war on the rocks

Belgium Attacks, Cuba, and Foreign Policy Teams Revealed

March 24, 2016

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Terror in Europe. Again. Three men are suspected of conducting bombings at the Brussels Airport and the Maalbeek metro station near the European Union’s headquarters. As of this writing, ISIL has claimed responsibility for the strikes which have claimed around 30 lives. It appears that Salah Abdeslam, who was recently captured after a months-long manhunt due to his involvement in the Paris attacks, was supposed to take part in the Brussels operations. Ruining his opening-to-Cuba moment (more on that below), President Barack Obama offered his condolences and assurances, saying the United States “will do whatever is necessary to support our friends in Belgium.”

The presidential candidates used this moment to show how their bona fides, and some shined more than others. Ted Cruz wants to “empower law enforcement to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized.” Because when you want to minimize anger, constant police surveillance is apparently the cure. And, doing his best Donald Trump impression, Cruz said the United States needs to stop refugees “from countries with a significant al-Qaeda or ISIS presence” from coming into our country, ignoring the fact America is barely letting any refugees in and that entering as a refugee is a really ineffective way for terrorists to reach this country. As a result, Cruz has been widely panned for these comments.

John Kasich wants to “destroy the perpetrators” because the attacks are “against our very way of life.” Hillary Clinton says America has to “intensify and broaden our strategy” against ISIL to show that we are “in solidarity with our European allies.” She also said that “NATO is indispensable in our efforts to protect our country and our friends.” (That’s notable because of Trump’s recent comments on NATO. More below.). Bernie Sanders was the last candidate to make a statement, saying the Brussels attacks were a “brutal reminder” of what ISIL can do.

And, naturally, Trump said stuff that got attention with no substance (this is how I feel every time I hear him speak). Trump claimed that ISIL sympathizers are coming into America “by the thousands” and saying he’s been predicting this kind of carnage for a long time. America should close its borders because these attacks are “just the beginning.” He’s also sad (!) that Brussels is no longer “beautiful and safe,” and thinks torture could have prevented the events. After his comments, Clinton came out and ridiculed both Trump and Cruz by saying “slogans aren’t a strategy.” Clearly the Brussels event will only heat up the foreign policy debate among the two frontrunners.

It’s important to note that the Brussels attacks will surely lead to a rise in anti-Muslim sentiments in Europe, especially due to the political exploitation of migrant crises and terrorism by far-right parties. Finally, Europe will continue to not invest in solving this and related problems. European states are barely increasing defense and intelligence spending, and have done little to mitigate the potential risks of the massive migrant flow into the continent.

Lastly, Europe clearly needs help. Recall: the Madrid bombings, the London attacks, Russia in Ukraine, both sets of Paris attacks, and the repeated Istanbul assaults. It’s hard to admit, but Europe is a continent in crisis. It needs America more than ever. The question is: What will this administration do to help before it goes, and which future administration will prioritize the transatlantic link?

Havana moment. President Obama must be loving this. After announcing policy changes toward Cuba in December 2014, Obama flew to Cuba this week on an “historic” trip, making him the first sitting American president to visit the 90-miles-away island since 1928 (Calvin Coolidge).

Amid all the global chaos, why is Obama heading to another tropical paradise — vacation? Hardly. Here’s the agenda, according to Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and as reported by the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung:

One of Obama’s goals on the trip is to press the Cuban government to move more quickly to take advantage of trade and other openings that he has brought about through regulatory changes in U.S. law, even as he has been unable to persuade the Republican-controlled Congress to lift the 56-year-old embargo against Cuba. …

Rhodes said the administration wants “very much to make the process of normalization irreversible” beyond Obama’s term in office, and will propose “steps that the Cuban government can take going forward to further open up space for the Cuban people.”

Ok, so that’s the economic, political, and societal goal. But Rhodes also offers that the real goal may be to show Cubans:

that the United States is not a hostile nation seeking regime change, that in fact we can’t be blamed for challenges in Cuba, and that … we are there as a source of support for the Cuban people.

Ah. So the goal is to show big-bad America isn’t so bad after all. Still, this doesn’t mean America will be friendly just like that. Obama was forceful in pointing out Cuba’s poor human rights record, which Cuban President Raúl Castro called a “double standard.” Obama also admitted that there are “serious differences” between the two nations and that a lot work is left to do. But it’s a start.

Cue the outrage among Republican candidates. First Ted Cruz in a stinging op-ed for POLITICO Magazine:

Communist Havana has always been a magnet for the radical chic of the left, drawn like moths to the flame of this western outpost of totalitarian Communism. …

[It]t is so sad, and so injurious to our future as well as Cuba’s, that Obama has chosen to legitimize the corrupt and oppressive Castro regime with his presence on the island.

Cruz does not like Cuba, and he has many reasons not to, including his own father’s story.

Trump’s biggest issue seems to be that no one was there to greet the president, and less so about the potential benefit or destructiveness of this rapprochement:

Obama should have turned the plane around and left, he should have. He should have turned it around and said byebye, he’s not here? …

I’m not knocking Castro, if they can get away with this stuff, they’re making a great deal. Because they’re making a deal, it is fine to do it.. but honestly, number one, it should never happen, but if it did happen, it’s called: Byebye. Get in your plane and go home, but [Obama] got in the car and drove, nobody to shake his hand.

Kasich? We don’t know. We do know that Hillary Clinton has been behind this new Cuba policy for some time, and Bernie Sanders thinks “this is an approach that is long overdue.”

What might all this mean for November? First, Americans signal they want new relations with Cuba, with 56 percent calling for “more direct U.S. engagement with Cuba.” Perhaps anti-Cuba sentiment is not what it once was. Leading into the second point, the Cuban-American vote may not mean as much as it used to anymore. Marco Rubio won the vast majority of that vote during the Florida primaries and still lost to Trump by a wide margin, dropping out later that day. Lastly, the Democrats better hope this new policy move works. Sure, both Clinton and Sanders support it already, but if something bad happens with it, it’s so high-profile that it could hurt Team Blue when the votes are cast later this year.

New teammates. Cruz and Trump finally revealed who is helping them out on foreign policy. Cruz put together “an unlikely team of foreign-policy rivals,” according to Eli Lake at Bloomberg View. He wasn’t kidding. It includes folks like Frank Gaffney, who has some, uh, non-traditional views about Muslims and Islam. There are also those who think much differently than Gaffney on many issues including Michael Leeden, Jim Talent, Mary Habeck, Elliot Abrams, and Cruz’s long-time national security advisor Victoria Coates. This is a diverse team, but together they make for a hawkish, activist group of foreign policy professionals.

Meanwhile, Trump’s big brain is getting some help from non-interventionists. In addition to Sen. Jeff Sessions, who leads Trump’s foreign affairs team, the Washington Post reports the real-estate mogul has brought on Keith Kellogg, Walid Phares, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, and Joseph E. Schmitz. It’s a who’s who of lesser-known names in Washington, and they’re already putting out some foreign policy proposals contrary to what President Obama would call the “Washington Playbook.” For example, Trump is not into nation-building because “it’s proven not to work,” in his view. He believes we “can’t afford” to be a part of NATO anymore because “we’re spending a lot of money” trying to keep Europe secure. He also doesn’t believe America should invest heavily in our military’s dealings in Asia or sustain our relationships with South Korea and Japan. You may not agree with his assessment of America’s role in the world, but it certainly is different, and therefore worth engaging.

I recommend you read the whole transcript of Trump’s talk with the Washington Post editorial team for a fuller picture of the man’s worldview, for now.

AIPAC Is-raeli loving the presidential candidates. That’s because four of them gave speeches to the large, yearly conference sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — each trying to show that he or she is a better friend to Israel than the other candidates. Cases in point:

Clinton: “I feel so strongly that America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security or survival. We can’t be neutral when rockets rain down on residential neighborhoods, when civilians are stabbed in the street, when suicide bombers target the innocent. Some things aren’t negotiable.”

Trump: “I love Israel. I love Israel. I’ve been with Israel so long in terms of I’ve received some of my greatest honors from Israel.”

Cruz: “My leading Republican opponent promised he, as president, would be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians. Let me be very, very clear: As president, I will not be neutral.”

Kasich: “I think it can be fairly said that my support and friendship for our strategic partner Israel has been firm and unwavering for more than 35 years of my professional life.”

Except, Sanders didn’t give an AIPAC-friendly speech. After having his offer to speak remotely from the campaign trail rejected by AIPAC, Sanders gave his planned speech anyway — to supporters in Utah, where he was campaigning before the primary vote. The only Jewish candidate in the race gave an address that would not have won him many standing ovations back in Washington. Here’s just a taste:

[W]hen we talk about Israel and Palestinian areas, it is important to understand that today there is a whole lot of suffering among Palestinians and that cannot be ignored. You can’t have good policy that results in peace if you ignore one side.

Or:

I join much of the international community, including the U.S. State Department and European Union, in voicing my concern that Israel’s recent expropriation of an additional 579 acres of land in the West Bank undermines the peace process and, ultimately, Israeli security as well.

Also:

I do not accept the idea that the ‘pro-Israel’ position was to oppose the deal. Preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon will strengthen not only the United States’ security, but Israel’s security as well.

Maybe it was best Sanders was in Utah after all.

Kasich’s foreign policy. Actually, what is it? In The National Interest, Daniel DePetris claims it’s “contradictory” and therefore hard to pin down. He’s hawkish on responding to Russia, but relatively dovish on the Iran deal. He wants to build a coalition to defeat ISIL — “a safe position that is just muscular enough to pass muster with Republican voters, but benign enough that it wouldn’t raise the eyebrows of realists who call the party home.” He also oscillates between being a budget hawk and dove, depending on the national context.

Maybe instead of “contradictory,” we could use “pragmatic” or “non-ideological.” In a presidential campaign defined by ideology, having a candidate at least measure what he says is a nice change. Just because you don’t have a doctrine doesn’t mean it’s a detriment to your foreign policy credentials.

That said, Kasich’s only chance of being the nominee is a contested convention, which some say he could win. But, his chances are small, and therefore we likely won’t see this so-called contradictory foreign policy implemented — at least not beginning in January 2017.

Weirdest article of the week. Is Trump similar to Latin America’s caudillos? David Luhnow makes the case in the Wall Street Journal — and it’s a weird one. There’s no question Trump shares some similarities with Latin American populists, like the late Hugo Chavez, but what makes this weird is the exclusivity to which Luhnow ascribes these traits to one continent of leaders.

Indeed, history is rife with populists, regardless of where they are from. Remember Trevor Noah’s excellent comparison of Trump to African populist presidents? Or how Central Asia has a long history of Trump-like leaders? There used to be many leaders in East and South Asia that fit this bill, but not so much anymore. And now we’re seeing in France and elsewhere in Europe a rise of populism, with The Economist calling them “little Trumps.”

It’s not that Trump is like former and current Latin American leaders. The issue is that populism and being a “strongman” is finding electoral success around the world, not just in troubled spots. This has been a problem for years, and it’s getting worse. Maybe that’s the weirdest — or saddest/scariest/head-desk-iest — part of all.

 

Alex Ward is an Associate Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where he works on U.S. defense and military strategy and policy. He tweets at @AlexWardB.

 

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore