May 10

Yesterday, I tried to link to some of the of the good articles that inspired thoughts about President Trump withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. Today, I go to some of the posts that I either disagreed with or that angered me.

Matthew Karnitschnig says the EU will cave to Trump, they always do.

I sort of agree with Karnitschnig on this even though it seems harsh and really strong on first blush. Here’s the harshest part, towards the end

“As Trump made clear with Merkel at his side last month, Europe needs the U.S. more than the U.S. needs Europe, both economically and in terms of security. Or as Trump might say, he has Europe over a barrel. That’s why once the cacophony of shock and horror across the Continent subsides in the coming days over Trump’s latest affront, Europe will revert to type and do what it always does when challenged by the U.S. — nothing.”

Trump understands the power the United States could potentially wield. Combined with his narcissistic disregard for other humans/nations and inability to focus on issues, Trump exerts U.S. power in ways that upsets the traditional foreign policy establishment. As a result, predictions of disaster so far haven’t been realized. Most countries end up capitulating back to the United States. Consider his track record:

- Trump announced tariffs on steel and aluminum, and every country bent over backwards to get them removed (except for China).

- Trump threatened to go to war with North Korea, now they are negotiating.

- Trump threatened to leave NAFTA, now Mexico and Canada are negotiating to save the deal.

- Trump left Paris Climate Accords, nothing bad happened to the United States.

Now Trump leaves the Iran deal, and there is a high chance the EU countries will--instead of fighting the U.S.--help Trump reimpose secondary sanctions. How does he pull it off?

Again we’re powerful. My caveat is it may only be in the short term. And devastating in the longer term.

Take leaving the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, that I didn’t mention above. The same process was happening, that Trump announced he was leaving because it was an Obama deal, and now he wants to consider rejoining because he needs a leverage point against China on trade. Except the rest of the countries don’t want America back in, unless it is under worse terms.

I think the same thing could happen here, despite Karnitschnig’s prediction it won’t. As he himself notes in the entire article leading up to this, Europe values peace over all else, having born the brunt of two disastrous world wars. The whole continent was involved in negotiating this deal, and they don’t have a “loyal opposition” who reflexively tries to destroy their accomplishments, like in the United States. So they may finally view this as the time to ignore President Trump and stand on their own, to protect their legacy.

Or they won’t. Honestly, I don’t know what will happen.

The Trump Doctrine: destroying Obama’s legacy

Anytime a President gives a major foreign policy speech, the first thing the media wants to do is anoint it a “doctrine”. So we have a Bush doctrine, an Obama doctrine and so on. Trump seems to have eluded defining a Trump doctrine just because he changes his mind so often on so many topics. (Take Syria, we’re leaving but not going to cede it to Iran, so we’re not leaving, but we’ll be out soon.)

So how do we box Trump into his own “doctrine”? By looking for the few things where he won’t immediately change his mind. And with Trump finally leaving the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) we’ve confirmed the one true Trump doctrine: “Anything Barack Obama did I oppose”.

Ryan Bort in Rolling Stone said Trump was “torching the legacy of Barack Obama”. The BBC said he was “shredding the legacy”. Zack Beauchamp in Vox said Obama was one of the biggest losers in this whole thing, again because of his legacy.

And indeed that’s why Trump is leaving nearly every foreign policy deal agreed to or signed by President Obama: the Paris Accords. The Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Iran deal. Thawing relations with Cuba. The New START treaty. And the one deal Trump wants is with North Korea because Obama wouldn’t agree to sit down with Kim Jong-Un without preconditions. Trump doesn’t care; he’ll do it because Obama didn’t. (Syria is the same way: Trump wants out just because Obama sent some troops there.)

This isn’t a logical position or even well thought out, and America will suffer the consequences of a foreign policy not driven by ideology but by personal vendetta.

What are the electoral consequences?

Here’s an article I haven’t read yet: how will this affect the Democratic electorate?

A lot of people who voted for President Obama switched to Trump. Or they didn’t vote for Clinton because they weren’t as energized. And we know Democrats don’t traditionally show up in force for midterm elections. How will Donald Trump making it his sole mission of his Presidency to destroy Obama’s legacy change this?

Speaking for myself, this move made me more angry than almost anything else Trump has done. It would be one thing if I believed Trump held sincerely different positions than Barack Obama, like say Paul Ryan does on health care and taxes. But Trump making it his mission to simply undo good policy because of the man who put them in place ensures I’ll make it to the polls next November. Or maybe even volunteer in the meantime. How will this presidency of destruction play in the next election?

Eli Lake and Raymond Tanter say the next step is regime change!

I just had to put a sarcastic exclamation point because this just seems like the next logical step, doesn’t it?

As I said yesterday, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of good options for the United States going forward. This doesn’t seem to have been thought through though, because honestly President Trump doesn’t have a plan B, as Dan Drezner wisely pointed out. Neither does his Secretary of State or John Bolton or John Mattis.

So to fill the gap, some conservative commentators have said that the best way to permanently disarm Iran is to remove the government. That’s why at least two articles--one by Eli Lake in Bloomberg and one by Raymond Tanter in The Hill--couch this move by arguing that the United States should support “pro-democratic elements”. Lake uses the euphemism “fight for Iranian freedom” while Tanter uses the euphemism “reform Iran”. In other words, the goal is regime change, which is what started all the problems with Iran so many decades ago.

A few other commentators have noted, in my opinion correctly, the echoes or rhyming or similarity to the situation in Iraq in the early 2000s. Peter Beinart laid out his case here. Michael Krepon laid out his case here. I find them persuasive. Having removed ourselves from the deal--and already disavowed the work of inspectors--the next step is Iran forcing inspectors to leave the country. Without inspectors, Israel, John Bolton and Saudi Arabia will claim that Iran is building a bomb, because we don’t have inspectors on the ground to prove they aren’t. Then comes calls for military intervention.

I would add Lake and Tanter are always so concerned with the undemocratic regime in Iran, whereas Saudi Arabia doesn’t have voting of any kind--and one of their princes was recently feted by all of Washington D.C.--and Israel is well, too complicated to summarize quickly. But it has undemocratic elements.

May 09

So I’ve been doing a lot of “quick thoughts” on various topics to try to get my opinions out there in a bit more timely fashion. President Trump actually leaving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA, as the Iran Deal was officially known) definitely fits that bill.

I couldn’t stop reading about this subject. Of course, even in our always on world, there wasn’t a ton of fresh news from the immediate fall out. But there was a lot of good analysis.

I will say before I get into it that, though we thought this might happen, it is news that it did finally happen, that President Trump did officially blow it all up. Unlike past tariff announcements that keep getting pushed back, he is implementing the sanctions within 90 days and then more sanction in 180 days. This is happening.

So on to good reads.

Kevin Drum says this makes a North Korea deal more likely.

This is the counter take to most other initial opinions that assume this Trump move makes the North Korea deal harder because it will scare Kim Jong-Un. Drum disagrees, and I see the logic. Kim is smart enough to realize that Trump ripped up the Iran deal out of hatred for Obama more than anything. It also leaves Trump desperate to look good by getting a “win” in North Korea, something Obama couldn’t do.

That desperation is key. And Drum acknowledges this at the end of his post, though I wish he was more up front about it: a deal with North Korea won’t necessarily be a “good deal” and will likely be a “bad deal”. Trump is a man who isn’t good at making deals, and now he’s negotiating the most important nuclear deal since the one he just ripped up.

Vox (Zack Beauchamp) says Israel and Saudi Arabia are winners (and he gives 5 more losers).

This is the best summary of how all parties fared. But I did disagree with one part. In his introduction Beauchamp wrote this:

“It’s a massive victory for Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have been pushing for the US to confront Iran more aggressively.”

I agree with him in that the foreign policy apparati of Israel and Saudi Arabia both wanted this. That said, even observers in Israel who weren’t in the government opposed the United States unilaterally leaving the deal and destroying its credibility in the region. I would add, for this particular call of who is a winner or loser, a lot will depend on what happens next. If Iran stays in the deal and the EU, Russia and China fight additional US sanctions, than it just further isolates the United States while not hurting Iran. If Iran leaves the deal (with Russian and Chinese support even), they will rapidly build the capability for a nuclear weapon, unless the United States/Israel goes to war to stop them.

Worse, the main animus driving Israel and Saudi Arabia is in the desire to keep Iran from ever joining the larger world.

“For [Israel and Saudi Arabia], this comes down to: The only way to keep the United States engaged in the region, and provide a security blanket for Saudis and Israelis ... is to make sure Iran is not normalized through this set of international and regional agreements,” Hussein Banai, an expert on US-Iran relations at Indiana University Bloomington, tells me.

Yes, Iran does a lot of bad things in the Middle East, often counter to Saudi Arabian and Israeli interests. But we should desperately want “normalization” of all rogue regimes. In the long run, it makes us all safer. The solution is more diplomacy, not less.

Fred Kaplan has a paragraph that presages the next big decision.

I loved “decision trees” in business school, but honestly I don’t think I’ve ever seen a business use them to make a real world decision. I mean, decision trees require thinking through a lot of options and you need a lot of data to make them accurate. Who has the time?

I don’t know if the National Security Council has decision trees for major decisions. I assume they don’t. Again, takes a lot of time. But I would love to be proven wrong.

If you were decision-treeing out the future (to turn that noun into a verb when “game planning” is probably more accurate), one big decision is whether or not Trump would leave. That’s now firmly the tree branch we are traveling down.

So let’s look to the next key move, which is how the EU, China and Russia respond to “secondary sanctions”:

"And the U.S. withdrawal from the deal means the deal is very likely dead. Reimposing sanctions on Iran would also entail reimposing “secondary sanctions” on banks and other enterprises that do business with Iran. Most foreign companies, faced with the choice of forgoing deals with Iran or ending deals with the United States, would choose the former. (Russia and China might prove exceptions, in which case Trump’s move would benefit them."

In the above paragraph, Kaplan predicts the EU ultimately backs down from fighting the US on sanctions, especially “secondary sanctions”. But he goes on to say that the EU could push back against these secondary sanctions if they still wanted the deal to work. The EU has done this for other sanctions it disagreed with, like the U.S. unilateral Cuba sanctions To me this is the key decision. If the EU aggressively fights the sanctions, than a major rift in the Atlantic will have opened up, and the deal will be saved. The result is mainly further isolation of the US, Israeli and Saudi Arabian alliance. If the EU capitulates, then Trump will likely have isolated Iran, while they will aggressively pursue a nuclear weapon, possibly with Russian help.

On their face, neither option looks good for the United States, which might be why this was such a bad decision.

May 08

A few weeks back, in our series on Trump and Tillerson wrecking the State Department in 2017, I had to write a post called, “Why is this Bad?”. Just think about the state of American politics that I had to write that post in the first place. While I was writing, I couldn’t stop thinking about an analogy I just heard on NPR’s The Indicator. I hadn’t heard it before but it’s just perfect:

“Stocks take the stairs up; the elevator down.”

This phrase could apply to the situation in Foggy Bottom right now, even with Mike Pompeo taking over as Secretary of State. In fact, it ties into a long held On Violence positions in general.

First, it summarizes the difficulty in promoting democracy and liberalization around the globe.

We at On Violence always advocate thinking in the long term. It is exceptionally hard to do in politics, especially democracies, but it is so vital. More than just long-term, a lot of what we argue for is slow, incremental change. Slow progress isn’t flashy, but it’s crucial to growth.

Democracy promotion is slow and incremental. You don’t suddenly get a ton of democracies. It takes time. And you have to not just have people vote, you need democratic institutions to help reinforce democracy, like a free press, the right to organize, independent judiciary and the rule of law. Those are the things that separate strong, liberal democracies from weak, illiberal democracies.

Building up the liberal world order was also slow and incremental. It took years to create international treaties, international institutions and free trade. It takes years to trust they are working. They help undergird the international system and have prevented interstate war.

Wars--in the case of the global order--and coups--in the case of democracies--can undo all the gains very quickly. Taking the elevator down, if you will. We need the State Department to help with these long term efforts.

Second, institutions are built slowly, but can quickly be destroyed.

You could take that analogy above and apply it to the State Department (or really any institution). You take the stairs up: hiring people, implementing systems, gaining experience, and building capabilities. You can take the elevator down with mismanagement. Or crisis.

What do I mean? Well, think about a start up. You hire a few people to get the project off the ground. Then you hire teams of people to expand past what a few can do. Eventually, after years of hiring people, you develop institutional skills and strategies and teams and staffs. You gain experience to solve problems. Eventually, you have a company with lots of employees. That takes time to build.

The State Department was built up in a similar manner over decades. Sure it can improve, like anything, but it already has a ton of capability and experience. It was already pretty darn good.

By cutting the budget 30% and firing a thousand people--especially senior people with lots of experience--President Trump and former Secretary of State Tillerson could overnight eviscerate the organization. Cause it from being great at its job to being terrible. It would be like an elevator plunging down the shaft, but President Trump cut the cable.

Don’t try to argue it is about efficiencies or improving the organization. Sure, lots of organizations have lots of fat. But they also have a lot of lean muscle. The key is wisely cutting the one while boosting the other. When he was devastating the State Department, Tillerson wasn’t doing that. He’s trying to just cut the fat, but he was slashing at a lot of meat. In fact, when companies do mass layoffs, there is good evidence that actually the best people leave first. I’ve made this argument about the military and entrepreneurship: the people who want the job security of 20 years of work and a retirement stay; the people who embrace entrepreneurial change may leave. This makes a less risk averse organization and a less entrepreneurial one.

The State Department will have that, plus the fact that the people with the best prospects will be the most likely to leave. If the State Department becomes a lousy place to work, and you could be fired anyways, why not leave if you have the best prospects? The people who will stay are those with the worst prospects.

So you have an organization shredding tens of thousands of “knowledge-years”--the accumulated knowledge of years of work. And that will make it better?

It won’t. And it will take decades to rebuild.

May 01

1. The FBI needs to return to white collar crime

Imagine it is 2004. Instead of the all out focus on terrorism, the FBI got a tip that a lot of mortgage applications were fraudulent, especially from companies like Countrywide. (I don’t know that they did but come on how could they not?) So the FBI starts to investigate and puts a lot of agents on it. They find that a lot of the mortgages were indeed fraudulent, and being packaged into larger bonds, collateralized debt obligations. So they start to prosecute a host of people committing mortgage fraud.

Instead of the financial crisis, maybe the housing market doesn’t overheat and there is just a recession.

Now, that all could be crazy talk. But if the FBI investigated white collar crime--one of their ostensible reasons for existing--maybe we could combat wealth inequality, prevent bank fraud and even stop the next great recession. I mean, that’s really why Teddy Roosevelt started the Bureau of Investigators in the first place and why the FBI’s early years focused on white collar crime.

It’s better than the alternative...

2. The FBI is still the most effective branch of Al Qaeda

A huge number of FBI agents spend the majority of their time hunting down “lone wolf” terrorists in America who have no intention of conducting attacks, but are pushed into it by FBI agents. I’ve called this “Al Qaeda - FBIin the past, and I could update the name to “ISIS - FBI branch” now.

If I were king of the FBI, here would be my rule, “If a suspect doesn’t have connections to Al Qaeda or ISIS or other foreign fighters, we don’t investigate.” You could still have an intervention with community leaders and family if you find someone spreading hate online. But that isn’t a crime and encouraging that person to commit a crime isn’t stopping terrorism, it’s entrapping someone who is innocent. You wonder how the founders of the Constitution would have felt about that given the ostensible desire for “originalism” by conservative legal judges and lawyers.

Besides being unconstitutional, prosecuting people with no connection to Al Qaeda or who wouldn’t have committed violence otherwise is just ineffective. It prosecutes people who are the least able, not the most.

3. Do FBI agents watch Fox News?

This last point is just a question for anyone in the audience. We already established the FBI is pretty conservative. And we know most conservatives have started watching Fox News to get a lot of their news. This leads to the natural question, do FBI agents watch a lot of Fox News?

If so, yikes. You could see why the FBI agents in New York were so haunted by Hillary. I saw this in my last duty assignment in the Army where Fox News replaced CNN in our operations room. And that was seven years ago. And I hated it then. (Why does the TV need to be on if it is covering US domestic politics? What’s the point?)

FBI agents are like any professionals: they need accurate news of the world. Fox News won’t get them that.