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 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. Given that perspective 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. He 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!)

An Open Mind and Direct Talks, Not Reports Developed from Overt US Sources, Will Best Serve Diplomacy with Trump

US President Donald Trump (above). Nearly every government seeks to fill gaps in knowledge and understanding, and verify its on perspectives through its own intelligence efforts. Having a full, compatible understanding of a situation through direct talks by officials, allows leaders and top diplomats to speak correctly and authentically about issues. It also improves the chances for crafting agreements. If countries desire to effectively engage with Trump diplomatically, they must ensure how and what they collect about him and the US is well-considered and accurate.

In the US, the news media serves as a watchdog over government power and political activity. It is a source from which the public can inform itself on the decisions and actions of elected leaders and appointed officials. The news media is at its best when it provides the public with an intimate look inside government bodies and operations. Its role in the society is sacrosanct. “Freedom of the press” is one the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the US Constitution listing specific prohibitions on government power. Admonishment can be viewed as a warning, and one may seek to encourage, improve the quality of another’s performance by warning. However, news media criticism of US President Donald Trump appears aimed at bringing his administration down. Trump’s critics also seemingly have the goal of destroying him as a person, reduce him to a demimonde. It has become de rigueur to speak against Trump. All of the negativity catches the eye. Middle of the list journalists have managed to make a place for themselves at the top by presenting anti-Trump stories with reckless abandon. The ranks of his critics actually extend beyond the US news media to include: think tank scholars, other policy analysts, particularly former officials of the Obama administration. Some of Trump’s critics are convinced that Trump does not really want to do well for the US public or the world. They make such assertions being fully aware that the consequence of them might be to harm the trust that many in the US public have in Trump. Indeed, critics may have infiltrated and despoiled the psyche of many US citizens, and perhaps may have even destroyed the possibility for some to have confidence in future US administrations, both Republican and Democratic. When Trump fights back, his comments are very rough and tough, but they unlikely do enough to prevent negative reports and commentaries, all the opprobrium of critics, from sticking.

If one were to consider, for example, the coverage of efforts to organize talks between US President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Kim Jung-un, one might recognize that the two leaders were not really given a fair chance to virtually relate as leaders before they met. The atmosphere was poisoned by exceptionally strong negative reports and commentary of expert observers, well-known political foes, critics, and news media pundits. What was actually being said and done in both capitals was being distorted. The main focus of critics was a back and forth on Twitter, a few awkward official statements, and predictions by experts of unconstructive behavior by Kim. What saved the pas de deux was a step by step approach toward North Korea well-managed by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Moon met with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone. Pompeo both as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and Secretary of State met with Kim in Pyongyang. Trump enabled their efforts by expressing a willingness to meet. The US in a way reciprocated on Pompeo’s visits by having the North Korean Vice Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Kim Yong-chol, meet with Pompeo in New York City for talks and then meet with Trump in Washington, DC. Particularly for the North Koreans, having the chance to get to know Trump and Pompeo, and learning what US thinking in the administration was directly from the US President and Secretary of State was both edifying and important. What the North Koreans learned was certainly far more informative and satisfying than what their intelligence services may have been gleaned in the abstract from US news media sources and free wielding comments of experts in conferences and interviews. The meetings also likely had a stabilizing effect.

Nearly every government seeks to fill gaps in knowledge and understanding, and verify its own perspectives through its own intelligence efforts. Relatively isolated countries can easily become victims of false reports, misleading, politicized commentary. Not knowing what gold is, they often gather pyrite. In the current environment, there is so much to sift through to find the truth. The consequence of using bent intelligence, even if only slightly, could be catastrophic. Having a comparable knowledge and full understanding of the situation through direct talks by officials, allows leaders and top diplomats to speak correctly and authentically about issues. It also improves the chances for the crafting of bilateral and multilateral agreements and arrangements. If countries desire to effectively engage with Trump diplomatically, how and what they collect about him and the US must be well-considered and accurate. That is the issue discussed here. Oculis de homine non credo, habeo melius et certius lumen quo a falsis uera diiudicem: animi bonum animus inueniat. (I do not trust my eyes to tell me what a man is: I have a better and more trustworthy light by which I can distinguish what is true from what is false: let the mind find out what is good for the mind.)

Chinese President XI Jinping (left) and Trump (right). In general, foreign leaders encounters with Trump are welcoming and friendly. During them, Trump appears at ease, self-possessed. Those who have engaged in conversation with him are usually left with the feeling that he was in the moment with them. He projects an empathy. At the same time, Trump has a strong presence, a bearing of authority, which may be intimidating to some. Trump’s nature is to try while in direct contact with an individual to create a bridge, if not a bond.

The “Authentic” Trump

Boiled down to the bones, open minded, immediate perceptions of Trump from most who have met him, from national leaders to average US citizens, would most likely agree that their encounters with Trump are welcoming and friendly. He is typically at ease, self-possessed with others. Those who have conversed with him are usually left with the feeling that he was in the moment with them. He projects an empathy. At the same time, Trump has a strong presence, a bearing of authority, which may be intimidating to the odd few. Trump’s nature is to try while in direct contact with an individual to create a bridge, if not a bond. Meeting Trump, one must remember that he has expectations from them. Red flags can be detected in his facial expression. Many discerned them too late in a conversation with Trump to repair the damage. Those who plan to create some interaction with Trump in their own way or seek to create some deal or agreement only on their terms, will accomplish nothing but raise his ire. Those simply trying to create some personal linkage alone should avoid overplaying their hand. Trump will let one know what type of relationship that he would prefer to have with one. A barrier will be created once a line is crossed. One should never try to become too familiar with him too fast. If anyone is going to rustle feathers by being a bit extra jovial during an interaction, it would need to be Trump. In such cases, he would invariably still mean well. Following that, he might try to be giving in some way. It would be better not to meet him, if one intends to go as far as breaking the spoken and unspoken rules of civility with him. Those who might use the opportunity to meet Trump in order to play to popular public sentiment at home by displaying irreverence for Trump, displaying their will to challenge him on issues, and create the optics that would confirm some silly notion of fearlessness by taking on the US President will do great disservice to their people and interests of their countries. There would be so much to gain from the opportunity to meet with Trump, and it would all be tossed away.

One should not glean from what has been stated that Trump dislikes developing new relationships. Quite to the contrary, Trump appreciates crafting new things to include new relationships. That desire to create is unquestionably due to the fact that he has the mind, vision, and spirit  of an artist. His successful professional paths as a businessman, land developer, entertainment promoter, and reality television host evinced that. As a businessman, Trump for decades engaged in high stakes negotiations and immersed in the granular details of forging solid, mutually agreeable deals. As a developer, he thoroughly invested himself in the planning, designing, and constructing buildings. In that process he was humble, meticulous, perceptive, and innovative. He could become lost in his art. As a media celebrity, he lived a life of high drama while he entertained and bedazzled. While very public accusations have made of alleged indiscretions, in the aggregate, the greater side of Trump is influenced by a moral center, his faith. He is a Presbyterian, and attends religious services. At the same time, he is respectful, appreciative, and has a good understanding of other religions, and often will attend their services.

On making decisions specifically on foreign policy, Trump will first demand to be read-in on available information and mulling things over, and formulating an approach. (This fact runs counter to what has been drilled in the minds of many through critics statements that Trump is disinterested in reports and briefings.) Trump will typically begin bilateral and multilateral interactions with high hopes that he can well-serve US interests, achieve positive results. While he attempts to craft a mutually satisfying, sustainable agreements, he will put US interests first. He famously stated during his UN General Assembly address: “As President of the United States, I will always put America First. Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.” He also explained that, “All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens, and the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”

Trump was elected US President having never served In political office at the national, state, or local level. He reviewed US foreign policy, it successes and failures in recent years and how his predecessors got things done, and decided to apply lessons he learned in business to make improvement to enhance US policy approaches. He labelled the central concept and intent for making improvements as “America First”. Trump discovered being successful would not simply require transitioning from the role businessman to that of president. In his short period of time in office, his thinking in terms of his duty and responsibilities and also personally, began evolving. In that process of evolution, Trump has not conformed with politics as usual in Washington. Rather, Trump, while keeping the heart of America First, began a process of transformation in which life lessons on getting things done, coalesced with lessons he would learn on the job daily as president. The change that Trump has brought has been most disturbing for critics as well as allies set in their ways, preferring Trump would take buttoned-down, old fashioned approaches to issues. He has pushed back against their insistent voices that he do things their way, seeking instead to find the truth in himself and doing things his way. A very evident part of Trump’s process of evolution are staff changes. He wants advisers that will best allow for the smooth execution of his plans. A very interesting and practical duality in his thinking has also been revealed as Trump has exercised his own magic. On some matters, Trump has found, sometimes the hard way, that conventional ways of doing things are best. When he has turned to unconventional approaches, he has relied upon a shrewd inner voice, intimations of a military commander in battle, all of it honed and polished by decades of human interactions, to help guide his decisionmaking.

The change that Trump has brought to Washington has been disturbing for critics as well as allies set in their ways, preferring that he would take buttoned-down, old fashioned approaches to issues. On some matters, Trump has found that doing things conventional ways are best. When he has turned to unconventional approaches, he has relied upon a shrewd inner voice, intimations akin to those of a military commander in battle, all of it honed and polished by decades of human interactions, to help guide his decisionmaking.

Indeed, when Trump takes a conventional track, he will support approaches that would require initial, relatively small steps perhaps to unlock the diplomatic process on big issues. He would also seek to gauge actions and responses from the opposite party. If he discerns a positive way forward, his sense of possibility would broaden and he would open his mind up to more options. In certain circumstances, Trump might promote creativity by breaking problems into smaller components; in doing so, he would build a multi-issue business negotiation out of what may have initially appeared to be a single-issue deal. Using multiple issues allows one to make valuable tradeoffs and facilitate a good-faith negotiation. Trump will collect important information by asking lots of questions and listening carefully to the answers. He usually demonstrates a willingness to be flexible by putting forth several different proposals at the same time. He is usually be willing to contemplate unconventional deal-structuring arrangements to bridge the gap between what the other side wants and what he could accept. He will even explore contingent agreements to help overcome differences in beliefs about future events and outcomes. He may even add on conditions for a deal such as “I’ll do X if you do Y”; and, engaging in “mind games” like brainstorming to facilitate creative problem solving and prompt unexpected solutions. On May 25, 2018, when there was discussion about restoring the summit talks with Kim after they were called off, questions were asked in the news media whether the back and forth between the US and North Korea was part of a strategy, Trump was quoted as saying: “Everybody plays games.”

In an unconventional mode, Trump will appear driven by the idea that bold action can turn situations around in the case he is facing. His goal is to exploit success, preserve his freedom of action on immediate matters, and reduce vulnerability from action by his competitors. He acts in a manner designed to gain advantage, surprise, and momentum over his competitors, achieving results that would normally require far more time and would be more costly to the US. This has been observed repeatedly in his interactions with foreign leaders. Trump’s discernment of events and situations as well as his planning and execution of actions against competitors greatly resembles what military thinkers define as maneuver. He rushes to place himself in superior position in order to overcome and defeat his opponents efforts. Quid ergo? non ibo per priorum vestigia? ego vero utar via vetere, sed si propiorem planioremque invenero, hanc muniam. Qui ante nos ista moverunt non domini nostri sed duces sunt. Patet omnibus veritas; nondum est occupata; multum ex illa etiam futuris relictum est. (What then? Shall I not follow in the footsteps of my predecessors? I shall indeed use the old road, but if I find one that makes a shorter cut and is smoother to travel, I shall open the new road. Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover.)

Early in life, Trump was inculcated with a strong sense of duty, honor, and country in secondary school. Trump matriculated for five years at the renowned New York Military Academy (NYMA) at Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, NYMA was the closest thing to a preparation school for the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, which was only a short drive from NYMA’s campus.  Trump excelled at NYMA. Friends and instructors have noted how Trump eventually thrived in military environment. He graduated as one of five captains, the S4 (supply officer) on the Senior Staff. In his senior year, Trump was given command of a composite company of cadets for the 1963 Columbus Day Parade, and led them and rest of marchers to St. Patrick’s Cathedral where he greeted Cardinal Francis Spellman. Among his many other accomplishments, he commanded NYMA’s Honor Guard in both 1963 and 1964. From 1960 to 1964, he was an Honor Cadet and played on the Variety Baseball team. Trump proved throughout his secondary school years that he could consistently perform well both as a student and leader. Given Trump’s successful ascent as a NYMA cadet, it is hard to imagine that within him there was not a desire to attend the West Point. However, that was unlikely his decision to make. His father, Frederick Trump, who Trump would only describe as a builder to fellow cadets, was a well-known New York City real estate developer. His father likely insisted that Trump attend Fordham University where he would educate himself for work in the family business. Trump behaved dutifully and honorably in response to his father’s wishes. What is left for observers to see from that decisive point in Trump’s life is a juxtaposition between his strong military metiér and his dedication to family and a business path. As a leader, Trump is always ready to subordinate what he might want for what he must do.

Trump has undoubtedly recognized that to be a successful president he had to become a living sacrifice for his country, taking on almost limitless duties and burdens he very likely unforsaw as a candidate. The lifestyle that he led as a successful business leader had to be shed. Interests and focuses of his attention and energy, if simply for recreation, have been replaced by his country’s needs. Through visits to Mar-A-Largo, Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, and Trump Tower, he is able to enjoy fragments of a life he once lived. It will be interesting to see where this evolutionary process will lead Trump. No one is required to say anything about it, but this aspect of Trump is minimized or ignored in reports and commentaries of critics.

Trump’s father, Frederick Trump (left), mother, Mary Anne MacLeod Trump (center), and Trump (right). Trump was inculcated with a strong sense of duty, honor, and country at the New York Military Academy. He proved throughout secondary school that he could perform well consistently both as a student and leader. Given his successful ascent as a cadet, it is hard to imagine that he did not desire to attend the United States Military Academy. However, that would not have been his decision to make. His father clearly had plans for him to work in the family business.

Who Is Watching?

In intelligence services, getting to know what is happening in a country, regarding a particular event or issue requires 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 reconnaisance systems has resulted in the disappearance of the sure-fire agent on the ground with his string of spies and informants. 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.)

When national leaders do not grasp what is happening on an issue and cannot get a handle on a situation in a satisfying way, there is an anxiety, a sense of panic even, that may ensue from lacking intelligence to answer big questions or fill gaps in knowledge, to develop policies, strategies, and nuanced approaches. In some sudden and urgent situations for a country, sources for its intelligence service might be sparse, or nonexistent, and all one might have are bits and pieces from electronic collection, particularly if that capability is rudimentary. When there is no one to approach, When there is nobody present to approach anyone, whatever has been gathered by intelligence professionals from clandestine operations and perhaps electronic collection, may be supplemented and even complemented in the worst case by theories and guesswork. Among the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of many intelligence services of countries of various sizes and power, analytical units will mine through overt sources of intelligence, traditionally newspapers, magazines, books of certain authors, and now websites, blogs, and social media to see what information is out there. That information may also be used to supplement and even complement information that a service already possesses.

Using information from overt sources to confirm things or infer things can be rather dicey as there is no longer 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 be palms up due to detected discrepancies, questionable findings, intimations, will pass it along as work product, demonstrating that there some type of understanding of on-going events, some handle on the situation. Consumers receiving that information might be pleased to receive verification of inferred ideas of the leadership. Those inferred ideas, with the support of new data, can often become fact and make its way from consumer to consumer, all the way to the top. In some countries, it has essentially been custom in analytical units of intelligence services covering the US, to use particular sources of intelligence, for example, US newspapers of record, as the New York Times and Washington Post, and watch and listen to NBCNEWS, ABCNEWS, CBS News. on the US. Therein lies the rub.

Then Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Mike Pompeo (left) and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-un (right). Relatively isolated countries can easily become victims of false reports, misleading, politicized commentary. In the current environment, there is much to sift through from overt sources to find the truth. The use of bad information will result in bent intelligence. The consequence of its use, even if slight, could be catastrophic.

Despite an awareness that many reports and commentaries about Trump, particularly from his critics, might be questionable as well as objectionable, and declared by the administration as completely inaccurate, intelligence services in some foreign capitals may not be ready to halt the counterproductive practice of using them. Those intelligence services may not fully understand why US news media houses have surrendered their impartiality in order to proffer negative reports and commentaries about Trump in great volume. They may have observed that critics would be so willing to surrender their credibility in producing reports and commentaries that would be proven wrong in short time. They may have difficulty understanding what would compel critics to attack Trump, speak against his efforts, predict failure, when his successes are successes for the US. They may have discerned that what certain reports and commentaries merely evince a particular political position or preference for a candidate who lost the 2016 Presidential Election, Hillary Clinton, and reject those of the candidate who won, Trump. They may recognize that many critics have behaved figuratively as hammer hoping through relentless pounding to fashion an image of Trump that want the world to see and if possible shape him into what they want him to be. There is said to be a temper of the soul that wants to live in illusion. Still, that alone would not compel most intelligence services to be remiss by continually using suspect information from certain overt sources from the US. A more likely cause for such counterintuitive behavior would be bureaucratic inertia. In nearly every system, there are those who will do their homework, whose trade craft would cause them to do a deeper dive into the information. Raising concerns over such information within some intelligence organizations might be considered blasphemous and those who might suggest there could be issues with standard methods of overt collection may simply be shut down by traditionalist, orthodox voices among bureaucrats who may be managing the intelligence collection process. It would be best to omit information that one does not fully understand. One should not rush to conclusions. Non refert quam multos sed quam bonos habeas. (It is quality rather than quantity that matters.)

A better way to satisfy requirements for collection would be to insist upon and invest time and effort into creating opportunities to meet at some official level with representatives of an adversary or even an ally. It could be done, if necessary, away from the public eye. In such meetings, specific questions could be asked of a foreign counterpart, and information could be provided to ones opposite number to ensure that the genuine position of another government on key matters, not the meditations of pundits or guesswork, would be run through mechanisms for analysis included will prevail in analyses. Depending upon the nature of relations between countries, the relative size of two or more countries, and the urgency or importance of issues between them, direct bilateral or multilateral talks between the most senior officials may not always be possible. For example, one may not officially recognize the sovereignty of another and perhaps visa versa. In the best case for the intelligence services of the respective countries, meetings would be held between senior intelligence officials. There may be the reality that one side may have more power to control the time and place of even such lower level engagements might be an issue for the other side to work through. Still, at whatever level officials might meet, whenever and wherever they might meet, and whether it might be a one shot opportunity, they must come prepared to collect enough information through well-crafted questions, keen listening to words, and skilled observations of behavior to satisfy intelligence requirements and prepare the best possible product for consumers. Interestingly, questions asked also can serve the purpose of informing the other side what one already knows, what one does not know, and what is most important. Questions serve as a curious form of sharing as much as collecting.

Vice Chairman of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea Kim Yong-chul with his interpreter. (left), Trump (center), and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (right). For the North Koreans, having the chance to get to know Trump and Pompeo, and learning what thinking in the administration was directly from them was both edifying and important. What the North Koreans learned was certainly far more informative than what their intelligence services may have been gleaned in the abstract from US news media sources and free wielding comments of experts in conferences and interviews.

The US News Media and Trump Critics: Caveat Emptor

The modality of the attacks on Trump from the news media catches the eye. It appears to exceed what few years earlier would have been considered impossible. The media never admired Trump. More seasoned, balanced, critics, have produced reports and commentary explaining that lots of things should be done, omitted, changed, and corrected by Trump. However, many other critics better skilled in “inpleasantry” than bon mot, have deemed Trump unfit for the presidency even before his election victory. The words “not presidential” were heard every time Trump spoke. Efforts by Trump of any kind would elicit a range of reactions by those engaged in the broad, piquant, counter-Trump discourse. (In 2017, greatcharlie frequently used the term, “counter-Trump milieu”, but alas, it failed to gain traction in the foreign policy debate.) There are other critics who apparently have found nothing desirable and everything loathsome about Trump. Trump’s efforts are explained as a cunning deceit, a dark tragedy. He is characterized as just another seductive tyrant, a demagogue. It could be said the US news media has not covered Trump as much as it has attached itself to him. They walk alongside him in order to discomfort and discourage him, increase the power of the blows against him. In the aggregate, they do not want Trump to feel a sense of serenity, calmness, quietness, peace and joy as president for one moment. Apparently, they want Trump to feel a deep-seated frustration, anxiety, worry.  They seem determined to throw Trump into loneliness and pain. Their hope for glory in attacking and defeating Trump walks hand in hand with their own doom for they live in the same country, the civilization that Trump is trying to improve. Ars prima regni est posse invidiam pati. (‘Tis the first art of kings, the power to suffer hate.)

Many critics are at a point in which they simply reject possibilities without hearing others. They rely upon self-serving explanations and surmisal. Critics see their efforts as righteousness, and they see far greater moral authority in themselves than in Trump. Critics analyses of history, of what was spposedly better, is nostalgia at best, myth at worst. Previous administrations would languish in the halls of inaction on a policy issue. They seemed to gain some satisfaction by merely moving from office to office, from conference room to conference room, from building to building, writing one memorandum after another, and declaring that in itself was action. Trump would admit that some mistakes have been made and a number of situations could have been handled differently, particularly on the domestic front. However, Trump has learned lessons. Modifications have been made in the way he makes statements and approaches situations. Nevertheless, critics reject the notion that he has evolved at all, and argue that he will never change. Lacking faith in the president, they surrender all hope that he could accomplish anything good for the US. While one might normally expect some change in behavior or conciliatory attitude from critics as time passes, their civility only seems recede further. There is a Hebrew term, küwl (cool), which means to sustain a hardship, to maintain ones balance in spite of what is happening. Trump has sought to avoid having a wounded spirit, powering away from despair and disappointment. Initially, Trump, in reaction to some critics, would “imitate the action of the tiger, stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard favor’d rage.” Trump has since become more selective as to when and to whom he will direct his disagreement. Few men could display true sangfroid if stress were assailing them as it has Trump. Some religious leaders would explain that a trial can present an opportunity to persevere under pressure. Moreover, one can grow in the midst of conflict.

Some Discerning Leaders Can Distinguish Perception from Reality Re Trump

Periclum ex aliis facito tibi quod ex usu siet. (Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself.) Political and social pressures to conform to a counter-Trump outlook appear to exist in capitals worldwide. However, for any country, relations with the US are too important to allow ties to be damaged by behavior and attitudes displayed by leaders with a skewed understanding of realities about Trump.  As posited here, it would be very easy for intelligence service to provide information with a counter-Trump bent to their leaders thus creating that situation. Perhaps a decision to embrace such information would be the fact that it confirmed individual biases or prejudices those leaders might have about Trump. Many leaders who initially chose to take a stance hostile to Trump recognized that they had done a great disservice to the people and interests of their country. They subtracted such negative thinking and changed their approach to him. Others learned lessons from leaders taking a wrongful counter-Trump tact, and allowed themselves the opportunity to draw their own conclusions about him through direct contacts.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (left) and a Trump (right). After meetings in Washington with Trump from March 17, 2017 to March 18, 2017, Merkel made the harsh comment that Trump was not a reliable partner Germany and the Continent could depend upon. Her comments expressed her angst. Merkel was personally disappointed that Trump initially declined to publicly endorse NATO’s doctrine of collective defense, or agree to common European positions on global trade, dealing with Russian aggression, and mitigating the effects of climate change.

1. German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Following meetings in Washington with Trump from March 17, 2017 to March 18, 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, hailed as Europe’s most influential leader, made the stunning comment that US President Donald Trump is not the reliable partner her country and the Continent can depend upon. She was quoted in a May 28, 2017 New York Times article as stating: “The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over,” adding, “This is what I experienced in the last few days.” Merkel went on to state: “We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans.” Her strong comments represented a potentially seismic shift in trans-Atlantic relations, as she has concluded without reservation that the US is now less willing to intervene overseas. The Times article explains that Merkel was personally disappointed that Trump declined to publicly endorse NATO’s doctrine of collective defense or to agree to common European positions on global trade, dealing with Russian aggression or mitigating the effects of climate change. Merkel’s comments were truly an expression of angst. Her words would lead one to believe that the current period, rather than being of change, and reinvigoration, is languid and dissolute. Yet, as a result of her statement, she may have also stirred concerns in the capitals of other NATO countries over how they will defend themselves against their most likely opponent, Russia, and handle other matters, without the US.

However, at some point after the meeting, Merkel likely recognized that she needed to take inventory of what had transpired so far with the US. She needed to stop moving the relationship in a negative direction.  From what Merkel said after her initial contacts with Trump, it was clear that Merkel felt some personal struggle with him. That was very troubling. Merkel’s responsibilities in meeting Trump was not to express her personal feelings about him. The genuine job at hand for the Chancellor was to do what best served the interest of the German people. Berlin needed to reorient Merkel on the matter. At stake was the relationship of Germany, and to an extent Europe, with the Trump administration. Berlin needed to find ways for Merkel to better respond and engage her country’s most powerful ally and cope with the Trump administration’s approach to policy matters concerning Europe. German policymakers, foreign policy analysts, and diplomats had to find answers. Resources needed to be diverted to that end. Cuiusvis est errare nullius nisi insipientes, in error perseverare. (To err is inherent in every man, but to persist in error takes a fool.)

Things changed. While campaigning for her fourth term in office, Merkel stated on August 23, 2017 that Trump must be shown appropriate respect for holding the office of the US president, even if she may differ with him greatly on some policy issues. Merkel, a Trump critic, left no doubt that she was committed transatlantic relationship, and stressed the strength of German relations with the US. The statement was a rebuff to pressure from her Social Democratic Party rivals to resist demands by Trump for NATO members to increase their defense spending. Merkel explained during an interview with the German business daily Handelsblatt: “If you take the president of the United States, whatever differences of opinion there may be, I know he prevailed in a tough election. It wasn’t reserved for him on a silver platter.” She went on to state: “In the end, he won the election under American electoral law and that means he is democratically elected and that this person should be shown the appropriate respect, regardless of how I assess his views.” Merkel did what many US political opponents and allies, friends–full-time and part-time, former US officials, journalists, analysts, and other among his critics refuse to do or at least have not done well. Merkel apparently took inventory, reviewed what had transpired, and reconsidered the direction she wanted her public comments about Trump to take. During her three-hour visit to the White House on April 27, 2018, her exchanges with Trump were very cordial. Merkel discussed but did not emphasize her differences with Trump on steel and aluminium tariffs and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In a joint press conference afterward, they stressed the long-time ties between the US and Germany and the shared goal of a denuclearized North Korea. Trump now insists that he and Merkel have “a great relationship.”

Merkel apparently took inventory, reviewed what had transpired in March 2017, and reconsidered the direction she, as German Chancellor, wanted her interactions with Trump to take. During her three-hour visit to the White House on April 27, 2018, her exchanges with Trump were very cordial. Merkel discussed but did not emphasize her differences with Trump on steel and aluminium tariffs and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. In a joint press conference afterward, both stressed the long-time ties between the US and Germany.

2. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari

Some foreign leaders from the get-go fully understand that their focus during meeting with Trump should be their countries’ interests and relating well with the US President. They should not be prompted by the news media to speak or behave in ways that would aid its narrow interest in grabbing headlines to promote readership and viewership, and to fill advertising space and increase their profits. On April 30, 2018, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari had the opportunity to visit Trump at the White House to discuss urgent and important issues concerning his country. Buhari was the first sub-Saharan African leader to be invited for talks with the Trump administration. Trump and Buhari agreed that fighting terrorism is a priority for both administrations. The US sold 12 counterinsurgency aircraft worth $496 million to Nigeria to help in its fight against Boko Haram jihadist insurgents, despite previous refusing to approve the sale due to human rights concerns. Trump let Buhari know that he wanted Nigeria to remove trade barriers and allow imports of US agricultural produce. What was not discussed were disparaging remarks Trump allegedly made concerning African countries on January 11, 2018.

However, when Trump and Buhari held a joint press conference in the White House Rose Garden, the Nigerian President was asked about Trump’s alleged complaints about immigrants coming to the US from Haiti, El Salvador and some African nations. Buhari was very aware of problems between the news media and Trump and aware more so of his duty to serve Nigeria’s interests. He astutely replied: “I’m not sure about, you know, the validity of whether that allegation against the president is true or not.” He added: “So the best thing for me is to keep quiet.

When Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari (left) and Trump (right) met on April 30, 2018, terrorism, human rights, and trade were on the agenda. In a joint press conference, however, reporters asked Buhari about Trump’s alleged complaints about African immigrants. Aware of problems between the news media and Trump and aware of his duty to serve Nigeria’s interests. Buhari astutely replied: “I’m not sure about, you know, the validity of whether that allegation against the president is true or not.” He added: “So the best thing for me is to keep quiet.”

3. French President Emmanuel Macron

When French President Emmanuel Macron visited the US from April 24, 2018 to April 25, 2018, he came with the purpose to bridge differences over the Iran nuclear agreement, encourage Trump not to withdraw so fast from Syria, exempt European countries from then prospective US steel and aluminum tariffs, and discuss the Paris Agreement on climate change and global warming. Indeed, Macron told Trump that France recognized the need for the US and France to work together to defeat terrorism, curtail weapons of mass destruction in North Korea and Iran, and act together on behalf of the planet. At the same time, Macron emphasized the importance of the Franco-American relationship, the commitment and the bond between the two countries, its historic importance and importance for both countries and world into the future.

Trump had already enjoyed very positive interactions with Macron. Trump was Macron’s guest in July 2017 at the annual Bastille Day military parade in Paris. During the visit, Macron and his wife, Brigitte, took Trump and his wife on a tour of Napoleon’s tomb and the Eiffel Tower where they had dinner while overlooking the City of Light. Trump reciprocated during Macron’s visit to Washington with a welcoming ceremony filled with pageantry and ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, that included a 21-gun salute. Macron presented Trump with a thoughtful gift of a tree sampling from ”Devil Dog” fountain at Belleau Wood, where US Marines fought a deadly battle from June 1, 2018 to June 24, 1918, to repel a push by German forces toward Paris during World War I. Devil Dog fountain was a rally point for surviving Marines after they defeated the Germans. The Marines suffered nearly 10,000 casualties. Before an audience of US military personnel and Cabinet officials, Trump explained that the relationship he forged with Macron at the start of his presidency was a testament to the “enduring friendship that binds our two nations.” He thanked the French leader for his “steadfast partnership” in the recent missile strike in response to the chemical attack in Syria. Trump went on to state, “It’s an honor to call you my friend.” He predicted that Macron would be a historic leader of France. In a jovial mood in the Oval Office, Trump displayed some personal chemistry with Macron by feigning to brush off Macron’s suit jacket and saying, “We have a very special relationship; in fact, I’ll get that little piece of dandruff off. We have to make him perfect — he is perfect.” During a toast at a formal state dinner, Trump mentioned the ties between the US and France, saying, “May our friendship grow even deeper, may our kinship grow even stronger and may our sacred liberty never die.”

The next day, at a joint press conference, Macron focused on the relationship between the US and France, Macron said, “History is calling us. It is urging our people to find the fortitude that has guided us in the most difficult of times. France and with it, Europe, and the United States have an appointment with history.” However, through a translator, Macron again got down to business, stating: “Mr. President, please allow me to go back to a number of issues, which are fundamental for not only our relationship, but beyond. The first topic is Iran. You said once again, in front of the press, what your position was during the campaign and as well as the President of the United States.  It’s not a mystery we did not have the same starting positions or stances, and neither you nor I have a habit of changing our stances or going with the wind.” On his last day in Washington, Macron, in flawless English, addressed the US Congress. Although Macron spoke critically to an even greater degree of a number of Trump’s foreign policy, trade and environmental decisions, he did so in a well-considered, methodical way, always leaving real hope that at some point a meeting of minds could be reached.

Critics put off by the congenial interaction between Trump and Macron. Their friendship was derided as “Le Bromance” and critics groaned that there were “exaggerated handshakes and a pair of kisses.” Macron was referred to as a “Trump whisperer” because he converses with Trump often by telephone. Critics seemed to find solace in the belief that Trump’s relationships with other European leaders are more strained. While the idea emphasized, it is not necessarily the case. Critics also noted that Trump ended his first year in office without receiving a foreign leader on a state visit, the first president in nearly 100 years to fail to do so.

French President Emmanuel Macron (left) and Trump (right) When Macron visited the US from April 24, 2018 to April 25, 2018, he hoped to bridge differences with Trump over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, encourage him not to leave quickly from Syria, prevent prospective US steel and aluminum tariffs on European countries, and make headway with Trump on the Paris Agreement on climate change. Macron spoke critically on a number of Trump’s foreign policy, trade and environmental decisions, but did so in a thoughtful way. He also emphasized the importance of the Franco-American relationship and his friendship with Trump.

The Way Forward

In Act I, scene iii, of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Macbeth, Generals Macbeth and Banquo have already defeated the invading armies of Ireland and Norway. As they cross a moor together, they encounter three witches. The witches hail Macbeth as thane of Glamis–his original title–and as thane of Cawdor. The witches also declare that Macbeth will be king one day. They call Banquo “lesser than Macbeth, and greater,” and “not so happy, yet much happier”; then they proffer that he will never be king but his children will sit upon the throne. Once the witches vanish, Macbeth and Banquo stand baffled and speak skeptically of their prophecies. However, two of King Duncan’s men, arrive. One tells Macbeth that the king has made him thane of Cawdor as the witches prophesized. While Macbeth is intrigued that the witches words came true, Banquo warns: “That trusted home Might yet enkindle you unto the crown, Besides the thane of Cawdor But ’tis strange: And oftentimes, to win us to our harm, The instruments of darkness tell us truths, Win us with honest trifles, to betray’s In deepest consequence.” The agendas of foreign governments are usually single-minded. They will try to push the US to use its wherewithal and capabilities in a way that favors their countries positions. Some national leaders have projected a sense of apprehension about approaching Trump to improve their countries’ conditions, enhance military, diplomatic, political situations, or at least maintain the status quo. Some partners, much as competitors, have pushed hard with their respective agendas with the US from a counter-Trump perspective. Both the impetus and confirmation of their thoughts, words, and deeds can usually be sourced from reports and commentaries of Trump’s critics. Naturally, discord has obtained as a consequence of taking such an ill-considered tack. Critics have painted a portrait of Trump, and through it, a personality of Trump is conveyed, but it has always been their version of him and it has never been complimentary. They see no style, grace, creativity or intellect in the ways in which he has addressed foreign policy issues. They insist that a dictatorial mayhem exists in the Trump administration and only the worst foreign policy decisions could possibly flow from it. As explained here, one route such thinking from critics can travel to national leaders is through their countries’ intelligence services. Those services might be willing to allow intelligence reports to be colored with information from overt US sources produced by critics openly hostile toward Trump. That information, in turn, would confirm leader negative views of him. That information could “betray with deepest consequence.”.

Smart, confident people can find a constructive solution to any problem. There is, in reality, nothing so mysterious about Trump that should lead any national leader to throw a history of good relations with the US out of the window. Welling up with the type of anger and disappointment that might cause them to find affinity with Trump’s critics will destroy any opportunity for a new, better, enriching path to develop. Those leaders must consider what their respective countries relationships with the US mean not only on one issue, but in the bigger picture. They should consider what the US really offers. When leaders lose sight of the multifaceted nature of their respective countries’ relationships with the US, they create the danger of driving those relationships down to lower points. They should think about current so-called challenges as opportunities. Meditating on the matter, they may discover that Trump, in doing things a bit differently, presents possibilities for getting many new, better things done. Leaders should not let bad words, negative choices flashover all issues regarding the US and become their country’s dénouement concerning Trump. They can still recurvate. Changes on one issue could result in great benefits on another. Sola virtus praestat gaudium perpetuum, securum; etiam si quid obstat, nubium modo intervenit, quae infra feruntur nec umquam diem vincunt. (Virtue alone affords everlasting and peace-giving joy; even if some obstacle arise, it is but like an intervening cloud, which floats beneath the sun but never prevails against it.)

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.