An Unsteady Hand On the Helm

“Because it’s an economic enemy, because they have taken advantage of us like nobody in history. They have; it’s the greatest theft in the history of the world what they’ve done to the United States. They’ve taken our jobs.” — Candidate Donald J. Trump 3 Nov 2015 responding to a question on China.

“President Xi of China, and I, are working together to give massive Chinese phone company, ZTE, a way to get back into business, fast. Too many jobs in China lost. Commerce Department has been instructed to get it done!”  — The President on Twitter on 13 May 2018

To some, developments surrounding the giant Chinese telecommunications firm ZTE may be a little too technical and down in the weeds.  I think it is a perfect example of how erratically and whimsically the current president operates.  It may also demonstrate that the president is primarily interested in policies that benefit him or his company rather than the nation as a whole.

Stick with me while I outline what happened.  It really is not that complicated.  Consider these facts regarding ZTE.

  • ZTE is a Chinese government-owned telecommunications company, based in China, that manufactures cellphones and other equipment with clients in 160 countries and research centers around the world.
  • ZTE uses U.S. technology and parts that make up nearly half of the materials they use.  They are also the fourth largest seller of smartphones in the U.S.
  • In 2012 the U.S. House Intelligence Committee released an in-depth report on ZTE (and another Chinese company named Huawei) saying that the company poses a national security threat because they are stealing U.S. technology.  The report recommends that “U.S. government systems, particularly sensitive systems, should not include Huawei or ZTE equipment, including component parts.” There was, and presumably still is, a concern that ZTE may be using their products to spy on the U.S. or to provide the opportunity to disrupt essential activities.
  • In 2016 the Commerce Department found that ZTE was violating sanctions laws by selling devices, that included U.S. made parts, to Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria and Cuba — all under embargoes at the time.
  • In April, the Commerce Department banned it from buying U.S. technology or products for seven years.
  • The Defense Department banned the sale of ZTE and Huawei phones on military bases through the Post Exchange and Navy Exchange systems as they “may pose an unacceptable risk to the department’s personnel, information and mission.”
  • Last week ZTE reported that they were stopping all “major operating activities” which was widely understood to mean that they were going out of business because they could no longer get U.S. parts needed to continue their operation.

So, to summarize, the president is helping a Chinese company that is well-known as a sanctions violator and a threat to U.S. national security to get back into business by ordering the U.S. Commerce Department to “get it done!”  Why?

To be blunt, no one is quite sure.  But of course many people are never quite sure why Mr. Trump does many of the things that he does.  There are several theories, however.

The U.S. is about to enter into a major trade war with China if negotiations taking place this week fail.  Chinese President XI was reported to be “furious” about the decision to ban sales of parts to ZTE and threatened to impose harsh sanctions on the U.S. and/or to walk away from the trade negotiations.  So, apparently, the president on Sunday caved to his demands before ever reaching the negotiating table because it was politically more important to him to get a “deal” than to protect national security.  (Some analysts speculate that North Korea’s Kim Jong Un saw how quickly the president gave in to get something he wanted (“better trade deals with China”) and thus, among other reasons, threatened to walk away from talks with the U.S. in order get concessions.  But I digress.)

As part of that political calculation, Mr. Trump may be, rightly or wrongly, putting the interests of his supporters above national security.  When the Trump administration unilaterally imposed tariffs on Chinese imports earlier this year, the Chinese retaliated by refusing to buy U.S. soy beans.  China is the second-largest market for U.S. agricultural exports.  According to the Department of Agriculture, soy beans are the main crop sold to them.  By the beginning of May, China reportedly cancelled all purchases of U.S. soy beans and turned to Canada and Brazil for their supply.  If the ban continues, it will have a major economic impact in farm communities around the country, but especially in the mid-west.  Farmers are rightly worried that once the Chinese shift to other markets, they will never return to buying U.S. soy beans, whether or not tariffs and trade wars are resolved.  To me, this is yet one more example of Mr. Trump making a grand pronouncement and acting tough without consideration, or more accurately without understanding, the ramifications of his actions.  Other nations will not be dictated to by our president, especially other strong countries with their own interests at stake.

Other possible reasons may be that he may wrangle concessions from China as a quid pro quo to helping ZTE, thus helping to avoid a deep and wide-spread trade war.  Mr. Trump may also have done it because he needs China’s help and cooperation in dealing with Kim Jong Un in North Korea.

There may also be another reason for Mr. Trump caving so quickly.  He tweeted (is this the only way he can communicate with his own administration?) his command to the Commerce Department to save Chinese jobs on Sunday.  Only three days before that, another Chinese government-owned company agreed to finance 500 million dollars of development in Indonesia that will include a hotel, condominiums, and (what else?) a championship golf course with the Trump brand.  The deal will significantly benefit Trump, Inc., the company that he continues to get income from as president.  The deal has been in the works for a considerable period of time, but we can all be assured that the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the actions against ZTE or the impending trade talks.  According to some Constitutional scholars, it may also put the president in violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution, which bans gifts from foreign governments.

Whichever reason, or combination of reasons, explains his abrupt about face, Mr. Trump’s action sets a dangerous precedent.  Besides continuing to reinforce the international perception that Mr. Trump is mercurial and cannot be trusted — thus raising questions as to why enter any deal with the U.S. — it violates the long-standing U.S. principle that trade decisions should not be based solely on domestic political reasons.  This is particularly crucial with respect to trade enforcement decisions.  Once other leaders discern that Mr. Trump is willing to cave on issues of trade or national security for purely domestic political reasons, expect more of them to demand concessions for their own issues.

Additionally, putting politics above enforcement weakens our positions on the rule of law and the normal course of interactions between nations.  If  there are no rules, or if the rules can change on Mr. Trump’s whim, we lose all standing to insist that other governments abide by their own agreements.  There appears to be little to no consideration by Mr. Trump as to what happens next when he makes these arbitrary decisions.  As I wrote in my last piece in this space, a prudent decision maker and government leader will consider the consequences of decisions and the subsequent actions that must take place — whether successful, or not successful, or when perverse and unexpected consequences result.

Finally, there are those in and out of government that worry that the Negotiator-in-Chief really is not that good at it.  In this case and others, he demonstrates a propensity to give up leverage (in this case the actions against ZTE) before getting the other side to offer up their own concessions.  In this case China offered nothing in return for the president rescinding the actions against ZTE.  Based on his tweet on Monday, it may be that Mr. Trump’s biggest concern is keeping his good buddy President XI happy.

“ZTE, the large Chinese phone company, buys a big percentage of individual parts from U.S. companies. This is also reflective of the larger trade deal we are negotiating with China and my personal relationship with President Xi.”
This Tweet came only hours after Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said, in relation to the ZTE issue, that “our position has been that that’s an enforcement action separate from trade.”  So much for the left hand, right hand, and all that.
The ship of state sails on.  We can only guess where we end up.

Checking In On Syria

When I was working in the Pentagon as the Chief of Staff to a high-ranking political appointee in the Clinton Administration, I was exposed to a lot of decisions that had a lasting impact on real people’s lives.  I came to understand that despite what some may opine, those officials do understand the importance of their decisions and do not take them lightly.  As the change-over from the Clinton administration to the Bush administration occurred, I asked my boss what his biggest regret might be.  Without hesitation, he said “Rwanda.”  I have heard similar regrets expressed about Rwanda privately and in public interviews from other Clinton era officials and from the president.

As you may remember, in the spring and early summer of 1994 an estimated 700,000 Rwandans were murdered (some estimates place the number of Rwandans killed as over a million).  In simple terms it was a genocidal slaughter of members of the Tutsi tribe (the minority tribe in Rwanda) by the majority Hutu tribe which also controlled the government and the majority of military and police forces.  Ordinary Hutu civilians were recruited to help with the slaughter and often neighbors turned on neighbors.  It was horrific.  Unfortunately, this is not so uncommon in the history of mankind around the world.  What made this the one international incident that the officials involved wish they could do over again was the fact that the international community did nothing to stop the killing.  After all, it was an unimportant African nation that had no impact on US national interests and it was “a local conflict.”

In my view our current administration will look back on Syria and have the same regrets that those in our government in 1994 have about Rwanda.  By most credible reports, over 100,000 Syrian civilians have been systematically killed and an estimated 2 million more have fled their country as refugees to neighboring Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan.  Those countries are struggling with the economic and security implications of such a massive influx of people.  This is a major crisis after nearly three years of civil war.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is systematically killing off those civilians still in contested cities and areas of the country through starvation and the calculated use of indiscriminate “barrel bombs” (essentially 55 gallon drums filled with explosives, gasoline and shrapnel pushed out the back of helicopters and that can level homes and make buildings uninhabitable — a very inexpensive but very efficient way of instilling fear and killing people.)

Bashar is supported by the Russians, Iranians and Hezbollah and there is very little will in the rest of the world to put an end to the civil war.  Meanwhile the killing continues unabated.

After two ground wars in the Muslim world, there is very little to no interest for the United States to get involved militarily.  We proved our disinterest last fall when Bashar used chemical weapons against his own citizens.  If the United States is not interested, then much of the rest of the world is also going to stand-off rather than get involved.  There have been some efforts, funneled primarily through Saudi and Qatari sources, to get small arms and some humanitarian relief to the forces opposing Bashar and the trapped civilians, respectively.

Oh, and let’s not forget last September’s negotiated settlement to remove chemical weapons from Syria in lieu of bombing that country.  After a surprisingly effective start, very little of the chemical stockpile has been removed or destroyed and the disarmament is well behind schedule.  At the same time, Bashar has discovered that he does not need chemical weapons to kill thousands of his countrymen — starvation and barrel bombs work just fine without incurring the wrath (in the form of military strikes) of the rest of the world.

To me, this is not merely a civil war (“a local conflict”) that has no impact on US national interests.  In addition to the humanitarian aspects of the crisis — which is an important principle of American international relations — there are important economic and security issues at stake.  The major influx of refugees is having a destabilizing impact on the adjacent nations, especially Lebanon (already in a very precarious state) and Jordan (a long time source of stability in the area and a friend of the United States).  As in Iraq and Afghanistan, future terrorists are getting on-the-job-training in the heat of combat.  Areas of several nations are not under government control and as we found in Afghanistan, this leads to what amounts to safe havens for ne’er-do-well types that have very bad intentions towards the United States.  Additionally, it leaves Israel in a precarious position as other bad actors have a base to threaten their security.  The list goes on, but the point is that the fallout from Syria’s civil war could have a profound long-term impact on important American national security interests.  Yet, we are doing very little to end it.  Recent talks in Geneva between the Syrian government and opposition leaders sponsored by the United States and other western nations went nowhere.  Worse than nowhere because now the participants see no reason to negotiate — if ever negotiations were actually possible.

So the question is what should the United States do about this situation?  To use a long-standing diplomatic phrase, “I don’t know.”  The majority of Americans and the Congress clearly demonstrated last fall that they have no desire to get involved militarily.  At.  All.  (There may be some point in the future where we may find that we have no choice but to get involved due to the course of events.)  For now, no way, no how, is there the will to get the United States military involved — even to stop the helicopters from dropping the barrel bombs through a no-fly zone, as was used successfully in other conflicts such as Bosnia, Iraq, and Libya.

I have no magic wand to get our government or the international community involved to stop the systematic elimination of thousands of lives.  Ideas that have been put forward include giving the opposition forces more money, food and much better and more powerful weapons than they’ve been supplied thus far.  Although used in fits and starts, this course of action has been slow and sporadic because not all of the groups opposing Bashar are friendly to the United States and several of those groups are openly hostile to the west.  Some are militant fundamentalist Islamist groups.  Since we are concerned about where the money and weapons may end up, too little is flowing from the west to the resistance .  However, many reports indicate that the best equipped and most wealthy (relatively speaking) fighters are the Islamist groups.  They are getting what they need and as a result, fighters not normally inclined to join those groups do so in order to be more effective.  The US and Europe identified opposition leaders and groups that are at least friendly towards the United States.  We should do all that we can to supply them with the equipment and money required to exceed that of the Islamist forces and thereby give them the most effective fighters and the most influential political leadership.  We need to take the chance that 100% of it will not stay out of the hands of those we do not want to get it.

To understand why I think we should take that chance it is important to remember that Syria — with a population that practices Islam — is not an Islamist state.  Before the civil war it was a modern secular nation with knowledgeable technocrats able to keep a modern society going.  Most Syrians, while practicing Muslims, do not want a fundamentalist Islamic state.  While opposing Bashar, alliances will form that may be uncomfortable for us.  In the end, it is possible, even probable, that the majority of the properly equipped and funded new leadership and their followers will continue to want Syria to be the secular state it has been since independence from France following World War II.

They may never be our “friend,” but now is the chance to influence future leaders and future events.  With no participation we have no chance of influencing anything.

Efforts to aid civilians trapped in cities and areas of conflict are more difficult.  A strong United Nations effort could break this log jam, especially if the United States and the European Union put a full effort into creating the means to do so.  Some small progress was made earlier this year when the UN did get into a few areas to evacuate civilians.  During the evacuation several of the groups came under hostile fire and the effort was suspended indefinitely.  The dilemma is to find a way to provide for the security of UN missions to aid the civilian population without creating the need for a large military force to protect them.  Of course, most UN efforts to get involved in Syria have been thwarted by Russia, a permanent member of the Security Council with veto power over any resolution that they deem to be a threat to their interests in the area and specifically anything that limits Bashar’s regime in Syria.

There are a lot of smart people in this country and in this world — a lot smarter than me.  Many of them also have an impact on government decisions and are privy to intelligence and covert efforts that may be ongoing that I do not know anything about.  I hope so, and I hope that the efforts are effective, but I see no evidence of it to date.

I do know this.  Syria was not a backward country with a bunch of nomads living in tents in the desert.  It was a modern nation with modern citizens most of whom were educated and aware.  It is now a killing field.  Without effective action, Syria will be this decade’s Rwandan humanitarian disaster and it will be a continuing threat to our long-term national security interests.