It is a recent tradition among occupants of the White House, as they head out of office, to play a few practical jokes on their successors. The Clinton administration jesters, for instance, removed all the Ws from White House keyboards before handing over the keys to George W. Bush’s transition team. The Obama administration left behind books authored by Barack Obama for Trump’s incoming press team.
Donald Trump has no sense of humor. His “gift” to the next administration is dead serious. With his recent foreign policy moves, the president is trying to change the facts on the ground so that whoever follows in his footsteps will have a more difficult time restoring the previous status quo.
Forget about pranks. This is a big middle-finger salute to the foreign policy establishment and the world at large.
Of course, Trump is not preparing to leave office, regardless of the results of the November election. But in his policies in the Middle East and East Asia, the president is attempting to change the very rules of the game just in case he’s not around next year to personally make more mischief. The man is not going to win a Nobel Prize for his efforts — despite the recent nominations coming from a pair of right-wing Scandinavians — but he’ll do whatever he can to achieve the next best thing: putting the Trump brand on geopolitics.
It cost about $5,000 to replace all those W-less typewriters. The bill for all the damage Trump is doing to international affairs in his attempt to make his Israel, Iran, and China policies irreversible will be much, much higher.
Israel up, Palestine down
For several years, the Trump administration promised a grand plan that would resolve the Israel-Palestine stand-off. According to this “deal of the century,” Palestinians would accept some economic development funds, mostly from Gulf states, in exchange for giving up their aspirations for an authentic state.
The hoops Palestinians would have to jump through to get even such a shrunken and impotent state — effectively giving up Jerusalem, relinquishing the right to join international organizations without Israel’s permission — are such obvious deal-breakers that Jared Kushner and company must have known from the start that their grand plan was not politically viable.
But finding a workable solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict was not the purpose of the plan. It was all an elaborate shell game.
While the administration dangled its proposal in front of world leaders and international media, it was working with Israel to create “new realities.” Trump withdrew the United States from the UN Human Rights Council for its “chronic bias against Israel.” The administration closed the PLO’s office in Washington, D.C. and eliminated U.S. funding for the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees. And in perhaps the most consequent move, Trump broke a global convention by moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Until recently, only one country, Guatemala, had followed suit.
But then came a flurry of diplomatic activity this fall as both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain extended diplomatic recognition to Israel. The Trump administration also pushed Serbia and Kosovo, as part of a new economic deal, to include clauses about Israel: Serbia will move its embassy to Jerusalem and Kosovo will establish one there after establishing diplomatic relations with Israel.
Astonishingly, the Trump administration has promoted this diplomatic activity as restraining Israel. In May, Netanyahu announced that he was moving forward with absorbing sections of the West Bank that already featured large Israeli settlements. He subsequently stepped back from that announcement to conclude the new diplomatic deals with the Gulf States. But it was only reculer pour mieux sauter, as the French say: stepping back to better leap forward. Netanyahu had no intention of taking annexation off the table.
“There is no change to my plan to extend sovereignty, our sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, in full coordination with the United States,” Netanyahu said in mid-August. Some further to the right of Netanyahu — alas, they do exist — want to annex the entire West Bank. But that’s de jure. As writer Peter Beinart points out, Israel has been annexing the West Bank settlement by settlement for some time.
Where does this leave Palestinians? Up a creek without a state. The Trump administration has used its much-vaunted “deal of the century” to make any future deal well-nigh impossible. In collaboration with Netanyahu, Trump has strangled the two-state solution in favor of a single Israeli state with a permanent Palestinian underclass.
The cost to Palestinians: incalculable.
Permanent war with Iran
Strengthening Israel was a major part of Trump’s maneuverings in the Middle East. A second goal was to boost arms sales to Gulf countries, which will only accelerate the arms race in the region. The third ambition has been to weaken Iran. Toward that end, Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE now form — along with Saudi Arabia — a more unified anti-Iran bloc.
But the Trump crowd has never been content to contain Iran. It wants nothing less than regime change.
From the get-go, the Trump administration nixed the Iran nuclear deal, tightened sanctions against the country, and put pressure on all other countries not to engage Iran economically. In January, it assassinated a leading Iranian figure, Qassem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. And this summer it tried, unsuccessfully, to trigger “snap-back” sanctions against Iran that would kill the nuclear deal once and for all.
Even as the Trump administration was celebrating the diplomatic deal between the UAE and Israel, it was going after several UAE firms for brokering deals with Iran. Trump recently castigated the Iranian government for going through with the execution of wrestler Navid Afkari for allegedly killing a security guard during a 2018 demonstration.
And U.S. intelligence agencies have just leaked a rather outlandish suggestion that Iran has been thinking about assassinating the U.S. ambassador to South Africa. According to Politico, “News of the plot comes as Iran continues to seek ways to retaliate for President Donald Trump’s decision to kill a powerful Iranian general earlier this year, the officials said. If carried out, it could dramatically ratchet up already serious tensions between the U.S. and Iran and create enormous pressure on Trump to strike back — possibly in the middle of a tense election season.”
Hmmmm, sounds mighty suspicious.
Sure, Iran might be itching for revenge. But why risk war with a president who might just be voted out of office in a couple months and replaced with someone who favors returning to some level of cooperation? And why would the unnamed U.S. government officials leak the information right now? Is it a way to discourage Iran from making such a move?
Or perhaps it’s to provoke one side or the other to take the fight to the next level — and take off the table any future effort to repair the breach between the two countries?
Cutting ties with China
At a press conference earlier this month, Trump laid out his vision of U.S. relations with China.
Gone were the confident predictions of beautiful new trade deals with Beijing. After all, Trump had canceled trade negotiations last month, largely because the Phase 1 agreement hasn’t produced the kind of results the president had predicted (in terms of Chinese purchases of U.S. goods).
Nor did Trump talk about what a good idea it was for China to build “re-education camps” for Uyghurs in Xinjiang (he reserves such frank conversation for tete-a-tetes with Xi Jinping, according to John Bolton).
Rather, Trump talked about severing the economic relationship between the two countries. “Under my administration, we will make America into the manufacturing superpower of the world, and we’ll end our reliance on China once and for all,” he said. “Whether it’s decoupling or putting in massive tariffs like I’ve been doing already, we’re going to end our reliance on China because we can’t rely on China.”
As with virtually all things, Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about. China has been largely unaffected by all of Trump’s threats and posturing. As economist Nicholas Lardy explains, “for all the fireworks over tariffs and investment restrictions, China’s integration into global financial markets continues apace. Indeed, that integration appears on most metrics to have accelerated over the past year. And U.S.-based financial institutions are actively participating in this process, making financial decoupling between the United States and China increasingly unlikely.”
In fact, decoupling is just another way of saying “self-inflicted wound.” On the non-financial side of the ledger, the United States has already paid a steep price for its trade war with China, which is only a small part of what decoupling would ultimately cost. Before the pandemic hit, the United States was already losing 300,000 jobs and $40 billion in lost exports annually. That’s like a Category 3 hurricane. A full decoupling would tear through the U.S. economy like a Category 6 storm.
American presidents want to leave behind a geopolitical legacy. Bill Clinton was proud of both the Dayton agreement and the Oslo Accords. George W. Bush touted his response to the September 11 attacks. Barack Obama could point to the Iran nuclear deal and the détente with Cuba.
Donald Trump, like the aforementioned twisters, has left destruction in his path. He tore up agreements, initiated trade wars, pulled out of international organizations, and escalated America’s air wars.
But perhaps his most pernicious legacy is his scorched-earth policy. Like armies in retreat that destroy the fields and the livestock to rob their advancing adversaries of food sources, Trump is doing whatever he can to make it impossible for his successor to resolve some of the world’s most intractable problems.
His diplomatic “achievements” in the Middle East are designed to disempower and further disenfranchise Palestinians. His aggressive policy toward China is designed to disrupt an economic relationship that sustains millions of U.S. farmers and manufacturers. His bellicose approach to Iran is designed not only to destroy the current nuclear accord but make future ones impossible as well.
If he wins a second term, Trump will bring his scorched-earth doctrine to every corner of the globe. What he is doing to Iran, China, and the Palestinians, he will do to the whole planet. The nearly 200,000 pandemic deaths and the wildfires destroying the West Coast are just the beginning. Donald Trump can’t wait to take his brand of American carnage to the next level.
John Feffer is an author and director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies. He has been an Open Society Foundation Fellow and a PanTech fellow in Korean Studies at Stanford University. He has also worked as an international affairs representative in Eastern Europe and East Asia for the American Friends Service Committee.
President Donald J. Trump disembarks Marine One at Joint Base Andrews, Md. Friday, Sept. 18, 2020, and is escorted to Air Force One by U.S. Air Force personnel. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
keep readingShow less
Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
keep readingShow less
Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.