The Middle East’s dictatorships produce nothing but endless conflict and brutal repression

Iyad el-Baghdadi and Maryam Nayeb Yazdi write: Like Europe in 1914, the Middle East stands precariously at the edge of conflict. The history of the dictatorship-plagued region has shown that there is no such thing as a short and decisive war. The Yemeni and Syrian conflicts adequately demonstrate that, though both conflicts have been more or less geographically contained. If the current posturing transforms into an open regional war, the conflict will be neither brief nor conclusive. And the explosion of instability in the heart of the world’s most energy-rich region will send global economies into shock, create more opportunities for terrorists, necessitate further foreign interventions, spark new waves of refugees, and make the entire world less safe, less stable, and less prosperous.

The origins of the current round of chaos can be found in former President Barack Obama’s decision to disengage the United States from the Middle East — just as the region was undergoing a wave of pro-democracy mass protests. In the power vacuum created by the U.S. disengagement, various players saw both the space and the necessity to pursue their own independent, competing agendas — and in the ensuing melee, the voices of the Middle East’s people were brutally suppressed.

Obama’s push for a deal with Iran’s regime threw further confusion into the mix — leading to more destruction in Syria and ultimately opening the door to an overwhelming and brutal Russian intervention. Furthermore, to balance American alliances, Obama supported the Saudi leadership’s war on Yemen, adding more fuel to an already burning region.

Despite this, it is wrong to assume that Obama’s policies were the root cause of this mess. If anything, the U.S. decision to no longer police the region only exposed a deep-seated instability that has always existed. What we are witnessing is the consequence of a regional order dominated by dictatorships, coupled with outside powers’ reliance on an expired foreign-policy paradigm that focuses on short-term gain rather than long-term stability. It is time to realize that partnering with dictatorships for the sake of stability and security is unsustainable, myopic, and potentially disastrous. [Continue reading…]

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Senate overwhelmingly votes to curtail Trump’s power to ease Russia sanctions

The Washington Post reports: The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to allow Congress to block any efforts by the president to scale back sanctions against Russia, and to strengthen those sanctions in retaliation for Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 election and its actions in Syria.

The vote of 97 to 2 is a sharp rebuke to President Trump’s posture on Russia and his resistance to the intelligence community’s assessment that the country was behind efforts to influence the election he won.

The two senators who voted against the measure were Republicans Rand Paul (Ky.) and Mike Lee (Utah).

Trump has repeatedly and openly doubted the intelligence community’s finding that Russia meddled in the presidential election. While his administration has not ordered a rollback of any existing sanctions, lawmakers have been concerned about his conciliatory, and at times even forgiving, rhetoric about Russia, as well as recent moves to give Moscow back control over two diplomatic compounds that the Obama administration reclaimed in late December. [Continue reading…]

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Russian breach of 39 states threatens future U.S. elections

Bloomberg reports: Russia’s cyberattack on the U.S. electoral system before Donald Trump’s election was far more widespread than has been publicly revealed, including incursions into voter databases and software systems in almost twice as many states as previously reported.

In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database. Details of the wave of attacks, in the summer and fall of 2016, were provided by three people with direct knowledge of the U.S. investigation into the matter. In all, the Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states, one of them said.

The scope and sophistication so concerned Obama administration officials that they took an unprecedented step — complaining directly to Moscow over a modern-day “red phone.” In October, two of the people said, the White House contacted the Kremlin on the back channel to offer detailed documents of what it said was Russia’s role in election meddling and to warn that the attacks risked setting off a broader conflict.

The new details, buttressed by a classified National Security Agency document recently disclosed by the Intercept, show the scope of alleged hacking that federal investigators are scrutinizing as they look into whether Trump campaign officials may have colluded in the efforts. But they also paint a worrisome picture for future elections: The newest portrayal of potentially deep vulnerabilities in the U.S.’s patchwork of voting technologies comes less than a week after former FBI Director James Comey warned Congress that Moscow isn’t done meddling.

“They’re coming after America,” Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the election. “They will be back.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump targets illegal immigrants who were given reprieves from deportation by Obama

Reuters reports: In September 2014, Gilberto Velasquez, a 38-year-old house painter from El Salvador, received life-changing news: The U.S. government had decided to shelve its deportation action against him.

The move was part of a policy change initiated by then-President Barack Obama in 2011 to pull back from deporting immigrants who had formed deep ties in the United States and whom the government considered no threat to public safety. Instead, the administration would prioritize illegal immigrants who had committed serious crimes.

Last month, things changed again for the painter, who has lived in the United States illegally since 2005 and has a U.S.-born child. He received news that the government wanted to put his deportation case back on the court calendar, citing another shift in priorities, this time by President Donald Trump.

The Trump administration has moved to reopen the cases of hundreds of illegal immigrants who, like Velasquez, had been given a reprieve from deportation, according to government data and court documents reviewed by Reuters and interviews with immigration lawyers.

Trump signaled in January that he planned to dramatically widen the net of illegal immigrants targeted for deportation, but his administration has not publicized its efforts to reopen immigration cases.

It represents one of the first concrete examples of the crackdown promised by Trump and is likely to stir fears among tens of thousands of illegal immigrants who thought they were safe from deportation. [Continue reading…]

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Why Trump actually pulled out of Paris

Michael Grunwald writes: Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement was not really about the climate. And despite his overheated rhetoric about the “tremendous” and “draconian” burdens the deal would impose on the U.S. economy, Trump’s decision wasn’t really about that, either. America’s commitments under the Paris deal, like those of the other 194 cooperating nations, were voluntary. So those burdens were imaginary.

No, Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from this carefully crafted multilateral compromise was a diplomatic and political slap: it was about extending a middle finger to the world, while reminding his base that he shares its resentments of fancy-pants elites and smarty-pants scientists and tree-hugging squishes who look down on real Americans who drill for oil and dig for coal. He was thrusting the United States into the role of global renegade, rejecting not only the scientific consensus about climate but the international consensus for action, joining only Syria and Nicaragua (which wanted an even greener deal) in refusing to help the community of nations address a planetary problem. Congress doesn’t seem willing to pay for Trump’s border wall—and Mexico certainly isn’t—so rejecting the Paris deal was an easier way to express his Fortress America themes without having to pass legislation.

Trump was keeping a campaign promise, and his Rose Garden announcement was essentially a campaign speech; it was not by accident that he name-dropped the cities of Youngstown, Ohio, Detroit, Michigan, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, factory towns in the three Rust Belt states that carried him to victory. Trump’s move won’t have much impact on emissions in the short term, and probably not even in the long term. His claims that the Paris agreement would force businesses to lay off workers and consumers to pay higher energy prices were transparently bogus, because a non-binding agreement wouldn’t force anything. But Trump’s move to abandon it will have a huge impact on the global community’s view of America, and of a president who would rather troll the free world than lead it.

Of course, trolling the world is the essence of Trump’s America First political brand, and Thursday’s announcement reinforced his persona as an unapologetic rebel who won’t let foreigners try to tell America what to do, even when major corporations, his Secretary of State, and his daughter Ivanka want him to do it. He was also leaning into his political identity as Barack Obama’s photographic negative, dismantling Obama’s progressive legacy, kicking sand in the wimpy cosmopolitan faces of Obama’s froufrou citizen-of-the-world pals. [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s war on regulations

Politico reports: The chaos of Donald Trump’s first four months as president has overshadowed a series of actions that could reshape American life for decades — efforts to rewrite or wipe out regulations affecting everything from student loans and restaurant menus to internet privacy, workplace injuries and climate change.

Trump and his agencies have already wielded executive actions and Republican control of Congress to postpone, weaken or outright kill dozens of regulations created by Barack Obama’s administration, often using delays in the courtroom to buy time to make those changes. Their targets have included protections for streams from coal-mining pollution and a directive on the rights of transgender students.

Other Obama-era regulations are in the crosshairs for possible elimination or downsizing, such as limits on greenhouse gases from power plants and rules meant to prevent concentrated ownership of media companies.

But Trump is going after even bigger targets, setting bureaucratic wheels in motion that could eventually ax or revise hundreds of regulations as agencies reorient themselves toward unwinding red tape and granting speedier approvals to projects. Just one of those efforts — an upcoming plan by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross for reducing burdens on manufacturers — yielded 171 suggestions from business groups and others who submitted comments. Another executive order, requiring agencies to repeal two regulations for every new one they create, “will be the biggest such act that our country has ever seen,” Trump said in January.

If successful, these efforts could represent the most far-reaching rollback of federal regulations since Ronald Reagan’s presidency, especially if Trump’s proposed budget cuts make it hard for a future Democratic president to reaccelerate the rule-making apparatus. But Trump’s retrenchment faces multiple obstacles, including his slow pace in naming political appointees and his team’s overall inexperience in navigating the federal bureaucracy. [Continue reading…]

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Hayden on Kushner: We are in a dark place as a society

 

The Hill reports: Former head of the National Security Agency (NSA) Michael Hayden on Saturday said White House adviser and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner is naive and ignorant if reports that he sought to create a secure communication channel with Russia are true.

“Well, Michael, right now, I’m going with naiveté and that’s not particularly very comforting for me,” Hayden told CNN’s Michael Smerconish.

“I mean what manner of ignorance, chaos, hubris, suspicion, contempt would you have to have to think that doing this with the Russian ambassador was a good or appropriate idea?” [Continue reading…]

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Why should we care about Russian interference in our elections?

The New York Times reports: [John] Brennan, the former C.I.A. director, said Tuesday that he became concerned last year that the Russian government was trying to influence members of the Trump campaign to act — wittingly or unwittingly — on Moscow’s behalf.

“I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals,” Mr. Brennan told lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee.

“It raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals,” he said, adding that he did not know whether the Russian efforts were successful.

He added, “I don’t know whether such collusion existed.”

It was the first time he publicly acknowledged that he was concerned about possible ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

He said he left office in January with many unanswered questions about the Russian influence operation. Intelligence officials have said that Russia tried to tip the election toward Mr. Trump.

Mr. Brennan became so concerned last summer about signs of Russian election meddling that he held urgent, classified briefings for eight senior members of Congress, speaking with some of them over secure phone lines while they were on recess. In those conversations, he told lawmakers there was evidence that Russia was specifically working to elect Mr. Trump as president. [Continue reading…]

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Trump struts onto the world stage only to become a laughingstock

When the word from his own staff inside the White House is that Donald Trump is increasingly being viewed as “a complete moron,” it should come as no surprise that outside the U.S. he now commands just as little respect.

Having been duly flattered by the Saudis with a reception fit for a king, Trump not only showered them with weapons, but also added his own unexpected diplomatic touch by offering his host an impromptu curtsy:

 

Having proffered the deference that Trump obviously thought royalty expects, he then adjusted the gold bauble for comfort as though then wondering: did I get to keep this? I want to show it to Don King.

Had Trump followed Barack Obama’s example eight years ago, he would have realized that gold ornaments do not sit well on the shoulders of a dignified American president.

 

Susan Glasser writes: Many [of the European officials] I spoke with said they had made a fundamental mistake of viewing Trump primarily as an ideologue with whom they disagreed rather than what he increasingly appears to be: an ill-prepared newcomer to the world stage, with uninformed views and a largely untested team that will now be sorely tried by a 9-day, 5-stop world tour that would be wildly ambitious even for a seasoned global leader.

“People are less worried than they were six weeks ago, less afraid,” a senior German government official with extensive experience in the United States told me. “Now they see the clownish nature.” Or, as another German said on the sidelines of a meeting here devoted to taking stock of 70 years of U.S.-German relations, “People here think Trump is a laughingstock.”

“The dominant reaction to Trump right now is mockery,” Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of the conservative journal the National Interest, told the meeting at the German Foreign Office here while moderating a panel on Trump’s foreign policy that dealt heavily on the difficulty of divining an actual policy amid the spectacle. Heilbrunn, whose publication hosted Trump’s inaugural foreign policy speech in Washington during last year’s campaign, used the ‘L’ word too. “The Trump administration is becoming an international laughingstock.” Michael Werz, a German expert from the liberal U.S. think tank Center for American Progress, agreed, adding he was struck by “how rapidly the American brand is depreciating over the last 20 weeks.” [Continue reading…]

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What America’s new arms deal with Saudi Arabia says about the Trump administration

Vox reports: President Trump has just announced the sale of a whopping $110 billion to Saudi Arabia which includes “tanks and helicopters for border security, ships for coastal security, intelligence-gathering aircraft, a missile-defense radar system, and cybersecurity tools,” reports ABC News. It forms part of a 10-year, $350 billion agreement in a “strategic vision” between the two countries, reports the Washington Post.

The deal had been in the works for some time, but the White House evidently pushed hard to finalize the deal in time to announce it during the president’s trip to Saudi Arabia. It was meant to send a clear message: Trump isn’t going to do things the way his predecessor did.

Back in September, the Obama administration approved a more than $115 billion arms deal with the Saudis. But as the death toll and reports of human rights violations in the Saudi-led war on Yemen began to rise dramatically, the Obama administration nixed the sale of the precision-guided munitions it had originally agreed to put in the deal to try to coerce the Saudis into curbing those atrocities.

Now those munitions are back in the Trump arms package — which speaks volumes about this administration. [Continue reading…]

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Russian officials bragged they could use Flynn to influence Trump

CNN reports: Russian officials bragged in conversations during the presidential campaign that they had cultivated a strong relationship with former Trump adviser retired Gen. Michael Flynn and believed they could use him to influence Donald Trump and his team, sources told CNN.

The conversations deeply concerned US intelligence officials, some of whom acted on their own to limit how much sensitive information they shared with Flynn, who was tapped to become Trump’s national security adviser, current and former governments officials said.

“This was a five-alarm fire from early on,” one former Obama administration official said, “the way the Russians were talking about him.” Another former administration official said Flynn was viewed as a potential national security problem.

The conversations picked up by US intelligence officials indicated the Russians regarded Flynn as an ally, sources said. That relationship developed throughout 2016, months before Flynn was caught on an intercepted call in December speaking with Russia’s ambassador in Washington, Sergey Kislyak. That call, and Flynn’s changing story about it, ultimately led to his firing as Trump’s first national security adviser.

Officials cautioned, however, that the Russians might have exaggerated their sway with Trump’s team during those conversations. [Continue reading…]

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Flynn stopped military plan Turkey opposed – after being paid as its agent

McClatchy reports: One of the Trump administration’s first decisions about the fight against the Islamic State was made by Michael Flynn weeks before he was fired – and it conformed to the wishes of Turkey, whose interests, unbeknownst to anyone in Washington, he’d been paid more than $500,000 to represent.

The decision came 10 days before Donald Trump had been sworn in as president, in a conversation with President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who had explained the Pentagon’s plan to retake the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa with Syrian Kurdish forces whom the Pentagon considered the U.S.’s most effective military partners. Obama’s national security team had decided to ask for Trump’s sign-off, since the plan would all but certainly be executed after Trump had become president.

Flynn didn’t hesitate. According to timelines distributed by members of Congress in the weeks since, Flynn told Rice to hold off, a move that would delay the military operation for months.

If Flynn explained his answer, that’s not recorded, and it’s not known whether he consulted anyone else on the transition team before rendering his verdict. But his position was consistent with the wishes of Turkey, which had long opposed the United States partnering with the Kurdish forces – and which was his undeclared client. [Continue reading…]

To refer to Flynn’s representation of Turkish interests as being “unbeknownst to anyone in Washington,” seems a bit premature. Trump’s unwillingness to fire Flynn, rather than being an expression of loyalty — not something Trump is famous for — may be an indication that whenever Flynn finally tells his own story, it’s going to destroy Trump.

So far, Trump’s ties to Flynn have largely been portrayed as an error in judgement. The real story, however, may reveal Trump’s complicity in Flynn’s corruption — that Flynn was far more transparent than we thus far know and that Trump and Pence with the hubris of victors thought they were immune from facing any repercussions.

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Flynn was warned by Trump transition officials about contacts with Russian ambassador

The Washington Post reports: Former national security adviser Michael Flynn was warned by senior members of President Trump’s transition team about the risks of his contacts with the Russian ambassador weeks before the December call that led to Flynn’s forced resignation, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn was told during a late November meeting that Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s conversations were almost certainly being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, officials said, a caution that came a month before Flynn was recorded discussing U.S. sanctions against Russia with Kislyak, suggesting that the Trump administration would reevaluate the issue.

Officials were so concerned that Flynn did not fully understand the motives of the Russian ambassador that the head of Trump’s national security council transition team asked Obama administration officials for a classified CIA profile of Kislyak, officials said. The document was delivered within days, officials said, but it is not clear that Flynn ever read it.

The previously undisclosed sequence reveals the extent to which even some Trump insiders were troubled by the still-forming administration’s entanglements with Russia and its enthusiasm for a friendly relationship with the Kremlin. [Continue reading…]

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Why Obama just endorsed Emmanuel Macron for president of France

Zack Beauchamp writes: Former President Barack Obama has endorsed his first candidate for office since leaving office — and it’s not a fellow Democrat. In fact, it’s not even an American.

“I am supporting Emmanuel Macron to lead you forward,” Obama said in English in a video addressed to the French people just days before Macron faces far-right candidate Marine Le Pen Sunday in an election that will determine the country’s next president.

Obama closes the minute-long video in French. “En Marche! Vive la France!”

The endorsement is highly, highly unusual — I can’t think of a time when a former US president explicitly endorsed a candidate in a foreign election. But it makes a lot of sense. [Continue reading…]

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EPA website removes climate science site from public view after two decades

The Washington Post reports: The Environmental Protection Agency announced Friday evening that its website would be “undergoing changes” to better represent the new direction the agency is taking, triggering the removal of several agency websites containing detailed climate data and scientific information.

One of the websites that appeared to be gone had been cited to challenge statements made by the EPA’s new administrator, Scott Pruitt. Another provided detailed information on the previous administration’s Clean Power Plan, including fact sheets about greenhouse gas emissions on the state and local levels and how different demographic groups were affected by such emissions.

The changes came less than 24 hours before thousands of protesters were set to march in Washington and around the country in support of political action to push back against the Trump administration’s rollbacks of former president Barack Obama’s climate policies. [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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