Domestic Terrorism

This week at least fourteen Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs — the designation used by FBI Director Wray and the same designation given to those used by our enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere) were sent to prominent Democrats, their supporters and to critics of Mr. Trump.  This was an act of domestic terrorism.  Unfortunately, it also exposed the unbelievable lengths that some pundits and politicians will go to “win.”

Our country is in trouble when we cannot agree that the actions of this nut case (I refuse to use his name as these perpetrators should not be given the attention they all so obviously seek) and self-identified Trump supporter are abhorrent and should be roundly condemned by all Americans.  It didn’t happen.

Prominent Conservative mainstream media personalities continued to tout the mass assassination attempt as a “hoax” or “false flag” operation put together by Democrats (say what??!!) in order to turn the mid-term election away from Republicans.  Despicable.  You can look it up.  Ann Coulter, Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh and others with a national platform are promoting this theory, even after the arrest of the bomber.

Make no mistake about it.  FBI Director Wray was very clear in yesterday’s Department of Justice news conference announcing the arrest of the bomber. He emphasized that the mailed bombs “were not hoax devices” and were made of “energetic material that could be explosive.”  As to whether it was a left-wing false flag operation Attorney General Sessions stated that the bomber was a registered Republican and a “partisan.”

Actually it should make little difference what ethnicity, religion, or political party can be attributed to the bomber.  No difference.  He is a terrorist.  Period.

As a country we were incredibly lucky that no one was injured or killed.  Think how we would be reeling today if even half of those bombs had worked as intended.  If the bombs got to their intended targets the assassination of past presidents, a vice president, a secretary of state, employees of a prominent news organization, and other current and former U.S. government officials would be dead.  A national tragedy.  Fortunately, the law enforcement officials and postal workers tasked with preventing such a scenario did their jobs and did them well.  They should be congratulated and celebrated.  A totally different scenario could have unfolded if those bombs had gone off in postal facilities, mail rooms or while being removed by explosive disposal units or in transit in the mail.  There could have been many innocent people killed or wounded.  Thankfully that did not happen, but in no way should it lessen our horror that this event reflects the use of fear and anger to promote political agendas.

The bomber is solely responsible for his actions.  While he may be an unstable individual, he chose to make and mail the explosives.  It is his actions that need to be analyzed and condemned.  Unfortunately, my view is that the President of the United States helped to create the conditions that caused this individual to decide to act.  Mr. Trump is famous for his rallies where he bullies and belittles his opponents, calls the press the “enemy of the people,” pushes his supporters to chant “lock her up” in reference to former Secretary Clinton (I point out that it has been six years since she was in government — give it a rest), “CNN sucks”, and recently called a Congressman convicted of assault after body slamming a reporter “my type of guy.”  This after his campaign rallies where he actively incited his followers to beat up, “punch in the face,” “have him carried out on a stretcher” and other vile statements directed at opponents.  His attitude has not changed.  He has no understanding of the impact the words of the president may have on those in our country and around the world (hello Mohammed bin Salman) who act on his alleged “jokes.”

Mr. Trump dutifully read his “presidential statement” from the teleprompter about “unity” and condemning violence.  He then went out to one of his rallies and mocked that his advisers want him to “be nice” and went back to his play list of greatest hits through bullying and belittling.

And then it got worse, in my view.

Friday morning at 3:14 AM — while the bomber was still at large — he tweeted:

“Funny how lowly rated CNN, and others, can criticize me at will, even blaming me for the current spate of Bombs and ridiculously comparing this to September 11th and the Oklahoma City bombing, yet when I criticize them they go wild and scream, “it’s just not Presidential!”

— Donald J. Trump on Twitter 26 October 2018

This after CNN was the recipient of two of the bomb packages.

And it got worse still.

Before the bomber was apprehended, the President of the United States sent out this tweet:

“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this “Bomb” stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows – news not talking politics. Very unfortunate, what is going on. Republicans, go out and vote!”

— Donald J. Trump on Twitter 26 October 2018

Just when I think our political and social discourse cannot get any lower, I learn that it can.  Let’s dissect this statement.  As prominent Americans were threatened, and first responders and others were working to keep Americans safe by putting their lives on the line, the president is bemoaning the fact that he is not the center of attention and that the news media should be focused on his “politics” and how great he is doing.  In so doing, he clearly does not grasp the intensity and severity of the moment.  It appears that he thinks it “very unfortunate” that no one is talking about how great the Republicans are doing politically.  Not that the bombings are unfortunate, rather that he isn’t getting the attention.  Simultaneously he seems to be adding credence to the “hoax” conspiracy theories by lessening the importance of the incidents and by putting “bomb” (“stuff”??) in quotation marks as if they are not real bombs.  He went further last night to say that the media was “using” the bombs to “very unfairly” criticize him.  When asked by reporters whether he had contacted any of the intended bomb recipients he said, “They wanted me to. But I’ll pass.”  So presidential.  A real leader.  The bombings were all about him and not those put in harm’s way.

Mr. Trump is only focused on “winning” the mid-terms and will use any means possible to do so.  Note that he has stopped touting anything positive that his administration may have accomplished and instead is totally focused on raising apocalyptic scenarios by calling peaceful demonstrators expressing their First Amendment rights “angry mobs” and creating a “national emergency” over a group of a few thousand people, mostly impoverished women and children, that are over a thousand miles away from our border, and other utterly false or misleading statements that are meant to raise fear and anger.

It worked for an unstable individual that took matters into his own hands.

And please, don’t give me any “what aboutisms.”  The president’s words carry special meaning — or at least they should until they are cheapened by demagoguery.  Mr. Trump is the first president in my life time that makes no, zero, nada, zilch, nunca, attempts to unify the country, even in times of national crisis.  He can mechanically read the words his staff writes for him, but when on his own his true thoughts come out.

Whether after the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville (“there are good people on both sides”), or the belittling of Dr. Ford following the Justice Kavanaugh hearings (“It doesn’t matter.  We won.”), or the murder of Jamal Khashoggi (“the worst cover-up ever”) or the attempted mass assassination of his political opponents (“the media has been really unfair to me”) or countless others, Mr. Trump has no idea what it means to be the president of the entire United States and has no clue of how to lead.

Thank goodness our law enforcement agencies and our intelligence agencies and other dedicated civil servants continue to do their jobs despite constant criticism and belittlement.  They are the ones truly keeping us safe from terrorists, foreign and domestic.


A License To Kill

As the evidence of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman’s (MBS) involvement in the murder of Washington Post journalist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi continues to grow, the President of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of State expand their dissembling and cover up on behalf of the leadership of Saudi Arabia.

It is embarrassing in one sense and appalling in every way.

Whether or not Prince Mohammad thought that he would be able to murder someone on foreign soil with impunity and without consequence or not, with the complicity and direct efforts of the President of the United States he will get away with it.  The president trotted out his tag line that worked so well in the nomination and confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh by accusing the press and world leaders elsewhere of jumping to conclusions.  Or as he said in an interview with the Associated Press,  “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that.  We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh.  And he was innocent all the way.”

The preponderance of evidence, including from Turkey our NATO ally, indicates that the Saudis certainly did murder Mr. Khashoggi and given the way the Saudis govern, it is preposterous to stipulate that Saudi hit men that are known to work directly for the Crown Prince would have gone “rogue” and killed him without the Prince’s knowledge.

One element that indicates the president is involved in a cover up is the fact that the U.S. intelligence agencies were directed not to follow through with scheduled briefings for the Senate Intelligence Committee concerning events surrounding the murder.  As Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn), the Chairman of the committee told reporters yesterday, the administration has “clamped down” on providing information to the committee and cancelled a scheduled briefing on Tuesday.  Senator Corker went on to say that before his committee’s oversight of the Executive Branch was blocked, that the intelligence he had seen indicates that Mr. Khashoggi was murdered by the Saudis.  He added, “everything points to MBS.  This could not have happened without his approval.”

Once again, this administration is driven by money and money alone.  Apparently they are not knowledgeable enough or competent enough to figure out how to condemn the actions resulting in the murder of Mr. Khashoggi without breaking off relations with Saudi Arabia, an important, if unreliable, friend in the Middle East.  The Saudis (and their money) are important players in the region and can be a counter to Iran.  Diplomacy and foreign relations require skill and knowledge of the trade craft involved in the push and pull of world events.  Evidently this administration cannot pull it off.

For example, back in the day I spent a lot of time in the Middle East and in dealing with regional issues, including in Saudi Arabia.  The Bedouin tradition is one of extreme hospitality, based on their origins as nomads in the desert where survival might depend on help from others.  This ingrained hospitality has carried over to modern Saudi Arabia.  Part of that tradition is to never say “no.”  They don’t.  But it doesn’t take long to figure out that not saying “no” doesn’t mean “yes.”  An apocryphal but not too unrealistic negotiation would go something like this:  “Will you commit to buying $110 billion in U.S. arms?”  “It would be a great honor.” “So that means you will?”  “Inshallah!”  (God willing!)  And so it goes.  One walks away thinking that there was a deal until it comes time to put ink to paper.

The president is being hoodwinked if he thinks that the value of the Saudis to U.S. security interests is so immense that it outweighs human rights, and thus he needs to cover up the murder of Mr. Khashoggi.  They need us more than we need them.  Some examples. The U.S. is now a net exporter of oil, thanks to the expansion of the commercial viability of shale oil.  We do import oil, but our biggest supplier is Canada.  Oil is a fungible commodity, the Saudis need to sell their oil as their economy is nearly entirely dependent on it.  They aren’t going to stop.  The arms sales the president is so afraid of losing constitute a small percentage of the U.S. defense industry.  More to the current point, most of the Saudi’s military equipment is U.S., especially their aircraft and the munitions they carry.  They will need U.S. spare parts and maintenance contracts for years to come.  They will not cut those off as it would be against their own best interests especially as they continue to interfere in the war in Yemen.  Should war break out between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Saudis are toast without us.  And so on.  One gets the idea.  The Saudis need us economically and militarily more than we need them. We hold most of the cards and a skillful administration would know how to parlay them into the Saudi’s taking accountability for a crime against humanity. Diplomatically and through intelligence sharing they can provide the U.S. some real value.  However, the president argues in terms of the bottom line — money — and not in terms of their other value added.

Apparently, human rights has no place in U.S. foreign policy, a break in our traditions since World War II.  That is not to say that the U.S. hasn’t looked the other way in the past in order to attain our national interests.  We have, in some truly shameful circumstances.  Rarely, if ever, however, has the president actively worked in favor of a foreign power to cover up a heinous crime.

Perhaps there are other motivations such as personal financial gain for the president and his family?

Over the last 18 months the U.S. has given the dictators of the world a license to kill.  In addition to the unfolding events in Saudi Arabia, the president has shrugged over Russian president Vladimir Putin ordering a poison attack on British soil, congratulated Philippine president Duterte’s hit squads killing thousands of people on the streets in his war on drugs, congratulated China’s president Xi on changing the succession of government to become President for Life, as he did with Turkey’s president Erdogan who undermined democracy in his own country and installed himself as a de facto autocrat, and of course expressed his admiration for the world’s current most ruthless dictator North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.  As the President of the United States said about the Great Leader, “We went back and forth, then we fell in love. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they are great letters. We fell in love.”

How nice.

Meanwhile he trashes our allies in the U.K,, Germany, Japan, Canada and the entirety of NATO, to name a few of the nations we actually depend upon .

Let’s look from the outside in.  Were I sitting in North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia or a host of other nations led by autocrats and dictators, I would conclude that all one needs to do to silence and paralyze the United States is to impress the president on how wonderful he is and to put some money on the line.  After that, anything goes. “And when you’re a star they let you do it.  You can do anything.”  Maybe those despots just “gotta use some Tic Tacs” to get what they want.

Of course poor people in Africa or Latin America are a direct threat to the survival of the United States.  I guess that’s why today the president threatened to put the military on our border with Mexico to stop the “invasion” coming from Central America.

Something is upside down in our country.

 


How Much Is A Life Worth?

Roughly two weeks ago Jamal Khashoggi disappeared while visiting the Saudi Arabia Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.  Mr. Khashoggi, born and raised in Saudi Arabia, was a frequent critic of the Saudi regime who was living in exile as a permanent green card holder in the United States and was a Washington Post journalist.  Mr. Khashoggi entered the consulate, as seen on security cameras outside the building, but was never observed coming out and has not been heard from since.  The Saudis claim that he left the Consulate in fine condition but can provide no proof and cannot say where he may be.  The Turkish government states that it has hard evidence — reportedly audio and possibly video recordings — that Mr. Khashoggi was interrogated, tortured, murdered and dismembered inside the Consulate.  The Turks report that a fifteen man “hit squad” flew in and out of Turkey from Saudi Arabia on two private aircraft before and after the alleged murder.

This incident is getting the full attention of both political parties in the United States Senate as well as freedom loving nations around the world.  Demands for answers from the Saudis and a full investigation into the disappearance of a respected journalist are growing.  For those nations that care about human rights, this is an egregious and blatant act of state sponsored terrorism against an innocent civilian conducted on the foreign soil of a NATO ally.  It cannot be tolerated.

While acknowledging that a state ordered murder of Mr. Khashoggi  (“if it’s true”) would be a problem (“We don’t like it. We don’t like it even a bit.”),  the President of the United States has been clear over the last several days that restricting arms sales to Saudi Arabia should not be on the table.  Or as he said on Thursday, ” I would not be in favor of stopping a country from spending $110 billion — which is an all time record — and letting Russia have that money and letting China have that money.” (Mr. Trump keeps touting the $110 billion arms deal, but analysts say that the Saudis have only committed to about $10 billion and it is debatable that the Saudis will ever buy the full $110 billion as their military cannot assimilate all of those weapons.)  So we know that Mr. Khashoggi’s life is not worth $110 billion or even $10 billion.  What is it worth?

This murderous development significantly impacts U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.  The Trump Administration, through the president’s son-in-law Mr. Jared Kushner, has put all of their Middle East policy eggs in the Saudi basket.  The reasons are many, varied and complicated, but if you can’t tell the players without a score card, a quick summary follows.

The modern state of Saudi Arabia was created in 1930 under King Abdul-Aziz bin Saud.  The relationship with the United States began following the discovery of oil in the kingdom in 1938 and dates to a meeting between President Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdul-Aziz aboard the USS Quincy while anchored in the Suez Canal.  A hand shake between the two took on the force of a treaty.  The kingdom would supply oil to the U.S. in exchange for security and protection guarantees from the U.S.  That same basic agreement is still in force today, but with greater complications.

The kingdom was ruled for most of its existence by one of the sons of King Abdul-Aziz.  As one half-brother died, another would succeed him as king.  For all of this time, the main focus of Saudi policy was, and is, the preservation of the rule of the royal family (which now numbers in the thousands with uncles, cousins, second cousins, etc. that can trace lineage back to King Abdul Aziz) and their wealth.  As the brothers died off, there was a power struggle within the family as to how succession would be passed down for the future.  Currently, the winner of that struggle is Mohammad bin Salman, at 33 the current Crown Prince, heir apparent and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia as his father, King Salman, the nominal ruler of the kingdom is reported to be in poor health.

Crown Prince Mohammad, commonly referred to as MBS, is also good friends with Mr. Kushner.  Both are young and apparently bonded in the days following the election in 2016.  Many thought originally  that Prince Mohammad would be a reformer within the kingdom and bring it into the 21st century through economic and social reform.  Recently, analysis of his efforts indicates that he is a good public relations man in pushing the appearance of reform, but in fact his efforts are focused on establishing himself as the autocratic head of state and in consolidating power for himself, regardless of who gets hurt in the process.  For example in 2017 he had over 40 members of  the royal family and senior government officials arrested and imprisoned along with roughly 200 other businessmen, bankers, broadcasters and others.  Ostensibly this was to rid the government of corruption but it is widely viewed as a test of his power and an attempt to eliminate any competition for his leadership.  Most were eventually released after paying “fines” (read bribes) to the Crown Prince worth hundreds of millions of dollars.  It is widely believed that Mr. Kushner may have shared highly classified intelligence with the Prince prior to the purge naming those in the country that opposed his taking the reins .

Mr. Kushner sees MBS as the key to countering Iran in the region and as the key to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  The prince positioned himself to be a “player” but so far the Saudis have not delivered on their promises (as anyone knowing how things work in that area would know) even as the U.S. has delivered on their end, most controversially by supporting the Saudis with arms and intelligence during their ongoing military involvement in Yemen.

Additionally, and not surprisingly, both the Trump and Kushner family business organizations have long-standing and wide-spread business involvement in Saudi Arabia.  When Mr. Trump was in serious financial trouble in the 1990s, for example, he sold condos, a hotel, parts of his business and his yacht to Saudis to raise money.  It is rumored that the Saudis saved the Kushner family business by taking on the loan for a prominent New York land mark.  There are other business connections that have been detailed in many venues, but without the release of a certain president’s tax returns and other normally provided financial information, the true extent of the deals cannot be determined.  Oh by the way, the biggest spender at the Trump Hotel in Washington DC since the election is the Saudi government.

Mr. Khashoggi wrote often and furiously about the corruption in the Saudi royal family, their business ties and the efforts by Prince Mohammad to take control of the country.  Or as he said last year to The New Yorker, “It’s an interesting form of dictatorship that is being created in Saudi Arabia.  MBS is now becoming the supreme leader.”

Mr. Khashoggi would never have been murdered without the knowledge of Prince Mohammad.

And all of this is the tip of the iceberg.  Our relationship is a complicated one, on all levels.  There are advantages and disadvantages to working with the Saudis.  The alleged murder of Mr. Khashoggi puts a lot of the national and personal goals of this administration in peril should the president choose to act on punishing the Saudis.  The Senate is invoking the Global Magnitsky Act based on a December 2016 law that invokes sanctions against anyone or any government implicated in human rights abuses anywhere in the world.  The president is resisting.  (Ironically the infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Mr. Trump, Jr. and the Russians concerned the Magnitsky Act which at the time involved sanctions against Russians committing human rights abuses. In December of that year it expanded to a global scale.)

Mr. Trump knows he must act tough, but my bet is that he hopes that it all blows over.  Today he reportedly spoke to King Salman, the titular head of Saudi Arabia, who assured him that the Saudis had nothing to do with Mr. Khashoggi’s disappearance.  He flatly denied it.  Or as Mr. Trump told reporters today, “It wasn’t like there was a question in his mind.  The denial was very strong.”  (As one recalls, anyone or any government that strongly denies a murder by chemical attack — hello Russia — or preying on young girls — hello Roy Moore — or anything else is believed by Mr. Trump because they are “very strong” in their denials.)

To add injury to insult, Mr. Trump added to his statement by saying that “It sounded to me like it could have been rogue killers.  Who knows?”  Indeed.  Can you say “cover up”?

I can see it developing already.  No official U.S. government action will ensue as Mr. Trump says we can’t be sure who did it.  The Saudis deny it.  Very strongly.  It could have been rogue killers.  We cannot give up billions in arms sales.  Too bad.  I feel bad for his family.  Hey, look over there!

And we move on.

There was a time when the U.S. cared about and set an example for human rights, freedom of the press and other values we held dearly as a nation.  Now, not so much.  Apparently all of our relations are now transactional and only get fully considered based on the financial bottom line.  It only matters how much money is involved, not what is right.

Apparently a human life isn’t worth anything to the United States anymore.


In My Home Town

It is a bad day when the television programs are interrupted for “Breaking News” for yet another mass shooting in our country.  It is a horrible day when that shooting is in your home town.

The Annapolis Capital Gazette, known locally as The Capital (and to those of us in the crab capital of the world it is just as often called the “crab wrapper”) is a typical local paper that covers news in the state capital and surrounding Anne Arundel County.  It fairly covers local politics, provides forums for opinions in letters to the editor (always entertaining), provides local civic information, follows events at the U.S. Naval Academy, and most importantly to some, has great local sports coverage on the high school and college level.

It is also a historic publication.  Its roots date to the Maryland Gazette founded in 1727 in Annapolis and is one of the first regular newspapers in the country.  Reportedly it was among the very first newspapers to publish the Declaration of Independence, but its heart has always been the local town and county news.

I did not personally know the five people murdered as they worked at their desks in an otherwise ordinary office building, but I felt like I did — especially two of them — because I read their columns and admired their style.  As is usual in a small local paper, the staff had multiple assignments covering various elements of community life.  Rob Hiaasen — the brother of famed author Carl Hiaasen known for his very funny books about life in Florida — among other things wrote a quirky and funny weekly column about various off the wall occurrences in and around the area.  The other was Wendi Winters who wrote about almost anything one can think of but was best known for her coverage of our part of town and for the weekly “home of the week” feature.  Her beat was all of the local girl scout fund-raisers, church bazaars, neighborhood parades, civic meetings and such taking place in our little piece of the world.

The other three innocent people murdered on a regular day at work were Gerald Fischman, an editor; John McNamara, a local sports reporter; and Rebecca Smith, a newly hired sales assistant.  Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, our neighbors, regular people that went to work like any other day and never came home.

“The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes @CNN @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people.  SICK!”  — Tweet from the president 17 Feb 2017

Just regular people doing the best they can.  These people were not our enemies.

The perpetrator had a long-standing grudge against the paper and was known to the police. Several years ago The Capital reported on a story about a harasser and stalker convicted of those misdemeanors.  He felt that the paper libeled him and went on a personal crusade to discredit the paper and to seek revenge.  Most of it was via social media but on Thursday, for whatever reason, he decided to take a shotgun into the news room and kill innocent people.  A nut case.  There is no way, perhaps ever, that we will know why he decided to act in this way on this particular day.  He thought that the paper was “unfair” and “biased” and not telling the truth about him.

“I use Social Media not because I like to, but because it is the only way to fight a VERY dishonest and unfair “press,” now often referred to as Fake News Media. Phony and non-existent “sources” are being used more often than ever. Many stories & reports a pure fiction!”  — Tweet from the president 30 Dec 2017

Before you set your hair on fire, I am not in any way shape or form holding the president directly accountable for Thursday’s murders.  I do wonder, however, what it takes for someone to be pushed over the edge because of the constant bombardment of such statements that reinforce an already sick view of what journalism and reporting is all about.  To be fair, in a statement about the attack on The Capital yesterday the president said in a prepared statement he read from a teleprompter,

”Journalists, like all Americans, should be free from the fear of being violently attacked while doing their jobs. To the families of the victims there are no words to express our sorrow for your loss. Horrible, horrible event. Horrible thing happened.”

I have no doubt that the president does not want physical harm to come to journalists.  I do have to wonder, however, whether he has any concern that what he considers rhetoric to fire up his base may have actual consequences.

But those are discussions for another day.  For now, my community, my home town is in mourning and is still reeling from the shock of what way too many communities have experienced.  Active shooter drills are now a regular part of school routines.  How can we accept that?  No one is safe in school, church, music concerts, movie theaters, news rooms, restaurants or pretty much anywhere.  As a society we cannot accept this as normal.  The level of discourse and civic involvement needs to move in a positive direction.  Gun lover or gun hater we all agree that there is a sickness of some sort pervading our nation that makes it okay to act in a violent and destructive manner just because of a grudge.  We are a country full of smart people.  We need to figure this out.

For now, may their souls rest in peace.

 

 


Syria And The Modern War

This week the president vowed that he would remove U.S. troops from Syria in the near future.  Here is part of what he said at an impromptu news conference at the White House on Tuesday:

“I want to get out. I want to bring our troops back home.  So, it’s time.  It’s time.  We were very successful against ISIS.  But sometimes it’s time to come back home, and we’re thinking about that very seriously, okay?”

Nearly simultaneously, also in Washington, General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of the U.S. Central Command who is the senior officer responsible for our troops in the Middle East said when talking about our troop deployments in the Middle East:

“A lot of very good military progress has been made over the last couple of years, but the hard part, I think, is in front of us.”

Confused?

Putting aside Mr. Trump’s inability, or stubborn refusal to understand complex issues, war in the 21st century, and especially in places like Syria and Afghanistan, runs counter to our preconceived notions of what “winning” should be about.  Mr. Trump seems to think that all that is necessary is to “bomb the hell out of them” and then come home.  Seventeen years of continuous combat has provided many lessons learned to our current military leadership and to our Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who himself lead the first ground combat troops into Afghanistan while he was an active duty Marine general.

One important criteria for deciding who is winning and who is losing is finding the correct Measures of Effectiveness (MOE).  One may think they are winning while actually losing.  The classic example can be found with the Battle of the Atlantic during World War II.  The German MOE was tons of Allied merchant ships sunk by their submarines.  It was the wrong measure.  The Allies were building merchant ships at a rate faster than the Germans could sink them, and at the same time, were sinking German submarines (and even more importantly, killing trained and experienced crews) faster than the Germans could build them.  The Germans were losing, even as their MOE showed them winning.

Current reports indicate that our military is using over 90 MOEs in assessing our wars in Syria and Afghanistan.  But even they reportedly admit that they are not sure that they are necessarily measuring the right things.  One thing we know, counting the numbers of killed or wounded adversaries means very little if new recruits, fighting a low-tech war, continue to flow into the battles.

The other adage learned over and over is that the loser gets to decide when the war is over.  As Ryan Crocker former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan said, “As we learned so painfully in Iraq, defeat has meaning only in the eyes of the defeated.”  We can bomb the hell out of them all we want, but short of a Dresden-like annihilation of every living thing, as long as the other side keeps fighting, the war is not over.  This is another of the hard lessons learned in Viet Nam and again in Afghanistan.  The Taliban have not quit, therefore we have been there for seventeen long years despite our overwhelming military capability.

In that vein, ISIS still has strongholds in eastern Syria along the border with Iraq.  In this case, our adversary is like a cancer — if they are not totally excised and destroyed they will spread out again. All of the pain in administering a cure will have been for naught.  ISIS is showing signs of renewed strength in their last strongholds in eastern Syria.  Our comrades in arms in Syria are mostly Kurdish forces.  Kurdish officials warn that it could take “years and years” to finish off ISIS.

Senior U.S. government national security and military officials understand this fact.  They also understand the larger geo-political issues at stake in the Middle East and South Asia and that a precipitous withdrawal of our forces would do long-term damage to our national interests.  The issues are complicated and varied.  Among other things, our credibility in supporting our friends and allies would be compromised.  As a senior Kurdish official is quoted as saying, if the U.S. leaves now (or even in a few months) “it would be a disaster, and even ordinary people in the street will consider it a betrayal.”  That has strategic implications.  Or as another Kurdish leader put it, “after fighting for four years, there is a kind of trust between the Kurdish nation and the American nation.  If the Americans abandon the Kurds, it means they are never going to find any friends in the Middle East.”

That the military viewpoint is at odds with the president may have caused the ouster of National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.  General McMaster continually told the president that we cannot just pull up stakes and leave Syria and Afghanistan, or anywhere else, without first creating the conditions that allow us to withdraw.  If we just walk away, the problems will pop up again.

Of course, we want all of our military women and men to come home.  But if we are truly a world power, certain obligations and responsibilities accrue in support of our friends and allies.  Putting America first does not, or at least should not, mean abandoning a world order that has mostly kept the United States safe and prosperous and the world moving forward.  We can lead or get out of the way.  It is not in our long-term interest to abandon our leadership role in the world.

In the last forty-eight hours the White House has softened the president’s earlier statements.  The new announcement says that the U.S. will stay in Syria until ISIS is defeated and that we will then “transition” to local forces over time.  No time frame was enumerated, but reporting indicates that the president wants to bring home the troops from Syria in about six months or so.  Contrast that to the statements above by those that are actually doing the fighting that it will take years and years.

Syria is a particularly knotty problem.  Over the last few years, there have been arguments both pro and con for U.S. involvement in the country.  The effort to push ISIS out of Iraq necessarily meant that we had to continue to chase them into Syria in order to prevent that nation from becoming a refuge for them.  Borders in the desert are very fluid.  It was necessary to hunt them down and eliminate all sources of support to their regime.  We made good progress in doing that, but the job is not finished.  So we are in Syria.  What does that mean?

In Syria, you can’t tell the players without a score card.  The players include the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad, Russians, Israelis, Iranians, Hezbollah, Turks, Kurds, Syrian rebels, ISIS, the U.S. and factions within factions of several of those groups with religious overtones to it all.

It is important to remember that the conflict in Syria started with peaceful protests that were broken up by Syrian troops firing into crowds which then evolved into a civil war. ISIS took advantage of the turmoil as Bashar lost control of much of Syria’s territory.  Other nations took sides in the civil war and supported proxy troops or committed their own combat forces to support one faction or another.

The situation on the ground and in the air has the wherewithal to mutate into a regional conflict.  All of which has nothing to do with whether or not ISIS is “done.”  Half a dozen nations have combat aircraft in a very small area.  The U.S., Russia, Turkey, and Iran all have their own troops on the ground often supporting different factions that oppose each other in the war.  In a single week in early February, Israel, Russia, Turkey and Iran lost aircraft to hostile fire.

And oh by the way, did you know that Russian “contractors” (Mercenaries?  Little green men from Crimea?) attacked a U.S. base at Deir Ezzor in Syria in mid-February?  What?  You didn’t hear about that?  Could it be because neither the U.S. or Russian leaders wanted to talk about it?  It was no “accident.”  Russia and US forces have a hot line to de-conflict combat forces and missions.  According to the on-scene battle field commander, the U.S. notified the Russians that they were attacking a U.S. base.  The attack continued.  U.S. air strikes turned back the assault with an estimate of over 200 Russians killed.  Many analysts surmise that this attack, that could only have been approved on a national level, was Vladimir Putin’s attempt to see just how committed the U.S. was to our involvement in Syria.

To further complicate matters, Turkey, our NATO ally, is attacking the Kurds — our primary ally in the battle against ISIS.  Those Kurdish forces were drawn away from the fight against ISIS last month when the Turks attacked a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria and the fighters returned home to protect their families.  The Kurds are fighting for an autonomous region in their traditional homeland which is an anathema to Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, all of which actively oppose any independent Kurdish state or de facto state.

And Syrian civilians continue to suffer from barrel bombs, enforced starvation, and other crimes against humanity.

Mr. Trump wants “rich” middle eastern countries to take over the U.S. commitment, but what does that mean?  Troops?  Not going to happen.  Money? Perhaps, to help rebuild cities or to get industries up and running such as oil refineries or other areas where money is needed. Where does the technical know how come from?  Regardless, nothing can happen until stability returns to the region and the population.

The president wants “other nations” to take over.  The last time I looked, they are doing so.  Talks began earlier this month among Iran, Turkey, and Russia.  Conspicuously absent was the U.S.  We were not invited to the talks.  No seat at the table means we will have no say in the future of Syria.  That is dangerous to our long-term interests in the Middle East and our ally Israel.

After the first round of talks, those three countries expressed their support to Bashar and his regime.  A long stated goal of the U.S. was to remove him.  The statement went on to say that they support “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of the neighboring countries.”  This is easily translated to mean that Bashar will stay, his regime will stay, and in playground terms it means they expect the U.S. to butt out.

In case we missed their point, the leaders of Iran, Turkey and Russia declared that the areas controlled by the U.S. and the Kurds, the second largest swath of territory in Syria behind that controlled by the regime, cannot be used to create “new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism.”

Furthermore, Turkish president Recep Ergogan threatened to attack U.S. troops supporting the Kurds.  And they are a NATO ally.

It is clear that the problem in Syria, and elsewhere, is not a lack of firepower.  The problems are political and stem from the ability — or in this case the inability — of the government to govern.  When all is said and done, the twenty-first century may need a new definition for “winning.” As we are quickly learning, it is not entirely clear what that definition might be.  Developing a political solution that leads to a stable governing entity would be part of it.  Unfortunately, we cannot be a part of developing that solution if we pull up stakes and go home.

There are good and bad reasons to continue to stay in Syria or Afghanistan.  We have already learned in this century that ungoverned territories, with no central governing authority, creates the conditions that allow terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS and others to grow.  We know that these groups threaten the rule of law and a normal world order.

In order to protect our shores in this environment, we need to think in new ways about our nation’s wars.  Nobody wants American lives wasted in far off lands that most of us could not have located on a map in the last century.  At the same time we need some strategic thinking about what the long-term impact of our actions will be.  There are many experienced and bright people in the Pentagon and elsewhere that are working through these issues.  The answers are difficult and sometimes come at the cost of blood and treasure.  They are not fail proof.  There can be several “right” answers to the problems we face and reasonable people can reasonably disagree as to which ones to pursue.

There is also a “wrong” answer.  That answer is to arbitrarily make decisions for the sole purpose of demonstrating that people have to do whatever one man says just because he says it.  It is especially wrong when that man does not understand the implications of his decisions, and apparently, thinks no further ahead about the issue than whether it can fit into a tweet or not.

War is nasty and complicated.  We are facing new challenges in real time.  Critical thinking and new ways of defining our goals and missions is needed.  Syria is only one of many such dilemmas we will face in the coming years.

 

 


An American Disgrace. Again.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.  Parkland, Florida.

Seventeen dead.  Fourteen Injured.

18 incidents with guns at schools this year.

Approximately 150,000 children were exposed to a school shooting since Columbine High School in April 1999.

We are killing our children.

We are the only industrialized nation in the world with such a level of violence.

(Graph from everytownresearch.org)

From 2012 to 2016, an average of 35,141 Americans died from guns each yearThat’s 96 a day.

Over eighteen years, from 1956 to 1974, a total of 58,131 Americans died from hostile and non-hostile actions in the Viet Nam War.

Gun safety is not un-American or against the Second Amendment.

Our elected officials need to grow a spine.

As a nation, we should be ashamed of ourselves.

So horribly sad.  So meaningless.  So disgraceful.

 


thoughtsandprayers

A single failed 2001 shoe bombing attempt on an airliner bound for Detroit.

— We all now take our shoes off before boarding any airliner.

A single failed 2009 underwear bombing attempt on an airliner bound for Detroit.

— We all now have to go through full body scanners before boarding any airliner.

A plot to turn a lap top into a bomb was foiled.

— Laptops were banned on many airline flights.

A legal immigrant kills 8 and injures 12 in New York City.

— Close the borders to immigrants.  “Extreme vetting.”

A single terrorist shooter kills 59 and wounds 241 people in Las Vegas.

— thoughtsandprayers

A single terrorist shooter kills 26 and wounds 20 in Sutherland Springs Texas.

— thoughtsandprayers

— “It’s not a gun situation.”

378 mass shooting incidents (defined as four or more people shot) in 2017 alone.

— thoughtsandprayers

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.”

— thoughtsandprayers

In February 2017 the president signed a decree scrapping the regulation aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of severely mentally ill individuals.

— thoughtsandprayers

Gun homicide rates in the U.S. are 25 times higher than any other high income nation.

— thoughtsandprayers

Guns kill approximately 1300 children in the U.S. each year.

— thoughtsandprayers

The Congress refused to pass legislation preventing individuals on the terrorist no fly list from buying guns.

— thoughtsandprayers

It is not anti-gun to be for gun safety.  As the greatest nation on earth we should be able to figure out how to keep our Second Amendment right without giving up our right not to be randomly shot by a disgruntled idiot.  It is a national disgrace.  It most definitely is not “the cost of freedom.”

I don’t want to hear anymore “thoughtsandprayers.”


Disturbing

The last few days have been deeply troubling.  I fear that I will be saying that over and over and over for the next three and a half years.  Every time it seems that our president cannot do anything more outrageous, he does it.  There is no low bar.  Every time I think he’s gone about as far as he can go, he goes further.  Yesterday takes the cake.  So far.  I can never say he won’t go lower.

I do not need to go into detail about President Trump’s impromptu press conference from the gilded lobby of Trump Tower.  You have undoubtedly heard all about it already.  And if you haven’t, all you need to know about his support of Nazis and Klansmen, not to mention how he butchered our history by putting Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson on an equal basis with George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, is the following Tweet at 4:45PM, immediately following the president’s remarks yesterday, from former KKK leader David Duke:

Thank you President Trump for your honesty & courage to tell the truth about Charlottesville & condemn the leftist terrorists in BLM/Antifa.

So now what?  Well, lots of politicians and business executives separated themselves from President Trump’s moral equivalency of putting the KKK, Nazis, Anti-Semites and other white supremacy groups on the same level as those that oppose them.  Unfortunately most did not separate themselves from the president himself — just his remarks.  Look carefully and you will see that very few actually condemned the president.  A real failure of moral courage.

As Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer said in a speech to the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.”  For two years we have listened to Mr. Trump disparage group after group after group, from women to Mexican Americans.  The events of the last few days are just one more data point in a long list of unacceptable statements and actions of the same vein. He is the same guy, we shouldn’t be surprised.  So, when is he going to be held accountable by an equal branch of government — the Congress? When are Cabinet members and White House Staffers going to leave?  Any ideas that Mr. Trump will change are pure fantasy.  In a piece published this afternoon, conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote out five concrete steps that Republicans must take to regain the moral high ground, restore the good name of the Republican Party and put Mr. Trump in a box to limit any future damage to our country.  It is worth a look.

Unfortunately, it is extremely unlikely that the Republican leaders in Congress will do anything substantive to rein in Mr. Trump.  They are focused on achieving their “agenda” which apparently does not include taking action to counter the rise of the vilest elements of our society.  Thus the rats know that they can come out into the light now because no one is trying to push them back into their holes.

Looking at this from another angle, I am deeply disturbed not only by the president’s defense of racists bent on destruction (“both sides” did not commit a terrorist act, which I am not afraid to say even though Mr. Trump said it was “legal semantics”).  I am ever more disturbed by his actions, of which yesterday’s impromptu press conference was just one more in a long line of troubling actions by the president.

This is what I mean.  Yesterday’s press event was supposed to be an announcement concerning infrastructure plans.  The president was to sign an Executive Order and turn the event over to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao (spouse of Senator Mitch McConnell by the way) and depart — no questions from the press.  It was planned.  The Chief of Staff John Kelly, the Secretary and other cabinet level individuals were in place, briefed and all knew the plan.  The president knew the plan and said he would stick to the “script.”  He lied to all of them.  The evidence?  He had a copy of his speech from Saturday in his pocket which he pulled out.  It wasn’t left over from Saturday — he purposefully pulled it from his pocket to start his tirade about the events in Charlottesville.  He knew before he came down that would happen but did not bother to tell any of the other participants.  One look at the photos and videos of the Chief of Staff show his dismay and dare I say horror at what was happening.

And that is my point.

Mr. Trump just had to prove — had to — that no one can control him and that he can do whatever the heck he wants to do.  Period.  He gave an inappropriate speech on Saturday following the disturbing events in Charlottesville.  He doubled down through a nameless staffer on Sunday.  On Monday cooler heads got to him and he read a prepared speech, without any emotion or sense that he believed what he was saying, but he did it and it helped.  And then, and then, he could not control himself and the real Donald J. Trump came through.  A petulant, whiny individual who always, always, always has to have the last word.  He will not be controlled, he cannot be controlled.

You need further evidence?  Look at his remarks on North Korea and Venezuela.  Yes, Venezuela.  He threatened military action against Venezuela because he could.  And thereby undermined ongoing diplomatic efforts with our Latin American neighbors trying to bring pressure on that regime.  And undermined Vice President Mike Pence who was on a diplomatic mission in Latin America.

He does things just to show that he can.  Because he wants to.  It is always, always, always only about him. That is even more frightening than what appears to be in his heart.  Whether or not Donald J. Trump is a racist is something I can never know.  But his words and actions indicate that if he is not, he is at least clueless about the mission and intent of the white supremacists who see him as “their man” and see him as helping their cause.

Where are our moral leaders at the national level?  Thank goodness many mayors and governors around the country and of both political parties stood up and took action.  Shoot, even the members of the service leaders on the Joint Chiefs of Staff put out statements today condemning the events in Charlottesville and the racist nature of those acts.  They were clear and unambiguous.  They did not mention Mr. Trump directly, but it is very clear when you read them that they are reacting to the president’s remarks from yesterday.

When will Congress find its moral footing?


Shameful

It was a sad day for our country in Charlottesville Virginia yesterday when white supremacists, including self-avowed Ku Klux Klansmen, Neo-Nazis, Anti-Semites and others demonstrated, resulting in the loss of three lives — one woman killed in a white supremacist terror attack and two Virginia State Police Troopers helping to protect the citizens of Charlottesville died when their helicopter crashed.

I could hardly believe that this was happening in our country.  Not so much that such people exist — it is a sad but true fact that they do — but that so many of them came from around the country to impose their twisted vision of America on the good citizens of Charlottesville.

More unbelievable, and vastly more disappointing and troublesome to me, our president refused to denounce the white supremacists and refused to call it an act of terror when a car deliberately plowed into a crowd of peaceful protesters denouncing the white supremacists .

Shameful.

I just happened to see the president’s remarks live, as they happened.  Many of you probably saw them replayed on various news stations.  The clip most played is the president saying:

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides.”

Watching it closely, and paying attention to the body language, it was clear to me that President Trump was ad libbing the “many sides” phrase.  Which he repeated with his characteristic hand gestures usually utilized in conjunction with “believe me.”  What is not shown, and astounded me in the moment, was during his prepared remarks, he deviated from the script several times, including a long riff in the middle of his remarks about the unfolding tragedy in Charlottesville to assure us, as a nation, that he was doing a great job.

“Our country is doing very well in so many ways. We have record — just absolute record employment. We have unemployment, the lowest it’s been in almost 17 years. We have companies pouring into our country. Foxconn and car companies, and so many others, they’re coming back to our country. We’re renegotiating trade deals to make them great for our country and great for the American worker. We have so many incredible things happening in our country. So when I watch Charlottesville, to me it’s very, very sad.”

It always has to be about him.

Not only did he fail his course on Presidency 101 and what to say and do when faced with a tragic event, he totally failed in calling out the white supremacists and in making clear that there was no place for them in our United States.  On “many sides” indeed.  He doesn’t have the guts to call out Nazis? The KKK? He has the guts to call out the immigrant parents of a United States Army officer killed in action defending our country but not these yahoos?  What the heck?  My father and father-in-law were World War II veterans, what did they fight for if professed Nazis can carry swastikas in the streets and the president refuses to call them out?

The only answer I can come up with is that he doesn’t want to upset his “base.”  One would hope that he doesn’t want white supremacists in his base, but apparently that isn’t the case.  Am I hyperventilating? Perhaps. But I am not making this up from thin air.  Look at the comments from the former Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke on the eve of the demonstration.

“This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in, that’s why we voted for Donald Trump. Because he said he’s going to take our country back. That’s what we gotta do.”

Was that a one-off?  Let’s take another sample from a white supremacist who said the following after the president’s remarks.

“Trump’s comments were good.  He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate… on both sides! So he implied the antifa [I looked this up — it is short for antifascists] are haters.”

“There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about white nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”

You get the picture.  That’s why words matter and especially from the president.  He knows that and if he doesn’t then his staff sorely let him down.  But having watched his remarks live, he appeared to deviate from his prepared remarks on several occasions so as not to be specific about the groups behind the hate.  I guess he just cannot bring himself to separate from his so called supporters.

As I write, the White House staff is in full damage control mode saying essentially that of course the president denounces all hate groups.  Why would they go into damage control mode if the president’s remarks were not in fact totally inadequate?  Because he didn’t and he hasn’t actually rebuked these far right-wing extremists and terrorists.  How hard is it to say that driving a car into a peaceful crowd to purposely maim and kill is an act of terrorism?  He certainly is not shy.  Except in these cases.  Where is Mr. I’m-not-politically-correct?

Thankfully politicians of every stripe from Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex) to former Vice President Joe Biden came out in full-throated condemnation of the white supremacists and also chastised the president for his missed hand slap to the violent white supremacists.  There is hope that all of us will stand up for what we believe actually makes America great and not let this behavior continue unchallenged. And we should voice our opinions to President Trump to let him know how badly he let us all down, both as president and as a person.

Clearly these far right-wing nuts think that the president is on their side.  With so called alt-right (a nice name for white supremacists) supporters on his personal staff in the White House — Mr. Steve Bannon and alleged doctor Sebastian Gorka to name two — they have good reason to think so.  The only way that he can disabuse them of that notion is to clearly, forcefully and unambiguously tell them to climb back into their holes and that he refuses their support in any way, shape, or form.  Otherwise, he is not the president of the United States that I know and love.


A Burning Fuse

As you probably heard, on Sunday a U.S. Navy F/A-18E Super Hornet shot down a Syrian SU-22 Fitter ground attack bomber.  This was the first air-to-air destruction of a piloted aircraft by the U.S. since 1999 and the second by a NATO aircraft in the region following the November 2015 shoot down of a Syrian SU-24 by a Turkish Air Force F-16.  Both Syria and their ally Russia immediately protested the action.  In addition, the Russians declared that any U.S. or coalition aircraft flying “west of the Euphrates River” while Russian or Syrian aircraft are in the area “will be considered air targets” and subject to attack. Today, a U.S. F-15 shot down an armed Iranian drone, the second one this month.

While none of the participants in the many-sided Syrian conflict desire to go to war with each other, and certainly the Russians and the U.S. do not war, the conditions are very volatile in a confined geographic area.  This is a dangerous situation that is very susceptible to a mistake or miscalculation by one of the parties leading to a hot war, or at least a serious shooting incident.  In short, it is a burning fuse that needs to be snuffed out before reaching the explosives.  Given the conflicting goals of those involved, that may be difficult.  The situation is exacerbated by the Russian withdrawal from a de-confliction protocol whereby U.S. and coalition aircraft communicate with Russian aircraft to warn and alert each other of their locations and missions.  Negotiations are underway to restore that protocol. This is the second time that the Russians withdrew from it, the first coming after the U.S. Navy cruise missile strikes against a Syrian airfield last April.  The relationship then was shortly restored.

The shoot downs occurred following Syrian and Iranian attacks on U.S. backed anti-Syrian forces fighting the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.  Some coalition advisers were near the forces attacked from the air.  Following several warnings, the U.S. says it acted in self-defense.

It is difficult to tell the players without a score card.  In short, the major players in Syria are Russia, the United States, Turkey, Iran, the United Kingdom, and France.  Supplying arms and money to the anti-Assad regime are Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  (Remember also that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are involved in their own dispute which resulted in the isolation of Qatar from the outside world.  Both are allies of the U.S. but the dispute is serious and involves Qatari relations with Iran, which is engaged in a major struggle with Saudi Arabia for dominance in the region.  And, oh by the way, one of the major airfields used by the U.S. in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) is in Qatar as is the air control headquarters and the Forward Headquarters for the U.S. Central Command.  It’s complicated.)

U.S. and coalition forces are mainly fighting from the air, with some U.S. Special Forces on the ground training and advising various militias fighting against ISIS and covertly supporting those aligned against the Syrian regime. Russia supports the Bashar regime and both Russia and Syria consider any group inside of Syria fighting against Bashar’s forces as “terrorists.”  This includes those supported by the U.S. coalition.  The Russians claim to be fighting ISIS but in actuality they are going after the “terrorists” that oppose Bashar’s regime, which was the case with the recent aircraft and drone attacks leading to the shoot downs. Turkey also opposes the Bashar regime but also opposes the Kurdish PKK (The Kurdistan Workers Party), a group fighting for a Kurdish state carved from Turkey, Syria and Iran.  The PKK is considered a terrorist group in Turkey, but many of the forces that have liberated parts of Iraq and Syria from ISIS are other Kurdish forces trained by the U.S.  Iran supports the Bashar regime, but also opposes ISIS.  Iranian forces and militias are fighting in Syria in support of the regime and in Iraq, in conjunction with Iraqi troops, to root out ISIS.  Iran also supports Lebanon’s Hezbollah which is fighting in Syria to support Bashar.  In something of a proxy war, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are aiding anti-Bashar forces with money and arms, even as they have their own dispute and Qatar is friendly to Iran.

Got all that?  And the country is about as big as the Middle Atlantic states — roughly Richmond to New York City and Pittsburgh to the west.

U.S. policy in Syria has been and is muddled.  Since taking over in January, the Trump Administration has not articulated a clear policy or strategy towards Syria.  Our focus is primarily on defeating ISIS, an effort that is slowly but steadily eliminating their caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

The lack of a clear strategy in Syria is reflected in the April cruise missile attacks.  At the time, I applauded President Trump’s decision to express our dissatisfaction over the Syrian use of chemical weapons.  But it was only a one time strike to “send a message” and had no real long-term ramifications or follow-up.  There was no strategy behind the strikes.  (One way to tell the seriousness of such a military attack is the longevity of the action and the targets chosen.  If we really wanted to punish Bashar’s regime the attack would have been centered on Damascus and gone after the Interior Ministry or Ministry of Defense in order to make the decision makers pay a price.  Instead we destroyed some aircraft at a remote air base.  To truly take on a larger military operation — which I am not advocating — it would have been a much more serious decision that could lead to direct military conflict with Syrian forces, and conceivably Russian forces. While we are concerned with the humanitarian conditions in Syria, it is not currently our policy to resolve the Syrian conflict through combat.)

The take-away from all this is that the Middle East continues to be a tinder box that could go from a smoldering problem to a conflagration without much effort.  Despite bluster and name calling, neither the U.S. or Russia want to see the situation escalate — especially against each other.  But both nations need to be very careful as other players in the region could relish such a situation in order for them to meet their own priorities and interests, not the least of which is to diminish the stature of the United States in the region and in the world.

These are dangerous times that must be taken seriously.  While we are focused on our own internal daily struggles and tweets, we also must keep our heads up and our eyes on the ball.  The rest of the world is busy pursuing their own agenda.  If we want to be part of events that shape our future, then we must pay attention and clearly state our own goals.