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‘Trump/Russia collusion’ bombshell topples several of those involved

Michelle Malkin - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 21:34

**Written by Doug Powers


Will The Resistance be thrilled to know the media’s incessant anonymously sourced reporting about Trump/Russia collusion has finally claimed some scalps? Probably not, since the first people who have been held accountable are all CNN employees:

Three CNN journalists, including the executive editor in charge of a new investigative unit, have resigned after the publication of a Russia-related article that was retracted.

Thomas Frank, who wrote the story in question; Eric Lichtblau, an editor in the unit; and Lex Haris, who oversaw the unit, have all left CNN.

“In the aftermath of the retraction of a story published on CNN.com, CNN has accepted the resignations of the employees involved in the story’s publication,” a spokesman said Monday evening.

An internal investigation by CNN management found that some standard editorial processes were not followed when the article was published, people briefed on the results of the investigation said.

The story, which reported that Congress was investigating a “Russian investment fund with ties to Trump officials,” cited a single anonymous source.

The Resistance probably envisioned this going a little differently, but we now see what happens when a “media” outlet attempts to force reality to match a political party’s talking points memo.

**Written by Doug Powers

Twitter @ThePowersThatBe

Three journalists quit CNN in fallout from retracted Russia story

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 19:09
Three CNN journalists who worked on a now-retracted story about Russia and a top Trump adviser are leaving the network.

Senate health bill would lower deficit, increase number of uninsured, estimate says

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 18:30
Senate Republicans’ health care bill would reduce the federal deficit and eventually lead to lower premiums, but would result in millions more Americans being uninsured a decade from now, according to a fresh analysis from Capitol Hill’s nonpartisan budget scorekeepers.

Senate health care bill would lower deficit, increase number of uninsured, estimate says

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 18:00
Senate Republicans’ health care bill would reduce the federal deficit and eventually lead to lower premiums, but would result in millions more Americans being uninsured a decade from now, according to a fresh analysis from Capitol Hill’s nonpartisan budget scorekeepers.

White House criticizes CBO report, cites 'history of inaccuracy'

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 17:57
The CBO released its analysis of the Senate's health care legislation, leading the White House to urge Americans not to trust the office "blindly."

Trump says US, India 'tied together in friendship' after Modi meeting

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 17:30
President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi vowed Monday to enhance the relationship between their two countries, with Trump vowing that “India and the United States will always be tied together in friendship and respect.”

Something go wrong? NOW Michael Bloomberg wants federal gov’t out of local politics

Michelle Malkin - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 17:10

**Written by Doug Powers

I’m going to go ahead and assume Bloomberg and the progressive mayors who will take him up on his offer won’t be able to grasp the multiple levels of irony:

Entrepreneur and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I) plans to launch a $17 million contest to incentivize U.S. cities to bypass policymaking in Washington under the Trump administration, according to The Associated Press.

Thirty-five cities will win $100,000, while four other cities will get $1 million. The grand prize is $5 million for one city.

The contest, which will be publicly unveiled on Monday, is aimed at pushing mayors across the country to tackle issues on their own, without federal help.

Alternate headline: “Former NYC Mayor to Pay US City Leaders to Ignore Federal Laws.”

Defy Trump, win cash! Maybe mayors who ignore federal laws can use Bloomberg’s prize for bail money.

But at least one consequence of Trump’s election has been to get those who have until Jan. 20th been proponents of a gigantic and over-reaching central government suddenly concerned about being squashed by their own creation.

**Written by Doug Powers

Twitter @ThePowersThatBe

Supreme Court decision shifts momentum in Trump travel ban case

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 16:02
After successive rulings by numerous federal courts against President Trump’s controversial travel ban, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday delivered what Trump is touting as a clear victory – allowing most of the policy to be enforced and teeing up a high-stakes court battle for the fall in which the administration may have the upper hand.

Trump, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak in joint appearance -- live blog

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 15:45
President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave joint remarks at an appearance in the White House Rose Garden.

Seattle’s minimum wage hike hurting low-level workers, study says

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 14:42
Seattle's first-in-the-nation $15 per hour minimum wage law is hurting the workers it aimed to help, a new study has found.

The verdict on Trump's SupCo win: Trust the experts

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 14:34
Who else would you trust?

Illinois in danger of entering financial 'death spiral'

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 13:23
Illinois' budget crisis has become so dire that the state is in danger of entering a financial "death spiral," as a prominent ratings agency threatens to downgrade the state's credit score to "junk" status.

Senate Republicans roll out tweaks to health care bill

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 12:35
Senate Republicans rolled out modest revisions to their health care bill on Monday, including a penalty for Americans who have a lapse in insurance coverage.

Trump travel ban: GOP lawmakers want Ruth Bader Ginsburg to recuse herself from case

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 12:10
Twelve House Republicans signed a letter calling for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to recuse herself from the upcoming travel ban case due to her comments about President Trump during the election.

Supreme Court punts on cross-border shooting case

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 12:06
The Supreme Court on Monday sent a case involving the cross-border shooting of a Mexican teenager back to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals -- leaving the question of whether the teen’s parents can sue the U.S. Border Patrol agent who shot him in the lower court’s hands.

Why the Court's Church Decision Was a No-Brainer

Cato Recent Op Eds - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 11:22

Ilya Shapiro

The Trinity Lutheran case, in which the Supreme Court ruled that a Missouri policy excluding church-run preschools from a particular grant program was unconstitutional, has always seemed like an easy one to me. After all, what happened here sounds awfully un-American: a church was denied a government benefit simply because it’s a church. I’m not sure why a state should subsidize private institutions’ playground resurfacing — the benefit at issue here — but if it does, it has to make such funds available to all on equal terms.

One contentious issue that does loom on the horizon, however, is that of exemptions for religious businesses — the opposite of inclusions for churches — from public accommodations laws. Stay tuned next term, when the Court takes up the case of a bakery that declined on religious and free speech grounds to make a cake for a same-sex ceremony. Masterpiece Cakeshop will make Trinity Lutheran look like the justices’ kumbaya moment.Today’s decision makes clear that Trinity Lutheran’s playground improvement is no different than the government provision of police or fire protection to houses of worship and other religious institutions. And it’s quite unlike taxpayer funding of religious instruction or the parade of horribles raised by Trinity Lutheran’s opponents (which no longer include the State of Missouri, whose new administration changed its policy).

oday’s decision makes clear that Trinity Lutheran’s playground improvement is no different than the government provision of police or fire protection to houses of worship and other religious institutions.

And indeed, as I predicted after argument, seven justices made short work of the case, finding that the state violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause in taking its action based on purely religious status. Chief Justice John Roberts’ majority opinion is a mere 15 pages long and the three concurrences were two, three, and two pages, respectively. It’s telling that Justice Elena Kagan — not exactly a stalwart right-winger — joined the decision in full, and that Justice Breyer concurred in the judgment.

Further, Chief Justice Roberts’ attempt, via a curious Footnote 3, to narrow the scope of his ruling to “express discrimination based on religious identity with respect to playground resurfacing,” didn’t command a majority. Justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch took issue with the distinction between religious “status” and “use.” And Justice Breyer, always a pragmatist, seems to have been concerned with “a general program designed to secure or to improve the health and safety of children.”

The fate of Footnote 3 will thus turn on whether lower court judges like the Trinity Lutheran result or not. It’s an opportunity for mischief that the Court will have to resolve in future.

Meanwhile, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, joined in her dissenting opinion only by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, seems to think that the ruling dissolves the separation of church and state altogether. One can only hope that her admonition that 31 other states’ restrictions against direct government funding of religion are now in jeopardy is true in the context of school choice. Coincidentally, even before the US Supreme Court released its Trinity Lutheran decision, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously upheld that state’s tax credit scholarship program despite a provision in that state’s constitution that mirrors the Missouri one at issue.

The so-called Blaine amendments that have been used to stymie these programs were created in the late 19th century not simply to preserve church-state separation, but to harm religious minorities, especially Catholics. But the Supreme Court has rejected Establishment Clause challenges to both vouchers and tax credits; today’s ruling doesn’t change that.

Ilya Shapiro is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog.

Trump travel ban: Supreme Court reinstates key parts of executive order

Fox News (Politics) - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 11:17
In a victory for the Trump administration, the Supreme Court on Monday lifted key components of an injunction against President Trump's proposed ban on travel from six majority-Muslim nations, reinstating much of the policy and promising to hear full arguments as early as this fall.

Who Is Making U.S. Foreign Policy?

Cato Recent Op Eds - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 10:42

Doug Bandow

It’s a time of trial and tribulation for America’s allies and adversaries alike. Just what is U.S. policy these days? More fundamentally, who is deciding U.S. policy?

A presidential transition always creates uncertainty. Even when the Oval Office is passed between members of the same party, approaches and emphases differ. Personal connections vary. But today the differences are within a single administration.

Indeed, in virtually no area is policy settled.

President Donald Trump came into office committed to rapprochement with Russia. Yet even before taking office his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, sounded like bombastic Sen. John McCain in calling Moscow the greatest threat facing America. Later, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson demanded Russia’s withdrawal from Crimea — a political impossibility — before bilateral relations could improve. Now the U.S. military has shot down a Syrian plane, fielded by the Assad government, a Moscow ally, triggering Russian threats against U.S. aircraft.

Indeed, the latter threatens to drag America into the Syrian war as an active combatant, fighting not only the Islamic State but also the Assad government, Iran and Russia. In fact, his National Security Council was already pressing for a more active role against both the Assad government and Iranian-backed militias supporting Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, which would turn America into an active combatant in the six-year-old civil war. Yet candidate Trump criticized the Iraq War as well as proposals for entangling the United States in additional Middle Eastern conflicts. When his Republican competitors threatened to shoot down Russian planes, he called ISIS the priority. He later criticized Hillary Clinton as a warmonger, in part for her hawkish approach to the Mideast.

Candidate Trump ran for office threatening China with a trade war: he promised to rule Beijing a currency manipulator and proposed to impose a huge tariff. Secretary Tillerson threatened to blockade the PRC’s Pacific territories, a potential act of war, when testifying at his confirmation hearing. President-elect Trump upended traditional practice by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen.

The world is paying attention to the Trump team’s foreign-policy fumbles.

But then President Trump swooned after meeting Chinese president Xi Jinping, gushing about their friendship. After demanding that Beijing “solve” the North Korea problem, he accepted the Chinese leader’s explanation why action was much harder than he’d originally thought. Still, to encourage China President Trump dropped talk of trade retaliation and a tough response to South China Sea territorial disputes. He also promised not to talk to President Tsai again without President Xi’s approval. But now, barely five months into his administration, he says relying on the PRC to deal with the North “has not worked out.”

While the president expected Beijing to act against what his defense secretary now says is the most serious threat against America, President Trump has oscillated between negotiation and war with North Korea. During the campaign he offered to negotiate with the North’s Kim Jong-un. A few weeks ago he was breathing fire and brimstone as he declared he was sending an “armada” off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, ready to attack Pyongyang, if necessary. Then, he said he’d be “honored” to meet Kim, who was a “smart cookie.” Now the president is back to looking for U.S. “solutions” to a problem which he believes China has proved either unwilling or unable to solve.

As for South Korea, candidate Trump dismissed the value of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and insisted that the Republic of Korea should spend more on its own defense, causing much well-deserved anxiety in Seoul. Then, Mattis and Tillerson visited the ROK, seeking to ease concerns by reaffirming America’s commitment to the alliance; they convinced the president to mouth some of the same platitudes. But a couple weeks before the South Korean election, Trump announced that Seoul should pay for the THAAD missile defense system, despite the agreement reached with the Obama administration. He also announced that he intended to tear up the Free Trade Agreement, which was negotiated and ratified at great political cost by previous South Korean governments. National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster responded by saying no one should pay any attention to the man in the Oval Office, apparently displeasing the man who at least nominally is McMaster’s boss.

The administration’s attitude toward Europe appears equally equivocal. Donald Trump long accused America’s NATO partners of unfairly relying on the United States, failing to meet their financial commitments and owing America billions. His ire towards Germany, which he also accused of being a currency manipulator, was particularly sharp.

Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson sought to calm troubled waters and convince the president to voice support for NATO and its role in keeping Europe’s peace. In preparation for the recent NATO summit, administration officials sought to pacify the alliance’s European members, who organized among themselves how to best deal with the president. Solution ranged from keeping their comments short and simple, making him think he won political victories, etc. However, the recent summit meeting actually widened the Atlantic gulf. The president behaved boorishly, reiterated his criticism of European free-riding, and refused to repeat the reassuring language penned for him by his aides.

Another target of candidate Trump’s ire was Saudi Arabia, which he blamed for blowing up the World Trade Center and criticized for relying on the United States for its defense. But as president he embraced the Saudi royals more passionately than did President Obama, who was criticized for his half bow when meeting the Saudi king. President Trump did a full policy genuflect. While making his first state visit to Riyadh, he inked another major arms deal and offered even greater support for the kingdom’s murderous war in Yemen.

Also, the president apparently was convinced to act as de facto Saudi lobbyist in backing the Saudi-led jihad against Qatar, which both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, long criticized for acting as financial conduits to radical and even terrorist groups, accused of being a conduit to radical groups and terrorist groups. Yet after he tweeted his support for Riyadh, Mattis and Tillerson took steps backing Doha and criticizing the latter’s antagonists. The State Department even proclaimed itself to be “mystified” by Riyadh’s behavior, which had been endorsed by the president.

Of course, administrations often have struggled over contentious issues, with officials split over policy. Moreover, presidents sometimes have overruled their foreign-policy advisers and asserted control over international issues, especially the most contentious ones. The very public spectacle of National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger displacing Secretary of State William Rogers in the Nixon administration was painful to behold. President Barack Obama’s White House held tight control over foreign-policy issues, even with serious personalities like Hillary Clinton and John Kerry serving as secretary of state.

But never before has the United States seen so many clear divisions between the president and his appointees on so many issues. Moreover, never before when divisions were present has the United States seenits presidentso often losing the policy battle. NATO’s European members remain dependent on America. U.S. policy remains hostile to Russia. The United States is edging ever closer to direct involvement in Syria. Washington, DC continues to protect South Korea and threaten North Korea. The United States continues to defend Saudi Arabia while Washington seeks to moderate the intra-Gulf conflict. America so far has avoided trade wars with China, Germany and South Korea.

As a result, today many countries around the globe are in a state of high anxiety, unsure as to the identity of the real American decisionmaker, as well as his or her view of their relationship with Washington. As a result, the traditional warm, fuzzy feeling accompanying the status of an American defense dependent has disappeared. As the president proved on his European visit, his appointees might be able to convince him to acquiesce to policies which he dislikes, but they can’t make him accept them. And sometimes the inner-Trump breaks free.

U.S. adversaries and potential antagonists are little happier. For instance, expectations of an improved relationship were raised in Moscow, only to be dashed by claims of election manipulation by Russia as well as status quo thinking by Mattis and Tillerson. For a time it appeared the administration was heading toward a quasi-Cold War with China, before the president announced his bromance with President Xi. But now the spark appears to have gone out of the relationship, leading to renewed uncertainty.

The Trump administration has turned foreign policy into an embarrassing spectacle. It wouldn’t matter if Bhutan, Slovenia, Chad, Fiji or Chile behaved that way; no one would much care if such nations so ostentatiously mismanaged their foreign policy. But as the globe’s dominant economic, political and military power, America’s actions can transform, for good or ill, countries and regions. Today, no one knows what to expect or even who is the “decider,” in Bush-speak. That’s not good for the United States, and it’s not good for those affected by Washington’s decisions — which means the rest of the world.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

Keeping Peace in Asia Requires Accommodating, Not Confronting, China

Cato Recent Op Eds - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 10:20

Doug Bandow

Three decades ago, the People’s Republic of China was an economic backwater. Today, the PRC sports the world’s second largest economy. Shanghai most dramatically illustrates the country’s transformation. The city is filled with stylish office buildings, five-star hotels, luxury stores, and foreign visitors.

Reflecting their success, the Chinese are increasingly confident as well. If not yet a great power, the PRC seems destined to eventually share global leadership with the U.S. And its people know that.

Which means future U.S.-China relations could be rocky.

Ties turned confrontational under the Obama administration, which announced a “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia. Washington officials unconvincingly claimed that the policy was not directed against Beijing. The Chinese may be many things, but they are not stupid.

Candidate Donald Trump sounded like he intended to pursue an even more truculent course, upgrading relations with Taiwan, launching a trade war, blockading Chinese possessions in the South China Sea, and pressuring the PRC to “solve” the North Korea problem. But then came the bilateral summit and the president’s one-way love-fest with Chinese President Xi Jinping. All suddenly became sweet and light in Trumpland.

However, in the long-term the president’s pleasant words backed by an offer of unspecified trade concessions won’t go far in buffering relations between a unipower determined to preserve its dominance and a rising power equally determined to assert itself. First, the Trump administration yielded Pacific economic leadership to the PRC. Beijing is likely to find new commercial opportunities, limiting Washington’s ability to do trade harm.

The U.S. needs to prioritize its objectives vis-à-vis China.

Second, nationalist passions are not easily cooled. The issue is not just a few obstreperous officials who don’t know their country’s proper place. The real challenge is posed by a population that believes in a much greater China.

So far North Korea has dominated discussions between the two governments. Even if cooperative efforts fail, any damage to the bilateral relationship likely will be contained. At most application of secondary sanctions against Chinese financial institutions would lead to economic turbulence, not military confrontation.

Territorial disputes throughout the Asian-Pacific pose a far tougher test. The Philippines’ unpredictable Rodrigo Duterte has been sparring with Beijing over Scarborough Reef. Tokyo has refused to even acknowledge a dispute over the status of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. But that has not prevented China from using air and naval patrols to challenge Japan’s claim.

America’s primary interest is navigational freedom, which so far the PRC has not attempted to impede. Washington has no territorial claims in the region. But both Manilla and Tokyo are treaty allies, their security guaranteed by America. Which means any confrontation between them and China could draw in the U.S. At his confirmation hearing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggested an even more active American role, barring PRC access to its claimed possessions. That would set up a clash at sea, guaranteeing a naval arms race and creating a trigger for war.

As pleasant memories from the Mar-a-Lago summit fade, deep disagreements likely will reappear. And the Chinese aren’t likely to back down. For the U.S. dominance of a region so far from home is a convenience, an added benefit to America’s almost absolute security in its own hemisphere. For the PRC preventing Washington’s encroachments along its border is a “core” interest, similar to what Americans have essentially claimed for their entire hemisphere for two centuries.

Last month I attended a conference on maritime issues in Shanghai. Participants were largely academic and policy, not political. However, the Chinese interlocutors were in no mood to compromise. They defended their government’s claims, advocated active measures to assert them, and disdained criticism of Chinese aggressiveness. No one wanted war, but none of them recommended that their nation back down if Washington chose confrontation.

Indeed, the participants well demonstrated the disparity of interest and intensity which disadvantages America. No one doubts that the U.S. possesses the stronger military. Nor is there any question that Washington would use its superior power if necessary to defend important interests closer to home.

But it would be far harder for America to use force to ensure its control of the waters along China’s borders and oversight of territorial disputes in which America has no serious stake-who gets to raise their flag over one or another set of barren rocks. And the price of doing so will only rise. It costs the PRC far less to threaten a U.S. carrier than America to protect one. Just how much are Americans prepared to spend to assert what amounts to the convenience of empire rather than essentials of security?

Moreover, at a time when North Korea tops Washington’s Asian agenda, how much is the Trump administration willing to pay for Beijing’s assistance? According to President Trump, President Xi already has emphasized the limitations of China’s control. The PRC can hardly be expected to dismantle its one military ally if the U.S. is actively pushing military containment elsewhere in the region.

Indeed, while Americans tend to view themselves as being Vestal Virgins attempting to do good in an evil world, citizens of other nations typically take a more cynical view. In Shanghai, as elsewhere, they see Washington speaking of principle while promoting interest, and refusing to apply to itself norms it seeks to impose on others. The Chinese are prepared to yield before superior force, but are not prepared to concede that America always will possess that edge.

Washington officials should reconsider their approach to China. Military confrontation would be a losing game. No victory would be permanent. An American success would be an invitation for the PRC to rebuild and expand its armed forces for a rematch. And conflict would aid the authoritarian regime in maintaining and expanding its control. A liberal, democratic China would be unlikely to emerge from any war.

The U.S. needs to prioritize its objectives vis-à-vis China. Washington wants Beijing to democratize, respect human rights, reduce trade and investment barriers, forswear cyber-attacks, pressure North Korea, sanction other pariah regimes, abandon territorial claims, and accept permanent U.S. hegemony. No serious state, let alone a nationalistic rising power, could concede such a laundry list. American officials should decide what they most want and how much they are willing to pay.

Washington also should recalculate what is worth defending. For instance, there is a difference between preserving Tokyo’s and Manilla’s control over territories contested by China, and the two nations’ independence, which Beijing does not threaten. Indeed, while resolute backing of the former might deter China from acting, it also would ensure Washington’s involvement should an errant sea captain on one side or the other start shooting. Moreover, issuing a blank defense checks would encourage friends to be more intransigent and prepare less for trouble.

Most important, American officials need to separate the objectives of defending American and containing China. The former is relatively easy and inexpensive. It is likely to be long into the future before the PRC is capable of projecting power against America’s Pacific possessions, let alone homeland.

In contrast, it will grow ever more expensive for the U.S. to overcome the far more modest PRC build-up necessary to deter outside intervention. How much are Americans prepared to spend to ensure that Washington can contest Chinese influence along China’s borders? The issue is not whether doing so has value. The issue is whether a highly indebted liberal republic can afford to continue doing so. Especially when that responsibility more appropriately falls on other nations in the region.

Even after the ongoing campaign against Western influence, the PRC remains a far more open society than in the early days of the Communist revolution. Hope that political liberalization would follow economic liberalization has been stillborn, but Xi Jinping’s China remains very different from Mao Zedong’s China.

As such, the PRC might not be an ally, but there is no reason it should be an enemy. Yet attempting to dominate and contain China risks turning it into an angry and well-armed adversary. Instead, Washington should prepare to share global leadership. Far better to yield thoughtfully while shaping the future than to be forced to concede even more under pressure. Just as Great Britain successfully if not always happily accommodated the emerging United States of America.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

The Danger of Mission Creep in Syria

Cato Recent Op Eds - Mon, 06/26/2017 - 10:14

Emma Ashford

On Sunday, a U.S. Navy fighter jet shot down one of Bashar al-Assad’s warplanes attacking U.S.-allied Syrian forces, drawing the United States deeper into that conflict. Raising tensions with Russia and potentially placing American troops in danger, this action was just another in a long line of tactical decisions which increase U.S. involvement in Syria without any viable long-term strategy for resolving or exiting the civil war.

Much of the criticism has focused on President Donald Trump’s impulsive and pugnacious personality. While Trump has accelerated this process, he is not wholly to blame for the slippery slope that the United States is now sliding down in Syria. The Obama administration resisted large-scale escalation, but their choices nonetheless contributed directly to today’s haphazard Syria strategy. The Trump administration needs to decide what it wants to achieve in Syria now, or the inevitable logic of mission creep may rob them of the ability to choose.

Obama’s Syrian Wars

A common narrative among hawks in Washington is that Barack Obama’s failure to escalate in Syria—most notably his decision not to follow through on his “red line” comments about chemical weapons—reduced U.S. credibility and worsened the conflict there. These criticisms are largely unjustified: the red line comment may have been foolish, but the Russian-brokered chemical weapons deal succeeded in preventing the further use of chemical weapons during Obama’s term, and was likely more effective than air strikes would have been.

The United States has no viable long-term strategy for resolving or exiting the civil war.

Obama does deserve some credit for his willingness to avoid large-scale escalation against the Assad regime in Syria in 2013 and again in response to Russia’s 2015 intervention. Whether he feared a repeat of the 2011 Libya intervention—where narrow humanitarian goals quickly and almost seamlessly transitioned into regime change—or he simply acknowledged the complexity of the Syrian conflict, the former president repeatedly resisted pressure to commit U.S. forces against Damascus.

Yet his administration did get involved in other ways, recognizing the Syrian opposition in 2012, and later supplying arms and training to anti-Assad rebels. Meanwhile, the campaign against ISIS was characterized by mission creep. Initially portrayed as air strikes in support of local forces, Operation Inherent Resolve quickly saw the deployment of troops in both Iraq and Syria: as early as May 2015, U.S. Special Forces were engaging in ground raids against ISIS, and by May 2016, they were fighting alongside Syrian rebels to take the town of al-Shaddadi.

To support these missions, the United States helped to seize and expand an airfield near Kobane in northern Syria, staffing it with civil engineers, intelligence and support personnel. By the time Obama left office, the United States had 500 Special Forces personnel on the ground in Syria in addition to support staff. This gradual escalation went largely unnoticed at the time, with U.S. forces often seemingly “plugged-in” to fill a temporary gap in local partner capacity.

Indeed, Obama never appeared to have a good strategy for the endgame. As long as the fighting in Syria’s civil war stayed geographically segregated from the campaign against ISIS, both could proceed without raising difficult questions about territorial control. Perhaps the biggest problem with the administration’s Syria policy was its failure to more aggressively pursue the diplomatic steps that could have begun the peace process. Rather than admitting America’s limited strategic interests in the Syrian conflict, ambivalence and gradual escalation ultimately laid the groundwork for Trump’s more impulsive escalations.

Trump Hits the Afterburner

If Obama’s involvement in Syria could be characterized as “creeping escalation,” Trump appears to be sprinting towards heavier involvement in the conflict. In his first months in office, the new president authorized substantial new deployments—almost doubling the number of Special Forces in Syria—and has begun to deploy conventional forces too, sending around 400 marines to establish fire bases in northern Syria.

Trump has also proved far less willing to draw a clear line of distinction between ISIS and militias associated with the Assad regime. In April, in response to a chemical-weapons attack, Trump authorized a tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian air base. Since that time, U.S. troops have struck Assad-linked militias several times, bombing convoys and drones that entered into the exclusion zone near the U.S. base at al-Tanf.

This increase in incidents inside Syria is the inevitable result of Trump’s choice to speed up the fight against ISIS. Since weaknesses in local partners can no longer be built-up slowly, U.S. forces are needed instead to provide required capacity (such as recently deployed marine artillery units) in key areas. This then produces new problems for force protection: recent strikes on regime-allied forces are largely aimed at protecting U.S. and allied forces. As U.S.-backed and regime-backed forces come into contact more frequently, these tensions will only grow.

Danger, Will Robinson

Worryingly, unlike the Obama administration, Trump’s approach to Syria does not appear to be driven by a coherent strategy. Though far from perfect, Obama’s slow-and-steady approach to the anti-ISIS campaign, coupled with a concerted international diplomatic effort, had the potential to yield a substantive rollback of ISIS and at least a managed ceasefire process in the rest of Syria. But in rushing the end of the campaign, substituting U.S. forces for local ones, and effectively ignoring diplomacy, the new administration is merely increasing the chaos in Syria.

Worse, the Trump administration is reportedly considering using its involvement in Syria to push back on Iran, a step that will increase the risks to U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq while producing no obvious policy benefits. Aside from ISIS, the United States has never had strong interests in the Syrian conflict; in contrast, Iran, Russia and the Assad regime are all heavily invested in the outcome of the conflict.

Indeed, the recent mission creep in Syria effectively refutes the long-running hawkish position on Syria which argued that targeted strikes would force other actors to take a more conciliatory approach to ending the conflict. Trump’s missile strikes have not stopped the Assad regime’s attacks on civilians, and militias continue to probe U.S.-associated forces on the ground—even after the recent strikes. The recent shootdown is of particular concern, as it highlights that the Trump administration is willing to retaliate for attacks on local partners, not just for direct attacks on U.S. forces.

With neither side willing to back down in Syria, the potential for further escalation is high. Trump is accelerating fast, but with no clear goal in sight. The White House needs a coherent Syria strategy soon, before events spiral even further out of its control.

Emma Ashford is a research fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.


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