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Posts Tagged ‘Trump’

The recently published memoir by former National Security Advisor John Bolton (The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, Simon & Schuster, 2020) provides an extraordinarily detailed account. In it, Bolton underscores that there have been three main features in Trump’s approach to foreign policy.  First and foremost is that while Donald Trump is both woefully ignorant about international relations and is largely uninterested in learning about the subject, he is unwilling to defer to expert advice on it.  Second is that Trump does not really value America’s traditional allies, and indeed he often sees the democratically elected ones in particular more as adversaries seeking to take advantage of the United States.  Third, while Trump is concerned about how America’s actual adversaries (including Russia) are acting to America’s detriment, he is firmly convinced that he can make mutually advantageous deals with them—and that they are all eager to do so with him.

Bolton deplores all three of these features in Trump’s foreign policy approach.  I certainly agree with him about the first two.  Presidents need to become deeply knowledgeable about foreign affairs since so much of the job requires dealing with this set of issues.  And while presidents should not accept uncritically everything told to them by the foreign policy and intelligence community, they need to recognize and respect the depth of its expertise and have a far more serious reason for rejecting its advice than that their “gut” tells them otherwise, as Trump has all too often done.  In addition, America’s interests are not well served by treating our allies as adversaries.  The world will be a far more difficult place for the U.S. to navigate if democratic governments lose confidence in it.

However, the desire to reach mutually beneficial agreements with America’s adversaries, and convert them into partners or even friends, is not a bad thing.  Further, this is something that previous presidents have done—including Republican ones—and so Trump’s desire to make deals with adversaries is hardly outside the norm of American diplomacy.  But whether or not he should have pursued deals with these particular adversaries (and Bolton is doubtful on this score about most of them), none of Trump’s efforts in this regard have proven to be successful.

Bolton’s account describes Trump’s efforts to “make deals” with six authoritarian adversaries:  Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Iran’s Islamic leadership, elements of the Maduro regime in Venezuela, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.  There was variation, though, in what each of these attempted deals sought to accomplish.  The deal Trump sought with North Korea was a straightforward trade about Pyongyang’s foregoing nuclear weapons in exchange for the U.S. removing economic sanctions.  In Iran’s case, a nuclear deal had already been reached with Tehran by the Obama Administration and five other governments, but Trump withdrew from it and sought a “better deal” over the nuclear issue as well as Iran’s regional behavior in exchange for economic sanctions relief.

The deals Trump sought in Venezuela and Afghanistan, by contrast, related to internal conflict resolution, but in opposite ways.  In Venezuela, Trump sought the negotiated departure of the anti-American president, Nicolas Maduro, through a deal with the leaders of Maduro’s security forces co-opting them to support a transfer of power to the democratic leader, Juan Guaido.  In Afghanistan, by contrast, Trump sought a deal with America’s longtime adversary, the Taliban, in which U.S. forces are reduced and ultimately withdrawn in exchange for this group behaving moderately afterward.

The deal Trump sought with China focused mainly on trade issues, while the one with Russia appeared more a classic great power bargain involving several politico-military issues, but not trade (since there isn’t much between the U.S. and Russia).

In each case, according to Bolton’s account, Trump convinced himself that the top adversary leader or leadership was “dying to do a deal” with him.  Trump even saw his getting tough with them through increased sanctions and other measures as increasing their desire to do so.  Trump also seemed to think that good personal relations with Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong-un in particular would help make this possible.  Much to the disgust of Bolton (a longstanding Iran hawk), Trump repeatedly sought meetings with Iranian leaders, and blamed their unwillingness to meet with him on what he saw as the malign influence of former Senator John Kerry, who had helped negotiate the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord when he was Obama’s Secretary of State.  With regard to Venezuela, Bolton relates how Trump not only had a negative view of the democratic opposition leader Guaido (and of his wife) whom U.S. policy sought to support, he sometimes expressed admiration for Maduro, the authoritarian leader whose departure his administration was seeking.  Bolton also relates with disgust how Trump sought a Camp David meeting between the Taliban and Afghan government leaders whom the Trump Administration had earlier excluded, per the Taliban’s request, from the U.S.-Taliban negotiations in Doha about an American drawdown and withdrawal.

Although he did not say so, what Bolton’s account suggests is that, despite Russian interference in support of Trump in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections and Trump’s aversion to criticizing Putin publicly, Trump has not really treated Putin differently than he has America’s other authoritarian adversaries.  Indeed, during the Trump Administration, Washington has increased economic sanctions against Moscow, sent arms to Ukraine, withdrawn from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces agreement, and so far refused to extend the New Strategic Arms Treaty (which expires February 2021)—all of which has displeased Putin.  Yet Trump still seems to think that reaching a deal with him is what Putin wants and needs.

Indeed, this is the hallmark of Trump’s approach to authoritarian adversaries:  pile on sanctions and other negative measure, but offer to come to more moderate terms in face-to-face meetings.  Perhaps this is how Trump conducted his private business dealings before he became president, and so believes that this formula would also work for him as president.  And indeed, some authoritarian leaders (Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and most especially Kim Jong-un) have been willing to flatter Trump as well as meet with him.  In addition, some Taliban leaders and (as Bolton relates) some of Maduro’s top security officials have either met or communicated with Trump administration officials.  The Iranian leadership is the outlier in refusing to do so.  But with the partial exception of a partial trade truce with China (which seems shaky), none of these diplomatic forays by Trump have succeeded.

Why is this?  To begin with, personal chemistry (or Trump’s attempted pursuit of it) with authoritarian leaders may be useful in helping reach a deal, but it is not enough to induce leaders to change their long-held views of what their interests are.  Indeed, they may be bold enough to think that the more personal chemistry they build up with Trump, the more likely it is that they can change his mind about them and their countries.

In addition, while Trump himself prioritizes trade issues, America’s authoritarian adversaries often do not.  Trump, then, may think that piling on economic sanctions should be sufficient to induce rational actors to change their policy in order to get them removed, but authoritarian leaders often have other priorities.  Indeed, for some such as Vladimir Putin and the Ayatollahs in Tehran, the prospect of increased trade and other contacts with the U.S. may actually appear more threatening than beneficial since what they really fear is that the U.S. seeks their downfall through increased societal contact which might more easily lead to “color revolution.”

Further, America’s authoritarian adversaries may have good reason not to take Trump’s tough talk seriously after seeing how (as Bolton ruefully pointed out) when Trump was on the point of retaliating militarily against Iran for shooting down a U.S. drone, he suddenly—and with needless publicity—canceled his order to do so.  It is also difficult for them to take Trump’s tough talk seriously when he himself repeatedly raises the prospect of withdrawing U.S. troops from various allied countries in several parts of the world.  In other words, Trump’s talk of withdrawal only shows them that they may not have to make any concessions to Trump to get him to do what they want the U.S. to do anyway.

Finally, given how rudely and disdainfully Trump treats America’s longstanding allies compared to how (relatively) solicitous and accommodating he has been toward America’s adversaries, Trump may unwittingly be giving the latter strong incentive to remain adversaries.  For Trump has given them reason to wonder whether increased cooperation with him will result in his eventually treating his new friends like he does America’s old ones.

Bolton made clear in his memoir that he disagreed with most of Trump’s efforts to make deals with America’s adversaries.  But one does not have to agree with Bolton’s much harsher policy preferences to appreciate how his description of the erratic and idiosyncratic manner in which Trump pursued his hoped for deals with adversaries was self-sabotaging.

Diplomacy is hard enough to succeed at even for those leaders who have a thorough knowledge of international relations.  For those who do not have such knowledge and refuse to take advice from those who do, it is impossible.

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News stories about Russian bounty payments to the Taliban to target U.S. and Coalition forces in Afghanistan continue, understandably, to excite interest and concern in America and the West.  The Kremlin, the Taliban, and President Trump have all attempted to cast doubt on the veracity of these reports, but none of them appears to be particularly credible sources.  Indeed, the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) has made it known with increasing specificity that the reports are accurate, and that President Trump received a written briefing on the matter in late February 2020.  Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, though, made clear in his recently published memoir, In the Room Where It Happened, that Trump often ignores both written and oral IC briefings.

Much of the reporting on this story has focused on examining the nefariousness of Russia’s actions and motives as well as the apparent lack of response to them from the Trump Administration.  More attention, though, needs to be paid to the Taliban’s actions and motives.  The Taliban, as is well known, have long been targeting U.S. and Coalition forces as well as Afghan government forces and Afghan civilians.  But there is something odd about this story, as I pointed out in my June 30 article published in Responsible Statecraft, in which I asked, “Why would Russian intelligence go to the trouble of making bounty payments to the Taliban for attacking U.S. and coalition forces when this is something that the Taliban has long shown itself willing and able to do at its own expense? In other words, why pay someone to do something that they are already doing anyway?”

Focusing on the Taliban’s motives is especially important because in the February 2020 agreement that its negotiators signed with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Doha, the Taliban reportedly agreed not to target U.S. and Coalition forces in exchange for the U.S. agreeing to reduce its presence in Afghanistan to 8,000 men in mid-July 2020, and to potentially withdraw from Afghanistan altogether by May 2021.  Presumably, the Taliban would not want to risk Washington calling a halt to the withdrawal of U.S. forces—not to mention a forceful response against them—by targeting American and Coalition military personnel in Afghanistan after it agreed not to.

Now while the Russian bounty payments to the Taliban may have begun some years ago, it has not yet been revealed whether they continued after the signing of the Khalilzad-Taliban agreement in February.  If the Taliban accepted Russian bounty to target U.S. and Coalition forces after this agreement was made, this would signal that its intentions toward the U.S. are truly hostile and that Washington would be foolish to trust it.

But General Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) indicated that he was “not convinced” by intelligence about whether Russian bounty payments to the Taliban actually resulted in American deaths.  “I found it very worrisome.  I just didn’t find that there was a causative link there,” he stated.  “I just didn’t see enough there to tell me that the circuit was closed in that regard.”

This raises an intriguing possibility.  However deplorable, it is perfectly understandable if Taliban accepted Russian bounty payments to target U.S./Coalition forces if they were going to attack them anyway.  General McKenzie’s statement, however, raises the possibility that the Taliban may have accepted Russian bounty payments to attack Western forces in Afghanistan, but either did not carry out such attacks successfully or did not make them at all.  In other words:  the Taliban may have lied to the Russians in order to get money from them.

What the truth actually is remains murky.  But while many in the West might think that the possibility of the Taliban cheating the Russians is too good to be true, there are those in Moscow who might worry that it is too true to be good—at least for Russia.

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There has been tremendous press coverage about what former National Security Advisor John Bolton had to say about President Trump and other top administration officials in his recently published memoir, The Room Where It Happened.  Bolton’s book, though, also offers insights into the thinking of many others, including numerous foreign leaders.  Especially fascinating is Bolton’s account of his June 27, 2018 meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin in which they discussed (among numerous other subjects) the Iranian role in Syria.

In response to Bolton’s statement of the Trump Administration’s desire to see Iranian forces withdraw from Syria, Putin asked Bolton, “Who would accomplish that?”  Putin then told Bolton to convey the following points to Trump (pp. 130-31):

–Moscow did not need Iranian forces to be in Syria, and there was no advantage to Moscow of them being there;

–Iran’s policy agenda with regard to Lebanon and the Shi’a were not the same as Moscow’s, and in fact, Iranian policy was causing problems both for Russia and the Assad regime;

–But while Russia wanted to see an Iranian withdrawal from Syria, Putin could not ensure that this would happen;

–And if Iranian forces did withdraw from Syria, there would be “large-scale aggression” against Assad regime forces;

–And Putin had no intention of substituting Russian forces for Iranian ones;

–Putin, though, did want a U.S.-Russian agreement on their respective military dispositions in Syria;

–Putin warned that up to 5,000 “locals” near where U.S. forces were at Al Tanf were actually ISIS fighters who would “ostensibly” follow U.S. direction, but then betray Washington when doing so suited them;

–These Syrian opposition forces were not reliable allies for the U.S., and could not be trusted;

–Instead, the U.S. should support the (Russian-led) peace process in Syria.

There are several observations that can be made from this set of statements which Putin made to Trump.

First of all, there appears to be a logical inconsistency in them.  Putin’s statement that Russia did not need Iranian forces to be in Syria and that there was no advantage to Moscow of them being there is directly contradicted by the later statements about how if Iranian forces withdrew, Assad regime forces would come under attack that Putin had no intention of substituting Russian forces for Iranian ones.  Iranian forces remaining in Syria, then, clearly do have some utility for Russia.  For Putin, the level of effort Iran is making to defend the Assad regime is not one that he wants Russia wants to undertake.

Second, whatever the merits of Iranian forces remaining in Syria, Putin seemed quite clear that Russia was not in a position to get them to withdraw.  And for Putin, there would be no benefit in attempting something that was bound to fail. Indeed, if Putin believed that Bolton understood this to be the case, then the Russian president may have suspected that Bolton was urging Russia to move against the Iranians in Syria not because he thought Moscow could succeed at this, but because the U.S. thought that the attempt would bring about a worsening of Russian-Iranian relations.  This might be in Washington’s interests, but not Moscow’s.

Third, if and when Assad’s opponents were ever completely defeated, then the differences between Russia and Iran in Syria might come to the fore.  Putin’s call for the U.S. to support the Russian-led Syrian peace process seemed to suggest that the best way for the U.S. to limit, if not remove, Iranian influence in Syria would be for Washington to cooperate with Moscow.

Bolton response to this last point of Putin’s was, “I said our priorities were to destroy ISIS and remove Iranian forces.”

This exchange revealed not just a difference in policy, but in how to analyze the situation.  Bolton’s statement suggested that he thought it was possible to remove both ISIS and Iranian forces from Syria.  Putin’s statements, by contrast, indicated that at present, the only way to weaken ISIS was for Iran to remain in Syria, whereas ISIS and other jihadists would only grow stronger in Syria if Iran withdrew.  In other words, Bolton’s preference—“destroy ISIS and remove Iranian forces”—were mutually incompatible goals if they were being pursued simultaneously.

Putin’s support for the Assad regime in Syria is appalling.  But his July 2018 comments to Bolton indicate that Putin may have a more accurate assessment of what Russia can and cannot accomplish in Syria than the Trump Administration has about what the U.S. can do there.

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President-elect Donald Trump has indicated on several occasions that he sees Russia as an ally in Syria against Islamic extremists there.  Russian President Vladimir Putin, for his part, has indicated a desire to cooperate with Trump on Syria.  But will Trump and Putin actually be able to come to an agreement on what to do about Syria?

The answer to this question may not become clear until quite some time after the Trump Administration comes into office.  To test whether such a deal might be possible, though, I conducted a role playing game in my undergraduate course on Russia that I am teaching this semester in the George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government.

Role playing games, of course, do not necessarily predict what will actually happen.  They can be useful, though, for suggesting an outcome for the scenario being examined that was not anticipated in advance, but does seem possible (though not inevitable)  in retrospect.  And this is what happened in the role playing game that my students played in class.

The time of the scenario was set for just after Trump’s inauguration.  The class was divided into several teams:  USA, Russia, the major NATO allies (UK, France, and Germany), the Assad regime in Syria, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.  (We clearly could have had many more teams, but the line had to be drawn somewhere to make the game manageable).  The game started simply with the American and Russian teams contemplating whether they could come to an agreement on Syria, and how the various other teams reacted to this possibility.

What quickly became apparent was that most of the other teams were apprehensive about how any deal reached by the American and Russian teams might negatively affect their interests.   These other teams also started to plan (often in cooperation with each other) how to prevent or thwart any such deal, even though—and perhaps because—they did not know what it might consist of.

While it was not clear at first whether the American and Russian teams could reach a deal on Syria, by the end of the game they did.  The main element of the Russian-American deal they came up with was essentially a trade:  in exchange for the American team acquiescing to the Assad regime remaining in power “temporarily” (i.e., indefinitely), the Russian team agreed to limit and reduce Iran’s role in Syria.  The agreement also involved intelligence sharing between the US and Russia, America taking over from Russia the targeting of the jihadist opposition (in order to alleviate the NATO team’s concerns about human rights), and Russia and America both agreeing to reduce support for the Syrian Kurds (in order to mollify the Turkish team).  The Saudi and Israeli teams were satisfied since they were more concerned about Iran’s continued presence in Syria than about whether Assad remained in power.  The Assad regime was also happy, since it now had not only Russian, but also American support, as well as general regional acceptance, for its remaining in power.

In contrast with all the others, though, the Iranian team was not at all happy with this agreement.  In the class discussion about how realistic the game had been after it was over, members of the Iranian team argued strongly that Iran would not leave Syria just because America and Russia agreed that they wanted it to, and that Iran would strongly any effort to force it out.

What the outcome of the game revealed to me was that the Trump Administration, Israel, and Saudi Arabia might well regard Russia as a partner both in Syria and the Middle East if Moscow could not only work with them in defeating the Sunni jihadist opposition in Syria, but also limit and reduce Iranian influence.  Similarly, Turkey would regard Moscow as a partner if it acted to limit Kurdish influence in Syria as well.  Iranian press commentators have often complained that Moscow is always willing to sell out Tehran’s interests in exchange for a mutually satisfactory deal with Washington, and so the outcome of this game would not have surprised them.

Putin might well prefer that the Assad regime become mainly dependent on Moscow and not be in a position to get help from Tehran in resisting policy advice it doesn’t like from Russia.  But would Putin be willing and able to limit or even reduce Iranian influence in Syria?  This is not clear since he values good relations with Tehran, but Putin might be willing to do this if he calculated that Iran could not afford to retaliate against Moscow when the Trump Administration is far more likely to be hostile toward the Islamic Republic than the Obama Administration ever was.  But even if Putin did think this way, the reality is that Iran has a much larger military presence in Syria than Russia does, and so Moscow is in no position to force it to leave.  Nor is the Assad regime likely to ask Iran to leave since this would mean sacrificing the possibility of playing two patrons off against each other, resulting in Damascus becoming far more dependent just on Moscow.

What the outcome of my class’s role playing game suggests to me is that even if Putin and Trump are genuinely interested in reaching an agreement on Syria, Iran will probably be in a position to block it.  Like it or not, the U.S. and Russia are going to have to negotiate with Iran if the Syrian civil war is ever going to be resolved.  But just as with the American team in my classroom, this is not something that the incoming Trump Administration appears willing even to acknowledge, much less undertake.

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