Fire & Fury 8/9/17

Trump’s Threat –  by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

The problem with Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” statement on North Korea isn’t merely that it intensifies an already tense situation. Nor is it just another example of Trump’s inappropriate, childish language when faced with a complex issue.

Most worrisome is that he seems to have no grasp of how his remarks might play out in real-world international politics. Trying to one-up the North Koreans with threats may give Trump the false sense that he is besting them, since he believes—as always, from his business experience—threats work. But he has no awareness of how threats are received in Pyongyang, not to mention in Seoul, Tokyo, Beijing, and other capitals. Trump’s language does nothing to move the nuclear issue toward dialogue, but does much to further envenom relations with North Korea and to support the widespread view elsewhere that the president of the US is unstable and prone to violent actions.

In the past Trump has said of North Korea that attacking it sooner rather than later is the best way to resolve the nuclear issue. Bill Clinton disproved that in 1994 by rejecting an attack on North Korea’s nuclear facility at Yongbyon and instead entering into an Agreed Framework with Pyongyang that prevented war. Does Trump still hold to that view? Numerous specialists, and Trump’s own defense department leadership, have concluded that war would be catastrophic, with immediate one million deaths and economic costs of around $1 trillion. Needless to say, Koreans north and south, Japanese, and Chinese would pay the heaviest price for such madness.

But Trump, with his well-known ignorance about nuclear weapons, seems blissfully unaware of such matters. He would rather talk about “fake news,” attack critics, lie about his accomplishments, and keep pushing a domestic agenda that has gotten nowhere. Nuclear weapons, Korean history, North Korean motivations, and the art of diplomacy are outside his area of interest, and to say he is not a fast study is to be overly polite.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson responded to questions about Trump’s latest threat by saying “Americans should sleep well at night,” dismissing the threat as “rhetoric.” Given the drumbeat of war that the media has engaged in over North Korea’s missiles, I doubt that many informed Americans are sleeping well. I doubt that US military leaders in particular are sleeping well; they have an inexperienced, unpredictable commander-in-chief who just might issue an order to attack North Korea. And most assuredly South Koreans and Japanese are not sleeping well. Warlike rhetoric from the US president can never be dismissed.

In a word, President Trump is a loose cannon, a serious threat to national and international security.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Not Much Time (if any) 8/2/17

Reaching Paris Without Stopping in Washington – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

History may record that the planet’s climate crisis was avoided thanks to the efforts of three countries: China, Germany, and France. Or not. The preparedness of those three, and the other EU member-states, to follow through on commitments under the Paris Accord despite the US pull-out is key to planetary survival. Chancellor Angela Merkel has made no bones about it, announcing that the Europeans are determined, in the name of Western values, to meet the Paris goal of keeping planetary temperature rise to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius while also welcoming immigrants and upholding the global trade system.

The Discouraging News

Every expert opinion on climate change includes a dire warning: We haven’t got much time. The latest warning comes from a group of scientists and supportive others called Mission 2020. Reporting in Nature, they believe that if greenhouse gas emissions can turn downward by 2020—emissions have actually flattened out over the last three years—we have a chance to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. But if the Paris goals cannot be met, we are on the way to catastrophic decline. The group reminds us that economic growth in many countries is occurring precisely where use of non-carbon renewable sources has increased dramatically.

Mission 2020 makes a number of specific, entirely doable suggestions on land-use policy, city structures, transportation, and other subjects. But for its ideas to see the light of day, the group emphasizes that we must “use science to guide decisions and set targets. Policies and actions must be based on robust evidence… Those in power must also stand up for science.” Its closing observation is well worth heeding: “There will always be those who hide their heads in the sand and ignore the global risks of climate change. But there are many more of us committed to overcoming this inertia. Let us stay optimistic and act boldly together.”

But optimism will be hard to sustain, especially for future generations. Two other studies just published in Nature Climate Change cast doubt on reaching the 1.5°C target. In fact, these studies, using very different methodologies, conclude that a rise of 2°C or even 3°C by the end of the century is more likely. And the studies were completed before US withdrawal from the Paris Accord. Bill McKibben writes: “”These studies are part of the emerging scientific understanding that we’re in even hotter water than we’d thought. We’re a long ways down the path to disastrous global warming, and the policy response—especially in the United States—has been pathetically underwhelming.”

Indeed, under Donald Trump, the US is contributing mightily to our self-destruction. Deep cuts in the EPA budget; appointments to the environment and energy cabinet posts of dogmatic amateurs; restrictions on scientists’ professional activities, climate-change research, and the climate data base; the purely politically-motivated efforts to salvage the dying coal industry; official obliviousness to Antarctica’s breakup; unabashed promotion of oil and gas industry fracking and other dangerous ventures; systematic elimination of environmental protection regulations—it’s an extraordinary list that future historians will point to as evidence of a bizarre suicidal urge in a certain segment of American society.

It will come as no surprise that a Pew Research Center poll based on opinion in five countries (France, Britain, Spain, Poland, and Germany) finds a major shift in attitudes about the US. Whereas in 2016 favorable opinion of the US in these countries averaged 61 percent to 26 percent unfavorable, now unfavorable opinion is at 52 percent and 46 percent is favorable. Pew did international polling on the US under Trump in more than 30 other countries, and found very little confidence in his leadership—“arrogant, intolerant, and dangerous” were the decisive assessments—a sharp departure from polling when Obama was president. Trump’s Paris decision, along with his Muslim ban and his intention to build a wall on the Mexico border, clearly affected these opinions of him.

Some More Encouraging News

But if crisis breeds opportunity, the failure of US leadership on climate change may be fracturing the old international order in a positive way. While American politicians may still believe the US is destined to lead or is (in Madeleine Albright’s famous phrase) the “indispensable nation,” the rest of the world is moving on. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing that others step forward to fill the leadership gap. As Merkel has said: “The times in which we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent. That is what I experienced in the last few days. That is why I can only say: We Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.” Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, added that since the new US administration “has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership,” Canadians must “set our own clear and sovereign course.”

Trump’s transactional approach to international affairs, under which “the deal” must always advantage America first, will be shown to be bankrupt soon enough. The Europeans, the Chinese, and others—including major US cities, states, businesses, and institutions that will make their own deals on the environment, and will benefit as a result in terms of energy savings, cleaner air, employment opportunities, and technological advances. California’s governor Jerry Brown and New York City’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, lead a group called America’s Pledge that has a formidable and growing membership committed to working with the UN to reduce greenhouse emissions. The group now numbers 227 cities and counties, nine states, and more than 1600 businesses and investors.

So long as Trump is in power, however, we and the planet are going to pay a high price. US reliability will become increasingly uncertain on issues aside from climate change. After all, if the US can suddenly pull out of major international commitments such as the Paris accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and raises doubts about its participation in NATO, how credible will its word be on arms control, immigration, and humanitarian aid? Moreover, without US support, dealing with climate change will be that much more difficult. And for Americans, the evisceration of the EPA will have real consequences, starting with public health.

We were warned.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

 

Incapable & Compromised 7/26/17

Jared Kushner and National Security  – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Jared Kushner’s latest revision of his financial picture reveals a very wealthy man, and couple, who continue to profit enormously from the Trump presidency. But beyond the numbers lies the fact that Kushner, like his father-in-law, seems incapable of telling the truth about either the full extent of his financial empire or the extent of his contacts with foreigners—Russians especially—whose interests are intertwined with his own.

Here’s the current picture for Kushner and Ivanka Trump:

1. He holds managerial and/or leadership positions in 266 real estate and related organizations, most of them in New York City and some in New Jersey.

2. He lists income of over $6 million from two assets—his real estate and media companies.

3. His wife, Ivanka Trump, lists 17 sources of income; and together, they list an additional 221 income sources, mostly real estate but also interest earned on bonds and other financial instruments, with values ranging from $1,000 to $25 million. Kushner failed to list more than 70 of those income sources previously.

4. Their list of financial liabilities is headed by credit lines from Valley National Bank (New Jersey) and Deutsche Bank, each in the range of $5-25 million.

5. The couple continues to earn tens of millions of dollars from their real estate and other businesses, including those they supposedly divested or resigned from. According to the Washington Post’s review of Kushner’s latest filing, he “resigned from 266 corporate positions, and [Ivanka] Trump stepped down from 292 positions… But they still control assets worth at least $139 million, along with another $66 million, at minimum, of assets that are tied to Trump’s stakes in her fashion brand, the Trump hotel in Washington and other real estate projects, according to the filings. And they both continue to draw large sums from outside interests: The couple has jointly made at least $19 million in income from business ventures and listed more than $80 million in real estate and other revenues since the start of 2016 . . .”

Nicholas Kristof makes the case for removing Jared Kushner from his White House job because he’s a security risk. Innocent until proven guilty, for sure; but the circumstantial evidence of a cozy, potentially compromising relationship with the Russians—notably, the secret meeting with Russians in the company of Donald, Jr., the plan to set up a backchannel communications link in the Russian embassy, and the failure to disclose several other meetings with officially connected Russians—is very strong.

In a word, Jared Kushner reeks of corrupt, unpatriotic behavior that may lead to indictments. He will probably be the first person pardoned by President Trump. But in the meantime, Kushner should be removed from office and his security clearance denied—as a matter of national security.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Conduit For Loans 7/12/17

Smoking gun?  by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

With the revelation today (July 11) that Donald Trump, Jr. leaped at the opportunity to find some dirt on Hillary Clinton, we have our first clear idea of what his father is hiding concerning the Russia connection. The invitation to meet a “Russian government attorney,” which took place June 9, 2016, came from the son of a real estate magnate, Aras Agalarov, whose construction projects won a major award from Vladimir Putin—and whose invitation to Trump Sr. to bring the Miss Universe contest to Moscow in 2013 began a close family relationship between the Trumps and the Agalarovs.

So what is shaping up is a deal that no Trump could resist: Trump gets information described by the Russian contact in a June 3, 2016 email as “very high level and sensitive” that “would incriminate Hillary” as part of the Russian “government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump also gets a leg up on the Russian real estate market, which he has been trying to break into for years, including a Moscow hotel deal in partnership with Agalarov. In return the Russians gain leverage on the Trump family and an opportunity to reduce or eliminate US sanctions imposed by the Obama administration.

The revelations concerning the June 9 meeting fit neatly with what we already know about Trump-Russian collusion, including Michael Flynn’s effort to set up a back-channel communications link with Moscow and Jared Kushner’s meeting with the well-connected Russian executive of a sanctioned state bank that might be a conduit for loans to Trump via Deutsche Bank.

The June 3 email, which the New York Times acquired, is devastating from a legal as well as political standpoint. It tells us, contrary to the narrative that Don Jr. and the White House have been spinning, that Trump’s campaign had direct contact with officially connected Russians; that the top Trump campaign officials—Don Jr., Kushner, and then-campaign head Paul Manafort—took the offer of Russian help seriously, which may constitute a crime; and that the future president, who was in his Trump Tower office on the day the meeting with the Russian attorney was held one flight below, probably knew of and approved it.

Further investigation of the June 9 meeting will want to focus on details of the conversation: What, if anything, was promised? Is there a connection between that conversation and Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s and Hillary Clinton’s emails that followed within days? But one thing is already clear: the Trump campaign was ready and willing to collude with officially connected Russians in order to promote making America “great again,” and the Russians were only too happy to oblige.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

 

China – No Korea Tangle 7/5/17

APB: The US-China-North Korea Tangle – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

It’s not too early to sound alarm bells about the downward turn in US-China relations. Trump’s evident frustration with China over its presumed failure to rein in North Korea has already led to a number of steps that have rankled Beijing. These include a State Department report on human trafficking that includes sharp criticism of China’s denial of human rights; statements from the administration about China’s unfair trade practices; a major US arms sale to Taiwan; and a US frigate’s sail-by in South China Sea waters close to Chinese-claimed territory.

A phone call on July 3 from Trump to Xi Jinping comforted the Chinese leader on one point: Trump’s pledge to continue to honor the “One China” principle and prior US-China understandings regarding Taiwan. But even on that point, and no doubt with the $1.4 billion arms sale in mind, Xi reportedly said he “hopes the US will properly handle the Taiwan-related issues in accordance with the one-China principle and the three Sino-US joint communiqués.” Xi also said that while US-China relations had “achieved important results” since his meeting with Trump at Mar-a-lago, “at the same time, the two countries’ relations had been influenced by some negative factors.”

On the face of it, the Xi-Trump conversation seems like a positive exchange. But the Chinese account does not mention that Trump, according to a New York Times report today, also warned China that the US may have to take unilateral steps in dealing with North Korea, which has just tested another long-range ballistic (nuclear-weapons-capable) missile. That warning will only accomplish two things: It will tell China that the brief honeymoon in US-China cooperation is over, and will show once again that Washington has failed to learn the lesson of years past that China cannot, and will not, pressure Kim Jong-un to cease nuclear and missile tests and denuclearize.

Trump has said that Obama’s North Korea policy of “strategic patience” is dead. But Trump’s threat of military action against the North is worse. The Chinese have put forward a “freeze-for-freeze” proposal—a halt to US military exercises on the Korean peninsula in exchange for a halt to North Korean weapons tests—that makes far more sense. Only direct US-North Korea dialogue holds any prospect of reducing the risk of an unprecedented calamitous war.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Considered Wrongheaded 6/28/17

Advise, Assist, Arm: The United States at War – by Mel Gurtov

During the Cold War, the US military and the CIA were involved in a multitude of “indirect” interventions in developing countries. A few—most dramatically and tragically, Vietnam—evolved from a supporting US role to large-scale combat missions. The Pentagon typically defined these missions as “low-intensity conflicts,” though they hardly seemed as such to the innocent people caught up in them. Now, just below the radar, the US military is engaged in an ever-increasing number of “advise-and-assist” missions, supplemented by major arms deals and CIA-run drone strikes, that commit the US to long-term intervention in Africa and the Middle East. And Donald Trump, unlike Barack Obama, is happy to cede operational control—to “let the war fighters fight the war,” as Stephen Bannon told CNN.

The Growing US Footprint in Africa

The US Africa Command oversees a vast array of “outposts”—categorized in Pentagon-speak as “consisting of two forward operating sites [including the one official base in Djibouti], 13 cooperative security locations, and 31 contingency locations.” Secret documents in 2015 listed thirty-six outposts “scattered across 24 African countries. These include low-profile locations—from Kenya to South Sudan to a shadowy Libyan airfield—that have never previously been mentioned in published reports. Today, according to an AFRICOM spokesperson, the number of these sites has actually swelled to 46, including ‘15 enduring locations.’ The newly disclosed numbers . . . shed new light on a constellation of bases integral to expanding U.S. military operations on the African continent and in the Middle East,” Nick Turse writes.

These outposts support “seventeen hundred members of the Special Forces and other military personnel [who] are undertaking ninety-six missions in twenty-one countries,” according to one writer. In Somalia, for instance, Navy SEALs are pursuing an al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, with the Somali National Army. SEALs are not simply advising and training; they are involved in combat too, as part of a force of 200-300 Special Forces soldiers. About all that is known about the air and ground assaults is that they are increasing. As the Times reports: “The decision to allow more expansive operations in Somalia is a signal of the Trump administration’s willingness to delegate decision-making power to military commanders and authorize a greater use of force against militant groups.”

The US mission in Africa relies increasingly on training of African troops. The latest report by the Security Assistance Monitor indicates training in fiscal year (FY) 2015 of nearly 34,000 troops, mainly from Burundi, Cameroon, Tanzania, and Niger. Such security assistance is about $2.5 billion in FY2017.

It is essentially substituting for other forms of US assistance that would be so much more meaningful, such as rule-of-law training, development aid, and humanitarian relief such as treatment of AIDS. Ordinarily, the US accounts for about a quarter of humanitarian aid to Africa, but that is now subject to major cuts under Trump. Aid to Africa is slated to be reduced from about $8 billion to $5.2 billion in FY2018—a plan that senior military officers as well as diplomats consider wrongheaded.

The Africa locations are also essential to US military operations in the Middle East, such as in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria. In Yemen, for example, US drones support Saudi air strikes, which are being carried out with fewer restrictions than before as the White House allows the military to determine strategy. High civilian casualties are practically guaranteed to continue. Were it not for US protection, Saudi Arabian officials would be on trial for war crimes.

Outsourcing in the Middle East

President Trump dramatized the policy of outsourcing to the military by giving General James Mattis, the defense secretary, authority to determine force levels in Afghanistan. “Several thousand” more US troops may be deployed there, news reports say, as officials acknowledge the war there, fifteen years in, is being lost. (About 9800 US troops are in Afghanistan, out of a total force of around 13,000.) Drone operations have increased fourfold over the Obama years. Nothing the Trump administration has said so far deviates from Obama’s Afghanistan objective, which was to “advise and assist” to the point where government forces could at least keep the Taliban threat at manageable level. But what is different is the delegation to the Pentagon of authority over troop levels and development of a new strategy. Even as the new strategy has yet to materialize, the US commitment gets deeper—another sign that the Trump team is in over its head and that Trump’s supposed distaste for foreign adventures—on behalf of “people that hate us,” he once said of Afghanistan—is a fiction.

US policy on Qatar is another indication of an administration without a consistent message beyond meeting immediate military needs. While Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seeks to calm relations between Qatar and the other Persian Gulf states that have blockaded and threatened it, Trump remains oblivious to diplomatic solutions. He’s still back in the Middle East, fawning over the Saudi royals and, incredibly, praising their anti-terrorism efforts while denigrating Qatar as a “funder of terrorism at a very high level.” (The US ambassador to Qatar, a career Foreign Service officer, resigned June 13, apparently as scheduled but reportedly also in protest of Trump’s meddling.) But let’s also follow the money here: at the same time Washington is selling the Saudis $110 billion in weapons, it has also announced a $12 billion arms sale to Qatar, thus assuring continued access to the major US air base there.

While the US military gets virtually everything it wants, the UN reports that about 20 million people in Africa and the Middle East are starving. It has requested $4.4 billion to “avert a catastrophe.” Famine is particularly afflicting South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria. One well-informed report from South Sudan indicates ethnic cleansing and possible genocide by the US-supported government forces, causing massive flight from the country amidst widespread hunger (Nick Turse, “Ghost Nation,” Harper’s, July 2017). The Trump administration has done nothing to address the problem.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Chosen the Wrong Horse 6/21/17

Disengaging with Cuba – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

President Obama’s engagement with Cuba was one of his administration’s success stories. The policy shift was based on the entirely realistic as well as humanitarian assessment that permanent estrangement deepens enmity, isolates two peoples and separates families, reduces opportunities for improvement in the quality of life in Cuba, inhibits the two-way flow of information, and prevents cooperation on common problems. But the Trump administration, pressed by Senators Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez, is still fighting the Cold War, as evidenced by Trump’s disengagement order this week.

Let’s recall how Obama, in defiance of right-wing critics, reinforced his policy direction and personal visit to Cuba by issuing a legally binding order—Presidential Policy Directive 43—on October 14, 2016, just months before leaving office. PPD-43 makes the case for normalization of relations with Cuba, recites the extensive diplomatic exchanges that have occurred, outlines cooperation in areas of mutual interest, and expresses the hope of improvement in Cuba’s human rights, economy, and regional integration—all while reassuring Cuba that regime change is not US policy. Department by department, the document recites the numerous collaborative ventures ongoing and possible, such as on public health, food security, private investment, environment and ecology protection, immigration, travel, counter-narcotics, and joint scientific projects. One specific step taken by the administration at this time was to remove the ceiling on imports of Cuban rum and cigars. But the one thing Obama could not do was end the embargo, where right-wing members of Congress have always had their best chance to limit engagement.

Obama left Donald Trump with a substantial list of new interactions with Cuba, some of them—such as money transfers to Cuba, and a major increase in tourism—designed to support small businesses and civil society. Obama also left Trump with some unresolved issues with Cuba, such as a sharp increase in Cuban immigration to the United States (in part thanks to the upward pressure on prices due to US tourism), regulatory blockages, and the slow pace of Cuban economic reform. Such problems normally would be resolved over time. Under Trump, however, progress made with Cuba was bound to be set back, just as it was with Iran.

Fidel Castro’s death prior to Trump’s inauguration ordinarily might have been a time for a sympathetic note to Havana and an opportunity to deepen the accords already reached. Instead, Trump tweeted: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.” The implication was that the US would demand changes in Cuba’s human rights and political system in return for continued engagement and a softening of the embargo.

Trump’s partial reversal of Obama’s engagement with Cuba in June 2017—partial because diplomatic relations and most types of tourism remain in place—is more likely to undermine than promote the slow improvements in Cuban civil society that engagement has produced. Independent journalism and private entrepreneurship are reemerging there. Trump’s limits on general US tourism greatly reduce interactions between ordinary citizens of the two countries, and restrictions on how US dollars may be spent undercuts small Cuban businesses. (Surely coincidental is that new American hotels that might compete with future Trump hotels are prohibited from opening in Cuba.) Maintaining the US embargo is also highly unlikely to ease Cuban restrictions on human rights, and making the latter a condition for easing the former is sure to arouse official Cuban anger. As one expert in US-Cuba relations (William LeoGrande) observed, negotiating economic and travel arrangements is one thing, sovereignty is another. Cuba’s memory of US interference is long, and Cuba will not countenance another such era.

The Trump administration’s abandonment of full-fledged engagement with Cuba leaves untouched reassessments of policy toward other, and far more destructive, authoritarian regimes, including the Saudi monarchy, Putin and the Russian oligarchy, al-Sisi’s military regime in Egypt, and Duterte and his henchmen in the Philippines. Once again, a US leader has chosen to ride the wrong horses.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Justice Be Allowed 6/14/17

Keeping Trump Alive: A Strange Consensus – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

The leaders of both parties are divided on numerous matters, but on one critical piece of business they seem united: keep Donald Trump in office. That rather extraordinary, and by no means welcome conclusion, stems from this simple observation: Republicans want to squeeze as much advantage as possible from Trump’s presidency to pursue and complete their domestic agenda, while Democrats want to squeeze the same advantage from Trump’s constant missteps and failure to push through his agenda. Thus, while Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan make excuses for every Trump excess and idiocy, they still value his continuation in office more than his removal—even for a tweet-less Pence presidency. Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, on the other hand, attack every Trump move that undermines democracy and world order, but insist that impeachment is premature and that investigations of collusion and obstruction of justice must be allowed to proceed.

Republicans are hoping against hope that Trump’s agenda can somehow survive. Obamacare will finally be replaced, a big tax cut for the wealthy will be enacted, a Muslim ban will pass court muster, and employment and economic growth figures will start looking good. The emperor’s political health is failing, but they need to keep him alive, at least through 2018. Democratic leaders in Congress will do everything they can to frustrate the Republicans’ agenda so they can underscore Trump’s failures. But while Trump’s defeats may be worth celebrating, they do not equate to Democratic success. We should not underestimate how Republican legislative failures play in red states and Congressional districts.

Let’s face it: Republicans have the odds on their side. The chances are slim to none that Trump will be indicted, impeached, or forced to resign. Even in the best of circumstances, Robert Mueller’s investigation will probably take well over a year to reach a conclusion, and it is by no means certain that the conclusion will be so strongly against Trump as to force a Republican-dominated Congress to take action. And at worst the Republicans have Mike Pence waiting in the wings.

Democrats may think that every day Trump is in office buys votes for them, but the jury (literally) is out on that one. Plenty of analyses have appeared lately to show that Democrats remain deeply divided on strategy for 2018 and 2020—in a nutshell, whether to go for the jugular, as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren et al. prefer, and press for a truly progressive list of domestic reforms, or adopt a modestly liberal approach à la Hillary Clinton (and reflected in the Jon Ossoff campaign in Georgia) that is tailored to particular districts in each state.

Writing in the op-ed section of the New York Times on June 12, Charles M. Blow offers a reasonable guide to the road ahead: “In the end, the Resistance must be bigger than impeachment; it must be about political realignment. It must be built upon solid rock of principle and not hang solely on the slender hope of expulsion. This is a long game and will not come to an abrupt conclusion. Perseverance must be the precept; lifelong commitment must be the motto.”

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Jared Center Stage 6/14/17

Jared’s Secrets – by Mel Gurtov

On May 30 President Trump tweeted that Russia is “laughing at the U.S.” If so, it is because the ordinary social and economic agenda of the US government is being sidetracked by the Russiagate investigation, causing the kind of divisiveness and dysfunction that Vladimir Putin presumably wants. But with the fate of the Trump presidency now clearly imperiled, Putin may not be laughing at all: His favorite American family may have a limited future.

“There was a cancer growing on the presidency,” John Dean put it to Richard Nixon. Today, that cancer is back, and it now threatens Trump’s son-in-law. Jared Kushner is front and center in the FBI’s investigation, reports say. He had a number of exchanges with Russian officials prior to January 20, among them the infamous effort, with General Michael Flynn alongside, to set up a secret back channel to Moscow within the Russian embassy in Washington. Kushner also had contact with the head of the state-owned Vnesheconombank (VEB), whose job seems to include projecting Russian influence. It has ties to Wall Street investors and New York banks; it also has had convicted spies among its employees. The Obama administration sanctioned VEB last year, and the banker with whom Kushner spoke has close ties to Putin and a past history with Russian intelligence.

The question with Kushner is the purpose of these contacts. Was he simply wanting to set up a direct communication line to Putin? Was he wanting to open discussion about US-Russia cooperation in Syria? When he talked with the Russian banker, was he wearing his real estate business suit (the bank’s explanation) or simply offering diplomatic niceties (the White House version)?

Here’s a different explanation: Kushner’s purpose, supported by Donald Trump, was to begin redrawing US policy on Russia with the aim of easing sanctions in exchange for certain Russian “services.” The back channel to Putin was no innocent “let’s get together” effort; it amounted to “play for pay.” Removing sanctions on Russia, including those on VEB, would help promote the Trump brand there, a longtime Trump ambition. Talking with Vnesheconombank would facilitate Russian financing of Trump and Kushner business ventures in the US and elsewhere at a time when VEB is in serious financial straits.

Here’s where Deutsche Bank enters the picture: It has made large loans to the Trump Organization, anywhere from $300 million to more than $400 million. Deutsche Bank is the one big bank that has been willing to give Trump loans when all the others have turned him down because of his poor financial record. Vnesheconombank may have been a necessary partner in the deal as guarantor of those loans. (Deutsche Bank has already been penalized $630 million for laundering $10 billion in rubles; US authorities are investigating whose Russian money that is and whether or not the US dollars that the bank converted are tied to Trump). And Democrats on the House Financial Services Committee have written Deutsche Bank with a request for any documents that bear on Russian loans to Trump real estate interests.

While none these contacts were illegal, they created Russian leverage on the Trump administration. Neither Kushner, Flynn, or anyone else in the Trump transition team should have contacted Russians with known intelligence connections and the capacity to put them in a compromising situation. We already know that Flynn’s contact with the Russia ambassador specifically promised a softening of US sanctions on Russia. We also know that soon after taking office, so far unnamed Trump associates—very possibly including Kushner—tried to persuade State Department officials to lift sanctions. But the State officials pushed back, and alerted members of Congress who then sought to insulate the sanctions from Trump pressure.

There was nothing accidental about these secret contacts. Trump surely knew what he was doing: His long delay in firing Flynn, his defense of Flynn since then, and deployment of his son-in-law, suggest as much—all the more so in the case of Flynn, who may have damaging information about his former boss that Trump finds worrisome. Trump’s exchanges of laudatory comments with Putin; his refusal to believe US intelligence conclusions about Russian meddling in the 2016 election; his undermining of US ties with NATO and the European Union; his longstanding efforts to promote Trump’s business interests in Russia; and Trump’s money problems—all these provide a foundation for explaining Kushner’s and Flynn’s mission, which was to curry favor with Putin’s circle by dangling the carrot of ending sanctions.

Some former US intelligence officials have gone beyond calling these contacts stupid or naïve. They are compromising, and border on treachery. They feed directly into the investigations of the Trump team’s collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign. And they move Jared Kushner to center stage as Trump’s key operative.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Lukewarm Promise 5/31/17

All Is Not Quiet on the Western Front – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Donald Trump’s visit to NATO headquarters last week was consistent with two of his foreign-policy views: the need to pursue close relations with Russia, and skepticism about NATO’s utility. Despite affirmative comments about NATO from his secretary of state and Vice President Mike Pence, Trump persists in accusing NATO members of failing to pay the “massive amounts of money” he says they owe. Rather than reaffirm the US commitment to NATO’s collective-security principle, as its ministers had expected, Trump offered a lukewarm promise “never to forsake” America’s friends. Forgive them if they feel forsaken, or at least undercut, in favor of Putin’s Russia.

Besides Russia, the US sticking points with Europe are the trade deficit (the Germans are “very bad” on that score) and climate change. Trump’s appearance did nothing to reduce differences on those issues. In fact, it’s not clear that any of those topics even came up. His interest is mainly in saving money, counter-terrorism, and, evidently, faster ways to set up golf clubs in Europe. NATO has previously pledged in 2014 to gradually meet the goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on the military by 2024, though at present only four members besides the US have reached that target. (The European Union average is 1.34 percent spending on defense. US military spending is 3.6 percent of GDP.)

Trump’s criticism of NATO’s military spending is hardly new—previous administrations have said the same—but it ignores four points. First, NATO members have made important troop commitments in support of US policy—in the Balkans, for instance, and in Afghanistan—and are active in intelligence gathering and sharing on terrorism. Second, merely jacking up military spending, particularly in order to buy US-made weapons or justify further US contributions to NATO, may be welcome to the US military-industrial complex, but it doesn’t by itself strengthen the organization.

Third, NATO’s 28 European members need to reevaluate the strategic purposes of greater spending. For example, occasional military deployments in the Baltic states and Poland to show solidarity may be in order, but hemming Russia in, which the Pentagon has pushed under Obama and now Trump, and which the Europeans enthusiastically endorse, is needlessly provocative. These troop rotations and exercises exacerbate tensions with Moscow, lead to Russian counteractions, and raise the risk of accidental war.

Fourth, and most fundamentally: Does more military spending buy more security? The European members of NATO have every right to consider their own domestic agendas when deciding on how and when to meet the 2-percent goal. For them, terrorism, employment, immigration, and environmental protection count importantly in national security. Germany and France, for instance, fall well short on NATO spending; but the success of their economies is critical to the European Union’s future. Greece, on the other hand, is one of the four EU countries that meets the 2-percent mark. But why should Greece devote 2 percent of GDP to the military when it still is in a financial crisis, is deeply in debt to the EU, and does not face an external threat?

Trump’s qualified embrace of NATO and his persistent refusal to criticize Russia’s behavior may eventuate in some kind of distancing between the US and Europe. Reflecting German exasperation with Trump, Der Spiegel, in a blistering critique of Trump’s moral and intellectual deficiencies, offers five ways to deal with him. The last one is relevant to NATO: “the international community wakes up and finds a way to circumvent the White House and free itself of its dependence on the U.S.” In light of Russian intervention in Ukraine, Crimea, and Syria, a rift in the alliance could not come at a worse time. And how bizarre, that Trump should be so solicitous of Saudi Arabia and Israel, yet so brusque with the Europeans.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Imperiled Democracy 5/24/17

Our Imperiled Democracy – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Ambitious national political leaders invariably face a problem: how to get things done in the face of competing interests and institutional rules. Democratic leaders generally learn how to accommodate those interests, respect the rules, and understand that accountability is the essence of democracy. They work within the system because for all its flaws, the system works. Autocrats regard competing interests and rules of operation with disdain. Impatient to achieve their ends, they bully opponents, limit accountability and transparency, and seek to become the sole source of authority. Donald Trump seems to be leaning toward the latter approach.

Trump’s problem, as is now obvious, is that he can’t move his agenda as he had hoped. Being president, he recently said, isn’t so easy. His critics keep reminding him that he hasn’t done much in his first 100 days. He thought he could run the American empire the way he runs the Trump empire—in other words, without backtalk, transparency, or accountability. What is so worrisome is Trump’s notion of where the problem lies. For him, it’s democracy under a constitutional system, which he lately is describing as “archaic.” In an interview with Fox News, Trump expressed disappointment with congressional Republicans, but blamed the constitutional checks and balances for his legislative failures. “It’s a very rough system,” he said. “It’s an archaic system. . . . It’s really a bad thing for the country.” He assails judges who countermand his orders. Imagine, said Jeff Sessions: one judge “sitting on an island in the Pacific” can obstruct the chief executive!

The simple fact for Trump is that he can’t automatically get what he wants. The Democrats, the judges, and the press keep standing in his way. And they’re able to do that by relying on “archaic” rules and principles, such as the independence of the judiciary, a free and obstreperous press, and the filibuster. As Trump’s agenda continues to fail, we can expect that he will attack all these institutions even more often and vigorously than before. The theme of the press as “enemy of the people” and publisher of “fake news” will be repeated many times more. Judges in the Ninth Circuit Court and elsewhere who turn back Trump’s assault on immigration will have to be changed, perhaps along with the organization of the court system. The mainstream press will have to be sidelined and when possible silenced. Reince Priebus mentioned the possibility of using libel laws to do so—and even said the administration is “looking at” changing the First Amendment to legitimize suing the media. The other day, Trump’s reelection committee demanded that its video for showing on CNN display “fake news” when the video came to CNN and other mainstream media. CNN refused, with support from NBC, CBS, and ABC, and the campaign committee shouted “censorship.”

These are the sorts of things autocrats do. Trump’s praise (and envy?) of Putin, Xi, el-Sisi, Erdogan, Duterte, and other authoritarian leaders is well known. He may not like certain of their policies, but he admires strongman rule—the way these men “manage” dissent, push through policies, intimidate legislatures and courts. Even Kim Jong-un draws admiration—a “smart cookie” whom he would be “honored” to meet, Trump says, because Kim was able to fend off challenges to his power. It’s a moment ripe for Steve Bannon, who has been out of sight of late but is still lurking around. Some observers see his continuing influence on specific policies, such as immigration and trade. But the bigger threat Bannon poses is to the American way of governing by power sharing and competing interests. Trump’s frustrations are fodder for Bannon, who would like nothing better than to dismantle the state and concentrate enormous power in the White House.

All the above words were written before Trump fired James Comey, the FBI director—a brutal and alarming way to try to scuttle the FBI’s investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Trump and Sessions will now be able to appoint a fellow traveler, so to speak, and while that act will not end Senate and House investigations of Russiagate, it will seriously limit what they can hope to accomplish. Unless the Democrats can find several Republicans who are willing to put full-court pressure on the justice department, there will be no independent prosecutor or special panel. So much for checks and balances.

Here’s the bottom line: the presidency of Donald J. Trump is repugnant and damaging to the proper functioning of democratic processes. Although we progressives can mock Trump all we want (for now), he continues to undermine our system of government and brings us closer to the pure demagoguery he so admires. We citizens must find ways to stop his grasp for greater power. We need profiles in courage.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Autocratic Friends? 5/24/17

Trump in Saudi Arabia: With Friends Like These – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Donald Trump seems to be more popular in Saudi Arabia than in the United States. And the House of Saud knows just how to take advantage of that perception. Borrowing a page from the “Art of the Deal,” the kingdom, in exchange for an elaborate welcome of Trump’s entourage and $55 billion in (promised) business deals, was sold $110 billion in weapons over the next decade. This sale, supposedly for defense, in fact will help ensure the security of the monarchy, not the security of the Persian Gulf or any other country. King Salman and his inner circle understand Trump very well: appeal to his ego with great pomp and circumstance—plus a gold chain to wear—promise him the world on fighting ISIS, agree that Iran is the principal common enemy, and send him on his way with assurances of eternal friendship. (About the only ego-satisfying thing the Saudis couldn’t do is lodge Trump in one of his hotels. Trump had to settle for the Ritz-Carlton, but who knows what will follow.)

Saudi Arabia is not being threatened by Iran or anyone else. But the kingdom is a threat to others, specifically to Yemen, where Saudi bombs have killed numerous civilians and laid the poorest Arab country to waste. Saudi Arabia in fact is committing war crimes in Yemen—which, to be fair, also happened during Obama’s tenure, when the Saudis received logistical and intelligence support. Meantime, Saudi Arabia contributes nothing to resolve the most difficult Middle East issues, such as the Israel-Palestine conflict and Syria’s civil war. Nor will they get rid of madrasas (religious schools) that preach wahhabism at home, nurturing future terrorists.

Expect the Trump administration to proclaim that it has effectively overridden Saudi Arabia’s estrangement from the US during the Obama years. “Partnership” is the word of the day, but that is as tentative now as it was before—a cover for mutual suspicion, limited common interests (which include disregard for human rights), and love of oil. Trump has a long history of criticism of Saudi Arabia, has demeaned Muslims since Day One of his campaign, and seeks to keep as many Muslims as possible out of the US. His preaching of respect for all religions rings hollow; no rightminded person would take his speech seriously—all the more so as it was written by Stephen Miller, the pride of Breitbart and a well-known demonizer of Muslims.

As for the House of Saud, it is what it always has been: a repressive, oil-rich regime resistant to political and social change and a consistent human-rights violator at home and abroad. As Human Rights Watch reports:

Through 2016 the Saudi Arabia-led coalition continued an aerial campaign against Houthi forces in Yemen that included numerous unlawful airstrikes that killed and injured thousands of civilians. Saudi authorities also continued their arbitrary arrests, trials, and convictions of peaceful dissidents. Dozens of human rights defenders and activists continued to serve long prison sentences for criticizing authorities or advocating political and rights reforms. Authorities continued to discriminate against women and religious minorities.

Michael Dolan of the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank, argues that Trump’s trip provides an opportunity to create a “Trump Doctrine” that will remedy the weaknesses of prior US policy, particularly toward Iran. Dolan says that Trump’s “hard-nosed ethos and willingness to question foreign policy dogmas” can be the basis for this shift. Saudi Arabia, along with Israel and Turkey, should be the key allies in a coalition to deter Iran—a gift to two authoritarian regimes and one, Israel, that under Benjamin Netanyahu rejects an equitable peace with the Palestinians.

Dolan’s “steely-eyed realism” is actually crackpot realism. It ensures continued repression and warfare by the Saudi government using US weapons—“continued,” because the deal actually builds on a $115-billion weapons sale concluded during the Obama administration. Such realism is also likely to ensure ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and quite possibly the undoing of a nuclear agreement with Iran, giving Iran’s hawks reason to revive its nuclear-weapons program and support anti-US groups throughout the Middle East. In short, if Trump buys into Dolan’s “steely-eyed realism,” it will mean adopting an old doctrine, not a new one—namely, winning the favor of repressive regimes with more money and weapons, and in return getting blowback in the form of terrorism, weakening of civil society, abuses of human rights, and strengthening of autocratic rule.

If the human interest guided US relations with Saudi Arabia, military aid would be drastically reduced, particularly weapons and other help for the Saudis to continue their air war in Yemen. To be brutally honest, the US does not need Saudi Arabia—certainly not for its oil, which a long-term US energy policy focused on renewable energy sources and conservation would ensure. Relations with the Saudis should be thoroughly reevaluated in the context of major changes in US policy toward the Middle East as a whole—including elimination of the tilt to Israel, development assistance to the Palestinians, deepening of engagement with Iran (especially now that Hassan Rouhani has won reelection), a refocusing on helping build civil societies, and an end to interventions in Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan.

Foreign policy begins at home, however. The best thing the Trump administration, or any administration, can do to promote meaningful national security is to seriously confront climate change, move away from reliance on fossil fuels, promote universal health care, and run a transparent, trustworthy government.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

My Empire is More Fun 5/17/17

Watergate II? A Scenario for Trump’s Resignation – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” said Donald Trump to James Comey on February 14, a day after General Flynn was fired as national security special assistant. With those words, which Comey is said to have dutifully recorded in a memo, Trump may have put himself on the path to political oblivion. For the first time we have proof that the president directly interfered in a federal investigation, a criminal offense. To his credit, Comey did not “let it go.”

Every day brings bad news for Trump’s presidency. Every day is a reminder that this man is mentally, temperamentally, and politically unfit for the highest office. Every day also brings new risks to national security, which is in the hands of a commander in chief who is impulsive, uninformed, impervious to expert advice, and given to sudden movements that could mean war. Donald Trump must go, but how?

Up until now I thought our and the nation’s best hope was that somehow, some way, the Republican leadership in Congress would feel compelled by Trump’s outrageous behavior to start the ball rolling toward impeachment. Trump’s bald-faced interference on Flynn’s behalf leads me to a different denouement: his resignation, forced by the same Republicans who would otherwise never be persuaded to start impeachment proceedings.

What is the decisive factor now? Trump’s clear obstruction of justice may be the tipping point for Republican leaders who see no way that a conservative social and economic agenda can be achieved with Trump in office. Trump’s criminal interference shortens the timeline, and feeds their well-reported impatience with him. The Republicans knew all along that Trump was a wild card; but they had no idea how extraordinarily difficult his conduct would make their job. Now they surely must see that their preferred road ahead is going to be eternally blocked by Russiagate investigations. Immigration, taxes, health care, infrastructure jobs, environmental protection laws, abortion, border security—dramatic legislative changes the Republican leadership had planned in all these areas simply cannot move forward with Trump at the helm.

In short, I believe the Republicans are going to decide that they cannot keep sitting on their hands, making up excuses for Trump while watching their moment for remaking America slip by.

The other side of the coin for Republican leaders is a Pence presidency: Would it make their life easier? From their perspective, I believe they would think so. To be sure, Pence would lose a fair number of Trump working-class supporters as well as the Breitbart-Bannon wing of the conservative elite. But Pence would be much more ideologically in tune with Ryan and McConnell, and far more devoted to pushing their legislative agenda. The Republicans would still have the edge in Congress, and under Pence would have a better chance than under Trump to keep that edge in 2018. Maybe they would have to bend a little when dealing with the Democrats, but bending might now look much better than breaking.

So at the risk of engaging in wishful thinking, I am going to predict a Republican turnabout on Trump. Its leaders are going to push Trump to resign “for the good of the country and the party.” And Trump will decide that resignation—“I never liked the job anyway, and running my empire in more fun”—is a better way out than suffering the prolonged indignity of the impeachment process. To which the Republicans will say, amen.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Everything to Gain 5/3/17

Syria’s Guilt  – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

On April 4 chemical weapons were used in an attack on the Syrian city of Khan Sheikhoun in which about 80 people were killed and several hundred wounded. The city is in Idlib Province, home to anti-government fighters and refugees who have fled since the fall of Homs and Aleppo to Bashar al-Assad’s forces. I support the view, challenged by only a few observers, that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the sarin attack. Syria has a history of use of chemical weapons against its own people, motives for using chemical weapons against opposition forces and civilians, and a variety of weapons and chemicals for weapons production that were never destroyed under a 2013 international agreement.

The Trump administration’s missile strike in Syria was said to be in retaliation for the April 4 attack. Russia and Syria challenged that action as a violation of international law, the UN Charter, and the actual facts on the ground. My main concern is with those facts, which point directly at the Syrian regime’s responsibility. As I show below, that conclusion is not only the Trump administration’s; British, French, and Turkish experts who investigated the attack all agree with it, and the findings of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and Human Rights Watch likewise leave no doubt as to Syria’s guilt. My opinion is also reinforced by a private group of 30 people who belong to an informal roundtable of long-term CW experts from Sweden, Norway, Canada, Australia, Germany, Great Britain, the US, and Japan. To be clear, however, I do not support the Trump administration’s retaliatory strike.

The April 4 Attack

British scientists were among the first to identify use of sarin in Syria on April 4. Ahmet Uzumcu, the director-general of the OPCW (which is the implementing body for the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention), told a meeting at the group’s headquarters in The Hague in April that the preliminary assessment of OPCW experts investigating the alleged chemical attack was “that this was a credible allegation.” He said investigators collected samples that were sent for analysis. French intelligence backed up the British and OPCW findings. A French foreign ministry statement reported in late April that “the Syrian armed forces and security services perpetrated a chemical attack using sarin against civilians,” based on samples collected from the scene of the attack and compared with samples from a previous Syrian regime chemical attack on Saraqeb in April 2013. The chemical compounds matched those in Syrian stockpiles, says the French report, which also identifies the Syrian aircraft that carried out the attack.

Victims of the attack were taken to Turkish hospitals, where biological samples were obtained and sent to the OPCW for analysis. Turkey’s health ministry reported after autopsies were conducted that sarin was the cause of death. Officials from the World Health Organization also participated in the autopsies.

As for the Russian and Syrian argument concerning the April 2017 attack, Syria alleges that it hit an opposition chemical-weapon warehouse five hours after sarin casualties were video-recorded in the town and disseminated internationally. But Syria’s story has a big hole in it. Journalists with The Guardian visited the site of the attack and found the warehouse, which was “nothing but an abandoned space covered in dust and half-destroyed silos reeking of leftover grain and animal manure.” Syria distributed a video recording of a small ceremony by the Syrian Army chief honoring the pilot who attacked the alleged warehouse—an admission of how the attack took place. Human Rights Watch has just confirmed that conclusion: “Photos and videos of weapon remnants that struck Khan Sheikhoun on April 4 appear to be consistent with the characteristics of a Soviet-made air-dropped chemical bomb specifically designed to deliver sarin.”

The Past Is Prologue

The April attack is only the latest chemical attack by the Syrian regime since 2013, when it used sarin against the opposition-held town of Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. That attack, which caused roughly 1,400 deaths, was characterized by the UN Human Rights Council in a 2014 report as involving “ significant quantities of sarin . . . used in a well-planned indiscriminate attack targeting civilian-inhabited areas . . . ” Faced with a possible US attack on Syria, Russia and the US reached agreement on the complete destruction of Syria’s CW arsenal under international inspection, and Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). But complete destruction never occurred, and the OPCW considered that Syria’s declaration on joining the CWC was incomplete. Chemical weapons specialists from the OPCW who were invited to visit Syria’s principal facility in Damascus found that the inspection was “a ruse.”

An examination of last year’s international effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons, based on interviews with many of the inspectors and U.S. and European officials who were involved, shows the extent to which the Syrian regime controlled where inspectors went, what they saw and, in turn, what they accomplished. That happened in large part because of the ground rules under which the inspectors were allowed into the country, according to the inspectors and officials. The West was unable, for example, to prevent Mr. Assad from continuing to operate weapons-research facilities, including the one in Damascus visited by inspectors, making it easier for the regime to develop a new type of chemical munition using chlorine. And the regime never had to account for the types of short-range rockets that United Nations investigators believe were used in an Aug. 21, 2013, horrific Ghouta sarin gas attack, these officials say.

As the OPCW later confirmed, the Assad regime did everything possible to frustrate its work. Only facilities declared by the Syrian government were open to inspection. The US and other governments had to be content with the 1300 metric tons of chemicals that were destroyed, since to challenge Syria on other facilities might have prevented access to all 23 declared sites. Gregory Koblentz points to the chain of command in Syria’s decision making on chemical weapons use. “Syria, despite being a member of the CWC, maintains a well-organized capacity to conduct multiple types of chemical attacks in support of the regime’s tactical and strategic objectives.” Assad is at the top of the chain of command, one of only a few people Koblentz (and the French declaration noted above) identifies as having decision authority over chemical weapons.

Syria’s Motives

The Assad regime has a history of blaming opposition forces for chemical-weapon attacks. Syria’s, and Russia’s, position is that Syria no longer has chemical weapons, and certainly not sarin. Any chemical weapons not destroyed in 2013 under international inspection must have been hidden in opposition-held territory. The attack, if it occurred at all, was committed by anti-government forces who had hidden the chemicals in a warehouse. Syria says its aircraft struck that site to destroy the chemicals. Syria would never conduct such an attack, Bashar al-Assad says. Why would he do such a terrible thing? As for the pictures of the dead women and children, they were faked.

But most such charges have been refuted by on-the-spot international inspectors. For example, regarding a chemical weapon attack on Aleppo in August 2016:

Based on the evidence presented by the National Authority of the Syrian Arab Republic, the medical records that were reviewed, the results of the sample analyses, and the prevailing narrative of all of the interviews, the FFM [Fact Finding Mission] cannot confidently determine whether or not a specific chemical was used as a weapon in the investigated incident. From the results of the analyses of the samples, the FFM is of the opinion that none of the chemicals identified [by the Syrian regime] are likely to be the cause of death of the casualties in the reported incident.

Finally, there’s the question of motive: Why would Assad order a chemical attack when the war is going well for him and rebel forces are being squeezed into smaller and smaller territory? A Beirut-based journalist, Annia Ciezadlo, provides a very good answer:

The chemical attack came at a time when Assad’s military is overstretched. Chemical weapons are a cheap, effective force multiplier — a way to inflict terror despite limitations of manpower and supply. Their use instills fear in civilians and rebels alike. By discouraging them from joining the last pockets of resistance, this tactic saves Assad something more precious than money: time. The sooner he finishes cleaning up, the more money he saves, and the sooner he can start raking in the billions that international donors and investors have already pledged to “reconstruct” his shattered country. . . . Assad has already used chemical weapons to kill his own people, and he has paid a negligible price. Why would he risk it again? Because his experience shows him that he’ll probably face only minimal consequences. In fact, a look at history — particularly Syrian history — shows that he has everything to gain.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

Fails to Connect Dots 4/26/17

No Exit? The NY Times and North Korea  – by Mel Gurtov

Mel Gurtov

Three opinion pieces on US policy toward North Korea have appeared in the New York Times in the past week. They deserve critical comment. The writers are all very capable people who share a deep concern about Korea’s security and the possibility of a major blowup that would cause enormous human and material losses throughout the Asia Pacific. As a longtime student of Korean affairs, however, I find that these commentaries—which reflect analysis in the US mainstream media generally—are narrowly focused and alarmist. They would make it seem that, like climate change, we are doomed because “the situation” has entrapped us.

The first of the three articles is by Nicholas Kristof. He correctly points out that China cannot be relied on to pressure North Korea, nor can attacking North Korea end the nuclear problem. We’re running out of time, he writes, and the danger increases that Trump will stumble into war. So what’s left to try? He offers a “lousy option”: increase the pressure on NK with China’s cooperation “while pushing for a deal in which North Korea would verifiably freeze its nuclear and missile programs without actually giving up its nukes, in exchange for sanctions relief.”

This is a lousy option, though perhaps not for the reason Kristof thinks. Though North Korea certainly wants to keep its nuclear and missile programs, it is very unlikely to agree to freeze them under pressure from US and Chinese sanctions. It’s a case of sticks before carrots—a non-starter. The North Koreans for some strange reason don’t respond well to blackmail. Why not dispatch a high-level US emissary to Pyongyang to negotiate a freeze while sanctions are being scaled back, accompanied by other inducements (such as the promise of US diplomatic recognition and a pledge, as both sides made in 2000, of “no hostile intent”)?

The second article, by Max Fisher, agrees with Kristof that there are no good options for dealing with North Korea, for instance severe sanctions and threats of a missile attack. He’s right there. Fisher warns that the particular problem is the North’s survival instincts, which require it to maintain repression and “a permanent state of near-war.” North Korea’s behavior pattern is to keep provoking tensions, raising the risks of war and threatening preemptive attack. No concessions, Fisher suggests, seem likely to move North Korea from its risk-accepting strategy, which puts the onus on the US and its allies who have so much more to lose. He then offers four conditions that he believes constitute North Korea’s “minimally acceptable” terms: the right to keep its nuclear and missile programs; no regime change; end of sanctions; and “withdrawal or reduction” of the US alliance with South Korea. But Fisher believes these conditions are very unlikely to be met, and thus, like Kristof, wonders if we aren’t headed to “disaster.”

The New York Times editorial board joins with these writers in worrying about Trump’s impulsiveness and the possibility of a disastrous preemptive strike on North Korea. The board holds out hope that China and the US might somehow be able to rein in the North; but its best suggestion is that Trump “ratchet up sanctions and find a way to engage the North in negotiations.”

These three writings share a number of misconceptions. First, the sources they consult—those mentioned and those we may reasonably presume have informed the articles—are weighted in favor of evaluating military capabilities, not diplomacy. Thus, the key analytical question is not what inducements may persuade North Korea to freeze or reduce its nuclear and missile programs, and put them under international inspection, but rather what kind of punishment will hurt North Korea enough for it to surrender its nukes and missiles. Focusing on military capabilities, moreover, ignores intent: It makes quite a difference whether North Korea’s military buildup is for attack or deterrence. And if, as a number of former US officials have said, deterrence of a US attack is responsible for the buildup, that suggests a menu of incentives to provide North Korea with strategic reassurance.

Second, the writers never examine any of the history of US-DPRK diplomacy. So it’s easy to dismiss negotiations as an option, as though it is hopeless to try. There’s more than a little hint here of Cold War-era “you can’t trust the communists.” Yet many in the Korea-watching community have long argued that diplomatic engagement with the North has been productive at times. The 1994 Agreed Framework during the Bill Clinton administration halted North Korea’s production of nuclear weapons for a decade, and the 2005 accord under the Six Party Talks produced an “action-for-action” agreement on political and economic issues that still has value for all sides. And let’s not forget that North Korea is not the only party that has failed to comply with agreements or undermine them with belligerent behavior.

US administrations have consistently posed obstacles to compliance, such as refusal to restart talks until the North has given up its nuclear weapons, refusal to talk to Pyongyang without preconditions, and annually carrying out large-scale military exercises jointly with South Korea.

Third, in the case of Fisher’s article, his list of presumed North Korean conditions for an agreement come from his imagination, not from examination of the record. Ending the US-South Korea alliance is no doubt a North Korean hope; but that’s not among its central demands. Even ending sanctions isn’t a condition per se. What North Korea wants is the legitimacy that comes from diplomatic recognition and assurances of regime survival, along with a peace treaty that ends the Korean War and paves the way for economic aid from the US, South Korea, Japan, and others. What North Korea would accept as conditions for those concessions can only be determined by talking with it—a subject neither Fisher nor any others entertain.

It is hardly surprising, then, that a stalwart of liberal reporting such as the New York Times provides deeply pessimistic accounts of prospects on the Korean peninsula. Instead of offering a perspective that takes engagement-minded diplomacy as its starting point, the Times articles look at worst-case futures. To be sure, the word “negotiations” does appear in these commentaries, but without serious interest in them. We are thus left to throw up our hands and surrender to the inevitable: Trump’s threats, which the Times authors find dangerous but unable to get beyond. Strange that the Times laments the evisceration of the State Department and sidelining of its top leadership, yet fails to connect the dots to North Korea policy.

Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

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