What planet does Michael Flynn live on?

The NYT reports some of his more crazy positions and comments which include…

“…The war is on. We face a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. We are under attack, not only from nation-states directly, but also from Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, ISIS and countless other terrorist groups.”

In another, he said, “No surprise that we are facing an alliance between radical Islamists and regimes in Havana, Pyongyang, Moscow and Beijing. Both believe that history, and/or Allah, blesses their efforts, and so both want to ensure that this glorious story is carefully told.”

The actual article is titled “China Pushes Back on Michael Flynn’s ‘Radical Islamist’ Remarks.”

I’m not even sure how to answer this as it is so far removed from reality. He write as if “everyone is out to get us” which is a sign of insanity.

All this conspiracy theory nonsense is something you expect to find in the hinterlands of the internet yet this is someone actually advising our next President.

Abe to visit Pearl Habor

Very good news from Japan. As reported in the NYT,

“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Monday that he would visit Pearl Harbor, becoming the first sitting Japanese leader to go to the site of Japan’s attack 75 years ago that pulled a stunned United States into World War II.”

Japan has always been an odd country in regards to its post WWII history. Unlike Germany, it has stubbornly refused to fully and remorsefully acknowledge its past war crimes. As well, unlike any other “normal” country, it has never really demonstrated any real interest of returning to a position of regional leadership commensurate with its economic ability. Most international relations scholars assume that economic growth is soon followed with some attempt by the state at reasserting itself on the world stage. This is the historical norm, but Japan doesn’t seem interested in shaping the far east in its image.

This is opposite of Germany which cannot apologize enough for its Nazi past and is the regional leader for economic and political integration.

So whereas Europe looks to Germany to lead, Asia looks to Japan with suspicion. This is one of the reasons why I don’t think the United States should withdrawal its troops from Asia but can from Europe.

I’m speculating but I think a lot of the contrast between regional perceptions of Germany and Japan has to do with how Germany has made great efforts to address its past behaviour while Japan has not. Although the situation is much more nuanced, I think a good amount of tension in the region could be reduced if Japan were to attempt to more genuinely apologize for its past. In fact, as a way to put pressure on Japan towards this direction, I’ve often thought it would be good American policy to apologize for using atomic weapons on Japan. Obviously President Obama is not the best person to do this. Too much of my country doesn’t even think he is an American citizen for him to be the one who offers the apology. Even more obviously, President Trump is not the one either. He is more likely to demand the U.S. get reimbursed for the materials used in making the bomb then apologize for dropping them. But either way, the trip to Pearl Harbour is good news as it is the first step in the direction of Japan reconciling with its past and helping reduce the burden of America maintaining regional peace.

Cuba and certainty in the legislative process

The Miami Herald has a good piece on how Cuba is trying to figure out how to move forward with relations with America.

Alarmed by signs that its fragile relationship with the United States might fall apart under President-elect Donald Trump, the Cuban government is quietly reaching out to its contacts in the United States to determine how best to protect the communist regime’s tenuous diplomatic position.

 

The Cubans are trying to figure out who Trump is, what his real thinking about Cuba might be and how they might be heard by his fledgling administration.

 

 

The Cubans’ chief problem: The contacts they’ve spent years cultivating had the ear of President Barack Obama’s administration. No one close to Trump is — at least publicly — an advocate for their cause.

 

“They did not anticipate a President-elect Trump,” said Jorge Mas Santos, president of the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami.

Now, Trump’s policies positions are at best, erratic. I can’t defend any of what he does let alone understand where it is coming from. But some of the issues raised by the Miami Herald article can be attributed to President Obama’s governing style which had become increasingly marked by bypassing legislative obstacles when implementing his agenda. I supported the rapprochement with Cuba, but process is important. The steps towards a normal relationship with Cuba were achieved through an executive order which can be easily rescinded by the next president. Senate ratification in the treaty process was included to reflect one of the core principles of the founding philosophy that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” State relations shouldn’t be determined by one person. All sorts of warnings can be given for why one individual should have checks on his or her ability to manage interstate relations, most prescient of which is 

An avaricious man might be tempted to betray the interests of the state to the acquisition of wealth. An ambitious man might make his own aggrandizement, by the aid of a foreign power, the price of his treachery to his constituents. The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind, as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world, to the sole disposal of a magistrate created and circumstanced as would be a President of the United States.

Who knows what sort of deals Trump may cut with Putin through executive orders, but for being such a steely eyed business man, it appears flattery goes a long way with the Mango Mussolini.

There is also the more practical issue of legal uncertainty. The founding fathers required treaties to be approved by 2/3 of the Senate so as to allow American foreign relations to have a certain amount of certainty built into them and to allow for stable expectations about future relationships. Without this process based credibility, companies are trying to allocate capital in the dark as the article notes that

The companies have been in negotiations for months, following the lead of President Barack Obama’s administration, which relaxed commercial and banking sanctions against Cuba’s communist regime. With Trump signaling he’ll take a much harder line toward Cuba, the Obama administration is pushing to settle business agreements that would make it more difficult to undo the president’s Cuba opening.

Hopefully Trump maintains the process of normalizing relations with the Castro regime. But more importantly, lets hope that he doesn’t use the Obama precedent of using executive orders for how he deals with other authoritarian regimes.

Our new Secretary of Defense will be James Mattis

It is official. President Elect Trump has confirmed that former General James Mattis will be his Secretary of Defense.

As a libertarian, I’m pretty skeptical of stocking any administration with so many former generals. I prefer civilian control of the government and some of these picks, like Mattis, are not very far removed from their military service.

Who knows what Trump is up to. He campaigned on disparaging our military leadership so I’m not sure what to make of all these reports of him courting so much former brass. But Mattis isn undoubtably a hawk.

See his suggested “blue print” for America.

He claims that the instability of the world is a consequence “…of 20 years of the United States operating unguided by strategy.” He also adds “The international system as we know it — and as we created it — is under assault from the forces of entropy that fill vacuums and corrode order when the United States is not actively engaged.”

Nothing can be further from the truth. The American strategy of the past 20 years has been some version of “engagement and expansion” which was the Clinton Doctrine of actively engaging the world and expanding democracy and markets. All three post cold war presidents had some version of this.

Mattis notes that a lack of American strategy has resulted in world where “Russia invades Ukraine, shaking the post-World War II European order. China chips away at others’ sovereignty in Asia.” I have no idea what he is talking about. In the far east we have the pivot. In eastern Europe NATO has grown, not shrunk. The recent revanchism of China and Russia are not desirable but the west has done something similar by invading Somalia (91), the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan and engaging in military operations in Yemen, Somalia (2016), Pakistan, and Syria, among others.

As well, the west proudly chips away at others sovereignty with the defense of Responsibility to Protect and such institutions such as the ICC.

All of this western preoccupation with the internal politics of other countries represents a direct threat such illiberal regimes survival. I’m not defending these systems, and I certainly think that they are inferior to what we in the west offer, but exerting pressure on these regimes to liberalize results in a less stable world and a less secure America. If all this instability is the cost of making an omelet, where is the omelet?

I disagree with most of the next Secretary of Defense policy stances. He wants to tear up the Iran deal and bomb ISIS, among other hawkish policies. But the more I read about his personal narrative, the more impressed I become. The “warrior monk” apparently owns 6,000 books and doesn’t deploy without them. Despite his erudition, he still connects with his troops at a personal level. Yet, he will do more damage to American security if he continues to frame China and Russia as a threat to the American “way of life”. Instead, the biggest threat to American democracy was just elected.

 

Trump, China, and the WTO

It looks like a trade war is taking shape. As reported in the Guardian,

China will defend its rights under World Trade Organisation tariff rules if US president-elect Donald Trump moves toward executing his campaign threats to levy punitive duties on goods made in China, a senior trade official has said.

 

China’s state-run Global Times newspaper last week warned that a 45% Trump tariff would paralyse US-China bilateral trade.

 

“China will take a tit-for-tat approach then. A batch of Boeing orders will be replaced by Airbus. US auto and [Apple] iPhone sales in China will suffer a setback, and US soybean and maize imports will be halted,” the newspaper warned.

The irony about all this is that there is no one who doesn’t enjoy free trade; who doesn’t like cheaper products? It’s just that those who complain about China and the market economy are not aware of how much extra wealth they consume because of free trade, only the costs.

Elites took Trump literally but not seriously. Trump supporters did just the opposite. For the benefit of his voters, lets hope that Trump is not serious about 45 percent tariffs.

The forever war expands to the Horn of Africa.

At least legally. The NYT has a report detailing the Obama administration inclusion of Somalia’s Al Shabab as falling under the scope of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) which was the congressional response to 9/11. It gave the President a very broad and liberal mandate to use force in the War on Terror.

The summary of the bill, found here, states:

Authorization for Use of Military Force – Authorizes the President to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations, or persons.

So on September 11, 2001, Al-Qaeda, with the support of the Taliban, carried out a terrorist attack that killed roughly 3,000 people. Congress responded by allowing the President to use force against those who orchestrated this attack. 15 years later we are bombing a tangentially related group nearly 2,500 miles away from where those who planned 9/11 were located.

This is obviously mission creep and is the unfortunate consequence of the “forever war,” or the state of affairs in which covert operations and curtailed civil liberties are the new normal.

The biggest issue I have with the pursuit of Al-Shabab is how easily the executive branch relaxes and constricts the scope of the 2001 authorization to suit its own short-term interests. Determining who is an enemy of the state is all done with no transparency nor checks outside of the administration.

As Micah Zenko state in the NYT, “It’s crazy that a piece of legislation that was grounded specifically in the experience of 9/11 is now being repurposed for close air support for regional security forces in Somalia,” said Micah Zenko, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.”

This isn’t new territory for the Obama administration. As noted in the same article, a similar style of interpretation of the 2001 AUMF was used to authorize the use of force in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and in June of 2016, to reenter Afghanistan.

Two consequences could result from this military engineering in far off lands.

1) As well documented by its critics, the victories of the war on terror have a tendency of producing new enemies. We may kill the leadership of Al Shabab but there is no way to be certain that the United States doesn’t produce more terrorist in its wake.

But 2) we have someone about to assume office who many expect to not impose any constraints on his use of power. Despite being relatively measured (at times anyway) in how he exercised the use of force abroad, President Obama has continued the behavior of the previous administration of setting very dangerous precedents of eroding legislative and judicial constraints on how he pursued the War on Terror. Precedents are especially important for a democracy as leadership changes on a regular basis. Donald Trump is inheriting a series of executive overreaches which would allow him a very liberal interpretation of who our enemies are and the precedents he sets building off of the Obama administration behavior could be very damaging for the institutional quality of American democracy.

 

Trump will be a hawk (probably)

Over at War on the Rocks, Benjamin Friedman of the CATO institute has presented a very good argument for why we should expect Trump to be a hawk. Among other good points he writes

I bet that the power of the status quo will make Trump into more of an establishment hawk. Keep in mind that something similar occurred with Presidents Bush and Obama. As a candidate, George W. Bush was skeptical about nation-building. After the September 11 attacks generated broad support for wars and subsequent nation-building efforts, he became their champion. Obama campaigned on his opposition to the Iraq War before retaining most of Bush’s security policies, including the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, while expanding the war in Afghanistan and drone strikes. Though Obama became a critic of the foreign policy establishment’s “playbook,” he struggled to escape its conventions.

I agree with everything he says but want to add that the most convincing reason I expect Trump to be a hawk is because of the “power problem“. This is the irony that the more military hardware a country has at it disposal, the more tempted the leadership will be to use it, including for non-strategic reasons. This can paradoxically result in less security. As Benjamin notes, both President Bush and Obama entered office skeptics of nation building. Yet both ended up doing just that. The power problem is especially problematic if the one given the options to use hard power has no clear foreign policy orientation prior to office. This included both President Bush and Obama. This would also include Trump.

Madeline Albright demonstrated the power problem succinctly when she asked Colin Powell “What’s the point of you saving  this superb military for, Colin, if we can’t use it?”

To answer the former Secretary of State I would suggest Iraq.

But we didn’t learn our lessons in Iraq, apparently. The United States had no strategic reason to invest in the Libyan uprising yet still engaged in one of the most juvenile uses of force since 2003. In an attempt to prevent war crimes against civilians, the United States and its NATO allies ended up creating a failed state. Not only does this create typical security problems associated with a failed state, it also erodes any credibility the United States will have when dealing with future hostile regimes and their weapon programs.

So we have a President-elect who is famous for his thinskin assuming command of a military tool box that is both quantitatively and qualitatively superior to anything else. For example, the United States has roughly 13,000 military aircraft. China and Russia have 2 to 3 thousand each.  The US 7th fleet’s principle aircraft carrier, the USS Ronald Reagan, was christened in 2001. The only Chinese aircraft carrier is a refurbished former Soviet vessel. These sorts of lopsided comparisons could continue all day, and even those who lament the reduction in military spending acknowledge

The United States has the best military in the world today, by far. U.S. forces have few, if any, weaknesses, and in many areas—from naval warfare to precision-strike capabilities, to airpower, to intelligence and reconnaissance, to special operations—they play in a totally different league from the militaries of other countries.

Donald Trump campaigned, at times, as someone skeptical of foreign adventurism. But I would expect that after he has been instructed on the vast array of military tools at his command, he will be tempted to use them in ways that are not clearly linked to defending American sovereignty. Keep in mind that the use of force in Libya wasn’t our first choice. It was unfortunately a situation without any real good response from the United States so when all other tools failed and the opportunity presented itself, the United States resorted to employing hard power to address internal governing problems of a foreign state with a tribal culture.

In 1966, Abraham Maslow observed that “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”  I don’t want to suggest that the only tool the President has is a hammer. But I do think that when problems with no good solutions arise, like 2011 Libya, and other options fail, like diplomacy, sanctions, or soft power, the easy access to so much military power makes resisting it too difficult.

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 peace of “trumphalia”

Stephen Walt has a persuasive piece at FP that the most politically possible and the most beneficial foreign policy would be the same thing. He calls it “Westphalian sovereignty” which he describes as

If Trump is looking for a unifying concept for his approach to foreign policy, it is the idea that states are responsible for their own territory and citizens and that other states shouldn’t interfere with either. This notion is consistent with Trump’s own “America First” mentality, and it resonates with the sentiment of populist nationalism that has driven everything from the Brexit vote to the assorted European xenophobes who are so jazzed by Trump’s success. And it is hardly a controversial concept; indeed, it still forms much of the basis for existing international law.

China would be pleased by such an organizing principle to America’s foreign policy. Remember that their distaste for Hilary started in 1995 when she delivered a speech on women’s rights in Beijing.

My concern with Trump is that he has no clear and firm record of a foreign policy ideology and he may be reacting to the previous administration overreaches. President Obama also had no foreign policy record outside of opposing the Iraq War and also campaigned on restraint. But before long he was hosting the Dali Lama and authorizing weapon sales to Taiwan.

Israel gets more aggressive with settlements with Trump as President-elect

With Donald Trump as President-elect, Israel has ramped up its settlement construction with the belief that he would be more sympathetic, or uninterested, in getting involved in the politics of West Bank Israeli housing. The latest behavior of the Israeli government is especially dubious. As reported in the LA Times, “The bill would empower Israel to expropriate the property and offer compensation to Palestinian owners, allowing Israeli settlers to have homes retroactively legalized.”

The Israeli government will, obviously, pay a below market price for these homes. Otherwise there would be no need for the bill.

This is actually a situation where I think the United States should involve itself in the domestic affairs of a foreign state. (1) Many of our Middle East security problems can be partially traced back to the peace process and the perception that the United States is not an neutral party. But more importantly, (2) we provide a ridiculous amount of aid to Israel; the latest pledge of 38 billion over a 10 year period is the largest aid transfer in American history. I disagree with subsidizing Israel security but if we are going to give so much American money to a foreign state we should at least demand that the recipient not pursue policies that jeopardize American security. This is not the same as Jackson-Vanik style negotiating because the United States, I believe, doesn’t get anything in return for subsidizing Israeli defense but overwhelming benefits from free trade.