Perhaps a Perilous Time

The recent attacks on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities – for which the Iranian-backed Yemen rebels, the Houthis, have claimed credit — create plenty to ponder; they are perhaps the first meaningful yield of the seeds sown by President Trump’s erratic foreign policy, and of the way his heedless, casual, and inconsistent bluster has compromised his – and our — credibility. A few thoughts:

Inasmuch as the location of the Saudi facilities’ damage was on their north and northwest sides, it seems more probable, despite the Houthis’ claims, that the attacks were launched from Iran (to the facilities’ north), rather than from the Houthis’ Yemen strongholds (to the facilities’ south). There are mixed reports as to whether the damage was caused by drones or missiles, but American experts have opined that Iran was the perpetrator because the weapons were Iranian, and too sophisticated to have been entrusted to their Houthi surrogates. That said, the Iranians deny that they were responsible for the attack, and interestingly, the Saudis, obviously feeling trepidation as to what a broad scale Middle East war might mean for them, have asked for U.N. experts to verify the U.S. claims. (Comment: we used to be the gold standard. That our word is no longer sufficient – even with an ally that we have treated better than it deserves – is arguably a result of President George W. Bush’s 2003 claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and an understandable suspicion that Mr. Trump may be seeking a conflict with Iran for his own political purposes. Compromised credibility – both national and personal — is hard to reclaim.) (Another comment: actually a pretty adroit maneuver by the Iranians. While probably not egregious enough to result in all-out war, it has: delayed their regional rival’s public offering of Aramco stock, thus setting back Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s domestic agenda; pointed out to the Saudi Royal Family how easily its wealth can be hit; and raised the price of whatever oil Iran is able to export.)

Since abandoning the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the official name of the multilateral Iran Deal negotiated by the Obama Administration to halt Iran’s development of a nuclear weapon — the “JCPOA”), the Trump Administration, in an effort to force Iran to the bargaining table for what it considers a broader and better deal, has imposed financial sanctions upon Iran that have by all accounts crippled its economy. We have apparently not expected a military reprisal in response to our initiative, our approach being “informed,” as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wrote in a Foreign Affairs article last November, by Mr. Trump’s “… strategic calculation the Iranian regime understands and fears the United States’ military might.” The most intriguing question: Since we do have the military might to do catastrophic damage to Iran if we choose, why would Iran be so bold as to launch attacks on the Saudi facilities?

While over the years many western foreign policy experts have expressed the hope that Iranian moderates (the “technocrats”), generally considered to be led by President Hassan Rouhani, will control Iran’s future – the fundamental premise upon which the Obama Administration built the JCPOA – these experts generally concede that the true control of the country currently remains with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, now 80, and the Islamic conservatives beholden to him, perhaps most prominently the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (the “IRGC”). Some of these experts make a point that was initially counterintuitive to me: that the IRGC leaders, despite their rigid adherence to Islam, are not ascetics; these men have major financial interests. Although probably an ancillary irritant, their financial losses due to the American sanctions have undoubtedly added to the ferment that has arisen from what they consider grievous religious and national insults.

Richard Haass, in A World in Disarray, has noted: “[T]here is scant evidence that sanctions can ever be made strong enough to dissuade a country from pursuing what it believes to be a vital national interest ….” From 1938 through 1941, in response to warlike initiatives by the Japanese Empire, the United States imposed increasingly punitive sanctions upon Japan, which in turn strengthened the hand of Japan militarists calling for war against the U.S. Recently-released notes of the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito indicate that he regretted not preventing the Japanese military from leading Japan into a war he felt it couldn’t win. Iran resents American intrusion upon what it considers its rightful regional hegemony. It is history [guided, as TLOML points out, almost entirely by men 😉 ] that aggressive voices generally overwhelm the restrained.

Although – much to my dismay – I heard an MSNBC talking head make a point this week similar to that which follows, I nonetheless offer it here since it’s an impression I’ve had since the President’s earliest days in office [and thus, consider it mine 🙂 ]. I would submit that it is the most critical flaw in Mr. Trump’s foreign policy approach: he knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing. It has guided his trade policy, his attitude toward NATO, etc., etc., etc. For someone so obsessed with his own appearance and standing, he inexplicably fails to grasp that first rate political and military leaders are not motivated by money, but by power, “face,” and sometimes religion. I am absolutely convinced that if Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping were given the stark choice of either maintaining power over their countries while living in mud huts or living without power in opulent castles … they’d both opt for the mud huts. Mr. Trump would clearly choose the castle – and is unable to fathom that anyone would do otherwise. These are the contrasting motivations that have caused him to eschew diplomacy in favor of economic sanctions to achieve his goals although, as Mr. Haass has stated, sanctions rarely obtain strategic result. If faced with an existential threat, a true leader can’t be financially bullied to forsake what s/he considers vital interests, and a military leader’s instincts will be … to reach for a gun. These are the people running Iran. Perhaps they either don’t fear our military might enough, or believe that Mr. Trump has the resolve to use it. They are not contestants in a reality show.

I am concerned that Mr. Trump’s honeymoon – the grace period that our international adversaries have actually afforded him because of his emotional unpredictability tied to American military and financial might – might be ending. His reactions to the Iranian foray will be watched closely by Messrs. Putin and Xi, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, the Taliban, and others, with potential consequences for Ukraine, Taiwan, South Korea, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. I fear that we may be entering a perilous time in the Trump presidency.

On the Anniversary of 9/11: Avoiding Further Radicalization

Below is a link to an open letter published today, “Unless We Act Now, the Islamic State Will Rise Again,” signed by a significant number of American counterterrorism specialists. In their communication, only a bit over two pages, these experts assert that in order to avoid the indoctrination of a whole new generation of terrorists from among those now being held in Syrian detention camps – many of whom are children – the home countries of the detained terrorists should readmit them and their families, prosecute under their home laws those that have actively engaged in terrorism, and at the same time fully accept the innocents back into their respective societies without tarnish.

Although the Trump Administration – in fairness, not unlike the two previous Administrations – has primarily focused on our battlefield success and failure, these national security professionals submit that unless we prevent the radicalization of the next generation of youth through “soft” and just measures, we are sentencing ourselves to remain in our current quagmire.

https://thesoufancenter.org/open-letter-from-national-security-professionals-to-western-governments/

 

Wish I’d Said That

This week, I heard a learned observer – I’m sure enough it was George Will to attribute it to him, but am not entirely positive it was Mr. Will – state to the effect, “From the beginning of the New Deal through the end of the Obama Administration, American domestic politics have essentially amounted to a conversation between Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan,” indicating that President Trump has significantly departed from the tenets espoused by each.

An arresting image.  Wish I’d said that. In a post a while back, I noted that I consider President Reagan the most accomplished president of my lifetime, but the only reason President Roosevelt didn’t best him in my ranking is … because I haven’t been around quite long enough for Mr. Roosevelt to have qualified for the competition. 😉

I can’t recall whether Mr. Will also observed that notwithstanding their domestic “conversation,” Messrs. Roosevelt and Reagan were, decades apart, almost perfectly aligned on their views of America’s place and responsibility in the world – that which, in my view, is perhaps the most important component of what actually makes America great — or that in this area, Mr. Trump has also disrupted and is seeking to further disrupt if not destroy much of what these two American giants stood for. If Mr. Will didn’t add that … I’m reasonably confident he wouldn’t mind if I do.

On the Mueller Report … Mostly Sans Politics: Part II

If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there 😉

While the depth and breadth of the Russians’ efforts to interfere with the 2016 election weren’t known by our intelligence services prior to the election, the early sections of Volume I of the Mueller Report nonetheless seem to me to cast a pall over a figure the Report mentions only in passing: then-President Barack Obama. It is undisputed that the Obama Administration was alerted to a notable level of malign Russian activity some months before the election, and engaged in internal debates about a strategy as to how best to respond. Mr. Obama said after the election that he had told Russian President Vladimir Putin in September, 2016, “to cut it out” or face “serious consequences,” and the Obama Administration publicly indicated in October, 2016, that it was “confident” that the Russian government was behind the theft and dissemination of Democratic officials’ emails. These actions received little attention from our people and had no effect on the Russians. Mr. Obama also said after the election – about the time he was then placing sanctions on the Russians for their behavior – that he was concerned that his Administration’s placing too much emphasis on the Russians’ actions prior to balloting would have appeared to be interfering with the election: “We were playing this thing straight – we weren’t trying to advantage one side or another. Imagine if we had done the opposite. It would have become one more political scrum.”

President Trump has recently criticized Mr. Obama for his relative reticence about the Russian interference prior to the election. Although Mr. Trump’s comments are transparently self-serving, I do believe that Mr. Obama should indeed have done more than he did to create greater awareness of the Russian threat and aggression. As President, he was sworn to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. Free, fair, and accurate suffrage forms the foundation of our constitutional system. Putting aside claims of active collusion or criminal conspiracy existing between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government, Messrs. Putin and Trump have both publicly acknowledged that they had a coincidence of interest in the election’s outcome. Neither is a strategist; both, brilliant opportunists. Any objective observer would recognize that it would have been Mr. Trump that initiated the “political scrum” that Mr. Obama decided it was best to avoid by failing to speak out more forcefully about the Russians’ behavior in the fall of 2016. For all of our former President’s charisma, intelligence, and good intentions, Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump each out-maneuvered him. The Republicans are so focused on defending Mr. Trump’s legitimacy and the Democrats so committed to protecting Mr. Obama’s legacy that neither have really expressed what I will venture: that given the intelligence he had at hand, President Obama should have damned the political consequences, and used his bully pulpit to place a spotlight on the Russians’ attack on our system. In the last great test of his presidency … he didn’t do his job.

A brief comment about Volume II of the Mueller Report, of which I have read – and only intend to read – its Introduction and Executive Summary. As all who care are aware, Mr. Mueller and his team, after outlining a litany of questionable activities by President Trump relating to the Russia investigation, elected not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgement as to whether Mr. Trump had criminally obstructed justice. Below is a link to a short Statement joined by hundreds of former federal prosecutors, asserting that Mr. Trump’s conduct “… would, in the case of any other person not covered by the [Department of Justice’s] Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.” Given their respective situations, Mr. Mueller’s and these prosecutors’ assessments seem complementary.

https://medium.com/@dojalumni/statement-by-former-federal-prosecutors-8ab7691c2aa1

Addendum to Today’s Entry

I’ve been advised by a follower of these notes that the page citations appearing in today’s post as initially published (which are to the Mueller Report’s actual page numbers) don’t necessarily align with the page numbers appearing in electronic versions of the Report. To provide better guideposts, I’ve edited today’s entry, adding references to pertinent section titles.

On the Mueller Report … Mostly Sans Politics: Part I

Having now read Volume I of the Mueller Report (there will be a brief comment on Volume II in Part II of this note), I would most strongly urge every American to read pages 14 (page citations are those of the actual Report, with pertinent text beginning with, “II Russian ‘Active Measures’ Social Media Campaign”) through 51 (ending at, “D. Trump Campaign and the Dissemination of Hacked Materials”). In these sections, the Report’s references to the Trump Campaign are mostly tangential. I would submit that Republicans are so busy defending the President and the Democrats so intent on savaging him that they are paying too little heed to what I consider the main import of the Report, best captured in those 37 pages: the Russians’ comprehensive and sophisticated activities to undermine our system of government. These early sections set forth in detail – in a form not dissimilar to a spy novel, but terrifying because what is related is real – what former Vice President Dick Cheney declared in March, 2017, “[Would] in some quarters … be considered an act of war.”

A bit of the content follows; its weight is best absorbed from these Report pages themselves. These first sections describe how the Russians set up two different organizations whose mission was to disrupt our electoral processes. The first, Russia’s Internet Research Agency, LLC (the “IRA”), was tasked with social media operations targeted at large U.S. audiences “with the goal of sowing discord in the U. S. political system.” The IRA’s efforts ultimately resulted in the formation of social media presences (with specialists focusing on Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter) and of operational divisions dedicated to areas such as social presences, analytics, graphics, and IT. The IRA reached as many as 126 million persons through its Facebook accounts. Acting through fake U.S. identities, it also recruited unknowing U.S. citizens to post social media entries and to host dozens of political rallies furthering its aims. Like a direct response business, the IRA monitored which of its presences and unwitting recruits were most effective.

Russia tasked the second organization, its Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (the “GRU”), to conduct cyber hacking and information dumping operations. The GRU carried out computer intrusions into the Clinton Campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The Report states that one GRU department developed specialized malware while another “conducted large-scale spearphishing campaigns.” It further indicates, to me the most ominously, that one GRU unit “… hacked computers belonging to state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to the administration of U.S. elections [my emphasis].” The GRU released the material it stole through two fictitious online personas it created (DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0), and later through WikiLeaks to undermine then-Candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Although it is hard after reading these Mueller Report sections not to wonder whether the Russians’ efforts against Sec. Clinton were sufficient to affect the outcomes of the close 2016 races in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, I would suggest that at this point … it doesn’t matter. What matters is what we do now. The Republicans are so focused on defending Mr. Trump’s election that they appear to have completely lost sight of a point FL Sen. Marco Rubio made soon after the extent of Russian interference in our election had become apparent: next time, the Russians could target a Republican. I would pose this to my Republican friends: if Mr. Trump dropped out of the race tomorrow (say, for sudden health reasons) and Mitt Romney – who, presciently, called Russia our “Number One Geopolitical Foe” during the 2012 campaign – was running for President in 2020 against almost anyone in the Democratic field, upon which candidate do you think the Russians would aim their assault?

It seems likely that during his youth in Russia, Mr. Putin learned how to split wood. One quickly learns when splitting wood that it is best to let the sawn segments of the felled tree cure – dry out – for a year before attempting to split them; but even then, to split successfully, after the log is placed on the chopping block, the splitter must accurately aim the maul at the log’s seams that resulted from its curing. If the splitter misses the seam, nothing happens; the log sits there in defiance. If s/he hits the seam, the log splits. I would suggest that lacking an existential enemy since the fall of the U.S.S.R. in 1989, we as a people have been curing – quarreling among ourselves, our bonds weakening in partisan rancor – due to a growing divergence of interest, culture, and financial means. Mr. Putin and his agents have identified our fissures and, using technology and the Russian espionage apparatus as their splitting maul, have and will again strike at our seams … to split us apart. Hopefully, we retain the sense and courage to defend ourselves.

In an effort to keep these posts to at least a somewhat manageable length, what remains of this note will appear in Part II.

Eyeing the Uncertainty Ahead

On the weekend of February 9-10, Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal devoted her column to whether President Trump and his team will be ready for their first crisis. She indicated that it was “almost a miracle” that no crisis had occurred during Mr. Trump’s first two years, and added, “He’ll face one eventually, and there’s good reason to worry the administration will be unprepared.” She listed as possibilities Russian aggression against Europe, Chinese aggression against Taiwan, a coordinated cyber attack on the U.S. power grid, a bombing of Iran missile sites, or “an accidental launch somewhere.”

I generally think highly of Ms. Noonan. After considering her comments, I constructed a post in which I agreed that it was highly likely that the Trump Administration will face a crisis during the next two years, and that one could have little confidence that the Administration will be ready when it occurs. At that point, however, I indicated that I had somewhat less concern than she did about the possibility of a crisis being provoked by Russia or China. I contended that although these adversaries almost certainly initially relished the American domestic instability wrought by Mr. Trump, they themselves might now have concerns about the President’s erratic behavior as he is increasingly besieged at home – and how he might lash out if confronted. I suggested that both nations might well be warily eyeing the President as one would a capricious 8-year-old holding a loaded gun.

I thought it was sound. I liked it. I’m glad I didn’t publish it. I’ve realized that unfortunately, what I had been planning to submit was very possibly wrong with regard to Russia, and perhaps with regard to China as well.

Although in the last two years, Russian President Vladimir Putin has psychologically cemented his Crimean annexation, made Russia a Middle East military power broker through relations with Iran and Syria, reestablished ties with China, established significant relationships with purported U. S. allies Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and watched as Mr. Trump has sown shards of doubt within the NATO alliance, Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations recently pointed out that Mr. Putin has a track record of pushing ahead where he sees opportunity. Dr. Haass pointed not only to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 — at a time that President Obama’s influence was waning — but also Russia’s aggressive actions vis a vis NATO partner Georgia in August 2008 to “protect” two separatist Georgian regions – a point at which President G.W. Bush lacked the practical ability to intercede. Since almost any future President of either party will take a firmer stand against Russian aggression than Mr. Putin can reasonably expect from Mr. Trump, the risk to even those NATO nations within what Russia perceives as its region of influence, such as Estonia and Latvia, may increase significantly if Mr. Putin perceives that Mr. Trump is likely to be removed from office or lose his reelection bid.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has made no secret of his intent to fulfill the “China Dream” – to make China the world’s preeminent power. He is seeking to make China the world’s largest economy, improve its military might, and have it ingratiate itself across the globe through infrastructure projects and benign (from a power politics perspective) alliances such as Climate Change. However, China’s economy has faltered during the last two years, it faces dangerous credit and demographic crises, and Mr. Xi is facing some party disgruntlement. China still needs a significant U.S. interaction to foster its own economic growth. Although its interests over the next two years seemingly lie in catering to Mr. Trump rather than antagonizing him … Taiwan has got to look mighty tempting. American commitment to Taiwan is the only thing standing between the island and a mainland takeover. Its independence is the pebble in Mr. Xi’s shoe. Henry Kissinger wrote in World Order that a senior Chinese diplomat once told him that the Korean War was the only strategic mistake Mao Zedong ever made, because the resulting American commitment to Taiwan “delayed Chinese unification by a century.” (Seventy years have now passed since the Communist takeover in China.) The Washington Post reported this week that Mr. Xi “is growing impatient with Taiwan.” It is not inconceivable that Mr. Xi might conclude that President Trump’s clear distaste for international entanglements combined with Mr. Trump’s domestic difficulties provides Mr. Xi the best opportunity to “unify” China as Mr. Xi will have during his presidency.

We are entering what are arguably the most perilous times our nation has seen since the fall of the Soviet Union. Hopefully, we will not necessarily become so preoccupied with maintaining the foundations of our system during the remainder of the Trump presidency that our capability to safeguard world order is materially compromised; there’s no other nation on earth with the means or the will to do it. Whether alt-conservatives or avid progressives realize it (and at times, I doubt that either group does), Americans have as much to lose as the rest of humankind if we abandon our global guardianship role to any greater extent than we have already.