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.)

Commentary: Trump and Putin: A Brief Look at the Relationship after Two Years

For two years, US President Donald Trump has sought to create an effective working relationship with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. That effort was made more urgent because the previous administration of US President Barack Obama left the US-Russia relationship in tatters when it departed. Trump has created conditions for an authentic engagement with Putin. He has done nothing contrary to US values or harmful to US interests. He has given Putin no cause to behave in aberrant ways. Yet, Trump surely has not as yet developed a relationship to his satisfaction with Putin. A choice will likely be made soon on how he will proceed with the Russian Federation President.

Trusting in the adage that there is always a good soup in an old chicken, greatcharlie looks once again at a favorite subject of its meditations: US President Donald Trump’s interactions with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Two years have passed since Trump, as part of his effort to reshape US foreign and national security policy for the better, sought to create an effective working relationship with Putin. That effort was made more urgent because the previous administration of US President Barack Obama left the US-Russia relationship tatters when it departed. Having poorly managed relations, particularly by failing to act in a well-considered, well-measured, well-meaning way with Putin, there is now evidence that indicates that the previous administration more than likely provoked what became an overreaction in Moscow, marked by the annexation of Crimea and an effort to interfere in the 2016 US Presidential Elections. Further, judging by Putin’s fast-paced effort to create a greatly improved first-strike capability, the collective obituaries of the people of both the countries were nearly written as a result of the previous administration’s contentious interactions with Moscow.

Trump has known from the start that his efforts with Putin could all end in something akin to a car crash. Certainly, proper consideration and proper measure needed to be given every interaction with Putin. For Trump, who, using his own wits created a successful multinational corporation and fought his own way through a tough campaign to become President of the US, subduing the ego in order to acquit himself to ensure positive interactions with Putin was easier to think and say than do. Yet, Trump managed to control his ego, his passions, through self-discipline. After also facing down iniquitous criticism of having a delusional ambition, Trump has created conditions for an authentic engagement with Putin. He has done nothing contrary to US values or harmful to US interests. He has given Putin no cause to behave in aberrant ways. Kindness, generosity, respectfulness, and frankness have been an important part of that interaction. Still, two years later, it appears that Trump, who clearly has acquitted himself well, may have developed a relationship with Putin not yet to his satisfaction. It is a relationship subject to vexatious fluctuations. Some important aspects of the relationship, viewed from Trump’s side of the line, are briefly considered here. It is likely that a decision will soon be made by Trump on whether to use the inroads he has made with Putin as foundation on which to continue building a good relationship or call the whole effort a wash, and from that point onward, only contain and mitigate whatever bad actions Putin might take. Oportet privatis utilitatibus publicas, mortalibus aeternas anteferre, multoque diligentius muneri suo consulere quam facultatibus. (A man must rate public and permanent, above private and fleeting advantages and study how to render his benefaction most useful, rather than how he may bestow it with least expense.)

The Environment in which Trump Is Forced to Work

From what has been observed, critics and detractors within the US news media and among scholars, policy analysts, political opponents, and leaders of the Democratic Party, have exhibited a practically collective mindset, determined to find wrong in Trump. His presidency was figuratively born in the captivity of such attitudes and behavior. They have tried endlessly to uncloak some nefarious purpose in his legitimate effort to perform his duties, which has been akin to seeking long shadows at high noon. The attacks can be broken down to gradations of intensity, none 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.

Coruscating flashes of 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. They have left a record littered with moments of absolute absurdity in the past few years that will break their own hearts if they ever took a look over their shoulders and reviewed their work.  In developing their attacks on Trump, they build whimsy upon whimsy, fantasy upon fantasy. Some will often present angry insinuations of Trump guilt in one thing or another along with the pretense that they know more but were not saying, in a silly effort to puff themselves up. Former US President Jimmy Carter was quoted in the New York Times on October 21, 2017 as saying: “I think the media have been harder on Trump than any other president certainly that I’ve known about.” He added: “I think they feel free to claim that Trump is mentally deranged and everything else without hesitation.” Nonetheless, those critics seem to be held hostage to such ideas. Rotam fortunae non timet. (They do not fear the wheel of fortune.)

From what has been reported about the 2016 Trump Presidential Campaign, opportunists, who managed to latch on to it, appear to have independently engaged in enough ill-advised, foolish actions before and during its existence to create a detectable smog of wrongdoing around it. However, their actions were nothe in any way connected to Trump. (Interestingly, many of those opportunists had prominent names in political circles, yet there were no immediate impressions offered by critics and detractors and the US news media that indicated they were problematics even as they very publicly signed on to the campaign.) Far less acceptable have been very prominent attacks that insist there is truth in allegations that Trump colluded with the Russian Federation to win the 2016 Presidential Election and obstructed justice in an effort to cover-up his alleged wrongdoing. On February 12, 2019, when the two-year investigation into the 2016 US Presidential Election was close to being completed, both Republicans and Democrats on the US Senate Intelligence Committee revealed that no direct evidence of a conspiracy between the Trump Campaign and Russia had been found. It really appears that a farfetched novel on covert espionage was been used by critics and detractors as a template from they could to judge Trump. They have worked very hard to convince that nothing more than fantasies represented the authentic version of events. Investigations into those fantastic accusations have created the impression in the minds of some in the US public that he has at least done something wrong. Not much can be worse than to bring the loyalty of a patriotic citizen, such as Trump, into question. Interestingly, by engaging in this behavior one can get a good idea of exactly what his critics and detractors do not know about that province in which they have tried wedge Trump: the secret world of intelligence.

The Tall-Tale of Trump as “Russian Spy”

The notion that experienced foreign intelligence operatives of the Russian Federation would approach and recruit Trump is ludicrous. Pardon greatcharlie’s freedom, but experienced, foreign intelligence operatives of the Russian Federation would unlikely want to work with Trump and members of his family on an operation of such magnitude. To begin, they had no experience whatsoever with the type of conspiracy. A significant amount of teaching would need to be done along the way and that would require plenty of covert contact.  The danger of having an effort to approach Trump or actual effort to recruit him uncloaked would be too great to risk. US-Russian relations would be in a far worse place than where they were before the operation was executed. There is certainly an art that moves Trump’s mind. Just approaching him would be a parlous undertaking. Traits that would obviate him as an intelligence recruitment target would include: his patriotism; his wealth; his extroverted personality; his gregarious, talkative nature; his desire to lead and be in command at all times; and his oft reported combustible reactions. If the matter of recruiting Trump had at all debated within the Russian Federation intelligence services, the idea may have simply bubbled up as part of some late night brainstorming session with plenty of good vodka on hand. Humor aside, even under that circumstance, true professionals more than likely would have tossed the idea out immediately. (The matter as laid out is quite reminiscent of early 19th century ruminations about possible “Bolshevik plots” against the US.)

Hypothetically, if such an operation had been green lighted, it remains unclear how Trump would have communicated with a Russian handler and which handler would have had enough experience and stature to manage him. Some critics and detractors have made the very cavalier suggestion that Putin is his handler. However, in the Russian Federation, no one mens sana in corpore sano and for existential reasons, would even suggest that Putin should be attendant to such a matter because he is Putin. That means far more in Moscow than many outsiders might be able to comprehend.

One might expect that a far higher threshold and a more finely graded measure would be used to judge the actions of the President of the US before making the grave allegation that the individual was functioning as a creature of a foreign intelligence service. Relying upon off-handed remarks and ill-considered gestures of a sitting US President to initiate an investigation would be very questionable, if not completely unwarranted. Using the brief authority of a government position, abusing one’s power, and using money of the people of the US, to satisfy one’s curiosity stirred by an inchoate set of facts, or worse, attempt to substantiate mere surmisal, might actually be called unlawful under certain circumstances. That is not the type of high quality performance that at one time garnered US counterintelligence specialists considerable praise among intelligence services worldwide.

For astute and somber counterintelligence specialists in the US Intelligence Community, far more than just a matter of perception would be required before any would conclude an investigation to determine whether Trump was a Russian spy was validly predicated. Evidence they would require might include some indicia, a genuine trail of Russian Federation intelligence tradecraft leading to Trump. Good US counterintelligence specialists are exceptionally knowledgeable of the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of the various departments of the Russian Federation’s intelligence apparatus: the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU; the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR; and, the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. The case of the counterintelligence specialists would have been fattened up a bit once they had figuratively scratched through the dust to track down certain snags, hitches, loose ends, and other tell-tale signs of a Russian Federation intelligence operation and presence around or linked to him. An approach toward Trump most likely would have been tested by Russian Federation Intelligence Community and evidence of that would exist. Certain charms used to lure Trump would need to be identified and confirmed as such. To suggest one charm might have been promising him an election victory is farcical. Bear in mind that no reasonable or rational Republican or Democrat political operative in the US would ever be so incautious as to offer the guarantee of an election victory to any candidate for any local, state, or national office. Recall how the good minds of so many US experts failed to bring victory to their presidential candidates in 2016.

The goal of US counterintelligence specialists is to do things the right way. The purpose is to get things right. (Of course, there have been periods such as the “James Angleton episode”, when things were done wrong.) One would hope that counterintelligence specialists would occasionally engage in the healthy process of self-assessment. If concerning Trump, some have self-diagnosed that they hold some bias against him, they must, as a treatment, leave that bias outside of the office and be certain to remain objective and use diligence in appraising him in their work product. It would have behooved US counterintelligence specialists at the beginning of Trump’s term to consider that attitudes and behaviors displayed by him which were nonstandard most likely were a result of him being: new to not just politics in general, but specifically national politics; new to government; new to foreign policy and national security making; and, new to diplomacy. Trump was certainly a novice in almost all respects with regard to the intricacies of the secret world of intelligence. That understanding should then have been commingled with the understanding that when Trump campaigned for president, he explained that he was somewhat contemptuous of orthodox ways of doing things in Washington. That is clearly what everyone is seeing. Trump declared that he wanted to “drain the swamp!” He would come to the Oval Office wanting to do things his way. To an extent, that was his prerogative. Perhaps a greater degree of, not necessarily tolerance or liberality, but certainly patience and understanding could have been used in assessing what could be called “a beginner’s missteps and misstatements.” True, for the US Intelligence Community, there is a responsibility to speak truth to power. Still, expectations should have been kept within reason. Consideration might have been given to “cutting ‘the kid’ some slack.” Res ipsa repperi facilitate nihil esse homini melius neque clementia. (I have learned by experience that nothing is more advantageous to a person than courtesy and compassion.)

Instead of initiating expensive, prying investigations of Trump and his administration, directors and senior managers in the US Intelligence Community present when Trump came to office might have better spent their time by stepping up and developing more effective ways of briefing Trump with digestible slices of information on the inherent problems and pitfalls of approaching matters as he was. Attempting instead to “transform” the presidency to fit their liking when Trump came to office was wrong. With enormous budgets appropriated to their organizations by the US Congress, every now and then, some directors and senior managers in the US Intelligence Community will succumb to the temptation of engaging in what becomes a misadventure. (If money had been short, it is doubtful that the idea of second guessing Trump’s allegiance would have even glimmered in their heads. Starting an investigating would most likely have been judged as not worth the candle.) Those directors and senior managers present at the Trump administration’s start might have simply held out hope, as is the practice in a democracy, that national electorate had made a good choice and that Trump, himself, would evolve nicely, and perhaps rapidly, while in office. Two years into his presidency, none of “missteps and misstatements” concerning foreign and national security policy initially observed are being seen any more.

Trump’s Alleged Problems with Intelligence Reports

On foreign and national security policy, especially as it concerns Putin and the Russian Federation, Trump has actually acted with integrity, and has been true to his cause: putting “America First”;  “Making America Great Again”; and, the US public. Trump has no need to vindicate himself on this big issue for he has done well. Nothing needs to be dressed-up. He has been forthright. Indeed, if critics and detractors would care to watch closely at what Trump has been doing, they would see that he has stood against, pushed back on, and even defeated many Russian Federation efforts to advance an agenda against the US and its interests. Those who might try to suggest otherwise are well off the mark. A normative hope might be that critics and detractors actually know the truth and for their own reasons are acting against it. In Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad wrote: “No man ever understands quite his own artful dodges to escape the grim shadow of self-knowledge.” However, it seems Trump’s critics and detractors will never compromise their wrongful beliefs with reality. In a country where one is presumed innocent until proven guilty, where one has a right to due process, and upholding the rights of the citizen is paramount, one might hope that at least in the subconscious of the US public, there has been a very poor reaction to what is being witnessed concerning investigations of Trump and the reporting of them. Trump has a defense and has fought back. It is more than likely that the outcome will all go Trump’s way. Nevertheless, the impression of wrongdoing, having been propagated for so long and with such intensity by his critics and detractors, will likely stick to some degree.

As if generating evidence from thin air against Trump concerning the Russian Federation were not enough, there are also claims that his brashness and alleged meager intellectual capacity prevents him from appropriately making use of the intelligence community to better understand Putin and the Russian Federation. Most recall how the US public was assured by former US President George W. Bush that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction, to include nuclear weapons and chemical weapons, and how Obama declared that Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad, facing an opposition movement, “was toast!” Neither was true. Yet, one might assume that both former presidents made use of information from the Intelligence Community to reach those conclusions and validate them. One might surmise that Trump is labelling intelligence presented to him as wrong Intelligence because it does not validate a point of view he might harbor on an issue. However, that that would be wrong.

As mentioned in the February 4, 2019 grearcharlie post entitled, “The Second Trump Kim Summit: A Few Things Kim Should Consider when Negotiating with Trump”, in his current position, much as during business life, Trump will treat important what he intuits on how to proceed. While government foreign and national security policy professionals may appreciate his ideas, requirements on the development of their work product demand that they refrain including their “gut reactions”  as well as those of the US President in their analyses. Absolute obedience to such requirements  by professionals of the Intelligence Community could be viewed as a manifestation of having to perform under the security bubble, and live daily with the awkwardness of setting limitations on one’s own rights to speak and to think whatever they want in a free society. There is also the paranoia caused by the discomfort of occasionally being watched and the need for self-policing. When there is a disparity between what he may be intuiting and what the US Intelligence Community may be saying, Trump in an orotund way, which is his style, may state that he thinks he is correct. While his public expression of disagreement may create the wrong impression as to the nature of Trump’s relationship with his intelligence services among observers as his critics and detractors have alleged, it is all really harmless as it concerns foreign and national security policy making and decision making. Trump will always press them for their very best answers. Trump is well-aware that a clear picture of what going on regarding an issue can only exist when intelligence provides him with the objective truth. Notwithstanding what critics and detractors may proffer, Trump will always turn his ears toward his intelligence chiefs. (He certainly hears what they say to the US Congress.) Anyone who truly believes, despite his now patented attitudes and reactions, that he is not listening intently to what is being written for and told to him by the US intelligence community, is still in the cradle intellectually when it comes to Trump. Unglaublich!

The Reality of Trump’s So-called “Infatuation” with Putin

A criticism espoused of Trump for the past two years is that he is enchanted with tyrants, strongmen, rogue leaders, such as Putin. His comments about Putin have been decried by critics as being unduly pleasant and oleaginous. However, that is a mischaracterization of Trump’s efforts.  Under Trump’s leadership, there is a new spirit exists in US foreign and national security policy to build better relations with countries around the world. That certainly did not mean Trump will be soft on any countries or on any issue. Whenever he saw the need to defend US interest against moves by another country, including Russia, he would act with determination. The Trump administration’s actual response to reports from the US Intelligence Community that Russian Federation interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election, in 2017 and 2018 serves as an example of that. Boiled down to the bones, the administration decided to keep 2 Russian Federation’s compounds in the US closed and sustain the expulsion of 35 diplomats in response to Russian interference in the 2016 election. In March 2018, the administration imposed sanctions against 16 Russian entities and individuals for their roles in Russian Federation’s interference in the 2016 Presidential election. In June 2018, the administration imposed sanctions against 5 Russian entities and 3 Russian individuals for enabling Russian Federation military and intelligence units to increase their country’s offensive cyber capabilities. In May 2017, President Trump signed an Executive Order to strengthen and review the cybersecurity of our Nation and its critical infrastructure. In September 2017, the administration banned the use of Kaspersky Labs software on US Government computers due to the company’s ties to Russian Federation intelligence. In March 2017, the administration charged 3 Russians for the 2014 Yahoo hack, including 2 officers of the FSB. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken the lead in working with all 50 states, local governments, and private companies to improve election security and integrity. DHS has increased coordination and information sharing among all election partners, with nearly 1000 elections jurisdictions, including all 50 states, participating in the Election Infrastructure Information Sharing and Analysis Center.

Trump’s critics and detractors comment as if he has given Putin some type of free pass to do what he wants in the world. Yet, that is simply gossamer fantasy that has been let loose very publicly on the world via the US news media. Putin, himself, knows that he has been unaccommodated by Trump and displeased by all that has done in response the Russian Federation’s election meddling. It might have been helpful for Moscow to understand before it engaged in such a grand, perilous and injudicious undertaking as interfering in a US Presidential Election that all US Presidents make policy in the world of politics. If Trump had the only say in how policy would be constructed, surely it would look just as he wanted. However, Members of the US Congress, who also represent the citizens of the US, their electorate, will review administration initiatives, relations with other countries and on its own judge behaviors of other national leaders. Often Congress will take action through legislation, that will impact the shape of US policy. It will do assuring that it has support from enough Members to prevent action by the President to halt it. Further, no matter what direction either takes on policy, both the President and Congress must take actions that connect with the US public. Putin’s dissatisfaction doubtlessly does not end with Trump’s response the Russian Federation’s election meddling. Putin has been dissatisfied by a number of other foreign and national security policy decisions by Trump administration: it has encouraged NATO members to increase military spending, greatly enhancing the capabilities and capacity of the alliance in face of the Russian Federation’s military build up in its West; it has increased funding for the European Deterrence Initiative to help defend our NATO allies and deter Russian Federation aggression, by providing billions to increase US troop readiness in Europe; it discouraged European support for the Nord Stream 2 Pipeline Project; it has enhanced its support of the Ukrainian Government to stabilize the society; it robustly equipped and trained Ukrainian naval and military forces; it condemned the Russian Federation for the attempted assassination of former Russian Federation intelligence officer Sergei Skirpal and his daughter Yulia with the assurance military-grade Novichok nerve agent in Salisbury, England in March 2018; it ordered the expulsion of 48 Russian Federation intelligence officers from the US and ordered the closure of the Russian Federation Consulate in Seattle, Washington; it coordinated that action with those taken by US allies around the world; it expelled 12 Russian intelligence officers from the Russian Mission to the UN in New York for abusing their privilege of residence; it imposed sanctions against 7 Russian oligarchs and the 12 companies they own or control, 17 senior Russian government officials, and a state-owned Russian weapons trading company that has provided military equipment and support to the Government of Syria, enabling the regime’s continual attacks against Syrian citizens; it also sanctioned a bank that weapons trading company it owns; it ordered new Russia-related sanctions under the Sergei Magnitsky and Global Magnitsky programs; it imposed export controls against 2 Russian companies that were helping the Russian Federation develop missiles that violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF); it sanctioned a total of 100 targets in response to Russia’s ongoing occupation of Crimea and aggression in Eastern Ukraine; it designated Russian actors under Iran and North Korea sanctions authorities; the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network proposed a new rule to bar a Latvian bank involved in illicit Russia-related activity from opening or maintaining correspondent accounts in the US; and, the arrest of Russian Federation national Maria Buttina based on what were efforts to infiltrate, to monitor and to potentially influence the hierarchy of the National Rifle Association with regard to its involvement supporting political campaigns.

Putin is most likely additionally displeased over: the US withdrawal from Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action concerning the Iranian nuclear program to which the Russian Federation  was a signatory; the US support of Syrian forces in opposition to the Russian Federation’s man in Syria, Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad; the continued US presence in Syria; the appearance of what some Russian analysts might conclude has been a “feigned retreat” from Syria similar that of Russian Federation in 2016 when Putin declared that Russian Federation forces were withdrawing from Syria. (See the August 20, 2016 greatcharlie post entitled, “Under Pressure Over Aleppo Siege, Russia Hints at Seeking Deal with US: Can Either Country Compromise?”); the killing of over 200 Russian “mercenaries” by US forces as they attempted to capture an oil refinery on the grounds of a US military base in Syria; the US bombing in both 2017 and 2018 of Syrian military bases and facilities due to what Russia would call false allegations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons on its own citizens; the US efforts at denuclearization and economic vitalization the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, potential weakening of Russian influence as a result; the US withdrawal from the INF; and recently, US efforts to “undercut” the Russian Federation’s man in Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro and stirring popular support in Venezuela as well as support and full recognition of capitals worldwide for the President of the Venezuelan National Assembly Juan Guaidó, now the self-declared Interim President. Much more has been done by Trump, but it is a bit too much to unpack it all here.

What Has Been Putin’s Aim?

Due to Putin’s penchant for doing something untoward, there always the chance that there could be a big falling out between Trump and himself. Indeed, from what is observable, Putin can often behave in ways to negatively impact ties with others. He has a way of making half-turns away from what is correct, just enough to perturb. There is certainly a lot going on behind his eyes. As a result of that negative behavior, he can fall out from one’s senses, away from what one can understand and even believe. In any event, it is not a joyous experience, it is rather the type of experience from which one would reasonably want to escape. Putin certainly does not have friendly thoughts about the US. To make any noise that would sound as if one sympathizes with Putin and his aides and advisers would be to stand on shaky ground. However, it is somewhat apparent how negative circumstances got them to the point they have reached regarding the US and West in general.

In fairness, the Soviet Union was an arrested as well as broken society that never fully overcame the ravages of World War II. Its people doubly suffered by living under the iron grip of an authoritarian government. It allowed them no voice to express the stresses and pains under which they were trapped. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, measures taken by Western experts, many with very bad ideas on fixing the economies of the former Soviet republics, rushed to the Russian Federation’s assistance. They had the effect of creating more pain, more uncertainty, more instability for Russians at all levels. At that point, for the majority of Russians, the US completely lost its claim to compassion as they looked over the damage done to their society via the experimentation of the economic and financial experts. Interregnum, the multinationals exploited the Russian Federation as it tried to reorganize itself. Russian officials stumbled behind the multinationals experts and marketers trying to understand what they were doing with the futile hope that things would turn out for the best. On that basis, one might muse in an objective way that the resentment of many Russians was somewhat justified. Russians, such as Putin, under the notions that their anger was righteous, took things  a step further via their own angry expression of the consequences and humiliations of such a life.  They reject the notion that the West is superior in any way. They do not see evidence that justifies the claim that the US has a superior society, that is such a thing as “American Exceptionalism”. They rejected what they view as geopolitical and metaphysical fluff propagated by the West. Unable to keep the old order intact they invented a copy, equally threatening at home with regard to recognizing the rights of the Russian people, yet unable to project the power of the mighty Soviet Union. Absent also is the struggle to establish global Communism. Still, ensuring that Russia would never fall victim to business and financial experts and multinational corporations, and seeking vengeance when possible became a means to soothe their pride. “Unser ganzes leben, unser ganzer stolz!”

Calling attention to the flaws, shortfalls, and faults of the US did not serve to positively shape their approach to governing the Russian Federation where the abuses of power and the excesses of elites were most apparent. Expert observers of Russia throughout the world would agree too often the government will regularly exceed what is decent. Even today, one stands on dangerous ground in Russia by even questioning the actions of the country’s leadership. Even Putin’s aides and advisers must tremble at his fury. Perhaps they even shudder when misfortune befalls others at his hand. Life can quickly turn from sweetness to bitterness for those who keep company with him. A majority in the US public might stand in utter horror to know what was actually happening in the Russian Federation. Still, regardless of the Russian Federation’so condition, Kremlin officials insist that their country should retain its place among industrialized countries. In the Kremlin, it was believed that the legacy of being a superpower is validates the Russian Federation’s demand to be included among the main powers in the international order. The Kremlin never felt that the Obama administration was willing to view or act toward the Russian Federation, at least while Putin was it’s president, in a way befitting it. Putin seemingly remains infuriated by the idea projected by the Obama administration that Russia should only be allowed the power that the US wanted it to have. Vocal veterans of the Obama administration, former senior appointed officials, continue to speak in such unkind ways about Putin and Russia, apparently unaware of how much damage their line of thinking did to their own policies, and oblivious to the impact their words still have in the Kremlin today. Numquam enim temeritas cum sapientia commiscetur. (For rashness is never mixed together with wisdom.)

Despite efforts by Trump to blunt Putin’s aggressiveness, the Russian Federation President is still left with a say on whether the relationship will be good or bad. One cannot just sit back and hope for the best, to presuppose Putin will eventually become a good partner around the world. Trump must take steps when the best opportunity arises, to better position the US and its interests in the world. Of course the support of sufficient analysis and forecasts of a favorable outcome anchored in reality would be required, too!  It might be too far to claim Putin has a negative intellect through which no logic can penetrate. The sort of figurative crystal ball gazing that caused anyone to believe Trump was being led by the nose by Moscow is not what is needed at all. Along with a strong interest in improving US-Russian relations, there should be a seamless flow of empathy between the two leaders an apparent chemistry. That does not appear exist, and may not possible. If anything, Putin should be the one find such as outcome regrettable, having squandered so much potential for his own country. However, it is equally possible that he could not care less. How proportionate Putin will respond on a matter can best be speculated upon as logic is not always the best yardstick to use with him. (The best example is Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election.)

Opinionis enim commenta delet dies, naturae judicia confirmat. (For time destroys the fictions of error and opinion, while it confirms the determination of nature and of truth.) Trump will not let his curiosity become the cheese for any trap laid by Putin. Certainly, changing course with Putin, having invested two years in the effort to build better relations, would be disappointing. Such are the pitfalls aspiring to do new things and accomplish more. Abandoning the effort or at least paring it down if satisfactory results in the form of responses from Putin are absent, would be completely in step with the America First policy. For Trump, what the US public thinks and feels and what is best for them will always have primacy in his thinking and decision making. Furthermore, taking on such challenges is what Trump likes to do successfully. When things do not turn out exactly the way he would like, he will at least know that he gave it his best. Assuredly, Trump will continue to take on challenges for the US public as his presidency marches forward. The matador Escamillo’s aria, “Votre toast, je peux vous le rendre”, from Georges Bizet’s Opera Carmen fits Trump’s stouthearted drive to succeed very well: Car c’est la fete du courage! / C’est la fete des gens de co / Allons! en garde! Allons! Allons! ah! / Toreador, en garde! Toreador, Toreador! (Because it is a celebration of courage! / It is the celebration of people with heart! / Let’s go, on guard! Let’s go! Let’s go! Ah! / Toreador, on guard! Toreador, Toreador!)

Trump Uses Prior Experience, Flexible Thinking, and Even Empathy, to Make Foreign Policy Decisions Fit for Today’s World

US President Donald Trump (above). International Institutions as the UN, the World Bank, and NATO have served well in promoting global economic development, international peace and security, and providing responses to threats to democracy and freedom. Still, some countries, sensing they are surrendering a degree of control and power by creating space for the conciliation of such institutions, frequently work outside of them. Doing that well is not easy. Lessons can be drawn from Trump’s efforts at effecting change in other countries’ foreign and national security policy decision making.

Throughout centuries, overwhelming military power, hard power, has been used by empires, countries, tribes seeking to force some modifications in other groups or halt certain actions altogether. Threaded through that history has been the less frequent use of what the renowned international affairs scholar Joseph Nye referred to as “soft power”, the ability to shape the long-term attitudes and preferences of country by using economic and cultural influence rather than force. Institutions as the UN, the World Bank, and NATO, have well-served the interests of countries since the postwar era by promoting economic development worldwide, international peace and security, and providing responses to Communist aggression and other threats to democracy and freedom. However, effecting change peacefully since the end of the Cold War has often been a process in which stronger, very capable, sophisticated, industrialized countries, with a goal of “leveling the playing field”, and promoting an Utopian unreality of all countries “negotiating as equals”. Great strain and limitations have been placed on their diplomatic efforts. Indeed, they feel that they have been in a downward spiral in which they are slowly surrendering an ever increasing degree of control and power to create space for the conciliation of international institutions. Hardline political elements of those countries have gone as far as to complain that working through international institutions has resulted in an absolute derogation of their respective countries’ rights and power.In addition, authoritarian regimes have regularly exploited international institutions for their own ends. For example, Cuba and Venezuela, two of the world’s most egregious human-rights abusers, sit on the UN Human Rights Council. China exploits benefits of membership in the World Trade Organization while engaging in unfair trade practices to protect its domestic market.

In response to this dilemma, the US and a number of other countries have begun to engage more frequently outside of those institutions in their diplomatic efforts on major issues. They want to better enable themselves to determine outcomes on those efforts. Moreover, as Kiron Skinner, Director of Policy Planning at the US Department of State, explained in a December 11, 2018 opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal: “With the international order under siege from actors that would remake it in their own illiberal image, the Trump administration is acting to preserve a just, transparent and free world of sovereign states.” Surely, this does not mean that international institutions are not being abandoned. Efforts are being made to reform them. Abandoning them completely would be a terrible miscalculation for their good offices still have purpose in certain urgent and important multilateral, regional, and global diplomatic situations. Rather, as an alternative, countries can cooperate effectually by making themselves the guarantors of their own domestic freedoms and national interests. Once national leaders become involved in bilateral or multilateral diplomacy outside of the auspices of an international institution, they must be a bit shrewder, more incisive, have an optimal situational awareness, and remain truly dedicated to reaching an agreement or resolution as there will be no “middleman” available to referee or mediate. They must be willing to struggle with an idea until its inception, rather than back away from finding a solution because it takes too much effort, energy, and time. Countries may not be able to insist upon negotiating as equals outside of international institutions, but that matter can be overcome by acting with a heightened spirit of goodwill. National leaders and negotiators must ensure that they are empathetic toward an opposite’s circumstances and positions.

Lessons 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 often from what observers might perceive 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, there will occasionally be surprise shifts in his approaches. 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. He indeed 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. By identifying and examining patterns in his efforts, lessons become available. From an out-of-the-box perspective, an abbreviated discussion is provided here of the types of considerations behind Trump’s thinking on four salient foreign and national security policy issues set before his administration: Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“DPRK”) denuclearization; Russian election interference in the US; the Russia-Ukraine confrontation in the Azov Sea (Kerch Strait); and, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the Khashoggi assassination. The intention here is not to insist that other national leaders should be guided by the meditations of greatcharlie on Trump’s decision making. Rather, the discussion simply outlines what may be some of the new necessities of thinking and reasoning by national leaders and their foreign and national security policy decision makers today as more countries seek to engage in diplomacy outside of international institutions. Further, it is hoped that the discussion here will become part of policy debate concerning the Trump administration. ‘Tu me’ inquis ‘mones? iam enim te ipse monuisti, iam correxisti? ideo aliorum emendationi vacas?’ Non sum tam improbus ut curationes aeger obeam, sed, tamquam in eodem valetudinario iaceam, de communi tecum malo colloquor et remedia communico. (“What,” say you, “are you giving me advice? Indeed, have you already advised yourself, already corrected your own faults? Is this the reason why you have leisure to reform other men?” No, I am not so shameless as to undertake to cure my fellow-men when I am ill myself. I am, however, discussing with you troubles which concern us both, and sharing the remedy with you, just as if we were lying ill in the same hospital.)

Trump (left) and DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un (right) in Singapore. The Singapore Summit was held on June 12, 2018. in the months since, Kim, nestled in Pyongyang, has likely become comfortable. Just thinking now and then about drawing closer to denuclearization and the future Trump presented, likely disrupts that sense of comfort. Calculating what would actually be required to effectuate the economic transformation of his country, may make change a less attractive. Encouriaging Kim to move forward may be a challenge for Trump, but not an insurmountable one.

The DPRK and Denuclearization

Given DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un’s apparent temporizing on the decision to denuclearize, critics and detractors of Trump would want everyone aware of the interactions between the US and DPRK to believe that Kim is using the US President to achieve his own ends. However, even if Kim actually feels that there is something more to the idea of denuclearization, surely he would still be hesitant to advance the matter. It would only be natural for anyone to have a bout with wintery feet facing the enormity of the potential undertaking before Kim. In the chambers where Kim and the DPRK’s most senior officials make decisions on foreign and national security policy, innovative and imaginative thinking would hardly be welcomed and denuclearization is likely accepted unenthusiastically. What has been produced there for quite some time has usually been uninspired stuff, aimed primarily at advancing the ideals of the Worker’s Party of Korea . Kim is surely aware of what happened in Russia economically with the help of “Western experts” after the fall of the Soviet Union. As mentioned in the July 27, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “To Foster Forward Movement on Denuclearization by Kim, Trump Says there Is No Rush, But His Patience Has Limits”, a complete trust in Trump hardly could have sprouted and blossomed exponentially in Kim during the Singapore meeting. Months have passed since Singapore, Kim is some distance away from it all. Any initial second-guessing Kim may have had about Trump may have morphed into considerable apprehension since. Kim has been comfortably nestled in Pyongyang. Drawing closer to the world that Trump presented, would require Kim to tear away from the only world he and his people have known. Just ruminating about what would be required to effectuate the economic transformation of his country may make it all seem so difficult and thereby a less attractive option.

When mulling over a new approach on a matter in negotiation with another country or countries, the foreign and national security policy machinery of countries as the DPRK will very often move with the same speed as the massive naval dreadnoughts of early and mid-20th century. Wheeling those giant ships port or starboard took real effort. They often moved so slowly that during World War II in particular, they became relatively easy targets for dive bombers and torpedo planes. Self-interested bureaucracies will champion their points of view on a matter and guard their turf. Their devotion to ensuring the primacy of their organizations’ partisan interests can even surpass their enthusiasm over the matter at hand. Decisions are usually reviewed endlessly, as they seek to advance their organizations’ parochial interests in an optimal way. Indeed, the bureaucracies can suffer the paralysis of analysis. Compromise is usually reached as last resort. Yet, “turf battles” can become so volatile on an issue that often in the end, while there may have been some compromise from the different organizations, no satisfactory decision is made at all, no approach truly beneficial to the country is advanced. Another result can be some composite solution that will be ineffectual in resolving the matter at hand in the best interests of their country. Further, there can be a result in which too many points, most of which were found to be too controversial to settle on in the bureaucratic struggle, are left uncovered, making it virtually impossible to proceed in the best interest of their country on a matter. All of this makes encouraging change in the thinking of another countries foreign and national security policy appear insurmountable. Trump and his advisers and aides have taken all of this into full consideration, and remain confident that the administration’s efforts will lead to success. In fact, it remains a goal in Washington to find a way to get Kim to accelerate his efforts at denuclearization. What they would like to do is create an occasion on which Kim to have a second chance to be in contact with the persuasive and assuring Trump. For Trump, there is a type of voluptuous quality about the entire challenge, as it will require the full use of his capabilities along the lines of excellence. Moreover, Trump has the freedom to maneuver in his own unique and often successful ways in the negotiation process. He does not need to be concerned that an international institution might impose limitations on his ability to make deals. Fortuna adversa virum magnae sapientiae non terret. (Adverse fortune (adversity) does not frighten (intimidate) a man of great intellect.)

As a practical matter, negotiating countries should ascribe probabilities of their opposites’ likely actions and reactions respectively. In that vein, national leaders of the negotiating countries must also be a bit more empathetic of each others circumstances. As the negotiation process continues, direct communication must be used to convey and remind what the expectations are for both sides and respective red-lines on trade-offs that neither side will cross. Nothing does more to prove how vested the other is on an issue when one party absolutely refuses to negotiate on it, even when perhaps minor agreements tied to it are reached in the negotiating process. Every country has lines that it simply will not cross. If anything, those small steps that might be achieved should serve to build confidence on other matters as the negotiations continue. If one country feels unduly pressured or imposed upon, some capitals could react in a disproportionately negative way. One-sided outcomes successfully forced down one party’s throat will not last.  One-sided outcomes, even if consented to by the initiating party will rarely survive over time. This was recently observed with regard to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action; the North American Free Trade Agreement, and the Paris Agreement of Climate Change.

Months have passed since Singapore. Any initial second-guessing Kim may have had about Trump may have possibly morphed into considerable apprehension. The foreign and national security policy machinery of the DPRK, mulling over a new approach on a matter in negotiation with the US, is moving very slowly. Self-interested bureaucracies will champion their points of view on a matter and guard their turf. Their devotion to ensuring the primacy of their organizations’ partisan positions undoubtedly far surpass their “enthusiasm” over denuclearization. 

For Trump, as would be the case for any US president, success in such an endeavor would also depend upon the ability to create an outcome that supports balance in the international order; that is compatible with US values and interests. If the matter at hand is urgent enough, substantial resources and energy will be speedily directed to it. That has been the case with DPRK denuclearization; trade with China; and the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. For Trump specifically, there would most likely be a determination to remain stalwart at the side of the US public. Without deviation, he will keep the US public first and firmly in mind as he considers how he will encourage and initiate the changes he desires. He will also keep the US public first and firmly in mind as he considers withdrawing from US military commitments overseas. While reelection in 2020 is certainly the goal and the plan, Trump is not in a popularity contest to the extent that he only wants to make the US public happy or get the people to like him. (Many do already.) He wants to do what is best for their true interests, both for the short-term and the long-term. In that respect, Trump cannot always, metaphorically, serve dessert first, but there is always something better coming.

Omnis nimium longa properanti mora est. (Every delay is too long to one who is in a hurry.) As a caveat, one should not become so steeped in the effort to encourage and draw the response from the other side that one would be willing to make concessions that were never even imagined before the negotiation process began. Trading off something a country’s negotiators would prefer not to relinquish, a major concession, may very well be required at some point. It is almost an immutable part of the process of negotiating at the international level. Still, a line must be drawn along the measure at which nothing beyond would be acceptable. To lessen the pain of giving up anything, whatever one might be willing to part with must be determined and enumerated before any diplomatic negotiations begin. When mulling over what to give up, one must use reason to determine what it’s relative value might be to the other side. It must be useful enough to create some sense of equity, balance, and perhaps if a side is lucky, it might represent some real gain. (In that process of determining what would be best to trade versus what might be gained, difficulties can arise internally in many national governments’ foreign and national security bureaucracies.) Concerning the DPRK and denuclearization, the Trump administration certainly does not want to give up the strengths and equities of its alliances with allies. Those ties that bind allies in the region are the same ties that assure unity when dealing with China.

The Trump administration officials, particularly US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have sought to engage in very open, honest, and frank communications with their DPRK counterparts. That would include making inquiries regarding what is happening within the chambers of decision making of the DPRK. From that information, the administration has been able to proceed with a good idea of whether success is possible. There have also been letters from Kim to Trump that have provided a sense on where things stand in the DPRK regarding denuclearization. Where explanations are somewhat unclear, there becomes the need to ascribe the probability of success from the interpretations of what has said and even what has not been said during negotiations and in the briefest communications to include pull asides and other less formal discussions away from the negotiating table. Attention would also need to be placed on what is said contemporaneously among officials from the respective countries who may have met on unrelated matters. That would include theories, surmisals, and any offhand comments. When negotiators get beyond their own wits as to what may come next from the other side, or are unable to decipher what type of obstacles may be delaying or blocking a favorable decision, it is the best time to seek greater assistance from the intelligence services.

US Air Force U2 Surveillance Plane (above). When negotiators get beyond their own wits as to what may come next from the other side, or are unable to decipher what type of obstacles may be delaying or blocking a favorable decision, it is the best time to seek greater assistance from the intelligence services. In Western countries, particularly the US, substantial information is also collected by electronic surveillance, typically obscure, clever ways to collect what is happening over the horizon via satellites and special aircraft from above.

As greatcharlie explained in its May 31, 2018 post entitled, “An Open Mind and Direct Talks, Not Reports Developed from Overt US Sources, Will Best Serve Diplomacy with Trump”, for intelligence services, getting to know what is happening in a country, regarding a particular event or issue will invariably require having agents who are in the right place, are articulate, can answer questions, and receive instructions. In Western countries, particularly the US, substantial information is also collected by electronic surveillance, typically obscure, clever ways to collect what is happening over the horizon via satellites and special aircraft from above. Electronic collection, although very costly, has brought many benefits, by allowing for the monitoring of all manner of communications, discovering plans, patterns of activity and locations of targets. Many have grumbled for years in the intelligence industry that increased use of such surveillance and reconnaissance systems has resulted in the disappearance of the sure-fire agent on the ground with his string of spies and informants and with a willingness to travel the danger route. When this issue became most apparent in the US in the late 1970s and the 1980s, there were efforts to make adjustments, but it is still posited that human intelligence has taken a back seat in favor of technology.  Illud autem ante omnia memento, demere rebus tumultum ac videre quid in quaque re sit: scies nihil esse in istis terribile nisi ipsum timorem. (Remember, however, before all else, to strip things of all that disturbs and confuses, and to see what each is at bottom; you will then comprehend that they contain nothing fearful except the actual fear.

Trump has no intention of moving down a blind alley. Regarding the use of his “gut feelings”, intimations backed up with the strength of reports and briefings from intelligence community, military, and diplomatic professionals. Supported in that way, such feelings are less guesses than judgments based on the aggregate of all the information received, tied in with an awareness of seemingly abstract pieces of information to form an orderly and coherent perception. During World War II, German military commanders were known for relying on intimations based on what was occurring on the battlefield and perceptions of what the thinking and planning was in the opponent’s command center. Still, in contemplating what Kim might do, the US will do much more than rely on such hunches. The administration cannot afford to become complacent even to the slightest degree. It will remain vigilant and cautious. Resources have been dedicated to surveilling developments at North Korean nuclear sites. As many analytical resources as possible should also be dedicated to the discernment of signs of a reversal in Pyongyang.

Il ne fait pas l’ombre d’un doute que Trump and his advisers and sides will seek to be read-in on daily assessments, appraisals, and conclusions. Concrete facts, inference, interpolations from data, intimations, hunches based on experience, will all be heard and considered when senior US foreign and national security policy officials meet. Leg work by a secret grey army of US intelligence officers in the region and confirmed reports from agents ensconced naked where detection could mean certain death, serve to confirm possible actions or unsettling activity, even if not immediately threatening, would be rapidly synthesized and provided to decision makers. Those consumers may also have an interest in reading reports from intelligence officers of regional allies and their agents, as well as data streams from technical collection systems of those allies. US allies just might discern something the US might have missed. Despite the most optimistic hopes and projections on the DPRK, Trump remains ready to process in his mind what he sees to surmount what he is hoping for. Looking deeper allows one to see what is lacking. The diplomatic process with the DPRK cannot sit between success and failure in a figurative foreign policy halfway house. Previous administrations submitting to the fantasy that the DPRK wanted peace allowed Pyongyang to establish a pattern of success that very likely helped build Kim’s self-confidence in dealing with US. One can be assured that Trump will not base his decision on an emotional response, and bend too much in an effort to understand the uneasiness of Kim’s position. It is most important for Kim to know that.

Trump (right) and former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (left). The efforts of Russian operatives were too unnatural, too unusual. Their focus was primarily on the unconstructive and destructive aspects of US political activity, and were detected. The fact that Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the 2016 Presidential Election, won the popular vote, evinces that the degree to which Russian efforts failed to sway the US public was disproportionate to the degree of risk involved with undertaking a political manipulation effort of such magnitude in the US.

Russia’s Ongoing Election Interference

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, the president is required 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. Indeed, 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 clarify further on the perception of how a candidate will perform differently to satisfy the voter, 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 some cases, the negative information about a preferred candidate may drive voters to the polls to ensure their candidate wins.

Although Russian Federation intelligence services may pride themselves as having what they may believe to be a considerable expertise in US affairs, they are surely not up to snuff when it comes to understanding US politics. While their studies and observations of the US may have appeared to yield a genuine picture of the broad US political scene, certainly when it came to understanding what was happening in the lead up the 2016 Presidential Campaign and the Presidential Election, they completely missed the mark. An immediate impression is that since Russian analysts lacked points of reference within their own society that resembled what was happening in the US, there was really nothing upon which they could found their interpretations and conclusions. As social media was a main focal point on which Russian operatives sought to inflict considerable damage during the 2016 US Presidential Elections, it appears that much of what was collected and extrapolated about the US political scene came from popular, yet incredibly hostile commentaries propagated on social media by emotional individuals across of the political spectrum, political activists, and fringe elements who simply attack and lack boundaries. The Russians analysts could not discern that what was on social media did not reflect what was going on in the mind of the US public. Basing the interference operation on that sort of failed interpretation of US political activity, meant it was doomed from the start. Essentially, it was sabotaged by ignorance. As they performed their mission, the efforts of Russian operatives, being too imitative, too unnatural, too unusual, stood out. It was all nothing more than  a soupy simulacrum of the real thing. Their focus was almost solely on the unconstructive and destructive aspects of US political activity. Their efforts  were out of rhythm and rhyme with the stylings of authentic political message of mainstream US political parties. No matter how well Russian operatives may have believed their operation was cloaked, executed, and managed, those who began investigating what was going on could flag their burlesque without too much difficulty. The fact that Trump’s opponent in the 2016 Presidential Election, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reportedly won the popular vote, evinces that the degree to which Russian efforts failed to sway the US public. The operation’s modicum of success was disproportionate relative to the degree of risk involved in undertaking an extensive political manipulation effort in the US. The interference operation really appears to have been an act of vengeance more than anything else. Passion did not obey reason in the Kremlin.

Added to that, the US intelligence community and law enforcement had the technological means to trace the efforts of Russian operatives all the way home to their headquarters. So successful were the counterintelligence efforts of the US intelligence community and law enforcement that they could determine when and how things happened and who was involved. For example, they acquired complete profiles of those members of the Russian Federation’s Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye Generalnovo Shtaba (Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff-Military Intelligence) or GRU involved with the interference operation. They were able to determine the particular role each played in it. Recall that Putin reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Once on the right path, he broke all sorts of records on his way to the top. In 1997, he served as head of the Main Control Directorate. In 1998, he was named first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, responsible for the regions, he was ordered to serve as director of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB, and he was named Secretary of the Security Council. Having observed the US collect such granular information on the operation, it is very likely that Putin had parsed out that someone in Russia’s intelligence services pointed the US in the right direction. He likely began to believe that there was a rotten apple buried somewhere at the bottom of the Russian intelligence apple barrel. One might informally speculate that anger, even rage over the the ability of the US to discover so much might have been one more straw on the pile that has caused Russia to lash out at the West, and those in West’s fold, in ham-handed ways since. Ira furor brevis est; animum rege. Anger is a brief madness; govern your soul (control your emotions))

The fact that Russia sought to disrupt the democratic process of the country is what makes the interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election so insidious. A long espoused criticism of Trump is that he is enchanted with tyrants, strongmen, rogue leaders such as Putin. His comments about Putin have been decried by critics as being unduly pleasant and oleaginous. This tenuous notion became a story was heavily covered even before Trump’s inauguration, and has received even greater coverage since. The story considered in light of reports from the US intelligence community that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election, has been posited as the causality for the investigations of the Office of Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The reality is that rather finding a national leader as Putin intoxicating, Trump has his own considerable reservations about them. In the past year, Trump observed Putin behave in a very disappointing manner. Indeed, while engaged in diplomacy, the Trump administration has closely monitored hostile Russian moves, not only the continued interference in US elections, but also: Russia’s continued interference in the election processes of countries other than the US; Russia’s efforts to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; and, Russia’s efforts to tighten its grip on Crimea and the Donbass. As it was explained in the October 31, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Building Relations between Trump and Putin: Getting beyond the “Getting to Know You” Stage”, Trump has repeatedly gotten on Putin’s case about the matter, and has publicly insisted that he has done so. Trump also has surely shared his perspectives with him on: how reported government abuses within Russia have left the world with a very negative impression of the country as a whole; why it is difficult for anyone to see Russia as a decent constitutional society; why considerable doubt exists in the minds of top Russia hands and his close advisers and aides that Russia could ever be an honest broker and good partner in tackling transnational issues; and, how tough it will be for Russia to ever overcome such views on its own. It would seem that Trump could publicly snatch Putin’s lunch away, eat it, and pop the bag in his face, and critics would still say he too soft on the Russian leader. There could not be a worse source or gauge of Trump’s interactions with Putin than his critics and detractors.

German troops passing through Ardennes Forest on their way to France in 1940. (above). Trump knows it would be imprudent to ignore information from the US Intelligence community that confirm some action by an adversary is very likely, imminent, or has been taken. The failure of consumers to include assessments of situations in their calculations can be unfortunate. Consider how the French military high command failed their government In 1870, 1915, and 1940 by dismissing warnings about the intentions of Prussian and German Governments.

Trump knows that it would be imprudent to ignore information from the US Intelligence community that confirms some action by an adversary is very likely, imminent, or has been taken. Predictions concerning an action are made more urgent when commingled with existing impressions of a national government or national leader, specifically, based on behavior both at home and abroad. The consequence of insufficient intelligence analyses, the failure by consumers to include valuable forecasts in their appraisals of situations, can be most unfortunate. Consider for example how the military high command of France failed their government 3 times in 70 years by minimizing warnings about the intentions of Prussian and German Governments. In 1870, the Supreme Command of the French Imperial Army, with its attitude of debrouillez-vous (“We’ll muddle through somehow”), did not heed signalling that the Prussian Army would move via the Ardennes Forest through Belgium into France. In 1918, the French Grand Quartier Général (General Headquarters) did not heed indicia signalling that the Imperial German Army, to avoid French defenses on the Franco-German border, would move via the Ardennes Forest through Belgium into France. In 1940, the Anglo-French Supreme War Council, relying on the defenses of the Maginot Line, did not heed indicia signalling that the German Army would move via the Ardennes Forest through Belgium into France. Even with this history, in 1944, the Supreme Headquarters of Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe ignored idicia signalling that the German Army might attempt to move via the the Ardennes Forest into Belgium in an attempt to reach Antwerp and cut Allied Forces into two pieces. The result was the Battle of the Bulge in which US forces suffered an estimated 75,000 casualties.

A newly discovered official US Government memorandum has revealed that intelligence collected about the activities of the Imperial Japanese Navy, led to assessments that Japan might attack the US on the West coast, the Panama Canal, and the US naval and military bases in Hawaii some time in December 1941. The Japanese Imperial Navy would eventually execute a devastating surprise, aircraft carrier-based, aerial attack and submarine attack on the US Naval Base and Headquarters of the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, and aerial attacks against the US Army Base at Schofield Barracks and the US Army Air Corps Base at Hickam Field. Most US military commanders were bewildered by the successful attack which they never would have believed Japan could execute before it actually happened. By leaning into those beliefs, they were caught flat-footed by the attack. Their immediate responses were meager and ineffectual.

There were more recent occasions when intelligence was not given primacy required and not sufficiently analysed and integrated in the decision making of a US administration. Boiled down to the bones, in the late summer of 2001, the administration of US President George Bush was remiss in not giving primacy to information indicating the leader of the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization, Osama Bin Laden was determined to strike in the US. In fact, Al-Qaeda did strike on September 11, 2001. Failing to become overly concerned over warnings of an impending terrorist attack, the Bush administration did not formulate and implement an effectual response to deter or defeat the threat that revealed itself. As explained in the December 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “Commentary: Trump Withdraws US Troops from Syria: What Considerations Impelled His Decision?”, US President Barack Obama and other national leaders poorly interpreted information concerning an opposition movement that had organised against the regime of Syria Arab Republic President Bashar Al-Assad in March 2011. They believed that opposition movement made Assad regime ripe for change, however, opportunity was seen by Obama and his foreign and national security policy decision makers where there was none. The conclusion was that with a modicum support for the right opposition groups, the Assad regime would face collapse and be forced to the negotiation table, where Assad, himself, would agree to an orderly and immediate transition of power. Among a long list of negative consequences that have resulted from that policy approach have been: a seemingly never ending civil war in which millions of civilians have become casualties, millions more have been displaced; Russia and other countries who are potential adversaries of the US have strengthened their presence in Syria and increased their influence on the Assad regime; and, extraordinarily dangerous terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have established strongholds.

How a US President might proceed at forks on the road on policy concerning, a countries, or group of countries will typically be based on information provided by the US intelligence community. Sometimes, that information will create a clear path on which the president can proceed with a relatively assured step. In cases in which US responses have been ineffectual or simply wrong, there may have been a failure to integrate information that warned that success was unlikely. Sometimes, “The path is smooth that leads on to danger.” If the US public were kept aware of every occasion in which Russia posed a threat or interfered with US interests, and if the US Government were to react publicly to concerns and intelligence reports about Russian activity, certainly the US would have stumbled into war with Russia long ago. Consider for example that the Russians regularly use their satellites to interfere with US satellites as they transit the Earth. That situation is made more challenging by the fact that there is considerable positive cooperation between the US and Russia on space and it would be disadvantageous to tear it apart. In that same vein, an honest assessment must be made of where incidents fit into the bigger picture of vital US interests and the maintenance of international peace and security. At best, the country must rely on a president’s experience and judgment as each incident arises.

Having been placed under the bright lights, it is hard to imagine why Russian intelligence and security services are reportedly continuing their efforts to manipulate US elections. The operation was blown. Perhaps it will end after Putin recognizes that the more his spies plug into the US system to do damage, the more US intelligence services and law enforcement is enabled to discover about Russian intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, leadership, personnel, and resources.

Russia was wrong to act against US interests in the 2016 elections. Trump can continue to respond to its behavior by keeping the most effective punitive economic measures in place. However, he also knows that Putin, to the best of his ability has thought through the possible consequences to his actions with his advisers. He does not at least publicly appear overly concerned with retribution from the US short of acting on Russian sovereign territory or acting harshly against Russian interests and its allies. Beyond providing lip-service to Putin as suggested by critics and detractors, Trump has sought to close the door on Russian election meddling activities against the US as best as possible, build a positive personal relationship with Putin, and improve US relations with Russia. Although Trump, a patriotic US citizen, very likely feels some anger, bitterness, and resentment in his heart over what Putin and Russia have done, he knows behaving too aggressively would be short-sighted, and would only lengthen the distance he will need to travel to improve the US relationship with Russia. Trump will not sacrifice any benefits that might result from his acting in a measured way. Having been placed under the bright lights, it is hard to imagine why Russian intelligence and security services are reportedly continuing their efforts to manipulate US elections. The operation was blown, and keeping it going seems a bit barky. Perhaps it will end after Putin recognizes that the more his spies plug into the US system to do damage, the more enabled US intelligence services and law enforcement are to uncover Russian intelligence tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods, leadership, personnel, and resources. Perhaps he is on the verge of becoming conscious or accepting of that now.

According to Kiev, the confrontation in the Kerch Strait began on November 25, 2018, when 3 of its ships, travelling from Odessa to Mariupol, were intercepted by the Russian Federation Coast Guard. (The Kerch Strait is a crucial waterway separating the Black and Azov seas.) The Russian Coast Guard vessels then fired on the Ukrainian ships and also rammed one of their tugboats. Moscow says 3 Ukrainian sailors were wounded, Kiev says the number was 6. The 3 Ukrainian ships and 24 sailors are now being held in Crimea by Russia.

Russia, Ukraine and the Kerch Strait Incident

Trump came to office with the intention of assuaging the long standing tension and anger that characterized the US-Russia relations, exacerbated by the Obama administration’s poor stewardship of it. He did not begin by trying the figuratively test the water nervously with his big toe. With boldness, he jumped right in, attempting to find a way to create a genuine connection with Putin in order to establish a stronger bond bofh between themselves and their two countries and hopefully as a result, a decent arrangement for interaction could be created. Trump has been graceful in his overtures to the Russian leader, focusing on finding ways to connect with Putin on issues, creating a unique positive connection as leaders of nuclear superpowers, and finding a chemistry between them. With any luck, Putin would understand and appreciate what Trump has been doing and recognize the great opportunity that lies before him to let Russia be seen as doing some good for the world. It has been a bedeviling process. At Helsinki, there was an incident that certainly raised Trump’s antennae. Despite his desire and efforts to make things right, Putin took the anomalous and very awkward step of presenting Trump with an official football from the World Cup saying, “The ball is in your court.” Trump stated that he would give the ball to his son Darren, and tossed it to the First Lady, Melania Trump. One could immediately observe by his visage that Trump would want answers from his team on what Putin’s move was all about.

Although, with some effort, benign intent can be posited to Putin’s presentation of the ball to Trump. The negative side of Putin may have been on full display. It was clear to all who observed closely that Trump’s reaction to the presentation was negative. His countenance revealed disgust and disappointment in Putin. It may very well be that Trump felt vibrations about trouble ahead with him. It was also very surprising because Putin, an acute watcher and listener. should have known by the time he met with Trump in Helsinki that the presentation of the ball would have created more difficulties than inroads with him. Critics and detractors of Putin would surely explain that he did not seek to gain anything from doing such an unorthodox thing and that it was all very characteristic of the Russian President’s churlish thinking. Si animus infirmus est, non poterit bonam fortunam tolerare. (If the spirit is weak, it will not be able to tolerate good fortune.)

The clash between Russia and Ukraine in the Kerch Strait makes plain the reality that problems between the two countries are deepening. According to Kiev, the confrontation began on November 25, 2018, when 3 of its ships, travelling from Odessa to Mariupol, were intercepted by the Russian Federation Coast Guard in the Kerch Strait. The Russian Federation Coast Guard vessels then fired on the Ukrainian ships and also rammed one of their tugboats. Moscow says 3 Ukrainian sailors were wounded, Kiev says the number was 6. In addition, Russia scrambled jets and helicopters, and even blocked the Kerch Strait with a barge, closing access to the Sea of Azov. Russia claims the Ukrainian ships violated territorial waters. The 3 Ukrainian ships and 24 crewmen as have been held as of January 2019 by Russia in Crimea. The Kerch Strait is a crucial waterway that serves as the gateway from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov, which borders both Russia and Ukraine. From Moscow’s perspective, it is most importantly, the waterway between mainland Russia and Crimea which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Both countries have the right to patrol the waters in accord with a bilateral treaty. However, the strait is also the site of a new 12-mile bridge built by Russia that cost an estimated $4 billion. Russia has significantly built up its military presence in the region since 2014.

Russian Federation FSB officer (left) escorts Ukrainian sailor (right). Trump indicated to reporters as he left the White House to travel to the G-20 Summit in Argentina that he intended to be read-in on a finalized report” on the Kerch Strait incident on Air Force One. In flight, Trump tweeted: “Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin.”

The incident in the strait alarmed senior US officials. Sharp criticism of Russia’s actions were immediately voiced. For US allies in Europe, the incident was edge of the seat stuff. There were widespread calls for Russia to immediately release the 24 Ukrainian sailors it captured, and some European leaders called for fresh sanctions against Russia. Kiev put martial law in effect for 30 days in Ukraine. The Kremlin scoffed at an appeal by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko for NATO to reinforce the Azov Sea with naval ships. Russia shrugged off Western pressure. Moscow maintained that the crisis was created by Poroshenko for political gain. When Trump commented on the matter right after occurred, his words fell short of condemning Russia directly by stating: “I don’t like that aggression.” While there was nothing irregular about that, Trump’s critics and detractors, in response, characterized him as being too reticent on the matter. However, the situation was fluid, and Trump wanted to collect all the information available before taking any steps. So profound was his reaction that he reportedly signalled to the Washington Post that he would consider forgoing the meeting with Putin after the incident in Kerch Strait and escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine. Trump then indicated to reporters as he left the White House to travel to the G-20 Summit in Argentina that he intended to be read-in on a finalized report” on the Kerch Strait incident on Air Force One. Early in the flight, however, Trump tweeted: “Based on the fact that the ships and sailors have not been returned to Ukraine from Russia, I have decided it would be best for all parties concerned to cancel my previously scheduled meeting in Argentina with President Vladimir Putin.” He added: ““I look forward to a meaningful Summit again as soon as this situation is resolved!”

Likely swept off their feet over “how well” they were managing their interactions with US and believing that they had a handle on the highly publicized meeting with Trump at the G-20 Summit Meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Putin and his whole cabaret of acolytes were caught completely off guard by his decision. Coming down from their overdose of confidence, their immediate concern would reasonably have been what Trump’s move would mean in terms of future Russian interactions with the US. The Kremlin’s worry seemed to be manifested in the attitude and behavior of Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov. At the time, his works lacked a usual sense of certitude. There was a noticeable absence of his normal swagger. He presented a less impressive substitute of himself. Early on November 29, 2018, Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the meeting between Trump and Putin would take place December 1, 2018 around noon. He explained, “We are expecting the two presidents to speak briefly at first, but everything is left to the discretion of the heads of state.” He added that “Washington has confirmed.” Agitated by Trump’s tweet, Peskov told TASS Russian News Agency that the Kremlin had not been informed separately by the White House of the cancellation. He made the necessary correction by stating, explained, “If this is indeed the case, the president [Putin] will have a couple of additional hours in his schedule for useful meetings on the sidelines of the summit.”

Whatever could have led the Kremlin to think for a moment that they ever had a firm handle on Trump is a bit of a black box. Among the basket of possibilities, one might hypothesize that the vengeful thinking the prevailed during Russia’s struggles with the Obama administration is now insinuating itself into the Kremlin’s planning and actions concerning the Trump administration. (Many of former Obama administration officials successfully needle Kremlin’s officials by presenting acidic analyses of Putin’s behavior, antagonistic critiques of Russian foreign and national security policy, and make warlike recommendations on handling Russia for the Trump administration.) There is the possibility that Putin and Kremlin officials, being vexed by Trump’s willingness to bargain on the basis of fairness with them, chose the easy answer of simply continuing to do what they had been doing in response to Obama. There is also the possibility that being unable to understand Trump, and believing that his range of action, ability to do big things, and take on real challenges, was likely restrained somewhat by his domestic political struggles, which they doubtlessly perceive as amusing. If that perchance is the case, there is the possibility that Russian intelligence analysts covering the US political scene have been remiss by conceivably allowing highly politicized commentaries from Trump’s critics and detractors and iniquitous reports in the US news media insinuate themselves in their assessments. It is possible that any penetration by the GRU and the Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki (Foreign Intelligence Service) or SVR in the US may simply be collecting: chicken feed; misleading information grabbed because it was within easy reach of officers, sounded plausible, and would look good in Moscow; or, false reports conjured up by delinquent officers just to look good or prolong their postings in the US. (It can happen even in the best intelligence services.) Additionally, Kremlin officials may have decided to simply leave well-enough alone and remain satisfied with stale, derivative analyses that would serve the bureaucratic requirement of producing some product, but inhibits the exploration or exploitation of opportunities for positive engagement with, and actions toward, the US.

Trump did not make contact with Putin on December 1, 2018 at the G-20 Summit. Reportedly, Trump walked by Putin as if he were a stranger when the leaders stood for a group photo. Still, having studied the the Obama administration responses to very questionable moves by Putin, Trump doubtlessly reasoned that he should not resort to taunting or pressuring him with slights. A conversation finally occurred at a cultural dinner in Buenos Aires, organized for the national leaders and their wives. Putin told reporters later that they discussed the “Black Sea situation.”

Having studied the Obama administration’s responses to contentious moves by Putin, Trump doubtlessly reasoned that he should not resort to taunting or pressuring him with slights. Putin’s reaction to that approach was adverse and disproportionate. Sensing that Putin may actually have a penchant for destroying progress made with the US, Trump would not set him up with the opportunity to do so again. Moreover, Trump saw no need to move up the ladder of escalation for no benefit, for no purpose. Apparently as an expression of his disappointment with Putin over Russia’s actions in the Kerch Strait, Trump did not make contact with him for most of the day, December 1, 2018. Reportedly, Trump walked by Putin as if he were a stranger when the world’s leaders stood for a group photo. Kremlin officials insisted throughout the day that the two leaders would ultimately meet. Finally, the two leaders had an “informal” conversation. According to White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, the conversation occurred at a cultural dinner in Buenos Aires’ famous Teatro Colón, organized for the national leaders and their wives. As for its content, Saunders stated: “As is typical at multilateral events, President Trump and the First Lady had a number of informal conversations with world leaders at the dinner last night, including President Putin.” Putin told reporters afterward that he indeed met with Trump briefly at the event and they discussed the situation in Ukraine. Putin further explained, “I answered his questions about the incident in the Black Sea. He has his position. I have my own. We stayed in our own positions.”

As mentioned earlier, Trump’s patience has limits. However, he will at least make the effort manage contact with Putin as best as possible to get a successful result. If it should all fall apart, it will not be because of a silly move or the failure to do everything feasible within reason to promote it. Again, Trump is not doing any of this for himself; he has committed himself to this process for the sake of his country and the US public in particular. He will not allow his personal feelings about those he may deal with to get in the way.

Jamal Khashoggi (right) entering the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey. On October 2, 2018, Washington Post columnist and Saudi Arabian national, Jamal Khashoggi, went to the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain a document certifying that he was divorced to enable him to marry his Turkish fiancée. Based on information available to them, Turkish officials said Khashoggi was killed inside the Consulate, his body was dismembered, and then likely disposed of elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Khashoggi Matter

On October 2, 2018, Washington Post columnist and Saudi Arabian national, Jamal Khashoggi, went to the Consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey to obtain a document certifying that he was divorced to enable him to marry his Turkish fiancée. Based on information available to them, Turkish officials said Khashoggi was killed inside the consulate, his body was dismembered, and then likely disposed of elsewhere. Before the murder, the Turkish Government had been monitoring a 15-person team that arrived at the consulate on October 2, 2018. That team returned to Riyadh the same day. The Turkish Government reportedly provided US officials with both audio and video recordings that confirm Khashoggi was killed inside the Saudi Consulate.

Omnis enim ex infirmitate feritas est. (All savageness is a sign of weakness.) The murder of Khashoggi certainly has not made Saudi Arabia appear as an attractive country. In fact, it has brought views of it worldwide more in line with that of its harshest critics and detractors, particularly those focused on its human rights record and the governance of the House of Saud. With the advantage of hindsight, it would appear that the assassination plot was formed at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, first in line to King Salman. His fate is all over the matter. On dit, the Khashoggi assassination has also allegedly provided a candid look at how the Saudi Arabian Government has typically quieted voices of perceived adversaries both at home and abroad.

When the furtive “wet work” of an intelligence services is uncovered, the consequences for the national government that sanctioned the mission and it’s operatives, even if they avoided detection and capture if acting in another country, can be severe. This is a unique and not so often discussed area of commonality among national leaders. An affinity could surely develop for others in that same circumstance. Attendant to that affinity is a type of empathy that may insist the one should not be too judgmental or harshly slam another leader, particularly over an intelligence misstep or disaster. That empathy may obviate efforts to claim the moral high road and false claim of innocence after perhaps having similar experience. In international affairs, much as in “ordinary life” only partial version of oneself is offered. The priority of coexistence must be considered in what one might say or do versus what might be gained or lost. Countries may spare the feelings, national pride, or honor of allies and friends or even or avoid provoking or inciting adversaries. To that extent, acting in that way requires a country to circumscribe itself. Typically, a national leader who might sign off on any covert operation will be provided with the ability to plausibly deny knowledge of it. Yet, on top of that, secrecy, albeit deceit, might be used to protect relationship with an ally or friend and to make any act of circumscription by that ally or friend a bit easier.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (above). The murder of Khashoggi certainly has not made Saudi Arabia appear as an attractive country. In fact, it has brought views of it worldwide more in line with that of its harshest critics and detractors, particularly those focused on its human rights record and the governance of the House of Saud. From all news media reports, it would appear that the assassination plot was executed at the behest of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, first in line to King Salman. His fate is all over the matter.

Any harsh criticism and expressions of deep disappointment conveyed by the US to Saudi Arabia–which most likely have been made by Trump in his telephone contacts with Riyadh early on during the matter–would never be explicit with an ally of such stature. Certainly, Trump did not shy away from the beastiality of the crime. What Trump and senior administration officials tried to do is bring perspective to the matter. On November 28, 2018, then US Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon reminded reporters that as of the moment he was speaking about the Khashoggi matter: “We have no smoking gun the crown prince was involved, not the intelligence community or anyone else. There is no smoking gun.” He further explained that the US still expected those responsible for the killing to be held accountable. In a November 28, 2018 Wall Street Journal Op-Ed piece, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expatiated on the matter, summarizing the position of the US Government as follows: “The US doesn’t condone the Khashoggi killing, which is fundamentally inconsistent with American values—something I have told the Saudi leadership privately as well as publicly. President Trump has taken action in response. Twenty-one Saudi suspects in the murder have been deemed ineligible to enter the US and had any visas revoked. On Nov. 15, the administration imposed sanctions on 17 Saudis under Executive Order 13818, which builds on the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act. We’ve worked to strengthen support for this response, and several countries, including France and Germany, have followed suit. The Trump administration will consider further punitive measures if more facts about Khashoggi’s murder come to light.” Pompeo went on the explain the importance of Saudi Arabia as a regional ally, by additionally stating: “The kingdom is a powerful force for stability in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is working to secure Iraq’s fragile democracy and keep Baghdad tethered to the West’s interests, not Tehran’s. Riyadh is helping manage the flood of refugees fleeing Syria’s civil war by working with host countries, cooperating closely with Egypt, and establishing stronger ties with Israel. Saudi Arabia has also contributed millions of dollars to the US-led effort to fight Islamic State and other terrorist organizations. Saudi oil production and economic stability are keys to regional prosperity and global energy security.” Yet, once Trump and his senior officials sought to explain the importance of Saudi Arabia as an ally when discussing the Khashoggi matter, a knee-jerk response of critics and detractors was the hackneyed claim that the US President placed a pecuniary interest in its Middle East ally at greater value than the life of journalist. That claim was stated so often that it became a common observation.

wTrump (left) and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (right). An intriguing type of leadership could be seen from Trump on the Khashoggi matter. A US President must keep in mind that the US, as a leader on the international stage, is a role model to much of rest of the world. It is in a unique position of being able to promote peace and security worldwide. If the US had officially concluded that Saudi Arabia was responsible for the murder and that a strong response was in order, the country offended most, Turkey, might have taken tough steps against it. 

Through Trump’s decision making regarding the Khashoggi matter, an intriguing type of leadership could be seen in him. A US President in considering how to proceed on a matter, must indeed keep in mind that the US, as a leader on the international stage is a role model to much of rest of the world. As such, the US is in a unique position of being able to promote peace and security worldwide through its actions. The values and interests of the US, of course, will hold primacy in decision making on a matter, the interests of allies and partners will also be taken into account. In the Khashoggi case, the reality is that the murder occurred in Turkey (although the Saudi Arabian Consulate is technically the sovereign territory of Saudi Arabia). As reported, the assassination team that killed Khashoggi came into Turkey through Istanbul Airport and a number of the co-conspirators moved in and around the streets of Istanbul before and after the killing. If the US had immediately and officially concluded that Saudi Arabia was directly responsible for the murder and that some form of retribution was in order, the country offended most, Turkey, might have taken some type of steps against it. Turkey may very well have acted unilaterally and swiftly, utilizing its military or intelligence services, to punish those who used its country as the site to slaughter an esteemed and welcomed journalist. Turkey would have unlikely felt that it needed the permission of the US to act, just as Saudi officials, at some level, doubtlessly felt that they did not need to confer with or ask the permission of the US to act against Khashoggi.

As for the US role in mitigating Turkey’s likely desire for retribution, it offered not only words exhorting restraint, but also served as an example of restraint. Consider that there was a preexisting animus between Turkey and Saudi Arabia before the Khashoggi murder. Reportedly, Saudi Arabia was angered over Turkey’s support to Qatar and withdraw its troops from the country. That demand caused Turkey to perceive Saudi Arabia as a threat to Turkey’s interests. In Riyadh, Turkey was on the top of its list of enemies. Khashoggi’s murder brought tensions to new heights. Knowing this, Saudi Arabia, days after the murder, made a secret offer to pour billions of dollars into Turkey’s economy and ease its hard-line stance on Qatar if Ankara helped whitewash the scandal. Turkey rejected the proposal. Afterward, Turkey allegedly began producing evidence that indicated Mohammed bin Salman was involved. Nevertheless, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan did stop short of accusing Prince Mohammed directly. He would only posit that responsibility for Khashoggi’s death lied at “the highest levels” of the Saudi Arabian Government. Turkey’s fresh anger against Saudi Arabia also added to decades of animus toward the Arab World ignited as a result of battles of the Ottoman Empire to maintain order. What happened so long ago remains a big part of Turkish history, culture, and psyche. Indeed, the loss of many young Turkish soldiers in Arabia still touches the hearts of many Turkish families. None of this is to suggest or imply that an anti-Arab strain runs through Turkish thinking today. Nonetheless, given that memories of past wars persist, and the fact that emotions were running very high after the Khashoggi murder, convincing Turkey, free to act on its own, not to act, was not an easy thing to do. Turkey, as the guarantor of its own national interests, made the choice to cooperate effectively with US diplomatically, outside the auspices of an international institution.

Trump has made shrewd, empathetic considerations whenever acting on foreign and national security policy. His judgments have been made with circumspection, and are pollinated by US values and interests. With information available and the benefit of experience, he develops his own situational awareness. Taking account of geostrategic realities in a region, he measures what might be lost versus what might be gained short-term and long-term. A great portion of the US public, watching him, feels assured that all will be fine.

The Way Forward

In Act 3, scene 3 of William Shakespeare’s play, Cymbeline, King Cymbeline of Britain has married a woman who has made him her puppet. Cymbeline arranges for his beautiful daughter, Imogen, to marry his new wife’s son, Cloten, but she instead marries the poor but worthy Posthumus Leonatus. Angered, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus. Before he leaves for Italy, Imogen gives him a diamond ring and he gives her a bracelet. In Italy, Posthumus encounters a Iachimo, who vacuously argues all women are naturally unchaste, and bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen. Yet, once at the British court, he fails to seduce her. Full of tricks, Iachimo hides in a large chest he has sent to her room; slips out at night while Imogen slept, and steals the bracelet Posthumus gave her, Iachimo returns to Italy and uses both the bracelet and knowledge of the details of Imogen’s bedchamber, to convince Posthumus that he won the bet. Posthumus, furious, sends a letter to his servant, Pisanio, in Britain, ordering him to murder Imogen. Pisanio, believing in Imogen’s innocence, gets her to disguise herself as a boy and get to Posthumus while he would report to him that Imogen was dead.  On the run, Imogen becomes lost in the wilds of Wales, where she meets Belarius, a wrongfully banished nobleman, and his sons, Guiderius and Arviragus. Unbeknownst to them, both were actually Cymbeline’s sons. They would later come to the aid of Imogen and to the aid of Britain against the Romans. The audience first meets Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus as their “father”, instructs them on the nuances of a calm life while climbing a mountain. Belarius states: Now for our mountain sport: up to yond hill; / Your legs are young; I’ll tread these flats. Consider, / When you above perceive me like a crow, / That it is place which lessens and sets off; / And you may then revolve what tales I have told you / Of courts, of princes, of the tricks in war: / This service is not service, so being done, / But being so allow’d: to apprehend thus, / Draws us a profit from all things we see; / And often, to our comfort, shall we find / The sharded beetle in a safer hold / Than is the full-wing’d eagle. O, this life / Is nobler than attending for a cheque, / Richer than doing nothing for a bauble, / Prouder than rustling in unpaid-for silk: / Such gain the cap of him that makes ’em fine, / Yet keeps his book uncross’d: no life to ours. These words, which may appear somewhat cryptic to modern readers, essentially explain that maintaining a balanced, rational view is the best way of examine a situation and will allow for a rational analysis of it. In each foreign and national security policy issue examined here, evidence indicates Trump made shrewd, empathetic considerations as he acted. His judgments were made with circumspection, considering what precedes and what follows, are pollinated by US values and interests. With information available and the benefit of experience, he developed his own situational awareness. Taking account of geostrategic realities in a region, he measured what might be lost versus what might be gained in both the short-term and the long-term. When moving to make changes in the status quo, Trump typically assessed the situation before him much as a half-back in US football searches for openings in the line that may allow him to breakthrough and do some open field running. Trump has also exuded a confidence on the world stage. Trump knows where he is and what he is doing, and a good portion of the US public, watching him work, feels assured that everything will be alright. Presenting oneself as confident and assured in itself is an art of leaders. When taking risks one naturally feels risk. The French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte explained of himself: “There is no man more pusillanimous than I when I am planning a campaign. I purposely exaggerate all the dangers and all the calamities that the circumstances make possible. I am in a thoroughly painful state of agitation. This does not keep me from looking quite serene in front of my entourage; I am like an unmarried girl laboring with a child. Once I had made up my mind, everything is forgotten except what leads to success.”

In each case presented here, Trump, in seeking to manage and influence the actions of other national leaders, was allowed the freedom to act in his own way, and unshackled by what administration officials might call the limitations of an international institution managing some collective action under its auspices. Countries that would like to work effectively outside of international institutions should feign nothing, and make a wholehearted effort at it. As Trump continues to evolve as US President, other national leaders are provided with an example on how they might approach foreign and national security policy decision making for their own countries. Perhaps most leaders would have small interest in the ministrations of greatcharlie on this matter. Of course, there are rarely situations that arise that are so uniform in nature that lessons from one leader would allow a cookie cutter approach to resolving them. However, smart people are able to find solutions to problems. If national leaders would like to work outside of international institutions more frequently, new more thoughtful and empathetic perspectives must be allowed to arrive in their thinking on their diplomacy with other countries.

In the State of the Union Address, Obama Confronts Americans’ Fears; On Foreign Policy They Want to See Real Success

In his State of the Union Address, US President Barack Obama painted a picture of the US with a better standing in the world after seven years of his leadership. In 2016, Obama will make many speeches about his accomplishments to audiences at organized events. Yet, triumphalism does not equate to triumph. There is a continuous threat from terrorist groups. Countries such as Russia, Iran, and China remain in fierce competition with the US. They may seek to establish a new dynamic in which the power and interests of their countries are enhanced and the power and interests of the US are weakened.

In a January 12, 2016 New York Times article entitled, “Obama Confronts Americans’ Fears in State of the Union Speech,” it was reported US President Barack Obama painted a hopeful portrait of the nation after seven years of his leadership with a better standing in the world. Concerning foreign policy and national security, Obama defended his approach to taking on the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) describing it as a dangerous threat to the US that must be dealt with but not an existential one, and not a force that warrants a commitment of US ground forces in Iraq and Syria. Obama highlighted his work in forging a nuclear deal with Iran, opening a new era of relations with Cuba, pressing for a global accord reached in Paris to combat climate change and efforts to stop the spread of Ebola. He also explained the US is uniquely positioned to rally other countries to solve global problems.

In 2016, Obama will make many speeches about his accomplishments to audiences at organized events. Loyal Obama supporters and fans and other Democrats will be at every venue, a flutter at every word he utters about his presidency. Doyens of the political realm in the US will make glowing public orations, descants and publish paeans in honor of the president, celebrating his administration’s accomplishments. Having twice vanquished all opposition to Obama in national elections, and after completing nearly eight years of work, some measure of triumphalism is expected to be heard from him, his senior officials, and his staff. It would be expected even more of an administration marked particularly by its obsession over the president’s legacy. The final year of his last term is the ideal time to set the record straight and control the narrative. Iucunda memoria est praeteritorum malorum. (Pleasant is the memory of past troubles.)

Still, triumphalism, highlighting the administration’s perceived achievements on foreign policy, does not equate to triumph. Real success cannot be determined by levels of applause from fans. Doubts have been expressed even among Democrats over many of the administration’s foreign policy efforts. The forces of tyranny and darkness still hold a prominent place on the international stage. Whether signature efforts by the administration have created real change or will be sustainable remains uncertain. The renowned wit and retired late night US television talk show host, David Letterman, once joked, “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.”   Whether Letterman engaged in a successful dalliance as a visionary regarding former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s election as the next US president remains to be seen. Still, his main point was clear. The Obama administration has not successfully acted against ISIS and was seemingly passing on that problem, and other important ones, to the next US administration. However, sitting on issues in order to hand them over to a new administration is not a wise choice. In addition to the continuous threat of terrorism from ISIS, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and other groups worldwide, countries such as Russia, Iran, and China while interacting with the US still remain in fierce competition with it strategically, ideologically. They may now hope to exploit perceived advantages and establish a new dynamic in which the power and interests of their countries are enhanced and the power and interests of the US are weakened. Approaches exist to prevent that from occurring or at least minimize any negative results. They may not allow the administration to declare triumph, but may allow it to honestly claim it left a satisfactory foreign policy legacy.

Creating a Foreign Policy Legacy

During Obama’s campaign for the 2008 Presidential Election, he was recognized as a man of vision, a seeker, filled with smart words, no less than the breath of life. His speeches were indeed balanced, teeming with inspiration. In photos, videos and in his writings and speeches during that first presidential campaign and during the initial stages of his first term, it was clear that Obama was very passionate, a man seemingly haunted by his vision of an even brighter future for the US. Yet, having is not the same as wanting. As time passed, there were some successes, but there were also failures. Mistakes were also made, particularly in the area of foreign policy. They came to office believing the policy issues have been misunderstood and solutions are only temporarily hidden. In decision making, spirit and vision would be given primacy over vested interests, realism. That was the case of the US response toward countries in the Middle East during the Arab Spring and to the opposition movements in Ukraine. The administration’s foreign policy seemed driven by a self-neglectful virtue that would allegedly melt all physical and ideological boundaries with a charity that the US believes gives hope to those it perceives as helpless. The administration wished to become no less than an anathema to tyrants, pointing always to the hallmark of their oppressive regimes which is a lack of respect for the dignity of others. The administration would contest how those regimes would typically act upon citizens: not with constitutional authority, but with raw power. Yet, the Obama administration also in no way wanted to be associated with the policies of the previous administration of US President George W. Bush which was perceived as willing to lash out without delay at its adversaries. Instead of projecting authentic US strength globally, the administration proffered the idea that the US could rely upon multilateral solutions. That would allow it to minimize US intervention on the ground, but require joint action from allies and partners who were undertaking dramatic military cuts and were facing economic difficulties. Those countries were also very aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric, not set piece engagements to win quickly. No Western European country with real military capabilities would commit requisite or robust forces to take on risks globally, especially if its political leaders felt that the issue at hand did not fall within their interests. Countries possessing far less capabilities than the US in regions where there were urgent and important crises brewing, were also hesitant to act unless matters fell directly in their interests. Obama repeatedly presented his notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama spoke, and regular breakdowns in the administration’s foreign policy initiatives that were being implemented. When the administration thought efforts under this multilateral concept coalesced as an outcome of initial success in Libya, things soured resulting in multiple failures from the controversial loss of US diplomatic and military personnel to the development of struggle between competing factions and Islamic militants aligned with ISIS and Al-Qaeda.

The Obama administration did not invent the US Government. The government that the administration took control of has always been viewed as stable, solid, reassuring. It has been the source of so much hope not only of foreign capitals but individuals worldwide. Now, the image has grown of the US in retreat, perhaps wounded by its ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is no longer seen by all as a champion of right but as a cold calculator. Its leaders know the price of everything but not the value of relationships the US once held close. Seeing the failed results of its approach, exasperated European leaders have not responded with mockery, sarcasm, or insolence; at least not publicly. Leaders of Germany and the United Kingdom have tried to give courage, to fortify the administration. Viciousness has done much harm in history. Still, the worst crimes, the worst disasters in history have been the work of the timid, the mediocre. For years, many will feel the Obama administration stood passively in the face of evil.

As an authentic military superpower, the US has a clear upper hand over all of its likely opponents. Any assessment otherwise would not be genuine. The administration has been reluctant to use US military power. Adversaries, upon recognizing this, seemingly downplayed concerns over US capabilities to impose its will and simply considered how to impose their own will, regionally and globally. Soon their narrative exposed a defective perspective that the US lacked the ability to deliver a knockout blow. Subtly, opponents worked tirelessly on the US, enjoying the freedom to act in the world, knowing that beyond the diplomatic table, using economic weapons such as sanctions, and revoking membership in collective economic groups, little else would occur. Possible limitations on what could be done would only be set by the Obama administration’s time in office. It is already clear that the dynamic between the US and many countries has changed. It remains to be seen whether US opponents will attempt to administer some type of coup de grace in the administration’s final months, ensuring that it will not have a positive foreign policy legacy. The following are some possibilities, “stripped to the bone”.

Above is a photo of a deep underground military base in Iran. The Obama administration hopes to be known for attempting to create better relations with long time foes such as Iran and Cuba. However, results of its efforts may very well prove that the administration was acting on a charming fantasy. It approached those countries unlike previous administrations. In Tehran, the Obama administration has no friend. Tehran would not hesitate to exploit the administration or betray it.

Iran

Certainly, the Obama administration will be known for attempting to create union with long time foes such as Iran and Cuba. Its approach to those countries was unlike that of previous administrations. In past cases, the US projected that strength, and US diplomacy was supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. Indeed, the previous US administration emphasized to Iran that the US had the intention and capability to impose its will on them and it had no ability to impose its will on the US.   Leaders in Tehran rejected that approach. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani stated in his 2013 inaugural address, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.” Iranian negotiators managed to acquire that “requisite” degree of equality. To facilitate the establishment of talks with the P5+1 (the US, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany), the Obama administration did not impose its will on Iran using strength, rather it negotiated with Iran under the fiction that all parties to the talks were equals. US strength was negated. Having managed to arrange the environment to maximize their ability to achieve success, Iranian negotiators came to the talks confident in their positions. The Iranians flatly denied they wanted to develop a nuclear weapons capability, insisting Iran’s program is limited to the peaceful generation of electricity and medical research. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohamad Javad Zarif, and the Iranian negotiating team were under extraordinary pressure from Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other hardline elements in Iran, to secure an agreement that recognized Iran’s right to have a nuclear program, including the right to enrich uranium and held the line on that issue. As Zarif told the ISNA news agency in November 2014, “Not only do we consider that Iran’s right to enrich is unnegotiable, but we see no need for that to be recognized as ‘a right’, because this right is inalienable and all countries must respect that.”

Close contact with US negotiators for months allowed the Iranians a real chance to look into their thinking of US negotiators. The Iranians discerned they were witnessing the impact of the Obama administration’s “legacy quest.” White House officials and US political pundits spoke and wrote about US President Barack Obama’s desire to establish his legacy. US negotiators were pushing for a deal in order to claim an historic foreign policy success. So strong was the sense that the US might be willing to make risky concessions, that Zarif stated in the Iranian media, “There are indicators that John Kerry is inclined [to advance the nuclear matter in Iran’s interests].” The Iranians became more tenacious than ever in the talks. There was also a discernible change in Obama’s discussion of taking military action against Iran as the talks progressed. Threats vanished. The administration went as far as to say there was nothing effectively could be done militarily to halt Iran’s program. The narrative of the US changed.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed on July 14, 2015. With safeguards, the administration believes the framework agreement will cut down Iran’s breakout time capacity to the point that it would take at least 12 months to amass enough uranium enriched to weapons grade for one bomb. Enhanced international inspections and monitoring would be set up to help discourage Iran from violating the agreement. The hope is noncompliance by Iran at declared or potential undeclared sites would be detected through enhanced monitoring by the international community and promptly disrupted. The consequence of noncompliance would likely be limited to economic sanctions which may not be enough to restrain hardliners driven to build a weapon. The results of the administration’s efforts may prove that it was acting on a charming fantasy.

Reportedly, Tehran took part of its nuclear program outside of Iran long before signing the Iran deal. One possibility, found in news reports unearthed by Christian Thiels of ARD German TV, is that Iran is working with North Korea to develop a weapon. Alleged evidence was their joint operation of nuclear complexes located at Deir al-Zor and Kibar in Syria. It is possible that the January 6, 2016 North Korean nuclear test may have been a cooperative test of Iranian warheads or a test of warheads made by North Korea for Iran.

There have been reports that Tehran took part of its nuclear program outside of Iran long before signing the JCPOA. One possibility, found in news reports unearthed by Christian Thiels of ARD German TV, is that Iran is working with North Korea in other countries to develop a weapon. (During the Cold War, the US encouraged joint work by its allies such as France, the United Kingdom, Israel, and South Africa, on the development of nuclear capabiltites.) The first evidence was their joint operation of nuclear complexes located at Deir al-Zor and Kibar in Syria. On September 5, 2007, Israeli aircraft and special operations forces attacked and destroyed them. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that Kibar was a nuclear weapons development site. There is the possibility that other facilities exist in Syria. According to Der Spiegel, one may be underground, west of Qusayr, about 2 km from the Lebanese border. It is possible that the January 6, 2016 North Korean nuclear test may have been a cooperative test of Iranian warheads or a test of warheads made by North Korea for Iran. The Obama administration has no friend in the regime in Tehran. Tehran would not hesitate to exploit it or betray it. Equo ne credite! (Do not trust the horse! [Referring to the Trojan Horse.])

European governments and large European firms now seek to renew economic ties and develop business with Iran. As those linkages are established, the chance that the US could pull allies away from potential profits due to a “potential threat” a nuclear Iran might pose is lessened. The argument would be made that economic ties would serve to lessen hostilities between Iran and their countries. Threats to use force against Iran would have little meaning at that point as too many statements on why US military power should be withheld have already been made. At best, the Obama administration could increase sanctions on North Korea over nuclear weapons tests showing Pyongyang that it would be impractical to support any possible Iranian covert Iranian overseas nuclear program. It could also make it publicly known that the US is still developing greater capabilities to destroy deep underground military bases as those in Iran. If Iran is trying to cross the line or has crossed the line, at least the next administration would be better able to back diplomacy with force.

ISIS on parade in Mosul. When the ISIS blitzkrieg in Iraq began in June 2014, the Obama administration’s response included pushing then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a representative government, to include Sunnis and Kurds. As the Iraqi Security Forces were being routed by ISIS, Obama refused to give the Iraqis military aid unless they tried to bridge their divisions. Maliki stepped down. Haider al-Abadi took over with a mandate to create a government reflecting Iraq’s ethno-religious diversity and gain the trust of disaffected Sunnis so they would fight ISIS rather than support it.

Iraq

When the ISIS blitzkrieg in Iraq began on June 9, 2014, the response of the administration of the US President Barack Obama included pushing then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to establish a representative government, to include Sunnis and Kurds. It was designed as an effort to heal the rifts being exploited by the insurgents. ISIS was able to capture large parts of the country’s western and northern provinces during their offensive because Sunni residents threw their support to it after the Maliki government stopped paying the Sunni tribal fighters who had previously helped fight ISIS’s precursor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. As the Iraqi Security Forces were being routed by ISIS, Obama insisted that no US military help would be provided unless Iraqis tried to bridge their divisions. US Secretary of State John Kerry tried to make headway with Maliki. After a protracted political crisis, the Iraqi Parliament voted to have Maliki step down. Haider al-Abadi took over with a mandate to create a government more representative of Iraq’s ethno-religious groups and gain the trust of Iraq’s disaffected Sunnis so they would fight ISIS rather than support it. His early performance encouraged US and Iraqi officials.

In support of Abadi’s government, the US deployed 3,500 US troops to Iraq with the mission to help train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi Army. It had dwindled to nearly half its size from the 50 brigades it had when the US forces left in 2011. US military troops prepared the Iraqi Army for its fight to retake Ramadi. A fight to retake Mosul was being planned for 2016. Iran would hardly tolerate any loss of control or surrender its interests in Iraq due to the Obama administration’s actions. Knowing the representative government that the US sought for Iraq could not be easily created, Iran’s leaders likely assumed the US would not succeed. Tehran went ahead and expressed reserved support for Abadi. Yet, by late 2014, Abadi began to lean toward Iran and challenge the US regarding its level of support. Causality for his change in perspective was likely a combination of weariness from political infighting in Baghdad, the struggle to balance his ties to sectarian groups, pressure from his own Shi’a community, and Iran’s battlefield efforts. Abadi may have also questioned the Obama administration’s will to engage in long-term fight with ISIS. His rebellious attitude was evinced in a December 1, 2014 interview with the Lebanese-based Al-Mayadeen Television. Abadi reportedly stated, “While the United States was hesitant to help Iraqi armed forces amid security threats to Baghdad, Iran was swift to provide assistance to its crisis-torn Arab neighbor.” Iran has heavily committed itself to Iraq.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds through its military efforts, Iran has placed itself in a better position to shape Iraq politically and economically. How Iran would ameliorate Iraq’s sectarian struggle is uncertain.

To support Abadi’s government, the US deployed 3,500 US troops to Iraq to help train and reorganize the highly fractured Iraqi Army. Yet, by late 2014, Abadi began to lean toward Iran and challenge the US regarding its level of support. While the US was hesitant to help Iraqi Security Forces as ISIS marched toward Baghdad, Abadi observed that Iran was swift to provide assistance. Having established greater control over the Shi’a community and increased its influence with the Kurds through its military efforts, Iran is now in a better position to shape Iraq politically, economically, and perhaps socially, with effort.

The road Iran is creating for Abadi may be either a path toward a stable, secure and unified Iraq, with a representative government or a blind alley which will lead to greater sectarian violence. If Iran’s efforts concern it, the Obama administration should consider how it can create a straight path for Abadi to travel. That does not mean pushing him from behind with demands. It means leading the way with concrete steps and working closely with Abadi, as a partner, to accomplish things. Baghdad should have positive ties with its neighbor, Iran. Yet, the US can improve its relationship with Iraq. Surely, it could further enable Iraq’s fight against ISIS, and help stem the flow of foreign fighters into the country. Even more, it could further advance Iraq’s position on the world stage by helping it generate significant business and economic ties worldwide, beyond the oil and gas industry, even while Baghdad copes with ISIS and sectarian issues. Clarior e tenebris! ([I shine] out of the darkness more brightly!)

The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement its support in 2012 with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. So far, Assad’s hold on the reins of power remains unaffected. Moreover, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered that taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies is an enormous task. Now with Russia in the mix, they are well out of their depth. The Obama administration has implemented a failed policy against Assad’s regime.

Syria

The Obama administration decided to provide the Syrian Opposition Movement its support in 2012 with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by Free Syrian Army advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. So far, Assad’s hold on the reins of power remains unaffected. Moreover, Syrian Opposition leaders discovered that taking on the Syrian Armed Forces and their allies is an enormous task. Rebel fighters found themselves in trouble early on and now with Russia in the mix, they recognize that they are well out of their depth. Just keeping the Opposition together politically has been difficult. Foreign diplomats must regularly act as mediators to hold the Opposition’s diverse groups together. Opposition military leaders have not shown any greater ability to unify their forces. The Obama administration has implemented a failed policy of battling Assad’s regime to force him to step down via negotiations. Obama expressed that view on CBS NEWS “60 Minutes”, saying: “. . . I’ve been skeptical from the get go about the notion that we were going to effectively create this proxy army inside of Syria. My goal has been to test the proposition, can we be able to train and equip a moderate Opposition that’s willing to fight ISIL [ISIS]? And what we’ve learned is that as long as Assad remains in power, it is very difficult to get those folks to focus their attention on ISIL [ISIS]? He went on to state: “. . . There is no doubt it did not work.” A new government in Syria favorable to the West could not have been created by the Opposition at the civil war’s start and cannot be created by it now. The Opposition could fight on against the Assad regime minus support, but it would lose, especially with ISIS present. Cuiusvis hominis est errare, nullius nisi insipientis in errore perseverare. (Anyone can err, but only a fool persists in his fault.)

ISIS and Al-Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups in Syria have reached a considerable size and strength. The goals of ISIS and similar groups were never compatible with those of the Opposition. While mainstream Opposition forces were directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliated groups sought to create an Islamic State on Syrian territory. At one point, the Obama administration seemed willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers, and allowing Assad to remain in power. Certainly, Assad is not immortal. It could have been surmised that the Assad regime, under great strain and facing endless warfare, would not survive in the long-run. It seems the Obama administration assumed Assad’s benefactors in Moscow and Tehran would grow fatigued with high-expenditures and losses without advancing their cause. US military action in Syria has been limited to airstrikes by a US-led anti-ISIS coalition. That tack left the door open for others to operate freely in Syria to impose their will. Since 2013, Iran’s IRGC-Quds Force has trained and equipped the National Defense Forces (organized shabiha or paramilitary units), and has fought alongside Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen. Moreover, Iran has since moved up the “ladder of escalation.” Syrian, Iranian, and Iranian sponsored troops have managed to coordinate and cooperate well on the battlefield. Some 2000 fighters from Hezbollah, sponsored by Iran, were also part of the main attack on Qusayr and took on the mop-up operations there. Syrian and Iranian troops took on rebels in Homs and other points in Homs province. Russia more recently intervened militarily in Syria, it has targeted leaders of ISIS—and other Islamic militant groups such as Al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra—when identified. Since October 2015, command, control, and communications centers of ISIS have been struck, limiting ISIS’ ability to direct its fighters. Training centers have been destroyed. Fighting positions of ISIS in front of Russian allies have been degraded with close air support and heavy strikes by Russia. Presumably they will provide close air support for an offensive by their allies.

US military action in Syria has primarily been airstrikes by a US-led anti-ISIS coalition. That has left the door open for other countries to impose their will on the ground. Since 2013, Iran’s IRGC-Quds Force has trained and equipped the National Defense Forces, and fight alongside Hezbollah and Iraqi Shi’a militiamen. Iran has since moved up the “ladder of escalation.” In Syria, Russia has targeted ISIS’ command, control, and communications centers. If Russia gets a handle on the situation there, the US might need to tolerate an Assad regime strongly influenced by Russia and Iran.

New talks have been set up under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. However, long before factions of the Syrian Opposition might get their act together for the UN Talks, and before the first vote is cast in UN monitored elections, Russia and its allies may take steps to keep Assad in power. If Russia gets a handle on the situation there, despite UN Talks, the US may be given little choice but to tolerate an Assad regime strongly influenced by Russia and Iran. For the Syrian people, some trapped in the clutches of ISIS and knocked around in the middle of the war zone, others situated in giant refugee camps in neighboring states, or relocated as ex-patriots in Western and Arab states, a sustainable, secure peace in their country would be the best outcome.

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 Obama administration faces. Enough speeches and statements heard from the Obama administration on why US military power should be withheld have been made to create doubt that the US would respond to Russian actions outside its borders.

Russia

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin wants to change the narrative which has Russia coming in a distant second to the US. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin has been the authentic face of the Russian government. Putin and his closest advisers share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent of Western technologies. Dimitry Medvedev was Russian Federation President when Obama came to office. So comfortable was Obama with Medvedev that he went as far as to declare a new era between the two former Cold War adversaries existed. Little was done to build a relationship with Putin who was serving as Russia’s Prime Minister and was the real power in Moscow. Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012. Based on positive signals from Medvedev on nuclear arms reductions, administration officials got the idea that Putin would also consider proposals on it. When Putin expressed disinterest, administration officials insisted that he agree to reductions in both nations’ nuclear arsenals. Putin then out rightly rejected their proposals. Obama administration officials reacted poorly. Putin’s decision was viewed within the Obama administration as ending the president’s signature effort to transform Russian-American relations and potentially dooming his aspirations for further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office.   Apparently retaliating against Putin over his decision on its nuclear proposals, on August 7, 2013, the White House cancelled a September summit meeting in Moscow for Obama and Putin. Relations were so bad in 2013 that Andrei Piontovsky, executive director of the Strategic Studies Center in Moscow was quoted in an August 7, 2013, New York Times article as saying, “Putin sensed weakness in Mr. Obama that could lead to more dangerous confrontations.” He further stated, “Putin openly despises your president, forgive my bluntness.”

There was no easy way to repair the relationship. In our media conscious culture, timidity easily takes the form of affected joviality, hoping to diffuse tension by amiability, a hug or a slap on the back and then the dialogue can begin. Any political leader who thinks the way to diffuse the tension with Putin is to play the minstrel is only signaling insecurity. This was the case at a news conference between Obama and Putin in Northern Ireland in June 2013. When Obama tried a little levity stating, “We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” Instead of playing along, Putin retorted, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.” By 2014, Putin’s anger toward the US and EU worsened. Soon, there were regular incursions of Russian bombers and fighters in NATO airspace, Russian warships in NATO waters, and Russian claims made on the Arctic. Putin had already shown a willingness to intervene in the former Soviet republics. Examples include his actions in Georgia and Ukraine and his proposal for a “Eurasian Union”, an economic alliance that would include former Soviet Republics such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Moldova, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. By taking action in Syria, Putin showed he is also ready to secure Russia’s interests abroad.

The leaders of Germany (despite some controversial energy sector matters) and the United Kingdom are not fans of Putin and have encouraged Obama to stand firm in his dealings with him. Yet, some other European allies fear facing greater problems from Putin. Coping with his abrasive side can be tough. Still, Putin has also shown considerable restraint in tough situations as the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian Federation fighter jet. What Obama could try to do is create a dialogue with Putin about opportunities missed, opportunities still on the table, and the need to establish better relations for the US and Russia, not just for Putin and Obama.

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 Obama administration faces. Enough speeches and statements have been made by the Obama administration, on why US military power should be withheld, to create doubt that the US would respond to Russian actions outside its borders. Keeping all European allies unified and resolute could become more difficult as some may fear facing greater problems from him. The administration will have diplomatic contact and telephone communications with Putin, but keeping a brave face on while coping with his aggressive side will be tough. Still, Putin has also shown considerable restraint in tough situations such as the Turkish shoot-down of a Russian Federation fighter jet. What Obama could do is create a dialogue with Putin about opportunities missed, opportunities still on the table, and the need to establish better relations for the US and Russia, not just for Putin and Obama. The more meetings the two can have in 2016, the better. That would be to the benefit of the people of both countries long-term. Gutta cavat lapidem [non vi sed saepe cadendo]. A water drop hollows a stone [not by force, but by falling often].

The Way Forward

Graviore manent. (Heavier things remain.) Panegyrics for Obama and his administration have already begun to make their way into the media. Still, the specter remains of unresolved policy issues with the potential to worsen and become far more intractable. Arguments can be made that an environment in which such problems could grow was allowed to exist due to the delinquency of the administration. The result of such perceived inadequacies and failures could possibly be passed on to the next administration. A decision to simply sit on problems or contain them would be wrong and likely viewed as a pitfall of fear and resignation. There are approaches the Obama administration could take to defeat or defuse problems it may face from its adversaries. A few were presented here more boiled to the marrow than stripped to the bone as originally promised.

Candidates for the presidency have expressed concern over the same issues in campaign speeches and during debates. Perhaps those who can do better will take office and actually do better during their time in office. It is impossible for deeds to be undone. The Obama administration has done what it wanted to do on foreign policy. When God gives his grace to us, he gives us what we do not deserve. When God gives his mercy to us, he does not give us what we deserve. The Obama administration may very well be able to ride out its final year reflecting publicly on things that are pleasing to remember. However, it is always best to act than react. Setting an agenda for action would be the best action to take.