Commentary: Too Much for Too Long?: Critics’ Attacks on Trump’s Foreign Policy and the US News Media’s Attendant Self-Destruction

US President Donald Trump (right) has had many foreign policy successes. His diplomatic efforts with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) would be among them. Using a maximum pressure campaign of sanctions, coordinating with South Korean and Japanese allies, and garnering help from China and Russia, Trump got North Korea to suspend nuclear and missile testing, brought home three US prisoners, and convinced North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un (left) to meet for denuclearization talks. Trump said the talks achieved much. Critics opined widely in the US news media that Trump accomplished nothing.

A significant segment of the US public, with a sense of trust, although somewhat diminished over recent years, still avails itself of the news media to understand what is happening in their world, internationally, nationally, and locally. Journalists cover areas across a gamut within those sets of the news to include: business and finance, sports, weather, science, education, fine arts, literature, style and fashion, entertainment and celebrity, food and wine, and travel. (It is possible that some areas were missed off the list.) In news related to foreign affairs and diplomacy, national security and defense, international and national, the news media serves as the eyes and ears of the US public in realms that are generally inaccessible. What is immediately apparent in the way in which stories are being reported and commented upon lately is the great degree that it deviates from well-established standards of professional practice of the past. That would include informing truthfully about people and events, reporting facts and not simply offering opinion. In particular, the quality of mainstream news media efforts devoted to foreign affairs and diplomacy, national security and defense, has degraded significantly. That change has especially been apparent during the administration of US President Donald Trump. There is an “us-them” approach to taken toward anything the Trump administration does. Reporters and pundits in the broadcast media have gone beyond the point of being gadflies. Primacy is given to an effort to shape the thinking of the public, as well as provoke Trump, with daily stories that harshly criticize him, gainsay his administration’s decisions and actions, and chastize administration personnel from senior advisers to middle level staff. Words used are beyond hostile and aggressive. The distance that many journalists are willing to travel away from past norms is unknown. Into the second year of his first term in office, the news media remains all Trump, all the time. Journalists discuss hypotheticals sometimes with only a tenuous connection with the realities to ongoing events instead of informing the US public of facts from solid reporting and analysis based on studied patterns of decision making. The facts offered are more often bleached to the point of being superficial. Deeper dives into facts are avoided, and gaps are filled with opinions. The conclusion of an empirical analysis by discerning, reasonable laymen. who have kept close track of news media coverage over the past decade or longer, would undoubtedly be that there has been a sea change in the way things are done. Recall how US news media reports during the 2016 Presidential Election Campaign were filled with opinions on how Trump would lose the race, while facts correctly pointing to the real potential of his victory were set aside for the most  part.)

As Trump is attacked repeatedly without relief, one wonders what are the genuine ends that his critics seek to reach. They could easily critique Trump. without being so destructive. It would seem that there is some collective understanding by journalist that since Trump is allegedly such despicable a person, so unfit for the presidency that as members of the “Fourth Estate”, the guardians of democracy, it is their duty to protect the US public, the society, by hindering his path. With that concept and intent, the news media has gone about using its position in the society to set the agenda for the national and international discourse on Trump. That type of haughtiness makes the whole cabaret of news media behavior toward Trump more disconcerting. Perhaps the preponderance of those working as journalists remain so against Trump’s election victory that they continue fight against him, forming a resistence, completely contrary to the purported duty of those in the profession to report the news and not make it. The words “resist” and “resistance” have been uttered by broadcast news reporters and anchors more than once in recent times. The phrase “all the news that is fit to print” still holds. However, the definition of what is fit has clearly changed. The entire movement in a new direction could be a reflection of a more understanding that the news media is an industry, engaged in business. The pursuit and high tempo production of juicy, high-value stories that decry Trump, appears designed to glean a significant audience, and make news programs, newspapers, journals, more attractive for paid advertising. Est omnino iniquum, sed usu receptum, quod honesta consilia vel turpia, prout male aut prospere cedunt, ita vel probantur vel reprehenduntur. (It is the usual though inequitable method of the world, to pronounce an action to be either right or wrong, as it is attended with good or ill success.)

What is also being witnessed is a self-destructive act. Journalists and news media outlets reduce themselves to a status so low that, despite their ability to sway opinion, they become supernumeraries in the larger story of the Trump administration’s progress. The once great leviathans of the deep that US news media outlets have reduced themselves to goldfish in an aquarium. It would be hard to argue that the mantle of being the impartial reporters of people and events has not been surrendered by journalists. Readers and viewers are told, with half-concealed pathos, that the news media is still a neutral voice. That may very well remain the overt policy at most US news media outlets and the guidance most journalists claim to follow, but in both cases, it is regularly ignored. Under the older way of doing things, personal opinions of journalists on Trump and his administration’s actions would be kept personal unless those opinions were published on opinion pages or in editorials or broadcasted as specifically commentaries. In a previous post, greatcharlie essentially called for the wholesale rejection of US news media as an overt sources of intelligence for foreign diplomatic and intelligence services attempting to better understand Trump as it would cause more confusion than order in analytical processes that could support more effective diplomacy with the administration. In this post, greatcharlie takes a brief look with some despair at the issue and offers some understanding of the slow, downward spiral of standards in journalism and the US news media and an understanding why many journalists no longer report and editorialize on Trump from a neutral perspective, but from a popular counter-Trump point of view. Multi famam, conscientiam pauci verentur. (The truth is, the generality of mankind stand in awe of public opinion, while conscience is feared by the few.)

Trump and the US News Media

After Trump won the 2016 US Presidential Election, Trump, forever the optimist, expected much from the presidency. Among those things, he would have liked to have been embraced by the country. However, he was rejected by an endless list of critics. As critics’ attacks hold the US public’s attention day after day, managers and producers in newsrooms insist that reporters and anchors push even harder to garner even more attention. To the extent that the public has been captivated by stories about Trump, he might be called the luckiest thing to come the way of US media outlets. Some of Trump’s critics are convinced that he does not really want to do well for the US public or the world. Trump is depicted more and more as the ultimate and absolute evil. Against Trump, more critics than not engage in “violent and disorderly forms of speaking: slander, defamation, insult, vituperation, malediction, and curse.” In doing so, critics transmit pessimism. However, they abuse the privilege of their position in the society to display a type of recklessness and irrationality. It certainly is nothing smooth, elegant, beautiful, or classy about it. It is very unattractive. As greatcharlie has asserted often in its posts concerning the news media, this would all prove to be very destabilizing for the society as whole. They make very unconstructive statements being fully aware that the consequence of them might be to harm the trust that many in the US public have in Trump. They may have even infiltrated and despoiled the psyche of quite a few, and perhaps may have even destroyed the possibility for some to have confidence in future US administrations. Indeed, if it were only a select few critics, perhaps it could be presumed that some strong psychological disturbance was the cause for their reports and commentaries. Their words could be dismissed. However, the number of critics is great, and there are far more than a few attacks. The onslaught of attacks against Trump are so intense that critics can step away from the firing line and allow others carry on the attack. They can then return later, rested, re-energized, and ready to unleash more destructive attacks on the US President. The ranks of Trump’s critics actually extend beyond the US news media to include: think tank scholars, other policy analysts, particularly former officials of the administration of US President Barack Obama. Still, it is via the news media that all of the critics views are transmitted.

While it may appear at times that many journalists and other critics are developing their attacks on Trump by building whimsy upon whimsy, they would vehemently deny that. Indeed, they would explain that certain “data points” have lead them to reach negative conclusions about him, reveal dangers that he poses. Of course, the critics, themselves, determine what data points are important enough to look at. Despite their insistence, experienced analysts would recognize that even with the often cherry picked facts of critics’ data points could certainly mean many other things. Other, more developed conclusions could be reached if those data points were studied more intently. Critics’ reactions to Trump remind one more adolescent rebellion than more edifying, staid efforts of journalists not so long ago. Pressured to provide in depth, constructive analysis and options on policy issues in a challenging, consequential setting, the honest among them would very likely admit that they could not do it. Although many critics may not be able to truly shed light on matters, they can still cast a shadow through their reports, commentaries, broadcasts, and blog posts 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.)

Trump did not ascend to the presidency only to have the US simply to sit back and hope only a well-heeled, politically “useful” segment of the society prospered. That was the pattern in previous administrations. When they tried to be proactive, they failed. After September 11, 2001, there was the necessary but poorly prosecuted military intervention in Afghanistan where initial success was squandered, and years with little genuine efforts by the administration to achieve victory. There was a non-judicious use of US power based on the silly notion of using a Western model to transform societies in the Middle East, marked by the disastrous Iraq War. Sizing up the competence of US decision makers, Russia moved forces into Georgia, and inroads were made in pulling some former Soviet republics back to Moscow’s control. There was a poorly conceived plan for nuclear arms reduction and an attempted pivot to Asia based on the flawed belief that the Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin was no longer a threat to the West. Russia wholly rejected the notion of cutting nuclear arms and when he found the doors of Eastern Europe open, he decided to walk right into Ukraine. Russia directed threats at the Baltic States, conducted hybrid warfare campaigns against other former Soviet republics and Eastern European countries, and undertook the bold move of meddling in the 2016 US Presidential Election Campaign. Trump will not allow the US to sit and atrophy. He wants to take on the unfinished business of the US concerning foreign policy. He has had a number of objectively recognized successes. Perhaps first among was his efforts on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea). Trump managed to cause North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile testing, release three US prisoners, and bring the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Kim Jong-un to a summit meeting in Singapore on denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. It was mainly the result of maximum pressure campaign that included harsh economic sanctions, close coordination with South Korean and Japanese allies and apparent help from China and Russia. On NATO, Trump encouraged Member States to increase spending following harsh admonishments of them for being delinquent in keeping their forces strong enough to field an effective defense against its most likely adversary, Russian. On March 5, 2018, NATO allies reported an increase in their overall military spending for a second straight year to 2.42 percent of gross national product. On ISIS, it was reported on April 5, 2018 by US Marine Corps Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie Jr., Director of the Joint Staff, that the US and its coalition partners in Iraq and Syria has led to near defeat of the so-called “Islamic Caliphate” and the methodical reduction of the massive swath of territory it grabbed in Iraq and Syria during the Obama administration. Chief Pentagon spokesperson Dana White explained further that “(We are) very close to reaching an end state against the caliphate.” These accomplishments are only a few from long list of successes.

Initially for Trump, there was undoubtedly some hurt as he likely felt attacks were coming from all sides; and they were. Indeed, the intention of critics has been to hurt Trump. Psychological torture is always the most successful and painful for the individual. There was always the danger that as a normal human being, he could have become a misanthrope, so angered by what was being said. It is difficult to imagine critics did not know Trump would have been made to feel cornered, cut off, isolated. Trump was depicted within the society by critics as something wrong, abnormal, an untouchable. To maintain his balance, Trump appears to have engaged in an internal juggling act. The military would call it economy of force, bringing up strength when and where he needs it, and devoting less energy where it is not needed immediately. He apparently manages to find some peace and calm in his quarters at the White House. It is an environment of “friendly superiority” away from the savagery of critics, even if only for brief moments. He has occasionally found other opportunities for relaxation through visits to Mar-A-Largo, Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, Trump National Doral Golf Club, and Trump Tower. Now, well over a year since his inauguration, the best efforts of his critics have left Trump somewhat untouched for the most part. Indeed, what critics might have noticed lately is that Trump has been reacting less to critics’ attacks, and typically responds in a way to promote his  own perspectives, positions, and policies. In addition to rallies and press conferences, he does that work on Twitter. While critics may dwell on inaccuracies or typos which are undoubtedly the result of Trump’s attempts to fit all he wants to say in limited character space, the important elements to take away from his tweets is that they represent his own unfiltered words, his direct line of communication with the US public.

To the disappointment of critics, the job of president has begun to fit Trump. It has all occurred under the persistent shadow of an investigation alleged collusion with Russia on the 2016 Presidential Election. The investigation has been insisted upon not only by critics, but also full-fledged rivals. Trump swears none of the accusations are true, and has declared the whole matter a witch hunt. Secunda felices, adversa magnos probent. (Prosperity proves men to be fortunate, while it is adversity which makes them great.)

Where Is the US News Media Headed?

In the US, the news media serves as a watchdog over government power and political activity. It is a source from which the public can inform itself on the decisions and actions of elected leaders and appointed officials. The news media is at its best when it can provide the public with a look inside government bodies and operations. Its role in the society is sacrosanct. “Freedom of the press” is one the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments of the US Constitution listing specific prohibitions on government power. A study released by the Pew Research Center on June 18, 2018, it was concluded that the US public has difficulty sorting through fact and opinion in the US news media reports. In the study, conducted in February and March of 2018, 5,035 survey participants aged 18 and above were asked to identify statements of fact versus opinions in news stories. The research indicated that only 26 percent were able to correctly identify all five factual statements. On opinions, about 35 percent were able to correctly identify all five statements. Nearly 25 percent were incorrect most or all of the time in the identification process. Amy Mitchell, Director of Journalism Research at the Pew Research Center explained that participants’ ability to classify statements as factual or opinion varied widely based on ones political awareness, trust in the news media, “digital savviness” or degree to which one is confident in using digital devices and the internet, and “political savviness.” According to Mitchell, the study also found that when Americans call a statement “factual” they overwhelmingly also think it is accurate. They tend to disagree with factual statements they incorrectly label as opinions. Unusquisque mavult credere quam iudicare. (Everyone prefers to believe than to think.)

Taking the tack of reporting only parts of a story, promoting a particular viewpoint, hoping to shape in agreement with it, is improper. In the past, there were no special circumstances that would have made it correct to do so. It is not posited here that all journalists and all news media outlets engage in this practice. To posit that all members of any group behave in the same way would be incorrect unless they behave in the same way by design. Members of military honor guard close order drill teams, synchronized swimming teams, and some factory assembly line teams are a few examples of that. The desire here is not generalize to the point of displaying a prejudice or bias about the journalism profession or the news media or express stereotypes about both today. The purpose is to consider certain relatively new changes in standards of practice among professionals that catch the eye.

The Influence of the Internet on Journalism

On the burgeoning internet in the early 1990s, standards for presenting information were somewhat lax to say the least. That was usually the immediate perception of those who used it via the big providers at the time: AOL,Yahoo, Microsoft, and Google. Numerous grammatical errors and inaccuracies could be found on websites of all kinds, as well as the blogs, a set in which greatcharlie became a part in May 2013. There was even an understanding that one could write email messages with little concern over grammar and spelling. Things did not improve once social media arrived on the scene. Writing devolved further. Writers began using contractions, nonstandard contractions, acronyms, other abbreviations, and symbols. The danger that the loose standards of the Internet posed to conventional journalism was not recognized. As the internet gained popularity, users allowed the standards and practices of the internet found its way into communications of all types at work and at home. The ways of the internet impacted work product in mainstream media outlets. Indeed, bad writing habits could be found just about everywhere. What was also prevalent was the presentation of opinion as fact as in online studies, reports, articles, and commentaries. Some online sites did not reference sources or use any facts in their work. Opinions, themselves, were presented in the news. (Caveat: While all of this only provides the flavor of what happened, the full story is far worse.)

In its nascent stage as a media tool, the internet was viewed somewhat as novelty by professionals in all fields, to include managers of news bureaus and newsrooms and television news producers. Those senior leaders were mainly of an older generations as were the senior executives of the news media outlets in which they worked. They were all unaware of the internet and all its power and potential, did not realize what was happening. The Internet would evolve exponentially in a short period of time. To understand what the many young go-getters who were behind the evolving online services were up to in the early 1990s, US Senator John McCain formed a bipartisan “Internet Caucus” in the US Congress. The countless, quirky online news media sites of all sizes that were developed on the Internet became a real competitors for the attention of the public. A broad, diverse, but mostly youthful audience began getting its news from the Internet sources. Only so much could be accomplished by “the old guard” adhering to long held standards while hoping to hold on to their audience. Just over a decade after the online competition’s massive footprint became evident everywhere. They began making huge cuts in their workforces. Fewer reporters were kept on staff, overseas news bureaus faced severe reductions in staffs or were closed altogether. Covering the news the old way had become expensive. The possibility that  new technologies could present benefits for their field were investigated. Oportet privatis utilitatibus publicas, mortalibus aeternas anteferre, multoque diligentius muneri suo consulere quam facultatibus. (A man must rate public and permanent, above private and fleeting advantages and study how to render his benefaction most useful, rather than how he may bestow it with least expense.)

Mainstream news media outlets rushed to create places for themselves online but it was an anxiety filled effort as their sites, carrying the mastheads of their venerable newspapers of record, revered broadcast television networks, and cable news networks floated in an ocean of seemingly infinite sites. Senior executives believed a solution for the mainstream media was to acquire, merge, or enter cooperative arrangements with the online competitors thereby covering matters beyond the news. There was certainly a flap of that activity in the late 1990s. Yet, despite steps taken, senior executives of mainstream news media outlets recognized that they were fighting a losing battle. At a certain point, it appears that since the mainstream could not beat the wave of online news services doing things representative of their buttoned down way of thinking. They would dedicate a portion of their efforts on the internet to directly compete with their burgeoning technological rival for the attention of the US public. In the presentation of their website sites, blogs, and stories, the mainstream news media outlets modelled their products after the many news sites online. It was a period of confusion across the profession in which senior executives saw that their inherent uncertainty and hesitation over departing from its normal ways of doing things was in an odd way a “liability.” The resistance to change would not allow it to compete with the new online threat. The response of many forward thinking at that moment in the industry was allow some latitude for shedding its “old fashioned” identity. That identity, however, was built upon the adherence to its firm standards of professional practice.

There was opposition to what was transpiring. Although the transformation of the profession and its practices seemed inevitable, some well-experienced journalists and grizzled, seen-it-all editors and producers were not ready to toss out everything that had been established. Indeed, away from the eyes of the public there was an internal resistance by some journalists, editors, and producers to maintain the status quo and convince their colleagues that it was imperative to do so. Despite their intransigence, the winners of that apparent, yet publicly unseen Kulturkampf in the US news media were those in the profession who were ready to engage in ways that previously would have been absolute anathema in the profession. Veteran journalists might suggest that multifarious crises in leadership and changes in leadership along the way in the big US news media outlets further aggravated matters and sped the departure from old practices to the new.

The trust developed over decades with the US public, the covenant of the free press with people, not to fail in its duty to keep them informed in the way mainstream news media outlets and the renowned freelance journalists of the past, became a patrimony squandered by spendthrift heirs. The new focus would be based on narrow interest in grabbing headlines to promote readership and viewership, and to fill advertising space and increase their profits. After all, new office buildings, new technologies, and marketing cost money. Those journalists who will adhere to convention, will only report facts as they come and in rightful context, will remain neutral, and will refuse to deviate from that course, may not be able to produce reports with enough “umph” to compete with the visceral, personal opinion-laden, stories of journalists working without restraint. Wrong is wrong, even if everyone is doing what is wrong, and right is right even if no one is doing what is right. Still, some would claim that is too easy to say outside of context, and therein may lie the problem. Too many journalists are willing to engage in a type of relativism about issues. Too many who see what is wrong are willing to settle as well.

What Might Come Next?

Difficile est tenere quae acceperis nisi exerceas. (It is difficult to retain what you may have learned unless you should practice it.) Debating whether standards should be upheld, regarding Trump or any matter, would have been considered novel in the profession not so long ago. Journalist, editors, and producers knew that they were expected to hold themselves to high standards. When the news is edited for the purpose of manipulating opinion it becomes propaganda, or worse, disinformation. As the profession developed, evolved, the need to apply standards to ensure that the reported news remained authentic news had been addressed by those who were responsible for developing news reporting as a profession; the firmament of great journalists of past eras. Standards are as essential an element to reporting as knowing the who, what, when, where, why of a story. Where one might appreciate hearing the matter still hashed out are lively discussions in ethics classes at journalism departments of colleges and universities. However, once away from the safety of the halls of their schools, the gap between theory and praxis, text and the world, becomes most apparent. There was a time when journalism was a calling. For the those who accepted it as such, there was a recognition that they had to remain obedient to standards. In moments of doubt when new journalists are uncertain how to proceed, it would be great if they would acknowledge, believe, that the profession is greater than themselves.

In professions, novices or journeymen typically model themselves on their precursors. New journalists starting at the bottom of the list read, hear, watch, and perhaps even admire some long-time highly esteemed figures in the US news media. For this reason, veteran journalists must serve as examples, ready to support neophytes in how to do things right or when they have gotten things wrong. This should be done not only as part of the process of mentoring and on-the-job  professional development, but for the sake of the profession. The decision of veteran journalists to deviate from convention would certainly give new journalists the impression that they too have license to depart from the established course when covering Trump, leaving behind old standards, codes, tenets, in favor of an unrestrained, laissez-faire approach to reporting and commentary. Indeed, the professionals who came before them have made themselves most notable for their role in the disassembly of the standards of professional practice for journalism. New journalists may be agreeable to a philosophy that journalism is a business and cost benefit analysis, and knowing whether a broad audience will be reached, must be part of decision making on what stories run. Doing what feels right whether adhering to standards or not, would be fine, as long its meets business criteria. In numero ipso est quoddam magnum collatumque consilium, quibusque singulis iudicii parum, omnibus plurimum. (A certain large collective wisdom resides in a crowd, as such; and men whose individual judgement is defective are excellent judges when grouped together.)

Among new journalists willing to escape or to reject convention, there is also the impetus of trying to avoid being crushed under the weight of huge student loan payments, mortgages, college tuition, and some have expensive choices for entertainment and costly personal interests. Add to that the fact that most young journalists despite protestations to the contrary, are vertically oriented, seeing a path upward. For a young journalist, remaining part of workplace may often be just a matter of falling in line with what is expected, or acknowledging what is the style du jour. Although one may begin at the bottom of the list, once one is recognized as a team player, easy to work with, more opportunities to might be provided for one to participate in collaborative efforts. Fruitful group effort makes ones activities at a workplace much sweeter. In the era of Trump, new journalist are more likely to garner favorable attention as a team player and rise in standing, if they can manage to display some Innate sense of how to present him as a certain kind of leader. What can likely be expected in the future of the administration are efforts to create an image of Trump, much as a character in a play, with bits and pieces of fact included in their depiction. They can then convey anything negative about that character that they want.

The direction that the profession is turning toward might loosely be dubbed “Libertine journalism.” The ideals, beliefs, aims of a past era are not just being shed, but rejected, for the new. Presently, there is no evidence in news outlets that self-constraints exist on what can be said about Trump. As things continue in this fashion, the regulatory mechanism for their work will typically be open minded managers with a sedated style of supervision might be limited to meeting copy deadlines and remaining strict on word length. Peers of young tyro would certainly offer guidance to the extent that they would likely admonish and ostricize them if they failed to attack Trump thoroughly. New journalists may rarely find themselves genuinely at odds with managers on the way their stories are written as there appears to be little gap between what editors and producers they think and what US media outlets in which they have found employment have been doing. It appears at some once renowned news media outlets, particularly in broadcast media, that constraints do not exist at all.  The free press has become free wielding. Yet, it cannot called anarchic. While the creative side of the outlets may be in flux, the administrative, bureaucratic side of them remain intact. Unfortunately for the US public, the consumer, whose interests the news media purports to serve, trying to recognize the difference between fact and opinion, even what is right and wrong will become more difficult to discern. The mainstream news media will very likely be forever shaped or poisoned, depending on ones perspective, by this change. Multi famam, conscientiam pauci verentur. (The truth is, the generality of mankind stand in awe of public opinion, while conscience is feared only by the few.)

The Way Forward

In the Induction of William Shakespeare’s The Second part of King Henry the Fourth, the idea of Rumour takes human form, painted full of tongues, and breaks the fourth wall by  speaking to the audience before the castle at Warkworth. He tells of his devilish work of playing on the anxieties across the known world, telling lies, generating falsehoods, encouraging guesswork, igniting suspicion, and flavoring speculation that could only mislead those aware of his presence. The result is misfortune for those fall victim to his stories. As an introduction to the play, Rumour tells how contrary to the truth that King Henry who has won the war and ended the rebellion led by Hotspur and his allies at Shrewsbury, he has spread word Hotspur has killed the King and as Prince Hal was killed, too! Rumour describes his efforts as follows: “Open your ears; for which of you will stop The vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks? I, from the orient to the drooping west, Making the wind my post-horse, still unfold The acts commenced on this ball of earth: Upon my tongues continual slanders ride, The which in every language I pronounce, Stuffing the ears of men with false reports. I speak of peace, while covert enmity Under the smile of safety wounds the world: And who but Rumour, who but only I, Make fearful musters and prepared defence, Whiles the big year, swoln with some other grief, Is thought with child by the stern tyrant war, And no such matter? Rumour is a pipe Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures And of so easy and so plain a stop That the blunt monster with uncounted heads, The still-discordant wavering multitude, Can play upon it. But what need I thus My well-known body to anatomize.” The similarity in the practice of Shakespeare’s Rumor and practices of many journalists and US news media today is striking. As initially mentioned, opinion has replaced fact in news reports. Opinions themselves are not threatening. The way in which they are being used is problematic. Opinions can be developed by the interpreting facts collected and inferring things from that information. It is akin to trying to find the missing piece of ring and using facts available to conceptualize, hypothesize within reasonable probability, what that missing piece might look like. There are quantitative and qualitative means used in some fields to help one reach useful conclusions. Opinions can also be formed from prejudices, self-serving ideas, incorrect assumptions, and surmisal, and offered up much as rumors.

The US public should be deeply concerned about the collapse of standards of professional practice in journalism, particularly when it comes to covering Trump’s foreign policy. Many in the US public have become less certain that the news media serves their interests. If new and veteran journalists and senior executives of new media outlets were forced to face the reality that the news media as it is now is not serving the needs of the public, there would most likely demurrals from some and certainly hot-blooded, vehement expressions of outrage from others. Trump appears to have triggered the worst attitudes and behaviors, the worst instincts in journalists. His presidency has oddly presented an opportunity for them to cut loose, engaging in independent thinking on what is relatively right and wrong and reaching conclusions at odds with professional standards. They respond to Trump with their worst instincts. While his foreign policy successes can reasonably be seen as improving the position of the US and peace and security globally, they are reported as placing the country and the world one footstep from Hell. Trump is inspired by the challenge of dealing with what he sees as the languid condition of US foreign policy. So far, there is no indication that his work is directed at the annihilation of everything as some critics have proffered. There is perhaps little to no chance for Trump to cultivate the affections of the US news media. One may disagree with Trump, but that is no reason to tear everything apart, play a big role in sullying the office of the presidency, and disassemble all that was once special and sacrosanct about journalism profession.

The profession as it is now could serve as a metaphor for the social man who has lost his way in the society with an overt focus on wealth, power, celebrity, pleasure, immediate gratification, rather truth, beauty, and goodness. Trying to protect it may appear futile more than ever before. In his 1734 work, An Essay on Man, Alexander Pope stated that “hope springs eternal in the human breast.” Perhaps the saving grace for profession may take the form of a new movement by new journalists, themselves to restore things as they were. Perhaps the old form of journalism can resuscitated. To reach that point, however, new journalists in particular, veterans too if they choose, must undertake journeys of introspection to understand the phenomenon of what their profession has become, who they have become as professionals, and what their priorities really are. One must not ignore the possibilities of ones own character. One can always become much more. Becoming much more may be within ones reach. With hope, there might be a check in their spirit of some journalists that might help remind them that things are being done the wrong way and a correction is needed. What is in ones heart will determine the path one chooses. Vita hominum altos recessus magnasque latebras habet. (Character lies more concealed, and out of the reach of common observation.)

In Syria, the US Is Bombing Friend and Foe Alike Says a Syrian Opposition Official; Action Is Needed from the Opposition, Not Complaints

These youthful fighters (above) are members of the abominable Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS). ISIS poses as great a danger to its erstwhile allies, the Syrian opposition, as the Assad regime. A US-led coalition is conducting airstrikes against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups. If the Syrian opposition ever hoped to find advantage over those groups, its military leaders must find ways to capitalize on this new situation.

In an October 2, 2014, Washington Post op-ed entitled, “In Syria, the United States Is Bombing Friend and Foe Alike”, Mohammed Alaa Ghanem explained that US-led airstrikes have had an important positive impact against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) or the Islamic State as he refers to it. He confirmed that ISIS has suffered real losses, and there have been fewer civilian deaths now that the Syrian Armed Forces’ aerial monopoly is broken. However, Ghanem who is a senior political adviser and government relations director for the Syrian American Council, board member of the Coalition for a Democratic Syria, and fellow at the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies, also claimed that substantial dangers were associated with the air campaign, pointing to a rise in anti-US sentiment in western Syria and the failure of airstrikes to halt ISIS’ movement toward Baghdad. Expressing the general sentiment of Syrian opposition members, Ghanem claimed that to preserve the viability of its strategy, the US must complement its airstrikes with firm support, in both word and deed, to “moderate anti-Islamic State Syrian opposition fighters.” Ghanem insisted that airstrikes alone will not defeat the ISIS. He stated that only close coordination with mainstream Syrian opposition forces would accomplish this. He proferred that enabling mainstream opposition fighters to escalate ground attacks on the Islamic State’s western front would force ISIS to divert resources from Baghdad. Ghanem stated that unlike the Iraqi Army, mainstream opposition forces already have a record of rolling back ISIS forces. Ghanem found fault with the US-led coalition for failing to establish any significant coordination regarding airstrikes with the opposition.

It is disappointing to learn that Syrian opposition political officials are still making churlish complaints over assistance being provided by the US and other benefactors. Their “mantra” has been a demand for more arms and supplies for their forces and for greater things to be done, such as launching airstrikes against the Syrian Armed Forces to promote their success. Complaints are also often heard from senior commanders of the Supreme Military Council, the opposition’s military wing and commanders of their forces in the field, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), as well. Their grievances belie the fact that the Syrian opposition military leaders, after three years of war, have failed to unify the many groups in the Free Syrian Army into a cohesive fighting force and have been unable, without foreign assistance, to enhance their fighters capabilities. They have been remiss in devising their own plans for the effective use of their forces against ISIS and the Syrian Armed Forces. How easy it is for the Syrian opposition to stand in judgement of the US and others, taking a position of moral superiority and declaring they are owed certain levels of assistance from them. From the beginning of their movement, Syrian opposition leaders should have been mature enough, and worldly wise enough, to understand that neither US nor any other country owed them anything. The Syrian opposition, its Supreme Military Council, and senior FSA commanders should expect more from themselves before demanding so much of others. With regard to the current situation in which a US-led coalition is hitting ISIS with airstrikes, Syrian opposition political and military leaders certainly must do more than offer lip service about their benefactors’ actions. They should consider how they might best act to capitalize on positive results with or without coordination with planners of the air campaign. If the opportunity arises, they should present proposals for coordinated action to their US government contacts. They should remain willing, even if alone, to do what is necessary to carry on their fight until final victory is achieved. Faber est suae quisque fortunae! (Every man is the artisan of his own fortunes!)

The Syrian Opposition’s Present Situation

The administration of US President Barack Obama decided to provide the Syrian opposition its support with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by FSA advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. Yet, support would be kept within limits. The impatience of FSA commanders and fighters with the Obama administration over the level of its efforts is indeed well-known. Syrian opposition political and military leaders claim the size and scope of assistance is the reason behind their lack of significant success against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s armed forces and allies—the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), IRGC Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militia brigades. However, the real problem has been the opposition, itself. The fight for democracy in Syria was supposed to be the opposition’s fight to win alone. However, very rapidly, Syrian opposition leaders discovered the entire undertaking was enormous and they found themselves well out of their depth. Simply keeping the opposition together politically has proven very difficult. Foreign diplomats must regularly act as mediators to hold the movement’s diverse groups together. Opposition military leaders have not shown any greater acumen unifying their forces. Moreover, FSA commanders have failed to display any impressive military capabilities. Many FSA units cannot perform in a military fashion.

What ISIS and other Islamic militant groups linked to Al-Qaeda such as Jabhat al-Nusra and its offshoot Khorasan have done is find advantage in the Syrian opposition’s failings.  By attacking mainstream FSA units that have been trying to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, the Islamic militants have succeeded in making the Syrian opposition’s situation far worse. On top of the damage caused by their attacks on the FSA, Islamic militant groups have also committed countless attrocities against the Syrian people. The groups are not directed toward Syria’s transition to a democratic form of government. ISIS has included territory they hold in Syria as part of a massive Islamic State, an Islamic Caliphate, crossing into Iraq that is solely under their control, ruled under Sharia law. A syncretistic merger of mainstrean opposition and Islamic militant ideas on governance will never occur. ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Islamic militant groups were becoming stronger almost daily. Their strength had already passed the point at which mainstream Syrian oppositon forces could have contended with them.  

US-led airstrikes, if unable to destroy those groups, will hopefully be able to degrade and displace them to a degree that they can no longer influence the political outcome in Syria. While FSA commanders may complain and even panic over the prospect of taking over the difficult battle lines at strategic points which ISIS and the other Islamic militant groups held, it is the only way to improve the FSA’s situation long-term. Indeed, only through on-going US-led airstrikes would the Syrian opposition ever have a chance of being positioned to succeed against the Assad regime.

What Syrian Opposition Leaders Should Be Doing

Following very public beheadings of Western citizens, ISIS was finally recognized in capitals around the world as a truly monstrous organization. It was referred to as a “death cult” by Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot. Airstrikes, to a degree, have not as yet kept ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and similar Islamic militant groups at bay. Nevertheless, in time, they will. While the air campaign is developing, FSA commanders need to reconfigurate their forces to exploit positive effects of those airstrikes. They must find ways to maneuver their units against the Islamic militant groups and Assad’s forces. Even if ideally for the FSA commanders, airstrikes reached such an intensity that some air assets could be tasked to provide air support for FSA, those units would not be able to remain hunkered down while the work was done from the sky above. Once Islamic militant groups were destroyed or displaced in some areas by airstrikes, sufficient numbers of trained and equipped FSA fighters, perhaps a mix of veteran and newly trained recruits, would still need to be made ready to move into those group’s former positions.  If FSA commanders have not completed any of these tasks because they were uncertain over how to proceed, they should have sought specific assistance from the US and other benefactors in organizing FSA fighters and units.

What Further US Assistance Might Look Like

As ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups are degraded, the US will be provided greater freedom to effectively organize FSA units as a military force, promote the development of greater cohesion and coordination among its units, improve FSA fighting capabilities, and enhance their combat power with better arms. All of these actions together will also provide FSA with a more immediate chance to position itself to defeat Assad’s forces. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is already steeped in the Syria situation as the US agency managing the training and arming of the FSA. CIA would likely be the organization tasked with any new mission to rapidly organize mainstream fighters to cover any strategic positions left open as a result of the destruction or displacement of Islamic militant groups that once held them. CIA officers already handling the stuation in Syria have a good awareness of what is happening on the ground and would able to track Islamic militant movements caused by airstrikes. With FSA support, they likely have been continuously collecting granular information on the Islamic militant groups, including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters as they move.  They likely have already gathered information on the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and  supply depots. Data from CIA officers on the locations and activities of Islamic militant groups has undoubtedly contributed to the US-led air campaign. Important in a CIA directed effort against the Islamic militant groups would be to minimize the FSA combat power allocated to that secondary task. The bulk of FSA power would still be dedicated to fighting Assad.

Regarding possible air support for the FSA, CIA has drones available and other air assets that could be assigned to support the FSA and serve as a force multiplier. Overwatch for FSA units, as they reorganized and repositioned themselves, could be provided by drones or other CIA air assets. Whenever FSA units needed to engage ISIS and other Islamic militant groups, drones and air assets available to CIA could provide direct support. If CIA were to organize some FSA units to police ISIS and other Islamic militant fighters left in FSA territory after the collapse of their units, drones and other available CIA air assets could support that activity. Beyond human intelligence collection, the US gathers continuous signals and geospatial intelligence in Syria.  Multiple streams could help CIA pinpoint and attack locations of leaders and units from ISIS and other groups even if they are dispersed by airstrikes. That information would also be very useful to CIA in providing close air support for FSA movement. 

Assessment

Having discussed what Syrian opposition leaders, the Supreme Military Council, and FSA commanders might do and propose, it is important to recognize that US military and intelligence planners, using their expertise based on careers that include continuous professional education and training and considerable experience in warfighting and intelligence operations, are very capable and know how to develop effective plans for action. They are aware of the capabilities of specific FSA commanders and units, the effectiveness of their weapons systems, and what would be the real possibility for success of any FSA operation. FSA commanders, regardless of their level of understanding of military theory or strategy, are outmatched by the degree of understanding senior US military and intelligence officers possess for the planning and execution of attacks coordinated with airstrikes.  If ordered by the US President to present a plan for such an operation, senior military and intelligence planners would produce something that displays a high level of acumen and creativity, utilizing advanced technologies perhaps beyond what FSA commanders and their opponents might imagine.

Until that time comes, if it ever comes, the Syrian opposition must take the initiative to reinvigorate the FSA, motivate its fighters, develop a sense of unity among units, and draw up bold new plans to engage in dynamic action in the field. Authentic military leaders should be able to accomplish these tasks. The Syrian opposition may not be certain whether US airstrikes are a stroke of good luck or mean bad luck for it. However, whether it becomes either is in the hands of the Syrian opposition, itself.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Managing News on the Islamic Militant Problem in Syria

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

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

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

Sensationalism: The Threat to the Homeland From Syria

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

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

Wielding US Power in the Middle East

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

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

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

Intellectualization of the Iraq Crisis

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

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

The Way Forward

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

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

Islamist Group in Syria Prompts US Debate: The Time Has Come to Send in the Drones!

Pictured above is an armed MQ-9 Reaper drone.  Creatively and effectively utilized in Syria, drones may help put US policy back on track.

According to a February 11, 2014 Washington Post article entitled “Islamist Group in Syria Prompts US Debate,” ties between Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) a group which for two years has operated as an Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, has been broken.  It was the outcome of a longstanding rift between the central leader of Al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the upper ranks of ISIS.  The “break-up” has fueled a debate within the administration of US President Barack Obama over whether the president would ever be able to use lethal force, drone strikes in particular, against ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, since those groups are no longer associated with Al-Qaeda.  ISIS, almost as much as the Assad regime, has impeded US policy in Syria.  That policy has been to support the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with arms and equipment in its efforts against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with the hope that he could be pressured to the negotiating table by FSA advances and agree to step down under a settlement.  However, the FSA has not been very successful and ISIS has regularly attacked its units while supposedly having the same goal of bringing down the Assad regime.  Consequently, FSA efforts have been split been fighting the forces and allies of the Assad regime and ISIS.  What has made ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups even more troubling for the US is the assessment by its intelligence community that such groups in Syria now pose a credible threat to the US homeland.  There has been no public indication that the internal discussion on Syria has resulted in a decision by the White House to take action.  However, the use of military force has not been ruled out either, and the possible use of drones has clearly been voiced.  That in itself is an important development.

Recently, General James Jones, a former National Security Adviser in the Obama administration, discussed what he referred to as the administration’s “delinqency” on Syria.  Although the administrtion has been arming and training the FSA, most notable about its approach has been: its decision to back away from red-lines on chemical weapons use; its dogmatic position on Assad’s removal which has only served to harden the positions of parties to the conflict; its struggle to organize talks in Geneva that have proven less than promising; and, currently its choice to engross itself in a time consuming policy debate on Syria.  Yet, now that the security of the US homeland may be tied to events in that country, perhaps it will be determined that firm steps are required.  Absent any desire or will to use ground forces to quell the threat posed by the militant groups to the US, or the FSA, a low-risk, highly effective, means to shape the situation could very well be the use of drones.  Integrated with US efforts already underway, drones, creatively and effectively applied, may help put the US policy on Syria back on track.  They may also allow for the effective implementation of US Counterterrorism policy.  Drones strikes should become part of the US effort in Syria.

Debate and Delay: A Decision is Needed Now

To be explicit, rogue Islamic militant groups such as ISIS have carried the day so far in Syria.  In addition to attacks made on the FSA, ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups have taken over towns and villages in the rather large segments of Syria that they control and have imposed a strict form of sharia law on their inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in the merciless abuses and the gruesome murders of Syrian citizens.  These acts have been well documented by the US, the EU, Russia, the UN, NATO, nongovernmental organizations, humanitarian organizations, and especially the news media.  It was such horrific acts by ISIS that led Al-Qaida’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to renounce the activities of ISIS as being too extreme to tolerate.   With every passing day, the mistreatment and killing intensifies.  Islamic militants have poured into Syria at a rate so high that FSA forces lack the capability to contend with them alone.  The US estimates that of the 26,000 “extremists” in Syria, over 7,000 are foreign fighters from 50 different countries.  ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups, comfortable and confident in Syria, have now begun to consider the possibility of striking in the US.  At a US Senate Intelligence Committee hearing held on January 29, 2014, Committee Chairman, Senator Dianne Feinstein, stated: “Because large swaths of the country . . . of Syria are beyond the regime’s control or that of the moderate opposition, this leads to the major concern of the establishment of a safe haven and the real prospect that Syria could become a launching point or way station for terrorists seeking to attack the United States or other nations. Not only are fighters being drawn to Syria, but so are technologies and techniques that pose particular problems to our defenses.”  Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center testified the same day to Senator Feinstein’s committee that “a permissive environment, extremist groups like al-Nusra and the number of foreign fighters combine to make Syria a place that we are very concerned about—in particular, the potential for terrorist attacks emanating from Syria to the West.”  The Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony that day explained succinctly, “What’s going on in there [Syria], and the attraction of these foreign fighters is very, very, worrisome.”  Given such grim assessments from senior US officials, a decision to take action in Syria would seem inevitable.

However, the Obama administration seems to be stuck on the legalities of such action.  The Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) gives the US president freedom to attack groups associated with the Al-Qaeda and the Taliban organizations.  Obama, himself, is apparently apprehensive about using the AUMF to take military action in Syria since it would mean citing the same constitutional authority that, while campaigning for the presidency, he accused his predecessor President George W. Bush of over-using.  Further, Al-Qaeda’s disavowal of ISIS appears to place it outside of the set of groups enumerated under the AUMF.  Yet, despite whatever perceptions the Obama administration may have on the necessity for diligent, deliberate debate before reaching a decision on Syria, time and course of events on the ground will not allow for a drawn out discussion.  The administration’s decision making process must be accelerated.   Other capitals worldwide are looking to the US for leadership.  For many countries, delays in decision making and action, due to such internal debates, are a manifestation of indecisiveness and lack of clarity on policy in Washington.  That has been the source of great disappointment.  Some countries have managed to exploit the US delinquency.  For example, Russia, Iran, the Assad regime, Hezbollah, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS have managed to find advantages in Syria as a result of the administration’s repetitive delays in acting.  It accounts for the strong position each holds in Syria at the present.

Drone Strikes

Drones have been a critical counterterrorism tool that has advanced US policy and helped to protect US interests globally.  Drones use in Syria would effectively mitigate the problem of ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups.  Targeted groups and individuals would be the ones who have attacked the FSA and committed indiscriminate acts of violence against Syrian civilians.

Drones can silently monitor an individual, group, or location, for hours.  The existing arsenal of drones, in particular the MQ-1 Predator and the MQ-9 Reaper, can remain airborne over Syria fully armed for 14 hours compared for example to 4 hours for F-16 fighters and A-10 ground attack aircraft.  Drones also can fly directly over Syria without putting pilots or ground troops at risk of injury, capture, or death.

In Syria, US drones would need to perform ostensibly as “air commandos.”  As a priority, drones could target leaders of ISIS and other rogue groups.  Enough command centers and other locations where leaders gather must be struck simultaneously to throw the groups into chaos and confusion and make it very difficult for them to regenerate.   The communications of ISIS and the other rogue Islamic militant groups should be either destroyed by drone strikes or disrupted by other technical means leaving surviving leaders with no control over their units.  Once rudderless, the groups’ units would be unable to coordinate actions, unit cohesion would suffer, and they would become far less effective.

Fighting positions of ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups positions in front of the forces and allies of the Assad regime could also be degraded with drone strikes.  The goal would certainly not be to support the Assad regime but to make the ISIS and rogue Islamic militant groups frontline positions less tenable, cause them to realize they could be subjected to further strikes that would result in their killing or capture by Assad’s forces, and send a clear message that they are not wanted in Syria.  Drones might need to serve for a period as an over watch for the FSA, ensuring that even small, unorganized bands of fighters of ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups would not be able to engage in independent actions to disrupt FSA operations.  When possible, strikes could be directed at diverting fighters of destroyed or displaced units pulling away from the frontlines to locations where “kill zones” could be established.  In the kill zones, drones could support raids and ambushes against those fighters by FSA units with US direction.

Drone use would be facilitated and made more effective due to the level of situational awareness of events on the ground in Syria possessed by the US intelligence community.  Drones could take advantage of a relatively permissive environment in Syria, largely unthreatened by anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles.  Drones could frequently operate at night when ISIS and other group might attempt to conceal their movement on roads.   If feasible, some drones could be armed with Gatling guns for the Syria mission to use against large groups of fighters.

It would be best if US drone strikes were conducted covertly.  However, in order to truly impact the situation on the ground in Syria, drone strikes must be of sufficient size, strength (firepower), and conducted at very high rate.  There would be a virtual whirlwind of drone activity over Syria.  Much as other countries, the UN, NATO, nongovernmental organizations, humanitarian organizations, and the news media have monitored the abominable activities of ISIS and other Islamic militant groups in Syria, they will likely be on hand to witness their decimation by US drones.  Perhaps the operation could be kept covert to the extent that US officials never discuss it and official documents about it never see the light of day.

Drone strikes should keep ISIS and the other rogue Islamic militant groups at bay.  Once they begin, plans for conducting FSA operations without the Islamic militant groups targeted by drones could immediately be put into effect.  With ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups destroyed or displaced by drone attacks, sufficient numbers of new FSA fighters must be trained, equipped and fielded to replace them.  Under US direction, a capable mix of veteran and newly trained recruits could be rapidly deployed in those sectors where the Islamic militant groups were displaced.  Security for that movement in the battle area could be provided by drones.  All of these actions together will provide FSA with the chance to position itself to defeat Assad’s forces.  Meanwhile, with ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups forced out, the US would have greater freedom to effectively organize FSA units as a military force, promote the development of greater cohesion and coordination among its units, improve FSA fighting capabilities, and enhance their combat power with better arms.  Ideally, drones, in a follow-on role, would be tasked to “clean up” FSA’s situation on the frontlines or would be tasked to provide close air support as FSA units maneuver against the forces and allies of the Assad regime.  However, that would likely be deemed too venturous for the Obama administration.  Having US advisers fight alongside the FSA is even less of a possibility.  Doing both would enhance the FSA’s chances for success.

Central Intelligence Agency

The military is not the only means the US has available to launch drone strikes against ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups.  The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is already steeped in the Syria situation as the lead US agency coping with the training and arming of the FSA.  CIA can exploit the situational awareness its officers, operatives and assigned special operations forces have acquired working there.  Those individuals, with FSA commanders at their side, have undoubtedly interviewed locals and quietly gained granular information on the Islamic militant groups, including the size of specific units, the locations of its fighters, the backgrounds of individual fighters and commanders, unit capabilities, and both combat and nonlethal supplies.

Islamic groups that seek to work with mainstream groups have most likely been identified by CIA and an effort has likely been made to cultivate ties with them.  An additional effort has likely been made to support those groups and place them under the FSA’s control.  The whereabouts and activities of Islamic militant groups that are hostile to the concept and intent of the Syrian opposition and have attacked mainstream FSA fighters are well-known by CIA.  As it was indicated by the US after the August 21, 2013 chemical weapons attacks near Damascus, beyond human intelligence collection, the US gathers continuous signals and geospatial intelligence in Syria.  Multiple streams have undoubtedly allowed the US to pinpoint locations of leaders and units from ISIS and other groups.  All points used by foreign fighters to enter Syria are likely being monitored.

CIA would also likely be the organization tasked with rapidly training, equipping, and fielding sufficient numbers of new mainstream fighters to cover any gaps created by the Islamic militant groups destroyed or displaced in FSA controlled territory, particularly those holding fighting positions in front of the forces and allies of the Assad regime.  CIA would need to implement contingency plans for conducting FSA operations absent ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant units on the frontlines.  Further, CIA would need to organize some FSA units to police rogue Islamic militant fighters left in FSA territory after the collapse of their units.

Assessment

ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups may have convinced themselves that they hold a strong position in Syria and somewhat immune to US response, but they are wrong.  US capabilities, given technological advances, when properly applied, can obviate any advantages those groups have been allowed to have.  While it would undoubtedly be preferred by the Obama administration to solve problems at the diplomatic table using reason and logic, other people such as the leaders of ISIS and other rogue Islamic militant groups see the world differently.  Force must be used to deal with them.  Without using such force, the US policy on Syria will not be advanced. Drone strikes appear to be best option for action.   Drone use would weaken their influence in Syria and prevent them from attacking the FSA.  Moreover, drone use may degrade those groups and thin out their leadership to a degree that initial thoughts of attacking the US will be knocked down.  As a new reality for the 21st century internationally is being created, US leadership is still required.  The US has played an important role in defeating terrorism worldwide, and must not stop now.  US friends and allies, who are concerned with the Middle East and also face threat from the rogue Islamic militant groups, must be assured that the US can still be relied upon.  In their hearts, the Syrian people are likely counting on help from the US, too!

A Breakthrough Agreement at Risk; An Unorthodox Approach Might Support It

According to a December 9, 2013 editorial in the New York Times, reports have circulated in Washington recently that Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat, and Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican, are preparing legislation that would impose new sanctions on Iran’s remaining exports and strategic industries if, at the end of six months, the interim nuclear agreement signed in Geneva goes nowhere.  The editorial explained both US and Iranian officials have made it clear that such legislation could be fatal to the agreement. The Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told Time and the New York Times during an interview in Tehran on December 7th that “the entire deal is dead” even if the penalties do not take effect for six months.   The editorial’s authors went on to state that similar mischief was afoot in the House of Representatives.  Democratic Majority-Whip Steny Hoyer denied an allegation, reported in the Washington Post, that he was working with Eric Cantor, the Republican Majority Leader, on a resolution that could sharply limit the outlines of a final agreement or call for imposing new sanctions.

The reactions of Members of Congress toward Iran, particularly in light of the concessions made on economic sanctions in exchange for Iran’s promise to moderately cutback on its nuclear activities, were predictable.  The Congress has made it known for some time that is far less understanding than the Obama administration of Iran’s pleas for relief from economic sanctions imposed by the US due to its nuclear efforts.  US diplomats had to appear before Congress just before the Geneva meeting to head-off a Congressional move to impose even harsher economic sanctions on Iran unless Iran froze its nuclear program.  The Members negative positions stem not only from a history of uncongenial relations with Iran, but also from a plethora of detailed information on Iran’s nuclear activities, regularly provided by unofficial and official sources, including the US intelligence community.  They are also aware of hard line comments of senior Iranian leaders in Tehran.

In addition to his warning on further sanctions, Zarif surprisingly has made statements referring to the Obama administraions dfficulties working with Congress on sanctions.  In his December 7th interview, he stated, “We believe that the US government should stick to its words, should remain committed to what it stated in Geneva, both on the paper as well as in the discussions leading to the plan of action.”  He also stated that “. 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.” 

Zarif and senior Iranian officials are astute enough to know, many of them having been educated in the US, that when dealing with the US, ultimately, issues do not center solely on whoever occupies the Oval Office at any given time.  They concern the US government.  The Iranians should be aware that the US system of checks and balances, its government has three branches: executive, legislative, and judicial. In the legislative branch, Members of Congress serve as the people’s representatives and oversee what the country does at home and abroad, including the creation of international agreements.  While an agreement with Iran would not result in a formal treaty and not be subject to ratification by the US Senate, the removal of existing economic sanctions would require Congressional approval.  If by some chance, Iran’s got everything it could ever have wanted regarding sanctions in Geneva, it would only be half the battle. 

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in his inaugural address, stated, “To have interactions with Iran, there should be talks based on an equal position, building mutual trust and respect, and reducing enmity.”  However, the US and Iran in fact are not negotiating as equals in all respects.  Their respective governments have two different systems.  For example, the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, can issue what amounts to an edict on “heroic flexibility” regarding the Geneva nuclear talks, that the enitre Iranian government must follow.  US President Barack Obama cannot require all branches of government to obey any foreign policy concept he might declare.  

The process of direct negotiation between the US and Iran has been a new and unusual process for the long-time adversaries.  It requires professionalism, great diplomatic acumen, innovation, and mutual support.  The administrations of both Obama and Rouhani want a deal on Iran’s nuclear program and US sanctions.  Issuing warnings to the Obama administration over what the Congress might do is counterintuitive.  It certainly does not make the job of convincing Congress to accept an agreement with Iran, or refrain from passing new legislation on sanctions more difficult. 

Rather than discuss what Obama, Kerry, and the foreign policy apparatus of the US government must do, it might be more constructive for Zarif to consider what he might be able to do in support of the administration’s efforts to lessen sanctions.  Zarif and his superiors have a mutual interest in preventing Congress from legislating any new economic sanctions and encouraging it to remove old ones.  One unorthodox approach might include having Zarif speak with the Congress about sanctions and the nuclear program.  It may build some confidence among the Members in the Geneva process who remain uncertain of Iran’s intent and of the likely outcome of an agreement.  Involving the Congress in the interaction between the US and Iran in this manner might prove crucial to its outcome.  US President Woodrow Wilson learned this the hard way.  Wilson refused to include US Senators among the negotiators accompanying him to the Paris Peace as suggested by his rival, Republican Majority Leader and Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Henry Cabot Lodge.  Wilson needed Lodge’s active support to ensure Senate approval of the Treaty of Versailles.  As a result of that “offense”, and Wilson’s refusal to negotiate with Lodge on the treaty, Lodge gave little support to the Treaty of Versailles. In the end, on November 19, 1919, for the first time in its history, the Senate rejected a peace treaty.  It is not publicly known if any Members of Congress have requested to hear from Zarif.  However, the Obama administration might kindly suggest that the Members do so.

If Iran is truly all in on getting an agreement and removing sanctions, it needs to commit to making that a reality.  Mutual support is what is needed.  Whether Zarif would ever appear before Congress in support of the Geneva process is uncertain.  Although Zarif would be supporting the Obama administration’s efforts, it might be believed among his superiors and hardliners in Iran that he was being brought to Capitol Hill to “beg” Congress for sanctions relief.  Hopefully that would not be the thinking in Tehran because having Zarif come to Washington might eventually become a necessity to secure an agreement. 

When bilateral negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program in Geneva began to appear possible, just before Rouhani took office, there was an effort afoot in the US Congress to impose further sanctions on Iran.  Hope was expressed in an August 8, 2013  greatcharlie.com post that such very poorly timed incidents and other encumbrances coming from both sides would be worked through by Kerry and Zarif given their talents.  The threat of sanctions at this juncture represents a real obstacle to the on-going Geneva process.  Yet, as long as cooler heads prevail and some thought is given by both US and Iranian diplomats to how they might provide mutual support for their efforts, such difficulties can also be overcome.

Kerry Appears to Reject Iran’s Call for New Nuclear Proposal, But Iran’s Leaders Were Unlikely Frazzled by That

In an October 7, 2013 Washington Post article entitled “Kerry Appears to Reject Iran’s Call for New Nuclear Proposal,” Anne Gearan reported US Secretary of State John Kerry feels that warming relations between the US and Iran do not mean that the US will back off its demands about Iran’s nuclear program or roll back missile defenses in Europe aimed at intercepting an Iranian attack.  Back in September, Gearan notes, Kerry met with his Iranian counterpart, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the UN General Assembly in New York and US President Barack Obama telephoned Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the end of the event.  Kerry reportedly stated on October 7th that “We’re waiting for the fullness of the Iranian difference in their approach now.”  He further explained, “But we’re encouraged by the statements that were made in New York, and we’re encouraged by the outreach.”  However, included in the article was a quote from Zarif, also Iran’s chief negotiator on the nuclear issue, extracted from Iran’s state media.  Zarif stated the US should bring new proposals to a multi-party nuclear bargaining session in Geneva next week.  According to Gearan, Kerry appeared to reject that idea.  He explained Iran still has not responded to the last offer put forth by the US, Russia and others, in February.

Such increased requests for proposals and other deliverables from the US by Iran and any effort to shift nuclear away bilateral engagement with the US talks to a broader negotiation with the Europeans and Russia may create the impression that an effort to stall the negotiations could be underway.  That would come as a huge disappointment in Washington given expectations created by the eloquent case Rouhani made for opening a dialogue with the US before and after his election as president.  Zarif is astute enough to know that Kerry will shut the talks down if he discerns an effort to stall, misdirect, or deceive through negotiations.  It might be expected this would be viewed as disastrous in Iran, but the reality is that achieving nothing through the nuclear talks might be acceptable within Iran’s power elite.  Indeed, in Iran, the talks are not nuclear talks as much as talks on the economic sanctions.  If there is not an outcome on economic sanctions acceptable in Tehran, then an agreement may not be reached.  The US would need to prepare to act with either further coercive diplomacy or military action, or simply wait for Tehran’s next step, which may be the acquisition of the capability to build a nuclear device.

Does Tehran Want an Agreement on Its Nuclear Program?

The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been supportive of Rouhani and has given him the authority to act in negotiations with the US.  However, the goal of the negotiations from Iran’s view is not as much to find compromise on its nuclear program as it is to gain some compromise from the US on economic sanctions.  The nuclear program is seen by Khamenei, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), as well as hardline political leaders and senior clerics, rightfully Iran’s to keep, and a necessity, even though the pursuit of the essentials for a nuclear capacity has made Iran much poorer.  Although for years, Khamenei and the Iranian leadership have rejected the idea of Iran wanting a nuclear weapon, US policy makers suspect that Iranian leaders actually believe nuclear weapons will make Iran stronger. This situation has placed both Rouhani and Iran’s negotiator, Zarif, in a difficult position.  They must try to end economic sanctions, but manage to hold on to Iran’s nuclear program, with all of its potential, knowing the US will not agree to those demands.. 

In Iran, there have been shrill responses by key players over the talks with the US and strong condemnations of the Obama administration threats over Iran’s nuclear program.  During a speech before Friday prayer in Tehran, the adviser to IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Jafari and Expediency Discernment Council Member, Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi, (and former Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance in former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) discussed events in New York during the UN General Assembly.  As translated from the Iranian Students News Agency by Will Fulton and Amir Toumaj of the American Enterprise Institute, Harandi reportedly stated “Our president went to the UN to solve problems with all options open from the Supreme Leader and a framework of red lines. The American Secretary of State, in opposition to the commitments and statements he made, did not recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium, said that none of the officials had agreed on Iran’s right to enrichment, and said that no changes had taken shape in this area when he spoke to news agencies and the media.”  His statement raised the ire of prayer attendees who began to shout “Death to America.” 

According to Fars News, Harandi also proffered the view in his address that the negotiations would unlikely succeed; therefore, there was no real possibility that economic sanctions would be lifted anytime soon.  What Harandi knew, but presumably did not reveal to prayer attendees was that beyond the demand that Iran not enrich uranium, US demands went much farther to require Iran to remove enriched uranium from its territory; dismantle its 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.  Meeting those demands would be tantamount to surrender and represent a humiliating defeat from the perspective of Iran’s leadership.  Harandi expressed this view by stating: “These days our people have hoped for the opening of a path under the title of ‘heroic flexibility’ that leads to the realization of their demands, but I am confident that in every respect the conduct of America will continue in this malicious direction of the past and failing to evaluate national rights, and certainly their slogans will echo more loudly.”  

As explained in the greatcharlie.com September 26, 2013 post entitled, “Hossein Dehghan’s Concealed Hand in Iran’s Foreign and Defense Policy Efforts”, “heroic flexibility,” particularly as understood by Harandi and his close compatriots in the IRGC allows for diplomacy with the US and its Western allies, but requires the protection of Iran’s right pursue and nuclear energy program.  Indeed, the joint diplomatic campaign of the president’s office and the Foreign Ministry may actually be just one part of larger plan being implemented by Iran.  Much as US and other Western analysts have suspected, Iran’s leaders likely have decided that while Rouhani is heroically negotiating with the US and its Western partners or even after he might reach an understanding with them on the nuclear issue, other elements of power in Iran, away from Rouhani’s purview, would continue efforts on Iran’s nuclear energy program, until all goals of the nuclear program are reached.  It has been assessed by the same analysts that Iran is already close to breakout capacity when it will be able to finish a device in a matter of weeks, without technically testing or possessing a bomb. For Iranian leaders, turning back now, after getting so close, would be counterproductive and counterintuitive.

The notion that Iran’s goals regarding economic sanctions would unlikely be met was also heard from Mashhad Friday Prayer Leader Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda.  As translated from the Iranian Students News Agency by Will Fulton and Amir Tourmaj of the American Enterprise Institute, Alamolhoda explained, “The country’s officials at the management rank must use foreign policy capacities to resolve economic issues and no one must create obstacles against the administrative measures.”  However, Alamolhoda went on to state, “The reality is that the country is stricken with the enemy’s nefarious sanction and issue, but paying attention to these realities must not cause the neglect of revolutionary ideals and strategies.”  Going further regarding his mistrust of the US, Alamolhoda explained that “America’s intention will never change and that view is corroborated by the American president’s act of prohibiting nuclear weapons and calling the use of nuclear energy the Iranian nation’s right. According to [US National Security Adviser, Ambassador Susan] Rice’s statement, Obama acted knowingly in speaking, because he has given the right to use nuclear energy to Iran and not its enrichment.” 

Most important in Alamolhoda’s speech, was his statement that “In the span of two days, America’s strategy changed against Iran, therefore [settling with] a government that destroyed and annihilated an Iranian aircraft on the Persian Gulf has no meaning.”  His rejection of forthright negotiations with the US gives one a sense of the rationale behind a possible dual-track effort regarding its nuclear program.  The echo of mistrust of the US could also be heard from Expediency Discernment Council and Assembly of Experts member Ayatollah Ahmad Khatami when discussing US-Iran relations and Obama’s comments on military options against Iran.  As translated from Fars News by Will Fulton and Amir Tourmaj of the American Enterprise Institute, Khatami stated: “From the beginning, America had problems with us, and if the nuclear story ends they will introduce human rights [as a new issue].  Therefore, America’s issue is the issue of dominance.”  He asserted, “Americans lie when they say they do not seek the overthrow of Iran’s government, rather they wanted to do so but could not. Therefore, relying on the smiles of Westerners and of this nation’s enemies is an error.”  He explained “There are rumors that some have said to abandon the death to America slogan, but they must know that the death to America slogan is the slogan of Iran’s resistance.”  Khatami went on to state, “The most idiotic type of speaking with a nation is threatening a nation. With complete obscenity, Obama says that ‘we will put all options on the table’ and we also tell them we have all options on the table, which one of those choices is Eight Years of Sacred Defense.”  Khatami pointed to the fact that “Morsi called Shimon Perez a brother, consulted with Obama, and did something for America. Therefore, those who seek to back down should look closer at Morsi’s fate. Of course, we do not accept the current government that has come to power in Egypt and consider it corrupt.” Lastly, Khatami stated, “Today, the enemy is not trustworthy at all because we are facing an enemy that is not bound to any principles. Of course, we do not say that we should not have diplomatic negotiations.”

Assessment

Leaders in Tehran state that Iran has not sought to threaten the US or its interests.  Yet, they fully sense both pressure and a real threat from the US in the form of: draconian economic sanctions as part of a US policy of coercive diplomacy against Iran; the US desire to reign in Iran’s nuclear energy program and refusal to recognize Iran’s right to enrich uranium; the US condemnation of Iran for allegedly sponsoring terrorism worldwide; and, a powerful US naval and military presence in and around the Persian Gulf.  The previous US administration’s declaration of that Iran was a member of the “Axis of Evil”, its repetitive threats of regime change, and it threat to impose a US form of democracy on Iran, still rings in the ears of Iranian leaders.  They will not tolerate any further expressions of US views on what is best for the Iranian people.  Thoughts that Obama may lack the will to use force after his somewhat awkward effort to use force in Syria, are offset by deeply engrained feelings that Iran could be attacked.  The Iranians are not yet able to rely on promises from the US.  To that extent, Iranian leaders feel they must do whatever is necessary to ensure their nation’s security and interests.  

The long awaited diplomatic opening has occurred through the meeting between Kerry and Zarif in New York, and the phone conversation between Obama and Rouhani.  However, Kerry explains that it is too early to say whether the thaw begun at the UN in September will lead to a change in US policy.  For the US, time is certainly of the essence, as Iran’s nuclear capabilities are ever increasing.  Small diplomatic steps must continue.  Yet, Iran wants both countries step to each other at the same time.  That may have much to do with Zarif’s call for a US proposal.  It was noted by Zbigniew Brzezinski that enduring nuclear accords with the Soviet Union involved compromise, not demands for one-sided capitulation.  It may very well be that the nuclear issue will not be resolved with this new dialogue.  An agreement with Iran that halts its nuclear program may not be part of Obama’s legacy.  Legacy seems to be a very important consideration within the White House and among US pundits.  If the US were to refrain from military action against Iran even after any further nuclear developments by Iran were revealed, the US and Iran might still be able to slowly resolve issues though contact and communication.  Through cooperation with other countries, the US and Iran could possibly engage in efforts to establish greater security and stability in the Middle East.

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The Adviser to Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps Commander-in-Chief Major General Mohammad-Ali Jafari and Expediency Discernment Council Member, Mohammad Hossein Saffar Harandi (center)