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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Trump and Bolton Screw Up Geopolitics

The Daily Escape:

Sunrise, Reflection Canyon, Escalante arm of Lake Powell, UT – 2019 photo by Aaryeh95

(Reminding readers that this is the last column until Sunday when cartoons will be back on the menu. We are attending our second college graduation of the spring.)

The Week reports that President Trump is having second thoughts about sending troops to Venezuela. He complained to aides and advisers that:

“he was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman, President Nicolás Maduro, with opposition leader Juan Guaidó, The Washington Post reports. ‘The president’s dissatisfaction has crystallized around National Security Adviser John Bolton and what Trump has groused is an interventionist stance at odds with his view that the United States should stay out of foreign quagmires.’”

“He was misled about how easy it would be to replace the socialist strongman”! Who could’ve seen that coming? Just about everyone but Trump, and the neocons around Trump. The Neocons are batting 1.000, again proving themselves to be miserable failures at geopolitics. They continue to mess up geopolitical foreplay on the way to their real goal: Regime change and war.

By listening to Bolton and Pompeo, Trump has placed Venezuela more directly in the hands of Russia. It seems that Trump’s 90-minute phone call last Friday with Vladimir Putin was meant to talk Trump out of regime change in Venezuela. A secondary benefit for Putin may turn out to be that Trump handed Moscow a permanent Atlantic military presence in South America.

What’s the upshot? It looks like Maduro was pushed into Putin’s arms. Maybe Trump and Putin can cut a deal to sort this out without a crisis.

It looks possible that Maduro got an offer from a smarter, stronger player in the geopolitical game: Vladimir Putin. Republicans are bound to be disappointed. Blowing up Maduro’s regime was high on the Bolton and Republicans’s list.

Of course, regime change is always on their list. They want regime change in North Korea. In Syria. In Venezuela. And in Iran. It would be the perfect distraction from all the talk about Mueller and impeachment. They think war is a great campaign issue for 2020.

Now, Bolton and Pompeo have shifted their focus to Iran.

On Sunday, the National Security Council announced that we were sending another carrier strike group and a bomber task force to the Persian Gulf in response to “troubling and escalatory” warnings from Iran. Bolton discussed the intelligence, saying that Iran appeared to be gearing up for war.

Help me. We all know that Russia is also more friendly with Tehran than we are. And Putin has already achieved near-total victory in Ukraine and Syria, and possibly has already bagged Venezuela. We were never going to be buddies with Iran, but will Tehran now move completely into Russia’s orbit?

To date, it looks like the worst thing Donald Trump has done is to hire John Bolton as his National Security Advisor. Of course, Bolton’s track record as a war-monger preceded him, so what’s happening now was predictable. The Neocons, including Bolton, want a war with Iran, to remake the Middle East.

Their project to remake the ME saw America destroy Iraq and Afghanistan. It fueled American regime change aspirations in Syria. It brought about the destruction of Libya. It’s also underway in Yemen.

What the Neocons are doing helps a new alliance to form. Its key members are China and Russia, but Iran is a part of it as well. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (B&R) is meant to create routes to Europe and a Chinese-led trade zone. It is meant to bypass sending ships through the straits of Malacca (which the US can shut down any time to strangle China’s trade). It looks like the land parts of the B&R will move goods more quickly to Europe, but not as cheaply, as sea transport.

So the question is: Can Bolton talk Trump into war with Iran? Will Trump lead us into a fatal miscalculation? Trump is walking a tightrope without a net.

Even without a war, the US’s continued abuse of its privileged position in the world payments system to sanction countries like Iran and Venezuela implies that China and Russia will develop an alternative payments system. It’s inevitable.

It’s only a matter of time before international payment alternatives become viable enough that major countries will simply ignore US sanctions.

The US looks to be the big loser in the geopolitical game of chicken that Trump is playing.

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Dems Should Talk Foreign Policy

The Daily Escape:

Lumen Museum of Mountain Photography, Italy – 2018 photo by Marco Zanta. The glass-enclosed extension is a restaurant.

Every Democratic candidate for the 2020 nomination is discussing domestic policy: Medicare for All, Free College, and all of the other jump shifts in policy, but what about global politics?

Biden isn’t unique among candidates in saying the 2020 election is about a return to the way things were before Trump, the Economist reports:

“’This too shall pass,’ Joe Biden told America’s allies at the Munich Security Conference in February. ‘We will be back.’ The applause he received reflects a longing to return to a world order that existed before President Donald Trump started swinging his wrecking ball.”

It is problematic to rely on the ideas of a Clinton operative, but the Economist quotes Jake Sullivan, a 2016 Hillary advisor who says that the thrust of the Democrats’ foreign policy approach is simple: reverse much of what Trump has done. Sullivan talks of a “back to basics” approach: Value alliances, stress diplomacy:

“Compared with domestic policy….there is less focus on new ideas.”

All of the Democratic candidates would rejoin the Paris climate agreement. They would rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, possibly with new pre-conditions for lifting sanctions. All would reassure NATO allies of their full commitment to the alliance.

Most Dems agree with Trump’s more confrontational approach to China. However, they would ask America’s allies to work with us on the outcomes.

Biden has a long foreign policy track record. He proposed cutting Iraq into three states for the Sunni, Shia and Kurds. He wanted to arm the Ukrainians against Russia. He opposed the surge in Afghanistan, and the intervention in Libya.

The other candidates have said less, and have no distinctive foreign policy positions.

It would be great if we actually talked about foreign policy in the 2020 primaries. Let’s take a step back and remember 1991. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the world’s other nuclear-armed superpower, we became the sole superpower. Until then, our strategy had been to contain the Soviet Union, but afterwards, lacking a global competitor, neither Party put forth a coherent global strategy.

We blundered into the Middle East with the Gulf War in 1991. After 9/11, we attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. We then hatched the war on terror, and subsequently expanded our globalized military across the world. And when the ledger finally closes on our expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the cost will approach $4 trillion.

Had we spent that amount on domestic priorities, we could have shored up Social Security and Medicare for a generation. We could have paid for the repair of our crumbling infrastructure. Instead, we’ve emerged from our Middle East blunder with two global competitors, China and Russia, along with a huge fiscal deficit. Neither had to happen.

America has failed to see the connections between our global strategy and domestic strategy. Providing incentives to our multinational corporations that enabled them to make goods abroad has marooned large swaths of our domestic workers.

A reasonable question to discuss is whether we can continue supporting globalization while building good jobs in the heartland of America.

And there should be a real debate regarding Trump’s foreign policy. He has sided more closely with Israel. He’s walked out of the Iran nuclear deal. He’s threatened Venezuela with possible “military options” that are being seriously discussed at the Pentagon.

Over the weekend, the Israelis told Bolton and Pompeo that the Iranians are preparing to attack the approximately 5000 US military personnel in Iraq. That may or may not be true, but it led to Pompeo visiting Baghdad.

Do American voters want another war in the Middle East? Trump is daring Iran to fully withdraw from the Nuclear Deal. Who will become the fall guy if there is an Iranian closing of the Straits of Hormuz? Trump, or Iran?

Trade talks with China seem stalled. North Korea’s recent missile tests press Trump’s bet on a deal with NK. Surely Kim is carefully watching Trump’s moves in the Middle East.

Then there is Russia. The Dems overreached with Russiagate, but the Russians are working with Syria to eliminate one of the last places in Syria (Idlib) where terrorists still hold sway. Neither Israel nor Bolton seem to want a stable Syria. Will they try to force Trump to obstruct this important operation?

Debate by Democrats may focus on military spending, with some wanting to cut it, and the mainstreamers being more cautious. A new policy towards the Middle East, and Israel in particular, should be discussed.

Regardless, Trump will surely attack Dems as “soft” on national defense.

But Democrats should thoughtfully challenge the Right-wing assumption that America must have a military-first strategy, rather than a diplomacy-first strategy.

We’re stretched thin trying to have a military presence everywhere in the world. It’s worth a real debate.

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Iran: Trump Is All Gambit, No Plan

The Daily Escape:

The Mitten Buttes, Monument Valley, UT – photo by Nathan Fitzgerald

Here we go, a new gambit on Iran. The Trump administration moved on Monday to isolate Tehran economically and undercut its power across the Middle East by not extending the waivers of sanctions against countries purchasing Iranian oil.

Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the waivers which allowed eight countries to import Iranian crude oil without being subject to US sanctions will expire on May 2nd. The eight countries included are China, India, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Greece, Italy and Taiwan. From the NYT:

“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in announcing that current sanctions waivers…would expire on May 2, clearing the way for American economic penalties against all companies or financial institutions that continue to take part in transactions linked to buying Iranian oil.”

This decision to stop Iran’s biggest customers (China, who buys half of Iran’s oil exports) along with Japan, South Korea, India and Turkey, is a strike at Tehran’s lifeline. They export one million barrels of oil daily, and it accounts for 40% of their GDP.

Immediately, there were repercussions. Bloomberg reported that Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz, a choke point in the Persian Gulf, while the Washington Examiner reported that the US has positioned a second aircraft carrier in the region.

What Trump seems intent upon is regime change. He campaigned against further wars in the Middle East, but now is catering to Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of whom, along with National Security Advisor John Bolton, are intent upon toppling the Iranian regime.

Trump’s Iran obsession makes us look terrible. Taking pages from the Iraq War playbook, Trump and Pompeo paint a picture of a rogue, outlaw, terrorist regime bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and whose “malign activities” are the cause of all the chaos in the Middle East.

This is straight from the neocon playbook: The one they’ve used before. They are building a case for war. America wants Iran out of Syria. We condemn their support for Hezbollah. We say that Iran supports the Houthis in Yemen, against our great friends, the Saudis.

This latest move is called the doctrine of “Maximum Pressure”. The goal is to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero. Will this gambit force the capitulation, or collapse, of the regime? That seems difficult to believe, but Trump and Bolton may have teed up a war.

Think about this: America is now decreeing to the rest of the world that only we decide which countries get to trade with whom. We’re telling China, the second largest economy in the world, that it lacks the sovereign authority to buy oil from Iran if it so desires.

Which do you think China will do? Both Iran and China appear to hold a better hand than the US. We can’t invade Iran and win. We can’t force China to do anything they refuse to do.

The rest of the world will have trouble understanding what Trump thinks the US can gain from this gambit, because there is no plan behind it. If Iran closes the Straits of Hormuz, will we bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran?

If China, Turkey, India and Japan continue to purchase Iranian oil, will we freeze their dollar-denominated assets in the US? If this leads to the creation of a non-dollar global payments system, what happens to the dollar as the global reserve currency? Has anyone in the Trump administration thought about that?

Once, the US used its reserve currency status and clout (largely) for good. Now, it’s just more bullying by Trump. In the end, the Trump administration may achieve a new level of worldwide cooperation against a common enemy: the USA.

Aren’t Americans sick of this neocon warmongering? Americans don’t want to be drawn into yet another ME action. It isn’t an accident that Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, declared unequivocally in November 2002:

“We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq…”

Is now the chief strategist behind Trump’s drive towards war, with Secretary of State Pompeo, happily riding shotgun.

It doesn’t matter that US intelligence, along with Israeli intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency confirm that Iran is complying with the Iran Nuclear Agreement. Or, that the US invasion of Iraq is the principle cause of Middle East chaos today.

Trump officials will cherry-pick information, package it, and amplify it, exactly as the Bush administration did in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

The real question is whether American voters will fall for this again.

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SOTU: Boring Like the Super Bowl, But Without the Snacks and Beer

The Daily Escape:

The sleeping kid is Joshua Trump. He was bullied for sharing the same last name as, you know. The kid is one Trump who has already mastered “Executive Time”.

 Young Trump kinda sums up the SOTU, along with this:

Certainly looks like an “FU” clap from Nancy Smash. Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times/Getty Images

Wrongo thinks the best part of the 1 ½ hour Trumpshow were the shout outs to people in the audience. They took up about 1/3 of the time, and provided some interest, even if most were ham-handed efforts to represent administration policy. These introductions of citizens in the SOTU audience have been around since Ronald Reagan in 1982, and usually give us a bit of a break from the eternal SOTU spewing.

Other than that? Vox makes a good point:

“There were two truly well-done sections of the speech. One was the troll of the Democrats present around the divisive term ‘socialism.’ The other was a series of moments on the stories of Holocaust survivors and World War II veterans.”

Most of the speech was either recycled campaign themes from 2016, or possible 2020 themes being screen-tested for the Republican faithful. Republicans in the room were very happy to see that Dems wouldn’t clap for the war on abortion, or for Trump’s pledge that America would never be a socialist country.

Wrongo thought that Trump’s review of the economy was effective. It is surprising that he doesn’t reference America’s late-stage economic recovery from the Great Recession more often. That, along with abortion, marauding immigrants, and socialism are setting the stage for what we can expect from Republicans over the next two years.

Why did Trump threaten Democrats about investigations? He said:

“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”

He’s saying that he will obstruct legislation unless Democrats stand down on investigating him. Fat chance. He also said this:

“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics, or ridiculous partisan investigations…”

Nobody should threaten America’s economy for personal reasons. That prompted some boos from Democrats. Even Republicans greeted Trump’s threat to economy with near-silence. And the GOP weren’t totally craven yes boys for Trump elsewhere in the speech. The part about trade was poorly received by GOP members. The part about pulling troops out of Afghanistan and Syria was also met with near-silence.

Nancy Pelosi said afterwards that even though Trump spoke of the honor of being in the House chamber to deliver the State of the Union:

“He threatened the United States Congress not to exercise its constitutional responsibility of oversight.”

The SOTU was as boring as Sunday’s Super Bowl, but without the uncertainty of knowing who would win or lose.

Even before Trump opened his mouth at the SOTU, it was clear that America would be the loser.

 

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Bolton Hijacks US Middle East Policy

The Daily Escape:

Spice market, Grand Bazaar, Istanbul – 2013 photo by Wrongo

The struggle between the neocons and Trump over control of foreign policy has become ridiculous. The WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum reported on Sunday that John Bolton asked the Pentagon to provide military options to strike Iran:

The request, which hasn’t been previously reported, came after militants fired three mortars into Baghdad’s sprawling diplomatic quarter, home to the US Embassy, on a warm night in early September. The shells—launched by a group aligned with Iran—landed in an open lot and harmed no one.

Bolton’s team held a series of meetings to discuss a forceful American response. Their request triggered alarm. The WSJ reported:

People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.

More:

The Pentagon complied with the National Security Council’s request to develop options for striking Iran, the officials said. But it isn’t clear….whether Mr. Trump knew of the request or whether serious plans for a US strike against Iran took shape at that time.

If that isn’t serious enough, the WSJ reported:

Alongside the requests in regards to Iran, the National Security Council asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with options to respond with strikes in Iraq and Syria as well.

Anyone surprised that someone like Bolton, with his neocon bone fides wants war with Iran? Since Bolton took his post last April, the Trump administration has been more confrontational with Iran. Some will say that the Pentagon already has detailed plans drawn up for a strike against Iran, and that this is completely routine for our military.

That may be true, but a request from the White House is a different matter. Bullies love to taunt the weak, but Iran isn’t weak. The Iranian military wouldn’t be the pushover for us that the Iraq army was. They are much better equipped, motivated and have a healthy stock of air defense missiles.

And where is our strategy? Once you send a few bombs into Iran, you’ve started a war, and you never know where it will go. Suppose the Iranians consider (probably correctly) that it was Israel’s influence on the Trump administration that led to the US attack.

And they launch a few missiles at Israel. What would happen next? Would Hezbollah again move against Israel too? If the US attacks Iran, then there is no reason whatsoever for Iran not to attack the various US military units scattered around the Middle East in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

And who would the Russians side with? If Russia intervenes, is the US prepared to lose an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean?

Finally, how would the conflict end? Iran can’t be occupied by the US, and there isn’t a significant loyal Iranian opposition to back.

Surely even Trump must realize that Bolton’s idea is lunacy squared. It would be a major ME escalation, with Trump’s name all over it. It would sink his 2020 chances. How would he justify his response to a few mortars that landed in a car park? How would he justify the certain loss of American lives?

We have to be thankful that Trump didn’t authorize military strikes against Iran, but it is time to revisit our alliances and policies in the ME.

We back our loyal ally Saudi Arabia, and have made Iran our enemy. But let’s compare these two countries: Would you believe that Iran has a Jewish population that feel safe there, and has no interest in living in Israel?

In Saudi Arabia, if you renounce Islam, it can be a death sentence, as we saw with the Saudi young woman who sought asylum in Canada.

Women have careers in Iran, and can drive cars. In fact, there’s a female owned and operated taxi company in Tehran with 700 female drivers. Women in Saudi Arabia have few freedoms.

Iran has taken in refugees from the recent ME wars. Saudi Arabia has taken virtually none from Syria or Yemen, where they are perpetuating a humanitarian nightmare.

Iran is a multicultural country. Saudi Arabia is a medieval monarchy that has been exporting the most extreme version of Islam (Wahhabism) around the world, fueled by their oil money. Many of the jihadis in the past few decades can be traced to Saudi’s Wahhabi teachings.

If you have a choice, and you will in 2020, which country sounds like a more attractive ally for the US?

When are we going to stop our failed “Assad must go”; “Gadhafi must go”; “Saddam must go”; and “Mubarak must go” foreign policy?

We shouldn’t even be thinking about bombing Iran.

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Grading Wrongo’s 2018 Predictions

The Daily Escape:

Military parade in Kremlin – October, 2018 photo by Wrongo

Wrongo dusted off his 2018 predictions and took a look at how he did. In the 23 categories, Wrongo had 16 substantially correct, and 7 incorrect for a 69.5% average. That would have been a “D” at his university. Of course, some grades could have been weighted more heavily than others, but we’re not grading on a curve here at Wrong U.

What follows are the 2018 prediction, followed by the 2018 result:

The US economy as measured by GDP will grow at greater than 2% for 2018.

  • Wrongo wins! The economy grew at an average rate of 3.65% in the four quarters through Sept. 30, 2018.

The US stock market as measured by the S&P 500 Index will end 2018 with little or no growth over year-end 2017.

  • Wrongo loses. Heading into Friday’s trading session, the Dow was down 6.4% in 2018, and the S&P 500 was off 6.9% for the year.

The Trump tax cuts will increase the deficit, and despite Paul Ryan’s best (or worst) efforts to push the country into austerity, that can will be kicked down the road for a few more years.

  • Wrongo wins! The Trump tax cuts increased the deficit to $1 trillion on an annual basis. Paul Ryan leaves office without destroying the social safety net.

The Democrats will not take control of either the House or the Senate in the 2018 mid-term elections.

  • Wrongo happily loses. The Dems took the House by winning 40 seats. They lost a net of two seats in the Senate to the Republicans.

Cyber and other forms of meddling by people who wish our democracy harm will continue in the 2018 elections, to broader effect than in 2016.

  • Wrongo loses. There is no real evidence that cyber meddling had a greater effect on the 2018 election.

Facebook and Google will be held to account for their failure to tamp down disinformation.

  • Wrongo wins! Both are under scrutiny for both their actions and failures to act in 2018.

Trump will continue to flounder as the leader of the Free World, while his “frenemies” in the GOP will continue to try to thwart him on domestic economic legislation.

  • Wrongo loses. The Trump tax cut was a big deal for Republicans, despite the fact that few of them felt that they could run on it in the mid-terms.

There will be some form of bi-partisan accommodation on DACA.

  • Wrongo lost, and so did the nation.

Trump’s public-private infrastructure deal will not pass the Senate.

  • Wrongo wins!

The House will pass legislation that messes with Medicaid, but the Senate will not.

  • Wrongo loses. Trump’s 2019 budget proposal called for a $1.5 trillion cut in Medicaid, but it didn’t pass.

Trump will have the opportunity to appoint another Supreme Court Justice.

  • Wrongo wins, but America lost. We got Kavanaugh ‘ed.

Trump will have a serious medical issue in 2018, but will not leave office, or be temporarily replaced by Pence.

  • Wrongo loses. Trump’s health seems unchanged.

Mueller: By March, MAGA will mean “Mueller Ain’t Going Away”. The storm will crest, a Russiagate conspiracy will be exposed, and crud will fly everywhere. This could lead to the Democrats taking control of one or both Houses.

  • Wrongo wins! It looks like conspiracy, not the collusion Trump talks about.

A few additional Trumpets will go to jail, or be tied up in court. Trump will not be impeached by the 2018 Republicans. 2019 might bring a different calculus.

  • Wrongo wins! Mueller’s team has indicted or gotten guilty pleas from 33 people and three companies that we know of.

Tillerson and possibly other cabinet members will resign to “spend more time with family”.

  • Wrongo wins! At least 40 senior people including 18 who were cabinet-level, resigned.

Middle East:

Syria – by this time next year, the war will be essentially over. Assad will still be in power, and the US will be out of the picture. The Syrian Kurds will switch sides, and collaborate with the Assad regime.

  • Wrongo Wins! We’re pulling out, and the Kurds have switched sides.

Iran – the current protest movement will fizzle out. Neo-cons in Trump’s administration will try to bring us close to war with Iran, but cooler heads at the Pentagon will prevail.

  • Wrongo wins! The protest movement did fizzle. Trump ended our participation in the Nuclear Deal and we re-introduced sanctions. We’re no longer on speaking terms with Iran.

Famine and death in Yemen will continue to be ignored by everyone in the US.

  • Wrongo won, but the Yemenis and world lost.

Russia, China, and Iran will have a “come together” moment, possibly resulting in an agreement for mutual economic cooperation.

  • Wrongo wins! Russia and China are indeed closer together, what with Trump as a common enemy.

Russia will continue to face ongoing battles with the US, but Putin will persist.

  • Wrongo wins! Putin persisted.

Ukraine: The US delivery of anti-tank missiles to the Ukrainian army will not cause them to begin military operations in the east.

  • Wrongo wins! We provided the weapons, they avoided attacks in the east.

Europe: The right-wing authoritarian movements in the Eurozone and England will become a larger factor in their domestic politics. Brexit will occur, and no one in the UK will be happy about the outcome.

  • Wrongo wins! Right-wing political parties are a bigger threat than ever throughout Europe. Brexit happened, with the final outcome still unclear, but no one is happy.

Will there be a war or “incident” with North Korea? Despite the scary politics, the Seoul Winter Olympics will keep the situation from escalating through June. The second half of 2018 could lead to some kind of incident between the US and NorKo, but will not be a nuclear incident.

  • Wrongo wins! There was no scary incident, in fact, relations have been slightly improved.

The year is almost ended, and we can’t pretend that America slid by with more than a D itself. Early in the New Year, we will make a series of predictions for 2019.

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Trump Wants Out of Syria

The Daily Escape:

Interior of Gaudi’s La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain via Archpics

Wrongo is glad that Trump has ordered (what appears to be a precipitous) withdrawal of US troops from Syria. His Republican allies are in an uproar over the decision, comparing it to Obama’s leaving Iraq in 2011.

They are saying that we should be trading our withdrawal for something.  Wrongo isn’t convinced that keeping troops in Syria is somehow necessary for regional stability, or that we need to get something from Iran, or that we need to keep Russia from getting a win.

The WSJ says that what led to announcing a withdrawal was a call last week between Trump and Turkish President Erdogan. Erdogan opposes the US partnership with Kurdish forces in Syria, since he views them as a terrorist force intent on destabilizing Turkey. On several occasions in the past few weeks, Erdogan has threatened to launch an assault on the Syrian Kurds. The US has consistently relied on the Kurdish forces as the most effective fighting force in Syria against ISIS. From the WSJ:

On the call, Mr. Trump told Mr. Erdogan that he no longer wanted to spend money and time in Syria and preferred instead to focus his energy on domestic issues, said an official briefed on the call. Mr. Erdogan assured Mr. Trump that Turkey would continue the fight against Islamic State—and against the Kurds, the official said.

But there was more: Trump’s decision came hours after the State Department approved Turkey’s purchase of $3.5 billion in US Patriot missile-defense systems. Some analysts see the proposed sale as an enticement for Ankara to back off its previously announced plans to purchase a Russian S-400 air-defense system. So, US withdrawal from Syria looks like a kickback to Erdogan for buying $3.5 Billion in Patriot missiles instead of the Russian S400 missile.

The downside is that we are once again abandoning the Kurds to their fate. The Rojava Kurds live in Syrian lands that are contiguous with Turkey, and Erdogan’s plan is to occupy their territory. The Kurds will survive Turkish efforts to roll over them militarily only if they embrace the Syrian government.

Assad’s aim is to control all Syrian territory. He wants the Kurds to be an integral part of Syria, probably more integral than many Syrian Kurds would want.

There may be other side deals with Russia and possibly with Syria. We’ll learn all of them in good time.

Some of this is good news. We needed to make some sense of our occupation of Syria. We needed to do something to improve our relations with Turkey, and it was insane to try to occupy a third of Syria, which risked a possible world war.

From day one, America’s strategic error has been treating Syria as a subordinate part of our global Iran policy. Looking at Damascus through the prism of Tehran never allowed us to examine the risks and opportunities in Syria as they actually were. We never really developed a strategy for what we wanted in Syria, and that is why the Iranians and Russians (and ultimately the Turks) have ended up holding all the cards.

Those three knew what they wanted, and were willing to spend the resources necessary to achieve their goals, while sometimes having to compromise with each other. None of those things can be said for the US’s involvement in Syria. Our sole policy aim was the same old bipartisan consensus we’ve tried since the end of WWII: Get rid of the BAD DUDE in country X because he’s BAAD!

And let’s not worry about what trying to remove him does to the regional balance of power, or to innocent civilians, or to our own culpability in BAD DUDE’s badness. Rinse, Lather, repeat.

Obviously, bringing troops home from Syria is part of Trump’s plan for reelection in 2020. Maybe, Afghanistan will be next. We should expect to see him move left on many key issues over the next year.

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Sunday Cartoon Blogging – October 21, 2018

You knew it would turn out to be this:

The Saudi government acknowledged early Saturday that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed while visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, saying he died during a fist fight.

The announcement, which came in a tweet from the Saudi foreign ministry, said that an initial investigation by the government’s general prosecutor found that Khashoggi had been in discussions with people inside the consulate when a quarrel broke out, escalating to a fatal fist fight.

And who would ever doubt the House of Sawed?

They came, they sawed, and they concocted a story, after two weeks of trying. Trump was correct, it was “Rogue Killers” who did it. Trump told reporters he thought the explanation from the Saudi foreign ministry of Khashoggi’s death was “credible”. He’s one of the few. Wrongo sees very little downside to never again reporting a single word he says.

The Trump Kabuki play rolls on:

We’ve lost the moral high ground:

Another reminder that we’ve lost the moral high ground:

Times change, and nobody’s running on tax cuts in the Mid-terms:

How some people overthink election day:

Sadly, no Republican sounds like a Democrat:

Voter suppression has become a core competency:

 

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Saudi Story About Khashoggi Killing Doesn’t Hold Up

The Daily Escape:

Fall in New England – photo by Karen Randall

Saudi Arabia’s denials have been weakened with new reporting by US media. We may never know exactly why it happened, but bringing a bone saw to an “interrogation” greatly increases the likelihood of something going wrong.

An interesting aspect of the botched assassination of Jamal Khashoggi is the insight it gives us into political issues in America’s relations with Saudi Arabia. As blog reader Fred says, “We’re awash in rogue killers”, so, here is the current state of play. Investigative reporting by the NYT finds that Suspects in Khashoggi case had ties to Saudi Crown Prince: (parenthesis by Wrongo)

One of the suspects identified by Turkey in the disappearance of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was a frequent companion of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS)— seen disembarking from airplanes with him in Paris and Madrid and photographed standing guard during his visits this year to Houston, Boston and the United Nations.

Despite MBS denying knowing anything about what happened to Khashoggi, the NYT’s work shows that the rogue assassins theory doesn’t hold water. On Monday Trump floated the idea that a “rogue killer” was responsible for the deed in Istanbul:

President Donald Trump on Monday repeatedly highlighted the Saudi King’s denial of involvement in the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi, at one point offering up an alternative theory that “rogue killers,” rather than agents of the Saudi regime, were involved.

From Moon of Alabama:

MBS unwittingly did a huge favor to Turkey’s president Erdogan when he sent a crew to abduct or kill Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Erdogan is in a historic geopolitical conflict with Saudi Arabia over supremacy in the Middle East.

Apparently, the Turks had the Saudi consulate bugged. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the Turks know what happened within the consulate, and are using that evidence to squeeze the Saudis.

Despite the trial balloon via Trump, Erdogan leaked pictures of 15 men who had come from Saudi Arabia, and were in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul shortly before Khashoggi visited to get his divorce papers.

Later that day, they flew back on the same two private Saudi jets that had brought them to Istanbul.

At least 8 of the 15 men have been identified as Saudi royal military. At least three are bodyguards of the Saudi clown prince MBS. Obviously MBS himself gave the order for the operation. One of the 15 is Dr. Salah Muhammed Al-Tubaigy, the head of forensic evidence at the Saudi General Security Department. Reports are that he dismembered Khashoggi’s body.

The Saudi government has made no serious attempt to explain why these people, including MBS’s personal body guards, flew to Istanbul and were in the consulate when Khashoggi entered it, and left hours later. The WSJ reports in their coverage of Pompeo’s Saudi meetings:

Complicating investigators’ search inside the Saudi consulate: fresh coats of paint, Erdogan says.

Pompeo has now visited the King and MBS in Saudi Arabia. He’s visited Erdogan and his team in Turkey, and is now on his way back to the US.

The message from Pompeo and Trump is: “Let’s not convict Saudi Arabia until all the facts are in”.

Pompeo has tried to negotiate a deal between Turkey and Saudi Arabia that will limit the damage the killing does to the House of Saud, and MBS. But the Saudis stonewalled Pompeo, while Erdogan has certainly played the grisly audio tape for him.

MBS will try to ride out the storm. He can pressure Trump by holding back oil exports, or stopping the pretend purchases of new arms. Forget the moral high ground, show me the money!

Trump desperately wants to get MBS off the hook, but domestic and international pressure may be too great, particularly as Erdogan continues the drip by drip release of sensational evidence.

Trump will have to do something more than sending Pompeo for what amounts to photo opportunities.

We have no Saudi Arabian ambassador. The White House’s connection to the Saudi rulers largely runs through MBS and Jared Kushner. But that connection is temporarily useless. That explains why Pompeo had to visit.

Only the King can remove MBS, but the King is 82 years old, and not in good health. MBS might well be ruthless enough that the King suddenly dies.

Trump has to decide what to do, and act quickly.

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September 11, 2018

The Daily Escape:

Has it been 17 years already?

A quote from Edward R. Murrow: “No one can terrorize a whole nation, unless we are all his accomplices”, describes where America is today.

As we remember the 17th anniversary of the al-Qaeda attack on the US, we should realize that most of the geo-political problems we face today can trace their root causes to the attacks on 9/11.

And 17 years later, it appears that we have become the accomplices of terror. We can’t let the Muslim world alone. We’ve continued to keep troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’ve beefed up our presence in Africa. The enemy has morphed from al-Qaeda only, to ISIS and al-Qaeda, with branches all across the world.

Just yesterday, Wrongo wrote about our current misadventures in Syria, where we have several thousand troops who were not invited in by the Syrian government. We said that US Syrian policy seems to be teetering on conflict with the other regional powers, Iran and Russia, because we are insisting that Iran exit Syria.

We continue to spend blood and treasure in the Middle East because of 9/11. We were meddling in the ME before 2001, and those efforts helped make bin Laden’s point that the US was responsible both for the suffering the US was causing directly through its sanctions, and the suffering we caused indirectly, by keeping Middle Eastern dictators in power.

To that, bin Laden added a decisive idea: Attack the US to end its power over the Middle East.

Seventeen years later, we are stuck in a Middle East quagmire. We cannot win militarily, but we never lose decisively. On this 17th anniversary, let’s address a few questions to our political and military leaders:

  • Isn’t it improbable that the US military has been unable to extricate itself from Iraq and Afghanistan, its two major wars of this century?
  • Was it improbable that Washington’s post-9/11 policies in the Middle East helped lead to the establishment of the Islamic State’s “Caliphate” in parts of Iraq and Syria and to a movement of almost unparalleled extremism that has successfully “franchised” itself from Libya to Mali, from Nigeria to Afghanistan?

If, on September 12, 2001, you had predicted where we are today, no one would have thought you were credible.

Since 9/11 our presidents have all tried hard to act tough on terror, as have our Senators and Congresspersons. They have all said that our young soldiers are available to go wherever the next Islamist problem arises. So, in the past 17 years, we’ve spent over a trillion dollars to protect the homeland, and while to some degree, we are undoubtedly safer, we haven’t defeated the Islamists.

The current crop of Republicans in the White House are trying more of the same: To convince us that the challenges we face in the world are simple, that we must be realists, aggressively going after what we want. They say it all comes down to “good vs evil.”

Sadly, we really live in an extremely complex world, and ignorance of its complexity is dangerous. Remember in 2006, there were reports that George W. Bush was unaware of the difference between Shia and Sunni as late as two months before the Iraq invasion. Combine that with the ongoing support for the neo-con’s Exceptionalist ideology, and we’ve all paid, and continue to pay, a huge price for their simplistic worldview.

The reality is that when tough talk is divorced from knowledge, you do dumb things, like start wars that diminish our standing in the world, that cost us terribly in lives and money, and that produce zero in the way of political results.

Trump seems ready to place a bet that his tough guy stance on Syria will cause Iran and Russia to back down. Those of us who pay taxes and send our kids off to war, should make it very clear that the American presidency is no place for bullies.

And rather than signifying weakness, traits like thoughtfulness and collaboration are exactly what we want from the Leader of the Free World.

Anyone can say “lock and load, we’re gonna fight!

We need to re-learn how not to fight, and how to exist in an ambiguous world without withdrawing, or being ineffectual. Since 9/11, when things get tough, our politicians strut around with chins out. They prefer form over substance and in the end, they’re just praying that it all works out, but it hasn’t.

Remember the 9/11 heroes and its victims.

But let’s stop listening to those who pander to our fears, and vote them out of office.

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