Syria. Again.

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Syria And The Modern War

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.”

Confused?

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.

 

 


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.


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.

 


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.


While You Were Sleeping

With the daily crises that seem to emanate from the Trump White House, it is often difficult to keep track of those things that are important — almost all of it is in some way — and those things that are not only important, but conceivably life changing for our nation.  Three of those things come to the forefront this week.  One is the events in Syria, two is concern over the ever more belligerent actions of North Korea, and three is the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and the possible resulting use of the “nuclear option” in the Senate that will forever change that body and the future of the Supreme Court.  The latter issue is worthy of an entire blog unto itself.  Before turning my attention to the first two issues, let me just say briefly that Judge Gorsuch will be on the court for decades to come, so that alone makes it a big deal.  Changing the confirmation process to a straight up or down vote will make confirmation of future Supreme Court nominations a purely partisan endeavor with ever more radical judges the norm — by Republican or Democrat presidents — and removing any last vestige of a purely non-partisan Supreme Court.  In my view, the Democrats should vote for cloture (allow a vote to go forward without a filibuster) and then vote their conscience as to whether Judge Gorsuch is qualified to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

That said, let’s turn back to the first two issues of international policy.  They are important on their own merits as well as for the precedent they may set under the administration of President Trump. Let’s address Syria first.

You undoubtedly saw the heart-wrenching pictures coming from Idlib Syria following a chemical attack on innocent civilians.  Reports estimate at least seventy people died a horrific death with hundreds sickened by the toxic chemical — likely Sarin.  The Syrians are known to routinely use chlorine gas against opposition fighters, but this attack is significantly different.  As you may remember, the Syrians made a similar attack in August of 2013 and then President Obama declared that the Syrians had crossed a “red line” and would pay the consequences.  When our British allies refused to participate and the Congress got cold feet on whether to support such action or not, President Obama decided against military action. In a blog at the time I decried the lack of action and moral fortitude of not only our country, but of the entire civilized world for taking no action.  I also predicted that it would eventually come back to haunt us.

It looks like the same thing will happen this time around.  Loud denunciations, Security Council resolutions and much wringing of hands around the world as the order of the day, but in the end, no action taken.  President Trump, apparently forgetting that he is now the president and responsible for U.S. foreign policy, condemned the attack and then blamed President Obama for it taking place. This is the entire statement as posted on the official White House website.

Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.

How ironic that President Trump condemns his predecessor for doing nothing and then does nothing himself.  Actually, that’s not too surprising given his comments in 2013.  He posted the following statement then.

President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your “powder” for another (and more important) day! — Twitter from @realdonaldtrump on 7 September 2013.

Note that was while President Obama was deciding how to respond to the Syrians for a chemical attack.

Also note that the most recent attack came five days after the Trump administration through U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that they would no longer focus on Syria or the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  More precisely, Ambassador Haley said, “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way the previous administration maybe did. Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.”  Secretary Tillerson followed up later by saying, “I think the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”  The same Syrian people gassed, I suppose.  Make no mistake, in the way of foreign policy, and particularly in the Middle East, when the United States says that in essence, they are no longer concerned about Syria, that is a green light to the ruthless regime to do whatever they feel like doing without fear of retribution. Not surprisingly, the Russians who in the deal made in 2013 were to guarantee no Syrian chemical agents would remain in the country, claim that the chemicals came from a “rebel workshop” bombed by Syrian aircraft.

Sorely missing from President Trump’s statement and those of his administration is any indication of actions in response.  It seems that in foreign policy, as in his domestic policy thus far, whenever something happens our new president can only lash out at others to assign blame.  That is a pretty weak foreign policy position and it will be duly and clearly noted by our friends and enemies around the world.

We see a similarly troubling scenario unfolding with North Korea, and they surely noted our lack of action in Syria.  The North Koreans are quickly moving towards a capability to hit the United States with long-range missiles and will in a few years have the ability to mount nuclear weapons on those missiles. As I write this the North Koreans have the capability to reach approximately 300,000 Americans in South Korea, Japan and on bases in the Pacific area.  The ruthless North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un is not suicidal or crazy as some have described him.  He is, however, isolated, unskilled in foreign affairs and threatened.  Reportedly, he refers to the fate of Saddam Hussein repeatedly (hanged, you may remember) and vows not to go down without a fight.  The key question is whether or not he will respond to a perceived provocation or start one of his own.  It is an extremely dangerous situation that can lead to miscalculations on both sides of the border.

One key element of deterrence is that the people you want to deter from an act must know what is that they are not supposed to do and understand the consequences of doing it anyway.  One’s intentions need to be clear, and the punishment beyond the pale in terms of an actor’s cost-benefit calculations. A corollary is to never threaten something that you are not ready or willing to do.   This is why it is troubling that President Trump said in a recent interview that, “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”  When asked if he thought the U.S. could solve the North Korean problem, and if so, how, he added, “I don’t have to say any more. Totally.”

I agree with Secretary Tillerson, speaking for the Trump administration, that the last 20 years of U.S. efforts to bring North Korea under control have failed.  I agree that all options must remain on the table. I also agree that China is the key to solving the problem.  However, it is not possible to solve the problem without China, and for the president to suggest that it can be done without Chinese involvement is a statement without knowledge behind it or a bluff, both dangerous in the current situation.

Further confusing the issue is Secretary Tillerson’s statement today, following yet another North Korean missile test.  He said, in a twenty-three word statement,

North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.

No one knows what that means.  Of course one could take it at face value, but it is, shall we say, exceedingly rare for the Secretary of State of the United States of America to refuse to comment on a situation that directly threatens the well-being of the nation and its friends and allies.

In total, it is all very strange.

President Trump meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping starting tomorrow at Mar-a-Lago (and once again charging the American taxpayer for the use of his own resort — yet another topic of discussion in this space in the future).  North Korea will be a major topic of discussion, to be sure.  Unclear, however, is the path the negotiations will follow.  In the interview in the Financial Times  referenced above, President Trump indicated that “trade deals” will lead to further cooperation on North Korea. How that will play out is hazy.  Chinese concerns over North Korea are tempered by the fact that they do not want to be left holding the bag economically should North Korea collapse, and they most definitely do not want U.S. troops on their border should war break out and the Americans sweep through North Korea. There are many problems to be solved on both sides of the negotiating table.

These are matters of great concern to the world, but with a direct impact on our own well-being.  They will take a delicate and knowledgeable effort to resolve and probably cannot be accomplished in one meeting.  We will soon learn whether or not President Trump is up for the task at hand.  To me, the signs are that he is not.

These are troubling times, with seemingly a crisis a day of the administration’s own creation.  And yet, the Trump Administration has not been tested in the crucible of national security.  In the coming days and weeks, we will see whether or not our president has “the right stuff.”


Cold War II (continued)

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.