Small Wars Journal

How the Appearance of Conflicts of Interest in the White House will Strengthen Terrorists and Insurgents Globally

Wed, 01/11/2017 - 12:51pm

How the Appearance of Conflicts of Interest in the White House will Strengthen Terrorists and Insurgents Globally

Andrew M. Kenealy

Much has been written about President-elect Donald Trump’s global business ties and their potential to harm U.S. national security.  Mr. Trump’s far-reaching holdings will imbue his foreign policies with conflicts of interest that raise questions about his ability to make decisions in the public interest rather than in his own.  This is why foreign payments to government officials are expressly banned by the U.S. Constitution

But even if such a president were able to absolve himself of all of his international-specific conflicts in accordance with the Constitution, he still would jeopardize U.S. national security through the appearance of domestic conflicts of interest, nepotistic appointments, or rejections of transparency measures.  Merely the appearance of such conflicts – even if there is no real underlying conflict – will undermine U.S. soft power on issues of corruption.  This reduced influence, in turn, will hamstring U.S. counterinsurgency and counter-terrorism efforts around the world.

Soft power, a concept famously developed by Joseph Nye at the end of the Cold War, describes the ability of international actors to coopt and attract, rather than coerce, in order to shape the preferences of others.  Soft power can help a nation generate the outcomes it wants because “other countries – admiring its values, emulating its example, aspiring to its level of prosperity and openness – want to follow it.”  Professor Nye argued that the quality of a nation’s soft power is determined by three variables: “its culture (in places where it is attractive to others), its political values (when it lives up to them at home and abroad), and its foreign policies (when others see them as legitimate and having moral authority.)”

Of course, coercive action, or hard power, is still essential in U.S. foreign policy today.  American might is largely dependent on the ability of the U.S. military to effectively defend, deter, and when needed, to destroy.  And throughout his campaign, Mr. Trump’s rhetoric principally focused on hard power, advocating for kinetic solutions to the national security risks posed by insurgencies and terrorists.  But hard power alone is not enough to crush terrorists and insurgents.  Soft power is needed too.

Insurgencies and terrorist groups gain momentum, in part, because the states in which they operate are weak, or are otherwise uninterested in destroying them. Opportunistic insurgents and terrorist groups like ISIS capitalize on states with feeble institutions and leaders with warped motives.  Unsurprisingly, states that are politically unstable are statistically much more likely to experience destabilizing insurgencies and host transnational terrorist groups.

Hence, any serious attempt to stamp out insurgencies or address the root causes of terrorism will include strategies to strengthen the state as a whole.  While state weakness has many causes, none is as pervasive as corruption.  By corroding state institutions and hindering effective governance, corruption creates space for insurgents and terrorists to operate and advance their agendas.  Accordingly, corruption is a significant national security risk, and mitigating it in conflict-zones is a stated U.S. national security objective.

Fighting corruption requires policies whose effectiveness primarily depends on the strength of U.S. soft power.  International anti-corruption efforts draw upon a wide suite of tools, the most promising of which are open government initiatives.  Open government initiatives seek to boost transparency, citizen engagement, and accountability to improve a wide range of outcomes, including reducing levels of corruption.  Recent analysis suggests that open government initiatives are most likely to succeed if they benefit from a genuine commitment by public officials.  Yet benevolent officials are not altogether necessary; their incentives can be altered.  For this to work, the local people must buy in.  

An important implication of this recent scholarship is that for organizations fighting corruption to effectively harness the power of open government, they must convince those affected to engage.  They must credibly demonstrate both to public servants in foreign governments and foreign citizens the drastic risks of corruption as well as the sweeping benefits of mitigating it.  In this sense, the anti-corruption establishment must also be its own advocate, attracting and co-opting foreign governments and foreign citizens to its cause, helping them want the same things that it wants.  And the ability to attract and coopt, as Professor Nye stipulated, rests on soft power. 

Mr. Trump and his administration must recognize that allowing even the appearance of conflicts to last into his tenure, as well as nepotistic behavior and rejections of transparency, will suggest that good governance is not the president-elect’s foremost goal.  Rather, it implies that what Mr. Trump primarily seeks from the oval office is personal and familial gain.  It presents the world with the impression of an American kleptocracy, however untrue.  This perception undermines one of the key bases of U.S. soft power, which is so critical for U.S. anti-corruption efforts: living up to political values at home.  

For the U.S. anti-corruption message and practice to attract international followers, and thereby reduce corruption, the United States must follow the example it espouses.  Why should skeptical bureaucrats in warring nations believe that governance in the public interest is also in their own interest if the U.S. President himself doesn’t seem to agree?  The scent of corruption in the White House – the locus of American power – will turn the arguments of the American businesses, NGOs, and government agencies that fight corruption around the world to hypocrisy. 

Soft power is an expansive concept, and every one of Mr. Trump’s immature tweets stands to lessen U.S. credibility as the example of a moral force for good in the world, and in turn, its ability to co-opt others towards that end.  But in a direct and intuitive manner, Mr. Trump’s decisions that appear to be in his own interest rather than those of the public will place the entire U.S. anti-corruption apparatus in a position of weakness.

If the U.S. international anti-corruption machinery is undermined by its president, it will not succeed.  The odds are already against it.  And when the United States fails to de-corrupt, it also fails to secure.




About the Author(s)

Andrew M. Kenealy is a research assistant at a Washington, DC think tank.  He graduated from Dartmouth College with a degree in government.  In addition to his think tank duties, Andrew coaches the Woodrow Wilson High School varsity girls rowing team in DC.


Unfortunately, this is more of a screed against Trump than an attempt to bring insight into counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency. The reference to Nye is simply padding around the author's disdain for Trump.

Andrew Kenealy fails to appreciate how Hillary Clinton had many conflicts of interest as Secretary of State and even more as a presidential candidate.

Per Western legislation on insider trading in the capital markets, Hillary Clinton was an insider of the Clinton Foundation throughout her tenure as Secretary, by virtue of her relationships to Bill and Chelsea Clinton. The Clinton Foundation received millions of dollars in donations from Arab, and in particular Qatari interests, and the Clintons also received millions more in speaking fees from them, albeit Hillary Clinton did not as Secretary. Qatar has been an explicit supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood throughout the Middle East and North Africa region.

Looking at US foreign policy in the MENA region during her tenure, I would draw Mr. Kenealy's attention to the following developments:

1. When the Arab Spring spread to Egypt, the US government decided to not support Mubarak and encourage him to step down. He was replaced by the Muslim Brotherhood

2. When the Arab Spring spread to Libya and a rebellion began against Qaddafi, Clinton argued for a no-fly zone ostensibly to protect civilians, with no ground invasion, and Russia and China abstained, allowing this resolution to be adopted and acted on by NATO. Yet from the first days, British and French aircraft began providing CAS to the rebels, the French supplied them with weapons and the Qataris intervened covertly on the ground. Qaddafi was overthrown, killed and Libya remains a failed state in which the Muslim Brotherhood is a major faction

During Clinton's presidential campaign, she argued for establishing a no-fly zone in Syria, ostensibly to protect civilians, but over areas where the Turks and Qataris are supporting rebels affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This is not to say that Hillary Clinton is an agent of Qatar or acting on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood, but these are very bad optics and prevent Clinton from being regarded as an honest broker insofar as Middle Eastern conflicts are concerned.

I realize that Mr. Kenealy was an intern for the State Department under Clinton's successor Kerry, and perhaps envisioned being hired on by State under a Clinton presidency. He is part of the think tank commentariat that decidedly sided with Hillary Clinton's foreign and defense policies platform.

Yet I would implore him to consider whether Clinton would be trusted by:

1. Muslim state and non-state actors not affiliated with or opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood?

2. Concerning nuclear and latent nuclear powers such as North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, given that Libya had abandoned its nuclear weapons program in 2003 only to be subject to US-led-from-behind regime change less than 8 years later?

3. Fellow UNSC permanent members Russia and China, which felt betrayed by Hillary Clinton when she sold them a no-fly zone that became regime change?

Corruption -- and/or the lack thereof -- this does not appear to be big on the list/does not seem to loom large re: our discussions of "soft power;" yesterday or today.

Explanation -- as to why this might be:

Soft power -- in the New/Reverse Cold War of today much as in the Old Cold War of yesterday -- this appears to have much more to do with which side of a respective "cold war" one is on, for example:

a. The aggressor side: The side determined to marginalize, undermine, eliminate and replace the Rest of the World's' more traditional ways of life, their more traditional ways of governance, their more traditional institutions and their more traditional values, attitudes and beliefs. (This being the side most closely associated with the "expansionist"-oriented Soviets/communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday, and the side most closely associated with the equally "expansionist"-oriented U.S./West in the New/Reverse Cold War of today?) Or

b. The defender side: The side determined -- and specifically as per the "threat" outlined at my "a" immediately above -- to both champion and lead efforts to defend, preserve, protect and/or restore traditional ways of life, traditional ways of governance, traditional institutions and traditional values, attitudes and beliefs. (This being the side most closely associated with the U.S./the West in the Old Cold War of yesterday, and the side most closely associated with the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, AQ, ISIS, etc., today?)

(Such things as the "root cause" of "insurgents/insurgencies" and "terrorism" -- both in the Old Cold War of yesterday and in the New/Reverse Cold War of today -- to be seen much more clearly in the above light?)

In the Old Cold War of yesterday, the U.S./the West adopted the -- very powerful and very enviable -- "defender" position noted at my item "b" above; thereby, deriving the significant "soft power" advantages afforded by same.

In the New/Reverse Cold War of today, however, the U.S./the West -- by adopting the "aggressor" stance previously held by the Soviets/the communists in the Old Cold War of yesterday (see my item "a" above) -- has, in effect, ceded, to the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, etc., both:

a. This very powerful and very enviable "defender" position and

b. The significant "soft power" advantages associated with same.

It is in this seemingly much more relevant "soft power" light -- which relates more to which side of a "cold war" conflict a great nation is found (on the "traditional ways of life, values, etc." aggressor/destroyer side; or on the "traditional ways of life, values etc.," defender side) -- that such things as "corruption" seem to fade away/come to be viewed as being, in the grand scheme of things, as being much less important/unimportant.

(Such rationale/reasoning seeming to apply to the U.S./the West's present-day "internal" conflicts as well?)