Daniel Larison

Trump and Normalization with Cuba

Normalization with Cuba seems likely to be another Obama policy that will be undone by the incoming administration:

President-elect Donald Trump’s vow to “terminate” normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba if he can’t get “a better deal” from Havana may leave him at odds with many in the U.S. business community and in deeply Republican states.

The thing to remember with Trump’s “better deal” rhetoric is that he says this about every negotiation to create the impression that he is not absolutely opposed to reaching an agreement, but then he demands concessions that the other side is never going to give. There is usually no “better deal” to be had, but Trump can’t admit that because it would require giving Obama’s people credit for doing something right and because it eliminates the need for his supposedly superior deal-making skills. That ends up putting him in a position no different from that of hard-line rejectionists, but it creates the illusion at the beginning that he is more willing to compromise.

Reversing Obama’s policy so soon after it started would be a serious mistake. The opening to Cuba has only barely begun and needs to be given time to work. Now that Fidel Castro is gone, it should be even easier to continue a policy of engagement with Cuba. It also makes sense politically. Normalizing relations with Cuba is more broadly popular than other Obama policies that Trump has campaigned against, and there is more Republican support for Obama’s changes to Cuba policy than there is for many of his other initiatives. Trump doesn’t have to cater to hard-liners on this issue unless he wants to. If Trump doesn’t want the policy to continue, he can reverse everything Obama did. That would be unfortunate for the U.S., and it would be even worse for Cuba, and it would start Trump’s tenure off with a senseless blunder that will further sour relations with the rest of the hemisphere.

Joshua Keating notes that reversing Obama’s opening to Cuba would have consequences for the U.S. in the wider region:

Trump’s moves could also have wider diplomatic implications for the U.S., particularly in Latin America, where there’s significant public support for the Castros and the embargo (which is almost universally opposed internationally) has long been a source of tension. Ecuador’s left-wing President Rafael Correa suggested in October that if Trump were elected, like George W. Bush before him, that would lead to the election of more left-wing governments in the region. Trump is already mistrusted and disliked there because of his immigration rhetoric, notes Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, adding that “if Trump acts on his Cuba rhetoric, I think it’s going to create a lot of strong reactions and anti-Yanqui feeling. And not just on the left.”

Trump would be wise to continue the opening with Cuba in recognition that engagement is the best way to advance U.S. interests there. That engagement isn’t necessarily going to lead to swift political or even economic change in Cuba, and significant political change may be a long time yet in coming. Regardless, continued and increased engagement will gradually strengthen the ties between our countries and improve conditions inside Cuba while benefiting American businesses. That is a good deal for all concerned, and it shouldn’t be abandoned for the sake of chasing after a “better deal” that doesn’t exist.

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The Hunt for Trump’s Secretary of State Continues

(Photo by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell) (Released)
(Photo by U.S. Navy Chief Petty Officer Joshua Treadwell) (Released)

Giuliani reportedly remains the favorite for Secretary of State, but he might not get it:

CBS News’ Major Garrett reported Tuesday morning that Giuliani is still the likeliest pick — but that as Mr. Trump meets with Romney over dinner in Midtown Manhattan tonight, it’s hard to discount Romney as a top pick as well.

“I’m told that Giuliani is still the leading candidate but this dinner with Romney tonight … does add to the atmospheric drama around this whole process,” Garrett said on CBSN. The Trump team’s effort outreach to Romney began as just a reconciliation attempt, but “Trump has now taken it to another level, and until he firmly decides who his secretary of state is you can’t rule Romney out.”

It says a lot about the state of the Republican Party’s foreign policy that the top two contenders for the position at State have no relevant experience and seem to be deeply hostile to diplomatic engagement itself. Romney’s presidential campaign was defined to a large extent by his rejection of all efforts at engaging Russia, Iran, or any other rival or pariah government, and Giuliani has made no secret of his contempt for agreements produced by successful U.S. diplomacy. It would be very telling if Trump chooses a Secretary of State who holds most of the work that the State Department in such low regard, and by selecting either one he will be signaling that his foreign policy is likely to be very confrontational. Choosing Giuliani would be particularly bad news for Iran policy, as Ellen Laipson reminds us today:

Many—including the new national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and secretary of state contender Rudy Giuliani—have pre-existing strong views on Iran that go far beyond the debate over the nuclear agreement. They see Iran entirely in adversarial terms, and some have hinted at resurrecting “regime change” as an American strategic goal. That is something that U.S. presidents have walked away from for over 20 years, acknowledging that change in Iran will have to come from within.

Flynn has connected Iran, a majority-Shiite country, to all manner of current terrorist threats, despite the fact that al-Qaida and the so-called Islamic State are emphatically Sunni. While passionately decrying radical Islam as the main threat to the U.S., he has curiously singled out Iran as the country of greatest concern. Giuliani has associated himself with the Mujahedin-e Khalq, or MEK, the exiled Iranian leftist opposition group that has paid prominent Americans to speak at their annual rallies in Paris.

The third alternative that is being mentioned now is former Gen. David Petraeus. Unlike Giuliani and Romney, Petraeus is at least arguably qualified for the job from his time running Centcom, but his guilty plea for mishandling classified information ought to rule him out automatically. We should also remember that Petraeus has entertained the idea of recruiting “moderate” members from Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, which at the very least demonstrates very poor judgment. Petraeus has long been an advocate for greater U.S. involvement in Syria, and was still talking about establishing a “no-fly zone” there as recently as last month. Escalation in Syria is the last thing the U.S. needs to be doing, and it becomes more likely if Petraeus is part of the administration. Especially if Trump brings in another retired general to run the Pentagon, putting Petraeus at State would also be at least one ex-general too many in a top national security position.

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Nikki Haley and the U.N.

Richard Gowan comments on Gov. Nikki Haley’s nomination to be ambassador to the U.N.:

Haley, who is by all accounts ambitious and will want to be seen as more than just a Trump proxy, will hopefully try to score some real foreign policy successes at the U.N. rather than simply play to American chauvinist instincts by trashing the place.

Haley’s nomination last week struck me as odd for a couple reasons. The first is that she was a vocal critic of Trump during the primaries, which makes it a bit strange that he would reward her with any position at all, much less one of the first jobs to be announced. The second and more important reason is that she has no foreign policy experience to speak of. Of course, when the president-elect and many of the likely candidates for Secretary of State also have none, that may not be so surprising. Even so, it is worth noting that Haley is unlike most of her predecessors in having virtually no experience with or public record on any of the issues she’ll be asked to address as ambassador.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that Haley won’t do a good job, but it does mean that it will be a steeper learning curve for her than it was for many previous ambassadors. Even when the ambassador to the U.N. does have a background of working on these issues, he or she is still hostage to the priorities of the White House and those of the other major powers on the Security Council. Since the job is already a mostly thankless one, the lack of prior experience will just make it harder to have any success.

There is no particular reason to think that Haley is closely aligned with Trump’s views, and her past support for Rubio would suggest just the opposite. That raises the possibility that she would have little influence with the president, but would still be stuck defending administration policies that she doesn’t really support. Regardless, Haley will be linking her fortunes to those of Trump’s foreign policy, and she seems unlikely to benefit politically at home from the association. If she has ambitions for other offices, this may prove to be a rather fruitless detour for the next few years.

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Flynn and the War on Yemen

Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana'a, May 2015
Ibrahem Qasim/Flickr: air strike in Sana’a, May 2015

Michael Horton sees the war on Yemen as a litmus test for the Trump administration:

What President-elect Trump does—or doesn’t—do about the war in Yemen will tell us a great deal about what his foreign policy in the Middle East may look like. It will also tell us which set of advisors he is most inclined to listen to: pragmatists, like incoming National Security Advisor retired Lt. General Mike Flynn, who prioritize the fight against militant Salafism, or neoconservatives who see Iranian influence as the primary threat to regional stability.

I agree that Trump’s approach to the U.S.-backed war there will tell us something important about his foreign policy, but I’m not sure how Flynn qualifies as a “pragmatist” especially when it comes to Iran. Flynn claims to believe that the U.S. is engaged in a global war against “a working coalition that extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.” He and co-author Michael Ledeen go on to say that “Iran is the linchpin of the alliance, its centerpiece.” If we take Flynn to mean what he and Ledeen say here, how can we see him as a “pragmatist” in opposition to anti-Iranian hard-liners? For that matter, why would a “pragmatist” write a book with such a fanatical hard-liner and Iran hawk like Ledeen in the first place? For his part, Ledeen wrongly and predictably treats the Houthis as nothing more than an extension of Iran. Why would we think that Flynn disagrees with his co-author on this? I keep coming back to Ledeen and Flynn’s book because we have the next president’s top adviser publicly giving us the outline of his worldview at length, but it doesn’t seem to receive much attention.

If we don’t take his book as a reliable source of his views, we still have Flynn’s own testimony before Congress in which he makes clear his hostility towards Iran and states his opinion that they are responsible for stoking the conflict in Yemen. Since Flynn exaggerates the threat from Iran and imagines a global Iran-centered “alliance” where none exists, it is unlikely that he accepts the reality that Iran’s role in Yemen has been and remains negligible. The only thing Trump has said about the war to date confirms that he shares the erroneous view promoted by the Saudis that Iran was and is seeking to take over Yemen:

Now they’re going into Yemen, and if you look at Yemen, take a look…they’re going to get Syria, they’re going to get Yemen, unless…trust me, a lot of good things are going to happen if I get in, but let’s just sort of leave it the way it is. They get Syria, they get Yemen. Now they didn’t want Yemen, but you ever see the border between Yemen and Saudi Arabia? They want Saudi Arabia. So what are they going to have? They’re gonna have Iraq, they’re gonna have Iran, they’re gonna have Iraq, they’re gonna have Yemen, they’re gonna have Syria, they’re gonna have everything!

Trump probably got this idea from Flynn, or he picked it up from somewhere else and Flynn would be unlikely to correct it. I hope Trump ignores Flynn’s hard-line views on Iran and makes “calculated, pragmatic, and well-balanced” decisions on U.S. support for the war on Yemen and many other issues. Choosing Flynn for a top national security position strongly suggests that he won’t.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Flynn has it in for Iran. Jim Lobe reviews some of Michael Flynn’s testimony before Congress and lists the many quotes that reflect his intense hostility to Iran.

Ideology is supplanting intelligence. Paul Pillar comments on the appointments of Michael Flynn and Mike Pompeo.

Islamophobia is not a strategy. Bloomberg’s editors criticize the hard-line and anti-Muslim rhetoric coming from Trump’s national security appointees.

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The Dreadful Choice: Romney or Giuliani for Secretary of State?

There is a quarrel in the GOP over who should receive the Secretary of State nomination:

Rival factions of Republicans are locked in an increasingly caustic and public battle to influence President-elect Donald J. Trump’s choice for secretary of state, leaving a prominent hole in an otherwise quickly formed national security team that is unlikely to be filled until next week at the earliest.

The debate inside Mr. Trump’s wide circle of formal and informal advisers — pitting supporters of one leading contender, Mitt Romney, against those of another, Rudolph W. Giuliani — has led to the kind of dramatic airing of differences that characterized Mr. Trump’s unconventional and often squabbling campaign team.

The striking thing about this quarrel is that it has essentially nothing to do with the contenders’ qualifications for the position in question. This is not an argument over whether it would be better to choose an experienced foreign policy hand or to pick a political ally, but rather it is a fight over which unqualified individual with no foreign policy experience to speak of should get the job. The Trump loyalists’ objections to Romney are not based on policy differences, nor are they even questioning Romney’s managerial competence in running a government department, but are focused entirely on Romney’s opposition to Trump during the campaign. Likewise, the argument for Giuliani is not that he is better-prepared to be Secretary of State, but simply that he was on board with Trump early on and served as a loyal surrogate.

Lost in all of this is that neither of them is remotely qualified to do the job, and choosing either would represent the elevation of someone with dangerous foreign policy judgment. One is reflexively hawkish, and the other is absurdly belligerent. One tends to be more fixated on provoking Russia, while the other is in league with a deranged cult and obsesses over the threat from Iran. Both are remarkably ignorant about foreign policy issues, and neither one has any business heading the department responsible for our relations with the rest of the world, but it seems that we’re going to end up with one or the other. Republicans may prefer one or the other based on their views of Trump, and some rightly prefer neither, but whichever one wins this contest our foreign policy and our interests will be the losers.

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The MEK and Its American Fans

Dan Benjamin reviews the history of the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) and its support from many American former officials and politicians:

Even more unsettling was the sheer creepiness of the group. While Maryam Rajavi was presiding over enormous conferences with American political celebrities and seas of smiling, waving people in Paris, at Camp Ashraf, the MeK leadership treated its people appallingly. Visitors, including from the U.N., painted a picture of relentless intimidation, shaming and coercion of the inhabitants by camp leaders [bold mine-DL]. The MeK, which is often described as a cult, had a long history of requiring that its members divorce and remain celibate. Now, it leaders were resolved that the group would remain together and none of the members would be relocated individually or in small groups—the Ashraf group was a bargaining chip that the leadership was cynically using for future leverage.

One of the more troubling things about American MEK supporters is their willingness to whitewash the group’s past as well as its present-day behavior. They aren’t content to work with an avowedly bad group against a common enemy, but feel compelled to pretend that the group is upstanding and noble. At an appearance in Paris last year, Giuliani called the cult leader Maryam Rajavi a “hero,” which either suggests that his understanding of heroism is extremely poor or that he will say anything to get paid.

It is hardly the first time that supporters of regime change in another country have aligned themselves with a disreputable group to pursue their goal, but the sheer dishonesty or credulity required to present a totalitarian cult as a group dedicated to freedom and democracy is nonetheless remarkable. This is perhaps the most insidious part of the MEK boosterism we have seen over the last few years: endorsing their makeover as a “secular, democratic” group and pretending that a group that has virtually no support inside Iran is the country’s “real” opposition. This is not only false, but it also does a real disservice to the Iranian opposition in Iran that wants reform rather than regime change. It also demonstrates contempt for and hostility to the people of Iran, since this same group is responsible for killing so many Iranians when it was serving Saddam Hussein. Above all, it attempts to promote the lie that a policy of regime change is supported by Iranians in order to lend that dangerous and destructive goal the appearance of some legitimacy.

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Flynn and Ledeen’s Imaginary ‘Alliance’

Paul Pillar isn’t impressed with Trump’s national security appointments so far. Here he comments on Flynn’s views:

Iran is another subject on which Flynn displays far more simplistically expressed emotion than any careful attention to facts and the pros and cons of U.S. policy options. His attitude is demonstrated in Congressional testimony in June 2015, which can be fairly summarized as saying that Iran is bad in every respect and we should have no dealings with it on anything. (Jim Lobe has collated some of the lowlights from this statement). Flynn stated that “regime change in Tehran is the best way to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons program”—with no further elaboration on how this would be brought about, leaving us to suppose that it is the Iraq 2003 model. He has given no indication since then of dropping his blanket opposition to the negotiated agreement that limits Iran’s nuclear program and has successfully been in operation for more than a year, nor does he show any awareness of the U.S. intelligence community’s public judgment that Iran had stopped any nuclear weapons program several years before he was testifying.

Among other things, Flynn claims to know that “Iran has every intention of building a nuclear weapon” despite the fact that their government abandoned any attempt to do so over a decade ago. He claims that Iran’s government has stated this intention “many times,” but the truth is that their government has consistently denied ever seeking to build such a weapon. Many of the things that Flynn asserts in his testimony are demonstrably untrue, but they are part of a pattern of consistently exaggerating the threat from Iran and ignoring evidence that contradicts his alarmist assessments. Later in his testimony, he says this about Iran’s relations with certain other states:

Just look at the cooperation with North Korea, China and Russia. Connect those dots, and you get the outline of a global alliance aimed at the U.S., our friends, and our allies.

This is not a case of “connecting dots” at all. It is an invention of an “alliance” where none exists on the basis of some very weak evidence. There is some limited cooperation between these states, but they are not allies nor do they regularly work together as if they were. We see in Flynn’s testimony a nod towards the imaginary global “alliance” that Flynn and Ledeen concoct in their book (here is a video of the co-authors talking about the book from earlier this year), so this is a view that he already held over a year ago. That brings me back to the conclusion I reached over the summer when I first started writing about Flynn:

The fact that he believes (or claims to believe) things as obviously false global “alliance” of villains should make it clear that he is happy to indulge and recycle extremely dangerous and foolish ideological talking points. That’s not someone any of us should want working in or advising a future administration.

Unfortunately, he will be advising the next president in a very influential position, and we should have no illusions about the quality of advice Flynn will be giving him.

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Mattis, Trump, and Iran

Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom
Olivier Douliery/Sipa USA/Newscom

Former Marine Gen. James Mattis keeps being mentioned as a possible nominee for Secretary of Defense:

The clearest consensus inside the transition team is for Gen. Mattis, a former war commander who has long voiced concerns about the security threat posed by Iran.

Choosing Mattis would be fairly unusual and I believe it would be the first time in decades that a recently retired general was named to the position. Doing that would require a special bill to permit a recently retired military officer to serve as Defense Secretary. This was the same issue that cropped up when Flynn’s name was being mentioned in connection with the job. The law prohibits a newly retired officer from taking the job for seven years, and Mattis retired in 2013, so there would need to be an exemption passed by Congress:

If precedent holds, Congress would have to pass a law to exempt him from the requirement.

That’s what Congress did in 1950, when President Harry Truman nominated Gen. George C. Marshall for defense secretary. At the time, officers had to be out of active duty for at least 10 years before heading the Department of Defense.

Assuming this hurdle could be overcome, picking Mattis would continue the pattern of filling top national security posts with people fixated on and hostile to Iran. Mattis identified Iran as “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East” in a speech in April. He also asserted that “Iran is not an enemy of ISIS,” which would come as news to both. He went on say this:

I would just point out one question for you to look into. What is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One. And it’s Iran. That is just more than happenstance, I’m sure.

That happens to be false, but even if the claim were true it is a bizarre, conspiratorial sort of reasoning to use. If a country isn’t being attacked by a terrorist group, that doesn’t mean that its government is somehow in league with them or on the same side, and it doesn’t say much for Mattis that he thinks there is something significant about this “fact” that happens to be wrong. Iran hawks often seem determined not to accept that Iran is opposed to and actively fighting against ISIS and other jihadist groups like them, and so they will try to explain away the obvious antagonism between them. It doesn’t bode well for U.S. policy towards Iran and the region as a whole if Trump picks Mattis.

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Trump and the War on Yemen

Michael Brendan Dougherty proposes that Trump should try to end the war in Yemen:

But if Trump does want to bring some positive change to U.S. foreign policy, he should seek to end the war in Yemen.

Halting U.S. support for the atrocious Saudi-led war would be a smart move and a welcome change, and I hope it happens. The Saudi-led coalition depends on U.S. weapons and refueling to carry on their campaign, and they would be hard-pressed to continue without that assistance. Ending U.S. backing for the war could force the coalition and the Hadi government to accept a compromise that they have refused to consider so far. I’m skeptical that Trump would do this for a few reasons.

If there is one thing that seems to unite Trump and his various advisers, it is hostility to Iran. The Saudis and their allies have sold the war on Yemen as an intervention against supposed Iranian “expansionism,” and they have many people in the U.S. willing to repeat that lie. Iran’s role in Yemen is and remains negligible, but Iran hawks here in the U.S. don’t let the facts get in the way of alarmist propaganda. Based on the only thing he has had to say about the war, Trump appears to buy into that propaganda and doesn’t understand what’s going on there, and I doubt the anti-Iranian hard-liner Flynn would be inclined to tell him that it isn’t true. Maybe if someone explained to him that the war has strengthened Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), he would see how U.S. support for the war is undermining our security and that of the region, but who among his advisers would see it that way or even care?

If Trump saw U.S. backing for the war as a bad deal, perhaps he could be persuaded to cut off the Saudis and their allies anyway, but there doesn’t appear to be anyone in Trump’s circle that views it this way. Bob Corker is Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Trump ally, and he has been a vocal proponent of continued backing for the war. He called on Obama to “close the daylight” with the Gulf states, so he certainly isn’t going to advise Trump to pull the plug on them. During the debate over the last arms sale to the Saudis, Corker went so far as to invent a new map of the region in an effort to peddle the nonsense that Iran was threatening to take over Yemen. On top of that, Trump’s transition team is loaded with people with ties to the defense industry, and those are the businesses that stand to benefit from continued arms sales to the Saudis and other coalition members. As we saw earlier this year, Congress is also full of people in addition to Corker willing to recite the Saudi line, and they would object to ending U.S. support.

Trump’s election inadvertently exposed the absurdity of U.S. support for the war in that his victory caused at least one former Saudi official to call on him not to rip up the nuclear deal. Of course, the official justification for backing their war on Yemen was to placate the Saudis and their allies because of their supposed dissatisfaction with the deal, but this never made much sense. It has always seemed more likely that the Saudis and the other Gulf states feigned concern over the deal to extract more support from Washington, and in this they were entirely successful. Maybe if Trump recognized how the U.S. is being scammed by bad clients he would withdraw the support Obama provided, but it seems more likely that halting the war on Yemen will be an even lower priority for the new administration than it was for Obama.

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