America’s decline from democracy to kleptocracy

Anne Applebaum writes: Daughters have long been used cynically to “humanize” thuggish men. The president’s strategically meaningless but politically useful bombing raid on Syria was justified on the grounds that Ivanka Trump had seen pictures of dying children and prevailed upon his softened heart, as in a fairy tale, to do something. Sarah Kendzior has laid out the remarkable similarities between Trump and Gulnara Karimova, the Uzbek dictator’s daughter, a “cosmopolitan socialite who married into a powerful business family” before making her mark as a fashion designer.” Like Trump, Karimova also masks “brutal practices under the pretext of a soft ‘feminism’ ” and styles herself an ideal modern woman.

But the real problem with Trump is not what she and her husband, Jared Kushner, contribute to the president’s “image,” but what their presence says about the culture of this White House. One of the things that distinguishes rule-of-law democracies from personalized dictatorships is their reliance on procedures, not individual whims, and on officials — experienced people, subject to public scrutiny and ethics laws — not the unsackable relatives of the leader. That distinction is now fading.

No ordinary public official would be allowed to dine with the leader of China, as Trump did, on the same day that China granted valuable trademarks to her company. No civil servant would be able to profit from the jewelry she advertises by wearing on public occasions. Only in kleptocracies are sons-in-law with broad international business interests allowed to make foreign policy. [Continue reading…]

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So far, Trump’s actions have mostly been political theater

Reuters reports: He misses driving, feels as if he is in a cocoon, and is surprised how hard his new job is.

President Donald Trump on Thursday reflected on his first 100 days in office with a wistful look at his life before the White House.

“I loved my previous life. I had so many things going,” Trump told Reuters in an interview. “This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier.” [Continue reading…]

Politico reports: [Trump has signed] more executive orders in his first 100 days than any president since Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his aides, his critics, and the media alike have portrayed them as dramatic assaults on the status quo. “Trump Moves to Roll Back Obama-Era Financial Regulations,” the New York Times declared after one. “Trump Executive Order Will Undo Obama’s Clean Power Plan,” USA Today reported after another.

But 99 days into his presidency, Trump’s high-profile orders have not actually undone Obama’s health reforms, financial regulations, or carbon restrictions. They’ve merely allowed him to announce his intentions to undo those policies in official documents. Trump’s first 30 executive orders will create a lot of federal reviews and reports, along with some new task forces and commissions, but not a lot of substantive change. So far, they’ve been more about messaging than governing, proclaiming his priorities without really advancing his priorities. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: In interviews with politicians, analysts, economists, business leaders and former diplomats, a general sentiment had emerged throughout the day on Wednesday that Mr. Trump’s threat to withdraw from the [Nafta] treaty using an executive order was mostly a piece of political theater — aimed as much at his voting base as at Mexico and Canada — and not something to get terribly worked up about. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. says ‘major conflict’ with North Korea possible, China warns of escalation

Reuters reports: U.S. President Donald Trump said a “major, major conflict” with North Korea was possible over its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, while China said the situation on the Korean peninsula could escalate or slip out of control.

Trump, speaking to Reuters on Thursday, said he wanted to resolve the crisis peacefully, possibly through the use of new economic sanctions, although a military option was not off the table.

“There is a chance that we could end up having a major, major conflict with North Korea,” Trump said in an interview at the Oval Office.

“We’d love to solve things diplomatically but it’s very difficult,” he said, describing North Korea as his biggest global challenge.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said there was a danger that the situation on the Korean peninsula could escalate or slip out of control, his ministry said.

Wang made the comments in a meeting at the United Nations with a Russian diplomat on Thursday, the ministry said in a statement. [Continue reading…]

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In a unified Ireland, the north could automatically join the EU

The Guardian reports: European leaders may be preparing to recognise a united Ireland, in a declaration that would pave the way for the north to swiftly rejoin the European Union. At their first Brexit summit on Saturday, the EU’s 27 leaders are expected to discuss a text stating that if Ireland unified, the north would automatically become part of the EU.

The inclusion of the text is a victory for the Irish government, which had pressed for the inclusion of a “GDR clause”, a reference to the integration of the former east German state into the European Community after the fall of the Berlin wall. The declaration is bound to raise fears that Brexit could trigger the unravelling of the UK, although there is no majority in Northern Ireland for unification.

EU diplomats are braced for a fierce reaction from the UK, given the angry tabloid headlines that followed speculation about the status of Gibraltar. After lobbying from Madrid, the EU agreed that the Spanish government would be able to exclude the Rock from any EU-UK trade agreement if it was not satisfied with the status of the territory.

The Irish clause is informed by the Good Friday peace agreement, which states that north and south of Ireland have a right to unify if a majority agree north of the border. Enda Kenny, the taoiseach, has argued that it is important for the north of Ireland to have “ease of access” to rejoin the EU if reunification were to occur. [Continue reading…]

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Russia gave to Citgo — and Citgo gave to Trump

Vanessa Neumann writes: The oil company’s half-million donation to Donald Trump’s Inaugural Committee wasn’t illegal. But it certainly wasn’t moral. And the cash may have come from the Kremlin, at least indirectly.

Recently released Federal Election Commission filings show that Citgo, the U.S. subsidiary of the Venezuelan oil company Petróleos de Venezuela (known as PDVSA) gave Trump more money than Shell or Walmart. The donation is unusual for PDVSA: Citgo had not donated to previous presidential inaugural committees.

Citgo’s donation to the Trump Inaugural Committee and the horrifying images emerging from Venezuela’s weeks of brutally repressed protests (26 killed, 437 injured, and 1,289 arrested—according to Venezuela’s attorney general; Venezuelan prisoner rights NGO Foro Penal says 1,536 have been “detained” as of April 25) are connected: Russian money and influence is behind both of them. Some of those detained are tortured in Venezuela’s equivalent of CIA headquarters, known as “The Tomb,” for its subterranean torture chambers. The Inaugural Committee donation came days after Citgo (a Delaware-incorporated company with operational headquarters in Houston) mortgaged 49.9 percent of its holdings to Rosneft, an oil company controlled by the Kremlin. That enabled Citgo’s parent company PDVSA to make its bond payments. Rosneft is sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department. So is its CEO, Igor Sechin, “Russia’s Darth Vader.” One of the most feared men in Russia, Sechin is close to Vladimir Putin and is one of Putin’s key instruments of geopolitical power. Net net: If Venezuela defaults on its bond payments, Rosneft (i.e., Putin & Co.) could own several refineries, nine pipelines, and distribution terminals all across the Eastern U.S., from Texas to Maine, without any government oversight. If the Russians end up owning Citgo, they will be using American consumers to fund their autocracy and Assad’s brutality in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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Turns out Trump does not possess a mysterious idiot-savant ability to get his way

T.A. Frank writes: Let’s forget, for the moment, about whether a border wall between the United States and Mexico would be good or bad. Politically, Donald Trump needs it. No promise gained him more enthusiasm during the primaries. Three quarters of Republicans support it. And his base demands it. In a column written immediately after Trump’s election in November, Ann Coulter laid out a hundred-line daily schedule for Trump’s first hundred days that read, “Day 1: Start building the wall. Day 2: Continue building the wall. Day 3: Continue building the wall. Day 4: Continue building the wall,” and continued in this vein until Day 100, which read, “Report to American people about progress of wall. Keep building the wall.”

By the same token, considering politics alone, Democrats must stop the wall. Thwart Trump and he looks weak. You force him to break his signature promise. His agenda stalls. The Hispanic vote moves even more solidly to the left. The Democratic base gets energized, and Trump’s base gets demoralized and stays home in the next couple of elections. It’s cost-free. That’s why Chuck Schumer has spoken of “shutting down the government” if Trump tries to get the wall going.

But the war has been postponed. After initially vowing to insert a request for funding of the wall into a stopgap bill that has to pass this April to avoid a government shutdown, Trump has now backed off. Sean Spicer says Trump’s “priorities have not changed,” but the wall does not seem to be among them for the time being. People are now suggesting Trump has given up on the wall in all but rhetoric. And this would be momentous. If Trump’s wall is dead, then Trump’s presidency is dead. Has it come to this? [Continue reading…]

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Trump counterterrorism adviser, Sebastian Gorka, is ‘a peddler of snake oil’

BuzzFeed reports: Sebastian Gorka — national security aide and all-round Donald Trump attack dog — failed his way upwards to the White House, having been denied security clearance to work in the Hungarian parliament, defeated in a local mayoral race in the 2000s, and widely dismissed as an opportunist.

Gorka, a deputy assistant to the president who focuses on counterterrorism, was denied security clearance in 2002 to serve on a committee investigating the then-Hungarian prime minister’s past as a communist secret police official during Soviet times. That denial, local security officials and politicians told BuzzFeed News, effectively ended his career as a national security expert in Hungary.

Washington’s standards may be lower than Budapest’s. Gorka has been widely criticised for his lack of qualifications and connections with fringe political groups since joining the Trump administration. In the past few months, his ties with far-right Hungarian groups and past as an editor at Breitbart News have raised questions about both his ideological views and his judgment. But, back in Hungary in the 2000s, he wasn’t seen as an extremist, but instead a self-promoter, who exaggerated claims about his past, including his work for the British intelligence services.

“Sebastian Gorka is not a Nazi or a security threat because he is some sort of secret British agent,” said a member of the Hungarian counter intelligence service, who has reviewed the files a security background check on Gorka from 2002. “Gorka is, how do you say in English — a peddler of snake oil.”

The White House press office did not respond to several phone calls and emails seeking comment. BuzzFeed News made two calls to Gorka’s mobile and sent three text messages, none of which were answered.

Gorka’s rise offers a glimpse at how permeable the top strata of American power is in the age of Trump. [Continue reading…]

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Top Pentagon watchdog launches investigation into foreign payments Michael Flynn received

The Washington Post reports: The Pentagon’s top watchdog has launched an investigation into money that former national security adviser and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn received from foreign groups and whether he failed to obtain proper approval to do so, lawmakers and defense officials said Thursday.

The Pentagon has in the past advised retiring officers that because they can be recalled to military service, they are subject to the Constitution’s rarely enforced emoluments clause, which prohibits top officials from receiving payments or favors from foreign governments.

On Thursday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, released an Oct. 8, 2014, letter in which a Defense Department lawyer warned Flynn upon his retirement from military service that he was forbidden from receiving payments from foreign sources without receiving permission from the U.S. government first.

Flynn received $45,000 to appear in 2015 with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gala dinner for RT, a Kremlin-controlled media organization. He also worked as a foreign agent representing Turkish interests for a Netherlands-based company, Inovo BV, which paid his company $530,000 in the fall. [Continue reading…]

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House Russia investigators optimistic under Conaway’s leadership

Politico reports: Rep. Mike Conaway, the House’s new top Russia investigator, is telling lawmakers on the Intelligence Committee that they should expect to be in Washington more than usual as the beleaguered probe gets a reboot, panel members said after a closed-door meeting Wednesday.

Committee Democrats welcomed Conaway’s remarks, describing the Texas Republican as a “straight-shooter” who was committed to a thorough, bipartisan investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential election, including the possibility of collusion with the Trump campaign.

“Mike Conaway told us this morning, expect to be in D.C. a little more than you might’ve anticipated,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) told reporters, adding that Republicans and Democrats had agreed to a witness list “in the neighborhood of three or four dozen.” He and other committee members declined to say who would be interviewed. [Continue reading…]

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The cost of Trump’s retreat from human rights

Jorge G. Castañeda writes: Last month, the United States declined to appear before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in Washington, for the first time in decades.

It is a member and participates regularly in the commission’s meetings. But this time, it was the United States delegation that faced questioning — about President Trump’s executive orders to bar travelers from six Muslim-majority countries, to accelerate deportation of undocumented migrants and to weaken environmental regulations.

The refusal to appear placed Washington in the dubious company of Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba on accountability for human rights compliance.

Congratulations, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.

Granted, the United States has never been totally consistent in championing human rights abroad, nor perfect in achieving those ideals at home. It also is not a party to the 1968 American Convention on Human Rights. But in openly retreating from its self-appointed role as a defender of the ideals that underpin the compact, it is showing cynical contempt for human rights even as a goal. This practically guarantees a result we are beginning to see: Dictators and other bullies are emboldened to trample rights and liberties with impunity. [Continue reading…]

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U.S.-China climate relations: Beyond Trump

Jackson Ewing writes: The days of cooperative climate change action in Washington and Beijing were short-lived.

After decades of friction in the climate arena, the United States and China spent the last three years of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s second term in office building a partnership that caught even close observers by surprise. In a March 2016 joint presidential statement, Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping declared climate change a “pillar of the U.S.-China bilateral relationship” and committed to ratifying the lauded Paris Agreement. The countries were by then drawing on more than two years of bilateral agreements on clean energy and emissions reduction targets, along with subnational agreements between cities, states, and provinces to bolster technical cooperation in areas ranging from carbon pricing to clean energy to sustainable urban infrastructure.

This cooperation reversed a history of recriminations and posturing that long defined the Sino-American climate change relationship. China would often emphasize its continuing poverty challenges, development needs, and relative lack of historical culpability for the climate problem, while the United States trotted out the common refrain that holding negotiations is well and good, but ultimately pointless if China fails to reduce emissions in internationally verifiable ways. For years, this divide between Beijing and Washington stubbornly persisted.

The Obama-Xi rapprochement was significant because it moved past these arguments and looked for opportunities in a nascent global climate regime based on voluntary commitments by all countries regardless of development levels. This played to the preferences of both China and the United States to chart their own paths without feeling overly constrained by international accords. It also dovetailed with China’s growing determination to solve its domestic pollution crisis, and with a realization in both capitals that clean energy was an economic growth sector.

The Trump presidency has ended this relatively brief period of national climate cooperation between the world’s two largest emitters. U.S. President Donald Trump has removed any mention of climate change from the executive branch agenda, and has moved to dismantle the U.S. Clean Power Plan (CPP), open up federal lands to fossil fuel exploration, reduce vehicle emissions standards, and broadly defund and de-emphasize environmental regulation and enforcement. Whether or not he attempts to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, which is not a straightforward process, Trump is already disregarding the American commitments detailed in the pact.

Rather than sending the United States and China back to their adversarial positions of the past, Trump’s moves have taken climate change off the bilateral agenda completely. This eliminates a valuable mutual confidence-building measure and sets back global climate change efforts significantly.

In this context, climate change hopefuls can take solace in three countervailing trends. [Continue reading…]

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Music: Oumou Sangaré — ‘Mali Niale’

 

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White House discovers ‘there are no good military options’ on North Korea

Fred Kaplan writes: If you had started to think that President Trump and his team might know something about diplomacy after all, that their firm talk and shows of strength might finally prod the Chinese and North Koreans to get rid of Kim Jung-un’s nuclear weapons, well, think again. Trump’s holsters are empty, and so is his brain trust. They’ve got nothing, up and down.

In recent days, Trump has sent an aircraft carrier battle group and a guided-missile submarine toward North Korea’s shores. Vice President Mike Pence has gone to the Demilitarized Zone and squinted through the binoculars at the North Korean guards, so they can see his resolve. Pence also declared, “The era of ‘strategic patience’ ”—President Obama’s policy of containment, as opposed to action, toward North Korea—“is over.” To lay the message on thick, Trump summoned all 100 U.S. senators to the Executive Office Building, next door to the White House, on Wednesday, for an urgent briefing on the subject from the secretaries of defense and state, the director of national intelligence, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of State. Buses were even chartered to take the lawmakers on their unusual field trip.

And what did these top advisers and cabinet secretaries say? Apparently, nothing.

Here’s Sen. Bob Corker, Republican of Tennessee and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when asked by a reporter about the briefing: “It was an OK briefing.” The reporter asked, “What do you mean, you didn’t really learn much?” Corker replied, “I—it was OK.”

Other senators, from both parties, told reporters the same thing: They learned nothing new, they wondered what the big deal was, why they were dragged down Pennsylvania Avenue for such a waste of time. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: It’s not a sonic boom or bunker buster Pyongyang should most fear from the Trump administration. It’s the sound of cash registers falling silent, and doors to the outside world shutting, as the U.S. works to convince China and other allies to cut off the oil, access to money and perhaps even communication links to the outside world.

That was the word from Trump administration officials Wednesday, explaining a multipronged strategy to defang Kim Jong Un’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program to lawmakers at the White House and on Capitol Hill. Administration officials made clear that open military confrontation or toppling the Kim regime are the least desirable of all possible options—even as China appeared to hint that it wouldn’t oppose certain American military measures against Pyongyang.

“We want to solve this through political or economic measures,” a senior administration official told The Daily Beast. “There are no good military options.” The official said any unilateral strike would likely lead to a North Korean counter-strike on U.S. allies South Korea and Japan—both within artillery or missile range of North Korea—as well as threatening tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed in the Pacific.

“We want to bring Kim Jong-Un to his senses, not to his knees,” said Adm. Harry Harris, Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Wednesday. He repeated the administration mantra that “all options are on the table,” but the tone had decidedly shifted from President Donald Trump’s earlier provocative tweets. [Continue reading…]

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Kim Jong Un is a survivor, not a madman

Andrei Lankov writes: Everyone loves thinking of North Korea as crazy. It threatens to consume the United States in nuclear fire on a semi-weekly basis, its leader brutally executes his own generals and had his brother murdered, and it wastes huge amount of money on nuclear weapons while sticking to a failed economic model. Tales of North Korean lunacy are never far from the front pages.

The problem is it’s not just the media that delights in depicting Pyongyang and Kim Jong Un, as irrational — U.S. policymakers indulge in the same behavior. In April, U.S. Congressman Bradley Burne (R-Ala.) said “I don’t believe the leadership in North Korea is rational. How do you deal with someone that is irrational?” He echoed prior remarks by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley who said, “We are not dealing with a rational person,” since, she claimed, Kim is a person “who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly.”

As a guide for understanding North Korea, this analysis is just plain wrong. As a guide for crafting policy toward Pyongyang, it may be catastrophic. North Korea’s system might look bizarre to us from the outside, but the Kims are the ultimate political survivors, hard-edged rationalists whose actions have always had a clear purpose: keeping the family in power. Seeing them as madmen is not only wrong, but also dangerous; any successful policy should be based on understanding the logic of the opposite side, not on discarding it as “irrational” Seeing the Kim family as lunatics with nukes makes them more threatening, and raises the risk of war, but it can also promote unrealistic expectations of compromise — if only the North “comes to its senses.”

Back in the 1980s the Kim family was laughed at even inside the Eastern Bloc as an embodiment of Stalinist irrationality. They were mocked for clinging to their outdated personality cult and failed economics and it was suggested that they should follow the dynamic leaders of Eastern Europe, like the reformist communist leader Karoly Grosz of Hungary. Today, these leaders are in the waste bin of history — overthrown, disgraced, and forgotten — while the Kim family still enjoys not only power, but the luxury that goes with it and remains in full control of their country. [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon expands rebuke of Turkey over Iraq, Syria strikes

The Washington Post reports: The Turkish government gave the United States less than an hour’s notice before conducting strikes on partner forces in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. military said on Wednesday, stepping up its criticism of airstrikes the United States said endangered American personnel.

Col. John Dorrian, a U.S. military spokesman, said the lead time failed to provide adequate notice to reposition American forces or warn Kurdish groups with whom the United States is partnering against the Islamic States.

“That’s not enough time. And this was notification, certainly not coordination as you would expect from a partner and an ally in the fight against ISIS,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State.

American officials expressed indignation at the Turkish bombing, which killed as many as 20 Kurdish fighters in Syria and, according to the U.S. military, five Kurdish peshmerga troops in a coordinated attack across the border in northern Iraq. According to the Turkish government, both attacks targeted members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist group.

A defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss operations, described the assault as a “massive, highly coordinated attack” involving more than 25 strike aircraft.

In Syria, the Turkish jets targeted leadership sites used by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a Kurdish-dominated force that has emerged as the United States’ primary military partner in Syria, according to a second U.S. official. Turkey has objected to that alliance because, it says, the SDF’s largest component, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), is a PKK affiliate.

Despite the Turkish position, Dorrian signaled the United States would continue its support for the SDF, as it would for Iraqi government troops across the border.

“These are forces that have been integral in fighting ISIS. They’ve been reliable in making progress against ISIS fighters under very difficult and dangerous conditions,” he said. “They have made many, many sacrifices to help defeat ISIS and that keeps the whole world safer. So that is our position on that.” [Continue reading…]

Kom News reports: Kurdish Women’s Protection Units (YPJ) spokeswoman, Nesrin Abdullah, has said that the group’s forces will withdraw from the operation to capture the Islamic State’s stronghold, Raqqa, if the US doesn’t take concrete action against Turkish airstrikes targeting Kurdish forces in Syria.

“The is unacceptable in international law. If the USA or coalition or the US [State Dept.] spokesperson can only say, ‘We are concerned or we are unhappy’ [about Turkey’s airstrikes] then we will not accept this. If this is the reaction, we do not accept it. It means they accept what was done to us,” Abdullah told Sputnik Turkish on Wednesday.

The spokeswoman for the all female YPJ, which is part of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a leading force in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces that has encircled Raqqa, went on to say that unless the US gave a concrete response they would withdraw from the operation. [Continue reading…]

AFP reports: Fighting erupted on Wednesday along Syria’s northeastern border between Turkish forces and Kurdish militiamen, as tensions boiled over in the aftermath of deadly Turkish air strikes the previous day.

The strikes against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have thrown the complexity of Syria’s war into sharp relief and even sparked calls for a no-fly zone in the country’s north.

The skies over northern Syria are increasingly congested, with the Syrian government, Turkey, Russia and the US-led international coalition all carrying out bombing raids across the region. [Continue reading…]

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Israel strikes Iran-supplied arms depot near Damascus airport

Reuters reports: Israel struck an arms supply hub operated by the Lebanese group Hezbollah near Damascus airport on Thursday, Syrian rebel and regional intelligence sources said, targeting weapons sent from Iran via commercial and military cargo planes.

Video carried on Lebanese TV and shared on social media showed the pre-dawn airstrikes caused a fire around the airport east of the Syrian capital, suggesting fuel sources or weapons containing explosives were hit.

Syrian state media said Israeli missiles hit a military position southwest of the airport, but did not mention arms or fuel. It said “Israeli aggression” had caused explosions and some material losses, but did not expand on the damage.

Israel does not usually comment on action it takes in Syria. But Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, speaking to Army Radio from the United States, appeared to confirm involvement.

“The incident in Syria corresponds completely with Israel’s policy to act to prevent Iran’s smuggling of advanced weapons via Syria to Hezbollah,” he said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “said that whenever we receive intelligence that indicates an intention to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, we will act”, he added. [Continue reading…]

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