Too Big To Fail

It occurred to me as I watched the Impeachment Trial of Donald John Trump officially begin last Thursday, that like several banks and corporations during the Great Recession of the 2000’s, the amount of lying, conniving, lawbreaking, personal greed and damage to the dignity of the Office of the President of the United States is so much, that it becomes too big for him to fail.  Or in this case, to be convicted.  Republicans in the House and Senate, along with key Cabinet positions in his Administration, have bought into the Trump Cult to such a degree that they cannot afford for him to fail lest they expose their own weaknesses, misconduct, phoniness, fraudulent actions and other misdeeds.

As things now stand, the trial that begins in earnest next Tuesday will be a sham.  The new developments coming out almost daily continue to show the depth and breadth of Mr. Trump’s efforts to rig the 2020 election.  Those efforts are matched by the depth and breadth of involvement by members of his Administration and his supporters in Congress.

You want a good example?  How about the fact the we are learning from written documents, including phone calls and text messages, that Representative Devin Nunes (R-CA) and his chief aide, Mr. Derek Harvey were in close contact with Mr. Lev Parnas, the chief “associate” (read thug) working with Mr. Rudy Giuliani.  These are the guys on the ground involved in the Ukraine caper trying to find manufactured dirt on Mr. Trump’s probable election opponent Mr. Joe Biden.  Mr. Nunes and Mr. Harvey were aiding and abetting the operation.  This is the same Devin Nunes that is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee that investigated Mr. Trump’s activities.  He is one of those guys who shouted (literally) throughout the hearings that it was all made up, a hoax and a sham.  Even as he was in on it.  And even as he was supposed to help supervise the proceedings.

It is sometimes difficult to keep track of all the names and institutions that are normally outside the course of daily events.  Sometimes I think that, like at the ball park, “you can’t tell the players without a score card!”  But it is important to see what is going on in plain sight as well as behind closed doors.

One of those institutions is the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) (although Mr. Trump tweets it as GOA).  This is the non-partisan group tasked by law to monitor government activities and to report its findings to Congress. The GAO determined last week that the president’s withholding of appropriated funds for Ukraine broke the law.  Specifically, it broke the 1974 Impoundment Control Act (ICA) which was enacted in response to President Richard Nixon’s efforts to withhold appropriated funds to distract from his own Impeachment proceedings.  Several emails among government officials had already surfaced that in the months that the funds were withheld, conscientious government officials cited the law as they sought to determine why the funds were not sent.  It is not an obscure or non-relevant provision as some in the administration would like you to believe.

In the past week, Mr. Lev Parnas has been dropping some real bomb shells. While his testimony should not be taken as the absolute truth on its own merits, it does provide insight into the thinking going on and provides a road map for further investigation.  While many impugn his character, keep in mind that criminals commit crimes and they often turn on their fellow criminals for purposes of their own.  It does not mean that they aren’t factual.  But don’t take him at his word.  Look at the documents that he and his lawyers continue to turn over to Congress.  People lie.  Documents tend to lead to the truth.

In this busy week, revelations surfaced that the former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch (the ambassador Mr. Giuliani wanted fired for interfering with his extortion scheme) may have been under physical surveillance by Americans and in danger from Americans.  Not a peep from the Secretary of State defending his career Foreign Service Officers until cornered at a press conference yesterday.  He announced no action to conduct an investigation.  Days earlier, Ukraine began an investigation.  On their own.  As of today, Ukrainian officials asked the U.S. FBI to help them, but still no investigation initiated by any U.S. agency to protect our diplomats.  Is it because this administration does not care about U.S. citizens and diplomats overseas or is it because they do not want to know the answer?

More news this week as Mr. Giuliani, Mr. Parnas and the third thug in the ring, Mr. Igor Furman were reportedly being paid by a Russian oligarch (under indictment in the US) with close ties to Vladimir Putin.  (Why is it that all of Mr. Trump’s roads lead to Putin?)

As the evidence mounts, it is clear that this extortion scheme went far deeper than “just” a phone call between two presidents.  To date, no Republican has seriously contested any of the evidence produced around the Impeachment.  They have attacked witnesses, sources of information, process and other things that have nothing to do with the facts.  The facts are not in dispute.  For that matter, Mr. Trump himself admits to them.

As part of their scheme to white wash the Impeachment Trial, the Senate Republicans are setting up false equivalencies.  This is especially true with respect to witnesses and additional  evidence not available when the House did its investigation.  The president continues to block key information and to prevent witnesses from testifying (in my view this just reinforces that they have no exculpatory evidence).  The Republicans will claim that since they did not get, say, Mr. Hunter Biden to testify, then not having Mr. John Bolton testify means that it is “even” — no one got what they wanted, and thus that it is fair.  Baloney.  Hunter Biden has no material testimony as to what Mr. Trump did.  Mr. Bolton has significant first hand knowledge.  There are a multitude of similar arguments being put forward to prevent the truth from coming out.  This sets up their ultimate defense.

The Republican defense argument is likely to be “so what?”  “Yes, he did it.  What’s it to ya?”  Reasonable people may dispute whether the punishment, removal from office, fits the crime, extorting a foreign power to get them to interfere in a US election, but the facts remain.  Indeed, the vast scope of the whole scheme is becoming clearer and clearer.  It was a classic mob action.  It also indicates a pattern of behavior by the president.  It is clear that he will continue to act this way.  It is his nature and, we now know, the way he operates in every aspect of his life, past and present.  It is time to hold him accountable.  His behavior is not going to get better, and without accountability it can get a lot worse.

It seems to me that Mr. Trump now has sufficient accomplices in his administration, and in the Congress, that he feels he can get away with anything.  They do not think that anything is off limits to them in the pursuit of their self-interests and their own power, including criminal activity.  Nothing.  And that is not hyperbole as we continue to see for ourselves.

I have also come to understand that we will never know the real truth behind, or the extent of the corruption.  The system is not geared for fraud and criminal activity on such a scale, especially when it is coordinated by the President of the United States.  And most especially when the Attorney General of the United States does everything in or out of his power to protect the actions of the president. It’s just “too big.” Sadly, this includes whatever it is Vladimir Putin has on him.  (My view is that has to do with money laundering and other illegal financial ties.)

As Timothy Egan put it more eloquently than I in a New York Times essay, evil attracts evil.  In the absence of good people acting, evil triumphs.  There is evil in the White House and it is spreading throughout our government.


Where Does It End?

The last few weeks produced a year’s worth of newsworthy events.  Among other things was the Commander-in-Chief interfering with the effective application of good order and discipline in the military under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).  The president pardoned three men convicted or accused (and awaiting trial) for war crimes — two Army officers and one Navy Chief Petty Officer.  In doing so he further demonstrated a total lack of understanding of the military by tweeting (of course) that he did so because “we train our boys to be killing machines and then prosecute them when they kill!”  Such statements totally ignore the fact that what separates our military from most others is that in training to fight for our country, our military also learns to do so with discipline, under a code of conduct that prohibits indiscriminate killing, especially of civilians and works to protect the honor and dignity of our nation’s morals, espoused in a speech by General Douglas MacArthur, as “duty, honor, country.”  Note that all three men were brought up on charges of crimes under the UCMJ by their own soldiers and Sailors, not by higher ranking officers trying to make some politically correct example of them, as the president implies.

Hanging over everything of course, is the impending impeachment of the President of the United States.  In the course of events, three particularly troubling things are happening that in my opinion fundamentally threaten the nature of our democracy.

Very troubling is the conscious use of Russian propaganda on the part of Republican U.S. Senators to try and defend the president’s shakedown scheme against Ukraine to help his own reelection in 2020 using taxpayer money.  Otherwise knowledgeable and intelligent Republican Senators such as John Neely Kennedy (LA) and Ted Cruz (TX) and others publicly say that we do not know whether the Russians meddled in the 2016 election, rather it was the Ukrainians.  Such garbage could have been written by the former KGB officer Vladimir Putin himself.  A unanimous intelligence community agrees it was the Russians. Period.  They agree it was not Ukraine, a fact FBI Director Christopher Wray reiterated just last week.  The alleged Ukrainian “meddling” is most often a reference to a single op-ed piece written by the Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States criticizing then candidate Trump for saying that Crimea (stolen from Ukraine by force by Russia) “belongs” to Russia.  Since Ukraine and Russia continue in a hot war, it might not be too far of a stretch to say that there were some hard feelings towards Mr. Trump saying, essentially, that Ukraine should be a part of Russia again.  Another statement straight out of Putin’s talking points.

It is shameful that Republican Representatives and Senators perpetuate such lies on the citizens of the greatest nation on Earth.

But it get worse.

The long anticipated Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General (IG) report on the origins of the investigation into meddling in the 2016 election came out.  This report, according to Mr. Trump and his supporters, would unmask the “deep state” and clearly show that the FBI and DOJ were out to keep Mr. Trump from becoming president through a vast “liberal” conspiracy.  It did none of those things.  None.  On the contrary, while the IG’s report found some troubling procedural problems that need to be corrected or changed, it explicitly says that the basis of the investigation was solid, within DOJ guidelines, had no bias behind any of the decisions made and was fully appropriate.

The president’s reaction?  He lashed out as usual.  Among other things he referred to the people in the FBI as “scum.”  Perhaps we as a country have come to expect that from a President of the United States, but I have not. But, I am no longer surprised.  What deeply troubles me is that Attorney General William Barr, the DOJ and FBI boss, echoed the president’s remarks.  Instead of supporting the FBI or the work of the independent IG, in an interview with NBC News he said about the report and investigation:

“I think our nation was turned on its head for three years based on a completely bogus narrative that was largely fanned and hyped by a completely irresponsible press.  I think there were gross abuses and inexplicable behavior that is intolerable in the FBI.”

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal he said of the investigation “It was a travesty, and there were many abuses.”  So much for the credibility of an independent IG and so much for the Attorney General working for the people of the United States rather than being the president’s personal shill, I mean attorney.

Deeply troubling.  But it gets worse yet.

The president is about to be impeached (appropriately in my opinion, but that’s a post for another day).  The Senate will then conduct a trial on the two Articles of Impeachment to either remove Mr. Trump from office, or acquit him.

All 100 of the sitting Senators act as jurors and take an oath.  It is not the oath of office, but an oath as a juror.  According to Rule XXV of the Senate Rules On Impeachment Trials the oath is:

“I solemnly swear (or affirm) that in all things appertaining to the trial of ___, now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws, so help me God.”

And yet.

The Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) went on TV and declared that he is “in total coordination with the White House counsel” on the rules and parameters of the trial — such as calling witnesses or not —  and opined that the president would be acquitted and that all Republicans would so vote.  Senator McConnell gets to set the rules of this trial and is also a juror.  Fair and impartial?  It is like the jury foreman in a case getting together with the defense attorney before the trial to determine how they will acquit the defendant.

Other Republican Senators have expressed similar opinions, most notably Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC).  On Sunday’s Face the Nation he said that he was going to vote to acquit the president and that “I don’t need any witnesses.  I am ready to vote on the underlying articles.”  Earlier last week he said that he did not even intend to review any of the facts raised before the House of Representatives during the investigation leading to the Articles of Impeachment.  So much for following one’s oath.

Impeachment is a serious and sobering step.  The Senate deserves to treat it as such.  Instead we continue to hear Republicans moan and groan about “hoaxes” “witch hunts” “undermining the 2016 election” and other whiny defenses of the president.  Please note that not one of them disputes the facts as presented in the House.

Our democracy is in trouble as the president continues to argue that he is above the law.  He claims that he cannot be investigated by law enforcement or by the Congress.  Nobody or no entity or no organization can do so.  His lawyers have even argued in court that if the president actually did shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York (as he famously said during his campaign) that he could not be prosecuted.

In recent days, Mr. Trump’s “personal lawyer” Rudy Guiliani, just back from a “fact finding” trip to Ukraine, is bragging to anyone that will listen that he “forced out” U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanavitch because she was getting in the way of his schemes.

The president is being impeached for Obstruction of Congress and Abuse of Power.  It is clear that he did not just abuse power, rather that he continues abusing power today.  Events are unfolding that impact our elections.  Not the one in 2016, but the upcoming 2020 elections.  We already know that Mr. Trump thinks his position is so weak that he must cheat to win.  He took advantage of Russian meddling and he has often publicly stated that he will take help again from other nations if it will help him win.

The past is past.  We need to protect our future.


How Low Will They Go?

As more and more information becomes available through the release of sworn testimony concerning the shakedown of Ukraine perpetrated by the President of the United States and his minions, the Republicans in Congress have become increasingly desperate in their defense of his actions.

They have used arguments ranging from the ridiculous to the downright dishonest.  Recently, three Senators that I thought were relatively straight shooters, even if I didn’t usually agree with their ideas, grovelled in front of Mr. Trump in public.  At campaign rallies, Rand Paul (KY) and John Kennedy (LA) made speeches demeaning others in terms that would get any fourth grader in trouble as Mr. Trump stood behind them grinning his “look what I’ve made them do” grin.  Lindsey Graham (S.C.) increasingly is getting desperate in his attempts to be Mr. Trump’s bestie.  When asked about the most recent incriminating testimony from witnesses in the House of Representatives, he stated that he refused to read the transcripts.  In other words, a future juror in the president’s trial (should he be impeached which I think he deserves to be) refuses to even look at the evidence, much less give it due consideration.  Appalling.

Next week the public hearings in the impeachment inquiry begin.  After weeks of complaining that it was a secret “Soviet style” proceeding, the president and his underlings now claim that the hearings should not be public.  Because they know that unequivocal evidence exists that an orchestrated shakedown occurred?  Perhaps they fear that the public will continue the trend towards supporting impeachment if they hear the truth?

According to several reports, House Republicans are now contemplating claiming that the president did not know what his flunkeys, specifically Mr. Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Mick Mulvaney, and Ambassador Gordon Sondland, were doing.  They went “rogue.”  Nice try.  Mr. Trump himself released a Memorandum for the Record (MFR) that captures in his own words the  shakedown of the President of Ukraine.  Numerous individuals with direct knowledge, including listening to the phone call, have testified that there was a months long effort to make it clear to the Ukrainian government that to get what they so desperately needed to fend off Russian aggression was a public statement by the Ukrainian president.  According to the sworn testimony of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent that statement must include three words.  “Investigation.” “Biden.” “Clinton.”  No statement, no reward.  A shakedown at the direction of Mr. Trump.  Also known in legal circles as extortion.

In the Senate, it appears that their defense of Mr. Trump will boil down to a three pronged response. “He did it.”  “So what?”  “Get over it.”

Nice.

The evidence will continue to show that the president abused the power of his office.  He probably is used to doing business this way in all of his endeavors.  Additionally, there was a concerted effort, as outlined in sworn testimony, to cover it up.  We all know enough about Mr. Trump that if he gets away with this abrogation of the public trust he will do it again.

The story is not very complicated.  In the coming weeks we will hear it for ourselves.  All Americans believe that no one is above the law.  That is now being put to the test.  Impeachment and removal from office is a sobering responsibility given to the Congress through the Constitution.  It should be approached with the utmost care and with a full understanding of the consequences of such an action.  Trivializing the process with playground epithets and unserious rationalizations should not be a part of the process.  One would expect both Democrats and Republicans to understand the stakes and to live up to their oaths of office.  Undertake due diligence.  Review the evidence.  Treat career diplomats and military officers testifying under oath with respect.  And yes, search their souls for the strength to do what they think is in keeping with our national values and laws.  We should expect nothing less from our elected officials.  Unfortunately, one party is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Trump, Inc.

He did it so get over it is not a defense.  It is a desperate short-term effort to retain power that is unworthy of American values and our faith in the rule of law.  Politicians should rise to the occasion and reflect our better selves.  Unfortunately, I expect that the road ahead will only get lower and muddier.

 


A Sad Day For America

Yesterday the House of Representatives voted to authorize the rules to continue an impeachment inquiry into the actions of the President of the United States with respect to Ukraine.  It is a sober moment for our nation and it should be a reason for each of us to pause and to think about the ramifications of this action.

Contrary to what some have publicly stated, this was not a vote to impeach.  The vote pertained to the conduct of the public fact gathering portion of the proceeding.  Should the House decide that the president did in fact conduct himself in a manner contrary to the Constitution, they will draft Articles of Impeachment.  The entire House then votes to approve or disapprove each of the Articles.  Should one or more Article pass, the Senate then holds a trial, presided over by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and votes to convict or acquit the president on each Article.

So far, the majority of Republicans in the House have made a mockery of the proceedings.  At the direction of the president, they are spreading lies and misinformation about the investigation.  This included storming a classified conference room to “expose” the “secret” proceedings.  Not mentioned is that over 40 Republican Congressmen already had access to those proceedings and indeed participated in them to the fullest extent.  Yesterday, they went to the House floor to decry the inquiry as akin to secret trials held in the Soviet Union.  It is shameful and dishonest behavior on their part.

Now reports indicate that Mr. Trump will monetarily support the election campaigns of Senators that promise to vote against any Articles of Impeachment.  He will withhold supporting funds from those that do not.  We used to call this bribery.

The Impeachment Inquiry rules incorporate everything that the Republicans asked for with public hearings.  Everything.  And the rules approved yesterday afford the president more leeway and ability to participate than either set of hearings involving President Nixon or President Clinton.

The process should be fair and open.  But here’s the deal.  We all already know the basics of what happened.  The president, his Acting Chief of Staff, and his personal attorney have all been on television telling us exactly what happened.  A long parade of career diplomats and military officers followed with contextual information that indicates just how wide-spread and long-planned the effort to extort the Ukrainian government actually was.  It was an old-fashioned shake down.  The president wanted “dirt” on his main political rival and to have the Ukrainian government fuel a conspiracy theory that the Russians did not really interfere in the 2016 election.  Rather, it was a set up by the Democrats to undermine Mr. Trump’s campaign run from, wait for it, Ukraine.  Both conspiracy theories have been long ago debunked by our entire intelligence service and by several of Mr. Trump’s own political appointees.

In exchange for made-up information fabricated by Mr. Trump and his henchmen, the president would release nearly $400 million in aid that Ukraine needed to fight off Russian backed separatists.  While Mr. Trump ran his crazy mob scam, Ukrainians were dying on the battlefield.  Mr. Trump undermined Ukrainian security and our own national security for his personal domestic political goals.  He used taxpayer money to extort another country to interfere in our domestic elections for his benefit.  This was not a government effort to eliminate corruption generally.  There is no such effort or policy in this administration unless the only country in the world that is corrupt is Ukraine and the only people in Ukraine that were corrupt was the Bidens.

It was not just one “perfect” phone call either.  The parade of witnesses deposed by the House committees (there were three committees involved) described a long-term, many pronged, concerted effort to run the scam.  The phone call was the result of months of heavy pressure outside of normal diplomatic channels to get Ukraine to fabricate lies to help the political fortunes of Mr. Trump.

There is also the little matter of the president standing on the White House lawn and encouraging China to interfere in the 2020 election, just as he publicly asked Russia to interfere in the 2016 election.

We already know all this.  (Although, I suspect that it is only the tip of the ice berg.)

The House of Representatives is focused only on his egregious behavior regarding Ukraine.  They are not considering impeachment based on his status as an unindicted co-conspirator for money laundering and campaign violations regarding payments to a porn star and a Playboy model.  They are not trying to impeach him for the 110 known contacts between his campaign and Russians during the 2016 election.  They are not drawing up Articles for the 10 clear cut unlawful efforts to obstruct justice during the Mueller Investigation.  They are not contemplating impeaching him for the over 13,500 documented lies to the American people.

Equally important, we all know that a president cannot be impeached because we disagree with his policies.  We cannot impeach a president because of an obnoxious personality.  We can impeach a president when our national security is put at risk through an abuse of power.

In my opinion the facts surrounding the Ukraine shakedown are not in dispute.  Please note that the Republicans are not defending Mr. Trump by disputing the facts or by providing an explanation of his actions.  They are only attacking the process, and now that process is of their own design.  If they had a factual basis to defend the president, they would use it.  They have no facts on their side.

If the facts are not in dispute then the only remaining question is whether they meet the standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”  I think that they do, in the context of presidential abuse of power — the major concern of the Founding Fathers — and obstruction of justice by refusing to turn over documents and witnesses lawfully subpoenaed by Congress.

Some argue that with elections about a year away the president should not be impeached but rather the people should decide Mr. Trump’s fate through the ballot box.  I think that argument is illogical.  Mr. Trump was trying to interfere with the 2020 election after we already know that there was interference in the 2016 election.  He knows better.  More to the point, how can we be sure that the 2020 election is legitimate if we already know that Mr. Trump is trying to stack the deck in his own favor?  He is already trying to steal the 2020 election.  We know this.  Why allow it to happen?

Likewise those that argue that this is just the Democrats trying to undo the 2016 election should take another look.  The inquiry is not about the 2016 election.  It is about what is happening now to influence the 2020 election.  It is not about the past, it’s about the future.

For those that argue that Mr. Trump was out of line to extort the Ukrainians, but that his actions did not rise to the level of an impeachable offense I merely ask, where is that line?  How much can a president put national security at risk before we say that it is too much?  How far can a president abuse the power of the office before we say that it was abused too much?  Whether or not the Senate convicts Mr. Trump on any charges — and I believe that inevitably there will be Articles of Impeachment approved in the House — it is important to put a Constitutional marker down that such behavior is not acceptable and that there are consequences to ignoring the law.

It is a sober day when an impeachment proceeding is necessary.  No one should take joy in the process.  It is also a sad day when an entire political party turns into a cult of personality and publicly attacks a Constitutional process while many of those same politicians privately agree that the leader of the cult abused his power.

There is no telling how events will unfold between now and the end of the year.  I only know that it will be a tough time for our country.


A Sober Assessment

With Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) decision to open an impeachment inquiry into the actions of the president, a new chapter of American history is about to be written.  This is serious business and it should be approached soberly by all of us.

Recognizing that I have used this space before to call for an impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump’s activities, I still caution everyone, Democrat, Republican, Independent or Undecided to pay attention to events as they unfold and not to jump to any conclusions until all of the facts are known and fully understood.  Such an inquiry should not be taken lightly and the full consequences for our democracy should be fully understood and everyone must conduct themselves appropriately.

Please keep in mind, as well, that the inquiry is only the first step of many as the Congress moves forward.  An inquiry determines if the House of Representatives considers there to be sufficient evidence to formulate Articles of Impeachment.  If they so decide that the evidence exists, then through the Judiciary Committee they formulate the Articles and the entire House votes on each Article as to whether it should be referred to the Senate.  The vote is on a simple majority.  Should Articles be approved, the matter is referred to the Senate for a trial.  It takes a two-thirds majority in the Senate to convict on any particular Article.  Think of the House as a grand jury.  They investigate and if they find sufficient evidence they refer it to trial in the Senate.  The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides at the trial, although the Majority Leader of the Senate can formulate the process by which the trial proceeds.

In my view, the inquiry is fully appropriate.  Forget for the moment (if such is possible) the results of the Mueller Report, the misappropriation of funds, the declarations of National Emergencies where none exist, the violation of campaign laws and the rest of it.  The information that became available in the course of last week concerning Mr. Trump’s interactions with the president of Ukraine is sufficient, in and of itself, to warrant investigation.

If you remember nothing else, note that the Russian interference involved the 2016 election.  Mr. Trump was working to solicit interference in the 2020 election.  After all we learned about the past, Mr. Trump intended to move ahead with a bigger and better plan to throw the next election.  Note that his now famous phone call took place the day after Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller testified before Congress.  In the phone call Mr. Trump is quoted as saying, “As you saw yesterday, that whole performance ended with a poor performance by a man named Robert Mueller, an incompetent performance, but they say a lot of it started with Ukraine.”  In Mr. Trump’s mind there was no consequence to his actions in 2016 so he decided to do it again.

The information in the public domain was released by the Trump Administration itself.  The memorandum for the record of the 25 July conversation (read it here) and the unclassified version of the whistle-blower’s complaint (read it here) were not “leaked” or otherwise released by nefarious means.  Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Trump have themselves validated that the events occurred as depicted in those documents.  And more.

It is the “and more” that adds context to the matter and illustrates the depth of the alleged abuse of office.  The problem is way more concerning than one phone call, although in itself it is quite serious.

Without going into every twist and turn, the big picture indicates that Mr. Giuliani began working with the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on former Vice President Biden and his son Hunter in late 2018, as soon as it became apparent the Mr. Biden would run for president and be a serious threat to Mr. Trump’s re-election.  He worked with discredited and then current Ukrainian prosecutors of the government of President Poroshenko.  In January, February, and March of this year he continued to pressure them to investigate the Bidens and to promote disproved conspiracy theories concerning the Democratic National Committee emails and servers and the then Ambassador from the U.S. to Ukraine, claiming that they worked to interfere in the 2016 election (not the Russians).

All was going well from Mr. Giuliani’s stand point until on 21 April Volodymyr Zelensky beat all predictions by defeating Mr. Poroshenko in the presidential election.  Mr. Zelensky ran on a platform of eliminating corruption in the Ukrainian government and nearly all new prosecutors were appointed.  Much of Mr. Giuliani’s work went to waste and they needed to start over in trying to co-opt the Ukrainians.  That process began with a congratulatory phone call to the winner.

In May the president permanently recalled U.S. Ambassador Masha Yovanonitch, a career State Department employee, because she was trying to counter Mr. Giuliani’s attempts at co-opting the new government.  She was, in essence, fired for working to protect the national security interests of the United States.

Later in May, Mr. Trump cancelled Vice President Mike Pence’s trip to the Ukrainian president’s inauguration, an embarrassing blow to the new president.  In the whistle-blower’s complaint the reason was to withhold favors for Mr. Zelensky until they could determine if he would “play ball” with Mr. Trump through Mr. Giuliani — presumably meaning that they would work to discredit the Bidens and to support conspiracy theories about former Secretary Hillary Clinton’s emails.

In July of this year, the Office of Management and Budget, on the direction of the president himself, according to the whistle-blower, withheld much needed military and other aid for Ukraine.  When State Department and Pentagon officials tried to find out the reason, they were stonewalled. On 25 July the president made his phone call and on the 26th, envoys of the U.S. met with President Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials to help them “navigate the demands the president had made” the previous day.

Other outrageous details of improper behavior can be found in the complaint that the Intelligence Community (IC) Inspector General (IG) and the Acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) both testified was “credible.”  Both individuals were appointed by Mr. Trump.

It might also be noted quickly that Ukraine is in a fighting war with Russia.  13,000 Ukrainians have died in the fight and the Russians helped to shoot down Malaysian Air Flight 17 with the loss of all 298 people onboard.  Any delay or cancellation of arms to Ukraine helps Russia in its efforts.

In the grand tradition of Washington DC, a cover-up occurred.  As a minimum, the details of the phone call and other activities were over-classified and stored on a computer designed to be used for only the highest classified compartmented information.  This was a decision designed to protect Mr. Trump from embarrassing domestic political activity.  We do not know how many other conversations or documents are improperly classified in order to protect the president from his own actions and words by hiding them from the public and government officials that might object to such activity.

These are serious allegations that cannot be brushed away.  They certainly deserve a full investigation.  One can than decide for oneself whether or not the facts as they are uncovered deserve impeachment or not.

In that discussion, remember that a lot of smoke is going to be blown to try and hide the real transgressions.  Some will take a narrow legal approach that no U.S. laws were actually broken.  Others will argue that a president has the Constitutional right to conduct foreign policy in any manner that they choose.  Some will argue it was “just a phone call” to a country that no one cares about.  Others will argue that we as citizens are naive if we don’t think that this is how it is always done.  Some will simply argue that there is nothing to see here, please move along.

We have a national security interest in Ukraine because if Russia gets away with its aggression, Russia has ambitions concerning other “traditional” Russian areas such as the Baltic states.  As members of NATO, any attack on the Baltic states is an attack on all members of NATO, including the U.S.

I simply say that the President of the United States, by his own admission and corroborated by Mr. Giuliani and others, used his office to involve a foreign government in our national elections in an attempt to personally benefit from another nation’s activities at the expense of our own national security.

To ignore it is to condone it.


A Line In The Sand

Enough!

For those that take even the most cursory notice of events on the daily news, you have no doubt heard that the president once again broke the norms of presidential behavior by, again, using his office for personal gain.  He will stop at nothing if it serves his personal interests.  He has yet to see any consequences to his actions and is increasingly emboldened to do whatever the heck he wants to do — legal or not.

He already moved beyond the boundaries of ethical and moral behavior.  Now that he sees no consequences from the Mueller Report and has an Attorney General that has decreed the president is above the law — any law — while in office, he sees nothing that can slow him down, much less stop him, from pursuing whatever he wants to do.

The only possible way to put a check on his actions is to impeach him, and the Democrats are dithering and wringing their hands in an ineffective effort to provide oversight of Mr. Trump’s presidency.  So far they’ve brought a butter knife to a grenade fight.  Mr. Trump has refused to provide any documents or to allow any testimony from anyone that he deems a possible threat to his reign.  Across the board.  Including hum-drum, every day just-trying-to-do-business subjects.  Total non-cooperation.

That may be about to change.

The latest insult to the office, to our country and to all of us as citizens involves the president’s efforts, aided and abetted by his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani (who has no role in the government or the administration, a fact that will become significant) to get a foreign power to interfere in the 2020 election.  Sound familiar?

As briefly as possible, the entire situation came to light when the president instructed his Acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) to break the law.  Also known as obstruction of justice.  (Note that Mr. Trump fired the DNI and the Deputy DNI last month.) That came about because an intelligence official turned in a complaint to the Inspector General (IG) of the Intelligence Community — who, by the way, was appointed by Mr. Trump — stating that the president interacted with the head of a foreign government in a way that was detrimental to the interests of the United States.  The specifics of the claim are classified.  The law requires that if the IG finds the complaint credible and urgent that it must (“shall be”) be turned over to the Intelligence Committees of the House and Senate.  The Acting DNI refused based on directions from the Executive Branch.  The IG went to Congress and explained what happened and stood by his initial determination that it should go to Congress.  The Acting DNI continues to refuse to turn it over.

I predict that the president will release a transcript of his conversation that will be spun to show he didn’t do what is alleged.  Firstly, we know we cannot trust Mr. Trump to be truthful, therefore how do we know it is the actual transcript?  Secondly, and more importantly, the transcript is not nearly as important as the original whistle blower complaint.  That document would give a fuller story and put the events in context.  The Administration has no intention of turning that over.  In itself, that to me is evidence that something serious occurred that Mr. Trump does not want us to know about.

In short, since then we have learned from Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani themselves, as well as from wide spread reporting in the Washington Post, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, that the complaint involves the President of Ukraine who Mr. Trump tried to bully (eight times according to reports) into finding “dirt” on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.  We learned today that Mr. Trump withheld needed military funding and aid for Ukraine totaling nearly 400 million dollars.  The reporting alleges that Mr. Trump wanted the dirt before he would release the money.  Congress had authorized the money in two different bills early this year.  Over the summer inquiries began to build as to why the money had not been made available to the government of Ukraine, currently locked into a shooting war with Russia.  (Russia!  Again!)

In sum, Mr. Trump wanted the Ukrainian government to interfere in the 2020 election by supplying information (whether true or not, more on that in a minute) on Mr. Biden and his son that the Trump Campaign could use to slime the individual Mr. Trump most fears as his opponent in the election.  In exchange, he would release the money Congress appropriated (yet another presidential abuse of the power invested by the Constitution in the Congress) to help the Ukrainians defend themselves against Russia — who annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and is trying to obtain more Ukrainian territory.

Mr. Trump and his allies are trying to make the focus of the story about Mr. Biden and corruption.  (Kind of hits close to home when the president’s children are trotting around the world doing business with their father’s permission and help, spending taxpayer’s money for Secret Service protection and other expenses.)

The thing is, the Ukrainians already investigated the allegations against the Bidens and guess what?  There is nothing to it.  No corruption.  No undue pressure.  Nothing.  And if you listen closely to Mr. Trump and his lackeys, they present no evidence that anything is amiss.  Just innuendo and questions as to why no one is looking into it.  (BECAUSE THEY ALREADY DID!)  And don’t forget that Mr. Trump is on the record with over 12,000 lies since taking office.

I do not give Mr. Trump or his campaign any slack regarding their involvement with Russia during the 2016 campaign.  (“Russia if you’re listening….”)  But maybe one could make a case that they did not know what they were doing.

That does not fly in this situation.

The President.  Of the United States.  Used the full authority and weight of his office — himself, in his own voice — to try and convince a foreign state to interfere in our election against a specific opponent in exchange for funds desperately needed for their protection.

This alone is an impeachable offense.  Abuse of power and obstruction of justice.

However, add it to the list of other impeachable offenses and one would think that the House of Representatives has to act.  The Mueller Report defines ten times Mr. Trump obstructed the investigation of his involvement with Russia in 2016.  Over one thousand former federal attorneys — Republicans and Democrats — publicly stated that they would have prosecuted any other citizen with that evidence.  The U.S. Attorney of the Southern District of New York lists him as an unindicted co-conspirator in election campaign fraud when he paid off two mistresses to keep them from speaking up before the election.  And on and on and on.

When do we put a stop to the madness?  The more he gets away with, the more emboldened he is to do more.  We are still over a year from the election.  Anyone that thinks Mr. Trump won’t try every illegal dirty trick in the book to stay in office is not paying attention.  At the risk of sounding like I am hyperventilating, I can envision our very democracy at stake.

The Republicans, led by Senator Mitch McConnell (Tr-KY), a.k,a. “Moscow Mitch” are now a wholly owned subsidiary of Trump, Inc.  Perhaps my biggest disappointment, even shock, is that not one Republican Senator, or Congressman, has said “enough”!  According to multitudes of reports, in private conversations many elected Republicans worry because they do not like the way Mr. Trump operates and see him as a threat to our country.  Yet, not a peep.  To stay silent is to be a co-conspirator.  They are aiding and abetting a president that is out of control.  Not a patriot among them.

As I get ready to publish this, it appears that later today the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) will announce a preliminary impeachment inquiry.

At last.

Mr. Trump may not realize he has crossed a line in the sand.  The American people will not stand for his shenanigans forever.

But if we do, God help us all.

 


Cold War II (continued)

With all of the attention surrounding the circus that is our presidential campaign season, it is possible to overlook other developments of significance.  To my mind, one of those significant others is our increasingly deteriorating relationship with Russia.

As I wrote back in July when I focused on the role of NATO and the increasing belligerence Russia is exhibiting towards the Baltic States, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees his role as the one individual that can, and will, restore Russia to its previous glory.  Since then he has continued to create discord around the world. In particular, he has helped to further inflame conflict in Syria and Ukraine.  Just yesterday Secretary of State John Kerry pulled all of the United States’ negotiators from Geneva where they had been trying to work with the Russians to come up with a political solution to the civil war in Syria and thereby try to save some of the many civilians at risk in Aleppo and other areas of Syria.  A cease-fire attempted last month failed when Syrian and Russian, or at least Syrian assisted by Russian, aircraft bombed an aid convoy trying to provide humanitarian relief to those trapped in the city.  Since then negotiations aimed at restoring the cease-fire and creating more confidence building measures that might give a chance for a political settlement of the strife had been ongoing.  Additionally, the United States had been working on an agreement to work with the Russians in a coordinated military effort against terrorism in the region, especially against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or as most people in the U.S. call it, ISIS).  All of it went out the window when the Russians turned their full military might from the air on Aleppo in a brutal assault, even as negotiations were underway.  What future course may be taken to alleviate the situation is up in the air, but it does lead to an increased probability that Russia and the U.S. will be working at cross purposes to fight terrorists in the area and increases the probability of Russian and U.S. military forces coming into contact with each other.

In retaliation for the United States withdrawing from the Syrian negotiations, the Soviets, oops, I mean the Russians, suspended a nuclear agreement signed in 2000 between the two nations that called for the disposal of each nation’s stocks of weapons-grade plutonium.  While the Russian suspension of the treaty is mostly symbolic (both countries intend to continue to reduce their stockpiles) it does serve to show how the relationship has deteriorated and it also provided the Russian government an opportunity to complain about actions it believes the United States is taking to undermine Russia.

And what are those actions that so enrage Vladimir Putin you may ask?  Foremost among them is the continuing deployment of NATO forces to the Baltic states and the enforcement of the sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine. In Ukraine last August, President Putin raised tensions as he claimed that the Ukrainian government was moving to attack Crimea, the area Russia illegally annexed in 2014. The tension persists and even though it is currently relatively quiet, nothing is totally quiet along the front as periodic fighting continues and lives continue to be lost. Further exacerbating the toxic atmosphere in Ukraine, Dutch investigators clearly linked the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH-17 over Ukraine in July 2014 to the Russian supplied separatists.  All 298 people onboard were killed.  Despite continued Russian denials, the investigation showed a missile battery moved from Russian territory into rebel held territory and then returned to Russia after the incident.  Russian actions in the area continue to be a threat to the rest of Ukraine and Europe, and President Putin seems to be relishing his ability to turn conflict off and on. Keep an eye on developments there as the rest of the world becomes increasingly distracted by the U.S. presidential campaign, events in Syria, and the fight against terrorism.

What is troubling to me about President Putin is his world view.  While we have competitors and adversaries in China, Iran, and other spots around the world (President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines seems to be gong off the reservation for example), they have a different world view than does President Putin.  Most nations of the world know that they are economically tied to the global economy which is powered by the United States.  This does not stop actions antithetical to our interests, but it does serve to temper them.  President Putin on the other hand, sees the world and especially Russia’s relationship to the United States, indeed politics in general, as a zero sum game.  Whatever hurts the U.S. helps Russia and vice versa.  Add to this that his country is not doing well economically and like most dictators, he is creating international foes in order to distract the citizenry from their troubles at home.  This makes him ever more dangerous.

In this context, I am amazed that more reporting is not being done on the breaches of cyber security that occur almost daily in the United States, and most especially, the hacks that impact our free and independent elections.  Of particular note are the attacks on the Democratic National Committee and the release of scores of emails concerning the primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the attempts to get into the election processes of individual states, most notably Arizona and Illinois. Experts point their collective finger at the Russians as being responsible for these and other equally egregious cyber attacks.

While individual ballot boxes are not connected to the internet, and therefore cannot be hacked, there are other processes that are computer driven and may be susceptible to attack.  Among these are voter registration lists.  Imagine if large numbers of people show up to vote and are not allowed to do so because their names were expunged from the voting rolls or are otherwise tampered with so as to take away their ability to vote.  Add to that one presidential candidate that is already talking about how the vote is rigged if he doesn’t win and that his supporters should go to the polls in urban areas to watch others vote to make sure that everything is on the “up and up”  because “that would be one hell of a way to lose, I’ll tell you what.”  (Incidentally, in study after study and in court cases concerning voter identification laws, there has been absolutely no evidence of voter fraud changing or even slightly influencing the outcome of any national election, despite urban myths and legends to the contrary.)

I am not a conspiracy theorist and do not want to be misquoted so I will say up front, I do not think that the Republican nominee is in any way aiding or abetting or otherwise involved in the Russian hacking efforts, even though last July he famously invited the Russians to hack his Democratic opponent’s emails.  However, I find it disconcerting that thus far, only Democrats have suffered the embarrassing revelations of the Russian hackers.  I would be willing to bet that a number of Republican accounts have been similarly hacked, but clearly the Russian hackers are trying to influence the election in one direction.  One could speculate as to why that is, or even if there is some kind of reverse bizarro world logic that it could backfire on the other candidate.  I don’t know, but clearly there is an effort to influence the outcome.  It is bad news for our nation when a foreign power attempts to influence our elections and we do not stop it.

Ultimately, whether or not the attacks are successful at actually changing ballots, the real effort on the part of the Russians is to delegitimize our election process, call into question the results and spread further hate and discontent in an already fractured election process.  Besides being cyber warfare, it is most especially also classic psychological warfare aimed at undermining the United States, our policies, and our stature in the world.  Vladimir Putin and his cronies are ready and willing to fill the void left by the United States should their efforts be successful.

Unclear to me is whether or not our own cyber warfare forces deployed to counter the Russians and/or to similarly attack them in a way that sends a signal to knock it off or suffer the consequences.  It is a tricky situation for the U.S.  It is generally accepted that the United States has superior cyber warfare capabilities, but to deploy them now, in the month leading up to an election, and risk a wide-spread cyber war that could impact the election results dramatically (not in vote manipulation necessarily but rather in a wide-spread crisis that impacts infrastructure, banking or some other target that causes far-ranging panic) is a tough decision.  On the other hand, we do not know where or when the Russians (and possibly others) might strike anyway if not deterred from doing so.  A difficult choice.  Unknown, of course, is whether such a counter sign of our capabilities and willingness to punish the Russians in our own attack has already been demonstrated to the Russians by our cyber forces under a stringent top secret operation.

Regardless, our next president must be prepared to deal with the Russians and do so with eyes wide open.  Vladimir Putin is no friend of the United States and he never will be.  He has one goal and one goal only — to turn his economically depressed country into a super power at the expense of the United States of America.


A Growing Dilemma

In case you lost track, events in Ukraine are increasingly leading towards a chance of significant conflict. Today, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany and President Francois Hollande of France traveled to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin concerning the escalating fighting in Ukraine.

Roughly a year ago, Chancellor Merkel stated that she would no longer deal with President Putin until he became serious about working for a solution to the problem in Ukraine.  Nothing has changed regarding Putin’s stance on events there.  He continues to claim that there is no Russian involvement there and that, indeed, NATO troops are the bulk of the fighters for the “illegal” Ukrainian government. Yet Merkel felt it necessary, along with the other most influential leader in continental Europe, to go to Moscow. This demonstrates their concern that the situation in Ukraine is becoming increasingly dangerous. Influencing their decision to meet with Putin is a growing sentiment in the United States Congress and with senior advisers to President Obama that the United States should provide the Ukrainian army with increased aid, including heavy weapons.  At present, the U.S. supplies only non-lethal aid and diplomatic support to the Ukrainians.

Last September, the Ukrainians and pro-Russia separatists agreed to a ceasefire that held, with some exceptions, until early this year.  Since the new year began, the separatists have launched several offensives to expand their territory to the west and south.  Fierce fighting in cities and towns left scores of civilians dead, in addition to casualties among those fighting.  The situation continues to escalate. Secretary of State John Kerry was in Ukraine this week to renew U.S. pledges of support to the Ukrainian government and to call for renewed sanctions if Russia does not bring the fighting to a halt. Indeed, last week, the European Union voted to consider increased sanctions against Russia.

You will recall that I wrote about this subject last September (“Where Do We Go From Here?”) and stated that over time, the events in Ukraine potentially provide a bigger threat to our long-term strategic goals than does ISIS.  I also pointed out that European leaders should review their history as NATO was formed for this exact reason — to protect Europe from Soviet (Russian) invasion. Ukraine of course is not a member of NATO, but the threat is the same and nothing that Putin and the Russians have done since last fall provides any shred of evidence that the Russians intend to stay out of Ukraine.  In fact, it is very much the opposite, and in my mind, the situation is even more dangerous. Yet the United States, and indeed all of Europe, walk a tenuous high wire trying to balance our strategic interests elsewhere in the world, while working to inhibit Russian adventurism.

According to most experts, the sanctions have had a real impact on the Russian economy.  The exchange rate for the Russian ruble plummeted over the course of 2014 and the Russian economy is suffering. Even Putin admits that the economy is in bad shape but places the blame squarely on the West and claims that western nations are trying to destroy Russia.  Exacerbating their economic woes is the plunging price of oil, which until the bottom dropped out of the market, allowed Russian economic policies to continue through oil revenue.  No longer.

Given the extent and effectiveness of Russian propaganda within their own population, Putin has been able to build an “us against them” mentality.  Historically, what is the track record of nations run by dictators and near dictators when they face economic troubles or domestic unrest? They drum up a problem outside the country’s borders, rally the population around (in this case) the Motherland, and blame all internal problems on external forces. Putin and his cronies are experts at this.  The tightening of sanctions only validates his story.

At the same time, when Ukrainian and Western European leaders call on the Russians to withdraw from eastern Ukraine, the Russians claim that there are no Russian troops, equipment or aid to the so-called rebels fighting for their “freedom.”  It is difficult to imagine how the West will get Putin to withdraw his forces from Ukraine when he steadfastly argues that none are there.

Other complicating factors to unified western action include:

  • the close economic ties of several European nations to Russia
  • the requirement for unanimous consent among the European Union’s twenty-eight nations to take action on further sanctions or anything else
  • the same requirement for the twenty-eight nations in NATO (not all the same ones as in the EU)
  • the need to have Russia at the table to bring Iran to heel
  • the many cooperative endeavors between Russia and the U.S. not the least of which is the manning and resupply of the International Space Station
  • the many other areas of strategic interest around the world where Russia must either be included, or pacified to keep them from meddling.

In short, given the degree of the response from the West, the large number of areas where western nations want Russian cooperation, and the positive impact on Russian domestic politics of continued adventures in Ukraine, with little to no adverse effects, Putin has no incentive to cease his meddling.

So, what can be done?  As I wrote last September, as a minimum the West should:

  • Provide the Ukrainian military with the supplies, including heavy weapons, that they require to combat the immediate threat posed by trained Russian “volunteers.” These Russians operate weapons beyond the capability of Ukrainian “farmers” and “factory workers” rebelling against the central Ukrainian government.
  • 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.  These deployments underline the importance the United States puts on the tenants of the NATO treaty and the independence of nations.  Although such deployments are underway, it is at small levels with minimal impact on public or diplomatic perceptions.
  • Increase meaningful sanctions on the Russian economy.  This will necessarily impose hardships on some sectors of the European economy, but the costs of dealing with Putin will only increase over time.

To be sure, there are dangers in this approach, or any approach that Putin feels threatens Russia. Some caution that arming the Ukrainian military and escalating the conflict only plays into Putin’s hands, providing an opening for invading Ukraine and leading to a much wider conflict, with more casualties, and one that the West does not have the will to stop.  Indeed, Russia holds the strategic and tactical advantage in geography, troop levels, and will to win.  It is unclear that the EU or NATO will be willing to engage Russia militarily should Putin decide to expand his adventure in Ukraine and annex large parts of the country as he did in Crimea.  Putin declared last fall that he could “march into Kiev” at any time — he had only to give the order.  Some argue that the West could give him the incentive do so if the situation escalates through increased military support or harsher sanctions.

In my view, Putin is playing the long game and will continue his adventurism until he is stopped.  The sooner the West demonstrates its resolve and the sooner that he feels actual consequences to his actions, the sooner he will look for a diplomatic solution.  In the end, only diplomatic solutions will provide a long-lasting resolution to this crisis.  However, it is clear that increased military resistance is the only thing that is going to make Putin decide to end his shenanigans.  And it is the only thing that will keep him from playing similar games to restore other portions of the former Soviet Union. In addition to Crimea, one need only look at Georgia, Chechnya, and Moldova to see that Putin will not hesitate to use his Armed Forces in the interest of “protecting” Russians.  A quick survey of the map and a review of nations formerly part of the Soviet Union, or in its sphere of domination, will determine that there are large ethnic Russian populations in many other areas that Putin could decide to “protect.”

Putin will only stop meddling when he determines that the costs outweigh the benefits.  To date, he is a long way from that conclusion.  It is time for the West to demonstrate true resolve.


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.


Danger, Will Robinson!

It may be time to heed the warning of the robot in the 1960’s television show “Lost in Space” when it comes to Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the Kremlin yesterday concerning the annexation of Crimea.  (The Kremlin transcript of the speech may be found here.  If one takes him at his word, and I think we should, beware.)

It is past time to stop categorizing Putin’s pronouncements as nothing more than incredible Russian propaganda.  He is serious.  Yesterday he laid down a blue print for restoring Russia to what Putin believes is its rightful place in the world order.  I do not think he is bluffing and I do believe that he says what he means in this speech.  In it, he uses several historical references to bolster his claim that what Russia did in the Crimea was in keeping with previous precedent.  He is taking the long view  — a vision of Russia for the future — in the speech.  Clearly when he uses words like “plundered” in reference to the end of the cold war and the loss of Crimea to Ukraine and the departure from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS)  (the immediate follow-on to the Soviet Union) of former Soviet republics, he is laying the groundwork for his case that Russia should reclaim its historical lands.  (Historical in the context of a Russian empire, not necessarily the context of the totality of history.)  He follows it up with claims that following the break up of the CIS, Russian citizens “went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones, overnight becoming ethnic minorities in former Union republics, while the Russian nation became one of the biggest, if not the biggest ethnic group in the world to be divided by borders.”  Given his actions in Moldova, Georgia and now Ukraine, this statement should set off all kinds of alarm bells in Europe, the United States and indeed, the rest of the world. When he speaks of an “outrageous historical injustice” it is not rhetoric, it his view of the world.

He may not act in the next few weeks, or even in the next year, but clearly Putin has designs to restore the empire formerly known as the Soviet Union.  In my view it does not mean that he will literally do so, and it does not mean a return to communism in Russia (he and his pals are getting too rich off the current system to want to go back).  It does mean that he intends to restore what he sees as the glory of the Russian state and that he will not tolerate nations on Russia’s borders that do not bow in the direction of Moscow.  He doesn’t need to occupy as long as he can intimidate them and have them join his Eurasian Economic Union of former Soviet states vice join the European Union and move towards the west.  This is where Ukraine ran afoul of the Russian bear.

In his speech, Putin uses a very legalistic approach as he delineates why the Russians not only can act, but should act.  To me, this further defines that his speech is not meant as propaganda or even only to justify his actions in Crimea.  It means that further actions in the same context are justified.   Clearly, time and again in the speech, Putin makes clear that Russia has been wronged and that it is time to act to rectify the situation and to restore Russian greatness.  He refers to the policy of containment in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries by the west and sees it as the height of “hypocrisy.”  In so doing, he claims that “our western partners have crossed the line, playing the bear and acting irresponsibly and unprofessionally.”  Sound familiar?

A significant trigger to his actions is the growth of NATO.  This is considered a direct threat to the well-being of Russia.  Ukraine joining NATO (whether or not that was a realistic development) was probably the last straw in Putin’s view.  As he says; “For all the internal processes within the organisation, NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our backyard or in our historic territory. I simply cannot imagine that we would travel to Sevastopol to visit NATO sailors.”

Despite some of the domestic political rhetoric in the United States, it would not have mattered who was sitting in the Office of the President of the United States when the events in Ukraine unfolded.  Putin acted predictably when his chosen ally, deposed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych left the country and a pro-western interim government emerged.  The question is now what to do about it?

International diplomacy is a tough, slow endeavor.  This is especially true in a situation such as the annexation of Crimea where the average European or American citizen cannot really see what difference it makes to their lives.  So what?  Likewise, the west has been trying to give Putin “off ramps” and face-saving solutions to the problem.  Why?  Putin is now rubbing the results in our face — he is not interested in saving face because he feels that he has the upper hand.  It is the west, in his view, that needs to save face.

Coupled with this is the clear unlikelihood, barring an outright military invasion of Poland (sound familiar?) or other NATO nations, of US or NATO military action and Putin knows he is in the position of strength.  Just as after World War I, the US and Europe have expressed their war weariness following Iraq and Afghanistan and have expressly demonstrated no interest in engaging in another military action.  (See Syria:  Pundits blame President Obama for drawing a “red line” on Syria and not following through, but remember that it was the UK Parliament and the US Congress that refused to support it, among others.)

Make no mistake, I am not advocating military action to return Crimea to Ukraine, nor should any other direct military action now be on the table under the current set of events.  The steps taken to reassure our NATO allies with increased deployments of aircraft, although more symbolic than militarily effective, are sufficient for now as a military response.

Where we do have the upper hand is economically.  Russia’s economy is very weak and both the nation’s economy and the oligarchs surrounding Putin depend heavily on exports of gas and oil.  This is where significant efforts to convey to Putin that we take him seriously, and he should take us equally seriously, can be made.  Russia has threatened counter-sanctions should the west impose sanctions and follow-up on the rhetoric.  So be it.  Taking the long view, Russia will suffer far more than Europe or the United States.  The problem is that few people take the long view.  Short term comfort or profit seems to be more important.  It’s cold so we need natural gas.  We like the money the oligarchs have invested in the west, especially Germany and the UK.  (How many people know that the NBA Brooklyn Nets are owned by Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov?  I’m not saying he is necessarily a Putin crony, just that most people do not know how wide-spread the business interests of Russian billionaires — making their billions in the post-Soviet chaos of Russia in the 1990s — may be.)

Likewise, major US corporations are heavily invested in Russian markets and fear losing those investments if the US and Russia get into an economic tit-for-tat.  They have been lobbying heavily for minor actions to protest Russian movements without jeopardizing their stake in Russia today.

What is clear is that putting sanctions against seven relatively minor Russian officials and four former Ukrainian officials is not going to have any impact on Putin or his decisions.  (The European Union put travel bans and asset freezes on twenty-one people — still not even really a slap on the wrist.)

Additionally, US and European actions thus far have been reactive in nature.  Telling Putin “if you do this, then we may do something” is not going to deter him, especially when the actions we do take are more symbolic than practical.  We are in a period where miscalculation on either side can lead to long-term negative consequences.  Stop sending ambiguous messages and formulate specific meaningful actions.

Look, I am no former Cold Warrior looking to restore the good ol’ days of yesteryear.  Those days are gone — good riddance — and I don’t think that in this interconnected world that we will see those days again.  I do believe, however, that the world continues to be a dangerous place with dangerous people in it.  Taking Russian actions around the world in totality — support of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, support to Iran, granting temporary asylum to Edward Snowden, the nationalistic display at the Sochi Olympics, etc. etc. — means that the Russian bear must be taken seriously.  We cannot become grand foes once again, but we must have our own interests at heart and follow through on our commitments.  In my mind, we have yet to do so concerning Russia, Ukraine, and the impact on surrounding nations that we now call our friends.

Just as I think our inaction in Syria sends a signal to the world, inaction here will strengthen the misperception that the US is too tied up in domestic issues to get involved in world issues.  As a nation, it is time we put partisan politics aside, buckle our chin straps, and get into the game.

Danger, Will Robinson.  We cannot ignore it.  I am not an alarmist or war-monger, but I think we are coming up short on our understanding of Putin’s intentions.  We need to take the long view, put Putin’s actions in their historical context and work to keep his nationalistic adventurism in check.  Deterrence, not reaction is needed.  Serious economic sanctions are our best weapon.