With impeachment filling the air and the 2020 election season starting to rev up, it’s a natural time to start thinking of a post-Donald Trump world. While defeating Trump is no sure thing despite his many scandals, it’s also easy to fall into the “anything is better than Trump” trap. It’s just as imperative that we not merely return to the status quo ante: a world of misguided, albeit somewhat more organized and systemic, policy that set the stage for some of the most disastrous Trump policies.
Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria and unleash a Turkish invasion is the most recent example of the need to thoroughly overhaul our foreign policy. One aspect that needs attention is the absence of international law in our thinking. In his Netzero Newsletter, journalist Robert Wright points out that the Turks’ flagrant violation of international law, and the Trump administration’s green light for it, has hardly been mentioned among the many criticisms Trump is enduring for his foolish decision. Read more at LobeLog
The image of an oil tanker burning in the Gulf of Oman is a stern warning of the potential for war in the Middle East, as tensions continue to rise between the UnitedS States and Iran.
While few want a confrontation, those that do — including elements in the administration of Donald Trump, and significant parts of the leaderships in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel, as well as some Iranian hardliners — are well-positioned to make one happen.
After the US rushed to blame Iran for the latest attacks on tankers in the Gulf, the European Union issued a statement calling for “maximum restraint” from all parties.
The phrase was a deliberate jab at Washington and its “maximum pressure” strategy with Iran, a failing policy with potentially grave consequences.
Whether or not Iran was behind these attacks, as well as the previous acts of sabotage in May, Europe is striking the right tone in pressing for calm to avoid a third Gulf war. Read more at The Battleground
When Donald Trump announced that he was immediately removing all U.S. troops from Eastern Syria, I was surprised by the reaction. There was near glee in anti-war corridors. The initial response is understandable; the United States should not be in Syria, and that is true for many reasons. Moreover, many of those objecting to the decision are doing so because it doesn’t fit with their objectives to heighten tensions with Iran and continue to pursue endless conflict in the name of fighting terrorism. But leaving the way Trump intends is foolish and will not lead to a good outcome. Read more at LobeLog
When the history of this chaotic period is written, people will doubtless be amazed that, not even four months into his presidency, Donald Trump could have made so many mistakes, done so much wrong, and acted in such legally questionable ways.
It may well be, too, that historians will look back at May 16, 2017 as the day that marked the beginning of the final disgrace of Trump’s presidency. With the revelation that recently dismissed FBI Director James Comey had allegedly recorded and sent to FBI colleagues a memo detailing Trump’s attempt to pressure him into dropping the FBI’s investigation into former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and Trump’s Russia ties, other matters of grave importance have not gotten the attention they deserve.
Only a day before the Comey memo revelation, in an Oval Office meeting with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister, Trump reportedly revealed highly classified intelligence regarding a planned Islamic State terrorist attack against the United States. The information that Trump divulged had apparently not been shared with some of the closest U.S. allies and was “code-worded” information, a particularly high level of classification.
Although the Comey memo scandal may well turn out to be what brings Trump down, this breach of trust may have had more lasting effect than any of Trump’s other numerous misadventures. It was an unprecedented betrayal of Israel’s confidence. Ironically, Trump has now done what even Barack Obama’s biggest detractors never accused him of: seriously compromised Israel’s security relationship with the United States.
It is difficult to overstate the damage Trump has done to both Israel and the United States. Israeli intelligence officials were already highly worried about Trump’s poor judgment and apparently close relationship with Russia. They had expressed concern that intelligence they shared with the US could end up getting to Iran through Moscow. Now, their fears have been magnified greatly.
On the professional level, Israeli and American intelligence officers will still have the relationships they’ve had before. The mutual respect and personal connections will not be affected. But at the broader level, Israel will, by necessity, think twice about sharing the most highly classified intelligence. So, for that matter, will every other US ally, even the closest ones like the UK and Australia.
But for Israel, it will be of a different caliber. Although all US allies will have deep concerns, Israel sees its intelligence as potentially going to a country it sees as a deadly enemy and a material threat. That is a different level of concern than Great Britain, for example, is going to have.
How Much Damage Did Trump Do?
When Jonathan Pollard was caught spying for Israel, it caused what was, until now, the single greatest rupture in the history of the US-Israel relationship. To this day, the incident influences the thinking of many diplomats and intelligence officials in the United States.
Trump’s actions are not going to have quite the same significance in the long term. No one seriously believes that Trump’s actions here are typical of US leaders. Israelis surely understand that when Trump is gone, the risk of anything like this happening again goes with him.
But in the short term, the effects could be dramatic, and they could still have long-term ramifications. Trump has endangered the life of an Israeli spy intentionally planted inside the Islamic State, who was, apparently, the source of the information Trump leaked. That is no small matter. It could not only close a delicate pipeline that is difficult to establish, but it will make it much more difficult for Israel, or anyone else, to find spies who will take on such jobs. It’s one thing to perform dangerous espionage, quite another when your own allies greatly elevate the risk you are taking.
Additionally, Trump’s careless divulgence will cause Israel to be less forthcoming with information. Ultimately, intelligence has to be brought to the head of the state. Israeli operatives may respect and trust their American counterparts. But if they cannot trust the discretion of the president, they will need to be careful about what intelligence they share. They cannot expect American operatives to conceal crucial intelligence from the White House.
Neither the US nor Israel wants to see their intelligence cooperation diminished. But it may now be inevitable. That will mean the US will increase its dependence on other sources, which tend to be less trustworthy and reliable than Israeli ones. It is, in fact, this reliability and trust that is the basis for the US-Israel “special relationship,” as I have explained extensively over the years.
Although those conditions will be restored when Trump is gone, things can change in the meantime. Israel will need to find ways to act on its own and, potentially, with other allies. The United States will need to find other ways to gather reliable intelligence. Quite possibly, neither path will yield much before a new administration restores the status quo ante. But once new practices and pipelines are established, they could have significant staying power.
Meanwhile, the US will be flailing, with Israel and other allies guarding classified information more closely. The breach of trust here is enormous, and puts the US and its allies at grave risk. The Islamic State and other groups have been able to successfully execute many attacks all over the world over the years. With diminished coordination between global powers, they can do even more. This was always a concern with Trump, but until now, the concern had been speculative. Now it is hard as stone.
A Crisis of Trust, Internal and External
As the world’s major military superpower, the United States is, in many ways, the fulcrum of the global intelligence network. That network is by far the most important defense we all have against terrorist attacks. Trump has damaged that network in a key way.
Israel is far from alone in worrying about what will happen with their intelligence when it gets to the White House. The concern will be quite deep in Europe, where Russia is seen as a much more imminent threat.
But it’s not only the clumsiness of the president that is at issue here. The leak of Trump’s meeting to the press is also another result of Trump’s alienation of the intelligence community and other executive branch officials. Although The Washington Post kept its sources understandably anonymous, some high-ranking officials clearly see the need to raise an alarm.
Trump has been feuding with the intelligence community since before he even took office, and the FBI has not taken kindly to his firing of James Comey. Although this ongoing tension may or may not have had anything to do with the whistle blowing of Trump’s Russia meeting, it does add another layer of concern for our allies.
Shocking though the revelation of Trump’s meeting may have been, it was not entirely surprising. For months, there have been reports of US intelligence officials warning their Israeli counterparts of Trump’s untrustworthiness. That, in and of itself, is remarkable. Career federal agents expressing to foreign colleagues that the president of the United States cannot be trusted should be unthinkable.
As with so much in the first four months of the Trump administration, however, the unthinkable has come to pass.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will shortly meet US President Donald Trump in Washington. The meeting was already going to be an interesting one.
The US-Turkey relationship is complicated, though both countries are members of NATO. Beyond the tension between Turkey and Israel, which complicates matters for Washington, Turkey’s ongoing campaign against any hint of Kurdish self-determination has repeatedly raised issues for the US over the years.
Turkey itself walks a fine line these days. Like the entire region, it is concerned about the ongoing campaign of the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) to establish a permanent presence in Iraq and Syria. But for Erdogan’s ruling party, that threat remains secondary to preventing any progress toward an independent Kurdistan.
Recent events add a large dose of drama to the upcoming Trump-Erdogan discussions. Trump’s increasing domestic problems in the wake of his firing of FBI Director James Comey make it more likely that he will want to make a splash in foreign policy of some kind to generate some positive attention. He has surely not forgotten the positive press his strike on a Syrian airbase received across the political spectrum—even though the strike itself had little effect on the Syrian government’s abilities and was taken outside of any larger US strategy.
Trump also decided to arm a Kurdish militia, the YPG, that Turkey sees as a terrorist group affiliated with the major Kurdish separatist party, the PKK. The US classifies the PKK as a terrorist group as well, but not the YPG, a militia that the US has worked with for some time. Though the Obama administration never directly armed the YPG, US arms supplied to allied Arab militias found their way into YPG hands, eliciting little fuss from Washington.
The step of directly arming the YPG was a step too far for Erdogan. He called on the United States to reverse this decision and said that the “fight against terrorism should not be led with another terror organization” and that “we want to know that our allies will side with us and not with terror organizations.” Turkey’s Defense Minister, Fikri Isik, went so far as to label this disagreement a “crisis” between the two countries.
It’s tempting to think that Trump was indulging in a typically impulsive decision. But the president actually approved a proposal from the Pentagon, under the aegis of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, one of the more sober and reliable members of Trump’s senior aides.
Mattis is well aware of the implications of arming the YPG for Turkey. In his capacity as secretary of defense, however, he is charged with finding the most effective ways to fight IS. Although Mattis is certainly not ignorant of the political implications of such decisions, his job description requires that he prioritize operational concerns. It’s supposed to be the president who tempers such decisions with his own judgment and consultations with other senior advisors.
Perhaps a more thoughtful person in the White House with a more active secretary of state might have come to the same decision Trump did. Instead, the current administration made a decision, with apparently minimal consideration, that will likely have only moderate effects on the ground—after all, the US could have simply increased the clandestine flow of arms to the YPG—but sits very poorly with an ally.
Erdogan is sure to bring up this matter in Washington, and he is a man that Trump seems to respect. At the same time, Erdogan is hardly dealing from a position of strength. With Russia backing the Assad regime, which Turkey opposes, he can hardly go too far in threatening the United States. He could, conceivably, retract permission for the US to use Turkish territory to launch attacks on IS forces. But if the US decided to call that bluff, Erdogan would not have many viable options.
Erdogan seems likely to counter the US decision by launching attacks against Kurdish positions in Iraq, something the US does not want him to do. After all, such attacks would complicate matters with the Iraqi government, and the targets include Kurdish allies of the United States. The Turkish government undertook similar actions last month, and Erdogan may decide to expand these activities. Although the United States did not respond beyond disapproving rhetoric, it is fair to wonder whether Turkey’s attack affected the Pentagon’s thinking about arming the YPG.
Another issue Erdogan may pursue with Trump is the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a cleric and one-time ally of Erdogan who now stands accused of being behind much of the domestic opposition to the Turkish president’s rule, including the attempted coup last year. Gulen lives in Pennsylvania and Erdogan has been demanding his extradition for some time, but more forcefully after the failed coup.
Erdogan has hoped that Trump would look more favorably on the extradition request than Barack Obama did. But Trump has not yet indicated how he views the situation with Gulen.
Extraditing Gulen might just be the sort of thing Trump, given his attitude toward political opponents from the US media to Hillary Clinton to James Comey, would support. But Gulen has a liberal following in Turkey and elsewhere, and he may just be a convenient scapegoat for Erdogan. Erdogan has made many accusations but without much public evidence to support them. Extraditing Gulen would be widely seen as a grave betrayal of due process. But it is not clear if Trump understands that.
The Trump administration’s silence in the face of Erdogan’s recent harsh criticism of Israel suggests that the two leaders have some desire to achieve positive outcomes at the upcoming meeting. Erdogan has expressed hope for a “new beginning” in relations with Washington, a clear reference to his dissatisfaction with Obama’s policies. But this will be a complicated undertaking. And complicated is not something Trump does well.