Tillerson’s “Warning” To Russia about Assad: Trump’s Meaningless Foreign Policy in a Nutshell

 

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The President gathers his top men

 

The Wall Street Journal reports that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has landed in Moscow, where he will seek to convince Russia to back away from its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Yeah, Russia: you better start following this policy that we’ve had for nearly five days now.

It isn’t even that I disagree. It’s just that: is Russia supposed to take this seriously? “Oh, the Americans bombed an empty airfield and announced it was a one-off, except when Spicer said it wasn’t, then said he was wrong. This sure seems consistent and permanent. We better do what they say!”

This is what happens when you elect a man who has no idea what he’s doing and whose top advisors (Bannon, Kushner, Priebus) have exactly zero days of federal government experience between them.

Reminder: We’ve Been At War for 15 Years. This is Just a Different One

 

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Image from The Guardian, come on…

This is what I was getting at in today’s first post, when worrying that CBS was trying to reassure its viewers that the only reason Colbert was making fun of the President is that he didn’t know we had struck Syria.

One can see the telltale signs of a media gearing up to make war normal. Flashes of missiles launching through the darkened foreign night, the President huddling with advisors, reading a stern statement with a serious face, maps and graphics across innumerable cable screens, “experts” who just heard of Idlib this week talking about the strategic importance of sending a message.

I ultimately don’t think much will come of this. Trump is too chaotic and unfocused, and too deeply unpopular. I don’t think there will be much flag-wrapping across the country. I don’t think he’s going to grow significantly more popular because of this, except in a very few knee-jerk quarters. In a week, we may forget this even happened (though it did, with real consequences, but I am just talking domestically for this post).

But it is broadly disturbing how quickly the media gets on its own war footing, which not only has the effect of making Trump seem like a normal President, but shows something dark about our character, and about the last 15 years.

We’ve been at war since 2001 in one country or another, and usually several on some level. But most of those go unnoticed. They don’t get the banner treatment or the blaring chyrons. This is different, because it is against a President, which means it is against a real country, which means it is a real war (regardless of how limited). That’s exciting! That’s newsworthy. The rest? Background noise.

It’s really a dual danger. The first danger is that we get so excited to be at a real war, because that is what stirs the American character. It does so in other countries as well, though America seems particularly susceptible, at the same level as, say Russia. The idiot media is a reflection of that. It doesn’t just prime the pump. But the other danger is that war is so entrenched in our story, and so inextricable from the present moment, that it takes something extraordinary to even stir out attention. It’s ingrained now, in ways we haven’t begun to understand. We’ve always been at war, and always will be.

The US Is Not At War With Syria: Making Sense of the Strikes And The Trump Foreign Policy

An aerial view of the al-Shayrat Airfield near Homs, Syria, 07 October 2016

The airfield targeted by US missiles. You can already tell the press is on War Footing, which is extremely dangerous.

Despite (or, probably, because of) yesterday’s grim swirl of news, we turned on Colbert last night, partly because I wanted to see if he’d pay tribute to the late, great Don Rickles. He did, but only briefly. I guess they didn’t really know each other. But the interesting thing was that, as the show started, CBS ran a little graphic at the bottom that said the show was taped before the US strikes in Syria started.

At first, I thought, well that makes sense. They don’t want people wondering why he isn’t addressing the elephant in the room. But then I wondered if it was something worse. Colbert spent most of the monologue (if not all of it) pointing out the absurdity and horrors of the Trump administration. So, maybe, they were running it because they wanted to shield themselves from criticism that Colbert was making fun of the Commander in Chief while America was at war.

That, I think, is a good way to illustrate the dangers of what is happening, and the questions around the attack. Are we at war with Syria? Are we just “sending a message?” Are we willing to take ownership over what comes next? What does it even mean to be at war with Syria? What does war mean in the age of Trump, and will this be normalized? And what will happen next?

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Trump’s National Security “Policies” As Muddled as he is Ignorant

This might just be the permanent clip for Trump-era foreign policy

So, let’s sum up the last few days. Steve Bannon is out at the NSC, a victory for McMasters, but maybe a meaningless one, since he still hasn’t been able to put in his own people, for the most part.  Still, it’s a start, because as the NYTimes put it, it’s the removal of a “political advisor”.

in Syria, the administration first said that it was “silly” to talk about removing Asad, only to sort of reverse course. “Only days after the White House declared it would be ‘silly’ to persist in trying to oust President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mr. Trump said, ‘My attitude toward Syria and Assad has changed very much.'” Nikki Haley is threatening unilateral action, and seems genuinely emotional following the chemical attack on civilians in Idlib (understandably and genuinely, I think).

And, of course, this is against the backdrop of SecDef Mattis being given far more leeway to fight ISIS and AQAP, loosening restrictions on field commanders and broadening what is considered an “area of active hostilities“. While this will increase civilian casualties, it will also almost certainly hurt ISIS more on the battlefield.

So, overall…are these good things? I think, in a vacuum, you could make a case for each one. Certainly, the demotion of the vile Steve Bannon is a good thing, because it might signal that he has displeased the Fake King. Certainly, Trump’s string of failures is eating at him, and when he lashes out, who knows who will take the fall? But it’s also true that Bannon isn’t merely a “political adviser.” He’s Trump’s worldview shaper, and probably the best person at helping trump find enemies to take the blame for his own personal failures. So we’ll see if Bannon is actually on the outs (which is possible) or if this is just a temporary ego-assuaging for Trump.

Syria is interesting, except that it is clear that Trump has no real plans. He goes entirely on however he feels at the moment. Deciding to get more involved against the Asad government means taking certain responsibility for Syria, not to mention tangling with Russia. Does Trump actually mean this? Or was it just a tough-sounding gesture. It’s possible to see a world where the US bombs Syrian airstrips and planes, and maybe munitions dumps, but that would entail a broader national/regional strategy, as well as a coherent Russian one.

And that’s the main problem here: there is no strategy. Even the devolution of power to Mattis and field commanders, something that sounds sensible, is a product of not having any real foreign policy other than “beating our enemies” (and, in the case of Bannon, creating them in order to forge some civilizational conflict). It is all well and good to be, as Mattis is, a warrior. It might be true that the Obama administration micromanaged too much. But that (arguably) overabundance of caution came from the constant asking of “what’s next? What happens after we ‘win’? How does the world look then?”

It’s clear these aren’t questions Trump is asking, and certainly ones he doesn’t have the patience to see. While McMasters and Mattis are strategists, they are so in a narrow sense, as we discussed earlier.  And all of the Trump team’s plans (including creating “safe zones” for refugees to return) all seem geared toward short-term solutions that have zero interest in the long term, and zero interest in how they balance against other strategies. (Like, for instance, if you have “safe zones”, how do you protect them? What happens if they are attacked by Russia? What happens when they want to return to ruined villages?)

This starts from the top. Trump has no real vision, no real foreign policy. He’s the guy who reads the paper and says “we can do better, I know how!” This is literally true: it’s all he says.

So maybe you can have competent people. Maybe you can get some grownups on board. And maybe certain tactics, like letting loose the military on ISIS, can produce results. It almost certainly will. But when you are a flailing, know-nothing impatient ignoramus, the whole of your administration and policy will reflect that. It’s wrong to ask what Trump’s strategy is. It’s clear there is no method at all.

 

Nationalist Bulgarian Paramilitary Border Forces Are Weird and Foreign, Right?

 

Image result for Bulgarian National Movement Shipka

Trees are the only thing that differentiate Bulgarian border militias from American ones.

 

The historical roots of the refugee crisis in Europe follow the same lines as the immigration debate here, and have had the same atavistic reaction.

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The Spiteful Illogic of the New Travel Ban

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When the first “Travel Ban” executive order was announced a week into the Trump administration some 4600 years ago, some of the key pillars of a free society made their impact felt in a way that shocked even the most optimistic observer. The legal system had a two-pronged effort. Organizations like the ACLU protected the victims of the order’s cruelty and brought their cases to an independent judiciary, which treated the order as what it was: a legal measure subject to review; not the blessed fiat of a New Dawn.

The other pillar, of course, was public protest, which stunned anyone who expected obsequiousness after the snowflakes of the women’s march melted. It is doubtful that legislators, and possibly even the courts, would have reacted with the swiftness they did were in not for spontaneous acts of disobedience, compassion, and righteous fury. Protests were shown again to not be movements of self-expression or sideshows to politics; they are a vital part of civil society.

So, the reaction to the travel ban, and its being held up by the courts, led to the rollout of a newly revised order yesterday. This was supposed to be rolled out last week, but it was delayed so that news of it wouldn’t step on the reception to Trump’s Congressional address last week.

Now, it is a good demonstration of how deeply dumb the President and his people are that they genuinely thought the rest of the week–month?–should revolve around him garnering praise for clearing the lowest possible bar. Trump was reportedly livid that the news of Sessions misleading Russian testimony and subsequent recusal took away from what I promise you he believes is regarded as the finest speech in American history. That’s partly what led to this weekend’s insanity.

But more importantly, as everyone pointed out, the delay for some good ol’ self-gratification contradicted the fierce urgency with which the initial rollout happened, and made Trump’s truly dangerous tweets about how judges were making our country less safe even more reckless. But that hypocrisy is just one of the many contradictions that shows how pointlessly self-defeating (not to mention cruel and un-American) these travel bans really are.

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