Russia Gloats, US Worries and France Vents Exasperation over Brexit: Can Obama Bolster EU Unity Despite Russian Pressures?

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin shouts back at cheering troops as he walks with Russian Federation Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu during the 2015 Victory Day Parade in Moscow. Russia presented itself at the event as a country on the rise. Part of that rise apparently includes encouraging the fall of the EU and NATO. Russia has been accused of using military, economic, and political means to promote a discordant harmony among countries to undermine EU unity on sanctions and unity as a bloc.

According to a February 20, 2016 article in The Times in the United Kingdom entitled, “Russia Gloats, US Worries and France Vents Exasperation”, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin is thought to be privately gleeful at the sight of discord within the EU over the possible decision by the British to exit the EU (Brexit). Indeed, the article states whatever undermines the EU—which Russia accuses of meddling in Ukraine and its former European Soviet satellite state—is good for Moscow. Reportedly, in Washington, the prospect of Brexit has set alarm bells ringing about the United Kingdom’s possible retreat to the European periphery, altering its special relationship with London.

In a January 31, 2016 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “In the State of the Union Address, Obama Confronts Americans’ Fears; They Want to See Success on Foreign Policy”, it was predicted that in 2016, Putin may want to maintain an environment of confrontation for the US and EU leaders. He supports countries behind many of the foreign policy problems that the administration of US President Barack Obama faces. Keeping all European allies unified and resolute could become more difficult as some may fear facing greater problems from him. Putin has looked deeply at the US and Europe, discerning many flaws, weaknesses in the transatlantic bond. He particularly noticed the lack of will among European political leaders to maintain it. The initial response to Putin’s battering rams, to include his moves in Ukraine, hybrid warfare threat to the Baltic States, and military build-up, was to bolster the barricades of Europe particularly in London and Berlin. Since then there have been cracks in the armor, precipitated by Putin’s maneuvers. In most cases, any damage to the European unity would appear self-inflicted by EU and NATO Members. In every case, Putin would be a beneficiary. Any member’s departure from the “Group of 28”, or NATO, would be a step in the wrong direction. The Obama administration is urging the EU not to retreat having achieved so much. Causality for this situation may be found in part in the administration’s plans for a “pivot to Asia”, its delinquency in responding to important issues on European policy, and its disastrous relations with Putin. Despite the challenging political, economic, and security issues with which some EU states are wrestling, the Obama administration can bolster European unity, and by-pass military, economic, and political obstacles Russia may be creating. The examples presented in this discussion provide kernels of some approaches. The Obama administration needs to support Europe in its search for answers to buttress unity. Its assistance should not be a mere search for the bromide of a public relations message. The administration should contribute approaches to effectively promote unity in accordance with the stated needs of European allies.

The migrant crisis in Europe began with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s announcement in the summer of 2015 that Germany would stop expelling Syrian refugees and her agreement with Austria in September 2015 to welcome tens of thousands of migrants who were stuck in Hungary. Hungary rejected their asylum requests. Merkel’s actions were followed by a massive surge in asylum seekers travelling from Turkey to Greece and then up through the Balkans to Hungary, Austria, Germany and northern Europe. The result has been a humanitarian tragedy, and a political, social, and administrative nightmare for capitals created by an external source, but not Putin. Indeed, Putin has said the refugee crisis is “an internal problem of the EU” and added that Russia does not “interfere in these issues.” Given that Russia has had no discernible hand in the matter, the issue is not included in the discussion here.

NATO recently revealed that in 2013, two Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers (as above) escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters, came within 24 miles off the island of Gotland, 100 miles from Stockholm, and conducted mock nuclear attacks. The Swedish military was caught completely off-guard causing great concern among Swedish officials.

Stirring Disunity Militarily

Etiam fortes viros subitis terreri. (Even the bravest men are frightened by sudden terrors.)  Putin is genuinely on a mission to restore Russia’s global power and influence and to bring the independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Transnistria, Chechnya, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Syria, Putin has shown the will to fight, even after red-lines were crossed and stern warnings were given. His threats of military action are not doubted. Russian intrusions into NATO airspace, flyovers and buzzing by military jets, interceptions at sea and other harassing actions in NATO waters, are designed to have a strong educational effect on leaders in Europe.

Sweden

It has been reported by NATO in February 2016 that the Russian Federation Air Force conducted a mock nuclear attack against Sweden during war games. The March 2013 exercise saw Russian aircraft cross the Gulf of Finland and approach Swedish airspace. The NATO report claimed that Russian military drills have now reached levels unseen since the height of the Cold War. During the military exercise on March 20, 2013, two Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 jet fighters came within 24 miles off the island of Gotland, 100 miles from Stockholm. They conducted dummy bombing runs against targets thought to include a military base in southern Sweden and the headquarters of the country’s signals intelligence agency outside Stockholm. The incident caused controversy at the time because the Swedish military was caught unprepared and to rely on Danish Air Force jets operating as part of NATO’s Baltic air policing mission to respond. Sweden has since remilitarized an old Cold War frontier base on the island of Gotland because of the rising threat from Russia. The Obama administration has sought to expand US military spending in Europe four-fold to about $3.4 billion in an effort to reassure allies unsettled by Russia’s military actions. Such efforts affirm the US commitment to Europe. Yet, Sweden and other NATO members must be dissuaded from the view that peace can exist without significant, tangible investment in Europe’s mutual defense. They must work cooperatively with the US to bolster Europe’s defense.

Norway

In its National Threat Assessment presented in February 2016, the Norwegian Police and Security Service (PST) reported that Russia is a threat to Norway. While presenting the report, the Head of PST Marie Benedicte Bjornland explained Russian Federation intelligence services have made targets of Norway’s capabilities in defense, security, and preparedness. Bjornland said, “Our assessment is that the aim of these activities is to facilitate Russian military dispositions in a future security policy scenario.” The PST report explains that such intelligence activities could ultimately threaten key Norwegian interests and the country’s control over its own territory. The report claims that intelligence operatives have been sent to Norway with official covers as diplomats at the embassy or consulates. The main task of those diplomats, as observed by PST, is to establish relations of trust with Norwegian government employees or any other individuals who can provide sensitive information. The PST report explained that such intelligence operatives also make use of other tools such as the extensive use of operations to spread information and propaganda and influence opinion in other countries with a view to weakening confidence in the authorities of the target state or sowing division between difference groups in the society or in different regions. The PST warned that these methods are particularly used during periods of tension concerning security, and Norway should prepare itself to cope with such methods. PST head Bjornland further explained that large scale digital espionage against Norway and Norwegian interests was already underway. Businesses and educational institutions would undoubtedly be targets of such attacks. Crux est si metuas quod vincere neques. (It is tormenting to fear what you can’t overcome.)

Above are Russian “green men” in Crimea in 2014. In its National Threat Assessment presented in February 2016, the Norwegian Police and Security Service (PST) reported that Russian Federation intelligence services have made targets of Norway’s capabilities in defense, security, and preparedness. Fear exists in Oslo that one morning green men may appear in Norway’s streets.

Denmark

In March 21, 2015, Russia went on a public relations offensive on the Baltic. Denmark was warned that if it joined the NATO’s missile defense shield, its navy would become a legitimate target for a Russian nuclear attack. The Russian Federation Ambassador to Denmark, Mikhail Vanin delivered that message during an interview with a Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. He was quoted as follows: “Denmark would be part of the threat against Russia. It would be less peaceful and relations with Russia would suffer. It is, of course, your own decision—I just want to remind you that your finances and security will suffer. At the same time Russia has missiles that certainly can penetrate the future global missile defense system.” Denmark’s Foreign minister, Martin Lidegaard, reacted strongly to the comments, calling the Russian ambassador’s statement “unacceptable.” However, Nicolai Wammen, Denmark’s Defense Minister went to pains to calm Russia, saying the move [toward a defense shield] is not targeted toward Russia but at “rogue states, terrorists organizations and others who would have the capacity to fire missiles at Europe and the United States.” Concerning such statements by Russian officials, NATO Supreme Allied Commander US Air Force General Philip Breedlove has already provided some answers which the Obama administration should echo. Breedlove said: NATO must challenge Russia’s current policies and demonstrate that Putin’s current approach will not be allowed to damage security. He further stated the alliance must also deter Russia “by carefully shaping Moscow’s choices and managing Putin’s confidence.” Nord Stream-2 will include two new pipelines that will deliver an additional 44 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, the Baltic States, and Poland. Germany, the greatest consumer of Russian gas, supports Nord Stream-2. Some EU countries say it contradicts the sanctions policy against Russia, and accuse German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government of putting their country’s economic needs ahead of collective diplomacy.

Stirring Disunity Economically

Nihil tam muitium quod non expungari pecunia posit. (No fort is so strong that it cannot be taken with money.) Some EU countries have established new deals with Russia, an activity inconsistent with placing sanctions on Moscow over its behavior toward EU or EU-backed countries. Perhaps those states really believe such breakdowns in unity are unavoidable, especially regarding oil and gas. However, regardless of the genuine economic benefits of any deals with Russia, the economic carrots held by Moscow enable it to use EU and NATO members as tools against each other.

Germany

In September 2015, the Russian state owned gas giant, Gazprom, began preparing for the construction of Nord Stream-2. It will include two new pipelines that will deliver an additional 44 billion cubic meters of gas annually from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea, bypassing Ukraine, the Baltic States and Poland. Nord Stream-2 doubles the capacity of Nord Stream-1 built in 2011 which passes through Ukraine. Running the new pipeline through Ukraine was viewed unsafe. The new pipeline is especially important to Germany, the greatest consumer of Russian gas. Some EU countries fear the new pipeline will allow Germany to dominate the European gas market, Germany says politics should be left behind in the building of the pipeline. The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker echoed that view saying the project should be considered not as a political issue, but as a commercial one. In December 2015, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was the first to speak out against the pipeline in the context of security saying it contradicted the sanctions policy against Russia. Italy also accused Germany of putting its economic needs ahead of the bloc’s collective diplomacy. (Note Italian firm Eni had large investment in a South Stream gas pipeline from Russia cancelled by Gazprom in 2014) Italian concerns over the Nord Stream-2 have since been quieted. A group of Eastern European countries sent a letter to the European Commission calling for it to block the Nord Stream-2. They are headed by Slovakia and Poland, who are believed to have initiated the campaign, and supported by the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Greece. They say Nord Stream-2 goes against the EU energy diversification and security policies. Berlin might explain claims by other EU and NATO countries are small relative to the German commitment to European defense and security and its role as the EU’s economic engine. The Obama administration has not publicly admonished or discouraged Germany on Nord Stream-2. It could insist Germany demonstrate how the gas deal is a matter of energy security, not adverse  with sanctions policy, and maybe assist it in doing so. During the final plenary session at the 12th Annual Meeting of the Valdai International Discussion Club in Sochi, Russia on October 22, 2016, Putin seemed to deliberately sow seeds of suspicion regarding the solidarity of two main members the EU with the other 26 members by saying: “I believe that the Federal Chancellor of Germany and the President of France are being sufficiently objective today, and though it is obvious for political reasons they support the current Kiev authorities, in my opinion they have a sufficiently fair assessment of the situation. They already have an understanding that the problems that have accumulated there are not only black and white—it is much more complicated.”

Observing Germany’s moves, other EU countries have rushed to strengthen ties with Russia. During a visit to Moscow in February 3, 2016, Austrian Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner confirmed Austria’s commitment to Russia’s Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project to Europe at a meeting with Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev.

Austria

Observing Germany, other states contributing far less to the EU and NATO, have visited Putin, seeking to strengthen their business and economic linkages with Russia. During a visit to Moscow in February 3, 2016, Austrian Vice Chancellor Reinhold Mitterlehner stated that EU sanctions against Russia have made no political progress and brought negative effects to Austria’s economy. Recent statements from Putin support the Vice Chancellor’s claim. Putin explained: “Concerning our possibilities on the international financial markets, the sanctions are severely harming Russia. But the biggest harm is currently caused by the decline of the prices of oil and gas, which we can partly compensate for elsewhere.” Putin added: “The trade balance, however, is still positive.” For Mitterlehner, the low impact of sanctions on Russia and their reverse impact on Austrian firms put the continued implementation of them in question. On that, Mitterlehner complained: “We have over a thousand companies doing business with Russia from Austria, and another 500 Austrian firms working in Russia. 40,000 employees are being affected.” He confirmed Austria’s commitment to Russia’s Nord Stream-2 gas pipeline project to Europe at a meeting with Russian Federation Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev.

Hungary

In a press conference at his Novo-Ogaryovo residence with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban on February 17, 2016, Putin referred to Hungary as an “old and faithful partner.” Orban returned with similar pleasantries, but contrary to thinking within the EU of which Hungary is a member, Orban also stated that the time for the automatic extension of the sanctions on Russia had passed, and that more EU countries are starting to oppose the restrictions on Moscow. Orban and Putin had signed a number of agreements two years earlier to include the expansion of Paks-2, Hungary’s only active nuclear power plant, built by the Soviet Union. The four Paks reactors are currently producing up to 50 percent of Hungary’s electricity. However, the remaining reactors will go off-line between 2032 and 2037, and Hungary would lose the bulk of its electricity. The €12.5 billion contract, partly aided by Moscow’s €10 billion loans, would add two new 1,200 megawatt reactors to nuclear power plant. The Orban and Putin also agreed to extend a gas deal which will see Russia supply Hungary until the end of 2019. About 85 percent of Hungary’s gas flows from Russia. Orban and Putin already signed a gas agreement in 2015 that replaced a 20 year contract that expired in December 2015. Under the agreement, Budapest is paying only for the gas it actually consumes, as opposed to the volume it contracts, making it a lucrative offer for the low-demand client. Putin said: “We are satisfied even despite a well-known drop in trade turnover. We are content with the nature of our relationship.” In 2015, Orban told Putin “Hungary needs Russia.” In 2014, Orban said Europe “shot itself in the foot” as the sanctions policy pursued by the West “causes more harm to us than to Russia.” Putin said that the Kremlin is convinced that the “normalization of Russia-EU ties will happen sooner or later.”

There is discernible frustration among Georgia’s elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration. Russian propaganda has influenced Georgia’s disillusioned. Despite tension between Moscow and Tblisi, the prospect exists that Georgia might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration and abandon closer EU and NATO ties.

Stirring Disunity Politically

What galls the US and EU is the considerable effort they say Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has invested in grabbing territory in what he refers to as Russia’s “near abroad”. Each time an ethnic-Russian space is carved out of a country, Putin is provided with additional space from which he can exert his influence in the home country. In the Crimea and the Donbass in Ukraine, Russia moved in with its forces, under the causality of rescuing ethnic-Russian lives. So far, Russia has refrained from taking military action in other near abroad countries. However, Russia has used state-controlled media outlets to beam programs and reports into near abroad countries attacking the notion of European unity.  News stories on Europe on RT_com and Sputnik in particular are usually negative, designed to stoke cynicism citizens may feel toward their leaders. Eventually, such propaganda will be structured to drive citizens in those countries away from European economic and security structures. Vulpem pilum mutat, non mores. (A fox may change its hair, not its tricks.)

Georgia

In February 2016, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told Congress that Georgia could reverse its strategic orientation toward the West under Russian pressure. The rethinking of its Euro-Atlantic orientation would be due in part to Russian efforts. According to Clapper, “even as Georgia progresses with reforms, Georgian politics will almost certainly be volatile as political competition increases. Economic challenges are also likely to become a key political vulnerability for the government before the 2016 elections. In 2008, Putin first tested NATO, moving against countries that are part of Russia’s “near abroad.” Pro-Russian separatists in the South Ossetia and Abkhazia regions of Georgia, along with Russian Federation troops, fought a war for independence against the Georgian Government. Once peace was established between the warring parties by then-French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Russia occupied the two rebellious regions and continues to do so today. Russia also recognized their independence. There are now nearly 5,000 Russian Federation troops based in South Ossetia and 5,000 based in Abkhazia. There was little Georgia could do then, or can do now, to recover those regions, yet it had the support of the US, and the EU. The big change that has occurred is the growth of a discernible frustration among Georgia’s elites and the public with the slow pace of Western integration. Russian propaganda has also been effective in Georgia and the prospect exists that Tblisi might slow or suspend efforts toward greater Euro-Atlantic integration and abandon closer EU and NATO ties. That could occur despite the fact that tension between Tblisi and Moscow remains high. A similar assessment was made about Georgia in 2015, but the risk is now increasing. At best, Russia could ask Georgia to join a Russia-led customs union and sign up for the Moscow dominated Eurasian Economic Union. That might be countered by increased public visits by senior US and EU officials to hear Tblisi’s ideas on accelerating the pace of integration.

Moldova

In 2008, Putin forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova was placed under similar pressure. Moldovans in response elected a pro-EU government in 2009. It was a pro-EU government that in 2014, which against Russia’s wishes, signed an Association Agreement with the EU. However, Moldova entered 2016 without a government and mired in a deep political crisis following a corruption scandal which forced the ruling pro-EU government of Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet to resign in late October. Earlier revelations concerning the same scandal knocked down his predecessor, Chiril Gaburici, in June 2015. The crisis began early 2015 when it was discovered that over $1 billion, equivalent to about 15 percent of the country’s GDP, had disappeared from three Moldovan banks in 2014 following parliamentary elections. When Gaburici’s administration fell,  the question was raised whether leaders in Chisinau would ever be able to enact reforms needed to bring the country in line with EU standards. Despite the fact the a pro-European government was eventually approved by lawmakers, Moldovans engaged in street protests, discontented over its right wing and pro-Romania elements. Officials in power feared that if early elections were called, Moldovans would vote for representatives of the left, who are pro-Russian, and who seek to develop political and economic ties with Russia. In addition to other benefits such as trade, the coming to power of a pro-Russian government in Moldova would be a public relations coup for Moscow. It could claim that Moldova was a state that experienced all of the charms of European integration and decided to return to orient itself toward the tried and proven path toward Russia and long-established Russian markets.

Regarding Transnistria–an unrecognized republic which declared independence in 1990 and defended it in the War of Transnistria in 1992. It has been governed since as the Pridnestrovian Moldavian Republic, a pro-Russian government in Chisinau could help diffuse the crisis, but very likely in Moscow’s favor. To firm up agreements that ended the war, talks that include the US, EU, and Russia, are underway on the Transnistria Peace Settlement. Chisinau, along with Kiev, has blockaded Transnistria, preventing not only trade but the entry of citizens with Russian passports into its territory. After the War of Transnistria of 1992, the Russian Federation stationed 2,500 troops in the republic. Today, 1000 Russian Federation troops remain there ostensibly as peacekeepers. In 2014, Transnistria announced it hoped Russia would annex its territory into Russia following the Crimea referendum. As a sign of support, in 2015, Moscow had 400 Russian Federation troops there to hold military exercises using armored personnel carriers and live ammunition. Still, Moscow always considers the big picture, and apparently does not believe annexing Transnistria would be advantageous. It does not want the Transnistria issue to negatively impact its efforts to bring Moldova into its Eurasian Economic Union. Discernable steps to bring Moldova closer have included: the courtship of pro-Russian political elements; efforts to create stronger economic ties; and, diplomatic overtures on establishing a new security relationship. If Moldova moved closer to Russia, security risks might increase for Europe, especially with regard to Ukraine and Romania. In a calibrated way, the US and EU might invest directly into Moldovan communities, focusing on schools churches, community centers, and infrastructure projects. Supporting Moldovan economic growth by seeking more international markets for Moldovan goods and services worldwide might take some dtrains off of Chisinau. The US and EU could enable Moldova to better integrate itself militarily with Europe by providing its forces equipment and training from US and European military advisers. Diplomatic efforts could relax pressures on Chisinau from Ukraine and Romania.

It was the United Kingdom that raised European awareness of the importance of interventionist foreign and security policy and has kept the concept alive. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Europe to stand up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and to potential threats elsewhere on the continent. Nothing would make Putin happier than seeing the United Kingdom give-up on its Western partners.

Brexit

Nothing would make Putin happier than seeing the United Kingdom give-up on its Western partners. It was the United Kingdom that raised European awareness of the importance of interventionist foreign and security policy and has kept the concept alive. United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron has urged Europe to stand up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and potential threats elsewhere on the continent. Cameron has been frank in expressing mutual positions of the Western powers to Putin in meetings. It has also been the United Kingdom that has argued for the liberalization of European markets and global free-trade in unison with the US. The Obama administration is agonizing over the possibility of the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU on its watch. It would create unsettling changes in the US dynamic with the United Kingdom and EU as well. It was on January 23, 2013 that Cameron made his renowned “Bloomberg speech”, in which he promised an in/out referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership. Cameron said the referendum would follow a period of negotiation with other EU countries on the internal working of the EU and the United Kingdom’s relationship to it. Those negotiations occurred, and despite some firm resistance from France, Cameron got most of what he wanted. Four main points sum it up: an opt out from the ambition of an “ever closer union” (The phase appeared in the Treaty of Rome, which the United Kingdom is not a signatory and the non binding preamble of the Treaty of Lisbon.); greater powers for national parliaments block EU legislation; safeguards to ensure the single market cannot be rigged in favor of eurozone members; and, reducing access to social benefits to EU nationals, which is tied to concerns about immigration. Next comes the national referendum on June 23, 2016. “In/out” campaigning is underway. During the Greek, news about the crisis on the Russian state news channel, Russia-24, was accompanied by the graphic declaring “Greece—almost over.” The Russian daily Kosmomolskaya Pravda ran the headline: “Greek tragedy. Divorce already near.” The Greek crisis was perceived then as just the start of the EU’s problems, suggesting Portugal, Ireland, Spain, and Italy could be next if Greece left the eurozone. It should be expected that Russian media houses roll out similar coverage on Brexit.

Obama is counting on Cameron to capture the imagination of the United Kingdom and not let it recede further into the distance. The United Kingdom has been an important intermediary between the US and Europe. It is not near the center of European power, which is now concentrated around Germany and France. The United Kingdom has become weaker militarily and increasingly paralyzed by domestic issues. Washington fears that the United Kingdom is moving out of the international power game. Keeping an active United Kingdom in the EU is central to US efforts to keep Europe united. Obama might visit Cameron at Number 10 Downing Street to signify his support. Obama could ask Cameron then what exactly he can do as the US president to support the campaign to keep the United Kingdom in the EU. Cameron might just accept his offer and present Obama with a laundry list of requests. Nothing on that list should be subject to political bargaining. The special relationship between the US and the United Kingdom is genuine. By supporting Cameron, the Obama administration may leave the most positive legacy regarding US-United Kingdom relations since World War II.

Since Obama supports the campaign to keep the United Kingdom in the EU, perhaps he could visit London, and ask Cameron directly what he could do as the US president to assist him. If Cameron wants his help, he might just provide Obama with a laundry list of requests. Not one item should be subject to bartering. The special US relationship with the United Kingdom is real. By supporting Cameron on Brexit, the Obama administration may leave the most positive legacy regarding US-United Kingdom relations since World War II.

The Way Forward

The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was quoted as saying: “Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.” It is good the Obama administration in its final year has taken an interest in European unity and pressures from Russia. The administration has clearly indicated that it is not conceding to anything that is difficult, uncertain, and perhaps even disconcerting in international affairs.

Among Europeans in 2015, Obama received strong support, although his ratings dropped slightly over the past seven years. To give an example, he has the confidence of 83 percent of France, 76 percent of the United Kingdom, and 73 percent of Germany. Yet, perhaps there may be less interest in what Obama says at this point. He is, after all, a lame duck president with months left in office.   Europeans may be transfixed on the very interesting candidates of the Election of 2016, pondering who the next US president will be. Perhaps pride may cause them to reject what Obama may offer. Yet, whether Europeans want to hear from Obama or accept his help or not, they must recognize the need to remain united and maintain the Atlantic bridge to the US. Outside of the EU, European countries would have a superficial existence, underestimating their destiny, dignity, and nature. To that extent, a dialogue with Obama about capabilities and possibilities for assisting their countries in 2016 should be sought.

Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei about Fighting ISIS; Khamenei Is Counting on Suleimani, Not US Cooperation

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. An Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  He has achieved some success.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhrani said Iran would consider working with the US against ISIS if it sees the US begin to confront the terrorists.

According to a November 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei About Fighting Islamic States”, in October 2014, US President Barack Obama sent a highly confidential communication to Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The letter to Khamenei appeared directed at both bolstering the anti-ISIS campaign and prodding him toward a nuclear deal.  Those briefed on the letter familiarize the Wall Street Journal of its content.  Obama apparently wrote to Khamenei that expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posed a threat to both the US and Iran, creating a common enemy for both countries. Obama stressed that both had the goal of defeating ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  While Obama did not recognize Iran as the primary power in the region, as Tehran insists, he acknowledged in a way that Iran was “important” to his military and diplomatic campaign to push ISIS from territory it has gained in past months and dubbed the Islamic Caliphate.  Obama ostensibly sought to mitigate Tehran’s concerns over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  Although the US is arming and training Syrian opposition rebels, Obama apparently wrote in his letter that US military operations in Syria were not targeted at Assad or his security forces.  Those familiar with the letter explained Obama did not explicitly propose that the US and Iran coordinate their military activities.  However, they said there was a strong implication that coordination was desired.  Concerning the nuclear negotiations, Obama informed Khamenei that cooperation on ISIS was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China plus Germany) on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by November 24, 2014 deadline.  That point in the letter seemed to also imply cooperation would be more to Iran’s benefit.

News of Obama’s letter to Khamenei was somewhat confusing in the US given past statements by the administration on Iran.  When US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was asked on NBCNews “Meet the Press” on October 12, 2014, if Iran was providing help to the anti-ISIS coalition, she said “No!” Rice went on to state “We’re not in coordination or direct consultation with the Iranians about any aspects of the fight against ISIL [ISIS].  It is a fact that in Iraq, they are also supporting the Iraqis against ISIL [ISIS].  But we are not coordinating.  We’re doing this very differently and independently.”  Yet, despite Rice’s statement, Obama’s letter proposing the two countries cooperate in the anti-ISIS fight seems to be, at minimum, a move towards direct consultation with Tehran.  In the US Congress, Obama’s decision to send the letter revealed what the administration is saying about Iran may be different from its plans for Iran. Republican and Democrat Members of Congress are concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran on a nuclear deal.  Members likely also sense the administration is uncertain of how to proceed regarding ISIS, having pledged not to commit ground troops for combat operations.  While willing to support the anti-ISIS fight with funding, they will likely wants to reign in what they see as Obama’s perilous approach toward Iran.

For leaders, discerning how to proceed on foreign policy is made more difficult in adverse circumstances.  Some choices that may appear wise are not.  Near desperation on wanting a situation to be a certain way has led many, well-intentioned leaders in error to project their “positive thinking” on that of a foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Such decisions are often supported by captivating assessments of positive outcomes not based in reality. Only a negative outcome would reveal the flaws of an approach for some.  Perhaps in its rush to respond to the ISIS problem, the Obama administration may have been blinded to the fact that it could be sending the wrong signals and creating conditions for future difficulties with Iran.  Qui totum vult totum perdit.  (He who wants everything, loses everything.)

Obama’s Letter: Cui bono?

Developing options for Obama has been vexing for administration officials and advisers. Obama has been adverse to taking military action. That has typically left a limited range of options that they have been able to present to Obama.  Even in situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary as with ISIS, officials and advisers likely presented options for actions that were light-weight, very small in scale, and calibrated precisely. The initial size and scope of the US anti-ISIS air campaign evinced that.  At the “human level,” among reasons sending a letter to Khamenei was determined acceptable may have been that letters had been sent to Khamenei in the past with satisfactory results.  (Indeed, the October letter marked at least the fourth time Obama has written Khamenei since taking office in 2009.)  Sending the letter was easy enough to do.  The option was a diplomatic tact and therefore more attractive to Obama than the “unappealing” military options already adopted for Iraq.  Discussion on the letter among officials and advisers fell outside the milieu of the unending military intervention debate in the White House.  Additionally, as previously discussed by greatcharlie.com, Obama has a predilection toward forgiving or, considering the overwhelming military power of the US, showing mercy toward an offending rogue actor.  The letter is one more example of that tack. The effort to bring Iran into the anti-ISIS fight as a partner, even nominally, certainly is in line with Obama’s policy of promoting multilateral cooperation, particularly regarding the  commitment of military forces.  His apparent obsession with making it work may be part of the impetus for his administration’s outreach to an unlikely ally. So far, the administration has not had much luck prodding its anti-ISIS coalition partners into ground combat operations against ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. When ISIS was on the move, it seemed that the US State Department, in addition to “rearranging,” with good intentions, the Iraqi government, was most interested in gathering countries to become members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. 

Qualifications for inclusion in that coalition were nominal. Of the sixty-two countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily.  Many countries simply pledged their support.  As greatcharlie.com discussed in its October 25, 2014 post entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort”, the US has practically demanded more from some countries.  One country the US has pressured for action is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less military capabilities than the US would subordinate its own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is flawed.  Turkey likely reached the same conclusions as the US about conditions for intervening in Iraq and Syria with ground troops.  In Syria, there would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work.  If Turkey’s operations in Syria were to “creep” beyond destroying ISIS and the Assad regime was displaced, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition.  Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on the stewardship of Syria, which would surely be a political, economic, and social basket case, would be to Turkey’s benefit.

Responses in Tehran to Obama’s Letter

The thinking on Obama’s letter in Tehran was certainly different than his administration must have hoped.  An adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ali Khoram, speaking in Oman, confirmed to the Arabic daily, Asharq al-Aswat, that Obama reached out directly to Khamenei in a mid-October letter.  However, Khamenei’s foreign affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian State media that he was not aware of Obama’s outreach.  Khamenei’s web-site does not acknowledge receipt of the letter.  Obama’s letter, on its face, likely aggravated Khamenei, particularly to the extent that Obama did not render appreciation or even praise for the considerable effort and sacrifices already being made by Iran against ISIS.  That was a massive “oversight” if the goal of the letter was truly to promote cooperation at some level with Iran.  Using the anti-ISIS fight as a basis for dialogue with Khamenei perhaps had become a futile effort after he declared in October 2014 that “America, Zionism, and especially the veteran expert of spreading divisions—the wicked government of Britain—have sharply increased their efforts of creating divisions between the Sunnis and Shiites [Shi’a].”  He further stated, “They created al Qaeda and ‘Islamic State’ in order to create divisions and to fight against the Islamic Republic [Iran], but today, they have turned on them.”  It is possible that to Khamenei, the letter may have appeared more as a manifestation of Obama’s attitude than a response to a foreign policy problem.  Khamenei may have viewed the letter as an expression of Obama’s uncertainty over the US’s ability to shape the outcome of the anti-ISIS fight on his terms.  Khamenei, a spiritual, religious leader, likely sensed Obama’s inner-struggle over using the US military.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had already expressed ambivalence about continued communication between leaders in Washington and Tehran.  The Associated Press reported Rouhani stated in October 2014 that the time “wasn’t right” for another phone conversation or a meeting with Obama “because of the sensitivity that still exists between the two countries.”  The Associated Press also reported Rouhani as stating there must be substantive reasons with “high objectives” for conversations between world leaders.  If not, he said, “telephone calls are somewhat meaningless.”  Rouhani explained a phone conversation between leaders “would only be constructive and fruitful when it is done according to a precisely laid plan with precisely clearly stated objectives.” Otherwise, he said, “it will never be constructive or effective.”

Obama’s letter most likely did much to boost confidence among Iranian leaders, particularly the IRGC and political and religious hardliners that the US was not moving with an assured step and posed no threat to plans Iran has in Iraq or the region.  The failure of the US to act effectively and decisively in Iraq right away and the abysmal results shown for the nearly decade long US training program for the Iraqi Army and police forces very likely mitigated fears within all quarters in Tehran that the Obama administration might take military action against Iran or use Iraqi security forces to attack Iran.  Officials and advisers to Khamenei likely feel the fight with ISIS has caused Obama to consider what the US might face from the Iranian Armed Forces and other security elements globally if it attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  They certainly believe going to war with Iran would be a far greater enterprise for the US than fighting ISIS.  They probably feel certain that the US would never attack Iran while the anti-ISIS fight was raging.  They likely believe Obama would totally reject the idea of fighting Iran and ISIS simultaneously.

Iran’s Efforts in Iraq

Sitting right across the border from Iraq, Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, saw an even greater danger from ISIS than the US did, and immediately attended to it.  Rouhani has stated “We’ve actually been the ones countering terrorism in the region for years.”  He also stated, “Had it not been for Iran’s timely assistance, many of the Iraqi cities would have fallen to the hands of these vicious terrorists.”  The Iranians were never going to wait and see what the US does next once ISIS was on the move. They needed to stop ISIS. Iranian leaders certainly realized that waiting could lead to tragic consequences.  ISIS had begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives.  Syria provided a reliable model to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory.  Back on June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.

Iranian military and security officials knew that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to deter attacks against its fighters.  ISIS would follow through with their threats without hesitation.  ISIS has since committed such acts in Iraq. The Iranians also knew ISIS would set up an Islamic state in captured territory, sustainable or not.  If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk.  ISIS would surely attack Iran.

Iran has IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani handling the situation in Iraq. The eyes of Iran are on him.  The Sunday Times of London reported on June 15, 2014 that Suleimani travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. A senior Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  The Iraqi source also said Suleimani brought “light and medium weapons, rockets, heavy machine guns and lots of ammunition.”  Much publicity has been produced by the Iranian government over Suleimani’s presence on the ground in Iraq.  As it was predicted by greatcharlie.com, Suleimani began his operations against ISIS by using the Quds Force, which are IRGC special operations forces that he directly commands, and small numbers of other IRGC combat units.  Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops increased intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.  By moving throughout Iraq, particularly in the so-called Islamic Caliphate, Iranian intelligence officers have gained information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and kept their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links certainly have been established with commanders of Kurdish fighters and Iraqi security forces to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Those contacts with the Iraqi security forces have reportedly also allowed for the collection of information on, and creation of informal communication with, US military and intelligence elements operating on the ground in Iraq.  Intelligence collected concerning ISIS has been utilized in the development of an operational plan. When necessary MOIS and Quds Force personnel, have been used tactically, fighting primarily alongside Kurdish fighters against ISIS.  Indeed, Iranian forces have done a lot of fighting, and they have gained the Kurds’ respect and confidence.  Suleimani ramped up the training and equipping of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen.  Battle-ready units have been deployed in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq and Holy Shrines.  Others are being sent directly into the combat against ISIS.  Suleimani has reportedly deployed Lebanese Hezbollah to Iraq to work with the Shi’a militias.  Truckloads of arms and equipment from Iran continuously flow to the Shi’a militiamen. Some supplies and weapons are being flown in.  Five Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers were from Iran into Iraq for the Iraqi Air Force.

Once operating in the shadows, photos of IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (center) on the battlefield in Iraq have recently appeared in Iranian state media, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

How Iran Could Proceed

Iran is still not counting on the US to act on the ground in a muscular way against ISIS any time soon since it has just begun training “its Iraqis.”  In the meantime, Iran might opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq.  Back in June 2014, Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “We can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi Army that we have been able to provide the Syrian Army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That apparently meant having greater numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there.  The more Iran can accomplish against ISIS, the less the US will need to do.  There would also be less for US trained Iraqis to do.  Even with the specter of sectarian strife hanging over everything, Iran will be viewed among many average Iraqis as rescuers.

As discussed in greatcharlie.com’s June 30, 2014 post entitled “While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!“, a  further increase in Iranian intervention might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, not coordinated with the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide Kurdish fighters, Shi’a militia, some Iraqi security forces, and all Iranian units in Iraq with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability that ISIS would be unable to match.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support the advance and help control recaptured territory.

With Iraq’s consent, Iran could deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  A huge deficit in the Iranian effort if Suleimani’s plan is to defeat ISIS is close air support.  Regardless of the availability of artillery, close air support is the best, most rapid means to exploit tactical opportunities in the offense or defense.  It can provide fires, with appropriate ordinance, to destroy, disrupt, suppress, fix, harass, neutralize, or delay ISIS forces.  Iran’s fight against ISIS now is one-dimensional.

Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that Iran, just as the US, and just as Turkey, will not commit itself so heavily to Iraq without expecting to acquire even greater influence over it.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, it is hard to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years.  If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq—and that could happen depending on the scale of its of intervention even though some Western analysts have expressed doubts, they will have much to gain.  Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered.  Military and security officials may become the primary voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, on Iraq, as well as Syria, Obama really seems to be searching for answers. Some might derisively state he is paralyzed with uncertainty over what to do.  Given that possibility, Obama’s letter on ISIS likely satisfied Khamenei although he rejected it.  In the US, “cynics” among Obama’s political opponents hearing of the letter may have wanted to quote to their president the warning of conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. that there is always a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil.  Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. Devising foreign policy approaches requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature.  Obama, himself, must respond to issues not based on his personal needs, values, and principles, but those of the US.  His country’s needs must come before establishing his legacy.

As US National Security Adviser Susan Rice confirmed in October 2014, US forces and Iranian forces are both operating in Iraq to support local elements in their battle against ISIS.  The Iranian commander, Suleimani, does not have any friends in the US military given his activities against US forces during the Iraq War.  US military and intelligence officials would certainly like to get their hands on him.  However, as US and Iranian forces have been tasked to operate in the same space, it had to be expected that they would cross paths.  Informal cooperation between Suleimani’s Quds Force operatives and MOIS officers and US special operators and intelligence officers, albeit through the Iraqi security force intermediaries, has resulted.  For example, in the fight for Amerli, Iraqi security forces, Shi’a militiamen, and Iranian operators, maneuvered on the ground against ISIS fighters while US airpower struck ISIS targets with multiple airstrikes.  US and Iranian commanders “coordinated informally” by passing messages to each other through commanders of the Iraqi security forces in the fight.  Such professionally handled interactions will likely continue to occur.  While some cooperation agreement by national leaders might prove helpful, US and Iranian interactions in Iraq must be sorted out on the scene.

The Commander-in-chief’s confidence in US military commanders at the Pentagon and US Central Command and officers and enlisted men on the ground in Iraq is the most important factor in all of this.  Rather the send letters to Iranian leaders at this juncture, Obama would do more to enhance chances of success in Iraq by communicating with, and encouraging, his own fighters.  He should meet those he has sent to Iraq confidentially, perhaps even on the ground, and let them know directly how important they are to him and how important their mission is to the US.  He must let them know that he has complete confidence in their capabilities and that he is relying on them to successfully complete their mission.  German Field Marshal Walter Model, the controversial World War II battlefield genius, was known to use a line from Goethe to praise his finest officers: “Den lieb ich, der umogliches begehrt! (I love him who craves the impossible!)”  The special operators that were sent to Iraq to perform the advise-and-assist mission may not be able to perform the impossible.  However, knowing they have the full support and confidence of their commander-in-chief, they will do whatever is humanly possible to destroy ISIS and perform beyond any projections by analysts in or out of the military.  Significant achievements of those “quiet professionals” in Iraq could inspire the Iranians to reach out to the US regarding “coordination.”  After all, when Rouhani was asked in September whether Tehran could formally work with the US to tackle ISIS, he stated, “We can think about it if we see America start confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq.  We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups.”

Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort

Almost immediately after United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron received approval from Parliament to have the Royal Air Force join the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, Tornado bombers, as the one pictured above, began engaging in highly effective airstrikes in Iraq. While some nations as the United Kingdom have contributed significantly to the anti-ISIS air campaign, the efforts of many other partners in the 60 nation coalition have been negligible or nonexistent militarily.

According to an October 22. 2014 Foreign Policy article entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against the Islamic State?”, as the administration of US President Barack Obama ramps up its campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), it is also trying to present itself as acting with the support of a broad range of partner nations. The article notes the US State Department lists more than 60 countries as members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. However, the qualifications for inclusion in that coalition are nominal. While many countries have pledged military or humanitarian support, the State Department indicates that “simply exposing the true nature” of ISIS can qualify a nation for the coalition. Western coalition partners continue participating in airstrikes in Iraq, however, the Pentagon has not discussed the participation of Arab partners. To date, few countries have joined the US for airstrikes within Syria since October 14, 2014, following a week of apparently US-only strikes there. The US Central Command noted in its daily statement on October 21, 2014, that “out of respect for participating nations, US Central Command will defer to partner nations to publicly comment on their airstrikes” against ISIS.  Of the 60 countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily. The October 22nd Foreign Policy article alleges that US claimed that there were even commitments from coalition partners of ground troops to fight ISIS, but those offers never materialized.

The Multilateral Gambit

It was in 2014 that the Obama administration really began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. As it was explained in the greatcharlie.com post, ” Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!”, organizing multinational efforts to resolve foreign and defense policy issues is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise.

Understanding the importance of the campaign against ISIS, United Kungdom Prime Minister gained approval from Parliament to have the Royal Air Force participate in the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. The Royal Air Force almost immediately engaged in airstrikes against ISIS. However, no Western state such as the United Kingdom, which is already fighting ISIS from the air and possesses a genuine capability to engage in land warfare, would willingly or robustly go into Iraq or Syria. Indeed, national leaders of Western states would not want to assume the risks of intervening with ground troops now, especially when most of those leaders truly feel that level of commitment would not “exactly” be within their nation’s interests. Despite the terrorist attack in Canada and thwarted attacks in Australia, in many capitals, the loyal opposition and many  policy experts have taken the position that their governments have overstated the international threat from ISIS. Those criticisms have also placed restraints on just how much national leaders can do.

Placing Partners under Pressure

Oddly, the Obama administration also appears to have requested Western allies and coalition partners commit their armed forces to military action in Iraq and Syria even though the administration would not make a similar commitment of US forces. That approach was unrealistic.  Obama publicly indicated a hesitancy to act militarily in both Iraq and Syria. As a rationale for its hesitancy to commit the US military, Pentagon officials  explained “the US military is taking a defensive, not offensive, approach” to ISIS. On October 22, 2014, The Washington Post reported that the US determined newly trained mainstream Syrian opposition fighters will not be able to capture strategically important towns from ISIS, without the support of forward-deployed US combat troops. Alternatively, those mainstream opposition fighters will only be assigned to defend already-controlled territory. According to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, the current train-and-equip program for the Syrian opposition would seek to strengthen appropriately vetted elements of its fighting force, Free Syrian Army, to enable them to counter ISIS; strengthen the moderate opposition so that they can better defend themselves and territory; and promote the conditions for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Syria.” One country the US has pressured for action against ISIS is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is curious. Turkey likely reached the same  conclusions  as the US about conditions for engaging militarily in Iraq and Syria. There would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work. If Turkey’s operations in Syria “creeped” beyond destroying ISIS and it effectively displaces the Assad regime, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition. Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on what would be the political, economic, and social basket case as Syria would be to Turkey’s benefit now.

Given the diminutive size and inappreciable impact of contributions by many coalition partners, as outlined in the October 22nd Foreign Policy  article, it would seem as beneficial to the Obama administration not to publicize the relative efforts of coalition partners as it would be for the partners themselves. Such information may create doubt over just how much the world is really behind the US in the anti-ISIS effort. In any event, more will certainly need to be done by the Obama administration to defeat ISIS than simply promote the simulacrum of a broad multilateral effort. If coalition partners are not carrying as much of the burden as may have been hoped, but perhaps should have been expected, the US must step up its own efforts. That would mean allowing military planners not to simply devise the best plans feasible under constraints set by the Obama administration. Civilian control and political guidance without question is necessary. However, provided with everything they actually need, and working within well calibrated parameters established US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey–who is unquestionably honor bound, US military planners, using their expertise based on careers that include continuous professional education and training and considerable experience, would undoubtedly develop far more effective plans for the use of airpower. Hamstringing the US military by insisting it develop war plans based on some illusion within the Obama administration that some proportional level of multilateral cooperation will ever materialize, will practically ensure operations against ISIS, although  will not yield the desired outcome: the destruction of ISIS. The Obama administration appears to be attempting mulgere hircum! (To milk a male goat!; To attempt the impossible!)

Assessment

The comedian and late night talk show host in the US, David Letterman, said “every military operation has to have a name so people can get behind it and they now have a name for the war against ISIS: ‘Operation Hillary’s Problem’.” The US-led anti-ISIS operation’s true name is Operation Inherent Resolve. Ostensibly, the Obama administration is fully committed to defeating ISIS right now and not leaving the job to his predecessor. Yet, the fight against ISIS is more than just an operation. It is a war being fought against a barbaric adversary. Its leaders and fighters are deluded by the conceit that they are fighting for God. The decision to take action against ISIS was laudable and represented the heights of US foreign policy which in the Obama administration has at times seemed full of contradictions. Likewise, the insistence on presenting the veil of multilateral action when the US is doing the bulk of the heavy lifting in the US-led coalition against ISIS represents the depths of US foreign policy. It creates the impression that the US military effort is driven more by political expedience than the best military approach possible. Looking good is not as important as being good. Doing what is necessary to win this war must have priority over all other interests. The US and it coalition partners may be on the same team, but the Obama administration must accept that the US will need to both block and carry the ball over the goal line and not hide the fact it is doing so.

Russia Tells Iraq It’s “Ready” to Support Fight Against ISIS; But Russia Must Take “Direct Action” in Iraq and Syria for the Sake of Its Own Security

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin greets members of Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group). Russia has pledged to support Iraq and Syria in the fight against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. However, the threat to Russian security posed by Russian citizens in those groups makes action by Putin in those countries imperative.

According to a September 26, 2014 NBCNews.com report entitled, “Russia Tells Iraq It’s ‘Ready’ to Support Fight Against ISIS”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made the pledge to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York that Russia would help support Iraqi in the fight against ISIS. The Russian Foreign Ministry stated through the Itar-Tass state-run news agency that “During the meeting, Lavrov confirmed Russia’s support for Iraq’s independence, territory integrity, and sovereignty.” The Russian Foreign Ministry further stated “Moscow is ready to continue supporting Iraq in its efforts in fighting the terrorist threat, and, first of all, the one from the Islamic State.” On September 19th, Ilya Rogachev, head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Department for New Challenges and Threats, told the Interfax news agency that Russia still declines to participate in the US-led effort against Islamic militant groups in Iraq or Syria. However, Russia pledges to continue its aid to Iraq, Syria, and other nations that are fighting terrorists. Indeed, in the form of a sillitude he explained, “The anti-ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant used interchangeably with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS)] coalition is not a club party—we do not expect any invitations and we are not going to buy tickets.” Apparently, the Russian government has not amended its position even though the first round of US-led airstrikes on Islamic militant groups that began on September 23rd obviated its contention that the air strikes would be used as a pretext to attack the armed forces or any other elements of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The air strikes actually hit a range of target including leaders, command and control centers, communications facilities, training camps, and supply depots of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, the Al-Qaeda linked Khorasan Group, and its parent organization, the Al-Nusra Front. While the US executed the majority of the strikes from bombers, fighters, cruise missiles, and drones, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Bahrain, and Qatar in the second and third wave of attacks in the strike formation and through reconnaissance flights. The US began air strikes against ISIS in Iraq on August 8th.

The Khorasan Group, a collection of seasoned Al-Qaeda operatives, that the West feels poses a direct threat to targets in Europe and the US, should be of particular interest to Russia. Its members include several fighters from Chechnya, as well as Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen are included among its members. Khorasan’s leader, Muhsin al-Fadhli, fought against Russian forces in Chechnya and was trained there in the use of firearms, anti-aircraft weapons, and explosive.

Since the initial days of the Syrian conflict, Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin made it clear that he had no plans to intervene on the ground in Syria with Russian forces. At the same time, he made it clear last year that he was following the movement of Russians and Europeans to Syria very closely, and was concerned about their capabilities and possibilities for action against Russia. Surely, the conscience of the Russian people has been struck while watching the Islamic militants move through Syria as well as Iraq. Some may recall the ruthlessness of Nazi forces in the rear areas as they moved through Russia during World War II. Unlike some Western countries, Putin has not been compelled to respond with force to the anguish and outrage of Russian citizens, after witnessing a public execution of a Russian citizen by extremist Islamic militants in Syria or Iraq. Putin wants Russia to look strong, but sitting on the sidelines and relying on the US to manage the entire situation does not allow Russia to look strong. Interestingly, standing aside practically amounts to a conceit that US leadership and support for countries, militarily, financially, or politically can ensure positive things are accomplished internationally, and that the importance of the US is unmatched on the world stage. That is precisely the perspective of the US that Putin has tried so hard to knock down in speeches and published statements. It is also a gamble. ISIS, the Al-Nusra Front, and its off-shoot, Khorasan pose a genuine threat to the Russian homeland. They have declared that. Only force will have a sustained impact and strong educational effect on these groups. Some of Putin’s advisers may counsel that using force in Iraq and Syria would prove ineffective and pointless. Others may reject the idea fearing Western condemnation and retribution over unilateral intervention by Russia. Yet, if a search and destroy operation by Russian military or other security organizations against Russian elements in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria will make Russia more secure, it should be undertaken. Virtus tentamine gaudet! (Strength welcomes the challenge!) 

Russia and Islamic Militant Groups

Putin has been continuously engaged in an effective fight against Islamic militant groups in Russia. Counter-terrorism has been a key aspect of Russia’s national security policy for many years due in great part to longstanding security problems the government has faced from the Islamic insurgency near the Caucasus Mountains. The insurgency, organized into a loose alliance of rebel groups known as Imarat Kavkaz (Caucasus Emirate), has been simmering more than a decade after it drove separatists from power in the North Caucasus province of Chechnya during Putin’s first term. They seek to carve an Islamic state out known as the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria from a swath of southern Russia. That group posed the greatest threat to the Olympic Games in Sochi.

The possibility that Russian fighters from these groups that have fought in Iraq and Syria may return home to engage in terrorist activities remains one of Putin’s greatest concerns. Back in June 21, 2013, at a conference in St. Petersburg, Russia, Putin made the claim that 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters. The London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalization estimates that the number of Russian fighters in Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, including those in the field now and those that have returned home, is around 800. Putin has not provided any new estimates publicly. 

In his September 11, 2013 New York Times Op-Ed, Putin discussed the danger posed to international peace and security by Islamic militant groups in Syria. Putin explained, “There are few champions of democracy in Syria. But there are more than enough Qaeda fighters and extremists of all stripes battling the government. The United States State Department has designated Al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, fighting with the opposition, as terrorist organizations. This internal conflict, fueled by foreign weapons supplied to the opposition, is one of the bloodiest in the world. Mercenaries from Arab countries fighting there, and hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia, are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria? After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all.”

Taking Action

Assad and Abadi would most likely give their consent for Russia to conduct operations in their countries and provide Russia valuable support in its efforts. Finding Russian citizens in Iraq and Syria among reportedly over 30,000 fighters of ISIS may be akin to finding a needle in a haystack. Yet again, the potential benefit of thwarting potential attacks in Russia by extremists Islamic militants underscores the efficacy of such an undertaking. Given the degree of difficulty involved, Russia should use special forces units from the Federal’naya sluzhba bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Federal Security Service) or FSB, Directorate “A” of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Alpha Group) and Directorate V of the FSB Special Purpose Center (Vympel) groups. Russia could also employ Zaslon (Barrier), a special services group of the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR. Of the many special service groups established in Russia, Alpha Group and Vympel are the most well-known and respected. Alpha Group, an elite stand alone sub unit of Russia’s special services, is a dedicated counter-terrorism task force of the FSB. It primarily prevents and responds to violent acts in public transportation and buildings. Vympel is officially tasked with protecting Russia’s strategic installations, however it is also available for extended police duties, paramilitary applications, and covert operations in Russia or abroad. The profile and capabilities of both units have increased, and they have taken over and consolidated roles and personnel from other organizations. Over many years, Alpha Group has acquired a reputation for using ruthless methods in response to terrorist acts. Zaslon has not been publicly recognized by the Russian government. Zaslon personnel are said to be former spetsnaz troops and serve under the sole command of Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) headquarters in Yasenevo, on the outskirts of Moscow. In his book Russian Security and Paramilitary Forces Since 1991 (Osprey, 2013), Mark Galeotti, of NYU’s Center for Global Affairs, explains that Zaslon has been linked with everything from assassinations abroad to gathering up documents and technology that the Russian government did not want the US to seize when Baghdad fell. In Syria, Galeotti suspects Zaslon may be providing additional support for Russian military and diplomatic personnel, and is likely already earmarked to extract people, documents, or technologies Russia would not want to share if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime began to collapse.

Air strikes should continue to disperse ISIS fighters as they try to avoid certain death from US bombs and cruise missiles. Perhaps operating as mixed “combined special groups” (svodnye spetsialnye gruppy (mixed special groups) or SSGs, Russian special operations forces could go into ISIS and Al-Nusra Front controlled areas and kill Russian elements or when the opportunity presents itself, collect prisoners. If ordered by Putin to present a plan for such an operation, senior Russian special services’ planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee. In Syria, for example, Russia special services’ efforts might entail some of the following steps. Russian special services should exploit all of its intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to assist in locating rouge Russian elements on the ground in Syria. FSB and other Russian intelligence and security services apparently already possessed files on the identities of Russians who have traveled to Syria. Support from FSB operating in areas of Russia from which the suspected nationals originate will also support Alpha Group, Vympel, and Zaslon operations. With assistance from the Syrian military intelligence services, Mukhabarat, Russian special services could interact with Syrian citizens to collect granular information on the Islamic militant groups including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and its combat and nonlethal resources. Russian special services may benefit from liasing with elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force. From that work, an effective operational plan can be developed. Russian special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance means would be used to monitor the locations, daily movements, and activities of the hostile Islamic militant groups. Leaders, arms, supply lines and depots, and financial support would be targeted. All entry points of Islamic militants could be identified and placed under special reconnaissance and electronic surveillance. Penetrating the Islamic militant groups, if Russia’s SVR has not already done so, would unlikely be helpful and would place any assets engaged in that effort at risk, especially once direct action is taken against those groups. All of that would be done while trying not to cross paths with US-led air assets.

Eventual strikes against Russian targets in the Islamic militant groups must be executed swiftly and covertly. Retired US General Stanley McChrystal, former commander of the US Joint Special Operations Command, has offered hints on how to exploit situational awareness which were summarized in the January 7, 2014 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “Obama, Putin discuss Olympics Security in Call; Putin Has Got It Covered and He Will Keep His Promise to the Terrorists, Too!” When striking at a terrorist group’s network, the goal is to paralyze its nervous system. Hitting it intermittently, or every other night, allows the opponent to become stronger, having become accustomed to resurrecting itself. However, McChrystal explains that if you strike at enough targets simultaneously, taking down key leaders, the group will be thrown into chaos and confusion and have a difficult time “regenerating.” That will allow for decisive effects.

Units also can be better utilized as a result of excellent situational awareness. As McChrystal explained “Traditionally, if we did a raid and we thought we were going to need 20 commandos, to actually be on the target, we might take 120, because we had to put security around the site to protect it from enemy reinforcements, and we might have to put a support section and a command and control section there because you need all those things to account for the unexpected. But when you have very good situational awareness and good communications, you only send the 20, because your security comes from being able to see, and then you can maneuver forces if you need them. So suddenly, the 120 commandos aren’t doing one raid; their doing six raids, simultaneously, and you start to get the ability to do 300 raids a month.”

To speed the process and achieve a high level of success, the Russians could adapt a form of “find, fix, finish, exploit, and analyze” (F3EA) developed by McChrystal. Under the concept, security forces would understand who or what is a target, locate it, capture or kill it, take what intelligence one can from people and documents, analyze that, then go back out execute the same cycle again. If Russian security services want to act at a speed as fast as US special operators in Iraq under McChrystal ‘s command, decision-making would need to be de-centralized because of the high number of raids. Subordinate elements must be allowed to operate quickly. It is very likely that FSB has been using sophisticated technical means to monitor the movements and activities of individuals and groups, likely to engage in terrorist acts, has been on-going. Such surveillance efforts could also be used to develop leads for the operation.

Assessment

On September 11, 2014, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated on a Voice of America radio broadcast that the administration of US President Barack Obama was disappointed by Russia’s initial reaction to the president’s speech on ISIS, which indicated the group represented a direct threat to Russia itself. Kerry explained in his view Russia must join the international fight against ISIS. Prompting by the Obama administration will unlikely cause Putin change his position and join the multinational effort against Islamic militants groups in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, it would more likely cause him to turn away from it. Yet, clear headed, practical choices must be made on Iraq and Syria in the Kremlin. As a result of US-led air strikes, there are opportunities being created for Russia in Iraq and Syria to enhance its security. Putin, his military commanders, and senior security officials know the capabilities of specific individuals and units in Russia, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be. They must also recognize the real possibility for success in enhancing Russia’s security if Russian special services acted in Iraq and Syria against Russian targets.

Of course, if Putin targeted Russian members of Islamic militant groups in Iraq and Syria, he would be contributing immensely to the international effort against those groups. Indeed, in addition to the Chechen members of Khorasan, a number of the senior leaders of ISIS are Chechen. An ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani is one of ISIS’ most prominent commanders and at one point was the face of the group. Putin demands that Russia should be recognized as a world power, but Russia also must act in a manner consistent with that title. While he has shown a willingness to intervene in the former Soviet republics bordering Russia, Putin has certainly not had Russian forces gallivanting outside of its region, attempting to secure Russian interests. Taking action in Iraq and Syria as proposed here would be more about establishing Russia’s security than posturing. Yet, as result of the action, Putin would demonstrate not only to the Russian people, but to the world, he is a leader who is able to respond effectively to security issues. Putin would be able to show the Russian people and the world, that Russia is a global power.

Zarif’s “Meet the Press” Interview Offers Insight into His Thinking on the Nuclear Issue; US Critics Responded Harshly

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, whose ministry has been Iran’s lead agency on the nuclear negotiations, would like to see a final agreement reached with the P5+1 countries.  Yet, he knows constructing a final deal would require a transformation in thinking among all parties at this late stage.  Given that, a final deal appears less likely.

On the July 13, 2014 episode of NBC News “Meet the Press”, a US Sunday morning news program hosted by David Gregory, a special feature presented was a recording of Gregory’s earlier interview with the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, in Vienna. Presented in a truncated manner, the taped interview covered an array of topics including Iraq, Syria, and why Iran wants an extensive nuclear capacity and whether it wants a nuclear bomb. Afterward on the program, Gregory asked a bipartisan guest panel of both Republican and Democratic political commentators to critique Zarif’s statements. Representing the Republican perspective was former US Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal. The Democrats present were former Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan and Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press. With a synoptic view, the commentators rejected Zarif’s statements with harsh remarks, expressing considerable mistrust over Iran’s intentions. They viewed Zarif’s statements as unhelpful, and highlighted what they felt was his shortsightedness and equivocation. However, the commentators’ examinations of Zarif’s statements were quite superficial. Their accusations that Zarif was insincere and that the Iranians were untrustworthy were already pretty well-worn.

It was initially difficult to fathom why Zarif would make the effort to provide an interview for the mainstream US news media when the nuclear negotiations were at a critical point. The issues surrounding the negotiations are not simple. Zarif has articulated Iran’s positions superbly. Perhaps he wanted to share insights to impact views of the negotiations in the US. Yet, the “Meet the Press” interview format did not allow him to truly delve into the matter. He could only touch the surface of important aspects. The interview turned into a shallow entrapment for Zarif. Heightened skepticism could have been expected from the commentators given the current uncertainty over where the nuclear negotiations are headed and the history of uncongenial relations between the US and Iran since 1979. However, Zarif’s remarks should have been looked at beyond the surface. Their value could be revealed only through a deeper, profound consideration of them.

Zarif’s Remarks

Among his most noteworthy comments, Zarif explained: “I think what we have said should give confidence to people that were not looking for nuclear weapons. We have said that our entire nuclear energy program can fit in a very clear and well defined picture. That is, we want to produce fuel for our own nuclear reactor. Nuclear power reactor! And we have a contract that provides us fuel for that reactor. But that contract expires in seven or eight years.”

Gregory asked Zarif how he “could not see the benefit in having a nuclear weapon, particularly as a Shi’a state surrounded by Sunni states, many of whom are your enemies.” Zarif responded by saying such calculations were wrong. He explained: “In fact, we need to go out of our way in order to convince our neighbors that we want to live in peace and tranquility with them, because the politics of geography, the fact that we’re bigger, the fact that we’re stronger, the we’re more populous, the fact that we have a [sic] better technology, the fact that our human resources is [sic] by far more developed than most of our neighbors. All of these provide us with inherent areas of strength that we don’t need to augment with other capabilities.”

Additionally, Zarif stated: “In fact, I believe nuclear weapons reduces countries’ influence in our region. It doesn’t help anybody.” “The fact that everybody in the international community believes that mutual assured destruction, that is the way the United States, Russia and others, get, seek, peace and security. Through having the possibility of destroying each other 100 times over is simply mad.” “And that is why this mentality that nuclear weapons makes anybody safe. Have they made Pakistan safe? Have they made Israel safe? Have they made Russia safe? All these countries are susceptible. Now you have proof that nuclear weapons or no amount of military power makes you safe. So we need to live in a different paradigm. And that’s what we are calling for.”

The Political Commentators’ Criticisms

The responses of the political commentators on Zarif’s remarks were wholly negative. Kim Strassel of the Wall Street Journal commented that the Iranian nuclear issue is “a good example of bipartisanship in Congress . . . both in the Senate and in the House. Democrats and Republicans, they don’t want to go backwards. They want tougher sanctions.” Stephen Henderson of the Detroit Free Press commented, “I think anyone [sic] on the globe thinks that we don’t need more nuclear states in general. And we are certainly don’t need this state [Iran] which has shown itself to be responsive. The interview you heard earlier today shows how irrational the thinking is.”

Former Senator Rick Santorum stated “we were laughing at him [Zarif] saying, “He must have the toughest job. I wanna [sic] go after him lying, just bald face, irrational lying. No one believes him. Nobody on either side of the aisle believes that these folks [the Iranians] are trustworthy partners.” Former Governor Jennifer Granholm concurred about the group watching in the green room (the guests’ waiting room at the television studio) laughing at Zarif.

A Second Look

Unlike the political commentators, Zarif has been part of the nuclear negotiations. He has direct knowledge of the mystery of exactly where things are headed. By granting the interview, he provided policy analysts, academics, and political and business leaders in the US a delicate indication of a possible path to reaching some concordance on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear program. Zarif was not telling some Oriental tale full of distortion and exaggerations. Rather, his words were austere and natural sounding, stemming from deep thought and experience with the nuclear negotiation process. By their statements, the commentators seemingly sought to arrest Zarif’s efforts to share his insights.

Zarif does not proffer any illusions of assured success or narcissism for the nuclear negotiations as an enterprise. However, more percipient to him is the fact that the US is still fully engaged in the nuclear negotiations. It affirms the confidence the administration of US President Barack Obama, and the other P5+1 governments (The United Kingdom, France, Russia, China plus Germany), have in the process. They want a deal. Unlike Zarif, the “Meet the Press” commentators were apparently unaware that relations between the US and Iranian diplomats and officials have reached a more positive stage. The negotiations have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking. The improved understanding of their respective positions was further strengthened by back channel talks. The commentators remarks indicated that the nuclear negotiations are not as “fashionable” an issue as they were in the exhilarating days in July 2013 when Iranian President Hassan Rouhani won the presidential election in Tehran, and in September 2013 when the first direct talks were held between Zarif and US Secretary of State John Kerry at the UN and Obama and Rouhani spoke directly by telephone.

Zarif statements may have provided a hint of the discourse in Tehran on the nuclear negotiations at the most senior level, and he is the one individual capable, and apparently willing, to do so. Zarif would undoubtedly be positioned on the more moderate side of the nuclear issue relative to the Supreme National Security Council, Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, and other key political and religious organizations and senior leaders concerned with foreign policy. He has publicly advocated for continued negotiations to reach an agreement with the P5+1 on the nuclear program before the Iranian Parliament. Perhaps Zarif was even presenting arguments he may have made in Tehran in sub rosa policy debates on the nuclear negotiations. He may very well have included in what he stated on “Meet the Press” points similar to those he has presented to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will make the final decision for Iran on an agreement. The commentators heard those same words, but could not hear what Zarif said.

The Way Forward

All things considered, it appears, by providing the interview Zarif actually sought to “clear the air” with the US public regarding relations between the two countries. He sought to build confidence, eliminate some ambiguities about Iran’s positions, and quiet guessing over Iran’s actions, intentions, and motives. Looking through a lens untinted by the conviction that Iran is again engaged in a deception, Zarif spoke to the US audience with a certain kind of humility, not with an assertiveness that might be expected of a foreign minister speaking with certitude over his country’s positions. As the point man for Iran’s negotiation effort, under great pressure, Zarif appeared humble of heart. One would need to be humble of heart to hear what he was saying. The hardened heart would block the information. What is audible to the ear becomes incomprehensible. The “Meet the Press” commentators illustrated how hardened hearts react.

The prime way to understand the situation regarding the negotiations is by understanding human experience: history. Nearly every US president has had to take some major risk on foreign policy. Along with great achievements, there have been grand mistakes. Despite recent progress through talks between US and Iranian diplomats and officials in Geneva and Vienna, distrust lingers in their respective capitals after years of mutual loathing. All sides are very cautious. For a final agreement to be constructed, all sides must exhibit a requisite degree of generosity. That would mean risking much, making it less likely states engaged in the process would do such. If all sides cannot approach the process with this in state of mind, the desired outcome will not be reached. Everything achieved so far will likely fall by the wayside. The next debate will then begin on a way to move forward, as unpopular or undesirable as it may be.

While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!

Legendary Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, is directly responsible for Iran’s security in the Middle East beyond its borders. Events have conspired to put Suleimani in position to lead Iran in a struggle that could confirm it as the region’s dominant power.

According to a June 17, 2014, New York Times article entitled, “US Is Exploring Talks with Iran on Crisis in Iraq,” a senior US diplomat met with his Iranian counterpart in Vienna on June 16th to explore whether the US and Iran could work together to create a more stable Iraqi government and ease the threat from an Islamic militant insurgency. More than a decade after the US invasion, fighters from the Al-Qaeda linked group, the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), and other insurgent groups, have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. Iraq appears to be collapsing. ISIS is the same group that helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. Under US policy, the hope was that the Free Syrian Army (FSA), with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. However, the FSA has not been truly successful and ISIS has regularly attacked its units while also fighting the Assad regime.

The reported meeting between the US and Iran on the Iraq matter took place after US Secretary of State John Kerry signaled in an interview on Yahoo! Newsthat the Obama administration was open to cooperating with Iran on Iraq. The partnership seemed unlikely from the start given the US has called Iran a state sponsor of terrorism and alleged it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. Nonetheless, the Obama administration recognized that Iran’s involvement in Iraq was inevitable. The Obama administration’s approach to the ISIS crisis includes exploiting the situation to push Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a more intercommunal government, to include Sunnis and Kurds, in an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. Indeed, Obama has insisted that no American military help will be forthcoming unless Iraqis make an effort to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry, in talks with Maliki, made headway on the issue. It was agreed a session will be held in the Parliament in Baghdad to discuss establishing a new government, more representative of ethno-religious groups in Iraq. That seems risky given the situation. Certainly, an arrangement could be cobbled together quickly. Yet, a rushed effort may not serve Iraq’s long-term interests. It could be overcome by a decision by Iran to back hard-line Shi’a leaders. Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force Commander, General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani, recently traveled to Baghdad to meet with Iraqi leaders. Reportedly, Quds Force fighters recently went into Iraq, joining comrades already operating in country. There are concerns Suleimani has mobilized Iranian-trained Iraqi Shi’a militia groups.

While Kerry, in his Yahoo! News interview, left the door open for military cooperation with Iran, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki stepped the US back from it. Psaki stated that while there may be discussions about the political situation in Iraq, “We’re not talking about coordinating any military action with Iran.” She also said the Vienna meetings with Iran would not discuss “military coordination or strategic determinations about Iraq’s future over the heads of the Iraqi people.” Less than three hours later, the Pentagon ruled out military coordination.

As a new reality for the 21st century internationally is being created, US leadership is still required. The US has played an important role in defeating terrorism worldwide, and must not stop now over Iraq. US friends and allies, who are concerned with the Middle East and also face threat from groups such as ISIS, want to be assured that the US can still be relied upon. Force must be used to deal with ISIS. The Obama administration pledged that it will stand with the Iraqi people, much as it pledged to stand with the Syrian opposition, but it is unclear as to what will be seen from the US. It might act cautiously enough in response to ISIS as not to be truly effective at all in the endeavor. Perhaps an additional 21st century reality might emerge from this situation. When the US does not act, it may need to accept that other states with sufficient and effective capabilities will. Without reservations, Iran will act to secure its interests in Iraq. Conceivably, tacit cooperation with the US, as in Bosnia in 1995, and Afghanistan immediately after September 11, 2001, might be acceptable among more moderate elements of the Iranian regime, However, going it alone would undoubtedly be the preferred option by the majority of Iran’s military and security officials and hardline political and religious leaders. If that occurs, the outcome in Iraq may not be shaped to the desires of the US in the long-run. If the US ever decides on military action, it may not need to consider how it might coordinate with Iran, but rather, whether it could act effectively militarily in the midst of unilateral a intervention by Iran.

Iran’s Response as a Regional Power

Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, already believed that Iran was gaining power and becoming the driving force in the Middle East. Khamenei stated: “a regional power [Iran] has emerged which has not been brought to its knees despite various political, economic, security, and propaganda pressures.” Senior Military Adviser to the Supreme Leader, General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi, stated on September 20, 2013, “With God’s grace, Iran’s army has transformed into a strong, experienced, and capable army twenty-five years after the [Iran-Iraq] war’s end, and is now considered a powerful army in Western Asia.” Through bold and decisive actions, Iran has sought to influence events just about everywhere in the region. On its borders, Iran has demonstrated its capability to effectively combat narcotics traffickers and rogue Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Jundallah, as well as the Peoples’ Mujahedeen, a group some Western state wile over using as a means to weaken the government in Tehran. In Iraq, Iran has trained and equipped Iraqi Shi’a militiamen and sent them into Syria to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In Syria, Iran has demonstrated its capability to project power beyond its borders, deploying significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces there in support of the Assad regime. Iran has trained and equipped pro-Assad Syrian militiamen, and organized them into the National Defense Front. It has sent truckloads of arms and equipment through Iraq to support the Syrian Armed Forces in 2013. An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad. Iran has also armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria. Further, Iran has facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus. To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces, hundreds of Shi’a, among the Arabs in Yemen and Pashtun in Afghanistan, have been recruited for combat duty in Syria. In Yemen, Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country. In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shi’a groups calling themselves the Bahraini Rebellion Movement. Trained mostly in Iran, some groups have carried out small-scale attacks on police.

Iranian leaders view Obama as being skeptical about the use of the US military anywhere to create desired outcomes other than in actions in which US participation would be very limited as in Libya. Iranian leaders observed the Obama administration’s decision to make steep reductions in US conventional forces, leaving the US less able to project power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment or engage in sustained ground combat operations in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies. To their surprise, Obama withdrew from Iraq as a result of a campaign promise rather than strategic considerations. The whole enterprise appeared wasteful. Suleimani on September 27, 2013 remarked: “What achievements did the American army have with $700 billion budget . . . They expended approximately $3 trillion for the war in Iraq but the American army was unable to gain immunity in Iraq for [even] a single flight and exited Iraq with disgrace. The result of all war in the region was the Iranian nation’s victory.” Consequently, Iranian leaders surprisingly found themselves left with an opportunity to strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq, but the door was also left open for the growth of Al-Qaeda there.

Saudi Arabia would be very displeased to see Iran take control over the situation in Iraq. Yet, if the US is hesitant on Iraq, in the midst of the Islamic militant thrust toward Baghdad, Saudi Arabia will likely be as well. The type of military commitment Saudi Arabia would need to make in Iraq would very likely require various forms of US support to maintain. Saudi Arabia has already had a hand in the matter regarding the supplying, arming, and training of Islamic militants running through the country.

Tehran likely heard Obama recently explain that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter. Accordingly, Obama explained the US has a stake in that. On June 12, 2014, Obama proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. He believes part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. In his view, over the last several years, trust and cooperation has not developed between moderate Sunni and Shi’a leaders inside of Iraq, and that accounts in part for some of the weakness of the state. That weakeness, and then carries over into their military capacity. Accordingly, while support would be provided to the Iraqi military following consultations with the Iraqis, political change would also be sought. Obama stated, “There has to be a political component to this so that Sunni and Shi’a who care about building a functioning state that can bring about security and prosperity to all people inside of Iraq come together and work diligently against these extremists. And that is going to require concessions on the part of both Shi’a and Sunni that we haven’t seen so far.” As leaders in Tehran would know that the talent to captivate through speeches is not the same as the talent to lead internationally. Public statements on Iraq have been satisfying enough for those who would not look more deeply, perhaps seeking simple answers. Yet, they conceal the reality that forcing together a sustainable, cooperative political arrangement in Iraq will prove difficult.

Tehran likely chuckled after hearing Obama emphasize multilateral action during his commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York on May 28, 2014. Obama explained “When issues of global concern do not pose a direct threat to the United States, when such issues are at stake, when crises arise that stir our conscience or push the world in a more dangerous direction but do not directly threaten us, then the threshold for military action must be higher. In such circumstances, we should not go it alone. Instead, we must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action. We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development, sanctions and isolation, appeals to international law, and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action. In such circumstances, we have to work with others because collective action in these circumstances is more likely to succeed, more likely to be sustained, less likely to lead to costly mistakes.” He would later clarify this statement with reporters by explaining the US must take a more robust regional approach to partnering and training, partner countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa. He further explained, “We’re not going to be able to be everywhere all the time. But what we can do is to make sure that we are consistently helping to finance, train, advise military forces with partner countries, including Iraq, that have the capacity to maintain their own security.”  Given the troubles of the US-led actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, organizing multinational operations in the future will be extremely difficult, especially during crises. Great Britain has already announced that it is not planning military intervention of any kind in Iraq. Indeed, unless there was some type of coordination with Iran, the US would have to act alone.

Tehran is probably not convinced of Obama’s capability to solve the crisis in Iraq given what they witnessed on Syria. On Syria, Obama appeared paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action. That was coupled by his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime. Not knowing how best to respond, Obama strayed from a path of decisive and assertive action which most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad. After accusing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of crossing his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the renowned decision not to take military action. Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.

How Iran Might Proceed in Iraq

Iraq will be a real test for Iran’s military and security services. It would be an opportunity to confirm Iran’s dominance in the region. Suleimani, who oversees Iran’s security interests in Iraq, is a legend among Shi’a in the region. On September 25, 2013, Baghdad Shi’a Friday Prayer Leader Hojjat al-Eslam Sheikh Jalaleddin al-Qassir praised Suleimani. He stated, “If there is any fear in the Israelis’ hearts, Qassem Suleimani is its cause. If America has faced problems in the region, know that Qassem Suleimani is the cause; if any problems have been created for the House of Saud, know that Qassem Suleimani has had a hand in it. Therefore, know why they have implemented this war against Qassem Suleimani. Know that Qassem Suleimani is a spear that lands in Israel’s hearts and we are proud that there is a leader like him among the current global Shi’a leaders.” Khamenei based his vision for Iran’s role as the premier power in the Middle East on the capabilities of IRGC commanders as Suleimani given their virtue, faith, and obedience to him and respective capabilities to formulate and implement successful action plans.

National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission Spokesman and Member of the Iranian Parliament, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, on June 24, 2014, neither confirmed nor denied the presence of IRGC Quds Force in Iraq, stating, “I do not deny this matter and of course do not confirm it, because I am not in a position to do so. But we are implementing [existing] agreements between Islamic Republic of Iran and Iraq [that are] within the legal international framework.” He further stated, “If the Iraqi government formally requests aid from us, we will not hesitate and will aid our neighboring country within the legal international framework.” However, it would be logical for Iran’s intervention in Iraq to initially involve the Quds Force, and small numbers of IRGC combat units. Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops, would increase intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.   By moving throughout Iraq, particularly ISIS held territory, Iranian intelligence officers can gain information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and keep their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links would be sought with Iraqi Army commanders and troops in the field to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Intelligence collected concerning ISIS that would be utilized in the development of an operational plan. Those MOIS and Quds Force personnel, along with other IRGC units, would also engage in direct combat with ISIS fighters, gaining a detailed knowledge of the battle lines. Iran would further train and equip Iraqi Shi’a militiamen, and deploy some in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq.   Others will be deployed directly against ISIS. They would receive truckloads of arms and equipment. Supplies and other weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades would be flown into the Iraqi Army. Iran could possibly deploy Lebanese Hezbollah to join the fight.

Iran might soon after opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq. Senior Foreign Policy Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “If the legal government of Iraq and Mr. Maleki, as the primary representative of this government, (formally) request aid from Iran, as a neighboring and friendly country, we will aid him without any limitations.”  He went on to state, “For example, we can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi army that we have been able to provide the Syrian army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That might mean having great numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and Ministry of Intelligence and Security personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there. Aspects of the increase might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts. Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent. They would provide Iraqi and Iranian units with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability unmatched by ISIS. Iran might deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units. Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support military movements and control of recaptured territory. Basij volunteers in Iran may be mobilized to serve in Iraq.

Tacit US-Iran Cooperation “a la Bosnia” Is Unlikely

In Bosnia, IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel operated successfully, working in concert the US and other states to airlift of arms supplies to the Muslim-Croat Federation’s Armija. Regarding the actions of ISIS in Iraq, Velayati, explained on June 19, 2014, explained: “Iran opposes extremism and America also opposes extremism. Thus, these two countries move in a parallel ‘direction’ but this does not mean cooperation between these countries.” He concluded, however, “I do not see an outlook for cooperation between these countries, because, in our assessments, they seek a sort of dominance in Iraq and in some other important and oil rich countries in the region.” Again speaking on behalf of the National Security and Foreign Policy Parliamentary Commission, Hossein Naghavi Hosseini rejected cooperation with the US stating, “The Americans want to be in Iraq next to Iran at any cost. As Iran is aware of the White House’s behind-the-scene plan, it will never be placed next to America.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani kept the matter alive on the Iranian side, explaining Iran has not ruled out working with the US against ISIS in Iraq. On June 15th, he was quoted as saying, “We can think about it if we see America confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq or elsewhere.” However, conspiracies abound in Iran on whether the US wants to stop ISIS. Khamenei has stated, “The Dominant System [US], using the remnants of Saddam’s regime as the primary pawns and the prejudiced takfiri elements as the infantry, is seeking to disrupt Iraq’s peace and stability and threaten its territorial integrity.”

Tehran has undoubtedly observed that the Obama administration already has increased intelligence-gathering flights by drone aircraft over Iraq. It has been alleged to be the beginning of a phased approach. The US might also initially seek to shore up Iraqi forces with security assistance. Obama has ruled out sending combat troops. However, what resonates with Tehran is degree of uncertainty apparent in the administration’s reported reaction in Washington. Indeed, despite what has been done so far in Iraq, Obama’s White House advisers are now engrossed in a policy debate on airstrikes. National security officials have raised concerns over the ability to target roving bands of insurgents and degrade their fighting capabilities. Airstrikes that damage cities or Iraqi infrastructure could worsen the crisis. Another big concern is the risk of hitting the wrong people. Obama’s insisted on June 13th that if he decides to act, military action would be “targeted” and “precise,” reflecting his desire for a cautious path that avoids civilian casualties and prevents the US from being dragged back into Iraq. Obama has promised to “consult with Congress,” stopping short of saying he would put the issue to a vote. Congressional opposition to airstrikes in Syria contributed to Obama’s decision not attack.

By engaging in a lengthy discourse and considering gradual response in Iraq, US authorities appear relatively relaxed about events in Iraq compared to their counterparts in Iran. Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to include Suleimani, and hard-line political and religious leaders, realize that waiting could lead to tragic consequences. ISIS has begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives. Syria provides a template to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory. On June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.  Iranian military and security official know that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to prevent attacks against them. If attacks were launched, ISIS would follow through without hesitation with such threats. That is the sort of thing ISIS as terrorist group does. If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk. ISIS would certainly initiate attacks on Iran. They know ISIS will attempt to establish an Islamic state in captured territory whether it is sustainable or not.

Tehran knows US efforts to reform the Iraqi government will weaken Iran’s influence over Baghdad. On June 23, 2014, Khamenei explained, “In the Iraq situation Western dominance-seeking powers, specifically the regime of the United States of America, are seeking to take advantage of the ignorance and prejudice of powerless masses.” He added, “The main goal from the recent events in Iraq is prohibiting this country’s people from the achievements that they have gained despite America’s lack of presence and interference. [Iraq’s] most important achievement is the rule of a democratic system.” He further explained, “America is discontent about the present trends in Iraq, meaning the holding of elections with the good participation of and the determination of trustworthy choices by the people. America is seeking Iraq’s domination and the rule of individuals obedient to America.”

For the Obama administration to believe that Iran would allow the reduction of its interests in Iraq without some response would be counterintuitive. Iran knows that the type of representative government that the US seeks cannot be designed on the fly and is an enormous request under the circumstances. The fact that Maliki ever came to power evinces the US inability to manage events politically in Iraq. As Velayati, on June 19, 2014, explained, “The majority of [Shi’as and Kurds] and their leaders have very close relationships with Iran. Some Sunni Arabs have cordial relations with us as well. We can therefore make our most effort to gather the aforementioned [individuals].” Khamenei, on June 23, 2014, stated: “We vehemently oppose and disapprove the interference of the Americans and others in Iraq’s domestic matters. We believe that Iraq’s government, people, and the senior clergy are capable of ending this sedition. God willing, they will end it.”

The Way Forward?

Officials and advisers in the Obama administration likely came to terms before this crisis in Iraq that proposals for military action in Iraq would be the most difficult documents to put before the president. Any military action would need to be minimal, yet effective enough to achieve objectives based on the president’s concepts, which is not easy plan. For this reason, Obama’s advisers had difficulty getting their president to rapidly come to terms with any proposals offered on Syria or Ukraine, consequently creating uncertainty globally over how the US would proceed.

Iraq seems to be unraveling and time is of the essence. Right across the border from Iraq, however, Iranian leaders see a great danger, and they are attending to it. The Iranians are not going to wait and see what the US does next. They want to stop ISIS. Yet, they want to protect their interests in Iraq by shaping the political situation in Baghdad in their favor. If they manage to do so, they can further Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region. Military and security officials may also gain a louder voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on the nuclear negotiations and other issues. Moreover, the failure of the US to act decisively and effectively in Iraq would eliminate fears within all quarters in Tehran that the US might take military action against Iran, a far greater enterprise than fighting ISIS. In the US, White House advisers are once again agonizing over a foreign policy decision. They, however, have wiled the idea that from the chaos, they can eke out the opportunity to put Tehran’s man out of power in Baghdad and create a new government. By attempting to absolve itself of the “unpleasantries” of exercising military power while claiming the title as the world’s leader, the Obama administration could cause the US to face another negative turn of fortune on foreign policy. Something significant militarily must be done immediately, even before the US induced process of reform is completed. If not, the Obama administration must be ready to accept the bitter scenario of the field in Iraq eventually being fully turned over to Iran.

The Obama Administration Needs to Respond Effectively and Rapidly on Iraq; Foreign Policy Failures Must Not Become the Norm!

The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush has sailed into the Persian Gulf with a cruiser and a destroyer. The carrier’s jets could provide close air support for the Iraqi Army. Jets and cruise missiles could strike marshalling points, supply lines and advancing units of the Islamic militant insurgency away from urban areas.

The current crisis in Iraq provides a rather poignant illustration of the results of the failure of the administration of US President Barack Obama to use reasonable care in the handling of US foreign policy. It is difficult to watch what is occurring given that opportunities to avert the present situation were ignored. The Obama administration came into office pledging to repair the grave foreign policy errors of the administration of US President George W. Bush. After Obama’s re-election in 2012, White House staffers spoke confidently about their administration’s efforts and how they wanted to establish their president’s place in history, or his legacy. Yet, his administration has proven to be too risk adverse, and has attempted to absolve itself of the more assertive and aggressive aspects of exercising US power as part of its role as the world’s leader. The Obama administration has faced a number vicissitudes in foreign policy. Its ability to successfully find its way out of a colossal mess in Iraq remains uncertain. Questions exist in Washington, DC, other capitals worldwide, and the global media on whether Obama has the will to take military action in response to the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other Sunni insurgent groups to the Iraqi government. More useful, however, might be a discussion of the ideas that may cause Obama to display restraint in this crisis, and how, from another lens, he might see how those ideas have failed him and why taking action in Iraq is necessary.

Through the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, hopes of the US public were raised by Obama’s speeches on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, withdrawing forces, and taking new approaches on foreign policy that would establish some tranquility of order in US foreign affairs. Obama’s voice was that of a man speaking from a source. His administration’s captivating assessments were satisfying enough for those who were unable or unwilling to look more deeply and those seduced by simple answers. All things are beautiful through the right lens. However, as a result of a string of policy “disappointments” or failures, it became evident that many of the views proffered by the administration on foreign policy were distorted, albeit unintentionally, through a selective discussion of circumstances. Many efforts to create positive change were fruitless. Recall the claim by the administration that by cautiously arming and training the patchwork Free Syrian Army, burdened from the start with al-Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would soon face defeat and surrender power at the negotiating table. It was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. The talent to captivate through speeches proved not to be the same as the talent to truly lead internationally. While the sincere goal may have been to revamp US foreign and defense policy, the effort should have handled with diligence to avoid taking US policy on a course that could lead to its unraveling.

The Obama administration has displayed a predilection toward restraint on military action contrary to the Bush administration. However, that proved to be problematic whenever military was actually needed. Gallivanting around the world attempting to solve its ills through pre-emptive military action, as the Bush administration was perceived as doing, is wrong. However, not responding to aggressive actions that threaten US interests, its image, and peace and security worldwide is wrong, too! Failing to take military action in one instance might settle one situation, but sends a message or creates an impression, that could lead to greater difficulties in another. In 2013, in Syria, everything needed was available to cope with Assad, after allegations were made of his regime’s use of chemical weapons, and to cope with ISIS, after its countless abuses and murders of Syrian citizens and brutal attacks on mainstream Free Syrian Army units. Yet, Obama was unwilling to wield US military power. No action was taken, and the message was sent that Obama would not commit himself to red lines he sets and that he is reluctant to take robust military action for any reason. More recent policy speeches about transnational interests and multilateral responses offer a seductive kind of superficiality, perhaps a shallow entrapment for the administration, itself. The truth is that without strong US leadership and support for friends and partners, militarily, financially, or politically, big things would never have been accomplished internationally, especially during crises. Consider that the United Kingdom, unquestionably one the closest allies of the US, has already announced through its Foreign Secretary William Hague, that it is “not planning military intervention of any kind” in Iraq. Except for some sort of coordination with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the US would likely have to take action in Iraq alone. The Obama administration could hardly have imagined that it was creating such a circumstance.

On a number of other issues, such as Ukraine, the Obama administration could have simply acted more decisively, effectively and rapidly. As a leader, Obama may want to be able to say as Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way!” However, his duty as president is not to respond to issues based on his own needs, values and principles, but only those of the US. That comes before legacy, and truly sets one’s destiny as president. Current events in Iraq indicate there was a failure to recognize the problem, and a failure to find real answers. Intellect and will determine choices. However, pride and ego can block the truth, and lead one to reject all evidence of a problem.   Despite any strong feelings Obama has against military action, as a matter of self-sacrifice, he should have been willing to act for the sake of US interests. In today’s world, it is just not possible for a US president to create an image of himself as a benign philanthropist.

Difficulties between Obama and the US military’s leadership were well-discussed in former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ book, Duty. Those difficulties accordingly have contributed somewhat to Obama’s views on the use of military power. Lacking experience in the military arena, Obama should have had an adviser on military affairs, perhaps a retired general or admiral involved in the presidential campaign, added to the White House staff to better familiarize him with the nuts and bolts of military affairs. General Maxwell Taylor served US President John F. Kennedy in this capacity in 1961. Any mistrust resulting from any negative interactions between the president and his generals should have been quickly resolved. That mistrust hopefully has not ruined relations of the president with other senior foreign and defense policy officials in the government.

In the history of successes and accomplishments in US foreign and defense policy, there are many interesting cases that can provide guidance on how to develop creative solutions to current problems. Among the staffs at the State Department, Defense Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency, particularly at the senior levels, is enough experience, wisdom, and capabilities to meet all of today’s challenges. They must be relied upon with a degree of trust. A president should be receptive to their views, and moderate those advisers urging caution. The memoranda, reports, and other documents produced by these professionals manifest US values and principles, and certainly embody the history of US foreign and defense policy as they have most likely been part of it. History is the country’s life blood. Without knowing the country’s history, a US leader might appear as a child, searching for answers, paralyzed with uncertainty over what should be done. Therein lie the makings for a tragedy. The decisions of a US president can shape the destiny not only of the US, but the world.

Devising approaches in foreign policy in our times requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature. It requires understanding how to deal with people who think differently, and well as knowing people’s frailties. The US should not tolerate threats and aggression from maniacs playing God in other states and among non-state actors. The US is not a door mat for others. There is a real need for Obama to be more attentive and more active. Deeds, not just words, count! That does not mean the US must act with vindictiveness. It means the US must act to correct wrong acts of coarse leaders, when US interests’ are at stake. There is a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil. Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. The list of matters that have long been understood to fall within US interests should not be curtailed through sophistic arguments to sidestep action either. It is not too late for the Obama administration to turn the corner. Perhaps Iraq presents that opportunity. Time is of the essence. The danger of the situation in Iraq must be fully recognized now. The US must rapidly formulate and implement solid approaches, a strategy, for its resolution.