The Trump u-turn on China and Russia is welcomed policy: Why the United States should be wary of Russia, and not China.

During the presidential race, political commentators were equally dismayed and puzzled by the developing relationship between then candidate Trump and President Putin. All sorts of explanations were offered to explain the apparent goodwill, from naked business interests to an alleged sex tape. But whatever the reason, Trump complimented Putin on a regular basis, referring to Russia’s president as a “strong leader” and “smart,” and stated that he intended to have a good working relationship with Russia’s president.

China, however, would be the center of a Trump administration’s ire. Trump accused China of “raping” the United States and promised that on day one he would label China as a currency manipulator and erect steep trade barriers. During his confirmation hearing, his nomination for Secretary of State suggested denying Beijing access to their artificial islands in the South China Sea.

That was then but this is now. After 100 days of Trump, the expected rapprochement with Russia has cooled and Chinese-American relations have apparently warmed. President Trump has directed 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at Russia’s ally Syria, accused Russia of complicity in Syrian war crimes, has made no attempt of removing the sanctions imposed after Crimea, and has publicly stated he expects the peninsula to be returned to Ukraine.

Trump, however, has failed to label China as a currency manipulator, reneged on trade barriers, and restricted Navy patrols in the South China Sea. Xi Jinping, apparently, is even President Trump’s friend.

This u-turn is highly welcomed news for the simple fact that Russia is the troublemaker, and China, not so much.

Russia is the bigger problem for American foreign policy primarily because Russia is seeking to undermine 50 plus years of European economic integration and political liberalism. As articulated in a 2013 Center for Strategic Communications policy paper titled “Putin: The New World Leader of Conservatism,” Putin’s strategy of gaining influence in Europe is by assuming the leadership role of a transnational movement that defends and renews traditional social values, both in side Russia in Europe. This means supporting positions that are anti-immigrant, homophobic, and Eurosceptic, among other anti-liberal policies. This essentially makes Russia a proselytizing power as Putin seeks to export these policies to Europe by hacking elections, funding far right parties, and spreading fake news. The French presidential election offers ample evidence of this strategy in motion.

Compare this to China which has no designs on the political makeup of foreign states, doesn’t seek to export any particular culture to its neighbors and, despite lifting 800 million people out of poverty, doesn’t pressure others to adopt its version of state sponsored capitalism. They do hack, but not to influence election outcomes, and the fake news it produces is mainly for Chinese consumption and not to influence foreign elections.

The Chinese and Russian objectives for their respected neighborhoods are in contrast to one another. Russia’s objective is to sow political and economic uncertainty throughout their neighborhood, as a Europe divided by nationalism and economic populism is a plus for Moscow. But where Russia is deliberately stirring up tensions throughout Europe, China’s number one regional goal is stability. From their policy towards North Korea to their relationship with the United States, China’s number one goal is to avoid destabilizing the region. This is because unlike Russia, China has experienced legitimate economic gains and political consolidation over the past 30 years and would prefer not to upset this trend.

When one also considers that Putin’s Russia has also invaded two countries, committed war crimes in Syria, has sold arms to the Taliban, and violated the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, it is rather clear that Russia, and not China, should be considered the bigger problem for American. American priorities and rhetoric should reflect that.

 

 

Don’t escalate the fight against ISIS.

President Trump has identified ISIS as his highest priority and, acting accordingly, has deployed 1,000 Marines to Syria, pledged future support to Iraq, and requested an additional 5 billion dollars to help escalate the fight.

There are good reasons for the United States to be concerned with ISIS. At its height, some estimated that ISIS controlled approximately 35,000 thousand square miles including such major cities as Mosul, Ramdi, Falluja, and Raqqa. Outside of the Middle East they have inspired similar style caliphates, such as Boko Haram, as well as terrorist attacks against the west.

Yet, it is still not clear that it is in America’s interest to get furthered involved in this fight. This is because there are other groups in the region who have a stronger incentive to defeat ISIS and, by most metrics, appear to be doing just that.

According to IHS Conflict Monitor, ISIS lost approximately a quarter of its territory in 2016. Ramdi and Falluja were recaptured and ISIS is on the verge of losing Mosul and Raqqa. Their reduction in territory was accompanied by an estimated loss of 50,000 fighters.

Their financial problems are mounting as well. It has been reported that the Caliphate’s monthly revenue and oil production are down 30 percent and salaries have been cut nearly in half.

All of this has resulted in a lowered morale, an increase in infighting, and a rise in desertions.

American air strikes certainly played a role in creating this situation, yet it is probably not in America’s interest to get furthered involved in the conflict. ISIS is already battling a long list of enemies in the region that include the Assad regime, the Russian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Iranian, and Turkish governments, the Kurds, various Sunni rebel groups, Hezbollah, and basically most of the Muslim population at this point. All of these groups have different reasons for getting involved in the conflict, and at times their regional interests conflict with one another, yet all have an interest in defeating ISIS. Despite the complicated politics of the region, they have been working together to do this. To give just a few examples, Russia and Turkey have fought together in Al Bab, Iran has deployed its military to support the Assad regime and Iraqi government, and a variety of local militias which include Arabs, Syrian Christians, Turkmen, and Kurds are working together in taking back Raqqa.

ISIS poses the biggest threat to the region, not America. Therefore, it should be the regional forces that take the lead in defeating them, not some country on the other side of the world. Despite not always being well coordinated, this is what is happening. The Turkish, Iranian, Iraqi, and Syrian governments as well as the various local non-state entities have all made serious advances into former ISIS territory and have seriously reduced ISIS ranks. With the momentum for an ISIS defeat growing, the United States may be tempted to rush in and tip the balance, but it would be wise not to interfere. Further American involvement would reduce the incentive of the local forces to continue their fight against the organization as well as possibly producing unintended consequences. It was after all the American invasion of Iraq and the de-Ba’athification of the Baathist regime that lead to the creation of ISIS in the first place. There is no way to know how an American escalation of the fight will complicate the current conflict and with ISIS on the ropes, the United States would be wise to leave well enough alone and continue to let the local powers take the lead in defeating ISIS.

 

Trump’s transition team and terrorism.

Trump’s transition is taking shape and it doesn’t look like any political bridges will be built, at least not through who he appoints in his administration. Matt Apuzzo and Mark Landler have an interesting article in the NYT discussing the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama as attorney general, Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas as C.I.A. director and Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn as national security adviser.

These three don’t mince words when discussing Islam and terrorism. Some of the quotes and positions attributed to these three are outright ridiculous.

For example,

General Flynn similarly favors the immigration ban and has expressed support for the idea of forcing Muslims in the United States to register with the government. He once erroneously wrote on Twitter that Shariah, or Islamic law, was in danger of taking over the country.

As well,

Mr. Pompeo has said Muslim leaders contribute to the threat of terrorism by refusing to repudiate it, although Islamic leaders and advocacy groups have done so repeatedly, and often. “Silence has made these Islamic leaders across America potentially complicit in these acts and, more importantly still, in those that may well follow,” Mr. Pompeo said in 2013.

From reading the article, it’s clear that all three nominees share the idea that there is a special relationship between Islam and terrorism. As William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution states, “The thinking here is that…religion is the key factor that influences everything else.”

This is what is bothersome about these appointments. I’m no apologist for Islam. There is a good amount of evidence to support the argument that Islam has a unique relationship with terrorism. Most, if not all, recent large-scale terrorist attacks have been done in the name of Islam. I don’t know of any modern Christian equivalent to 9/11 and I’ve never seen a headline about a Jew beheading a journalist in the name of Judaism. And it is not just those who commit terrorism but the sympathetic outlook of many Muslims. You can find plenty of similar survey data but here are 2010 results on Muslim views of Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden. Indonesia, usually offered as an example of the compatibility of Islam and modern governance, had 25 percent of surveyed Muslims express confidence in Bin Laden.

views-of-bin-laden

My take on how to approach the relationship between Islam and the terrorism is to remind myself that (1) Muslim attitude can be differentiated by area and (2) the issue of Islam and terrorism is relatively new. Two antidotes generally shape my thinking.

Regarding the first point, the Muslim community in the United States is, on average, well adjusted. There have been several spectacular attacks like San Berdino and Orlando, but overall Muslims living in the United States are fairly well assimilated. In terms of terrorism, Muslims have been responsible for approximately 6 percent of all terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005.

See the data provided in Omar Alnatour’s Huffington Post article here, which states “According to the FBI, 94% of terrorist attacks carried out in the United States from 1980 to 2005 have been by non-Muslims.” This is misleading considering in 2015 there are only 3.3 million Muslims of all ages living in the United States and represents 1 percent of the overall population. This is the largest it has ever been so it seems that Muslims do cause a disproportionate amount of terrorism compared to other groups. But there is comforting data of American Muslim views towards terrorism. Less than 8 percent of American Muslims consider suicide bombings sometimes or often justified for defending the religion. That number is larger than we would like but it is not benchmarked and I don’t expect it to be significantly different from a similar style question posed to American Christians.

american-muslim-views-towards-terrorism

The other perspective I keep in mind is a long view of history. Islam hasn’t always been linked with terrorism or has been illiberal. Although not perfect, Islam has been relatively tolerant towards other faiths, most notably Judaism. Radical Islam didn’t really emerge until the work of Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966), an Egyptian cleric who made his name by discrediting Arab leadership advocated a holy war against the post colonial regimes. But we didn’t see any serious amounts of Islamic terrorism until the 1970’s, with the Al Fatah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and this was a response to the failed state building process of postcolonial Arabia and the success of Israel.

My point is that Islam is a little over 1,600 years old but Islamic terrorism in any serious form is only 40 years old. If the problem was “Islam” why don’t we have 1,600 years of terrorism? It seems to me that the religion didn’t change but the culture in which it is interpreted and practiced has. Like all major religious texts, the Koran has a large amount of ambiguous and culturally backwards passages that lend themselves to explanation. Just as you can find a passage advocating (2:244) you can also find a passage for tolerance (2:256).

How do we persuade Muslims to focus on the latter and not the former? Probably do the opposite of what Trump and his new cabinet members want to do. What motivates Islamic terrorism is an underlying sense of alienation in a context of economic, cultural, and political stagnation. Islamic terrorism is an attempt of asserting one’s identity as a response to the failure of Islam to offer any viable alternative to the modernity (i.e. the west). I’ll write more on this in a later essay, but for now read Bernard’s Lewis’s piece here.

So the issue is not only do we have someone who claimed Islam is cancer as a future National Security advisor, he is part of an administration which ran on a platform of 1) extreme vetting (or a ban, not sure what he wants at this point), 2) bring back waterboarding, 3) retaliating against terrorist by bombing their families, 4) frame the issue of terrorism as Islamic terrorism. If you agree that the root of Islamic terrorism is estrangement from the modernity, you will also agree that these policies and appointments only exacerbate the issue. The shape that Trumps administration is taking shape suggest that his administration will further dehumanize the wider Muslim community and to reframe the debate as one between the West versus Muslim instead of civilized versus uncivilized.

A post Trump America.

One of the most depressing and sad episodes of American political history is almost at a close. The 2016 presidential campaign was the most culturally and politically divisive contest in recent memory and exposed deep cultural divides in American society. Perhaps a new normal emerged? One in which race baiting, sexism, and xenophobic rhetoric becomes acceptable political theater. Nearly all polls suggest a win for Hillary Clinton, yet what does this leave us with? How could someone so politically incorrect, so brutishly and unapologetically crude come so close to being the President? What will a post Trump America look like?

It’s well understood that the roots of Trump’s rise are found in a growing sense of demographic anxiety. Economic misplacement and the Republican party’s frustration with their never ending search for an authentic conservative played a role, but I think at root we have the “deplorables” because of the shifting distribution of cultural and demographic America. His supporters are unapologetically white and they are responding to the perceived trend that the United States is becoming less so. Below is a chart which I think sums up the source of their grief.

changingfaceamerica1965-2065-pew

The above trends are alarming from a governing perspective. Frankly, the less homogenous a body politic is the less well its political institutions perform. This was best discussed in Putnam’s work “Making Democracy Work.” The central premise is that political institutions are more efficient when there is a high amount of social capital. Social capital helps find solutions to problems of collective action problems by building institutions of trust and norms of reciprocity, or what he calls a rotating credit association. Social capital includes a shared language, community bonds based around culture, and other networks of civic associations. The more heterogeneous a society is demographically, the less social capital. This explains in part why we are observing such stark fault lines in American politics.

One of two things must give if the politics that made way for Trump are to be addressed. One, the mentioned demographic trends must be halted. This is exactly what Trump and his supporters demand and includes policies like building a wall and halting all Muslim immigration.

The other alternative involves thinking about how we conduct public policy. I would argue that this means refocusing public policy away from allocation and more towards facilitating cooperation and emphasizing personal responsibility. The tribalism that comes with this sort of demographic change is heightened when so much of government policy is an attempt to redistribute income. For FY 2012, federal spending on welfare programs alone was roughly 1 trillion dollars, and this doesn’t include Social Security and Medicare. No one can discount all aspects of these programs, but this style of governing doesn’t perform well in a heterogeneous society. Look at how brittle the social democracies of Europe are with the migration crisis. A consequence of these redistribution programs is that individuals often feel that they are competing with each over the biggest slice of the pie, breeding resentment and animosity among the participants. These are mostly mean tested programs, but its perception that is important, and one of the most common complaints of Trump’s supporters is that “others are cutting in lines.”

An easy fix (conceptually, not politically) would be to reorient public policy away from redistribution and towards creating incentives for being industrial and self-reliant. Both parties are responsible of creating public policy that promotes a rent seeking, zero-sum attitude. Instead we should design legislation that sought to realign competing self-interests towards more cooperative behavior. I don’t have an answer for what this specifically looks like but it would be libertarian in spirit and would include reducing the scope of the welfare state. Allowing for more personal responsibility avoids perceptions that bureaucrats are creating distributional conflicts and would help dampen any social conflict stemming from changes in demographic trends. It’s either that or we try to ensure the United States remains defined as a country by one dominant race.

Trump and Escalation

Much ink has been spilt on how the bulk of Donald Trumps policy positions are built around his over-the-top personality. From his signature promise to building a wall to combating illegal immigration to deterring Russia in Europe, his series of policy proposals have little substance beyond having the “Trump brand” to back them up. This is typical of a narcissist running during a time ripe for populism. But because Trumps positions are largely based on his personality, criticism is often personal, or at least perceived by Trump as personal. Combine critiques of his temperament with his sensitivity and you have an unusually entertaining political season. But the entertainment value wears thin and the gravity of the situation becomes concerning once one attempts to anticipate how Donald would perform on the international stage. Trumps inability to self control gives me two concerns, one regarding political rhetoric, the other regarding the theatrics of international terrorism. Both are, in the context of grand strategy, relatively minor but both have the potential to lead to escalation of something meaningful.

Foreign state leadership is often critical of the United States. This is partially a result of state leaders, regardless of their regime style, having to earn some level of political legitimacy among the wider public. Democratic leadership earn it through elections, dictatorship do so through a combination of the security state and a cult of personality. Many democratically elected leaders critique the United States unique political and economic culture because it is good domestic politics. Think the Labor Party under Corbyn or the Parti Socialiste of France. Many authoritarian leaders foster the image of the strong man protecting the populace from foreign encroachment, most often the United States. Think the ruling clergy of Iran or the Chavism of Venezuela. But what is good politics back home can have international repercussions. Recently, President Obama was forced to cancel a visit with Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, over the leaders claim that President Obama was the “son of a whore.” The comments were largely a reaction to western criticism of aggressive policing in the Philippine drug war. Despite the incendiary language, President Obama still met with the leader informally. This was because the involved leaders understood that both countries have a shared interest in working together on issues related to China and that diplomatic spats shouldn’t hinder them from cooperating on their shared regional strategy. In typical fashion, President Obama demonstrated that he is capable of being serious on the international stage. Does anyone seriously think that Trump is adult enough not to take such matters personally? His campaign is the most petty and vindictive in modern history and his personal history of holding grudges over the minor of slights is well documented. He cut the tops off of roses and sent back the stems to Connie Chung in response to what he considered an unfair interview. In response to a critical article, he sent Gail Collins a copy of her column with the note “face of a dog” next to her picture. You cannot make this stuff up. It is inevitable that an American president will encounter critical language abroad and we shouldn’t elect one who is capable of being “baited with a tweet.”

In addition to how Trump would respond to critical political rhetoric, I’m also concerned with the issue of international terrorism. Recruitment tactics of Islamic terror groups usually include large-scale attacks (as in France and the Bataclan) or gruesome spectacles like public beheadings. The motivation of these tactics is to provoke the west into overreacting and thereby pushing those on the margins towards their terrorist group ranks. This is part of the broader strategy to reframe the conflict from civilized versus uncivilized and instead as Islam versus infidel. I imagine that even the most detached state leader would find it difficult not to overreach in such a situation. Innocent women and children are usually killed and the bias of the general public is to demand some sort of reaction, either against the terror group abroad (bombing their members) or curtailing the civil liberties of local Muslims through increased scrutiny (like at an airport). If how the west reacts is not tempered with a view of the long-term goal of assimilation of Islam with modern values, the short-term conflict with terrorism becomes less winnable as a narrative of Islam being under attack emerges. Donald Trump already lends himself into such a narrative with his unapologetic chauvinism and crass showmanship. One of his promoted policies in the war on terror is to ban Muslim immigration. He as also suggested he will start surveilling all American mosques, and to “‘bomb the shit out of extremists.” This is exactly what terrorist groups want.

Presidential contests are not just choosing between different menus of policy options. Temperament and personality matter, as they would in any managerial position. Trump campaigns on a foreign policy of disengaging with the international society and focusing more on domestic issues. But which president hasn’t made this a focus of his or her campaign? Trump may not have a great deal of interest in international affairs but international affairs has a great deal of interest in the United States. And it only takes one event to spiral out of control and become a crisis. Someone who openingly brags about his love for revenge could easily be lured into escalating routine anti-US rhetoric or a small scaled terrorist attack into something much grander than it should be.