Putin Requested His Call with Trump to Outline a Plan for Syrian Safe Zones. Why Now?

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Into the deadly morass of the Syrian war, Russian President Vladimir Putin has dropped a new peace proposal that calls for establishing safe zones in several parts of the country, grounding the Syria air force and possibly creating buffer zones between combatants to be monitored by international peacekeeping troops.

Putin outlined his plan in a telephone call Tuesday with President Trump, according to a diplomatic source. Putin requested the call and dominated the conversation. The White House has said little publicly about the details, but has agreed to send a State Department official to peace talks taking place in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Putin’s proposal may be an effort to fill the vacuum of any clear Trump administration diplomatic strategy for Syria. Much as Chinese President Xi Jinping made himself Trump’s partner for dealing with North Korea, Putin may be attempting a similar play for Syria. The benefits for Moscow would be reducing its diplomatic isolation and improving its image after getting caught red-handed interfering in last year’s US presidential election.

According to the diplomatic source, Putin outlined for Trump a plan for “deconfliction zones” in four areas: Idlib province in northern Syria; a zone north of Homs in central Syria; an area east of Damascus known as Eastern Ghouta; and the southern region that borders Jordan. The plan calls for physical separation of combatants in these areas and allows the possibility of buffer zones that would be staffed by UN peacekeeping troops or another international monitoring force.

A sweetener for the rebels in the Russian proposal is that the Syrian air force would be grounded while the de-escalation process is underway. Rebels argue that Syrian bombing has caused the war’s worst atrocities, including the chemical weapons attack on a town in Idlib last month.

The Russian leader also shared his proposal Tuesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Wednesday with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Putin has been trying for months to draw Erdogan into closer cooperation on Syria.

The Trump administration has been slow to frame its own Syria strategy, opening an opportunity for Putin to shape the diplomacy. A White House statement said Tuesday: “President Trump and President Putin agreed that the suffering in Syria has gone on for far too long and that all parties must do all they can to end the violence.”

Putin’s peacemaking will face the same obstacles as past US-led efforts to reduce the violence in Syria. Head of Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad is entrenched, his Iranian allies resist compromise, and the Syrian opposition is divided, influenced by extremist groups and resists any peace deal that doesn’t promptly remove Assad.

The establishment of safe zones has been a key opposition demand for the past several years. Putin’s proposal appears to be a concession on that issue, but the devil is in the details here.

Asked to explain Putin’s new peace push, diplomats offered several explanations. The Russians were worried by Trump’s authorization of a cruise missile strike on a Syrian air base after last month’s chemical weapons attack. And they were concerned, more broadly, about the deteriorating state of US-Russian relations under a Trump administration they had hoped would bring an easing of tensions.

Putin may have been uncomfortable, too, watching China’s Xi position himself as Trump’s key partner in Asia. Putin’s move is opportunistic. But for a change, he’s the one pursuing a Syria deal, while the United States bides its time.

(The Washington Post)

Michael Flynn’s Fall Tells a Much Bigger Story

Michael

Flynn’s luck has run out in recent months. He was fired as national security adviser for misleading colleagues about his questionable discussions last December with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Now he’s under investigation by the Pentagon’s inspector general for failing to get approval for payments he received from Russian and Turkish sources, despite a clear warning in 2014 that such approval was required.

The puzzle is why Flynn, who had a reputation as a meticulous tactical intelligence officer during his Army career, was so careless when he left the military. The story is a personal tragedy for Flynn, but it illustrates a larger problem in the national-security community.

When intelligence officers such as Flynn move from compartmented boxes to a wider world, they often make mistakes. They’ve been living inside super-secret units that resemble a closed family circle. They don’t understand the rules of public behavior. They’re not good at being normal. And they often pay a severe price.

There are numerous examples of this transition problem. James J. Angleton, the CIA’s legendary counterintelligence chief, was secretive to the point of paranoia when he was at the agency. But when he left in the 1970s, he couldn’t stop talking to journalists and others about his conspiracy theories. Some other former CIA officers are similar: They work the press or lobbying clients the way they used to work their agency assets.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, one of Flynn’s mentors, got fired as commander in Afghanistan after he and his staff made inappropriate comments to a Rolling Stone journalist. Gen. John Allen, a much-admired commander in Afghanistan, got involved in an email correspondence with a would-be Florida socialite that led to a Pentagon investigation, which derailed his appointment as NATO commander. Gen. David Petraeus, perhaps the most celebrated commander of his generation, pleaded guilty to improperly sharing classified information with his biographer, with whom he was romantically involved.

Each of these people served the country in remarkable ways. But looking at the difficulties they encountered, one senses a pattern. Senior command is a world unto itself. The tribal culture that envelops all our military and intelligence personnel is especially tight for our most secret warriors. They sometimes miss the signals that life outside will be different.

Flynn certainly got a clear warning when he left the military after serving as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. On Thursday, the Pentagon released a letter he received Oct. 8, 2014, about “the ethics restrictions that apply to you after your retirement.” The instructions listed eight areas of “post-employment restrictions,” including an obligation to get approval for any foreign compensation.

Flynn apparently cruised through that red light when he accepted $45,000 for speaking to the Russian government’s television-propaganda channel in 2015, and when he received more than $500,000 in 2016 from a firm with close ties to the Turkish government. Flynn retroactively registered as a foreign-government representative for work on behalf of Turkey that occurred on the eve of Donald Trump’s election and Flynn’s selection as national security adviser.

It’s unclear whether Flynn disclosed these foreign-government payments and other foreign contacts, as required, in renewing his security clearances at the White House, where he oversaw the nation’s most sensitive, compartmented programs. Failure to reveal such information can sometimes violate Section 1001 of the U.S. criminal code, known as the “false statements” provision.

When military and intelligence promotion panels review candidates for top positions, it’s said they pay special attention to whether officers have the judgment to manage the subtle, unpredictable problems that arise for commanders. Can they communicate to their subordinates, colleagues at other agencies, members of Congress and, when appropriate, the public? The military and intelligence agencies promote some spectacularly talented people, but something in this process is misfiring.

Military commanders need to know how to communicate in a wide-open world. But a word of caution: The sunlight can be blinding. Good people can do dumb things. They get so used to living by their own code that they sometimes don’t register what the law says.

The Washington Post

Mattis and Trump: The Odd Couple that Works

Mattis

As President Trump nears the 100-day benchmark, it’s a good moment to examine the relationship that has evolved between the mercurial and inexperienced commander in chief and his unflappable defense secretary, Jim Mattis.

It’s an unlikely partnership, but so far it mostly seems to work. Trump may have relatively few domestic-policy accomplishments to show after three months, but he can take credit for selecting a generally solid national-security team and for listening to its advice.

Traveling with Mattis last week in the Middle East, I had a chance to watch the delicate balancing act between a media-obsessed White House and a national-security leadership that mostly would be happy to stay out of the news.

During his meetings in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel, Mattis focused on alliance issues. But the big running stories last week were about symbolic displays of US military power by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, and by dropping a massive weapon in Afghanistan whose nickname, “Mother of All Bombs,” was catnip for journalists. Mattis struggled to adapt to this ever-shifting information space, and his messaging wasn’t always clear.

Mattis is mildly eccentric by military standards, with his penchant for studying Roman philosophy in Latin and suggesting reading lists for his troops. But like every successful Marine and Army general, he is fundamentally a team player who moves with a group, rarely in isolation.

What that has meant in practice is that Mattis has bonded with Trump’s other key foreign policy advisers: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. This is a strong, self-confident group; there’s little of the infighting that characterizes Trump’s domestic advisers.

Mattis’ closest link, interestingly, may be with Tillerson, the ExxonMobil chief-turned-diplomat. Mattis believes that US foreign policy became overmilitarized in recent years and that a strong State Department voice is essential.

The national-security process worked well in the two-day planning and execution of a missile strike this month on a Syrian airfield. Within hours of the Syrian chemical weapons attack on its people, Mattis was framing options drawn from a list of contingency plans. The Pentagon prepared for the possibility that Russia would respond. Planners predicted an 85 percent success rate for the United States; it turned out to be closer to 95 percent.

One puzzle for Mattis these days is navigating a kaleidoscopic world at a time when the public (or, at least, the media) seeks monochromatic answers. Mattis noted in an interview during the trip that Tillerson had offered a nuanced explanation of Iranian actions (complying with the nuclear agreement but meddling in the region), but coverage had focused on the negative. Policymakers sometimes need to “hold two contrary ideas in equipoise,” he explained. “Our world is not black and white.”

An example of the interplay between diplomatic and military issues is the strategy for taking Raqqa, ISIS’ self-proclaimed capital in eastern Syria. Trump has claimed to have a “secret plan” for victory, but the actual policy debate remains complicated and unresolved. The US Central Command recommended a quick move to capture Raqqa, led by a force commanded by Syrian Kurds. The problem is that Turkey regards these Kurdish fighters, known as the YPG, as a deadly threat — and even recenlty bombed two YPG camps.

While respecting Centcom’s recommendations, and its sense of urgency, Mattis was persuaded by Tillerson and others to conduct a more careful review of policy. A quick hit on Raqqa that enraged Turkey might prove to be a tactical success but a strategic setback. The policy debate continues (though officials said Turkey would probably be warned against any more bombing of YPG positions).

What Mattis and the other former commanders bring to Trump’s national-security table, perhaps paradoxically, is a wariness of overly hasty military commitments. In the debate about stopping North Korea’s nuclear program, for example, Pentagon planners understand that the thriving metropolis of Seoul could become a gruesome, Stalingrad-like battlespace in an ill-planned conflict.

Discussing what he called the “ghastly” situation in Syria, Mattis voiced concern that “we are seeing the re-primitivization of war,” with use of chemical weapons and the bombing of children, hospitals, churches and other once-forbidden targets. “We’ve got to hold people accountable,” he insisted.

But how? A hidden drama of these first 100 days has been the interaction between the foreign policy team and a White House that’s just beginning to think about how to use US power in a dangerous world.

The Washington Post

A Young Prince is Reimagining Saudi Arabia

Saudi

Two years into his campaign as change agent in this conservative oil kingdom, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman appears to be gaining the confidence and political clout to push his agenda of economic and social reform.

The young prince outlined his plans in a nearly 90-minute conversation Tuesday night at his office here. Aides said it was his first lengthy on-the-record interview in months. He offered detailed explanations about foreign policy, plans to privatize oil giant Saudi Aramco, strategy for investment in domestic industry, and liberalization of the entertainment sector, despite opposition from some people.

Mohammed bin Salman said that the crucial requirement for reform is public willingness to change. “The most concerning thing is if the Saudi people are not convinced. If the Saudi people are convinced, the sky is the limit.” he said.

Change seems increasingly desired in this young, restless country.

A recent Saudi poll found that 85 percent of the public, if forced to choose, would support the government rather than other authorities, said Abdullah al-Hokail, the head of the government’s public opinion center.

He added that 77 percent of those surveyed supported the government’s “Vision 2030” reform plan, and that 82 percent favored entertainment performances at public gatherings. Though these aren’t independently verified numbers, they do indicate the direction of popular feeling, which Saudis say is matched by anecdotal evidence.

“MBS,” as the deputy crown prince is known, said that he was “very optimistic” about President Trump. He described Trump as “a president who will bring America back to the right track” after Barack Obama, whom Saudi officials mistrusted. “Trump has not yet completed 100 days, and he has restored all the alliances of the US with its conventional allies.”

A sign of the kingdom’s embrace of the Trump administration was the visit here this week by US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. While the Obama administration had criticized the Saudi war in Yemen, Mattis discussed the possibility of additional US support if the Houthis there don’t agree to a UN-brokered settlement.

(Writer’s note: I traveled to Saudi Arabia as part of the press corps accompanying Mattis.)

Mohammed bin Salman has been courting Russia, as well as the United States, and he offered an intriguing explanation of Saudi Arabia’s goal in this diplomacy.

“The main objective is not to have Russia place all its cards in the region behind Iran,” he said. To convince Russia that Riyadh is a better bet than Tehran, the Saudis have been “coordinating our oil policies recently” with Moscow, he said, which “could be the most important economic deal for Russia in modern times.”

There’s less apparent political tension than a year ago, when many analysts saw a rivalry between Mohammed bin Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is officially next in line for the throne.

The deputy crown prince appears to be firmly in control of Saudi military strategy, foreign policy and economic planning. He has gathered a team of technocrats who are much younger and more activist than the kingdom’s past leadership.

Reform plans appear to be moving ahead slowly but steadily. Mohammed bin Salman said that the budget deficit had been cut; non-oil revenue increased 46 percent from 2014 to 2016 and is forecast to grow another 12 percent this year. Unemployment and housing remain problems, he said, and improvement in those areas isn’t likely until between 2019 and 2021.

The biggest economic change is the plan to privatize about 5 percent of Saudi Aramco, which Mohammed bin Salman said will take place next year. This public offering would probably raise hundreds of billions of dollars and be the largest such sale in financial history. The exact size of the offering will depend on financial-market demand and the availability of good options for investing the proceeds, the prince told me.

The rationale for selling a share of the kingdom’s oil treasure is to raise money to diversify the economy away from reliance on energy. One priority is mining, which would tap an estimated $1.3 trillion in potential mineral wealth.

The Saudi official listed other investment targets: creating a domestic arms industry, reducing the $60 billion to $80 billion the kingdom spends annually to buy weapons abroad; producing automobiles in Saudi Arabia to replace the roughly $14 billion the government spends annually for imported vehicles; and creating domestic entertainment and tourism industries to capture some of the $22 billion that Saudis spend traveling overseas each year.

The entertainment industry is a proxy for the larger puzzle of how to unlock the Saudi economy. Changes have begun.

A Japanese orchestra performed here this month, before a mixed audience of families. A Comic Con took place in Jeddah recently, with audience dressing up as characters from the TV show “Supernatural” and other favorites. Comedy clubs feature sketch comedians (but no female stand-up comics, yet).

These options are a modest revolution for a Saudi Arabia where the main entertainment venues, until recently, were restaurants and shopping malls. The modern world, in all its raucousness, is coming, for better or worse.

King Fahd International Stadium in Riyadh hosted a Monster Jam last month with souped-up trucks. There are plans for a Six Flags theme park south of Riyadh.

Maya al-Athel, one of the dozens of young people hatching plans at the Saudi General Entertainment Authority, said in an interview that she’d like to bring a Museum of Ice Cream, like one she found in New York, to the kingdom.

“We want to boost the culture of entertainment,” said Ahmed al-Khatib, a former investment banker who’s chairman of the entertainment authority. His target is to create six public entertainment options every weekend for Saudis. But the larger goal, he said, is “spreading happiness.”

The instigator of this attempt to reimagine the kingdom is the 31-year-old deputy crown prince. With his brash demeanor, he’s the opposite of the traditional Bedouin reserve of past Saudi leaders. Unlike so many Saudi princes, he wasn’t educated in the West, which may have preserved the raw combative energy that is part of his appeal for young Saudis.

The trick for Mohammed bin Salman is to maintain the alliance with the United States, without seeming to be America’s puppet. “We have been influenced by US a lot,” he said. “Not because anybody exerted pressure on us — if anyone puts pressure on us, we go the other way. But if you put a movie in the cinema and I watch it, I will be influenced.” Without this cultural nudge, he said, “we would have ended up like North Korea.” With the United States as a continuing ally, “undoubtedly, we’re going to merge more with the changes in the world.”

Mohammed bin Salman is careful when he talks about religious issues. So far, he has treated the religious authorities as allies against radicalism rather than cultural adversaries. He argues that extreme religious conservatism in Saudi Arabia is a relatively recent phenomenon, born in reaction to the 1979 Iranian revolution and the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Sunni radicals later that year as a reaction to the Shi’ite radicalism.

“I’m young. Seventy percent of our citizens are young,” the prince said. “We don’t want to waste our lives in this whirlpool that we were in the past 30 years. We want to end this epoch now. We want, as the Saudi people, to enjoy the coming days, and concentrate on developing our society and developing ourselves as individuals and families, while retaining our religion and customs. We will not continue to be in the post-’79 era,” he concluded. “That age is over.”

The Washington Post

What Can Trump Learn from Truman?

The only modern president who rivaled Donald Trump in his lack of preparation for global leadership was Harry Truman. Both men took office with little knowledge of the international problems they were about to face, and with worries at home and abroad that they weren’t up to the job.

“I pray God I can measure up to the task,” Truman said right after Franklin Roosevelt’s death and the shock of taking the oath of office. Trump wouldn’t be human if he hadn’t had a similar prayer in a corner of his mind on Jan. 20.

Now, in one of those curious rhymes of history, Trump faces a similar challenge to Truman’s in confronting North Korea. Truman went to war in 1950 to reverse a North Korean invasion of the South. Trump is now perilously close to conflict in his attempt to halt North Korea’s defiant nuclear program.

What can today’s occupant of the White House learn from Truman? The Missourian had many qualities now celebrated by historians, but let’s focus on his personal character. Truman exhibited what in those days were called manly virtues — quiet leadership, fidelity to his beliefs, a disdain for public braggadocio. He never took credit for things he hadn’t accomplished. He never blamed others for his mistakes.

President Trump is obviously a radically different person from Truman. He’s a showy New Yorker, where Truman was a low-key Missouri farm boy. Where Trump made his name as a noisy casino tycoon and TV star, the poker-playing Truman always kept his cards close.

What these two presidents have in common is the experience of coming into the Oval Office facing widespread doubts. What Truman teaches us is that character counts, especially for a president with low initial popularity ratings.

On foreign policy, Trump has shown a flexibility and pragmatism that contradict some of his inflammatory campaign rhetoric. He had accused China of “raping” the American economy, for example, but as president, he evidently realized that he needed Beijing’s help on North Korea and other issues and dropped his claims that Beijing was a “currency manipulator.”

Trump’s Russia position seems to be evolving, too. During the campaign, he was almost fawning in his praise for President Vladimir Putin, and investigators probed for hidden connections to Russia’s covert hacking of the 2016 campaign. Now Trump has taken a warier tone toward Putin. There have been similar shifts on more mundane issues, such as the Export-Import Bank and the tenure of Federal Reserve Chair Janet L. Yellen.

Trump’s new positions seem right to me. But because they represent reversals from earlier views, they raise the question of what this man really believes.

How does a politician become more trustworthy? There’s no formula; it must be earned. But Trump would help himself if he exhibited more of the virtues that Truman embodied. Trump should stop blaming others, for starters. He should never again say that Barack Obama is the cause of his difficulties in Syria, or anywhere else. Shifting blame sounds political, but it also sounds weak. Similarly, Trump should never again malign his military commanders, as he did after the death of Navy SEAL William “Ryan” Owens, when Trump said that “the generals . . . lost Ryan.” Such statements are the opposite of leadership.

Trump should stop taking credit for things he didn’t do (and even for things he did accomplish). These boasts only diminish him. It’s good that he has decided that NATO isn’t obsolete anymore, but he’s foolishly vain to take credit for it. The same is true with job gains from decisions by US companies to keep plants in the United States. The quicker Trump is to claim personal credit, the phonier it seems.

Trump’s taxes present another example of how trust is won and lost. The man running for president might refuse to release his tax returns, but the wise chief executive, never.

When presidents encounter difficulty, they need public confidence. Divisive tactics that may work in a campaign, or attempts to shift responsibility to others, can be ruinous. Truman is remembered as a great president because he overcame a history of personal failure, as a farmer and a haberdasher, to develop the one bond that’s indispensable for a president, which is that in a crisis, people believed him.

Truman was grieved by North Korea’s invasion in 1950. The war went badly, his popularity plummeted, his commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, defied him. But the public stuck with Truman for a simple reason: He had built a reservoir of the trust that is essential for a successful leader.

The Washington Post

Trump Gets a Taste of Success

Trump

For a reminder of how new administrations can quickly get into trouble in foreign policy, consider that Monday, April 17, marks the anniversary of the catastrophic Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy. Bad things can happen to good presidents, and vice versa.

President Trump, after a mostly disastrous first two months, has had a good run these past two weeks in foreign policy. He acted decisively in Syria, gained China as a possible partner in dealing with North Korea, repaired relations with NATO and began addressing the serious tensions with Russia.

Why is Trump making better decisions now? And what could disrupt his progress toward a more coherent foreign policy?

Trump is making gains because he has assembled a competent national security team — and listens to its advice. There was a consensus among his top advisers for a quick, limited strike on a Syrian air base, and Trump took the recommendation. He didn’t amplify, augment or otherwise disrupt it with his own tweets. He allowed the process to work.

If Trump goes back to his freewheeling, tweeter-in-chief role, or if the disruptive would-be chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon regains influence, then chaos could return. But for now, Trump has bonded with his core team. And in this White House, starved for a win, nothing succeeds like success.

Contrast the quick, relatively clean decision on the military strike in Syria with the chaotic White House discussions about the 1961 Cuba invasion. The CIA didn’t level with Kennedy about its doubts that Cuban exiles could succeed without air cover; the Pentagon resented the covert paramilitary operation; Kennedy let himself get dragged into a mistake that prefigured the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and nearly led to nuclear war.

The Bay of Pigs illustrates what happens when a policy process goes bad. Other administrations have also had bumpy starts. President George W. Bush had a messy first few years, with recurring feuds between Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney. It was only in Bush’s second term that he really got the balance right. Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton also had ragged beginnings.

The Trump team, for now, is basking in self-congratulation. Bannon’s power is diminished and H.R. McMaster has taken over as a disciplined national security adviser. Comity reigns in part because Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hammer out common positions before every meeting in the Situation Room.

Trump’s strength and weakness is his emphasis on personality politics. That was evident in his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, which included nearly four hours of one-on-one conversation. Trump was bubbly at a news conference Wednesday in describing the “good chemistry” of the meeting. Such talk is the elevator music of summits, but in this case, the two do seem to have developed a mutually opportunistic bond. Xi is signaling that China’s interests are served by working with the United States to check North Korea, short of war. Will that last? We’ll see.

Trump’s North Korea strategy had a coherent rollout. First Mattis visited the region, followed by Tillerson; as tensions rose this week, the United States signaled resolve by dispatching an aircraft-carrier task force. Behind these tactical moves are some big strategic ideas about a future North Korea that wouldn’t threaten China’s interests.

The danger is over-personalizing policy. Trump likes people who make him look good (as Xi has done). But personal success can’t be the engine of statecraft.

Trump’s first two months were a case study in self-destructive actions. An example of how he undermined his team’s good ideas was a plan back in January for defusing trade and immigration tensions with Mexico.

The centerpiece would have been a visit to Washington by President Enrique Peña Nieto. But Trump got defensive about criticism that he was backing away from his campaign rhetoric and unleashed an inflammatory tweet that led Peña Nieto to cancel the visit.

The Mexico flap added to the uproar and disarray of Trump’s first weeks. Trump was running at government with his head; he was behaving like a guy who gets into bar fights. Somebody (presumably Bannon) must have told him that this was a good idea.

Over the past week, Trump has adopted a different approach — more careful and consensual. Yes, it brings him closer to the foreign policy mainstream that he and Bannon derided during the campaign. But it also gives him a taste of the success he craves.

The Washington Post

Trump Got Syria and China Right Last Week. That’s a Start.

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago state in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S.

The Trump administration’s foreign policy has been a dizzying spectacle of mixed messages and policy reversals during its first three months. But in last week’s crucial tests, President Trump made good decisions about Syria, Russia and China — moving his erratic administration a bit closer toward the pillars of traditional US policy.

The decision to strike a Syrian air base was a confidence builder for an inexperienced and sometimes fractious White House, a senior official said. Trump couldn’t be sure when he launched the attack that a Russian wouldn’t be killed, or that some other freak mishap wouldn’t arise. The military option he chose had two virtues: It was quick, surprising Russians who hadn’t expected such prompt retaliation; and it was measured, sending a calibrated message rather than beginning an open-ended military intervention.

Trump famously likes to win, and he can probably claim a win here after weeks of chaotic setbacks. As a result, the Syria operation, generally praised at home and abroad, has consolidated the power of Trump’s core foreign policy team, in ways that may alter the political balance of this White House.

Here’s the consensus among top Republican and Democratic former officials I spoke with: National security adviser HR McMaster ran a tight interagency process; Defense Secretary Jim Mattis offered the president clear, manageable options. Trump mostly stayed off Twitter, encouraging his team members to do the work rather than disrupting them.

Perhaps the most visible beneficiary is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has found his voice after an agonizingly slow start. Tillerson clearly has gained Trump’s confidence and has also forged an alliance with the decisive backstage operator in this White House, senior adviser (and Trump’s son-in-law) Jared Kushner.

The knives are out for Stephen K. Bannon, who bid to be Trump’s key strategist but is now branded by some close to Trump as a divisive, self-promoting personality whose days are numbered. What seems to have angered Trump and his inner circle is the bid for supremacy by “someone who came on board 72 days before the election,” as one aide put it. “People are tired of games” from Bannon, he said.

Trump has also tilted toward China and away from Russia in the triangular game of nations played by this administration, much as it was by then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Kushner’s apparent mentor. That rebalancing is the opposite of what Trump seemed to favor during the campaign, when he blasted China and wooed Russian President Vladimir Putin at every opportunity. But it’s a more sensible and sustainable course.

“I’m very supportive of the action on Syria,” says Tom Donilon, national security adviser for President Barack Obama. But he notes: “On Russia, China and Syria, there have been almost whiplash-like changes in policy.”

Last week’s trickiest maneuver was simultaneously bombing Syria and meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Trump has basically done a 180 on China: After challenging the fundamentals of the relationship before he took office, Trump has now reverted to Kissingerian language of cooperation. The goal of the summit, officials say, was for the two self-styled “big men” to get to know each other. They spent nearly four hours in one-on-one conversation, explaining how they look at issues such as North Korea and global trade.

The White House described a “textured” conversation, with Trump at one point offering Xi a backhanded compliment: “We had a long discussion already. So far, I have gotten nothing. Absolutely nothing.”

Trump’s impulsive, unpredictable style has confounded the Chinese, who like to plan every detail, but officials say their overall satisfaction was conveyed by their lack of criticism in a communique after the summit.

Tillerson is taking Trump’s message to Moscow this week. He is expected to tell top Russian officials that their alliance with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a loser, and that the United States will work with Moscow on a political transition to replace Assad with another figure acceptable to Russia. “We want them to have to make choices,” explains one official. “We can work together or against each other.”

The Trump team feels that after last week’s strike on Syria to enforce the chemical weapons ban, the United States has regained the strategic initiative from Putin. “Russia is catching as opposed to pitching for a change,” says one senior official. “They are on the back foot, surprised by Trump.”

Rebuffing Putin is a worthy goal, if an unlikely one for Trump. Former defense secretary Bob Gates offers the crucial caveat: “There’s merit in getting Russia off balance politically, but being militarily unpredictable when Russian forces are directly involved is a very risky business.”

(The Washington Post)

War in Space Is Becoming a Real Threat

Space

Among the memorabilia in Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein’s office is a fragment of the Wright brothers’ first airplane. But the most intriguing items may be two small plastic satellites on sticks that can be maneuvered to simulate a dogfight in space.

Space is now a potential battle zone, Goldfein explains in an interview. The Air Force wants to ensure “space superiority,” which he says means “freedom from attack and freedom to maneuver.”

If you think cyberwar raises some tricky issues, get your mind around this next big threat worrying the Pentagon. Similar problems exist in both the cyber and space domains: U.S. commercial and military interests are interwoven but deeply suspicious of each other; the technologies are borderless but are being weaponized by hostile nation-states; and attacks on satellites and other systems may be invisible and difficult to attribute.

Today’s digital world hangs on the satellite networks that invisibly circle the globe. They’re the wiring system for many commercial and military operations down below, and they’re highly vulnerable to attack. Russia has jammed GPS reception in Ukraine; China has hacked U.S. weather satellites; North Korea has jammed signals over the demilitarized zone.

The cloud overhead is thickening: As of mid-2016, the Union of Concerned Scientists counted 1,419 satellites orbiting the globe, including 576 from the United States, 181 from China and 140 from Russia. More than half are in low Earth orbit; most of the rest are geostationary, about 22,000 miles from Earth. Roughly 350 satellites, or 25 percent of the total, are for military use. At least 12 nations now have space-launch capability.

Space warfare has been a staple of science fiction for decades, but real-world fears were checked by a 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which banned the use of nuclear weapons there. But the treaty didn’t ban the use of conventional weapons in space, and Russia began its first anti-satellite weapons program in 1961, according to leading expert Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation. After the Cold War ended, fears eased about space conflict.

A wake-up call came with China’s 2007 test of an anti-satellite missile that destroyed a Chinese target in space (creating more than 3,000 dangerous fragments). The Chinese have now conducted a total of eight tests of satellite-killer rockets, Weeden says. Russia, too, has resumed similar tests. The United States is also thought to have what amount to anti-satellite rockets in the “midcourse” leg of its missile-defense system.

Rocket attacks against satellites worry the Pentagon less these days than electronic ones. Satellites could use jammers to sabotage other satellites. Ground systems can already create electronic bubbles that block GPS signals. The Russians used this technology to disable a Ukrainian drone in 2014, according to a report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, cited by Weeden.

Keeping space systems safe is crucial for the planet, but protection is dispersed among a jumble of overlapping and conflicting authorities. The military and the intelligence communities barely talked to each other for decades on this issue, but last year the Air Force created a Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center that will soon have about 200 representatives coordinating operations across agencies.

But military liaison with private space users is still primitive. A “commercial integration cell” at the Air Force Joint Space Operations Center (yes, it’s a different entity) works with six big companies. But most commercial concerns share their satellite-location data through the Space Data Association, based in the Isle of Man. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration is eager to extend supervision of commercial flights to space activity, said Marcia Smith of Space Policy Online.

The United States is even warier of sharing its space secrets than its communications intelligence. There’s no “Five Eyes” partnership yet, though Britain, Australia and Canada are creating space-operations centers that could someday share data with an Air Force unit that was established 11 years ago. One little-discussed U.S. snooping operation is the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, which has four satellites monitoring the other traffic 22,000 miles above the planet.

As on Earth, the hidden danger is hacking, official or otherwise. Orbits can be changed; sensors can be blinded; data can be corrupted. Facts could become as fragile in space as on Earth, if systems aren’t protected. But first, suspicious space mavens must learn to talk with each other.

When space is a battleground, such cooperation is difficult. As Goldfein said in a recent speech, “There really is no such thing as war in space, it’s just war.”

The Washington Post

Trump is Selling Snake Oil to the Rust Belt

Trump

President Trump boasts that his “America First” trade and economic policies are bringing well-paid manufacturing jobs back to America. That’s probably his biggest “deliverable” to Trump voters. But is this claim true?

Trump won the presidency partly because he voiced the anger of American workers about lost jobs and stagnant wages. But in the process, he fundamentally misled the country by claiming that trade is the major cause of job losses, and that renegotiating trade agreements would save the middle class.

What Trump is offering is a palliative that has raised false hopes. He implies that a few good trade deals will refurbish the Rust Belt and restore the good old days of manufacturing. It won’t happen, and to pretend otherwise is a hoax.

Trump campaigned on a false argument that global trade was taking away American jobs. So he killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership his first week in office and is now demanding changes in NAFTA and other trade agreements. He has dressed up a few announcements from jittery U.S. corporations to argue that doomed manufacturing plants are being saved and that jobs are “already starting to pour back.”

Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, has inflated this economic nationalism into a full-blown ideology that posits a battle between workers who are being hurt by globalization and an elite that benefits. Referencing the TPP at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Bannon said that Trump “got us out of a trade deal and let our sovereignty come back to ourselves.”

But the numbers show that Trump and Bannon are fighting the wrong battle. Manufacturing employment has indeed declined in America over the past decade, but the major reason is automation, not trade. Robots, not foreign workers, are taking most of the disappearing American jobs. Rather than helping displaced blue-collar workers, Trump’s promises of restoring lost jobs could leave them unprepared for the much bigger wave of automation and job loss that’s ahead.

The most persuasive numbers were gathered in 2015 by Michael J. Hicks and Srikant Devaraj at Ball State University. They showed that manufacturing has actually experienced something of a revival in the United States. Despite the Great Recession, manufacturing grew by 17.6 percent, or about 2.2 percent a year, from 2006 to 2013. That was only slightly slower than the overall economy.

But even as manufacturing output was growing, jobs were shrinking. The decade from 2000 to 2010 saw “the largest decline in manufacturing employment in U.S. history,” the Ball State economists concluded. What killed those jobs? For the most part, it wasn’t trade, but productivity gains from automation. Over the decade, the report notes, productivity gains accounted for 87.8 percent of lost manufacturing jobs, while trade was responsible for just 13.4 percent.

Robotics allows manufacturers to create more output with fewer people. That’s not a conspiracy imposed by Bannon’s global elite. It’s simply a fact of economic life and progress. And it’s not just blue-collar workers who are suffering. Smarter machines kill jobs in finance, law and, yes, even journalism.

To see how Trump is mislabeling the causes of workers’ anger, take a look at job losses in various industries. In motor-vehicle manufacturing, 85.5 percent of job losses came from productivity gains; in steel and other primary metals, 76.7 percent; in paper products, 93.2 percent; in textiles, 97.6 percent.

Trump proposes that we “buy American.” But in a world of globalized supply chains, what is an American car? Does a Toyota Camry made in Kentucky count? Is a Ford F-150 assembled in Kansas City American even if some of its parts were made in Mexico? The interdependence of global manufacturing is part of why Ford and Toyota stay healthy and profitable, for workers and shareholders both. How does Trump propose to unthread this subtly woven quilt?

Trump wants to deliver on his campaign promises. Good for him. But by misidentifying the source of the Rust Belt’s woes, he is doing his supporters a double disservice. He’s giving them false hope that jobs replaced by machines will be reclaimed by people. Alas, economic history doesn’t move in reverse. Perhaps worse, Trump is giving people reasons to avoid the job retraining that would prepare them for the next tsunami of automation, which consultants predict could destroy more than half of all current jobs.

What will Trump say then to the workers in Michigan, Ohio and West Virginia who believed in him — who thought the old jobs were coming back — and are savaged in the next round of job losses?

The Washington Post

Michael Flynn’s Star Burns Out

Flynn

A strange and circuitous path led retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn toward his fateful telephone contact in late December with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and the flameout of what had been a distinguished military career.

Military and intelligence colleagues who served with Flynn describe him as a brilliant tactician whose work in the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command a decade ago didn’t prepare him for broader challenges as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, from which he was removed in 2014, and national security adviser, the post from which he resigned Monday night.

“In the JSOC world, you think you’re Superman,” said a former Pentagon superior of Flynn’s. After the disappointment at DIA, he said, “Flynn wanted recognition from anyone who would give it to him.” The Russians paid attention, and he reciprocated.

A four-star general who served closely with Flynn sees a painful lesson: “Flynn’s is an advisory tale to naive military officers. Swim with the sharks and you’re sometimes the chum.”

Flynn made his name perfecting the “find, fix, finish” tactics employed by JSOC against al-Qaeda in Iraq. The intelligence haul from one night’s raid would be processed in a few hours, and the leads from cellphones and laptops would drive the next night’s raids.

Those inside JSOC’s super-secret operations felt “we’re conquering the world,” recalled one colleague. Flynn continued to shine as intelligence chief at U.S. Central Command, then at the Joint Staff at the Pentagon and finally in Afghanistan, where I met him. His appointment to head the DIA in 2012 was the culmination of what had been a charmed rise to the top.

Then bad things began to happen, some involving Russia, and Flynn’s path began to veer toward Monday’s catastrophe.

The DIA, a messy agency of nearly 20,000, mostly civilians, was famously the underachiever in the intelligence community. Flynn tried to fix everything at once. He had an ambitious but unrealistic plan for fusing the agency into mission centers. His superiors said no; Flynn went ahead anyway. Employees complained of shouting matches, bad leadership and a demoralized agency.

Along the way, Flynn became enthusiastic about improving liaison with Russia, which he saw as a natural counterterrorism partner. He visited the Russian military-intelligence agency, the GRU, in 2013, and came back advocating greater cooperation in monitoring Syrian chemical weapons. Even after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, Flynn proposed inviting the intelligence chiefs of its various theater commands to Washington for discussions. His superiors rejected what they saw as a supremely ill-timed proposal.

After Flynn was forced out in 2014, he complained that his ouster reflected disagreements about Middle East strategy. Colleagues at the time say it was simply a story of management failure — a good officer in the wrong job.

An embittered Flynn continued to advocate closer cooperation with Russia — and began issuing strident denunciations of the Obama administration. He told Al Jazeera television in August 2015 that the rise of the ISIS group was a “willful Washington decision.” He told the German magazine Der Spiegel in November 2015 that U.S. military operations in Iraq and Libya had been a “mistake” and a “strategic failure.” These became major themes for Donald Trump, whose campaign Flynn informally began advising in late 2015.

Flynn did something in December 2015 that has haunted him ever since. He gave a paid speech in Moscow at the 10th-anniversary celebration of Russia Today, a global cable network described by U.S. intelligence as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.” The RT interviewer pushed him to say positive things about U.S.-Russian cooperation, and Flynn complied.

“Stop being like two bullies in the playground!” Flynn said in Moscow. “It’s a marriage, whether we like it or not, and that marriage is very, very rocky right now,” he said. In a separate RT interview in Moscow, he urged that the two countries share intelligence and operations centers against Islamic terrorism. Flynn sat next to President Vladimir Putin at a celebratory dinner on that 2015 trip.

Friendly relations continued. During 2016, even as the Russians were mounting what U.S. intelligence described as a covert attack on the presidential election, Flynn had several contacts with Kislyak. The fateful one came in late December, when the two men discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia, even as the Obama administration was expelling 35 diplomats.

Flynn’s fall is a painful story, with many unanswered questions. Perhaps the biggest is why a retired general, schooled in the chain of command, would have talked with Kislyak without consulting his boss, Trump. That’s the White House line, but this investigation of Russiagate is just beginning.

(The Washington Post)