Robert Mugabe–The Man who ruined Zimbabwe

November 21, 2017

The man who ruined a country

How Robert Mugabe held on to power for so long

His secret was to talk eloquently, and carry a big stick

Print edition | Middle East and Africa

Nov 16th 2017 | HARARE–The Economist

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The Zimbabwean Dictator Robert Mugabe
IT WAS the dismissal and flight abroad of Robert Mugabe’s oldest and trustiest lieutenant that finally led to his downfall. Grace Mugabe, the 93-year-old president’s avaricious wife, was thought to be behind the sacking. Younger than her husband by 41 years, she plainly sought to inherit the throne. Yet she overplayed her hand. Within a week the armed forces’ commander, alongside an array of generals, declared, without naming her, that Mrs Mugabe must be stopped. He demanded, also without naming names, that her nemesis, Emmerson Mnangagwa, must be reinstated as heir apparent. Mrs Mugabe’s allies were denounced as “counter-revolutionaries” who had played no part in the “war of liberation” that 37 years ago had brought Mr Mugabe to power.
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The Avaricious Wife of Robert Mugabe–FLOZ Grace Mugabe

A few days later armoured troop carriers rolled into Harare, the capital. Soldiers took control of the state broadcaster and surrounded Mr Mugabe’s residence. In the small hours of the morning another general announced on television that the army was in charge. But the coup was not a coup, he insisted. Various traitors had merely been rounded up and the Mugabe family detained for their own safety. Mr Mnangagwa was set to return from his brief exile. The Mugabe era was at last ingloriously over. As The Economist went to press, events were still unfolding pell-mell. But the latest signals suggest that the fate of Zimbabwe, at least for now, is in the hands of the 75-year-old Mr Mnangagwa.

Image result for mnangagwa the crocodileEmmerson “The Crocodile” Mnangagwa (center)


Known as “the Crocodile” for his habit of waiting quietly before sinking his jaws into his next victim, Mr Mnangagwa has none of his erstwhile master’s wit and charm. A former guerrilla and longtime political prisoner during the era of white supremacy that ended with independence under Mr Mugabe in 1980, for the next two decades he was minister of state security and of justice. He acquired a fearsome record of repression and an unrivalled knowledge of where the bodies—literal and metaphorical—were buried.

A pragmatist to the core, Mr Mnangagwa’s first act on the day he took over his department in 1980 was to visit the police station where he had been tortured by the white regime after his capture for trying to blow up a train. The leg-irons from which he had been hung upside down were still there, as were the white officers who had beaten him. Yet, according to an account by Martin Meredith, a historian, he promised them a “clean slate” in the new country.

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Zimbabwe Army General Constantino Chiwenga Commander of the Zimbabwe Defence Forces


Soon enough, however, he was making his own use of such men. He is accused of complicity in the brutal suppression of the minority Ndebele tribe in the early 1980s, when about 20,000 people, most of them civilians, were murdered by the Zimbabwean army. (He denies this.) He had a hand in the Zimbabwean army’s deployment in the 1990s to the Democratic Republic of Congo, which it plundered. In 2008, when Mr Mugabe and his ruling Zanu-PF party lost a parliamentary election and the first round of the presidential one, he orchestrated a lethal wave of violence that forced the winning challenger, Morgan Tsvangirai, to withdraw from the second round. Standing for election to a parliamentary seat against the main opposition party, he was himself twice embarrassingly defeated. But Mr Mugabe ensured he would always retain a senior government or party post.

In the past few years, as Mr Mugabe’s physical and mental powers have declined, Mr Mnangagwa has fostered a reputation, with Western governments among others, as a man to do business with—and as the president’s likeliest successor. Well before the coup, one Western diplomat remarked that he would be ruthless and powerful enough to grab power quickly should it slip from Mr Mugabe’s hands, “with at most a few tens of deaths” forestalling a drawn-out power struggle that could result in a lot more killing. And he has courted multilateral financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank.

Mr Mnangagwa has also let it be known that he would reverse the racist “indigenisation law” that requires businesses to be mainly owned by black Zimbabweans or by the state. He has argued for some kind of settlement, including compensation, for the white farmers whose properties have been confiscated since 2000, acknowledging that their skills are needed to rebuild what was one of Africa’s most productive agricultural economies. Such a settlement might spur Western governments to start offering large-scale aid again. On the domestic front he has put out secret feelers to the opposition, hinting at a unity government after Mr Mugabe goes.

Fall from Grace

That happened faster than expected, once Mrs Mugabe had persuaded her wobbly husband to dispatch his senior vice-president into the wilderness on November 6th, egged on by the president’s outrage after she was booed at a meeting.

Mrs Mugabe’s bid for power has had a long gestation. Backed by a relatively younger coterie of Zanu-PF ministers known as the “G40” (“Generation 40”), she had already managed to eject one rival, Joice Mujuru, from the vice-presidency in 2014. In gunning for Mr Mnangagwa—a few days earlier she had described him as “the snake [who] must be hit on the head”—it seemed she was finally bidding to replace her husband. At a church meeting earlier this month, it was reported that she declared she was ready to succeed him, saying “I say to Mr Mugabe you should…leave me to take over your post.”

The former secretary, who had become Mr Mugabe’s mistress as his first wife lay dying, did not realise how despised she is within the ruling Zanu-PF party. She rashly picked fights with two of its sturdiest factions—the securocrats and former bush fighters—in her bid to eliminate rivals for the presidency. Yet the biggest fall was not that of Grace but of Mr Mugabe himself, a man who was among the last of Africa’s presidents-for-life. His reign lasted so long that the vast majority of Zimbabweans remember no other ruler. And he bragged that it would continue “until God says come join the other angels”.

Despite his viciousness and incompetence, he was hailed as a hero by many Africans. Some saw in him a symbol of resistance to the old imperialist powers. At meeting after meeting of the African Union, he could count on a rousing ovation, as he railed against whites and the injustices that he imagined rich countries, chief among them Britain, and mysterious groups of homosexuals, were inflicting on Zimbabwe. Yet for all his bluster, blame for the immiseration of Zimbabwe rests chiefly on his shoulders. His ruinous policies caused the economy to collapse, impoverished his people and destroyed their health (see charts).

That need not have happened. For a few years after independence, Zimbabwe prospered. Mr Mugabe shelved the full-blown Marxist economic policies he had espoused during the years in prison and in the guerrilla camps. He allowed the white farmers, who had once wanted him dead, to preserve Zimbabwe as the region’s breadbasket. There was an unwritten understanding, he felt, that they should grow food and tobacco but keep out of politics.

He was far less tolerant of the Ndebele, a minority ethnic group who continued to back his long-standing rival for national leadership, Joshua Nkomo. He pretended that scattered instances of banditry amounted to a massive armed revolt, and ordered his North-Korean trained Fifth Brigade to crush it. The massacres, torture and rape he inflicted on the Ndebele were on a larger scale than anything that occurred during the long war against white rule. In those early days, Western governments and aid agencies, keen to promote Zimbabwe as a donor-funded success story, generally looked the other way.

During the 1990s, however, corruption began to erode Mr Mugabe’s authority. Towards the end of that decade, a group of aggrieved and landless “war veterans”, many of them obvious impostors, successfully agitated for big handouts, after complaining that they had missed out on the patronage dished out to the bloated elite. This blew a hole in the budget and caused the IMF to withdraw support.

Instead of pulling back, Mr Mugabe spent more. “Have you ever heard of a country that collapsed because of borrowing?” he asked, as he opened the taps on spending and threatened to grab white-owned farms and hand them to his supporters. Soon after, he called a referendum on a constitutional change to bolster his power as president and enable him to confiscate land without paying compensation.

At this point, in 1999, a trade union-led movement rose up, with the help of some whites, including some of those farmers hitherto protected by Mr Mugabe in return for their quietly prosperous life. After his constitutional proposal was voted down, by 55% to 45%, he lost his temper, setting off a reckless campaign of land grabs. In remarkably short order one of Africa’s most advanced economies collapsed. Short of taxes and revenues raised from the export of crops such as tobacco, the government soon began to run out of money. Gideon Gono, then governor of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe, simply printed more of it. “Traditional economics do not fully apply in this country,” he said. “I am going to print and print and sign the money…because we need money.” Inflation reached 500 billion percent, according to the IMF, or 89.7 sextillion percent, according to Steve Hanke of Johns Hopkins University. (Measuring hyperinflation is hard.)

At the same time, Mr Mugabe embarked on a murderous campaign to quell the opposition, led by a courageous if sometimes clumsy trade unionist, Morgan Tsvangirai, who refused to give up. In 2008 he soundly defeated Mr Mugabe in the first round of a presidential election, while his party won, more narrowly, the general election. Mr Mugabe was evidently shaken to the core, perhaps, like so many dictators, because he had come to believe that his people loved him.

For five weeks, a cowed electoral commission refused to divulge the result, eventually massaging the figure of Mr Tsvangirai’s victory down to just under 50%, thus requiring a second round. The mayhem that then followed was so vicious that Mr Tsvangirai felt obliged to bow out.

Eight months later a unity government was formed. A dollarised currency had begun to rescue the economy but Mr Mugabe failed to implement any of the major reforms that were meant to restore a semblance of democracy. Mr Tsvangirai and his party had been tricked, humiliated and discredited by the time of the next election, in 2013, since when the economy has plummeted again. No one knows the exact figure, but a good 3m Zimbabweans—some say 5m—out of a population now estimated by the UN to be nearly 17m, have fled the country, to South Africa and overseas.

What next?

If Mr Mnangagwa succeeds in taking back the reins of government, his first task will be to consolidate power within Zanu-PF. Whether Mr Mugabe formally hands over or is kept on as a kind of ceremonial president is barely relevant, though it would be neater if the old man were ushered into as dignified a retirement as soon as is feasible in these ugly, humiliating circumstances.

Mr Mnangagwa’s main concern will be to ensure that Mrs Mugabe and her G40 are dismissed. Many have already been locked up. Bigwigs who will probably sink with her include Saviour Kasukuwere, who enacted the racist indigenisation law; Ignatius Chombo, the finance minister; Jonathan Moyo, a serial plotter and former regime mouthpiece; Patrick Zhuwao, a nephew of Mr Mugabe; and the head of the police, Augustine Chihuri.

A Zanu-PF congress originally scheduled for next month, at which the top spots in the party are dished out and endorsed, may be brought forward. A drastic purge of anyone suspected of siding with Mrs Mugabe is likely, and could be bloody. The formal coronation of Mr Mnangagwa, or his anointing as the undisputed heir to the throne, is likely then to take place.

It is possible that Mr Mnangagwa may call for a government of national unity in the run-up to the general and presidential election constitutionally required by the middle of next year. If a president dies or resigns, the ruling party has 90 days to nominate a replacement, who then completes his predecessor’s term of office.

The opposition is woefully fragmented, though its main leaders have made progress in the past year towards forging a broad front. Mr Tsvangirai, much diminished by his five hapless years as prime minister in coalition with Mr Mugabe, who ran rings around him after the bloodily disputed election of 2008, is probably still Zanu-PF’s chief opponent. But he has cancer and several of his ablest lieutenants have defected from his Movement for Democratic Change.

Ms Mujuru, for a decade Mr Mugabe’s vice-president and long a prominent figure in Zanu-PF, might ally herself to Mr Tsvangirai’s party. Simba Makoni, a decent former finance minister who defected from Zanu-PF, won 8% of the presidential vote in 2008. A respected banker and former industry minister, Nkosana Moyo, has set up a new group. It is vital that the opposition coalesces behind a new leader. No obvious chief contender has yet emerged.

Outsiders, in Africa and beyond, are offering to help. The two African bodies previously most involved, the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a 15-country regional club led by South Africa, are sure to make high-minded noises, but their readiness in the past to whitewash Zimbabwe’s rigged elections and to wink at the violence and deceit that kept Mr Mugabe in power for so long give no comfort to Zimbabwe’s battered opposition or to its benighted citizens. Few trust them to give the real opposition, rather than Zanu-PF factions opposed to Mrs Mugabe, a fair deal.

Zimbabwe is bankrupt. It needs the IMF, the World Bank and an array of Western creditors to forgive debts and offer fresh loans. But that must be strictly conditional on political reform. Foreign aid agencies already feed many Zimbabweans who would otherwise starve—in some years, millions of them.

The most pressing requirement is for a properly supervised election. Given the failure of the AU and SADC to monitor past polls properly, it is essential that beefier bodies, including the UN, the European Union and the Commonwealth (from which Zimbabwe withdrew in 2003 after its suspension the year before), supervise the next vote. American bodies that are experienced election-watchers such as the Carter Centre and the National Democratic Institute must be involved, too. The Elders, a group of former world leaders, including Kofi Annan, once head of the UN, and Jimmy Carter, a past American president, could advise. Olusegun Obasanjo, Nigeria’s shrewd former president, has been suggested as a mediator.

Since Mr Mugabe expelled the Swedish head of an EU mission that was monitoring a presidential election in 2002, he has almost never again let in such intrusive bodies or such dignitaries, especially any that smack of past colonial rule. Old party stalwarts, including the coup leader, General Constantine Chiwenga, and Mr Mnangagwa himself, have opposed what they call neocolonial interference. Sometimes China is cited as a friend that, unlike Western powers, will dispense aid with no questions asked. But of late it has sounded less willing to bankroll Zimbabwe.

If a new government wants economic help, it must accept a measure of oversight. Outsiders will not dispatch the aid needed to set Zimbabwe on the path to recovery unless its new government is clearly representative and respects human rights.

Zimbabweans are resilient. Their country is rich not only in natural resources but also in talent, much of which would return home if the country were better governed. Zimbabwe’s infrastructure is still better than in many other African countries. During most of his long tenure, Mr Mugabe and Zanu-PF did their best to ruin the place. Mr Mnangagwa may be the man to oversee the post-Mugabe transition. But as soon as possible a new generation must take over and make a completely fresh start.

 This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print edition under the headline “The man who wrecked a country”


Can Trump strengthen America’s influence in Asia during his visit?

November 4, 2017

Can Trump strengthen America’s influence in Asia during his visit?

by David Shambaugh

David Shambaugh says the region, an economic powerhouse, is vital to US interests and Trump must win over leaders with reassurances of US commitment. Boorish behaviour will not be tolerated.

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As Donald Trump embarks on what the White House describes as the longest visit by a US president to Asia in a quarter of a century (12 days, seven stops, five countries), a very nervous Asia is looking for reassurances of stability and continuity of commitments from him. If Trump sticks to the script – always a huge “if” – prepared by US government staff, countries in the region should be reassured by the outcomes. But if he spontaneously veers off script with provocative language, he could do much damage to regional stability and US interests. Rude behaviour by the president – as he exhibited in Europe earlier this year – will also go down poorly with “face”-conscious Asian leaders and publics.

Despite the symbolically and substantively damaging withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in the first days of his presidency, it must be said that the Trump administration has undertaken some gestures to reassure Asia of continued American commitment. Trump began by meeting Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping early in the year, and has remained in close contact with both since.

This was followed by meetings at the White House with the leaders of India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam. Trump met separately Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on other occasions. This is an impressive record of presidential engagement in just 10 months.

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Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defence James Mattis have also visited Asia on several occasions.

This high-level engagement has been particularly noticeable since the summer. During the first half of the year, there was a palpable American absence across the region – creating a strategic vacuum ready to be filled by China. The past few months of stepped-up engagement has helped assuage nervous governments, particularly in Southeast Asia.

Yet, there remain doubts about the overall strategy and staying power of the US towards the region. The Trump visit will be closely scrutinised for signs of US priorities. Will Trump explicitly reaffirm the five core alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand? He is likely to refer to the “free and open Indo-Pacific” region in his speeches, but does this really reflect a change in American strategy? Will he make any commitments to deployments of US military forces in the region?

What – if anything – will he say about significant human rights transgressions in China, Myanmar, North Korea, the Philippines and Thailand? Will he discuss democracy, as all previous American presidents have done? Will he emphasise Southeast Asia and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations as an American priority? Will he speak positively of multilateralism? How outspoken will he be about his “America First” trade and investment agenda? Can the US-China relationship, which steadily haemorrhaged during the Obama administration, be stabilised and improved? What will Trump say about the US-South Korean relationship to reassure Seoul? And perhaps, above all, what will he say about the North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile threats? Asia awaits answers to these and other pressing questions.

Trump visits Asia at a time of change and dynamism across the region. Politically, there is relative stability. Not only are Japan’s Abe, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, and China’s party general secretary Xi all fresh from recent elections and possessing new political mandates – but in Southeast Asia, Trump will encounter a similar set of well-ensconced leaders.

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Economically, the region continues to boom. The gross domestic products of China, Japan and India rank among the top 10 nations in the world, while South Korea, Indonesia and Australia all rank in the top 20. Asian economies account for around 40 per cent of the aggregate global economy, are the primary drivers of international GDP growth and account for one-third of global trade volume.

Asia accounts for 66 per cent of global currency reserves, and about 60 per cent of global capital inflows, around US$150 billion per year. Given this economic dynamism, Asia is vitally important for the United States.

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Demographically, Asia comprises 60 per cent of the world’s population. Eight of the world’s 15 most populated nations are in Asia, including the world’s three-largest Islamic nations. Despite the impressive growth in disposable incomes and standards of living across the region in recent decades, 800 million Asians still live on less than US$1 per day.

Given rising regional tensions, the Indo-Pacific region still looks to America as the primary stabilising force

In terms of security, Asia may be the most militarised region in the world. Asia possesses five of the world’s 10 largest standing armies (China, India, North Korea, South Korea and Vietnam), and four nuclear states (China, North Korea, India and Pakistan). Five of the world’s 15 largest defence-spending nations are in Asia. Collectively, regional defence expenditure has increased by more than 60 per cent over the past decade, to US$450 billion in 2016, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, reflecting the rising tensions across Northeast, Southeast and South Asia.

The region is bristling with increasingly sophisticated weaponry as almost all militaries are modernising their forces. Given rising regional tensions, the Indo-Pacific region still looks to America as the primary stabilising force.

It will be interesting to see if Trump takes note of these regional realities in his speeches. He is expected to give three public speeches during the trip – at a joint US-Korean military base, to the South Korean national assembly, and at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.

Trump inherited from Barack Obama an unprecedentedly strong position for the US in Asia. With its “pivot” policy, the Obama administration prioritised Asia as no previous US administration had – while the Trump administration has yet to “brand” its Asia policy, thus far we see prioritisation for a continued strong and influential American role in Asia.

There remain doubts about the depth of the administration’s understanding of the dynamics at work across Asia.
Nonetheless, there remain lingering doubts about America’s and Trump’s commitment to the region, and the depth of the administration’s understanding of the deep dynamics at work across Asia. China, in particular, is seen to be stealing a march on the US – in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and across the Indian Ocean with its “Belt and Road Initiative”.


While we can expect reassuring rhetoric from Trump during his tour, the US needs to substantively increase its engagement with all Asian societies on a continual basis. Periodic “parachute” visits by US presidents and senior officials, giving reassuring speeches, is not enough. Asians have long witnessed this approach from Washington. After Trump departs, only continuing substantive engagement at both governmental and societal levels will suffice to reassure Asia that America can be counted on.

David Shambaugh is Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies, Political Science & International Affairs at George Washington University in Washington, DC, and co-author of The International Relations of Asia

American democracy has gone through dark times before

November 3, 2017

American democracy has gone through dark times before

The announcements that Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos have been indicted by a federal grand jury on various charges, including conspiring against the United States, money laundering and lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) deepens the current cynicism about politics, politicians and the Trump administration in particular.

According to the Washington Post, seven out of 10 Americans see the country being as sharply divided into warring political camps as during the Vietnam war 50 years ago. The division and inability of the Trump administration to pass any major legislative initiative about immigration, healthcare and now possibly federal taxes, despite Trump’s repeated promises about making America great again, create doubts about democracy’s effectiveness as a system of government.Current events remind some people of Winston Churchill’s famous observation that democracy is the worst possible system – except for all the rest. Or maybe it’s just like all the rest. What makes it particularly distressing is the view that this is not an aberration but rather the “new normal”.

It might help Americans to remember that we have been through these periods of disillusionment before.

In the 19th century, the country was torn apart by the civil war. More than 600,000 residents of the north and south perished in the fighting (and this in the era before machine guns, lethal long-range artillery, aircraft and atom bombs that killed tens of millions in the two world wars). At the time, Americans struggled to believe that the United States could ever function again as a unified nation.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the durability of democracy once again seemed doubtful. The split between rural fundamentalists and urban modernists, between recent migrants to the United States from eastern and southern Europe and older assimilated Americans found expression in the National Origins Act of 1924, a discriminatory immigration act.

The so-called Scopes monkey trial in 1925 over the teaching of evolution in high school biology classes, which pitted religious reformists and secularists against fundamentalists, and the famous Sacco-Vanzetti murder case, which saw two Italian-American anarchists executed in a highly contentious case, convinced Americans that the country was permanently divided.

The country found momentary relief in the 1928 election of Herbert Hoover, who seemed to promise a new era of prosperity that would dissolve social tensions. But the onset of the Great Depression, with the stock market crash in 1929 and the downward spiral of the economy in 1930-1932, stimulated renewed fears that free enterprise and democracy in America were over. Hoover lamented the absence of a joke, a song or a story that could lift the pall of pessimism that had descended on the country.

The election of Franklin D Roosevelt in 1932 proved to be the palliative that gave people hope. His fireside chats and many legislative initiatives not only lifted the spirits of the country, but also humanized the American industrial system and brought the country into the 20th century.

Public Works Administration workers fill a gully with wheelbarrows of earth during the construction of the Lake Merced Parkway Boulevard, under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, San Francisco, California, 1934.
Public Works Administration workers fill a gully with wheelbarrows of earth during the construction of the Lake Merced Parkway Boulevard in San Francisco, in 1934 under President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Photograph: New York Times Co./Getty Images

His introduction of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration; the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the National Youth Administration, social security, the Public Works Administration, the Works Progress Administration, the wages and hours law, setting minimum wages and maximum hours and the dam-building that promoted conservation and economic expansion all helped achieve this turnaround.

FDR’s determination to bring representatives of recent immigrant groups – Catholics and Jews, southern and eastern Europeans of every stripe – into the mainstream of the country’s life, while attending to the needs of white rural southerners, largely healed the divide of the 1920s.

He was much less attentive to the abuse of African Americans by racists guilty of lynching. But the benefits to black Americans from the New Deal alphabet agencies shifted the loyalty of black voters from the Republicans to the Democrats. It was all a prelude to the unity of the country that marked its response to Pearl Harbor and the struggle to win the second world war.

The struggle to maintain national unity dissolved again in the cold war, with conservative complaints that Democrats had fallen short in defending the country’s national security against communist advances across Europe and Asia.

Accusations about Roosevelt’s appeasement of Stalin at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 and Harry Truman’s failure to save China from Mao Zedong’s communist takeover, underscored by Senator Joseph McCarthy’s charges of subversion by US government officials and anger over the stalemate in the Korean war once again demoralized the country. It was a prelude to the bitter struggle over the failure in Vietnam.

The tensions now over Donald Trump’s alleged collaboration with the Kremlin to assure his victory in the 2016 election and the charges of administration corruption echo the run-up to Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

We of course don’t know where the current divide will end. While it certainly looks like another moment in the repeated history of America’s domestic struggles, it is a familiar enough battle to reassure downcast citizens that we have a resilient democracy that will generate another period of national cooperation and advance. Or at least, we can hope so.

Robert Dallek is the author of several books on presidents and politics. His new book is Franklin D Roosevelt: A Political Life.

The cancer of Islamist extremism spreads around the world

November 3, 2017

The cancer of Islamist extremism spreads around the world

by Fareed Zakaria


This week’s tragic terrorist attack in New York was the kind of isolated incident by one troubled man that should not lead to generalizations. In the 16 years since 9/11, the city has proved astonishingly safe from jihadist groups and individuals. And yet, speaking about it to officials in this major global hub 10,000 miles away, the conclusions they reach are worrying. “The New York attack might be a way to remind us all that while ISIS is being defeated militarily, the ideological threat from radical Islam is spreading,” says Singaporean Home Minister K. Shanmugam. “The trend line is moving in the wrong direction.”

The military battle against Islamist extremist groups in places such as Syria and Afghanistan is a tough struggle, but it has always been one that favored the United States and its allies. After all, the combined military forces of some of the world’s most powerful governments are up against a tiny band of guerrillas. On the other hand, the ideological challenge from the Islamic State has proved far more intractable. The terrorist group and ones like it have been able to spread their ideas, recruit disaffected young men and women, and infiltrate countries across the globe. Western countries remain susceptible to the occasional lone wolf, but the new breeding grounds of radicalism are once-moderate Muslim societies in Central, South and Southeast Asia.

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Governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama after the sentencing in his blasphemy trial in Jakarta on May 9, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Consider Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, long seen as a moderate bulwark. This year, the governor of Jakarta, the country’s capital and largest city, lost his bid for reelection after he was painted by Muslim hard-liners as unfit for office because he is Christian. Worse, he was then jailed after being convicted on a dubious and unfair blasphemy charge. Amid a rising tide of Islamist politics, Indonesia’s “moderate” president and its mainstream “moderate” Islamic organizations have failed to stand up for the country’s traditions of tolerance and multiculturalism.

Or look at Bangladesh, another country with a staunchly secular past, where nearly 150 million Muslims live. Founded as a breakaway from Pakistan on explicitly nonreligious grounds, Bangladesh’s culture and politics have become increasingly extreme over the past decade. Atheists, secularists and intellectuals have been targeted and even killed, blasphemy laws have been enforced, and a spate of terrorist attacks have left hundreds dead.

Why is this happening? There are many explanations. Poverty, economic hardship and change produce anxieties. “People are disgusted by the corruption and incompetence of politicians. They are easily seduced by the idea that Islam is the answer, even though they don’t know what that means,” a Singaporean politician explained to me. And then, the local leaders make alliances with the clerics and give platforms to the extremists, all in search of easy votes. That political pandering has helped nurture a cancer of Islamist extremism.

In Southeast Asia, almost all observers whom I have spoken with believe that there is another crucial cause — exported money and ideology from the Middle East, chiefly Saudi Arabia. A Singaporean official told me, “Travel around Asia and you will see so many new mosques and madrassas built in the last 30 years that have had funding from the Gulf. They are modern, clean, air-conditioned, well-equipped — and Wahhabi [Saudi Arabia’s puritanical version of Islam].” Recently, it was reported that Saudi Arabia plans to contribute almost $1 billion to build 560 mosques in Bangladesh. The Saudi government has denied this, but sources in Bangladesh tell me there’s some truth to the report.

Image result for Moderate Muslims in SingaporeHE Halimah Yacob, Singapore’s Eighth President, is a Muslim Malay.


How to turn this trend around? Singapore’s Shanmugam says that the city-state’s population (15 percent of which is Muslim) has stayed relatively moderate because state and society work very hard at integration. “We have zero tolerance for any kind of militancy, but we also try to make sure Muslims don’t feel marginalized,” he explained. Singapore routinely gets high marks in global rankings for its transparency, low levels of corruption and the rule of law. Its economy provides opportunities for most.

Asia continues to rise, but so does Islamist radicalism there. This trend can be reversed only by better governance and better politics — by leaders who are less corrupt, more competent and, crucially, more willing to stand up to the clerics and extremists. Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince spoke last week of turning his kingdom to “moderate Islam.” Many have mocked this as a public-relations strategy, pointing to the continued dominance of the kingdom’s ultra-orthodox religious establishment. A better approach would be to encourage the crown prince, hold him to his words and urge him to follow up with concrete actions. This is the prize. Were Saudi Arabia to begin religious reform at home, it would be a far larger victory against radical Islam than all the advances on the battlefield so far.


America’ s Victim-In-Chief Donald J. Trump

November 2, 2017

America’ s Victim-In-Chief Donald J. Trump

by Conor Friedersdorf



“No politician in history — and I say this with great surety — has been treated worse or more unfairly.” ~ Donald J. Trump


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Imagine growing up heir to a fortune in New York City, attending an Ivy League university, marrying a series of models, getting paid millions of dollars to host a reality-TV show, getting elected president … and then constantly casting yourself as a victim.

That apparent compulsion is defining Donald Trump’s presidency.

Scarcely a week goes by without Trump whining that he has been mistreated by the media, a political rival, a TV personality, or a legislator. He is John McEnroe; the presidency is his U.S. Open. We are the crowd, transfixed in spite of ourselves by unnerving tantrums, which betray the fact that he is too volatile and too weak to master himself.

His victim mentality is deepening along with Robert Mueller’s probe.

Image result for The Mueller ProbeThe Notorious Trump Trio


Last year, Trump chose to hire Paul Manafort, an obviously unethical abettor of foreign interests with connections to the Kremlin, to lead his presidential campaign. Later he chose to fire FBI Director James Comey, then to tell Russian dignitaries that doing so eased pressure on an investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

The whole episode was an almost farcical own-goal.

Yet this week, as the FBI was preparing to hand down a criminal indictment of his former campaign manager, Trump was tweeting that he is being subjected to a “witch hunt,” as if he bears no responsibility for staffing his campaign with multiple people who reached out to Russian contacts, then brazenly lied about those interactions.

Even his own son bears some responsibility for the suspicion of collusion. Still, his apologists validate his victim mentality.

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D’ Trump Rush Trash

Take Rush Limbaugh’s most recent effort to bolster the Trump-as-victim narrative, offered Monday as Manafort was indicted:

They had learned, the Democrats in the media had learned that standard dirty tricks did not work on Trump, such as the Access Hollywood video.

The things that have always worked from the media and the Democrat Party playbook to take out Republican candidates or Republican elected officials had not worked on Trump. They fired every weapon they had. They’d used as much ammo as they could muster to get rid of Trump in the traditional Democrat, drive-by-media, dirty-tricks technique. But none of it stuck. None of it worked.They could not dent Trump’s bond with his voters. And there were enough of them, of course, to elect him president.

So they decided that they had to go outside the appearance of politics-as-usual. And what better way than to purchase and construct and write an intelligence document that was sourced by people in the Russian government and MI6.

What’s most striking about that passage isn’t the attempt to discredit the dossier produced by Christopher Steele. It’s the characterization of the Access Hollywood tape as a “standard dirty trick” of media Democrats—as if anyone other than Trump himself is to blame for donning a lapel mic, getting on an NBC bus with Billy Bush, and telling him, “You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.”

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If you’re a Rush Limbaugh listener, you know that the talk-radio host would’ve immediately aired and then exalted in audio of Bill Clinton or Barack Obama making those same statements, and that you’d regard his doing so as obviously fair game. Whether one thinks those comments suggest the many women accusing Trump of sexual improprieties are telling the truth (Trump predictably maintains that all 16 of them are victimizing him with lies), or that the comments are hyperbolic “locker-room talk,” the claim that it’s a “dirty trick” to play a recording of Trump talking is nonsense.

Meanwhile, another Trump apologist managed to cast Don Jr. as the victim even as he lied about a meeting that he held with a Russian promising dirt on Hillary Clinton.

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The Next Governor of New York–Donald J. Trump Jr. (?)

Do these people ever hold their allies responsible for anything?And at its most extreme, the impulse among Trumpists to portray themselves as victims inspired the deplorable act of creating a protest sign that said “Rape Melania” to create the false impression that opponents of the president were saying that.

All of this is doing damage to the country.

Hate hoaxes are always wrong. America looks weak when its president and his apologists are constantly portraying themselves as victims. Children are ill-served by their example. And the military is mistreated when the president keeps passing the buck to generals when Americans are killed abroad. For all of those reasons and more, Trump’s supporters should stop tolerating this ongoing victim mentality:

Trump voters were promised a winner who would “drain the swamp” and make America great again. What they’ve gotten instead is a serial failure who never confronts or addresses his own failings, and will therefore never remedy or overcome those failings.

“Take your life in your own hands, and what happens?” Erica Jong wrote. “A terrible thing: no one to blame.” So expect more “blame, finger-pointing, and pity parties fueled by pessimism, fear, and anger.” And wonder not that just 33 percent of Americans tell Gallup they approve of Trump’s erratic, victimhood presidency. His disordered behavior will keep on harming the country for the duration of his tenure.

Populism and Trump’s Foreign Policy

October 23, 2017

Populism and  Trump’s Foreign Policy

by Frank Lavin*

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Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy is defined by his missteps and flamboyance.

Donald Trump confounds political observers. For many, he is defined by his missteps and flamboyance. His foreign policy statements contain sufficient imprecision—if not outright contradictions—to allow observers to conclude a lack of care in dealing with the issues. Is China’s presence in the South China Sea acceptable or not? Is NATO useful or not? Should the United States use force in Syria for humanitarian or geo-political goals? This ambiguity gives rise to further questions regarding his foreign policy architecture: what are the guiding principles?

Trump does indeed have guiding principles, but they are process principles and not the substantive principles that we are used to seeing in a president. What shapes his foreign policy is that which shaped his singular triumph in public life: his campaign. Indeed, Trump abjured several of the policies that have guided Republican campaigns of the modern era: entitlement reform, trade agreements, and international leadership. A long-time supporter of both Bill and Hillary Clinton, President Trump’s political success was drawn not from conservatism nor an intellectual architecture—though he has some conservative impulses—but from political populism. His worldview in many ways is an extension of that belief.

What is Populism?

This populism has four characteristics. First, it is grievance-based. It focuses on problems rather than solutions. This has the extraordinary advantage of giving the message potency because negative statements can motivate more effectively than positive ones, but it makes it difficult to form a governing coalition, since constituencies that have a problem with a particular policy might have even greater differences among its alternatives. Indeed, as a candidate, Trump avoided articulating a positive vision regarding even central pillars of his campaign such as health care. Notably, Trump’s main foreign policy pronouncements in the campaign were grievance-based: terrorism, trade and immigration. Equally noteworthy, they were all essentially domestic issues with a foreign genesis. The traditional foreign policy questions were largely absent from his discussions: What is America’s role in the world? What is the value of an alliance? To what extent should we promote democracy and human rights, or should the U.S. focus on national interest calculations?

Second, the populist must establish emotional connectivity with the audience. Trump tends to evaluate people largely based on how they connect with him. The rally format suits him well; he loves the audience and the audience loves him. There are no questions and answers, nor any discussion, nor does there have to be new information, but there is plenty of emotional connectivity. Importantly, this emotional connectivity has little to do with economic class, a point that can befuddle Trump’s domestic political opponents, who underestimate his working-class appeal on the basis that he personally has little in common with them or that his policies supposedly would not help them. To a populist, the first point is broadly irrelevant and the second point is highly debatable. Might many a construction worker welcome a construction boom, and many a restaurant worker welcome an expansion of the business, if it meant job security and a larger paycheck, even if it would create disproportionate returns to the construction company and restaurant owner? For many working men and women, a growth in inequality is not inherently troubling. Thomas Piketty might be right, but it might not matter to most Americans if returns to capital outpace returns to labor. In addition, when establishment elites mock Trump, from his grammar to his boorishness, a portion of non-elites see this as condescension.

Third, populism is exculpatory: Every problem the United States faces was caused by others and the target audience is blameless. So if a company wanted to relocate some activity to Mexico, it must have been to exploit wage differences. No discussion as to whether wage increases at the U.S. facility have outpaced productivity increases. No discussion as to whether union rules impede flexibility and productivity. No discussion of the fact that Mexico might be a better production platform because it has more free trade agreements. Management is to blame, with Mexico in connivance. This is frequently expressed in themes of anti-establishment or alienation, which can have a corrosive effect when anchored in grievances.

Fourth, policy choices are cost-free and without trade-offs. Cost-benefit analysis, transition costs, the challenges in administering a government agency, underperforming programs, secondary effects and unintended consequences – these are all incidental to the victory of the policy choice itself. As such, populists might as well berate NATO leadership into burden-sharing, ignoring the downside to publicly hectoring leaders of sovereign nations. They, too, might as well call for a physical wall on the U.S. border with Mexico since it will be, by self-declaration, cost free.

To be fair, others in public life exhibit some of these elements. President Obama’s healthcare plan was historically grandiose in scope, cost and complexity, yet it was ballyhooed to save money. Similarly, Obama’s eight-year effort to reduce U.S. commitments to NATO was to have no costs in terms of force projection, alliance cohesion, or deterrence. And, Obama was the only President in the modern era to have run against trade as a candidate, an approach Trump followed.

What Went Wrong?

How could the bipartisan consensus on U.S. international leadership fade so quickly, particularly at a moment when the combination of market economics and alliances of democracies had resulted in perhaps the most prosperous and most liberal moment in human history? There are four contributors to the rise of populism: societal transformation, grievance economics, international leadership, and elite limitations.

First, societal transformation – meaning both globalization and automation— has two profound socio-political effects. It produces an extraordinary degree of prosperity; and it carries with it a distribution effect. The bell curve of income distribution does not shift as much as it elongates. Few people are worse off, but many people are not better off. There is not necessarily the creation of a large number of winners and losers, but there is certainly the perception people getting left behind. Trump understands the message: The globalization club is having a party, and you are not invited. Silicon Valley is drinking champagne and your role is to pick the grapes. These trends also feed into the narrative of alienation because it decreases people’s control over their lives even as their overall prosperity increases. Globalization and automation have created economic anxiety in electorates around the world, and not just among steelworkers and coal miners. Realtors, bank tellers, school teachers, and cab drivers are all seeing competitive pressure and the prospect of job elimination. To many Americans, comparative advantage and creative destruction create a more prosperous society, but accompanying it is job insecurity. David Ricardo and Joseph Schumpeter might be right, but so what?

Second, over several decades we have seen a shift from growth economics to grievance economics. This represents a break with the recovery policies that guided the leading economies through the 1950s and 1960s (and that economic rationalists such as Macron tilt toward today). In the current view, the primary purpose of economic policy is not to foment prosperity, but to redress grievances. Indeed, regardless of absolute improvements in well-being, reducing economic inequality is deemed to be a basis for policy. The premise of growth economics is that a system is fundamentally fair, so the main challenge is how fast we can go. The premise of grievance economics is that the system is fundamentally unfair, so going faster merely exacerbates the unfairness. This cult of inequality incentivizes interest-group politics and rent-seeking, leading to slower growth. If you focus on growth policies, you get growth. If you focus on grievance policies, you get grievances.

A third cause is the shift in the U.S. international posture. We have seen a growing fatigue in the United States over the cost of international leadership. The U.S. entered the post-Cold War era with the institutions and the cohesion of the Cold War era largely intact, even though the end of the Soviet Union removed what political scientists term a “negative integrator.” Now we are deep into the post-post-Cold War era, with faded cohesion and institutions. For the first time since Harding and Coolidge we have two presidents in a row who have no international military or policy pedigree. Beyond the direct costs of international leadership in defense budgets and personnel, Americans seem more sensitive to the indirect costs of public opinion and anti-Americanism. Relationships can be expensive. Friendships can be complicated. If there is no immediate threat, and if no one likes us anyhow, then what is the point of foreign policy?

To sum up this point, imagine international Presidential leadership as a decision between whether to be a minute early or a minute late. Do you deter or do you react? Being a minute early requires leadership, because it carries with it the possibility of error and the cost of action without a consensus. “Left of Boom,” the British call it. Being a minute late and waiting until the problem has metastasized has the considerable benefit of allowing public consensus to build, and it is the less politically expensive approach. President Obama’s instinct is that foreign policy is better managed by being a minute late, such as responding after-the-fact to the Chinese build-out in the South China Sea, not confronting Russia on its intervention in U.S. elections, and perhaps in the cases of Aleppo or ISIS, Obama was more than a minute late. President Bush’s instinct was to be a minute early, foolishly so to his critics. Presidents have spent some  75 years since Pearl Harbor trying to be a minute early, with all the costs and mistakes that entailed, yet now we have two presidents in a row who believe we are better off being a minute late.

Finally, the appeal of populism has been driven by their perception of the limitations of the U.S. leadership class: insular, rigid, and sometimes simply mediocre. Additionally, over-engineered solutions and the appearance of being self-serving, if not corrupt, help the appeal of populism. Sometimes it comes from the declining marginal effectiveness of government programs as society becomes more affluent and complicated. Indeed, the Obama administration seemed to regularly play into the hands of populists, sometimes passively so, as with the refusal to challenge even the more exotic of the sanctuary city movement. Sometimes, it was by design as with the painstaking construction not to label Islamic terrorism as such. If responsible leaders appear to be playing favorites or not accurately describing a phenomenon, they abandon the issue to their opponents — a phenomenon Trump witnessed through his hesitation in characterizing the Charlottesville protests.

If populists rely too heavily on emotional connectivity, which establishment politicians have any emotional connectivity? Does there exist an aspirant for President, other than Donald Trump, who can have a friendly discussion with a Walmart cashier? How many of the possible 2020 presidential candidates have worked in the “real” economy, working for an institution that needed to turn a profit? Sam Rayburn’s wish to Lyndon Johnson, after LBJ had related how bright was his brain trust, was that he wished one of them had run for county sheriff. Can we today wish that one of the 2020 presidential candidates will have run a diner, which would have required them to hire teenagers, train high school dropouts, deal with single parents, lay-off workers from failed projects and negotiate wages, all while paying taxes and dealing with various government agencies? Maybe this is why a restaurant worker might respect an owner, or even a New York real estate developer, but not a career politician. If the elites cannot maintain that connectivity, they give an opening to populists.

Attaining political maturity contemporaneous with the Bush 43 invasion of Iraq, Obama was wary of American over-reach and committed to a foreign policy pullback. He embedded that withdrawal in a denial of American exceptionalism, a pillar of U.S foreign policy since Pearl Harbor. If you stop believing in yourself, it is difficult to ask others to believe in you. The rejection of America’s special role in the world helped set the stage for “Make America Great Again.” Was Barack Obama the ultimate Donald Trump enabler?

There other contributing factors beyond the above four. The rise of identity politics probably played into Trump’s hands, as did the digital communications revolution. News clutter rewards pugnacity and sensationalism and allows for cocoons and even tribalism. It is also worth noting that Trump is a man of unusual presentation strengths, and he can effectively project personality. Simply put, Trump was an exemplary grievance candidate in a grievance year. Trump articulated a vision; Hillary Clinton did not. We are in a communications era. For Secretary Clinton, communications is a means to an end. For Trump it is an end. She believes in her in-box; He, in his out-box. Hillary campaigned as the functionary; Donald as the visionary.

Is internationalism doomed?

America is now in the middle of a twelve and possibly sixteen year reign of two presidents who challenge the Cold War view that America is better off with a leading international presence, with being a minute early. It is too expensive, argued President Obama, and it leads us into unwinnable conflicts, draining our reputation and our purse. It is too expensive, echoes President Trump, and foreigners abuse and cheat us. Obama argues for minimalism because the United States is a problem for the world, and Trump argues for minimalism because the world is a problem for the United States.

Even as President, Trump is easy to underestimate. Appealingly so. Many critics derive amusement, even a sense of superiority, from his foibles. His factual errors and even spelling mistakes provide an opportunity for mockery, but the lazy epiphany of error-spotting is a poor substitute for a substantive rebuttal. And a significant portion of the criticism is either ad hominem or an over-reach, either of which helps Trump. Those who are serious about policy should look at the direction in which he is taking the country, rather than fixate on these errors.

To be even-handed, if President Trump’s distinctive success in the public space was his astonishing 2016 victory, in 2008 the distinctive success of Senator Obama was his astonishing election. Obama wisely chose not to run on his government record but marshaled his formidable stage skills and personal charisma to direct criticism toward Hillary Clinton and John McCain. So if Trump’s foreign policy approach stems from his success as “Ranter-in-Chief,” does Obama’s approach stem from his success as “Charmer-in-Chief?” Radically different styles, but with policy similarities.

The deterioration in U.S. foreign policy will likely continue for the near term. On any given day, the Obama/Trump approach may make sense. We should be a minute late. It makes sense to skimp, to cut defense expenditures, to reduce international good-will and connectivity, to save money all around. Relationships can be expensive and even harmful – this is the seduction of the minimalist school. But there is a countervailing argument.

The main argument against this minimalist approach will be events themselves. The minimalist approach might work in a static environment, but that stasis in itself incentivizes a destabilizer. At some point, history presents the bill. Only then will we be reminded, perhaps cruelly, that although on any given day it might be less expensive to be a minute late, as a matter of national policy we need to be a minute early. If we are not willing to pay the price to be left of boom, then we must pay the price for the boom itself. Worse than the expense and bother of having friends would be the expense and bother of not having friends.

Frank Lavin is the Chairman of Export Now. He served in the White House, National Security Council, State Department, and Commerce Department during the Reagan, Bush (41) and Bush (43) Administrations.