in costly disasters, as seems unfortunately true these days, trying to play a constructive role from the sidelines rather than getting embroiled directly represents not weakness but prudence.

As for the administration’s signature diplomatic achievement, the Iran nuclear deal, it exemplifies Obama’s broader approach to foreign policy. Having pledged as a candidate to be willing to talk to any country without preconditions to see if relations could be improved, once elected, Obama spent years doggedly pursuing a less conflictual relationship with Tehran. Judging that the Islamic Republic was not about to collapse, he gave a cold shoulder to the opposition Green Movement that sprang up after Iran’s disputed 2009 presidential election. When the Iranian government rebuffed his initial efforts at reconciliation, he worked with other countries to craft a tightened net of economic and financial sanctions. And when Iran decided it did want to negotiate after all, he invested substantial effort and political capital in trying to make the talks succeed. The result was a solid arms control agreement trading sanctions relief for a decadelong pause in Iran’s quest for a bomb. No war, no appeasement, a team effort with other great powers to try to come up with a practical solution to a significant but limited problem, and the creation of conditions in which progress might be made on broader issues over time­—all vintage Obama.

And

Listening to discussions of American national security these days, one would think the country were in truly dire straits. “The world has never been more dangerous than it is today,” according to Senator Marco Rubio. “The world is literally about to blow up,” says Senator Lindsey Graham. Even people who are not running for the Republican presidential nomination apparently agree. In 2012, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared, “In my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” In 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said that the threat from ISIS “is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”

To use a technical term, this is hogwash. The United States today may be richer, stronger, and safer than it has ever been; if not, it is certainly close to it. It has a defense budget equivalent to those of the next seven countries combined and together with its allies accounts for three-quarters of all global defense spending. It has unparalleled power-projection capabilities and a globe-spanning intelligence network. It has the world’s reserve currency, the world’s largest economy, and the highest growth rate of any major developed country. It has good demographics, manageable debt, and dynamic, innovating companies that are the envy of the world. And it is at the center of an ever-expanding liberal order that has outwitted, outplayed, and outlasted every rival for three-quarters
of a century.

Seriously, between Barack Obama and Marco Rubio—or any of the other GOP candidates—il n’y a pas photo, as we say in these parts.

Read all of Gideon Rose’s article here.

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