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.

 

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Really? I Mean, Really…

QUESTION: Mr. President, do you have any response to the Russian president expelling 755 workers from our embassy in Russia?

TRUMP: No, I want to thank [Putin], because we’re trying to cut down on payroll. And as far as I’m concerned, I’m very thankful that he let go of a large number of people because now we have a smaller payroll. There’s no real reason for them to go back. So, I greatly appreciate the fact that they’ve been able to cut our payroll for the United States. We’ll save a lot of money.

President Trump made these comments during an impromptu press conference on Thursday at his golf resort in Bedminster, New Jersey.  He doubled down on them on Friday.

His press secretary related that the president was “joking” and being “sarcastic” — seemingly the go-to response for every comment he makes that receives significant push back for its outrageous nature. But let’s assume that, in fact, he is joking.  It is still an outrageous comment coming from a president and it shows no respect for his diplomats and the important work that they do, including at times putting their own well-being at risk.  Perhaps a little context will help to bring this home.

At the end of July Russian President Putin  gave the United States until 1 September to remove 755 diplomatic and technical support personnel from our embassy in Moscow.  In addition, he seized two properties used by the U.S. embassy.  All of this was in retaliation for the sanctions bill passed by the U.S. Congress a few days earlier.

Until last Thursday, the president made no comment about the Russian actions.  None.  Eleven days without comment on that situation despite having lots to say about stories on “Fox and Friends” and a significant number of insignificant matters. He had time to Tweet numerous attacks on his own Senate Majority Leader, Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), but has yet to utter one negative word about Russia, or Mr. Putin.  He still has not done so.  His first comment on a long-standing dispute with Russia was to “thank” Mr. Putin.  Ha.  Ha.

His remarks also reveal a lack of understanding of how these things work. It is also possible  that he thinks of the diplomats as “employees” — perhaps the same way he thinks of the workers that make his shirts in Bangladesh. Obviously, Mr. Putin did not “let go” U.S. diplomats.  He can’t, they are American citizens working for the U.S. government.  And Mr. Putin did not “cut the payroll” or “save a lot of money” because those impacted people still receive pay checks.  They will return to the U.S. or posted elsewhere overseas. Mr. Putin’s actions will have some impact on his own citizens’ pay checks, as there are some Russian nationals that work in our embassy and consulates in supporting roles that will lose their jobs.

The reported response from the career diplomats, current and past, was predictably swift.  And they were not pleased. Coupled with what appears to be a secondary role for Secretary of State Tillerson and the fact that countless senior positions in the State Department critical to shaping and implementing U.S. foreign policy have yet to be nominated, much less in position to help — including an ambassador to South Korea, which might be useful about now — it appears that President Trump has little use for, and certainly no regard for, the role our professional diplomats play in keeping our nation safe.  I expect many to start voting with their feet and leaving the foreign service, further debilitating our ability to meet our national goals.  Of course, to some presidential advisers, those that work in the Department of State are the worst of the “deep state.”  They will be happy to see these professional diplomats resign. Apparently, President Trump agrees with that view.

He also apparently does not understand that far more U.S. government departments work in our overseas embassies than just from the Department of State.  In an embassy such as ours in Moscow (the largest we currently have) there are personnel from the CIA, FBI, Agriculture, Commerce, Treasury and just about every agency in between.  Losing these positions inhibits our ability to maintain some programs (remember, for example, that our NASA astronauts ride Russian rockets into space) but also inhibits our ability to gather valuable intelligence on every facet of life in Russia.  The reduction will also have a significant impact on services provided to Americans in Russia as well as on Russians that may need visas or other assistance in travelling to the U.S.

President Trump’s cavalier attitude about nearly everything that does not benefit him directly is not only short-sighted in ensuring an effectively functioning government, it also shows his disdain for patriotic Americans that are at the front lines in keeping our nation safe.

In a week of events that were mind-boggling, one more reckless statement from the president was probably lost in the news of so many outrageous statements and careless Tweets.  To me, however, his Russian statement represented all of the things that I worry about concerning our president.  His lack of knowledge, his lack of intellectual curiosity about anything that has to do with basic civics, his lack of concern over anything that does not involve him personally, and the cavalier way that he treats people trying hard to serve him and the American public.  I could go on.

Really Mr. President?  I mean, really.  As my grandmother would have said, “for goodness sake…”


That Was The Week That Was

Some of us of a certain age can remember the 60’s political satire show “That Was The Week That Was”, or TWTWTW, or simply TW3.  The show launched the American career of the British television host David Frost who went on to do many serious interviews including the definitive series of interviews with former president Richard Nixon.  But in the beginning, think of TW3 as an early, ensemble cast version of the “Daily Show.”  I can only imagine what fun they would have had with this week’s news out of Washington D.C.  Actually, it is hard to keep up with the news from the last 72 hours, but I will try to hit some of the highlights.

First, on the Russian front.  No, not that news, but rather the news that President Trump decided to withdraw the U.S. from a CIA program to provide training and equipment to Anti-Assad forces in Syria. One could argue whether that secret program — different from the American involvement in Syria fighting ISIS — was effective or not, but it was relatively low-cost and showed U.S. support for freedom fighters in Syria.  By pulling the rug out from under them, it seriously undermines confidence in U.S. commitments in the Middle East. Oh, by the way, the Russians’ number one request from the U.S. was to withdraw support from those forces.  They have been demanding it for years.  And now the U.S. has given in to the demand in exchange for, for, well apparently for nothing.  A significant bargaining chip for the U.S. in its relations with Russia (and a symbol of our desire for Bashar al-Assad to go away) is now off the table.  Not sure how or why because the Trump administration doesn’t want to talk about it.

In an extraordinary (in every sense of the word) interview with the New York Times President Trump talked about everything from the healthcare bill, to the French Bastille Day celebration, to Napoleon, to Hitler to NATO and many more topics (you can’t make this stuff up).  In total, a bit disconcerting when it is all put together.  Reading the transcript is actually frightening as it shows that the president thinks that the entire federal government is his personal staff — that they owe allegiance to him first, foremost and only, rather than to the American people and the Constitution.  It cements in my mind that he has no real understanding of what it actually means to be president of the entire United States. It is particularly disconcerting when he speaks about the Department of Justice (DOJ), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the senior leaders in both.  By name and with apparent malice of forethought he disparaged Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe, and Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller.  For one example, how would you interpret what he said about Attorney General Sessions?

TRUMP: Well, Sessions should have never recused himself, and if he was going to recuse himself, he should have told me before he took the job, and I would have picked somebody else.

HABERMAN {NY Times}: He gave you no heads up at all, in any sense?

TRUMP: Zero. So Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself. I then have — which, frankly, I think is very unfair to the president. How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, “Thanks, Jeff, but I can’t, you know, I’m not going to take you.” It’s extremely unfair, and that’s a mild word, to the president. So he recuses himself. I then end up with a second man, who’s a deputy.

To me two things jump out.  First, in the best case scenario, the president does not understand the role of the DOJ and that those attorneys do not work for him as Mr. Trump.  They work for the American people and need to have a loyalty to the Constitution rather than to an individual in the White House. Mr. Trump always insisted on loyalty from employees and so it appears President Trump insists on loyalty to him from his “employees.”  A second more sinister interpretation would be that President Trump would not have nominated Mr. Sessions if he knew that the Attorney General was not going to keep any investigation into the Russian interference in the election and possible Trump campaign involvement in it from gaining any traction.  Apparently, he expected the Attorney General to keep things under control and away from the president and his family.  Otherwise, why appoint him?  Read it for yourself, but if you look closely, you will see that he is castigating Mr. Sessions for doing the right and honorable thing.  There are now reports from multiple sources revealing that President Trump is reviewing his options on pardoning friends, family, and himself.  Very Nixonian.  Take a look at these three quotes and guess which are which from President Trump and President Nixon.

“When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”

“When you’re a star, they let you do it.  You can do anything.”

“The law’s totally on my side.  The president can’t have a conflict of interest.”

The first one is from President Nixon, the other two from President Trump.

The biggest issue of the last few days is healthcare.  What the House and the Senate decide, or don’t, in the coming days and weeks will have an impact on millions of people and on billions of dollars in our economy.  It should not be something that is just pushed through for the sake of “getting something done” alone.  I agree that the Congress should get something done — so far not much of substance has gained escape velocity from Capital Hill — but something this big should be carefully considered. Kudos to Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and other Republican Senators that examined the proposed bill and found it woefully wanting.

Claims that Trumpcare is dead are, however, exceedingly premature.  Likewise reports of the death of Obamacare are premature.  But the president can murder Obamacare if he wants to, and there is some indication that he wants to do so.  By withholding subsidies for insurance premiums, which he says he may do, and by not enforcing the mandate, which is already the case, the president can make portions of Obamacare collapse — not the whole thing, but parts.  Claims that he “doesn’t own it” will not hold.  If he actively undermines the law, people that lose it will notice.  Bad policy.  Hopefully some of his advisers and others in Congress will convince him not to take that path.

The Senate will vote on something next week, but even the Senators themselves do not know what that will be.  Not good news. Currently there are at least two basic versions of “repeal and replace” legislation, with the possibility that those two bills will change before voting occurs, and one version of “repeal and replace later” with the possibility that one will also change.  It is surprising and disconcerting that a vote will be held early next week, with wide-ranging consequences on real people’s lives, not just in theory, and no one yet knows what will be up for a vote.

Dare I hope?

Here is what I hope for.  There are definite signs that moderate Republicans and Democrats are making the early moves to work for a bipartisan bill to “repair” the flaws in the Affordable Care Act (ACA), aka Obamacare.  Flaws do exist.  But there is no reason to get rid of the entire program — assuming one believes that health care should be affordable and available to all as I wrote about in my 23 June post. To be realistic, no Democrat will budge until the word “repeal” gets buried.  They also won’t support anything called Trumpcare.  Conservative Republicans such as Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky) won’t support anything that does not completely repeal the ACA “root and limb.”  But I hope that enough good folks, willing to put country above party, still exist in the Senate in both parties and that cooler heads will prevail.  If that happens, it could be the beginning of a wonderful relationship.  Getting something as tough as health care tackled on a bi-partisan basis would go a long way in having Republicans and Democrats getting back together to tackle other long-standing problems.  What a concept. I am always told how naive I am, but I hope that we have a break through on this issue and that it leads to accomplishments in many more areas.

Finally, and I leave it here despite many more developments of the last 72 hours, speaking of putting country above party I have always had the deepest respect for Senator John McCain (R-Ariz).  That doesn’t mean I always agreed with him but I always thought he was trying to do what he thought best for the nation and its people.  As you know, he is battling a particularly nasty form of brain cancer. I hope that he is back on his feet and back to the Senate before too long.  There are not many like him left in today’s Senate chamber.


“Fake News” No More

With the daily evolution of the story of Mr. Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer that offered to help the Trump campaign work against Secretary Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, one can no longer claim that reports of Russian efforts to impact the election is “fake news.” I have always believed that the Russians clearly worked to influence the election, taking as accurate the consensus of the American intelligence community that they stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and from the Clinton campaign manager Mr. John Podesta.  Other evidence of Russian influence, especially in the realm of social media, is beginning to emerge.  It is fact.  I was not at all certain that senior members of the Trump campaign would have actively worked to aid and abet the Russian effort. One way or the other I figured that the ongoing investigation led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller would conclusively resolve that part of the issue.  Let the chips fall where they may.  Well now we know a lot more.

If you are not familiar with the story, you can read Mr. Trump Jr.’s emails for yourself. In sum, a friend of the Trumps named Mr. Rob Goldstone with close Russian ties offered to arrange a meeting with a Russian national in order to give damaging information about Secretary Clinton to the Trump campaign. In the email exchange Mr. Trump Jr. responded enthusiastically and set up a meeting with the Russian emissary to hear her out.  The key passages of the email that jump out at me follow.   Mr. Goldstone wrote that the Russians “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.  This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump….”  To which Mr. Trump Jr. replied in part “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

At the subsequent meeting were Mr. Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and current Senior Adviser in the White House, and Mr. Paul Manafort, then the Trump campaign manager.  And others, which I will get to momentarily.

End of discussion.  After months and months of denying vehemently that they ever had any meeting with the Russians where cooperation or coordination with the Russians was ever discussed, it turns out that there was one.  At least.  Additionally, since the story broke last Saturday, nearly every day a different story as to what was discussed and who was present came out.  Can you spell “cover up”?

To be honest, I am exhausted by all things Trumpian.  It is very difficult to keep track of all the misleading statements, innuendo and out right lies that come out of the White House or from others associated with President Trump.  The tangled webs of who knows who, or more importantly has significant business ties to the Trump Organization is hard to follow as well, or as they say at the ballpark, “you can’t tell the players without a score card.” But we need to try.

Today’s events caused me to say “that’s it” — I cannot ignore the outrageous carrying on any longer. I planned to write about other issues, but when it came out today that at least one other previously undisclosed person (as I write, some news outlets are reporting that it may actually be two other people) with Russian ties (the new attendee was born there, served in the Russian Army and may be a lobbyist or may be a former intelligence officer or both as this unfolding story develops) was in the room.

After days of Mr. Trump Jr.’s denials and obfuscation about everything, until it is uncovered by reporters at which point his story changes — despite his claims of total transparency — this takes the cake. Appearing on the Sean Hannity Show on Fox News, Mr. Trump Jr. was asked multiple times by the very friendly to the Trumps interlocutor Mr. Hannity if there was anything else that would come out or if any other people with Russian ties had met with him.  He gave a vigorous and straight forward “no” answer. Check it out. And yet… there was more to the story.  It seems there is always more to the story with the Trumps.

Mr. Trump Jr. claims that “nothing” came of the meeting and that it was a waste of time.  Given the events of the last week, and many more before that, I am unwilling to take the word of Mr. Trump Jr.  I am sure that Special Counsel Mueller will be very interested in following up on this story.

It is indeed a weak defense of these actions to claim that nothing came of the meeting and that they did not get any “dirt” on Secretary Clinton.  To them this means that it was a “nothingburger” of a meeting. Very troubling.  Read the emails.  The Trump campaign was eager to get negative information on Secretary Clinton.  Fine.  That happens in many, many campaigns.  But not from the Russian government! Or any foreign government.  End of story.  Just because they got nothing — as if we can believe anything Mr. Trump Jr. says about this situation — they clearly were willing to take this information and to use any ties to the Russian government that they thought would help them win. Nice. Strong ethics. Look, I know that politics is a full contact sport and that it can be really nasty. Republicans, Democrats, Independents, it doesn’t matter.  It gets personal.  But really?  The Russians? C’mon man!  It only shows that with this outfit, there are no boundaries.  Mr. Michael Gerson, a conservative columnist and former chief speech writer for President George W. Bush has an excellent piece today.  Basically he argues that the Trumps are clueless about all the fuss because they have no concept of right and wrong, they have a set of values “in which victory matters more than character and real men write their own rules.”  Mr. Gerson explains that “it is the banality of this corruption that makes it so appalling. The president and his men are incapable of feeling shame about shameful things.”

Most troubling to me in terms of national security is the portion of the email train that says, emphasis mine, that this “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Part.  What else was going on?  What else is going on?  Coupled with all that we know so far, and the inability of Mr. Trump Jr. and the White House to accurately and correctly deal in facts, I would read that section to mean that the Russians were actively interfering in the election, and that quite plausibly, the Trump campaign knew about it in other ways.  Just because they may or may not have walked out of this particular meeting with dirt in hand, it clearly implies that they were ready and willing to work with the Russians and may in fact have other sources and methods where they were doing so.

I have no idea what will come of this.  I have no idea if anything illegal occurred or if any of the attendees can be held accountable under the law.  I do have an idea, however, that this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  I am sure more and more will slowly be uncovered as the Senate, House, and Special Counsel’s office continue to investigate the Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

I also know that for the President to continue to deny that it happened is unhelpful to our country. For him to continue, as recently as two days ago, to continue to call this the “greatest WITCH HUNT in political history” (his emphasis) is also unhelpful.  In every way, President Trump is actively working to undermine every U.S. institution that may stand in his way.  Fake news, indeed.

What is clear, is that it is becoming impossible to breathe with all the smoke rising out of the Russian election interference issue.  It is only a matter of time before the conflagration flares up.  I pray that we don’t all get burned by the resulting fire and that we are not left with only the smoldering ruins of our great democracy.


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.

 


Incompetent or Dangerous?

Yesterday, President Donald J. Trump fired James B. Comey Jr., the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).  This came in the midst of an ever-increasing FBI investigation into known Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and the increasing number of revelations of ties between the Trump campaign and the Russians.  Those are actually two different issues, which our president apparently cannot understand.

There is wide-spread consensus based on the truth and, you know, actual facts that the Russians interfered with the election.  Most likely they interfered because, as former Bush Administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice explained, Russian President Vladimir Putin is a pay-back kind of guy.  He hated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, primarily because she called his election a sham, and sought the opportunity to work against her campaign.  According to Secretary Rice’s theory, he relished disrupting the election in and of itself, but to have Secretary Clinton as the recipient only made it sweeter.

Every American should be gravely concerned that a foreign power aggressively and with malice of forethought worked hard to disrupt the very foundation of our Republic.  Every American.  This is not a political issue.  Consequently both the Senate and the House of Representatives are conducting bi-partisan inquiries into what happened and how we can protect against it in the future.

However, President Trump seems to believe this is unnecessary.  If one pays only the mildest of attention to the news, you know that he is constantly calling the fact of the interference a “hoax” and the investigations “a waste of taxpayer money.”  He won and that’s all he cares about.  In his mind, end of story.

Secondarily, as the investigation of the Russian interference deepened, it became apparent that there may have been some interaction between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians.  The who, why and what questions remain unanswered.  This also is considered “fake news” by the president and he constantly tweets about issues he thinks are “ridiculous” in connection with the investigation.

He does so even though his first National Security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn USA (ret.) was fired by the president for working with the Russians, being paid by them, and lying about it.  I suppose we should just let that go.  Nothing to see here, folks, just move along.

This is the short version of the context surrounding the firing of Director Comey.  The president showed real class by not notifying Director Comey of his dismissal, rather the Director learned about it on television while giving a speech in Los Angeles.

So the president whose staff members and campaign members are under investigation by the FBI and the Attorney General of the United States who was forced to recuse himself from the Russian investigation because of his own role in the campaign and “forgetting” to reveal his own Russian contacts, are the folks that fired the Director.  It most definitely does not pass the smell test.

Thus the question, is the president incompetent of trying to cover up misdeeds in his administration? Does he not know what he is doing or is he deliberately undermining our Constitutional balance?  I do not know, but either one is dangerous.

The alleged reason for the firing was the mishandling of the investigation of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails back in July.  Of 2016.  The investigation that then Candidate Trump applauded.  Hmmm.  The timing is also suspicious.  Remember the Trumpian tactic of changing the headlines whenever something critical of him makes the news?  On Monday former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified before a Senate sub-committee looking into the Russian connections.  Their testimony was less than flattering to the Trump Administration and in some cases directly contradicted statements made by the president and his spokespeople.  On Tuesday, Director Comey is fired, thus changing the headlines.  I’m just sayin’….

From the time Attorney General Yates notified the White House that General Flynn was compromised and a potential agent of the Russians until he was fired — only after it all became public in the Washington Post — was 18 days.

From the time that the current Deputy Attorney General and Attorney General recommended the dismissal to the president and the FBI director was fired — for something that happened in July 2016 — was minutes.

Also remember that the FBI Director is appointed for a 10 year term.  This is to keep politics and partisanship out of law enforcement in the most critical areas of our national security.  Only one other active Director was fired, and that was William Sessions in 1993 by President Bill Clinton for ethics violations, not for investigating anything to do with the administration.

Many people were upset by the way that Director Comey handled the email investigation of Secretary Clinton.  Some even argue that the way he handled it (a news conference about a lack of evidence to prosecute) was unprecedented and unprofessional and effectively handicapped the campaign of Secretary Clinton.  In a larger context, even as one may have no love for Director Comey, his firing is very troubling at this particular point.  It seems that as the investigation gets closer to the truth, the resistance from the White House increases.  Director Comey must have been very close to finding damaging information.  It only takes a cursory look at any newspaper or other news source to see that this has raised significant bi-partisan concern in the Congress as to the meaning, appropriateness and impact of the firing.  Most Republicans and Democrats have expressed serious concern.  It is not right.

Alarm bells should be going off when taken in connection with this quote from White House spokesperson Sarah Huckabee Sanders during an interview last night with Tucker Carlson on Fox News. In the same vein as the president and other spokespeople in the White House, she spoke about the Russian investigations and said:

I think the bigger point on that is, “My gosh, Tucker, when are they gonna let that go?” It’s been going on for nearly a year. Frankly, it’s kinda getting absurd. There’s nothing there. We’ve heard that time and time again. We’ve heard it in the testimonies earlier this week. We’ve heard it for the last 11 months. There is no there there. It’s time to move on.

President Trump wants the investigation to go away.  Countless efforts by the president and his spokespeople to undermine the investigations have not worked.  They pretend, as does Ms. Sanders, that the American people do not care.  We won.  End of story.  Yet, the investigations continue and it does not go away.  Next step — fire the Director of the FBI.

One can only conclude that the president must really be trying to hide something big.  Maybe yuuge. Reporting today indicates that last week Director Comey quietly asked Congress for a significant increase in funding for the Russian investigation.  Another coincidence?

President Trump undoubtedly thought that by making Director Comey go away, his troubles would go away as well.  They are just beginning.  Reportedly, the president has little interest in history or understanding exactly how the government works.  Fine.  But someone should tell him that time and time again the cover-up is what brings folks to their knees, doing more damage than the “crime” ever would have.  Maybe he should read up on it.  He may learn something about it when he appoints his next Director of the FBI and the Senate holds confirmation hearings.  If you think there is a fire in the Senate during the current hearings, you haven’t seen anything yet.

A civics lesson might help as well.  Trying to run the United States as a family business operation does not work so well.  Unless his aim is to make a lot of money, which that part so far is working. But that’s a piece for another day.

The investigations will not go away.  They will be slowed down dramatically in the near term.  The FBI is extremely unlikely to report the results of their investigations without a Director in place.  That will take weeks or more likely, months.  James Comey was a Republican appointed by President Obama. President Trump should appoint a Democrat with an impeccable reputation as the next Director.  I am not holding my breath.  His appointment will tell us a lot about the future integrity of anything that comes out of the Department of Justice.

The investigations will continue in the interim.  However, the integrity of those investigations is now compromised. Only by appointing a special prosecutor — which the White House and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) are mightily resisting — will there be some assurance to the American people that an independent investigation, unencumbered by political and partisan elements, reports believable results.

This is fundamental to our national security.  Stay awake and keep the pressure on.  Silence and “getting tired of it all” will erode our freedom.

 


Doing The Right Thing

Last night U.S. Navy war ships launched over 50 Tomahawk missiles against an airfield in Syria.  The airfield was the base from which the Sarin attacks on civilians were launched earlier this week. We can only speculate at the moment as to where this leads , but I am glad that the Syrian’s actions did not go unpunished.  This time, the Trump Administration did the right thing.

The mechanics of delivering the missiles to the target are relatively simple.  Well, not simple in the abstract, but simple because the targets were on the list for years and the ships’ crews have practiced endlessly for this type of scenario.  They take no pleasure in it, but they understand that this is this their profession and so they professionally executed the mission.

The strikes were tactical and an appropriate and proportional response to send Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad the signal that his actions will have consequences.  Now he cannot act without calculating possible future responses from the United States, and hopefully, our allies.  It is also an appropriate signal to Russia and Iran that they cannot continue to enable Bashar without consequences.  Their rhetoric will increase but it is doubtful that either nation will make an immediate retaliatory response.

The larger question is “what next?”  Tactics only make sense in the context of a larger strategy and I am not sure that the Trump Administration has a fully developed strategy for dealing with Syria in the days and months to come.  What is apparent, is that the strategy outlined only days ago by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, that we will pay little attention to Syria and the Syrian people will decide their own future, is no longer relevant.

The Syrian Civil War can only end through diplomatic efforts.  The U.S. should increase the pressure on Russia and Iran to stop enabling Bashar and to bring him to the table for serious negotiations. This can be accomplished by a combination of diplomatic efforts that hold them responsible for Bashar’s actions and direct pressure, such as through increased sanctions on Russia and Iran. Secretary Tillerson is scheduled to visit Moscow later this month.  It will be interesting to see if those talks are still on, and whether Secretary Tillerson can use that opening to put Russian actions in Syria in the spotlight.

On the domestic front, for those White House West Wing watchers that believe “personnel is policy”, several interesting developments occurred in the days leading up to the strike.  What it means is not yet entirely clear, but consider what happened.  When the statements concerning Syria and our policy were put forward by Secretary Tillerson and Ambassador Haley, Mr. Steve Bannon was thought to be the architect of those statements which reflect his “America First” outlook.  Likewise when President Trump put out his inane statement that the Obama Administration was responsible for the chemical attack. The next day, it was announced that Mr. Bannon was demoted and removed from the National Security Council, also leading to his threat to quit and go home (he didn’t — yet).  Then the President’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, probably the only man in the West Wing that President Trump absolutely trusts, returned from a trip to Iraq with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The next day President Trump, in a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, changed his tune on the chemical attack, condemning it in the strongest possible terms, taking responsibility as president, and hinting at further actions. He was then known to meet with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.  President Trump then ordered the retaliation last night.  Personally, I do not think that the changes in personnel and the influence yielded by his son-in-law and, most importantly, the experienced national security advisers, prior to the Tomahawk strikes, was coincidental.

Only time will tell whether the national security adults in the room will continue to be the most influential or not.  There is still much to be worried about in Syria and North Korea.  However, this was the right thing to do and a good first step.