Category Archives: Foreign Policy

l'etat c'est trump

L’Etat, C’est Trump

Donald Trump has an authoritarian understanding of presidential power.  He thinks he has

the unilateral authority to enact sweeping policy legislation, declare war on nations, and steer the federal government in the direction his hypocritical and ignorant mind feels best.  In short, he believes l’etat, c’est Trump — that Trump is the state.

This has been Trump’s clear governing philosophy from his inauguration, but rarely has he explicitly stated the extent to which he believes he can — or should — control the government.  In a recent interview with Laura Ingraham of Fox News, Trump sadly remarked “the saddest thing is that because I’m the president of the United States I’m not supposed to be involved with the Justice Department, I’m not supposed to be involved with the FBI, I’m not supposed to be doing the kinds of things I would love to be doing and I’m very frustrated by it. I look at what’s happening with the Justice Department, why aren’t they going after Hillary Clinton with her emails and with the dossier and the kind of money…?”

In other words, Trump thinks that, by virtue of being president, he should control every action of the entire executive branch.  As the head of state and government, Trump believes he should dictate what the FBI investigates and how the DoJ operates; justice naturally flows from the singular authority at government’s apex.  Such a conception of presidential power is entirely monarchical and authoritarian.

He went on to add that “a lot of justice…[is] tied up forever in the court system.  You look at some of the cases that are going on forever and you have them dead to rights? Now, the justice system has to go quicker and it has to be, really, stronger and fairer.”  Justice should move at the speed of what Trump deems proper.  Rights, so Trump’s answer implies, do not come from nature and are not enshrined by the Constitution and should be curtailed at his direction.  Too many rights block administration of what Trump considers justice.

Trump’s next morning tweets continued this theme of ignoring the political insulation of the FBI and DoJ and the existing notions of fair justice as he called for his political appointees to investigate Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, a truly authoritarian idea.  As the state, Trump believes he should have the ability to call for investigations and, angry that he can’t, he does the next best thing: Urges investigations against dissidents, putting the FBI and DoJ in an impossible situation by either opening politically-motivated investigations over non-scandals or ignore the president who can summarily dismiss them.  If can’t openly control the state’s actions, he tries to coerce certain behavior.

Where he does have flexibility, Trump seizes it.  Foreign policy provides presidents with their best ability to act unilaterally as Congress, especially the Senate, has ceded much policy power to the president.  Trump’s an irrational actor and has failed to appoint many key State Department positions.  He’s tangled with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and undermined his job by directly contradicting Tillerson’s statements and tweeting, on numerous occasions, on the futility of North Korean diplomacy.

Undermining the Secretary of State and taking diplomatic tools off the table while weakening the State Department through vacancies doesn’t matter because, as Trump says, “I’m the only one that matters because…that’s what the policy is going to be.”  He has monopoly over foreign policy and no one else matters, not the chief diplomat, not the thousands of consulate and embassy staffers, not the scholars and wonks in Foggy Bottom, no one.

L’etat, c’est Trump.

Or so he thinks.

trump fake news

Trump’s Cries of “Fake News” Have Serious Consequences

Donald Trump loves to deride all news unfavorable to him as “fake“.  It’s his go to insult whenever confronted by the media.  To no great surprise, outlets that ingratiate themselves to Trump — Fox News and its many anchors, One America News Network, and Breitbart — escape such labels despite peddling conspiracy theories and giving white supremacists a platform to wallow in hate.  Trump’s derision comes baselessly, but has real effects: Almost half of all Americans think the media makes up stories about Trump, meaning that our nation begins to operate with different facts as it loses faith in democratic institutions.  An alternative reality emerges for those who choose to accept universal administration claims of “fake news.”  Foreign leaders are taking note of this phenomena.

Seeing how Trump’s simple dismissals of criticism and negative coverage can goad millions into thinking the same, foreign leaders responsible for atrocious crimes and conditions follow a similar authoritarian playbook, falsely stating that media lies in its stories of horrors.

Rodrigo Duterte

Since 1988, Rodrigo Duterte, now president of the Philippines, has encouraged and endorsed the extrajudicial murders of suspected drug dealers and alleged addicts as part of his literal war on drugs.  It began with the Davao Death Squad, which emerged when Duterte was mayor of the city, and accelerated upon his election as president.  Some 7,000 have been killed since June of 2016, all without trial or anything other than whatever evidence the police decide warrants killing (often times, the police fabricate evidence).  Duterte himself has bragged about murdering suspects, including throwing one from a helicopter.

These well-documented illegal killings — crimes against humanity — shock the world and our sense of justice, but many in the Philippines continue to support Duterte (so, apparently, does Donald Trump, who praised Duterte’s handling of the drug problem).  Filippinos may support Duterte’s lethal efforts because they simply don’t believe the depths of its violence.

“I have been demonized. And well, of course, I will assure you upon my oath as a lawyer and before God that some are true, some are not. And the extrajudicial tag that has been placed on me is simply not true,” Duterte said during a gathering of ASEAN Law Association Governing Council in Malacañang.  In other words, Duterte’s claiming to be a victim of “fake news” (Duterte’s campaign spent around $250,000 to trolls who flooded the internet with actual fake news that supported the candidate.  Another organization, the Duterte Diehard Supporters — DDS, borrowing the acronym from the Davos Death Squadroutinely posts fake news and in return has its regulars promoted to government positions).

Duterte, like Trump, latches onto the idea that media is fake — or, at least, that he can make people believe the press is fake.  This give shim cover for his illegal and atrocious actions by undermining the sources of independent information, the information that doesn’t align with administration talking points or desires.

Aung San Suu Kyi

In Myanmar, more than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled to neighboring Bangladesh after Rohingya insurgents attacked police posts in late August, prompting a massive military crackdown.  This crackdown has resulted in the slaughter of babies, the cutting off boys’ heads, the gang-rape of girls, and arson achieved by throwing grenades into houses.  Soliders have summarily executed unarmed male villagers.

Between 1,000 and 5,000 have been killed — we don’t know the exact numbers because Myanmar won’t let the United Nations into the affected areas — in what the UN calls “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing”.  Bodies wash up in the tide in coastal Bangladesh.  The military has razed 288 villages and organized massacres in what human rights organizations call a systematic effort to erase Rohingyan communities.  It’s the largest human dispersion since the Rwandan genocide.

Myanmar’s de fact leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, somehow a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, told Turkish President Recep Erdogan, himself an aspiring autocrat, that “fake news [helps] terrorists” in the Rohingyan communities.  She further said that the crisis in Rakhine state is being distorted by a “huge iceberg of misinformation”.  And this defense is working.  Millions of Buddhists in the country stand by Aung San Suu Kyi and simply deny reports on the crisis as “a lot of fake news.”  The government’s defense of a crisis under control but made worse by fake news, rumor, and innuendo spread by the media has resonated with a population predisposed to disliking the Rohingyan Muslims.  In other words, claiming “fake news” plays into religious/racial bias and helps citizens ignore ethnic cleansing in country’s northern region.

The Trump Effect

As Samantha Power, author of a powerful book about the Rwandan genocide, states, this is “the Trump effect in action.”  Foreign leaders see the benefit of crying “fake news” at everything critical; they realize loyal partisans and supporters will believe them, especially when the victimized group is already detested.  But they take the fake news defense a step further by using it to excuse inaction in crimes against humanity or ethnic cleansing.

That’s the real danger of the leader of the free world leading the fake news defense charge: It can be appropriated by borderline evil leaders trying to coverup atrocities while retaining popularity.

Undermining the press has serious consequences.  Donald Trump needs to learn that.  He’s an example to the world, unfortunately, and others learn from what he does and apply it to suit their needs.  Be wary, Donald.

end the iran deal

It Would be a Mistake to End the Iran Deal

Donald Trump wants badly to end the Iran Deal, which he has wrongly lambasted as “one of the worst deals ever created.”  The Iran Deal has successfully stopped Iran’s nuclear development and triumphed diplomacy over armed action.

To end the Iran Deal, to renege on an agreement from the previous administration, would dissuade other (rogue) regimes from negotiating with the United States as Trump would increase the costs and decrease the benefits of civilized issue resolution while making it clear that the United State’s word is only good as long as its speaker remains in power.

A Victory for Sanctions and Diplomacy

The Iran Deal represents the victorious conclusion of economic sanctions.  We never intended to hurt Iran’s economy indefinitely; instead, we hoped to bring them to the negotiating table by offering a clear benefit — relief from crippling sanctions — in return for ending its nascent nuclear program.  That succeeded.

Iran, once mere months from building a small nuclear stockpile, has followed the terms of the deal and now stands a decade (or more) from attaining a nuclear weapon.  Its centrifuges have been cemented and uranium stockpiles reduced some 98 percent.  Relatively moderate leaders have even used sanction relief to gain power in the state, reducing tensions with Israel and the West.

Should Trump fail to uphold our end of the deal, as he seems likely to do, Congress will have to decide whether to reimpose sanctions on Iran.  If it does, the Iran Deal will fall apart and, without sure support from our allies (who, aside from Israel, want the Iran Deal affirmed), only weak sanctions could be levied.

Iran Walks Away and Doesn’t Come Back

These sanctions would not, as before, bring Iran back to the negotiating table so Trump can work his faked dealmaking magic.  Iran will be free from its nuclear obligations and could resume work on weapons of mass destruction.  That sets Trump’s successor(s) up with a dilemma similar to what he faces with North Korea: How to handle an aggressive regional power with, or close to having, nuclear weapons.  And the Middle East has a lot more fluid parts than does North Korea.

Importantly, if we end the Iran Deal and manage to apply meaningful sanctions, it’s highly unlikely that Iran could be brought back to the negotiating table to hammer out a new deal.  They did so once and ended their nuclear program, abiding by all of the deal’s terms.  But that hasn’t stopped Trump from doubting the deal and continuously threatening to tear it up.  If he does so, why should Iran trust us again in the future to uphold our side of the bargain?

Can’t Negotiate with Other Rogue States

This breach of trust hurts us with other states.  Take North Korea.  We can only hope that North Korea could be induced to diplomacy to curtail its nuclear development.  While this might not seem likely — and seems especially unlikely when President Trump continues to throw cold water on the idea — it’s not impossible and is a partial hope of sanctions.

However, should Trump end the Iran Deal, North Korea will have no reason to ever negotiate with the United States.  What possible benefit could they get from it?  A brief respite from sanctions that could be reimposed at the whim of a tempestuous president?  An agreement at risk with every new election?

Without standing by our agreements, one president’s word — one Congresses action — means nothing.  Continuity in foreign affairs is incredibly important.  Signaling that our words and deals means little takes away whatever benefits other states might gain from negotiating with us: Following the agreement hurts their interests and may not help them in the long run if the United States backtracks from our word.

Don’t End the Iran Deal

Should Donald Trump end the Iran Deal, we will see our foreign policy become much more complicated.  Rogue nations will double-down on nuclear development and will avoid making deals with the United States.  We’ll increasingly isolate these states and they will increasingly build arms and increasingly become a threat.

Mr. President, please don’t end the Iran Deal.

trump north korea

North Korea is Rational. Donald Trump is Not.

Kim Jong Un is a Rational Actor

Kim Jong Un has the rap of an irrational madman hellbent on leading his rogue state into a disastrous war with the United States.  The North Korean leader feeds that narrative by continually threatening the United States and her outlying territories with missile strikes.  He ignores the plight of his own people and instead invites more sanctions with each new missile test and provocative stunt.  But Kim Jong Un and the North Korean state are rational, coldly so.  Donald Trump is not, and the clash of a rational and an irrational actor heighten the risks of armed conflict.

When it comes to international relations, rational does not mean sensible.  Rational means capable of making logical calculations to boost a country’s goals and interests given its available resources.  Foremost among those interests is survival.

North Korea Wants to Survive

Survival is high on Kim Jong Un’s mind (as it was for his predecessors).  The best means of survival for a nation-state detested by almost all other countries is to ensure that any move to destroy the existing leadership has catastrophic consequences for the assailant country.

(Of course, the easiest means of survival is to integrate one’s nation in the society of states wherein openness and interconnectedness – globalism – greatly decrease the chance of war and national destruction.  North Korea has no interest in doing that.)

North Korea fervently believes that nuclear weapons will forever dissuade the United States and her allies from overthrowing the existing regime.  While the proximity of American troops in South Korea, as well as millions of South Korean allies all easily killed, has so far deterred the US from retaliating to North Korean aggression with military strikes, North Korea sees the others collapsed authoritarian regimes – Libya and Iraq, and the potential for the United States to still attack Iran despite its compliance with the nuclear deal – as warnings of what could still happen without a well-developed nuclear arsenal.

Kim Jong Un views nuclear weapons as the means by which his totalitarian regime will continue, not as weapons of aggression.  He knows that any real act of war – and invasion of South Korea or missile strike against the US – will instantly result in his overthrow and death.  That’s why North Korea hasn’t invaded South Korea and has largely kept its threats rhetorical (since the Korean War, the state has acted aggressively, capturing and even killing US soldiers, but has not acted decisively enough to warrant a full military pushback).

Trump Doesn’t Understand Kim Jong Un’s Rationality

Donald Trump, and many members of Congress, don’t understand North Korean aims.  They don’t see the game theory decisions Kim Jong Un makes; instead, they see a madman rushing towards a disastrous confrontation with the United States.  And because they see us and North Korea as on an inevitable path to war, they’re willing to preemptively attack the evil regime.

That’s why Trump keeps floating a missile strike on the state or stating that continued North Korean threats would result in the United States unleashing “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”  At the United Nation’s, Trump cautioned Kim Jong Un by saying the United States will “totally destroy” you, rhetoric not lobbied by previous administrations – administrations that understood North Korean goals.

Facing the threat of total annihilation, North Korea will only redouble its efforts to develop nuclear weapons because the sooner it does so, the sooner it might deter the unpredictable wrath of Donald Trump.  North Korea doesn’t trust the United States to uphold a deal in which the regime gives up its nuclear weapons – Qaddafi did so and died in an American-backed revolution and though Iran did so as part of a nuclear deal to which it’s complying, Trump still assails the deal and indicates he wants to pull out of it.  So Kim Jong Un will hasten nuclear development.

The Rational Actor Meets the Irrational Fool

Trump isn’t predictable.  He campaigned on an isolationist platform and frequently attacked the “stupidity” of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (the former of which he supported, despite what he says).  Yet in the span of 24 hours, he went from steadfastly refusing to condemn Bashar al-Assad for a chemical gas attack to launching an (illegal) airstrike on Syria.  And over the course of a couple months, Trump entirely flip-flopped on Afghanistan and will now increase our troops in the state.

He’s not rational and he’s not predictable and that pushes North Korea into a further and better armed state while increasing tensions with the United States as we amp our rhetoric and keep threatening action.  As General David Petraeus argues, “you do not want the other side thinking you are irrational in a crisis. You do not want the other side thinking that you might be sufficiently irrational to conduct a first strike or to do something, you know, so-called ‘unthinkable'” because that encourages the adversary to take matters into its own hands.

Trump’s blather and foolish posturing towards North Korea demonstrates he doesn’t understand what Kim Jong Un hopes to achieve – survival.  It also shows that Trump doesn’t know how to address a rogue yet rational state and Trump’s unpredictability and general intemperance only heighten the risks of a military conflict with North Korea.

benghazi truth

The Truth about Benghazi

Clinton/Obama Naysayers Have It Wrong

Background/facts: On September 11, 2012, terrorists storm the US mission in Benghazi, killed four US nationals including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.  Many initially think the attacks came from an angry mob protesting a viral video.  The next day, in a Rose Garden address, President Obama says, “The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack. … no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.” Later that day he says, “No act of terror will dim the light of the values that we proudly shine on the rest of the world, and no act of violence will shake the resolve of the United States of America.”
Only on September 20 did Jay Carney and other White House officials back away from the theory that the aforementioned video caused the attack.  While this may seem absurd, it’s a logical conclusion if we assume their information (or lack thereof) pointed to such a culprit.  It’s dangerous to immediately jump to the conclusion that a given attack was committed by terrorists.  That said, the Obama administration did move slowly to such a label.  A day later, Hillary Clinton echoes the terror attack rhetoric.

Claims versus Reality

Claim: Hillary Clinton lied about Benghazi, initially blaming the video for the attack despite knowing better and continuing this lie.

Reality: Clinton, in her first public statement on the day of the attack, did in fact cast blame on the video (which had caused protests throughout the Middle East).  That same day, she emailed Chelsea and said “an al Qaeda-like group” carried out the attack.  This came to light during the Clinton email investigation and only led to general distrust.  The next date, in speeches and a statement, Clinton made no mention of the video (in relation to Benghazi, though she mentions it in connection to Egypt, where the material did spark protests).  Not until September 21 did she call it a terrorist attack.  Why this delay?
It seems that in between her first statement on September 11 and the email she sent to Chelsea, a government agencies emailed top officials saying that Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility for the attack.  I’m guesing she and the administration wanted to confirm that claim before presenting it to the American people (which is, admittedly, a generous concession, but also one of the simpler explanations.  The administration had little to gain from covering up the motives.  Obama faced reelection in two months and had little to gain by covering up facts that would obviously come to light, though he did have reason to “play down the possibility of a planned attack because that would raise broader questions about whether U.S. intelligence and embassy security in Libya were adequate.”).
Another explanation came to light in 2013.  I’ll quote the Washington Post (above link) in full:

This analysis first suggested that the core reason for the evolution of the talking points was a bureaucratic battle between the CIA and the State Department. We informed readers that although the ambassador was killed, the Benghazi “consulate” was not a consulate at all but essentially a secret CIA operation which included an effort to round up shoulder-launched missiles. U.S. officials had been constrained in discussing that fact, as the administration could not publicly admit that most of the Americans in Benghazi were involved in a secret CIA effort that had not even been formally disclosed to the Libyan government. State Department officials objected to the talking points, initially drafted by the CIA, as an effort by the spy agency to pin the blame for the tragedy on the State Department.

So, in short, there are many possible explanations for why Clinton and the Obama administration did not immediately label the Benghazi attack as a terror attack (and one last point: The Washington Post fast checking team gave Senator Marco Rubio two pinocchios for his claim that Clinton lied about the Benghazi happenings, saying there’s not evidence to support that claim).
Claim 2: Clinton told the false video story to Benghazi widows.
Reality: There’s no evidence to support this claim.  Clinton says she didn’t and 4 of 6 interviewed widows support her version of the story.  No transcripts support this claim, either.
Claim 3: Clinton’s inaction as Secretary of State led to mishandled consular requests for additional security, easing the attacker’s push into the consulate.
Reality: Security at Benghazi (and many other consulates) was lacking.  Here’s a quote from a State Department Accountability Review Board (the PDF link is broken, so I can’t supply it; the in-depth review largely exculpated Clinton and the administration):

“The number of Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) security staff in Benghazi on the day of the attack and in the months and weeks leading up to it was inadequate, despite repeated requests from Special Mission Benghazi and Embassy Tripoli for additional staffing. Board members found a pervasive realization among personnel who served in Benghazi that the Special Mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests, especially those relating to staffing. The insufficient Special Mission security platform was at variance with the appropriate Overseas Security Policy Board (OSPB) standards with respect to perimeter and interior security. Benghazi was also severely under-resourced with regard to certain needed security equipment, although DS funded and installed in 2012 a number of physical security upgrades.”

Some quick facts from Washington Post that counter false narratives:
  • There were planes available for Special Ops forces
  • Clinton did not issue a stand down order to Leon Panetta
  • Clinton was not aware of requests for additional security.  Many consulates made such requests and mid-level staffers usually handled them
The last point is the most import.  There is no evidence that Clinton herself ignored security requests.  Ambassador Stevens also turned down offers of additional military security at the compound.  Clinton also did not sleep through the attack and worked throughout the entirety of the night, contrary to Donald Trump’s claims.  With the evidence available, the compound’s defensive shortcomings cannot be blamed on Clinton herself.
(As a side note, during a trip to a Marine consular defense center, I attended a lecture about the process of defending consulates and embassies.  One important note mentioned by a Marine pertained to the difficulty in bringing military personnel to such compounds because doing so requires permission from the host country.  We can’t just move members of the military into sovereign states will-nilly.)
illiberal democracy

Ascendant Illiberalism

Illiberal democracy is on the rise

Across the globe, illiberal democracy has emerged as a potent force.  The discontents caused by the Great Recessions, coupled with other structural economic issues that exacerbate inequality while failing to lift the incomes of the middle and working classes, have left many yearning for change of any sort.  That desire has manifested itself in a resurgent populist movement, both from the left and the right.   Unfortunately, most so-called populist candidates have a decidedly authoritarian bent that challenges liberal democracy, though not democracy itself.

Liberal democracy refers to a representative democracy in which a constitution bounds the actions of lawmakers and preserves the fundamental liberties of individuals to protect any given minority from the possibly tempestuous whims of a majority coalition.  Citizens choose lawmakers in free and fair elections in which all who qualify have the equal opportunity to participate.  The system thrives of vibrant discourse and national unity largely free from identity politics and grievances.  It does not refer to a government controlled by a left-wing political party.

Illiberal democracies have the opposite values: Lawmakers rarely feel meaningfully constrained by a constitution which can be easily amended or simply ignored and that does not guarantee the rights of all residents.  Instead, minorities can see liberties abridged by the majority.  This typically happens for easily defined groups based on ethnicity, but can extend to religion, economic status, or any other discernible characteristics.  Though such polities have elections, they are not typically free and fair.  Citizens may find it difficult to vote either because of limited polling access, voter intimidation, or brute voter suppression.  At worst, elections exist for show only with the outcomes already predetermined by the in-power party (who, in most cases, acts to consolidate and preserve attained power).  It’s a system that can quickly devolve into authoritarianism.

Yet politicians who believe and embrace such illiberal principles have recently seen electoral success in western democracies (or democracies that, in recent decades, have sought to be considered western).  Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and the United States all exemplify ascendent illiberalism.

In Turkey, President Erdogan has transformed a liberal democracy into an increasingly autocratic state.  He’s done so through a variety of reforms that strip powers from the prime minister and instead place them in the president (ie, himself), a position that’s traditionally been ceremonial.  Though a national referendum supposedly endorsed these reforms, many critics have complained about electoral irregularities, claiming that Erdogan fixed or manipulated the vote to ensure the desired outcome.  The referendum itself took place under conditions of fear: In the year since the failed military coup, Erdogan has jailed some 45,000 oppositionists (and 150 journalists), purged around 130,000 from the civil service ranks, and shut down around 160 media outlets.  Erdogan supports such actions by claiming the jailed or fired individuals supported the coup and thus posed a threat to Turkey, a ridiculous lie few believe.  Together, the referendum and ongoing state of emergency point to a country partially embracing illiberalism and partially having shoved down its throat.

Hungary has seen a popular lurch towards authoritarianism, with Prime Minister Orban winning a “landslide” reelection despite his known illiberal attitudes.  Orban himself, inspired by the likes of Russia, China, and Erdogan’s Turkey, declared he will build a new, “illiberal state” in Hungary to lead the nation “in the great global race for decades to come.”  His tenure has seen “an erosion of the independence of the judiciary, the packing of courts with political loyalists, a wholesale political purge of the civil service and the chief prosecutor’s office, new election rules that advantage the governing coalition and the intimidation of the news organizations (who can be issued crippling fines for content deemed “not politically balanced” by a government-appointed panel).”  When stopped or challenged, he’s simply used a large parliamentary supermajority to amend the Constitution.  Freedom House proclaims the upcoming 2018 elections to be a critical juncture for Hungary: If Orban emerges victorious, Hungary may become the illiberal state once thought to be confined to Europe’s dark past.

Poland, too, has moved in an illiberal direction under the leadership of the far-right populist “Law and Justice” party.  The party, legitimately elected, has broken “the constitution, both in letter and in spirit,” by undermining the constitutional court, politicizing the civil service, and subverting public media.  These actions create cronyism and a government that serves the party, not the people.  Once all institutions have been coopted, they can be successfully turned against opposition, thereby creating a de facto one party state.  Luckily, Poles have not bowed down to such illiberalism.  While a large percentage of the country supports Law and Justice and its illiberal aims, a large, liberal sect of the population widely protested laws that would fundamentally overhaul the constitutional court’s composition, subserving it to the will of the ruling party.  The Polish president vetoed both bills because of the popular backlash.  More judicial reforms, however, have been promised.  Poles need to continue resisting illiberal intentions and not let Law and Justice create an illiberal state.

Lastly, America, democracy’s shining beacon, has moved in an illiberal direction with Donald Trump’s election.  Trump campaigned on a variety of illiberal themes and identity politics that relied on vilifying an ever amorphous “other” — in his case, illegal immigrants and Muslims comprise that villain/enemy group.  He’s attacked the judiciary and questioned its legitimacy.  His belief in US intelligence agencies remains doubtful.  He fired James Comey because of the Russia investigation and has sought other methods to curtail its scope and authority, even threatening to fire special investigator Robert Mueller.  Trump’s routinely attacked the press and even labelled them “enemies of the American people.”  Many of his campaign positions would violate the constitutional rights of minorities.  And yet he retains the support of almost the entire Republican congressional caucus and most Republicans in the nation.  His clearly illiberal bent should worry Americans, but thankfully, unlike in Turkey, Hungary, and Poland, our institutions have thus far been resilient to Trump’s illiberalism.

Illiberalism is ascendent.  The above cases only mention the most obvious — other examples of illiberalism include UKIP’s influences in Britain, Alternates for Deutschland in Germany, and the National Front in France.  Across the western world, these populist movements manifest themselves in illiberal forces that all traverse the road to authoritarianism.  We must resist these populist temptations and instead stay committed to the long-standing liberal values that promote and defend our natural liberties.

lindsey graham donald trump

What’s Wrong with Lindsey Graham?

The warmongerer somehow applauds the Commander-in-Chief for his uncertainty, volatility, and utter ignorance.

Senator Lindsey Graham prided himself in being an outspoken Donald Trump critic throughout the 2016 election, primary and general. He routinely slammed Trump for his position on immigration, proposed Muslim ban, and general attitude towards the military, partisan competitors, and democratic norms. But then Trump became president and Graham changed his tune.

Graham prides himself in extensive foreign policy knowledge. His outlook, though hawkish, often has sense: A strong – and constitutional – response to Bashar al-Assad’s war crimes and increased manpower in the fight against ISIS would be go for the world. Effective foreign policy, however, cannot be carried out when the administration has no clear message or outlook.

The Madman Theory

The madman theory of foreign policy does not work. Trump has stumbled onto this practice likely without realizing it; his gross incompetency and lack of foreign policy understanding – a fact he demonstrated time and again during the campaign – leads to his administration often issuing conflicting remarks about crises or other happenings and operating without a clear vision for the role and America’s place in it.

This uncertainty and volatility driven by Trump’s frightening ability to change his mind within hours, given that he sees a picture or two, hurts America’s image and creates a less stable world. Adversaries, fearing spontaneous reaction from Trump, have every reason to stockpile arms so they can retaliate to the unexpected. It’s a form of insurance – you never know when Trump may launch a strike against your country, so it’s best to have the weapons ready to retaliate in a meaningful way. North Korea’s already following this strategy.

kim jong un madman
Do we want out president to adopt the same foreign policy theory as this dictator?

Resultant Arms Races

Basic game theory teaches us that a military buildup in one country leads to similar actions in neighboring and adversarial states; research and history tells us that arms races make violent conflict more likely. In other words, Trump’s instability and unpredictability ignites a logical chain reaction that risks global conflict.

Why, then does, Lindsey Graham support such uncertainty and applaud the conflicting foreign policy lines offered by different members of the Trump administration?

Party Before Country

Perhaps Graham hopes that Trump’s instability will lead to war and through that war, despotic regimes in Syria, Iran, and North Korea will be overthrown. Perhaps Graham doesn’t understand the potential ramifications of pushing North Korea into further developing its weaponry (a true worry as South Korea and Japan could easily be his with even rudimentary nuclear weapons). Or perhaps Graham hopes that by praising Trump’s foreign policy decisions – even those announced on Twitter or which actively undermine the maneuverings of his Secretary of State or Ambassador of the United Nations – might help Graham join the cabinet if ever there’s a staff shakeup.

Understanding motives, of course, proves no easy task. Graham’s actions, though, undermine his campaign posturing as a continuing thorn in Trump’s side, a voice of reason emerging from the cacophony of a party kowtowing to its adopted leader. He’s rewarding and encouraging behavior that makes America less safe. If he cared about good foreign policy, Graham would be a close ally of Rex Tillerson or Nikki Haley and would constantly pressure the administration to better coordinate with its foreign policy speakers – those who at least understand the value of a discernible American position and who don’t recklessly bumble about on Twitter deriding happenings they don’t understand.

In short, Graham’s praising a madman who doesn’t understand foreign policy and whose actions undermine our interests abroad. He’s returning the respect, credibility, and admirability he earned on the campaign trail when he bothered to call out Trump’s actions. Graham has now receded into the typical and destructive Vichy Republican position: Bow to Trump and challenge him on nothing. Reward recklessness and pray for the best.

trump syria strike

Trump’s Syria Strike: Needed, but Illegal

Trump attacked Syria, a needed, yet unconstitutional, move.

Bashar al-Assad is a monster.  His atrocities have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions.  He’s committed war-crimes, most notably multiple chemical gas attacks against Syrian rebels, resulting in hundreds of death and unimaginable agony for women, children, and all dissidents.  Make no mistake: Assad belongs behind bars; regime change – democratization – is absolutely necessary.  The despot must not remain.

American intervention has long been needed.  Our failure to act over the course of four years has condemned too many to suffering or death.  It’s allowed Russia to assert itself into the region to support the autocratic regime, nominally in the name of fighting ISIS, but actually fighting Syrian rebels.  We need to act, but, as a nation of laws, we must only do so with respect to domestic and international law/

Trump’s surprise airstrikes that followed a dramatic policy shift, overturning in just 48 hours beliefs he held since 2013, are illegal.  They find no justification in domestic or international law.  Let’s break it down.


Congress, not the president, has the power to declare war.  Such a constitutional design emerged from the Founders’ brilliant separation of powers.  There are, of course, exceptions to this general rule: The president “is bound” to respond to any attack on the country regardless of congressional approval for such actions.  But the true extent of the president’s unilateral authority remains hotly contested with constitutional purists giving the president little war-making leeway while some analysts declare that to preserve national security and promote national security interests, the president has broad powers to commit military strikes without receiving explicit approval from Congress.

The Supreme Court has not fully grappled with or solved this difficult balancing act.  That said, Justice Robert Jackson’s concurrence in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer guides constitutional and jurisprudential thinking on the subject.  He divides executive power into three categories:

  1. Full congressional approval. “When the President acts pursuant to an express or implied authorization of Congress, his authority is at its maximum, for it includes all that he possesses in his own right plus all that Congress can delegate.”
  1. When Congress has been silent. “When the President acts in absence of either a congressional grant or denial of authority, he can only rely upon his own independent powers, but there is a zone of twilight in which he and Congress may have concurrent authority, or in which its distribution is uncertain.”
  1. When the president acts against the wishes of Congress. “When the President takes measures incompatible with the expressed or implied will of Congress, his power is at its lowest ebb, for then he can rely only upon his own constitutional powers minus any constitutional powers of Congress over the matter.”

Into which bucket did Trump’s action fall?  Certainly not the first – though President Obama (and likely President Trump) use an early-2000s authorized use of military force (AUMF) to fight ISIS, though many analysts do not believe the AUMF covers ISIS engagements, that certainly does not cover attacking a standing regime that poses no international terror threat.  Likewise, his actions probably don’t fall into the third bucket.  Congress has not explicitly forbidden strikes against Assad or the Syrian regime.  Back in 2013, both chambers refused to consider an AUMF desired by Obama and many members still in power today voiced their opposition to such an action.  That may be the “implied will” of some members, but certainly not the chamber writ large, especially given that in recent days, many representatives and senators have supported some sort of American action to punish Assad for his most recent war-crime.  It could, however, be easily and validly argued that since, in 2013, 100 representatives urged Obama to receive explicit authorization from Congress before attacking Syria, Congress would expect the same request after a less horrendous gas attack in a more complication geopolitical situation.  Trump’s actions probably fall into the “twilight zone,” the most difficult to analyze.

The White House Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) provides justification for executive action.  Though, as Jack Goldsmith (from whose writing much of the following paragraphs is based) notes, the legal reasoning presented by the OLC carries no judicial weight, it still serves roughly as precedent for administrations as they grapple with unilateral executive military authority, especially action in the “twilight zone.”  In interpreting Article II, the OLC “sets forth a two-part test for determining when a presidential use of military force abroad is consistent with the Constitution”:

  1. Does the president have “presumptive authority to use force unilaterally”?
  1. What is the (anticipated) nature of the strike or engagement?

America’s “national interest” permeates answers to the first question.  The OLC believes the president can unilaterally act if doing so furthers the “national interest,” especially if such an action does not risk dragging America into a long-term engagement (ie, if the action is of limited nature and scope).  Trump’s actions quite likely fulfill the second question’s requirements.  A one-time airstrike against Syrian airfields that gave advanced notice to other state actors whose military supplies and assets lived near the targets risks little escalation.  Of course, Trump being Trump, there’s much uncertainty as to whether he is content with a single airstrike.  The favorable news coverage he’s received might push him into further action; such speculation, though, is not reason to question whether this strike broke the OLC’s second test.

Though the second criterion is likely fulfilled to legal satisfaction, the first is not.  What “national interest” is Trump defending or promoting by attacking Syria?  We have few assets in the state – just 1,000 troops.  Regional stability and peace could satisfy the test, though pointing to such actions, a step removed from the immediate national interest, puts the president on still shakier ground.  Even those are lacking in Trump’s actions.  Risking Syrian, Russian, and Iranian retribution or escalation would greatly destabilize the Middle East.  Similarly, a central argument against overthrowing Assad is the fear that doing so would create a power vacuum form which ISIS or another extremist organization could emerge, especially if in the process chemical weapons are dispersed among disparate and antagonistic parties.  Little immediate regional stability can be gained.  Attacking Assad should discourage further use of chemical weapons, therein promoting peace, but the opposite could be true as well.  Assad could react by refusing to help fight ISIS, putting Russia in an uncomfortable position of naked regime support without the guise of fighting terrorism.  The lack of clear consequences is another reason why unilateral action should not have been taken: These questions and discussions should be debated by the body with war-declaring authority so we can publicly examine all potential consequences and act without haste.  Neither our national interest nor the region’s stability are augmented by unilateral executive action, meaning that Trump’s strikes fall short of the OLC test.

It’s important to note that by its very executive branch nature, the OLC takes an expansive viewpoint of executive authority.  The office seeks to make legal broad presidential power – their reasoning might not be accepted by a court of law.  If actions fail to meet lenient OLC tests, they almost certainly wouldn’t find favor by constitutional jurists.  Therefore, it’s reasonable and logical to conclude that while Trump’s actions fell in the “twilight zone” of authority, his actions are unconstitutional.  His strike needed congressional approval.

International Law

Trump’s actions also break international law.   As Marty Lederman notes, “done in the absence of a U.N. Security Council resolution, and without any apparent justification of self-defense (as the Pentagon explained, its function is to “deter the regime from using chemical weapons again,” presumably against Syrian nationals),” Trump’s attack “violate Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter, which requires the U.S. and all other signatory states to ‘refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.’”  The UN charter is a treaty and thus the supreme law of the land.  Violating the treaty without congressional authority (Whitney v. Robertson, Chae Chan Ping v. US, and Breard v. Greene) is tantamount to violating Article VI of the Constitution.

This is notably different from Obama’s actions in Libya because, despite having no congressional authorization, he had cover from the United Nations Security Council.  Similarly, using President Bill Clinton’s Kosovo bombing as precedent does little to make legal the Syria strike.  Ashley Deeks, another Lawfare blogger, emphasized the important distinction between a legitimate and a lawful action.  Humanitarian concerns make legitimate any American actions, but legitimacy does not equate with legal.  Another glaring difference immediately emerges: NATO and the EU both condoned military action in Kosovo; no international organization approved such action against the Assad regime.  So while the Kosovo precedent further strengthens the legitimacy of the strike, it doesn’t address legal questions, leaving Trump in violation of international law.


The United States needed to attack or otherwise punish Assad.  However, the use of military force requires congressional authorization, an argument made repeatedly by the likes of Paul Ryan in 2013.  There is no domestic legal or argued precedent for such unilateral behavior.  International law similarly provides no such cover.  As a nation of laws and process, we must follow those principles even when facing monsters.  Trump violated the Constitution.  He must immediately ask Congress for an AUMF and not act in Syria again until he has such authorization.