Daniel Larison

The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

How the Trump administration’s Venezuela policy just doesn’t add up. Cynthia Arnson identifies the “contradiction at the core of Trump administration’s Venezuela policy.”

Trump must stop sanctioning Iranians to death. Jason Rezaian calls out the Trump administration for the deadly effects their sanctions are having on sick Iranians that can’t obtain the medicine they need.

Why Trump fails at making deals. Michael Hirsh explains why Trump has always been a terrible negotiator.

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What North Korea’s Anti-Pompeo Invective Means

Then-Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-KS, speaking at a rally in 2013. He faces a senate grilling for his secretary of state nomination today.Mark Taylor/Creative Commons

It appears that North Korea has had just about all the swagger it can stomach:

North Korea’s foreign minister on Friday called U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a “poisonous plant of American diplomacy” who hampers efforts to restart nuclear negotiations.

Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho made the insult to protest Pompeo’s comments in a media interview that Washington will maintain crippling sanctions on North Korea unless it denuclearizes.

This is not the first time that North Korean officials have denounced Pompeo, but it represents another clear rejection of the current U.S. position of trying to compel North Korean disarmament without offering them anything. The full North Korean statement can be read here:

North Korea is being as clear as it can be that it isn’t going to make any concessions without at least some sanctions relief. The North Korean foreign minister’s statement says, “The U.S. is sadly mistaken if it still thinks of standing in confrontation with the DPRK with sanctions, not dropping its confrontational stand.” The administration’s misguided assumption that they can sanction North Korea into submission isn’t just wrong, but it is also sabotaging any chance at productive talks this year. Pompeo’s remarks about maintaining sanctions until North Korea denuclearizes probably seemed like so much boilerplate to him when he said it, but it set the North Korean government off. Pompeo’s statements show that the U.S. isn’t paying attention to what North Korea has been telling us for the last several months. They are running out of patience, and the Trump administration is running out of time. The problem is that only one side seems to be aware that time is running out.

The specific remarks that angered the North Koreans so much were from a Washington Examiner interview earlier this week:

We’ve been at the table with them intermittently since then trying to deliver that. The president has come after Chairman Kim three times. Sometimes, I know these things are characterized as failures, but the truth is each time, I think the two leaders have developed deeper understandings of how it is we might achieve this. I still remain hopeful that Chairman Kim is committed to this and sees a path that allows him to execute on this. But in the event that he doesn’t, we’ll continue to keep on the sanctions that are the toughest in all of history and continue to work towards convincing Chairman Kim and the North Korean leaders that the right thing to do is for them to denuclearize. I think he sees it. I think we all need to continue to work at this so that he can find the path to actually execute the commitment that he made in Singapore in June.

Pompeo comes back again and again to the “commitment” Kim supposedly made at Singapore, but Kim didn’t make the commitment that Pompeo always attributes to him. North Korea didn’t agree to denuclearization last year, and it certainly didn’t agree to unilateral disarmament, but Pompeo keeps misleading the American public about this. The North Koreans know they didn’t make any such commitment, and they aren’t going to “execute” something they never agreed to do. Pompeo’s fabrications may not be noticed by American media outlets, but every time he speaks he is giving North Korea another reason not to trust the U.S.

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Trump’s Immoral Iran Policy

President Trump and Supreme Leader Ali Khameinei. CreativeCommons, Shutterstock.

Jason Rezaian calls on the Trump administration to stop killing innocent Iranians with sanctions. He notes that they have done nothing to mitigate the harm the sanctions are doing:

The same destructive effects of U.S. sanctions that were addressed then are thus far being ignored in the current tensions with Iran.

“We are seeing quite the opposite now, including the denial of the problem. The administration is actually discouraging people from using this legitimate channel,” Richard Nephew, the lead sanctions expert during the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran and currently adjunct professor of international and public affairs at Columbia, told me.

The administration’s position on this has been to say that it is not their responsibility. Brian Hook infamously said, “The burden is not on the U.S. to identify the safe channels.” The Trump administration knows that the problem exists, but refuses to do anything about it because they can’t be bothered to make the effort. When our allies have sought guidance on how to facilitate humanitarian trade, the administration has ignored them:

The stated goal of the policy is to force Iran to make a wide range of concessions, but in practice the policy seems aimed primarily at inflicting as much pain as possible on the assumption that this will lead to the government’s surrender or collapse. When U.S. officials talk about the sanctions “working,” they point to the economic damage that they are doing. They emphasize the damage from sanctions as proof of “success” because for them destruction is the point of the policy. There isn’t any concern that innocent Iranians are being ground under the wheel of sanctions because inflicting collective punishment is exactly what they want to do.

Rezaian concludes:

Trump’s Iran advisers constantly claim that they are on the side of the Iranian people and that the goal of the United States is to improve their lives. So far, however, only the opposite has been true.

Worsening the lives of the Iranian people is the only thing that a relentless economic war could have done. Strangling the economy of an entire country will always hurt the people, and it will hurt the weakest and most vulnerable worst of all. The Trump administration will feign interest in the welfare of the people when they can use it to attack Iran’s government, but their lack of concern for Iranians’ well-being has been clear for some time. They value Iranian people only insofar as they can enlist them in their vain pursuit of regime change, and otherwise view them as expendable. Our government’s Iran policy is a disgrace and a moral failure, and the next administration needs to move quickly to halt the economic war that is killing innocent people for nothing.

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Trump Doesn’t Know How to Negotiate

Michael Hirsh reminds us that Trump has always been a lousy negotiator:

Michael D’Antonio, a Trump biographer who interviewed him many times, agrees with Lapidus that there is no discernible difference in the way Trump negotiates today, as president, compared to his career in business. “His style involves a hostile attitude and a bullying method designed to wring every possible concession out of the other side while maximizing his own gain,” D’Antonio said. “As he explained to me, he’s not interested in ‘win-win’ deals, only in ‘I win’ outcomes. When I asked if he ever left anything on the table as a sign of goodwill so that he might do business with the same party in the future he said no, and pointed out that there are many people in the world he can work with, one at a time.”

As we have seen, Trump’s bullying, maximalist approach does not work with other governments, and this approach cannot work because the president sees everything as a zero-sum game and winning requires the other side’s capitulation. The result is that no government gives Trump anything and instead all of them retaliate in whatever way is available to them. He can’t agree to a mutually beneficial compromise because he rejects the idea that the other side might come away with something. Because every existing agreement negotiated in the past has required some compromise on our government’s part, he condemns all of them as “terrible” because they did not result in the other party’s surrender.

He seems particularly obsessed with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) because the trade-off inherent in any agreement made with Iran was that they would regain access to frozen assets, and he ignorantly equates this with “giving” them money. The fact that the JCPOA heavily favored the U.S. and the rest of the P5+1 doesn’t interest Trump. Iran was allowed to come away with something at the end, and even the little bit they were able to get is far too much for him. This is one reason he has been so closely aligned with Iran hawks over the last four years, and it helps explain why he endorses absurd, unrealistic demands and “maximum pressure” of collective punishment. He is doing more or less the same thing he has always done, and he is so clueless about international relations and diplomacy that he still thinks it can get him what he wants. The reality is that all of his foreign policy initiatives are failing or have already failed, and the costs for ordinary people in the targeted countries and here at home keep going up.

Here is another relevant point from the article:

“Temperamentally, the president is unprepared for diplomacy and negotiations with sovereign states,” said D’Antonio. “He doesn’t know how to practice the give-and-take that would produce bilateral or multilateral achievements and he takes things so personally that he considers those with a different point of view to be enemies. He is offended when others decline to be bullied and angered by those who counter his proposals with their own ideas.”

The greatest trick that Trump pulled on Americans was to make many of them believe that he understood how to negotiate when he has never been any good at it. Now the U.S. and many other countries around the world are paying the price.

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What Happened to Putting Americans First?

President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel at the United Nations General Assembly in October. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Trump repeated his outrageous anti-Semitic statement earlier today:

President Trump said Wednesday that Jewish Americans who vote for Democratic candidates are “very disloyal to Israel,” expanding on his remarks from the previous day and dismissing criticism that his remarks were anti-Semitic.

“I think if you vote for a Democrat, you are very, very disloyal to Israel and to the Jewish people,” Trump said in an exchange with reporters outside the White House before departing for an event in Kentucky.

There wasn’t really any doubt about what Trump meant the first time when he launched this attack on the vast majority of American Jews, and now he has removed any doubt that might have remained. The president is using explicit anti-Semitic rhetoric here, and he is attacking most American Jews because they are not loyal to a foreign country. Because Trump has made a habit of indulging the Israeli government and giving Netanyahu everything he wants regardless of the consequences for the U.S., he apparently assumes that this is the attitude everyone else should have. This is the twisted logic of the “pro-Israel” hawk who assumes that Jewish people everywhere should be “loyal” to Israel and should be condemned if they are deemed not to be. It turns the old anti-Semitic attack upside down, but retains the same ugly core of singling out fellow citizens as disloyal because of their identity and vilifying them for political purposes. In one of the more disgraceful episodes of Trump’s presidency, he once again denounces Jewish Americans for putting America and our values first.

Trump’s attacks are the latest example of how Israel and U.S. policy towards Israel have been made into part of the domestic culture war where being a “pro-Israel” hard-liner is associated with nationalism at home. “Pro-Israel” nationalists imagine that they have more in common with hard-liners in other countries than they do with their fellow citizens, and they see no contradiction in being aggressively nationalist here while also subordinating U.S. interests overseas to the preferences of a small client state.

Paul Pillar touched on some of this in his recent article:

First, viewpoints that do not prevail in domestic political competition are seen not just as losing arguments regarding the best way to pursue the national interest but rather as not a worthy part of the nation at all. Second, some foreign interests are seen not just as allies or means that can be used to pursue the U.S. national interest but rather as objects of affection or identity in their own right. These two developments are two sides of the same coin. The more that the concept of a national interest breaks down domestically into a sharp division between one viewpoint to be cherished and an opposing one to be scorned, the more natural a step it is to identify with like-minded elements overseas rather than with one’s own fellow citizens.

It isn’t possible to put America and Americans first when the president and his allies are determined to take the side of a foreign government against American citizens and members of Congress. If we want a foreign policy that actually serves the American interest, we can’t tolerate political leaders that attack fellow Americans to score points with foreign leaders and cast hateful aspersions against minorities in the name of promoting a relationship with another country. Trump is incapable of conducting such a foreign policy, and these anti-Semitic outbursts are the latest reminder of why he can’t.

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‘Maximum Pressure’ Kills Innocent Iranians

CBS News reports on the harmful effects of the Trump administration’s Iran sanctions:

Technically, medicines are exempt from U.S. sanctions, but the financial transactions to purchase them in the global marketplace are not. Imports have dropped by 80%, and the cost for the tiny amount of drugs that do make it in has skyrocketed.

For parents at Mahek who learn their child’s cancer has come back, the agony is worsened when the cocktail of drugs needed to keep a child alive simply isn’t available.

Four-year-old Mahdi’s mother told correspondent Imtiaz Tyab that the most doctors can do now for her only child is keep him comfortable.

It is undeniable that U.S. sanctions imposed over the last year have had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy and the lives of tens of millions of Iranians. In the case of this young cancer patient, the effect of our government’s policy has been to make it impossible for him to receive the treatment that he needs to survive. The economic war on Iran causes greater hardship for the entire population, and in this case that translates to depriving a sick child of essential medicine. For Mahdi, U.S. sanctions have been a death sentence, and the same is true for many more Iranians with rare and serious illnesses who are cut off from accessing the medicine they require.

The report continues:

Dr. Shabnam Hemati, who heads the pharmaceuticals department, told Tyab that people are losing their lives because they cannot get drugs.

“What do you say to a parent whose child has cancer, that the drug is available outside Iran but not inside Iran?” asked Tyab.

“I tell them to pray and be sure that we are with you and we know your pain,” she replied.

Doctors couldn’t say how many children have died because of the inability to bring in medicine. But the charity’s CEO told CBS News with 80% fewer drugs coming in you only have to do the math.

As Abbas Kebariaeezadeh pointed out in his article last week, the sanctions prevent payment to bring in medicine from the outside, and they prevent bringing in the ingredients that domestic pharmaceutical companies need to make medicine in Iran. Many more cancer patients and others dependent on imported medicine are suffering in the same way as this young boy, and their families are being forced to watch their loved ones perish because they are cut off from the medications they need. This is the foreseeable and predicted result of the economic war that the U.S. has been waging against the Iranian people. Innocent Iranians are dying for the sake of a cruel and unjustified policy of “maximum pressure” that achieves nothing except to inflict more pain and misery.

The weakest and most vulnerable people in a targeted country are always the first casualties of sanctions, and in Iran that means condemning sick children to die in a vain attempt to compel their government to capitulate to unreasonable demands. Economic wars destroy and end lives, and they seem to be good for nothing except causing destruction. The U.S. needs to halt this economic war, and it needs to renounce collective punishment from now on.

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Trump’s Risible Greenland Fixation Strikes Again

As Rod Dreher has already noted, Trump’s ridiculous fixation on Greenland has led him to cancel a meeting with an allied government:

The President of the United States appears to have cancelled a meeting with a nation’s leader because she wouldn’t talk to him about selling part of her country to the US.

Some of this is Trump’s usual pettiness towards any foreign leader that doesn’t flatter and praise him, but it is also an example of how the president intensifies his support for obviously stupid things when he is challenged. The Danish prime minister dismissed Trump’s Greenland fantasy as “absurd,” and so he thinks she has to be punished. Trump’s behavior towards one of our best European allies is the usual childish petulance that we have come to expect, but it is remarkable all the same because there is absolutely no cause for a quarrel with Denmark. There is no serious underlying policy disagreement or clash of economic interests at stake. There is no excuse at all. Trump is simply showing contempt for an allied country because their government refused to bow and scrape in response to his offensive suggestion that the U.S. buy up part of their kingdom.

The entire episode has been an embarrassment for the U.S., but it has been instructive in showing that Trump’s conduct of foreign policy is typified by a complete lack of respect for the rights and interests of others, whether they are allies or not. He sees other countries as little more than means to an end, and that end is usually his own self-aggrandizement. Advancing U.S. interests doesn’t matter to him, and improving relations with other governments certainly doesn’t matter to him. What he wants is using other governments to enhance his own reputation and status. Wanting to purchase Greenland to give him a presidential legacy is a good example of this. It will never happen, and he will actually harm U.S. relations with Denmark by harping on it, but because he sees it as a way to make himself seem more important he will keep pursuing it. He does not realize that in doing so he will make himself seem very small and silly, and the people that he thinks he is overawing with the power of his office will never stop laughing at him.

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Trump’s Disgraceful ‘Disloyalty’ Rhetoric

President Trump at the Israel Museum. Jerusalem May 23, 2017 (Credit: U.S. Department of State)

The president plumbed new depths of ugliness in his effort to use unfounded accusations of anti-Semitism against Democratic members of Congress and the Democratic Party as a whole:

President Trump on Tuesday said that any Jewish people who vote for Democrats are showing “either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty,” prompting an outcry from critics who said the president’s remarks were promoting anti-Semitic stereotypes.

Trump’s insinuation that Jewish Americans are either ignorant or disloyal if they vote for Democratic candidates is explicit anti-Semitism employed for partisan purposes. He seemed to be suggesting that these Americans were being disloyal to America or Israel or both, and no matter what he meant by it he was actually trafficking in the rhetoric that he has falsely accused others of using. The president repeatedly lies about Reps. Tlaib and Omar and attacks them for anti-Semitism that they have never expressed, and while trying to smear them he makes a sweeping statement that the loyalty of Jewish Americans supposedly depends on their political preferences. He has predictably conflated legitimate criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism and simultaneously uses his lockstep support for the current Israeli government as a shield against accusations of the same.

The president’s remarks should be roundly condemned, but we also need to recognize that the false accusations against Reps. Tlaib and Omar have encouraged the president to make these outrageous statements. Trump wants to misrepresent Reps. Tlaib and Omar as being anti-Israel and anti-Semitic, and he has had a lot of help in doing that from the media and some of their own Democratic colleagues, but his obsession with vilifying them has resulted in his doing the very thing he accuses them of doing. Trump doesn’t seem to grasp that he is doing just as much damage to the U.S.-Israel relationship as he has done to the relationship with the Saudis by reflexively supporting the other government in everything. He is using such noxious rhetoric in his attacks on Reps. Tlaib and Omar that he continues to put them in real danger for the sake of scoring cheap political points.

Trump’s “pro-Israel” posturing and anti-Semitic rhetoric provide a perfect example of what is wrong with how we think about the U.S.-Israel relationship and how the charge of anti-Semitism is used to stifle criticism of that relationship. Because Trump indulges hard-line policies of occupation and apartheid, he is deemed to be “pro-Israel” even though these policies are profoundly wrong and ultimately disastrous for Israel. Because Reps. Tlaib and Omar denounce and oppose the same policies and challenge the “pro-Israel” consensus in Washington, they are deemed to be “anti-Israel” when they are speaking up in defense of the rights of an oppressed population that has lived under illegal occupation for more than half a century. Trump has assumed that vilifying Reps. Tlaib and Omar is an obvious political winner, but in his effort to portray them in the worst light he has once again exposed himself for the ugly demagogue that he is.

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The U.S. Can’t ‘Get’ Iran to ‘Shut Down’ Its Nuclear Program

A new Gallup survey shows that most Americans don’t want war with Iran. Only 18% of all American adults favor military action against Iran, and even among Republicans that number is just 25%. 78% favor economic and diplomatic efforts. That’s fine as far as it goes, and it shows that there is very little support for a new war at this time. The framing of the question is the bigger problem and makes the results from the poll much less useful.

The poll asks, “What do you think the United States should do to get Iran to shut down its nuclear program — take military action against Iran, or rely mainly on economic and diplomatic efforts?” The question assumes that it is within our government’s power to “get Iran to shut down its nuclear program,” when the experience of the last twenty years tells us that it is not. The nuclear negotiations that produced the JCPOA show beyond any doubt that there are limits to what Iran is willing to concede on this point. It is good that most Americans prefer non-military options to pursue this fantastical goal, but the assumption that Iran will one day “shut down” its nuclear program is completely unrealistic. On the contrary, the more pressure that the U.S. puts on Iran in an attempt to force such a shutdown, the more inclined Iran’s government is to build up its program.

If Iran’s nuclear program remains peaceful, there is no need for them to shut it down. The long-term goal of the JCPOA has been to demonstrate to the satisfaction of all parties that Iran’s nuclear program is and will remain peaceful, and then at that point Iran will be treated like any other member of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The U.S. doesn’t need to do anything to “get” Iran to do this because the goal of shutting down the program is a foolish and impossible one. Perceiving Iran’s possession of a peaceful nuclear program as a problem to be solved is one of the reasons why our debate over Iran policy is so warped and biased in favor of coercive measures. The idea that Iran has to “shut down” a program that it is legally entitled to have under the NPT is bizarre, but it is obviously a common view here in the U.S.

The question is misleading in another way, since it suggests that military action could be effective in forcing Iran to “shut down” the program. In reality, attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities would at most set back the program, but it would give the Iranian government a strong incentive to develop and build a deterrent that would discourage the U.S. from launching more attacks in the future. Attacking a country when it doesn’t have nuclear weapons is a good way to encourage them to acquire those weapons as quickly as possible.

That makes the results to the follow-up question all the more dispiriting. The poll also asks, “Suppose U.S. economic and diplomatic efforts do not work. If that happens, do you think the United States should — or should not — take military action against Iran?” Once again, the question assumes that getting Iran to “shut down” its nuclear program is both a legitimate and realistic goal. If non-military measures “do not work,” there is additional support for military action from a depressing 42% of those who initially favored “economic and diplomatic efforts.” Put them together with the initial supporters of military action, and you have a narrow majority of all American adults that thinks the U.S. should take military action:

The 42% of those who favor military action if nonmilitary efforts fail translates to 35% of all U.S. adults. Combining that group with the 18% who favor military action outright means a slim majority of Americans, 53%, would support military action against Iran if diplomatic and economic efforts are unsuccessful.

There is a disturbingly high level of support for launching an illegal attack on another country for something it is legally permitted to have. The assumption that “economic and diplomatic efforts” will be “unsuccessful” if they don’t force Iran to abandon its nuclear program helps to push respondents to give that answer, but they wouldn’t endorse a military option if they hadn’t been led to think that Iran’s nuclear program is an intolerable danger. That is partly because of the bad framing of the questions, but it is also a product of decades of relentless propagandizing about a supposed threat from Iran’s nuclear program that is completely divorced from reality. We need better poll questions on this subject, but we also need better, more informed debate about Iran and we have to stamp out the threat inflation that poisons and distorts the public’s perceptions of threats from other states.

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Hands Off Greenland

Greenland. Not too long ago, this was a glacier (Dolzhenkov Pavel/Shutterstock)

Paul Musgrave explains why the U.S. shouldn’t want to buy Greenland even if it were possible:

Greenland is no longer a colony to be disposed of as the government in Copenhagen wishes. Today the Danish doctrine of the “Unity of the Realm” holds that Greenland forms an integral part of the three-country Kingdom of Denmark. To put it bluntly, selling off Greenland would be as unthinkable as the US selling off Hawaii or Delaware.

Even if country-selling were legal generally or specifically, the United States shouldn’t be in the business of engaging in the trade – however much Washington has treated Greenland as a colony in the past.

The news that the president had entertained the idea of trying to buy our far northern neighbor has occasioned a lot of well-deserved mockery and scorn. Danish politicians have had a field denouncing it:

Martin Lidegaard, senior lawmaker of the Danish Social Liberal Party and a former foreign minister, called the idea “a grotesque proposal” which had no basis in reality.

“We are talking about real people and you can’t just sell Greenland like an old colonial power,” he told Reuters.

Musgrave goes beyond the usual mockery to spell out why it is a very bad and dangerous idea. Put simply, our government shouldn’t be engaging in the practice of buying and selling territories and sovereignty, and doing this ignores the self-determination and preferences of the people that live in these territories. The idea goes against basic respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country that is being treated as if it were an item to be bought. The notion of buying Greenland is ridiculous, and the entire discussion surrounding it as if it were a legitimate possibility is absurd, as Denmark’s prime minister recently said. The fact that Trump apparently thinks it is worth considering reminds us that his worldview is a narrow, mercenary one in which other countries are there only to be exploited and threatened.

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