Is Trump Russia’s Manchurian Candidate? No. Here’s Why


“Is Trump a Manchurian Candidate?” The Trump as “Manchurian Candidate” scenario has been a constant query for my colleagues and I since we published our warnings in August and November last year about Russia’s influence campaign on the U.S. presidential election. This loosely plays along the plot line of the 1959 novel and follow up 1962 movie where a communist conspiracy tries to install a dictatorial president in the U.S. In the most dire conspiracy theories today, Donald Trump is portrayed as a covert Russian operative ceding control of America to an ascendant Vladimir Putin. Trump’s supporters instead see the inverse – a new populist president focused on “America First,” seeking to make deals and secure peace through a worldview and foreign policy similar to Russia. Evidence for either of these scenarios remains scant, and conspiracy theorists on both sides of the political spectrum should consider that reality likely rests somewhere in between. Trump’s Russia connections and Putin’s overt support for “the Donald” should be evaluated not as dichotomous positions, but as the ends of a spectrum of four possible scenarios (Figure 1).


Scenario #1: “Natural Ally”

President Trump and many of his supporters contend that the new administration represents nothing more than the natural alliance between two men seeking their own country’s interests through toughness. Trump’s affinity for Russia dates back to the late 1980s by some accounts, and his business pursuits in the country have been well documented.


The “natural ally” explanation for Trump’s Russian affinity would only make sense if the president had an enduring worldview and foreign policy stance over several electoral cycles that justified and explained why an alliance with Russia would be both good for America and put “America first.” President Trump may know business, but foreign policy is not his bailiwick. Prior to his jump into the presidential race, Trump didn’t espouse any clear foreign policy stances suggesting his national security views in general, particularly in regards to Russia. On rare instances where Trump stated foreign policy views prior to his presidential run, he often contradicted himself (i.e. U.S. invasion of Iraq). Trump’s alignment with nearly every Russian foreign policy objective grew in increments, eerily coinciding with the entrance of key aides and advocates into his campaign, not through his own study.


Scenario #2: “Useful Idiot”

Russian influence of Trump most likely falls into the category of what Madeleine Albright called a “Useful Idiot” – a “useful fool” – an enthusiast for Putin supportive of any issue or stance that feeds his ego and brings victory. Russian intelligence for decades identified and promoted key individuals around the world ripe for manipulation and serving their interests. Trump, similar to emerging alternative right European politicians, spouts populist themes of xenophobia, anti-immigration, and white nationalist pride that naturally bring about a retrenchment of U.S. global influence. By spotting this early, Russia could encourage Trump’s ascension and shape his views via three parallel tracks. First, Russia led a never before seen hacking and influence campaign to degrade support for Hilary Clinton and promote Trump among a disenfranchised American populace. As a “useful idiot,” Trump not only benefited from this influence effort, but he urged Russia to find Hilary Clinton’s missing emails – a public call a “Manchurian Candidate” (see Scenario 4 below) would not likely make. Trump even fell for false Russian news stories citing a bogus Sputnik news story at a presidential rally – a glaring and open mistake that would reveal a true “Manchurian Candidate.”


Second, political operatives of other Russian campaigns mysteriously surfaced as close advisors whispering Kremlin lines in Trump’s ear, modifying his world view, sliding in Russian foreign policy positions as mainstream American positions, and even altering the Republican platform to support a Russian position over a Ukrainian ally. Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager who previously worked in Ukraine on behalf of Russia, mistakenly cited a debunked Russia false news story about a terrorist attack on Incirlik airbase in Turkey as a final show of Russian influence before being fired. Carter Page, a Trump campaign linkage, denies being an agent, but has waffled on his meetings with Russian diplomats. The ex-MI6 agent’s dossier alleged secret meetings between Trump officials and Russian agents, but these have yet to be confirmed.


Third, Russia used overt influence and ultimately compromised key Trump advisors and appointees. The former MI6 officer’s dossier noted Russia’s deliberate attempts to sway Green Party candidate Jill Stein and Trump’s first National Security Advisor retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn. This verifiable claim surfaced in the lead up to the presidential election with Flynn’s paid attendance at an RT event and the fact that he sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin called into question the zealous general’s allegiance in his vengeful rants against an Obama administration that fired him. Flynn then lied about his conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak prior to the inauguration which lead to his resignation. Now, Attorney General Sessions has potentially lied during confirmation hearings about meeting this same Ambassador Kislyak during the presidential campaign resulting in his recusing himself from all issues regarding Trump’s ties to Russia. Trump aides have also allegedly been pushing for a back channel deal between Ukraine and Russia, a maneuver between liaisons more typical of a “useful idiot” rather than “Manchurian Candidate” scenario. This sort of meddling provides the Kremlin plausible deniability and still achieves Russia’s objectives: breaking up the European Union, dissolving NATO, and weakening of American influence.


Scenario #3: Compromised

President Trump has been bullish on ISIS, China, and Iran, but has curiously been quite amenable to Russia. One explanation put forth regarding his toughness on all American enemies except Russia is that he is compromised – vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government due to sexual compromise or financial entanglements. Under this scenario, President Trump would not be doing the bidding of Putin on a day-to-day basis, but would bend as needed to a Russian foreign policy position in order to protect himself from public disclosures and the resulting political backlash.


The former British intelligence officer’s dossier made salacious claims of sexual misconduct by Trump during a visit to St. Petersburg. But rumors of sexual compromise have yet to bring forth any real evidence of misbehavior. Furthermore, Russia would have a hard time sexually compromising a president who has been married three times, who may have bragged about his sexual prowess while posing as his own publicist, and who was caught using misogynistic speech in a leaked video. President Trump compromised himself in this fashion, and the voters didn’t seem to care. Should Russia release the alleged provocative video tape now, they would only confirm their meddling and achieve nothing – the dossier leak and U.S. government discussion of the dossier likely inoculated the president from any compromise on a sexual basis if anything even existed.


Trump claims no financial ties to Russia, but these allegations still remain open due to Trump’s refusal to show his tax records and the media’s failure to show any discernible financial ties to Russia. This situation may change in the future and could damage the president. More recently, President Trump’s son appears to have received $50,000 from a pro-Russia group in the weeks leading up to the election. This revelation, alongside absent tax records, suggests that President Trump and his family might be currently or in the future financially compromised through business interests that have not been properly divested by the president – business interests tied to or manipulated by Russia without the full knowledge of the First Family.


Scenario #4: Manchurian Candidate

On the other end of the spectrum, those most traumatized by Trump’s victory have questioned if the U.S. has fallen under the command of the world’s most cunning authoritarian: Vladimir Putin. A “Manchurian Candidate” Trump would be a deliberate plant commanded by the Russian government, aided during the campaign with both a hacking-influence campaign – equipped with key Russian advisors – and funding to help him take the White House.


This scenario is unlikely to be the case for several reasons. Trump’s behavior and policy positions sway with the wind. The famous former British intelligence officer dossier argued that Trump’s behavior in the lead up to the election caused unease amongst Kremlin leaders backing him. Trump openly discusses Russian connections and seems to be unaware of his closest aides ties and contacts to Russian diplomats and intelligence assets. Even Trump’s unfounded tweet storm about the wiretapping of Trump Tower would pose a threat to Russia under the “Manchurian Candidate” scenario. A Russian-directed U.S. president would be more deliberate in policy positions and would conceal rather than discuss connections with Russia. To date, no direct financial or physical contacts and communications can be directly tied to President Trump.


Most importantly, a Manchurian Candidate scenario, if it came to light, would likely result in direct war between the U.S. and Russia. The Russians started their second Cold War with the U.S. years ago, and they are winning. They don’t need a Manchurian candidate; that’s higher cost and higher risk to their efforts. They prefer systematic, indirect, asymmetric engagements that incrementally achieve their goals rather than provoking the U.S. into a direct clash militarily and economically – a fight the Kremlin would likely lose.



What are the implications of these Russian connections for Trump and America?

Regardless of President Trump’s relationship to Russia, the repeated disclosure of Russian influence and connections to his campaign and staff have created considerable turmoil in the White House and America as a whole. Trump’s loose style of alliances and tactical actions make him ideally suited for the “Useful Idiot” scenario of Russian influence as he takes on advisors and positions based on perceived loyalty, yet without a clear understanding of his advisors connections to Russia. Any traditional politician would have sensed the danger implicit in surrounding oneself with people so closely connected to Putin’s intelligence agents.


More importantly, President Trump appears strongly influenced by those in his inner circle. So if they have connections to Russia, whether President Trump knows it or not, he will, at times, be Russia’s pawn on foreign policy issues.

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National Security Advisor McMaster: The Good and Bad of Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice – General Officer Edition”

“I’ve got Captain McMaster for MilArt!” West Point cadets enrolled in Military History 302 during the early 1990’s spoke with pride if they were the lucky few drawing McMaster’s section.  They studied combat under the tutelage of Desert Storm’s most notable young war hero – the commander of E Troop, 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment whose unit decimated Iraqi forces at the battle of 73 Easting.  McMaster led by example, inspired young cadets, soldiers and officers – both up and down the chain-of-command with his knowledge and spirit.  Today, Lieutenant General McMaster continues this legacy becoming National Security Advisor and hopefully saving America from a calamitous start to a new presidential administration.

National security scholars immediately cheered President Trump’s replacement after the disastrously short tenure of retired Lieutenant General Mike Flynn.  Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster too is a popular Army general but more qualified and better suited for the position in every way compared to Flynn.  While General David Petraeus often receives credit for the military’s great “surge” in Iraq a decade ago, McMaster, as commander of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Tal`Afar, largely invented and honed the counterinsurgency approach later adopted by forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. A hero of two wars, McMaster’s inspirational inclusive leadership has won him supporters up and down the ranks in contrast to Flynn’s divisiveness and spite for the Obama administration, which won President Trump’s ear but immediately created a wedge between the intelligence community and the new administration. Flynn’s relationship and perceived influence by Russia led to a scandal bringing his demise.  McMaster on the other hand, as typified by every chapter in his career, recently helped move the U.S. Army out of the counterterrorism era preparing U.S. forces for the sophisticated rise of Russian hybrid warfare used in Ukraine. McMaster’s selection will likely bring unity and focus in countering Russia aggression as compared to Flynn’s bizarre romance with a nation that compromised him.

For Americans fearful of an ideological Stephen Bannon-Mike Flynn cabal propelling the U.S. into an apocalyptic showdown with Islam, McMaster may be the perfect pick for National Security Advisor. He’ll take in information and opinions, study the details, design the strategy, implement it, and drive it through the administration.  McMaster’s competence and battlefield creativity arrives from years of scholarship where he earned both a doctorate and penned an essential tome, Dereliction Of Duty, describing U.S. mistakes in the Vietnam war – notably the failure of U.S. generals to stand up to civilian leadership.  McMaster adapted this lesson into his own career — known for speaking his mind even when it may have cost him promotions. McMaster will be an essential voice to counter President Trump’s affinity for crazy conspiracies of those inside or outside the administration – whether it is chief strategist Bannon or InfoWar’s Alex Jones

Trump’s pick of McMaster seems more palatable in light of his previous choice Flynn, but Americans should be vexed by President Trump’s apparent insecurity with regards to national security. In Trump’s game of national security ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ – only famous military flag officers can participate. Having initially appointed three former generals as National Security Advisor and the heads of the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security, Trump next offered the National Security Advisor position to former Navy SEAL Vice Admiral Bob Harward who turned down the job.  Again, retired General David Petraeus’ name rose into discussions as a replacement, but Petraeus signaled fear of the position noting in Munich:

“Whoever it is that would agree to take that position certainly should do so with some very, very significant assurances that he or she would have authorities over the personnel of the organization — that there would be a commitment to a disciplined process and procedures”.

Reports on Saturday noted four candidates in contention for the position – three of whom were generals.  The lone civilian mentioned, John Bolton, has, for some, a radioactive reputation and too hawkish views.

President Trump’s confused worldview, love for celebrity, and desire to appear tough has him reaching for those who embody what he is not: a strong commander-in-chief. Trump appears unable to envision any viable civilians for top defense positions. This fame fueled policy pattern is not limited to national security either. Trump’s preference for celebrity over credentials appears in domestic politics where he appointed well known presidential candidate and later backer Ben Carson, a doctor, to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development despite having no experience in the discipline or bureaucratic management expertise. Trump paired this odd choice alongside meetings with musician Kanye West and comedian Steve Harvey to discuss cultural issues and inner city problems. In all cases, Trump prefers names he sees on Twitter to those he could review in resumes.

Aside from the singular focus on military generals, Trump’s national security team represents a “Team of Friends” rather than a “Team of Rivals”—the inverse approach pursued by President Obama in 2008.  Generals Mattis, Kelly, and McMaster—and Flynn before him—all fought the last decade’s counterinsurgencies on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. If America needs to fight and win a land war in Asia, no better assemblage of leaders could be collected. Their cohesion will aid communication and bring needed unity of command to a Trump administration off to a disastrous start.

But the “Team of Friends” approach has a downside as well. Trump’s celebrity generals ground combat depth is unparalleled, and their lack of national security breadth is unprecedented.  All are masters in the art of war, but none would be thought of as natural diplomats, economic savants, purveyors of air power, nerds in naval operations, executors of law enforcement and intelligence operations, cyber savvy tacticians, interagency hardball champions, or nation-state chess players. Even more, generals believing they could operate on fewer resources are rarer than snow leopards, calling into question Trump calls for future government cost cutting. 

Traditionally, national security teams seek a diverse blend of civil servants, academics, intelligence professionals and military veterans to adequately prepare the country for a host of scenarios and adversaries. Trump’s generals, no doubt, will be the best fit to fight the Islamic State today and al Qaeda last decade. But, this crew seems ill-suited for many top national security challenges. Easing tensions with China and Iran, quelling Russian cyber attacks and influence operations, restoring alliances in Europe and the Middle East, preparing for the security effects of climate change in the Arctic and mitigating nuclear proliferation – none of these issues will be areas where Trump’s generals will naturally excel. 

McMaster’s selection as National Security will present a tradeoff for U.S. national security.  McMaster is a good choice who will provide stability, experience, discipline and above all a clear head to a White House inner circle littered with ideologues pushing simultaneously for wars with China, Iran, and “Radical Islam.” His first challenge will be to corral the most bizarre and reckless assemblage of White House advisors he inherited. McMaster’s intelligence and deep connections to more reasonable pragmatists like Secretary of Defense Mattis will hopefully prevent the nation from a fall into an ill-conceived conflict. 

At another level though, the U.S. must ultimately return its national security to civilian leadership as designed. National security executed by such a narrow set of military ground commanders will leave America framing all engagements as war, prepared for too few adversaries and focused on a limited set of options. McMaster is the general America needs today, but moving forward America needs fewer generals and a more diverse national security team combining the best of both the military and civilian world moving forward.   

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Yesterday was not a good day in American history

Yesterday was not a good day in American history:

  • We initiated a migration ban on seven Muslim countries, although no major terrorism plot against the U.S. since 9/11 has come from those countries. There are countries that have supplied terrorists in directed plots against the U.S. since 9/11, but they are not on the list. I’m guessing they have been excluded because there are serious financial and business consequences if we were to designate these countries similarly.
  • We stopped Syrian refugees coming to the U.S. even though there are zero incidents of Syrian refugees infiltrating the U.S. to conduct an attack. America’s ISIS recruits and their plots are overwhelmingly homegrown, not foreign infiltrators.
  • We proposed building a wall to stop illegal immigration, even though illegal immigration has been steadily declining for years. We’ve proposed no realistic solutions for the legal immigration of migrant workers or a path to citizenship for them. Walls never work and we could be spending our national resources on things that promote American good (education and health, cough cough, American first) rather than blocking out irrational fears.
  • We again brought up the idea of reintroducing torture, because we need to “fight fire with fire,” even though we know torture doesn’t work, thus justifying our actions by the lowest standard of our adversaries, undermining our principles, all to appear ‘tougher’ rather than ‘better’ than our adversaries. 

Regardless of whether one is a Republican or Democrat, or if these policies don’t come to fruition, it’s hard to understand how any of these policies are about putting America first, or “Making America Great Again.” We pride ourselves on phrases like “nothing to fear but fear itself” but it appears that we have nothing to fear but being insufficiently scared of things that are sometimes real but mostly imagined.

This morning, for the first time in my life, I cannot say that we are the home of the free and the brave, the ones that free the oppressed, that everyone has an equal opportunity, or that we will make the tougher, right decisions in the face of adversity. Even after the 9/11 attacks, and missteps in the War on Terror, I could say this. Today I cannot.

We say we want to “Make America Great Again” but somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that what made America great was that we, Americans, were the world’s refugees, we were the earth’s oddballs that came together and created the best system of governance, invented the world’s advancements, worked harder than the rest, earned our place in the world, promoted and fought for the ideals of freedom and liberty at home and abroad, and worked to give everyone, American or not, an opportunity to make the best life for themselves, their loved ones and their communities.

America is great when we face our fears, don’t compromise our principles, lead by example, and make hard, short-term choices for the greater good of humanity. We know we are great, when others around the world want to emulate us, join us and befriend us.

We are not great because we tell ourselves we are. We are not great because of enticing deals, phony tough talk, or giving into our fears — fears increasingly fueled by bogus narratives. America is not the best country in world history because we said,” stay away, leave us alone, we can do all this by ourselves!”

We landed on the moon, won world wars, achieved standards of living never witnessed in human history, and rescued the downtrodden and the unfortunate from natural and man-made peril. We did all this because no one else could, no one else would, it wasn’t “America First,” it was “America the Beautiful.”

Many will see this through their own partisan lens (shocking!). I know and like many of the more responsible appointees coming into parts of the administration and I hope they can re-direct things soon. But the past week’s words and policies have consequences. America is “not safer” and definitely not “greater” by any of these new policies from the first week.

The pendulum will swing back, and I hope not too many Americans, particularly those in uniform that have carried the greatest sacrifice since 9/11, suffer the consequences of this past week’s tough talk.

President Trump may be the best thing for America in the end, not because he makes us great again, but because he makes us, as Americans, want to be great again in spite of him, not because of him.

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Why al Qaeda and Islamic State Threats To Attack The West Should Be Taken More Seriously Now

Much like other moments when al Qaeda seemed destined for defeat, an emerging force arises to breathe life into the ranks of global jihadists: this time, it was the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric for the last eighteen months has focused on being “tougher” on the Islamic State despite the group’s steady decline throughout the presidential campaign. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s leaders could not craft a more preferable American foreign policy for promoting global jihad if they tried. Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, advocated the return of torture, suggested aligning with Russia and by extension the Assad regime against the Islamic State, vowed to fill the Guantanamo detention center with “bad dudes,” and rejected the idea of taking in Syrian refugees.

Each of these policy positions demonstrates a complete reversal of U.S. strategy and narrative going back to 2006 when first the Bush and later the Obama administrations sought to narrow the fight to core terror group members and extract America from nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coming up on sixteen years since the 9/11 attacks, Team Trump seems committed to affirming al Qaeda’s original justifications for attacking the U.S. – i.e., defeat the “far enemy” they believe backs apostate regimes (“near enemy”) suppressing the Muslim world.

For terrorists with a globalist view, particularly members of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the Trump administration is a dream come true. Jihadi globalists have argued for decades that the Muslim world was at war with the West. Trump’s top national security advisors agree. Bin Laden, if he were still alive, or Zawahiri today could not have picked an opposition team more perfect to their narratives and purpose than what will arrive in office on January 20. LTG (Ret) Michael Flynn, the incoming National Security Advisory, has called “Islam a Cancer,” and he routinely lumps a wide range of disparate adversaries into a grand evil alliance. His discussion of a broad war on an amorphous, largely undefined “Radical Islam” has been echoed by Trump advisors Sebastian Gorka, Clare Lopez, and Whalid Phares who collectively have alleged the creeping of Sharia law in the United States and the penetration of the U.S. government’s intelligence services by the Muslim Brotherhood. They also have advocated for allying with Russia and partnering with dictators to put down the Islamic State. These advisors and many of their harder line supporters in the U.S. government have advocated for years a hedgehog (“one big thing”) solution – ridding the world of “Radical Islam” (whatever that may be).

Scenario: Yeehaw vs. Jihad – The Self-fulfilling Prophecy of a Global Terrorist Showdown

Trump and his national security team must be tough moving forward or risk becoming a fraud in the face of adversity. This dynamic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where aggressive clamping down on a broad jihadi conspiracy entices extremists to attack. Meanwhile, jihadists with a globalist view seek to drag the U.S. into war in a Muslim country, hoping to unite the followers of Islam under their banner in a global battle against the West. Each side gets the fight they seek; both sides ultimately prove themselves right through their aggression.

If Zawahiri wanted al Qaeda to be thrust back into the spotlight, regain steam during the Islamic State’s decline, pull the U.S. to over-commit again in the Middle East, bring the West to back apostate dictators, seal an alliance between Russia and the U.S., unify divisions between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and convince Muslims worldwide that the West is, in fact, at war with Islam, now is the time to attack. The Islamic State is similarly motivated to strike. Any remaining Islamic State fighters with access to Western targets might have one last chance to revive a shrinking caliphate. A pinprick strike against a U.S. target in the homeland or even abroad might very well set off a Trump administration poised for a dramatic, over-sized response. Even further, Trump’s advisors and appointees appear dangerously out of sync for the start of a new administration.

Two years ago, al Qaeda’s leader Zawahiri told the Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra to hold back on attacking the West. Curiously, Zawahiri appears no longer hesitant about striking the U.S. stating in his January 5 speech, “We invite our mujahid nation to make the jihad against the modern day false idol, America, and its allies, their first priority as much as they can afford.”

The question, today, for Zawahiri and jihadi globalists, isn’t “should we attack?” but “can we attack?” The U.S. and its allies have aggressively pursued external operations cells planning attacks in the West. Al Qaeda likely doesn’t have a 9/11-sized attack in its pipeline. But, they also don’t need such scale to provoke the U.S. The Islamic State or al Qaeda could execute gun runs and bombings reminiscent of the Islamic State’s recent Ramadan campaign hitting Westerners abroad. The abundance of Trump properties worldwide also provides an array of symbolic targets for jihadists to hit to further provoke a thin-skinned president. Al Qaeda and its affiliates might also target the oil and gas industry, a common economic target of past campaigns, or major multinational corporations noting the ties of Trump’s ultra wealthy appointees to multinational corporations. Some might see this targeting calculus as spit-balling, but we should remember al Qaeda once targeted the Lockheed Martin CEO as an asymmetric counter to the drone program that was decimating their ranks.

I have no insight into recent rumors of an inauguration timed terrorist attack. However, the stars do seem in line for a globalist jihadi comeback (AGAIN!). This is only one of several scenarios emerging from the Islamic State’s wake, and I would note that if the West doesn’t see a directed al Qaeda attack or Islamic State attack provoking the U.S. in the next six months, then it would suggest that globalists either don’t have the capability to strike the U.S. as thought and/or that Western counterterrorism has gotten very good at detecting and disrupting terrorists ability to strike the West. Only time will tell.

Author’s Note: In October 2016, I was preparing an updated terrorism forecast regarding al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and whatever comes next. But I got distracted by a more pressing issue. Two colleagues and I decided to publish our long study of Russian influence operations against the U.S. electorate, and this delayed completion of a longer forecast of what might come from the third foreign fighter glut after Syria. Any forecast I would have made in October would surely have been off the mark, failing to account on the unanticipated changes and uncertainty of U.S. and resulting Western foreign policy and counterterrorism strategy. Rather than do a linear sequence of posts leading up to my final foreign fighter and terrorism futures forecast, I moved this scenario forward in the series due to its immediate relevance post inauguration. The rest of “Countering Terrorism From The Third Foreign Fighter Glut” and additional scenarios will come out here at FPRI in the coming weeks.

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Japan’s Precarious Position in the Asia

Japanese destroyers in column formation

Over the last few years, Japan’s foreign policy gained a coherence rarely seen in decades.  No doubt pressure from Japan’s natural rivals in Asia—a rising China and a recalcitrant Russia—have helped to focus the minds of Japanese policymakers.  Certainly those closest to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe seemed convinced that Japan needed to improve its security situation.  By the beginning of 2016, it seemed as though Japan had done just that.

A Firmer Footing

While President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” proved disappointing, Japanese policymakers saw value in Obama’s support for a “rules-based international order.”  In practical terms, what that meant was that Japan could at least count on the United States to remain engaged in Asia and underpin its security.  For much of 2016, that seemed likely to continue.  After all, Obama’s nominal successor, Hillary Clinton, led in the U.S. presidential election polls.  Though Clinton had renounced her earlier support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement that Japan hoped would be the basis of Asia’s future economic architecture, most observers expected her to reverse herself again if she became president.

Hence, Abe had every reason to believe that his efforts to improve Japan’s security would be built on a reasonably solid foundation.  He tirelessly traveled throughout Asia cultivating new friendships, especially with the countries in Southeast Asia.  He encouraged Japanese companies to invest in them; he forged security relationships with them; and he even gave some of them Japanese-built patrol boats to monitor their maritime borders.  He also stepped in when Washington stumbled.  After relations between the United States and its long-time allies, Thailand and the Philippines, soured over their internal affairs, Abe quickly moved to strengthen Japan’s bilateral ties with both countries.

Japan also took more direct steps to strengthen its defense posture.  It modestly increased its defense budget.  It also laid the groundwork for new military installations in the Ryukyu Islands to watch over its East China Sea claims.  But possibly Japan’s biggest step was its new interpretation of its self-defense law.  Under the new guidelines, Japan’s Self-Defense Forces would be allowed to aid allies who come under attack.  While that may seem wholly non-controversial in most countries, it was anything but in pacifist Japan.  Some feared that Japan could be more easily drawn into future conflicts.  But the new guidelines would also enable Japan to form stronger security alliances that could prevent such conflicts from happening at all.

The string of good news for Japan’s security reached its zenith last July.  Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Permanent Court of Arbitration gave a boost to the “rules-based international order” when it judged that China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea to be invalid.  With the judgment an international court at its back, a heartened Tokyo even considered filing its own case against China over their competing territorial claims in the East China Sea.

Shifting Sands

However, just then the ground beneath Japan’s feet shifted.  Rodrigo Duterte’s election as the president of the Philippines abruptly ended what some saw as Southeast Asia’s growing willingness to back an international order based on rules (or at least on ASEAN’s norms).  Having a personal animosity towards Obama and a general suspicion of American meddling, Duterte steadily moved the Philippines away from the United States.  Instead, he leaned toward China.  Abe’s meeting with Duterte in Tokyo failed to arrest that tilt.  Soon after, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, for his own reasons, began to lean the same way.  He even agreed to buy Chinese ships for the Malaysian navy.  On the other hand, Japan missed a golden opportunity to solidify its security relationship with Australia when a Japanese consortium lost a bid to build Australia’s next generation of submarines.

To top it all off, Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election.  Throughout his campaign, he bashed not only the TPP, but also Japan for what he viewed as its inadequate support for the U.S. security presence in Asia.  Soon after his election, Trump confirmed that he would shelve the TPP when he became president.  Doubtlessly concerned, Abe hastily flew to New York to impress upon Trump the importance of a strong alliance between Japan and the United States.  But Abe received no public assurances.  The best news that Abe received from Trump probably came a month later when he announced his aim to expand the U.S. Navy.  If fully realized, that would at least put more substance behind America’s commitments to Asia (and to Japan), however strong they may be.

Troublesome Neighbors

China quickly capitalized on Japan’s reverses.  Given the likely demise of the TPP, China pushed harder for a Chinese-led free-trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, at the APEC summit last November.  Many believe the pact, if successful, would draw Asia’s economies closer into China’s orbit.

Russia also sensed Japan’s weakened position.  When Russian President Vladimir Putin met with Abe a month later, he offered Abe nothing new when they discussed how to settle their dispute over the southern Kuril Islands (or Northern Territories in Japan).  Putin simply reiterated Russia’s historic positions and insisted that any joint economic development on the islands must take place under Russian rules, an implicit recognition of Russian sovereignty over the islands.  Unsurprisingly, the meeting yielded little progress.

The Going Remains Tough

To make matters worse, Japan has yet to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.  Unless that changes, Japan will be hard pressed to devote substantially more resources to its security.  Through the TPP, Abe probably hoped to not only give Japan an economic boost, but also bind the United States more closely to Asia.  Unfortunately for Abe, the TPP’s negotiations dragged on for too long.  By the time they ended, it was politically impossible for the U.S. Senate to ratify it.  Even so, Abe has vowed to push TPP legislation through the Japanese Diet.

None of this is to say that Japanese policymakers have lost their way.  Abe is still focused on improving Japan’s security situation.  But for the moment, how much more he can do about it is not altogether clear.

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Revival of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership

Countries Involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership
Countries Involved in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the Trans-Pacific Partnership


The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) are both free-trade agreements in Asia that have been under negotiation for a number of years.  Often seen as competitors, however, the former is led by China and the latter by the United States.  By February 2016, the RCEP had fallen behind the TPP, whose negotiators had already signed an agreement and returned it to their twelve member countries for ratification.  Their RCEP counterparts were still mired in talks.


Even so, the TPP’s negotiations were by no means a cake walk.  Concerns in Japan over agricultural issues and in Southeast Asia over the TPP’s “deep” standards repeatedly delayed an agreement.  Indeed, there had been too many delays.  By the time a deal was reached, the United States, the pact’s biggest member, had begun what turned out to be a particularly bitter presidential election and one in which the TPP became a lightning-rod issue.  Even the pact’s early advocates, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who was one of the presidential candidates, strongly disavowed it.  In such a political climate there was little chance the U.S. Senate would ratify it.


The election of Donald Trump as the next American president sealed the fate of the TPP in the United States.  Soon after, President Barack Obama abandoned his efforts to ratify the pact.  Trump himself declared that the United States would withdraw from it after he is sworn in as president.  That threw the future of the TPP into turmoil.  It also breathed new life into the RCEP.  Capitalizing on the TPP’s disarray, Chinese President Xi Jinping reassured participants at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in late November that China would renew its efforts to conclude the RCEP.



Why does that matter?  What, apart from some of their member countries, is the difference between the two free-trade agreements?  Traditionally, countries conclude free-trade agreements to lower or eliminate tariffs, and thus encourage trade.  While that has generally spurred economic growth in developing countries, it has also tended to hollow out legacy industries in developed countries.


Consequently, developed countries, like the United States, have sought a new approach to free trade.  Embodied in the TPP (and its sister free-trade agreement, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), that approach requires member countries to adopt domestic policies that would “raise labor and environmental standards, impose disciplines on government-owned corporations, strengthen intellectual property rights enforcement, [and] maintain a free and open internet.”[1]  In that way, developed countries argue, trade would be not only freer, but fairer too.  Indeed, some in the Obama administration even saw the TPP as part of a grander vision for a “rules-based international order.”


Naturally, developing countries feared what impact such policies would have on their protected companies and industries.  For example, the TPP would require them to end their preferential treatment of state-owned enterprises in government procurement, something they were reluctant to do.  Nevertheless, developing countries were ultimately persuaded to join the pact because of the added benefits they could gain from greater access to the markets of developed countries.


On the other hand, the RCEP is a far more traditional free-trade agreement.  It does not share the lofty ambitions of the TPP.  It does not concern itself with “behind the border issues,” like the preferential treatment in government procurement.  Rather, it simply focuses on reducing and eliminating tariffs.  Countries can limit competition wherever they see fit.  On the surface, that sort of pact would appear easier to negotiate.  But developing countries must carefully consider the terms of such a pact, because they can lock countries into being part of regional supply chains whose ultimate benefits accrue elsewhere.  Given that there are thousands of categories and subcategories of goods to consider (not mentioning the fact that many of those are shuttled between countries before they are assembled into a final product), negotiations are bound to be complex.


Impact of RCEP

Still, the RCEP is back on center stage.  If successfully concluded, it could change the structure of Asian trade in ways that would put China firmly at the center of commerce in the region.  That, some worry, would accrue even more political as well as economic power to China.  But given the prevailing sluggish global economy, what matters to most developing countries is reaping the immediate benefits from freer trade.  Unsurprisingly, a couple of countries at the APEC summit quickly seconded China’s interest in reviving the RCEP’s negotiations.  It is now up to China to make it happen.


[1] John Lyons, Mark Magnier, and William Mauldin, “China Steps In As U.S. Retreats on Trade,” Wall Street Journal, Nov. 23, 2016, pp. A1, A6.


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Donald Trump on ISIS: Being Wrong, and Saying It Wrong, Too

Is it the nature of things that action should partake of exact truth less than speech?

-Socrates, The Republic

Language can perform several functions: it can be informative but also expressive and vocative.[1] It is true that Donald Trump more often than not uses language in a manner that is expressive and especially, vocative. He rarely speaks to inform his audiences, instead using emotional appeals to change (or reinforce) our preferences, i.e., to him. Mr. Trump’s admirers seem intuitively to get that, while his detractors do not. The latter demand his words function solely to inform.

Mr. Trump appears to put great stock in ambiguity, as Rich Lowry wrote several weeks ago:

“Trump favors strategic ambiguity—on everything. He says he doesn’t want to be too explicit about his foreign policy because it will tip off our adversaries about our intentions. He apparently doesn’t want to tip anyone off at home, either.”[2]

Ambiguous, however, is not synonymous with imprecise. Ambiguous language generates two different meanings. Put another way, ambiguous language can be understood in two different ways. One meaning is often incompatible with the other. So his admirers hear him one way and his detractors another. Neither meaning was intended to inform. And each is heard to express something different and thus dissonant.

This is not an apologia for Mr. Trump. Something must condition and control political deliberation—that is, after all, language’s informative function, something too often missing in Mr. Trump’s political rhetoric.

When he fails to inform, Mr. Trump leaves no guideposts to determine which, between two possible meanings, he intended. Invariably, admirers choose the favorable one and detractors the other. Precision in political rhetoric—here the speaker is Protagoras, in Plato’s eponymous dialogue—encourages citizens to listen to persons whose relevant knowledge of a matter can inform them. So informed, we ground our political judgments in shared experiences. Informative language by necessity precedes expressive and vocative language—restated, knowledge grounds the appeal to our sensibility. If politics indeed is an art, then the art of politics is the ability to inform first, and then persuade.

It is here Mr. Trump’s political rhetoric falters—it is all emotion and evocative appeals ungrounded by information. This does not mean Mr. Trump himself is uninformed or ignorant. But it does leave him looking intemperate and lacking an informed grasp of the matter at hand. His admirers claim to “get” his meaning while his detractors find that fanciful. Those still undecided are simply left puzzled. Neither his admirers nor his detractors understand what the other does (or does not) understand about whatever it is Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump’s usual defense is that he is a businessperson who lives in a practical world of action. But that does not, to paraphrase Socrates, excuse imprecise language in his case anymore than it does in anyone else’s.

Take what Mr. Trump said recently about President Obama. “He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS,” he said, adding for effect, “I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.”[3] He later explained his remarks this this way: “All I do is tell the truth, I am a truth teller.”[4]

Perhaps. But if so, he is one who elides large parts of the backstory. However, if his point was that the Obama Administration watched ISIS emerge—and that is very different than his preposterous claim—then he has ample evidence on which to make an informed case to the American electorate. Of course his own views on whether the U.S. should have remained in Iraq in the late 2000s also then should be fair game.

For lost in Mr. Trump’s rhetorical sloppiness is this: the Obama Administration was indeed warned about the emergence of what became ISIS. We know this from information pried out of the Obama Administration by Judicial Watch. Consider this from a heavily redacted August 2012 Defense Department Information Report marked “Secret” (since declassified):

“D. The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows:

                1. This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters, ISI could also declare an Islamic state though its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.”[5]

In August 2012, Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State, and her office is listed on the distribution roster.

The referenced ISI is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq aka al-Qaeda in Iraq. In January 2014—eighteen months after the report was written—ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra (aka al-Nusra Front) would henceforth be known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or “ISIL”. The document’s final un-redacted line of text warns of “the renewing facilitation of terrorist elements from all over the Arab world entering into Iraqi arena” [sic].

There is another now-declassified secret Defense Department Information Report obtained by Judicial Watch, this one dated October 2012 and covering the period 1 May-1 September 2012. Its anonymous author states “weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port there to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria.”[6] The heavily redacted document goes on to identify the type and number of weapons “shipped from Libya to Syria in late August 2012.” That of course is the same month in which the Obama Administration was warned the Islamic State of Iraq aka al-Qaeda in Iraq might “declare an Islamic state.”

To repeat, this is no defense or Mr. Trump. He chose his words and bears responsibility for allowing himself to appear ill informed. How much different, though, might the week have been had Mr. Trump taken care to point out what we know from these formerly secret reports: that in August 2012, the Obama Administration including Secretary Clinton was warned about the emergence of what became ISIS—fully a year and a half before it ultimately happened—during the same month in which weapons were shipped to the region from Libya? Someone should have cautioned the Obama Administration at the time that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

“Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction,” wrote Lord Byron. But truth in the everyday sense of facts is not so strange, though facts may indeed tell a strange tale. Here, that strange tale is why warnings went unheeded while arms were brought in from Libya. That tale, however, is not the one Mr. Trump chose to tell. The documents cited here do not require interpretation: their plain meaning is quickly apparent.

If language is indeed code as Ferdinand de Saussure insisted, then we must wonder about a tendency to evade the informative in favor of raw emotional appeals. We heard one uncoded answer to that question from 50 senior Republican national security officials. It was not favorable to Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump would do himself—and all of us—a great service by sticking to the truth, no matter how strange, and rejecting fiction, no matter how enticing.


[1] Karl Bühler identified these functions in his 1934 book Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache.

[2] Rich Lowry (2016). “Trump Wants to Make a Deal.” National Review [published online 13 May 2016]. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[3] ” Donald Trump Calls Obama ‘Founder of ISIS’ and Says It Honors Him.” The New York Times [published online 10 August 2016]. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[4] CNBC transcript 11 August 2016. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[5] See: Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[6] Last accessed 12 August 2016.

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Donald Trump and the Case of Tairod Pugh

Last Thursday Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump told CNN’s Anderson Cooper “I think Islam hates us…we can’t allow people coming into this country who have this hatred of the United States.” It is rhetoric he has stood by since unveiling his Muslim banning plan in December. As a first generation American born to a Pakistani father, an intelligence professional and an American, I am bewildered and disturbed that such a comment can be uttered, let alone taken seriously in 2016. Not only have those on both sides of the aisle called Trump’s plan offensive and un-American, how would it work practically? Nowhere else does the massive hole in Trump’s plan show through then in the case of one Tairod Pugh.

Pugh, a Muslim convert from Neptune, New Jersey, served in the United States Air Force as a mechanic from 1986 to 1990. After leaving the Air Force he held a series of positions in the aviation industry—he even worked as a DynCorp contractor in Iraq. But on January 10, 2015, Pugh’s life took a dramatic turn. Shortly after losing his job, Pugh flew from Egypt to Turkey where he caught the attention of Turkish authorities. While no evidence has emerged that Pugh was under surveillance by the US, Egypt or the Turks, it is clear he was known at least to US authorities. Pugh was interviewed by the FBI in 2001 after a co-worker told authorities that he made pro-Bin Laden statements. Furthermore, during the interview Pugh “expressed interest in traveling to Chechnya to fight jihad.” In spite of these claims, the FBI let Pugh go, seemingly losing track of him. So when Turkish authorities listened to Pugh’s claims that he was a special operations forces pilot visiting Turkey on vacation, they instead suspected he was attempting to enter Syria and put him on a plane back to Egypt. Alerted by the Turks, the Egyptians were equally weary of Pugh, and promptly returned him to the US. Shortly after landing at JFK Pugh was arrested and charged with supporting ISIS, charges which he was convicted of on March 9, 2016.

So what does Tairod Pugh have to do with Donald Trump? In December 2015 Trump’s campaign released a press statement “calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” The problem with Trump’s plan, as Pugh’s case illustrates, is that he was not travelling back to the United States and as such would simply not warrant investigation. In fact, he was forcefully returned to the United States but not before he pleaded with Egyptians to stay because he believed “the U.S. doesn’t like black Muslims.” If it hadn’t been for alert Turkish and Egyptian authorities, either Pugh would’ve been simply returned to the United States undetected or he would’ve been allowed to go on his way. Instead, both the Turks and the Egyptians did what American authorities failed to do, raising the alarm and returning Pugh to the United States. This action demonstrates the capability of the Turks and Egyptians and their willingness to work with the United States. But how would Turkey and Egypt (both Muslim countries) have reacted if Trump’s plan was in place? Might they have agreed with Pugh’s claim that the United States hates Muslims? Surely it would reduce their willingness to cooperate with the US, which would impact detecting and neutralizing threats against the United States—especially those overseas.

From the capture of an ISIS’ chemical weapons operative to the targeting of al-Shabaab fighters planning to attack US and African forces, the US has an effective and pro-active intelligence system which aggressively pursues threats outside of the US border. Pugh’s case illustrate the reliance that the intelligence community, military and law enforcement have on foreign partners as well as the difficulty of identifying, tracking and neutralizing threats. What if Tairod Pugh, an American with a valid US passport, had made it to Syria and then returned to the US? Pugh claimed after his arrest that if he shaved his beard and worn jeans he would have avoided suspicion. Under Trump’s plan Pugh is right. Which begs the larger question: how does the intelligence community determine who is a Muslim? Which then leads to a larger question: is it legal for the US government to determine and track the religion of people? In a country where Americans’ feel uncomfortable with the US government collecting cell phone metadata, can they really be comfortable with database listing the religion of Americans? Thankfully, even as we debate whether Trump’s plan is even viable, the brave men and women in the military, law enforcement and in the intelligence community continue to keep us safe—even without knowing who is and isn’t a Muslim.

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