The West's principle geostrategic adversary.
The American public and their president are focused on the accelerating nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula, and with good reason. Yet while the United States has turned its attention to one urgent strategic challenge, it has taken its eye off another: Russia.
The outside world is only just beginning to get a full understanding of the scale of Moscow’s abuses in the European territory it carved off Ukraine’s southern coast in 2014. According to a report conducted by the United Nations, Russian police, paramilitaries, and the FSB are implicated in grave human-rights abuses and terrorizing the population of Crimea. “The abuses included the extrajudicial killing of at least one pro-Ukrainian activist, the panel found, and while dozens of people abducted from 2014 to 2016 have been released, at least 10 are still missing,” the New York Times reported.
The report detailed how the law in this closed peninsula is arbitrarily applied. It noted the extent to which Russian citizenship imposed on the Crimean people has been used as a weapon, forced on some who did not seek it or denied others, along with rights to state-provided services and enfranchisement. Finally, the report indicated how ethnic and religious discrimination on the peninsula has exploded since 2014.
As is their centuries-old wont, Russian officials are allegedly repressing the peninsula’s Tartar minority, including its political representatives. Russia is also de-registering Jehovah’s Witnesses congregations as officially sanctioned religious groups. A separate report from the human rights organization Agora has confirmed these disturbing revelations and further alleged that the FSB has transformed Crimea into a total surveillance state. Individuals in Russia’s grasp are tracked, and residents are forced to submit fingerprint, DNA, and voice-recording samples to the government.
Russia is transforming Crimea into a Black Sea version of Kaliningrad. In that Baltic enclave, a vast, state-supported criminal enterprise specializes in trafficking drugs, people, and weapons in and out of Europe, which is to say nothing of its status as a forward positioning post for Russian troops and heavy weaponry.
Meanwhile, in Ukraine’s east, a Russian-sponsored “frozen conflict” continues to rage. Since April 2014, more than 34,000 conflict-related casualties have been reported. More than 10,000 have died. Barack Obama vetoed a bill to provide non-defensive weaponry to Ukraine in 2015, but the Republican-led legislature has declined to similarly test Trump’s commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty. Nevertheless, America’s diplomatic and advisory-level military commitments to supporting Ukraine’s side of the contact line in the Donbas region ensure that the U.S. will be drawn further into the fighting in that region if it flares, as it does at Moscow’s fancy.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, a post-civil war Syria is beginning to take shape, but it is one dominated by great powers and not the hollowed out regime in Damascus. On Monday, the United States accused Russian forces of conducting airstrikes in Deir al-Zour province in eastern Syria. The accusation is a revealing one, seeing as Moscow effectively divided Syria into east and west zones of control marked by the Euphrates River following a June clash between U.S. and Syrian air assets. If the U.S. is prepared to accept Russia’s de facto bifurcation of Syria, Russia—and its Iranian allies—are not. “Iran, a strong backer of the Syrian government, needs Deir al-Zour to secure a land corridor from Tehran to its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah,” the Washington Post noted. There’s no room for the United States or the West in Syria in this post-conflict formulation.
The Russo-Iranian axis developed into a frustrating counterbalance to American power in the Middle East in the Obama era, and the Trump administration has failed in its early attempts to destabilize it. Today, Iran and Russia enjoy increased agility in Syria and the ability to deny America and its allies the freedom to act at their will. Alienated Sunni populations see the U.S. as complicit in the rise of Russia and Iran in their backyards. An ominous analysis conducted by Jennifer Cafarella and Fred and Kimberly Kagan warns that Russian and Iranian-linked Shiite political forces may be able to replace Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with a more pro-Iranian figure in 2018, and the U.S. may lose all access to Iraq as a staging ground. The prospect of being forced out of both Iraq and Syria amid a growing Iranian, Russian, and potent Islamist terror threat looms large, and that could prove a decisive disadvantage if tensions between Iran and the United States take on a military dimension.
The fatal flaw in Obama’s strategic vision was the idea that the United States had the luxury of pivoting in one direction or the other. The hegemon is omnidirectional by necessity. While Northeast Asia has taken precedence, Eastern Europe and the Middle East are metastasizing. The United States has a Russia problem that it would rather ignore. Not only does this president have a bizarre soft spot for the autocrat in the Kremlin, he also shares his predecessor’s reluctance to engage in the strategic necessity of imposing costs on Russia as it pursues a newly extroverted foreign policy. That might prove a fatal conceit.
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The Consequences of Letting Russia Run Wild
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Don't be crazy.
Over the course of a decade in which Republicans acquired elected office after elected office, winning more political power today than at any point since before Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency, a funny thing happened to conservative partisans: They became convinced of their utter powerlessness and persecution.
There is a temptation among conservatives to paint sympathetic portraits of their fellows who have retreated into a persecution complex. They often note: Republican legislative victories in Washington are few and far between; liberals dominate the popular culture and academia; mainstream media outlets have responded to this period of Republican dominance with reactions that range from subtle condescension to irrational hyperbole, and so on.
These efforts to absolve the clinically anxious must know some limit. That limit should be reached when Republicans begin impugning their fellow countrymen with such embellishment that it amounts to slander. That’s the best way to describe the comments of Fox News Channel’s Greg Jarrett who, alongside a complacent Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, described the FBI as “America’s secret police.”
As part of a frenetic effort to discredit the special counsel probe into Donald Trump’s campaign, Jarret said Robert Mueller is using the FBI as “a political weapon.” “Secret surveillance, wiretapping, intimidation, harassment, and threats,” he said of the Bureau. “It’s like the old KGB that comes for you in the dark of the night.”
Fox host Sean Hannity assured his audience: “This is not hyperbole you are using here.” It was. Jarrett said that the evidence for his assertion was a “no-knock” warrant issued for Paul Manafort—something that judges approve when they have reason to believe a suspect in a crime is withholding evidence and may destroy it. Manafort was, in fact, withholding evidence from prosecutors.
“The FBI is a shadow government now,” Jarrett added. He cited the FBI agent Peter Strzok, an agent who worked on the investigation into Hillary Clinton and was ousted from the Mueller probe in July for sharing anti-Trump political opinions with his mistress. As National Review’s Andrew McCarthy noted, the presence of partisan Democrats on this probe is optically problematic, but that does not itself constitute evidence of the probe’s corruption. Confusing antipathy toward James Comey’s handling of the Clinton case with the conduct of the Mueller probe is a category error that muddies the argument.
Those on the right who imagine themselves persecuted by an “American secret police” are, however, right about the KGB and its various satellite services throughout the Warsaw Pact. Those organizations were guilty of orchestrating political reprisals. An honest comparison of the KGB’s conduct with that of the FBI should, however, humiliate those who make the defamatory comparison.
The Soviet secret police persecuted whole religions and nations. An early Soviet policy of ethnic particularization in the Soviet Union’s regions was soon replaced under Stalin with a kind of paranoid bigotry that resulted in the repression of entire “enemy nations.” Finns, Baltic peoples, Koreans and Chinese, Poles and Germans, Kurds, Persians, and Tartars were all subjected to forced migrations, ethnic cleansing, and the Russification of their respective cultures.
Between 1917 and 1964, an estimated 50,000 Christian clergy were executed, but they were arguably the lucky ones. The clergy who survived preached to congregations that were penetrated by the KGB or were recruited by the spy services to preach anti-Christian gospel or submit to tyrannical self-censorship. In a penitent memoir published posthumously, former KGB agent Sergei Kourdakov described the beating of “believers” and the confiscation of religious texts. One operation consisted of the ambushing of a baptism, in which agents attacked and tortured the congregants, killed the pastor, stripped, humiliated, and beat children before shipping them off to a police station—a way station on the long road to a Siberian work camp. Jews and Muslims fared no better. Jews made up the bulk of the “Refuseniks” who, along with a variety of other persecuted religious groups, could never apply for an exit visa. If they did, the KGB would ensure that applicants lost their jobs and faced imprisonment or forced labor.
The KGB operated “torture houses,” some of which are now open to the public in the former Soviet Republics that are not actively trying to whitewash the ugly history of the Soviet Union. These spy services murdered political nonconformists and subjected their families to intense repression. The KGB was responsible for the exile and oppression of authors, artists, Nobel Prize winners, scientists, and doctors. The Soviet secret service coerced forced confessions, conducted political show trials, and consigned rebellious thinkers to mental hospitals and forced medication regimens. These are not episodes exclusive to the grainy black-and-white days of Stalin’s reign. They continued into the mid-1980s.
Those are the famous examples of persecution, but there are countless stories involving average, everyday citizens of the Eastern Bloc who were not spared the wrath of the Communist world’s secret services. Take Vera Wollenberger, for example.
Wollenberger resented the German Democratic Republic’s decision to host Soviet nuclear missiles and introduce military instruction in grade schools. With the encouragement of her husband Knud, she joined the East German peace movement in 1981. The Stasi harassed her family, invaded their home, and ensured she lost her job. Seven years later, she was arrested and imprisoned for carrying a banner bearing a Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg quote that read, “Freedom is how free your opponent is.”
When Communism collapsed and Wollenberger gained access to the file the Stasi kept on her, she discovered that the chief informer against her, the person responsible for her and her family’s decade of misery, was her husband, the father of their two children. “The reports were written as if about a stranger, not about a wife,” she later recalled, “To him, I was an enemy of the state.” Knud Wollenberger was one of hundreds of thousands of citizens of the former Warsaw Pact who were convinced or compelled to betray their friends and relatives for the benefit of the state.
The Mueller probe’s critics are not without legitimate grievances. The craven effort to equate the condition of men like Paul Manafort with the persecution endured by those who suffered under 20th Century communism is a confession that those grievances must be wildly exaggerated to appear legitimate. That isn’t an indictment of the FBI but, rather, of the Bureau’s accusers.
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Seeing the world as it is.
To a self-righteous set of foreign-policy observers, Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is the height of irresponsibility. From real American allies like Britain’s Theresa May to fake ones, like Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Trump’s move has been met with trepidation. Once again, we are told, an American president is sacrificing the credibility of the United States by going it alone, thereby abandoning the country’s singular role as global leader.This is, of course, a load of nonsense.
Hours after Trump’s announcement, the Czech Republic announced its recognition of West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Israeli media reported that Hungary and the Philippines will soon follow suit and begin the process of relocating their embassies to Jerusalem.
Trump’s decision to recognize an on-the-ground reality in Israel was made possible, in part, by the tectonic geopolitical shifts in the region—notably, a sub rosa Sunni-Israeli thaw led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. That rapprochement took place with America on the sidelines under Barack Obama, but that changed after Trump lifted an Obama-era arms embargo on Riyadh. Trump’s critics characterized this, too, as the end of American leadership. You see, the Saudis have engaged in a brutal war in Yemen against the region’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels, for which the Obama administration thought it deserved to be punished. And yet, minutes after Trump recognized Israel’s capital as Israel’s capital, he also publicly asked Saudi Arabia to lift an embargo of Yemeni ports to allow in some humanitarian aid—a request with which Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the White House has reason to believe the Saudis are complying.
If the last 24 hours is indicative of the end of American leadership abroad, we’re going to have to define what “leadership” truly means. For many observers, “leadership” is defined as the word’s literal antonym: adhering to international consensus.
Barack Obama recently lamented the “temporary absence of American leadership” resulting from Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accords. Unsurprisingly, the pundit class largely agreed with the former president. The accords did not, however, result in any kind of measurable commitment to meaningful greenhouse-gas emissions reductions on the part of conferees. Instead, member states submitted voluntary pledges on an individual basis ahead of the 2015 Paris summit; these were ratified without scrutiny. And what did conferees determine should happen to a signatory nation if it violated its pledge? Nothing at all. That’s not leadership. It’s complacency.
Likewise, Trump’s refusal to recertify the Iran nuclear accords, kicking the issue back to Congress where it will likely survive a “review process,” was depicted by his critics as a dereliction of the leader of the free world’s responsibilities. “Playing politics with core strategic foreign-policy interests will only erode the president’s credibility, his relationship with allies, and U.S. leadership on the global stage,” Brookings Institution visiting fellow Célia Belin warned. These sentiments were echoed by no less a figure than Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who cautioned Trump that America’s credibility was on the line. Indeed. Had the U.S. recertified a deal with which the International Atomic Energy Agency indicated Iran was not complying to maintain a pleasant (and lucrative) fiction, the authority and integrity of the United States truly would have been diminished.
Donald Trump’s impractical and oftentimes blinkered rhetorical commitment to populist isolationism does present a threat to America’s role as geopolitical trendsetter. The president’s skepticism of America’s traditional alliance structures, his antipathy toward international free trade, and his outright hostility toward accepted standards of diplomatic conduct (and the diplomats who abide by them) merits concern. But Trump’s bombastic flourishes have not, so far, resulted in any truly dangerous shifts in America’s posture toward either its adversaries or its allies. That fact has not stopped the president’s critics from dialing their consternation all the way up to 11 at the slightest provocation. Nor have Trump’s critics taken stock of the fact that some of his actions, such as reimposing sanctions on Iran and re-listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terror, restore consistency to America’s often contradictory approach to foreign affairs. A policy that favors global consensus for consensus’s sake would have proscribed these welcome courses of action.
Foreign-policy observers who are supposedly overcome with anxiety over the loss of America’s leadership in the world are aware of what a real abdication of leadership looks like. They watched as America spent the last eight years retreating from the world stage.
Obama and his administration are adamant that no one in the White House actually said the words “leading from behind” to describe the U.S. role in the 2011 Libyan intervention (the reporter who published that quote disagrees), but the rhetoric is beside the point. The Obama administration outsourced that intervention to Europe and, as a result, had no contingency in place in the event that the regime in Tripoli collapsed.
It was the Obama administration that withdrew impetuously from Iraq only to sheepishly and belatedly return when the mass murder and ethnic cleansing was days away from becoming a genocide. It was the Obama administration who subcontracted superpower status to Russia to avoid intervention in Syria, only to intervene anyway when the situation became untenable. And yet, despite the existing American military presence in and over Syria, there was no effort to stave off a preventable humanitarian crisis in places like Homs and Aleppo. It was Donald Trump who finally made good on Barack Obama’s “red line” for action if the Syrian regime deployed chemical munitions against civilians—an atrocity that has not been repeated since.
“American leadership” is too often defined by its self-appointed custodians as a synonym for taking the path of least resistance prescribed by European bureaucrats. Those who believe that crediting the president for his achievements provides him with cover to trespass civic norms or sow discord have it precisely backward. Objectivity sharpens those criticisms and exposes them to a wider audience. On the world stage, Donald Trump is not abdicating America’s role in the world, and his critics should acknowledge that. At least for now, the president’s approach to foreign affairs isn’t only familiar; it’s effective.
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Podcast: Recognition and resignation.
The second COMMENTARY podcast of the week takes up the recognition of Jerusalem, the downfall of Al Franken, and shoes dropping all over the place in the Trump-Russia investigation. Give a listen.
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The journalistic class is apoplectic over President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But conservatives, including those skeptical of this president, should add it to the list of Trump-administration foreign policies that deserve praise. The case for recognizing Jerusalem, and relocating the U.S. Embassy there, is formidable. Talk of the move throwing the region into chaos is overwrought and out of touch with Mideast reality.
For starters, moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem is in line with the democratic will of the American people. Congress in 1995 enacted a law requiring the State Department to make the relocation, but since then successive administrations of both parties have taken advantage of a waiver to delay it. The waiver process was written into the law. Even so, more than two decades of executive resistance amounts to defiance of Congress. Even die-hard Never Trumpers must admit: There is something refreshing about this administration’s willingness to carry out the law rather than sidestep it.
Yet professional peace-processors don’t care much for the foreign-policy preferences of the American people. They contend that Trump’s capital idea (pun intended) will scuttle any chances for a negotiated settlement to the seven-decade-long conflict. In this, they echo the Palestinian president-for-life, Mahmoud Abbas, who on Wednesday characterized the move as America’s “declaration of withdrawal” from the peace process.
Here’s the problem with this line of argument: What peace process?
For nearly a decade, Abbas has refused to sit down for direct talks, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s open invitation. Abbas’s rejectionism was spurred in part by the Obama administration’s theory that peace would come from creating “daylight” between the U.S. and the Jewish state and tying talks to an Israeli settlement freeze. Now, with the Jerusalem move, Trump is signaling that Washington will no longer tolerate the Palestinians’ excessive demands–or the obstinacy that led them to turn down generous offers from Ehud Barak in 2000 and Ehud Olmert in 2008.
But, ask the peace-processors, what about the violence that will ensue from this? Here one must respond: Have you looked at the Middle East lately?
The whole region is on fire, as America’s traditional Arab allies respond to Iran’s hegemonic ambitions from Yemen to Lebanon. Very little of today’s instability has to do with Israel at all. Thus, Washington should take Arab leaders’ statements of outrage with a grain of salt. Arab elites have to create some sound and fury over Jerusalem to satisfy their publics. But most of them today look to Israel as a protector and potential ally against Tehran.
It can’t be an accident, moreover, that Trump’s announcement followed news of Abbas’s visit last month to Saudi Arabia. There, the reformer-prince Muhammad bin Salman (MBS) reportedly told the Palestinian leader that Riyadh shares Netanyahu’s view of the conflict. The Palestinians must learn to accept a state with limited sovereignty and non-contiguous territory dotted with Israeli settlements. Under the MBS plan, the New York Times reported, “The Palestinians would not be given East Jerusalem as their capital and there would be no right of return for Palestinian refugees and their descendants.”
The leading Arab power, in other words, has concluded that maintaining the anti-Iranian alliance is more important than a settlement here or an East Jerusalem neighborhood there. The Trump administration’s Jerusalem decision, then, is attuned to the tectonic shifts taking place in the Middle East. Why keep pursuing the fiction that the Palestinian question is the most pressing problem in the region, when the Arabs themselves have moved on?
As for Palestinian groups’ threat of staging days of rage and rioting, that’s not so much an argument against Trump’s decision as it is a case study in why peace has remained elusive for so long.
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A new day for Democrats.
If Senator Al Franken has not resigned by the time you read this, it shouldn’t be long now. On Wednesday, a seventh woman publicly alleged that Franken had tried to force himself on her. That woman, a former Democratic congressional aide, claimed that the future senator justified his actions by contending, “It’s my right as an entertainer.”
Apparently, seven abused woman is one too many for Senate Democrats. Within the space of an hour, Franken’s once conspicuously deferential colleagues in the Democratic Senate Caucus publicly called on the Minnesota senator to surrender his seat. Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez joined the chorus, insisting that “Everyone must share the responsibility of building a culture of trust and respect for women in every industry and workplace, and that includes our party.”
The Democratic Party of December 6, 2017, is a far cry from its incarnation just a few days ago. That party responded to the allegations against Franken with stony silence, believed that John Conyers was an “icon” deserving of a ponderous Ethics Committee investigation rather than exile, and its members insisted that elected representatives should be held to lower standards of conduct than morning television hosts.
Democrats are going to pat themselves on the back for belatedly abandoning the tribalism and hypocrisy they courted when Conyers was an invaluable member of the Congressional Black Caucus and Franken was a fundraising draw who bankrolled his fellow Democrats. Senate Democrats are, however, owed a measure of gratitude. It’s never too late to get on the right side of history, as it were. Moreover, this maneuver could have potent political implications. It frees up Democrats to fire a withering round of righteous indignation at the Republicans who are sheepishly following their mercurial president’s lead and embracing a U.S. Senate candidate credibly accused of child molestation.
Late Monday night, the Republican National Committee announced its intention to reverse course and reinvest in Roy Moore’s campaign for Senate in Alabama. The committee had pulled out of the race along with the GOP’s senatorial committee following the revelations from several women who claimed that Moore had taken advantage of them when they were minors. The RNC’s piddling investment in the race isn’t enough to move the needle, but it is enough to satisfy Donald Trump, who recently endorsed his fellow accused molester for high office. “The RNC is the political arm of the president,” said an unnamed staffer presumably chained to a desk at the RNC, “and we support the president.”
The RNC’s gambit was only ever an attempt to force Moore to quit the race, as so many Republican senators insisted that he should. But there were never any teeth to their claim; Mitch McConnell never seriously entertained the idea of refusing to seat Moore should he win, which is the only threat that could have communicated the futility of the Alabama candidate’s decision to remain in the race. Moore likely calculated that the same collective-action problem that kept Democrats from lunging at Franken and Conyers would compel Republicans to back off of him. It was a safe bet based on an educated guess.
Republicans “scrambled” in a similar fashion following the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, which featured the voice of Donald Trump bragging about his penchant for sexual abuse and adultery. At the time, the Wall Street Journal reported that former RNC Chairman Reince Priebus encouraged party officials to redirect funds away from the presidential race and toward salvageable down-ballot candidates. “At some point, you have to look in the mirror and recognize that you cannot possibly justify support for Trump to your children—especially your daughters,” said Missouri businessman David Humphreys, who personally contributed over $2.5 million to the RNC between 2012 and 2016. But Trump ignored the calls for him to abandon the race, won, and compelled his fellow Republicans to recant and embrace their flawed president. Why wouldn’t Roy Moore think he could follow the same trajectory as the president?
He just might, but Democrats are in an interesting position now. They are no longer burdened by having to defend Hillary Clinton, who, despite her rhetoric about women deserving “the right to be believed,” had no qualms about impugning the motives of her husband’s accusers. Shorn of the hypocrisy associated with circling the wagons around abusers like Franken, Conyers, and Rep. Ruben Kihuen, Democrats are free to heap unreserved moral indignation upon Republicans. They can and, with the aid of their allies in the press, will compel every elected Republican to squirm as they decide whether to attack their own party’s voters or endorse bigotry and moral depravity.
Time was always on Roy Moore’s side, and it seems like he’s managed to wait out the worst. The initial hit his poll numbers took following the allegations involving his alleged sexual impropriety has abated. With the president by his side, Moore is assured that his fellow Republicans are going to have to carry his baggage whether they like it or not. Republicans don’t have to accept this fate, but turning on Moore now means turning on Trump, his voters, and the party he commands. That’s a risk few Republicans in Congress are prepared to accept, but conscience may demand it of them. Democrats are readying an attack on the GOP meant to brand it; no longer will it be just “the party of the rich,” but the party of sexual abusers and ephebophiles. Is that really what conservatives in Congress signed up for?