You may have missed it with all of the theatrics surrounding the Trump Shutdown, but some potentially mind-blowing news came out last Friday and over the weekend.
Even as I suffer from Trump fatigue, and you know what I think of him as president, it is impossible to ignore this development. The FBI started a counter-intelligence investigation of the president in 2017. The President. Of the United States. It is unknown whether that investigation continues under the guidance of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but it is likely that it does. A counter-intelligence investigation is totally unlike a criminal investigation. It is a totally different ball game. It also puts the possibility of the president’s efforts at obstructing justice into an entirely different dimension. Perhaps instead of trying to protect himself from embarrassment or through some other motivation, his decision to fire then FBI Director James Comey “over this Russia thing” was with a different outcome in mind. Coupled with all of the subsequent efforts to stop or disrupt Mr. Mueller’s investigation, it appears he was trying to keep the discovery of conspiracy with a foreign power from becoming known. In other words, the obstruction was the conspiracy (or collusion as it is popularly, but wrongly, called.)
In this context, the Mueller investigation, and Mr. Trump’s actions as a candidate and as president form a continuum across time and are not a series of discreet events.
It is hard to adequately convey how difficult the decision to do this is. For the Department of Justice (DOJ), that would have to approve the FBI investigation at its highest level, to sign off on it, would indicate that there is or was extraordinary evidence that something was amiss. This would be no routine investigation.
Apparently, the FBI became so alarmed at Mr. Trump’s actions that it appeared he was acting on behalf of a foreign power. They knew that a “normal” president would not talk or act as he was, specifically with respect to Russia and Vladimir Putin, and could only explain it by the concern that he must be under the influence of a foreign power. In other words, they thought the president could be a Russian agent. No movie studio would make this movie. Too preposterous.
To be clear, to be a Russian agent does not necessarily mean that the individual was trained in Russia or by Russians, or even that he was directly controlled by a Russian case agent. As former CIA Director John Brennan said in testimony to Congress, such people can be “wittingly or unwittingly” agents of a foreign power. I do not know and cannot make a good guess as to whether Mr. Trump is or is not knowingly a Russian agent. But I do know that he is acting to further the Russian agenda over the best interests of the United States.
Keep in mind, Mr. Putin was a career KGB agent who attained the rank of Colonel before the end of the Cold War. He knows what he is doing.
This is scary, mind-blowing, and a conundrum. Our system of government is based on the premise that the president is above reproach when it comes to national security. One may disagree on specific policy decisions, but we must assume that presidents are doing what they believe are in the best interests of the United States, not a foreign adversary. The president is the final arbiter of military, intelligence, and foreign policy issues. How do intelligence agencies or law enforcement agencies or the counter intelligence arms of various government agencies deal with an individual who, while under investigation, can over turn, hinder or evade those investigations? And how should they be held to account? If by definition the president is the lead diplomat for our country, how can he be wrong? There are many implications and questions that arise when one starts thinking about our president as a Russian agent. My head hurts.
Keep in mind that counter intelligence agents are some of the most peculiar people one will ever meet. Thinking about their job, they are suspicious about everyone and everything that does not fit their mold of the “normal.” Conspiracies lurk everywhere. None-the-less, there must have been sufficient reasons to open this investigation or it would never have happened. They do not investigate the president for the fun of it or for political reasons. They just do not. Yes, paranoia runs deep. Into your life it will creep. (With apologies to Buffalo Springfield.) You are not paranoid if it is true.
The possibility gains traction through documented reports that Mr. Trump met one-on-one with Mr. Putin five different times over the last two years with only interpreters in the room. He then collected the interpreters notes and refused to share what was said with anyone else in the government. Two particularly troubling meetings were the one in Helsinki last summer and an unscheduled meeting at a G-20 dinner in Hamburg Germany where only the Russian interpreter was present. (I have written about these meetings before. I was especially alarmed by the meeting in Germany.) Rest assured the Russians know what was discussed and agreed to, but not those in the highest levels of our own government.
In my view, the most likely foundation to this arrangement rests on sanctions. The Russians want them lifted and so does the Trump Organization. The Russians were heavily sanctioned following their annexation of Crimea and it is hurting their economy. They want them gone. The sanctions were the genesis of the 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russian representatives to get “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. When you hear “Magnitsky Act” think sanctions. The Russians want them removed. Now. Mr. Trump wants them lifted because following his many bankruptcies, nearly all his money came from Russia. The banks that produced the loans are subject to the sanctions. Continued sanctions means no big money for Trump Org. Additionally, it is well know that Mr. Trump’s business Holy Grail is to put his name on a Trump Tower Moscow.
My view is that of many possible explanations, the simplest is that Mr. Trump wants to do business in Russia when he leaves office and is willing to bargain with Mr. Putin to get the access. What other evidence exists?
Let’s look at some of the president’s actions and words. This list is not exhaustive but representative.
- As the Republican nominee he had the Republican National Committee 2016 platform changed regarding Ukraine in order to mirror Russian claims and interests.
- At every opportunity he incessantly praises Mr. Putin which validates Mr. Putin’s self-proclaimed status, empowers him at home, and comes at the expense of our allies and friends.
- The primary goal of Mr. Putin is to splinter the Western Alliance so that Russia can fill the void and return to the glory days — as Mr. Putin sees it — of the Soviet Union. Mr Trump aids that goal in many ways.
- He launches personal and political attacks against the leaders of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, and others. He belittles lesser members of the European Union (EU) and NATO.
- He supports Brexit (The UK departure from the EU) which currently has the UK in turmoil. This weakens the EU and contributes to chaos in the internal affairs of a key ally. That internal chaos distracts a force for good and takes a staunch opponent of Russia off of the world stage.
- When asked in a 2018 interview to name the U.S. “biggest foe globally right now,” Mr. Trump responded “I think the European Union is a foe.” The EU contains our closest allies. The interview was just before he met with Mr. Putin in Helsinki.
- He continually belittles NATO in public. It is apparent he does not know how funding for NATO works. He apparently also does not know that the only time Article V of NATO was invoked (an attack on one nation is an attack on all) was following the terrorist attack in September 2001. NATO troops have been in Afghanistan from the beginning of the conflict and remain there. It has been widely reported that Mr. Trump continually pushed his senior aids throughout 2018 to have the U.S. withdraw from NATO. Such an action would be Mr. Putin’s wildest dream come true.
- He continually denies that Russia interfered with the U.S. 2016 election. He continually takes Mr. Putin’s word that Russia did not interfere over the facts presented by the entire U.S. intelligence community. Among his justification for taking Mr. Putin’s word is the newly reported reasoning for doing so, including this remarkable quote. Mr. Trump “said that he raised the election hacking three times and that Mr. Putin denied involvement. But he said Mr. Putin also told him that ‘if we did, we wouldn’t have gotten caught because we’re professionals.’ Mr. Trump said: ‘I thought that was a good point because they are some of the best in the world’ at hacking.”
- He pushed to have Russia rejoin the G-7 (it was previously the G-8). The Russians were expelled following their annexation of Crimea. Mr. Trump said that he thinks that the punishment is too severe for that act.
- At the 2018 G-7 summit Mr. Trump opined that of course Crimea belongs to Russia because “they all speak Russian.” This put fear into the hearts of our Baltic, and NATO, allies that were once part of the Soviet Union and have a large Russian ethnic population.
- Following the March 2018 poisoning in the UK of the Skirpals, former Russian agents that went over to the West, he said that there was no evidence to support the UK Prime Minister’s denunciations of Russia for an attack on British soil.
- Last December he called for U.S. troops to withdraw from Syria “now” and turn it over to the Russians. This is a long-standing goal of the Russians so that they can increase their influence in the Middle East and gain a military presence in the region.
- He often spouts Russian talking points (propaganda). The most recent instance was his spontaneous and out of the blue discourse on the Soviet Union, their presence in Afghanistan, and a revisionist history of their reasons for invading. (This was the subject of a recent post in this space, explaining how this promotes Mr. Putin’s view of the restoration of the Soviet empire.)
And so on. Some big, some small, but all consistent in their praise of Russia and in pushing the Russian agenda.
So, what to think? Is our president a Russian agent, whether wittingly or unwittingly? I sincerely hope that the Mueller investigation addresses this issue clearly, either to confirm it or to debunk it. From where I sit today, and from all that we have seen of Mr. Trump in the last three years, I think it likely. It is most likely in the nature of long-standing business and other money schemes between Russian oligarchs and Mr. Trump and his family. That would be in keeping with what we know about him and what he says himself. With him, no matter the subject, it is all about the money. Period.
Should this be true, I have no idea how it will be resolved. It is beyond comprehension. The President of the United States works for Russia. Incredible.
The only thing that is clear to me is that Mr. Mueller needs to get the results of his investigation into the open as soon as possible. I know that he is being meticulous, as he should be. However, if this is even only a little bit true, our nation is in danger. We need to know and we need to know before something truly awful happens. And if it isn’t true, we need to know that as well so that we can move on without distraction to addressing the complex issues that we know await us in 2019
As the evidence of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) involvement in the murder of Washington Post journalist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi continues to grow, the President of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of State expand their dissembling and cover up on behalf of the leadership of Saudi Arabia.
It is embarrassing in one sense and appalling in every way.
Whether or not Prince Mohammad thought that he would be able to murder someone on foreign soil with impunity and without consequence or not, with the complicity and direct efforts of the President of the United States he will get away with it. The president trotted out his tag line that worked so well in the nomination and confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh by accusing the press and world leaders elsewhere of jumping to conclusions. Or as he said in an interview with the Associated Press, “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh. And he was innocent all the way.”
The preponderance of evidence, including from Turkey our NATO ally, indicates that the Saudis certainly did murder Mr. Khashoggi and given the way the Saudis govern, it is preposterous to stipulate that Saudi hit men that are known to work directly for the Crown Prince would have gone “rogue” and killed him without the Prince’s knowledge.
One element that indicates the president is involved in a cover up is the fact that the U.S. intelligence agencies were directed not to follow through with scheduled briefings for the Senate Intelligence Committee concerning events surrounding the murder. As Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn), the Chairman of the committee told reporters yesterday, the administration has “clamped down” on providing information to the committee and cancelled a scheduled briefing on Tuesday. Senator Corker went on to say that before his committee’s oversight of the Executive Branch was blocked, that the intelligence he had seen indicates that Mr. Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudis. He added, “everything points to MBS. This could not have happened without his approval.”
Once again, this administration is driven by money and money alone. Apparently they are not knowledgeable enough or competent enough to figure out how to condemn the actions resulting in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi without breaking off relations with Saudi Arabia, an important, if unreliable, friend in the Middle East. The Saudis (and their money) are important players in the region and can be a counter to Iran. Diplomacy and foreign relations require skill and knowledge of the trade craft involved in the push and pull of world events. Evidently this administration cannot pull it off.
For example, back in the day I spent a lot of time in the Middle East and in dealing with regional issues, including in Saudi Arabia. The Bedouin tradition is one of extreme hospitality, based on their origins as nomads in the desert where survival might depend on help from others. This ingrained hospitality has carried over to modern Saudi Arabia. Part of that tradition is to never say “no.” They don’t. But it doesn’t take long to figure out that not saying “no” doesn’t mean “yes.” An apocryphal but not too unrealistic negotiation would go something like this: “Will you commit to buying $110 billion in U.S. arms?” “It would be a great honor.” “So that means you will?” “Inshallah!” (God willing!) And so it goes. One walks away thinking that there was a deal until it comes time to put ink to paper.
The president is being hoodwinked if he thinks that the value of the Saudis to U.S. security interests is so immense that it outweighs human rights, and thus he needs to cover up the murder of Mr. Khashoggi. They need us more than we need them. Some examples. The U.S. is now a net exporter of oil, thanks to the expansion of the commercial viability of shale oil. We do import oil, but our biggest supplier is Canada. Oil is a fungible commodity, the Saudis need to sell their oil as their economy is nearly entirely dependent on it. They aren’t going to stop. The arms sales the president is so afraid of losing constitute a small percentage of the U.S. defense industry. More to the current point, most of the Saudi’s military equipment is U.S., especially their aircraft and the munitions they carry. They will need U.S. spare parts and maintenance contracts for years to come. They will not cut those off as it would be against their own best interests especially as they continue to interfere in the war in Yemen. Should war break out between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Saudis are toast without us. And so on. One gets the idea. The Saudis need us economically and militarily more than we need them. We hold most of the cards and a skillful administration would know how to parlay them into the Saudi’s taking accountability for a crime against humanity. Diplomatically and through intelligence sharing they can provide the U.S. some real value. However, the president argues in terms of the bottom line — money — and not in terms of their other value added.
Apparently, human rights has no place in U.S. foreign policy, a break in our traditions since World War II. That is not to say that the U.S. hasn’t looked the other way in the past in order to attain our national interests. We have, in some truly shameful circumstances. Rarely, if ever, however, has the president actively worked in favor of a foreign power to cover up a heinous crime.
Perhaps there are other motivations such as personal financial gain for the president and his family?
Over the last 18 months the U.S. has given the dictators of the world a license to kill. In addition to the unfolding events in Saudi Arabia, the president has shrugged over Russian president Vladimir Putin ordering a poison attack on British soil, congratulated Philippine president Duterte’s hit squads killing thousands of people on the streets in his war on drugs, congratulated China’s president Xi on changing the succession of government to become President for Life, as he did with Turkey’s president Erdogan who undermined democracy in his own country and installed himself as a de facto autocrat, and of course expressed his admiration for the world’s current most ruthless dictator North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. As the President of the United States said about the Great Leader, “We went back and forth, then we fell in love. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they are great letters. We fell in love.”
Meanwhile he trashes our allies in the U.K,, Germany, Japan, Canada and the entirety of NATO, to name a few of the nations we actually depend upon .
Let’s look from the outside in. Were I sitting in North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia or a host of other nations led by autocrats and dictators, I would conclude that all one needs to do to silence and paralyze the United States is to impress the president on how wonderful he is and to put some money on the line. After that, anything goes. “And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything.” Maybe those despots just “gotta use some Tic Tacs” to get what they want.
Of course poor people in Africa or Latin America are a direct threat to the survival of the United States. I guess that’s why today the president threatened to put the military on our border with Mexico to stop the “invasion” coming from Central America.
Something is upside down in our country.
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.
As described in this space last week, the situation in and around Syria is quite complicated. We are where we are today because last Saturday Syrian aircraft dropped gas bombs on civilians in the rebel held town of Douma. In the ongoing fight against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the rebels, and those civilians around them, continue to be subject to crimes against humanity. Photographs and videos of the resulting injuries and the wrenching reactions of those hit by the gas have gone viral and provoked a response from the president as well as a likely response by France and the United Kingdom.
One could reasonably ask, why now? International monitors believe that this is the eighth time that the Syrians have used gas against civilians in the last year. Usually, they use chlorine gas which is not technically banned under international law. Of course it is not banned because it is not supposed to be used as a weapon, but when dropped in high concentrations in confined spaces it can cause severe lung damage, leading to liquid forming in the lungs and inducing severe pneumonia. The effects usually take time to cause damage and it is not automatically fatal. The gas used last Saturday is believed to have been chlorine gas with some other agent mixed in with it. Based on the videos, experts believe that a nerve agent, probably Sarin, was the other ingredient. Sarin is man-made, colorless and odorless, but causes immediate and severe reactions from touching, breathing or ingesting it and often causes a quick but horrible death. One can debate the morality of reacting to Sarin attacks but not to chlorine attacks, but the international community has drawn that line.
Currently, officials from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are investigating if gas was used, and if so, what types of chemical weapons were used in Douma. The effectiveness of their investigation is doubtful so many days after the incident, especially since most of the people impacted by the attack died or left the city. However, military action, if any (and I believe there will be) will likely be delayed while the OPCW is on the ground.
A complicating factor is that the Russian military is heavily invested in Syria in support of the regime.
The U.S. has a history of trying to deter Bashar’s use of chemical weapons. Recall that in 2012 President Obama suggested that Syrian use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” requiring a response. The next year Syria used chemical weapons. After failing to get an international response, especially from the U.K., coupled with the lack of support in the U.S. Congress for military action in Syria, President Obama backed away from his red line. As I wrote at the time, that was a huge mistake.
As a consequence, the U.N. Security Council brokered an agreement whereby Syria would destroy all of its chemical weapons. With Russian assistance, the OPCW removed “all” of the chemical stockpiles, completing the job in June 2014. Russia “guaranteed” that all of the weapons were removed or destroyed — with the exception of chlorine gas.
In 2017 Syria was found to have used Sarin agents against its population. In April last year, Mr. Trump ordered cruise missile attacks against the airfield used to launch the weapons. While I joined others in applauding the decision to strike Syria, the actual strike was a mere hand slap. Mostly it destroyed a few planes on the ground and put some holes in the runways at the air base. They were back up and operating in a few days. More to the point, the strike clearly did not act as a deterrent to further use of chemical weapons.
This is where it gets dicey. To effectively punish Bashar and his regime, the U.S. — hopefully with participation and support from our Allies in France and the U.K — must hit him where it hurts. Targets should be some combination of command and control centers, headquarters buildings, and the locations of the secret police, for example. The counter argument is that Russian citizens and military personnel are very likely to be at some of those targets. Killing Russians in an attack on Syria could easily lead to a full-blown crisis and could endanger our ground troops in Eastern Syria fighting with the Kurds against ISIS. Indeed, the Russians have vowed to defend Syria against, and to retaliate for, any attack. Thus the president’s taunt/threat/thoughtless statement in the Tweet above is directed at Russia.
A tactical strike such as the one carried out last year is relatively easy and low risk. However, based on the ineffective results from our previous strike, coupled with Russian threats, it may make the U.S. look weak. To conduct a much larger attack, with real consequences to Syria, raises the stakes immeasurably and could include manned aircraft. Manned aircraft. Real people going in harm’s way. While I have every confidence in our military aviators, nothing is fool-proof. American lives could be lost or pilots captured. In particular, the Russians have installed sophisticated air defense missiles in Syria that were not there at the time of our Tomahawk strike last year. In addition, the Russians have repeatedly said that they would go after the sources of any attack. Once an attack is underway, the dogs of war are unleashed and it is impossible to project all of the consequences. Syria is a tinder box waiting to explode among the many factions involved.
It is unlikely that the Russians would be able to effectively reach ships and submarines launching missiles hundreds of miles out in the Mediterranean Sea or to reach air bases in Qatar or other locations in the Middle East that may be used to launch aircraft. But they could intercept them. And any commander worth their salt will want to know the plan for protecting our forces in Eastern Syria who would definitely be within the reach and capability of the Russians to hit them. Recall that last February Russian “contractors” (they still insist on calling them that) attacked a U.S. base.
Syria is a difficult dilemma. I feel confident that our military leaders and the Secretary of Defense are putting forth the best options to achieve the mission. What bothers me are the reckless statements of the Commander-in-Chief and his lack of ability to coherently articulate any strategic vision or overall goal for our involvement in Syria. It cannot be an impulsive reaction, an attempt to divert attention from events surrounding his extracurricular activities, or just an exercise in video game perceptions of what combat actual entails.
The military is ready and capable of carrying out their mission and to protect the good citizens of these United States. The use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated and must be punished — not only for now but for the future — in order to make clear that the international community condemns their use in no uncertain terms. However, let’s not do so lightly. Actions have consequences. This is not some theoretical exercise of military might. The lives of real people are at stake. It is not too much to ask the Commander-in-Chief to act like it.
This week the president vowed that he would remove U.S. troops from Syria in the near future. Here is part of what he said at an impromptu news conference at the White House on Tuesday:
“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home. So, it’s time. It’s time. We were very successful against ISIS. But sometimes it’s time to come back home, and we’re thinking about that very seriously, okay?”
Nearly simultaneously, also in Washington, General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of the U.S. Central Command who is the senior officer responsible for our troops in the Middle East said when talking about our troop deployments in the Middle East:
“A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us.”
Putting aside Mr. Trump’s inability, or stubborn refusal to understand complex issues, war in the 21st century, and especially in places like Syria and Afghanistan, runs counter to our preconceived notions of what “winning” should be about. Mr. Trump seems to think that all that is necessary is to “bomb the hell out of them” and then come home. Seventeen years of continuous combat has provided many lessons learned to our current military leadership and to our Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who himself lead the first ground combat troops into Afghanistan while he was an active duty Marine general.
One important criteria for deciding who is winning and who is losing is finding the correct Measures of Effectiveness (MOE). One may think they are winning while actually losing. The classic example can be found with the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II. The German MOE was tons of Allied merchant ships sunk by their submarines. It was the wrong measure. The Allies were building merchant ships at a rate faster than the Germans could sink them, and at the same time, were sinking German submarines (and even more importantly, killing trained and experienced crews) faster than the Germans could build them. The Germans were losing, even as their MOE showed them winning.
Current reports indicate that our military is using over 90 MOEs in assessing our wars in Syria and Afghanistan. But even they reportedly admit that they are not sure that they are necessarily measuring the right things. One thing we know, counting the numbers of killed or wounded adversaries means very little if new recruits, fighting a low-tech war, continue to flow into the battles.
The other adage learned over and over is that the loser gets to decide when the war is over. As Ryan Crocker former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan said, “As we learned so painfully in Iraq, defeat has meaning only in the eyes of the defeated.” We can bomb the hell out of them all we want, but short of a Dresden-like annihilation of every living thing, as long as the other side keeps fighting, the war is not over. This is another of the hard lessons learned in Viet Nam and again in Afghanistan. The Taliban have not quit, therefore we have been there for seventeen long years despite our overwhelming military capability.
In that vein, ISIS still has strongholds in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq. In this case, our adversary is like a cancer — if they are not totally excised and destroyed they will spread out again. All of the pain in administering a cure will have been for naught. ISIS is showing signs of renewed strength in their last strongholds in eastern Syria. Our comrades in arms in Syria are mostly Kurdish forces. Kurdish officials warn that it could take “years and years” to finish off ISIS.
Senior U.S. government national security and military officials understand this fact. They also understand the larger geo-political issues at stake in the Middle East and South Asia and that a precipitous withdrawal of our forces would do long-term damage to our national interests. The issues are complicated and varied. Among other things, our credibility in supporting our friends and allies would be compromised. As a senior Kurdish official is quoted as saying, if the U.S. leaves now (or even in a few months) “it would be a disaster, and even ordinary people in the street will consider it a betrayal.” That has strategic implications. Or as another Kurdish leader put it, “after fighting for four years, there is a kind of trust between the Kurdish nation and the American nation. If the Americans abandon the Kurds, it means they are never going to find any friends in the Middle East.”
That the military viewpoint is at odds with the president may have caused the ouster of National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. General McMaster continually told the president that we cannot just pull up stakes and leave Syria and Afghanistan, or anywhere else, without first creating the conditions that allow us to withdraw. If we just walk away, the problems will pop up again.
Of course, we want all of our military women and men to come home. But if we are truly a world power, certain obligations and responsibilities accrue in support of our friends and allies. Putting America first does not, or at least should not, mean abandoning a world order that has mostly kept the United States safe and prosperous and the world moving forward. We can lead or get out of the way. It is not in our long-term interest to abandon our leadership role in the world.
In the last forty-eight hours the White House has softened the president’s earlier statements. The new announcement says that the U.S. will stay in Syria until ISIS is defeated and that we will then “transition” to local forces over time. No time frame was enumerated, but reporting indicates that the president wants to bring home the troops from Syria in about six months or so. Contrast that to the statements above by those that are actually doing the fighting that it will take years and years.
Syria is a particularly knotty problem. Over the last few years, there have been arguments both pro and con for U.S. involvement in the country. The effort to push ISIS out of Iraq necessarily meant that we had to continue to chase them into Syria in order to prevent that nation from becoming a refuge for them. Borders in the desert are very fluid. It was necessary to hunt them down and eliminate all sources of support to their regime. We made good progress in doing that, but the job is not finished. So we are in Syria. What does that mean?
In Syria, you can’t tell the players without a score card. The players include the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad, Russians, Israelis, Iranians, Hezbollah, Turks, Kurds, Syrian rebels, ISIS, the U.S. and factions within factions of several of those groups with religious overtones to it all.
It is important to remember that the conflict in Syria started with peaceful protests that were broken up by Syrian troops firing into crowds which then evolved into a civil war. ISIS took advantage of the turmoil as Bashar lost control of much of Syria’s territory. Other nations took sides in the civil war and supported proxy troops or committed their own combat forces to support one faction or another.
The situation on the ground and in the air has the wherewithal to mutate into a regional conflict. All of which has nothing to do with whether or not ISIS is “done.” Half a dozen nations have combat aircraft in a very small area. The U.S., Russia, Turkey, and Iran all have their own troops on the ground often supporting different factions that oppose each other in the war. In a single week in early February, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Iran lost aircraft to hostile fire.
And oh by the way, did you know that Russian “contractors” (Mercenaries? Little green men from Crimea?) attacked a U.S. base at Deir Ezzor in Syria in mid-February? What? You didn’t hear about that? Could it be because neither the U.S. or Russian leaders wanted to talk about it? It was no “accident.” Russia and US forces have a hot line to de-conflict combat forces and missions. According to the on-scene battle field commander, the U.S. notified the Russians that they were attacking a U.S. base. The attack continued. U.S. air strikes turned back the assault with an estimate of over 200 Russians killed. Many analysts surmise that this attack, that could only have been approved on a national level, was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to see just how committed the U.S. was to our involvement in Syria.
To further complicate matters, Turkey, our NATO ally, is attacking the Kurds — our primary ally in the battle against ISIS. Those Kurdish forces were drawn away from the fight against ISIS last month when the Turks attacked a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria and the fighters returned home to protect their families. The Kurds are fighting for an autonomous region in their traditional homeland which is an anathema to Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, all of which actively oppose any independent Kurdish state or de facto state.
And Syrian civilians continue to suffer from barrel bombs, enforced starvation, and other crimes against humanity.
Mr. Trump wants “rich” middle eastern countries to take over the U.S. commitment, but what does that mean? Troops? Not going to happen. Money? Perhaps, to help rebuild cities or to get industries up and running such as oil refineries or other areas where money is needed. Where does the technical know how come from? Regardless, nothing can happen until stability returns to the region and the population.
The president wants “other nations” to take over. The last time I looked, they are doing so. Talks began earlier this month among Iran, Turkey, and Russia. Conspicuously absent was the U.S. We were not invited to the talks. No seat at the table means we will have no say in the future of Syria. That is dangerous to our long-term interests in the Middle East and our ally Israel.
After the first round of talks, those three countries expressed their support to Bashar and his regime. A long stated goal of the U.S. was to remove him. The statement went on to say that they support “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of the neighboring countries.” This is easily translated to mean that Bashar will stay, his regime will stay, and in playground terms it means they expect the U.S. to butt out.
In case we missed their point, the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia declared that the areas controlled by the U.S. and the Kurds, the second largest swath of territory in Syria behind that controlled by the regime, cannot be used to create “new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism.”
Furthermore, Turkish president Recep Ergogan threatened to attack U.S. troops supporting the Kurds. And they are a NATO ally.
It is clear that the problem in Syria, and elsewhere, is not a lack of firepower. The problems are political and stem from the ability — or in this case the inability — of the government to govern. When all is said and done, the twenty-first century may need a new definition for “winning.” As we are quickly learning, it is not entirely clear what that definition might be. Developing a political solution that leads to a stable governing entity would be part of it. Unfortunately, we cannot be a part of developing that solution if we pull up stakes and go home.
There are good and bad reasons to continue to stay in Syria or Afghanistan. We have already learned in this century that ungoverned territories, with no central governing authority, creates the conditions that allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS and others to grow. We know that these groups threaten the rule of law and a normal world order.
In order to protect our shores in this environment, we need to think in new ways about our nation’s wars. Nobody wants American lives wasted in far off lands that most of us could not have located on a map in the last century. At the same time we need some strategic thinking about what the long-term impact of our actions will be. There are many experienced and bright people in the Pentagon and elsewhere that are working through these issues. The answers are difficult and sometimes come at the cost of blood and treasure. They are not fail proof. There can be several “right” answers to the problems we face and reasonable people can reasonably disagree as to which ones to pursue.
There is also a “wrong” answer. That answer is to arbitrarily make decisions for the sole purpose of demonstrating that people have to do whatever one man says just because he says it. It is especially wrong when that man does not understand the implications of his decisions, and apparently, thinks no further ahead about the issue than whether it can fit into a tweet or not.
War is nasty and complicated. We are facing new challenges in real time. Critical thinking and new ways of defining our goals and missions is needed. Syria is only one of many such dilemmas we will face in the coming years.
With all of the attention surrounding the circus that is our presidential campaign season, it is possible to overlook other developments of significance. To my mind, one of those significant others is our increasingly deteriorating relationship with Russia.
As I wrote back in July when I focused on the role of NATO and the increasing belligerence Russia is exhibiting towards the Baltic States, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees his role as the one individual that can, and will, restore Russia to its previous glory. Since then he has continued to create discord around the world. In particular, he has helped to further inflame conflict in Syria and Ukraine. Just yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry pulled all of the United States’ negotiators from Geneva where they had been trying to work with the Russians to come up with a political solution to the civil war in Syria and thereby try to save some of the many civilians at risk in Aleppo and other areas of Syria. A cease-fire attempted last month failed when Syrian and Russian, or at least Syrian assisted by Russian, aircraft bombed an aid convoy trying to provide humanitarian relief to those trapped in the city. Since then negotiations aimed at restoring the cease-fire and creating more confidence building measures that might give a chance for a political settlement of the strife had been ongoing. Additionally, the United States had been working on an agreement to work with the Russians in a coordinated military effort against terrorism in the region, especially against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or as most people in the U.S. call it, ISIS). All of it went out the window when the Russians turned their full military might from the air on Aleppo in a brutal assault, even as negotiations were underway. What future course may be taken to alleviate the situation is up in the air, but it does lead to an increased probability that Russia and the U.S. will be working at cross purposes to fight terrorists in the area and increases the probability of Russian and U.S. military forces coming into contact with each other.
In retaliation for the United States withdrawing from the Syrian negotiations, the Soviets, oops, I mean the Russians, suspended a nuclear agreement signed in 2000 between the two nations that called for the disposal of each nation’s stocks of weapons-grade plutonium. While the Russian suspension of the treaty is mostly symbolic (both countries intend to continue to reduce their stockpiles) it does serve to show how the relationship has deteriorated and it also provided the Russian government an opportunity to complain about actions it believes the United States is taking to undermine Russia.
And what are those actions that so enrage Vladimir Putin you may ask? Foremost among them is the continuing deployment of NATO forces to the Baltic states and the enforcement of the sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine. In Ukraine last August, President Putin raised tensions as he claimed that the Ukrainian government was moving to attack Crimea, the area Russia illegally annexed in 2014. The tension persists and even though it is currently relatively quiet, nothing is totally quiet along the front as periodic fighting continues and lives continue to be lost. Further exacerbating the toxic atmosphere in Ukraine, Dutch investigators clearly linked the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 over Ukraine in July 2014 to the Russian supplied separatists. All 298 people onboard were killed. Despite continued Russian denials, the investigation showed a missile battery moved from Russian territory into rebel held territory and then returned to Russia after the incident. Russian actions in the area continue to be a threat to the rest of Ukraine and Europe, and President Putin seems to be relishing his ability to turn conflict off and on. Keep an eye on developments there as the rest of the world becomes increasingly distracted by the U.S. presidential campaign, events in Syria, and the fight against terrorism.
What is troubling to me about President Putin is his world view. While we have competitors and adversaries in China, Iran, and other spots around the world (President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines seems to be gong off the reservation for example), they have a different world view than does President Putin. Most nations of the world know that they are economically tied to the global economy which is powered by the United States. This does not stop actions antithetical to our interests, but it does serve to temper them. President Putin on the other hand, sees the world and especially Russia’s relationship to the United States, indeed politics in general, as a zero sum game. Whatever hurts the U.S. helps Russia and vice versa. Add to this that his country is not doing well economically and like most dictators, he is creating international foes in order to distract the citizenry from their troubles at home. This makes him ever more dangerous.
In this context, I am amazed that more reporting is not being done on the breaches of cyber security that occur almost daily in the United States, and most especially, the hacks that impact our free and independent elections. Of particular note are the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the release of scores of emails concerning the primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the attempts to get into the election processes of individual states, most notably Arizona and Illinois. Experts point their collective finger at the Russians as being responsible for these and other equally egregious cyber attacks.
While individual ballot boxes are not connected to the internet, and therefore cannot be hacked, there are other processes that are computer driven and may be susceptible to attack. Among these are voter registration lists. Imagine if large numbers of people show up to vote and are not allowed to do so because their names were expunged from the voting rolls or are otherwise tampered with so as to take away their ability to vote. Add to that one presidential candidate that is already talking about how the vote is rigged if he doesn’t win and that his supporters should go to the polls in urban areas to watch others vote to make sure that everything is on the “up and up” because “that would be one hell of a way to lose, I’ll tell you what.” (Incidentally, in study after study and in court cases concerning voter identification laws, there has been absolutely no evidence of voter fraud changing or even slightly influencing the outcome of any national election, despite urban myths and legends to the contrary.)
I am not a conspiracy theorist and do not want to be misquoted so I will say up front, I do not think that the Republican nominee is in any way aiding or abetting or otherwise involved in the Russian hacking efforts, even though last July he famously invited the Russians to hack his Democratic opponent’s emails. However, I find it disconcerting that thus far, only Democrats have suffered the embarrassing revelations of the Russian hackers. I would be willing to bet that a number of Republican accounts have been similarly hacked, but clearly the Russian hackers are trying to influence the election in one direction. One could speculate as to why that is, or even if there is some kind of reverse bizarro world logic that it could backfire on the other candidate. I don’t know, but clearly there is an effort to influence the outcome. It is bad news for our nation when a foreign power attempts to influence our elections and we do not stop it.
Ultimately, whether or not the attacks are successful at actually changing ballots, the real effort on the part of the Russians is to delegitimize our election process, call into question the results and spread further hate and discontent in an already fractured election process. Besides being cyber warfare, it is most especially also classic psychological warfare aimed at undermining the United States, our policies, and our stature in the world. Vladimir Putin and his cronies are ready and willing to fill the void left by the United States should their efforts be successful.
Unclear to me is whether or not our own cyber warfare forces deployed to counter the Russians and/or to similarly attack them in a way that sends a signal to knock it off or suffer the consequences. It is a tricky situation for the U.S. It is generally accepted that the United States has superior cyber warfare capabilities, but to deploy them now, in the month leading up to an election, and risk a wide-spread cyber war that could impact the election results dramatically (not in vote manipulation necessarily but rather in a wide-spread crisis that impacts infrastructure, banking or some other target that causes far-ranging panic) is a tough decision. On the other hand, we do not know where or when the Russians (and possibly others) might strike anyway if not deterred from doing so. A difficult choice. Unknown, of course, is whether such a counter sign of our capabilities and willingness to punish the Russians in our own attack has already been demonstrated to the Russians by our cyber forces under a stringent top secret operation.
Regardless, our next president must be prepared to deal with the Russians and do so with eyes wide open. Vladimir Putin is no friend of the United States and he never will be. He has one goal and one goal only — to turn his economically depressed country into a super power at the expense of the United States of America.
Lost in all of the U.S. presidential campaign news, one may be forgiven for missing the increasingly worrisome activity in northern Europe where the Russian bear is flexing his muscles. While there have been numerous incidents of Russian military ships and aircraft harassing North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other friendly nations’ aircraft and vessels, especially in and near the Black Sea, some of the most provocative have occurred in and around the Baltic Sea.
The number of incidents began to increase in the spring of 2014 and through out the rest of that year there were approximately nineteen serious or high risk incidents including a massive Swedish Navy search for a Russian submarine in the Stockholm archipelago and simulated bombing and cruise missile attacks against NATO countries as well as exercises perceived to be practice for invading the Baltic States. Throughout 2015 and 2016 there have been numerous additional close encounters with the Russian military, precipitated by the Russians and interpreted to be deliberate provocations. This includes this past April when two Russian military aircraft flew a simulated attack 30 feet over the guided missile destroyer USS Donald (DDG-75) while in international waters. A few days later Russian fighters intercepted a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over international waters in the Baltic. And the (very long) list of such provocations goes on.
In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, at the height of the cold war, such incidents were frequent, and dangerous. In order to prevent misunderstandings which could lead to bloodshed and possible conflict, the United States and Soviet Union formulated the Incidents At Sea Agreement, signed by Secretary of the Navy John Warner, and his Soviet counterpart Admiral Sergei Gorshkov. By providing specific protocols when U.S. and Soviet ships and aircraft were in proximity to each other it was designed to “enhance mutual knowledge and understanding of military activities; to reduce the possibility of conflict by accident, miscalculation, or the failure of communication; and to increase stability in times of both calm and crisis.” Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the withdrawal of much of its military back to the homeland, there was very little need for the agreement and it ceased to be useful. It may be time to update it and renew it.
The real question, however, is what is going on? Why are the Russians resuming their provocative maneuvers against NATO and other western powers? The answer may be found in one of two names, or more likely a combination of two names: Vladimir Putin and Ukraine. Putin wants to rebuild the Russian Empire and by that we mean that he is looking for good old-fashioned respect as a world and military power. The incidents are meant to remind the West that he is the major player in his part of the world and that he can (and may?) do whatever he desires. To paraphrase the old adage, “Russia is back!” In 2005 he made a major speech to the Russian people where he is translated as saying:
“Above all, we should acknowledge that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a major geopolitical disaster of the century. As for the Russian nation, it became a genuine drama. Tens of millions of our co-citizens and co-patriots found themselves outside Russian territory. Moreover, the epidemic of disintegration infected Russia itself.”
Remember that this was a large part of his justification for entering Ukraine and in annexing the Crimea. He argues that he is protecting Russian citizens and “ethnic” Russians and thus fulfilling his duties as head of the Russian state. During the time of the Soviet Union, many now independent nations around the periphery of the old Soviet Union were “colonized” by Russians and many also settled there for economic and other reasons. They and their descendants remain.
This background is important in understanding the current state of affairs in the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — and to a slightly lesser degree, Poland. The Baltic States were part of the Soviet Union and Poland was part of the Warsaw Pact dominated by the Soviet Union.
Geographically they are at a strategic disadvantage. A look at a map reveals two important features. One is that between Poland and Lithuania is a part of the Russian state called Kaliningrad, a major Russian military outpost. Second is that the border between Russia and Poland and the Baltic States is mostly flat ground with no significant defensible geographic features that would impede a ground attack from rolling across the border and deep into the country under attack.
I had the pleasure of making a short stop in Tallinn the capital of Estonia recently. The people are very friendly, full of energy and eager to see their new nation become integrated into world affairs. They are also well aware that only a short time ago they were occupied by the Germans and then subjugated by the Russians as one of the republics of the Soviet Union. They became an independent nation in March 1990 despite resistance to their independence by the Russians. Their history is very fresh in their in minds and if they doubt the impact Russia can have on their new nation, they are reminded of it every day. Directly across from their parliament building sits the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral built in the late 1800’s as a Russian Orthodox cathedral during the time of Estonia’s inclusion in the Russian Empire. It was part of the Russification efforts underway at the time to assimilate the Estonians. It purposefully occupies the most prominent position in the Old Town on top of a bluff above the town. Although it fell into decay during the Soviet era, it was beautifully restored in recent years but is still considered by many Estonians to be a symbol of Russian oppression. It should also be noted that while Estonians consider themselves to be culturally different from Russians, approximately 25% of the population is Russian.
Needless to say, the combination of Putin’s desire to regain the “empire” coupled with his actions in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea makes the Russian military provocations in the Baltic area very meaningful to those that live there. The Baltic States and Poland are among the twenty-eight members of NATO. And that’s where it starts to get interesting.
Earlier this month, President Obama and the other heads of state met at a NATO summit in Warsaw. Many topics were covered ranging from Afghanistan to Ballistic Missile Defense to ISIS. But a major topic, the one capturing the attention of those following it closely, was a key decision concerning the Baltic area. For several years now, the United States and other members have rotated troops and fighter wings through the Baltic States as a reminder to Russia that NATO has a stake in their continued independence. At this year’s summit, those provisional deployments were made firmer. In response to Russian provocations, the NATO members decided to deploy ground forces (four battalions) on a rotating basis, but always there, in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. Additionally, air and naval forces will conduct periodic training in and near the area. The point is much the same as our stationing of troops in West Germany during Cold War I. Should the Russians make a move on one of these states, they will need to go through NATO forces to do it and thus risk war. To be clear, the numbers of NATO forces there are a drop in the bucket and would not meaningfully impede a Russian advance. They are there as a symbol of resolve. Under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty (the creation of NATO) an attack on one member is considered an attack on all. It is the principal of collective defense that has helped to keep the peace in Europe and provided the foundation for a period of economic and political stability that has lasted for roughly seventy years. The first time in the history of NATO that Article 5 was invoked was following the terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 September 2001.
The idea of collective defense coupled with the military capability and political will to back it up has been the cornerstone of American foreign policy since World War II. There was never any doubt about the U.S. commitment to NATO and our allies. It served as a major block to Soviet adventurism in Cold War I and is a serious warning to Putin’s adventurism as Cold War II begins to build. Never a doubt. Until now.
In a foreign policy interview published by the New York Times on 21 July, Mr. Donald J. Trump (R-Manhattan) threw that commitment into doubt. You can read it for yourself using the link, but here is part of that interview:
SANGER: I was just in the Baltic States. They are very concerned obviously about this new Russian activism, they are seeing submarines off their coasts, they are seeing airplanes they haven’t seen since the Cold War coming, bombers doing test runs. If Russia came over the border into Estonia or Latvia, Lithuania, places that Americans don’t think about all that often, would you come to their immediate military aid?
TRUMP: I don’t want to tell you what I’d do because I don’t want Putin to know what I’d do. I have a serious chance of becoming president and I’m not like Obama, that every time they send some troops into Iraq or anyplace else, he has a news conference to announce it.
SANGER: They are NATO members, and we are treaty-obligated ——
TRUMP: We have many NATO members that aren’t paying their bills.
SANGER: That’s true, but we are treaty-obligated under NATO, forget the bills part.
TRUMP: You can’t forget the bills. They have an obligation to make payments. Many NATO nations are not making payments, are not making what they’re supposed to make. That’s a big thing. You can’t say forget that.
SANGER: My point here is, Can the members of NATO, including the new members in the Baltics, count on the United States to come to their military aid if they were attacked by Russia? And count on us fulfilling our obligations ——
TRUMP: Have they fulfilled their obligations to us? If they fulfill their obligations to us, the answer is yes.
HABERMAN: And if not?
TRUMP: Well, I’m not saying if not. I’m saying, right now there are many countries that have not fulfilled their obligations to us.
Regardless to say, this created a high level of anxiety throughout the capitals of our allies and seriously casts into doubt the viability of collective defense. To be effective, Article 5 has to be an article of faith for every member and for every potential opponent. Otherwise, it has little meaning. As Cold War II develops, I’m sure Vladimir Putin was celebrating.