Why can’t America just take out Assad?

 

A roll of pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri
A roll of pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. Reuters/Khaled al-Hariri

David Alpher, George Mason University

The Trump administration has done an abrupt about-face on Syria, contradicting its own nascent foreign policy. Within 24 hours, it went from calling out the Assad regime for using chemical weapons to launching missiles at military targets. As limited as the strikes were, there are also statements that plans are in the works to target Syrian President Bashar al-Assad: It “would seem there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian people,” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said of Assad on April 6.

As costly as inaction has been in the six years since the Arab Spring uprisings first took hold in Syria, recent history suggests that removing Assad in a hurry would be an even bigger mistake. In 16 years studying and working with complex conflicts like Syria, I have yet to see an exception to this rule.

We know where this goes next

Targeting Assad would likely give birth to the same kind of catastrophe we saw in Libya after Muammar Gaddafi’s fall. In Libya, with no true civil governance to hold the structure together, tribal alliances collapsed and a four-way fight for power emerged. It continues even now, accented by a growing presence of the Islamic State. The power vacuum that would follow the sudden and unwise removal of Assad could be worse than the current warfare, and nourish the already fertile growing conditions for violent extremist and paramilitary actors.

Assad shouldn’t remain in power – he’s been proving that for six years. The recent Sarin gas attack is only the most recent on a long list of other human rights violations. But he should be part of a political and legal process that removes him. That process must come from the Syrians themselves, not from the outside. His departure should be negotiated with Syrian civil society leadership to legitimize the claim to power of a civilian government. Justice for his crimes should be served by Syrian courts.

Here’s why:

Nature abhors a vacuum: Unlike in a game of chess, in war removing the king is not the end, but only another beginning. The idea that Syria still exists as it looks on the map is a fantasy. Part of its territory is held by the government, part is lost to the Islamic State, part of it is in rebel hands. It won’t come cleanly back together should the fighting suddenly end tomorrow. Tensions among rebel groups – which are already high – and between pro- and anti-IS forces will only increase with one combatant removed from the field. We can only attempt to predict where Assad’s loyalist forces will go with their leader removed.

In order for Assad’s withdrawal to be beneficial, it needs to come in the context of a sound Syrian-driven plan to move from immediate containment of violence to a return of civilian Syrian leadership and security. That plan currently doesn’t exist.

Outside solutions never work: In the international development world, it’s been repeatedly shown that solutions to complicated problems can’t be imposed from outside. They won’t be sustainable and often do harm. Solutions have to come from inside a country’s own civil society. Otherwise, the result is to undermine the legitimacy of the same systems of politics and justice that are necessary to hold a population together in the long term. At present there is little left of Syrian civil society, but local councils continue to provide the connective tissue that holds the country together in areas not held by Assad. These organizations can jump-start efforts to create new democratic institutions.

What’s the endgame? The classic underpinnings of our own strategic doctrine stress that military action should never be taken without a clear goal for a desired end-state. Of all the possible actions the U.S. could take, regime change is the most deceptively simple – but it doesn’t qualify as an end-state. In fact, it would usher in a more chaotic and violent environment that would be hard to contain even by several countries working together militarily.

Libya and Iraq both demonstrated this all too clearly. They fell into chaos despite the efforts – or perhaps because of the efforts – of multinational coalitions. Thursday’s strikes only increased the sense of crisis and confusion, as everyone from the Syrians to the Russians to America itself wonders what the next move will be. Most worrisome, it’s unclear whether Trump himself has a firm grasp on what he’s doing next or why.

Whither the ship of state? Most of America’s high-level diplomatic positions are still unfilled. These are positions that manage complex State Department processes, and which have the political heft to hold their own with the Department of Defense in fights over direction and leadership. They coordinate with international partners to ensure there are no miscommunications and that missteps are minimized. They provide much-needed analysis about dynamics and changes in conflict zones. They also help to mitigate the heightened probability of accidental clashes with international actors such as Russia in the confusion and increased tension that follows military action.

The infrastructure through which Assad mounts his offensives cannot be decisively destroyed by anything limited and quick. They are too dispersed and numerous. Unless the United States is willing to commit to a sustained and substantial campaign or to throw its weight behind a political end to the war, Thursday’s strikes are an empty gesture. At the same time, it’s also true that even a sustained and substantial military campaign would not bring about peace and security, and would put American troops on a battlefield that’s essentially one big crossfire. It’s a catch-22.

The fact that the U.S. has now literally fired its opening salvo limits the American government’s options – but the political process is a sustainable path that offers a way out of the catch, and there’s still time to put our weight behind that. It does neither the Syrian people nor our own security any good to find urgency overnight, only to make a bad situation worse.

David Alpher, Adjunct Professor at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, George Mason University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Conversation

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White House in turmoil shows why Trump’s no CEO

Trump poses with his brain trust. Mark Lennihan/AP Photo
Trump poses with his brain trust. Mark Lennihan/AP Photo

Bert Spector, Northeastern University

Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump made much of his business experience, claiming he’s been “creating jobs and rebuilding neighborhoods my entire adult life.”

The fact that he was from the business world rather than a career politician was something that appealed to many of his supporters.

It’s easy to understand the appeal of a president as CEO. The U.S. president is indisputably the chief executive of a massive, complex, global structure known as the federal government. And if the performance of our national economy is vital to the well-being of us all, why not believe that Trump’s experience running a large company equips him to effectively manage a nation?

Instead of a “fine-tuned machine,” however, the opening weeks of the Trump administration have revealed a White House that’s chaotic, disorganized and anything but efficient. Examples include rushed and poorly constructed executive orders, a dysfunctional national security team and unclear and even contradictory messages emanating from multiple administrative spokespeople, which frequently clash with the tweets of the president himself.

Senator John McCain succinctly summed up the growing sentiment even some Republicans are feeling: “Nobody knows who’s in charge.”

So why the seeming contradiction between his businessman credentials and chaotic governing style?

Well for one thing, Trump wasn’t a genuine CEO. That is, he didn’t run a major public corporation with shareholders and a board of directors that could hold him to account. Instead, he was the head of a family-owned, private web of enterprises. Regardless of the title he gave himself, the position arguably ill-equipped him for the demands of the presidency.

Catching up on the news, Senator? Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo
Catching up on the news, Senator? Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP Photo

Public accountability

Several years ago, I explored the distinction between public and private companies in detail when the American Bar Association invited me to write about what young corporate lawyers needed to understand about how business works. Based on that research, I want to point to an important set of distinctions between public corporations and private businesses, and what it all means for President Trump.

Public corporations are companies that offer their stock to pretty much anyone via organized exchanges or by some over-the-counter mechanism. In order to protect investors, the government created the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), which imposes an obligation of transparency on public corporations that does not apply to private businesses like the Trump Organization.

The SEC, for example, requires the CEO of public corporations to make full and public disclosures of their financial position. Annual 10-K reports, quarterly 10-Q’s and occasional special 8-K’s require disclosure of operating expenses, significant partnerships, liabilities, strategies, risks and plans.

Additionally, an independent firm overseen by the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board conducts an audit of these financial statements to ensure thoroughness and accuracy.

Finally, the CEO, along with the chief financial officer, is criminally liable for falsification or manipulation of the company’s reports. Remember the 2001 Enron scandal? CEO Jeffrey Skilling was convicted of conspiracy, fraud and insider trading and initially sentenced to 24 years in prison.

Former Enron CEO Skilling learned the hard way that the buck stopped with him. Pat Sullivan/AP Photo
Former Enron CEO Skilling learned the hard way that the buck stopped with him. Pat Sullivan/AP Photo

Internal governance

Then there is the matter of internal governance.

The CEO of a public company is subject to an array of constraints and a varying but always substantial degree of oversight. There are boards of directors, of course, that review all major strategic decisions, among other duties. And there are separate committees that assess CEO performance and determine compensation, composed entirely of independent or outside directors without any ongoing involvement in running the business.

Whole categories of CEO decisions, including mergers and acquisitions, changes in the corporation’s charter and executive compensation packages, are subject to the opinion of shareholders and directors.

In addition, the 2010 Dodd-Frank Act requires – for now – regular nonbinding shareholder votes on the compensation packages of top executives.

And then there’s this critical fact: well-governed firms tend to outperform poorly governed ones, often dramatically. And that’s because of factors like a strong board of directors, more transparency, a responsiveness to shareholders, thorough and independent audits and so forth.

Trump celebrates the opening of his Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City in 1990. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo
Trump celebrates the opening of his Taj Mahal Casino Resort in Atlantic City in 1990. Charles Rex Arbogast/AP Photo

Trump’s business

None of the obligations listed above applied to Trump, who was owner, chairman and president of the Trump Organization, a family-owned limited liability company (LLC) that has owned and run hundreds of businesses involving real estate, hotels, golf courses, private jet rentals, beauty pageants and even bottled water.

LLCs are specifically designed to offer owners tax advantages, maximum flexibility and financial and legal protections without either the benefits (such as access to equity capital markets) or the many obligations of a public corporation.

For example, as I noted above, a corporate CEO is required by law to allow scrutiny of the financial consequences of his or her decisions by others. As such, CEOs know the value of having a strong executive team able to serve as a sounding board and participate in key strategic decisions.

Trump, by contrast, as the head of a family business was accountable to no one and reportedly ran his company that way. His executive team comprised his children and people who are loyal to him, and his decision-making authority was unconstrained by any internal governance mechanisms. Decisions concerning what businesses to start or exit, how much money to borrow and at what interest rates, how to market products and services, and how – or even whether – to pay suppliers or treat customers were made centrally and not subject to review.

Clearly, this poorly equips Trump to be president and accountable to lawmakers, the courts and ultimately the voters.

Another important aspect of the public corporation is the notion of transparency and the degree to which it enables accountability.

A lack of transparency and reluctance to engage in open disclosure characterized the formulation of Trump’s immigration ban that was quickly overturned in federal court. That same tendency toward secrecy was manifest throughout the campaign, such as when he refused to disclose much about his health (besides this cursory “note”) or release any of his tax returns.

While there’s no law that requires a candidate to divulge either health or tax status, that lack of transparency kept potentially vital information from U.S. voters. And Trump’s continuing lack of transparency as president has kept experts and advisers in the dark, leading to precisely the confusion, mixed messages and dysfunction that have characterized these early weeks. And, of course, this can quickly lead to a continuing erosion of public trust.

Trump, it should be noted, made one stab at a public company: Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts. That was an unmitigated disaster, leading to five separate declarations of bankruptcy before finally going under, all this while other casino companies thrived. Public investors ignored all the signs in favor of the showmanship and glitz of the Trump brand and, as a result, lost millions of dollars. Trump allotted himself a huge salary and bonuses, corporate perks and special merchandising deals.

What is especially telling about this experience is that, rather than speaking on behalf of fiduciary responsibilities for the best interests of the corporation, Trump noted, “I make great deals for myself.”

Multiplicity of voices

There is no need to be overly naive here.

Some CEOs also operate in a highly centralized manner, expecting obedience rather than participation from direct reports. All business executives expect a shared commitment from their employees to their corporate goals and value dependability, cooperation and loyalty from subordinates.

But the involvement of a multiplicity of voices with diverse perspectives and different backgrounds and fields of expertise improves the quality of resulting decisions. Impulsive decision-making by an individual or small, cloistered group of followers can and often will lead to disastrous results.

What lies ahead

Virtually every U.S. president, ranging from the great to the inconsequential and even the disastrous, have emerged from one of two groups: career politicians or generals. So why not a CEO president?

Without question, a background in politics does not guarantee an effective presidency. Abraham Lincoln, the consensus choice among historians for the best president ever, was a career politician, but so was his disastrous successor, Andrew Johnson.

Likewise, we can think of many traits of an effective corporate CEO that could serve a president well: transparency and accountability, responsiveness to internal governance and commitment to the interest of the overall corporation over and above self-enrichment.

Sadly, that is not Trump’s background. His experience overseeing an interconnected tangle of LLCs and his one disastrous term as CEO of a public corporation suggest a poor background to be chief executive of the United States. As such, “nobody knows who’s in charge” may be the mantra for years to come.

The Conversation

Bert Spector, Associate Professor, International Business and Strategy, Northeastern University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Faces of Health Care: Christopher T. | The White House #UniteBlue

“I cannot thank you enough for doing what you can…to help the American people.”

Christopher T. from Santee, California signed up for quality, affordable health insurance under the Affordable Care Act in January of 2014 — and he’s “loving it.”

Christopher, 39, is healthy and active — in fact, he rides his bicycle more than 2,000 miles each year. But he understands that having good health insurance is critical to staying healthy.

When he was 24, he bought his own health insurance plan when his mother couldn’t keep him on her plan any longer. Soon after, his monthly premium was going up $30 per month on average.

“If I hadn’t chosen different plans with less benefits just to keep my monthly premiums affordable, I’d be paying over $500/month easily,” he writes.

Now, thanks to the ACA, his monthly premium is down to $231 per month.

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The Faces of Health Care: Christopher T. | The White House.