Washington, May 18 (AP/UNB) — President Donald Trump won the White House pledging to wind down the nation's many foreign entanglements and put "America First." But as his administration in recent days has sent mixed signals on the prospects of a military conflict with Iran, Trump's campaign trail promise is being put to the test.
With the 2020 election approaching, the political pitfalls ahead for the first-term Republican president could be serious.
While Trump enjoys overwhelming support from his party, there is little appetite among his loyalists for a new military conflict in the Middle East. Many are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for now, but a string of recent moves has sparked concerns that the administration was beating the drums toward war. Among the possible precursors to military conflict: new sanctions on Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the region and public warnings of unspecified intelligence that Iran might strike at American interests.
Asked this week if the U.S. was going to war with Iran, Trump said simply: "I hope not."
Aware of the potential backlash from within his party, the president is trying to play down the possibility of hostilities. He held the door open for negotiations over Iran's nuclear program and malign activities in the region amid reports that he was pushing back against his more hawkish advisers' preference for a military solution.
Prominent Trump supporters offered a pointed warning on Friday about the prospect of a new war, which they view as a direct violation of his "America First" pledge.
"It would be a disaster for him and for the country getting into another military engagement in the Middle East," said Corey Stewart, who led Trump's 2016 campaign in Virginia. "It does concern me that the president has (national security adviser John) Bolton and a lot of these neocons advising him. That's clearly not what he ran on and what most Americans want."
Foreign policy threatens to be a significant political liability for Trump heading into his 2020 reelection campaign.
Overall, 63 percent of Americans said they disapproved of his job handling foreign policy, according to a January poll conducted by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Like other issues, the partisan divide was overwhelming: 76 percent of Republicans approved, while just 8 percent of Democrats said the same.
Yet the Republican Party under Trump's leadership has shifted away from wanting the United States to play an aggressive role in world affairs. Foreign policy hawks in the GOP who have long embraced a muscular foreign policy have been marginalized in recent years, dismissed as "globalists."
By contrast, Democrats are now far more likely than Republicans to say the U.S. should play a more active role in solving the world's problems.
In the AP poll, 43 percent of Democrats said they thought the U.S. should be more active abroad, compared to just 13 percent of Republicans.
Trump on Friday sought to blame the media for the sense of mounting unease over Iran.
"They put out so many false messages that Iran is totally confused," he told a crowd of real estate agents in Washington, complaining about media coverage of his administration's recent moves. "I don't know, that might be a good thing."
People close to the president acknowledge that an armed conflict in the region is a real possibility.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., a Trump confidant, signaled support for a military solution if needed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon — so long as the United States wouldn't take the lead role in a prospective war.
"Whatever needs to be done to keep Iran from becoming a nuclear power needs to happen," Falwell said in an interview. "I'm not saying the United States needs to do it. Somebody is going to need to do it."
He added: "The way that it balances out, it might be Saudi Arabia and Israel that go to war with Iran."
J.D. Gordon, director of national security for Trump's first campaign, described Iran as "a delicate balance" for the president, who is surrounded by advisers who "generally agree with his worldview."
"Preventing an aggressive state sponsor of terrorism from acquiring nuclear weapons through primarily economic and diplomatic pressure isn't as simple as many people would like us to believe," Gordon said.
While military conflict would likely be unpopular among Republican voters, the politics on Iran are nuanced.
For years, Republicans railed against the multination pact struck under former President Barack Obama to remove economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country's pledge to abandon its nuclear program. Trump last year withdrew from the deal, thrilling Israel and anti-Obama conservatives at home while troubling European allies who insisted it was working.
Mark Dubowitz, CEO of the hawkish Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Iran takes a paramount position in Trump's worldview, with the president believing the country poses a particularly destructive threat.
"I think one should never discount the political calculation, which is that he knows a significant part of his base, including tens of millions of evangelical Christians, agree with him," Dubowitz said.
The passionate opposition to the Iran deal among Trump's core supporters affords him some room to maneuver amid the military buildup, even if "America First" conservatives oppose an outright war.
"I haven't met anybody who thinks we shouldn't take an incredibly hard line against Iran," said Mark Meckler, an early leader in the tea party movement. At the same time, he said, "Nobody believes there's going to be a war."
"What Trump promised in regards to our foreign policy is 'America First,'" Meckler continued. "He's doing that."
United Nations, May 18 (AP/UNB) — Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is strongly urging all countries to implement an arms embargo against Libya, saying preventing the proliferation of weapons is important to de-escalate the current fighting and restore stability in the country.
The U.N. chief expressed deep concern in a report to the Security Council circulated Friday that current military operations in Libya are reportedly "being reinforced by the transfer of arms into the country, including by sea."
Guterres was reporting specifically on implementation of a resolution last June authorizing the European Union's maritime force to enforce the arms embargo on the high seas off the coast of Libya.
He noted that EU countries in March extended the mandate of the naval mission, but took the unusual step of restricting its operation by refusing to allow it to deploy any ships. Instead, the EU said it will deploy more planes and personnel.
Italy commands the mission known as Operation Sophia, but the populist government in Rome refuses to allow its ships or aid groups' migrant rescue vessels to disembark in Italian ports. The EU move on suspending the naval mission was widely viewed as being aimed at easing tensions with Italy's anti-migrant government.
Guterres said Operation Sophia reported that between March 23, 2018 and March 22, 2019 it conducted 1,083 "hailings," 84 friendly approaches and three vessel inspections. It said no weapons were seized.
But the secretary-general said there are still attempts to smuggle arms to Libya, citing the reported seizure of arms and related military material by Libyan port and customs authorities.
Given the current suspension of Operation Sophia, Guterres said, "it is as relevant as ever for member states, in order to complement the efforts of the military operation, to inspect cargo in their territorial waters or at their seaports that is heading to and coming from Libya."
More broadly, the secretary-general cited reports of violations of the arms embargo by air, land and sea during the recent military escalation and fighting in Libya — sparked by an offensive to take control of the capital Tripoli launched April 4 by the self-styled Libyan National Army, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Hifter.
Civil war in Libya in 2011 toppled and later killed longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and the chaos that followed resulted in a divided country, with a weak U.N.-supported administration in Tripoli overseeing the country's west and a government in the east aligned with Hifter. Each is backed by an array of militias and armed groups fighting over resources and territory.
Guterres said he is "deeply concerned that an important opportunity for an inclusive dialogue and the search for a political solution for Libya may be undermined" by the current military escalation.
He noted that that since the Security Council imposed the arms embargo on the import and export of weapons to and from Libya in 2011 its implementation "continues to encounter challenges."
"I strongly urge member states to fully implement the embargo measures, which are of immediate importance to the protection of civilians and the restoration of security and stability in Libya and the region," Guterres said.
Taipei, May 18 (AP/UNB) — Gay couples in Taiwan plan a mass wedding registration after lawmakers voted to legalize same-sex marriage, a first in Asia and a boost for LGBT rights activists who had championed the cause for two decades.
Legislators pressured by LGBT groups as well as by church organizations opposed to the move on Friday approved most of a government-sponsored bill that recognizes same-sex marriages and gives couples many of the tax, insurance and child custody benefits available to male-female married couples.
That makes Taiwan the first place in Asia with a comprehensive law both allowing and laying out the terms of same-sex marriage.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, a supporter of the law, tweeted: "On May 17th, 2019 in Taiwan, LoveWon. We took a big step toward true equality, and made Taiwan a better country."
"It's a breakthrough, I have to say so," said Shiau Hong-chi, professor of gender studies and communications management at Shih-Hsin University in Taiwan.
Thousands of people, including same-sex couples, demonstrated Friday morning in the rainy streets outside parliament before the vote. Many carried rainbow-colored placards reading "The vote cannot fail." About 50 opponents sat under a tent outside parliament and gave speeches favoring marriage between only men and women.
Taiwan's Constitutional Court in May 2017 said the constitution allows same-sex marriages and gave parliament two years to adjust laws accordingly. The court order mobilized LGBT advocacy groups pushing for fair treatment, as well as opponents among church groups and advocates of traditional Chinese family values that stress the importance of marriage and producing offspring.
Religion, conservative values and political systems that discourage LGBT activism have slowed momentum toward same-sex marriage in many Asian countries from Japan through much of Southeast Asia, although Thailand is exploring the legalization of same-sex civil partnerships.
"This will help spark a debate in Thailand, and hopefully will help Thailand move faster on our own partnership bill," said Wattana Keiangpa of the Asia Pacific Coalition on Male Sexual Health.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said Taiwan's action should "sound a clarion call, kicking off a larger movement across Asia to ensure equality for LGBT people and pro-active protection of their rights by governments throughout the region. No more excuses!"
At least 20 same-sex couples are planning a mass marriage registration in Taipei on May 24, a spokesman for the advocacy group Marriage Equality Coalition Taiwan said. The newlyweds and hundreds of invitees will hold a mass party a day later on a blocked-off boulevard outside the presidential office, the event organizer said.
The law will give a boost to Jay Lin and his partner, who hope to marry and assume joint custody of their two 2-year-old sons. They plan to register after May 24.
"A lot of gay parents are excited about that already," said Lin, a Taipei-based online streaming service founder.
"I think once more people are married and more families are more comfortable being out in public, that will naturally have a beneficial impact on society and on people's minds," Lin said.
Taiwan's acceptance of gay and lesbian relationships began in the 1990s when leaders in today's ruling Democratic Progressive Party championed the cause to help Taiwan stand out in Asia as an open society.
Although claimed by China as its own territory, Taiwan is a self-governing democracy with a vibrant civil society dedicated to promoting rights for sexual and ethnic minorities, women, the handicapped and others.
Mainland China, ruled by the authoritarian Communist Party, remains much more conservative and officials have repeatedly discouraged even the discussion of legalizing same-sex marriage.
Despite that, news of Taiwan's new law was a major trending topic on social media in China, with more than 100 million views on the Twitter-like microblogging site Weibo.
Opponents in Taiwan raised fears of incest, insurance scams and children confused by having two mothers or two fathers. Both sides of the issue have held colorful street demonstrations and lobbied lawmakers.
"This is going to cause a lot of morality problems," said Lin Shih-min with the Taiwan political action group Stability of Power, which opposed the law. "From the point of view of the children, they have the right to grow up with both a mother and a father."
In November 2018, a majority of Taiwan voters rejected same-sex marriage in an advisory referendum. However, legislators favoring the bill, and voting separately on each item largely along party lines, said it followed the law as well as the spirit of the referendum.
"We need to take responsibility for the referendum last year and we need to take responsibility for people who have suffered from incomplete laws or faced discrimination," ruling party legislator Hsiao Bi-khim said during the three-hour parliament session.
Baghdad, May 18 (AP/UNB) — When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat down with Iraqi officials in Baghdad last week as tensions mounted between America and Iran, he delivered a nuanced message: If you're not going to stand with us, stand aside.
The message, relayed to The Associated Press by two Iraqi government officials, underscores Iraq's delicate position: Its government is allied with both sides of an increasingly contentious confrontation.
As tensions escalate, there are concerns that Baghdad could once again get caught in the middle, just as it is on the path to recovery. The country hosts more than 5,000 U.S. troops, and is home to powerful Iranian-backed militias, some of whom want those U.S. forces to leave.
"The big question is how Iraqi leaders will deal with (their) national interests in a country where loyalty to external powers is widespread at the expense of their own nation," Iraqi political analyst Watheq al-Hashimi said. "If the state cannot put these (Iranian-backed militias) under control, Iraq will become an arena for an Iranian-American armed conflict."
Despite a series of provocative moves on both sides, President Donald Trump has said he doesn't want a war with Iran and has even said he is open to dialogue. But tension remains high, in part given the region's fraught history.
For Iraq to be a theater for proxy wars is not new. The Shiite-majority country lies on the fault line between Shiite Iran and the mostly Sunni Arab world, led by powerhouse Saudi Arabia, and has long been a battlefield in which the Saudi-Iran rivalry for regional supremacy played out.
During America's eight-year military presence that began with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, U.S. troops and Iranian-backed militiamen fought pitched battles around the country, and scores of U.S. troops were killed or wounded by the militia forces armed with sophisticated Iranian-made weapons.
American forces withdrew from Iraq in 2011 but returned in 2014 at the invitation of Iraq to help battle the Islamic State group after it seized vast areas in the north and west of the country, including Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul. A U.S.-led coalition provided crucial air support as Iraqi forces regrouped and drove IS out in a costly three-year campaign. Iranian-backed militias fought alongside U.S.-backed Iraqi troops against IS, gaining outsized influence and power.
Now, amid an escalating conflict between the U.S. and Iran, Iraq is once again vulnerable to becoming caught up in the power play. An attack targeting U.S. interests in Iraq would be detrimental to the country's recent efforts at recovering and reclaiming its status in the Arab world.
Earlier this year, Trump provoked outrage in Baghdad when he said he wanted U.S. troops to stay in Iraq so they can "watch Iran," suggesting a changing mission for American troops there.
On May 8, Pompeo made a lightning, previously unannounced trip to the Iraqi capital following the abrupt cancellation of a visit to Germany, and as the United States had been picking up intelligence that Iran is threatening American interests in the Middle East.
The two Iraqi officials said Pompeo relayed intelligence information the U.S. had received about a threat to U.S. forces in Iraq — but kept it vague. They said he did not specify the nature of the threat. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to divulge confidential information, said Pompeo told the Iraqis that America did not expect them to side with the U.S. in any confrontation with Iran, but that they should not side against America. In other words, stand aside.
A few days later, as U.S.-Iranian tensions continued to rise, the State Department ordered all non-essential, non-emergency government staff to leave the country.
U.S. officials said Pompeo told the Iraqis the U.S. had an "inherent right to self-defense" and would use it if U.S. personnel, facilities or interests are attacked by Iran or its proxies in Iraq or anywhere else.
The three officials, who were not authorized to publicly discuss the private meetings in Baghdad and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Pompeo was not contemplating any pre-emptive strikes on Iran or the use of Iraqi territory to stage military operations against Iran. Pompeo's message, the officials said, was that the U.S. wants to avoid conflict but would respond or defend itself if necessary.
The secretary told reporters on the flight that his meetings with Iraq's president and prime minister were intended to demonstrate U.S. support for "a sovereign, independent" Iraq, free from the influence of neighboring Iran. Pompeo also said he wanted to underscore Iraq's need to protect Americans in their country.
A general at Iraq's Defense Ministry said Iraq was taking precautionary security measures in light of the information about threats against U.S. interests, although those measures have not reached the highest levels.
"Iraqi forces are worried that American forces could be targeted by factions loyal to Iran," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. He added that any attack on U.S. troops could come as retaliation if the United States were to carry out a military operation against Iran.
The heightened tensions between Iran and the U.S. come a year after Trump pulled America out of Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers and as the White House ordered an aircraft carrier and bombers into the region over a still-unexplained threat from Iran.
On Sunday, the United Arab Emirates alleged that four oil tankers off its eastern coast were targeted by sabotage. On Tuesday, Yemen's Iran-allied Houthi rebels said they launched seven drones to target Saudi Arabia. The drones stuck pumping stations along the kingdom's crucial East-West Pipeline, causing minor damage, Saudi officials say.
On the streets of Baghdad, some shrugged off the rising tensions while others worried their country could be sucked into another war.
Aqil Rubaei said he was worried that his country, which has been at war since a year before he was born, will be the place where the U.S. and Iran will settle their accounts. The 38-year-old was born in 1981, a year after Iran and Iraq began their eight-year war and was 9 years old when Saddam Hussein's forces invaded Kuwait leading to a destructive war that forced Iraq out of Kuwait and 13 years of crippling sanctions.
In 2003, the U.S. invaded and removed Saddam, leading to the rise of extremist groups that culminated in 2014 with the Islamic State group capturing large parts of Iraq and Syria and declaring a so-called caliphate. The war that followed left entire Iraqi cities and towns destroyed until Iraq declared victory in 2017.
"Iraqi people are fed up with war," said Rubaei inside his cosmetics shop in Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood. "We don't want Iraq to become an arena for an Iranian-American war."
Canberra, May 18 (AP/UNB) — Political leaders continued frenetic 11th-hour campaigning as Australians vote on Saturday in an election likely to deliver the nation's sixth prime minister in as many years.
Opinion polls suggest the conservative Liberal Party-led coalition will lose its bid for a third three-year term and Scott Morrison will have had one of the shortest tenures as prime minister in the 118-year history of the Australian federation.
Morrison is the conservatives' third prime minister since they were first elected in 2013. He replaced Malcolm Turnbull in a leadership ballot of government colleagues in August.
Morrison began the day campaigning in the island state of Tasmania in seats he hopes his party will win from the center-left Labor Party opposition. He then flew 900 kilometers (560 miles) home to Sydney to vote and to campaign in Sydney seats.
Opposition leader Bill Shorten contained his campaigning to polling centers in his home town of Melbourne where he voted Saturday morning with his wife Chloe Shorten.
Shorten said he was confident Labor would win government and promised to start governing from Sunday. He said his top priorities would be to increase wages for low-paid workers, increase pay rates for working Sundays and reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.
"The world will know that if Labor gets elected, Australia's back in the fight against climate change," Shorten told reporters.
Shorten has been campaigning hard on more ambitious targets to reduce Australia's greenhouse gas emissions.
Australia is the world's largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas. It is also one of the world's worst carbon gas polluters per capita because of a heavy reliance on coal-fired electricity.
As the driest continent after Antarctica, it is also particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, such as wildfires and destructive storms.
The government has committed Australia to reduce its emissions by 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2030. Labor has promised a 45% reduction in the same time frame.
Shorten, a 52-year-old former labor union leader, has also promised a range of reforms, including the government paying all the patients' costs for cancer treatment and a reduction of tax breaks for landlords.
Morrison, a 51-year-old former tourism marketer, said he had closed Labor's lead in opinion polls during the five-week campaign and predicted a close result.
"It's not the time to engage in Bill Shorten's big, risky project of big taxes and big spending," Morrison said.
Morrison promises lower taxes and better economic management than Labor.
An opinion poll published in The Australian newspaper on Saturday put Labor ahead of the conservatives 51.5% to 48.5%.
The Newspoll-brand poll was based on a nationwide survey of 3,038 voters from Monday to Friday. It has a 1.8 percentage point margin of error.
Political analyst William Bowe said it was unclear how the greater support for Labor evident in polls would translate into seats.
He said the conservatives had been "trying to plot a narrow path to victory" by targeting their campaigning on vulnerable Labor seats in Sydney, Tasmania and the Northern Territory.
Neither the ruling coalition nor Labor holds a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, where parties need a majority to form a government. The government lost two seats and its single-seat majority in the lower chamber in blood-letting over the dumping of Turnbull in the face of poor opinion polling.
The government goes to the election holding 74 seats in the chamber that is expanding at this election from 150 seats to 151.
Labor has 69 seats, with independents and minor parties holding the remainder.
Both major parties are promising that whoever wins the election will remain prime minister until he next faces the voters' judgment. The parties have changed their rules to make the process of lawmakers replacing a prime minister more difficult.
During Labor's last six years in office, the party replaced Prime Minister Kevin Rudd with his deputy Julia Gillard, then dumped her for Rudd.
Polling on Australia's west coast began two hours after the east coast stations opened. East coast stations will close at 6 p.m. (0800 GMT), two hour before voting ends in the west.