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.

Mar 12

(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.)

Before I explain the longer term trends that have hurt the State Department, I want to show how false equivalency works.

If you asked Michael C a year ago, “Hey, what did you not like about the Obama administration’s foreign policy?” I’d have a surprisingly robust list of things to tell you. I’d mention the continuation of drone strikes (just a terrible idea), and I’d throw in how Obama promised to end over-classification but barely did anything about it. (Or made it worse.) I’d also mention that the Arab Spring provided an opportunity to reset our Middle East relations, but that never happened.

Here’s the thing: except for maybe that last point, if a Republican had been in power, I would have had the exact same complaints. And more! So last year, when reflecting on Obama’s run as President, I could criticize him, but really he was still miles better than what George W. Bush provided and what President Donald Trump is currently providing.

I bring this up, because I’m about to “blame” Obama for continuing a trend in American foreign policy, and I want to be clear that Republicans would have been just as bad. If not worse.

As much as we’re laying the blame for the problems in the State Department at Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s hands, some of it transcends their individual incompetence. Since the end of the Cold War, America’s foreign policy establishment has turned into America’s national security establishment. The emphasis on security instead of policy means that one leg of the “three Ds”--defense, diplomacy, development--is way bigger than the other two. We fund the Defense Department at a ratio roughly 14 times greater than State Department. Fifteen times more if you add in what we believe goes to intelligence spending.

(Another way to say it is our intelligence services have as large a budget as our diplomatic corps.)

That massive gap didn’t happen overnight. And, in fairness, you probably don’t need a State Department as large as the Defense Department because it requires less manpower, equipment and technology by nature (or should). But still the massive emphasis on defense versus diplomacy has meant that the national security folks have overwhelming power compared to the diplomacy folks.

This started under Reagan, as the defense budget ballooned faster than state could keep up. It accelerated under Bush after 9/11 (State Department can’t kill terrorists), continued through Obama--he consolidated foreign policy in the White House under his National Security Adviser--and now Donald Trump is hyper-charging the influence of defense over diplomacy. After all, Trump loves his generals and seems to hate Rex Tillerson.

Trump’s most recent budget only furthered this trend. The key difference that he and Tillerson brought to the process was “institutional neglect”, which has basically crushed the staffing and human capital of the State Department. And not just the diplomatic wing of the State Department. Trump/Tillerson’s institutional neglect extend to the “development” wing of the State Department too.

So who is to blame long term for this? Well, we can blame Republicans. Republicans--especially the deficit hawks when they aren’t in power--loathe foreign aid (development). The electorate has also been taught--especially the Republican side--that foreign aid is terrible and ineffective. Other right wing elements disparage treaties as international conspiracies to steal American freedom.

Foreign aid isn’t terrible. International treaties are great things. And diplomacy works

But Republicans love their military and security forces. They pride military strength over everything else, while ironically also supporting an expanded surveillance state. (Yes, you read that right, the small government/libertarian party loves a large police state.) The electorate backs them up on this--no one wants to be “anti-troop”--so the Democrats can’t stand in the way of increased military spending.

President Obama was unable to stop this trend and actually increased it. He further entrenched national security thinking at the expense of the State Department, even though he had two great Secretaries of State. That’s a huge disappointment to me. (I also think he hurt the State Department by consolidating foreign policy/national security planning in the White House. That’s an article for another time, though.

But we can’t blame him. We can blame Republicans.

Mar 07

(On Violence is back! At least for a little bit. We’re starting up for two reasons: 1. We didn’t want to miss a “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.)

On Monday, we dropped an “On V Most Thought-Provoking Event” intro post into the world. Many of you probably wondered where we’ve been. Well, to answer that, take a look at what we wrote before the 2016 elections:

“Somewhere, a long time ago, we decided we weren’t ever going to do a “Sorry we haven’t posted in awhile” post, because, well, it’s trite. (Someone even made an entire blog aggregating blog posts where people did that.) But the good news is we’re working on a huge new project, dropping later this year. (Keep your fingers crossed pre-Christmas for the holiday drive and travelling.)”

Then we stopped writing again. Since we stopped posting last year, we’ve regularly gotten comments--on Facebook, email and some old-fashioned “in person”--asking, “Where did the blog go and when is it coming back?”

So let’s provide some answers.

Answer 1: We have a HUGE new project, so go check it out!

We’ve spent a ton of the last year and a half, maybe longer (yeah really that long) working on-and-off on our new podcast, Spec Media. Subscribe on iTunes here or go to the website or follow us on Twitter (in addition to On Violence). The podcast is the cryptically described “huge new project” from italics above.

What is the podcast about? Well, we’re spoofing other podcasts. Think of your favorite podcast, but taking place in alternate universes and timelines. On Violence fans would love our first episode (going up this week) that has Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History set in a different universe. You’ll love it, especially since we know that a lot of you are science-fiction nerds/fanboys.

So that’s taken up a ton of our time, we’re very proud of it and hope you enjoy it.

Answer 2: We can’t stop thinking about domestic politics, not foreign affairs.

In the age of Trump, can anyone really be bothered by foreign policy when domestic politics/policy is an ongoing train crash from which we can’t avert our eyes? In just the last week alone, the President has had more scandals than Obama’s entire presidency. Seriously, we’ve had a debate about arming teachers, the embarrassing NRA meeting and quick backtracking, suggested tariffs on steel and aluminum, Jared Kushner found himself in three different scandals, and multiple key aides and advisors quit the administration. We’ve probably missed two or three other embarrassments, since they keep adding up day by day.

(Imagine how Republicans would have reacted if Obama let campaign donors influence his foreign policy?)

While we have a ton of thoughts on all that, it’s really domestic policy. That’s not this blog’s focus. Also, America’s two wars have (kind of?) wound down, so there is just less interest in foreign policy, both from our readers and from us. We’re going to try to get around this lack of enthusiasm while still hitting the core topics of this blog.

(Side note: Eric C regularly threatens to write a 10,000 word domestic politics post after we finish season 1 of Spec Media.)

Answer 3: That said, we’ve got some thoughts on foreign policy.

President Trump hasn’t just been bad at domestic policy; he’s also been bad internationally. And we’re not saying this because John Oliver just covered it on his show. (We’ve been following this for a while.)

We’ll get into this in a later post, but lots of conservative commentators said Obama “hurt America’s standing in the world”. Well, what is Donald Trump doing? If Obama hurt it, Trump is devastating it. He risks starting disastrous wars. Possibly nuclear wars. That’s partially why we restarted posting with this “most thought provoking event’ series. (The other is again to tell ours readers about the new podcast!)

What would be the worst case?

In some ways, you shouldn’t root for us to start updating the blog regularly again. If there is one thing that could draw us back in, it would be a war.

That’s terrible, but true. Last year, we wrote a post called “Where Will Trump Go to War?” and put Iran number one, with Syria or Iraq second and third, with Yemen and Somalia next, with North Korea at fourth. (That’s why making predictions is so tough.)

But it’s really crazy we’re even making this list and discussing it seriously. The likelihood that we go to war with Iran is still fairly high, and North Korea would now be firmly second. As we wrote in the Small Wars Journal, a war with Iran could be catastrophic for the United States. War with North Korea would be even worse, with potentially millions dead.

So if a war broke out in one of those two countries--or some other country we barely even discuss nowadays--that would inspire a fresh round of posts from us. We would be blogging regularly and immediately join the opposition.

Which is a way of saying, let’s hope we don’t start posting too regularly. That means that thousands (or millions) will have died.

Mar 05

(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.)   

“Don’t chase the news.”

That’s one of the core themes of the writing enterprise/blog of On Violence. And it’s probably that theme which explains why we aren't writing On Violence full-time. It turns out people really like their news to instantaneously react to the moment. And since people like responding to this news, politicians respond in turn, so they obsess about what the media is obsessing about.

Where does this lead us? Well, not necessarily to the greatest places.

The most important news stories are rarely the ones getting the largest headlines. I’m writing this post the Tuesday after the government shutdown. (So you can really see how long it takes us to put up these pieces.) The news over the weekend was all about the government shutdown and then it getting averted. As some Twitter-zens pointed out in the moment, the “Woman’s March” was arguably a more important story, showing underlying motivation and mobilization that we could see in the 2018 midterms, but it was drowned out in the news.

But I would argue that the news the next Monday morning--that Donald Trump accepted a recommendation by a bipartisan trade commission to install tariffs on solar panels--was an even larger story. The slow burn ramifications of that deal--from decreasing the use of solar energy in America to potentially starting a trade war with China to the long term damage to America’s global leadership on free trade--outweigh the immediate news of any shutdown.

When it comes to year-end recaps, On Violence tries to take the long-term view that we wish the news took everyday. Even most news outlets, when reflecting on the past year, still usually focus on the stories that dominated the news (Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Harvey, Harvey Weinstein, Trump, Trump, Trump), but don’t put them in the context of what is the most important.

We wish more news outlets focused on the long-term.

Though to be fair, we don’t even take our own advice. Our year-end series reflecting on the previous year isn’t even for “the most important” event. Instead, we save our words for the year-end “Most Thought-Provoking Event of the Year”. This is loosely defined as the event that “inspired the most ideas”. Sometimes that aligns with the most important event (say the Arab Spring) and sometimes it doesn’t (Wikileaks).

This year they align. The Most Thought-Provoking Event is the most important event in US foreign policy, though most people don’t realize it’s happening. And since they don’t realize that, it will rarely appear on the nightly news:

The Gutting of The State Department by Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson.

If you’re a liberal who reads the daily liberal sites, you’ve seen these wonderful articles. On The NY Times. On Vox. On Slate. Mother Jones. Vox again. And it continues to this month. Here’s the best one paragraph summary from another liberal bastion, The New Yorker:

“In only ten months, Tillerson, the former C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, has presided over the near-dismantling of America’s diplomatic corps, chasing out hundreds of State Department employees and scaling back the country’s engagement with the world. Most alarming has been the departure of dozens of the foreign service’s most senior officials—men and women who had spent their careers living and working abroad, who speak several languages, and who are experts in their fields...he came into the job proposing to cut the State Department’s budget by a third, with plans to eliminate more than a thousand jobs and dramatically scale back the already measly sums America spends on refugees, democracy promotion, women’s rights, and the prevention of H.I.V. At the same time, the Trump Administration was proposing to dramatically increase spending on defense—by fifty-eight billion dollars, an amount that is larger than the State Department’s entire budget."

This New York Times quote captures the sentiment too:

“'If you took the entire three-star and four-star corps of the military and said, ‘Leave!’ Congress would go crazy,' one of the recently departed said."

Finally, this Bloomberg graphic shows just how little Trump has done to staff this very important department.

So let’s have some posts on it. This is a very important topic, that aligns with multiple On Violence themes, and happened to inspire a number of posts. It’s a really fascinating idea that a modern US President can try to destroy the ability for his country to conduct diplomacy, and doesn’t see anything wrong with that. Let’s dig in.

Apr 12

Eric C’s Response to Michael C

Michael C and I are twins. Thus, the one thing I hate most is saying that Michael C is right and I’m wrong. And yet...

Michael C is right, and I’m partially wrong. (Thus, this isn’t really a rebuttal to Michael C’s post last week.)

Friday morning after America launched missiles at a Syrian air base, I was pretty upset, so I wrote up my post from last week, and I still stand by my initial emotional reaction. But Michael C, at the time and since, kept saying I was over-reacting. A few days later, I’m less shocked but still angry, especially since the airstrikes seem entirely pointless:

- The air base that launched the chemical attacks is still operational.

- We alerted the Russians to exactly what we were going to do, meaning Assad almost assuredly knew what we were going to do. (Contradicting Trump’s previous statements about the element of surprise.)

- The Trump administration waffled on what the next steps would be, with multiple figures in the administration contradicting each other.

- This does nothing to help civilians in Syria, including children, Trump’s stated reason for the attack, and Syria has already re-attacked the same neighborhood.

- And Trump still wants to ban Syrian refugees (again, including children) from the U.S.

In short, we achieved nothing, except we killed a reported four to fifteen Syrian soldiers.

It was predictably unpredictable, as I wrote in my first post and as we’ve written about Trump since the inauguration. The guys over at Vox released an awesome podcast the day after the attacks, where Ezra Klein made the excellent comparison to the financial crisis, describing how rational actors operating under wrong assumptions can lead to disaster. Since both our allies and enemies can’t feel certain of how America will respond to a crisis, the chances of a disaster increases. Trump is making the entire international system incredibly uncertain. (Which must frustrate the hell out of realists, since so much of their underlying system relies on rational actors.)

The raison d’etre for our non-interventionist approach to foreign policy is the unpredictability of war, the chances that conflicts spiral out of control. Who knows what consequences Trump’s actions could have? Who can confidently predict it? That’s the source of my unease. I never would have predicted Trump would have taken these actions. Who knows what Putin, Assad or Rouhani may do in response? Which is exactly why we opposed getting involved in Syria in the first place three years ago.

We have a ton of other thoughts on Trump’s airstrikes on Syria, especially on how the media and politicians reacted to it (If we treat it as a mini-test run of how the media will react when the country goes to war, we failed.) My initial lesson is one we’ve stated again and again on the blog: don’t chase the headlines, and wait for more information to come out. A few days later, this is my main takeaway.

Still, I reserve the right to be outraged. Just because we thought President Trump would do stupid things that would get people killed doesn’t mean we can’t be angry when he does stupid things that get people killed.

Michael C’s Rebuttal

Re-reading my post on Syria from last week, I need to make one thing clear: I don’t support this style of foreign policy.

Trump’s style is unpredictable at best and incoherent at worst. His foreign policy/national security staff is either being filled slowly (at best) or deliberately left mostly empty (at worst). His fawning for the military to solve all problems is either extreme nationalism (at best) or fascistic (at worst). Therefore, we get situations where President Trump uses military strikes to allegedly help babies when President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly targeted civilians (and babies) in this civil war, also a violation of international norms. (And we refuse to let Syrian refugees into our country.)

Trump should have gone to Congress to get approval for a Syria policy. Trump should have a clear strategy. Trump should staff up the National Security Council, the State Department and the Pentagon so he can craft a foreign policy. That would make decisions like this easier. Not easy, but at least easier.

So I don’t support Trump in this attack and think his recklessness will continue, which is why this attack never surprised me.

Apr 12

It seems that everyone from the political left, right and center has had to overreact to the events in Syria from last week, including my co-writer. When it comes to Trump, it seems awfully tempting to veer into wild hyperbole. So before I respond to Eric C, I want you, the reader, to answer this question: How many countries did President Obama drop bombs on (via plane, drone, cruise missile or other) during his administration?

We’ll wait.

You made your guess? No seriously, don’t keep reading until you make a guess.

Eric C guessed 7. I (Michael C) guessed 8. I have a feeling most people--but not our readers--will think it is less.

Well, Eric C was right. In 2016 alone, according to Micah Zenko, the U.S. dropped bombs on at least 7 countries, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan and Somalia. (Those are the countries we have been at war in/with during the Obama administration.)

The sheer number of strikes should make you gasp too. Again, according to Micah Zenko, who we trust and respect, the number was over 26,000 in 2016 alone. 26,000!

So President Trump fired 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Is that high or low? Given that Obama launched an average of 76 strikes per day in 2016, it is right on course for a contemporary US president. (For instance, we know the military under Trump launched strikes in Mosul last month.)

So before we use these strikes as evidence that Trump is now a warhawk, or impulsive, or somehow “presidential”, let’s understand the context. The introduction above is that context. So let’s debunk the other myths about this missile strike.

Myth 1: This is a huge escalation of the conflict in Syria.

It isn’t, not until troops put boots on the ground, which likely would have happened when the Pentagon presented Trump a plan to defeat ISIS (he signed an Executive Order demanding that, remember?). In our post on the likeliest countries for Trump to go to war, Syria was second. Second! We’ve also put more boots on the ground in Iraq under Obama to fight ISIS, which could lead into a war with/in Syria.

Again, this isn’t to say that these missile strikes don’t make getting involved less likely. It definitely makes it more likely. But we were trending toward intervention after Trump ratcheted up his rhetoric on defeating ISIS. (And yeah, we probably already have special operators on the ground in Syria anyways, but you know what I mean.)

Myth 2: No, it’s a huge escalation because it attacks Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad.

This is true. We have shifted enemies from “Just ISIS” to “Both ISIS and Assad.” But knowing Trump could reverse himself in a week means we can only read some much into this.

Also, it has to be noted that Obama considered this exact same strategy. And the night before Trump launched the attacks, Hillary Clinton said she would have done the exact same thing. That shows that Trump’s attacks were really a part of a policy that is really in the mainstream of current establishment thinking. And something generals have wanted for years. Really this isn’t a “huge” escalation in the Trump sense, but just a standard escalation by any US president.

Myth 3: This is Trump’s first military action.

How quickly we forget! In January, Trump authorized special operators to attack a compound in Yemen. We know civilians died. We know suspected terrorists died. We know a special operator died. So blood had already been shed by Trump, and if Yemen continues the way it is going, I could see an escalation there as well. In fact, the Trump administration has openly pondered expanding their Yemen operations.

Myth 4: Now we know Trump is reckless.

Wait, we needed evidence that Trump is reckless and foolhardy and flip-flops on everything he says and does? We already knew that. This is what we wrote before the election:

“Donald Trump is a complete liability if he were to take over the office of the President. Since he has no guiding principles in foreign policy, he could do anything, which makes him a complete liability with nuclear weapons and our military.”

Trump went through three campaign chairmen during the election. He breaks political and international norms on a weekly basis. Trump has irritated almost every US ally with the things he said. He even blamed American generals for losing a soldier in Yemen! Did we need him to impulsively attack a country to know he was impulsive?

No, we didn’t. I wrote about it here. And here. And here. This instead just confirms our Bayesian prior, to use the FiveThirtyEight language of it all. We suspected he would use military force flippantly, and he has. This doesn’t make it more or less likely than before, I would say it makes it exactly as likely.

Myth 5: This attack was illegal.

Not really. Under the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), passed after 9/11, as long as a President links a military operation to fighting groups that are allied with Al Qaeda, he can use military force. I’m sure Trump has a lawyer who can make the same connection, even though this attack targeted a government base that “opposes” Al Qaeda. (Need a refresher on the AUMF? RadioLab has you covered here.)

The problem is with the AUMF. It is so short but so broad that a President can use it to go to war with almost any country he wants to. That’s how President Obama got his authorization for 26,000 plus strikes on seven countries.

But who is going to stop Trump? The Republicans? Will they demand he follow the AUMF more closely? They refuse to take a vote on anything that could be politically damaging. They also refuse to oppose Trump on any issue. So as long as he says he was allowed to do this strike on the AUMF, and Republicans don’t expressly oppose him, then this isn’t illegal.

(Should we repeal that AUMF? Of course. Will we? I doubt it.)

We don’t support this strike, but it doesn’t change anything.

Let’s be clear. I really don’t support striking Syria without a larger strategy. Or Congressional approval. And I don’t think this shows that President Trump is consistent or somehow good at foreign policy. Nothing has shown me that to date.

But I don’t want to over-react just because he is Trump.

Apr 10

(This is the first post in a series on Syria. Hopefully, we don’t have to write more after the next two weeks, but if we do here’s all our thoughts.)

A few weeks ago, we wrote a post titled, “Where Will Trump Go to War?”. In it, we wrote this:

2. Syria or Iraq

The logic here is pretty straight-forward. Trump’s former National Security Advisor called ISIS an “existential threat” (it isn’t) and it stuck. So Trump has called for the elimination of ISIS, most recently at his address to Congress...

“...The question is whether this conflict spirals into America’s third major occupation of the region. You cannot eliminate ISIS from the air. And if you have to rely on allies in the region, that may include vile dictatorships like Syria or even Iran, who Trump hates. As Fareed Zakaria reported last weekend, ISIS is on the ropes anyways due to sustained fighting in both Syria and Iraq. But if something goes wrong, especially a terror attack, I could see an easily escalation of military conflict.”

This wasn’t really a prediction, per se. We were just outlining the possible courses of action Trump could take. And yet we completely missed the version of history where Trump turns against Assad. We didn’t even see it coming. There’s a good reason for this:

Trump said as much. Repeatedly.

Trump made it clear--before, during and after the campaign--that he didn’t want to attack Assad. This would include a tweetstorm in 2013 warning Obama not to get involved in Syria. This included praising Assad, saying “he’s much tougher and much smarter than [Hillary] and Obama” during the final debate, as we tweeted earlier this week. And yet, one chemical attack (an attack extremely similar to the infamous chemical attack in 2013 that ignited the debate over intervention in the Syrian Civil War in the first place) caused Trump to completely reverse his position.

This terrifies me (Eric C). We’ve been writing, for months now, about where Trump will go to war, arguing that he could take America to war in multiple countries, based on his rhetoric, temperament and establishment support

In my mind, this attack on Syria represents something much worse: his unpredictability. He launched an attack, without Congressional approval, contradicting everything he said he believed, changing his mind in a matter of days. If Trump can flip the switch on Assad, what’s to stop him from attacking Iran or North Korea, countries that he has repeatedly promised to get tough on? Taking the long view, this attack makes me think it is much, much more likely America could go to war in the next few years, and possibly with multiple counties.

Michael C disagrees. At least, he thinks I may have over-reacted, as he’ll respond tomorrow.

Apr 03

Way back in the day, I mean WAY back, humans ran around by themselves, isolated as individuals. The earliest humans spent every waking moment fending off predators, hunting other animals, and foraging for food. The hardest part was always staying safe. From saber-tooth tigers or lions or dire wolves or snakes, you always had to watch for predators.

(Side note: this history is, to be fair, fake. If you believe in evolution/Evolution, humans evolved from other pack animals going back millions/billions of years. It wasn’t like we somehow “started” as individuals. But let me go with it for a moment.)

The first group was the family. A male human impregnated a female human, and they stayed together because it just made it safer. This human male was giving up quite a bit of freedom. Before they mated, he could run around doing whatever he wanted. Afterward he mated, he had to come back from hunting every day by sundown. But he also got some benefits. By having children, the family had others who could help keep watch for predators, go hunting, or forage for food. (And, yeah sex.) Of course, these younger children had to obey the rules of the parents or get kicked out of the family into the wilderness to fend for themselves.

Living as a family was better than living alone.

Eventually it made more sense for one family to join with another family living nearby. This way they could share the guard duties and pool resources for food they had scavenged. Eventually, you had to join a group of families or other groups of families could come steal your food. These groups of families became the first tribes. And the tribes set up rules that all the families had to follow. These families also gave up some freedom by joining the tribe. Say a family liked to eat shellfish, but the tribe forbid shellfish. Well, the family had to give up the freedom to enjoy shrimp and lobster to join the tribe.

Joining a tribe was better than just surviving as a family.

Of course, some tribes banded together to make clans. These clans allowed for trade and inter-marriage among the tribes. They also guarded against the bad actions of other clans who might sweep in to steal food and women and, later, land.

Clans living was better than tribe living.

You see where this is going. Clans became cities, or city-states, or states, or nations, or nation states. After the Peace of Westphalia, some of these nations created alliances and today we have international treaties. In each case, working together in larger and larger groups made life better. This is a narrative version of Mark Zuckerberg’s recent history of the world, inspired by Yuval Harari’s Sapiens:

“History is the story of how we've learned to come together in ever greater numbers from tribes to cities to nations. At each step, we built social infrastructure like communities, media and governments to empower us to achieve things we couldn't on our own.”

The above history is a Hobbesian-turned-idealistic view of the world, showing humanity as truly having its origins in a state of anarchy, where life is nasty, brutish and short. But it gets better as we come together. The way I like to describe this is we have been in a perpetual trade off of sovereignty for security and prosperity.

And I want to focus on one word in that last sentence in particular: sovereignty. Because it could stop the final step.

In the deeper cuts of the conservative blogosphere, the concept of sovereignty is hot. Every few years you find a conservative railing against some treaty or UN commitment that would crush US sovereignty. And not even super conservatives, as Richard Haass most recent Foreign Affairs article was about redefining sovereignty.

The most ideal form of this thinking was the book The Sovereignty Solution. A while back one of the authors sent me a copy of the book. He loved our blog, but I had casually mentioned I wasn’t onboard with their theory yet. (It went military-blog viral, admittedly a small viral, a few years back.) So he sent me a copy to change my mind. In short, the book didn’t change my mind or convince me of their theory, but it did convince me of the appeal of their theory.

Basically, any time you join the larger group, you give up some power/freedom/sovereignty. Giving up of power (freedom/sovereignty) is scary. But it is worth it, as every example above proves.

We’ve now taken the process global. 
International treaties by definition force states to give up sovereignty for the larger benefit. A bunch of countries get together and decide to cooperate on a given issue. To do so, they usually set up an enforcement agency or body. This group than regulates the issue. Sometimes, this larger international body will trump domestic law. Even in the US. (Because of the Constitution!)

You can see the benefits for international cooperation, but see US pushback because of perceived loss of sovereignty across a wide range of issues.

- Take landmines. Or chemical weapons. They are nasty weapons and we shouldn’t have them. So certain nations got together and made a deal to stop building those weapons and agreed to fine countries who don’t stop building them. The US won’t join the landmine treaty because we like having landmines.

- Take global trade. Some conservatives hate institutions like the World Trade Organization because it can restrict the actions of certain American companies. Overall, though, it makes the global trade system profitable and benefits America far more than it hurts it. But sovereignty.

(We would bring up global warming and the Paris Accords, but we know that is a hot button issue.)

When Trump rails against global elites and China and ISIS/Muslims, he’s arguing that foreigners sap our sovereignty. Trump doesn’t believe in allies because he doesn’t believe in ever sacrificing your own freedom for the larger gain. What do Brexit-eers criticize most about the EU? Those damn bureaucrats in Brussels telling them how to regulate the internet. Oh, and those same bureaucrats telling them how to run their immigration laws. How is Putin trying to destroy NATO and the EU? By encouraging countries to take back their own power from global institutions.

That’s all code for taking back sovereignty from global institutions.

So life was getting better and better in larger groups, and now we’ve stopped it in the name of sovereignty. Even though interstate nuclear war could end life as we know it, some conservative thinkers and politicians (Trump, Putin, Bannon) want to stop global integration. For conservatives, the power of groups to make the world better magically stops at the international level. 

In the end, life will be better as a global society, not as nation states. We should remember that.