Monday, January 30, 2017

Trump Travel Ban: Reading the Splatter on the Wall

President Donald Trump's executive order banning travel from 7 Muslim-majority countries (Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Syria) is among the strangest and most shameful chapters in our history. As families are separated, travelers are detained, and federal agencies scramble to understand how the ban is to be enforced, the rest of the world is left trying to make sense of this action. What clear and present danger to the security of the United States has arisen, the urgency of which is so acute as to trigger the sudden roll out of a policy so vaguely articulated and slipshod in execution that it has resulted in institutional chaos?

As policy, this ban simply does not make sense. There have been no recent terrorist attacks on US soil perpetrated by citizens of or travelers from the affected countries. Very stringent protocols are already in place for the vetting of visa and green card holders. Even the refugee communities that are affected by the order are already subject to very thorough security procedures that have been continually updated and reinforced, there is no case to be made (as there was in 2011 when the Obama administration paused refugee processing to review its procedures after the admission of Waad Ramadan Alwan in 2009) for the necessity of a radical overhaul.

As strategy the order makes even less sense than it does as security policy. While it is true that ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other groups hostile to the United States are active in the affected countries, this does not argue for the wisdom of Trump's ban. A total travel ban (extending even to visa holders and legal residents of the US) is a contingency that a nation adopts in a time of war. Thus with his order President Trump has signaled that the U.S. is effectively at war with all the people of Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Syria, a move that can only help the recruiting efforts of anti-US forces operating in those countries. 

This order can not be coherently read as policy, but must be viewed as pure politics. Donald Trump promised his supporters a "Muslim ban," and as Rudy Giuliani admitted, this order is effectively an attempt to make good on that promise. It is designed to create the impression that Trump is making up for laxness on the part of his predecessor. As policy it is a solution in search of a problem (even more, it is a solution that can only exacerbate problems we already have). But as theater it is an effective way of broadcasting to Trump's supporters, "now we are finally getting tough."

This is distressing for several reasons. The fact that the President would jeopardize the security of the US and its armed forces in pursuit of political advantage would be bad enough. But any assessment of the situation is made even worse by the real doubt that the political advantage to be had from this action is itself in any way meaningful. Despite having been sworn in more than a week ago the President seems to still be in campaign mode. That is strange, and is made stranger by the fact that the next election is almost two years away.

However the optics of the current moment might favor the President among his recent voters, the effects of this policy will have a very long time to percolate through the dynamics of our foreign and domestic affairs before their political impact is felt at the polls again. Have the President and his advisors really thought out the long term impact of this move, even in political terms? If not, and the ultimate political fallout of this order predictably works to the detriment of the administration, then we are faced with the very real possibility that the President and his team have sold out the safety and security of the United States for less than nothing. If that is the case, and the Trump administration will ultimately be shown to have shot itself grievously in the foot, one can only wonder at what future mistakes may be in the offing. If the Trump team proves as inept at political strategy as the current mess would seem to indicate, how competently will they conduct strategy in realms where the security and welfare of the United States are genuinely at stake?

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Trump's First Test?

Last Friday the Serbian government sent a train emblazoned with the words "Kosovo is Serbia" to the border between Kosovo and Serbia, where it was stopped by Kosovan security. In response the Serbs amassed a force of 60,000 soldiers on the frontier and have pledged to invade Kosovo if any Serbs are attacked. They have failed thus far to move the train across the border, but the standoff continues.

Though Serbia has never acknowledged the independence of Kosovo (a stance in which they are joined by Russia, China, and other nations), the border between these two countries has been relatively peaceful since the conclusion of the Kosovo War of 1998-99. The motivation for the Serbs to stir up unrest now can be nothing other than the inauguration of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States. Belgrade's strongest ally and patron has been Vladimir Putin of Russia, and  no force contributed more to the independence of Kosovo than the NATO soldiers led by General Wesley Clark. Thus President Trump's affectionate talk about the former leader and musings about the obsolescence of the latter alliance are the simplest explanation for why the Serbs would feel that this was the opportune moment to be bold.

This all might blow over without producing so much as a footnote for future history books. But this could materialize into a crisis that sets the trajectory for the rest of Trump's term in office. We may find out in dramatic fashion just how much truth there is to the rumors that Donald Trump is a Russian lackey. If we don't achieve clarity on that question, we will at the very least be treated to our first test of the feasibility of Trump's reality-TV mode of communications. The Serbs will be listening very closely to every word said by Trump and his delegated spokespeople. If they get the sense that the Trump administration will not oppose an invasion, a forcible redrawing of the map may be attempted.

If that should happen, the long-term effects cannot be good. The extinguishing of Kosovan independence would be a restructuring much more radical than any of the recent Russian adventures in Georgia, Crimea, and eastern Ukraine, in that it would entail the dismantling of a territorial power that the US and its allies had recognized as sovereign. Allowing the Serbs to destroy such a significant geopolitical construct that so much NATO blood and treasure had been expended to effect will neuter the Alliance for good and all. Once that has happened, all of the boundaries of Eastern Europe and the Baltic States will be in play. Radicals will be incentivized to pursue dreams of "Greater Russia" at the expense of neighboring states, with war and chaos potentially being the final result.

Back in September I wrote that Donald Trump "disqualified himself by a number of statements he has made and positions to which he has committed himself" which stood "in such stark breach of the political norms of our system," that he could not "reasonably fill the office of President." At the time I thought that the Baltic states, where Trump had expressed an unwillingness to foot the bill for our commitment to our NATO allies, would be the flashpoint where his words were likeliest to catch up to him. But the entire world has been listening closely to Donald Trump's "America First" rhetoric, and there are myriad local grievances and scores that aggressive actors will be tempted to settle if they get the sense that the US will stand aside. Unless Mr. Trump can gain in clarity and coherence quickly, we may be treated to an object lesson in the dangers of loose took very soon.

Friday, January 20, 2017

An Open Letter to President Barack Hussein Obama

Dear Mr. President,

       I write to thank you for your eight years of service to our country. Though I have disagreed with you on some issues, particularly with regard to foreign policy, I have never flagged in my admiration of the dignity, erudition, eloquence, and dedication to principle with which you have fulfilled your office. Your stewardship of the economy and the reforms you oversaw to our health care system and financial markets were all landmark achievements. Many of the speeches that you gave are models of depth, insight, and probity that will be studied by and edify students and scholars for generations to come.

Though there is the chance that many of the policy initiatives you have overseen will be rolled back or reversed in the near term, I am confident that your work will have a lasting impact on the historical trajectory of our great Republic. You have presented us with a model of what a president can be, and that will continue to inspire citizens as debates over the shape of government and society continue. Moreover, I know that you will remain actively engaged in public life, and I look forward to continuing to benefit from your efforts and leadership. God bless you and your family, and thank you again for your all your good work.


                                                    Andrew Meyer

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mr. Trump, Meet Mr. Godwin, or Mr. Pot, You Must Know Mr. Kettle

Watching our president-elect compare our intelligence agencies to Nazis on Twitter and at yesterday's press conference must have produced feelings of vertigo in many observers across the political spectrum. It is not unprecedented for presidents to come to loggerheads with the intelligence community, but for our elected executive to go full Godwin nine days before being sworn in must set a new record for speed of descent. The only thing more dizzying than the event itself has been the cloud of commentary surrounding it, especially from those who have risen in the president-elect's defense.

It is true that the privately produced dossier leaked by Buzzfeed that occasioned Mr. Trump's remarks is an ethically and journalistically dubious document. But, after he campaigned on the "facts" that Senator Cruz's father had assisted in the assassination of JFK, or that "thousands and thousands" of Muslims had celebrated in New Jersey on 9/11, or that "millions of people" voted illegally on November 8, et cetera, anyone who could listen to Mr. Trump declare that "it's a disgrace that information that was false and fake and never happened got released to the public" without feeling some degree of nausea has a seriously skewed sense of plausibility.

This is not meant to excuse Buzzfeed or the media more generally by appeal to some perverse notion that two wrongs make a right. But however ill-used Mr. Trump may have been in the recent media fracas, little can change the fact that he came to the table already sorely bereft of the moral authority necessary to respond to the situation, and proceeded to make matters worse in his usual fashion. A politician who had, in all other ways, behaved in impeccably statesmanlike manner, who then compared the intelligence services to Nazis in the face of this crisis would lose all credibility in the eyes of the public and the political establishment. That otherwise serious commentators feel enabled to defend Donald Trump in this instance arises only from the fact that we have been conditioned to expect so little from Trump through long exposure, and that is a problem.

Presidents routinely come under gratuitous, libelous, and insulting attack, and are occasionally compelled to respond. President-elect Trump has so debased his own public persona and so squandered his own credibility that he comes into office completely destitute of the type of political capital needed to defend the dignity and standing of his office in the usual manner. Moreover, with each new crisis he digs the hole in which he is trapped even deeper. The contrast between his response (for example) to libelous attacks on Ted Cruz ("you can't knock the Enquirer") and on himself ("are we living in Nazi Germany?") reinforces the by now deeply-ingrained impression that nothing matters to Donald Trump apart from his own interests and position. To compare your own momentary discomfort to the worst genocide in history, especially when it arises from practices in which you yourself have frequently indulged, is to declare to the world, "For me, nothing is sacred....apart from myself."

Those of us who have opposed Donald Trump are looking forward to four years of pleas and accusations centered on the general theme of "giving him a chance." While it is true that he is the President-elect of the United States, and that to be a patriotic citizen requires that we all give Donald Trump a "chance" to succeed in office, we should be clear about what such a chance entails. Mr. Trump comes into office under a cloud of disrepute of his own making. He has profaned the principles on which our Republic is founded and forsworn the trust of the electorate he is charged to govern. He labors under an onus of redemption, and unless and until he atones for his many political transgressions by dint of long effort and restraint, he can not expect to receive any normal level of respect or deference from anyone, much less from his political opposition.