Tag Archives: barack obama

Every US President Cozies Up to Dictators

On Saturday, during a "friendly" phone call about North Korea, Donald Trump invited Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to the White House, a moved that stunned even Trump's own administration. Since Duterte won the election last year he has become known mostly for his monstrous war on drugs, which has led to death squads reportedly killing thousands of people accused of being drug dealers or users. Duterte claims to have personally shot three men to death while cruising around on a motorcycle "looking for trouble." Oh, and Duterte has also compared himself to Hitler.

Trump has naturally come under fire for being on such friendly terms with Duterte. John Sifton of Human Rights Watch told the New York Times that "by essentially endorsing Duterte's murderous war on drugs, Trump is now morally complicit in future killings." CNN's Jake Tapper pointed to Trump's fondness for Duterte and other dictators and said, "Equating brutality and despotism with leadership, that's not an American value."

But befriending dictators kind of is an American value. Though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson just made headlines for saying that the US wouldn't worry about "values" when making alliances for the purpose of national security, America has been picking its allies based on geopolitical strategy rather than morality for a long, long time. While Trump's open praise for dictators is unusual and disconcerting, from a foreign policy perspective, being nice to autocrats is one of the more normal things Trump has done as president.

In case you need it, here's a refresher on unlikely friendships from recent presidential history:

George W. Bush and Saudi Prince Abdullah

Those of you who remember Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 will recall the footage of George W. Bush holding hands with Saudi Prince Abdullah and strolling through the White House garden. If Moore used that clip as an attempt to tie Bush to the Saudi Bin Laden family it doesn't work, but it is true that the Bush White House—among other administrations—tacitly approved of a regime that at the time was cracking down on women's rights and lopping off a lot of people's heads with swords. Abdullah himself later became king, in which capacity he oversaw the suppression of public protests and had at least one of his critics publicly flogged.

Lyndon Johnson and Brazilian President Artur da Costa e Silva

In the 60s, President Lyndon Johnson really didn't want Brazil, the biggest country in South America, to turn communist, so the CIA helped replace Brazil's leftist leadership with a military government by way of a coup. According to Human Rights Watch, that repressive regime arrested 50,000 people in its first months alone. When he was elected president three years later, Artur da Costa e Silva, one of the coup's leaders, visited the White House in 1967. Johnson proposed a toast to him during a luncheon: "Sir, we welcome you to this Capital and to this house. Know that as geography has made us neighbors, history and hope have made us friends."

John F. Kennedy and South Korea's Park Chung-Hee

One of South Korea's many cruel dictators was Park Chung-Hee (incidentally, the father of the recently ousted President Park Geun-hye). Park seized power by leading a military junta that purged the government of opposition, and then declared that junta members wouldn't run for president, but ran anyway. Park was so notoriously brutal that he was reportedly gearing up to slaughter over 100,000 protesters when his own intelligence chief intervened and shot him to death. Not that any of this made him an enemy of the US. President John F. Kennedy's statement about their meeting in 1961 said, "The President welcomed Chairman Park's full exposition of the current situation in the Republic of Korea and expressed his gratification at the many indications of progress made by the new Government of the Republic."

Ronald Reagan and Indonesia's Suharto

Suharto was president of Indonesia from 1967 to 1998, during which time he encouraged numerous bloodthirsty communist-hunting death squads that slaughtered 500,000 people and put 750,000 in concentration camps. Machete-wielding death squad leaders received high-level posts in Indonesia's government that they hold to this day. In 1982, Ronald Reagan invited Suharto to Washington, DC for a state visit. The president toasted his guest at dinner, praising Suharto for his "wise and steadfast leadership." Reagan then got even more effusive, saying, "You will pardon me I hope, Mr. President, if I recognize here tonight what is already apparent to the nations of the world—that Indonesia, under your leadership, has assumed its rightful position as a great nation of Asia and of the world."

Barack Obama and a Bunch of People

The US habit of cozying up to oppressive regimes isn't limited to Republican presidents or a relic of the distant past. During his time as prime minister of Ethiopia, the late Meles Zenawi oversaw crackdowns on Islam and press freedom as well the deadly suppression of widespread protests against election fraud. In 2012, Meles attended an anti-poverty summit for African leaders and received a shout-out from the podium from Barack Obama, followed by a round of applause from the crowd. Obama explained in his speech that honoring them was part of America's "moral obligation to lead the fight against hunger and malnutrition."

In 2010, Obama met with Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, a leader who tortured hundreds of his own people and kept tight control over the media until he was overthrown in 2011. He and Obama appeared to have a conversation that was polite, but not friendly—mostly about Israel and Palestine. "I am grateful to President Mubarak for his visit, for his willingness to work with us on these critical issues, and to help advance the interest of peace and prosperity around the world," Obama said. (Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the strongman who now runs Egypt, was supported by the Obama administration and has been praised by Trump.)

Prayuth Chan-Ocha, the prime minster of Thailand just got a White House invitation from Trump. Last year, Chan-Ocha attended a summit for Asian leaders in California with Obama, and two years before that he seized power in a coup and essentially banned all criticism of his government. According to Obama, attendees focused on easing tensions in the South China Sea. "When [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] speaks with a clear and unified voice, it can help advance security, opportunity and human dignity," he said.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

Obama Has Always Been Cool with Taking Wall Street Cash

This week, we got a sense of just how many Americans are concerned about the financial prospects of a family that recently won a rumored $60 million book deal. Social media erupted at the news that Barack Obama will accept a $400,000 speaking fee for a healthcare conference run by financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald. Some on the left denounced the buckraking; plenty of others expressed righteous indignation over anyone telling the former president what to do.

And almost no one was honest with themselves.

Talk of optics and norms and appearances of impropriety and who is allowed to take money from whom represents a grand exercise in denial. The truth is that Obama is perfectly comfortable with raking in Wall Street cash. After all, it aligns well with someone who spent massive political capital to shield financial executives from their self-inflicted wounds. Taking this money won't undermine what Obama believes in; it is what he believes in.

I know this because Obama spokesman Eric Schultz said so in a statement on his boss's behalf. "Regardless of venue or sponsor, President Obama will be true to his values, his vision, and his record," Schultz wrote. "With regard to this or any other speech involving Wall Street sponsors, I'd just point out that in 2008, Barack Obama raised more money from Wall Street than any candidate in history—and still went on to successfully pass and implement the toughest reforms on Wall Street since FDR." (He could have also said "the only reforms on Wall Street since FDR.")

Contrary to the complaint that liberals unnecessarily hold Obama to a higher standard, it's the president himself who is boasting that he can take their money, drink their booze, and vote against Wall Street, to paraphrase the legendary California lawmaker Jesse Unruh. But while he did many positive things, when it comes to Wall Street, Obama is either oblivious to his own legacy, or trying to fool you about it. On that front, it's precisely his values, vision, and record I call into question.

Obama inherited a bailout he whipped Democrats to support while he was still a candidate. In office, he failed to overhaul or shrink a financial system that represents everything wrong with the modern economy. He didn't even stop the bonuses flowing at AIG.

During his transition, Obama promised up to $100 billion in bailout funds to prevent foreclosure; eight years later, only about $24 billion has been spent, most of it too late to stop the over 9.3 million American families who lost homes in the worst foreclosure crisis in 80 years. The government program Obama's Treasury Department built to mitigate foreclosures, without congressional interference, became a foreclosure-creation machine instead.

No banker with any real agency in the crisis ever saw the inside of a jail cell in the most punitive nation on earth. Even when mortgage companies got caught falsifying mortgage documents in courts nationwide, and stealing homes with false evidence, Obama's Justice Department made no effort to hold individuals responsible, instead stonewalling promising investigations and stringing along a disappointing series of no-fault settlements barely worth the paper they were printed on. For those who say a president is not a prosecutor, I'd submit that then-HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan spending two hours on the phone with me in 2012, defending the 49-state foreclosure fraud settlement that let bankers off the hook the day before its announcement, suggests that maybe the White House had something to do with it.

Obama's legacy isn't on the line because of a few speaking fees. It's not even about the money. He made his choice while in office to align with financial power, with the people who write the checks. And this damaged both America's economy and its sense of fairness, rupturing the nation's social fabric. It set the stage for the worst leader in modern times to tweet his way into office on a wave of indignation.

I've made these points over and over, so let me just illustrate with a story: Robynne Fauley of Sandy, Oregon, is a cancer patient undergoing chemotherapy who is probably going to be kicked out of her home on Monday. The case is an absolute mess, replete with a chain of internal emails going back nine years, showing bank employees plotting to fabricate documents so they can evict this woman once and for all. In the absence of accountability, this is what our system has devolved into: three line workers on an email chain figuring out how to squeeze foreclosures past a judge. When nobody pays a price for fraud, fraud proliferates.

Obama's defenders call this irrelevant when lives are on the line with President Trump. But there will be another president someday (let's hope), and if Democrats ever want that kind of power, they'll have to stop pretending about their past, about where they stand while incomes stratify and power concentrates.

In the meantime, as long as everyone's telling a complete stranger what to do with $400,000, I'd say: give it to Robynne Fauley. She could use it.

Follow David Dayen on Twitter.

The VICE Morning Bulletin

Everything you need to know about the world this morning, curated by VICE.

US News

Judge Blocks Trump's Order to Punish Sanctuary Cities
A federal judge in San Francisco blocked President Trump's executive order to withhold funding from "sanctuary cities" refusing to comply with his administration's crackdown on immigration. US district judge William Orrick granted a preliminary injunction in San Francisco and neighboring Santa Clara County, arguing that the attorney general doesn't have the authority "to impose new conditions on federal grants."—VICE News

Rick Perry Says US Should Stick to Paris Agreement
Energy Secretary Rick Perry thinks the US should uphold the Paris Agreement on climate change but seek to "renegotiate" its commitments. "I'm not going to tell the president of the United States let's just walk away from the Paris accord," Perry said at a Bloomberg energy conference.—Bloomberg

US Begins Assembling Anti-Missile System in South Korea
The US military installed parts of its THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea Wednesday. The country's defense ministry said it was working with the US toward "early operational capability" for the system, as relations with North Korea remain tense. Meanwhile, the THAAD installation in South Korea sparked protests.—Reuters

International News

Yemen Aid Falls Short of Addressing Hunger Crisis, Says UN
Donor countries pledged almost $1.1 billion in aid to Yemen at a conference in Geneva Tuesday, but the UN said the figure is just half of what's required to deal with "the world's largest hunger crisis." Millions of children in the country suffer from acute malnutrition, and the UN said some 17 million Yemenis are at risk of famine.—Al Jazeera

China Unveils First Domestically Built Aircraft Carrier
China is putting the finishing touches, relatively speaking, on a new aircraft carrier in the northeastern port city of Dalian. The unnamed vessel, which will not be operational until 2020, is the nation's first domestically built aircraft carrier. China's only operational carrier of jets, the Liaoning, was bought from Ukraine and modified.—Reuters

Turkey Arrests At Least 800 in Latest Crackdown
Turkish authorities have arrested at least 800 people in a crackdown on suspected dissidents with alleged ties to last year's attempted coup, according to a state-run news service. The suspects are said to have varying degrees of influence over or contacts within the nation's police. At least 47,000 people have been arrested since the coup failed in July 2016.—AP

French Mayor Fined for Derisive Comment About Muslim Children
The mayor of the French town of Beziers has been fined for incitement of hatred against Muslims. Far-right politician Robert Menard was ticketed just about $2,000 for describing the number of Muslim children in a local school as "a problem" and tweeting about the "great replacement," a phrase used in France to convey the idea of a decline in the white Christian population.—BBC News

Everything Else

Dr. Luke Said to Lose Sony Gig Amid Ongoing Rape Accusation Uproar
Court papers suggest that Dr. Luke's status as CEO of the Sony-owned label Kemosabe Records has come to an end. One anonymous source said Sony is preparing to completely sever its relationship with the producer following his legal battle with Kesha over rape allegations.—The Hollywood Reporter

Beyoncé Launches Scholarship Program for Young Women
Beyoncé has established a scholarship that will benefit "confident and conscious" students at four different US universities. The Formation Scholars program was launched to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Lemonade.—Noisey

Pope Francis Gives TED Talk
Pope Francis has become the latest high-profile figure to give a TED Talk, astonishing a Vancouver audience by appearing via videolink. The pontiff spoke about his experience as an immigrant in Argentina and today's "discarded people."—TIME

Kelly Wright Joins Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against FOX News
FOX News anchor Kelly Wright has joined an expanding lawsuit alleging racial discrimination at the network. Wright said he was forced to perform as a "racist caricature of a Black entertainer" and alleged he had a segment cut because it was "too positive" about black people.—CNN

Wes Anderson's Next Movie to Debut on 4/20
Fox Searchlight Pictures will release Wes Anderson's stop-motion movie Isle of Dogs on April 20, 2018. The studio also released a poster for the film featuring five dogs, a downed airplane, and a boy in a parachute.—Creators

Former NYPD Cops Allegedly Took Bribes for Gun Licenses
Authorities have formally charged three retired NYPD officers and a former city prosecutor for helping people obtain gun licenses in exchange for bribes. The alleged bribes range from cash to prostitutes to extravagant vacations.—VICE

Trump’s Options for Dealing with North Korea Are All Terrible

As President Obama was leaving office, he imparted (roughly) the following piece of wisdom to Donald Trump: Good luck with North Korea. For years, his administration had been engaging in what's known as "strategic patience"—foreign policy speak for steering clear. The idea was that by ignoring Kim Jong-un, America might actually convince the despot to stop building a nuclear arsenal, or at least make him less dead-set on acquiring one.

But that approach was probably far too sanguine, if not downright naive. After all, it's written right in the North Korean constitution that the nation is governed by the idea of "songun," or putting the military above all else. Paranoia about foreign invaders is the principle that justifies the quality of life in the so-called Hermit Kingdom. By telling citizens that their land is constantly about to be attacked by a malevolent foreign power, and that preventing an invasion is of paramount importance, the government has been able to invest almost all of the money it receives from Chinese trade deals into high-grade weapons while its citizenry struggles in poverty. 

Songun was on full display earlier this month when North Korea celebrated its founder's birthday. The holiday, which is known as the Day of the Sun, is usually an occasion to display Pyongyang's latest military hardware. This year, observers reported the addition of two new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) canisters, which promptly put much of the planet on edge. No one really knows what's in the canisters, so it's impossible to say if the missiles have the capacity to reach the United States (or almost any other given country) with a nuclear weapon onboard. Meanwhile, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests over the past 11 years, and many experts are bracing for a sixth.

The immense volatility of the situation became clear when NBC News reported earlier this month that the US was willing to hammer North Korea if it believed the country was about to carry out another test, followed several days later by North Korea's warning of a "super-mighty preemptive strike" if provoked. Many speculated that if a sixth nuclear test were to occur, it would likely take place on Tuesday––the 85th anniversary of the founding of North Korea's military––though the event was marked instead by a large, live-ammo artillery drill. Still, Trump somewhat ominously announced on Monday that all 100 Senators will meet on Wednesday to discuss the developing situation at the White House.

The distrust between America and North Korea dates back to the middle of the 20th century and, of course, the Korean War. As part of the armistice agreement signed in 1953, the US pledged to always have South Korea's back, and to keep troops in the area in the event of a conflict. This has left America in something of a quandary, according to Rodger Baker, a political forecaster and strategist who focuses on North Korea for the military intel firm Strafor. "The US and the North Koreans can't fully trust each other," he told me. "The North Koreans never fully believed the US won't attack them, and the US never fully believes that the North Koreans have any intent to give up weapons. Meanwhile, the North Koreans feel they need the weapons because they can't trust the United States, and the United States says they can't talk to North Korea unless they get rid of the weapons."

Baker says that there was one instance in 1994 when relations with North Korea nearly flipped. That year, when the United States was on the brink of nuclear war with the country, ex-President Jimmy Carter ended the crisis by taking a three-hour trip down the Taedong River with Kim il Sung. "I think that had Kim il Sung not died in his summer house that year, that we'd probably not be in this position now," says Baker. "I think we would have seen a unified if not confederated Korea."

The next concerted US attempt to improve ties with North Korea came in the form of the so-called Six Party Talks, which were held alongside Russia, China, Japan, and South Korea between 2003 and 2007. The mass meeting was kind of a mess that resulted in well over a dozen bilateral agreements. But they too deteriorated, along with the health of then-leader Kim Jong-il.

"We were getting close to the end of Kim Jong-il––he had been sick and then came back in power and was looking for succession," says Baker. "He realized he had to have some real strength to give his successor because none of his sons were prepared to lead the country."

Back in June, Trump talked up how he would pull a Jimmy Carter, despite the fact that the US government does not have any formal diplomatic relations with North Korea these days. During a rally in Atlanta, he made fun of Hillary Clinton for being a "rank amateur" who didn't know how to talk to people––part of the larger narrative he spun during his campaign about being an expert negotiator who could apply business tactics to foreign policy. Instead of using tired old tactics, he said, a President Trump would open a dialogue with Kim Jong-un over a hamburger at the White House.

"That's not gonna happen," said Stephan Haggard, a professor of global policy and strategy at UC San Diego. "The hamburgers thing was cheap talk."

The absurdity of Trump's statement notwithstanding, Haggard said it wouldn't make much sense for the United States to just up and recognize North Korea on the world stage. For one, there's the optics of legitimizing a territory you've previously insisted is a bad actor. Second, it's just bad strategy to give someone what they want without any promise they're going to hold up their end of the bargain.

"The thing is, if the US recognizes first, first of all you've got a problem of a president recognizing a country that he's said is an absolute mortal threat, which is politically kind of a non-starter," he told me. "Meanwhile, there's also this sort of political problem that the North Koreans might negotiate this and then drag out the nuclear negotiations forever, and so you've recognized North Korea and you're back where you were, where they haven't done what they need to do."

There is, after all, precedent for this: That Jimmy Carter sailing trip in 1994 paved the way for what's known as "Agreed Framework." Under that policy, Bill Clinton gave North Korea two nuclear power plants in exchange for the country freezing their weapons program, and it took the US eight years to find out Kim Jong-il ignored his end of the bargain.

Another touchstone of Trump's campaign was claiming that he would be tough on the Chinese government, which he previously called "currency manipulators." But earlier this month, Trump invited President Xi Jingping down to Mar-a-Lago for a visit. While they had steak and pan-seared sol rather than hamburgers, the two discussed trade and the rising threat of North Korea.

"I think what's happening is that the president is giving Xi Jinping a couple of months to see what he can do in terms of ratcheting up pressure, making a diplomatic approach to the North Koreans and so on with the ultimate objective of getting them back into some sort of formalized talks about denuclearization," says Haggard.

In the past, economic pressure from the United States has not worked, even as North Korea suffered a famine from 1994 to 1998 that killed millions. Haggard says it's possible that things might have changed in the decades since, as the country has taken on big construction projects in Pyongyang, which requires importing building materials from China. Today, just less than 90 percent of North Korea's external trade is with China, and the key to denuclearization might come from exploiting that relationship.

Haggard believes that nothing significant will happen for at least a few months. If no major developments come out of the Mar-a-Lago chats, he suspects America might try to impose sanctions on Chinese firms that do business in North Korea. The other option, he says, is to go kinetic, a.k.a. use military force, after a calculation of what North Korean targets might be hit and which ones the US can afford to lose.

"North Korea is not Syria, and it's not Afghanistan, and there is obviously opportunity for the North Koreans to retaliate against things of value to the US, whether US forces, or South Korea itself, or Japan," the professor said. "So the ability to go down the military route is really a function of your tolerance for risk."

In more recent years, pulling out of South Korea entirely has been presented by some skeptics as a self-preservation tactic. By getting out now, they argue, America could potentially avoid being drawn into a war that would not affect actual American citizens all that much. That assumes, however, that a war in the region wouldn't escalate to a global crisis and that North Korea might not take advantage of US capitulation to sell a nuke to an even more unpredictable enemy like ISIS. And besides that, military strategist Baker says that such a withdrawal would destabilize the whole region—something that is definitely not in America's best interest.

A huge part of that risk would be economic, he explained. For instance: an active war zone in the Yellow Sea would likely close up Chinese ports, stop shipments off the west coast of Japan, and freeze all the technology exports coming out of South Korea. So looking at the situation holistically, he says, the US is extremely unlikely to do anything unless the North Koreans strike first.

"Right now they don't have the proven capacity to be able to strike the United States," he told me. "They say it all the time, but they also said they tested a hydrogen bomb and at one point Kim Jong-il had 100 holes in one in a single golf round."

What we do know is that they can hit South Korea, most of Japan, and Beijing. If any of those targets were hit, the US would likely do anything necessary to take out North Korea's front line artillery, air defense, and mobile missiles by using cruise missiles and submarines in the region, aircraft carriers, and long-range bombers currently located in Guam. 

It probably won't come to that. Baker says he doesn't want to be dismissive about the possibility of war, but that all the recent jockeying is more likely to indicate a relatively mundane shift in policy than the onset of cataclysmic destruction. What he jokingly calls 'strategic impatience' will probably be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asking the UN to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism on Friday.

"Things could happen," he says. "There's a lot of tension, and a lot of misunderstanding. Those types of things can trigger the unexpected or the unfortunate, but right now I would say the overall situation is such that they're really gonna do whatever they can to prove that they've exhausted the diplomatic and financial means before they finally resort to military means."

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.

Obama’s Getting $400K for His First Private Speaking Engagement

After kitesurfing with Richard Branson and talking to youth leaders in Chicago, former president Obama has agreed to speak at an upcoming private engagement for a financial firm—for the going rate of $400,000, FOX Business reports.

Obama has reportedly agreed to talk at a healthcare conference for Cantor Fitzgerald LP—a Wall Street investment bank—in September. According to FOX Business, he's scheduled to be the keynote speaker at the luncheon, but the firm is just waiting to work out all the details before making an announcement. 

Obama, who condemned Wall Street after the 2008 financial crisis, may face some of the same criticism that Hillary Clinton did for giving private speeches for financial firms prior to her campaign. During his presidency, Obama referred to some bakers as "fat cats" and slammed their "irresponsible actions" that led to the Great Recession. Now he's accepting almost half a million dollars for a single Wall Street speaking engagement, double what Clinton was charging.

Still, it's pretty normal for former politicians to charge such high fees for private speeches. Former president Bill Clinton was once paid $750,000 for a single speech, and George W. Bush reportedly charges between $100,000 and $150,000. Even Sarah Palin managed to pull in $100,000 for a speech, according to Politico

But that all pales in comparison to what companies were shelling out to hear Trump talk—a whopping $1.5 million in some cases. Now, listening to Trump say "big league" (or is it "bigly"?) is just something the public gets to enjoy all the time for free.

A Stalker Allegedly Followed Malia Obama to Her Internship and Proposed

The Secret Service detained a guy in New York after he repeatedly tried to holler at Malia Obama, the New York Daily News reports.

Sources told the Daily News that Jair Nilton Cardoso, who lives in Brooklyn, had tried to accost the former first daughter back when she lived at the White House but was now following her to her internship in New York. 

On April 10, Cardoso showed up to a building in Tribeca—where Obama is reportedly interning for Harvey Weinstein—and managed to get up to the fourth floor. He apparently brandished a sign and thrust it at her office window, before begging her to marry him. 

Secret Service kicked Cardoso out, but two days later, he showed up at Obama's second internship location, this time in the West Village. Secret Service agents recognized him as the same dude who had tried harass her at the White House and promptly asked him to get lost.

Then, the next day, a few agents showed up to Cardoso's apartment in New York, ostensibly decked out like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black, to interview him.
Concerned he might have mental health issues, they brought him to a hospital in Brooklyn and notified the cops. According to the Daily News, authorities are now deciding if they'll slap Cardoso with stalking or harassment charges. 

Follow Drew Schwartz on Twitter.

Why Trump Isn’t Abandoning NATO Anytime Soon

On Tuesday, Donald Trump signaled he approved of adding Montenegro as a new member of NATO. It was an entirely anticipated move that didn't make much of a splash during a busy time—at the moment, the Trump administration is talking tough on both North Korea and Russia, and could also escalate US involvement in the Syrian Civil War. But the admission of Montenegro to the world's most powerful military alliance is still important. For one thing, it's opposed by Russia, who disapproves of NATO's expansion into the Balkans; for another, it shows that despite Trump's vaguely anti-NATO rhetoric during the campaign, he's yet to do anything to reject the 28-nation alliance that stretches from Canada to Turkey.

But Trump's ascension has exposed some grievances American leaders have with US allies. During his time in office, Barack Obama criticized European countries for being "free riders"—not spending enough on their own militaries and relying on the US—and Trump has largely repeated that idea, though in his garbled and simplified version it's a matter of Germany owing the US. Meanwhile, in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel's electoral opponent has said he would stand against increased military spending, potentially complicating matters still further.

The average American doesn't think about NATO that much though, other than during the occasional military intervention where US forces are joined by those of other countries (the Balkans in the 90s, or Libya a few years ago). But as the world becomes a more uncertain place, the mutual defense pact NATO countries have with each other is bound to loom larger and disagreements among members are sure to matter quite a bit. In order to unpack the important issues surrounding the alliance, I spoke with Charles A. Kupchan, an expert in transatlantic relations at the Council on Foreign relations. Here's how that went:

VICE: My first question is very basic: Why do we have NATO in the first place, and what makes it a worthwhile institution?
Charles A. Kupchan: NATO was formed soon after the end of World War II to serve as a military alliance to protect the Western democracies against potential Soviet aggression. So it emerged in step with the ideological and geopolitical rivalry between East and West. And throughout the long years of the Cold War it was the main vehicle through which the United States and its allies prepared for the possibility of a Soviet invasion and took the military steps needed to deter that invasion—and, if necessary, to defend against it.

When the Cold War came to an end, NATO then transformed itself into a broader vehicle for expanding stability in Europe by expanding eastward and integrating former members of the Warsaw Pact [the Soviet counterpart to NATO]. It also served as a general tool for organizing coalitions to engage in military action beyond NATO's borders. It also serves as a vehicle for what you might call softer missions, like education missions in the Middle East. NATO is now involved in training members of the Iraqi army as part of the counter-ISIS coalition, and it has been involved in the counter-migration mission in the Aegean, and is now looking to to do the same in the central Mediterranean to help mediate the flow from Libya to Italy.

To what extent does the US dominate the alliance?
The US has always been the leader of the alliance, and that stems in part from the reality that the US military is much stronger than the militaries of other NATO members. And that has meant that the supreme allied commander, the top military commander at NATO, has always been an American. On the other hand, the NATO secretary general has always been a non-American as a means of trying to balance between American and Europe.

Watch: How a viral video sparked protests in Russia 

During the campaign, Trump talked a lot about how other member nations of NATO have been not paying into the alliance like they should. Can you unpack that criticism a little bit? Is there any validity to it?
There's been a debate about burden-sharing that goes back to NATO's founding days. The United States, as a global superpower, has always spent more on defense as a share of GDP than its NATO allies. And the US has complained about that and said that its allies are free riding on its defense spending, and that they need to do more to defend their own security and shoulder their fair share of the tab.

Is that a criticism that's been leveled by Republicans and Democrats?
Yes, across the aisle. In fact President Obama was very concerned about this issue, and he's the one that led the charge at the Wales Summit in 2014 to convince all NATO members to commit over time to spend 2 percent or more of GDP on defense. Presently there are only five NATO members, including the United States, that meet that 2 percent target. There is a separate category of spending, called the common budget, and that is the allocation that is owed by each member state to joint infrastructure. There, all countries are paying their fair share—but that is a drop in the bucket compared to national defense budgets.

If Trump's concerns mostly echoed Obama's, why did his criticism of NATO countries make headlines?
It was really the tone. The central concern was really no different than that of President Obama, but Trump said that he thinks that NATO is obsolete, and he said that whether or not the United States defends allies will depend on their readiness to spend what's required on their own defense. It was the threatening nature of that statement, as well as calling into question the value of NATO, that caused so much political consternation on both sides of the Atlantic. Article V—the clause that says an attack on one is an attack on all—is probably the single most important treaty obligation that the United States has. To have a president call that into question is to call into question the foundations of American strategy abroad. 

What's the counterargument to Trump's assertion that NATO is obsolete?
Well, number one, that NATO has adapted itself in an impressive way. It has carried out military missions in the Balkans, in Afghanistan, and in the Mediterranean; it is involved in preventive security steps, such as training and advising partner countries; it enables the United States to share the burden with others by having an integrated military structure at the ready. And now that Russia has returned to a more ambitious and dangerous foreign policy, as demonstrated by its illegal annexation of Crimea and its invasion of eastern Ukraine, all of a sudden we're back in a world in which NATO is focussing on its traditional agenda of deterring and defending against Russia.

Speaking of Russia, what is that country's major concern about NATO expansion to places like the Balkans?
The debate about NATO enlargement, which took off in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union was falling apart, was very controversial. Some argued that it was important to expand NATO and extend a security guarantee to the Baltic countries, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and others that had been the target of Soviet oppression. This was a way of protecting them against a resurgent Russia, and also a way of locking in democratic reform. Then there were those who argued against that move because it would mean moving the world's most capable military alliance closer and closer to Russia's borders, which might threaten Russia and impinge upon its legitimate security interests. And that debate continues to this day. I would say that the Russians are justified in being concerned about NATO's eastward enlargement. Because even though NATO does not have aggressive ambitions, it nevertheless brings considerable military capability closer to Russia. And international politics is about perception as much as anything.

Does it seem so far like Trump is following through on any of his rhetoric about distancing himself from NATO, or has it been mostly talk?
No, he just sent Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis to Europe, including to an important meeting called the Munich Security Conference, emphasizing the continuing importance of NATO and America's commitment to NATO. When [German] Chancellor Merkel was visiting, President Trump himself affirmed the importance of NATO. And so in that sense there has been a course correction since the beginning of the administration.

Here's a wild hypothetical: What would happen if the US actually left NATO?
The United States is the military backbone of NATO, and if the US left the Europeans would be hard pressed to carry out significant military missions on their own. That having been said, the European Union is attempting to acquire both the institutions and the capability to act on its own. And it does have some missions that it undertakes on its own. They tend to be more anti-migration missions, things that are at the lower end of the conflict spectrum. So in that sense, if the United States left NATO, it would raise very troubling questions about European stability and security, and also whether the US was ending its days as a team player. You know, heading down a path of not "America first" but "America only." And that would cause great uncertainty, both politically and militarily. Not just for NATO, but for all American allies.

But we are a very long way from that scenario.
A very long way.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.

Trump’s Syria Strike Won’t Change the Course of the War

On Wednesday, when Donald Trump said that Syrian President Bashar al Assad had crossed "many, many lines, beyond red lines" by allegedly attacking his own people with deadly gas, Trump was making a callback to Barack Obama's old "red line." That was Obama's 2012 warning that the US would intervene in Syria if chemical weapons were used—but famously, when chemical weapons appeared on the scene he didn't attack, instead reaching an agreement with Russia and Assad in an attempt to ensure Syria's chemical weapons were destroyed. (Obviously, that deal didn't work out.) Trump isn't Obama: He didn't issue any warnings, no lines were drawn, he just launched missiles.

The question is, what's next? Russia has already said it will no longer coordinate with the US when it comes to airspace and has promised to boost anti-air defenses at Syrian bases. Will that tension be eased by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's upcoming visit to Moscow? Can we expect more military action from Trump?To game out the possibilities, I called up Randa Slim, a Syria expert at the Middle East Institute. Here's what we talked about:

VICE: What does this strike mean for relations between the US and Russia?
Randa Slim: I think we need to observe the next meeting that's going to take place in Moscow between Tillerson and [Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. I think that's going to be critical. It's interesting that Moscow has not canceled this meeting because of the strike. They could have, and decided not to. So basically that shows that one, the strike had been coordinated with the Russians, two, the Russians were not happy with Assad because of what he did. And so they were not that unhappy with the American response, primarily because Assad has proven to be a difficult ally to the Russians. Ungrateful, but at the same time uncontrollable. And then three, they want to leave the door open for negotiations with the Americans. You can expect them to take a stand at the United Nations Security Council meeting. They are going to say the tough words, but I think the fact that the trip is still onboard and they have not canceled is a strong signal that Moscow wants to talk.

Is there any truth to what's coming out of Russia about how this will help terrorist groups like ISIS?
Oh, no. So far, it was a very limited strike, it has affected one airfield, it has not grounded the Syrian air force as many people, including myself, have been calling for. It has not denied Assad the ability to use his air force in the future. The message for the administration has been mostly about the use of the chemical weapons, more than anything else, although he has plenty of other weapons to use. I mean, the same type of attack happens using barrel bombs everywhere else, and yet we did not see that kind of outrage. Granted, it's a different administration. Still Assad is on a winning streak, still the opposition is weak, and still ISIS is losing because of the American strikes. I don't see [the strike] changing that equation. 

What about Assad? Could this limited strike embolden him to finish off the rebels? Or could the idea of American intervention cause him to escalate his attacks in anticipation of more?
He can escalate his attacks using non-chemical weapons means, and he will, I think. And then that will put us in a bind. What are we going to do? What if he goes and commits another one of those barrel bomb attacks on neighborhoods in Idlib? Part of the argument is going to be, Well, the main opposition force in Idlib is an al Qaida affiliate, blah blah blah. So that's going to be putting us in a bind. There is an emerging consensus that Idlib needs to be spared, primarily because it holds now 10 percent of the Syrian population, and it's all opposition-controlled community. An escalation in Idlib is going to face us with another tough choice.

What is Trump doing that Obama wouldn't have done?
Nothing much. So far it's the same—the only difference is the willingness to use force in reaction to a chemical weapons attack. The policy of not pursuing regime change is still the same. We are not forcing change and we are not encouraging change. That was the case with Obama, that is the case now. The policy of having the conflict negotiated through political means was the same with Obama, it is the same now. So I don't see much change, except as I said, when it comes to the CW use, they have basically decided to honor the red line that Obama established. So it's an Obama red line, and yet Trump is enforcing it.

Doesn't the air strike at least send a message to other countries that Trump will use unilateral force more quickly than Obama?
Yes, yes. Definitely. I mean it's interesting that this happened yesterday while the Chinese president, is having dinner [with Trump]. And I wonder, did Trump tell him about that attack? While they were serving salad, or while they were having drinks? The Chinese did not say that they were told ahead of time, but I'm assuming that they were told ahead of time. 

It will definitely send a message to the international community: One, Trump is unpredictable, two, he's impulsive. Two days ago our policy was the Syrian people have to decide Assad's fate, now we are sending missiles because he used CW against his people. And we are saying he no longer has a role in the future of Syria. So in a matter of the course of eight hours he changed policies. So this unpredictability can be leveraged, in fact, in dealing, enforcing, or in pushing North Korea and Assad, to change their calculous. I think that's something that is not to be discounted. But at the same time, it can also force countries like Iran to resolve to consider measures to retaliate against us. They might not be able to fight us in the field, but they might launch terrorist acts against us.

Do you have any idea why this chemical attack changed Trump's policy so quickly? 
It's his character, it's impulsiveness. But also—I'm being cynical here—this is happening in a context of a political climate in this country where he was losing the narrative, so behaving like a president, saving children that are being gassed, might also serve his political prospects at home. So we cannot discount that. But also, this is us getting to know Trump. I don't think we know Trump enough. And I don't think that the international community knows Trump. So he is on a learning curve, we are on a learning curve about him.

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.

War Under Trump Means More Troops, More Deaths, and Less Caution

While Donald Trump may be having trouble passing big pieces of legislation or getting his travel ban on Muslim-majority countries past the courts, the president has a lot of autonomy when it comes to how the seemingly never-ending wars in the Middle East are prosecuted. Though Trump criticized the Iraq War during the campaign, he also said he'd embrace brutal—and legally questionable—tactics against groups like ISIS, including "going after" the families of terrorists. As with a lot of Trump's worldview, it seemed unclear what he wanted to do in the Middle East.

Two months after he took office, there's a little more clarity: Trump has ramped up the aggression in the global war on terror and shows no sign of slowing down. He approved a raid in Yemen by Navy SEALs that turned out to be a disastrous failure; a US airstrike against Mosul, Iraq, probably killed dozens of civilians and is being investigated; the rules of engagement in Somalia have reportedly been loosened, potentially putting civilian lives at risk; and though it sent hundreds of Marines to Syria to support anti-ISIS forces, the administration has stopped publicly announcing troop deployments.

America has been at war in in the Middle East, North Africa, and Afghanistan for most of my lifetime, but these moves seem to signal a serious escalation. To sort through what this all means, I called up Omar Lamrani, a senior military analyst at the geopolitical analysis firm Stratfor to ask about how Trump's military policy differs from Obama's.

VICE: What are the major differences between Trump's policy in the Middle East as opposed to Obama's?
Omar Lamrani: We're still in very early phases of seeing what's going to come out of the Trump administration. In general terms, we're not really seeing a major shift in military policy, the reason being that the Obama administration was already equally engaged in the fight to begin with. It's not like the Trump administration can all of a sudden come up with this brilliant strategy that has not been done before—the United States has been engaged in this fight for a very long period of time and has tried all the good options.

Where we do see a difference is in the Trump administration's willingness to be a little bit more aggressive—or less cautious is a better way to phrase it. What we saw in the Obama administration, especially toward the end of his two terms, was the micromanagement of huge military operations in the Middle East and around the globe. Before a US military strike could happen, or before a significant special operations force raid could take place, the last decision was always gonna be on the desk of President Obama. So far what we see from the Trump administration is a far less micro-managing style. Trump doesn't seem to be very keen on being involved in the day-to-day or the week-to-week operations and is giving his generals much more leeway in directing the fight the way they see fit. 

Obama tended to be very cautious and hesitant to allow additional forces, and he was very averse toward the risk of mission creep. That's something that's really removed now. We're seeing the limits to numbers of troops being negotiated or removed, or we're seeing additional US forces being deployed toward Iraq and Syria, we're seeing the increased use of airstrikes, we're seeing increased raids in Yemen and Somalia. There tends to be perhaps a different rate of involvement, but it's still pretty much the same strategy of how you defeat ISIS as it was during the Obama administration.

Watch: Meet the Woman Helping Banksy Bring Art to the West Bank 

Recently Glenn Greenwald wrote an article headlined "Trump's War on Terror Has Quickly Become as Barbaric and Savage as He Promised." There's also a perception among some that the Trump administration has liberated the military from already very loose rules of engagement. Do you agree with these conclusions?
It's a controversial issue because, first of all, the Pentagon is outright denying that their rules of engagement have changed. That's number one. Second of all, it's really hard to know whether they've changed, because the Pentagon does not release the exact rules of engagement for operational security reasons. When you have an increase in forces deployed, especially when you go into these tough urban environments like Mosul, there is much more risk of civilian casualties. But I don't think we have enough information, frankly, to contradict the Pentagon and say that the rules have actually changed.

Do you think the January 29 raid in Yemen—which resulted in the deaths of a Navy SEAL and 23 civilians, including an eight-year-old girl—is indicative of the Trump administration's willingness to take on more risk or disregard civilian casualties?
That's actually very different, and it's interesting that you bring that up. When we talk about missions like the one in Yemen, that's not about the rules of engagement; it's more about how much risk the military is willing to take in conducting strikes. That's something we can see is changing, and we can conclusively say that that is happening—we have have evidence from both US policy statements as well as clear evidence from the ground that the US military is being more aggressive in its actions against violent extremist organizations across the Middle East.

Do you think generally Trump will ramp up operations in the Middle East?
I think that that will be true, and we're already seeing it. In Iraq, there's been talk about removing the force limits that have been set previously by the Obama administration. Already we're seeing increased forces. Recently 300 extra US airborne troops were sent to Mosul and upward of a thousand troops landed in Egypt to fight against ISIS in Raqqa. The US is deploying heavy artillery, helicopters, and gunships in large numbers. Many of these things may not have been undertaken by the Obama administration necessarily. 

According to Airwars, there's been a massive increase in civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria this month. Do you think this could have happened under Obama?
It's entirely possible that this could have happened under Obama administration. Keep in mind that part of the reason why we may be seeing this is the nature of the fight on the ground. In Mosul, we're seeing close-proximity fighting, heavy fighting. Basically you're talking about an environment where you have hundreds of thousands of civilians packed into a tight urban environment with close-quarters combat happening all the time. There is a very, very high risk factor there of a strike mission increasing civilian casualties, and that risk factor is increasing as that battle progresses deeper into the old town, where it's very heavily built up. And keep in mind, civilian casualties have happened under the Obama administration as well.

I think it's really dangerous to read too much into the number of civilian deaths and ascribe it purely to Trump's decisions or Obama's. It has more to do with the battlefield and the evolution of the battlefield. Where we do see a difference between the two administrations is that Obama's administration was always very concerned over mission creep. They were concerned that the more they got into Syria, the more they got into Raqqa, the harder it was going to be to extricate themselves—as we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq in the past decade. The Trump administration takes a bit of a different stance: OK, forget about those kinds of restrictions, we must focus on the fight, and we'll be less concerned over the risk of mission creep.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Follow Eve Peyser on Twitter.