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The House is trying to check Trump’s foreign policy: Anne-Marie Slaughter

Project Syndicate: By effectively giving Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan the green light to attack northern Syria’s Kurds, America’s most effective ally against the Islamic State (ISIS), US President Donald Trump has once again handed a victory to an authoritarian leader. You’ve underscored the danger of that approach with regard to Hungary, a far less strategically significant country than Turkey. What immediate and longer-term risks do you foresee arising from Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria, and how might they be mitigated?

Anne-Marie Slaughter: The United States effectively has two foreign policies at the moment. Trump admires strongmen around the world and cultivates personal relationships with them. This often results in his taking impulsive and dangerous decisions that are deeply adverse to US interests – as defined by the State Department, the Pentagon, and even his own National Security Council.

Trump’s decision to pull US troops out of Syria and clear the way for a Turkish invasion falls into this category. It was a victory for Turkey, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Russia, Iran, and ISIS. And it was a loss for the US, which surrendered much of its influence in the Middle East and betrayed both its allies and its values.

This carries serious longer-term risks. For example, in Afghanistan, the Taliban might be encouraged to keep fighting, in the hope that Trump will simply decide to withdraw US troops from there, too. In the Baltics, Russian President Vladimir Putin might be emboldened to mount a direct challenge to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which holds that an attack on one NATO member is an attack on all.

The only way to mitigate these risks is to remove Trump from office, either through the ballot box next year or impeachment by the US House and conviction in the Senate before that.

PS: Even before the US withdrawal, you warned that ISIS was cultivating an “online narrative of victory” that could “translate into success on the ground.” With the Trump administration’s chances of winning the “battle for the narrative” presumably significantly depleted, who else could take the lead in countering ISIS’s communications offensive?

AMS: The European Union, with its many Muslim citizens, should have the capacity to shape and promote a decisive counter-narrative to ISIS. But, given the EU’s preoccupation with Brexit and the need to reinvigorate its own integration processes amid deep internal divisions, it is unlikely to play this role.

With ISIS eager to prove its continued power and relevance in the wake of America’s withdrawal from Syria and US Special Forces’ killing of the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, we should expect it to launch new attacks soon. Europe will be its most likely Western target.

PS: After the Democrats regained control of the US House of Representatives in last year’s midterm elections, you cautioned that the House has “just enough power to get into foreign-policy trouble and not enough to get out of it or to adopt and implement a coherent strategy.” The Democrats’ “best bet” was thus “to let Trump take the lead on global affairs,” and work to check and balance his actions. What actions could the House take today to check Trump’s foreign policy, not only regarding Syria, but also with respect to, say, China and North Korea?

AMS: The House is trying to check Trump’s foreign policy – most notably, by considering economic sanctions against Turkey. Already, it has voted overwhelmingly to impose sweeping sanctions on Turkey for its incursion into northeastern Syria, a significant bipartisan rebuke of Trump. As of this writing, five sanctions bills targeting Turkey’s access to US arms and energy are circulating in the US Congress.

Moreover, the House has voted – again, with bipartisan support – to recognize the 1915 killing of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide. The US had previously been reluctant to make that declaration, in order to preserve its relations with Turkey, which has predictably denounced the move.

On China, the House has passed three bills in support of the Hong Kong demonstrators. One condemns China’s intrusions into Hong Kong’s affairs and supports its people’s right to protest. Another makes Hong Kong’s special economic and trade status conditional on annual assessments by the State Department of whether the city is sufficiently autonomous to justify that status under US law. A third seeks to block the sale to Hong Kong of tear gas and other crowd-control tools.

It is not clear whether any of these measures will pass the Senate. But even if they don’t, the House votes signal to the world that a large share of Americans – even many Republicans – do not support Trump’s foreign policy. Furthermore, the House retains the power of the purse, which it will continue trying to use to shape foreign policy.

PS: When the Paris climate agreement was concluded in 2015, you praised its flexible, non-binding nature. But when Trump took over, he exploited precisely that feature to repudiate the “executive agreement” entered into by his predecessor. With many other countries falling short of their climate commitments, do you still view the Paris agreement as “a model for effective global governance in the twenty-first century,” or is a more binding approach necessary?

AMS: It has been several decades since the US has signed and ratified a multilateral treaty, so it is unlikely that Barack Obama could have gotten a “Paris climate treaty” through the Senate. And it is not just the US: if the Paris agreement had been presented as a binding treaty under international law, many countries would have refused to sign or insisted on diluting its obligations considerably.

Yes, in withdrawing the US, Trump exploited the agreement’s flexibility. But the most important feature of the Paris agreement is not the involvement of governments, though government action is obviously critical. Rather, it is the inclusion of non-government stakeholders: business, civil society, philanthropic organizations, and provincial and municipal governments. Ultimately, the combined actions of these actors will have as large an impact on emissions reduction as those of governments.

So, no, I do not think that more binding agreements are what the world needs. On the contrary, binding is far less important than “rolling” – that is, evolving and increasing commitments by all parties, official and unofficial.

PS: Who has benefited the most from Trump’s presidency?

AMS: The bullies, the haters, the trolls, the sexists, the racists, and everyone who wants to smash and destroy, rather than build.

PS: Once again, a woman has emerged as a Democratic frontrunner to challenge Trump in next year’s presidential election. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy was thwarted in part by raw misogyny. If Senator Elizabeth Warren or another woman wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, what should she do to neutralize a similar sexist backlash?

AMS: I’m not sure that there is anything the candidate herself can do. Calling out the offenders will simply trigger more defensiveness and demonization from voters who cannot accept the idea of a woman in the White House, but think that they can. Much of the bias is, after all, subconscious: voters convince themselves that they are fine with a woman president, just not this woman.

The most effective way to resist this backlash would be for men – including journalists, politicians, and business and civic leaders – to point out the double standards and sexist criticism that Warren or any other woman candidate faces, and to do so consistently. They might be better positioned to bring the issue to the public’s attention in ways that trigger fewer – or less intense – negative reactions.

PS: If you could choose a single policy to be implemented in the US, what would it be?

AMS: Affordable, high-quality daycare for everyone who wants or needs it. Ensuring that all children get the chance to fulfill their potential is essential for America’s economic, military, and moral wellbeing. We need to harness all our talent to build a better future, and that requires not only supporting all children while they develop, but also enabling their parents to contribute. Yet, as it stands, daycare for two children costs more than the average rent in all 50 US states – a situation that is driving far too many women out of our workforce.

PS: You list “patriot” first in your Twitter bio. Why is it important for you to claim that label?

AMS: Carl Schurz, a major general in the Union army during the Civil War and, later, a Republican senator, offers the best way to understand patriotism. A German immigrant who loved his adopted country, Schurz said: “My country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right. When wrong, to be set right.”

Today, the political right has co-opted patriotism in the US, frequently with the active connivance of the left, which often confuses overt displays of love of country with nationalism. But it is precisely because I love my country that I must criticize it when it – no, we – fall short of our professed values and ideals, as we inevitably do. In my view, the cycle of striving to be our best selves and falling short and striving again has been the main driver of America’s progress, however uneven and insufficient.

Published Date: Tuesday, November 5th, 2019 | 06:42 PM

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