Today's WorldView: Trump inherits the disaster of Iraq

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The Iraqi prime minister's visit to Washington raises more questions than answers.
Tuesday, March 21, 2017 

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On the 14th anniversary of the launch of an American-led invasion that reshaped the Middle East, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi met President Trump in the White House.

His visit was drowned out in the American news cycle by feverish coverage of hearings on Capitol Hill regarding Russian meddling in last year's election. Sensing the moment, Abadi gestured to the national conversation, joking while sitting alongside Trump that he had nothing to do with wiretapping the then-candidate's phones. (Earlier in the day, FBI director James B. Comey had confirmed that his agency had found no evidence to support Trump's allegations about wiretapping.)

But the White House's relationship with the Iraqi government is hardly a laughing matter. As U.S.-backed forces and Iraqi government troops steadily take back the crucial northern city of Mosul from the Islamic State, attention is shifting to what happens once the battle is won. There are vexing challenges ahead: The weak Shiite-led government in Baghdad has yet to prove it has the ability to govern provinces where Sunnis comprise the majority; a movement for a referendum on an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq is gaining traction; a host of other regional powers, including Turkey and Iran, are also exerting influence on the ground in competing ways.

“We are proving that Daesh can be eliminated,” Abadi asserted Monday, referring to the jihadists of the Islamic State. He was speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace, an agency of the government that the Trump administration plans to eliminate in its new proposed budget. Abadi offered a message of hope for his nation, arguing that things were looking up and that the country's fledgling democracy was successfully moving forward.

Still, critics, including human rights organizations, are concerned about the effects of an entrenched and deepening sectarianism. Abadi's Shiite-dominated government remains distrusted in areas reclaimed from the Islamic State. Key Iranian-backed Shiite militias mobilized by Abadi's government to fight in the anti-Islamic State campaign have been accused of carrying out their own massacres of Sunnis deemed to have collaborated with the extremist group.

A report to be aired by PBS Frontline on Tuesday details the mass disappearances of Sunni boys and men in a village outside of Baghdad once occupied by the Islamic State. Locals claim that the men were abducted by the Shiite fighters who had liberated the town from the jihadists. On a wider scale, as my colleagues have reported, the ineptitude of local officials and endemic graft among the police and judiciary in certain parts of Iraq have created room for Islamic State cells to return to provincial cities where they were only recently ousted.

“We have inherited many problems, some of which are intrinsic in our society,” Abadi admitted during his talk at the USIP.

It's uncertain how the Trump administration will reckon with any of these problems. Ever since the election campaign, Trump's messaging on Iraq has been confusing. On one hand, he consistently decried the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 (although it emerged that he was for the war before he was against it) and signaled that he wanted a radical break from his party's history of engineering regime change and embarking on nation-building projects in the Middle East.

But at the same time, Trump has pushed for a more muscular approach to fighting the Islamic State and exhibited an alarming disregard for Iraqi sovereignty with his perplexing calls to take the nation's oil.

And then he decided to include Iraq on the list of seven Muslim-majority countries in the travel ban to the United States. (A second executive order removed Iraq from the list and faces renewed legal challenges in the courts.)

“President Trump has talked a lot about defeating the Islamic State but done virtually nothing to address Iraq itself, except to lump it in with other suspect states in a temporary travel ban, a move he ultimately reversed amid protests from his own commanders, who objected to treating an ally with the back of the hand,” wrote Politico's Susan Glasser.

“While the Obama administration deserves blame for sidestepping Iraq’s political challenges, Mr. Trump has quickly exacerbated the trouble,” noted a February editorial in The Washington Post.

The White House's proposed cuts to the State Department and its general apathy toward multilateral diplomacy don't inspire observers with much confidence.

“Trump’s efforts to 'deconstruct' the non-Pentagon parts of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus — as well as cuts to support for international institutions — threatens to strip the United States of the tools required in Iraq and elsewhere, just when we need them most,” wrote Jeff Prescott and Daniel Benaim, two former Obama administration officials, in Foreign Policy. “Unless we plan another occupation of Iraq (or genuinely and absurdly seek to 'take the oil') it is a reality that as the fighting stops our military will step aside and the State Department, USAID, the IMF, and the U.N. will have to take over.”

And the situation on the ground is incredibly complex. Beyond rising Kurdish nationalist aspirations and the difficulty of reintegrating Sunni parts of Iraq, Glasser pointed out that Iraq's leader also has to deal with Baghdad's turbulent politics.

“Abadi, who faces reelection next year, has much to worry about from within his own Shiite political party — as well as from the former prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, widely seen as still waiting in the wings for Abadi to stumble,” Glasser wrote.

Trump has criticized his predecessors for gifting Iraq to Iran. But the Trump administration's antagonism toward Iran could alienate Abadi and other prominent Iraqi Shiites in Baghdad.

“Using Iraq as a battleground as part of a broader strategy to counter Iran would also ignore the foundation of America’s presence there — as the invited guest of the Iraqi government,” Prescott and Benaim wrote. "As much as Iraq needs us, we also need Iraq, particularly as we pursue persistent threats against the homeland — including as a hub for the continued fight against the Islamic State in Syria."

In Washington, Abadi sought to show that his government is capable of being a solid partner to the United States. But the underlying tensions were not far from the surface.

“We have to work with others. We have to build bridges,” Abadi remarked at the close of his USIP talk. He ended with another joke at Trump's expense: “Otherwise, what do you do? You build walls?”

• Monday was a grim day for Trump’s relationship with the truth. During a lengthy hearing with the House Intelligence Committee, FBI Director James B. Comey revealed that the Trump campaign has been under FBI investigation since last July for its alleged connections to the Kremlin. Comey also rejected Trump’s earlier tweeted claim that former president Barack Obama had ordered wiretaps on Trump Tower. In the same hearing, NSA Director Michael S. Rogers also dismissed the White House suggestion that Obama asked British intelligence to spy on Trump — something British authorities had already angrily rejected.

Trump sought to preempt the day’s disclosures with a series of tweets arguing the hubbub over Russia was “fake news” pushed by resentful Democrats. Comey’s testimony appeared to prove otherwise.

“For Trump, Comey’s testimony punctuates what has been a troubling first two months as president. His approval ratings, which were historically low at his inauguration, have fallen even farther. Gallup’s tracking poll as of Sunday showed just 39 percent of Americans approve of Trump’s job performance, with 55 percent disapproving,” wrote the Post’s Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker. “The Comey episode threatens to damage Trump’s credibility not only with voters, but with lawmakers of his own party whose support he needs to pass the health-care bill later this week in the House, the first legislative project of his presidency.”

• It’s finally official: On March 29, British Prime Minister Theresa May will trigger Article 50, formally initiating the process to remove Britain from the European Union. For those scratching their heads, my colleague Adam Taylor has a terrific explainer on what Article 50 is — the E.U. legislation that enables a member state to exit.

Taylor lays out the complicated steps ahead, which mandates that a country has two years to reach an agreement over its departure from the continental bloc.

“Whether it happens that way or not is harder to say. Many experts suspect that as the Article 50 process has never been implemented before, it may take a long time to go through all the details,” Taylor explains. “If no deal is reached within two years, it is possible that Britain would be forced into what has been dubbed a ‘dirty Brexit.’ Even if it does take less than two years, it may result in only a transition deal, with the hard work of reimagining Britain's relationship with the E.U. still to come.”

• The New York Times has an interesting story reported from Slovakia on the neo-fascist revival sweeping across parts of Europe.

“Once in the shadows, Europe’s neo-fascists are stepping back out, more than three-quarters of a century after Nazi boots stormed through Central Europe, and two decades since a neo-Nazi resurgence of skinheads and white supremacists unsettled the transition to democracy. In Slovakia, neo-fascists are winning regional offices and taking seats in the multiparty Parliament they hope to replace with strongman rule,” writes Rick Lyman.

He goes on: “They are still on the edges of European politics, yet offer another reminder of how turbulent politics have become. Just as the rise of far-right parties is forcing many mainstream politicians to pivot rightward, so, too, has the populist mood energized the most extremist right-wing groups, those flirting with or even embracing fascist policies that trace back to World War II.”

• France’s presidential candidates clashed in a televised debate on Monday. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen and independent centrist Emmanuel Macron were the debate’s headliners, which involved the five main contenders for the two-round election. Polls show Macron and Le Pen ahead of the rest of the pack, which includes the conservative, scandal-plagued former frontrunner Francois Fillon.

Le Pen made clear she would bar all immigration — “legal and illegal” — to France and, like Trump, said she would expand the security measures in place to deal with the supposed foreign threat. Fillon countered that such steps would only increase France’s debt burden.

The debate’s most memorable moment involved Macron’s vehement reaction to a barb hurled by Le Pen. “You are lying [to voters] by twisting the truth,” Macron said.


FBI Director James Comey, left, and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers, testify on Capitol Hill (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Cynicism in the swamp

If you were to ask someone in Washington what Monday's House Intelligence Committee hearing was about, you might find two competing narratives. One was about alleged Russian interference in the U.S. election. And the other was about leaks.

President Trump himself fired off a series of tweets in the early hours of the morning that suggested the leaks coming from inside the government were the "real story." Then his Republican colleagues picked up the thread at the hearing, with South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy even going so far as to name people with high-ranking positions in the Obama administration, one after the other, and ask if they could be leakers.

That narrative struck many observers as absurd — especially given Gowdy's own history on the Benghazi Committee, which was known to leak information to journalists.

And those pushing from the other side certainly had plenty of ammunition. Not only did the FBI's Comey suggest he had "no evidence" to support President Trump's claim that Obama had ordered Trump Tower to be wiretapped, he also admitted that there was counterintelligence investigation into the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election — and that the probe was looking at links between Trump campaign associates and the Russian government.

It remains to be seen which one of these narratives has more momentum, but the impact of both will likely matter still.

As the Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, a Californian Republican who had worked with Trump during the campaign, put it, there was now a "big gray cloud" over some of the current administration’s leaders, including the President himself. Aside from eroding domestic trust in the government, the revelations have complicated relations with Russia, making it hard to imagine a closer relationship with Moscow like the one Trump talked about on the campaign trail.

And talk of leaks could cast a cloud of mistrust over the U.S. intelligence community, too. If, as Comey said Monday, Russia seeks to influence the 2020 or 2018 elections, they may find it easier than ever. — Adam Taylor


Moscow, on Monday. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

As Adam Taylor outlined above, the narrative around Russian interference in American politics is, like much else, sharply divided on the domestic front. But how does it look on the streets of Moscow? The stereotype of the brainwashed Russian is outdated, says our Moscow bureau chief, David Filipov. Below, he answers the question: "How do Russians — everyday Russians — view their country’s reemergence as America’s favorite boogeyman?"

"To understand how ordinary Russians feel about the reemergence of their country as America’s favorite boogeyman, start with how they feel about their own leaders.

"Most Russians get most of their information from state-controlled TV, but they’ve been lied to enough that they don’t completely trust anything it says.

"The Kremlin constantly tells Russians when to be proud and what to be proud of — for example, government employees were ordered to attend Saturday’s three-year anniversary of the annexation of Crimea. Privately Russians share little of the official version of national pride. But they are proud of what their countrymen can accomplish.

"So, when Russia’s leaders say they have nothing to do with hacking U.S. elections, Russians’ natural reaction is to disbelieve them. But then, when Americans say Moscow tipped the elections in favor of President Trump, Russians say 'We have the best hackers' and 'Why is America so weak?'

"Per the Kremlin narrative, the investigation into President Trump’s ties to Russia is a cartoonish manifestation of Russophobia wrapped in a conspiracy to prevent improving U.S.-Russian ties.

"No doubt these attitudes have rubbed off on the public. But Russians possess a natural skepticism and a penchant for morbid humor in the face of what they’re being told.

"Russians are having fun with the idea that they are feared. The question 'Have you ever met with Kislyak?' became a one-line joke in Moscow after senior Trump officials got in hot water for not reporting their meetings with Russia’s ambassador to Washington. T-shirts, buttons and refrigerator magnets now depict fearsome Russian bears. Memes? All over the place.

"Behind the humor is a sense of consternation. Any American who has talked politics with a Russian hears two questions.

"'Why are you so afraid of us?' And, 'Why do you blame us for everything?'"


With all the craziness surrounding the House Intelligence Committee hearing today, Trump's budget proposal feels like it was rolled out ages ago. But the budget proposal gives us the clearest sense of what he and his administration actually want to do. And what role the United States will play in the world. The general consensus, from the liberal establishment, and from abroad more generally, is that the U.S. will shrink its ability to wield soft influence on a global stage in lieu of a more muscular army. But some columnists are giving the administration's line — that they can "do more with less" — a chance. 

How we can do more with less foreign aid
In most cases, Trump is right.
By Tina Ramirez | RealClearWorld  •  Read more »
Bill Gates: Cutting foreign aid makes America less safe
Foreign aid is often in the hot seat, but today the heat is cranked up especially high.
By Bill Gates | TIME  •  Read more »
The American presidency is shrinking before the world’s eyes
Foreigners are seeing the country take on a smaller stature.
By Michael Gerson | The Washington Post  •  Read more »
US influence will decline
Trump’s budget plan is a faithful reflection of his ideology and prejudices.
By Editorial Board | El Pais  •  Read more »

Ethics watchdogs are growling after Politco reported that Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, is getting her own office in the White House's West Wing for what is apparently a staff position in the administration. Ethical uproar is not new to Ivanka; she is now being sued by a San Francisco fashion store claiming that her father’s presidency has given her an unfair advantage in the market. The Los Angeles Times explains why all this is so disappointing to some American liberals.

Ivanka Trump set to get West Wing office as role expands
The first daughter will not, however, become a government employee, raising ethics questions.
By Annie Karni | Politico  •  Read more »
Ivanka Trump brand sued by San Francisco fashion retailer over unfair competition
San Francisco fashion boutique Modern Appealing Clothing has sued Ivanka Trump's fashion company over unfair competition.
By Peter Hockaday | SFGate  •  Read more »
What happened to Ivanka? The liberal hope of the Trump administration remains silent
Although friends described her core beliefs as more in tune with the Democratic Party, Ivanka Trump appears to have put family loyalty to her father above her own political views.
By Barbara Demick | The Los Angeles Times  •  Read more »

President Trump's budget proposal includes around $2 billion for the construction of a wall as high as 30 feet along the portions of the U.S.-Mexico border not already walled off. The wall is an extension of the derogatory tone Trump has used regarding Mexico, in which he casts them more as competitors and criminals, rather than one of the United States' biggest trading partners and allies. Mexico bureau chief Josh Partlow wrote yesterday on how that zenith in relations could be brought to its lowest low in more than a century by Trump. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

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Trump wants to defund PBS. ‘Sesame Street’ brutally parodied him for decades.
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You might think this is a person in an ultra realistic chicken costume, but you'd be wrong.

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