Here are the most recent Op-Eds from the last month that I have written. Been a little slow on this month’s posting simply because of travels and projects.
A Look Eastward on Foreign Policy (March 30th)
This week, with even more troops being sent to Syria, it is important to recast the current struggle against ISIS. From the beginning, the war against ISIS has been part of a greater struggle to keep stability in Iraq, and to topple the Assad regime in Syria. The reason why this was operationally occurring was because Assad and his allied militias in Syria, as well as Sunni militias in Iraq, were either cooperating or had a ceasefire with ISIS it seemed. Often times, the democratic forces in Syria and the government forces in Iraq found themselves fighting on two fronts. So with this in mind, let’s look at recent events in Syria, and how they are shaping the current war.
On March 19th, a surprise attack began from those opposed to Bashar al-Assad, attacking the capital of Syria on Sunday. Effectively, Bashar al-Assad has built a stronghold in Damascus, the capital of Syria, since the civil war began. The intensity of this attack does not reflect the last several months of defeats the opposition forces have seen. This is not an assault by the Democratic forces the US is supporting. The rebels carrying out these attacks are the organizations that have aligned with ISIS. Early in the war, it was noted that ISIS and the Assad regime had an unofficial ceasefire. But since the fall of the Democratic opposition in Aleppo last December, ISIS has been striking out against Assad. As the situation in Syria becomes grim, Donald Trump has recently increased troop numbers in both Iraq and Syria. In the long-term, Syria is far from resolution and the attack on Damascus, should the Assad regime fail to hold, could lead to a negative change for stability in the Middle East. Keep in mind that Assad is propped up by Iran, China, and Russia. A decline in his power will mean an increase in their intervention in the region.
On the subject of Syria, on March 17th, the anti-aircraft defenses in Syria attempted to strike Israeli aircraft carrying out an operation against Hezbollah. Iran has been funneling arms and heavy weapons to the Hezbollah militia since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Hezbollah is a Shi’ite terrorist organization that operates in Lebanon, Syria, and northern Israel. It is an organization dedicated to the destruction of the state of Israel and has leaders who are strongly anti-Semitic. After the attack, the Syrian government claimed the target was a military site, not a militia compound. The problem is that in Syria, the line between Hezbollah’s terrorist militias and Assad’s military forces is blurred. The two groups have worked together to take down Salafist rebel groups, or Ultra-Reactionary Islamist rebels.
The Israelis have increased the tension in the area by saying they will engage in a destruction of Syria’s defense system if another missile should find its way towards an Israeli aircraft. The strike was at Palmyra, which is deep into Syrian territory, past the capital of Damascus. This should be an indication of how unstable Syria is, that the Israelis can successfully and mostly without incident, strike deep into Syria. This caused the Russians to summon the Israeli ambassador for a meeting, as the two nations have been cooperating since last year to share Syrian airspace. The cooperation is for the purpose of reducing air conflict as the Russians have been aiding the Assad regime.
In regards to the Russian meeting with the Israeli ambassador, no immediate results were shown. However, Israel has started claiming maritime territory with Lebanon. With the conflict in Syria, Israel and Russia are headed for a course of impact. The Russians currently use Syria as their warm-water port for their Mediterranean Navy. As for the Israelis, with the discovery of Natural Gas on the shore of the Levant, the importance of maritime boundaries is now not simply for defense, but for their economy. While some worry the two might come to blows, an alignment and tightening of relations between Russia and Israel is also possible, because the Iranians are trying to outmaneuver the Russians for who holds Assad’s reins. How the Syrian Civil War resolves and who holds the most influence over Assad or whoever controls Syria in the end will determine this.
Threat of the Hermit Tyrant (April 6th)
Over a month ago, a shocking assassination occurred in a Malaysian airport. The half-brother of Kim Jong Un was murdered in the middle of the airport, attacked by two female assassins. The weapon of choice? VX Nerve gas, and in enough concentration that the half-brother of Kim Jong Un died within twenty minutes, well before emergency medical care could give him the cure to the horrific nerve gas. Not long after that, the North Koreans announced that they had finally perfected a rocket engine, ending the haze of jokes about North Korea’s nuclear program. While the North Koreans cannot do anything more than threaten their neighbors, the erratic and intense political killings of Kim Jong Un have put into question whether or not Beijing (or Moscow) can calm and control the Hermit Communist regime.
On March 31st, Secretary of Defense, General James Mattis, gave a statement on the concern of North Korea. While visiting Britain as the new Pentagon Chief, General Mattis said that North Korea “is a threat of both rhetoric and growing capability.” He stated that while the Trump administration is trying to work diplomatically to contain the nuclear ambition of North Korea, “it appears to be going in a very reckless manner.” These statements and facts create the background for comments to be made by President Donald Trump on April 2nd.
In an interview on the upcoming meeting with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, President Trump stated that the US “is prepared to act alone if China does not take a tougher stand against North Korea’s nuclear program.” North Korea has been a point of contention by the Trump administration about working and trading with the Chinese Communist state, specifically since the North Koreans are usually seen as a puppet state propped up and aided by the Chinese government.
Trump has refused to discuss how he would handle the threat of North Korea in public, this is similar to how he is prosecuting the war on ISIS in the Middle East, and how he described his strategy to fight wars as President. With President Trump accusing the Chinese of unfair trade practices, aiding and abetting the North Korean regime, and manipulating its currency to the disadvantage of the international market, the potential efforts to box-in North Korea diplomatically are going to be strained. But perhaps that is what President Trump wants, to seem constrained to only have military options. The President seems to be a fan of brinksmanship negotiations, a maneuver in negotiations where one begins at the extreme and moves towards agreeable ground. This tactic is meant to ensure that ground given up in a negotiation is not land you are losing, but in reality, land you never had.
In the Asian theatre, the first weekend of April saw the South Koreans, Japanese, and the US hold joint military drills, particularly against North Korea. With the threat of nuclear arms race looming, the talk of pre-emptive warfare has come around again. Shades of the Iraq War are coming into view already for some in the National Security arena. As Reuters reported on March 28th, Satellite imagery of the main nuclear facility in North Korea gave indications that it was preparing for a third nuclear test since Kim Jong Un took charge; this would be the sixth overall test by the regime.
As the Trump administration has pointed out, despite being under critical sanctions to limit the North Korean capability, the regime continues to somehow acquire resources and materials necessary to harness nuclear power and weapons. The endgame of the North Korean regime is to achieve an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, which would give the regime the chance to threaten America. As talks begin at Mar-a-Lago between Xi Jinping and Donald Trump, the future of nuclear peace is at stake.
The Roosevelt Corollary (April 13th)
I was sitting at a game store when a good friend, a wounded veteran of the Afghanistan War, texted me that we had begun air strikes in Syria on April 7th. By the time I had left the store and arrived at my apartment, we had launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airbase. This was the same airbase that had launched a chemical weapons attack days earlier, which killed children and the graphic footage of the attack had made its way to President Donald Trump. President Donald Trump in his rhetoric that Thursday night was reserved, angry, and quiet. But he wielded a big stick and that made me think about something. The reason why people may not know how to handle the Trump foreign policy is because it is a flash backwards to a century ago.
Trump’s foreign policy is a modern interpretation of Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” Prior to the chemical attack, Trump had spoken softly on Syria. From one statement, he seemed to recognize Assad’s right to rule or at least relevance to a formal peace. He was willing to cooperate with Russia, and he was solely focused on crushing ISIS. But Dictator Assad acted in bad conduct, he committed an immoral crime.
In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt gave that year’s State of the Union address; citing the 1902-1903 Crisis in Venezuela, he declared:
“Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilised society, may ultimately require intervention by some civilised nation, and in the western hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of such wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.”
While at the time Roosevelt was simply declaring this as part of Monroe Doctrine, a policy of keeping Europe out of the Americas, this policy has long been quoted since then. The Bush administration invoked this quote when they invaded Iraq in 2003. The Obama administration listed it as legal precedence for the Libyan and Yemen interventions. However, if one looks at the context of the Roosevelt Corollary of Big Stick Diplomacy, this is not what the previous administrations did. Defined by Roosevelt as “the exercise of intelligent forethought and of decisive action sufficiently far in advance of any likely crisis”, Big Stick Diplomacy is about using American power to prevent crises by showing such a strong resistance and force that parties to the crisis back away. Is that not what Trump has conveyed was his intent in this Syrian strike? The President doesn’t seek war, he seeks to make Assad snap back to reality before he walks across a line he can’t take back.
Some might think the attack was intended for Bashar Al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, the leaders of Syria and Russia respectively. However, that isn’t going in-depth enough on foreign policy. Every action you do on the international stage carries weight not just to the current agreements being made, but to the next ones as well. They create a perception of American attitude. While Russia puffs it’s chest but does nothing, and Assad does a minor bombing but doesn’t buzz American warships, we have to look at who else is acting defensive since this attack.
With China’s President, Xi Jinping, at Mar-a-Lago while the strikes occurred, the Chinese government had to handle negotiations the next day with what appeared to be a warning to them on what will happen if they don’t take care of North Korea. Negotiations have been reported as positive and favorable. Topics that were covered at the Negotiations besides North Korea were trade deficits, military cooperation, infrastructure development, and condemnation of the Syria gas attack. By the end of the negotiations, the Foreign Ministry of China had already declared that it opposed the use of chemical weapons by any party, under any circumstances. North Korea has puffed out it’s chest, but the Chinese have stated that action is necessary to deal with North Korea’s rhetoric of nuclear war. After all, it’s not that far from a nuclear bunker in North Korea to Beijing.
No matter how you view the Syrian strike by President Trump, it is important to remember that what some assume is simply reactionary and belligerent arrogance, may in fact be a strategy. Sometimes you have to make the world think you are ready for war, to make them not escalate to it. And as I have previously stated, Trump is a fan of brinksmanship. After all, taking your argument to the extreme and walking back works well in business; and it might just work in foreign policy.
April 20th did not have a write-up as the local paper was celebrating the life and efforts of Saint Joseph’s retiring Mayor, BJ Hackler.
Turkey Votes No to Democracy (April 27th)
On April 16th, the Turkish democracy decided by referendum to grant President Recep Erdogan more power as President and gave him the right to rule by decree. The vote’s integrity is heavily in question, but that didn’t stop Erdogan from inciting loyalist crowds to chant “Death Penalty!” in the cause of reinstating the death penalty in Turkey. The situation in Turkey might seem reminiscent of another time in history when power was merged under one man and ended a democracy. It should serve as a reminder that the only defense a democracy has is the vigilance of the voting electorate, meaning the People.
The rise of Erdogan began back in 2003 when he became Prime Minister of Turkey. The party he founded in 2001, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), has seen election victories since it’s creation. While it has an Islamist background as a party, this isn’t the Islamist ideology we see in Saudi Arabia or in ISIS. Rather than trying to moralize the society, Erdogan just wants the autocratic component of Islamism, which usually advocates for a one-man rule over all. You might remember how hard the Muslim Brotherhood tried in Egypt to make Mohammed Morsi a democratically-elected dictator. In the same way, Erdogan has used the referendum from this month to have the people declare him a presidential dictator.
You might wonder why I am calling him a presidential dictator. In July 2016, a failed coup attempt occurred in Turkey, where secular and military forces attempted to capture President Erdogan and capture key strategic points of the government. In the aftermath of the coup, Erdogan carried out arrests and round-ups of judges, journalists, military personnel, and politicians. Thousands of citizens that stood between Erdogan and total rule were arrested. Since Erdogan controls the State Media as President, the state press never called out the civil rights abuses of the government, while opposition and neutral press outlets have been repressed or arrested. The rhetoric of Erdogan’s loyalists saw a transition from seeing opponents as “the opposition” to “terrorists against the State”; all at the encouragement of the AKP’s leadership under Erdogan.
As for the election itself, a lot of unscrupulous behavior occurred to steer the election results. First, police were used to prevent citizens opposed to the regime from going into the ballot box. Additionally, instead of letting only legally approved voters cast ballots, any citizen could cast a ballot in the election, effectively sanctioning voter fraud as there was no way to know if someone had voted previously or not. An example of the intense hatred being encouraged against opposition voters occurred in Diyarbakir, Turkey. AKP supporters (supporters of Erdogan) shot and killed three opposition voters after trying to intimidate a change of heart.
Now what exactly does this reform entitle? The first amendment in the referendum changes the text on judicial power to be from “independent courts” to “independent and impartial courts”. It isn’t clear if the AKP-controlled Parliament or Erdogan would decide the quality of judges. The next set of amendments cover members of parliament. First, the Parliament will be increased in size meaning the unity of Parliament is weakened, and then the age of a Member of Parliament (MP) is reduced to 18, allowing Erdogan’s young loyalists to become politicians. Elections will be every 5 years instead of 4 years, and Parliament is stripped of the power to scrutinize the Presidential Cabinet, or push votes of confidence and censure. Finally, the duties of the President and the Prime Minister are merged into one office, and that office has the right to rule by fiat. These changes effectively remove the checks against the President.
What this really means is that the President can decide to appoint judges without scrutiny from the Legislature; he can issues decrees as if he was the Legislature; and he can dissolve the Legislature at any time. He will be the Commander-in-Chief and he will have sole authority over deciding who runs the nation’s bureaucracy, again without parliamentary approval or consent. While Parliament retains some powers, if as it is now, the President and the Parliament are from the same party, then the President has free rein to do whatever they desire.
For Western academics, world leaders, and Erdogan’s opposition, it is clear that the coup last year created this opportunity. After all, the coup inspired a rounding up of influential people who could’ve opposed such a radical reform. Those round-ups prevented voices from protesting the referendum or the way the government bullied the public into voting yes. However, if you listen to Turkish media and major media outlets, Democracy and Liberty did not die with a whimper, but instead to thunderous applause.
There wasn’t a post for the 4th of May paper because I was travelling that weekend beforehand back to DC after making an extended trip home. I went home the Friday before Easter and enjoyed a trip home and got to spend time with family and recharge my engines back in my hometown.