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 After US President Donald Trump announced that US troops would be withdrawn from Syria, critics and detractors surmised that he reached the decision from thin air, and hastily announced it at the end of 2018 in order to “check off” a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 if 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 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, could while still maintaining parameters for safety for allies and friends, pursue ground targets more vigorously with less concern that retribution from a malign actor against US troops would 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!”

A Russian Threat on Two Fronts: A New Understanding of Putin, Not Inadequate Old Ones, Will Allow the Best Response

Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin (above). Putin, himself, appears to be the cause for difficulties that  the Trump administration has encountered in improve relations between the US and Russia. One might accuse Putin of playing a cat and mouse game with Trump. Why Putin would act in this manner is uncertain. An assay of Putin from outside the box may provide a framework from which the Russian President’s complexities can be better understood.

According to a March 3, 2018 New York Times article entitled, “A Russian Threat on Two Fronts Meets an American Strategic Void”, US President Donald Trump has remained silent about his vision to contain Russian power, and has not expressed hope of luring Moscow into new rounds of negotiations to prevent a recurrent arms race. Indeed, the article, largely critical of the Trump administration, explains that “most talk of restraint has been cast to the wind” over the past few months. What purportedly envelopes Washington now is a strategic vacuum captured by “Russian muscle-flexing and US hand-wringing.” A cyberchallenge has enhanced the degree of tension between the two countries. The article reports that top US intelligence officials have conceded that Trump has yet to discuss strategies with them to prevent the Russians from interfering in the midterm elections in 2018. In striking testimony on February 27, 2018 on Capitol Hill, the director of both the US National Security Agency and the US Cyber Command, US Navy Admiral Michael Rogers explained that when he took command of his agencies, one of his goals was to assure that US adversaries would “pay a price” for their cyberactions against the US that would “far outweigh the benefit” derived from hacking. Rogers conceded in his testimony that his goal had not been met. He dismissed sanctions that the US Congress approved last year and those that Trump had not imposed as planned would not have been enough to change “the calculus or the behavior” of Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.

What was reported by the March 3rd New York Times article presaged a shaky future for US-Russian relations. At the start of the Trump administration, Putin convincingly projected an interest in working toward better relations through diplomacy. Areas of agreement and a degree of mutual respect between Trump and Putin have been found. Yet, agreements reached should have served to unlock the diplomatic process on big issues. Putin appears to be the causality for a figurative draw on the scorecard one year into the Trump administration’s exceptionally pellucid, well-meaning effort. Putin seems to be playing a cat and mouse game with Trump–constant pursuit, near capture, and repeated escapes. It appears to have been a distraction, allowing him to engage in other actions. While engaged in diplomacy, the Trump administration has observed hostile Russian moves such as continued interference n US elections, as well as other countries, and efforts to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and to tighten Moscow’s grip Crimea and the Donbass. Those actions greatly diverge with US policies on Syria and Ukraine. Putin and his officials have shown their hand too completely over time for anyone in Washington to allow themselves to be seduced by Putin’s guise of wanting to improve ties. In the recent greatcharlie post, it was explained that Trump and foreign and national security policy officials in his administration, who were good-naturedly referred to as “stone hearts”, were well-aware from the get-go that Putin and his government could more often than not be disingenuous.  If Putin truly does not want positive to change in relations, the Trump administration’s diplomatic project with Russia is likely moribund. If there were some touch that Trump could put on the situation right now that would knock the project in the right direction, he certainly would. At the moment, however, the environment is not right even for his type of creativity and impressive skills as a negotiator. For now, there may very well be no power in the tongue of man to alter Putin. Since no changes in relations are likely in the near future, it would be ideal if Putin would avoid exacerbating the situation between the US and Russia by suddenly halting any ongoing election meddling. The whole matter should have been tied-off and left inert in files in the Kremlin and offices in the Russian Federation intelligence and security services. However, Putin seems to going in the opposite direction. The threat exists that Putin, seeing opportunity where there is none, will engage in more aggressive election meddling, and will also rush to accomplish things in its near abroad, via hybrid attacks at a level short of all out war, with the idea that there is time left on the clock before the US responds with a severe move and relations with the Trump administration turn thoroughly sour. That possibility becomes greater if the Kremlin is extrapolating information to assess Trump’s will to respond from the US newsmedia.

Putin’s desire, will, and ability to act in an aggressive manner against the US, EU, and their interests must be regularly assessed in the light of new events, recent declarations,  and attitudes and behaviors most recently observed by Western leaders and other officials during face to face meetings with him. Undoubtedly, Trump is thoroughly examining Putin, trying to understand him better, mulling through the capabilities and capacity of the US and its allies to respond to both new moves and things he has already done. Since Trump is among the few Western leaders who have recently met with Putin–in fact he has met with him a number of times, there might be little unction for him to be concerned himself with meditations on the Russian President made in the abstract. Nevertheless, an assay of Putin from outside the box may provide a framework from which the Russian President’s complexities can be better understood. Parsing out elements such as Putin’s interests and instincts, habits and idiosyncrasies, and the values that might guide his conscious and unconscious judgments would be the best approavh.to take. A psychological work up of that type on Putin is beyond greatcharlie’s remit. However, what can be offered is a limited presentation, with some delicacy, of a few ruminations on Putin’s interior-self, by looking at his faith, pride, ego; countenance, and other shadows of his soul. What is presented is hardly as precise as Euclid’s Elements, but hopefully, it might be useful to those examining Putin and contribute to the policy debate on Russia as well. Credula vitam spes fovet et melius cras fore semper dicit. (Credulous hope supports our life, and always says that tomorrow will be better.)

Putin has publicly declared his faith and has been an observant member of the Russian Orthodox Church. By discussing his faith, Putin has developed considerable political capital among certain segments of the Russian public. Putin’s political opponents and other critics at home, however, would question where faith has its influence on him given some of his policy and political decision, particularly concerning territorial grabs, overseas election meddling, and reported human and civil rights violations in his own country.

Faith

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines faith as complete trust or confidence; a strong belief in a religion, based on spiritual conviction rather than proof. Faith guides the mind. It helps the mind conclude things. Simple faith, involves trusting in people and things. Communists mocked faith in the church, but still had faith in Marx. In that vein, faith allows for the acceptance of the word of another, trusting that one knows what one is saying and that one is telling the truth. The authority being trusted must have real knowledge of what he or she is talking about, and no intention to deceive. Faith is referred to as divine faith when the one believed is God. In discussing Putin’s divine faith, greatcharlie recognizes that to convey a sense of religiousness makes oneself spooky to some. Writing publicly, one of course opens oneself up to constructive criticism at best and obloquy at worst. Still, a discussion tied to faith might be feared by readers on its face as being one more expression of neurotic religiosity, an absurdity. That presents a real challenge. Nonetheless, the effort is made here.

Putin has publicly declared his faith on many occasions. He has been an observant member of the Russian Orthodox Church. Putin was introduced, to religion, faiith, and the church early in his life. In Part 1 of Putin’s 2000 memoir, First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President (Public Affairs, 2000), Putin explains that his mother, Mariya Ivanovna Shelomova, attended church and had him baptized when he was born. She kept his baptism a secret from his father, who was Communist Party member and secretary of a party organization in his factory shop. Putin relates a story concerning her faith as well as his own in Part 1’s final paragraph. He explains: “In 1993, when I worked on the Leningrad City Council, I went to Israel as part of an official delegation. Mama gave me my baptismal cross to get it blessed at the Lord’s Tomb. I did as she said and then put the cross around my neck. I have never taken it off since.” Religious formation must start at childhood discussing ideas as being kind, obedient, and loving. They must be told of the world visible and invisible. Children are buffeted by many aggressive, strange, harmful ideas, and must able to surmount them by knowing what is right and doing what is right. Children tend to gravitate toward prayer, which strengthens their faith and helps their devotion grow. One tends to resemble those in which one is in regular conversation, and prayer helps bring children closer to God. The very brief life God bestows to one on Earth is lived more fully with faith. On his death bed, the renowned French philosopher, playwright, novelist, and political activist, Jean Paul Sartre, stated: ”I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here, and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.” Est autem fides credere quod nondum vides; cuius fidei merces est videoed quod credis. (Faith is to believe what you do not see the reward of this faith is to see what you believe.)

Faith does not replace the intellect, it guides the mind. Whether Putin’s faith has shaped his views or his Ideology is unclear. By discussing his faith, Putin has developed considerable political capital among certain segments of the Russian public. It has allowed Putin to cloak him in something very positive, very healthy, and would provide citizens with a good reason to doubt and dismiss negative rumors and reports about his actions. Many Russian citizens have responded to Putin’s introduction of faith to the dialogue about his presidency by coming home to the Orthodox Church. Perhaps that is a positive aspect that can be found in it all. Members of Russia’s opposition movement and other critics at home, however, would question where faith has its influence on him given some of his policy and political decision, particularly concerning territorial grabs, overseas election meddling, and reported human and civil rights violations in his own country. They would claim that rather than shaping his policy decisions in office, his faith is shaped by politics. They would doubt that he would ever leverage influence resulting from his revelations about his faith in a beneficial way for the Russian people or any positive way in general. They could only view Putin’s declaration of divine worship as false, and that he is only encouraging the superficial worship of himself among the intellectually inmature who may be impressed or obsessed with his power, wealth, lifestyle, and celebrity.

Putin commemorates baptism of Jesus Christ in blessed water (above). On June 10, 2015, Putin was asked by the editor in chief of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, “Is there any action that you most regret in your life, something that you consider a mistake and wouldn’t want to repeat ever again.” Putin stated, “I’ll be totally frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind. It appears that the Lord built my life in a way that I have nothing to regret.”

Putin is certain that his faith has provided a moral backing for his decisions and actions as Russian President. On June 10, 2015, Putin was asked by the editor in chief of the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, “Is there any action that you most regret in your life, something that you consider a mistake and wouldn’t want to repeat ever again.” Putin stated, “I’ll be totally frank with you. I cannot recollect anything of the kind. It appears that the Lord built my life in a way that I have nothing to regret.”

Having humility means to be honest about ones gifts and defects. The true source, the real hand in ones accomplishments, is God. Once one recognizes this, one can be honest about the need for God’s assistance. Putin’s, to a degree, seems to indicate that he has humility and appears assured that he has been placed in his current circumstances, and has given him the ability to do all that he has done, as the result of God’s will. However, Putin should keep in mind that evil can quiet all suspicions, making everything appear normal and natural to those with the best intentions. To that extent, his decision and actions could truly be the augur of his soul, but perhaps not in a positive way. Evil can go into the souls without faith, into souls that are empty. Once evil insinuates itself in one’s life, there is chaos, one becomes bewildered, confused about life, about who one is. Due to the threat of evil influence one must be willing to look deeper at oneself to discern flaws, to see what is lacking. Having a sense of balance in this world necessitates having an authentic knowledge of oneself, the acceptance of daily humiliations, avoidance of even the least self-complacency, and humble acknowledgement of ones faults. The virtue of temperance allows one to give oneself a good look. Once one gets oneself right, then one can get God right. Vitiis nemo sine nascitur. (No one is born without faults.)

Putin seemingly surmises that he is satisfying God through his religious observance and by obeying religious obligations. Yet, one cannot approach God simply on the basis of one’s “good deeds.” Indeed, simply doing the right things, for example, following the law does, not grant you salvation. It does not give you guidance. Approval, recognition, obligation, and guilt are also reasons for doing good. The motive behind your actions is more important than your actions. To simply believe also does not put one in a position to receive. Your heart must be right.

Putin celebrating Christmas in St Petersburg (above). Wrong is wrong even if everyone else is doing it. Right is right even if nobody is doing it. Putin’s conscience should be able to distinguish between what is morally right and wrong. It should urge him to do that which he recognizes to be right. It should restrain him from what he recognizes to be wrong. Ones conscience passes judgment on our actions and executes that judgment on the soul.

All those who have worked for Putin, and those who have come up against him, would likely agree that he has a wonderful brain, and his intellect must be respected. His talents were first dedicated to 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. The job took root in him. As a skilled KGB officer, he was proficient at lying, manipulation and deception. It was perhaps his métier.  Putin would likely say he engaged in such behavior for all the right reasons, as a loyal foot soldier. Subsequently, he would serve in a succession of political positions in the intelligence industry that were thrust upon him. In 1997, he served as head of the Main Control Directorate. In 1998, he was ordered to serve as director of the Federal’naya Sluzhba Bezopasnosti Rossiyskoy Federatsi (Russian Federation Federal Security Service) or FSB. Later that same year, he was named Secretary of the Security Council. Through those positions, he was educated thoroughly on the insecurity of the world. It was a world in which things in life were transient. He discovered the width of the spectrum of human behavior. Putin applies that knowledge of humankind, sizing-up, and very often intimidating interlocutors, both allies and adversaries alike. The 16th century English statesman and philosopher, Sir Francis Bacon said that “knowledge itself is power,” but Intellect without wisdom is powerless. One matures intellectually when one moves from seeking to understand the how of things to understanding the why of things. Through the conquest of pride can one move from the how to the why. One can only pray for the wisdom to do so. In The New Testament, Saint Paul explains: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. Beatus attempt esse sine virtute nemo potest. (No one can be happy without virtue.).”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that the inclination toward sin and evil is called “concupiscence”. Baptism erases original sin and turns a man back towards God. However, the inclination toward sin and evil persists, and the man must continue to struggle against concupiscence. Sin leads to sin. Acts of sin tend to perpetuate themselves and result in additional acts of sin. Sin can become a way of life if it goes unchecked. When Putin approaches the altar of the Russian Orthodox Church, his purpose should be to expiate sin.

Wrong is wrong even if everyone else is doing it. Right is right even if nobody is doing it. Putin’s conscience should be able to distinguish between what is morally right and wrong. It should urge him to do that which he recognizes to be right. It should restrain him from what he recognizes to be wrong. For the spiritual, conscience is formed by God’s truth. God’s truth creates order. In addition to knowing God’s truth, one must embody His truth which is inspired by love. The truth is a great treasure, a satisfactory explanation of the world and heaven that should speak to the individual. One should love God, love one’s neighbor, and remain virtuous by choice because it is the right thing to do. The reason for ones existence is best understood once one connects with the Creator of life. One can be happy with what makes God happy. Sub specie aeternitatis. (Under the aspect of eternity.)

Ones conscience passes judgment on our actions and executes that judgment on the soul. One should not do things that do not fit one. Conscience will send warning signals ahead of time. One should not ignore ones conscience. One should not violate it. The conscience should serve as Putin’s protection. Despite everything, it could very well be that Putin has a seared conscience. A less sensitive conscience will often fail an individual. Perhaps his conscience is dead. In following, his ability to know what is right may be dead. Putin declared his faith. He did not declare that he was a moral paragon. Quodsi ea mihi maxime inpenderet tamen hoc animo fui semper, ut invidiam virtute partam gloriam, non invidiam putarem. (I have always been of the opinion that infamy earned by doing what is right is not infamy at all, but glory.).

Putin at the 2015 Moscow Victory Day Parade (above). Putin would likely be delighted to know there was a general understanding that his pride and patriotism go hand in hand. To that extent, all of his moves are ostensibly made in the name of restoring Russia’s greatness, to save it from outsiders who have done great harm to the country and would do more without his efforts. Some Russian citizens actually see Putin as ‘the Savior of Russia.”

Pride

Si fractus illabatur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae. (If the world should break and fall on him, it would strike him fearless.) The OED defines pride as a feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from achievements, qualities or possessions that do one credit, or something which causes this; consciousness of one’s own dignity or the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself. Pride has been classified as a self-conscious emotion revolving around self and as social emotion concerning ones relationship to others. It can be self-inflating and distance one from others.

In terms of being conscious of the qualities, the positive nature of one’s country, surely national leaders must have a cognitive pride, an attitude of pride in their countries, their administrations, and missions. They will express their pride with dignity, regardles of how big or small, powerful or weak, that their countries are. Putin insists that all Russian have pride in their country. Putin wants all Russian citizens to be part of their country’s rise to greatness. Divisions based on race, ethnicity, religion and origin hinder that. It is worth repeating from the greatcharlie post, “Russia Is Creating Three New Divisions to Counter NATO’s Planned Expansion: Does Shoigu’s Involvement Assure Success for Putin?”, that much as the orator, poet, and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, concluded about his Ancient Rome, Putin believes that loyalty to the Russian Federation must take precedence over any other collectivity: social, cultural, political, or otherwise. As noted by Clifford Ando in Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire (University of California Press, 2013), in the hierarchy of allegiances outlined by Cicero, “loyalty toward Rome occupied a superordinate position: her laws and her culture provided the normative fabric that would, to borrow a phrase of Rutilius Namatianus [Poet, Imperial Rome, 5th Century], ‘create from distinct and separate nations a single fatherland’.” Likewise, Russia’s laws and culture provide the normative fabric from which a united country is created from diverse peoples. Possession of citizenship should be the basis to cause individuals to identify with the concerns of others in widely disparate populations among Russia’s republics. Putin wants Russians to be in a “Russian state of mind,” a mental state created when diversity, creativity, and optimism coalesce. A citizen’s attitude, perspective, outlook, approach, mood, disposition, and mindset should stand positively Russian.

From a theological perspective, the prideful individual acts as if their talents, possessions, or achievements are not the result of God’s goodness and grace but their own efforts. When pride is carried to the extent that one is unwilling to acknowledge dependence on God and refuses to submit ones will to God or lawful authority, it is a grave sin. While not all sins source from pride, it can lead to all sorts of sins, notably presumption, ambition, vainglory, boasting, hypocrisy, strife, and disobedience. In that vein, pride is really striving for a type of perverse excellence. That type of pride can be embedded deeply in ones being. 

1. Patriotism

Putin’s emotional pride is also expressed in the form of profound patriotism. Patriotism is defined as having or expressing devotion to and vigorous support for ones country. In reading Part 1 of Putin’s First Person, one can begin to understand why patriotism permeates everything Putin does. Given the rich history of his family’s service to the homeland gleaned from his parents and grandparents, it is hard to imagine how he would think any other way. It was gleaned because according to Putin, much of what he learned about his family was caught by him and not taught directly to him. Indeed, he explains: “My parents didn’t talk much about the past, either. People generally didn’t, back then. But when relatives would come to visit them in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), there would be long chats around the table, and I would catch some snatches, so many fragments of the conversation.” Putin’s grandfather, Spiridon Ivanovich Putin, was a cook. However, after World War I he was offered a job in The Hills district on the outskirts of Moscow, where Vladimir Lenin and the whole Ulynov family lived. When Lenin died, his grandfather was transferred to one of Josef Stalin’s dachas. He worked there for a long period. It is assumed by many that due to his close proximity to Stalin, he was a member of the infamous state security apparatus, the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs) or NKVD. Putin notes that his grandfather came through the purges unscathed unlike most who spent much time around Stalin. Putin also notes that his grandfather outlived Stalin, and in his later, retirement years, he was a cook at the Moscow City Party Committee sanatorium in Ilinskoye. As for Putin’s mother, she refused to leave Leningrad as the Germans were blockading it. When it became impossible for her to remain, her brother, under gunfire and bombs, took her out along with her baby, Albert, Putin’s brother, to Smolny.  Afterward, she put the baby in a shelter for children, which is where he came down with diphtheria and died. (Note that in the 1930s, Putin’s mother lost another son, Viktor, a few months after birth.) Putin’s mother nearly died from starvation. In fact, when she fainted from hunger, people thought she had died, and laid her out with the corpses. With God’s grace, she awoke and began moaning. She managed to live through the entire blockade of Leningrad.

Putin at the War Panorama Museum in St. Petersburg (above). Patriotism is defined as having or expressing devotion to and vigorous support for ones country. Patriotism permeates everything Putin does. Given the rich history of his family’s service to the homeland gleaned from his parents and grandparents, it is hard to imagine how he would think any other way.

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

That sense of pride and spirit Putin seeks to instill in all Russians echoes the powerful lyrics of Sergei Mikhalkov in the National Anthem of the Russian Federation. They are not just words to Putin, they are his reality. As if the vision in Verse 3 could have been written by Putin, himself, it reads: “Ot yuzhykh morei do poliarnogo kraia Raskinulis nashi lesa i polia. Odna ty na svete! Odna ty takaia – Khranimaia Bogom rodnaia zemlia! (Wide expanse for dreams and for living Are opened for us by the coming years Our loyalty to the Fatherland gives us strength. So it was, so it is, and so it always will be!) Putin would likely be delighted to know that there was a general understanding that his pride and patriotism go hand in hand. To that extent, all of his moves are ostensibly made in the name of restoring Russia’s greatness, to save it from outsiders who have done great harm to the country and would do more without his efforts. Some Russian citizens actually see Putin as “the Savior of Russia.”

2. Self-esteem

Pride can cause an individual to possess an inordinate level of self-esteem. They may hold themselves superior to others or disdain them because they lack equal capabilities or possessions. They often seek to magnify the defects of others or dwell on them. The Western country that has been the focus of Putin’s disdain, far more than others, is the US. An manifestation of that prideful attitude was Putin’s response to the idea of “American Exceptionalism” as expressed by US President Barack Obama. In his September 11, 2013 New York Times op-ed, Putin expressed his umbrage over the idea. So important was his need to rebuff the notion of “American exceptionalism”, that he sabotaged his own overt effort to sway the US public with his negative comments about it. The op-ed was made even less effective by his discouraging words concerning US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. This would not be his last effort to sway the US public on important matters, nor the last one to backfire. Putin is not thrilled by the Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” or the concept “America First.” He has expressed his umbrage in speeches and in public discussions. Subordinates such as Russian Federation Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Federation Presidential Spokesperson Dimitry Peskov, using florid rhetoric, have amplified Putin’s views on the matter.

As an officer in the KGB, the main adversary of Western intelligence and security services during the Cold War, Putin would naturally harbor negative sentiment toward his past, now present, opponents. Perhaps if there were some peace dividend at the end of the Cold War that Russia might have appreciated, and his ears were filled by Donna Nobis Pacem (Give US Peace), his attitude may have been different. In fact, the world might never have known Putin, or would known a different one. However, that was not the case. Putin did not inherit an ideal situation in Russia when he became president. While on his way to the top of the political heap, Putin saw how mesmerising “reforms” recommended to Yeltsin’s government by Western experts drastically impacted Russia’s economy in a way referred to somewhat euphemistically by those experts as “shock treatment.” Yeltsin was unaware that Western experts were essentially “experimenting” with approaches to Russia’s economic problems. His rationale for opening Russia up to the resulting painful consequences was not only to fix Russia’s problems but ostensibly to establish comity with the West. The deleterious effects of reforms recommended by Western experts’ could be seen not only economically, but socially. In the West, alarming statistics were reported for example on the rise of alcoholism, drug addiction, birth defects, HIV/AIDS, a decreased birth rate, and citizens living below the poverty line. Russia’s second war in Chechnya which was brutal, and at times seemed unwinnable, had its own negative impact on the Russian psyche. As Russia’s hardships were publicized internationally, perceptions of Russia changed for the worst worldwide. However, Putin saw no need for Russia to lose any pride or surrender its dignity as a result of its large step backward. Putin believed Russia would rise again, and that some acceptable substitute for the Soviet Union might be created, and never lacked faith about that. Putin was loyal and obedient while he served Yeltsin, but saw him tarry too long as Russia strained in a state of collapse.

US President Donald Trump (left) and Putin (right). Intelligence professionals might say that the correct and expected move in response to a covert operation that has failed very publicly, so miserably, would be to “tie it off”. Instead, as reported by US Intelligence agencies and the White House, Russia’s effort to meddle in the US elections has become recursive. Putin declined to be upfront with Trump about the matter. Russia must exit any roads that could lead to disaster.

Putin has not hesitated to use force when he believed there would be some benefit in doing so. Still, he has shown that he would prefer to outthink his rivals in the West rather than fight them. That notion may in part have influenced his responses in contentious situations. It may also account for the sustained peace with the US that Russia has enjoyed under his stewardship. However, it may be possible that this line of thinking was born out of necessity rather than by choice. Except for its long-held, unquestioned ability to engage in a nuclear war with the US, Russia has lacked the capability and capacity to do other big, superpower-type things successfully for nearly three decades. True, Moscow’s Crimea-grab and moves in Eastern Ukraine were swiftly accomplished and significant. Russian Federation military operations in Georgia’s South Ossetia and Abkhazia garnered the full attention of the West. However, both moves, though important, actually caused more disappointment than create a sense of threat to the interests of the US and EU. To that extent, the US, EU, and NATO were not convinced that there was a need for direct military moves in Ukraine to confront Russia, no positioning of NATO troops in Crimea or Eastern Ukraine to counter Russia’s moves, to make things harder for Moscow. To go a step further, there is no apparent balance between Russia’s self-declared role as a superpower and the somewhat moderate military, diplomatic, economic, political, and communication tools available to it. The more territory Moscow acquires through conquest, the less capable it is to care for territory already under its control as well as tend to Russia’s own needs. In particular, greater economic pressures will be placed on Russia’s already fragile economy. Despite his efforts to make things right in Russia, Putin must spend an inordinate amount of time mitigating existing hardships and the effects of malfunctions across the board in Russia’s government system and its society.

3. Chasing the Unattainable

Perhaps the type of success Putin really wants for Russia is unattainable, not by some fault of his own, but rather because its problems are too great, run too deep. He may have run out of answers to put Russia on real upward trajectory given the capabilities and possibilities of the country. Not being remiss, he has used all tools available to him, yet big improvements have not been seen. Putin’s pride may have been a bit marred by this reality. He, better than anyone, knows what Russia is and what it is not. For all that he has done, he has not led Russia, to use a phrase from John Le Carré, “out of the darkness into an age reason.” In a significant endeavor, there is always the potential to become lost. It would seem, consciously or unconsciously, Putin may simply be moving at a deliberate speed or even procrastinating a bit. When he cannot swim forward, he would prefer to tread water than sink. By continually displaying the strength, and the will, to keep his head above water in tough situations, Putin has become an inspiration to those around him. Most senior Russian officials are unwilling or are unable to take a complete look at the situation. Rather, they seem enamored with Putin, and would likely follow him no matter what. Knowing that has perhaps fed into his sense of accomplishment and confidence

Putin once said that the greatest danger to Russia comes from the West. He believes Western governments are driven to create disorder in Russia and seek to make it dependent of Western technologies. Theories propagated by Moscow that the struggle between East and West is ongoing have been energized by the whirlwind of anger and aggressive verbiage concerning the 2016 US Election meddling issue. The story of the meddling, confirmed and revealed by US intelligence community and political leaders on the national level, has been propelled by a strong, steady drum beat of reports in the US news media. Perhaps the election meddling, a black operation, should have been considered an unsurprising move by Putin. Perhaps due to his experience in the the intelligence industry, hseems to lead him to turn to comfortable tactics, technique, procedures, and methods from it when confronting his adversaries. The Kremlin vehemently denies any interference in the US elections. That may simply be protocal. Russian officials, such as Lavrov and Peskov, have gone as far as to say that insistence of various US sources that the meddling took place is a manifestation of some mild form of hysteria or paranoia. Yet, the Kremlin must be aware that such denials are implausible, and in fact, unreasonable. To respond in such a brazenly disingenuous manner in itself raises questions not just about the conduct Russia’s foreign and national security policy, but the true motives and intent behind Moscow’s moves. It appears that Putin’s personality and feelings influence policy as much as well-considered judgments.

Putin, better than anyone, knows what Russia is and what it is not. Perhaps the type of success Putin really wants for Russia is out of reach, unattainable, not by some fault of his own, but rather because it’s problems are too great, run too deep. He may have run out of answers to put Russia on a true upward trajectory. His pride may have been a bit marred by this reality. Despite his aptitude as a leader, he has failed to lead Russia, as a whole, “out of the darkness into an age reason.”

4. Tying-off the Election Meddling

Intelligence professionals might say that the correct and expected move in response to a covert operation that has failed very publicly, so miserably, would be to “tie it off”. Instead, as reported by US Intelligence agencies and the White House, Russia’s effort to meddle in the US elections has become recursive. This would mean that Putin, himself, wants it to continue. Although the meddling operation has been almost completely exposed, and one would expect that those responsible for it would feel some embarrassment over it, Moscow seems gratified about how that matter has served as a dazzling display of Russian boldness and capabilities. To that extent, the carnival-like approach of some US news media houses to the issue well-serves Moscow. Perhaps Putin has assessed that successive meddling efforts will last only for so long until US cyber countermeasures, awareness programs, retaliatory actions, and other steps eventually blunt their impact or render such efforts completely ineffective. Thus, he may feel that he has no need to stop the operation, as the US will most likely do it for him. Still, continued efforts to interfere in US elections may not end well. Russia must exit any roads that could lead to disaster.

Putin at 2018 campaign rally (above). Putin can be proud of his many accomplishments, of his rise to the most senior levels of power in Russia, eventually reaching the presidency, and of being able to make full use of his capabilities as Russia’s President. Yet, having an excessively high opinion of oneself or ones importance, is not conducive to authentic introspection for a busy leader. Putin’s unwillingness or inability to look deeply into himself has likely had some impact upon his decisions on matters such as Russia’s meddling in US elections.

Ego

The OED defines ego as a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance; in psychoanalysis, it is the part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious mind, and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity. Ego, as first defined in the OED, can be useful in calibrated doses. A bit of an ego is needed in order for one to believe that new or far-reaching objectives can reached and tough, difficult things can be achieved. When it gets beyond that, problems tend to ensue. The ego is the voice inside an individual that really serves one purpose, and that is to make one feel better about whom one is, to lift oneself up. It will do whatever it needs to do to make that happen. The ego is also the voice inside of an individual that may drive one to kick another when he or she is down, causing them to feel bad about themselves. An example of Putin’s ego pushing beyond what some experts might call the normal parameters was the October 7, 2015 celebration of his 63rd birthday. Putin participated in a gala hockey game in Sochi, Russia, alongside former NHL stars and state officials. Putin’s team reportedly included several world-renowned players, such as Pavel Bure, formerly a member of the National Hockey League’s Vancouver Canucks. Putin’s team won the match 15-10. Putin scored 7 of his team’s 15 goals!

From a theological  perspective, ego, much as pride, separates one from God. s the work of the devil, it is his tool that is used to separate us from God. The ego (Edging-God-Out) is considered the most powerful tool the devil has. It is deceiving in its ways, and makes one feel that one is serving others, when in reality one is serving oneself. Ego has no home is God’s creation. It is a distractive, impure thought, that leads to the destruction of self and others.

Putin can  proud, in the ordinary sense, of his many accomplishments, of his rise to the most senior levels of power in Russia eventually reaching the presidency, and of being able to make full use of his capabilities as Russia’s President. With no intention of expressing sentimentality, it can be said that Putin went from a working class to middle class background in the Soviet Union to very top of Russia’s elite. As he recounts in First Person, and as his critics in the West remind without fail, Putin spent his spare time as a child hunting rats in the hallways of the apartment building where his family lived. To a degree, he was an upstart who alone, with the legacy of honorable and valorous service of his father and grandfather in the intelligence industry only available to inspire him, struggled to the highest level of the newly established Russian society. The arc of his story is that the professional and personal transformation of his life came with the fall of the Soviet Union. That event created the circumstances for his life to be that put him on the path to his true destiny. All of that being stated, humility would require that Putin recognize that his achievements are the result of God’s goodness and grace, not simply his own efforts. Ego would urge him not to think that way.

Perhaps Putin would be better able to understand the source of all good things in his life if he engaged in true introspection, a look within from the context of his faith. It appears that Putin’s unwillingness or inability to look deeply in himself has allowed him to develop an excessively high opinion of himself, a potent confidence that he alone is responsible for all positive outcomes. Holding a distorted sense of self-importance certainly would not facilitate introspection by a busy leader. His attitude of pride has also likely influenced his responses in contentious situations. All of this should not be used to conclude that Putin’s declarations about his faith have been counterfeit. Rather, there appears to be an imbalance between the influence of faith, particularly the restraining virtue of humility and the influence of a willful pride, an seemingly unruly desire for personal greatness. In time, a through his faith, he may find his value in God alone. God can work in mysterious ways.

Often, moves by Putin against the West resemble responses in a sport where there are challenges made and the challenger gains points when able to stand fast against his opponent’s counter moves and gains points based on the ability to knock the challenger back. In that vein, Russia’s move into Ukraine appeared to represent a dramatic victory. There was no military effort to push back against his move. There was no available capability among Western countries to defeat Russia’s challenge in Ukraine short of starting a war. Putin remains adamant about the correctness of that action. His position was amply expressed in his March 14, 2014 speech, declaring Russia’s annexation of Crimea. He noted that Russia’s economic collapse was worsened by destructive advice and false philanthropy of Western business and economic experts that did more to cripple his country.  However, Putin’s moves in Ukraine likely brought him only limited satisfaction. He still has been unable to shape circumstances to his liking. He would particularly like to  knock back moves by the West that he thinks were designed to demean Russia such as: the Magnitsky law, NATO Expansion (NATO Encroachment as dubbed by Moscow), the impact of years of uncongenial relations with Obama, and US and EU economic sanctions. His inability to change those things, and some others, has most likely left his ego a bit wounded.

An example of Putin’s ego pushing beyond what some experts might call the normal parameters was the October 7, 2015 celebration of his 63rd birthday. Putin participated in a gala hockey game in Sochi, Russia, alongside former NHL stars and state officials. Putin’s team reportedly included several world-renowned players. Putin’s team won the match 15-10. Putin scored 7 of his team’s 15 goals.

1. Magnitsky

In the West, particularly the US, there is a belief that in recent years, Putin has simply been reactive to the Magnitsky Act. It was not only a punitive measure aimed at Russia’s economy and business community, but struck at the heart of Putin’s ego. Through Magnitsky law, the West was interfering in Russia’s domestic affairs, good or bad, as if it were some second or third tier country, not as a global superpower with a nuclear arsenal. In retaliation, he would do the best he could to harm Western interests, even those of the US, not just over Magnitsky but a lot of other things. Counter sanctions would be the first step. Suffice it to say, election meddling took that retaliation to a new level. The Magnitsky Act, the official title of which is the Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, is named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer and auditor who in 2008 untangled a dense web of tax fraud and graft involving 23 companies and a total of $230 million linked to the Kremlin and individuals close to the government. Due to his efforts, Magnitsky became the target of investigations in Russia. When Magnitsky sued the Russian state for this alleged fraud, he was arrested at home in front of his kids, and kept in prison without charges, in filthy conditions, for nearly a year until he developed pancreatitis and gallstones. In November 2009, Magnitsky, at 37 years old, was found dead in his cell just days before his possible release. The Magnitsky Act was signed into law by Obama in December 2012 in response to the human rights abuses suffered by Magnitsky. The Magnitsky law at first blocked 18 Russian government officials and businessmen from entering the US froze any assets held by US banks, and banned their future use of US banking systems. The Act was expanded in 2016, and now sanctions apply to 44 suspected human rights abusers worldwide. William Browder, a US hedge fund manager, who at one time the largest foreign investor in Russia and hired Magnitsky for the corruption investigation that eventually led to his death, was a central figure in the bill’s passage. Two weeks after Obama signed the Magnitsky Act, Putin signed a bill that blocked adoption of Russian children by parents in the US. Russia then also imposed sanctions on Browder and found Magnitsky posthumously guilty of crimes. Supporters of the bill at the time cited mistreatment of Russian children by adoptive US parents as the reason for its passage. What made Russian officials so mad about the Magnitsky Act is that it was the first time that there was an obstacle to collecting profits from illegal activities home. Money acquired by rogue Russian officials through raids, extortion, forgery, and other illegal means was typically moved out of Russia were it was safe. Magnitsky froze those funds and made it difficult for them to enjoy their ill-gotten gains. The situation was made worse for some officials and businessmen close to Putin who had sanctions placed on them that froze their assets. All news media reports indicate that getting a handle on Magnitsky, killing it, has been an ongoing project of Russian Federation intelligence agencies.

2. NATO

Regarding NATO, in an interview published on January 11, 2016 in Bild, Putin essentially explained that he felt betrayed by the actions taken in Eastern Europe by the US, EU, and NATO at the end of the Cold War. Putin claimed that the former NATO Secretary General Manfred Worner had guaranteed NATO would not expand eastwards after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Putin perceives the US and EU as having acquitted themselves of ties to promises to avoid expanding further eastward, and arrogating for themselves the right to divine what would be in the best interest of all countries. He feels historians have ignored the machinations and struggles of people involved. Putn further stated in the Bild interview: “NATO and the USA wanted a complete victory over the Soviet Union. They wanted to sit on the throne in Europe alone. But they are sitting there, and we are talking about all these crises we would otherwise not have. You can also see this striving for an absolute triumph in the American missile defense plans.” Putin also quoted West German Parliamentarian Egon Bahr who stated in 1990: “If we do not now undertake clear steps to prevent a division of Europe, this will lead to Russia’s isolation.” Putin then quoted what he considered an edifying suggestion from Bahr on how to avert a future problem in Europe. According to Putin, Bahr proffered: “the USA, the then Soviet Union and the concerned states themselves should redefine a zone in Central Europe that would not be accessible to NATO with its military structure.” Putin’s view has not changed much since the interview. However, despite Putin’s certainty on this position, no former-Soviet republic wants to return to Russia or Moscow’s sphere of influence. Putin appears unwilling to accept today’s more complex reality. Pro-Russian movements and political circles in former Soviet republics do not represent the modern day trend.

Putin with binoculars at Zapad 2017 Military Exercises (above). Putin perceives the US and EU as having turned their backs on promises made to avoid expanding further eastward, and arrogating for themselves the right to divine what would be in the best interest of all countries. Despite Putin’s certainty of the West’s intrusive behavior, actually, no former-Soviet republic wants to return to Russia or Moscow’s sphere of influence. Putin appears unwilling to accept today’s more complex reality.

3. The EU

Putin has always viewed the EU as a project of deepening integration based on norms of business, law, and administration at variance from those emerging in Russia. Putin was also concerned that EU enlargement would become a means of excluding Russia from its “zones of traditional influence.” Even today, certain Russian actions indicate Moscow actively seeks to encourage members to withdraw from the EU sphere and discourage countries from joining it. Joint projects with European countries have allowed Russia to exploit their differences on political, economic and commercial issues creating a discordant harmony in the EU. A goal of such efforts has also been to undermine EU unity on sanctions. Even away from the former Soviet republics, Russia has engaged in efforts to undermine democratic processes in European countries. One method, confirmed by security experts, has been meddling in elections in a similar way to that widely reported to have occurred in the US.

4. Obama-Putin

Poor US-Russia relations were exacerbated by the uncongenial relationship between Putin and Obama. Indeed, Putin clashed repeatedly with the US President. Sensing a palpable weakness and timidity from Obama, Putin seemed to act more aggressively. The Russian military move that stood out was the capture of the Crimea and movement of troops into Eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russia separatists. There was nothing to encourage Putin to even try to negotiate beyond Magnitsky after Crimea. There was no room for him to turn back with ease or he would be unable to maintain his sense of dignity in doing so. Crimea would prove to be a useless chip to use in bartering a deal on Magnitsky. The US still views Magnitsky and Crimea as separate issues. Putin recognized from the attitudes and behavior of Obama administration officials that even the extreme measure of using subtle threats with nuclear weapons would not be emphatic enough to elicit a desired response from Washington because Obama administration officials would unlikely accept that such weapons could ever be used by Russia which was a projection of a view, a mental attitude, from their side. The Obama administration insisted that Putin negotiate them in the summer of 2013 and when he refused to do so, the administration cancelled a September 2013 summit meeting in Moscow between Putin and Obama. From that point forward, there was always “blood in water” that seemed to ignite Putin’s drive to make the Obama administration, and de facto the US, as uncomfortable and as unhappy as possible short of military confrontation.

5. US and EU Sanctions

As far as Putin sees it, painful sanctions from the US and EU, on top of the Magnitsky law, have damned relations between Russia and the West. Putin rejects the idea that the Trump administration is pushing for additional sanction against Russia and has explained new sanctions are the result of an ongoing domestic political struggle in the US. He has proffered that if it had not been Crimea or some other issue, they would still have come up with some other way to restrain Russia. Putin has admitted that the restrictions do not produce anything good, and he wants to work towards a global economy that functions without these restrictions. However, repetitive threats of further sanctions from the US and EU will place additional pressure on Putin’s ego and prompt him to consider means to shift the power equation. Feeling his back was against the wall, he has previously acted covertly to harm US and EU interests. A very apparent example of such action was his efforts to meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election process. The US and EU must be ready to cope with a suite of actions he has planned and is prepared to use.

Convinced his behavior was an expression of ego, some Western experts believe that Putin may have succumbed to the vanity of his metaphoric crown. In effect, to them, Putin has been overwhelmed by his sense of the great power that he wields in Russia, and that he wants to convince other countries that he can wield power over them, too!

6. Succumbing to the Vanity of “His Crown”

Convinced his behavior is an expression of ego, some Western experts believe that Putin may have succumbed to the vanity of his metaphoric crown. To that extent, Putin has been overwhelmed by his sense for the great power that he wields in Russia, and wants to convince other countries that he can wield power over them, too! If Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces were snatched from Kiev and fell firmly under the control of pro-Russian quasi-states of those entities and Russia, perhaps Putin would erect a statue of himself somewhere there or in Crimea much as one was erected of Zeus in Jerusalem by the Greek ruler of Syria, Antiochus IV. As for the people of those territories, and others in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, they may become the 21st century version of the malgré-nous, with many perhaps serving in the military against their will under the control of Russia. These scenarios are viewed by greatcharlie as long shots. It would surely raise Putin’s ire if he ever heard it. Although he is a dominant leader, he would likely prefer that his power was accepted, understood, and feared if need be, than depicted in such a monstrous or preposterous fashion. Yet, Putin may have behaved in a similar way recently when he announced an array of new “invincible” nuclear weapons.

On February 27, 2018  in a Moscow conference hall, with the back drop of a full-stage-sized screen protecting the Russian Federation flag, Putin gave one of his most bellicose, militaristic speeches since his March 14, 2014 regarding Crimea’s annexation. He told an audience of Russia’s elites that among weapons either in development or ready was a new intercontinental ballistic missile “with a practically unlimited range” able to attack via the North and South Poles and bypass any missile defense systems. Putin also spoke of a small nuclear-powered engine that could be fitted to what he said were low-flying, highly maneuverable cruise missiles, giving them a practically unlimited range. The new engine meant Russia was able to make a new type of weapon, nuclear missiles powered by nuclear rather than conventional fuel. Other new super weapons he listed included underwater nuclear drones, a supersonic weapon and a laser weapon. Putin backed his rhetoric by projecting video clips of what he said were some of the new missiles onto the giant screen behind him. Referring to the West, Putin stated, “They have not succeeded in holding Russia back,” which he said had ignored Moscow in the past, but would now have to sit up and listen. He further stated, “Now they need to take account of a new reality and understand that everything I have said today is not a bluff.”

Putin was speaking ahead of the March 18, 2018 Russian Federation Presidential Election. He has often used such harsh rhetoric to mobilize voter support and strengthen his narrative that Russia is under siege from the West. Yet, oddly enough, Putin emphasized that the new weapons systems could evade an Obama-era missile shield, which was designed to protect European allies from attacks by a specific rogue country in the Middle East and possibly terrorist groups, not Russia’s massive nuclear arsenal. He spoke about Moscow being ignored which was really a problem he had with the Obama administration. Indeed, most of what Putin said seemed to evince that lingering pains were still being felt from harsh exchanges with Obama. With Obama off the scene, and apparently developing military responses to cope with a follow on US presidency under former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Putin simply projected all of his anger toward Trump. Metaphorically, Putin seemed to “swinging after the bell.” So hurt was his ego that he has acted by building Russia’s nuclear arsenal up in a way the no US leader could ever deny the threat to US security that Russia poses. Being able to make that statement likely soothed his ego somewhat.

Religious scholars might state that Putin’s strong, perceptible ego contradicts his declaration of faith. The ego does not allow for the presence of God in ones life. Many have self-destructed as a result of their veneration of self. The ego needs to be overcome and removed from ones heart in order to allow God to fill that space.

In the form of Putin’s face can be found much that is telling about the Russian leader. As of late, its countenance has been far from serene and kindly. The countenance of ones face, smiling or frowning, can effortlessly communicate to others how one is feeling, thinking. Photos of Putin’s face more often reveal a deep, piercing, consuming stare, reflecting the strong, self-assured, authoritative, no nonsense personality, of a conscientious, assertive, and aggressive leader.

Putin’s Countenance

Imago animi vultus est, indices occuli. (The countenance is the portrait of the soul, and the eyes mark its intentions.) In the form of Putin face can be found much that is telling about the Russian leader. As of late, its countenance has been far from serene and kindly. The countenance of ones face, smiling or frowning, can effortlessly communicate to others how one is feeling, thinking. The face can also convey essential characteristics that make individuals who they are. In photos of President Putin in 2000, his eyes appear similar to those of the very best students of a fine university, watching and peering, learning and discerning constantly in order to best prepare himself to lead Russia into the future. It was before he had the eyes of an experienced, battle-scarred leader. Now, photos of Putin’s face more often reveal a deep, piercing, consuming stare, reflecting the strong, self-assured, authoritative, no nonsense personality, of a conscientious, assertive, and aggressive leader. Si fractus illabatur orbis, impavidum ferient ruinae. (If the world should break and fall on him, it would strike him fearless.)

1. The Conscientious Leader

The inner voice of individuals meeting with Putin may not sound an alarm immediately. After all, if Putin is anything, he is a conscientious leader and one would expect to see it reflected in Putin’s face. Conscientiousness is the personality trait of being careful, or vigilant. It implies a desire to do a task well, and to take obligations to others seriously. Conscientious people tend to be efficient and organized as opposed to easy-going and disorderly. They exhibit a tendency to show self-discipline, act dutifully, and aim for achievement; they display planned rather than spontaneous behavior; and they are generally dependable. It is manifested in characteristic behaviors such as being neat and systematic; also including such elements as carefulness, thoroughness, and deliberation. The absence of apprehension, even anxiety, among some who meet with Putin is understandable, reasonable given that in social, as well as business situations, one can usually assume interlocutors mean what they say, are also personally invested in their interactions, and will display certain of manners, in some cases by protocol. Wanting to think well of others, wanting to connect with them, appearance, facial expressions, are looked upon benignly. Responding in this way is also a defense mechanism. Given his reputation, earned or not, aggression discerned in Putin’s face likely becomes sensate among his more worldly interlocutors. He might even be perceived through his countenance as being physically threatening without actually using any other part of his body to make gestures that could reasonably be identified as aggressive.

Somewhere in between, Putin can often appear to be what might be casually called “poker faced”, seemingly unresponsive to events swirling around him. During those moments, he is most likely evaluating everything and everyone, but keeping all his thinking and assessments locked inside himself. He may also be looking beyond the moment, considering what his next steps would be. Interlocutors will typically respond with faces of puzzlement and sometimes terror. Having the confidence to “face” foreign leaders in such a manner is a reflection of Putin’s assertiveness. (In the case of Trump, the response was likely disappointment, which masked a cauldron of intense rage. That should concern Putin and will become something to which he will need to find an answer.)

Putin gestures to a reporter at a press conference (above). Given his reputation, earned or not, aggression discerned in Putin’s face likely becomes sensate among his more worldly interlocutors. He might even be perceived as being physically threatening without actually making any aggressive gestures.

2. Putin’s “Assertiveness”

According to Fredric Neuman, Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital, being assertive means behaving in a way that is most likely to achieve one’s purpose. Under that definition, most successfully assertive individuals will have a suite of ways to act in given circumstances. Neuman explains that there are times when the right thing to do is to be conciliatory, and other times when resistance is appropriate. When one is actually attacked, verbally or otherwise, it may be appropriate to respond by resisting forcibly. Surely, there is a balance in Putin’s behavior in situations, but he has never been a wilting flower before anyone. A KGB colleague would say about Putin: “His hands did not tremble; he remained as cool as a mountain lake. He was no stranger to handling grave matters. He was expert at reading and manipulating people, and unfazed by violence.” Many foreign policy and human rights analysts in the West, and members of Russia’s opposition movement would say that Putin has amply demonstrated that he has no concern over sacrificing the well-being of Russians to further his geopolitical schemes and the avarice of colleagues. They report that he regularly persecutes those who protest. All of this runs contrary to image of Putin as a patriot. Those who study Putin would also point to the deaths of the statesman, politician, journalist, and opposition political leader, Boris Nemtsov; journalist Anna Politkovskaya; and, former KGB officer Alexander Litvinenko.  Attention might also be directed to the deaths of 36 generals and admirals from 2001 to 2016. In the majority of cases, the causes of death listed were listed as suicides, heart attacks, or unknown. Among those who died are former Russian Federation National Security Adviser and Army Major General Vladimir Lebed and the Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation Russian Federation Army Colonel-General Igor Sergun.

3. Putin the Predator

Certainly, Putin prepares for his meetings or any other official contacts in advance, by mining available information about his scheduled interlocutors and by considering all possible angles of how they might challenge him and how he would explain himself in a plausible, satisfying way. Such is the nature of politics as well as diplomacy. However, there are reportedly times when Putin, after considering information available, will simply declare his superior position relative to his interlocutor and let them know that they must accept what he says. His success in a meeting relies heavily upon how well he does his homework. Clearly, individuals as Putin can have a different context for learning about people. To explain further, when Putin asks about an interlocutor’s family, home, office, even capabilities, it not small talk or the result of friendly interest. Rather, he may be signalling, warning, that he has already evaluated an interlocutor as a potential target. He may be confirming information or collecting more. He may also be testing ones vulnerability to falsehoods or how one might respond to unpleasant information. He is creating a perceptual frame for his interlocutor. Such tactics, techniques, procedures, and methods truly match those of a predator. Predators use deflection, social miscues, and misinformation to provide cover for themselves. They can use a contrived persona of charm and success to falsely engender trust. They have an exit plan in place, and are confident with regard to the outcome of their actions. Boiled down, they accomplish their deception using three steps: setting a goal; making a plan; and, compartmentalize get. By setting a goal, they know what they want and what it will take to get it or achieve it. They have no inhibitions about causing damage or harm. They stay focused. By making a plan, they not only determine ways to get what they want, but also develop exits if needed. By compartmentalizing, they detach themselves emotionally from attachments that might be embarrassed or be an annoyance if caught. They train themselves to give off no such tells, so they can pivot easily into a different persona. While some might acquire this skill as Putin likely had while working in the intelligence industry, others may not have any natural sense of remorse.

When immobilized or in a controlled “silence,” Putin’s face can also manifest a type of ambush predation in his thinking. He may be attempting to conceal his preparation to strike against a “troublesome or even threatening” party, if not at that moment, eventually. Ambush predators are carnivorous animals or other organisms, that capture or trap prey by stealth or by strategy, rather than by speed or by strength.

When immobilized or in a controlled “silence,” Putin’s face can also manifest a type of ambush predation in his thinking. He may be attempting to conceal his preparation to strike against a “troublesome or even threatening” party. Ambush predators or sit-and-wait predators are carnivorous animals or other organisms, that capture or trap prey by stealth or by strategy, rather than by speed or by strength. In animals and humans, ambush predation is characterized by an animal scanning the environment from a concealed position and then rapidly executing a surprise attack. Animal ambush predators usually remain motionless,  sometimes concealed, and wait for prey to come within ambush distance before pouncing. Ambush predators are often camouflaged, and may be solitary animals. This mode of predation may be less risky for the predator because lying-in-wait reduces exposure to its own predators. If the prey can move faster than the predator, it has a bit of an advantage over the ambush predator; however, if the active predator’s velocity increases, its advantage increases sharply.

There is a Christian religious allegory warning of the inner spiritual decay manifested by an outer physical decay presented in a historical framework that includes Leonardo da Vinci. As told, when Leonardo da Vinci was painting “The Last Supper”, he selected a young man, Pietri Bandinelli by name as the person to sit for the character of the Christ. Bandinelli was connected with the Milan Cathedral as chorister. Several years passed before Da Vinci’s masterpiece painting was complete. When he discovered that the character of Judas Iscariot was wanting, Da Vinci noticed a man in the streets of Rome who would serve as a perfect model. With shoulders far bent toward the ground, having an expression of cold, hardened, evil, saturnine, the man’s countenance was true to Da Vinci’s conception of Judas. In Da Vinci’s studio, the model began to look around, as if recalling incidents of years gone by. He then turned and with a look half-sad, yet one which told how hard it was to realize the change which had taken place, he stated, “Maestro, I was in this studio twenty-five years ago. I, then, sat for Christ.”

Perhaps Putin is simply making the most of what is. Putin may just be living life and doing the most he can for his country and the Russian people, no matter how limited. Satisfaction might come in the fact that he firmly believes things in Russia are better than they would be under the control of anyone else.

Other Shadows of Putin’s Interior

Nam libero tempore, cum soluta nobis est eligendi optio, cumque nihil impedit, quo minus id quo maxime placeat facere possimus, omnis voluptas assumenda est, omnis dolor repellendus. Temporibus autem quibusdam et aut officiis debitis aut rerum necessitatibus saepe eveniet, ut et voluptates repudiandae sint et molestiae non recusandae. Itaque earum rerum hic. Tenetur a sapiente delectus, ut aut reciendis voluptatibus maiores alias consequator aut preferendis dolorbus asperiores repellat. (In a free hour, when our power of choice is untrammelled and when nothing prevents our being able to do what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. But in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted. The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or else he endures pains to avoid worse pains.) Although thngs may go wrong, Putin knows that disappointments in life are inevitable. Putin does not become discouraged or depressed nor does he withdraw from the action. Putin knows he must remain in control of himself as one of his duties as president, and as a duty to himself.

1. Risky Moves

As mentioned earlier, Putin may very well be simpy making the most of what is. Putin may just be living life and doing the most he can for his country and the Russian people, no matter how limited. Some satisfaction might come with the fact that he firmly believes things in Russia are better than they would be under the control of anyone else. Despite his optimism and confidence in his abilities, Putin must be careful of risky moves, creating new situations that may lead to discord, disharmony. For example, interfering in Ukraine was a move that felt he could keep a handle on. Regardless of how positive, professional, and genuine Trump administration efforts have been to build better relations between the US and Russia, it would seem Putin has decided that entering into a new relationship with US would have too many unknowns and possible pitfalls. Putin knows that the consequences of missteps can be severe. He has the memory of what former Russian President Boris Yeltsin experienced in the 1990s to guide him. 

Although he holds power, Putin must always labor with the loneliness of leadership, the anxiety of decision making, and an awareness of threats to his well-being. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that there can be any real happiness for one who is under threat, in a country riddle with corrupt officials and a somewhat fragile system of law and order.

Dionysius and Damocles

Although he holds power, Putin must always labor with the loneliness of leadership, the anxiety of decision making, and an awareness of threats to his well-being. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine that there can be any real happiness for one who is under constant threat, in a country riddle with corrupt officials and a somewhat fragile system of law and order. The ancient parable of Dionysius and Damocles, later known in Medieval literature, and the phrase “Sword of Damocles”, responds to this issue of leaders living under such apprehension. The parable was popularized by Cicero in his 45 B.C. book Tusculan Disputations. Cicero’s version of the tale centers on Dionysius II, a tyrannical king who once ruled over the Sicilian city of Syracuse during the 4th and 5th centuries B.C. Though wealthy and powerful, Dionysius was supremely unhappy. As a result of his iron-fisted rule, he had created many enemies. He was tormented by fears of assassination—so much so that he slept in a bedchamber surrounded by a moat and only trusted his daughters to shave his beard with a razor. Dionysius’ dissatisfaction came to a head one day after a court flatterer named Damocles showered him with compliments and remarked how blissful his life must be. “Since this life delights you,” an annoyed Dionysius replied, “do you wish to taste it yourself and make a trial of my good fortune?” When Damocles agreed, Dionysius seated him on a golden couch and ordered a host of servants wait on him. He was treated to succulent cuts of meat and lavished with scented perfumes and ointments. Damocles could not believe his luck, but just as he was starting to enjoy the life of a king, he noticed that Dionysius had also hung a razor-sharp sword from the ceiling. It was positioned over Damocles’ head, suspended only by a single strand of horsehair. From then on, the courtier’s fear for his life made it impossible for him to savor the opulence of the feast or enjoy the servants. After casting several nervous glances at the blade dangling above him, he asked to be excused, saying he no longer wished to be so fortunate.

Having so much hanging over his head, Putin has no time or desire to tolerate distractions. He does not suffer fools lightly. Putin’s ability to confound insincerity has been key to his ability to remain power. Early on as president, Putin effectively dealt with challenges posed by ultra-nationalists who were unable to temper their bigoted zeal, such as Vladimir Zhirinovsky of the extreme right Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, and Gennady Zyuganov of the Communist Party of Russia. The challenges posed by them lessened every year afterward. To the extent that such elements, and those far worse in Russia, could potentially react more aggressively to Putin’s efforts to maintain order, he most remain ever vigilant. Putin has also become skilled in implementing what critics have called “charm offensives,” explaining his ideas and actions in a manner that is easy, comfortable, assuring, and logical. Still, such moves are sometimes not enough. Indeed, during significant crises, it is very important for Putin to have advisers who fully understand his needs. For an overburdened, embattled leader, the encouragement of another, a paraclete, may often prove comforting.

Putin undoubtedly strives for a gesamtkunstwerk: a harmonious work environment. At the present, Putin is probably working with the best cabinet he has ever crafted both in terms of the quality of their work and chemistry. They may occasionally antagonize the overworked leader with a report not crafted to Putin’s liking, or worse, report on a setback. On such occasions, in contrast to his usual equanimity, Putin allegedly has become spectacularly incandescent.

Putin has sought to take on qualified ministers, directors, and other officials to handle specialties. That effort was hampered to an extent during Putin’s early years in power given the need to respond to the wishes of certain patrons. Yet, Putin never hesitated to fire those foisted upon him or his handpicked hires, whether former KGB or not, when they failed to perform. Putin has known what advice, prognostication, and proposals to accept in order to promote his efforts at home and internationally and develop a coherent set of policies. Since he brings his “A-game” to his office everyday, striving for perfection and hungering for improvement, and he expects the same from his cabinet. There are never any spectators, passengers along for the ride. All must be able to answer the who, what, when, where, why, and how of issues they cover, because that is what Putin will demand. Among his advisers, Putin undoubtedly strives for a gesamtkunstwerk: a harmonious work environment. At the present, Putin is probably working with the best cabinet he has ever crafted both in terms of the quality of their work and chemistry. They may occasionally antagonize the overworked leader with a report not crafted to Putin’s liking, or worse, report on a setback. On such occasions, in contrast to his usual equanimity, Putin allegedly has become spectacularly incandescent with them.

When speaking about what is important to him, Putin does not use throw away lines. He is straightforward and to the point. When he was declared the winner of the 2012 Russian Federation Presidential Election, Putin publicly wept. It is impossible to know what was happening inside Putin to bring that on, but his emotional expression was clearly genuine. To that extent, Putin is not a man without emotion or innermost feelings.

3. Breathing Space

Every now and then Putin stops to take a rest to regroup, and probably to take inventory of his life, determine what he wants, and consider where things are headed. Speculation over Putin’s whereabouts for 10 days in March 2015 became a major news story worldwide. Some sources argued Putin was likely the subject of a coup. Others claimed that his girlfriend had given birth in Switzerland. There were even reports suggesting he had health problems. Putin good-naturedly dismissed it all. Putin’s main outlet for relaxation is sports of all kinds, particular judo and ice hockey. Since the days of his youth, Putin’s involvement in the martial arts, sports in general, had a strong influence on him, impacting his lifestyle. Sports provided Putin with a chance “to prove himself.”However, when he wants, Putin can also display an enjoyment of life and good times, and be quite gregarious, outwardly happy, full of smiles.

Putin, an experienced judoka, displays an element of his nage-waza (throwing technique) with a sparring partner (above). Since the days of his youth, Putin has been involved in the martial arts. Sports of all kinds have been Putin’s main outlet for relaxation. Sports have also provided Putin with a chance “to prove himself.”

When he wants, Putin can also display an enjoyment of life and good times, and be quite gregarious, outwardly happy, full of smiles. Putin undoubtedly understands the importance of having a sense of humor despite any difficulties he may face. Humor is beneficial for ones physical and emotional health. It reinforces ones relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Physically, laughter can improve resistance to diseases by declining the stress hormones and increasing infection-fighting antibodies in the human body according to some research. Laughter can ease physical tension­ and help muscles relax. Emotionally, humor helps you to release stress and to keep an optimistic attitude. When one feels anxious or sad, a good laugh can lighten ones mood. The positive feelings emitted when one laughs will increase energy for the brain and body. That allows for greater focus and will allow one to look at the problems from less frightening perspectives. Humor helps one remain optimistic and humor communication boosts the emotional connection that will bring people closer together and increases happiness as well. Sharing a good-hearted laugh may serve in part to smooth out rough times. Putin’s sense of humor is evinced when he tells jokes. Putin told the following joke publicly in response to a question about the economic crisis in Russia.: Two friends meet up, and one, Person A, asks the other, Person B: “How are things?” Person B says, “Well, things right now are like stripes, you see, black and white.” Person A asks, “Well, how are things right now?” Person B says, “Black!” Half a year passes before they meet again. Person a asks Person B, “Well, how are you – wait, I remember, like stripes, how are things right now?” Person B says, “Right now, they’re black.” Person A says, “But back then it was also black!” Person B says, “Nope, it turns out it was white back then.” Putin has also often told a joke from the Soviet-era that humorously depicts the KGB’s bureaucracy. The goes as follows: “A spy goes to Lubyanka, KGB Headquarters, and says: “I’m a spy, I want to turn myself in.” He is asked, “Who do you work for?” The spy says, “America.” He is told, “OK, go to room 5.” He goes to room 5 and says: “I’m an American spy. I want to turn myself in.” He is asked, “Are you armed?” The spy says, “Yes, I’m armed.” He is told, “Go to room 7, please.” He goes to room 7 and says: “I am an American spy, I’m armed, I want to turn myself in.” He is told, “Go to room 10.” He goes to room 10 and says: “I’m a spy, I want to turn myself in!” He is asked, “Do you have any communication with the Americans?” The spy says, “Yes!” He is told, “Go to room 20.” He goes to room 20 and says: “I’m a spy, I’m armed, I’m in communication with America and I want to turn myself in.” He is asked, “Have you been sent on a mission?” The spy says, “Yes!” He is then told, “Well, get out and go do it! Stop bothering people while they’re working!”

Putin undoubtedly understands the importance of having a sense of humor despite any difficulties he may face. Humor is beneficial for ones physical and emotional health. It reinforces ones relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. Putin’s sense of humor is evinced when he tells jokes. When he wants, Putin can also display an enjoyment of life and good times, and be quite gregarious, outwardly happy, full of smiles.

The Way Forward

In Act II, scene i, of William Shakespeare’s play, A Comedy of Errors, Adriana, the wife of Antipholus of Ephesus, and, Luciana, her sister, wait at home for him to return for dinner. Antipholus of Ephesus, a prosperous Ephesus citizen, is lost the twin brother of Antipholus of Syracuse who coincidentally has been searching worldwide for him and his mother, is in Ephesus. Even more of a coincidence, the father of both men, Egeon, a merchant of Syracuse, is condemned to death in Ephesus for violating the ban against travel between the two rival cities. He avoids execution after telling the Ephesian Duke that he came to Syracuse in search of his wife and one of his twin sons, both lost 25 years ago. While waiting, Adriana and Luciana have an exchange. Luciana proffers that men are freer than women because their work and responsibilities take them out of the home, and she thinks Adriana should just wait patiently for her husband to return and understand that she cannot control him. Adriana, chastising Luciana for preaching patience and servitude when she has not experienced marriage, declares: “A wretched soul, bruised with adversity, We bid be quiet when we hear it cry; But were we burdened with like weight of pain, As much or more would we ourselves complain:.” If Trump could have unwound the labyrinthian Putin and found success in improving relations with Russia, it would have been sublime. As a complex leader himself, self-reflection would naturally lead him to consider that the key to working with Putin would be to get to know him from the inside. It has been a bold effort, given failed attempts of previous US administrations, and brave, considering the degree in which the effort would open himself up to further attacks by critics. The benefits of improved relations with Russia would have been enormous. It would also be a magnificent diplomatic achievement by the Trump administration. It was Jean-Paul Sartre who said, “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat.” For the most part, Trump’s critics find nothing desirable and everything loathsome about Putin, and impute upon him a lust for power and the intent to acquire greater territory and control in Russia’s near abroad. They consequently claim that Trump has a somnolent conscience when it comes to Putin. It is a segment of an ugly picture critics have painted of Trump fumbling on Russia and issues concerning the rest of the world. Their view of Trump is a far cry from reality. As it was explained in the recent greatcharlie post, Trump and his experienced foreign and national security policy officials had reservations about the whole matter. Faster than a canary in a coal mine, they were able to detect what was wrong and disingenuous about Putin’s approach. Putin’s lack of desire for that change is perhaps best evinced by Russia’s persistent efforts to meddle in US elections. If that unconstructive behavior continues, there will be little reason left than to recognize and deal with him not just as an adversary, but as an anathema. There is always hope. After all, along with all the bad, hope was also an element released from Pandora’s Box. However, US foreign policy cannot be simply based on hope and the unverifiable. It must be based on pragmatic choices with the expectation of certain outcomes. At this juncture, only an exceptional optimist among Trump’s most ardent supporters would hope with aplomb that he might be able to pull a rabbit out of a hat by having a few more ideas that might create real prospects for success.

Putin may feel some degree of temporary satisfaction over the arguable accomplishment of ensnaring previous US administrations in artificial diplomatic efforts by feigning interest in improving relations, by offering little steps that are nothing more than bromides. (Perhaps the Obama administration was an exception. Putin displayed little interest in working with it to achieve anything.) Taking that course has required a delicate balance of actions, and so far Putin has managed to avoid creating a greater danger for civilization. (In a way, meddling in US elections has brought things to the edge of the envelope of safety.) Putin unlikely vehemently desires to build up Russia’s nuclear arsenal especially considering costs involved and the likely impact on Russia’s economy. The new weapons announced systems reflected highly of the efforts of his country’s advanced defense research, but even more, provided notice to world that  Russia still has “deterrent” power. Further, it appears that through that announcement, Putin has denied any interest in, and signal his rejection of, genuine efforts to rebuild US-Russia relations. Looking at Putin from the inside, as was attempted here, it would appear that pride had much to do with that choice as he has tied the entire matter to Russia’s dignity, as much as his own. By placing himself in a position of control, being able to reject US diplomatic efforts, he undoubtedly temporarily satisfied his ego, building himself up a bit. Putin would unlikely be interested in the ministrations of greatcharlie on what Putin should be doing with his presidency. However, it would certainly be serendipitous if Putin would move beyond derivative thinking on US-Russian relations. For anyone settled in certain ways, that would require an epiphany of a sort, a degree of  personal growth: from insecurity to complete confidence over Russia’s place in the world. With future generations of Russians in mind, it is hard to image how keeping it separate from the rest of the world would be to their benefit. Much as the conservative US President Richard Nixon opened relations with Communist China, only under Putin will ties with the US reality take shape, could it be made sustainable. Russia would certainly remain strong, competitive, and self-sufficient. Looking at the hypothetical decision holistically, nothing would be lost. To use a sports metaphor, the ball is really in Putin’s court. For now, Trump appears to be available for talks. Opinionis enim commenta delet dies, naturae judicia confirmat. (For time destroys the fictions of error and opinion, while it confirms the determination of nature and of truth.)

Our Fight against Violent Extremism Goes Beyond Using Force Obama Says: How to Cope with Errant Young Men

US President Barack Obama says extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) will not be defeated solely by military force. He says concerned nations must fight violent extremism by countering messages of those groups that seduce young men, and some young women, to join their ranks. In addition to any work on the internet, success will require aiding families’ efforts to keep their children away from those groups.

In a February 18, 2015 Los Angeles Times Op-Ed entitled, “Our Fight against Violent Extremism”, US President Barack Obama explained “The US has made significant gains against terrorism,” but also noted that “the US campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.” Obama’s Op-Ed echoed remarks he made during a three–day summit in February 2015 on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) in Washington, DC, attended by representatives from over 60 countries. Noting that a US-led multinational coalition was engaged in a fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), which he refers to as ISIL, Obama further explained in his Op-Ed that “We know that military force alone cannot solve this problem. Nor can we simply take out terrorists who kill innocent civilians.” As an additional approach, Obama stated that “We also have to confront the violent extremists—the propagandists, recruiters and enablers—who may not directly engage in terrorist acts themselves, but who radicalize, recruit and incite others to do so.” One plan Obama proffered to counter the interpretation of Islam promoted by ISIS and al-Qaeda is to “help Muslim entrepreneurs and youths work with the private sector to develop social media tools to counter extremist narratives on the internet.”

Despite Obama’s clarion call to arms, in both his Op-Ed and in a speech at the CVE summit, a February 19, 2015 New York Times article indicated many leaders and officials attending the meeting doubted his administration had the ability to counter extremist messages, especially from ISIS. It has a reach and agility in social media that surpasses that of the US government. Sasha Havlicek of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a London-based research organization, emphasized in her presentation at the conference, “We’re being outdone both in terms of content, quality and quantity, and in terms of amplification strategies.” She explained that there was a “monumental gap” between ISIS, which uses social media services like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, and the Obama administration, other governments, and nongovernmental organizations. Havlicek called for private firms to become involved in what she called “the communications problem of our time.” Administration officials sense they face a huge challenge. US Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes explained “You could hypothetically eliminate the entire ISIL [ISIS] safe haven, but still face a threat from the kind of propaganda they disseminate over social media.” Yet, most promising about Obama’s Op-Ed was his claim “We know from experience that the best way to protect people, especially young people, from falling into the grip of violent extremists is the support of their family, friends, teachers and faith leaders.” Aiding efforts within families to defeat the influence of extremist groups is the key to long-term success.

When Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were on the march, there were voices of great men and women in Europe who spoke out against the evil Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini embodied. They outlined the crimes and atrocities committed by authorities of those regimes. Their messages were genuine, truthful, and were heard. For those innocent people trapped in lands dominated by their regimes, those important words helped them hold on to their humanity and hope. However, in the end, the use of force was the only way to defeat such evil. Western powers now search for the bromide to destroy the appeal of ISIS among many young Muslim men and weaken the organization. Developing a counter-ISIS or counter-Islamic extremism message is a formidable undertaking. Nevertheless, the attempt to approach the issue must begin with a look within the families of young Muslim men. The response of those young men to ISIS or a similar Islamic extremist group will be determined foremost by the perspective of his family toward such groups. He must be provided with the spiritual, moral, and ethical foundation which would lead him to reject ISIS, or any other Islamic extremist group, hoping to capitalize on his devotion to Islam. By the time the young man first views any Islamic extremist material on the internet, instilled in him should be all that he needs to know in order to turn away from it. Dictum sapienti sat est! (A word to the wise is sufficient!)

Young men who convey an enhanced devotion to Islam in their communities are often spotted by recruiters from Islamic extremist groups. The recruiters condescend to them in conversation. They encourage the exploration of their spirituality. Eventually, radical views are insinuated into the relationship.

The First Brush with Extremism: The Best Chance Counter It

From many angles, young men are pulled into the grip of Islamic extremist groups such as ISIS. A young man can often become bound up in himself, making of himself a very small package. That sort of young man does not learn from adversity or difficulties, but is instead humbled by lessons. He is destroyed by humiliations. Pessimism infiltrates his thinking. He may seek to become somebody to everyone else, and not for himself. Young people of this age become easily seduced by the culture of entertainment. To acquire attention or importance, some young men may seek to convey a religiosity. It may make them seem spooky among some friends and neighbors, but favored among those in their family mosques who will respect their new devotion. Such young men are often spotted by recruiters from Islamic extremist groups. They condescend to them in conversation. They encourage the exploration of their spirituality. Eventually radical views are insinuated into their relationship.

Long before those recruiters reach the young man, his family may discern changes in his perspective. He has perhaps become more cynical and may often display petulance and a rebellious attitude. The family wants to believe that, in his heart, the young man is approaching Islam as he was taught at home. It will expect the young man to be guided by integrity and that he will keep things in perspective and act with proportion in mind. The family will hope that the young man will accept that the religion it taught him, serves to provide guidance on living in communion with God and on traveling the path that God makes for him. However, the fear may build that he will approach Islam as a novelty and expression of ego or pride, as ISIS presents it. The family, more precisely, his parents, want the young man to be the very best he can be. They may recall great dreams of his youth in which he wanted to be an educator, carpenter, or entrepreneur, or dreams they had of him becoming a doctor, lawyer, political leader, or manage the family business. However, good families today live in a world that is off-kilter. While parents may believe there many other things for their son to work toward, that belief will be confounded by his new religious focus that they may notice is straying toward radicalism.

At his university, a young man is taught about the lives of noble figures from the past. Professors discuss the past and the young man learns what works and what does not. He discovers that there is a harmony in how the world works. Further, in the classroom, the young man may begin to understand the human soul, especially his own. Yet, radical views can reach a young man during this learning process. Much as shallows of water may be clear to the bottom, shallow thinking can make a lot of sense to a poor thinker. The young man attempts to find deep truth surrounded by a world of lies provided by the Islamic extremist group. In becoming more radical than spiritual, the young man becomes a more tragic, apathetic figure as time goes on. While the classic approach to religion has stood the test of time, the sorrow of the age is that young men are often drawn to the latest style of the day. ISIS is the latest fad of the day. While claiming to adhere to Islam, ISIS merely pantomimes it. The actions of its members indicate a rejection of God, and are befitting of the most pagan religions on record. Yet, it provides a “feel-good” religiosity for spiritually ungrounded young men, searching for something bigger and better. ISIS recruiters can convince the young man ISIS is that bigger and better thing. ISIS’ establishment of the Islamic Caliphate supports that notion. The idea of being associated with celebrity substitutes itself for worship. It plays into the young man’s vision of his own greatness.

Good parents want their children to be the very best they can be. However, good families today live in a world that is off-kilter. While they may want their children to work toward great things, that hope can be confounded by a son’s new religious focus that may be straying toward radicalism. They must fight to prevent that.

It is at this point the family has the best chance to stop the young man by speaking to him as an individual. The Islamic extremist recruiter speaks to him as being one of many. Lies cannot survive before the truth. However, the individual must respond to the truth. The young man must recognize that nothing will be accomplished through ISIS, particularly in this world of impermanence. If the family has raised the young man with a strong spiritual foundation, taught him how to accept truth, and if he can use his education to recognize where ISIS truly fits in history and how he is devaluing himself by having even the slightest ties to it, he may turn back at this point. Many young men, however, prefer to reject the truth and dismiss reality. They redefine what exists into projections of their egos. They then seek to satisfy their passions. The Romans would refer to this as laetizia. They sense the power, celebrity and the satisfaction of the ego that the process of joining ISIS provides. They “understand” ISIS’ need to have its way with others through domination and control. It is what the Romans would refer to as felicitas. However, one degrades oneself by imposing ones world view on others through political slavery and moral bondage. Those who have held absolute power over others in history are often found in the end holding on to power by their fingernails, knowing if they let go they will be destroyed. When challenged, they self-destruct rather than face retribution. Cupido dominandi cunctis adfectibus flagrentior est. (The lust for power inflames the heart more than any other passion.)

There are some young men who reach a point where they seek to strike out on their own, perhaps feeling stifled or encumbered by their routine lives with their families. This occurs worldwide, regardless of religion. The young man may decide to go into a self-imposed exile. He becomes deaf to voices of reason, proportion, truth in his life. He seems to live off a steady diet of ego and soul-searching. He wiles the idea of fabricating a life and a reality that cannot be built. When this youthful zeal becomes tied in young Muslim men to the illusion that ISIS or another Islamic extremist group will allow for the best use of his powers, he may be drawn by the conviviality of recruiters or gossamer fantasies of brotherhood and unity offered by ISIS and other groups on the internet. His family’s only hope is that the young man will discover his error early on. If not, he may travel to Syria or Iraq where many soul-searching young men are killed.

Hoping Seeds of Reason Sown Earlier Will Sprout

No matter how a young man eventually arrives on the road to Syria or Iraq, he is undoubtedly filled with an anticipation of what he might find. He likely believes that away from his home, his family, a paradise awaits. This thinking is promoted by the ISIS recruiters with whom they have dealt. In a euphoric state, the young man views his surroundings as being lush. As he passes through the so-called Islamic Caliphate, his “new home,” he is impressed by the size of the territory the group holds. He sees the nearly endless columns of vehicles and heavy weapons captured from the Iraqi Security Forces. He observes ISIS fighters clad in camouflage uniforms and brandishing a variety of small arms and multiple bandoliers of bullets and grenades and AK-47 magazines. In towns and villages he passes through, he sees commercial activity and the people appear supportive of ISIS. Despite the discouraging remarks of family and friends, the young man may feel that he has placed himself on track to become “true warrior for Islam.” He and the other deluded young men with whom ISIS has him traveling to a training camp likely congratulate each other over their accomplishment. The young man continues to receive encouragement from ISIS members during his training. However, after training is completed and there is no longer the need to seduce the young man, attention placed on the young man soon wanes. When the spotlight shined on him, there was a palpable sense of celebrity. Once the spotlight goes off, his sense of importance fades.

As a novice member of the group, he discovers an organizational structure where he is on the bottom. The young man, albeit trained to fight the ISIS way, is required to perform common tasks for strangers that he probably never would have been asked to perform at home. He may be directed to help gather the dead from battlefields under the guns of watchful opposing snipers. He may be ordered to help with the preparation meals for other fighters, serve tea or meals to leaders and commanders, or run errands. He may understand that in the Islamic Caliphate, all are ruled under Sharia law. He may have found that attractive before he joined ISIS. However, in Syria or Iraq, he finds himself placed under rules and regulations a bit different than he imagined. He learns that in the Islamic Caliphate, Sharia law is determined by whoever is in charge where one is and not a central authority. He becomes witness to atrocities against Syrian and Iraqi citizens, much of it being of a revolting, degenerate nature, meant to control and terrorize the inhabitants of towns and cities. He also discovers infractions of that individual’s vision of Sharia law can lead to summary execution, even for ISIS fighters. Indeed, fighters are killed by ISIS now and then partly with the goal of encouraging others to stay “in line.”

If a family has raised a young man with a strong spiritual foundation, taught him how to accept truth, and if he can use his education to recognize where ISIS truly fits in history and how he is devaluing himself by having even the slightest ties to it, he should turn away from it.

At the front, what the young man learned in the abstract from the internet does not survive his first day with war’s realities. He may find himself in ranks with other new recruits and regularly thrown into wasteful human wave attacks or diversionary moves to draw fire from opponents. Those moves would cover the more effective, more protected maneuvers of more experienced ISIS fighters. New recruits may be encouraged or ordered to execute a suicide bombing. Afraid to refuse, they meet their end. Setbacks, heavy losses, and wasteful actions, allow the young man to get a true picture of ISIS. They discover that war is not thrilling or glorious, but odious and terror filled. They may face the reality that ISIS is fighting people who only wish to protect their families and save their homes. Fictio credit veritati! (Fiction yields to the truth!)

Finding a Way Out of Extremist Groups: The Family Is the Beacon

There will be young men truly lacking judgment or overwhelmed by madness who will not be repulsed by ISIS’ actions. They will find pleasure in what is evil. They will be immune to the cries and lamentations of innocent civilians. Madness rejects truth. However, among those with sense, the truth of what ISIS is doing may be overwhelming. Soon enough, their self-imposed exile will become home sickness. The voice of rebellion loses the struggle with the voice of reason and truth. Thoughts of how he previously employed cunning in his actions, now creates a sense of shame. The association with ISIS becomes senseless. Despite all of the mistakes he has made, the best hope for him at this point is to somehow try to get away from ISIS before it is too late. Traveling back on the road he took to reach ISIS, there is little excitement in the young man. He may see the same weapons and know that they were just trophies, a sign of ISIS’s vanity, and were not used on the battlefield. The dead and wounded become more apparent, and he wonders how many of those he came with are still alive. The fighters in camouflage, brandishing weapons, cause him alarm for he cannot be certain if they represent some rabidly violent local ISIS authority and are seeking out an unwitting ISIS fighter of which they can use to display their power and their will. He now knows the people in the towns and villages are not supportive of ISIS. Rather, they are intimidated and enslaved by it. The young man’s own errors will become more pronounced as his conscience speaks to him. He may find some relief only when he holds himself accountable for any crimes he may have witnessed, been party to, or committed while with ISIS. The incidence of post traumatic stress among those unable to cope with their time in ISIS must be considerable. The young man’s family may bemoan over his initial failure to respond properly, to adhere with the spiritual, moral, and ethical foundations that were instilled within him. Working with government authorities, the family can help set a new path for him. He can make amends for what he has done to them, others, and himself.

More often than not, families manage to defeat Islamic extremist recruitment efforts. For the average young Muslim man, love for his family, and his responsibility to it, will play a huge part in his rejection of Islamic extremism. Even if submerged in the young man due to delusion, the love for family can find its way to the surface.

The Way Forward: Redemption, Defeating the Threat to Others

The story of a family worrying over the return of a young man who acts on thoughts of running off from home and involves himself with the loathsome, is not new. That story has been told for thousands of years. Two thousand years ago, it was best told as the Parable of the Prodigal Son in The New Testament. Leaving the warm embrace of his family for something bigger and better than what he knew, his adventure turned into tragedy as he found himself tending pigs and nearly challenging them for their slop. He was lucky enough to find his way back home to his loving father. With clarity, the young man amended his ways and found a better path in life. Similarly, young men who leave home to join ISIS soon find themselves among repugnant men who behave worse than pigs and find themselves immersed in an illegitimate fight in which they engage in murder and destruction and feel shame, disgrace, and self-loathing: slop.

The family unit is the most powerful and effective counter to ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups. Those groups should not be able to influence young Muslim men if their families have provided solid spiritual, and moral and ethical foundations for them. Their extremist views will be an annoyance more than anything else. Clearly, the majority of young men have rejected it. If a young man becomes radicalized, hope remains that the truth about Islam, instilled in him by his family during his youth, will overcome extremist lies. More often than not, families will defeat Islamic extremist recruitment efforts. For the average young Muslim man, love for his family and his responsibility to it will play a huge part in his rejection of Islamic extremism. Even if submerged in a young man due to delusion, love for family can still find its way to the surface.

As mentioned, there will always be “hard cases”, madmen and the senseless, on which no counter-ISIS or counter Islamic extremist effort will have impact. There will be cases in which a father or brother of poor judgment may cause a young man to follow them into ISIS, into some other radical group, or to commit a terrorist act. However, the focus of Western efforts should be on the positively minded families. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers, cousins and, mothers in particular, have the power to thwart ISIS recruitment efforts. A young Muslim man is most receptive to messages from them. Early in his life, they must make their opinions on groups such as ISIS known to him. There must be clarity in his thinking on those groups. Without the participation of families, counter-ISIS or counter Islamic extremist efforts will fail. Engaging in a long-term approach that includes families will ensure the effort to defeat Islamic extremism will become a generational affair. Dabit deushis quoque finem! (God will bring an end to this!)

Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei about Fighting ISIS; Khamenei Is Counting on Suleimani, Not US Cooperation

Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (above) travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. An Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  He has achieved some success.  Iranian President Hassan Rouhrani said Iran would consider working with the US against ISIS if it sees the US begin to confront the terrorists.

According to a November 6, 2014 Wall Street Journal article entitled, “Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Iran’s Khamenei About Fighting Islamic States”, in October 2014, US President Barack Obama sent a highly confidential communication to Islamic Republic of Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  The letter to Khamenei appeared directed at both bolstering the anti-ISIS campaign and prodding him toward a nuclear deal.  Those briefed on the letter familiarize the Wall Street Journal of its content.  Obama apparently wrote to Khamenei that expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) posed a threat to both the US and Iran, creating a common enemy for both countries. Obama stressed that both had the goal of defeating ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  While Obama did not recognize Iran as the primary power in the region, as Tehran insists, he acknowledged in a way that Iran was “important” to his military and diplomatic campaign to push ISIS from territory it has gained in past months and dubbed the Islamic Caliphate.  Obama ostensibly sought to mitigate Tehran’s concerns over the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  Although the US is arming and training Syrian opposition rebels, Obama apparently wrote in his letter that US military operations in Syria were not targeted at Assad or his security forces.  Those familiar with the letter explained Obama did not explicitly propose that the US and Iran coordinate their military activities.  However, they said there was a strong implication that coordination was desired.  Concerning the nuclear negotiations, Obama informed Khamenei that cooperation on ISIS was largely contingent on Iran reaching a comprehensive agreement with the P5+1 (the Permanent Five Members of the UN Security Council—the US, United Kingdom, France Russia, and China plus Germany) on the future of Tehran’s nuclear program by November 24, 2014 deadline.  That point in the letter seemed to also imply cooperation would be more to Iran’s benefit.

News of Obama’s letter to Khamenei was somewhat confusing in the US given past statements by the administration on Iran.  When US National Security Adviser Susan Rice was asked on NBCNews “Meet the Press” on October 12, 2014, if Iran was providing help to the anti-ISIS coalition, she said “No!” Rice went on to state “We’re not in coordination or direct consultation with the Iranians about any aspects of the fight against ISIL [ISIS].  It is a fact that in Iraq, they are also supporting the Iraqis against ISIL [ISIS].  But we are not coordinating.  We’re doing this very differently and independently.”  Yet, despite Rice’s statement, Obama’s letter proposing the two countries cooperate in the anti-ISIS fight seems to be, at minimum, a move towards direct consultation with Tehran.  In the US Congress, Obama’s decision to send the letter revealed what the administration is saying about Iran may be different from its plans for Iran. Republican and Democrat Members of Congress are concerned that the administration is prepared to make far-reaching concessions to Tehran on a nuclear deal.  Members likely also sense the administration is uncertain of how to proceed regarding ISIS, having pledged not to commit ground troops for combat operations.  While willing to support the anti-ISIS fight with funding, they will likely wants to reign in what they see as Obama’s perilous approach toward Iran.

For leaders, discerning how to proceed on foreign policy is made more difficult in adverse circumstances.  Some choices that may appear wise are not.  Near desperation on wanting a situation to be a certain way has led many, well-intentioned leaders in error to project their “positive thinking” on that of a foreign counterpart, or worse, an adversary.  Such decisions are often supported by captivating assessments of positive outcomes not based in reality. Only a negative outcome would reveal the flaws of an approach for some.  Perhaps in its rush to respond to the ISIS problem, the Obama administration may have been blinded to the fact that it could be sending the wrong signals and creating conditions for future difficulties with Iran.  Qui totum vult totum perdit.  (He who wants everything, loses everything.)

Obama’s Letter: Cui bono?

Developing options for Obama has been vexing for administration officials and advisers. Obama has been adverse to taking military action. That has typically left a limited range of options that they have been able to present to Obama.  Even in situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary as with ISIS, officials and advisers likely presented options for actions that were light-weight, very small in scale, and calibrated precisely. The initial size and scope of the US anti-ISIS air campaign evinced that.  At the “human level,” among reasons sending a letter to Khamenei was determined acceptable may have been that letters had been sent to Khamenei in the past with satisfactory results.  (Indeed, the October letter marked at least the fourth time Obama has written Khamenei since taking office in 2009.)  Sending the letter was easy enough to do.  The option was a diplomatic tact and therefore more attractive to Obama than the “unappealing” military options already adopted for Iraq.  Discussion on the letter among officials and advisers fell outside the milieu of the unending military intervention debate in the White House.  Additionally, as previously discussed by greatcharlie.com, Obama has a predilection toward forgiving or, considering the overwhelming military power of the US, showing mercy toward an offending rogue actor.  The letter is one more example of that tack. The effort to bring Iran into the anti-ISIS fight as a partner, even nominally, certainly is in line with Obama’s policy of promoting multilateral cooperation, particularly regarding the  commitment of military forces.  His apparent obsession with making it work may be part of the impetus for his administration’s outreach to an unlikely ally. So far, the administration has not had much luck prodding its anti-ISIS coalition partners into ground combat operations against ISIS. In 2014, the Obama administration began insisting that the US would act only when multilateral approaches were available. The impression was given that this was a world in which once sufficient effort was made by the US to organize other nations, problems could be handled through cooperation. When ISIS was on the move, it seemed that the US State Department, in addition to “rearranging,” with good intentions, the Iraqi government, was most interested in gathering countries to become members of the “global coalition” to degrade and defeat ISIS. 

Qualifications for inclusion in that coalition were nominal. Of the sixty-two countries participating in the anti-ISIS coalition, the vast majority are not contributing militarily.  Many countries simply pledged their support.  As greatcharlie.com discussed in its October 25, 2014 post entitled, “Who Has Contributed What in the Coalition Against ISIS?; The Obama Administration Must Place Success Against ISIS Ahead of Creating the Appearance of a Broad Multilateral Effort”, the US has practically demanded more from some countries.  One country the US has pressured for action is Turkey. Although Turkey is a power in the Middle East region, the notion that Turkey, possessing far less military capabilities than the US would subordinate its own concerns and interests, to support and defend others under US pressure is flawed.  Turkey likely reached the same conclusions as the US about conditions for intervening in Iraq and Syria with ground troops.  In Syria, there would hardly be a Syrian opposition force with which Turkish troops could work.  If Turkey’s operations in Syria were to “creep” beyond destroying ISIS and the Assad regime was displaced, political leaders in Turkey would likely feel ambivalent about simply turning over a nation on its border, Syria, to the very dysfunctional Syrian opposition.  Even if Turkey controlled or greatly influenced the Syrian opposition, it is hard to see how taking on the stewardship of Syria, which would surely be a political, economic, and social basket case, would be to Turkey’s benefit.

Responses in Tehran to Obama’s Letter

The thinking on Obama’s letter in Tehran was certainly different than his administration must have hoped.  An adviser to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, Ali Khoram, speaking in Oman, confirmed to the Arabic daily, Asharq al-Aswat, that Obama reached out directly to Khamenei in a mid-October letter.  However, Khamenei’s foreign affairs adviser, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iranian State media that he was not aware of Obama’s outreach.  Khamenei’s web-site does not acknowledge receipt of the letter.  Obama’s letter, on its face, likely aggravated Khamenei, particularly to the extent that Obama did not render appreciation or even praise for the considerable effort and sacrifices already being made by Iran against ISIS.  That was a massive “oversight” if the goal of the letter was truly to promote cooperation at some level with Iran.  Using the anti-ISIS fight as a basis for dialogue with Khamenei perhaps had become a futile effort after he declared in October 2014 that “America, Zionism, and especially the veteran expert of spreading divisions—the wicked government of Britain—have sharply increased their efforts of creating divisions between the Sunnis and Shiites [Shi’a].”  He further stated, “They created al Qaeda and ‘Islamic State’ in order to create divisions and to fight against the Islamic Republic [Iran], but today, they have turned on them.”  It is possible that to Khamenei, the letter may have appeared more as a manifestation of Obama’s attitude than a response to a foreign policy problem.  Khamenei may have viewed the letter as an expression of Obama’s uncertainty over the US’s ability to shape the outcome of the anti-ISIS fight on his terms.  Khamenei, a spiritual, religious leader, likely sensed Obama’s inner-struggle over using the US military.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani had already expressed ambivalence about continued communication between leaders in Washington and Tehran.  The Associated Press reported Rouhani stated in October 2014 that the time “wasn’t right” for another phone conversation or a meeting with Obama “because of the sensitivity that still exists between the two countries.”  The Associated Press also reported Rouhani as stating there must be substantive reasons with “high objectives” for conversations between world leaders.  If not, he said, “telephone calls are somewhat meaningless.”  Rouhani explained a phone conversation between leaders “would only be constructive and fruitful when it is done according to a precisely laid plan with precisely clearly stated objectives.” Otherwise, he said, “it will never be constructive or effective.”

Obama’s letter most likely did much to boost confidence among Iranian leaders, particularly the IRGC and political and religious hardliners that the US was not moving with an assured step and posed no threat to plans Iran has in Iraq or the region.  The failure of the US to act effectively and decisively in Iraq right away and the abysmal results shown for the nearly decade long US training program for the Iraqi Army and police forces very likely mitigated fears within all quarters in Tehran that the Obama administration might take military action against Iran or use Iraqi security forces to attack Iran.  Officials and advisers to Khamenei likely feel the fight with ISIS has caused Obama to consider what the US might face from the Iranian Armed Forces and other security elements globally if it attacked Iran’s nuclear program.  They certainly believe going to war with Iran would be a far greater enterprise for the US than fighting ISIS.  They probably feel certain that the US would never attack Iran while the anti-ISIS fight was raging.  They likely believe Obama would totally reject the idea of fighting Iran and ISIS simultaneously.

Iran’s Efforts in Iraq

Sitting right across the border from Iraq, Khamenei, Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, saw an even greater danger from ISIS than the US did, and immediately attended to it.  Rouhani has stated “We’ve actually been the ones countering terrorism in the region for years.”  He also stated, “Had it not been for Iran’s timely assistance, many of the Iraqi cities would have fallen to the hands of these vicious terrorists.”  The Iranians were never going to wait and see what the US does next once ISIS was on the move. They needed to stop ISIS. Iranian leaders certainly realized that waiting could lead to tragic consequences.  ISIS had begun engaging in abuses and summary executions of civilians as well as captives.  Syria provided a reliable model to understand just how bad things can become for Iraqis in ISIS controlled territory.  Back on June 15, 2014, insurgent fighters from ISIS posted images purporting to show the execution of hundreds of Shi’a fighters.

Iranian military and security officials knew that ISIS could reach a level of strength that it could threaten to execute entire populations of towns and villages to deter attacks against its fighters.  ISIS would follow through with their threats without hesitation.  ISIS has since committed such acts in Iraq. The Iranians also knew ISIS would set up an Islamic state in captured territory, sustainable or not.  If ISIS managed to establish itself in Iraq, the Shi’a community in Iraq would not be the only ones at risk.  ISIS would surely attack Iran.

Iran has IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani handling the situation in Iraq. The eyes of Iran are on him.  The Sunday Times of London reported on June 15, 2014 that Suleimani travelled to Baghdad the week of June 9, 2014 with sixty-seven of his top advisers. A senior Iraqi official explained then that Suleimani was “in charge of arming, deploying forces, weaponry and planning the battles.”  The Iraqi source also said Suleimani brought “light and medium weapons, rockets, heavy machine guns and lots of ammunition.”  Much publicity has been produced by the Iranian government over Suleimani’s presence on the ground in Iraq.  As it was predicted by greatcharlie.com, Suleimani began his operations against ISIS by using the Quds Force, which are IRGC special operations forces that he directly commands, and small numbers of other IRGC combat units.  Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) personnel, supported by Quds Force troops increased intelligence collection through surveillance and reconnaissance in ISIS held territory.  By moving throughout Iraq, particularly in the so-called Islamic Caliphate, Iranian intelligence officers have gained information on all aspects of their opponent’s operations and kept their ear to ground, also getting a sense of the Iraqi peoples’ reaction to events. Positive links certainly have been established with commanders of Kurdish fighters and Iraqi security forces to make the process of gathering information about ISIS militants less complicated. Those contacts with the Iraqi security forces have reportedly also allowed for the collection of information on, and creation of informal communication with, US military and intelligence elements operating on the ground in Iraq.  Intelligence collected concerning ISIS has been utilized in the development of an operational plan. When necessary MOIS and Quds Force personnel, have been used tactically, fighting primarily alongside Kurdish fighters against ISIS.  Indeed, Iranian forces have done a lot of fighting, and they have gained the Kurds’ respect and confidence.  Suleimani ramped up the training and equipping of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen.  Battle-ready units have been deployed in defense of Shi’a dominated parts of Iraq and Holy Shrines.  Others are being sent directly into the combat against ISIS.  Suleimani has reportedly deployed Lebanese Hezbollah to Iraq to work with the Shi’a militias.  Truckloads of arms and equipment from Iran continuously flow to the Shi’a militiamen. Some supplies and weapons are being flown in.  Five Sukhoi-25 fighter-bombers were from Iran into Iraq for the Iraqi Air Force.

Once operating in the shadows, photos of IRGC General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani (center) on the battlefield in Iraq have recently appeared in Iranian state media, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

How Iran Could Proceed

Iran is still not counting on the US to act on the ground in a muscular way against ISIS any time soon since it has just begun training “its Iraqis.”  In the meantime, Iran might opt to greatly increase its level of commitment in Iraq.  Back in June 2014, Senior Foreign Policy Adviser to the Supreme Leader and Head of the Expediency Discernment Council Strategic Research Center, Ali Akbar Velayati, in a lengthy interview with the Chinese CCTV network on June 19, 2014, stated, “We can do in Iraq what we did in Syria, meaning we are capable of providing the same type of training to the Iraqi Army that we have been able to provide the Syrian Army in confronting terrorists…We have much experience in this field.” That apparently meant having greater numbers of IRGC, Quds Force, and MOIS personnel pour into Iraq to join their comrades long since operating there.  The more Iran can accomplish against ISIS, the less the US will need to do.  There would also be less for US trained Iraqis to do.  Even with the specter of sectarian strife hanging over everything, Iran will be viewed among many average Iraqis as rescuers.

As discussed in greatcharlie.com’s June 30, 2014 post entitled “While the US Explored Talks with Iran on the Crisis in Iraq, Iran Acted, And May Do a Lot More!“, a  further increase in Iranian intervention might include bringing heavy artillery and rocket batteries in country. Massed fire missions could be executed with heavy artillery and heavy rockets, along with airstrikes, not coordinated with the US-led, anti-ISIS coalition, to destroy ISIS units being organized and armed for an attack or traveling. Marshalling points and supply routes for arms and military materiel away from urban areas could also face artillery onslaughts.  Armored and mechanized units would also become more apparent.  They would provide Kurdish fighters, Shi’a militia, some Iraqi security forces, and all Iranian units in Iraq with mobility and firepower and a maneuver capability that ISIS would be unable to match.  Combat support and combat service support units could be sent in to support the advance and help control recaptured territory.

With Iraq’s consent, Iran could deploy a close air support capability from attack helicopter units to fighter-bombers to facilitate movement by ground units.  A huge deficit in the Iranian effort if Suleimani’s plan is to defeat ISIS is close air support.  Regardless of the availability of artillery, close air support is the best, most rapid means to exploit tactical opportunities in the offense or defense.  It can provide fires, with appropriate ordinance, to destroy, disrupt, suppress, fix, harass, neutralize, or delay ISIS forces.  Iran’s fight against ISIS now is one-dimensional.

Nevertheless, it must not be forgotten that Iran, just as the US, and just as Turkey, will not commit itself so heavily to Iraq without expecting to acquire even greater influence over it.  With greater control over the Shi’a community and increased influence with the Kurds, it is hard to see how Iran would not be able to shape the political, economic, and social situation in Iraq for years.  If the Iranians manage to shape the military situation on the ground in Iraq—and that could happen depending on the scale of its of intervention even though some Western analysts have expressed doubts, they will have much to gain.  Iran’s position as the dominant power in the region would be furthered.  Military and security officials may become the primary voice in the ear of Khamenei who still has a decision to make on Iran’s nuclear program.

The Way Forward

Unfortunately, on Iraq, as well as Syria, Obama really seems to be searching for answers. Some might derisively state he is paralyzed with uncertainty over what to do.  Given that possibility, Obama’s letter on ISIS likely satisfied Khamenei although he rejected it.  In the US, “cynics” among Obama’s political opponents hearing of the letter may have wanted to quote to their president the warning of conservative political commentator William F. Buckley, Jr. that there is always a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil.  Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. Devising foreign policy approaches requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature.  Obama, himself, must respond to issues not based on his personal needs, values, and principles, but those of the US.  His country’s needs must come before establishing his legacy.

As US National Security Adviser Susan Rice confirmed in October 2014, US forces and Iranian forces are both operating in Iraq to support local elements in their battle against ISIS.  The Iranian commander, Suleimani, does not have any friends in the US military given his activities against US forces during the Iraq War.  US military and intelligence officials would certainly like to get their hands on him.  However, as US and Iranian forces have been tasked to operate in the same space, it had to be expected that they would cross paths.  Informal cooperation between Suleimani’s Quds Force operatives and MOIS officers and US special operators and intelligence officers, albeit through the Iraqi security force intermediaries, has resulted.  For example, in the fight for Amerli, Iraqi security forces, Shi’a militiamen, and Iranian operators, maneuvered on the ground against ISIS fighters while US airpower struck ISIS targets with multiple airstrikes.  US and Iranian commanders “coordinated informally” by passing messages to each other through commanders of the Iraqi security forces in the fight.  Such professionally handled interactions will likely continue to occur.  While some cooperation agreement by national leaders might prove helpful, US and Iranian interactions in Iraq must be sorted out on the scene.

The Commander-in-chief’s confidence in US military commanders at the Pentagon and US Central Command and officers and enlisted men on the ground in Iraq is the most important factor in all of this.  Rather the send letters to Iranian leaders at this juncture, Obama would do more to enhance chances of success in Iraq by communicating with, and encouraging, his own fighters.  He should meet those he has sent to Iraq confidentially, perhaps even on the ground, and let them know directly how important they are to him and how important their mission is to the US.  He must let them know that he has complete confidence in their capabilities and that he is relying on them to successfully complete their mission.  German Field Marshal Walter Model, the controversial World War II battlefield genius, was known to use a line from Goethe to praise his finest officers: “Den lieb ich, der umogliches begehrt! (I love him who craves the impossible!)”  The special operators that were sent to Iraq to perform the advise-and-assist mission may not be able to perform the impossible.  However, knowing they have the full support and confidence of their commander-in-chief, they will do whatever is humanly possible to destroy ISIS and perform beyond any projections by analysts in or out of the military.  Significant achievements of those “quiet professionals” in Iraq could inspire the Iranians to reach out to the US regarding “coordination.”  After all, when Rouhani was asked in September whether Tehran could formally work with the US to tackle ISIS, he stated, “We can think about it if we see America start confronting the terrorist groups in Iraq.  We all should practically and verbally confront terrorist groups.”

As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way; In Putin’s View, Obama Is Doing Just Fine!

Russian President Vladimir Putin is tactically shrewd and more experienced than US President Barack Obama as a leader. Such realities cannot be ignored or rationalized as being unimportant. Putin likely recognizes the benign, forgiving side of Obama’s approach to foreign affairs. It could provide him with the opportunity to do much more to restore Russia’s power and influence.

According to an August 16, 2014, New York Times article entitled, “As World Boils, Fingers Point Obama’s Way,” the debate in Washington on foreign policy boils down to two opposite positions: It is all US President Barack Obama’s fault, according to his critics; no, it is not, according to his supporters, because these are events beyond his control. US citizens, the article explains, often think of their president as an all-powerful figure who can command the tides of history—and presidents have encouraged this image over the years because the perception itself can be a form of power. However, Obama, himself, has increasingly argued that his power to shape these seismic forces is actually limited. He is quoted in the article as stating, “Apparently people have forgotten that America, as the most powerful country on earth, still does not control everything around the world.”

Obama’s adversaries and supporters have viewed that statement as rationalization. He seems to be excusing his own actions, or inactions, as the case may be. Polling data provided in the article seems to indicate that Obama’s policy of restraint matches the public mood. Polls indicate the US public finds little appetite for robust intervention in Syria, Ukraine, or Iraq. Nonetheless, having gazed at the results of Obama’s handling of foreign policy, 58 percent of those polled disapproved of his efforts. There is also real disappointment with Obama’s leadership within foreign capitals. Perceptions of friends and opponents among foreign leaders of Obama’s foreign policy performance has shaped their decisions on how to proceed for the remainder of his term in office. Particularly concerning opponents, the US soon face threats has not really seen since the end of the Cold War. Understanding how Obama’s actions and inactions on foreign policy, albeit unwittingly, may have blazed a trail to a more dangerous future for the US, could assist in making decisions on how to handle challenges during the remaining years of Obama’s presidency, specifically those concerning Russia.

Obama and the Policy of Forgiveness

Speaking with equanimity and certitude during the 2008 US Presidential Campaign, Obama indicated that as president, he would be able to achieve much by taking a course different than his predecessors. To ensure outcomes in support of US interests, force would not be used to support diplomacy. Obama’s approach seemingly introduced his personal philosophy, a type of teleology concerning man’s purpose on earth, and the meaning and importance of life. (Obama’s private thoughts on policy may be influenced by a kind of eschatology, a concept on the end of life, judgment, and the final destiny of the soul and humankind.) Using his personal philosophy, Obama has tried to look at the deeper side of every policy issue confronting him. Duc in altum! (Put out into the deep!)   Confident in the better side of human nature, Obama has sought to operate under the notion that issues in foreign affairs could actually be resolved at the negotiating table. He prods administration officials and advisers along his way when they were uncertain or against what he had proposed. He asserts moral authority with foreign leaders.

Working within the parameters of Obama’s thinking, administration officials and advisers have not always fully considered challenging foreign policy problems as they truly exist. Euphonious policy speeches from the Obama and administration officials are often laden with rhetorical arguments, using only acceptable language and a selective list of the realities of a situation. Those assessments can still captivate and satisfy some in the US public who have grown weary of warfare as well as US friends and allies overseas hoping for new, constructive approaches that would establish peace and security. However, recently, such efforts at obfuscation have been regularly overcome by the light of the truth.

Obama’s apparent philosophy has greatly impacted the conduct of US foreign policy regarding the use of force. Developing proposals for military action has been vexing for administration officials and advisers. Obama has been averse to taking military action. That has limited the range of options that they could present to their president. In a situations where the use of force is almost absolutely necessary, officials and advisers likely presented options for actions that were light-weight; very small in scale and calibrated precisely. They needed to be effective enough to achieve all objectives based on Obama’s concepts. They also had to find the right language to make the option palatable to Obama. That effort typically initiated an engrossing policy debate among White House advisers. This keeps them busy, but does not make them fruitful. It accounts for difficulties officials and advisers had in getting Obama to come to terms with proposals and plans presented on Syria, Ukraine, and Iraq, leaving an air of uncertainty on how to proceed. Reluctant to make use of US military despite the fact that it provides real capabilities and possibilities for effective and successful action, Obama more frequently proffers the idea that the US can work with partners in regions in turmoil to establish multilateral responses. Yet, few states in the world still possess real military strength to project significant force within their regions or beyond their own borders.

Pressed with a situation in which few options other than the use of military power would seem the best to take, despite red-lines issued and stern warnings given, the world has also seen the Obama administration do more than just avoid military action. Rather, it has practically forgiven or, given the overwhelming military power of the US, shown mercy toward an offending rouge actor. Some of the most challenging problems for the Obama administration’ foreign policy degraded much further as a result of this tack. After receiving Obama’s forgiveness, or mercy for their trespasses, the offending actors have never given any indications that they would halt their actions or reform in some way having escaped retribution from the US. That has been the case with Syria, North Korea, Russia, and non-state actors such as Hezbollah and the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. When some nations have trespassed against the US, it would make sense to forgive the action, understanding that the relationship could be put back on course. This was the case, for example, with Israel when it engages in efforts by its intelligence service to penetrate US government organizations. The US has never been happy about efforts by France to collect economic intelligence from US businessmen staying in hotels in on its territory. Germany efforts to gather information from computer networks and databases in the US has raised the administration’s ire. In such cases, the US could demand a change in behavior from those nations that have “lost their way” knowing an effort would be made to avoid such actions in the future.

It Will Be Difficult for Obama to Deter Putin

Obama’s approach, of being forgiving and showing mercy over the actions of rogue actors, has not been missed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has accomplished much in recent months. The military operation in Crimea transpired on the heels of the successful 2014 Winter Olympics Games in Sochi. There was still a sense of renewed national identity, national pride, and patriotism among Russians. As events developed in Kiev, Putin understood that he still had strong cards to play, and he used one, moving into Crimea, to gain an advantage in what is a negative situation for Russia. He seemingly annexed Crimea in return for the loss of a friendly government and Russian influence in Ukraine. In response, the US and European Union imposed sanctions on Russia that were mild, and Putin pressed onward. Since March, Putin has vowed to use military force to protect Russian speaking compatriots across the former Soviet Union. He branded southern and eastern Ukraine “New Russia”, a name the rebels took up as a catch-all for most militia groups. Two provinces have been partly occupied by armed separatist fighters. The rebels are led almost exclusively by Russian citizens and have managed to acquire tanks, missiles, and other heavy weaponry which the Ukrainian government and the West said could only have come from Russia. A military offense from the Ukrainian government has pushed the rebels out of many of their stronghold, leaving them largely besieged in the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, which the rebels have proclaimed capitals of the two “people’s republics”. NATO is greatly concerned over Russia’s decision to mass 20,000 combat ready troops along Ukraine’s eastern border to include tanks, infantry, artillery, air defense systems, logistics troops, special forces, and aircraft. While threats to impose even greater economic hardships were made, it was not until July 17, 2014, when a Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, ostensibly by a Russian-made anti-aircraft missile system under the control of the rebels, were the screws tightened sharply. All 298 people onboard were killed. These far broader sanctions target Russia’s energy, financial, and defense sectors. In the end, Obama made the statement that the US has done everything it can to convince Russia to change course in Ukraine. He explained, “Short of going to war, there are going to be some constraints in terms of what we can do if President Putin and Russia are ignoring what should be done in their long-term interests.” He further stated, “Sometimes people don’t always act rationally.”

Putin has tried to hold his own against Western economic measures. For example, in a sweeping response, Russia has banned all imports of food from the US and all fruit and vegetables from Europe. The measures would hurt farmers in the West for whom Russia is a big market. Russia is the greatest buyer of European fruit and vegetables, accounting for $43 billion worth of food in 2013, and the second greatest importer of US poultry, accounting for 8 percent of chicken exports. Such anti-Western action plays well with the Russian public. Russia has also signed a deal with Iran expected to undermine Western-led sanctions against the two countries. The memorandum of understanding between the two governments envisages 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 lays the foundation for a multi-billion dollar oil agreement between Moscow and Tehran, or the so-called oil-for-goods contract. Russia claims that cooperation between Russia and Tehran did not violate the UN Security Council Resolution.

A Possible Audacious Move by Putin

Putin can accept Obama and his advisers are using sanctions to halt Russia’s activities in Ukraine and push all parties to the negotiating table, but he also may believe it is part of an effort to fulfill a Western goal of weakening Russia and creating disorder. Tough economic sanctions, Russia’s expulsion from the G-8, denial of Russian separatists’ right to independence, and the US condemnation of Russia for the annexation of Crimea very likely play into a siege mentality that exists among many Russian security officials at the highest level. Moreover, these steps may have stirred some sense of humiliation among them. It may appear to Putin that the West simply refuses to respect Russia as a power, even militarily. The possibility exists that Western sanctions against Russia may prove to be extraordinarily challenging for Putin and his advisers. They may sense their country faces a great a peril much as Japanese leaders had felt their country was endangered by the US under similar pressure before December 7, 1941.

If the US threatens further harsher sanctions and pushes the European states to do the same, Putin and his advisers may take audacious steps to change the power equation between Russia and the US and its partners, going farther than Obama and other Western leaders might ever imagine. Sensing his back is up against the wall, unable to project strength otherwise, Putin might seek to deter further actions against it by making rather extraordinary threats to use Russian military power as a response. Shrill statements of condemnation and saber rattling would be heard throughout Washington. Yet, threats of force against Russia would have little meaning at that point. Too many speeches and statements on why US military power should be withheld have already been made to create enough doubt over whether the US might respond at all. Putin may judge that Obama would be unwilling to engage in nuclear exchange because it would most certainly result in the evisceration of several million of lives. Giving an order to use nuclear weapons would be completely alien to Obama’s nature. Considering that, along with the Obama’s record and reputation on the use of force, Putin might calculate that if he pushes hard enough, Obama might eventually back away from further tough talk and harsh economic measures. An authentic debate and decision would likely ensue on Ukraine’s true importance to the US. Putin may assess that Obama would most likely want to negotiate some resolution. Make no mistake, Putin has the will to attack with nuclear weapons, but he also has a bargaining spirit. Talks un such a situation might provide Putin with an opportunity to achieve many objectives that are important to him.

Putin and his advisers undoubtedly took great interest when the Obama administration’s decided to make steep reductions in US conventional forces. Those cuts have left the US less able to project power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment, or engage in sustained ground combat operations in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies. In 2013, the US withdrew its last two heavy armored brigades from Germany. Tank units anchored the US military presence on the ground in Europe for 70 years. US military leaders have considered withdrawing the last squadron of F-15C air superiority fighters from England. Putin was likely shocked upon receiving Obama administration’s proposals in 2013 calling for steep reductions in nuclear forces. He rejected them not out of political expedience but due to concerns over the efficacy of taking such an audacious step. Putin views nuclear weapons as a means to assure Russia’s survival. Reducing Russia’s nuclear arsenal to a level determined by the bean-counting of those forces by US analysts would never have been acceptable to him.However, from that experience Putin could clearly see that for the Obama administration, the US nuclear arsenal was merely a political bargaining chip, but not a military tool. Such decisions and actions in the past would make it more likely for Putin and his advisers to assess that Obama would unlikely be willing to use nuclear weapons.

As the driving force behind the Soviet Union, and since the end of the Cold War as an independent state, primacy has been given to Russia in US thinking on the defense of US interests worldwide and the establishment of global peace and security. Despite proxy wars and other confrontations and conflicts, of high and low gradients, along the course of the Cold War, both states, while possessing the unique and mutual capability to annihilate one another and the world with their nuclear arsenals, neither state acted with its weapons. What Russian leaders thought about the US ostensibly deterred them from hostile actions. By maintaining robust conventional military resources and capabilities, as well as an air, land, and sea nuclear triad, US diplomacy could be supported time and again by the credible threat of force. It was understood in Washington that the US must not only look strong but must be strong. During his May 29, 2014 commencement address at the US Military Academy at West Point, New York, Obama explained, “I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed to be fixed, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.” Again, Obama failed to recognize or accept a situation as it truly existed. It is difficult to see how Obama can reconcile his belief that a strong image worldwide does not matter given the position he is currently in with Putin and Russia.

Has Putin Been Testing the US?

Sensing what he may perceive as Obama’s weakness, Putin seems to be testing the possibility of using grander action. So far, in July and August, Russian strategic nuclear bombers have conducted numerous incursions into northwestern US air defense identification zones. On several occasions, the incursions by Russian Tu-95 Bear H bombers prompted the scrambling of US fighter jets. A number of Russian intelligence-gathering jets have also been detected with the bombers.

Russia’s Northern Fleet anti-submarine forces detected and aggressively forced out a US Navy Virginia class submarine out of Russian boundary waters in the Barents Sea. A seaborne anti-submarine group and an Il-38 anti-submarine warfare plane, were sent to the region to search and track it down.

Putin also recently warned that Russia was developing new strategic nuclear weapons that would catch the West by surprise. He stated, “We will give joy to our partners with those ideas and their implementation. I mean those (weapons) systems.” He explained that the new nuclear systems have been kept from public eye.

The Way Forward

Using approaches reflective of his philosophy, Obama has been unable to accomplish much with Putin on Ukraine. Obama sees Putin’s myopia as the main obstacle. However, Putin is not standing around and pointing fingers. Rather, he is on a mission to restore Russia’s global power and influence and to bring the independent states that were once part of the Soviet Union back into Russia’s orbit. He wants to create a Russian sphere of influence—political, economic, and security—and dominance. Putin is tactically shrewd, and far more experienced than Obama as a leader. Such realities cannot be ignored or rationalized as being unimportant. In thinking about Obama, Putin undoubtedly recognizes the US president’s rather benign, forgiving side, and wants to exploit it to the greatest degree possible to achieve his goals for Russia.

Assertive and decisive US action most likely would have achieved many US goals and had a strong educational effect on leaders globally, including Putin. Yet, the Obama administration failed to project authentic US strength. Threats of military action now would have questionable impact. It would be difficult for Obama to convince Putin of his willingness to fight over Ukraine when he was unwilling to fight anywhere else, even after red-lines were crossed and stern warnings were given. Rather than try to confront Putin head to head, including with sanctions, former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates offered a useful suggestion. He believes the only way to counter Putin’s aspirations on Russia’s periphery is for the US 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. The Europeans must consider how they can work in partnership with the US in that effort. While the proposal recognizes the urgency of the situation, it does not demand military action and provides a concept for a strategy that will achieve a specific outcome which requires a long term program to achieve. It seems to fall within the parameters of what Obama might find acceptable. It might be worth trying.

The Obama Administration Needs to Respond Effectively and Rapidly on Iraq; Foreign Policy Failures Must Not Become the Norm!

The aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush has sailed into the Persian Gulf with a cruiser and a destroyer. The carrier’s jets could provide close air support for the Iraqi Army. Jets and cruise missiles could strike marshalling points, supply lines and advancing units of the Islamic militant insurgency away from urban areas.

The current crisis in Iraq provides a rather poignant illustration of the results of the failure of the administration of US President Barack Obama to use reasonable care in the handling of US foreign policy. It is difficult to watch what is occurring given that opportunities to avert the present situation were ignored. The Obama administration came into office pledging to repair the grave foreign policy errors of the administration of US President George W. Bush. After Obama’s re-election in 2012, White House staffers spoke confidently about their administration’s efforts and how they wanted to establish their president’s place in history, or his legacy. Yet, his administration has proven to be too risk adverse, and has attempted to absolve itself of the more assertive and aggressive aspects of exercising US power as part of its role as the world’s leader. The Obama administration has faced a number vicissitudes in foreign policy. Its ability to successfully find its way out of a colossal mess in Iraq remains uncertain. Questions exist in Washington, DC, other capitals worldwide, and the global media on whether Obama has the will to take military action in response to the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other Sunni insurgent groups to the Iraqi government. More useful, however, might be a discussion of the ideas that may cause Obama to display restraint in this crisis, and how, from another lens, he might see how those ideas have failed him and why taking action in Iraq is necessary.

Through the presidential campaigns of 2008 and 2012, hopes of the US public were raised by Obama’s speeches on ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, withdrawing forces, and taking new approaches on foreign policy that would establish some tranquility of order in US foreign affairs. Obama’s voice was that of a man speaking from a source. His administration’s captivating assessments were satisfying enough for those who were unable or unwilling to look more deeply and those seduced by simple answers. All things are beautiful through the right lens. However, as a result of a string of policy “disappointments” or failures, it became evident that many of the views proffered by the administration on foreign policy were distorted, albeit unintentionally, through a selective discussion of circumstances. Many efforts to create positive change were fruitless. Recall the claim by the administration that by cautiously arming and training the patchwork Free Syrian Army, burdened from the start with al-Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would soon face defeat and surrender power at the negotiating table. It was a pleasant and unchallenging fantasy. The talent to captivate through speeches proved not to be the same as the talent to truly lead internationally. While the sincere goal may have been to revamp US foreign and defense policy, the effort should have handled with diligence to avoid taking US policy on a course that could lead to its unraveling.

The Obama administration has displayed a predilection toward restraint on military action contrary to the Bush administration. However, that proved to be problematic whenever military was actually needed. Gallivanting around the world attempting to solve its ills through pre-emptive military action, as the Bush administration was perceived as doing, is wrong. However, not responding to aggressive actions that threaten US interests, its image, and peace and security worldwide is wrong, too! Failing to take military action in one instance might settle one situation, but sends a message or creates an impression, that could lead to greater difficulties in another. In 2013, in Syria, everything needed was available to cope with Assad, after allegations were made of his regime’s use of chemical weapons, and to cope with ISIS, after its countless abuses and murders of Syrian citizens and brutal attacks on mainstream Free Syrian Army units. Yet, Obama was unwilling to wield US military power. No action was taken, and the message was sent that Obama would not commit himself to red lines he sets and that he is reluctant to take robust military action for any reason. More recent policy speeches about transnational interests and multilateral responses offer a seductive kind of superficiality, perhaps a shallow entrapment for the administration, itself. The truth is that without strong US leadership and support for friends and partners, militarily, financially, or politically, big things would never have been accomplished internationally, especially during crises. Consider that the United Kingdom, unquestionably one the closest allies of the US, has already announced through its Foreign Secretary William Hague, that it is “not planning military intervention of any kind” in Iraq. Except for some sort of coordination with the Islamic Republic of Iran, the US would likely have to take action in Iraq alone. The Obama administration could hardly have imagined that it was creating such a circumstance.

On a number of other issues, such as Ukraine, the Obama administration could have simply acted more decisively, effectively and rapidly. As a leader, Obama may want to be able to say as Frank Sinatra: “I did it my way!” However, his duty as president is not to respond to issues based on his own needs, values and principles, but only those of the US. That comes before legacy, and truly sets one’s destiny as president. Current events in Iraq indicate there was a failure to recognize the problem, and a failure to find real answers. Intellect and will determine choices. However, pride and ego can block the truth, and lead one to reject all evidence of a problem.   Despite any strong feelings Obama has against military action, as a matter of self-sacrifice, he should have been willing to act for the sake of US interests. In today’s world, it is just not possible for a US president to create an image of himself as a benign philanthropist.

Difficulties between Obama and the US military’s leadership were well-discussed in former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ book, Duty. Those difficulties accordingly have contributed somewhat to Obama’s views on the use of military power. Lacking experience in the military arena, Obama should have had an adviser on military affairs, perhaps a retired general or admiral involved in the presidential campaign, added to the White House staff to better familiarize him with the nuts and bolts of military affairs. General Maxwell Taylor served US President John F. Kennedy in this capacity in 1961. Any mistrust resulting from any negative interactions between the president and his generals should have been quickly resolved. That mistrust hopefully has not ruined relations of the president with other senior foreign and defense policy officials in the government.

In the history of successes and accomplishments in US foreign and defense policy, there are many interesting cases that can provide guidance on how to develop creative solutions to current problems. Among the staffs at the State Department, Defense Department, and the Central Intelligence Agency, particularly at the senior levels, is enough experience, wisdom, and capabilities to meet all of today’s challenges. They must be relied upon with a degree of trust. A president should be receptive to their views, and moderate those advisers urging caution. The memoranda, reports, and other documents produced by these professionals manifest US values and principles, and certainly embody the history of US foreign and defense policy as they have most likely been part of it. History is the country’s life blood. Without knowing the country’s history, a US leader might appear as a child, searching for answers, paralyzed with uncertainty over what should be done. Therein lie the makings for a tragedy. The decisions of a US president can shape the destiny not only of the US, but the world.

Devising approaches in foreign policy in our times requires that US decision makers to possess shrewd insights into human nature. It requires understanding how to deal with people who think differently, and well as knowing people’s frailties. The US should not tolerate threats and aggression from maniacs playing God in other states and among non-state actors. The US is not a door mat for others. There is a real need for Obama to be more attentive and more active. Deeds, not just words, count! That does not mean the US must act with vindictiveness. It means the US must act to correct wrong acts of coarse leaders, when US interests’ are at stake. There is a need to combat the devilish conceit that peace might issue from a concordance with evil. Intimation of a willingness to do so can only lead to disaster. The list of matters that have long been understood to fall within US interests should not be curtailed through sophistic arguments to sidestep action either. It is not too late for the Obama administration to turn the corner. Perhaps Iraq presents that opportunity. Time is of the essence. The danger of the situation in Iraq must be fully recognized now. The US must rapidly formulate and implement solid approaches, a strategy, for its resolution.

US Must Pursue Iran Talks Before Considering Going to War, But If Talks Fail, Iran Will Be Attacked, Eventually!

Pictured above are two of Iran’s most senior leaders, President Hassan Rouhani (right) and IRGC Commander (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari (left), in an impromptu discussion of security issues.

According to a February 26, 2014, Reuters article entitled, “Kerry: US Must Pursue Iran Talks Before Considering Going to War,” by Lesley Wroughton and Arshad Mohammed, US Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly 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 further explained, “We took the initiative and led the effort to try to figure out if before we go to war there actually might be a peaceful solution.”  On November 12, 2013, Iran reached a landmark preliminary agreement with the P5+1 (US, Britain, France, Russia China, and Germany) to halt what were alleged to be its most sensitive nuclear operations in exchange for some relief from economic sanctions.  The interim deal was completed on January 12th, and the parties set forth to continue negotiations for six months after which, it is hoped, a final accord will be signed.  However, a positive outcome is not guaranteed.  The Reuters article’s authors explained that when he states all options are on the table with regard to Iran’s nuclear program, US President Barack Obama is using diplomatic code for the possibility of military action.  His predecessors and a long line of US officials have held out that same threat.  Yet, when Kerry spoke to the reporters, he apparently left no doubt that the US would seriously consider a strike on Iran if the diplomatic talks breakdown.

Kerry’s public comments concerning the Geneva talks were uncharacteristic of him. Kerry is an extremely capable Secretary of State, and he has a genuine interest in improving relations with Iran.  He is a discreet person who would hardly want to do anything to derail the Geneva process.  The Reuters article’s authors asserted that Kerry’s statements were in reaction to pressure placed on the Obama administration by Congressional Republicans who threatened to revive a bill that would impose new sanctions on Iran.  The Obama administration has cautioned Congress that such action could interfere with delicate nuclear talks to find a lasting agreement.  The article’s authors also assert that pressure from Republican lawmakers will likely increase with signs that the easing of sanctions is allowing for the boost in Iran’s oil exports.  However, Kerry’s comments on going to war with Iran were doubtlessly also heard in Tehran.  As Iranian Foreign Minister and lead Iranian negotiator for the Geneva talks, Mohammad Javad Zarif, stated in December 2013, “When Secretary Kerry talks to the US Congress, the most conservative constituencies in Iran also hear him and interpret his remarks. So it’s important for everyone to be careful what they say to their constituencies because others are listening and others are drawing their own conclusions.”  Kerry’s comments were very threatening in nature.  Yet, at this point, it is that the leadership in Tehran probably did not become too concerned about US military action.  Indeed, they feel that such action is unlikely.

Among the key power centers in Iran, to include the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani, the leadership of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and hard-line political and religious leaders, there was an understanding that Iran would be negotiating in Geneva from a position of strength as a military power.  Such power was in part the basis of their belief that the US needed to negotiate with Iran as an equal.  Iranian leaders likely reached this conclusion as a result of an assessment of the “capabilities and possibilities” for likely US military action.  Certainly, Iranian leaders regularly receive a wealth of detailed reports from official and unofficial sources, including the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, on information such as US approaches to the nuclear negotiations, policy and decision making and statements made by senior US political, diplomatic, and military officials on Iran.  Yet, the consideration of capabilities and possibilities is a standard procedure and favored methodology for foreign affairs, defense, and intelligence organizations in Iran to assess, in the abstract, capability to effectively perform a proposed action and the real possibility for success.  It also allows for an assessment of an opponent’s capability to respond to that action and possible decision making and reaction to it.  By wrongly giving higher meaning to certain facts and assumptions and incorrectly weighing relative strengths and weaknesses of Iran’s military power versus the US, it becomes clear how Iranian policy analysts and decision makers would reach the conclusion that they would not face a military response if talks failed or if they took the step to develop a nuclear weapon.  Based on one member’s experience working with Iranian officials on the nuclear issue, a truncated assessment of capabilities and possibilities, comparable to those done in Tehran, is presented here by greatcharlie.com in order to demonstrate how the Iranian leaders most likely acquired certain views, and why they have taken certain approaches toward the US.  If Iranian leaders decide to drop the Geneva talks and actually develop a nuclear weapon, its decision will be based on a flawed understanding of US capabilities.  There is a real possibility the US will attack Iran.  However, there is also the possibility that as the Geneva talks advance, and greater contacts occur among US and Iranian officials and diplomats, some prevailing views in Tehran on US military capabilities may be modified.  Those contacts may also create interest among Iranian leaders to seek a sustainable final agreement on economic sanctions and their nuclear program, if a final decision on how to proceed on the nuclear issue has not already been made.

“Capabilities”

The IRGC and Iranian Armed Forces have declared their willingness to defend Iranian territory with military power, and are convinced that they have such capabilities.  IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Mohammad Ali Jafari has explained: “[The US and Israel] know well that they have been unable to take any military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran, and if they make any foolish move of this sort, there are many options on the table for Iran and deadly responses will be received.”  Regular displays of military strength through exercises and parades, along with hubristic declarations regarding Iran’s power, serve to assure the Iranian people that their government has the capability to defend them, and are also intended to serve as a deterrent to potential aggressors. Although the impact of US directed international sanctions on Iran’s economy has been considerable, Iranian leaders have vowed not to allow US sanctions prevent Iran from pursuing a nuclear program.  Concerning sanctions, Jafari explained: “Today, Americans and Westerners have understood that pressure on Iran not only does not lead to the advancement of their desires but also has the opposite effect.  Iran has progressed day by day.”  Jafari’s statement is indeed accurate.  Regardless of the state of negotiations between the US and its Western partners and Iran over the years, and the ferocity of the US threats, advances would continue to be made on the nuclear energy program.  Iranian leaders have also appreciated the deterrent effect created by Western intelligence assessments that Iran is close to breakout capacity with its nuclear program; some estimates are that Iran is only six months away from having the technology to develop a bomb.

Iranian leaders feel Rouhani can capture the imagination of the US and its European partners making them more pliant to compromise.  Regarding negotiations, there is a sense among Iranian leaders that Zarif has capabilities as a diplomat and advocate that are superior to his Western counterparts and is capable of driving them toward compromise on sanctions without surrendering nuclear rights.  While rifts between hard-line elements in Iran with Rouhani and Zarif over the Geneva talks have been highlighted in the West, there is actually an understanding among Iranian leaders of the need to support the negotiations team.  Indeed, concerning Zarif and the negotiations team, Jafari stated: “All must help the negotiations team of our country and the foreign policy apparatus in order to create consensus and public unity at the current time in order to help them demand the fundamental rights of the nation of Iran in the nuclear field and stand against Arrogant [US] blackmail and greed during negotiations and meetings.”

On regime change, a threat posed by the administration of US President George W. Bush against Iran, Iranian leaders are certain their security apparatus is too strong for the US to ever defeat and the US has backed away from that effort.  Addressing the issue of regime change, IRGC Quds Force Commander General (Sarlashkar) Qassem Suleimani stated: “the important side of your [US] attempts today have been to confront the Islamic Republic.  Your [Obama] statement [at the UN] that ‘We are not seeking the Islamic system’s overthrow’ is not a statement of kindness, but rather an announcement of incapability.  You have been and will remain unable to be successful in overthrowing the Republic’s system.”

There is a sense among Iranian leaders that Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan’s efforts to revamp and enhance Iran’s advanced defense research programs and strengthen Iranian defense industrial base will greatly enhance Iran’s warfighting capabilities at the present and in the future.  Iran has already made great strides in satellite technology, drone, and stealth technology.   Iran has successfully used a base in Venezuela as a test bed for new technologies.  Regarding application of those new technologies, in the Gulf, Iran believes it can establish dominance with the advent of new anti-ship system and naval technologies.  Ali Shamkani, the new Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council directed the IRGC attempts to realize Iranian dominance in the Gulf while serving as IRGC Commander.  He retains a strong interest in that effort.

On its borders, Iran has demonstrated its capability to effectively combat narcotics traffickers and rogue Islamic militant groups such as al-Qaeda and Jundallah, as well as the Peoples’ Mujahedeen, a group some Western policy analysts suggest that the US use as a means to weaken the government in Tehran.  In Iraq, Iran has trained and equipped Iraqi Shi’a militiamen and sent them into Syria to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

In Syria, Iran has demonstrated its capability to project power beyond its borders, deploying significant numbers of IRGC, Quds Force and regular Army forces there in support of the Assad regime.  Iran has trained and equipped Syria’s shabiha (militiamen), and organized them into the National Defense Front.  It is known that Iran has sent at least 330 truckloads of arms and equipment through Iraq to support the Syrian Armed Forces in 2013.  An air corridor over Iraq has also emerged as a major supply route for Iran to send weapons, including rockets, anti-tank missiles, mortars, and rocket propelled grenades to Assad.  Iran has also armed, equipped, and enabled Hezbollah to join the fight in Syria.  Further, Iran has facilitated the deployment of Iraqi Shi’a militiamen trained by the Quds Force to Damascus.  To further supplement the Syrian Armed Forces, hundreds of Shi’a, among the Arabs in Yemen and Pashtun in Afghanistan, have been recruited for combat duty in Syria.  In Yemen, Iran’s Quds Force has supplied arms to Houthi rebels fighting government forces in the northern part of the country.  In Bahrain, Iran has capitalized on ties established with Shi’a groups back in the 1990s.  Calling themselves the Bahraini Rebellion Movement, some have carried out small-scale attacks on police.  Bahraini rebels are operationally controlled by Bahraini opposition leaders, but typically trained in Iran.  Iranian leaders feel they could utilize these diverse forces against the interests of the US and its friends and allies in retaliation for US military action.

As events and issues in the Middle East do not align with US President Barack Obama’s new vision of its national interest, some Iranian leaders feel the US has become disinterested in the region.  Most also recite the global mantra that the US has been traumatized by its interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan both in which Iran supported opponents of the US.  Obama, himself, appears to Iranian leaders as being skeptical about the use of the US military anywhere to create desired outcomes other than actions where participation by US personnel is very limited in scope as in Libya.  Iranian leaders observed the Obama administration’s decision to make steep reductions in US conventional forces, leaving them somewhat less able to project robust power, take and hold ground in a non-permissive environment or engage in sustained ground combat operations in defense of the interests of the US, its friends, and allies.  They have also observed Obama administration effort to make steep reductions in its nuclear forces, the crown jewels of its military power, only to be thwarted by Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Putin refused to negotiate on the matter concerned with the efficacy of taking such an audacious step.  Additionally, they were amused over the way in which the Obama administration buckled under pressure from academics, policy scholars, and activists over drone use.

Iranian leaders have noted the Obama administration’s insistence on deploying a European based missile defense system to defeat an imagined Iranian nuclear-tipped missile attack.  To Iranian leaders, the deployment of the missile defense system indicates that there is a willingness within the US to rely on defense and deterrence rather than offensive military action to cope with Iran’s nuclear program.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Obama administration’s behavior has been perceived by Iranian leaders as being very awkward.  Regarding those military operations, Suleimani stated: “What achievements did the American army have with $700 billion budget . . . They expended approximately $3 trillion for the war in Iraq but the American army was unable to gain immunity in Iraq for [even] a single flight and exited Iraq with disgrace.  The result of all war in the region was the Iranian nation’s victory.”  In the view of some Iranian leaders, the Obama administration withdrew from Iraq as a result of a promise made during Obama’s first presidential campaign rather than strategic considerations.  Consequently, Iranian leaders surprisingly found themselves left with an opportunity to strengthen Iran’s position in Iraq.  However, the door was also opened for a growth of al-Qaeda’s presence there.  The initial increase in force in Afghanistan after a long, agonizing decision by Obama in 2009 was made with the goal to create the opportunity for the US and NATO to succeed there.  Iranian leaders have observed how that approach transformed into a decision to withdraw.  Indeed, the US has now declared its intention to withdraw from Afghanistan by December 2014 without a security agreement with the Afghan government.  Iranian leaders have been presented with an opportunity to further Iran’s dominance in the region, but recognize the US withdrawal may open the door to a growth in al-Qaeda’s presence there.

Among experts and advisers on foreign and defense policy in Tehran, the popular view espoused was that the Obama administration was forced into an aggressive stance against Iran with manipulation from Israel.  Senior Military Advisor to the Supreme Leader and Former IRGC Commander General (Sarlashkar) Yahya Rahim Safavi stated, “It is sad that the US President is under the influence of [Netanyahu’s] pressure and lies about Iran to such an extent, that he changed his tune and stance towards the Iranian issue. This leads to the US President’s weakness of independent thought and policy and has shown the power and influence of the Zionist lobby . . . .”  Jafari stated in September 2013, “We hope that the Americans let go of their intransigence with Iran and become less affected by the Zionist lobby.”  However, Iranian leaders now believe the US has retreated from its aggressive stance toward Iran fearing further military engagement in the Middle East.  Iranian leaders want to believe that the Obama administration has very negative relations with Israel, and has pursued the Geneva negotiation process, despite Israel’s objections.  They are convinced that uncongenial relations between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has served to stymie Israeli plans to take any action against Iran.

In Syria, the US has not interfered with Iran’s efforts to establish itself as the state with predominant military force on the ground and the complete capability to shape events, with the financial support from Russia and China.  Despite declaring red-lines on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, the Obama administration hesitated and backed away from military action after very publicly accusing the Assad regime of using chemical weapons.  Iranian leaders’ views of Obama’s unwillingness to take military action anywhere were confirmed when the Obama administration expressed “fears” over placing troops on the ground and was indecisive in choosing targets in Syria for military strikes before eventually declining to act altogether.  That actually compelled many Iranian officials, IRGC commanders in particular, to publicly deride the US government as being indecisive and predict it would be pliant to Iran’s demands.  Suleimani made the following statement about the US: “There was day when the US used three options: political, economic, military.  Today they lie and say ‘we have forced Iran to negotiate with sanctions’ or the Islamic system is weaker.’  Really, today, the US has the most debt of any country in the world.  The US has also failed everywhere they have interfered militarily.  From a political perspective, they are not accepted anywhere in the world.  In a situation in which the US is considered the world’s greatest power, they are ruined in every dimension.”

Iranian leaders watched as Democratic and Republican Members of the US Congress failed to support Obama’ s plan to take military action in Syria.  They recognized that as being indicative of a greater problem between Obama and Congress.  Iranian leaders feel the Congress would likely deny Obama support for military action elsewhere.  The willingness of opponents in Congress to inflict harm on the US military, the security apparatus, and the US public, through sequestration and a government shutdown, convinced to Iranian leaders that there is outright hostility from Congress toward the Obama administration akin to an animus toward an enemy.  The Iranian view of the Obama administration were supported by Russian President Vladimir Putin in his now infamous September 12, 2013, New York Times Op-Ed entitled, “A Plea for Caution from Russia.”  Putin’s negative perceptions of Obama’s motives and the US have very likely found their way into Russia’s dialogue with Iran and have had an impact. Russia’s most recent military action in Ukraine demonstrates to Iranian leaders that there is little reason to be concerned or intimidated by a possible response from the Obama administration.  Iranian leaders’ views on the role of the US in the world as a predominant power were also supported by China.  Chinese views were represented in an editorial by the Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, calling for a “de-Americanized” world.

“Possibilities”

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.”  Maintaining the nuclear program and the right to enrich were the main requirements that he gave to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani when releasing him to engage in a dialogue with the US and Western powers on economic sanctions, and Iran’s nuclear program.  Khamenei viewed the Geneva process primarily as an opportunity to counter economic sanctions while progressing in the area of nuclear technology.  Jafari has stated: “The people expect their officials to demand the complete nuclear rights of the nation of Iran, including the nuclear fuel cycle, complete and official recognition of the right to enrich, and the elimination of all unjust sanctions.”

Given the nature of relations between Obama and Netanyahu, Iranian leaders felt it was unlikely the US would agree to Israeli demands for Iran to cease all uranium enrichment and to remove all enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its Fordow nuclear facility hidden in a mountain near Qum; dismantle its newest generation of centrifuges at Natanz; and, stop construction of a heavy water reactor at Arak.  They know that the US has engaged in an effort to quell very audible concerns expressed by Israel and other Middle East allies over concessions made to Iran, particularly on sanctions.  Iranian leaders truly believe Zarif is the best diplomat possible to promote the legitimacy of Iran’s positions.  The popular notion, that the Obama administration’s foreign policy was initially driven in great part by the White House’s desire to establish Obama’s legacy, signaled to Iranian leaders that the US may be willing to make concessions in talks to reach an agreement.  Zarif could deliver success at Geneva on Iran’s terms, exploiting the US desire to make a deal.

It may very well be that Iranian leaders want to use the Geneva talks to gain time to make greater advances in the nuclear program.  Continued progress in the program has been a feature of Iran’s nuclear negotiations with the US and its Western partners since such talks`began with the Bush administration despite the ferocity of threats of military intervention and the imposition of sanctions.  From a darker perspective, true conservatives among Iranian leaders may wish to use the diplomatic efforts of Rouhani and Zarif simply to misdirect the US and its European partners, enabling other elements of the Iranian government to pursue the covert weaponization of the nuclear program.  Iran has the possibility to engage in a dual-track approach to resolve problems over the nuclear issue with the US and its Western partners within the parameters of Khamenei’s concept of heroic flexibility.  Rouhani and the Iranian Foreign Ministry would take a path toward diplomacy to acquire concessions from the US while the IRGC, the Ministry of Defense, and other government elements take a path toward accomplishing the military goals of the nuclear program.

Whether through the current course of research or a covert program, Iranian leaders are aware that once a significant level of competence with nuclear technology is successfully acquired and tested, the genie will be out of the bottle and a new situation will immediately exist. Iranian leaders believe that threats of further sanctions or military action against Iran would unlikely be viewed as constructive internationally, other than by Israel.  Iranian leaders believe particularly that it would less likely face any consequences if it achieves nuclear weapons technology when US mid-term Congressional elections occur in 2014.  Democrats in the US Senate and House of Representatives, especially those seeking re-election, would not want to have to explain a new war in the Middle East declared by a president from their party.

What Has Occurred So Far

Under the agreed pause of its nuclear activities, Iran has suspended its nuclear program to the extent that enrichment of uranium would be halted beyond 5 percent, a level deemed sufficient for energy production but not for developing a nuclear device.  Iran’s stockpile of uranium enriched to 20 percent, a step toward weapons grade fuel, would be diluted or converted to oxide, preventing it from standing prepared for military purposes.  Iran already produced more than 20,000 pounds of enriched uranium gas that is three quarters of the way to weapons grade material.  Iran also agreed not to install any new centrifuges, or start up any that were not already operating. Between 2009 and 2013, Iran’s inventory of installed centrifuges increased from 5,500 to 19,000.  Iran agreed not to build any new enrichment facilities.  An undeclared enrichment facility at Fordow, buried inside of a mountain and outfitted with centrifuges over the last several years, was exposed by US and allied intelligence efforts prior to the negotiations.  Iranian officials indicated that their program had not been curtailed at all. They claimed that Iran by its own volition, reached an interim agreement with the P5+1, but did not give up the right to enrich or the ability to return to enriching at any time.  To them, the interim agreement did not prevent Iran from enriching uranium above 3.5 percent or to dismantle any existing centrifuges.  Iranian deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs as well as lead negotiator, Abbas Arachi, made it clear that while Iran would separate connections between centrifuges that have been used to enrich uranium to 20 percent, the interconnections could be reconnected in a day.  The entire feed stock for producing nuclear weapons fuel and infrastructure remains intact.  Additionally, the Iranians were able to retain achievements made through their development of a heavy water reactor in Arak which provides a plutonium pathway to producing nuclear weapons fuel.

However, the agreement, more importantly, has reversed the momentum of sanctions and provided some relief from the threat created by the notion of impenetrable sanctions.  Some US policy analysts may believe that Iran may be buying time in order to advance its nuclear program while giving key concessions on the sanctions front.   Yet, what may really be happening is that Iranian leaders are giving new consideration to the Geneva process.  Considering how to proceed against the US and its European partners in the abstract, is quite different from engaging with US officials in actual negotiations.  Information gleaned from US officials and diplomats should provide fresh information about US actions and intentions.  It is difficult to say whether such information from the talks might have an impact on thinking among Iranian leaders.  Nonetheless, while enduring Kerry threats of war, Iran has actually kept its end of the deal under the November 24th agreement by reducing 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, himself, told reporters that “Generally speaking, they have done I think everything that they were required to do with respect to the reductions.”  Kerry further explained that “There’s no centrifuge challenge. They haven’t put any in. They … have reduced their 5 percent. They have reduced the 20 (percent),” he added. “They are in the middle of doing all the things that they are required to do.”

The Way Forward

Khamenei and other Iranian leaders believed an agreement favorable to Iran’s interests, particularly on sanctions and Iran’s nuclear rights, would be rapidly constructed.  As the negotiation process dragged on, they were recognized as a complicated and deliberate process, the outcome of which is uncertain.  Khamenei began expressing doubts that an agreement acceptable to Iran could be constructed.  Nevertheless, once an interim deal was reached, and Khamenei and Iran so far have adhered to it.  There is real hope among negotiators that a final agreement can be reached.  However, the talks could also fail, and that would not be a simple matter at all.  Iranian leaders may conclude the US will not attack, given the predilection of the Obama administration to shy away from military action, and speculation on the US included in some analysis of “capabilities and possibilities” developed in the abstract by policy experts in Tehran.  Yet, the US military, in reality, possesses the capability to successfully execute a decisive blow against the Iranian nuclear program and effectively deal with Iran in the aftermath of any strikes.

US military planners develop concepts for operations using their expertise based on a long career in their respective branches of the armed forces that includes continuous military education and training and considerable experience warfighting.  They would be the ones responsible for developing plans for military action against Iran for the Obama administration.  They know the capabilities of specific individuals and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what the real possibility for success of any given operation would be.  All tools, both conventional and nuclear, would be available to them.  If ordered by the president to present a plan for such an attack, senior US military planners will more than likely produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies in a manner that neither analysts nor the potential opponent could foresee.  A plan to put the full panoply of security measures in place not just in the region but in the US and territories of friends and allies to thwart retaliation would also be produced and implemented.  The worst way for Iranian leaders to discover the US military’s capabilities would be through an attack.

Iranian leaders must realize that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time.  Term-limits set by the US Constitution prevent Obama for serving a third term.  Striking a balance between demands for relief from economic sanctions and the gradual cessation of the nuclear program may not be at issue for the next US president.  To the extent that the US is a staunch ally of Israel and to a similar extent, Saudi Arabia, the next US president might decide to ameliorate the US approach, requiring new concessions from Iran, to include an immediate halt of all its nuclear activities.  The demand could possibly be made for Iran to surrender its nuclear program or face military action.

Another realization that must be reached is that rather than focus on comments that are meant for domestic political consumption in the US, Iranian leaders must stay focused on what is best for Iran and what can truly be achieved through the nuclear negotiations.  Relations between the US and Iran are at a new stage as are the nuclear negotiations. The P5+1 Talks have provided a unique opportunity for US officials and their Iranian counterparts, through close contact, to acquire a better understanding of various aspects of one another’s thinking.  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.  Those talks also allowed very senior officials to “clear the air” regarding any personal concerns and relations between the two countries.  The new dialogue has built confidence, eliminated many ambiguities about positions, and lessened the guessing over actions, intentions, and motives.  Jafari has been quoted as saying, “Anti-Westernism is the principle characteristic of the Islamic Republic.”  However, Iranian leaders at this point may be able to see, even with such slogans in mind, the real possibilities of a final agreement.  Adhering to the interim deal, as Kerry himself has confirmed, is a good first step and serves as recognition by Iranian leaders that a peace agreement has promise.  Although it has been dogma among US policy analysts and think tank scholars to view Iran as determined to pursue nuclear weapons through its nuclear program, it may very well be that a final decision on how to proceed has not been made in Tehran.  Recall that Khamenei has stated repeatedly that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon.  If Iran were trying to develop a nuclear weapon, the effort could only be justified by Iranian leaders as a matter of absolute necessity for Iran’s security.  Evidence does not exist that the nuclear program has been militarized.  Whether Iranian leaders truly believe a nuclear weapon would make them more secure is not certain.  With great expenditure, Iranian leaders may be both creating a nuclear energy program, and simply creating the option to weaponize if it became necessary.

If a final decision truly has not been made on developing a nuclear weapon, it may still be possible, in Geneva and through back channel discussions, to convince Iranian leaders that pursuing a weapon would not be necessary.  Zarif, Kerry, and all parties to the negotiations may very well be able to deliver a deal that satisfies Tehran and all parties to the negotiations.  It is certainly worth the try.  If they fail, then a war will likely be declared, if not immediately, in the near future.