Why President Trump Won’t Move the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem (Unless…).

On Tuesday, Vice President Pence stated that President Trump was “seriously considering” moving the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump campaigned on a promise to move the embassy, something that nearly every presidential candidate has talked about doing but that none has actually followed through on. The US embassy is in Tel Aviv for political reasons: the disputed status of East Jerusalem and its role in any future peace negotiations with the Palestinians have led every American president to rethink the wisdom of inflaming Arab and Islamic public opinion for such little gain. Yes, Israel wants the international community to recognize Jerusalem as its capital, but Israel already has permanent control of West Jerusalem, so there’s little tangible gains to be made by the US for moving the embassy.

Given Trump’s unpredictability, however, his promise on the campaign trail was taken differently; maybe he’ll actually do it! Furthermore, the selection of  pro-settler David Friedman, a staunch supporter of moving the embassy, as US ambassador to Israel seemed to confirm that Trump was planning on upending the status quo. As Trump prepares to make a trip to Israel, possibly later this month, rumors are flying around that Trump will announce American recognition of East and West Jerusalem as the united capital city of Israel, if not formally announce the relocation of the embassy. These two options are, essentially, distinctions without difference, as American recognition of a united Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is an acknowledgement of Israeli sovereign control of East Jerusalem which the Palestinians and other Arab states, not unreasonably, would see as prejudicing the final status negotiations that will eventually be necessary to secure a peace agreement and a Palestinian state.

Despite all of the promises, rumors, and even the appointment of Friedman, I do not expect the president to alter in any significant way the status quo on Jerusalem. There are several reasons that I am skeptical President Trump will move the embassy or recognize Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

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On the Timing, Legality, Strategy, and Effect of the Strike on Syria

Yesterday, the US launched 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles against Syria, striking an air base that President Trump alleged played a direct role in the gruesome nerve gas attack of Tuesday. The attack prompted the usual questions: Why now? Is it legal? What effect will the strike have on Syria? On the US’s role in the Syrian civil war?

Why now? If we take President Trump at his word, the horrific nature of the effects of nerve gas, likely coupled with the video evidence of children gasping for their last breaths, altered his assessment of the wisdom of leaving the Assad regime in place or allowing it to conduct chemical weapons attacks unpunished. That the strike occurred two days after the chemical attack and (for now) seems to be limited to a single air base claimed to be involved in some way (whether that means there is a chemical weapons facility there or simply that the planes that dropped the chemical agents launched from there is as of yet unknown. The New York Times has a nice feature on the targets) supports the logic that this represents a specific response to a specific event.

Past presidents have spoken of seeing all the horrors and miseries of the world and realizing that they actually had the power and tools to do something about them (not necessarily to solve them, however). Seeing starving Somali children on (what was then the relatively new) CNN was, in most accounts, motivated President George H. W. Bush to intervene in Somalia. Watching the video of the attack is undeniably horrifying and it’s perfectly reasonable to believe that Trump, who almost certainly has never seen or even thought about such things before, was shocked to his core and felt he had to act.

But, could the attack be a diversion? It’s no secret that things haven’t been going well for the Trump administration lately, and it’s also no secret that military actions tend to produce an immediate upsurge of public support–the so-called “rally-around-the-flag effect”–for the president. It’s not impossible, but I see it as unlikely. Presidents often face bad timing when they seek to use military force. Recall President Clinton’s air strikes against Iraq in Operation Desert Fox on the eve of his impeachment trial. It’s hard to imagine the Joint Chiefs, the theater commanders, the Secretary of Defense, and the National Security Adviser all going along with a military strike that has no perceived value or is motivated solely by domestic political concerns. That’s not to say that the use of force won’t benefit Trump in the court of public opinion; I’m just skeptical that it’s the primary motivation.

Was it legal? Does the president of the United States have the right to attack another sovereign state with which the US is not at war and that does not pose an immediate, direct threat to the US or US citizens? Article I, Sec. 8 gives Congress the power “to declare war” but it does not declare what that power encompasses? Put simply, are all uses of force “war” in a legal sense that require congressional authorization? If not, can the president use force whenever and wherever he sees fit? (NOTE: as I’m not really a scholar of international law, I’ll leave the question of whether the attack was legal under IL to others. If you’re interested, you can find good analyses here (in favor) and here, here and here (against).

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Heck of a Secret Plan, Trumpy!

During his presidential campaign, Donald Trump bragged about his “secret plan” to defeat the Islamic State, and while he vowed to only unveil his plan if elected president, he did let slip at least one component of this plan: That he would “bomb the shit” out of ISIS. So far, just over two months into his presidency, it seems clear that, unsurprisingly to most, that his secret plan is little more than trying to bomb the shit out of ISIS and al Qaeda.

So what does a strategy of bombing the shit out of ISIS look like in practice? First, it starts by rolling back legal safeguards on “United States rules of engagement and other United States policy restrictions that exceed the requirements of international law regarding the use of force against ISIS.” Next, it ramps up the intensity of air sorties, including a huge increase in the number of air strikes in Yemen against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Then, it rolls back rules intended to limit accidentally killing civilians by applying war-zone targeting rules in Somalia.

It’s far too early to know if bombing the shit out of ISIS, al Qaeda, al-Shabaab, and other assorted groups is paying off. What we do know is that large numbers of civilians are being killed by US air strikes, likely including approximately 50 people in a Syrian mosque, more than 30 people sheltering in a Syrian school, and well over 100 people in Mosul. We also know that ISIS has adapted to the increased tempo of US airstrikes by herding civilians into buildings and then conducting military operations out of those buildings so as to attract a US airstrike, hoping that rising civilian casualties will pressure the US to pare back its air operations.

It’s also too early to say whether the change in sortie rate and the loosening of targeting rules is the cause of the recent civilian deaths. But, what can be said is that, so far, there seems to be little signs of a larger strategy for defeating ISIS, al Qaeda, et. al, other than by bombing the shit out of them.

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The “Intellectual” Foundations of a Trumpian Foreign Policy, Part I

There’s been a lot of confusion over what, exactly, President Trump’s foreign policy is or will be. He’s talked tough about trade and alliances, suggested that the US should play a more restrained role in the world, and requested a massive military build-up. But there seems to be little rhyme or reason behind these pieces, as if each were separate from the other and not bound together by what foreign policy analysts would describe as a “grand strategy.” Why would China help the US deal with the problem of North Korean proliferation if the US is threatening to undo the One China policy? Why should the US increase the size of the navy if America will be asking allies to do more of the work and playing a reduced role in the world? How does the president understand the source of conflict and state behavior in the world? What are the factors that most contribute to global peace? These are the questions at the theoretical and policy level that must be answered–or at least engaged–in order to craft a coherent foreign policy.

Understanding the logic behind Trump’s foreign policy requires a look behind the curtain, because the president himself is so devoid of thought, at the people shaping Trump’s policies from the wings. One such person is Michael Anton, currently serving as Deputy Assistant to the President for Strategic Communications on the National Security Council. Anton has been referred to as the primary intellectual behind Trump’s foreign policy, with Bill Kristol, the editor of the Weekly Standard, referring to Anton as “America’s leading authoritarian intellectual” and comparing Anton to Carl Schmitt. Anton is perhaps best known as the person behind the pseudonymously-penned “The Flight 93 Election” in which he argued that conservatives needed to rally behind Trump regardless of policy differences or face destruction as a viable party.

Anton has recently published a piece (written before he joined the administration) in which he gives, perhaps, the clearest explanation of how he–and perhaps by extension, the Trump administration (or at least the political side of his administration)–thinks about the world. In the new policy journal American Affairs, being hailed as the intellectual defense of Trumpism, Anton has an article entitled “America and The Liberal Order” in which lays out his understanding of the role the US should play in the world. It is a bold piece, long on pronouncements but short on international relations theory or serious scholarship (there seems to be a trend of national security “experts” in the Trump White House who have little actual experience in either academia or policy work: See Gorka, Sebastian). So…what’s his argument? In this post, I will examine and dismantle his argument. In a subsequent post, I will present my rebuttal.

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Shirking the Responsibilities of Leadership

In the aftermath of the SEAL raid into Yemen, which has prompted the father of the dead soldier to refuse to meet with President Trump, multiple investigations into the planning and execution of the raid, and the unsightly blaming of his generals for what is ultimately his decision, Donald Trump may have found a way to avoid taking responsibility for future military operations. The Daily Beast is reporting that Trump is considering taking himself out of the decision loop for military raids by allowing Secretary of Defense Mattis and other relevant military officials to authorize the raids on their own without presidential approval. As the Beast notes, “in declared war zones, U.S. commanders have the authority to make such calls, but outside such war zones, in ungoverned or unstable places like Somalia, Libya, or Yemen, it can take permissions all the way up to the Oval Office to launch a drone strike or a special-operations team.”

It’s not inherently a bad idea to loosen the reins on approving military operations, and it’s a complicated calculation about which kind of operations should and which should not require presidential approval.

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Dangers of Un-Leadership

It is still early in the administration of Donald Trump (has it really only been a month?) and fortunately there haven’t been any serious foreign policy crises yet. But that is not to say that all is well in the national security offices of the executive branch. Disturbing and dangerous signs are visible that President Trump has no idea what he is doing, makes up policy on the fly, likely based on whatever cable news show he last watched, and ignores his cabinet and policy advisers, forcing them to either contort policy around Trump’s tweets and outbursts or to clean up the mess from what he has unwittingly done. Meanwhile, Trump spends much of his time on the links and trying to hide his golf outings from the press.

This is an echo of the offer that was allegedly made to John Kasich during the campaign that if he became vice president he would be in charge of making policy and running the country while the president focused on “making America great again.” But it is, in fact, much much worse.

Everything that the president says matters. His words are parsed and scrutinized by everyone from friends to allies to enemies. When the president does not, will not, and cannot lead effectively and efficiently it causes chaos and uncertainty, neither of which are desirable in foreign policy. While surprise is good on the battlefield, it is bad in geopolitics, where wars can erupt over misunderstandings and where delicate policy negotiations can be undone by one errant remark. Trump’s “un-leadership” is endangering not just US national security but the peace and stability that the international system has long enjoyed.

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H.R. McMaster

The president has just announced that LTG H.R. McMaster will be his new National Security Adviser, and Keith Kellogg will stay on as the chief of staff of the NSC Staff.
I will admit that I had bet against McMaster agreeing to do this, at least in part because I couldn’t imagine him agreeing to the kinds of staffing restrictions we heard about with the offer to Harward. So, either the staffing restrictions have been eased, or McMaster feels that having some influence over national security policy is important enough that he will swallow the restrictions … or he is betting that once he is in, he will be able to get his way.

McMaster is an intelligent guy, and by all accounts a great leader, which will be very important in an NSC Staff that appears to be in some disarray. He is likely to get along well with Secretary Mattis. The big questions are the same ones that would have come up for anyone who took this post: what role will Steve Bannon play? How will they get along? Where will McMaster fit in the White House inner circle that appears to be doing most of the policy-making, of which Flynn was an important part? McMaster does not have the personal relationship with the president that Flynn had; will he have much influence? How many of his own people will McMaster be allowed to bring in? Will he be allowed to choose his own deputy? K T McFarland has indicated that she has been asked to stay …

Carrie Lee has interviewed McMaster and has just put out a series of tweets on what she thinks this appointment means. She notes that McMaster is an innovative thinker, but still in many ways a traditional Army officer.

McMaster’s decision is coming as a surprise to a lot of the security and defense community who know him, but this is a man who believes strongly in speaking truth to power, and I can only guess that he feels it is his duty to both his country and the men and women in uniform to try to influence policy as much as he can. It will be interesting to see how much influence he is able to exercise; keep your eyes on personnel changes at NSC/Staff over the next weeks.