Commentary: The Hanoi Summit: What Kim Did Wrong and What Trump Is Doing Right

US President Donald Trump (left) and North Korean Chairman Kim Jong-un (right). Before the Hanoi Summit, Trump insisted that if he became unsatisfied with the meeting’s progress, he would walk away from the table. That was precisely what he did. It is not easy to comprehend what might have impelled Kim’s decision not reach a common understanding with Trump in order to create a denuclearization agreement. Yet, regardless of what drove Kim, the question of what will come of all the diplomatic work done to this point remains. Of particular interest might be how Trump might assess Kim’s actions and intentions in Hanoi’s aftermath.

The strains placed on both US President Donald Trump and Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) Chairman Kim Jong-un in their February 27-28, 2019 meeting in Hanoi were quite significant. The intended outcome of the meeting, that primarily being an agreement on denuclearization and North Korea’s economic rejuvenation, would have been positive for both sides. Before Hanoi, Trump put considerable energy into considering the type of partnership with Kim that would be largely economic, and certainly serve the interests of the US and its regional allies. He remained optimistic despite being bombarded by the voices of pessimism heard from naysayers and dream killers of all political stripes. For Kim, moving North Korea along a path toward the economic miracle that Trump proposed would require a well-planned, monumental project to restructure the only world he and his people have known. Surely, it was worth the candle for both Trump.and Kim to make a go at it. However, it may very well be that Kim did not fully understand that everything North Korea is, and everything it has, was actually at stake. To that extent, North Korea may not have been properly invested in the move toward denuclearization. It appears even Kim’s purported percipience of Trump and US foreign and national security policy making was also lacking. (Perhaps that knowledge was simply not being properly applied in practice.) .

Trump insisted before the Hanoi Summit, much as he had before negotiations with other national leaders on agreements, that if he became unsatisfied the meeting’s progress, he would walk away from the table. That is precisely what he did. It is not easy to comprehend what might have impelled Kim’s decision not to reach a common understanding with Trump and create a denuclearization agreement. Given Kim’s human rights record, some might suggest may have been influenced by ingenious telepathy from Hell. Sardonics aside, the talk’s outcome provides indicia to support a few reasonable theories. Thinking outside of the box in order to find causality for Kim’s decision, one might conclude on a basic level, that the whole negotiation soon became too rich for his blood and rather than take a giant step forward and risk making the wrong choice, he held pat on his position. On a higher tier, one might assess that there may have been senior advisers in Pyongyang who convinced Kim that he could get Trump to eat out of his hand, and in a leap of faith, he tossed everything into an effort to twist Trump’s tail and get him to accept a deal shaped by North Korea’s terms. Additionally, there is the possibility that some self-doubt might have found a place in Kim’s thinking. Despite his leadership through iron rule, one might also politely conclude that Kim possesses a sort of 50-50 mentality. That would mean that Kim can see the potential of all arguments, even those made by the US. From that, it might be considered that he would typically need more time to reach a decision that would best suit North Korea long-term. In whatever way Kim may have been driven, the question now is what will come of all the diplomatic work done to this point. Of particular interest might be how Trump might assess Kim’s actions and intentions in the aftermath of Hanoi. Having apparently gotten things mixed up in Hanoi, hopefully Kim will not mess things up from this point on with Trump. Si sapis, alterum alteri misce: nec speraveris sine desperatione nec desperaveris sine spe. (If you are wise, mingle these two elements: do not hope without despair, or despair without hope.)

Is Kim Missing the Bigger Picture?

Right on the heels of the summit’s closing, Trump held a unilateral press conference in Hanoi on February 28, 2019, essentially to explain why an agreement could not be reached. Trump told reporters that the crux of the matter was sanctions. In summarizing the situation, Trump stated Kim wanted sanctions lifted to a degree in which they would be rendered ineffective. In exchange, Kim would be willing to denuclearize portions of critical areas. Yet, Trump said those testing areas Kim was willing to break down were not the ones the US wanted. They were hardly enough to elicit the cessation of sanctions. Since Kim held firm to that position, Trump explained that there was little choice but to walk away from that proposal. However, Trump never indicated the conversation on the denuclearization had been exhausted.

Indeed, Trump expressed the belief, “I think we’ll end up being very good friends with Chairman Kim and with North Korea, and I think they have tremendous potential.” He insisted that the US despite the outcome has not “given up on anything.” His sense that progress on denuclearization was bolstered by the fact that Kim even had an interest in closing down parts of the nuclear program. Additionally, Trump reminded that, “There’s no more testing. And one of the things, importantly, that Chairman Kim promised me last night is, regardless, he’s not going to do testing of rockets and nuclear. Not going to do testing.  So, you know, I trust him, and I take him at his word.  I hope that’s true.” As for how the parties might move forward with the diplomatic process following Hanoi, Trump explained: “In the meantime, we’ll be talking. Mike [Pompeo, US Secretary of State] will be speaking with his people. He’s also developed a very good relationship with the people — really, the people representing North Korea. I haven’t spoken to Prime Minister Abe yet. I haven’t spoken to President Moon of South Korea.  But we will, and we’ll tell them it’s a process and it’s moving along.”

There was no legitimate cause for any confusion in Pyongyang as to what Trump wants in return for a prospective partnership is the same prize that was at the root of his decision to talk with Kim: denuclearization, the end of long-range missile development, the continued return of US remains from the Korean War, and dependability. As one can see, progress made on some of these matters was mentioned by Trump during his Hanoi press conference. In exchange, Kim would be assured that economic pressure, sanctions, would be mitigated, and a robust path toward economic renewal, backed by the experience of Trump and the largess of the US would be initiated.

The Trump administration officials, particularly US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have sought to engage in very open, honest, and frank communications with their DPRK counterparts. That would include making inquiries regarding what is happening within the chambers of decision making of North Korea. From that information, the administration has been able to proceed with a good idea of whether success is possible. There have also been letters from Kim to Trump that have provided a sense of where things stand in North Korea regarding denuclearization. There was also no ambiguity over the fact that the Trump administration certainly does not want to give up the strengths and equities of its alliances with allies. Those ties that bind allies in the region are the same ties that assure unity when dealing with China. Alas, at the table, the maximum that Kim could possibly collect about Trump, in order to make a good decision on the deal offered, was put before him, for all answers concerning the US position, concept and intent, ultimately resided in Trump, himself. Kim and his aides and advisers in Pyongyang could not reasonably ask for anything more.

It would say much if Kim could not see that real empathy may have come from Trump, understanding how heavy a burden such a decision might be for the young leader. Previous deals with North Korea of great significance were last reached with his father, Kim Jong-un, and they crumbled under the insistent strain within North Korea, in Kim regime to pursue the goal of his father and grandfather, Kim Il-sung of developing nuclear weapons. That goal has been achieved.  There may still be the strain within Kim to ignite an economic development akin, or even beyond, the Chollima Movement, as initiated by Kim’s grandfather and hero, Kim Il-sung. There is much that needs to done in North Korea, and as Trump has repeated, great potential exists within its workforce.

Trump’s critics and detractors insisted that Trump was out of court to even attempt to reach agreement with Kim that would meet the requirement of serving the interests of the US and its allies in the region. Surely, the Trump administration would never surrender  the strengths and equities of its alliances with allies. Those ties that bind allies in the region are the same ties that assure unity when dealing with China. Those critics and detractors, upon discovering that Trump was unfazed by their persistent negative voices and was going to make the effort anyway, eventually turned to the standby criticism concerning any of Trump’s efforts on foreign and national security policy: he is unqualified. Further, they would also insist that behind everything Kim has done was a hostile DPRK plot, a “Red plot”, to lure Trump and the US to destruction.

The Snare of Insufficient Analysis

Attacks by critics and detractors of Trump have manifested more than elementary cynicism. The dark shadows of their machinations gathered as the Hanoi Summit came near. Their efforts did more more than serve to tear those in the US public who are supportive of Trump away from him. Despite claims from Trump’s political adversaries, and the usual critics and detractors that what was happening in Washington had no impact on what occurred in Hanoi, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it would seem that Pyongyang, unfortunately chose to do what was expedient. That meant believing Trump was stressed from the potential release of a final report of the Special Counsel to Investigate Russian Interference with the 2016 Presidential Election and Related Matters. There have been repeated insinuation that Trump faced the threat of investigations by the Deputy US Attorney for Southern District of New York and the New York State Attorney General. Pyongyang might have believed that Trump, caught in the wave of excitement concerning the 2020 US Presidential Campaign, mystifying reports of supposed gains by Democrats in polls versus Trump, and the reported mayhem that exists within the mainstream political parties. There may have been the belief that Kim could capitalize on some forecasted by the intelligence services on the impatience on the part of Trump. Reports commentaries, and opinion pieces in the US news media surely would have rung a bell for Kim’s aides and advisers and analysts in North Korea’s intelligence services. From that, it would follow that Trump’s political difficulties at home would likely distract him. If any of this was the case, it may explain why Pyongyang seemingly went all in on an effort to force Trump’s hand.

What Trump confidently knew, but Kim and his aides and advisers in Pyongyang would have unlikely been able to discern clearly, was that the hearings of the Judiciary Committee of the US House of Representatives and in camera testimony before the Intelligence Committee of the US House of Representatives in which Trump’s erstwhile attorney Michael Cohen testified, in essence amounted to vanity projects undertaken by political opponents of Trump in his rival Democratic Party. Although the hearings grabbed headlines in the US news media while Trump met with Kim in Hanoi, the new information gained from them was for the most part already widely known. As it has been repeatedly counseled by greatcharlie, reacting, and much worse, inferring how Trump’s mind moves on an issue from stories, iniquitous commentaries, and opinion pieces in the US news media. For the most part, US news media houses have done a complete job presenting themselves as Trump’s adversary, not simply critics and detractors. In either case, they are not playing the impartial watchdog role in which the fourth estate is supposed to serve.

Leaders often take unimaginable risks under stress. One could surmise that Kim must have been under some stress at home. Indeed, looking at Kim objectively, the question would be whether Kim was being ambitious or desperate in Hanoi. There is the possibility that in the intelligence services or the Workers’ Party of Korea, it may have posited that Trump could be manipulated into accepting a deal far less than he originally wanted. Lending support for the idea would be that Kim managed to secure a second meeting and that Kim was the actual master at the negotiation table with Trump, and he could take US President down whatever path he wanted. Although it may all sound like daylight madness, it is actually the sort of colorization of policy with delusional notions of an all powerful supreme leader that has underpinned many prior ham-handed decisions by Pyongyang. Nam qui peccare se nescit, corrigi non vult. (If one doesn’t know his mistakes, he won’t want to correct them.)

Kim’s 50-50 Personality?

One might theorize that Kim’s failure to return home with a constructive answer may not have driven as much by politics but by the possibility that he possesses a 50-50 personality. This is not intended as a disparagement or an affront. It is not to suggest that Kim is a mixed bag, or worse, indecisive. It does not mean Kim is regularly afflicted by the paralysis of analysis. The 50-50 personality is the one able to see beyond black and white to the grey areas of significance. Kim cannot be pegged as one extreme or the other. Kim’s trained ability to project calmness and authority in all circumstances publicly has little relation to what might be stirring within. In private, he may in reality be as much the introvert as the extrovert, he may entertain his sense of things as much as use a honed intuition. He may try to feel through issues and situations coupled with thinking them through ad infinitum. He may be willing to use his perception of matters taking into account his experience and much as making calibrated judgments based on available facts and methods of analysis.

New Problems or a Curious Attempt to Ignite Further Talks?

Kim has created an additional problem himself at this point. Reportedly, he has sought to reconstruct a disassembled testing facility for long range rockets at Tongchang-ri. On first blush, it certainly does seem there is nefarious purpose behind his actions. It is hard to see how anyone could view Kim as anything but an aggressor. Trump has invested in diplomacy to resolve matters in contention: North Korea’s nuclear program and its long range delivery systems. Tactical moves must have payoffs or they are useless exertions, often opening the door for opponent to act. Kim, having met Trump, should not be under any illusion that Trump would not respond fiercely to moves he might find aggressive and or threatening. Kim does not need to extrapolate and infer anything from overt or covert sources that his intelligence services may be relying upon to understand and predict Trump’s moves. The suspension of military exercises should not have signalled to Kim that Trump is not interested in a military option. As he indicated in words he has since set aside in the spirit of negotiating some resolution, North Korea’s aggression would met with “ fire and fury the world has never known!” Pardon greatcharlie’s freedom, but military exercises with conventional forces would hold less significance on the North Korea front if an attack conceived by Trump would include the use of scores of nuclear weapons.

Does Kim Really Know What Is Best for North Korea?

Even with the notion that he has a type of 50-50 mentality, and with all of his revolutionary zeal and his commitment to the Communist movement taken into consideration, Kim must realize that Trump’s deal was too good to pass on. Nevertheless, he did so. Looking at the matter purely from the perspective of an external observer, Kim made a big mistake. As a national leader concerned with his people’s real future and being much more than a functionary within the system, logic should have driven him toward it. One stands on shaky ground saying anything positive about Kim given the sensitivity of government agencies in the US to such comments, nonetheless, failing to engage Trump for a bit longer in Hanoi on the development of a fitting agreement for both parties was not a surprising error for a national leader who is new to such high stakes diplomacy. Errant consilia nostra, quia non habent quo derigantur; ignoranti quem portum petat nullus suus ventus est. (Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.)

A logical next step for Kim and his aides and advisers, if they are truly interested in, and dedicated to, this important diplomatic process, might be to try to get the toothpaste back into the tube. A sign that such an effort could already be underway might be official statements by the foreign ministry of North Korea insisting that there was a desire in Pyongyang for a partial denuclearization. Indeed, on February 28, 2019 in Hanoi, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho explained that Kim’s regime sought only “partial” sanctions relief in return for dismantling the North’s main enrichment capabilities for fissile material. As for continued negotiations, Ri stated, “It is difficult to say whether there might be a better agreement than the one based on our proposal at current stage.” He continued authoritatively, “Our principal stance will remain invariable and our proposal will never be changed, even though US proposes negotiation again in the future.” Ri also confirmed that the North would be willing to “permanently dismantle all the nuclear material production facilities” at the main Yongbyon nuclear site and allow U.S. nuclear experts to observe. He went on to complain that North Korea had sought an end to “sanctions that hamper the civilian economy, and the livelihood of all people in particular,” citing five out of 11 sanctions packages imposed by the UN Security Council. As mentioned earlier, sanctions relief along those lines would have amounted to a significant easing of the pressure on North Korea.

Although some somber and astute analysts might reach the conclusion that the foreign ministry’s bold, inaccurate statements, with their familiar antagonistic cadence, was simply a pretension, one more dramatic expression of Pyongyang. The odd hope of it all would appear to be influencing opinion among senior officials of the Workers Party of Korea and other elites of business circles of the society that Trump was not sincere about sanctions relief and he failed to respond to what is likely extolled in Pyongyang as Kim’s “generous offer”. It may very well have been the case that Pyongyang had the foreign ministry’s statement “locked and cocked” even before Kim left by train for Hanoi in the event that Trump would not accept the terms he planned to offer him.

The Agony of Negotiating with North Korea

It is interesting how North Korean officials have spoken so obstinately of Trump’s openhandedness toward their country. Perhaps Pyongyang has forgotten that Kim is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea. (That is unlikely something anyone in Pyongyang would ever say in Kim’s presence.) Among industrialized countries, ruling out the Russian Federation and China, few governments hold a favorable opinion of North Korea. Pyongyang should rest assured that a number of capable US allies have likely suggested in confidence that Trump should move on from diplomacy and simply use military force on North Korea and indicated the willingness to join that effort. Trump, the one that North Korean Foreign Ministry officials now criticize, is the national leader who truly has the military power to destroy North Korea, yet he has given it a chance to prove its positive intentions to the world. Trump has sought to create the circumstances in which the entire world could begin to think well of North Korea and consider ways to work well with it. Trump’s description of his contacts and communications with Kim and public statements about his friendship and chemistry with him, have made him far less the threat that deservedly made headlines with angry words and aggressive moves in 2017 when the administration began. Trump kept his promise to work directly with Kim on the diplomacy, although it would unlikely have gone any other way as he has become the administration’s talisman on bilateral diplomacy, trade talks, essentially every kind of dealmaking. More than half way through his term as of this writing, Trump has amassed a record of making things happen; getting things done.

Not under any circumstances would the reconstruction of the testing site fall under the category of a benign act. It would hard to see where Pyongyang, having had two bites at the diplomacy apple, might hope to have some understanding of its move to reconstruct it’s long-range rocket testing site in a positive way in Washington or anywhere in the US for that matter. In reconstructing the testing site, Kim is doing precisely what Trump said he did not want North Korea to do. Nonetheless, taking a second look at the matter of Kim’s move to reconstruct the testing site from another angle purely out of academic interest and with a dose of optimism, one could say that the effort, albeit poorly conceived, was designed to create a position of perceived strength and encourage Trump to talk with Kim again. After all, that step was less threatening than other available options to garner immediate attention, create urgency. Kim could have begun reconstruction on a shuttered nuclear facility or begun building a new one. Kim could have made unsubstantiated public claims of possessing new nuclear technologies to enrich uranium for weapons such as the ability to separate isotopes through laser excitation (“SILEX”). (Note, this is just a hypothetical. There is no effort here to suggest that North Korea possesses such capabilities.) For Pyongyang, the danger in engaging in such tricky stuff is that the wrong signal may be sent to Washington. By and large, Pyongyang has asked the Trump administration to be patient and to recognize that on the world stage, North Korea is going to display a lack of sophistication, savoir faire, and present itself as the isolated, authoritarian “hermit kingdom” it has always been. While it may have hoped to move things in a specific way, it is possible that what might be intended through such moves could be lost in the labyrinth. Perhaps even unknowingly, Pyongyang has placed its best hope in Trump’s willingness to interpret its moves in a somewhat positive way and view the diplomatic effort as being worth the trouble.

It is apparent that Trump along with those foreign and national security policy officials who were optimistic about a deal being reached on denuclearization with North Korea, reasoned that it would be worth giving Kim the benefit of doubt.  However, one could never be completely clear on how denuclearization would fit into the worldview of the Workers’ Party of Korea or Kim’s inner thinking. Shots have not been fired at anger across the border. There has been no testing over nuclear devices and no testing of long-range or short-range rockets. If a chance might be taken in the name of finding a peaceful agreement, right now is certainly the time to take them. It certainly would be a ashame if the positive spirit which had been discern in the White House from Kim’s thoughts, words, and deeds from Singapore until Hanoi, was simply imputed by the administration to greater degree than warranted. Admittedly, it is hard to understand why Pyongyang would at this point, hope for peace while reconstructing a testing facility for long-range rockets.

It is worth noting that in a more forceful, less grateful statement than Ri’s on February 28, 2019, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui, explained: “The impression I got observing this summit from the side was that our chairman seems to have difficulty understanding the US way of reckoning.” Choe, offering her own assessment, declared: “I felt that our chairman has lost the will to engage in dealmaking, with the US saying that even a partial lifting of sanctions for the civilian economy is hard.” Conditions surely will not change through diplomacy if Pyongyang refuses to negotiate. If anything positive could be gleaned from Choe’s statement, itself, it is the fact that the harshest words were delivered by a vice foreign minister, not Kim or a very senior Workers’ Party of Korea official. That may have left the door open for Kim or a senior officials to walk back from those words, making diplomacy with the hope that cobbling together a denuclearization agreement might still be viable. Apparently, Trump mercifully brushed off pretentious statements by DPRK’s officials on their country’s power relative to that of the US, and the great disproportion between them with reality. It is difficult to determine how long Trump’s patience will last though. Given a third chance, Kim might goof again.

Trump certainly has not indicated that he feels the time has come to tie things off. It may be that Trump is more concerned with the prospect of millions of lives being lost if he does not give it every chance. When asked in Hanoi whether the bridge could be gapped between Kim’s desire to have all or a significant portion of sanctions removed and his desire to more significant denuclearization, he responded: “With time.  It’ll be bridged, I think, at a certain point.  But there is a gap.  We have to have sanctions.  And he wants to denuke, but he wants to just do areas that are less important than the areas that we want.  We know that — we know the country very well, believe it or not.  We know every inch of that country.  And we have to get what we have to get, because that’s a big — that’s a big give.” 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.)

Commentary: Border Protection and National Security: Will a Border Wall Be Useful or Useless?

Graphic of US President Donald Trump’s vision of a “physical barrier” for the Southern Border (above). Trump has requested additional funds for its overall approach to border security, to include $5.7 billion for a wall. The wall would serve as an impediment to people and vehicles moving north. Its steel bars, embedded deep in concrete, making it relatively impervious to demolition and hindering excavation. Pointed heads on its steel bars would allow it to function in much as an abbatis. To Congressional Democrats, a physical barrier across the entire border is expensive and ineffective, and insist they will never fund it. The result has been an awful muddle.

While greatcharlie has kept abreast of the debate in the US on building a wall along the US-Mexico border, the matter had not found its way on our radar until it was labelled a national security issue. The matter has been discussed so often and for so long in the US news media that the landscape is already familiar to most. US President Donald Trump, being thoroughly convinced of the need for a “border wall”  or “physical barrier”, is insisting on $5.7 billion for its completion. With his eyes wide open, he leaped into a  protracted struggle with Democratic Congressional leaders, Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and  Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi, to get that funding. To encourage them to take that step, as of this writing, Trump has allowed a segment of the government to shut down for over a month by refusing to sign any spending bill that would keep it open unless funding for the wall was included in it. Congressional Democrats have refused to provide that funding. As a result, over 800,000 federal employees have either furloughed or have continued working without their salaries. Congressional Democrats paint a picture that is very black on “Trump’s Wall.” They have abrasively called the idea of a physical barrier across the entire border expensive and ineffective, and insist that they will never fund it. They believe an authentic solution to problems on the Southern Border would involve more personnel, drones, and detection technology.

The result has been an awful muddle. Although both sides apportion blame, and responsibility for any ensuing consequences, to one another. One side will eventually need to face the music. On January 4, 2019, President Donald Trump first publicly mentioned using executive authority to build the border wall. That has become a real possibility. It is not an affectation to state that in discussing this matter, greatcharlie does not seek to admire or condemn one side or the other. What is here will hopefully provide, not in an immodest way, some brief, additional facts and ideas deprived from popular public arguments. If it contributes in some way to the policy debate on the border wall, greatcharlie would be satisfied.

During his January 8, 2019 speech from the Oval Office, Trump provided statistics in support of his belief that a worsening problem at the Southern Border was a humanitarian crisis that is now relevant to US national security. In his “Address to the Nation on the Crisis at the Border” on the evening of January 8, 2019, Trump explained that 2,000 inadmissible migrants arrive at our border every day and overwhelm our immigration system. Countries of the so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central America which include Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, have shown a significant spike in illegal immigration to the US. Reportedly, many families from the Northern Triangle have rushed from countries with significant levels of violent crime. Data indicates that in 2016, El Salvador had the world’s highest murder rate (82.8 homicides per 10,000 people), followed by Honduras (at a rate of 56.5). Guatemala was 10th (at 27.3), according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Another motivating force for migration from Northern Triangle countries is poverty. Those countries are among the poorest in Latin America. Some reportedly have seen a reduction of extreme poverty in recent years, however, large numbers of their populations live on less than $2 a day (the international poverty line is $1.90).

Indeed terms of impact, Trump pointed out in his January 8, 2019 address that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has arrested 266,000 aliens with criminal records in the last two years. He indicated that statistic includes aliens charged or convicted of 100,000 assaults, nearly 30,000 sex crimes, and 4,000 violent killings. Reports from the Pew Research Center show that among ICE arrestees in 2017 with prior convictions, the most common criminal conviction category was driving under the influence of alcohol (59,985 convictions, or 16% of the total), followed by possessing or selling “dangerous drugs” such as opioids (57,438, or 15%). Immigration offenses, which include illegal entry or false claim to US citizenship, were the third-most common crime type (52,128 convictions, or 14%). Apparently, those arrested can have more than one type of conviction or pending charge so the total number of charges and convictions is greater than the total number of arrestees; ICE counts an immigrant with a prior criminal conviction and pending criminal charges only in the criminal conviction category. Regarding drug trafficking, Trump explained deadly drugs are flowing across our borders, taking far too many US citizens: 300 die every week from heroin, 90% of which comes across our Southern Border. According to the 2015 National Drug Threat Assessment, the largest share of heroin and methamphetamine comes across the border in trucks and personal vehicles, using secret compartments or hiding the drugs amidst legitimate products.

Trump further explained in his address that the US does not have the resources needed to hold migrant entering the US illegally, and legal loopholes and activist court rulings prevent authorities from promptly returning them. He pointed to Immigration courts are overwhelmed, with a backlog of over 800,000 cases. With the goal of securing the Southern Border, to protect US communities, the Trump Administration has requested additional funds relative to the Department of Homeland Security funding bill that passed the Senate Appropriations Committee. Within that request for funds as part of an overall approach to border security, Trump stated: “Law enforcement professionals have requested $5.7 billion for a physical barrier. At the request of Democrats, it will be a steel barrier rather than a concrete wall. This barrier is absolutely critical to border security. It’s also what our professionals at the border want and need. This is just common sense.”

Remedium irae est mora. (The cure for anger is delay.) Despite their polemic, Trump does not necessarily see Congressional Democrats as misguided or worse, amoral. He feels that they are engaged in the unfortunate game of political brinkmanship, they, too, are allowing the portions of the government to remain closed. He senses that they are presenting an artificial side of themselves by rebuffing his plans for a border wall, and presenting what is simply a preferred position on the matter. As of this writing, Trump hopes Congressional Democrats will eventually face up to how injudicious their choice is and come to his way of thinking given that the national security, even more the sovereignty of the country is at stake. He believes political expediency and private emotion will obey reason and public duty. Still, though his preference is negotiation, Trump may eventually find cause the use his authority as president to declare the situation at the border a national emergency and seek funding for the wall through that process. Trump’s patience has its limits.

Given that they are well-seasoned political figures, it is very difficult to discern whether their arguments against the border wall proffered by Congressional Democratic leaders are allowed to be misleading through an act of omission, whether they simply do not understanding how the wall fits in to the broader picture of border security and purely believe in the rectitude of their argument. One might ascribe greater possibility to the later given how they handled their own efforts to create a wall on the Southern Border through the Secure Fence Act of 2006. As a result of considerable deal making among Congressional Democrats and Republicans, $1.2 million was authorized to construct 700 miles of “border fencing” along the Southern Border. It was the only option at the time, but certainly not the best approach. As a result of the authorization, the US has 649 miles of various types of walls and fences along the border. Some of it to keep pedestrians from crossing, with others meant to stop vehicles. To protect the habitat of the last North American jaguars, an endangered species, barriers are absent on a portion of the border. A good portion of the border is delineated by the Rio Grande with its canyons and bluffs and also lacks barriers. However, the border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico is nearly 2000 miles long. Much of the border, where barriers could serve the purpose of thwarting penetration, was left unprotected.

On walls and fixed fortifications, the renowned US commander in World War II, US General George Patton, explained in his memoir published posthumously in 1947, War As I Knew It: “Fixed fortifications are monuments to man’s stupidity. If mountain ranges and oceans can be overcome, anything made by man can overcome.” In Appendix D of the memoir, he added: “. . . Study the Siegfried and Maginot Line, remembering that these defenses were forced; that Troy fell; that the wall of Hadrian succumbed; that the Great Wall of China was futile . . . .” The gaping holes in the 649 mile wall that Congressional Democrats were willing to sponsor certainly left the door wide open to penetration by opponents. The limited “border fencing” concept failed miserably. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report concluded that despite 649 miles of completed fencing, the “the southwest border continues to be vulnerable to cross-border illegal activity, including the smuggling of humans and illegal narcotics.” Perhaps their understanding of the utility of a wall is greatly informed by their own unsatisfactory efforts. Yet, engaging in the symbolic act of simply raising a wall, as they did, is not the equivalent of using a wall as an obstacle and part of a larger plan for an active defense against an opponent’s continued effort to penetrate US territory. Ideally, a wall of sufficient, properly placed, should create physically and as well symbolically, a nonpermissive environment for opponents. Nam qui peccare se nescit, corrigi non vult. (If one doesn’t know his mistakes, he won’t want to correct them.)

Looking from another angle, unacknowledged and undiscussed by Congressional Democrats is the actuality that their approach to securing the Southern Border is a limited approach to managing difficulties there. Implementation of a limited approach to combating problems at the border may very likely lead to limited results. Surely, some truly comprehensive approach to coping with problems at the border would be an considerable challenge. Such an effort might include working effectually with governments of the Northern Triangle to stem the tide of migrants and illegal activities of organized crime from migrant smuggling to human trafficking, much as they cooperate on counter narcotics operations in the Drug War, would be an important element of a plan.  It would means attacking in depth at the root of the problems, such as poverty, crime, and disillusionment at home. One might even consider the starry-eyed notion of Initiating a Marshall Plan type of investment in Central America. The goal would be to economically revitalize countries and to mitigate much of the economic hardship people in them face. Steps might include eliminate financial and other resource deficiencies that have beset national, state, and local governments, hindering their capability and capacity to satisfactorily provide services to their people. There might be efforts to invest in rebuilding infrastructure, available industries, and trade, to tackle housing needs, to improve health and sanitary conditions, and to assure clean water and other natural resources serve the needs of the people. The social justice systems of those countries in the region would be revamped, and civil rights and human rights discrepancies would be addressed. These steps, indeed, only touch the surface of what would need to be done. However, with their plates already piled high with issues, selling the idea of remaking Central America will not be the agenda of any political party in the US any time soon. If securing authorization for the funding of a border wall has been difficult, one can only imagine what trying to secure funds for such a comprehensive development plan would look like. The alternative is combat the problem in a way that makes activities from illegal entry and the establishment of sequitous routes of border penetration.

The Southern Border will unlikely be completely sanitized of illegal activities, but those fighting the problem may be able to make such activities by making them unprofitable with a suite of undefeatable measures and insurmountable obstacles. The identification and neutralization of the varied illegal activities doubtlessly will require the development of tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods against the known capabilities and capacities of opponents and those forecast for future. The approach to the opponents should evolve as they invariably will shift their tactics. Use of sophisticated technologies to detect opponents’ efforts will provide border security units with greater abilities to complete their defined, enumerated tasks. Still, while technology may create greater opportunities for success, what is new will work most likely better when it is married to what is tried and true.

Congressional Democrats might argue that the border wall as envisioned by Trump would simply be a supersized obstacle. One must agree that on its face, the border wall is an obstacle. The Oxford English Dictionary defines an obstacle as a thing that blocks ones way or prevents or hinders progress. As a physical barrier, obstacles are typically used by military forces and law enforcement to impede the movement of an opponent on foot or by vehicles to prevent the achievement of their objectives or goals. Among the types of obstacles, those most relevant to discussion of the border wall are constructed obstacles and natural obstacles. The greater part of the wall would be a constructed obstacle, and much as those prepared by the military, it would serve as an impediment to people moving north on foot or in vehicles. The steel bars, embedded deep in concrete, would make the wall relatively impervious to demolition and prevent or at least greatly hinder excavation. The pointed heads of its steel bars would allow the wall to function in a way similar to an abbatis. Natural obstacles such as the Rio Grande, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico, are terrain features that severely limit the movement of people on foot and halt the movement of vehicles transporting people and contraband.

Sciant quae optima sunt esse communia. (The best ideas are common property.) A more substantial discussion on the effective use of obstacles in a military fashion is provided by the US Army. For its purposes, obstacles are part of a commander’s larger plan for offensive or defensive operations. Obstacles do far more than just blocking an opponent’s movement on its axis pf advance. Stated as plainly as possible, obstacles serve to disrupt an opponent, turning the opponent into other areas where effective ways and means can be used attack it. The obstacles used for this variety of purposes are integrated into the course of action for an operation as determined by the commander. Field Manual 3-0, Operations (FM 3-0), provides doctrine on how US Army forces, as part of a joint team, conduct sustained, large-scale combat operations with current force structure and capabilities against a regional peer. In terms of opponents, the doctrine focuses on the current Russian threat against which large-scale ground combat operations are possible. To that extent, the manual explains that the Russians integrate the use of obstacles in their operational plans, too! FM 3-0 states, “The enemy typically attempts to slow and disrupt friendly forces with a combination of obstacles, prepared positions, and favorable terrain so that they can be destroyed with massed fires [to include direct and indirect artillery and rockets].”

To simply build a border wall believing the structure itself will perfectly serve to thwart an opponent’s entry onto US territory would be both misguided and foolhardy. Surely, it would be quickly overcome by the opponent’s often unexpected ingenuity, although the border wall is an obstacle, its raison d’être is not serve solely as a static defense against opponents’ efforts. There is a broader picture of a dynamic defense of the Southern Border of which the new wall, the most visible symbol of that defense, would be a part. Indeed, the wall would integrated into the defense in a way that would perfectly support the considerable ongoing operations of law enforcement and military elements protecting the Southern Border. Indeed, the border wall will have a multiplier effect upon those operations.With regard to better supporting those operations, the Trump administration has requested: $211 million to hire 750 additional Border Patrol agents for US Customs and Border Protection (CBP); $571 million for 2,000 additional ICE personnel; $4.2 billion for 52,000 detention beds, personnel, transportation, and detention alternatives; and, $563 million for 75 additional immigration judges and support staff. Law enforcement and military elements at the Southern Border will be enabled to focus on new ways to defeat opponents’ from new angles and do more things to defeat their efforts.

Rather than suggest anyone rely solely on a few offstage meditations and considerations, historical support for some of the ideas posited here can be found from the great military commanders of the past. The world renowned military commander, Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte had a point of view on approaching a struggle with a mindset of limiting ones’ efforts: “If you wage war, do it energetically and with severity. This is the only way to make it shorter and consequently less inhuman.” While the border wall might be characterized as a huge expenditure, that will make little improvement in the struggle at the border, Congressional Democrats might discover that such small things make a big difference as the situation. As the situation on the border evolves, as the criminal elements and other opponent move the goal post for defending the border, the border wall will continue to limit and eliminate their options for movement, action.

Napoleon also explained that when resources are available and they can make difference in the field, one must deprive themselves of them. One must mass upon the opponent in order to optimize chances for success, and victory. Napoleon stated: “When you have resolved to fight a battle, collect your whole force. Dispense with nothing. A single battalion sometimes decides the day.” Using a truncated approach to border security, driven perhaps by back room political horse trading along the way, that cavalierly subtracts available elements from ones operations will nearly ensure an equivalent or worse subtraction from potential success. The problem at the border may never be mitigated. As opponents there constantly shift their strategies and tactics, and many innovative approaches to penetrating the border are revealed, the struggle may prove to be a long hard slog. Continuing with an unsatisfying tack in the face of a proven imaginative opponent, will result in both wasted energy and effort and slow spiral downward toward defeat. There may be no light at the end of the tunnel. Indeed, it is always possible that any momentum toward success could shift from the US Government in favor of border opponents who are absolutely determined to succeed, attempting to overwhelm via their efforts, never satisfied with achieving some stalemate with the US Government. They would like to find a sustainable way to make US Government efforts futile.

Given how the desire to thoroughly countering the activities of opponents across the Southern Border have shaped by the Trump administration for the border wall, interesting parallels in the concepts of the King of Prussia Frederick the Great for the use of such an obstacle. Regarding European warfare, Frederick the Great is recognized in the world of military science as the master of forming defenses. While the wordimg may sound somewhat strange to the modern ear, his comcepts were well-outlined in his work entitled: “The King of Prussia’s Military Instruction to His Generals.” Through a late 18th century translation by Lieutenant Colonel T. Foster, in “Article VIII. Of Camps”, Frederick the Great conveyed: “We entrenched a camp, when it is our intention . . . to defend a difficult pass, and supply the defects of the situation by throwing up works so as to be secure from every insult on the part of the enemy.” Expounding on using barriers and walls, Frederick explained: “In camps that are intended to cover a country, [in this case would refer to the positioning of CBP, ICE, law enforcement of border states, local law enforcement and the military on the border] the strength of the place itself is not the object of attention, but those points which are liable to attack, and by means of which the enemy may penetrate. These should all be surrounded by the camp. Not that it is necessary to occupy every opening by which the enemy may advance upon us, but that one only which would lead to his desired point, and that situation which affords us security, and from which we have it in our power to alarm him. In short, we should occupy that post, which will oblige the enemy to take circuitous routes, and enable us, by small movements, to disconcert his projects.”

With regard to discovering as much as possible about an opponent before determining how to effectively employ an obstacle such as the Southern Border wall, Frederick imparted: “The army of the enemy [which in the present case would include the drug cartels, organized crime groups, smugglers, foreign intelligence operatives, economic refugees, and others attempting illegal entry] should be the chief object of our attention, it’s designs must be discovered, and opposed as vigorously as possible.” Similar to the way US border protection elements want those crossing the border to travel to designated points of entry, Frederick stated: “Intelligent generals are well informed how to oblige the enemy to attack those points where the work is made strongest by the ditch being widened, deepened, and lined with pallisadoes, chevaux de frize placed at the entrances, the parapet made cannon-proof, and pits dug in the places that are most exposed.” With regard to the design of a barrier on the Southern Border, Frederick explained: “The rules which a general has to observe in the formation of all entrenchments are, to take advantage of every marsh, river, inundation, and abbatis which may serve to render the extent of his entrenchments more difficult.” Additionally, Frederick continued by making an important point relevant to the nature of any barrier built on the border;  “ . . . The progress of the enemy is not checked by the entrenchments themselves, but by the troops who defend them.”

Aut inveniam viam aut faciam. (I shall either find a way or make one.) In the present case concerning the border wall, figuratively,  generals of varied qualifications, insist on implementing their respective plans to win the battle on the Southern Border, when one general, with one set of ends and ways must suffice. Resources authorized will be dependent on who prevails in that struggle at headquarters. Congressional Democrats failed in their border security efforts in the past, and insist that Trump administration efforts will be futile. Still, the synergistic integration of the wall and new technologies, and strengthening the capabilities and capacity of those manning the border, as the Trump administration may actually be far better for the interests of the US. Fresh ideas, that have the potential to yield results are better than old, derivative ones. The Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus was quoted as saying: “Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.”

It is difficult to gauge how the US public likely views all of this. Some may believe they are observing the system of checks and balances in their government at work or  other may feel they are witnessing Washington as an erratic bipolar world in which their political leaders bicker incessantly. What is certain to all is that the border security of US matters. If anything, through this debate, or impasse, the Trump administration has sent that message worldwide.

Commentary: Trump Withdraws US Troops from Syria: What Considerations Impelled His Decision?

The US military base in Al Asaliyah village near Manbij, in northern Syria (above). After US President Donald Trump announced that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, critics and detractors surmised that he reached the decision from thin air, and hastily announced it at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. It was also said Trump had disregarded US allies and friends in Syria. In truth, the decision was well-mulled over by US decision makers. Far more factors were part of the decision than the short-list reported in the US news media.

There was a storm of disagreement, and in some foreign policy circles in Washington, outrage, following the decision by US President Donald Trump to withdraw US forces from Syria. Fault with the decision was supported by the claim that Trump was acting against the best advice of his top military commanders and other foreign and national security officials. It was also said that Trump was displaying a certain insouciance toward allies and friends on the ground in Syria, to include Kurdish Forces (the People’s Protection Units or YPG) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (Arab and Assyrian fighters, as well high numbers of YPG units). Additionally, it was widely surmised that Trump reached the decision to withdraw US troops from thin air, and hastily announced the decision at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a campaign promise. Some news media commentators even went as far as to claim that the decision signalled a new US isolationism and the beginning of a contraction under which certain US interests worldwide would be abandoned. In truth, the decision was thoroughly mulled over in a decision making meeting prior to being announced. Moreover, far more factors, in particular factors that tied to reality, were part of the decision, than the short-list reported in the news media. The aim here is to enumerate and examine, from an out of the box perspective, some of the likely considerations made by Trump and his aides and advisers prior to making the Syria decision public. Hopefully, the examination here will contribute in some way to the policy debate in the US on Syria.

The Syria situation was not a problem of Trump’s making. US President Barack Obama and other national leaders poorly interpreted information concerning an opposition movement that had organised against the regime of Syria Arab Republic President Bashar Al-Assad in March 2011. They believed that opposition movement made Assad regime ripe for change, however, opportunity was seen by Obama and his foreign and national security policy decision makers where there was none. The conclusion was that with a modicum support for the right opposition groups, the Assad regime would face collapse and be forced to the negotiation table, where Assad, himself, would agree to an orderly and immediate transition of power. Among a long list of negative consequences that have resulted from that policy approach have been: a seemingly never ending civil war in which millions of civilians have become casualties, millions more have been displaced, Russia and other countries who are potential adversaries of the US have strengthened their presence in Syria and increased their influence on the Assad regime; and, extraordinarily dangerous terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS, have established strongholds. Along with the US, European and Middle Eastern countries, have invested troops and other resources in Syria in what has been a successful effort to destroy terrorist groups in particular.

The contradiction between the desire to continue the fight alongside allies and friends, (that resulted in what now appear to have been ill-advised promises by US officials that the US would remain in Syria), and the requirements of force protection and the need to respond to rapidly evolving geostrategic realities in the region, made the decision to withdraw undoubtedly agonizing. Trump, however, was not marginal about the matter. Some of Trump’s top advisers were very disappointed over where the final decision fell. A couple top officials, having determined that continuing to work in support of Trump’s choice would compromise their personal values, their consciences, resigned. Perhaps an effort to keep US allies and friends invested in Syria militarily or otherwise of the decision to withdraw, even in camera, was a missing step. However, the decision will not be judged right or wrong here. Homines enim cum rem destruere non possunt, iactationem eius incessunt. Ita si silenda feceris, factum ipsum, si laudanda non sileas, ipse culparis. (Such is the disposition of mankind, if they cannot blast an action, they will censure the parade of it; and whether you do what does not deserve to be taken notice of, or take notice yourself of what does, either way you incur reproach.)

The announced withdrawal of US military units from Syria came as a surprise when Trump first made it on Twitter and then with a public statement on the White House lawn. There was an immediate rush by critics and detractors of Trump to pure negatives on the decision such as calling it an abandonment of allies and friends in the field. Other observers, uncertain about the future of Syria and uncertain of the future course of the US in the region, joined in the chorus against the decision. As promises were made by US officials other than Trump to stand alongside and support allies and friends, did as much to convince many observers that the US commitment to Syria was essentially open-ended, the disappointment and harsh reactions were stronger when that belief was dashed. Yet, with an assessment made that the main mission of destroying ISIS and other terrorist groups in Syria, and correlatively degrading their ability to act elsewhere, reaching toward its terminus, keeping US forces in the combat zones of Syria, keeping them in harm’s way, became questionable to Trump. All along, it was a calculated risk to deploy and allow US  forces to operate in Syria. Having spent months crossing his fingers concerning the well-being of US troops there, Trump made the decision to withdraw. Although US troops, themselves, expect to be in harm’s way whenever they are deployed in combat zones overseas, value judgments must be made by the civilian leadership on the returns or benefits from such dangerous deployments. It would seem Trump determined that the return on the US investment of troops in Syria, no longer justified placing their lives at risk. In making this decision, Trump likely felt some satisfaction knowing that he has robbed potential adversaries of the freedom to include an attack on US forces in Syria in their calculus of how they might hurt the US in the region.

US troops deployed in Syria are among the best trained in the US armed forces. As expected, they accomplished a tremendous amount. Yet, although extremely effectual in their performance, the size of their deployment, 2600 troops, is lean relative to those deployed in Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel in Afghanistan, Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq, or Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Their numbers are also meager relative to the presence of potential adversaries in Syria. Expectations from those troops should not be placed too high. For those rightfully concerned with worldwide impressions of Trump’s decision to withdraw US forces, there should be an awareness that the force of 2600 troops was too few to do too much on the ground anyway. Change in Syria in the interest of the US and in a way that reflects US values would mean: allowing for the return of refugees and displaced persons; the establishment of transparent democratic governance in some form at the local, provincial, and national levels in Syria; providing all people of Syria with residences, more than just temporary shelters; an adequate, regular supply of sustenance; a means to sustain the delivery of sustenance; sufficient sources of potable water; continuous power and electricity; a highway and road systems that will allow for freedom of movement; reconstruction bridges, tunnels, airports, harbors, dams, parks, and waterways; schools for children; hospitals and health clinics; sanitation system; law enforcement at the local, provincial, and national level; a courts system; effectual employment bureaus, a secure banking system; the rebuilding of factories and other workplaces; an agribusiness development program; and, a multitude of other necessities that will support the development of a viable society. Given the size of the force, it would not be able to guarantee the top five items enumerated on this list, particularly the safety and security of Syrian returnees from the Assad regime and other potential adversaries. The Assad regime would invariably want all returnees to fold neatly under its cruel subjugation. There would also be the requirement of protecting the Syrian people from Islamic militant groups seeking to reestablish their Caliphate or some new Islamic State from which they could launch terrorist attacks globally.

There is a broader picture concerning US capabilities and capacity to conduct military-style operations. Wars can be fought even when formations of US troops are not present. Other less visible ways and means to support the Kurdish Forces and Syrian Democratic Forces can be provided by elements of the US intelligence community to include the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (“DIA”). Invariably, some US troops could be used covertly, in specialized technical role for those agencies. By integrating themselves among local military units, they can provide assistance in the form of supply, training, and guidance to local senior leaders, support special reconnaissance, aid local commanders with command and control of units, and engage in direct action when required. A few historical examples of the success of such operations include: CIA operations in Military Region 3 in South Vietnam; the employment of Special Forces Operational Detachments in Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait; operations in support of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Croatian Defense Council during both Operation Sana and Operation Oluja during Bosnia War; and, CIA and DIA operations in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. Arguably, engaging in a covert operation with paramilitary trained case officers, special activities operators, and special forces soldiers working in tandem with local troops may not be as effective as having US military units perform tasks, but it is a viable option when the decision has been made to no longer make formal use of the US military. On the particular matter of providing forward control for airstrikes to defend allies and friends against attacks, resources would exist among operatives of those agencies on ground to perform that task. Moreover, with concentrations of US troops no longer on the ground in Syria, US air assets and the US-led anti-ISIS Coalition, while still maintaining parameters for safety for allies and friends, could pursue ground targets more vigorously with less concern that retribution from a malign actor against US troops would be possible. That retribution could take the form of a surprise military attack or an act of terrorism.

Many of the immediate impressions expressed about Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria ignored certain realities of the evolving situation in the Middle East. There is a broader picture of foreign and national security policy for the US and other countries in the region of which US troops deployed to Syria had become a part. To understand that bigger picture, one only needs to listen closely to the persistent anti-US grumblings voiced from the capitals of potential adversaries within the region. National leaders and other top officials of those countries insist more directly that they have the will and inclination to assert themselves in Syria. In addition to those grumblings are tests of missiles of considerable range and latent warnings concerning the reinitiation of an ostensibly dormant nuclear weapons program. Perhaps through miscalculation, they might decide to act against US forces not simply to destroy them, but rather as a means to force them out. Fresh in the minds of many in the region are the 1983 attack on the US Marine Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon and the 1996 attack on US troops at the Khobar Towers complex in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, and the responses by the US. Perhaps a few US political leader, though surely well-meaning, have forgotten that the enemy will have a say in the outcome of the best laid plans of Washington. (With all of the “what ifs” considered, force security has been optimized through the employment of a suite of tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods by US force commanders in Syria. Yet, only the clairvoyants can walk with an assured step in the opaqueness of the Levant. There, one must always expect the unexpected.) Lessons learned from past US military deployments to support allies in the region, which were also relatively limited in scope, have undoubtedly left Trump determined to avoid the disasters that US Presidents have faced in the past. It is far preferable for the US to act, not wait until it must react in response to such possibilities. Further, if Trump, using his experience with, and understanding of, other national leaders has felt vibrations, intimations that US forces were facing an increased danger from a certain direction in Syria, it would only be prudent him to be safe rather than sorry by moving those troops elsewhere. Correlatively, Trump would never be willing to take the chance of having the US plunged into a conflict on an adversaries terms.

The possibility must be considered that a clash between US forces and a prospective adversary on the ground in Syria could put US troops in real jeopardy. True, numbers are not everything, and the outcome of a military engagement that would include very capable US troops cannot be determined by simple bean counting. To avoid such clashes, since 2015, the US and Russia have maintained a “deconfliction line” to communicate the locations of their respective air and ground forces in Syria. Still, US troops have exercised their right to self-defense and clashes have occurred. When pro-Syrian regime fighters, mostly Russian mercenaries, attacked 40 US troops at their military base at a refinery near the town of Deir al-Zour in February 2018, around 200 of the attackers were killed. There were no US casualties. Despite that favorable outcome, circumstances may not stand in the favor of US troops on some other occasion. Russian military forces and the forces of other potential adversaries on the ground in Syria are actually formidable given their size and strength. They are close enough to US troops to pose a danger that should not be dismissed.

The order to withdraw US troops from Syria might have equated to the sounding of retreat if it had occurred following a very public threat from an adversary, or had occurred in the face of an adversary’s deployment of its forces on the ground precisely to threaten US forces. A decision not to withdraw in response to such military threats from adversaries would likely require the deployment of greater numbers of US troops in Syria and perhaps preparation for a larger war in the region. This consideration has rarely been a factor discussed by Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. However, it would only be a natural concern for any US president who has placed US troops in harm’s way. Quod dubites, ne feceris. (Never do a thing concerning the rectitude of which you are in doubt.)

As with other US troops in the region, US forces in Syria face a significant threat from attack by potential adversaries in the region with long-range artillery and rockets in country and precision rockets from their countries or other locations in the region in which their forces are operating. The spectrum of possible attacks indeed goes beyond frontal assaults on the several small US bases in Syria’s northeast. This consideration has also failed to find its way into the  commentaries of Trump’s critics and detractors and other observers in the US news media. The enemy has the ultimate say in how it might strike. Projections that fail to ascribe all probabilities and limit consideration to only some possibilities, perhaps the top five or top ten, while dismissing those they may feel are unlikely or de minimus, are flawed. To make a decision without the complete picture would be akin to walking down a blind alley.

There has always been the reality that Assad could attempt to strike US forces in Syria using his remaining chemical weapons stockpile, the same stockpile that the Russian Federation had confirmed that he had removed. Such an attack could be conducted as a suicide attack or “martyrdom operation”. Assad could potentially conduct such an attack even if his regime was placed in complete jeopardy. Assad is a study in miscalculation and irrationality especially when it comes to military action. A surprise chemical attack against a US base in Syria could have a devastating effect, harming a great number of troops. US troops have guarded against any effort by Assad to put his forces in positions near their bases. Away from the combat zone of Syria, comfort may be found in the thought that US forces could respond to such a chemical strike with an immediate, devastating strike upon the regime, essentially destroying it. Still, a massive retaliatory against the Assad regime would do little to help any US troops lost or injured in such an attack. The US certainly cannot rely upon Moscow to keep Assad in check regarding his chemical weapons. In reality, the door has been left open to his madness for some time. Non omnes eadem amant aut easdem cupiditates studiaque habent. (Not all men love the same things or have the same desires and interests.)

The notion that the presence of US troops in Syria should remain to serve as a barrier or trip wires in case of attacks against US allies and friends by potential adversaries and also by other US allies and friends is abhorrent. With regard to dealing with US allies, the capabilities of US diplomats should not be underrated to the extent that military force posed against allies must suffice for skilled negotiation. As for potential adversaries, it is uncertain what would be the fate of US forces if an adversary launched a swift, concerted attack with combined arms against them. It would appear that many US political leaders, policy analysts, and particularly Trump’s critics and detractors in the US news media are willing to wait and see what happens. Leaving US troops in Syria to continue as they have until the time that they might actually be attacked by an adversary could be called questionable judgment. It would essentially boil down to waiting around until casualties are suffered by US forces. Such thinking does not flow from the concept of America First. If having an available response in Syria is absolutely necessary, US military planners could develop a scheme, for example, to encamp US troops in nearby Iraq, Jordan, or perhaps even Turkey, arrange, determine ways to synchronize surprise deployments or powerful blows from vertical and ground assaults against an attacking force at a time and place of the choosing of US commanders. It might actually be a more effective way to place US forces in a position superior to that of an adversary in order to destroy it as effectually as possible.

If US troops in Syria were attacked in a concerted military way or were hit with some massive terrorist attack and losses were suffered, there is no guarantee that public support would exist nationally and that political will would exist in the US Congress for a large military build up in Syria and perhaps the start of a wider war in the region. Trump administration plans might very well be waylaid by a rebuff from the Congress given that control of the US House of Representatives has gone to the Democrats, the political party in opposition to Trump and his Republican Party, following the 2018 US Congressional Election. All indications are that the intention of the Democrats is to be activist, questioning decisions on foreign and national security policy of the US president and possibly uprooting some. (As these things go, the focus of Trump’s political foes would likely be the tragedy of the attack, itself, and why more consideration had not been given, and why more had not been done, to ensure their safety and security. It might be then that the decision of keeping US troops in Syria would be lambasted as questionable judgment given the mission was so limited.) It would seem best for Trump to act now to ensure the safety and security of US troops, rather than face what could very well be: a tragic situation of unknown consequences; the need to make a decision under duress on whether to remain and fight or withdraw; and, if he decides to remain, almost ensure that he will contend with an enormous political battle over the fight in Syria with Congress. To act now, by withdrawing US troops, rather than wait for an adversary to decide their fate, could be considered prudent. Iniqua raro maximis virtutibus fortuna parcit; nemo se tuto diu periculis offerre tam crebris potest, quem saepe transit casus, aliquando invenit. (Unrighteous fortune seldom spares the highest worth; no one with safety can long front so frequent perils. Whom calamity oft passes by she finds at last.)

Israel, Jordan, Turkey, and other regional actors, as well as European allies such as the United Kingdom and France, are already taking steps through airstrikes, ground incursions, raids, and other direct attacks to degrade well-known terrorist groups lurking in strongholds in Syria. Israel, in particular has focused also on placing severe limitations on the capabilities and capacity of a certain country that is also potential adversary of the US in the region. Yet, while such actions have been useful in curating the diverse ecosystem of military forces and terrorist groups on the ground, they have also increased the chances that those elements would attempt to lash out in retribution against US forces in Syria. Thus, as a result of the US troop presence in Syria, US allies have doubtlessly acted in a manner that would avoid precipitating such retribution. Planning for airstrikes in Syria, for example, was done by allies through the Coalition Air Operations Center at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar and independently at their respective national air operations headquarters with US troops on the ground firmly in mind.

The primary and strongest US ally in the region, Israel, has been somewhat restrained in its operations in Syria against some longtime adversaries, who have been malign actors not only in the region, but around the world. Upon the departure of US troops from Syria, Israel will be provided an opportunity, a freer hand, to engage in more effectual and perhaps more robust action there. No longer hamstrung by the potential misstep of provoking its adversaries to strike against US forces ostensibly in retribution for its attacks, Israel may decide to finally crack the problem of the presence of its adversaries being based so close to its sovereign territory. With likely the same minimum of attention its operations in Syria have attracted so far in the global news media, Israel can engage in concentrated operations to degrade its adversaries and eliminate threats with a tempo and ferocity such that those adversaries could no longer face losses inflicted upon them. To borrow a phrase from former US President Richard Nixon, Israel will have the opportunity to “sock it to them!”  If those adversaries would choose to resist exiting Syria, in order to survive, they would very likely be required to redeploy in a way that would make them ineffective on the ground. Indeed, Israel might be able to create the type of environment in Syria that would cause pause among Islamic militant groups hoping to establish themselves in Syria. The extent to which the US might support or assist Israel with any efforts in Syria is uncertain. That would likely be decided sub rosa. However, the US would most likely step up and provide whatever might be possible. Turkey would also have a similar opportunity to respond more robustly against Islamic militant groups in Syria. Turkey’s military capabilities, though, are somewhat limited in comparison to those of Israel and its increased efforts would likely require incurring greater risks.

With regard to impressions the withdrawal of US troops from Syria might have made upon the global audience, few capitals worldwide would likely equate their sovereign countries, whose nationhood and history they extol, to the autonomous Kurdish areas in Syria. While feelings of empathy may be felt by national leaders toward the Kurds situation, most would hardly commit anything too significant from their own resources in support of them. In fact, some national leaders would likely agree with the notion that US troops should be kept out of harm’s way to avoid at least for now, a greater conflict in the region. Cito enim arescit lacrimal praesertim in alienis malis. (A tear quickly dries when shed for the misfortunes of others.)

The withdrawal of US troops from Syria will ostensibly eliminate all financial costs for the US related to that deployment. At the same time, Russia and other countries remaining in Syria will need to keep a robust military and security presence there in order to reasonably maintain control of the situation, or at control of that area referred to as “Useful Syria”. They would most likely need to engage in many more operations against Islamic militant groups to secure peace as such groups may attempt to violently reestablish themselves in the country. The job of “restoring Syria to its past glory” through reconstruction will be incredibly difficult as Russia and one of the countries remaining in Syria are contending with punishing sanctions for misdeeds on other matters. They would surely be precluded collecting the amount of financial resources necessary to engage in such an undertaking successfully. As months and possibly years pass, the effects of wind and rain will make bomb-damaged, dilapidated buildings and other derelict structures even less appealing to the eye. The same global audience whose views on the US troop withdrawal were a concern for Trump’s critics and detractors, would have an excellent opportunity to observe and assess what might be in-store for them if they too relied on the patronage of those countries. They could judge for themselves what leadership from those countries is really worth.

Removing the conventional US military footprint in Syria would place the responsibility to develop a complex comprehensive plan for reconstruction and peace-enforcement in the country squarely in the court of Russia and other countries who remain there. Any attempt to proceed without such a plan would be a huge blunder. Moving too slowly to repair Syria will allow ideal conditions to exist for an Islamic militant groups to attempt to fill the vacuum of power around the country. That is what occurred in Iraq after US forces were withdrawn. It was all pretty much foreseen by many US intelligence analysts. Unfortunately, the histories of Russia and other countries in Syria include no authentic success in such a reconstruction effort in contemporary times. As mentioned already, the economic circumstances of those countries are dire, shaped in great part by sanctions. That factor might do much to hinder them from gathering resources to engage in such an undertaking.

Conditions in Syria may not be optimal for the US, but Trump recognized that he was in a relatively favorable position to make the decision to withdraw, and he did so. Despite all of the bdelygmia, the decision appears to be the result of an in-depth examination of the realities of the Syria mission by Trump and his closest aides and advisers over time. The factors presented here reflect Trump’s pattern of well-considering the short-term and long-term interests of the US, before taking any steps. With so many actors on the stage in Syria doing so many disparate and discreet things, it is also possible that some rarefied, furtive bit of information marked “for the president’s eyes only” may have been behind the choice made. At the risk of unsettling readers by injecting in a bit of levity in the subject matter, one could say that Trump, the erstwhile owner of a plethora of casinos, is expert at knowing “when to hold up, when to fold up, when to walk away, and when to run!”

Kerry Says Iran, World Powers Closer than Ever to Historic Nuclear Deal: Putin Has Learned Much from This Process

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (center) with Russian Federation Defense Minister and General of the Army Sergei Shoigu (left) and the commander of the Western Military District Colonel General Anatoly Sidorov (right). Through Russia’s participation in the Iran Talks, Putin learned much about decision making among the Western powers from the inside and likely feels better able to deal with them diplomatically and militarily.

According to an April 27, 2015 Reuters article entitled, “Kerry Says Iran, World Powers Closer than ever to Historic Nuclear Deal,” US Secretary of State John Kerry told the 191 parties to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at conference at the UN that the P5+1 was very near to a deal with Iran that would end a 12-year-old stand-off.   Kerry was quoted as saying on April 27th, “We are, in fact, closer than ever to the good, comprehensive deal that we have been seeking, and if we can get there, the entire world will be safer.” He stated further, “If finalized and implemented, [an agreement] will close off all of Iran’s possible pathways to the nuclear material required for a nuclear weapon and give the international community the confidence that it needs to know that Iran’s nuclear program is indeed exclusively peaceful.” Yet, despite progress made, Kerry emphasized “the hard work is far from over and some key issues remain unresolved.”

Such sober comments underlining the considerable amount of negotiating still required to reach a final nuclear deal have come as a reality check for many following the April 2, 2015 announcements by parties to the talks, with flourish, that parameters for a Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action regarding Iran’s nuclear program were agreed upon. The appearance of reaching a nuclear deal was as potent as actually reaching a final concordance for some. This was particularly true in Iran where ordinary citizens celebrated in the streets after the framework nuclear deal was reached. Public reaction within P5+1 nations was imperceptible. However, there was a significant reaction among foreign and defense policy analysts and others interested in the talks. Their comments were kind of lush, a bit soupy. Daryl Kimball, Executive Director of the Arms Control Association declared, “The parameters agreed upon by the United States, the other permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany with the Islamic Republic of Iran promises to lead to one of the most consequential and far reaching nuclear nonproliferation achievements in recent decades.” Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies affirmed, “[T]he proposed parameters and framework in the Proposed Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has the potential to meet every test in creating a valid agreement over time . . . It can block both an Iranian nuclear threat and a nuclear arms race in the region, and it is a powerful beginning to creating a full agreement, and creating the prospect for broader stability in other areas.” Joe Cirincione, President of Ploughshares Fund proclaimed, “The agreement does three things. It blocks all of Iran’s pathways to a nuclear bomb. It imposes tough inspections to catch Iran should it try to break out, sneak out or creep out of the deal. And it keeps our coalition united to enforce the deal. Under this deal, Iran has agreed to rip out two-thirds of its centrifuges and cut its stockpile of uranium gas by 97 percent. It will not be able to make any uranium or plutonium for a bomb. Many of the restrictions in the agreement continue for 25 years and some . . . last forever.”

Etiam sapientibus cupido gloriae novissima exuitur. (The desire for glory is the last infirmity to be cast off even by the wise.) Every step toward a final deal has brought US President Barack Obama closer to the legacy-defining foreign policy achievement he has sought. Obama’s desire to establish his legacy during his second term office has been a subject regularly discussed among White House officials and US political pundits. Yet, it is uncertain whether a final agreement can be reached and whether it would hold. The notion of how the P5+1, particularly the US, would likely respond to a violation of the treaty by Iran has gone through a transformation process during the negotiations. It was once understood that the US would inevitably decide to stop Iran from moving closer to developing a nuclear warhead by force of arms. Senior Obama administration foreign and defense policy officials made it clear that military intervention was “on the table.” Threats of regime change and of imposing a US form of democracy on Iran by the administration of US President George W. Bush were still ringing in Iranian leaders’ ears when the Iran Talks began. The idea of being attacked by the US became engrained in the psyche of Iran’s leadership, offsetting any idea Obama lacked the will to take military action following the Syria gas attacks debacle. Tehran’s views have changed since then.

Fas est et ab hoste doceri. (It is right to learn even from an enemy.) The P5+1 has served to present a united front to cope with the common danger of a nuclear armed Iran. However, the coalition has not been truly united. Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin has actually exploited the comity between Russia and its P5+1 partners to protect Russian interests. (The other P5+1 partners may very likely be aware of this.) Putin did not want the P5+1 to take military action against Iran, Russia’s strongest Middle East partner. During the Iran Talks, Russia and Iran made unilateral deals on matters from agriculture to weapon systems. The talks have helped Moscow better understand how Western powers approach issues as Iran’s nuclear program, making Russia better able to handle the West on issues as Ukraine. Russia, as Iran, is coping with Western economic sanctions. Putin has heard many threats to use force against Russia, albeit defensively, through NATO. However, Putin responds to such threats with an enigmatic face. Putin has Russia on the march, seizing territory in a piecemeal fashion, but he undoubtedly has a sense of how far he can go. Observing the decision making of Western powers up close on Iran, Putin likely believes military action against a capable opponent is the last thing Western political leaders want. (It is the last thing he wants, too!) To that extent, he also likely believes that after he has acquired enough, he will be able to legitimize Russia’s acquisitions through talks.

Initial Russian Concerns about Possible US Military Strikes in Iran

As a Member of the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council, Russia’s role as a party to the nuclear negotiation was essential, but it was also rather extraordinary given its ties to Iran. Russia had a very positive, congenial relationship with Iran unlike Western states in the P5+1. Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan stated “Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the US through cooperation, synergy and actuating strategic potential capacities.” When the Iran Talks began, Russia was actually working closely with Iran in support of its longtime ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who Western members of the P5+1 opposed. However, despite Iran’s close business and economic ties or ongoing military cooperation with Russia, albeit limited, could not guarantee the US would refrain from moving against its strongest partner in the Middle East. For that reason, Putin likely had genuine concern that Iran would become a target of massive US military action if the Iran Talks did not succeed when they began. Putin had not forgotten that close cooperation between Russia and authorities in Tripoli and Damascus did not deter the Obama administration from promoting and supporting insurrection against them. Under UN Security Council Resolution 1973, multinational forces under NATO command went beyond imposing a no-fly zone and destroyed government forces loyal to Gaddafi as part of Operation Unified Protector. Gaddafi’s regime fell and he was killed. In Syria, the Obama administration responded in support of the Syria Opposition Movement which bloomed during the so-called Arab Spring. The removal of Assad and his regime was the Obama administration’s goal.

Moreover, before the Iran Talks began and during the negotiations, Obama and officials in his administration were unambiguous about plans to act militarily against Iran over its nuclear program. According to a March 14, 2013 article in the Times of Israel, Obama explained that Iran could produce a nuclear weapon in just over a year and diplomatic efforts have just less than that to halt Iran’s drive to the bomb. The Times of Israel determined Obama was intimating that if diplomatic efforts failed this year or early next year, the US would be forced to carry out military action against Iran. Obama also reportedly explained that he had been “crystal clear” that a nuclear-armed Iran was a “red-line,” and that the US was committed to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon with which it could threaten Israel or trigger a regional arms race. In a September 15, 2013 article in the Guardian, Obama sought to shore up the potency of US deterrence against Iran warning that he was still prepared to take military action against the Iranian nuclear program, which he described as “much closer to our core interests” than Syria’s chemical weapons. A February 26, 2014, Reuters article reported Kerry told a group of reporters that the US has an obligation to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran before attempting to force Tehran to give up its nuclear activities with military action. Kerry also left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks broke down. The Reuters article further explained that when Obama stated all options are on the table with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, he was using diplomatic code for the possibility of military action.

During the talks, urgency was placed on having Iran allow rigorous monitoring measures to remain in place to ensure any movement toward a nuclear weapon would be detected and the West could intervene. If Iran could be kept from moving close to a nuclear weapon, Western leaders could avoid facing the decision to respond militarily to its existence.

Western Allies Prefer Sanctions Over US-Led Military Action

As the nuclear negotiations progressed, it became more apparent to Putin and Russian foreign and defense policy officials that despite their insecurities about US intentions, the threat of military action was a fiction. Russia’s European counterparts in the P5+1 coalition began expressing doubts about the willingness of the US to use military force against Iran. The French were perhaps the first to publicly appraise Obama as unwilling to use military action to respond to Iran’s nuclear program. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius tried to outline what he thought were the reasons for Obama’s tack in a 2013 speech. He stated: “The United States seems no longer to wish to become absorbed by crises that do not align with its new vision of its national interest.” He suggested this explained “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 further that a redirection of US interests may be a manifestation of the “heavy trauma of the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan” and what he perceived as the current “rather isolationist tendency” in American public opinion. Fabius lamented 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.” According to a May 2, 2014 Reuters article German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program must be given a chance, but she also said “If Iran does not meet its obligations, or does not meet them adequately, we remain ready to take back the current limited suspension of sanctions.” Merkel’s statement diverged considerably from those of Obama and Kerry who indicated a US readiness to act militarily if negotiations failed. The reluctance of Germany to support US military action sent a message to Russia that there was no unity in the West on it. Sanctions remain the greatest threat European leaders alone can pose to Iran if the talks failed. Only the US can effectively act with force against a nuclear capable Iran, but Obama would never want to go it alone against Iran.

In sessions leading to April 2, 2015, urgency was placed on having Iran agree to keep rigorous monitoring measures to remain in place not just throughout the long duration of the agreement but even after the core limits of the agreement expire. That would ensure any movement toward nuclear weapons will be detected and providing the opportunity to intervene decisively to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. There was an apparent belief that if Iran was kept from moving secretly toward a nuclear bomb, Western leaders could avoid facing the decision to respond to its existence. As long as Obama was uncertain military action would achieve all objectives based on his concepts, Putin could imagine Obama refusing to go to war.

Israeli F-16 jets flying in formation. US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israel’s diplomatic reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She explained “the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” For Putin, Sherman’s words ended all guessing on US intentions with Iran.

Military Action Is Sidelined

Ultra vires! (Beyond ones powers!) Guessing over US intentions ended when Putin and his foreign and defense policy officials heard US officials confirm that in which Moscow could not be certain. On April 13, 2015, Haaretz reported US Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman told Israeli reporters that a military operation against Iran would not stop its nuclear program. She stated, “A military strike by Israel or the US would only set back the nuclear program by two years.” She said further, “You can’t bomb their nuclear know-how, and they will rebuild everything. The alternatives are there but the best option is a diplomatic negotiated solution.” She noted, “There is no difference [between the US and Israel] on the concern about the Iranian nuclear program but on the way to deal with it.” Despite fears expressed in 2013 that Iran would soon have a nuclear weapons, Sherman explained that the US and Israeli intelligence communities agree Iran is not close to producing one and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has made no decision to produce one. Sherman said, “They don’t have enough fissile material and don’t have delivery system or weapon per se.” She proffered, “It would take them a considerable period of time to get all that.”

Even the tone in the US Congress softened. Congress drafted a bill that would require that the administration send the text of a final accord, along with classified material, to Congress as soon as it is completed. Speaker of the House of Representatives John Boehner stated “Congress absolutely should have the opportunity to review this deal.” He explained further, “We shouldn’t just count on the administration, which appears to want a deal at any cost.” The focus of most observers was the fact that the bill would halt the lifting of sanctions pending a thirty day Congressional review, and culminates in a possible vote to allow or forbid the lifting of sanctions imposed by Congress in exchange for the dismantling of much of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Actually, if Congress rejects the final agreement, Obama could still veto its legislation. It would take only 34 senators to sustain the veto, meaning Obama could lose upward of a dozen Democratic senators and still prevail. However, what was most important about the bill for Putin was that Congress accepted more sanctions as means to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, not war.

Putin operates within a practically all-male, nationalist, power-oriented environment in the Kremlin. He sees Obama is confident in the better side of human nature, and likely views that as a weakness. Putin undoubtedly wants to find ways to exploit the benign, less aggressive side of Obama to the greatest degree possible before the end of his second term.

Reality Check Concerning Putin

Unlike the diverse group of cabinet-level officials and policy makers and analysts that advise Obama, Putin operates within a practically all-male, nationalist, power-oriented environment in the Kremlin. In thinking about Obama, Putin undoubtedly recognizes his US counterpart wants to be an honest broker. He sees Obama is confident in the better side of human nature, and operates under the notion that issues in foreign affairs can be resolved at the negotiating table. Given that, Putin and his advisers undoubtedly view Obama in a way akin to renowned United Kingdom Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “boneless wonder.” Putin very likely hopes to exploit the benign, less aggressive side of Obama to the greatest degree possible before the end of his second term. Putin and Obama are very different men. After the Soviet Union’s collapse and internal chaos of the 1990s, Putin restored order in Russia by reestablishing the power of the state some might say with little regard for human and political rights. Putin’s style of management was shaped by his initial career as an officer in the Soviet Union’s Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti (the Committee for State Security) known better as the KGB—the agency responsible for intelligence, counterintelligence, and internal security. He reached the rank of lieutenant colonel before retiring. Putin has been assisted by a small group of men who served alongside him during his KGB career. These men are referred to as siloviki (power men). At the pinnacle were those who came from a community of families in Putin’s hometown of St. Petersburg whose “roots” go back to first political police of the Communist Party known as the Cheka. Putin’s Cheka heritage includes a father and grandfather who served in the security service. He went to schools and a university Chekisty (Chekist) community progeny typically attended.

Chekists share a view that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. They believe Western governments are driven to weaken Russia, create disorder, and make their country dependent on Western technologies. They feel that under former President Boris Yeltsin, the Russian leadership made the mistake of believing Russia no longer had any enemies. As Putin has noted in public statements, Chekists consider the collapse of the Soviet Union, under Western pressure, as the worst geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th Century. In a March 18, 2014 speech, Putin enumerated some actions taken by the West that have fostered his contempt. He mentioned: Russia’s economic collapse, which many Russians recall was worsened by destructive advice from Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple their country; the expansion of NATO to include members of the Soviet Union’s own alliance, the Warsaw Pact; the erroneous Russian decision to agree to the treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe, which he refers to as the “colonial treaty”; the West’s dismissal of Russia’s interests in Serbia and elsewhere; attempts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO and the EU; and, Western efforts to instruct Russia on how to conduct its affairs domestically and internationally.

Paradoxically, the aggressive behavior Putin attributes to the US has been displayed by him time and again. In 2008, Putin forced Armenia to break off its agreements with the EU, and Moldova was placed under similar pressure. That same year, Putin invaded Georgia. Russian troops still occupy the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. In November 2014, Putin signed a Russia-Abkhazia Treaty of Alliance and Integration which meant in practice Moscow is responsible for the customs, defense, and security of the separatist republic. In March 2015, Putin signed the Russian-South Ossetian Treaty of Alliance and Integration which has similar terms. Georgia has no chance of regaining its territories. In November 2013, using economic influence and political power, he drove then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to abort a deal Ukraine had with the EU that would have pulled it toward the West. When the Ukrainian Parliament removed Yanukovych, Putin grabbed Crimea. Such moves legitimize NATO’s worries.

Putin’s uncongenial attitude toward the West was very apparent while the Iran Talks were still underway. Incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers (as the one shown above) in US and European airspace prompted the scrambling of fighter jets. Russia also sold its S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran.

Lessons Learned Through the Iran Talks Putin May Be Applying

This uncongenial attitude Putin has harbored toward the West was apparent during the Iran Talks. Perhaps he was testing his P5+1 partners. In August 2014, Russia signed a deal with Iran that undermined Western-led sanctions against the two countries. The memorandum of understanding between the two governments envisaged wider economic cooperation to include closer ties in the oil and gas sector, construction and rebuilding of generating capacity, development of a power supply network infrastructure, machinery, consumer goods, and agriculture. It laid the foundation for a multi-billion dollar deal between Moscow and Tehran, the so-called oil-for-goods contract. In addition to that contract, there was the sale of the S-300 anti-aircraft missile to Iran. The S-300 would neutralize any possibility that Israel could take unilateral action against Iran. That would remain the case until the Israeli Air Force receives F-35 fighters from the US. Only the US Air Force’s small fleet of B-2 stealth bombers would have a chance of hitting Iranian targets properly now. If the US and Europe repeatedly threaten and levy sanctions, Putin and his advisers may take audacious steps. Sensing his back is up against the wall, and unable to project strength otherwise, Putin might seek to deter further Western action by making extraordinary threats to use Russian military power. The Russian Ambassador to Denmark threatened that the Danes would become a target of Russian nuclear weapons if they participated in any missile defense program. Danish jets scrambled 58 times in 2014 to head off Russian aircraft. Russian strategic nuclear bombers also conducted numerous incursions into northwestern US air defense identification zones. Incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers and intelligence-gathering jets in US and European airspace have prompted the scrambling of fighter jets. Russian military aircraft have been flying without transponders over Europe close to civilian aircraft. Putin warned Russia was developing new strategic nuclear weapons that would catch the West by surprise. Russia has moved Iskandar ballistic missiles to its Kaliningrad enclave between Lithuania and Poland and long-range, nuclear-capable bombers to Crimea.

An April 18, 2015 Reuters article stated Putin recently softened his anti-US rhetoric only a week after accusing the US of trying to dominate world affairs and saying what it wanted was “not allies, but vassals.” Putin reportedly said on April 18th, “We have disagreements on several issues on the international agenda. But at the same time there is something that unites us, that forces us to work together.” He then stated, “I mean general efforts directed at making the world economy more democratic, measured, and bilateral, so that the world order is more democratic. We have a common agenda.” Similarly, the BBC reported that on March 6, 2014, after seizing Crimea, Putin told Obama by telephone that US-Russian “relations should not be sacrificed due to disagreements over individual, albeit extremely significant, international problems.” Regarding Crimea, Putin said Russia could not “ignore calls for help and acts accordingly, in full compliance with international law.” Given Obama’s record on the use of force, and what Russia observed during the Iran Talks, Putin may have calculated he has pushed hard enough, and he now can reap a negotiated resolution from Obama. Perhaps Putin assessed that as with Iran, talks might provide him with the chance to achieve many objectives.

The Way Forward

Fene libenter homines id quod volunt credunt. (Men readily believe what they want to believe.) The decay of Europe’s defense came as a result of a lack of commitment of the European countries, and to an extent the US, to the stewardship of NATO, militarily. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, NATO members became weary of investing financial resources in a deterrent force that did not face an apparent threat. There was no change in thinking despite Putin’s aggressive stance and actions against countries that are part of Russia’s “near abroad.” To surmount the impact of what the Western capitals were seeing, they ignored what they saw, made massive military cuts, and failed to meet their military commitments to NATO.

Non mihi, non tibi, sed nobis! (Not for you, not for me, but for us!) Meetings between NATO allies can no longer simply amount to rhetorical conversations about collective security in Europe, pledges to do more, and proposals to rearrange the meager military resources currently available to face the vast, mobile, hard-hitting Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. Decisions must be made now on what will done in the face of a confrontation with Russia over future aggressive moves against Ukraine or any other sovereign state in Europe. Too many ambiguous political speeches and statements on US military power have already been made to create doubt over whether the US might respond at all. There must be clear discussions on a mutually acceptable political rationale for military action, despite its difficulties and horrors, must be established between the US and the Europe. US and European leaders must confirm now what they will commit and exactly how they will act together militarily. In a manner loud enough for Putin to hear, Obama, in particular, must continually confirm at the UN, in NATO, and in its members’ respective capitals that Europe can count on US support if a military confrontation becomes imminent.

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.

Obama Signs Bill That Bars Iran’s UN Envoy: Hopefully, the Rejection of Abutalebi Hasn’t Jeopardized the Nuclear Talks

The bill that US President Barack Obama signed into law on April 18th blocks any individual from entering the US, including a Member State’s appointee to the UN, who has been found to have been engaged in espionage or terrorist activity against the US and its allies or if that person may pose a threat to national security.

According to an April 18, 2014 New York Times report entitled, “Obama Signs Bill That Bars Iran’s Envoy,” US President Barack Obama signed into law the bill that prevents the granting of a US visa for Iranian diplomat Hamid Abutalebi.  The bill, itself, was unanimously passed by US House of Representatives and approved by the US Senate on April 10th.  The vote in Congress was supposed to send what sponsors called a blunt rejoinder to the Iranian government for having selected a nominee who played a role, however minor, in the 1979 American hostage crisis in Tehran.  Iranian officials have said Abutalebi’s appointment was decided months ago, but it is still believed by US experts that hardliners in Iran urged Abutalebi’s appointment as Iran’s UN permanent representative to create controversy, snuff out reconciliation efforts, and halt the nuclear talks.  Compassion and sympathy should be felt toward the former embassy staff members who suffered during the hostage crisis.  Yet, while Iran might decide upon a candidate based on domestic political considerations, it is not useful for the US officials to reject an Iranian candidate based on domestic political considerations.  Given all that has been articulated so well by the Obama administration the possibilities that could come from newly established diplomatic engagement between the US and Iran, his decision to block the visa does not appear rise up to that same positive spirit.  Obama’s support for the Congressional legislation, that banned Abutalebi and dredged up the many visceral issues associated with the hostage crisis, makes the administration’s statements in support of building better ties seem more as mere lip service to the process rather than a genuine effort. 

What remains to be seen is whether a strong enough communion exists among US and Iranian officials that would allow them to overcome such stumbling blocks as a disputed appointment to the UN.  Unless Iran can use legal means and negotiations with the US to reverse the decision on Abutalebi, the ship has likely sailed on the issue of his appointment.  Before Obama signed the Congressional bill, an April 10th New York Times article informed that some US specialists on Iran said optimistically that despite the sharp language, they did not forsee the dispute over Abutalebi sabotaging the broader efforts at achieving a nuclear agreement.  Cynics, waging a “legislative war” against Iran, are unable to see the value of the improved relations and idealist are unable to discern the capability of provocative statements and acts to effectively derail the nuclear negotiation process. Yet, perhaps this might be a case when cynics and idealists alike in the US are unable to fully discern the situation before them.  In the end, to avoid war and to ensure greater confidence that what is happening both in Iran and the US is known, both cynics and idealists must oddly come together, along with pragmatists, to help establish a sustainable agreement satisfactory to all.  Such steps taken now will facilitate efforts to maintain the agreement by its future stewards.

The Concerns Over Abutalebi

This episode regarding Abutalebi is not the case of one hand not knowing what the other is doing.  In Iran, the selection of Abutalebi to replace the current permanent representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the UN, Mohammad Khazee, hardly could have been made without input from the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.  It was undoubtedly tacitly supported by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and hardline political and religious leaders.  However, when the selection of Abutalebi was made in Tehran, even if months ago, it had to be recognized then, as it is quite apparent now, that his selection would cause a strong response within official Washington, given his connection to the infamous capture of the US embassy in Tehran in 1979. In the US, the decision to withhold a visa from Abutalebi gained impetus in the US Congress after legal representatives of the 52 embassy staff members of the captured US embassy in Tehran reported that he was among the revolutionaries, some of whom engaged in acts of mental and physical abuse against many of them during the 444-day hostage crisis.  Misgivings about Abutalebi rapidly built among Members of Congress and were manifested in a bill to prohibit him from entering the US.  Given the significant progress made in the P5+1 negotiations with Iran on its nuclear program both in Geneva as well as back channel talks between US and Iranian officials, it was incumbent upon Obama to fully weigh blocking one Iranian diplomat, albeit with a problematic history, against paving a smooth course toward an historic agreement with Iran before placing his signature on it.

Abutalebi is a veteran diplomat who began working in the Iranian Foreign Ministry in the early 1980s.  He has held key European postings in the past.  He served as Iran’s ambassador to Italy, Belgium, and Australia. Abutalebi is said to be connected to circles close to Rouhani as well as former President Akbar Hashem Rafsanjani.  In September 2013, Abutalebi was appointed as deputy director of Rouhani’s political affairs office.  He also headed the Central Asian branch at the research center of the Expediency Council lead by Rafsanjani.  Abutalebi is said to be close to former President Mohammad Khatami, a reformist.

Abutalebi stated that while he was a part of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line, the student group that occupied the US embassy in November 1979, he was not among the core group of student activists and was not inside the embassy during the crisis.  Nothing stated or reported indicates Abutalebi’s actions 35 years ago were of an egregious nature.  In fact, Abutalebi claims he was Ahvaz during the occupation of the US embassy.  It was only when he came back to Tehran that he was asked to help with some translation and he accepted to do it.  Abutalebi was quoted on the Iranian Khabaronline website as stating “I did the translation during news conference when female and also African-American employees of the embassy were released.”

Yet, Abutalebi’s explanation of his involvement in the embassy seizure was never relevant to US officials.  A spokesman and attorney from the legal team representing former hostages who have made compensation claims, Alan Madison, admitted that very little concrete information was available about Abutalebi’s role in the hostage-taking. Madison stated, “After 34 years, it’s difficult to say this was a central character or this was a tangential character. But he was there, and it’s our understanding that having been a participant, he still has some political credibility with some of those folks in Iran.”  Madison also presented a statement from former hostage, Barry Rosen that explained, “It’s a disgrace if the USG (U.S. government) accepts Abutalebi’s Visa as Iranian Ambassador to the U.N.”

The Abutalebi Case Shows US-Iran Relationship Requires Far More Work

Relations between the US and Iran remain far from perfect, however they are at a new stage as a result of the nuclear negotiations.  The talks have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of each other.  Much of what has been learned since surely contradicts Iranian leaders’ prior assessments of capabilities and possibilities regarding the US.  For the US and Iran, the improved understanding of mutual positions was further strengthened by back channel talks, some conducted by officials from the US National Security Council. Indeed, progress has been made of the nuclear issue and sanctions.  Key Iranian leaders at this point may be able to see, even with the most powerful revolutionary slogans in mind, the real possibilities of a final agreement. US Secretary of State John Kerry, the senior US authority on diplomacy, admits that Iran has kept its end of a deal reached on November 24, 2013.  On February 24, 2014, Kerry stated Iran had reduced its stock of 20 percent enriched uranium, not enriching uranium above a purity of 5 percent and not installing more centrifuges in addition to other things.  Kerry explained that “They [the Iranians] are in the middle of doing all the things that they are required to do.”

However, cynics ignore such truths.  The truth, itself, is seemingly viewed as treason for those against the change in relations between the US and Iran.  Despite progress, enough US and Iranian leaders have not moved forward at all in their thinking and they seem determined to have a negative impact on the negotiation process.  As the IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari has stated, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.”  On the Geneva talks, Khamenei from the beginning made statements such as: “We had announced previously that on certain issues, if we feel it is expedient, we would negotiate with the Satan [US] to deter its evil.” In the US, it remains dogma among policy analysts and think tank scholars to view Iran as determined to pursue nuclear weapons through its nuclear program.  The idea that nuclear talks may be the path for new, positive relations between the US and Iran, probably will not gain acceptance among cynics until a final agreement is achieved.  Even then, some will cling to doubts.

Given emnity that surfaced in both Tehran and Washington over the matter of Abutalebi’s selection as Iran’s permanent representative to the UN, it is clear that hardliners in Tehran or Members of Congress persist in viewing policy goals and approaches giving primacy to information developed in the abstract long before the negotiations began.  A new understanding of each other’s ideas on issues and intentions should have been developed given the months of talks between the US and Iran.  If a more positive understanding of respective concepts and intentions is not reached soon, the failure of the direct talks will practically be ensured.  Moreover, with a limited understanding of a counterpart’s thinking, cynics significantly lessen the possibilty of achieving their own policy goals.

The Way Forward

Despite what idealist may hope, how Obama handled this matter will determine what type of confidence he builds among leaders in Tehran.  Having stood with what Iranian officials see as the banality of Congress’ rejection of Abutalebi over his nearly indiscernible role in the US embassy seizure, Tehran may use the signing of the bill to gauge whether Obama would challenge Congress on other issues concerning US-Iran relations, to include the nuclear talks.  Although Obama cannot prevent Congress from passing sanctions or force Congress to remove them, he could greatly curtail or remove sanctions over the nuclear program under a final deal by waiving them until he leaves office if he chooses.  The Iranians probably recognized that was the most they could expect.  Now, even that outcome has been put into question.

At the UN, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, other senior officials, and even UN Member States most friendly with the US, would unlikely require or expect Iran to repeatedly present candidate after candidate until one would finally be found acceptable to the US.  Some of those friendly states have already accepted Abutalebi as an ambassador in their capitals.  The bill that Obama signed into law blocks any individual from entering the US who has been found to have been engaged in espionage or terrorist activity against the US and its allies or if that person may pose a threat to national security.  From the information that has been presented about Abutalebi so far, it does not seem that by his mere presence in New York City as Iran’s UN permanent representative, he poses any threat to the US.  Interestingly, Abutalebi’s actions during the embassy takeover were undoubtedly far less egregious than that of some diplomats past and present from states whose forces have engaged in combat against the US military since World War II, including China (The Korean War 1950-1953), Vietnam (The Vietnam War 1964-1973), Cuba (Grenada, Operation Urgent Fury  1983), Serbia (Operation Allied Force, 1999), Montenegro (Operation Allied Force, 1999), or Iraq (The Gulf War 1991 and The Iraq War, 2003-2011).  Except in the case of Cuba, the US has normalized relations with those states.  There is plenty of literature available that explains known or detected members of the intelligence services in the UN Missions, embassies, or consulates of states such as Russia, China, or the North Korea are, more often than not, granted visas and not expelled from the US as persona non grata.  Perhaps it should be considered by Congress that if Abutalebi is kept from assuming his post as Iran’s UN permanent representative, perhaps out of spite and due to extraordinary pressure from hardliners, Tehran might just send a new appointee, a very capable government official outside of the Foreign Ministry, who may have a less obvious profile but later may be discovered to have committed acts against the US and interests.

Rather than just deciding on whether to accept or reject the Congressional bill on Abutalebi, Obama could have used the situation as an opportunity to demonstrate what good things can come from thoughtful, direct presidential involvement in foreign policy efforts.  His personal involvement in US policy on Iran should always result in the injection of fresh thinking to the process to keep things moving forward.  The same should be expected of Rouhani.

The nuclear negotiations have meaning for present and future US-Iran relations.  Will and intellectual power is required to recognize the benefit of constructing a satisfactory and sustainable agreement.  True, a healthy dose of cynicism must exist in the process despite the best intentions.  However, the cynics must not be allowed to win the day.  For them, relations between the US and Iran appears to boil down into a competition over who has the upper hand in the relationship outside of the military sphere. Idealists would likely agree that a deal can be reached without the assistance of Iranian hardline political and religious leaders and the US Congress, yet it cannot be successfully concluded without their help.  Perhaps a focus could be placed on encouraging cynics on both sides.  As a result, they just might be helped to see, in a new way, the possibility of an agreement, and appreciate its value would be akin to that of a pearl of great price.

Book Review: Robert Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014)

Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (above) wrote Duty not to tritely vent anger and disappointment over his recent experience in the US government, but to engage in a sincere effort to improve the government’s handling of defense and foreign policy issues. 

In a March 25, 2014 Wall Street Journal editorial entitled, “Putin’s Challenge to the West,” former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote: “Mr. Putin aspires to restore Russia’s global power and influence and to bring the now independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Moscow’s orbit. While he has no apparent desire to recreate the Soviet Union (which would include responsibility for a number of economic basket cases.), he is determined to create a Russian sphere of influence—political, economic, and security—and dominance. There is no grand plan or strategy to do this, just opportunistic and ruthless aspiration. And patience.”  Gates, an American statesman, a former cabinet member of two administrations, patriotic and dedicated to his country, now out of government, sought to contribute to the US policy debate on Russia by writing this assessment of Putin’s moves in Ukraine.  Much as he was compelled to use his experience as a national security official, and expertise on the former Soviet republics to write his editorial, Gates was inspired to write his latest book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014).

Some reviewers have referred to Duty as a tell-all, arguing Gates was motivated write it by the urge to settle scores.  They point to the fact that it would seem impossible for any future president to hire Gates for a cabinet post.  However, Gates intentions were not so banal, and at 70, he certainly is not concerned with gaining a post in any future administration.  Just as when he decided to leave civilian life to take the position of Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration in 2006, Gates saw the possibility of sharing today the benefits of his experience, lessons he learned, and mentoring from those who selflessly protected the US for decades under far more demanding, dangerous circumstances.  As the US heads into dark territory with Russia and perhaps Iran and North Korea, his comments in Duty will prove significant to those who need to know what to do. Never wanting to see his country or president fail, writing Duty, with great passion and candor, was a way for Gates to ignite positive change and improvement.  Undeniably, he has managed to reach administration officials and Members of Congress, many of whom were unwilling to listen to his advice while he was serving in government.  In using this method to reach official Washington, calling attention to what he saw as the error in its ways, Gates put much at risk. Yet, in that way, Duty is truly an articulation of Gates’ generosity.

Some reviewers have found it enough to say Gates rose from the ranks at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), joining in 1967 via the US Air Force, but that is not enough to help readers understand the prism through which he views service in government.  The CIA of the Cold War years was different in many ways for the Agency today.  As he moved through numerous major events in his early career, Gates worked effectively as yeast within wheat flour, quietly, perhaps initially undetected.  Yet, over time, he was seen as having a positive impact through his work, eventually recognized as being part of the process of moving things forward.  He was never the sort to be negative or appear disgruntled.  During his career, Gates likely came in contact with CIA officers such as, Donald Gregg, Robert Ames, Gary Schroen, Jack Devine, Dewey Clarridge, Claire George, James Lilley, William Buckley, James Delaney, William Colby, Richard Helms, and Vernon Walters, with whom dozens of stories of ingenuity, courage, sacrifice, and patriotism are coupled.  Contacts with such associates and a multitude of others helped Gates develop a greater understanding of the world and other ways of thinking, on top of all he was learning directly through his duties as an analyst on the Agency’s Directorate of Intelligence.

As Gates reached the senior ranks of the organization, especially the job of Deputy Director of CIA, his work at headquarters was supplemented by travels worldwide, to establish or ensure understandings and agreements the Agency had with foreign personalities, some with whom most professionals and the average person would never wish to come in contact.  By that time, Gates was also made very familiar with the more esoteric, advanced, and somewhat frightening aspects of the US intelligence community’s activities.  Outside of CIA, he worked closely with Brent Scowcroft, as well as with Colin Powell and James Baker, legends in the world of US foreign and defense policy.  He was Deputy National Security Advisor during the fall of the Soviet Union.  Eventually he would become the Director of CIA. Gates’ counsel was highly valued among senior foreign and defense policy officials and presidents.

Before Gates came back to Washington to serve as Secretary of Defense, he served as President of Texas A&M University and a member of several corporate boards. He moved away from the worries of national security, leaving the job to the capable hands of others.  While developing the minds of young men and women was the concept and intent behind his service at Texas A&M, he also had a chance to reflect on his life and career.  That time of calmness and peacefulness allowed him to sharpen his discernment and see what is really inside himself.  It was likely in that period, that Gates recognized the importance of being candid and forth-right with associates.  Being polite is a virtue; silence is golden. However, remaining silent when change or action is necessary is wrong.  When the flock has strayed, remaining silent is failure.  Having developed a reputation for nearly a century for being discreet, Gates, with Duty, seemingly put the concept of being forthright in full effect in order to repair matters.  He is honest about his associates, appropriately self-critical of his own judgments, and candid in reflecting on issues that might have been handled better.

With much attention being given to Gates criticisms, the fact that Duty is an interesting history of his work as secretary is nearly lost. Gates feels that he met the job’s challenges to include: managing the activities of the armed forces globally; developing the department’s budget, overseeing the research, acquisition, and procurement process for new systems; directing the Defense Department’s relations with allies and partners overseas, managing relations with other departments such as State, Energy, Homeland Security; directing the relationship of his department with the White House and the Congress; and, managing the relationship between the military services and the president.  When Gates arrived at the Defense Department, its bureaucracy was comfortable and resisted pressure to shift to a wartime footing, dragging its feet on urgent military needs as well as neglecting to adequately care for wounded warriors.  Gates explains how he assured $16 billion was in a supplemental budget to get thousands of much needed MRAP troop-carriers built and sent quickly to Iraq and Afghanistan, against objections from the service chiefs.  He produced a budget in the first year of the administration of US President Barack Obama that cut or curtailed 33 weapons programs, including the F-22 stealth fighter.  He changed the Army’s promotion board and thus allowed some of the most creative colonels, whose careers had been thwarted, to advance to the rank of general.  When he discovered the horrors at Walter Reed Army Hospital, he fired the Secretary of the Army and fixed the situation immediately.  He also fired the Air Force Chief of Staff for slowing down production and delivery of reconnaissance drones, which in Iraq helped the troops spot roadside bombs and track down the insurgents who planted them.  In agreement with just about all other reviewers, Gates’ descriptions of how he managed to successfully lead and effectively direct the Defense Department with a combination of cooption and coercion, tempered by decades of government service at the senior level, makes Duty a book that should be read by every future US Defense Secretary, as well as political and business leaders, and defense and foreign policy makers in any country.

Yet, the history of his tenure as Defense Secretary served as background to all of his appraisals of behavioral and attitudinal changes among officials and officers in the government since he left in 1993.  Gates clearly saw it as emblematic of a degraded quality of service to the US.  That apparently startled him the more than anyting else.  At the lower levels, Gates found the behavior of young members of the National Security Council staff unsettling.  The National Security Council (NSC) staff was dominated by young congressional and campaign staffers who had little or no experience in foreign policy.  Gates explains the young staffers would engage in meddling to include making calls to four-star generals.  Having served in similar positions under four previous presidents Gates says such actions would have constituted “a firing offense” in previous administrations.  There was apparently no model for the young staffers to follow that remotely resembled what Gates had known in the past.  Rank and title had lost its meaning.  Perhaps the assumption was made by younger staffers that all were equally finding their way as students in school.  They were likely never told and never consiered  that most older, senior professionals possessed a depth of knowledge tha coiuld have been useful to them.  Interestingly, during the Cold War, the KGB and GRU likely would have avoided any attempt to contact such young staffers as described by Gates, judging them as too erratic, possessing a far greater sense of importance than deserved, and displaying questionable judgment.

While former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was praised by Gates, characterizing her as cooperative and capable, many other senior officials at the White House also drew criticism from him.  Gates appraised Tom Donilon, the second National Security Advisor in the Obama administration as suspicious and distrustful of the uniformed military leadership to the point of stating in a meeting that it was “insubordinate” and “in revolt” against the White House.  At one point in an Oval Office meeting, Donilon was so argumentative about military operations that Gates contemplated walking out of the room in anger.  “It took every bit of my self-discipline to stay seated on the sofa.”  Gates referred to former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, as “hell on wheels” and “a whirling dervish with ­attention-deficit disorder.”

Gates’ criticism of US Vice President Joe Biden has received considerable note in the media.  He depicts Biden as being loud and garrulous and a comical “motor mouth,” obsessed with politics over substance.  At the same time, he says Biden is “simply impossible not to like.”  Gates explains how Biden presumes to know more about counterterrorism than an experienced Special Operations general.  However, Gates only assessed that as an aspect of Biden’s “relentless attack” on “the integrity of the senior military leadership.”  Gates noted that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.”  What he faults Biden most about is poisoning Obama’s relationship with his generals.  Gates stated, “I thought Biden was subjecting Obama to Chinese water torture, everyday saying, ‘the military can’t be trusted.’ ”

Regarding the presidents he served as a Defense Secretary at war, Gates explains President George W. Bush and his aides squandered the initial military victories in both wars by mistakes and short-sighted policies.  He expressed dislike for Bush’s “freedom agenda” as “too simplistic” and his objectives in Afghanistan as “embarrassingly ambitious (and historically naïve).”  He believes that the invasion of Iraq and the revelations about renditions, Abu Ghraib prison, and Guantánamo “fueled further anti-American feeling.”  Yet, Gates admits admiring Bush as “a man of character, a man of convictions, and a man of action.”   Readers may find an incongruity in these statements, Gates understands that presidents also have feelings, make errors, but have the right to be treated respectfully.  Errors on the other hand do not have rights and errors made by authorities should be given attention. Gates successfully managed to assist Bush by accelerating the isolation of Vice President Dick Cheney with a number of political maneuvers.  He clearly saw Cheney’s advice as questionable.  Before he left office, Gates reveals that Cheney advocated bombing both Syria and Iran. Gates explained that he almost singlehandedly kept Bush following through on that suggestion regarding Iran.

Gates served Obama well, encouraging and supporting him.  Gates clearly understood there were enormous gaps in Obama’s background, knowledge, and understanding with regard to national security.  Coming into the administration, Gates let the president know that he would be with him and would stand by him.  He asked Obama to trust him, and promised not to fail him.  Gates hoped there would be a process by which he could impart the best of what he knew for the president to absorb.  Indeed, the president spoke in confidence with Gates, often seeking out his counsel.  For Obama the policy making process on Afghanistan was agonizing and left him wary of his generals.  Concerned over being disrespected by them, Obama asked Gates, “Do they think because I’m young that I don’t see what they’re doing?”  However, Obama eventually became non-receptive to certain reasoning. Gates indicates that was perhaps due to competing messages from Biden and others.  Such competing voices, even worse, were further confusing the situation.  Some officials misunderstood what Gates had learned long before that the weight only falls on the president’s shoulders.  Clarity of thought is especially critical on tough issues.

Gates explains a break occurred with Obama in April 2011, just he was departing the administration.  Obama had previously agreed that Gates would restructure the defense budget but that its size would not be altered. In the face of midterm elections and fiscal pressures across the board, White House Chief of Staff, William Daley, informed Gates that he would need to cut the budget by another $400 billion over the next 10 years. Gates explained “I was furious.”   He writes. “I pointed my finger at Daley and said, ‘This White House’s word means nothing!’ ”  True, the president’s job is to set national priorities, and political changes unavoidably alter those settings; it’s the Defense Secretary’s job to devise the best strategy given his limited resources.  Yet, Gates, well aware of that, perhaps is not recounting the whole story of the agreement.  Perhaps it included a quid-pro-quo that was reneged upon.  Gates disappointment also could have been due to what he recognized as a pattern of mistrust and suspicion plaguing the White House’s relations with the Defense Department since 2009.  Gates already had a deep distrust of Obama’s staff, feeling betrayed on major promises made about the defense budget and about the process of allowing gay soldiers to serve openly in the military.  On top of that, Gates explained being in the White House Situation Room and thinking that “the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy and doesn’t consider the war to be his.  For him, it’s all about getting out.”

If there was a point in the book where Gates could be said to have been aggressive and questionably constructive, it is in his discussion of the US Congress.  Gates sensed a superficiality about Congressional efforts, in which Members were not thinking deeply in the long term interests of US.  He witnessed a senselessness among those seemingly addicted to the insignificant.  He calls Members of the Senate “hypocritical and obtuse” and is angered by the “kangaroo-court environment” in committee hearings.  Gates states that the House of Representatives has “more than its fair share of crackpots” and “raving lunatics.”  He points to “rude, insulting, belittling, bullying, and all too often highly personal attacks” by Members.

Perhaps the real window into Gates soul was his thinking about the troops.  Gates really cares.  He was essentially traumatized by his role in sending US soldiers overseas to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.  He admits to crying over letters of condolence that he signed, later mulling over in bed the lives of those killed or wounded.  His emotions are genuine.  At one point Gates writes “I did not enjoy being secretary of defense.”  At another, he recalls telling a friend in an email, “People have no idea how much I detest this job.”  He reveals in Duty’s conclusion that he has requested to be buried in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery, the resting place of many of those killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The 19th century Hanoverian military thinker, Carl von Clausewitz stated, “Strength of character does not only consist of having strong feelings, but maintaining one’s balance in spite of them.”  Duty is not part of an effort by Gates to angrily vent disappointment over the government, but a sincere effort to improve US national security.  Too many have looked at the work from the wrong perspective. Gates understands that US strength was created through patriotism, dedication, hard work, and real sacrifice.  He has asked that those serving in the government now perform in that manner.  For that reason, Gates saves his criticism especially for those professionals and officials who set the example and standard for the young staffers.  With a sense of respect and collegiality toward his president and his associates, Gates was quiet while in government, but silence does not obviate intellectual inquiry or activity of the spirit and of the soul.  Now, Gates has voiced his thoughts.  Hopefully Gates will continue to speak out as loud as he can.  Without question, greatcharlie.com highly recommends Duty to all of its readers.  In time, it will be viewed as one of the greatest Washington insider memoirs ever.

By the way, Gates did more than assess the situation with Russia over Ukraine in his March 25th Wall Street Journal editorial.  He also offered a way forward worth considering. He explained: “The only way to counter Mr. Putin’s aspirations on Russia’s periphery is for the West also to play a strategic long game. That means to take actions that unambiguously demonstrate to Russians that his worldview and goals—and his means of achieving them—over time will dramatically weaken and isolate Russia.” If negotiations betwee the US ad Russia over Ukraine fail, we shall see if his advice is taken, and see how it goes!