US House condemn Trump over Syria, Pence in Turkey

MSN: House condemns Trump’s Syria withdrawal

In a stinging bipartisan rebuke, the House on Wednesday condemned President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria.

Voting 354 to 60, lawmakers approved a non-binding resolution opposing the move, which set the stage for Turkey’s military assault against Kurdish forces in Syria that the U.S. partnered with to beat back Islamic State terrorists.

“What kind of message does this send to the world? How can America be trusted to keep its word when we betray one of our close partners?” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) asked on the House floor. “Congress must speak out against this disgrace.”

The top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, said he understood Trump’s “legitimate concerns” about committing troops overseas, but said the president’s Syria pullout had damaged U.S. interests in the region.

“I, too, want to wind down our overseas conflicts and bring our troops home,” McCaul said. “But leaving [northeast] Syria now does not resolve the problem that brought us there in the first place. It only creates more.”

“We need a residual force in place,” he added. “The consequences of this decision have already unfolded before our very eyes.”

The resolution is non-binding and doesn’t condemn Trump by name. It calls on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to halt Turkey’s military campaign in Syria and urges humanitarian support to displaced Syrian Kurds and calls on the U.S. to ensure Turkey “acts with restraint and respects existing agreements related to Syria.”

The resolution also urges the Trump administration to outline “a clear and specific plan for the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Reuters: Pence to urge Turkey to halt Syria offensive as threat of further sanctions loom

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will urge Turkey on Thursday to halt its offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, a day after President Donald Trump threatened heavy sanctions over the operation.

Turkey’s week-long assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 160,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish fighters, who were Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Turkey launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Trump defended his move on Wednesday and called it “strategically brilliant”.

Trump is one of very few who have praised how he has handled this.

Pence will meet Erdogan around 1130 GMT, while Pompeo and other officials are expected to hold talks with counterparts. A top aide to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, met National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien on Wednesday and said he conveyed Turkey’s position.

On Wednesday, Trump said he thought Pence and Erdogan would have a “successful meeting”, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy” otherwise. Kalin said that Turkey’s foreign ministry was preparing to retaliate to the U.S. sanctions.

Erdogan has dismissed the sanctions and rejected a global chorus of calls to halt the offensive, which Turkey says will create a “safe zone” extending 20 miles (32 km) into northeast Syria to ensure the return of millions of Syrian refugees and clear the area of Kurdish fighters Ankara views as terrorists.

Trump’s decision to withhold protection from Syrian Kurds upended five years of U.S. policy.

It has also created a land-rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition the Kurdish areas that were formerly under U.S protection.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has called the offensive “unacceptable” and said it must be limited in time and scale. In a rare criticism of Turkish policy on Syria, Moscow said Turkish troops had the right to temporarily go up to a maximum of 10 km into Syria, under a 1998 agreement between Damascus and Ankara.

Syrian troops, accompanied by Russian forces, have meanwhile entered Kobani, a strategic border city and a potential flashpoint for a wider conflict, said the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war.

The White House tried to talk tough (-ish):

The White House, fighting the domestic political damage and perhaps trying to demonstrate the president’s efforts to stop the offensive, released a Trump letter to Erdogan from Oct. 9 that said: “Don’t be a tough guy” and “Don’t be a fool!”

But Erdogan is acting unmoved.

Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk, quoting sources, said Turkey had rejected Trump’s appeal to reach a deal to avoid conflict, saying the letter was “thrown in the trash”.

Think: Trump’s letter to Turkey’s Erdogan shows the U.S. is struggling to keep up with Ankara

President Donald Trump’s letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, urging him not to go after an enemy Kurdish military group in neighboring Syria as U.S. troops depart the war-torn country, indicates that the U.S. president wants to corner his Turkish counterpart. But Erdogan, who has run Turkey for nearly two decades, may well be smarter than to let himself be trapped.

So far, the Turkish president shows no sign of stopping his relentless advance despite the threat of American sanctions Trump delivered in his missive, made public Wednesday but penned last week. Erdogan has calculated that even if the sanctions come, they won’t be sufficient to disrupt the Turkish military strategy; he figures that what Trump wants most is to bring U.S. troops home, and he won’t do much more to prevent the offensive against the Kurds.

The BBC is just reporting: Turkey to suspend Syria offensive, US says

Turkey agrees to pause operation in northern Syria to let Kurdish-led forces withdraw – US Vice-President Mike Pence

A Trumpian slip?

Donald Trump has been taking a risk with his habit of firing off tweets.

He tweeted yesterday ” I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected”.

This has been reported as acknowledgement by Trump that Russia helped elect him, but also as a possible mistake. Trump backtracked soon afterwards.

LA Times: Trump sows confusion with tweet conceding Russia helped him win the 2016 election

Maybe it was a presidential epiphany. More likely, it was a Twitter miscue.

Either way, President Trump appeared to concede for the first time Thursday that Russian intelligence agents tried to help him win the 2016 election, as the U.S. intelligence community has concluded, a reversal of his long-held claims.

Trump later reversed himself again but the episode highlighted the difficulty he faces rejecting the official U.S. assessment, backed up by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s recent investigation and two grand jury indictments, that the Kremlin deployed a combination of fake news stories, phony social media accounts and hacked Democratic Party documents intended to damage Hillary Clinton and help Trump.

Speaking to reporters, Trump also claimed that Mueller was “totally conflicted” and a “true never-Trumper” who led a biased probe, a curious claim since he has repeatedly praised Mueller’s 448-page final report for, in the president’s eyes, fully exonerating him of any wrongdoing.

Trump has often been inconsistent and contradictory with his claims.

Trump deleted the tweets minutes after posting them, suggesting he had misspoken. But then he reposted them, fixing a misspelling of the word “accusation,” but leaving the phrase “helping me get elected” intact.

So did he really mean it?

Later, talking to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House, Trump was asked to clarify in person.

“Russia didn’t help me at all,” Trump said, returning to his old talking point. “Russia, if anything, I think, helped the other side.”

PBS News Hour:

In our news wrap Thursday, President Trump renewed attacks on Robert Mueller and his probe into Russian election interference. Trump also tweeted that he himself had nothing to do with Russia’s “helping me get elected,” but later tried to walk back the reference to Russian involvement.

Trump remains furious at House investigations of his finances and businesses, and apparently by the growing number of Democrats, including several running for president, to start impeachment proceedings. He described impeachment as a “dirty, filthy, disgusting word.”

Much of Trump’s newest frustration stemmed from Mueller’s statement Wednesday. Saying he didn’t intend to speak again on the matter, Mueller reiterated that his report did not exonerate Trump on obstruction charges and said that he declined to weigh in on whether Trump committed a crime only because Justice Department rules prevented it.

This all continues to be a distraction. Meanwhile Trump’s trade war against China continues, and also yesterday he threatened to impose tariffs against Mexico until they fixed his border immigration problem.

This latest side show isn’t as bad as ‘live by the tweet, die by the tweet’, it shows the risks Trump is taking doing his own online promotions and attacks.

The National (American) Interest and ‘realism’

I don’t know anything about ‘realism’ as far as foreign policy goes, but The National Interest promotes it for the United States.

It is about American interests. It is guided by the belief that nothing will enhance those interests as effectively as the approach to foreign affairs commonly known as realism—a school of thought traditionally associated with such thinkers and statesmen as Disraeli, Bismarck, and Henry Kissinger. Though the shape of international politics has changed considerably in the past few decades, the magazine’s fundamental tenets have not. Instead, they have proven enduring and, indeed, appear to be enjoying something of a popular renaissance.

Until recently, however, liberal hawks and neoconservatives have successfully attempted to stifle debate by arguing that prudence about the use of American power abroad was imprudent—by, in short, disparaging realism as a moribund doctrine that is wholly inimical to American idealism. This has been disastrous.

After the Bush administration’s failure to discover weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, it became abundantly clear that the lack of a debate in Washington was part and parcel of a larger foreign policy failing, which was the refusal to ponder the larger implications and consequences of the promiscuous use of American power abroad. A reflexive substitution of military might for diplomacy, of bellicose rhetoric for attainable aspirations, dramatically weakened rather than strengthened America’s standing around the globe.

But today, as Russia, China, and Iran assess and act upon their own perceived national interests, Washington must attempt to understand those nations as they understand themselves.

I’m not sure that the US has been very good at understanding other nations, apart from how they can be influenced and manipulated too serve US interests.

What actually constitutes true realism is, of course, an appropriate source of controversy.

I don’t get that.

And so, on both its web site and in its print edition, The National Interest seeks to promote, as far as possible, a fresh debate about the course of American foreign policy by featuring a variety of leading authors from government, journalism, and academia, many of whom may at times disagree with each other.

The National Interest editorial:  Standing Up For Realism

The Center for the National Interest, which was founded by Richard M. Nixon in 1994, is being criticized for its embrace of realist principles, including outreach to Russia based on a combination of diplomatic and military strength.

Realism, long associated with authoritarian European statesmen such as Otto von Bismarck and Klemens von Metternich, has been consistently portrayed as antithetical to American democratic traditions. During the Cold War, statesmen such as Kissinger or Zbigniew Brzezinski were depicted as amoral or even harboring, in the case of the latter, loyalties to Poland rather than America.

But in one form or another, no matter what the detractors may claim, realism is at the very heart of American foreign policy. It is what helped America to emerge as the dominant power after World War II and during the Cold War.

The realist approach served as a bipartisan foundation for Washington’s approach to the world, providing a common framework for identifying threats and defending American interests abroad. Everyone from Harry Truman and Dean Acheson to Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to George H.W. Bush and James Baker espoused a strategic realism that played a decisive role in ending the Cold War on American terms. Even Ronald Reagan, who talked about battling an evil empire, ended up signing sweeping arms control treaties with the Kremlin and consigning the Cold War to the dustbin of history.

These statesmen helped to establish a stable balance of international power that safeguarded Western prosperity and freedom while allowing for the peaceful internal transformation of the Soviet bloc.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, however, realism fell into disrepute. Headier doctrines that amounted to old wine in new bottles now found favor. The United States found itself alone at the top of the international pyramid and became convinced that its security could be based on transforming non-Western nations in America’s image.

The two major strands of American foreign policy that dominated during the post-Cold War period—neo-conservatism and liberal internationalism—may have disputed the appropriate mix of force and diplomatic persuasion, but they were united in pursuing a missionary foreign policy.

This approach has failed. It has led to debilitating wars in the Middle East that have sapped America’s treasury. It has helped turn competitors into enemies. Regions that once enjoyed the strategic benefits of a balance of power have been thrown into disorder and disarray. The world order that prevailed in 1989 is now in shambles.

I don’t think the ‘world order’ that prevailed in 1989 was very flash either.

The Center for the National Interest has consistently challenged liberal international and neocon thinking to advocate a foreign policy based on a prudent combination of diplomacy, economic and military strength to defend American national interests.

Realism is asserting US power by any means available?

Who got it right? The answer seems self-evident. But at the very moment that realist doctrines should be ascendant, a media backlash is taking place that is directly targeting the Center, principally for its pursuit of a dialogue with Russia. The idea seems to be that it is illegitimate, even unpatriotic, to advocate anything that defies foreign policy conventional wisdom.

Dialogue amongst major powers is important. The US should talk to Russia to try to work out how to co-exist peacefully and prosperously.

To be sure, previous foreign policy debates, whether over Vietnam or the second Iraq War, have been marked by fierce vitriol. But those debates took place within a commonly agreed framework of seeking to advance American interests. Today, the debates have curdled into vitriol and character assassination, pure and simple.

That’s where US politics has seemed to have evolved to. It doesn’t help that the President repeatedly sets an example using vitriol and character assassination, but he seems to have avoided that with Russia, instead heaping praise on Putin  – or at least his talks with Putin. Actually he has just had a phone conversation with Putin.

Reuters also quote him as saying “Had a long and very good conversation with President Putin of Russia. As I have always said, long before the Witch Hunt started, getting along with Russia, China, and everyone is a good thing, not a bad thing”.

It is a good thing if the US gets along with Russia and China, and peace seems to be working fairly well, except in Afghanistan where the Taliban is increasing it’s influence, and in Syria where Russian influence increases as the US tries to work it’s way out of the complications there.

Reuters:  Trump says he, Putin discussed new nuclear pact possibly including China

U.S. President Donald Trump said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed on Friday the possibility of a new accord limiting nuclear arms that could eventually include China in what would be a major deal between the globe’s top three atomic powers.

Trump, speaking to reporters as he met in the Oval Office with Peter Pellegrini, prime minister of the Slovak Republic, also said he and Putin discussed efforts to persuade North Korea to give up nuclear weapons, the political discord in Venezuela, and Ukraine during a call that stretched over an hour.

Trump cited the expense of keeping up the U.S. nuclear arsenal as a motivating factor behind wanting to limit how many weapons are deployed.

“We’re talking about a nuclear agreement where we make less and they make less and maybe where we get rid of some of the tremendous firepower that we have right now,” he said.

Trump said China during trade talks had “felt very strongly” about joining the United States and Russia in limiting nuclear weapons.

“So I think we’re going to probably start up something very shortly between Russia and ourselves maybe to start off, and I think China will be added down the road. We’ll be talking about non-proliferation, we’ll be talking about a nuclear deal of some kind, and I think it’ll be a very comprehensive one,” he said.

The Kremlin said the call was initiated by Washington. It said the two leaders agreed to maintain contacts on different levels and expressed satisfaction with the “businesslike and constructive nature” of the conversation.

But the the reality is, it’s not simple:

The two leaders discussed Ukraine. Trump canceled a summit meeting with Putin late last year after Russia seized three Ukrainian Navy ships on Nov. 25 and arrested 24 sailors. Putin also told Trump that the new leadership in Ukraine should take steps to solve the Ukrainian crisis, the Kremlin said.

With the United States concerned about a Russian military presence in Venezuela at a time when Washington wants Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to leave power, Trump told Putin “the United States stands with the people of Venezuela” and stressed he wanted to get relief supplies into the country, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

Putin told Trump that any external interference in Venezuela’s internal business undermines the prospects of a political end to the crisis, the Kremlin said.

Trump also raised with Putin the issue of getting North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Trump has met twice with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un but Kim has yet to agree to a disarmament deal.

Putin has just had talks with Kim Yong Un. NY Times: After Meeting Kim Jong-un, Putin Supports North Korea on Nuclear Disarmament

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia made a public show of support for North Korea on nuclear disarmament, seeming to undermine President Trump’s approach to nuclear diplomacy, as Mr. Putin and Kim Jong-un on Thursday wrapped up their first summit meeting.

Russian officials have long insisted they wanted to support Mr. Trump’s efforts at one-on-one nuclear negotiations with Mr. Kim, the North Korean leader. But speaking to reporters after the meeting in Vladivostok, on Russia’s Pacific Ocean coast, Mr. Putin said that North Korea needs security guarantees from more nations than just the United States before abandoning its nuclear arsenal.

At talks in February in the Vietnamese capital, Hanoi, Mr. Trump had proposed a “big deal” to lift punishing economic sanctions in return for a quick and complete elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. Mr. Kim offered, instead, only a partial dismantling of nuclear facilities — while keeping his arsenal of nuclear warheads and missiles — in exchange for relief from the most harmful sanctions.

After the breakdown in talks in Hanoi, North Korea vented its frustration with a weapons test and accusations that Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, and secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, were sabotaging negotiations.

But since then (Reuters):  North Korea fires ‘projectiles’, South Korea says stop raising tensions

North Korea fired several “unidentified short-range projectiles” into the sea off its east coast on Saturday, prompting South Korea to call on its communist neighbor to “stop acts that escalate military tension on the Korean Peninsula”.

Analysts suspected the flurry of military activity by Pyongyang was an attempt to exert pressure on the United States to give ground in negotiations to end the North’s nuclear program after a summit in February ended in failure.

I’m not sure where Realism fits in here.

 

 

 

Trump recognises Israel’s annexation of Golan Heights

Sovereign over the Golan Heights has been a contentious issue in the Middle East since Israel captured two thirds of the area from Syria in the Six Day War in 1967, and effectively annexed in 1981.

Donald Trump has earned praise from the embattled President Netanyahu by recognising Israeli sovereignty, the only country to do so, but could stir up tensions again in the Middle East.

Since the 1967 Six-Day War, the western two-thirds of the Golan Heights has been occupied and administered by Israel.

From 2012 to 2018, the eastern Golan Heights became a scene of repeated battles between the Syrian Arab Army, rebel factions of the Syrian opposition including the moderate Southern Front, jihadist al-Nusra Front, and ISIL-affiliated factions. In July 2018, the Syrian government regained control of the eastern Golan Heights.

Construction of Israeli settlements began in the remainder of the territory held by Israel, which was under military administration until Israel passed the Golan Heights Law extending Israeli law and administration throughout the territory in 1981.

his move was condemned by the United Nations Security Council in Resolution 497, which stated that “the Israeli decision to impose its laws, jurisdiction, and administration in the occupied Syrian Golan Heights is null and void and without international legal effect”, and Resolution 242, which emphasises “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”. Israel maintains it has a right to retain the Golan, also citing the text of UN Resolution 242, which calls for “safe and recognised boundaries free from threats or acts of force”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Golan_Heights

Washington Examiner – Trump: Time for US to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights

The announcement comes just weeks before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facingpotential criminal corruption charges, is up for re-election. Netanyahu, who has leaned heavily on Trump’s support, praised the announcement Thursday.

Speaking beside Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Israel on Thursday, Netanyahu thanked Trump for recognizing the region.

“President Trump has just made history. He did it again. First, he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. embassy here, then he pulled out of the disastrous Iran treaty and re-imposed sanctions, but now he did something of equal historic importance.”

Haaretz: Trump Signs Order Recognizing Golan Heights as Israeli Territory

In a joint press conference, Trump said: “We do not want to see another attack like the one suffered this morning north of Tel Aviv,” adding: “Our relationship is powerful.” Trump then said: “We will confront the poison of anti-Semitism.”

Netanyahu said he brought Trump a “box of the finest wine from the Golan Heights.”

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin welcomed the proclamation, calling Trump “a true friends of the State of Israel.” Opposition head Shelly Yacimovich, as well as Labor chairman Avi Gabbay, also commended the move.

Syria’s foreign ministry called the decision a “blatant attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Syria on Monday, in a statement carried by state news agency SANA.

In a joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Netanyahu said, “We feel that it’s a Purim miracle, President Trump made history today.” According to Netanyahu, “Trump recognized Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights at a time when Iran is trying to use it as a platform to destroy Israel.”

The move by Trump caused an instant international uproar of protests: under international law, the Golan Heights are considered to be Syrian territory occupied by Israel, like East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Israel captured the Golan Heights, which is populated by around 25.000 Druze, in 1967 and de facto annexed the territory in a 1981 law.

After the Trump tweet, a European Union spokesperson in Israel told Haaretz the EU will not change its position regarding the Golan Heights in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s declaration. Representatives of Russia, Turkey, multiple actors in the Arab world including Palestinians and Syrians also condemned the move.

Washington Examiner – Netanyahu to Trump: ‘Israel has never had a better friend than you’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told President Trump on Monday that “Israel has never had a better friend than you”.

“Mr. President, over the years Israel has been blessed to have many friends who have sat in the Oval Office. But Israel has never had a better friend than you. You have showed this time and again,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu, thanking Trump, said of the formerly Syrian Golan Heights: “We hold the high ground and we shall never give it up.”

Al Jazeera: Why Trump recognised Israel’s claim on the Golan Heights

While the US decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights is primarily being explained away with geopolitics, it, in fact, has much more to do with US domestic politics. With this move, President Donald Trump aims to cement the gradual shift in partisan support of Israel from the Democrats to the Republicans and rally evangelical Christians around his presidency.

He chose to sign the Golan Heights sovereignty decree on March 25 as American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main Israel lobby group in the United States, was holding its annual conference in Washington. This year, the event took place against the backdrop of Democratic House Representative Ilhan Omar’s comments criticising the lobby and the decision of a number of Democratic presidential candidates to boycott it.

Trump and members of his administration took the opportunity to attack the Democratic Party, with Vice President Mike Pence rebuking the Democratic party for being “afraid to stand with the strongest supporters of Israel in America”.

A few days earlier, Trump was even more explicit: “I don’t know what happened to them, but they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly, I think they are anti-Jewish.”

The White House is purposefully feeding a narrative that the Democrats’ commitment to Israel is wavering and that there are growing signs of what one former Trump campaign aide has called “Jexodus” – the supposed exodus of American Jews from the Democratic camp, which they have traditionally supported, to the Republican one.

There has always been a complex political symmetry between Israeli and US politics. Right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never got along with two liberal US presidents; Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. However, Trump is the gift that keeps on giving.

The current collusion between right-wing leaders in both the US and Israel is unprecedented and is marginalising the left in both countries and pushing back against what they perceive as liberal institutions, most notably the media and the judiciary branch. Trump hopes to use this alliance to engineer a sway to the right in US politics, similar to the one in Israel.

While political decisions favouring Israel are certainly boosting Trump’s and Netanyahu’s chances of re-election, they are conflicting with other US objectives in the Middle East. Pompeo’s March 22 visit to Beirut, for example, was eclipsed by Trump’s decision on the Golan Heights, which undermined his call on local political forces to deter Hezbollah.

The Trump-Netanyahu alliance is putting Arab allies of Washington in a difficult position, as unconditional US “gifts” to Israel are increasingly antagonising the Arab public. These policy distractions undertaken by the Trump administration are undermining the US’s attempt to deter Iran and are in many ways helping Tehran’s anti-US narrative.

The growing alliance between the US evangelicals and the Israeli right is polarising US and Middle East politics and, while it may secure short-term electoral gains for Trump and Netanyahu, in the long term, it may prove disastrous.

Dina Badie (Channel NewsAsia):  Why Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory matters

Trump is popular in Israel, particularly after recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocating the American embassy there from Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently using the American president’s photos in his re-election campaign posters to take advantage of this.

In fact, some analysts and reporters have suggested that the timing of this announcement was politically calculated to bolster Netanyahu’s campaign in the upcoming Israeli elections on Apr 9.

So claims that both Trump and Netanyahu see election advantages foe themselves over the move by Trump.

I expect that the decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights will run into the same difficulties that afflicted the Trump administration’s change in policy with regards to Jerusalem for two reasons.

First, it reverses decades of consistent US policy that demanded any territorial recognition come as a result of direct negotiations, rather than unilateral declarations.

Second, it runs counter to international law, which does not recognise Israeli sovereignty over territories occupied during the 1967 War.

To be sure, Trump’s move is a symbolic, rather than legal, gesture. But given the dimensions of America’s global influence, US recognition could lend some legitimacy to Israel’s controversial annexation policy.

And I believe Trump’s approach to contentious issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict will further undermine the US government’s claim to be an honest broker. In my view, it makes peace in the Middle East less likely.

And claims that there could be flow on effects of this move by Trump.

Heather Timmons (Quartz): Why Trump’s Golan Heights move should worry India and Taiwan

By ignoring the United Nations charter pledge to refrain from “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state,” Trump is putting the future of other long-disputed territory in jeopardy, foreign policy experts say.

“It sets a terrible precedent,” said Edward Goldberg, a professor with New York University’s Center for Global Affairs. “If the US doesn’t recognize international law as the ‘cop,’ then who does?,” he said.

“What if China goes into Taiwan tomorrow, isn’t that the same thing?,” Goldberg said, “or Pakistan into Kashmir?”

Russia’s neighbors may also be affected. Russia has already called outUS “hypocrisy” over sanctions related to the Russian annexation of Crimea, notes Stacie Goddard, a professor of political science at Wellesley College.

“In the short run, this is most likely to bolster Russia’s confidence in South Ossetia and Abkhazia,” the breakaway territories that were once part of Georgia, but now supported by Russian military.

Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and the United Nations immediately condemned Trump’s proclamation, and the UN declared Israel’s annexation of the area “null and void.”

Stephen Blank (The Hill): Trump’s Golan Heights announcement will backfire for Netanyahu — and US

While the military situation in the Golan has not changed, Trump’s decision fundamentally alters the political context there. Rather than enhancing Israeli security this decision actually diminishes it. Trump’s statements have made it impossible for any future Syrian government, not only Bashear Assad’s regime, to make peace with Israel. No Syrian regime of any stripe will accept Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights leading to Damascus.

Moreover, Israeli annexation of the Golan furnishes an ideal and enduring pretext for Iran, and its client forces like Hezbollah, to stay in Syria to defend against the “Israeli threat.”

Thus, Iranian forces and terrorists associated with them will not only stay in Syria and threaten Israeli forces and civilians in the Golan and Israel proper, their belief in their cause and their recruitment will grow, causing major new security challenges and costs to Israel.

Likewise, it also furnishes an outstanding pretext for Moscow to strengthen its military bases in Syria. That also challenges U.S. and NATO forces in the Mediterranean. This will make Moscow even more resolute about trying to undermine U.S. policy across the entire Middle East and Africa as it is now doing with visible success.

Clearly, the U.S. has no viable strategy for building peace in the Middle East or for confronting the Palestinian or Iranian challengers to peace.

Nothing is simple in the Middle East. I think it’s difficult to predict what effect Trump’s recognition of the annexation of the Golan Heights will have, but it is unlikely to improve peace prospects.

Blatantly intervening in Israel’s politics ahead of an election, we have undercut our argument to everyone else that Russia (and implicitly China) must be countered because they interfere in our and our allies’ domestic politics. Here again, we have sacrificed principle for expediency and given our opponents the means to stigmatize our policy as being hypocritical.

Like Russia, the US is guilty of trying to influence and interfere in elections around the world for a long time.

Cynical politics rules.

Clinton rules out 2020 run for presidency a win for Putin?

Hillary Clinton has ruled out another run for the US presidency in 2020. This may be seen as a win for Vladimir Putin, with it being pointed out “how much Vladimir Putin hates Hillary Clinton” – the misogynist versus the sort of feminist.

Could Russia target Ardern and New Zealand democracy? Have they already done this?

CNN:  Hillary Clinton rules out 2020 run, but says ‘I’m not going anywhere’

Hillary Clinton said Monday that she is not running for president in 2020 but will continue to speak out about politics, saying, “I’m not going anywhere.”

“I’m not running, but I’m going to keep on working and speaking and standing up for what I believe,” the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee told CNN affiliate News 12 Westchester.

“I want to be sure that people understand I’m going to keep speaking out. I’m not going anywhere,” Clinton said.

When asked if she would consider running for governor, mayor or any elected office again, Clinton told News 12, “I don’t think so,” adding that she loves living in New York and is grateful for the time she spent as senator of the state.

“What’s at stake in our country, the kinds of things that are happening right now are deeply troubling to me.” She said the country has become “not just polarized, we’ve gotten into really opposing camps unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my adult life.”

Clinton said that “we’ve made a lot of progress” but “we still have a long way to go on women’s rights, on gay rights, on making sure that every person has the same chance to have their dignity and their identity respected.”

This may be why Russia got so involved in the 2016 US election. Whether Trump’s campaign ‘colluded’ with Russia, or whether Russia used Trump to dump on Clinton, are still unanswered questions. The Robert Mueller report may or may not provide answers.

More from Erynn Brook:

It’s basically impossible to say HRC’s name without being bombarded with memes and trolls and propaganda. And that’s all intentional. I’m not talking about her policies. I’m talking about the interpersonal dynamic between Putin and HRC playing out on a world stage.

Oh the dog incident with Merkel isn’t just “related”, it’s more evidence. It’s in the intelligence briefings that’s she’s afraid of dogs. He gave Merkel a stuffed dog the year before. It’s straight up psychological warfare.

Foreign Policy: Putin uses dog to intimidate Merkel

Remember that Hillary Clinton was First Lady when Putin became Prime Minister and then President. Remember that Hillary is widely cited as being the driving force behind her husband’s political career.

Remember that she had an objectively successful political career, AFTER her husband’s impeachment. I don’t mean a while after, I mean like while it’s happening she’s running for state senator in NY. Which she won. That should have been impossible.

Love her or hate her, that’s not what I’m talking about.

Hillary Clinton is demonstrably, a very, very good politician. It’s likely she decided she wanted to be president when she was a kid and that influenced a large majority of her life choices.

So Clinton becomes Secretary of State when Putin is Prime Minister for the second time, and she is a force to be reckoned with. AND she’s the wife of his former American counterpart. She’s the woman he used to tell his wife to entertain. She’s fucking decor to him.

I am begging you to get this: refusal to see the role misogyny played in all of this, in the state of our world right now, is making things worse.

Don’t take my word for it, do your own research. Do some real, substantial research.

And ask yourself: if the richest, most powerful, most dangerous misogynist in the world, thought that the woman who had been coming for him for decades, who saw through all his shit and wasn’t afraid of him, if she was about to get the one job she could get to take him down.

If he saw that coming towards him, if this dangerous man who built a career on crushing political dissidents iduring Cold War, if this “world class misogynist” felt threatened by a WOMAN…

What would he do? What could he do?

Here, I’ll even give you a few places to get started. By all means, if you can show me I’m wrong while still addressing all the Russia crap, without resorting to more misogyny, and with actual, demonstrable, critical analysis, I’d love to hear it.

Brook links to another thread:

And it’s a wider problem.

What are the implications for New Zealand? Jacinda Ardern has positioned herself in stark contrast to both Trump and Putin. New Zealand may not matter much to Russia, but it’s possible Putin could start taking potshots at Ardern. And at our democracy.

Has it already happened? Why did Cameron Slater and Whale Oil actively promote Winston Peters in our 2017 election?

A year ago Peters was in the news here for promoting a trade deal with Russia, and for fudging around while other Western countries condemned Russia for their involvement in the Salisbury nerve agent attacks.

Noted noted: What’s with Winston’s crush on Russia?

With Winston Peters, it’s the Secret Samovar. He has this thing about Russia, and no one can explain why. There was the suggestion, when he began harping on about restoring full trade relations with Russia some years ago, that his close ties with the fishing industry had made him hyper-sensitive to lost trade opportunities in seafood.

This week, Peters has repeated his scepticism that Russia shot down the Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine in 2014 and expanded that refusenik-ism to cover the growing suspicion that Russia just poisoned a spy and his daughter in Britain.

He also averred that our getting a free-trade deal with Russia would be just as good, and should be just as big a priority, as scoring one with the European Union.

It may be that Peters admires Putin’s strongman approach in the way he shares some heartland electoral territory with Trump over immigration and protectionism. Among his startling comments as Foreign Minister this week was one expressing sympathy with the US’s proposed new tariffs on aluminium and steel – which had immediately to be contradicted by Trade Minister David Parker.

Anyway, Peters’ preoccupation with Putin’s Russia goes back years; it’s not something he’s just manufactured as a handy coalition prying bar. And dying in a ditch over Russia is hardly the gesture lost NZ First voters – or any other voters, for that matter – would rally around.

It may be a stretch to suggest a Russian-Peters-Slater conspiracy.

It could simply be that to different degrees Peters shares a similar misogynist view with Putin and Trump, seeing themselves as superior to female leaders, and attracted to each other in a ‘strongmen unite’ sort of empathy.

 

Trump cherry picks Cohen ‘truth’ from ‘lies’, ignores chain of collusion

This is very funny.

Newshub:  Trump says Cohen telling the truth about collusion

US President Donald Trump has criticised his former lawyer Michael Cohen for lying in testimony to Congress but found reason to praise him, too, for not alleging Mr Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia in 2016.

Mr Trump, speaking at a news conference in Vietnam after failing to achieve a peace deal with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, called the blockbuster hearing back in Washington “fake” and said it should not have been scheduled during his trip.

“He lied a lot, but it was very interesting because he didn’t lie about one thing – he said no collusion with the Russian hoax,” Mr Trump said.

“I wonder why he didn’t lie about that too like he did about everything else. I was actually impressed that he didn’t say, ‘well, I think there was collusion for this reason or that’. He didn’t say that.”

And even with this cherry picking Trump is making a false claim – “he said no collusion with the Russian hoax” is false. Cohen said he hadn’t seen evidence of Trump colluding with Russia. Cohen’s testimony:

“Questions have been raised about whether I know of direct evidence that Mr. Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia. I do not. I want to be clear. But, I have my suspicions.”

That’s quite different to “he said no collusion with the Russian hoax”. Trump made that up, as is his habit.

‘Collusion’ seems to have become the key phrase in discussing the Mueller investigation (more about that soon). Trump and most others don’t yet know exactly what Mueller has discovered. But there is evidence of a chain of collusion.

Trump obviously colluded with Cohen, with Paul Manafort, with Roger Stone. The first two have been convicted in relation to that, Stone is still being processed through court.

Stone colluded with WikiLeaks (with Trump’s knowledge according to Cohen), and it is claimed that WikiLeaks colluded with Russia.

Fox News:  Michael Cohen testifies about Trump, Roger Stone-WikiLeaks plot at House hearing

Fox News:  Cohen lobs bombs at Trump during fiery hearing

He waded into the investigation over Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, accusing Trump of knowing that an adviser, Roger Stone, was reaching out to WikiLeaks about the publication of stolen Democratic National Committee emails during the campaign. Trump has denied advance knowledge.

On Wednesday, Stone denied the claim, telling Fox News: “Mr. Cohen’s statement is not true.” WikiLeaks also released a statement saying, “WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange has never had a telephone call with Roger Stone.”

We will find out more about all this in time. But I think there is another issue as  important that Mueller is investigating – did Russia interfere in the US election.

Cohen claims that Trump didn’t think he would win the GOP nomination, and didn’t think he would win the election. Trump was trying to leverage his campaign to advance a hotel project in Moscow – it was mostly business he was after.

I suspect that Russia realised this and suckered Trump – they played him with the hotel deal carrot, and used Trump to put the election campaign into turmoil, and helping Trump get elected was a way to discredit the presidency and the US and democracy.

So far I think Russia has been quite successful. Trump has floundered in a game he was unfamiliar with.

Trump and his associates have done some stupid things in all of this, but I think the stupidest may turn out to be being suckered by the Russians.

There’s a lot more complexity to this than ‘did Trump collude with Russia,’

US to leave 200 ‘peacekeepers’ in Syria

Donald Trump’s sudden announcement in December that the US troops would withdraw from Syria took the world by surprise, and serious concerns were expressed in the Respected US. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis resigned immediately.

Trump said in a video released on Twitter:

“We have won against ISIS. We’ve beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land and now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”

That was questioned and ridiculed as fighting continued against ISIS.

And a  complete US withdrawal would have left Syria, Iran, Turkey and Russia in positions of influence.

The plan has now been adjusted, with 200 peacekeepers to remain.

Reuters:  U.S. to leave 200 American peacekeepers in Syria after pullout

The United States will leave “a small peacekeeping group” of 200 American troops in Syria for a period of time after a U.S. pullout, the White House said on Thursday, as President Donald Trump pulled back from a complete withdrawal.

Trump in December ordered a withdrawal of the 2,000 American troops in Syria, saying they had defeated Islamic State militants there, even as U.S.-backed Syrian forces continued a final push against the group’s last outpost.

But Trump has been under pressure from multiple advisers to adjust his policy to ensure the protection of Kurdish forces, who supported the fight against Islamic State and who might now be threatened by Turkey, and to serve as a bulwark against Iran’s influence.

“A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

The decision was announced after Trump spoke by phone to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. A White House statement said the two leaders agreed, regarding Syria, to “continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone.”

Leaving even a small group of U.S. troops in Syria could pave the way for European allies to commit hundreds of troops to help set up and observe a potential safe zone in northeast Syria.

The commander of U.S.-backed Syrian forces has called for 1,000 to 1,500 international troops to remain in the country to help fight Islamic State and expressed hope the United States, in particular, would halt plans for a total pullout.

The decision to retain peacekeepers could help Trump overcome criticism that he had ordered a precipitous withdrawal from Syria that could lead to Islamic State regaining strength.

It would also have left the Kurds, who the US had supported in Syria, in a precarious position with Turkey.

The decision to retain peacekeepers could help Trump overcome criticism that he had ordered a precipitous withdrawal from Syria that could lead to Islamic State regaining strength.

And it would have strengthened Iranian and Russian influence.

US senator Lindsey Graham had been strongly against the announced withdrawal.

Real Clear Politics (20 December 2018) – Sen. Graham: Trump Withdraw From Syria “A Stain On The Honor Of America”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) delivered a fiery speech on the Senate floor Wednesday night blasting President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Graham called Trump’s declaration that ISIS has been defeated “fake news” and leaving the country would be a “stain” on America.

Graham Statement on Syria (11 January 2019):

“From an American point of view, we have strategic objectives that must be accomplished in northeastern Syria.  The Iranians, Russians and Assad should not be allowed to be the biggest winners of our withdrawal.

“The mission in Syria is not yet complete and we must continue to work with our partners and allies to ensure that ISIS is destroyed and never returns.”

ABC News (17 January 2019):  Graham says Trump’s statements have emboldened ISIS in Syria

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a top ally of President Donald Trump, expressed concerns on Wednesday that Trump’s comments about withdrawing troops from Syria have emboldened terrorist groups like ISIS, and that he hopes Trump thinks “long and hard” about his next moves when it comes to withdrawing troops from the war torn country.

“My concern by the statements made by President Trump is that you have set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we are fighting. You make people we are trying to help wonder about us.”

Task and Purpose (20 February 2019): Sen. Graham tells Shanahan that leaving Syria is ‘the dumbest f*****g idea I’ve ever heard’

“That’s the dumbest f******g idea I’ve ever heard,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reportedly replied when Shanahan confirmed the Trump administration still plans to complete the Syria withdrawal by April 30.

Later, Graham told Shanahan, “I am now your adversary, not your friend.”

The blow up came during a Feb. 16 meeting in Munich with Shanahan and three dozen lawmakers from both parties, according to Breitbart, the Washington Post, and NBC.

Graham’s spokesman Kevin Bishop did not dispute media reports of Graham’s comments during the meeting, adding the senator declined to comment for this story.

While he rarely criticizes the president, Graham initially called Trump’s decision to pull all U.S. troops from Syria a “huge Obama-like mistake.”

The pressure on Trump to think long and hard – something that seems alien to his personality – seems to have worked.

After the announcement that the US would leave troops in Syria, Graham issued this statement:

“This will ensure ISIS does not return and Iran does not fill the vacuum that would have been left if we completely withdrew. This also ensures Turkey and SDF elements that helped us defeat ISIS will not go into conflict.

“A safe zone in Syria made up of international forces is the best way to achieve our national security objectives of continuing to contain Iran, ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS, protecting our Turkish allies, and securing the Turkish border with Syria”.

“With this decision, President Trump has decided to follow sound military advice. This decision will ensure that we will not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, in Syria. For a small fraction of the forces we have had in Syria, we can accomplish our national security objectives.

“Well done Mr. President.”

It still won’t be easy keeping all the different forces at bay and counter the influence of Iran, Turkey and Russia, but at least the US will have a base presence to work from.

There is a heck of a lot of sorting out still to do in Syria.

The Syrian civil war started in 2011, with the US getting involved with an international coalition in  2014. It’s been complicated. From Wikipedia:

The Syrian government and Syrian Armed Forces and its international allies, a loose alliance of majorly Sunni opposition rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Salafi jihadistgroups (including al-Nusra Front), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with a number of countries in the region and beyond being either directly involved or providing support to one or another faction (Iran, Russia, Turkey, the United States, as well as others).

Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah support the Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Armed Forces militarily, with Russia conducting military operations since September 2015.

The U.S.-led international coalition, established in 2014 with the declared purpose of countering ISIL, has conducted airstrikes primarily against ISIL as well as some against government and pro-government targets.

Since 2015, the US has also supported the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and its armed wing, the SDF. Turkey, on the other hand, has become deeply involved against the Syrian government since 2016, actively supporting the Syrian opposition and occupying large swaths of northwestern Syria.

Between 2011 and 2017, fighting from the Syrian Civil War spilled over into Lebanon as opponents and supporters of the Syrian Arab Republic travelled to Lebanon to fight and attack each other on Lebanese soil.

Furthermore, while officially neutral, Israel has conducted airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian forces, whose presence in southwestern Syria it views as a threat.

The 200 US troops that will remain in Syria have a few challenges – but will no doubt have a mass of ships and planes and troops not far away in support if needed.

And one of the biggest ongoing battles may be in limiting the damage Trump does with spur of the moment announcements on Twitter that can have serious implications for the Middle East and the world.

I hope Trump has not been given the ability to order nuclear strikes by tweet.

“A majority of French and Germans now trust Russia and China more than the United States”

Donald Trump is shaking up international relations. Some of this may eventually be for the better. He things he deserves a Nobel Peace prize – see Trump boasted at a news conference on Friday that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had given him a copy of a five-page letter he’d sent to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which selects the annual Peace Prize laureates – but that is debatable.

But the Trump doctrine (chaos and shoot from the tweet) is also very risky and threatens the established super power balances.

And at increasing risk is relationships between the US and Europe.

Longtime analyst of German-American relations Karl Kaiser: “Two years of Mr. Trump, and a majority of French and Germans now trust Russia and China more than the United States.”

NY Times:  Rift Between Trump and Europe Is Now Open and Angry

European leaders have long been alarmed that President Trump’s words and Twitter messages could undo a trans-Atlantic alliance that had grown stronger over seven decades. They had clung to the hope that those ties would bear up under the strain.

But in the last few days of a prestigious annual security conference in Munich, the rift between Europe and the Trump administration became open, angry and concrete, diplomats and analysts say.

A senior German official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on such matters, shrugged his shoulders and said: “No one any longer believes that Trump cares about the views or interests of the allies. It’s broken.”

The most immediate danger, diplomats and intelligence officials warned, is that the trans-Atlantic fissures now risk being exploited by Russia and China.

The Europeans no longer believe that Washington will change, not when Mr. Trump sees traditional allies as economic rivals and leadership as diktat. His distaste for multilateralism and international cooperation is a challenge to the very heart of what Europe is and needs to be in order to have an impact in the world.

But beyond the Trump administration, an increasing number of Europeans say they believe that relations with the United States will never be the same again.

International relations never remain the same, they keep evolving, but the Trump thump could end up being a seismic shift in power balances.

If Europe moves closer to Russia and China this will further isolate the US. To an extent this is what Trump wants, he puts nationalism well ahead of international interests, but he may not understand the potential repercussions and unintended consequences.

The most visible pushback against Washington came from Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — who delivered an unusually passionate speech — and from her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen. They spoke about the dangers of unilateral actions by major partners without discussing the consequences with allies.

They cited Mr. Trump’s recent announcements that American troops would leave northern Syria and Afghanistan, as well as the administration’s decision to suspend one of the last remaining arms-control agreements: the ban on land-based intermediate range missiles.

That decision affects European security, and there has been no alternative strategy, Ms. Merkel said. Abandoning the treaty, despite Russia’s violations, helps decouple Germany from the American nuclear umbrella.

“We sit there in the middle with the result,” Ms. Merkel said.

The Syria pullout, she continued, could only help Russia and Iran. That view was echoed by the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, who called American policy in Syria “a mystery to me.”

Trump’s Syrian policy is contentious within the US. Immediately following his announcement of the US pulling out of Syria, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis resigned.

Last week: Russia, Iran, Turkey to hold fourth round of Syria talks in Sochi

Thursday’s meeting between Putin, Iran’s Hassan Rouhani and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will focus on the long-term settlement of the Syrian crisis, the Kremlin said in a statement on Monday.

But the three leaders will also discuss projects and coordination on the international arena.

The Syria talks run in parallel to the Geneva talks organised by the United Nations.

But Russia distrusts the negotiations organised by the West. On Wednesday, Russia stayed away from a Middle East conference organised by the United States in Poland, a NATO member.

Last month (Fox News):  Trump administration riles European Union with diplomatic snub

President Trump has angered European Union officials by downgrading the E.U. delegation to Washington’s diplomatic status — and not telling them.

The move by the State Department, reported by Germany’s Deutsche Welle, downgraded the E.U.’s Washington delegation from member state to international organization.

“We don’t exactly know when they did it, because they conveniently forgot to notify us,” an E.U. official told the outlet, which reported that the move initially happened in October or November.

Two days ago (Fox News): In Munich, Pence doubles down on criticism of Europe over Iran nuclear deal, urges removal of Maduro

Vice President Mike Pence asked European allies to follow Washington’s lead and withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and urged the European Union to recognize Venezuelan politician Juan Guaido as the country’s president during a speech to world leaders at the Munich Security Conference.

“The time has come for our European partners to stop undermining sanctions” against Iran by offering economic incentives in exchange for limiting its nuclear program, Pence said Saturday, speaking after German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

MSNBC: Pence met with silence; Merkel hammers Trump

While speaking at the 55th Munich Security Conference, VP Mike Pence was met with silence after mentioning President Trump. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel criticized the Trump administration’s foreign policies.

Wall Street Journal:  Munich Conference Highlights a Divided U.S.

A divided America was on display this weekend in Munich where Vice President Mike Pence and Democrats including his predecessor Joe Biden offered competing visions of the trans-Atlantic relationship that could shape the world for years to come.

Both Mr. Pence and the Democrats claimed to stand for U.S. leadership on the world stage and accused each other of wrecking a world order that is under threat by rival powers, namely China and Russia.

Mr. Pence presented a strong defense of the Trump administration’s “America First” policy to world leaders gathered for the annual Munich Security Conference. The theme this year, “Picking Up the Pieces,” reflected a view widely shared among European nations: that the world order is in danger because of a breakdown in the relationship between the U.S. and its European allies.

Politico.eu: Munich Insecurity Conference

The Munich Security Conference — a forum conceived during the Cold War to discuss security threats and challenges — has never been an event for the faint of heart. Even so, the mood at this year’s gathering, the 55th, would best be described as funereal.

It’s no secret Europeans and Americans (i.e. the Trump administration) have been at odds over a laundry list of issues including the Iranian nuclear deal, climate policy, trade and commitment to NATO. Yet the interaction between the two sides in Munich — which bordered on the caustic, both in public and behind the scenes — left some participants warning that the estrangement threatens to hobble the transatlantic security alliance at a time of growing instability.

Instability heightens risks.

James Stavridis, a retired American admiral who served as NATO’s supreme allied commander until 2013, said the alliance’s paralysis was most apparent where it can least afford it: hybrid warfare, an area that all sides agree poses a severe threat to the stability of democratic systems.

The threat to democratic systems is not just in the US and Europe.

ABC (Australia): Scott Morrison reveals foreign government hackers targeted Liberal, Labor and National parties in attack on Parliament’s servers

He confirmed earlier reports, revealed by the ABC, that the nation’s cyber security agencies believed a foreign government was behind the attacks.

“Our cyber experts believe that a sophisticated state actor is responsible for this malicious activity,” Mr Morrison told Parliament.

Investigations into hacking and foreign interference in elections in the US are controversial, but connstitutes a major threat to democratic systems.

Back to Europe: Angela Merkel Ruffled at Prospect of More Trump Hardball Tactics, Sources Say

Merkel’s chancellery team is concerned at the prospect of further hardball tactics from the Trump administration after fending off U.S. efforts to turn her European Union partners against a new gas pipeline between Germany and Russia, the people said, asking not to be named discussing private conversations.

The U.S. effort to drive a wedge between Germany and its EU allies had helped spur Merkel to deliver one of her most impassioned speeches when she addressed the meeting earlier in the day. Her defense of the multilateral order challenged by Trump earned a standing ovation from the audience of presidents, prime ministers and senior defense officials.

She also added a geopolitical dimension to her argument, warning that isolating Russia at a moment of tectonic shifts in global relations was not in Europe’s interests.

“Consciously shutting Russia out politically, I think that’s also wrong,” Merkel said. “Europe can’t have a geopolitical interest in halting all relations to Russia.”

If Trump keeps pissing other countries off he will get what he wants to an extent, a more isolated US. What fills that power vacuum could constitute a major shift in international power balances.

Russia suspends nuclear arms treaty after US threatens the same

In response to the US threatening to withdraw from the long standing Nuclear Forces Treaty if Russia didn’t comply with it, Russia has responded by withdrawing from the treaty.

I don’t know if this signals the reigniting of another nuclear arms race, or if Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are just playing some sort of brinkmanship.

Whatever it is, it looks like a sign of deteriorating relations between the US and Russia.

Reuters:  Russia suspends nuclear arms treaty after U.S. says to pull out

Russia has suspended the Cold War-era Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, President Vladimir Putin said on Saturday, after the United States said it would withdraw from the arms control pact, accusing Moscow of violations.

The United States announced on Friday it will withdraw from the INF treaty in six months unless Moscow ends what it says are violations of the 1987 pact.

It would reconsider its withdrawal if Russia came into compliance with the agreement, which bans both nations from stationing short- and intermediate-range land-based missiles in Europe. Russia denies violating the treaty.

“The American partners have declared that they suspend their participation in the deal, we suspend it as well,” Putin said during a televised meeting with foreign and defense ministers.

Putin said Russia will start work on creating new missiles, including hypersonic ones, and told ministers not to initiate disarmament talks with Washington, accusing the United States of being slow to respond to such moves.

“We have repeatedly, during a number of years, and constantly raised a question about substantiative talks on the disarmament issue,” Putin said. “We see that in the past few years the partners have not supported our initiatives.”

During the meeting with Putin, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the United States of violating the INF and other arms deals, including the non-proliferation treaty.

Back to cold war style blaming each other for what they want to do themselves.

Trump seems to have had a night off Twitter so no response from him yet.

 

On the FBI investigation of Trump’s Russian connections

There continues to be defenders of Donald Trump and deniers of any Russian collusion.

Washington Examiner – Devin Nunes: Counterintelligence bombshell shows FBI leaders ‘had no real evidence against the Trump team’

On Friday, the New York Times reported the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into Trump the day after he fired FBI Director James Comey in the spring of 2017. The counterintelligence inquiry was later wrapped into the FBI’s broader Russia collusion investigation, which special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed to lead after Comey’s ouster.

Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the New York Times’ bombshell report on a counterintelligence investigation into President Trump’s ties to Russia only strengthens the argument that the FBI has no evidence of collusion against the Trump team.

“This is yet more evidence that FBI leaders actually had no real evidence against the Trump team,” Nunes said in a statement obtained by the Washington Examiner‘s Byron York. “Instead, they were simply trying to undermine a president they didn’t like and avenge Comey’s firing. By relying on the Steele dossier — a fraudulent document funded by Democrats and based on Russia sources — FBI leaders were either complicit or too oblivious to notice they were being used in a disinformation operation by the Democratic Party and Russian operatives.”

In a follow-up, the Washington Post reported the president took steps to try to protect his conversations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, including pressuring a translator to withhold information on discussions between the two leaders from administration officials.

And there continues to be claims that there was obvious cause for concern.

…imagine you are a FBI Agent working Russian counterintelligence in 2016 and you witness the following:

– you witnessed Russian hackers targeting a wide swath of Americans including the DNC, DCCC, former Secretary of State & a Presidential candidates staff

– someone previously targeted by Russian Intelligence joins the Trump campaign and then appears on a stage in Moscow supporting Russia policy and speaking negatively of US policy

– A Presidential candidate hires a new campaign manager whose not been in the business in the states for years, but has been seen pushing a Russian agenda in Ukraine and has Russian intel contacts

– an Australian official contacts you and says the Russians have stolen emails of a Presidential candidate & may want to give them to the candidate’s competitor

– a Russian lawyer & others tied to Russian government visit a Presidential candidate’s son in the candidate’s building in NYC

– Candidate Trump stands on a stage and calls out Russia and asks about emails from his competitor, says they will be rewarded if they have them and release them

– website that’s released sensitive & classified documents from US for years, helped deliver a US insider to The Kremlin, begins publishing document & emails during Dem convention, content you know was stolen by Russia. Site administrator once hosted a TV show on Russia State TV

– during this time, you watch a campaign associate tweet with a Russian account that’s pointing people to stolen documents from the opposing campaign. The campaign associate predicts something will happen to the opposing campaign manager- his emails are later released

– as Election Day approaches, Presidential candidate makes allegation, without evidence, voter Fraud & Election Rigging, Russia propaganda echoes this, social media accounts associated Kremlin do the same, at same time, you watch Russian Hackers hit state election infrastructure

After election, current President issues sanctions against Russia, but the incoming National Security advisor makes calls to Russian officials from 3rd country, when approached for clarification post inauguration, the advisor lies about contents of phone call w/Russian officials

During summer fall leading into the election, you receive raw intelligence from highly reliable source whose proven invaluable on other investigations. source provides intelligence on Russia’s efforts to support a presidential candidate, the info is consistent with other info

Before inauguration your bosses, your leaders from all intelligence agencies brief president elect on classified info showing Russia influenced the election on behalf of President elect. President elect rejects intelligence from all your superiors and suggests Russia innocent

From the summer of 2015 all the way through the election and after inauguration, you watch as the candidate, president elect and now president offers overt effusive support for Vladimir Putin who you know has been helping the President get elected.

Shortly after inauguration, your new commander-in-chief spouts false information about Polish aggression toward Belarus. This is not supported by the Intelligence community you are in, and the only source for this viewpoint is Russian propaganda.

After firing of National Security Advisor that lies to agencies investigators, the President corners your boss 1-1 asks him to go easy on National Security Advisor who lies about his conversation with Russians.

During this period, the President inexplicably and repeatedly asks your boss if he’s under investigation with regards to Russia, despite your boss and other intel heads going out of their way to brief the President about Kremlin efforts to potentially compromise & manipulate him.

While Congressional committees investigate Russian interference, the President fires your boss for his handling of an email investigation into the President’s opponent, an investigation that helped elevate the President rather than hurt him.

You later find out a draft memo from President to your boss regarding his firing cited the Russia investigation.

The President then goes on national television and in an interview says he fired your boss because of the Russia investigation.

A week after firing your boss, the President invites Russian leaders into the Oval Office, Russian photographers capture the moment, but US media is not allowed to observe. President then brags to Russian leaders about firing your boss.

Sometime during the spring, if you’re not already aware, you read a news story alleging the President’s son-in-law may have sought a way to communicate with Russia via a back channel not monitored by you and your colleagues.

During summer, you watch the President attend NATO summit and shove Montenegro PM, in an Interview claim Montenegro is aggressive, might start a war. This mirrors Russian propaganda & you know Russia backed covert operation destabilize Montenegrin election.

For next year, either you, your colleagues and your organization, FBI, are discredited by President. He mixes true and false information in public disclosures which you are not allowed to respond to. If you do respond, your accused of leaking and could be fired or even jailed.

Documents & information from confidential sources you’ve pledged to protect, are selectively leaked into public through those who are supposed to provide government oversight. These inappropriate disclosures make your job as an investigator nearly impossible & hurts your sources.

At some point during the summer or before, you learn that the President’s son was receiving & responding to direct messages from website that was releasing emails stolen from the President’s opponent by Russia.

1st two years President’s term, you watch him take a negative, adversarial stance toward NATO and particularly Germany. This strains your relationship with your most valuable intel partners, your Counterterrorism agent colleagues depend on them & they help fight war on terror.

Over next 2 years, President aggressively seeks meetings with Putin who helped elect him. Need for meetings is not clear. One President meets in private with Putin for 2 hours without witnesses but translator. To this day, you, your bosses don’t really know what was discussed.

President emerges from private meeting with Putin and on world stage in Helsinki accepts and validates Russian denials about election interference & rejects years of your teams intel work. This badly damages your reputation and partner trust with your organization.

Separately, your President publicly discusses a Russian proposed partnership on cyber security, this insane concept is mind boggling to you as an investigator as you’ve just spent years tracking these same Russians who just attacked your country.

Even further, your President publicly mentions a possible exchange where Russian investigators might interview and interrogate you and other Americans about their attack on you and America. A crazy, frightening and bizarre threat to you as a civil servant.

Throughout your investigation into Russian interference, you watch as your President’s attacks on the Special Counsel, Justice Department & FBI are amplified and spread in America by the very Russian troll social media accounts and state sponsored propaganda you are investigating.

Throughout the Special Counsel indictments, hearings and trials, you watch the President and his legal team publicly interject, discredit witnesses and discuss pardons, all subverting the rule of law and justice which you’ve dedicated your life to protect and defend.

You either know or learn a parallel investigation shows Russians representing a bogus Russian gun rights movement penetrated the political party hosting members who’ve tried to discredit you – you recognize this as a TEXTBOOK espionage/influence op you learned at FBI academy.

After two years, the Attorney General over you, who appropriately recused himself from Russia investigation, is fired for seemingly no clear reason after taking public lashings from the President.

Your AG is replaced by an acting AG whose unqualified for position, has limited experience justify such high level appointment, you’ve watched him on TV discrediting your agency and your team’s investigation despite seeing none of evidence or knowing anything Russian influence.

The same month, the President’s personal lawyer pleads guilty in federal court and says he continued negotiations throughout almost the entire Presidential campaign for a Tower in Moscow. This is in opposition to President’s public denials.

You read public reporting that the best apartment in the Moscow Tower project pursued by the President’s business was offered to Russia’s President Putin, the same Putin your President always sides with over you and your agency, the Putin who helped your President win.

You either knew or learned through a redaction error that the President’s campaign manager was alleged to have lied about providing polling data to a Russian whom he owed money, via a former Russian GRU contact.

That was Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Clint Watts concludes:

Wrote thread through day from memory without web searches, I’m sure I missed a lot, & this is all on the public, can’t imagine what it must feel like to serve FBI during this investigation,we clearly don’t know everything Mueller team knows, I imagine there is much more to learn.

If Mueller has been doing his job and is as thorough as has been claimed I imagine he has learned quite a lot.

As Watts shows, there is already a lot out in public, but no doubt there will be more to come when Mueller’s report comes out. It has been reported a draft of his report has already been done.

Whatever the outcome of Mueller’s investigation, it is important for the US and for the world that the results are publicly known.