The Korean Dilemma

United States policy for many past presidential administrations firmly states that a nuclear armed North Korea is unacceptable to our national security interests and is a threat to peace around the world. This stance continues with the current administration.  Unfortunately, despite sanctions and diplomatic isolation, North Korea already tested five nuclear weapons between 2006 and 2016. Some intelligence reports, as widely cited in the media, indicate that there may soon be another such test. Meanwhile, the North Koreans continue to test ballistic missiles, ever-increasing their sophistication and range.

The threat of a nuclear armed North Korea becomes real when they reach the capability to mount a nuclear weapon on top of a long-range missile.  Experts differ on that estimate.  Some say it is “years” away and some say it could come as soon as 2018.  No one knows for sure, but they do know that the pace of the Korean progress towards that goal is steadily increasing.

When that day arrives, a clear and present danger will exist for the United States and for our friends and allies in the Pacific area.  Thus the question:  How to implement our stated policy of preventing that danger from becoming real?  There is no easy answer.

The Trump Administration, like those before it, states that “all options” are on the table.  The implied but not so subtle threat is one of military action.  To take such action is not so simple as it may seem to some.  In practical terms, North Korean nuclear sites are underground and the intelligence community is not positive that it knows where all of those sites are located.  Reaching a hardened underground site with a conventional missile or bomb is difficult, if not impossible.  It is possible to destroy such a site with our own nuclear weapons, assuming we have it correctly located, but despite the facile way some people talk about nuclear weapons, no credible official thinks that taking a first strike with nuclear weapons is part of the solution at this point. A bomb without a delivery system is not able to reach the target.  To stop the threat, eliminate the delivery system.

However, further complicating the issue is that part of the North’s missile development includes mobile Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) that makes targeting the delivery system before launch that much more difficult. They have also tested submarine launched ballistic missiles, which are even harder to locate without sufficient warning and planning.  So while the military option is and should be on the table, the practical aspects of eliminating the threat without a major conflict are daunting.

The ace in the hole held by North Korea is the fact that Seoul, the capital with a population in the city and suburbs of nearly 24 million, is only about 40 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).  The North amassed and maintains large numbers of artillery, rocket, and ballistic missiles along the DMZ, many with a range capable of reaching Seoul.  This is a huge deterrent to unilateral U.S. or allied strikes. Additionally, North Korea already has operational ballistic missiles that can reach Japan, the Philippines, Guam and other locations with U.S. military bases and U.S ex-pats. There are other threats as well, but you get the picture.

The Korean War began in 1950, and technically never ended, although an Armistice was reached in 1953. The war resulted in approximately 2.7 million Korean deaths, with an additional 800,000 Chinese and 33,000 American dead. Since then Civil Defense capabilities in the South have vastly improved and the citizens practice taking shelter. Also new are the preemption plans of the United States and South Korean military that in the early stages of conflict would seek to take out the North’s ability to wreak wide-spread damage in the South. However, despite these plans and practices, the devastation of extended combat would be real and with a lasting impact.

The key to a non-military solution in North Korea is China.  President Trump tried to impart to Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to the U.S. in April the importance we place on this issue and the need for Chinese influence to reign in the North Koreans.  Presumably President Xi took the information on board, but China has their own interests on the peninsula.  First and foremost, they do not want a united Korea, especially one allied with the United States.  Secondly, they are unwilling to deal with the economic fallout of a massive refugee and humanitarian crisis on their border should the regime of Kim Jong-un fall.  Kim is the ruthless Chairman of the Worker’s Party of Korea and Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or as we call it, North Korea.

Most of us know of the ruthless leadership of Leader Kim, including having his uncle and half-brother killed.  He does not appear to be “crazy” as some would have it, but he is isolated, inexperienced, and convinced of his infallibility.  For a minute, take a look at the world from his point of view.  Assume that he is committed to his personal and the regime’s survival.  Assume also that he believes his own propaganda and that the world really is out to get him.  Here is what he sees.

Kim knows well of the fate of two previous strongmen, Muammar Mohammed Abu Minyar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.  Both had programs to develop Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).  Both were pressured by world leaders, diplomatically and militarily, to give up their WMD programs.  We now know that both actually did give them up.  One ended up sexually violated and killed in the desert and the other was hung.  Kim Jong-un is not about to fall prey, as he sees it, to the same trick.  He will not willingly give up his nuclear and missile programs just because the U.S. threatens him or China cajoles him.  Economic sanctions seem to hurt only the North Korean population, Kim and his cronies are immune from the deprivations that seriously impact his citizens.  Rebellion from within is nearly impossible given the total control over the population wielded by the state and the total immersion into a way of life and a propaganda machine that influences the average citizens from the day that they are born.

During the Cold War, the superpowers possessed nuclear weapons and competed for influence and territory for many decades without nuclear war becoming a reality.  There were many reasons for our survival despite some serious crises such as the Cuban Missile Crisis and the lesser known 1973 Arab-Israeli War when the U.S. military world-wide went to DEFCON III (Defense Condition 3), the two closest instances of direct conflict between the U.S. and U.S.S.R.  Foremost among these reasons is the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (aptly known as MAD) where the chance of total and equal destruction deterred each side from using their nuclear weapons.  (Although in fact, most nuclear war plans did not contemplate an all or nothing use of nuclear weapons.  There were (are?) war fighting plans using nuclear weapons in limited strikes that may or may not escalate based on the war aims.  It also has to do with hitting counter-value or counter-force targets — in over simplified words, hitting cities or military forces.  But I digress, although it useful to remember this concept of counter-value versus counter-force targeting in thinking about North Korea.)

It is unlikely that North Korea can be deterred from using its nuclear force based merely on the concept of MAD.  Kim does not want to die, he wants to survive, but he will not go down without a fight.  If his survival is threatened in a way he finds credible, he may go down swinging.

Diplomatically, it is difficult to know what will bring the North to the table with a credible negotiating team willing to provide a solution to inhibiting or eliminating their nuclear program.  On-site inspections and verification must be part of any solution, but Kim has signaled he will never allow them to occur.  Past U.S. administrations have entered into negotiations with them only to find them unserious and uninterested in a real solution.  They were only interested in finding out how much they could get from the West before opting out of any reciprocal actions.

There may be some value in taking a similar approach to the one that the world took with Iran.  While President Obama is often and furiously “blamed” for “caving” to the Iranians, a few things need to be remembered about the agreement.  First, it was not a bilateral U.S.-Iran agreement.  It was a multi-lateral agreement that includes, among others, France, the United Kingdom, Germany, the European Union, China and Russia.  Second, it in fact did stop Iranian development of nuclear weapons, at least in the short run.  The idea is that eventually Iran will benefit sufficiently economically without a nuclear weapons program that they will forgo it rather than suffer more sanctions in the future.  Third, it did open the country to outside inspectors.  No deal is credible without continued verification. The deal was a result of focused sanctions that hurt the Iranians where it counted.

Using this model may or may not be possible, but it could be a starting point for a meaningful international diplomatic effort to resolve the Kim issue.  However, thus far other world leaders have been content to allow the U.S. and China to solve this problem as they are less threatened by the DPRK. China is the key to any solution, but particularly one involving meaningful sanctions.  To be meaningful, they must hit Kim and his fellow oligarchs where it hurts — in their pocket books and life styles.  So far there is no evidence that current sanctions are having any impact on the leadership, only on the population. Thus China (and others) need to meaningfully and consistently enforce economic sanctions.

For other world leaders that do not seem too concerned, they should consider what may be the biggest threat from the North Korean nuclear program.  Cash strapped and looking for a market, it is conceivable that the DPRK will (and maybe already has) export their knowledge and expertise to the highest bidder.  This may and probably will in the future include terrorist organizations and rogue states. That alone should be enough to get most of the world on board with solving this problem.

Finally, and, as it should be, a last resort, there are a number of military options that may preclude full-scale war.  Cyber attacks that cripple the nuclear infrastructure for example could be carried out. (Remember reports in 2010 that the “Stuxnet” virus crippled the Iranian nuclear centrifuges in what is thought to be a combined U.S.-Israeli operation.)  Other clandestine operations are surely in the U.S. playbook.

Should conventional military force be required, a counter-force strike aimed at limiting the DPRK’s ability to do damage in South Korea could be followed by an offer to negotiate with Kim.

Another option is to specifically target Kim and the senior leadership in a decapitation strike that removes the DPRK leadership and thus limits their ability to retaliate.  This seems to have the biggest chance of success.  If a pre-emptive U.S. military strike could lead to a massive conflict on the peninsula and surrounding areas anyway, then go for the leadership first in the chance that the command and control abilities and the will to fight may be eliminated before the conflict spirals out of control.

While the DPRK is increasing its capabilities, so are the U.S and our regional allies.  While we may not be able to locate and eliminate all of the nuclear sites and mobile launchers on the ground, using increasingly sophisticated Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) systems the U.S. can limit the impact of a strike by destroying the missiles in flight.  Current systems include Ground Based Mid-Course Defense (GMD) based in California and Alaska which tested well against ICBM targets, the Navy’s Aegis destroyers and cruisers have proven adept at hitting ballistic missiles and the Army’s Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems have as well, depending on the threat and the environment. You may recall that the U.S. is presently deploying the THAAD system in South Korea, although in April President Trump inexplicably called on the Koreans to pay us one billion dollars for the system unless they terminate or renegotiate a bilateral trade agreement — “a horrible deal.”  For now, the deployment continues.

It does not take a crystal ball to determine that the Trump Administration will face its toughest international challenge in North Korea.  Whether in the coming months, as the DPRK accelerates its testing of missile and weapon systems, or in the coming years, one should expect action in one form or another in the near future.  It will take a confident and realistic combination of diplomatic and economic measures from the international community coupled with unparalleled military readiness.  What is certain is that the problem will not go away on its own.

While You Were Sleeping

With the daily crises that seem to emanate from the Trump White House, it is often difficult to keep track of those things that are important — almost all of it is in some way — and those things that are not only important, but conceivably life changing for our nation.  Three of those things come to the forefront this week.  One is the events in Syria, two is concern over the ever more belligerent actions of North Korea, and three is the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and the possible resulting use of the “nuclear option” in the Senate that will forever change that body and the future of the Supreme Court.  The latter issue is worthy of an entire blog unto itself.  Before turning my attention to the first two issues, let me just say briefly that Judge Gorsuch will be on the court for decades to come, so that alone makes it a big deal.  Changing the confirmation process to a straight up or down vote will make confirmation of future Supreme Court nominations a purely partisan endeavor with ever more radical judges the norm — by Republican or Democrat presidents — and removing any last vestige of a purely non-partisan Supreme Court.  In my view, the Democrats should vote for cloture (allow a vote to go forward without a filibuster) and then vote their conscience as to whether Judge Gorsuch is qualified to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

That said, let’s turn back to the first two issues of international policy.  They are important on their own merits as well as for the precedent they may set under the administration of President Trump. Let’s address Syria first.

You undoubtedly saw the heart-wrenching pictures coming from Idlib Syria following a chemical attack on innocent civilians.  Reports estimate at least seventy people died a horrific death with hundreds sickened by the toxic chemical — likely Sarin.  The Syrians are known to routinely use chlorine gas against opposition fighters, but this attack is significantly different.  As you may remember, the Syrians made a similar attack in August of 2013 and then President Obama declared that the Syrians had crossed a “red line” and would pay the consequences.  When our British allies refused to participate and the Congress got cold feet on whether to support such action or not, President Obama decided against military action. In a blog at the time I decried the lack of action and moral fortitude of not only our country, but of the entire civilized world for taking no action.  I also predicted that it would eventually come back to haunt us.

It looks like the same thing will happen this time around.  Loud denunciations, Security Council resolutions and much wringing of hands around the world as the order of the day, but in the end, no action taken.  President Trump, apparently forgetting that he is now the president and responsible for U.S. foreign policy, condemned the attack and then blamed President Obama for it taking place. This is the entire statement as posted on the official White House website.

Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world. These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution. President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing. The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.

How ironic that President Trump condemns his predecessor for doing nothing and then does nothing himself.  Actually, that’s not too surprising given his comments in 2013.  He posted the following statement then.

President Obama, do not attack Syria. There is no upside and tremendous downside. Save your “powder” for another (and more important) day! — Twitter from @realdonaldtrump on 7 September 2013.

Note that was while President Obama was deciding how to respond to the Syrians for a chemical attack.

Also note that the most recent attack came five days after the Trump administration through U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that they would no longer focus on Syria or the regime of Bashar al-Assad.  More precisely, Ambassador Haley said, “We can’t necessarily focus on Assad the way the previous administration maybe did. Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No.”  Secretary Tillerson followed up later by saying, “I think the longer-term status of President Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”  The same Syrian people gassed, I suppose.  Make no mistake, in the way of foreign policy, and particularly in the Middle East, when the United States says that in essence, they are no longer concerned about Syria, that is a green light to the ruthless regime to do whatever they feel like doing without fear of retribution. Not surprisingly, the Russians who in the deal made in 2013 were to guarantee no Syrian chemical agents would remain in the country, claim that the chemicals came from a “rebel workshop” bombed by Syrian aircraft.

Sorely missing from President Trump’s statement and those of his administration is any indication of actions in response.  It seems that in foreign policy, as in his domestic policy thus far, whenever something happens our new president can only lash out at others to assign blame.  That is a pretty weak foreign policy position and it will be duly and clearly noted by our friends and enemies around the world.

We see a similarly troubling scenario unfolding with North Korea, and they surely noted our lack of action in Syria.  The North Koreans are quickly moving towards a capability to hit the United States with long-range missiles and will in a few years have the ability to mount nuclear weapons on those missiles. As I write this the North Koreans have the capability to reach approximately 300,000 Americans in South Korea, Japan and on bases in the Pacific area.  The ruthless North Korean dictator Kim Jon Un is not suicidal or crazy as some have described him.  He is, however, isolated, unskilled in foreign affairs and threatened.  Reportedly, he refers to the fate of Saddam Hussein repeatedly (hanged, you may remember) and vows not to go down without a fight.  The key question is whether or not he will respond to a perceived provocation or start one of his own.  It is an extremely dangerous situation that can lead to miscalculations on both sides of the border.

One key element of deterrence is that the people you want to deter from an act must know what is that they are not supposed to do and understand the consequences of doing it anyway.  One’s intentions need to be clear, and the punishment beyond the pale in terms of an actor’s cost-benefit calculations. A corollary is to never threaten something that you are not ready or willing to do.   This is why it is troubling that President Trump said in a recent interview that, “Well, if China is not going to solve North Korea, we will. That is all I am telling you.”  When asked if he thought the U.S. could solve the North Korean problem, and if so, how, he added, “I don’t have to say any more. Totally.”

I agree with Secretary Tillerson, speaking for the Trump administration, that the last 20 years of U.S. efforts to bring North Korea under control have failed.  I agree that all options must remain on the table. I also agree that China is the key to solving the problem.  However, it is not possible to solve the problem without China, and for the president to suggest that it can be done without Chinese involvement is a statement without knowledge behind it or a bluff, both dangerous in the current situation.

Further confusing the issue is Secretary Tillerson’s statement today, following yet another North Korean missile test.  He said, in a twenty-three word statement,

North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.

No one knows what that means.  Of course one could take it at face value, but it is, shall we say, exceedingly rare for the Secretary of State of the United States of America to refuse to comment on a situation that directly threatens the well-being of the nation and its friends and allies.

In total, it is all very strange.

President Trump meets with Chinese leader Xi Jinping starting tomorrow at Mar-a-Lago (and once again charging the American taxpayer for the use of his own resort — yet another topic of discussion in this space in the future).  North Korea will be a major topic of discussion, to be sure.  Unclear, however, is the path the negotiations will follow.  In the interview in the Financial Times  referenced above, President Trump indicated that “trade deals” will lead to further cooperation on North Korea. How that will play out is hazy.  Chinese concerns over North Korea are tempered by the fact that they do not want to be left holding the bag economically should North Korea collapse, and they most definitely do not want U.S. troops on their border should war break out and the Americans sweep through North Korea. There are many problems to be solved on both sides of the negotiating table.

These are matters of great concern to the world, but with a direct impact on our own well-being.  They will take a delicate and knowledgeable effort to resolve and probably cannot be accomplished in one meeting.  We will soon learn whether or not President Trump is up for the task at hand.  To me, the signs are that he is not.

These are troubling times, with seemingly a crisis a day of the administration’s own creation.  And yet, the Trump Administration has not been tested in the crucible of national security.  In the coming days and weeks, we will see whether or not our president has “the right stuff.”

What Are We Supposed to Think?

We are approaching the end of the third week of the administration of President Donald J. Trump.  For some reason it seems more like the end of three years of his administration.  I am already getting worn out from seeing All Trump, All The Time.  I suppose that his ever-present countenance would be a natural result of the characteristics of the type of person, campaigner, and president that he is — all based on his perceived success as a “brand” and a television reality star.  Like the old cliché goes, even bad publicity is better than no publicity at all, apparently.

By nature, I am not prone to hyperbole and have worked in Washington D.C. long enough to know that sometimes people make mistakes and that the learning curve can be very steep.  Missteps blow up on the national stage.  So I would like to think that the Trump Administration is growing into the job. Three weeks is not enough time to get everything in order.  Indeed, his cabinet is mostly just now reporting for duty.  And yet.  And yet.

It is difficult for me to ignore or give the benefit of the doubt to his words and actions thus far.  In truth, many of his actions — the Executive Orders — are mostly PR events, with the obvious exception of his ban (his word not mine) on refugees from seven Muslim countries.  One can debate whether that is a good or bad policy — personally from a national security perspective I think it does far more harm than good — but my interest is bigger than just one particular Order.  Since it came out, I have watched with interest all the activity around it, from the White House, to Congress, to the judicial system, to the press corps .

From what I have seen, I am deeply concerned that a Constitutional crisis is not far ahead.

Here is why I think so.  At the risk of taking a “Chicken Little” approach to his administration, and understanding that any criticism is labeled as whining and makes me a “LOSER!”, there are some troubling indicators.  As I think about these indicators, I am unsure whether they are part of some master plan, or if the president and some of his senior staff are just unable to deal with reality, or if their management style may be likened to a three wood shot in a tiled bathroom.

President Trump lashes out at everyone that he believes is in his way.  It doesn’t matter if it is a television host or the leader of another country.  If he wants it, he should get it. Childish?  Perhaps. Impetuous?  Perhaps.  Dangerous? Yes, but in what way?  Is it dangerous because it is a master plan to create chaos and let things get so bad that our fellow citizens look for a savior to reclaim the land?  What powers will be given to that savior that undermine our core values?  Or is it dangerous because the president really does not know what he is doing and may in fact have some disability that precludes rational behavior?  Deliberate or accidental?  I am not sure it matters if the result is the same.

“The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake.  We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power.” —  1984 by George Orwell

(Most of us read 1984 in High School.  I just re-read it and recommend it to you.)

President Trump seems to be the type of person that has always used power, in one form or another, to achieve his personal goals.  When thwarted, he lashes out.  When he lashes out, he does so to belittle and demean those that have displeased him.  He has a long history of doing so.  When he was a television personality it didn’t matter and may have been mildly amusing.  As a presidential candidate it was troublesome, but had no direct impact on policy and the well-being of the nation.  As president, it has direct consequences.

The most disturbing aspect of his attacks is where they are directed.  We have three equal branches of government.  They often disagree and criticism of one branch by another is not unheard of in our history.  However, at least publicly, those criticisms were of a decision or a policy and not directed at the individual or the institution.  President Trump attacks the person and the institution.  For example, when his ban on refugees entering the country was put on hold by a Federal judge, he attacked not only the decision, but the individual.

“The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”  –President Trump on Twitter 4 February

Just cannot believe a judge would put our country in such peril. If something happens blame him and court system. People pouring in. Bad!  — President Trump on Twitter 5 February

These are but two of his many tweets about the case.  (I never thought I would use the words “tweets” and “president” in the same sentence and actually have it make sense.)  Besides attacking the judge, and in a speech this week he attacked the entire judiciary system, he is removing himself from any responsibility for keeping the nation safe.  Claiming that if “something happens” (note he doesn’t just say a terrorist attack) it is the fault of the judge and judiciary system and not his as Commander-in-Chief. Sorry, Mr. President. Your job is to use every legal method available to you to keep our nation safe. Period.

Fear-mongering seems to be another aspect of this presidency and helps to create the conditions for a “savior”. President Trump’s tweets, statements, and those of several of his advisers make it sound like a catastrophe is at hand.  In their telling, since the stay went into effect thousands of people, most of whom are terrorists, woke up and decided to go to the airport, buy a ticket and fly to the USA. Gotta get the terrorists there now, now, now.  Profoundly untrue.  The “people pouring in” have gone through “extreme vetting.”  They are green card holders and people, usually families with wife, husband and kids, with visas.  It is easy for anyone to know (and one would think the president would be one) what procedures the newly arriving refugees (not “illegal immigrants”) go through.  And if you don’t know, I recommend this article written by a person that conducted those interviews and reviewed the cases.  No visa was granted in less than 18 months of vetting, most take three to five years, and far more people are denied entry than are allowed to enter the country.

When established news outlets try to present such information, the president attacks the media with continual claims of “fake news” for every story unfavorable to his preferred narrative.  Apparently, if one criticizes anything related to the president (including the sale of his daughters apparel) you are “unfair” or “very, very dishonest”. Speaking of which….

No, I won’t go that far yet.  It just is amazing to me, however, that the president and his advisers can pretend that something didn’t happen or that they never said something when the video and audio exists to prove that in fact they did.  I don’t want to exaggerate, but it is eerily reminiscent of what came out of the Ministry of Truth in the use of “doublethink” in Orwell’s 1984.  Here is an explanation of doublethink from the book.

“The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them. To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth.”

Congress thus far chooses not to exercise its role as a further balance to the president.  With four or five individual exceptions in the Senate for very specific issues, the Republican controlled Congress has not challenged the president.  Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in particular goes out of his way to ignore the daily tweets, misstatements and falsehoods coming from the White House.  He is probably taking the long view that the president will eventually come around and that the Republican Congress can get its agenda past the president.  Why he still thinks that, I have no idea.  President Trump is the same guy as Candidate Trump and the same guy as The Apprentice Trump.  Until the Republican Congress (Democrats cannot do it, they are all whiners and losers) stands up to the president and calls him out for his more egregious actions, there will be danger in the air.

To me, that is why President Trump is going after the judiciary and the media.  Congress has provided no resistance.  Only the bench and the journalists are holding him to account.  If he can discredit both of those institutions, then he may decide that he can ignore them with impunity.  There goes the system of checks and balances.

Remember that President Trump continually reminds the nation that he does not have to do certain things (like reveal his taxes, divest his business interests, and countless other issues) because the law exempts the president, and besides, as I’ve heard him say way too many times “I won. I don’t have to do it.  The people who voted for me knew all about me and XX.”  (Fill in the blank — feel free to use just about any issue one can think of.)

Am I ready to man the barricades?  No.  I do think that it is incumbent on all of us to continue to watch developments very closely and to not become desensitized to the outrageous words coming from the White House, or worse, become bored with it all.  The minute we stop paying attention is when we enter the most dangerous period.

We may not all agree on the policy questions, but I think that we all agree that keeping an eye on all three branches of government is important to our way of life.  Is the current atmosphere a case of rookie mistakes, undisciplined advocates, unhealthy egos, part of a plan, or all of the above?  I have no idea what to think, but in the end, it just doesn’t matter.  All are potential threats to our well-being.

We Are Playing Right Into Their Hands

Sad.  Outrageous.  Horrifying.  Anger inducing.  Numbing.  These are some of the feelings I have had, just as I am sure many of you share, following the terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday.  Horrible. Unfortunately, I have similar reactions to the politicians in our United States who either have no clue as to what they are talking about, or are purposefully using this tragedy for political purposes.  Those same politicians accuse others of “politicizing” a tragedy following a mass shooting when they speak out for gun safety laws and yet they have no problem politicizing a tragic terrorist attack.  Their comments are to me nearly as terrifying as the attacks themselves.

There are several issues at play here, and a twitter post or sound bite will not reflect the complexities of the situation.  First and foremost one must remember that the purpose of terror is to create fear and a resultant over reaction that causes us to change our way of life or to take some action that meets the terrorists’ long-term goal.  Make no mistake, despite some statements to the contrary, the terrorists have a clear purpose and a clear goal beyond just taking as many lives as possible.  This is one area where the reckless statements by some running for president play right into the hands of the terrorists.

Additionally, one must understand the strategic goals of these particular terrorists who appear to be associated, if not directly controlled, by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Creating the “caliphate” or fundamentalist nation that they have declared is not an end unto itself just as the terrorist attacks are not an end.  Their vision — and we must understand them from their perspective not ours — is to cause the apocalyptic battle of the West versus the caliphate.  In other words, they really, really, want the United States and European forces to invade their territory in order to precipitate the clash of civilizations.  They believe that the result will be cataclysmic and result in the end of the world as we know it and establish a world dominated by them.

This is an important point and necessitates taking the long view.  This is a clash of ideologies.  This is a clash of world views.  This is a clash of civilizations.  I make those statements with no sense of drama or over reach.  It is a fact and one that the arm-chair quarterbacks and “bomb them to the stone age” activists do not understand.  If every member of ISIS was killed on Wednesday in their caliphate, the terrorists still would have attacked on Friday and others would come in to take their place.  This is a long war that will not be resolved solely by military action.

Am I saying that no military action is necessary?  No.  We need to take military action and we need to take the fight to ISIS.  What I am saying is that such action is necessary, but not sufficient. Clearly ISIS established their ability to reach beyond the caliphate.  The bombing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai, the bombings in Beirut and now the attack in Paris are certainly ISIS efforts to show that forces that oppose them will be attacked.  However, since we are also dealing on a psychological and ideological level, there are other aspects to those attacks and it very well may be that they are also a result of what the president observed last week prior to the attacks.  Not directly related as in retaliation or defiance, but that the facts are related. He said ISIS is “contained.” While this remark is getting shrill ridicule from presidential aspirants, he may be right.  The caliphate is shrinking geographically, the number of recruits seems to be dwindling, and more nations are joining the fight against them.  Under that circumstance, ISIS leaders would need to demonstrate that they are still strong and provide more fodder for gaining recruits. Additionally, without going into a history of the western world, the ISIS ideology and their pronouncements are reflective of their perception that Europe squashed the spread of Islam in the Eighth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, to name a few of the ideological underpinnings of ISIS and jihadist culture in general.  This is in essence revenge for historical defeats and a demonstration that the war to spread Islam is not over.

I want leaders that understand just how complicated the resolution of this mess will be and in this piece I have only touched the tip of the iceberg of all that is in play.  I want sober leaders, not emotional, uninformed individuals that over-react, or worse, pander for political purposes.  I want leaders that have emotions — which one of us does not react with emotion to events in Paris — but that do not act emotionally. Sending the men and women of our Armed Forces into harms way should not be a knee jerk reaction.  And once again, for all our sakes, just stop it with talking about “boots on the ground”!  That has no meaning and tends to show one’s lack of understanding of how the military works.  Do they mean combat troops?  Advisors?  Logisticians?  Intelligence capabilities?  Marines? Army?  What do they mean?  We must also never forget that by using the term “boots on the ground” we take out the human aspect.  Somehow saying “boots on the ground” removes the obligation of our leaders to understand the consequences of sending our fellow citizens into a situation where inevitably some will be killed and seriously wounded with the consequential impact on their family and friends — not to mention the loss of our nation’s future leaders.  These decisions should never be taken lightly or out of some misplaced desire to show how tough they are.  Nearly all the proposals I have seen from the flock of presidential wannabe’s are amateurish at best, or fraught with danger to our nation at their worst (with the specific exception of Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina whose proposals I am not 100% in agreement with, but at least he has a sober and thought-out plan.) By the way, none of those folks will be in office until about 14 months from now.  It is sure a lot easier to say what should be done than to be the person responsible for actually making the decision. They show their ignorance when they do things like point to the “massive French response” and say that we should do the same.  The “massive” response is twelve (count them, twelve) aircraft bombing shacks in the desert.  The United States and coalition does more than that on a slow day and have been for over a year.  ISIS will not be defeated from the air.  No fly zones make no sense either, as several have proposed, because ISIS has no aircraft.  A no fly zone will bring us into direct conflict with Syrian aircraft (which we may want but such a decision should not be made in the heat of emotion), and with Russian aircraft (we are not fighting the Russians).  I could go on, but you get the idea.  We definitely do need to step up the military pressure on ISIS, especially on the ground, but we need to realize that it is easier said than done and we need to make sure we know what we are doing. Military experts always ask “what is the next step?” and “what is the end game?” and “what does it look like when we are successful?” — none of those specific questions have been answered by advocates of a bigger U.S. military effort and their plans have only very non-specific terms.

I am most bewildered, flabbergasted and profoundly disappointed by the calls from Republican candidates for president and the twenty-five (at last count — twenty-four Republicans and one Democrat) state governors who say that they will “outlaw” Syrian refugees, or indeed any Muslim refugees from settling in the United States.  It is doubtful that they have the legal authority to “outlaw” refugees, but more troubling is that they even propose it.  This is perhaps more dangerous to the future of the United States than the attacks in Paris.  It would also be a tremendous victory for ISIS should we “outlaw” Muslims in the United States. It proves their narrative that the West is “against” Islam.  ISIS also does not want to see those refugees leave their caliphate.  It ruins their narrative and gives them no basis to govern.

Most troubling are the cheers for the leading Republican candidate Mr. Donald Trump when he calls for a “deportation force” to round-up 11 million people from their homes and force them out of the country. Enforce immigration laws, certainly.  Work towards some form of comprehensive immigration reform, certainly.  But round-up 11 million people by force?  Really?  In the United States?  Over the weekend he went several steps further by declaring no Muslim refugees should enter the country — and oh by the way, when he’s president he will have those already legally here deported — but he also said that if he were president he would “strongly consider” shutting down mosques in the United States.  So much for the Constitution.

Even more troubling is that Mr. Trump was not alone in his demagoguery.  Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Ted Cruz said we should only allow “Christians” into the country.  As if we have a litmus test on religion as to who can come into the country.  Bye Bye Constitution.  Governor Chris Christie said he would not allow any refugees into the country, “even for orphans under the age of five.”  Nice.

Clearly they do not remember the glorious chapters of our nation’s history such as rounding up Native Americans and forcing them onto reservations or rounding up Japanese Americans and placing them in internment camps, or refusing to allow Jewish refugees into the country in the late 1930s.

It also belies the facts.  Safety is a concern, obviously.  Should they have looked into the issue more closely, instead of just shooting their mouths off for the sake of some votes, they would see that the situation for refugees coming into our country are vastly different from Europe.  Light years different. Europe is being inundated by refugees leaving the Middle East.  We are not.  Unless they can swim the Atlantic Ocean refugees allowed into the United States are carefully vetted, consist almost entirely of families with women and children, and take about 18 months from the beginning of the process until they arrive in this country.  They should also know that so far, all but one of the Paris attackers was from France and Belgium.

I might also point out that refusing to take in refugees does not make us any safer as anyone with a valid passport that is not on a watch list can get into the country.  Do these politicians want to stop all foreigners from coming in to the country?  Some apparently do.  Senator Rand Paul introduced legislation yesterday that prevents anyone from roughly 30 countries that have a “high risk” of terrorism or significant jihadist movements from entering the country (which would include France, by the way) and imposes a 30 day moratorium on anyone from any country entering the United States until the government verifies that no terrorists can enter the country from anywhere on earth using a passport. So much for the world economy when all movement is shut down.  I suppose that the specifics of how that works is similar to what my old calculus books used to say, “the proof is left to the reader.” Or better yet as they say on “Monday Night Football” — “c’mon man!”  All of which ignores actions such as those of Timothy McVeigh in Oklahoma City where he killed 168 people and wounded over 600 others.  An American, a military veteran, and a Christian.

We do not need amateurs and demagogues leading our nation.

Should we increase our intelligence activities, be super aware and learn to operate in the new reality of life with terrorism in the 21st century?  Of course.  Do we need to re-think our anti-ISIS strategy and consider increased military involvement?  Of course.  However, I have serious problems with the politicization of the issue and the glaring lack of specifics from most candidates.  And most of what I have heard proposed plays right into the hands of the terrorists.  Besides, it is un-American.


They Are All The Same

The passing of time has given us little to no more perspective, and certainly no less sorrow, on the murder of nine American citizens at the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina on the 17th of June this year.  A tragedy in no uncertain terms.

Much has been written, and I am certain will be again in the future as he goes to trial, about the motives of the young man who committed this despicable act.  To me it is relatively simple — he is a terrorist in the same vein as those joining ISIS, killing tourists in Tunisia, or the London bombings conducted ten years ago yesterday (the UK’s “7/7” which they equate to our 9/11).  The perpetrators of these evil acts and more are all of the same type. Almost universally they tend to be young males, alienated from society, aggrieved in their minds in some way by a societal group and able to find others of like mind on the internet.

It is this last element that may be different in society today than in years past but it does not adequately explain their actions.  As we all know, one can find almost anything on the internet.  There is no filter, there is no verification of facts, there is no stopping the vilification of one group or another and it is the perfect vehicle for inducing someone overlooked by society who feels a need to make a name for themselves.  It can be by conducting a single attack on their own, or it can be a recruitment tool to get young men to leave their homes and join a vicious organization that gives them vindication for their dirty deeds.  The internet makes it all easier, but it does not of itself explain their actions.

For some reason when such an act occurs in the United States we rarely use the word “terrorist.”  I don’t know why.  These are certainly terrorist acts done in the name of some cause just as they are overseas. Instead we seem to use words like “unstable” or “anti-social” or “lone wolf” or other words that tend to make it seem as though terrorism by United States citizens does not take place.  The implication is that attacks against Americans are only terrorist attacks if conducted overseas or are done on American soil by foreigners. The bombers of a church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 that killed four young girls were terrorists. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995 and was a terrorist. The six people killed in the Wisconsin Sikh Temple in 2012 were killed by a terrorist. Unfortunately, I could go on and on. We rightly worry about foreign terrorists carrying out attacks on our cities.  Let’s also understand that such attacks occur all too often by Americans.

I will not use pop psychology to analyze the elements of our society that cause these people to terrorize their fellow citizens.  I will argue that the first step is to call them what they are and not to rationalize their behavior even as we call it a tragedy.  Whether from the Middle East or the U.S. Midwest, they are the same.  They are terrorists.

Footnote:  I am sure that you, like me, are astounded at the generosity, humility, faith and belief in God demonstrated by the families and friends of those killed in the attack in Charleston.  I am humbled by their peace filled reaction.  Whatever our individual faith or beliefs, we could all take a lesson from them.

It Will Be A Long Hot Summer

Reports from the Middle East increase my trepidation on a daily basis.  Events do not bode well for the future and I am not sure what, if anything, the United States should do.

A tour around the horizon of the Middle East reveals that all hell is breaking loose.  In Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu, in the run up to his re-election, repudiated decades of Israeli-Palestinian policy by stating that there will never be a Palestinian state on his watch.  Since the election, he has tried to walk it back a bit, but the damage is done and most pundits, analysts, and policy makers take him at his original word. What this portends for any kind of settlement, only time can tell.  At best, it has delayed it.  At worst, it has scuttled all hope for a settlement and caused the United States, European allies, and others to re-evaluate their unequivocal support of Israel.  For the Israelis themselves it means continued occupation of Palestinian territories and a fundamental change to their nation. Either they are no longer a democracy (occupied Palestinians cannot vote) or they will no longer be a mainly Jewish state (if they annex the occupied territories the number of Palestinians and Arabs will out number the number of Jewish citizens).

In Iraq, a loose coalition of Iraqi regular military forces and Shiite militia under the direction of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Force general (!) taking on ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria — Sunnis) forces in Tikrit as a preliminary operational move to retake the key city of Mosul.  After preliminary success, the approximately 30,000 Iraqi fighters suffered high casualties, became bogged down and have been stymied for weeks now by the approximately 500 ISIS fighters in Tikrit.  Most experts believe this is because neither the regular forces nor the militias have any experience in urban fighting and with dealing with the resulting tactics of sniper fire, booby traps, Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) and the like.  The (now) most experienced forces in urban fighting?  ISIS and the United States military.

The situation was further complicated when the regular Iraqi army forces called in U.S. air strikes to help their offensive.  This caused the Shiite and Iranian forces to stop fighting and, indeed, several of their leaders threatened to shoot down U.S. aircraft if they flew overhead.  It should be noted that several of those groups previously fought against the U.S. during the Iraq war.

Meanwhile, the U.S. (along with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) is nearing the deadline for a deal with Iran to curtail its possible nuclear weapons program.  It is unclear that a deal can be reached or that it will be satisfactory to all involved.

With this in mind, as Iranian surrogates threaten to totally over run Yemen, the Arab states under the leadership of Saudi Arabia are fighting the insurgent Houthi.  The Arab leadership and the ousted government of Yemen are Sunnis.  The Iranians and Houthi are Shiite.  One reason thought to be behind the Arab action is the belief that the U.S. is becoming too close to the Iranians in the interest of making the nuclear deal.  By the way, before the Houthi success — just months ago — Yemen was a model for success in the war on terror and especially the war against Al’ Qaeda.  Currently the most active, successful and dangerous branch of Al’ Qaeda is the one in Yemen — known as AQAP or Al’ Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and they are Sunni.  Both the Arab coalition and the Houthis would like to eliminate AQAP, but they are too busy fighting each other.

An Arab coalition, led by Egypt, also occasionally conducts air strikes in Libya, just in case you have forgotten that this is another nation that has disintegrated into warring factions, including one that claims to be a part of ISIS.

As has gone on for years, Iranian Shiite surrogates in Syria, Libya, and Lebanon are fighting other Sunni factions (including ISIS which seems to be opening branch offices in other countries).  If you really want to get the low-down, Boko Haram in Nigeria now claims to be affiliated with ISIS.  Most analysts believe that although troubling, it is mostly a propaganda move by Boko Haram to get on the terrorist band wagon of perceived success.

You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.

In brief, long-standing tension and conflict between two factions of Islam broke out into outright warfare.  It is very hard to determine who are the bad guys and who are the less bad guys.  Without a comprehensive Middle East strategy, it will be difficult for the United States (and its allies) to deal with all of the various factions and to support the best interests of our country in the region.  One might ask what those interests may be.  Besides our stated national policy begun under President George W. Bush to bring democracy to the region, we also have an obligation to allies.  More to the strategic interests of the U.S., one can summarize our interests in one word — “oil.”  Whether or not the U.S. is, or becomes, self-sufficient in fossil fuels, oil is a fungible commodity and integral to the economies of the developed world.  Conflict resulting in the closing of the Strait of Hormuz (access to the Persian Gulf — or as U.S. military planners prefer, the Arabian Gulf) and of the Bab al Mandeb (the strait controlling access to the Red Sea and thus the Suez Canal) would drive oil prices very high, seriously inhibiting any recovery from the last recession and conceivably driving us back into a deep recession.

On top of this is the realization from our national experience that failed states lead to the ability of terrorist organizations to act without restraint in developing plots against other nations around the world including the United States.

This developing geo-strategic situation (the technical term is “mess”) creates the question of what should the U.S. do about it?  Although in a previous career I was considered a Middle East expert, I have to say “I don’t know.”  This is a tough one.  In some respects, this escalating situation is fundamentally a conflict between Sunni Islam and Shiite Islam and the resulting governmental control and continued well-being of certain elites on both sides of the equation.  To me, our getting into the middle of it would be akin to the Chinese getting involved in the Thirty Years War.  As the current order in the Middle East changes, and in many cases collapses, it mirrors in some ways the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in the 1600s and the resulting war between Protestants and Catholics for the future of Europe.  The difference today of course is that the world is interconnected in a way that could not even be conceived of in the 17th century, especially economically.  Also different is the ability to project power over long distances and to injure and kill civilians a long way from the battlefield.  Yet, the U.S. is not going to settle a war between two factions of Islam, just as in the 17th century the Chinese would never have been able to resolve a conflict between Christians.

We must also balance our desire to reign in Iran with the realities on the ground.  Which is the more important result — stopping Iranian adventurism or stopping their nuclear program?  The correct answer of course is “c — all of the above” but that is far easier said than done.  Is ISIS our primary threat?  It appears to me that ISIS is a terrible, evil entity, but that as an organization it will not have a lasting ability to establish their “caliphate.”  They will eventually self-destruct if constant pressure is applied.  At the same time, air strikes alone will not defeat them and the notion that Iraqi forces in conjunction with Kurdish militia and Shiite militia can drive them out of Iraq is now in question.  Air strikes may serve to contain further expansion, but to date it shows no real ability to defeat them.

And that’s in Iraq.  The real stronghold for ISIS is Syria.  We face yet another dilemma in dealing with that situation.  To battle ISIS is to help the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.  The avowed policy of the U.S. is that Bashar must go — leave power and allow a new government to form based on a negotiated settlement among the warring factions.  Isn’t going to happen.  Not to mention that ISIS will not negotiate any such settlement and neither will Bashar.  Middle Eastern dictators know one thing in their gut and it has been re-emphasized throughout their history — govern ruthlessly or you and your family are dead.  Our policy to train militant factions opposing Bashar’s government is too little too late and is called into question by the actions in Iraq where trained forces and strong militias are having a difficult time dislodging ISIS fighters.  I’m not sure how similar groups will do against ISIS in Syria or against Syrian regular forces, especially since the latter have an effective air-to-ground combat ability.

To me, the last resort, and the worst option, is expanded U.S. military involvement in the region. We have fought three wars there in the last twenty-five years and another now is not in our best interests. We need to prioritize our efforts on the economic and diplomatic fronts while still holding a big stick (the military) in reserve should something go really wrong.

In my mind, our priorities should be (with some possible smudging of the order as events unfold):

  • Continue pressure on Iran to get a meaningful deal on stopping their nuclear weapons program.  If the deal is not sufficiently transparent, with verifiable steps, then continue and tighten sanctions until Iranian leaders realize that they cannot ease their way out of world scrutiny of their actions.
  • Continue to support Iraq in its fight against ISIS.  Work to isolate and pressure ISIS through continued coalition air strikes, but no combat troops beyond advisers and intelligence support.
  • Pressure Israel to begin serious negotiations to settle the Palestinian issue, including through the United Nations where in the past, the U.S. vetoed every resolution thought to be against Israeli national interests.  The free ride is over until meaningful steps are taken.  That does not mean that we abandon our long time ally, indeed we continue with our military aid (in the billions annually) and other support.  It just means that now there needs to be some reciprocal movement in the direction of a meaningful settlement of a fundamental reason for unrest in the region.
  • Continue to support Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition in the fight in Yemen through coordination and intelligence support.  The U.S. should continue to conduct drone and other strikes against terrorist operatives in the country, but should not engage in overt military action.
  • Continue to develop alternative sources of energy in the U.S. and develop a comprehensive, forward-looking energy policy taking into account fossil fuels as well as wind, solar and other non-fossil fuel sources of energy.  It may be impossible, but such a policy should be devoid of the usual influences from lobby groups invested in their own profit motives.

This is a start and of course does not include the other areas of concern including Egypt, where one dictator replaced another; Libya which is a lawless basket case of a country; Somalia (roughly on the other side of the Bab al Mandeb) where the terrorist group Al-Shabaab is still a disruptive force in the region; Lebanon where the terrorist group Hezbollah basically controls the country and Afghanistan where a fragile government is still fighting elements of the Taliban and is not yet stabilized.

I fear that it will be a long hot summer as each of these situations is likely to get worse before they get better.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Two recent Congressional committee reports made the news in the last few days.  The first was from the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence chaired by Representative Mike Rogers (R-Michigan) on the events in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, and the second is the report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence chaired by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-California) on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program.  These reports show how well the system can work, as well as how sometimes the system fails itself and our nation.

The House report on Benghazi was the seventh such investigation into the events of that night when terrorists attacked the American Consulate in Benghazi Libya and four of our citizens died, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya.  This investigation and the resulting report is meant to be the final and definitive report on the events surrounding that tragic loss of life.  It will not be. Influential Republicans in the House and the Senate do not like the results of the investigative report, chaired by a Republican and that garnered bipartisan support from the committee members, and therefore are going to open yet another committee investigation.  This is because it uncovered no evidence of a conspiracy or cover-up or any other devious behavior by the Obama Administration.  They are sure that it happened, even if there is not a bit of evidence to support their claim.  I am also sure that their desire for yet another investigation has nothing to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State during that time and is likely to run for president in 2016.  They are merely trying to satisfy “the American people.”

Even a cursory reading of the Executive Summary of the report shows that the Select Committee exhaustively reviewed documents and diplomatic cables, conducted hearings and interviews and thoroughly reviewed the mountains of evidence surrounding the incident.  Their conclusion was that “appropriate U.S. personnel made reasonable tactical decisions that night” and that contrary to rumors perpetuated for political purposes “the Committee found no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support.”  They also concluded that “there was no intelligence failure prior to the attacks.”  Further, despite continued claims by those not involved, they found that “there was no evidence that any officer was intimidated, wrongfully forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement or otherwise kept from speaking to Congress or polygraphed because of their presence in Benghazi.”

That is not to say that there were no problems.  The Committee findings include the fact that “after the attacks the early intelligence assessments and the Administration’s initial public narrative on the causes and motivations for the attacks were not fully accurate.” They state that the initial reports were confusing and conflicting (also known as the fog of war) and inaccurate information was disseminated prematurely.  The assessments changed after further investigation and the receipt of more information, about ten days after the event.  They also discuss the infamous talking points process that provided Ambassador Susan Rice information when she appeared on Sunday talk shows.  They call the process “flawed” but did not conclude that it was a deliberate attempt to cover anything up or to mislead the public.  It should also be noted that the Administration corrected the record as additional evidence came to light.  (As a side note, I continue to be baffled by the unprecedented and unremitting attention paid to these talking points by some political opponents of the president, rather than on the facts of what happened. Talking points?  Really?  That’s what is important?)

There is more to the report, obviously, but these are the key findings and directly rebut the persistent rumors that continue to exist about cover-ups and abandoning our citizens.  Yet, the report, crafted by a Republican majority committee and joined by Democrats does not satisfy conspiracy theorists, or those that blatantly use mis-truths for their own political purposes.  So, we will now, for the eighth time, have yet another committee investigate at a cost in time and money that could best be used to govern the country.

Perhaps more newsworthy was the Senate report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation techniques following the attacks on 11 September, 2001 — “enhanced interrogation” techniques or “torture” depending on one’s view.  This, again, was an exhaustive study which took many years of investigation and work to compile.  It has less bipartisan support than the House report, but it does have the support of some Republican Senators (notably John McCain (R-Arizona) who knows torture) and the opposition of some Democrats.

I am sure that debate over this issue will continue into the foreseeable future, and I am not sure that there is only one “right” answer.  There is a lot of criticism over the timing of the release of the report, with some asserting that it will lead to terrorist attacks on our men and women around the world. I am not sure what would be a “good” time to release the report.  To my knowledge, terrorists and those that work to undermine our nation go to work everyday and already, in their minds, have sufficient motivation to attack us regardless of any report from Congress.  Let me also short-circuit any claims that anyone in our country wants to coddle the terrorists or has any sympathy for them.  People I know hope they rot in hell, they are evil beings, so this issue has nothing to do with going easy on terrorists.

I have tremendous sympathy and respect for most of the key decision makers following the attacks. They were under tremendous pressure to make sure that no further attacks were imminent or planned and they were focused on the need to safeguard our country.  I get that.  I also think that the discussion over how much or what kind of intelligence was gained, or not gained, is misguided.  Few of us outside of positions of authority that require very high intelligence clearances knows exactly what was obtained or from what source or from what method.  (Although I will point out that members of the Select Intelligence Committee do meet that high bar, as obviously do CIA personnel.)  However, there are many experts that contend torture is counter-productive in the long run and generally leads to poor intelligence.  There are better and more productive ways to gain valuable intelligence from detainees and prisoners that do not include torture.

To me there is only one bottom line argument.  The United States is different from other countries in the world, and thank God for that.  Most countries would not do such an introspective study of such a serious, contentious, and classified operation.  We do, and we try to learn from it.

More importantly, we are different because we act differently.  We don’t do torture.  I know all of the moral and ethical hypotheticals (if you knew you could shoot one person, even if illegally, and save thousands in the process would you do it?  Etc. Etc.)  I am talking about state sponsored, systematic, wide-spread, ongoing operations the scope and nature of which apparently was hidden for a long time from key elements of our government (seemingly including the president, Secretary of State and Congress).  We do not do it and we should not do it.  Otherwise, we are no different from the forces we aim to defeat.

I am no Pollyanna.  I know what goes on in the world and I have a good idea that bad things happen to bad people in our name as a nation.  This is different.  I am glad that it is in the public spotlight and hope that our nation can have an intelligent discussion about what we stand for as a country and where we should draw the line on official activities.

Just two examples of the good, bad, and ugly of life today.

Be Not Afraid

We’re all going to die!  Today!  Or at least that is what one would think from listening to the “three P’s” — pundits, politicians, and personalities — talk about Ebola.  Although the danger must be taken seriously, it is not an imminent threat to the United States. Unfortunately, public figures have jumped on it as a tool to gain political advantage in some closely contested political campaigns.

I would expect the pundits and personalities to use any excuse to keep their name in front of the public, but I find it disappointing at best that politicians would use it for personal gain.  Whatever it takes, I suppose.  In my mind, however, this would seem to be an issue that should be bipartisan, or better yet non-partisan, as all Americans are concerned about the safety and well-being of our country.

While Congress certainly has oversight responsibilities and should utilize that power, it should be used for the common good and not to score political points.  Just like me, they may have their opinions but they do not have experience with this particular disease nor do they have any medical expertise.  They do, however, have the power to stir up the American public and to spread fear where none is warranted. Caution is warranted certainly, but not fear.  Unfortunately, fear ran rampant in the early days following the discovery of the disease in Dallas.

Perhaps the most over-used phrase in our current lexicon is “in an abundance of caution.”  In my day, it was called CYA — cover your “behind.”  That is, taking an action that you know is not necessary but is done anyway so that no one can say you did not take action.  My favorite in this case is the school district in Oklahoma that kept students and faculty out of school because some had been on the same cruise ship as a lab technician that worked on the case of the Liberian man who died.  She had already been tested and found to be Ebola free when the school district made the decision “in an abundance of caution.”  There is caution and there is also common sense.

Again, I am no expert, but the debate over whether to prohibit travelers from Africa to enter the United States seems to be a little over blown as well.  While I cannot argue that it would do no good, it also seems to me that since there are no direct flights at present from the impacted area of Africa to the United States, to be effective, we would have to isolate the United States from all incoming travelers.  I might also point out that for twenty-two years the United States would not issue visas and banned all travel into the country if a person had HIV/AIDS.  The ban was lifted in 2010.  To my knowledge, we did not eradicate HIV/AIDS by having the ban and there has been no dramatic increase in cases since the ban was lifted.  With Ebola, once you have it you cannot get re-infected and  are no longer contagious, a different case than HIV/AIDS.

What we have learned is that when the experts say you have to do everything perfectly while treating an Ebola patient, they mean perfectly.  Not “good enough.”  As the saying goes, it’s only a lot of work if you do it.  I suspect that around the country health care professionals have dramatically increased their training and awareness.  Things in the theoretical seem to have new importance when they move to reality.  Merely reading about guidelines is not the same as actually practicing them — and doing them perfectly.  That much we have learned.

Bottom line:  There have been exactly three cases that presented in the United States.  It is a serious disease that must be taken seriously, but let’s be serious rather than hysterical.  And to the political campaigns using this issue to create fear about immigration and other issues — just stop it!

A note on events in Canada yesterday:  I was saddened to see the attack on the Canadian war memorial and Parliament in Ottawa.  It served to underscore the unfortunate reality of our life today in fighting terrorism and the forces they unleash.  On a personal note, I visited Ottawa and the memorial and the Parliament building a few years back and was struck by the apparent lack of an overt presence of police and other security forces throughout the area.  I liked it.  I especially liked it in the context of our public buildings and monuments in this country being turned into fortresses.  I am sure that the Canadians will now reevaluate their security conditions and change their way of doing business.  I am saddened by that.  I recognize the reality of the world that we live in today and can offer no viable alternative.  But it still saddens me because the goal of terrorism is to change the way that society conducts itself, and in that regard the terrorists are winning.

Where Do We Go From Here?

“Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into.”  — Oliver Hardy

After only a cursory glance at the headlines of the past few days, it is easy to discern that a lot of troublesome events are occurring around the world.  Two of the biggest, in my mind, involve the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the continuing rampage of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS — although apparently the United States government is using the abbreviation ISIL, or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant).

On the recent Sunday news talk shows, and elsewhere, there has been much finger-pointing and “coulda, woulda, shoulda” type of talk as to what needed to be done in the past.  While somewhat productive in order to prevent future mistakes, the backward looking finger-pointing does nothing to resolve the situation at hand.  It is disappointing, especially as many of the critics in the Senate and the House offer no way forward, only criticism of the President’s leadership or lack thereof. Unfortunately, the President showed a lot of candor but gave a disappointing public statement when he said last Thursday that we have no strategy for Syria.  Those of us who have studied such things would argue that there is no clear policy either, so without either concept, there can be no policy-strategy match.  As everyone who has taken even the most basic course in such things knows, the great disasters of military history are most often the result of a policy-strategy mismatch.

So, what do I say we should do so as not to be one of those backward looking critics that produce very little?  I am struggling with it — it’s a tough nut to crack in all respects, which is why most of the critics would rather look back at what should have been done rather than forward as to what to do.

Part of the significant background that sometimes goes missing in each of the cases — Ukraine and ISIS — is that no one, at least no one that anyone takes seriously, is advocating that American ground combat troops get involved in either situation.  (Can we please stop saying “boots on the ground?”  No one I know in the military uses that expression.  It is used mostly by pundits and politicians trying to use the latest lingo without really understanding what they are saying.) Even the strongest advocates of using American military power are really only advocating the use of American air power and some supporting intelligence units and special operations groups to find and identify targets.  Unfortunately, I can think of no significant conflict involving the use of American military power that has been won solely in the air. Ground troops, either our’s or someone else’s working with us are required in order to defeat, or even to significantly degrade the forces at work.  Thus we are back to diplomatic efforts to build some sort of coalition to fight the invaders and/or build up the host country so that it can fight on its own terms.  This takes time.  Sometimes, lots of time.

Currently, the Obama Administration is trying to build a coalition on both fronts to confront the Russians in Ukraine and ISIS in Iraq.  The Russians are more of a direct threat to Europe than the United States and ISIS is a direct threat to every country in the Middle East.  Yet, trying to get other nations to take action has been difficult at best.  One could question whether or not the difficulty is partly of our own making, given the ambivalent messages that the President has put forward during the last 12-15 months.  It is time to step up and put some direct pressure on our allies and friends to come together and not just leave it to the United States to solve the problem.  Fortunately, a few national leaders in Europe are starting to come around, but not enough and not very quickly.

I am more worried about Ukraine, in terms of long-term implications to the United States, than I am about ISIS. This is not to say that I underestimate that maniacal organization.  Both situations are extremely serious to the United States and its interests, but I think strategically, Russian actions in Ukraine are more detrimental to our long-term interests. Unfortunately, that crisis is not getting the same sort of attention from our leaders, at least according to what I see in news accounts, as is ISIS.  So let me address that first.  As I do so, remember from my 9 August post that the basic function of military forces is to deter, defend, defeat.

Vladimir Putin is neither deterred, nor defeated by the threat of sanctions.  That is clear in his actions so far.  And sanctions do little to nothing to defend against an attack.  This is not to say that sanctions should not be applied, only that what the Europeans have done thus far is only mildly irritating to Putin in the pursuit of his ambitions.  Particularly troubling were reports about a television appearance he made in Russia on Friday where Putin openly talked about creating a new state in eastern Ukraine.  It is not only for propaganda purposes that Putin and many Russians talk about Novorossiya, or the new Russia.  It is a historical term that denotes most of eastern and southern Ukraine along the Azov and Black Seas.  Indeed, this is the area of the latest Russian invasion (and yes, I understand the President said “incursion” in order not to create the conditions where we must act.  But that’s what it is).  The latest Russian military moves occurred for two reasons.  First, the Ukrainian military was defeating the “volunteer” Russian and separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.  The simple operational move to relieve pressure on those forces is to open a new front, and that’s what they did, thereby giving the Ukrainian military too much to handle.  Secondly and strategically, the move along the sea creates a corridor to create a land bridge between Crimea (annexed by Russia from Ukraine last spring) and other areas of Russian interest.

Remember, and I wish European leaders would review their history,  that NATO was formed for the exact, and at the time the only, reason to protect Europe from Soviet (Russian) invasion.  Although Ukraine is not a member of NATO, it seems that the leadership in Europe should see the writing on the wall.  Putin is testing the waters of European resolve in order to see what type of resistance he will get as he tries to regain Russian dominance and restore the Russian Empire, goals he openly talks about.  Weak sanctions will not do it.  So far there have been no substantive consequences to stop his territorial ambitions.

So, what should be done?  The following actions within NATO and the European Union are not exhaustive as I am sure there are additional courses of action being considered.  As a minimum the west should:

  • Provide the Ukrainian military with the supplies, including heavy weapons, that they require to combat the immediate threat.
  • Provide training to Ukrainian military leaders at the tactical and operational levels to instill a long-term ability to combat Russian military adventures.
  • Increase the numbers and types of rotational deployments of United States military forces to the Baltic states and eastern Europe to underline the importance the United States puts on the tenants of the NATO treaty and the independence of nations.
  • Impose meaningful sanctions on the Russian economy.  This will necessarily impose hardships on some sectors of the European economy.  The western world is either serious about this threat or it isn’t.  To me there is a certain element of “pay me now or pay me later”.  The costs of dealing with Putin will only go up over time.
  • Convene a high level diplomatic conference involving all meaningful players, and put the pressure on Russia to cease its adventures in Ukraine while trying to accommodate legitimate concerns of vital importance to Russia. This should not mean throwing Ukraine under the bus, but could include some semi-autonomy in parts of eastern Ukraine under international observers.

Putin is playing the long game.  The sooner the west demonstrates to him our resolve and the sooner that he feels actual consequences to his actions, the sooner he will look for a diplomatic solution.

Defeating ISIS takes a different skill set.  ISIS will not come to the negotiating table, nor should we even hint at any kind of compromise.  However, diplomatic and political efforts must be made along with any military effort.  Iraq must get its political house in order so that the efforts of its military are not seen in Sunni or Shiite terms only.  Defeating ISIS also means that we are helping Bashar al-Assad and his murderous regime in Syria and aiding the strategic interests of the Iranians.  Both results are inimical to our own interests.

So what should be done?  The United States cannot do this alone.  While we have the military means to fight ISIS, air power alone cannot stop their reign of terror and the United States should not reintroduce ground combat troops to fight the ISIS army.  The nations in the area must also recognize the threat that ISIS holds for them as well and take actions to:

  • Pressure Turkey to close its borders.  Intelligence reports indicate that fighters, supplies and weapons are moving freely back and forth across the border with Syria.  Turkey is a member of NATO.  Push them to shut down this avenue of supply.
  • Pressure Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to cut off funding to ISIS.  Wealthy Sunni Arabs are secretly supplying funds and supplies to ISIS.
  • Enlist Jordan, Qatar, Turkey and others to train and equip moderate fighters in Syria to increase their strength and ability to counter the Bashar al-Assad regime, and thereby pull fighters away from ISIS, as well as furthering a more moderate force in the area.
  • Push for a ground offensive from the Iraqi military.  American air power can support ground attacks, but cannot alone defeat ISIS.
  • Equip Kurdish and other fighters that have a proven combat record.
  • Continue intelligence work to find and decapitate the ISIS leadership.  They have many dedicated fighters.  They have also become a haven for the world’s psychopaths out for a good time.  Without key leaders, the various factions within the group would fragment.
  • Continue to push the Iraqi government to get its political house in order.  The disenfranchisement of Sunnis in Iraq adds fighters to the ISIS ranks.  With a coalition government that genuinely looks out for the interests of all Iraqis, not just Shiites, some of the fighters from ISIS that do not share their apocalyptic view of the world may melt away.
  • Continue intelligence work in the United States and elsewhere to identify and impede the travels of potential recruits wishing to join ISIS.

ISIS is an evil force that must be excised.  The United States is a key player in getting an organized effort to eradicate them.  However, the United States should not, and cannot be the only nation combating this threat if we are to succeed in making it irrelevant.

Critics of the President say that he is too deliberative and slow to act.  I am not so sure that is a bad thing.  Some events require an immediate response, others, with so much at stake, require a more thought out response.  It is not too late to have a measured, coherent, international response to both of these threats.  Such things take time, often frustratingly so.  That said, time, tide and world events wait for no man.  We need to put forth a coherent and forceful strategy to deal with these threats to our stability.  And we need to be flexible enough to adjust the strategy as events unfold and respond to the actual situation.

I am sure that the professionals in the State and Defense Departments have thought this through.  Let’s get on with it.

Between Iraq and a Hard Place

As I commented in my post of 17 June, the United States has a difficult task ahead in figuring out how to deal with the advances of the terrorist group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).  Although their progress slowed in late June and through July, as you are aware, they have now turned northward towards the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.  These ISIS fighters are a much more formidable force, with skilled tacticians and some sense of strategic objectives, than most originally thought possible.  On Thursday, President Obama authorized the use of American air power to avert a humanitarian disaster and to help the Kurds resist ISIS advances.  More on that in a moment.

For months the Obama Administration resisted pressure to get involved again in Iraq.  Primarily,  it was because there was no clear path to follow without significant changes in the political climate in Iraq.  In the end, with extremely few historical outliers, wars can only be ended through political means.  The loser gets to decide when the war is over, no matter how badly beaten they may be.  The situation is the same in Iraq.  The Shiite dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki is extremely unpopular in many areas of the country.  Until a broader based government is in place, there is little to no chance of stability returning to Iraq.  The United States cannot fix that.  And yet, here we are getting involved again.

Part of the issue is that we cannot ignore the territorial spread of the pernicious tenants of the ISIS fighters.  They dominate much of Iraq, essentially controlling the northern and western parts of the country, as well as parts of Syria. There is no question that ISIS is bad news, bringing death and destruction to anyone that opposes them or their extremely fundamentalist view of Islam.  The role that the U.S. can play in stopping them is difficult to determine, especially as ISIS is also fighting the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

Part of the issue is that the Iraqi Army, at least those Sunni dominated units, do not have the will or the ability to oppose ISIS.  US military advisers and intelligence personnel have helped the Iraqi units that are willing to resist (unfortunately backed primarily by Shiite militia units) to stop them from advancing towards Baghdad, but is unclear how the Iraqi military will act to confront ISIS where it already exists.

The unexpected development is the inability of Kurdish fighters to stop the ISIS advance.  The Kurdish fighters, or peshmerga, are tough, experienced fighters.  They were expected to be a bulwark in stopping the ISIS advance and thereby preserving a part of Iraq that could be used as a staging area for further efforts against ISIS and to provide a bastion for United States military and other personnel to operate out of the United States Consulate in Irbil.  This plan fell apart this week as Kurdish forces were becoming overwhelmed by the ISIS fighters, partly because of their use of captured American heavy weapons that Iraqi forces left behind in their eagerness to abandon their posts in the June fighting.  The Kurds were the most supportive of U.S. efforts in Iraq and a bond exists between the U.S. military and Kurds.  Additionally, a very large humanitarian crisis was unfolding as tens of thousands of Iraqis fleeing the ISIS forces found themselves stuck atop a barren mountain range without adequate food or water.  The combination of factors could not be ignored.

Complicated indeed.  Thus, President Obama’s decision to provide air power to try to alleviate the situation.  This effort is currently underway in two parts.  First, air drops of food, water, and other supplies are taking place for those trapped on the barren mountains.  It was a situation that only a major power could alleviate.  Second, fighter/bomber forces were authorized to protect the airdrops and to attack ISIS fighters where they threatened Kurdish forces protecting U.S. interests in Irbil.  This part is more difficult to understand.  Both parts of the operation could potentially drag the U.S. back into combat in Iraq or conversely, tarnish our reputation as a world power.  Only time will tell, but here are the pitfalls that I see coming and that may be difficult to avoid.

The United States, with the United Kingdom, has already undertaken a nearly similar effort in providing relief in this part of Iraq.  It occurred in 1991 and was called Operation Provide Comfort.  This effort took place following Gulf War I when Saddam Hussein turned his wrath inward on his own people following his defeat in Kuwait.  In short, a humanitarian crisis developed as tens of thousands of Kurds fled Saddam’s forces and were trapped without food and water.  The U.S. and U.K. began air operations to provide food, water, and other supplies to the Kurds.  As it happened, there was no expertise on the Kurdish side to assist in the effort, so it was decided to put logisticians on the ground to help the air dropped supplies land in the proper places and to distribute those supplies.  This precipitated the need for security forces to also be on the ground to protect the logisticians.  This led to a major undertaking.  I trust that some of the current planners in the Pentagon, Baghdad and Irbil remember this operation, and how what seems to be a simple thing — getting food and water to people who need it — can quickly become a much larger and more involved task.  It is never as simple or easy as it seems.

More worrisome to me are the “limited” air strikes.  The tenants of military forces, simply put, are “Deter, Defend, Defeat” — deter the enemy from attacking, defend against attacks if deterrence fails, and then defeat the enemy.  We already know that ISIS is not and will not be deterred by the threat of limited air strikes.  The intent of the authorized action is to defend the Kurdish fighters, the results of which are unknown and will be unknown for some time.  We also already know that limited air strikes (despite the headlines and rhetoric, a total of twelve 500 pound bombs and a drone strike in the desert are a pin prick) will not defeat ISIS.  So where are we going?  Heavier airstrikes?  Special forces on the ground to locate targets?  More advisers in Iraq?  The path ahead is unclear to me, and there is no obvious strategy at play in the use of our military force.

My concern is that either the United States — and it is unlikely that we will get any other nation actively involved to help us — will get drawn into another major conflict in the Middle East, or do little more than what we have done already the last few days and look ineffective at best in our efforts.  We are in a tough situation, sure to be damned if we do, and damned if we don’t.

There are some that can make a good case that we should get involved yet again in Iraq, especially against such an evil force as ISIS.  I am not so sure.  In the end, only the forces on the ground — Iraqis, be they Kurds, Sunnis or Shiites — with their own homes and families hanging in the balance can make a difference.

There are a number of intermediate steps that can be taken, of course, without full American involvement.  The question is how effective they will be.  Remember that we spent eight years, nearly a trillion dollars, and lost 4,487 Americans in our last attempt to fix the problem.  It does not seem to me that a few bombs from some carrier based F-18s are going to solve it now.

These are indeed dangerous times.  Actions are required.  Let’s hope that our leaders understand history and make the right decisions.