It has been an extraordinarily chaotic week in the White House. The U.S. is now absorbed with whether the government will shut down tonight; what the implications are of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis’ resignation on December 20 (to take effect February 28, 2019); Donald Trump’s sudden announcement of a U.S. withdrawal of all forces in Syria; and the announcement of a 50% reduction of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
Trump is skilled at generating chaos, and distracting attention from one crisis by starting another.
What is going on that is really important, in the larger scheme of things?
Two developments of overarching importance suggest that, beneath it all, Trump is acting at the behest of Vladimir Putin, or is at least acting in ways that he knows will please Putin.
First, his administration has just begun the dismantling of major sectorial sanctions against Russia. These were first imposed in response to the Russian invasion of the eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region in the summer of 2014, with regular Russian troops entering in large numbers in August, 2014.
See Kenneth P. Vogel, “Trump Administration to Lift Sanctions on Russian Oligarch’s Companies,”New York Times, December 19, 2018
A word is in order about “sanctions”. The rationale for sanctions is to punish Russia for its international military aggression against the Ukraine. Often, what are announced as “sanctions” are individual sanctions imposed against individuals and companies presumed to be close to Putin, on the theory that by causing pain to his allies he will be persuaded to change his behavior. There is very little, if any, evidence to demonstrate that such sanctions have changed Putin’s behavior.
The second kind of sanctions are serious sanctions adopted to target an important industry or industrial or financial sector. These sanctions, first adopted on September 5, 2014 by the European Union, and by the U.S. in coordination with the EU, appear to have had a very significant impact on moderating Putin’s behavior with respect to the Ukraine.
The sanctions against Deripaska and his companies were adopted in April as punishment for Russian intervention in the 2016 elections.
The sanctions relief the Trump administration has now granted to Oleg V. Deripaska’s and his aluminum companies is, basically, relief from a sectorial sanction. Its removal signifies the beginning of the piecemeal dismantling of the most serious and effective U.S. sanctions against Russia, which has been Vladimir Putin’s goal with respect to all sanctions since they were adopted.
The argument that Deripaska is divesting ownership so that he no longer controls the companies, which therefore should be exempted from the sanctions is wholly specious. The purpose of the sanctions to deter Putin from further misdeeds. They were never about just Deripaska himself.
The sanctions relief amounts to a big Christmas gift to Vladimir Putin only weeks after Russian naval forces committed new acts of aggression against three Ukrainian naval vessels in the approach to the Kerch Strait. The strait is a passage from the Black Sea to the Sea of Avov and two major Ukrainian ports, including the port of Mariupol.
The three vessels were seized by the Russians. All but a few wounded Ukrainian sailors, of the 24 taken captive, were subsequently transferred to Moscow for trial on criminal offenses, all in blatant violation of international law. The sailors, meanwhile, remain in detention in Moscow.
Representative Lloyd Doggett, a Texas Democrat who has criticized the administration for being soft on Rusal, said the move to lift sanctions amounted to Mr. Trump “sliding another big gift under Vladimir Putin’s Christmas tree,” referring to the Russian president.
Saying that the plan “appears to be a shell game brokered by a sanctioned Russian bank, VTB Bank, involving one of Putin’s closest buddies, Oleg Deripaska,” Mr. Doggett said it “only encourages Putin to pursue his destabilizing activities around the world.”
He called for a rigorous congressional review of the deal, and said that if it “is what it appears — a Rusal ruse — then we should reject this latest Trump scam.”
–See Vogel, above.
Trump has done Putin an additional favor by not protesting too loudly about the Russian aggression in the Kerch Strait, and the continued detention of the Ukrainian sailors in violation of international law. His cancellation of a side-meeting at the G-20 in Buenos Aires was cosmetic, and essentially meaningless when new sanctions should have been adopted, but weren‘t.
Now the Trump administration has rewarded Putin’s aggression by waiving what amounted to very serious sectorial sanctions against Oleg Deripaska and his companies. Deripaska, it will be recalled, has had a very close financial relationship with Paul Manafort.
Even without the link through Deripaska to Manafort and Trump, the waiving of these sanctions shortly after new acts of military aggression against the Ukraine in the Kerch Strait, does not appear aimed at deterring further acts of intervention or aggression by Vladimir Putin and the Russians. More likely, the waiver of sanctions will embolden Putin to undertake further acts of aggression.
In 2014, when the EU and the U.S. adopted sanctions that amounted to a mere “slap on the wrist” following the Russian military invasion and occupation of the Crimea, Putin proceeded to invade the eastern Ukraine in the summer and fall of 2014, even with regular Russian troops beginning in August.
It was a nice Christmas present for Putin, and one which seems to promise future passivity in the face of further Russian aggression against the Ukraine, or elsewhere.
This is part of the context for Jim Mattis’ resignation on December 20.
Second, on December 20 President Trump announced the complete withdrawal of some 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in Syria in part to defeat ISIS. This represented a sharp reversal of announced U.S. strategy, and a decision reached without broad consultation in the government or with allies in the anti-ISIS coalition. In short, it marked the sudden end of seven years of support for the anti-government forces challenging Bashar al-Assad, and betrayal of our allies in Syria, including in particular the Kurds.
The important point here is that Trump made this decision in total disregard of the consultative processes established under the National Security Council structure, in the face of the unanimous advice of his top military and diplomatic advisers. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff was not even present at the final meeting.
New reports suggest that the final decision was triggered by a telephone call between Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in which Trump ignored all of the talking points that had been prepared by his national security advisers. Erdoğan and Putin have been coordinating strategy. Both got what they wanted from the withdrawal decision.
More importantly, in strategic terms, the U.S. decision to withdraw was a huge victory for Russia and other supporters of the Assad regime, including Iran and Hesbollah (from Lebanon).
Fourth, as if the above were not enough, the Trump administration made known that it had ordered the withdrawal of half of the 14,000 forces in Afghanistan.
This week marked the weakening of serious sanctions against Russia for its intervention in the 2016 elections; surrender to the Russians and the Iranians in Syria; and the start of a “cut and run” surrender to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Fantasies of an even-handed peace agreement with the Taliban, as they are winning on the ground, have been and are delusional.
Jim Mattis’ resignation was in response to these specific developments and also in response to the chaos and incompetence of Donald Trump and his administration.
Trump is a brilliant political performer on television, but comes across as a simpleton in managing the affairs of state. He does not respect and nurture alliances, and does not distinguish between malign actors such as Russia and China, on the one hand, and America’s strongest friends and allies such as members of NATO and the EU, on the other. He does not read or take advice. These were the key points in Mattis’ letter of resignation, which also pointed to Trump’s dangerous worldview and sheer incompetence.
Now that the generals are gone or leaving, we have nothing to look forward to but the incompetent foreign policy of the simpleton in the White House, as often as not guided by reports and commentary gleaned on TV from Fox News.
Repeat those words: U.S. foreign policy is now in the hands of the simpleton in the White House.
Without constraints. Not taking advice from experts. Deciding policy on the basis of campaign talking points. Without factual or policy analysis. Without expert input from people who actually know something about what is being decided.
In a word, the foreign policy of a simpleton in the White House.
The nation, and its foreign policy interests, are in dire peril.
What are the Republicans going to do about it?
The Trenchant Observer