Trump Achieved More at Helsinki than Most Noticed: Putin Is Not a Challenge for Him

US President Donald Trump (left) and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (right). Trump is attempting to repair a broken relationship between the US and Russia, and snuff out the danger that contentious interactions between the two countries poses. US President Barack Obama was barely on nodding terms with Putin by the end of his administration. Trump hoped to move to a higher level of understanding with Putin at Helsinki. He has not as yet given up on the idea that he will find some touch that would knock everything with Putin in the right direction.

One of the main pitfalls US President Donald Trump has faced while serving as president is that he must operate from Washington, which could be sardonically called occupied territory given the many power circles arrayed against him there. Indeed, Trump and members of his administration have been afflicted by hostile opposition and persecution. A very raw and destructive claim has been repeated by many elements of the US news media and certainly by critics and detractors among the pundits, that Trump is incompetent and there is no pattern or direction to action for the country from his administration. In terms of foreign policy, the administration characterized as being adrift. Perhaps “krise” is the word that would best describe the situation as depicted. The dislike of Trump is so intense in many media circles that it would not be melodramatic to assert that the ultimate goal of reporting has not been to correct Trump or improve his policy decisions, but rather to cause him to falter. Even many policy experts who would normally take a serious analytical approach to their critiques of Trump more often do less to inform in a balanced way, and rather, set out to tear him down. Such was the case concerning the July 16, 2018 Helsinki Summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Discussion of summit even before it began was rarely described other than harshly. Critics and detractors indicated that in order for Trump to impress them, which is not his job, they would expect to see nothing less from him at Helsinki than to approach Putin with a gritty teeth attitude, making bold accusations and great demands. Predictions made of Trump’s likely performance in the US news media were decidedly negative. After the summit, those same observers insisted that their ideas were confirmed. They characterized Trump as being subordinated by Putin.

There is always the danger of theorizing before facts are actually available. However, critics and detractors whose views were published in newspapers and magazines, broadcast on television, and posted online, were unconcerned with facts as pilloried Trump with their vitriol. Yet, in taking that approach, those observers of Trump made some pretty big wrong turns in their analyses Trump’s efforts in Helsinki. It might be worthwhile for them and all interested in Helsinki to take a step back, and look afresh at the matter, considering all facts, not just those that conveniently lend albeit tenuous support to a negative view. While what is offered here by greatcharlie may only be a worm’s eye view of an enormous matter and may not be able to change the perspectives of many. However, the purpose is provide an outside the box analysis of the meeting that may help contribute to the policy debate of US-Russia relations and stimulate fresh ideas. A number of aspects of the meeting that have not received much attention are examined. Some insights into how relations between Trump and Putin are evolving are also offered. For intelligence services worldwide, understanding the inner thinking of national leaders and their coteries of advisers, can be both a joy and a torment. For greatcharlie, examining the matter remains intriguing and has practically become a daily obsession. Confragosa in fastigium dignitatis via est. (It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.)

Any time the presidents of the US and Russia meet, it could be billed as a meeting of eagles. The two are leaders of the only military superpowers on Earth, both capable of omnicide through a single decision. What stands between all of the people of Earth and eternity is the vocabulary of the two men.

Matters Covered by Trump and Putin in Helsinki

Any time the presidents of the US and Russia meet, it could be billed as a meeting of eagles. The two are leaders of the only military superpowers on Earth, both capable of omnicide through a single decision. What stands between all of the people of Earth and eternity is the vocabulary of the two men. The Helsinki Summit began with a one-on-one meeting between Trump and Putin. Except for translators, no other advisers or aides were present. It was followed by a bilateral meeting with advisers and aides included. On the heels of those meetings, a joint press conference was held.  When it began, Trump spoke first, then graciously deferred to Putin by allowing him to provide a list of issues covered in their meeting.  For Trump, this was certainly a rational choice, reinforcing goodwill and strengthening his evolving rapport with Putin. Trump’s moderation was put on full display for the world to see. Moreover, Trump most likely wanted to avoid getting into a meaningless and unconstructive chicken-and-egg debate on whether a Russian report on what transpired during the summit was heard before the US presented its version.

The US news media made inquiries into why list came only from Putin and whether Trump agreed with the list. Some characterized Trump as being mysterious about what was discussed. Critics and detractors immediately claimed that their first blush impression that Putin would dominate Trump at the summit and run the meeting were confirmed. Rather than viewing what Putin offered as a manifest of topics covered, it was panned by reporters as a list of spoils that Putin took from the meeting. The general approach to US news media reporting of the meeting was negative. Moreover, only a modicum of fact was used to portray a maximum of knowledge, which ultimately revealed a lack of awareness among the reporters and no real ability to discern what happening before them. Their negative perspectives were reinforced when they were commingled with the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election and reports of continued Russian efforts to interfere with the US election system and democratic process. Insubstantial interconnections between Trump and Russia prior to the 2016 election were reported  once again and incredulously characterized as indicia of wrongdoing. Attempting one more time to ameliorate concerns on the election interference front, Trump acknowledge that issues concerning election interference were broached and addressed, but his desire was to move past what was done to what can be done immediately. For the US news media as well as critics and detractors, the immediate impression was that Trump’s statements were not solid enough, and simply interpreted his words negatively.

When Trump went on to make gracious statements to Putin, he was seen as again being reluctant to use the opportunity of these US-Russia meetings to criticize Putin for additional ills that go beyond election interference. Statements Trump made concerning Putin’s response clearly evinced a desire to move forward, however, by his own admission, he would recognized that he may have said what he did not want to say. Indeed, two days later, on July 18, 2018 at the White House, he admitted that he misspoke amidst his comments concerning Russian interference. Trump explained that he was moved by the spirit of the moment and insisted that it was not his intention to declare everything as being hunky dory.

The US news media also found Trump’s politeness toward Putin very disconcerting. Many observers still wonder whether it was simply politeness. Some critics and detractors found it nothing less than obsequious and alleged that it was due to timidity. Over the top theories in the US that Putin possesses some derogatory, even threatening information on Trump, kompromat, were written and spoken once more. Surely, if Trump had found it prudent, he would have had little problem in meeting the wishes of critics by admonishing Putin once again over election interference in furtive one-on-one session, the bilateral meeting, or publicly at the press conference. However, life experience had surely taught Trump that aggressively reproaching Putin at Helsinki would not bring satisfaction, not even for the short-term. Russia was wrong to act against US interests in the 2016 elections, but what was done is done. Trump can respond by taking punitive economic measures, sanctions, and expelling Russian diplomats and intelligence officials from the US, and padlocking Russian government facilities in the US. However, he also knows that Putin to the best of his ability has thought through, “gamed”, the possible consequences to his actions with his advisers. It appears that he stands ready to take his medicine and he is not overly concerned with retribution from the US short of acting on Russian sovereign territory or acting harshly against the interests of Russia and its allies. What might be wise for Trump to do beyond providing lip-service to Putin as suggested by critics and detractors, is close the door on future Russian activities against the US and as best as possible, build a positive relationship with Putin, and improve US relations with Russia. Although Trump certainly has some anger, bitterness, and resentment in his heart over what Putin and Russia have done, he knows behaving too aggressively would be short-sighted, and would only lengthen the distance he will need to travel to improve the US relationship with Russia. Trump will not sacrifice any benefits that might result from acting in a measured way. What critics and detractors have been demanding from Trump, to repeatedly confront Putin, is most telling of their own flawed understanding of the situation. Aggressively reproaching Putin would never be an effective plan for dealing with the Russian leader if positive results are desired. 

Putin has been rather ambiguous about what exactly he did during his time in the KGB. There have been no official revelations about the operations that he participated in during his career. However, from the time Putin entered the spot light, pundits in the US have done a good amount of creative thinking on Putin. A persona was steadily crafted for Putin, heavily influenced by colorful characters of spy novels, feature films, and television programs about espionage.

Trump also likely recognizes just how devastating the outcome of the wrongful Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 US Presidential Election was for Putin. Putin does not have too much to gloat about. Not only was the covert operation discovered, but a great number of those involved in it from the Russian intelligence and security services have been identified. Ironically, as Putin approved the effort to exploit gaps in the security of the US election system that would allow foreign penetration, he learned at the same time as the rest of the world that the US had broken into the systems of the Russian intelligence and security services to the extent that they could provide profiles of those involved beyond name, rank, and serial number. The whole world was fascinated by the fact that the US could detail the exact role that officers from Russia’s intelligence and security services each played in the operation. One could even surmise sardonically that the US had the ability to determine “when those officers were home and when they were not.” Indeed, it was Putin’s own intelligence and security services that had been successfully penetrated. While his intelligence and security services may very well be continuing their efforts to manipulate US elections, he may be on the verge of recognizing that the more his spies plug into the US system to do damage, the more US intelligence services and law enforcement is enabled to discover about Russian intelligence tactics, technique, procedures, and methods, leadership, personnel, and resources. 

To better understand what in part guides Trump’s thinking on foreign policy, one must keep in mind that in his “previous life”, he was foremost a land developer, a builder. To build a building one must have a design and plans from architects and engineers. However, the most important initial action must be to ensure that the structure will be stable will last by creating a strong foundation. That is a requirement that will never change. Those builders who have failed to recognize this have met with disaster. Now Trump, in his own way, is building a new foundation for US role in world. Trump was initially accused of thinking of Utopian possibilities on foreign policy: revising trade agreements; terminating long-standing but nonviable treaties; and, making better deals for the national interest and for US firms. Trump has sought to create an environment for peace, with the support of allies and through an authentic rapport with competitors and adversaries. To accomplish this, strategic concept on US foreign policy and diplomacy includes seeking open dialogue with decision makers from around the world, including those who may hold different views than his on how to approach issues but also place great value in the rule of law, democratic government, human rights, freedom of speech and free enterprise that underpin human progress.  He supports a rules-based international system and closer cooperation across borders to address geopolitical, economic and social challenges. So far, things that once seemed so impossible, now appear so simple and natural when handled by Trump. “Das Wunder Trump!” Trump’s foreign and national security policy efforts represent an invasion of new ideas, new approaches the political circles in the US have not been easily accepted, but one way or the other must submit to. Trump’s optimism, his nature as an “imagineer”, has driven him to at least take a crack at making things better.

With Putin, Trump is certainly not staring at his shoe laces. He is attempting to repair a broken relationship between the US and Russia, and snuff out the danger contentious interactions between the two countries poses. US President Barack Obama was barely in nodding terms with Putin. Trump has expressed the nice idea that the US and Russia could accomplish so much more positive things in the world if they could find a way to work together on issues in the transnational interest. With an optimism spurred by having found some areas of agreement and given the degree of mutual respect between Putin and himself, Trump hopes to move to a higher level of understanding with him at Helsinki. Trump has not as yet given up on the idea that he will find some touch that he could put on the situation that would knock everything in the right direction.

A long espoused criticism of Trump is that he has a self-enchantment with tyrants, strongmen, rogue leaders such as Putin. His comments about Putin even before Helsinki were decried by critics and detractors, and as well by many in the US news media, as being unduly pleasant and oleaginous, particularly in light of reports from the US Intelligence Community that Russia interfered in the 2016 US Presidential Election. Trump dismisses the obloquy of critics. In fact, rather than finding Putin intoxicating, Trump has his own considerable reservations about him having had a number of disappointing experiences with him in the past year. Indeed, while engaged in diplomacy, the Trump administration has observed Russian moves such as continued interference in the US election system and the election systems of US allies and partners, Russian efforts to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and the tightening of Moscow’s grip Crimea and the Donbass.

In the one-on-one session, Trump and Putin undoubtedly sought to present every issue discussed from the best advantage of their respective countries. Trump certainly understood that it had to be done without compromising conditions for finding agreement or resolution on them. Each issue needed to be presented with a certain amount of emphasis and pressure. Yet, nothing would be allowed to deviate far from Trump’s vision of what the US needed. After the one-on-one session, Trump surely better understood Putin’s thinking and intentions.

Trump is not relying on banal Hollywood depictions of the KGB or any other fictions to understand Putin. He wants to understand him in the rough. Searching for publicly available expressions from Putin about his thinking and reactions, Trump undoubtedly came across what Putin wrote in his 2000 memoir, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000). It would serve as an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to understand how Putin perceives himself and his relationships with others.

What Trump Knows about  Putin

It may very well be that following Helsinki, Putin surmised the Russian government was magnified in the eyes of its people and the world. He may have returned to Moscow and “tripped the light fantastic” over the way things turned out with Trump. That behavior would fit the US media version of Putin: an icy, former KGB officer who views the US, the West, and especially Trump with disdain. Undoubtedly, Putin is a shrewd, experienced operator, who always acts with purpose, remain focused on his intention, and has applied as much pressure necessary to maintain his grip on power in Russia. The manner in which Putin does his homework for meetings with other national leaders, such the summit with Trump in Helsinki, was previously explained in a February 28, 2018 greatcharlie post entitled, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response,”

For decades, Hollywood has presented spying as a tough, violent business, with a thousands twists everyday. However, while some intelligence officers may have exceptionally exciting careers, for the most part, life in the intelligence world is humdrum and far from that conjured in the minds of creative screenwriters. Inured with the imaginary version from feature films and television, it is perhaps difficult for outside observers to accept that reality. It is a reality that is unappealing, unappetizing for pundits for it spoils the fantasy the excitement, and fascination. Except for certain parts of his 2000 memoir, First Person, An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000), Putin has been rather ambiguous about what exactly he did during his time in the KGB. There have been no official revelations about the operations that he participated in during his intelligence career. However, from the time Putin entered the spot light, pundits have done their own share creative thinking on Putin. In this way, a persona was steadily crafted for Putin, heavily influenced by colorful characters of spy novels, feature films, television program about spying, that the pundits can understand.

In an almost amorous way, they ogle over Putin, as everything a KGB officer would be serving as the point of the spear of the ideological face-iff between East and West. They oddly insist that Putin is an amoral spy, a master of his craft always operating, making use of the tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods of that job. A vision of Putin is very often created for readers and viewers by reporters as the officer still in the field, developing agents, tracking down intercepting, neutralizing and recruiting foreign spies, and engaging in “wet work”, assassinating the foes of the Soviet Union. Left alone in your den, he would very likely attempt to read your mail. One could easily be convinced by it all that Putin is still on the beat and that he never really left the service. By breathing so much of their own imaginations into their depictions of Putin, pundits and reporters also create a type of Walter Mitty experience for themselves, finding excitement in interviewing him, and even just covering him. Pundits and reporters may insist that there is nothing sporting, nothing good about Putin, but their depictions of him are often so passionate that they seemingly evince many are oddly enamored by him. When reporters as well as critics and detractors match “their Putin” against Trump, there is no contest. Putin wins hands down.

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.) As opposed to wrongly characterizing Trump’s politeness to Putin as obsequiousness or subordination, it should have been given far higher meaning. It was clearly an exhibition of a higher order of social grace, his mastery of good manners and etiquette, should have been discerned as such. As mentioned, Trump came office with the intention of cauterizing long standing tensions, exacerbated by the previous administration’s mishandling of US Russia relations, and finding a way to create a genuine connection with Putin in order to establish a stronger bond bofh between the two leaders and two nations. It has been a bedeviling process. What observers were seeing was a truly inventive approach to Putin, which seems to have yielded some positive results.

In his own appraisal of Putin, Trump very likely recognized that he was somewhat vulnerable and reactive to slights. Typically, individuals feel slighted when they perceive that they not being given the respect they feel they deserve. Psychologists call slights “narcissistic injuries.” From what Putin wrote in First Person, his ego must be boosted by affirmation. He needs to know that others respect him and feel that he is important. Slights can have dangerous consequences. The usual response is to assert ones power and identity, to fight back in some way.

Trump’s Appraisal of Putin

Usus, magister egregius. (Experience, that excellent master.) Trump is not relying on banal Hollywood notions Putin the former KGB officer or any fictions to understand Putin. He wants to understand Putin, the individual, in the rough. Trump is not relying on banal Hollywood depictions of the KGB or any other fictions to understand Putin. He wants to understand him in the rough. Searching for publicly available expressions from Putin about his thinking and reactions, Trump undoubtedly came across what Putin wrote in First Person It indeed serves as an excellent starting point for anyone seeking to understand how Putin perceives himself and his relationships with others. In its review of First Person, greatcharlie recounts the segment in Part 4 of the book in which Putin outlines his recruitment into the KGB and the initial activities in which he was engaged for the service. Putin admits that during all his years in university, he actually waited for the man at the KGB office to contact him. He was beginning to feel discouraged. As Putin says he reasoned at the time: “It seemed that he had forgotten about me. After all, I had gone to see him as a school kid. Who would have thought that I could have such spunk? But I recalled that they didn’t like people to show their own initiative, so I didn’t make myself known. I kept quiet. Four years passed. Nothing happened. I decided that the case was closed, and I began to work out different options for finding employment either in the special prosecutor’s office or as an attorney. Both are prestigious fields.” However, when he was in his fourth year of university, a man came and asked Putin to meet with him. Putin said the man did not say who he was, but he immediately figured it out, because he said “I need to talk to you about your career assignment. I wouldn’t like to specify what it is yet.” Putin said he reasoned at the time: “If they didn’t want to say where, that meant it was there.”  Putin’s story about his recruitment goes on: “We agreed to meet right in the faculty vestibule. He was late. I waited for about 20 minutes. Well, I thought, what a swine! Or someone was playing a prank on me? And I decided to leave. Then suddenly he ran up, all out of breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. Putin notes that he liked that.” Then Putin heard what must had been magical words: “It’s all arranged.” He went on to state: “Volodya, there is still a lot of time, but how would you feel if you were invited to work in the agencies?” Putin interestingly remarked: “I didn’t tell him that I had dreamed of this moment since I was a schoolboy. I didn’t tell him, because I remembered my conversation in the KGB office long ago: ‘We don’t take people who come in on their own initiative.’” Despite what was said that day in the vestibule, Putin heard nothing more. The man disappeared. Then, there was the odd day when Putin received a phone call; an invitation to the university’s personnel department. However, when Putin arrived at the employment commission there was some confusion. Putin explains that when reached his name, a representative from the department of law said, “Yes, we’re taking him into the bar.” Then an agent sitting in a corner of the room who was monitoring the students’ assignments suddenly awoke and said, “Oh, no.”  He went on to say: “That question has already been decided. We’re hiring Putin to work in the agencies of the KGB.”  Putin claims the agent said it out loud in front of the jobs assignment commission. Nevertheless, days later Putin was completing several application forms and papers.

In his appraisal of Putin, Trump very likely recognized that the Russian President is somewhat vulnerable and reactive to slights. Typically, individuals feel slighted when they perceive that they not being given the respect they deserve. That vulnerability points towards insecurity. Although one may not admit to having a fragile ego, it becomes apparent when ones sense of self is easily damaged. Often that vulnerability is caused by a basic sense of separateness and incompleteness. Somewhere along the path of life, one began viewing themselves as insignificant.  This may not exactly be the case for Putin, however, it would seem from what he wrote in First Person, his ego must be boosted by affirmation. He needs to know that others respect him and feel he is important. Psychologists call slights “narcissistic injuries.”  To go further, slights can harm one egos, make one feel belittled. They uncover ones latent sense of insignificance. Ultimately, slights of all kind can be reduced to the same basic feeling of being devalued or disrespected. Slights can have dangerous consequences. They can play on an individual’s’ mind for days, opening psychic wounds that are not easy to heal. The slight may be repeated in the mind. The hurt and humiliation may have a corrosive effect internally. The usual response is to assert ones power and identity, to fight back in some way: return the slight to the perpetrator other even violence.

More than once, in the face of harsh rebuffs from critics and detractors, Trump has expressed his concern over the way in which the Obama administration, on a regular basis and needlessly, slighted Putin. Surely, Putin has not been the most moral actor on the world stage. Nevertheless, the response to questionable moves by him should not have been to pressure him with slights, in an almost childlike way being fully aware of how adverse his reaction would be.

Recall What Occurred before Trump Took Office

More than once, in the face of harsh rebuffs from critics and detractors, Trump has expressed his concern over the way in which the Obama administration, on a regular basis and without need, slighted Putin. Surely, Putin has not been the most moral actor on the world stage. Nevertheless, the response to questionable moves by him should not have been to pressure him with slights, in an almost childlike way being fully aware of how adverse his reaction would be. Once the slights were made, there was always a follow-on effort to feign if there was surprise over his attitude and actions against US interests. Indeed, the Obama administration went out of its way to figuratively “poke the bear.” When Putin began his third term as Russia’s president on May 7, 2012, the Obama administration responded to him as if he were a neophyte and not a seasoned national leader. Old ills that were part of US-Russian relations resurfaced, and new ones arose, to include: Putin’s decision to allow US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden to reside in Russia; ongoing espionage efforts between Russia and the US, including the activities of the Russian Federation’s Foreign Intelligence Service officer Anna Chapman and other Russian “illegals” captured by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2010, and the allegations of US spying on Russia revealed by Snowden and Wikileaks; and the US admonishment of Russia on human rights issues. Putin was still fuming over Operation Unified Protector, during which in 2011, multinational forces including the US, were placed under NATO command and imposed a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to then-Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi. Putin felt NATO-led forces went beyond UN Security Council Resolution 1973’s mandate by helping local forces overthrow Gaddafi. Gaddafi had been a friend of the Soviet Union and Russia.

Perhaps Obama administration foreign policy advisers and experts did not fully grasp just how poorly things were going with Putin. The Obama administration was confident enough to push agendas for nuclear arms reductions with Russia and EU and NATO expansion in Europe just as the administration of US President George W. Bush, his predecessor had. The administration referred to its effort to transform US-Russian relations and achieve further nuclear arms cuts before leaving office as a “signature effort.” The reduction of nuclear forces and reductions in conventional forces have been issues US and Russian leaders have dealt with for decades, but Obama was not going to resolve any nuclear issues with Putin. Russia’s strategic nuclear forces are not a mere policy issue or bargaining chip for Putin, but a means of survival for Russia. Putin had no intentions of acceding to proposals for deep cuts in its nuclear arsenal repeatedly sent to Moscow by the administration. The insistence of Obama administration officials to take such an aggressive approach in talks with Russia more than anything served to disrupt the US-Russia relationship. Efforts by US officials diplomats and officials to threaten and cajole, as Moscow perceived talks, were more than just displays of a lack of diplomatic tact and maturity, they were viewed as threatening. Relations with Putin and Russia fell to a very low point when the Obama administration cancelled a September summit meeting between Obama and Putin in 2013. The cancellation was in retaliation over Putin’s decision to reject the administration’s nuclear proposals. Administration officials lamented that Putin’s decision ended the president’s “signature effort.”

A succession of public rebuffs to Putin sullied ties further. The next year, during preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, there was a constant drum beat of doubt expressed by US security experts on the capability of the Russian security services to protect Sochi from terrorism. Obama decided not to attend the Olympics and would later decide not to attend the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade commemorating the 70th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Allies, ending World War II in Europe. The event, hosted by Putin, was a time to recall the legacy of cooperation established during the war and a real example of what US-Russian cooperation could be in a common cause. It offered a chance for Obama to privately address his dispute with Putin. It was the best time for him to say that as with the alliance between their countries in World War II, relations between their countries were important now and a greater matter than their personal issues. Obama’s absence that day became one more reminder of the two leaders differences and their uncongenial relationship. A war of words between US and Russian officials was also problematic. Words of anger, mockery, hate, and aggression, did damage that was nearly impossible to repair. In the last days of his presidency, Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking US political groups in the 2016 election. All of this and more made for a very rocky road for the Trump administration to travel with Putin.

One could look at Putin and express the view that the problem during the Obama administration was his own fragility. However, that type of obstinate reaction would ignore the fact that Putin is the president of Russia and good diplomacy requires understanding your opposite much as Trump wants to do.

One could look at Putin and express the view that the problem during the Obama administration was his own fragility. However, that type of obstinate reaction would ignore the fact that Putin is the President of Russia and good diplomacy requires understanding your opposite much as Trump wants to do. To the extent that Trump sought a better way to interact with Putin in a graceful, subtle, yet deliberate way that would signal respect and understanding to a cautious, sensitive, and vulnerable Putin, he appears to have found the answer in Japanese culture.

How people interact with each other and display respect is a form of etiquette in the Japanese status system known as “kata”. It originates from ancient Japanese system. Kata rituals are not a suite of meaningless actions. The proper performance of kata provides observers with an indication of ones professional qualifications. People who use kata well are thought as people who can be trusted to understand their roles and function well within an organization or in the society. Direction and guidance in kata begins at grade school in Japan. Early on, students study “kanji” and must learn the exact stroke order for characters. If students do not write characters in the set way, regardless of whether there are easier ways to write them, they will not receive good grades on tests. Kata can be seen everywhere in Japanese society. The ritualistic exchange of business cards that businessmen visiting Japan wonder about and often worry about performing properly, is a form of kata. When shopping, store staff will wrap ones purchase neatly. That practice of careful wrapping is a type of ”kata” that demonstrates to the customer how important the purchase is to the store. If the purchase is a gift, the quality of wrapping indicate to the recipient that the gift comes from the heart. The sincerity of the giver is also placed on full display. In following with kata, the recipient would not open the gift with the presence of the giver. Rather, the recipient express his appreciation humbly and politely, setting the gift aside in a show of respect.

As a long shot, one might surmise that using a simulacrum of kata could have be helpful as a correlative benefit of his interactions with his close friend, the shrewd and adept Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzō Abe. On each occasion that Trump met with Abe, there could not have been a finer, more elegant, more dignified display of kata than that performed by the Japanese Prime Minister. To the extent that Trump recognized how much respect, goodwill, and friendship was communicated by Abe by his deliberate gestures, he became aware that through kata, he might convey to Putin that there is little reason to feel threatened and remain excessively guarded. Abe has already helped Trump by deciphering written responses from DPRK Chairman Kim Jong-un and who could share the benefit of his own interactions with Putin on trade, security, and the disputed Kuril Islands or Northern Territories.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe (left) and Trump (right). On each occasion that Trump has met with Abe, there could not have been a finer, more elegant, more dignified display of kata than that performed by the Japanese Prime Minister. To the extent that Trump recognized how much respect, goodwill, and friendship was communicated by Abe by his deliberate gestures, he perhaps became aware that through a simulacrum of kata, he might convey to Putin that there is little reason to feel threatened and remain excessively guarded.

Putin indicated in First Person that his involvement in the martial arts had a direct impact on his lifestyle. While admitting that prior to studying judo he tried smoking a couple of times, but “ruled it out” when once he became engaged in sports. Putin says that he initially worked out every other day, then every day.  He says he soon had no time available for anything else. Regarding his thinking at the time, he explains: “I had other priorities; I had to prove myself in sports, achieve something for myself. I set goals. Sports really had a strong influence on me.” Putin immersed himself in the judo, and the culture from which it emanated. Putin, who today is a very experienced judoka and one very familiar with Japanese martial culture. It would have undoubtedly been hoped that he would pick up on Trump’s effort and that he would respond by being a tad more open with the Trump than he might be with other foreign leaders and certainly previous US presidents with whom he has met.

Additionally, with regard to Japan, Trump may have recalled his own complex business interactions in that country beginning in the late 1980s. Indeed, when Trump sought to reach to deals with Japanese firms, he found it all very ticklish. In his 1987 book, The Art of the Deal, Trump explained: “I have great respect for what the Japanese have done with their economy, but for my money they are often very difficult to do business with. For starters, they come in to see you in groups of six or eight or even twelve, and so you’ve got to convince all of them to make any given deal. You may succeed with one or two or three, but it’s far harder to convince all twelve.” Trump fully understands that although Putin is the main authority in Russia, he must still respond to multifaceted influences.

Putin’s disposition at the start of the Helsinki Summit was unexpected. Indeed, his bearing was far from the usual sharp, strapping deportment of the Russian leader. After all, he had come to Helsinki to meet a big broth of a man as Trump and surely wanted to make a proper showing of himself. Sitting in the chair at the Finnish Presidential Palace was not the loose, athletic, virile Putin, who before meetings exudes confidence, high-energy, and a readiness to do business.

At the start of the Helsinki Summit, Putin was visibly not himself. Aside from a surprising delay in his arrival to the Finnish Presidential Palace, there seemed to be a problem with Putin’s state of health as he sat with Trump for the cameras. From the perspective of greatcharlie, as a layman, not a physician, there appeared to be considerable strain on Putin’s face, was not an act, an effort to relax Trump or illicit some reaction from him such as over reach, sensing that he had a advantage over him. Putin’s grimaces in discomfort were involuntary expressions. Further, there was a tightness in his face, while at the same time, his face was even puffy, nearly swollen in places. His eyes reflected strain, pain even. Even while immersing himself in ice water for a Russian Orthodox religious ceremony, less strain was seen on him. At one point, Putin even began gripping the lower portion of the left arm of the chair in which he sat.

What may have caused the apparent degradation in Putin health was the fact that just the day before, Putin was drenched with rain at the trophy presentation of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow. Medical experts generally reject the notion that rain makes one sick. Nevertheless, if, after being in the rain, one were to remain cold for long enough, the body’s immunity drops and one can become more susceptible to illness, Those already on the brink of getting sick with a cold, may find that the cold comes out after being caught in the rain because of lowered immunity.

Medical researchers have explained that laymen are usually able to recognize signs that another individual is acutely unwell. Some obvious signs of illness such as sneezing and coughing are easy to spot, but more subtle cues such as pale lips or droopy eyelids may help humans to tell when another person is sick. That appears to be the case even hours after an infection begins. John Axelsson is the co-author of a study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B that highlights the ways in which humans might use a host of early signals to avoid contracting infection from others. According to Axelsson, “We use a number of facial cues from other people and we probably judge the health in other people all the time.” The ability in humans to use a host of early signals to recognize sickness in other has apparently been developed to help them avoid contracting infection from others.

Putin was visibly not himself at the start of the Helsinki Summit. Aside from a surprising delay in his arrival to the Finnish Presidential Palace, there seemed to be a problem with Putin’s state of health. From the perspective of greatcharlie, as a layman, not a physician, it was not an act or some trick to relax Trump and illicit some reaction from him such as over reaching because he sensed that he had a advantage over him. Putin’s grimaces in discomfort were involuntary expressions.

What may have caused the degradation of Putin’s health was that just the day before, he was drenched with rain at the trophy presentation of the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Moscow. Medical experts generally reject the notion that rain makes one sick, calling it myth. However, they also explain that this is a common belief because when individuals get caught in the rain, often the body temperature drops and that may cause temporary sniffles, which is an immune system response. The only way the rain can almost assuredly make one sick is if the rain water contains germs that you swallow or fall into your eyes. If, after being in the rain, one were to remain cold for long enough, the body’s immunity might drop and one could become more susceptible to illness. Thus, the rain may aggravate ones immune system, Those already on the brink of getting sick with a cold, may find that the cold comes out after being caught in the rain because of lowered immunity. There is a lot on this subject, and all of it cannot be unpacked here.

There was a tightness in Putin face as he sat with Trump for the cameras in Helsinki. His face was even puffy, nearly swollen in places. His eyes reflected strain, pain even. Even while immersing himself in ice water for a Russian Orthodox religious ceremony, infinitely less strain was seen on him. At one point, Putin even began gripping the lower portion of the left arm of the chair in which he sat. It appeared as if he were attempting to steady himself, trying to maintain control.

Putin’s disposition was unexpected. Indeed, his bearing was far from his usual sharp, strapping deportment. He had come to Helsinki to meet Trump, a big broth of a man, and surely he wanted to make a proper showing of himself. This was certainly not the loose, athletic, virile Putin, who before meetings exudes confidence, high-energy, and a readiness to do business. Using Putin’s previous public appearances as a gauge, particularly those with Obama, he presented himself at the start of the Helsinki Summit in an unimpressive way. When he met with Obama while attending a G-8 Meeting in Northern Ireland in June 2013. there was a moment when Obama attempted to infuse a bit of levity into the situation by 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.”

Putin has never hesitated to take the “alpha male” role with leaders of other states and let them know his intentions either. In her excellent book, Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, Karen Dawisha recounts the occasion when the new prime minister of a Central Asian country paid his first visit to Moscow. He met with Putin. After the cameras had left the room, Putin is said to have loosened his tie, leaned forward, and in a menacing snarl told the startled leader: “Listen here (slushay syuda), I decide everything. Don’t forget it.”

Using Putin’s previous public appearances as a gauge, particularly those with Obama, he presented himself at the start of the Helsinki Summit in an unimpressive way. When he met with Obama while attending a G-8 Meeting in Northern Ireland in June 2013. there was a moment when Obama attempted to infuse a bit of levity into the situation by 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.”

Having formulated a theory about Putin’s health given evidence of his apparent struggle with discomfort at the start of the summit, it must also be made clear that there was no evidence that he was planning to fall apart no matter how he might have felt. Putin will never shrink in the face of adversity.He hardened himself and likely hoped for the best. For Trump, thoroughly familiar with the fight game, Putin must have looked shockingly to him much as a boxer on the ropes and the one-on-one had not even begun. In some business situation, perhaps moving in to find some big advantage would have been the right call. However, this was a summit with Putin. Too much was a stake. He wanted reach agreements that Putin would adhere to and not disregard afterward. He wanted reach understandings with Putin that he would not later walk back from. He wanted to hear Putin to work with those understandings firmly in mind in the follow-on bilateral meeting and publicly adhere to those understandings in their joint press conference  Plus, as mentioned, a main focus of Trump’s intention was to develop a rapport with the Russian leader and tidy up relations Russia. That would not be accomplished by making slick moves that may satisfy ones ego but have a corrosive effect in the end. By end of meeting there was an obvious transformation in Putin’s condition.

Medicines such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or Tylenol can help the symptoms of colds, relieve the pain and can reduce the fever. For some individuals, there can be additional benefit from taking medications for congestion or cough such as antihistamine and decongestant combinations. It would appear that physicians had tried to address Putin’s condition. Any treatments likely had their effect as the summit moved on. At the joint press conference following the one-on-one and bilateral meetings, Putin emerged energized.

Medicines that can help the symptoms of colds are those that relieve the pain and can reduce the fever such as aspirin, ibuprofen, and Tylenol. For some individuals, there can be some additional benefit from taking medications for congestion or cough. Those medicines include antihistamine and decongestant combinations. It would appear that physicians had tried to address Putin’s condition before the summit. At the joint press conference following the one-on-one and bilateral meetings, Putin emerged energized, even satisfied. He was able to shake his discomfort.

Trump’s goal with Putin was to be unmistakably powerful, yet elegant in his approach. He would use just the right amount of muscle when necessary when broached issues with Putin. At the same time, he sought to find ways to connect with Russian leader, pave inroads into him, create a unique connection, find a chemistry between them. Despite his efforts to make things right, Trump may have received a negative message from Putin when the Russian leader presented him with an official football from the World Cup saying, “The ball is in your court.”

Putin and the Football: A Faux Pas?

Vita hominum altos recessus magnasque latebras habet. (Character lies more concealed, and out of the reach of common observation.) Trump has taken a huge step diplomatically with Putin by very publicly showing that he is willing to take time with Putin. He is giving him a chance to come around his way, hoping things will work out. There was no easy way to repair the relationship. He knew that it would definitely be a long row to hoe.

Trump wants something more than a cosmetic tie between himself and his Russian counterpart. In a 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 national leader who thinks the way to diffuse the tension with Putin is to play the minstrel will only signal his or her insecurity to the Kremlin. Trump’s goal with Putin was to be elegant in his approach, yet unmistakably powerful. His aim was likely to use just the right amount of muscle on any tough or even contentious issues that he broached with Putin. It would surely surprise critics and detractors if they were to discover there were times when Putin felt a bit stretched by Trump. Still, for Trump, the focus of the summit was not confrontation, as much finding ways to connect with Putin, pave inroads into him, create a unique positive connection, find a chemistry between them.

Despite his desire and efforts to make things right, Trump may have received a very disconcerting message from Putin when the Russian leader presented him with an official football from the World Cup saying, “The ball is in your court.”” Trump stated that he would give the present from Putin to his son Darren, and  tossed the ball to the First Lady, Melania Trump.

Although benign intent can be posited to Putin in presenting the ball to Trump, it could also be said that he displayed a lack of concern as to what would anger him. The ball presentation could be seen as evincing his willingness to mar what may have otherwise been a positive meeting. Observing closely, the ball presentation appeared off-putting to Trump. His countenance revealed disgust and disappointment in Putin.

It is impossible to truly know the reasoning behind Putin’s action with the ball. That is known only in the mind of Putin. As explained by greatcharlie in its February 18, 2018 post, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response,” Putin can display an enjoyment of life and good times, and be quite gregarious, outwardly happy, full of smiles. Putin undoubtedly understands the importance of having a sense of humor despite any difficulties he may face. Humor is beneficial for ones physical and emotional health. It reinforces ones relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Physically, laughter can improve resistance to diseases by declining the stress hormones and increasing infection-fighting antibodies in the human body according to some research. Laughter can ease physical tension­ and help muscles relax. Emotionally, humor helps you to release stress and to keep an optimistic attitude. When one feels anxious or sad, a good laugh can lighten ones mood. The positive feelings emitted when one laughs will increase energy for the brain and body. That allows for greater focus and will allow one to look at the problems from less frightening perspectives. Humor helps one remain optimistic and humor communication boosts the emotional connection that will bring people closer together and increases happiness as well. Sharing a good-hearted laugh may serve in part to smooth out rough times. When Putin tells one of his many jokes, his sense of humor is evinced.

Although benign intent can be posited to what Putin did, there is also the possibility that in presenting the ball to Trump, a negative side of Putin was put on full display. Trump may of had that latter sense of it all. It was clear to all who observed closely that Trump’s reaction to the presentation was negative. His countenance revealed disgust and disappointment in Putin. It may not only have been negative act but it may also have revealed extraordinary lack of concern on Putin’s part as to what would anger Trump and evinced as willingness to mar what may have otherwise been a positive meeting. Critics and detractors of Putin would explain that it was all very characteristic of the Russian President.

Along with wise counsel from his senior foreign policy officials, everything that Trump learned about Putin at Helsinki will be used in his future calculations and actions concerning Russia. Improved relations with Putin and Russia would certainly be terrific. However, whether the matter concerns an intermediate range missile treaty, satellites, sanctions, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, the Arctic, or anything else, Trump will press on, motivated by the reality that the US public is depending upon him to handle matters in their best interest, just as he has promised.

The Way Forward

In Act III, scene ii of William Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, the Duke, the leader of Vienna, feigns leaving town on business in order to pose as a friar to observe goings-on in his absence. Lord Angelo, the temporary leader of Vienna, takes it upon himself to rid the city of brothels and unlawful sexual activity, believing there is too much freedom in Vienna.Through interviews and firsthand observations, the Duke discovered Angelo’s strict handling of matters, particularly the cases concerning two clowns, Elbow and Pompey, Isabella, Claudio and Juliet, Escalus and Mistress Overdone. Resolved to punish Angelo for his behavior, at this point in the play, The Duke offers a soliloquy on how he will use trickery to make Angelo pay for his sins. He states: “He who the sword of heaven will bear/ Should be as holy as severe;/ Pattern in himself to know,/ Grace to stand, and virtue go;/ More nor less to others paying/ Than by self-offences weighing./ Shame to him whose cruel striking/ Kills for faults of his own liking!/ Twice treble shame on Angelo,/ To weed my vice and let his grow!/ O, what may man within him hide,/ Though angel on the outward side!/ How may likeness made in crimes,/ Making practise on the times,/ To draw with idle spiders’ strings/ Most ponderous and substantial things!/ Craft against vice I must apply:/ With Angelo to-night shall lie/ His old betrothed but despised;/ So disguise shall, by the disguised,/ Pay with falsehood false exacting,/ And perform an old contracting.”  Putin has a tendency to behave in ways to convince that in his heart “he deviseth to do evil.” The presentation of the World Cup football was a bad idea. Hopefully, he is aware that Trump will not simply forget the matter and push the incident down. Trump may not have been able to figuratively stop that bird, that incident from flying over his head, but he can prevent that same bird from creating a nest in his hair. Putin hopefully learned quickly at Helsinki to refrain from pulling such stunts in the future, no matter how “well-intentioned.” Putin should also understand after the Helsinki Summit that Trump will never react well to bad ideas or ultimatums cloaked as proposals. Everything that Trump has learned about Putin with regard to Helsinki will be of great value to him. Along with the wise counsel from his senior foreign policy officials, the information will be used appropriately in his future calculations and actions concerning Russia. Improved relations with Putin and Russia would certainly be terrific. For now, it apparently remains a goal of the US President. However, whether the matter concerns an intermediate range missile treaty, satellites, sanctions, Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, or anything else, Trump will press on, motivated by the reality that the country is depending upon him to handle matters in its best interest, just as he has promised. He will keep “America First”. Ornat haec magnitudo animi, quae nihil ad ostentationem, omnia ad conscientiam refert recteque facti non ex populi sermone mercedem, sed ex facto petit. (To all this, his illustrious mind reflects the noblest ornament; he places no part of his happiness in ostentation, but refers the whole of it to conscience; and seeks the reward of a virtuous action, not in the applauses of the world, but in the action itself.)

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.)

US Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria: Despite Such Reports, the Future Holds Promise

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (left) and Russian Federation Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov (right). Reportedly, US President Donald Trump and Tillerson have sought to isolate Russia for backing the Syrian government after its chemical weapons attack in Idlib. They were also allegedly working to put international pressure on Moscow to change course. Yet, since the cruise missile strikes and bilateral talks, the situation regarding the US and Russia on Syria has actually improved. Change may be possible on US and Russian positions on more issues, but only through bold, determined diplomacy.

According to an April 12, 2017 New York Times article entitled “US Takes Sharper Tone on Russia’s Role in Syria,” US President Donald Trump and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson have sought to isolate Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin for backing the Syrian government in the wake of its lethal chemical weapons attack on civilians. They were also reportedly working to build international pressure on Moscow to change course. In support of that conclusion, the article reports that on April 12, 2017, Tillerson came away from his meeting with Putin without reaching agreement on facts involving the chemical weapons assault in Syria or alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential Election. In describing the joint news conference with Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov following the meeting with Putin, the April 12th New York Times article quotes Tillerson as saying, “There is a low level of trust between our countries.” It reports he further stated, “The world’s two foremost nuclear powers cannot have this kind of relationship.” Noting the level of tension surrounding the aftermath of the Syrian chemical weapons attack, the article asserts, a quick détente seemed a remote possibility. Further supporting that suggestion, the article reported that during a thirty minute news conference at the White House, Trump declared, “Right now, we’re not getting along with Russia at all–we may be at an all-time low in terms of a relationship with Russia.” The point was additionally made in the article that events have sharply diverged from the meeting of the minds between the US and Russia that Trump frequently aspired to when he was campaigning, and there was no visible warming of the relationship. Yet, conversely, the same article explains that although Trump said the US-Russia relationship was failing, he held out hope that the two countries could come to terms, suggesting that Tillerson’s talks with Putin had gone better than expected. Although it highlighted occasions when the Trump administration in Washington, Moscow and New York, publicly chastised Putin, the article also indicated that the administration was privately working hard to “hash out” differences with him.

As greatcharlie affirmed in a previous post, the press, the news media, serves a free, effective democracy best, and is at its very best, when it unearths what is concealed or clarifies what may be confusing to the public about government actions. The press ensures power in a democracy remains in the hands of the people. Such efforts by the press are in great variance with reporting on Trump’s actions and intentions concerning the April 6, 2017 Tomahawk cruise missile strikes and relations with Russia on Syria. In the US, in particular, newsmedia pundits and policy analysts have meted out judgments of Trump’s decisions and actions akin to those once made “on the drumhead” for soldiers, an archaic type of summary military trial where only sentences were given and no interest was paid to evidence or arguments. (A drum is turned on its head and used as “the seat of justice.”) Another disquieting trend of news media criticism of Trump is to insist that he should follow some schedule and make certain decisions based on some template they apparently have in mind of how US presidents should act. (They would likely prefer a carbon copy of what they have found comfortable for nearly a decade.) A point of attack upon Trump’s actions is the idea that nothing he does can have real meaning or encourage a favorable outcome for US foreign policy because his administration’s actions have not been based on a coherent national policy or strategy, an articulated policy on the Middle East, and consequently, an identifiable policy on Syria.

The truth will always dispel falsehoods and misunderstandings. The reality is that following the US cruise missile strikes and Tillerson’s bilateral talks in Moscow, the situation in Syria was made somewhat better, and more importantly, US-Russia relations had turned in a positive direction. As the April 12th New York Times article alluded, Tillerson and Lavrov acknowledged in Moscow that actions have been taken by their respective countries which have irritated the other and they are taking steps to address that. Change may very well be possible in the respective positions of the US and Russia on certain issues, including Syrian Arab Republic President Bashar al-Assad. However, that will only happen through bold, determined diplomacy. Details of recent events and the Moscow talks are analyzed here to provide a better understanding of what has developed and what may come next. Ratio me ducet, non fortuna. (Reason, not luck, will lead me.)

Trump’s Alleged Policy Troubles

Festinare nocet, nocet cunctatio saepe; tempore quaeque suo qui facit, ille sapit. (It is bad to hurry, and delay is often as bad; the wise person is the one who does everything in its proper time.) Despite reports otherwise, Trump has actually taken a logical, prudent approach to foreign and national security policy. He is determined to make decisions that are true to promises he made during the campaign. He has initially sought to develop a firm understanding of what realistically can be done rather than have his team rapidly produce policies from analyses based on the abstract as a matter of political expedience. The source for Trump’s unorthodox exercise of due diligence on policy may likely be his experience as a builder. In that field of endeavor, Trump often may have greatly admired architectural designs of structures proposed to him, but he would invariably wait for engineering reports, cost estimates, and analyses of his business team before deciding on anything. It is an evolutionary process. The result of that approach has been the construction of some very impressive properties worldwide. Current and former generals serving in the Trump administration, well-versed in military history, might find parallel with this apparent concept very likely guiding their president’s thinking and the words of US General George Patton, Jr.: “One does not plan and then try to make circumstances fit the plans. One tries to make plans firmly the circumstances.” Out of necessity, Trump has energetically taken action on urgent issues; the strike in Syria is a prime example of that. Further, Trump, along with other senior administration officials, have held bilateral and multilateral talks with other countries in international organizations.

The practice of two prior presidential administrations was to make pronouncements on what could be done, poorly considering and matching possibilities with capabilities. They would then take action, the results of which were often failed foreign policy initiatives. An example of such an outcome was the notion promoted by the administration of US President George Bush in 2003 that US forces would enter Iraq and be greeted with cheers, open arms, and candy by Iraqis. Another example is the notion proffered by the administration of US President Barack Obama a decade later, that pronouncing “Assad must go” and supporting the Syrian Opposition Movement on the margins, would bring the Assad regime to negotiating table and its orderly release of the reigns of power would be arranged. Some might say their approaches were conventional. Nevertheless, they were wrong.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Still, it would be fallacious to apply this concept to Trump’s actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally,  partner or friend of the US, or innocent civilians of Syria, who he has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making.

The Better Angels of Trump’s Nature?

To liberally paraphrase the early Christian theologian and philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo, the defense of war is that it is using lethal force to stop others from committing evil or from inflicting evil upon people. The moral dilemma remains for us: as people who are ourselves sinful and living in a fallen world, our motivations for doing things can be misguided. Our sinful passions can control our behaviors which can lead us to act for wrong reasons and to accomplish sinful ends. Self-neglectful virtue melts all physical and ideological boundaries with a charity that gives hope to those perceived as the most helpless. After the chemical weapon attack in Idlib, Trump felt compelled to make a strong decision. Some policy analysts and news media pundits insist that it was made at the cost of contradicting certain principles, as America First, that he has firmly espoused. True, when Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Trump will unlikely be disposed to subordinating the interests of the US to the needs, wishes, or demands of any country. However, it would be fallacious for anyone to apply this concept to his actions if he has witnessed grave harm come to any long-time ally, partner, or friend of the US, or innocent Syrian civilians, who Trump has suggested he would protect in safe zones if they returned home. Trump has a moral center, the values from which have a place in his foreign policy decision making, a most recently his response to the chemical weapons attack in Syria. The better angels of his human nature took over. Trump’s words on the evening of the strikes in Syria signalled all of this. Trump explained: “My fellow Americans: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians.  Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women, and children.  It was a slow and brutal death for so many.  Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack.  No child of God should ever suffer such horror.”

The cruise missile strikes launched on April 6, 2017 by the Trump administration were calibrated to do only what was prescribed in response to Assad’s actions. Those engaged in its planning and execution can certainly hold their heads high. Yet, no paean, no song of praise or triumph, was heard from Trump at his residence Mar-a-Lago that evening. No celebrations took place at the White House or the Pentagon for that matter. Rather, Trump said: “Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.  We ask for God’s wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world.  We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed.  And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail.”

Trump’s Military Experts Take Action

Undoubtedly, after learning of the Assad regime’s chemical attack, Trump undoubtedly asked his national security team to provide concrete answers on what to do in response. Trump did not simply vow to do something. He surely kept in mind Obama’s slow reaction in response to the Assad regime’s August 2013 crossing of a red line he drew on the use of chemical weapons. There was a chemical attack in a Damascus suburb and considerable evidence existed to support the accusation that Assad’s forces lainched it. Indeed, three days prior to the 2013 attack, the US had collected continuous streams of human, signals and geospatial intelligence, revealing regime military activities allegedly associated with preparations for a chemical weapons attack. Information gathered by the US from multiple streams clearly indicated that after those preparations were made, the regime executed a rocket and artillery attack against the Damascus suburbs in the early hours of August 21st. Satellite detections, specifically, corroborated that attacks from a regime-controlled area struck neighborhoods where the chemical attacks reportedly occurred–to include Kafr Batna, Jawbar, ‘Ayn Tarma, Darayya, and Mu’addamiyah. There was also the detection of rocket launches from regime controlled territory early in the morning, about ninety minutes before the first report of a chemical attack appeared in social media. The lack of flight activity or missile launches also led the US to conclude that the regime used rockets in the attack.

Immediately following the cruise missile strike, US National Security Adviser, US Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster left open the possibility that Trump will take further military action in Syria. Still, McMaster emphasized on “Fox News Sunday” on April 9, 2017: “We need some kind of political solution to that very complex problem.” He made it clear that finding a “political solution” to the Syrian crisis was what Trump wanted. McMaster further explained that Trump wants a worldwide response to Assad’s action that would include Assad allies Russia and Iran. Yet, McMaster clarified that remark by stating: “I’m not saying we are the ones to effect that change.” He then pointed to the fact that Russia and Iran “somehow think it’s OK to align with a murderous regime.” McMaster also affirmed on April 9th that the administration will try to simultaneously change the Assad regime and destroy the Islamic State terror group, entrenched in Syria. In an effort to clarify Trump’s foreign policy, McMaster said, “There has to be a degree of simultaneous action with some sequencing.”

US National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster (above) has left open the possibility of further US military action in Syria. Perhaps members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center who provide combat service support for units that launch chemical attacks could be targeted by US strikes. The Trump administration could also let Assad feel “personal discomfort” for his actions. For example, an attack could damage facilities providing electric power to the neighborhood in which Assad lives through the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons.

Chemical Weapons and the Assad Regime

Syrian chemical weapons personnel who prepared chemical ordinance for the August 21, 2013, and the April 4, 2017 chemical weapons attack included members of the Syrian Scientific Studies Research Center. The Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, which is subordinate to the Syrian Arab Republic Ministry of Defense, is tasked with managing Syria’s chemical weapons program. According to French Intelligence, the organization is responsible for producing toxic agents for use in war, pinpointing Branch 450 as responsible for filling munitions with chemicals and ensuring the security of sites  where chemical agents are stockpiled. Syrian chemical weapons personnel were operating in the Damascus suburb of ‘Adra from August 18, 2013 until early in the morning on Wednesday, August 21, 2013 near an area that the regime was known to mix chemical weapons, including sarin. On August 21st, a Syrian regime element  was surveilled preparing for a chemical weapons attack in the Damascus area. That element was using gas masks. US intelligence sources in the Damascus area did not detect any indications in the days prior to the attack that any Syrian Opposition forces were planning to use chemical weapons.

A publicly released summary of the US intelligence community’s assessment of the April 4, 2017 chemical attack explains the Syrian regime maintains the capability and intent to use chemical weapons against the opposition prevent the loss of territory deemed critical to survival. It assessed that Damascus launched this chemical attack in response to a Syrian Opposition offensive in Northern Hamah Province that threatened key infrastructure. Senior regime military leaders were probably involved in planning the attack. According to the summary, a significant body of pro-opposition social media reports indicated that the chemical attack began in Khan Shaykhun at 6:55AM local time on April 4, 2017. The summary claimed further that the chemical agent was delivered by regime Su-22 fixed wing aircraft that took off from the regime controlled Shayrat Airfield. Reportedly, These aircraft were in the vicinity of Khan Shaykhun nearly 20 minutes before reports of the chemical attack began and were seen flying away from the area shortly after the attack. Additionally, the summary indicates personnel historically associated with Syria’s chemical weapons program were at Shayrat Airfield in late March making preparations for an upcoming attack in Northern Syria, and they were present at the airfield on the day of the attack.

A Possible Next Military Step

Much as the facilities, air assets, and personnel of Shayrat Airfield were targeted for cruise missile strikes, members of Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center who provided combat service support for units that launched the chemical attacks should be targeted by US strikes. Strikes on them should be executed not only as a consequence to their participation in the operation, but with the goal of removing them from the equation in Syria and obviating the Assad regime’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future. The facilities and equipment of the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center, from bases and offices, to trucks and gas masks should be destroyed to severely curtail the organization’s ability to support any chemical attacks in the future. US should be confident enough after attacks to assess numbers of remaining personnel only of a size enough to maintain stores of the ordinance until the time that perhaps an international body entering Syria at a later date might become engaged in its management. Under no circumstances should the US allow attacks to create a circumstance where Islamic militant forces could gain control of the chemical weapons at any site.

Further, according to US intelligence, Assad is the ultimate decision maker for Syria’s chemical weapons program.  If a direct attack upon is not a viable option, the Trump administration could as a minimum let Assad feel some “discomfort” for his actions and let him know how vulnerable he truly is. For example, a precision attack could be launched on the Syrian infrastructure designed to severely damage electric power in the neighborhood in which Assad lives. It could mean the use of non-lethal technologies such as electromagnetic pulse weapons that can seize all electric equipment of any kind in the vicinity. While the well-being of Assad and his family members should not be placed in danger, the attack should impact their daily lives. Such calibrated attacks would bring the consequences of Assad’s chemical attacks literally to his home. Assad’s neighbors will also know that the strike against their electricity and their normally well-protected living space came as a result of Assad’s use of chemical weapons. It is human nature to follow. It is human destruction that results from following the wrong leader.

Tillerson had previously met with Putin and senior Russian officials to secure oil deals while serving as the Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil. On June 21, 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia after brokering a deal with the Russian state-owned energy giant Rosneft. However, Tillerson cannot, and will not, give any of that much importance now. At the April 12, 2017 meeting, Moscow discovered that as US Secretary of State, Tillerson is still very professional and he will approach issues with a businesslike pragmatism.

Can Tillerson Get a Handle on Russia?

Quid debemos cogitare? (What ought we think?) The Trump administration recognizes the Russian Federation’s significant presence in Syria and its influence with the Assad regime as well aa other countries that support it there. Its strong connection to the regime was enough to convince the Obama administration to accept Russia’s proposal to remove and destroy the Assad regime’s chemical weapons arsenal to avoid threatened military action by the US. Assad long ago was relegated to cameo appearances on the world stage via news media interviews. His cooperation could never be assured, and his treachery was assumed. Tillerson went into Russia to express concerns over Moscow’s continued insouciance toward Assad’s actions against his own people, non combatants. He wanted to learn firsthand the rationale behind Moscow’s willingness to endure international ridicule and rebuke in response to its friendship with the Assad regime, and what might prompt a decision to end that era. From Moscow’s perspective, the Trump administration’s approach to Russia in any direction must reflect the desire to hammer out a deal, not demand one. The insistence of Obama administration officials to take such an aggressive approach in talks with Russia more than anything served to disrupt the US-Russia relationship. Efforts by US officials diplomats and officials to threaten and cajole, as Moscow perceived talks, were more than just displays of a lack of diplomatic tact and maturity, they were viewed as threatening. Opinions expressed by former Obama administration officials on how the cruise missile strikes could be used as leverage in diplomatic talks with the Russian Federation appear to reflect the approach which Moscow found so unappealing. Antony Blinken, former US Deputy Secretary of State and Principal Deputy National Security Adviser in the Obama White House, reportedly told Reuters: “The US strike–ordered less than three days after the gas attack–could make it clear to Russia that the United States will hold Moscow accountable for Assad.”  Reuters also quoted Blinken as saying, “Tillerson ought to be ‘very matter of fact’ in his meetings, sending Russia a message that: “If you don’t rein him in, we will take further action.” Evelyn Farkas, a former US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia, assured Reuters that “Securing a Russian commitment on eliminating Assad’s chemical weapons is likely to be first on his agenda.”

For hours after Tillerson’s arrival in Moscow, it was uncertain if Putin would even meet with him because of the tense state of relations. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting once Tillerson arrived, saying any meeting would depend on the nature of Tillerson’s talks at the Foreign Ministry. Tillerson, unfazed by any of those developments, went forward with his meeting Lavrov, the metronome of Russian foreign policy and diplomacy.  The meeting lasted for three hours. Tillerson eventually got the call to come meet with Putin, and left the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for Red Square around 5:00PM local time. That meeting lasted for two hours. All that is publicly known about the content of Tillerson’s April 12, 2017 meetings with Lavrov and Putin, has been gleaned from remarks and responses heard at the post meeting press conference. On April 6, 2017, Tillerson expressed the view that Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to remove Syria’s chemical weapons under a 2013 agreement, which he argued showed Russia was either complicit with the gas attacks or “simply incompetent.” At the April 12th press conference, a journalist’s’ question on the matter enabled Tillerson to clarify that statement. He replied: “With respect to Russia’s complicity or knowledge of the chemical weapons attack, we have no firm information to indicate that there was any involvement by Russia, Russian forces, into this attack. What we do know–and  we have very firm and high confidence in our conclusion–is that the attack was planned and carried out by the regime forces at the direction of Bashar al-Assad.” When Tillerson was asked about his conversations with President Putin on Syria, he replied: “Well, we did discuss at length the future role for Assad, whether it be in a future political process or not. Clearly, our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war these past few years. We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality. We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution. How that occurs, we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own. But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for the Assad–for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.” Tillerson without question made it clear in his meetings that it would not be business as usual in US-Russian relations. His hope is to make things much better.

This was not Tillerson’s first meeting with Lavrov. On February 20, 2017, during the G-20 Meeting in Bonn, Germany, they met briefly and discussed what Tillerson referred to as “a range of issues of mutual concern.” Tillerson had met with Putin and senior Russian officials previously to secure oil deals while serving as the Chief Executive Officer of ExxonMobil. In appreciation of his efforts to broker a deal between ExxonMobil as the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft, on June 21, 2013, Putin awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, one of the highest honors a foreigner can be bestowed by Russia. (He was presented the award in St. Petersburg, Russia, along with the Chairman of ENI, an Italian multinational oil and gas company.) However, that occurred in the past. Tillerson is not, and will not, give any of that much importance now. At the April 12, 2017 meeting, Moscow discovered that as US Secretary of State, he is certainly not a Trump apparatchik. He approaches foreign policy issues with a businesslike pragmatism. He is very professional, very disciplined. He speaks frankly with a no-nonsense demeanor that might discomfit some. Tillerson barely registered a reaction when he was initially greeted by Lavrov with remarks denouncing the US missile strike on Syria as illegal and the accusation that the US was behaving unpredictably. When later asked by a Russian reporter how he would characterize the talks, Lavrov replied with a hint of both satisfaction and curiosity: “The State Secretary did not threaten me with sanctions. He didn’t threaten me with anything, actually. We frankly discussed the questions which were on our agenda . . . .”

A significant achievement of the talks was an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues, which Lavrov called “irritants which have dogged our relations over the last couple of years,” and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship. That will allow Tillerson and Lavrov a freer hand to address urgent issues. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria; the respective allies and coalition partners of both countries would be consulted on the matter. There would be continued discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict. Lavrov said Putin had agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement, a de-confliction memorandum, concerning Russian Federation and US-led coalition air operations over Syria. Moscow suspended it after the US cruise missile strikes. Before its next contact with the Trump administration, Moscow will undoubtedly consider what cooperative role the US could play that would allow for the full exploitation of its capabilities in the anti-ISIS effort. Yet, if Moscow wants to cooperate with the Trump administration on Syria, it must create an environment that will facilitate such cooperation. For the moment, the transition of Assad regime to new politically inclusive government is the standing US policy. If the Trump administration ever decided to cooperate with Russia on Syria, it would signal its acceptance of Assad’s presidency as it is Russia’s policy to fully support it. However, to believe that might happen is to deny reality. Assad is at Russia’s disposition. A final decision on how to handle him will need to be made soon.

Through the April 12, 2017 talks, an agreement to establish a working group of US State Department and Russian Federation Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials charged with addressing smaller issues of concern and help stabilize the relationship. They agreed to consider further proposals concerning the way forward in Syria and consult respective allies and coalition partners of both countries on the matter. Discussions directed at finding a solution to the Syrian conflict would be continued. Putin agreed to reactivate an air-safety agreement concerning Russian and US-led coalition air operations over Syria.

Russia: Beware of Assad

Secrete amicos admone, lauda palam. (Admonish your friends in secret, praise [them] openly.) No international conference, no guarantees from Russia to keep him in check, no surgical procedure even, could make Assad palatable to the West at this point, or to any government in the Middle East other than Iran. Assad should not be seen as Russia’s proxy. By 2015, Assad appeared to lack the ability to remain in power against ISIS and perhaps US-backed Syrian Opposition forces. The military situation began recurvate after Russia, with the urging of Iran, moved its forces into Syria in September 2015 and supported Syrian military operations. Assad can only be useful to Russia as a figurehead, a symbol of resistance to the opposition and ISIS. In time, it may make sense to his benefactors to him with a leader who would be more acceptable among the Syrians.

Reconstruction will be another huge hurdle for Russia to overcome. Lacking any significant resources from the US and the rest of the international community to rebuild, the only viable long-term goal in Moscow would likely be to convert Syria into a very large version of South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria, Donetsk People’s Republic, and the Luhansk People’s Republic. It would receive the recognition of very few countries, but not the US or major powers of Europe. Syria would in many ways would be shut off from the rest of the world. Even if it received a decent amount of economic aid from the Western countries and international organizations as the UN, the World Bank, or international Monetary Fund, Syria may never see an economic upturn. After observing the effects of few months of rain and wind on the ruins of cities and towns, Damascus might recognize that Moscow truly cannot support Syria in a way that would allow for its rebuilding. The situation would only worsen if pressure was placed on Russia over Syria through future sanctions.

Looking at the situation through Assad’s prism, it clear that he does not like or accept the idea that he is a factotum, a convenient tool for Moscow and Tehran. He may very well be able to convince himself that his regime and his sect, the Alawites, are large enough and strong enough to deter any possible attempt by current power friends and military allies time remove him from power. Assad will not allow his reign to come to an ignominious end. There would be a final demonstration of his power. He will make a stand or lash out before he goes. His concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons would even allow him to strike his allies with some effect. Indeed, Assad may believe that having those weapons at hand may be playing a role in deterring the few allies he has from turning against him. People with the most absolute power in history have tried to hold on by their fingernails knowing when they let go, all will be gone. They have often self-destructed. Misused power is always built upon lies. Tyrannical figures redefine what exists into projections of their egos. There are no noble thoughts. They become wrapped up in themselves. Assad seems to find pleasure in what is evil. As time goes on, the more tragic he becomes as a figure. The cruise missile strikes by the Trump administration may very well have initiated a discourse in Moscow on how to: better handle the remnants of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal and how to defeat their use against Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria. Such discussions would likely take place in tandem with any on preventing burgeoning, positive relations with the US from being ruined by Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons. Mali sunt in nostro numero et de exilo bonorum virorum cogitant. (There are evil men in our number [our midst] and they are thinking about the destruction of good men.)

Assad (above) will not allow his reign to come to an ignominious end. He will make a stand before he goes. Concealed stockpiles of chemical weapons would allow him strike out even at his allies with some effect. He may believe as long as he has such weapons at hand, he is able to deter the few allies that he has from turning against him. Given the threat his chemical weapons actually pose to Russian Federation Armed Forces in Syria, Trump’s action may have started a discourse in Moscow on how to handle Assad weapons and prevent him from poisoning burgeoning relations with the US by using them.

The Way Forward

In Act I, Scene i of William Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear, elderly King Lear in ancient Britain is deciding to give up his power and divide his realm amongst his three daughters, Cordelia, Regan, and Goneril. He declares the daughter who can profess her love for him the most will receive the largest share. While he hoped Cordelia, his favorite would win, she refuses to play, offering a desultory response. Enraged, Lear disowns Cordelia accepting the soupy, excessive declarations of Reagan and Goneril who consequently set out to kill him. Before leaving the palace with the King of France, Cordelia having an intimation of the danger her sisters posed to Lear, states: “Time shall unfold what plaited cunning hides: Who cover faults, at last shame them derides. Well may you prosper!” The prognosis for the long-term survival of Assad’s presidency is not good. Today, many still believe Putin’s relationship with Assad is indissoluble. Quite often, Putin displays choreographed support for Assad. However, sometimes conditions can change to such a degree that one’s position must be altered. Patriotism permeates everything that Putin does. While not actually articulated, Putin has subtly promoted the concept of “Russia First”, a guiding principle similar in many ways to Trump’s “America First”. Putin will not subordinate the interests of the Russian people to those of another country, regardless of friendships, partnerships, or alliances. Putin would be remiss if he ignored big opportunities that would benefit Russia’s long-term interests. Assad would unlikely react well to even the prospect of a “shift” in his relationship with Russia.

Moscow apparently sought to steal a march on the incoming Trump administration by getting to know its likely senior officials, understanding Trump’s intentions, and predicting the administration’s movements in advance. Yet, deciphering Trump proved to be a difficult task. It appears what Moscow knew about the administration as it took the reigns of power amounted to guesswork or nonsense from poor sources. Much of what Moscow observed and encountered from the administration came as a surprise. Praise for Trump initially heard from certain political quarters in Moscow transformed into rebuke. Yet, through contacts between officials of both countries an authentic understanding of Trump began to take shape among Russian foreign policy decision makers and Putin. Those in Moscow au courant with the public discourse in the US on Trump know that harsh criticism is the “popular” reaction. They may also have discerned that the psychology of defective pride was in play when hearing those in the US considered foreign policy experts reproach Trump. Trump is not the imprudent actor those experts want him to be. Trump’s intellect is the type that builds modern cities. Moscow must ignore all the approbation in the background and prevent it from insinuating itself into analyses. That will facilitate Moscow’s efforts to sort things out regarding the Trump administration and become more comfortable in dealing with it. On Syria, relations between the US and Russia are improving. The US approach is not to elbow a better position for itself on the matter, but rather to have Russia acknowledge its responsibilities regarding the war-torn country. It is the most prestigious and powerful player fighting in support of the Syrian Government. As such, it must take on the role of guiding Syria to peace. Russia is not on the sidelines and not in a position to retreat in that direction. Although only Trump and and Putin can respectively prescribe duties to Tillerson and Lavrov, this is a matter that demands their cooperation. Whenever some resolution to the matter might be found, it is nearly certain that Assad will be the last to know about it. Haec omnia vulnera belli tibi nunc sananda sunt. (All these wounds of war must be healed by you now.)

Book Review: Vladimir Putin, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000)

Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin (above). First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000) recounts what can now be called Putin’s early years in the form of an oral history. Putin’s co-authors explained the book’s goal was to answer the complex question “Who is this Mr. Putin?” While it provides big pieces of the puzzle that is Putin in a historical context, one can also extrapolate from First Person much that would be useful in understanding Putin’s approach to the West and what guides his actions currently.

“He doth bestride the narrow world. Like a Colossus . . . .”  These words from Act I Scene iii of William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar could certainly serve to describe a perspective that many in the West hold about Russian Federation President Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. Indeed, there is a certain sense of wonder about him, his power, his will. Western observers ranginging from think tank analysts, learned scholars, journalists, leaders and officials in national capitals, former diplomats with firsthand experience with the Russian president along with self-styled experts with a comparatively paltry knowledge of him, have engaged in endless examinations of Putin. Many are actually more akin to in ruthless vivisections. So popular is the exercise of analyzing Putin and proffering views of him that the mixed bag of his observers are fashionably referred to as “Putinologists.” Many would argue that harsh criticism of Putin for his actions at home and abroad is deservedly meted out. Some very likely declare Putin’s decisions and actions unnecessary or unacceptable, desiring to sail with the prevailing wind. Yet, one might also intuit that the most ferocious attacks on Putin, typically spoken or written at great distance from Moscow, signal an almost inexorable fear of him. Uncertainty can breed fear. Surely, many things about Putin are difficult to understand, and, consequently, are misunderstood.

In First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000), Putin, with the assistance of journalists Nataliya Gevorkyan, Natalya Timokova, and Andrei Kolesnikov, recounts what can now be called his early years. The book takes the form of an oral history instead a memoir or autobiography. It does not simply provide a history of events, organizing them more or less along a timeline. Putin’s co-authors explained the book’s goal was to answer the complex question “Who is this Mr. Putin?,” or at least bring the reader a little bit closer to understanding Russia’s “new president.” Putin was interviewed by his three co-authors on six separate occasions for approximately four hours at a time. They discussed his life. Whenever questions proved to be uncomfortable, too invasive, he would ask them to turn off the tape recorder.  The co-authors also interview his family members and people who knew him well or played an important role in his destiny. The book includes only the interviewers’ questions and the responses of Putin and his relatives and colleagues. His co-authors recognized the book’s format was unusual.  If questions caused either Putin or his relatives to reminisce or ponder, they were never interrupted. No editorial lines were added to the text. The interviews generally occurred late at night, around the dinner table. Once they were conducted at Putin’s office at the Kremlin. The co-authors met with Putin’s wife and with two daughters at his dacha. The 208 page book has nine “parts.” Those parts are organized as follows: The Son; The School Boy; The University Student; The Young Specialists; The Spy; The Democrat; The Bureaucrat; The Family Man; and, The Politician. Included in the book are several extraordinary personal photos of Putin and his immediate family. Photos of Putin taken closest to the time of publication show him before he had the eyes of the experienced, battle-scarred leader. His eyes appear similar to those of the very best students of a fine university, watching and peering, learning and discerning constantly in order to best prepare himself to lead Russia into the future.

First Person did not have to compete with other texts on Putin at the time of its publication. There was a fog of uncertainty that hampered the ability of observers to view power players in Russia beyond Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. Moreover, for a while after Yeltsin took power following the 1991 coup d’etat attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev by the Gang of Eight and the subsequent Second Russian Revolution, the selection process for officials in the Yeltsin government was a bit higgledy-piggledy at that stage. Officials in top positions would come and go. Putin’s name was among those that emerged in the midst of everything. He garnered modest media attention internationally. While it increased once he became acting president, it reached nothing close to his current prominence and celebrity. First Person was largely viewed in the West as a campaign biography. It was first published in the Russian newspaper Kommersant as such. A New York Times review of First Person stated, “The new Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, who is 47, has been a bit of a mystery man. Outside of his former colleagues in the KGB and in St. Petersburg city government, few had heard of him.” Interestingly, a review of the book in Foreign Affairs stated, “He offers little hint of the direction in which he intends to lead probably because he does not know.” First Person may have garnered interest beyond Russia hands around the world, but it did not make any best seller lists. Other books providing a picture of Putin’s activities before and just after he became president have been published, but those texts only tell Putin’s story in the third person. First Person provides a “first person” account of those events. By delving deep into the book, greatcharlie found that it prefigured the world leader that Putin would become. Reading First Person, it might even seem to some that for cosmic, preternatural, or even divine reasons, Putin was prepared, expected, not put in place by coincidence. First Person is rarely mentioned in present-day commentaries about Putin. The book’s important information should not lay inert, unread. First Person provides big pieces of the puzzle that is Putin in a historical context. Yet, one can also extrapolate much from it that would be useful in understanding Putin’s actions and in interpreting what guides his current approach to relations with the West.

Who is the Russian Leader?

Before delving into details of this very unique and edifying book’s discussion, it is necessary to offer a bit more about the world renowned national leader who is its author. A succession of political positions were thrust upon Putin shortly after he left the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. Once on the right path, he broke all sorts of records on his way to the top. In 1997, he served as head of the Main Control Directorate. In 1998, he was named first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, responsible for the regions. In 1998, he was ordered to serve as director of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. Later that same year, he was named Secretary of the Security Council. In August 1999, he was made prime minister. It was Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin’s unexpected resignation on New Year’s Eve 1999 that resulted in Putin’s elevation to the Kremlin. He then won the 2000 Russian Federation Presidential Election much to the surprise of Western experts. Putin did not inherit an ideal situation in Russia when he became president. While on his way to the top of the political heap, Putin saw how mesmerising “reforms” recommended to Yeltsin’s government by Western experts drastically impacted Russia’s economy in a way referred to somewhat euphemistically by those experts as “shock treatment.” Yeltsin was unaware that Western experts were essentially “experimenting” with approaches to Russia’s economic problems. His rationale for opening Russia up to the resulting painful consequences was not only to fix Russia’s problems but ostensibly to establish comity with the West. The deleterious effects of reform recommended by Western experts’ could be seen not only economically, but socially. In the West, alarming statistics were reported for example on the rise of alcoholism, drug addiction, birth defects, HIV/AIDS, a decreased birth rate, and citizens living below the poverty line. Glum faces on Russian officials who apparently sensed that the society, all of its institutions, was sliding downward, moving closer to the darker days of the Soviet era. Putin recognized that along with the trials created by the collapse of the Soviet Union and ensuing economic hardships Russia suffered, came a loss of prestige and the image of power. That loss was made worse by newsmedia reports from Russia’s second war in Chechnya which was brutal and at times seemed unwinnable. As Russia’s privation was publicized internationally, perceptions of Russia changed for the worst worldwide. However, Putin saw no need for Russia to lose its dignity as a result of its large step backward. Putin believed Russia would rise again, and that some acceptable substitute for the Soviet Union might be created. He never lacked faith about that. (In later years, Putin would not hesitate to inform leaders of countries that were once Soviet republics of his intention to bring them back under Moscow’s political, economic, and military influence.) Putin was loyal and obedient while he served Yeltsin, but saw him tarry too long as Russia strained in a state of collapse.

The English mathematician and philosopher Alfred North Whitehead stated “The art of progress is to preserve order amid change and to preserve change amid order. When Putin took power, the West expected him to give it nothing less than his unequivocal cooperation in a manner similar to his predecessor. Western capitals also expected Putin to be a bit wobbly taking on so much responsibility at a relatively early age. Yet, Putin knew his shoulders could bear the burden. He had no desire to be just a man of the moment in Russia. Much as Yeltsin, Putin, too, showed patience toward the West for a while, but he did not procrastinate. He took on the mission of breathing fresh breath into a country that was dying. He pushed ahead with plans “to save” Russia from disintegration and frustrate what he sensed were Western efforts to weaken it. Indeed, Putin did not believe congenial relations with the West were authentic given the many years of geopolitical struggle. Putin believed then, and believes now, that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. He believes Western governments are driven to create disorder in Russia and make it dependent of Western technologies. Still, Putin has shown that would prefer to outthink his rivals in the West rather than fight them. That notion has influenced his responses in contentious situations. It also accounts for the sustained peace with the US. In a September 11, 2013 New York Times op-ed, Putin took umbrage over the idea of “American exceptionalism.”  Putin is unlikely thrilled by the slogan “Make America Great Again,” or the concept “America First.” surely, the West is not Putin’s only concern, but relations with it affects Russia’s prestige and ability to act globally.

Putin was proactive as he tried to get a real handle on things. His challenges of the West were timed, calculated risks. Still, despite being measured in his approaches, in a few cases, he did gamble a bit. Former US President Calvin Coolidge explained plainly: “Knowledge comes, but wisdom lingers. It may not be difficult to store up in the mind a vast quantity of facts within a comparatively short time, but the ability to form judgments, requires the severe discipline of hard work and tempering heat of experience and maturity. There is a chorus of Putinologist who have proclaimed Putin’s style of management was shaped by his career as an officer in the KGB. For some time, greatcharlie agreed with that assessment. The KGB certainly had an impact on him. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. Putin’s experience as a KGB officer was also valuable in planning policy approaches and doing things as effectively as they were done at the tactical level in the field. Yet, through a reread of First Person, greatcharlie recognized as Putin admitted in the book, that his seven years of experience working the local government of St. Petersburg was good learning experience for both administrative and managerial work. To the extent that his civilian work experience in St. Petersburg and KGB service coalesced, as president, Putin has sought the assistance of a small group of men who served alongside him in St. Petersburg during his KGB career. As chief executive, Putin proved skillful in the handling the day to day operations of the government. He managed to shape his environment by developing approaches for issues such as combating terrorism, combating and controlling organized crime, curbing foreign influences, improving public safety, improving public health, business reform, invigorating industries, controlling oligarchs. To use a soft metaphor, Putin tilled the soil so that he could plant his plans and programs for Russia’s future with certainty that they would grow. He had a hand in everything, and his touch was heavy. Putin’s decisions were always well-informed, not by reading reports handed to him, but through his own research on anything in which he had an interest, and in international affairs, through good use of streams of intelligence. However, Putin also made good use of his intuition to discern his opponents’ thinking, and has paid heed to his intimations about their courses of action. More often than not, he hits the mark. Putin sought to take on qualified ministers, directors, and other officials to handle specialties. That effort was hampered to an extent during Putin’s early years in power given the need to respond to the wishes of certain patrons. Still, Putin never hesitated to fire those foisted upon him or his handpicked hires, whether former KGB or not, when they failed to perform. Putin has known what advice, prognostication, and proposals to accept in order to promote his efforts at home and internationally and develop a coherent set of policies. Since he brings his “A-game” to his office everyday, striving for perfection and hungering for improvement, and he expects the same from his cabinet. There are never any spectators, passengers along for the ride. All must be able to answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of issues they cover, because that is what Putin will ask for. At the present, Putin is probably working with the best cabinet he has ever crafted both in terms of the quality of their work and chemistry.

On domestic matters, Putin, when necessary, proved well-equipped to control, manipulate, and strong arm, seemingly endless groupings of aggressive political opponents. Indeed, early on as president, Putin effectively dealt with challenges posed by Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the extreme right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party of Russia. The challenges posed by them lessened every year afterward. With the support of allies, Putin eventually changed Russia’s direction and, to a degree, transformed it. Russia got back into the big power game, and began to take active measures to protect what was viewed in Moscow as its interests. Currently, public opinion on Putin in Russia is extraordinarily high. Polling from the Levada Center in September 2016 put him at an 82 percent approval rating. Initial efforts made by Putin in 2000 to secure Russia and improve its well-being were appreciated by fewer Russians. The cause, in part, was a skepticism about the intentions of national leaders, believing there was an imbalance in their thinking impelling them to tilt toward corruption as opposed to serving the national interest, which was their charge under the constitution. Convinced of the corrupt nature of national leaders, perhaps they would go as far as to say such behavior was immutable, and would accept the Western label “kleptocracy” to describe Russia. Some might also agree that the baneful shroud of tyranny has covered the country since the Soviet era. Although Putin restored order from turmoil in Russia, many in the West and in Russia’s opposition movement would say he accomplished this with little regard for human and political rights. They would certainly point to the deaths of the statesman, politician, journalist, and opposition political leader, Boris Nemtsov; journalist Anna Politkovskaya; and, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko. Attention might also be directed to the deaths of 36 generals and admirals from 2001 to 2016. No clear effort has made to dilute such reports, but in the majority of cases, the causes of death listed were listed as suicides, heart attacks, or unknown. Among those who died are former Russian Federation National Security Adviser and Army Major General Vladimir Lebed and the Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Russian Federation Army Colonel-General Igor Sergun. Yet, no matter what Putin may be doing domestically or internationally, in his mind, he is always honest to himself and justified as he performing the duty entrusted to him. On June 10, 2015, Putin was asked by the editor in chief of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, “Is there any action that you most regret in your life, something that you consider a mistake and wouldn’t want to repeat ever again.” Putin stated, “I’ll be totally frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind. It appears that the Lord built my life in a way that I have nothing to regret.”

Patriotism permeates everything Putin does. It is hard to imagine how he would think any other way, given ideas on sacrifice for the motherland that Putin acquired from his parents, grandparents, and other family members. Yet, much of what he learned of his family’s valor was caught by him, not taught. He said: “when relatives would come to visit them in St. Petersburg, there would be long chats around the table, and I would catch some snatches, so many fragments of the conversation.” Putin’s grandfather was a cook for Josef Stalin and his father served gallantly in a NKVD battalion during World War II.

A Taste of What Lies within First Person

First Person does not simply provide a history of events, organizing them more or less on a timeline. What is most intriguing and very unique about First Person is what each chapter reveals about Putin’s thinking; what is in his mind. One is also provided with a cultural context in which to examine how Putin moved, lived during the years covered.

Putin: In the Beginning

In reading Part 1, one can begin to understand why patriotism permeates everything Putin does. However, given ideas on sacrifice for Mother Russia that Putin acquired from his parents, grandparents, and other relatives, it is hard to imagine how he would think any other way. According to Putin, much of what he learned about his family’s valor was caught by him and not taught directly to him. Indeed, he explains: “My parents didn’t talk much about the past, either. People generally didn’t, back then. But when relatives would come to visit them in St. Petersburg, there would be long chats around the table, and I would catch some snatches, so many fragments of the conversation.” Putin’s grandfather, whose name was Spiridon Ivanovich Putin, was a cook. However, after World War I he was offered a job in The Hills district on the outskirts of Moscow, where Vladimir Lenin and the whole Ulynov family lived. When Lenin died, his grandfather was transferred to one of Josef Stalin’s dachas. He worked there for a long period. It is assumed by many that due to his close proximity to Stalin, he was a member of the infamous state security apparatus, the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (Peoples Commissariat of Internal Affairs) or NKVD. Putin notes his grandfather who came through the purges unscathed although few people who spent much time around Stalin did so. Putin also notes that his grandfather outlived Stalin, and in his later, retirement years, he was a cook at the Moscow City Party Committee sanatorium in Ilinskoye. As for Putin’s mother, Mariya Ivanovna Putina, née Shelomova, during the war, she refused to leave St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) as the Germans were blockading it, but was eventually taken out to Smolny by her brother when it became impossible for her to remain. Under gunfire and bombs, he extracted her and her baby, Albert, Putin’s brother, out. She put the baby in a shelter for children, which is where he came down with diphtheria and died. (Note that in the 1930s, Putin’s mother lost another son, Viktor, a few months after birth. Putin’s mother nearly died from starvation. In fact, when she fainted from hunger, people thought she had died, and laid her out with the corpses. With God’s grace, she awoke and began moaning. She managed to live through the entire blockade of Leningrad. It was nearly a decade later, on October 7, 1952 that she gave birth to the Russian President. (Note that the two names for Putin’s hometown, St. Petersburg and Leningrad, were used interchangeably by Putin during his interviews.)

It was also noted by Putin in Part 1 that his mother attended church and had him baptised when he was born. She kept his baptism a secret from his father, who was a party member and secretary of a party organization in his factory shop. Putin relates a story concerning her faith as well as his own in Part 1’s final paragraph. He explains: “In 1993, when I worked on the Leningrad City Council, I went to Israel as part of an official delegation. Mama gave me my baptismal cross to get it blessed at the Lord’s Tomb. I did as she said and then put the cross around my neck. I have never taken it off since.”

Putin’s mother, Mariya Ivanovna Putina, née Shelomova (above). Putin’s mother attended church and had him baptised when he was born. She kept it a secret from his father, who was a party member and secretary of a party organization in his factory shop. During World War II, her baby son came down with diphtheria and died, and she nearly died as well from starvation. She managed to live through the entire German blockade of Leningrad.

As for Putin’s father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin, he was on the battlefield, serving in a NKVD demolitions battalion, engaged in sabotage behind the German lines. There were 28 members in his group. Recounting a couple of experiences during the war that his father shared with him, Putin explains that on one occasion after being dropped into Kingisepp, engaging in reconnaissance, and blowing up a munitions depot, the unit was surrounded by Germans. According to Putin, a small group that included his father, managed to break out. The Germans pursued the fighters and more men were lost. The remaining men decided to split up. When the Germans neared Putin’s father, he jumped into a swamp over his head and breathed through a hollow reed until the dogs had passed by. Only 4 of the 28 men in his NKVD unit returned home. Upon his return, Putin’s father was ordered right back into combat. He was sent to the Neva Nickel. Putin says the small, circular area can be seen, “If you stand with your back to Lake Ladroga, it’s on the left bank of the Neva River.” In his account of the fight, Putin explains German forces had seized everything except for this small plot of land, and Russian forces had managed to hold on to that plot of land during the long blockade. He suggests the Russians believed it would play a role in the final breakthrough. As the Germans kept trying to capture it, a fantastic number of bombs were dropped on nearly every part of Neva Nickel, resulting in a “monstrous massacre.” That considered, Putin explains that the Neva Nickel played an important role in the end. Dire necessitas. (Dire necessity.)

Putin was asked by an interviewer if he thought “we paid too high a price for that little piece of land?” Putin replied: “I think that there are always a lot of mistakes made in war. That’s inevitable. But when you are fighting, if you keep thinking that everybody around you is always making mistakes, you’ll never win. You have to take a pragmatic attitude. And you ave to keep thinking of victory. And they were thinking of victory then.” Victoria natura est insulens et superba. (Victory is by nature superb and insulting.)

Putin’s father, Vladimir Spiridonovich Putin (above).  Putin’s father engaged in sabotage behind the German lines in World War II. In First Person, Putin recounts a couple of stories about his father’s experiences during the war. Putin tells that on one occasion after being dropped into Kingisepp, engaging in reconnaissance, and blowing up a munitions depot, his father’s unit was surrounded by Germans. Less than 15 percent of its men returned to Russian lines. His father also fought at the Neva Nickel, described most often as a “monstrous massacre.”

Putin and the Martial Arts

Parva scintilla saepe magnam flamam excitat. (The sparkle often initiates a large flame.) In Part 2, readers learn from Putin he was not the best student in elementary school. By fifth grade he was known for acting out, preferring to spend more time playing in a courtyard behind his home than anything else. In his own words: “I was a hooligan.” “I really was a bad boy.” However, his teacher in elementary school, Vera Dimitrieva Gurevich, saw great promise in him. While he was receiving C grades, he could do much better. Indeed, she looked upon him as a classic underachiever who needed encouragement and a goal to focus on. He had to discover the connection between effort and achievement. Recounting a conversation with Putin’s father, she recalls saying to his father: “You have to have a talk with him. Let’s work on him together, you at home and I at school. He could be getting better than C’s. He catches everything on the fly.” Interestingly, Putin’s focus and performance in school improved and his bad behavior was more or less extinguished once he was introduced to the martial arts. Putin notes that he became involved with sports when I was 10 or 11.  As soon as it became clear that my pugnacious nature was not going to keep me king of the courtyard or school grounds, He first tried boxing, but in his words “didn’t last long there,” quickly getting his nose broken. After losing his “boxing bug,” he tried samba, a Soviet combination of judo and wrestling. He attended a class near his home. It was a very plain gym owned by the Trud athletic club. His trainer was Anatoly Semyonovich Rakhlin, a man who devoted his whole life to his art. Putin said Semyonovich played a decisive role in Putin’s life, believing that if he had not become involved in sports, he cannot say for certain how his life would have turned out.  At first Putin studied samba, then he moved to judo. Semyonovich had decided all the students would study it. Putin’s description of judo in the book manifests his love for the art. He explain: “Judo is not just a sport, you know. It’s a philosophy. It’s respect for your elders and for your opponent. It’s not for weaklings. Everything in judo has an instructive aspect. You come out onto the mat, you bow to one another, you follow ritual. It could be done differently, you know. Instead of bowing to your opponent, you could jab him in the forehead.”

Putin’s focus and performance in school improved and his bad behavior was more or less extinguished once he was introduced to the martial arts, more specifically, judo. Putin notes that he became involved with sports when he was 10 or 11.  His trainer was Anatoly Semyonovich Rakhlin, a man who devoted his whole life to his art. Putin said Semyonovich played a decisive role in his life, believing that if he had not become involved in sports, he could not say for certain how his life would have turned out.

Putin’s involvement in the martial arts had a direct impact on his lifestyle. While admitting that prior to studying judo he tried smoking a couple of times, but “ruled it out” when once he became engaged in sports. Putin says initially worked out every other day, then every day.  He says he soon had no time available for anything else. Regarding his thinking at the time, he explains: “I had other priorities; I had to prove myself in sports, achieve something for. I set goals. Sports really had a strong influence on me.” Qui studet optatam cursu contingere metam multa tulit fecitque puer, sudavit et alsit abstinuit Venere et Baccho. (He who wants to achieve his desired career goals, as a child must endure and do a lot of things, sweat a lot, and experience harsh cold, and refrain from Venus [goddess of love] and Bacchus [god of wine].)

However, his time training in the martial arts also allowed him to learn lessons about life and about people. In recounting one episode during his training that left a lasting impression on him, Putin explains: “Once we went to the gym with Leonid Ionovich, the senior coach from Trud. The karate kids were working out on the mat, although it was our turn. Leonid went up to their trainer and told him it was time for our class. The karate trainer didn’t even look his way–as if to say, get lost. Then Leonid, without saying a word, flipped him, squeezed him lightly, and dragged him off the mat. He had lost consciousness. Then Leonid turned to us and said “Go on in and take your places.” Putin said it was a manifestation of an attitude toward karate, but he could not help but learn from that one must have the will and the power to protect one’s interest, to take what is rightfully yours. The judo team was scheduled to use the mat and the coach made certain they did so. Periclum ex aliis facito tibi quod ex usu siet. (Draw from others the lesson that may profit yourself.)

Putin’s KGB Dream

In Part 2, Putin reveals that at an early age, he wanted to serve in intelligence. The genesis of the idea were books and spy movies such as Sword and the Shield. His prior interest as a youth was to become a pilot. That interest similarly stirred through the reading of literature and a subscription to an aviation journal. He became focused on attending the Academy of Civil Aviation. Even before he wanted to become a pilot, Putin desired to be a sailor. However, his desire to serve in intelligence was a bit different. Putin explained: “What amazed me most of all was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people. At least, that’s the way I understood it.”  His family was dismayed, but not shattered by his decision. His father, given his experience, was aware of the grave nature of work in that field. Until they fully understood, his ambition, the strength of his will to achieve that goal, his parents discouraged Putin from pursuing his goal. Putin’s martial arts coach, Semyonovich, had gone to see them and told them that as an athlete, he could get into an Institute practically without passing exams. That led his parents to push him into going into an Institute. His agreed. He could not fathom  why Putin resisted. Another coach from the Trud Club, Leonid Ionovich, came to visit. As Putin explained it, “He was a clever guy.” Recounting an exchange with Ionovich over his career choice, Putin said the following: “‘Well,’ he [Ionovich] said to me, ‘Where are you going?’ Of course he already knew. He was just acting sly. I said, “To university.” “Oh, that’s great, good for you,” he said, “in what department?” Putin replied, “The law school.” Then coach Ionovich roared: “What? To catch people? What are you doing? You’ll be a cop. Do you understand?” Insulted, Putin yelled back, “I’m not going to be a cop” The use of his intellect to make a determination on his future, and will to push ahead on that track, his tenacity, would become the hallmarks of Putin’s approach to matters and how he sought to achieve objectives. Putin took “active measures” in the effort to reach his goal of joining the intelligence service. Remarkably, around the beginning of the ninth grade, Putin went into the office of the KGB Directorate to investigate the possibility of working there. He explains that employee came out to hear what he had to say. Putin says he told him, “I want to get a job with you.” The employee said: “That’s terrific, but there are several issues. First, we don’t take people who come to us on their own initiative. Second, you can come to us only after the Army or after some type of civilian higher education.” Putin inquired, “What kind of higher education?” “Any!” he said. Putin says he surmised the man probably wanted to get rid of me, but he nevertheless asked further “But what kind is preferred?” The man responded “Law school.” For Putin, “that was that.” He said: “From that moment on, I began to prepare for the law faculty of Leningrad University. And nobody could stop me.”

File photo of Putin as a young KGB officer (above). Putin reveals that at an early age, he wanted to serve in intelligence. The genesis of the idea were books and spy movies. Putin explained: “What amazed me most of all was how one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not. One spy could decide the fate of thousands of people.” His mother and father, with the help of his coaches tried to dissuade him from his career choice to no avail. In ninth grade, Putin visited the KGB Directorate’s office to investigate the possibility of working there. A few years later, his dream surprisingly became a reality.

Putin’s KGB Recruitment

Grata superveniet, quae non sperabitur hora. (Welcome will arrive at the hour that was not hoped for.) In Part 4, Putin outlines his recruitment into the KGB and the initial activities in which he was engaged for the service. Putin admits that during all his years in university, he actually waited for the man at the KGB office to contact him. Alackaday, he began to give up hope. As Putin says he reasoned at the time: “It seemed that he had forgotten about me. After all, I had gone to see him as a school kid. Who would have thought that I could have such spunk? But I recalled that they didn’t like people to show their own initiative, so I didn’t make myself known. I kept quiet. Four years passed. Nothing happened. I decided that the case was closed, and I began to work out different options for finding employment either in the special prosecutor’s office or as an attorney. Both are prestigious fields.” However, when he was in his fourth year of university, a man came and asked Putin to meet with him. Putin said the man did not say who he was, but he immediately figured it out, because he said “I need to talk to you about your career assignment. I wouldn’t like to specify what it is yet.” Putin said he reasoned at the time: “If they didn’t want to say where, that meant it was there.”  Putin’s story about his recruitment goes on: “We agreed to meet right in the faculty vestibule. He was late. I waited for about 20 minutes. Well, I thought, what a swine! Or someone was playing a prank on me? And I decided to leave. Then suddenly he ran up, all out of breath. “I’m sorry,” he said. Putin notes that he like that.” Then Putin heard what must had been magical words: “It’s all arranged.” He went on to state: “Volodya [Close friends used the diminutives Volodya or Vovka instead of Vladimir when speaking to Putin], there is still a lot of time, but how would you feel if you were invited to work in the agencies?” Putin interestingly remarked: “I didn’t tell him that I had dreamed of this moment since I was a schoolboy. I didn’t tell him, because I remembered my conversation in the KGB office long ago: ‘We don’t take people who come in on their own initiative.’” Despite what was said that day in the vestibule, Putin heard nothing more. The man disappeared. Then, there was the odd day when Putin received a phone call; an invitation to the university’s personnel department. However, when Putin arrived at the employment commission there was some confusion. Putin explains that when reached his name, a representative from the department of law said, “Yes, we’re taking him into the bar.” Then an agent sitting in a corner of the room who was monitoring the students’ assignments suddenly awoke and said, “Oh, no.”  He went on to say: “That question has already been decided. We’re hiring Putin to work in the agencies of the KGB.”  Putin claims the agent said it out loud in front of the jobs assignment commission. Nevertheless, days later Putin was completing several application forms and papers. Ad posse, ad esse. (From possibility to reality.)

At first the KGB assigned Putin to the Secretariat of the Directorate, and then to the counterintelligence division, where he worked for about five months. When asked by the interviewers if work in the KGB was what he imagined it would be or what he was expecting, Putin said: “No, of course it wasn’t what I had imagined. I had just come from university, after all. And suddenly I was surrounded by old men who had been in their jobs during those unforgettable times. Some of them were just about to go into retirement.”  For Putin, as with most of his young colleagues, the KGB offered Putin a solid basis for believing that the Soviet system could be protected and sustained. The KGB, as a central organ of the government, ostensibly had the know-how and the resources to prevent the Soviet Union, and the contiguous countries of the Eastern bloc that it led, from falling into a chaotic condition. As a novice at the KGB, Putin’s intent was to be honest in his own convictions within the parameters of his mission. However, actual work with longtime agents put his beliefs to the test. Putin mentions one occasion of that. He explains: “One time a group was drafting a scenario. I was invited to join the meeting. I don’t remember the details, but one of the veteran agents said that the plan should be followed in such-and such a way. And I piped up: “No, that’s not right.” “What do you mean?” he said, turning to me. “It’s against the law,” I said. He was taken aback. “What law?” I cited the law, “But we have instructions,” he said. Once again I cited the law. The men in the room didn’t seem to understand what I was talking about. Without a trace of irony, the old fellow said, “For us, instructions are the main law.” And that was that. That’s how they were raised and that’s how they worked. But I simply couldn’t do things that way and it wasn’t just me. Practically all my peers felt the same way.” Ab honesto virum bonum nihil deterret. (Nothing deters a good man from the performance of his duties.)

Putin in the GDR (above). When asked by the interviewers if work in the KGB was what he imagined it would be or what he was expecting, Putin said: “No, of course it wasn’t what I had imagined. I had just come from university, after all. And suddenly I was surrounded by old men who had been in their jobs during those unforgettable times. Some of them were just about to go into retirement.” As a novice at the KGB, Putin’s intent was to be honest in his own convictions within the parameters of his mission. However, actual work with longtime agents put his beliefs to the test.

As for the remaining stages of Putin’s training, he explains in Part 4 that for several months, he “went through the formalities and knocked off some cases.” He was sent to agent training for six months. Putin noted that the school in Leningrad was not too exceptional. Once his superiors believed he had mastered the basics, Putin was sent to Moscow for field preparation. After completing his studies in Moscow, Putin returned to St. Petersburg and worked about six months in the counterintelligence division. In Part 5, Putin expounds on the type of work in which he was engaged for the greater part of his KGB career. He said that during his counterintelligence training,  officers from foreign intelligence began to notice him. He recounts: “They wanted to talk. First one conversation, then another, then a third and a fourth . . . Intelligence is always looking for more people for themselves, including people from the security agencies. They took people who were young and had certain appropriate qualities.” Putin was very pleased by their actions because he, just as everyone else, desired to work in foreign intelligence. It meant travel abroad under the conditions of the Soviet Union, and espionage was considered the white collar job in the agencies. Putin admitted that there were many people who exploited their position in order to trade in foreign goods. It was an unfortunate fact. Without hesitation, Putin agreed to go into intelligence. He was sent for special training in Moscow for one year. He then returned to Leningrad and worked in the “first department.” The first chief directorate is intelligence. It had subdivisions in all the large cities of the Soviet Union, including Leningrad. He worked there for approximately four and a half years, and then went to Moscow for training at the Andropov Red Banner Institute, which is now called the Academy of Foreign Intelligence.

Putin recognized from the start at the Red Banner that he was being prepared for Germany. It became especially clear once faculty began pushing him to study German. He said it was just a question of where: the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG). Putin explained that there were prerequisites for working in the FRG. An agent had to work in the appropriate department of the central office of the KGB. He had to languish there for one to three years. It was based on the individual. If an agent wanted to go to the GDR, he could go immediately. Putin chose the later. What might be of special interest of readers would be Putin’s description of his work in the GDR, particularly as it relates to NATO and political figures and political activities in the West. Putin said, “The work was political intelligence,” obtaining information about political figures and the plans of the main opponent: NATO. Interestingly, Putin says he never travelled  to the FRG to perform his tasks. In a more precise statement of his intelligence activities he intriguingly described them as follows: “The usual intelligence activities: recruiting sources of information, obtaining information, analyzing it, and sending it to Moscow. I looked for information about political parties, the tendencies inside those parties, their leaders. I examined today’s leaders and the possible leaders of tomorrow and the promotion of people to certain posts in the parties and the government. It was important to know who was doing what and how, what was going on in the foreign Ministry of a particular country, how they were constructing their policy on certain issues and in various areas of the world, and how our partners would react to disarmament talks. Of course, in order to obtain such information, you need sources. So recruitment of sources, procurement of information, and assessment and analysis were big parts of the job. It was very routine work.” Putin makes it all sound so routine, while in the West today, revelations about such intelligence activities by Russia tend to overwhelm those who are just learning about it all.

Putin described his work in the GDR as political intelligence: obtaining information about political figures and the plans of NATO. He sought information on political parties, tendencies within them, and their leaders. He examined: today’s leaders and the possible leaders of tomorrow; the promotion of people to certain posts, who was doing what and how, what was going on in a country’s Foreign Ministry; how it was constructing policy on key issues and regions globally; and, likely reactions of partners to the disarmament talks.

Putin’s Political Mentor: Anatoly Sobchak

Quidquid ages, prudenter agas et respice finem! (Whatever you do, do cautiously, and look to the end!) In Part 6, Putin reviews the intriguing course of events that led him to leave his beloved KGB and work in the local government of St. Petersburg. Putin had become somewhat disturbed by his fellow countrymen’s insouciance toward the decay of both order and humanism in the Soviet State when returned home from the GDR. He was offered a job in the central office in Moscow, but he turned it down. Putin explained to the interviewers: “I knew that there was no future to the system. The country didn’t have a future. And it would have been very difficult to sit inside the system and wait for it all to collapse around me.” At that time, the work, in which Putin and his colleagues were engaged, did appear no longer necessary given how he described it. Putin remarked: “What was the point of writing, recruiting, and procuring information? Nobody at Moscow Center was reading our reports. Didn’t we warn them about what was coming? Didn’t we provide them with recommendations on how to act? There was no reaction. Who wants to work for nothing? To spend years of your life–What for–just to get paid?” Putin went on further with examples: “Let’s say, for example, that my friends in the scientific and technical intelligence paid several million dollars for some information about an important scientific discovery. It would have cost our country billions of dollars to independently develop the same project. My friends could procure the information and send it to the Center. People there would look at it and say ‘Wonderful. Great information. Thanks. Kisses. We’ll recommend you guys for medals.’ But then they would not use the intelligence. They wouldn’t even try, because the technical level of our industry simply didn’t allow for it.” Putin admits that when he returned from the GDR in January 1990, he continued to work in the agencies, but he quietly considered a backup plan. In the forefront of his thinking was his two children, and his need to support them. After a few interesting turns, his fortune improved a bit after he was asked to go “undercover” at Leningrad State University (LGU). It was an assignment Putin was happy to take, as it would allow him to write his doctoral dissertation in international law, become familiar with LGU, and perhaps help him get a position there. In following, in 1990, he became the assistant for international liaison to Stanislav Petrovich Merkuriev, the president of LGU, and someone Putin described as a good man and brilliant academic. Putin was able to reestablish contact with many old friends from the law faculty. Several of them had stayed on there, defended their dissertations, and became instructors and professors. One of them asked him to help Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak, the chair of the Leningrad City Council. Putin explained his thinking on the matter: “Sobchak needed someone good on his team. Apparently, he was surrounded by crooks. Would I go and work for him? “You know, I have to think about it,” I said. “I’m a KGB personnel officer, after all. And he doesn’t know that. I could compromise.” As for his KGB status, Putin was placed in the active reserves. He explains elsewhere in the book that it was in the reserves that he reached the rank of full colonel. “Just talk to him,” his university friend reportedly said. Sobchak was already a famous and popular person that Putin admitted to  observing what he did and said with great interest. He confessed that he did not like everything he saw, but Sobchak had gained his respect. Putin revealed that when Sobchak was a teacher at LGU, he had social connections to him. Putin said people had written that he was practically Sobchak’s favorite student. He dismisses that, saying he was just one of Sobchak’s lecturers for one or two semesters.

When Putin met Sobchak at his office in the Leningrad City Council, he explained the cause for his visit. Putin tells: “He was an impressive man, and said to me right off: ‘I’ll speak to Stanislav Petrovich Merkuriev. Come to work starting Monday. That’s it. We’ll make the agreement right now, and you’ll be transferred.” Putin told him that he would be would be happy to do that, but explained that he was not just an assistant to the president, and that he was also a staff officer of the KGB. Putin recalls, “He thought and thought, and then suddenly he said, ‘Well, screw it.’” Sobchak told Putin, “I need an assistant. Frankly, I’m afraid of going into the reception area. I don’t know who those people are.” Putin fully understood. Putin confirmed what he said his university friend had initially told him: “The people in Sobchak outer office–his cohorts–were harsh and rude in the best traditions of the Komsomol, the Soviet school. This disturbed the city council deputies and led to a conflict between Sobchak and the city council.” Putin then told Sobchak that he would be happy to come to work for him, but that I would first need to inform his managers at the KGB and resign from my post at LGU. Putin recognizes this as a delicate moment for it would be difficult to tell his managers of his intent to change jobs. As Putin recounts it: “I went to my boss and said, ‘Anatoly Aleksandrovich is proposing that I leave the university and go to work for him. If it’s impossible, I am ready to resign.’ They replied: ‘No. Why? Go and work there. There is no question about it.’” That surprised Putin. He surmised that his managers, “who were fairly subtle people and understood the situation,” did not impose any conditions on him. He remained formally listed in the security agencies, although he hardly set foot in the directorate building.

Putin (left) had become somewhat disturbed by his fellow countrymen’s insouciance toward the decay of both order and humanism in the Soviet State when returned home from the GDR. He was offered a job in the central office in Moscow, but I turned it down. Putin’s acceptance of an “undercover” assignment at Leningrad State University led to his entry into Russia’s political milieu via Anatoly Aleksandrovich Sobchak (right), the chair of the Leningrad City Council, and to his resignation from the KGB due to political pressures.

Recta conscientia traversum unguem non oportet discedere. (It is not advisable to move away from your conscience even the width of a fingernail.) Putin was also intrigued by the fact his managers never once tried to use him for operations. He says he thought they understood it would have been pointless. However, on one occasion my colleagues from the agencies tried to exploit Putin’s proximity to Sobchak. According to Putin, Sobchak would go on business trips and was frequently out of town. He would leave Putin in charge of the office. One day, he was in a big rush before a trip, and his signature was needed on a document that was incomplete. Sobchak could not wait for it. Sobchak then took three clean sheets of paper, put his signature at the bottom, and gave them to me, saying ‘Finish it up’ and left. That same evening, Putin recalls, his colleagues from the KGB came to see him. Putin explains: “We spoke about this and that, and then they mentioned how great it would be to have Sobchak’s signature on a certain document. Couldn’t we discuss it? But I was a seasoned person–I had survived so many years without a slip-up–and I sized up the situation right away. I took out the folder and showed them the blank sheets of paper with Sobchak signature. And they and I understood that this was testimony to the great degree of trust Sobchak had in me. ‘Can’t you see that this man trusts me?’ They immediately backed off. ‘No more questions,’ they said. ‘Sorry.’ And everything was nipped in the bud.” Putin noted that the situation was abnormal, and amusingly explained the salary he continued receiving from the KGB was greater than what he was receiving from the city council.

However, circumstances arose that forced Putin to consider writing a letter of resignation. Eventhough his experience with Russian politicians was brief, he learned fast. He understood that relations with the deputies in the city council would often turn down a bumpy road when they were lobbying were someone’s interests. Putin says he eventually had the following experience: “Once a deputy came up to me and said, ‘You know, we have to help so-and so. Could you do such and such?’ I had already put them off several times. One day he said to me, ‘There are bad people here–all sorts of enemies–and they’re sniffed out that you’re a KGB agent. You have to foil them. I’m prepared to help you, but you have to do me a favor.’” Putin realized that they would not leave him alone. To avoid what could have become endless attempts at manipulation, he made the difficult decision to write his letter of resignation. He was just sick and tired of that brazen blackmail. Difficile est longum subito deponere amorem. (It is difficult to suddenly give up a long love.)

In Part 6, Putin also goes into great detail about his work in the 1992 and 1996 mayoral elections in St. Petersburg and a sense is provided of his acumen and instinct for work in the political sphere. In 1992, he played a definitive role in Sobchak’s election as the first popularly elected mayor of the city. As chair of the Leningrad City Council under the old system, Sobchak could have been removed by the council members at any moment. He needed a more stable position. Sobchak finally agreed that the post of mayor had to be introduced. However, Putin explains that because he had fair conflictual relations with the majority of deputies on the council, it was not certain that the proposition would pass. Meanwhile, his public popularity was very high. Putin told the interviewers that the deputies knew that Sobchak would be elected mayor if they voted to introduce the post, and they did not want that. They liked the fact that they could always keep Sobchak on a hook. Putin says that he was directly involved in active measures to convince some of the deputies that it would be best for the city if it had a mayoral post. Putin says he also managed to mobilize the heads of the city districts. He notes that they did not have the right to vote, but they could influence their deputies. In the end, the objective was achieved through hard work. The decision to introduce the post of mayor was passed by the Leningrad City Council, by a margin of a single vote. Putin was also able to assess four years later after taking inventory of the his team’s capabilities and possibilities for success that in order to win re-election, Sobchak would need “professional campaign managers and technicians–not just a guy who could finesse the deputies.” Putin saw that it was a whole new ball game. Campaign plans had to be adjusted to fit circumstances.

Et monere et moneri proprium est verae amicitae. (It is a characteristic of true friendship to give advice and to receive it.) Putin said that he told Sobchak right off, “You know, you’re on a completely different playing field now. You need specialists.” He agreed, but then he decided that he would conduct his own electoral campaign. When interviewers asked Putin if overconfidence guided Sobchak’s decision, Putin said money could have been a factor. He says: “You know, running a campaign, bringing in specialists–all of this costs money. And we didn’t have any. Sobchak had been under investigation for a year and a half on allegations that he had bought an apartment with city funds. But in fact, he did not have any money either for an apartment or for an election campaign. We were not extracting funds from the city budget. It never entered our heads to find the money we needed that way.” However, with regard to Sobchak’s opponent, Vladimir Anatolyevich Yakovlev, the former governor of Leningrad oblast (province), Putin said that he got the funds he needed at Moscow’s expense. He believed Yakovlev was supported by the very same people who orchestrated the ethics campaign against Sobchak. Putin said at the time that Aleksandrovich Vasilyevich Korzhakov, who had been removed as head of the Presidential Security Service in 1996, played an active role against Sobchak. That was in accord to the information that Sobchak’s campaign had, as well as Oleg Nikolayevich Soskovets on Yeltsin’s 1996 Presidential Campaign. Putin said: “The law enforcement agencies were brought in later. They play very dirty.”  Putin outlines one of techniques used against Sobchak: “About a year and a half before elections, a commission came to St. Petersburg from Moscow. The commission had been appointed by the heads of three agencies: the FSB, the Interior Ministry, and the prosecutor’s office. They opened up real criminal cases and made Sobchak a witness in two of them. During the election campaign, someone sent an inquiry to the Prosecutor General’s office, asking whether Sobchak was involved in any criminal investigations. The very same day, the answer came back: Yes, three were two criminal cases under investigation. Naturally, they didn’t explain that he was a witness, not a suspect, in these cases. The reply from the Prosecutor General’s office was duplicated, and flyers were dropped over the city from a helicopter. The law enforcement agencies were interfering directly in a political contest.”

Putin goes into great detail about his work in the 1992 and 1996 mayoral elections in St. Petersburg. One gets a sense of his acumen and instinct for work in the political sphere. In 1992, he played a definitive role in Sobchak’s election as the first popularly elected mayor of the city. In 1996, Putin assessed that in order to win re-election, Sobchak would need professional campaign managers and technicians. He recognized it was a “whole new ballgame.” However, Sobchak decided to run his own campaign office. There were many missteps, and he lost the election.

Nihil æ grius quam disciplinam accipimus. (We receive nothing with so much reluctance as instruction.) After Sobchak decided to run his own campaign office, Putin says Sobchak’s wife, Lyudmila Borisovna, got involved. Sobchak pronounced her campaign manager. Putin said the campaign team tried to talk both of them out of this, because they were not convinced that everyone in the campaign office would be willing to take orders from her. A lot of time was lost debating who should run the campaign. Another Sobchak deputy,  Aleksei [Alexei] Kudrin, got involved. Sobchak asked Putin to continue to work in city affairs, leaving him to manage the economic activity of a city with a population of five million citizens during that period. At the last minute, between the first and second rounds, Kudrin and I tried to jump into the election fray, but it was hopeless. Putin says: “We really blew it on the election.”

For some time after Sobchak’s defeat in the mayoral elections, Putin says he stayed in his office in Smolny. The second round of presidential elections was underway, and he was working for the St. Petersburg headquarters of Yeltsin’s campaign. The newly elected mayor of St. Petersburg, Yakovlev did not move Putin out of his office right away; but as soon as the presidential elections were over, he was asked rather harshly to free up the space. By that time, Putin had already turned down Yakolev offer to keep my post as deputy mayor. Putin said he made the offer through his people. Putin explained: “I thought it would be impossible to work with him, and I conveyed that to him. Besides, during the campaign, I was the one who had initiated a statement signed by all the officials in the mayor’s office that we would all leave Smolny if Sobchak lost. It was important to express our solidarity, so that all the people who worked with Anatoly Aleksandrovich and his administration would realize that his defeat would be a defeat for them, too. It was a good stimulus to get the all involved in the struggle.” Moreover, Putin recalls: “We called a press conference and made a public statement, which I read. So, it was impossible for me to remain behind in the mayor’s office after Sobchak lost.”  However, Putin said what really made staying on with Yakovlev a bad idea was his attacks on him during the campaign. Putin said: “I don’t remember the context now, but in a television interview, I had called him Judas. The word seemed to fit, and I used it.” Western newsmedia headlines currently point to Putin’s alleged efforts to influence elections in their countries, including the US. However, Putin leaves no doubt that he was disgusted with Yakovlev due to his role in the grand effort to influence the election against Sobchak. It was a sound educational experience that Putin would never forget. In amicitia nihil fictum est, nihil quisquid est, id est verum et voluntarium. (In friendship there is nothing fictitious, nothing simulated, and it is in fact true and voluntary.)

After serving in the city government of St. Petersburg, and coping with a period of unemployment, Putin dashed to the top.  He served as head of the Main Control Directorate in 1997. He was named first deputy head of the Presidential Administration, responsible for the regions. He served as director of the Russian Federation Federal Security Service and then was named Secretary of the Security Council in 1998. In August 1999, he was made prime minister. It was Yeltsin’s unexpected resignation on New Year’s Eve 1999 that elevated Putin to Acting President of Russia.

In Part 7, Putin explains that he was unemployed for a few months after Sobchak lost the St. Petersburg elections. This was a big problem for Putin  especially since he had a family.  He explains: “The situation had to be resolved, one way or another. But the signals from Moscow were mixed; first they were asking me to come to work, then they weren’t.” It was at this point that Aleksei Alekseyevich Bolshakov, first deputy to the then Prime Minister of Russia, Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin, and fellow St. Petersburger, stepped forward to help Putin. He convinced Yeltsin’s Chief of Staff Pavel Pavlovich Borodin to bring Putin into the presidential administration. It was the first step in Putin’s rise upward toward the presidency. That part of the story is told in other pages of First Person. Indeed, one will find much more about Putin in the book.

All things considered, one could safely state that Putin is not everyone’s cup of tea. Nevertheless, what he presents about himself in First Person is intriguing, exciting,surprising, distressing, edifying, and enlightening. It is a book that takes the reader on a journey through the halls of power in Moscow. It is a story of intrigue and excitement as much as family values and humility. It discusses people and ideas that have moved events forward in Russia in the past and the present, all from Putin’s perspective. It is hard to imagine that Putin would ever write a remarkably detailed memoir of this type today. That remains to be seen, but we still have First Person to enjoy right now. Some of our readers may have came across First Person in syllabi during their undergraduate or graduate studies or in the libraries of their organizations. However, whether our readers have already read the book or never heard of it before, greatcharlie urges all to grab a copy and examine it using the prism of present day events. It will not disappoint.

By Mark Edmond Clark

A Worried Europe Finds Scant Reassurance on Trump: It May Be Provided Outside the Counter-Trump Milieu

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US President Donald Trump has not projected the sort of geniality toward Europe that would relax its leaders. Insecurity over populism and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has overwhelmed European leaders, officials, analysts, academicians, and journalists, but Trump seems to worry them almost equally. They do not get him. Perhaps the best hope now would be for European leaders and officials to step away from the current environment and try to quietly examine Trump from a different angle for the sake of transatlantic relations.

According to a February 19, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “A Worried Europe Finds Scant Reassurance on Trump’s Plans,” diplomats, generals, policy experts, and security officials traveled to the 2017 Munich Security Conference from all over the world seeking clues to US President Donald Trump’s ideas and intentions on foreign and defense policy, but left without much reassurance. The highest ranking members of the Trump administration that attended the conference, held from February 17th to February 19th, were US Vice President Mike Pence and US Secretary of Defense James Mattis. Both addressed the conference, but reportedly adhered to prepared statements. Pence’s presentation, in particular, was eagerly awaited. In his address, he explained that he carried a direct message of reassurance from Trump, but his words received little approval from keen observers of Washington present. R. Nicholas Burns, a Harvard professor and former US Under Secretary of State gave Pence credit. Burns said, “The vice president said what he had to say, and I applauded.“ He went on to explain, “But there were very few specifics, and everyone noted that Mr. Pence did not once mention the European Union, which for most Europeans is the central institution, not NATO. Europe is going through a very tough time, and they expected a big public embrace of these institutions from the leader of the West, the United States.” Burns went on to explain, “They know that President Trump has repeatedly questioned the relevance of both NATO and the EU and has encouraged Brexit, and many Europeans fear he may work for a weakening of the EU itself.” He continued, noting, “All this ambivalence makes them very nervous, and it’s hard for Pence to overcome.” US Senator John McCain, referred to in the New York Times article as a conference regular, said that the administration was “in disarray,” and added,“The president, I think, makes statements and on other occasions contradicts himself. So we’ve learned to watch what the president does as opposed to what he says.”

Europe has managed to promote multilateral cooperation under difficult circumstances in the past 70 years. Perhaps the best example of that cooperation was the formation of NATO in 1949.  There was a sense of uncertainty, a degree of instability, and a real threat from the Soviet Union. Foreign policy and global strategy were not well-coordinated among Western capitals. However, with the leadership role of the US, but also with distinctive leading roles played by European countries, what is the now well-known as the Western perspective grew. Pragmatic and patient efforts were to coordinate the policies of Western European countries together with the US and Canada until a new system of European security was developed. Currently, there is increased anxiety in European capitals with regard to EU unity, a rise in populism, and the threat posed by Russian Federation Vladimir Putin and his armed forces. Uncertain of the new US administration’s intentions and plans regarding the support of Europe, European leaders and officials have been turning left and right, asking questions, searching for useful answers. Finding genuine, constructive answers in what could called a counter-Trump milieu has proven most difficult. Indeed, with all of the news media stories, and the nonstop rebuke of Trump by political opponents at home and pundits worldwide, there hardly seems space available in the current environment to introduce into the discourse other facts or evidence about the US president other facts or evidence about the Trump administration without obstruction.

Perhaps the best hope now would be for European leaders and officials to momentarily step back from the current discourse and during that pause, try to quietly examine Trump from a different angle for the sake of Europe. That reexamination might include new research and bilateral meetings with senior US officials. Europe must bridge the growing gap in relations with the US. False appearances and errors in judgment can be dispelled by the truth. To simply take the approach du jure, engage in groupthink, or succumb to the angry mob about Trump, is a misuse of intellect, a misuse of will. Demands cannot be so great, tied so much to the dignity of a nation or movement, or their own pride and ego, that European leaders and officials would allow themselves to become the impediment to finding a way to work with Trump. Aequam memento rebus in arduis servare mentem. (Remember when life’s path is steep to keep your mind even.)

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At the 2017 Munich Security Conference, US Vice President Mike Pence’s address was eagerly awaited. He offered reassurances from Trump. However, the Europeans wanted a public embrace of their institutions by the US, but they say it was not given. There hardly seems space available in the counter-Trump milieu in Europe for anyone to introduce other facts or evidence about Trump and his administration without obstruction.

Prominent Europeans’ Responses to Trump at Munich

Animus quod perdidt optat atque in præterita se totus imagine versat. (The mind yearns for what is gone and loses itself dreaming of the past.) National leaders are expected to project a certain geniality. In democracies, that geniality can boost a candidate’s appeal to the public in elections. Once in power, that geniality makes for great optics, and to a degree may still help shape public opinion, but the main task of a leader is to perform one’s duty and responsibilities well. Trump has not projected the sort of geniality toward Europe that would relax leaders in Brussels or any of the national capitals. There has been a tumultuous clamor in Europe over him. The most apparent causality for the Europeans are the ties of a few senior members of the Trump administration might have with the Russian president. Europe’s expression of  such irritation and concern exposed the considerable degree of insecurity, and to a degree, fear, that overwhelms the latest generation of European analysts, academicians, and journalists not only over populism, Putin, and Russian military power, but the US almost as much. They appear unable to read Trump and discuss him in a way that cannot seem to avoid use of obloquy. The nascent days of the Trump administration certainly contrast in this way with those of administration of US President Barack Obama. Obama seemed to specialize in studied ambiguity on foreign policy, speaking comfortable words to address urgent and important issues as well as outright provocations. It was in line with what then Vice President Joe Biden called “the new tone” of US foreign policy at the 2009 Munich Security Conference. The Obama administration held the promise of a kinder, more thoughtful US than was observed with the administration of his predecessor US President George Bush. Biden urged Europe to ramp up its efforts and partner with the US in an effort to re-establish a workable world order. Those early days with Obama in office appear sorely missed by the Europeans. However, waxing nostalgically about the Obama administration will not serve European leaders well. Moreover, with nostalgia, one more often remembers the best and filters out the worst. Some might recall that Europe voiced concern over how passively Obama responded to provocations such as Russia’s threat to deploy weapons against former Soviet republics and cut natural gas supplies to Europe, and Iran’s launch of a satellite and development enough uranium to fuel a nuclear bomb.  Now, concerns are being expressed about another US president’s response concerning European security.

When he addressed the 2017 Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, the former German ambassador to Washington who organizes the conference, queried whether Trump would: “continue a tradition of half a century of being supportive of the project of European integration, or is he going to continue to advocate EU member countries to follow the Brexit example? If he did that, it would amount to a kind of nonmilitary declaration of war. It would mean conflict between Europe and the United States. Is that what the U.S. wants? Is that how he wishes to make America great again?” French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault expressed his displeasure with the fact that Pence had not sent a message of support for the EU, something Ischinger had suggested Pence provide before the conference. Elmar Brok, head of the foreign affairs committee of the European Parliament and a party ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated, “Pence and Mattis and Tillerson can come here and talk about the importance of the transatlantic relationship and NATO–and that is all good.” However, Brok went on to state, “But we don’t know what’s coming on Twitter tomorrow morning.” Daniela Schwarzer, the director of the German Council on Foreign Relations stated without ornament, “People were not reassured.” She continued, “They think that Trump is erratic and incalculable. We all want to hear what we want to hear. But everyone knows that any Trump official could be gone tomorrow, or undercut in another tweet.” Still, Schwarzer intriguingly stated that words were also deeds. She explained, “What he says also changes reality.” In that vein, she proffered, “If you put NATO or the European Union into doubt, it changes their credibility and damages them.” Ulrich Speck, a foreign policy analyst at the Elcano think tank in Brussels, said the conundrum that former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger evoked when he famously asked who he should call when he wanted to talk to “Europe” seemed to have been “turned on its head.” Speck continued, “Now Europe is asking who it should call if it wants to talk to the United States.” One unnamed European diplomat reportedly likened the challenge of figuring out who to listen to in the Trump administration to the task of “Kremlinologists” during the Cold War. Major ignotarum rerum est terror.  (Apprehensions are greater in proportion as things are unknown.)

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US Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the 2017 Munich Security Conference (above). No benefit will be derived from undermining the US leadership when a response from the US against Russia might prove crucial to Europe’s well-being. European leaders and officials must recall that the ties between the US and Europe have a long history. It is a bond which no US administration would genuinely desire to ignore or want to break. In time, Europe will likely understand that the relationship is still of great value to the US and is appreciated.

News Media Reports and Their Possible Impact on the Matter

When one is less certain about the objective truth, the possibility that one might be drawn elsewhere for answers increases. Lacking any formal statements from the the Trump White House or State Department to analyze US policies, it appears that some in European capitals have turned to the US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. 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 can provide the public with a 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. The implications of comments emanating from the Trump administration about the “fake news media” being the “enemy of the American people” are considerable. Ignoring the “fake,” Some have gone as far as to say that denunciation of the news media is the “greatest threat to democracy” they have seen. The news media, the unofficially recognized “Fourth Estate” or fourth branch of government given its importance to the democracy, is not the enemy of the US public. Such comments were unlikely fully considered before spoken, and eventually became fodder in an ongoing struggle between the Trump administration and certain US news media houses. It appears the aim of those grave words initially was to reject and certainly sting some in the news media in response to reports questioning the character of Trump administration officials, but not to be destructive, or to indict the news media as a whole. Events surrounding the Trump administration have gained increased attention. There is a reality that news media houses would like to present attention grabbing headlines to promote readership and viewership, which helps them fill advertising space and increases profit. Indeed, it must be noted that the news media, while a sentinel for democracy, is also a major industry, and managers in  houses seek to satisfy the appetites of their customer base. To patronize in order to connect with the customer is a business practice. In the case of reporting on Trump, most journalists in newspapers of record, to their credit, have written articles that are often measured in composition, providing ample qualifications alongside each postulation. Due to the doubts attached, it stands to reason that information presented in this way should neither be viewed as weighty nor reliable. Others have sought to convince readers that stories are bigger than they are. Such articles exaggerate the truth to the exclusion of it subtleties. Even more, some journalists’ judgments of matters they report about the Trump administration have often insinuated themselves into their articles. That approach on occasion has very likely served to inflame passions and appeal to the lower nature of many readers and viewers, domestically and internationally. What has been stated here may appear as a foray by greatcharlie into media criticism, but actually the intent is to highlight the current environment surrounding the US news media from which many European leaders and officials may be collecting information on the administration.

Recent examples of the type of reports described, include a February 16, 2017 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Spies Keep Intelligence From Donald Trump on Leak Concerns,”  stated: “US intelligence officials have withheld sensitive intelligence from President Donald Trump because they are concerned it could be leaked or compromised, according to current and former officials familiar with the matter. The officials’ decision to keep information from Mr. Trump underscores the deep mistrust that has developed between the intelligence community and the president over his team’s contacts with the Russian government, as well as the enmity he has shown toward U.S. spy agencies.” The Wall Street Journal article further stated: “In some of these cases of withheld information, officials have decided not to show Mr. Trump the sources and methods that the intelligence agencies use to collect information, the current and former officials said. Those sources and methods could include, for instance, the means that an agency uses to spy on a foreign government.” However, within the article, the following qualification was provided: “A spokesman for the Office of Director of National Intelligence said: ‘Any suggestion that the U.S. intelligence community is withholding information and not providing the best possible intelligence to the president and his national security team is not true.’” Further clarity on the matter was provided in the article with the following: “It wasn’t clear Wednesday how many times officials have held back information from Mr. Trump. The officials emphasized that they know of no instance in which crucial information about security threats or potential plotting has been omitted.”

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German soldiers in formation (above). Lacking any formal statements from the the Trump White House or State Department to analyze US policies, some in European capitals may have turned to the US news media interpretations of political events and decisions of the Trump Administration. Some of those reports may served to inflame passions and convince them that their worst fears regarding US relations were being realized. That would include facing Russia alone.

In a February 14, 2017 New York Times article entitled, “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts with Russian Intelligence,” stated verbatim: “Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials. The New York Times article continued: “American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee, three of the officials said. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.” The article created greater intrigue with the following: “The officials said that one of the advisers picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort, who was Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman for several months last year and had worked as a political consultant in Ukraine. The officials declined to identify the other Trump associates on the calls. The article went on to explain: “The call logs and intercepted communications are part of a larger trove of information that the F.B.I. is sifting through as it investigates the links between Mr. Trump’s associates and the Russian government, as well as the hacking of the D.N.C., according to federal law enforcement officials. As part of its inquiry, the F.B.I. has obtained banking and travel records and conducted interviews, the officials said.”

In a similar way to the February 16th Wall Street Journal article, the February 14th New York Times article provided qualifications on this intriguing information, explaining: “The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.” The New York Times article also disclosed: “Mr. Manafort, who has not been charged with any crimes, dismissed the officials’ accounts in a telephone interview on Tuesday. ‘This is absurd,’ he said. ‘I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today.’ He added, ‘It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’” Additionally on the matter of contacts, the article continued: “Several of Mr. Trump’s associates, like Mr. Manafort, have done business in Russia. And it is not unusual for American businessmen to come in contact with foreign intelligence officials, sometimes unwittingly, in countries like Russia and Ukraine, where the spy services are deeply embedded in society. Law enforcement officials did not say to what extent the contacts might have been about business.” The article added: “The officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself. There was also mention in the article of an FBI effort to assess the credibility of information contained in a dossier that was given to the bureau last year by a former intelligence operative of the United Kingdom. The New York Times article stated: “The dossier contained a raft of allegations of a broad conspiracy between Mr. Trump, his associates and the Russian government. It also included unsubstantiated claims that the Russians had embarrassing videos that could be used to blackmail Mr. Trump.” However, that information came with a qualification, which stated: “The F.B.I. has spent several months investigating the leads in the dossier, but has yet to confirm any of its most explosive claims.”

Even the February 19th New York Times article that impelled the writing of this greatcharlie post projected a negative tone. Some unfavorable judgments of the Trump administration infiltrated the article’s description of European responses to remarks made by US officials. The articled noted: “An audience anxious for signals about the Trump administration’s stances on NATO, the European Union, Germany and the Russia of President Vladimir V. Putin, whom Mr. Trump so openly admires, was only minimally soothed. It mostly heard boilerplate assurances about United States commitments of the kind that previous American administrations had rarely felt the need to give.”

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A NATO meeting in Brussels (above). There are considerable incongruences between what is being assumed today about the Trump administration’s approach to Europe and what has been US policy over 70 years. Europe should be hopeful over its future with the US, not anxious or intimidated. Years of success should not be forgotten by Europe over the prospect of working with the new US president to firm up some aspects of the relationship. 

Demonization and Confirmation Bias

Poenam irae saepe videmus. (We often see the penalty of anger.) In the February 19th New York Times article, Artis Pabriks, a former Latvian foreign and defense minister and now a member of the European Parliament, was quoted as saying “The Cold War was won not just by weapons but by propaganda and soft power.” Pabriks then offered the observation, “And on German television, Trump is a joke for everybody. We’re concerned also about American prestige.” In Western media, particularly social media, sites that encourage or present hostile assessments of celebrities, political figures, or those who may have drawn the spotlight to themselves for one reason or another, grab more attention than all other. The attention and approval one can gain from engaging such commentary has made it may in part help make it commonplace.  Indeed, there is a tendency for many, perhaps even most, to demonize those with whom there is disagreement. Demonization has often morphed into hatred. This behavior was both very apparent and very virulent in the 2016 Presidential Campaign. Going back as far as the 18th century, many said worse. Often such hostile talk led to duels. Still, the intensity and sheer volume of exchanges and reports of exchanges that jammed social media and news media streams made what was expressed not only pervasive, but practically unavoidable. The environment has not improved, but perhaps has become worse since then. There is still the punch and counterpunch between political opponents, pundits, and the news media, itself, with the Trump administration. Disagreements seem to have become endless feuds. For European leaders and officials, the danger lies in stepping into this struggle, taking one side or another in the exchange in the US  about the Trump administration because they believe the status of the US president falls with their interests and their constituencies want to know where they stand on such a popular and controversial, yet also delicate matter.

There are considerable incongruences between what is being assumed today about the Trump administration’s approach to Europe and what has been US policy over 70 years. Europe should be hopeful over its future with the US, not anxious or intimidated. Years of success should not be chucked out by Europe over the prospect of working with the US to firm up some aspects of the relationship. There are insistent efforts to advertise Trump’s perceived weaknesses. Some news media houses have approved stories that include unwarranted extrapolations. Only European leaders and officials would know what moves them to believe one thing or another about Trump. It may be experience, intuition, or mores. Despite the importance of relations with the US, it could be hypothesized that some may harbor negative beliefs in general about their ally. In any event, confirmation bias can be a result of the direct influence of desire on beliefs. Confirmation bias suggests that individuals do not perceive circumstances objectively. An individual extrapolates bits of data that are satisfying because they confirm the individual’s prejudices. Therefore, one becomes a prisoner of one’s assumptions. If European leaders and officials want certain ideas about Trump to be true, they end up believing them to be true. Such an error could have lead them to cease collecting information when the evidence gathered at a certain point confirms the prejudices they may feel are true. After developing that view, for the most part, they would embrace any information that confirms it while going as far as to ignore or reject information that makes it unlikely.

Attempting to confirm beliefs comes naturally to most individuals, while conversely it feels less desirable and counterintuitive for them to seek out evidence that contradicts their beliefs. This explains why opinions survive and spread. Disconfirming instances must be far more powerful in establishing truth. Disconfirmation requires searching for evidence to disprove a firmly held opinion. With regard to their understanding of the Trump administration, European leaders and officials must appropriately verify their conclusions. One approach is to postulate facts and then consider instances to prove they are incorrect. This has been pointed to as a true manifestation of self-confidence: the ability to look at the world without the need to look for instances that pleases one’s ego. For group decision-making, one can serve a hypothesis and then gather information from each member in a way that allows the expression of independent assessments.

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United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May and Trump (above). Political and social pressures to conform to a counter-Trump outlook may exist in Europe, but relations with the US are too important for European capitals to allow the situation to deteriorate so acutely. European leaders must not embrace any information that confirms any individual biases or prejudices they might have about Trump. The thinking that may have caused them not to consider alternatives must be subtracted.

Groupthink in Europe on Trump

With all of the news media stories, and his nonstop rebuke by political opponents at home and pundits worldwide, an environment that would welcome an unobstructed examination or public discussion of other facts or evidence about Trump is practically nonexistent. Antipathy may strong enough in some European leaders and officials that they may be disinclined to take a second look at anything pertaining to Trump. Indeed, among them may be cynics who are uninterested in the truth. They may wrongfully view any effort rectify the situation as obsequiousness in the face of US power, placing political pressure on colleagues who may want reconsider some issues. Some may claim seeking to work with Trump would pose some moral dilemma. However, such could exist only when one knows the objective truth, disapproves of the course of events and is constrained from conforming to external demands. Enumerated here are many of the symptoms of groupthink. Groupthink occurs when a group makes faulty decisions due to group pressures lead to a deterioration of ”mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment.” The term was coined by social psychologist Irving Janis in Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (Houghton Mifflin, 1972). Groups affected by groupthink will tend to ignore alternatives and take irrational actions that dehumanize other groups. Groups become especially vulnerable to groupthink when members are similar in background, the group is insulated from outside opinions, and there are no clear rules for decision making.

The eight symptoms of groupthink documented by Janis include: the illusion of invulnerability which creates excessive optimism that encourages taking extreme risks; a collective rationalization, by which group members shrug off warnings and do not reconsider their assumptions; a belief in inherent morality by which members believe in the rightness of their cause and therefore ignore the ethical or moral consequences of their decisions; stereotyped views of “out-groups” or negative views of “enemy” make effective responses to conflict seem unnecessary; direct pressure on dissenters by which group members are under pressure not to express arguments against any of the group’s views; self-censorship which thwarts the expression of doubts and deviations from the perceived group consensus; the illusion of unanimity which creates the assumption that the majority view and judgments are unanimous; and, self-appointed “mindguards” who are group members that protect the group and the leader from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and decisions.

Decisions shaped by groupthink have a low probability of achieving successful outcomes.When the above symptoms, and such conditions by all indications exist to some degree among foreign policy officials in European capitals making decisions on the Trump administration, there is a reasonable chance that groupthink will happen. However, it does not need to be so. Groupthink occurs when groups are highly cohesive and when they are under considerable pressure to make a quality decision.  Within respective capitals that might be the case, but among countries cohesion is attenuated. The political and social pressures to conform to counter-Trump outlook may exist, but relations with the US relationship is too important for too many countries to inexcusably allow the situation to deteriorate so acutely.  European leaders and officials should drive themselves to realistically appraise courses of action available to them. Any carelessness and irrational thinking that led to the failure to consider all alternatives along the wrongful path to  groupthink must be subtracted.

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A US F-22 Raptor (above). Ensuring Europe’s well-being is in the interest of the US. If grave harm ever came to any US ally or partner in Europe, the impact in all quarters in Washington would be shattering. It would guarantee a devastating, immediate response by Trump.  Europe faces no danger of abandonment by the US despite how Trump or his senior officials may sound. Trump only speaks of pruning the leaves and branches of the tree, he does not want to poison the root.

European Leaders and Officials Must Act under Pressure

Diu in ista nave fui et propter tempestatem nubesque semper mortem expectabam. (I was on board that ship for a long while, and I was constantly expecting death on account of the storms and clouds.)  Among Trump’s immediate thoughts about Europe have been to make some changes with regard to security. The big issue is failure of some European countries to meet their financial commitments to NATO. In reality, some European countries have been remiss, consistently failing to meet a 2 percent GDP goal agreed to by alliance members. Trump wants to resolve that issue with the Europeans. However, Europe faces no danger of abandonment by the US despite how his words or those of his senior officials. To use a soft metaphor, Trump only speaks of pruning the leaves and branches of the tree, he does not want to poison the root. (Certainly, if Trump’s goal was to get Europe’s full attention with his statements, he has succeeded in that.) Yet, many in Europe have formed opinions that contrast with this reality. They may not be disposed to pursuing the truth, fearing what the truth may be. Worrying about US actions and intentions is a new type of stress, posing unfamiliar and unimaginable challenges.

University of Chicago Executive Vice Provost and Professor of Psychology, Sian Beilock, has spent years investigating how people perform under pressure and avoid failure. She has published more than 100 papers on the subject, and recently won the 2017 Troland Research Award from the National Academy of Sciences for her research. Her most recent book, How the Body Knows Its Mind (Simon & Schuster, 2015), discusses what scientists have learned about the influence of body movement on brain activity. It includes tips such as pacing around a room for a creativity boost. At the Human Performance Laboratory, where she is director, Beilock and her colleagues explore the physiological mechanisms by which people buckle under pressure. They have measured the amount of cortisol in a person’s saliva to gauge stress levels and have used neuroimaging to see which areas of the brain are activated during high-pressure situations. Beilock has found that individuals are capable of making just about anything become a stressful, high-stakes activity. She explained, “Some of the greatest chokes are on the Olympic stage, but they also happen when you can’t say eloquently what you want to say in a meeting.” Overthinking often trips people up. “It’s paralysis by analysis,” Beilock says. Individuals can get confused when they think too much, worry too much, about what they are doing.

Beilock also tests subjects’ reaction times and accuracy at the Human Performance Laboratory to understand performance failure. She often includes golfers in her research. Many golf pros claim the sport is 90 percent mental making it an ideal forum for her research. At the professional level, some golfers fail to perform well in front of spectators. Beilock has found golfers easily become stressed when caused to think about the technical aspects of their swing. She explained,  if you really want to mess with a golfer’s game, you could just say, “That was a great shot! What were you doing with your elbow?” On her blog, Beilock calls attention to Bruce Ollstein, a former drill instructor and US Army Psychological Operations officer, who delved into the effects of stress on golfers in his book, Combat Golf: The Competitor’s Field Manual for Winning Against Any Opponent (Viking, 1996). Ollstein explains that a few choice words will typically have a deleterious effects on a golfer’s morale and performance. Among those methods, Ollstein listed: hand out some “gimmies”; plant seeds of doubt; leave them “hanging”; and, silence is golden.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US Vice President Mike Pence (above). European leaders and officials must no longer fall prey to attention grabbing news stories about Trump, some of which have supported very wrong notions in Europe about his plans. They must be wary of experts who postulate on very important matters from the abstract. Additionally, they must guard against self-deception.

It may very well be that, albeit unintentionally, US foreign policy experts in discussing Trump with their European colleagues as well as with European leaders and officials, they may have had a deleterious effects on their perspective, morale, and performance. Leaders and officials may have been thrown a bit off-kilter, and delayed getting both involved and into a working rhythm with the Trump administration after learning of US news media reports and comments from the Obama administration in its waning days. Consider that from the start of 2016 Presidential Election, uncertainty was created about what a Trump victory would mean for Europe given some harsh campaign comments on NATO. It likely had a chilling effect on them. However, assurances also came from all quarters that former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would win the election. After the election there was more turmoil, and before the Europeans could formulate an approach to Trump, they encountered a flurry of reports detailing his inexperience and how unprepared he was to appropriately handle foreign policy decisionmaking. Doubts were expressed about his advisers perspectives and abilities. Questions were raised about Russia’s influence on the election result and Trump’s campaign. Stories were told of a war between Trump and the US Intelligence Community, and rumors swirled that Trump might face impeachment.

At Munich, US  foreign policy experts were reportedly making statements that perhaps may have unwittingly done even more to plant seeds of doubt and undermine the confidence of European leaders and officials in their abilities to reach out to, or work with, Trump. Consider the comments by Julianne Smith, a former principal Director of European and NATO Policy in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Deputy National Security Adviser to former US Vice President Joe Biden in the February 19th New York Times. Smith reportedly explained people would be reassured “for about five hours, or maybe through the weekend.” What remains unresolved, she said, is who will come out on top in what she called a battle among the three centers of power in the White House: Trump, Bannon and White House Special Adviser Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law. On Pence, Derek Chollet, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Obama administration, who is now with the German Marshall Fund of the United States, proffered, “His [Pence’s] mission was always going to be hard, but it was made even more so by the questions about his lack of influence inside the White House.” As for beginning a story that has no end, and letting one “hang,” doubt was left by US experts at Munich left as to what lies ahead with the Trump administration.   Smith went on to explain in the New York Times that Europeans were disturbed when retired US Navy Vice Admiral Robert Harward turned down an offer to replace Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn because he would not be given autonomy over his staff.  She said, “Our allies don’t know who is their interlocutor and what phone number to call.” She went on to state, “And talk of hedging NATO commitment on financial contributions did rattle the alliance,” even if European members acknowledge that they need to pay more for collective defense. As for convincing the Europeans that Trump has basically been silent on his intentions and letting them dwell on their inabilities, anxieties, US experts explained to them that they were not told enough in Munich still to understand or plan for relations with the administration. The US historian and foreign policy commentator Robert Kagan dismissed Pence’s address in Munich as a “robotic salute to the man in power.” Although Pence tried to tackle the doubts of European leaders and officials head-on by explaining at the start that he was speaking for Trump, Kagan reportedly noted disapprovingly that he went on “to mention the president 19 times in the course of the 20-minute speech.”

U.S. President Donald Trump listens to a translation during a joint news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the White House in Washington

With a second look at Trump, European leaders and officials may recognize an intriguing duality. In business, he engaged in high stakes negotiations and hefty transactions, but also displayed talent as a builder, a man who created things.  Designing and constructing buildings was an art for Trump. As a media celebrity, he lived a life of high drama while he entertained. During the 2016 US Presidential Campaign, Trump’s capabilities seemed to coalesce in an interesting and effective way.

Knowing the Real Trump

Quid enim est stultius quam incerta pro certis habere, falsa pro veris? (What, indeed, is more foolish than to consider uncertainties as certain, falsehoods as truths?) The renowned 19th century Prussian statesman, Otto von Bismarck said “Politics is the art of the possible.” To better understand Trump and improve relations with the US, European leaders and officials must set aside their personal preferences. There are some solid reports that present positive perspectives on Trump. Those reports as well as any that may even appear feeble, must be examined. The analytical process in the current environment must be akin to a crucible in which irrelevancies are burned off and result is the truth. If European leaders and officials could disassociate themselves from the mixed, very often negative, signals emanating out the political milieu in the US, they might recognize an intriguing duality about Trump. In business, Trump for decades engaged in high stakes negotiations and hefty transactions. He displayed talent as a planner, manager, and builder, a man who created things. The German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling said, “Architecture is music in space, as it were a frozen music.” The architecture of Trump’s buildings and music would have things in common such as rhythm, texture, harmony, proportion, and dynamics. For Trump, designing and constructing buildings was an art. He could become lost in it. That was Trump’s world, too. As a media celebrity, he lived a life of high drama while he entertained and bedazzled. During the 2016 Presidential Campaign, Trump’s varied capabilities and interests appeared to coalesce in an interesting and, albeit, effective way. On the surface, Trump was self-confident, audacious, brash, and bombastic–some might add boorish, yet in his planning, he was humble, meticulous, perceptive, and innovative. European political leaders might take special note of how Trump, facing constant waves of invective, even calumny, dug deep inside himself and always found a way, leaving other candidates trailing in his wake. This stands in stark contrast to the notions of Trump’s alleged vacuity, which is more often deceitfully served up by a variety angry, aggressive, envious, and ambitious sources camped in all directions. They all certainly have reasons for their positions. The presidency represents a huge change for Trump and he continues to recurvate from being a very successful businessman and celebrity known worldwide to a more potent, more formal, and in many ways, more narrow role. Regarding all of the opprobrium, Trump has seen other winds and has faced other storms.  He has no reputation for faltering in adversity.

When Trump stated “America First” during his inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he was presenting the term as a concept, a guiding principle indicating that his administration would consider the interest of the US over anything else. Trump will unlikely be disposed to subordinating the interests of the US to the wishes of any country. However, ensuring Europe’s well-being is in the interest of the US. If grave harm ever came to any US ally or partner in Europe, the impact in all quarters in Washington would be shattering. It will guarantee a devastating, immediate response by Trump. The Trump administration continues to evolve. Recently, US Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, a renowned military strategist and national security expert, became Trump’s new National Security Adviser. Looking toward the future with optimism, the US president will most likely find his stride very soon on relations with Europe. A new balance may be observed and perhaps many European leaders and officials will appreciate Trump’s very formidable, comprehensive capabilities. After all that has been said and done, some Europeans remain optimistic. Thomas Matussek, a former German ambassador to the United Kingdom and the UN, said that “people will be reassured to some degree, because they want to be.” He contrasted Trump and White House Special Adviser Stephen Bannon: “Trump’s not an ideologue, like Bannon, but pretty pragmatic and innovative, subject to discussion.” Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, a London-based research institution, expressed optimism saying: “Trump does not come in with a fixed foreign-policy agenda on many issues, so there is contested space and room for influence and maneuver.” Niblett recalled Trump’s early “flip-flops” on Israel and NATO, but then explained: “Trump’s fixated on certain things, like trade and jobs and America’s place in the world, but there seems to be room for influence.” Artis Pabriks, a Latvian member of the European Parliament mentioned earlier, said that he trusted Mattis and McCain, and applauded the recent introduction of US and other NATO troops into the Baltic States and Poland.  He expected Trump will keep that policy approach in place.

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The Trump administration continues to evolve. Recently, US Army Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster (above), a renowned military strategist and national security expert, was named Trump’s National Security Adviser. Looking toward the future with optimism, Trump will likely find his stride soon on relations with Europe. A new balance may be observed and European leaders and officials may come to appreciate him. Many times, from bad beginnings, great friendships have sprung up.

The Way Forward

In Act I, Scene iv of William Shakespeare’s play, Measure for Measure, Lucio, a man living the “sporting life” in Vienna, was urged to speak with Isabella, a St. Clare nun, about her brother Claudio’s arrest by Angelo, the very officious, upstanding acting executive of the city.  Lucio sought to convince Isabella that she could successfully use her wit and influence to have her brother released. In that effort, Lucio speaks to famous lines to Isabella: “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt.” Man-made dilemmas are not mysteries, but puzzles. While one may be confused, or tested by a puzzle, they have solutions. For now, the solution to strengthening Europe’s relationship with the US is temporarily hidden, temporarily misunderstood. Talk about Trump in Europe has absorbed not only regional and national leaders and other officials, but the public’s attention in every country of the continent. Due to what will eventually be recognized as misunderstandings, there have been some bouts of words, albeit a bit attenuated, which have created some disturbance, hurt some feelings, caused some wounds, on both sides of the Atlantic, but they must be soothed and healed. European leaders and officials must act before a numbness sets in, before Europe is inured by the idea that it cannot work with the Trump administration, that it must face challenges such as a resurgent Russia alone. With obstinacy, they must seek to regularly engage with Trump and administration officials in rational, concrete discussions to find agreement or a satisfactory middle ground on issues.

The process of changing the current environment should begin with the application of the objective truth to analyses of the new US administration. Europe must reexamine what it knows about Trump. Being readily available, the US news media should naturally be seen as an open, overt source of information on Trump and his administration. However, not all news media houses produce news the same way. Mistakes are also made. While it albeit serves as a watchdog for the democracy, admittedly, some US news media have  propagated very negative perspectives of the Trump administration. European leaders and officials must not fall prey to attention grabbing lines about Trump, some of which have supported very wrong notions in Europe about his plans. They must also be wary of experts who postulate on very important matters from abstractions. Additionally, they must guard against self-deception. All of the plans and actions of European leaders and officials must be directed toward benefiting the lives of their people. Certainly this prescription cannot be more grievous than the danger of poor relations with the US.

Many times, from a bad beginning, great friendships have sprung up. Until Europe sets forth to establish firm ties with the Trump administration, there is only the prospect of receding into a gloomy world, in which the potential of the transatlantic relationship will be frozen. To escape from it, some might deny reality and create a substitute reality in which they might concede that the only prospect for peace is a concordance with their most likely adversary, Russia. The idea of wanting to turn desperately to false reality reminds of the poem Ode to a Nightingale by the English poet, John Keats. In this 1819 ode, Keats emphasizes the difference between the gloomy physical world and the dreamlike, spiritual world of the nightingale. In the fifth stanza, Keats stimulates the reader’s senses by describing that very fragrant, floral, gossamer imitation of reality:

“I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,

Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,

But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet

Wherewith the seasonable month endows

The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;

White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;

Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;

And mid-May’s eldest child,

The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,

The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.”

Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group; US Must Act in Iraq Now to Eclipse Such Stars!

Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria military commander, Omar al-Shishani, is an ethnic Chechen and one of the many Russians and Europeans fighters that Russian President Vladimir Putin warned in 2013 were going into Syria and becoming part of a dangerous, internationalized Islamic militant group.

According to a July 2, 2014, Washington Post article entitled, “Chechen in Syria a Rising Star in Extremist Group, “ a young, red-bearded ethnic Chechen named Omar al-Shishani has rapidly become one of the most prominent commanders and was the face of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the Al-Qaeda linked group as it recently overwhelmed Iraqi security forces and took control of large swaths of Iraq. Al-Shishani, whose real name is Tarkhan Batirashvili, is an ethnic Chechen from the Caucasus nation of Georgia, specifically from the Pankisi Valley, a center of Georgia’s Chechen community and a stronghold for militants. He is also one of the hundreds of Chechens who have been among the toughest jihadi fighters in Syria, hardened from years of wars with Russia in the Caucasus region.

Al-Shishani has been the group’s military commander in Syria, leading it on an offensive to take over a broad stretch of territory leading to the Iraq border. Al-Shishani surfaced in Syria in 2013 with his nom de guerre, which means “Omar the Chechen” in Arabic, leading an Al-Qaeda-inspired group called “The Army of Emigrants and Partisans,” which included a large number of fighters from the former Soviet Union. A meeting was soon organized with al-Baghdadi in which al-Shishani pledged loyalty to him, according to Lebanon’s al-Akhbar newspaper, which follows jihadi groups. He first showed his battlefield prowess in August 2013, when his fighters proved pivotal in taking the Syrian military’s Managh air base in the north of the country. Rebels had been trying for months to take the base, but it fell soon after al-Shishani joined the battle, said an activist from the region, Abu al-Hassan Maraee. He may have risen to become the group’s overall military chief, a post that has been vacant after the Iraqi militant who once held it—known as Abu Abdul-Rahman al-Bilawi al-Anbari—was killed in the Iraqi city of Mosul in early June. ISIS began as Al-Qaeda’s branch in Iraq, and many of its top leaders are Iraqi. But after it intervened in Syria’s civil war last year, it drew hundreds of foreign fighters into its operations in Syria. Now with victories on the two sides of the border, the two branches are swapping fighters, equipment and weapons to an even greater extent than before, becoming a more integrated organization. Its declaration of the caliphate—aspiring to be a state for all Muslims—could mean an even greater internationalization of its ranks. Interestingly enough, in June 2013, at conference in St. Petersburg, Russian President Vladimir Putin publicly stated 600 Russians and Europeans were within the Syrian opposition fighters’ ranks. While the US and European intelligence services expressed concern over the viability of vetting Syrian opposition fighters to discover who among them are Islamic militants, the Russian intelligence service apparently already possessed files on the identities of a considerable number of Syrian opposition fighters.

US power is not only measured by its size, but its moral behavior in the world. The virtues of the US have stood out in the world in the presence of vice. While grave errors in foreign policy decision making during the administration of former US President George W. Bush have been very apparent, the history of US foreign policy did not begin and end in those eight years. There is a greater history of success in US foreign and defense policy and decision making which must not be forgotten. For years as a leader in world affairs, the US has set the standard for performance in international affairs. Its behavior on the world stage manifested US values and principles. Discussion of the ability of the US to meet that standard does mean waxing nostalgically of the past. If it put its mind to it, the administration of US President Barack Obama could very well meet that standard today. What has been promoted instead is a type of international philanthropy proffered by the current administration that scoffs at military power, without realistic alternative options. In speeches, press conferences, and interviews of Obama and administration officials, the discourse on foreign policy appears more as form of pastoral guidance, helping the US public understand and accept a new, less active role of the US in the world. For some in the US public, less desirous of military intervention overseas given the Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, expressions of a reformed approach to foreign policy has been seductive and caused some satisfaction. This approach has also helped to guide the establishment of the defense posture, by providing a further rationale for dramatic cuts in the US military and its capabilities. However, the notion that the US can remain dominant in world affairs by doing nothing is false. In the long run that would require reaching agreements with evil maniacs or turning a blind-eye toward their acts to maintain peace. Lately, when US interests or the interest of an ally or partner have been threatened, questions over the availability of the military means to limit that behavior usually arise. That has been the case regarding ISIS in Iraq. Superficial discussions of facts, use of sensationalism, sophistic arguments on military power, and intellectualized explanations of recent events veiled the growing problem of ISIS in Iraq as well as Syria. The Obama administration has taken the US down a path, requiring it to respond or tolerate Iraq’s unraveling and the emergence of ISIS. Obama has explained that the US isis still the world’s leader. However, the US must act in a manner consistent with that title if the administration wishes to retain it

Managing News on the Islamic Militant Problem in Syria

The situation in Syria was presented as urgent issue by Obama administration officials, yet manageable. Once the anti-regime movement in Syria became an armed struggle, the US considered various ways to support the opposition. Multilateral approaches were taken toward organizing opposition political groups as well as their fighters on the ground   Among steps taken was the establishment of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella group for the multitude of different opposition fighting units. Its leadership was placed under the Supreme Military Council. As a possible military response in support of policy goals, the idea of the US launching kinetic strikes against targets in Syria was bandied about. However, there was an understanding established that such strikes would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground, and there was the risk of civilian causalities and US losses. Indeed, the idea of “boots on the ground” was soundly rejected from the start. Eventually, it was reasoned that the FSA, with US supplied arms and training would advance against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and pressure him into stepping down at the negotiation table. Pressing this issue with US Congress, the Obama administration sent it senior foreign and defense policy officials to Capitol Hill to promote the matter with relevant committees. Yet, Members of Congress were skeptical of the feasibility of that approach. US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly told Congress on September 3, 2013, that “the opposition is getting stronger by the day.” However, Representative Michael McCaul, a Texas Republican, challenged Kerry’s assertions at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on September 4, 2013. McCaul asked Kerry: “Who are the rebel forces? Who are they? I ask that in my briefings all the time.” McCaul then explained, “And every time I get briefed on this it gets worse and worse, because the majority now of these rebel forces—and I say majority now—are radical Islamists pouring in from all over the world.” Kerry replied: “I just don’t agree that a majority are al-Qaida and the bad guys. That’s not true. There are about 70,000 to 100,000 oppositionists . . . Maybe 15 percent to 25 percent might be in one group or another who are what we would deem to be bad guys.”

The administration’s public assessments were captivating and satisfying enough for those who chose not to look deeply and those who chose simple answers. Yet, evidence of the true nature of the situation in Syria was being presented from other sources (i.e., nongovernment policy analysts, journalists, as well as pundits). That information, while not rejected by the administration, was never confirmed. Instead, the administration stated the realities about the Islamic militant presence and growing strength was said to be unavailable. Administration officials proffered the idea that it could not gain a full picture of what was happening on the ground. For the US public, this was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. For whatever reasons, perhaps the national elections for the presidency and the Congress were among them, the conscience of the US public appears to have been deemed too delicate for the reality of the situation. There apparently was some fear that a type of upheaval within the US public over Syria would have occurred. However, the truth was not inaudible to the public’s ears. The perpetuation of the inaccuracy that the situation was under control would lead to disappointment for the US public. Indeed, the truth would eventually overwhelm the superficial assessments being offered.

It is now accepted that unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, Islamic militant groups as ISIS never intended to cease their struggle with the Assad regime under any peace agreement. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces have been directed toward creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups have only wanted to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law. Indeed, before the new Islamic Caliphate was established, in towns and villages of rather large segments of Syria that ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups control, they have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrian citizens. Syrian military personnel and regime supporters are rarely spared by the rogue Islamic fighters. ISIS, while still viewed as part of opposition forces, began regularly attacking more moderate Islamic militant groups and secular units. As the FSA was not truly successful at all on the ground, the added pressure of an additional struggle with ISIS helped to derail the Syria effort of the administration of US President Barack Obama. The US effort in Syria hinged on how it would respond to the Islamic militant presence. The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on. Yet, the administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy could not be advanced. The administration appeared willing to let the entire Syrian situation fall into stalemate while continuing a small, ineffective assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, avoiding military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power.

Sensationalism: The Threat to the Homeland From Syria

Soon enough there was a shift in perspective from the administration. The presence of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria was recognized as a danger, but far beyond the Middle East. At a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held on January 29, 2014, Committee Chairman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, stated: “Because large swaths of the country . . . of Syria are beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations. Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses.” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified the same day to Senator Feinstein’s committee that “a permissive environment, extremist groups like Al-Nusra and the number of foreign fighters combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about—in particular, the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.” The National Director for Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony that day explained succinctly, “What’s going on in there [Syria], and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very, worrisome.” Given such grim assessments from senior US officials, a decision to take action in Syria would seem inevitable.

These synoptic assessments of potential attacks on the US came from the same sources that had minimized the capabilities and possibilities of the Islamic militants only a few short months before. Evidence of the problem was not being rejected by Obama administration officials, it was, to some extent, being sensationalized. Alerts to threats from Islamic militant groups, even those that were Al-Qaeda linked, no longer create real urgency in the US public. Such alerts came so regularly during the Bush administration that to some degree the US public became desensitized to them.   Moreover, for many in the US public, media reports of such threats came as interesting stories or amusements. Interest was heightened, only to be doused by the next things that came along. In January 2014, the “next things” were events surrounding Super Bowl XLVIII, the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and pop singer Miley Cyrus.

Wielding US Power in the Middle East

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, at one point gravely concerned over the course the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran, lamented about the Obama administration’s handling of US foreign policy. He explained that without US engagement, the world would find “major crises left to themselves,” and “a strategic void could be created in the Middle East,” with widespread perception of “Western indecision” in a world less multipolar than “zero-polar.” Fabius was disappointed and discouraged by “the non-response by strikes to the use of chemical weapons by the Damascus regime, whatever the red lines set a year earlier.” Fabius stated a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and his perception of a “rather isolationist tendency” in US public opinion. Yet, despite such pleas from close allies as the French regarding his administration’s approach to foreign policy, Obama confirmed the worst assumptions made by Fabius in his May 28, 2014 Commencement Address at West Point. Obama explained: “For the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America, at home and abroad, remains terrorism, but a strategy that involves invading every country that harbors terrorist networks is naive and unsustainable. I believe we must shift our counterterrorism strategy, drawing on the successes and shortcomings of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more effectively partner with countries where terrorist networks seek a foothold.” Obama further explained that there was a need for: “a new strategy reflects the fact that today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralized Al-Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralized Al-Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in the countries where they operate. And this lessens the possibility of large-scale 9/11-style attacks against the homeland, but it heightens the danger of US personnel overseas being attacked, as we saw in Benghazi. It heightens the danger to less defensible targets, as we saw in a shopping mall in Nairobi. So we have to develop a strategy that matches this diffuse threat, one that expands our reach without sending forces that stretch our military too thin or stir up local resentments.”

Through this mellifluous speech about multilateral approaches to threat to peace and stability and terrorism in particular, Obama presented a world where problems could be handled through cooperation. This is not a new idea. Regional alliances such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, Central Treaty Organization, and the Organization of American States were created to bring resources of nations together to cope with the “Communist threat.” Even on terrorism, multilateral approaches were viewed as required when modern-era counterterrorism was established during the administration of former US President Ronald Reagan. Yet, the idea that the US can today rely upon multilateral solutions requiring joint action with allies and partners who themselves face drastic military cuts and economic difficulties is unwise. No Western European state with real military capabilities will go into Iraq now, to take on risks while fighting ISIS, especially when its political leaders feel that issue does not fall within their interests. Obama spoke of a hesitancy of the US to act militarily, yet assumes others in the region possessing far less capabilities than the US would subordinate their own interests. concerns, and limitations, to support and defend others. Most states are aware that warfare lately has been asymmetric and not set piece engagements to win quickly. Obama presents this notion of multilateralism to a US public confused about the contrast between the certitude with which Obama speaks, and regular breakdowns in administration foreign policy initiatives that they witness.

The US must look strong. In past cases, what others have thought about the US has deterred them from hostile action. Relative peace was maintained through strength. US diplomacy has been supported in many cases by the credible threat of force. The failure of Obama administration to project authentic US strength globally is not subject to rationalization by its officials. ISIS is unconcerned with US military power and possible US intervention. Among such unenlightened, uncivilized, violent men, reason has little place. Hoping that they might eventually establish some concordance with the government to work toward peace and stability in Iraq and obey international law is absurd. Only the use of force will have a strong educational effect upon them. Given that, the administration’s approach is questionable.

Intellectualization of the Iraq Crisis

ISIS and other insurgent groups have rapidly advanced through the mostly Sunni areas of Iraq. In a matter of days, they have captured several cities including Mosul, Tikrit, Tal Afar, and are driving on Baghdad from two directions. It has declared the captured territory the Islamic Caliphate. The leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently appeared in public to make that declaration. As for US airstrikes to reduce ISIS controlled territory, military experts have explained that they would be impeded by the lack of intelligence from the ground. The idea of multilateral action was dead from the start.

Although Obama explained that the goal is to prevent ISIS from achieving a permanent foothold in either Iraq or Syria, for that matter, he proffered that the issue goes beyond security assistance. Confronted with this unacceptable situation, Obama has rationalized that part of the challenge is the lack of representation of Sunni, Shi’a and Kurds in the Iraqi government. Obama blames divisions for Iraq’s inability to cope with ISIS. Administration officials, at least publicly, have focused not on the ISIS assault, but rather on the idea that from the chaos, they can cobble together a new, more inclusive government in Baghdad. In Obama’s view the formation of a new government will be an opportunity to begin a genuine dialogue and forge a government that represents the legitimate interests of all Iraqis. Obama believes leaders who can govern with an inclusive agenda will be able to truly bring the Iraqi people together and help them through this crisis. It is difficult to understand why the Obama would believe the type of representative government he seeks for Iraq could be designed at the point of an ISIS gun. The majority of Sunnis, Shi’as, and Kurds would never genuinely subsume their interests to satisfy the US regardless of the circumstances. The fact that Maliki came to power evinces the limited US understanding of Iraq’s political situation.

The Way Forward

Obama has been pilloried with scathing criticisms from his Republican Members of Congress and other political rivals over his handling of Syria, Iraq, and the crisis with ISIS. Many of Obama’s harshest critics are former officials from the Bush administration who were themselves directly responsible for plunging the US, unprepared and off-balance, into the Middle East. Polls on the US public’s satisfaction with the Obama administration’s handling of foreign policy rely on snap judgments of a sample of the population. It is easy to say things. Yet, a mature examination of the innermost feelings of the US public would likely yield that there is great disappointment over the handling of US foreign policy.

Obama does not want the US military to intervene on the ground in the Syria. However, the conscience of the US public has been struck by news media reports that ISIS fighters have moved en mass with near impunity through Iraq, a country in which the US, for over eight years, invested so much blood and treasure. Watching reports on mass executions and the establishment of a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, many are left with a vapid, noncommittal sadness. Hearing the Obama administration claim that there is little the US can do just makes things worse. Leaving the Iraqis to their own devices against what has appeared as an unstoppable blitzkrieg will somehow return to haunt the US. There is a sense of “Minatur innocentibus qui parcit nocentibus” (He threatens the innocent who spares the guilty). In the long-run, the US public will not concede to this situation. The US public seeks to meet the fullness of its humanity. Where there is a need to act in the name of humanity to defend civilization against darkness, they expect action. That is how the US, as the world’s leader, is expected to behave.

Russia Is Ousted From Group of 8 by US and Allies: Things Aren’t Improving on Ukraine, But Maybe General Dempsey Can Change That

US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, is cast in the same mold of a long line of senior military leaders who have effectively advised US presidents in time of crisis.

According to a March 24, 2014, New York Times article entitled “Russia Is Ousted from Group of 8 by US and Allies,” US President Barack Obama and other leaders of the Group of 8 industrialized democracies cast Russia out of their organization to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin for his annexation of Crimea.  The leaders also threatened tougher sanctions against Russian interests if Putin escalates aggression against Ukraine.   When asked to discuss such efforts to compel a change in course by Russia, Putin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have literally shrugged their shoulders.  Other Russian officials have scoffed and mocked such measures with great bluster.  Where possible, Putin has taken parallel actions against US and other Western interests in Russia. 

Though it seems Putin may be content with his military achievements so far, US officials, policy experts, journalists, as well as pundits outside of the policy making process, insist upon ratcheting up the situation, publicly declaring that an even greater threat exists from Putin.  Indeed, they pessimistically imagine Putin engaging in further aggression, ostensibly attempting to also annex territories of various former Soviet republics in which ethnic-Russian populations dominate, using the pretext of self-determination with those groups.  In doing so, they perhaps unwittingly have suggested Putin’s actions may mirror former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s efforts to grab ethnic-Serbian held territory in break-away Yugoslav republics to form a “Greater Serbia.”

Putin is astute enough to realize Crimea may be more than enough for Russia to handle.  As former US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage recently commented at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event, “We’re going to see if Crimea becomes a small bone in Putin’s throat.”  In that vein, the US and its Western partners will have their hands full, too, trying to build Ukraine up economically, politically, socially, and militarily. Russian media reports remain rife with suspicions and accusations of US involvement in the collapse of the regime in Kiev that was friendly to Moscow.  They emphasize to the Russian people that their country has an upper hand in the situation.  One news anchor in Moscow reminded Russian viewers that “Russia is still the only country in the world capable of turning the U.S.A. into radioactive ash.”

On the positive side, meetings between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who have regularly worked together on other urgent and important issues for both countries, have already begun.  Every effective channel reportedly has been opened by the US to express a message to Russians of US concerns about Ukraine.  However, there seems to be a notion held by Putin and Russian officials in their heightened state of alert that any efforts to find common ground with the US would amount to appeasement.  Expressions of US positions have been interpreted as US demands, eliciting a reflex response by Moscow not only to reject those positions, but any proposals drawn from them.  Communications are now somewhat mangled.  All important telephone conversations between Obama and Putin have been reduced to bristling confrontations between the two.  By all accounts, the conversations very likely would have been a finger-wagging sessions between Putin and Obama if they had taken place face to face.  The situation remains tense and dangerous.

Thinking outside of the box, handling the Russians, even with very apparent political and diplomatic aspects of the problem, might be facilitated with more input from a member of the US national security team who had recent success in negotiating with senior Russian military officials on critical defense matters.  That individual is US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey.  In addition to knowing what the most concerning Russian military capabilities and possibilities for action might be, his professional military experience, depth of knowledge, understanding of history, insights and worldliness, make him someone Obama perhaps could rely on more heavily for advice on the Ukrainian crisis.  Indeed, as a senior military officer he may possesses the capability of being effective in advising Obama in such crises in a way perhaps not possible for other presidential advisers at the moment.

Dempsey was recommended for the job of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Gates had already nominated Dempsey to be the Army Chief of Staff. In his recent book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Knopf, 2014), Gates explains that Dempsey had commanded forces in Iraq and command in Iraq or Afghanistan was a quality he wanted in the next chairman.  Gates also thought Dempsey had also performed superbly as the deputy commander and acting commander of the US Central Command.  When notifying Dempsey of his decision to nominate him as chairman, Gates explained to Dempsey that he was well-equipped to face the challenges of the budget, to lead the chiefs as a team, to maintain cohesion, and to help a new secretary of defense manage the relationship between the military services and the president.  Obama has clearly been very satisfied with Dempsey, selecting him twice as chairman.

Dempsey has dealt with a challenging agenda since assuming his present post.  Most relevant in the Ukraine crisis has been Dempsey’s part of the process of ensuring sustained positive US-Russian relations.  Dempsey recently demonstrated his ability to manage line of communication and promote constructive conversations with the Russians when he met with General Valery Gerasimov, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation on January 21, 2014, in Brussels.  In that long-scheduled meeting, Dempsey displayed solid judgment and diplomatic acumen to advance an agenda for bilateral military relations.  The two generals produced a workable agreement that detailed 67 activities on which the armed forces of the US and Russia would continue to cooperate, despite pre-existing political and diplomatic problems and new concerns that arose over security assistance at the Sochi Olympic Games.  Indeed, the meeting came amidst a blitz of criticism leveled against Putin and organizers of the Games by US officials.  Those criticisms served to create the impression worldwide that the Games in Sochi were not safe to visit. The comments were almost perfectly designed to evoke the worst reaction possible from the Russians. 

Upon seeing Gerasimov, Dempsey likely noted he was a tough general, but not totally devoid of charm. As recounted through press reports of the Moscow Times, RT, RIA Novosti, Interfax, and other Russian press offices and of the American Forces Press Service (AFPS), Reuters, and the New York Times, Dempsey sought cooperation from Gerasimov through encouraging him to consider their unique situation as commanders of the most powerful military forces in the world.  Both were well aware of the esoteric, advanced, and frightening technologies that could be brought to bear in war and the need to maintain peace and stability in their nations’ relations and throughout the world.  Cooperation was the best way to achieve that end.  Dempsey was quoted as saying, “I think we have an opportunity to advance the relationship on areas of common interest.” Issues such as the US missile defense system, vehemently opposed by Moscow, were discussed.  However, Dempsey noted to Gerasimov’s apparent appreciation that Russia was a vital partner to NATO providing supply lines for its mission in Afghanistan, agreeing to allow the movement of nonlethal material to and from the war zone through Russian territory.  That rail and road network is becoming increasingly important as protests in Pakistan choke efforts to use the more convenient supply lines there.  Dempsey reassured Gerasimov about US and NATO efforts to ensure stability in Afghanistan after the departure of the International Security Assistance Force at the end of 2014.  Gerasimov asked for regular updates on the US and NATO effort to train, advise, and equip Afghan National Security Forces, as well as Afghanistan’s ability to maintain and control transportation lines in and out of the country. In an AFPS interview, Dempsey was quoted as stating: “We agree that a stable Afghanistan that is not a sanctuary for terrorism is in our common interests.”

By the end of the meeting, Gerasimov was comfortable enough to endorse “regular contacts” between their militaries as “quite useful.”  Pointing to the less than congenial political and diplomatic relations between the US and Russia, Dempsey said it was important for the militaries “not to foreclose on conversations, even if at some points there are disagreements that prevent the forward movement” in other parts of the relationship whether political or diplomatic.  There could be no better time to consider using of that effective line of communication than now.

At the same meeting, to ensure a safe and secure Olympics, Dempsey made a nearly open-ended offer to Gerasimov to provide “full assistance” from the US military, echoing an offer made to Putin by phone that same week.  Gerasimov’s reaction of expressing a need for anti-IED technology was plausible to the extent that Islamic militants could have used roadside bombs against Russian government or civilian vehicle at the Games.  However, Russian Islamic militants were viewed as more likely to carry out a martyrdom operation (suicide attack) than plant a roadside bomb and detonate it at a distance.  If Gerasimov hoped to exploit US concerns and generosity, that all stopped with Dempsey.  He understood the implications of just giving it away, nonetheless, Dempsey remained quite respectful of the Russians’ request.  He understood that it was after all the job of the Russian security services to seek advantages over potential adversaries, and the effort to exploit the thinking among US political officials should have been expected.  There was a guarantee that Dempsey despite Gerasimov’s push for US technology would be guided foremost by his duty to defend the US.  Abiding by that, Dempsey seemingly, instinctively stood his ground against Russian appeals “in the interest of improving military cooperation and communication” while truly seeking to further military ties likely more earnestly than his Russian counterpart.

Dempsey’s insight on working with military elements of the Russian government could help his president through this crisis.  Dempsey may very likely be able to demonstrate that there is a way to deal with Russians even under current conditions.  He may be able to bring Russia to the diplomatic table, despite the very militaristic and aggressive mindset in which Russian leaders are currently steeped.  In a pinch, he may very-well act as a brake on any possible runaway breakdown in US-Russian communications. 

However, to be most effective in providing perspective and military advice from the chiefs for Obama on Ukraine, Dempsey would need to heed lessons from his experience with Obama on Syria in August 2013.  From that experience, Dempsey likely foresaw difficulties advisers would have in getting Obama to rapidly come to terms with any plans or proposals offered on Ukraine.  Providing a range of military option to effectively achieve objectives based on the president’s concepts, would be not be sufficient enough with Obama.  On Syria, Dempsey was initially tasked with providing advice and viable options for calibrated military strikes in response to Obama’s expressed goal of deterring and degrading Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons. In his Rose Garden statement, Obama took comfort in Dempsey’s advice, stating confidently: “The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs has informed me that we are prepared to strike whenever we choose.  Moreover, the Chairman has indicated to me that our capacity to execute this mission is not time-sensitive; it will be effective tomorrow, or next week, or one month from now.”  Yet, Obama was actually driven to resolve the crisis not by military action, but in a manner that would allow his worldview—that problems can be solved at the diplomatic table using reason and logic—to win through.  Unable to quickly find that handle to the situation, uncertainty and indecisiveness ultimately prevailed.  Obama was apparently paralyzed by fears of a bitter scenario that would have the US and the region embroiled in a larger conflict as a result of such action.  That was coupled by his concerns over the legal ramifications and international implications of military action against Assad regime.  Not knowing how best to respond, Obama strayed from a path of assertive and decisive action which most likely would have achieved all military goals and had a strong educational effect on Assad.  After making very shrill accusations that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had crossed his red-line by using chemical weapons, Obama made the now world renown decision not to take military action.  Obama settled for a deal Russia proposed and negotiated with the US to eliminate Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile.

Seeing how wrenching and difficult the decision making process on Syria was for his president, Dempsey surely understands that to ensure advice to Obama on Ukraine would be effective, the advice of the chiefs on military aspects of the situation would need to go in tandem with helping Obama remain strong and of good courage in the face of daunting circumstances.  Fears of greater problems stimulate the imagination, can lead to a pessimistic outlook on the future, and often cause a leader to deviate from a path.  Remaining confident a resolute when a crisis is brewing is made more difficult in a dispute such as the one between the US and Russia on Ukraine, when party seems determined to maintain an environment unfavorble for communication.  Dempsey’s advice in that respect would need to be direct and personal.  An example of how Dempsey might proceed would be to first put matters in perspective by discussing Ukraine from the context of the military stalemate that has existed between the US and Russia during and since the Cold War based in part on first-hand experience as a US Army officer.  Following that, Dempsey could assist Obama in understanding the calculated risks and possible outcomes of a variety of diplomatic and military initiatives with Russia given assessments made both in the past and present to make the situation more controllable for his president.  Consideration of what is possible to do and what will likely be faced would also facilitate reaching decisions on options to help bring Putin and Russian officials to a point where negotiation on the issues might be possible.  That is the advice Obama apparently wants foremost.  Along the way, Dempsey could continually assure Obama that he has the full support of the military chiefs.  He could assist Obama in mulling over possible courses of action to ensure a sharpening of his perception and clarity of direction.

Boiled down, Dempsey’s role would be that of mentor or coach for Obama, who apparently is still trying to understand how to manage US military capabilities, leveraging US strength through diplomacy and engaging in decision making on the use of force to deter and defeat opponents.  Putin and Russian officials may discern “tweaks” in Obama administration’s message and communications prompted by Dempsey, and respond favorably to a request to negotiate.

The Way Forward

The US and its European partners have met to discuss and level sanctions and other economic actions against Russian interests in retribution to the Crimea-grab and to deter Russian efforts to further destabilize a weak Ukraine.  However, Putin has executed plans to annex Crimea and a return to the status quo ante will not occur.  For Obama’s advisers, finding ways to bring Russia to the diplomatic table, given the confrontational attitude of Putin and Russian leaders, has been challenging.  However, resolving the Ukraine crisis may more importantly require bringing Obama to see and understand that it requires a certain agility to develop solutions for coping with opponents whose thinking is different from his own.  “Might doesn’t make right,” an utterance recently heard from Obama, is not best philosophy to which one might subscribe when dealing with real aggression.  This is particularly true for the US which predicates its ability to engage effectively in diplomacy worldwide on its capability to enforce its policies and protect its interests with considerable military power.

Advisers such as Susan Rice, Antony Blinken, Wendy Sherman, and Samantha Power, in addition to well-experience officials as Joe Biden, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and John Brennan, certainly have a great deal to offer to Obama.  Yet, results show that they, most likely for various important reasons, have been unable able to reach Obama over the Ukraine crisis in a manner that has allowed him to appear truly in control of the situation.  There is a certain “human element” to advising leaders in time of crisis. In recent history, a line of remarkable senior military officers have very effectively served their presidents in a manner described here. Included among them are: Maxwell Taylor, Brent Scowcroft, Stansfield Turner, Alexander Haig, Colin Powell, and James Jones.  Dempsey was recommended as chairman based on his military experience.  That same military experience made him “expert” in encouraging, advising, and coaching fellow commanders in difficult circumstances.  Dempsey’s counsel would truly help his president in dealing with Putin and the Russians beyond the battlefield or even the diplomatic table.  Hopefully, Obama will somehow come to understand the benefits that would come from more fully utilizing Dempsey, and seek “greater” counsel from him soon.