Commentary: Some Foreign Leaders Continue to Misstep in Approaching Trump: Yes, It Is Still Happening!

US President Donald Trump (center right), French President Emmanuel Macron  (center left) and other G7 leaders in Biarritz, France. Problems have obtained on the international scene because some foreign leaders have used flawed stories from the US news media about Trump as a basis for their decisions concerning the US. It is surprising that nearly three years into Trump’s first term, many foreign leaders remain uncertain about what he is doing and how to approach him. More national leaders must engage in a bit of self-intervention and halt what may be their respective governments’ self-destructive approaches toward the US President.

The renowned Ancient Roman Emperor Gaius Julius Caesar has been quoted as saying: Libenter homines id quod volunt credunt. (“Men freely believe what they want.”) Much as that centuries old adage obtains, critics in the US news media would have the world believe that Trump came to the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France on August 24, 2019 with a whip, so to speak, and the other leaders struggled to pull it away from him. The Economist summarized remarks made prior to the meeting in the following way: “the G7 summit in the seaside resort of Biarritz, an event many expected to be wrecked by conflict and theatrics.” However, there was in fact hardly anything that could be called conflict or uncongenial behavior in any form among leaders at the G7 Summit. Courtesy abounded. The leaders of the world’s economic powers were cozy enough as they figuratively shared the same tea trolley. There may have been some friendly, strong discussion among the members. There was also a very apparent misstep made by the host, French President Emmanuel Macron, with Trump. Still, each left with a better understanding of one another’s positions and better conception of how they can all work together on a variety of issues. During his remarks at an August 26, 2019 joint press conference with Macron at the close of the G7 Summit, Trump stated: This is a truly successful G7. There was tremendous unity. It was great unity.” He went on to say: “Nobody wanted to leave. We were accomplishing a lot. But I think, more importantly, we were getting along very well–seven countries. And it really was the G7.”  

Within reason, one could attempt to substantiate that misguided supposition propagated by many in the US news media that the G7 would by a disaster by noting that the agendas of foreign governments are usually single-minded. Coming almost naturally to them as politicians, foreign leaders meeting with Trump would certainly want to push the agendas of their countries forward. Some partners, much as competitors, pushed so hard with their respective agendas that the result was heated exchanges. However, the promotion of their respective countries agendas was not at the source of Trump critics’ expectations that their would be contentious interactions between him and other national leaders. Rather, those thoughts from Trump’s critics in the US news media were a manifestation of a personal dislike of the US President that echoes the established position of management in the various news media houses toward him. Their version of Trump has never been complimentary. They see no grace, creativity or intellect, in ways he has addressed foreign policy issues. They insist a dictatorial mayhem exists in the Trump administration that ensures only the worst decisions possible flow from it. Trump’s critics, while offering sentiment as reality, cannot be begrudged free expression. Yet, problems still arise on the international scene because some foreign leaders continue to use extrapolations from flawed stories from the US news media about Trump or make inferences from them to base their decisions concerning the US. The inability of Macron to grasp how Trump’s unique, successful, style of diplomacy that led to an aforementioned misstep with him at the G7 was very likely due in part to his use of faulty information from the US news media.

It is somewhat surprising that nearly three years into the first term of the Trump administration, many foreign leaders are still uncertain about what the US President is doing and how to approach him. Trump has been discussed by greatcharlie on previous occasions in its posts. Further, since 2017, greatcharlie has taken the opportunity to express its concerns about the US news media’s antagonistic treatment of Trump, initially in response to the heavy skepticism expressed about the nascent Trump administration and what was ostensibly an inchoate foreign policy. The hope then was that at least a few foreign leaders might heed advisories from greatcharlie cautioning against an over reliance on the US news media to collect “useful” information on Trump administration intentions and actions on foreign policy and diplomacy. During a January 21, 2018 CBS News “60 Minutes” television interview, the great novelist John le Carré, reflecting on his immediate work, explained that “Each book feels like my last book.” He wittily went on to say, “And then I think, like a dedicated alcoholic, that one more won’t do me any harm.” With regard to each essay it has produced on foreign leaders’ misunderstanding of Trump, greatcharlie feels similarly. The level of misunderstanding displayed in one situation or another always manages to prompt just one more essay on the matter. The hope now is that at least a few more foreign leaders might be egged on to engage in a bit of self-intervention and halt their respective governments’ self-destructive approaches toward the US President. Concordia res parvae crescent. (Work together to accomplish more.)

Trump’s Diplomacy: It Comes from the Heart

Watching Trump negotiate is akin to attending a master class on the subject. Trump has essentially been the administration’s metaphorical talisman on bilateral diplomacy, trade talks, essentially every kind of dealmaking. He will apportion his energy on foreign policy and diplomacy with an economical balance to each urgent, important, and not so immediate issue, as reasonably necessary. In doing things a bit differently on a variety of issues, Trump presents possibilities for getting many new, better things done. Perhaps by the manner in which Trump goes about doing things, he does displays a bit of magic, so to speak. He can see a clear way to doing things, sorting out the extraneous and sticking to the matter at hand. Some might describe what often emerges as a peculiar variety of diplomacy. Yet, there is in reality a clear logic to it all. Critics and opponents of Trump will likely find all of this hard to fathom. Henry Ford the US industrialist and inventor and Edward Everett Hale, a US author, poet, historian, and Unitarian minister have both been attributed to the quote: “Coming together is the beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success.” It could be said reasonably that Trump’s thinking on diplomacy runs along that same track.

Despite what might be a history of war, aggression, and strong animus with an adversaries and opponents, or coruscating flashes of disagreement on defense, trade, and even climate change with allies and partners, to Trump, diplomacy, all talks, must start with “coming together”. For Trump, coming together is the beginning of any successful human interaction. To that extent, Trump always insists that he is ready to talk, even to adversaries. Since he knows that the process of creating a connection between countries can only begin with one side expressing itself to the other, Trump has often very publicly taken that first step. He sees an opportunity to initiate a form of personal diplomacy with almost everyone. What is necessary is having a foreign counterpart who is willing to listen and understand to what Trump is saying. In establishing terms for interaction, differences between the two leaders, which on a very basic level could include political orientation, age, work experience, prestige, power, must set aside or overcome. On a personal level, there may be differences in styles of communication and certain sensitivities. Trump, will usually straightaway engage a foreign leader by looking beyond outward appearance, seeking to discover what is in his heart. Ex abundancia cordis, os loquitor. (From the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.)

From the beginning of a diplomatic process with a foreign leader, Trump will insist through his own cordial actions, that mutual respect shown and understanding given to positions expressed. Trump will rely upon soft sensory abilities, using intuition and intimations, to facilitate discussion on issues and all aspects that important to both leaders. As communication develops, he will desire to create a sense of “oneness” with his interlocutor on the matter at hand. Smooth interactions creates opportunities for fulsome talks more desirable and usually results in them becoming more frequent. In talks, Trump knows there will be moments when both sides must reconcile with dissonant components of one another’s thinking on the spot. Thinking ahead in order to cope with an issue that could develop into a major obstacle, Trump will lay the groundwork for handling those moments by ensuring that an open and friendly atmosphere exists in all interactions. He will promote that positive atmosphere without effort or pretentiousness and mainly through a natural discourse with foreign leaders. There is apparently no disproportion between what is observed publicly observed in Trump’s interactions with foreign leaders and what occurs between them behind closed doors. Another bit of nuance to Trump’s approach is to take into account emotional responses of his foreign interlocutor. Trump will regularly and earnestly express an interest in a foreign leaders well-being and what he was thinking. As leaders, he understands the harness in which one is strapped as a national leader. That harness can become a yoke for some. Being able to mutually see the world through that lense provides and excellent basis for commonality and understanding in which he and his interlocutor can find comfort, and to an extent, relief.

Once Trump has the US “working together” with another country on a matter as agreed, success has been achieved. His vision would typically entail both sides engaged in various levels of communication communicating, working together, and making equal contributions all along the lines of excellence. That type of shared contribution has been called the art of working as one. Trump spends time daily as chief imagineer of the US, engaged in forward thinking, considering new types of partnerships, largely economic, that would serve mutual interests, ensuring what is best for US. What he will hope and expect is that those with whom he is negotiating will be accepting of change and a new path forward. What will typically be seen as a result by other countries when it comes to trade is a mutually robust path toward economic growth or even renewal backed by the experience of Trump and the largess of the US. Trump has not displayed any interest in subsuming the interests of another country just to gain advantages. He knows that will only set the stage for a build up of animus and likely future contentious interactions over the unfairness of the relationship. Trump is not in the business of kicking the can down the road, leaving problems for the US President that would follow his second term.

Hardly anything is all peaches and cream. When meeting with foreign leaders face-to-face, Trump’s eyes are always wide-open. He knows that even when it is easy enough for others to be supportive, to do the right thing, they will often choose the opposite. As he no longer a novice US President, he no longer seen from him are any mistaken assumptions about the loyalty, honor, capabilities of others, particularly among longtime political leaders of his own Republican Party. Indeed, Trump has honed his ability to see straight through just about anyone he encounters in both politics and diplomacy. In that vein, what is presented to him by foreign leaders is not accepted at face value. In addition to being able to see through the false face, he can discern true intention and position. Having this ability does not make Trump dismissive of them. There is no turn to being condescending. Interestingly, he will do his best not to let on to what he is thinking and feeling in those situations.

While it can be reasonably stated, as mentioned here, that Trump actually does things a bit differently in diplomacy, it would also be correct to state that he has not engaged in a variety of diplomacy so peculiar that foreign leaders and their aides and advisers would need to bang their heads on the tables, attempting to understand it. (If that is truly the case anywhere, greatcharlie respectfully suggests that those leaders find new, more effective aides and advisers.) What foreign leaders may characterize as vagarities, unexpected actions, in fact is a certain nuance which has been Trump’s style on foreign policy and diplomacy since day one and should have been better understood and have become part of a reliable calculus concerning him long since. He never makes himself ordinary, and he should be treated as such, nor should his thinking be considered such. (On immediate impression, perhaps what has been presented may appear quite evident and to a degree, common wisdom, however, negative preconceptions and false assessments of Trump so dominate the world scene, it becomes necessary to lay it when discussing perception versus the realities about him.)

Macron’s Surprising Misstep with Trump at the G7

Periclum ex aliis facito tibi quod ex usu siet. (Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself.) When efforts are made by foreign leaders to connect with Trump by taking manipulative steps designed to find advantage over his way of thinking, they typically fall flat. Perchance, those failed efforts reflect much more about the foreign leader making an assumption or basing a decision concerning Trump on mere conjecture. A recent example of this was Macron’s effort to bring Trump and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif together at the site of the recent G7 Summit. Apparently, Macron saw promise in the effort based on what Trump accomplished at the DMZ at Panmunjom with North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un. It appears that based on information he was provided by aides and advisers, and one might presume even his own research, Macron comprehended only on a superficial level what Trump had done with Kim. He unfortunately drew all the wrong lessons from Trump’s inspired move.

It has been suggested that Macron seeks to exert greater influence on the world stage. He is seen as growing into a role as a European leader who is “prepared to take risks, push new ideas, and try to use the multilateral system to ease tensions and defend the liberal order.” For Macron, organizing an impromptu US-Iran meeting turned out to be far more challenging and riskier than he could ever have imagined, particularly as it created the image of him among US officials and scholars, not as a European leader, but more as Europe’s busybody. When one does a comparison between what Trump accomplished at the DMZ between the two Koreas and what Macron attempted, similarities can be seen, but great differences become most apparent. In those differences can be found reasons why Macron’s venture went wrong. Further, Macron may have wanted to create something akin to Trump’s extempore meeting with Kim at the DMZ when bring Javad Zarif to G7 Summit site, but the matter was clumsily handled. It may not have been a stunt, but it reasonably appeared as such. Some effort was made by some mainstream European news media houses to dress up what occurred as something positive. The Economist claimed that Macron managed “to avert disaster, keep America’s Donald Trump happy, ease trans-Atlantic tensions over a French tech tax and win a pledge from Mr Trump to talk to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani.” Yet, alas, the effort was a failure.

The DMZ meeting was part of an ongoing effort to solidify the mutual respect,  understanding, and trust between Trump and Kim. As already explained, Trump and Kim demonstrated to each other that they equally understood the importance of “keeping together for progress.” They managed to indicate to each other that they were both interested in securing an agreement as things progressed. For Trump, in particular, it was part of an effort that greatcharlie has dubbed the ”maximum defusion campaign”. Further, Trump was also paying a visit to a new friend while “in the neighborhood” of his country as that is what real friends do! Having Kim respond to his invitation and come with a smile and outstretched hand to the DMZ was a tremendous success for Trump. Kim was willing to talk and follow-up on past meetings and letters. In the end, there were meetings that day in Panmunjom that resulted in a decision to bring teams of US and North Korean negotiators to getting to hash out irritating issues. The entire venture was born out of Trump’s life experience. Experience is something that one has and can be tapped into. Experience cannot be simulated.

Looking at the idea of bringing Trump together with Zarif in the manner that Macron should have, many things become apparent. Zarif was sanctioned by the US. Trump has doled out a number of hard hitting sanctions against Iran and Iranian officials following his administration’s withdrawal from the 2016 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action negotiated by the US, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany, suspending the Iranian nuclear program for a short 10-year period. There had been no previous meetings between them, no positive relationship, not even a noncommittal plan for interaction preexisted between the Trump administration and the Iranian regime to build upon. Zarif has made more than a few dismal remarks, garden-variety disparagements about Trump and his administration. One comment that stands out is his mocking reference of the Trump administration as the “B team”, which may indicate his gross misunderstanding of the political scene in the US. It is difficult to understand how and why in Zarif’s mind that the Trump administration would not constitute the “A team”. Maybe Zarif uttered the phrase only as means to entertain the lessen lightened at home with some banal amusement. In the spirit of full-disclosure, Trump also said a few uncongenial things about Iran, particularly about it being a state-sponsor of terrorism and its distabilizing activities throughout the Middle East and beyond. That view has been repeated by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The big difference between what they have said versus Zarif’s comments is that all of their comments have been accurate.

Regarding Trump’s decision to meet impromptu at the DMZ, it certainly was not a decision based on preference or predilection toward meeting in that fashion. Rather, it was more about recognizing the potential in a particular circumstance and creating an opportunity. Thus, there was no reason whatever to duplicate such extempore circumstances in Biarritz. Further, it is difficult to understand why Macron would think Trump should meet with the sanctioned foreign minister of Iran and not the president. Kim is the Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the leader of North Korea. It would only be fitting for Trump to meet with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or at a minimum, Hassan Rouhani, the President of Iran. Under the circumstances, it is Zarif and his Foreign Ministry that could be called the “B team”. He is hardly eligible to meet with the US President.

Trump was unlikely pleased to discover that Macron completely failed to understand the DMZ meeting, that he was confused about what occurred, and even more, that Macron really did not understand him so well. However, in the face of it all, Trump displayed sangfroid and statesmanship. At the April 26, 2019  joint press conference with Macron at the G7 Summit’site end, Trump tried to tidy up the mess that the French President made with invitation to Zarif. Trump let Macron off the hook a degree by stating the French President had informed him of the surprise move with Zarif. Trump even agreed to meet Rouhani, with the condition of Iran becoming a good player in its region and on the world stage, but that accommodation fell flat. Rouhani absolutely rejected the idea of meeting with him unless, sanctions imposed by his administration were lifted. That was unrealistic condition insisted upon. Rouhani further stated incredulously that the US would also need “to bow its head in respect to Iran as an equal.” There is absolutely nothing that the US should have appreciated about Macron’s intercession into the current diplomatic difficulties between the US and Iran. Surely the impromptu venture was worth its candle enough that Macron should have been willing to go farther into the woods to consider all of its aspects, all of its possibilities, positive and negative. One might offer the conjecture that what was most importantly really revealed by the whole affair was a better understanding of Macron thinking on foreign policy and diplomacy. Smart, confident people can find real resolutions to difficulties. As a result of how the matter was handled by Macron, nothing good stemmed from it. If officials in the Palais de l’Élysée could please pardon greatcharlie’s frankness, the whole venture cobbled together by Macron was not particularly clever. Ornat haec magnitudo animi, quae nihil ad ostentationem, omnia ad conscientiam refert recteque facti non ex populi sermone mercedem, sed ex facto petit. (To all this, his illustrious mind reflects the noblest ornament; he places no part of his happiness in ostentation, but refers to the whole of it to conscience; and seeks the reward of a virtuous action, not in the applause of the world, but in the action itself.)

Examples of Recent and Past Failure by Foreign Government’s to Understand the US

This sort of ill-conceived approach not only to understanding of every new US President, but US society as a whole, tends to be a common problem in the decision making centers of foreign capitals. Perchance, even before the end of the first year of Trump’s first term, it became apparent to most foreign leaders that they could not rely on the intellectual support of their respective  subordinates when it came to dealing with Trump and the US, yet many continued to do so. Even Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin, at the dawn of the Trump administration, appears to have been egged on by certain aides and advisers in his cabinet who harbored strong anti-Western sentiments and believed Trump could be pressed on certain issues. It was likely such skewed thinking and a desire of aides and advisers to create the impression that they had an easy handle on things that led to the continued execution of an election interference campaign in the US that began during the administration of US President Barack Obama. That operation, now well-exposed, indeed left little doubt that over the years that officials in Moscow have not learned much about the actual multifaceted inner workings of the US government and the dynamics of US politics. That misunderstanding of how the system worked in the US surely led officials there to believe that they could ever influence a US presidential election. With the considerable interests of so many in the US staked on the 2016 election’s outcome, there was hardly a chance that a rather weighty level of influence activity stemming from an odd, unexpected direction would not be detected in many quarters. Moreover, US intelligence services and law enforcement agencies were watching over everything. When the covert operation was uncovered, the US responded with expulsions of diplomats and closures of Russian Federation facilities in the US. So much was discovered about the operation that Putin was left with little ability to plausibly deny his knowledge of those particular activities of Russia’s intelligence services.

As explained in greatcharlie’s January 14, 2019 post entitled, “Trump Uses Prior Experience, Flexible Thinking, and Even Empathy, to Make Foreign Policy Decisions Fit for Today’s World”, the unique qualities and character of each US President in great part impels the US public to select them on election day. As chief executive of the US Government requires the president to take certain positions and actions in accord with US values and interests. Yet, it is the unique qualities and character of each which causes the choices of each to diverge a bit or a lot from those of their predecessors. How a president will act on certain foreign and national security policy issues will typically be outlined during an election campaign for the public to read and hear. From what is enumerated, the public will form an opinion on a candidate. There must be the belief that the candidate will make a positive difference in their lives personally such as making them financially better off and more secure, allowing for improvement to their communities by making more services available and life better in general, and in the country by improving its condition, guiding it in a positive direction, and ensuring its status as a world leader and force for good. Negative ideas that might to orbit around a preferred candidate and even a rival candidate, while seemingly important in campaign efforts–every campaign has elements that focus on those matters and to an extent promulgate negative information on an opponent–and in news media stories broadcasted, published, and posted, may remain correlative, even de minimus, in the minds of many voters. In the end, it is not what is wrong with a candidate that sticks in the mind of a voter that is so important. It is what is right for the voter which makes the difference. The thinking of the US public generally moves in that direction. To the extent that negative information about a preferred candidate might have an impact, it may drive voters to the polls to ensure their candidate wins. However, an influence operation that would ensure such behavior in sufficient numbers to manipulate an election results would need to be nuanced to a degree that would it nearly impossible to carry out. (At a minimum, a full-fledged shadow campaign, with a multitude of operatives on the ground, would be needed to be successful. Moscow carried it out its 2016 interference relatively on the cheap!) Basing the interference operation on a failed interpretation of US political activity, meant it was doomed from the start. Essentially, it was sabotaged by ignorance.

During the Cold War, within the furtive decision making centers of the Soviet Union, there was a similar half-baked understanding of race in US society. It was seen as a matter in which their intelligence service could insulate themselves and exploit. To be more specific, the hope of the Soviet intelligence services was to exploit the disaffection of ethnic communities, particularly African-Americans, toward the US Government as part of its mission. Conjecture, more than anything else, was used to develop some official understanding of the racial strife in the US. They simply needed to create some basis to conduct operations to exploit it. When it was expedient, they undoubtedly substituted revolutionary ideals of the Communist Movement as a framework for understanding the civil rights efforts of the African-American community where they lacked an authentic understanding of the many dimensions of the race issue. (There was apparently a penchant toward that type of projection by the Soviet and Eastern Bloc intelligence services.) The operations of the First Department of the Soviet Union’s intelligence service at the time, Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) better known as the KGB, covered the US and Canada. A target of the First Department among others, was the African-American community, particularly African-American radical groups. The task was to fund and support the radical groups in preparation for direct action, attacks on government facilities. However, they shpuld have only expected to achieve results. If the KGB had looked deeper into the matter, it might have discovered that despite the contentious, aggressive, and violent exchanges on race that were taking place during the Civil Rights Movement and afterward, for African-Americans there was certainly no desire to fight the US Government. Extremist elements with that in mind or something similar, promoting a divide between people, were few and far between. Further, despite any likely projection by Moscow of its own Socialist and Communist thinking in Moscow on the African-Americans community, the Civil Rights Movement was never about any of those political ideas. Respect and love for the US, and a sense of patriotism was present and apparent in most African-Americans despite incredible difficulties they faced in society. The goal of the Civil Rights Movement was not to tear down, destroy, transform system as it stood, but integrate more fairly society. The goal was to ensure the recognition of the rights of the African-American their community as due under the US Constitution and inclusion of members in all that was the US. The culture, attitudes, behavior, thinking, and laws had to be changed to allow and support the equal opportunity of African-Americans to enjoy those rights. Important to the struggle was getting the majority in the society value the lives of others, to value the lives of their fellow country regardless of race. Logic and wisdom had to conquer the sentiment and traditions of the past. For years, these elements were righteously insisted upon. Due to a willingness to accept change for the better and new federal laws passed, some progress was eventually made.

Intriguingly, a similar degree of skewed thinking on race in the US has been displayed by the Russian Federation Government today. According to The Atlantic, a spate of recent reports, accounts tied to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency—a Russian “troll factory”— used social media and Google during the 2016 electoral campaign to deepen political and racial tensions in the US. Indeed, as explained on the Russian TV network TV Rain, those trolls were directed to focus their tweets and comments on socially divisive issues, such as guns, but another consistent theme has been Russian trolls focusing on issues of race. Russian ads placed on Facebook apparently placed emphasis on Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland, which were the sites of considerable and extended protests after police killings of unarmed African-American men. Another Russian ad showed an African-American woman firing a rifle. Other ads played on fears of groups such as Black Lives Matter.

Should Foreign Leaders Blame Their Intelligence Services for the Failure to Understand Trump?

When national leaders do not grasp what is happening on an issue and cannot get a handle on a situation in a satisfying way, anxiety, a sense of panic, can ensue. To fill those gaps information, they make use of their intelligence services. The information that the intelligence service may provide may not necessarily be collected through agent running in the field or technological means. Whatever might have already been gathered by intelligence professionals from clandestine operations and perhaps covert sources of collection, may be supplemented and even complemented by overt sources. Indeed, among the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of many intelligence services of countries of various sizes and power, is to have analytical units mine for information through overt sources of intelligence, traditionally newspapers, magazines, books of certain authors. Now certain websites, blogs, and social media are also commonly raked through.

Using such overt sources, however, can be risky. Analysts can easily become victims of faulty reports, misleading stories, and politicized commentary. There is no assurance that the information is true. Without the means for verifying and confirming whether it is true, intelligence service must proceed with caution. Presently, overt sources can pose nearly as much danger as information that might be dangled before collectors by adversaries. When the wrong information is collected and presented to consumers, things can go terribly wrong. Policy and decision makers demanding intelligence, may not ask or give a cursory look at how and from where the information available was collected. Depending on how bad the situation is, those officials directly advising or supporting key leaders, rather than sit palms up due to detected discrepancies, questionable findings, intimations, will pass it along as work product, demonstrating that they possess some type of control, a handle on the situation. Those consumers might be pleased to receive verification of their ideas. Those ideas, strengthened with the support of new data, no matter if they are dead wrong, can often become facts and make their way from consumer to consumer as such.

What Foreign Leaders Should Keep in Mind about the US News Media

With regard to news related to foreign affairs and diplomacy, national security and defense, international and national, the news media serves as the eyes and ears of the US public in realms that are generally inaccessible. What is immediately apparent in the way in which stories are being reported and commented upon lately is the great degree that it deviates from well-established standards of professional practice of the past. That would include informing truthfully about people and events, reporting facts and not simply offering opinions. In particular, the quality of mainstream news media efforts devoted to foreign affairs and diplomacy, national security and defense, has degraded significantly.

US news media houses sell papers and magazines, but more importantly, advertising space when they express and act on such sentiment. The so-called “Information push” drives the made grab for stories and a source, almost any source, that will provide information to corroborate what is going out over the air, on paper, and online. Misguided speculation by the US news media can make stories seem more exciting, even lurid. Human nature is fascinated by what sounds exceptional and scandalous. When foreign leaders are drawn to such stories, they most often suffer the consequence of losing opportunities for their respective countries.

It is important to know that since the first days of the Trump administration, there has been an “us-them” approach taken by the majority of the US news media toward anything it does. Reporters and pundits in the broadcast media have gone beyond the point of being gadflies. Primacy is given to an effort to shape the thinking of the public against Trump, as well as provoke the US President, with daily stories that harshly criticize him, gainsay his administration’s decisions and actions, and chastise administration personnel from senior advisers to middle level staff. Words used are beyond hostile and aggressive. The distance that many journalists are willing to travel away from past norms is unknown. Into the second year of his first term in office, the news media remains all Trump, all the time. Journalists discuss hypotheticals sometimes with only a tenuous connection with the realities to ongoing events instead of informing the US public of facts from solid reporting and analysis based on studied patterns of decision making. The facts offered are more often bleached to the point of being superficial. Deeper dives into facts are avoided, and gaps are filled with opinions. Journalists will even seek to capitalize on Trump’s criticism of their stories whenever he decides to get involved with them.

The modality of the attacks on Trump from the news media catches the eye. Many critics have proven better skilled in unpleasantry than bon mot.  The attacks have been meted out in gradations of intensity. None of it represents, healthy, objective, traditional reporting and commentary. It is defined by a supercilious, holier-than-thou perspective of the US President, that they believe gives the free reign to be arrogant and rude toward him without regard for the fact that he is still a human being, and in an honored position that, itself, should garner respect. A type of patrician aesthetic has lead some critics to put themselves in position high enough to judge whether Trump is “presidential enough” for their liking. The words “not presidential” were heard every time Trump spoke. Efforts by Trump of any kind elicit a range of reactions by those engaged in the broad, piquant, counter-Trump discourse. From what has been observed, critics and detractors within the US news media as much as some angry scholars, policy analysts, political opponents, and leaders of the Democratic Party, have essentially exhibited a collective mindset, determined to find wrong in Trump. They have tried endlessly to uncloak some nefarious purpose in his legitimate effort to perform his duties.

On a secret recording made at a staff meeting on August 12, 2019, Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the New York Times, was heard making comments to the effect that the newspaper saw its job as imposing a “narrative” on the world rather than listening to what the world teaches. In that vein, Baquet seemed more concerned that in the Times coverage of the Russian collusion story concerning Trump and the 2016 US Presidential Election, it failed to deliver “the Russia story its readers wanted.” As Baquet stated: “Our readers who want Donald Trump to go away suddenly thought, ‘Holy [bleep], Bob Mueller is not going to do it.’ ” Baquet went on to explain that despite the fact that the newspaper covered an unsubstantiated story, he was satisfied with its work. He said, “We set ourselves up to cover that story. I’m going to say it. We won two Pulitzer Prizes covering that story. And I think we covered that story better than anybody else.” Baquet additionally indicated that the newspaper was not through with Trump yet. He suggested that the Times next needed to deliver the narrative that Trump is a racist, insisting that the Trump racism story is the one the newspaper’s readers want. He stated: “How do we cover America, that’s become so divided by Donald Trump? How do we grapple with all the stuff you all are talking about? How do we write about race in a thoughtful way, something we haven’t done in a large way in a long time? That, to me, is the vision for coverage. You all are going to have to help us shape that vision.” Baquet’s comments would have been considered unimaginable a few years earlier. Such is that state of the mainstream US news media today.

An Element of “Monkey See, Monkey Do” Overseas?

As greatcharlie discussed in its May 31, 2018 post, “An Open Mind and Direct Talks, Not Reports Developed from Overt US Sources, Will Best Serve Diplomacy with Trump”certainly, officers in topflight intelligence services around the world are carefully watching the drama being played out between Trump and the US news media. Interestingly, if any reports being produced by an intelligence service are still using the product of the US news media in their intelligence analyses of Trump, then those services are truly being remiss in their duties. Yet, maybe there is an element of “monkey see monkey do” that might drive such behavior.

During the testimony of the Special Counsel to Investigate Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election and Related Matters, Robert Mueller, on July 24, 2019 before the House Judiciary Committee, Congresswoman Debbie Lesko (R-AZ) pointed out that in the final report of his office, entitled “Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In the 2016 Presidential Election” and known commonly as the Mueller Report, cited numerous media stories. Indeed, in Volume II of the Mueller Report, commonly referred to as Part 2, much of the supporting evidence used was from the US news media and not interviews or collected documents. Lesko asked Mueller directly: ““I think you relied a lot on media. I’d like to know how many times you cited The Washington Post in your report?” Lesko also asked Mueller how many times the report cited the New York Times or Fox News. Lesko then told Mueller that he cited the Washington Post “about 60 times,” the New York Times “75 times,” and Fox News “about 25 times.” She went on to state: “I’ve got to say, it looks like volume two is mostly regurgitated press stories. Honestly, there’s almost nothing in volume two that I couldn’t already hear or know simply by having a $50 cable news subscription.”

While the research as presented in Part 2 of the Mueller Report, analyses may have resembled authentic collection by intelligence and law enforcement officers, in reality it was a superficial mockery that fell far short of any professional standards. Perhaps foreign intelligence services a bit more familiar with the practices of the US intelligence community, may be taking a lesson from it. However, that particular practice, if it is indeed a common practice of the US intelligence community, certainly it would behoove foreign intelligence services not to allow that method to serve a model for what they should be doing to fulfill the requirements created by their consumers.

The Way Forward

Understandably, foreign leaders have great interest in successfully interacting with Trump. However, the use of information gleaned from the US news media is certainly not a way to accomplish that. To that extent, greatcharlie has been thoroughly critical of foreign leaders efforts in that direction. So scarcely can it be said that what appears in the US news media about Trump are  accurate facts that it would behoove foreign leaders to be more than circumspect of information they receive that has arrived out of its stories. Moreover, they should perhaps avoid such information, regardless of their own respective intelligence services procedures for using it as an overt source, altogether. As for alternatives, alas, greatcharlie’s not in the business on telling foreign how best understand the US President’s intentions and actions. Yet, lessons for anyone on the matter can be drawn from the approaches taken by Trump aimed at affecting change in the foreign and national security policy decision making of other countries in his first term while working outside the auspices of international institutions. There might be some disagreement with this suggestion, but very often from what critics might declare as crises, Trump has managed to create starting points for new beginnings in relations with other countries. Trump sees potential in everything. As a result, if he sees a better way, an easier route to put the figurative golden ring in his reach. His critics and detractors insist that there are strictures on foreign and national security decision making to which he must adhere as US President. However, Trump, having been engaged in international business for years, has had time to examine the world using his own lens, and not a political or bureaucratic prism. He came to office confident that he could maneuver well among the galer of national leaders, each with his or her own ideas, goals, ambition, will, and predilections. There will occasionally be surprise shifts in his approaches. Indeed, he exhibits the type of flexibility of thinking and action that an accomplished general would hope to display in war. It is possible that he has by instinct the methodology to do it all well.

Additionally, greatcharlie has neither the intent nor the wherewithal to insist the leaders in foreign capital to accept its explanation of how far off-base many of their analyses of Trump must be and that they must immediately change their perspective. It would seem that some might prefer to continue onward in that way given a degree of comfort has been found in believing the situation truly is as they see it. It would only hope that with a record of being unable to find a pathway to understanding what will most likely be a two-term US President, that all would adopt a perspective on Trump in line with reality. Laudem virtutis necessitati domus. (We give to necessity the praise of virtue finding the benefit in what is needful.)

Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says: Greater Care Is Required in Many Areas

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The US Central Command (CENTCOM) Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar (above). It is comprised of a joint US military and Coalition team that executes day-by-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination, and deconfliction of weapons systems. On September 17, 2016, CAOC was monitoring a Coalition airstrike over Deir Ezzor when Russian Federation forces informed it that the attack was hitting a Syrian military position. The attack impacted a US diplomatic effort with Russia on Syria.

According to a November 29, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Unintentional Human Error Led to Airstrikes on Syrian Troops, Pentagon Says,” the US Department of Defense identified “unintentional” human mistakes as the causality for the US-led airstrikes that killed dozens of Syrian government troops in September 17, 2016. The strikes occurred as a deal to ease hostilities in Syria, brokered by the US and Russia, was unraveling. They particularly undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomatic efforts with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Russian Federation military units, which were working closely with the forces of Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad to fight ISIS and other rebels, said the attack had killed 62 Syrian troops and wounded more than 100. The attack marked the first time the US had engaged the Syrian military since it began targeting the ISIS in Syria and Iraq two years ago. It was determined as result of the investigation, led by US Air Force Brigadier General Richard Coe, that the attack was conducted under the “good-faith belief” that the targets were ISIS militants. It also concluded that the strikes did not violate the law of armed conflict or the rules for the US military. Danish, British and Australian forces also participated in the airstrike. Coe said, “In my opinion, these were a number of people all doing their best to do a good job.”

As Kerry was engaged in a crucial effort to persuade Russia to coordinate its air campaign in Syria with similar US efforts when the airstrike occurred, greatcharlie has been fogged-in over why the risky attack was ever ordered. In a previous post, greatcharlie stated that Russian Federation military commanders could benefit greatly from working alongside US air commanders and planners. It was also suggested that the US might provide a demonstration of its targeting and operational capabilities to encourage Russia’s cooperation. However, the errant attack was certainly not the sort of demonstration greatcharlie had in mind. On better days, US air commanders and planners have demonstrated a practically unmatched acumen in using air assets of the US-led coalition’s anti-ISIS air campaign to shape events on the ground in support of the goals of US civilian leaders. US air commanders and planners have very successfully conducted No-Fly Zones and sustained air campaigns over the past three decades, in Bosnia, Yugoslavia, Kosovo, where political goals endured, and in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya.

Those experienced enough in life fully understand that it has its promises and disappointments. Whether events go well or negatively for one, an authentic truth is revealed in the outcome from which valuable, edifying lessons as well as new ideas can be extrapolated. The errant bombing of September 17, 2016 and findings of the investigation of it have come late in the administration of US President Barack Obama. Too little time is really available for lessons from the incident to influence any remaining decisions that the administration might make on Syria or military coordination and cooperation with Russia. The subsequent collapse of the negotiations on military coordination may have assured such decisions would not be required. Yet, for the incoming US administration, they may offer some useful hints on negotiating military coordination and cooperation with Russia on Syria or other countries on other issues if the opportunity arises. A few of those lessons are presented here with the hope they might mitigate the potential of an unfortunate military incident as witnessed in Syria that might also derail a crucial diplomatic effort. The overall hope is that the next administration will be tended by an honorable peace. Quidquid ages, prudenter agas et respice finem! (Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end!)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry leave after their bilateral meeting at the APEC Ministers Summit in Lima

The airstrike undercut US Secretary of State John Kerry’s (right) diplomatic effort with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) to coordinate the US and Russian air campaigns over Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with a ceasefire agreement reached on September 12th in Geneva.

This Was Not the Demonstration of US Capabilities Imagined

The Obama administration may not have actually been enthused about working with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin on Syria, but it recognized that Russia, with its considerable military investment in Syria, can play an important role in ending the war. To that extent, it sought to have Putin agree to have agreement crafted by Kerry and Lavrov to cooperate militarily. The agreement called for formation of a US-Russia Joint Implementation Center to coordinate strikes against ISIS as well as Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces after there had been seven consecutive days of reduced violence in the civil war and humanitarian aid had begun to flow to besieged communities in Syria. Bringing Russia over to the US view was already dicey enough. A few days before the incident, the US and Russia exchanged charges of noncompliance with the ceasefire agreement that Kerry and Lavrov reached on September 12, 2016 in Geneva.

On August 20, 2016, greatcharlie suggested the US could increase the value of its assistance through an actual demonstration of US capabilities to further encourage a change in Putin’s perspective on Kerry’s proposal on military cooperation. Included among recommendations was providing Putin with a complete US military analysis of the setbacks Russia and its allies have faced in Syria, and the relative strengths and weakness versus their Islamic militant opponents. The exact manner in which intelligence resources the US proposed to share with Russia and US military resources would have been of value to Russia could have been demonstrated by targeting and destroying a number battle positions of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria. Where possible, US airstrikes could have disrupted and destroyed developing attacks and counterattacks against Russia’s allies. Through a video of the attacks, Putin could have been shown how the unique capabilities of US weapons systems could enhance the quality of Russian airstrikes. He might also have been provided with US military assessments of those attacks.

The US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US military operations in the Middle East, told the Russians in advance about the planned strike on an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province, calling it a “professional courtesy.” A senior US official said the Russians had acknowledged the message, thereby assuring they would the audience for the US attack. However, after the attack, the Russians had no reason to express appreciation or compliments to CENTCOM. The strike began in the early evening of the next day. According to Russia, two A-10s, two F-16 fighters, and drones of the US-led Coalition were deployed to attack the airfield. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army unit. The attack went on for about 20 minutes, with the planes destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of people in the open desert, the official said. Then, an urgent call came into CENTCOM’s Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and 17 other nations.  The Russians relayed to the CAOC the disappointing news that the US strike was hitting Syrian forces. Four minutes later, the strikes were halted.

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A “bombed up” A-10 Thunderbolt II fighter (above). In the early evening of September 17, 2016, two pairs of Coalition A-10 and F-16 fighters along with drones were deployed to attack an airfield in Deir Ezzor. They began hitting tanks and armored vehicles. In all, 34 precision guided missiles were erroneously fired on a Syrian Arab Army position. The attack lasted about 20 minutes, with the fighters destroying the vehicles and gunning down dozens of Syrian troops in the open desert. If not halted, the entire Syrian unit might have been wiped out.

In Syria over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade enemy air defenses. As aircrews cannot identify targets, bombs are dropped in areas where air intelligence reports the enemy is located. In attacking urban centers, that can result in collateral damage in the form of civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures. US Permanent Representative to the UN, Samantha Power pointed to the issue of targetting by Russian Federation Air Force and Syrian Arab Air Force jets.  On September 17, 2016, Power stated the Syrian government, assisted by Russia, has tortured and bombed its people. She added, “And, yet, in the face of none of these atrocities has Russia expressed outrage, nor has it demanded investigations, nor has it ever called for . . . an emergency meeting of the Security Council” on a Saturday night or any other night.

Air intelligence provides commanders with information on enemy targets to the extent that visual searches of enemy targets is no longer required. Given the speed of fighters and the need to protect aircrews and aircraft from anti-aircraft weapons and other arms, flying at lower altitudes with the goal of identifying targets by visual search is no longer feasible. Even friendly forces are often required to mark targets with flags or smoke for their own safety. US air commanders ordered the attack in the proximity of Syrian forces, calculating that the conclusions of air intelligence about the target were accurate. Informing aircrews that they would be operating in close proximity to Syrian troops did not create any requirement for them to engage in a time consuming, very hazardous, visual search of the target before going into their attack. Nevertheless, as US Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of US Air Forces and Combined Forces Air Component in CENTCOM aptly explained, “In this instance, we did not rise to the high standard we hold ourselves to, and we must do better than this each and every time.”

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The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services use their intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of air commanders and planners. However, over 95 percent of Russian Federation Air Force sorties in Syria are flown at 15,000 to 20,000 feet primarily to evade air defenses. Bombs are dropped where air intelligence reports state the enemy is located. Attacks in urban centers have resulted in civilian deaths and injuries and the destruction of nonmilitary structures.

Intelligence Analysts Erred

The Russian Federation armed forces and intelligence services proudly use their own intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods to meet the needs of commanders and planners. Russian Federation commanders and planners would certainly like to believe that by intensifying their own intelligence gathering activities, they can achieve success without US assistance. However, the summer of 2016 proved to be particularly difficult for Russian Federation forces and their allies as progress eastward toward Raqqa and Deir Ezzor was slowed. ISIS was able to apply pressure, infiltrating into areas retaken by the allies and launching counterattacks. The fight for Aleppo became a greater strain than anticipated. Beyond human intelligence collection–spies, the US gathers continuous signal and geospatial intelligence over Syria. Those multiple streams of intelligence could assist Russian Federation commanders and planners in pinpointing ISIS and other Islamic militant groups on the ground even if they are dispersed. Air assets of the Russian Federation and its allies could destroy them, disrupt their attacks, and support ground maneuver to defeat them. In support of the proposal, Kerry and Lavrov already agreed that a map could be drawn up indicating where Islamic militant forces are positioned. They also agreed that US and Russian military personnel working in the same tactical room would jointly analyze the intelligence and select targets for airstrikes.

Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian unit for several days. According to a redacted copy of a report that summarized the investigation, a drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province in eastern Syria on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government. On September 17, 2016, a CENTCOM official, who at the time requested anonymity because the incident was still being investigated, said military intelligence had already identified a cluster of vehicles, which included at least one tank, as belonging to ISIS. Coe stated, “In many ways, these forces looked and acted like the Daesh forces the coalition has been targeting for the last two years,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

In a statement on the investigation of the incident, CENTCOM outlined a number of factors that distorted the intelligence picture for the airstrike. Included among them were “human factors” such as “confirmation bias”; “improper labelling”; and invalid assumptions. The Syrian Arab Army unit observed at Deir Ezzor was wrongly identified or labelled as ISIS early in the analytical process. CENTCOM’s statement indicated that incorrect labelling colored later analysis and resulted in the continued misidentification of the Syrian unit on the ground as ISIS. Further, the statement laid out a series of changes to the targeting process that the Defense Department has already made to include more information-sharing among analysts. The US Air Force has independently placed its process for identifying targets under review.

Qui modeste paret, videtur qui aliquando imperet dignus esse. (The one who obeys with modesty appears worthy of being some day a commander.) What appears to have been needed at the time beyond issues concerning tactics, techniques, procedures and methods for conducting air operations was better coordination of its own diplomatic and military activities regarding Syria. As a sensible precaution, US air commanders and planners should have been informed that operations conducted at that time could have considerable positive or negative impact on US diplomatic efforts in Syria. (The publicized record of the investigation does not touch on this point.) The delicate nature of diplomacy would have been factored into planning, not shrugged off. Interference by civilian leaders in military units’ tactical operations is surely not desired by commanders. Yet, by failing to call attention to the unique political and diplomatic environment in which they were operating over Syria, the matter was left open to chance.

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MQ-1 Predator drone (above). Reportedly, US surveillance aircraft had been watching the erroneously-labelled Syrian military position for several days. A drone examined an area near an airfield in Deir Ezzor Province on September 16, 2016, identifying a tunnel entrance, two tents and 10 men. The investigation found that those forces were not wearing recognizable military uniforms or identification flags, and there were no other signs of their ties to the Syrian government.

Confirmation Bias and Hormones: Decisionmaking on the Airstrikes

Decipimur specte recti. (We are deceived by the appearance of right.) In the conclusions of the US Defense Department’s investigation, causality for the incident was found to be in part the thinking of US air commanders and planners. It was determined to have been a bit off-kilter and confirmation bias was pointed to specifically. Confirmation bias is a result of the direct influence of desire on beliefs. When individuals desire a certain idea or concept to be true, they end up believing it to be true. They are driven by wishful thinking. This error leads the individual to cease collecting information when the evidence gathered at a certain point confirms the prejudices one would like to be true. After an individual has developed a view, the individual embraces any information that confirms it while ignoring, or rejecting, information that makes it unlikely. Confirmation bias suggests that individuals do not perceive circumstances objectively. An individual extrapolates bits of data that are satisfying because they confirm the individual’s prejudices. Therefore, one becomes a prisoner of one’s assumptions. The Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar has been quoted as saying “Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt,” which means, “Men readily believe what they want to believe.” Under confirmation bias, this is exactly the case.  Attempting to confirm beliefs comes naturally to most individuals, while conversely it feels less desirable and counterintuitive for them to seek out evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This explains why opinions survive and spread. Disconfirming instances must be far more powerful in establishing truth. Disconfirmation requires searching for evidence to disprove a firmly held opinion.

Cogitationem sobrii hominis punctum temporis suscipe. (Take for a moment the reasoning of a quiet man.) For the intelligence analyst, appropriately verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. This has been pointed to as a true manifestation of self-confidence: the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can serve a hypothesis and then gather information from each member in a way that allows the expression of independent assessments. A good example can found in police procedure. In order to derive the most reliable information from multiple witnesses to a crime, witnesses are not allowed to discuss it prior to giving their testimony. The goal is to prevent unbiased witnesses from influencing each other. US President Abraham Lincoln intentionally filled his cabinet with rival politicians who had extremely different ideologies. At decision points, Lincoln encouraged passionate debate and discussion.

At the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, research is being done to better understand the biological basis for decisionmaking using lab experiments and biological data. Some of the findings of research scientist, Gideon Nave, who came to Wharton from the university’s neuroscience department, prove as relevant to this case as much as confirmation bias. Nave explains that the process of decision-making is influenced by their biological state. Factors that can influence that biological state naturally include hunger, sleep deprivation and stress. However, Nave is also looking deeper at the influence of hormones on decision-making. In dominant situations, different hormones fluctuate in people. For example, stress creates a clearly measurable biological stress response that consists of elevation of several hormones in our body. Nave has focused on noradrenaline and cortisol. Cortisol specifically affects decisionmaking.

In examining decisionmaking, Nave recognizes that people trade-off by people accuracy and speed when making decisions. Cortisol, Nave has found, influences people’s will to give the simple heuristic, or “gut answer” faster, as if they were under time pressure. There is a simple test Nave uses through which one can observe their own responses. It come in the form of a math word problem. There is a bat and a ball for the US sport baseball. Together, they cost $1.10. Now, the bat costs a dollar more than the ball. What’s the price of the ball? More often than not, individuals tested will give their intuitive answer. Indeed, as the ball is 10 cents, and the bat is $1 more, they typically believe it means that the bat is $1.10, so together the bat and ball would be $1.20. However, that would be incorrect. The correct answer is 5 cents and $1.05. When the answer 10 cents is given, it usually has not been thought through. There is no time limit set for providing an answer. There is no incentive offered by the tester for answering with speed. It seems the only real pressure is the desire of an adult, who may be paid for being correct at his or her job, and may be achievement oriented, to correctly answer what is an elementary school-level math woth word problem with speed and confidence.

In analysis at the tactical level, target identification can require splitting-hairs. Much as a bank teller dispensing cash, a mistake by an intelligence can lead to a crisis. Doubt and uncertainty can be mitigated with sufficient, timely redundant assessments. In a sensitive political and diplomatic environment as the one faced in Syria, the slightest uncertainty should have been cause enough to deliberate and think through a target’s identification. While normally action-oriented, in a sensitive political and diplomatic environment, the commander, for that brief period, could order unit commanders and planners exercising caution in targeting and launching attacks.

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In anew initial statement (above), CENTCOM, still uncertain, recognized the possibility that Syrian forces were hit in Deir Ezzor. For the intelligence analyst, verifying one’s conclusions is paramount. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. It requires the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can set a hypothesis and gather information from each member, allowing for the expression of independent assessments.

Ensuring the Right-hand and the Left-hand Know What the Head Wants

Perhaps civilian leaders in the Obama administration failed to fully consider or comprehend issues concerning measures used to identify and decide upon targets. Perhaps they were unaware that it was more important in that period of intense negotiations with Russia to minimize or simply avoid attacks on targets in close proximity to the forces of Russia and its allies. Under ordinary circumstances, the matter could reasonably be left for Russia commanders in the field to handle without concern for any implications in doing so. If in the future, an effort is made to demonstrate to Russia the best aspects of US capabilities and the benefits enjoyed by US-led Coalition partners in operations against ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic militant forces, some guidance regarding urgent political goals for that period, and the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of operations must be issued. It was either determined or no thought was given to reviewing and approving relevant procedures and initiatives at a time when crucial diplomatic efforts needed to be, and should have been, supported.

Historia magistra vitae et testis temporum. (History is the teacher and witness of times.) During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence and perhaps restraint in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. The effort US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to inform US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral George Anderson of that resulted in a renowned angry exchange between them. The sources on which Graham Allison relied upon in the original edition of his seminal work on the crisis, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Little, Brown and Company,1971), claimed that the US Navy failed to implement the President John Kennedy’s orders to draw the blockade like we closer to Cuba ostensibly to give the Soviet Union’s calculating Chairman of the Council of Ministers, Nikita Khrushchev, more time to decide to half Soviet ships, and that Anderson resisted explaining to McNamara what procedures the Navy would use when intercepting the first Soviet ship to approach the line.

According to Allison’s account of the confrontation between McNamara and Anderson, US President John Kennedy was worried that the US Navy, already restive over the controls imposed on how the blockade of Cuba was to be executed, might “blunder into an incident.” McNamara was closely attuned to Kennedy’s worries and resolved to press the Navy leadership for additional information on its modus operandi. Confronting Anderson, McNamara minced no words: “Precisely what would the Navy do when the first interception occurred?” Anderson told him that he had already covered that same ground before the National Security Council, and the further explanation was unnecessary. This answer angered McNamara, proceeded to lecture Anderson on the political realities: “It was not the President’s design to shoot Russians but rather to deliver a political signal to Chairman Khrushchev. He did not want to push the Soviet leader into a corner; he did not want to humiliate him; he did not want to risk provoking him into a nuclear reprisal. Executing the blockade is a an act of war, one that involved the risk of sinking a Soviet vessel. The sole purpose of taking such a risk would be to achieve a political objective. But rather than let it come to that extreme end, we must persuade Chairman Khrushchev to pull back. He must not be ‘goaded into retaliation’.” Getting the feeling that his lecture did not sink in, McNamara resumed his detailed questioning. Whereupon Anderson, picked up the Manual of Naval Regulations, waved it in McNamara face and shouted, “It’s all in there!” McNamara retorted, “I don’t give a damn what John Paul Jones would have done. I want to know what you are going to do, now!”

Other sources that Allison utilized claimed that civilian leaders believed US antisubmarine warfare operations included using depth charges to force Soviet submarines to surface, raising the risk of inadvertent war. According to Richard Betts in American Force: Dangers, Delusions and Dilemmas in National Security (Columbia University Press, 2011). Subsequent research indicated that these stories were false. Indeed, Joseph Bouchard explains in Command in Crisis: Four Case Studies (Columbia University Press, 1991) that McNamara actually ordered antisubmarine procedures that were more aggressive than those standard in peacetime. Harried civilian leaders may not have fully comprehended the implications of all these technical measures, or may have had second thoughts. Nevertheless, the relevant procedures and initiatives did not escape their review and approval.

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US President John Kennedy (left) with US Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (right). During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, civilian leaders recognized the need for enhanced diligence in the conduct of a Naval blockade of Cuba. McNamara’s effort to inform the US Navy of that resulted in a renowned exchange between himself and the Chief of Naval Operations, US Navy Admiral George Anderson. Well before the errant Syria airstrike, civilian leaders should have told US air commanders and planners of their operations’ potential to impact crucial, ongoing US diplomatic efforts.

The Way Forward

In William Shakespeare’s comedy, The Tempest, Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, although forced to take refuge on an island for twelve years after his brother Antonio seized his title and property, refused to use his extraordinary powers, magic, to take revenge when the opportunity presented itself.  Prosperous remarks, “The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.” The best definitions of virtue can be found among teachings of various religions. However, to avoid being impolitic by choosing one religion and its tenants over others, its definition can be drawn from philosophy. From a philosophical perspective, virtue is well-defined by the “Golden Mean” proffered by Cleobulos of Lindos, one of the Seven Sages of Greece. The Golden Mean manifested an understanding that life is not lived well without following the straight and narrow path of integrity. That life of moderation is not what is popularly meant by moderation. The classical Golden Mean is the choice of good over what is convenient and commitment to the true instead of the plausible. Virtue is then the desire to observe the Golden Mean. Between Obama and Putin, no confidence, no trust, no love existed, and relations between the US and Russia have been less than ideal. Regarding the errant Syria airstrike, the Permanent Representative of the Russian Federation to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said it perhaps served as evidence of US support for ISIS and an al-Qaeda affiliate fighting the Syrian government which the US sought to remove. Churkin’s statement could be viewed as indicaing that insinuated into his thinking was the notion commonly held worldwide of the US as virtuous country, a notion proffered, promoted, and purportedly fashioned into its foreign policy. It appears that he, too, would have liked to believe US actions and intentions are guided by virtue. Yet, it would seem that was a hope unfulfilled as a result of the bombing Syrian troops, coupled with all the disagreements and disputes, trials and tribulations between the US and Russia, and led to his expression of so much disappointment and discouragement. Nihil est virtute pulchrius. (There is nothing more beautiful than virtue.)

The US must be a role model, a moral paragon as the world’s leader acting as virtuously as it speaks. The US leaders must act virtuously not just because others worldwide expect it, but rather because they should expect it of themselves. Diplomatic relations with Russia must be transformed in line with a new policy necessitating efforts to end misunderstandings and to exploit opportunities in which the two countries can coordinate and cooperate. However, achieving that will require the effective stewardship of US diplomatic, military, political, and economic activities by US leaders. Micromanagement can often result in mismanagement in certain situations. Still, in the midst of on-going efforts  to resolve urgent and important issues, US leaders must take steps to ensure that all acting on behalf of the US. They must thoroughly understand the concept and intent of the president, the implications of any actions taken individually or by their organizations, and perform their tasks with considerable diligence. All must make a reasonable effort to ensure errant actions are prevented. Melius est praevenire quad praeveniri. (Better to forestall than to be forestalled.)