Saturday, October 14, 2017

Trump's Iran decision

As I predicted, the president chose a kind of middle path between withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal and simply certifying Iranian compliance, as other signatories and several cabinet officials preferred. The decision is an excellent example of bureaucratic politics, where differing officials have to compromise.

President Trump had strongly criticized JCPOA as a candidate and was angry that he had to report to Congress every 90 days on Iranian compliance. He said he didn't want to do that, but the facts demanded certification. His advisors looked for a way to remove that uncomfortable action while still preserving the benefits of the limits on Iran. A new report argues that UN Amb, Haley played a key role in fashioning a strong case against the agreement.

Trump's announcement was a powerful indictment of Iran's behavior over the years, but a very weak list of complaints about Iranian noncompliance. Basically he argued that Iran was violating the "spirit" of the deal since he couldn't prove violations of the terms of the deal. He was adopting a policy of linkage, saying US policy would be based on the full range of Iranian behavior even if they complied with the nuclear aspects.

What he did, however, does not seem to be part of a strategy to get Iran to change its behavior or to agree to changes in the deal. By not certifying compliance, he triggered a 60-day window for Congress to snap back the sanctions lifted under JCPOA. But he did not ask Congress to lift those sanctions. Instead, he seems to favor congressional amendments to the law requiring reports [INARA, PL 114-17] that would enable him to certify Iran was not complying with these new and additional behaviors. Senators Corker and Cotton announced a bill like that. And he threatened to withdraw completely from the deal if Congress fails to pass such amendments.

In other words, Trump is demanding that Congress amend its own law instead of ordering his secretary of state [or others] to negotiate such changes with the signatories. How is that supposed to work?

By the way, the administration also announced sanctions against Iran's Revolutionary Guards but did not put that organization on the list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations [FTO]. CRS and State Dept have explanations of the differences.

"Could be worse" is still not very reassuring.

Friday, October 13, 2017

truth is in details

As a political scientist who also researches and writes history, I am more comfortable with case studies and biographies than Grand Theme works that present overarching explanations of American foreign policy or the changing balance of power. I look for truth in the details of particular events -- why the United States went to war with Spain in 1898, how Franklin Roosevelt maneuvered America into the conflict with Nazi Germany, why Harry Truman agreed to the airlift during the Berlin blockade, how we narrowly avoided nuclear war in the 1962 Cuba crisis, and so forth into recent times. My studies have also found numerous times when what presidents said was at least in part in conflict with what important elements of the government were doing, so I don't believe we can look to words alone to understand policy.

Sometimes I worry, however, that I'm missing important things by this approach. I know there may be megatrends that are more significant than the periodic oscillations of U.S. policymakers. Climate change is one such trend, along with growing inequality in America. I'm discouraged by the hyperpartisanship and dysfunction in Congress, but I reassure myself by remembering when things were better, and thus hope they can improve. To add to my concerns is this report on a conference of political scientists on this very topic -- big changes like distrust of the government and even each other. These trends are ominous, and perhaps more important than the foreign policy crises I normally follow.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Trump and Kaiser Wilhelm II

There's another comparison involving German leaders and the current U.S. president that doesn't violate Godwin's Law: Trump is a lot like Kaiser Wilhelm II, who took his country into Africa, started a no-win naval race with Britain, and then gave a blank check to Austria-Hungary that pulled Europe into the disaster of World War I. Harvard's Steve Walt makes the comparison at FP today. You heard it here from me last February.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

what if...

It has now been 20 days, just short of 3 weeks, since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. Relief and recovery efforts were slow to begin and still are far from restorating  basic human services.

Axios has some data:
  • More than 19,000 federal civilian personnel and military service members, including more than 1,395 FEMA personnel, are on the ground in PR and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
  • Electricity: 15% of the island has power, and roughly 28% of cell towers have been restored.
  • Food: Approximately 77% of grocery stores are open, up from 65% Friday.
  • Gas: Roughly 78% of retail gas stations are operational.
  • Transportation: Only 392 miles of Puerto Rico's 5,073 miles of roads are open. All airports and federally maintained ports are open or open with restrictions.
  • Water and waste: Approximately 56.8% of Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA) customers have potable water, and additional water is being provided by bottled and bulk water. 60% of waste water treatment plants are working on generator power.
  • Medical care: All hospitals (67) are open and operating, but only 25 are working with electricity. The others remain on backup power systems, and most are without air conditioning. 96% of Dialysis Centers are open, but several are still running on generators.
About 3.5 million people were living on the island when the hurricane hit -- about as many people as live in Connecticut, and somewhat more than live in Iowa.

What if 85% of the people in Connecticut were still out of power; what if 93% of Iowa's roads were blocked; what if over 40% of the people of either state had no potable water? If those were the conditions in either state on day two after the storm, I believe that the Federal Government would have mobilized even more people, immediately, and wouldn't have slacked off until the job was done. I believe the media would have treated it as a human catastrophe and would have continued massive coverage of the situation. But no; Puerto Rico is an island in a big ocean, and there are tweets and controversies to capture our attention. Shame!   

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Are we at war with North Korea?

The North Koreans, citing presidential tweets, say that the two countries are at war, and North Korea may shoot down U.S. aircraft. The White House press secretary says we are not.

These comments raise a bunch of legal and historical issues. First, only Congress can "declare war." But lawmakers can also authorize major military operations without calling them "war." And presidents can attack and retaliate with relative impunity.

Second, in fact, the Korean conflict was suspended by an armistice, not a peace treaty. And that agreement has numerous provisions for monitoring the cessation of hostilities and no clear provision for resuming the fighting.
62. The Articles and Paragraphs of this Armistice Agreement shall remain in effect until expressly superseded either by mutually acceptable amendments and additions or by provision in an appropriate agreement for a peaceful settlement at a political level between both sides.
Third, it's worth recalling that the last time North Korea shot down an American military aircraft, killing 31, President Nixon chose not to respond.

The main point I want to make, however, is that historically the United States has always claimed that its wars were defensive, in response to attacks by others, and that Congress was merely declaring that a war exists because of those attacks. North Korea seems to be doing the same.

Here are  some excerpts from previous declarations of war:

1812: That war be and is hereby declared to exist between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and the dependencies thereof, and the United States of America and their territories;

1846: Whereas, by the act of the Republic of Mexico, a state of war exists between that Government and the United States

1898: That war be, and the same is hereby, declared to exist, and has existed since the twenty-first day of April, A.D. 1898, including said day, between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain.

1917: That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial German Government, which has thus been thrust upon the United States, is hereby formally declared;

1941: That the state of war between the United States and the Imperial Government of Japan which has thus been thrust upon the United States is hereby formally declared;

Monday, September 25, 2017

Shakespeare and Trump

Is it possible that Donald Trump has read or seen Shakespeare's Henry IV, part 2? In it, the dying king advises Prince Hal to "busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels" and thus distract the people from their domestic complaints. Readers here may note that I titled this blog with that phrase, because I want to focus on the domestic factors affecting foreign policy.

While President Trump has numerous foreign quarrels and domestic complaints to deal with, he wants to turn attention away from all of them, and toward protesting athletes.  As we sw during the 2016 campaign, Trump is the Duke of Distraction, making new outrageous statements whenever the issues he should be confronting cause him problems.

As Jim Fallows documents, no other president responded to protests by mostly black athletes. It's a shame that Trump can't bring himself to be presidential.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

the Iran game

It's clear that President Trump wants to scrap the Iran nuclear deal, formerly known as JCPOA. By mid-October, he is supposed to tell Congress whether or not Iran is complying with the agreement. Despite IAEA findings of technical compliance, Trump and many in his administration view the agreement as flawed and Iranian behavior outside the nuclear provisions as unacceptable.

So what will he do? There's a good analysis of the options in a new CRS report. 
Rather than claiming violations which other countries will not agree with, I believe he will take the easier path that still preserves his options down the road. Instead of certifying anything, compliance or noncompliance, Trump may just refuse to send any report to Congress. That would allow Congress to vote to re-impose sanctions lifted as part of the deal.

In fact, Congress could easily do that, because the law negotiated with the Obama administration allows prompt floor action in both House and Senate, no amendments, and time-limited debate. Opponents in the Senate can't filibuster or force a supermajority vote. This approach shares responsibility for such a major decision. [I personally believe continued adherence to JCPOA is in our security interest, but I bet the White House takes this path.]