That Was The Week That Was

With apologies to the old 1960’s era television show — the precursor to shows on now such as the Daily Show — That Was The Week That Was, or as it was commonly known TWTWTW, or TW3, we just experienced among the craziest weeks in recent history.  Like the Daily Show, TW3 took actual news events and gave them a “can you believe it” comical twist.  Unfortunately, there was nothing comical about this past week.  If you were busy shopping or attending holiday parties, here are the highlights of what you missed over the past seven days.  In some semblance of chronological order, of which very little exists today in this administration, they include:

  • Late last Friday night a federal judge declared the entire Affordable Care Act (ACA) unconstitutional.  The judge said that since Congress lowered the tax for the Individual Mandate to zero, they essentially repealed the tax.  In two Supreme Court decisions the ACA was ruled constitutional because of the tax — which is a right held by Congress.  Since there is now no tax, the whole law was deemed unconstitutional, ignoring the long-standing legal precedent of “severability” which means that just because one part of a contract or law is deemed to be wrong, the whole contract or law is not voided.  More on this in a future post.
  • Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke resigned from the Cabinet to avoid investigation of his actions while in office.  This now means that since the mid-term election in November, Mr. Trump has fired or accepted the “resignations” of the Attorney General, his Chief of Staff, the Ambassador to the U.N., and the Secretary of Defense.  There are still countless White House staff positions, Assistant Secretaries, and Ambassador positions yet to be filled two years into this administration.
  • It was revealed that there are currently at least 17 investigations of Mr. Trump, his organizations, and associates by at least seven different jurisdictions.  (The Special Counsel, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the U.S. Attorney for  the District of Columbia, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, Attorneys General from New York City, New York State and other states, and a “mystery” investigation that is under court seal.)
  • Two independent studies reported to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Russians’ involvement in social media and efforts to help Mr. Trump and to hurt Secretary Clinton were more widespread than previously understood.  It continued well after the election and shifted focus to undermining Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigation of Mr. Trump.  In particular, the Russians took actions to suppress the minority vote.  Since Mr. Trump won the Electoral College by a total of approximately 80,000 votes spread across the three states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan it is probable, but not provable, that their actions changed the election.
  • General Michael Flynn arrived for sentencing thinking that he would get probation.  Judge Emmet Sullivan disabused him of that perception and threatened to lock him up.  “I am not hiding my disgust, my disdain, for this criminal offense,” said the judge.  Keep in mind that the judge has seen the redacted parts of the case that detail the full extent of the former National Security Adviser’s role in the campaign, transition and administration.  The sentencing was postponed for 90 days to give General Flynn another chance to cooperate with the investigation.  (Hint. Hint.)
  • In an ongoing civil suit in New York State, the Attorney General of New York attained a court order for the Trump Foundation to shut down.  The Foundation will distribute its remaining funds under court supervision.  The suit continues.  The N.Y Attorney General argued that the Foundation was little more than a slush fund for Mr. Trump, the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign.  All illegal activities.
  • Acting Attorney General Whitaker refuses to recuse himself.  The senior career ethics professional in the Department of Justice told the Acting A.G. that he should recuse himself from the Mueller Investigation.  Mr. Whitaker decided not to do so.  Remember that A.G. Sessions forever will feel the wrath of Mr. Trump for having rightly recused himself last year following the appointment of the Special Counsel.
  • The president unilaterally announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria within 30 days. On Twitter. He further ordered that plans be drawn up to withdraw most if not all of our forces from Afghanistan.  This decision was met with great joy and celebration in Russia, Iran, and by Syria’s despotic ruler.  It takes the U.S. out of any significant role in the future of the Middle East and sends a message to our friends and allies that we cannot be trusted.  The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are the Kurds.  Through U.S. training, equipping and our Special Forces fighting alongside, they have become the most effective fighting force in Syria and were our partners in driving ISIS out of the cities.  We are now throwing them under the bus.  The Turkish government (along with Iran) does not want the Kurds to be a strong entity in the region and indeed the Turks are planning to attack them as soon as we leave.  Likewise negotiations to end the conflict in Afghanistan are now in jeopardy because the president wants us to leave.  All of our opponents now know to just wait us out.  We have lost all credibility in much of the world, but especially in Asia.  We also undermine Israel with this decision as the Syrians, Iranians, and Hezbollah and others can now consolidate their power, gain new territory and not worry about a U.S. presence in the area.  This is a dream come true for Vladimir Putin.
  • The president agreed to a Continuing Resolution to keep the government open until 8 February, the Senate unanimously voted to approve it and then he changed his mind and refused to go along unless he got at least $5 billion for a border wall.  Ironically the approximately 800,00 federal personnel that will be impacted are significantly represented by TSA agents, Border Patrol agents, Coast Guardsmen (the Coast Guard is not part of the Defense Department but falls under the Department of Home Land Security) and others charged with keeping our borders safe.  They will keep working but not get paid until the budget bill passes. For those that have mortgages, Christmas presents to buy, groceries to feed their family and other obligations, getting paid sometime in the future is not helpful to their current situations.  Mr. Trump promises a “very long shutdown” if he doesn’t get his way.  Remarkably, Representative Mark Meadows (Trump-NC) said that federal employees knew what they were getting into.  “It’s actually part of what you do when you sign up for any public service position.”  (Someone should tell Mr. Meadows that a well-run government does not shut down.  Furthermore, the Republicans have controlled the House, Senate and White House for two years.  Apparently that isn’t enough time to, you know, do your job and pass a budget.)
  • Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned.  Take a look at his resignation letter here.  Those familiar with the way such things normally work, Secretary Mattis’ letter is a direct rebuke of Mr. Trump and his policies and his leadership.  Through the eloquent and gentlemanly language, the Secretary basically tells Mr. Trump that he is full of it and an anathema to all that the United States stood for, for over seventy years.  This is unprecedented in modern times.
  • The stock market is on track to have the worst December on record since 1931 and the Great Depression.  The reasons are varied but include the uncertainty created by Mr. Trump and his impulsive policy decisions, especially regarding trade and tariffs.

These are only the quick highlights.  And only one week’s worth of news is listed here.  In “normal” times this much activity in a month would be noteworthy.

Much of this will play out over the next few weeks and months.  I am sure we will all have plenty to say about it as events unfold.  Right now I want to emphasize what much of this means to us with respect to national security and foreign affairs.

Mr. Trump campaigned on an “America First” agenda.  Nice slogan.  As has been pointed out by many, this was also the slogan of the fascist leaning, isolationist wing of American politicians in the 1930s that refused to oppose the rise of Hitler and Mussolini.  I am not hinting that Mr. Trump is a fascist sympathizer, I am merely pointing out that there are historical roots to the thoughts, and policies he espouses.

Given Mr. Trump’s use of hyperbole in everything that he does, many thought that “America First” was just a catchy phrase that he liked.  What is becoming increasingly clear is that the words are more than a slogan.  He believes them in the sense that it governs his views on trade, national security, military action and our role in the world.  It is reflected in his decisions (against nearly unanimous caution not to do so) to withdraw from Syria and Afghanistan, his decisions to impose tariffs, and his desire to build a wall on the southern border.  It is an entirely isolationist, transactional way of thinking.  In this way of thinking we do not help or stand by allies unless there is something tangible in it for us — in Mr. Trump’s view, money.

This way of thinking is dangerous — to the interests of the United States and to peace and stability in the world.  It cedes the playing field to Russia and China who are more than happy to fill the void.

Re-read Secretary Mattis’ resignation letter. He resigned because of those “America First” policies.  This is what he is not so subtly saying.  Mr. Trump is a danger to all that we as a country have held dear for over 70 years and a danger to the influence and power for good that the world used to count upon from the good old U.S. of A. Not anymore.

Expect it to get worse as Mr. Trump has systematically removed all of those in his administration that were not afraid to tell him “no” and stood against his misguided plans.  The president acts impulsively and erratically and it seems that with two years of data, we now know that his instincts are either no good, or his knowledge of the world is sorely inadequate.

We are fast approaching a time where the United States government is run like the Trump Organization.  It will be in the hands of Mr. Trump, his daughter and son-in-law.  Period.

Likewise, the world — our friends and allies as well as our enemies — now know that the president is weak and ill-informed.  The decision to leave Syria proves it to them.  The icing on the cake was his decision to cave to the whining from hard-core right-wing pundits on television calling him out on not shutting down the government over his wall.  It makes Mr. Trump look scared of losing his base and gives power to the likes of Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham and Rush Limbaugh.  Along with Sean Hannity, those apparently are his real cabinet.

On the other hand, this is a season of great joy!  Celebrate with friends and family.  Remember that we are all God’s children and enjoy the gift of life.  For a few days, we can put aside the worries of the secular world and revel in the power of the spiritual world.

Best wishes to all.


Hubris Replaces Foreign Policy

This week the President announced that the United States would withdraw from the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the “Iran Deal.”  It is impossible to predict the short and long-term impacts of this action, but there are huge changes on the horizon as a result.  Some analysts have called our withdrawal the biggest change in the international world order since World War II.  There are many reasons why this may be true.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that the JCPOA was not meant to solve every problem in the Middle East or even to inhibit Iranian adventurism in promoting unrest in the area or their possible development of ballistic missiles.  It was meant, in very technical and specific ways, to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapons program.  It worked.  The Iranians, unlike the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, do not have nuclear weapons, thanks to the agreement.  There are many valid criticisms of the Iran Deal, and you may even think that the president made the right decision, but to truly discuss it, one must remember that it was meant to be a stepping stone to resolving other issues, including those not addressed in the JCPOA.  Sanctions against Iran for violating existing limits on ballistic missile developments, or as a reaction to other valid issues of concern could still be imposed.  This is one of the reasons why the Europeans pushed so hard for the U.S. to stay in the agreement and to work with them to tackle the other legitimate issues that should be addressed.

The U.S. unilaterally withdrew from a multi-lateral agreement where by all accounts, all elements of the agreement were being followed by all of the members.  During his confirmation hearings just a few weeks ago, now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when asked if the Iranians were in compliance with the agreement, said “With the information I have been provided, I have seen no evidence they are not in compliance today.”  Further, when asked if the Iranians were building a nuclear weapon, Secretary Pompeo, who was the head of the CIA at the time of his nomination, said, “Iran wasn’t racing to a weapon before the deal, there is no indication that I am aware of that if the deal no longer existed that they would immediately turn to racing to create a nuclear weapon.”  Recall that under the Iran Deal, Iranian facilities are monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and are subject to no notice inspections.  There is no evidence of cheating as some claim.  No proof exists that they have abrogated their responsibilities and indeed the international consensus is that the Iranians have fully complied.

In matters of diplomacy and military strategy, a long-standing adage is that one must always strive to “seize the initiative.”  We have now conceded the initiative to Iran.  They stand on the moral high ground in this agreement as they have filled all of the requirements.  We are the ones that left the agreement, even as we concede that it is working as designed.  Mr. Trump upon announcing our immediate withdrawal gave no specific reasons for doing so other than vague pronouncements that the agreement was “defective at its core.”  Presumably, he means that some years in the future,  the “sunset” clauses of the agreement will kick in and Iran will build nuclear weapons. Besides being technically incorrect, this argument ignores two important factors.  One we know, and the other is speculative but within reason.  First, right now Iran has no nuclear weapons.  Assuming the worst, which over simplifies reality, under the agreement they could start working on them again in ten years.  The last time I looked ten was better than zero. They now have the decision in their hands as to whether to resume their program or not.  They didn’t break the agreement, we did. Secondly, ten years of steady diplomatic effort, as all sides benefit from the agreement, could readily persuade Iran that building nuclear weapons was not in their best interests.  Even if they did threaten to resume their program, nothing precludes the international community from reinstating severe sanctions and other measures to keep them from building them.

Mr. Trump announced the immediate reinstatement of sanctions against Iran and reasoned that sanctions brought the Iranians to the table before and so it will bring them back again for “a better deal.”  Perhaps he is correct.  Even under the current agreement, Iran’s economy is in dire straits.  It might work.  However, logic says that Iran has no incentive to return to the table for a better — to the U.S., but not Iran — deal.  Most obviously, the U.S. walked away from the last deal.  It would be easy for them to brand us as “liars” that cannot be trusted to stick to any agreement.  What trust will they have, even if they return to the table, that we will stand by what we say?  None.

More importantly, we had a multi-national sanctions effort the last time around.  The JCPOA was an agreement between the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Russia, China, the European Union, and Iran. It was unanimously ratified by the United Nations Security Council.  All other signatories have clearly stated their intention to remain in the agreement, which means no universal sanctions will be reimposed on Iran.  The U.S. may be the biggest economic power in the world, but we cannot alone bring Iran to its knees economically if other nations trade freely with them.  The other members of the agreement have asked Iran to remain in the agreement.  Again, this gives the initiative to Iran.  They may actually want a “better deal” — for them — with the other nations involved as their price for remaining within the agreement.

The president clearly does not understand that the “enemy” has a vote on how things go.  We cannot dictate to other nations when they do not see that their own best interests are being served.  Playing hard ball in a New York City real estate deal may work for him, but nations have other interests at play and can deploy their own form of hard ball.  The Iranian regime went through an eight year war with Iraq without flinching, even as they lost countless lives and treasure.  They are tough.  Bluster will not bring them to the table and may in fact, cause them to demonstrate their own resolve through some form of military action.

Clearly, the U.S. must act in its own best interests.  Always.  However, it is extremely short-sighted to isolate ourselves from our allies and to pretend that no deal can be a win-win for all nations.  Seemingly, to Mr. Trump everything is a zero sum, win-lose proposition.  This is not true and is dangerous in the international arena.  We are quickly isolating ourselves and may find that in a time of need, we are on our own having burned too many bridges.  Other nations may allow “America First” to become “America Alone.”

This is what may be the most troubling aspect of Mr. Trump’s bluster and belligerence toward Iran.  This is why many analysts call this the biggest change in International Relations in the post-World War II era.  Our closest allies, U.K., Germany and France stand against us on this issue, and increasingly, on a number of other issues as well. Couple our stance on these issues with Mr. Trump’s disdain of NATO.  We are helping Mr. Putin achieve his fondest dream, the break up of the western alliance that stands between him and his ambitions.  As we draw away from our western allies, look for Mr. Putin to become ever more adventurous, especially in Estonia or another Baltic state where many ethnic Russians reside.

Mr. Trump’s imposition of sanctions includes any business or nation that does not follow our lead.  In other words, if he follows through, should Germany or any other ally continue doing business with Iran, then we, the U.S., would impose sanctions on those businesses and/or nations — even, he says, our allies.  He is banking (literally and figuratively since the biggest impact would be on the financial industry) that when push comes to shove, western Europe will fall in line and not do business with the Iranians.  That may or may not be a good bet.  Right now, the Europeans, Russians and Chinese plan to stand by the agreement.  If the Europeans cave to Mr. Trump — an action that is politically untenable in their own countries — and re-impose sanctions, the Russians and Chinese will do ever more business with Iran, and thereby achieve their own international goals.  Should the Europeans withdraw from the agreement at some time in the future, clearly the Iranians would have no incentive to abide by it on their end.

All of this, of course, ignores the fact that by withdrawing from the agreement, the U.S. increased the likelihood of war breaking out in the Middle East.  Indeed, just yesterday, Iranian forces fired directly on Israeli military forces for the first time.  The Israelis in turn, bombed Iranian forces and command and control nodes in Syria.  The chances for a major miscalculation, or misunderstood bellicosity, could lead to major regional warfare.

Finally, none of us can currently evaluate the impact of our withdrawal from the Iran Deal as it impacts ongoing negotiations with North Korea.  Mr. Trump and Mr. John Bolton his National Security Adviser, claim that it will strengthen our hand in those discussions because it shows how tough we are.  Or as Mr. Trump said on Tuesday about our withdrawal from the Iran Deal, “the United States no longer makes empty threats.”  It is unclear what he means by that, but I suppose it his way of sounding tough.

An alternative outcome may be that Kim Jung Un comes to believe that along with Saddam and Muhamar Quaddafi, one can put Iran on the list of those that made a deal with the U.S. to give up their Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) and found that we could not be trusted.

Mr. Trump is already talking about the Nobel Peace Prize for his Korean efforts.  In that context, we should be worried that Mr. Trump will do whatever suits him at the moment to get good “ratings”.  Just another episode in the show and a chance to deflect from his problems at home.  However, I honestly hope that his efforts with North Korea pay off and they hand over their nuclear weapons and their ability to produce WMD, but we should be wary.  Frankly, it denies logic that Mr. Kim will hand over his WMD.  This will be at least the third time that North Korea promised to do so, the other two times they reneged.  The meeting between Mr. Kim and Mr. Trump will be historic.  If nothing else, we should be thankful that three American citizens held as prisoners in North Korea returned home last night.  To date, that action is the only substantive thing that Kim has done to show his willingness to deal.  They released prisoners in the past, too.  Which of course totally ignores the fact that U.S. citizens were taken as hostages in the first place.  They also kill them, as was the case with Mr. Otto Warmbier, the college student imprisoned and probably tortured by the Koreans who died as a result.  Talking is way better than fighting.  I hope the talks succeed, but I would not hold my breath.  Walking away from the Iran Deal complicates our negotiations with the Koreans.  More on that in a yet to be post in this space.

Maybe Mr. Trump walked away from the Iran Deal because his main foreign policy objective merely entails undoing anything and everything that President Obama put in place.  No clear foreign policy doctrine has emerged from this administration and as French President Macron and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said after talking to the president, there is no U.S. “Plan B.”  That makes it one mighty big gamble.  Every endeavor should have branches and sequels, or “what ifs.”  What if we succeed then what do we do?  What if we don’t succeed, what is the next step?  There is no discernible plan behind just walking away from the agreement.

One might suspect that Mr. Trump’s decision on the Iran Deal was done primarily because he could and that somehow it showed what a tough guy he was.  There are no next steps.  He should look up the definition of hubris (arrogance, conceit, pride, self-importance, egotism, pomposity, excessive pride or defiance leading to nemesis), and nemesis (the inescapable agent of someone’s or something’s downfall).

Hubris is not a policy.


Deterrence 101

“I’m not the man they think I am at home”  — Elton John in “Rocket Man”

On Tuesday Mr. Trump gave a speech to the United Nations General Assembly that created controversy. It seems you either hated it or loved it.  Some people agree with his “America First” pronouncements and others interpret his remarks as being muddled and inconsistent. Either way, despite the fact that much of the ensuing discussion focused on his use of the term “Rocket Man” in referring to Kim Jong Un of North Korea, there is much more to learn about Mr. Trump and about deterrence.  (Besides the third grade use of nicknames to belittle people, perhaps some of our insight into Mr. Trump’s real thoughts starts with the lyrics above.)

You can read the full speech for yourself but the focus here is on his remarks about The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) or North Korea.  To me, it shows a lack of understanding of both international relations and the real ways in which nations influence other nations or deter them from taking actions counter to our own self-interests.

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary.”  — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017

Mr. Trump’s supporters may give him high marks for his bravado and willingness to “tell it like it is.” Okay.  But what did he really say?

Let’s put this another way.  The goal of the United States and other nations is to “denuclearize” the North Koreans.  As discussed previously in this blog, Kim Jong Un has no motivation to give up his nuclear weapons.  He cares not what happens to his population as long as he and his ruthless regime survive. The lesson he learned from Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya is that if you give in to the West and give up your Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) your regime falls and you get executed.  Not very motivational to someone like Kim.

Lesson number two comes from Mr. Trump’s speech.  Whether one likes the nuclear agreement with Iran or not, we do not have the same situation developing in Iran as is developing in North Korea.  Iran is not testing nuclear weapons.  The criticism of the agreement has many parts, mostly along the lines of the United States not drawing enough concessions from Iran.  No mention of terrorism, for example. Forgotten in the criticism is that the agreement is intended to be one aspect of a longer term engagement with Iran that does address other areas of concern to us and to them.  It showed that a deal could be made with a regime that refused to have anything at all to do with the West for decades.  It ensures that today we have only one “nuclear problem” to deal with and not two.  I might also point out that it is a multi-lateral agreement.  It is not a U.S. – Iran bilateral agreement as many in the current administration seem to address it.  The agreement includes the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the European Union representing all members of that organization, and Germany.  If the U.S. pulls out of the agreement, as Mr. Trump indicated yesterday that he will do, do not expect the other participants to follow suit.  Additionally, any other diplomatic engagement with Iran by the U.S. will die. Iran simply will not trust that the U.S. will abide by any future agreements.

This is where we get back to North Korea.  Mr. Trump demands that North Korea come to the table and negotiate a deal to denuclearize the Korean peninsula.  Hmmm.  Iran did that and now the U.S. calls the deal an embarrassment and threatens to abrogate the agreement.  Or as Mr. Trump said of Iran and the nuclear agreement:

“The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it — believe me.”  — Donald J. Trump at the U.N. on 19 September 2017

So, let’s see this from Kim’s viewpoint.  (Who cares what he thinks, some may say?  Let’s not take any grief from those guys — Korean or Iranian. We should care only about ourselves.)  Those sentiments are understandable and in a way, correct.  Except for one thing.  We cannot get Kim (or the Iranians) to do something they don’t want to do just by bullying them.

From Kim’s point of view, those that have trusted the U.S. when it comes to getting rid of their WMD are either dead or betrayed by the U.S.  Not much of an incentive to give them up.

It gets worse.

Kim will not give up his missiles or his nuclear weapons as long as he thinks they are critical to his survival.  Period.  I cannot stress enough that he is all about his personal survival and the continuation of his regime — like it or not.  Diplomatic efforts should focus on providing a way to convince him that his regime will survive into the future with some kind of guarantees from those that share a border with him — China, Russia, and South Korea.  It might work.  But probably not.

It keeps getting worse.

Deterrence is based on several factors, as I’ve discussed in this space in previous posts.  Deterrence cannot work if the nation (or individual) that is the focus of the effort, doesn’t know what it is that they are not supposed to do.  Additionally, clear and realistic (emphasis on realistic) consequences need to be conveyed and understood by those being deterred.  They cannot do something if they don’t know what that is (or out of ignorance they may do it) and the cost/benefit analysis on their end needs to be clear and of a scale that not doing something is better than doing it.  One may think that dying is not a good outcome, but it may be if living with the alternative is unacceptable in their calculus, not ours. Understanding one’s opponent is critical.  We know very little about what goes on in the DPRK, but what we do know seems to be ignored by the current administration, or at least the guy in charge.

In sum, there needs to be a clear understanding of the behavior desired and a credible response that is unacceptable to the recipient.

With that in mind, let’s return to Mr. Trump’s U.N. remarks where he says,  “…but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies…” (meaning if the U.S. is forced to do so).  “Defend” against what?  He does not say.  In the past, North Korea shelled South Korean islands, sank a South Korean naval vessel, killed a U.S. service man in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and other provocations dating back to the capture of the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in 1968.  Not one of these incidents generated a military response from the United States.  Expect Kim to test the efficacy of our intention to “defend” ourselves.  What will be our response if he again shells a South Korean outpost?  I would not expect that the response will be what Mr. Trump threatens, that  “…we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”  It is not a credible threat.  The implication that we will “totally destroy” a population of 24 million, with the additional implication by Mr. Trump that it will be with nuclear weapons (the only way to totally destroy a nation) is preposterous.  Or it should be in this scenario.  Kim will not see it as a credible threat.  Even if he does, it only solidifies his belief that having his own deliverable nuclear capability is his only saving grace. Boasting, bullying, and all the bravado Mr. Trump can muster will not change that and it certainly will not bring Kim to the negotiating table — other than as a delaying tactic to put the finishing touches on his arsenal.

This is why a long list of presidents, Republican and Democrat, warn that the United States “will respond at a time and place of our choosing” to provocations and attacks.  It leaves open a wide range of options from doing nothing all the way to “totally destroying” but with a myriad of options in between.  I guess that sounds wimpy to the current administration.  But leaving one’s options open is the best course.

With no clear “red line” — a term that is misused and misunderstood — that puts realistic limits on Kim’s behavior, and with no credible response for Kim to weigh in his strategic calculations, there is no deterrence and certainly no incentive for him to give up his nuclear weapons.

Mr. Trump fails deterrence 101.  There are, of course, many other branches and sequels involved in deterrence theory.  But if one does not understand the basics, that empty threats may only precipitate the action one is trying to deter, then there is little point in trying to get the finer points into play.

Furthermore, since the Korean Armistice of 1953, Kim’s grandfather and father created and hammered home the cult of personality so that today the DPRK is Kim and Kim is the DPRK.  Every citizen from the time that they can talk is taught that the Americans are the worst people on earth and that the Americans only aim in life is to destroy the DPRK.  They believe it.  The Korean War is the example taught over and over, given that North Korea was heavily damaged and lost millions of people, military and civilian, in the course of the conflict. To vilify and belittle their leader only adds gasoline to the fire. Mr. Trump handed the North Korean regime a propaganda coup with his statements about Kim and that we will totally destroy their nation. Roll the videotape! It reinforces everything that the population of North Korea has heard for their entire lives.

Which is not to say that we lay down and roll over.  The number one role of our national government is to protect our citizens.  If Kim pushes we should shove back.  We need to continue to reiterate to Kim that he cannot possibly win any military conflict with us or our allies.  End of discussion on that point. What is necessary is to convey clearly what we expect of the North Korean regime.  Patience and incremental successes may be the path to a common understanding.  We don’t back away from conflict where our national interests are at stake, but we also do not want to precipitate a war that will inevitably lead to massive military and civilian casualties on a whim or because we want to play around with cutesy phrases.  If one studies the military conflicts which we have entered since the Vietnam War, a pattern emerges.  Foreign adversaries continually fail to understand the nature of our society and misinterpret internal political arguments for a lack of will on our part to act militarily.  Mr. Trump may reinforce that perception when Kim tests his proclamation with a relatively minor infraction that we ignore (again) or when we do not “totally destroy” his country.

Kim is not a crazy man, even if he and Mr. Trump are trying to out crazy each other in their rhetoric.  It is totally sane to have as one’s primary strategic goal the survival of oneself and one’s regime.  If the United States truly wants to remove the North Korean’s nuclear capability, the U.S. will have to be more imaginative and creative in our diplomacy.  China, and now Russia which has inserted itself onto the scene, are the key players.  It is not a mission impossible, but it will take cool thinking and lots of patience.  It remains to be seen whether this administration is capable of either, much less both.

 


A Burning Fuse

As you probably heard, on Sunday a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 Fitter ground attack bomber.  This was the first air-to-air destruction of a piloted aircraft by the U.S. since 1999 and the second by a NATO aircraft in the region following the November 2015 shoot down of a Syrian SU-24 by a Turkish Air Force F-16.  Both Syria and their ally Russia immediately protested the action.  In addition, the Russians declared that any U.S. or coalition aircraft flying “west of the Euphrates River” while Russian or Syrian aircraft are in the area “will be considered air targets” and subject to attack. Today, a U.S. F-15 shot down an armed Iranian drone, the second one this month.

While none of the participants in the many-sided Syrian conflict desire to go to war with each other, and certainly the Russians and the U.S. do not war, the conditions are very volatile in a confined geographic area.  This is a dangerous situation that is very susceptible to a mistake or miscalculation by one of the parties leading to a hot war, or at least a serious shooting incident.  In short, it is a burning fuse that needs to be snuffed out before reaching the explosives.  Given the conflicting goals of those involved, that may be difficult.  The situation is exacerbated by the Russian withdrawal from a de-confliction protocol whereby U.S. and coalition aircraft communicate with Russian aircraft to warn and alert each other of their locations and missions.  Negotiations are underway to restore that protocol. This is the second time that the Russians withdrew from it, the first coming after the U.S. Navy cruise missile strikes against a Syrian airfield last April.  The relationship then was shortly restored.

The shoot downs occurred following Syrian and Iranian attacks on U.S. backed anti-Syrian forces fighting the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.  Some coalition advisers were near the forces attacked from the air.  Following several warnings, the U.S. says it acted in self-defense.

It is difficult to tell the players without a score card.  In short, the major players in Syria are Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, the United Kingdom, and France.  Supplying arms and money to the anti-Assad regime are Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  (Remember also that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are involved in their own dispute which resulted in the isolation of Qatar from the outside world.  Both are allies of the U.S. but the dispute is serious and involves Qatari relations with Iran, which is engaged in a major struggle with Saudi Arabia for dominance in the region.  And, oh by the way, one of the major airfields used by the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) is in Qatar as is the air control headquarters and the Forward Headquarters for the U.S. Central Command.  It’s complicated.)

U.S. and coalition forces are mainly fighting from the air, with some U.S. Special Forces on the ground training and advising various militias fighting against ISIS and covertly supporting those aligned against the Syrian regime. Russia supports the Bashar regime and both Russia and Syria consider any group inside of Syria fighting against Bashar’s forces as “terrorists.”  This includes those supported by the U.S. coalition.  The Russians claim to be fighting ISIS but in actuality they are going after the “terrorists” that oppose Bashar’s regime, which was the case with the recent aircraft and drone attacks leading to the shoot downs. Turkey also opposes the Bashar regime but also opposes the Kurdish PKK (The Kurdistan Workers Party), a group fighting for a Kurdish state carved from Turkey, Syria and Iran.  The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, but many of the forces that have liberated parts of Iraq and Syria from ISIS are other Kurdish forces trained by the U.S.  Iran supports the Bashar regime, but also opposes ISIS.  Iranian forces and militias are fighting in Syria in support of the regime and in Iraq, in conjunction with Iraqi troops, to root out ISIS.  Iran also supports Lebanon’s Hezbollah which is fighting in Syria to support Bashar.  In something of a proxy war, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are aiding anti-Bashar forces with money and arms, even as they have their own dispute and Qatar is friendly to Iran.

Got all that?  And the country is about as big as the Middle Atlantic states — roughly Richmond to New York City and Pittsburgh to the west.

U.S. policy in Syria has been and is muddled.  Since taking over in January, the Trump Administration has not articulated a clear policy or strategy towards Syria.  Our focus is primarily on defeating ISIS, an effort that is slowly but steadily eliminating their caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

The lack of a clear strategy in Syria is reflected in the April cruise missile attacks.  At the time, I applauded President Trump’s decision to express our dissatisfaction over the Syrian use of chemical weapons.  But it was only a one time strike to “send a message” and had no real long-term ramifications or follow-up.  There was no strategy behind the strikes.  (One way to tell the seriousness of such a military attack is the longevity of the action and the targets chosen.  If we really wanted to punish Bashar’s regime the attack would have been centered on Damascus and gone after the Interior Ministry or Ministry of Defense in order to make the decision makers pay a price.  Instead we destroyed some aircraft at a remote air base.  To truly take on a larger military operation — which I am not advocating — it would have been a much more serious decision that could lead to direct military conflict with Syrian forces, and conceivably Russian forces. While we are concerned with the humanitarian conditions in Syria, it is not currently our policy to resolve the Syrian conflict through combat.)

The take-away from all this is that the Middle East continues to be a tinder box that could go from a smoldering problem to a conflagration without much effort.  Despite bluster and name calling, neither the U.S. or Russia want to see the situation escalate — especially against each other.  But both nations need to be very careful as other players in the region could relish such a situation in order for them to meet their own priorities and interests, not the least of which is to diminish the stature of the United States in the region and in the world.

These are dangerous times that must be taken seriously.  While we are focused on our own internal daily struggles and tweets, we also must keep our heads up and our eyes on the ball.  The rest of the world is busy pursuing their own agenda.  If we want to be part of events that shape our future, then we must pay attention and clearly state our own goals.

 


The Iranian Conundrum

Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about the recently concluded agreement with Iran on behalf of the P5+1 (U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China plus Germany) (also participating was the High Representative of the European Union) concerning curtailment of Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  Most of the talk is whether or not it is a “good deal” or a “bad deal.”  I do not think that such a simplistic approach does anyone any good and certainly does not lead to an understanding of the complexities of this pact — and it is indeed complex.  (You may read the entire original text here.) Most of the agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA), consists of annexes of a highly technical nature.  I am not a nuclear physicist so I cannot authoritatively comment on its intricacies, but many, many, many (emphasis on purpose) nuclear physicists and other arms control experts call it the most comprehensive arms control agreement ever.  There is very little — no agreement is perfect — technical wiggle room.

According to the signatories, the deal increases Iran’s “break out” time (how long until they could produce a nuclear bomb) from about three months to at least one year.  It also significantly reduces their stockpiles of enriched uranium (needed to make a bomb), cuts Iran’s centrifuges by two-thirds (needed to make more enriched uranium), precludes the production of plutonium (for really big bombs) and opens up existing facilities for international inspection.

The agreement also puts the restrictions and inspections in place for ten to twenty-five years and allows for re-imposing sanctions at any time for any violation.  Note that the inspections in some forms are in place for twenty-five years and in other cases, since Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, forever.  Please note that Israel has nuclear weapons and is not a signatory nation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, along with India, Pakistan and North Korea.

To me, as I understand them, the technical details of the JPCOA are sound.  I have heard very little criticism of the actual technical aspects of the agreement.  They were after all, primarily negotiated by the world’s foremost experts, including our own Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, a world recognized expert and MIT professor.

The real question to ask is this — is the JPCOA good policy?  That is a more difficult question to answer. I happen to think that it is, but it needs to be taken in context.  Before explaining that context, I must express my disappointment that many of our leaders in Congress had a knee jerk reaction to the agreement before they even knew the details of what was in it.  Coincident with the announcement of an agreement, criticism rained down on the president.  Typical of that reaction was Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-Ohio) who said within minutes of the conclusion of the negotiations, “Given everything I’ve seen so far, this is a bad deal. It paves the way for a nuclear Iran.”  By his own admission he had not reviewed the details of the agreement.  His reaction was mild compared to some others, and all paled in comparison to those of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R-Israel) who said, “From the initial reports we can already conclude that this agreement is a historic mistake.” He made that statement before the text was released and later he admitted that he had not yet read it.

Some in Congress oppose the JPCOA only because Israel opposes it.  As I’ve written before, Israel is a close ally and friend of the United States.  We need to protect and support Israel.  However, the United States should put its interests first, and not undermine them only because Israel is opposed.  I guarantee that Israel would, and has, put its interests above those of the United States and taken actions that were in their best interests, but opposed to those of the United States.  Do not oppose the JPCOA  “just because” Prime Minister Netanyahu says it is a bad deal.

It is entirely conceivable that policy makers in the United States and elsewhere legitimately do not think that the JPCOA is good policy.  But I sure wish they would at least read it and understand it before going public with blanket statements that it is historically bad.  Many of the critics of the negotiations said that “a bad deal is worse than no deal.”  What they really meant to say was that “any deal is worse than no deal.”  I disagree.

The hard part is to put the JPCOA in the total context of Middle East policy.  The focus for the P5+1 was eliminating the ability of Iran to produce a nuclear weapon this year.  At worst, they delayed it for ten to twenty years.  At best, they delayed it forever. Iran’s focus was lifting the sanctions.  They got that assuming that they comply with the JPCOA.  They were not negotiating the end to terrorism, national ambitions, the recognition of Israel by Iran or the host of other criticisms aimed at the negotiations because those things were not achieved.  They were not on the table and arguably we would not have any agreement if they were.

Likewise no P5+1 participant is “trusting” the Iranians.  There are very strict inspection regimes with very dire consequences for Iran should they be found in violation.  We need to be realistic about what can and cannot be achieved at the negotiating table.  And the U.S. Congress needs to recognize that these were not bi-lateral negotiations.  If the rest of the world wants to lift sanctions against Iran (and both Russia and China cannot wait to enter the Iranian market), we will have little leverage to stop it.

That said, many of you have heard me say for many years that Iran is one of the baddest actors in the world.  Prior to ISIS, the vast majority of terrorist acts in the Middle East and elsewhere can be directly or indirectly traced to Iran.  Currently, they are working hard to establish themselves as a regional power in the Middle East with thoughts of domination in that part of the world.  We need to stop them and we need to keep up the pressure on other nations to stop them.  We must.  That, however, is a different issue than stopping their nuclear weapons program.

The JPCAO only makes sense in the context of a comprehensive step-by-step plan in the Middle East to box in Iran and turn it back towards being a productive member of the world society.  The JPCOA is, in my mind, only the first of many steps.  There was no magic wand that could solve all of the problems with and about Iran in one fell swoop.  Just not going to happen.  However, as a first step, it is important.  As we have seen with China, Russia and other previous foes of the west, slow and steady is the answer.  Constant pressure needs to be applied and we must be relentless in our pursuit of national policy.  However, just as we have seen with China and Russia, we will make progress on some fronts and we will have conflict on others.  The United States needs to take the long view and put in place policies that bolster our friends and allies, oppose Iranian adventurism and exploitation, and enhance our national security.  The JPCOA helps to do that by taking the threat of nuclear weapons out of the calculus.

When one takes a step back, it is entirely possible that the world may not know the ramifications of the JPCOA for many years.  That is a tough gamble to take.  However, from all that I have read, it is a gamble worth taking because it is not irreversible and it has large dividends when it succeeds.

Iran is and will remain a conundrum.  We will only make head way in the area by engaging them.


It Will Be A Long Hot Summer

Reports from the Middle East increase my trepidation on a daily basis.  Events do not bode well for the future and I am not sure what, if anything, the United States should do.

A tour around the horizon of the Middle East reveals that all hell is breaking loose.  In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the run up to his re-election, repudiated decades of Israeli-Palestinian policy by stating that there will never be a Palestinian state on his watch.  Since the election, he has tried to walk it back a bit, but the damage is done and most pundits, analysts, and policy makers take him at his original word. What this portends for any kind of settlement, only time can tell.  At best, it has delayed it.  At worst, it has scuttled all hope for a settlement and caused the United States, European allies, and others to re-evaluate their unequivocal support of Israel.  For the Israelis themselves it means continued occupation of Palestinian territories and a fundamental change to their nation. Either they are no longer a democracy (occupied Palestinians cannot vote) or they will no longer be a mainly Jewish state (if they annex the occupied territories the number of Palestinians and Arabs will out number the number of Jewish citizens).

In Iraq, a loose coalition of Iraqi regular military forces and Shiite militia under the direction of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Force general (!) taking on ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — Sunnis) forces in Tikrit as a preliminary operational move to retake the key city of Mosul.  After preliminary success, the approximately 30,000 Iraqi fighters suffered high casualties, became bogged down and have been stymied for weeks now by the approximately 500 ISIS fighters in Tikrit.  Most experts believe this is because neither the regular forces nor the militias have any experience in urban fighting and with dealing with the resulting tactics of sniper fire, booby traps, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the like.  The (now) most experienced forces in urban fighting?  ISIS and the United States military.

The situation was further complicated when the regular Iraqi army forces called in U.S. air strikes to help their offensive.  This caused the Shiite and Iranian forces to stop fighting and, indeed, several of their leaders threatened to shoot down U.S. aircraft if they flew overhead.  It should be noted that several of those groups previously fought against the U.S. during the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, the U.S. (along with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) is nearing the deadline for a deal with Iran to curtail its possible nuclear weapons program.  It is unclear that a deal can be reached or that it will be satisfactory to all involved.

With this in mind, as Iranian surrogates threaten to totally over run Yemen, the Arab states under the leadership of Saudi Arabia are fighting the insurgent Houthi.  The Arab leadership and the ousted government of Yemen are Sunnis.  The Iranians and Houthi are Shiite.  One reason thought to be behind the Arab action is the belief that the U.S. is becoming too close to the Iranians in the interest of making the nuclear deal.  By the way, before the Houthi success — just months ago — Yemen was a model for success in the war on terror and especially the war against Al’ Qaeda.  Currently the most active, successful and dangerous branch of Al’ Qaeda is the one in Yemen — known as AQAP or Al’ Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and they are Sunni.  Both the Arab coalition and the Houthis would like to eliminate AQAP, but they are too busy fighting each other.

An Arab coalition, led by Egypt, also occasionally conducts air strikes in Libya, just in case you have forgotten that this is another nation that has disintegrated into warring factions, including one that claims to be a part of ISIS.

As has gone on for years, Iranian Shiite surrogates in Syria, Libya, and Lebanon are fighting other Sunni factions (including ISIS which seems to be opening branch offices in other countries).  If you really want to get the low-down, Boko Haram in Nigeria now claims to be affiliated with ISIS.  Most analysts believe that although troubling, it is mostly a propaganda move by Boko Haram to get on the terrorist band wagon of perceived success.

You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.

In brief, long-standing tension and conflict between two factions of Islam broke out into outright warfare.  It is very hard to determine who are the bad guys and who are the less bad guys.  Without a comprehensive Middle East strategy, it will be difficult for the United States (and its allies) to deal with all of the various factions and to support the best interests of our country in the region.  One might ask what those interests may be.  Besides our stated national policy begun under President George W. Bush to bring democracy to the region, we also have an obligation to allies.  More to the strategic interests of the U.S., one can summarize our interests in one word — “oil.”  Whether or not the U.S. is, or becomes, self-sufficient in fossil fuels, oil is a fungible commodity and integral to the economies of the developed world.  Conflict resulting in the closing of the Strait of Hormuz (access to the Persian Gulf — or as U.S. military planners prefer, the Arabian Gulf) and of the Bab al Mandeb (the strait controlling access to the Red Sea and thus the Suez Canal) would drive oil prices very high, seriously inhibiting any recovery from the last recession and conceivably driving us back into a deep recession.

On top of this is the realization from our national experience that failed states lead to the ability of terrorist organizations to act without restraint in developing plots against other nations around the world including the United States.

This developing geo-strategic situation (the technical term is “mess”) creates the question of what should the U.S. do about it?  Although in a previous career I was considered a Middle East expert, I have to say “I don’t know.”  This is a tough one.  In some respects, this escalating situation is fundamentally a conflict between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam and the resulting governmental control and continued well-being of certain elites on both sides of the equation.  To me, our getting into the middle of it would be akin to the Chinese getting involved in the Thirty Years War.  As the current order in the Middle East changes, and in many cases collapses, it mirrors in some ways the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1600s and the resulting war between Protestants and Catholics for the future of Europe.  The difference today of course is that the world is interconnected in a way that could not even be conceived of in the 17th century, especially economically.  Also different is the ability to project power over long distances and to injure and kill civilians a long way from the battlefield.  Yet, the U.S. is not going to settle a war between two factions of Islam, just as in the 17th century the Chinese would never have been able to resolve a conflict between Christians.

We must also balance our desire to reign in Iran with the realities on the ground.  Which is the more important result — stopping Iranian adventurism or stopping their nuclear program?  The correct answer of course is “c — all of the above” but that is far easier said than done.  Is ISIS our primary threat?  It appears to me that ISIS is a terrible, evil entity, but that as an organization it will not have a lasting ability to establish their “caliphate.”  They will eventually self-destruct if constant pressure is applied.  At the same time, air strikes alone will not defeat them and the notion that Iraqi forces in conjunction with Kurdish militia and Shiite militia can drive them out of Iraq is now in question.  Air strikes may serve to contain further expansion, but to date it shows no real ability to defeat them.

And that’s in Iraq.  The real stronghold for ISIS is Syria.  We face yet another dilemma in dealing with that situation.  To battle ISIS is to help the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.  The avowed policy of the U.S. is that Bashar must go — leave power and allow a new government to form based on a negotiated settlement among the warring factions.  Isn’t going to happen.  Not to mention that ISIS will not negotiate any such settlement and neither will Bashar.  Middle Eastern dictators know one thing in their gut and it has been re-emphasized throughout their history — govern ruthlessly or you and your family are dead.  Our policy to train militant factions opposing Bashar’s government is too little too late and is called into question by the actions in Iraq where trained forces and strong militias are having a difficult time dislodging ISIS fighters.  I’m not sure how similar groups will do against ISIS in Syria or against Syrian regular forces, especially since the latter have an effective air-to-ground combat ability.

To me, the last resort, and the worst option, is expanded U.S. military involvement in the region. We have fought three wars there in the last twenty-five years and another now is not in our best interests. We need to prioritize our efforts on the economic and diplomatic fronts while still holding a big stick (the military) in reserve should something go really wrong.

In my mind, our priorities should be (with some possible smudging of the order as events unfold):

  • Continue pressure on Iran to get a meaningful deal on stopping their nuclear weapons program.  If the deal is not sufficiently transparent, with verifiable steps, then continue and tighten sanctions until Iranian leaders realize that they cannot ease their way out of world scrutiny of their actions.
  • Continue to support Iraq in its fight against ISIS.  Work to isolate and pressure ISIS through continued coalition air strikes, but no combat troops beyond advisers and intelligence support.
  • Pressure Israel to begin serious negotiations to settle the Palestinian issue, including through the United Nations where in the past, the U.S. vetoed every resolution thought to be against Israeli national interests.  The free ride is over until meaningful steps are taken.  That does not mean that we abandon our long time ally, indeed we continue with our military aid (in the billions annually) and other support.  It just means that now there needs to be some reciprocal movement in the direction of a meaningful settlement of a fundamental reason for unrest in the region.
  • Continue to support Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition in the fight in Yemen through coordination and intelligence support.  The U.S. should continue to conduct drone and other strikes against terrorist operatives in the country, but should not engage in overt military action.
  • Continue to develop alternative sources of energy in the U.S. and develop a comprehensive, forward-looking energy policy taking into account fossil fuels as well as wind, solar and other non-fossil fuel sources of energy.  It may be impossible, but such a policy should be devoid of the usual influences from lobby groups invested in their own profit motives.

This is a start and of course does not include the other areas of concern including Egypt, where one dictator replaced another; Libya which is a lawless basket case of a country; Somalia (roughly on the other side of the Bab al Mandeb) where the terrorist group Al-Shabaab is still a disruptive force in the region; Lebanon where the terrorist group Hezbollah basically controls the country and Afghanistan where a fragile government is still fighting elements of the Taliban and is not yet stabilized.

I fear that it will be a long hot summer as each of these situations is likely to get worse before they get better.


More Trouble on the Horizon

I waited twenty-four hours to comment on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to a joint meeting of Congress concerning negotiations with Iran over nuclear weapons to see if my initial incredulous reaction changed with contemplation.  It has not.  I think that at best it was a text-book case of political theater and at worst a deliberate attempt to undermine United States foreign policy and to embarrass our president.

For the moment, let’s defer a discussion of whether or not there should be a deal with Iran over nuclear weapons — we’ll get to that in a moment — and instead focus on the spectacle we witnessed yesterday.  I had the opportunity to watch the entire proceedings live, and hope that you did as well. If not, you will find the complete transcript of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech here.

So here is what transpired.  The Speaker of the House invited the head of state of another country to address a joint meeting of Congress, without consulting with the opposition party, the president or the State Department, or even informing them of the invitation until after it was accepted.  The head of state of one our closest friends accepted the invitation without informing our Ambassador or State Department that he intended to come to the United States.  The Ambassador to the United States from that country, born in the United States and who worked on the 1990s Republican Congress’s Contract with America was integral to arranging the visit with the Speaker.  That head of state is in a very tight political fight of his own and is up for re-election in two weeks.  In past campaigns, he has used video and audio of his prior speeches in Congress as campaign ads.  In his own country, a judge ruled that his speech yesterday could only be broadcast on a five-minute delay so that political references could be blocked because his own government and judiciary thought his motives to be political.  And finally, in that speech, he was condescending and nearly insulting to our Congress and especially to our president.

There are very few, if any, other heads of state that could plausibly fill this scenario other than Israel. While technically not a speech to a joint session of Congress (it was a meeting) it had all the trappings of a presidential address to a joint session of Congress, complete with the spouse in the gallery and guests referred to and acknowledged by the speaker as part of the speech.  In every respect, it was designed, intentionally or not, but I think intentionally, to help Benjamin Netanyahu get re-elected as Prime Minister of Israel by allowing him to look tough by taking on the President of the United States in the chamber of our own Congress.

I note that the negotiations that are underway with Iran are not bilateral U.S.-Iranian negotiations. They are multi-lateral negotiations involving the “P-5 + 1” (or the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China — plus Germany).  It is curious that Prime Minister Netanyahu did not go to the U.K. to address a joint session of the Parliament or otherwise visit with or discuss with, or otherwise engage any of the other nations negotiating with Iran.  He only engaged the U.S. in a political spectacle designed to enhance his stature in Israel and to embarrass the president, and he did it at the invitation of the Speaker of the House sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States.  Whatever our special relationship with Israel — a relationship I support — in the end, the foreign policy of the United States must support the goals of the United States.  I guarantee, and history supports, that Israel will do whatever it sees in its best interests without regard to what the United States may or may not want.  Most times the interests of both nations coincide.  However, when they do not, the best interests of the United States should take priority over those of any other nation.

I should also note that since 1992, Benjamin Netanyahu has been warning that Iran is only three to five years, or less depending on which assertion of his one wants to quote, away from building nuclear weapons.   He’s reiterated this claim time and again including in his book Fighting Terrorism published in 1995 and in previous addresses to Congress.  He may eventually be correct, but he has no special insight that is not apparent to the national leaders of many countries.

As to whether or not the negotiations underway with Iran are a good deal or, as Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed, a bad deal, we do not yet know.  There is currently no deal.  His speech broke no new ground and did not bring forward any points that are not well know by anyone that has even a modicum of interest in the subject.  Iran is a bad actor.  Nothing new there — they have been the primary source of terrorist activity in the Middle East since the early 80’s.

President Obama already stated, well before Prime Minister Netanyahu, that a bad deal was worse than no deal. President Obama also said in an interview last week that he puts the chances of a deal with Iran at less than 50%.  They are not going to take just any old demand that Iran throws out.   With this in mind, Prime Minister Netanyahu was merely grandstanding and added nothing to furthering the mutual U.S.-Israeli goal of stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.  (Conveniently forgotten is that Israel is commonly known to possess somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 nuclear weapons of its own.)

There may be no deal.  The P-5 + 1 have put a deadline of 24 March for Iran to agree to a substantive settlement or they will walk away (another Netanyahu applause line that is already stated policy prior to his speech).  No one is naive about the Iranians, and it should come as no surprise that they are going to try to get their own best deal.  That is the nature of any nation’s national security policy. This much is fact so far.  The interim deal from two years ago allowed for inspectors to visit Iranian facilities for the first time.  The Iranians are not currently building any nuclear weapons.  If the talks breakdown or scuttled, there is nothing to stop Iran from eventually building a nuclear weapon.

Most troubling to me were the implications near the end of his remarks.  While advocating for, in essence, “no deal” with Iran, a move that may in fact lead Iran to build the weapons, he stated that Israel would be willing to act.  Or in his words:

We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. And the soldiers who defend our home have boundless courage. For the first time in 100 generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves. This is why — this is why, as a prime minister of Israel, I can promise you one more thing: Even if Israel has to stand alone, Israel will stand.  But I know that Israel does not stand alone. I know that America stands with Israel.

Especially in the context of his speech and the way that he delivered these remarks in person, this sounds like a veiled threat that Israel will take military action to stop Iran from building nuclear weapons.  While this is troubling in and of its self — and by all expert testimony will only be a bump in the road for Iran’s ability to build the weapons, and will in fact spur them to increased efforts to do so — it also implies that they would expect the U.S. to join them in that military effort.  In essence, a foreign leader is trying to commit the U.S. to another Middle East war.

I am troubled.  Troubled by the precedent set by this political spectacle.  Troubled by the meddling of a foreign leader of a close and friendly nation to undermine — not influence, undermine — our foreign policy.  Troubled by the blatant attempts to scuttle negotiations that are in a delicate phase.  Troubled by the terms of the deal which must reign in Iran and remove their ability to build nuclear weapons. Troubled by the consequences of a failure to negotiate a settlement.

These are troubling times around the world in many, many ways.  There are no easy answers, although in the rhetoric surrounding complicated issues too many are willing to give one-line sound bite solutions.

While I agree with the caution regarding Iran that Prime Minister Netanyahu outlined in his speech, and while I have no illusions that any agreement with Iran is not fraught with possible problems and that they must be held to account, I am also so very disappointed that our foreign policy is no longer bi-partisan and is used as a political weapon in the face of grave danger to our nation and to our friends and allies.