In the run-up to the US elections, presumptive Democrat candidate Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump has been steadily rising, and is well over 10%, according to various polls. There are four months to the election, however, and it is too early predict the outcome. Many believe that the mercurial Trump is likely to have an ace up his sleeve, and that his popularity within his core constituency is very much intact. Interestingly, one area where Trump has a lead over Biden is confidence with regard to handling the US economy. Trump also scores over Biden in terms of enthusiasm. The current President is lagging behind Biden in terms of important issues like law enforcement and criminal justice issues, foreign policy, the coronavirus outbreak, race relations, and keeping the country united.
Commentators, strategic analysts, and policymakers the world over are keeping a close watch on the US election. The question on everybody’s mind is whether Biden’s foreign policy will be similar to earlier Democrat Presidents like Clinton and Obama, or distinct given the massive economic and geopolitical changes which have taken place globally. According to Trump’s former National Security Advisor, John Bolton – whose memoirs The Room Where it Happened: A White House Memoir have stirred up controversy and come at the wrong time for Trump – a Biden Presidency would essentially mean ‘another four years’ of Obama’s foreign policy.
It is true that Biden has been part of what is dubbed as the ‘Beltway.’ and would be preferred by US liberals and the class of ‘East Coast Intellectuals’ who are dominant not just in academic circles, but the policy circuit as well, given the fact that he may not be as isolationist as Trump, and is likely to be less abrasive vis-à-vis US allies.
In the changed economic and geopolitical environment, globally, the former Vice President will need to tweak his approach on complex economic and geopolitical issues. We may thus witness a significant departure from the policies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, for example, as attitudes towards trade had already begun to change during the Obama presidency.
One strong reiteration of the above point is Biden’s stand on the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was former President Barack Obama’s brainchild, and an important component of what had been dubbed the ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy, which sought to contain China’s growing role in the Asia-Pacific region. (The Trump Administration has sought to build strategic partnerships in Asia through the ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ narrative.) Biden said that he would only join a ‘re-negotiated TPP’ (one of the first steps which Donald Trump had taken when elected to office was to pull the US out of the TPP).
On China, too, Biden is likely to be more hawkish than Obama, though maybe he is less predictable and abrasive than Trump. Biden has already referred to some anecdotes in Bolton’s memoirs, where the Former NSA highlights the point that Trump, in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Osaka, lent support to draconian measures against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang
Interestingly, in spite of Trump’s tough stance against China on economic issues, such as the imposition of trade tariffs as well as sanctions against Huawei (only recently, Chinese telecom vendors Huawei and ZTE Corporation were declared ‘national security’ threats), a number of Chinese commentators seem to prefer Trump, mostly because he has a simplistic approach, with US business interests being his primary concern. The US President has also not been very vocal on Human Rights Issues. Apart from this, Trump has given mixed signals vis-à-vis US allies. On the one hand, the Administration has spoken about the US working closely with its allies to take on China, and on the other hand Trump has taken measures which have riled allies. A recent instance being the Trump Administration’s announcement of withdrawing US troops stationed in Germany.
Similarly, Trump’s call for reforming the G7 and including Russia was not taken too kindly by countries like Germany and Canada, who believe that an expanded G7 should consist of democracies.
Trump’s rapport with authoritarian leaders
While Trump’s lack of gravitas in foreign policy has had an adverse impact on relations with US allies, he has got along well with authoritarian rulers like Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and even praised them. Trump has not just turned a blind eye to human rights violations in Xinjiang, but looked the other way when it came to the brutal killing of Egyptian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018 (the CIA concluded that the Saudi Crown Prince, Muhammad Bin Salman, with whom Trump shares a close rapport, was involved in the killing of Khashoggi).
In the midst of the pandemic, and India’s escalating tensions with China, the US President also suspended non-immigrant work visas, including H1Bs (in recent years, Indians have received well over two-thirds of the total H1B visas which have been issued) until the end of the year. Biden, on the other hand, has been an ardent advocate for closer economic ties with India. The former Vice President had also backed the Indo-US Nuclear deal in 2008 (Biden was then a Senator), and during his visit to India in 2013 he also spoke in favour of a greater role for India in Asia, and the need for both countries to work closely towards this goal.
What has irked many in India, however, is Biden’s criticism of the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), NRC (National Register of Citizens), and his support for the restoration of liberties in Kashmir on Biden’s campaign website. It would be important to note that not just Democrats, but even many Republicans, have criticised the increasing religious polarization in India in recent years, and a US government report also underscored the need for religious pluralism in India, highlighting cases of discrimination against minorities. Many right-thinking Indians, too, have been emphasizing on the point that India can not progress without social cohesion and warned against the perils of religious polarization and social divisions.
No US administration can afford to be soft on China any longer, and neither can India with its rising clout be ignored. The US under Biden is likely to cement ties with countries like India and Vietnam while ensuring that allies like Germany, France, and Australia are kept in good humor. What could change is the simplistic approach of Trump, where even links with allies are driven by short term economic gains. It is important to realize that US-India relations are driven by mutual interests, not just individual chemistry between leaders.
I had an unusual experience yesterday and today, a civilized exchange with a liberal. It was on Facebook. I think it’s worth sharing, maybe only as curiosity.
Jacques Delacroix to S.R.S.: I am reading you and your accomplices between the lines. Is it true that you have trouble imagining any Trump supporter as reasonably intelligent, reasonably well informed, and well aware of Mr Trump’s rather obvious shortfalls? Just asking.
S.R.S. to Jacques Delacroix: Speaking only for myself: I don’t have trouble imagining that at all. It helps that I have maintained FB friendships with a number of them, obviously including you, but also others, some of whom I know (or once knew) in real life and not just on FB. I certainly understand that there are those out there who like tax cuts for corporations and individuals (even when slanted toward the already wealthy), who generally want to repeal government regulations on business, and who want highly conservative judges and Justices–all standard Republican fare and key accomplishments of the Trump administration.
I assume many of these conservatives are well aware that Trump has a “room temperature IQ” (quoting you, I believe, but I’m not positive of that), that Trump talks before he thinks (let alone consults with actual experts), and that his rhetoric borders on xenophobic and authoritarian. The mantra is: “don’t worry; he’s not DOING those things, and his talk won’t hurt anything; or at least it will hurt less than if a Democrat were in the White House.”
I’m deeply opposed on the policy positions, and I’m sometimes baffled by some typical conservative positions (e.g., deficits are anathema except when it is a Republican President), but I know there are intelligent people on both sides.
As I said (earlier in this post or somewhere similar), I’m more concerned than those conservatives about the long-term damage being done by the authoritarian and arguably xenophobic rhetoric coming straight from the highest office in the land.
And in general, I’m very concerned about the demonization of political opponents (“Cheatin’ Obama” is one case in point, or calling his political opponents and the reporters in the press “evil” people). Trump didn’t invent it, and the Democrats do some of it too. But I believe the rhetoric has grown exponentially under Trump (after all, a constant refrain of his campaign was that he would imprison his opponent), and I think it is highly corrosive to the possibility of genuine democracy. I am saddened, and scared, by the fact that most conservatives in power and their supporters on the ground either don’t see this as a problem, or see it as less concerning than the possibility of a moderate Democrat in the White House.
Jacques Delacroix to S.R.S. Thanks for taking the trouble. I recognize most of what you are saying and I even agree with some. Certainly, this includes the deficit spending pre-dating the epidemic. Mr Trump is certainly not my idea of a good conservative. (More on this below.) I am baffled by your description of him as authoritarian. He has used executive orders much less than his predecessor. (“I have a pen and a phone.” Obama) He has not bragged about doing so. He has not tried to circumvent the constitutional order. (Whatever he has said, including recently, he has not tried.) I am open to instruction on authoritarianism. It really matters to me. There is nothing I detest more. But, please, limit yourself to deeds; I already know about the logorrhea. As for his being “xenophobic,” it’s one of those political correctness inspired statements I suspect is devoid of meaning. I am obviously a foreigner. “Yes but you are white.” My wife is a woman of color. She voted for him; she will again, without compunction. I feel (feel, don’t know to corroborate it) that your distaste and that of your tribe, and shared by some Republicans, is something else, something like caste rejection. I stated that Mr Trump is not my idea of a good conservative. In this connection, I, but also you, are faced with the following two quandaries about the functioning of our political institutions.
First, how could Mr Trump -with his obvious personal shortcomings – have so easily triumphed in a field of 18 other Rep. candidates, most of whom looked viable? In this connection, I think his ascendancy among blue-collar workers needs to be explained. The Dem Party should do the explaining.
Second, how could the Dem end up producing the enormously damaged good that is Mrs Clinton in 2016. (I know you don’t appreciate name calling, but she is obviously a major crook, in my book.) How could the higher ranks of the Dem Party openly scheme against Sen. Sander? (He is a man I know well because I used to be him, when we were both 25.) I think he is a little dumb but no doubt honest. Plus, his program was clear. He would have given Mr Trump a run for his money, including among people like me who are used to choosing between the lesser of two or more evils. Furthermore, how can the Dem Party, only three years later, come up for a candidate with the mental shipwreck that is Mr Biden? This is downright strange. Conventional explanations just won’t do. As I explained recently [here – BC] , I smell a rat, here again.
PS I don’t think I said that Mr Trump had a room temperature IQ because I don’t believe it for a second. Rather, I must have attributed this belief to liberals. PS2. There are different kinds of name calling. Mr Trump’s schoolyard variety is entertaining and rather innocent as compared to everything else. If it makes his adversaries lose their cool, that’s fine with me. In the 19th century, there was an inspired politician who claimed that his opponent’s sister was a “Thespian.” I like that. Thank for your attention.
S.R.S. declined to pursue this further. He mentioned two books.
Many analysts have argued that the US and China will continue to be the two most important global players in a post-corona world, but they will not be the sole drivers of the narrative with regard to economic and geopolitical issues. While the US has become insular under Trump and has failed to foster a spirit of international cooperation even during the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, China’s suppression of crucial information with regard to the coronavirus has been criticized by a number of countries – not just the US.
During the midst of the coronavirus pandemic itself, many countries have risen to the occasion not just in terms of dealing with the pandemic, but also providing assistance to other countries. This includes the Asian countries of South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, and Western countries like Germany and France, which have both risen to the occasion by speaking up for removal of sanctions against Iran, and also providing financial assistance.
Increasing importance of South Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam
If one were to look at the instance of Asia, countries like South Korea, Taiwan, and even Vietnam, which has been successful in controlling the virus, are likely to enhance their stature globally, and will become even more relevant in the economic and strategic sense not just in Asia, but on the global stage.
All three countries have provided medical assistance to a number of countries, including the US. Taiwan and Washington have also joined hands to carry out research and to develop a vaccine for finding a cure for the virus.
The success of South Korea and Taiwan blunts the narrative about authoritarian governments being in a position to control the epidemic better, an argument which Beijing has been trying to push. The success of Vietnam has shown that resources are helpful, but not necessary, for handling situations like pandemics. Even with meagre resources, the ASEAN nation has restricted the number of cases and not recorded a single death so far. This has been attributed to the timely response by the country’s leadership. Vietnam has also been able to relax the lockdown and open certain businesses.
India too has been able to contain the spread of the virus and has provided aid and assistance to a number of countries in spite of a paucity of responses.
In a post-corona world, China is not likely to drive the Asian narrative.
Western narrative: Not driven by the US
In the West, while Trump has been criticised for his handling of the coronavirus, Germany has been relatively successful in containing the outbreak of the virus compared to other EU member states. What is interesting is that while Germany has publicly criticised China it has not taken the US stand on a number of issues.
First, along with the UK and France, Germany provided medical assistance to Iran via the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), which had been set up to circumvent sanctions imposed against Iran (the medical assistance reached Iran on March 31, 2020).
Second, when Trump reduced US funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO), Merkel spoke in favor of greater international cooperation, and support to WHO at this point of time, while also indirectly criticizing the step taken by Trump. Even in the past, Merkel has been at variance with Trump on numerous issues including the US approach to Iran and Trump’s approach towards globalization.
Emmanuel Macron too has been critical of China, but not necessarily echoing the US line. Both leaders have also been emphasizing the need for revival of the European Union (EU) and making it relevant.
In a post-corona world, a number of changes are likely to occur in the world order. First, if smaller countries have been successful in dealing with the pandemic their stature will rise, and they will benefit both in economic terms as well as geopolitical clout.
Second, the belief that a democratic system is incapable of dealing with a crisis like the coronavirus has also been challenged.
Third, the international world order will have numerous layers, and the influence of both Washington and Beijing on the narrative are likely to reduce with new players likely to speak up on crucial economic, environmental, and strategic issues. While trade and travel may be restricted, there is a possibility of greater ‘international cooperation’ and a new narrative which does not emanate merely from Washington or Beijing, but collectively from a number of countries.
Finally, cooperation will not be restricted merely to regional blocs or geography. In a number of instances, medical aid and assistance has been extended by one country to another far flung country. The new world order promises to be an interesting one, though it will be complex.
The past few days have been witness to some important statements made in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Program for Action (JCPOA) — also referred to as the Iran Nuclear deal. US allies, including the UK and some EU member states, do not seem to be in agreement with the US President’s Iran policy in general, and especially his inclination towards scrapping entirely the JCPOA.
Boris Johnson’s interviews and his comments on the JCPOA
In an interview to the BBC on January 14, 2020, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson stated that the JCPOA could be renegotiated, and seemed to be accommodative towards Trump. Said Johnson: ‘Let’s work together to replace the JCPOA and get the Trump deal instead.’ Johnson’s remarks came a day after the UK, Germany, and France had issued a joint statement announcing that all three countries were totally in favor of keeping the JCPOA alive. The UK, Germany, and France had also said that they were keen to ensure that the nuclear non-proliferation regime is kept intact, and that Iran is prevented from developing nuclear weapons.
Earlier, in a telephonic conversation last week with Johnson, US President Donald Trump told him that the deal was ‘foolish‘ and that the other signatories should also walk out of it.
During the course of his interview with the BBC, which happened to be Johnson’s first interview with the media after the victory of the Conservative Party in the UK’s recent general election. Johnson, while having a dig at Trump, said that the US President thought himself of as a good negotiator, as did many others. Johnson also made the point that the current deal had been negotiated by Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and alluded that this was one of the key reasons why Trump wanted to renegotiate the JCPOA.
Members of Johnson’s cabinet and their comments on the Iran deal
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, while criticizing Iran for failing to meet with the compliances related to the JCPOA, also stated that the UK is keen to keep the deal intact. Before Raab, another member of Johnson’s cabinet, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, had also indulged in some straight talk, lambasting the Trump administration for its increasingly isolationist approach towards global issues, and Trump’s tendency of taking Washington’s allies for granted. Wallace had also stated that US support for the UK’s coalition should not be taken for granted.
Responses of Trump and Rouhani to Johnson’s remarks
Trump’s response to Johnson’s suggestion regarding a fresh JCPOA was predictable: he welcomed it. Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in an aggressive address on January 15, 2020, lashed out at the EU and UK, saying that all Trump knew was violation of contracts, so there was no question of a new Iran deal.
Interestingly, Johnson in his interview to the BBC, had also said that there was no real need for the UK to have been informed in advance by the US with regard to the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. It would be pertinent to point out that not just members of the Labor Party, but even a senior Tory MP, Tom Tugendhat, who is also a former chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized the US for not consulting the UK.
This brings us to another important point. While Johnson’s main challenge is perceived to be the withdrawal of the UK from the EU by January 31, 2020, there are likely to be important differences between Washington and London over dealing with Iran. A close advisor of Trump, Richard Goldberg, who until recently was a member of the White House national security council (NSC), has already stated, for example, that if Johnson wants a UK-US Free Trade deal, the UK should immediately pull out of the Iran deal.
US-UK FTA and Trump’s support for the same
Trump has been in favor of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the UK (which happens to be the 5th largest trading partner of the US) for some time. In fact, in his congratulatory tweet to Johnson after his victory in December 2019, Trump had said that Britain and the U.S. will now be able to forge a significant new trade deal after Brexit. At the G7 Summit in 2019, Trump had spoken about how the US would sign a pathbreaking trade deal with the UK, post Brexit.
It has been argued that while the conservative lobby in both the US and UK has been in favor of bilateral FTA, there are lobbies in both countries which are fervently opposed to such an idea. It also remains to be seen whether the Trump Administration is serious about imposing conditionalities on the UK regarding the FTA — such as, supporting the US stance vis-à-vis Iran. Given the reactions by some members of Johnson’s cabinet (to Trump’s handling of the Iran issue), it is tough to really predict the UK’s reaction.
Not just Iran, US-UK also differ over Huawei
Another issue that could be an impediment to the further consolidation of economic and strategic relations between the US and the UK is the British use of Huawei’s hardware for the development of next-generation 5G wireless networks. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, had stated that non-core technologies of 5G were acceptable while core parts would be banned. At a meeting of the National Security Council (NSC) in 2019, some of May’s colleagues, including Jeremy Hunt (then Foreign Secretary), Sajid Javid (then Home Secretary and now treasury secretary), Gavin Williamson (then Defence Secretary), and Penny Mordaunt (then international development secretary), had opposed May’s decision. Interestingly, Williamson had been sacked for allegedly leaking the proceedings of the meeting.
Johnson’s approach towards Huawei
In the interview to BBC, Johnson stated that he did not want to jeopardize cooperation with any of the other “5 Eyes Intelligence alliance partners” (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the US are the other members of this network). While hinting at the US stand on Huawei, Johnson said that those criticizing one technology also needed to provide an alternative.
Differences between US and other allies over other crucial economic and strategic issues
It is not just the UK but other allies, like India, who will be closely watching Trump’s approach on crucial geopolitical issues. For instance, the US had earlier stated that India would get a waiver from CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) even if it went ahead with the purchase of S400 missiles from Russia, but a State Department spokesperson recently commented on the waiver to India and stated that there was no blanket waiver. Of course later, the State Department spokesperson did clarify that the US views these issues on a case by case basis.
If one were to look at the scenario for bilateral relations between the UK and the US (defined as a ‘special relationship’ first by Winston Churchill in 1946), there are numerous challenges. There is a tendency to oversimplify bilateral relationships by looking to the personal chemistry of leaders or to leaders’ ideological inclinations, as in the case of Johnson and Trump. There are likely to be a number of obstacles which may come in the way of the bilateral relationship (discussed above).
In addition to this, there is a note of caution for other allies like EU member states (especially Germany and France), Canada, and Japan, which have already borne the brunt of Trump’s insular economic policies, and his myopic and transactional approach towards complex geopolitical issues.
As I write (10/22/19) the pause or cease-fire in Northern Syria is more or less holding. No one has a clear idea of what will follow it. We will know today or tomorrow, in all likelihood.
On October 12th 2019, Pres. Trump suddenly removed a handful of American forces in northern Syria that had served as a tripwire against invasion. The handful also had the capacity to call in air strikes, a reasonable form of dissuasion.
Within hours began an invasion of Kurdish areas of Syria by the second largest army in Europe, and the third in the Middle East. Ethnic cleansing was its main express purpose. Pres Erdogan of Turkey vowed to empty a strip of territory along its northern border to settle in what he described as Syrian (Arab) refugees. This means expelling under threat of force towns, villages, and houses that had been occupied by Kurds from living memory and longer. This means installing on that strip of territories unrelated people with no history there, no housing, no services, and no way to make a living. Erdogan’s plan is to secure his southern border by installing there a permanent giant refugee camp.
Mr Trump declared that he had taken this drastic measure in fulfillment of his (three-year old) campaign promise to remove troops from the region. To my knowledge, he did not explain why it was necessary to remove this tiny number of American military personnel at that very moment, or in such haste.
Myself, most Democrats, and a large number of Republican office holders object strongly to the decision. Most important for me is the simplistic idea that
Les medias francophones, du moins les quelques uns qui m’arrivent en Californie, sont surexcités à l’idée de la destitution prochaine du President Trump. J’ai l’impression que c’est parce qu’ils ne comprennent pas ce qui se passe. Un coup de main.
D’abord, il faut passer au-delà des faux-amis contre lesquels nos profs d’anglais ne cessaient jadis de nous prévenir.
“Impeachment” signifie à peu près “accusation,” ou “inculpation,” je crois, pas “destitution.”
La Chambre des représentants est en mesure de décider sur simple vote majoritaire d’accuser le président en exercise de tel ou tel délit, ou d’une liste de délits. Il n’est pas obligatoire que les délits soient des infraction en droit, vis-à-vis de la loi.
En entamant cette simple procédure, la Chambre obtient de vastes pouvoirs d’enquête, y compris sur la correspondance officielle de la branche exécutive.
La Chambre ayant ainsi voté d’inculper, le liste officielle des délits supposés passe au Sénat qui agit alors en tant que jury. Le président est condamné pour tel ou tel délit par une majorité des deux tiers du Sénat.
Au moment ou j’écris (10/14/19) on ne sait pas si la phase inculpation (impeachment) de la procédure de destitution a même commencé. Les Démocrates affirment que oui, sur simple déclaration de la cheffe de la majorité à la Chambre, Nancy Pelosi.
Les Républicains et la Maison Blanche maintiennent que non, en l’absence d’un vote initiatif de la Chambre. La tradition donne raison aux derniers. La Constitution, par son mutisme, donne raison aux premiers.
En fin de compte, un tribunal decidera sûrement de qui a raison, peut- être assez vite.
En attendant, l’administration Trump oppose un mur à toutes les demandes de documents et de comparution de témoins issues de la Chambre.
Maintenant, mes opinions. D’abord, il est presque impossible d’imaginer qu’un nombre suffisant de Républicains au Sénat s’aligne sur les Démocrates pour condamner Mr Trump. La majorité des deux tiers n‘est même pas à l’horizon.
Alors, pourquoi les Démocrates s’obstinent-ils?
C’est un cirque dont l’objectif est de masquer leur incurie et leur panique bien réaliste devant la campagne pour les élections de 2020. Ils n’ont rien de sérieux à proposer, alors ils jettent de la poudre aux yeux. Je crois qu’il y aura des émeutes en Novembre 2020 car les Démocrates auront vraiment trop souffert.
After the drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities
Iran’s ties with the rest of the world, especially Washington, have witnessed some interesting developments in recent weeks. While there was a possibility of a thaw between Washington and Tehran after the G7 Summit (held in August 2019 at Biarritz, France) with both sides making the right noises.
Tensions between both countries have risen yet again after two oil facilities, Abqaiq and Khurais, of Saudi Aramco (a Saudi state-run company) were attacked by drones and missiles on September 14, 2019. The Houthis of Yemen have claimed responsibility for the attack, though the Saudis and the US blamed Iran. US President Donald Trump warned of retaliatory action against Iran (the US also sent troops to the Gulf to prevent further escalation), while US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the attack as an ‘act of war’.
Iranian reactions to US statements
If one were to look at Iranian reactions to US statements, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, in an interview on September 19, stated that if the US or Saudi Arabia launched a military attack on Iran, in retaliation for the strikes on the Saudi oil facilities, he did not rule out an ‘all out war’. Zarif did say that Iran wanted to avoid conflict and was willing to engage with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
On September 22, the anniversary of Iraq’s invasion of Iran, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani warned against the presence of foreign troops in the Gulf, saying that this would lead only to more apprehensions and insecurities. The Iranian President also stated that Tehran had extended its hand of friendship towards countries in the region for maintenance of security in the Gulf, as well as the Strait of Hormuz. On the same day, Zarif made a much more measured statement, arguing that Tehran wanted to make September 22 a day of peace not war. Referring to Saddam Hussein’s invasion in 1980, he stated that this act, which received support of global powers, has been one of the reasons for turmoil in the region. Hours before Rouhani’s speech, Zarif, in an interview with the American media company CNN, stated that Iran was ready for a re-negotiated deal, provided Donald Trump lifted economic sanctions. The Foreign Minister made a telling remark:
We continue to leave the door open for diplomacy. In the meantime, our campaign for economic pressure will continue.
Rouhani had expressed his openness towards meeting Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Hours before his speech, one of his spokespersons stated that Tehran was willing to give commitments with regard to not expanding its nuclear program, provided the US lifted sanctions. During his speech, Rouhani made it clear that while he was willing to engage with the US, he would not do so under any sort of pressure, and Tehran would only engage with Washington if the US-imposed economic sanctions are removed. Rouhani dubbed these sanctions as economic terrorism.
Statement (and remarks) issued by France, the UK, and Germany with regard to the attack on Saudi’s oil facilities
What was significant, however, was the statement issued on September 23 by the UK, Germany, and France that Tehran was responsible for the attack on the oil facilities run by Aramco. The three countries, which have been firmly backing greater engagement with Iran, and have been so far critical of Trump’s approach, in a statement held that Iran was responsible for the attacks, and that these could lead to greater conflict in the region. The statement issued by the three countries did make the point that these countries supported the Iran and P5+1 nuclear agreement/JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), asking Tehran to comply with the deal and adhere to the commitments.
Significantly, British PM Boris Johnson spoke in favor of Trump renegotiating the JCPOA, while French President Emmanuel Macron stated, in a conversation with reporters, that he was not ‘married to the JCPOA’. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, while speaking in favor of talks between Tehran and Washington, stated that Tehran’s conditionality of sanctions being lifted before talks take place was unrealistic.
Why France’s statement was especially surprising
Statements made by Macron came as a surprise, given that he has played a pivotal role in keeping the JCPOA intact and differed with Trump’s approach towards Tehran. Apart from fervently supporting the JCPOA, the UK, Germany, and France had also set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to circumvent sanctions from Iran. This move had been criticized by senior officials of the Trump Administration, including Mike Pence, John Bolton, and Pompeo.
Macron also attempted to organize a meeting between Zarif and G7 Ministers on the sidelines of the G7 Summit held at Biarritz (the French President did meet Zarif, with G7 leaders giving him a go ahead to negotiate with Iran). A statement made by Trump, where he stated that he was willing to meet with Rouhani and described Iran as a country of great potential, raised hopes of possible engagement with Iran. Trump in his usual style did put forward conditionalities, and did state that he was not party to a joint statement by G7 on Iran.
It would be pertinent to point out that Macron even attempted a meeting between Rouhani and Trump on the sidelines of the UNGA meeting, though this did not work out. The French President did meet with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. A tweet by the Iranian representative to the UN stated that apart from bilateral relations, Macron and Rouhani discussed ways in which the JCPOA could be saved.
Trump’s approach towards Iran: Back to square one?
The removal of John Bolton, a known Iran hawk, as National Security Adviser also raised hopes with regard to US engagement with Iran. In fact, Bolton’s approach vis-à-vis Iran was cited as one of the main reasons for growing differences between Bolton and Trump.
The attacks on the oil facilities have made Trump more aggressive
The attack on Saudi facilities however acted as a spoiler, and has given Trump the opportunity to act aggressively and put more pressure on France, Germany, and the UK to adopt a tough stance vis-à-vis Iran. Washington has already imposed sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank, and while Iran has warned of retaliations in case there is any sort of military action, US cyber attacks on Iran can not be ruled out. At the UNGA, Trump attacked Iran by saying it is a security threat to ‘peace-loving nations’. The US President also said that there was no chance of lifting sanctions as long as Tehran’s ‘menacing’ behavior continued.
With the UK, Germany, and France also backing US claims with regard to Iran being responsible for the attacks on Saudi oil facilities, Trump has become further emboldened.
Role of countries like Japan and India
While the reactions of European countries and the UK are important, one country, which has been very cautious in its reaction, has been Japan. Japan’s Defence Minister Toro Kono, in fact, stated that ‘We are not aware of any information that points to Iran’.
Japan has close economic ties with Iran. Earlier, Shinzo Abe had made efforts to intervene between Iran and the US. Abe, who visited Iran in June 2019, met with Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, stating that it was a major step toward peace. The Japanese PM had also sought the release of US citizens detained by Iran.
Interestingly, Brian Hook, US Special Envoy to Iran, while alluding to Japan, China, and other Asian countries, stated that countries must not shy away from unequivocally acknowledging that Iran was responsible for the September 14th attack on Saudi oil facilities. Hook gave the example of the UK, France, and Germany. He also sought Asian participation, especially Japan and South Korea, in Washington’s maritime initiative to protect oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz.
It would be important to point out that Japan, which has close economic ties with Iran, has already started looking at other sources of oil given the situation in the Middle East.
It is not just Japan. Even India would not like escalation of conflict with Iran, though so far it has stayed out. While New Delhi is looking to various sources for its oil needs (during Modi’s recent visit, one of the issues high on the agenda was closer energy ties with the US), the Chabahar Port, in which New Delhi has invested, is of strategic importance. Some recent statements from the Iranian side suggest a growing impatience with New Delhi, not merely due to toeing the US line with regard to the importation of oil from Iran (India had stopped buying oil from Iran, after the US removed the temporary waiver which it had given), but also slow progress on the Chabahar Port.
During the G7 Summit, Macron had urged the US to allow India to import oil from Iran, while Modi, during his meeting with Trump, also is supposed to have raised the Iran issue. While India has not made any statement with regard to the attack on Saudi oil facilities, Indian Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale visited Iran days after the attack (a number of issues, such as the progress of the Chabahar Port, and issues pertaining to trilateral connectivity between India, Afghanistan, and Iran, were discussed). The Indian PM also met with the Iranian President on the sidelines of the UNGA. Both of them are supposed to have discussed issues of bilateral and regional importance.
It is time that countries which have close ties with the US and robust economic engagement with Iran find common ground, rather than speaking in different voices. While at the G7 meeting, there was an opportunity for the same, but this was short lived. This is essential, not just for economic and strategic purposes, but also to ensure that Iran does not become totally dependent upon China. Beijing’s recent commitments of investing over $400 billion in Iran are a clear indicator of the point that, as a result of economic isolation, Tehran is left with limited options, and is tilting towards Beijing.
China has not just made important commitments in oil and infrastructure projects, but Beijing will also be stationing its troops to protect it’s investments in the oil sector. It is not just European countries (Germany, France and the UK) but countries like Japan and India, which should be wary of the growing proximity between Tehran and Beijing. New Delhi and Tokyo would be advised to work in tandem, to get both Washington and Iran to moderate their stance. While this is no mean task, given Trump’s unpredictability it is absolutely imperative.
Pres. Trump discontinued the on-going talks with the Taliban without indication there will be a resumption.
What took him so long?
A couple of days before the announcement, the Taliban claimed an attack in Kabul that killed a dozen people including an American. (This is important.) Two weeks prior, the Taliban had massacred the guests at a wedding, also in Kabul . They routinely set off bombs in Shia mosques at prayer time. They are so keen to do it that they often rely on suicide bombers to perform this glorious and pious act.
Many forget, many younger people don’t know, that we did not go into Afghanistan to be mean or to engage in state building, or to reform Afghan society. This, although we may have become mired in such an enterprise after a while. It happened only because Americans don’t like to leave a mess behind. They feel a compulsion to clean up after themselves. Many people also don’t know that more than fifty countries participated alongside us.
After 9/11, reasons emerged to believe that Al-Qaeda was the culprit for those several coordinated terrorist attacks on US soil. The leader of that organization, Osama Bin Laden, obligingly confirmed this by video shortly afterwards.
The US officially asked the ruling Afghan government to turn over Bin Laden for trial. The Taliban government declined to do so. Yes, that simple.
A few weeks later the US and several allies invaded Afghanistan to capture Bin Laden and as many Al-Qaeda members as possible. The most important allies were Afghan opponents of the Taliban government gathered under the name “Northern League.” The Taliban had arranged to assassinate the Northern League’s leader on 9/10. Largely thanks to the Northern League, the coalition, mostly in the person of a few hundred CIA agents, achieved victory and routed the Taliban in a couple of short weeks.
The main purpose of this victorious expedition was dual. First, was the objective to stop the Taliban from doing it again, from again giving shelter to those who would murder American civilians. The second objective was to convince terrorists of all breeds, and beyond those, others with nefarious intentions against us, including China, that if you kill Americans, bad things will happen to you, that you will never sleep untroubled sleep.
A few more words about the Taliban: They are an overtly fanatic Muslim group. During their time in power, they banned music altogether. (Can you believe this?) They stopped girls from going to school at the same time as they made it illegal for male doctors to examine female patients. Please, put two and two together: No educated females, no male doctors treating females. If that is not a formula for feminicide, what is it? Another Taliban achievement was the exemplary shooting in the head of adulteresses. (Their definition of adultery was such that at least half the women in my town of Santa Cruz could be convicted, I remarked at the time.) They did it at halftime during a soccer game. I saw the video on television with my own eyes. It’s a blessing when your objective enemies make it easy for you to hate them.
One stupendous thing about the now broken negotiations is that they did not include the elected government of Afghanistan. The people who took the trouble to organize relatively clean elections, the people who managed to achieve a high rate of school attendance for girls, the people whose country it is in the end, were not invited. It looks to me like, one more time America was abandoning its allies. Besides being shabby and immoral, it’s not good for Americans in the short and long run alike. Others are taking notes: Help Americans; die!
Extricating the US from Afghanistan was part of the Trump platform. It looked like an easy call. Leftists hate America and want it to be defeated whenever possible. Many conservatives and all libertarians wanted a US troop withdrawal from that country because they believe (correctly, I think) that every military action extends the reach and the significance of government, especially of the federal government, over American society. Then Mr Trump started listening to the generals, then he learned what the US was doing in that God-forsaken country. Then, little by little the consequences of an American troop withdrawal dawned on him. Then, the Taliban murdered an American soldier as the talks were concluding. Bad form!
Then, for reasons not well understood at the this time, he fired John Bolton, the clear-headed adviser with a powerful moral compass. To my mind, that is easily the worst decision of Mr Trump’s administration. If I end up not voting for him, this will be playing a main part.
Critics say, “We have been there for eighteen years.” So? We have been in South Korea since 1953; it worked. The fat Rocket Boy has not tried much of anything there, neither did his father, or his grandfather. The American military was in Western Europe from about 1948 to 1995, not with 30,000 troops but with hundreds of thousands. That did the job: No attack to speak of; the Soviet side collapsed. The world was finally rid of the pretense of Communism although that was never the goal. Our firmness, our consistency did it. The American military in Europe for all those years was one of my best investments ever.
Practically, it’s difficult to argue that the US should keep a strong military presence in Afghanistan because doing so subjects you to a discreet kind of blackmail. About the endless expenditure there, they say? How about the dead Americans? I have thought about these moral issues at length. Below are my answers.
Have you bothered to calculate your rough share of the expenditure connected to the American military presence in Afghanistan? Is it $1,000 per year, $100? $10? If you don’t know the answer, you really have no right to complain. If you think that any expenditure there is too much, you are either in bad faith or a pacifist fool.
Of course, it’s almost impossible to state openly that we should accept that more American military personnel will die in Afghanistan. Yet, we do it tacitly for cops and firemen at home all the time. American fatal combat casualties in that country are a tiny fraction of those needlessly and uselessly dying on American roads at the hands of drunk drivers. And none of those dead were volunteers. All military personnel is. (I know I am repeating myself. No one has refuted me much on this point.) On the average, about 250 US military personnel and contractors have died of all causes in Afghanistan each year. This is a large and lamentable number, of course, but it makes for an American military death rate in Afghanistan that is frankly low as compared to the death rate of young black men in Chicago. How can one honestly deplore the former and ignore the latter?
The truth is that Afghanistan is going to remain a vipers’ nest for the foreseeable future. It will remain a good place for terrorists to train and regroup. We need a significant military presence there to limit the damage to ourselves and to strike back when necessary. We need to demonstrate to the world, including to the huge mafia state of China that killing Americans, even trying to do so, is costly and dangerous.
To act in any other way is to ask for another 9/11 or worse, possibly much much worse.
SI VIS PACEM, PARA BELLUM
There is a clear consensus with regard to the fact that Vietnam has been one of the economic success stories of recent years.
The country has witnessed robust economic growth (GDP growth rate for 2018 was estimated at 7.15%, while the growth rate for 2019 is estimated at 6.6%) and has been successful in poverty reduction. Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) for the first five months of 2019 reached a four year high of over $16 billion (a year on year increase of over 69%).
If one were to look at a sectoral break up of the FDI, manufacturing and processing came right on top, receiving over $10 billion.
US appreciation for Vietnam’s economic achievements
Today, an opening Vietnamese economy is one of the fastest-growing economies on Earth. It has already increased more than 30 times over, and the Vietnamese students rank among the best students in the world.
In 2019, on the sidelines of his Summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the US President, while acknowledging Vietnam’s progress, stated that North Korea could emerge as another Vietnam if it denuclearized.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had made a similar point while addressing a meeting of the US-Vietnamese business community in 2018.
Increasing FDI and factors which have contributed to it
It would be important to point out that FDI in Vietnam is also not restricted to any one particular region or city. While Hanoi (the Vietnamese capital), which drew well over $2.7 billion, and Bin Doung province in South Vietnam, are on top, North Vietnam too, is managing to draw significant investments. The shipping hub of Haiphong has witnessed significant economic growth since, after the imposition of US tariffs, a number of Chinese companies have shifted to the Shenzhen-Haiphong Economic and Trade Cooperation Zone.
Economic reforms (dubbed as Doi Moi) which began in 1986 have played a crucial role in Vietnam’s economic success. The main advantages which Vietnam has over its competitors are relatively low labor costs (though the country has witnessed a significant year on year growth in minimum wages between 2015 and 2019), increasing consumption as the result of a burgeoning middle class (currently 13% of its total population; it is estimated, by the World Bank, that in 2026 over one quarter of Vietnam’s population will be part of the middle class), and its geographical location.
Vietnam a beneficiary of the US-China Trade war and the CPTPP
Vietnam has benefited significantly from the US-China Trade war. A number of companies have shifted manufacturing operations from China to Vietnam, and others like Apple (which plans to shift anywhere between 15% and 30% of it’s iPhone production), Microsoft, Amazon, Sony, Nintendo, and Dell are likely to shift in a big way to Vietnam.
The Southeast Asian country is also gaining significantly by being part of the CPTPP. Exports to both Japan and Canada have risen significantly in the first quarter of 2019, if one were to look at the year on year figures.
In the past two decades ties between the US and Vietnam have improved significantly. The foundations were laid by Bill Clinton; during his first tenure, the Vietnam Foreign Ministry opened its office in Washington DC (1993), and the US State Department opened its office in Hanoi in the same year. Similarly, the US lifted its trade embargo on Vietnam in 1994. Vietnam also figured importantly in Obama’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ and was part of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) that the US abandoned.
US President Donald Trump has given mixed signals on Vietnam. Trump has, though, referred to the geopolitical relevance of Vietnam, and it is for this reason that the US President articulated his vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific in Vietnam in 2017 (while speaking at the APEC CEO Summit at Da Nang).
In March 2018, U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson visited the port city of Da Nang for the first time since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. Former Defence Secretary Jim Mattis visited Vietnam twice in 2018, and reiterated on both visits the increasing relevance of the Washington-Hanoi relationship.
The fact that the US President chose Hanoi for his 2nd summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was significant not just in terms of symbolism, but also in sending a message that the Southeast Asian country was strategically relevant. During his visit in 2019, Trump of course praised Vietnam for its economic success, but a number of trade deals (Boeing inked a deal of over $12 billion to sell 100 planes to Vietnamese budget carrier, Viet Jet, for example) were also arranged.
Imposition of Trade Tariffs
As a result of trade wars, Vietnam’s exports to US have also witnessed a sudden rise. Exports for the period January-June 2019 rose 27.4% year on year. The US trade deficit with Vietnam for the first six months was estimated at $25.3 billion (in 2018, this was $40 billion).
US has recently imposed tariffs of 456% on certain steel products which were imported from Vietnam. According to the US Commerce Department, certain corrosion resistant steel products and cold-rolled steel which were supposed to be manufactured in Vietnam actually underwent only minor processing in the Southeast Asian country, but used substrate of Taiwanese and South Korean origin (duties on these South Korean and Taiwanese products had been imposed in 2015 and 2016 respectively).
Imposition of tariffs by the US is not likely to end here. There are strong indicators that the US could impose further tariffs on Vietnam, citing the reason that a number of Chinese goods are rebranded there to avoid tariffs (this is dubbed as transshipment). Trump had made some harsh remarks, including in an interview with Fox News:
Vietnam is almost the single worst — that’s much smaller than China, much — but it’s almost the single worst abuser of everybody.
It remains to be seen as to what impact the imposition of tariffs will have not just on Vietnam’s economy (the increase in bilateral trade and exports), but also on the bilateral relationship which has witnessed significant improvement due to the efforts of successive US Presidents. Vietnam’s growth and prosperity is also important from a strategic perspective, as it is one of the countries which has been strengthening defense ties with the US, Japan, and India. While Vietnam does have robust economic ties with China, it also has serious differences over the South China Sea (only recently, tensions between both countries had escalated when a Chinese survey ship and coastguard vessels had entered disputed waters near the Spratly Islands).
Vietnam provides a good lesson for many other countries. It has stuck to the basics, and so far has been very astute in balancing out economic relationships between China and other countries. Vietnam’s real test lies in how it deals with Trump’s unpredictability, and deals with the turbulence resulting out of Trump’s brash decisions. If the US President actually slaps more tariffs on Vietnam, not only will it have an adverse impact on bilateral ties and undo all the good work of previous US and Vietnamese administrations, but fissures between Hanoi and Washington will also have an adverse impact on efforts towards promoting a Free and Open Indo Pacific. On the other hand, Beijing, the biggest loser of the China-US trade war, would certainly not mind tensions between Washington and Hanoi (which has been a big beneficiary of the trade war).