America has a proud and effecive tradition of diplomacy. It is being traduced

The Economist: Few Americans would have known it, but on New Year’s Eve their diplomats probably prevented scores of killings in central Africa, and perhaps a war. President Joseph Kabila, Congo’s long-stay autocrat, had refused to leave power, as he was obliged to do. Angry protesters were taking to the streets of Kinshasa and Mr Kabila’s troops buckling up to see them there. Yet through a combination of adroit negotiating and the high-minded pushiness that comes with representing a values-based superpower, Tom Perriello, the State Department’s then special envoy for the Great Lakes, and John Kerry, the then secretary of state, helped persuade Mr Kabila to back down. The resulting deal, brokered by the Catholic church, committed Mr Kabila to a power-sharing arrangement and retirement later this year. That would represent the first-ever peaceful transition in Congo. But it probably won’t happen.

Three weeks later, Donald Trump became president and the State Department’s 100-odd political appointees, including Mr Kerry and Mr Perriello, shipped out. That is normal in American transitions. But the most senior career diplomats were also pushed out, which is not. And only Mr Kerry has so far been replaced, by Rex Tillerson, a well-regarded former boss of Exxon Mobil. He had no ambition to be secretary of state—or knew he was being interviewed for the job—until Mr Trump offered it to him. Now installed as the voice of American foreign policy, he has maintained, notwithstanding his undoubted qualities, an oilman’s aversion to public scrutiny. He rarely speaks to journalists or visits American embassies on his trips abroad. He appears absorbed by the ticklish task of arranging a 31% cut in his department’s budget, which Mr Trump will shortly propose to Congress.

The vacant positions—in effect, almost the State Department’s entire decision-making staff of under-secretaries, assistant secretaries and ambassadors—are being covered by mid-ranking civil servants, who lack the authority, or understanding of the administration’s plans, to take the initiative. America’s diplomatic operation is idling at best. A sense of demoralisation—described in interviews with a dozen serving and former diplomats—permeates it. “I went to a policy planning meeting the other day and we spent half the time talking about someone’s bad back,” says a diplomat. “We’ve never been so bereft of leadership,” says another. A third predicts a wave of resignations. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. wants more UN sanctions over North Korea’s nuclear arms, warns time is short

The Washington Post reports: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Friday for new economic sanctions on North Korea and other “painful” measures over its nuclear weapons program, as the Trump administration warned that it would take military action if diplomacy failed.

“Failing to act now on the most pressing security issue in the world may bring catastrophic consequences,” Tillerson said during an unusual high-level session of the U.N. Security Council called to review what the Trump administration calls its most dire national security concern. “The more we bide our time, the sooner we will run out of it.”

Tillerson’s push at a special session of the Security Council came as the Trump administration said it is willing to bargain directly with North Korea over ending its nuclear weapons program, but under strict conditions that make talks unlikely anytime soon.

Ahead of the diplomatic effort at the United Nations, President Trump said direct conflict is possible. [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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The end of foreign aid as we know it

Bryant Harris, Robbie Gramer, and Emily Tamkin write: President Donald Trump’s vow to put “America first” includes a plan to drastically cut assistance to developing countries and merge the State Department with USAID, according to an internal budget document and sources.

The administration’s March budget proposal vowed to slash aid to developing countries by over one-third, but contained few details. According to a detailed 15-page State Department budget document obtained by Foreign Policy, the overhaul also includes rechanneling funding from development assistance into a program that is tied closely to national security objectives.

The document details how the Trump administration’s plans to reduce direct foreign assistance would take place in fiscal year 2018.

Acting USAID Administrator Wade Warren told employees at a recent staff meeting that administration officials are considering folding the agency into the State Department as part of a review mandated by President Trump’s March 13 executive order on streamlining the executive branch, according to a source within USAID. The order instructs the head of each agency to submit a plan to the Office of Management and Budget director, Mick Mulvaney, “to reorganize the agency, if appropriate, in order to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of that agency.”

While the order appears to give USAID’s administrator some discretion in the reorganization plan, the White House’s 2018 budget proposal points to a preference for consolidating the two entities, stating “the need for State and USAID to pursue greater efficiencies through reorganization and consolidation in order to enable effective diplomacy and development.”

Such a move would not be unprecedented. In 1999, the U.S. Information Agency, which funded information and cultural programs abroad, was closed down and many of its programs folded in the State Department. But shutting down, or even just scaling back, an agency dedicated to issues like disease prevention and food security could prove far more polarizing.

“That will end the technical expertise of USAID, and in my view, it will be an unmitigated disaster for the longer term,” said Andrew Natsios, the former USAID Administrator under President George W. Bush. “I predict we will pay the price. We will pay the price for the poorly thought out and ill-considered organization changes that we’re making, and cuts in spending as well.” [Continue reading…]

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North Korea isn’t testing its missiles. It’s preparing for a nuclear first strike

On March 9, Jeffrey Lewis wrote: On Monday morning, North Korea launched four missiles from the northwest corner of the country that traveled 620 miles before landing in the Sea of Japan.

While none of the launches were the long-awaited test of an intercontinental-range ballistic missile — the sort of weapon that could reach the United States — the salvo was a big deal in its own way. Pyongyang very vividly demonstrated the warnings from Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking North Korean diplomat who defected last year and described how the country was taking the final steps to arm its missile units with nuclear weapons. North Korea is developing an offensive doctrine for the large-scale use of nuclear weapons in the early stages of a conflict. When combined with what we know about U.S. and South Korean war plans, this fact raises troubling questions about whether a crisis on the Korean peninsula might erupt into nuclear war before President Donald Trump has time to tweet about it.

In the past, North Korea tested all its No-dong missiles out of a single military test site near a village of the same name. (Why, yes, the U.S. analysts did name the missiles after the town. The emasculating quality was a pure coincidence, I am sure.) These tests were designed to demonstrate that the Scud and No-dong missiles worked. They were tests in the literal sense of the word.

In recent years, however, North Korea has started launching Scuds and No-dongs from different locations all over the damn country. These aren’t missile tests, they are military exercises. North Korea knows the missiles work. What the military units are doing now is practicing — practicing for a nuclear war.

The North Koreans haven’t exactly been coy about this. Last year, North Korea tested a No-dong missile. Afterward, North Korea published a map showing that the missile was fired to a point at sea that was the exact range as South Korea’s port city of Busan, with an arc running from the target into the ocean, down to Busan. In case you missed the map, the North Koreans spelled it out: “The drill was conducted by limiting the firing range under the simulated conditions of making preemptive strikes at ports and airfields in the operational theater in South Korea where the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear war hardware is to be hurled.”

This time, North Korea launched four “extended-range” Scud missiles that are capable of flying up to 620 miles. The map showed all four missiles landing on an arc that stretched down to the Marine Corps Air Station near Iwakuni, Japan. Once again, the North Korean statement doesn’t leave much to the imagination: “Involved in the drill were Hwasong artillery units of the KPA (Korean People’s Army) Strategic Force tasked to strike the bases of the U.S. imperialist aggressor forces in Japan in contingency.”

So why is North Korea practicing nuking U.S. forces in Japan?

The United States and South Korea are conducting their largest annual joint military exercise, known as Foal Eagle. The exercise, which is really a series of exercises, lasts two months and involves tens of thousands of U.S. and South Korean military personnel, as well as an aircraft carrier, bombers, and — guess what? — F-35 aircraft based out of Iwakuni. Foal Eagle is a rehearsal for the U.S.-Republic of Korea war plan, known as OPLAN 5015, which has been described as a pre-emptive strike against North Korea, including its leadership, as a retaliation for some provocation. Whether that’s a fair description or not, the North Koreans certainly think the annual exercise is a dress rehearsal for an invasion. This year’s menu of fun and games reportedly includes a U.S.-ROK special operations unit practicing an airborne assault on North Korea’s nuclear and missile facilities.

What North Korea is doing is simply counterprogramming the Foal Eagle with its own exercise. If we are practicing an invasion, they are practicing nuking us to repel that invasion. [Continue reading…]

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State Department, U.S. embassies promoted Trump’s Mar-a-Lago

Politico reports: President Donald Trump isn’t the only one promoting his private Mar-a-Lago club as the “winter White House.” His foreign policy team has gotten in on it too.

The State Department and at least two U.S. embassies — the United Kingdom and Albania — earlier this month circulated a 400-word blog post detailing the long history of the president’s South Florida club, which has been open to dues-paying members since the mid-1990s and is now used by Trump for frequent weekend getaways. He has hosted foreign leaders there twice.

The blog post — written by the State Department-managed site Share America — described the “dream deferred” when Mar-a-Lago’s original builder, Marjorie Merriweather Post, willed the property to the federal government upon her death in 1973, with the stipulation it be used as a winter retreat for the president.

“Her plan didn’t work, however,” the post’s author, Leigh Hartman, wrote, explaining how the government returned the property to Post’s trust because it cost too much money to maintain. Trump bought the property and its furniture in 1985, and he opened it a decade later as a private club.

“Post’s dream of a winter White House came true with Trump’s election in 2016,” Hartman wrote.

Share America removed the post on Monday after the State Department’s efforts to share the article — originally published just before Trump hosted Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago — drew criticism. “The intention of the article was to inform the public about where the President has been hosting world leaders. We regret any misperception and have removed the post,” read a statement on the site in place of the post. [Continue reading…]

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Exxon seeks U.S. waiver to resume Russia oil venture

The Wall Street Journal reports: Exxon Mobil Corp. has applied to the Treasury Department for a waiver from U.S. sanctions on Russia in a bid to resume its joint venture with state oil giant PAO Rosneft, according to people familiar with the matter.

Exxon has been seeking U.S. permission to drill with Rosneft in several areas banned by sanctions and applied in recent months for a waiver to proceed in the Black Sea, according to these people. The company has sought approval for access to the region since at least late 2015, one person said.

The Black Sea request is likely to be closely scrutinized by members of Congress who are seeking to intensify sanctions on Russia in response to what the U.S. said was its use of cyberattacks to interfere with elections last year. Congress has also launched an investigation into whether there were ties between aides to Donald Trump and Russia’s government during the presidential campaign and the political transition.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is Exxon’s former chief executive officer and in that role forged a close working relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and with Rosneft, a company that is critical to Russia’s oil-reliant economy.

The State Department is among the U.S. government agencies that have a say on Exxon’s waiver application, according to current and former U.S. officials. [Continue reading…]

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Tillerson meets with Putin amid deepening tensions over U.S. missile strikes in Syria

The Washington Post reports: The rift between the United States and Russia was laid bare Wednesday when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson held his first direct talks with Russia’s president. Their discussions failed to ease deepening tensions over Syria and Washington’s demands that Moscow abandon its main Middle East ally.

“There is a low level of trust between our countries,” Tillerson said in a news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “The world’s two primary nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.”

Wednesday’s meeting brought no indication that the relationship would improve any time soon.

After Tillerson spent three hours talking with Lavrov and almost two hours at the Kremlin with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Lavrov, sitting three feet from Tillerson, aired a long list of grievances with the United States, some dating back many years.

“Unfortunately, we’ve got some differences with regards to a majority of those issues,” Lavrov lamented.

The only concession that Tillerson appeared to have extracted from the Russians was that Putin offered to restore a hotline aimed at avoiding accidents in the air over Syria. Russia had suspended that effort after U.S. missile strikes on a Syrian air base following an April 4 chemical weapons attack on a village in rebel territory. Even this tiny success was conditional; Lavrov said the deal would apply only if the United States and its allies targeted terrorists — not Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ­forces.

Hopes may never have been high, especially after Russia sounded a defiant note before Tillerson arrived in Moscow. But if this was the chance to find common ground before the Trump administration attempts any new action on Syria, it has ended in failure.

The Russians used Tillerson’s visit as a chance to reassert Moscow’s firm stance on Syria: that it will not abide by any effort to remove Assad from power. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson on the future of the Assad regime

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Turkey confirms sarin was used in Syrian chemical attack

The Guardian reports: Traces of sarin gas have been detected in blood and urine samples from victims wounded in the town of Khan Sheikhun in Syria, giving “concrete evidence” of its use in the attack, Turkey’s health minister has said.

Doctors and aid workers who had examined the wounded of last week’s massacre, which provoked the first US military strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, said they exhibited symptoms of exposure to a nerve agent similar to sarin, as well as a second chemical that may have been chlorine.

But the tests in Turkey, where many of the victims were taken for treatment due to the lack of medical facilities inside Syria, offer the first insight into the actual toxins used in the attack that killed over 80 people and drew worldwide condemnation and a renewed focus on the brutal conduct of the war.

The Turkish health minister Recep Akdağ said isopropyl methylphosphonic acid, a chemical that sarin degrades into, was found in the blood and urine samples taken from the patients who arrived in Turkey. Some 30 victims were brought across the border following the attack last Tuesday, and a number of them have died.

Autopsies on victims in Turkey shortly after the attack, monitored by the World Health Organization, had concluded there was evidence of sarin exposure. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Vladimir Putin has deepened his support of the Syrian regime, claiming its opponents planned false-flag chemical weapon attacks to justify further US missile strikes.

The Russian president’s predictions on Tuesday of an escalation in the Syrian war involving more use of chemical weapons came as US officials provided further details of what they insist was a sarin attack by Bashar al-Assad’s forces against civilians on 4 April, and accused Moscow of a cover-up and possible complicity.

The hardening of the Kremlin’s position, and its denial of Assad’s responsibility, accelerated a tailspin in US-Russian relations, just as the US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, arrived in Moscow for direct talks.

Tillerson had hoped to underscore the US position with a unified message from the G7, which condemned the chemical attack at a summit in Italy on Tuesday. However, G7 foreign ministers were divided over possible next steps and refused to back a British call for fresh sanctions. [Continue reading…]

The Washington Post reports on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s first news conference since taking over the Defense Department: A senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity in order to describe sensitive information, said that chlorine has a different status than sarin under international law, but Mattis does not want to say what will happen if Assad continues to use it. The idea, the official said, is to give the regime pause before using any kind of chemical weapon.

During the news conference, Mattis said the United States will need to decide as a matter of policy how it will respond in the future to the use of any kind of chemical weapon, including chlorine, in Syria.

“There is a limit, I think, to what we can do,” Mattis said. “And when you look at what happened with this chemical attack, we knew that we could not stand passive on this.” [Continue reading…]

In a statement on Monday, Mattis claimed the U.S. missile strike resulted in the damage or destruction of “20 percent of Syria’s operational aircraft.”

No doubt Putin’s claims about false flag operations will gain easy traction in the Russia-friendly marginal media, but it’s worth remembering that sarin can’t be made in a kitchen sink (nor can it be easily dispersed on a battlefield), and the Assad regime possessed its chemical weapons production facilities through support from the Soviet Union.

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Why food insecurity ‘over there’ matters right here

Ivo Daalder writes: Earlier this year, one of the world’s leading authorities on famine declared that 70 million people across 45 countries would need food assistance this year. Already 20 million in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen face famine, an unprecedented situation that prompted the United Nations in March to declare the worst humanitarian crisis the world has faced since World War II.

This global calamity needs our immediate and full attention. Yet saving millions from starvation is not only a moral obligation, it is also a national security necessity. We know from past food-related crises that lack of adequate food tends to create cycles of instability. A decade ago, protests over food prices toppled governments in Haiti and Madagascar. Popular grievances over food policy and prices also were a major driver of the Arab Spring and helped catalyze the instability and migration we see today across the Middle East and North Africa.

As the United States debates the appropriate balance of military, diplomatic, and economic levers at its disposal, the link between global food security and global stability has never been more clear, nor more urgent the need for U.S. leadership to confront and mitigate the risk of food insecurity. [Continue reading…]

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Kremlin, angry at Syria missile strike, says Putin won’t meet Tillerson

Reuters reports: The Kremlin said on Monday that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will not meet President Vladimir Putin when he visits Moscow on Wednesday, a move that could point to tensions over a U.S. missile attack on a Syrian air base last week.

John Kerry, Tillerson’s predecessor, often met Putin as well as the Russian foreign minister when he visited Moscow, and Putin granted several audiences to the Texan when he ran oil major Exxon Mobil before taking his current job.

Putin even personally awarded Tillerson a top Russian state award — the Order of Friendship — in 2013, and it was widely expected that the former oilman would meet Putin on what is his first trip to Russia as secretary of state.

But Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters on Monday that no such meeting was planned, suggesting Tillerson will follow strict diplomatic protocol and only meet his direct counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. [Continue reading…]

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Tillerson, on eve of Russia trip, takes hard line on Syria

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson is taking a hard line against Russia on the eve of his first diplomatic trip to Moscow, calling the country “incompetent” for allowing Syria to hold on to chemical weapons and accusing Russia of trying to influence elections in Europe using the same methods it employed in the United States.

Mr. Tillerson’s comments, made in interviews aired on Sunday, were far more critical of the Russian government than any public statements by President Trump, who has been an increasingly lonely voice for better ties with Russia. They seemed to reflect Mr. Tillerson’s expectation, which he has expressed privately to aides and members of Congress, that the American relationship with Russia is already reverting to the norm: one of friction, distrust and mutual efforts to undermine each other’s reach.

“This was inevitable,” said Philip H. Gordon, a former Middle East coordinator at the National Security Council who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Trump’s early let’s-be-friends initiative was incompatible with our interests, and you knew it would end with tears.” The Russians’ behavior has not changed, Mr. Gordon added, and they “are using every means they can — cyber, economic arrangements, intimidation — to reinsert themselves around the Middle East and Europe.”

Mr. Tillerson made it clear he agreed with that view, sweeping past Mr. Trump’s repeated insistence, despite the conclusion of American intelligence agencies, that there was no evidence of Russian interference in last year’s election. The meddling “undermines any hope of improving relations,” Mr. Tillerson said on ABC’s “This Week,” “not just with the United States, but it’s pretty evident that they’re taking similar tactics into electoral processes throughout Europe.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration sends mixed messages on regime change in Syria

 

 

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North Korea missile launch prompts enigmatic response from Tillerson

The Guardian reports: Japan and South Korea have condemned North Korea after it launched another ballistic missile – but the US refused to be drawn in, with secretary of state Rex Tillerson saying the country “has spoken enough about North Korea”.

Japan lodged a strong protest over the “extremely problematic launch”, which landed in waters off the Korean peninsula on the eve of a summit between US and Chinese leaders that is expected to focus on Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

The South Korean foreign ministry said it “threatens the peace and safety of the international community as well as the Korean peninsula”.

But Tillerson responded to the test with an a enigmatic statement saying only: “The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”

A few hours earlier, before news of the new missile launch broke, a senior Trump administration official suggested time was running out for a diplomatic solution. [Continue reading…]

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Assad apparently ‘gasses’ civilians days after Tillerson hints he can stay in power

The Daily Beast reports: Days ago, in Ankara, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled that the U.S. had no quarrel with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, a man Tillerson’s predecessor compared to Adolf Hitler after he slaughtered more than 1,000 people with poison gas in 2013.

The “longer-term status of President Assad,” Tillerson said, “will be decided by the Syrian people,” a euphemism used by Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran to indicate that he isn’t going anywhere.

White House press secretary Sean Spicer used almost identical language the next day, saying, “Well, I think with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.”

But the gas, it appears, is raining down once again on civilians.

In a video made Tuesday, Dr. Shajul Islam showed the camera a young man lying on a gurney with a catatonic expression on his face. His pupils were shrunk to the size of pinheads. “This is not chlorine,” he said. “We do not smell chlorine on this patient.” The industrial chemical has often been used as crude weapon on the Syrian battlefield.

Perhaps this time it was organic phosphate, another easily acquired chemical. [Continue reading…]

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