Experts Offer Bleak Assessment of Middle East’s Future

U.S.-Iran tensions. Lebanon’s political dysfunction and physical destruction. The Israeli-Gulf rapprochement and the sidelining of the Palestinians. The endgame in Syria’s brutal civil war. Oh, and the possibility of an “October surprise” that could upend the U.S. presidential race.

You have to give the Wilson Center credit for not short-changing its audience when it comes to covering hot-button topics in a single webcast.

Then again, when it comes to the Middle East, there is no shortage of issues to talk about.

Whither the Middle East: New Peace or More Conflict” touched on many of them, as four noted experts — Robin Wright, Daniel Kurtzer, Vali Nasr and Maha Yahya — surveyed the region’s litany of problems and the Trump administration’s role in them.

Kurtzer — a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt who has served under both Democratic and Republican administrations — didn’t mince words when he kicked off the discussion by calling the Middle East “largely dysfunctional.”

“It’s a place where state failure, weakness of regimes, governance crises and endemic problems that seem impervious to solutions abound.”

He offered his bleak assessment when asked about the recent deal that established diplomatic and economic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (followed by Bahrain). The UAE became only the third Arab state to recognize Israel since Egypt did so 40 years ago.

Bahraini Foreign Affairs Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Donald Trump and Foreign Affairs Minister of the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan sign the Abraham Accords on Sept. 15, 2020, on the South Lawn of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)

The Trump administration has touted the Abraham Accords as a historic breakthrough, although others point out that the deal simply brings to light the backchannel ties between Israel and the UAE that had long been an open secret (for more on that, watch the Global 360 webcast on Israel and the Gulf monarchies here).

“The UAE and Bahrain decisions were long in the making,” said Kurtzer, who’s now with Princeton University. “They were born of frustration with [President] Obama’s perceived courtship of Iran, concerns about the U.S. withdrawal from the region and, in the case of the UAE, the ability to pocket some immediate gains — first of all, suspending Israel’s move toward annexing parts of the West Bank and likely receiving F-35s [fighter jets] from the United States.”

The veteran diplomat added: “What this reflects is the change in the balance of power within the region. Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Egypt are largely aligned against Turkey and Qatar in a number of regional conflicts.”

It also reflects an even more fundamental shift in the region’s dynamics whereby Iran has become enemy #1 for Israel, the Gulf monarchies (with the exception of Qatar) and the Trump White House. The Palestinians, meanwhile, are no longer the galvanizing force they once were among Arab leaders, although their plight continues to resonate among the Arab public, which is why Saudi Arabia — the custodian of Islam’s two holy mosques — has to tread carefully when it comes to recognizing Israel.

The Al-Aqsa Mosque rises above the Old City in Jerusalem, which both Jews and Palestinians claim as their capital. (Photo: Walkerssk from Pixabay)

But even for the Saudis, the Palestinians are no longer the cause célèbre they once were.

Kurtzer did not hold back in criticizing what he believes is the Palestinians’ self-inflicted irrelevance.

“They seem to be clueless. They clearly have been left out of all recent moves — not just the Bahrain and Emirates decisions, but also left out of the peace process by the Trump administration for the last three and a half years. They have an ossified leadership. They have not had a serious election now for about 15 years. And they have no policy,” he charged.

Kurtzer’s invective toward the Palestinian leadership, however, does not mean he approves of Trump’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, particularly the president’s much-hyped Mideast peace plan, which focuses largely on economic development — not sovereignty — for the Palestinians (who view it as so blatantly pro-Israel that they’ve dismissed it altogether).

Kurtzer said there will be no solution to the conflict “until there is a territorial component” to peace talks — and that won’t happen until the U.S. addresses Israeli settlements and “the asymmetry of power between Israel and the Palestinians.”

None of that is likely to happen, though, under President Trump or Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Kurtzer slammed Trump for, among other things, giving Netanyahu whatever he wants, “cultivating the Saudis and other autocratic Arabs as reliable cash customers” and “pressuring Iran in the hope of regime change.”

Iran, of course, has been at the heart of Trump’s Mideast agenda. In some ways, it’s even been the exception of that agenda, which largely rests on extricating the U.S. from the “endless wars” of the Middle East and prodding allies like the Saudis to stop relying on American military might (at least in the form of U.S. boots on the ground, not necessarily U.S. weaponry).

While Trump has moved to distance the U.S. from the region — alarming the Saudis and Emiratis — his administration has been laser-focused on using all the tools at its disposal, short of military intervention, to bring Iran to its knees.

“We’re seeing the United States leaving Afghanistan and talking to a mortal enemy, the Taliban, reaching an agreement to leave. We’re seeing the American footprint shrink in Iraq, in Syria, even around the Gulf. With this Israel-UAE deal, the incentive in Washington was for Israel to backfill the U.S. departure,” said Vali Nasr, who most recently served as dean of the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

“But at the same time, the United States escalating the way it’s doing with Iran is adding further fuel to the fire,” added Nasr, who was born in Iran and whose family fled the country amid the 1979 Revolution.

The president’s maximum pressure campaign began in earnest with his withdrawal from the 2015 nuclear accord that his predecessor negotiated to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

Trump’s decision to pull out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was ostensibly designed to bring Iran back to the negotiating table to tackle issues not covered by the agreement, including Iran’s ballistic missiles and its malign activity in the region.

But the nuclear agreement was never intended to resolve every disagreement with Iran. Rather, it was meant to extend the breakout time for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon — which by all accounts it did — and then be used as a vehicle to address other disputes.

To that end, critics of Trump’s withdrawal argue that it was a thinly veiled attempt to force the type of regime change that hawkish members of the administration such as former national security John Bolton have long sought.

The sixth international conference in support of the Palestinian intifada is held in Tehran in 2017. While the plight of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation had been an animating cause among Arab governments for decades, more recently, Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have warmed to Israel because of their shared enmity for Iran, leaving the Palestinians sidelined. (By Khamenei.ir – http://farsi.khamenei.ir/photo-album?id=35734, CC BY 4.0)

Most recently, the administration further tightened the noose on Tehran after an embarrassing defeat at the U.N. Security Council, which rejected Trump’s proposal to indefinitely extend an arms embargo on Iran. In response, the U.S. activated the snapback mechanism in the nuclear accord to reinstate international sanctions on Iran.

But the other JCPOA signatories dismissed Trump’s move, arguing that the U.S. cannot selectively impose parts of a deal it abandoned.

Regardless, Nasr argues that for all the pressure Trump has heaped on the Islamic republic — from crippling sanctions to the killing of Qasem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force — the mullahs in Tehran aren’t going anywhere, while the U.S. “is going to run out of breath pretty soon.”

“[Iran] cannot sell any oil. Its economy is in tatters. There are secondary sanctions against other countries. Doing business with Iran has really been bitten hard. The United States keeps ratcheting it up, but it has not got new negotiations with Iran on the nuclear deal. It has not brought the regime down. The only thing it has done is harden, at least at the top of the Iranian regime, behind a ‘resistance’ policy,” Nasr said, noting that “Iranians, by virtue of the experience of the last 40 years, have learned how to suffer.”

In addition to empowering Iran’s hardliners, Nasr argues that Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord will make Iranians reluctant to return to the negotiating table even if Joe Biden becomes president because they won’t trust the U.S. to keep its word.

Yet there’s an even more immediate concern between now and Election Day: an “October surprise” attack on Iran.

Most experts discount the possibility of a wag-the-dog scenario because Trump has essentially built his presidency — and popularity — on getting America out of wars, not in them.

But Kurtzer argues that an October surprise is not out of the question for three reasons.

One, Trump’s advisors have consistently warned him that a conflict with Iran would not involve dropping a few bombs; it would be a long, drawn-out military campaign.

But Kurtzer points out that Trump “has now cleansed his administration of anyone who will argue against him. He has an administration that is now pretty solidly anti-Iran, to the point where one can imagine there is consideration of military options.”

Two, the coronavirus pandemic, the battle for the Supreme Court and the economy have become the signature issues leading up to the election. If Trump’s poll numbers dip in critical swing states, Kurtzer muses whether the president would be “desperate” enough to launch an attack on a foreign adversary to divert attention from his handling of domestic issues.

Third, he cites the Israeli wildcard. “We know that Netanyahu, at least three times in the past, has tried to persuade his national security team to attack Iran. Nobody wants to start a war. But Israel may believe that Iran — after the JCPOA has essentially been stalled — has reached a point in its enrichment capability that it is closer to a [nuclear] breakout,” which would compel the Israelis to act to prevent Iran from developing a bomb.

“Would I give this high odds? The answer is no, largely because of the risk-averse nature of this president. But I don’t rule it out,” Kurtzer said.

Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, says a more likely scenario not only for Iran, but also for Syria and Lebanon, is continued inertia, which in some ways could be just as catastrophic as an open conflict.

That’s especially true in Lebanon, where Yahya predicts “the worst is yet to come.”

She called the massive Aug. 4 explosion of improperly stored ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut “Lebanon’s own Chernobyl.”

“It epitomizes the gross mismanagement and the corruption, the rot that lies at the heart of the governance system in this country, where you have sectarian power-sharing overlapping with a network of clientelistic and nepotistic relationships that have transformed state institutions into extensions of political-sectarian fiefdoms,” said Yahya, who was in Beirut at the time of the blast, which killed nearly 200 people and leveled parts of the capital.

Yet even in the face of a national disaster, economic collapse and violent upheaval, Lebanon’s squabbling political factions still have not come together to form a functioning government.

The port in Beirut lies in ruins after the Aug. 4 explosion of improperly stored ammonium nitrate that killed nearly 200 people. (Photo: By Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0)

In the meantime, Yahya contends that “the United States maximum pressure policy, used with Iran and Hezbollah, is going to break Lebanon. The mantra of breaking Lebanon to rebuild it is completely false. Breaking Lebanon means that local militias — the ones who are able to navigate in chaos — will be the last people standing.”

She argues that the U.S. should instead provide humanitarian relief to the Lebanese people and support the French-led effort to stabilize the country.

Yahya also says that given the inextricable link between Syria and Lebanon — which is home to the largest number of Syrian refugees per-capita than any other nation in the world — American involvement in shaping a post-war settlement in Syria will be essential to Lebanon’s fate.

“In Syria today, what we’re looking at is the existing parties — Turkey, Russia, Iran — hunkering down, trying to maximize their gains on the ground and create a firewall around the territory that they are controlling. It’s a situation that is quasi in limbo until the American election.”

Yet Yahya and others who hope that a Biden presidency might mean a stronger U.S. presence in Syria could be sorely disappointed.

For one thing, some experts argue that Syria is not in America’s national security interests and therefore not worth American blood and treasure, a lesson Washington should have learned after the Iraq debacle.

And while Biden is more establishment than isolationist, he’s not an avid supporter of large-scale military interventions. It was Biden, after all, who tried to dissuade President Obama from sending a surge of troops to Afghanistan in 2009.

A Biden presidency would likely reverse some of Trump’s policies, such as repairing relations with allies like the European Union and cracking down on authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia and Turkey. But Trump’s America First approach to the world isn’t going away any time soon.

The growing American backlash to globalization and the post-World War II multilateral system — which saw the United States as a guarantor of global peace — predates Trump. In fact, it helped propel him to office.

And it’s likely to stick around even if Trump doesn’t.

That means other world leaders will need to step up to the plate to address problems in their own backyards.

But Kurtzer — who was posted to Cairo in 1981 when visionary Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was assassinated — doesn’t see that happening in the Middle East. Rather, he sees a fragmented landscape where the only unifying principle is that everyone is out for themselves.

“It’s a region that’s devoid of the kind of thoughtful, forward-looking leadership that can free its own people from whatever morass they’re in and see beyond their own borders. It just doesn’t exist,” he said.

Journalist Robin Wright, who moderated the Woodrow Wilson discussion, sees this dog-eat-dog mentality as part of a larger trend. “The Middle East, sadly, is a microcosm of the broader world when it comes to the fact that we don’t have that kind of leadership or cohesion. Even the Western alliance seems to be fraying, whether it’s challenges to NATO, the Brexit moves within European Union, Trump’s criticism of America’s traditionally closest allies,” she said. “So, the problems of the Middle East may reflect something that is much bigger.”

Sinam Mohamad Pushes U.S. Not to Abandon Her Fellow Kurds in Syria

For nearly three years, Sinam Sherkany Mohamad has worked the corridors of power in Washington to drum up American support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which she represents as the U.S. envoy for the Syrian Democratic Council, part of the group’s political wing.

The Kurdish-led SDF still “controls” — as much as that word can be used in the fluid battle lines and alliances of war-torn Syria — a significant chunk of territory in the country’s northeast that it has dubbed the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), which it has been essentially governing since 2015.

Since late 2017, Sinam Sherkany Mohamad has served in the U.S. as the representative of the Syrian Democratic Council, part of the political arm of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which governs a large portion of northeast Syria.

Mohamad wants to keep it that way.

So she’s been urging the U.S. to step up development, military and political assistance to her fellow Kurds, whom she says are America’s natural allies in Syria, both in terms of democratic values and strategic interests.

Up until recently, Washington seemed to agree with her.

A contingent of around 2,000 U.S. troops trained and assisted the SDF, which was considered a key partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

But last fall, President Trump abruptly declared that he was withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria as part of his vow to end America’s involvement in the “endless wars” of the Middle East.

Trump’s decision drew bipartisan condemnation on Capitol Hill that the U.S. was leaving the Kurds at the mercy of Turkey, which sees Kurdish-led militias in Syria as a security threat because of their links to the PKK, a Kurdish militant group that has fought a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

Critics warned that the sudden removal of U.S. troops was a greenlight for Turkey to launch a long-sought-after offensive to seize Kurdish-controlled territory along its Syrian border. Sure enough, Ankara did just, successfully establishing a 20-mile-deep buffer zone along the border — ostensibly to resettle Syrian refugees who had fled to Turkey — that is now patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces.

The operation pushed the SDF inland and forced it out of several towns.

Despite the military defeat, the Kurds are still very much in the game because, like many of Trump’s hasty pronouncements, a full withdrawal of U.S. forces never came to pass.

Soldiers with America’s Syrian partner forces establish a perimeter defense during a readiness assessment in the Dayr ez-Zawr province of Syria on Nov. 12, 2018. A contingent of U.S. troops had been assisting and training the Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against the Islamic State up until last fall, when President Trump abruptly announced he was withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria, prompting protests from U.S. lawmakers that Washington was abandoning its Kurdish allies. Ultimately, several hundred U.S. troops remained to help the SDF protect oil fields in the region. (Photo: Army Sgt. Arjenis Nunez)

Today, roughly 500 U.S. troops remain in Syria’s northeast, working alongside the SDF to protect the territory’s oil fields from the Islamic State.

But while the Kurds are trying to fend off the Islamic State and Turkey on one hand, they must also keep a wary eye on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with whom they cut a deal to keep Turkish forces at bay during last year’s offensive. But that marriage of convenience probably won’t protect the Kurds from Assad’s own ambitions, which include absorbing the SDF into his army and taking control of the lucrative territory on which they sit.

Boxed in on all sides, the SDF must carefully navigate the political and military jockeying among Syria’s myriad players — Assad, Russia, Iran, Turkey, rebels of all stripes, the Islamic State and even other competing Kurdish factions — if it wants to have a role in post-war Syria.

And then there’s the United States, whose support has been so far critical to ensuring the Kurds’ survival but is in no way guaranteed under a president who says the battle for Syria “has nothing to do with us.”

“Turkey, Europe, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia and the Kurds will now have to figure the situation out,” Trump tweeted shortly after his withdrawal announcement.

As for the Kurds, the president wrote that they “fought with us, but were paid massive amounts of money and equipment to do so. They have been fighting Turkey for decades. I held off this fight for almost 3 years, but it is time for us to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal, and bring our soldiers home.”

Worthwhile Investment
During our interview, Mohamad, who established the Syrian Democratic Council office in D.C. in late 2017, repeatedly thanked the U.S. for its assistance.

And she’s lobbying for more of it, arguing that it’s a relatively small investment that has paid big dividends, especially when it comes to security.

“We are defeating ISIS on behalf of all the humanity of the world, which has been threatened by this terrorist group,” Mohamad told us.

Since 2015, battle-hardened Kurdish fighters have indeed successfully beat back the Islamic State, in the process carving out a large swath of territory for themselves.

Today, Mohamad estimates there are 10,000 to 12,000 Islamic State fighters in prisons guarded by the SDF. And while apocalyptic predictions of those fighters escaping en masse as soon as U.S. troops departed did not materialize, Mohamad said the SDF does not have the resources to keep monitoring so many high-risk detainees — let alone try them in a court of law.

She lamented that despite the SDF’s pleas, other countries have refused to repatriate the foreign fighters in those prisons. “Nobody listens to us,” she said, “which is a very heavy burden on our shoulders.”

Al-Hol camp is home to more than 70,000 people, of which more than 90%are women and children, many of them relatives of Islamic State fighters. The Syrian Democratic Forces, which helps oversee the camp, warns it’s become an incubator of extremism. (Photo: © OCHA/Halldorsson)

The SDF also oversees refugee camps like al-Hol that house tens of thousands of women and children, many related to Islamic State fighters. Mohamad says these camps are extremist breeding grounds.

“It is very dangerous because the women in these camps, they are educating their children in this ideology of ISIS,” she said, warning that without outside intervention, “after many years, that boy of 7 years old will be a new member of ISIS.”

Mohamad pointed out that despite the ongoing dangers posed by Islamic State sleeper cells and the ravages of war elsewhere in the country, the Kurds have brought stability to an area that’s roughly one-quarter the size of Syria and home to more than 4 million people, “providing them daily with services like education, electricity, water and even security.”

Moreover, she said, the Syrian Democratic Council — a confederation of multiethnic political parties, civil society groups and other organizations established in 2015 — shares the same liberal values as the West.

That includes democracy, religious freedom, minority rights and, in particular, women’s rights. In fact, the SDF boasts military units comprised of women fighters, and women make up about half of government positions in the SDC. Mohamad herself has been a leading advocate of women’s empowerment for over two decades.

The mother of four — who previously served as the SDC’s representative to Europe from 2014 to 2017 — said this embrace of diversity and democracy could serve as a model not only for Syria, but for the larger Middle East.

“We have Yazidis, we have Muslims, we have Assyrian Christians, we have Alevis in our region,” she said.

Feridun H. Sinirlioğlu, permanent representative of Turkey to the United Nations, addresses the videoconference with U.N. Security Council members to discuss the situation in Syria on Sept. 10, 2020. Sinam Sherkany Mohamad of the Syrian Democratic Council says Turkey has blocked the Kurds from participating in the U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva to negotiate a new constitution for Syria. (Photo: Loey Felipe)

That’s why she’s pushing for the SDF to be included in constitutional reform talks spearheaded by the U.N. in Geneva. “Just imagine, [Syria’s] northeast, which is about 4 million people, they don’t have any representatives in the peace talks.”

But she says Turkey has vetoed the idea of including Kurds in any negotiations on Syria’s future.

And while Mohamad says she’s had many meetings with State Department officials and U.S. lawmakers who’ve been generally supportive of her cause, the meetings have not yielded tangible results — and, in some cases, have revealed the confusing nature of U.S. policy under Trump.

“[T]he policies are not always clear to us — what are you going to do in the region? Are you going to stay? Are you going to withdraw? And if you withdraw, what is the result will be?” she said. “We want to see the action, not only words.”

Among the action items she’d like to see: development and humanitarian assistance for her region; governance and civil society training; military equipment and supplies for the SDF; greater counter-terrorism cooperation; and U.S. pressure on Turkey to leave the region.

That wish list may be a tall order under Trump, who’s been itching to bring American troops home from the Middle East since his first day in office — most recently, he further drew down the number of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq — and who hopes that by keeping his promise, voters will keep him in office after November.

Mohamad said she understands the president has bigger worries in the midst of a fierce re-election campaign — not to mention a raging pandemic. But she criticized Trump’s decision last fall to suddenly withdraw all troops from Syria, calling it “catastrophic for our people,” who were forced to ask “the regime in Syria and also Russia to protect us from Turkey.”

Asked point-blank if the White House abandoned the Kurds, Mohamad hesitated to use that word, but she did say that her people felt betrayed.

The U.S. “said that we are a partnership in countering terrorism and ISIS, and we paid about 11,000 of our young men and women in order to defeat ISIS and protect the whole world from this terrorist group,” she told us. “We were happy with the partnership with the United States and the global coalition, and suddenly you open the way for Turkey to come in, attacking us, killing our people and you are just walking away. So this is what upsets our people in the region. Because they have the hope that the U.S. will rescue them and will support them to build stability in the region.”

Yet Trump has made it abundantly clear he’s not coming to the rescue, saying that “we never agreed to protect the Kurds … for the rest of their lives.”

‘It Wasn’t Important’
At first glance, Robert Ford — a veteran U.S. diplomat and former ambassador to Syria who is now with Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs and the D.C.-based Middle East Institute — may not seem like the type to agree with Trump’s “America First” ethos.

Ford spent his time in Syria from 2011 to 2014 trying to defend human rights in the face of Assad’s brutal crackdown, and he served five years in Iraq helping the country establish a new constitution.

While he’s no isolationist, Ford said he agrees with the president’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria.

“The rollout was terrible. The lack of coordination with our own military and State Department and with people in Syria was terrible, but the broad goal I thought made sense,” he told us during a phone interview.

The main reason why is that “a long-term U.S. military presence in eastern Syria is in our national security interest,” Ford said. “We don’t have any long-term interest there. In fact, how many Americans have even heard of Kobani?”

“When I went there as ambassador in 2011, we didn’t even know anything about northeastern Syria. I had the intelligence agencies come and brief me about the Syrian Kurdish community and everything that they seemed to know I could have written down on two single-spaced pages. And there’s a reason for that. It just wasn’t that important to the United States,” he said.

“I had worked in Iraq for five years before I went to Syria as ambassador. We knew tons about the Iraqi Kurds — tons and tons. We knew the people, the leaders, the towns that have the economic structures, tribal structures. We had no corresponding depth of information about the Kurdish communities on the other side of the Euphrates River,” he continued. “Part of that is the Assad government didn’t want us to know. They made travel up there difficult. The other part was it didn’t really matter to us.”

U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey talks to the press at the State Department on Jan. 23, 2020. Sinam Sherkany Mohamad of the Syrian Democratic Council praises the support that Jeffrey and other U.S. officials have given to the Kurds in Syria’s northeast region, but she wishes the rhetoric was accompanied by more action. (State Department photo by Freddie Everett)

As for the argument that the U.S. should support the SDF because it’s been instrumental in containing the Islamic State, Ford argues that “there’s a fundamental flaw with that strategy.”

“On the other side of the [Euphrates] River — where the Syrian government is in control with Russian and Iranian backing — ISIS is already present, it’s regrouping and it’s even now attacking Syrian forces. There’s nothing we’re doing about that rising ISIS problem,” he said. “So I don’t understand how we’re going to contain ISIS in Syria if on the west side of the river, we have no strategy.”

Ford does not discount the tremendous sacrifices that the Kurds made in beating back the Islamic State, but he points out that the SDF’s military campaign was as self-serving as it was brave.

“It was not an act of benevolence on their part. They wanted to get ISIS away from their own communities as far as they could throw them — perfectly understandable,” Ford said.

“And we had an interest in whacking ISIS and cutting it down to size and containing it. And so we shared an interest with that militia [SDF] to fight ISIS,” he added, noting that Syrian Kurds are not a monolith and it’s important to remember that the SDF — an alliance originally formed between the Kurdish YPG militia and smaller Arab rebels — represents one particular faction.

“But that does not mean we have a long-term commitment to that militia or its associated political party or even to those communities. There are lots of occasions in national security policy where you make short-term alliances that don’t mean you have a long-term commitment. It’s not like a marriage.”

Kurdish Cupid?
Another noted Syria expert, Joshua Landis, agrees that the U.S. does not have an explicit national security rationale for being in Syria, but he says the U.S. does have its reasons for maintaining a presence in the country.

“What the U.S. is really doing there is countering Russia,” Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told us.

“As [State Department special envoy to Syria] James Jeffrey has said, it’s to turn Syria into a quagmire for the Russians, the Iranians. And that means withholding as much money as possible and Syria’s natural resources from the government in Damascus, so that it’s dependent on Russia and Iran to keep its nose from going underneath the water.”

Landis, who writes the newsletter Syria Comment, said America’s involvement in Syria is also “about keeping our friends happy” — namely Israel, which staunchly opposes Iran’s influence in the country. (In fact, on the day of our interview with Landis, Israel launched airstrikes in Syria that reportedly killed several Iran-backed paramilitary fighters.)

“Israel is worried about Syria and its relationship with Iran, and therefore it has a big interest in the United States staying in Syria,” Landis said. “And I assume that pro-Israeli interests in Washington will work closely with the Kurds to promote this love affair between Americans and the Kurds.”

Love affair?

“The Kurds, we have to remember, have a ton of goodwill,” Landis pointed out. “For quite a period of time, there’s been a love story going on between the American people and the Kurds. And the Syrian Democratic [Council] … is the Cupid in this love affair.”

Mohamad didn’t quite frame it in those terms, but she did say there is a natural affinity between Kurds and Americans because of the values they share.

The so-called Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria is governed by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which promotes religious freedom and women’s rights, supporting efforts such as this sewing cooperative in Derik. (Photo: By Janet Biehl in Rojava / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Landis said the Kurds often tout these values, reminding Americans that they are “the most likely people in Syria to advance some form of power-sharing, of getting along with Arabs, in this region; that their administration … has been better than anybody else’s — kinder, gentler; that they promote equal rights for women; and that the entire ideological thrust of … the SDF is more akin to what America is trying to promote in the region than any other group — certainly more than the Arab rebels, who in Idlib are led by an al-Qaeda affiliate today, and much more so than Assad.”

“And that story — it’s a good story. It’s not purely propaganda,” he said.

But it might not have the kind of storybook ending the Kurds are hoping for — especially when it comes to their ultimate goal: securing autonomy for their region.

“The Kurds are about 2 million people in Syria,” Landis explained. “They are the poorest populations in Syria traditionally, and the least developed in terms of universities, schooling, infrastructure. They’ve been neglected by the central government. And so the chances of them standing on their own two feet once America withdraws is almost zero because they’ve got three countries surrounding them that are totally hostile to their independence or autonomy.”

“Turkey, of course, wants to destroy them — lock, stock and barrel. Syria wants to bring them back into an Arab republic and not accord them any serious privileges or national rights. And Iraq doesn’t want them to have it because they fear that they’ll lose their northern Kurdish provinces themselves,” Landis said.

“They’re surrounded by enemies, and they don’t have an air force. Not having an air force, of course, is their greatest weakness because all these other powers do have an air force and can bomb the hell out of them and will do so the moment America leaves,” he added. “We could stay there for five, 15, 20 years, but eventually we’re going to go home and they’re going to get crushed.”

A U.S. Black Hawk takes off from an outpost in Manbij, Syria, on June 21, 2018. The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces lack an air force, which Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma says is one of their biggest weaknesses because enemies like Turkey “do have an air force and can bomb the hell out of them and will do so the moment America leaves.” (Photo: Army Staff Sgt. Timothy R. Koster)

Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions against the Syrian regime — no matter how tough — aren’t going to save the Kurds from Assad’s ambitions either, Landis argues.

Calling the most recent U.S. sanctions levied under the Caesar Act “lipstick on a pig,” the professor dismissed the official U.S. line that the sanctions are targeted and not aimed at the general population.

He points out that they raise the price “of everything for everybody” by 30% to 35%, limit access to essentially goods like medicine and make any reconstruction virtually impossible.

“They aren’t punishing the elite. Or Assad,” Landis said. “Assad will get three square meals a day, even if he has to fly them in from Paris.”

Even with several hundred American troops on the ground, both Landis and Ford say America’s influence over Assad remains limited.

“I have been listening to my colleagues in the think tank community and in the U.S. government since 2016 say, ‘By holding the east, we will compel Assad to make political concessions and get a deal on the constitution,’” Ford said. “It’s now 2020. I have yet to see the Americans be able to compel Assad to make a concession by holding territory. I just don’t believe it.”

Nor does Landis.

“Obviously, withholding a big hunk of Syria and a very valuable Syria from the Syrian government does give America some leverage. America can bribe the Syrian government into doing quite a few different things — possibly. It’s not going to be able to get Assad to step aside,” he said. “Assad won the war, and Russia and Iran have a great interest in keeping him in power.”

Ford agrees that “the Russians aren’t going to let Bashar al-Assad collapse and then let chaos erupt in Damascus.”

But acknowledging Russia’s role as kingmaker in Syria is anathema to U.S. policymakers who argue that Washington shouldn’t allow the country to fall into the Kremlin’s hands.

Ford dismisses such talk.

“I wouldn’t say it’s giving it to Russia. Russia already has it. Even before the Syrian uprising started, Russia was the predominant form of influence in Syria, along with Iran.”

His advice to the Kurds, then, is to ignore the U.N. constitutional talks — which he says “are of no value whatsoever” — and negotiate directly with Russia.

To a degree that’s already been happening. Just recently, an SDC delegation traveled to Moscow to sign a memorandum of understanding with a Russian-backed Syrian opposition group and cool tensions after the SDF reportedly signed a deal with a U.S. energy company to modernize oil fields in the northeast.

Cutting a Deal with Damascus
Most experts say Russia is one half of the equation. The other half is Damascus.

Landis said the SDF did reach out to Assad when Trump made his withdrawal announcement. While he agreed to limit Turkey’s incursion, he’s refused to countenance any form of autonomy for the Kurds.

Mohamad acknowledged that while the SDF has had meetings with Damascus, Assad hasn’t budged.

“Unfortunately the Syrian government still has the same mentality that they want to control the whole of Syria — as it was before the Arab Spring.”

Mohamad said the Assad regime believes that if it wins on the battlefield, it will also win politically, but “that doesn’t make any sense” because Syria’s “social fabric has been torn apart” by nearly a decade of war.

Syria is no longer a unified nation, Mohamad says. “Syria is Alawites, Syria is Kurds, Syria is Assyrian Christians, Yazidis and so on” — ethnicities that can no longer co-exist as they did before 2011.

That’s why Mohamad argues that Syria would be better off if Damascus adopted a decentralized, federalized model.

It’s unlikely Assad — who has the military edge — would agree to devolve power to different regions, but we asked Mohamad what the SDF would do if he granted the Kurds autonomy?

“If it happens, OK, we will consider being part of the Syrian Army in the future,” she told us.

The problem, according to Landis, is that the Kurds “won’t get nine-tenths of what they want.”

“What they want is schooling, [preservation] of their language, to have their own separate army, their own separate administration, and [to] deal with Damascus as equals. They’re not going to get that. They’re not they’re not going to get what Iraqi Kurds have,” he asserted.

So what can they get?

“What they’ll get is integration into the Syrian Army. Damascus absolutely needs the Kurds to police this giant area, because there are no Alawites who live there.”

Landis said the fact that Assad’s government has always relied on ethnic minorities is the Kurds’ biggest advantage.

“As we saw in this civil war … the Alawites were the people he depended on the most — his co-religionists, who are 12% of the country. And they died in extraordinarily high numbers to preserve his government. But Christians, Druze, Ismailis also died in order to preserve it because they were all fearful of Islamic fundamentalists coming to power in Damascus and treating them like dirt,” Landis said.

“So the Kurds are a minority. They’re Muslims, but they are a minority. And the Kurds fear the Arab insurgency much more than they fear Damascus. They don’t like Damascus because Damascus is not giving them what they want, but they have worked constantly with Damascus because they realize that Damascus is much better for them than the Arab rebels, than ISIS or al-Qaeda.

“So Assad, as a [minority-dependent] regime, needs to bring the Kurds into his fold and cut a deal with them. And what he’s given them in the past is some cut of the oil,” he continued, noting that oil could still be the Kurds’ best bargaining chip.

“If they negotiate and say, ‘Look, we’ll bring this [oil] back to Damascus but you give us a 60/40 share on the oil — they could get that,” Landis said.

“Yes, it would cost them …. but throughout this entire long war, the Kurds have had an understanding with Damascus on issues like oil. After all, the Kurds have nowhere to send their oil but to Damascus, where all the refineries are. And the Kurds need refined oil, which they get back from Damascus.”

Landis added that if the U.S. stays in the region for, say, another four years and helps the Kurds build up their oil refinery capacity, they would be in a much better negotiating position with Damascus.

Marshall Plan, or Echoes of Vietnam?
That’s why some scholars back Mohamad’s call for the U.S. to stay in the region while Syria’s power brokers hammer out the country’s future.

Jomana Qaddour of the Atlantic Council, who’s a member of the U.N.-facilitated Syrian Constitutional Committee, and Cansu Camlibel, editor-in-chief of the Istanbul-based newspaper Duvar English, argue that military might translates into bargaining power.

“Nine years on, the war continues to demonstrate that those with military power on the ground or in the skies will be the ultimate deciders of Syria’s fate,” they wrote in a June 25 policy analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The small but lethal U.S. military presence in the northeast and south has given Washington powerful leverage to ensure that its anti-Iranian and anti-IS priorities are respected.”

To that end, they argue that U.S. troops should continue to help the SDF protect the region’s oil fields, maintain security at detention centers and build up the SDF’s military and administrative capacity.

“The U.S. presence gives the SDF an option that is preferable to simply accepting whatever deal Moscow and Damascus might offer in the short term,” they conclude.

Fabrice Balanche, an adjunct fellow with the Washington Institute, also recommends that rival Kurdish factions iron out their differences to present a united front against Russia and Turkey — facilitated by U.S. support.

“What is required,” he wrote on July 1, “is Western political determination against Russia and Turkey’s strategies, supported by a sufficient military presence to dissuade external coup efforts and a Marshall Plan-style humanitarian and economic campaign to reduce internal tensions.”

HXP recruits provide local security in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria and help support the Syrian Democratic Forces. (Photo: By Kurdishstruggle – https://www.flickr.com/photos/kurdishstruggle/30300358663/, CC BY 2.0)

Ford, however, says America’s past military adventures illustrate the futility of trying to remake or rescue societies in the Middle East.

“I’m very much reminded of Robert McNamara and his conclusion about the Vietnam War — that Vietnam was a place we couldn’t fix. And we just needed to cut our losses,” he said of Syria.

Ford noted that a potential Biden administration — which would likely include former Obama officials like Brett McGurk, the former special envoy to combat ISIS — would probably support some sort of ongoing U.S. military presence in Syria and take a tougher stance against Turkey.

“And so, frankly, were I a YPG commander, I would certainly hope for Biden’s victory and not Trump’s.”

Yet Landis said it’s not out of the question that even with a second Trump presidency, U.S. troops stay put in Syria.

“Trump has got his alibi — his ‘I’ve got the oil’ alibi,” Landis said. “And even though that’s not true and the oil doesn’t make America rich, and we’re just wasting our money there in some ways, he’s got his set of talking points, which is we’re fighting ISIS, we’re helping Israel, we’re leveraging Assad, who’s evil. You can tick down those things and it doesn’t cost that much. So it’s the least of his worries for the Middle East. Of course, it’s the easiest to disrupt if you’re trying to make a point. But most Americans have forgotten that we’re in Syria. It’s not a big ticket item. Afghanistan, Iraq are much bigger ticket items.”

Personal Mission
While Landis’s argument may be sound — and advantageous to the Kurds — relying on American indifference is a cold political calculation for Mohamad (even if the Kurds, too, make their own realpolitik calculations).

Mohamad said she understands the politics at play in Syria, but for her, the situation is also deeply personal.

Born in Damascus, Mohamad graduated from the University of Aleppo and has lived throughout Syria.

“I have many friends who are Christians from Homs, Sunnis from Aleppo and Alawites. I didn’t feel we had differences at that time. We were in high school studying together. So I’m sorry now what’s happened to Syria. I’m sorry to see how these Muslim Sunni extremists killed the Alawites because they are Alawites. They are killing the Kurds only because they are Kurds,” she said, becoming emotional.

“I never expect that the Syrian people would be like that … because the people are educated, they are very civilized, they have very open minds.”

At one point, her family ran a lucrative business in the city of Afrin, but after the 2018 Turkish invasion to oust the SDF from the area, over 300,000 people were displaced, including Mohamad’s family.

She said the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army seized the family’s Afrin home and factory, which had manufactured olive oil tanks and bottles — as part of Turkey’s campaign to loot the city and cleanse it of its Kurdish identity.

Protesters demonstrate in the Syrian city of Afrin on Jan. 19, 2018, in support of the Kurdish-led YPG militia and against the Turkish invasion of Afrin. (Voice of America Kurdish)

Today, her two daughters — one a doctor, the other an IT engineer — are married and live abroad. Her husband and two grown sons live in another part of Syria after being threatened and displaced from Afrin. Mohamad, too, cannot return to Afrin as long as Turkish-backed forces are there because of her work with the SDF.

So she has been in the U.S. without her family since late 2017 advocating for the SDF. And while her family’s plight — and that of thousands of other families in similar situations — lends a personal impetus to her mission, she’s also clear-eyed about what’s in it for America if it stays in Syria, insisting that it’s beneficial not only for the Kurds, but for the U.S. as well.

“I believe it remains in the U.S. national interest, based on the fact that other foreign interests operating in Syria are hostile to the U.S., for the United States to continue supporting the SDF. There is a mutual interest,” she said. “When the day comes when Syria is peaceful and secure, without external forces challenging our sovereignty and controlling land, we will be prepared to speak with our American friends about stepping back from their support. Whatever the case, we look forward to a longstanding friendship with the United States.”

Belarus: A Real Race, at Last?

Elections in Belarus — home to what is often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship — are pretty much a foregone conclusion. President Alexander Lukashenko has ruled the former Soviet republic with an iron fist for 26 years.

But this coming presidential race on Aug. 9 is shaping up to be anything but predictable. Frustration has mounted with Lukashenko over rampant corruption, economic stagnation and, most recently, his cavalier dismissal of the coronavirus (he recommended vodka and a dip in the sauna to ward off the virus). That frustration has been boiling over not only in urban areas like Minsk, but also in Lukashenko’s traditional rural strongholds.

Belarusians have come out in droves to sign petitions to allow opposition candidates to register for the election. Several prominent candidates have been arrested and imprisoned. In the aftermath, one unlikely political newcomer has emerged: Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, a 37-year-old language teacher and the wife of one of those jailed candidates, blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky.

Supporters of opposition presidential candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya hold a rally in Minsk on July 30. (Photo: By Homoatrox – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

The mother of two has drawn increasingly large crowds at her rallies across the country. She’s also joined forces with two other women to form an unprecedented female trio challenging Lukashenko’s grip on power. One of those women, Veronika Tsepkalo, is the wife of a former ambassador to the U.S. whose attempts to register for the election were rejected.

Amid the political jockeying, Lukashenko claimed to have thwarted a foreign plot to destabilize the country by arresting over 30 members of the Wagner Group, a quasi-private Russian military contractor that dispatches mercenaries to warzones in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. Experts speculate the Wagner operatives were probably just passing through Belarus to get to those hotspots, and that the arrests were part of a well-worn playbook to show that Belarus needs a strongman like Lukashenko to ensure its security.

Yet for all the hype that the newly empowered opposition has stirred, Lukashenko’s sixth term is all but assured in the government-orchestrated election. Still, the recent protests suggest his hold on power is fraying. And even if Lukashenko wins at the ballot box, his government could still be in danger of collapsing if a mass uprising erupts in the wake of blatant vote-rigging.

“Society is discontent. People want change,” said Katia Glod, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, during a July 15 webinar hosted by CEPA. “This desire runs through many generations — from very young generations to the older generation.”

The discontent is evident in the president’s overall approval ratings. Although no independent polling groups are allowed in the country, Glod estimates that Lukashenko’s support hovers at around 20%.

“Lukashenko is in a lot trouble,” Glod said. “The economy is doing very badly.”

“But on the other hand, of course his state apparatus is still working very well,” she added, citing his security forces’ long history of cracking down on dissent.

Roughly 700 protesters and activists have been detained since May, according to the human rights group Viasna. Over a dozen journalists have also been arrested, including several from the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), which says one of its journalists was beaten by riot police who left him handcuffed and kneeling on the floor of a police van, bleeding with a broken nose, as he was taken to a precinct station.

Glod said the arrests and assaults show that Lukashenko “certainly still has the means at the moment to resist the popular opposition to his rule.”

Female solidarity is the logo of the three women — Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Veronika Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova — who have emerged to challenge President Alexander Lukashenko in the Aug. 9 election. (Photo: By Babariko – https://babariko.vision, Public Domain)

To that end, Tikhanovskaya has sent her two children abroad, fearing for their safety. Still, she has persisted in her maverick presidential bid. One of her rallies in the capital of Minsk drew thousands of supporters on July 18 in what many said was the largest opposition gathering since Lukashenko’s election in 1994.

Lukashenko is “obviously nervous because it’s not the usual opposition we’re talking about,” said Vytis Jurkonis of Freedom House during the CEPA webinar.

Jurkonis conceded that “the repressive apparatus in Belarus is so strong that the opposition might be crushed.”

“The worst that might happen is the feeling of defeat. I think the energy out there is already signaling to us that it’s not the usual day for Belarusians and for the regime,” he said.

That’s why he believes the fundamental challenge for the international community will be figuring out “how to respond to that energy.”

Jurkonis said that will involve supporting civil society, NGOs and independent media, but “it’s not only enough to give one grant or another.”

“The minimum task is to express our solidarity and be vocal about what is happening, but on a more practical note, I think we need to get out of this geopolitical dilemma — Russia or Europe, and then Lukashenko or opposition — because what we are witnessing today is a huge amount of people out there in the streets and on the social networks which are not necessarily the usual suspects of this traditional opposition.”

To that end, moderator Edward Lucas, a senior fellow at CEPA, criticized what he called the West’s either-or approach to Belarus and the mentality that if “you push Lukashenko too hard, you push him into the arms of Russia and therefore you should be nice to Lukashenko and get him out from Moscow. But then on the other hand that means he beats up the opposition, so you should be nasty to Lukashenko to stop beating up the opposition — but then you go back to the first question of, ‘Oh dear, we’re being nasty to him, so we’re pushing him to Moscow.’ And it goes round like a sort of pinball machine.”

Indeed, for years, Lukashenko has deftly played the West and Russia off each other to extract concessions from both sides.

CEPA panelist Brian Whitmore, director of the organization’s Russia program, described Lukashenko as a “world championship gamer” in this geopolitical struggle (also see “Belarus’s Balancing Act: ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’ Walks Fine Line Between Russia and the West” in the December 2019 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko talk during a 2002 news conference. Lukashenko has long relied on Moscow for subsidies to keep the Belarusian economy afloat, although he has pushed back on Putin’s designs for a greater monetary and political union with Russia. (Photo: By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0)

As Russian President Vladimir has pushed to form a closer economic and political union with Belarus in recent years, Lukashenko has pushed back. He’s been courting investment from Europe and even China to wean the country off Moscow’s largesse (half of Belarus’s trade is with Russia).

He’s also reached out to the Trump administration to mend ties. In February, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Belarus, where he said the U.S. could provide the country with 100% of its oil and gas needs — capitalizing on Moscow’s earlier decision to cut energy supplies as part of its pressure campaign on Lukashenko. And in April, Trump announced the appointment of the first U.S. ambassador to Belarus since relations broke down in 2008.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko meets with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Belarus on Feb. 1. The visit was part of a larger rapprochement between Belarus and the U.S. as Lukashenko seeks to recalibrate his country’s dependence on Russia. (State Department Photo by Ron Przysucha)

German Marshall Fund senior fellow Jonathan Katz told our reporter Deryl Davis that Lukashenko is a wily character who cannot be trusted. At the same time, he “is no dummy.”

“He can see [from examples in Georgia and Ukraine] that Russia and Putin are willing and ready to act when their interest is at stake,” Katz said in our December 2019 article, arguing that Lukashenko’s Western charm offensive is born of genuine fears that Putin seeks to absorb Belarus.

He warned, though, that Lukashenko is both “trying to play ball with the Kremlin, but also trying to find outside levers to decrease the pressure from it” — an increasingly precarious balancing act as Moscow tightens the economic noose around Belarus.

During the CEPA panel, Lucas said it’s important for outsiders to re-examine “the real relationship” between Russia and Belarus. “On the surface it looks very close, with intelligence cooperation, economic cooperation, the perpetual discussion of maybe a common currency,” he said. “In truth, it’s a much more nuanced and complicated relationship.”

Whitmore compared it to a “dysfunctional marriage,” claiming there is a lot of personal animosity between Lukashenko and Putin.

“Lukashenko looks at it as transactional. ‘I will be your friend if you pay me.’ And Putin looks at it as imperial. ‘I am the czar and you’re a provincial leader and you will do as I say,’” Whitmore explained, arguing that Russia is now trying to make the relationship more imperial — for example, by seeking to establish a new airbase in eastern Belarus — while Lukashenko is resisting such efforts.

Whitmore added that the relationship between Lukashenko’s authoritarian regime and average Belarusians is also changing.

The old social contract you had was that you had a minimal standard of living based on Russian subsidies in exchange for a passive acquiescence politically,” he said. “Well, living standards have been falling as Russia has cut subsidies…. And so this has upset this social contract. Lukashenko’s absolutely inept handling of COVID-19 also certainly hasn’t helped matters here.”

Moreover, Whitmore says the opposition itself is evolving. After witnessing Russia’s annexation of Crimea in nearby Ukraine and fearing a power vacuum if Lukashenko leaves that Moscow would be all too happy to fill, the opposition seemed to accept Lukashenko as the “lesser evil.”

But today, those fears don’t seem as potent.

Jurkonis said Belarusians are “simply tired of Lukashenko.”

“We need a leader,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if they have relations with Russia.”

That desire for change has propelled the candidacy of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Also helping her unlikely rise was the reported chauvinism of Lukashenko, who dismissed the idea that a woman could ever become president. She “would collapse, poor thing,” he told factory workers on May 29.

Two months later, Lukashenko now finds himself pitted against not one but three women.

They include Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova (the campaign manager of another jailed candidate) and Veronika Tsepkalo (whose husband was denied registration for the election and has since fled the country).

“We want to live in a free state where no one is afraid to speak freely,” Tsepkalo recently told Robyn Dixon of The Washington Post. “Where no one is afraid, where there is the right to free meetings on the street, where you don’t think about what to say because tomorrow you may be behind bars.”

The women don’t have a specific agenda. If elected, Tikhanovskaya has pledged to release political prisoners and hold a new election that includes all opposition candidates.

None of the CEPA panelists, however, were particularly optimistic that would happen given Lukashenko’s penchant for vote-rigging.

They said the key will be what happens the day after Lukashenko’s “victory.”

There is always the possibility of a mass uprising challenging the results — and a brutal response by security forces. Some have even speculated that Russia would prefer Lukashenko to lose in the hopes that a pliable new president would come to power.

Whitmore floated another extreme scenario whereby Putin eventually takes matters into his own hands if Lukashenko wins but does not bend to his will.

He predicted that at first, the Kremlin will try to intimidate Lukashenko, who, weakened by the elections, will need the Russians more than ever.

“And Putin’s going to say to him, ‘You be a good obedient little boy or I’m going to make trouble for you,” Whitmore said. “The next step up the ladder is some kind of orchestrated regime change.”

If that fails, Whitmore said we could see a Russian military invasion.

While other panelists dismissed the notion of Russia — which is itself battling the coronavirus and the global plunge in oil prices — invading Belarus, Whitmore insisted that, “We’d be ridiculously Pollyannish to take an invasion off the table. There is no country other than Ukraine that Russia views as more vital to its strategic depth — i.e., pliant regimes on its Western borders.”

So what should the West do in response to any possible Russian aggression after the elections in Belarus?

“We need to send a very, very clear and unambiguous message to Moscow that as distasteful as we find the Lukashenko regime … we also regard Belarus’ sovereignty and independence as absolutely sacrosanct, and any efforts to undermine that independence will be met with a very clear response,” Whitmore said, “be it sanctions or otherwise.”

He added that the West needs to support the rising new generation of Belarusians agitating for change and work with Belarus to create an economy that’s less dependent on Russia. He also noted that economic assistance to Belarus and sanctions on those who violate human rights are not mutually exclusive policies.

“I think we have to find a way to thread this needle. It ain’t going to be easy, but God if you want an easy job, go sell shoes.”

Whitmore said it’s imperative that “we walk and chew gun at the same time” because Belarus is integral both to the security of key NATO allies such as Latvia, Lithuania and Poland, as well as to U.S. efforts to project democratic values.

But ensuring the security of allies and promoting democracy abroad haven’t exactly been priorities for another president facing a tough election battle: Donald Trump.

In fact, Trump has routinely defended Putin despite widespread consensus that Moscow interfered in America’s 2016 election — and is likely to try to do so again in 2020.

And if Trump wins re-election in November, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll make a dramatic U-turn and start confronting Putin, defending traditional allies or pushing for democracy and human rights abroad.

On that note, it was telling that as the CEPA panelists debated the dynamics between Lukashenko and Putin, Trump’s name did not come up once during the entire hour-long discussion.

In a recent op-ed in The Hill, though, CEPA senior fellow Janusz Bugajski argued that Putin is adopting a more muscular foreign policy to divert attention from economic problems at home. And he’s succeeding because the West is so focused on its own problems.

“Western capitals are preoccupied with the health crisis and its economic repercussions. In addition, the U.S. confronts social and economic convulsions in the midst of a deeply divisive election,” Bugajski wrote. “Putin will urgently seek a foreign fait accompli, especially as he may face a more combative administration if former Vice President Joe Biden becomes president. Although the U.S. national security team has pushed back against Russia’s aggression, Putin perceives Trump as more accommodating. And if Trump is reelected, Putin will seek a grand deal that will acknowledge Russia’s new conquests.”

It remains to be seen if Belarus will be one of those conquests.

My fabulous editorial intern Cami Mondeaux contributed to this report.

WHO Do Trump & China Think They Are

Sorry, I couldn’t resist the cheesy headline, but on a more serious note, while the current debate over the effectiveness of the World Health Organization is much-needed and has merit, it’s also riddled with myths and misconceptions about what the WHO can and cannot do.

In April, President Trump announced he was suspending U.S. funding for the WHO, accusing the agency of botching its response to the coronavirus pandemic, specifically by siding with the Chinese early on.

The backlash was fast and fierce. Critics of the move accused the president of using the WHO (and by extension China) as a scapegoat for his own botched response to the pandemic, and they argue that cutting off funding in the midst of global health crisis is the worst possible time to kneecap the international body specifically tasked with trying to contain that crisis.

Supporters of Trump’s decision point out that the WHO’s delayed response helped the pandemic spread and that its praise of China — despite the country’s lack of transparency — has undermined its authority.

Both are valid arguments, but what often gets lost in any discussion of the WHO are the intricacies of how it actually functions — and the inherent limitations it faces.

The WHO is the U.N. agency responsible for all global health matters. Established in 1948 and based in Geneva, the WHO works with 194 member states in over 150 offices across six regions.

It sounds like this giant international entity doesn’t it? In reality, it’s not all that big.

Many experts say the WHO’s staff — 7,000 — and a biennial budget of just $6.3 billion are not nearly commensurate with its broad mandate. That mandate includes everything from improving access to health services in some of the world’s poorest countries, to supporting initiatives ranging from polio eradication to maternal health, to coordinating global responses to emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic.

As Bryan Walsh of Axios pointed out, with just over $6 billion to work with in 2018 and 2019, “the WHO has about as much cash to spend as a large urban hospital system in the U.S., and significantly less than the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The U.S. is the WHO’s largest funder (in both assessed and voluntary contributions), providing nearly $900 million during its current two-year funding period, roughly 15% of the WHO’s total budget. In comparison, China provided $86 billion over the same two-year timeframe.

Trump’s budget freeze may not have an immediate impact because other countries and donors like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will likely step in to make up for the shortfall. But long term, any loss of funds from the U.S. government would seriously hurt the world body’s ability to combat infectious diseases (including any future pandemics).

The WHO’s reliance on donors is often cited as its biggest impediment, because it naturally constrains its ability to outright criticize those donors.

So there’s a lot of truth to accusations that WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (who was elected to his five-year term in part because of Chinese support) essentially parroted many Chinese talking points during the early stages of the pandemic, when in fact well-documented reports indicate that Beijing initially hid the true extent of the crisis in Wuhan (and continues to downplay the number of cases).

“The W.H.O. really blew it. For some reason, funded largely by the United States, yet very China centric. We will be giving that a good look,” Trump tweeted.

Even Andrew Cuomo, New York’s Democratic governor, agrees with Trump’s criticisms. “The president says it’s the World Health Organization, and that’s why he’s taken action against them. Not my field. But he’s right to ask the question because this was too little, too late,” he tweeted.

At the same time, the WHO has also refrained from criticizing the Trump administration for its own laggard response (the president did not declare a national emergency until mid-March).

Whether it’s China or the U.S., the WHO can’t exactly bite the hands that feed it.

Here’s another often-overlooked tidbit: Only 20% of the WHO’s budget comes from assessed — i.e. mandatory — contributions from countries. The rest comes from voluntary contributions (from both governments and other donors). Those contributions are earmarked for specific initiatives, such as polio eradication, further hamstringing the agency’s ability to divert resources to more immediate crises.

The WHO also relies on countries to voluntarily disclose information on health crises, so it’s essentially at the mercy of governments to be invited to investigate a crisis. In other words, alienate Beijing and odds are it’s not going to let you in.

But prominent Republicans like Michael McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has accused China of “the worst coverup in history.” He told Kimberly Dozier of TIME magazine that whether “through incompetence or complicity,” the WHO is responsible for the outbreak becoming a global pandemic.

Yet a closer look at the timing of the WHO’s actions reveal a more nuanced story.

As a group of Democratic senators pointed out in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “On January 23, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned of the virus’ human-to-human transmission, its four percent death rate, and that the virus had the potential to reach any country, a warning that proved prudent given that the U.S. had announced its first confirmed case two days prior, on January 21. U.S. diplomats were returning from Wuhan around the same time and the State Department’s epidemiologist warned that the virus could develop into a pandemic. On January 30, one day after President Trump announced the formation of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, the WHO declared COVID-19 a public health emergency of international concern.”

That said, the WHO is no stranger to criticism that it’s dragged its feet.

The Washington Diplomat has an excellent article — in my humble, unbiased opinion 🙂 — on how the WHO used the lessons it learned from its flawed response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014 to inform its current response to coronavirus.

Dr. Tom Frieden, former director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the WHO’s response to the pandemic “has been much better than the Ebola response.”

“This is an unprecedented situation,” Frieden told our reporter Deryl Davis, “and the WHO is generally doing a good job,” although he added that the agency’s formal designation of the outbreak as a pandemic on March 11 “was slightly overdue.”

But for Republicans like McCaul — who has called for the resignation Dr. Tedros — “slightly” is a gross understatement. They argue that the WHO wasted precious time as the pandemic spread and are launching investigations of what went wrong. Democrats point out that those investigations conveniently ignore Trump’s own handling of the pandemic, which he downplayed as the flu for weeks.

There’s little doubt the WHO, like many sprawling bureaucracies dependent on donors, is in need of reform.

Even Dr. Tedros has admitted as much, pledging a review of the agency’s coronavirus response.

But he says that should come after, not during, a pandemic. For now, the priority should be on saving lives.

“If you don’t want many more body bags, then you refrain from politicizing [the debate],” he warned.

Others agree that the timing couldn’t be worse. “Now is a time for unity in the global battle to push the COVID-19 pandemic into reverse, not a time to cut the resources of the … WHO, which is spearheading and coordinating the global body’s efforts,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement.

Those efforts include providing vital testing kits, medical equipment and advice to poorer countries at risk of a major explosion in cases.

A tweet by Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, neatly sums up the decision to cut off funding now is counterproductive — akin to defunding a fire department in the middle of a fire “on the grounds they ought to have got to the fire sooner.”

Moreover, experts say the U.S. can exert far more influence in reforming the WHO by continuing to be a major financial player in the organization. And fixing an imperfect WHO from the inside is a whole lot easier that trying to establish a brand new global health body from scratch, an idea some Trump aides have reportedly floated.

Finally, critics argue that abandoning the WHO to protest Chinese interference is self-defeating because China will be all too eager to fill the void that the U.S. leaves behind.

In fact, China has been quietly trying to do just — and not only in the WHO but in other multilateral bodies — as Kristine Lee reported in an April 15 article for Politico Magazine.

“It might be easy to dismiss this move [to cut off funding] as trademark Trumpian blame deflection or saber-rattling or shortsighted isolationism. But for people who’ve been watching China’s growing activism in the United Nations closely, the WHO’s deference to China is no surprise. In fact, it’s just the exposed tip of a dangerous iceberg — and Trump is careening straight toward it,” Lee wrote.

“Beijing’s leverage over the WHO cannot be understood independently of a much longer and broader campaign, one that aims to bend the arc of global governance toward a more illiberal orientation that privileges the interests of authoritarian actors,” she argued, adding that, “Over the past several years, Beijing has systematically positioned Chinese nationals at the head of a wide range of U.N. agencies.”

On that note, after Trump’s announcement, China announced it was pledging an additional $30 million to the WHO, on top of a $20 million cash donation it made in March.

Photo: By United States Mission Geneva – Flickr: World Health Organization Headquarters and Flag, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18609992



Pelosi and Mnuchin: Strange (but Surprisingly Successful) Bedfellows

Prior to coronavirus, few would’ve pegged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — the stalwart Democrat who has represented California on Capitol Hill since 1987 — and Steven Mnuchin — President Trump’s treasury secretary and a wealthy investor — as effective political partners.

But they have proven to be just that during the pandemic. Perhaps more than any other U.S. policymakers, Pelosi and Mnuchin helped shepherd three major stimulus packages totaling well over $2.2 trillion through a polarized Congress in a bid to prop up America’s withering economy, which most experts say is plunging to depths not seen since the Great Depression.

To recap, the main “phase three” stimulus package — the largest of its kind in U.S. history — included $350 billion in forgivable loans to small businesses and a $500 billion government lending program for larger companies (which also allowed the administration to take equity stakes in airlines that received aid to help compensate taxpayers — a key demand by Mnuchin).

The package also approved $100 billion for hospitals, $150 billion for state and local governments (key Pelosi demands), $290 billion in unemployment benefits and checks of up to $1,200 for individual Americans and $500 per child.

The rescue package came together in lightening speed in late March as legislators on both sides of the aisle and the administration grasped the severity of the fast-moving crisis. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) also played key roles in ironing out the final package. Among the hangups were GOP concerns that the unemployment program would give some workers more money than their original salaries (objections that were ultimately overridden) and Democratic concerns about oversight of the corporate lending program (which were addressed in the final bill, although Trump has since tried to dilute that oversight). But arguably, it was Pelosi and Mnuchin who laid much of the groundwork for the $2.2 trillion package.

Even before it was passed, Pelosi said it would not be the last stimulus package and indeed, Congress is now in the process of finalizing a fourth iteration that would replenish the small business loan program, which has already run dry.

Again, Pelosi and Mnuchin seem to recognize that time is of the essence. And it’s not the first time the unlikely duo have overcome political gridlock to move the legislative needle.

“The bond Pelosi and Mnuchin have developed to tackle sensitive, high-profile legislation — requiring a combination of trust, frankness and hardball negotiating — was built before the coronavirus outbreak,” wrote Jeremy Herb, Lauren Fox and Vivian Salama in a March 19 CNN article.

“A senior Treasury official said the President has entrusted Mnuchin with some of the most critical deals of Trump’s presidency — and several had been the product of negotiations with Pelosi. Over the past year, Mnuchin took part in negotiations with Pelosi on several key agreements, including a leading role on last year’s budget deal that raised the debt ceiling,” according to the article, which noted that the two have forged common ground through a pragmatic, “all-business” approach.

But some Republicans are increasingly wary that Mnuchin — who has been Trump’s point man in the stimulus negotiations — is giving away too much to Democrats.

“Top Republicans had steadfastly refused to discuss a deal with Democrats on their demands to couple an infusion for the small-business program — the Paycheck Protection Program — with more money for states, cities and hospitals to combat the virus,” wrote Emily Cochrane and Alan Rappeport in an April 17 article for The New York Times.

“In private conversations, top Republican officials said that Mr. Mnuchin’s concessions during previous negotiations on coronavirus legislation — in particular, an agreement he struck with Speaker Nancy Pelosi to significantly expand federal paid sick leave, and a subsequent deal with Senate Democrats to substantially increase jobless aid — had intensified skepticism about whether he could strike a deal that all Republican senators could support,” Cochrane and Rappeport wrote, noting that Mnuchin is seen by some as “essentially a Democrat.”

To Trump’s credit, however, delegating one primary interlocutor to represent the White House’s position (while largely removing himself from the intricacies) has helped to keep the negotiations focused.

Moreover, pursuing compromise in a time of crisis is a smart strategy that benefits both sides and actually gets things done — a concept Mnuchin clearly understands.

And Republican complaints about Mnuchin not driving a hard-enough bargain overlook the fact that the administration does not hold all the cards.

An April 11 article in Politico Magazine argues that Democrats have yet to use all of their leverage in playing hardball during the talks. “Trump needs another rescue package far more than Democrats do. The economy he loves to brag about has shed more than 16 million jobs,” wrote Michael Grunwald. “Trump doesn’t want to run for reelection during a full-blown depression, so he desperately needs more legislation.”

Grunwald also contends that Pelosi “does not seem eager to use the leverage of Democratic control of the House in any way that could delay emergency help for the free-falling Trump economy,” and that she is willing to do what it takes even if Trump eventually gets credit for resuscitating the economy.

At the same time, Democrats fear being painted as obstructionists and want to protect their own re-election changes, meaning they have just as much at stake in preventing an economic collapse.

That mutual self-preservation will probably push through this latest stimulus package. With a whopping 22 million Americans filing for unemployment in the last four weeks, I suspect Republicans will recognize the urgency of the crisis — especially among battered small businesses — and ultimately go along with the roughly $500 billion blueprint that Mnuchin helped hammer out.

Indeed, at the time of this writing, both sides seemed close to a deal that would provide $300 billion in small business lending. In addition, Democrats appeared set to receive three big asks: $60 billion reserved for small businesses without access to large financial institutions; $75 billion for hospitals; and $25 billion for coronavirus testing (although they failed to secure any new funding for state and local governments).

One of the biggest stumbling blocks has been testing, which the U.S. has struggled to implement — and which experts say is key to eventually reopening the economy. Democrats want a centralized, federal testing system; Republicans want states and the private sector to take charge of testing.

Both approaches have merit. The pandemic has played out very differently state by state, so it makes sense for states to take an individual approach. In addition, the private sector has often proved more efficient in dispersing much-needed tests. At the same time, the pandemic does not recognize borders and the disjointed, at times contradictory response by the Trump administration has caused confusion, unequal access to testing, supply chain problems and a state-by-state scramble for medical supplies.

Moreover, the countries that have had successes tackling the virus also have one thing in common: They employed aggressive, nationwide testing.

Trump, however, insists the country has enough tests. Governors (notably Maryland’s Larry Hogan) disagree. Similarly, in issuing general guidelines for reopening the economy, the president essentially punted responsibility to the states. Critics say this allows Trump to deflect blame if the reopening backfires. Supporters say states should be able to tailor policies based on their individual circumstances.

Meanwhile, protests against stay-at-home orders have broken out in several states. Yet a recent poll by the Pew Research Center showed that two-thirds of Americans are worried that state governments will lift restrictions on public activity too quickly (66%) versus that not happening quickly enough (32%). One reason for the discrepancy is that those protesting the restrictions, largely Republicans, are more concerned about government overreach than about measures such as social distancing or wearing masks, whereas those who support the restrictions aren’t exactly likely to demonstrate among packed crowds — creating the false impression that the protesters represent the majority.

Further complicating matters is the fact that testing is not a cure-all: Other measures such as social distancing will need to remain in place to reopen businesses without triggering another major outbreak.

That means the debate over how to revive American’s economy is far from over. It also means that Pelosi and Mnuchin may be called upon again to continue their unlikely partnership.


Photo: Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin joins President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence as he addresses his remarks on aspects of the stimulus package currently before Congress, during the coronavirus (COVID-19) update briefing Wednesday, March 25, 2020, in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Coronavirus: Double-Edged Sword for the Climate

*Quick note to my amazing readers 🙂 Unlike blog updates, notifications of when I update the essential daily headlines on my site won’t come to your inbox, but if you are interested in the headlines that I think are important, you can either follow my blog since I’ll post updates on the big ones, or just check back on my site since I try to refresh them regularly 🙂 I’ll also try to include a few lighthearted posts here and there to take a break from the corona overload. In the meantime, back to the blogging:

It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the head-spinning ways that coronavirus has upended our world, but one development that’s flown relatively under the radar has been the postponement of the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow that was set for November 2020 (and will now be held next spring).

This would’ve been the 26th U.N. climate change conference (known as COP26), with the apogee taking place in 2015 when the landmark Paris agreement was hashed out and then signed by nearly 190 countries that pledged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

But as Amy Harder of Axios reported, “This isn’t just another major convention scuttled by coronavirus. This is a make-or-break moment as countries face pressure to increase their ambitions to tackle climate change,” she wrote on April 1. “The Glasgow summit is meant to be where nations present the first batch of more ambitious plans, as called for every five years in the 2015 deal.”

Many scientists say more ambitious plans are long overdue because countries are falling woefully behind on meeting their emissions targets. Those targets, which are voluntary, were designed with the goal of limiting planetary global warming to no more 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Instead, the U.N. conceded late last year that the world is all but assured to blow right past the “point of no return” target. In fact, global greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high in 2019, a year that capped off the hottest decade ever recorded on the planet.

Despite increasing evidence of more extreme weather patterns fueled by climate change, countries failed to make headway on the issue at last year’s climate talks, in part because of opposition to stronger targets by countries such as India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

And of course the enormous elephant in the room is the United States — the second-largest emitter — which under President Trump withdrew from the Paris accord, a huge blow to the global effort to combat climate change.

While it doesn’t look likely that governments will make the drastic emissions cuts that scientists say are necessary to avoid catastrophic warning, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked hopes that the widespread lockdowns will reduce emissions on their own.

And so far they have. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects a 7.5% drop in fossil fuel emissions for 2020 — which would be the biggest cut in U.S. energy emissions since at least 1990, according to a recent AP report. In addition, satellite imagery from the European Space Agency has shown a stunning drop in air pollution around the world.

In fact, Marshall Burke, a researcher from Stanford University, calculated that improvements in air quality in China may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 years old and 73,000 adults over 70, according to a March 12 article in Politico. The article also noted that even more conservative estimates would put the number of lives saved at roughly 20 times the number of deaths from the virus directly.

Some environmentalists also hope that rare sightings of swans floating in the once-muddy canals of Venice will stir a greater awareness of what nature can look like if people put more effort into preserving it.

But most experts say these trends are only temporary. After all, the current situation is untenable: Factories are empties, planes are idle and shops are closed. Once the pandemic ebbs, the priority will understandably be getting back to business. People’s livelihoods are on the line, so jobs will inherently take precedence over longer-term challenges like climate change. And if stimulus packages enacted by countries such as China rely on coal-heavy industrial output, emissions will soar once again.

In that sense, it’s probably good that COP26 was delayed, to give governments time to respond to the pandemic before hopefully refocusing their attention on the simmering climate crisis.

That crisis has become more and more tangible as people experience extreme weather patterns firsthand, whether it’s the recent wildfires in Australia and California, epic heatwaves in India or increasingly ferocious storms like Hurricane Maria. Major corporations like Amazon and even ExxonMobil have all pledged to cut emissions, and there’s been a groundswell of support, particularly among the young, for more aggressive government action on climate change.

But leaders at COP26 will confront the same basic dilemma that has stymied action for years: Real change requires real sacrifice. While renewables like wind and solar are taking major leaps forward, the world is still overwhelmingly fueled by coal. That’s an inescapable fact.

As Australian Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos told me in my recent cover profile of him, “I think one of the things we have to be upfront with people about is that there are costs of change. Yes, there are costs of not changing, but often what happens in politics, people tend to say, ‘Don’t worry, the cost isn’t too much.’ You can’t deal with the public like that. You’ve got to give the public the facts and let them make up their own mind.”

And it’s hard for politicians to make the case to the public that bearing the pain now will save us more pain in the long run. Voters think short term, not long term. But perhaps coronavirus, which revealed the importance of preparing for long-term threats, will make that case easier to sell.

Still, it’s not always easy for people to connect the complex dots of how a threat like climate change amplifies other threats — including the spread of infectious diseases like Covid-19. As Greenpeace noted in an April 10 article, “about 75% of all emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic — meaning they come from animals. These include, among others, SARS, H5N1 avian flu, and the H1N1 influenza virus. An increasing number of animal carriers of diseases are changing their behaviour and migrating to new areas due to climate change and habitat loss.”

That doesn’t exactly make for a catchy political soundbite though. And that gets to the biggest wild card in the coming climate debate: Trump. Most people don’t realize that the U.S. has not technically dropped out of the Paris climate agreement. Under the rules, the formal withdrawal process is not finalized until Nov. 4, 2020 — one day after the U.S. presidential election. Needless to say, the question of whether the U.S. officially quits the Paris agreement or rejoins it will be dictated by who wins on Nov. 3.

So it could be America’s political storm, more than any force of nature, that determines the next chapter of our planet’s climate evolution.

How Do I Feel About the Bern?

So I guess it’s time for a little personal political opinion here (after all, this is a blog). Prerequisite disclosure: These are obviously my views and not those of The Washington Diplomat, whose editorial I am beyond proud of because it is meticulously accurate and fair.

That gets to a bit of a tangent here: I once heard that the former owner of a major newspaper used to tell his reporters that they have no opinions. They’re always neutral. Like robots.

In theory, this makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, because of the #FakeNews epidemic, many people have no clue just how much the importance of being fair, impartial and accurate is drilled into journalists from the start. At the University of Maryland, for example, there was a required introductory class all of us journalism majors had to take where if we misspelled someone’s name or made a factual error, we got one strike. If we got three strikes, we flunked the class right there on the spot and were asked to literally walk out and leave the classroom. Let me tell you, after that kind of humiliating walkout (I think like 90% of students failed that class at least once), you will forever quadruple-check your facts and spellings.

So of course journalists need to be careful when veering away from impartiality into the realm of expressing opinions. At the same time, the notion that reporters don’t have opinions is absurd (in my opinion ;)) After all, you’re digging deep into a subject. You’re becoming a de facto expert on it. It’s only human and natural to form an opinion on it.

The key is to openly recognize that opinion and then constantly ask yourself if it’s coloring your work. For example, responsible journalists routinely ask themselves: “Am I allowing my bias of this person keep me from seeking out commentary from people who support him?”

Is it a perfect process? No. Journalists are human. But it occurs much more regularly and rigorously among “mainstream” journalists than people give them credit for. There will always be streaks of bias. But you’ll have a tough time finding outright lies in establishment media. I dare anyone to pick a New York Times article and find a blatant lie that has no grounding in fact or truth whatsoever. You’ll have a hard time. Bias? Maybe, or even probably. Blatant “falsehood” (i.e. flat-out lie). No. The same can’t be said of other media outlets that shall remain nameless.

Sooooo long intro short, that’s the reasoning behind my opinion of opinions in my industry. With that said, here’s my take on Bernie Sanders (it was originally supposed to be quick, but anyone who knows me won’t be surprised that this turned out to be wayyy longer):

He introduced revolutionary ideas and tapped into a real groundswell of legitimate frustration. At the end of the day, though, he’s a spoiler. Revolutionary is not the same as realistic, and lofty ideas mean nothing if you can’t win and actually implement them.

Now, would Hillary have won if Bernie hadn’t stolen whatever thunder she originally had? Who knows. Trump did lose the popular vote by a sizable margin and won the electoral vote by a slim margin (when you look at the numbers in local districts that tipped the larger state-wide scale). And Hillary was a lightening rod for many people (she did have her share of flaws, although some people’s hatred of her wasn’t grounded in any sort of reality).

So we’ll never know the woulda, coulda, shoulda of 2016. But Bernie definitely would’ve been the spoiler if he had stayed this time around — and I suspect the only reason he finally dropped out was because of the unusual circumstances (i.e. coronavirus). Otherwise he would’ve contested this to the bitter end, dividing the party and causing a needless distraction from the Democrats’ ultimate goal: Unseating the president.

Coronavirus has turned everything upside down. But assuming the pandemic hadn’t of happened, Bernie would’ve simply chipped away at Biden over the summer — slowly eating away at any chance that Biden had to steer the conversation towards what’s really at stake: Whether he’s the person who should replace Trump. After Super Tuesday, it was obvious Bernie was not going to be that person, but whether out of vanity, obstinacy or a true conviction in his cause, Bernie would’ve carried on as the de facto spoiler who was sabotaging his own party’s chances, regardless whether he saw himself in that light.

You also can’t talk about Bernie without talking about the age divide. He clearly spoke for many young people who feel their voices have been drowned out by the establishment — and that’s admirable. Trump did the same thing with a wide swathe of older voters. Bernie’s ideas for universal health care and his calls to fundamentally rethink globalization and capitalism (which in many ways mirror Trump’s) reflect a justifiable need to do just that — rethink our long-held assumptions.

But if you want real change, you have to be realistic. Guess what? I wanted to be an actress/singer/supermodel when I grew up. Then I got real. Otherwise I’d probably be singing on a street corner homeless.

I would love for each and every Americans to have access to free, high-quality health care through a single payer system. I’d love for the bloated and ineffective American health care system to look more like Denmark’s (and I could write an entire book on how breathtakingly bone-headed our system is). After all, no one in the richest nation in the world should go bankrupt and lose their job because they broke an ankle. Everyone should view this as a national disgrace.

But I also recognize that the ship has sailed, we’re not Denmark, and we have to craft distinctly American solutions to address distinctly American problems. This requires realism, moderation and compromise — all things that, especially among young Bernie supporters, are seen as antithetical to change, when in fact they’re essential. (The same could certainly be said of hard-core Trump supporters).

Guess what? Ain’t no one giving up a good private insurance plan to gamble their health on an uncertain government-run system where they’re scared they’ll have to compete for a doctor’s appointment (they wouldn’t but the transition would be long and painful). Realistically, this country is not ready to make that leap, not now or possibly ever.

BUT does that mean we can’t improve health care to ensure everyone has access? Of course not. It’s not one way or bust. There is ALWAYS a middle ground — something that gets lost when you have politicians perched on a high horse on one extreme side of the aisle or the other.

Obamacare isn’t perfect, but at its heart, it’s a Republican, market-oriented solution to health care access (ask Mitt Romney). I believe that if more Republican governors hadn’t instantly rejected it out of hand (and Republicans in Congress had bothered to at least come to the negotiating table instead of shunning the debate altogether), it could’ve been a real game-changer for American health care (even though in many ways it still is).

But the premise of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is based on all 50 states participating to spread out risk so that an insurance exchange marketplace makes fiscal sense for insurance companies. If half the states don’t participate, you get a broken marketplace. And then you had Republican governors — whose people disproportionately need and would benefit from Medicare — automatically rejecting free Medicare from the Feds because they didn’t like Washington and who was running it. All I’ll say here is that principles shouldn’t punish the people you’ve been hired to help (even when some of those people slam Obamacare while at the same time screaming for the government not to touch their ACA benefits).

Anyway, the point is that political posturing and extremism don’t get anyone anywhere, and both voters and politicians need to start getting real — something that seems to be eluding today’s far-left progressives.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe it was Republicans under the Obama administration who perfected the art of obstinacy by refusing to even countenance working with the other side (see Obamacare). Civility and compromise were being eroded for years by both parties, but they took a clear nosedive with the GOP opposition to anything and everything Obama. Trump then put the nail in the coffin on both. He solidified the trend where “moderate” has now become a dirty word, compromise means surrender, lies are the norm, and experience and expertise are seen as vices, not virtues.

But Bernie’s isn’t blameless either, nor are his supporters. Kudos to them for refocusing attention on absolutely critical issues like health care, student loan debt, workers’ rights and climate change. But their my-way-or-the-highway idealism was self-defeating.

Again, perhaps this is a matter of age. I’m older and realize that promising to change the world means nothing if you can’t win office. And rallying young progressives to vote in states that will fall into the blue column anyway isn’t a winning strategy. Until you get rid of the electoral college, you need to plan for how to win over swing states — and threatening to eliminate popular private health care plans isn’t exactly the way into a moderate’s heart.

A recent poll showed that 15% of Bernie supporters would vote for Trump rather than Biden. Look, if you support Trump’s platform, by all means, vote for him. If you’re doing it because you’re upset your guy didn’t win and you’re throwing a tantrum, then you’re proving how self-defeating and naive your politics are.

Interestingly, if you take a careful look at Joe Biden’s campaign blueprint, it’s surprisingly progressive. And if you look at Bernie’s congressional record, it’s surprisingly pragmatic. Both men realized that to get things done, you have to be realistic and that if you want to change the system, you have to work within it.

Trump obviously has no desire to do anything with the system but bash it. On the one hand, it’s understandable. He wasn’t voted into office because he was part of the establishment. But his prideful disdain to learn anything about how government works has hurt him in the long run.

Coronavirus obviously has upended everything, and Trump’s legacy very much hinges on how well he handles the current crisis.

But before that, let’s ask ourselves what has he personally accomplished (when you look past the daily headlines of tweets and tantrums and #FakeNews)? Other than launching a trade war with China (and there are both pros and cons to his China policy), Trump himself doesn’t really have tangible legislative accomplishments. One of the most enduring legacies of his administration will be the wave of conservative judges installed under his tenure. But that was all Mitch McConnell, not Trump. Trump’s ballyhooed budget cuts? Congress has batted them down at every turn and almost none have materialized. The one thing congressional Republicans did do is enact major tax reform that piled onto the national debt (which the party only seems oddly obsessed with when the other party is in power). Will tax reform ultimately help anyone other than large corporations? The evidence so far is slim.

Beyond that, what legislative record does Trump have that he himself spearheaded? Not much. To be sure, some of that is because of Democratic opposition, but Trump missed so many golden opportunities. If he’d been consistent in what he actually wanted and made an effort to talk to Democrats, he had a real chance at passing a significant infrastructure bill and sweeping gun reform.

If he had tried to learn a smidge about how the meat-grinder of legislating actually works, he could’ve pushed a lot more GOP priorities through Congress during the first two years of his administration. He had pull establishment figures like McConnell didn’t, but he wasn’t focused enough to flex it. He also didn’t bother to learn about legislating in part because of the belief that he already knows everything anyway, but also because of the attitude that has infected a growing number of extreme voters on both the left and right: The system is bad so why even deal with it?

Trump wanted to throw the bums out and clean up the swamp. Instead he brought on a bunch of billionaires tainted by allegations of all sorts of swampy behavior. In the annals of history, the levels of unabashed corruption and personal enrichment under this president will be one for the record books.

Likewise, many die-hard Bernie fans are itching to throw the bums out. I get it. Politics is always in need of a healthy infusion of fresh blood. But we still need the bums. We still need the people who have spent a lifetime dedicated to figuring out how the system works and making it work to their advantage. We still need the “establishment” types like Biden and his Senate Republican counterparts who spent years haggling and compromising because they realized that getting something is better than getting nothing. Ask McConnell. He gets it.

Experience in politics is, in my opinion, a good thing, not some kind of Scarlett letter. When George W. Bush won the presidency, many Americans said they voted for him because he’s the kind of guy they could picture having a beer with.

Yeah, that’s great and all, but would you trust your kids’ college fund or your retirement savings with an investment planner who had no actual experience in investing? All because you could have a beer with him and the other guys had investment experience? Probably not. When you vote in a guy with no political experience, you get an Iraq War.

Or you get a lot of hot air — largely in the form of a steady stream of incoherent and untruthful Tweets — while squandering a prime opportunity to form and enact an actual legislative agenda.

Bernie, of course, had a bold agenda. But he had not clear path to enact it.

I’ve always believed that change is perfectly possible without a wholesale revolution. Experience, civility, compromise, moderation are long-lost art form, and that’s self-destructive. They get things done — just not in a splashy way that fits with today’s era of polarized social media and insta-headlines.

We are living in a time of profound change — and problems. Whatever happens in November (and anyone who tells you they know what will happen is lying to you and themselves), I hope we wind up with a leader who has a basic grasp of those problems. Or who is humble enough to attempt to understand them. Who doesn’t spin fanciful lies and conspiracy theories that only sow division and hate. Who’s upfront about the sacrifices and costs required to tackle these problems. Who’s experienced in working the system and who’s level-headed enough to reach out to the other side to fix our problems.

As to whether that hope turns into reality — well, let’s just say, no matter what happens, I’ll still have plenty to write about in future blogs 😉







Bridging the Mask Divide

It was one of the more striking patterns I noticed as coronavirus spread around the globe: In some countries, you rarely saw a person walking around outside without a mask covering their faces. In other countries, you rarely someone with it.

Up until recently, the United States belonged in that latter category. But after months of insisting masks weren’t necessary for the general public, the Trump administration reversed course last week and recommended that the public wear cloth masks to slow the spread of the virus.

To some experts, it was an overdue course correction. Masks have long been widely worn throughout East Asia to limit the spread of viruses such as the flu. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, South Korea launched an aggressive campaign to regularly get masks out to each of its 51 million inhabitants. More recently, countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia have mandated that people wear masks when they go outside.

Some studies have shown that masks may provide the user with a modicum of protection. At a minimum, they’re better than nothing. More importantly, however, masks may be effective in protecting other people if the user is asymptomatic — and according to some estimates, up to 20% of people with coronavirus exhibit mild to no symptoms — because masks have been shown to prevent the spread of droplets that infect others.

But the Trump administration had good reason for not mandating the widespread use of masks: The country was (and still is) woefully short on them, leaving front-line medical workers scrambling for protection. If the public began hoarding surgical masks, it could leave doctors and nurses even more vulnerable to the virus.

But the problem is that this wasn’t always the reasoning given by officials. For example, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned that, “You can increase your risk of getting it by wearing a mask if you are not a health care provider.”

Why? Because theoretically you might be more likely to touch your face to adjust the mask. Other officials warned that people with masks may let their guards down and not adhere to other precautionary measures like social distancing.

While those concerns are valid, they also caused confusion among people who would see citizens of other countries openly wearing masks in public (The Atlantic has a great piece on the debate over masks here).

In hindsight, it would’ve been better if the administration had made it clear that the main reason for not recommending masks for the general public was to protect medical workers. It also could’ve easily advised people to consider cloth masks much sooner.

[UPDATE: According to a scoop from Axios, “Top Trump administration officials had been developing a plan to give cloth masks to huge numbers of Americans, but the idea lost traction amid heavy internal skepticism.”

On the one hand, at least that shows they recognized the usefulness of cloth masks. On the other, it also shows that the decision to announce their usefulness could’ve been done sooner. But the opposition to the idea of giving out cloth masks to Americans is understandable given the sheer logistics of such a massive endeavor.]


After all, the recent recommendation has not caused a run on masks. Instead, it’s resulted in people getting pretty creative when it comes to fashioning their do-it-yourself masks. (Who knew sewing would pay off in a pandemic?)

Granted, there has been a lot of confusion about what kind of homemade masks are most effective (The Washington Post has a good breakdown here). There’s no hard proof on what works best and experts still fear that DIY masks may give people a false sense of security.

But those fears overlook the growing consensus that even homemade fabric masks can contribute to slowing the rate of transmission.

There’s obviously still so much we don’t know about coronavirus, and we’ll be studying aspects of the pandemic — including the use of masks — for years to come.

Perhaps the bigger takeaway here is rethinking the cultural taboo in the West associated with wearing masks in public. In East Asia, wearing a mask when you’re sick is considered a courtesy and an admirable trait. It’s also just common sense that if you want to protect yourself from viruses, you cover your face.

Maybe if we ever reach the point where we’re better prepared with a copious supply of surgical masks for the next inevitable health crisis, we can re-examine our aversion to masks and the social stigma attached to wearing them in public. If anything, coronavirus has been a powerful reminder that we need to re-examine our assumptions and complacency when it comes to public health.

Covid-19 Puts Clampdown on Protests

The year 2019 was marked by historic protests in countries as diverse as Chile, Sudan, Iraq, Hong Kong, India, Algeria and Iran. The year 2020 saw the coronavirus pandemic stamp out all mass gatherings. So what does this portend for the democratic movements that seem to have lost their momentum and relevance in an age of Covid-19?

A recent commentary by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) theorizes that those mass protests — the culmination of a decade of grievances — will resurface once the pandemic ebbs.

In fact, “the Covid-19 crisis and its growing economic fallout have further illuminated many of the core grievances that drove mass protests over the past decade,” wrote CSIS’s Samuel Brannen. “It is important to note that the global uptick in protests in the last 10 years appears in many cases to have been rooted in the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, which exacerbated lack of economic opportunity and dissatisfaction with governments…. With social distancing and quarantine measures just beginning, divisions between workforces and households are being laid bare.”

Brannen notes that in Hong Kong, perhaps the most famous of the 2019 uprisings, a recent poll found that “70 percent of respondents credited the people of Hong Kong and not the government for the success,” suggesting that protests will resume despite the fact that the territory was relatively successful in containing the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition, many experts say the surveillance tactics that countries like China and even democratic states like South Korea employed to track the virus won’t go away just because the virus does.

“Health and law enforcement authorities are understandably eager to employ every tool at their disposal to try to hinder the virus — even as the surveillance efforts threaten to alter the precarious balance between public safety and personal privacy on a global scale,” wrote Natasha Singer and Choe-Sang Hun in March 23 article for The New York Times.

“Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later. It is a lesson Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say,” they add.

Yet like the 9/11 surveillance aftermath, if the tactics used to combat coronavirus — such as analyzing location data on people’s cell phones — succeed in curbing the crisis, it remains to be seen just how loud the uproar will be over privacy concerns. Like the sweeping post-9/11 counter-terrorism measures that the U.S. implemented, people may view increased health surveillance as a necessary evil to stay safe.

After all, the debate over online privacy only erupted on a large scale after Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and, more recently, the wave of privacy breaches at companies and social media giants like Facebook.

And we’re nowhere near coming to a resolution over how to protect privacy in an age of social media. Imagine how much coronavirus will complicate that debate.

Another wrinkle will be how successful authoritarian (and democratic) states are in using their surveillance powers to stop the outbreak. China may be fudging the number of coronavirus cases it has, but it has undeniably “flattened the curve.” If the Chinese see their country reopen for business and the number of fatalities drop to zero, while the outbreak ravages other countries like the U.S., are they likely to start questioning the government’s use of their smartphone data? Again, it’s all about the tradeoff for some people.

The problem is that the public reaction very much hinges on how effective a government’s aggressive new surveillance measures are in containing the fallout of coronavirus.

It’s a question that — like the controversy over 9/11 security reforms — will loom for a long time to come.

As Carrie Cordero and Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security put in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed: “Amid today’s global pandemic, key technology companies are in talks with federal and state governments about employing their tools against Covid-19…. All this and more, we hope, will help to stop the virus in its tracks, save lives and help Americans get back to normal. But such efforts—done in haste—also raise searching questions about the balance between privacy and public health. Decisions being made on the fly by governments, private firms and individuals will change the country’s digital social contract for years to come.”

Covid-19 Opportunity in Algeria?

There was an interesting recent article by Dr. Vish Sakthivel for the Middle East Institute (MEI) exploring whether the Hirak social movement that has consumed the streets of Algeria over the last year could — with the right strategy — can take advantage of the coronavirus lockdown to better organize itself and ultimately assert more power in the beleaguered North African nation.

Protests erupted after the ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, tried to run for a fifth term after 20 years in office. Bouteflika, who shepherded Algeria through a bloody civil war, was ousted and the military elite took power. While the ruling government has made efforts to crack down on corruption, protesters say it still represents the old guard and needs to be completely chucked out.

But the protest movement has largely remained rudderless because of a lack of leadership and direction. Sakthivel, a nonresident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argues that the coronavirus pandemic, which has put a stop to the weekly street protests, could provide a political opening for the activists to regroup and strengthen their cause.

“With physical space unavailable for now, activists are taking to new domains, adapting established modes of action in the form of web- and balcony-based protests, dish-banging from windows, and doubling-down on social media communiques, with the intention of resuming physical occupation of the streets as quickly as possible,” Sakthivel wrote.

I doubt pot-banging and plans for more protests will accomplish much in the near term. To effect real change, it seems as if the protesters will need to establish a hierarchy and clear leadership that can engage the government in dialogue — much like Sudanese protesters did after the ouster of the country’s longtime president, Omar al-Bashir.

And if the regime fails to prepare for the pandemic, resulting in a surge of cases, the chaos could lend momentum to the Hirak movement — but only if it seized the moment by formulating a clear set of demands and plans for a democratic transition.

Protests are critical. But at some point, plans are even more critical.