What to make of the Jerusalem decision?

Protesters outside the US consulate in Istanbul (AFP/Getty).
Protesters outside the US consulate in Istanbul (AFP/Getty).

 

What to make of President Trump’s decision to announce the United States will officially recognize Jerusalem as the capitol of Israel and begin the process of moving our embassy there?

Well, how darkly cynical are you?

From a policy standpoint, this decision makes less than no sense. In fact, and despite the wishful thinking that may have animated some in the Trump “peace team,” it is counterproductive if our intention was to reinvigorate serious negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinian.

Moreover, it is a spark that could ignite a crisis across the Middle East, as Emma Green points out in The Atlantic.

That’s not to say it wouldn’t have been a valuable final carrot to cement an agreement if it were offered up during the endgame to negotiations. But to do it now just widens the rift between the sides with the added consequence of destroying literally decades of diplomacy intended to bring Israelis and Palestinians closer together rather than drive them apart.

Further, it has dashed any remaining notion that the US could act as some sort of honest broker playing a productive role in the peace process.

To cap it all off, the decision has been met with near-universal condemnation from world leaders (Israel’s own notwithstanding) including vital friends and allies across the region, including in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

So, as policy, this is an awful decision, counterproductive at best, destructive to any peace process at worst. But what about as an act of politics?

The most generous reading is that Trump hopes to gain credibility as a man of his word and satisfy the desires of both his Christian evangelical base and pro-Israel American Jews, including major donors like casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, by keeping a promise on Jerusalem made during the campaign.

The less generous take on the politics of this decision roots it firmly in Trump’s willingness to seek political advantage by, as Peter Beinart writes, stoking the fires of anti-Muslim bias.

For Donald Trump, Muslim barbarism is a political strategy. It inspires the fear and hatred that binds him to his base. Muslim barbarism is so politically useful, in fact, that, when necessary, Trump creates it.

During the presidential campaign, he invented mobs of Jersey City Muslims who had celebrated 9/11. After the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, he invented a conspiracy in which “many, many people, Muslims living with them, in the same area” had been in on Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s plot. This February, he invented a terrorist attack in Sweden, which he blamed on the fact that Sweden “took in large numbers” of you-know-whos. Just last week, he invented a Muslim migrant’s attack on a crippled Dutch boy.

But on Wednesday, Trump outdid himself. By announcing that America recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he didn’t just invent Muslim violence. He provoked it.

The Trump administration was warned that violent protests were not just possible as a result of this announcement, but likely. The State Department went so far as to yesterday, even before the announcement, issue warnings to Americans in Jerusalem to avoid Palestinian areas of the West Bank and Jerusalem’s Old City, and for embassies worldwide to increase their security.

Unsurprisingly, protests broke out almost immediately around the world, and the decision has prompted heightened fears of terrorism. Both developments play right into Trump’s political narrative.

So what are we left with? Shockingly bad policy in the service of ugly, divisive politics. In other words, just another day in the Trump White House.

John Kelly is all of us

White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reacts to Trump's UN speech. (AP photo)
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reacts to Trump’s UN speech. (AP photo)

In case you missed it, President Trump made his debut before the United Nations General Assembly today, delivering a … unique … speech before the world body in which he:

  • Championed state sovereignty while calling for regime change in North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran.
  • Threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, which would, if taken seriously, mean the lives of 25 million North Koreans. For starters.
  • Announced, with all but a termination date, that the United States will pull out of the agreement to end Iran’s nuclear weapons development program.
  • Used a childish nickname, “Rocket Man,” to taunt North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un.
  • Boasted about his electoral victory, the US stock market, and the proposed $700 billion we intend to spend on our military.
  • Pledged to defeat “radical Islamic terrorism” and to punish those who support it through providing safe havens, political, or economic support, while praising Saudi Arabia which provides political and economic support for radical Islamic terrorist groups.
  • Praised countries that have accepted refugees from the wars in Syria and Iraq while standing unapologetic about our own refusal to do the same.
  • And used that issue as a springboard to blast what he described as “unfettered migration.”

It’s no wonder White House Chief of Staff John Kelly reacted the way he did.

Trump’s turn on Afghanistan

Trump is expected to announce more US troops for Afghanistan tonight.
Trump set to announce more US troops for Afghanistan tonight.

 

There is no military solution in Afghanistan, at least not one the United States can impose without incurring tremendous cost, both in human and in more prosaic monetary terms.

In fact the war there has already cost the lives of nearly 2,2000 American service men and women along with nearly 2,000 civilian contractors. More than 20,000 Americans have been wounded in Afghanistan in the 16 years we’ve been fighting there.

And we’ve already spent something north of $800 billion in direct appropriations to fund the ongoing Afghan war. War-related spending, including for construction, weapons procurement, and medical care, amounts to hundreds of billions of dollars more.

So what policy solution will President Trump unveil tonight when he makes his address to the American people? He is expected to announce the deployment of an additional 4,000 US troops to Afghanistan, but to what end?

This won’t tip the military balance, though it may help to forestall a complete collapse on the part of Afghan government forces and delay a return to power by the Taliban.

A negotiated solution would seem the only answer here, but no agreement is viable without the backing of the neighboring Pakistanis, and they will inevitably insist on a power-sharing arrangement that includes the Taliban in some new post-conflict scheme for governing Afghanistan. This is something that the United States is far from keen on but which Pakistan sees as vital to protecting its own interests.

There’s no indication that the Trump administration is prepared to enter into negotiations on terms that Pakistan would accept, let alone the Afghans themselves.

As Paul Waldman points out this afternoon at the Washington Post, Trump is now the third president to face the very same dilemma with the same array of choices before him. And he’s likely to come to the same conclusion as the others:

The status quo stinks.

There is no better way forward.

Let the next guy figure it out.

Whatever he announces, one thing is for sure. Trump’s the president. That makes it his war now.

China knows the game

(NYTimes cartoon)
(NYTimes cartoon)

 

While President Trump’s bombastic and alliterative threats against North Korea appear to be credibility-free bloviating, and North Korea’s are specific enough to be worrying even if doubt remains about their capability, there’s one player in this escalating exchange of warnings who seems to really understand how its done.

That would be China.

The marker was laid down in an editorial published yesterday in China’s state-run newspaper the Global Times:

[I]f North Korea launches missiles that threaten US soil first and the US retaliates, China will stay neutral. If the US and South Korea carry out strikes and try to overthrow the North Korean regime and change the political pattern of the Korean Peninsula, China will prevent them from doing so.

I will admit answering with decided skepticism when others have asked me whether I think China would enter a new Korean War on the side of Pyongyang. But as in so much of international affairs, context and circumstance matter.

As much as China might want to shake up the East Asian regional order to tilt the balance away from the United States and more in its favor, when it comes to the Korean Peninsula, China is a decidedly status quo power.

As national security analyst John Schindler reminds us in his latest column at the Observer:

Beijing regards Pyongyang as a troublesome client whose antics cause annoyances and worse. However, for Beijing, the continuing existence of North Korea—as long as they don’t cause an atomic holocaust in Northeast Asia—is better than all the other options. A bumptious client state across the Yalu river beats having a united Republic of Korea, a close U.S. ally, on China’s border.

Hence the very clear warning issued to both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-Un.

Kim is on notice that if he starts something he’s on his own. China will not have his back.  And Trump is on notice that China will go to war, just like it did in 1950, to ensure the survival of its client if the US makes the first move unprovoked.

The threats are in. I know which one I believe.