Adoptions = Sanctions. Get it?

Donald Trump Jr. initially tried to explain away his meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya during the 2016 campaign as a simple meeting about adoption. When the story broke the other day that President Trump met with President Putin in an undisclosed meeting at the G-20 summit with only a Russian interpreter present, the elder Trump in an interview with The New York Times dismissed the discussion as mostly “pleasantries” and “about adoption.”

Speaking to the Russians about adoptions seems innocent enough. In fact, isn’t it honorable to be looking out for the welfare of orphaned children to make sure that they are put under the care of parents who love and care for them? Of course it is. But, for Putin, adoption is a way to get leverage for removing sanctions imposed by the United States on Russia.

Long story short, the U.S. passed the Magnitsky Act in 2012, which froze the assets in the U.S. of Russians who were accused of human rights abuses. Now, some of these Russian officials affected by the sanctions Putin relies on to maintain his power. Amanda Taub of The New York Times explains:

Mr. Putin, though powerful, depends on the support of a small circle of powerful elites, in and out of government, who both keep him in power and help him enforce his will. In exchange, Mr. Putin sees that they are taken care of. The Magnitsky Act, by sanctioning some of those elites, sent a message that Mr. Putin might not be able to uphold his end of the bargain.

In response to what Putin viewed as a hostile act against him that could undermine his power, the Russians passed legislation they believed might give them leverage to relieve the sanctions; namely, preventing Russian children from being adopted by American parents. Why would this give him leverage? Well, in 2011, American parents adopted “about 1,000” Russian children, which was more than any other foreign country. Some adoptions were still being processed. Apparently, Putin reasoned that if adoptions ceased, these aggrieved families would become a vocal pressure group on the U.S. government and could be a useful tool for getting rid of the sanctions. In short, adoptions were a Russian tactic used to ease sanctions. As Taub reports, “…the government also made clear that the new law would be retaliation for the Magnitsky Act.”

So, it should come as no surprise that the Russians want to talk adoptions with both Donald Trump Jr. and associates (Kushner and Manafort) and President Trump himself. They want to talk adoptions, because they believe it has the potential of being a bargaining chip to relieve sanctions. To me, it sounds like Putin, et al., are trying to get the Trumps to understand that to some American families adoption is really important, and Putin is willing to help — out of the kindness of his heart — if Trump is willing do something about the Magnitsky Act.

Finally, this is what makes Trump’s comments about his previously undisclosed meeting with Putin in his New York Times interview on July 19 so fascinating:

We talked about Russian adoption. Yeah. I always found that interesting. Because, you know, he ended that years ago. And I actually talked about Russian adoption with him, which is interesting because it was a part of the conversation that Don [Jr., Mr. Trump’s son] had in that meeting (emphasis added).

Does the President not know why adoptions are being brought up by Putin? Does he not see the Russian perspective? Is he playing dumb…or is he that clueless?

I have no idea.

Learning on the Job

History isn’t easy. There is a lot of it. No one can be an expert on everything. And, while I don’t expect the President of the United States to be a historian, I do expect him to know some basics. In the past few weeks, I’m pretty sure President Trump came into office not knowing the basics and is currently being given a crash course in World History 101 by members of his staff. Given what I’ve read about Trump, he’s not particularly well read and, in fact, likes to gather his information from the television. That’s why, given a couple remarks he’s made recently, I think he’s learning a lot of cool historical stuff as POTUS.

Take, for example, his speech in Poland on July 6. During his address in Warsaw, President Trump praised the Polish spirit to endure, citing proof of Polish hardships by saying…

…in 1939, you were invaded yet again, this time by Nazi Germany from the west and the Soviet Union from the east. That’s trouble. That’s tough.

Now, I don’t doubt Trump knows Germany invaded Poland in 1939, but my guess is that he didn’t know the Soviets did as well. And the reason I say that is because he says, “That’s trouble. That’s tough.” To me, that’s what someone says when they learn something horrible for the first time. “Did you know that…?” “No!, that’s trouble, that’s tough.” I can just see his speech writer(s) explaining it to him on the plane on the way to Europe: “So, there was thing called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and…err…well, the Soviets invaded Poland and took part of the country, too.” Trump: “That’s trouble. That’s tough.”

My second example occurred on the flight to France for Trump’s meeting with President Macron just the other day. Apparently, the press briefing with Trump on Air Force One was thought to be off-the-record, but that was changed by the White House afterwards. (Maybe Trump was extremely happy with what he said? Dunno.) So, he’s talking about China and North Korea and says:

“A big thing we have with China was, if they could help us with North Korea, that would be great. They have pressures that are tough pressures, and I understand. And you know, don’t forget, China, over the many years, has been at war with Korea — you know, wars with Korea. It’s not like, oh, gee, you just do whatever we say. They’ve had numerous wars with Korea.

They have an 8,000 year culture. So when they see 1776 — to them, that’s like a modern building. The White House was started — was essentially built in 1799. To us, that’s really old. To them, that’s like a super modern building, right? So, you know, they’ve had tremendous conflict over many, many centuries with Korea. So it’s not just like, you do this. But we’re going to find out what happens.”

Maybe, just maybe, I’m being too hard on the guy, but I think a “China and Korea have a somewhat complicated history that prevents an easy solution to the current crisis” type of statement would have sufficed. Instead, we got a mini history lesson of the kind that says, “Look what I’ve learned. Did you know that?” I mean, I can envision Xi Jinping having told him this over dinner at Mar-a-Lago a few weeks ago.

Again, maybe I’m reading too much into this. But maybe I’m not. And, if I’m not, this president has a lot more to learn.

What Is Going on in Qatar? Just as Important, Where is it and Why Does it Matter?

Where in the World is Qatar?

Qatar, which is often pronounced “cutter” or “kuh-TAR,” is a country situated on a peninsula that is located on the much larger Arabian Peninsula. Slightly smaller than Connecticut, Qatar is bordered by Saudi Arabia and the waters of the Persian Gulf. It has Qatar2a population of over just two-million people, of whom 67 percent are Muslim, according to the CIA Factbook. Qatar’s ruling family has grown rich thanks to hydrocarbons, and they haven’t been afraid to use that cash to gain influence and become a sizable actor (some would say outsized) in the region’s political affairs. This is where our drama unfolds.

What is Going on in Qatar?

Let’s just cut to the chase. Simply put, Qatar has really ticked off two much larger powers in the region, its neighbor Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two big boys on the block. On June 5, 2017, these two countries, along with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, imposed a blockade on the tiny nation and issued a set of demands that Qatar must meet. These demands include the shuttering of the Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera, cutting ties with Islamist terrorist organizations, and downgrading ties with Iran, with whom they share a large gas field that generates a significant amount of wealth for Qatar. The deadline to meet the demands has passed. Qatar’s government has stated it won’t acquiesce. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said the demands would be “difficult” for Qatar to meet.

Uh oh, What Did Qatar Do to Deserve This?

Like virtually everything in the Middle East, it’s complicated. But let’s try to wade through some of it.

  1. Qatar financially helps support the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt (and elsewhere). That draws the ire of Egypt’s ruling military elite, who in 2013 overthrew the MB Morsi government that took power following elections that ensued after the 2011 Egyptian Revolution that overthrew former military ruler Hosni Mubarak. Follow? The MB is labeled as a terrorist organization by the United States, but is also a part of the social fabric of Egypt. Nevertheless, Egypt’s current regime doesn’t take kindly to what it sees as meddling in its sovereignty.
  2. Saudi Arabia doesn’t like the criticism it receives on Al Jazeera, it doesn’t take kindly to the financial support to opposition Islamist groups that they say is provided by Qatar, and apparently frowns upon the cordial relationship between Doha, the capital of Qatar, and the Saudi’s regional rival Iran.
  3. Furthermore, Qatar is said to financially support and arm Islamist groups within Syria that may be at odds with the factions that are supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries. Organizations and individuals within Qatar are accused of providing assistance to IS and Al-Qaeda.

Qatar, as you may have been able to deduce, conducts an “independent foreign policy.” That’s what countries do, but if you’re tiny, you run the risk of making some states upset, and that seems to be what Qatar has done. (It’s not like Saudi Arabia or other Gulf states don’t engage in the same type of behavior as Qatar.) It also doesn’t help Qatar that the current President of the United States seems to have signaled (now confirmed) it was okay to move against Doha.

How is the United States Involved? Why Does it Matter?

Again, it’s complicated. The United States has about 11,000 military personnel stationed at the Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. From this installation, air strikes against targets in Iraq and al udeid air baseSyria have been launched, so the U.S. has a vested interest in maintaining good relations with Doha. Additionally, it’s always a good idea to work closely with Gulf countries regarding counter-terrorism, and Qatar is a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting IS. On the other hand, Qatar has used its wealth to arm and gain influence with groups in Libya that are at odds with U.S. policy. The same has happened in Syria, while Qatar also supports Hamas in the Gaza Strip, yet another terrorist organization as deemed by the U.S.

Where does Qatar stand on the friend / enemy spectrum as it relates to the U.S.? Good question. Based on a June 6 tweet by President Trump, it looks like the U.S. is on the side of the anti-Qatar forces for now. In fact, Trump may have provided cover for the course of action pursued by the Saudis and Egyptians:

During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology. Leaders pointed to Qatar – look!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017

This is far from a complete analysis of why things are as they are regarding Qatar and its regional neighbors. However, it fleshes out some of the basic reasons of what is going on. It also helps to illustrate the problems of being a small nation carrying out an independent foreign policy in a rough neighborhood. Like a friend of mine likes to say, if you can’t hang with the big dogs, get out of the tall grass. Qatar is in the tall grass, and the big dogs are growling.

Moving Closer to War?

This business will get out of control! It will get out of control and we’ll be lucky to live through it! – Admiral Josh Painter (played by Fred Thompson) in The Hunt for Red October (1990)

We all like to think we’re in control, but life has a way of telling us that our control over events is highly circumscribed. To what should be to no one’s surprise, our national leaders are not immune to this phenomenon, either. The outbreak of World War I is an example of how events and security dilemmas can spiral out of control and lead to unthinkable horrors. Few, if any, of Europe’s leaders — some related by blood — thought war was likely in 1914, but four years later approximately 17 million people had lost their lives.

Now, I am not saying the United States is going to war with North Korea, but I am worried that we’re closer to doing so at any time since the 1950s. North Korea’s apparently successful launch of an ICBM around Independence Day (if my memory serves me, North Korea’s leaders like to do tests around July 4) is a “game changer” according to many analysts, as it now appears that the NPRK can at least hit Alaska if they can get a nuke on a missile. It might not be long before Seattle and Los Angeles, et. al., are in the crosshairs. That’s obviously not great.

But let’s face it, there are a few countries who have nuclear missiles that can target our cities. I lived through the latter stages of the Cold War and, like the rock star Sting, I hoped the Russians loved their children, too. I still hope Putin’s Russia does. The United States and Soviets never fought each other directly; the countries managed the Cold War fairly effectively in terms of not blowing up the world except for one major hiccup. My point is that the U.S. and the world can probably engage and manage North Korea as well.

Today, Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, ratcheted up the rhetoric regarding North Korea’s behavior, reserving the right for the U.S. to intervene militarily, while also “calling out” and, in my opinion, threatening countries who were economically supporting North Korea – a.k.a., China. This is where things get really messy, in my opinion. The U.S. wants to project strength – I get it. The U.S. aspires to achieve the strongest bargaining position possible – makes sense. But let’s get two things absolutely straight: 1) North Korea isn’t going to give up its missile or nuclear program; it sees it, understandably, as insurance against invasion and military intervention by the U.S.; 2) China will not tolerate a united Korea under U.S. influence at its border (see Korean War). And China is much stronger, both economically and militarily, than it was when U.S. troops approached the Yalu River over 65 years ago.

So, let’s circle back to Admiral Josh Painter from The Hunt for Red October, and his concern that events could get out of control. President Trump has indicated repeatedly on Twitter that it is unacceptable for North Korea to acquire a weapon that could threaten the U.S. In fact, he said it “won’t happen.” But it has. And here is one of my main worries — leaders sometimes refuse to back down if they “lose face” or, in other words, fear that they would appear weak and embarrassed. President Trump has talked about how the U.S. doesn’t win anymore. If he backs down now, is this another American loss? More importantly, would Trump think this is a Trump loss? Has his rhetoric positioned himself so that he’s now caught up in events beyond his control? Does he have a way out, even if it makes him “look bad” or “weak”? Has he alienated Beijing, who the U.S. has to have on board to nudge North Korea “in the right direction”?

The silver lining is that President Trump changes his mind quite often as he learns about subjects that are apparent to most people who have occupied his position. Let’s hope he’s a quick learner on this subject. If not, it’s not a complete reach that “we’ll be lucky to live through it.”