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.

Apr 11

So how does the news media forget about the crisis in Syria? Simply have the FBI execute search warrants on the President’s lawyer. That should do it. And it has. (We also forgot about Scott Pruitt and didn’t realize that another person left the White House. Tom Bossert anyone?)

But President Trump has tweeted that missiles are on the way. So let’s get some thoughts out there before he follows through. (Thoughts 1 and 2 here...)

Quick Thought 3: Guh, credibility

If the rationale for using military force in the Middle East could be summarized in one word, it would be “credibility”. If a U.S. President doesn’t use force, he will look hesitant. Therefore, he lacks “credibility” to engage in wars, so bad actors will do more bad things. This is primarily a bug of Democratic presidencies, who are often called weak by their political opponents, but Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have already pseudo-threatened Trump that we will lose credibility if he doesn’t back up his tweets. Seriously, diplomacy happens via Twitter now.

But “credibility” is vague and amorphous. The evidence that “credibility” exists in foreign affairs or even influences policy is slim. From a scientific point of view. Dan Drezner has called it the “credibility fairy” and political scientists have written papers showing “credibility” doesn’t actually influence events. Zack Beauchamp at Vox has a whole take down of credibility related to Syria here. He basically shows that you can find all sorts of examples where the U.S. being a credible military threat didn’t deter anything. As President Obama pointed out, the best argument, of course, is that President George W. Bush invaded two countries, and that still failed to deter Russia from invading Georgia.

We have an article on this coming up, but the problem with credibility is an issue of fairness. Obama said one thing wrong (a red line in Syria) and everyone called it the biggest blunder of his Presidency (for example, the Washington Post this week and the New Yorker in its end of Presidency wrap up). Trump says something more detrimental to U.S. credibility nearly every week, and tears up international agreements, a far greater breach of trust, and the response is a shoulder shrug.

And yet, since it’s Trump, credibility is only mentioned when bombs are involved.

Quick Thought 4: The news reaction cycle is driving this.

True or false: After Trump bombed an airfield in Syria after the last chemical attack, the Syrians quickly rebuilt it.

True or false: The cruise missile strikes cost $100 million dollars.

True or false: This isn’t the first chemical weapon attack since Trump bombed that airfield.

True or false: Even though Trump bombed an airfield, it failed to deter Assad from future chemical weapons attacks. (See above.)

True or false: Doing something “stronger” will NOT deter future chemical attacks.

So I don’t know the answer to the last question, but I know the answers to the first four: all true. Most people don’t realize how miniscule the last U.S. “response” was, don’t realize that chemical weapons have still been used, and don’t connect how weak the deterrence message is. If Trump used violence last time and it didn’t deter Assad, will more violence?

So the answer to the last question is probably “True”.

Quick Thought 5: We need to figure out what we really care about in human rights.

The weirdest part is the focus overwhelmingly on the type of weapons used in Syria. From a moral and ethical standpoint, I just don’t get it.

If we want to avoid dead children, an admirable goal, then I would get it. But then we would look at U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and be appalled. Or we would just be appalled by the war in Syria every week. Or we would look at foreign aid and development spending, to prevent dead children in developing nations. But to only focus on dead children when chemical weapons are involved? It just seems to miss the point.

Yes, we need to hold the line to prevent the spread of chemical weapons. Bombing a country that is currently using them probably won’t help. The best way to do that isn’t to focus on one dictator, but to strengthen international institutions that can stop their spread, something Trump and Bolton--and many conservatives like them--are uniquely unqualified to do. Bolton in particular has said arms control agreements are worthless (when they aren’t) and also doesn’t like them because they restrict the United States (which is true, but besides the point).

Apr 09

I almost titled this post on the suspected/alleged chemical attack in Syria the “On The Media Quick Reactions Edition”. Both of my thoughts today will deal more with narratives in the media than the politics or policies involved. And in some cases, they drive each other.

Take my first point: I will keep calling this a suspected attack. News coming out of Syria is very, very unreliable. It isn’t for lack of trying by great journalists on the ground, but because it is an active and chaotic warzone. It will not shock me if our narrative on the event changes in six weeks, but by then it will be on page 12 of the newspaper (if you get one) or not covered at all on the front page of major websites. And if the narrative does change, it will be too late to change the political conversation in turn.

How else has the narrative affected policy?

Quick Thought 1: Only two options? Come on!

I hate “dilemmas”. I always have. Writing early on about Marcus Luttrell, I described his book, Lone Survivor, as a 300 page ethical dilemma. This was a trend I had noticed when writing about “rules of engagement”. My counterparts in the ROE debates often relied on dilemmas to show the problems with rules of engagement. (Look at this NPR article for how this affects mainstream outlets as well.)   

The real world is hardly ever just black and white. But we really want it that way. Quoting myself from the Luttrell article above:

I'm not surprised Luttrell only saw two options, human nature loves duality: prosecution or defense, Republicans or Democrats, pro-life or pro-choice, pro-guns or gun control, war hawk or dove, for or against with no middle ground. Marcus Luttrell describes his situation in dualist terms: kill or be killed. Military ethical dilemmas often fall into this trap: the ticking time bomb, children throwing rocks, or civilians acting as spotters are ethical dilemmas that are invariably presented with only two solutions.

The media enables Trump’s thinking in Syria (and limits our options) by implying Trump faces a dilemma in Syria. Josh Barro on this week’s “Left, Right and Center” summarized the issue by saying--I’m paraphrasing--that Trump wants to withdraw from what he sees as an endless war (Trump’s right) though it would risk allowing ISIS to return (Barro’s right on this). Since both options are bad, in Syria, we only have two bad options, or a dilemma.

It’s not a dilemma though. Even in the military sphere, we have more than two options. We could increase the number of troops or decrease the number of troops. We could launch some, none or tons of missiles and bombs. We could invade. That’s a range of options.

But that’s not the point. It isn’t about the military alone. What if Donald Trump proposed an escalation. But not a military escalation... a diplomatic escalation! Yes, in this scenario he would call not just a meeting of the Security Council, but an immediate summit of interested stakeholders and discuss bringing in UN peacekeepers to Syria and/or other options for Syria. Yes, Russia would oppose this, but the talks could still happen. Basically, Trump has the option, in addition to Barro’s two military options above, to try to solve the problem diplomatically. I haven’t really seen the diplomatic options explored by the executive branch or by the media when discussing the situation in Syria as wholeheartedly as they need to be.

But wait, there’s more. Let’s say Trump really wanted to get all the regional stakeholders like Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Iran and Iraq to the bargaining table. What if he offered an additional $50 billion over the next five years in refugee aid and resettlement funds, with the goal to have the EU and China each match the donation? Most of the international problems in Syria stem from the refugees, and America has done too little to ease this humanitarian crisis. Trying to solve the Syria problem with development aid is another tool (a fourth option!) that isn't mentioned by the media when Syria comes up. As a result, the politicians don’t mention it either.

Basically, I proposed two new tools that not a single news article or pundit has mentioned. I bet the smart people in government could brainstorm dozens more. Instead they focus on the bombs or troops, or lack thereof. We can be more creative than this. (Of course, you may say Congress would never fund my two new options. Good point! See next section.)

Quick Thought 2: Syria is Mitch McConnell’s fault

Imagine you opened up the Daily 202 from the Washington Post, the way I did this morning, and instead of seeing the discussion center only around President Trump, it’s first headline said, “Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan’s mistakes in Syria are still hurting the United States.”

Would that change how House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Marjority Leader Mitch McConnell act? I mean, if every newspaper in the country blamed them for Syria, would they try to do something?

I have to think so, but that isn’t the world we live in. Instead, we live in a world where the current President and maybe his predecessor share 100% responsibility for everything that does or fails to happen in the world. President Obama, when confronted with Syrian use of chemical weapons, rightly knew that any action he took would be criticized by Congressional Republicans. That’s all they ever did no matter what he did.

So President Obama said enough. As a Constitutional scholar, he knows that Congress actually controls the ability to declare war, so he asked for Congressional approval. He didn’t want Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan to be able to sit back and criticize whatever he did if they didn’t have the decency to take a stand themselves. (They criticized him for Libya endlessly, and never voted on that either.)

Ryan and McConnell (and I blame McConnell more) almost never worked with President Obama on virtually anything. McConnell viewed giving President Obama a win as more detrimental than any given policy issue. Even on issues where they agreed, McConnell viewed winning elections as more important than making the world a better place.

So they never took a vote on Syria.

So when someone writes that this is Obama’s fault for his redline, just know that Ryan and McConnell had the opportunity to work with Obama to craft an authorization for war (with funding tied it) and refused to do it. They own the blame for this failure.

Apr 03

(On Violence is back! At least for a little bit. We’re starting up for two reasons: 1. We didn’t want to miss our first “most thought-provoking” event and 2. We started a new podcast for those interested in podcasts, science fiction/fantasy, military history and humor: Spec Media. Please go check it out and share the news.)

We had the idea for this series months back. So a month ago, I started writing, collecting sources on Trump’s dismantling of the State Department. Since it is so seldom covered in the news (and by this we mainly mean the cable news and Google News front page), I didn’t think we’d get an update in the middle.

Well, we did!

While we were writing, President Trump released his new budget proposal. Do I mean the budget deal reached by Congress to fund the government for two years? No, I mean the separate document written by his budget director, Mick Mulvaney, which contains the Trump administration’s proposed budget for the future. Yeah, that’s confusing.

Either way, it updated the cuts that Trump wants in government. He wants to cut the State Department budget by 25% with more cuts for foreign aid. Long term, Trump proposes cutting the State Department budget to 58% of today’s total by 2022. (The recent budget deal of $1.3 trillion dollars didn’t end up taking any of these recommendations.)

I don’t have a unique take on that budget proposal by President Trump. It’s just bad (and unlikely to happen because even budget hawk Republicans know that doesn’t make any sense). But I do have some other unique takes.

1. Diplomacy as a weapon.

Our new podcast (follow us on Twitter here!) goes deep into a spoof of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, one of the greatest podcasts out there. Possibly my favorite series he did was on the Mongol Empire, Wrath of the Khans. Genghis Khan was one of the evilest men who ever lived--as Carlin points out a lot, time has healed Khan’s reputation--but he was excellent at defeating his enemies. Or to use the modern parlance, he loved winning. Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols did so much winning they got sick of winning.

So you would think Trump would want to emulate that, right?

Now, a lot of this winning was military might. Obviously. But it wasn’t only military might. You don’t take a 10,000 man army across the world and defeat every foe who steps up using military might alone. And Carlin is very clear in one of his episodes (they are so long I might never find the link) that the Mongols used diplomacy in an offensive capacity. That’s right, diplomacy as a weapon. (They also excelled at leveraging intelligence, while President Trump believes he is in an deep state conspiracy...)

What does this mean in practice? Well, Genghis Khan could divide his enemies while convincing a lot of smaller states to quit without even fighting. He played alliances against each other, and usually emerged on top. America did this throughout the Cold War. (As we’ve mentioned elsewhere, we weren’t always perfect. ***Cough*** Iran ***cough***)

Afterwards, America used diplomacy to shape the international system to benefit itself (and, usefully, to benefit all free-trading democracies). It knew that as a free-trading democracy, the best thing it could create would be a liberal world order to help it thrive. Obviously, the State Department has a huge role in this, and Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson may ruin it.

2. China understands diplomacy (and development) as a weapon.

China has a growing military. And it plans to leverage it more in the future. Their growing power in the military sphere complements their (formerly wildly) growing economy and economic might.

But China’s growing economic power and military might are going to be paired with...diplomatic might.

Unlike Donald Trump, China understands the value of a strong diplomatic corps. Now, China will make mistakes along the way. A lot of countries fear China’s growing power and are irritated by its posturing in those seas I mentioned above. But a lot of other smaller countries see a value in cozying up to China. China’s leader Xi Jinping even promised to protect free trade after Donald Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

China is pairing this with development assistance. They have a huge plan called the One Belt, One Road initiative. China has a development fund and a development bank in Africa. Now, maybe these expenditures are peanuts or will go away over time. But what if they don’t? Do we want to risk shrinking our capability as China expands theirs? What if China finds the investments have enormous benefits, the way the Marshall Plan and Korean/Israeli aid helped the US secure allies?

3: Even the National Review thinks this is bad.

I stumbled upon a quote from Noah Daponte-Smith while doing research that sums up why the State Department is good, so I’ll just let a conservative have the last word:

“The U.S. Department of State is one of the world’s great governmental institutions. Founded near the inception of this nation, it boasts a long and storied history: It has guided America’s evolution from a colonial backwater to a world superpower, and in the years following the end of the Second World War, it played a prime role in constructing the global order that still holds to this day.”

Mar 27

I’d love to bill myself (Michael C) as a calm moderate. A person who looks at each issue, and makes my mind up independently about the merits of each one. Alas, I can’t honestly say that anymore. Most of my positions are clearly lined up with the Democratic party, though the best economic summary of my position comes from Luigi Zingales, “I’m pro-market, not pro-business”. (There’s a difference and many don’t understand that.)

So when I open up the Sunday opinion page--not that it actually exists anymore--and when I see articles by Max Boot, David Frum, Jennifer Rubin, and George Will agreeing with me on a strongly held opinion, well, I take notice. That opinion is this:

John Bolton is a terrible choice for National Security Advisor.

And it’s not like they are the only ones. Name a liberal commentator and they probably decried his nomination. So did the moderates. And, like I just mentioned, even some of the conservatives. When 90% of the populace--or in this case the opinion class--believes something, it is probably justified. (We’d put all the links, but you know where to find them.)

So we have some quick, unique thoughts. And since this news broke, it also made the mourning for H.R. McMaster go that much quicker. It also bumped Trump’s news that he wants to sit down with North Korea off the front page. Oh, and people are talking about Iran again along with more tariffs.


Quick Thought 1 - National Security Advisors Should Require Senate Confirmation

After the disaster that was General Michael Flynn’s nomination, I saw some people write this idea. At the time, when Flynn was appointed, I agreed with a recommendation that the position of National Security Advisor should have to pass the Senate. (Quick question: why is it spelled with an “o” not an “e”?) But after his brief tenure, we basically forgot about this idea. Bolton should make us reconsider.

Basically, the whole point of having the Senate approve cabinet posts is to have the Senate provide a check against unqualified or dangerous people in positions of real power. The National Security Advisor is a work around against the cabinet anyways, but has become hugely influential.

It should require Senate approval.

Quick Thought 2 - On H.R. McMaster...

The low point of McMaster’s tenure was when President Trump made him go out in front of the cameras and, essentially, read a lie. This occured in May of 2017--and was so long ago I had to look it up to get the details right--after Trump had revealed sensitive intelligence to the Russians. McMaster went out to say this didn’t happen, even though it did.

This brings us to the main question with McMaster: for a person who wrote literally wrote a book condemning the generals who led us into Vietnam, will he be remembered for restraining Trump from going to war as long as he did, or for caving to Trump’s worst impulses as often as he did? Will he get credit for keeping NATO alliances intact or for failing to change Trump’s mind on Iran? I really don’t know, but suspect he won’t be covered in glory for joining the Trump administration.

The one hope would be that he writes an amazingly trenchant book about his time and what he learned. This book wouldn’t be a gossip tell-all like Michael Wolff’s, but deep dive on his time observing Trump, including how Trump thinks and makes decisions. Yet, Trump made all his White House staff sign “non-disclosure agreements” preventing them from ever speaking or writing outside of the White House. Let’s hope Congress (in January 2019) corrects this.

Quick Thought 3 - This makes war(s) more likely.

At the start of his administration, we wrote a post on the likeliest countries Trump could go to war with. We’re probably going to update that list in the near future. Know that Iran and North Korea are now on the top of the list.

The most common defense of Bolton--if there is one--is that he can’t go to war by himself. But I think the Iran example shows how easy it would be to set it in motion. He tells Trump they should get out of the Iran deal. Trump already agrees since it would make Obama look bad. (Though it would devastate American credibility, which formerly Republicans cared quite a bit about.)

So then Trump has to decide how. This is where Bolton could have his biggest influence. Instead of the mildest withdrawal, he could recommend the strongest. Michael Wilner had a good explainer in FiveThirtyEight, but if Bolton pushed option 3 “America renounces the deal and re-imposes all sanctions”, the world would be in crisis. At this point, Iran could decide to restart its nuclear project. At which point, Bolton advocates strikes. Which descend into full blown war.

And to steal a point from Vox, leaving the Iran deal makes North Korean negotiations that much harder. Why would North Korea sit down with the US when they just reneged on a previous agreement? So Bolton could again lay out a case for war with North Korea in addition to Iran. I haven’t even gotten to Syria or Yemen or Somalia and you can see how a man who sees war as an option will see a lot of uses for it.

Quick Thought 4 - David French’s reaction has a key war-mongering paragraph on Iran

David French writes occasionally about how dangerous war would be--and he is both an Iraq veteran and staunch supporter of endless Benghazi investigations--but he also lays out the case for war repeatedly. (He was the most prominent pro-Bolton voice I read, writing in a prominent non-Murdoch controlled media outlet.) Basically, French is the type of conservative who ramps up fear of inaction so much it leads to wars like Iraq. I could write a whole post on his piece alone.

Instead I want to focus on the fun game On Violence loves to play. Take a description of Iran, and replace it with Saudi Arabia! Here it is, explaining why Iran/Saudi Arabia is so dangerous:

Saudi Arabia continues to export jihad, work to kill Shiites, and ally with America to engineer a bloodbath in Yemen.”

Yikes! Saudi Arabia sounds terrible.

Quick Thought 5 - The hypocrisy of the sit down with North Korea

This point will be simple: if Obama had said we should sit down with North Korea--given that we got something in return for that--the conservative right on Fox News would have been outraged. Given that Trump said it, they support it. (Indeed, most liberal commentators pointed out that he should have gotten something for the sitdown, but aren’t opposed to sitting down with North Korea on its face.)

I get it, hypocrisy is par for the course in Washington. But can’t we at least try to pretend not to switch our positions when only a single variable--party in power--changes?

Quick Thoughts 6 - Tariffs are bad

And we’re out of time! More on this in the future.

Mar 14

(On Violence is back! At least for a little bit. We’re starting up for two reasons: 1. We didn’t want to miss our first “most thought-provoking” event and 2. We started a new podcast for those interested in podcasts, science fiction/fantasy, military history and humor: Spec Media. Please go check it out and share the news.)

So why is Rex Tillerson’s gutting/destruction of the State Department such a bad thing?

Wait, am I really having to explain why gutting the State Department is bad?

Yes, that is our life in President Trump’s America. In our previous post, I explained that Tillerson and Trump merely accelerated an ongoing public policy trend of moving from “foreign policy” to “national security”. (One of our first posts was on this!) And I explained why it happened. (And yes, we do now need to refer to him as “former Secretary of State” after Tillerson leaves his post at the end of the month.)

But why is it bad? Maybe the Republicans are right that we don’t need any diplomats? No, they are so wrong on that point. Let me count the ways.

Point 1: Gutting the State Department promotes the decline of liberalism (in foreign policy).

In the last two years, the democratic world order has been under threat by...the democratic world order. Basically, in democracies, citizens are voting in “illiberal” leaders or withdrawing from international institutions. America--by electing Trump via the electoral college--has had a terrible time stemming this tide. Now, free-market liberalism has generated some of its own problems--mainly wealth inequality, which inspires economic resentment, and immigration, which has spurned racial resentment. But liberalism in foreign policy has been one of the largest drivers of human welfare in history. And it’s under threat, as many “2016 End of Year” articles discussed. (This is “liberalism” in foreign policy, like how the Economist uses it in their magazine.)

So let me offer a quick defense of liberalism. Here’s my argument: We had some huge drivers of human progress and welfare. Basically, agriculture provided a huge leap. So did clean drinking water. So did antibiotics. Those three things saved more lives than almost anything else you can think of. Industrialization provided another huge boost. These inventions have allowed humanity to not just survive but thrive and multiply.

Of course, with those increased populations, the world went to war twice in 1914 and 1939. Those two wars were two of the more destructive wars of all time. And it would have kept happening but for the invention of nuclear weapons. Those raised the cost of war exponentially, and we looked primed to use them (and extinguish the human race). Fortunately, driven by American leadership, we created the liberal global order. The liberal world order helped not only promote peace, but also democratization and prosperity.

(Yep, I summarized all of human history in about two paragraphs.)

That’s the defense of liberalism. How does the State Department of the United States fit in? Well it promotes free trade, democracy and international institutions. Those are three of the building blocks of liberalism. Without a strong State Department, we can’t promote liberalism nearly as well.   

Point 2: The military can’t promote liberalism.

Let’s be honest, the military can’t help with most of this liberal agenda. (Though some conservatives will definitely try to tell us it can.) For the best explanation why not, here’s Stephen Walt, capturing my thinking exactly.

At the risk of stating the obvious, we do know what doesn’t work [at creating democracies], and we have a pretty good idea why. What doesn’t work is military intervention (aka “foreign-imposed regime change”). The idea that the United States could march in, depose the despot-in-chief and his henchmen, write a new constitution, hold a few elections, and produce a stable democracy — presto! — was always delusional, but an awful lot of smart people bought this idea despite the abundant evidence against it.

Honestly, the critics were right about Iraq: you can’t build democracy facing the barrel of a gun. The US military tried in both Iraq and Afghanistan and it didn’t work. To be clear, I could imagine a military that could promote democracy, but the mentality of the US military, focused on security, won’t allow it. (UN Peacekeepers are a different story.) During the Cold War, in fact, the CIA and DoD proved that they were actually more skilled at overthrowing democracies and establishing dictatorships, than creating democracies. That’s the opposite of liberalism. (And it haunts us to this day.)

Point 3: Creating democracies takes a long time.

Creating democracies, it turns out, is really hard. And it’s not like the State Department can snap its fingers and democracies pop up around the globe. But that’s because the State Department’s job is much harder and much longer term. It helps set the conditions for democracies and free trade and international institutions. It helps create international norms and sign international treaties and provide international aid. All these actions--which are slow and take time--help promote democracy and this in turn helps promote peace. Again Stephen Walt, who I quoted in the previous section, explains why:

The first [way to spread democracy] is diplomacy. When there is a genuine, significant, and committed indigenous movement in favor of democracy — as was the case in Eastern Europe during the “velvet revolutions” or in Myanmar today — powerful outsiders can use subtler forms of influence to encourage gradual transitions. The United States has done this successfully on a number of occasions (e.g., South Korea, the Philippines, etc.) by being both persistent and patient and using nonmilitary tools such as economic sanctions. In these cases, the pro-democracy movement had been building for many years and enjoyed broad social support by the time it gained power. Relying on diplomacy may not be as exciting as the “shock and awe” of a military invasion, but it’s a lot less expensive and a lot more likely to succeed.

Point 4: Immediately, it empowers autocrats.

In the short term, other countries will replace America’s leadership that used to be provided by the State Department. They could harm free trade or promote autocracy (Russia? China?). This could make a world that is less liberal overall, while America is hurt on trade deals. As Bloomberg recently wrote, this is a unilateral disarmament, even if Trump doesn’t realize that.

That’s bad no matter what side of the aisle you are on.