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).

Vlad the Impaler Putin.

Vladimir Putin has proved an adept politician in several unforgiving systems.  Under Communism, Putin spent five years as a KGB officer in East Germany, then rose quickly through the intelligence bureaucracy.  When in August 1999, the ailing and alcoholic Boris Yeltsin looked around for a prime minister, the intelligence service pushed forward Putin.  The previously unknown Putin swiftly bolstered his claim to power by battering the rebellious Muslim province of Chechnya into ruins before Christmas.  Yeltsin soon designated Putin to be his successor.[1]  (Already post-Communist Russian “democracy” had begun to fail.)

American leaders soon took a strong dislike to Putin.  From the banks of the Potomac, this is easy to understand.  In domestic policy, he began transforming Russia from a proto-democracy into an authoritarian state.  He replaced the oligarchs who had seized wealth and power during the collapse of the Soviet economy with men loyal to himself.  A “free” press now exists only to the extent that it allows him to claim that everyone else has not been muzzled.  Elections have been ended for the regional governors and rigged to an uncertain extent for the national legislature, so his party now dominates the legislature.  Many of his opponents are in prison or dead under circumstances that would be “mysterious” only to a child.

In foreign policy, Putin has alarmed those who believed that Russia being “down” meant that Russia was “out.”  In addition to the blitzkrieg on Chechnya, Putin has ground away at the territory of the post-Soviet states.  First Georgia, then Ukraine felt Russian power.  In Ukraine, Putin took advantage of a revolutionary situation to seize the former Russian territory of Crimea, then sponsored a rebellion in the heavily Russian eastern districts.  Western countries imposed economic sanctions, but Putin shrugged them off and so did ordinary Russians.  In Summer 2016, Putin allied with Iran and Iraq to support the Assad regime in Syria.

Putin is deeply hostile to the United States.  The immediate roots of this hostility lie in events since 2011.  When the “Arab Spring” uprisings began, the United States abandoned its long-time ally, Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, in favor of currying favor with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.  When a copy-cat rebellion began in Russian-allied Syria, President Obama said that President Bashar al-Assad had to be removed from power.  When yet another rebellion began in Libya, the United States intervened to ensure the defeat of the dictator Ghaddafi, then walked away while the country burned down.  Then, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that there had been irregularities in the Russian parliamentary elections.  Existing Russian protest movements quickly expanded in scope.[2]  Then they were clubbed into submission.  Recently Putin launched a cyber-attack on the Clinton presidential campaign.

In the official American view, Putin is trying to discredit democracy as an alternative to authoritarianism.  The American official explanations don’t persuade.  He’s a guy who believes in vendettas.  Anna Politkovskaya, Alexander Litvinenko, and Boris Nemtsov head a long list of Putin’s critics and opponents who have wound up dead.  Hillary Clinton couldn’t be killed, but she could be hampered in her desperately needy run for office.

More broadly, Putin is playing a classic game of great power politics.  Syria is a Russian client-state; he’s made a clear choice in the Sunni-Shi’ite civil war; Crimea used to be part of Russia; and Ukraine is to Russia as Mexico is to the United States.  For the moment, he’s winning.

[1] “Putin’s Purpose,” The Week, 20 January 2017, p. 11.

[2] One recent study has calculated that, since 1945, the United States has tried to influence elections in 45 foreign countries.  “Noted,” The Week, 20 January, 2017, p. 16.

The hacked election.

In 2015 and again in Spring 2016, Soviet–sorry, Russian—intelligence agencies “hacked” into the e-mail servers of the Democratic National Committee.[1]  In addition, they gained access to the e-mail account of John Podesta.  Furthermore, they hacked into the e-mails servers of the Republican National Committee.  In Summer 2016, they passed these ill-gotten gains to WikiLeaks and to a blog called Guccifer 2.0.

Before the presidential election, the consensus seems to have been that the Russians were just trying to sap Americans’ confidence in their democracy.  Immediately after Donald Trump’s up-set win over Hillary Clinton, however, the Central Intelligence Agency immediately concluded that the Russians had been attempting to shift the election in Trump’s favor.[2]  Part of the reason for this analysis lies in the fact that the Russians released only material that cast an unfavorable light on Clinton, while not releasing anything gleaned from the Republican servers.[3]

Did the e-mails stolen by the Russians harm Hillary Clinton’s chances of being elected president?  The stolen e-mails showed that the Clinton campaign considered taking contributions from foreign governments; that Clinton told a Wall Street audience that politicians “need both a public and a private position”; that the campaign had friendly contacts in the media; that the Democratic National committee had, contrary to its public professions, sought to obstruct the campaign of Bernie Sanders and to favor that of Clinton; and that the fire-wall between Secretary of State Clinton and the Clinton Foundation had not been so tight as had been promised.[4]

Since the election much attention has focused on so-called “fake news” that favored Trump.  However, there is little evidence of any attempt to use “fake news” to favor Trump or harm Clinton.  The bulk of “fake news” stories appear to have been generated in non-Russian Eastern European countries where entrepreneurs were pursuing profits, rather than a political agenda.  Apparently, the Russkies believed that “real news” would do enough damage.

Why would the Russians want to affect the outcome of the election?  Possibly, they wanted to see Trump in the White House.  Possibly the Russians hoped for someone more tractable in the White House.  Possibly they wanted to erode American confidence in democracy over the long run.[5]

Possibly Vladimir Putin doesn’t care who is President of the United States so long as it isn’t Hillary Clinton.  It’s only conjecture, but while Clinton served as Secretary of State, she had participated in a “re-set” of relations with Russia.  However, part of this effort took the form of an effort by President Obama to slime-up to Putin’s assistant, Dmitry Medvedev, in the ill-conceived expectation that he could supplant Putin.  Furthermore, while Clinton served as Secretary of State, the United States won Russian assent in the U.N. Security Council for the use air power to defend anti-government rebels in Libya.  The Russian price had been an American promise not to overthrow the Libyan government itself.[6]  Finally, Putin saw the work in Russia by the U.S. government-funded National Endowment for Democracy as foreign meddling.[7]  After the December 2011 parliamentary elections in Russia were “won” by Putin’s party, substantial anti-Putin protests took place.  Immediately, Clinton publicly endorsed the position of the protestors by describing the elections as “neither free, nor fair.”[8]  Pay-back.

[1] Max Fisher, “Russia and the U.S. Election: What’s Known and What Isn’t,” NYT, 13 December 2016.

[2] “[N]ot all intelligence agencies share the C.I.A.’s view.”  Ibid.

[3] Perhaps nothing embarrassing could be found on the Republican servers.  Perhaps pigs have wings.

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Podesta_emails#Contents;  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2016_Democratic_National_Committee_email_leak#Contents; https://waroftheworldblog.com/2016/12/04/the-e-mails/

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

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

[7] On the NED, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Endowment_for_Democracy#Russia

[8] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_legislative_election,_2011#Alleged_foreign_involvement