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Edited by Max J. Rosenthal and Kazi Awal
BY RICK NOACK
Dear reader, welcome back! We hope you had a wonderful holiday break and are rested up for another relentless year of international news. Ishaan is away until next week, so the rest of our WorldViews team will be writing for you over the next three days. Normal service resumes on Monday.
We also want to say a public farewell and huge thank you to Kazi Awal, who was our newsletter producer through all of 2017. Kazi was a vital part of our team; if you enjoyed our Only in America section or daily videos in particular, you have him to thank. He's moving on to The Post's design team, but we're incredibly grateful for his work and we hope all of you have enjoyed it as well.
Trump's 2018 Twitter wars have already started
We're only three days into the new year, but President Trump's foreign-policy agenda — or the tweeted version of it, at least — has already opened up several new dilemmas for the United States abroad.
On Monday, Trump threatened to cut foreign aid to Pakistan, tweeting that the United States had "foolishly" given its once-close counterterrorism ally $33 billion in aid since the early 2000s — and gotten "nothing but lies" in return.
The comment sparked a quick and angry response from Islamabad. "Recent statements and articulation by the American leadership were completely incomprehensible," Pakistani officials said in a Tuesday statement, adding that Trump "struck with great insensitivity at the trust between two nations built over generations." On Twitter, the country's defense minister retorted that Americans "have given us nothing but invective & mistrust" in the post-9/11 era.
With thousands more U.S. troops headed to Afghanistan this year, it's hardly the ideal time to raise tensions with Pakistan. Trump has little to gain from alienating a nominal ally and important power broker in the region.
But in 2018, it's no easier to tell why Trump has chosen to risk his policies on Twitter than it was last year — only that he's as willing as ever to do so. Trump's 2017 tweets repeatedly offended close U.S. allies — drawing rebukes from Britain, Germany, Sweden and other nations — undercut his own national security officials and sometimes made it hard to determine just what his administration's position was on critical issues. So far this year, that counterproductive streak has been out in force.
One day after his Pakistan comments, Trump tweeted about the growing protest movement in Iran — and fears that Iran's government will crack down harshly on demonstrators. "The people of Iran are finally acting against the brutal and corrupt Iranian regime," Trump wrote. "The U.S. is watching!"
Some observers worry that Trump's accusations and support for the protesters could become the pretext for that crackdown, especially after Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused foreign enemies on Tuesday of "meddling" in the country's affairs. "In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatus to create troubles for the Islamic Republic," Khamenei said, without naming any countries. A different official later directly blamed the United States, as well as Britain and Saudi Arabia.
And while Iran's establishment was apparently surprised by the intensity and durability of the protests, according to Erin Cunningham, there's no sign yet of cracks among Iran's security and clerical leadership. "This dynamic — unarmed, unorganized, leaderless citizens seeking economic dignity and pluralism, versus a heavily armed, organized, rapacious ruling theocracy that espouses martyrdom — is not a recipe for success," Karim Sadjadpour, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, wrote in the Atlantic.
Given the slim chance that the protests will result in major changes, Trump may have been well advised to heed the advice of Philip Gordon, an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, who urged the president last week to "[keep] quiet and do nothing" — much like his predecessor did during protests in 2009.
"It was never clear what difference American rhetorical support would have made then, other than allowing the Iranian government to depict the protesters as American lackeys, giving the security services more of a pretext to crack down violently," Gordon wrote in the New York Times.
On Iran, however Trump's most significant decision is yet to come, and it probably has nothing to do with protests. It remains hard to predict what would happen if Trump again imposes sanctions on Tehran, a move that could effectively reverse the Iran nuclear deal. While supporters of such a scenario hope that sanctions would destabilize Iran's leadership, it could also make efforts to blame the United States for Iran's economic woes all the easier — and isolate Washington if European countries carry on with the accord.
But the president already appears convinced that sanctions and " 'other' pressures are beginning to have a big impact" elsewhere, as he wrote Tuesday, the day after North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un made new threats against the United States but also offered to send a delegation to South Korea for direct talks before the opening of the Winter Olympics there next month.
Trump appeared eager to take credit for Kim's offer, and North Korea's sudden willingness to talk may indeed be due to Trump's hostile rhetoric toward Pyongyang — but for reasons he probably won't appreciate. He and South Korean President Moon Jae-in have publicly sparred in recent months, with Trump accusing his ally of "appeasement" in dealing with North Korea. Some analysts believe Kim may be seeking to exploit the simmering tensions between Washington and Seoul.
"Kim sees a rare chance here to take the side of the South Koreans, against President Trump," Robert Litwak, a North Korea-focused researcher with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said to the New York Times.
Of course, none of these reactions should come as a surprise to Trump — or anyone else: 2017 was filled with examples of the often-unintended effects of Trump's social media diplomacy. As my colleague Erin Cunningham reported in November, for example, the escalating tensions between Iran and the United States provided hard-liners with an opportunity to more fiercely target their critics.
But the early days of 2018 suggest that Trump and his team have no intention of learning any lessons from the last 12 months. On Tuesday night, Trump added yet another tweet addressed to North Korea that seemed, in the eyes of some observers, to threaten nuclear war. If nothing else, it reminded us all that there's probably another tumultuous year ahead.
• Yes, President Trump did, in fact, engage in a nuclear-button-measuring contest with Kim Jong Un on Tuesday night. As our colleague Philip Rucker reports:
"Trump was responding to Kim's annual New Year's Day speech on Monday, during which the North Korean leader boasted that the United States is 'within the range of our nuclear strike and a nuclear button is always on the desk of my office.'
"Trump said in his Tuesday tweet, 'North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the 'Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.' Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!'"
Make of the exchange what you will.
• It's been months since Hurricane Irma ravaged Puerto Rico, but things are hardly back to normal. Power, clean water and jobs remain in short supply, and the island is — as many experts feared — hemorrhaging its population as Puerto Ricans head to the mainland in search of work and stability. That's bad news for the island, but good news for some U.S. companies, as our colleague Chico Harlan reports. He followed a group of Puerto Ricans to frigid South Dakota and came back with a stunning portrait of their attempts to jump-start their lives there.
"Through the windows, there were miles of emptiness, and Gretchen Velez, 21, looked at the others in the van and was quiet. She'd started the day on an island that was desperately short on electricity and clean water and jobs because of Hurricane Maria. Now, 10 hours later, she was in South Dakota — a place she knew almost nothing about, other than what a job recruiter had told her, that he had a position for her at a turkey processing plant in a rural town nearly 3,000 miles away.
"Velez had never left Puerto Rico, but after years of economic crisis and then a natural disaster, almost everybody she knew was wondering whether they had any choice but to go. By some counts, nearly 2,000 Puerto Ricans were leaving every day, and in that exodus, some mainland U.S. companies were starting to see an opportunity of their own — a new answer in their ever-evolving struggle to find workers who would perform lower-rung American jobs. 'Off to my new life,' Velez had told her mother that morning, but now she was wondering: What am I doing here? Is this the right thing?"
• Winston Churchill is having one of his perennial moments of pop-culture resurgence. There's a new film out about his early days as prime minister in 1940, and he's portrayed amply in the hit British-monarchy TV drama "The Crown." But the New Yorker's Adam Gopnik writes about why Clement Atlee, the oft-derided man who defeated Churchill in the 1945 election, should be getting the plaudits in 2018:
"In 1945, he led Labour to a stunning victory over Churchill, not ceasing for a moment in his admiration for his wartime role, nor ceding for a moment to what he perceived as his partner's reactionary vision. (Churchill had the very bad idea in the campaign of attacking Labour as a quasi-totalitarian party, which everyone knew was nonsense.) The achievements of the first Labour government are still rightly legendary: a government that actually contained as ministers seven men who had begun their adult lives as working coal miners, brought in national health insurance, made the provision of housing central to its ends, and fought and mostly won the battle against unemployment. Imperfect as its accomplishments were—the virtues of nationalization proved less absolute than the ideologues imagined—it nonetheless empowered the working classes and ... 'set the ethical terms on which Britain's new social contract was founded.' It is still a social contract in many ways intact, and was the background for the extraordinary cultural renaissance of working-class Britain in the nineteen-sixties and beyond. The Beatles begin here."
Iranian students clash with riot police during an anti-government protest around the University of Tehran on Dec. 30. (European Pressphoto Agency-EFE)
Not quite a sequel
Iran's provinces have traditionally been pillars of support for the country's theocratic government and prime recruiting grounds for its security forces. But for the past six days, they have hosted surprisingly forceful protests that have attacked government buildings, left at least 20 people dead — including nine on Tuesday — and broken taboos in a system that brooks little dissent.
What began last week as an expression of frustration over Iran's sluggish economy has broadened to include open defiance of the nation's leadership itself. The demonstrations are the most serious challenge to the leadership of the Islamic Republic since massive street protests over election results in 2009.
But whereas those demonstrations were centered in Tehran and spearheaded by middle-class and wealthy supporters of reformist political candidates, the current unrest is taking place in conservative strongholds not often drawn into political activism, fueled by economic complaints that appeal to a much broader swath of Iranians.
"I've been out of work for months," said Rahim Guravand, a 34-year-old construction worker in Tehran, to the Associated Press. "Who is accountable for this? The government should stop spending money on unnecessary things in Syria, Iraq and other places and allocate it for creating jobs here."
"You're not just dealing with Tehran," said Nader Hashemi, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Denver University. "You're dealing with small, rural towns across the country, where the regime's ability to deploy security forces is much less effective. I don't think they planned for this type of broad-based revolt."
In his first remarks on the unrest, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, posted comments on his official website Tuesday saying the protests were encouraged by the country's "enemies" — often used as shorthand for the United States, their allies and anti-government Iranian exiles.
"In recent days, enemies of Iran used different tools including cash, weapons, politics and intelligence apparatus to create troubles for the Islamic Republic," said the statement from Khamenei.
He made no comment on how security forces should confront the demonstrations, saying only that he will address the nation "when the time is right." But other top officials have called for a harsher security response, and Khamenei's claim of outside involvement in the protests suggested that he views the events as more than a domestic upheaval. That could presage much tougher measures — and much more bloodshed to come. — Erin Cunningham
President Trump celebrates the passage of the Republican tax-cut bill at the White House on Dec. 20. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press)
The big question
The 2017 policy agenda in Washington was dominated by health care and tax cuts, two issues that President Trump repeatedly promised to tackle while on the campaign trail. While Republicans failed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, Trump closed out the year by signing new tax cuts — and a repeal of the ACA's crucial individual mandate — into law. With those big-ticket items seemingly dealt with, Trump will likely want to act quickly on other policy priorities before November's midterm elections, which could see his party lose control of at least one chamber of Congress. So we asked Philip Rucker, the Post's White House bureau chief: What will be the biggest items on Trump's agenda in 2018?
"Atop the president's agenda is infrastructure. Trump, after all, considers himself a builder.
"He campaigned on fixing America's aging roads and bridges, and he has promised a $1 trillion investment in infrastructure. Trump's White House even had a much-maligned 'Infrastructure Week' to promote it. In the end, though, nothing happened.
"Still, Trump and some key advisers are determined to make good on this campaign promise, even if only with a scaled-down bill. They also see it as an issue on which Democrats might be willing to partner, though Trump's plan to give big tax breaks to private companies for the purpose may make cross-aisle cooperation tough.
"Speaking of opportunities for bipartisanship, there's immigration — specifically, the fate of 'dreamers,' the young undocumented immigrants who could be deported if Congress does not replace the Obama-era program called DACA by this spring. Trump has signaled he is open to negotiation with Democrats on DACA, which gives some young immigrants protection from deportation.
"But the issue is politically fraught for Trump, with the president's most hardline supporters vehemently opposed. Look for a possible standoff, with Trump demanding funding for his promised border wall in exchange for protecting the dreamers.
"Trump also is considering pursuing changes to welfare, which could help energize his conservative base. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) wants to tackle welfare reform, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said he does not want Republican senators voting on controversial entitlement programs before the November elections. Trump will have to decide whether to put the weight of the presidency behind welfare reform or focus on other issues where he might find a bipartisan consensus.
"In short, Trump enters the new year with unsurprisingly grand ambitions. But, as was the case last year, the headwinds will be strong."
The Post's David Ignatius thinks President Trump is actually right to speak up on Iran, while an Iranian explains in the New York Times why exactly his countrymen — and not the ones you'd think — are taking to the streets. Politico, meanwhile, takes a step back, looks at Trump's first year of diplomacy and says the public doesn't know just how dangerous it was. As for 2018, Foreign Policy runs down the 10 most pressing conflicts the world will face over the next 12 months.
President Trump has made plenty of policy and staffing missteps in his first year, but that can't be said of the Environmental Protection Agency and its head, Scott Pruitt — that is, if you agree with him. The Post looks at how Pruitt has become one of Trump's most consequential appointees by seemingly tearing his agency apart. Meanwhile, Vox says the beginning of legal cannabis in California means the inevitable end of the drug's prohibition across the country, while the Baltimore Sun digs into a murder case in which a suspect's confession only made things far more complicated.
We normally offer up one story per day here, but today we'll give you 17: our colleagues on the foreign desk have rounded up 17 of last year's most powerful photo articles in one place. They include everything from this Greenland peninsula slated to become the site of a uranium mine to lives in the world's sadly booming refugee camps to snaps of elections that probably feel like they happened years, not months, ago. Check them all out here. (Sirio Magnabosco/Arctic Times Project)
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