Daniel Larison

Trump and Mohammed bin Salman

Karen Elliott House’s paean to Trump’s upcoming visit to Saudi Arabia is something to behold. Here she gushes about the similarities between the president and Mohammed bin Salman (MBS):

The young prince and the president have much in common. Both are outsiders, brash, unorthodox and new to politics. Each faces strong opposition at home. Both seek to spur economic growth by reducing the role of government. And each is fighting orthodoxy: MBS, as the prince is known, wants to curb the role of religion and tradition, which inhibit modernization, while Mr. Trump battles leftist orthodoxy and political correctness. Both are smart marketers.

It’s not clear which person should be more insulted by this comparison. Trump and MBS are both remarkably incompetent in their respective roles, but MBS has done even less than Trump to earn his current position. Neither one has had any success in their attempts at “reform,” and both have presided over their own debacles. If the favorite son of the Saudi king is an “outsider,” the word doesn’t mean anything at all. The so-called “outsider” has been elevated to the heights of the Saudi government, and in return he has presided over a costly, indefensible, and failed war. The desperate effort to build up Salman’s incompetent son as a credible leader would be funny if it didn’t have such horrible consequences for millions of people in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

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Lieberman Shouldn’t Be FBI Director

Senate Democrats don’t like Lieberman for FBI Director:

President Donald Trump may be dramatically miscalculating how much support Sen. Joe Lieberman has among his former Democratic colleagues to become FBI director.

Some Senate Democrats hold a grudge against Lieberman for his rightward turn and opposition to some of President Barack Obama’s agenda late in his Senate career. Others say even though they respect Lieberman, the FBI director should not be a former politician. And all Democratic senators interviewed for this story said the former Connecticut senator lacks the kind of experience needed for the post.

Maybe Trump and his advisers thought that Lieberman would be more agreeable to members of the other party because he used to be a Democrat, but they evidently didn’t remember that Lieberman’s break with his party was a particularly bitter and contentious one. Lieberman abandoned his party after he lost his 2006 primary to Ned Lamont, and he lost that election mainly because of his zealous support for the Iraq war and his perceived closeness to Bush in connection with that. Lieberman still won the general election as an independent, but from then on he was one of the least-liked politicians among Democratic voters. He even backed McCain in the 2008 election, and basically did as much as he could to burn bridges with his former party during Obama’s first term.

Even if there weren’t all this bad blood between him and Democrats, he is a bad choice for the job for the reasons I laid out earlier. Quin Hillyer sums up many of these reasons in a post this evening:

First, at exactly a moment when the political atmosphere is toxic and when the prior director was widely criticized for appearing to tip the political scales in the midst of a national election, this is precisely not the time to hire for the very first time an FBI director whose background is largely elective/political. For all of Lieberman’s vaunted bipartisanship, he still built a career as a politician and has a habit of thinking like one. This is not good.

Second, the nature of the job itself is not that of a mere CEO type in the way that some of the lesser cabinet posts are. This is a job for a person not just broadly familiar with, but extremely well versed in, the tools of law-enforcement investigations, the technical interplay of various federal agencies, and the granular details of patient inquiry. Lieberman, despite his long government résumé, has not a single day of federal law-enforcement experience. If he were named director, he would be the first person ever to hold that post without prior Justice Department experience.

Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare listed reasons why Lieberman was a bad choice in a series of tweets earlier today. Here are a couple:

If Trump goes ahead with a Lieberman nomination, he will be choosing someone widely regarded as unqualified for the job, and Lieberman will encounter significant resistance during the confirmation process.

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Report: Joe Lieberman Is Trump’s Leading Choice for FBI Director

This report on the leading contender to be the next FBI Director should be a joke, but it isn’t:

Joe Lieberman, the former Democratic vice-presidential nominee, is the frontrunner to be named FBI director, according to several White House officials and advisers.

Senior administration officials have told others in the last 12 hours that Trump is expected to pick Lieberman to replace FBI director James Comey, who was abruptly fired by Trump last week.

It’s not clear what qualifies Lieberman to head any law enforcement agency, much less one as important as the FBI. Even if Lieberman had the qualifications to head a major federal law enforcement agency, his record is full of instances where he has favored expanding surveillance and trampling on civil liberties in the name of security. That record alone should make us wary of letting Trump install him in this position. But another important problem with a Lieberman nomination is that he is senior counsel at a law firm that Trump has routinely used in the past:

Having left the Senate in 2013, Lieberman, a Democrat-turned-Independent, is now senior counsel at the firm Kasowitz, Benson, Torres and Friedman, which has offices in nine cities.

The firm has represented Trump in matters for years.

One of the firm’s partners has been called Trump’s “go-to guy,” and the firm is well-known for its connections to Trump:

“In the past, people knew Kasowitz Benson Torres and Friedman as a firm that was full of ‘superior legal minds,’” Staci Zaretsky of the legal news website Above The Law wrote in March, referencing a quote from a 2011 lawsuit against the firm. “These days, people know Kasowitz Benson Torres and Friedman as a firm with close ties to President Donald Trump, with two name partners deeply entrenched in his regime.” [bold mine-DL]

On the face of it, the fact that Trump is seriously considering installing someone from this firm as FBI Director looks shady. Lieberman is already a strange pick for the position, and his employment at a Trump-connected law firm would make his selection even more questionable. The fact that Trump reportedly prefers Lieberman over other, obviously more qualified candidates, including the current acting director, should make everyone view a Lieberman nomination with extreme skepticism.

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Report: U.S. Bombs Pro-Regime Forces in Syria

The U.S. reportedly bombed pro-regime forces in Syria earlier today:

A US defence official told the FT the US carried out a strike in southern Syria on Thursday.

“A coalition air unit struck a pro-regime convoy in the vicinity of Tanf,” said the official, who added that coalition forces have been operating at Tanf “training local vetted Syrian opposition forces to fight Isis.”

The report says that the local commander “assessed they posed a threat to coalition forces” and ordered the attack. If that’s the case, it might be an isolated incident, but it shows how easily the U.S. can be pulled into a new conflict because of its support for opposition groups inside Syria and the decision to expand the unauthorized war on ISIS into Syria. For the second time this year, U.S. forces have committed an act of war against the Syrian government and its allies inside their own country, and there has been no authorization from Congress or the U.N. for any of it. As long as the U.S. keeps backing anti-regime insurgents in Syria and is willing to attack pro-regime forces as part of that support, there will be a danger that an incident like this could lead to a larger conflict with the Syrian government and its patrons. Each time U.S. forces attack the Syrian government and their allies, it becomes more likely that someone on their side will retaliate against U.S. forces in Syria or Iraq, and before we know it we could be mired in fighting against several new enemies that we didn’t have before. This is one of many reasons why the U.S. should be looking for ways to disentangle itself from Syria’s war.

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Flynn’s Turkish Connection

National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn (WPRI /YouTube)

McClatchy offers up a damning report about Mike Flynn:

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

Flynn used his position as Trump’s top adviser on national security to affect U.S. policy in accordance with the preferences of the foreign government he was working for. It doesn’t matter that the government happened to be an ally–he was taking money as a lobbyist for another government while directly influencing U.S. foreign policy. This shows that Flynn was compromised from the very start of the transition, and it confirms that Trump was wrong to put him in such an important national security position.

The New York Times outdoes the McClatchy report:

Michael T. Flynn told President Trump’s transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign, according to two people familiar with the case.

Despite this warning, which came about a month after the Justice Department notified Mr. Flynn of the inquiry, Mr. Trump made Mr. Flynn his national security adviser. The job gave Mr. Flynn access to the president and nearly every secret held by American intelligence agencies.

The curious thing about the Flynn-Turkey connection is that it was a very badly-kept secret. Details of Flynn’s connection to a firm that worked on behalf of the Turkish government were known at least by mid-November, and there were hints that something fishy was going before that when he began singing Erdogan’s praises and demanding Gulen’s extradition.

Despite all this, Trump made Flynn his National Security Advisor knowing that he was suspected of working as an undeclared lobbyist for a foreign government, and then during the transition Flynn used his position to affect U.S. policy to suit the Turkish government’s preferences. This is a startling example of the Trump transition team’s vetting failure, and it underscores why Flynn’s removal from his position as National Security Advisor was a good thing for the country.

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The Saudis and Trump

Elizabeth Dickinson reports on how the Saudis are trying to win over Trump. I was struck by this section:

Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a powerful 30-something technocrat who manages everything from the Defense Ministry to economic reform, has spearheaded an effort to fortify the relationship. The deputy crown prince visited Washington in March to have lunch with Trump, in a meeting Mohammed bin Salman’s advisors proclaimed as a “historical turning point” in bilateral ties.

Insiders say the young prince sees a kindred spirit in Jared Kushner, a fellow 30-something with an oversized portfolio [bold mine-DL]. Kushner sat in on Trump’s Oval Office meeting with Mohammed bin Salman in March, and Saudi watchers are keen to see if he joins the president’s delegation to the kingdom this week.

There is a certain similarity between the two men in that both have been entrusted by their countries’ respective heads of state with responsibilities for which they are not remotely qualified, and both have been given great influence solely because of their relationship to the man in charge. The U.S. is fortunate that we are not (yet) reduced to putting children of the president in charge of the Defense Department, but the Saudi king did just that with his favorite son. Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) has been put in charge of many things since he was elevated to deputy crown prince, but the most significant of these has been the foolish decision to put him in charge of the Saudi defense ministry and the war on Yemen. Recently, he reminded everyone of how delusional the Saudi leadership is about that war and their ability to win it, but his reputation in Washington doesn’t seem to have been damaged by that.

If MBS is the public face of building closer U.S.-Saudi ties, he is also the poster boy for Saudi military incompetence and an atrocious war that the U.S. has shamefully backed to the hilt. His rise to prominence is a sign of much of what is wrong with the Kingdom, and that should be taken as a warning that the U.S. should be distancing itself from Riyadh rather than looking for ways to build a closer connection. If our leaders were wise, the prince’s attempt to “to spearhead the effort to regain Riyadh’s lost influence in Washington” would be rebuffed and the entire relationship would be reassessed.

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A ’25th Amendment Solution’ Is the Wrong Thing to Do

Jonathan Bernstein explains why a “25th Amendment solution” for Trump is the wrong thing to do:

The main reason not to use it is that the real chief complaint against Donald Trump is that he threatens U.S. democracy not (chiefly) by breaking laws, but by undermining the norms which are just as important to democratic governance as the laws and constitutional provisions. And therefore efforts to remove him should be especially careful to abide by those norms [bold mine-DL]. The 25th amendment is for use in Wilson-like cases where the president is really, truly incapacitated. While mental illness could qualify, the many armchair diagnoses we’ve seen of Trump simply do not clear the constitutional bar.

Invoking the 25th Amendment in this case wouldn’t just do violence to norms, but would make a mockery of the plain meaning of the language of the Constitution. Trump has demonstrated remarkable incompetence, but he is not so physically or mentally disabled that he can’t discharge the duties of his office. He may discharge those duties badly, but that is an entirely different question and one that the amendment was never intended to address. Going that route would also require more support in the House than an impeachment vote would, so it would be even less likely to “work” in removing Trump. It would be an illegitimate use of this part of the Constitution, and most members of Congress wouldn’t support it anyway.

If there is a need to remove a sitting president, impeachment by the House and conviction by the Senate are the most appropriate means available. If Congress can’t or won’t use those means, the only other acceptable alternative is to persuade the president to resign of his own volition. Under present circumstances, the latter method might be the most likely to succeed. The temptation to abuse or skirt constitutional rules to remove a bad president is always present in any democratic country, but it is something to be resisted. If we start giving in to that temptation, we really will end up with a banana republic. The damage to our constitutional system will be far greater as a result than anything that one bad president can do in a single term.

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Trump’s Islam Speech Is a Mistake

One of the possible pitfalls of Trump’s upcoming foreign trip is the speech he intends to give in Saudi Arabia on Islam:

A speech was added in Saudi Arabia to provide an “inspiring yet direct” message to the Islamic world, according to national security adviser H.R. McMaster. That’s an echo of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, who addressed Muslims in Cairo in his first major speech on foreign soil.

A second address in Israel, which local newspapers reported would take place at the ancient archeological site of Masada, was moved indoors to a museum. Transporting Trump to the mountaintop overlooking the Dead Sea would have required the use of a cable car.

Both speeches were being drafted by Trump’s policy adviser Stephen Miller, who helped write Trump’s convention and inaugural addresses, with input from the large collection of advisers who are helping to plan the trip: son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, McMaster and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell.

Miller is a dubious choice for writing the first speech because of his views on Islam, but the speech itself seems ill-advised no matter who is writing it. A comparison with Obama’s Cairo speech is instructive. Obama delivered that speech very early in his presidency, just as Trump will be doing, and he managed to say just enough to raise expectations that would never be fulfilled. Everything Obama did from then on was judged against what people thought he had been promising in the speech, and invariably his policies fell short. If Trump wants to offer an “inspiring” message, his later policies are almost certain to prove disappointing. We have been told that the “speech is intended to unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization,” but that is hard to credit when the U.S. under Trump is taking sides in wars that pit Muslims against Muslims.

Obama had a much more receptive audience, because he was not perceived to be hostile to Muslims as such, but Trump is perceived that way because he usually is. Trump will have a harder task than Obama did, because he first has to assuage fears about his hostility but still has to take hard-line positions to satisfy his supporters at home. That would be a difficult balancing act for any politician to pull off, and I doubt that Trump is capable of doing it. Since Trump isn’t exactly known for his grasp of nuance, he is likely to indulge in excessive flattery of his hosts or commit multiple diplomatic errors (or both).

There is also something misguided in having American presidents come to predominantly Muslim countries to tell them about their own religion. This has been true when Bush and Obama wanted to hold forth on this subject, and it is still true. At best, anything our president says will come off as boilerplate or condescending, so that the speech is quickly forgotten and has no effect. At worst, he is going to insult the intended audience and provoke a backlash, and that will make things worse than they were before. The location for the speech is also unfortunate, since Riyadh is at the heart of one of the most obnoxious strains of Islam in the world, and giving this particular speech there could be interpreted as giving a boost to Wahhabism, which is the last thing that Trump or any other president should do while visiting Saudi Arabia.

The problem with Trump’s Islam speech is related to the administration’s view of what Trump is trying to do with his first trip abroad. According to AFP, the White House sees the trip as a way to promote unity among different religions:

US President Donald Trump will urge unity between the world’s major faiths on an ambitious first foreign trip that will take him to Saudi Arabia, the Vatican and Jerusalem, the White House said Tuesday.

While that may sound like a nice sentiment, this isn’t something that politicians can help bring about with the best will in the world. Very few people are going to take Trump’s appeal seriously in any case, because hardly anyone thinks that he takes religious faith seriously in the first place. It would be one thing to have the president argue for religious tolerance, or at least to argue against sectarianism and violence, but for a politician to “urge unity” among religions that have real, deep differences of belief is both misguided and sure to be rejected by all sides. No president is suited to such a role, and Trump is almost uniquely unsuited to it.

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An ‘Arab NATO’ Is a Lousy Idea

Trump will propose the creation of an “Arab NATO” during his visit to Saudi Arabia:

When President Trump arrives in Riyadh this week, he will lay out his vision for a new regional security architecture White House officials call an “Arab NATO,” to guide the fight against terrorism and push back against Iran. As a cornerstone of the plan, Trump will also announce one of the largest arms-sales deals in history.

Some version of this idea has been floating around for a while now, and it makes no more sense now than it did before. The war on Yemen is the prime example of collective military action by Gulf Arab states, and it has been a disaster for Yemen and a demonstration of how militarily inept many of the coalition’s members are. Insofar as an “Arab NATO” serves as nothing more than a vehicle for Saudi-led interference in the affairs of its neighbors, it would be a regional menace and would involve the U.S. directly or indirectly in more of the region’s wars.

Building a formal alliance to “push back against Iran” would guarantee ongoing regional instability for years to come, and it would fuel vicious sectarian hatreds between and within the countries of the region. If the members of this “Arab NATO” conduct the “fight against terrorism” as well as they have to date, jihadists will have little to worry about, since the policies of most would-be members have helped make jihadism flourish in several countries. The U.S. will be expected to support the misadventures of this alliance, and that will implicate our government in whatever other ill-advised interventions they start on their own. Worse, if the “Arab NATO” obliges the U.S. to defend members of this new alliance it will mean more foreign commitments and entanglements for the U.S. Finally, there is no threat comparable to that of the USSR or some other major power to merit a collective defense alliance of this kind, so it isn’t needed.

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Our Hard-liners Need Iran’s Hard-liners (II)

Reuel Marc Gerecht joins the pro-Raisi Iran hawk bandwagon ahead of Iran’s presidential election:

Washington would be far better off if a “hard-liner” won the presidential contest. It would make it more difficult for Congress and the Trump administration to deceive themselves about Iran’s intentions.

This is lousy analysis of what would be best for U.S. interests, which would not be served by having a more antagonistic and intransigent Iran. More than that, it is an admission that Iran hawks couldn’t care less what happens to the Iranian people, which should be obvious after they have urged sanctions and/or bombing Iran on a regular basis for a decade and a half. These hawks are eager for Iranians to have an even worse government than they already do. This isn’t the usual “better the devil we know” argument for the status quo over change. On the contrary, it is an explicit appeal for the victory of the worse candidate–a change for the worse–in the hope that it will cause Iran more misery and hardship. No one needs to have any illusions about the abusive and authoritarian Iranian regime to recognize this desire as a perverse and warped one. No one needs to have any illusions about the pace or scale of political change inside Iran to recognize that a Raisi victory would be a sudden move in the wrong direction.

Gerecht is essentially echoing the same bankrupt argument Abrams made a few days ago. Both Gerecht and Abrams concede that Rouhani is likely to win unless the election is rigged against him, so when they root for a Raisi victory they are effectively rooting for a stolen election. They crave an Iran that they can more easily vilify and isolate in order to keep tensions with their government as high as possible, and a Raisi win makes their jobs much easier.

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