What was Putin thinking?

Vladimir Putin has been called many things over the years, most of it unflattering, but the Russian strongman has rarely been described as dumb. Ukraine appears to have changed that.

Putin’s decision to invade a sovereign country to reconstitute some sort of sphere of influence has been a stunning blow to the post-World War II rules-based international order. It was also strategically stupid.

Looking at it from the cold hard logic of a foreign policy realist lens, Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine doesn’t make much sense. What some observers, myself included, thought he might do is a Crimea 2.0.

Assuming the West didn’t appease his demands to shut Ukraine out of NATO and significantly reduce the security bloc’s footprints on Russia’s borders — all nonstarters — I thought Putin would take the path of least resistance. That’s precisely what it looked he was doing when he anointed the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk in the separatist-claimed eastern territory of Donbas.

From there, his next steps seemed clear: Expand outward from the areas held by Russian-backed rebels to seize a larger chunk of Donbas. This of course would’ve involved fighting Ukrainian troops, but on a battleground that’s already been laid out since 2014 — as opposed to taking on an entire country.

Eventually, if Putin captured a larger swath of the east, he would settle into yet another Georgian-style frozen conflict and weather whatever sanctions the West threw his way, perhaps assuming they’d be akin to what was slapped on him when he invaded Crimea.

Then, it’s not hard to envision Putin’s long-term strategy: After the uproar settled and Russia’s economy stabilized, he might’ve launched another incursion to unite the rebel-held territory in the east with Crimea by grabbing the slice of land along the Sea of Azov, possibly extending all the way to Odessa, creating a sizeable security zone in the south. It wouldn’t have been the size he wanted — an entire country — but it would’ve given Putin the buffer he’s long sought against NATO expansion.

In the meantime, he would’ve undoubtedly continued his efforts to steer Ukraine away from the West through economic pressure, cyber attacks and other tactics.

This type of “minor” incursion — as President Joe Biden accidentally hinted at — would’ve been costly for Russia, but well worth it in terms of the endgame.

Gaming out these kinds of realpolitik scenarios is admittedly a heartless exercise: It omits the casualties, destruction and moral repugnancy that come with trying to steal part of a country. And perhaps that’s why Putin’s brazen assault is, despite all the signs it was going to happen, still somewhat shocking.  

Yes, Russia has long had legitimate security concerns about NATO expansion along its borders — and the U.S. and EU only seemed to listen to those concerns when Putin threatened war.

But I suspect I’m not the only one who couldn’t imagine that even a macho authoritarian like Putin would have such a wanton disregard for the consequences of an invasion, including the possibility of triggering a third World War.

The Ukrainian Embassy in D.C. released this photo of a purported Russian airstrike in the city of Zhytomyr on March 1 that it says damaged 10 homes and killed at least two people.

The Biden administration clearly grasped the possibility and spent months sounding the alarm despite the risk of being the boy who cried wolf.

The White House even took the unusual step of revealing intelligence that detailed Putin’s plans to undercut his ability to spread misinformation and throw him off balance.

Ultimately, though, the Russian president did exactly what Biden warned he was planning to do all along: a full-scale invasion.

Obviously no one other than Putin knows what he’s thinking, but it’s safe to assume he didn’t expect his plans to backfire so spectacularly.

To the surprise of many, Ukrainians have put up a valiant fight against Moscow’s onslaught. Their president, Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian dismissed as a joke just days before Putin invaded, has become an international hero.

This resistance, despite being outnumbered and outgunned, is not only a testament to the Ukrainian people, it has also exposed serious shortcomings in Moscow’s military — weaknesses other nations will study for years to come.

Russia, however, still has military superiority and will likely topple the Ukrainian government, or raze cities to the ground trying. Zelensky may not make it out alive. But now there’s almost zero chance that a puppet regime installed by Moscow will be accepted by the Ukrainian people, or that a Russian occupation won’t be met with a fierce insurgency designed to drain the fight out of Moscow.

Putin will not be able to hold the country without the kind of bloodshed that will turn Russians’ stomachs — and may finally turn them against their president.

Again, it’s surprising that Putin of all people underestimated the slippery slope of occupation after seeing what happened in Afghanistan, first to the Soviets and then to the Americans.

Fiona Hill, one of the country’s top Russia experts, suggested to POLITICO Magazine that Putin doesn’t necessarily want to occupy the country, but divide it:

He’s looked at Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and other places where there’s a division of the country between the officially sanctioned forces on the one hand, and the rebel forces on the other. That’s something that Putin could definitely live with — a fractured, shattered Ukraine with different bits being in different statuses.

But that’s predicated on the notion that there are competing rebel forces to begin with. Ukraine is not Libya. It only has Moscow-backed separatists in the east, and they don’t have enough local support to sustain a wide-scale war without Russian troops.

For years, Russia did enjoy support among Ukrainians who weren’t pro-EU. Perhaps that’s why Putin thought invading Ukraine would be a cakewalk. But he squandered any goodwill he may have had and today Ukrainians are more united than ever.

Putin’s also managed to do in a week what his opponents couldn’t do for years: He’s become a global pariah who resuscitated NATO, got its members to start taking their own defense more seriously and restored America’s global standing.

Neutral Finland and Sweden have floated the idea of joining NATO. Tax-lax Switzerland is freezing Russian assets. Spendthrift Germany bumped its defense spending by $100 billion and for the first time since World War II is exporting arms to a conflict zone. The EU has banned Russian planes from its airspace. Even Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Putin’s illiberal compatriot, isn’t coming to his aid.

This united trans-Atlantic front is a vindication of Biden’s quiet diplomacy and his efforts to rebuild U.S.-EU ties after the Trump era.

Despite incessant calls in Congress to sanction the Nordstream II pipeline, Biden avoided alienating Germany, his most important EU ally, which eventually decided to shutter the gas pipeline on its own. He also ignored Republican calls to pre-emptively sanction Putin, giving the Europeans breathing room to sign off on punishing sanctions they may not have otherwise agreed to.

Today, there’s rare bipartisan unity on the Hill to flood Ukraine with military and humanitarian assistance, giving Biden a much-needed political boost while laying bare fractures within the GOP between establishment hawks and America First Trumpers like Sen. Josh Hawley (not to mention Trump himself, whose praise of Putin as “genius” made even his staunchest acolytes on the Hill cringe).

Biden, who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for years, is a Cold War-era Atlanticist. He’s in his element.

Perhaps because of that Cold War background, Biden has wisely ruled out putting U.S. troops in Ukraine — which would trigger a confrontation between the world’s two biggest nuclear-armed powers — while vowing to defend every inch of NATO territory. By acknowledging that America will only fight where her strategic interests are at stake, Biden has exhibited both muscle and restraint.

But he has not held back in unleashing the full force of America’s economic might with a barrage of sanctions unlike any the world has ever seen.

And unlike in 2014, when Moscow annexed Crimea, the White House has deftly cut off Russia’s access to the global financial system, preventing Putin from tapping into the $640 billion in foreign reserves he’d amassed to cushion Russia from future Western sanctions.

The sanctions have already taken a toll. Long-term, they could strangle Russia’s economy, alienating both the public — which largely tolerated Putin because he raised standards of living — and the oligarchs who form the backbone of Putin’s kleptocracy.

The West’s financial assault could be the death knell that finally brings down a dictator.

Yet as easy as it is to demonize Putin, it’s still important to consider his motivations. It may seem loathsome to admit given what he’s doing to Ukraine, but Putin had a point about NATO overreach.

You don’t need to be a foreign policy genius to understand that countries don’t want enemies at their gate. If a Russian-style security alliance had set up shop in Mexico or conducted naval exercises right off Norfolk, do we really think the United States would’ve looked the other way?

So why would we think Putin would be OK with the U.S. building a highly sensitive military installation in Poland that’s ostensibly aimed at thwarting missiles from Iran (more than 2,200 miles away) but whose own missiles are located less than 100 miles from the Russian border?

It was President George W. Bush who directed the Pentagon to build anti-Iran missile defense systems in Europe. It was also Bush — not exactly known for his stellar foreign policy decision-making — who in 2008 declared that Ukraine and Georgia should join NATO, trampling all over Putin’s red lines. It was a needless provocation because many members questioned the wisdom of admitting the two former Soviet states and their chances of joining were almost nil.

Since then, the U.S. and EU have ignored Putin’s repeated warnings about NATO’s eastward expansion, which are rooted in Russia’s long history of being invaded by adversaries.

That said, while Putin loves to talk about historical grievances, he doesn’t pay much attention to historical accuracy.  

He laments losing Poland and the Baltics, as if they were his to give away.

The situation in Ukraine is far more complex because it is historically and culturally intertwined with Russia.

In a 5,000-word treatise published in July, Putin declared that Ukraine and Russia are one country.

That probably came as a surprise to Ukrainians who have enjoyed 30 years of independence.

Putin also seems to forget that history is constantly in motion. What happened 1,000 years doesn’t exactly dictate national borders today. And the Soviet Union did not “allow” countries to exist. Communism collapsed, countries broke away and formed their own future.

Yet Putin has fully embraced his revanchist delusions of restoring Russia’s imperialist glory, displaying rare emotion on the subject of Ukraine and the West’s humiliation of Russia after the demise of the Soviet Union.

Perhaps these emotions clouded his judgment when he decided to start a war. Now the question is whether they will they lead him to start something even more catastrophic.

Putin has already put Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on high alert. Boasting about the country’s nuclear arsenal is not uncommon in Russian rhetoric, but it takes on a much more ominous tone in the midst of actual war.

Putin didn’t get the concessions he demanded before he invaded Ukraine. Now, he’s not getting the invasion he bargained for. Instead, he’s staring down a military quagmire and a tightening economic noose.

But the West shouldn’t relish Putin’s humiliation. A cornered animal is a dangerous one. Putin needs a face-saving off-ramp.

Yet it’s hard to see what the U.S. and EU could even offer him at this point. Some sort of neutral status for Ukraine? President Zelensky said he was willing to discuss it, but the more Russia bombs Ukrainian cities, the less its people will be willing to accept anything less than full control of their own destiny. Meanwhile, it doesn’t seem like Putin will accept anything short of total surrender.

That’s a recipe for a long, bloody and brutal conflict — the kind where no one wins.

Give Biden a break

President Biden has been slammed by just about everyone for not:

  • Ending a global pandemic.
  • Solving climate change.
  • Enacting comprehensive immigration reform, criminal justice reform and gun control.
  • Passing free education and health care for all.
  • Healing some of the worst racial tensions since the Civil Rights Movement.
  • Shoring up America’s battered democracy amid one party’s determination to tear it down.

That same party continues to block every attempt by the president to tackle these problems, then attacks him for not fixing them.

Biden is also expected to have done all of this during his first year in office, in the midst of a pandemic unlike anything the world has ever seen, with a razor-thin majority in Congress where two Democrats can singlehandedly hold up their party’s entire agenda.

He’d have an easier time convincing Donald Trump he lost the election.

Now, let’s look at what has been done during Biden’s first year:

  • Averted an economic catastrophe by passing $1.9 trillion in COVID relief — without any Republican backing, unlike the previous $3 trillion in COVID relief under former President Trump that Democrats supported.
  • Fully vaccinated more than 200 million Americans.
  • Extended health insurance to an additional 5 million Americans.
  • Passed a bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure package that provides the biggest infusion of new infrastructure investment since Dwight D. Eisenhower built America’s highway system.
  • Ended the war in Afghanistan.
  • Rejoined the Paris climate accords.
  • Appointed one of the most diverse group of federal judges and Cabinet members in history.
  • Lifted the debt ceiling without Republican help.
  • Cut child poverty in half.
  • U.S. companies enjoyed the largest profit margins since 1950.
  • Added 6.4 million jobs, the biggest single-year jump in U.S. history.
  • Unemployment dropped from 6.2% when Biden took office to 3.9%, a historic single-year drop.
  • Largest wage growth in two decades.
  • Overall economic growth of nearly 6% for 2021 and expected growth of around 4% in 2022, the largest of any country in the world.

Yet you wouldn’t know any of this by reading the drumbeat of apocalyptic headlines: “Biden’s epic failures,” “Joe Biden’s 6 Biggest Failures During His First Year as President,” “How the Biden Administration Lost Its Way,” among many others.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the House Democratic Caucus meeting to provide updates about the Build Back Better agenda and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal on Oct. 28, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)

Yes, Biden’s made plenty of mistakes, and the White House’s rosy economic figures gloss over darker trends. Notably, inflation is soaring and outstripping wage gains. But it’s not the result of the traditional economic forces that we saw in the 1980s. Rather, it’s a creation of the pandemic. (Check out The New York Times’ excellent illustration of supply chain dynamics and The Washington Post’s explainer on empty store shelves for more).

When coronavirus cases go down, inflation will eventually follow. That’s a crude, oversimplified way of looking at it, but that’s what will happen when supply catches up to demand.

Polls and process news coverage are snapshots of what people are experiencing in the moment. They have some worth in the short term, but not much in the long term.

Higher prices at the pump always drive down a president’s approval ratings, even though oil is a globally traded commodity over which presidents have little control.

But if those prices go down, along with inflation, omicron peters out and life resumes, every negative headline and poll will become moot a few months from now.

Incidentally, a lot of these negative headlines aren’t from conservative outlets. Trumpers should actually try reading fake news because it’s been among Biden’s fiercest critics, painting his presidency as an unmitigated disaster because he hasn’t fulfilled unrealistic expectations, while treating his accomplishments as an afterthought.

Another afterthought that’s hardly mentioned because it’s such a given is GOP obstructionism. The media dwells on Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for thwarting parts of Biden’s agenda, while glossing over the fact that the entire Republican Party is united in ensuring Biden fails, even when their interests align.

Biden finally admitted as much at his one-year press conference: “I honest to God don’t know what they’re for.”

Republicans don’t need to be “for” anything because they know that being against everything benefits them at the ballot box.

It’s a strategy perfected by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell: Block anything the opposing party does, sit back and watch as they struggle to solve problems while offering zero ideas of your own (why open yourself up to criticism?), then blame them for everything when nothing gets done.

Or take credit for legislation you tried to stop (see: COVID assistance and infrastructure).

Either way, obstructionism wins.

The wrong way on voting rights

There’s one issue where Republicans are not only obstructing legislation, they’re the reason for it in the first place: voting rights.

Democrats’ recent failure to pass voting rights reform to counter a wave of GOP efforts to make voting harder illustrates the dangers of forcing a president out on a limb for a cause over which he has little control — and then leaving him out to dry.

Let’s start with the obvious: Voting rights reform was never going to happen because 10 Senate Republicans were never going to support it.

And eliminating the filibuster to get around that reality was never going to happen because Manchin and Sinema were never going to support that. (And don’t kid yourself, “carveouts” or bringing back the “talking filibuster” are just slippery slopes to abolishing the filibuster).

If you didn’t understand that, you’ve been deaf, dumb and blind to everything Manchin and Sinema have been telegraphing for months.

Yet some civil rights activists directed their ire onto Biden, snubbing his speech in Atlanta on Jan. 11.

It was a show of disrespect toward a president who has their backs — and a misunderstanding of his power.

“We’ve seen what’s possible when President Biden uses the full weight of his office to deliver for bridges, and now we need to see him do the same for voting rights,” Martin Luther King III and his wife said in a statement

With all due respect to the King family, there’s a simple reason Biden pushed infrastructure last year: He had the votes on Capitol Hill to deliver it.

Biden could talk about voting rights reform until his voice gives out, but he’s not going to change the political calculus of members of Congress who oppose it. If anything, presidents dig themselves into deeper holes by publicly making promises they can’t keep.

Other civil rights activists blasted Biden for too much talk and no action. Or for “dillydallying.” What dillydallying? He was a tad busy last year. Besides, do we think Republicans would’ve done a 180 on voting rights if only Biden had made his speech in July instead of January? And what action? He’s not some Manchema whisperer. Both senators have been adamant they won’t budge on the filibuster, which means any legislation is stuck.

That’s not to say Biden hasn’t tried. He revealed as much in his speech when he said: “I’ve been having these quiet conversations with members of Congress for the last two months.” He then thundered: “I’m tired of being quiet.”

The moment revealed two things: One, Biden cares about the issue. After all, his own presidency started off with a mob of delusional Trump supporters attacking Congress to prevent him from taking office.

Two, Biden understood that the only realistic chance to enact voting rights reform was to win over Manchin and Sinema — quietly, behind the scenes. We’ve seen how Manchin reacts to being called out in public. Look no further than the implosion of the Build Back Better Act.

The filibuster’s double edge

The outreach didn’t work, and perhaps that’s for the best.

As much as progressives are loath to admit it, Manchin and Sinema have a point that it’s not in Democrats’ interest to nix the filibuster because it’s their safeguard in a Senate that’s structurally lopsided to favor Republicans.

Just consider the sobering statistic that in the current “narrowly” divided Senate, 50 Democrats actually represent 40 million more Americans than 50 Republicans do.

This imbalance will only grow as more people leave red rural areas to live in bluer urban centers but representation doesn’t shift in the Senate, where the Founding Fathers gave sparsely populated states outsize power as a way of protecting the minority.

Of course, they never envisioned that today’s GOP would warp the institution so that the minority could hold the majority hostage, but the Senate’s fundamentals are baked into the Constitution.

Either amend the Constitution — good luck getting Republicans to commit political suicide — or nuke the filibuster, but that will come back to bite Democrats when the Senate invariably switches hands.

The late Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid found himself in this predicament when Republicans were abusing the filibuster to block President Obama’s nominees. In 2013, he went nuclear and changed the rules to allow Senate confirmation of executive branch and judicial nominees by a simple majority vote, with the exception of Supreme Court nominees.

Reid did not have much of a choice, but his decision had serious repercussions when in 2017, McConnell, then Senate majority leader, green-lit the confirmation of Supreme Court nominees by a simple majority.

The result: a 6-3 conservative majority that is far to the right of public opinion on most social issues.

Any “carveout” for voting rights will similarly backfire when Republicans exact revenge — not only by undoing voting rights legislation, but enacting a slew of conservative bills.

We already saw a preview of this when McConnell announced that if Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer lowered the threshold to start debate from 60 votes to 50, he’d immediately force Democrats to take politically tough votes on issues such as the Keystone XL pipeline, in-person learning and so-called immigrant “sanctuary cities.”

I suspect Schumer is secretly relieved the measure to change Senate rules failed — as were probably some moderate Democrats who hid behind Manchin and Sinema’s opposition.

So why the elaborate exercise of holding votes on election reform and rules changes that was destined to fail?

It wasn’t just so members could go on the record (although getting 48 Democrats to vote for changing Senate rules is no small feat — and gives Schumer a solid base to pass future reforms if he gets a slightly larger majority).

The main reason: Democratic leaders had no choice. The base would’ve excoriated them if they didn’t address voting rights.

Leadership had to get the doomed votes out of the way so they could move on to the strategy that actually has a chance of succeeding: grassroots efforts to get more Democrats elected — from county election boards to state legislatures all the way to the Senate.

After all, whether it’s voting rights, health care, education, immigration, climate change, gun control — you name it — the power rests with Sinema and Manchin in a 50-50 Senate.

The solution? Oust them or pick up two seats.

Sen. Bernie Sanders’ call to mount a primary challenge against Manchin is a bit fanciful considering Trump won West Virginia by 40 percentage points, but Sinema is certainly vulnerable to a challenge.

Democrats should tread carefully, though, because she could avoid a primary by campaigning as an independent, and Arizona, which is still a purple state, tends to reward independents.

But there are a slew of competitive Senate races in other states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia where Democratic activists should focus their energy, tapping into the base’s frustration to get out the vote.

Not easy but not insurmountable

It won’t be easy. Republicans are probably the only political entity in the world — outside of dictatorships — who want to make voting harder. Every other democracy tries to make it easier through mail-in voting, making election day a holiday, etc.

But since the 2020 election, 19 Republican-led states have enacted voting restrictions under the guise of electoral fraud, which they’ve been trying to uncover since the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They have yet to find a whiff of it. What they did unearth in the 2020 election was a stench of lies so ridiculous that even Trump-appointed judges eviscerated Trump supporters’ claims of fraud.

But while voting restrictions make it harder for minorities in particular to access the ballot box, they don’t make it impossible — and Democrats need to stop conflating convenience with access. Early voting and absentee voting will still exist in most places. Polling places will still be open after work.

Republicans aren’t worried about these laws because their base is energized — and reliable. Democratic voters are less consistent and the base has grown disillusioned with Biden (some expected him to perform miracles) and with Democratic infighting (even though GOP obstructionism is the bigger problem).

Democrats need to take a page from Republicans in galvanizing their base. This is how the party beat the odds in 2020 to capture the Senate — through the dogged efforts of activists like Stacey Abrams in Georgia, where Democrats picked up two critical Senate seats.

They’ll need to redouble their efforts in 2022 to pick up enough seats to override Manchin and Sinema — or at least keep the Senate in Democratic hands as a guardrail against what’s likely to be a Republican takeover of the House.

While activists work the trenches, they’re still pushing for change at the top through executive orders, which Biden seems receptive to, and more aggressive Justice Department investigations into GOP voting laws.

But executive orders, not matter how strong, are Band-Aids that can be ripped off when the other party comes to power, and the Justice Department is an independent entity that doesn’t automatically bow to political pressure.

Pandemic limits

The pandemic is a prime illustration of how Biden’s presidential powers can be constrained by his own government.

On Jan. 21, a Trump-appointed federal judge in Texas blocked Biden from enforcing a vaccine mandate for federal workers. Earlier, the Supreme Court gutted the most powerful weapon in Biden’s arsenal by blocking his vaccine-or-test mandate for private businesses with 100 or more employees.

It doesn’t leave Biden with many options. Vaccine mandates are controversial but have been shown to work. Many (not all) anti-vaxxers are Republicans who’d rather die than get the shot. (And plenty do: Republicans account for 60% of adults who remain unvaccinated, compared to 17% for Democrats, and are three times more likely than Democrats to die of COVID.)

Republicans are still rebelling against the simple but effective act of wearing a mask, and Americans in general are over lockdowns.

Yet you have to love the chutzpah of GOP governors like Ron DeSantis of Florida who rail against Biden for not stopping the pandemic — while DeSantis allows up to 1 million coronavirus tests expire, fights against vaccine mandates and even financially punishes school districts that dare to require masks.

Yes, Biden dropped the ball on testing and is only now playing catch-up. He didn’t anticipate a variant like omicron, but he should’ve.

At the same time, while Biden gets flak for prematurely declaring the country to be nearly COVID-free last July, can you really fault him for not predicting that 40% of the country would be so willfully ignorant as to turn down vaccines that could’ve finally put an end to this nightmare?

Likewise, we can easily fault the CDC for providing guidelines that are about as clear as trying to read a road map in Mandarin. But behind the missteps are humans working seven days a week scrambling to figure out a new and fast-changing virus. There’s a difference between mistakes and malice.

What is inexcusable is how Trump singlehandedly politicized the best defense we had against the coronavirus in 2020: masks (which he belittled even after he contracted COVID himself). That one politically self-serving act needlessly caused untold numbers of Americans to die — thousands, possibly even tens of thousands according to some studies. It ranks as one of the most unforgivable sins of his presidency.

BBB Breakup

Lastly, the current talk over breaking up Biden’s Build Back Better Act after Manchin torpedoed it also reflects a certain ignorance of how government works — even among lawmakers.

The $1.8 trillion package focusing on health care, education and climate change can only pass via budget reconciliation, which bypasses the Republican filibuster by only requiring Democratic votes.

But there are lots of rules attached to reconciliation, and it can only be used sparingly.

House Majority Leader Nancy Pelosi pointed this out: “This is a reconciliation bill.So when people say, ‘let’s divide it up,’ they don’t understand the process.”

It’s tempting to want to preserve the politically popular parts of the bill that Manchin opposes, such as child care and lowering drug costs. But the minute those parts become stand-alone bills, they are subject to the regular and impossible-to-overcome 60-vote threshold.

Lawmakers are also overlooking the roadblock that derailed BBB in the first place: Manchin, who’s already said negotiations on a reworked package would have to start from scratch.

After months of teasing the White House, Manchin is worse than an Instagram influencer trying to strike the right selfie pose. But again, Biden’s hands are tied.

That leaves Democrats with one viable path forward, which Pelosi laid out and POLITICO Playbook summed up:

Democrats will probably take the ideas Sen. JOE MANCHIN (D-W.Va.) has signaled he’s willing to accept — $500 billion in climate funding, universal Pre-K and a permanent fix for the Affordable Care Act — and try to pass that via the fast-tracking budget process that enables the Senate to avoid a filibuster. 

It will be a much smaller “chunk” of BBB. Pelosi even acknowledged that Democrats “may have to rename” the bill.

Senior Democratic aides tell us that then — and likely only then — would the party move to try to pass their other axed portions of BBB. But since they have no chance of getting to Biden’s desk, those will effectively be turned into messaging bills that front-liners can try to run on in 2022, and blame Republicans for blocking.

Will it work? The odds are not in Democrats’ favor.

Republicans have an inherent advantage not only in the Senate, but also in the House thanks to years of gerrymandering — and that’s even before they enacted dozens of laws to make voting harder for Democrats.

Even if Democrats do win, they will have to endure countless recounts and conspiracy theories propagated by the Big Lie.

It’s amazing to think that Democrats never questioned the integrity of American elections even when 3 million more Americans voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump. But after Trump lost by 7 million votes, the Republican Party made it normal to refuse to accept the results of an election — even launch a violent insurrection — if you don’t like them.

This will be the battle moving forward in every election — not to mention that Democrats are heading into a midterm election, where historically voters tend to punish the party in power, regardless of accomplishments.

Democrats are still haunted by the 2010 shellacking after they passed Obamacare. Biden was vice president then. He no doubt remembers it, too, but he also remembers that Barack Obama went on to win a second term and today ranks as one of the most popular presidents in modern history.

Biden would be getting ahead of himself if he thinks he’ll follow Obama’s path, but his naysayers are getting ahead of themselves by predicting his political demise. It’s only been one year of a four-year presidency. As Biden himself rightly pointed out during his one-year anniversary press conference: “Can you think of any other president who has done as much in one year?”

D.C. Déjà Vu: Politics and Parties

What’s that in the air? Cicadas? Yes — that’s them making a kamikaze dive bomb toward your car. Humidity? Yes — remember, D.C. is a literal swamp. Political maneuvering and recriminations on the Hill? A given.

But on a brighter note, D.C. is emerging from its pandemic hibernation as restaurants, museums, hotels and stores slowly come back to life.

That means receptions and in-person networking are back as well.

The city’s social circuit often gets a bad rap, and while it can at times be mind-numbingly superficial, it also has its virtues — namely bringing people together in a casual setting to break the polarization that’s become so embedded in our lives.

And while everyone mocks that quintessential D.C. cocktail question — “what do you do?” — I’ll admit that I like asking it. Why? Because people in this town do all kinds of things.

Biophysicists, stay-at-home mom (and dad) bloggers, Pilates studio owners, cyber-security specialists, interns for local sports team — you name it. This town is not just politicians, lobbyists and the media.

Even among those politicians, lobbyists and journalists, you’ll find fascinating back stories (the number of former Peace Corps volunteers in this town always impresses me). And now, the question is even more interesting because so many of us have made pandemic career pivots.

The Brits, Danes, Irish and Italians are among the embassies that have hosted in-person receptions recently. The Washington Ballet held a (non-virtual) gala. Plenty of restaurants and hotels are showing off post-pandemic makeovers.

What does all this mean? Photos, of course!

Because, let’s face it, we all like seeing pictures of people at parties.

So I thought I’d deviate from the usual format and feature some photos of me venturing out for the first time since the pandemic began.

But because this is a political blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t offer my breakdown on the debate du jour: President Biden’s infrastructure roller-coaster. (If you just want to see photos, now’s the time to scroll to the bottom.)

The Infrastructure Two-Step
After weeks of talks between Republicans and the White House failed to produce a bipartisan deal on President Biden’s infrastructure plan, the media was quick to pronounce the effort dead.

Now that a bipartisan group of 20 senators has announced its own framework, the media has been quick to declare the talks resurrected, while also framing Biden’s next move as a binary choice between taking the bipartisan deal or going it alone via budget reconciliation, which would only require 51 Democratic votes in the Senate as opposed to 60.

None is accurate.

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo take off their masks and join a group of Republican senators, led by Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, during infrastructure talks on May 13 at the Oval Office. (Official White House photo by Adam Schultz)

While the latest breakthrough in the Senate does put more pressure on the president, the fundamentals haven’t changed: Biden is going to pursue a parallel track of bipartisan talks and, if those fail, he’ll turn to reconciliation.

And “failure” could be a victory for Biden if it guarantees every single Democratic senator — we’re looking at you Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema — is on board with reconciliation, which would keep the president’s American Jobs Plan largely intact. That in turn could blunt progressive opposition in the House to a slimmed-down bipartisan bill.

The alternative is passing that slimmed-down bipartisan bill, which focuses on “hard” infrastructure and not other Democratic priorities like climate change, which in turn would likely doom its chances in the House.

The only hope then for the American Jobs Plan would be that Manchin, Sinema and other centrist Democrats promise to support Biden’s more progressive American Families Plan, ensuring its passage through reconciliation. That’s a tall order for a mammoth bill that hasn’t even been written yet.

That’s why my suspicion is that Biden, despite his bipartisan instincts, is quietly hoping the Senate talks collapse.

Give the Man Some Credit
We’ve heard ad nauseam that Biden is an old-school dealmaker who seeks political consensus. But he’s often not given credit for being a shrewd negotiator (in part perhaps of his age and the perception that he’s not as sharp as he used to be).

Do we really think Biden is somehow blind to the fact that Republicans are not about to gut the 2017 corporate tax cuts — their signature legislative achievement under Donald Trump — to pay for a multi-trillion-dollar liberal agenda that would boost the popularity of a Democratic president?

Or do we really think Biden is just now waking up to the fact that Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have embraced a policy of obstructionism since at least the Obama years?

Let’s not forget this man was literally in the room when Obama spent months cajoling and compromising with Republicans to get them on board with his Affordable Care Act — only to have McConnell torpedo the whole thing.

Even though 11 Republicans have so far co-signed on the latest Senate infrastructure proposal, McConnell is still likely calculating that the bill will die in the House (more on that later).

Biden is well aware of this — and the main hurdles:

  • Agreeing on spending levels
  • Agreeing on how to pay for them
  • Agreeing on what counts as “infrastructure”

Meeting in the Middle on New Spending
On the first issue, spending levels, Republicans and the White House have actually made progress since a first round of talks, led by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), collapsed in early June.

Biden initially called for $2.3 trillion in infrastructure spending, eventually going down to $1.7 trillion.

Capito came back with a counteroffer of $978 billion — but only about $300 billion of it constituted new spending on top of current spending levels, whereas Biden wanted roughly $1 trillion in new spending. The divide was too far to bridge and the talks ended.

Shortly afterward, though, a Group of 10 (five Democrats and five Republicans) emerged with a number more in the line with the White House’s math: $974 billion in infrastructure spending over five years (about $1.2 trillion over eight years) — that includes nearly $600 billion in new spending.

That group quickly swelled to 20, a more promising iteration because it could deliver the 10 Republican votes needed to exceed the 60-vote filibuster threshold in the Senate. This Group of 20 has released a statement supporting $1.2 trillion in spending, although the specifics are still being ironed out. (There’s also a Problem Solvers Caucus in the House, but let’s stick to the Senate for now.)

Red Lines and Roadblocks
Regardless, all of these groupings will run up against the same wall: how to pay for everything.

Biden has pledged to offset the spending so as not to increase the deficit. He’s also vowed not to raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000.

That means he needs a corporate tax hike. Biden wants to raise that rate from the current 21% to 28%, although he’s signaled he’s open to 25%. (As an alternative, the president suggested a 15% corporate minimum tax, but that’s just a tax increase by another name.)

But touching corporate taxes — which were slashed from 35% in the 2017 tax cuts — is a red line for Republicans.

The bipartisan Senate grouping has floated alternative pay-fors. POLITICO obtained a leaked draft of the basic proposals:

Infrastructure financing authority to leverage private investment
Public-private partnerships, private activity bonds and asset recycling
Direct-pay municipal bonds for infrastructure investment
Reduce the IRS tax gap
Redirect unused UI relief funds
Repurpose unused Covid relief funds for infrastructure
Expand eligible uses of Covid state/local funds
Allow use of toll credit balances for infrastructure
Annual surcharge on electric vehicles
Index gas tax to inflation (“placeholder pending alternative non-tax offset from the Biden Administration”)
Adjust customs user fees

Some of these won’t pass muster with the White House. Repurposing unused COVID relief funds is a nonstarter for Biden (unless the amount is relatively small).

Other pay-fors are likely dead-ends as well. Indexing the gas tax to inflation may sound economically sensible, but at the end of day it would mean paying more at the pump — a no-go for any president who’d like to be re-elected.

Another no-go for Democrats is the somewhat counterintuitive GOP suggestion of imposing fees on electric vehicle drivers, i.e. punishing the very people who support Democrats’ climate change goals.

Raising revenue by strengthen IRS tax collection and a so-called federal “infrastructure bank” are all ideas Biden is likely open to, but even taken together, it’s questionable whether these pay-fors would foot the entire bill. So it’s hard to see how a bipartisan deal that does not touch the corporate tax rate could pay for itself without somehow taxing everyone else (or busting the deficit).

Gaming out the Different Scenarios
Even if Biden accepts a scaled-down bipartisan infrastructure bill, that’s the other problem: It’s been scaled down from the original $2.3 trillion plan that included climate change and “human infrastructure” such as elderly home care.

The bipartisan framework only focuses on physical infrastructure such as roads and bridges — a nonstarter for liberals who’ve said they won’t support a bill that doesn’t include climate change.

To get around this roadblock, the president’s Plan B would be to take everything that’s not traditional infrastructure out of his American Jobs Plan and move it to his $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, which focuses on social safety-net programs such as education and child care.

The idea is that the American Families Plan would then be passed through reconciliation.

But this is a fraught strategy because every single Democrat would have to vote for it — a tall order for centrists wary of more deficit spending and liberal overreach.

That seems to be exactly what the GOP is banking on, as Politico Playbook noted on June 15: [T]he GOP is happily saying the quiet part out loud.Senate Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) mused to reporters Monday that a bipartisan package would likely include all the politically popular items for moderate Democrats, who may not want to support a Democrats-only reconciliation bill that includes tax hikes. “The stars are kind of lining up for an infrastructure bill,” he said. “And if you do do something bipartisan on that, then I think doing something partisan on reconciliation — in some ways, with certain Democrats — it gets a lot harder.”

That’s why some Democrats have said they would only support a “hard” infrastructure proposal if the Senate’s two most problematic centrists — Manchin and Sinema — guarantee they would support the “soft” plan afterward.

But it’s a huge leap of faith they would commit to a $1.8 trillion social welfare bill — a leap Democrats like Bernie Sanders aren’t willing to make.

Sanders has said he’s a “hard no” on a bipartisan deal. As Punchbowl News succinctly put it: “Every Democrat who says no means another Republican has to say yes.”

And if Bernie backs out, his progressive allies in the House, where Democrats also hold a thin majority, are likely to follow suit — along with other Democrats such as Sen. Ed Markey who insist that climate change be in the bill.

“It’s time for us to put on that classic song by Fleetwood Mac — it’s time for us to go our own way,” Markey said this week to reporters.

But where exactly are they going without 51 votes Senate? Nowhere. That’s why it’s time for Democrats, especially those in the House, to reconcile themselves to the fact that they need Manchin and Sinema.

Biden has.

All Roads Go Through West Virginia (and Arizona)
Having spent 36 years in the Senate, Biden understands better than anyone the cold hard calculus of securing votes in the chamber where bills go to die.

And it’s no secret that Joe Manchin is the Democratic kingmaker in a 50-50 Senate. The centrist West Virginia senator has made his position on reconciliation crystal clear: He will only consider it if all good-faith efforts at bipartisanship fail.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) highlights the impact of local funds from the COVID-19 relief bill with leaders in Kanawha County.

Manchin, along with the other critical Democratic swing vote, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, have been just as clear about the filibuster. They’re not getting rid of it. (Other moderate Democrats hold similar views but are fine letting Manchin and Sinema take the heat).

So the constant progressive rhetoric that now’s the time for Democrats to do away with the filibuster is head-scratching. There wouldn’t even be a debate if it weren’t for Manchin and Sinema — because Democrats wouldn’t control the Senate without them.

And if Manchin and Sinema veer too far to the left and alienate their constituents, the Dems will almost certainly lose control of the Senate, and then nixing the filibuster will come back to bite them — hard — as Republicans would surely retaliate and ram their own conservative wish-list through the Senate (just look at how well nuking the judicial filibuster turned out for Democrats during Trump’s presidency).

And remember, Republicans hold an inherent advantage because they’re disproportionately represented in the Senate and the opposition party almost always performs well in the midterms, which means Republicans will probably regain control of Congress sooner rather than later.

Interestingly, in a tape recently published by The Intercept, Manchin said he’d consider making some changes to the filibuster, such as lowering the number of votes needed to cut off debate to 55, instead of the current 60.

(For a great explainer on lowering the filibuster to 55 votes, check out Ross Douthat’s article in The New York Times.)

This would of course thrill Democrats, but remember that the comments were made during a private call where Manchin was noncommittal on the issue. If anything, he repeatedly stressed that the filibuster must be preserved.

Manchin’s defense of the filibuster has sparked a barrage of progressive attacks against him. To put it bluntly, this is all just a bunch of self-defeating noise. What are progressives going to do? Threaten him with the loss of Democratic votes — in a state that went for Donald Trump last year by the second-largest margin in the country? At worst, they’ll alienate Manchin, who up until now has made good-faith efforts on polarizing issues like voting rights.

Biden, who pleasantly surprised progressives with his $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, surely knows that now is not the time to indulge his far-left flank. At the moment, he needs to appease Manchin.

It’s simple: No Manchin, no reconciliation.

Sinema is pivotal as well, and while she has her own political calculations (she recently said she’d like to be a maverick in the vein of John McCain), my hunch is that if Manchin goes the reconciliation route, she’d follow.

So Biden has not pressured either to abandon bipartisan talks. Just the opposite — he needs to exhaust all avenues to win them over.

That’s why despite repeated warnings by administration officials that time is running out for a deal, the president has blown past several self-imposed deadlines and is likely to give bipartisan negotiations as much time as he can.

No-Win, or Win-Win?
He has no choice. Biden’s entire agenda essentially hinges on two scenarios. One, the bipartisan talks in the Senate break down and Manchin and Sinema agree to reconciliation. Or two, they support a narrow bipartisan bill but assuage House Democrats by pledging to back a secondary progressive bill through reconciliation.

There’s a lot that has to fall into place for Biden, but he’s shown time and again (whether it’s with the pandemic or winning the presidency) that he shouldn’t be underestimated.

Likewise, skeptics underestimate House Speaker Nancy Pelosi at their own peril. Progressives didn’t get everything they wanted in the COVID relief bill but swallowed it anyway. And even if there are progressive dissenters, Pelosi could theoretically wrangle enough Republican votes to push a bipartisan infrastructure bill through the House and onto Biden’s desk.

It’s an unlikely scenario because Pelosi also wants to go big on climate change, but it’s not out of the question because Pelosi knows how to play the long game.

Let’s just assume a modest bill squeaks through Congress. What does that mean for Biden? It means he notches a win on both infrastructure and bipartisanship — boosting the party’s chances of keeping Congress in the 2022 midterms because while the move would anger progressives, it could win over moderate voters in swing states.

Then there’s the fact that just because Manchin and Sinema haven’t committed to passing the Americans Families Plan yet, doesn’t mean they won’t do so down the line. Manchin has already put forth a serious proposal on voting rights, which McConnell rejected. If Republicans continue to spurn his efforts, that could push Manchin into the reconciliation camp.

As for the possibility of bipartisan talks in the Senate collapsing, given the recent momentum, there’s a semi-decent chance they won’t. There’s also a good chance that McConnell won’t stand in their way in the hopes that a bipartisan deal will die in the House so he can blame Democrats for the failure.

But if history is any indication, something will go wrong — and that means everything could go right for Biden.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is already prepping a big reconciliation bill. He’s just waiting on Manchin and Sinema, who’d need political cover (and lots of sweeteners for their states) to come on board.

Ironically, the progressive furor directed at Manchin could help him with voters in his red-leaning state. And Manchin and Sinema wouldn’t exactly be going out on limb by ditching bipartisan talks to raise corporate taxes, which plays well with voters of all political stripes.

Both senators would demand concessions in a reconciliation bill that progressives probably won’t like, but they’d still get a lot of liberal goodies like clean energy that they’d never get in a bipartisan bill. That could temper progressive opposition in the House, assuming Pelosi can keep her caucus together like she did with COVID relief.

If — and it’s still a colossal “if” — all these moving parts come together, we’d be back to where we started: Biden’s pledge that he would work across the aisle but would move on if that didn’t work.

So while bipartisanship has always been a goal, it’s also been a means to an end — and if the windy road leads to reconciliation, perhaps “failure” was part of Biden’s plan all along.


Art and Soul in Capitol Hill has weathered a lot, having been in business for 14 years — a lifetime in restaurant years. It was originally opened by Art Smith, Oprah Winfrey’s personal chef, in the then-Liaison hotel.

Neither Smith nor the Liaison are there any more, but the restaurant and hotel still are — and both recently underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation (fortuitously done during the pandemic) and now sport a fresh look and flavor.

The new Art and Soul, located in the YOTEL Washington DC hotel, boasts a 5,100-square-foot dining space, three private dining areas and a 1,900-square-foot patio.

Chef Danny Chavez has focused the menu on seasonal, locally sources dishes from the Chesapeake Bay watershed communities.

We got a sneak peek and can confirm that the dishes are both beautiful and tasty.

Restaurants took a major hit during the pandemic, but other industries thrived. That includes home renovations. One of the beneficiaries has been AJ Madison, a family-owned business that’s been the number-one online kitchen appliance retailer in the country for over 18 years.

On June 10, it hosted a summer kickoff (with a good turnout despite a summer downpour) at its Tysons showroom, the company’s second brick-and-mortar location.

Reuniting with my friend, publicist Lindley Richardson, and a (good) Covid surprise: her daughter Rose.
Caleb Kizelewicz of the AJ Madison showroom in Tysons and Thomas Coleman of DHS.
Craft drinks by Cocktail Curations.

In the U.K., June 18 kicks off a five-day social and sporting event known as the Royal Ascot. With pandemic travel down, Washingtonians who wanted to experience this British tradition could go to the Fairmont hotel, which hosted its own Royal Ascot Garden Party — complete with royal-inspired afternoon tea and picnic baskets, Pimm’s Cups and scenes from the party across the pond.

Members of the media enjoy a preview of the Fairmont’s Royal Ascot Garden Party.
Hats on display.

And because I’m a personal fan of Patek Philippe watches, I thought I’d throw in a photo of the newly expanded Patek Philippe Showroom that’s set to open this summer at Tiny Jewel Box on Connecticut Avenue, NW.

Our Damaged Democracy

The repercussions of Donald Trump’s presidency will be deep and long-lasting — as will his power. After all, he’s not going gently into that good night. He’s going thundering into the next 1,460 days until he can reclaim the White House in the 2024 election — or make a last-gasp effort to steal this one.

The Washington Post’s bombshell revelation of tapes in which the president hounds Georgia’s secretary of state to overturn the votes in his state is nothing short of astounding.

In the conversation, Trump alternates between rambling, chastising, cajoling, threatening and regurgitating election claims that have been debunked ad nauseam.

The president’s previous efforts to pressure Republican election officials skirted the bounds of propriety, but this attempt — in which he seems to encourage Brad Raffensperger to come up with votes that don’t exist — could border on the criminal.

“So look. All I want to do is this. I just want to find 11,780 votes, which is one more than we have. Because we won the state,” Trump tells Raffensperger, a Republican.

The audio is damning and presents two equally disturbing scenarios: The president is either illegally trying to overthrow the will of the American people or he’s genuinely delusional about Joe Biden’s victory.

Some parts of the hour-long transcript frighteningly point to the latter.

Trump pulls a litany of numbers seemingly out of thin air: stuffed machines and suitcases containing 18,000 votes (although he says “they” think it’s more like 56,000); upward of 5,000 dead people voting; a “couple of hundred thousand” forged signatures; “50s of thousands” of people who went to vote but couldn’t because apparently someone had already voted for them; and “anywhere from 250 to 300,000 ballots [that] were dropped mysteriously into the rolls” — a pretty wide range, to say the least.

At one point Trump suggests he won Georgia by half a million votes.

He lost the state by 11,779 votes — and by over 7 million nationwide.

Entire chunks of what he is saying are incoherent. Anyone who wasn’t aware they were listening to the president might question the mental fitness of the speaker.

“There’s no way I lost Georgia,” Trump repeatedly insists. “There’s no way. We won by hundreds of thousands of votes.”

Raffensperger calmly resists the president’s entreaties. Other Republicans, however, have not — a clear sign that even when he inevitably exits the White House, Trump will maintain his vise-like grip on the GOP.

On Jan. 6, at least 140 Republicans in the House and about a dozen in the Senate will pursue a last-last-last-ditch effort to overturn the 2020 election when Congress meets for what is a normally a perfunctory ceremony to ratify the results of the Electoral College.

The Republican senators, led by Ted Cruz, are refusing to certify electors from “disputed states” until until a 10-day “audit” of votes in those states is done. This group includes four newly elected senators — who, incidentally, were elected on the same ballot they’re now contesting.

The senators readily admit it’s a futile endeavor but insist the audit will “protect” the democratic process.

Critics call it a congressional coup.

But the maneuver also begs a simple question: What is left to even audit?

Dozens upon dozens of lawsuits contesting the election results have been tossed out by over 60 judges — some appointed by Trump himself. Even in the boring legalese of judicial opinions, the verdicts have been damning, with judges dismissing lawsuits they said were riddled with “gossip,” “innuendo,” “conjecture” and “wild speculation … without any basis in law or fact.”

Countless state and local election officials, many of them Republicans, have thoroughly refuted an array of fraud claims.

Here is a great point-by-point rebuttal to the absurd claims going around in Georgia (including that Raffensperger has a brother, Ron, who works for a Chinese tech company. That must be news to Raffensperger, since he doesn’t have a brother named Ron.)

Multiple hand recounts have not unearthed any systemic fraud either. That’s not to say those recounts weren’t warranted. In critical swing states like Georgia where the margin of victory was narrow, they were absolutely justified. But Democrats never opposed these recounts. They were done in a transparent manner, at times with more Republican observers in the room than Democrats, despite angry mobs outside trying to intimidate those inside.

Some irregularities and instances of fraud were uncovered, but the numbers were so minuscule — a few dozen out of tens of thousands of votes — that they had no effect on the results (and, in some cases, the fraud was committed by Trump supporters).

Trump’s own attorney general, William Barr, a staunch supporter of the president, came to the same conclusion.

President Donald Trump boards the presidential limousine at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Sept. 17, 2020. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

This lack of evidence, however, has not deterred the Trump camp from exhausting every possible legal avenue, taking their case all the way to the Supreme Court. That’s where Texas and 17 other Republican-led states sought to invalidate 20 million legally cast votes in four swing states (Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin).

The Red states argued that because those swing states made mail-in voting easier due to the pandemic, they had the right to force the legislatures in those states — all of which happen to be controlled by Republicans — to choose their state’s electors, over the wishes of the actual voters in that state.

The move was backed by well over half of House Republicans.

Let that sink in. A party that prides itself on the notion of federalism and the sovereignty — even supremacy — of states wanted to tell other states how they should conduct their vote.

The Supreme Court, which leans 6-3 conservative, refused to even hear the case.

Afterward, Texas Republican Party Chairman Allen West floated the idea of forming a union of “states that will abide by the constitution” — all because the Supreme Court refused to allow those states to defy the constitution.

A number of Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have since come out against their colleagues, urging them to accept the results and move on.

Even Vice President Mike Pence distanced himself from another legal hail Mary in which several Republican lawmakers argued that Pence had the power to decide which electoral votes should count and which to dismiss. That lawsuit was also thrown out. In response, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas), who spearheaded the effort, suggested that “street violence” was the only recourse left, while pro-Trump attorney Lin Wood predicted Pence would “face execution by firing squad” for refusing to overturn the Electoral College results.

Even the most jaded political observers could not have predicted the extent to which President Trump and his allies would be contesting his election loss. In doing so, they’ve created an ominous new norm that in a sense encapsulates the Trump presidency: If you don’t like something, just don’t believe it.

If you don’t like the results of an election, don’t believe them. Do everything you can to toss them out. Just make stuff up and keep saying it until people believe it’s true.

Keep throwing words out like China (avoid Russia though), Chávez, Pelosi (a perennial favorite), mystery black suitcases containing gazillions of ballots, “witnesses” who didn’t witness anything — until something sticks.

And don’t worry about how ludicrous it sounds. At a rally in Georgia, Trump proudly boasted that he won ALL the states. That must be news to New York and California.

No democracy can ultimately withstand this type of break from reality.

And it’s not a stretch to say that many of Trump’s supporters are no longer in the realm of reality.

Many accusations been proven not only to be untrue, but also flat-out absurd. Yet they are still being widely circulated.

Remember those allegations that the number of votes cast in one Michigan county exceeded the number of actual registered voters in that county? The lawyers got Michigan mixed up with Minnesota — and officials there had no idea what they were talking about. Or that seemingly incriminating video of people pulling ballots out of black, sealed-like suitcases in Georgia? It was just election workers doing their job: taking ballots out of standard containers to scan them.

One lawsuit claimed that the probability of Biden winning in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — given that Trump was ahead in those states as of 3 a.m. on Nov. 4 — was “one in a quadrillion, or 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000.”

A quadrillion? What magic calculator came up with that figure?

Truth is, it’s made up — and moot, because it ignores the all-important fact that mail-in ballots (which leaned toward Biden) simply hadn’t been counted yet.

President Donald Trump speaks with supporters at a “Make America Great Again” campaign rally at the Phoenix Goodyear Airport in Arizona. (Photo: By Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America – Donald Trump, CC BY-SA 2.0)

A key, and relentless, source of baseless claims has been Sidney Powell, Trump’s lawyer who pledged to unleash the “kraken,” a mythical sea beast, on opponents.

Her witnesses seem to be just as mythical. Her “military intelligence expert,” code-named Spyder, was reportedly a one-time mechanic who failed to complete basic military intel training (although it’s important to note he was honorably discharged from the Army after several deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan).

Another secret witness and former intelligence contractor was a pro-Trump podcaster who apparently faked degrees and titles and has used multiple aliases to bolster her credentials.

Powell even accused Republican officials of taking bribes to rig the election, drawing the ire of Trump’s own legal team.

Many of Powell’s debunked claims have been fanned by right-wing outlets such as the Epoch Times, which has exploded from an obscure anti-China publication into a pro-Trump megaphone.

It often cites studies, experts and witnesses who need to remain anonymous for “their safety.” Here’s a little background on The Epoch Times: While its precise ownership and funding sources are shrouded in secrecy, it’s closely tied to the Falun Gong, a Chinese spiritual movement that opposes the communist government in Beijing.

The group’s leader claims to be “a god-like figure who can levitate and walk through walls,” according to an August 2019 report by NBC News.

He teaches his followers “that sickness is a symptom of evil that can only be truly cured with meditation and devotion, and that aliens from undiscovered dimensions have invaded the minds and bodies of humans, bringing corruption and inventions such as computers and airplanes.”

Incidentally, the Nashville bomber also reportedly believed in aliens and that lizard creatures tweaked our DNA to control the minds and bodies of humans. Why bring that up? Because many people tend to dismiss crazy conspiracy theorists, but their craziness can have real-life, even deadly, consequences. That pharmacist from Wisconsin who’s accused of sabotaging over 500 COVID vaccines? He’s an admitted conspiracy theorist.

But back to the election. One of the most stubborn myths that the Epoch Times and many other right-wing voices have perpetuated is that Venezuela influenced our election because the family of former President Hugo Chávez owns Dominion Voting Systems.

To clarify, a dead Venezuelan president did not rise from the grave to rig American votes. Chávez’s family does not own Dominion Voting Systems. Nor does Beijing, Antifa, Nancy Pelosi’s family or the Clintons. The company was founded in Canada and is owned by a private New York equity firm (and was used in states that Trump won).

Fed up with the slander, John Poulos, Dominion’s founder and CEO, recently told Axios that the company plans to sue Powell, and possibly Trump. He also noted that his employees have received death threats amid the cascade of baseless accusations.

Likewise, Smartmatic threatened Fox News and Newsmax with legal action for peddling bogus claims about its voting machines, forcing the conservative outlets to issue a rare public retraction. (Smartmatic’s machines weren’t even used in the contested states anyway.)

Voters in Des Moines precincts 43, 61 and 62 cast their ballots at Roosevelt High School. (Photo: By Phil Roeder from Des Moines, IA, USA – Election Day 2020, CC BY 2.0)

U.S. officials knew ahead of time that electronic voting machines could be hacked, so they insisted on a strong paper trail. That’s why Christopher Krebs — a top cyber-security official and lifelong Republican who was put in charge of handling election security by Trump — said the 2020 election was “the most secure in American history,” because almost all of the ballots had a paper trail that could be manually recounted.

For defending the integrity of the election results, Krebs was summarily fired. Incidentally, Joseph diGenova, a lawyer for the Trump campaign, also declared that Krebs should be shot (he later said he was joking).

But the volley of death threats lobbed at average polling workers is no laughing matter.

One top election official from Georgia — a Republican — implored the president to speak up against these threats of violence.

“This is the backbone of democracy, and all of you who have not said a damn word are complicit in this,” said Gabriel Sterling, warning that “someone is going to get killed.”

President Trump has never condemned any of those threats. Instead, he’s mused about imposing martial law and seizing voting machines, alarming even his closest advisors.

It’s debatable how much this kind of talk might incite actual violence.

But at pro-Trump rallies held in D.C. late last year, there was ample evidence that his supporters were repeating much of the rhetoric and conspiracy theories emanating from the White House verbatim.

While some protesters spoke earnestly of seeking the truth, others spoke of fraud but couldn’t name the states where that fraud allegedly took place. Quite a few said that God would keep Trump in office.

Others, namely the far-right Proud Boys, spoke of a coming civil war that they would win because they “have all the guns.” MAGA leaders have openly advocated using the military and National Guard to keep Trump in office. The Daily Beast reported that one popular comment ahead of another planned rally on Jan. 6 called for protesters to “kill all the D.C. traitors and reclaim the country.”

Of course, it’s wrong to say that all of Trump’s supporters want to wage war. These extreme comments naturally come from the more extreme end of the spectrum (as they always do — on both the right and left).

But the number of Trump supporters — and Republicans in general — who refuse to believe the outcome of the election is deeply troubling. One CBS poll found that eight in 10 Trump voters wanted to contest the election. An NPR/PBS poll found that only a quarter of Republicans accept the results. The Economist found that over half of white, male registered voters don’t believe Biden won.

Think about that: Tens of millions of Americans remain unconvinced that the election was fair despite the mountain of evidence that it was. At this point, one has to wonder if they would believe the results even if they hand-counted the ballots themselves.

It’s a terrifying thought — but for the president, this refusal to accept reality has been a highly effective vehicle for raising “legal” funds, i.e. money that mostly flows into his political bank accounts.

As an aside, there’s a certain irony that the only congressional veto override of Trump’s presidency was the recent defense spending bill, which the president vetoed because it did not include a completely unrelated measure to repeal content liability protections for social media and tech companies.

Why is that ironic? Because it is Trump supporters who have mastered the art of social media manipulation, not Democrats. For all their complaints about Facebook censorship, the right-wing will never abandon the platformbecause it has given them the most oxygen.

As POLITICO extensively documented, conservative voices regularly dominate the online discussion of hot-button issues like Black Lives Matter and voter fraud.

In many ways, the 2020 election mirrors the Benghazi strategy: Repeat something often enough and it becomes gospel, no matter what the truth is.

Interestingly, Trump had his own Benghazi moment early in his presidency when he hastily authorized (over dinner) a risky raid in Yemen that went awry, killing Navy SEAL Ryan Owens. Instead of taking responsibility for the loss as the country’s commander in chief, Trump punted the blame for Owens’s death to military generals (while also declaring the botched raid a success).

There are myriad examples of the president using — and misusing — the military when it suits him, such as his pardon of a Navy SEAL convicted of war crimes. Perhaps Trump was trying to display his unwavering support of the military, but the pardon was an uninformed, superficial decision that betrayed the platoon members who bravely came forward to denounce one of their own — a man who, among other things, stabbed a captive to death and then forced his troops to pose for a photograph with the corpse.

But Democrats have never latched onto any of these controversies the way Republicans have with events that had far less merit.

Why? Because most Democrats don’t employ the right-wing strategy of demonizing the other side with simple, relentless, viral messaging (perhaps because they refuse to stoop that low, or they fear the blowback, or they’re just not as social media savvy).

“This viral content is ‘clicky and sticky’ — something that makes people want to click on it and that sticks in the brain thanks to the tricks of modern marketing,” wrote Joseph Romm and Jeff Nesbit in The Nation, a liberal news outlet.

“A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth,” GOP strategist Frank Luntz told conservatives in a prescient 2002 memo on climate messaging.

Most recently, a prime opportunity to use the power of viral messaging came up during the stimulus talks in December, when Trump’s last-minute demand to send out $2,000 checks threatened to derail the relief package that would’ve sent desperately needed unemployment benefits to over 10 million jobless Americans.

Biden’s social media team could have contrasted shots of Trump playing golf and Pence skiing with images of Americans waiting in breadlines over holidays — and hammered home the visual without mercy. It’s tacky, but do you genuinely think the other side would have resisted such a tempting target?

President Donald Trump disembarks Air Force One on his arrival to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Dec. 31, 2020, after returning from his Christmas holiday in Palm Beach, Fla. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Biden would never approve of such a move. But he’s also an old-school politician adhering to a playbook that no longer exists.

Granted, trolling and spreading inflammatory misinformation is a controversial strategy, but Biden could find other ways to adapt to the new Trump era.

An easy one would be to drop the meaningless political platitudes and talk more like regular people. After all, this was a huge part of Trump’s appeal — he spoke his mind, not off a script. He may not always have been coherent, but you could never accuse him of being boring.

Democratic leaders, Biden especially, could learn a lesson by using plain-speak instead of diplo-speak. The key distinction, however, is to be straightforward with people using facts, not falsehoods.

In other words, you can deliver the kind of rhetorical gut punches the other side does, without resorting to low blows.

Speaking to Axios, Joe Biden’s sister Valerie said her brother will ignore Trump once he begins governing. But you have to wonder if Biden will have that luxury. He may need to occasionally fire back or risk getting drowned out by the noise.

And here’s a prediction: the next Benghazi will be the 10-day audit that GOP senators are currently calling for. It won’t happen — and that will be used as “proof” by Trump supporters that the election was stolen (prepare for the inevitable avalanche of #audit hashtags).

Indeed, the claims of election fraud will only grow louder over the next four years (we are, after all, still talking about Hillary’s email servers).

Biden will be the president, so the media will naturally shift gears to cover what he says. But he’ll also be presidential (i.e. boring), and it’s doubtful the media will completely ignore Trump’s headline-grabbing tweets.

To be sure, the mainstream media never gave President Trump much credit for his accomplishments, namely confronting China for its trade practices and forging a nascent Arab-Israeli peace.

His disdain for masks, which he turned into a political wedge issue, undoubtedly cost lives, but his Operation Warp Speed will also save them. Yet the fact that he was too busy tweeting out baseless conspiracy theories about the election instead of taking a victory lap by being present at the first coronavirus vaccination is perhaps emblematic of his self-destructive tendencies — and the box he’s constructed for himself. After all, the optics aren’t ideal when you’ve dismissed science and experts for four years, only to openly embrace them at the last minute.

But it’s dangerous to conflate the liberal leanings of traditional media with the outright lies of far-right outlets that the Trump presidency has fed on and fueled. And here we get to perhaps the most damaging effect of the last four years: the erosion of truth and, by extension, democracy (not to mention common decency).

Just contrast what is happening today with what happened 20 years ago, when Al Gore accepted defeat even though George W. Bush’s victory hinged on a handful of votes — compared to the hundreds of thousands that Biden racked up. And just as Gore did, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, garnering 3 million more votes than Trump. But what did she do? Did she spend weeks refusing to accept the Electoral College results? No. She promptly placed conciliatory phone call to Trump and urged the nation to unify and move forward.

So will Democrats now contest every loss the way President Trump’s supporters have (personally I doubt it, but who knows). Will this race to the bottom become our new norm?

That, perhaps, will be one of the more enduring critiques of the Trump presidency: that it was not so much about breaking laws as it was about shattering norms.

We’ve become numb to four years of outlandish and offensive tweets and rhetoric — everything from accusing doctors of not caring for coronavirus patients because they want to make more money; to denigrating an American war hero because he was Muslim; to suggesting women are on their periods for asking tough questions.

Trump has repeatedly pretended to not know what QAnon is — despite being repeatedly told what it is — in a baldfaced bid to pander to voters who believe a cabal of satanic pedophiles, including Tom Hanks, secretly runs the world.

The president’s wink-wink acknowledgement of conspiracy theorists has helped what were once fringe groups go mainstream.

We also now shrug our shoulders at the kind of hypocrisy that would easily topple any other politician.

We saw evidence of this early on when then-candidate Trump in 2015 publicly encouraged a foreign adversary, Russia, to hack his opponent’s emails and release them. If Clinton had done the same thing, Republicans would have quickly labeled it treason.

Trump slammed Barack Obama for playing golf, yet has spent roughly one-fifth of his presidency at his golf clubs.

It’s all made for funny memes, but the ramifications are very real. For years, Trump called out presidents who wouldn’t disclose their taxes, and then become the only U.S. president in modern history to refuse to release his.

For all the speculation that Trump is hiding shady connections to Moscow or Beijing, the refusal to reveal his taxes could be a simple matter of bilking the government and banks for years by falsely inflating the value of his assets to qualify for loans or, conversely, reducing their value to get big tax breaks.

While Trump’s taxes may not reveal any foreign entanglements, what does it mean when a leader who claims to represent the working masses doesn’t pay taxes like they do?

What does draining the swamp look like when you have one of the most corrupt Cabinets in history, with a slew members who’ve resigned or are being investigated for, among other things: insider trading, foreign conflicts of interest, using taxpayer money for personal errands and private charter flights, suspiciously timed investments — and even swindling business associates out of tens of millions of dollars?

Or when you have a president who over-charges his own Secret Service protection detail for staying at his properties.

Above all, when did it become acceptable to say whatever you wanted without the fear of consequence?

The Washington Post has meticulously documented over 22,000 false or misleading claims — and counting — that the president has made. During the recent campaign, he racked up over 50 a day. (After a certain point, it’s time to call a “falsehood” what it really is: a lie.)

This list has culminated in what is likely to go down as the most damaging deception of all: that Democrats are trying to steal a presidential election — when the thievery appears to be on the other foot.

Laws may or may not have been broken, but norms have been destroyed, and once you lower the bar, it’s a heavy lift to raise it back up.

A Refresher Course on How U.S. Foreign Aid Works

Apparently a refresher course on how U.S. foreign aid actually works is in order because this convenient scapegoat has been thrown out once again, this time by President Trump as he sought to derail talks over government spending and coronavirus relief.

That, in fact, is the first thing to point out: The coronavirus relief bill is separate from the omnibus government spending bill, so why the president kept conflating the two was somewhat confusing.

It’s equally confusing that one of the reasons he gave for upending the hard-fought compromise struck by Democrats and Republicans to avert economic catastrophe for millions of unemployed Americans is foreign aid — considering that this aid is exactly in line with what his own White House requested.

That’s right, the spending is what he asked for. So the question becomes: Is the president not aware of what his own administration is doing, or is he aware but he’s just raising the issue of foreign aid because it’s always served as a convenient sideshow to get people emotionally riled up?

Regardless of the president’s awareness, the fact is that many Americans are very much unaware of how foreign aid actually works — and thus prey to the hyperbole and inflammatory rhetoric that far-right media and commentators often employ — to great effect.

This lack of awareness reveals a much deeper problem: Many Americans don’t know where their tax dollars actually go because they don’t have a basic understanding of the federal budget. While they’re quick to complain about waste, they often don’t bother to figure out where the real waste lies.

Far-right and fiscally hawkish Republicans (not establishment Republicans — a key distinction because they generally support robust foreign aid spending) often feign outrage about giving other countries tons of free money. This of course is much easier than having an honest, tough debate on the many nuances of government spending, but again, it serves its purpose by distracting Americans from the real issues at hand.

So here’s a primer on foreign aid (also known as the international affairs portion of the budget). First, the biggest misconception: Many Americans think foreign aid accounts for roughly 10% of government spending. Nope. It accounts for less than 1%.

To put that into perspective, the international affairs budget generally comes to about $50 billion a year, while the current omnibus spending bill totals $1.4 trillion.

So yes, we’re essentially talking about pennies or, in some cases, fractions of a penny.

But isn’t $50 billion a lot? Sure. But you get a lot of bang for your buck. This funds all of American diplomacy. Much of that diplomacy goes toward preventing the kind of costly conflicts that Americans don’t want to become entangled in. That’s why the Pentagon — whose budget, by comparison, is now nearing the $750 billion mark — is usually among the first to push back on efforts to cut the State Department’s budget (the agency responsible for most of the international affairs budget).

That’s because military brass know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure — both in the blood of American soldiers and the treasure of American taxpayers.

Let’s take a look at where else some of that money goes. Israel has long been the top recipient of U.S. foreign aid. That’s generally a bipartisan tradition because America is generally a pro-Israel nation. You can debate the merits of a developed nation like Israel receiving American assistance, but that’s been consistent since about the mid-1980s. (For fiscal 2021, Israel is set to receive $3.3 billion in foreign military financing and $500 million for missile defense.)

After Israel, Egypt and Jordan receive the most U.S. assistance. Both countries have signed peace treaties with Israel and are considered moderate Arab allies (Egypt is also considered an authoritarian regime by its critics, but again, that’s a debate for another day).

After that, the money goes to a hodgepodge of countries, regions and programs. Is there some waste? Sure. There are inefficiencies in every enterprise — public or private. A slew of experts and NGOs have in fact for years debated ways to cut red tape and make foreign aid more efficient and effective. It’s actually an obsession within the aid community.

But many of these programs are mutually beneficial. Some, for example, work to build and open up economies in Africa so that American businesses can enter those potentially lucrative markets. Some are geopolitically strategic: countering Chinese influence, for instance, in Southeast Asia. Others are altruistic, such as reducing the number of children who needlessly die because of a mosquito bite.

Again, these individual programs represent fractions of fractions of a penny, and many help both others and us. They work to reduce extremism (so countries don’t breed terrorists who want to attack us), or alleviate the very poverty and violence that drives people in Central America to try to cross the U.S. border.

Plus, spending a penny to build up goodwill among thousands, if not millions, of people around the world can come in handy if we ever need their help one day.

Now, if you’re serious about tackling waste, then follow the real money trail. To do that, you need a basic grasp of the federal budget.

U.S. federal spending and revenue are shown for fiscal year 2019. Discretionary spending accounts for about 30% to 35% of government spending — half of which goes toward defense. The rest, known as nondiscretionary (or mandatory) spending, goes primarily toward Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and interest payments on government debt. (Photo: Congressional Budget Office)

Discretionary spending makes up a little less than 35% of total government spending. This includes diplomacy, the FBI, Homeland Security, NASA, education, housing, transportation and most of the things we typically associate with government services.

But roughly HALF of that actually goes toward defense, so the real slice for everything else is in fact pretty small. It’s also the part that fiscally hawkish Republicans (who have long been accused of rediscovering that hawkishness whenever a Democrat is in office) often try to wring every last dime out of, even though cutting domestic programs like education doesn’t make any real dent in the debt. It just makes for handy talking points and anti-government memes on social media.

You want to cut the debt? You’ve got to go to the popular stuff.

That includes defense, which for fiscal 2021 is set to reach $740 billion — a figure that consistently rises practically every year (even when we’re not at actual war with anyone).

The Pentagon is rife with waste — and its leaders know it. One reason for this is that defense contractors are very shrewd. They’ve purposely spread out the production of military equipment and parts in districts and states all across the country.

As a result, members of Congress are beholden to these companies because that production creates jobs in their districts, so they will naturally try to block any cuts to that production. But this in turn prevents the Pentagon from getting rid of costly, useless or redundant projects and redirecting that money where it’s better served.

But if we really want to know where our taxpayer money goes, you have to look at the biggest slice of the pie — nondiscretionary (i.e. mandatory) spending. This mainly consists of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and comes to nearly $3 TRILLION for fiscal 2021. (The omnibus package of $1.4 trillion covers the discretionary part of the budget).

So we’re talking roughly 70% of total government spending.

If you want to cut spending, the ugly truth is that you eventually have to look at where most of it goes: the nondiscretionary side. But this is what’s known as the “third rail” of politics because neither party wants to get electrocuted by it. AARP is one of the most powerful — if not the most powerful — lobby groups in the country.

After all, no politician wants to be blamed for taking away grandma’s Social Security check. But that’s not what most fiscal moderates (on both sides of the aisle) want. No society should let its elderly fall through the cracks. And there’s absolutely no excuse for that happening in the world’s wealthiest nation.

Nor is there any excuse for millions of hard-working Americans to go broke because they broke an ankle and didn’t have health insurance. So many reformists are not suggesting eliminating discretionary entitlement programs. (Incidentally, Social Security is actually in better fiscal shape than many people give it credit for.)

But some reforms are still needed because the system is on an unsustainable trajectory and may not be around for younger people decades from now. Another key piece of the puzzle is reining in health care spending — something Obamacare tried to do — although here you run up against more lobby heavyweights: namely, the pharmaceuticals industry, hospital associations and insurance companies.

But the biggest roadblock to entitlement reform is public opinion. Any changes to nondiscretionary spending requires an act of Congress, and again, the issue is so toxic that most politicians don’t have the nerve to go near it.

So every time an older person laments that we spend taxpayer money on folks in other countries, sadly, they need to take a long, hard look in the mirror — because the interest payments on their entitlement spending alone are going to cripple their grandchildren. Or direct your ire to the for-profit health care boondoggle to which we’ve become hostage.

Now, one way to avoid having to slash critical government programs is to NOT cut taxes for the wealthy. While the highest income brackets do contribute huge amounts in tax revenue, they still enjoy perks that allow them to preserve most of their wealth — or even generate more of it. Look no further than the steadily expanding inequality gap that has exploded over the last two decades as proof that the tax system still overwhelmingly benefits the top 20%.

Here, we get to the often-overlooked GOP tax cuts of 2017. Ample evidence has now shown they didn’t do anything other than make the rich richer, while exacerbating the federal deficit and the social divide between the have and have-nots.

Income brackets in the top 20% received 60% of the tax cuts. The other large chunk went to slashing the corporate tax rate, to the tune of $2.3 trillion. But while some of that windfall was reinvested into capital and R&D to create jobs — as Republicans had pledged — corporations mostly used the money to issue stock buybacks that made their wealthy shareholders wealthier. And these tax cuts are permanent — as opposed to those for individuals.

Yes it’s true that America has (or, rather, had) the highest corporate tax rate in the world. But it’s also true that corporations almost never paid anywhere remotely close to that rate thanks to loopholes and offshoring (we’re talking to you Apple). Some even got money back from the government. Just ask President Trump how this works.

Plus, reducing the corporate tax rate from, say, 38% to 11% still isn’t enough to induce corporations to bring their money back to the U.S. when they can enjoy tax rates of 4% or less in countries like Ireland. The math just doesn’t add up in terms of the bottom line.

It’s little surprise then that the 45 largest companies in America have turned a profit during the pandemic, as reported by The Washington Post. How? Largely by laying people off and giving the bulk of the profits to shareholders.

So you want to be outraged? Be outraged by massive corporate handouts, not the pennies we give to stave off famine in Yemen or keep the Kennedy Center from shutting its doors (and remember, President Trump actually wanted to increase aid to the Kennedy Center).

Also ask yourself why certain news outlets always play up and distort foreign aid? Could it be that it’s an easy way to gin up anger — and ratings — while diverting attention from the messy, uncomfortable realities of corporate tax evasion, entitlement spending and a bloated military?

The debate over the budget — particularly the international part of it — has for years been rife with hyperbole and misconception. But it’s become flagrantly distorted under this administration, which has capitalized on the raw nerve that foreign aid seems to strike among many Americans. That’s because President Trump is a master at distraction and deflection, lobbing emotionally resonant but substantially empty bombs to blow up any sort of bipartisanship and further tear this already-polarized country apart. It’s a lot easier to destroy than to build.

Did the president just suddenly wake up to the stimulus negotiations after fixating on countless baseless allegations of election fraud for weeks? Was he simply trying to sabotage the spending package as payback for Republicans who aren’t backing him in his quixotic quest to overturn the election? Would he really let millions of unemployed Americans suffer because of a bruised ego? (Fortunately, as of this writing, the answer appears to be no.) Does he genuinely not comprehend that stimulus checks have nothing to do with Israeli missile defense? Or does he want to go out with a bang by giving each American a lot of money, in the form of checks specially imprinted with signature (a taxpayer waste by the way).

Anyone who claims to have insights into the mind of this president should probably have their own checked.

Truth is, many of us are spectators to this nuttiness, but what we can control is our understanding of how government really works so that we’re not duped by those who have their own agendas and their own motivations for peddling half-truths and outright lies.

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)