My Weekly Reader, 10 July 2018.

Russo-American relations had deteriorated under the simultaneous presidencies (2000-2008) of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin.[1]  However, constitutional term limits meant that Putin could not run for a third consecutive term.  So, he became prime minister while his client, Dmitri Medvedev, became president.  However, all power remained in Putin’s hands.

Barack Obama also became president in 2009.  Obama made one of his campaign advisers on foreign policy, Michael McFaul, head of Russian affairs on the National Security Council.  McFaul then became a principle architect of the Obama administration’s attempt at a “reset” of the relationship with Russia.  The administration hoped to draw Russia toward the American-led international system.

The “reset” began well.  In July 2009, the Russians began allowing the United States to use Russian airspace to airlift supplies to Afghanistan.  In September 2009, the U.S. dropped its plan to build anti-missile defenses in Eastern Europe.   In March 2010, the two countries agreed to reduce their nuclear arsenals. In May 2010, the Russians agreed to impose sanctions on Iran in an effort to get it to end is nuclear weapons program.  The U.S. then lifted sanctions on Russia.

Then things went sour in a hurry.  Why?  There are two answers here.  One answer is that the Libyan Revolution from March to August 2011 began the breakdown.  In this account, the “Arab Spring” spread to Libya; the Gaddafi government set out to suppress it; Libya was a Russian client and Russia had a veto on any Security Council authorization; the Americans got Russia to abstain by limiting the resolution to “protecting civilians,” rather than overthrowing the regime; and then they went ahead and overthrew the regime.[2]

To make matters worse, in Fall 2011, Putin and Medvedev again switched jobs.  This infuriated many Russians.  Demonstrators filled the streets and the unrest continued during the run-up to the March 2012 presidential elections.  It doesn’t seem to have sat too well with Washington either.  In December 2011, Secretary of State  Hillary Clinton declared that “The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted. “And that means they deserve free, fair, transparent elections and leaders who are accountable to them.”[3]  This amounted to taking sides against Putin.

Michael McFaul, the American ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, prefers another explanation.  He thinks that Putin is “paranoid” and sees the U.S. as “the enemy.”  He is possessed of “fixed and flawed views.”  The Russian people themselves follow Putin because of “a deep societal demand for this kind of autocratic leadership, and this kind of antagonistic relationship with the United States and the West.”

When Secretary of State Clinton made her statement on the Russian elections, the United States had already overthrown the autocratic governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and leaned on the Egyptian military to topple Hosni Mubarak.  The American government-funded National Endowment for Democracy was at work in Russia.  Is it a surprise that Putin is paranoid?  McFaul should have re-read Kennan before he entered government.

[1] Daniel Beer, Does Vladimir Putin Speak for the Russian People?” NYTBR, 8 July 2018, reviewing Michael McFaul, From Cold War to Hot Peace (2018).

[2] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2014/09/28/obama-versus-putin/

[3] See: https://www.cnn.com/2011/12/06/world/europe/russia-elections-clinton/index.html

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Steele, Steal, Stolen, or Given?

Back when “President Donald Trump” was merely a twinkle in the eye of residents of the Baltimore Hospital for the Criminally Insane,[1] a conservative organization/web-site hired Fusion GPS to dig up some dirt on Trump, help run him off the road in a hurry so that normal people could chase the Republican nomination.[2]  Well, that didn’t work.  When the Republicans packed it in, the Clinton campaign, through a lawyer “cut out,” took over.  Only at this point did GPS Fusion hire Christopher Steele to investigate Trump’s Russia connections.[3]

Steele is an accomplished former British intelligence officer.[4]  He once headed the Russian department of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI-6).  He contacted a couple of Russian sources: a “former top-level intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin” and a “senior Russian Foreign Ministry official.”[5]  They provided him with a bunch of dirt on Donald Trump for the Clinton campaign to use.  Here’s the thing to my ignorant eye.  Vladimir Putin doesn’t like people to do stuff without checking with him first.  No way to run an organization according to American best business practice literature.  Still, Putin seems to like this approach.[6]

In Steele’s words, Moscow “cultivated” Donald Trump “for at least five years” before the election of 2016.  Both Donald Trump and some of his aides[7] “showed full knowledge [of] and support [for]” the Russian leak through Wikipedia of the e-mails stolen from the Democrats.  For its part, Trump and his aides would “sideline Russian intervention in Ukraine as a campaign issue” and ease up on sanctions against Russia.  Furthermore, Steele reported that the Russians have a it-would-embarrass-anyone-but-Donald-Trump video tape of Trump instructing Russian prostitutes to urinate on the bed of a Russian luxury hotel once used by the Obamas.

On 20 June 2016, Steele sent the first of his reports to Fusion GPS.  However, Steele was in a wee bit of a lather.  He also shared his reports with the EffaBeeEye and with journalists.  At the end of October 2016, Mother Jones ran an article reporting the existence of the “Steele dossier.”  This didn’t blunt Hillary Clinton’s drive for defeat.  Later, John McCain sent a copy of the dossier to the EffaBeeEye.[8]  Then BuzzFeed published the whole thing.

Common opinion holds that the Russians sought to harm Clinton’s chances of becoming president.  Often, journalists portray this hostility to Clinton as springing from a desire to favor Trump.  However, Putin had reason to hate Clinton, but he couldn’t just kill her.  He hates the United States, but can’t just nuke us.  So, vicious pragmatist that he is, he has settled for the next best thing.  He also trued to sink Trump as well.  “Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, it shines and stinks.”—John Randolph.

[1] Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs (1988).

[2] Sounds like a good idea to me.  So long as Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or Sideshow Bob doesn’t become president.

[3] Why target only the Russian connections of a businessman with multi-national operations?  Did GPS Fusion have prior knowledge of Russo-Trumpian skullduggery that allowed them to target this particular issue?  Or did they pursue multiple lines of inquiry and the Russian one is the first to hit pay dirt?

[4] “The Steele dossier,” The Week, 2 February 2018, p. 11.

[5] Wait, there are a couple of Russian officials who have been “sources” for a senior intelligence officer of an enemy state and they’re still walking around? Not buying 20-30 Big Macs to tide them over on the train-ride to Siberia?

[6] For example, see: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/03/23/here-are-ten-critics-of-vladimir-putin-who-died-violently-or-in-suspicious-ways/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ec13e0aab80b

[7] Steele names Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Michael Cohen.

[8] Which would seem to have obtained a copy from Steele himself earlier on and was sitting on it.

Russia 31 July 2017.

Russia’s reclaiming of Crimea and its support for breakaway groups in eastern Ukraine led to American-led economic sanctions.  Putin’s sudden increased support for the Assad regime in Syria helped turn the tide in the civil war against American proxies.  Putin’s intervention in the American presidential election to the disadvantage of Hilary Clinton, led, first, to the expulsion of a number of Russian “diplomats” and, now, to the passage of further sanctions.

Vladimir Putin wanted Donald Trump elected president of the United States.  This is the gist of much of the explanation of the Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election.  Trump had said many positive things about Putin, especially in comparison to President Barack Obama.  As President, Donald Trump would take a softer line toward Putin’s effort to get Russia back on its feet.  In particular, Putin hoped for an easing of the sanctions imposed after the Crimean and Ukrainian initiatives.[1]  “That bet has now backfired spectacularly.”  A huge majority in Congress supported the new sanctions.  Putin responded by ordering 755 American “diplomats” out of Russia.

That order has been portrayed as a dramatic further step in a downward spiral of Russo-American relations.  However, there is a certain dissonance between the American and Russian discourse on these developments.  Putin’s public announcement of the reductions “was free of bombast,” said one White House official.  Putin’s order on staff reductions doesn’t take effect until 1 September 2017.  So, there’s time to talk.  Then the staff reductions could be accomplished in a number of ways.  David Sanger calculates that there are 1,279 people employed at the American embassy in Moscow and three consulates.  Cutting 755 people from 1,279 would leave 524 people.  Of the 1,279 current total staff, 934 are “locally employed” people (i.e. Russians in non-sensitive areas).  That would leave 345 “diplomats” in place along with 119 over-weight, chain-smoking cleaning ladies.  Then there are all sorts of other American government employees from non-diplomatic agencies.

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, a former American intelligence official and now director of intelligence and defense projects at the Belfer Center of the Kennedy School of Government, took a dispassionate approach.  He told Sanger that “We’ve been in a new Cold War for some time now.”  In his view, on the American side, “emotions took over the [Russo-American] relationship” late in the Obama administration.  First “fear,” and now “anger” drive American policy toward Russia.  “The Russians would have preferred not to head down this path, but Putin didn’t feel he had a choice but to respond in the classic tit-for-tat manner.”

In contrast, the American discourse emphasizes grave dangers.  Angela Stent argues that “One of Putin’s greatest goals is to assure Russia is treated as if it was still the Soviet Union, a nuclear power that has to be respected and feared.”  Dan Coats, the former Republican senator and current Director of National Intelligence (DNI), says that Russia is “trying to undermine Western democracy.”  James Clapper, predecessor to Coats as DNI, warned of “the very aggressive modernization program they’re embarked on with their strategic nuclear capability.”

Putin is wicked, but he doesn’t seem stupid.  He seems to hate Hilary Clinton, but he couldn’t have her killed.  So, he settled for trying to harm her chances of becoming president.  He could hardly have supposed that Russian intervention in the American election would not be discovered.  So, he was willing to suffer the consequences.  Where do we want the Russo-American relationship to go from here?

[1] For one recent example, see David Sanger, “Putin’s Hopes for Relief Under a Trump Presidency Backfire Spectacularly,” NYT, 31 July 2017.

My Weekly Reader 29 June 2017.

A pessimist’s analysis of the American position in the world might run something like the following.  The United States is the world’s only global power.  (As such, it performs many of the vital military, political, and economic functions of a world government.)  It faces a host of regional powers bent on disrupting the global order created through American leadership after the Second World War.  Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and radical Islamist jihad all offer examples of the failure of military power as a solution to challenges.[1]  Moreover, the foundations of American power have been cracked by changes in America’s society and economy.  Liberal internationalist elites ignored the human costs of their policies until they inspired a backlash under the last three presidential administrations.  Domestic politics have come to center on divisive identity politics and the expansion of entitlements (including the entitlement to not be taxed) beyond what the traditional economy can support.  In light of these grim facts, America should shift from “hard” (lawyers, guns, and money) power to “soft” power (diplomacy, humanitarianism); America should seek to lead from behind by encouraging allies to assume their responsibilities; and America should do its nation building at home.

Eliot A. Cohen takes sharp issue with this point of view.[2]  “The chances are growing that the United States will find itself using military power chronically and at varying levels of intensity, throughout the early decades of the 21st century.”  Even over the short-run, the United States faces complex challenges: China’s rise as an economic and military power in a key region for American interests; an aggrieved Russia trying to punch above its weigh while it still can; and a transnational radical Islam that will continue to inspire local insurgencies.  These quarrels may have to be resolved in places as different as the high seas, the anarchic peripheries around or between failing states, and even outer space.  So far as he’s concerned, micro-lending isn’t going to cut it.  “Hard” power will have to be at least part of the response.

Cohen is equally persuasive, alarming, and rough-edged in the rest of the book.  Asking whether America possesses the means to use force where needed, Cohen answers with a qualified “Yes.”  His deepest concern lies in the nature and quality of thinking about the use of the instruments of power, rather than about the quality and quantity of those instruments.  One danger springs from what he sees as the capture of strategic thinking by process-oriented bureaucrats.  Plans, working papers, studies, and a deep dive into minutiae introduce rigidity and myopia into thinking about the long-term strategic environment.  In short, dopes have a large voice in the use of military power.  Another concern arises from our public discourse on these issues.  The United States, says Cohen, needs to do some serious thinking and debating on its relationship to the outside world and on how and when to use military force.  Not only must Americans recognize the need for force, they will have to accept that the country is in for a series of long wars with no easy resolution, let alone parades.  In the White House, in Congress, and in the Pentagon, decision-makers are too much concerned to define the “end state” of any military action.  Get in, wreck stuff, get out defined the 1991 and 2003 wars with Iraq.  Neither resolved the basic problem.  Here Cohen could profit from a review of the post-WWII experience.[3]

Left largely unaddressed is the problem of paying for all this power.  It seems presumptuous to believe that Americans will prefer national security to Social Security.

[1] Hence, the Obama administration recognized that the American people opposed any new war in the Middle East.  From this perspective, a deal to slow down Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons made a lot of sense.

[2] Eliot A. Cohen, The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force (2016).

[3] See: https://waroftheworldblog.com/2017/06/29/soldiers-become-governors/

Syrian End-Game.

Adolf Hitler’s aggression created an alliance of Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union that brought down the Third Reich in flames.  However, that “Grand Alliance” consisted of countries with very different aims united only by the German danger.  As soon as victory came in sight, the allies began to fall out with one another.  Their competition produced the Cold War.

Now the same thing is happening as the ISIS caliphate begins to crumble.[1]  The current wars in the Middle East (the ISIS war, the Syrian civil war) have become proxy wars.  Turkey has become the chief supporter of the various Sunni Arab rebel groups, like the Free Syrian Army; the Russkies and the Iranians are the supporters of the Assad regime; and the Americans are the chief supporters of the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria.   Now, these disparate allies-of-convenience are beginning to pursue their interests.  Their proxies are likely to pay the price.

The central dynamic in the next phase is likely to be Kurdish nationalism.  The Turks hate the Kurds, and the Kurds hate the Turks.  Turkey is a NATO member (if not exactly an ally), but the Americans have supplied the Kurds with a lot of support.  So, at some point, the Americans are going to have to make a choice or broker a deal.  Now the Kurds have begun to doubt American support.  The Syrian Kurds, at least, have had some contact with the Russians.

Turkish support for the Sunni Arab rebels actually puts them on the side of the major losers in this struggle.  Both the American-backed Kurds and the Russian-backed Assad regime have greater assets on the battle field.  Contacts have opened between the Assad regime and the Syrian Kurds.  The short-term goal of such talks might be co-operation against ISIS, but the long-term goal might be a meeting of minds about Turkey.  Naturally, Turkish president Erdogan would rather cut a deal with the Assad regime he has been trying to overthrow in order to forestall an Assad-Kurd alliance.  Assad’s chief aim seems to be to get control of the key western parts of Syria, where the Sunni rebels are his chief opponents.[2]  The Sunni rebels—commonly called the “moderates” by President Obama—are going to pay a heavy price if this happens.

For its part, Russia is allied with Iran to support the Assad regime.  Now the Iranian-controlled militias fighting in Syria have ignored Russian-sponsored local truces.  Both the Russians and the Assad regime are going to have to choose whether to cut ties with Iran.

Their immediate problem is that they want to know what the Americans are going to do.  In so far as Syria is concerned, the Trump administration, like the Obama administration, sees things almost entirely in military terms.[3]  They want ISIS destroyed.  This has produced a pause in American participation in Syrian peace talks now underway in Geneva.  At the same time, the American face a dilemma: the Trump administration wants to improve relations with Russia, the Russians are allied—for the moment—with Iran, and the Trump administration is hostile to Iran (as are several of America’s regional allies).[4]  The U.S. and Russia recently joined to block an attack by Turkish Sunni clients toward the ISIS stronghold in Raqqa because it would have cut across a movement by Kurds and Assad forces.  Does this have any longer-term meaning?

So, who will get eastern Syria once ISIS is destroyed?  The Kurds?

[1] Yaroslav Trofimov, “Battle for Raqqa Set to Shape Mideast,” WSJ, 10 March 2017; Yaroslav Trofimov, “ U.S. Disengagement Creates Hurdles for Syria Peace Talks,” WSJ, 3 March 2017.

[2] That is, Syria may be headed toward “de facto” partition.

[3] An American tradition.  Look at Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower and Berlin, 1945: The Decision to Halt at the Elbe. (1967).

[4] To make matters worse, the out-of-power Democrats want to preserve the deal with Iran brokered by John Kerry while also attacking Russia as a way of impugning President Trump.

Small wars and demolition.

North Korea has developed nuclear weapons.  Not really a problem.  FedEx doesn’t pick up in North Korea and the North Koreans don’t have a delivery system (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile, ICBM).  Oh, wait, they just tested an intermediate range missile.  Well, that couldn’t reach the United States.  So, not really a problem, yet.  It could reach South Korea or Japan, however, and both are American allies.[1]  So, that’s a problem.

North Korea has been “carpet sanctioned” by the United Nations (U.N.) for its nuclear program and other things.[2]  Chinese support is North Korea’s only lifeline.  It seems to be widely agreed that Chinese pressure could bring an end to the regime.  According to President Trump, “China has control, absolute control, over North Korea.”  So, why doesn’t China topple the North Korean psychocracy?  It could be that North Korea isn’t any more trusting of China than it is of anyone else.  Perhaps lots of Chinese agents of influence and spies within the North Korean government keep ending up dead?  That could cut down the scope for action short of war.

Or, perhaps China sees North Korea as a desirable destabilizing force in the region.  China, The Peoples Republic, of has been intruding aggressively into the non-state waters of the South China Sea.  This program of reef-claiming, reef-enhancing, and reef-arming has put China at odds with Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Vietnam.  In these alarming circumstances, North Korean aggression and the perception that China has a leash on North Korea may work to enhance China’s bargaining power.  In this context, China’s Foreigners Ministry has argued that the Americans should deal directly with North Korea.[3]

Meanwhile, the United States is at war with radical Islam.  In Afghanistan, the Taliban use safe-havens in Pakistan from which to wage war in their own country.  According to the local American military commander, the war is a “stalemate.”  A mere 8,400 American soldiers are trying to brace-up and train the Afghan army and police.  The Taliban seem able to learn how to fight a war without such trainers.

In Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State has been battered into fragments.  Again, a small number of American troops are serving as trainers and advisers for Syrian and Iraqi troops, and as spotters for air strikes.  Still, several political problems remain on front-burners.  First, ISIS will not long survive as an organized military force or a political community.  What will become of the survivors as they flee the cauldron?  Will they attempt to return home, there to continue the struggle?[4]  Then, the defeat of ISIS is a long way from the defeat of radical Islam.  What new insurgency will pop up, either immediately or in the future?

Second, much of the heavy lifting in both Syria and Iraq has been done by Kurds.  Over the long-term, American support for the Kurds challenges the national integrity of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey.  The Russian-backed Assad regime in Syria may be in no position—or no mood—to carry the fight to ISIS.  An Iraq riven by sectarian conflicts may find itself in the same boat.  That would leave Turkey—a NATO ally of the United States—as the chief opponent of Kurdish nationalism.  That, in turn, will create a dilemma for American diplomacy.  Will America back the Kurds[5] or the Turks?  In either case, the Russians will find an opening.

[1] “America’s Military Challenges,” The Week, 3 March 2017, p. 11.

[2] That doesn’t seem to have done the trick.

[3] The sloppy murder of the half-brother of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un in a Kuala Lumpur airport and the subsequent hasty execution of five North Korean intelligence officers may complicate matters for China.

[4] Or, alternatively, take up the rocker and thrill younger generations with their tales of daring-do?

[5] “Gratitude has a short half-life”—Thomas Harris, The Silence of the Lambs.

The Logan Act.

Deborah (“Debby”) Norris came from a prominent 18th Century Philadelphia family.[1]  She married Dr. George[2] Logan, another child of a prominent 18th Century Philadelphia family and a Loyalist.  “Lively times” followed.[3]  George Logan returned to Philadelphia after the Revolution.  Indeed, he became a friend of Thomas Jefferson and helped to found the Democratic Party.  So, reconciliation occurred between former enemies.

A similar spirit of reconciliation took hold in Anglo-American relations.  Jay’s Treaty (1795), negotiated by the Federalist government of George Washington, spackled over a bunch of cracks in the relationship with Britain.[4]  For domestic political reasons, the Democrats opposed letting bygones be bygones.

So far, so good.  A problem arose, however, because France had helped the United States achieve independence.  In return, the United States had agreed to repay to France substantial loans made to the revolutionary government and had signed a treaty of alliance with France.  Then the French Revolution broke out, the revolutionaries abolished the monarchy (1792), and the French—“in a rit of fealous jage”[5]—declared war on almost every other country in Europe, including Britain.  The alliance treaty required the United States to go to war against Britain.

The Americans declined to fulfill the terms of the alliance; the French got bent out of shape and launched a naval war against American shipping; and the two countries negotiated in search of a settlement.  However, several of the French delegates wanted bribes to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion, so most of the Americans left in a huff.[6]  At this point, George Logan inserted himself into the negotiations as a private citizen.  This effort led nowhere, any more than had the official negotiations.  Upon learning of Logan’s free-lancing, the Federalists–outraged at Democratic meddling in diplomacy–passed a law forbidding private citizens from intruding in negotiations with a country with whom the United States was at odds.

The so-called “Logan Law” remains on the books.[7]  Michael Flynn, National Security Adviser to President Donald Trump, may have fallen afoul of this law.  Flynn had contact with the Russians during the period between the election of Trump and his inauguration.  Since Trump was not yet president, Flynn falls under the act.[8]

However, that isn’t the most interesting aspect of the case.  We know of these conversations because they were intercepted by American intelligence.[9]  On the one hand, Flynn–a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), had a phone conversation he had every reason to believe would be intercepted.  The National Security Adviser is an idiot.

On the other hand, we know of the intercepts because someone in the intelligence community leaked the information to the press.  For reasons that I, at least, understand, Donald Trump rejected the early findings that the Russians had intervened in the 2016 election.  However, Trump has escalated his fight against the intelligence agencies.  Now they are fighting back by releasing secret information to discredit the president and his advisers.  That’s bad news.

[1] On Debby Logan, see: C. Dallett Hemphill, Philadelphia Stories (forthcoming).  I love you darling.

[2] Apparently NOT “Georgie.”  Go figure.

[3] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UVuAqLTmvFY

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Treaty

[5] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAnpfct1WaQ

[6] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XYZ_Affair

[7] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logan_Act

[8] Shane Harris and Carol E. Lee, “Flynn Discussed Russia Sanctions,” WSJ, 11-12 February 2017.

[9] That is, in all likelihood by the National Security Agency (NSA).