American Rope

The saying “never get into a well with an American rope” is gaining currency. The impact will be long-lasting.

Brett McGurk
former Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL

This week’s featured posts are “Backstabbing the Kurds is Just Trump Being Trump” and “The Ukraine Story Runs Deeper Than We Thought“.

This week everybody was talking about the chaos in Syria

I covered the unsurprising nature of Trump’s faithlessness to the Syrian Kurds in one of the featured posts. Max Boot makes some of the same points, and then asks: “Are you happy now, Trump supporters? Is all this worth a corporate tax cut?”

Now let’s talk about what’s happening on the ground.

After being deserted by their American allies, the Kurds in northern Syria cut a deal with the Assad regime to protect them from the Turkish invasion.

Syrian state media said units from President Bashar al-Assad’s army were moving north to “confront Turkish aggression on Syrian territory”. Unconfirmed reports said the deal between the Kurds and the regime would be extended to apply to the whole of north-east Syria. …

The deal is likely to be a bitter end to five years of semi-autonomy for Kurdish groups in north-east Syria, forced by Ankara’s offensive on the area. Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring started on Wednesday after Donald Trump’s announcement that US forces would withdraw from the region.

The Russia-brokered deal gives Assad control over a large chunk of the country that had been independent, but it’s hard to blame the Kurds for making it. Assad wants to be their dictator, but Turkey might be planning an ethnic cleansing.

No one knows what happens next. Maybe Turkey and Syria will fight a war. Maybe there will be a quick ceasefire, brokered by Russia — with the US more or less irrelevant. Maybe we’ll get our 1000 troops out of Syria without losing any of them, or maybe we won’t.

One thing is certain: No one in the US government looked this far ahead. Trump certainly didn’t, and his decision to OK Turkey’s invasion surprised everybody else.

As so often is the case when Trump does something that doesn’t seem to make sense, it will benefit Putin. Was that the plan, or just a happy accident?

Initially, American troops were just pulling back to let Turkey establish a buffer zone, but now that the Kurds are with Assad, there’s no real role for the US any more. So Trump has announced that all American troops will leave Syria.

How they’ll get out is still an issue, but I’m sure the Pentagon will come up with something. Defense Secretary Esper said yesterday:

We have American forces likely caught between two opposing, advancing armies and it’s a very untenable situation. I spoke with the President last night, after discussions with the rest of the national security team, and he directed that we begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.

This points out an issue that isn’t getting nearly enough coverage: We know that Trump made his decision to greenlight Turkey’s invasion during a phone call with Turkish President Erdoğan, and that the entire defense and diplomacy establishment was blindsided by it. This means that the experts weren’t consulted in the decision-making process, but Trump supporters can (with some justification) point to past US mistakes as evidence that expert-approved decisions aren’t always that great anyway.

But here’s the side of the story that’s getting missed: It isn’t just the decision-making process that got cut short, it was the planning process too. There’s a crisis going on, and the whole US government is out there with no plan. The troops don’t know how they’re pulling out. Nobody has thought about the inevitable refugee crisis. Our other allies in Syria (like France) don’t know what they’re supposed to do with their people. (And don’t think they won’t remember this the next time we ask them to join a coalition.) Our ambassadors to allied countries don’t know how to answer the questions they’re getting. Nobody seems to have thought about how to secure the ISIS prisoners the Kurds were holding. And so on.

The Washington Post reports:

“This is total chaos,” a senior administration official said at midday, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the confusing situation in Syria.

Although “the Turks gave guarantees to us” that U.S. forces would not be harmed, the official said, Syrian militias allied with them “are running up and down roads, ambushing and attacking vehicles,” putting American ­forces — as well as civilians — in danger even as they withdraw. The militias, known as the Free Syrian Army, “are crazy and not reliable.”

If you believe in Trump’s intuition — I don’t, but some people do — you might be comfortable with him ignoring the normal policy-making apparatus and just going with his gut. But there still needs to be an implementation process, or else your evacuation plan might just be to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater.

Here’s something somebody should have thought of in advance:

[O]ver the weekend, State and Energy Department officials were quietly reviewing plans for evacuating roughly 50 tactical nuclear weapons that the United States had long stored, under American control, at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, about 250 miles from the Syrian border, according to two American officials.

Those weapons, one senior official said, were now essentially Erdogan’s hostages. To fly them out of Incirlik would be to mark the de facto end of the Turkish-American alliance. To keep them there, though, is to perpetuate a nuclear vulnerability that should have been eliminated years ago.

and impeachment

The NYT examines the public statements of Republican senators and finds 0 supporting an impeachment inquiry, 15 who have “expressed concerns or say they have questions”, and 38 who support Trump unequivocally.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone sent Congress a defiant letter, claiming the House’s impeachment inquiry is unconstitutional. (The Constitution is actually silent about the impeachment process, saying only that “The House of Representatives … shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.”) Consequently, the White House pledges to stonewall.

Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it. Because participating in this inquiry under the current unconstitutional posture would inflict lasting institutional harm on the Executive Branch and lasting damage to the separation of powers, you have left the President no choice. Consistent with the duties of the President of the United States, and in particular his obligation to preserve the rights of future occupants of his office, President Trump cannot permit his Administration to participate in this partisan inquiry under these circumstances.

The WaPo annotates that letter. I’ll add an annotation of my own: If it’s up to the President to decide whether an impeachment process is legitimate or not, then we’ve already lost the separation of powers.

One major claim of the letter is that Trump should receive all the due-process privileges of a criminal defendant at a trial: The right to have lawyers present, cross-examine witnesses, call his own witnesses, present evidence, and so on. As the annotations point out, this is the wrong point in the process for that: An impeachment inquiry in the House is like a grand jury investigation, not like a trial. The people under investigation have no official role in a grand-jury investigation. But if the House passes articles of impeachment, then the Senate (presumably) will hold a trial where Trump will have all these due-process rights.

In the Balkinization legal blog, Gerard Magliocca offers a novel interpretation of the White House counsel’s letter:

If an impeachment proceeding in the House can be unconstitutional as the President claims, then why can’t he say the same about the Senate trial? When the Senate trial begins … the President is bound to whine that he is being treated unfairly or that the Chief Justice is treating him unfairly. When, then, should he accept a guilty verdict from this “kangaroo court?” He can just say that the trial was unconstitutional and that he should remain in office. Maybe one object of the White House Counsel’s letter is to establish a predicate for that action.

At one point this week, Trump hinted that he might cooperate “if the rules are fair“. I was amazed by the number of media outlets that took this statement seriously: When has Trump ever admitted that he was being treated fairly? (He thinks it’s not fair that he hasn’t gotten a Nobel Peace Prize yet.)  If the House calls witnesses who say things Trump doesn’t like, that will be unfair in his eyes, because he deserves to have people say only good things about him.

From Ambassador Yovanovitch’s opening statement to the House Intelligence and Oversight Committees:

Today, we see the State Department attacked and hollowed out from within. State Department leadership, with Congress, needs to take action now to defend this great institution, and its thousands of loyal and effective employees. We need to rebuild diplomacy as the first resort to advance America’s interests and the frontline of America’s defense. I fear that not doing so will harm our nation’s interest, perhaps irreparably.

That harm will come not just through the inevitable and continuing resignation and loss of many of this nation’s most loyal and talented public servants. It also will come when those diplomats who soldier on and do their best to represent our nation face partners abroad who question whether the ambassador truly speaks for the President and can be counted upon as a reliable partner. The harm will come when private interests circumvent professional diplomats for their own gain, not the public good. The harm will come when bad actors in countries beyond Ukraine see how easy it is to use fiction and innuendo to manipulate our system. In such circumstances, the only interests that will be served are those of our strategic adversaries, like Russia, that spread chaos and attack the institutions and norms that the U.S. helped create and which we have benefited from for the last 75 years.

Yovanovitch’s testimony was important not just for what she said. (We don’t know most of what she said.) It was also important because it happened at all. The State Department tried to stop her from testifying, and she ignored them. All the other subpoenaed government officials have to look at that and re-examine their options.

Next up: Trump’s former Russia advisor, Fiona Hill, who I believe is testifying right now behind closed doors. She left the administration just days before the Trump/Zelensky phone call, and is expected to describe the pressure to get rid of Yovanovitch, among other things.

Ms. Hill took her objections to the treatment of Ms. Yovanovitch, who was targeted by Mr. Giuliani and conservative media outlets, to John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser, as well as others. Mr. Bolton shared her concerns, according to the person, and was upset at Mr. Giuliani’s activities, which she viewed as essentially co-opting American foreign policy toward Ukraine.

Tomorrow: Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the EU who somehow wound up overseeing much of the Ukraine scheme. No one is too sure what Sondland is going to say: He’s a Trump donor rather than a career foreign-service guy, but he may not be willing to go down with the ship.

An appeals court says Trump’s accountants have to turn his tax returns over to the House Oversight Committee.

and the trade war

Friday afternoon, I felt like I was watching news reports from two different universes. CNBC was showing delayed video from the Oval Office, where President Trump was announcing a big trade deal with China. As I listened, though, the “deal” seemed more and more ephemeral: It’s a deal in principle, whose actual text isn’t worked out yet. Given how trade diplomacy goes, that could mean it all evaporates, the way that Trump’s agreement to denuclearize North Korea evaporated.

The video dragged on and on with no analysis from CNBC’s experts, so I flipped to MSNBC and CNN, neither of which was talking about it at all. On one channel it was breaking news worth interrupting regular coverage for a considerable length of time. On two others, it wasn’t worth mentioning.

So anyway, the markets seem unthrilled this morning. Here’s some analysis from The Street’s “Real Money” blog:

If Trump claims this to be a “substantial” deal … I am not sure if Trump has any adjectives to use if ever an actual deal were to be signed, [and] one wonders what a real deal would sound like. After all the fuss about the thirteenth round of U.S./China trade talks on October 9, all that came out was the U.S. has agreed to postpone an increase of tariffs from 25% to 30% on $250 billion worth of Chinese imported goods, and that China would purchase between $40 billion and $50 billion worth of U.S. agricultural products.

The hard pressing, game changing issues that Trump always beat his chest about, like Intellectual Property Theft and Technology Transfers, were not even discussed or finalized. The market cheered that tariffs were postponed, but let’s not forget 25% tariffs are still in place. There is no truce and China and U.S. companies are still being penalized. We all know how many times Trump has decided to throw a random curve ball at China days after any negotiation, only to shock the market once again.

and you also might be interested in …

So there’s another Democratic presidential debate tomorrow. It’s the first one since the Ukraine story broke and impeachment became an immediate possibility. It’s also the first one since Bernie Sanders’ heart attack, since Republicans started smearing Joe Biden on a daily basis, and since Elizabeth Warren started topping the polls.

With the way that Syria and impeachment have sucked up attention, I find myself looking at the other candidates in the race and asking, “Are you still running?” I can’t remember the last time I had a thought about Cory Booker or Amy Klobuchar.

I will warn Warren supporters not to get too carried away by the recent polls. To me, Biden’s candidacy in some ways resembles Mitt Romney’s in 2012. Several times during the primary campaign, some other candidate briefly passed Romney in the polls before falling back.

Warren continues to be interesting. She was asked what she would to say to someone who believes marriage is between one man and one woman, and her answer went viral:

I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that, and I will say, then just marry one woman. … Assuming you can find one.

Conservatives (like Marco Rubio) took offense, but it’s hard to feel sorry for them, given how mild that put-down was. They can dish out the hostility, but they’re such snowflakes when the slightest disapproval is turned back on them.

Warren also showed some mettle in going after Facebook. Facebook has allowed Trump to post anti-Biden ads that have been rejected by most networks because they make provably false claims about his “corruption” in Ukraine. Biden has protested, but Facebook replied that “when a politician speaks or makes an ad, we do not send it to third party fact checkers”.

Warren decided to take this one step farther than just a protest. Instead, she boomeranged their policy back at them, running an ad headlined:

Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election

That claim isn’t true, and the text of the ad admitted as much. But then it got to the real point:

But what Zuckerberg *has* done is given Donald Trump free rein to lie on his platform — and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters.

So Mark, how do you like when people use your platform to lie about you?

There was another attempt to gin up an anti-Warren scandal. This time the claim is that she “lied” about being fired from her teaching job when she got pregnant. The evidence for this is that at different times she has emphasized different aspects of the story. The school district records just show that she quit.

If the goal was to smear Warren as a liar, it has backfired spectacularly. All over the country, women have spoken out to say yeah, this is how pregnancy discrimination works. There’s not a paper trail. There is plausible deniability, and there is the shame and fear that comes with losing a job. And back when Warren was pregnant, firing pregnant teachers was standard practice across the country – it was unusual to not be let go if you were having a baby.

There’s going to be a lot of this. I expect some new pseudo-scandal every week or two until Warren either becomes president or falls in the polls.

Brexit is steaming toward another deadline. There’s an EU summit on Thursday and Friday. Saturday is Parliament’s deadline for Prime Minister Johnson to either submit the deal he has negotiated with with the EU, or to ask the EU for another extension. If neither a deal nor an extension is worked out, the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on October 31.

Poland had a chance to reverse its slide towards authoritarianism, but decided not to. It looks like the ruling Law and Justice Party increased its majority slightly. Yascha Mounk, author of The People vs. Democracy, comments:

As the example of many other populist governments, from nearby Hungary to faraway Venezuela, show, it is often in their second term in office that populist leaders manage to take full control, intimidating critics and eliminating rival power centers. In this election, the chances of the opposition were already somewhat restricted by a deeply hostile media environment. With the government now holding enough power to institute further anti-democratic reforms, it is likely that it will become ever harder for the opposition to do its work.

and let’s close with something bouncy

I know Sift closings are usually non-political, but I couldn’t resist this one. Here’s a bouncy song about impeachment from Jonathan Coulton and CBS All Access’ “The Good Fight”.

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  • James Collins  On October 14, 2019 at 12:59 pm

    Regarding Brexit, it’s unclear whether Britain will “crash out” on 10/31, since Parliament passed a law specifically forbidding that outcome. It’ll be interesting to see how PM Johnson threads that particular needle.

    • Anonymous  On October 14, 2019 at 1:44 pm

      The October 31 deadline is from the EU. If there’s no agreement, and no extension from the EU, Britain leaves the EU on Oct 31. The law requires that PM Johnson ask for an extension. It doesn’t (and can’t) require that the EU grant it.

      And I think that there’s still no viable proposal about what to do about the Irish border.

      • James Collins  On October 14, 2019 at 2:40 pm

        OK, thanks for the clarification.

  • Nancy Banks  On October 14, 2019 at 1:01 pm

    I was sorry you choose not to make any comment about our increasing troop level in Saudi Arabia. To me this the most hypercritical part of the Trump agenda – assuming there is one. We pull troops our of Syria because of the unending wars and then add troops to Saudi Arabia. It is an outrage a country that 16 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from and was never held accountable gets a single US troop. What dos Saudi Arabia have on Trump or is paying him?

    • weeklysift  On October 14, 2019 at 1:16 pm

      You’re right. I intended to mention that, but it slipped my mind. Thanks for filling in that blank for me.

  • Ronald Cordes  On October 14, 2019 at 6:05 pm

    Doug, I think you missed an important point about Syrian army units moving into a fight with Turkey. Turkey is a member of NATO and we are treaty-bound to come to the aid of any NATO nation that is attacked. How close are we to having to come to the aid of Turkey?????

    • nicknielsensc  On October 14, 2019 at 9:09 pm

      Syria does not now present an existential threat to Turkey. I don’t think it ever has. As long as the Syrians stay on their side of the border, they’ll be able to paint their actions as self-defense, and NATO will probably let Erdogun scream all he likes. That’s not to say Erdogun won’t try using a false flag operation to show the Syrians have crossed the border into Turkey.

    • weeklysift  On October 17, 2019 at 6:40 am

      I did miss that point. However, I think nicknielsensc is right that our obligation only comes into play if Turkey’s territory is attacked.

      The bigger picture is that NATO needs to have a serious discussion about whether Turkey still belongs. Buying a Russian air defense system was a signal that they’re moving towards either non-alignment or closer ties to Russia.

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